By Gerlinde Weinmüller, Apropos
There it is again: that laugh. That big, open laugh. It’s warming, and it’s contagious. We two women are sitting opposite each other. Thi Nhin is drinking coffee. I am drinking tea. Tini, as her friends call her, is wearing a floral-patterned blouse and long, black trousers, with her hair tied up into a bun. Her bun seems to have a life of its own, because with every movement that she makes it seems to nod to me in a friendly manner.
Tini likes knödel [boiled dumplings]. Knödel with sauerkraut. She also likes Salzburg—and the people in Salzburg.
In 1995, Tini came to Germany from Vietnam and she then moved to Salzburg, Austria. She has four children and nine grandchildren: three boys and six girls.
“Salzburg is my home,” she tells me. “I want to stay here. I want to stay here for a long time. I want to stand under my archway and sell newspapers.”
And that’s exactly where she stands: at her pitch under her archway, selling copies of Apropos day in and day out.
“When my customers buy [the paper] then I can live,” Tini says. She lives off the money she makes selling the street paper. When she is working, she looks forward to meeting her customers and listening to their stories. Tini likes to listen. She’s a very good listener, and she listens with all of her senses. She listens to me very carefully during our conversation: she can read my face, feel my thoughts and look into my heart.
Tini wants to go back to Vietnam again sometime to visit her parents’ grave, and the grave of the father of her children. She wants to go back by herself, without her children or grandchildren, so that she can be alone with her memories as she travels.
Tini winks at me mischievously.
“I am a businesswoman. I’m always busy,” she continues, smiling. “At home, on the street, in my head. My head is so full, always so full. And then I get a headache. A lot of headaches! And I’m always sad. Very sad. But I can’t cry. I have to laugh. I swallow my tears [and keep them] on the inside. I never cry on the outside. Be sad inside; laugh outside.”
Laughter has always accompanied Thi Nhin Nguyen since she was a child in Vietnam, but headaches have also been a constant companion—along with her fear of ghosts. That’s why she leaves the light on while she sleeps. She is also busy while she sleeps: she dreams about journeys into space and having a happy family.
“Do you have a happy family?” she asks me, taking my hands into hers.
“Yes,” I reply, as I suddenly realise that having a happy family can’t always be taken for granted.
“That’s good,” Tini says and squeezes my hands. She laughs again.
“You know, I don’t need a man. I don’t want a man either,” she tells me. “I have my grandchildren.”
And they are her pride and joy. She likes to watch TV with them and children’s films.
“It’s good for learning German,” she says.
Tini often cooks for the children. A chicken soup with glass noodles, cinnamon and “flower stars”, which is what Tini calls star anise. She also sings. Tini likes to sing. Cooking, playing with the children, walking in town and selling newspapers. She does all of this before falling asleep every day.
She suddenly starts to tell me about the past. About the times when she was all alone with her children. When she was sewing on the old sewing machine for eighteen hours a day to get her children through their childhoods. Sewing, cleaning, cooking, looking after the children, going shopping, washing, ironing and sewing again. She did these things late into the night.
“And singing,” Tini adds with a laugh.
Tini likes love songs most of all and she has brought me her favourite love song. She has translated it into German and neatly written the lyrics for me in beautiful handwriting on a white sheet of paper. I start to read them.
I would like to find nature,
I would like to live without sorrow,
I would like for life to love me,
I would like to bloom like a blossom of thyme,
To give love away for free,
As precious as a ripe apple leaf,
Perfumed like a flower garden,
As fragile as a silk thread,
As soft as a breath of air,
Love is like a blissful fog,
Love is as still as the sea,
Love is great for people in every place,
To give love away for free.
“Should I sing it for you?” Tini asks. I nod, and she sings her favourite song for me in Vietnamese. Word after word and note after note fall upon my senses. While Tini is singing, we look into each other’s eyes. A ribbon of tranquillity and comfort wraps around the both of us; binding us together. We sit across from one another. We know that, come what may, we will always share a bond with each other.
“What do you wish for?” I ask Tini.
“To be healthy,” she replies. “So that I can be there for my children and my grandchildren. And to enjoy: to enjoy my life. To live for myself. Someday.”
I wish that for you, dear Tini. I am grateful for you and every encounter that we share. You: you blossom of thyme, you gentle silk thread, you undeserved gift.
Translation from German by Julia Siebert