Saturday, November 27, 2010

Froh Geburtstag Frauke

Frauke Homann’s birthday invokes nostalgic recall of visit to Germany in 2000

In the last quarter of 2000, roughly 20 years after I finished a beginner’s course in the German language, I was able to visit Germany; thanks to Mrs. Renate Albertsen-Marton, the then Director of Goethe Institut (German Cultural Centre), Lagos.
My trip to Berlin was primarily to attend a refresher course in that European tongue, which I had earlier studied from 1979 to 1981, concurrently with Russian language at the then USSR Cultural Centre, also in Lagos. By 1995, some 15 years after taking my diploma in Russian; I had to admit I had lost that language due to outright disuse. I was still able to retain some German because of occasional exercises with nationals of that country or German-speaking Nigerians.
However, about 1999, I had started responding in English, when spoken to in German: Although comprehension wasn’t as easy as before, expressing my self in German had become even more difficult. Interestingly, Mrs. Albertsen-Marton actually pointed this out to me, and I told her how sad I was, but put the blame on inadequate use of the tongue.
Unknown to me, the lady had taken steps to ensure that my German though kaput, did not evaporate altogether. That, in a nutshell, is how she recommended me for a two-month refresher course at Goethe Institut, Berlin. That, in a nutshell; is how I got to meet my guest family, Wieben and Frauke Homann.
In Berlin, this great German couple practically turned out like long-lost family for me. Those days, Wieben in his 60s was already years into life as a retired teacher; however his elegant wife, Frauke, had not yet clocked the retirement age and was, therefore, still teaching. Before my arrival, this pair had hosted about 50 students of the German language from over 13 countries across the world.
Interestingly, Mr. Homann or simply Wieben was at the airport to meet me, when I entered Berlin that morning in early November 2000. November or autumn is usually not a warm period here, but that Wednesday morning the sky shone clear blue and the sun hung brave and bright as early as 10am. Moreover, the ambient temperature was rather warm for the season.
A risible fellow, Wieben had a quip in store as we headed towards the car park. “Sometimes, the weather can be cold for some days, but every time we have a guest from Africa; he brings some sunshine with him.”
The Homanns had waited three days for my arrival and had probably had to replace the apples and bananas, which adorned the desk in my room. That was not all; a welcome note written in German followed by Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa translations was placed before the Reis Gebaeck or Yatsukko Arare, Japanese hot flavoured rice crackers. This rice meal apparently came from Miss Mitsue Nagaya. Also a guest of the Homanns, the Japanese lady was pursuing a PhD in culture-related studies in Berlin.

Transparent lifestyle
It is often said that charity begins at home. I believe that transparency and accountability couldn’t have a different root. After a two-month stay with the Homanns in Berlin, I came away with the impression that Nigeria’s march towards transparency and accountability, which are sine qua non for good governance; remains a long way off. Living in a German household, it would be impossible to live above one’s income because of the regular evening tea-time chat, and the fact that you only shut your bedroom door, when you’re indoor.
The Homanns have had guests from Japan, Cote d’Ivoire and China etcetera. I happened to be the sixth Nigerian quartered by this benevolent couple. Before me had been Dr. Yomi Akinwunmi. Others include Jide Ogungbade, Kazeem Adeleke and Emeka Udemba. After my visit, the Homanns also hosted Steve Ayorinde, among others.
During my visit to the German capital in 2000, I wasn’t the only guest of the Homanns. The other guest was Ms Mitsue Nagaya, a Japanese art history scholar, and each evening, every member of the household was expected to sit together after dinner for tea or coffee. This daily “einladung” (date) wasn’t just about tea or coffee; it offered a golden opportunity for probing no-holds-barred discussions. Often, things started with, “how was your day? Did you encounter any difficulty? Are your finances OK”? And then progressed to things like, “How did you come by that expensive item you brought home? Since from the very beginning, every member of the household already knew one another’s income, if you turned up with something beyond your earnings, you’d have to explain how you procured it. You simply couldn’t hide it away inside your room, since each person had to leave his/her bedroom door open upon going out. Now, that’s what I call transparency! No secrets: no corruption. I also noticed that houses didn’t have high fences around them, so every one could see whatever any one was up to. Furthermore, streetlights worked, as did traffic lights, and most important of all, there was uninterrupted electricity.
This last aspect brought me face to face with how abnormal successive Nigerian governments have left other Nigerians and me. This heartrending reality hit me, while I was setting a story on the PC in the Homanns’ sitting room, shortly after my arrival in Berlin. Frauke and her hubby had been watching TV, while I was busy tapping away on the keyboard.
A bell goes off on the Homanns’ computer, each time you punched the save key. After a while, Frauke actually had to ask me, if I had to press the save key after every sentence. She simply couldn’t stand the obtrusive noise of the save bell any more.
Coming from the Nigerian environment, where electricity supply is at best epileptic, I was pressing the save key, virtually after every word. That is how we typeset in Nigeria because there could be a power-cut at any time. However, power outage is a most unusual occurrence in Germany. Sadly, Nigerian political leaders’ irresponsible governance had trailed me all the way to Europe.
During my stay with them, Wieben and Frauke had taken me on a tour of the Treptow-based headquarters of world famous insurance giant Allianz, in Berlin, where an exhibition was also running at the time, and I had also travelled to a part of Berlin that used to be in the then Eastern Germany.
The inhabitants of this part of Germany are called Ossies, derived from the German word for East (Ost). It was here, in a neighbourhood called Prenzlauerberg, that I spent several hours with multiple awards-winning author Mrs. Holde-Babara Ulrich. We had been chatting for more than two hours, and were now savouring special Yuletide cakes (Stolle and Weihnacts Kuchen); when I suddenly realized I was having a hard time taking my eyes off the surrounding walls.
There was something déjà vu about two of the several paintings on her walls. I thought I could identify the artist. I was pulled out of my reverie by Holde-Barnara’s probe: Do you know the painter? I think so, I replied, guardedly. And, was Holde-Babara delighted; when I correctly named the artist? Her face lit up excitedly, when I mentioned Muraina Oyelami, a chief of Iragbiji, near the Osun State capital, Osogbo. Chief Oyelami’s works are some of many collectors’ favourites. Esa Iragbiji Oyelami, an alumnus of the Uli Baier’s Mbari Workshop decades ago, did not just distinguish himself as a painter; he had since grown into a revered traditional ruler. This royal father is also a celebrated drummer and culture scholar, who had worked at various universities in Europe and Asia as visiting lecturer/instructor.
Another reason Christmas 2000 proved an unforgettable experience for me is the grand Christmas party, which brought our classes at Goethe Institut, Berlin to a close. The get-together took place inside the auditorium, where we normally went for tea/coffee break. Though the event lasted barely two hours, the memory of this party would remain with me for the rest of my life.
There was plenty to eat and drink but, not being a food buff, this was the least part of the highpoints for me. For me, the classic clincher was the part, towards the end of the fest, when students from various countries were asked to sing Christmas Carol in their mother tongue. Many of my classmates, Scotsman Phillip, Brazilian Tomaz, Spaniard beau Signora Nora, Algerian Nahmi (I think) and others picked me out from the corner, where I stood and. Suddenly, there was a deafening silence in the hall.
Rising to the occasion, I reflexively broke into Keresimesi, Odun de/ Ebere, eyo; efi ijo si o. But before I could start dancing in line with the lyrics, the whole hall went wild. Spontaneously, everyone was dancing and from nowhere, sounds of drumming filled the air. Doors, bags, books and all were suddenly converted to drums. And there was a deafening applause, when I stopped singing.
However, another student, Jean Servais Bakyono, a journalist from Cote d’Ivoire, drew the participants’ attention to the fact that there were hundreds of tongues in Nigeria and wanted to know which part of my country the song came from.
Again, another loud silence: That was a Yoruba carol, I explained. Are you Yoruba? Bakyono queried. No, I answered, adding that Yoruba came to me spontaneously; that I actually have a working knowledge of three Nigerian languages and generally feel like I come from every part of my country.
So, sing us another carol in your own mother tongue, came another comment from my friend. At this point, I lunged into Eeyen amana ono nyin/ Eyen amana ono nyin/ Eeyen andi kpon kan, Eeyen amana ono nyin.
But, contrary to everyone’s previous excited owambe-like, reaction to the Yoruba song, the hall was moved into a pensive, sobering mood probably by the solemn tone of this Efik song. When I finished, many won’t let me be; they asked for encore. Since it was by popular demand, I had to sing this carol all over again. I knew it was a splendid outing because some students actually came to ask me to write the lyrics of both songs for them afterwards.
Truly, Goethe Institut Berlin etched its name on my heart for life. Many thanks to Herrn Leiter (the then Director), Frau Renate Peschke, Frau Ikonomu, Frau Steinmetz, my class teacher, Frau Mock; and all the workers there, including a tall attractive lady, who was like the liaison officer between the school authorities and students of all continents, shapes, sizes, backgrounds and so on.
Christmas Eve in Lachendorf
Christmas in Germany offered the opportunity of enjoying life in Celle, Lachendorf and Nordburg; three other settlements of that country. Before we set out for Lachendorf, possibly to prepare the Hellers, our prospective host family; so they could work out the volume of food to cook in the light of the number of guests visiting, Frauke had called her niece to say that she would be bringing two foreigners along.
The youngest of the Heller kids, Malte; had apparently been listening to his mom talking to Frauke. When Malte heard that two foreigners were coming to their home, the 9-year-old asked to speak with Frauke.
His query: "Where are these foreigners (Auslaenderen) from?" Frauke responded that one is Japanese. The lad had no problem with that, he had a computer in his room, and some of his electronic appliances were Japanese-made. But when Frauke added that the other foreigner is "ein Schwartz aus Afrika," the boy perhaps almost grew hysterical with fright.
A good example of transparency is relevant here: Frauke actually gave the phone to me, so I could hear first-hand, Malte's reaction. "Mama, Mama, don't let them (the Homanns) bring an African here"! I returned the mouthpiece to Frauke, who asked the lad, "Warum" (why)? Once more, she handed the phone to me. Malte again: “If a black African comes here, he'll scare away Santa Claus, and I'll lose my Christmas presents!"
As the myth goes, every Christmas Eve, Santa Claus visits kids and dumps numerous Yuletide gifts around the bed of the sleeping children that had been well-behaved during the year. And having never seen a black in his life, young Malte believed that the sight of a black face would frighten off Santa Claus, thus depriving him of his Xmas gifts. Like Malte, most German kids living in the countryside encounter blacks on TV sets and the Internet. Usually, these blacks are African-American sports stars and pop music icons, but owing to international media prejudice, black Africans are synonymous with genocide (Rwanda, Burundi, and more recently, Sudan’s Dafur region), AIDS, famine, refugees and poverty.
Somehow, Frauke calmed Malte and reassured him that I wasn't the kind that would put off Santa. Und was ist er von beruf? The boy was now curious to know my profession. Kultur und Reise Journalist (Culture and Travel writer), Frauke replied.
To be candid, after this conversation, when we eventually set out for Lachendorf; I was worried as to how Malte would receive me. In Lachendorf, I met Mr. Manfred Heller, his wife Susanne and their brilliant sons, Malte and Jan-Ole on the first day that the snow cast a cleansing glow upon the earth since I arrived in Germany.
Susanne and her husband, Manfred; are both social workers. Other guests of the Hellers that evening included Inke, a pretty teenager, and her mom, Brigitte; as well as Grandpa Werner Hansen. Lest, we are accused of not being animal-friendly, Brigitte’s dog (Ulme), was also present, as were the lads’ cats, Findus and Rumpel. But let’s preview some of the German countryside we visited, first.
Located near Celle, in Niedersachsen; Nordburg lies barely 50 minutes’ drive from Hanover, that famous world trade centre, which also serves as the capital of this northern German State or as the Germans say, Land. Nordburg was founded barely 20 years before my visit, whereas the adjacent township of Alt (Old) Celle was already over 700 years old. The oldest extant building in Alt Celle, the Hoppenher Haus; was erected in 1532, according to an inscription on one of the walls of that structure.
Although Nordburg is supposed to be only three hours away from Berlin, by car, we spent five hours getting there because of a 10-kilometer bumper-to-bumper crawl, forced by an accident. Lachendorf lies 8 km from Nordburg, with Wienhausen in-between. Wienhausen holds a large museum-cum-Old People’s Home in a building, which used to house a monastery, until some 300 years ago.
Roughly translated, Lachendorf, the name of the town; sounds like Laughter or Laughing Village; but, this beautiful settlement is serious business because it has so much going for it. Lachendorf boasts a brewery, founded more than a century ago by one Herr Carl Betz, and aside her charming architecture, the well-manicured lawns and enchanting flowerbeds, this town has a thriving paper manufacturing tradition.
And, what’s so special about a paper mill, you want to ask? Well, what stands the world-famous Lachendorf mill out from the run-of-the-mill paper outfit is that Lachendorf produces papers, which are used for printing money. I learnt that this industry is more than 450 years old in Lachendorf. As to the exact age of Lachendorf, we could not ascertain. While Herr Werner Hansen, a member of the SPD believes the town is older than 1,000 years, we gathered that the then ruling CDU was planning an 800-year anniversary, at the time.
As it turned out, Malte happened to be one of the best English language students in his school. English is a compulsory subject in many German schools, but that wasn't all that got us hitting it off. When we went for Christmas Eve service at the local Lutheran Church, most northern Germans are protestant, while the southern and western areas are predominantly Catholic, Malte noticed that I could sing the hymns in German, and most of his probes elicited what I believe he considered proper responses.
We emerged from the church to find the topography under a thick blanket of snow. As the evening aged, the snow waxed thicker and the ambience grew colder, but inside the home of our hosts it was mid-summer, going by the warmth of the people in whose company I found myself.

Auf wiedersehen
Frauke and Wieben, I can hardly wait to see them again; and, all the other unforgettable folks I met, Malte, Jan-Ole, Jan-Peter, Dagmara, Mr. Manfred Heller, his wife Susanne and their brilliant sons, Malte and Jan-Ole; Inke, a pretty teenager, and her mom, Brigitte, as well as Grandpa Werner Hansen, Adama Ulrich and her mom, Barbara; among many others.

Auf wiedersehen!

No comments:

Post a Comment