why i like germans

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.

doing the continental

Some days Europe is surprisingly, almost shockingly, small. Other days you travel cross-country by train from Bruges to Munich and it takes twelve hours and you think, who knew it could take more than three hours to get anywhere in Europe?

Admittedly, some of those hours were spent on unmoving trains and platforms (also unmoving). We had just enjoyed a couple of days in Belgium where the temps had been pushing 30 degrees, and it only got warmer as we travelled into Germany. After cool weather in the UK I felt like we’d crossed more than just the channel.

When I’m in transit, I wear as many of my clothes as possible without looking like Bernard Black on his way to Oxfam, and up until now this has worked perfectly. It’s cold, I’m layered up, and my bag is ever so slightly lighter. 8:00am at the train station in Bruges and I’m already regretting the thick jumper, coat and long pants. I shed within the bounds of decency but all the way to Brussels the sun beats through the window and we change to our next train as hot as ever.

At Frankfurt the delays begin. The midday sun beams into the hangar-like Hauptbahnhof and beautiful as I find big European train stations today I’m simmering. Our train arrives thirty minutes late, and we speed off at nearly 300 kilometres per hour.

Just before Stuttgart, still sweltering by the window, I look up and suddenly realise the landscape is markedly different. We are looking out across densely treed hills dotted with white houses under a bright blue sky, and on such a sunny day it feels a little bit Mediterranean.

Perhaps it’s this impression that gives the rest of the trip a holiday feel.

At Stuttgart station we are delayed again. The announcement comes in German without an English version, so I ask our neighbour what they said. She can speak English like every German person, but it’s a little halting. “The station ahead is ah… blocked,” she says, smiling through her owl-like glasses. “Don’t know why.” The next announcement explains that this is because a person is threatening to jump, and she translates this update with a sad look. We wait, mellowing in the warmth, detached from whatever drama is unfolding down the line. Later, people start milling around outside our carriage before piling in with their bags, taking every available seat. Another announcement – there is smoke in carriages three and four.

The new passengers are jovial, speaking excitedly, about what I don’t know but I can guess they are each telling their experience of smelling the smoke, or being told to move carriages, or how their family is waiting for them. They laugh a lot in the manner of strangers who have banded together in a mild catastrophe.

Finally we are off. By Augsburg most of the passengers have departed the train and the holiday feeling is wearing off for me. We’ve been on the road (so to speak) all day and I’m hot and tired. At Munich we drag our luggage off the train and traipse over to the S-Bahn and the train – the one train we need – is delayed by twenty-five minutes. Of course, I think. It’s almost funny.

We arrive at our host’s place two and a half hours later than planned feeling gross and tired, but there is a barbeque cooking on the balcony and cold showers and he greets us like old friends because he lived in Australia for a while. The next morning we walk down the road with beach towels instead of backpacks and swim in a cold, clear Bavarian lake, and then I realise: summer is here and it’s amazing.

eating the uk

I can’t say I came to Britain for the food, but since food is one of the most fundamental ways we experience new places I’ve been interested to note some differences – mainly in London where I’ve spent the majority of my time.

London has an abundance of options when it comes to eating out. You can easily find classic French or contemporary Vietnamese or gourmet pub food, and the best quality at that. Plenty of fast food options too, although usually of the greasy spoon variety.

No surprises there.

What I didn’t expect was take away places offering the most unlikely of pairings. Asian fusion I’m used to; a trendy menu with a bit of this and that, pesto pasta alongside pho, sticky rice alongside sticky date. Sure. But “Andy’s Kitchen: Chinese and Caribbean”? Not so much.

There’s also an easy way to enjoy these cuisine combinations: Just Eat. One of many perks in a country packed full of people is the demand for convenience, and Just Eat is a prime example. It’s a website where you can browse thousands of restaurants, order online and have them deliver to your door. Choice and convenience – in a bag. I was pretty excited when I discovered this.

Convenience is the watchword in London. You’re never more than a ten minute walk from a Tesco Express or a Sainsbury’s supermarket. Groceries in the supermarkets are over-packaged: sometimes you’ll find half a cucumber neatly sealed in an individual bag, and if you want to pick out a few loose potatoes you’ll have to go elsewhere.

Recently I counted all the supermarket chains in the UK and realised there are nine: Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose. This doesn’t include Iceland, frozen food specialist, and Whole Foods, organic food market, and probably a few regional chains.

On the one hand this is great for customer choice. On the other hand I can’t recall seeing a single butcher shop in London. I’m sure somebody will tell me I’m mistaken, but hand on heart I have not seen one in all my explorations. There are plenty of bakeries and also street-side fruit and veg markets – one of my favourite things ever about the London grocery scene (is that a thing? Can we make groceries cool enough to have their own “scene”?). But the Big Four – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – have 73% of market share, and I can’t help wondering how this affects producers and local communities. Of course this is much better than Australia where just two control close to 80% of the market. The UK is a different landscape, and I suspect more competitive, but chains are incredibly prevalent here in every area of food and retail.

The exception is the local corner store. Another product of cramming lots of people together in an urban environment, the London off-licence is on a residential street, owned and run independently, and more often than not specialising in regional food depending on the borough: Turkish, Caribbean, Romanian, Indian. The fruit and veg display butts onto the street and the shelves inside are packed to the ceiling with toilet paper, cans of beans, kefir milk, ballpoint pens, chocolate. One day I decided to play “grocery roulette” amongst the packets of soup with Polish labels and I’m still not entirely sure what I ate.

But there is one thing Britain does well no matter where you shop: cheese. I have discovered cheeses I’d never heard of before arriving on this milky little isle. Wensleydale. Double Gloucester. Tunworth. Durrus. Cheshire Blue. Derby. Wigmore. Isle of Mull Cheddar. Last week we went to the Burrough Market near London Bridge and oh! What a foodie heaven. Apart from artisan Scotch eggs and steaming platters of paella and handmade fudge and Swiss Raclette sandwiches and crusty loaves of bread and mounds of colourful veggies and… wait… what was I talking about again? Oh yes. Cheese. The most magnificent of all: the Neal’s Yard store. Shelves of cheese rounds bigger than your head and a long, long counter with the most kinds of cheese I’ve ever seen, all of them British.

I have decided that I like cheese – good cheese – a lot, and if there is one reason to return to the UK this could be it. Perhaps if I find a cheese takeaway on Just Eat I’ll never leave.

caff vs. café

When I first visited London eight years ago the most talked-about Aussie influence on the food and drink scene was the Walkabout pubs. I never actually went inside one since that kind of loud, beer-fuelled yellow-and-green patriotism isn’t really my thing. Each to their own. But here I am, back again, and now when I talk to other Australians no one mentions the Walkabout.

What we do talk about is where the nearest decent café is.

Back home, I’d never considered myself a coffee drinker. Until last year when a daily cup of Dutch vanilla was introduced into my routine (thanks, Anna) I drank coffee rarely and only on social occasions. Tea is still my hot beverage of choice and I’ll probably never make space on the tea shelf for fresh coffee beans, but like red wine and olives I’ve acquired a taste for coffee along with age.

So when I arrived at The Wonky House the housemates who were Australian were quick to give me the lowdown. Blend was a twenty minute walk away in Harringey. Great coffee. Chriskitch was 45 minutes on legs, over in Muswell Hill. Amazing brunch. Away from home base I would have to fend for myself.

This being England, I’m never far from a really solid cup of tea and that makes up for a lot. It’s certainly better than the US, where tea or coffee worth drinking are hidden gems. But most “caffs” here are ordinary affairs, lacking in atmosphere or a smooth foam or both. What I like as much as a good coffee is a good café. And the word on the street is that until the Australians started importing our version of café culture into London the pickings were slim. Often when I’m told about a great café it’s followed closely by, “oh yeah and the owner is Australian”.

I’m gathering a handful of these cafés as I traipse around the city. Some are Australian-owned, some aren’t, but they all have a certain style, one that feels familiar to the urban Antipodean. They’re light and bright. The tables are recycled wood and the chairs are mix-and-match. Fresh flowers in vintage jars. Exposed light bulbs. A great indie playlist. Best of all, they serve excellent food and drink. (If you’re ever in London I absolutely insist you go to Chriskitch, if nothing else for the food porn – you’ll never see such a gorgeous array of mouth-watering salads and pumpkin breads and cakes drenched in icing.)

I’ve gathered a few recommendations along the way from fellow Australians who seem to have a nose for finding the only good café in a neighbourhood. Dalston and Islington. Soho and Covent Garden. Shoreditch and Clerkenwell… They always prove worth the bus ride – and the upside is that seeking them out can take you to parts of the city you might not discover otherwise.

(Ironically, the photo above features a teapot. Tea will always be my first love.)

deer old knole

I thought I recognised the name Vita Sackville-West. But then that’s not an unfamiliar feeling in Britain; a vague sense of mental déjà vu (have I been here before in a book/movie/story?). The information card at Knole House soon cleared it up – Vita was a friend and lover of Virginia Woolf and it’s Knole and the Sackville-Wests that provided the real life inspiration for Orlando. Maybe I should actually finish that novel now. Since I didn’t in English 2204…

Knole House is one of the largest and grandest country houses in England (it is an impressive house and has a fascinating family history but I’m trying to keep this succinct so I’ll put that aside) and sits in 1000 acres of park. Think for a moment about one thousand acres. If you’re reading from Perth it’s the same size as Kings Park. Bigger than Central Park in NYC. So what?, you might think, but remember this used to be a private park for a single family.

England does parks well, but I’ve become used to gentle lawns and beds of bulbs. Knole is the closest thing to wild I’ve seen in the south yet.

I enter through a hole-in-the-wall door in a low stone wall and feel a little like I’ve crossed into Narnia. On the other side of the wall a very modern flow of cars storms past, but here all is quiet and timeless. Grassy hills stretch all around, wooded with bare grey trees. Instead of daffodils and tulips the ground in the woods is dry grass and dirt. Apart from the occasional protective fence around a young tree, there is no sign of human cultivation.

But the best thing is the deer. There are several hundred wild deer living in Knole Park, and they are not tame. They’re obviously used to humans but you can’t pat their noses and feed them biscuits (nor should you). I walk within petting distance of a group of stags with antlers that look as though they could do some damage, and glance around to check my options should our relations turn sour. Not a person in sight. One climbable tree in reach. But I needn’t worry. I receive nothing more than a cursory glance from the elder stag before two young bucks go back to butting heads.

Later I am chatting to two fellow park strollers (it’s a popular local haunt but large enough that you can feel completely alone quite often) when two riders canter past on horseback. The group of deer they’re about to stampede simply trot to the side, regroup and resume their eating. I notice later it is so quiet that at a distance I can hear the soft tearing sound of lots of little deer mouths ripping up mouthfuls of grass.

I’ve been in Sevenoaks for the past two weeks, generously put up in the Surrey family home, and it is a lovely, peaceful town. It’s not a tourist destination and you won’t find much in the way of souvenirs or tours, but that’s fine by me. As an affluent commuter town, forty minutes from central London on the train, with pretty scenery and a heck of a lot more space than London itself, I imagine it’s a good place to raise a family. All the same I was amused to read the listing for Sevenoaks in The Rough Guide to England where it states rather dismally that there’s little reason to visit other than Knole Park and its residence. That’s a bit rude, I thought. But then I saw the spectacular house and spent some time walking around the park and I thought, whatever else you might say, it’s a damn good reason to come to Sevenoaks.

oh i do like to be in the countryside

Like a lot of Australian kids, a significant number of the books I read growing up were written by English writers, starring English children and English animals. When I was older, a lot of the TV I watched was set in English villages, on English farms and in English cities. For better or worse, every time I’ve entered this country I’ve come with a set of impressions.

So occasionally I have this surreal sense of recognition over the smallest of things. When I walk down a suburban street of brown brick houses I think of Keeping Up Appearances. Uniformed children outside a college brings back The Naughtiest Girl in the School. A farmer in gumboots penning muddy sheep makes me think of All Creatures Great and Small. Every pretty village reminds me of Midsomer Murders.

Sometimes it’s the nicest thing in the world to have pleasant stereotypes fulfilled. Recently I was in Shropshire staying with the lovely Waddingtons, and one morning my surrogate mother took me along on a shopping trip to Heath Farm. Green meadows dotted with new lambs bleating; a blue door in a low stone building; dun-coloured cows chewing thoughtfully in the barn; drizzling rain. It’s a family farm fronted by a little shop that sells their own meat and dairy along with various other local products. I’m pretty keen on eating fresh and local, so I was charmed by what they had on offer. Hedgerow jam and apple cordial. A chunk of lard wrapped in greaseproof paper for 75p. Boiling bacon and gammon steak. You could not get more English.

Speaking of this idealised England that I have in my head, South Shropshire is a great place for countryside. Reputedly it’s what Tolkien based The Shire on; he lived nearby in Birmingham and would often visit. There is, in fact, a place called Bagginswood near where I stayed.

Halfway between the north and the south, and with the Welsh border on the horizon, South Shropshire is less populated and has fewer tourists than most of England. This is the way the locals would like to keep it, so shhhhh. There’s a lot of sheep farming, a lot of woods, a lot of hills. From Clee Hill the view stretched as far as the Black Mountains in Wales, and to the east it’s said that you could draw a string directly to the Urals.

I had a great week, whether at home in Cleobury or tripping around the countryside. We went to Ludlow where there are piles of Tudor architecture and a famous castle. Gloucestor to see maybe the most impressive cathedral I’ve laid eyes on yet. Leominster to see the Georgian-era Berrington Hall built in local red-brown sandstone. Villages with names like Tenbury Wells and Neen Sollars that sound both charming and ancient. A cosy pub called The Live & Let Live. It doesn’t get more English.

that rings a bell

Look, I’ll be honest. This is going to be one nerdy post. If 400-year-old traditions are not really your thing, feel free to tune out and tune back in next week when I write about street art and hip-hop, yo. (Which I won’t, I’m just trying to be cool guys. Guys?)

I’ve never thought much about bellringing before, it’s not really a thing in Australia, but here in England, every village has a church and every church has bells, and those bells need ringing. It’s a community activity. And it’s kind of fascinating.

I’ve always enjoyed the sound of bells pealing, so when I have the chance to watch the local bellringers practise I think, why not? Up I climb into the belfry of “St Scoliosis” (as it’s affectionately called by my friends in Cleobury Mortimer due to its twisted spire) and watch them go through their paces.

If there’s one thing you should know about bellringing it’s this: it is complicated. Like a lot of things, there’s a code and a terminology you have to crack in order to enter, and perhaps after that it gets easier, but I wouldn’t know because this is how it looks to me when I walk in:

Six people (in this case) stand in a circle and proceed to pull on the bell ropes hanging from the ceiling, making a giant clanging noise for a few minutes. After this the leader announces, “Plain Bob” or “Grandsire”, or some other charming name like “Francis Genius Delight” or “London Surprise”. Somebody might say, “Fourth in the hunt” or “Second run in” or something like that, and a recognisable downward peal begins, from high to low. After a while I notice the pattern has changed, and continues to change. People pull the ropes at different times, and as I tune my ear to each bell it starts to look less random. Occasionally someone calls “Up!” or “Go next!” After about ten minutes they return to the original downward peal, the leader calls “Stand!” and they stop.

“We just rang 120 changes,” Alec the leader of the Cleobury ringers tells me. It sounds like a lot but he has also informed me that with six bells up to 720 changes are possible. This is one thing I learn: that the correct term for the order in which the bells are rung is a “change”.

That clanging at the beginning and end? They’re pulling the bells up before they start ringing, and returning them back down when they’re finished practising. Turns out bells are rung in an upside down position and it takes a few minutes of gathering momentum to get them there. When it comes time to strike a note, each pull on the rope – the “handstroke” and the “backstroke” – brings the bell around 360 degrees, “mouth up to mouth up”. I guess that’s how you get that big beautiful “gong”. I believe gong is not a technical term.

Before this I thought it must be just like music: each ringer is a note on the page and they play their notes in different orders depending on the song. This is correct for about three seconds – the time it takes to ring through the six bells once. It’s so much more involved and technical than that. Each composition is not a linear sequence of notes like in a melody, but a series of changes. The ringers are regularly moving around each other, swapping the order in which they ring their bells, all from memory. They also understand sentences like, “All working bells plain hunt everywhere except at the lead end where 2nd’s place is made, causing bells in higher positions to dodge.”

At that point, I just sit back and enjoy the gorgeous sound.

Next week: the history of bookbinding. (Kidding!)