Greetings from Düsseldorf. And 1992. And Mini Me.
“I never want to go back to Germany.”
Was what I had told my mother, arms crossed in defiance, stubbornly not budging. A large fuzzy beret and round oversized specs covered my face but failed to hide the angry steely gaze I was giving my mother. Tiny, barely 7 years and 4 feet tall, and sitting on top of a suitcase, not so different from a squirrel guarding a basket of nuts. Around this time my mother was livid and fuming, towering over me, and the next few hours of lectures and disciplinary action are now as hazy and grainy as the image above.
But I still remember. The feeling of dread, counting days and marking calendars, sending postcards to everyone back home including my dogs and the personnel at my favourite grocery. It is true: I was miserable in Germany. As far as childhood memories go, I can’t remember another time when I ever did count days until the moment of departure. And all the years since that (Asian) summer, the main association I carried with me about the place called Germany was a bad childhood memory. Until recently.
Anna, dear cousin and first-ever travel buddy, sent me the above photo via iMessage last night. She remembers a whole lot more than I do about our time in Europe. She was 11.
The truth is, it wasn’t all that horrible. It was here I first learned the joy of Haribo and how much fun it was to be a kid on Easter Sunday—all the free chocolate rabbits and liquor-filled chocolate eggs. This was the first time I was allowed to drink cola (as it had lemon, woohoohoo) and explore the ‘woods’ (otherwise the backyard) to search for squirrels. It was here I first nearly lost myself in awe and ecstasy when Mom took us to the Natural History Museum, as well as the time we tagged along on her dinner meeting at the Günnewig Rheinturm on the Rhine Tower, 240 metres above the ground (“Wow! are we also going to meet The Jetsons?”). This was also where and when I had my first encounter with primetime girly shows and TV porn—I just didn’t know it yet (“Wait, why do the girls dance and then take off their shirt?”). So much for parental guidance and adult supervision, yes. Overall, it was fun and we enjoyed being kids.
So, why the bad memories and negative association?
First of all, nothing horrible ever actually happened. No real mishaps or accidents—except for some encounters with bald Neo-Nazis and when a younger kid threw a fossil rock at me whilst cave-exploring and the same kid knocked me over on a heater, but otherwise everything was dandy. My mom’s primary purpose was to attend a conference for disability organisations and chaperone a band of 12 musical artists in wheelchairs called, The Rondalla in Wheels, for a concert. From the moment we arrived until our departure, we were attended to, entertained, and cared for by generous hosts. We lived with a family, which had opened their home to us for an entire month. To suddenly live in a house full of strangers, in a country so cold my fingernails would turn blue and where the people sounded funny and I understood not a single word, to move according to different sets of rules from so many different people, to grow familiar to intimate spaces yet ever-so aware of never owning, never belonging—the feeling of impermanence constantly hovering like a nimbus cloud. The sheer pleasure of newness and discovery—tickling the senses with every unfamiliar sight, smell, taste, sound—for an extended duration which only had a vague expiration and an even vaguer future (we were to continue to other parts of Europe, all just as foreign and unfamiliar) fused with a lingering feeling of homesickness and a sense of adaptation which only introduced the concept of detachment, of immersion without sinking and drowning in attachment—and the pain of loss and displacement.
At seven years old, in a freezing land where everything seemed so exciting yet so pale and unfamiliar, I discovered another place—one which existed outside my comfort zone.
Twenty years hence, I finally understand the incomprehensible emotions of disorientation, displacement and disillusion, and the spawning of a coping mechanism so reliable even in my adulthood. And twenty years hence, I say: *Thank you, Germany. For being the first to show me what was outside the comfort zone, for spawning an insatiable addiction which seems to have no cure except for discomfort and constant motion. *Thank you, Germany, for scaring me shitless and shaking the brat out of me and forcing me to learn to adapt to strangeness and that, if all else fails, there is always a chocolate rabbit. Or another squirrel outside the window.
And, twenty years hence, I need not take back the things I felt about you except for the part about never seeing you again—but I cross my fingers and toes because I fear to jinx and because the thought that my not-so-distant-future rests in your horizon is just still rather surreal. Though I reckon, if perhaps you had just introduced me to your beer that first time around, we might’ve actually gotten along. But that is another thing to anticipate, right?
*My early attempts to say it in your mother tongue didn’t quite make it further than ‘Dunkin’, sorry.