lessons in asking for help

Here in Germany, I’ve discovered that I don’t always like asking for help. Not because I have a pride issue… No, I sometimes just don’t know exactly how to phrase what I need. Stumbling through a request while relying on hand gestures inevitably leads to an apology that my German isn’t better… and I’ve betrayed my foreignness. So maybe it does have to do with pride. Anyway, I have a story to illustrate.

It begins with today’s quest to buy candles, socks, and some food storage containers. Regrettably, this quest led me to a store called Real – the closest thing they have in Munich to Wal Mart. In the sense that Germans traditionally don’t shop at superstores, shopping there is not a “Real” German experience… but there is something to be said about the convenience of one-stop-shopping. So, I hopped on my bike and rode the 3.5 kilometers to Real.

I found what I was looking for, plus a few things I wasn’t. After checking out, I walked out to my bike to load my purchases into my little basket. Then when I tried to open the lock on my bike – SNAP – the key broke in the lock!

What do I do?? Lots of thoughts went through my head, but I settled on walking back home to find someone with access to tools and a bike to borrow, then riding back to Real to cut the lock off my bike. I got this far in planning and started walking. Before I got out of the parking lot though, I argued in my head:

“This is a terrible idea! Go back in the store and ask for help!”

“I can’t remember the German word for ‘lock.’ I can’t even explain what happened.”

“Some maintenance person can surely cut the lock.”

“How do I say ‘cut’? How do I say ‘lock’? Dang it!”

“The 12 minute bike ride will take 40 minutes to walk. Go ask for help.”

“How do I say ‘lock’?!?!”

“Just ask for help!”

Sigh. Turn around. Walk back across the parking lot.

Inside the store, the lady at the customer service desk pointed me toward the key copying center. (It turns out they make keys at Real.) I showed the man the broken key and said (in German), “My key is broken.” He asked where the other part was. I made the “stuck inside the lock” hand gesture, because I still couldn’t come up with the word for lock. I pointed outside and said, “on my bicycle” and “I can’t get home” and “sorry my German isn’t great.”

We walked outside to my bike, retrieved the end of the key from the lock with a magnet, went back inside, made a new key, went back out to test it, went back in to pay… and then I was on my way home.

While I rode back, I just kept thinking how glad I was to not be walking and to have a working lock and key! But, mostly, I was glad that I didn’t talk myself out of asking for help.

Asking for help is hard, but its important. When we get past our fear of seeming incompetent, we exercise humility and courage. When we speak directly about what we need to someone else, we are being honest with ourselves too. When we stop making the excuse of not wanting to inconvenience a stranger, we realize our human interdependence, our mutual need for one another. People need people. I am learning this still. Lots of us love to help others, but we also need to be willing to say “I have a problem, can you help me?” Chances are someone can.

the broken key
my bike with the Schloss (aka “lock”) secured on the back tire

3 thoughts on “lessons in asking for help

  1. I had the exact same thing happen to me at the U-Bahn, at 21.00 Uhr. Had to walk back to the Collegium and worry about the bike the next day. The tool box was locked and nobody with a key was around. I managed to pry the tool box open enough to get a hold of the saw. What a humiliating feeling to be back at the U-bahn, sawing through my bike lock (it took 30 minutes or so), with EVERYBODY walking by staring, probably assuming I'm stealing this bike.

    I can also relate with your feelings about German. I find that my ability to speak German tends to vanish in stressful situations.


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