Making an Indonesian Connection In Germany

NOVEMBER 10, 2009

Wahyuni Kamah

If you are itching to travel, but are not quite ready to branch out from your comfort zone, staying with newfound friends from your home country can be a good option. That way you can enjoy familiar elements from home while also mingling with the locals.

On my recent visit to Germany last month, I took a leap of faith and stayed with two German-Indonesian families. I decided to stay with them because I wanted to visit old friends, make new contacts, and, of course, experience the lifestyles of bicultural families.

My encounter with the wonderful Paisan family came from out of the blue. Only a few days before I left Indonesia, I contacted Om Dj (the nickname of Djoko Paisan), an Indonesian virtual friend of my brother. They had come to know each other through an Internet community. My brother introduced me to this warm-hearted man online and told him that I was interested in spending a couple of nights in his new hometown of Mainz, Germany. He responded that I was welcome to stay with his family.

Mainz is a city by the Rhine River in Rhineland Pfalz province. Om Dj, a Javanese man, lives with his wife, Suzi, a German woman, and their youngest son, Daniel, in an apartment. His eldest son and only daughter also live nearby. Om Dj originally came from Semarang, Central Java. He studied at Oxford University and met Suzi when he traveled to Mainz, where he has now lived for more than 30 years. “I love this town. It is small and tranquil but strategically located. I am not interested in moving to another city,” he said.

Om Dj and his wife often host Indonesian students, who stay overnight to watch football matches and enjoy the Indonesian dishes Suzi cooks up, including soto ayam (spicy chicken soup) , sayur lodeh (vegetables in a coconut curry) and tempe kering (crispy tempe).

The provincial capital was indeed tranquil, with only 200,000 inhabitants. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon when I arrived in Mainz and the Paisan family took me to the Old City quarter. The pedestrian area was full of people enjoying the autumn sunlight. People wandered along or sat in sidewalk cafes drinking coffee and eating pastries.

The family also took me to the Rhine, the longest river in Germany. Mainz is located on the west bank of the waterway, which originates in Switzerland in the south and empties into the North Sea in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The river traverses several German cities and these regions are known as the Rhineland. In most of these cities, promenades are constructed along the riverbank so that citizens can enjoy the beauty of the river. In Mainz the promenade is so wide that people can ride their bicycles, jog and walk as well. “In summer time, the promenade is full of sunbathers,” Om Dj said.

Mainz is also the center of the largest wine-growing region in Germany. The tradition of vintners in this region dates back 2000 years. The vineyards can be seen from the riverbank of the Rhine and are concentrated between the cities of Worm and Bingen. Annually, the world’s largest fair of German wine — Weinbrse — is held in Mainz where about 1000 wines are available for tasting.

After staying two nights in Mainz, I bade the Paisan family farewell and headed to Munich to see my old friend Kak Yulis, an Indonesian woman who once lived in Jakarta. She met her future husband, Jusuf, in Australia when he was studying there. He converted to Islam and married her in Indonesia before they moved to Germany. They have now been wed about 20 years and have two teenage daughters. As a Muslim woman, Yulis started to wear a headscarf about four years ago. “It was not easy to be accepted in the beginning,” she acknowledged. However, she insisted on wearing it, and her husband and mother in-law now accept her decision.

Although most communication at home is in German, Yulis, who speaks the language fluently, speaks Indonesian with her daughters and husband. Her daughters, Hana and Rifa, speak German most of the time but they understand Indonesian. I first met Yulis in Munich in 2005, but she now lives in a townhouse in Dornach, about 30 minutes by train from Munich.

The timing of the visit meant the weather was not favorable for sightseeing. “Munich is notorious for its changing weather because it is situated in the south,” Yulis said. When she took me to Munich on my second day, the weather shifted constantly, from rain to snow, howling gales to bright sunlight.

However, we still had the opportunity to wander around. In temperatures of 1 to 4 degrees Celcius, we bundled up in warm clothing. Traveling from Mainz to Munich, I saw a big difference in terms of the crowds and bustle. The city has about 1.3 million people. Areas like Sendlinger Tor and Marienplatz, where commercial activities are concentrated, were crowded with tourists, mainly from the Middle East, as well as locals.

Getting to know a different culture does not have to involve attending a local museum or performance — it can also be gained by staying with a cross-cultural family and this is what I found at Yulis’s house. Accompanying her to an Asian market to buy Indonesian vegetables and ingredients and then helping to prepare the mix of Indonesian and German food for dinner provided insight into the lifestyles of bicultural families and was an experience I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed at a hotel.

By staying with these families, I was able to save money as they treated me as their guest, which I was extremely grateful for. However, the most important aspect for me was the human aspect, as we forged strong friendships. Getting to know these people added a whole new level to my journey.