Monday, May 31, 2010

No Kings, No Gentlemen, No Joy

Where reality defies aphorisms, clichés about nations survive


Jabeen Bhatti, an American staff member of The Atlantic Times, recently bemoaned in this newspaper the surly service in German restaurants and shops. Our correspondent, a German living in the United States, agrees with her lament while musing about such stereotypes.

Ever since the 14th century, the heraldic badge of the Princes of Wales contained the German words, “Ich dien’” (I serve), which indicates that 700 years ago, the aspiration to be of service was recognized on the British Isles as a Germanic virtue.

When I grew up in Leipzig during World War II, the first aphorism I learned sounded uncanny given the empty shelves in our shops. “Der Kunde ist König” (the customer is king), this axiom went. Being only one generation removed from the monarchy, I knew all about kings. My parents told me that King Frederick Augustus III, Saxony’s mirthful last sovereign, was a whole lot better than Hitler or the Communists who succeeded the Nazis in East Germany, where I spent my first postwar years.

How then did the German civilization, which once prized service, slide from such exalted standards to the level of ill-tempered checkout clerks and blasé waiters? The answers are complex. Suffice it to say that inattention to the needs of customers is not really a nationwide phenomenon, though commitment to service lost some of its glamour in West Germany when the postwar economic miracle spawned the moronic maxim, “Das haben wir alles nicht mehr nötig,” meaning, “There is no need for us to stoop to that kind of stuff anymore.”

That said, surly service seems most glaring in Berlin, in particular in its eastern half and hinterland. This might be due to the German capital’s recent history. The Communists turned the noble tenet that customers were royalty on its head. Communism elevated waiters to the status of kings. They lorded over lines of guests queuing up in rain and snow outside state-owned restaurants where bland stews with red cabbage and soggy dumplings were awaiting them.

No real king would treat his subjects as contemptuously as these viceroys of socialist gastronomy abused their guests. Therefore, I posit that 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is not enough for the kings of the Communist era to unlearn their habits; in fact, they seem to have infected a whole new generation with their attitude. While this offers no consolation to Ms. Bhatti or me, it does at least provide an explanation.

I know that I am indulging in clichés here. The word cliché is the French term for a stereotype printing plate whose function is to reproduce the likeness of a given object over and over again. True, it never gives an accurate picture of that object but neither does it tell a lie. However, even the best stereotype is never more than a rough approximation of the real thing. As a metaphor for a particular way of thinking, clichés have sociological significance, according to Anton C. Zijderveld, a Dutch authority on these matters. “Clichés function as beacons in vagueness, instability and uncertainty,” he wrote.

Thus supported by scholarship, I shall proceed to the next cliché. It seems that every culture likes to invent self-images reflecting wannabe characteristics. Take France, “everybody’s second motherland,” according to an old chestnut to which I subscribe. France is supposedly the land of the “joie de vivre.” Come to think of it, though, “joy of life” can be an idiosyncratic hypothesis indeed.

Was it “joie de vivre” that rendered the “tricoteuses,” Parisian women knitting under the guillotine, ecstatic with joy over each rolling head during the French Revolution? And what must we think about the “joie de vivre” of France’s sadistic strikers regaling routinely in the pain they inflict on their innocent compatriots and on foreign visitors? Last summer, fishermen expressed their “joie de vivre” by blocking their country’s ports. Every year, railroad workers and truckers get their cheer from making travel hell for the rest of us, especially at Christmastime; this year, travelers thirsted on trains because the service personnel would not sell them mineral water, much less something edible.

Is it a sign of “joie de vivre” that because of lunatic labor laws charming restaurants and bistros die by the thousands? Do I discern “joie de vivre” when I watch Frenchwomen, defying their proverbial commonsense, smoke themselves to an agonizing death in alarming numbers, and grow obese on junk food because home cooking has gone out of fashion? Of course, these clichés, like all others, are partly true and partly false. Some Frenchwomen still disdain McDonalds, cook well and emit delicious scents rather than the stale stench of tobacco fumes. True, a hint of “joie de vivre” has survived in France but I fear the scale is tipping the wrong way.

England, my wife’s birthplace, has quite rightly always considered “joie de vivre” a loanword. On the other hand, “understatement” was supposed to be very British. So what are we to make of the “understatement” of British beach drunks and soccer louts spreading terror across the Continent? And how “understated” is the bigotry dished out by London’s tabloids?

Then there is this British pride in being “gentlemanlike.” A gentleman is well spoken, trustworthy and doesn’t discuss politics or religion at table. He wears brown shoes during the day and black shoes in the evening, tweeds in the countryside and well-tailored suits in the city. It so happens that I have been at the receiving end of a Ponzi scheme that had been cooked up on behalf of a centuries-old institution by well-spoken “gentlemen” dressed in Savile Row suits. I can assure my readers that compared with these “gents,” the machinations of Bernie Madoff were the handiwork of a novice.

But to depict the accurate side of a cliché, let me tell you about my friend Henry, the Eighth Earl of Something in the Cotswolds. One evening, His Lordship nabbed a reporter from a Down Under tabloid paper attired in an ill-fitting rented dinner jacket dancing inanely with the hired staff at a polo ball in Henry’s mansion. Clearly party crashers cannot be tolerated. But Henry told the intruder: “Help yourself to another orange juice, then find yourself a kangaroo and out you hop to Australia.” Now that was indeed gentlemanly in the best English tradition: Of course, one must kick the sod out but not before offering him something to drink.

Beyond the confines of Europe, clichés clash with reality even more forcefully. When I was younger, I had always imagined that folks in the Far East were more refined than the rest of us. So it was with great anticipation that when I was first assigned to Asia as a foreign correspondent, I walked into Hong Kong’s oldest teahouse, a renowned temple of Chinese culinary culture. I was overwhelmed by the delicacies served there but found the waiters impossible to get used to. While bringing me dish after dish after dish, they aimed their sinusitic emissions with astonishing accuracy over their shoulders into spittoons that were strategically located between the tables.

To refute another cliché, I am here to say that Kipling erred. He wrote that East and West would never meet. But they did meet – in Singapore whose predominantly Chinese rulers were equally disgusted with this ancient habit of their compatriots and imposed huge fines on spitting in public. I love Singapore, which also flogs graffiti artists, a punishment that should definitely be emulated in Berlin.

It would be fascinating to move on to stereotypes in and about America. But as it has become an international sport to spread clichés about the United States, my sense of fairness compels me to refrain from doing so, except to say something nice: Unlike Berliners, Americans have not lost their sense of “ich dien”; waiters in the U.S. might become annoyingly familiar but at least they are pleasant, and this not just because they expect tips, although this is a significant factor.

When Ms. Bhatti next tries to communicate with the surly staff of her Aldi store in Berlin, she could do all of us a favor: Please tell these boors that Aldi has a sister corporation in America. It’s called Trader Joe’s. And in its outlets, you will find charming young salespeople disproving the European fib that Americans know nothing about the good things in life. Instead of snarling at their clients, they will eagerly and expertly talk about every detail of the wonderful array of wines on their shelves.

This article is from the July 2009 issue of The Atlantic Times.

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