A Long Way From Home

by Vivian Uchechi Ogbonna

There’s a saying among the Igbos that a person who asks for directions does not lose his way.

Frankfurt: January, 2001.

“So, you want to travel all over Germany before you get there?”

The porter was burly, his English heavily-accented. The girl beside me had called his attention to my ticket. Glowering, he said I should have disembarked at a previous station from where I’d board the train to Bielefeld. I started to explain but his look scalded me into silence. I shrank into my seat, certain I was lost in this bleak, distant place. I gave him a hundred Deutschmark note, he inspected it and, seeming satisfied, issued me with another ticket. Other passengers feigned a lack of interest in the altercation, their gazes either fixed ahead or on the scenes outside the windows.

This was my first visit abroad and I was high with excitement. But I was also wracked with nerves—a bad combination, made worse by this new world that jarred my senses. The cold was brutal and the layers of clothes I wrapped myself in were impotent against the weather. A strange silence accompanied me everywhere. As I stepped out of my lodging every morning into a lonely street entombed in an empty air bubble, I kept waiting for the bubble to fill up with voices, footsteps, car horns, music, laughter, and other staples from the streets back home. None happened.

At the Hauptbahnhof- the main train station – I watched, amazed, as a blind woman tap-tapped her way across the large hall, up to the platform and into a train. Two figures walked ahead of me, their arms around each other. When I drew closer, I saw they were men. They stopped at the centre of the foyer and, for many minutes, gazed into each other’s eyes. Then, they started to kiss. Shocked, I stared at them before turning away.

Directions, tickets and maps were written in Dutch and this alienated me further. But I soon discovered that all the staff at the information desk of the Hauptbahnhof could speak English. So, several times a day, I’d pop in to ask for directions. At other times, I preferred losing my way, rambling along until I unlost myself.

I had come for a trade fair and needed to make contact with people. But Nigeria was a pariah nation at the time and people became guarded upon introduction. Some would ask me to call and when I did, they wouldn’t pick their calls. Eventually I stopped revealing my identity. But all that changed the day I walked into a flower shop manned by a white girl. She said she was South African and, buoyed by the news of our common heritage, I bought four cacti from her.

***

Frankfurt: January, 2007.

Memories of my last visit filled me with apprehension but once I stepped off the plane, instinct made navigating the city less daunting and communication easier. Strasse and Ausgang were no longer strange words. The former meant ‘street’ while the later pointed to an exit. I even learned to say Danke – Thank you – to the person behind a till.

It is often said that we see things when we look out for them. This time, there seemed to be more black people around – on the train; at the fair; the cleaners in the toilets; a group of black men chatting animatedly while one of them roared with laughter and stamped his foot repeatedly on the floor. It was such an incongruous moment in the calm ambiance of the morning. Only a brother could be so unguarded, so expressive. It embarrassed me but, in a strange way, it also comforted me.

Evenings saw me at the Hauptbahnhof eating dinner and, afterwards, people-watching. On one of those evenings, a young lady walked up to me, smiling and holding out a copy of Awake, a publication of the Jehovah’s Witness. I accepted it and we launched into a conversation, the beginning of an unlikely friendship. She was Eritrean and her family had fled to Kenya during the Ethiopian crisis, from where they had immigrated to Germany. The following evening, she invited me to one of their church meetings and, because I was curious and had nothing else to do, I accepted. Before then, my only encounters with the Jehovah’s Witnesses were back home, when they’d turn up at my door on sweltering Sunday afternoons, un-smiling, trailing tired-looking children and selling tracts. These ones were different. They sang a lot and laughed even more. Their doctrines were strange but it didn’t matter. That first encounter, and a few more, would serve to break down the reservations I’d had about them.

***

Frankfurt: August, 2007.

My hosts were a Pakistani couple and my apartment a lovely self-contained unit. While the woman and children were friendly, displaying a warmth tinged with shyness, the man would walk past me on the streets without acknowledging my greetings.

I had planned to travel to Berlin to spend the rest of the time with a friend, but just before I arrived, she started a new job that took her out of town. I remained in Frankfurt and the days lingered before my flight home. Bored, I explored the neighbourhoods and window-shopped at Zeil Kauphof. I longed to see Milan, my Jehovah’s Witness friend, but I had lost her contact numbers. The flower shop was gone and I wondered about my South African sister.

The Rhine Main festival beckoned to me. It was a showcase of German culture and crowds paraded the banks of the Rhine dancing to pulsating music, eating, and drinking. Like a leaf tossed about by a lazy wind, I traipsed in the throng feeling out of place. Other cultures were on display: men and women doing the Salsa; African fashion, food and herbal remedies; a black couple wriggling their hips to the staccato beats of Makossa, while a small crowd cheered them on. At the African food stall, a white man was moulding white rice into a yellow sauce before scooping the mix into his mouth. As he ate, bits of food kept falling back into the plate and I felt a slight revulsion. Was he imitating the way we mould and dip solid foods into a sauce before eating? Do others feel the same aversion when they watch us eat?

***

London: September, 2007.

My cousin picked me from the airport and after we’d stowed my suitcase in the boot, I made for the right side of the car. He began to chuckle. I didn’t understand why until he came over to where I stood, opened the door and got in. My brows creased, then realization hit me. Laughing softly and chiding myself, I walked over to the left side. “Most people do that the first time they visit,” he said as we pulled away. I looked at him again. Like a shirt mis-buttoned, he looked odd changing the gears with his left hand. I felt odd sitting on that side of the car.

I had arrived from Frankfurt certain I wouldn’t feel any disorientation, but I was wrong. The people were cold and distant. There were barely-there nods that pretended to be responses to my salutations, curt answers to my inquiries and, sometimes, the flash of a smile from a stranger. It was so different from Nigeria where the exchange of greetings is an elaborate social ritual. It starts with the bestowing of good will on the other person, followed by inquiries about spouses, children, the weather, or the cousin who’s getting married on the weekend.

I travelled to Sheffield, Tyne and Wear, and Manchester. In Sheffield, I discovered a One-Pound shop in the heart of town. I had heard about these budget shops where every item wore the same price tag. Thrilled, I browsed the shelves crammed with merchandise, looking for nothing in particular. As I moved from one aisle to another, the security guard– a tall African man–followed me at a distance.

I had anticipated these journeys with excitement, so nothing prepared me for the Underground and its complex system of terminals, tracks, platforms, maps crisscrossed with red and blue lines, ticketing machines, passengers studying the huge Information Display Systems while others dragged luggage on wheels, almost tripping those dashing to catch a coach before the doors closed. I stood within the cavernous foyer of Kings Cross St. Pancras, feeling intimidated. The atmosphere was chaotic but a subdued kind of chaos. It was worlds apart from a Nigerian transportation hub: rumbling and rickety Molues, Danfos, Kabu-Kabus, Okadas, Ke-Ke Napeps and taxis–all in various stages of dignity. In Nigeria, noise is everywhere. And silence is a luxury.

***

London: October, 2013.

One of my parents needed medical attention and I accompanied as a chaperone. The treatment required frequent purchases from the pharmacy at Boots and one evening, I got acquainted with the Asian girl at the counter. She was pretty in an unusual kind of way – perfect bird-like features, eyes heavily outlined in black, jet-black hair held up in a bun. I said I liked her makeup and, because there’s nothing like a compliment to break the ice, she smiled and thanked me. As she served me, she asked if I lived in London. When I said I was visiting, she was curious. Do you like it here? I said I did. Surprised, she launched into a lament, saying she was miserable and wanted to return home. I didn’t ask where home was, neither did I offer any consolation. She didn’t seem to want any, preferring to just bare her soul to someone, even with her supervisor within ear shot.

To break the tedium of hospital visits, shopping, cooking and endless phone calls, I visited friends at Belvedere, Orpington and Beckton. We partied at 805 Restaurant on Old Kent Road. One night, I set out for Dominium Theater and stopped for directions on Oxford Street. He was a middle-aged man and after he gave me the directions, he said I needed to learn how to pronounce words properly so people would understand me. I was embarrassed, stunned by his rudeness. But I smiled instead. Later on, I would nurse my wounds, angry at myself for not having the courage to tell him that I was also struggling to understand him.

A few days later, still smarting from the encounter, I set out for the Lyceum Theater to see the stage adaption of The Lion King. I approached a small group of people, unsure if the ‘y’ in Lyceum should sound like an ‘i’ or an ‘e’, or how to pronounce the ‘eu’ combination. One of the men cracked a joke – not related to my accent, thankfully – before pointing out the Lyceum’s imposing columns.

My parents returned to Nigeria and I had time to myself. I spent the days reading and pretending to write, grateful for the silence around me.

On the sixth of December, a taxi pulled up at the door. I was going home. The driver was Turkish and as we rode to Heathrow, he told me his story. He had owned a restaurant in Turkey but had closed it down when the war started, hoping to make a fresh start in the United Kingdom. But life had been hard since he arrived and he had considered taking his life on several occasions. My heart broke as he spoke and when he dropped me, I gave him a large tip hoping it would, in a way, assuage some of his angst.

For a long time afterwards, I would think about him and the girl at Boots. We were kindred spirits, floundering about in alien spaces a long way from home. But unlike me, they were not ashamed to speak their truths. I think that when we do that, we eventually find our way and perhaps, ourselves.

***

London: October, 2015.

“Welcome Home,” the elderly Indian man called out with a smile as I left Baggage Claim. This is not home, I thought. My ears buzzed a dull, hollow sound and tiredness saturated my bones, but I still smiled and waved at him. I had never been gifted by such spontaneous, genuine warmth from a total stranger in the United Kingdom. He disarmed me.

As I trudged deeper inside the tunnel leading to Heathrow Express, I kept wondering why my new friend assumed that London was home for me. Was there a look, an air, an attitude about me that said it was? I didn’t have time to figure it out before another man, younger, sidled up to me with an offer to carry my suitcase. Did he notice how tired I looked? Surprised, but grateful, I accepted. He picked up my suitcase like a bag of popcorn and walked up the flight of steps we were approaching. Thirty minutes later, I was still struggling with the same suitcase when a young lady offered to lift one end while I held the other. We spilled out at the next landing, out of breath. I thanked her over and over again as she disappeared into the crowd. Perhaps, these people are not as cold as I perceived.

Noise found me on Oxford Street. The cadence of different languages swelled and ebbed around me: Chinese, Arabic, English, Yoruba and Eastern Europe. I tried to make eye contact with people but they brushed past me, engrossed in conversations, nursing warm drinks, snacking. A small group of anti-Zionists chanted in front of Marks and Spencer, protesting her links with Israeli businesses. Policemen stood by watching the spectacle. Groups of energetic teenagers were dancing to loud music. A man sat on a low stool, playing a guitar while a young lady leaned against a wall belting out a soulful number. Beggars were loitering in front of Selfridges. A woman sat on the cold pavement shivering. Her right shoulder was exposed. It had no arm. Coins littered her feet like an offering. Close by, a homeless man was settling down in a doorway for the night. Two young Asian men in leather jackets walked past, their arms around each other. A few steps later, I realized this sight used to shock. Now, it is how people are here.

An elderly black woman came up to me asking for directions to Debenhams. She said she’d been down with a stroke and hadn’t come that way in two years. I told her I didn’t know the way but stood watching as she crossed the busy street, surprised, once again, at how open people could be here.

The bustling atmosphere in Primark was familiar even if discomforting. People were jostling and bumping into each other on the aisles, dragging shopping carts piled high with merchandise. A shopping experience should be saner, I told myself for the hundredth time. Yet, like butterfly to nectar, I return, again and again, drawn by the prices of the items. I asked a sales person where I could find pegs. “Bags?” “Pegs.” “Bags?” We kept passing the two words back and forth until I realized my accent was the culprit. Amused, I made the sign of clips on clothes and understanding lit his eyes.

One night, I explored New Bond Street. Most of its upscale shops were closed for the day but the glass facades displayed exquisite merchandise whose price tags hurt my eyes. A lady beckoned to me from an open doorway and, even though I knew I couldn’t afford the beauty products on display, I walked in. While she demonstrated a product on one half of my face, our conversation turned to me – where was I from and what was I doing in London? When I told her, she became visibly excited, saying that many of her clients were Nigerians. Some had even tried to persuade her to open shop in Lagos because, according to them, “One customer can walk in and buy up all the products in your shop.” I grew quiet, torn between conflicting emotions – annoyance at such a portrayal of Nigerian extravagance and sadness that it was true.

Brick Lane introduced a colourful explosion of street art. Graffiti and murals adorned the buildings and I spent many hours appreciating and photographing the ambiance. There was a chocolate shop at the corner that was bursting with people eager for the hand-made sweets. Nigerian music–Psquare, Olamide, Wizkid–was playing in the background. As I swayed to the beat and sang under my breath, the lady at the counter smiled. “Aunty, you’re enjoying the music?” It was both a statement and a question. Beaming, I said, “Yes. They are my people.”

 ***

Frankfurt: January 11-18, 2016.

I arrived to the cold, wet and dark. The directions to my lodging were written on a piece of paper tucked away in my bag, but I knew the stops by heart. I took the S-Bahn – the green line – in the direction of Hanau, stopped at Ostdendstrasse and walked the rest of the way.

My hosts were a local family. The wife was a lecturer at the university and the husband stayed at home looking after their two young children. To welcome me, they had placed a piece of chocolate on a blue, fluffy towel on my bed. There was coffee, tea, milk and sugar on the table. “Do you want to eat when you come back?” they asked.

Four hours later, rested but hungry, I set out to attend Heimtextil, Europe’s biggest trade fair for furnishing fabrics. The Hauptbahnhof felt and smelled the same -men and women smoking at the entrances, clothed in warm jackets; the early morning crowds pouring down and riding up the elevators; sounds of running feet; the information office; the delightful aroma of coffee and sandwiches; a voice announcing long distance departures; the sound of metal on metal as trains pulled away; Hanisch, the florist.

The night before I left, I joined my hosts in the kitchen. Their first child was turning four the next day and the man was cooking for a party. They were curious about me, about Nigeria. They’d heard about Boko Haram and asked if we lived normal lives. Sometimes, it is difficult to talk about Nigeria but I assured them we do.

***

Every venture beyond Nigeria’s borders throws up experiences that are in sharp contrast to the ones that have shaped me. The culture shocks add shape to the mould Nigeria built, widening my familiar while tearing down my idealism about places and people.

Now, I bear my heritage and accent with pride. I have seen that home is where our hearts pine for and we’re never truly happy elsewhere. I value kindness from strangers as a rare gift. I no longer stare at same-sex couples. I do not like the Underground because once the doors of the trains close, I’m overcome with claustrophobia. I still cannot read the maps but I’ll keep trying.

About the Writer:

Vivian Ogbonna has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In 2015, she participated in the Writivism Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria. Her short story, A Ball of Thread, was long-listed for the 2015 Writivism Short Story Prize. She has also been published in The New Black Magazine, Olisa TV, etc.

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