Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Happy to Help

So I was at Kaiser's (one of the bigger grocery store chains in Berlin) this afternoon to pick up a few things, and I walked up to the meat counter looking for some hähnchenbrust (chicken breast). A woman in a powered wheelchair rolled up to my left, just a second ahead of me. She was probably around 60 years old, white-haired, and quite heavyset. The butcher behind the counter hadn't seen who came up first, and she asked who was next, so of course I politely gestured to the woman and encouraged her to order before me. She did so, and the butcher disappeared into the back to go get whatever it was.

Image © mfi management für immobilien AG
The woman then turned to me and asked me a question in German. I have begun to be able to pick out a few words here and there, but frankly - my German is awful. I told her as much, in a broken mix of German and English, and asked Sprechen Sie Englisch? She shook her head No, but gestured to a shopping bag hanging from her chair down between her feet. The bag had a few cans and other groceries in it, but it had collapsed and partially fallen through the foot rests of the wheelchair, and I realized that she was asking for help in picking it back up. Her mobility was very obviously impaired - she could not bend forward to pick the bag up herself.

I quickly gathered the bag up and got it unstuck from the bottom of the wheelchair, and handed it up to her with a smile. She was quite appreciative and did manage an English "Thank you!", to which I replied (properly) "Bitte Schôn!". The butcher returned with the woman's ground rindfleisch (beef) - or maybe it was schweinefleisch (pork) - and the woman went on her way.

Five minutes later, though, I came upon her again in the candy aisle. She was looking up at the top row of candies, far out of reach. No one was bothering to help her. She didn't see me, but I thought she probably wouldn't mind a helping hand again, so I walked up beside her and smiled once more. I don't know how to say "Can I help you with that?" in German, but she got the message. After I grabbed her "Tic Tacs, zwei" (two boxes of Tic Tacs) and deposited them in her shopping bag, she asked another question which I couldn't understand, and sort of pulled her bag up and gestured towards the back of her chair. Even though I couldn't make out the words, somehow I understood that she was asking me to hang the shopping bag over the back of the chair, most likely because it had become too heavy to hold between her feet. And it was full anyway, so she must have been preparing to go through the checkout. I put the bag up, she said "Thank you" again a few times, I smiled, and we parted ways.

I grabbed my last few items, paid, and headed out into the hallway of the shopping center. I was happy to have had a friendly interaction with a type of person - that is, a non-English speaking German senior - that I rarely have a chance to speak with. I liked that the two of us, from completely different worlds in more ways than one, managed to communicate and share a simple experience together. It was gratifying.



Epilogue

As I walked down the long hall leading to the street, I saw the woman ahead of me again, rolling quickly towards the automatic doors, her bulging shopping bag slung from the back of the chair exactly where I'd left it.

That's odd, I thought. I don't remember seeing her in the checkout line, and I think I would have been there ahead of her anyway. I only remember seeing one checker - all the other lines were closed. Was there another checker that I didn't notice? Could she have paid somewhere without me seeing?

Did I just help an old woman shoplift her groceries?



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