How to hold a conversation

In Germany


To a woman at the till in a clothes shop.

“Sorry, I have a strange question. Do you happen to know where I can buy pots and pans?”

She goes a few metres away and talks to her co-workers.

I stand by the till and put my hands in my pockets, then take them out and fold them under my chin. I get out my phone and press the keys. I cross my arms and hold my jaw with one hand. I walk halfway over to the group and stand there. After a few minutes she comes back.

“Take tram 23 to Familia shopping centre.”

On the tram, to a man sitting next to me.

“Excuse me, sorry, do you happen to know where I get off for Familia shopping centre?”

“Don’t you have a phone?

He sees my phone.

He googles for a minute. “Oh Famila. Yeah, so look. You get off at this stop then you cross the street.”

“Thanks, thank you very much,” I say.

He stares ahead of him.

As he gets off I call, “Thanks again!”

He slowly inserts his earphones.


To a shop assistant in a department store.

“Do you sell desk lamps?”

“No, we don’t sell them anymore.”

She turns away.

“Right. Could you possibly tell me who does sell them?”



I walk over to the other side of the floor and look back. She is looking at me over the top of her glasses. I lower myself behind a railing of clothes.

To another shop assistant, a few minutes later.

“Do you sell desk lamps?”

“No, we don’t sell them anymore.”

She stares at me.

“Right. Could you tell me who does sell them?”

“Yeah, if you go out of here down the road there’s a big shop that sells them called Bauhaus.”

To a woman on a bike waiting at a crossing.

“Do you happen to know, I mean could you tell me where Bauhaus is?”

She looks away. She waits until the lights change. She cycles away as quickly as possible.

I cross the road and down a side street I see an enormous B blotting out the sky, and then an A.


In a book shop, to the owner.

“Do you have Sterbende Cato by Gottsched?”

“Ha! It’s a rare day when I get a Gottsched in here!”


“You’re welcome.”

In a book shop.

“Hello, do you have Sterbende Cato by Gottsched?”

“I’m not sure, have a look in the Reclam section, just through there.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.”

I enter the Reclam section.

“Hello! Excuse me! We’re actually closed now, I’ve already turned off the till, so…”

“Right, I just wanted to have a quick look around anyway.”

“I’m actually counting up the money and you’re making me uncomfortable.”

I turn around. The woman behind the counter is middle aged and short.

The art of conversation here is no art.

“I’m not going to rob you. I was looking for a book, your colleague sent me over here. But after this rudeness I’m going to leave.”

She smiles a little.

“What was it you were looking for?”

“Gottsched, Sterbende Cato.”

“Sold out until next Tuesday.”

“Can I go out through these doors?” Or will you feel threatened.

“Of course.”

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