Quite frankly, I didn't want to go to Germany in the first place. Yes, it was an important and necessary part of my degree (or, to look at it from another angle, a very welcome break from the usual tutorial grind), but I'd just finished an exhausting nine-month stint teaching English to a hundred and nineteen fairly nice French children and one pint-sized psychopath named Kévin, and all I could focus on was the idea of taking a very long holiday in an Anglophone country. Such was not, however, to be my fate. My aunt Sammy had arranged a month's stay with her relatives in Bavaria and there was no way of backing out.
My fate was sealed, and as I was dragged, weeping becomingly, to Heathrow on a portentously overcast July morning, I'd have sweetly remarked on the absence of Mr Brain if you'd told me that, a few months later, I'd be clamouring for a seat in the London-Munich flight. One of life's little ironies, neatly packaged in the easy-on-the-eye shape of Robert Deuringer, my (extremely) German boyfriend.
I can't quite remember why I chose to study German in the first place. Sure, Spanish was taught by a madwoman and Latin sounded too dull for words, but I don't know why I didn't take Japanese given the opportunities to gaze longingly at the strapping young Australian in charge. Still, perhaps through the workings of fate, I ended up under the tuition of Miss Curham, progressing from jokes about 'Fahrts' and the pronunciation of 'Schloss' as 'slosh' to a decent command of the language and the ability to understand all of the German invaders in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Of course, we got little opportunity to try out our nascent German comprehension on anything other than the baddies in war films. I remember racing to buy a copy of Lola rennt on video, since none of the local cinemas had shown it and I was panting to see whether I could understand anything coming from the mouth of a real live German other than 'Jawohl, Herr Kommandant'. When I was told I could do a unit on film for German A-Level I was utterly taken aback: surely the Germans don't make films when there are so many vile American blockbusters waiting to be dubbed and distributed?
It was quite a shock when I realised that the UK usually ignores the release of films - and there are many of them - that portray our Germanic neighbours in any light other than our eternal Nazi-sympathiser enemies. Why is this - because of our infamous linguistic laziness ('I'm not seeing that - it's in foreign') or because we just can't let go of the past?
I'm a linguist; I'd like to think that this lends my mindset a certain cosmopolitan edge. I should be open, impartial and enthusiastic about other cultures. Yet something, something that is endemic among the English, led me to laugh at my mother's notion that I should be optimistic about my trip to Germany since I might meet the man of my dreams there.
'What, a German?' I spluttered, and she laughed along too, because we all know, don't we, that the Germans are permanently condemned to be Aryan dreams with hearts of ice or else seventies-inspired mullet-men in shell suits. If they're not people to be scared of, they're people to be neutralised by taking the mick in that peculiarly English fashion.
It's a fashion that I found myself imitating during my time in France. Despite my proclamation that I would cultivate only Francophone friendships, the only way to bear the crushing loneliness of being alone and foreign in an unfriendly town was to run back to what I know. I chummed up with a motley coterie of English people and prided myself on the fact that we'd beaten Napoleon. If you feel threatened, you mock and denigrate what threatens you in an attempt to make it appear less scary. The English have lost their world superiority and therefore we cling to past victories and old stereotypes in order to guard some shred of our dignity and national feeling.
We all know, rationally, that contemporary Germans have as little to do with the shadows of National Socialism as we do with the British armies who invaded, pillaged and brutalised our former colonies in the name of imperial expansion. However, our cultural heritage is based on the tired retelling of past glories. It suits us to perpetuate the old stereotypes of other nations because that's the only way that the inhabitants of these insignificant little islands ever get to feel superior these days. That's why I couldn't possibly fall in love with a German, despite my supposedly international outlook: I'm English, and the English are brought up to believe that we're better than everyone else.
Fate really is a tricksy little blighter, isn't it?
My first day in Bavaria. I'd been up since five a.m., the flight had been turbulent and there was a smear of yoghurt on my new Antoni + Alison cardigan. My mood of numb anxiety was not helped by the fact that everyone was rattling on in an alien language which had nothing to do with the German I'd been taught at school. Whenever I spoke, I sounded like a 1950s newsreader spreading the largesse of Received Pronunciation. Luckily, I didn't speak that often. I just sat there with a bright smile on my face: this way, I figured, they wouldn't laugh when they realised I was stupid.
However, I'd been taken in by, quite simply, the kindest family in the world. Having an itinerant Engländerin as a houseguest cannot have been the easiest of tasks for them, yet they were friendly, generous and unbelievably welcoming. To the girl at school who once asked if Germany was really dark (to this day I'm baffled by her reasoning), I could give an answer resoundingly in the negative. The sun poured down, I was given my first lessons in Schwäbisch and cycling by Laura, the Kolbs' enchanting seven-year-old, and I suddenly began to perk up whenever Laura's cousin Robert popped round for drinks on the patio. Still, I wasn't hoping for anything: after all, what would a nice German boy want with an English girl like me? My anxieties about the national divide were seemingly confirmed on a Biergarten trip with some people from Robert's village.
I will call him Sven K, for fear of reprisals. Without bias, I can honestly say that he is the vilest invertebrate ever to clutter up God's green earth and I would happily dance on his grave if someone would only poison him for me. Hey, I'm a nice girl usually. I have a cat. I buy the Big Issue. What could possibly have riled me to this extent?
He laughed at me. He asked if I'd had tea with the Queen. He made that annoying oo-ooh noise when he found out where I was at university. In short, he made me feel small and miserable. I went home and sobbed to my best friend that I hated the Germans.
'But, sweetie,' said Charlotte reasonably, 'you love everyone else you've met. You've been really happy there. Aren't you just doing the same thing now that Sven did to you?'
She shamed me into admitting it. I'd been upset, so I'd taken the tried-and-tested English route of being mean to the Germans to make myself feel better. I felt dreadful, so I ran through what I loved about Germany:
Bullyparade. No wonder we spread the myth that the Germans aren't funny. We're afraid they'll steal our thunder. I tried to explain the camp Star Trek rip-off at home, but no one really got it. Michael Herbig, you need an English version of your DVDs!
Käsespätzle. Once more, we're completely wrong about an aspect of German culture. The food is fantastic, you get salad with every restaurant meal and any nation that serves up Spätzle slathered with onions and melted cheese has my vote any day.
Neuschwanstein. We need one of these. Let's face it, Prince Charles is away with the fairies anyway, so I'm sure a fairy-tale castle is just the thing for his next birthday. Make a note, your Majesty.
Cycle paths. I will never cycle in London or any other town until I'm guaranteed that I won't be sharing my lane with an eighteen-ton juggernaut. The Germans have made cycling safe and pretty, and they have less fat people than we do.
Robert Deuringer. Yes, in case you didn't work it out, Robert professed himself thrilled at the need to get a Lufthansa Frequent Flyer card, and within a few weeks he was visiting me in England.
My mother was thrown into a twittering panic. 'But what does he eat?' she asked frantically, a suburban Lady Macbeth. My father kept clicking his heels and barking 'Jawohl'. I tensely explained that Robert, being merely German and not a monster from outer space, would reveal himself to be perfectly normal if only they'd just calm down about the whole thing. Two friends would be waiting for a train home at my house when Robert arrived.
'Does he speak English?' Suz asked, her brow furrowed.
'I can speak German!' exclaimed Naomi brightly. I looked at her in consternation, and she shrugged and said 'Ich habe Angst vor der Taube.'. The mind boggles.
In the event, Robert was unanimously Approved: so much for all Germans being hateful, hmm? His English, which he'd coyly described as terrible, was more than sufficient to chat to my family and watch Blackadder. I suppressed uncharitable thoughts about the inability of everyone I knew to get beyond 'Guten Tag' and took Robert to the zoo, where he dropped a Bursting Bug into the meerkat enclosure and laughed at my distress (the cad). I was convinced that Anglo-German friendships would be severed if anyone found out about his meerkat murder attempt. In the event, a diplomatic crisis was averted and, as I flew into Munich for a return visit, it appeared that Anglo-German relations were tighter than ever.
You see, I wasn't the only English visitor in Germany at that point. Queen Elizabeth II was there too. In my blasé Englishness, I'd entirely missed the story - after all, why bother reading all the stories about the Royal Family when most of them seem to involve Prince Harry falling out of nightclubs? I was therefore fairly shocked to see the blanket coverage of the Royal visit among the German media, and the way that it was the topic of eager event wherever I went. The big question was, of course, whether she would apologise for British bombing in World War II, particularly the total devastation unleashed on Dresden.
At Kaffee and Kuchen (another marvellous German invention), Robert and I were at the house of the Kolbs, my erstwhile hosts and his aunt and uncle. His great-aunt was also there, opining in a trenchant fashion belying her frailty that the poor Queen wanted to apologise for Dresden, it was her subjects who were stopping her from doing so. Then she glanced up, saw me and stammered, 'Oh God, and there's one sitting over there...'
We all laughed and I shrugged it off. After all, her idea was just ridiculous. Wasn't it?
The dearth of UK coverage of this salient Royal visit compared to the German media's made me wonder whether we don't want to remember the war: more specifically, whether we don't want to think about our role in it. We killed soldiers and civilians by the million. They bombed Coventry and London, but we bombed Dresden, Munich, Berlin, Hanover...We shot down planes, we sank submarines, we machine-gunned our way to a virtual wipeout of Germany's young men. Historical diplomacy aims to veil this fact, because we won. We beat the bad guys; our methods must have been above reproach. If we view ourselves as barbarous murderers, our fragile sense of self-worth goes out of the window. We drove the Hun back and now we can continue to remind both ourselves and them of that fact forever, because it allows us to feel superior. The truth about our path to victory has a nasty habit of bringing us down, and we couldn't possibly have that, could we?
There's a big difference between honouring the past and being bitter about it. I am completely in favour of remembering our war dead and wear my poppy with pride each year. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the wars we fought, young people were willing to lay down their lives for their countries and their sacrifice should never be forgotten. I say 'countries' in the plural because over the past three years I have been present at ceremonies on the 11th November in England, France and Germany, and the emotion, I am pleased to report, remains the same whether the soldiers being honoured fell fighting for the Allies or for the Germans. We remember our war dead both to show our respect for their sacrifice and to ensure that such crass slaughter, the destruction of an entire generation, does not happen again. Does it not cheapen the selflessness and patriotism of all involved to still be wallowing, sixty years on, in the mindless stereotypes perpetuated by a wave of propaganda aimed at propping up our egos?
I'm sick to death of it, I really am. I'm tired of the people who flinch when they find out Robert's German. I'm bored by all the Nazi prison camp jokes (trust me, they weren't that funny in the first place). I hate the way that, on my last visit to Germany, Robert's sister Anna greeted me with a hug while her two friends stood gasping at 'Robert's Engländerin' as though she were a circus freak. Now I know that the difference between Anna's reaction and that of her friends is a salient one: because Anna knows me, the fact of my Englishness goes out of the window. The same is true of my family and friends and their attitude to Robert: they've accepted him for who he is and the only time that his nationality becomes important is when we start discussing how best to get to Salzburg for the Sound of Music tour. Suddenly, everything's easy. Yes, we won the war. Yes, the Germans lost. Any further questions? No? Right, then. Let's be friends and move on.
Incidentally, before you ask what I'm doing to promote my oh-so-lofty ideas, I've set up a dating agency. Seriously. You see, Robert being about eight million times nicer than any other chap I've met, and with him sweetly professing to feel the same way about me, we've elected to match up as many of our friends who are disgruntled with the opposite sex of their own country as possible. That's my contribution to Anglo-German friendship. What else do we need?
We need to stop feeling that England and Germany are mutually incompatible. And how do we achieve this?
It's obvious really: we in this country need to shed our island mentality through learning more about our cousins across the water. Show more German films and put them on in German cinemas (do you really think that anyone not wearing a black polo neck is going to go to an art house joint?). Show some European drama and comedy on television instead of the never-ending parade of American tat. Cover German news in the media. Up the amount of foreign language funding in schools: it shows willing, proves that we English do indeed have brains, and it means that we can go and mingle with real live Germans instead of staying, cooped up and afraid, in our own country. We're officially part of Europe; let's try and act like it.
You see, ultimately we're only afraid of what we don't know. We stick to the past because it's something we've been brought up with. We feel safe, and we feel big and clever. But the barriers will come down when we start viewing Germany as the friend and ally that she actually is. As I've discovered myself, the old adage is still the best. Take it away, boys:
'All you need is love...'