That approach has its place in life but most of the time I find it horribly dull. I mean the exciting kind of doing nothing. It usually begins by picking one of my favourite shirts to wear and going for a stroll.
Having the good fortune of living near a body of water, the wonderful Alster Lakes, my focused aimlessness usually starts there. The sun warming your face and staring at ducks or other paddling, flying, diving bird-things, you could think you have reached peak doing nothing.
There’s a duck, I’m doing nothing
Not true. You’re still mentally going through your laundry list while the huffing and puffing of the omnipresent joggers reminds you that you should exercise more. To truly do nothing you need more interaction. Some means to get out of the constant chattering of your internal monologue.
In my experience the best way to get out of your own creaking head is to focus on other people. This applies to many situations in work and private life and there is countless ways how you could go about it.
For maximum relaxation though there is one I would recommend and it only costs a few bucks: Talking to absolute strangers at a café.
Some of the readers knowing me personally now might cry out “But Phil, you don’t even drink coffee!” – and that’s mostly correct. I never drink coffee at work as I find that it actually takes away focus rather than providing it.
Sometimes in private life however there are situations in which my will falters and I find it almost impossible to decline an offer of Horton brand warm addictive brown stuff.
In yesterday’s instance it was the genial warmth of the café owner asking me whether I’d like some coffee. You see, this particular place is a one-person business, set in an old bookshop and slap bang in downtown Hamburg. Just a few steps away from historic sights.
Refuge of the restless
It’s a cozy place where ordering a coffee feels almost natural. It would seem odd not to. On top of that I had not seen the place in a long time due to the whole global situation we’re still facing. I was feeling quite nostalgic.
Back during my busy days of working close to the centre of political life in Hamburg, this little coffee shop had saved my sanity. As an aide in politics you are a bipedal Swiss Army knife and life can easily become stressful.
No matter how late I was on the delivery of a draft for a speech, no matter how high the stack of documents and no matter how deep my frustration about the cumbersome sides of politics, that café and the witty chats with its owner had been my refuge. If you’re interested in visiting the place just drop me a line.
Apart from baking some hell of a crumble and brewing a cappuccino to knock your socks off, the owner of my favourite business day retreat has the almost magical talent to get people talking to each other.
It’s not even an active act of connecting people. It is just the atmosphere of the place. Somehow people let down their guard when entering the place and soon there is table-spanning conversations on just about anything.
This time a very well dressed couple was going through a list of their favourite actors and after placing Sir Anthony Hopkins at the top of the list trying to recall all the films he was in.
Into the nerd zone
At this point I simply had to mention the first two seasons of Westworld, some of his best work and among the best science fiction you could possibly watch on the small screen. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it now.
As soon as the topic of science fiction was mentioned I sensed another guest pricking up his ears. A middle aged gentleman, oddly but impeccably dressed. A very well realized combination of British gentleman and gothic rock.
Evidently he was an expert on the science fiction and we found ourselves inevitably talking about this year’s Dune, my review of which you can read here. He kept explaining the lore and I made a mental note to book another ticket.
While my new acquaintance kept talking about the intricate lore of the Dune franchise I immediately typecast him as a member of the writing professions, maybe an academic, a journalist, a podcaster at minimum.
The way he connected Dune to cultural history, philosophy and contemporary discourses indicated to me that he had to earn his pay as some sort of wordsmith.
I was dead wrong. In fact he was a member of an honest profession, a skilled craftsman. All these fancy words were just part of his hobbies, a way of enjoying himself and passing time.
What the heck do I know?
The shame of having fallen to stereotypical thinking was felt strongly but I did my best not to show it. Still when I casually mentioned that he should also give writing a try I meant it. Some people just have to show their creativity otherwise something is lost to the world.
Before long I was quite sure of the fact that though I had read a few books and a ton on the Fandom wiki I knew too little about Dune. How could I even have dared to write a review on the movie when I didn’t even know the complete history of House Atreides.
Back to earth
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the owner of the café clearing tables. We had spent well over two hours talking about the most obscure details of Frank Herbert’s invented universe. Time had just flown by and I’d drunk quite a bit of coffee, cursed cocaine of the everyman.
I should have felt wired and jittery but instead I was calm and collected. Listening to this man quietly expounding on his favourite franchise had taken me far from my everyday worries. As much as I had enjoyed this form of coffee house meditation I longed to stretch my legs and amble around a bit.
As my tour guide to Arrakis seemed to feel the same we quickly paid our bills, walked a few steps together until I decided to stop at a bookstore before we unceremoniously parted our ways.
Big city vibes
We didn’t exchange phone numbers, not even last names. For all that matters we were just two strangers in a big city having had a nice chat.
This lightness in social interaction is what I love about big cities. Especially anglophone cities. My personal experience is that here in Germany we haven’t yet perfected the art of casually having conversations with strangers yet.
Germans tend to tighten up once you approach them and their faces quietly ask: What does he want to sell to me? Maybe it’s a part of German culture, maybe it is a certain wariness, a mild form of German Angst.
Whatever the reasons for our widespread timidity I can only encourage people to break the mold and start talking to absolute strangers more often. While writing this little piece I did some superficial research and found that there is a regular culture around talking to strangers at the coffee shop.
Once this dreadful Corona situation has passed our cities will be full of opportunities to meet interesting people. Opportunities to get out of your own head and get some distance to your everyday worries.
And even those among you who struggle against any non-productive hours might benefit from it. I promise you will not only leave the experience relaxed but with a thousand new ideas swirling around in your noggin. People are the best inspiration!
As I am looking out the window the sun is still shining, rays getting caught in the last effort green of the trees. Spellchecking this text I feel the need to mingle again. Time to get away from the screen and the autumn sun on my face.
I unplug the IPhone, mentally go through the list of my favourite coffee haunts and start looking for my hat (how do I keep losing it?). Yes, a brisk walk would be nice. Having a look at some of those silly ducks and then maybe some tea. Who knows who I will meet today?