Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Dinner For One

This is a Bill-Bryson style travelogue which I wrote in late summer 2015 for a uni class called 'The Population of Germany' about the experience of being a Brit living in Germany - an experience which, sadly, may now not be so easy to repeat.

Dinner For One

Studying abroad in Germany doesn’t sound quite as glamorous as going to Marseille, Madrid, or Memphis; or as intrepid as moving to Nizhny Novgorod, Nepal, or North Korea. Britons have a curious relationship with Germany; until the latter third of the 19th Century the UK and Prussia were firm allies, with the royal families of both intermingling and marrying. The first half of the Twentieth Century brought war and contempt (on both sides), and the destruction of homes, families, and infrastructure (also on both sides), since when there has been… a kind of cold mutual tolerance? On the British side, far from the 19th Century enthusiasm for German socialist theories and music, there is just ignorance and the slogan “Don’t mention the war!” And as for the Germans? It seems to be slightly more complicated. There’s a confusion over British prudery and obsession with World War II, a seemingly deeply held admiration for Queen Elizabeth II, and memories of the Cool Britannia movement led by 1990s Britpop. Oh, and a bizarre national attachment to the 1963 sketch Dinner For One. What the two countries seem to have in common, though, is a love of beer and football, and a deep suspicion of the other nation’s food. Which is odd, since it’s really so similar. Walk into a city pub in Newcastle or a Bierstube in Bonn and you’ll be presented with a menu heaving with meat and potato, tankards of beer, and a friendly welcome (unless maybe you’re wearing the wrong football shirt…).

Recently, though, Brits have had to completely re-evaluate our collective image of Germany. On Saturday 29th August [2015], for example, both countries’ right-wing tabloid papers had front pages concerning the ongoing refugee crisis. The British Daily Express, between a voucher for money off at Lidl (that curious Anglo-German relationship once again) and a sale on exotic holidays, had the headline “Inside: the pictures that prove… MIGRANTS SWARM TO BRITAIN.” So far, so expected. Bild, on the other hand: “The big refugee-drama: WE’RE HELPING.” Unlike the British right-wing newspapers which have extended their general anti-immigration xenophobia to the refugees, Bild has drawn a line between the two groups and loudly supported the refugees, going so far as to publish a 4-page Arabic-language supplement on the 9th September which welcomed refugees to Berlin and provided directions to housing centres, language classes, playgrounds, and health centres.
 Far from the general British idea that the German public are cold, efficient, androids who drive their Volkswagens and Audis down the Autobahn without any trace of emotion, they have for the most part opened their arms, hearts, and wallets to help the refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. So much so, in fact, that on the 1st September the Munich police had to ask the city’s residents to stop bringing donations of relief supplies to the central train station: although countless refugees were arriving every day, the generosity of the population’s giving was far in excess of what was needed. Refugees have been temporarily housed in sports halls, beer tents, and thousands of private homes. Attacks on them by far-right groups have been roundly condemned. For example, football clubs Borussia Dortmund and Dynamo Dresden, who have traditionally had to distance themselves from Neo-Nazis, have been welcoming refugees with both banners and match tickets. While many Germans have been overwhelmed by the idea of the sheer number of people needing help, individual face-to-face behaviour has been incredibly humbling. Though they may not be the best at Gastfreundschaft (hospitality), German Gemütlichkeit (cosiness) is world-famous.

So why has the German response to the refugee crisis in Europe been so different to the British response? Like so many things in German culture, it comes down to National Socialism. For a start, this memory of what happens when xenophobia and extremism are allowed to run unchecked is drummed into every German, so that use of language like ‘swarms’ to describe refugees (David Cameron) is considered really unacceptable. When you see Stolpersteine set into the pavement every day, reminding you of what happened to the victims of National Socialism, it’s hard to justify the xenophobia towards a similarly vulnerable group of people. It’s not only the ever-present public guilt over the Holocaust which colours German attitudes towards refugees, but also older Germans’ own memories of being refugees themselves. In total, during 1945, around 12 million people fled into postwar Germany from other parts of the former Reich, largely in relatively well organised treks led by non-Nazi Party authority figures like priests, mayors, and teachers. Lewis Gittler and Saul Padover’s 1945 description could have been written last week: “On the German highways and byways one sees a veritable Völkerwanderung – thousands, tens of thousands of men, in small groups and large, carrying bundles, carrying suitcases strapped to their backs, carrying bulging handbags, are marching east and marching west” (quoted Bessel, 2009, p. 246). Just as today, people feared that the ‘displaced persons’ were carriers of disease and committed violent crime. One legacy of this was that Germans understand the deep desire of humanity to find a stable place in the world.   

The German need for stability and fairness can also be seen in the vilification of David Cameron’s special demands over the EU. The Bild newspaper especially been criticising him frequently for years, with damning statements like “The Euro is more important to us than the Britons” (2011). It has, however, been clear that it was the British government rather than Brits themselves whose behaviour was being criticised, a distinction not always made in the British press: “Großbritannien gehört nach Europa. Seine Regierung nicht” (Great Britain belongs to Europe. Its Government doesn’t) (2011). During this recent refugee crisis, Bild described Britain as one of the biggest ‘slackers of Europe’, criticising Cameron’s resistance to accepting refugees and citing the UK’s low figures for refugees per capita. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung even published coverage of British newspapers’ criticism of the German Willkommenskultur, in which the journalist, Jochen Buchsteiner, barely concealed his distaste for the British media’s persistent use of the term ‘migrant’ rather than ‘asylum-seeker’. It’s safe to say that the German media is losing patience for David Cameron and his requests for special treatment. The kind of special treatment he’s demanding has a name, a name which is one of my favourite German words: Extrawurst. Its literal translation is an extra or special sausage, but it means special treatment. There is even a verb phrase to go with it: jemandem eine Extrawurst braten (to cook someone an extra sausage, or give them special treatment). After the recent revelations concerning Cameron’s interactions with pigs, of course, the idiom has taken on an even less favourable connotation.

Extrawurst brings me neatly back to where I started: food. German food has, in my opinion, an unfairly bad reputation. German supermarkets also have a bad reputation; theirs is somewhat less unfair, but they still serve as a useful introduction to what Germans really eat. After all, judging German food on a restaurant food list would be the equivalent of assuming that all Britons eat either fish and chips or curry every night, occasionally adding in a pie or steak. After a year of shopping at German supermarkets, and eating Mensa (university canteen) food, I think the fairest adjective for the cuisine would be this: straightforward. Unlike the British obsession with ‘low-fat’ this, and ‘low-sugar’ that (or, conversely, adding sugar and sweeteners to something that doesn’t need it), Germans just eat, well, proper food. The vast majority of yoghurt in a German supermarket is full-fat, while the popular soft drink Apfelschorle is simply apple juice diluted with carbonated water. Most British supermarkets today have aisles and aisles of refrigerated ready meals; the German equivalent is the aisle of ‘Fix’ products to help you make your own dishes quickly and easily (although if you look hard enough you can find the microwaveable burgers – complete with buns – which can be found in petrol stations the world over).
Workplaces and universities have famously good canteens, serving up reasonably priced balanced meals to get Germans through their day. Lunch is traditionally the most important meal of the day in Germany, and it has remained so into the 21st Century, meaning that it’s common to get a full plate of food in the middle of the day. Meat is important, but for a country with such a strongly carnivorous tradition, vegetarian food is easy to find, along with organic options. Oh yes, the organic options. Organic food is perhaps the epitome of the German love of the nutritious and hearty meal. There are multiple national chains of bio (organic) supermarkets, full of products which teem with the natural goodness of the earth. To compete with this, even the more general supermarkets have entire ranges of organic food, to the extent that there are some foods which can only be found in organic ranges. For example, if you want to buy wholegrain pasta, it’s almost entirely impossible to find one made with non-organic wheat. If you’re health-conscious enough to want wholegrain pasta, the logic goes, you must also be an organic food fiend!

The part of German cuisine that is less wholesome, however, can be found in the Konditorei (patisserie) or Bäckerei (bakery). After the restrained breakfast of breads and spreads, and a relatively large and meat-heavy but also generally healthy lunch, afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) is when Germans live large. If the UK runs on tea, and France on baguettes… Germany definitely runs on coffee. The Germans are the world’s fifth thirstiest coffee consumers, well above the ever-caffeinated USA and leaving Turkey and the UK in the dust: the average German consumes more than 1.2 cups of black gold per day (The Atlantic). 2007 figures, in fact, show Germans drinking more coffee than water. People from Sachsen (Saxony) are seen as the most prolific coffee-drinkers, leading to the pejorative nickname Kaffeesachsen (coffee-Saxons). Coffee’s place in German society is so important, in fact, that it caused a crisis throughout the former East in 1977, when the East German lack of hard currency coupled with a global rise in coffee bean prices to lead to an acute shortage. In response, the government vastly restricted coffee consumption and introduced a highly unpopular coffee substitute, Kaffee Mix. Not only was the substitute unpopular and less than delicious, however: it damaged coffee machines due to the pea flour content clogging up the filters. The whole affair was a clear demonstration of how weak the East German economy really was, and how little import power they had.

On the topic of coffee, it’s time to talk about Germany’s most famous drink: beer. Around the world the idea of Germany is intrinsically linked with the idea of someone in a dirndl or lederhosen carrying a heavy tray of overflowing beers. And yes, Germans do go in for that occasionally. The biggest example of Teutonic hedonism can be found at Fasnacht or Karneval, just before the start of Lent. The normal unspoken rules of good behaviour are thrown out of the window and bacchanalia becomes the order of the day. It’s almost as if Germans save up every ounce of rebellion throughout the year and let it all out on this one event; the next day, the streets are clean and everyone’s back to their usual procedure. Perhaps with an added glint in their eyes! In isolation this seems totally bizarre, but when one looks at it in the context of the whole year, it all makes sense. After the long drag of winter (the worst of which comes long after the Christmas decorations have been taken down) Karneval is the beginning of a promise that spring is on its way, and that warmer days will come soon, and a promise of the outdoors fun to come in the summer. By and large, though, despite being a heavy drinking nation, public drinking in Germany is well-behaved and organised. Wine festivals are dotted all over the country, and especially the Rheingau region, during the summer. Unlike their UK counterparts, they’re free to get into, in open, public places, and family friendly. At the ones I went to it was normal to see everything from families with young children through people in suits getting a drink after work to groups of women on hen nights just getting the party started. Germans have mastered the remarkable challenge of drinking in public without throwing up all over the streets. Or, more probably, it’s only in Britain that this seems an insurmountable task.

And now back to the eponymous Dinner For One… same procedure as every year! One of the confusing things about being a native English speaker in Germany is how much English there is around, and how weird its application often is. Ordering in McDonald’s, for example, becomes a linguistic minefield: “Ich möchte ein McChicken-Classic mit Potato Wedges, bitte”, while movie titles are an odd mix of the direct translations, German idioms, or a bizarre mixture of the two: the 2004 film Mean Girls’s German title is Girl Club. And, as is the case with Dinner For One, there are accepted ‘English’ phrases never heard in the UK itself. A prevalent example of this is ‘& Co’, often used in place of und so weiter or ‘et cetera,’ in titles of cookbooks, or in the accessories section of a clothes store. The meaning is clear, it’s just odd. German is riddled, too, with initialisms pronounced in German but which abbreviate English phrases – CD, for instance, or DVD. This, and the fact that German computers and smartphones operate Microsoft Windows (rather than Fenster, perhaps), must make using technology as a German-speaker just as baffling as watching an Anglophone try to operate a Bosch microwave stuck on its factory settings. Sometimes, there are real benefits to the use of Denglisch, most obviously when trying to get through a crowded space: sorry is a lot quicker and more concise than Entschuldigen Sie mich, bitte! Often, though, a German person will use the catchphrase ‘The same procedure as every year,’ expecting to be answered by a roomful of guffaws, and instead see confusion on all the native English speakers’ faces. On first watching, the sketch isn’t especially funny. There are amusing impressions of Miss Sophie’s friends, and some light-hearted slapstick which seems more foolish the more James drinks, but overall it seems a bit old-fashioned. That’s understandable; Laurie Wylie wrote the sketch nearly a century ago (Slate). It’s only when watched again (and again, and again… same procedure every year) that it’s as hilarious as the German population seems to find it. Tripping over a tiger’s head may not be that funny, but knowing that James will trip over the head, and watching his reaction – well, that’s lederhosen-splittingly comical. Dinner for One ticks all the boxes for national treasure status: it has inspired political satires (about the Eurozone debt crisis, for instance), a rock band (‘Admiral von Schneider’) and has been translated into Latin. And yet it has never been shown in full on British television, leaving all Britons completely taken aback when our German friends are all quoting this massive joke which we’re not in on.

The Anglo-German relationship is a bizarre one which, having tried my best, I’m not sure I’ve fully managed to wrap my head around. Owing to our historic ignorance of our south-eastern neighbours, there’s nothing like the plethora of memoirs and travel books about Germany as about France, its more glamorously perceived western neighbour. Indeed, the two most highly rated which I could get my hands on were both written by Germans, reflecting on their own home countries. Attempting to write a seminal classic to rival Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking would be an excellent excuse to return to Germany in the future, of course. One thing’s for sure: one year in Germany is not enough. On returning to the UK, one is overjoyed to be able to jaywalk freely (I once had a nightmare about being fined €4 by a moustachioed policeman) and to be able to visit the supermarket on a Sunday. But with those freedoms come the sense that here, no-one is quite trusted - bus journeys take a lot longer when everyone has to file past the bus driver and scan their passes – and the shock of re-entering a rat run where no-one really stops to breathe. Enforced Sonntagsruhe (Sunday rest) was one of the best things I learnt to enjoy during my year in Germany, and is a practice I mean to continue. That and drinking Glühwein in the run-up to Christmas: “same procedure as every year!”

In the spirit of the more narrative and less academic style of the piece of writing, I have kept in-text citations to an absolute minimum: a full bibliography, however, can be found below as normal. All German-English translations my own.


Bessel, R., 2009. Germany 1945: From War to Peace. New York: HarperCollins.
Blome, N., 2011. Britische Tragödie. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bild.de/news/standards/bild-kommentar/britische-tragoedie-21488310.bild.html
[Zugriff am 15 September 2015].
Buchsteiner, J., 2015. "Die Deutschen wirken sehr unsympathisch". [Online]
Available at: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/fluechtlingskrise/kritik-aus-grossbritannien-die-deutschen-wirken-sehr-unsympathisch-13813916.html
[Zugriff am 25 September 2015].
Chester, T., 2015. The abysmal gap between the UK and Germany on the refugee crisis. [Online]
Available at: http://mashable.com/2015/09/03/uk-germany-migrants-refugees/#B4auFHytqaqX
[Zugriff am 5 September 2015].
Connolly, K., 2015. Germans greet influx of refugees with free food and firebombings. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/30/germans-greet-influx-of-refugees-free-food-fire-bombings
[Zugriff am 4 September 2015].
Euro-Informationen, 2015. Deutsche trinken mehr Kaffee als Wasser. [Online]
Available at: http://www.eu-info.de/deutsche-europapolitik/umfragen-statistiken-deutschland/kaffee/
[Zugriff am 4 September 2015].
Evans, S., 2012. Berlin and its 'democratic' canteen culture. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19703080
[Zugriff am 20 September 2015].
Ferdman, R. A., 2014. Here Are the Countries That Drink the Most Coffee - the U.S. Isn't in the Top 10. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/here-are-the-countries-that-drink-the-most-coffee-the-us-isnt-in-the-top-10/283100/
[Zugriff am 4 September 2015].
Frankfurter Allgemeine, 2015. Österreich stoppt Zugverkehr nach Ungarn. [Online]
Available at: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/fluechtlingskrise/oesterreich-stoppt-zugverkehr-nach-ungarn-13795033.html
[Zugriff am 14 September 2015].
Gómez, J. et al., 2012. Five things to know about Berlin life from correspondents in the know. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/german-elections-blog-2013/2013/sep/11/berlin-life-five-things-correspondents
[Zugriff am 25 September 2015].
Graham-Harrison, E. & Schmidt, J., 2015. Where could the refugee families sleep? In the beer tent, of course. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/08/german-town-rebuilds-beer-tent-refugees-landshut
[Zugriff am 14 September 2015].
h2g2, 2013. 'Dinner for One' - A Sketch Well-known to all but the British. [Online]
Available at: http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A2207288
[Zugriff am 29 August 2015].
Hall, A., 2011. Nicholas Sarkozy becomes Angela Merkel's tipsy butler in YouTube satire. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/8985912/Nicolas-Sarkozy-becomes-Angela-Merkels-tipsy-butler-in-YouTube-satire.html
[Zugriff am 29 August 2015].
Harding, L., Oltermann, P. & Watt, N., 2015. Refugees welcome? How UK and Germany compare on migration. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/02/refugees-welcome-uk-germany-compare-migration
[Zugriff am 7 September 2015].
Henley, J., 2015. Bild's stance over Alan Kurdi image a typically bold move. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/sep/09/bilds-stance-over-alan-kurdi-images-a-typically-bold-move
[Zugriff am 14 September 2015].
Hoeren, D., 2015. Die Drückeberge Europas. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bild.de/politik/ausland/fluechtlingshilfe/die-drueckeberger-europas-42387406.bild.html
[Zugriff am 16 September 2015].
Jansen, J., 2015. Polizei bittet Münchner, keine Hilfsgüter mehr zu bringen. [Online]
Available at: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/am-hauptbahnhof-polizei-bittet-muenchner-keine-hilfsgueter-mehr-zu-bringen-13780816.html
[Zugriff am 5 September 2015].
Matuschek, M., 2015. Warum macht unser Mitgefühl schlapp?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/fluechtlingskrise-deutschen-fehlt-die-gastfreundschaft-13778321.html
[Zugriff am 14 September 2015].
Oltermann, P., 2012. Keeping Up With the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters. London: Faber & Faber.
Saft, G., 2015. Das Ende der Kaffeesachsen?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sz-online.de/sachsen/das-ende-der-kaffeesachsen-3196674.html
[Zugriff am 19 September 2015].
Stewart, J., 2005. The Mystery of Dinner for One. [Online]
Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2005/12/the_mystery_of_dinner_for_one.html
[Zugriff am 29 August 2015].
Weiss, L., 2012. My Berlin Kitchen. London: Viking Penguin.

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