Achtung – Germany: Rediscovering My Roots 37 Years Later
Note: This was written eleven years ago and quite a few things have changed since then – in Germany, and in me. I was born in Hamburg, am in fact half-German, and moved to India with my mom and brother in 1974. My mother is re-settled in Berlin, but various circumstances – most of them related to money – conspired to prevent me from returning to the land of my birth till I could finally buy myself a round-trip ticket to Berlin from Mumbai, where I lived and worked back then, in 2008.
A visit to Germany was nothing if not overdue since I was born there and hadn’t been back for 37 years. This effectively meant that I knew nothing of the country, which had reportedly changed completely since I had my face ground in the schoolyard dust in Hamburg at age 8 by a blonde Aryan prototype called Torsten.
The way to go was obviously Economy Class. I mean, nobody was watching to see in what style I left India or arrived in Germany – Lufthansa could, therefore, take a wet hike. I picked FinnAir.
The Mumbai-Berlin return ticket cost me 28,000 Indian rupees, and I was going to get to see Helsinki in Finland, too (the airport, that is). That’s where I would be cooling my heels for six hours while I waited for my connecting flight to Berlin.
I was on my own, and more than just a little worried… I was leaving Indian soil for the first time since I’d arrived almost four decades ago and had a serious case of atavistic heebie-jeebies about it all. Icy xenophobia had filled my spine and made itself at home there from the moment I arrived at Mumbai’s international airport. It was 11.30 p.m.
I had something like 300 Euros on me, and I wasn’t sure of my constitutional right about spending it ‘over there’. What if some pasty-faced whiteface took one look at my grubby Indian hands holding his country’s precious currency and called the cops, denouncing me as an infidel impostor?
I had yet to learn that money talks a universal language and that people in Europe weren’t too choosy about whom they spoke with – at least back then. That is one thing which has changed phenomenally in Europe today.
I paid attention to the pre-takeoff drill as I’d never done before, expecting some drastically important additions to the usual ho-hum stuff because this was an international flight. I needn’t have bothered – same old drill, the performing Finnish stewardess looked as ready to chuck her job in mortification as any of the Indian ones I’d ever seen.
Once the flight took off, things became increasingly chilled out – many passengers stretched out over empty seat rows and went to sleep as though flying to another land was of no great import. It wasn’t, of course, but you’d have been telling that to the wrong guy if you’d told it to me.
For me back then, given my considerably constrained finances and the fact that I was flying to the country where I took my first look at the world, it was a very big deal indeed.
Maybe an hour and a half later, we were flying over Afghanistan. I worked in real estate (still do – but only on the yata-yata side of it, not the dealing) and seeing those huge expanses of craggy land going waste made my bowels hitch and my heart ache.
Afghanistan from the air looks like the skin of a weathered old crone in the last stages of dehydration. It went on for miles… and miles, and miles.
Finally, I dropped off to sleep and awoke to the sight of an amazing green carpet of brown-tipped pine trees, with occasional specks of civilization scattered there like debris. We were about to land in Helsinki, Finland.
The air outside was cold, bracing and disconcertingly clean. Aren’t human beings supposed to spread the stink of technology and industry as soon as they have the ability to? Going by what I saw from the air, the Finns don’t seem to have understood the true message of progress as yet.
Vantaa Airport is amazingly modern, yet outrageously spotless. Pedestrian conveyor belts whisk in-transit passengers from point to point within this artificially warmed microcosm of steel, chrome and glass.
The overall accent, of course, is on retail. There’s stuff on sale all over, including food with names that make the most mercilessly-christened South Indian cuisine sound like amateur nursery rhymes.
Timidly, I took out my wallet and handed over a five-Euro note to buy coffee and a sandwich that may have contained elk meat, I’m not sure. I was ready to defend the fact that Indians are bonafide human beings and have the right to wield foreign exchange.
The waitress handed me my change and didn’t call the cops. I was officially an accepted member of the international tourist tribe! My heart swelled with pride and I believe my gait assumed a cocky cant as I ambled over to the lounge near my departure gate.
The connecting flight to Berlin would arrive in four hours. Did I choose to sleep for the duration? Well, let me ask you this – you’re in a Sci-Fi airport in a strange land. Nobody knows you, you know nobody. You have 300 Euros and a passport.
You’re brown (my complexion is actually kind of coffee with a generous shot of milk, but you know what I mean) and practically everyone else is white and occasionally yellow.
Would you sleep? I took out a novel and kidded myself that I was reading.
Berlin Hier Kommen Wir
The flight to Berlin was over before I knew it – of course, the different time zones screw with one’s mind. One shouldn’t harp on that too much, though. Jetlag is a very pretentious version of plain old disorientation, just like a migraine is a headache with attitude.
Flughafen (airport) Tegel glittered like a frosty diamond necklace in the night below. I was about to land in the country of my birth, but felt like a tawdry sightseer for all the difference it made deep in my guts, where it really matters…
As I stepped off the plane, the cold hit me like a runaway deep freezer. It suffused every pore and percolated down into my bones, proceeding to ice my marrow and then my soul. It was August 2008, a decade before Germany was seriously hit by global warming.
An Indian should never have to be confronted by such cold, and definitely not in August. Jetlag? This was CLIMATE lag. My skin crawled but had nowhere to hide. And then, as I walked to the airport bus, something happened.
The Germanic barbarian (attuned to icy steppes, mammoths and opposing Hun factions), whose persona I’d shed thirty-seven years before, roused himself awake deep inside me and roared his defiance. He shed the imprint of thirty-seven blazing Indian summers, kicked his long-somnolent metabolism into gear and laughed hoarsely at the cold.
I was in Germany – and while my brain had been on an extended tropical vacation, my body suddenly bristled with inner resources of warmth and coping once more. By the time my mother hugged me at the luggage carousel, I was 100% home again.
The first night at her home near Kurfuerstendamm (Berlin’ primary shopping district) went in a daze. I had indulged in a LOT of en route gawping, with confused déjà vu yammering constantly below the surface.
I awoke next morning to the sophisticated stillness of a typical German autumn morning. The streets below the third-floor apartment’s window were tranquil, deserted and impossibly clean.
I must say something here about German urban planning – it rocks. There are no eyesores of the stripe we know in India, where a suburb in any given city other than Chandigarh has a brain-numbing mis-assortment of architectural configurations.
There are social classes in Germany, sure. They gather in their own pockets, sure. But it is only the pockets that are either grander or more modest than the others – not the individual buildings themselves.
To see a neighbourhood change in Germany, you have to travel at least two miles from the city centre – and even then the change is so gradual that you’ll likely not notice it.
My re-acquaintance with Germany had to be jammed into ten short days, of which my mother and I spent the first four simply ambling around Berlin and taking a cruise down the River Spree, with the starting jetty just outside the achingly beautiful Schloss (castle) Charlottenburg.
We visited the home we had occupied on Spiessweg in the suburb of Wittenau, spent an awesome afternoon in the park where my brother and I used to play as kids, and dropped in on acquaintances for whom I’d become part of some outré Indian jungle legend over the years.
We also took a bus to Hamburg, the city of my birth. The bus was totally amazing – central heating, zero vibrations, Rolls Royce hum, a loo, and with a thermostat indicator inside announcing that it was dead-ass cold out there.
German precision percolates down to every stratum of life in this country. I saw a couple of bikers pass us, literally mummified from head to toe against the elements out there.
I thought of my own bike back in India, and how the wind factor and tropical cold even in this country can seep into your bones after a few miles – and shuddered in sympathy. But one of the bikers waved cheerily to us as he passed.
I was six when we’d left Hamburg for good (we moved to Berlin for two years before our final departure to India) and I didn’t have any great expectations from my memory cells.
Sure enough, I didn’t remember much. It was an entirely new city to me – a big port city, sparkling in some areas and quite squalid in others, especially towards the harbourside – with awe-inspiring monuments, buildings of immense scale, and that eerily well-planned ethos to everything.
My Indian uncle, who had decades ago made Hamburg his home and ran a travel agency near the railway station back then (he died a few years ago), picked us up at the bus terminus.
We’d met during his infrequent visits to India, but the last one had been over fifteen years ago. He looked old, all right – but also well preserved. The cold does that to you – it acts as a preservative. Tissue doesn’t seem to degenerate as easily in cold countries as it does in sweltering ones like India.
Later on, we learned that there was an eventually fatal kidney disease lurking below the surface, but he never let on and was the perfect guide to my return to the city I was born in.
My Hamburg Homecoming
The disconcerting uniformity of the German real estate landscape hit me twice as hard in Hamburg, as we drove further and further to the extreme outskirts – to Ralstedt, therein to a small residential street called Aumuehlerweg. The first place I had ever called home on Planet Earth.
One of our neighbour’s families back then still live there. Of course, their individual stories have lost the generic family tag and taken off on different tangents. The kids we used to play with are now all grown up and have kids of their own.
Their mother is now retired. She folded me into a bear-like embrace that something in my memory remembered very clearly. Other old neighbours came over to say hello, with the expected questions about India – poverty, yoga, the Taj Mahal, monkeys and tigers.
The feeling I got there – that life never goes on without leaving some kind of discernible wake behind it – was really all I’d come to Hamburg for. We did some sightseeing after that, but my mission was really accomplished.
I had peered into the sandpit I used to play in when I was four years old, seen the junkyard where we played cops and robbers, and found my roots still firm and thriving in the unchanging, suburban Hamburg landscape. I could now go on with my life.
My mother was no less moved than I was – she had never been back to Hamburg either, and we were sharing a unique then-and-now vision overlay. We took the night bus back to Berlin and arrived there as exalted wrecks.
A lot of shopping went down before I left Berlin; so did a lot of rehashing of old ghosts with my mother – some good, some not so good.
On the morning of my departure back to India and vile old Mumbai, I took a solitary saunter down Adenauer Platz and on to Kurfuerstendamm. I wore no jacket, preferring to let the delicious cold suffuse me. I wanted to take as much of it as possible home with me.
I also wanted a last mental snapshot of the dignified, focused and self-assured faces that defined Germany’s population back then (that’s another thing that has changed since Merkel decided that an open door is better than a closed one).
I needed to believe that some of that exists in me, and that I can choose to let it surface, if I can just rise above the squalid version of quality life back home…
Four hours later, my mother bid me farewell at the security check. My last glimpse of Germany was a diminishing speck of green land and impossibly neat urban landscape, probably no bigger than the Indian state of Maharashtra.
Such amazing progress packed into such a small surface area. It was unbelievable. What makes a nation great? The size of its borders, or what happens within those borders?
Why are many large countries forever hankering for a break, that will help them reach their mysteriously denied highest potential, while other, smaller ones don’t bother with such frivolities and simply get down to work?
Is it the difference in climate? Does the tropical heat somehow stupefy the human spirit, or does the spirit somehow get diluted with the size of the country?
Back in Mumbai, I knew I could never again see the city with quite the same sense of my previous pride and awe. I had walked the streets of Berlin and Hamburg, travelled in their subways and buses, and knew that Mumbai can never be a world-class city.
It is simply a city of transients with no cause and no goal except their own individual ones… and I was one of them. I realized that we have no real desire to make our cities great and livable. If we did, we’d plan them, give flow and direction to the urban sprawl and ensure that life retains some semblance of dignity for all.
PS. My naïveté back then comes through very clearly in this recollection, but I decided not to edit it out. I have been to Germany several times after the trip recounted above, but none of those trips could – or ever will – match my first impressions. That is a good thing.
Today, Berlin has changed considerably; not in architecture and landscape, but in spirit. Today, Germans are by and large an intimidated and angry lot, and one now encounters unfriendliness to strangers, that was nowhere in evidence in 2008. I am glad that I could see it before that happened.