Thursday, 17 November 2011

(In Praise) Of Teabags and Nescafé

What sparked this off? I'm neither a teablogger nor coffee afficionado. And yet something I read recently struck a chord, and sparked off an "Intercultural Musing."

I've always liked tea, and have never been very fond of coffee. I don't mind it, mind. I find these either/or, only this/never that decisions that people make in their lives tedious. Cat or dog? France or England? Beach or mountains. I always say "both!" to all of them.

So okay, I prefer tea, slightly. My memories of coffee are exclusively associated with Germany. Relatives coming "zum Kaffee". The table already layed at their arrival, tablecloth, tiny forks ("Kuchengabeln") - and in the kitchen, something that smelled good. Coffee brewing. Many, many spoonfulls of ground coffee ladled into a "Melitta"-Filtertüte, the drip drip of the coffee machine would soak the ground coffee into a hot brown, fairly obscene looking dark brown mess. Then the pouring into the tiny cups at the table. Lots of milk,. sometimes cream. The result? An infernally evil tasting brew, indescribable in its glissando of sour and bitter. Maybe foul is the only word to describe it. The fuss, the taste. "Noch jemand Kaffee?" Err, no thanks.

Coming to England changed all this. No coffee machines, no brown disgusting mess to be disposed of. No Kuchengabeln, Milchkännchen*.. no fuss. Nescafé in a mug - hot water, milk straight from the carton, if any. (Since changed, obviously - but Nescafè is thankfully still very popular).

Relief. A new world. Freedom.

Tea: A teabag in a mug. Hot water. Milk, sugar if you wanted. Glorious. If you never had a cup of tea made from a teabag of English (origins unspecified) Breakfast tea in a mug, you have no idea how good tea is. And equally importantly, how blissful the escape from fussiness is. I will never own a Milchkännchen, neither will I be the proud owner of a tea basket, tea egg or tea sieve. No brown sludgey mess of tea leaves or wet coffee. The embarrassing word "barrista" will not be used, and the condescending chatter of tea snobs will not be heard.

That's the sort of self-confidence changing countries gives you.

*A tiny milk jug matching your cups and saucers in design.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Intercultural Differences in Social Media Usage

Recently, I've taken to posting about half my twitter and Facebook messages in German. The majority of my folllowers is located in Britain, but Germans are the second largest group. I'd published some articles in German-speaking media, and after all - hey, I live in Germany!

So I feel qualified to tell you about some striking differences in German vs. British social media usage.

The first result (after about 2 weeks) was that my Klout score went down a whole point. (Let's leave aside the undoubted dubiousness of Klout, but in terms of pure numerics it can be trusted.) This prompted me to do my own research into the matter.

In the interest of easy access to my findings, I will abandon the narrative form and present my findings in bullet-point form.

  • German twitter/facebook users are organised tribally. They often know each other personally and then form Social Media nuclei.
  • A big reason for Social Media usage is to organize "Meet-ups" and get-togethers". Whilst these obv. exist everywhere, the German interest in them can almost be called obsessive.
  • German users group themselves locally. Once you found acceptance into one such town/region circle, many other users will follow you. Membership has to be "proven" via heritage, immense interest in the region, or - best of all - personal acquaintance.
  • German Social Media users are (in my experience) predominantly male. There are of course females but they tend to be even more tightly knit by interest or locality.
  • A (at least for me) slightly off-putting feature of German female SM usage is the tendency to give oneself childish, overly sugary "kuschelige" nicknames. ("Wuschelchen" etc.)
  • Internet technology is German male users' prime topic. (You might think this characteristic for men the world over, but it's definitely not true for British male social media users).
  • Interaction is mostly limited to these tech subjects. Even the shared regionality serves more as a form of glue than an actual topic of communication.
  • Germans hardly ever do RT's.
  • If there are RT's these are limited to notifications about meet-ups. Thereby serving as a sort of "Flüsterpost" - an internal network.
  • Germans (again this applies to males) are more prone to using Foursquare than other nations. There are users who hardly ever post anything but a Foursuare notification.
  • A good number of Germans only post deliberately "absurd", out of context posts, and don't follow anybody. Again, like the Foursquarers, this inhibits any sort of dialogue and reverts back to an old "Read Only" profile.
I am refraining from interpreting these findings. I merely wanted to take the subject of Interculturalism which so often hangs in yesterday's world of "The are so polite, The English" into a more up-to-date context.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Order will Be Restored

The Riots. Appalling to watch, that's for sure. Difficult to comment on, what to say? "Mindless violence", a "warzone". Or talking evaluatively "Being poor doesn't mean losing your moral compass". Or social workerishly: "The whole of society is to blame for this break-down in communication". Yeah, whateva.

What "society" obviously is not keen to see that Britain has some of the worst socially deprived areas in Europe. Not just in London, not just in the inner cities. The derelict mining areas of the Midlands are a case in point. Decades of non -intervention by any government. Squalor, poverty, depravity (the Bulger case, followed by the near killing by torture of two boys two years ago.) Does nobody ever look? I wrote to the MP at the time, Caroline Flint, to ask about was done about the bottomless poverty in her constituency. No reply. I asked India Knight on Twitter whether that level of overty did not shock her. Her reply "Thatcher destroyed those mining communities." Yeah sure, she did. But nobody, no Labour government, no Conservative government did anything at all to repair the damage. To try and bring those places to life again.

Look at the inner cities. DOES anybody actually ever look? Tottenham - a no-go zone for decades, Hackney - an ugly hostile quarter - are only the "gentrified" (haha) parts worth noticing, because you could buy property there and it could go up in price? Bow. "Trendy" Shoreditch. Dalston. Haringay. Canning Town. Let's not beat about the bush. Those are slums. Ugly, 1960's "urban renewal" slums, not changed or sanitised since then. High-rise towerblocks with delapidated walkways, like the one Damilola Taylor was murdered in. Does nobody ever look, or think? These things happened - but obviously nobody took them in. Too busy buying Gucci sunglasses, package holidays and ready-made meals in M&S. All those ghastly trappings of a society in the first flush of affluence.

There are always complaints that Britain being a "classist" society. But only in the sense that there are people who can afford better and more than yourself. Resentfulness poisoning the air. Only the upward class war is legitimate: Gordon Brown igniting class hatred by denouncing people with a better education. People laughing about David Cameron for having been to Eton. That is all legitimate and welcome. So why not accept that people who have a lot less take this attitude on board? Why be surprised when theyfeel thwarted and cheated? They're also fighting a class war. Their pathetic looting of Foot Locker and Poundland, Aldi and O2 is the flip side of all those avaricious people who see Gucci sunglasses as the epitome of social cachet. The admirers of gross footballers and their girlfriends, the provincials who re-mortgage their house(s) in order to buy tat to impress the neighbours. Hard-earned cash? Oh sure.

Peter Mandelson "being intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". Boris Johnson and his hedge fund-manager deputy making it very obvious that all they're concerend about is to preserve the right image of London for the Olympic games. (K. Malthouse tweeting "we got to get the message out that London is a peaceful city- for the Olympics").

What a rough place Britain has become.

Monday, 25 July 2011

From Tourist to Resident - A Changing Perspective

It all started with a few Facebook photos a friend had posted from her recent trip to London. There were the usual double decker buses, the London Eye, and one from Trafalgar Square. Someone had written a comment: "You really captured the essence of the town!" Hmm, hang on I thought. Pigeons on Trafalgar Square are not the essence of London, surely? After all I'd lived in London for many years. So my perspective would by necessity be different from somenone who's spent a weekend there. Had gone to a pizza place, maybe a cocktail bar, stayed in a hotel, did a bit of shopping, and would have gone to "a show" (being American).

Don't get me wrong - I'm not making fun of that experience. And of course having been a tourist, i.e. visiting a town as often as you possibly can is vital when you plan to make your sojourn more permanent, and become a resident. I can safely say I know what I'm talking about. When I moved to Edinburgh I'd been there plenty of times. I'd even taken the trouble to visit in various seasons so as not to be surprised by the weather. I've always done careful research before I moved and finally settled somewhere. But it is impossible to anticipate what finally awaits you.

Just a few vital examples of things you neglect to find out at your peril:
  • Public transport. Sure, as a visitor you're bound to take the occasional bus ride. But you're not dependent on it. If the wait's too long, you'll jump into a cab.
When I'd moved to Edinburgh the transport system was just about to collapse. Whole areas of town were cordoned off and buses rerouted.
  • Rubbish collection. Staying in a hotel will not prepare you for the often (especially inItaly and the UK) totally chaotic and insufficient collection times in your new town.
I ended up doing daily trips to a totally overfull public rubbish collection point, due to mismangement and long-term strike action.

  • Shopping. During your visit you won't have found out where there's a good place to buy potatoes or washing powder, simply because you don't needed any.

  • Safety. Although tourists will probably be worried about their money belt and rucksack, when you live in a place, it's not pickpockets on open squares you will be worried about. Residential areas are mostly not the sort of places tourists visits.
In Edinburgh, I was very lucky to live in an area which was both quiet, safe and central - the Westend. An absolute godsend, as I hadn't known this beautiful quarter before I actually moved there.

These are just a few pointers that the impression you may get on holiday is not necessarily the "correct" one, and certainly one you will have to query many many times once you've moved to your new place.

Let me know of your own experience in that field!

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Un-Fashionable Food

You don't wear a crinoline, or a flapper's dress. Men don't wear bowler hats anymore. Clothes aren't made of the heavy, difficult to wash-and-dry fabrics they used to be. You don't wear ten layers of undergarment or complicated corsetry. You CAN of course wear those things, say for a costume party or for fun... but you wouldn't think it is quite the normal thing for everyday life or to go to work in.

So why is it that people still eat the same type of food their forefathers enjoyed many decades or even centuries ago? Every country has their own depressing litany of outdated foods. (I think it is fair to call them "outdated" as food definitely has a shelf-life (pun intended). Nowadays we know so much more about nutrition, we don't need quite so many calories as our lives tend to be less physically demanding - and most importantly our tastes should have changed.

In Germany, the dreaded combo of a piece of pork swimming in virtual estuaries of creamy gravy, garnished with rubbery canned mushrooms goes by the name of "Jaegerschnitzel".
Weirdly, it is most frequently accompanied by a heap of noodles. The recipe was first established in the early 19th century. Time to move on I say!

Britain still suffers from the heritage of wartime austerity when almost all foodstuffs were rationed. This unfortunate legacy continues to make British home-cooked meals a thing of nutritional horror. Greasy, stodgy and depressingly dull meals are still the norm in an ordinary household.

The only widely accepted modernisation would be microwaving which really is more a time-saving device than an actual modernisation. When people bother to cook "properly", they still refer to a meal-plan that was devised ages ago. Pies for example are to this day made with suet, lard and dripping - fats that are nutritionally deeply suspect.

Yet it's not just the nutritional aspect that remains iffy. The content of a Cornish pasty for example evokes the musty, mushy, greyness of a 1940's school dinner. And it really would be so easy to bring it up to date (more interesting vegetables not cooked to a pulp etc.)

The same is even true for such a gastronomic ideal as France. French cuisine with its penchant for old-fashioned "meat and two veg" formulas (and that's for lunch!), its passion for all things boiled, its unsophisticated odd puddings "(Ile flottante"! )place its cuisine firmly in the mid-19th century.

NB I'm talking about typical meals families would consume at home, not what you can get in restaurants - of course there is much more diversity there, and food has clearly moved with the times.

So why is home cooking so reluctant to adapt to any reasonable interpretation of "zeitgeist"? Why can it only either dwell in the doldrums of a forgotten decade, or else become dull fastfood? Why is there not a modern interpretation of healthy, nutritionally balanced and easy to prepare complete meals? TV-chefs like Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay produce examples how this could be achieved. But there suggestions rarely make it into family homes. Too fussy, too difficult, too many ingredients, outcome unsure.... those are the arguments against. So people stick with what they know, and (think they) love. Which is either greasy and heavy 19th century food, or greasy and heavy fastfood (chips, bacon). What a shame!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A Europe of Regions

Reading Claudio Magris wonderful book "Danube. Biography of a River", it occurred to me how much I share his ideal of a Europe not bound together by economic interests, mutual resentment and financial demands.

But a Europe of interconnected regions undivided by borders, where regions, dialects, customs and landscape mix, flow and ebb, and it is impossible to define where one ends and the other starts. The true meaning of intercultural life.

The book concentrates on the Danube, a river that meanderingly connects (what would nowadays be) 10 countries and spans almost 2,000 miles. Its origin is in the Black Forest in Germany and its estuary is by the Black Sea.

It is great to see a river not as a border, but as a living stream of trade, cultural exchange and perpetuum mobile of ideas.

Whilst, especially from a Europhobic postion it takes time to get used to such a gentle and serene view of Continetal Europe, it is ceratinly worth the effort. A great book and a great concept - a Europe of Regions.

(Claudio Magris: Danube

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

What's Wrong With Interculturalism

I'm well-aware of the double entendre of my headline, and accordingly the answers would have to be respectively "nothing" , or "quite a lot". Of course it is an important discipline. Cultural awareness is essential - for companies, for communication in a globalized world, for human beings trying to come to grips with a world where long-held beliefs have turned into dusty cliches.

Which brings me to my point: A lot of the current intercultural debate is still rooted in churning over depressing cliches about different nations. The "polite English" have allegedly got problems when dealing with "forthright Dutch". The chatty Swedes find the Finns a bit taciturn and so on, and so on. Soon we'll be dicussing how to deal with a passionate Italian when you're a cool cucumber from Minnesota. This may be fine for centuries of women's magazines and giggly hen night chats but is hardly worth the attention of a multi-disciplined approach towards culture and identity.

So why has it come to this? In my opinion, there are 2 reasons. First, the blogosphere. Where, and how would you generate more "comments" (the holy grail of blog posts) than by saying "provocative" things about a nation? Write about the fact you don't like haggis (oooh!) and hey presto, you've got 30 comments assuring you that it's the best thing on earth, and a vital part of Scottish culture. Hey, you've just become an interculturalist, discussing weighty matters of importance. NOT.

The second reason is that interculturalism has become a money-spinner. Offer "intercultural identity" classes to a company, and you'll be welcomed with open arms. If your course has anything to do with China, Chinese negotiating practices, eating habits etc. you'll be paid in gold. So professionally, there is very little incentive not to make the most of every little change that comes about through an international posting. From Freiburg to Strasbourg? (40km) Don't underestimate the difficulties! From Vaals to Aachen? (actually the same town divided by the Dutch/German border) - you'll be surprised, best take a course in intercultural education and learn that a bicycle is seen very differently there!

It is time interculturalism decided what it wants to be. One way is to stick in the world of folksy cliches and make - literally - a meal out of that. The other would be to incorporate contemporary reality into the field. Not- "oh, look so strange!" But- "why is that culture different?" More often than not, it's not nation character that makes the difference but very simply economic reality (I noticed this very sharply recently when I went to a German shopping centre in a poor area - prams, obesity, junk food habits etc. made it so much more similar to England than I had ever expected, but that's a point worth discussing separately.)

Interculturalism has to leave the prejudicial repetiton of outdated cliches behind, stop discussing them in a houswifely well-meaning context, and become focussed on reality. Gender roles, bi- and multi-lingualism, economic data, attitude to a nation's history (ancient and very receent!), leisure activities, the meaning of dress (here again, it is extremely important to leave cliches behind, no more "chic French women!"), the value of housing, of domesticity, the role of children and childhood... all those and a hundred other micro-trend analyses are what's needed in a truly meaningful intercultural debate - not the proliferation of outdated stereotypes.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Could It Happen in Britain?

After the killing spree in Arizona, columnists in Britain are asking questions "Could a similar incident happen in Britain"? Mary Riddell in The Telegraph points to the student riots, citing them as an outbreak of violence and hatred that might lead to worse. I disagree. Student anger (whether right or wrong) has always been a feature of every country. In France, student riots happen frequently, and not all are reported in the British press. If the government requires you to fork out a small fortune for your university education, (which in other European countries, like Germany, the state actually FUNDS you to undertake) then disquiet is certainly understandable.

No, the real anger, hatred and potential danger does not lurk there. I have only returned from Britain last September, so my impressions are still fresh and up to date. In no other country in Europe have I ever encountered such widespread dissatisfaction, bad-tempered every day life, such venom in exchanges, such loathing of any diverse opinion. The fury British people feel can easily be traced in the comments section of any online newspaper - not just the Daily Mail - I'm always shocked and dismayed to see how viciously and hate-filled Guardian readers treat each other.

Nowhere else in Europe do car-drivers make a habit of driving straight at pedestrians crossing the road. In Britain this is a daily occurrence - incidental of all the pent-up frustration people feel. Racing off after having scared a poor person to death - Ha! what could be more satisfying!

Britain, unfortunately, has become a country where everybody loathes each other: North vs. South, poor, men vs. women, the obsese vs. the non-obese. And yes, it is THAT way around, alas. Everybody feels slighted, everybody feels they're the underdog, unfairly treated by forces unseen - and is hell-bent to get their own back: I'll show them! That'll teach'em! (Which is unfortunately exactly the attitude that leads to mindless massacres.)

Political correctness prevents you to say what you really feel about immigrants, ethnic minorities etc.? No problem, just lash out against women drivers, the EU, people who think they're better, stick insects etc etc - and nobody will blame you. And voilá, all your hatred and loathing has been subliminated into a wonderfully warm bath of crowd-agreement.

Increasing poverty, an infrastructure that doesn't deserve this name anymore, fear of unemployment, fear of not being able to pay your mortgage - those are all contributing factors. But they aren't everything. Uniquely (modern) British is a mind-set that feels slighted, unappreciated, resentful, and deeply angry - without knowing quite why. And that maybe dangerous (although if nothing else - gun laws in the UK will probably prevent a massacre), but it sure as hell makes for very unpleasant living.