reader report

Happily trapped amidst history

NEW HOME: Peter Wilton.
NEW HOME: Peter Wilton.

It was only supposed to be one year. One year of study and a job was still kept for me back in New Zealand.

But, after six months in Germany, it was clear to me that I would not be returning after just one year. There was too much to see, too much history, too much culture, too much to learn. But it was also not intended to become the 43 years that it has.

The idea of studying in Germany started to formulate when I was about 14. Nevertheless I was thinking on two levels. That idea was hidden at the back of my mind, while I continued my idea of becoming a doctor.

After school certificate I turned down the opportunity to take German, opting for chemistry and physics instead. That was a mistake. However, when I arrived in Germany, at the old Tempelhof Flughafen in West Berlin, at the tender age of 20 and with just a few phrases of German in my head, the French and Latin which I had taken at school stood me in very good stead.

I knew no one in Berlin in those days. That didn't worry me. I went straight to the address of the family of a young German doctor whom I had met one week before in Wellington and knocked on the door. It was the address of his mother and grandmother and was to become my home for the next nine months.

CELEBRATION: Fireworks over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Peter Wilton moved to the city for a year, and has stayed 43 years.
CELEBRATION: Fireworks over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Peter Wilton moved to the city for a year, and has stayed 43 years.

I knew no one but I had a plan. Number one on my list was my studies, then the confrontation with the language, then to look at a different country and live with a different people. Everything was different. From the first day on, before I sat down for my first meal, I had to speak German the best I could.

'Different' is a very important word when going to a foreign country. Although it is not the case, one should start out taking for granted that everything is different. Then, if you see something similar you maybe pleasantly surprised. And I think it is a case in which you can divide people roughly into two groups: those who thrive on the differences and those who are irritated.

Funnily enough this is not even a matter of age. Many young people travel around the world expecting everything to be same as at home and being aggrieved when they find out it is not.

Anyway, I soon settled down to life in West Berlin and also had a little time until my studies were to begin. I met up with another New Zealander and she was very good in showing me the ropes and also the city, to the extent of going through the Wall to East Berlin.

This Germany and this Berlin were not just a new country and city for me. This was where East met West, it was the centre of the Cold War, Berlin was an island surrounded by East Germany.

Obviously I cannot describe all the things I have experienced in 43 years of Germany. It was also a lot to take in but I threw myself into it with relish from the start. My German improved from day to day, thanks to the family I lived with and with the efforts of the proprietor and patrons of the pub next door. They took their new job very seriously.

When going to a foreign country the confrontation with the language is one of the most important factors in dealing with the people, their history, the culture and the mentality. And what advice can I give about that? I have found out that it is not pre-education that counts, not talent, not industry or even a fancy school but the absolute will to learn, to get out amongst the people and have a go, even to the extent of making a fool of yourself.

Doing that you will endear yourself to the natives, you will be given help, you will make friends. Another tip: remember that you are a guest in someone else's country. The Germans have a saying: the way you call into the woods, is the way it will echo out again.

Then all those differences become minor, after a while you forget all those borders, physical and mental.

And was I homesick? Am I homesick? Not to the extent that I became physically ill, as you sometimes read about in respect to others. I certainly missed New Zealand, but I am free to return whenever I like and enjoy it thoroughly every time I do. I missed the rugby. In the 70s and 80s, I could only pick results at the end of the BBC World Service, and that was if I was lucky.

But anything like that dwindles into insignificance compared with the broadening of horizons, the wealth of new experience and the thousands of personal friendships.

And would I recommend it for everyone? Definitely no. There are many who would suffer miserably.

The original question: is life in New Zealand better or worse than overseas? Unanswerable. There are many things about New Zealand and New Zealanders which I treasure. For example the inherent helpfulness of New Zealanders and, as all statistics show, the standard of living is as high as any other western country.

But Willy Brandt asked us to think more of the quality of life. That can be a very personal notion.