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English as a foreign language

Living as a German in an increasingly English-speaking world

2010-12-01: There is going to be a terrorist attack in Germany.

How do I know that? Well, actually I don’t. It’s just that I think it is inevitable. There have been attacks in the US, in the UK, in France, in Spain. Why not here? It is going to happen. And it’s not such a big deal as some people think.

People die premature deaths. That’s not nice, but it’s a fact of life. People die of preventable diseases, they are murdered or run over by a car while crossing the street. They die in accidents in the home, in house fires, air crashes. They drown, suffocate, starve to death or die of thirst. According to some estimates, in Germany alone, up to a 100,000 people die prematurely each and every year in hospitals from infectious diseases they hadn’t even contracted when they went in!

Money and effort are dedicated to try and prevent these premature deaths from happening. Which, of course, is good. But there is the law of diminishing returns, which makes it advisable to spend some money of effort to prevent the bulk of easily preventable premature deaths, accept the rest as a regrettable fact of life, and move on to spend the rest of the available money and effort on a different kind of easily preventable premature death. “Effort” in this case includes inconvenience and hassle caused to people.

As an example: about 40,000 people die in car crashes in the US every year. Could all of these premature deaths be prevented? Maybe not. But many of them? Absolutely. Easily even. Outlaw driving.

So why isn’t driving outlawed if it could save so many lives? Because the effort involved isn’t worth it. Outlawing driving would so severely disrupt our daily lives that we accept a certain number of victims to be able to carry on with our present lifestyle. Which is absolutely fine.

Interestingly enough, the same approach is taken even in the light of the recent terrorist attacks (or attempts at such attacks) with air cargo. The TSA (the government aviation safety people in the US) has concluded that requiring all carriers bringing air cargo into the US to screen all their cargo for bombs would “unduly impede the flow of commerce”. It’s the law of diminishing returns again – the disruption would be unacceptable in relation to the risk incurred, so we’ll live with the risk.

Unfortunately, such level-headedness does not prevail when it comes to screening airline passengers. There is a simple reason for this – humans react with irrational panic to extremely rare incidents with massive negative consequences such as loss of life, like a terrorist attack or the crash of a passenger aircraft or train, while numbly accepting the much more common tragedy incurred in everyday events like in-hospital infections or highway deaths, with a much higher death toll overall. So in order to be seen doing something to counter the – if considered rationally, rather insignificant – terrorist threat, massive security theatre is enacted, with tremendous inconvenience and material loss to passengers, not to mention their dignity when given the choice of being virtually stripped naked in a perv scanner or fondled in the genital area by a TSA agent.

The sinister side to this: because we act this way, the terrorists have won. The primary aim of terrorism is not to kill people. It’s to instil terror. And that has worked remarkably well, even if the attacks themselves have mostly failed. All of this is helped by the fact that a general feeling of panic and anxiety in the population is advantageous for the incumbent government, so governments like to foment this feeling. (This, I think, applies to Germany as well as to the US and other countries.)

With this, I’d like you to refer you to an article by David Foster Wallace, which I found on Bruce Schneier’s outstandingly level-headed blog which I suggest you all read. My hope is that you are not blown up in mid-air by a bomb in a package that couldn’t be screened because that would unduly impede the flow of commerce right after you were made to dump your $100 bottle of champagne because it just might have been the missing part of a bomb.

2010-10-27: We’re not all like that!

I am aware that, just by following the press coverage of leading German “politicians” and their “thoughts” over the last few weeks, you may think that Germany has turned into a racist Nazi state again.

Let me assure you that many ordinary Germans, like myself, don’t think along those lines at all, but see the facts on the ground.

“Multikulti”, the German model of a multicultural society, has not failed as our chancelor has said, quite to the contrary. It is alive and kicking all over the country. German society would not be anywhere near the same were it not for the influences we have enjoyed from outside our narrow cultural sphere. And, by and large, we like it that way.

Germany has a society that relies on immigration for survival. More people pack up and leave than come to stay, every year; we need to change that trend, and urgently. It’s clear that is in our own best self-interest to control immigration, like any immigration-dependent nation does. But first we need to make Germany an attractive country to come to and settle in. Racist comments are not the way to achieve this. Not having English as an official language puts us at an disadvantage already – no, I don’t want to change that, but you need to take this into account to keep things in perspective.

I’m not saying that there are no problems with migrants refusing integration. There are. But hey, there are Germans with no migration background who refuse to integrate into mainstream society. There are specific problems as well, like honour killings or forced marriages. Those are intolerable, no two ways about it. But they need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis rather than by lashing out at immigrant communities in general. That is counter-productive.

We need to be welcoming towards everyone who wants to come and live and work together with us, and accept minimal standards of civility. Wherever they may come from. Please feel welcome to Germany.

2010-10-22: Flying out of London

Flying from Gatwick this time, but the same applies to Heathrow as well.

They won’t tell you your gate at check-in, like at a decent airport. (Hey, in Berlin-Tegel I can look up my gate on the web before I leave home, so I can tell the taxi driver to let me off directly in front of it!) They probably don’t know yet, either. So you are shooed into a “lounge” area with lots of very expensive shops, restaurants and bars, but not always enough seats, much less seats with a view to one of the screens on which the gate info is displayed at some point, without an announcement.

My boarding pass tells me that the gate closes at 19:25 – if I’m not at the gate at that time, I can be denied transportation. The info screen tells me the gate for my flight opens at 19:15, but it doesn’t tell me which one. It also helpfully informs me that it takes approximately twenty minutes to reach the gates farthest away from the lounge. Hmm. This isn’t going to turn out well.

Well, I have been through this procedure at Heathrow often enough to know that there is no real reason to worry. In Heathrow, sometimes the announced “Gate opens” time passes without any further information. Yesterday, in Gatwick, the screen switched to “Go to Gate 22” at about 19:10. Guess what – Gate 22 is one of the gates farthest from the lounge. But any reasonably able-bodied person like myself can reach Gate 22 in less than ten minutes. And the gate doesn’t close at 19:25, it’s probably more like 19:45. But you are still reduced to stare at the info screen around the announced time waiting for it to change silently. Standing.

Somehow I, as a passenger, don’t feel taken seriously. I am just a “pax”, countable like sheep in a herd, a piece of cargo that is even expected to move itself on board and off. No attempt is made to make me feel comfortable and cared for, I am expected to do my very best to make things go smoothly.

It’s not that I don’t like London. But I don’t like its airports very much, I’m afraid.

2010-10-02: Staying out of harm’s way

Stuttgart, the capital of the German federal state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg, is currently one of the hot spots of German politics. The planned demolition (partly underway) of the historic central railway station to make room for a new, underground station, with the associated destruction in the city centre (which is where central railway stations tend to be located in Germany) and the few green areas located there, brought hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters to the streets. Police responded in the only way the know: physical violence, water cannons, tear gas.

I will be attending a conference and exhibition that is billed as being “in Stuttgart” next week. Boy, am I relieved it is not really in Stuttgart, but in a hotel near Stuttgart Airport, quite distant from the city centre.

My heart goes out to all the victims of senseless police violence, be it protesters, be it people from the area caught between the lines of a fight that should never have happened.

2010-09-17: Welcome to my new blog!

Finally, I have decided to start an English-language blog in addition to the several German ones I already have. In the course of the coming weeks and months, there will (hopefully) actually be some interesting content where right now there is only this.

So feel free to subscribe to this blog’s feed and be the first to know when the fun really starts!

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