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!

englishman abroad, stories, Teaching English

Who bothers to learn English? Interesting people, that’s who.

I’m an English trainer in Germany, NOT an English teacher. Teachers work in schools where learning is mandatory, whereas I teach English to those who learn voluntarily. Not everyone who chooses to learn English is ‘normal’ so here’s a sample of my more memorable students.

1.       The Eccentric

The Eccentric had worked as a civil servant for many years, had an industrial accident and left with a nice, big payoff. He also had some not-so-nice constant pain. With his payoff, he’d impulsively decided to get some extra education at a university. For his course he needed English, and so began a last-minute, month-long intensive course to transform a very eccentric guy with attention deficit issues into an English-speaking savant who would pass his English exam with flying colours. Every hour, on the hour, The Eccentric would take a ten-minute break. He’d zoom out the door, chain-smoke four cigarettes in record time, down an energy drink and make himself a latte macchiato which he would nurse, scowling, for the next 50 minutes. Every two days he needed a heavy metal break, and we’d load up whatever he fancied and blast it at high volume, before discussing the relative merits of e.g. Deftones in comparison to Korn. Every day I would teach him the same lesson because he’d forgotten 90% of what we did the day before. Every five days, like clockwork, he would be blessed with total recall of everything and we’d move on to the next lesson. Eventually, we completed the course and he went off to study something unusual.

He was just one of those special people, I suppose.

2.       The Rule Breaker

The Rule Breaker was an interesting man, he was a senior partner in a business and was about to leave and start his own. He was a wealthy and successful workaholic who ostensibly needed English for an upcoming business deal. But halfway through every lesson he would discuss other things: his ongoing marital problems, how he was going to stitch-up his old business partner, how he had turned an office building into a home to circumvent zoning laws and how he periodically had to pretend that his apartment was an office block to keep up the illusion. It seemed that although he was paying for English lessons, what he really wanted was a confessor. Several others have come to me seeking confession, or therapy, under the guise of a ‘conversation course’.

My philosophy at such moments is: “If it’s in English, it’s an English lesson”.

3.       The Social Media Guru

The Social Media Guru is a very likeable woman who does the social media for a medium-sized German company with many English-speaking customers. We spent Friday mornings brainstorming what posts might work on the company Facebook page, how we could broaden her customer base, what seasonal or topical themes could be worked into Facebook or Twitter… April Fool’s posts, Christmas Carols, you name it, we did it. She’s taking a hiatus right now but I still get the occasional email asking for ideas or translations.

I’m always happy to help.

4.       Mr Robot

Mr Robot works in programming and looks a lot like Rami Malek, hence the nickname I’ve given him. Mr Robot was going through a period of great change in his life: divorced, going nowhere in his IT job, living next door to the neighbour from hell… let’s just say that Mr Robot needed some encouragement. Mr Robot came to me with practically no English skills at all but left at level B1, an impressive new freelancing job, a new house and even a new name.

I still see Mr Robot around sometimes, he’s a new man.

5.       The Academics

The Academics are professors and doctors from a university, they have papers to write, conferences to attend, research to perform, studies to conduct. They are important people in a behind-the-scenes kind of way, and their work will probably go on to shape German social policy in years to come, indirectly, of course. I’ve been privileged to see a little of their research and translate parts of it before it’s gone to press.

Far from being stuck up and awkward, they have a healthy sense of humour and self-deprecation to keep them sane.

6.       The Biker

The Biker is a wonderfully accepting, friendly, down-to-earth man with kind eyes and a charming manner. He is a respected boss, a competent manager, a great motivator a doting father and loyal husband. He is also in a world-famous biker gang and likes to tell stories about the wild parties he’s been to, the people he’s associated with, the scrapes he’s got into with the police, his membership of certain other dangerous clubs and political movements, the hardware that his bike gang entrusts him with and what happens to people who cross the gang.

The truly scary thing about The Biker is not that he’s a dangerous man who has done bad things, but that you’d never realise it when he’s a mere pedestrian.

Who ever said that teaching English was boring?

englishman abroad, politics

So, I’m a centre-right Marxist: three ways that Germans decide who to vote for.

This month the election season draws to a close; September 24th is Election Day. The election season has been underway for a quite a while and despite this, no one seems to be talking about politics. It looks like I’ll have to break the silence. Here are three ways the Germans decide who to vote for:

1.       Election placards

One day I woke up and noticed that there was a rather gormless-looking man smiling down inanely from a placard hung outside my house. This was the local SPD candidate, hoping to get elected. The SPD are the approximate German equivalent of the Labour party and they’re wasting their time with me: as a Briton, I can’t vote in the national elections.

Tellingly, different parts of the city have different placards and parties represented on them. Just as the breaks in Top Model have different adverts than the breaks in Top Gear: they’re catering to a different audience. My street is exclusively SPD, but around the corner is the main road and the CDU (Angela Merkel’s Party), SPD, Greens and Die Linke (further left than the SPD) are represented.

Rougher areas than mine feature the fringe parties: MLPD (The Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany) and AfD (Alternative for Germany, the far right). Typically, the mainstream parties go with a bland, pithy slogan: “Rent should be affordable!” OR: “With less Europe, no one has more!” The fringes go for something more blatant: “Workers of the world unite!” (yes, really) and “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.” This last one is accompanied by the picture of a pregnant (white) woman. Message: no brown babies, please, we’re German. The extreme left and right seem to be populated by stereotypes, but there you go. By the way, far right placards are hung very high so they can’t be torn down, whereas the far left don’t have to worry about it.

2.       Wahl-o-Mat

For those not easily swayed by placards, there is the Wahl-o-Mat. This website collates information on party policies and presents 38 questions. Based on your answers it advises you who to vote for. It’s a really good idea and I decided to fill out the questionnaire myself. Unfortunately, my British political stances (generally small-c conservative) completely contradict the German system and here are my nonsensical results:

·         I should vote for the FDP, as I agree with 61.3% of their policies, according to Wahl-o-Mat. The FDP is a centre/centre-right party. Not a bad result so far, but wait…

·         If I decide not to vote FDP, my next best choice is the Marxist–Leninist Party of Germany, as I agree with 58.8% of their policies.

What madness is this?! I can’t swing from the centre-right to the extreme left on the basis of 2.5 percentage points! I think that there are two particular questions which sank me, one on affordable housing – I thought it was a good idea, and one on ‘Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung’ or statutory health insurance. Statutory health insurance, socialised medicine, whatever you want to call it, is the general idea of the British NHS. A conservative in Britain would defend it. Even the BNP defends it.

3.       Incredibly tedious TV debates

For those select few who find placards too simple and the Wahl-o-Mat too complicated, there is a third way: The Cult of Personality. Unfortunately, neither Angela Merkel nor Martin Schulz seems to have a personality between them. Two days ago, there was a live TV debate in which Schulz (SPD) and Merkel (CDU) agreed almost endlessly about everything. There was a bit of light sparring over Turkey and the refugee crisis, but the debate was tedious and focussed only of the two main parties.

For contrast, the 2015 and 2017 debates have a greater range of opinion simply by including more parties: Plaid Cymru, UKIP, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens, not just Labour and the Conservatives.

Yesterday there was another, lesser, debate which included the other parties. First up was the FDP talking some bland, predictable soundbites and then on came those far-right crazies, the AfD.

“Great!” I thought. “Here comes something entertaining!”

“So, Mrs Blah Blah of the AfD,” began the moderator (I might be paraphrasing)

“What are your thoughts on fibre optic internet cables?”

Off went the TV, I can’t stand such tedium.

 

 

englishman abroad

If Germany was like Britain…

My daughter is finally a British citizen. After quite a bit of faffing around, her shiny new passport has arrived and I’m somewhat relieved from a measure of Brexit-induced stress. Whatever happens, she’ll always have the option of living in a different country. I started to wonder, what if Britain and Germany weren’t so different?

If Germany was like Britain…

  1. There would be Church of Germany with schools for children to attend.
  2. The Kaiser would give speeches every Christmas, people would watch.
  3. Plenty of young boys would flock to join the German Boy Scouts, no one would think it was ‘a bit too Nazi’.
  4. There would be a lot more German flags flying everywhere and German nationalism would be celebrated.
  5. Bavarian nationalism would thrive similarly to Scottish nationalism; Lederhosen-clad, Zither-playing, blue and white flag-wavers would campaign for an independent Bavaria.
  6. Germans would insist everyone spoke German and refuse to learn any other language.
  7. People would be a lot politer and a lot less productive.
  8. The wine and beer would be a lot worse and the cider much better.
  9. Many Bundesländer would print road signs in their own languages (just like Wales).
  10. Fish and Chips would be wildly popular but there would still be far less water to fish in.
  11. There might be a TV show called ‘Nur Narren und Pferde’ and it would have a cult following.
  12. A charismatic German spy would feature in many popular films and be renowned for his wit and seduction. His name might be Jacob Bund.
  13. Germany would regard Europe sceptically, and leave the EU.

It’s unthinkable, isn’t it?