Last weekend I met a lovely elderly lady up in Norwich who had lived in Germany after the Second World War. Anabel is my flatmate’s mum and she studied German to become a language teacher later on back in the UK. It was amazing talking to somebody who had experienced the period of reconstruction as a foreigner, and I was glad to realise that she had very good memories of it.
“It really made a big impression on me how quickly reconstruction went,” Anabel said, “everybody seemed to be working very hard. Now if you compare that with what happened in this country” – she chuckled – “well, that’s probably the old thing with us and the Germans.”
Remarks like this always strike me as surprising because I still assume that the English see the Germans first and foremost as fascistic troublemakers. Before I moved to the UK I thought that people in Britain didn’t like Germans, that they saw them as a fussy and stressful bunch of weirdos with a funny accent, and I felt inferior in the face of “Cool Britannia”.
Hence my astonishment that the image of the Germans is actually quite a positive one in this country, one of outstanding builders and extraordinary engineers. First I thought people simply wanted to make me feel comfortable by not mentioning the war but talking about German efficiency. It used to make me feel uneasy, like I was getting praised for somebody else’s achievements. And, to be honest, if I was ever asked to demonstrate my bridge construction or house building abilities it is more than likely that the result would be rather disappointing.
However, I would be a liar to deny that remarks like this do make me irrationally proud. Last year in December I went to the Christmas Market in Leeds which is run by a German company. We went to a small restaurant called “Alp Chalet” and had Kartoffelrösti with salmon. My boyfriend praised the food, praised the beer – and then praised the wooden construction of the restaurant.
I felt pleased but tried to make a joke by saying: “That’s German engineering power for you!”
“Very impressive,” he nodded, without a trace of mockery.
…or so I believe, because, who knows, with these English and their dry humour you can never be quite sure. I do have reason to suspect there are subtle layers of irony that are simply incomprehensible for a German like me…