Altstadt, the old town and the heart of Düsseldorf, is really international. You can go to a student party on Thursdays at McLaughnis, the Irish pub in Andreasstraße, or to Poco Loco for karaoke, or dance to salsa music in one of the small discos with South American atmosphere. The variety of nationalities and races is astonishing to a newcomer whereas the citizens of Düsseldorf are rather used to it. Of course, you can compare it to a typical tourist town where thousands of different languages can be heard in the street. But here the foreigners are not just passing through; there are students, workers, au pair girls, and people in search of fortune... Many of them are European citizens and have the right to stay here for as long as they want. Others would do anything to renew their residence permit so they don't have to return to their homelands. A few of them will go back home in the end.
Two ways of saying 'I love you': “Ti amo” and “ti voglio bene”
In this microcosm every taste is catered for, and every heart, too. Italian, Spanish, French, English and also Turkish, Korean, Jamaican: boys and girls with very different looks and lifestyles... And yet, when they sit at the same table, they will nearly always manage to communicate, making themselves understood and understanding others. Ukrainian Kristina, a student by day and a waitress by night, says with a smile: ‘When I arrived in Düsseldorf, I took a German language course for beginners with an Italian man who was a tour guide. After a few days we still knew only a few words in German, but all of us had picked up Neapolitan gestures!’ Certainly, diversity creates divisions. However, very often it also leads to curiosity and interest. ''Sometimes, it’s so fascinating that you fall in love with it'', confesses Giovanni, 28 years old, who has found his soulmate in Düsseldorf. "People start dating, walking hand in hand, and they try to find words to express themselves, at the same time scared of not being understood. Italians are often afraid of rushing things, as they cannot find the equivalent of the phrase ti voglio bene in a foreign language. They usually end up saying 'I love you', which actually means 'Ti amo' in Italian - a phrase that is rarely said in the beginning of a romantic relationship whereas 'Ti voglio bene' can be said to boy/ girlfriends and friends.
Lunch with the eurogeneration
The decisive test of a mixed couple's compatibility is cohabitation. Every single tiny habit of daily life confronts the couple with a dilemma. You only have to think about the fact that in Northern and Eastern Europe, people always take off their shoes when entering a private house: this is unthinkable in Italy and Spain. It’s probably due to the difference in climate; people who live in Slovakia, where they have three months of snow per year, cannot be wearing their shoes when they enter a house. It is generally women who come up with reasons for habits and perpetuate them, even when they move to a country where the climate is completely different to that of their home countries.
There’s also the difference in diet to consider: spaghetti, paella, bratwurst, goulash, piroi, fondue, wine, beer, sangria, tea, coffee... Of course you can try a bit of everything, but how are our eating habits evolving? What’s best for digestion – serving a salad before, during, with or after the main dish? And should it be served without dressings (as in the East), with balsamic vinegar and olive oil (as in Mediterranean countries), or with a German-style yoghurt dressing? Big breakfast and light dinner, or cappuccino and brioche in the morning and rich meal in the evening? Italians eventually end up having tea and scrambled eggs for breakfast while their German neighbours buy espresso machines...’ concludes Giovanni. For Irina, a medical student from Russia who has been living with an Italian for two years here in Düsseldorf , ‘the meeting of two cuisines always results in a unique and interesting mix. When you return to your home country later on, you will never find the food back home as delicious. Infusions of other cuisines have made you lose the taste for the cuisine of your home country’.
What about the children - eternal foreigners?
Everything works out for the mixed couple in the end: they love each other, get married and start a family. Their children will have foreign-sounding names and will often be considered 'foriegners', even if they were born in their country of residence, have the passport and have always lived there, and even if only one of the parents is from another country. They often feel proud of their 'diversity', which makes them exotic and interesting. They will have the advantage of being bilingual or even trilingual. ‘Parents should just to talk to their children in their mother tongue from a young age, without fear of confusing them,’ recommends Irina.
Pilar works as a translator in a big German company. She is Spanish and married to an Albanian man. Little Alvaro was born here in Germany: ‘In general I speak to him in Spanish but he replies in German. He speaks Spanish with my parents when we go to theirs in Andalusia on holiday. But you should see the way he corrects me when I use the wrong preposition in German! After studying it for years, I get to be corrected by a 3 year-old boy!’
For mixed couples like them, there is always the open question: where do they feel 'at home'? In a multiethnic, multicultural society like the one we live in today, we can do a lot in order to integrate into another society, but you remain an Italian, Spaniard, German, Russian...etc. ‘The different experiences you have make your roots more or less important, but ‘home’ will always be where people feel most comfortable’, concludes Giovanni. Maybe one day we will be able to say that we feel at home in Europe, who knows....?