It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. Just a fortnight ago we were starting to think that this virus thing might have an effect on business and now we are expecting to hear that we shouldn’t leave the house. Angela Merkel spoke to the nation on Wednesday in her characteristically calm but stilted manner and told us that we should “take this seriously”. We were all expecting her to announce the “Ausgangsperre” (literally: out-go-lock) but she stopped short of that. She just told us to behave ourselves. I read articles in the British press praising her excellent speech and it was well-written but it was a bit short on substance really.
This lack of substance gave the state leaders a chance to show that they had substance. Germany is a federation of 16 states and political decisions are divided up between the national government (Bund) and the state governments (Länder). The states have more power than, say, the counties in Britain. For example, there is no national curriculum in Germany. Each state can define their own curriculum, set their own exams and even decide how many years kids have to attend school. Certain states, most notably Bavaria, insist that their system is the toughest and the best. I can not confirm that on average the Bavarians I have met were smarter than other Germans but the belief goes on.
Bavaria is probably the most conservative of all the states and even has it’s own version the conservative party. In 15 of the 16 states, the conservative party lead by Angela Merkel is called the CDU. In Bavaria it’s the CSU – there is no CDU. Because both parties follow essentially the same programme, they always fight elections together but even an all-out conservative majority always brings about a coalition between the CDU and CSU. I feel that the CSU, as the slightly junior partner, behaves like a the youngest child in a large family – always shouting a bit more loudly and trying to grab attention. So it came as no surprise that Bavaria was the first state to announce a proper “lockdown” (sounds much cooler in English with its maximum security prison connotations). Since then a few other states and some towns have followed suit so that now nobody really knows what’s going on. In towns like Ulm which are directly on the Bavaria / Baden-Württemberg border you can go out on one side of the street but not the other. The national government will have to step in. And sure enough, yesterday we were told that today a decision would be made by the national government on whether we are on full lockdown or not. I assume we will be locked down which is what the majority wanted to hear on Wednesday anyway. We want clarity. This faffing about is surprisingly typical of all German Governments since I have lived here – there is a deep-seated fear of not appearing fair and to have considered all sides. The slow and measured approach is fine in a booming peacetime economy but maybe not so good in a crisis.
At least the government can rely on the highly disciplined German people to stick to the rules and stay sensible – or so I thought. A great metaphor for the difference between England and Germany is the behaviour at pedestrian crossings. In Germany, nobody will cross until the man is green, even if there is not a car in sight. There is often a sign at pedestrian crossings instructing us to stick to the rules “because of the children”. Another German rule is that pedestrians always have the right of way when a car is turning off a road. So if I am going to turn right off the main street and a pedestrian decides to cross the road I am turning into then I have to wait. I encounter this situation on most work days because I turn into a side-street which is next to a college and there are usually hordes of hungover students on their way to class. They stride confidently into the road without looking up from their phones and not hearing my engine above their AirPods. These poor people wouldn’t survive five minutes in London, but in Stuttgart everyone follows the rules so it’s fine. When I visit London with German colleagues, they can’t believe it. The red and green men are purely decorational – if you see a gap go for it. I have been tutted at and barged past because I dared stand waiting for the green man as busses and taxis revved their engines at the grid.
I thought that because Germans are very good at observing rules we would not see the laughable scenes of people buying mountains of paper with which to clean their bottoms during a virus epidemic which is taken in through the mouth and nose. However, I can report that Germans are just as susceptible to unnecessary panic-buying as other European nations. We had a decent supply in at home, so we missed the scenes early last week when it “kicked off”. My office looks onto a drugstore chain “DM Markt” – a bit like Boots in England. Every day this week people have been jostling to get in a 10 am (they now open later) and get their hands on a packet of toilet paper. Even on the morning just after Angela had told us to stay 1.5 metres apart, there was an ill-tempered crowd down there shouting at each other and spraying spittle around. I figured that at some stage most people would realise that they had enough supplies for their nether-region-hygienic requirements and stocks would return. Sure enough I wandered in to the almost empty store on Friday afternoon and plucked a packet of 8 from a freshly-delivered pallet. I kept my distance at the till and paid my 2.49 Euros using my contactless card just like Angela had recommended. I experienced a warm feeling of having done my public duty combined with some smugness. I now have a German passport, so I follow the rules. All will be fine. One thing did occur to me last week – although Germans follow the rules, there is no rule for queuing. I think we will need one soon.
Until next time, stay healthy – Bleib Gesund!