The Good and Fearless Samaritan

I come from Mexico, a place where social initiatives are not that big a thing, mainly because a great deal of the population has barely enough resources to keep their own heads afloat, but also because its mindset is infected with corruption and a cheating culture where you must seek to maximize your personal benefit at whatever the cost. Because everyone does the same, you must also distrust everyone and the more you can cheat, the better. The brilliant principle by which we live and justify whatever fault we consciously commit is: “The one who does not cheat, does not win.” – I rest my case.

The Umsonst-Laden. This particular one is in Hamburg. FOTO: LauraV.

One of the very first things I learned the first time I lived in Germany was that no matter how much I had read and studied about its history, politics and culture, I was still ignorant about what it all really meant in the real world where both the German society and others (like the one I grew up in) coexist. It is true that Germans tend to abide themselves by the rules because they understand rules are the base for everything to work properly –and there’s nothing they like more than things working properly (but honestly, don’t we all?). This is not to say there’s no corruption in Germany, but things are simply different and the citizens still have power as individuals, even if they sometimes fail to appreciate it and what it means, they do. It is very impressive to witness that power for someone who comes from “no man’s land” and where my own brother must leave the house full of fear when he heads to school and nobody can drive him there so he must always be ready with a secret little pocket where he stashes emergency cash and also carries a fake wallet and a fake old mobile phone he can surrender in case of robbery in the bus or while walking down the street; or where people (yes, that famously warm and chirpy Mexican people) are now so rude they won’t even stop if you try to ask them for directions. They are not being rude per se, they are scared because they do not trust their fellow Mexicans, we all know it all is probably a ruse and you will end up kidnapped, attacked or, in the lesser of cases, robbed. Are you following the vicious circle?

Germans still trust and it’s not that they’re naïve, it’s the fact their society and reality are different ones. In Germany you can still afford to be a Good Samaritan, and a fearless one.

I documented my first encounter with free food in the middle of the street. FOTO: LauraV

Within time, I have bumped into a number of behaviors, comments and social initiatives that have made me reflect on what I wrote on the first two paragraphs of this entry. Here I will focus in the social initiatives; whether they are ‘made in Germany’ or not, it’s not relevant, fact is people organize “Keller-Aufräumungen” (cleaning up of their basements) and post about it in open Facebook pages that work as a board for all sorts of mind-boggling announcements. Why mind-boggling? Because not in this life or the next one can I imagine that sort of thing being possible in my country: people inviting strangers to enter their homes and take things for free – offering the chance for burglars to enter right away, or for them to check up on what you have and then pay you a later visit, or maybe even decide if you’re kidnapping material, who knows?

“Free your stuff” is another initiative that honestly wowed me. Again it works with Facebook’s aid and it’s an open group for people that live in what they consider nearness from one another and you can either pop there to ask if any of the members has, or knows someone that has, and does not want any more, a certain thing; or you make photos of the stuff you have and you don’t want anymore and upload them to ask if anyone wants them. Here you will find all kinds of things, from opened food packages to clothes and furniture. But the niceties do not end there, because you can either arrange to pick up the goods at the owner’s home (again, read my panicked comments of the previous paragraph), or you can arrange to pick them up at a convenient meeting point for both. For free! I cannot stress enough how much I flipped to think someone would go through the bother of leaving their home carrying something they could very well throw in the garbage, to meet a potentially dangerous stranger in exchange for nothing.

Öffener Bücherschrank. This one is in Frankfurt, but I have a collection of photos of the sort from what feels like everywhere. FOTO: LauraV.

I was also surprised the first time I walked down any random street and found boxes full of things you could just take for free, I saw boxes with books, kitchen supplies, decorations, baby stuff, pet stuff and more than once, some furniture (not inside a box, but still to take and go); and food, my first encounter of this sort was a shopping cart with carton boxes full of green grapes in half-kilo plastic containers in perfect condition. Right there in the middle of the sidewalk with nobody around. In the place where I come from, I am embarrassed to admit people would take the good stuff (shopping cart included) and then sell it.

Throughout time, I have come across a number of other initiatives and good deeds that have sort of set my ideas on fire: cooperative kitchens and dining halls, book exchanges or giveaways in random places (in very nice shelves that nobody vandalizes), community wardrobes in the middle of a sidewalk where you can drop clothes in good condition that you no longer want or find your next vintage jewel; or the “Umsonst-Laden” (free shop) that’s a real store full of used and new things people go and drop there while other people come and take what they need and pay with another article in exchange or give away whatever little money they can/want.

Do I sound like Pocahontas? Maybe to some, but truth is it’s always the little things that send my mind reeling and reflecting and not about facts, but about the reasons and explanations behind those facts.

One of my favorite things about Germany is there’s always so much more than meets the eye –it’d make so much of a difference if more people were willing to try to understand it.