You In Your Small Corner…

There’s another reason I think why Germany took in so many refugees in 2015 while Britain took in so few. It’s only a very primitive hypothesis so don’t quote me on it –but here goes.

Germans just need less space.

Like I say, it’s only a hypothesis and I haven’t really thought it through. I wouldn’t have thought about it at all if it hadn’t taken the bus to work on Friday.

It’s always a bit of a squeeze when you take the 303. It connects two railway stations  and picks up schoolkids of all ages, refugees on their way to their German course and commuters on their way to work.

Travelling by bus in Germany is something best avoided. There is seemingly no upper limit to the number of people the 303 can carry. Schoolbusses tend to only exist in rural areas and so you might want to consider bringing a good book and a pair of headphones.

The kids are on holiday at the moment so on Friday I got the best seat in the whole damn vehicle, the perfect place to do a bit of people watching — and also to witness a something that on a British bus would be absolutely impossible.

At the stop after mine we took on a lady with a pram. Not any normal pram either; a double-headed affair designed, I guess, for twins. There were already two senior citizens with mobility aids on board and a couple of stops later we took on a lady with a pushchair.

As you might imagine, it was a pretty tight fit — and every stop involved substantial transplantations of passengers, but it worked.

Now I’m not saying that in Britain that’s physically impossible but judges have become involved in such cases. As far as I’m aware, the German equivalent of the Supreme Court has never come up with a ruling stating that bus drivers must try to persuade other passengers to make room for wheelchair users and may stop the bus “with a view to pressuring or shaming …non-wheelchair users to move”.

It would be completely unnecessary in Germany. Germans are partial to imposing order through petty bureaucracy but nobody would see the point in this case. The sense of spatial awareness is very different to that in the English-speaking world

When I was in the US, my host gave me a tour of the house and garden, verbalising as he did so the American Dream with a phrase we all know from the movies. “I want to throw a football”, he said to me “without it landing in my neighbour’s garden”. The garden was large enough for him to do exactly that — and he went through college on a football scholarship.

Germans do not throw footballs, they kick them like the Brits. Like Britain, Germany is a comparatively small country. But neither is there an equivalent of the British concept of “enough room to swing a cat”.

I’m thinking out loud here and so I check a couple of translation websites to see if I can find a German equivalent. The best I can find for “there’s not enough room to swing a cat” is der Raum ist sehr klein.  How very literal.

I suspect that if you ever translated it word for word: Genügend Platz, um eine Katze zu schwenken then your opposite number would probably be hot on the line to the Tierschutzbund, Germany’s equivalent of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Germans live close together. Nobody wants to live in the countryside where commutes are expensive and jobs are scarce and so houses are built upwards rather than outwards. British houses usually have either an attic or a cellar; German houses tend to have both.

The attic is usually converted into living space, often connected by space-saving spiral staircases while cellars serve both for storage and — with the consent of one’s partner — as a man cave; often equipped with a bar, hobby room or similar marriage-preserving hideout.

While most German couples strive to save enough to put down a substantial deposit on a house, there is no social stigma about living in a flat such as there is in Britain. Unlike in the UK, singles or couples without children rarely buy houses. That would be seen as a waste of money and space, space which in this day and age is becoming increasingly expensive to heat.

Blink when you’re travelling through German country towns and you miss them. What from a car window appears to be little more than a couple of streets and a petrol station turns out — upon googling the number of inhabitants — to be the sort of place that in the UK would be big enough to have a WH Smiths, a McDonald’s and a lower league professional football team.

A foreigner might wonder where all the people go, and would probably be surprised that the average living space per person is actually on the increase — up from 19m² in 1960 to 42m² today. What’s more, it’s actually more than in the UK. My my, one might think, aren’t those Germans organised?

Don’t believe a word of it, especially if you’re out and about.

A British person travelling by train and bus through Germany will have enough confirmation of some of the juiciest German stereotypes to last a lifetime. There’s no smoke without fire here, I must warn you. Germans who travel to London often praise the discipline of the British commuter –and have no intention of replicating it back home. Stand on the right, walk on the left of the escalators has been tried in Germany on occasions and has failed miserably.

In a similar vein, when entering a carriage it occurs to very few people to move into the middle. German does not have an equivalent of “room to swing a cat”, and nor does it have an equivalent of: “don’t stand in the bloody doorways ya wee eejit!”, as Scottish parents are so fond of saying to their children.

Nor does it occur to anybody in Germany to spread out along the platform –often the fullest trains have seats free at the front or rear, gathering dust and cobwebs, as yet undiscovered by intrepid commuters, unloved and untouched by human bottoms.

Perhaps it’s because the British live on a small island with a large population that they see the need to create physical distance when out in public. Such distance is rarely required in Germany. Tables in cafes are shared when no other seating is available and at sausage stands and beer halls sharing is often the only option.

A British visitor should bear all of this in mind — and also take a deep breath or two — when confronted with the ultimate German indiscipline: queuing.

Bloody Germans, so goes the theory, just don’t know how to queue. Actually this isn’t quite true, but do remember what I said about smoke and fire.

In actual fact, the German concept of queuing is so refined that there is not just one system but three and, for the sake of your nerves, I’ve listed them below.

First up is what I call the “Classic English”. As the name suggests, it follows the same sort of principle as practiced in British post offices. People stand in a line, one behind the other, and wait to be served. Neither pushing in nor stepping on the heels of the person in front of you will be tolerated and it is all very orderly.

This method of waiting in line is used most often in post offices and supermarkets, although in the latter case you should be aware that if another checkout is opened then the modus operandi switches immediately to system two, the “Free-For-All” principle.

Again, the name tells you all that you need to know. First come, first served. In supermarket queues the result often follows the Gospel of St. Matthew: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last”. Don’t expect anyone to hold your place just because you were in front of them.

More commonly though, this principle applies at beer stands and it does have its plus points. It is actually very egalitarian because physical strength is not the only attribute which will aid you in the struggle. Smaller, more nimble people can duck under elbows whereas larger patrons have to rely on brute force to get to the bar. In this way it is similar to the game of rugby, from which I suspect that it draws its origins.

It’s only fair to point out that British pubs work in the same way but I would ask you to bear in mind one subtle difference. In Britain, the punters may not know who is going to be served next but the bar staff certainly do. You cannot make a British barman see you if he doesn’t want to and no amount of heckling or waving of notes will change his mind. In Germany by contrast it’s worth a try. Generally your chances are improved if the person doing the serving is of the opposite sex.

Finally, there is the uniquely German Reißverschlussprinzip: the “zip principle”. Originating as a form of traffic control where two lanes merge into one, the concept can also be used when queuing.

When it works, it is fair and effective but unfortunately this is not always the case. In baker’s shops or other establishments with long counters patrons often spontaneously adopt this method by deciding that the official queue is too long, and so the only course of action is to start one’s own line fanning out in the opposite direction. Others may or may not follow, other queues may or may not appear, the serving staff may or may not need trauma therapy.

I’m still thinking out loud here. I’m not actually sure anymore that my original hypothesis really makes sense. I think it’s just that our perceptions of space are different. With our planet’s population growing maybe the best thing to do is to learn from each other as to the best way to budge up.

I admit that I do not practice what I preach. I have 50% more living space than the national average and I could do with more in order to properly store my clutter.

I’m only speculating so I’ll leave these thoughts with you. I’ve got to run in any case. More precisely I’ve a bus to catch. Got to learn to drive one of these days. Got to.







4 thoughts on “You In Your Small Corner…

  1. You`ve stirred a memory for me here.

    3 years ago 2 of us overnighted in Dufftown, Scotland – home of Glenfiddich whisky. It was a dreadful, wet night and we breezed into the local pub for food and drink. The `lounge bar` had a private function in progress. The public bar was packed and there were no tables available.
    Six German guys (age 35-40) made room for us at their table. Nobody else offered, although it would have been perfectly do-able. We got what we wanted and bought the lads a dram. They reciprocated, and so did we. A lively conversation developed from which we found out that the guys were from Wolfsburg and were on a whisky and darts tour. So – a relationship developed.

    Does this tell us something about German folks? Use and wont perhaps ? – or maybe just fellow pilgrims on the whisky trail. Dunno.


  2. Certainly the dutch need still less space than germans 😊. About queueing up and standing on the right side, that is something the german hasn’t internalized. “Verinnerlicht” we would say, which is still a bit more. What english people do by heart and by themselves, we here would need some advice for. A proper sign or someone to direct us would certainly help 😉. Just look at a parking place with no lines on the ground- it’s pure anarchy where german drivers put their cars …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s just a question of priorities -British kids learn things like that from an early age but don’t learn other things that are equally important. I do admire the Dutch mind you but I think I would go crazy if I lived there!


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