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, 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.