In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011
When I was fourteen I was faced with a difficult choice. I was dreadful at languages but knew that I had another two years of brain-aching pain ahead of me full of verb tables and conjugations. The choice was between pain in French or pain in German. On the French side we had (for a fourteen year old) summer sun, beautiful women in skimpy dresses, and achingly cool films full of gruff types moodily smoking cigarettes. On the German side we had… Well, I was fourteen so I didn’t know much more than cars and wars.
For some reason I chose German.
It was by no means a bad decision. I spent several happy Easter holidays travelling to a small town just outside Frankfurt, where we stayed with German families, drank German beer and discovered German girls. We visited Heidelberg and the ominous, barbed wire border with East Germany. The sun shone. Somehow I even did pretty well in my German exams. A few years later I even ended up living in Vienna.
The apparent oddness of my decision is something that is tackled in Simon Winder‘s fascinating book, Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), which digs into the unknown Germany and its often astonishing and slightly bewildering history (and geography). Despite being so central to Europe, especially now that it’s discovering a new role as the economic crisis bites, and the last century or so of our history, not many people know too much about it beyond, well, cars and wars. Few go on holiday there and few of us look for a German restaurant when it’s time to go out for a meal.
‘Germania’ is a corrective to this, and a real eye opener. His description of something called a ‘slaughterhouse platter’ might not convince many to visit German restaurants. But his meanderings through the micro-kingdoms and bizarre historical twists of Germania will change attitudes, and perhaps bring a few more tourists to the cobbled streets, majestic cathedrals and odd museums of a much misunderstood country. I hope you enjoy the interview!
NB: In the US the book title is Germania: In wayward pursuit of the Germans and their history, while here in Britain it is Germania: a personal history of Germans ancient and modern.