In the winter of 2000, a few weeks before we left India for Germany, Wife and I were invited by a relative for a farewell lunch. This uncle and aunt were encouraging and optimistic about our plans to migrate (“At least you aren’t going to the U.S. like the rest of them,” they said), but the aunt’s father, an elderly man with hawk eyes, took a different view. “Why are you going to Germany?” he asked. “It is the most racist country in the world, don’t you know? Haven’t you read about Hitler and the Jews? The Germans hate foreigners — I would think ten times before going there.”
The other day, while waiting at the doctor’s reception, I witnessed a dialogue between a black man and a white woman that left me thoughtful and gloomy.
* * *
On this day there is a long queue, unusual for this place, and the German woman behind the reception desk is not in a friendly mood. She is a young woman, wearing a white shirt over white pants, her blond hair pulled back in a short pony-tail. She is efficient in the way Germans usually are: doing the job with precision and speed, assuming a polite but firm manner. But she also seems disturbed, not at ease: she moves her hands rapidly, avoiding eye-contact with the patient in front, which lends her a distracted, impatient air. She deals with a couple of patients in this manner, and then it is the turn of the black man two places ahead of me.
From behind, and from the occasional glimpses of his profile, he resembles the actor Morgan Freeman: an elderly man, tall and heavy-set, curly greying hair, a pockmarked face with deep lines on his forehead. I imagine him speak in a clear, intense voice, but what comes out is hushed and hesitant: German is foreign to him, and he is struggling.
“Ihre Telefonnummer, bitte?” the woman asks, looking into her computer screen.