I get the impression that I’m not supposed to be here; the impassable language, the strange food, and my own fumbling terror as I accidentally stroll through the red light district at eight in the morning. These unfamiliar surroundings are beacons warning me away, and sometimes I catch them whisper you are not welcome here through muted Umlauts and Eszetts.
What makes me stutter and wince has no effect whatsoever on even the most nerve-stricken of local friends and so walking around this city makes me feel like I grew up on a distant moon. Conversations begin like this: “wait a minute – you’re telling me that all the stores close on a Sunday but that giant concrete structure, that Cold War era nuclear power station turned dance club is, in fact, open all day and all throughout the night?” Um, okay…I’m starting to hear those whispers again.
But that’s the thing about travelling – in these foreign places you have to make yourself welcome. You have to slide through the airport and navigate bus timetables and crazy southern dialects as if you have all the papers at the ready.
I sometimes try to imagine a bureaucratic document, forged somewhere deep underground in a windowless office, that gives me permission to move into any neighbourhood with a smile. And I think about what those papers might look like whilst I’m struggling to perform even the simplest of daily activities: “this bus goes here and then the U-Bahn leads me where exactly? Sorry, how many backward, geometric Es will that cup of coffee set me back? Oh, you don’t understand me? Here are my papers! Here are my papers!”
Those imaginary documents shouldn’t really be necessary though since locals ought to recognise that the only permit that’s required for safe passage is a stranger’s curiosity.