Election year – time to swat up on German politics

Before I became an expat I was well versed in politics. I read the broadsheets daily (usually at the top of a London bus on my way to work) and, when occasion called for it, I voiced a distinct opinion at dinner parties. So I find it embarrassing that after three years of living in Berlin, I remain relatively ignorant about contemporary German politics. I am well versed in the country’s history (19th and 20th centuries at least) but terribly vague about way the present state functions and current politic issues.

It could be that this is a typical expat experience. I know my American grandmother, who has lived in Britain for over 65 years, still prefers to read about American politics than that of our small fair isle. But now, in Berlin, the election is nearly upon us. The Euro crisis is bringing Germany’s role in Europe to centre stage. And everyone is talking about politics. It doesn’t look like we’ll be moving back to the UK anytime soon, so it is time, I think, to be able to join in.

In attempt to educate myself and to provide some useful information for other expats in Germany, in my next few posts, I shall attempt to tackle: (1) Germany’s political system; (2) the main German political parties and (3) Germany in the wider context of the EU. My musings will only fleetingly touch on the historic, and mostly be told from an expat perspective – that being what it feels important to me to know, rather than the nitty gritty of every last detail. And I hope these posts will not be quite as dry as they threaten to be.  Continue reading

Comparing Germany and France and…

There was a time when I thought certain practices and cultural quirks were uniquely German (or Austrian or Swiss), but as I traveled around Europe more and more, I realized that some “German” things are actually European things. The fear of a draft or breeze, for instance, or tense and aggressive driving, and other cultural traits that differ from those in North America.

And yet there are also some interesting differences among the people in the various European countries. I was just in France for about a week. (And mostly without internet access in a remote area, which explains why this blog is a day late.) My wife and I drove across much of Germany, but as soon as we crossed the German-Belgian border (which is barely marked, by the way) I noticed a difference in driving styles on the autobahn (or whatever the Belgians call it). Since, unlike in Germany, there is a speed limit on freeways (130 km/h, or 80 mph) in Belgium (and most European countries), you don’t have to worry about someone suddenly coming out of nowhere in the left lane, doing literally 100 mph (161 km/h) as they zoom past you like you were standing still. In Germany you really need to look twice before venturing into the fast lane! Continue reading

The Naked Truth

There was one very significant event that I happened to omit from my last blog, regarding my recent trip to Davos.  In truth, I just wasn’t quite ready to talk about it yet. The incident was somewhat traumatizing, or at least severely uncomfortable, and it left me feeling as though all of the acclimatizing and adapting I had accomplished over the last five years in Europe, was for nothing. Deep breath: I will now go ahead and tell you the tale of three young Canadian women who attempted to spend an afternoon . . . at a Swiss wellness center!

Continue reading

Go Forth and Reproduce

It’s a fact: Germany needs babies. The generous welfare system of this social democracy needs young people to work hard and pay enough taxes to support the rest of society. One problem: young people are too busy working to bother with raising the next generation of workers. How to solve it? Pay them to reproduce!

Ok, it sounds like really tacky social engineering when I put it that way. Let me try again. Continue reading

A 400-pound gorilla named Germany

Anyone who has followed the evolution of Germany and the European Union for as long as I have may be forgiven for thinking that Germany would always be the EU’s biggest supporter – in more ways than one. But lately, there have been signs that the gradual progression from the old Common Market of the 1960s to the EU and eventually on to a United States of Europe may be a much bumpier road than many once thought.

In the past, German policy regarding the EU reflected Germany’s history and the destruction of Europe caused by Nazi Germany. Along with the rest of Europe, German leaders realized that a unified Europe would help avoid the national conflicts that had so often led to European wars of conquest from ancient times on into the 20th century. In 1952, post-World War II German guilt and common sense led to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) by six countries: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. That modest beginning would lead to the “Common Market” (Treaty of Rome, 1958) and the European Community (EC) in 1967. By 1993, only a few years after German reunification, the 12 EC countries formed the more robust European Union (EU). Today the EU has 27 member states with a total population of about 500 million. Continue reading

Vacation versus Urlaub

I was recently reminded of how much vacation time Germans get. I sent an email to a gentleman at a German publishing house with whom I had been corresponding, only to get a reply from his secretary that read: “Danke für Ihr Mail an Herrn K. Hier nur ein Zwischenbescheid: Herr K ist zur Zeit im Urlaub.” (“Thanks for your email to Herr K. Here just an interim notice: Herr K is on vacation.”)

What was I thinking? Trying to contact a German business person in mid-July or August? The whole country goes on vacation in the summer. (That’s in addition to the week or two they spent in Greece, Spain or Turkey during the winter.) Northern Europeans live to see the sun in the summer that they never saw all winter! Germans can fly to the US for a four-week summer vacation, with all of that time being paid annual leave. Continue reading

“On Se Won Händ”

Ripped from the headlines in Germany, YouTube has shamed and ridiculed yet another public figure, this time former Baden-Württemberg’s Minister President and now Germany’s European Union Commissioner, Günther Oettinger.

The widely circulated video is of Oettinger painfully stumbling through a speech clearly neither drafted nor rehearsed by him. The point of the speech, recently held in Berlin at a Columbia University hosted event, and Mr Oettinger’s main message as the new EU Energy Commissioner are unfortunately lost, overshadowed instead by Mr Oettinger’s inability to pronounce many of the more “challenging” words such as “justifiable,” “interference,” and “initiative” and making other words such as “does” and “otherwise” unrecognizable. Already known for his rather distinctive way of speaking in German (read here: he has a very heavy Swabian accent), Oettinger managed to “swabianize” English. The well-known Baden-Württemberg tagline, “we can do everything except speak high German” has been refashioned by commentators to, “wir können alles außer Hochdeutsch – und Englisch!” along with the terms “schwänglisch” and “Spätzle-Englisch.” What made this all the more humiliating perhaps is that the YouTube video included footage of Mr Oettinger emphasizing how all Germans, regardless of their profession, must be able to speak and understand English.

Continue reading

Make Prosperity, Not War

For Americans that grew up during the Cold War (like me) or are interested in modern history, coming to Germany can be an eye-opening experience.  I’m not talking about the events of the Cold War itself, but the fact that so many threats that we were told about as children are now so much closer.

Russian tanks? Less than one day from my house.  Rogue nuclear nations?  Half the distance from me as from the shores of the US.  Wars in the Middle East and Central Asia?   Why… those can be just a car ride away!

Continue reading