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The cold war stalks a fearful shopper in Germany

Hamburg, Germany
February, 2006

"So what colour do you think we should paint the hall?"

"Ummm...White? No! Yellow! Uh... what's the right answer?"

Like most men everywhere, it comes as a surprise that walls have colours, carpets actually exist and that curtains are not just some piece of cloth from somewhere. Indeed, on being asked what colour my current curtains are, I had to go and check.

I discovered I fact had venetian blinds. It just goes to show, you can never tell.

OK, I decided, curtains are a good idea.

"Do you like this pattern?"

As I do almost every day in Germany, I panicked.

Smiley's War

The cold war may have ended 17 years ago, but daily life in modern Germany still feels like a spy story. Fear dogs your every footstep. The fear of being discovered, and everyone you see is a potential member of the Stasi. You have a mission to perform - buying a light-bulb, say - and whatever happens you must succeed, and you must not get caught...

It all comes from the deadly speech gap. You see, like most foreigners, I can stumble along well enough in German in conversation, as long as I have a couple of seconds to process the language. Among friends, not a problem, but with stragngers expecting an immediate answer to a perfectly simple and polite question...


Someone asks directions. They wait patiently while I tear through their question, wondering, what the hell was the question? Their face takes on a strange and inquisitive cast as I feel the heat and pressure build up at the back of my neck and I know I've been caught and god get me out of this - it shouldn't be so hard I've studied German to an advanced level and can make jokes about famous pop stars for god's sake and what was the question again?


It couldn't be worse if the KGB had stumbled onto my cache of secret diagrams, and then pulled my trousers down in the street.

A waiter asks if I have change - panic.
A granny asks if this bus is going her way - panic.
A child asks for his ball back - panik.
Someone just looks at me as if they are about to say something then merely clears their throat - panic!

Before long I'm hurrying through the samp grey streets of the old GDR, head down, collars pulled up to bury my face in my scarf, afraid to look up afraid to catch anyones's eye. Afraid to be caught.

You can tell a foreigner in a foreign land simply by his smile. A terrible, fixed, cold war smile under glazed eyes, the deathly grin of a man caught by a Stasi who simply had to ask whether the next train train was leaving soon.


Forget about woodland retreats or meditating in India. If you really want to discover the truth about yourself, just decorate a new flat. I have prided myself on my manliness before (for example, here). Of course I was a man. I can name all the characters on Star Wars, and ! never ask for directions.

But... lay a carpet?... paint a wall?... insert one of those tent-shaped blades in the trickety knife thing (you push, you pull, it clicks, you slice your hand off)? Um, no. It seems that in all the years of my life, university education and all, I did not learn a single thing of value. I mean, sure, I can tell you when best to use a semi-colon, or what the capital of Kenya is, but have I a single real man-skill such as how exactly does a light fitting stay up? Of course I don't.

One can learn. One can purchase a book, full of useful instructions (in German) and pictures (of a smiling 1970's disco dancer with permed hair and Bulgarian polyester trousers) and go through it step by step.

Step one. Vorbereiten... Get ready your tools. OK, carpet, check, knife check,.... Hakenklinge... Um, that's, uh, hook-shaped blade... Oh crap.








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