Sunday, December 15, 2013

Asking shouldn't hurt; if it does, there's a problem.

In elementary school, lunch in the cafeteria was at 11:05am, which to me now, someone who likes to eat lunch around 1pm, is like eating at daybreak. About 100 ten- and eleven-year-olds would sit at 25-foot-long tables, which for us were like football fields. The seats were round, multicolored, connected to the table, and they might have even spinned. We were like baby birds chirping unselfconsciously, chaotic and carefree. Sometimes the others sitting around me pulled out yummy-looking treats that had been packed with love into lunch bags by mommies and nannies (back then, no more than 15 years ago, the advent of stay-at-home daddies had not yet taken place). Often I wanted to ask for some of these goodies (anyone remember Dunkaroos, Shark Bites, Teddy Grahams, String Things, Fruit by the Foots, and other lunchbox snacks from the 90s?), yet I was too afraid to ask. I was only about ten, but I had somehow learned that there was something bad about asking others for something that was not mine. 

Yesterday I was in line waiting to pay for a bag of tea-light candles at the supermarket here in Frankfurt, a far ways away from Brookline, Massachusetts. Saturday is the biggest shopping day of the week here because stores are closed on Sundays, and therefore the line (die Schlange, in German, which also means "snake") was long. I counted my money in preparation for a speedy exchange at the counter and realized that I was two cents short. The "Give-a-penny, Take-a-penny" tray apparently doesn't exist here, so I had to ask someone to give me two cents. The well-dressed young man in front of me said he didn't have them; perhaps he only had a big bill? I turned to the middle-aged, paunch-bellied man behind me and asked, "Entschuldigung, haben Sie vielleicht zwei Cent, bitte?" (Excuse me, do you have maybe two cents, please?). "Klar," he responded, and plucked a two-cent coin from his battered brown-leather wallet and handed it to me. I said thanks, but he acted nonchalant as if these words didn't need to be said for such a small act.

I don't yet have a German debit card, and even if I did, it would be laughable to pay for anything less than 10€ with plastic. In that situation yesterday I was nervous to ask a stranger for money, even though it was just two cents, because I thought someone would think I was poor or needy, someone who didn't have enough to cover her own consumption habits, which were visible to the world in the form of a bottle of wine on the side of my backpack, the purchase which had left me two cents short for the candles.

I am no doubt overanalyzing the situation, but I am doing so in order to explore some of the feelings I have surrounding the action of asking others to give. As I child my family would sometimes go to the legendary establishment Pino's Pizza in Cleveland Circle, which serves pizza piping hot out of the oven on metal pizza rounds, cheese still oozing, the greasy goodness of god. If the napkin holder was empty and I was sitting on the outer side of the bench, I would be the one to have to go up and ask the busy Italian dudes with the black curly hair behind the counter for napkins, and even this minuscule "ask" caused me anxiety! Sometimes it would take me five minutes just to get a handful of napkins, since I would have to plan exactly how I would make the ask without inconveniencing anyone or looking like I was trying to cut in line.  

Apparently asking for things is not something I learned how to do well as a kid, and I wonder whether it was also, and still is, like this for other kids in the U.S. Not being able to ask has so many negative consequences, not the least being not getting what one wants! Perhaps worst of all is that in fearing to ask, one begins to be overprotective of his/her own possessions, and perhaps even begins to fear giving to others. But giving is a whole 'nother topic, and I'm already thinking of what I can ask my boyfriend for when he gets home (just kidding). Until then, let's call it for the night, shall we?

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