Giving Your Number to Strangers? It’s Not Flirting; It’s a Rule

Giving Your Number to Strangers? It’s Not Flirting; It’s a Rule

Giving Your Number to Strangers? It’s Not Flirting; It’s a Rule

BERLIN — I’ve given my phone number to a lot of strangers over the past week.

I scribbled it down for the charming barista who made my latte the other morning. I handed it to the waiter who took my first restaurant booking in more than two months. I gave it to a hairdresser, to an ice cream vendor, even to the guy behind plexiglass at the open-air swimming pool that just reopened.

“That mask looks great on you,” he said and winked at me over his own mask in one of those I-can’t-believe-I’m-having-this-conversation moments we have every day now.

I swear I wasn’t flirting. I was just trying to have a swim.

Berlin has been emerging from its coronavirus lockdown in full force, and the cost of freedom, the price of having a snippet of our pre-corona lives — date night with your husband, a hair cut (a hair cut!) — is handing over contact details.

Call them corona logs: A registry of who was where when and for how long has become mandatory so the detectives of the German health authority can trace the contacts of a newly infected person.

It is one way in which Germany’s new normal looks anything but normal. In a country where privacy is something of a national religion, Germans now casually hand over their private address at every turn of daily life.

At the Refinery, a trendy coffee shop near the river Spree in central Berlin, Sabine Baum, a graphic designer, was adding her details to the dog-eared handwritten list on the counter as she waited for her porridge one recent morning.

“Somehow it feels OK because it’s just on paper and not online,” she said.

The longing for normality is a powerful incentive to put up with things that in early March — a lifetime ago — would have seemed either unacceptable or totally absurd to many Germans. Like wearing something in a sauna (face masks might become mandatory when saunas reopen next month).

The lockdown in Berlin was always softer than in neighboring capitals. Streets and parks emptied, but never completely.

But then streets and parks were never that busy to start with. Less densely populated than Manhattan, London and many Asian cities, Berlin is a mellow metropolis. Long before the virus hit, social distancing was the norm at prominent sights like the Brandenburg Gate (even if we didn’t call it that).

There are moments when Germany feels — almost — normal again. Children walking to school in the mornings. Restaurants buzzing at night. A wedding in a public park. There is even a hint of rush hour as more people trade their home office for their real one.

But one swimming pool now has a traffic light outside its shower area to regulate the number of people inside. Vending machines that used to sell candy and condoms now sell disinfectant and masks. A theater has removed 500 of its 700 seats to allow for distancing during performances.

There are the drive-in church services and drive-in coronavirus test centers. There are the masks — and the people waving doctor’s notes exempting them from wearing masks.

In the Tiergarten, Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park, the beer garden has reopened. Walking one recent afternoon toward the cluster of trestle tables on the banks of the Neuer See, a small boating lake, the scene ahead of me was so normal it was surreal. It was busy! Children were taking turns on the wooden swing. A couple of row boats drifted lazily across the lake.

It was only when I got closer that I saw the plexiglass dividers on the tables.

“Knock knock!” said the older woman sitting on the other end of our table as she waved to my 4-year-old son through the plastic.

The man at the boat stand was disinfecting a pile of life vests. We, too, rented a boat that afternoon (after writing down our names, address and phone numbers on another dog-eared paper list).

“Can I touch the oar?” my 8-year-old daughter asked uncertainly. She had noticed the couple getting into the rowing boat next to us wearing rubber gloves.

Her question echoed something I heard on the soccer field, when my older daughter’s team resumed practicing last month.

“The kids ask me: ‘Can I touch the ball? Can I pass the ball?’” said Emilia Rahaus, a 19-year-old coach.

Coronavirus soccer, at least in the amateur sphere, looks nothing like real soccer. There are no games. The children — seven on each half of the field — train individually with their own balls at clearly marked locations two meters apart. The goals are disinfected after use.

“It’s so familiar and yet so different,” Ms. Rahaus said. Behind her, on the far end of the field, a banner in the blue-white color of West Berlin’s traditional soccer club fluttered in the afternoon breeze: “Youth is our future.”

That motto made me think of the chorus of tired mothers (and it is mainly mothers) at the school gate in the morning. Schools have reopened. But because of distancing rules classes remain maddeningly sporadic.

My son is allowed only half days in nursery. One daughter goes to school two days a week, the other 90 minutes a day.

“Home schooling was a breeze compared to this,” one fellow mother sighed.

She recently called in sick at work because the logistics of multiple children with wildly different schedules was just too much. Her husband earns more, so he can’t afford to miss his Zoom meetings, which leaves the burden of child-care squarely on her.

  • Updated June 5, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


“So much for school openings helping parents get back to work,” she said.

And something else has crept into conversations: Is it all necessary?

Germany has been so successful at containing the pandemic that few people here know anyone who got infected.

“Trust me, it’s just the flu,” a taxi driver told me recently. His mask was casually suspended from the rearview mirror.

Even our pediatrician called all the precautions “quite exaggerated.”

Every Saturday, an eclectic mix of coronavirus protesters take to the streets to air their frustrations with restrictions. The sight of them — masked and standing six feet apart — was telling of yet another new normal: “When we used to protest we weren’t allowed to cover our faces,” my mother chuckled. “Nowadays you have to cover your face.”

If social distancing during a protest is tricky, try social distancing in the pool. Outside the entrance of my local pool, there was a graphic of what it looks like in theory: four swimmers in a five-square-meter area of water.

In practice, it looked a little different.

That weird dance we all do on the sidewalk to avoid getting too close to someone? Picture that in a swimming lane.

“Watch your distance!” a man shouted, when I overtook him.

I told my husband about it later. A Brit who has been reprimanded more than once for crossing an empty road against a red light, he is convinced most Germans love all the new rules they can now enforce on other citizens.

We were having a date. Our first in corona times.

Before the pandemic, date night had been a fixture of our lives, a longstanding tradition that had carried us through the disruptions of three babies and two intense jobs. Every Friday, an evening of uninterrupted conversation. Call it marital maintenance.

So when our favorite local restaurant reopened after two months of lockdown, it was a Big Deal, up there with a visit to the hair dresser.

I dressed up in my new face mask, a snazzy number with a flower pattern I had bought specially for the occasion (and that had so impressed the guy at the pool).

It all went well until I went down the one-way system to the bathroom the wrong way and got told off by another patron.

“See?” my husband said.


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