Parachute

Mani is visibly relieved.

It’s the first game of the season and whistle has blown for half time. Our lads are playing down in Rielasingen-Arlen, a village on the Swiss border whose amateurs have been paired against the superstars of Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund can only lose, and Mani knows it.

“Close him…tighter…close him down…tighter…tighter…TIGHTER!!!…close him…close him…TIGHTER! CLOSE HIM! TIGHTER TIGHTER TIGHTER!!! Aw F…REUS YOU IDIOT!!!”

It’s usually more entertaining to watch Mani watching the match than it is to watch the match itself. The trance-like cursing and instructions to the bench are punctuated only by occasional puffs on an endless cigarillo.

The game is over five hundred miles away but he is taking no chances: He is wearing the team’s shorts along with bright yellow boots. As he’s ten years older than myself it’s unlikely that he’ll get a call up.

The lads are just about managing without him and have established a comfortable 2-0 lead. As the whistle blows for the break he exhales for the first time in three quarters of an hour, releasing a mushroom cloud of smoke that blackens the already overcast sky.

To talk to him during the game would be the equivalent of poking your finger into the spring of a trigger mechanism but when he snaps out of his trance then he’s actually pretty communicative. Now that Dortmund have established a position of safety, he’s laughing and joking and telling stories again.

He tells the one about the first time he came to visit me in my old place in Dortmund. You’ve never been there of course; suffice to say it would remind you of Hitchock’s Psycho and the rickety old house above the Bates Motel.

“So anyway, I go in there I’m thinking like ooh fuck. I put my hand on the stair rail and the thing nearly falls away. And the cables! Bare wires everywhere! Brian says he’s left the door open because the intercom’s not working. I go up and see a light coming through the doorway, a pair of paratrooper boots on the doormat and this wacko Prussian military music blaring out of the stereo and I think like fuck…I must be in the wrong building. And then Brian pops his head round the door…”

He’s exaggerating of course. I do NOT own paratrooper boots.

As for the stereo, Mani has no idea of culture. That “wacko Prussian military music” is actually the March Of The 18th Hussars. Philistine. I attempt a defence but it’s too late. Everybody is laughing at me.

“That’s our Brian”, says Big Pat. “More German than the Germans”.

As I am wearing our supporters’ club T-shirt with the Dortmund eagle on the back I’m in no position to launch a counter offensive so I just have to go with the flow. After all, they raise a valid point as far as my attempts to gain German citizenship are concerned.

Why exactly do I want a German passport? Is it just a parachute from Brexit or do I actually feel German?

Military marches and the eagle crest are not forbidden in Germany but they are not exactly in good taste. The Lion rampant and the bagpipes are a rough equivalent in Scotland, with one subtle difference.

You have to really go some to be overly patriotic in Scotland. I once went to Glasgow with the guys I’m watching today’s game with. As we walked down Argyll Street we passed a man with a shaven head pushing a pram. He had the Scottish saltire tattooed into his skull and the thistle running down the back of his neck.

“Is…that normal?” everybody asked.

I had to think about it.

“Mmm…not really. But it’s not particularly strange either”.

Patriotism in Scotland might occasionally be in bad taste but then again, who wants to be tasteful all of the time? Both Scots and English embrace kitsch in a way that Germans seldom understand.

In Britain if you wear something that is over the top and you know it is over the top then you are making a deliberate statement and therefore it actually looks good. Statements in Germany have to be unambiguous.

In Scotland if you wear the lion rampant on your chest then the worst that will happen is that you single yourself out as a tourist. In Germany, wearing an eagle on a t-shirt will attract some very funny looks indeed.

We’ve had comments about our t-shirts and to be honest it’s water off an eagle’s back. If people want to think it’s right-wing then that’s up to them: the eagle was Dortmund’s mascot long before it was appropriated by the far right and we’re not giving it up just because they’ve taken a fancy to it. I wear mine with pride and it looks very good with a kilt.

As for the military music, well there are plenty of festivals you can go to where you watch the marching bands and then get drunk in a beer tent. If you know the people well enough, you might even be allowed to join in the shooting contest that marks the highlight of the event.

Such rifleman’s festivals are a hangover from the pre-Bismarck days and while some of the people there are hardline bigots, most just want to get drunk with their friends and neighbours and people they haven’t seen since they went to school. It’s a home town thing, although I’ve always been made welcome as a stranger.

One of the side effects of Germany’s rabid nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century is that people tend to reel against anything that smacks of nationalism or pro-German sentiment. Thus the March Of The 18th Hussars is seen not as a rousing tune but as a war cry.

At the same time, everybody likes the bagpipes because they’re ethnic and hey, who doesn’t love Scotland? I find this strange because they were both written with the express purpose of leading troops into battle and nothing else. I also don’t understand why very few people would admit to watching Das Boot but everybody likes Braveheart.

Most Germans would not see this contradiction and so to the charge of being “more German than the Germans” I should probably plead guilty rather than get on the wrong side of Big Pat.

I think there’s a reason I’m like this. Britain is comfortable with history in a way which modern Germany probably never will be. Even now, seventy years after the end of the war, it’s quite striking when you walk into a German bookshop that the most well-known “German” historians are actually British.

The fact that I’ve read a lot of these books is perhaps another indicator that I’m actually NOT very German. Personally I still believe that reading history is a good thing, but it comes with an essential caveat.

Like it or not, the battlefield narrative dominates our view of our past. Write down five dates that you can remember from your school history lesson and I bet you at least three of them are connected to some war or another.

I personally like to read stuff like this, and I accord the Germany the same level of respect as I do my own country. You will never hear me claim that the Germans started the First World War for example. I’m not a warmonger but I do care about the past.

This is kind of thinking is, I’m afraid, not very German. Many of the things that fascinate me about the country do not attract the same degree of fascination from the natives. I identify with Germany very strongly and yet I suspect that I do so in a very British way.

Often I do feel German, but in a way that nobody who was actually born here ever would. I admire many aspects of Germany that a native born German would dismiss on sight. For this reason I’ll always be different.

That’s not a very good answer I’m afraid but it’s the best one I can give you. There’s no point trying to find “German-ness” in the same places that you might find its British equivalent. On the other hand, there are many aspects of the German world view that I’ve taken to heart.

For one thing, the town, the city, the village or the province comes first. Germans identify themselves with their home towns more than with the nation state and I’ve grown to appreciate this. As a concept, Heimat is much more than “home” could ever be –and the prevalence of Lokalpatriotismus means that even the grottiest town manages to make its long-standing residents happy in a way that Wallsall or Loughborough never will.

The day that Mani came to my house we were going to watch an international match: Germany against Scotland. Mani likes to see Germany win, but only under certain conditions. The most important of those conditions is that all of the players must come from Dortmund. Anything else smacks of conspiracy, especially under the reign of the current coach.

According to Mani, the game against Scotland typified Coach Löw’s inherent anti-Dortmund sentiment. It started with the first name on the team sheet. Löw had picked Manuel Neuer ahead of local boy Roman Weidenfeller on the dubious grounds that Neuer is widely regarded as the world’s best goalkeeper.

It’s probably good Mani has such strong feelings about Joachim Löw. With Scotland trailing 2-1 and with two minutes to go, a pair of clumsily aimed Scottish boots went careering into the knee of Germany’s star midfielder, Dortmund’s Marco Reus.

“That is just typical!”, cries Mani “why didn’t he take him off sooner, why? Typical bloody Germany!” Thank Christ he thought like that. Tackles like that can end international friendships.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to complain like a German. But if history, sporting success and pride in the colours doesn’t inspire much in the way of patriotism, it’s perhaps fair to ask what exactly Germans are proud of.

This is not an easy task because Germany is a nation which doesn’t react well to compliments. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks listing the country’s achievements and most of them would be brushed away in an instant ever brought up in conversation.

Economic miracle?  Bah! American money. 2006 World Cup? We bribed FIFA. Germany’s such a wonderful country? You wanna try livin’ ‘ere mate. The list goes on.

Pride in one’s home town is one way in I guess. The easiest way to get on the right side of your German host is to pick out the positives in the place they live. Pride in the country’s development perhaps — not necessarily its economic development but in how far it has moved spiritually since the bad old days of the 1930s and 40s.

Germans pride themselves on being open to foreigners and are keen to show how far the country has come from the intolerance and aggressive nationalism of the Third Reich. I think that if you asked a thousand people here which historical event made them feel most proud to be German then about half of them would go with the 2006 World Cup.

For all the books I’ve read on German history, I honestly can’t offer a better suggestion. This is the side of Germany that I like to talk about when people ask me why I’m still living here –I remember how surprised many visitors were about how open, friendly and fun-loving Germans actually are.

For all of this, it’s still difficult to really determine whether I feel German or not because it’s very difficult to define what “being German” actually means. The citizenship test tells us something about what the state perceives as German values: tolerance, acceptance, democratic representation, respect for the law –and these are values that I share wholeheartedly.

The flip side of the coin is that I can’t really tell you what is means to be Scottish or British either –and in this I suspect I’m not alone.

Many years ago, I read an article which asked various British celebrities, politicians and intellectuals what they thought it being British actually meant. The responses were many and varied but the one that still sticks in my mind was from the journalist Martin Bell, who gave his considered opinion and then summed up with one phrase.

“Being British is about apologising when somebody steps on your foot.”

Respect and tolerance for those around you, unwillingness to offend or stand out from the crowd, the wish to create a pleasant climate for everyone. I thought that was pretty good.

I doubt very much that Marco Reus will apologise to Charlie Mulgrew for being on the wrong end of that two-footed tackle but maybe I can find an equivalent image to leave with you.

I would be tempted to go with something which hinted at adherence to regulations, willingness to cooperate, establishing order, fitting in, not standing out from the crowd. Not that far away from Martin Bell’s thoughts actually.

Maybe being German is about paying your taxes on time, or turning the music down after ten o’ clock. Or waiting at a pedestrian crossing until the green man flashes — whether there are cars on the road or not.

Yes, that would be my single image. Being German is waiting for the green man at the side of an empty street. These days I actually do that, at least when there are kids or police cars around. That’s my single image, but I’d love to hear yours.

I sang both anthems at that football game by the way.

 

 

 

 

 

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