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Communication
Ferngespräch

decolonial – Antique rotary telephone
Antique rotary telephone | Photo (detail): picture alliance / abaca | TNS/ABACA

Quite a number of words are still firmly established in German language use today – even though they came into existence at a time that barely has anything to do with our diverse present. In this series, Elisabeth Wellershaus tries to fathom them out and reinterpret them from a decolonial perspective. This time she takes a look at the term “Ferngespräch”.

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

My father and I still shout into the loudspeaker – as we used to during the few telephone calls we made when I was younger. When we were still hollering into oversized earpieces, our voices booming out at the other end through the bone-shaped receiver. Today my father usually sits on the terrace or stands out in the street in the little Andalusian village where he lives, depending which has a better signal. I sit at my desk in Berlin or stand on my cluttered balcony, depending. In a world where families like ours live spread across the continents, conversations with our nearest and dearest in distant places have long since become normality. With mobile phones and video chatting we can be reached day and night. And yet talking over a long distance still doesn’t necessarily imply more closeness. That’s why my father and I continue to yell into the telephone. Because there’s plenty of space for misunderstanding between Germany, Spain and the history of our origins.
 
When Alexander Graham Bell made the first long-distance phone call from New York to Chicago in 1892, the thought of FaceTime, Whatsapp and webcams seemed light years away. However, eight years after the Berlin Conference the Western world already had some idea of how persistently some political connections between the continents would endure. Indeed, all of the African colonies became independent states decades later. But the over-exploitation of mineral resources belonging to “the others” continues into the 21st century. Until today the world is coming to blows over raw materials like coltan – and one reason for this is to keep the global mobile phone industry afloat.
 
Bell placed the call between two relatively close American cities at a time when interaction between Global North and Global South still seemed pretty straightforward. The relationship between the former colonies and a paternalistic Europe was characterised, for instance, by unilateral greed and disproportionate power dynamics. The predominant world view was that one set of people dominated the others because of a conviction in their God-given superiority – which was also justified through racist reasoning. It was convictions that made a family like mine appear “unusual” even many years later: a captain’s daughter from Hamburg who fell in love with a trainee hotel manager from Equatorial Guinea in Francoist Spain in the early seventies. It was a pure coincidence that my mother and my father were spending time at the same place – she was on holiday, while he was in exile. The partial silence regarding the imbalance of their experiences still characterises our family life today.

  • decolonial – Photo from the 1970s: At the end of the 1970s communication between the author and her father didn’t always go smoothly. Today they’re enjoying their long-distance connection. © Elisabeth Wellershaus
    Photo from the 1970s: At the end of the 1970s communication between the author and her father didn’t always go smoothly. Today they’re enjoying their long-distance connection.
  • decolonial – Photo from 2018: the author and her father © Elisabeth Wellershaus
    Photo from 2018: “Suddenly there’s scope for conversations that used to pause between autumn and summer. For the intense memories my father has of his childhood village. Or for the paler ones – for instance a native language whose words he cannot remember.”
  • decolonial – The American engineer Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) opening the phone line from New York to Chicago in 1892. Spanish and American illustration. © picture alliance / Heritage-Images | Index / Heritage-Images
    The American engineer Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) opening the phone line from New York to Chicago in 1892. Spanish and American illustration.

Resounding quietness 

My mother and I lived in Germany from September to July, my father in Spain, in summer we got together as a family in Andalusia. And at some point I forgot my Spanish, a language that had come fairly naturally to me as a small child. Back then my school English was sufficient to order an ice cream at best. Which meant that my father and I faced each other without really speaking for several summers.

“When did we stop talking to each other?” asks author Dilek Güngör in an article in Zeit online. In it, she describes the silence that prevails between her and her father. That resounding quietness that began at some point during her teenage years, still continues today and now even serves as a connection between them.

Years ago my father asked me if I could imagine writing down his story. It was a determined effort to penetrate the latent silence that had settled over our relationship as well. He envisaged approaching it in a fairly innocuous way: a collage of memories and a heroic story format, in which he wanted to relate anecdotes about Torremolinos back in the day. About the time during which he met my mother, when he rubbed shoulders with film stars and hippies and in which his restaurant was frequented by distant relatives of the British royal family.

Of course the journalist in me – as well as the daughter – wanted more from him. I was interested in the corners, edges and fractures in his history. But with reservation I accepted the dazzling memories of the 1960s and 70s. It turned out that my father didn’t need long to move on from the party tales of his past to the more complicated experiences he had in exile. To his fragile relationship with Europe, the family he left behind in his youth, to a sense of existing between here and there. We’re still in the process of gathering material, when we see each other. Some things he volunteers freely, others have to be coaxed out of him. A sound recorder and notebook work like magic for this: as soon as the context becomes more official, the words and memories flow. Daniela Dröscher describes it very nicely in an essay: the self-empowerment that lies within telling ones' own biography. She wrote about the transformation of her mother, who opened up about the past in a conversation as soon as her daughter’s inquisitive face merged with the face of the journalist and author – about the basis on which conversations can develop across the distance.
 

Long-distance conversation behaviour 

Anyhow, after a year with coronavirus we’ve all changed our conversation behaviour. Digital communication has now gained status, which is to be welcomed – especially in environmental terms. It turns out that you don’t have to jump into a car or plane for every little meeting. And yet we’ve lost sight of ourselves on so many other levels, but distance and isolation are not the only phenomena we will remember from 2020. Some relationships have become more intense as a result of the isolation. After 45 years of loving inconsistency my father now calls me with a regularity that still amazes me. An unexpected new normality has emerged in a time when the old one was turned on its head.
 
Suddenly there’s scope for conversations that used to pause between autumn and summer. For the intense memories my father has of his childhood village. Or for the paler ones – for instance a native language whose words he cannot remember. When my father talks about Africa, he’s moving around in a dreamlike state between a past full of opportunities and a present full of danger. Wherever I plan to travel for work – South Africa, Cameroon or Zimbabwe – he’ll shout down the telephone that it’s especially dangerous there. I feel drawn to the continent he held at a distance for decades. My relationship with Africa is characterised by the same loving long-distance relationship as my relationship with my father. In his case it’s defined by the seemingly irreconcilable childhood and youth in Equatorial Guinea that’s scarcely connected with his adult self anymore. Thus our perceptions of a continent blur – even though the people we live amongst today assume we have a clear-cut connection with it. Yet at the end of the day the inaccuracies of our perspectives complement each other. Our relationship to the subject of origin remains vague, and that’s exactly what makes our appreciation of each other so clear. Ultimately the white noise of our long-distance conversations conceals an unmistakeable clarity as well.

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