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After a four-and-a-half hour journey from Cologne, I arrived in a rather chilly Berlin and met three lovely Malaysian students. Kheidhir, Khairul and Nasrullah helped to carry my bags across the street as I went in search of food.
Halfway there, I got a call from my host, Zubaidah Aziz, telling me lunch was ready. The poor boys had to lug my bags back to the station so I could catch a taxi.
As I approached Zubaidah’s suburban apartment in Schmargendorf, the smell of dalcha and lamb curry wafted through the door. After a week of eating instant noodles, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.
Zubaidah had planned a packed itinerary for me. Before long, we were headed to town to see Zubin Zainal, a young artist who is taking Berlin by storm. The multi-talented Malaysian (who is Zubaidah’s son) had had a successful career in the music industry for 12 years before deciding to become an artist.
When I met him, he had just been signed up by two galleries – Under the Mango Tree (with its impressive stable of international artists) and MuniqueArt. I was fortunate to see some of his latest work at his studio while he finalised his move to Munich. My favourite is a satirical painting of two men in a boat, rowing in opposite directions.
Zubin described the dichotomy of his life growing up in two different cultures – Kuala Lumpur and Berlin – as dominating his work, making him feel as though his life is constantly moving between black and white. He described his work as “a symbiosis of various opposite values”.
“It often responds to light and dark, action and reaction, monochrome and polychrome, painting and sculpturing, tradition and modern, silence and sound.”
His recent exhibitions were at the MuniqueArt gallery in 2015, and Under the Mango Tree last September.
I also paid a call to the Malaysian Ambassador to Germany. The charming Datuk Zulkifli Adnan is himself a keen traveller, often exploring places off the beaten track. Over coffee and curry puffs, we exchanged notes about the places we had visited. I found it hard to wrench myself away after two hours.
I met some members of the Malaysia Club Berlin who regularly meet at the Embassy. Unlike in London, Berlin’s Malaysians are a tight unit, supported by the embassy.
For Zubaidah, this association is of vital importance, and not just for festive occasions. Muslim members were there to support her and make arrangements when her husband passed away. They also arranged for Zubin’s wedding ceremony.
Most of the members have lived in Germany for more than 30 years.
Many are successful entrepreneurs. One success story is that of the diminutive Mariati Ismail-Naina. Brought up by her grandparents when her parents split up, she decided to travel to Germany in 1974 to study art, after her grandfather died. It was a struggle for the then 18-year-old. She recalled hanging out with hippies and doing all sorts of jobs, including babysitting and cleaning.
The closest Mariati got to art school was obtaining a diploma in cosmetics at the Goethe Institute. She also did a two-year course in theatre make-up while working in a salon.
Not keen to travel for theatre work, Mariati opened her own salon in Berlin. Today she has a booming business doing facials, pedicure, manicure and massage. Her clients are loyal; two of them travel from London every month for treatment. “Their aunt lives here so they get a budget flight from London to see me. Their tickets cost less than my treatment,” Mariati said, laughing.
Just across the road is another enterprising Malaysian. Hazel Hoo pioneered the Sei Fu alternative treatment in Germany. Sei Fu was introduced in Japan by Dr Xu Jian 20 years ago. It involves pulling the skin to generate a negative pressure which activates and supports the flow of blood and qi, the vital energy that runs through the body.
Hoo visits nursing homes to teach the caretakers this treatment. She hopes to train psychotherapists and hospice staff next. Among Hoo’s patients are people who are terminally ill.
“I help them to pass away peacefully.” Hoo practised acupuncture for 10 years before branching off into Sei Fu three years ago.
Berlin is full of reminders of the Cold War era, from the Brandenburg Gate to the obsolete underground trains. Zubaidah took me further afield to Nauen, 26km from Berlin. It has the oldest radio transmitting installation in the world, going back to 1906. In World War I, it was used when the transatlantic cables to Germany were cut by the British Navy. It also came into use during World War II in transmitting instructions to submarines. It was dismantled by the Soviet forces in 1945. Today, Nauen is a sleepy town with barely 20,000 residents.
The highlight for me was the Bridge of Spies – Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, Brandenburg, where prisoner exchanges took place between the West and the Soviet Union.
In 1962, the US spy plane pilot Gary Powers was exchanged for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. The biggest exchange was 23 Western agents for four Soviet spies in 1985. The final exchange was in 1986 when human rights activist Anatoly Scharansky and three others were exchanged for Karl Koecher and four other Soviet spies.
Spies aside, I had my own inner turmoil brewing. My luggage was too heavy. I was terrified of leaving Berlin for Eastern Europe and Russia where I anticipated communication problems. This, together with the guilt of missing deadlines and scolding from my editors, drove me to a meltdown.
Who better to reassure me than my host Zubaidah, the veteran journalist and broadcaster. She is a confident and feisty woman. When covering the first democratic elections in Russia in 1991 for TV3, she conducted a sit-in when an immigration official refused to honour her Press accreditation issued by the Russian Embassy.
I had felt like I was being chased to the edge of a precipice with nowhere to go. Thanks to Zubaidah’s pep talk, I let myself go into free fall, yielding to my mind’s cry for rest and sank into a deep sleep before waking up in Warsaw.
Find out in a fortnight what our contributing writer gets up to next.