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27th February 2021
1947 words/ 6 minute read

Dankeschön, Germany

“Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.” - German Proverb

My favourite place in Germany

Update

On the 13th of December I boarded an Australian repatriation flight from Frankfurt, Germany direct to Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory. The subsequent two weeks spent in government quarantine was not all bad. Sure, spending Christmas confined to a single room without a drop of Bavarian beer or family around was tough, but fortunately, there were some good lads in my block that I could chat with on breaks between coding my current business project. In fact, waiting out the two weeks at the periphery of the country had a calming effect, and was in stark contrast to previous arrivals in the motherland that can only be described as fleeting and rushed. Having lived in Germany the last two years, it feels good to be back home, albeit not on the terms I had imagined. Since being discharged from the government’s mandatory quarantine facility, and afforded some degree of freedom, I have repaired my 1994 Nissan Silvia, and settled into a short term apartment with my brother in the down, but not entirely out, Docklands area of Melbourne. We work long hours on the business and have achieved a number of significant milestones. Today is the first day I’ve taken completely off for 5 months.

Leaving Australia is currently prohibited, though my residence abroad would probably exempt me from this draconian overstep by the Australian government should I feel a strong enough desire to escape. Given the state of the world however, such drastic measures do not feature in my immediate plans, although staying put would be far more comfortable a decision should the the Prime Minister not poke the Chinese bear so often - or Google for that matter - lest we end up invaded or without access to google search. I am not done with the adventures though, and have been thinking about a big trip through a country that has always fascinated me - but that’s a topic for another time.

The Pandemic

While Qantas - the airline carrier mandated by the government for the repatriation flights - could not have been less enthused about its task, I do commend in every way the professionalism and hard work exhibited by the flight crew. Australia has been commended throughout the world for its response to the pandemic, and it is undeniable that there have been far fewer cases here than elsewhere. The result being mainly fortunate consequence of Australia’s following China’s lead. Monkey see, monkey do. While the virus ‘may’ have originated from the mainland, China has also shown the world how to quash its spread, an approach that Australia has largely emulated with an equally unelaborate debate on civil liberties.

It would however be difficult to imagine a less coordinated, less effective approach than that has prevailed within the union of European nations. Do not take this statement as criticism however, the point of this post is to express how grateful I am for what Europe, and particularly Germany, have taught me over the years.

Germany and Australia are in many ways complete opposites. Australia is an island that tolerates its neighbours, Germany is landlocked and shares borders with nine other countries. Germany excels in high end machinery and manufacturing, Australia relies primary industries in the form of mining and agriculture. More than a third of Australian exports are tied to China, Germany on the other hand benefits from a well balanced distribution of export partners. Australia has until recently always been on the ‘Winning’ team, Germany’s false start last century left the country and its neighbours in ruin on multiple occasions, with the continent enduring unspeakable suffering, something that remains heavy in the population’s psyche, and the ramifications of which are still felt and seen in an invisible psychological wall until this day (referred to in German as Die Mauer im Kopf).

All of this is well and good. That’s history after all, and sure the economies are different, but this is more a result of economic realities and pragmatism than anything else. I will never understand Germany the way a German does, just as someone who grows up outside of Australia won’t understand Australia the way I do. But I did learn the language, I did spend significant stints there on and off since I was 16 years old, and there is always that 1786 Scots language poem by Robert Burns to remind us of the advantage of being an outsider. The standard English version being:

Oh, would some Power give us the gift To see ourselves as others see us! It would from many a blunder free us, And foolish notion: What airs in dress and gait would leave us, And even devotion!

Rational and Reasonable Germans

The differences between Australia and Germany are far more profound and nuanced than those mentioned afore. In the end, Germany did succumb to imposing harsh, unforgiving restrictions upon its citizens under the pretence of combating the pandemic. My point is not to argue that this is right or wrong, but rather that it was different. No matter which side of the debate you are on, I hope you agree that it is acceptable to have a debate. In my view, the human costs of the restrictions that have been ushered in more than warrant such a debate, and Germany at least engaged in it. Early in the crisis, I was surprised at the massive crowds that appeared in Munich’s Marienplatz in opposition to the local state governments restrictions. These protests seemed like an overreaction to me, knowing that in Australia the measures were more far-reaching and painstaking. A few months later, far larger demonstrations swept the country with protesters attempting to storm the Reichstag (parliament building) in Berlin. Ironically, it is the Germans who are stereo-typically known for their blind obedience, and Australians for their rebelliousness. We are all ex-convicts after all right?

One of Australia’s most endearing qualities is the average citizens problem with authority. Anyone who knows Australia knows our egalitarian ‘fair go’ approach that surpassed class and demographic divides. Sure, it might not always be as much of a reality as we may like to think, but it is a thing. And yet, when I think about Australia today, what of that rebelliousness? It is prohibited to ride a bicycle without a helmet, the speed limit is often limited to 80 km/h on Melbourne’s four lane Monash freeway and the sensationalist media place the year 2020 alongside 1945 or 1914, when in reality, the deaths, while tragic, represent a minuscule percentage of the more than 500 million people who live on the old continent, the 320 million in the USA, or anywhere else for that matter.

Yet for all of their differences, these two - almost - complete opposites do share some common traits. The competence that runs through the veins of world-class German engineering finds another form in Australia in a practical, hard working, common sense approach to problems. An approach that more well befits the Australian economy, but is no less commendable. Citizens of each also exhibit some form of modesty, unless its in the realm of nudity in the German case. But difference or similarity is largely unimportant, albeit interesting.

In the summer, while Australian news reported about a Europe on the brink of corona virus catastrophe, borders were in fact open and many Germans were enjoying their summer holidays like it was any other year. (I know this, because I was mistaken as one of those Germans on more than one occasion!) The news medias sensationalism was unapologetic and regrettably, also ultimately vindicated. For these freedoms didn’t last long. But unlike Australia, I never perceived the level of utter fear in those with whom I spoke to in Germany or Italy, as those with whom I did in Australia. Too often have I heard that it was my fault I was abroad, that those abroad were rightly abandoned by the Department of Foreign of Affairs and Trade. To a point, they are right: I made my bed, and I never needed help, nor did I intend to ask for it. For anything my time in East Germany or in the deep dark depths of China has taught me that a good beer or strong baijiu can get you out of any sticky situation (or at least sufficiently defer). But what of the mother with three kids who broke down at Darwin airport? What of the elderly who saved their whole lives only to be stranded and abandoned for 11 months on the other side of the planet. What of the flight crews, who fly 16 hours non-stop, only to be quarantined and fly 16 hours back, all while wrapped in plastic. They are volunteers for goodness sake, and yet the media will castigate them for ‘spreading’ the virus even after their 2 week quarantine over Christmas.

One cold day, at a tram stop in the orderly streets of Munich, I found myself engaged in conversation with an older German woman, clearly in the ‘risk category’. “This is nothing”, she said her Bavarian variant of German, “for years after the war, we had no shoes, in winter some starved, we froze…”. And so it went on. But to compare is not to prove. Much like the individual resentment we hold within us from childhood or work or whatever it may be, there is always some other situation or person worse off, however discussion of this fact is entirely nonconstructive.

But if to compare really is not to prove, what then of the recent corona-virus deaths vs. combat statistic comparison? Currently they run rife on account of the United States virus death toll’s nominal resemblance to the combined figure of any number its - usually irresponsible - military escapades. Never mind the fact that in the case of war, most of those lives were young, and many conscripted. And what of the other team? Even conservative estimates of casualties in single conflicts such as Vietnam run into the millions.

This is not to diminish the harshness of 2020. It was a tough year in many different respects, but I am grateful to have been in a foreign place with an entirely different attitude towards it. It is for this reason, and many others, that I owe a great deal of thanks and gratitude to Germany and to Europe. While the bureaucracy, corruption and apparent incompetence of authorities there frustrated me at times, it is only with the benefit of hindsight that I realise how much weight is given to the implications of each encroachment upon the rights of citizens. Often this indecisiveness results in worse policy outcomes, such as in the case of the migrant crisis, or the ongoing economic malaise, and arguably also with respect to the current pandemic. But at its core, it comes from the right place and with at least some consideration given to its people, some of the time.

Germany is a fascinating country of castles, cobble-stone streets, lush green forests, crystal clear rivers and reasonableness. Its language reflects the directness of its culture - one thing I will dearly miss in Australia. Germany is my home away from home and I will always be grateful for the wisdom and knowledge I have garnered from my time there with its people.

To Germany I say, dankeschön.