Monday, August 15, 2011

I was not alive in 1945

I just thought I’d make that perfectly clear, just in case there was any lingering doubt. In other news, my trip to San Francisco grows ever nearer.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Germans are not calling for a ban on the workplace kiss.

“German call to ban workplace kiss” popped up on the BBC News RSS feed, which sounded scary enough for me to make me want to take a look. Not that I am in any way particularly fond of kissing at work — unless, of course, the other party happens to be my wife — but it’s not the sort of thing you want to see regulated by law. All sorts of scenarios present themselves, up to and including people being convicted of sexual harrassment for all sorts of minor infractions. Or worse, perhaps sexual assault is more common in Germany than I thought, with female workers constantly having to fight off the unwanted advances of their male colleagues.

In fact, as the article itself makes clear, it’s nothing of the sort. What it actually is is a society, with no legal status at all, politely suggesting that because the social kiss, common in countries like France, is very uncommon in Germany, it tends to make people a bit uncomfortable and perhaps it would be wiser to greet each other with a more traditional handshake, unless you happen to know that the other person is fine with a kiss on the cheek.

The “Knigge Society”, as the BBC calls it, is actually not a fan of bans, rules and regulations at all; quite the reverse, in fact: they’re trying to dispel the myth that Knigge was all about rules of etiquette. And what is Knigge? The BBC says “Knigge” translates as “proper behaviour”, thus neatly demonstrating that even the BBC occasionally gets confused between a “translation” and a “synonym”.

In fact, the correct translation of “Knigge” is... “Knigge”. It’s a name: specifically, that of Baron Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge, who lived in the 18th century and wrote a book called Über den Umgang mit Menschen, which can loosely be translated as “on dealing with people”, but is usually simply referred to as “Knigge”. The Knigge Society is fighting tooth and nail against the false perception that this was a list of rules of etiquette: instead, it was a dissertation on the importance of tact, and Knigge himself could probably be described as a sort of prototype sociologist. The problem is that various publishers have, for more than 100 years, been churning out rules of etiquette and using the name Knigge on the front cover.

“Let us put an end to the proliferation of inflexible rules of etiquette!” declares the society’s website. And then, referring to some of the more modern rules invented by random publishers in Knigge’s name, adds: “Anyone who wants to can say ‘bon appetit’ or ‘bless you’ and reverse these ridiculous exaggerations.” The society is not helped by a BBC article stating that the society has previously “ruled on the correct way to end a relationship via text message, and how to deal with a runny nose in public”. The society has “ruled” on no such subjects. The society has given advice to people who don’t want to cause unnecessary offence.

There’s a certain note of desperation in the words of the society’s chairman as quoted by the BBC: “We can’t forbid it,” says Hans Michael-Klein, but in vain because the author of the article still sees fit to state that society is calling for “kissing to be banned” in the very first sentence.

So, a group of people with no legal status or authority tackles a thorny issue that it determines is the result of a culture clash and suggests how people might avoid accidentally giving offence by sticking to the German norm unless both parties happen to be comfortable with the new fashion. That hardly amounts to a call for a ban.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Open letter to unknown cat owners

Dear unknown cat owners in Ortenberg,

I don’t know who you are, but my wife and I were in your lovely town today — although, if what we’ve heard has any truth in it, you probably don’t appreciate it as much as you probably should.

But I digress. The point is, walking through the old town, we met your two cats sitting on some steps with a blanket and a food dish. They were very friendly and clearly wanted to be petted, but when one of them — the little black one — stood up, we noticed that it had several nasty, suppurating open wounds on its back, where it can’t scratch. My wife reckons it must be a food allergy or, more likely, mites. I really don’t care, to be honest: the point is, it had untreated wounds and badly needed to see a vet. It did seem to be coping fairly well, under the circumstances, but it’s not nice to see and must be very unpleasant for the cat.

We were interrupted by the arrival of a little old lady: as it turned out, one of your neighbours. I’d describe her to you, but it’s unlikely you know her well enough. She told us to be careful with those cats, and explained why.

You see, the house on the steps of which these cats had been resting was her house, but they weren’t her cats: they’re yours. So how do they come to be in front of her door with a blanket and a food dish? You may well ask, but then, you know the answer to that, don’t you? It’s because you’re hardly ever home. Very occasionally, your little old lady neighbour sees your car, but normally she doesn’t see it, or you, from one day to the next.

She doesn’t want to take your cats in, for fear of catching something, and in any case she’s a little old lady and can’t really look after cats, especially when one of them clearly urgently needs the expensive attention of a vet. Although, to be honest, she’d be well within her moral rights to take the poor creature to the vet and get them to send the bill to you. But she’s a little old lady who lives on her own and wheezes when she walks: it’s really not her business.

Also, I’d say she has little experience of cats. She classes them as strays, which is why she won’t even touch them; but of course they’re not, because they’re far too friendly and affectionate. They were so clearly brought up in human company and belong in someone’s house and garden, not begging for food on an old lady’s doorstep.

And this little old lady, who doesn’t know the first thing about cats and who wheezes when she walks, feeds them. She feeds them not because it’s her job to do so, but because she has a spark of humanity in her and can’t bear to see them being left to their own devices, especially the little black one with the suppurating wounds. It’s a responsibility she can well do without, and there’s a reasonable chance the cats will outlive her, and then what?

It’s clear you don’t care one jot about them, because otherwise the little black one would have been to the vet’s and got the right treatment. If you’re almost never in Ortenberg, I can only assume it’s your second home, so it’s not as if you’re short of money. To be honest, if we didn’t already have cats, we’d have promised the little old lady who wheezes when she walks to come back next weekend and take the cats home with us. She’d thank us, and I doubt you’d even notice.

What happened, then? Did you acquire a couple of cute little kittens and not expect them to grow up? Did you honestly think that cats raised in human homes with humans would be able to look after themselves when they grew up? Or did you just get bored of them? What are they supposed to do in the winter? Do you know how bitter the winters up there in the Wetterau region are?

Not that you care (apparently), but I personally believe nobody should be allowed to have a pet cat (or dog, or anything) unless they know how to take care of it. There should probably be a test, like a driving test. Only if you pass it can you get your licence. Most importantly, if you do get a cute little kitten, you must be made aware that this is going to be a commitment for fifteen or twenty years. That’s comparable to the amount of time you can expect to have a child in the home if you add a baby to your family; only, unlike with children, you can’t get tax breaks and welfare benefit for cats. If you’re not absolutely certain you can sustain that level of commitment, I don’t think you deserve to have a pet at all.

I almost wish now I had instructed your neighbour to get somebody to drive the cats to the nearest animal shelter, where the black one will be treated by a vet and both given to a home that actually wants cats. But she’s a little old lady who wheezes when she walks, and I didn’t want to upset her, and I’m still too British to poke my nose into other people’s business.

Damn my Britishness.