Indian Hamburg-er turns one

“Life’s too short to learn German.” Dear Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Richard Porson and whoever else thinks so; I disagree.

Today I have been here (Germany) for a year. Incidentally, my inconvenient marriage also just turned one. Feels like yesterday that I threw a fit at the airport in India when I was told my luggage was overweight. The drama queen in me surfaced and I quickly convinced those kind officials to let a girl leaving home for a foreign land, take her few kilos of ‘extra’ along.

Freshly married, handsome husband in tow, I set foot into Hamburg, bleary-eyed and freezing because my world had just gotten about 30 degrees colder. What Hamburg threw in my face as less than welcoming weather, it made up in the Christmas spirit. I felt like I was in a Harry Potter wonder world.

Magical little Christmas markets peeped from every corner, lights twinkled everywhere, tinsel shimmered and street musicians seemed to be caroling permanently. What a delight! The aroma of warm croissants, cinnamon cookies and apple crisps filled the wintry air.

Two days later, my globe-trotting Hubby had an overnight business trip. While I have no qualms about living alone, my adventurous spirit was suddenly cowering in the corner when I realized even ordering a coffee was a challenge. Yikes, I had to face the language beast!

Despite a dozen mirror-practices, my coffee ordering watered down to a clumsy show of dumb-charades and mumbled English. Gosh, as a language enthusiast that could survive in six others, was I embarrassed!

I was keenly interested in learning German and armed myself with Duolingo once I bumped into my future Husband on a midnight train. How quickly that changed when the German Government said that in order to get a marriage visa, I HAD to have a basic A1 level in German! The audacity! All because I am a non-EU, Indian Passport holder. Such an inconvenience!

It helped that I was crazily in love. I my wonderful teachers through a Indo-German Stammtisch/Meeting and managed to pass the daunting A1 exam. Little did I know there was a series of more exams to come. And a looooong series at that.

After my failed attempts at ordering coffee, understanding changes in train schedules (a journey of 2 minutes took 20) and finding my way to and from work (I lost my lingual and thus geographical way every day for 30 days), I was frustrated to say the least.

My dear Husband constantly apologized for his difficult mother-tongue and tried his best to keep his feisty wife happy. We agreed an integration course was in order and soon I found myself on a mind-your-language set. With colleagues from Russia, Turkey, Kosovo, Africa, Italy, Spain, America and France, this was my best German learning experience thus far! Our teachers were unbelievably creative and entertaining. We had one class at a Christmas market, over Glühwein (Hot red wine drunk traditionally at Christmas and Winter time). Needless to say, the wine didn’t do much for our grammar but our confidence levels were soaring higher than Santa flying over the town hall. The course was over all too soon and I skipped A2 and received a B1 which I was very proud of.

Just to bring these language levels in perspective, here’s what this mumbo jumbo of alphabets and numbers means:

Basic Speaker: A1 Beginner, A2 Elementary

Independent Speaker: B1 Intermediate, B2 Upper intermediate

Proficient Speaker: C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced, C2 Mastery or proficiency- native speaker level

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I soon realized that while a B1 was enough to apply for a German passport (thanks, but no thanks), it was a far cry from enabling me to work in my profession- namely that of a Homoeopathic Doctor.

So out we set again, looking and finding the right course- scarily termed “Medizinische Fachsprache” or Technical Medical language. Now I no longer had to deal with coffee vendors and local transport, but Government officials. With no more Husband’s apron strings to hold on to, I set out, quavering heart and all, to meet the lady in charge of my case. What I was essentially applying for, was a year long course sponsored by the government, to the tune of 7000 Euros. Terrified she’d say no, it took me a minute to realize that in the 60 seconds it took to calm my wildly beating heart, she had just approved my application! Wow! I said a quick “Danke schön” and raced out lest she changed her mind.

Day 1 of the course for me and day 8 for the rest: 8 hours of intensive medical German and I was struggling to keep up with all the new words flying across the room. I understood 2%. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that they let me postpone the B2 exam which was a criteria to take the course. The deal was that I’d take the B2 exam during the medicine language course.

The teacher wanted feedback after a week with the class and to my horror the first thing I heard was, “This course is too easy, we need something more challenging.” I could have thrown my shoe at her. Here I was, falling off and clawing desperately to stay on this speeding language train and she says, “Huh! Not fast enough.” I sobbed that night begging my stars not to have to go back. But I did. And I had nightmares for the whole 3 months.

The grammar cases of Nominative and Accusative did little to ease my dread of Dative and Genitive. Trust me, it is far worse than it sounds. And as if these 4 strange cases were not trouble enough, German has the distinction of having a gender for every noun. English has none of this, but the other languages I speak do- Portuguese, Hindi, Konkani- so I could make my peace with male and female. But surprise surprise, German has a neutral gender too. So while I could get why woman was female (die Frau) and man was male (der Mann), why in the world was girl (das Mädchen) neutral?! Just like my cutlery was also tri-gendered: a female fork, a male spoon and a neutral knife. (die Gabel, der Löffel, das Messer). I quickly learnt to accept things I cannot change. My Husband also learnt, the hard way, that sometimes he just had to hold my hand and tell me things would be okay even if he didn’t know.

My 90 days of hell paid off and I had both B2 and C1 skills (also in medical language) and was gearing to get my hands or should I say mouth dirty, with a 6-month internship. The experience has been nothing short of amazing. Between my administration job with Homoeopaths without Borders and this Praktikum as a Homoeopath, I have had the opportunity to misunderstand and be misunderstood,  work with Refugees, fight in a foreign language, make new friends, communicate with 10 year olds who think the world of my chocolate skin, spend agonizing hours translating and composing emails and most rewarding of all; to have recently been able to translate for a Pakistani patient from Hindi to German. My brain tap danced between the two tongues but I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction at knowing the language. I could make a difference.

Two hours of dinner and conversation with a colleague and my husband, brought up a very unusual side to language learning that I hadn’t realized existed. My husband and I, for reasons of history, efficiency and comfort; had thus far communicated in English with each other. But come my colleague, I switched to German and thought nothing of it until he left. My husband had the look of someone that just saw a cow jump over the moon. “How do you know so much German honey? I don’t know who you are anymore. I need to get to know you in German!” It’s somehow weird now for me to talk to my colleagues in English although both parties know the language well enough. Once you meet/ get to know someone in one particular language, it’s strange to switch to another. Try it.

My husband and I now easily switch between the two, partly thanks to my family in-love/law that speaks only German and my will to integrate. In fact, we now switch fast and often enough to thoroughly confuse someone listening. I’m sure my family will not be amused when we meet this Christmas.

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Many have questioned my decision to move, knowing fully well that it involved re-ordering, re-arranging and turning everything upside down. Even to the extent of having to re-learn, in German, my almost decade long education in Homoeopathy. For what it’s worth, here is how I see it:

I like challenges. My dream of being a global citizen wouldn’t kick off from the comforts of home. And oh how I miss it sometimes! Someday I will have half German children, or a child (quick edit so the Husband isn’t nervous), and I want to know the culture, language and background they inherit from their father. It is important to me. For those already asking, “What about the Indian half of their heritage?”, the Husband has already lived in, sweated for and fallen in love with India. He has promised to work harder on the language side of affairs but it suffices to say, he had, up until a year ago, more experience with my side of the world than vice versa. Well now, it’s game on! I dare say I’m ahead. Yes, yes I know it’s not a competition; but nonetheless, I won! 😉

After exactly 365 days here, riding emotional, lingual and weather rollercoasters, I must say this about Hamburg, Ich bin bis über beide Ohren verliebt! Translated word for word: I’m over both ears in love!

Although I disagree with Twain, Wilde and Porson, I wholeheartedly agree with the genius who said, “Tell someone you love them today. But SHOUT it at them in German, because life is also terrifying and confusing!”

ICH LIEBE DICH!! ❤

 

Viking at heart

In honour of the upcoming International Day of the Girl Child on 11th October 2016, I will have a series of blog posts celebrating my kind.

Celebrating her. Post #2 of 5

I raise my hypothetical hat to all the women that have stayed true to their inner voices, followed their dreams and fought for what they believe in.

When a woman so desires, she has the courage of a lion and the heart of a viking!

Palmira, at age 40 was flung into the role of mother, father, confidant and photographer. She was suddenly the only one to bring home the bacon. 7 young ones (from 6 months to 17 years) were fatherless overnight and she had to step up. She put aside her grieving heart and took to the lens- in the 1960s when a woman was far from welcome in what was then an almost exclusive men’s world. Irrespective of how little she had, there was always enough for a hungry stranger or a cousin in need. More than 40 years later, Palmira finally bade farewell to a teary family and a lifetime of good deeds. She left behind a legacy of love and photography.

Sara (name changed) a senior Syrian anesthesiologist had had enough back home. She took the toughest decision of her life and left behind a husband and two young ones. The refugee route was a sure shot goodbye to security, family and peace. Yet, the end of the road promised a far brighter future. Out set Sara on foot, by boat, by road and 4 months later, she entered Germany. The passion this doctor puts into her work is unbelievable. However, she admits that even in her most peaceful moments her mind is a raging beast, torn between two worlds. Sara must ace the difficult medical exams in German, land a job and only then can she hope to finally reunite the broken pieces of her heart.

Veena (name changed)  went through a horrifying marriage and domestic abuse. A woman of many talents, she studied law, taught in a school and opened her own beauty parlour. Life deserved to be pretty- inside and out. She used her creativity to finance a project for destitute women.  Through Veena, rape and abuse victims get justice, rehabilitation and a new chance at a better life. Today her organization has grown and helped thousands of troubled women. After a second marriage went sour, Veena didn’t lose heart. She found peace in her work.  Collecting shells at the beach and taking long drives in her car always did her wonders. At 71, she is a whirlwind of energy and looks not a day over 50.

Despite all they went through, I am sure these women had the power to simply put their feet up at the end of the day and say, “I am a warrior and I believe in me.”

Their secret? Rumi knew it centuries ago, “Wherever you are and whatever you do, be in love.”

I am honoured to be Veena’s friend, Sara’s german class colleague and Palmira’s granddaughter.

#sheisprecious #internationaldayofthegirlchild

 

Three Tales Today

Sad, funny and angry. I am honoured to have been privy to a tiny aspect of each tale. All three shook me up- mind, body and soul.

The sad one played out in my lunch break when I encountered an elderly man atop the first floor landing hunched over and gasping for breath. One fist clenched around an Inhaler and the other on his rickety knee. I was a heartbeat away from calling the Emergency number when he stopped me and insisted on narrating his story. Seeing that he had calmed down I hesitated and let him vent. His raspy voice told me how tobacco is killing him swiftly and surely. He has been at the doctor’s every day this week and needs a surgery soon for his smoked heart. But not before he is more stable. In a split second he’s on his feet and heaving three large bags of empty bottles. It takes 3 seconds before he needs to sit down again. A little background information here- in Germany most bottles are sold with a tiny deposit each, so when returned to a store you get the deposit back. Many street dwellers live off this money and the result is less litter and trash. Win-Win. Smoky Jack here had collected 8 large bags overflowing with bottles and I knew in an instant how well to do he must be. My heart broke and I offered to help him and his bottles get to his car. He willingly accepted and said his son wasn’t around today to help him. With a pang of guilt I was teleported to Goa, home to my parents and my heart, hoping my deed here might somehow be forwarded.

 

A bit later came funny. Riding on a bicycle, sporting a neon jacket, dreads in his hair and a beer at his lips. His eyes of course told a different and happier story. Wide, bright and full of a heady light! We were buying groceries at the same store and he lit up when he saw me enter. He turned on his African charm and greeted me with a big “Hello lady!” I left with my carton of milk and lazily strolled down the path when I realized the reggae man and his wheels were doing a slow trot behind me. He tipped his hilarious top hat and said “You are a beautiful lady, I hope your husband tells you so.” Before I replied “Thank you! Every day”, I briefly wondered how he knew. Most people see my ring on the left and think I’m single. The Germans wear it on the right. For some reason I had unconsciously used the other left today. Looks like the African man knows his game. He said “Let’s cheer!” and we clinked a beer and a milk carton together. Had someone frozen this moment in time, it would have made for one hell of a criss-cross tableau. Black man in flashy clothes on a waist high cycle raising a bottle of beer to a brown Indian girl walking down the street and reciprocating with a carton of milk!!! The number of stereotypes this picture holds in my head is infinite. He tried once more- “Maybe you wanna think of me when you not happy? When the husband forgets to say you beautiful?” “Nein danke. Tschüss!” (No thank you, bye bye) “Ah, Schade!” (What a shame!) I’m happily married and obviuosly refused his offer. It did though, leave a rather silly smile on my face. Oh the wonders of basking in the light of a compliment!

 

The angry one comes last because it truly tore through my soul. Now I felt a little lost in translation as I heard this man’s plight through Farsi and German until my overworked brain translated it to English. He opted for the refugee route from Afghanistan to Germany 2 years ago. All for the promise of a better life for his beloved wife and young son. The horrors of the journey messed with his already overburdened mind and he had to receive Psychiatric treatment in an in-patient facility in Germany. He claims the treatment has only worsened his state. He is now dependent on the tablets and can’t control himself from angry outbursts when off the meds. His doctor doesn’t understand him and only prescribes more or less medication with a slip for the next visit. He wants to work and earn his daily bread but is not allowed until he has longer staying permission. Hence he must collect a monthly allowance from the Job Centre and this makes him feel robbed of his manhood. I thought I was getting lost in translation until I paused for a moment and wondered how lost this soul must be between countries, languages, bureaucracy and sheer desperation. This morning an acquaintance of his was summoned by the Police and sent back to Hungary, which is where he first entered the EU. Conditions there are far less than desirable. So bad, that terror grips this Afghani as he contemplates further loss of freedom and the overpowering urge to see his family again. His papers are being processed at the moment and he awaits the return of his passport. He wants out. He wants to soak in his country, his love and his life once more. Suddenly, midway through the conversation, he loses it. In a voice barely restraining his emotions he says he wants nothing from anyone anymore. He storms out in rage, his child-like voice shouting, “I just want to go home!”

 

Don’t we all?

Where or what is home to you?

A country, a people, a talent, a religion, a season, an identity?

If only we could respect each human being’s right and desire to be home, no matter how different that is from our own definitions, the world would be a happier place.IMG_20150902_104011