20 May 2008

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

I just got back from Berlin last night. My impressions are almost opposite to what everyone I know told me about this ‘vibrant’ city. Most of all, it was not in the least true that people spoke English there and that foreigners had no problem communicating with the locals. Before we set off, my beau asked me if I spoke any German. I said, no, of course, I don’t.

Everywhere we went, all the information we enquired about, we got German spoken back to us. Then we would look at each other, and after a moment’s silence, I would produce a clumsy translation of what the person had said. At the end of the first day, J said to me – but you said you didn’t speak any German! And I don’t – that’s what I believe. I studied German for 4 years and I lived for a year in Austria. I measure my knowledge of German against the time spent learning it – the outcome is disastrous considering how much effort I’ve put into it. German makes me feel inadequate and linguistically thick, so I would rather forget I had ever had any contact with it.

But J doesn’t understand my worries. Being English and wanting to fight the dominance of his mother tongue, he wants to speak the language of the locals. So I give him some basic phrases – bezahlen bitte, cappuccino ohne chocolaten pulver, ich ferstehe nicht… Like a dictionary, I provide him with phrases and translations, and he uses his mouth to utter those sentences. Together, wir sprechen Deutsch. He believes that a certain number of words and sentences makes you speak the language. He is never afraid to speak, even if he knows only a single word! I believe I don’t speak German because I am inhibited by my own guilt for not speaking it as fluently as I should have. Yet, together, we get by, determined to enjoy our stay in Berlin.

When on our last day we finally buy currywurst – the German most popular fast food – J, now feeling quite comfortable with speaking German to waiters, explains that we want one with catch-up and one with mayo. He says it in Spanish to the German Turk. Uno con catch-up y otro con mayo. But the guy understands him and that’s all it matters really. We get our food, the Turk gets the money, J is pleased for not having talked in English and I finally relax about my notoriously rigid linguistic rules. At the end of the day, you speak the language if you think you speak it and not if you get an A at school. Language is a living thing – The French say frittes for pommes-frittes and the Germans say pommes for the same thing. We all know what it means and what chips taste like, don’t we?

15 May 2008

Five Year Sentence

I often wonder why the line between freedom and confinement is so thin. Just recently, as the spring seeped into the sad and overcast London metropolis, I felt a strange uplifting feeling. It started in the morning as I was doing the habitual tooth-brushing, face washing and hair-style arranging. I looked at myself in the mirror and I suddenly felt in the right place at the right time.

Similar sensation would crop up from time to time before, but never lasted for long. Having got used to my London bathroom and the house in general – distinct furniture, English spoken from the TV set always turned up too loud and strange plants that grow only in this part of the world – I never minded the interiors of this new land. Well, not quite true – I still do mind the separate hot and cold taps, but I have devised the technique by which I catch water from each tap and create a pleasingly warm liquid in the palm of my hands with which I wash the sleepiness off my face.

Yet, in the past five years, since I moved to England, each morning I have dreaded the moment when I look outside the window and realize that I am lost in a foreign land. The unfamiliarity of sounds – either loud screams of police or ambulance sirens or a chirp of birds different from those in my own country – smells and colours that do not connect to any brain cell, memory or feeling but just denote strangeness and confusion. I could never make peace between the serenity of my house and the lulling feeling of safeness it gave me and the harsh, utterly scary cityscape that lay outside the walls of my private confinement.

If I was ever asked why I moved to England, I would say – it is because I wanted to be free. What a lie. I probably don’t know why I moved to England. Maybe because I didn’t know what freedom was. So, fine, I knew I would never be hurt, spied on, bullied or discriminated against in my new country but I still kept fearing the unfriendliness and coldness of London. I was free in my living room, but the prisoner of my inability to accept the city where I settled. I hated London so much, I hated the noise, dirt and rubbish on the streets, looks of people as they passed me, artificial smiles of shop assistants, I even hated everything in London that was similar to my culture. I remember, one morning I woke up and still half-asleep I heard the rustle of a chestnut tree that grows close to my window. I strained my nostrils to inhale as much air as possible. The sweet blossomy fragrant of chestnut that runs through Zagreb streets in spring. But when I woke up, I was still in London. So I hated London even more for deceiving me. For giving me a hint of home and then relentlessly taking it away from me.

Zagreb is the prettiest city. Delicate, small, walkable. Its streets are adorned with rows of trees – chestnut or lime trees – and the Austro-Hungarian building, always neatly restored, look like biscuits that grown on the witch’s house who captured Hansel and Gretel. Creamy coloured, with beautiful shapes and curves – you literally want to eat them. In fact, Zagreb is so pretty that you would never be scared walking anywhere in the night. Nobody ever shouts there, there are no sinister corners, there is light everywhere and there are people who wash streets after midnight so that the city can wake up in its glory. How would it be possible to feel threatened in this paradise? But stay a bit longer, and you feel that something is not quite right with this perfection. While the outdoors is pleasant and people like socializing in the open air cafes, there is something inexplicably dark simmering in people’s houses, in their minds. Cold-hearted, close-minded and most of all jealous of anyone who has nothing to complain about, Zagreb made me a prisoner with its way of thinking. It was always a perfectly polished but stone cold, jealous, step-mother to me. It never openly threw me out of its embrace, but just starved me of any human emotion, support of acceptance. If I stayed, I would have slowly died, without even realizing it.

The morning I felt I was in the right place at the right time, I suddenly felt free both from the insularity of Zagreb people and the fright of London streets. I remembered a friend from Belgrade who told me that, wherever you go, it takes five years to make a place a home. And he was right. I came here looking for freedom, but I spent five years living in quarantine before I ventured outside of my physical space. Fear is not freedom, hatred is not freedom. This morning I put my nose outside the window and smelt the warm air full of the rushed, hectic, urban molecules. This is London. I rang a new friend, a girl I only met a week ago, and arranged to meet her for lunch. I decided to give it go. To give everything a go.