A Thousand Words for Snow – Part One

PRELUDE

A great iceberg is drifting on the water. If you were a bird or a fish, and if you followed this iceberg long enough, you would arrive somewhere in Greenland. There you might see a dead seagull frozen on the snow, or the skeleton of a large musk ox on a hillside. Or, you might meet this Inuit family in a small igloo house. Our story starts from their igloo.

So what’s this Inuit family doing at this moment? As is not unusual for any family, they have gathered around, engaged in domestic activities. The mother is cooking, her three sons are feeding their dogs. Occasionally they help their mother prepare the food. Their father died a long time ago. He died in a snowstorm while out hunting. The youngest son here is Tekkeit Qaasuitsup. He is only nineteen and a half, but he is the hero of the region and everyone calls him Smart Tekk. He is the one who speaks good English and has ventured far out into the world. He made front-page news from Germany to America, from Russia to Australia. At this very moment, he is telling his family of the adventure he has just had:

‘I said to the German people, we call aput – the snow that is on the ground; and qana falling snow and pigsipor drifting snow; mentlana pink snow; suletlana green snow. And that kiln is remembered snow, naklin forgotten snow, and so on. The Germans were intrigued, so they asked me what is “remembered snow” and what is “forgotten snow”. I said you can’t remember all the snow you have encountered. You only remember some of the snow from your life. For example, the snow that lay on our dead father’s body, motela, that snow one can always remember…’

 

1.

Our young Nanook is asleep in his bed. But this is not Greenland. There is city traffic outside, mixed with the sound of aeroplanes. The curtains are tightly drawn, but still, a beam of morning sunlight is sneaking in and penetrating the darkness.

Tekk opens one eye. He observes this strange space and wonders if he is still in a dream. He closes the eye again. The dreams he has just awoken from seem to be inconsistent with his current surroundings. He dreamt he was swimming with a young polar bear through the water, but the bear swam faster than him because polar bears are famous for their strong long distance swimming. He had to give up the race in his dream. Now he feels as if his face is wet: probably from his swimming in the water. But what sort of dream is going on right now? Tekk opens his eyes again and moves his head on the soft pillow. Well, there is a television set on the wall, a fridge, a desk, a chair, a mirror, a wardrobe, and a bathroom beside his bed. Everything seems clear and concrete in his eyes. This is not a dream then. Tekk sits up with confusion. Then he suddenly recognizes his orange suitcase standing on the carpet in the middle of the room. It is a brand new suitcase his family bought for him before he left Greenland. Yes, it is not a dream: it is real. He is somewhere in Germany. He must have landed here yesterday, after a very long and complicated trip. He vaguely remembers he was on a long distance bus, and then he was put on a small local plane, and then he was in a big international airport, and after that he was flying on a very big plane, and he was given some free wine and alcohol by a smiley stewardess, and after that… he can’t remember anymore.

He hears a knock on the door. Tekk does not move at all. There’s another knock on the door. He silently places his feet on the carpet. Now he hears someone turning the key in the keyhole and opening the door. There she is: a young white woman, wearing a uniform with a vacuum cleaner beside her feet. Tekk jumps up with astonishment, and asks in his halting English: ‘Who are you?’

He realises he hasn’t practiced his English lately.

The woman is a bit apologetic when she realizes the hotel guest is still in his room. ‘Entschuldigen Sie!’ She says: ‘Should I come back later?’

But Tekk stops her: ‘Wait, you don’t go!’

The woman turns back: ‘Yes, sir?’

‘Is this Berlin, right?’

She smiles. ‘Yes,’ she answers, ‘it is.’

‘Where about in Berlin?’

‘You are in Hotel Kantstrasse, we are near the Berlin Zoo.’

‘Berlin Zoo?’ Tekk repeats, slightly surprised.

‘I mean, this is a hotel, not a zoo.’ She explains in English that is equally hesitant: ‘but we are near Berlin Zoo.’

Seeing that Tekk is not responding, the woman asks again: ‘You want me to clean up now, or should I come back later?’

Tekk stares at the maid, weakly shakes his head.

The woman leaves with her Hoover, closing the door behind her. Now Tekk sits up. He realizes he is fully dressed. He has slept with his clothes on. He touches his head, finding that there is nothing there apart from his short hair. Where is his walrus fur hat? He loves that old fur hat. He can’t walk around in the world without his hat on. He spots it lying on the desk by the window. He grabs it and presses it down on his head. Now he feels a bit better. He pulls open the curtains. Light floods in. He opens the window. Outside there is a city skyline. He can see huge advertising signs on top of some tall buildings. One reads ‘Benz’ and another ‘BMW’. He looks down. The streets and cars are like small toys. He feels dizzy. He closes the window. Again he walks around in the carpeted room, trying to get used to the space.

He enters the bathroom. The washing basin is strangely designed, like a huge lotus flower. It’s not that he has seen many large flowers in his life. As he touches the basin, a ring of lights turn on automatically, just like in a sci-fi movie. Tekk stares at the shiny washing basin, trying to understand where the light bulb is. Then he gives up. He needs a wash. But there is no faucet for him to turn on. He tries to move his hands under the tap, but nothing comes out. Then just when he lowers his head down to check the tap, a stream of water bursts out and drenches his face and head.

‘Tiaavuluk!’ Tekk curses, grabbing a towel and wiping his face dry. He opens the fridge. There are many small bottles of wine and vodka. He opens a vodka and drinks it directly from the bottle. It tastes good to him and gives his dry throat a kick. He sits on his bed and sips more, as if he is drinking tap water. He then opens the fridge again and finds a package of peanuts. He eats all the peanuts and brings out another vodka, as well as a coke. When he is about to finish the second bottle of vodka, the door bell rings.

Tekk opens the door. A tall, handsome European man stands there and smiles at him.

‘Good morning. You must be Tekkeit Qaasuitsup. Can I come in?’

Tekk nods his head. The man steps in and shakes his hand right away.

‘I am Hans. I work for this year’s International Global Warming Conference. I will be accompanying you during your stay here.’

‘Everyone calls me Tekk.’ He answers a bit shyly.

‘Sure, Tekk. I speak a little Greenlandic, but I won’t embarrass myself here. Is this your first time in Berlin?’

‘Yes.’ Tekk nods but somehow he feels as if he is being looked down on. So he adds: ‘but I have been to Copenhagen once, and to Stavager. Have you been to Stavager?’

‘Hmm…’ Hans shakes his head. He has never heard of such a place. ‘I am not sure. Is it in Denmark?’

‘No.’ Tekk laughs. Hans notices that the boy has a loud and untamed voice and seems to enjoy his laugh. ‘It is in Norway! They have got this domikirke. Very big.’

‘Domikirke?’ Hans is no longer following what the boy says. Besides, he is a bit bothered by the strong vodka smell in the room.

‘Yes, a domikirke. A huge old cathedral. Very scary inside.’

Hans decides not to sit down. He checks his watch and seems to be in a hurry.

‘That’s great to know, Tekk. If I visit Stavager one day I will go to see the domikirke. But now we are pressed for time. Let me take you for some breakfast, if you are ready. We have a whole day’s schedule after that.’

Tekk agrees and puts on his woollen boots. He follows Hans to the door.

‘Don’t forget your key!’ Hans takes the key from the key slot and closes the door behind them.

 

2.

It is a beautiful café with lots of art hanging on the walls. Tekk feels a bit uneasy sitting on such soft cushions. Hans has ordered some breakfast for them already. A waitress comes and gives each of them a plate: fruit salad for Hans, an omelette for Tekk.

But Tekk stares at his plate, not touching the food.

‘I thought you said you like eggs?’ Hans leans over, slightly concerned.

‘Yes. But don’t they have some meat?’

‘Meat? Sure, meat is inside the omelette.’ Hans points out.

Tekk suspiciously pokes the omelette with his fork. Yes, there is some ham inside. He eats quickly, but he is clearly not satisfied: ‘I thought there would be real meat.’

‘You want real meat. Okay, I’ll ask them for a plate of smoked ham.’

Hans calls the waitress and orders a plate of ham. A few moments later, a large plate of pink tinged meat arrives, decorated with a few slices of melon.

At last, Tekk is happy. He instantly brings out his own walrus ivory knife from his pocket, which sends ripples of shock amongst the people around him. Before everyone’s silent gaze, the young Nanook picks up slices of ham with his knife and swallows them ravenously. Hans watches him eating, but doesn’t make any comment.

In no time, all the ham has been dispatched. Only the melon remains on the plate.

Tekk cleans the blade of his walrus ivory knife with a white napkin, then wipes his mouth. He now speaks.

‘You know, Hans, this meat is too soft. I like solid meat, like the caribou you get back in Greenland.’

‘Right, Caribou meat! I’m afraid we don’t have that here in Germany’.

‘You should try: more solid meat. Good for teeth.’

Hans finishes his fruit salad, and finally says: ‘I’m a vegetarian’.

‘What is a vegetarian?’

‘A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat.’

‘Why?’ Tekk looks at his German companion in bewilderment: ‘You don’t have good teeth?’

Hans is amused. ‘My teeth are perfect,’ he says, ‘I’m not that old yet! But it’s nothing to do with teeth. It is just…how should I put it?’ He thinks for a few seconds, then remarks: ‘eating animals has a bad effect on the environment. Nor is it good for one’s health.’

Tekk looks at Hans with a quizzical expression. He wants to laugh, but he tries to be polite. All he can say is: ‘if my family heard about this, they wouldn’t believe it. You know, only caribous eat grass.’

Hans shrugs his shoulder. ‘Then I am a caribou. I eat grass and you can eat me. We make up a perfect food chain!’

‘You German people are funny.’ Tekk says, feeling a bit offended.

Hans finishes his coffee and takes out his wallet: ‘I think we should move on. I want to show you around.’

But Tekk can barely stand up. He feels a bit drowsy from the vodka he drank this morning in his hotel room.

‘Hey, have some water.’ Hans hands him a glass.

 

3.

Hans and Tekk walk along the street, like a comedy duo: one very tall, the other rather short. One walks fast, the other slow. They trundle down to Savingny Platz. The street brims with cafes and bars. Tekk looks around as he staggers along, curious about the world around him. He looks drunk, as is obvious to anyone passing. It’s strange to see a drunk Inuit, fully dressed up in furs, waddling through a fashionable district of Berlin. Hans tries to guide him as they cross over the street.

They pass a bar decorated with flowers and neon lights. In front of the bar, there are some chairs and tables. A lady in a miniskirt is conversing with a gentleman friend. Her naked legs are exposed, and are very attractive to Tekk’s eyes.

Tekk lurches towards the mini-skirted lady. Without saying a word, he lays his head on her white naked legs. The woman recoils in shock. Seeing his obvious drunkenness, she screams. Her gentleman friend stands up and drags Tekk away. He berates him: ‘was ist loss mit dir, mensch?’

Hans intervenes, pulling Tekk out just in time, apologizing profusely to the irate couple.

A few minutes later, Tekk finds himself in front of a huge building with a glass structure outside. ‘This is the headquarters of the International Climate Change Research Center,’ Hans says as he drags Tekk into the lift. ‘I want you to meet the chairman and the organizers of this conference. ’

‘Why?’ Tekk feels his head splitting in the elevator. He can barely walk straight, and he feels like vomiting.

‘Because they are the people who invited you for this trip, and pay your hotel bills. They would love to have you speak at the conference.’

As they enter the office, they are told to wait for a few minutes as the chairman is still in a meeting. Tekk sinks his body into a sofa. When Hans returns from the bathroom, he discovers that his friend is already sleeping, snoring loudly.

As Hans waits on the sofa patiently, one of the organizers comes to greet them. But as soon as he sees the state of their guest, he suggests to Hans: ‘why don’t we let this poor fellow rest today, and do some sightseeing if he wants to. He can come back for the conference tomorrow.’

Hans agrees.

In the afternoon, Hans takes Tekk to the Tiergarten, which makes the young man feel much better and more energetic. As they walk deep into the woods, they come across a pond. Some ducks are swimming around peacefully. Then they see a little canoe, with a man and a woman paddling. Tekk stares at the little canoe. He feels his heart swell with yearning. When the couple on the boat wave at him, he takes this as an invitation. He runs along the bank and, without removing his clothes, jumps into the water and swims towards them. This makes the couple on the boat a little frightened and bemused at the same time. Tekk manages to climb onto it in no time.

Tekk is laughing and having fun in his new canoe. Despite Hans’ yells and gesticulations from the bank, Tekk grabs the paddle from the man’s hands and starts to dip it into the water. Hans runs along the bank and yells to the couple: ‘Please excuse my friend! He is from Greenland – he doesn’t know the rules here!’

 

Read part two of this story

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