Thursday, 20 September 2012
Good for the soul
ON the opposite corner of the table, a group of teenagers and young adults chatted animatedly, involving anyone who might walk past. They laughed. They raised their voices in excitement. Some of them had cake.
In my corner, Rachel, myself and an elderly lady sat in silence.
It was the tea and coffee moment after church; the time when the congregation are encouraged to meet and socialise, for regulars and elders to welcome newcomers like Rachel and myself. This particular church provided something of a step up from the standard urn and paper cup setup, providing neatly laid tables in the church hall, each with their own tea and coffee making facilities, around which people could sit and enjoy a leisurely Sunday morning beverage. This encouraged an intimacy I am unaccustomed to, but one I could invest in, should I ever get over my social inhibitions of making conversation in unknown environments.
But this was not my church. These were not my peers. They weren’t even speaking English. The language of choice here was German, of which I know nichts. And yet, for all of the discomfort at being out of my depth, unable to hear and unable to communicate, there was something rather cathartic about being so exposed.
Up until then it had been so easy. From the moment we stepped off the plane at Frankfurt we had been in the company of our friend Helen, who had been living in Marburg for the past two years. Her role as friend, translator and guide had made life effortless and we were immensely grateful, being able to see a beautiful part of the country without having to worry.
I’d not visited Germany before and, truth be told, I had no idea what to expect. I tried to ignore the stereotypes of a country so strict and regimented as to become boring and humourless, but it was hard not to expect at least some of this. As for the landscape, I similarly drew a blank. But from the moment of arrival I was transfixed. Transport from the airport to the main train station, and subsequently to Marburg, was astoundingly efficient, clean and user-friendly. Frankfurt, from the train at least, appeared to be a prosperous, well-kept hive of activity where even the graffiti was kept within well-defined borders. Far from producing an uncreative, boring state, the trademark German efficiency had created a very easy place to live, one in which there was now more time to do enjoyable things.
As we left the city, a lush green landscape of fields, farms and narrow rivers not unlike the landscape I grew up around unfolded. The sun shone brightly, and soon the historic city of Marburg approached, a medieval city on a hill: castle on top, cobbled streets below. It was idyllic and it was easy; it was a big surprise.
And it was in this setting that I was well and truly humbled. It was the first day of Euro 2012, with Germany due to play Portugal that evening. During the match we watched The Artist at an open air cinema in the grounds of the castle, a silent picture being a fortunate choice for this non-German speaker. During quiet moments, cheers could be heard from bars all across the city, tucked below the castle: Germany, clearly, had won.
We did not appreciate at the time that such behaviour – cheering, nationalism – is an alien concept to modern Germany. From the train I had seen German tricolour Bundesflagges on many houses, village hall-type structures and even flags in the bars in Marburg. As a result of my travels I am not unaccustomed to national pride being displayed in such a way, so I thought nothing of it, until Helen mentioned that at no other time would flags be flown so proudly, or at all. Then we passed a billboard encouraging people to cheer on their national team during the championships – in fact, we passed several over our weekend – which had been plastered in graffiti with anti-patriotic rhetoric. I can’t read German, but I can read the word ‘Nazi’. Modern Germany, it would seem, is a nation afraid to be proud of itself, lest it forgets where it has been.
Meanwhile, on that first afternoon prior to Germany’s victory over Portugal, we walked through the streets of the old town, reflecting on the news of the moment, including the ongoing and worsening Eurozone crisis. The UK, much to the surprise of the British public, had recently walked into negotiations with swagger and an air of superiority and rather arrogantly washed its hands of the issue, telling the Eurozone countries to sort it out themselves. We had passed the buck – whether we could ever have helped in negotiations anyway was no longer relevant – to Germany, who seemed to be singlehandedly propping up everybody else. We remarked on Angela Merkel’s frustration at Greece and Italy, whose efforts to keep their end of the bargain were somewhat lacking and whose economies were creeping back towards oblivion. Such frustration could be summed up, it was agreed, with a simple question. Why couldn’t Greece and Italy be a little bit more German, and do what they said they were going to do?
I wondered if the German efficiency drive was a response to its post-war, modern origins, as a nation in search of a new identity. There is no doubt that by being this way it has been phenomenally successful, and it is no surprise that Germany is the stable backbone of the Eurozone and, arguably, the EU. Yet despite this, despite its importance – despite it having worked to achieve such dominance, rather than achieving dominance by inheritance – it is afraid of being proud of itself. Meanwhile in Britain, we holiday expecting everybody to speak English and continue to make asinine jokes about outdated wartime Anglo-German rivalries.
I longed to communicate. I longed to talk. But there’s nothing quite like being completely reliant on others to make you reassess your value, not least in a land that no country respects, not even itself.
We did our best to be tourists. We visited the Lutheran St Elisabeth’s Church, the inside a strikingly bare chamber with high ceilings, plain stone columns and simple, uncomfortable wooden chairs with no ornamentation in sight... save for the ridiculous, over the top, shiny modern organ. We drank apfelwein, made butterfly and bee friends at the Botanical Gardens and explored the many independent shops nestled among the narrow wooden buildings of old town Marburg, not one identical to the next, many slightly wonky. There was a brush shop. We climbed up to the castle, spotting monuments and landmarks to the Brothers Grimm; we found the Burschenschaften and other student fraternity houses, Marburg being a university city, whose coat of arms had been given a protective perspex barrier to prevent damage by protestors, the politics of old still simmering in some houses; and we ate our weight in ice cream.
And, just once, after four days of practising, I did speak German:
“Ich hätte gern eine Veltins Diesel, bitte.”
And a good beer it was too.
The lady next to me, on that table in the church hall, must have thought I was being rude. But I was out of my depth, and, with hindsight, I’m very glad of it.
Germany: it's good for the soul.