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I’ve changed jobs and find myself I’m working in Basel, which lies near the border between Switzerland, France and Germany. It means, as I’m still living in Germany, that I’ve become a Grenzgänger, or what the French call a frontalier – someone who crosses a national border to go to work. 

There are a few stereotypes of the Swiss and there’s much about Switzerland that I’m curious about, however so far I haven’t seen a single cuckoo clock. That said there’s a big show on in town this week – a watch and jewellery exhibition. It typifies the other end of the Swiss sterotyp scale: the luxurious, money-laden gold-backed life of luxury. It pretty much lives up to the hype. Yesterday on my way home I saw a Luis Vuitton people carrier with blacked out windows giving way to a Lambourghini, and today a sharply-dressed couple sporting a Rolex bag.

The show is just a flash in the pan, though, and doesn’t reflect lives the lives of most Swiss. Wages are higher than the surrounding countries, but so is the cost of living. That seems to be breeding some resentment about us border-crossers (the Swiss may soon be introducing quotas for foreigners working there), but it’s not something I’ve experienced directly. Basel seems much like any other city. There are super-markets, kebab shops, people just going about their daily business. There’s the odd run-down building, some very smart bits and some buildings that look a bit the worse for wear. Apparently the crime rate is low, but I can’t imagine it’s significantly different to Freiburg.

So what’s my favourite thing about Basel? It has to be the Rhine. At lunch-time, if I have time, I take the five minute walk to the river-bank enjoy a stroll along its shores. In Basel it’s wide, but bridgeable, comparable to the size of the Thames in London. It flows impressively fast and there’s a ferry-boat that uses the flow to go across. It’s also lined with high, colourful buildings and so far I’ve seen canoes, ferries, barges and even the odd swimmer passing by. Living in the centre of the European land-mass, I miss the sea, but the Rhine gives me just enough open water to keep me going.

I’m rumoured to be a bit of a lefty, so it was with great surprise that I found myself the other day agreeing with David Cameron. The essence of the tight-rope he’s trying to walk on the subject of the EU is that he wants the UK to be part of Europe, but feels that the relationship with Europe needs to change. I feel much the same, although I’m sure we differ somewhat on exactly what needs to change.

Perhaps we often overlook the benefits of Europe. I’m now happily living on the continent with a wife who’s also a continental type. Neither of us has had to apply for a visa or work permit, we’ve just stepped smoothly from one country to another and got on with our lives. Do I need the security of knowing that bananas will be the same shape here as back in Blighty? No, I don’t. However, if I were running a business it’s nice to know that I could sell my goods in numerous countries without the hassle of bureaucracy from twenty-something different jurisdictions. There are considerable up-sides to the freedom of movement and goods.

Even more importantly, I’m not on the side of those who raised cynical eyebrows at the EU’s award of the Nobel peace prize last year. Please let me know when the last time as much peace existed between the member countries as has been for the last fifty years. Part of the raison d’être of the EU was to prevent the kind of problems the led to a couple of large-scale skirmishes at the beginning of the twentieth century, and numerous tussles before then, that centuries of monarchies inter-marrying had failed to stop.

Federalism is a dirty word, well in the UK it is. Going back just a couple of hundred years (or conceivably to the time of the grand-parents of my grandparents) and Napoleon was busy re-organising Germany from hundreds of city states into a few dozen regions. Some of the tensions that were there then still remain (think Lancashire vs Yorkshire), and so a federal system where each state has a large degree of self-governance is pretty much the only workable solution. The UK has been largely a fixed entity (ignoring Ireland) for such a long time that we often think of other countries in the same way. French as a language was only used around Paris up until around the time of the revolution and words of local argots are still used (the wife’s grandparents still spoke their regional language). How does that apply to the EU? Well, if your idea of nationhood and citizenship is a little more fluid, then you become more open to the idea that decisions about your life can be made at various levels. Some at regional, national, multi-national or global level and these things are not fixed with time. In the UK so much is concentrated at national level that we fail to consider the alternative.

So, what would I change? I’m not going to comment on specific policies, I’m going to chicken out until a later post. The one thing that infuriates me more than anything about the EU is that the parliament’s accounts have failed to be successfully audited for a great many years. How can an institution that wants to be taken seriously leave itself so open to accusations of fraud and not investigate such things properly, especially at a time when finances everywhere are under so much pressure and scrutiny? Von Rumpuy et all, please sort it out!

Despite its faults, I still firmly believe the EU has to exist and has the potential to be a benefit for every citizen of Europe. In the UK, we just need a little more love in the love-hate relationship we have with our neighbours across the channel and beyond.

It’s high time I said something about the German health system. It’s one of those things that Germans seem pretty proud of, but I just cannot get along with. Call me a raving lefty (you wouldn’t be far off the mark), but after a year here I miss the NHS (Britain’s National Health Service).

From first impressions, you would think that the German system is pretty good. You pay more, have a choice of any doctor you want to go to and all the practices are glitzy and staffed by chic, efficient looking people with Colgate smiles.

Then, you try using the system. First, you need to choose a health-care company, then a doctor, then a dentist, then a specialist for x, y and z, then a midwife, then a paediatrician then a …. you get the idea. I’m really confused the the pro-choice agenda in health exemplified in Germany and on the lips of many a politician in the UK. How is Joe Public (or yours truly) supposed to choose between one doctor and another, one paediatrician and another etc etc when there’s no centralised list or comparison information? Can’t we just try and make them all good and have a decent system to complain when things go wrong? Also, can’t my GP refer me to specialist for such and such, or at least give me some information to make an informed decision. So far, these kind of recommendations have consisted of ‘I think such and such might do what you want, here’s a phone number’. My wife had a minor emergency a few weeks back and spent an hour (with a German) phoning round half a dozen different doctors,starting from our usual, to be told they were all on holiday or couldn’t see her. In the end she went to hospital and was told in no uncertain terms that she shouldn’t have gone there. I’m confused as to what else she should have done!

Next, when they have their claws into you, it seems you need to keep going back for more and more. I’m really suspicious that a lot of the appointments we’ve had (including five at a dentist over one tooth) were not really necessary. They are just there either to reassure you that they are doing a good job and you won’t go elsewhere, or else they want the money for seeing you from the health company. There is never any chance of either of those possibilities from the good old NHS (although admittedly dental work can be an exception).

Is there something I’m missing about the German system, am I being an old-fashioned moaning Brit?  Probably. Talking to a well-informed doctor friend of mine, he assures me that a lot of German doctors are over-worked and want to go abroad and that the NHS offers the best value for money and quality of  care anywhere in the world (with the possible exception of Cuba). But then, he’s an old-fashioned moaning Brit too. It’s curious that the system Obama is putting in place in the US is, at least superficially, similar to the German system. That said, imagine the uproar if you tried to build an NHS in the States. I guess each country to its own.

After all that moaning, I’d love to hear if you’ve had a positive experience of health-care in Germany, or anywhere abroad for that matter, or any tips on how to navigate it! Even the locals seem to struggle some of the time…

For the uninitiated, custard is a sweet vanilla flavoured English dessert sauce. In short, it’s delicious. In fact, in my humble opinion, it is one of the pinnacles of British cuisine.

For many years I’ve been lazily reliant on packets of Bird’s instant custard and the occasional Ambrosia ready made custard when camping or sailing. That’s all changed. I can no longer obtain such things with ease so I’ve been investigating ways to replicate the brilliance of custard from raw ingredients. So, my first experiment was  ‘proper custard’. You use four egg yolks and a load of milk and, to be honest, it doesn’t taste like Birds!! I guess that means I can’t lay claim to being a great custard snob after all. I decided that there lay madness and a waste of eggs. Knowing that Mrs Bird was allergic to eggs, the cheap stuff is basically a white sauce with vanilla flavouring, so that’s what I made. This time, the taste was pretty good, but it looked awful, like anaemic vanilla-flavoured gloop. No, that wasn’t for me. So, experiment three was a mixture of the two. Here (tada!) is my recipe for delicious, good-looking, irresistable custard:

Put a dollop of butter in a pan and melt it

Add about the same amount of white flour (you can use corn flour if so inclined), about two heaped dessert spoons for a pint

Add milk, followed by one egg yolk and stir. I stir with a mixture of spoon (to get the bits round the edge) and whisk (to make sure it’s all dissolved in and mixed well).

One the sauce has thickened (the more stirring the better), add in vanilla essence, about 1tsp and sugar to taste (1-2 dessert spoons per pint is good for me).

Serve and savour. Mmm.

I find the egg just lifts the flavour and gives it a more classy taste, without being as strong as experiment number one. Let me know if you try it! To be honest, now I’ve found the perfect formula I don’t think I’ll go back. It takes about the same amount of time as the packet stuff and you can play around with the ingredients to get the optimal texture and taste.

Now, about custard in Germany. I’ve seen vanilla sauces, even in sachets, that amount to more or less the same thing. There are really two problems. First, the sachets are way too small and you’d have to buy loads of them to have a decent supply. Secondly, when I’ve been served it, it’s cold and to me it’s just not the same. Now I just have to work on the perfect crumble, sticky toffee pudding, spotted dick, treacle sponge…..

So, I started drafting this a few weeks ago, but it’s such a striking issue, I thought I’d carry on and put it out, anyway…

With memories of the European Football Championships now fading into distant memory, I thought I’d reflect on the difference between attitudes towards the so-called beautiful game between two of its great rivals. If you have a very good arm, we live just over a stone’s throw from Freiburg’s stadium (they’re in the Bundesliga, don’t you know!), so it’s something that’s quite literally close to home.

Football is an obsession in both England and Germany, but there are some differences. This struck me particularly just before Germany’s opening game of the championship. Lots of people were dressed up in German shirts, flags and so on, but not just blokes with beer bellies. It was really all ages: kids and teenagers all the way up to pensioners. Also, cars with German flags were everywhere. One thing that made me chuckle was that most places displaying a flag other than the German one also put up a German flag, just to cover their back and pretend that they might not really be English/Spanish/Italian/Croatian etc.

I guess my point is that the stereotype of a German supporter isn’t your beer-swilling ‘lout’. Freiburg is chiefly inhabited by middle-class hippy types – people who you would be surprised if you found drinking Pimms or wearing a grass skirt, but football and national fervour were very much in evidence during the Euros. The Formula 1 reporting is also fantastically (and hilariously) biased in favour of Vettel, Schumacher, Glock and the other Germans.

It’s a good thing to be proud of your team and proud of your country. I lived for a few months in The Gambia, where many people just didn’t have that belief that their country was a place worth being. This attitude simply perpetuated the status quo. We all have a longing to belong somewhere and sport often offers an outlet for this kind of tribalism. It should go without saying that you can take it too far, but I think that happens when you stop valuing other countries/teams/communities as much as your own. They might have a different kind of culture, different strengths and weaknesses, but their fans are just as passionate. So, if you’re going to put all your effort into supporting IN-GER-LAAAAND, at least be gracious in defeat!

By the way, and not unrelated, I’m still looking for comments on my last post to see what your stereotypes of Germans/Brits are. Outrageous suggestions totally acceptable…

 

With an upcoming international football tournament, it’s time to get those prejudices and stereotypes out of the closet. So, if you’re not German and reading this, what do you think Germany is like? If you’re German, or at least non-British, what are your British stereotypes?

The plan is to collate, add a few of my own and then see how well Freiburg life matches up to the German stereotype. As for the British stereotypes, it’s mainly because I’m curious and perhaps if you’ve got some experience of being a foreigner in the UK you can add your own comments.

So, ready, steady… form and orderly queue!

Apologies for a bit of a break, life’s been pretty busy lately, but I haven’t forgotten the blog, here goes…!

So, lots of my friends seem to have a lean to the left and some might even be termed outright hippies. That means that if you’re reading this there’s a good chance that you’re interested in what impact the food you eat has on the world at large.

It seems that this kind of concern has swept both Britain and Germany in the past few years, but with surprisingly different  results. There’s a bio obsession (pronounced to rhyme with B.O., which causes me no end of private mirth). Every respectable fruit and veg vendor will devote a large amount of space to organically produced stuff along with a whole host of other products. However, something is missing. So far I’ve only discovered four fair trade products: one brand of orange juice, some chocolate biscuits, brown sugar and roses from one shop.

Back in the UK the emphasis seems to be much more on fair trade, although you can buy most of your fruit and veg organic if you want to, especially through a veg box scheme.

Why should this be? It’s hard to say. I wonder if maybe it has something to do with the colonial history of the UK and hence a much greater feeling of connectedness to the rest of the world and its people. Maybe it reflects that German hasn’t entirely lost the connection with the land and appreciation of good quality food. Either way, I’ll be buying as much organic as I think I can afford and fair trade whenever I can find it.