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The Jigsaw



Recently some people have asked why I’ve stopped writing my blog. To me, its obvious that this isn’t the case at all. However, I see that I only wrote 2 posts last year – the least ever since I started in 2010. I am not sure why – the easy answer would be the lack of time. Of course, that is hardly ever the truth. Writing for me is and always has been a way to process experiences and feelings. 2018 though, it left me feeling drained. Not necessarily in a bad way. Just a LOT to process. A year where I moved 2 cities and 4 homes, started 2 new jobs – both very different from one another. Moving cities though always exhausting, was a breeze because falling in love with Berlin was so very easy. The work however…

Berlin 2018 was just downright mad. A medium sized event is the funniest thing to work on. Its too small for you to REALLY be able to make a huge difference to its success or failure, yet its not large enough to ignore or hide behind anonymity when the crazy shit hits the roof. With a majorly stretched event budget and the realisation that German efficiency is only a myth; all I can say is that the European Athletics Championships 2018 was by far the most trying event experience I have had so far. Of course, accreditation is not an easy responsibility to handle – some say only masochists choose this functional area. The very exacting nature of the work, coupled with a very user unfriendly online system ensured that I was running on overdrive within a few days of starting on the project. Its not a secret however, that I love challenging work. What drained me was not the 12 hour workdays or working weekends. It was the work ‘culture’.

Granted, this was my first full-time job in Germany. And it was almost fully in German. A long drawn out job hunt had already taken a toll on my self-confidence, so I was probably not starting from the most self-assured of places. But, I had enough experience from 3.5 years of part-time jobs to be expecting a much more wholesome workplace. This one however, was riddled with –isms. To date, I do not know to what extent I can break down what I saw there – chauvinism, racism or rather probably linguistic discrimination and ageism. The first couple of months were extremely frustrating for me. Sometimes I would feel like I was invisible or speaking into a void – as anything I said was completely ignored, or worse yet, treated like a joke. It was the first time I worked completely in German, and though I have mastered the language enough to make my point in most discussions, my level of skill is nowhere near where it is in English. That meant I was always compared the results I got from meetings and negotiations to what I would have achieved if it were in English. I was also hesitating and choosing my words carefully, as one generally should. But this meant that my pauses were interpreted as insecurities about my work by people who were looking to push their own agenda. This was definitely not the case with everyone – within my own team for instance, I was well accepted along with all my crazy! It was with difficult external vendors and our extended team that I was struggling. I remember one incident in particular. We were in the middle of a very heated discussion, ok, argument and had reached a ‘she-said-she-said’ impasse. At this point, the accused ‘liar’ got extremely agitated and asked me if I was accusing her of being a liar (“Machst du einen Vorwurf?”). Of course I was, (because she was one) but in English I would have tried to diffuse the situation. However, in German, I unfortunately did not know what the word (Vorwurf) meant, so I simply said “Ja”. Its safe to say that all hell broke loose then.

As a personality or cultural quirk, I try to break the ice in business meetings with a joke or a friendly comment. Here though, I was getting nothing but cold stares when I tried the tactic. I seemed to spend the remainder of the meeting trying to convince people that no, I was not a clown, I actually knew my job. Eventually I stopped, telling myself that this was a task-oriented culture so I should cut the crap and get straight down to business. When even that didn’t make much of a difference, I started to psych myself before meetings to “go into bitch mode”. My favourite trick to get ‘in the mood’ was imagining myself fighting to get into the Delhi metro. Many a times I envied the only other foreigner at this organisation because she could not speak any German. This forced everyone to speak to her in English and put her at a natural advantage during the conversations.

As we got closer to the event, I had less and less time to care. To care to choose my words perfectly or make sure my grammar was on point, to re-re-read emails or to worry about faux pas. I worked closely with the Landeskriminalamt, fondly referred to as the LKA. It is the State Criminal Police Office, and the night before my first meeting was spent tossing and turning. How would these officers of the law react to a foreigner with imperfect German coordinating with them about security clearances for the event? I barely dared to say a word during the meeting, but at the end, I did take the plunge and crack a joke when I saw the opening. I was so very surprised when everyone in the room laughed a hearty laugh. They accepted me instantly and it was a breeze creating a smooth working relationship with them. Then there was volunteer training. I threw a minor tantrum to be allowed to train the volunteers in English instead of German. It was the EUROPEAN championships, I said! They have to understand English, etc. I wanted to make sure they respected me, not judged me; like I felt I was, by some colleagues. When I went up there though, somehow, I just didn’t care. Some invisible switch went off in me – I don’t know whether it was confidence or just defiance but I started the presentation in German and it felt right. I think this was a defining moment for me. Public speaking though never overwhelmingly scary, has always commanded my respect. However, having to do it in a foreign language in front of about 50 strangers in whom you want to inspire respect and the motivation to come sweat it out at 33 degrees weather for free – that’s just something else.

The event and work did not get any easier after this moment in my journey. Just the person I was and the role I had to play in it became clearer to me. I valued more and more what I brought to the table professionally as well as personally and found it easier to ignore chauvinists and jerks. I started being less harsh on myself. Every event has those who thrive and those who crack under pressure. And when the ones that cracked tried to take me down too, oh I was ready for them in all my new-found multi-lingual confidence. When partners and vendors tried to push me around, I told them in all sorts of faulty grammar where they could go unless they cooperated. 

It feels like Berlin 2018 was a big and monumental step in my ‘integration’ journey over 4 years in Germany. Since then, I don’t feel the need any more to really go out of my way to change, filter or tweak my reactions so as fit in. I have learned that the linguistic skills I simply took for granted in India both hold me back by defining my confidence along with giving me an advantage over others that I never fully appreciated before. I feel comfortable with the mish-mash of cultures that I am. I almost feel an odd sense of equilibrium – whether I am listening to Karnevalsmusik, Berlin rap or the Mahalaya in Bengali, it feels right. The pull of very opposing cultural identities seems to have momentarily atleast, made peace with the fact that I can’t choose between them. I am now in a very international organisation that gives me the freedom to work without making the effort of trying to integrate.

Since I moved back to Cologne and now to Bonn, a lot of things around me, things that were vital to my Kölsch identity, have changed. People moving away and on. It took me some time to deal with these changes, I realised I am used to being the one whose life moves, often fast and wild. It’s a different challenge to be the one that stays, to be nearly "stagnant" while others’ lives change.  And its even more difficult maintaining that new-found equilibrium when the waves of their life changes wash over you. (I told one of these friends recently that I need time to get used to his new suburban dad life - I was only half-joking.) It harder yet to not cling on to the past. It requires patience, something I don’t have in abundance. It requires faith that these new things too, will be good if only they are given time to take root and grow. When I called a friend in panic over this, she wisely told me to “just be where you want to be, Pri”. She was really only talking about where I should celebrate Karneval, but I took this gloriously out of context because it fits the larger picture perfectly. So that’s where I am right now, exactly where I want to be – holding on to a fragile stability and my jigsaw puzzle identity while building the foundations of the future I hope to have.

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