I had just moved to a new flat in the Schöneberg district of Berlin and was exploring my new neighbourhood. It was Saturday, market day, and I had some grocery shopping to do and a letter to mail (I’m old school like that, I write letters).
One of my favourite things about Berlin is the fresh produce market culture here. Every single day of the week you can find some market somewhere, although the largest ones happen on Saturdays. The smells and colours and vendors’ shouts are overwhelming. Heaps of fresh vegetables, tomatoes strung from tent roofs, coffee stalls with immense queues, flowers, mountains of olives, capers, ricotta-stuffed peperoni. Huge wheels of cheese with little tasters in baskets to catch passers-by, fresh fish with glossy eyes staring back at you, quail eggs and artisanal gin and strange potatoes. Freshly baked organic bread, peculiar fruit I don’t know what to call, hot falafel and woollen socks. I love walking in that throng of market-goers, smelling, tasting, breathing the different flavours. Sometimes I just observe and don’t buy anything, other times I indulge.
That day I had bought a bag of tomatoes for some ridiculous 1,49 € per kilo, a bunch of fresh parsley and the first apricots of the season. As I got back to my bike parked at a lamp post a few metres away, I realized that somehow, probably in the process of taking my purse out of my backpack, I had lost the letter to my cousin in Holland that I was planning on posting. I looked for it back at the market and on my way home but couldn’t find it anywhere on the road or pavement. I imagined it lying in some gutter, rained wet and lonely, forgotten and covered in tyre tracks. It was gone.
A week or so later I got a message from my cousin with a photo of the letter, thanking me. Someone had apparently found my letter and posted it for me, even adding a brightly coloured postage stamp with a panda bear on it. It was marvellous. Some person out there had cared enough to help me out.
It’s difficult for me to read the news without feeling utterly helpless. Both internationally and locally, people are delineating their differences, drawing lines, demarcating territories. So much hate out there, them and us, so much othering, so much distrust and purposeful destruction and tearing anything good to shreds on the internet.
And I feel even more helpless when that constant nagging question keeps returning to my mind: What can I do? What should I do?
What will I say in my defence when our children’s generation will ask of us: “And what did you do when all of that happened? What was your contribution?” It’s an uncomfortable question. How should we take responsibility for actions and their consequences that are so large and interconnected that the very thought paralyses us? I’m not an activist.
But perhaps I can tell stories. Stories like this one, real stories, small and insignificant stories, but nevertheless a story about a person who picked up a lost letter and spent money to put a stamp on it and took the time to mail it, without knowing who I was, without knowing my age or my political persuasion or my skin colour or my social background or my nationality or my intentions or my economic status. A story about a person who had simply been kind.
I think that somewhere between naïve hope and cynical despair there’s a sweet spot, a space of kindness and action and looking out for one another. A space where we can absorb the dreadful happenings in the world to keep us grounded and make us wiser and propel us into action, yet use the good inside ourselves to uplift one another and counter the helplessness. In many ways, that is the role of art.