In the supermarket I was queuing in front of a woman with a lot of groceries. Her arms were laden and I stepped aside to offer her the space to put her stuff down on the conveyor. Germans are possessive about their conveyor space and it remains the only country where I have ever had someone not only install one of the little dividers between my groceries and his, but then lean across me to reinstate the missing divider between mine and the person’s in front of me; then rock back on his heels and give a satisfied nod, saying to himself almost sweetly, “Hmmphf.”
The woman spilled her goods onto the belt and said, “Ich hab’ gerade ‘was vergessen. Kannst du…” She had forgotten something, she darted away into the aisles and disappeared. I said hello to the guy with all the piercings who works the register. He scanned my bunches of vegetables one at a time. The woman slipped back into her place in the queue and put one of those toilet ducks on the belt beside her things. She smiled at me. Her smile, and the fact that she’d used du rather than Sie earlier, gave me a slender opportunity and I made the most of it.
“Kannst du bitte – das nächste Mal – vielleicht daran denken, etwas ein kleines bisschen umweltgesunder zu probieren?” Couldn’t you please, next time, perhaps think of trying something a bit environmentally healthy? I tipped the plastic duck-beaked bottle to show her. “This stuff is complete poison. It goes down the drain and comes back out the tap, goes into our rivers. There is a brand called – Frog, I think they sell it here, you might try it.” I strove to sound as casual and off-handed as I could. This is perhaps the five hundredth such conversation I have had in a grocery store with a stranger and I’ve got skills. “Have you ever thought about trying the recycled paper toilet tissue?” I’ll ask, sidling up like a flasher in the aisle. “Ah, no,” they might say, looking startled. Often they confide they have sensitive skin and it’s supposed to be much scratchier. Oh, good god. Around us in the shadows rainforests fall to bulldozers and orangutans limp away from palm oil plantations so that we can eat our corn chips and make our soap. “Actually, it’s softer,” I always say. I’m smiling. “I mean – it’s been pulped twice.”