February 17, 2007

B2B with K: Clueless in Germany, a tale of two visits

Leaving London on that May morning (in 1967) in a 12-seater van we motored down to Dover, from where we took a car-ferry to Ostend. Brian, our tour manager and driver, was into endurance driving; wanted to try out how far, and long he could drive in one stretch. The mad bloke drove through the day, and night, through the subsequent day, halting just long enough for a wash, meals and for petrol.

Out of the car ferry at Ostend, we drove through Belgium, halting briefly in Brussels to ensure we were headed to Germany. I got to see the Black Forest by night; drove right through that renowned spa town on the forest edge, Baden Baden. But then we spent an hour or two in an unknown town, went into a crowded bar hoping to find someone who could speak English. No luck. Whoever Brian tried to speak to just shrugged his shoulder and carried on with whatever he was doing.

A few minutes later, someone tapped my shoulder from behind, asking in perfect English what our problem was. He ignored Brian, in, what I would call, the characteristic German disregard for men and matters British. Anyway, we needed German currency to be fed into the automatic petrol vending machine, and direction to some place we could hope for a hot meal. The gentleman at the bar was helpful, and acknowledged my ‘nameste’ with folded hands.

Brian had learnt his first lesson in organising overland tours; that you can’t count on a German in Germany to speak English with an Englishman. I felt somewhat indispensable, and flattered by Germany’s preferential treatment towards a desi. But then I had a German experience of another kind on my subsequent visit to the country 27 years later, in 1994.

This time I was in a group of foreign journalists on a jaunt at the German government expense. I represented the Times of India. The others in the group were from Australia, S Korea, Brunei, Indonesia, Lebanon, and an India-born woman representing Vatican Radio. Apart from the Australian woman reporter and our German escort, our group was coloured. You can’t fault the official hospitality. We travelled business class, were put up at posh hotels in Bonn, Berlin, Dresden and Hamburg.

On escort duty was a kindly middle-aged lady (can’t remember her name) from Hanover. The state information department, drafted her, wife of a businessman, because she spoke English and expressed her interest in interacting with people from other countries and cultures.

Much to her embarrassment, we were greeted with cat-calls from some young things hanging out at the Dresden railway station. At Bonn, on a stroll on my own at a market square, where some leather-jackets on motorbikes ganged up to hold an impromptu rock concert, a middle-aged shopper helpfully advised me to stay out of their sight. At a Cologne pub,where we stopped by for snacks, and local German beer, I was given a dirty stare by a stranger in the wash-room. I swiftly made my way back to our group to find safety in numbers.

It was at a German bar, some 27 years earlier, that I met a helpful stranger who made me feel so welcome in Germany. I was then an anonymous tourist. But here I was now, a guest of the German government being ‘carried ‘ in business class comfort, but given a menacing stare by a stranger for ‘trespassing’. Mine might have been an isolated experience and this sort of thing may well be happening elsewhere in the world.

I still recall the swinging sixties when young Germans, notably, female and single, used to come to Britain as au-pair, ostensibly, to learn English, but, in reality, to find a husband. They seemed to have a preference for desi grooms. My experienced friends, three of them to be precise, have it that German girls with working knowledge of English made good wives. I know Kini would say, French are better in this department.


Anonymous said...

"But here I was now, a guest of the German government being ‘carried ‘ in business class comfort, but given a menacing stare by a stranger for ‘trespassing’".

Never mind Germany or the 'Bible Belt of USA' where a colour other than white makes waves, I was spat at, called names one of which ' a madrasi' (for them lower than a worm in species hierarchy) in places like Delhi, Bombay and Madhya Pradesh, because I spoke no Hindi and had problems in understanding it. I never strung English words with Hindi words (I do not know any!) which was red rag to a Hindi-speaking bull! This was just two years ago. I was never so terrified in my life. I worked in Germany, in the Bible Belt of USA, walked in the George Wallace's Alabama in 1960s, but yet in India in the above places, I felt a chill running through my spine.

Anonymous said...

Stranger things have happened to visitors from other cultures in other lands. For example, a Spanish History professor from Madrid was 'poached' by Harvard University recently,and his first assignment in USA was to present a paper in Atlanta. After doing just that, the professor, a stranger to America, came out of the conference hotel, and seeing an empty street simply crossed it to go to the other side ( as he would in Madrid,). When he reached the other side, he was stared at by a cop who had just parked his squad car waiting to apprehend this law breaker. The professor has been married to an English woman but yet he could not understand the questions pouring out of this mean-looking cop!. The cop then made a swift move, handcuffed the poor professor, and when the victim struggled as he never had the honour of wearing a handcuff, the cop pinned him down to the ground and summoned help. Meanwhile squirming with pain, the underweight professor with a big mountain of flesh sitting on him, moaned with pain blabbering in Spanish. Sure thing, this guy looked a Latino alien (strange terms the Americans use),an illegal to the eyes of other overweight cops who just arrived. He was bundled into the squad car, taken to a police station and was put in a cell. The professor's cell phone was confiscated and his plea to talk to his wife was ignored. The conference orgainsers did not even notice a guest missing at the dinner table in the evening. His wife expecting a call from her husband was anxiously waiting at Cambridge, Mass. The law took its course, and the professor was produced before a judge in the morning. In a few questions, the judge realised what had happened and set the poor professor free, quashing the charges. The professor said he never carried such a weighty human in his entire life!