For those who do not know already, Maini is my maiden name (the surname I grew up with). It is not a very common last name but there are a few of us here and there. Anyway, the Maini’s I talk about in this post are only my immediate family members. My mum, dad, elder sister and younger brother.
As of 2020, my immediate family is spread across 4 continents. My parents live in New Delhi, India where my siblings and I grew up. My sister is in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two lovely children. My brother is in California, USA with his wife. And as you all may already know, I live in Darmstadt, Germany with my husband.
Continuing with the whining tradition from my teenage years, which I used to call the middle child syndrome and which my siblings used to make excessive fun of, I am still sandwiched between my older sister and younger brother in the continental sense as well. Delhi and India obviously continue to be our eternal home but we are glad that our parents have been supremely understanding and supportive throughout all these moves. As a family we have literally seen technology advance in front of our very own eyes. From waiting for weeks to enthusiastically open parcels arriving from the other side of the world and regular snail mails in those olden times, to today’s digital era where we figuratively carry each other in our pockets while sharing our lives excitedly and effortlessly. 15 years ago I personally would never have thought that we would ever be where we are today. And 15 years later I have no idea what opportunities and capabilities the technology of the future would allow and enable. For the times they are a-changin’. Indeed they are!
Needless to say, this inter-continental stuff isn’t the most ideal family situation and was in no way something that was planned for. I am glad that all of us are living happily in our own corners of the world, but it’s painfully difficult getting all of us under one roof. And the pandemic isn’t making it any easier!
Anyway, how did it happen?
1) The first one leaves the nest
My elder sister was the first one to leave home, after she got married. I remember crying my eyes (and heart) out that day. As I was growing up it was so cool to have a sister, 4 years older than me, in college, driving me around and taking me places, with whom I shared a wonderful bond. I don’t think we even realized how much we would miss each other. She moved to Melbourne in 2006 and started her life and career in a new country at the age of 22! Sometimes I can’t believe that it has been over 16 years. The only thing I personally knew about the country back then was that it was also a continent, that it had the coolest animals that are found only there, like kangaroos and koalas and also that it has a cricket team (Yes, I come from a typical cricket obsessed Indian household). Australia seemed quite far and it really was (and is!). Thanks to video calling, in today’s times distances do not pinch that much, but this was the pre-WhatsApp/Facebook era when audio calls from India to Australia used to cost upwards of Rs. 100 per minute (~1.3 USD+! per minute). We definitely did talk to each other but I remember it was always just short and sweet and also just the most important stuff – How’s it going, yes all well here, great, miss you, love you, bye. There were no internet calls and flat or free calling minutes were also rare, so one had to keep an eye on the seconds counter changing from :50 to :55 to :59 and so on. And if by chance you were unable to hang up before a new minute started, you’d get to talk around 50 seconds more, while constantly monitoring the seconds counter yet again. Anyway, we may not have been talking that much, but we never stopped communicating. We sent each other long hand-written letters and also many many greeting cards. The lack of listening to each other was also graciously compensated by the long, detailed e-mails that we used to write to each other every other day. The mails were literally and symbolically colourful. Gmail was quite new and we loved playing with font sizes and colours. We would also print the e-mails and read them again and again and again. My parents still have loads of e-mail print-outs from that era but they are unable to get rid of these due to their emotional significance. From my sister’s letters we would get an insight into their life in Australia. She would also send us pictures from her home, the places they would travel to, how she found things different after moving to another country so far away etc. etc. Soon she also got calling cards and used to call us much more often. Around 3 years later she had her first baby, my sweet little niece, the first time I witnessed true love. And the mails with baby photos and videos literally went through the roof. After a while we all got Facebook profiles and would write lovey-dovey stuff on each other’s “walls” (LOL I feel like a dinosaur ;)). Then 3 years later she had her second baby, my handsome little dude. That was 2012 and I think by that time, WhatsApp had also entered our lives, so we were sharing pictures, videos and lives more conveniently through our not-so-smart smartphones. My niece and nephew also sent loads of paintings and cards for all of us. Well, everything was not just long-distance though. All of us have made multiple memorable trips to Australia to visit my sister and her family and they have visited India even more in the last decade and a half.
ii) To the stars
Even though I was the one to actually leave home first and move to Dehradun for college and then Bangalore for job, my brother was the one who left India first, in 2015. He also left home in 2010 for college, also moving to Dehradun and then for his job, also moving down south to Bangalore’s calmer and cleaner cousin, Mysore. He is 4 years younger to me and we shared the same school and college. I was essentially a studious teacher’s pet so I can happily take all the blame for any comparison he would’ve been subjected to. But to this day, it really amazes me how he is basically so much wiser (and cooler!) than me and how he handles everything so wonderfully all the time. Like me, he also studied aerospace engineering but unlike me he was involved in a lot more practical stuff and cooler activities like aero-modelling, rocket-building, satellite orbit-planning. He was part of so many projects, was involved in lots of clubs and had aspirations to study abroad. He applied to colleges in the US and was very happy to get admitted into his desired program in the air capital of the world – Wichita. This was in 2015, so by this time all of us were pretty used to digitally sharing our lives with each other. We had grown up watching I dream of Genie, Small Wonder, Friends etc. so I guess US was not a big culture shock. He later moved to California for his job in the aviation sector. As a family after 10 or so years, we were already comfortably used to the existing time zone formula of Australia and this time had to learn a new complex time algorithm: California Time = India Time – 1.5 hours (and switch from AM to PM or PM to AM). It took some time to get used to the US time but I would conveniently google ‘time in California right now’ to know how early or late it is to talk. In 2020 amidst the pandemic, he got married to his childhood sweetheart and both my sister and I couldn’t be there due to various Covid related restrictions and fears. We enjoyed the virtual celebrations and were very thankful and happy that we could be connected through technology. My brother and his wife often share beach pictures with us and I truly find California so so pretty. There was a teen drama TV series called The O.C. that I was massively hooked to when I was sweet seventeen, and I remember how my brother used to cringe at the very mention of that show. Well, O.C. or Orange County is where he actually lives now so 17 years later I have the last laugh! Jokes apart, I dream of the days when I can visit him in California and more importantly sing the theme song from The O.C., California by Phantom Planet, while driving down the 101. While growing up my brother was a huge pop culture influence on me. He always gave me the best recommendations for movies, shows and music. In the recent years, music is something we don’t really get a chance to talk about. So it was strange when we met in India recently and realized that we still shared the exact same taste in music and were listening to the same bands, even without recommending new music to each other.
Three – Los Geht’s
I have narrated our story about moving to Germany in several previous posts. Neither of us were actively looking for employment opportunities abroad but were open to the idea of probably moving somewhere only if one of us gets a job. For obvious reasons, Australia or US would have been good candidates, but when the possibility for my husband to move to Germany with the same employer presented itself, we thought it through and decided to take the plunge. We were very comfortable in our lives in Bangalore but we were at a stage in life where we could afford to take the decision of moving to Germany for new life experiences. It practically was a fresh start for us and we didn’t really know how it would go, but it seems to be going better than OK! With my move to Germany I realized that I was bringing another continent and yet another time zone in our lives. To figure out what time it is in Australia, I always found it easier to first go to India time (i.e. Germany time + 3.5 hours) and then to that add another 4.5 hours to get Australia time. Phew! I know it is not that complicated but somehow my crazy brain finds it easier to go via the India route instead of simply adding 8 hours to the German time. To call my brother I feel too lazy to do the math and simply google the time. From Bangalore I used to fly home about twice or thrice a year. I thought, well after moving to Germany I would still get to visit home maybe once or twice a year and the 3 hour flight would merely be replaced by an 8 hour flight (Frankfurt and Delhi are very well connected with multiple airlines offering direct flights). Doesn’t sound so bad! Little did I know that immediately after moving to Germany, we would have a global pandemic and flying home to meet my family would be like an elaborate drama and a logistical nightmare.
So these are the stories of how each of us found a new place to call home. The last time that we all got together was in December 2019, months before the pandemic started. We were in Delhi to celebrate my brother’s engagement and had a wonderful time, reliving old times and making new memories to cherish for life. A few weeks later, after confirming everyone’s travel plans, it was decided that my brother’s wedding would take place on 1st October 2020. We were all very excited and I even booked my tickets from Germany for a 2 week wedding fiesta in India. Who would’ve thought, that very soon, life as we know was about to change drastically. We would never have imagined that the plan to meet each other in India or elsewhere would no longer be just another financial decision, but one that would need to take into account the different Covid related travel restrictions by various countries on each other.
When the pandemic entered our lives in March 2020, thanks to teleworking, I had the opportunity and flexibility to be virtually connected with my parents and siblings much more than I could be earlier, even when I was living in India. On our usual, morning video calls, my dad would act like the Secretary General and enquire about the ‘numbers’ and what the respective governments were doing to combat the spread, in our very own edition of ‘Maini (many) United Nations’.
The first wave and the actual gruesomeness of this unknown disease hit us really hard when in early May we lost our 95 year old grandfather to Covid. We did not really get any time to process this loss because my parents also got Covid and had month-long symptoms. Both of them are 60+ and it was quite scary for us when they were in the hospital. Thankfully their symptoms did not deteriorate much and they were back home in a few days. But at this point of time it was very difficult being so far away. My siblings and I felt really helpless about not physically being there as the oceans separating us got philosophically deeper and uncrossable. But I must say, talking to each other and being constantly connected with each other helped us get over this chapter. My parents were literally braving through it all without us being with them and even when they had so much to deal with, somehow one of their major concerns was not to have us worry a lot about their well-being. We are also truly blessed that our parents have a circle of friends who are much more than family and were with them throughout everything, while also giving us love and strength. On 19th May 2020 we celebrated my dad’s 65th birthday while he was still isolating in the hospital and recovering from Covid. My mum was back home by that time and it was very strange to have five windows on the video call instead of the usual four. Later in the day, my mom’s friend, who worked at the same hospital, had a cake delivered to my dad’s room and we had a virtual birthday party with the people that mattered via Zoom.
Things got better eventually and all of us realized that Covid is here to stay, like an unwelcome guest refusing to leave from our lives. We were hopeful that things may get better by October so that the wedding could go forward as planned, but after a while we all realized that it was not possible. By November 2020 both families decided on a new wedding date in December 2020. My sister and I couldn’t be part of the wedding celebrations in person and my parents were also very emotional about it. It was a bit sad, not being physically present for our baby brother’s wedding but as a family we were very happy that they were starting their new life and knew that it would be unfair on both of them to be made to wait to get married till an uncertain hypothetical time in the future when all of us could physically be together. It was very different and we enjoyed the whole virtual baraati experience as well. Whenever time allowed, my sister and I were literally on a Zoom call with each other. We gathered video wishes from all the family members and friends that couldn’t be part of the celebrations, we planned a virtual sangeet, did our very own dance performances and we participated in all the rituals virtually. The last part couldn’t have been possible without the amazing technology that keeps us connected, massive amounts of patience from the bride and the groom and truckloads of support from their wonderful friends who ‘carried us around’ (in screen form) and were our eyes and ears through it all. Everything was perfect and we were very happy that after completing all the visa formalities, my brother’s wife joined him in the US within 2 months.
After vaccinations, travel seemed somewhat feasible and I finally managed to go to India in August 2021, about one and a half years after moving to Germany. It was wonderful to meet both my families and spend good times with them. In December 2021 I travelled to India again and this time it was even more special as I got to meet my brother and his wife who were also visiting from the US. From the very start and till a very long time, Australia was very strict about foreign travel in to or out of the country. So my sister has unfortunately not been able to meet any of us in the last 2+ years. But we really hope that this is the year for breaking of that spell!
In March 2022 my parents planned a trip to visit US for a family wedding and also to spend time with my brother and his wife. Due to the horrible situation in Ukraine and related sanctions, their direct flight from Delhi to San Francisco was cancelled as it flew over Russia. They were sad about the trip cancellation but in the last few days they got a substitute flight with a short layover in Frankfurt. They did not have a visa for Germany and I couldn’t have met them at the airport by any means, so it was a very strange feeling to have them so near yet so far. When they visited the beach in California very recently, my dad remarked that my sister in Australia also seemed so near yet so far, the next coastline, just a few thousand miles away, in spite of being separated by the mighty Pacific Ocean, the International Date Line and on the opposite Hemisphere.
A big struggle for us as a family has been to find the most suitable time for all of us to talk together. After a lot of trial and error we have realized that this is around 06:00 am Germany time or 09:30 am India time or 02:00 pm Australia time or 10 pm US time. This equation is also disturbed by Daylight Savings Time On or Off two times every year. Especially with 4 time zones it gets a bit crazy because everyone’s time is shifted independently. There are obviously other times when I can conveniently talk to my brother or to my sister or to my parents, but for all of us to be on the same call, my early morning is the most suitable time. On most days my morning starts with a quick hello with my family. On weekends we generally talk for longer. Later in the day, sometimes when I am working from home, I call my sister and my parents in the afternoon. So while I’m fixing myself a quick lunch, my mum and dad are having evening tea and my sis is ready to sleep with the lights already out. For my brother it’s usually the middle of the night so he is fast asleep. In the evening while preparing dinner I call my parents who are almost in bed for a good night’s sleep and my brother who is just waking up and starting work. Undoubtedly, the world clock on our phones is our best friend and we have this joke that the sun never sets for us, i.e. what ever time it may be, someone is always up. Seasons are also somewhat special in our multi-hemispherical family. While I am packed from head to toe sipping lovely warm Glühwein in the famous Christmas Markets of Germany, my sister has a summery Christmas sun-bathing and enjoying chilled beer at the beach.
While they are an integral part of us now and life without each one them is absolutely unimaginable, I also take this opportunity to acknowledge how blessed our little family has been with wonderful new additions. With three partners, we gained 3 new families which are now also our extended family. And the most awesome additions happen to be my sister’s babies!
They say distance makes the heart grow fonder. But when you have your immediate family spread across 4 continents, you don’t really appreciate this philosophical jargon. I would love a world where I live close to my loved ones. But the reality is that we are living oceans apart. It is however amazing that everyone respects each other’s choice of where and how they want to live. We do not really know who will move where when or what the future holds. But we are very thankful for the technology that unites us, in spite of the oceans that divide us.
Who knows, with continuing technological advancements in the near future, we may be able to send our walking talking 3D holograms to each other. Nothing beats physically meeting our loved ones though and we hope to have a full family reunion sometime soon.