Is Two Weeks Enough to Know a Country?
How long does a person have to stay in a country, before they can say they’ve lived there? Recently this question was asked on Twitter and the replies were illuminating. Some believed months, for others it was years, while many considered it a question of contribution, whether cultural or financial.
I thought about this discussion as I read the Spectator article 15 reasons to fall in love with Germany and Germans by James Delingpole, who at that point had spent “a fortnight living as a non–tourist in Frankfurt”. Some of the contributors to the previous thread would be shocked to know that anyone felt comfortable writing such an article after such a short residency, but Mr. Delingpole clearly had a deadline to meet. Some of his observations were quite curious, especially given the authority with which his opinions were presented. Therefore, for his and anyone else’s benefit, I will attempt to at least clarify some of his more inaccurate assessments:
1. Germans, and Germany generally, are among the world’s most underrated things. True they are not so adept at wit, snark, banter, jocularity or general frivolity.
I certainly concur with the first point. Germany is underrated, frequently by Germans themselves. However, the stereotype of the humourless German, as easy as it is to make, isn’t quite as true as you might imagine. Given that relationship building in Germany is a longer process and that relationship building is not a necessity in order to do business, humour is not always the go-to when speaking to people. Get to know some Germans and you will find them perfectly adept at wit and humour. That may take more than two weeks though.
2. A young man had found my wallet while jogging in the park and had tracked me down via my hotel key card. He could deliver it at my convenience. Ten minutes later (this was 11 p.m.), a tall handsome German, whom I imagine would have been perfect Panzer-grenadier material a few years back, delivered my wallet.
Only two points in and we have our first WWII reference. I would say that’s a record for the British, but then as every German knows, the modern Briton is obsessed with wars they never fought in. I wonder if our young, honest German would be pleased to be described as a “Panzer-grenadier”, perhaps he would have been better served goose stepping over the missing wallet and forgetting he ever saw it.
3. Don’t mention the war, like I did just then. They find it really upsetting, even when you mention it in jest or by way of illustration of how far we have come since.
Whether a German finds WWII upsetting or not is entirely subjective, but I have often discussed and even joked with friends and colleagues about it. What Germans may find upsetting is that non-Germans seem to know so little about Germany, that they feel compelled to talk about the war as it’s the only piece of German history they know about. German education spends a large chunk of time looking at WWII and the Holocaust and it is still a popular setting for many German TV shows and films. Again, I wonder if two weeks is enough time for someone to feel comfortable making Hitler gags?
4. Squirrels. This is possibly the most amazing thing of all.
Indeed, who doesn’t like squirrels?
5. Germans find it very hard to say sorry. Not that they are ungracious. Just that the word Entschuldigung has four syllables.
Not to worry, so many people seem to switch between “Sorry” and “Entschuldigung ” you can often avoid using it altogether. Watch out for the haters of Denglisch though.
6. When you read another story in the British papers about a knife attack on a German train or at a festival by someone yelling ‘Allah Akbar!’ you think, well they’ve probably got used to it by now, what with the 1.5 million who Angela Merkel invited in with the glib assertion that ‘Wir schaffen das’ (We can handle it). But actually this is not the case. Ordinary Germans are no more used to or accepting of such cultural enrichment than ordinary Britons. If I could sum up the general mood it would be something like ‘shellshocked’. Or even, ‘Let’s pretend it’s not happening’. You do see one or two immigrants who are obviously becoming well-integrated, and these are welcomed with characteristic German tolerance and kindness. But you also see an awful lot who haven’t — in the town centres with begging signs or just hanging out aimlessly or smoking in shisha bars or lurking in those parts of the park where you’d rather not tread.
Depends where and who you speak to. The thousands of volunteers that support refugees around the country would very likely disagree with much of this. I would imagine that in the two week stint that Delingpole spent in Germany, he may have missed the protests for and against immigration. It can hardly be described as ‘Let’s pretend it’s not happening’ when the topic was debated in the Bundestag only two weeks ago.
Begging and homelessness, despite Germany’s welfare system, is still a major issue as are the roughly ten million people living below the poverty line.
Shisha bars may seem exotic to to the British, but let me just point out that they are in every town and city throughout the country and are not the sole reserve of immigrants. I was in one the other day and I was the only migrant there. Everyone else was from Germany. As the debate over Mesut Özil’s retirement highlighted, not every German is white. You might have found that out, if you as a journalist had asked them. I’m sure it’s better to make up your own narrative though, then actually make an effort to do your job properly.
7. Germans are generally better dressed than we are.
It’s Frankfurt, the capital of German banking, so it might be a little hard to judge. It’s roughly the same I would say, but Britain is often ahead of the global fashion trends. Still, we have C&A here, so that’s something.
8. And the women! I can’t recall a city where I last saw so many 8s, 9s and 10s wandering around unawares, as if blonde statuesque beauty was entirely the norm.
Are we still rating woman out of ten? Great, nice to see that some things just don’t change in 2018.
9. Medical care in Germany must be a good ten, 15 years ahead of ours. They love their technology but they’re also imbued with a deep passion for all things organic and natural (an obsession you can trace from German Romanticism through the Nazis to the modern Green movement).
There’s those Nazis again! Although I would suggest the acceptance of homeopathy as a valid treatment is a sign that unscientific ideas still gain traction in modern Germany, I would advise you to read this excellent article from Liveworkgermany.com if you wish to understand the system. I would still prefer the NHS.
10. The trains still run on time. The system relies on no one trying to dodge their fares. And of course, being German, no one does.
People are always getting on trains without tickets, that’s probably why there are so many posters calling on Schwarzfahrer (Fare dodgers) to pay for tickets. Being German doesn’t mean you don’t break the law.
11. If you want to really see Germans confused and upset, just catch their expressions as you cross the road when the pedestrian sign is still on red.
Sure people get pissed, but I almost ran over a pedestrian yesterday as he crossed on a red light, so it’s not totally unheard of.
12. One of their few concessions to naughtiness is driving their overpowered German cars stupidly fast, even in town.
Not sure about speeding through towns, but the amount of accidents I see on the Autobahn everyday suggests speed limits are not always a bad thing.
13. Sundays are still sacred in Germany. All the shops are closed, all day
True. Not all people are happy about that point, but I imagine in countries where the service industry employs the majority of people (Germany or UK), closing shops on a Sunday can be one way to help families spend some quality time together.
14. Germans love their forests. It’s a legacy of Arminius, who wiped out three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in 9AD, even though he hasn’t been taught in schools since the war (too nationalistic).
Well aside from the massive statue of Arminius, which can be found in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is still a draw for domestic tourists. You might have also pointed to Romanticism as one of the reasons for the German love of the woods (see the protests of the clearance of Hambach Forest, for a modern comparison), but then you would have missed out another reference to German nationalism and I know you have a quota to meet. Like many things that the Nazis touched, there is some stigma. Then again, I don’t think that anyone who has suffered through the anaemic history curriculum in the UK can disparage historical education anywhere else.
15. Because Germans pretty much invented electronic dance music with Kraftwerk it is much more ubiquitous…
Tell that to Antenna Bayern, because I’m fairly sure they are legally obliged to play Pink every twenty minutes.
Maybe two weeks is enough time to make judgement calls on a country, I’m not privileged with Mr. Delingpole’s itinerary so I really have no way to know what he’s been doing. What I would say is that the longer I live in Germany, the more I realise how much we have in common and that much of what I thought was different isn’t really that important. It has given me a greater awareness of a different culture and taught me not to make snap judgements. Culture is always a complex topic, often not suited to superficial judgement, but that would hardly fit into a fifteen point listicle though, would it?