englishman abroad

Passport Madness

I’m back from holiday and my skin is a healthy, flaky red. It’s amazing what a bit too much sun can do. Tenerife was full of Germans and English, with a scant sprinkling of Spaniards here and there.

Yesterday I decided to go time travelling.

In the year 2032 my daughter will be 20 and might want to travel to Great Britain (I hope it won’t have sunk to the bottom of the sea by then). What might she need to visit in the post-Brexit future? Maybe a British passport, so I tried to get her one. This is where the bureaucracy began.

I’ll say this for the Germans and their famed bureaucracy, there is at least a logic to it and the language is rather more straightforward. Here is what English bureaucracy and jargon looks like:

‘please provide the passport you entered the country from which you are applying’

That sentence gave me a migraine. I read it over and over again, sometimes aloud, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes adding gravitas and emphasis to certain words, sometimes weeping with frustration.

Do you think it means:

a) please provide your passport (the details of which you entered earlier)?

b) please provide your passport from the country you are applying from (i.e. a German passport)?

c) please provide the passport you want to renew?

Well guess what, I eventually called up the passport office and queried it. Apparently this unpunctuated, poorly written and inscrutable sentence means:

d) please provide the passport which you used to enter the country from which you are applying (Germany).

There’s also further jargon like: ‘not British by descent’ to contend with. Immigration law has changed so much in the UK that the law for attaining British citizenship depends on, amongst other things, whether you were born before 1983, after 1983 or after 1 July 2006. Yes, the last two seem to overlap.

The application also requires the applicant’s parents’ birth certificates, and their grandparents’ details. Of course, to get the grandparents’ birth certificates you’ll need to know about their parents, too. How, I ask you, was my daughter in 2032 supposed to know her great-grandmother’s maiden name? My Grandma is ancient!!

Getting hold of birth certificates is also quite a mess, I went onto the General Registry Office’s website and looked for my parents’ birth certificates. Thankfully they have a wide range of records spanning all the way from 1837!

…to 1916! Even my Grandma isn’t that ancient. Born after 1916? Too bad!

I decided to call the General Registry Office to get copies of the certificates needed. It turns out that calling them up and giving people dates and names doesn’t help much. The GRO apparently doesn’t have a database with this info. Everything is on paper, in ledgers, in local registry offices, all across the country. Which means that there is now a three-week period in which my query will be researched. If the GRO finds the birth certificates, they will be sent to me.

I swear, in a digital age this is utter madness. If I call up a business there might be a wait of about 30 seconds before the relevant information is found. Why does a government agency need to ‘research’ a query? You’d think the government would have the answer to “Was this person born in your country?”

Anyway, hopefully I’ll be able to get a reply soon and to send this application off.

As daft as this process has been, it would have been a lot harder to get it done in 2032.

englishman abroad, history

German Guilt

On Monday, we were at a good friend’s barbecue and I got talking to her father, who has recently retired. He told me a little about what it was like growing up in post-war Germany and travelling abroad as a German. He was one of the first young Germans who went to France on a trip with the German Boy Scouts. One day he was trekking through rural France on a hot summer’s day when his troop happened upon a farm, they approached and asked the farmer for permission to draw water from their well. What do you think happened next?

If you answered ‘They were chased from the property by vengeful French farmers with pitchforks’ then yes, you are correct. It sounds funny, but this young man was not yet even a teenager. A couple of days prior, I had spoken with a Dutch woman who told me about the day she learned about The Indonesian War of Independence at school, and the bad things that her grandfather had supposedly done during the conflict. Both conversations centred on historical guilt. Both conversations put me in mind of British and American attitudes to history.

Many Americans and Britons are proud of their countries’ role in WW2, despite their respective nuclear weapons and indiscriminate bombing. America is very proud of its history and its struggle for independence from the British, and Britain is still somewhat fond of its old empire. After all, we still have awards like the OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and the history of our royal family is interwoven with empire.

Although there is much to be proud or ashamed of in any country’s history, my own thoughts are more ambivalent. Why do Germans still feel guilty about the Nazis? It wasn’t them! Why do Britons harp on about a non-existent empire? It’s long gone! Look at what is happening to the proud countries now: America elected Trump and Britain is leaving the EU. It seems that both places are living in the past. As for Germany, deeply ashamed of its past, it rebuilt and reinvented itself as an economic powerhouse. Looking forwards, not backwards, seems to be the key.

Next week I am on holiday in Tenerife, so there might not be a blog post. Hopefully I won’t get lost, approach a farmhouse and be chased into the sea by  vengeful French expats.

englishman abroad

The difference between Brits and Germans

Women can’t drive, men can’t multitask, Americans love their guns and the French are cowardly. Stereotypes are fun. They make jokes easy, and enrich life if not taken too seriously. They provide a cultural shorthand that facilitates communication. If we say that someone is ‘posh’ the stereotype is a monocle-wearing, mansion-inhabiting, caviar-eating aristocrat. If we say that someone is ‘a white van man’ (this is a very British stereotype) we presume that they read ‘The Sun’, work a manual job and smoke. Obviously, most of us know that a white van is not a reliable indicator of tobacco consumption, monocles don’t equate to social class, and there’s probably a man out there somewhere who can multitask. Maybe the Bermuda Triangle or Area 51.

However, not everyone has met a German before and I’d to clear up two stereotypes that exist about the dear Krauts.

  1. Germans speak an impossibly difficult language

It’s true that German has a couple more cases than in English, specifically the Dative and Genitive. But talking about time in German is much simpler than in English. The Germans tend to use the present perfect to talk about every past event. For example: ‘I have eaten’. Only very rarely do you hear ‘I ate’.

English constructions like: ‘I have been eating’, ‘I had eaten’ or ‘I had been eating’ confuse Germans greatly and are a nightmare to teach.

And let me lay another myth to rest: Germans do not have impossibly long words. Rather, they have compound words; here’s an example: Arbeitsunfähigkeitsbescheinigung. I know it looks long but bear with me, it means ‘Certificate of employment disability’.

Now look at this: Certificateofemploymentdisability. A compound word is simply several words stuck together. We don’t do it in English very often, but you can’t really call four different words a new word just by removing the spaces, surely!!

  1. Germans are rude

From stealing all the sun loungers on package holidays to telling people bluntly that their food is terrible, the Germans have a reputation for rudeness. Is this reputation deserved? First, let’s have a look at this classic advert from the early 90s

Those tricky Germans trying to snatch the sun loungers! But let’s be fair, they were up first! The early bird catches the worm! It’s a little silly to feel entitled to something you turned up late to, isn’t it? Germans tend to value productivity and get up early accordingly.

Secondly there’s the abruptness. Germans are honest and direct, it’s a cultural thing that they expect straightforwardness in most areas. The British are subtler and more ironic, we are less honest when you think about it. Here are some British phrases and their real meanings:

  1. ‘Well, it’s an interesting idea…’        – your idea is impractical and I don’t like it
  2. ‘This isn’t your best work’                 – this work is terrible!
  3. ‘Isn’t the weather awful?’                 – silence makes me feel uncomfortable…

In Germany, this is madness; it’s better to be honest for points one and two. As for point three, let me put it this way: many Germans genuinely think that the British are obsessed with the weather. Silence is not a stigma.

I’ll probably make another post like this one in the future because there’s so much to talk about. If you have an idea then leave a comment!

englishman abroad, politics

Brexit

People sometimes ask me about what I think of Brexit and this week was no exception. This week The United Kingdom began the process of leaving the European Union.

I wanted Britain to remain in the European Union and would have voted accordingly, but the electoral office in Scotland, where I used to live, lost my application.

After all, I live in Germany, I work here, I have a family and friends here, my daughter is half German. It’s in my own, selfish interest that The UK stay part of the EU. Now, with article 50 triggered, my future looks uncertain. Will I require a visa? Should we stay in Germany or go to Britain? Is that a choice I am in an informed position to make? What’s best for my family? Where are the jobs? Where is my future?

Brexit has certainly raised more questions than it has answered.

But on referendum day I understood why my countrymen had voted to leave. Every year the UK pays a lot of money into the EU, every year the EU tells the UK what laws to follow, who it can trade with, who can enter and leave.

The EU seems to make a  lot of sense for the poorer countries, but richer ones?

The UK wants a different future to that of the EU. The EU seeks to unite Europe under a common flag, anthem, currency, court, parliament, law… it all sounds very noble. Maybe it is, but we are not all the same.

Take healthcare. A publicly-insured German can expect to pay several hundred euros per month for medical care (over 15% of their income). If they require treatment they might have to pay a deductible. Medicine, prescriptions, examinations, advice and appointments, everything seems to cost just a little bit extra.

A Briton can go to hospital for free. See their doctor for free. Get medicine for £8.40 rather than hundreds of pounds. Now imagine having to extending that privilege to every single person who comes to the UK through EU law.

The EU is a big government making big decisions…

It seems to make a lot of sense for the big people, but the little ones?