This past weekend, my son pulled at my sleeve as we walked around our local Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in the early afternoon drizzle. His school’s junior choir was getting ready to jump on stage and kill the expectant crowd with their cuteness — little children in elf hats and reindeer ear-warmers, singing carols in three languages? Everyone reach for your phones! — when I heard my son’s shy ‘Sat Sri Akaal’.
The man selling “Indischer” food was turbaned, bearded, and speaking fluent German to the locals queuing for his treats. His samosas were delicious. He lived in nearby Tübingen. His family had been there for 20 years. He was originally from Gurdaspur, a place he visited with his brother’s family every year.
He refused to take our money, and told us to come back and have some tea. Away on the stage, the standard-issue creepy Santa was warming up the damp crowd, young students shivering behind him.
Around us was the chatter and hum of weekend commerce. These street markets are a feature of the festive season in Germany. People happily nosed about in the stalls selling somewhat overpriced Christmas goodies. “Local” handicrafts — carved wooden dolls from the Black Forest, wool hats from an alpaca farm nearby, and so on — sat next to vendors selling mulled wine and food. The various scents of flammkuchen (a sort of Germanic thin-crust pizza, minus tomato sauce; a masala papad, perhaps?), sausage, waffles, cakes and coffee added to the convivial fug.
I wanted a bit of meat to pair with my glühwein. An Afghan vendor was selling sambosey (a sort of flat samosa). “Merry Christmas,” I said to the gent wolfing his portion next to me. He grinned and raised his mug in reply.
Beijing is definitely in the past. Now, we live in a suburb of Stuttgart in Germany. The city is primarily known as the home of Daimler-Benz and Porsche and the myriad enterprises that cater to behemoths like them. It is highly industrialised and tech-savvy, with super amenities, including good schools and public transport. The locals like their cars and the like, and, in general, live well. What that adds up to is a sort of sleek, slightly smug prosperity that is sometimes resented and ridiculed by other Germans (envy probably plays a role too).
Yet, for all its provincial baggage, Stuttgart is hugely multicultural. Its educational and commercial infrastructure demands massive numbers of voluntary migrants, while its economic muscle enables it to absorb more than its fair share of refugees.
There are Indians literally everywhere, and not just running restaurants. The tech, motor and ancillary companies that drive the local economy employ thousands of people from around the world. On the streets you see mixed groups, including young girls in hijab, chattering away in German. This is the key difference between this country and some of its neighbours — Germany encourages assimilation, while remaining respectful of difference.
There are dissonant voices, true; in the media, in politics, on the street. Stuttgart isn’t representative of all Germany, because it is simply better off than most other places. But I haven’t been here long enough to take the temperature on discontent. Anyway, happiness is something that is much more readily apparent — because it is more readily shared — and, at least as far as the young faces go, this is mostly a happy place.
This is Germany, of course. We’re in northern Europe. There are prune-ish visages on display too. For every civil nod of the head, there will be someone else who walks past as if you don’t exist.
But in our local Christmas market, it was all bonhomie and good cheer. Even the dodgy Santa’s supposed comic stylings got a strained round of applause.
“Where do they find these freaks,” muttered one immaculately shod-and-jacketed father from behind his smile.
Last night, my son performed in a Christmas concert. The local music school maintains its own ensembles through the age groups. He is the youngest viola player in his section. His stand mate is an affable German teenager who has worked out a deal with him — he will speak to my son in English, provided my son replies in German. That way, they both get to practise a language they’re unfamiliar with. It is one more act of welcome; one in a series that has helped beckon my son towards feeling at home in a new place. Leaving Beijing was, is, hard for him, as it was for us all. To find music and companionship in this place can only smooth his path.
His orchestra played St Paul’s Suite by Gustav Holst. The performance was in a local church. The place was packed, with the performers’ families sharing space with congregationists and those who had come simply for the music. My son wasn’t the only Indian kid performing, but he was definitely the only one in a turban. That must be your child, smiled my neighbours on my pew.
“Will you carry my viola, please,” he asked afterwards. He was tired, and it was a cold night. If it rains tonight, it’ll snow, he said happily. The windows of the homes to either side had lit candles in them. There were lights on balconies and in trees.
We walked the short distance home, hand in hand.
Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis and is currently based in Stuttgart