Wednesday 21 December 2016

What, no Stollen or Lebkuchen? What will Brexit mean for the Christmas markets?

One of the great things about living near Manchester is that we have some fabulous Christmas markets. Some people don’t like them and I’ll admit I prefer to go on the quieter days of the week – Monday, Tuesday Wednesday. There’s still a buzz and there’s still plenty to see.

We have local crafts people, local producers of fine foods, and plenty of representation from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. 

We have our own personal shopping list: some nice soaps (usually form one of the French vendors – France takes up most of  whole street), some Dutch cheeses, maybe a selection  of cold meats form one of the German stalls, a large tub of mixed olives and picked garlic, some Turkish delight,  some of that delicious Italian nougat / truffle / fudge. We snap up of course also a Gl├╝hwein, and maybe a Bratwurst and some pancakes or poffertjes (Dutch mini pancakes). Chocolate generally comes into the equation as well. We also buy a selection of Dutch biscuits and of course we must have our Stollen and Lebkuchen.

Except that this year we couldn’t find the latter.  There was no Stollen and there were no Lebkuchen anywhere on the Christmas markets. There was a stall selling hot Strudel of all kinds, but this was more street food than a chance to catch up on your Christmas shopping. 

Was this the beginning of Brexit? Or was it simply that the German vendor who normally brought them didn’t think that they sold too well in England? I asked around a little at the other German stalls and no one could shed any light on this. 

Lebkuchen is impossible to make at home and Stollen is difficult. Mind you, Tesco’s own Stollen isn’t bad.
We eventually bought a nice Stollen at the renowned Westmoreland Farm Shop at the Tebay services on the M6. We obtained some Lebkuchen fresh from Nuremberg at a branch delicatessen in the Lake District.
But was the absence of these items at the Christmas markets a sign of what is to come post Brexit? Will it be worth their while coming if there is no Free Trade agreement? Will they be able to come if there is no free movement? 

Maybe the Stollen we bought form the farm shop is symbolic of all that is good about having close ties to the EU.  It was the best Stollen I’ve ever had and it was made in England. It has improved on the original German recipe. That is what exchange and interaction is all about. Think also of balti, spaghetti hoops and pizza. 

At the Christmas markets I ended up buying a tipsy cake. The fruit was soaked in gin. It was gorgeous and was made on an English farm. Fantastic. But it shouldn’t mean that we have to  give up our Stollen.                    

Monday 5 December 2016

Forty Years of International Friendship

It started during my year abroad. In the academic year 1972-73 I spent six months in Rennes in France and six months in Stuttgart.

Rennes was a little tricky: they put all of the foreign students together and we started speaking a sort of creolised French. In order to get to know French people I joined a choir, started learning Breton and played basketball. In the Breton class I got to know a young French woman who invited me and a classmate back to her home at weekends several times. She eventually came over to the UK and worked for a short while as a French assistant in Scotland. We visited each other for years.

When I went to Stuttgart I was fortunate enough to have some instant friends in the children of my future mother-in-law’s best friend. I then also shared a flat with a German girl. I met more people by playing chess.  

Then I became a secondary school teacher and the French and German exchanges began. We gained some close friends though our local twinning association. I also worked with the teachers professionally. What a joy when one day when we were on holiday in the Netherlands, near the German border, they suddenly turned up with a cake from a good cake shop we’d mentioned. And it was funny when our children, on the same holiday, went back to stay with them and their hamster ate our daughter’s jeans.

One delightful French couple stayed with us at the last minute when my colleague had several family problems. They loved the tennis and they were here during Wimbledon weeks. I would actually come home from school each day and find them with the curtains drawn, and the television on. And they always supplied the strawberries. Well, it was easy in Hampshire in those days when the strawberry fields still existed.    

Later, when the French exchange teacher from another school was looking at the horoscopes in the Sunday Times magazine, we discussed birthdays and found that we were just twelve hours apart in age.

We are all still in contact.

My greatest joy perhaps was when I was in Germany and bumped into a former student and her German partner shopping together two years after she’d left our school. They still visited each other regularly. Their friendship had endured. I was delighted also to hear my student speaking fluent German.

Difficult / impossible to go to war when you’re friends, isn’t it?

In the days leading up to the 23 June 2016 referendum, several people on the mainland flew the union flag and said “Please stay”.  Have we slapped them in the face? Guys, I didn’t vote to leave. I apologise for letting it happen.  

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Thinking outside of the box with our cousins on the mainland

If we think “they” are peculiar, “they” must think we are. But if “they’re” doing things differently it’s worth a look, isn’t it?
Here are a few interesting anecdotes:
When there was a shortage of petrol in the Republic of Ireland they insisted that motorists purchased a minimum amount of fuel not a maximum. It reduced the panic buying.

The Dutch will carry cash around and leave it so it can be easily found in a house. This stops the would-be robbers / burglars destroying you / your home.

We use drinking chocolate as a bed-time drink.  In France it’s used to wake you up in the morning.

We try to eat “five a day”. The French try to eat “ten a day.”

On German public transport it is customary to give up seats to children – they’re less able to stand on swaying trams than adults.

In Holland you are rarely invited to eat at someone’s house. Maybe for coffee and cake, or perhaps beers and snacks.  For a full meal you’re invited to a restaurant.   

The Spanish rarely capitulate and speak to you in English. The use a lot of gesture and a bloody-minded intent that you should understand. Magically, it works.  

There are probably many more examples. If you know of any, add them to the comments.

And an aside. Lord Kerr of Kinlochard has claimed that we need immigrants because Britons are “bloody stupid”. That’s a tad harsh. After all, I’m not stupid and neither are you if you’re reading this even if you don’t agree with me. However, when Martin and I went out for afternoon tea – one of the gifts from my colleagues when I retired – every single worker except one at the 5* hotel was from another EU state. We had excellent service.  The one British worker was fine. Nevertheless, that hasn’t always been my experience, even in 5* venues and I’ve often found myself thinking “They need to take a trip to the continent to see how it’s done.”

Let’s learn from each other.  Remember my guy who replaced his spear with a bow and arrow?     

Thursday 10 November 2016

Peace in our time?

What a curious few hours and days. On Tuesday evening I was doing that which gives me the most hope; singing with my choir. We worked hard. We are taking part in an event on Saturday with Honour Choir. I sing with them too. We got through all of the songs we’ll do then and also of the Christmas songs we’ll do at the Ideal Home Exhibition the next day. Hard work but exhilarating. We could stop worrying for a little while about what we might find out the next day.    
My friend / colleague (I’ve published him twice and we sing tenor together in two choirs tough I’m tenor 1 and he’s tenor 2) Chris Bowles  has written some words that reflect the lives of woman during World War 1. These will be in our In Remembrance concert. In my Schellberg cycle I look at the lives of German women during both world wars.
My protagonist, Clara Lehrs, book two, spoiler alert, constantly says; “Things are going to get better soon. They wouldn’t do that would they? People are too good.” No, Clara, people are not that good. They would do that. They did. Things got worse not better. She was murdered at Treblinka, after beint tranported to Theresienstadt on 22 August 1942.

Do you recognise a pattern? They surely won’t vote to leave? They surely won’t vote Trump in? They did on both counts.
A big aim of the Common Market was to secure peace within Europe. It sort of worked. Yes, we bitch and squabble, and naughtily flout the rules when it suits us, but come the bomb, chaos in the USA, and terrorism escalating we would have pulled together. We still could. We are, whether we like it or not, family.
So even more puzzling that Fareham and Basingstoke voted leave. They have strong twinning ties and one of the joys of these have been joint concerts. Each group brings its own repertoire and rehearse as well together. So, some of us, some of them, and some of us together.  I’ve been involved with such activities in both towns and their French and German twins. It works so well. It feels now as if they’re slapping some of my good friends in the face.
Good old Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, London, Northern Ireland, Scotland and some pockets of Wales.              
Can we sustain that peace if we’re out of the union? And doesn’t the world, Europe and we ourselves need us in Europe even more firmly in view of what has just happened in the States? The timing of it too, just as we remember what has happened in major conflicts throughout the world and in particular on mainland Europe.       

Friday 4 November 2016

The British People – who are they?

So, the legal challenge has been successful. Parliament must be consulted as Brexit is triggered. There has of course been a reaction and again and again the phrase “the will of the British people” is used.

There are several points to be made here:
1.      The “British people” are actually a bunch of mongrels. We’re more European than most people living on the mainland in that we are more mixed than they. Fascinating island syndrome.   
2.      48% of the people who “voted” in the referendum do not want Brexit. So how is it the will of the British people?  And incidentally, learn your Latin. A referendum is not an election. There’s a whole debate to be had there but perhaps not on this blog.
3.      Not everyone who was eligible to “vote” voted.  
4.      What about the ex-pats? They’re still British people.
5.      As are the young people who weren’t quite old enough to have their say this time. I’m a baby-boomer. Please don’t shout at me. I have a T-shirt that says “Don’t blame me, I voted Remain.”  I apologise for the behaviour of my peers. Forgive them. They didn’t enjoy the education in matters global that some of us offered you.   
6.      And here’s a controversial point. What about those other EU nationals who pay taxes and live here but who can’t vote or have their say in referendums? Maybe the EU doesn’t go far enough. What about the principle of no taxation without representation?  

It all comes down to compromise and that more or less works in a normal election process. It doesn’t really in a one-topic referendum.

I’m a bit of a Buddhist and I’d say let’s go for a third way and suggest that that might be creating an EU that works even better. Let’s keep what works well and let’s find out what the Brexiteers don’t like and see if we can put it right. Let’s stay friends.