Understanding the UK: How Germans see Britain
If the statistics are to be believed, there are around 100,000 British expats living in Germany. With current population estimates sitting at 81 million, British residents in Germany make up 0.13% of the population. Essentially this is a long way of saying that it is statistically very unlikely that Germans will ever meet a British expat. Although Germans are unlikely to encounter the British at home, they will often end up meeting them while on holiday. This is no surprise, especially when you consider that the destinations of Mallorca and the Canary Islands frequently lead the lists of preferred holiday destinations for both nationalities. As one of the few British expats Germans might meet, I frequently field questions on the odd peculiarities of the British holidaymaker. These questions can range from “Why do they never use sun cream”, to “Why do they drink so much?” and finally “Why do they always have to take their shirts off?”.
It is difficult to give a short answer to these questions, although in the case of these three particular questions, both 1 and 3 can be basically answered by 2; We drink so much because we are on holiday, after five pints we take off our shirts and because we have been drinking we will quickly forget about using sun cream. It is actually straightforward when you think about it.
The German experience of British tourists tends to colour their judgement of the UK as a whole. There are people I have spoken to who find it very hard to believe that the average British person is not permanently sun burnt, shaven headed and publicly displaying a series of large tattoos dedicated to their favourite football team. Alternatively, Germans get their experience of the UK from holidaying there, but again the impression many German tourists get of the UK comes from places like London. London, due to its size and importance, is hardly a typical British city. It might happen to contain all the symbols of the UK and all the important cultural artefacts, but a holiday in London is no preparation for visiting Barnsley or Stoke.
To compound matters, Germans are often confused by what the UK and Britain actually is. This has led in the past to a German friend telling me they had visited the UK many times and after a couple of minutes it became clear what they meant by the UK was Dublin. Although the Irish are in Germany in even smaller groups (estimates suggest around 13,000), the wealth of Irish bars in Germany has ensured that the Irish diaspora is more prominent in the consciousness of Germans, although not all of them understand Ireland is a separate country.
British culture is filtered for German audiences through the lens of television and films, with British programming showing German viewers a particular version of the UK. The most popular shows such as Inspector Barnaby (better known as Midsummer Murders in the UK), Lewis or the works of Rosamunde Pilcher appeal to the German fascination with the UK, but also to a particular idea of the UK. Picturesque villages, manicured lawns and afternoon tea are all expected elements of any British TV show. I was not surprised to find that Downton Abbey had a major following among my German friends. The grand stately homes, well mannered protagonists and rigid class system speak directly to the image many Germans have of Britain.
Upper class tea drinkers are only one part of this image though, it hardly represents the whole picture Germans have of the English. This image was summed up by my first experience of German football. While taking the bus to the football ground, my friend and I chatted about the upcoming game. As we talked a young man turned around and fixed us with a stare. He then interrupted our conversation to enquire where we both came from. When I answered “Britain”, he lit up and said “Britain? You are real football hooligans”. I was shocked and protested that we were nothing of the sort, but although I vehemently denied the accusation, the young man seemed less than convinced. When I asked why he thought we were hooligans, he declared that his favourite film was Hooligan (better known as 2005s Green Street), which had told him all he needed to know about the UK.
With Germans basing their understanding of the UK through holidays, television and films, they are understandably confused when they actually meet British expats. We rarely exhibit the expected tropes. My accent is a constant source of bemusement for German friends and family, as it never has and probably will never sound like the plummy accents of the British upper class or the cockney twang of London that many expect to hear. Although I readily recognise that my German language skills are a work in progress, I am frequently asked if I am Russian or more bizarrely, in my opinion, American. Germans may travel to the North East of England (the origin of my accent) via the port of North Shields, but German holidaymakers move directly to some other part of the UK to begin their holiday, rather than see the sights of Newcastle, Sunderland or Middlesbrough.
The average British person sits somewhere between rampant hooligan and ruddy faced aristocrat, a point that the German education system tries to impress upon students. English language textbooks in German schools try to explain the UK as well as possible, but even then there is little time to focus on all nuances as the curriculum rockets towards the conclusion of the Abitur (final exams). Exchange trips to the UK and the setting up of pen pals allows students to engage with the reality of living in Britain, but there is a tendency to focus on areas that adhere to German expectations. The South coast, London and occasionally small villages in Scotland cover the romantic and picturesque. All it then takes is to see British people drinking in a pub before 4 in the afternoon, a perfectly normal British pastime, for the tropes of the British to be fulfilled.
Even if exposure to normal British people changes how Germans see the UK, it does not take much to reverse the good work of the British expat community. Over the weekend here in Nürnberg, all the worst aspects of the UK arrived in the form of a 30 man group of British holiday makers. Their arrival precipitated one of the longest weekends for the cities law enforcement as the group proceeded to cause chaos and thousands of euros worth of damage to bars and kebab shops. The first I heard of the group was Saturday afternoon when I met friends for the weekly beer and football session. It turned out that our local had hosted the group the night before, and in return saw them vandalise the bar, rip a football scarf from the wall, urinate on it and then inexplicably attempt to set the dampened piece of football memorabilia on fire.
As I was being told this, we received a live update from another bar, stating that they had been thrown out of three Irish pubs in the city centre already, and it was only 4 o’clock. By Monday, the full story was published in the local paper. The group had marauded through the city, fighting with themselves and anyone who happened to be around. Although the police arrested a number of them, at one point seventeen of the thirty, they eventually released them, only to find they returned to random violence hours later. One barman I know stated that he knew there was a real problem when, three minutes into his shift on the bar, a pint glass was thrown from within the group, narrowly missing his head and smashing against the wall behind him. Wrecked restaurants, broken bars and a totally destroyed kebab shop later and eight of the men are still in custody, waiting to discover whether they will face punishment.
It is the actions of groups such as these that leave an indelible mark against the British abroad, one that is unlikely to be remedied by a friendly chat with an expat. In reality, the posh upper class or the violent thuggish gang are not representative of the average Briton, but it is these tropes that carry more weight because they are the most visible aspects of British culture around the world. Whether British people drink more heavily or are more prone to violence, I do not know, but my own experience of Germany suggests as much. I have yet to see an actual fight in my six years in Germany, they must happen, but not with the frequency I see when I visit the UK. British expats around the world have a responsibility to help other cultures understand the UK, but this can be an uphill struggle, especially when the stereotypes are so engrained and so easily reinforced.