Get off! These seats are for Germans only

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Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after segregation on public transport became illegal. Behind her is a reporter.

When, on 1 December 1955, African-American Rosa Parks steadfastly refused to give up her seat for a white person, little could she have anticipated the far-reaching consequences of this quietly powerful act. Not only did it lead to the abolition of the segregation law in the US, but it also inspired a so-called social experiment on a modern-day bus in Essen, deep in the heartland of Germany’s industrial Ruhr-area.

Filmed by secret cameras, a bus conductor in official day-glow vest was heard loudly telling some passengers to move to the back of the bus, as apparently the seats they were sitting in were ‘reserved for Germans only’, pointing at some stickers that seemed to confirm what he was saying. The people he singled out were variously black, or wearing headscarves, or displaying some other supposedly ‘foreign’ characteristics. What the other passengers didn’t know: the conductor and the ‘non-Germans’ were all played by actors, set up and filmed by local TV channel WDR.

I read about this with growing trepidation. Oh no. What if no one protested? I hardly dared to read on. But then, relief. It never took longer than 30 seconds for some uninitiated passenger to speak out on behalf of the apparent ‘foreigners’. Phew for that, good on ya, German bus passengers. Racism case closed. Sleep easy in your beds.

Bogus sign on a bus. Patronisingly, the Arabic is completely bogus too.

But that’s not all there is to it. Still left with an uncomfortable feeling? You should be. Pretty much everything about this ‘experiment’ is flawed. Let’s start with the signs. “This sign is unequivocal”, writes notorious German tabloid BILD. Only it isn’t. It reads “Diese Plätze sind für Inhaber eines gültigen deutschen Personalausweises reserviert“  – these seats are reserved holders of a German identity card. What kind of definition of nationality, or indeed identity, is this? Many Germans, including myself, don’t hold such a card. It’s not compulsory, in fact, for German expats it’s only been possible to apply for one for the last couple of years. There’s another sign. “Ausländer und Asylbewerber benutzen bitte nur die hinteren Sitzreihen!”, complete with exclamation mark and passive-aggressive ‘bitte’. Foreigners and asylum seekers to sit only in the back rows please! Foreigners AND asylum seekers? Can you be a non-foreign asylum seeker? Why the distinction?

This is why. They don’t mean foreigners. They don’t mean Germans who happen to not possess an identity card, or Brits, or any other Western European. They mean the ‘wrong sort of foreigner’, the visually identifiable sort who wears a headscarf or other religious dress, or has black skin. One recurring statement about the gunman who killed 38 tourists on a beach in Sousse on Friday, was that “he didn’t even normally wear Islamic dress”. If you can’t identify a terrorist by their clothes, what can you identify them by? And that’s exactly the crux of the matter. Passengers who spoke out on the Essen bus meant well, but the real challenge of the experiment’s concept would have been to point out that you can’t make judgments about people based on some sort of vague, visual notion of foreignness, of otherness. There are plenty of black Germans and Muslim Germans, there’d be something seriously wrong with society if there weren’t. It’s not ‘us’ standing up for ‘them’, but rather ‘there is no us and them’.

Police separates ‘for’ and ‘against’ protesters outside refugee accommodation in Freital, near Dresden

It feels to me as if Germany is going through a painful birth-like process of transitioning into the postmodern, multi-cultural and multi-identity times that we live in, some dragging their feet and hanging onto the old ways by their fingernails, some taking the initiative, jumping and pushing the inert masses towards the future, with much kicking and screaming by all parties along the way. It’s an inevitable and necessary journey. Pegida (the loathsome ‘patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West’) and its kind, protests against a new home for asylum seekers in Freital, Saxony – these movements are real, at best embarrassing, at worst fear-inducing on many levels. It’s one thing to stand up to a mild-mannered middle-aged bus conductor; it’s another to confront a horde of slogan-bellowing Neo-Nazis on the warpath. Reassuringly, this happens too. Kudos. It’s outside those refugee camps and buildings that we need the oft-quoted ‘Zivilcourage’, not on a bus in some bogus reality-TV experiment. Germany, it’s hard to keep calm, but you must carry on. The world is watching the places where it matters.

Click here for a local German newspaper report which includes a 2.5 minutes video of the TV show (scroll right down to the bottom of the page).

The full version will be broadcast as part of the new TV programme ‘Quarks und Du’ on 25 August 2015, 9pm GMT+1 (8pm UK time). WDR TV can be viewed online, live and via catchup, here.

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The Queen in Germany and other traumas

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If you happen to be researching UK discourses around Germany, Queen Elizabeth I’s current visit to the land of her and Prince Philip’s ancestors means rich pickings indeed. Tomorrow the royal couple will visit the memorial site of the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Before liberation by the British in April 1945, more than 50 000 people from all over Europe were killed here. The British monarch’s first-ever visit to such a site will be “personal and reflective in tone”, Buckingham Palace tells us. Now I know the Queen’s schedule must be highly managed and pre-planned to the ‘nth degree, but announcing the tone of your response to a former concentration camp long before you ever get there seems a step too far. Or is it? What is the correct response? Maybe, when faced with the prospect of an experience so outside the realm we like to call normal, we feel we need to have a pre-planned reaction up our sleeves, just in case?

It got me thinking about ways of dealing with the traumatic past, and the memorial sites I’d visited: several former concentration camps in Germany and Poland, as well as, more recently, sites in Cambodia and Vietnam. Apart from the obvious and widely publicised images, the strangest things stick in my memory. The ordinary buses around Weimar, displaying the name Buchenwald as if it was just another bus stop. Endhaltstelle indeed. In Poland, another bus and matching stop sign, looking eerily familiar yet out of place, shuttling visitors between Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau: it is run by a German public transport operator. The row of neat and tidy detached family houses, surrounded by wooden crisscross fencing, the epitome of German Kleinbürgertum, with a premium view of the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen. When were those houses built? Who lives there? The mind boggles. I’ve organised many school trips in my time as a teacher, but the single one which I shall never ever forget was with a mixed group of German and British teenagers to Auschwitz. Afterwards the students worked through this experience using drama and poetry, culminating in an exceptionally profound assembly performance. As often, art comes to our rescue and allows us to somehow express the inexpressible.

Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, Cambodia

Another continent, another genocide. Cambodia is still bristling with the trauma of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot 1975-79, when over 20% of the population died. Over 20%. That means every single person alive today is affected in some way or other. The rugged earth of the killing fields at Choeung Ek conceals as well as displays remains of the victims. “Try to be respectful and not step on the clothes and bones”, our guide, Heng, tells us. I try – it’s not easy. They’re everywhere. Heng points out a jawbone, complete with teeth. “When it rains, the big pieces come up”. It rains a lot in Cambodia. We make our way back accompanied by the abrupt sound of machine gun fire, which makes me flinch. It’s from a nearby shooting range, “another tourist attraction”, Heng explains. “Do you want to have a go?” No. No thank you.

Something that connects many of these atrocities across time and space is the violence. The rape, the torture, the unimaginable pain of seeing your loved ones killed before death finally comes. On to Tuol Sleng in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Phen, better known as Security Prison 21, or S21. This is no prison as you may know it. A former school, it was turned into a particular kind of hell built on the twin pillars of torture and death. Of the approximately 17000 people ‘imprisoned’ here, only twelve survived. Two of them are still alive, in fact, they’re right here, as you follow the arrows to the finishing point of the walking tour. This way to the survivors please. To the left, close to the exit, a silver-haired man sits behind a pile of commemorative books, including his own memoirs. He’s surrounded by a group of American tourists, shaking the hand of one of them. “I’m so pleased to meet you” says the tourist. A little further along, to the other side, is another man behind a similar-looking pile of books, including his own memoirs. No tourists for him. What’s wrong with him? Is it just the seating position or has the other one the edge? Are they good friends or bitter rivals? “They don’t get any money from the state” explains Heng. “So if you’d like to meet them and buy something from them, they would appreciate it. They will shake your hand”. Awkwardly, we slip out of S21.

 

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Last stop, the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, capital of Vietnam. Housed in the former US Information Services building, it used to be called ‘War Crimes Museum’, hinting at issues of language and power. “Events are told from a Vietnamese perspective” the guidebook informs us. Not half. But at least they make no secret of it, unlike the much more dangerous Western habit of pretend-objectivity. Many horrors of the Vietnam War are exhibited here, or as it’s known in Vietnam, the ‘American War’, or the ‘War against the Americans to save the Nation’. Perspective is everything.

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Visitor ‘information’ in the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

 

How we deal with the past matters. Once the business of pure survival is done, we have to start dealing with the trauma. There’s no right or wrong way, but deal with it we must. Do something, write something, say something. Silence allows evil to fester. What would the Queen say if she met a Holocaust survivor at Bergen-Belsen tomorrow? I imagine she might shake their hand, and say, in a personal and reflective tone: “I’m so pleased to meet you”.

 

 

Suite Française – French film, German perspective

I always keep an ear out for foreign references in English – it’s an occupational hazard.  This week the news headlines were full of foreign, mainly French, words.   Apparently Jeremy Clarkson’s cortege caused a fracas as it was passing through Leicester, because the aiguillettes on the horses’ regalia were by Dolce & Gabbana, which Elton John had told us all to boycott, because they are synthetic.  Or something.

How fitting then that I went to see Suite Française, a French film, or rather a British/French/Belgian film set in France during German occupation, based on Irène Némirovsky’s 2004 novel.

The story of the manuscript is an even more harrowing tale than the fictional plot: The author wrote two novels and the outline of a third in the early 1940s, before she was sent to her death in Auschwitz for being Jewish.  I like to imagine the manuscript languishing in a dusty, cobwebbed attic suitcase for the next half-century, which is pretty close to what happened: Némirovsky’s daughter only discovered it in the 1990s.  It was published in 2004 to great critical acclaim, and became a major bestseller both in France and worldwide.

This film doesn’t look like it’s set to be a big blockbuster, two clues being that there was only one (very late) showing a day, and my companion and I made up the total audience of two.  Bit of an eerie experience, but at least I could give my full attention to what kind of Germans we might encounter here, all in the name of research, of course.

The film centres on a mother and daughter-in-law, the two Mmes Angelliers, but so as to not cause confusion who is who, the young pretty one is called only by her first name, Lucile.  Living in “the best house in the village” in Bussy, just east of Paris, earns them an – at first – unwelcome house guest: Bruno von Falk, a German officer, played by Sasha Baron-Cohen (not really).  Lucile soon finds herself drawn to the former composer, despite his rather limited repertoire: he only seems to know one tune, the eponymous Suite Française, which he insists on playing incessantly.  Both unhappily married to conveniently absent spouses, the doomed lovers try to not arouse suspicion, especially not from the haughty Mme Angelliers the elder. “I thought I was supposed to be the one everyone’s scared of” chuckles Bruno, crouching behind a hedge.  Ahahahahaha!  A German with a sense of humour!  Whatever next?!  Turns out, there’s no follow-up.  In this film, the Germans do what they do best in war films:  they shoot at civilian refugees.  They trash the local mansion and have their wicked way with the village girls.  They shout “Vot is your nehm” and “Pay-pahs” at checkpoints.  One particularly nasty specimen gets his just come-uppance when he gets killed by farmer Benoît Sabarie, whom he tried to repeatedly humiliate.  Hoorah! But Bruno is different.  “I have NOTHING in common with these people”, he tries to get Lucile to understand. In fact, he seems almost as outraged at the defiling of a few hideous paintings and stuffy decorations by his fellow soldiers as at some true horrors that are going on right under his eyes.

True horrors, all caused by the awfulness of people.  The Viscountess makes up a story saying that farmer Benoît threatened her with a gun, which backfires badly (sorry!) as it leads to Benoît shooting the German officer, and then eventually to her husband being executed in Benoît’s place, because, the Germans decide, SOMEONE’S  got do die here!  And just be grateful it’s only one of you, not five as decreed by the even nastier Nazis above!  Everything’s relative, you see.  And with that, the Viscount stoically accepts his fate, looking death – in the shape of a firing squad – straight in the eye.

The good people of Bussy don’t all turn out to be pillars of the community, though.  They bombard Bruno with an unlikely yet powerful weapon, directed at their own neighbours: letters.  Old and new grievances are dug out, embellished or made up entirely and put to paper.  Even Lucile finds more than she bargained for (as you do in movies) when she discovers someone had written in (why?!) with information revealing her husband’s affair and illegitimate daughter.  Sounds like the Stasi would have had a field day recruiting in this village!  Ah, well, never mind Lucile, you’ve got Bruno now, the musical, cultured, humorous, handsome, non-Nazi-ish German!

Or is he?!  One of the film’s themes is not so much the ‘us and them’, goodies versus baddies, but rather the question of what makes ‘the other’.  “They’re just like us”, exclaims an enthusiastic Bussy maiden, before disappearing into the bushes with one of them.  Later, when her new boyfriend treats her and her family with unnecessary violence whilst searching for Benoît, who’s gone on the run, she’s not so sure any more.  The uptight Mme Angelliers, quelle surprise, turns out to be not so bad after all: though an offence punishable by death, she joins forces with Lucile in hiding Benoît from the Germans and helping him escape to Paris to join the resistance.  Benoît seems to have seven lives, as even Bruno, motivated by his love for Lucile, ends up coming to his rescue, never mind the German’s dead Wehrmacht colleagues strewn around the roadblock, mowed down by Lucile and Benoît.  Ah, l’amour… Meanwhile back in the village, Mme Angelliers has taken a liking to the business of hiding people and has replaced Benoît with little Jewish girl Anna as the latest resident of the secret room behind the linen cupboard. She just knew that place would come in useful some time!  Hopefully Anna will know better than to smoke non-German cigars, which nearly led to Benoît’s discovery, if Bruno hadn’t intervened, again.  Eight lives!

It doesn’t end well, though, as you may have guessed – it never does.  I would have really liked to see Lucile’s husband return Poldark-style and a complex, Franco-Germanic love-triangle to ensue, accompanied by the hauntingly simple piano motif of Suite Française – but then, everyone has enough trouble in their lives already.

I left the cinema with a strange feeling that something was missing.  It was only later that it dawned on me what it was:  During the entire film, not a single word of French was spoken.  Dommage.

Conference proceedings

Ah, conferences… I love them!  That is, I love attending them, listening in awe whilst lurking silently in the back row.  Not so this time!  Having had my arm kindly but firmly twisted to take the plunge and present,  I gulped hard when I discovered that I was due to kick off proceedings as the first speaker at the Language Studies PhD conference 2015 at the University of Reading.  No pressure then!  Well, I survived and am here to tell the tale, and to my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even plucking up the courage to ask the odd question or two.  Who’d have thought! Altogether 22 PhD researchers from English Language & Applied Linguistics, the Institute of Education, Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences, and Modern Languages & European Studies talked about their research in front of an audience of fellow-students and lecturers.  In a day that lasted from 9am to 6pm, time flew by as we heard about topics as varied as language policy in Namibia, female twitter users in Saudi Arabia, Greek EFL writing, and aspect binding in Mandarin Chinese, to name but a few. Luckily the audience wasn’t the heckling kind; on the contrary, comments and questions were supportive and helpful.  As well as a round of applause, each speaker also received constructive written feedback on their presentation skills. The conference concluded with a panel session on the Language Studies Working Papers – an annual peer-reviewed digital journal with contributions from staff and PhD-researchers at the University of Reading.  Some of last year’s student-contributors spoke persuasively about the benefits of submitting a paper, such as article-writing practice, attention to detail and development of reviewing skills.  And the best thing: you can develop your text for inclusion in your thesis!  Sounds like a win-win to me. Find all necessary information, including format templates and past issues, by clicking here.   But hurry!  This year’s deadline is 30 April 2015. Many thanks go to Dr. Jackie Laws for organising this enjoyable, instructive and multi-disciplinary day.  It certainly changed not just my view of conferences for the better, but also my view of myself.  If you’re in two minds whether to give presenting a go, here’s my advice: just do it!

Click here to watch a 10 minute video of my presentation: German as a school subject in the UK: discursive representation, motivation and uptake.

How you roll your /r/'s says a lot about you  How you roll your /r/’s says a lot about you!

Sausages, beer, cars and war

Germany is mostly known for sausages, beer, cars and war, according to a snapshot poll of UK students aged 14 and 16.  For my pilot study I interviewed two focus groups of year 9 and year 11 students, asking them about German learning and their beliefs about the Germans and Germany.  A mixture of team tasks, individual tasks and guided group discussion prompted some very interesting responses.  One activity I designed was based on the TV show ‘Family Fortunes’: “If we asked 100 random British people what comes into their heads when they hear the word ‘German’, what do you think they would say?”  This was to avoid the ‘researcher effect’, where participants might modify their answers according to what they assume the interviewer would or wouldn’t like to hear.  For me, the most fascinating part of the session occurred when I gave the students some time to talk amongst themselves.  Does Hitler deserve his own category, or does he come under ‘general Nazis’?  Should they not write ‘no sense of humour’ rather than just ‘sense of humour’?  Not necessary, they agreed, as the ‘no’ goes without saying.  Germans are known as hard-working, someone suggested.  Yes, but remember, this is what the average British person thinks, not us!  OK, but even 100 random British people might say that, they concluded in the end, though perhaps quite a bit lower down the list than where they themselves would put it.

As the bell went and I gathered up my paperwork and recording devices, on a high from the experience and desperate to transcribe the promising data, one student came back into the classroom to speak to me.  “Miss, did you really ask 100 people what they think of the Germans? Because I’d REALLY like to know what they said!”

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