surinenglish

From Singapore to Algarrobo

Katherin Ockenfels.
Katherin Ockenfels. / SUR
  • Katherin Ockenfels was born in Singapore but moved to Germany after marrying. She and her husband lived in the Middle East for a number of years before retiring to the Axarquía where Katherin is a volunteer with Lux Mundi

When I arrive at Lux Mundi Torre del Mar to interview Katherin Ockenfels, I find her laughing and joking with a fellow volunteer at the centre about payment for an excursion she had signed up to do. She starts off our conversation by animatedly telling me about how the previous night's thunder storm had cut off the electricity in half of her house. "How can it just have cut off half the house?" she exclaims, before going on to describe how she came up with the idea of running an extension cable through from the half that had electricity, to the other half, where she wanted to watch television before going to bed. "I have to fall asleep with some kind of sound," she explains. These two conversations set the tone for our interview. Katherin is full of energy and has a wicked sense of humour which you have to keep up with.

Katherin, 62, is originally from Singapore. At the age of 23 she met her German husband, Josef, who was visiting the city-state on business. He was there to sign a contract between his company and the one that Katherin was working for at the time. "I'm not sure that they were going to sign the contract, but then he saw me and secured work for two years," she laughs, adding, "I didn't run fast enough," but later admits that she has "no regrets".

Travelling with work

The couple went on to travel considerably with Josef's job, overseeing the construction of power stations for a German company, but they were often based in the Middle East. They lived for different periods of time in Indonesia, Libya and Abu Dhabi.

In Libya Katherin recalls having to drive 30 kilometres to the nearest supermarket, which, she says, could be full of nothing but tinned tomatoes or nappies at any one time, "depending on what the delivery truck had brought that week".

It was in Libya where Katherin discovered that she was expecting the couple's son, Oliver, so they moved back to Germany where he was born.

Oliver, now 36, had a German - Singaporean upbringing and spent some of his childhood living with his aunts (Katherin's sisters) back in the south-Asian country.

"I realised when my son went to Singapore just how painful it must have been for my own mother when I moved to Germany after I married. I know I was much older than my son was but a mother misses her child however old they are," the mother-of-one confesses.

Something that Katherin and Josef agreed when they married was that Katherin would be able to travel back to Singapore every year to see her family. Her late mother was Singaporean while her father, like many Chinese people, moved there when he was 21 in search of work and a better life. As such Katherin speaks fluent Chinese with her father, but with her siblings she speaks English, or 'Singlish', the term for Singaporean English, which also incorporates Chinese and Malay words and expressions. She also speaks fluent German and "can get by" in Spanish but says she still needs to "learn a lot more".

Katherin and Josef moved to Spain in 2000, after Josef came to the area to visit a friend. He fell in love with the south of Spain and the couple bought a house in Algarrobo.

She explains that when they decided to live here permanently, having spent a few years dividing the year between Germany and Spain, she was "desperately unhappy". She says that she missed her "routine, church and sports" in Germany and was eventually "picked up by two Spanish ladies" who took her to the doorstep of Lux Mundi in Torre del Mar. "I don't know how they understood what I wanted as I didn't speak Spanish,." She says she believes that finding Lux Mundi "was what made me stay here".

Since then Katherin has taught English at the twice-weekly classes at the centre, and does "whatever" Gloria Uribe, the centre's director, tells her to. She also attends Spanish classes there.

Katherin volunteered for Cudeca for 11 years and is also involved in two choirs in the Axarquía. She explains that having been introduced to Christianity by a neighbour when she was a child in Singapore (her family are mainly non-practising Buddhists), it was in Germany where she became more involved in the Church and wanted to find somewhere where could practise her faith when she and Josef came to Spain.

Katherin continues to travel back to Singapore every year to see her family there. The tie remains with Germany as that is where Oliver has settled and Katherin and Josef became grandparents in May this year. However, Katherin says that despite the uncertain start in Spain she is happy and has "made a life here". She is sure that this is where she and Josef will stay now.