englishman abroad, the German way

Things you didn’t know about German New Year’s Eve

Today is New Year’s Eve, and in the English-speaking world the Americans have their ball drop in Time Square, the Australians are launching 14 tonnes of fireworks in Melbourne alone, and Britain? Britain has Alan Carr… oh well.

But what’s going on here in Germany?

  1. German’s don’t have New Year’s Eve

Rather, they have Silvester. Saint Silvester was actually an old pope who was made a saint and gives his name to this day. You could go to church to mark the feast of Saint Sylvester if you’re so inclined, but most people just get drunk in the evening like the rest of the world.

  1. Playing with toxic material is encouraged

Every country has their quaint little traditions, don’t they? Bleigießen (lead pouring) is the German tradition of divining the future and risking lead poisoning. Small lead ingots are available for purchase from all good retailers along with a steel spoon. You heat up the ingot on the spoon until it melts, pour it into water and interpret the shape of the molten metal to determine your fortune in the coming year. On the plus side, molten lead is fun for kids! On the downside, molten lead is toxic and fun for kids!

I will, of course, be doing it tonight with family and friends. We’ll be testing a real lead version as well as a newer, safer wax version.

  1. The same procedure as every year

Apart from the church and the pagan divination, what else is a staple of German New Year’s Eve? If you answered, “I don’t know, something else suitably eclectic and mismatched?” you’d be right!

In Germany, they’ve been watching a piece of British comedy called ‘Dinner for One’ since the 60s. Dinner for One is entirely in English with English actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden (ask your grandma, she might know). In which Butler James becomes increasingly inebriated in his attempts to placate a demented old bag who’s invited her long-dead friends to dinner.

It’s actually pretty funny, but practically unknown in the UK. Here it is:

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, 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

How to fail at shopping

On Sunday, we had a friend over for an authentic British Sunday Roast Dinner ™ 

Normally this would not be a big deal, I’d go to a British supermarket, go to the aisle that specifically has all manner of roasting joints in it, and choose a nice rib of beef or shoulder of lamb or large chicken to roast. But I live in Germany, where nothing is ever as straightforward as it should be. Here is the story of how I failed at food shopping. 

 First thing Saturday morning, I made a shopping list with all the ingredients I needed for the Sunday roast. The list included a roasting chicken and some roasting potatoes e.g. Maris Piper. I grabbed my debit card for some cashless shopping and zoomed down to my local supermarket… 

Problem number 1: you will need a pocket full of shrapnel to go shopping. 

While it’s true that most supermarkets take card payments, not a single supermarket seems to trust its customers with the trolleys. Therefore, if you don’t have a euro or some other small change to hand you cannot use a trolley. Cashless payment, Yes. Cashless shopping, No. It makes no sense. Never mind, I thought, I’ll just get as much shopping as I can here and go to the market later. I went to look at the potatoes… 

Problem number 2: German conformity strikes again. 

The supermarket I went to had ten different brands of potato for sale. All of them were white, small, and ‘Festkochend’. Exactly the sort of potato you want for boiling and mashing, not baking or roasting. I asked one of the assistants if they knew what sort of potatoes they were and she read the sign to me as though I was a simpleton. “yes, but are they Maris PiperKing EdwardPink Fir Apples or what?” 

Unfortunately, she merely pointed me toward the apples and muttered something pejorative. Consoling myself with the thought that they would have a much better selection at the local market, I moved onto the fruit and veg… 

Problem number 3Would you really eat this? 

I like some greens with my roast dinner and it’s too early in the year for kale, so I looked for a savoy cabbage. Good news: they had Savoy cabbage! Bad News: It was of a terrible, yellowing, moth-eaten quality! The supermarket had just hit strike three, so I left and went straight to the local market, which takes place in a small square outside a church. I looked for a decent butcher’s stall and found one with a large chicken, exactly the sort I wanted to roast.  

Problem number 4No. 

“Hello,” I said. “I’d like to buy this chicken for a roast dinner”

“A what?” 

“I’d like to roast this chicken” 

“No” 

“Excuse me?” 

“You can’t roast this chicken. It’s too big. This is a soup chicken, it’s for soup” 

I looked long and hard at the chicken. It was far too large for even the biggest pan I own, it would have fit comfortably into my oven, though. 

“Are you sure? What chicken can I roast?” 

“Here” she said, showing me the tiniest, gangliest-looking, little runt of a chicken I had ever seen. 

“I really would rather buy the larger chicken, there’s lots of people coming…” 

“No, I can’t do that” 

I looked at Chicken Lady. 

Chicken Lady looked at me. 

“I see. Goodbye.” 

“Goodbye” she said, impassively. 

Thankfully, the market had a few vegetables I wanted, including parsnips and savoy cabbage. I decided to take my daughter with me to the much larger market outside the registry office. 

Problem number 5A sable cloud athwart the welkin flings 

Then it started to absolutely bucket down with rain. Child in one arm, umbrella and shopping in the other, I pressed on as it rained heavily. Not a blasted chicken to be seen, although I managed to pick up a few fresh-looking vegetables. Before finally…

Solution: Make do and mend 

It turns out that German stallkeepers can be quite canny, despite the ineptitude of Chicken Lady. One of them cunningly offered my daughter a slice of sausage which she took immediately. “Don’t talk to strangers” I’ve always said, but did she listen?  Well, you can’t just take the free sausage and keep on walking, can you? Sausage Lady had won this round and so I decided to opt for a joint of beef instead. We had a pot roast and it turned out very well, except for when I forgot how to make Yorkshire puddings and nearly set the kitchen on fire. Advice: don’t use too much oil. 

My shopping trip took over five hours. When in Germany, do as the Germans do – eat boring food.

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.