Ah Exeter, the place Dolly Alderton said made her more stupid than she was when she first came here. To be fair, she does mostly blame her adolescent lack of responsibility for the loss of intelligence, and I am 80% positive that she wasn’t talking about the city itself but rather mostly her university experience. For me, however, an English literature student from Germany with a fascination for Britain, it was virtually impossible for Exeter to let me down in any way. And neither it did! I just loved my time here, the people I met and all our little adventures.
I came here in September last year and next month I am going to return to Germany, the European hotspot of stuck-upness. Don’t get me wrong, I am not taking my home country for granted at all. In fact, I am grateful to have had the privilege of growing up in a place that provides safety and security like no other but living in England for a few months has showed me how uptight, reserved and unfriendly Germans can be sometimes. By that I don’t mean that everyone from Germany is a ranting beer-drinker (quite the contrary), and I certainly don’t mean to shit all over my own place of origin. But even though every person needs to be judged in their own right and there are differences even within a country depending on where you live, there certainly are stereotypes that are true in terms of the society as a whole. Every nation has a code of behaviour people silently agree on and subconsciously adhere to, and you will never really become aware of what this code actually entails until you go and live in a different country.
Despite having lived in the United Kingdom for only 9 months, it became clear to me quite quickly that even on a teensy-weensy continent like Europe, where all countries more or less enjoy the same standard of a first-world-nation, there are still a lot of unexpected differences. During my time here I have met loads of people from all over Europe and other countries of the world as well who have told me about the respective customs in their countries, but when it comes to making an honest judgement about public behaviour I can only really speak for Germany and the UK. While living in Exeter, I have witnessed some interesting things that made me realise how uptight my people actually are. After reading this you might understand the issue I have with “Germanness” despite being probably more German than I care to admit.
In the UK, wherever you go and whatever you do; ordering a pint at your local pub, going for a food shop at ALDI, using public transport or visiting administration offices, there is always one thing you can count on: in most cases people will be friendly. I know this might come as a total shock to fellow Germans but be assured that it's true! In this magical place, you are being smiled at, addressed as “darling” or “my lovely”, and your requests don’t fall into the dark abyss of complete indifference but on the open ears of the person you’re talking to. Now, other British people have brought to my attention that this almost to-good-to-be-true friendliness I have experienced here is far from being genuine, but in all honesty, I couldn’t care less about its authenticity. So what if it’s not genuine, at least visiting an administration office won’t leave me absolutely frustrated and feeling like a worthless piece of shit for the rest of the day, like it does in Germany.
In my country, being reserved to rude is actually so common that when a random person on the street smiles at you or the bus driver opens the doors a second time when he sees you huffing and puffing as you're desperately trying to catch the bus while dragging two heavy shopping bags behind you, it causes us to first pinch ourselves to determine whether this unexpected act of kindness has actually just happened and, when its realness is confirmed, to immediately go tell all our friends and family about this fairytale-like moment. And the following years it will time and again serve as a great story to tell at any social gathering as it is guaranteed to leave your listeners absolutely gobsmacked.
To be fair though, just like the British kindness the German rudeness is probably (hopefully) not genuine either. Germans don’t have a reason to hate a random person in the same way that British people don’t have a reason to be particularly friendly. The difference is though, that in Germany when you make contact with a stranger, it is common courtesy to be reserved and allow for quite a bit of distance between you and them. Physically and emotionally. In fact, this type of behaviour is so deeply engraved into our DNA that we find it hard to change in that way. And admittedly, it isn’t easy being friendly to someone who doesn’t return the favour. Instead, this standardised, anticipated hostility creates a tense atmosphere right from the beginning. However, when kindness is the standard (like it seems to be in Britain) then suddenly being friendly becomes the easiest thing in the world! Greeting the bus driver when you board and saying thank you when you get off, and in return the bus driver doesn’t act like a complete arse by shutting the door right in your face and driving off – it could be so easy, so why don’t we do it in Germany? Apparently, because that’s just not how it works here. Saying thank you to someone doing their bloody job? Yeah right! It’s actually pretty nasty when you come to think of it. But as I said before, you will never even realise such things unless you live in a different culture because they are so normal and have been that way for ages.
When I shared these thoughts with one of my housemates, he said he couldn’t even imagine not saying thank you to the bus driver! It is exactly this unconditional, omnipresent kindness that I love about this country, however “fake” it might be. Because what I think people here do not realise is, that it is actually not fake at all. Being nice to each other makes you feel good so might as well just do it. While I’d already known that Germans like being reserved to the point that they find too much friendliness uncomfortable or even intrusive, it became all the clearer to me when I realised that this is by no means the default everywhere.
I will miss that very much when I am back home. Not just the people and the atmosphere but also Exeter itself. It is small enough to have become a place I feel at home at. Close to the seaside (even if that means dealing with seagulls terrorising you on campus) and embedded in green hills and a beautiful landscape with a decent variety of pubs and everything in walking distance – what more could you want? As I am typing these words I’m sitting at my desk from where I get a glance at the station: people arriving and leaving, the neighbouring red brick houses and birds sitting in nearby trees. It’s not a particularly pretty view, not even worth mentioning actually, but I am so used to it that it feels incredibly strange to imagine that in three weeks I will be looking out of this window for the very last time.
Despite being one of the last people of the Exeter Erasmus class of 2019/20 to leave England, and despite having managed to extend my stay to the absolute max, I’m still not turning my back on the UK without a heavy heart. After all, this marks the end of being able to live a dream. The last months have been filled with so much life, excitement and experiences that quite naturally, it is unbelievably hard to just leave and close this chapter of my life forever. Eventually, all good things do come to an end. I’ve always hated this saying but now I don’t really have much choice but to confirm its veracity. If there is one thing I’m absolutely sure of, though, then that there will always be a new adventure, and I can’t wait to walk through that next door!
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