What are you doing abroad anyway?” – My grandma and I live in different worlds

By Alba Bock

Translated by Herbert Meck

“What are you actually doing abroad? Your mother said you’re staying longer?” my grandmother asks in our first phone call since I left my home country four weeks ago to live abroad for about half a year. “I’m studying,” I reply. My answer is very curt, I don’t even bother to explain what I’m studying,. I wouldn’t know where to start. I often have the impression we live in different worlds. I’m pretty sure my grandmother also never understood what I studied in my previous two humanities degrees and what I worked on in my previous job in a youth centre. She probably told her peers that I was a teacher. That was the only profession with teenagers and young adults that she could imagine.

My grandmother never went to university. She worked very hard all her life as a housewife, mother and farmer. She has an incredible wealth of knowledge, albeit in areas that today often receive little attention or even recognition from society. She knows how to sew clothes herself. I can’t even fill a hole and buy clothes from low-wage countries with a guilty conscience. She bakes the most delicious and elaborate cakes. I’m happy if my cup cake doesn’t burn on top and is still liquid on the inside. Her yard is a firework of colourful flowers stretching out towards the sun. My balcony plants often hang their heads after a few weeks. When she was my age, she had two children of primary school age. The thought of having children of my own scares me. Afraid of losing my freedom, afraid of failing as a mother, afraid of not being satisfied with myself in either work or family life. My grandmother never travelled for long and lived in the same community all her life. I have now moved twelve times and lived in nine different places.

Our lives are so different. We have had such different experiences and have knowledge in very different fields. But while I get social recognition for my university knowledge and titles, their knowledge is less and less valid. 

I would like to see more recognition for the work of my grandparents. And at the same time, I would like more acknowledgement from my grandmother for me. I don’t bother to explain to her what I do at university. I also have the feeling that she doesn’t particularly care. Or maybe she would feel inferior if I talked about it? Maybe she has experienced too often that academics treat her as if she were stupid? As if her work was worth less? But if I don’t trust her to understand what I do when I explain it to her calmly, isn’t my attitude also arrogant? How is she supposed to stay curious and ask questions if I only give her monosyllabic answers? How is she supposed to understand what my dreams and goals are if I keep them from her?

There is another reason why I am so closed to her. I fear she would devalue my ideas about life and bang, here comes the side blow: “Don’t you want to start a family yet? You’re already at the right age.” She’s been asking this question more often lately. It’s not really that I feel pressured by it. But it bothers me that she doesn’t seem interested in an honest answer either. I just mumble, “Um, I’m not ready yet.” And she starts asking me about a friend who just had a baby. Whether the baby sleeps well through the night or cries a lot, I have no idea. My grandmother probably chooses this topic because it’s simply an area in which she knows a lot. A topic of conversation where she doesn’t feel inferior, but knows a lot about it herself.

My grandmother closes the conversation with “You’re already such a one”. This means something like, “You’re a rascal, a bit cheeky, but also a bit “street smart”. A person who finds ways to disobey rules and conventions. Someone who escapes. And that’s where my grandma is right. I am just escaping from the conventions that a large part of society still provides for a woman my age. I hope that when I get back, we can find time for an in-depth conversation where I have both the patience and the courage to really tell her about my life.

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