Kindness in Oldenburg

When you live for long enough in different places kindness becomes one of the most things you look for. And kindness seems to be the theme of this small town where I have spent the last ~three and half years. The stereotype of the closed and cold German badly needs remedy. Every person I have interacted with here is warm, welcoming, open and helpful. It is a big part of why I decided to do my doctorate here.

When I came here for the interview, I met someone on the plane who offered to drop me to the University of Oldenburg as he will also be driving to the same city from Bremen. His name was Sven. I lost his contact details and never met him again. At the interview, the group put me at ease immediately. They asked interesting questions after my presentation in a way that seemed more like they were interested rather than because they wanted to intimidate me. They went to lunch together as a group and waited till everyone was finished to get up. Jolanda from Holland, who later became my office mate for three years, spent time showing me around, took me out to a party and an all-you-can-eat pizza place with her friends.

When I got here in the nasty winter of 2010, I stayed with Jolanda who offered me her study to sleep in while I looked for a flat. Over the years she has become a good friend who I’ve grown to understand and feel comfortable with. Stefanie, who was employed to help international students with settling in with the bank, registration and all the German paperwork ended up inviting me for her new years party where I met so many open and welcoming people. Her boyfriend Eike later became my Tandem partner and the three of us are still in touch though they’ve moved to another town. While Stefanie and I are friends in the normal girl way of confiding, trusting and supporting, Eike and I became close because we discussed psychotherapy and Buddhism. He is a big reason that my interest in spiritual pursuits have been revived. He helped me get perspective on the loss of a close friend while I had tried to block it out. He showed me new ways to empathise and get in touch with my subpersonalities. I learnt a lot from him.

When I finally found my flat which was my home for three years and a month, everyone there made me feel welcome, spoke in English for me, tried to teach me a little bit of German now and again, invited me for Tatort evenings, to go out with their friends, go for trips to Gottingen, Dangast, etc., share cake, play board games and party with them. The original group was Lea, Dirk, Andreas, Christine and Annika. It was a home away from home. Their warmth and care came in the general atmosphere of the flat, the pleasant relaxed conversations at the end of the day, cakes or chocolates, sharing books, conversations in the corridor or in the kitchen at mid-night and caring when I cut my finger while slicing potatoes and almost fainted with the sudden bloodloss.

I even made friends with the neighbours from downstairs as the whole building is owned by the same people and we share the washing machine and the net. We even organised combined BBQs in the summer out in the parking lot. Sebastian and Nentje, the couple who live directly below my room and hear me sing loudly are vegetarian too so they offered me some of their food – corn with krauter butter if I remember right during the BBQ. Of all the non-flatmate friends, Nils is the one who I got to know better through movie nights that he organised for his friends, musical recordings, rockband evenings, and ‘poker’ nights. I helped his girlfriend Kati with her statistics once (which was a laugh for me because I was still so new to it back then) and was at her surprise birthday party. He and I have encouraged each other through our PhD struggles. I just met them yesterday for a catch up session over tea after months of planning but never getting the chance. I forgot how easy it was to talk to them, how much mutual well-wishing there is, how much we relate to each other. I told them the story of my engagement and about my work, they told me a bit about Kati’s time in Australia, Nils’s PhD presentation etc. As a couple they have really grown together. Their love for each other has deepened visibly. I was there on the day they met and got together. As they had been drinking, I remember a lot more than they do about that day! I’m very happy for their happiness as they are for mine.

I met more people with who I did more musical activities; be it Monday evening jazz/pop choir, jamming with just guitar and voice with a friend from work called Niclas, jamming with more rock/pop people at OttoSuhrStrasse in the summer of 2012 including Roger the drummer who organised it, or with my flatmate and his girlfriend, Felix and Judith who are both in real musical training and are very close friends of mine. I’m also friends with Leonie who has the longest thickest blonde hair I’ve seen, beautiful earrings and a very strong heart. I remember some great music parties at Vorspiel Abends after which the exhilaration of shared musical elation lasted a whole week. I met people in German class and made friends also at the MSc lessons I had to take which led to cookie baking sessions before Christmas. One of the girls who helped me collect data for my projects, Irina, became a close friend who I would laze with on summer evenings on the grass in direct sunlight and talk with for hours. Inviting people like Irina, Ling, Christina and Stefanie for tea for a cosy chat, or for potluck dinners with thirty odd people on average consisting of colleagues from the whole department and my friends from all other circles happened frequently. Cooking with or for friends, or being invited for dinner and outings by some of my Desi friends like Maya and Veera, Satheesh and Mahi or Chandan and Rehan also happened often. In the most recent year when my attempt at veganism sparked an interest in health, experimental cooking and yoga, my friends finally got the home-made Indian food they had waited for for so long.

I was especially touched when a former flatmate and his girlfriend, Dirk and Maren, called me over for Christmas in winter 2011. I thought that Christmas was a very family oriented event and didn’t mind being alone as Christmas isn’t such a big deal for me. But the beautiful hearts of my friends could only think that I must not be alone on that day. It was so memorable to exchange gifts on that evening with their siblings, parents and Mortiz the dog. The Christmas tree was lit with candles rather than electric serial lights. There was a fireplace too. It felt like stepping into a story book. Warm house inside and snow outside on the gently sloping fields. Maren and I went for a walk with Moritz before dinner that night while her brother Fritz and Dirk cut the vegetables in preparation for a Raclette dinner. My first ever. Though during Christmas in 2012 I was in the UK with my aunt’s family, again last year I got three invitations. One from Maren and Dirk again, one from my choir leader Susanne and one from my new colleague Martin, his wife Kerstin and their two year old, Luise. All because in the spirit of Christmas, I should be with people that day. People who care. My heart warms up just thinking about it. Earlier when it was Diwali in India, Maren and Dirk made candle covers with colourful pictures, the Indian flag and Happy Deepavali written on them because I was so far from home on this day which was important for me. I was so touched by this unexpected gesture. I made sakkarai-pongal for them. Just last Sunday they took me on a trip to the North Sea. I want to write about that most relaxing and perfect day in a lot more detail.

Over time the people in my flat changed. Felix moved into Annika’s room and became like a brother to me. I’ve been to his place in Nordenham for his birthday party and for a stay over after watching Cloud Atlas and catching up after a summer apart. We have had great music and movie sessions where I have learnt so much. To celebrate my birthday this year he and Judith took me out for dinner at a very European restaurant. What an experience! Such a pleasant evening out. The most rich and scrumptious food. Just recently the three of us went to see The Grand Budapest Hotel together at Casablanca, a cosy little theater. We also watched Skyfall together.

Sarah, who moved in for the three months Lea was in South Africa, moved in when Andreas moved out to live with him girlfriend Katrin. We’ve been out partying together and shared an interesting afternoon trying on clothes together at her friend’s place. Our interactions are mainly me talking and her looking amused or interested. But botanical garden visits, riding together in summer and girly movie nights have been fun. Andreas and Katrin are a reassuring presence when they visit the flat even after they moved out. They seem genuinely interested in how I am, how my work is going and that I’m ok. One of the conversations that impressed me the most was when Andreas described the people he had worked with in his year of civil service and the perspective it had given him about life. This is when I realised how deep thinking the Germans are. Our conversations also made me realise how environmentally conscious they try to be. Andreas arranged for a very sweet WG-gift where a Star Trek poster was changed to look like our flatmates were the crew! Such a thoughtful gift! He and Katrin also got me a German Star Trek book when they saw it at a flomarkt. I remember a cookie backing session with them and Dirk and Maren before Christmas 2012. And the fun times with them in the Kramermarkt and a nice tea session in early 2013 to catch up since it had been so long.

Maren moved into Dirks room when he moved out for a job in Hamburg. There are lots of chocolates, hugs and spontaneous conversations over tea or dinner between us apart from the sweeter bigger interactions I’ve mentioned. The first cake I made as an adult was with Ling before Dirk left for Sri Lanka for his birthday. Maren’s birthday parties and events are always so calm and grown up with flowers, beautiful napkins and home made cake. Florian moved in after Christine’s room was emptied and briefly occupied by Martin who worked with tax. Though we haven’t interacted as much as I have with the others, we have played a game similar to pallanguzhi and he brought me some spice from Ghana where his brother in law is from. His six year old nephew is very cute. Willem, who took over Lea’s room and also played board games, shared food and helped me move when it was time to leave.

The last of the old group to leave was Lea last summer after her three months in Finland. She got a teaching job close to Bremen and moved in with her boyfriend Lukas, also a good friend, who studies in Bremen. Lea is especially special. She saw me through some of my darkest, loneliest times here when I got homesick. Though we’ve been out for dance performances and other events together, our most precious interactions have happened where we dry laundry in the corridors of the flat or in our rooms. We talk about everything under the sun, both personal and about larger deep issues of humanity. We have similar drives and priorities, an optimistic outlook and a will to make a difference. Her kindness, understanding, support and belief in me are invaluable to me. In fact, my hope is that we’ll stay such good friends that when I have children, I can send them off for summer visits with her and Lukas, Dirk and Maren, Felix and Judith and Ling and Ichiao. While she and Lukas offer intellectual and emotional bonds, Dirk and Maren have pure golden hearts, Felix and Judith are so accepting and open with emotions that I strive to learn from them.

At work, my supervisor Conny has been so supportive and understanding. She and I relate directly. Hints and roundabout things never happen. She’s the best supervisor I could ask for. She has good vision, teaches well, tells me when something is just not good enough, tells me when it is. And outside work she is friendly and fully human. Jeremy, an Englishman, has been dedicated, critical and helpful at work and offered rides to and from social events. Nadine gave me her old phone when I feeling particularly anti-mobile phone. Filipa helped me get furniture from Ikea. Stefan helped me put my furniture together. Manuela recently helped me move to Ling’s place. Kathl and Bojana helped me check a manuscript proof before publication. Martin, my new officemate cared to ask how I was managing when in winter my heater stopped working and flooded my room, invited me for Christmas 2013 and gave me feedback on my thesis. My colleagues are wonderful people.

Among my international friends there is Christina from Canada who I feel close to but don’t get a chance to talk to as often as I’d like. She made me feel welcome here when I was home the first time after starting my PhD by leaving me a message on my fb saying a month should be over by now, and that she’s looking forward to having me back. I often feel overwhelmed by her friendliness. Just two days ago when we met for lunch, she got me some gifts to celebrate my finishing my thesis and my engagement. Her hugs are empowering and filled with support and welcome. She’s a very beautiful person. There is also Filipa from Portugal who was the first in our group to defend her PhD in Oldenburg after I joined. She is slightly Vulcan, a no-nonsense, straight shooter. I met her again before Christmas 2013 when she was in Oldenburg for a visit. I admire her and respect her opinions. I was once in a photo-shoot for her boyfriend who was then a photographer starting out professionally. There is also Darrin and Erika who I got to know through my German classes. We’ve had some memorable discussions, I’d look forward to many more.

Since Ben, Sarah’s boyfriend, moved into my room in the flat, I’ve been living with Ling from Taiwan. She’s someone I can’t talk to for less than half an hour at a time. We simply have too much to say about everything. She understands, supports, offers insights that don’t occur to me, and cares. From deep discussions about personality, to helping me with programming and asking for help with English, to sharing gossip and light, funny, crazy banter, we interact on so many levels. She’s from Taiwan and has taught me how to make some of the most amazing sweets and food from there- Ginger soup eaten with something similar to kozhukattai with sesame-sugar fillings, mochi, dumplings, and a few others I don’t know the names of. She was there when I was slightly hyperventilating as I gave my thesis in for printing last week. She was the first friend I told about Santosh (my fiance). We have a connection which will last through the years. I find it harder to write about her. It’s too close, too unimaginable not to be able to talk to her every day.

Apart from my friends here, I must mention that even people I hardly know, are kind. In the early days when I was lost, a man put down his tool box to give me directions with his hands and broken English. I’m still grateful. There is a lady called Anita at the mensa. She picked up that I am vegetarian within the first week or two that I joined work and started going to the pasta section. She and I exchange smiles of recognition when we see each other, and small comments about the weather or holidays. It’s more personal than others who may just serve food without looking at you. Even the cashiers here wish you a good evening or weekend or meal and most of them seem to mean it. The lady at the bank today, Natalia, rather than serving the interests of the bank she worked for, gave me financial advice on what best to do about my situation. She gave me her time, water to drink, lots of useful information and gave me the options that would work best for me. She was genuinely friendly with nothing to gain from it. I told her I appreciated it very much. She said I need the information as I’m alone here in a foreign land. I can’t tell you how amazing that feels, to know and meet such people.

I had tea with a music friend of mine today also called Sven. He’s better known as Stylez Tyson when he raps in German. He and I worked on two pieces together for his CD and he gave me my first solo studio recording experience (I have worked in groups before with my Hindustani music teacher on two albums of devotional songs in Bangalore India). After those two, he also gave me the opportunity to work on a song completely by myself where he does the sound mixing. I realised today that though we’ve worked together, we haven’t talked much. After meeting as many wonderful people as I have here, I was still so surprised to find how well we get along, how open and friendly he is and how fun it is to hang out with him. He gave me a copy of the CD he produced in which my voice also features. We went to some shops to get him a new bath mat and had fun browsing through some other items. I realised also that many, if not most of my friends here are small-towners who have not traveled or lived in other countries or continents. So despite my earlier thinking, it is not necessarily exposure that bestows empathy.

There are just so many people in this place dear to me. I have been so fortunate. And in a month I’ll be gone. When will I see them again? Knowing my stay here was temporary, could I have been as uninvesting in my friendships as I was with my furniture, clothes and shoes? I think not. People mean everything. Moving out of my flat caused me to feel some emotion but I think perhaps moving out of Germany for good is too much to feel. I have all these rays of kindness that have soaked into and nourished my heart. I want to find ways to keep coming back. Be there for their weddings and babies, through the ups and downs. To give them hugs and to get them. For the intellectual compatibility and stimulating conversations, but also the kindness of these amazing Germans.

I have found a home here in Germany. The place where rules and order are good things. The place where they speak their mind directly and mean what they say. The place where they separate their garbage so dutifully. The place where a foreigner is welcomed so warmly despite the cold cold winters. I have found a home here in Germany. And as ever, this outsider must journey on.

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