Berlin in the nineties: a saviour with a punk hairstyle

It was in the autumn of 1996 that I came to Berlin from Chennai, India. I was on a two-month visiting scientist programme with the Max-Planck Institute for Colloids and Interface Research in Berlin-Adlershof. During that time, one late autumn evening as I was returning from the train station, nearing my guest house in Kant Strasse, I realised that I had left the keys to the entrance of the guest house as well as to my apartment back at my office.

Just as I neared the street, I saw the usual "young punk" crowd sitting and drinking beer and listening to some hard rock music on their ghetto blasters. I had seen them every evening during the last few weeks and had always walked past them pretending they were invisible. They seemed preoccupied with themselves. But I had heard stories from my colleagues in the lab about how the reunification of Germany had its problems, that people from the former GDR were still not comfortable with foreigners, particularly those from Asia, and sometimes the punks teased and bullied these visitors. I saw notices in the U-Bahn and S-Bahn from the police warning foreigners not to travel to places where punks loiter.

I nervously reached the gate of the institute, hoping that the janitor would be around so that I could request him to let me in with his spare set of keys. It was seven degrees Celsius and I was shivering in my thin sweater and windcheater outside a nearly empty guest house campus in a foreign country. I felt abandoned and incredibly alone. I kept shifting my feet to keep myself warm and also perhaps to hide my anxiety and nervousness.

About the guest author

Aruna Dhathathreyan is a Professor and Emeritus scientist at CSIR – Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai, India. Her fields of work and research include biophysics, biophysical chemistry, and surface sciences. She received an INSA-DFG Visiting Fellowship at Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces (2010).

She was among 98 scientists featured in Leelavathi's Daughters, a compendium of female scientists in India created by the Indian Science Academy.

Her first stay in Germany was in 1983 at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Gottingen. Later she worked at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interface Research in 1996 and had collaboration with further stays in 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2014. Aruna Dhathathreyan is a mentor on the Alumniportal Deutschland and publishes articles about her time in Germany regularly.

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Saviour with a mohawk

Just then one of the boys who had been watching me trying to check the janitor's room sauntered towards me. I was bracing myself for some nasty experience with several thoughts racing through my mind. He came up to me and asked if I could speak German. When I said yes, he asked me what my problem was and why I wasn't entering the campus. I told him about leaving my keys at my office, so he offered to take me on his bicycle to the janitor. That was how I ended up, on that cold autumn evening, riding pillion on a rickety bicycle with a teenage boy with his rainbow coloured mohawk hair and big earrings. We rode to the janitor's apartment to get the spare keys.

When we got back to the gates of the campus, my "punk" saviour told me that I needed to lock up the main gates behind me and wished me goodnight. I never discovered the name of my saviour that night. I was relieved and enveloped in warmth and the reassurance that things were great and everything is OK with the world.

In the next weeks, some nights I got back late from work at the institute. A burst of laughter came from the end of the street as I entered Kant Strasse, I began to wave and say hello to my friends and once in a while stopped to chat with them about our daily work and routines. They were high school kids and had heard about India through some documentaries on TV. They were curious about Indian culture, languages and of course our famous "Curry", because Berlin has its own famous "Currywurst" – a curried sausage.

Lost at Zoo station

After a couple of weeks, I planned to visit some friends over the weekend and was travelling towards Berlin's Zoo station where I would board my Intercity express. On reaching the station, at the entrance I saw a notice saying the train would leave from another platform. People who travelled to Berlin and walked through Zoo station in the 90s would remember that it had several crisscrossing subways and several entrances – even a native Berliner found it difficult to use the right subway. I only had 10 minutes to catch my train and I was still trying to find the right subway. Just then I saw a group of well-dressed people entering the station. From the conversation I overheard they were travelling back home after a climate change conference and were probably researchers from some university.

I walked up to the lead member of the delegation to politely ask him if he knew which subway I had to take to get to the right platform. To my shock and dismay, he told his colleagues in a derisive voice that it was becoming too troublesome to be in Berlin because there were so many migrants asking for jobs or assistance.

He had mistaken me for someone from one of the migrant groups who often came to Berlin asking for charity or a job. That day, I realised conversing in any foreign language and having the necessary social confidence or etiquette to talk to a well-dressed academic need not result in a friendly exchange and can end up being a bad experience. I realised that one thing is certain: life as we ourselves see it in our world will always differ from our expectations. This stems from our unrealistic expectations of the world as we see it, rather than the reality of the situation! I learnt that our own prejudices and preconceived notions about people sometimes prevent us from seeing people as they are.

Stop being judgemental

And from then on, I reminded myself again and again that I was in Berlin – one of the swankiest cities in the world, steeped in culture and history and with people of all colours and types. I must not become judgmental and start looking at people with preconceived notions! I decided to explore the city. I went to museums, parks, ate a gourmet meal in an Italian restaurant and travelled on the 100 bus casting an eye on all the famous landmarks. I picked up conversations with random strangers on the train or at the famous Berlin Zoo. I enjoyed my conversations every evening with the newspaper kiosk owner or the vegetable shop lady on my way back from work.

A few days before my return to India, I bought a big cake from the local bakery for my "Kant Strasse" friends. They were surprised by my gesture and told me I should save the money for my journey home. I told them it had been a pleasure knowing them and I wished them luck with their school exams. I listened to their "heavy metal" music for few minutes, said "Tschüss" before getting back to my guest house.

Guest author: Aruna Dhathathreyan

Contributions by external authors do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.

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September 2020