Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Discreet Charms of the German Speaking World

I was thinking the other day about an Austrian lake where we stopped a couple of summers ago, during the years we lived in London. We'd been there once before, but the village we'd visited had grown since then. Dozens of hotels had sprung up, all built in the same Alpine style, all offering the usual nonsense of that part of the world - lymph-drainage sessions and bio-nourritur, trachten clothing, some kind of therapy involving hot stones. And every available surface in all of the new establishments - just like the old ones -  was littered with pointless 'decorative' objects that were either covered in cross-stitch banalities or made from woven corn. Winsomeness abounded - even our doonas were folded each morning into the shape of hearts:

(I didn't think you'd believe me, without visual evidence.)

On the first morning of our stay, we walked all down one side of the lake, along a narrow stony track that became quite steep in places and where some butterflies we'd never seen before kept landing on our older daughter each time she tried to photograph anything. After a couple of hours, we reached a place where a ferry stopped. There was a building where you could buy lunch beside the ferry stop and, of course, it was swarming with people.

Anyway, we found a table and got ourselves some lunch and ate it and the thing that struck me was the thing that always strikes me in that part of the world - how, despite the same kind of crowding you get at any seaside resort on a sunny day, there was still a level of civilisation that the inhabitants of the British Isles in particular seem to be finding it harder and harder to achieve in similar situations.

One of the reasons for this was that no compromise had been made about the crockery - no-one had decided that it would be quite all right to serve food from polystyrene or paper. This attitude had extended to the furniture. All the tables were made of wood. Formica was unheard of there. In fact, the whole building was wooden, and, although only built in the last five years, it made no attempt to look modern, (while at the same time not being self-consciously old-fashioned). It was simply put together with a 'this is how we've always done it because it works' matter-of-factness. It wasn't shouting about itself into the surrounding landscape; it was just being there, something some architects I've met seem to think is almost a sin. A building should be making a statement, according to them - and that statement can't be, 'I like the way things are'.

Perhaps as a result of all this - being given decent things to eat from and a pleasant place to sit  - the people around us all displayed remarkably good manners. There wasn't a sense that grabbing the best table and yelling across the room to your mates to come and join you was fine. No-one was so noisy that it was impossible to ignore them. No-one appeared to be drunk. There were no tattoos on view either, although that must have been a mere fluke - the tattoo has spread everywhere surely.

It is still unfashionable to like the German-speaking world, and there is so much about it that is deeply unfashionable (not least the cross stitch and the woven wheat objects). Even so, I have a deep, if slightly bemused, affection for it. I find myself looking back on interludes like that lunch on a wooden terrace beside a wooden building next to a lake as not exciting or cutting edge but exceptionally pleasant and civilised - qualities you usually have to pay for, if you can find them at all, in many English speaking countries.

And, having lived in Austria for several years, I do know that life there is not unadulterated heaven. There is a trade-off for the things I regard as positives: you have to put up with the prevailing civic expectation for 'correctness', which at times you find being explained to you in quite an uninhibited, even aggressive, manner, especially if you are trying to do anything with small children. All the same, the German speaking world - or rather Germany and Central Europe, (and, while I recognise Central Europe contains many non-German speaking countries,  I would argue that they can be included because they retain the influence of a German-speaking culture, absorbed during their time as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) - has still got something that we have at least temporarily mislaid. Or perhaps it is that they lack something - our mania for change for its own sake.

Which is why I do catch myself sometimes thinking about that other world of Germany and Central Europe and wondering  if we/the (I was born a dual national) British have allowed too many compromises to be made in the name of convenience and progress and,  if we have, when, how and, most importantly, given that I don't think any of us have really  benefited, why?


  1. My son had an Austrian boyfriend for a while, I absolutely adored him and was much more heartbroken that my son when his visa ran out and he had to return home. He was the most well mannered young man I've ever met; he always stood up whenever I entered the room. I liked that so much I used to go in and out several times just to watch him pop up and stand to attention ;-)

  2. PS: where can I find instructions about how to fold my doona into a heart shape?

  3. You made me laugh, Nurse, but I still can't reveal the heart shape secret - I need several pieces of cross stitch and corn weaving from your fair hand before I am permitted to pass on that kind of secret Austrian women's business

  4. I didn't know those corn husk dolls were German - but it must have been a meeting of the minds (a collective archetype?) between the Germans (Pennsylvania Dutch) and the American Indians, because both are credited with their invention.

  5. And now you can spread the confusion by teaching the Chinese how to make them - and then they can flood the German speaking world with their cheap facsimiles

  6. "...not exciting or cutting edge but exceptionally pleasant and civilised - qualities you usually have to pay for, if you can find them at all, in many English speaking countries."

    Too true.
    Does this make anyone else sad?

  7. Hello Karen, it makes me sad, but that's probably because I will never be exciting or cutting edge myself.