Monday, 17 December 2012

Germany's Love-Hate Relationship With Technology

I've often said it - and it's true: Germany is a funny country. Take for example people's attitude towards technology.

On the one hand you wouldn't find a country where people are more in love with technology than Germany. The latest models/brands/make/ USP's of any car are bandied about on a regular basis. Oh - you don't know the difference between a Bosch electric drill and a cheap one from Aldi?? Pah! Minute details like tyre grip speed, or GPS systems' benefits are discussed as if they were essential to people's daily lives.

And don't even mention the most recent iphone model. The prevalence of those sort of topics is one of the biggest drawbacks of living in Germany. So you'd rightly assume that this is a society eagerly embracing digital technology as well, right?

Far from it! Here, you can still score intellectual brownie points if you say things like "The Internet is the future! All that print stuff is doomed." People will nod, and gaze impressedly, calling you a "guru". Much as they love their "ei-fohn", they don't really find much use for it, as communication is an underdeveloped skill in this country. For more details on this see:

Consequently, people are very very suspicious of social media usage.(amongst the EU-5 countries, Germany has the lowest rate of social media usage*) Their main concern is internet security - the country is awash with legislation protecting internet users. The overwhelming majority of social media users do so under an assumed name. (Even on Facebook, which specifies you have to use your actual name.) Bizarrely, the trend is to go for "sweet" childish names (Krümel, Flocke, Mausi etc.). So the ease and comfort with which they use cars, electric drills, and other straightforward tools does not translate into "The Internet" which is still very much perceived as a threatening, intransparent medium of  "anonymous technology".

They are also strangely ignorant and uninformed about any digital progress.  Ask a German whether they've ever heard of, say, Pinterest, Prezi, or what a Personal Cloud is - and the answer will be a resounding: "DUH??"  How do I know that? Because I asked them.

Having also done my own research into WHY people are so suspicious of the Internet and its various services (e-commerce, social media etc.) the answers were as follows:

- fear of one's private sphere being invaded
- being totally transparent
- opening oneself up to unwanted commercial attention

Makes you wonder why Germany is the second largest market for online dating then. As I say, Gemany is a funny country.


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Winter Coats

So I'm showing this photo of the Christmas Market to an English friend. "Oh, it looks so cold", she says. I go "Duh? How can you see cold?" "Well, they're all wearing coats and hats!" - Ahhh, yes - so they are.

Germany and France are very much alike in winter: Everybody wears the full Monty: Wintercoats, boots, gloves, bobble hats, scarves (of which more later). Accessorize to the hilts! Even if it isn't very cold, it's an opportunity to show off your newly bought winter wardrobe.

And now picture the scene in Britain - how different it looks. People very rarely wear any form of coat. Instead of boots they wear wellies. I'm always flabbergasted when I hear "Ohh it's snowing, get those wellies out!" For what could be more terrible than wellies in the snow? They're slippery and cold. (And look awful, especially the novelty ones with patterns...)

But this isn't about what I like in fashion - it's intercultural insights we're after. And I think that in Britain, people really refuse to be blackmailed by the weather. They wear what is there, and don't compromise. Just think of the eponymous Midland girls in their micro-minis and high-heeled sandals on a Friday night. And in Edinburgh I once saw a man wearing flip-flops even though we had 3 inches of snow on the ground. I also noticed threre is quite an ageist attitude to the cold in Britain - wrapping up warm is for oldies.  Nothing could be less true here on the continent - young women wear the chicest winter outfits which would keep them warm even in -20 degrees.

Britain's attitude is much more utilititarian - if it is too cold to go out in a t-shirt, they just put a fleece jacket on top. I can always spot an English tourist here in Munich as they're the only ones to wear fleeces. And trainers. And never a scarf. ( I know I said I'd come back to the scarf topic but I think it's actually a whole blog post in itself....)

Thursday, 29 November 2012

How To Improve Your English Dramatically (Part 2)

I have to labour a point here (and probably in one of the next Proficiency Lessons, too) : Idioms are what makes English sound English. I may sound like your old English teacher here, but a) he probably didn't know any and b) he didn't emphasize enough just how important they are. You will always sound like a foreigner if you don't use them. 

Quite a fun first idiom exercise is to see (and learn!) how many English idioms are taken from the world of sports.

 So let's start the ball rolling, shall we? Talking of balls (polite laughter in the background) - you have to be on the ball to win in this idioms game. But don't worry, you'll soon be able to blow the competition away with a few choice phrases. In English, you can simply let rip, and not fear you're overegging the pudding.You'll win hands down if you manage to learn, say 10 idioms per day and get your ducks in a row. Just don't throw in the towel but stick at it! If you can't start today, take a raincheck. Just don't throw in the towel!

Well, okay that was laying it on a bit. (Sorry, can't stop!) But you get my drift (...:) - sporting idioms are everywhere. So get down to it!

But my actual aim was to point out some specific cricket idioms. You don't have to be able to understand cricket as such  (very few foreigners do) but you'd be well advised to familiarize yourself with some cricket expressions, as they tend to crop up a lot in everyday speech - e. g.:

- I was completely bowled over
- That topic is a bit of a sticky wicket
- I was hit for six, really stumped - didn't know what to say.

Try and find more cricket/sports idioms and actively use them! But don't limit yourself to the cricket/sporting side of idioms - there are literally millions of others.

So - I'm sorry to say, that's not close of play yet when it comes to idioms - more to come!


Friday, 23 November 2012

How to Improve Your English Dramatically (Part 1)

I'm often baffled as to why almost everybody in the world speaks English - but why they generally tend to speak it so badly. (see my post specifically about Germans speaking English on

So rather than be Outraged of Tunbridge Wells (actually:  If you don't know this expression - look it up, see how it's used and try including it in sentences), I decided to do something about it - hence this post.

Of course it matters where you're coming from, i.e.the specifics of your mother tongue. If you're Chinese you will find pronunciation a problem, if you're Italian it might be the tenses and so on. Still, I think everybody will/might/should benefit from my rather simple but effective language tips.  I assume that you will be relatively proficient already - I won't be teaching any grammar etc.I just want to give you that last little kick to really make you sound more fluent, and less foreign.

1. "NO!"

It may sound odd, but if you really want to sound English, start eliminating "Yes" and "No" from your vocabulary. Any question you get asked - reply in a different way. (You can always come back to yes and no later, when you feel you've got the hang of replying in a more "English" sort of way.) Here are some examples where you first reply in the affirmative, then in the negative - without using Yes or No.

Q: "Would you like another cup of tea?"  - A: "Oh, I'd love one, thanks very much!"/ "I'm fine, thank you so much"
Q: "Have you been to the supermarket?" - A: Absolutely! Got up really early, and got it all done./"Oh dear, totally forgot, sor-ry!"
Q: "Can I borrow your jumper?" - "Course you can! It's on the chair/ Sorry, jumper's dirty, needs washing"

In German for example, it would be absolutely in order to answer simply "Ja" oder "Ja bitte" to those questions. In English, it IS of course possible to reply "yes please" when asked say, the 1st question, but then it very much depends on whether you get the tone right. So, for the First Proficiency Lesson, I suggest you do without yes and no altogether. If you come from a yes/no language this is quite tricky, as your first instinct will always be to reply with a resounding YES, but believe me - it sounds rather weird in English.

See if you can find appropriate replies to the following questions  - avoiding yes and no altogether:

- Would you like to sit next to the hostess?
- Have you got a ticket?
- Can I help you?

I intend to write this as a series of 10 occasional  posts.
If you'd like to co-operate you're more than welcome!

copyright Margit Appleton 2012

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The South - Der Süden - Il Sud

Of course- every country has a "south", even places like Iceland do. There's even a website advertising the special charms of "South Iceland". For me, though "The South", and even more resonant "Der Süden", or "Le Sud" is such a powerful and exhilarating concept that I find it hard to have it associated with a particular country, especially a northern one.

I remember overhearing a conversation between two English ladies one of whom was about to move "South", to the seaside. "It's so beautiful down south!" the other one said admiringly. That was when I noticed how difficult it is for me to bring together England and The South. Despite having lived in "Southern England" for ages, I always thought of it as "The North". I was living somewhere in the North, or Northwest."South" meant Italy, or maybe the "South of France" which signifies not just the southern end of a country, but actual 'Southernness' - heat, sea, baked landscapes, fragrant nights, southern food. To be sitting somewhere between Bournemouth and Dover, rejoicing in that Southern feeling, sniffing the Southern air and generally enjoying the Southernness of it all seems to me the height of absurdity. I hasten to add that I'm not denigrating the concept or questioning the relativity of it all - I'm just startled myself by the psychological power of the concept and the pull it has. It goes without saying that the concepts of Southern Iceland/Scotland/England exist and have an important role to play in some people's southern dreams. It just isn't MY south.

At the moment I'm living in the extreme south of Germany, even further south than Munich - not far from the Austrian border. Munich itself is often jokingly referred to as Italy's furthest northern town. A lot of its architecture is Italianate,and every weekend there is a massive influx of Italian tourists.The summers here are often very hot, and even during the winter months you get freak weather which frequently wrenches up the temperature. That's when the Alps suddenly look as if they were just behind the town centre - and beyond the Alps, of course lies Italy - il Sud. L'area mediterranea.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Quality Control for Translations!

Believe me - I don't need reminding that there are many many gifted, inspired, and devoted translators out there, toiling away at the most tediously written and  badly formatted document. Working long hours for little reward. And I can understand that they feel undervalued and underpaid.

Yet translation as a profession (or freelance activity) is such an open-door activity. Increasingly I notice that people with a lot of time on their hands, people who (for whatever reason) prefer to work from home, either because they're mothers, or because they have a second job) are jumping onto the translator bandwagon. A half-finished certificate, an A-level, an evening class, or whatever will provide the ticket to supplementing your income. A hefty spurt of marketing activity, membership in a trade organisation, a bit of slagging off of the old "machine translation" -which nobody in their right mind would ever use other than to get the gist of a text - and you're sorted.

A recently divorced acquaintance of mine is busy translating the most hard-core pharmaceutical texts. Ans she needs the money, she does this night after night, all night. She translates from English into German without any prior pharmaceutical knowledge. Her German? She can just about make herself understood. I call that highly irresponsible.

My husband's company (a major multi-national) commissions translations into almost any language on a regular basis. Very often those translated texts have to be re-done: Nobody in the target country could even understand them!

Look at almost any tourism website - German, English, French... and read the translations. I checked 20 - 16 of them were not just bad, they were hilarious.

Translators like to connect on Social Media. Which has the added benefit (or disadvantage, depending on your viewpoint) that they occasionally write in their second or third language. It is often not a pleasant spectacle.  A lot of them avoid it all costs, and will always reply in their own language. Others never follow bi-lingual people. They probably know why.

All is not well in the field of translation. And whilst you could say this is true for many areas, this is one I can judge. And I don't like what I so frequently see. There is also a strange conspiracy of silence out there. People will not criticise others for fear of being found out themselves. Yet they know that things are not as they should be.(A tiny bit of self-awareness and realistic judgment of one's own abilities would also be beneficial.)

Unless translators themselves will accept that all is not well in their midst, things are bound to deteriorate further. It is simply not good enough to shut up, and hope your client simply won't notice. Or website users will be too polite or inactive to speak up. Just as in other industry segments, quality control, quality assurance and best practice need to be implemented.

Einfach durchwursteln geht selten gut!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Guest Post by Marie-Paule Graham: Why Would a Brit Leave Britain?

It's a question I get asked a lot, at weddings, parties and randomly as I try to make my way through speaking exercises in language class. Why did you come here? Will you go back? Why not?

Why did I come here? Love, is the simple answer. The more complex answer is probably better addressed with a question: why would you ask the love of your life to move to a country that is falling apart; a country that is the most surveilled nation on Earth, where the economy is stagnant, at best, and that infuriating phrase "I'm sorry for any inconvenience caused" is the answer to every problem. 

Baffled faces stare back at me as I talk about the reality of living in Britain. "But, when I stayed with my host family it was great." is one reply. Of course it was, you were a guest and everyone was on their best behaviour. Visiting a place and living there are two very different propositions. A visit is finite and often enjoyed with that holiday feeling. The visitor often leaves before culture shock kicks in. The resident stays and lives through their culture shock, allowing themselves to become a part of the fabric of their new home.

“But Britain is a great democracy and you've got the BBC!” is another answer. Democracies don't spy on their citizens, they don't extradite them to foreign countries and as for the BBC, google the name Jimmy Savile.

And then there are the middle aged British expat women whose expressions turn to mild horror when I say that I live in Chemnitz.

Chemnitz has always had a rough deal. The first DDR leader Walther Ulbricht changed the city's name to Karl-Marx-Stadt and made it the model of Communist industrial ideals, i.e. dirty, grey and unimaginative. They even concreted over the river Chemnitz to obliterate anything that spoke of a life before Socialism. In April 1990 the people of Karl-Marx-Stadt voted to reinstate the city's original name and today the river is being restored to its original path through the centre of the city. 

Like all cities Chemnitz has beautiful parts and less desirable parts; there is commerce and there are areas of post-industrial emptiness. In Britain I couldn't leave the house without my iPod and headphones to drown out the constant cacophony of life on a crowded island. Here, I can walk through the city without headphones if I want to and, standing in the main square on days when the market isn't there, I can hear the sound of shoes on cobblestone and church bells. I also walk upright because I know I am not under constant surveillance. I can ride my bike on the roads here without fear of losing life or limb at the hands of needlessly aggressive drivers - something I never felt happy doing in Britain. Riding for 40 minutes in any direction will take you into the countryside. There is also an Olympic size swimming pool, while some towns in Britain don't have a pool at all. Prague and Berlin are two hours away and if I want to ski, the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains, if you wish to be Tolkien about it) are 30 minutes away. Gangs of youths don't roam around with menace, in fact, young people will say hello to you. I was leaving my building laden with luggage one morning and sitting outside the front door were two teenage girls. Cue the sudden sense of foreboding I've been conditioned to feel at the sight of teenagers, but before I can finish my thought, one of the girls asks me if I needed any help. I had to hide me astonishment because teenage girls don't behave that way in Britain.

I watch the faces of these middle aged British expats as I recount the above and realise that, while the city I live in has made the best of itself since reunification, it's reputation hasn't changed. “Oh, it's so dreary”, says one lady in that withering manner I don't miss at all. No, places without employment are dreary, where everyone is scared of everyone else and people would rather seethe about foreigners taking their jobs than actually fix the problems that brought their country to its knees. 

So, why would a Brit leave Britain? Because there is love and peace and stability in this small corner of Saxony. Isn't that what everybody wants?

Marie-Paule Graham writes "Adventures in Waldiland" [] and tweets @mpg4.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

What's the Weather Like in Germany?


I've always been interested in the weather - the actual as well as what people say about it. You can learn a lot that way.You can also learn something by listening to people's perception of the weather in other countries.

Take Germany. What would an ordinary English person say when asked about the climate in Germany? Probably something like this:

"Oooh, don't know really. Probably quite cold. They do have those Christmas markets there, don't they... there's always quite a bit of snow there ... and mulled wine!"

And there you have it in  a nutshell.
Germany is associated with winter, with cold, and childrens' book Xmas markets. Germany is THE EAST. A land of frost, cold, snow. There are sinister looking fairytale castles with spooky turrets, dark dark forests, and a general atmosphere of darkness and cold. All ever so spooky and sinister. Medieaval markets surrounded by half-timbered houses.Only occasionally lit by the orange glow of flickering candle light, or a macabre flash of lightning.

Associating it so directly - and totally falsely, it is far more of a hot country!- with "cold" has a more sinister side stll. Where there aren't any spooky but cosy Christmas markets, turrety castles etc. there is "tundra". An Eastern sounding word for a void. That void isn't actually there - there is neither tundra, nor emptiness in Germany. But it stands for the lack of geographical knowledge. Cold, empty, Eastern. Snowy planes, where far away on the horizon there might be  the odd "ruthlessly efficient" (another core term in popular Germany-parlance) industrial plant where faceless workers produce something mechanical and complicated. Machinery, or cars -something hard, and metallic - cold.

There you are - a whole prejudicial image cluster comes alive via a talk about the weather. I find this ethnographic way of analysing and deconstructing a concept quite fascinating.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Spend Like There's No Tomorrow - Ireland Around the Millennium

This isn't a political blog. But sometimes intercultural behaviour patterns have repercussions on what happens a decade later.

Between the years of 2000 and 2005 I spent quite a lot of time in Dublin. I can honestly say I've never seen people spend so much money in such a reckless manner, anywhere. I was once in a shop where a totally ordinary woman took about 50 seconds to buy a handbag for 3,000 euros. Those were the days of the Bang Café, Ballsbridge, and spotting Brian O'Driscoll and his then girlfriend Glenda Gilson in a U2 loft style hotel lounge overlooking the foggy Liffey.

People bought, and bought and then they bought some more. Property prices were mad in those days, a house in Ballsbridge would have set you back more than a mansion in Knightsbridge. Idiotic property shows on TV egged people on to buy sub-standard houses at ten times their annual salary. Frantically buying (...investing!), they hoovered up houses in Dublin, in Spain, in Hungary, Albania and Turkey. They became property developers in Bulgaria ("Planning permission for a golf course next door granted!") Mostly they bought up off-plan new developments outside Dublin, in place like Naas - not one, but four, five properties. Investing, you see.

Women had their highlights done in the most expensive lemon shade (full head 230 euros), they were tanned all year round, and dressed in designer clothes so expensive you'd never even heard of them. The Balenciaga Mororcycle bag was the must-have item in those years, and in Dublin you could see them in every colour on every arm  (biggest size of course).Whilst I was there, the local department store (Brown Thomas) had both Elle McPherson and Helena Christensen flown over for promotions.

Restaurants... if you hadn't dined in ChapterOne or Patrick Guilbaud (2 Michelin stars) then hopefully at least you'd go for lunch at Dunne&Crescenzi (pasta for 15 euros) Or for a steak at Shanahan's where even the desserts cost 30 euros. The horrible phrase "Maxing out the credit card" was everywhere.There was even a Harvey Nichols in an outlying shopping centre, built by developers. (Conveniently positioned at the end of the spick and spam tram line, built with money from the Eurpean federation).

There was a lot of mirth in the Irish media at the time about the Germans - old, parsimonious, boring,stupid and not up to the game. Hey ho, look at us - our patio decking, sun loungers and cocktails from Italy, neighbours agog oh yeah! And them over there? Just paying their money into their bank account!

I often look back on those days, especially when I read the news nowadays, and the hate-filled jibes directed at Gemany and  a naively perceived "Angela Mukle" "Gemany - not prepared to bail out Ireland", "Germany tells Irish: go swivel".

Well, all I can say is, I haven't got a handbag for 3,000 euros, don't own property abroad, have never had lemon coloured highlights, let alone a Ferrari. Boringly, and maybe intercultrally typically, I saved most of the money I earned, and spent within my budget.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Expat Blogger Knows Best. Always.

 Of course there are any number of intelligent, well-written, and informative expat blogs out there. This isn't about them.

I read quite a number of blogs by people who for one reason or other, live in a different country from the one they grew up in. Some people are happy to be where they now are, others less so. And blogging about your experiences is of course one way of coping, of working through good or bad experiences, or of letting off steam.

The more set in your ways you are, the harder you'll find abroad. The very name "expat" (expatriate) indicates this predicament. Somebody who is outside their homeland, their comfort zone. (One could draw analogies to Anglo-Saxon times where being an outcast (for whatever reason) and having to do without your homeland, your tribe and your kinship is seen as the hardest lot that can befell men.

But back to the coping strategy: The expat blogger tells his readers what s/he has to put up with on a day-to-day basis, what weird encounters, ignorant reactions, unacceptable behaviour s/he has to endure. That makes it easier to bear. The writer appeals- often by way of humour - to the reader to side with him, and thereby against  "the others", the aliens, the ones who don't know what's what. And of course it's up  to him to decide what is acceptable and what is not. Clearly, his own country comes out tops ,whereas the adopted home becomes a laughing stock.

It's a formula, and not a very edifying one. The overall message is: "Why can't abroad be a lot more like home?? I mean really!!" I recently read an expat blog which was so unselfconsciously self-righteous, so full of the opinion that his homeland (Britain)was the only acceptable place in the world, and that its ways should be the guiding line for all others. Anywhere else could only be treated with the utmost contempt. He was writing about Switzerland: Not only does this unfortunate nation not know about queuing, they also have the most absurd way of eating raclette. And of course he, the Englishman, was the expert on that (Swiss) dish and could only laugh derisively about those ridiculous people he had the misfortune of living amongst.

Maybe this is an extreme example, but I genuinely believe that a bit more open-mindedness, and a bit less of telling others how they should live and how to conduct themselves would make the expat blogging scene a lot more interesting.

Monday, 1 October 2012

"My Country - Right Or Wrong" - Is Criticism good or bad?

Recently, an article by a German expat in New Zealand was brought to my attention. The author pointed out that New Zealanders weren't keen to deal with any form of criticism of their country. "Thin-skinned" was the way she described it.

This triggered off reminiscences of my time in Scotland. Any form of less than over-the top enthusiasm was met with resentful, defensive silence. And you really had to pile it on. If you failed to use words like "best ever", "world-class", "tops" you were a marked person. (Talk about British understatement...!)

This is all fine, if it's about being polite. Of course no sane person goes round telling other people what a shit-hole they live in. Of course I toed the line, talking about the splendid weather (wasn't), really tasty food (wasn't) beeaauti-ful countryside (have never been).

And yet, and yet. Isn't criticism a force of good? Should it not be encouraged? Especially from outsiders, especially in a country like New Zealand which might otherwise be in danger of  "im eigenen Saft schmoren". Ehem, I hope this wasn't too critical - take it as feedback!)

Wise, forward-thinking companies encourage their employees to notice things that need improving, find out where processes can be changed for the better. Lemming-like behaviour, head-down, nose to the grindstone... all these things struck me as old-fashioned, and vaguely totalitarian. I mainly grew up in countries - Holland and Germany - where criticism is encouraged from an early age on, and is seen as a mark of respect of the community you live in. It means you're interested in what's going on, you take a stance, you care, you're an active citizen. Not being critical in Holland would be seen as a sign of having dumbed-down, of being switched off, and ultimately a way to side-line yourself.

I agree of course that criticism has to be constructive, and cannot zoom in on fundamentals - like the weather in Scotland which can hardly be changed. But even here, I'd say a degree of realism would be infinitely preferable than the weird buil-up of societal pressure. Why should it not be possible in Scotland to say "Agreed, we haven't got the best weather but then again, that's why everything is so green and lush here". It would be realistic and honest. And infinitely preferable to the peevish, tight-lipped reaction which to the casual observer from outside indicates nothing more than an inferiority complex.

Personally, I find the pressure of permanent compliance with the staus quo, always asserting that you're 100% behind the mainstream, "Yes it's grrreat!, Love it! So excited! Super"...." tedious in the extreme. And no, I won't deliver.

I would still offer cookery-classes in Scotland and encourage New Zealanders to get out of their country more, and get a different perspective. No hard feelings, mate!


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Mahlzeit! The Topsy-Turvy World of German Meals

Today, I had crisps for lunch. Yup, just crisps. Perfectly normal in Britain, seriously weird in Germany. (I might add that a sandwich or salad would actually be my staple.) Here in Germany it is still the norm for people to have what they call a "warme Mahlzeit" (hot meal) slap-bang in the middle of the day, i.e. at 12 noon. (There is a restaurant with an outdoor seating area opposite our house, so I can vouchsafe for the fact that coming up for 11:50 the tables are starting to fill up, and by 10 past 12 the restaurant is full)  a perfectly acceptable German "Mittagessen" (lunch) would be a very traditional meat and 2 veg option with lots of gravy. Schnitzel, Gulasch, Hackbraten would be on offer in most German restaurants, households, and of course canteens. Germans do not (yet) hold with an al desko lunch, and would definitely expect their work canteen  to come up with "Hausmannskost" (traditional cusine).

To make up for these hefty lunch-time eats, Germans tend to have a very frugal supper. Rightly called "Abendbrot" (literally '"evening bread") this is quite a sorry affair in most families. Germans dine early, mostly around 6pm. You could typically expect to find a few slices of rye bread, and a choice of one cheese, and slices of cold cuts on an average German dinner table. This would probably be accompanied by the ubiquitous "Essiggurke" (gherkin, but literally translated as "vinegar cucumber" which seems an apt description.) Supper is not an opprtunity to celebrate family life, dine à deux by candle light, or try out light but raffinés courses. It's a very pragmatic "eat or you'll be hungry later" affair. The bready meal would be accompanied by apple juice, or herbal tea, or indeed a fairly strange concoction called "Malzbier", a sort of malted ale but without any alcohol content. At the end of this rather uninspired meal, people will settle down to watch TV.

Even with a keen intercultural mind-set ever eager to find differences and cultural shadings interesting, I have to say that the German way of meal-planning strikes me as slightly odd. During the day, when most people are busy working - why would you interrupt the flow with a hefty sit-down meal, thereby prolonging your working day by an hour? Also, isn't it all a bit heavy - making you feel lethargic during your afternoon stint? And reversely, an evening (at least in my books)  is a time to unwind,  let the day pass by, have a chat over a lovely meal, accompanied by a glass of wine, and generally enjoy yourself. And most of us don't work on farmyards anymore, where we might be glad of a square meal in the middle of the day...

So whilst to me it seems an upside-down structure, Germans, even today stick to their customs. My husband's colleagues are genuinely baffled when they see him having "just" a sandwich at lunch-time, and will ask him if  his wife will at least have a nice meal on the table when he comes home of an evening. A very tradtional lot, those Germans!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Interculturalism, Israel and I

This is a personal record of Interculturalism going badly wrong, where misunderstandings, cultural (in-)difference and prejudice finally made interaction impossible. In other words a very sad story:

I still remember the day when I said to my husband: "I had some great news today: My Israeli friend is coming to Munich!" I started planning immediately - what did I want to show her (or them, she might be bringing a friend). The market, the English Garden, a famous church (no, of course not, I chided myself, they are Jewish!), an outing to the lakes? They love hiking...Depends how much time they had, I mused. I knew my friend was coming  to attemd a conference. I had to find out! We exchanged emails, where I answered many questions, sent links, hotels near the conference centre, hotels further afield, metro plans, train you would, when friends visit for the first time. But all I ever got back was "Thanks. I'll be in touch."

Hmm, I thought baffled. They probably do things differently in Israel. What do I know about it? They probably simply find all this politeness stuff  "So looking forward to seeing you! Where shall we meet, can't wait  etc etc," tedious in the extreme. After all, my knowledge of polite exchanges is severely limited to Western European/North American exchanges. Also, in a country where you're constantly in danger of being attacked, who cares about social niceties?? I looked at videos of determined looking Israeli politicians in short-sleeved shirts talking about necessary strategies in a brusque but impressive manner.

Two days before the arrival date, another "Thanks I'll be in touch" email arrived. I still didn't know how much time we would be spending together, if any. This was getting bad, I also had a week to plan, set time aside (or not). Should I ask, I thought. It would look pushy I decided. Maybe she HAD to be so cryptic for security reasons...I decided not to make any kind of fuss and throw any toys out of the pram, A guest is a guest,after all.

Then, one day before my friend's arrival, disaster struck. Totally out of the blue, on behalf of nothing, her husband posted on twitter: "If you use [Nazi expression], it means you're a German!" *)

The intercultural car crash had happened. He (they?) obviously held  very stong and prejudicial beliefs. And  didn't even think that it might be better to keep such insulting, totally false prejudices to themselves rather than bandy them around on the web shortly before meeting up with a friend in the country in question. (I challenged him, obviously, but he just called me naive for not "knowing" this "fact". But I live here, I thought...

I'm afraid that was it, as far as that visit was concerned.

I think of her, though. Is she walking around here, filled with ire, thinking "All Nazis"? I look around me, in this friendly and serene town, so open and tolerant, so welcoming to visitors and tourists, with its eagerness to please, its intensely blue sky and absurd romantic beauty. Will it change her mind? This town in the Federal Republic of Germany, a European and open country that cares about its citizens, cares about its standing in the world, works so hard towards progress, reconciliation, understanding, and peace - and I think  - no we don't deserve that.

Always happy to hear your comments on twitter - @Margit11

*) An equivalent would be to say "If you use the N-word, it means you're an American".

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Only Here For the Beer - Intercultural Stereotypes

Recently somebody said to me: "What? You're from Munich, and you don't like beer??!!" Eyebrows raised skywards.  Faced with such a verbal full-frontal, it's quite a challenge to come up with a polite and patient reply. You could say "Well, I'm not actually from Munich, I 'm just living here for the time being" - But that would imply that everybody who is actually from Munich, does like beer. In the end I opted for : "Well two years ago I was living in Edinburgh, and I don't actually like whisky." I thought that made my point quite clear (in an ironic and educational way).

There is something more than just a little backward in remarks like that, even though they obviously try to come over as worldy-wise and informed. But this sort of cultural cliché just takes an intellectual  short-cut by classifying people into geographic cut-out figures. "From the North of England? - So, you probably like warm beer in the pub, whilst disucussing the miners strike with your mates, huh?" "From Paris? Oh là là, Mademoiselle!"

And whilst these examples are harmless, and just show the simple-mindedness of this approach, it's easy to extrapolate how it can quickly degenerate into xenophobic and racial compartmentilisation. "Brazilians - ah they got music in their blood!", "Africans are more in touch with their feelings", "Arabs? Bit fanatical, aren't they?" "Yes, Jews are very good with money" And so on, and so on...

Let's just  remind yourselves that not every Finn is taciturn and likes the dark, not every American is monolingual, or all Spaniards like bullfights and paella. Let's celebrate individuality and diversity. That people are not the embodiment of a cliché associated with a country or place. That people move about and have to come to grips with different cultural surroundings. That everybody is their own person, made up of a myriad of cultural fragments and influences. And that there are people from Munich who prefer wine to beer ...

Any comments? Share them on twitter, @Margit11

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Intercultural Ailments

When I first arrived at Oxford, I was plagued by pretty annoying recurring headaches. The weather had been bad, and I conveyed my theory that the headaches were due to "Kreislaufprobleme" because of  low pressure. My newly found English friend just burst into laughter. "Sorry, she said after a long while during which my head hurt even more, "but this is just soo funny - circulation problems, I love it! When I lived in Germany, everybody was always suffering from circulation problems, and now you come up with it too!" It turned out that English people do not suffer from circulation problems, and don't really understand the term. "Does it mean your arms and legs don't have enough blood flow?" "Well no, it means you feel faint and dizzy, and have headaches, like I do now". That was my first encounterwith the fact that ailments do not really translate very well.

Not much later, it was my turn to be slightly puzzled by an indigenous illness. (It seemed too serious to actually laugh.) Lots of students seemed to be falling ill with something called "Glandular Fever". Hmph, "Drüsenfieber", I thought. Apparently this was caused by late nights, essay crises, and general overwork. It resulted in a very lengthy (often several months) absence from college, and was apparently cured by calm, regular meals, and lying in bed. I'd never heard of it, or anybody who had succumbed to this illness before England, but quickly learned to look utterly shocked and slightly panicked whenever "Glandular Fever" was mentioned. I kept it to myself that the illness in question was probably best thought of as "flu".

In France, people suffer from something called "Jambes lourdes" a lot - heavy legs. Of course everybody has probably encountered the sensation, e.g.after a lengthy hike. But can it be a proper illness which makes you stay away from work for several days, for which there is a plethora of medication available in pharmacies? Apparently yes, in France at least.

So I suppose the learning is, everybody shares the same symptoms but whether you call it an illness is up to you - or rather the cultural context you live in, and how seriously it is taken there.

Happy to hear about your country's special illnesses and ailments, I'm on twitter: @Margit11

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Chocolate - an Intercultural Personal History

The first chocolate brand I remember eating was Verkade. We were living in Holland at the time, and everybody was chocolate mad.Verkade chocolate was okay, if a bit tooth-breakerish.Verkade is one of the oldest Dutch manufacturing companies, and was instrumental in the home-grown advertising industry - but in 1990 got taken over first by United Biscuits and then by Private Equity Blackstone -with predictable results for the quality of the product.

We were in Holland, but we were also part of a NATO HQ, and therefore our daily shopping was done in the NAAFI store where I encountered my second chocolate experience: Cadbury's Milk Tray. It tasted quite good - I particularly liked the ones with some orangey foam in them, but I also became aware for the first time in my life that I was eating something totally artificial: The one with rose-flavoured jelly in it (much later in my life when living in England, I would re-discover this in a different guise, namely as Fry's Turkish Delight bars!) didn't taste at all what I was used to eating as a child. It tasted foreign, and slightly - well, wrong. Rose-flavour wasn't a concept I'd grown up with. But interesting.( I think threre was also one with lime flavour which reminded me of cleaning fluid, also from the NAAFI). Much more to my taste was a bar called Nuts (which we pronounced in the Dutch fashion "Nüts", as nobody suspected the name actually had a meaning).

Cadbury's of course, was taken over by Kraft Foods in 2010, and Milk Tray still exists, but apparently has gone downhill with all the interesting flavours taken out, and just caramelly ones in the box. Fry's doesn't exist anymore, but Turkish Delight is still produced (albeit in Poland). And "Nuts" is okay, still manufactured by Swiss multinational Nestlé.

After we moved to Germany, my chcolate brands became Milka and Ritter Sport (the latter still a family-owned business,manufactured in Germany!) There was no more rose-flavoured jelly but much more down-to-earth "Alpenmilch","Vollmilch" and "Joghurt".

A life-time's journey via chocolate - quite fascinating I find. (And part of some more research on my part).

Happy to hear about your chocolate memories etc. on Twitter, @Margit11

©Margit Appleton 2012

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Victor Meldrew, or I Don't Like to Complain, but...

I'm thinking about moaning and the way people see "moaning minnies " in different countries.

In England, people often hedge a conversational complaint by saying "I know I shouldn't be moaning, but...", or they'll be looking for agreement from others by saying "Is it just me, or..." rightly hoping the reply will be "No, not just you it really is..." Objectively approved, complaint therefore allowed.

My interest in intercultural moaning was sparked off when I came to Germany, and noticed how much people complain all the time.(Despite of course having one of the best lifestyles in Europe). It's as natural here as a baby crying in its pram. There are no social  filters, no shame, no social stigma.

In a European context, England and Germay are actually at opposite ends of the scale. In England moaning is seen as a sign of weakness, an inabilty to cope. There are various negative words to describe a complaining person (moaning minnie, grouch, Victor Meldrew....) Nowadays, even legitimate complaints in Britain are often battened down by being labelled unpatriotic, or an attack on the British way on life.

Things couldn't be more different in Germany. Complaining means showing your human side. Hey, nobody is perfect, and things are difficult, so let's all have a good moan together. (The un-acceptable opposite would be an American-style "Life is good" attitude, which people here would see as presumptious.

There is a different form of moaning yet, in France. There, by moaning you show that you're not a push-over, and also indicate that you're used to better things. People who don't moan are obviously happy with lowly offerings, and don't know any better. And who would want to be like that?! Moaning as a social status indicator!

My mother for example, has been moaning all her life. She hardly ever does anything else, and if she stopped I'd be seriously worried. Me? As ever, I'm in cut in the middle. Whilst my favourite saying is "When the going gets tough, the tough get going", I'm no stranger to moaning. Recently, when I had to spend a year in Scotland, I simply couldn't stop complaining. It was all too much, and I hated every minute.

Maybe moaning is really a sign that you can't cope. And society's reply should be "Oh just get on with it". At least that's what I'm feeling now, when I have very little to moan about....

Let me know what you think via twitter, @Margit11

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

German Men

Germany is a funny country. The longer you live here, the more baffling it gets. Thus with German men. At first glance, they seem quite normal. Maybe even slightly better than average. One appreciates the absence of creepiness,  there is a faint (if slightly boring) sense of camaraderie. Unthreatening, friendly, open. The more you look, however, cracks begin to show. Once you looked a bit more closely, you see the nervosity, the flickering eyes, maybe when you mention the operating system of your smartphone.Or you're doing really well at some sporting event, or you mention that you prefer Mozart to Beethoven...You get the picture. They really really find it hard to deal with "strong" (all the things mentioned don't actually indicate any "Strength"...!) women. They feel intimidated so easily, it is truly worrying. Sadly, this isn't just their own private problem - it can easily become yours too, especially at the workplace!

Often, you find that German women adapt instinctively to this "need" situation, and just play dumb. Meaning - at the workplace they rarely contradict, let alone criticise. But back to the menfolk.

Their conversational topics have changed over the years. But only slightly. Where it used to be cars, cars, and bits of cars, it is now technology and social media. When I say technology, I mainly mean iphones and other Apple-related gadgetry. Showing off with up-to-date, in-depth Apple-knowledge is absolutely crucial to being taken seriously as a German male. Weird. And very boring.You may say "Oh,  all men are like that", wich would be depressing enough, but actually Geman men (in my experience) have this urge to really really know more than any other person about technology.

The second topic is sports - again, no surprises. Except here, it isn't spectator sport - it has to be some "extreme" sports that they practicethemselves - triathlon, extreme speed cycling, or at the very least something dangerous. (Not quite as good as it can't be quantified).

Showing off, topping all others as a personal need in order to distract from their very real insecurity. Not unusual, but fairly irritating. And a bottomless desire to be admired. (For speed cycling??)

So yes, I find German men a bit tiresome with all their hang-ups, neediness and fear. Thankfully though, I'm not married to a German!

If you want to tell me that your sweet Heinz is "totally different", or I "obviously got a real psychological hang-up", or even if you agree with me, you're very welcome to do so on twitter (@Margit11) as I find this blog commenting a bit fiddly.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Instagram Intercultural

Right. I've done it. I've just joined Instagram - something I'd been avoiding for a very long time. But what else is out there? There's Saltire-waving blipfoto which makes you feel like an illegal immigrant with an infectious disease if you post from outside Scotland (and weirdly specifies that you're ONLY allowed to comment in English... so much for photography being a culture-spanning pastime! Then there is that photography mass grave called flickr, and various others like A photograph per day which are in a class of their own (literally).

So Instagram with its estimated 50 million users it has to be. First impressions? Alas, ropey. It's certainly not right for you if you're serious about photography. More like your worst Facebook friend - you know the one that always posts photos of 4 drunken mates, all pulling faces, huge beer bottle held into the camera, caption "Whaddya say????!!"-  had multiplied into the n-th dimension. "Most popular on Instagram"? Invariably blurry photos of dopey or blissed-out looking Korean girls, as if in various stages of a child pornography film. Best not look.

Filters, or as they like to call it over there "Special effects" rule the show. Purple cats, blurry, distorted faces, and possibly worst of all  - the hyper-hallucinogenic shots of some humdrum piece of English countryside.

Of course there's some good photography hidden away - but it tends to be of the school that wants to create art. "Art" in the sense of the street vendor next to Sacre Coeur, selling broad canvasses of soupy West Coast sunsets with a gleaming Harley on the left and an inky palmtree on the right. All depends what your definition of art is, as Bill Clinton might say.

I know a lot of people who love filters, either for pragmatic reasons ("It makes my crappy iphone snaps more interesting", said one), or because they love to create something special. Mostly though, they tend to be British. And I was thinking:  Personally I loathe filters. I want to see things are they are, and document them as they are. Light, clarity and realism are my goals in photography. In Britain however, life is infinitely harder - you need something to soften it. "Take the edge off the day", as the saying goes - which usually refers to alcohol. Filters also take the edge off things, turn an often stark reality into something fun, creative, and colourful. Run-down street? Sepia filters turn it into historicity. Horrible room? 1970's style filter make it edgy and cool,. And so on. Filters I think are eminently intercultural.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Expat Dilemma

I haven't written seriously about Expat Life for a while. (Only a little humorous post!)  The reason being that the topic is firmly in the hands of people or companies I find extremely dodgy - and therefore the whole  area becomes tainted for me. It's either handled by people who live about 30,000 miles from the next border and want to "coach" you to become a "Thought Leader"- for a $$-price naturally. Or by an offshore company who's ultimate aim is to convince you that "now is a good time to buy in Greece". So I kept shtum as I find these sort of bed-fellows very disagreeable.

HOWEVER (you guessed it...) The expat situation deserves a bit of non-commercial, unbiased scrutiny (and help if possible.) I'll concentrate on the situation I'm most familar with:  Let's take a British woman living an expat-life in Germany. Her situation will at first glance be quite enviable. On average, she will be well-off, have a job, live in a nice area, in a nice flat. Mostly, however, she will be renting. Simply because everybody does in Germany.

Say now, she's feeling a bit homesick - or wondering how to shape her future long-term. Going back to Britain? That would be very very difficult. Given that you have no property assets, you would have to start from afresh on the UK property-"ladder". Older than the average British first-time buyer, you would therefore have to be willing to start out buying an over-priced small flat in a dodgy area, and be financially, and lifestlye-wise an awful lot worse off than you were in Germany, renting.

Secondly, salaries are an awful lot higher in Germany than in the UK. There, you absolutely need a double-income to survive. Which, for the expat means her partner has to be willing and able to relocate back to Britain. Again, not at all easy - given language, job etc. constrictions!

If our female expat is planning to have a child in the near or distant future, again, things will have to be thought through carefully - in Germany you're looking at 12 months maternity leave at 80% of your salary. A perk you might not be willing to give up in a hurry.

And so it goes on - almost every area of life can easily turn out to be full of pitfalls that are difficult to computate. (And whilst this may generally be the case, as an expat you are just so much more aware of risks and consequences!)

I know from experience that being an expat isn't easy - hardly surprising, you may say - but I wanted to point out that it isn't just the usual moans and aches - language, food, carpets in the bathroom etc - but very concrete considerations that make you almost believe in the old saying "You Can't Go Home Again".

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Is Football Intercultural?

Well, wherever people from many different nations and cultures come together, there is something for the interculturalist to study. There are preconceptions, prejudices - there's admiration, envy, ignorance, and in the case of football - there are bound to be negative emotions like aggression and even hatred as well. So quite a rich field!

We've all heard of the England team always having high hopes, but somehow each time the end seems to be very close to the beginning for them. So there's almost a cultural expectation for that squad to break through their own limitations. "This time", we (or their fans) say - definitely! And thus a totally new intercultural field is created. England as a footballing entity is very different from England the nation (polite, funny... or whatever else we associate with England in other walks of life). England is suddenly the underdog we're backing.

It's therefore nice to see how arbitrary such preconceptions that we harbinger about other nations turn out to be. They are fluent, and transitory - not written in stone. Or think of the decade-long dread everybody had of England fans! Being drunken, violent yobs! When Chelsea last played Bayern Munich - and won! the fans sat nicely in beergardens (photo at the top) and behaved like ordinary tourists, bar the odd bit of chanting.

Whilst I wouldn't go so far as to hold football up for a prejudice-breaking area, I do think it is refreshing to see that sports in general comes with its own set of appreciation of other nations' abilities, problems and strengths.

Let's hope Euro2012 lives up to its expectations, and even if you're not a football fan - just treat it as an intercultural playing field!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

OJ in the Waldorf Towers

Intercultural Musing's focus is quite eurocentric. That's because I know Europe - and I like it a lot. I have, however, been to other continents, Africa, Asia -  and to America: Once. (Uproarious laughter in the background.) I would definitely go again, as that visit was truly memorable.

It was 1995 and the OJ Simpson trial was in full swing. My husband was on secondment to one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world. We were staying in the Waldorf Towers, the... well the posh bit of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (/ From the bedroom we looked out onto the marvellous Art-deco spire of the Chrysler building, Fifth Avenue was suddenly more than just a name, and I spent my first days firmly mid-town, as I was terrified by both the underground and the yellow cab drivers.

As for the O.J.Simpson trial - I'd heard of it at home, but was less than interested. There seemed to be a certain amount of sensationalism involved but as I'd never heard of the accused, and none of the words that seemed to cling to the reportage - "Bronco, Juice, LAPD" meant the slightest thing to me. So by the time I'd arrived in New York I'd forgotten about it.

In the Towers, you have complimentary access to the "Astoria Lounge", a huge space right at the top where you can admire the view,sit and write during the day, but more importantly, you also have round-the-clock access to delicious snacks and drink..
There is also a TV. At breakfast time, this was invariably turned onto the OJ trial. And people were totally spellbound. "Hey, there's Marcia!!", somebody called, and absolutely everybody fell silent. "Marcia?" I thought. But of course I couldn't ask, couldn't ask anything as it would have been a lot like asking "So who is this fascinating Herr Hitler one hears so much about these days?" in 1942. So I kept quiet, and just thought and commented how odd those Americans were. Not only did they wear the most eyebrow-raising casual clohes ever seen in a posh hotel, they also got over-excited about some court trial of an unknown celebrity. Phhh, I thought.

When I was back, something odd happened to me. New York had got ("had gotten") under my skin. That town, it was just incredible - the history! What were people always saing America had no history?! There, you were walking right in it! The 1930's sky scrapers, the little churches in-between, the ethnic quarters...  the Beauty!
AND: I became obsessed with the OJ Simpson trial. I read every book I could find, became conversely knowledgeable about the minutest detail of the court proceedings, and to this day could probably win any Mastermind competition on the subject.

All these diverse impressions didn't hang together, and left me curious, so.... yes, America -you taught me quite a lot in terms of intercultural awareness!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The British Expat in Germany - A Caricature

If you're asking me like that - yeah, course I miss Lowestoft, I mean who wouldn't. But Germany pays the bills - get my drift?

Mostly, I just speak English with them. But yeah, my German is pretty good
"Eynah Tassah Tay bittah!"

Talking of which - you can't get a decent cuppa here - not like home, like!

Germans have no sense of humour. None. I got this great act where I goose-step through the office, right arm stretched out. But nobody laughs. Ever. Dig that!

They don't have ticket barriers here on the underground. So - obviously you save a lot of money. If a ticket inspector comes round, I just play dumb and say I'm a British tourist. Works every time!

I do a bit of freelancing for the Guardian. Easy: Either I say "Eurozone- Only 10 days left", or I get the neighbour's kid to hold up a Hitler picture. They love it. Mind you, they don't pay.

The Germans don't have proper pubs. Nothing like Friday night in Lowestoft. The whole gang - Tyson, DavyB, Beamer, Vomit and me, yeah! Get the boys over here soon, that'll be fun!

German supermarkets are crap. All fruit 'n stuff. Nothing decent. Mushy peas? Forgeddit!Not even something as basic as spaghetti in a tin. I mean, that's everyday food. But no - zilch.

I'll qualify for unemployment benefit, yup - done my year's work soon. Can't wait! Get my tax back innit, only fair!

When I go back to Lowestoft, I go by train. Just hide in the loos, so they don't spot you. And then I've got them ferry vouchers from the Daily Mail. Cheaper than Ryan Air anytime!

They've got those honesty boxes here. What's that mean you ask. It means a free newspaper for me every day, that's what it means!

Everything's on time here. Trains, boss, colleagues. Me? Naah, I'm not so anal.

Going back? Are you insane, man?

Monday, 7 May 2012

A Language Post for People Who Don't Know Much About Language

I had quite a curious experience yesterday which prompted me to write about language as one would not normally do it. I noticed that people who can speak foreign languages and those who don't have an entirely different way of thinking of them.

The occasion was this: Somebody was trying to find an appropriate translation of the phrase "Make yourselves known to me" into German. Not an unsurmountable problem, you would think. Not like translating "Seinsvergessenheit" into Hungarian or such like. Still, as she was a writer, I wanted to suggest a translation that was both somehow "elegant",  context-appropriate, and short - maybe worth pointing out it all happened on Twitter. So I translated it as "Schickt mir einfach eine DM mit Name und Adresse". The person in question must have run this through Google translate and found it horrendously not matching her initial prompt. Or maybe Google Translate also came up with something inappropriate. In the end, she settled for: "Machen sie sich bekannt".

Which, needless to say, is somewhat hilarious.

So, it struck me, that people who have no notion of other languages, have a deeply ingrained trust of the word-by-word translation.What can possibly be wrong with that, they'd argue? "Kown" means bekannt. Make - machen. you =sie (or, in this context, but never mind those little things- Sie). So hey presto, a translation!

Nobody in their right minds would agree that this is an acceptable or even comprehensible translation of the original sentence. Yet people without language skills obviously need an assurance, an anchor if you like, that what they're "translating" is the actual words, and not something fancy.

I find this so weird, and almost unbelievable that I have trouble getting my brain round this way of thinking. The only time I think I ever did translations like that, was when we translated Latin texts at school.

A deep non-empathy with the workings of another language, or a belief that surely, all languages follow the rules of your own? As I say, difficult to track that line of thinking, but possibly a warning never to fall into this particular trap!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

5 Things I Like About Britain

I feel obliged to say that there is quite a lot I dislike about Britain: This ranges from the jingoistic flag-waving to the weather, from the horrible "Proud to be British" attitude to the (and this is unfortunately still  the case) fatty stodginess of the food.
Still, there are things I'm fond of. So here goes, in no particular order, but without the dulcet tones of "God Save the Queen":

1. The Language
Whilst I'm a lover of all languages, English is my favourite. Why? Because it can be anything you want it to be? Its range of register is second to none. You can express the same sentiment in at least 10 different ways, high, low, vulgar, ironic, condescending, old-fashioned, street. The vocabulary is endless, it adopts to any new situation, it is malleable, relatively easy to learn, beautiful - and it is the language I feel most comfortable in.
2. Sandwiches
Was there ever a better invention, food-wise? A sandwich can be whatever you want it to be. Any type of bread, any type of filling, as small or as big as you like it. Cold, toasted, vegetarian, opulent...Sandwiches are tasty, practical, healthy (well mostly). You can take them with you, share them, re-invent them. I honestly can't think of anything nicer. P.S.: They can be soggy, too.
3. Political Correctness
Don't laugh - I like it! It doesn't have to be authoritarian, or ridiculous. It's just a way of dealing with one another that is fair, even-handed and non-threatening. It helps to avoid conflicts of all sorts, makes life easier and prevents pub-bores to vent their spleen. And yes, you're still allowed to laugh about people: The ones that enforce it to a ridiculous degree! :)
4. (Change of Topic, when I come to my next point:) Oxford
Somebody said that if you enjoyed Oxford, everything afterwards is just a big let-down. If that's a slight exaggeration, Oxford is certainly the most profoundly life-changing experience you can have in modern times. If you're unconvinced you could just visit the town, stand on Magdalen Bridge and look at the willow in front of the college. It would still just be a tourist experience, but you'd gain a tiny insight of what I'm on about. (And no, Cambridge with its bus station and its higgledy-piggledy architecture doesn't really come into the equation!)
5. Jamie Oliver
Now, is this man a genius, or isn't he? He's single-handedly guided the British public towards olive oil, lemon juice and herbs, told them that vegetables are actually edible, and no, they don't need an hour in boiling water. Furthermore he took up the mettle with fierce Northern mothers who want to feed their offspring  chip-butties, and iffy mince for breakfast. He's unfussy, loveable, and eager to change things for the better.

I realise that not everybody will agree with my choices of what I like, so go on - tell us YOUR faves!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

10 Things I Like About Germany

I will probably have to disappoint those avid Interculturalists amongst you who are just waiting for the words "clean" and "efficient" to crop up  in order to respond with a lofty "oh yes we all know about the ruthless efficiency and the penalities of Germany". It's just a personal little tour of what I like and a bit of why. It's very subjective, in no particular order, and you probably won't agree. But still.

1. The smell in chemist's shops (Apotheken). It's not really medicinal -  more herbal, fresh and aromatic. I've never smelt it anywhere else, and it's intoxicating!

2. The fact that women (of a similar age-group) tend to smile at each other on the streets, or in shops, or trains. Rather than glower.

3. That people at neighbouring tables in a restaurant ackowledge each other with a smile or a nod, and say good-bye when they leave, rather than pretend there's nobody sitting next to them.

4. That there is a market in every town, even the very small ones. Not an artficially created Farmers' Market but a century-long established one, with brilliant fresh produce, seasonal flowers - and that everything is so nicely presented, in baskets, wooden boxes etc.

5. The fact that Germany is so centrally located within Europe. I have this thing about not liking marginal locations. It makes me feel cut-off and side-lined. (I also don't really like islands, sorry.)

6. That (whilst they do exist) there isn't a "mall culture" when it comes to shopping. Shops are strewn about the whole town and are plentiful and varied. I'd hate having to drive to some out-of -town shopping centre and loading up the car with everything in one oh so sensible trip.

7. Its variety. Big modern towns (like Hamburg), strange towns (like Berlin), picturesque towns (like Munich). Wonderful seaside, (North Sea, and Baltic), the Alps, the wonderful lakes, both Alpine and in the North. Heaths, rivers, vinyards. It's so much more beautiful than other countries which constantly blow their own trumpet.

8. Which brings me to my next point: Its modesty. Germany is probably the most affluent, economically successful country in Europe. People are generally wealthy, there's no major strife, integration is voluntary and painless. Its politics is mostly consensual.Yet it doesn't boast of its assets. Probably all due to its history, but right now, in 2012, I find that  a very sympathetc trait.

9. That it's still governed by middle-class values. Many people might not like this, but I do. I'm not keen on seeing people do their shopping in pyjamas, and don't want to get used to it either. Or being asked, threateningly "And what's wrong with that, eh?" I don't like seeing people face down in the gutter on a Friday night. Or ramshackle little houses with huge expensive cars in the driveway.

10. And finally, yes: That is has a functioning infrastructure which -it has to be said - functions because a lot of money is being poured into it. What's so great about trains being late and rubbish not being collected? Or fast-lanes for rich drivers? Sorry, not for me!

My next blog might be about 10 Things I don't like about Germany....

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Translations, Translators - A Predicament

I certainly don't want to attack translators in this post. There are an awful lot of excellent translators doing excellent work out there. But so often, you will read a text, and notice immediately that it is "translated", and awkwardly at that. I just looked at the web page of quite an inovative advertising agency in Germany. Except their English version website was appalling. Tooth-grindingly awful . Here is an agency with a innovative concept, obviously keen on self-promotion and attracting new clients. So why have such an embarrassing English blurb?

The answer of course is: They don't know it's bad. They had it translated in good faith (or they did it themselves. "Sonja, du warst doch 6 Monate in London"...) "Sounds okay, they'll think when confronted with the English version. Sounds good, yeah. Put it in." And whilst this is no way of going about, there is also not much you can do about it if you're not proficient yourself.

You're in the hands of your translator who by dint of certificates and clients served past and present, you have to trust. And that is the problem. Certificates gained long ago, esp. the much admired "Vereidigter Übersetzer"-tag will be of little value when, say, you need an innovative marketing concept translated into a foreign language.

Sadly, tranlators aren't very well paid, and will therefore never turn down an assignment they don't quite feel up to. Doggedly, they will leaf through their dictionaries (equally outdated, and certainly not able to cope with today's online vocabulary!) and hope for the best, i.e. that their client will just take what ever they produce. And unquestioningly use it in their promotional material ...and make a fool of themselves.

That is the predicament - and there's not much you can do about it. Demand better pay for translators, appeal to their ethos... it won't work. The market is disparate, and anybody (with or without certificate) can do their worst.

There simply aren't enough people with excellent language abilities, specialist knowledge, and a feel for good copywriting about.

Friday, 24 February 2012

How Important is a "Home Town"?

My last blog post "inspired" a Guardian journalist. I sincerely hope this current topic (my 50th on Intercultural Musings) won't be similarly picked up in tomorrow's paper!

When President Obama burst into an impromptu deliverance of "Sweet Home Alabama" recently, he felt obliged to change the lyrics to "Sweet Home Chicago" - obviously to emphasize that THAT was where his heart lay. Well, good for him, I say, at least he can be sure about his home.

Many people are not so lucky. I for one would be hard pressed to name anthing as a home town. Facebook, being American, takes it for granted that anybody has indeed got one...

But is it really that important? Does it really reflect on who you are just because you were born in X? One gets a bit bored with people saying "Well, I'm originally from Chortleworth, but am now living in Telford. Mind you, you can take the girl out of Chortleworth..." Yawn. There's a veritable cult about what is ultimately an arbitrary birth place. Fuelled recently even more by the indeed very "homely" Adele.

Even worse, I find, when people start imbibing the genius loci and say they're "proud" to be from XYZ. It really beats me how you can be proud of having been born (or gone to school) in an arbitrary location.
Maybe you could say "I'm proud to have lived through the shelling of Sarajevo and to have survived." But even here, gratetful would probably be a better word. But proud to be from Telford, Gelsenkirchen, Lille? Why? You didn't do anything to be proud of. It's just something that happened.

Most people would object to one saying "I'm proud to be blonde" - equally arbitrary. But a "proud" Lancastrian, Glaswegian, Bavarian is always welcome. People nod sagely and say yeah they're special those Lancastrians. They wouldn't say "yeah they're special those people with wonky noses", would they?

Sorry, after my latest experience, I have to be a bit cautious. Comment function is therefore disabled (this post only).

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

No Talking, Please! Germans on Twitter

I've written about the differences in intercultural social media usage before ( but a recent news headline that Twitter is growing exponentially in Germany leads me to dwell on the subject a bit more.

So after years and years of saying "Twitter - clearly overrated" and "That won't last" (their favourite standard put-downs to any new development) they've finally tagged onto the (somewhat spurious) idea that being on Twitter gives you social kudos, makes your "trändy", and lets you show off amongst your peer group.

I've been observing German twitterers for quite some time now - and my verdict is stark: They just don't know to to deal with Social Media. They excell at Foursquare, they try any trick in the book to up their Klout score, they like having masses of followers (and never mind that they're all trade related or want to sell an e-book). It's numbers and facts that count in Germany. My Klout score is..., I ousted xx as mayor... I bought a new iphoen XS2YZ -that's the Social Media currency that Gemans understand.

What they fundamentally do not see and get is the obvious (another characteristic of Germans in my experience - not seeing the wood for the trees), namely that Social Media is about communication.

Communication/conversation is a dark hole in German culture. For Germans, talking first and foremost means conveying information. And from that starting point, it isn't very far to "showing off with information which I 've got and you haven't". Conversation as a bonding agent in any form of interpersonal encounter is literally a non-starter in Germany. (If you've ever been to an awkward German office party where people have no problem with facing one another without saying a word for, oooh half an hour, you'll kow what I mean.)

Even the word "Konversation" has an entirely negative connotation in German, meaning "talking for the sake of it, not genuine". Talking, exchanging ideas, witty, light-hearted conversation is just simply not their forte.

At the moment, all kinds of articles on "The Purpose of Twitter", "Twitter to Up your Career Prospects", "Should Politicians be on Twitter" etc. abound - but the simple insight that Social Media means linking up to people conversationally, I fear, will for ever escape Germans.

For more information on the Art of Conversation, have a look at my book: Animated Conversations. Pfaffenweiler 1992.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Dickens and Pushkin as Saviours of National Identity

Wonderful. 200 years of Dickens. What could be nicer? Celebrations, BBC documentaries, author readings, competitions, blogs, biographies. Your favourite Dickens character? Your favourite Dickens novel? What would you have said to Dickens? What does Dickens mean to us in 2012?

Nice, if it wasn't so heavy-handed. It is so very obvious that poor old Dickens has his role to play in this "special year" for Britain: Jubilee, yeah, Olympic Games double yeah, Dickens yeah. Yeah us, Great Britain. And remember Dickens' Victorianism? Wasn't all hunky-dory then was it? People had it tough too, actually a lot tougher than you lot. Scavenging, no money, crime, alcoholism.. you name it, they had it. You've got it really good in comparison, so stop moaning and get ony with it. Best country in the word innit! So there.

1937, the height of Stalin's terror regime. Also, the centenary of Pushkin's death. An author who used to be labelled aristocratic and decadent now became a cultural figure of national identity. Kulturny'i were the people who read Pushkin, cultured folk, not backward peasants. And Stalin saw to it that everybody did indeed read Pushkin. And that every poet, writer, musician (Shostakovitch!) did their bit explainig why -oh yes indeed - Pushkin was their favourite poet. A national hero. The embodiment of the Russian soul. Legacy of what we're about. National source of Russianism, the essence of our literary heritage.

Pushkin sculptures sprang out of the ground next to the usual Lenin and Stalin ones. A literary figure became a national treasure. Pushkin's works became the ersatz-bible of the new state. Communist party, Stalin, Pushkin - your reference system if you're a modern Stalinist who loves his country. Hero of the masses.

Your favourite work by Pushkin? Err, sorry, Dickens!

Friday, 6 January 2012

Crisps - Interculturally

In France and Germany crisps are called "chips". But let's not worry about that at the moment. There are enough intercultural conundrums surrounding crisps, crisp eating and the attitudes towards them. You wouldn't think so, would you?

In Britain eating crisps is the most humdrum, every-day activity imaginable. Go to a Boots, and they're part of the "Meal-Deal". Go to a newsagent, and they're there, nicely stacked in a rack. In the supermarket, they come in huge sack-like multi-packs. Crisps are essentials.

A very different "crisp-scenario" presents itself in Germany. There, crisps are stashed away in the "snacks"area of the supermarket. The bags look uniform, and come in only one size- quite a large size, approx. 4 servings of a Walkers packet. And - especially signifcantly - they overwhelmingly come in ONE flavour: "Paprika", sometimes called "Hungarian". Which explains why Germans often call crisps generically "Paprika-Chips".

In Britain, there's prawn cocktail flavour, grilled steak, Marmite, salt and vinegar (one of the most popular of course), cheese and onion, ketchup... you name it. And in fact Walkers did just that with its Social Media campaign "Do Us A Flavour".( In Germany this exercise would have probably resulted in another paprika flavour! (That said, very recently, German producers have actually created some whacky flavours themselves, amongst them "Currywurst", Wasabi, or pumpkin oil flavour.) The French stick firmly to their No.1 flavour "salé" (ready salted.) Oh, and in Ireland life is really difficult if you're not a Cheese&Onion fan.

But the most surprising thing is, that Germans would not ever dream of eating crisps during the day. "Chips" are strictly for evenings. Offered to friends in a bowl, put on the table as a "TV snack", an ideal accompaniment to beer and football on the telly. (Not surprising you need those big bags!)

I find it fascinating that even such an ubiquitous thing as crisps has an unbuilt intercultural factor. Same thing, so many different habits, flavours, associations connected to it!