“Uh oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien….”, Sting has been following me today from the moment I got out of the plane in Düsseldorf, Germany.
I just arrived from Cuba, where I left my boat and home Seefalke for two weeks to take care of some urgent business and admin in the fatherland.
When Cultures Clash
Herds of grey suits form a faceless mass flowing down the endless aisles and hallways of this busy airport. Smartphones are flying by at head level, leaving a trace of mumble about deals and appointments and deadlines. Elevators and escalators continuously pump ties and skirts to the next level where they are efficiently scanned, sorted and processed to their final destination.
I am just standing there a little lost in my ragged jeans, my worn-out, salty leather jacket and my sunburnt face. A small army backpack is my only luggage. For how long I don’t know.
It is probably a hundred deals and a thousand deadlines later when I finally start trudging to my gate. The waiting area is full of laptops and tablets and phones working towards a new GDP record. While I have my coffee I keep wondering: Where have all the people gone?
When I was last in Germany, it was at the height of summer, and the blistering sun made that part of the transition easy for me, having arrived from the brutal heat of Suriname’s jungle. Now it is cold. Maybe not as cold as it could be at the end of January, but the temperatures leave little doubt it is winter.
While I am waiting on the flight that should take me to Berlin, I remember that, back then, I had the same feeling of being a stranger in my own home country. I remember how I was walking through the streets of Frankfurt:
How amazed I was at how everything was available in decadent abundance. As I stand in front of a phone shop, I remember how I needed a case for my new iPhone XS while I was in Paramaribo, Suriname’s lively capital, and how it took me two entire days to finally find a store that had one. Not a choice, just and only exactly one. How I almost kissed the saleslady and happily counted the bills on the counter and felt like a hero who successfully killed the dragon and can finally marry the princess. Mission accomplished. This little phone shop here in Frankfurt has more choices than there are in all Suriname! And a few doors down the street there is another one and another one…
Abundance, Decadence, Overkill
I try to imagine how someone would feel who would come here the first time. Like Ithiel, a teenage boy who loved to hang out with me in Domburg. Domburg is a small town on the outskirts of Paramaribo. He was born and raised in a small remote creole settlement in the center of Suriname. No roads nor airfield connect this village to ‘civilization’. From there it takes an entire day and experienced canoe driving daredevils to overcome the malicious races to only make it to a place with a road connection. Back in the day it was this remoteness that saved the runaway slaves’ lives. But today the jungle kids have smartphones, too and want to see the world.
Now this kid, who dropped out of school and left the jungle village to make money to become a pilot, loved to ask me about the world. If people would go out if it was cold? And if the rain was cold, too? And he genuinely was impressed that there was compulsory schooling. (In Suriname most girls go to school only as long as they can avoid getting pregnant.)
I try to imagine Ithiel here in Frankfurt or Berlin or London or Chicago. I fail. Even though I have been away from the modern western world for quite some time now, living on my boat in mostly remote underdeveloped places, I still cannot deny my origin. My senses are still dull enough to survive this omnipresent stimulus overkill. But how would it affect the sensitive feelers of my Suriname jungle friend?
On my sailboat I have crossed oceans, fought furious storms, endured endless calms, and have ventured into uncharted waters and unknown lands. And mostly I did this solo… on my own. I take a lot of strength from this, and coolness. It lets peer pressure drop off me like spray from my dodger. But also it sometimes makes it difficult to fit back into society, even temporarily.
Not too long ago I met this solo sailing girl in the Bahamas, and one evening I decided to be a gentleman and take her out to dinner. The restaurant was a decent place and when we arrived there, I realized I wasn’t wearing shoes. So I ran back to the boat to get my shoes. I forget to hold the door for the lady and fall on my chair before she even has reached hers. I’ll spare the details of my non-existent table manners, shaped from countless meals at sea shared only with my seadogs. So, on the way home to the boat I promise myself I will always pretend to have company when I have meals on solo passages in the future. At least I want to make an effort.
My thoughts are interrupted suddenly by an angry voice calling my name. I look up and I see that all the suits and ties and phones and laptops are gone and it’s only me left in the waiting area of the gate. I shoulder my backpack, and as I filter in through the narrow aisle to take my seat in the very back of the plane I hear the accusing chorus of the faceless mass.
I finally wedge into my seat and cannot help smiling when I remember that in my previous life, I was one of them: a rat racing for its life. So being an alien is not so bad after all.
And as the plane takes off, I close my eyes and listen to Sting: ”Uh oh I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien…”
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