How To Be Good

I have called upon to defend myself. I have been asked to explain some of my comments from the last entry. I must provide an example — and I will do so in due course — to illustrate exactly I mean when I talk about “German moralising?”

I am also accused of hypocrisy. Are we British not also tiresomely obsessive moralisers? Yes we are actually. We pepper our speech with pearls of wisdom such as: “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” and we tut-tut when we see people doing something they shouldn’t. Our language is full of phrases such as: “what goes around comes around” or: “he’ll get his comeuppance one day, you mark my words!”

It is impossible to explain what a comeuppance is to a German, or an Australian for that matter. We have an innate belief in Karma and natural justice that is not echoed around the world.

Only the British apply the principle of Karma to the weather: If there is sunshine in February we reason that it must rain in July because anything else would be unfair. For many years the great stumbling-blocks of Anglo-German relations were the two semi-final penalty shootouts between England and Germany’s footballers in 1990 and 1996. The assumption in England was that — as a penalty shootout is essentially a lottery — because Germany won the first one it was only right that England won the second. By winning both, the Germans violated the moral order.

Like the Germans, we are great sticklers for the rules. Just last week I discovered that the All England Lawn Tennis Club have produced a twenty-eight page PDF document detailing the regulations and procedures of waiting in the queue to buy tickets for Wimbledon. Only the British could write twenty-eight pages on the rules of queuing.

Germans do not tut-tut. In fairness, most of them also leave the moralising to the moralising classes — who tend to be, as you might possibly have suspected, older and more affluent than the median man in the street.

The good old German telling-off goes way beyond a tut-tut. If you are lucky it will take the form of a direct barking out of orders: “Get out! I’ve got the room booked for two o’ clock you know!” — that was the next lady into my teaching room at one fifty-five last Monday.

If you are unlucky it will take the form of a full-scale sermon:

“Tscha, Well think that if everybody just moved onto the platform then those of us who are getting out here could do so more easily. You’d think that people would be a bit more considerate but tscha!

This was on the train last Tuesday aimed at one of any number of jam-packed commuters who were so tightly sardined in that such a manouevre would have been impossible.  One favoured tactic of the moralisers is to aim their remarks at nobody in particular, thus preventing backchat. “Tscha” is the closest that German has to a tut-tut.

Trains are best avoided if you don’t like being told off. As I mentioned last time, if a train pulls up at the point on the platform where you are standing then you have precisely two nanoseconds to get out of the way of the doors before somebody comes through the doors and tells you off for standing in the way. Sometimes they shoo you from inside the train.

That you could not possibly know where exactly the train was going to stop will not pacify the moraliser. It will not help you to attempt an explanation, sermons such as the one above are often delivered on the move, thus allowing the preacher to disappear into the sunset having had the last word.

Among the telling-offs that I have received in my time here — and there have been many — some of my favourite include:

  • Crossing the road when the green man was flashing.
  • Attempting to steal goods I had purchased from a supermarket.
  • Parking my car in the wrong place ( I have neither a car nor a driving licence).

On the face of it, a sermon related to any one of these misdemeanours clearly sounds ridiculous — and you might well suspect that I am making this up. I assure you, all three incidents actually happened and they happened because the German telling-off is instinctive and not reasoned. Moralisers are firm believers in the old rugby mantra of “get your retaliation in first.”

In all three cases it was established that I was in the right. The moraliser is never wrong but it can at least be established that you are right and that he or she is in a position directly contrary to your own. Do not expect an apology.

I have nothing against open criticism. At work or with friends, Germans’ ability to criticise frankly and objectively is far easier to process than the sugar-coated British between-the-lines approach. But when it comes to perfect strangers and minor indiscretions I feel that Germany would not self-destruct if its moral guardians swapped the telling off for a bit of live and let live. It is not like we mean to hurt anyone after all.

We are none of us perfect. Where there is moralising there is hypocrisy. German also has moralising proverbs, one of the most famous being: “We mustn’t preach water while we slurp wine”. Many people do just that — and now to my example.

Once again this week my Tuesday afternoon class was moved to Friday. As a result, once again I had the afternoon free. Being at a loose end I decided to go to the sauna.

The rulebook for the sauna in Herne extends to six pages, about the national average for such publications. Many of them are self-explanatory, others are the polar opposite of what they would be in Britain, the most well-known being that whereas in Britain you must on no account remove your swimwear when entering a sauna, in Germany you are very much expected to be naked.

Of all the cross-cultural misunderstandings that exist between Britain and Germany this is surely the most famous. At least once every summer I talk to a German person who has been to Britain on holiday, fallen into this trap and had to be escorted from the premises cupped under a policeman’s helmet. Mild-mannered though we are, nakedness crosses a line that goes far beyond tut-tutting.

I would no more enter a German sauna in my swimming trunks than I would appear naked at a funeral but it stands to reason that if you do so you are unlikely to be arrested for indecent exposure. If, however, you do not follow the rules regarding the use of towels then you will unleash a fury which makes hell look like a beach holiday by comparison.

Towels must — on pain of death — be placed between yourself and any surface your skin may touch. If you lie down, the towel must cover the whole length of your body. If it does not, the staff are entitled by law to amputate your feet.

As rules go, this is uncontroversial. It is based on common sense and it is almost universally adhered to. It does, however, have an exception.

Most good saunas (and they are good, by British standards at least) also have a Turkish-style steam bath. Here, the rules regarding towels are the exact reverse. While it makes sense to use a towel on the wooden benches of a sauna, against the tiles and marble of a Turkish bath it would be unhygienic.

Today I go into the Turkish bath. I leave my towel and my swimming trunks in the appointed place and enter the closed, windowless steam room. As it is full of vapour it takes me a few seconds before I can see whether there is anybody else in there.

Through the mist I make out one man lying prostrate in the far corner. I head for the other corner and lie down. Another rule in these places is that there should be no talking.

I lie there for ten minutes or so. I am about to doze off when there is an unexpected sign of life from the other corner. A squeak, then a squelch, then a parp. As signs go, it is unmistakable. My neighbour has broken wind.

I am not a tut-tutter. I am frankly too shy to tut-tut. As I am also British, I know that to get up and leave now would be to acknowledge the indiscretion and embarrass my opposite number, who presumably did not intend to do this. And so I resolve to tough this one out.

About five minutes later, a third man enters the room. As both accessible corners are taken, he sits on the marble bench between us. On a towel.

Like I say, I am not a tut-tutter. I have no morals and yet I am a very moral person, as Oscar Wilde once put it. My understanding of how to tough out an embarrassing situation is to keep quiet, say nothing a wait for it to blow over (no pun intended). I am about to learn from my neighbour in the far corner that when it comes to toughing it out, there is another altogether more innovative strategy.

A couple of minutes later he sits up, sees that he is in company and fixes his gaze angrily on the man with the towel. “Hey!”, he says “you’re not supposed to bring that in here!” Now I have to leave. If I stay in here a second longer I’ll burst out laughing.

From a juristical point of view he is absolutely in the right. There is a rule about when to use towels under your bottom but there is no rule relating to breaking wind. With my British belief in natural justice and comeuppances and glass houses I am appalled that he had the temerity –but there is nothing about glass houses in the rule book.

I have just learned a valuable lesson about moralising. In my world those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. For the morally obsessed who live their lives by codes and rules the thinking is quite different.

When one finds oneself surrounded on all sides by glass, that is exactly the time to start lobbing projectiles. Not to do so would leave oneself open to marauders. When one’s lines are transparently bare, attack is the best form of defence. Similarly, if you are scared of getting caught with a bottle of wine in your hand, throw up a smokescreen by preaching about water.

Greenhouse-bombing happens a lot in Germany. Mention the phrase “drink water and slurp wine” and most people will think of Uli Hoeness, the millionaire football president who criticised German businesses for not paying their taxes and then got three years in jail for tax evasion.

This is not a uniquely German phenomenon, but it is one which is widely recognised as a problem here. Personally I blame Napoleon Bonaparte. It is thanks to him that Germany, like the rest of continental Europe, uses a codified civil law system instead of the eminently more sensible case law used in English-speaking countries. Where there are rules, people will cling to them and use them to justify their vices by victimising others.

I also blame my parents. If they had done the decent thing and baptised me into the Church of Scotland I would have found out about all of this years ago.

I shower, step into the cold pool, shower again (all in accordance with the rules), dry, dress and go home.

I’ve had quite enough water for one day. The first thing I do when I step through the door is open a bottle of wine.

2 thoughts on “How To Be Good

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