Is there life beyond Earth? That's the question a group of people I was with this weekend were asking themselves as we explored some crop circles that have recently formed in some wheat fields outside Berlin.
I was accompanying the group for a radio story I'm working on for Deutsche Welle, tying it in to the recent announcement of a new Stephen Hawking project to search for extraterrestrial life (it will air in the next few days on Inside Europe). It was a group of 15 or so youngish people from Berlin curious about UFOs, and you should have seen the looks we were getting as we walked through this small town in Brandenburg.
Perhaps the most alarmed look came as we emerged from the wheat fields. We had stopped to have a picnic within the crop circles, and when we were sitting down we were not visible from the road. Suddenly we all stood up, collected our things and started walking out of the field. I could see an elderly couple had stopped with their bikes and were staring at us, with a mixture of confusion and disapproval. "You guys, we're about to get deutsched," I told the group.
'Getting deutsched' is the term I've started using for when a German person informs you that you are doing something wrong, even when it has nothing to do with them. To give credit where credit is due, I actually modified it from a term an American friend of mine invented in the Netherlands, where he works. 'Getting dutched" is much the same as 'getting deutsched'.
Sure enough, the elderly couple was waiting patiently for us to walk over the the road so they could scold us for being on someone's property. Was it their property? No. But it's up to every member of society to enforce societal order. In German, the concept is known as "Ordnung muss sein" or, "there must be order".
I've collected a few amusing stories of this so far. Last week I crossed a crosswalk before the pedestrian light was green (Germans wait at the sidewalk until the green man instructs them to move, even if there isn't a car in sight). A car driving on a different road, not at all involved with this crosswalk, honked its horn and the driver wagged his finger at me. Ordnung muss sein!
Earlier this month I was at the gym and I forgot to put one of the complimentary towels into the hamper before walking out. "Hallo!" a middle-aged man called out to me. "You must put your towel in the hamper". Fair enough, but I was a bit perplexed about why he cared so much. I could understand if the cleaning attendant said something, because it would be their job to pick it up otherwise. But the errant towel didn't have anything to do with this other gym patron.
Also this month I was out to dinner with the incomparable Jen Baker and Jon Worth, and about four minutes after we sat down an older woman at the table next to us came over and said, with a motherly smile on her face, "here in Germany we speak quietly." She made sure everyone at the table understood before she left. We hadn't even been particularly loud.
It's the patronising way in which the admonishments are made that amuses me. It's as if the Germans are doing you a favour by telling you how bad you are. One could make comparisons to the current political situation in the eurozone, but I think those are self-evident!
Perhaps my favourite example happened not to me but to a friend of mine. It was her birthday, and she received a flower delivery at her office. She put the flowers on her desk. Within two hours her supervisor called her into his office and told her that one of her colleagues had reported her for having a plant in her office (they're not allowed to have plants). She was made to throw the flowers out.
So all of this sounds like an enormous pain in the butt, right? Yes and no. I have to say, I can see where the Germans are coming from.
I spent the past six years living in Brussels, a place which, in my opinion, has no sense of society or civic pride. There's trash everywhere, people urinate on the street, and nobody thinks twice about breaking the rules. The idea of a random passerby in Brussels admonishing someone for doing something wrong is inconceivable.
It's partly a national phenomenon. The country is so divided that in a sense, there is no such thing as 'Belgium' or a 'Belgian'. Because Brussels sits on the fault line between Flanders and Wallonia, and also has the expats and immigrants who together make up 52% of the population, you don't really feel like you're in a society but rather just in a geographic place. You feel more connected to your group (expats, North Africans, francophones, Flemish, etc) than to the city itself. Because people don't feel a connection to the city, or the country, they just kind of do whatever they want.
So yes, getting deutsched isn't such a nice feeling. And sometimes it can be a bit silly. But I kind of like the feeling of living in a society again, where people care enough to self-police. All in all, it's better than the alternative.