(An edited version of this article was published in the December 2018 edition of Praxis Englisch, a magazine for Germans learning English. It was written after my trip to Germany in October 2018.)
When I was a little boy, I had never imagined that I would travel to Europe one day. It seemed too faraway, and out of reach in financial terms given my father’s modest earnings. My travel was restricted to India, mainly to visit my grandparents, attend family weddings, or go on the occasional pilgrimage with my parents. A holiday at a resort with hammocks under the tree and books in hand is something I saw only in magazine advertisements. The question of going to Europe never popped up. I did grow up seeing some of it in Bollywood movies shot in Switzerland.
In my teenage years, I began to hear of college friends applying to universities in the United Kingdom, Germany and France. I had a brief dalliance with the idea, and looked up some courses at the School of Oriental and African Studies as well as the Department of Education at the University of London. However, I did not choose to pursue higher education outside my own country. Looking back, I think my decision might have been shaped by a fear of the unknown. I have grown up in a traditional family, with parents who have little interest in exploring other cultures and cuisines. Because of this conditioning, I thought I might feel completely out of place living in Europe. I was also worried about the cost of living and the prospect of encountering racism.
I am 33 years old now, and just back from my first trip to Europe. I cannot wait to go back. I spent 13 days in Germany as part of a seminar titled ‘Foundations of Open Societies: Individual Self-Determination and Tolerance’, which was hosted by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation at the Theodor Heuss Academy in Gummersbach. My fellow participants were from Pakistan, Argentina, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Palestine, Libya, Romania, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Georgia, Russia, Myanmar, Ukraine, Malaysia, Honduras,Thailand, Panama, India and Indonesia. I loved learning about rule of law, free markets, social justice, minority rights, rehabilitation of refugees, hate speech, surveillance, open borders and many other important issues with this amazingly diverse cohort.
The programme was beautifully designed, and our facilitators were excellent. I admired the hard work, intellectual rigour and personal passion they brought to the seminar. They encouraged dissenting opinions but I did notice significant gaps in their understanding of realities in the Middle East and South Asia. We do live in a Euro-centric universe, and even well-meaning scholars are not free of biases about cultures that they do not interact with on a regular basis. Reading lists are often packed with material authored by White heterosexual men. This indicates that knowledge produced by women, people of colour, and LGBTQIA+ individuals is not valued in the mainstream world. Gender studies, queer theory and decolonization are not the only subjects these people write about. Their expertise is wide-ranging, and their scholarship needs to be engaged with more seriously. Europeans needed to learn more about the history of colonization, and how its effects continue into our present. I am glad that our facilitators acknowledged this.
We did not spend all our days in Gummersbach. We were taken on excursions to Bonn, Cologne and Berlin. These included meetings with experts, visits to museums, guided tours and open exploration time that we could use to discover these cities on our own. Each of these experiences was immensely enriching for me. I fell in love with Berlin because of the colour and cultural diversity as well as the people who were always ready to help me with directions when I got lost. I enjoyed using public transport, eating falafel wraps at Turkish and Lebanese take-away places, and looking at all the quirky street art. I have close friends who are Jewish, so visiting Berlin was a deeply emotional experience for me. I also visited Holocaust memorials and neighbourhoods that were once home to Jewish people as a way of remembering the horror that was unleashed upon them.
While returning to India, I had a layover in Zurich but not enough time to step outside the airport and get a feel of the city. Wrapped in my winter clothes, I rushed from one flight to another, and was grateful that I did not miss the connection. I was happy to be heading home but was also a bit wistful about leaving. My first time in Europe was utterly special, and I am already praying for opportunities to visit Rome, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Athens, Copenhagen and Lisbon. Things take their own time to happen. Meanwhile, I am going to relish the delicious Indian food that I missed so much in Europe.