Sometimes — not often I admit — but sometimes, I think that it is Germany and not Britain which is the island nation.
From a physical perspective this is of course impossible. With a grand total of nine land borders no nation is anchored more securely to the European mainland than Germany. All of these nine borders are open so you can, under normal circumstances, cross any one of them wherever you choose, whenever you choose and without telling anybody you’re coming.
From a psychological perspective it is also difficult to imagine. Germany is the model EU state. Germans tolerate the worst excesses of the European Union in favour of the advantages that it brings; the country’s economy is powered by innovation, forward thinking and willingness to accept new ideas. German history is a constant reminder of the need for greater European cooperation and understanding.
And yet sometimes — just sometimes mind you — the country’s stubbornness and unwillingness to listen to others would probably surprise you. You really would think that they live on an island in the middle of the Pacific.
Take the idea of a legal minimum wage for example. Most developed countries have them. The United States has had one since 1938, the United Kingdom since 1999. Germany introduced this policy in 2015.
Nowadays it is set at €8.84 per hour –roughly on a par with Britain. But if you know where to look, Germany’s island mentality dominates a number of other issues: a rock in the ocean standing steadfastly against the winds of change, its defenders proudly waving the banners of thick-headed resistance and dropping stones on the preachers of common sense below.
Football hooliganism is one such example. Nowadays it is not uncommon for British visitors to take in a match and it is an experience that no fan should miss. However, especially if you opt for a lower league game, you might well feel that you have been transported back to England in the 1970s.
Security is often sadly lacking and punishment for offenders is loosely enforced. Closed Circuit Television is for the big games only; all-seater stadiums are effectively forbidden by law. Fights between rival groups can take on epic dimensions and far too little is done to prevent it.
The one saving grace is that, unlike at British games in the 1970s, no German will attempt to roll his match programme up and urinate in your back pocket. This is perhaps surprising given that the public toilet is another common sense invention which has never really caught on here.
Protection for Germany’s hedonists provides both freedom to and freedom from. Alcohol laws are among the most lenient in Europe –if you wish to sit at the bus stop drinking beer, or refresh yourself whilst walking through the supermarket — then you may do so at any time of the day you like.
That the country continues to function and has not succumbed to serial alcoholism can be attributed at least partially to the brewing industry’s Purity Laws of 1516. Essentially these state that all German beer must taste the same and so, for most drinkers, excess is kept in check by undiluted monotony.
Not all of these things are necessarily negative of course; many of them have been well-reasoned — and there is no reason that Germany should ever be obliged to follow the herd and change for change’s sake. But this week I am on holiday walking down the Rhine valley and I am reminded of one of Island Germany’s longest-running resistance movements.
I stop for the night in the town of Boppard. If you want to cram in as many German clichés as possible — cuckoo clocks, black-and-white houses, wine which rots your teeth, rude and unfriendly service staff etc. — into a short time then Boppard is the place to do it. The sole purpose of its existence is to pull in tourists and this it does admirably.
It is, however, on the route south and my aching legs will not carry me any further. I stop for the night and head to a pub in the hope that alcohol will numb the pain. I open the door I walk through a time portal. To a man, and there are no women present save the barmaid, the patrons are smoking.
When it comes to anti-tobacco legislation, Germany is to all extents and purposes an island. Of the nine countries which border it, it’s only in Luxembourg that you can smoke in pubs without restriction. Even the French, Europe’s most hard-core tobacco addicts after the Russians, have smoking bans in bars.
Germany’s love affair with the cigarette is one of the great undocumented romances of the last century. Slightly more Germans smoke (just over one in four men, just under one in five women) than is average for a developed country, but you could be forgiven for thinking that number was significantly higher. This is down to an extremely effective tobacco lobby and uncharacteristically fierce resistance to moves to improve public health.
I have had three job interviews in Germany; the interviewer smoked during two of them. In my first teaching job I was instructed to allow hourly breaks for the smokers on pain of rebellion.
Back then, smoking was permitted in both offices and trains and, while things have changed since then, I am still struck that, wherever you are in Germany — be it in the centre of Berlin or in the middle of the Black Forest — you are never more than two hundred yards from a cigarette machine.
Progress has been made. Trains no longer allow smoking and smokers in offices have to go to specially designated smoking rooms. The latter development has had a notable effect on corporate culture. Clever departmental bosses always make sure to employ a trustworthy chain smoker in order to have a finger on the pulse of company gossip as smokers exchange rumours and anecdotes behind closed doors. But it is the resistance to progress which singles Germany out as an island nation.
To be completely fair, the federal state in which I live is something of an island within an island. Unlike in neighbouring Lower Saxony, Rhine-Palatinate and Hesse, smoking in bars is forbidden in North Rhine-Westphalia.
It was a battle royal to implement this ban. In 2006, smokers in Scotland were thrown out into the cold and, after a series of “ifs” and “buts”, English smokers followed a year later. By comparison, NRW’s solution contained more “ifs” and “buts” than actual legislation.
Firstly came the arguments about partitioning establishments to form “smoker areas”. The philosophical arguments about what constituted a partition were endless. A friend of mine’s wife is a lawyer: She recalls how she had to take a case where a pub owner placed a line of pot plants across the floor and claimed that one side of the line was the smoke-free zone.
Then came the smoking clubs. I was a card-carrying member of at least two smoking clubs despite being a non-smoker.
Smoking clubs were not in fact clubs of any kind, rather they were normal pubs who exploited a legal loophole which allowed them to register themselves as clubs, take your name at the door, issue you with a card and then hand you an ashtray.
The only catch was that they couldn’t serve food. As such, smoking clubs often reverted back to being normal pubs at lunch and dinner times, or else only turned into smoking clubs only on occasions of high-octane hedonism: football matches for example.
At the height of the legal wrangling, people were inventing their own laws. Smoking clubs were often organised spontaneously during the early hours of Sunday morning. It was worth a try: nobody could understand the official rules anyway. Meanwhile, the shelters outside pubs to protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable lungs from the rigours of the elements became ever more elaborate.
In 2013 a total ban was introduced. In the most recent state elections, the winning party promised to rescind it.
They need not bother: When I go out of an evening then it often seems that many pubs have never heard of the ban in the first place. In one, the solution seems to be to allow smoking but not to provide ashtrays. In the pub where our football club meets I am told, amid the fumes of toxic ash, that “a solution has been found.”
Nobody is entirely sure what this solution is, least of all the landlady who sits on a stool behind the bar dragging on her John Players from a home-made cigarette holder fashioned from a metal coat hanger. The shutters on the window remain closed to contain the fumes and frustrate the suspicious eyes of the police.
At least our state has done something. Like I say, our neighbours in Hesse and the Palatinate haven’t even done that. And at least we haven’t gone to the same ridiculous lengths as in Bavaria, where they held a referendum on the issue.
All in all, it’s pretty pathetic. Resistance to change often is –and it is something which the British in particular are often accused of. I take consolation from the fact that the Germans can be just as stubborn.
I’ve had about enough smoke for one evening. One last drink and then off to bed.
You can say what you like about German pubs but at least they never call last orders.