A few days ago, I wrote about the stark differences between Kolkata and the western world that hit me whenever I visit my family. Within no time, I not only got used to those changes, but also immensely enjoyed my time there. It’s been a little more than 24 hours since I came back to Germany, and those differences are popping up again. Yes, there were these entire ranges of differences I immediately noticed. It was raining and much chillier. I was no longer sweating like I used to. I was suddenly surrounded by entirely different kind of people around me, all White, sharp-featured and much taller than I am. I almost scalded myself after having forgotten that even a slight left in the faucet ejects extremely hot water in the bathroom. My dilemma for dirty bathrooms outside and wet bathroom floors at home in Kolkata is gone. Every little change that had happened in my life a few weeks ago was reset. It’s as if, these differences did not even matter. However, there are two things that hit me hard. Really hard.
1. Being surrounded by silence and the utter lack of sounds.
Sure, I heard the cars zoom by on the Autobahn through whatever I could hear from the thick window panes of the bus, but I am talking about human noise. Hours went by, and I heard not a word I could understand. The immigration officer and the cab driver are the only two people I spoke to very briefly, mostly thanking them. As I put the key in my door and stepped in at midnight, the utter lack of any kind of sound started to get deafening. I involuntarily opened my jaws, thinking that my ears must have popped and I could not hear well. Still, nothing. Not too long ago, I was surrounded by people who came to mostly talk to me- my family, friends, neighbors, even strangers. I had recently befriended a young fruit seller who often fed me kalojaams for free as I talked to her. The few times I took a cab, I chatted up with the driver. I even chatted up with one of the crew members in Emirates, in Bangla. We briefly spoke about traveling trends and why the flight was running empty. And suddenly, all these people in my life are gone. They will only exist henceforth in my memory, or on blog posts.
I woke up jetlagged and really early the next morning. It was little past 4 am, and the sky was just beginning to lighten up. Hundreds of sea gulls filled my head with their rather shrill and cacophonic voices. I drew the curtains to see the beautiful view of the sea. There was no one to ask me what I want to eat. Grudgingly, I dragged my feet to the kitchen. It wasn’t until I reached work that I had a real conversation in a mix of broken German and English. I realized I was dying to hear Bangla.
2. Being surrounded by foreignness.
It didn’t take long for me to get back to the zone where I understood absolutely nothing of whatever little people spoke around me. I don’t know why the immigration officer asked me to remove my glasses in German. When the airline agent in Dubai wished me “Guten Flug”, I was momentarily surprised after all these weeks of hearing Bangla. So I mustered a weak “Danke” with a smile. My flight, and later the bus were filled with people who spoke German. Naturally, I was transformed to a distant foreign spectator from someone who actively conversed with strangers with no difficulty. Even if I understood an occasional word or two, there is no way I was going to be a part of that conversation. The same happened at work. Colleagues spoke animatedly with each other in German, but stumbled and slowed down as they struggled to speak English with me. Naturally, I did what I always do, shut myself in office and work.
When I checked my mail after getting home, I was not surprised to see a bunch of letters waiting for me, all in German. Trust the German efficiency, the Ausländerbehörde (Aliens Office) sent me a 5-page letter (in German), scheduling my next appointment with them in August where we will discuss about extending or not extending my visa. They have no clue that I will hopefully not be here in August. My bank continues to send me credit card statements in German, totally oblivious to the fact that I have specifically asked to send me emails and mails in English. Although these are routine struggles for me now, I am still not used to them. At work, I got three wrong number calls. Even before I could ask them to switch to English, all three of them spoke volumes about something, someone they wanted. On asking them to switch to English and that this is a wrong number, all of them politely, but curtly apologized and hung up. I was tempted to ask one of them, “Do you speak Bangla? I am rather homesick. I could talk to you for hours.”
I have a core group of friends from different parts of the world we speak to regularly. Technology came to rescue as we chatted up on Skype. I am doing things I haven’t done in weeks, like listening to my own music as I go to work or Skype with friends. There was no time for all this in Kolkata. Last time this week, my life was very different. I was walking random streets near Chandni Market or Southern Avenue, sampling street-side food. I was chatting up for hours with my mom’s professor, having met her for the first time. I was on the terrace every evening, watching sunset with grandma and asking ma and kakima to join us. I was being fed like a royal, not just by family but by the neighbors. Ma has packed me food for a week. Only last week, I was taking the metro and buying kalojaam and custard apples in kilos. I was having tea every morning and chatting up with our domestic help who spoke of a life I had no idea about. And now, instead of these people, I am surrounded by a whole lot of work, data I am supposed to analyze and papers I am supposed to write.
I never cry while saying goodbye. While ma and grandma cried buckets at the airport, not a drop came out of my eyes. I am always alert and cautious, trying to remember if I have taken my passport and travel documents. It was much later, suspended at 36,000 feet in a cramped airplane bathroom that the first tears came. And I let them. I cried like a baby, but not just for leaving family and close friends behind. I cried for leaving a whole way of life behind, a way that is familiar, and my own, and a place where I will never need to justify my visits through visas and travel documents. I usually read myself to sleep every night. As I shut my book, switched off the bedside light and closed my eyes, another tiny drop of tear involuntarily came out before vanishing in the pillow. For work or for vacation or for whatever it is worth, I cannot wait to go back to Kolkata.