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englishman abroad, royalty

Trying to explain the Queen to my five-year-old daughter

I have a new pair of rather British cufflinks. They are styled after first-class stamps, which means they have a picture of the Queen on them. Yesterday, my daughter got a good look at them and asked, “is that Granny on your earrings?”Queen Cufflink 2

No, I explained, it wasn’t Granny and they weren’t earrings.

I explained what cufflinks were for and then she asked who the lady was.

“That’s the Queen”

“what queen?”

“The Queen of England!”

“What?”

“The lady on the stamps, money –”

“Birds?”

“No, there’s no lady on birds. You know I come from England?”

“Yeah!”

“England has a Queen!”

“Papa! No it doesn’t! Show me!”

Aurelia proceeded to watch the entirety of the Queen’s 2016 Christmas speech without complaint or distraction.

“What does she do?”

“The Queen is a nice lady who gives speeches like that one and –”

“She talked about Jesus!”

“… Yeah. She occasionally does that because she’s in charge of the Church in England”

“It’s not a real church though”

“Yes, it’s a real church. I was baptised into that church”

Aurelia’s eyes widened as she misunderstood this last sentence, thinking that the Queen had personally been at my baptism or something.

“Wow…”

“and she lives in a big palace with lots of dogs”

“What dogs?”

“Corgis” I said, showing her a hastily googled picture of corgis.

“Can they talk?”

“No”

“Can she fly?”

“No”

“Are you sure she’s a queen?

englishman abroad, freelancing

Freelancing isn’t so risky…

A common misconception about freelance work is that it is riskier than normal work. The thinking goes like this: A freelancer can earn more money than a contracted worker, it’s true, but they have to deal with the possibility of going without work for a while.

Today I’m going to explain why that’s total nonsense.

Firstly, there are plenty of people in the UK who work under ‘zero-hour contracts’. If you’re unfamiliar with such instruments, they go like this:

You work for an employer, but they don’t have to give you any hours.

True, you don’t have to accept any hours they do offer you, but you can probably guess what will happen if you don’t (you won’t be offered any more). Similarly, although an employer can’t contractually forbid you from working with another company on the side, you can probably guess what will happen if you do.

A zero-hours contract is essentially a way of giving your employer a lot more power at the expense of your own rights. I should know, I used to work for such a company; I managed a staff of forty people on such contracts. Well, we all have to start somewhere.

So, yes, if you’re on a zero-hour contract freelancing might be a better option.

But what about people who are regularly employed?

I worked for a company in London which sold off-plan property to investors, it was my first job out of university. The company soon went bankrupt and everyone lost their job. The CEO remained a multi-millionaire, having sold property that never existed.

I then worked as a trainee sous-chef for a large, London-based restaurant chain, I was to work in a new restaurant that was to open shortly. Except that the planning fell through, it never did open and I never became a sous-chef.

I then worked for an exciting tech and web advertising company in London. I worked in the provisioning team and applied myself, I got promoted into another team which dealt with customer accounts, I applied myself harder and won the team bonus every month. For four months. Then the company merged with another and the whole team was made redundant. Working hard for someone else didn’t pay off.

All of this happened against the backdrop of the banking crisis in which bankers had spent money that wasn’t theirs on things that didn’t exist and thus screwed the global economy. So much for saving, living within your means and avoiding unnecessary credit! Not to worry, the banks got a bailout from the taxpayer, business continued as usual.

Every time I did what I was supposed to, someone or something else didn’t. That’s the problem with regular employment: all the hard work and none of the decision-making power; all of the risk and none of the reward! There’s always a substantial risk, especially in regular employment, but we are largely ignorant of it. Your company, your branch or your team might be unsuccessful or too successful – both can lead to failure!

To summarise: the biggest risk is avoiding risk.

If you don’t take your chance, someone else will take it for you.

englishman abroad, marriage

Hot Stone Massage

We’ve been married for just over a year now and my wife and I went to a spa to celebrate. This is the story of how British squeamishness came to a German ‘Wellness Centre’. It all started on the fifth of October, I took my wife out for an anniversary meal at a nice Italian restaurant and she revealed to me that she’d booked something for us as well. That weekend, she revealed, we were going to a ‘Wellness Centre’. Mindful of the catastrophe that befell me the last time we went to a sauna, I asked what we would be doing there. We would be getting a Hot Stone Massage!

“Cool!” I thought, “presumably there is absolutely no need to be completely bollock naked for such an endeavour!”

Here begins the story of how wrong I was:

The evening started in a building near our local swimming pool. Quite modern on the outside but full-blown Buddhist temple on the inside, as it turns out. Candles and Buddha statues and all sorts of associated flim-flam of the hippy-dippy variety. We sat down in the reception area and a hooded acolyte the receptionist lead us to a very charming room with a gigantic bath in it, filled with what looked like milk. Here we were to bathe as Cleopatra did, in asses’ milk. I did feel like quite the ass as it happens, but the receptionist left us to it and it was quite pleasant.

After this, we put on some very nice and fluffy robes and went into an adjacent room for the Hot Stone Massage, the main event. There were two nice ladies.

One of them explained that we were to disrobe and lie naked on the massage tables.

Then they waited.

I waited.

They waited.

My wife disrobed and lay on the massage table as instructed.

“Shit” I thought. “I’m an Englishman, I don’t do nakedness in front of strangers!”

“Please lay on the table so we can give you the hot Ständer – er – Stein Massage”

That Freudian slip there is an interesting lexical mix-up. Stein means stone, Ständer means boner.

“They think I’ve got a boner! I’ll be damned if they think I’m some priapic teenager!”

I begrudgingly half-took-off my robe to preserve my modesty, this did not work; I lay on the massage table and flopped about like a seal in a net trying to get the robe off. I looked like an arse. They saw my arse. They helped me off with the robe and dutifully covered my arse up again. Thankfully, the massage itself was great.

Not ‘hot Ständer’ great, but pretty great.

 

englishman abroad, politics

Catalan vs Scottish vs UK independence

With the recent (illegal) vote in Catalonia about whether it should be an independent country, we finally have a meaningful independence vote which has taken place outside of Britain. 

First there was the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014, in which Scotland voted to remain part of the UK, then there was the EU referendum of 2016 in which the UK voted to leave the EU, and now we have had the Catalan Independence referendum of 2017: 

Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic? 

Unlike the others, this vote was ruled as illegal from the start. The Spanish constitution states that Spain is indivisible and that’s it’s impossible to secede from the country.

That alone sounds like an extremely valid reason to have a vote on the subject. If you aren’t allowed to leave, there should absolutely be a vote on leaving. 

Say what you want about the Scottish referendum, the UK government didn’t tell Scotland that it simply couldn’t leave, case closed. Rather it said “Scotland, you’re already an independent country. By all means, vote” 

Should Scotland be an independent country? 

‘No’ – was Scotland’s answer. Scotland wanted to remain an interdependent country as part of the UK. Sensible choice, especially as joining the EU was never on the table in the first place – Spain would have vetoed such a breakaway state’s membership to discourage Catalonian independence. It’s also especially sensible as all successful countries are interdependent these days. Look at North Korea: no foreign governments lobbying their people’s assembly. No pesky transnational organisations like the UN (or EU) are listened to in North Korea. North Korea has absolute control over its own oil and gas. North Korea has little to do with its neighbours, even with China. Not exactly heaven on earth, is it? 

Finally, we come to Brexit. The question was much wordier: 

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? 

No pretence of whether or not the UK was an independent country was present in the question itself, that came from the TV debates instead. This was a straightforward question of political union. Therein lies the problem: how can you expect people to vote on such a complicated issue when few of us could really articulate what the European Union is? Ideas like ‘independence’ are easy to understand, but ‘remain or leave a complicated political union that you know nothing about’ is choice that should never have been given without adequate and impartial education on the subject. I remember learning about Pythagoras at school, Shakespeare, The Great Fire of London, plate tectonics, what different religions believe about the afterlife… but politics? Civics? How the world around us actually works? Taxes? Finance? The economy? Important things that an adult should know? 

Should education make independent people? 

That’s a ‘yes’ from me. 

englishman abroad, the German way

Things I never expected from Germany

At first glance, globalization has made many European cities indistinguishable from each other: the same McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Aldis pop up on many European high streets. True, the signs in Germany are populated with unfeasibly long and complicated-looking words, but they still tend to point to the same sort of infrastructure: multi-storey car parks are full of the same brands found elsewhere, office buildings are filled with the same harried-looking people using the same computers, cinemas are showing the same blockbuster movies as the rest of the world.

But there are differences here in Germany, differences that go beyond the cars driving on the other side, the PC keyboards looking different and the movies being dubbed. There are some real, every day, walking-down-the-street differences, for example:

  1. Brothels seem to be everywhere. In the UK, they’re hidden away down a back street, pretending to be a ‘massage parlour’, clinging to a thin veneer of deniability. Here in Germany they’re right on the high street and labelled as such. They’re legitimate, legal, local businesses: they pay taxes. They advertise through employment agencies and in women’s magazines. They’re commonplace. Perhaps it makes sense for Germans to have such things out in the open because…
  2. Germans are very direct people. I come from a country in which bad news is sugar-coated and understated. Did you just ruin that important presentation in front of all the important bigwigs at work? “That wasn’t your best work,” is what you might hear. Have you fallen behind on the rent? Are you about to be evicted? “I have a slight housing problem,” is what you might say. Here in Germany? No. What you see is what you get! “Your presentation was shit” (it’s not such a bad word here), “I’m broke”. In Germany, just about everyone is Simon Cowell. Perhaps all this straightforwardness is really for the best, because…
  3. Local businesses thrive here. Britain has a problem: small businesses are disappearing from the high street. Why go to the local grocer, the local hardware store and the local butcher when you can get everything at once in the local supermarket for less? Here in Germany the supermarkets aren’t the huge, sprawling superstores they often are in the UK. Aldi, Netto, and the like focus on their core business: selling food. They seldom sell anything else and if they do, it’s a special promotion that lasts about a week. Gardening supplies are bought at the local garden centre, hardware at the local hardware store, computers at the computer shop. True, I don’t think it will last: the big chains are creeping in, but the lack of diversification in German shops is a welcome sight to me. The shop assistants know what they’re talking about. They’re competent. They’re specialised. They’re straightforward. I’ve never had that from TESCO.
  4. The rules are the rules. The stereotypical German loves rules. So does the typical German. I caught a lift with a colleague the other day when a policeman flashed him with a portable speed trap. His response? “Ah yes, that’s how it happens. You’re chatting away and you don’t pay attention, then you speed”. That was it! No effing and blinding! No winding the window down and telling the policeman to catch some REAL criminals!

I once saw a similar situation with a traffic warden: I was walking down a back street and saw the traffic warden slapping stickers on cars. Behind him, a middle-aged woman was sprinting up the road in his direction.

“Wait! WAIT!” she practically screamed, red with consternation.

The warden turned and waited, nervously fingering his radio.

She closed the distance quickly and, bent double, panted:

“You idiot! You missed one!”

To my mounting surprise she led him back down the road and to the offending car, it had overstayed its ticket by three minutes. The warden thanked the woman. I’d never seen anyone help a traffic warden before.

Only in Germany!