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!