The snow came a couple of days before Christmas last year. It buried our balcony under layers of fresh ice kachang and slowly consumed our deck chairs beneath a heap of icicles.
Snow! This was one of the things I was sure I would like about Germany, even as friends and family questioned my decision to move so far away. “How will you get used to the cold,” they asked. “You’ll miss home,” they said. They shook their heads and tut-tutted in concern. How would I ever get used to the way of life over there, they wanted to know.
I rubbished their concerns with the nonchalance of someone who thought she knew everything. “I’m an experienced globetrotter and a cosmopolitan citizen of the world,” I huffed. “I’ll adapt,” I declared. “Before long, I’ll be as German as no-speed-limit autobahns.”
Famous last words.
Sun for you, snow for me
Two years later, and there I was, peering out the window into the cold outside, counting snowflakes as they made dips and dives towards the ground. “Look, look! It’s snowing!” I squealed. My husband kept his eyes squarely on the television screen. The winter games were showing, and all his attention was focused on the German ski jumper who was about to make his great big leap.
“That’s not snow,” my husband said eventually, stifling a yawn. “That’s slush. That’s the half-rain half-snow kind of ugliness that melts into a disgusting brown and grey.”
“It’s snow,” I insisted, and my husband rolled his eyes. “Snow is nice when it’s cold enough that it doesn’t melt. And only when it’s sunny outside, not grey and wet like now.” he explained.
“Mansplain all you want,” I sniffed. “I’ll never understand why you like the sun so much anyway.”
The summer before had nearly roasted me alive. The sun had been merciless, flambéing my skin a painful, crusty brown as I walked our dog through the village and along the Rhine. The sweat trickled down my neck, running rivers down my back and causing a stickiness between my armpits that I am ashamed to write about.
Yet along the river banks lay German gods and goddesses of every shape and size, baring all inch of skin towards the sun and lapping up its 35-degree rays in adoring idol worship. Beneath my damp hair, now plastered with sweat like a helmet on my scalp, I seethed in the unfairness of the situation: my tropical Singapore skin recoiled underneath the sting of the summer heat, and here, my German neighbours lapped it up with nary a droplet of sweat on their brows.
Hugo: a popular summer drink in Germany – made with Prosecco, elderflower syrup, mint leaves and slices of lime
“You don’t like the sun?” asked my German friends, incredulous. That was tantamount to sacrilege, as they saw it. Besides, I’d lived along the equator for most of my life, how could it be that I hated the summer and lived for the cold, grey German winters.
“You don’t understand,” I protested. “The sun hurts my skin and makes my eyes disappear into my face. I sweat my organs out, and in the meantime, you guys remain bone dry.”
“Besides,” I continued. “We Singaporeans have had enough of the sun back home. The last thing we want down here is more of the same thing. More snow, please. In fact, bring on the blizzard, thank you very much!”
Every German person who was unfortunate enough to hear my rants about the sun shuddered and thought I was mad. But it wasn’t just the weather on which we didn’t see eye to eye.
Food for thought
On weekend mornings, I pinched my nose and wrinkled my face in response to the smell of fried breakfast cheese sizzling in the pan. “It smells like socks,” I would yell in disgust at my husband through the kitchen door. “It smells like year-old stinky fishermen’s socks.”
I retaliated in the afternoons, unleashing a vengeance I never knew I possessed by spitefully toasting chunks of belacan in our oven. “Now, that smells like socks,” said my husband, face buried in a towel as he gasped for air.
One day, he came home to find me huddled over a patch of freshly-dug soil in our garden. “Are you trying to kill the grass?” he asked. I pushed him aside and sent him indoors.
“I’m planting veggies, you plebeian,” I said. “I’m planting veggies because there are no vegetables in Germany!”
Oh, the veggie sections in the supermarkets were well-stocked, alright. But, veggies are only real veggies if they’re green and leafy, not round, bulbous or misshapen like Gremlin noses. Besides, pray tell, how was I to make a meal of vegetables that looked like aliens and sported even stranger names? What on earth was a kohlrabi? And topinambur? Toby’s what? Toby’s number? Where was the chye sim and the kailan and the kang kong?
Topinambur: a vegetable that looks like ginger and tastes somewhat like white radish without the sting
The only thing familiar to me were tomatoes, and there’s only so much spaghetti and tomato sauce a Frau can eat before she starts craving a side of leafy stir-fried greens.
And then, last year, our friends planned an elaborate party for my husband’s 40th birthday. They stocked the basement so full we could have opened our own bar. There were crates of Radler (beer and lemonade) and Franziskaner Weissbier; homemade flasks of flavoured schnapps; wines—Rieslings, Chardonnays and Sauvignons; bottles of vodka, gin and rum; mint leaves and lemon wedges, and syrups of elderflower and cherry liqueur.
“What’s for food?” I asked, and everybody shrugged their shoulders and went back to the beer.
Back home, when we celebrated milestone birthdays, we’d bring in the caterers and line the corridors outside our flats with trays and trays of food. We’d scour reviews online and plan tasting sessions before we settled on a buffet menu with 10 different dishes and five more desserts. We’d have some drinks available, of course. Coca Cola, I guess. And maybe some sort of wine and one kind of beer.
“No food?” I moaned.
“Oh, we’ll just call a chicken wagon,” said my husband’s best bud.
That was it. A chicken wagon. One chicken wagon was all we got. In the meantime, our basement threatened to drown from the volume of alcohol we’d bought.
Law and order
I felt out of place no matter where we went in Germany. The rules of life that I’d learnt from home no longer applied; values, perspectives and beliefs that I had once thought were universal were not really quite the same.
Out in the city, I stared hesitantly at the yellow barrier tape strung along the sides of the road. A bicycle race was in progress, it appeared. The
roads were empty and free of cyclists, but I didn’t want to break any rules. So I gingerly tapped the shoulder of the policeman standing at the corner.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Would it be okay to cross the road?”
He looked at me like I was stupid.
At the train station, I stared in annoyance as a group of rowdy teens rushed into the train and pried its doors open so their lagging friend could scramble on. The alarms sounded, but the group laughed even louder, and the entire train was forced to wait.
“Hooligans!” I snorted, whispering aggressively like a grouchy auntie to my puzzled husband. “In Singapore, we’ll cane you, put you in jail and then we’ll fine you jialat jialat!”
And just as I uttered these words, it hit me.
Singapore has had more influence on my personality, my likes and dislikes, and my values and beliefs than I ever realised. It has, in fact, become so much a part of me that even kilometres away, I’m still as Singaporean as the day that I left home.