I’ve always liked German people. Below their reserved manner lies genuine warmth and I guess that combination appeals to me. In Germany I frequently encounter a kind of matter-of-fact-ness, whether someone is refusing or helping. It seems to me a uniquely German approach: things must be done properly and rules must be followed, but within these parameters generosity and kindness abound.
I was swimming in the Temple of Dreams (officially known as the Stadtbad Neukölln) in Berlin and four laps in my locker key fell off my wrist. The buckled bracelet slipped open and I watched it sink to the bottom of the pool.
It was a really deep pool. I checked – three metres. The tiling was a beautiful dark blue, shadowy at the bottom, and for a split second of panic I felt like my key (and the personal belongings it signified) had sunk to the depths of the ocean. Dive down and get it, I said to myself. But my diving technique lacks, shall we say, technique. The pool attendant will help me, I thought.
“Dive down and get it,” he said.
“I tried but I can’t,” I said. “Do you have any way of reaching it?”
He shrugged. “Ask him, or him, or him,” pointing at several men in the pool and looking at me as though he thinks I’m short of a few.
This is one of those tiny interactions where in Australia, or even England, I would expect a refusal to be couched in politeness. “Sorry, love, but we don’t have any way of getting it for you. How about you ask that bloke over there?”
I’m not saying that Germans are rude and Australians are lovely, that’s not the case, it’s just one of these differences of manner found in different cultures.
Back in the pool, I paddled over to a guy holding onto the block.
“Entschuldigung,” I said with my best smile, and explained my problem in English.
“Well,” he said, “I am a former freediver.”
I mean, really.
He was down and back in a flash, key in hand. He proceeded to explain that three metres is the deepest you should dive without equipment, and showed me how to dive properly, but before setting off again I got out and hid my key under a bench.
In part, this is simply a story of a foreign encounter. Interactions in unfamiliar places, where unknown languages are spoken, and unknown cultural norms are practiced always feel bigger and more vivid to me. Everything is charged with newness and uncertainty. Eventually multiple interactions accumulate into my overall impression of that culture.
A few weeks earlier I was exploring Erlangen, a town just south of Forchheim where Ian and I were staying with Tessa.
I was looking for a contemporary art gallery listed in the tourist book but the information was a little confusing. Eventually I found a building where a discreet silver sign labelled ‘Kunst Museum’ told me I was in the right place.
Inside was a florist and some closed doors and no art. But here was a partially open gate at the entrance to some stairs. I took a chance. Some mail lay on a step and in the doorway I could see a pile of odds and ends, an old sheet, a tin of paint. This can’t be right, I thought, and nearly turned around. But then I saw an old man sitting at a desk in the foyer.
“Is this the kunst museum?” I said, hesitantly. Through another doorway I could see several watercolours propped against a wall. It wasn’t a wild guess.
He spoke very broken English so we stumbled through, trying to understand each other. It was – or it wasn’t? They had art, yes. But there was no art. I was mystified. He stood up behind the desk, he was tall with thick white hair.
“I would like to look at the art?” All my statements were rising into questions.
“Here,” he gestured towards the three watercolours propped against the wall. “You can look at these.”
We stood and looked at them, silently.
Then he seemed to make a decision. He showed me into the next room where small artworks lay in a line on the floor. Gradually his manner warmed and he explained that this was a recent exhibition that had just come down. It was unclear when the next exhibition would go up. In three months time? Every three months?
“This one is a joke,” he bent down and pointed at a small drawing that showed two animals with speech bubbles. He tried to translate the German. One was asking the other why it was doing something and the other was saying it was doing this other thing. I didn’t get it.
After a few awkward minutes of looking at the art and trying to communicate, he returned to his desk. A moment later he was back.
“There is something else,” he said. “This way.”
Back down the stairs, then another set of stairs, we came to a big white door in the basement.
“The collection,” he explained.
Rows of floor-to-ceiling sliding gates were hung with paintings, and the floor was covered with moody black and white sketches. This was the official collection of the Erlangen Art Society: art from the Nuremberg metropolitan region from 1946 onwards. There was an enormous variety of paintings, from traditional picturesque through abstract modern to contemporary photo-realist.
“How long will you need?” My increasingly generous guide asked.
“How long do I have?” I countered.
He left me there, with what is probably a fairly expensive and certainly culturally valuable asset, for half an hour without supervision. Apparently I look trustworthy.
I realised later that it was Monday and museums in the area are closed on Mondays. Even if there had been an exhibition at that time it would have been closed. How’s that for generosity.