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  Learning from Germany
  By Simi Thambi  
  MY joy knew no bounds when in June last I was invited to take part in a model United Nations Conference hosted by Duisburg University at Duisburg in the Northern Rhine region of Germany. To cut down the cost, the university students had volunteered to host international delegates like me at their homes. Thus we got a first-hand experience of the German way of life. With me was another girl, a doctoral student from the Political Science Department of Delhi University.

When we arrived at the Düsseldorf airport, we were informed that our host Ines Ulmn, a bachelor's student at the university, would pick us up. Though I knew her through e-mails, it would not be truthful if I say I was not surprised when we met at the airport. She was much older than what I had expected her to be, a tall woman in her early fifties.

The bewilderment caused me to blurt out, quite unexpectedly, "So you are Ines?" She smiled and answered in the affirmative adding, "Yeah yeah, much older than you must have thought!" Saying this she escorted us to her Mercedes Benz.

Duisburg is an industrial centre of North Rhine region, most renowned for its steel industry. The Duisburg harbour is the largest inland harbour in the world. Given the industrial base, it is considered to be among the 'not so pretty places' to see in Germany. But coming from India even the 'not so pretty' was a delight to watch.

Our host Ines stayed at Mulheim, a posh city, 10 minutes drive from Duisburg. After reaching her house, we didn't have much time on hand to chat as we had to leave immediately for a global village party. These parties, ubiquitous in Model United Nations Conferences, are an informal way to get to know the fellow delegates of the Conference.

Each delegate had to represent and present something (in terms of food or performance) of his/her home country or the country he/she is representing at the conference. Some of the highlights of that evening that I can recollect now are the traditional Pashto dance from Afghanistan, bhangra from Pakistan, the rhythmic sway from China, a Bollywood number from India (sung by me given the great fan base of Bollywood abroad), chanting of Love Verses from Egypt, tribal dance from South Africa, Opera from Canada and recital of national anthem by Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

The fact that everything was so impromptu added to the excitement. Diversity in the world has fascinated me since I was a little child, but watching it so closely was a different experience altogether. The Goosebumps on my arms with every performance was how my body reacted to this great feeling.

Another thing that fascinated me was that we the delegates from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh became pals in just an instant, quite unlike our national diplomatic circles. Much because we had so much in common: Hindi/Urdu, Bollywood, Shayeri to name a few. It was a great experience to bond with fellow Asians in the West.

From the next day onwards, we had rigorous committee sessions, namely UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, UN Economic and Security Council, European Union and G-20. We had to role play the heads of State and their position at these committees. From then on we were no longer delegates from our home country but of the country we were representing at the Model United Nations. I had chosen to represent Japan in G-20. So I had to behave like the Japanese Prime Minister. We had to address each other as fellow heads of State with due respect and in the formal lexicon. After four days of grueling sessions we arrived at two leaders' statements for each topic, at which all heads of state unanimously agreed. The sessions were challenging but at the same time great fun.

Each day after coming back from the committee sessions to Ines's House we went for sight-seeing to nearby places. One day we went for a night walk followed by dinner at Duisburg inner harbor, next day Ines took us to Düsseldorf, the fashion hub of North Rhine, then another day she treated us with a wonderful dinner over the North Rhine River.

But the best of them was when she took us to a restaurant in the woods. That day Germany was playing against Australia. A group of people were watching the match together. When we reached, they offered us to join them and suddenly we became one huge group of people shouting loud "GO Deutschland". Each time Germany scored a goal the guys rushed to hug/kiss the TV; it was hilarious and truly a delight to watch.

As the Mastercards advertisement says, there are some things which money can't buy... That day cheering at the restaurant I realized that the world is such a beautiful place to live in. We came from different continents but there are always things which bond us all together breaking all barriers. Among other things I was also bowled over by the German hospitality.

In most restaurants we went to, the Chef seeing that we were foreigners gave us some free drinks -- at a Turkish restaurant where I went with my university pals, I was offered an extra cup of Turkish black coffee, at the restaurant in the woods each day we were offered a chocolate and an extra drink. I don't know whether in general the people were like that or whether the people I met were extra nice. But the experience was relishable. This made me think of foreigners in India where the Indian shopkeepers try to make maximum profits from them, so much for the ostentatious slogans of "Atithi Devo bhav".

As for Ines, she was a woman who I will admire for the rest of my life. She had been a physiotherapist by profession but now that she was getting old she had decided to pursue her other areas of interest, so she decided to study political science at the University. On our long evening jogs together, she often told me of the hardships they had to face under the authoritative Communist regime.

She and her husband were originally from East Germany but came to this part of West Germany after the fall of Berlin Wall. She was now super rich; her husband was the CEO of a major software hub in Germany. She told me she didn't believe in religion or God. Her faith lay in the ability of the government to direct welfare. But somehow I felt that though she was a no-believer, she was a better Christian than many of us, through her humility and nobleness. I had the privilege to chat with her husband as well, and loved every bit of those long conversations. Not for an instant did I feel I was talking to a high-profile person. He talked with such an unpretentious demeanor, rare to find these days.

On the last day of my stay in Germany, we decided to go to Amsterdam, which was two hours drive away. It was Sunday and technically it was an off day for shops but the city still appeared to be in a carnival mood. The best thing about Amsterdam was its highly liberal culture -- everything from drugs, prostitution to LGBT is legalized.

They sell marijuana, weed etc like coffee at coffee shops (different from cafes) and they make money from sex at the red light district area where scantily-clad prostitutes stand behind window panes ready to be bought like groceries with their rates put outside like on a menu card. It was definitely a grave culture shock coming from a land where these things are a big taboo. Whether their culture was good or bad, I don't know. I do not wish to judge. But they surely have lower cases of rape, illegal prostitution and human trafficking.

In retrospect, my German tour was definitely a unique experience. Most of all, I admired Germany for the fact that each citizen felt a sense of moral responsibility towards the city. For simple things like keeping the city clean they were so diligent. In India even in Delhi University where everyone is educated, so to say, the students lack this moral sense. No doubt, India is special and unmatchable. If only these loopholes could be taken care of, it would be a paradise to live in.
Photo caption: The writer (in the front row wearing black dress) with some of the delegates
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