A Different Kind of Love Letter

This is not for any person. This is for my home.

Upper Bavaria, in the South of Germany, is known among Germans as a bit of an odd place, where people talk funny, have a number of befuddling traditions, are a little too conservative, and altogether just a bit strange.

I happen to think it is the most beautiful place on Earth.

I landed in the early afternoon on a day in mid-September, and as the plane broke through the clouds on its way to the international airport in Munich, we were greeted by rather typical German September weather… grey, cloudy, cool, a smell of cold in the air, already a hint of winter. (Not that September in Germany couldn’t also be sunny and 30°C… theoretically. It does happen.)

As we descended, rolling hills of green passed by outside my window, little villages tucked into forest clearings or a river bend, all of them composed of white houses with red roofs, the obligatory church and market square, all peaceful-looking, tiny and a wholly different world from the one I had just left behind me in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi. The contrast could have not been more striking.

Three weeks in Kenya taught me a lot about the country, but as always, going away also makes you look at your home country in a different light. What I noticed as I re-entered Germany was how green everything was, how cold compared to Nairobi, how clean and how orderly. Above all, I noticed the difference in perceived (and presumably real) safety levels. I hopped into my mom’s car and we drove home without locking the car doors, parked the car on our parking lot and walked into the house without passing any security guards or gates. There are no bars in front of our windows, walking at 3 a.m. is usually perfectly safe, and a taxi driver is extremely unlikely to con and rob you. Within Germany, there are certainly areas where safety especially at night can be an issue, but my small town in Bavaria is definitely not one of them.

My town has about 20,000 inhabitants, which means I still occasionally run into my kindergarten teacher at the supermarket. The conservative party won about 70 percent of votes in the last election (although, I suspect, mostly because it was promising to build a cinema, which probably earned quite a few votes from the age group 18-25). There are more churches than I would consider strictly necessary for this number of people, and the ban on religious symbols at school has not yet reached us – crucifixes in classrooms are still a matter of course, as is compulsory religious education, or alternatively “ethics”, for those who don’t feel they belong in either the Catholic or the Protestant class. We’ve got a pool and a few restaurants, but in terms of entertainment, nearby Munich offers a lot more, of course. With a 20 minute drive I can be in the heart of Munich, fighting traffic (although compared to Nairobi traffic, this really does not seem worth mentioning), but a drive of the same duration in the other direction will lead me into the countryside, where villages have 200 inhabitants and usually about the same number of cows.

Do I have my issues with this place? Of course I do. In rural Bavaria, the predominant notion is that you should really just stay where you were born, get married, have a few kids, and if you go on holiday, maybe you should go see the North of Germany, where they speak that odd, over-correct German and don’t know what a “Semmel” is. (A.N.: Bavarian dialect for a bread roll, the standard German is “Brötchen”). Why ever would you want to travel far away? What do you want in New York City where there are so many tall buildings and you can barely see the sky? Why would you go to Africa, where it’s always hot and dirty and people are starving? What could possibly induce you to go to South America, where you’ll surely be robbed, or kidnapped by a drug cartel?

Of course this narrow view of the world bothers me. Of course it bothered me that my decision to study somewhere other than Munich was frowned upon. Of course it bothered me when a boyfriend came to visit and odd looks followed us in the more rural areas because of the color of his skin. Of course it bothers me that a winter can last from October to April, and that finding a cinema that will play films in their original language can take some substantive effort. It’s why I travel… so that this part of the world is not all that I see, so that its view of the world is not all that I know.

Yet no matter what happens, this is my home. And for as long as I live, when I think of this little conservative, peaceful, almost boring corner of the world, it will give me a distinct feeling of belonging. My roots are here in this odd and beautiful place where dialect is very much alive, where people know that Weißwurst (Bavarian veal sausage) is traditionally eaten before 12 pm, where even greetings already involve a mention of God (“Grüß Gott!”), where the standard, stoic answer to something not going one’s way is “ja mei” (dialect for “oh well”), and where summer months are still spent biking to the nearby lake to swim, or finding one’s way through a maze cut into a corn field.

I wish I could have continued my stay in Kenya as planned, and throughout the entire flight I felt regret tugging at me, making me wish that something had gone differently… yet as we landed, just for a while, I forgot about it. As I was watching the green hills under the cloudy sky, watching white houses with red roofs come into closer view, fields alternating with patches of forest, I only felt one thing – love.

It’s good to be back, Bavaria.

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