Things I learned about the Germans after a fortnight living as a non–tourist in Frankfurt:
1. Germans, and Germany generally, are among the world’s most underrated things. True they are not so adept at wit, snark, banter, jocularity or general frivolity. But they are kind, welcoming, generous and unlike, say, the French, charmingly grateful when you attempt to speak their quaint, guttural, impossibly inflected language even though — stimmt! — they speak yours so much better.
2. Here’s what happened when I lost my wallet. I got back to my hotel — cursing each step of the way the hours I would have to spend cancelling and re-ordering my cards — to find a message from the front desk. A young man had found my wallet while jogging in the park and had tracked me down via my hotel key card. He could deliver it at my convenience. Ten minutes later (this was 11 p.m.), a tall handsome German, whom I imagine would have been perfect Panzer-grenadier material a few years back, delivered my wallet. I had to work hard to press a €20 note (all I had) on him as a reward. He said: ‘I am only doing what I hope others would do to me in this situation.’ Dankeschön, Herr Linder!
3. Don’t mention the war, like I did just then. They find it really upsetting, even when you mention it in jest or by way of illustration of how far we have come since.
4. Squirrels. This is possibly the most amazing thing of all. In their parks, instead of scruffy, malign, invasive grey squirrels like we have, they have red squirrels. Actual red squirrels. Everywhere — as if they have no idea how rare and special they are supposed to be.
5. Germans find it very hard to say sorry. Not that they are ungracious. Just that the word Entschuldigung has four syllables. See also: pen (Kugelschreiber), speed limit (Gesch-win-digkeitsbeschränkung), etc.
6. When you read another story in the British papers about a knife attack on a German train or at a festival by someone yelling ‘Allah Akbar!’ you think, well they’ve probably got used to it by now, what with the 1.5 million who Angela Merkel invited in with the glib assertion that ‘Wir schaffen das’ (We can handle it). But actually this is not the case. Ordinary Germans are no more used to or accepting of such cultural enrichment than ordinary Britons. If I could sum up the general mood it would be something like ‘shellshocked’. Or even, ‘Let’s pretend it’s not happening’. You do see one or two immigrants who are obviously becoming well-integrated, and these are welcomed with characteristic German tolerance and kindness. But you also see an awful lot who haven’t — in the town centres with begging signs or just hanging out aimlessly or smoking in shisha bars or lurking in those parts of the park where you’d rather not tread.
7. Germans are generally better dressed than we are. The men have perfected a look which is smart yet informal: slim–fitting casual trousers tapering at the bottom, sharply tailored jacket, aggressively crisp patterned shirt open at the neck.
8. And the women! I can’t recall a city where I last saw so many 8s, 9s and 10s wandering around unawares, as if blonde statuesque beauty was entirely the norm. Which in Germany it probably is.
9. Medical care in Germany must be a good ten, 15 years ahead of ours. They love their technology but they’re also imbued with a deep passion for all things organic and natural (an obsession you can trace from German Romanticism through the Nazis to the modern Green movement). Their medical care is at once state-of-the-art and deeply sympathetic. And don’t get me started on German nurses: there is simply no being on earth who you would rather have expertly, yet so gently and painlessly sliding a needle into your vein and then inserting the cannula for your next IV drip.
10. The trains still run on time. The system relies on no one trying to dodge their fares. And of course, being German, no one does.
11. If you want to really see Germans confused and upset, just catch their expressions as you cross the road when the pedestrian sign is still on red.
12. One of their few concessions to naughtiness is driving their overpowered German cars stupidly fast, even in town. What’s the point of all that engineering technology if you’re not going to enjoy it?
13. Sundays are still sacred in Germany. All the shops are closed, all day. This is charming and nostalgia-inducing and it’s lovely to watch the Germans at play on a Sunday, making the most of their officially sanctioned, nay sacred, special family or leisure time. Still a damned nuisance if you need to buy something, though. I got sunburnt cruising the Rhine on Saturday and couldn’t go out at all on Sunday because nowhere was open to sell me either a hat or some suncream. (You don’t expect to get sunburnt in Germany in September, do you?)
14. Germans love their forests. It’s a legacy of Arminius, who wiped out three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in 9ad, even though he hasn’t been taught in schools since the war (too nationalistic).
15. Because Germans pretty much invented electronic dance music with Kraftwerk it is much more ubiquitous, even in staid settings like the German equivalent of the Peter Jones café.
And don’t mention the war. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it…