Most shifts in my university's volunteer bicycle repair shop are lacking in excitement. For two hours a week, I usually help students swap out punctured inner tubes for new ones, replace brake and gear cables, teach them how to grease chains, and lecture them on which tools to use for different tasks. Occasionally, there'll be a lull and I'll sit down behind the volunteer desk and study mathematics.

A few years ago on a particularly boring day, an older student came in with a dilapidated mountain bike. He was tall, had a floppy mess of blonde hair, and didn't speak English very well. I explained to him how the bike centre worked: you fix it yourself, we help you if it's not too busy, and you pay about $1/hour to use the space and all the tools. I don't quite remember what part of his bike he'd come to work on, but I showed him which tools would be required, described what he needed to do, and took my seat behind the desk.

He proceeded to inspect his bike and gather the necessary tools. Then he paused and suddenly looked very uncomfortable. He approached my desk and said, "So, do I take it off now?" I thought he was referring to his bike, which I'd helped him mount onto the repair rack. Confused, I replied, "What do you mean?" He said, "You know, my clothes."

I was very confused. Previously, he'd told me he was a graduate student from Germany studying computer science. "Do you know what computer science is?" he'd asked me. "Of course," I replied, "I, too, am a computer scientist." I remember trying to recall if there was something peculiar about German culture involving stripping before repairing bicycles, or something weird about computer scientists not wanting to wear clothes. In my first year, I had seen lots of signs in the mathematics building saying, "no pants allowed," but that probably didn't have anything to do with this.

I decided to just let him take his clothes off and told him to do whatever made him comfortable. Sitting behind the desk watching him strip (as he watched me watch him), it immediately became clear that he really didn't want to take his clothes off, but for some reason felt obliged to.

Then I realized what was happening. His English wasn't good enough to communicate that he didn't want his clothes to be covered in bike grease. I jumped up quickly (this alarmed him) and ran around the desk to where the aprons hang and grabbed one for him. Upon offering it to him, I've never seen anyone look so relieved.

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