Posted on 08/06/2019 by kathrin
Basel, Switzerland, June 2014
We had exchanged some emails. ‘If the project or life brings you near Basel, my door is wide open for you and your family.’ Only a few weeks later this chance actually presented itself. I was spending a few days in Heidelberg, had a free Sunday coming up and asked Hanni if I could visit.
‘I’m really looking forward to getting to know you in person and showing you a bit of Basel that I like very much.’ So I boarded the train to Basel at the end of June. Hanni offered to pick me up at the Basel Baden Railway Station (Badischer Bahnhof) and take me to the airport in the evening, from where I wanted to fly back to Hamburg.
“I am happy”
There she is, Hanni, smiling at the station behind the customs checkpoint where she is waiting for me. We leave the station and take the tram to her home. ‘I never wanted a car; you don’t need one in Basel. If I drive, I take a moped.’
It’s Sunday and Hanni has time on her hands.
‘Actually, at the moment I have plenty of time. After my coming out, my job as a sales manager was terminated for economic reasons.’
She sums it up, ‘I’m almost 50, trans and unemployed.’
The despair that emanates from these sentences quickly gives way to her seemingly limitless optimism. ‘I have become a master in the art of living. Everything is somehow going to work out. Smile at the world and the world will smile back.’
Frequently during the day spent together, Hanni beams her radiant smile. Laugh at life and life laughs back.
‘That was also my attitude when I came out. I wasn’t afraid.’
Most of her friends helped Hanni on her way. She lost some of them. ‘It’s just that if someone doesn’t understand this, it’s his problem, not mine.’
We have arrived at Hanni’s apartment. She unlocks the door; a Swiss radio station welcomes us. ‘It is on from the morning when I get up until the evening, when I go to bed.’
I stop in front of a large picture in the living room. It almost takes up the whole wall above the sofa. A fascinating picture in which you can interpret a lot. ‘My boyfriend at the time painted this for me. It was done on the side. Also, the two over there on the wall are by him.’
She tells me about this great love back then and about the fact that he lives and is married in Tenerife today. When he, already after the separation, learned a few years ago about Hanni’s female existence, he was not surprised; ‘I had never seen a man in you.’
‘We lived a really good life. We wore tailor-made suits. His was black, mine was silver and we went to the second most expensive restaurant in town once a month. That was a really great time. We had more money than we needed and we spent it.’ Friends recently asked Hanni if she didn’t regret not having put any money aside when she still had some. ‘Why should I regret that? That was an incredibly good time. We enjoyed life.’
Hanni disappeared into the kitchen. She is preparing lunch. ‘You get to Basel at midday. Would you have lunch at my place?’ was one of her WhatsApp messages before I arrived. So much cordiality really blows my mind.
‘You absolutely have to take a picture of my Hello Kitty dishwasher. It’s my pride and joy,’ she now calls out to me. ‘I bought it at an auction. It almost looked as if someone else was faster than me, I added 5 francs and it was mine.
The female seller even helped carry it down from the fourth floor.’
This photo should not be in black and white:
We are sitting opposite each other at the table. Hanni has lit the candle.
‘Candles are a must. They make the atmosphere homely.’ Hanni often invites friends over and cooks for them. ‘I just buy something at half-price. Just before closing time, I make the rounds through the shops in the vicinity, and then many things are marked down. I don’t buy what I need, but what’s available on sale, and I cook something delicious out of what I got.’
Hanni, master in the art of living.
‘In Michelin-starred restaurants, I learned how to cook something noble from the finest ingredients. But that’s not difficult. My mother taught me how to make a lot out of little, and I’m really grateful to her for that.’ Before she continues, Hanni is quiet for a moment. ‘Today my mother and I are really good friends. When I told her a few years ago that I was a woman, she thought that it would pass at some point.’ When she understood that this was not the case, she told Hanni, ‘what kind of mother would I be if I didn’t love my child? You are and always will be my child.’
Her father, ‘generously ignored her femininity from the beginning and that has not changed.’
Twice a week I go to my mother’s and cook something delicious for her. Then we spend the whole day together. I won’t visit her in the cemetery later. Nobody gets anything out of that. I’d rather give now.’
The relationship between mother and daughter wasn’t always that good. ‘ Even as a child, I had make-up. If my mother found something, I was punished.’
A friend of her parents saved her: the sculptor Michelle Hänggi. Hanni spent whole days and weekends with her. Here she was allowed to put on make-up and be herself. And discover art for herself. Hanni watched Michelle at work. As a teenager, she was allowed to realize one of Michelle’s designs. When Hanni was 17, she moved in with Michelle. ‘We were there for each other for 35 years. When she died last year, I lost a part of myself.’
After Hanni met her girlfriend, she decided to move out. Soon her first son was born. ‘For half a life I despised myself, felt ashamed and considered myself perverted. Nevertheless, as a single father, I raised a wonderful son.’ This is how she had described the next stage of her life in an e-mail to me.
‘I knew very early on that I was trapped in the wrong sex. And it took me so long until I could take the necessary step,’ she says now. When Hanni started her new job in 1993, she had access to the internet for the first time and was able to do research. So she found out that she wasn’t the only one who felt that way. ‘I read that there was a name for it and a lot of people were affected.’ At that time her son was nine years old.
Hanni joined self-help groups and for the first time was able to talk to others about gender identity, to deal with her perceived and her biological gender. Ten more years passed before Hanni told her son about her real identity.
‘We talked a lot. He accepted it immediately and had no problem with it. Nevertheless, for his sake, I decided to postpone the big coming out to protect him. He shouldn’t have any problems at school. Children can be so cruel.’
After her son finished school, Hanni moved back to Basel. For the first time in her life, she was only responsible for herself. She could begin to be herself. ‘My wardrobe filled up with women’s clothes. Since my termination nothing else has been hanging there. At some point, I packed all my suits, including the very expensive ones, in bags and gave them to charity. WHAT a wonderful feeling!’
Four years ago Hanni began to take hormones. On her own and without psychological consultation. ‘I didn’t need it, I knew what was going on with me.’ In Switzerland, too, a psychological report is a prerequisite for getting hormones approved for the transition. That’s why Hanni ordered the hormones abroad. At some point a parcel got stuck in customs and Hanni had to pay a heavy fine. ‘That was getting too dangerous for me. So I had to find another way.’ Hanni wrote to 100 pharmacies in and around Basel. She described her situation and asked for help. One pharmacist answered. Before he could support her, he wanted to get a personal impression of her situation. Hanni introduced herself – and got her medication from then on.
’The legislation is so crazy. Since 2013, I have been privately living only as a woman. And I am not allowed to change my name because I would be forced to get neutered. This is the law in Basel. It varies from canton to canton.’ Another example from the legal situation: ‘Vocal cord surgery is paid for without further ado. But not the correction of the larynx. But the vocal cord surgery is much more controversial. However, there is always a way.’ Some clinics in Switzerland also minimize the larynx during vocal cord surgery.
What happens next, Hanni? ‘I would like to train as a health specialist. But that won’t work until my transition is complete. Starting somewhere and being known as a tranny is out of the question. I want to start over as a woman in a new environment.’
Hanni is now done with critical topics. Better to go on a little tour through her apartment. ‘I don’t really like the apartment that much anymore. This is my male apartment. I would like to add some pink and purple paint. But there’s no money for that now.’
‘Come on, I’ll show you Basel. I’ve worked out a little route for you.’ We leave the apartment and stroll next to each other. Hanni gets stuck in the pavement with her heels. She laughs, ‘but I love the clicking sound of these shoes.’
On the Wettsteinbrücke (Wettstein bridge) we have a beautiful view of Grossbasel and the cathedral. Here Hanni leads me into the cloister, which means a lot to her. ‘It has a very special atmosphere. Such profound silence.’
From the ‘Pfalz’, the place behind the cathedral, we enjoy the view over the Rhine. ‘I love this city. I’m really proud to be a Basel citizen.’
The sun is coming out. We head for a street cafe. As soon as our drinks arrive, a downpour interrupts our conversation. We flee inside.
‘I was active in a lot of transgender groups on Facebook. Now I have withdrawn from those a little. There is so much negativity. So much complaining about oneself. Why in the world? Adam’s apple. Distance between eyebrows and hairline. Chest circumference. And: Oh dear, I have grown a beard hair. My goodness! Tree hugger women also pluck their hairs. And they don’t all have the ideal measurements either.’
Often it is the young trans females who analyse themselves with this critical eye. ‘That makes me very sad. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have to make it as far as we older trans-females. Right from the start, they had the opportunity to obtain information, research and exchange ideas. For me, it still feels like it does for someone who grew up in the GDR and who would like to raid every department store after the fall of the Wall.’ Hanni wants to collect joy. Every day.
After her outing, many friends told her how brave they found this step.
‘But that wasn’t brave at all. That was liberation.’ But she needed a little courage after all when she stood in front of the whole staff of the company and gave her little speech. ‘But it wasn’t all that bad. I am used to speaking in front of a lot of people.’
It stopped raining. We take the stairs down to the Rhine and cross over with the ferry. Hanni closes her eyes and faces the sun. ‘I was friends with a ‘Fäärimaa’ (local for ferryman) once. I rode with him for days from morning to evening. That was nice.’
In Kleinbasel we walk along the Rhine. ‘Sitting here on the steps during the summer, reading a good book, and enjoying the sun: that’s bliss!’
Hanni’s eyes sparkle with a zest for life. ‘Now I can simply enjoy it all. I couldn’t do that before. With the thick wall around me.’ Hanni talks about her ‘successful life as a man.’ Hans Urs, the joker. ‘Jokes are stories about others.’ A good way not to have to reveal anything about yourself.
‘Let’s go for a drink. There’s a quaint pub around the corner, I’d like to show you.’
The sky is now clear, it’s still a little chilly, but we’re looking for an outdoor table with a view of the Claraplatz.
‘If the weather is really good, it gets crowded. Then I sit here for hours and study the clothes of the women. What looks good and what doesn’t? If you haven’t grown up with this concept, you have to learn it first.’ And she grins, ‘there’s something coming our way, for example, that doesn’t look good at all.’
Someone who hasn’t seen Hanni in recent years wouldn’t recognize her anymore. New clothing, new haircut, changed face. A new person. Hanni is now Hanni. So at the beginning of the year, she sent a long e-mail to the distant relatives, in which she told them about her new life and the long journey she had to make to get there. She attached a photo. ‘It’s always possible that people meet at family events and that’s where they should recognize me.’
She received many sympathetic answers. Only one cousin never answered. ‘I want to give people the opportunity to understand me. Then what they do with it is their decision.
Hanni also wanted to give this chance to her regulars. ‘I kept my spot there. Even, if that wasn’t acceptable to some.’
She has done some educational work there and was able to move some ideas in their heads. ‘They accepted me as a human being. Of course, I don’t know if they can do that with other transgenders as well.’
I talk about the friends of our youngest son, who take it for granted that his older brother is now a sister. Why are small children still so open to the unknown? And where does intolerance come from in adolescence and adulthood?
It is getting late. We briefly stop by Hanni’s apartment again; she wants to put on her favourite dress for one last photo. Then we leave for the airport.
‘Hanni, you really don’t have to escort me there.’
‘If I had to, I certainly wouldn’t.’
Smile at the people and the people smile back. Thank you, Hanni!