Saturday I was in St. Oberholz, the café which likes to call itself the meeting point of Berlin’s digital bohemia. I had brought pen and paper to brainstorm on some concept I had been thinking about during the week, but in order to not stick out too much I had my laptop with me as well. You don’t go to St. Oberholz without a laptop. I placed the laptop on the table behind my paper block and opened the lid, so the Apple logo could be seen clearly even from the other side of the coffee shop. With the inverted bitten apple in front of me, I now really was a member of the digital bohemia. Although the cafeteria was quite full, the only person at the long table I was sitting at was a Japanese girl typing something into her cell phone. A European looking guy with a cup of tea came up to the table and said something to her in what I first thought sounded like Spanish. She nodded, but didn’t look up. He placed his tea on the table and sat down on the chair opposite of her. Strange, I thought, there were free chairs further away from her, so he must be starting a flirt. But what an odd way to start a flirt by asking a Japanese girl in Spanish whether that chair is still free! Odder still was her reaction: I can’t imagine she knew Spanish, so she must have concluded from the situation and the prosody of his question what he was asking. Or maybe the stereotype is true and Japanese girls really nod all the time when talking to others. But the stereotype also says they smile constantly and giggle often. This girl had a completely deadpan face, so serious that it was hard to even imagine her smiling. This is going to be a difficult flirt, I thought; she hadn‘t even looked up when he was talking to her. He had an awkward gait, an awkward expression and was wearing the upper part of a jogging suit and badly fitting jeans, like a nerdy fifteen year old. He might almost have been a software developer, like me. He was so awkward that she must have sensed his clothing choice, expression, and gait from his voice and decided that this guy was not worth looking up from the cell phone for.
After sitting down, he started talking in a very strange Spanish. In fact, the Spanish was so strange it was not Spanish at all. After I heard „*mublemumble* teeeeeeh *mumblemuble* teeeeeeh“ in almost every sentence, I realized he was actually speaking Japanese! I was totally surprised, as I would never have expected a guy who was the walking manifestation of uncoolness to speak a cool language like Japanese. The girl might have been surprised as well, because she was now looking at him instead of her cell phone. But her face was still deadpan and she didn’t say anything. The guy continued in his monologue, seemingly not expecting her to answer. It became increasingly unlikely that this was a flirt between two people who have never seen each other before. They must have come to the café together; he only came to the table later because he bought a tea at the counter. He mumble-muble- teeeeeehed constantly, while she was nodding her expressionless face in silence at every teeeeeeh. My new theory was that he was learning Japanese and she helped him by providing a conversation partner. Given the feedback she was giving him, however, he might have had as useful a learning experience talking to a cartoon character in a Manga comic. I could not judge whether his Japanese was bad or good or even on a native level, but his repeating exaggerated sentence melody was annoying me and making it hard for me to concentrate on my work. After a very long while of talking, when I was starting to wonder how much there could be you could say in an uninterrupted monologue, he actually fell silent. He looked down at the table in front of him. She looked down at the table in front of her as well. Finally, he started speaking again, but thankfully stopped after a few sentences and both stared at the incredibly interesting thing between them on the table that was invisible to me. Then it dawned on me: these two are actually dating!
This was by far the saddest date I had ever witnessed. Normally you would expect a minimum of back and forth and at least the tiniest bit of showing interest from mere politeness, even if it is clear from the beginning that the date is not at all what you expected it to be. But this minute long staring at the table in silence was so actively distracting to me I could not form a coherent thought about what I came here to work on. It was obvious she was not interested. Finally, she seemed to have enough. She packed her cell phone and the book lying in front of her into her bag. Thank god, I would be relieved of all this. But no, she kept sitting there, eyes on the wood again. Some more teeeeeehs from him. Some more silence from her. I sighed internally. Then she became active again: she put on her mantle. I kept looking at my paper but shifted my attention to the visual field in the periphery of my eyes to witness her departure and the end of my torture. But she sat silent again. Come on, you either end the date or you don’t! What nonsense is this sitting with a thick winter mantle in a hot coffee shop? After packing your stuff and putting on your mantle without a word while he is talking, is this some kind of politeness not to actually leave? Get up and make an end to this already! But she kept sitting. And he started talking again, just as before. He chose not to notice the subtle signs she was giving him that the date might not be the most exciting thing that happened to her in her life so far.
I had to restrain myself from getting up and telling them „Look, folks, if this is actually a date you are having: just… give it up. It’s pointless. You, dude, are so nerdy even the Japanese Otaku would have to invent a new word for your kind. And you, even the table has said more and shown more human emotion than you did during the last two hours. Maybe you two deserve each other in a certain way. But listen, I am sitting quite a bit away from the epicenter of all this and yet the awkwardness floods all the way to me and makes it difficult for me to breathe. Just sayonnara each other and try again in a few years with different partners, okay?“ But then something happened. After another of the long mutual silences, the guy stood up and took his bag. He said something in a resigned voice. He was leaving! She must be as relieved as I was. I was expecting her to give a short and polite farewell, but she straightened and said a full sentence in a determined voice. And then another. And another. She was trying to make him stay! What the… ? He seemed angry and replied something, but she kept arguing and now they were actually talking to each other. The mood calmed down eventually and he took his seat again. Sigh. What did she say? “Stay, I need you to bore me to death some more so I don’t notice how hot it is sitting here in my mantle”? I thought they would continue this fiasco alternating between his monologues and the mutual staring of holes into the table. But then he made a joke. He hadn’t said anything remotely funny for the last few hours, at least as far as I could tell from neither of them having laughed or even smiled at bit. But now she was giggling! And she gave him an answer. And then he replied, saying something funny again. More giggles. They were actually having a conversation! I still couldn’t focus my thoughts on the paper, but at least I was not suffocated anymore by awkwardness from the other end of the table. I was curious whether they could keep up the flow of conversation or if it was just a temporary oasis from which they would have to eventually leave and go back into the desert again. But the ice was broken. Something fundamental had changed. They were having a date worthy of that name and seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Eventually her cell phone rang. She answered it in Japanese and got up after finishing the call. It seemed she had to leave. They shook hands and almost, but not quite, embraced each other as they were smiling and saying their goodbyes. She left. He kept sitting at the table for a few minutes, then got up as well. He seemed to be in a relaxed and cheery mood when he took his bag and left the cafeteria. Did I just experience true Japanese dating? Maybe this is the Japanese way of a woman’s playing hard to get: you don’t say anything for hours. If he persists and you are still interested, then you can finally show your true self. I will remember that when I ever date a Japanese girl. But I don’t know any Japanese. Perhaps this is actually an advantage: if I don’t start with teeeeeehs, she might not switch into Japanese dating mode and we could actually have a fun conversation from the start.