Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Exchange student reunion

One of the weirdest events of my life happened a few days before my move from Frankfurt to Cologne:

I was standing in line in a store. The woman behind me addressed me, and asked whether I was Finnish. (Which, in and by it self, struck me as weird, but turned out to have a reasonable explanation.) As I explained that I was Swedish, she went on to query me about Darmstadt and whether I had been a fellow exchange student there eight, nine years earlier—as indeed I had been. A brief chit-chat followed; then I arrived at the cashier, and we parted.

This might not seem very weird to the average reader, who is likely to be differently “wired” than I am, but from my special POV it is:

  1. How did she, at all, recognize me? I had spent very little time with the other exchange students. It was a long time since she could last have seen me. I had put on at least thirty pounds, and changed clothing style. And: I had no recollection whatsoever of her.

  2. Why did she address me? We had not (I suspect) ever previously spoken—even if she had the right man, there would have been little gain. Notably, she gave a shy impression—had she been one of the “I blabber incessantly; therefore, I am” women, I would have understood the situation better. Notably, we were not from the same country, nor did she (Spanish) erroneously think so (the wish to speak to a fellow countryman, I could also have understood). Any gain was foreseeably small: We might have spent two minutes talking, and there is no reason to assume that we will ever meet again.

  3. There was a large risk of misidentification—the proportion of us still in Germany must have been small. Statistically, she had no more reason to suspect a fellow exchange student than had she been on vacation in Stockholm. The likely consequence: An extremely awkward conversation with a complete stranger. (Not that the actual conversation lacked in awkwardness...)

  4. The sheer co-incidence puzzles me: Since leaving Darmstadt about nine years ago (currently, late 2007), I have met no-one else of the several dozen exchange students. Then to meet one so shortly before leaving the reasonably local area... (True, this is more a psychological issue: In analogy with the above line of thought, there is no real reason why the probability of meeting one of them should be lower in Cologne.)


    Revisiting this article in 2013, now living in Düsseldorf, the statement still holds: She is the only one from this group of exchange students that I, to my knowledge, have encountered post-Darmstadt.

    Ditto in 2023, now living in Wuppertal.

  5. Was I supposed to have handled the situation differently? Fake enthusiasm? Suggest a cup of coffee and time to reminisce? As is, neither did this occur to me, nor would I have seen a point in it; but she or society might have had an expectation that should have been followed.

The main question: What was her purpose?


Arguably, the Darmstadt connection increased the amount of awkwardness. Had we been complete strangers, flirting or just trying to pass the time together, we might actually had more to discuss. As is, the natural topics were in an area where we appeared to have things in common—but did not. I do not recall the details of the discussion, but a typical example of our attempts:

W(oman): Have you had any contact with X?
I: Who?
W: X. Didn’t you use to hang?
I: Sorry, I can’t put a face to the name.
W: Oh...

The flirting scenario would obviously have been more likely to lead to a cup of coffee than the above.