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Monday, October 7, 2013

Serene Homes of Northern Europe

I’ve been watching a brilliant, dark TV show called The Killing, which is set in Copenhagen. The almost clinical cleanliness and order and paleness of everything couldn’t be further removed from where I currently live. There’s no dust there. The independent houses are wooden and the apartments aren’t swarming with the maids and drivers and all the other unorganised labour that we in India enjoy. People wear jackets (jackets!) and the supermarkets are shitty (compared to Tesco and Waitrose, anyway). The men are tall and all of them are unwittingly camp. There are only three kinds of things on roads: hatchbacks, sedans and Volvo trucks. Everyone smokes.

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Germany (and I know that technically Germany is not classified Northern Europe, but then I’d argue it is much closer to the ‘idea’ of northern Europe than, say, the United Kingdom, which is). Not so much the student life in dorms and clubs, but the time I spent with my friends’ families in their homes. There’s a measured blandness about the streets and a feeling of general calm in the air. 

If I’ve learned one thing from my travels it is this: if you want to “experience” a city, you have to walk its streets but if you want to understand its people you need to stay in their homes.  


“We drive by train to the house of my parents” said Jakob, in that adorable European-English, “There we make a party”. Until I figured out which universal language mistakes Germans make, I couldn’t believe you could just drive trains around in this country.

He was kind but direct and assertive. He had a style of telling you how your day together was going to pan out, without you having any say in it – and you wouldn’t mind. “We go here, yes? Then we take some beers in there. Then we make some pictures.” And indeed, that is what we would do. But he wasn’t boring: he had tattoos and listened to Jonny Cash. His English wasn’t that great but he spoke uninhibited. He is one of those kind souls whose friendship you feel you don’t really deserve.

His family’s house was wooden and had carpeted floors. There was very very slow internet and no cable TV. The walls were packed with books and vinyl records. In the basement were a big boxing bag, a sofa and an ancient television enshrined in VHS tapes. From the quaint kitchen one could see down the wide roads to the level-crossing and the station that we’d gotten off at. His back garden was large and just across the mud track from his back gate was one of those classic, deep, dark, coniferous German forests. It made it seem like we were in the country side. It was dusk when we walked through the door. His family enjoyed a close relationship with the neighbours and their two boys and that evening, there must have been 20 people having dinner in the garden. A barbeque was going, beers were being popped open using every single thing in the house. It was a full-fledged Saturday evening get together.

One of the reasons my love for Germany endures is because even though I stuck out like a sore thumb, I was never once made to feel unwelcome. From the first time I ordered a sandwich at Subway in a deserted shopping mall on a Sunday evening and the attendant taught me how to say “cucumber”, I felt like I was an exchange citizen rather than simply an exchange student. No one made me feel more welcome than Jakob, whose family lived in the suburbs – 30 minutes by S-Bahn from the city centre. Berlin in late summer is really something. It was like a culturally vibrant household in 1960s America but instead of father and son playing baseball, 15 year olds and 50 year olds drank schnapps and smoked roll-ups.

After the adults went inside to listen to jazz music, the youngsters hung out in the – now chilly – garden. Jakob’s brother’s and sister’s friends were there too and they all eyed me up curiously before speaking to me in their best English. I was not paraded around like many proud people do their foreign guests. I played football with some of the younger kids who were amazed that I knew what football was. We played that “guess who I am in 20 questions” game that apparently all Germans play. Note: they ALL play that game.

Normally when you’re a house-guest – especially a foreign one – everyone goes out of their way to tend to you and you can end up feeling a little smothered. But the experience I had in Jakob’s house was the same that I felt at Julian’s or Paolo’s. It’s hard to put it into words. People would talk to you, smile at you and then treat everyone else in exactly the same way. It was so refreshing. What I appreciated was that I wasn’t the chief guest, just another guest at a party. It was like “Great that you’re here. Here are the rules - help yourself to a beer.” That’s what Germany is to me: a party where everyone follows rules. 

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