There was a delay on one of the underground lines in Berlin a few weeks ago because a homeless man had fallen asleep on the tracks. Security personnel rushed to the scene and the man was woken up. Bewildered, he growled at the passengers staring at him. He was escorted off the platform but it all took time. There was a short delay before service resumed.
Meanwhile, a public announcement had urged passengers to take alternative routes. I got on another train which would take me close to where I needed to go. Sitting opposite me were two little girls, aged about nine and eleven, who had also been waiting for the first train. We’d barely been on the second for five minutes when it was announced that “Service has now resumed on the U8.”
The smaller of the girls pursed her lips and shook her head, disgusted. “What an absolute joke,” she said. “Why didn’t they announce that it would only take five minutes to clear the line?” The other rolled her eyes and sighed. “This kind of thing is always occurring. It’s a farce.”
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. First of all, the transport system in Berlin is the single best I have ever encountered. And second, here were two tiny German girls complaining about bad service in language so adult and earnest that it was comical.
This, I thought is the difference between the Germans and the Irish.
I imagined a similar situation in Ireland, where a conversation might have gone like this: “Jaysus, the poor fella. Did you get a look at him? Lucky somebody saw him and he wasn’t driven over … Jaysus! Sure we’ll be fashionably late. It’ll be grand sure. We’ve a story to tell.”
As our economy wilts and theirs prospers, it’s worth examining what makes the Germans German and the Irish Irish. I’m in a rather convenient position to do so, being half of each.
People here tell me that when I begin to complain habitually about everything, I can be called a “Berliner.”
Complaining in Germany, as in Ireland is a national hobby. The difference here is that complaints are taken seriously.
The reason that complaints are taken seriously is that responsibility is too. When you go to a ticket vendor or to buy a hot dog, you’re served with the same level of attention as you are in a bank or a lawyer’s office.
Some time ago, I was working on a story about low wage workers and got talking to a middle-aged woman selling hot dogs on the street. “I take my job seriously,” she told me, after she spoke perfect English while serving some American tourists. “I want people to enjoy their food.” She was earning about six euro an hour and was finding it hard to make ends meet.
Sincerity too is an integral part of the German mindset. If you say “We must meet up for a coffee. I’ll give you a call in the next couple of days,” it means that you will certainly arrange a date within three working days.
Shortly after I moved into my apartment, I made my flatmate dinner. It was vegetarian Shephard’s Pie and I was worried that it hadn’t turned out well. As we sat down to eat it, he took a few mouthfuls and said nothing. I was nervous. Perhaps it wasn’t to his taste. I waited for a while and then tentatively asked whether the food was alright.
“It’s delicious,” he said.
“Then why didn’t you say anything?” I cried.
“Well I had to wait to taste it properly,” he said. “It would have been insincere to say it was nice straightaway.”
I thought about that for a long time.
While the Germans are responsible, reliable and sincere, the Irish are compassionate, humorous and wily.
When my parents visited me recently, they were a little slow in buying their train ticket at the machine. A woman in her twenties standing behind cursed at them and shoved them out of the way. I would like to think that in Ireland, she would have given them a hand. For all its Celtic Tiger madness, Ireland has remained a place, where, as my mother so nicely puts it, “eejits and eccentrics are well tolerated.”
Before I moved to Berlin, my boyfriend made me a mix tape which included two anthems to remind me of home. One of them is the speech Enda Kenny made to welcome Barack Obama to the country and the other is the lament, with mandolin accompaniment, performed by Joe Duffy following Thiery Henri’s handball in 2009, which crushed Ireland’s dream of qualifying for the World Cup.
The latter is ridiculous and hilarious and features lines such as “Will You be Out of Favour To Sell Gillette Razors?” and “It’s a pity for the South African nation without us at their world celebration.” Enda’s speech on the other hand, is so full of passion and pride that it’s hard not to feel a pang of affection for the little nation, which despite falling to pieces, has still managed to maintain a healthy dose of national pride.
While the Irish might champion mediocrity, they do it with charm. Ireland is like the child in the psychological experiment that gobbled up the single marshmallow, despite knowing that if it had waited, it would have received two. Germany is the child that waits for the second marshmallow but wonders whether, by the same principle, it would make more sense to continue to wait rather than to enjoy the two already gained.
The Irish are wily and endearingly naive. We wouldn’t quite call ourselves dishonest but we’d settle on being creative with the truth: the stuff of brown envelopes, dodgy property deals, shifty politicians and the Catholic Church. On the other hand, it’s also the kind of opportunistic cleverness that bagged Enda a meeting with the Chinese Vice President last February, made Jedward into national icons and allows some to hold fast to the belief that we really, really, really can win the Euros.
If we could learn accountability and responsibility from the Germans and teach them to kick back and remember that everything – probably will be grand in the end – we’d both be better off. Instead, they’ll be bailing us out for decades and we’ll be telling jokes to numb the pain.
Really enjoyed this piece. Your blog alerts in my inbox really brighten up my day! I love your take on the world around you, so observant and questioning.
The thought of the Germans waiting for marshmallows really made me laugh!
Thank you so much, Prasina! You have brightened up my evening in turn! Sometimes the writing comes and other times, the words get stuck in a rut and it’s so wonderfully worth the slog when somebody says that they enjoy it! I wonder whether, in a third possibility, Germans would consider marshmallows worth waiting for at al!
Brilliant. Genuinely one of your best!
Ah thanks Gorgebag! “You’re biased..and DESPITE that….” I hope you like the mix tape inclusion! I have goggle eyes from staring at a screen now and my banana chips are almost all gone!
You have really captured the essence of the two nations brilliantly.
Maybe it takes a mongrel like yourself to describe it so succinctly. However, Germany is a big country, and the mentality in Southern Germany is a bit different from that in Berlin.
It’s true of course. I couldn’t ever write a truly representative piece. Sometime you should write a guest post for me with the title “Ode to Bavaria!” . I like being a mongrel. It gives me a chance to justify that I don’t quite fit in anywhere when of course, being a mongrel probably has nothing to do with it 🙂
That’s the Irish half of you speaking here – compassionate and humour injected within your piece. Exactly why I enjoy your blog and your outlook in life. But I have to say the few times I went to Germany – in 2003, 2007 and 2010 – I had very good experience and there was once a german who volunteered to guide me when I was struggling with the reading of the map at the train station. So I guess, it’s a little of luck really – wherever you go – the people are the one who reflects the culture of the country so when one is lucky, one will have good memories of the place, if not, well, I am sure one will advise their friends and family back home not to go there again :p
PS: It was an enjoyable read before bedtime yesterday and was urged to write my comments first thing this morning 😀
Of course you’re right. I’ve met wonderful and helpful people here too. All of this is really subjective and I’m gathering new experiences all the time. One thing that surprised me is that now that I’m here, I feel more German than Irish. Usually moving to a new place would evoke the opposite feeling.
Don’t underestimate the value of seeing the bigger picture! Im the kind of person that always notices the sane piece of gum on a pavement but couldnt tell you what area of the city Im in or what direction is north!
Thank you so much for your encouragement and comments. They mean so much. 🙂