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Monday, February 14, 2011

A Passenger in Germany

When I got off the plane at Berlin Schoenefeld Airport on that mild October day, I really didn't know what to expect or what I was doing. In a strange turn of events, I had fought off my laziness and my inertia and my will to take the path of least resistance and gotten myself a German visa and a ticket to study exchange year.

As many of you know, I've moved around a lot in my life. I'm used to the packing, the double checking of passports-tickets-wallet-phone-keys and the checklist of things to do on arrival. I love traveling. After over a 100 flights, I still get that shiver of excitement when the captain revs up the plane's engines and your body is sucked back into the seat. I love people-watching at airports and being watched in return at cafes. They are, after my house, where I feel most at home. I love the fish pond at Changi. I love the race between the EU and non-EU lines at Gatwick. I love the KFC at Bangkok's transfer terminal. I love the sail like roof at Hong Kong. I love the blue-purple lights that line the runway at night in Bombay. I love the airport in the middle of Kenya, which was the size of our school car park. I love Dubai's vast array of migrant workers and their uncertainty about what they themselves are doing there. I love the cranky immigration officers at Heathrow and their surprise when I use my English accent. I know my way around.

And yet on arrival into Germany, I felt lost. It was the first time I was moving to a new home, alone. You feel you've got everything covered - and you have - yet when you arrive, there is no one to confide your initial observations in. There is no one to help decipher the language with. My dad was at home and I was at the wrong baggage carousel. And then it began. I met my first friend in Germany and I've never looked back. My tutor, Bart, arrived and got me my first Döner kebab and got me on a train to Frankfurt Oder, an hour away.

I'd always considered the UK to be the pinnacle of Western civilisation. I'd lived there when I was young, go to university there and always associated myself with its culture, at various levels. But after a semester in the land of Bratwurst and Bayern Munich, I have no doubt that Germany is the greatest country in the world. I do not make such a bold claim on impulse and love-drunk enthusiasm. I have experienced it, I have learnt from it and I am in awe at how a country can function without so many of the problems that others face and even take for granted. I am in awe at how cultured its people are - how friendly and welcoming they are to a total stranger who does not speak its language. Where do I begin?

If someone asked me the best thing about my experience over the last 5 months in Germany, I would say the people and the friends I've made. In my first two years in England, I accrued about 70 new friends on Facebook. I was reluctant to attend all the university events and didn't mix with a wide group of people. I was introverted and stuck tight to my friend circle. I grew tremendously close to them and do not regret anything about my time in Birmingham. But in Germany, at EUV on the Polish border, I was simply not allowed to keep to myself. I have over 150 new friends in a little over four months. I made 3 or 4 of my current best friends, on the first day I arrived. The first afternoon in fact. I went to the orientation event (a scavenger hunt across town) thinking it was for fellow exchange students. When the coordinator stood up on the bench and asked "is there anybody who doesn't understand German?", I was the only one to raise my hand. The crowd of about 70 native freshers who had all gathered in the courtyard outside the auditorium all turned to me and I sheepishly said, "sorry mate!". Within five minutes, no less than 10 eager English speakers had quizzed me on my name, home university and country of origin and had promised to translate the rest of the Scavenger Hunt for me as we went along. I was a passenger. I was ushered from place to place with such warmth as I've never felt before. These people - all my age or thereabouts - were genuinely interested in me and what I was doing there.

My thoughts of home disappeared. The image of my dad, pacing up the down our hall way had changed into one of him resting on the sofa, glass folded on his chest. We walked all around town until evening came, completing challenges and making friends along the way. I was the nucleus of the Gernglish speaking crowd, whether I liked it or not. The Scavenger Hunt finished at a bar - a recurring theme, as I'd come to find out in later months - and our team had won. I really didn't care, because I had 10 or 12 friends that I had not had that morning. I was part of a community in less than 5 hours. And it was no honeymoon - I am still close to nearly all of them to this day. They were warm and curious and fun loving and just like the friends I have in England and India. And do you know what? Nearly everyone else I've met in Germany is like them. Their attitude towards me is, anyway.

Their curiosity is not intrusive and excessive, like it is in India. And yet it genuinely exists, like it doesn't in the UK. It's a great balance. I smile when I walk down the street. I smile at people. I never smile in India. Maybe that's more to do with me. The shopkeepers and I have spectacularly awkward conversations about politics, sex and religion in their three words of English and my four in German. I can now order a subway sandwich with aplomb.

The public transport, the state of cleanliness and order, the punctuality and the ability to cut loose and have a great time are all probably the best I've seen after Singapore. What sets Germany apart from places like Hong Kong and Singapore is that while all the stereotypes about organisation and methodical execution ring true - and how! - centres for art and music and creative energy like Berlin exist and thrive and provide a fantastic theatre for exploration. Germany has its underbelly, like any country, but it does not spill out into spaces for public interaction like it does in the UK. All that stuff is there, all that comes to expect from a 1st world country who's cogs and gears have been refined and oiled to near perfection is there.

And yet there is one thing about my time there that I feel best sums up my opinion that Germany is the benchmark, the goal everyone else should aim to reach. It is unnervingly difficult to put my finger on it, but I shall try and articulate:

When I'm at the lunch table and I'm facilitating or over-hearing different conversations about current affairs or international news or pop culture, something odd occurs to me. The Germans don't feel the need to care about happenings in other countries and to compare their standards to those. As an Indian I'm used to thinking in terms of how well other countries do something. As a UK resident for 5 years, I'm used to discussing the rise of other economies, the superiority of other sports team over England's or, for argument's sake, some catastrophic event somewhere else in the world and what the British government is doing about it. In Germany there is simply not this sense of looking outside, of measuring against others or of wanting to feel adequate on a global stage.

My friends talk about their country's issues. They watch German comedians as well as international ones. They are not pawns to a small club of media outlets. There is not this sense of impending doom, of constant pessimism and unwavering cynicism. Its a pessimistic, cynical doom-monger, this is a shock to my system. And let it not come across that the Germans are self-obsessed. Far from it. My peers are amongst the most well informed I've come across. They read. Do I have rose-tinted glasses on? Maybe. Probably. But I'm only telling you what I've seen, what I've experienced. Young people in Germany are satisfied and when they aren't, they do something about it.

I know the country has issues. My friends have explained them to me in detail. It is no utopia (especially not for a foodie like me). But by God it is the closest I've seen in my short time on this earth. Forget the democracy, the export driven economy, the high standard of living, the roads, the art galleries, the nightclubs, the ability to deal with snow, the foreign policy, the history, the scenery and everything else. It is a country filled with sensible people who go out of their way to make you feel welcome and wanted.

I fear I have rambled. I shall conclude by saying: I love Germany. I love everything about it. I have not even mentioned the women!

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