Howdy Duty

...in which Ashley tries and fails to say hello to the German people.

Among the phone-drone German citizens huddled on the train platform, there is the Hello Guy. He never boards the S-Bahn with the rest; he just wanders the station, grinning vacantly and greeting everyone.

“Hallo! Guten Tag! Hallo!”

He’s a local celebrity in Hochdahl, like Coco the kiosk dog or… Well, Hochdahl doesn’t have many local celebrities, actually. What it has is the usual assortment of kindred pedestrians, avoiding eye contact as they rush from bus to train to another train, cocooned in their own headspace. This is why the Hello Guy sticks out like a banjo player at a Buddhist retreat. He’s cheerful and he wants attention.

My heart goes out to this nicotine-scented lunatic because I am also a Hello Guy. Hailing from Deep South, USA as I do, I was raised to smile and nod to passersby, share witty observations with strangers in aisle three, or patiently indulge the uninvited monologues of transients, no matter how bugfuck. This is the legendary “friendliness” of Americans the rest of the world notices, and the Southern variety is especially pronounced. Southerners are hat tippers, door holders, God blessers, and compliment givers, and they will accost you with their social graces whether you want them to or not. To survive in the South, you WILL eat baked goods prepared by people you barely know, you WILL become intimately familiar with the personal lives of people you’d rather never talk to again, and you WILL engage in the full-frontal “how’s your mama doing?” with anyone you reasonably assume has a mother.

I have carried this training with me to Deutschland, but it’s about as useful as a culinary arts degree at Applebee’s. Germans react to a wave or nodding gesture from a passing neighbor as if discovering Hannibal Lechter out on parole. Personal belongings are clutched tightly while the victim of this gentle greeting quickly moves to the other side of the street. It is assumed that no one in Germany acknowledges a perfect stranger with even the most innocent howowya without an ulterior motive. You’re either a potential rapist or you’re spreading the good word about Jehovah’s Perfect Plan or both.

For all their reputation as tactless brutes, when it comes to strangers, Germans seem to be harboring a fear of confrontation. Granted, Germany does have a history of loose talk getting out of hand (no, I couldn’t get through another essay on Germany without a Third Reich reference - Entschuldigung, meine deutschen Freunde), so perhaps it’s understandable that they want to tune out street corner evangelists and the like. But this avoidance goes to extremes. For example, according to German law, one can actually be prosecuted for using foul or abusive language in public situations. Naturally, this idea rankles my First Amendment ideals. If I can’t call someone who just stole my parking place an ass-munching bitchdick, then what kind or Orwellian oppression are we living under? Laws such as this indicate an assumption that any exchange of hellos could quickly lead to violent street rumbles of misunderstandings.

I know I’m terrorizing the Germs, but I can’t help it. I continue to nod, smile, and sometimes wave because that’s what neighborly folk do in the old country. Worse, I find I’m starting to enjoy their frightened reactions a bit, like when I used to walk around downtown Charleston with my black friends to watch white people go wide-eyed and lock their car doors when we got too close. When simply being yourself is a form of psychological warfare, it’s hard not to revel in the power to freak out the squares.

This attitude is also, of course, my Ugly American sense of entitlement at work. To hell with the Germans’ social customs, developed over generations of cultural agreement; I’m right and they’re wrong! The self-consciousness that develops as a stranger in a strange land can become crippling, aware as we are of the European disdain for loud Americans in their flip flops and fanny packs. A repression sets in, and urge to blend in, like fresh meat on the cell block hoping not to be singled out for snuggle time. Eventually, the urge to let loose and simply vindicate their stereotypes erupts. I find myself wanting to barge into cafes in a trucker cap and Bermuda shorts, shouting, “Hey, how y’all doing?,” in my strongest Texan accent and demanding pork rinds and sweet tea with ice.

But I don’t do that. I’m just saying hello, you skittish Fritz! And anyway, this is one international conflict in which I actually sympathize with the Germans. After years of enduring unwanted foot surgery updates from yammering bubbas or unsolicited crumb cake recipes from chatty Mable Lous, I’m as ready as anyone to be left to my own quiet musings unmolested. So please, my German neighbors, believe me when I tell you that my polite hello will not be followed by any creepy advances, pitches for Amway, or requests for fix funding. I promise I won’t attack you with an ax handle or ask how your mama’s doing until after we’ve been formally introduced.

Just accept a subtle salutation from a Hello Guy from across the ocean, an ambassador of American affection too stupid to know the boundaries. Think of me as another harmless loon wandering the platform, possessed by niceties that can’t be curbed. A local celebrity. You could use a few more of those.