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How human connection helps us grow

Updated on: 24 May,2024 04:46 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Rosalyn D`mello |

Living far away from home has irrevocably changed me. I don’t know if I will ever feel ‘settled’, but I’ve learnt that I like exposing myself to people as there is much to learn from interactions

How human connection helps us grow

The commune of Tramin in South Tyrol, northern Italy, where I have lived for four years

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How human connection helps us grow

Rosalyn D’MelloJust when I made my peace with being perceived as an outsider in Tramin, my marital ‘Heimat’, I suddenly found myself at the heart of numerous interactions with locals. Over the course of the four years since my move here, my sense of relation with the town’s inhabitants has had an upward trajectory. I presume my growing fluency in German has a role to play. In the beginning, for the longest time, I had to suffice with being greeted either with a ‘Griaßdi’, the Südtiroler dialect variation of ‘grüß Gott’ or uncertain, polite smiles that acknowledged my existence. I had no doubt that most people knew I was my father-in-law’s daughter-in-law, because it is a small town with only 3,500 people. But if there was ever more of a curiosity around my identity, it never reached me.

As a result, the first year of mothering felt inalienably lonely. I spent hours and days caring for an infant without having anyone to exchange notes with or even rant to beyond my partner. I saw other mothers go for walks with their fellow mother friends. At the swimming pool, where I spent a lot of time last year, the other mothers smiled at me and were warm, but it never translated into conversation. Elsewhere in South Tyrol, because most people mistook me for our child’s nanny, I was rarely ever spoken to or addressed directly. Sometimes, in buses, I even felt the kind of hostility that is reserved for immigrant mothers of colour. I felt alienated from all my friends back home because mothering left me with too little time to catch up. I slipped off the radar professionally. It was only after incidentally stumbling upon a prolonged freelance gig that is ongoing that I began to feel intellectually nurtured once again.

Perhaps because I was compelled to become more visible within the town’s landscape, I became more familiar to people. And then, some months ago, I started to find myself regularly in conversation with people. A trip to the local grocery store would get prolonged because of small talk. The same mothers I would meet at the playground began to ask about what I did for a living, and where I came from, and I began to feel like I was finally being treated like someone with a subjectivity, a mind, a personality. 

I wouldn’t put this down to people being unfriendly or not nice, but to the fact that I live in a place that speaks German in theory but really prefers the local dialect. I also began to learn that even though standard German is the medium of instruction in most schools here, the locals feel relatively insecure speaking it, because it isn’t their native tongue. Dialect varies from region to region. The words for things differ from one village to another, one town to another so much so that many people who are native speakers of standard German struggle to acclimatise themselves to the variations in Dialect. So, it was not strange for me to take my time to wrap my head around it. I don’t speak it yet, because I have not been able to grasp its specific conjugation rules and its simplicity in terms of not using the dative and accusative forms at all. It has an economy that I envy. It sounds a lot easier than standard German. But without knowing it, I have found myself able to have conversations with people in which they speak to me in Dialect and I respond in standard German. For a very long time, the only person I did this with was my partner’s aunt Maridl, but now the pool has expanded, and it has become the norm. Even my doctor doesn’t switch to standard German with me and continues to speak in Dialect while I mentally translate and respond in standard German.

There are many frustrating dimensions when it comes to learning a new language. Among them is the fact that you feel like you are dumbing yourself down because you don’t have the vocabulary. It is this aspect that makes it a humbling experience. Living so far away from home, in such a remote location has irrevocably changed me. I am humbler because I’m still learning to articulate myself in German and Italian. I don’t know if there will come a point when I feel ‘settled’ here. But if there is one thing I have learned about my personality it is that I am an extrovert. I do crave contact and connection with other social beings. I like exposing myself to people because I learn so much from the interactions. I think this is an under-explored facet of immigrant life, what it means to be talked to and to be heard beyond the superficial narratives of ‘integration’.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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