Balkan Relations: Navigating the Minefield of a History of Conflict

 I’m coming to the end of a month-long trip, which started in Innsbruck, Austria, and took me through slowly (but not slowly enough) through Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia.

I’ll write another entry later on, which will serve more as a travel blog, but for now I wanted to talk about Balkan relations, while a few conversations are still fresh in my mind.

This last month has been fantastic, and in no small measure because of the people I’ve met. Staying with locals has been a lot of fun for obvious reasons; they know the best and cheapest paces to go out, they know the ins and outs of a city, they introduce you to their friends. But another reason is the stories you hear, and considering the history of conflict in this part of the world, you get some pretty interesting stories.

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Where I’m At Part 2 – A Series of Vaguely Linear Thoughts on Life in Aachen

So it’s been a while.

The purpose of these 2 articles has ostensibly been to direct people who ask the inevitable “so what are you actually doing” question to something. I decree that an update is in order.

Last time I updated people on life, I was in the first two weeks of a Language Course that ran for another four weeks. I made friends with some fantastic people, and when the course came to an end and they trickled out, I was very sad to see them go. But it happens. We’ve kept in touch, and I’ve seen a few since.

What happened next was 80% my own fault, and mightily frustrating. I was planning on living in Brussels for three weeks with my then-girlfriend before heading down to Northern Spain through France to visit a friend. But my tourist visa was almost up, so I headed to the foreign office to get a Working Holiday Visa.

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I mean, it’s not the worst place to be stuck in

Now keep in mind, last time I acquired a German residence permit, it took 2 days. YES, it took a whole lot of running between offices, but once I had the required documents and was sitting in the right office with an appointment, the process took half an hour and there was a 2-page visa in my passport. I figured the process wouldn’t be too much different.

Turns out that when you have lived in Germany, they have a file on you. It being the site of my student exchange, I had a file in Freiburg. They needed to get that file from Freiburg, combine it with the new documentation in Aachen, send it to Berlin, then send me a notice telling me to come and pick the permit up. I asked how long this would take.

“3-6 weeks.”

Turns out all this sending of files is not done electronically. They send actual physical files. Seems inefficient, but whatever.

“I’m going to Belgium next week, when…”

“No you’re not.”

They gave me an extension on my tourist visa to allow me to stay in Germany, but only in Germany. There’s no way around it, this was my fault. I might be good at organising things last-minute, but this is something that I should have sorted out a month beforehand. Regardless, plans for Belgium were on hold. Plans for Northen Spain were still a possibility. I was set to arrive in 5 and a half weeks. German efficiency will see me through, I thought. I booked flights.

8 weeks later, no visa. Freiburg still hadn’t sent the file. FREIBURG STILL HADN’T SENT THE FILE. So they gave me a 3-month visa to get me around Europe. This was on the 22nd of April.

I’d done a little in the meantime of course. Though not much in March. In late February I was faced with the issue of having no house in Aachen, yet no option to move to Brussels and a desire to stay as close as possible to the Belgian border. I asked a friend who I’d met very recently if he knew anyone who needed a Zwischenmieter (someone who lives at your house and pays rent whilst the normal resident is on holidays/on an internship), and he sprung into action, finding me accommodation within an hour. It was only for a week, but I’d already found another house for the rest of my stay in Aachen, which would have to last the full 6-week sentence, all of March and some of April.

I was lucky enough to meet some great people. Lukas, who I lived with for a week, eventually invited me to his farm in Kevalaer for an epic Easter Fire. I took a trip to the Drei-Länder-Eck (meeting point of the Dutch, German and Belgian borders), which was lovely. And I got to tag along on a private tour of the Cathedral in Aachen (again, thanks to Lukas). There were some cool things that came out of that month.

Quick stroll into Holland

Quick stroll into Holland

But it was boring. March was boring. My friends from the Language Course were gone, my friends in Aachen had exams, the relationship became stressful for both parties. I worked though, got some savings, swam a lot, became a movie geek and cooked plenty. Not wasted I guess, but boring. I said during the Language Course more than once that I wished I could stay in Aachen another month. Well, I got my wish.

But don’t worry, after April 7th things got better. So, so much better.

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The Museum of Broken Relationships

I’m sitting at a café in Zagreb, with a metallic beer and a stomach full of quite possibly raw chicken, a product of a complete lack of effort in attempting to find good cheap food. I feel as though I’ve been kicked in the solar plexus by Eric Cantona, yet I am in extraordinarily good spirits.

The cause is the museum I’ve just come from. It’s called the Museum of Broken Relationships, and I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. For starters, it’s the only Museum I’ve ever been to at which read every single one of the exhibit descriptions. And it’s not so much of a museum, more a permanent exhibit. I know that sounds foolish, but when you’re there, you realise it could really pass off as the sort of exhibition a larger museum would have in their foyer. Regardless, it seems to truly be one of a kind.

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Where I’m At – A Series of Vaguely Linear Thoughts on Life in Aachen

As some of you may know, I am now living in Aachen, a small town in far West Germany (seriously, you can’t get any further west, it’s just trees and then France).

I’m completing a German language course here, as one of the other things that I’ve discovered over the last couple of months is that my German has taken a bigger drop in quality than Charleston’s tap water.

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3 Things I’ve Learnt About Myself During The Past 7 Weeks

Whilst I’ve always said that travel is one of the best forms of self-discovery, I had stopped thinking about this long ago, as I figured that change just happens gradually, and you noticed it down the line.

But nothing has become more glaringly obvious to me at once than the changes I’ve noticed in the last 6 weeks to who I was two or three years ago. I thought I’d write some of the less personal ones down here.

1. That Accent Stays Strong

I’ve previously written that my accent is more neutral than it used to be. Whilst this may be true, it remains indecipherable at times. If I’m left in a room with an Australian or Brit for 5 minutes, the full cascading wrath of the Australian accent descends. I was in Hamburg recently, catching up with a close friend who I hadn’t seen in close to a year. There were a couple of others there, a Pakistani girl with a white-knuckled grasp of English and a German girl with a slightly less firm command over it. At one point I turned to the German girl and asked if she got what I meant. She simply shook her head and told me she never got what I meant.

It might be slightly more neutral, but it’s still there. My experiences in a Krakow hostel recently confirmed my suspicion that I’m not nearly as incomprehensible as others. Faint praise, if any. Continue reading

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5 Weird and Wonderful Things About Poland

I am currently on my way to my new home after about 6 weeks on the road, and have decided to get back to blogging after a moderately deserved break.

I’m on a bus from Krakow to Warsaw, which will be followed by a bus to Berlin and finally, a train to Aachen. I’ve been in Poland for the last week, and thought I’d share another bunch of surface impressions in the hope of encouraging others to visit here (but I’ll probably just end up annoying more Polish people than I already have).

1. VODKA

“Look, I’m not saying you all drink vodka, I’m just saying that there’s 8 people here and there’s 8 vodka glasses on the tables.”

I had a lovely conversation with a Polish girl last night, who got offended that during her time in Perth, a lecturer asked her in front of the class whether she was alcoholic and drank vodka constantly. Whilst her indignation at being asked this in front of a class is understandable, the fact that she’d had 2 shots worth before 9pm and that the tables we were sitting at were littered with vodka glasses made her incomprehension that the Polish could possibly be seen as drinking a higher than usual quantity of vodka slightly less understandable.

The Polish drink more vodka than beer. More vodka than wine. At New Year’s Eve, we were offered 2 choices with our table: vodka and vodka (2 different varieties though, be fair). I’ve never met a group of people who have downed quite so much of the stuff.

They have some great traditions that go with it too. Can’t take another one? Have some bread with pure lard slathered all over it and you’re good to go.

They do drink other things though.

2. HOT BEER AND STRAWS

This was first brought to my attention by my father, who had been in Poland roughly a

Nastrowie

Nastrowie

year beforehand, and was amazed that people would just sit around at all hours of the day, drinking beer out of straws.

I didn’t notice it until I got to Zakopane, when I sat down with my friends at a restaurant and ordered a round of beers. 3 came out with straws in them. They were warm. And I’m not talking British-room-temperature warm, I’m talking beer-version-of-Glühwein warm. Which is essentially what it is. Spiced, hot beer. Drunk through a straw. Served as a pint.

And my god, is it good. As my German friend described it, “a hug from the inside”. My favourite was a bitter version with a bit of cinnamon and cloves, but you can get sweet beer with cranberries as well, along with what I’m sure is a host of other selections.

3. OH, THE HOMOGENEITY

I’ve mentioned before how weird I found certain parts of Germany. But it’s nothing on Poland. I’ve never seen so homogenous a population. A friend described it as “90% white, 90% catholic”. Where the other 10% are from, I’m not sure. Probably Australian tourists, judging by the contents of hostels in Krakow.

4. TOILET SIGNS

The male/female fertility symbols on toilets, I get.  It took me a while, as when I was in Year 8 a classmate got them switched around and I followed his lead for about two years, but I got there. But In Poland it’s just TRIANGLES AND CIRCLES. WHAT!!!

I'm still not 100% on the rationale

I’m still not 100% on the rationale

It took me a while to figure out, chance glances in to see whether they had urinals being the basis of my guesswork when other people weren’t around. I’d constantly forget which shape I’d used though. And one can’t always peek discretely into toilets, lest an unsuspecting female be lurking particularly quietly. So you can imagine my relief when I arrived at a quaint little restaurant 10 or so kilometers outside of Zakopane, and they had the respective genitalia drawn down the middle of both shapes. That sort of thing sticks.

5. THE CREEPIEST GINGERBREAD MAN IN THE WORLD

Whilst I am glaringly aware that this is not indicative of Poland overall, I feel it deserves a mention. My cousin and I were wandering down Florianska street in Krakow, when we noticed an individual with a gingerbread-man-from-Shrek costume on. Bite taken from him and all. And an enormous frown.

It wasn’t quaint, or cute. It was really quite creepy. The creep factor was heightened by the fact that he would randomly gurgle screams at passers-by. The real tipping point came when he shuffled ominously over to a poor girl who was getting money from an ATM. She was understandably terrified and backed into an alcove as he made his way towards her, his 9 foot frame blocking out the rest of the street. After a couple of pelvic thrusts, he seemed to decide it was time to move on.

So there you have it! Let me know about anything you loved about Poland as a visitor below.

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Christmas in Europe

I left Australia on the 24th of November, in a mad dash for pastures not necessarily greener, but certainly a different shade for inspection. Brown-ish in Germany, I guess. Barely visible in Iceland under a ridiculous layer of snow.

I was asked a couple of times why exactly I chose to mosey on over here right as Europe was poised on the brink of a winter that actually happens at some point and you’re guaranteed not to have to wait sixteen years for. I mean, it was negative eight in Iceland and we were only three days into December.

It’s because of CHRISTMAS!!!

Now I’m not really one for Christmas in the traditional sense. I’ve spent one Christmas

Never mind Santa lurking in the background

Never mind Santa lurking in the background

with my family since 2007, am not big on receiving or giving presents anymore, and I don’t drink coke. But there’s something about Christmas over here that just gets under your skin, in a nice way.

Let’s start with Christmas Markets. I don’t want to be as clichéd as to say that there’s “something in the air” (unless Bill Nighy was singing it), but you really can feel a bit of excitement when you visit a German Christmas market*. Despite how absolutely packed they are sometimes, the buzzing of hundreds or even thousands of different people at these always generates an atmosphere that can get you genuinely excited that Christmas is only a few weeks away.

For any new players, Christmas markets are a collection of wooden stalls, which sell a huge variety of things, normally with some sort of Christmas-based theme. There’s candles, Christmas stars (include link), huge amounts of food (usually including regional specialties) and the mandatory alcohol that comes with nearly any special German occasion. This usually takes the form of Glühwein; heated, spiced wine. This is good for any occasion of course, but it’s best when imbibed in the freezing cold of German Christmas, gathered around a huddle of friends.

Doesn't snow often, but it happens

Doesn’t snow often, but it happens

Any self-respecting German town has a Christmas market, I state now in my brash Australian (potential) ignorance. And anyone can turn up, pensioners to preschoolers, doctors to drunks. There’s nothing odd about seeing a few suits turn up for a quick cup of glühwein during their work break. A friend and I were walking through one section of the Christmas Market on a Monday around midday, and it was packed, prompting my friend to ask “do these people not have jobs?”.

I get pretty attached to these things. Freiburg has pretty much your basic Christmas Market. It has everything a regular Christmas Market has, and nothing more. But it’s Freiburg’s. During my exchange Freiburg was my town, and by extension its Christmas Market became my Christmas Market. I have wandered through the stalls as they were being deconstructed on the 23rd twice in my life, and it feels like a friend is leaving town, rather ingloriously, being shepherded out by a bunch of people you don’t know and who therefore have no right to take apart this wonderful being.

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Crepes and gluhwein get the nod of approval

The days of Christmas are doubly strange, because all your German friends are back with their families, celebrating together. This means that you generally either spend Christmas with one of your friends’ families, or with a bunch of international students in the same position as you. I tend to go for the latter. European Christmases are a big family thing, and something about intruding on this bothers me. And I do enjoy spending Christmas with friends, content in the mutual knowledge that you‘re not the only one without your traditional family, and not the only one who doesn’t mind.

Of course, once Christmas is gone, you’re left with the harsh reality of winter. This is why I detest spending January in Germany. Exams are approaching, it gets colder and colder, and one can only go skiing so many times. Take me to Portugal.

But I’d never miss Christmas here.

*It’s not limited to Germany by any means, but it’s what I know best, so let’s go with it for now.

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5 Regrets From Recent Travels

I’ve been all over the place these last 3 weeks, flitting from city to city in no discernible pattern, and have had a lot of fun doing it.

But there are a few things I missed out on, which I’m not 100% happy about, clearly.

Most of these come from my hatred of planning when it comes to holidays. On my first trip to Europe, I had everything planned out down to the fine print, and knew where and when I was staying in each city for roughly the first 2 months. Whilst I had an amazing time, planning a trip so thoroughly became restrictive, and I missed out on a few things I would have liked to do, as I had somewhere to be the next day and simply couldn’t change my plans.

In the last 5 years I’ve swung dramatically to the other end of the spectrum – “let’s just rock up to a joint and see what’s going on, mate”. This is a LOT of fun, it’s flexible, and you get to travel with others that you meet along the way. BUT, there are downsides, and the following five things are generally a product of a lack of planning.

1. Alcatraz

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I was going to swim, but apparently it’s not practical

I didn’t know much about San Francisco before I arrived there, except that Magneto can use the Golden Gate Bridge to get from the coast to the Mutant Cure facility, and that Sean Connery’s been to a certain rock once or twice. So naturally, I wanted to visit Alcatraz.

The mate I was travelling with at the time and I decided to see Alcatraz on our last day, before flying out. We didn’t book on the first day, or the second. Instead, we waited until the day before to sort out some tickets. Sold out. 5 days prior. “You could always get there at 5am, when the lines start, and maybe get a ticket then?”

Next time, I guess.

2. Soul food in Harlem

My New York friend Simone decided that on the last day we should head to Harlem on a Sunday (my last day in New York), right after the churches finished up and the gospel choirs were out and about, and grab some soul food. This sounded brilliant, and I could not have been more down.

So come Sunday morning, after a night out at the Brooklyn Brewery, a few of us headed to the local diner to await the arrival of Simone and co., and decided to get a bit of food while we waited, which turned into a rather huge breakfast. By the time the others turned up, we had all completely forgotten about Harlem and its surroundings, and were enjoying free coffee refills and Challah French toast. Come 3pm, it hit me, and subsequent regret set in.

3. Visiting 5 Pointz

I’ve always been an ardent hip-hop fan, and despite never knowing much about graffiti, I knew of 5 Pointz, a warehouse in Queens which is essentially Mecca for graffiti admirers and artists the world over. Unfortunately, one week before I was due to visit, the owner of the warehouse decided a whitewash was in order, and the building went from almost the definition of vibrancy to another depressing building, bathed in a quagmire of boring.

But although my visit would really just be a post-mortem inspection, another New York friend and I were still dead keen on going and paying our respects. It wasn’t until a week later that I realised we’d completely forgotten to make time. My level of irritation can only be described as akin to when this damn computer keeps Americanizing all my words.

4. Volcanoes in Iceland

I even wrote in a previous blog that I wanted to do this. Ever since Eyaköfelafelfelafl exploded in 2010 and brought flights to and around Europe to a grinding halt (amongst other things, stranding my mother in Switzerland), I’ve wanted to see it.

Lack of planning and a seriously poor estimation of the size of Iceland meant that it just wasn’t practical to do in the time I had. Maybe, had I organised myself better and not spent so much time watching the sun rise and set every day, it would have been possible. Ahh well. I already know I’m going back.

Eyafeluckenggevoop

Eyafeluckenggevoop

5. Booking Tickets For American Psycho

Not heard about this? They have musicalised Brett Easton’s ’91 ‘classic’. Continuing the trend of slightly left-of-centre musicals that have come out recently (Book of Mormon, Yes Minister anyone?), the powers-that-be have decided that Christian Bale’s brilliant turn as Patrick Bateman wasn’t enough. But I don’t care, because Matt Smith is playing Bateman.

The first run sold out in 5 hours, so I’m not exactly angry at myself for missing that. But when the second run came out, I missed that too. I’m hoping this goes on for a while, because unlike the other items on this list, I’ll get a chance to rectify this one soon.

Whilst this is obviously a list of regrets, I’m not too badly bothered, as they all give me incentive to head back to a few countries and set some things straight.

If you have any similar regrets, leave a comment below! As always, thanks for reading.

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My Eternal Struggle With Accents

In America they think I’m British, in France they think I’m German, in Germany they think I’m Dutch. In Spain they think I’m mentally handicapped.

I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always been terrible with accents. Anyone with some knowledge of whatever language I’m speaking can tell in about four seconds that I sound like a have a potato in my mouth, as an Argentinian friend who barley spoke English himself managed to tell me.

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‘Bout right.

Let’s start with my regular accent. The Australian one. I’m often told that it’s fairly neutral for an Australian. I’m hoping this is not made in comparison with Paul Hogan or Stevey Irwin, in which case I’m not really sure this means anything. It’s like saying that Colin Farrell has a fairly neutral Irish accent when compared to Brad Pitt in Snatch.

All that aside, I’m well aware that my accent used to be much broader. It’s been a result of spending a great deal more time around international students in the last two and a half years, not all of whom have fantastic English skills. You simply can’t speak in crazy ochre dialect with a girl from Barcelona who has to ask her British friend to translate it into normal English. I came up with 2 options.

  1. Speak to them as fast as you like, but in a much exaggerated version of their accent, in an attempt to help them understand you, and simultaneously show them that their accent can also make it hard to understand them and that they should make an effort to get used to the Aussie accent. I’ve used this a few times, but I felt like such an arse that I shelved it alongside the other last resorts (saying the same thing louder, and google translate), and switched to option two.
  2. Forego all slang whatsoever, speak with as little accent as possible, use small words, and even switch phrasing to make it more akin to direct translations in other languages (eg. ‘make a party’, ‘take a drink’).

After a while, this tactic starts to rob your of your accent. Even when it floods back into my speech, which it did as soon as I was left alone with other Australians, I still feel like the aussie twang was somewhat dimmed.

On a side note, Americans (or anyone else) thinking that we’re British doesn’t bother me anymore. Our accents are bound to be a lot closer to each other, Australia having only been settled by the English two and a half centuries ago. And whilst we get exposed to the American culture from an early age, when was the last time your average Yank watched Offspring, SeaChange, or even Neighbours? Give them a break.

The other accents? Well, my German version has always been pretty terrible. I love the German accent, and my mother’s hochdeutsch is spot-on enough for a few Bavarians to mistake her for a Hamburger. So I really have no excuse for doing such a poor impression of a German. And it didn’t help that when I finally did develop a tiny hint of an accent, it was heavily influenced by my roommates, who were for the most part Schwäbisch, and from a region whose accent is heavily ridiculed even by other Germans (hell, even by other members of their own state).

I still don’t know why other Germans constantly mistook me for a Dutchman though. I’ve never been terribly offended by this, as my Opa, who I like to think I take after, was a proud Amsterdamer and a booming Dutchman to boot. A drunk Münchener recently explained to me that he thought I was Dutch, because I’m tall and don’t understand German very well (he was Bayerisch, for god’s sake). Faint praise, if any at all.Image

I like to think that my French accent is a little better, but that didn’t stop a French teacher in 2011 holding the class up until I gave the correct pronunciation for a certain sentence. Yet I feel my excuse for any mishaps in my French is quite valid; whilst French places a considerable amount of emphasis on consonants, Australians have always insisted on pronouncing about half of the consonants in any given word. Still, I feel like anybody who learns a language on and off for roughly twelve years should have some sort of mastery over SOME form of regional accent. Ahh well.

As for Spanish, I barely speak any of the language, but my professor was Catalan, so there goes any chance of using what little vocabulary I do possess in a legible manner.

At least I’m tall, I guess.

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5 Minor German Inconveniences That I’d Forgotten About

Having recently made a return to Germany, I’ve noticed a bunch of little things that I’d forgotten about which I really don’t appreciate in this country.

I’ll spare you all the attempted eloquency of my introductions and get right into it.

1. The bloody football channels

Sitting down to watch the football in a pub on the weekends is common, and I enjoy doing it, but my god, is it irritating. Whereas in Australia and America, one channel will play one match at a time, the German broadcasters seem to think that constantly switching between games is a good idea. There doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern, and due to the relative infrequency of goals in a football game, you’re lucky to catch many of them. What is the point of sitting there and watching tensions build and momentum swing if the channel gets changed 5 minutes before a goal gets scored just so you can keep up to date with other scores?

I remember sitting in a bar once while Bayern Munich were slaughtering a hapless mid-tier German side. The broadcast would be showing another game, the announcer would shout “München Tor!”, they would switch the channel to show the replay of the Bayern goal and the celebrations of the players, linger on the match for a few minutes, then switch back to another game. This happened four times.

2. The Inspection Shelf

German toilets have a need to show you exactly what has just come out of you. It’s

The inspection shelf

The inspection shelf

disconcerting. There’s a large proportion of the toilet bowl which is flat, and accommodates your items of defecation for you to peruse until the toilet is flushed. This apparently comes from the medieval days, allowing people to inspect their removed intestinal debris for signs of parasites. Much like Big Brother and Sam Kekovich, I feel the inspection shelf has no place in the modern world.

For more on German toilets, visit this brilliant blog. This tag search for ‘toilet’ comes up with more results than I thought possible.

3. Sundays in Germany

I wish to make it clear, I expected this. But not to the degree it still frustrates me. The streets are empty. Not quite Ghost Town empty, but enough for it to be a little spooky. If it weren’t for the Christmas markets being in full swing at the moment, I’d feel like Cillian Murphy, looking over my shoulder for the zombies.

And despite prior knowledge, the frustration at absolutely nothing being open on a Sunday still courses through my veins too quickly for the Glühwein which I imbibe to calm myself down to have a hope of catching it up. Thankyou Edeka, for your kind deed in keeping the Freiburg Hauptbahnhof shop open.

4. Busker Quality

The quality of buskers throughout Germany is highly variable, based entirely on their specialisation. On one hand, you can find entire families playing what I guess you could describe as ‘wholesome’ music in enchanting unison. There are students standing around playing the clarinet on the street, and I’ve even come across a husband and wife team dressed in period clothing, singing ballads in what I can only suspect was flawless Italian. Luverly.

On the other hand, those characters who dress up, paint their skin and stand as still as humanely possible need some serious wake-up calls. They are everywhere, and rather than this leading to a hike in quality, it has gone in the opposite direction at an impressive canter. They flit around, whistling at girls, stopping for a smoke with their mates, and winking at anyone whose gaze lingers for more than 2 seconds. And I won’t get me started on the clowns here. Then again, who knows, maybe the lack of effort on their part is due to an unusually high level of Coulrophobia in Germany.

5. Staring Conquests

I’d forgotten the measure to which Germans like to stare at you. Especially if you’re six

"My neighbours - Video Surveillance is shit in comparison"

“My neighbours – Video Surveillance is shit in comparison”

foot five and talking in a foreign language on public transport. On Australian public transport, and on the streets in general, catching someone’s eye usually results in both parties’ gaze flitting away fairly rapidly. Here, they hold that gaze. REALLY hold it. I’ve never gotten such gratification out of winning a staring contest as when I’ve decided to forego my ‘Australian manners’ and stare down a German.

I still love Germany though.

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