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Running into a wall of silence

English is not welcome beyond the bounds of the Frankfurt Book Fair, reports Neelesh Misra.

india Updated: Oct 07, 2006 04:08 IST

I spent this week gesturing my way through a soulless city. I was among the authors who flew in from different parts of the world to be at the mahakumbh of writers, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest annual display of books. I had gone for the release of my third book, my first novel, Once Upon a Timezone, a romantic comedy straddling two continents, set in New York and an Indian call centre.

That is just the kind of multicultural straddling of time zones and cultures that the fair offers. It was a dazzling jigsaw from different parts of the world, a five-day spectacle during which the world, shrunken in Frankfurt, seems to understand only one language — the printed text.

Outside the sprawling fair grounds, however, there was one language that the city certainly did not understand — English.

Culture clash

How can a city host thousands of people from across the world, do it every year for 58 years, and still be so cold and unfriendly to other languages? Isn’t the book fair also about reaching out to other cultures, bridging divides? It was as if the city did not care for outsiders who want a window into Germany’s soul, but cannot speak its language.

Across Frankfurt, the signs almost everywhere are only in German, the ticket vending machines are confusingly German, and this citizen of a former British colony had little to get by in the trains, buses, and restaurants because there was little to read and hear but German.

Armed with only the English language and my out-of-place vegetarian soul, I stepped out of the airport. Hotel rooms have been booked months in advance, so I had managed to do one better — I had rented an apartment.

The ground floor apartment was beautiful: two large rooms, a dining area, and a large garden dotted with plants and small statues; I even saw a mongoose running through the shrubs. It was the kind of place I would love to buy in New Delhi, after I get a 40,000 per cent salary hike.

Olympics of sign language

Meanwhile, there were some pressing issues at hand. A struggle had to be waged. So I took off my jacket and shoes and jumped straight into the Olympics of Sign Language with the owner, Alfred Something-Something.

Alfred is grandfatherly, bespectacled, kind and confused. He owns a large house on Biedenkopfer Weg in the neat little neighbourhood of Rodelheim. He does not know a word of English and frequently bemoans this fact (I think) in German. We got along brilliantly.

Some tips for talking with Alfred: Raise your palm, turn it upside down, and pretend to be slapping it with the other palm. That shall get you butter. Turn your palm face down and move your first two fingers backward and forward to ask, “Is it walking distance to the train station?” Point to the watch, make a cone out of your hand as if holding a morsel, take it to your mouth repeatedly, and you might get a reply to your question: “When will I get breakfast?”

My German vocabulary is limited to ‘Danke’ — thank you — which I had heard in my childhood at the end of a live performance by Remo Fernandes. Since ‘thank you’ normally comes — in civilised nations — at the end of a conversation, both Alfred and I decided to try and have a conversation first (so that I could say ‘thank you’ at the end). We were still trying when I said bye to him and left the city.

Frankfurt blues

Dealing with Alfred gave me the confidence to deal with the rest of Frankfurt. I seemed to have already completed my BA degree in sign language. With the soaring spirit of a Lucknow buccaneer, I set out to talk to the rest of the city.

The city doesn’t want to talk to you, though.Frankfurt is bland, unfriendly and soulless. Frankfurters are like a cottage industry of New Yorkers — they don’t smile or look at visitors, or at each other. Many decline to help with directions. Others don’t understand. They sit with glazed looks in the trains, talking occasionally but only with their multilingual companions — the mobile phones.

Odd for me, since I come from the other extreme — from a country where even strangers in trains strike up conversations, peppered with such questions as: “So, not having babies yet?” We can talk about anything with anyone back in India. I had run into a Frankfurt Wall of Silence.

City shuts down

Worse, as I watched in disbelief, the city shuts down after seven, and you are left wondering where its 6,50,000 residents have gone. Shops shut down. Even cyber cafes shut down. Streets become deserted, with long rows of parked cars their only occupants. By nine, lights go out in homes.

It cannot be the real and imagined fears of terrorism all the time. Is it Europe’s dreary winter that is eating into them?

Or, perhaps, they do not want to reach out at all. October 3 was the anniversary of the 1990 reunification of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). That, and the last few years of the resurfacing of racial faultlines have perhaps made Germans cloistered and withdrawn. I noticed signs of it in the graffiti at the Rodelheim train station. “Arab Mafia,” said one scrawl.