By Jasmine Heyward
On a hot summer afternoon in Dortmund, Germany, I stood in Friedensplatz nursing a plastic cup of seltzer water and playing with my phone. The local soccer team, the only sports team I’ve ever loved, would play for their first title in five years that night, and I had arrived early to get a good spot for the public viewing.
A man approached me speaking German and all I caught was “Trikot” and “Mario Götze.” I winced. Götze is somewhat of a pariah after he left Dortmund for their biggest rivals and then returned when it didn’t work out. I bought my jersey in a fit of passion after I wrote about him for a class assignment.
The man repeated himself, switching to English.
“You can’t be Mario Götze. You could be Aubameyang. Or Ousmane Dembélé. But not Götze.”
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Dembélé were two of the team’s forward. They were both raised in France and appeared to be close friends during their one year together at Dortmund. They’re also both black.
I didn’t have a response. Could I only “be” a black player? I couldn’t be any players at all—I’ve never played soccer in my life and never will. After a health scare in August, I’ve just gotten back to the point where I can walk a couple of miles at a leisurely pace with only one break.
He smiled at me. I smiled back. He left.
After dreaming of travel my entire life, I convinced my parents that I was finally ready to take an independent trip to Europe the summer after my sophomore year of college. I planned to visit seven cities in just over three weeks. It was ambitious, but I’m in the habit of traveling like I’ll never get to go again.
I started in Romania. I didn’t have a great reason, other than the fact that I was interested in it after spending a lot of time studying the Romanian Revolution in high school.
There are not many black people in Eastern Europe. I knew this before I went. During a month in Berlin the summer before, I snuck off to Poland for a day with some friends and I didn’t see any other black people. It was fine, it was awkward.
Bucharest was awkward in a different way. I’m still unsure if the Romanians that I encountered didn’t like foreigners or if they didn’t like black people. Either way, there was a discomfort that felt like being ostracized. No one made racist comments to my face, but it felt like everyone was staring at me. People wouldn’t sit next to me if it was the only seat left at the metro station.
One night I went to a 24-hour grocery store around 11 p.m. Like many European grocery stores, it had separate doors to enter and exit, with the entry door leading to a turnstile. When I went to that door it didn’t open.
A Romanian man shouted something at me. Pointed to the exit door. Turns out everyone entering and exiting the store uses the exit door once it gets late.
I was surprised and hugely, supremely grateful.
I was so uncomfortable in Romania that someone showing me a very basic courtesy stood out to me.
Inside, I walked past an Asian woman with her young son a few times. She was the only person who smiled at me in seven days, excluding people I was paying for a service. I’d like to think she understood.
I couldn’t stand the looks I was getting any more. I was wearing knee-high socks with shorts, not realizing that they would be considered extremely provocative there. The combination of glares and catcalling had me feeling thoroughly ashamed. Finally, I left Romania.
In Poland, I was meeting my friend Daria. We met in a WhatsApp group for fans of Polish soccer player Robert Lewandowski, and when I mentioned visiting Poznań she told me that she was only two hours away in Wrocław at university.
She met me at the train station with pierogi and naleśniki and it was weird to already feel so indebted to someone I was meeting in person for the first time. Not only was it nice to have lunch waiting, it made me feel welcome, something that had been woefully missing in Romania.
Daria has a lot more energy than I do, so after lunch we went on a very long walk around the city, stopping at a botanical garden. We talked about soccer, and college, and the English language and it felt more natural than the conversations I had back home with the high school friends I only see three times a year. We had been friends on Snapchat for months, so I already felt like I knew her.
That afternoon she asked if I’d be willing to go to one evening class with her. It was one her and her friends were struggling in, so if she missed a class she wasn’t sure how she’d catch up. I agreed because I honestly didn’t mind, but also I was curious about meeting her other friends and seeing what her classes were like.
Her friends were nice, genuine people and they were willing to speak English for my sake. I had braced myself for them to be visibly surprised—Daria had told them she was bringing a friend but hadn’t told them anything about me from my understanding. A friend of mine who lived in Bosnia still gets questions from her host family about her black friends.
They were learning about thematic relations that day, which I had never heard of with no background in linguistics. Regardless, their teacher gave me a copy of the work sheet so I could follow along, and I sat there at a table with three Polish students trying to assign thematic relations to random English sentences.
Some of them I got right, some of them I didn’t. At least half the ones I did get right I couldn’t explain other than, “because it seems right.”
Her teacher thought it was cool that I was participating in the activity. I responded that it was cool to learn about my own language in that context, and a few other students in the class looked up, presumably in response to my accent. We arrived early and sat in the back, so it’s possible that some of them hadn’t seen me.
I was probably like something out a movie to many of them. I speak near-standard American English, while most of the Polish students spoke British English with a slight Slavic accent. I was also carrying an iPhone 6s, which wasn’t available in Poland at the time. And I was black.
It could have been isolating, but instead, it was interesting. Mostly because Daria and her friends were genuinely curious about my point of view. We discussed an American culture class they took over pizza. I told them that most Americans don’t use “whom” in speech and then tried to explain why. We discussed how Poland and the United States seem to be on similar political paths, and how frightening that is.
That night in Poland, I finally felt like I was really doing what I had set out to do and learning what I left home to learn.
In Germany it was a bit harder. I was alone, and my German isn’t great. I can order food and answer basic questions at stores (“Do you want a bag for 10 cents?”) But I held my own; it was no Romania.
Football game viewings are, unsurprisingly, a great place to start up a conversation with strangers. After halftime, I started talking to two guys near me. They were shocked to hear that I was from the United States, and told all their friends.
They took it upon themselves to teach me the customs, making sure I knew how to celebrate properly. How I was supposed to throw my beer after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored what ended up being the winning goal. How to participate in the hometown chants. How to throw my next beer once the final whistle blew. And that one was still essentially full.
They were nice guys, but drinking a beer brought to me by a stranger when I’ve already disclosed that I’m college-aged, alone, from out-of-town, and not fluent in German wasn’t going to happen.
But then, sweaty and drenched in beer, my team won a tournament no one expected them to win. I experienced it with the hometown fans. And we took my favorite photo of the whole trip:
I’ll never forget it.
Every time I watch a Dortmund game it brings me back to screaming with 10,000 people in that square. I still talk to Daria frequently, and I’m already thinking about my next opportunity to go to Poland again. I love that country. And I’ll never forget that Asian woman in the grocery store and how it felt to share an experience with someone without even addressing them.
But perhaps more importantly, I realized that you don’t need to travel for this. There are challenging but enlightening conversations in every city. That’s not to say that every conversation will end with a new Facebook friend and a new perspective, but entering every conversation like it could end that way will change everything.
At least it did for me.