As I write this, I am two weeks into a holiday with the children in my hometown of Hull, in Yorkshire, North England. Beyond it being wonderful to catch up with family and old friends, it has provided interesting opportunity to reflect on a few cultural and social differences between here and Berlin. Now we all know generalisations are just that – so excuse me a few now…
These northern English cities are renowned for their friendliness. Berlin is not. But with time, I have come to realise that Berliners (or to speak more broadly – Germans) are not unfriendly – (in most cases far from it) – rather that they lack the ability of making easy small talk.
Walk into a shop in Yorkshire, and you’ll ‘generally’ be asked how you are; have a brief chat about the weather and perhaps even an exchange about the quality of the product you’re buying. And how I relish these genuine conversations. Through them I’ve found out about the best latest local restaurant, which fishmongers to frequent and that my children look like so-and-so’s children who usually comes in on a Tuesday. They’re ever so interesting. In Berlin, there will be a formal greeting ‘Guten Tag‘ and a formal goodbye ‘Schoenen Tag noch‘. More is unlikely.
In supermarkets here I find it near impossible to shake off Berlin mode – dashing to the end of the conveyer belt and throwing my things haphazard into a big bag in the vain hope the shop assistant will not start hurtling the next customer’s goods into the same pile as mine. But in Hull, my efforts are wasted. Help is readily offered by another staff member, standing smiling at the end of the aisle. He or she will not only help me pack up my purchases, but also whisk away my heavy shopping into a chilled storage room until I’ve been to all the other shops and am ready to pick up the groceries round the back with my car. After three years in Berlin, this feels remarkably luxurious.
The Yorkshire grass, however, is not always greener. I am shocked by the layers of plastic packaging on my, albeit neatly packed, supermarket goods. The shelves may be better stocked with a wider range of readymade meals for one and little fussy punnets of unseasonable fruit from too far away, but all this only makes it harder to find the truly local seasonal produce which there surely must be. And the proximity and array of the single organic shop leave a lot to be desired. Perhaps as a result, people look noticeably unhealthier – heavier around the middles and of a pastier pallor. My observations are anecdotal but I am pretty sure the statistics would back me up in saying people here eat fewer vegetables and get less exercise!
On warm days Yorkshire children don’t get swathed in suncream and sun hats in quite the same way. Then on chilly days, they run around in the same strappy summer dresses and short sleeved t-shirts showing off their goose pimples instead of their sunburn this time – and we’re talking about the kind of temperatures in which Berlin kids would be wearing woolly hats and windproof jackets. Let’s say my children stand out at the playground at the moment.
So it is with mixed emotions that our holiday draws to a close. I will take back to Berlin the spirit of good Yorkshire small talk to unashamedly try out in even the frostiest of bakeries and look forward to knowing that every mother at the playground has both spare suncream and a spare hat – just in case I, with my heart still in Yorkshire, have forgotten mine.