On waiting and becoming German

Most of my life at the moment seems to revolve around waiting for things. I’ve written before on the phenomenon fellow Africanists call “Standard African Time”, and I am beginning to feel its effects. What I wait for at the moment is my visa to come through that will tell me I can enter Namibia, and stay for three months. I will attempt to renew this documentation while there. Getting all the documents I needed was a challenge, but finally, a good few weeks ago, I had compiled everything I needed, and sent them via email to my agency contact in Windhoek, promptly recieving… nothing.

This agency seems to think themselves above emails acknowledging receipt, so all I can really do at this point is hope that someone in the Namibian government is considering my application. We shall see. It’s not kept me up too many nights worrying, mainly because I can’t fit it in when I have so much else to worry about as well. I’ve sorted my equipment and my finances, even if I have to hire a car for a bit, but my insurance, my medical assessment and my drugs to fend off the spectre of Malaria are still in the works. Maybe at some point I will have some free time to read some anthropology.

Preparing for an expedition is a bit more fraught with stress than you would think, but you won’t catch me complaining too much. At least when I actually board the plane to Windhoek (whenever that is) I will know that even if I am not totally prepared, there is bugger all I can do about it at that point. This relying-on-other-people-to-get-stuff-done business is almost as frustrating as having to rely on myself to do it all. Not quite, though. After this, organising anything will feel like a walk in the park, and part of me is beginning to think that this might be the most useful function of my PhD, even considering the whole business of contributing to the academic landscape and developing my skills as an anthropologist. Anthropology is actually the easy part. I trained for that. Maybe I’d feel better if I’d taken an undergrad course on “Dealing with Bureaucrats 101”. Take note, Edinburgh University.

Nonetheless, I had a rather enjoyable break recently from the constant stress with a short trip back to Edinburgh, in which I discovered that I accidentally am becoming German.

I’ll explain.

After a really nice dinner at an Indian place in Stockbridge, the waiter brought over the bill. Without thinking, and on automatic, I pick it up and start vocally adding everything up on it, to try and work out what everybody had so we can split it up. Cue stares from my dinner companions, along with a question as to why I had to be so exact and clinical about it.

Ah, I thought. Not what is done here.

In the UK, if you don’t know, fairly common practice in a group at a restaurant is to roughly divide the bill by the number of people, maybe with a couple of extra pounds here and there if somebody had steak or an aperitif. In Germany, by contrast, not only is separate payment considered the norm, but the waiter or waitress will often ask what you had, add up your individual bill yourself and take separate payment for it, in which you include a tip. I find this altogether more fair and logical, but apparently this is not shared in Britain. This way, as I argued, I made sure that nobody paid for anything I had but they didn’t, but the way it seems to the British observer is that I want to make sure that I didn’t pay for anything I didn’t have.

I think I finally understand two things. Firstly, why the Germans are sometimes perceived as rude by the British, and secondly why Germans on the whole are completely mystified as to why they might come across this way. This particular social dance has echoes in it of the curious German practice of some married couples, instead of having one double bed, having two single beds pushed together with two separate duvets, thus eliminating the perennial problem of bedclothes-larceny and allowing the sensible early-rising German to make their bed in the morning whether or not their equally sensible spouse has arisen yet, all in one fell swoop. This leaves more time for eating black bread and cheese for breakfast before making your way to work, not forgetting of course to put on your Hausschuhe upon rising lest a tiny amount of your body heat be transferred to your icy tiled floor.

The German way of doing things is empirically easier. There is no doubt about this. It’s cleaner, it’s neater, everybody gets what they want, and we’re all a bit less stressed. But for Brits it’s not really about that, at all. For us, if it all goes swimmingly, something of the magic is lost. I think Brits (who, thanks to my recent restaurant faux pas, I’m not entirely still comfortable throwing myself in with), don’t really want the most efficient way to pay for their dinner, or to stay warm at night. Sure, you might end up in a bit of a verbal spat over whether getting the prawn instead of the chicken Madras was really your idea, but that’s part of the night out, in some strange way. Even if your spouse or partner is the most appalling duvet-related petty criminal, you wouldn’t have them any other way, and sleeping alone is faintly sad partly because you don’t wake up blearily at four in the morning wondering whether your vivid dream about seal-hunting with the Inuit was more than just the result of some dodgy prawns that you sure as hell didn’t ask for. And I do miss it. Maybe it’s something about a leopard and spots.

I think one of the main issues is that if things went well then the British couldn’t complain about stuff, and this is well-acknowledged to be a national pastime. This is why we invent sports like cricket and tennis, that can only really be played in good weather.

Nevertheless, I’ve now found myself on the German end of a cultural misunderstanding, and what I find interesting is how naturally the German way of eating out has come to me. Having never lived in a different culture for any longer than a couple of months, this is an entirely new experience. My German friends, upon hearing this anecdote, were rather pleased. Less with the rubbing off of their culture upon me, that is to be expected after eight months, but more about how happy I was for it to have happened. To put this anthropologically, I feel like I’m inhabiting a liminal space more and more: living in the spaces between the lines. I’m sure any expats can empathise. I’m still quite happy about it though. All that remains is to actually learn a bit more of the language.

Well, as much as I can before I depart again. While writing I did actually receive email confirmation that my visa was being processed, so I take back what I said about the agency in Namibia. Not enough to delete it, though.