One of the most frustrating things about dealing with life’s thinkers is that it’s very difficult to know what they are thinking.
Rightly or wrongly, I count myself in this category. Often I am judged to be ice cool and level-headed because I never seem to panic or get upset. I can assure you that nothing can be further from the truth.
Instead, I process information slowly and react at the same leisurely pace. I am a firm believer in thinking before speaking but that does not mean that my thought process is in any way logical.
I am perfectly capable of rational calculation, but logic is merely one of the elements that goes into what is often a very eclectic thought process. Lateral thinking by all means, base instinct when called upon — and also more neurotic elements such as superstition and paranoia.
I am incredibly superstitious, doubly so in fact because I have incorporated German superstitions into what was an already impressive British portfolio. I will not walk under ladders and will always pick up stray pennies I see on the street.
The fact that this has nearly cost me my life more than once is no deterrent — if anything I regard the fact that I can face a bus head on and live to tell the tale as sure and certain proof that copper-scrimping is a bringer of good fortune.
I touch wood religiously — Germans also do this by the way. I will not light a candle using another candle and nor would I light a cigarette with a candle. To do so would mean that in Hamburg a sailor would die.
It does not help that I am a football fan. I have not washed my Dortmund scarf in fifteen years, although rational being that I am I have at least replaced it with a newer, cleaner model.
The paranoia is more productive and often born of bitter experience. I am quite comfortable with the fact that at any one time someone somewhere is talking about me behind my back. I sleep well with one eye open. I also refuse to accept anything as a foregone conclusion.
In life as in chemistry then, elements have to be mixed before I show a reaction. In football this has the embarrassing effect that I often find myself waving my arms about in protest at the referee’s decision while the teams have left the pitch for half time but otherwise, especially in Germany, the ability to maintain a poker face is no bad thing.
Just in the past week or so, the paranoia has been taking hold. It all started with my good friend Mr Pfister, the man who put me through my paces for my citizenship application.
I saw him again last Tuesday quite by chance. As you know, he shares an office with Mr Hasslehof at the immigration office. Mr Hasselhof, as you may remember, asked for a translation of my birth certificate. I decided to take no chances and dropped the document off in person.
I knocked and entered the office. Mr Hasselhof, desk on the left, was not there but Mr Pfister, desk on the right, recognised me. I explained the situation and handed over the envelope. He took the envelope and opened it, something I was expressly forbidden to do, examined the contents, thanked me and bade me good day.
He does a pretty good poker face himself, does Mr Pfister. Very difficult to read into, but the thought crossed my mind that I am certainly not the only customer he has had in the past three months. Why then should he remember me specifically?
As you know, I have never taken German citizenship for granted. The authorities can, if they find good reason, refuse me. Since I last saw Mr Pfister he will have asked the authorities in Dortmund or Bochum if there is anything that he should know about me and I have no idea what they have said. I cannot know what juicy tales he has been left with. Touch wood there’s nothing, but you never can tell.
I’ve had plenty of other stuff to do to keep my mind off it, work mostly. The university semester has restarted and so three times a week I get off the tram, turn left at the top of the elevator, walk round the nearest pillar and then veer sharp right to the office.
When I’m not doing that I have a lot to do teaching in companies, where I take the elevator no matter how near the ground floor the room is. I only use the stairs to go downwards, and that on Fridays only.
On Tuesday I get a half-day off. My usual Tuesday afternoon class has been postponed to Friday, the downside being that we meet on the seventh floor of the building. I decide to use the day to get into shape and set out along the route of the very first hike I ever did in Germany.
Back then I fell in love straight away. I got off the train at one of those stations where there are no buildings, just a platform and a glorious backdrop of nature.
Then as now I was the only passenger to alight, but things have changed since then. The viaduct over which the train passes is undergoing repair work after more than a century of service and the whole station is a building site.
The route, under the viaduct and along a valley of pine trees shrouded in mist, hasn’t changed much, and the nostalgia does me good. Timeless wonder of nature notwithstanding, much more than the bridge has changed. I never thought I would still be living here back then for example. I reasoned that it was only a matter of time before Britain joined the euro. I liked wearing a tie to work. There is also the small matter of my figure.
For that first walk I wore the same army surplus trousers that I’d used while working the various factory jobs I had on or around my student times. You need to be pretty skinny to get into genuine army surplus trousers you know — beer bellies are not exactly compatible with military life. Not that it mattered in my case because no matter how much I ate or drank I was in no danger of getting one.
Living here has changed all that. I fell in love with bratwurst and kebab and ate them every day because I thought that was what Germans did. I liked the beer, especially the price, and was determined to drink all of it. Perhaps because of its long-standing association with the German national football team I thought Nutella was healthy.
I don’t do that anymore. I now know that you couldn’t rot your teeth quicker with Nutella if you used it instead of toothpaste. Bratwurst and kebab have to be really good before I’ll touch them. I count the calories with everything else, admittedly using some quite liberal arithmetic. I’ll never get back into army surplus trousers but I’m at least something of an expert in damage limitation.
I was planning on going straight back home after the walk but having spent an afternoon thinking about weight gain I now really fancy a kebab. I really shouldn’t as I’ve made chilli-con-carne and I plan to turn it into burrito when I get into the house. Paranoia kicks in: If I have a kebab now, how can I reduce the calorie count later on?
I reason I can cut out the cheese and the tortillas later and go for a kebab now. I do just that, together with beer and Turkish pastries. Once you’ve had kebabs in Germany you’ll be able to walk past a takeaway in Britain every time. I have a Mars bar for dessert, figuring I can cut out one glass of wine when I get home.
On the train journey home I do the maths again, and also get back to thinking about the citizenship application. Surely they will say yes, and say yes soon. The armrests of the train sets are made of wood.
When I get home the first thing I do is check the letterbox. This procedure is not as simple as it is for most people. I must first press my keys against my chest before unlocking the box — not to do so would bring bad luck. The flap comes down and there are two letters; one a telephone bill and one from the city of Herne. This latter is very probably from Mr Pfister.
Before entering my flat the same ritual must be performed with the door as with the letterbox. Keys are pressed against chest before the door is unlocked. As I have letters in my hand I must open them before I do anything else. My superstitions are not entirely irrational — experience has taught me the value of this particular practice.
I remind myself that Mr Pfister has every right to say no, perform the usual procedure for opening letters (placing my hand in front of my chest) and open the envelope carefully (to tear the letter inside would also bring bad luck). I am now incredibly nervous but my instinct tells me I should not be.
Mr Pfister says yes. I read the letter left to right and up and down but it’s a yes alright. Official German is nuanced and complicated even for native German speakers and I briefly consider checking a couple of the verbs in a dictionary in case there is some weird other meaning to them but then I decide I am being silly. It’s a yes alright.
Am I now a German? Well not quite. I don’t actually become German until I pick up the certificate and I must call Mr Pfister to arrange an appointment. Immediately I start to list what can go wrong between now and then, coming up with only two possibilities: Either I rob a bank or I lose my British passport and cannot prove who I am. I dismiss both possibilities: This is as close to a dead cert as you’ll ever get in this life.
How do I feel? Well first of all I feel slighty confused that I’ve accepted something as a certainty for once. Nothing to be paranoid about, no wood to be touched. Relieved — I am nearly through with this, it has been remarkably quick and painless, and has only cost me three hundred euros.
For this I am grateful to Mr Pfister and Mr Hasselhof and also slightly amused: The letter is dated last Tuesday — the same day as I dropped by. I bet you any money Mr Pfister knew full well that my application was accepted — he was just waiting for me to hand over the last bit of paperwork.
I’m still in the process of reacting but I figure I’ll go for the cheesiest burritos I can — and slighty more wine than is sensible for a Tuesday. I’ll get back to you in the next couple of days and tell you what my reaction is when I know myself. At the moment it’s sill a little difficult to comprehend.
I open a bottle of beer and phone my Mum and Dad. I have good news and they will be happy to hear it. Touch wood.