Mittwoch, 30. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part XI - Intermezzo: Dubai

As my ticket allowed me to fly into, but not out of, Iran, I had to fly via Dubai. Thanks to Star Alliance messing up my booking I had only one day to marvel at this extravagant city, but it has left some impressions none the less.

A fitting represantation: Faceless and vaguely islamic
I was expecting giant scyscrapers, oversized malls and and awe-inspiring architecture. While this is pretty much what I got, it left little worth remembering. While Dubai does please, it fails to impress. After long thoughts, I have concluded that it is the lack of context that takes the edge out of its grandeur and splendour, and left me with an eerie feeling of surreality. Often I felt like I had to knock on the surrounding buildings, to see if they are not props of some elaborate theatre play and would fall apart if only touched. The desert encroaching from all sides, reminding you that this is a barren place where humans should not flourish, makes the city even more surreal; an opulent mirage that should not have a physical body. Its oversized architecture and constant display of wasted wealth made me feel like I was indeed visiting an adult theme park, which is pretty much what Dubai is: a Disneyland for grown-ups, complete with tacky replicas of traditional Arabian buildings. Possibilities for entertainment seem boundless (although some of them are kept rather private), from indoor skiing to shopping frenzies, but if you cannot afford them, Dubai (and its surroundings) are a pretty dreary place. Not far from the glamour of the Burj Dubai and the Marina, in rows and rows of slums and grey apartment blocks live the many Asians and Africans that provide the city with cheap labour,breaking the illusion of the clean and prosperous city that is so often presented.

Right behind the city: slums and desert

When I got on the plane, I was somewhat happy to leave this city of greed (and believe me, it's prevalent in all people you meet) and dust behind, and I can't think of a particularly good reason to return.

Freitag, 25. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part X - Iran: Religion, Politics and Conclusion

I know I promised to make all of my posts bitesized, but I have to conclude my Iran writings before the impressions wane, and Thailand's vivacious street culture overlays my memories. I hope you forgive me that this time it's a bit longer.


I hope my last post gave a rough idea why I would go to Iran. But many people asked me questions such as: "Isn't that dangerous?" or "Can you go in there?", so I want to dispel some of your doubts.
The commonly propagated picture of Iran in western media is that it is a semi-terrorist state, full of religious nutcases, djihadist militia and and roaming bandits (with nuclear weapons). Obviously such a country must be dangerous to tourists and impossible to get in. Not so.
In fact, getting into Iran is very easy, if somewhat expensive. If even American proselytizers can make it, you can, too. You have to get a number from a certified Iranian travel agency (there's many), which enables you to get a visa. The whole process costs between 70 and 90 pounds, which will give you an extendable 15 day visa. If you travel with a group, all of that will be included in your tout price. Denial of visa is exceptionally rare.
Usually the visa can be extended by 30 days at any immigration office, and is rarely denied (I met several people who extended four or five times), unless you have caught some unwanted attention.

As far as public safety goes, Iran is a very safe country. The amount of crime is low, and as a tourist you will have little more to fear than touts and the occasional pick pocket (which you get in any country anyway). Unless you are asking for it (like traveling the Pakistan border regions or engage in illegal activities) you will have nothing to fear even if you follow one of the many friendly strangers' invites to their homes.

This is how dangerous Iran is. I barely made it.

Culture and Religion

While we Europeans generally tend to think of Iran as "just another Muslim middle eastern Arab something state", Iran's culture and self-conception is very different, and Iranians loathe to be thrown in with "the rest of the Middle East", and rightly so.
Iran has a very strong and extensive cultural heritage, and one that most Iranians are very aware of. Persia boast one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, with about 8000 years of continued cultural development, and some of this culture still rings true in the mind and soul of the Iranians, well throughout conquest and oppression. I won't go into any historic details here, but I want to give a few examples of what makes Iran different and why that is important in Iranian society today.
Firstly, and my Iranian friends insist I write this, Iranians are not Arabs. They are Aryans, quite different in appearance and historic background, with their own language and customs. The conquest of Persia by the Arabian tribes and subsequent conversion to Islam are perceived, despite the ensuing cultural developments, as an insult by many Iranians even today. Some even insist on using only "true" Persian words, greeting each other with "Dorud" instead of "Salam" (which is Arabic).


The sanctum of the Zoroastrian temple at Chak-Chak

Despite repeated conquest by Arabs and Mongols, colonization by European powers and political oppression, old Persian customs have persevered through time. Most of these customs date back to the times of Zoroaster, roughly 3000 years ago. While the religion itself is almost extinct (with about 120000 followers), its symbols and rituals are integral to Persian identity. The ethics of Zoroastrianism are simple: "Think good, speak good, act good', an ideal that is embodied in the symbol of Fravahar, found across Iran on old Temples and modern necklaces alike. For many Iranians with anti-government or anti-islamic sentiments it is also a nationalistic symbol of what they think is truly Iranian.
The Fravahar Symbol
One of the Zoroastrian customs practiced by most Iranian is Noruz, the Persian festival of the new year. The date is set by a special Zoroastrian calendar (yes, that means that Iranians have to juggle three different dates each day), and consequently at a different time each year. It is celebrated with a "haft sin" party, where seven things starting with the letter "s" are gathered at a table, and visiting all family members, oldest first. Many Iranians also go on holiday during this season, a fact I had to learn by hard, as transport was difficult and hard to book.
Also Zoroastrian in origin is the fire festival, which involves jumping over lit fires to cleanse the soul. Both of these customs are discouraged by the government, even more so now, as the festivities are often used for protest gatherings.

A Haft Sin table, ready for Noruz

In times of youth, drinking is better.
With the joyful, linking is better.
The world is a mere temporal inn;
With the shipwrecked, sinking is better.

 -Hafez (1325-1389)

Thousands come to the tomb of Hafez every year
One very endearing fact about Iran is that its great heroes are not generals or warriors, but Poets. The greatest, Hafez, Ferdosi, and Sa'di have elaborate Mausoleums that draw large crowds throughout the year, who pay respect and reference to their lives and great works. Hafez, especially popular, is often quoted and almost all Iranians can recite some of his poetry. So important his works are to the Iranian spirit that it is said that "every household should have two books: the Quran and Hafez". His works were enticing enough to prompt good old Goethe to translate them, and have been translated in dozens of languages. Hafez himself seemed to be a joyful fellow, with much of his poetry being about love and wine, with some melancholic intermezzos of the decay of youth. No wonder, he was living in Shiraz, once, but no longer, famed for its excellent wine and entertainment.


Unlike shopkeepers, Allah helpfully communicates with me in English. At least I am not lost for spiritual guidance.
Islam has come to the Iranians by force, in the shape of the the Umarian Caliphate and its Arabian armies, but was rapidly accepted and soon became the dominant religion. Since the 15th century, Iran belongs to the Shia branch of Islam, and today, the vast majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslims (default by birth). The contributions of Iran to Islamic art and culture are manifold and impossible to recount, but I would like to focus more on what Islam, in my humble experience, means for the country and its Inhabitants today, as it is the most obvious and frequently mentioned Iranian trait.
Islam is not as consistently visible in the bigger cities as you might think. Sure, women wear a headscarves, but they could well be fashion accessories, and you only infrequently see chadors (the long black ones) and I have never seen a burka until I came to (ironically) Dubai.

The Hejab-o-Meter

Constant readjustment of the Hejab line has become a compulsive behavior for most women, though, and how much hair you shows both the persons mindset or the piety/repressiveness of the surroundings.To illustrate that, I have created a Hejab-o-meter, which roughly shows the connection between those parameters (thank you for lending your likeness, Samane):

If you are unlucky, the moral police (also known as "Fati(ma)kommando") might fine you if your hejab is too far down. At home most women I encountered did not wear Hejab, and in their cars, sort of in between private and public, sexual segregation and hejab rules are somewhat relaxed. This leads to many girls walking around certain streets, hoping to find a boy's car to hop into to exchange phone numbers and have a good time, pretending to be relatives to the public,
There is some segregation in buses and cofeehouses, but most younger people ignore it, and little ever happens. Having a boy or girlfriend is not uncommon, and many of the couples on the street holding hands are not married. Virginity is still somewhat expected of a woman before marriage, and most girls abstain or practice non-vaginal sex.

People are telling me that enforcement of the islamic rules is getting worse, as police cracks down on more and more offences. There is a difference in which ones, though: Some years ago, an engineer told me, police used to fine people for having foreign pop music in the car, or for wearing sunglasses "the American way", and other slight moral faults. Nowadays, speaking to foreigners or having private gatherings are a much bigger affair. And it seems to me that this is the most important change in Iran before and after Ahmadinejad:
Before, repression was the means to achieve the goal of a moral Muslim state. Since Ahmadinejad, the order has reversed: Muslim moral standards are now the means of repression, and the goal is control. The dictatorship is a worldly one, and just like in communist dictatorships, the moral systems are no longer an objective, but just excuse for oppression. Like one of my Iranian friends put it: "Khomeini earnestly thought that Islam would help Iran. He was wrong, which can happen. But now the experiment has generated a Frankenstein state."
Recent surveys have shown that most people support Islam, but want politics and religion to be separate. It's to see if the sentiment translate into action, and if the government will crack down even more.


So. How was it? How do I feel? Is it worth going?

First of all, it was great. The people are very kind and sociable, the cultural heritage is amazing, and it's good value. Many of the sights are unique and definitely a must see (like the National Jewels and the architecture of Esfahan), and entry to them is cheap as chips (between 30 pence and 2 pounds). As discussed above, the country is safe, and as a tourist you will have little to fear.
I recommend going for anyone who is a culture vulture or a nature freak, but you might want to wait some years, as almost all major sights are currently under restoration. If you are a solo traveller, or looking for holiday fun, I can recommend Iran only with a grain of salt. Since alcohol, dancing and parties are forbidden (although they do exist), there is little base fun value to be found in Iran. If you like to meet people and are wary of you surroundings, Iran is a very rewarding destination for individual travellers. Some Farsi will help though.

Also, Iran has left me with a feeling of sadness. Having seen all its amazing heritage, with all its appreciation of beauty, it's poetry of love and wine, it's desire to socialize and be merry, to dance and sing, it pains me to find its population suppressed by a inhuman government, so much the opposite of the Iranians' true soul that I have found in its art and people. I truly hope that I see the day when these shackles are broken, and Iran returns to what it was once famous for: a country of sensuality and plenty.

A couple sharing wine
Noruz celebration with music and dance

Dienstag, 22. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part IX - Iran: Masters of the Ornament

Even long before the arrival of Islam, the Persians have excelled at the decorative arts. Both prehistoric pottery and the stunning murals and statues of Persepolis are witness to the Iranian love for the arts and crafts. With Islam came a new wave of cultural exchange and artistic direction. As the Quran forbids the depiction of human beings* (and indeed all living things), the energy of the Persian craftsmen turned towards the geometric forms so often associated with Muslim architecture. From the "pixel-style" mosaic of the early periods to the swirling flower designs found on the walls of later buildings, the complexity of forms is stunning. Geometric symmetries are found from the little, hand-carved inlay mosaics of treasure chests to complete city plans, and cover mosques and palaces to the very last detail, even where visitors can never reach. Sometimes, the artist will deliberately flaw the perfection of his work, as a sign that he is but a humble human, and does not dare emulate the perfection of Allah's creation.
This perfection of the ornamental, abstract style permeates through all Iranian visual art: while Qurans (unlike bibles) are not illuminated, they feature bold and playful calligraphy to stimulate the readers mind, with dozens of different styles and masters. Persian carpets, famous for their quality, draw from the same geometric styles and patterns. This also serves as a visual explanation for all the people who asked: "So why do you go there?"

The following is a selection of some magnificent ornamental artworks I came across.

Ancient Persia
Gate wall murals at Persepolis
Mural detail at Persepolis


A decorated Oud (Lute)
Carpet from the Carpet Museum (Tehran)

Another Carpet (Tehran)

 Islamic Architecture

While even older mosques are stunning, the colourfully tiled Safavid mosques are so intricately detailed that you discover new patterns the closer you get. They are also masters of the "stalactite" arches, like the one below.

Shah mosque door on Imam Square (Esfahan)
Shah Mosque courtyard

Lotfollah Mosque hallway


 The royal jewels of Iran are safely kept under the Central Bank Melli. I was not allowed to photograph these, so I had to nick these from wikipedia. Efforts have been made to estimate the value of these jewels, but no satisfactory conclusion could be made, but they are enough to back the Iranian currency even today. Let's just say that for everything you see on these pictures, if it looks like gold or diamonds, it is gold and diamonds.

The Peacock Throne
Yes, that actually is sapphires and rubies on the dish

The Darya-e Noor, largest diamond in the world

*There is some ambivalence about that, and some people did not (and do not) care.

Mittwoch, 16. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part VII - Iran: Frogger and Friends

Unfortunately I have upload speeds of about 10 k/s, and PCs are slow, so posts will be briefer, and have less pictures. I'm sorry.

If I was ever to paraphrase hospitality, "Iranians" would be the word of my choosing. To travel this country without being invited you would not only need to be an utter misanthrope (that alone won't help), but also go far out of your way to avoid all the welcoming people you'd meet.
Iranians are already quite sociable and friendly amongst themselves, but once you are recognized as a foreigner, their helpfulness and interest knows no bounds. Even with little or no knowledge of a foreign language they will show you around, invite you for dinner (in their own homes) and pay for your taxi. Not a day passes here without meeting some new people who go out of their way to improve your opinion of Iran and its people. I have drunk at least my own body weight in tea and sugar, sponsored by caretakers, engineers, tour guides and students who were eager to have a chat and a souvenir picture. Sometimes it becomes even mildly annoying, as some of them are so happy talking to foreigners that they will not let you go for hours and insist on taking you everywhere or sending you a text message every day or so. (To my Iranians who read this: this does not include you, don't worry.)
With the spontaneous friendship often comes a physicality that I'm not used to as a northern European. Walking hand in hand is common among (heterosexual) men, and when interacting with Iranians, you will need to get used to frequently getting hugged and touched.
Befriending women, contrary to my initial belief, is no problem (frequently even easier, as they seem to be more fluent in English), and no one seems to mind or even notice. Many of the warnings from guidebooks seem to be exaggerated or only useful in remote and very conservative areas.

Anyone remember the classic game Frogger? For those who don't, the goal is to cross several lanes of a busy street as a frog without getting run over. This is exactly how being a pedestrian in Iran is like. Iranian driving is...creative. Having been to China I'm used to red lights only having aesthetic function, and horns being the main medium of ensuring a consistent traffic flow. Iranians take the concept one step further, however. Why stick to three lanes when they can easily be made four? Reversing on a motorway to catch that missed exit? No big deal. Driving while on the phone? Sure, but only with a sandwich in the other hand. No room on the road? Well there's always the sidewalk.
So how can you avoid meeting an inglorious demise at the hands of an Iranian taxi driver? The answer is as simple as it is uncompelling: just start walking, slowly but steadily and entirely rely on the drivers to navigate around you. Do not stop, and never, never make a hasty retreat backwards. The optimum breaking distance here is about 3 to 5 inches (even less for the ubiquitous motorcycles), and shying backwards is a sure way to get hit by the vehicle passing behind you. Thankfully Iranians are used to this traffic and are exceptionally good drivers (in the vehicle maneuver ability sense), so used that they don't even swear when someone decides to change direction into a one-way street (the wrong way of course) while at the center of a four lane crossing.

Samstag, 12. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part VII - Iran: Brief Update

Now here I am; Iran. My fear of being denied entry despite visa; evaporated. Being convicted of having some obscure unislamic item in my luggage; unnecessary. Neither the immigrations officer nor the customs even bothered to look at my face.
Fallen victim to communal conspirative tourist pricemongering, I was taken to my hostel for the price of three train rides through the whole longitude of Persia. Thankfully the hostel is staffed with the most helpful hotelier on earth, a certain Mr. Moussavi, who not only gave me a free night to stay, but simply knows everything about Tehran and organizes everything for half the tourist price if asked.
Lonely Plant guidebook proven almost entirely useless. Most places do not exist, have turned into shoe shops or have become ridiculously overpriced. All travelers having the same said guidebook doesn't help. At least there are fellow victims sharing my plight.
Now staying with four (!) lovely sisters and their mom near the mountains. Good food and great company.
More will follow, when access is easier and pictures are ready.

Mittwoch, 9. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part VI - Germany: Fasnacht

Despite being the furthest away from being a grand exotic place, my hometown has something quite unique to offer: Fasnacht.

These are inspired by Austrian Krampus costumes
While carnival is celebrated in many countries (such as famously Venice and Brazil), Alemannian Fasnacht is much closer to its origins. Having its roots in pagan festivals to exorcise winter and herald the coming of spring, much of the ancient spirit has survived; unlike the carnivals in Rio de Janeiro or Cologne, the majority of costumes still draw their inspiration from the haunting and the sinister. With christianization these traditions had been canalized into something more palatable to the church, and Fasnacht became a fest to use up perishable foods before Lent, giving people time to indulge and celebrate before a time of hardship.

"Saubachgeischter" climb everything

Over the centuries, new influences have found their way into the traditional mixes, and style elements from the baroque era, Napoleonic times and modern periods have been added. Still today, new "Zuenfte" spring up every year or so, while the ones that are hundreds of years old still remain.

Zunft originally meant "guild", and they are pretty much run as such. All members wear the same costume every year, and usually have various gatherings throughout the year for marching band practice and general merriment (and the occasional business deal). Many regulations can surround memberships, such as that it can only be passed on to the eldest son, which makes affiliation with a Zunft quite a tradition-laden affair. The traditional costumes are all hand made and very expensive (especially the carved wooden masks) and can cost Zunft members several thousand euros.

Baroque style costumes
While Fasnacht starts officially on the 11th of November, the actual party happens in late February and lasts for about a week, during which the inner cities are filled with costumed revellers. Public drinking and pranks are openly encouraged, with many of the bigger companies handing out free beer and food. The Zuenfte march to the schools and tie down the teachers, officially releasing the students into carnival, who then join the street party in town. Fasnacht-Kisses are given to anyone who comes along, and needless to say, the week-long party often produces unexpected aftermaths in November.

Below are some snapshots and a video from the Sunday parade.

"Gelbfuessler" - Yellow Feet
One of the newer, Predator inspired Zunft
New group, old style.
Lots of groups make their costumes entirely themselves
Parodies of existing uniforms or characters are common

Montag, 7. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part V - England: Foodstuffs

Britain has not the best reputation as far as the quality of its cuisine is concerned. The culinary verdicts of the past decades has been that British food is bland, greasy and unimaginative. Extensive ramblings about the topic can be found throughout the internet. I do not want to add to them. Instead, I thought I'd talk about some of the foodstuffs that I particularly liked, and the ones I particularly hated. So here it goes:


Before England, I was a beer man. Probably what growing up in Germany does to you. Now, I am a man of cider. I honestly don't know why the stuff isn't popular in central Europe, as it's easier and tastier than beer, and gets you plastered much quicker. The variety of ciders in England is stunning. Some supermarkets have whole aisles reserved for it, and it comes in all sorts of types: dry or sweet, flat or bubbly, cloudy or clear. 
I recommend the one to the left, Weston's Vitage, which stands out as a pretty good supermarket cider and its staggering 8.2% of alcohol make sure you have a lovely evening. Steer clear of Strongbow, that stuff is just awful.


Among the otherworldly goodness that is cheese, among all the hundreds of varieties, you find kings and queens. Cheddar cheese is such a king. The only English cheese that made it to international renown, Cheddar, like cider, is ubiquitous in England's supermarkets. And just like cider, it comes in hundreds of varieties, from bland pizza-quality shreds to crumbly explosions of tanginess. As the national cheese of England it is laden with tradition, and its marketed with associations of abbeys, castles and good old English farmland (like cider).
Cheddar shines when it's mature, and I personally would advise you to skip the younger generations and go straight for the good stuff. Collier's is pretty good, but local farmer's market stuff is even better. You wouldn't have guessed it, but cheddar goes well with cider.


Originally from Cornwall, the pasty is an oversized stuffed dough parcel. Allegedly it was used by miners, who would hold it by the crust and throw it away after eating (because of their dirty hands). The pasty has established itself as a traditionally English version of street food, and several chains can be found all across the island. The dough is a rich and sturdy shortcrust pastry, making pasties an excellent filler and easy to eat while walking. The traditional filling is steak, potato and onions, but contents have diversified into all the common tastes of modern society, including vegetarian and halal options. To be considered an authentic pasty, its contents must not be cooked before being enveloped.
I haven't had the chance to try these home made, but the chain ones are good enough once in a while, and tastes between them are pretty much the same. Go and try one if you fancy a quick meal on the go.

When looking at the sheer amount of conserve varieties in England, one might think that pickling is a national past time. If you want proof of the English talent to incorporate foreign cultures into their own, and indeed the history of the Empire, look no further. It's right here, in the pickle aisle. From venerable pickled onions and gherkins, over the spicy mango chutneys of India to Carribean sauces and back to classic Piccalilly and Branston, Britain's colonial past can be experienced jar by jar in the safety of your own home.
I've tried many different varieties, and found the all to be quite delectable. It may suprise you, but many pickles go well with Cheddar (and thusly with cider). If you want all the good stuff in one go, order a Ploughman's lunch, which contains cider, cheddar and pickles at the same time. Hooray!


Most animals, including humans, are equipped with a certain sense of what should be eaten and what shouldn't. We find all things repulsive that remind us of potential dangers to our health, such as the smell of rotten meat or faeces. Yet some people, whether by conditioning or sensory numbness, lack these vital perception capabilities. For those people, there is Marmite.
A yeast extract spread (i.e. fermented, gone off microscopic lifeforms), it smells of concentrated human exhaust fumes, and its taste is reminiscent of sweaty feet after a week of mountain hiking. It is marketed with the self-ironic slogan of “Love it or hate it”, but the fact that you have to wilfully exclude a majority of the population in a marketing campaign usually shows you're not selling a desirable product. The fact that it was created as a by-product of brewery waste, and needed a time of deprivation and scarce food supply (meaning World War II) to take off as a product doesn't really help its reputation either.
I strongly recommend to try it though, if you manage to get past the smell, as it is the culinary equivalent of visiting the London Dungeon and might give you something to talk about when you're back home.

English Bread and Cake

You might argue that it is somewhat unfair to expect the English to make good bread, when it is quite clear that they have no idea what bread actually is. I will then make an effort to explain: bread is a grain product, baked carefully to have a firm outside and a soft yet chewy inside. Depending on its type (yes, there are several), the outside can be crunchy, or even glazed with lye. By no means is it a fluffy, formless block without consistency or discernible taste. Bread also does not shrivel in your mouth to become a baking yeast chewing gum that dissolves under your tongue. Unlike spiders, humans can chew and have no need to dissolve their food externally.
Now you tell me that real bread can be had in England, in many varieties. I must unfortunately tell you though, that even at the farmers market or at the delicatessen stores, the bread suffers from the same problem, whether they call it “french bread”, “pita” or “naan”: it's too soft, lacks taste and is of poor quality. If you want any of these foreign breads, go to a local foreign restaurant (and cross your fingers).
And then cake. Coming from the Blackforest Gateaux county, I might be a tad spoiled, but British cake suffers from the same problem as the bread. Since we have already established the dough problem above, let's instead talk about icing. It is called icing (or frosting) because it is a layer of something on top of something else much larger. If there is more icing than anything else in your cake, you got the ratio wrong. Following the motto: "the more the better", you will sometimes have trouble finding anything left to eat after you dug yourself through an arm's length of molten sugar. There is no icing in between layers of dough either, that is called filling and is something else entirely. There is actually more taste to cake than sugar with a hint of something else. If you get the dough right, that is....
If you feel you have had enough of Disney-coloured icing in cups or cardboard bread, and you don't feel like oriental bread, head to Aldgate, where you will find a nice German bakery.

Jellied Eel

Oh the joy! Having likened Marmite to a culinary London Dungeon, this must be the Marquis de Sade's personal bedchamber snack. Pickled eel in itself is already not necessarily an inspiring taste experience, but in jelly, with chili vinegar, it has redefined my idea of what bad food can be. The flavour is somewhere between cold washing up water and lemon juice gone off. And the texture, oh the texture! Let it wobble in you mouth. Feel how bits of preserved eel dissolve from the bone unto your jelly-covered lips. Enjoy the unique feeling of having your oral cavity lined with chilli-spiced slime. Not even the accompanying potato mash can erase the severe taste bud trauma you have subjected yourself to.
I suggest a glass of Thames water to go with this dish. After all, if it's good enough for the eels, it's good enough for you.
The best jellied eel is to be found in Cockney, I am told. At least the slang there might be a welcome diversion from the harrowing seafood ordeal you just went through.

All this aside, the British seem to have become extremely sensitive about food (maybe due to the stereotype), and good food can be had in many (gastro)pubs and “modern british” restaurants. Columns about improving food and cooking qualities are all over the papers and websites. Local food companies (e.g. for chocolate) spring up everywhere. To me it felt, that Britain, just like Germany is an “awakening” food country, tired to be measured by the same clichés that soiled its national cooking reputation, and more than ready to show the world is has got imaginative cuisine and high quality food products of its own. I wish them all the best.*

*Scots are exempt from this. I mean, deep fried pizza? Seriously?

Samstag, 5. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part IV - England: Paranoia and Control

Open any British tabloid on any given day of a week, and I promise you, you'll find at least one stabbing. It might be taken from any random place in England, but it will be there, to get the damn thing into the hands of the customers. England does not have a particularly high homicide rate (not even London for its size), yet a lot of people seem to be under the impression that life becomes dangerous once you leave the door. Whether that is caused by the media or the media just reflects the national consciuosness I don't know, but this fear has generated a penchant for law and order that sometimes borders obsession. England has the most security cameras per person in the world, roughly estimated at one for every twelve inhabitants. The intensity of paranoia is apparent on every corner: “If you see something suspicious, report it immediately!” - “Smile, you are on CCTV!” - “You are being recorded for your personal safety and security.” are just a few of the recurring slogans. Convincing studies have found that increased CCTV coverage does not prevent crime or significantly improves chances of catching the delinquent, but that has not caused a decline of CCTV sales to both the goverment and private owners. I have never seen adverts for security systems and cameras on German television, yet in Britain, you see them frequently even during prime time. 

Adding to that, minor nuisances normally ignored or dealt with on a interpersonal level are elevated to be “half crimes”, so called ASBOs. ASBO stands for Anti Social Behaviour Order, and is issued for things that in other countries would be something for neighbours or parents to sort out: being too noisy, spitting on the floor or breakdancing in a public place (I kid you not). Since a lot of these small offences generally seem to be committed by people of lower social strata, ASBO has become a common English slang term for people of lower class and education, further labelling an already disadvantaged part of the population. Whether it actually helps reduce more serious crime (like the Broken Widows Theory is claimed to have done in New York), I cannot say, but it surely gave me the impression that Britain is a bit of a “Nanny State” as some people here put it. Its reach extends well beyond the jurisdictional and into the educational. No day passes where you don't come across and advert for a government campaign of some sort: Don't listen to loud music, don't eat smelly food, don't bunk off, don't insult our staff. 
But Mama Britannia does not stop here. After all, you could not only hurt others, but also yourself. So welcome to the wonderful world of

Health and Safety!

Have friends who recently became parents? Noticed how there is suddenly a whole world of dangers you never knew even existed? How everyday items suddenly require all sorts of special treatment before they can be used? How the very air and grass is a minefield of life-threatening perils? Have you been explained how constant watch must be kept on diet, surroundings and experiences of the little adult-to-be? It reminds me a lot of how the British government (and its associated organisations) seems to view its citizens.

Stories about about the overzealousness of public safety officials and idiotic waivers are usually associated with America, but Britain makes a fair second place. Again, government campaigns taking a dubious lead in the advertisement of common sense. I understand that telling young girls to not take Ibuprofen with Vodka (so they don't mind the cold when standing outside in short skirts in freezing winter) is important. Telling me to make sure I watch out for my friends so they don't get hit by cars on the other hand should be a given. If they do die, it surely was not my lack of awareness that unexpected contact with a driving vehicle can be fatal, but rather to circumstance, such a drunkenness or lack of oversight, which is not curable by public awareness campaigns. The same goes for coffee: if I buy one, I expect it to be hot. And if I spill it and burn myself, it will not be because of my inability to understand its thermophysical properties, but because I'm a clumsy idiot. Doesn't keep them from labelling the coffee cup lids, though.
To not have their asses sued off, private people have to resort to these warnings as well. Going to a martial arts class I had to sign a waiver that I am aware that I might get hurt. Well, duh.
Yet friendly regulation of my habits continues one more step up the psychological ladder; not only warning, but subtle conditioning. Every bottle lists for me how many units of alcohol it contains, and how many I should be consuming. Apart from being a relatively arbitrary value, I doubt that the people who this is aimed at, meaning alcoholics and binge-drinking students, care even the slightest bit. Sweets tell me they should be “enjoyed as part of a healthy and varied diet” and everything that contains even the most remote bit of greenery tells me it's one of my “five a day” (of fruit and vegetables). I am regularly told that “even a short walk is exercise.” and that I shouldn't let “good times turn bad (by drinking too much).”
All of this is apparently justified by the horrible state Britain's people are in. If I believe the public administration of this country, I've gotten myself into a whirlpool of rude obese drunkards, careless pregnant teenage tarts and criminal child molesters. Now either all these people must live in Wales, or I have been exceptionally lucky to meet mostly nice and responsible people. Maybe they are all secretly having an extra unit of alcohol and only four and a half veg a day on their couch, when no one's looking.

Dienstag, 1. März 2011

The Travelogue, Part III - England: Social Culture


The best thing about England are undoubtedly the English themselves. Living in a country with an average of 110 rainy days a year seems to have bred people with a good sense of humour (or maybe the ones that are born without it simply kill themselves). The social culture is also quite different from Germany, and this bit is about some of its many pitfalls and highlights.

Masters of the Chat

You will often hear that the English consider themselves to be very reserved people. I don't know what the hell they are talking about. Maybe they compare themselves to Brazilians, who knows. Compared to northern and central Europeans, the English are extremely accessible people, and making new friends is amazingly easy. Here, people start chats with you all the time; the shopping queue, the pub, any public space really.
Germans, for comparison, have a rather large social distance. Random People talking to them for a prolonged time makes most of them somewhat uneasy. Many Germans I know over here have had this awkward moment of uncomfortable paralysis when they were first spoken to by a random friendly stranger. But once you are used to it, it's great. Mainly because Britons manage to make even conversations about weather somewhat entertaining.
The very language habits seem to make for a more friendly social culture. There is no polite pronouns, like in many other languages, so everyone is “you”, which already breaks some boundaries. Throw in the obligatory “mate” (or even “sweetheart”) and you already feel like you're part of the crew. Even communication with public officials is dotted with “mate” or “son”, and people will even crack a joke or two.
I was never a big fan of small talk, but the English have turned it into a delicate art form, and I respect them highly for it.
I frequently hear that while people here are easy to talk to, they do not (unlike, allegedly, Germans) make good long term friends. I have made quite the opposite experience, and my Brits are equally “deep” and reliable as my Germans.

The Rule of the Sugar Coating

My first encounter with the subtle conversational differences was at my job, when gave feedback on a colleague's work, with the effect that he was disgruntled for several days. In England, again like in Japan, you do not criticise directly. Instead, you must adhere to what I call the Rule of the Sugar Coating:

"When confronted with an unpleasant situation or potentially causing any discomfort to a person, even if justified or minor, first talk about something unrelated and positive. Once you have established a suitable agreeable surrounding, bring the issue to the forefront by using the mildest language you can, phrased in such a way that no potential blame could fall on you to be considered rude."

Imagine you are not particularly pleased with something someone has done at work, and you want him to change that. In Germany, the conversation would go something like this:

“Hey. You know the asset you gave me is not up to specifications here, here and here. Can you please redo it?”
Job done. No offence taken.

Now in England, it goes like this:
“Hey mate, how're you doing?”
“Not too bad, not too bad.”
“So, how was your weekend?”
“Nice, did X and did Y.”
“Cool. You know I really love those models you're making. They're really awesome.”
“Thanks, dude.”
“You know, there's just one little improvement, quite a minor thing, that would make my work with them a lot easier. Would you mind having a look into that? Only if you have time of course.”

After that you leave it to faith if your message came across. Maybe the English value politeness higher than efficiency. That would at least explain a lot about the state of the railway system.

Conversation Topics

For a country that claims to boast some of the world's finest universities, people are surprisingly averse to intellectual topics. More often than not I met people where conversation stops dead in its tracks when it's not about pop culture. Albeit an extreme, I have encountered many conversations akin to this real life example:

She: So, do you like the band?
Me: Yes, they're awesome.
She: The frontman looks a bit like this guy X from East Enders, doesn't he?
Me: Erm, dunno, never watched it. But I like the way he's going mental on stage.
She: Oh my God! You never watched East Enders?
Me: No, don't have a television, actually.
She: (looks at me with a blank expression) But...what do you do all day?

Being well educated seems to hold not too much value in Britain, your reputation as a fun person is much more important. While knowledge books and shows are reasonably popular, they are usually about interesting trivia you can talk about, rather than hard facts. Play a British version of Trivial pursuit, and you will notice the difference; the German version comes with the topics History, Music, Science, Geography, Art and Sport, whereas the British one offers you only one topic that isn't football, films and famous people. I figure it helps sell new editions as you have to update all the questions with the new celebrities.
Education seems mainly a means to an end, not a generally desirable acquisition, and is much more specialist, trying to get you into a job a soon as possible with as little fuss as possible.* Schools teach at a much lower level than in Germany, and from what my studying friends say, university in England is a piece of cake compared to France, Spain or Denmark. You can even get a bachelor's degree in tailoring or surf science.

*I'm not even saying that's a bad thing, it just leaves most of the responsibility on you to acquire some general knowledge.