Sunday, March 29, 2015

Germinating- Part 3

I came here on a 12 month contract that was first a four month offer, and recently became a 15-month gig. This means that I should be applying for my next job. But I have decided not to. When I moved to Germany, a feeble voice inside me grew stronger. It is that inner voice that somehow gets drowned amid noise, external conditioning, and safety plans.

            Instead, I am spending my energies writing grants, asking for money so that I can design and implement my own projects here. The phase following a PhD is one of the most fertile phases, where you are getting new ideas, and are ready to do independent research. However, again and again, I find myself working for others, fulfilling other people’s dreams of tenure and success. Most people become professors a few years into completing their PhD. I am still looking for that position. So instead of waiting, I decided to already start my own research. It is a big risk in a way, and failing only means being unemployed, and going back to living, even though temporarily, with parents. However, taking this leap of faith is a big philosophical shift I am making. I want to stop chasing jobs, friends, relationships, and opportunities. Something feels dishonest about it. I just want to keep doing what I love doing, and allow things to develop organically. The message of the debit card and the advance salary was not lost on me. When my debit card did not work in Germany, I could have panicked and called the US, even asking friends to wire me money. It felt scary to be poor and hungry. For the first four days, I understood what being hungry felt like. I have never felt food insecurity in life. If anything, I ate more than I should. But for the first four nights, I had one boiled egg and one potato for dinner, with some salt and pepper powder G had the intuition to pack for me. Food has never felt tastier, and I hungrily lapped up the last morsel. And just when I was wondering how I will go hungry for the rest of the month, I got my salary in advance. So my plan is to stop micromanaging my life, and let go.

            During my second week, I had a rather terrifying experience at the grocery store. It overwhelmed me to see that everything, including the overhead aisle descriptions, were in German. There were things that I could see and identify (like fruits and vegetables), but it took me forever to find salt and sugar and oil. There were a dozen varieties of body lotions, and there was no way for me to figure out what to buy. When you see the picture of a mountain, with some strange German word written, it could contain anything- salt, cigarettes, or drugs. I realized that I did not even read anything while grocery shopping in the US. I instinctively knew that the blue box is Morton Salt and oil was in aisle number 5. I was later told that an app called Word Lens translates words. It is free, and you don’t even need an internet connection to use it. Five months, and I still feel disoriented in the grocery stores, especially while looking for something new. However, I am mostly navigating from memory and experience.

            During the first few months, people helped me with everything, from setting up auto rent pay to choosing health insurance plans, finding me staplers, schedule for gym classes, maps of the city, and even translating things for me. The tech support guy at work installed Microsoft Office in English, but the acrobat reader was in German. So I tried to work my way around, remembering things from muscle memory. It felt a little sad not having someone to celebrate a little milestone with, when I got my first salary in Euros. Europe is a good combination of the first world experiences of the US, while offering some of the comforts of the Indian way of living. Buses run on time, restrooms are clean, and the quality of research is quite good. People walk and bike more, eat together, and there is more of social bonding. I feel like a child once again, slowly learning new words, the German map, and the names and capitals of the German states.

            I love Germany, and miss the US at the same time. I was reflecting on why leaving a place is sometimes so painful, and getting used to a new place so overwhelming. Perhaps our senses get used to doing familiar things in a repetitive pattern.  However, my brain is slowly, but surely beginning to make associations and connections, like figuring out which bus to take to reach faster. The first few months, I feared getting lost on the streets, and never went anywhere beyond the seven bus stops from work to home. I mostly walked in straight lines, without taking turns, so that finding my way back was easier. Remembering a name like Madison Avenue is easy, but not a name like Samwerstraβe, which sounds very different from how it is spelled. I live by the water, so I always tried to remember where I was with respect to the water. My brain is mapping new visual imageries, directions, street names, and signs. It makes me realize that most of the things we do every day happens at the reflex level. When you need to take Exit 10 and you see the sign, you do not start counting from one to ten to see what ten sounds like. But now that I am learning numbers, it is not so easy for me to remember that drei means three and zehn means ten. So I start counting from one, somewhat in a rote fashion.  

            All this has taken me back to my experience of learning languages as a child. Remember how as children, first we learnt basic words? A for apple, B for boy. And there would be big colorful charts of fruits and vegetables hanging all around the walls in classrooms. Now I know why. The more you see them, the more you remember them through visual associations. That is why teachers made you repeat things hundred times a day. Ma said that I could recite Bengali poems verbatim as a kid, even before I understood the language. That is because I had memorized the phonetics. When you say pomegranate in English, I can instantly visualize it. But if you say Granatapfel, the visualization is not so easy. My effort to make sense of the German language has renewed my appreciation for the immense cognitive processing children are constantly doing, breaking down complex information into simpler one, and retrieving it again to make sense of the world.

            A colleague once asked what German sounds like, and I said, “akhh schw akhh schw”. When I did not know Tamil, it sounded like “andre pandre wangopongo”.  Once you know a language, you cannot undo the knowing. So I will never be able to tell what Bengali sounds like, because it is not possible for me to do that level of macroscopic deconstruction anymore. I am slowly learning some German key words, but learning the language will happen at two levels. One, identifying the words by reading them, and two, being able to say it the German way, and not the English way. I know danke (thank you) and tschus (good bye). I know zucker and salz (sugar and salt). At the mensa (cafeteria), I look for huhn or hähnchen (chicken), and eat using a löffel, gabel, and messer (spoon, fork, and knife). And einbahnstraße (one way street) is a pretty cool word (ein means one, bahn means vehicle, straße means road, the ß signs means double S). However, after all this German hearing every day, I cannot wait to come home and watch movies in English. Hearing American English feels like such a luxury now.

            I am slowly beginning to get used to the smaller spaces and things. The roads, cars, kitchen appliances, trash cans, and food portions that seemed so much smaller at first do not seem that small anymore. Every day, I am in awe of how beautiful this place is. Seasons are changing, the trees are shedding and sprouting leaves, and the water looks different every day. One day, I told myself that I could live here forever if the salary was better and the work contract longer. Then I checked myself, remembering that love for anything, people or places, happens not just “because of” something, but also “despite” other things. You cannot love a place one day if you start earning more or become famous there. We often confuse the cause and effect sequence. Love happens despite the limitations. I think living in different places makes us wiser, not just because we get to sightsee and learn more new things outside us. It also opens our eyes to who we are, what lies within us, and what we are capable of doing. Living here is making me more aware of myself- my strengths and weaknesses, how I respond to stressful situations, make sense of things, and how I use my instincts to navigate around. If I had never left Calcutta, I would have never known who I could be.  

            Despite everything promising, I still sometimes have bad days, when I do not sleep well, wake up disoriented, and miss everything my life in the last few years was. I still haven’t found an English library, and terribly miss reading and smelling books. After feeling like an Indian in the US all these years, I now feel like an American in Germany. The Nebraskan landscape had seriously deprived my visual senses of beauty. But for better or for worse, it was still a known country. Now, my life feels just like a huge blob of boundless, formless, and rootless energy. Being rootless can be empowering and exciting, but being rootless can also feel very scary.

            Bank accounts. Keys. Address, telephone number, and email. Campus card. Bus pass. I have slowly grown some roots here the last few months. I have stopped recreating my Indian life here by hanging out mostly with fellow Indians (something I always did in the US). There was nothing wrong with that, but it isolated me from the more local experiences. A young Indian man from the city recently contacted me on a social networking site, writing, “Hi, myself [name] this side” (It is an Indian-English way of saying that I am so and so from such and such place). And I smiled, telling myself that I am not taking sides anymore.


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