englishman abroad, travel

Beer, the Chinese and a chance encounter in Groningen

On Thursday, I helped take some English school kids on a trip over the border to Groningen. I didn’t have to do too much really, just translate English / German a bit and lead the group from coach to train to wherever we were going next. We had just taken the train to Leer, and had boarded the coach, when a pensioner sat down next to me and said  “So, you must be Swedish”.

I have rapidly greying black hair, speak English and was still just about in Germany. I don’t think that I make a particularly convincing Swede. I was intrigued by the old man and asked him why he thought that:
“Because you speak English and I can understand you!”
It turns out that Hein, who is Dutch, has trouble understanding native English speakers because they speak too fast, have a regional accent or use colloquialisms. These are problems I am familiar with, which is why I tend to use my very best David Cameron voice when I’m in Germany. In fact, I’ve used it so much that it’s become hard to switch off, the poor Black Country school kids thought I was posh, Hein thought I was Swedish, I’m neither!
After an hour’s interesting conversation with Hein, which covered all sort of things, including his description of Rotterdam and Cologne after the war (flattened, but with churches intact), it was time to get off the coach and head to The Confucius Institute. We had lunch at the institute and had a workshop on Chinese painting, which was fascinating. Then we had two hours to kill, we went our own ways and I went shopping. I got my wife a bottle of a local specialty, Beerenburg, as a souvenir. I tried some of the Dutch beer, which I especially enjoyed, and made a few other stops here and there.WP_20170720_15_58_09_Pro (2)

On the train journey back I reflected on how I, as a Briton, was rather privileged. Everywhere I had been in Groningen that day, a train station, the Confucius Institute, a coffee shop, a bar, an off-licence and two street food vendors, every single place was happy to speak to me in English, and speak well. It would likely have been the same in Germany, had I tried. English truly is the lingua franca.

It puts me in mind of how all of this could be taken away from me, should I sit around without a plan whilst the Brexit process staggers on. Perhaps I should take Hein’s hint and go to Sweden, I already have the accent.

englishman abroad, travel

A very Denglish holiday, part 1

Until recently we had never booked a Pauschalreise, the trip to Tenerife was our first family package holiday. Previously everything we booked, the accommodation, the flights / ferries, the trips and entertainment had all been planned meticulously and booked in advance. This time we decided to do the ‘normal’ thing. Not everything went to plan…

We had taken a train to Düsseldorf airport and were waiting around for the bag drop to open, when my spidey sense started tingling. A man, dishevelled, stubbled and dirty with a large, ripped holdall was shuffling furtively around the departures hall. I watched him closely. His eyes darted about the place until they fixed upon the security guards who were patrolling, he detoured around a large, potted fern and continued on his way towards me. The man was plainly avoiding the staff and this piqued my interest further. I started to wonder, “could this man be up to something?”

Just along from the generic, metal airport bench on which I was sitting, he stopped with his back turned to me. He unslung the bag from his shoulder and rested it on the floor next to some recycling bins. He unscrewed the lid from one of these metal bins and pulled out another bag, a Rucksack. The thought crossed my mind “could this man be a terrorist?”

Smoothly, the man switched the two bags, leaving his holdall in the bin and screwing the top back on, and then peering into his rucksack. A brief smile crossed his face and I saw that the bag was full of plastic bottles. The man was collecting them for the Pfand. For anyone who doesn’t know, most Flaschen (bottles) of plastic or glass here in Germany have a deposit on them, which can be redeemed for cash at supermarkets and the like. Many homeless people scrape a living by returning these bottles (my friend calls one of our local tramps Flasch-back). This particular homeless guy was much more creative than most. I watched him do his rounds and repeat the trick with other bags, I estimate he made about 15-20 euros in the ten minutes I watched him.

Relieved, we waited for a few hours until we eventually boarded the flight to Tenerife with Norwegian Air. They had Wi-Fi! On a plane! Such exciting times! Eventually we landed in the late evening, and went to the coach station adjoining the Flughafen. The coach full of Germans was already full and so we waited for the next coach, which was full of English.

The coach took us into the rapidly darkening late-evening and along a motorway with a lovely view of the coast, which we had plenty of time to enjoy because the coach broke down on the side of the motorway. There we were, no aircon, only dim lights and a dead engine on the hard shoulder with traffic flying past. The driver couldn’t speak English or German, but someone spoke to him and assured us that a replacement coach would be with us in ten minutes. Ten minutes passed. No replacement. “Well” I said, “it still beats Butlin’s”. A couple of people smirked at this and told a little story about a time they’d been to Butlin’s, long ago. A few others piped up with some holiday horror stories they’d lived through. I kept a couple of lost-looking Germans in the back of the coach informed of what was going on. People shared out water in the sweltering heat. Boys and girls exchanged phone numbers.

The coach was no longer an English coach, it was a Socialist Coach.

Eventually the replacement coach did come and we had to swap all the luggage from one coach to the other with cars whizzing by the whole time, it was fun but shambolic! The new coach was much newer, much cleaner and much better driven. A capitalist coach, no doubt.

We eventually arrived at the hotel around 11pm and there was a buffet waiting for late arrivals. There was no drinking water though. You see, when you book a package deal you run the risk of the Reisebüro neglecting to mention small details like extra costs. I knew that the water on Tenerife wasn’t potable, but surely drinking water shouldn’t cost extra!

I briefly argued the point with the very unhelpful night porter, and considered mentioning the Geneva Convention, or Human Rights, but in the end, I decided to take the more expedient route and steal some water by tagging along with a group whose travel agent hadn’t taken the cheapest option. I nabbed three bottles of water by pretending to be a Portuguese tourist and we turned in for the night. On the way to our room we saw a vending machine that sold a litre of water for 3 euros. This was going to be a very expensive trip unless we found a way around the water scam in the morning…