My four years at Polytechnic were amazing! It was a whirl of parties, boyfriends, LOTS of fun and of course some studying. In my third year after working about 5 months in the UK on a work placement, I got the opportunity for another placement in Germany for a little under a year.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience—but it didn’t start that way. It was also very lonely in the beginning.
In retrospect, it was my time in Germany that firmly sowed the seeds for travel in me, fuelling my dreams to live abroad.
I lived in a tiny, picture postcard village called Beyernburg. It was by far the prettiest place I’d ever been to and looked like it had been carefully constructed with the left overs from a scene from Hansel and Gretel. Pretty, neat little houses nestled in lush forests; a grand church overlooked a shimmering lake.
I had a bedsit flat in the home of a German family, who had a daughter a year or two younger than me. These people loved me and treated me like an extended member of the family.
The other villagers, however, were somewhat slower to warm to me.
I had experienced racism as a child growing up in North London in the 60’s and 70’s but here in Germany, my sense of feeling separate was subtle yet obvious at the same time.
I can’t exactly say it was racism I felt there, don’t get me wrong. It’s more that in my first few months, I certainly felt my “out of placeness”
I expect I caused quite a stir in the hearts and minds of villagers with my arrival. But there was also the distinct feeling of not belonging and I felt very conscious of that.
It felt like the whole village would stop and stare at me every time I went out. They stared with suspicion, curiosity, pity and with something akin to fear.
Even the cats and dogs stopped to stare—but no one spoke a word to me.
I would see people, peeking at me through their curtains, as I ran down the hill from my flat to the dye factory where I worked in the mornings, and in the afternoons when I went shopping, I would be served in silence.
It was disconcerting, to say the least.
After 3 months, when I could speak and understand more German, it became clear to me why people were being so standoffish with me.
The reasons were much the same in 1989 as they are now—Brexit comes to mind.
You see, just as it is now in many countries, back then people were also scared that I was an immigrant, coming to live off the German welfare system and not paying my way.
It seems trivial but this suspicion was enough to stop people talking to me and perhaps more sadly, even asking me why I was in Beyernburg. It was easier to freeze me out.
But life quickly changed then took off for me, once I could express myself and explain that I was a student on placement.
Suddenly I became the subject of interest. People wanted to talk to me and ask me out.
I was 22; singing in two bands and life was definitely for the living. There was no time for looking inwards and as far as I was concerned, there was also no reason for it either.
Looking back now, I recognise the many coincidences and inner knowing’s that occurred during my time in Germany. Any of them could have been attributed to my inner voice—but back then, I was deaf and blind to anything that didn’t involve going out, partying, meeting new people and having fun.
After my graduation in 1990, I was totally confident I was going to find a great job and start earning some money. Why wouldn’t I be? I had an honours degree and my overseas work experience; it was a no brainer wasn’t it?
Not long after my graduation, my mother took me aside and said
“Now you’ve finished your studies, don’t think you’re equal to your peers. You may have been equal at school but in the real world, you’re going to find out that you’re not equal at all.
“You are black, so you’re going to find it harder to find work than your white friends.”
Can you imagine how livid I was?
I couldn’t believe what mum was telling me and I definitely refused to accept any of what she said.
I said “Stop being so negative Mum, of course, I’m going to get a job, I’m well qualified aren’t I, why wouldn’t I find work?
What is it about our mothers? Do they really know best, are they privy to wisdom the rest of us don’t get, or must we simply accept that they’ve lived longer?
Needless to say, she was proved right.
I struggled to find a job, any job in fashion or textiles and it would be 3 years before eventually a job in my field materialised.
I earned money working in clothes shops, but would very often fall into depressions, as it became progressively harder and harder to keep my confidence up, after what felt like knock back after knock back.
The thought of changing careers crossed my mind many times, but the voice in the back of my head kept telling me to keep looking…keep looking.
After 3 years, I realised that it was maybe time to give up the search, that maybe, just maybe I would better off retraining to do something else.
Before I could do this, my inner voice said, “ Just try one more time…apply for one more job” So that’s what I did.
The interview was a breeze.
I knew the moment I walked into the room that this job was mine and it was. After 3 years, I was finally on the career ladder.
Then in 1995 I got a job with an Irish company based in Northern Ireland and started travelling to Ireland every week. I would fly to Belfast; hire a car, then drive to the factories.
We had 11 clothing factories in different parts of the country. I got the job a few months after the cease-fire was declared and whilst I was a bit apprehensive about going to Ireland in the beginning, driving around the country quickly became the highlight of my week.
The drive from Belfast airport, through the barren countryside, was always exceptionally beautiful and serene. And once out of the city, the terrain quickly became sparse, covered mainly by rugged, craggy rocks with little or no trees.
But the lichens and heathers bloomed everywhere, in flurries of gold’s purples and whites; lighting up the way and it’s this sight that made the journey for me every week.
I got lost so many times while looking for the factories or for my hotels, and sometimes I would drive around and around not knowing which way to go. Suddenly a voice would say, “take a left, or take a right, or no don’t turn here, go straight”
Following the voice, always miraculously lead me to exactly where I needed to go. During those journeys, where many times my car was the only one on the road, I started trusting this voice.
One day I was on a flight back from Ireland. The whole journey had been bumpy and choppy, as we went through many patches of turbulent weather.
At one point we were passing through what felt like the eye of the storm. The plane began to be shunted up and down, left to right, like a toy in the hands of a child.
I gained a lasting respect for the elements during that flight, as I saw just how insignificant even a jumbo jet could be when pitted against the forces of Mother Nature.
People started panicking, screaming and crying especially when the oxygen masks suddenly dropped down…chaos was ensuing and I was also beginning to feeling scared.
Was I facing death again, but this time in a plane crash? I started praying internally. The response came immediately.
“Don’t worry, you are safe. The plane will land safely”
The voice was crystal clear, filling me with a deep sense of reassurance, so while everyone around me screamed, I could sit calmly in my seat knowing that our safety was guaranteed, that all would be well.