6 things I’ve learned about Germany by editing The Local

With his tenure as editor of The Local coming to an end, Tom Barfield looks back at two years that have changed the way he sees Germany.

6 things I've learned about Germany by editing The Local
The Local's outgoing editor Tom Barfield with a German flag. Photos: Marle-Christine Schindler on Flickr/Tom Barfield

It's a sad day for me as I tidy up my desk and prepare to move on to my next adventure after The Local.

But it's also a great opportunity to look back over the last two years of goings-on in Germany – ranging from political dynamite to slapstick comedy.

Here's just six things I'll take away from running the greatest news site for expats in the whole Federal Republic.

1. In normal times, Germany can be a sleepy place

If you're determined enough, it's even possible to sleep at Munich Oktoberfest. Photo: DPA

When I walked into the Berlin offices of The Local back in mid-2014, things in Germany looked very different from the way they do today.

In fact, on some days it was quite a challenge to find interesting or exciting news stories to bring you, given how sleepy the country felt that summer.

Our most-read articles included how young children were leaving Germany to join Isis – itself just officially declared a terrorist organization by the German government.

A worthy topic, perhaps – but one that was not all that far ahead of the sexiest wives and girlfriends of Germany's world cup-winning stars.

It often felt like German politics and public life are designed to be functional… but also a little on the dull side.

2. Germans really, really love the Queen

I moved to Germany from France, where I had attended several of the events during Queen Elizabeth II's state visit in summer 2014.

Given the secret admiration the French have for all things British, it was easy to predict the cheering crowds lining the streets as Her Maj paraded around in her Rolls Royce.

But it was perhaps more surprising to see the same scenes repeated when the British royals came to Berlin and Frankfurt one year later.

“The thing [Germans] love is the monarchy,” Victoria Ade-Genschow of The British Berliner blog explained to me later. “They don't like [British] sport, the food… but there's a lot of respect for the Queen.”

Maybe that's the only reason they're all so keen to keep the UK in the European Union.

3. Germany remains a country of sharp divides

Fireworks explode at the Brandenburg Gate on the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Photo: DPA

Coming from a highly-centralized country like Britain, it's hard to grasp from a distance how diverse a big federal country like Germany can be.

Sure, we might have our accents and the different nations of the UK – but by and large things will feel familiar across different cities and regions.

Not so in Germany, where everything from street signs to the colour of the trams in the streets to whether it's illegal to dance on holy days can vary from state to state.

There's no doubt that all Germans feel German, as was more than clear during the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, when I interviewed people from all over the country who were celebrating.

And unlike the Scottish Nationalists, the pro-independence Bavarian Party isn't all that serious.

But put a Bavarian and a Hamburger in a room and there's a good chance you'll end up with a shouting match.

It's about more than differences of opinion, too – there are serious material differences in how well-off and happy people are, especially between the former East and West despite decades of investment.

4. Germans don't speak the German you learn in school

Image: Sabine Devins

Coming from a school and university background of learning German through the news media and the works of novelists, poets and philosophers, I thought that I would hit the ground running with my language skills.

But while I was able get by straight away, there are very few Germans who speak in the slightly formal and even academic language that gets used in the papers.

In fact, German teens are always coming up with new words – like 2015's Youth Word of the Year, 'smombie' – or adapting English ones to fit into the ever-evolving lexicon of Denglisch.

And things get even more complicated when you start travelling around.

Speaking with people from north Germany can be an exercise in ambiguity and frustration – while failing to understand Bavarian dialect could even land you with a hefty fine in Munich.

And don't even get me started on Baden-Württemberg, where the state motto is “We can do anything except High German”.

Image: Land Baden-Württemberg

5. German efficiency isn't always what it's cracked up to be

Volkswagen workers in the car giant's home of Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony. Photo: DPA

One perennial feature of German public life is massive public works projects that come in late and over-budget.

The most flagrant of these is Berlin's new airport, now almost six years late and billions in the red.

One planner recently said that the blighted scheme may never open, while a PR chief was fired for calling the entire thing a “shit-show”.

You could also think of the terrible state of the German army's equipment, from aircraft to the rifles in soldiers' hands.

Or take a look at Deutsche Bahn's year of labour relations horror in 2014-15, culminating in train drivers walking out on strike for six days in May last year before workers and bosses reached an agreement.

The other extreme of the spectrum is when the engineers get a little too clever for their own good and find themselves manipulating emissions stats for millions of cars.

That's what happened at Volkswagen over the past few years – resulting in billions set aside for compensation and fines even as bosses refused to forego their multi-million bonuses.

6. Germans are ready to pitch in when it counts

People form a human chain to pass supplies at Munich train station in September 2015. Photo: DPA

The unavoidable big story of the past couple of years has been the refugee crisis.

And what is particularly striking about it is just how open the Germans were to taking in large numbers of people compared with their neighbours.

Germany took in over 1 million people in 2015 while other big European countries like Britain and France quibbled over tens of thousands.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the country have volunteered to help, whether by working for NGOs or in refugee accommodation, through the country's churches and Christian aid organizations, by travelling to the Mediterranean to save people from drowning, or by taking refugees into their own homes.

I pitched in in a tiny way by joining a band made up of refugees and expats in Berlin to raise money.

Yes, the refugee crisis has breathed new life into anti-immigration movements like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) or Dresden-based anti-Islam demonstrators from Pegida.

It's sapped the popularity of mainstream politicians like Chancellor Angela Merkel and cost her party dear in elections.

And there are questions to be asked about how refugees are integrated into German society, whether they will return to their home countries eventually and the questionable European deal with Turkey to keep more from coming.

But the fact remains that ordinary people in Germany pushed their leaders to live the values that their country and its laws and institutions have always claimed to stand for – and succeeded.

Final thoughts

Photo: Jon Aslund on Flickr

There are so many more things that I could mention about what I've learned from two years living here and reporting the news in Germany.

I could mention the country's wacky and closely-held traditions, its glorious, underappreciated food, and the quiet revolution going on in Germans' relationship with their national drink, beer.

Or we could talk about the staggering number of weird police reports we've covered from all over the Federal Republic, from a parrot caught speeding by a police radar gun to the man who lost a hearse in central Munich – complete with a body.

Germany is an enormous, diverse, internationally important and culturally unique country that rewards exploration and plunging into new experiences.

I hope that we've helped you to discover some of that while I've been at the helm.

If you'd like to follow Tom on his further adventures, you can find him on Twitter at @tombarfield.

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