wenn ich 'Kultur' höre


Here's a conversation I had with a Swiss border guard yesterday:

Guard: "Guten Tag. Longgermanword, bitte schön".

Palinode: "Bitte nochmal?"

Guard: "Longgermanword and Evenlongerone, bitte".

Palinode: "Sprechen Sie Englisch?"

Guard: (without missing a beat)"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"

(A pause in which you can feel the international tensions build. A long line of cars stretches out behind our rented Saab into the Schwarzwald mist. Ahead, the steel and concrete public works of Switzerland wait patiently for my long-dead bureaucratic German to sit up at its desk and produce the correct terms.)

Palinode: "Paßkarte?"

Guard: "Bitte schön".

(Then my German sits up straight and starts pulling the right files. I explain who we are, where we're going and why, discovering in the process that the phrase 'Direkttransit' transcends languages and produces the desired 'please proceed' gesture, that lazy twirling finger indicating the Autobahn and the whole of Austria. We drive off, having satisfied the Swiss customs people that we can be trusted to drive through their country and into Austria without causing any trouble or poisoning the Bodensee or anything like that. On our way through St. Gallen we stop briefly to poison the Bodensee.)


Since I began travelling for a living I've been to a number of places around the world, but Germany and Austria are the only places in which I've felt like a foreigner. People stare at us with curiosity and sometimes hostility, dogs single us out for barking, shopkeepers refuse to understand my German. At first I thought that my Deutsch was far worse than I'd imagined, but after a few halting and friendly conversations with various folks, I realized that some people here aren't interested in understanding me. It's as simple as that. They hear the foreign tones in my voice (or the Turkish cast of my skin?) and their faces shut down.

Worse than that is the low-grade paranoia that these places engender. In Holland we were treated with courtesy, in France with apathy, but in Germany we were watched. No kidding. One Sunday morning we went out filming in a neighbourhood of Ludwigshafen (right across the Rhein from Mannheim) and a middle-aged man in a leather jacket kept an eye on us, affecting a casual air that failed to convince after ninety minutes. Yes, for an entire Sunday morning this anonymous German citizen had nothing better to do than stand on street corners and pretend that he wasn't following us around. There must be a German word for this. "The pleasure derived from pretending to be a secret policeman around foreign film crews". Stupid self-appointed self-policing freaks. I took pictures of him whenever he glanced at us.

Maybe he was a secret policeman. On sleepy Sunday duty.