Some Idle Thoughts on Germany

This will be somewhat shorter than my musings on America, because I was in Germany for a much shorter period and travelled far less extensively whilst there. I had comprehensive tours of Frankfurt and Ravensburg, courtesy of native friends.

I must begin by reflecting on my own cultural realignment while travelling in Germany. They say that the USA and Great Britain are two countries divided by a common language; it was a frequent topic for Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America, at least in the early years. In some ways, I’d characterise a lot of my German experience as visiting a place divided by a common infrastructure. When travelling in Greece, the language was strange, with their non-Latin alphabet, but that was matched by countless small details that gave their cities a completely different feel to anywhere I was familiar with. The language was just one aspect of the surrounding strangeness. In Germany, everything looked familiar. The older quarters might easily have been in the elderly cities of the United Kingdom, and the newer parts could be transplanted to most of the countries I’ve visited without perturbation. That made the language barrier the leading edge of the sensation of being in a foreign place. I kept expecting that if I just concentrated hard enough, or took a second look at a sign, that it would be intelligible, because it was all so generically familiar.

This prompted me, for the first time really, to understand the comical attitude of the English Tourist ™ to the world: speak slowly and loudly, and you’re bound to be understood. When the language is so close sounding, and the cityscape generally so familiar, it’s an easy thing to believe. And it’s almost true too. Almost all of the Germans I spoke to had infinitely more command of English than I did of German and switched to my language at the first intimation I wasn’t German. That was generally early in our interactions – Clare did a lot better, I think, remembering useful words and phrases. My head was like a language sieve. The inability to communicate clearly and effectively made me feel less intelligent too, especially since a few of the places I visited used French as their secondary language. I read French to about kindergarten level, which means struggling with words in a way unfamiliar for nearly 30 years. As a result, I’ve promised myself never to talk down to a kid – their life is hard enough without adults being condescending or patronising.

While similar, there were a few notable differences in some German arrangements. The first one we noticed was that there are “female only” parking areas in most German car parking buildings. Our native guides explained that this is a move to address womens’ safety. These areas are all well-lit and are typically a little closer to the main entrances than the general parking areas. I’d be interested to know whether there had been any measurable benefit from this layout decision. Conceptually, this seems like an anaemic move to treat the symptoms of a high rate of assaults perpetrated on women. I remain unaware of the crime statistics in Germany, so this may be preventative. Segregation of this kind always makes me a little uneasy, because it identifies women as a special class, solidifying the idea of the male as the normal default. This is a conceptual building-block of objectification. If it’s having some practical reduction in crime, that would be more important than my theoretical unease. I guess my New Zealand experience has also generally made me uncomfortable with classifying people. We’re not perfect, but we are fairly even-handed and egalitarian.

The Germans seem more comfortable with classes in the Marxist sense. Discussions with the natives about their school system implies to me that streaming is a common practice, and that there are strong but invisible class restrictions on certain types of education and certain professions. This expresses itself in ways that are novel to us antipodeans, such as the different classes of railway carriage. That’s something not seen in New Zealand in my lifetime. I can certainly understand that the volume of traffic supports it, and those desiring more luxury should be able to get it if they are prepared to pay. To me it felt like a hold-over from a more explicitly class-based society. As with the parking buildings, that may say more about my cultural biases than Germany.

More immediately striking than the class system is the German obsession with Cheese. Cheese was for sale everywhere, in a bewildering array of colours and smells. I had always thought that the Germans loved Sausages best, but based on casual wandering of markets, Bread and Cheese are their national foods.

I’ll end my thoughts with the start of my journey. New Year’s Eve in Germany was quite an experience. There are two activities that seemed mandatory. The first is watching Dinner for One, a short British sketch about an elderly lady having dinner by herself on New Year’s Eve. She is attended by an equally venerable butler. It was filmed in 1963, and apparently around 18 million Germans tune in each New Year’s Eve to watch it. I’ve been thinking about it for nearly 2 weeks now, and I really have no explanation for why this simple sketch should have such a grip on the German imagination for 50 years.

The second thing everyone does is set off their own Fireworks. I’m told there was a city-sponsored fireworks display available, but where I was, it seemed like virtually every house was having their own mini display. For an hour or so, I saw the neighbourhood doggedly and methodically let off every conceivable kind of domestic-scale firework, blanketting the streets in gunsmoke. I saw nothing particularly irresponsible, but mis-fires and accidents are inevitable with activity on that scale.

So – idle thoughts, idly sketched.

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One Response to Some Idle Thoughts on Germany

  1. Aaron Caskey says:

    Germany has the same New Years celebration routine as Sweden (not surprising, but something I didn’t know). This year, I did exactly the same as you: watched Dinner for One, then went out to watch the neighbours’ fireworks displays. However, it’s a familiar thing for me now. I still have no idea why Dinner for One is so popular. It was kind of amusing, but nothing I would want to watch on a yearly basis.

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