Frugality rules at German dinner parties
- 18 November 2012
- From the section Magazine
There has been much talk in Germany about southern European nations being over-reliant on the country's generosity but when it comes to entertaining, the Germans display quite an appetite for frugality.
When I first came to live in Berlin, I was invited to a dinner party, a media dinner party. A German director and his wife invited me over and I looked forward to it with great anticipation.
Usually dinner parties are not my cup of tea, as it were, but this would be a chance to see how Germans did these things. A correspondent from The Economist had also been invited.
And it was good, very enjoyable - though not nearly as grand a meal as I had anticipated.
The table was laid in the couple's flat. We chatted a little, anticipation mounting.
And then his wife proudly produced the food - boiled potatoes, boiled green vegetables and ham, boiled ham.
Now I like boiled potatoes, boiled ham, boiled vegetables even.
But it is not what you would have expected in a similar British dinner.
That would have been a feast, produced to the dictates of Delia, Jamie or Heston and probably involving porcini and creme fraiche, the words the English upper-crust use for mushrooms and sour cream.
The point I am making is that the German idea of luxury is different from the British idea.
Germans really are frugal. They like boiled potatoes - and good for them, say I.
You might argue that this was Berlin and Berlin was, of course, partly in East Germany. So Berlin frugality has a different background. And it is true that East Berliners were mocked by "Wessies" when the wall came down because they knew nothing about fancy food.
Just after the two halves of the city were reunited, a West German magazine had a cover story with a picture of an East German housewife. You could tell where she came from because of her awful East German perm. She is holding a cucumber and the caption says: "My first banana".
The point is that bananas were such a luxury that East Germans could not even recognise one.
But the hosts at my dinner party were not "Ossies" but "Wessies", completely au fait with bananas and even, perhaps, porcini.
No, this was just German frugality. You come across it in lots of ways.
I go to a supermarket under a railway arch and it resembles a warehouse, goods stacked to the red-bricked roof with no sense of style or flashy salesmanship.
It is price that matters - even for fancy wines.
This is not a supermarket for poor people. There is wine there at 60 euros (£48/$76) a bottle. But you can bet your bottom euro that it will be cheaper than elsewhere. Even the rich watch the pennies.
Or think of Media Markt, the electronics retailer, which still refuses to take credit cards or even debit cards.
When I presented a card at the check-out, the assistant looked at me like I had offered to pay with a chicken or the use of my body for half an hour. Credit: nein danke.
So as you follow the debate over the euro, and over German resistance to extra spending in Greece, or extra spending in Brussels, bear this frugality in mind. It is seared into the German soul.
Much is made of the effects of the inflation of 1923, but to my mind that is overblown - a cliche almost.
Far more important are the effects of the World War II, which are less talked about, partly because German suffering became unmentionable because of guilt.
But it was a personal catastrophe for millions of people. Half the homes in Germany were uninhabitable, either destroyed or damaged.
So these are people who experienced great privation, and within living memory. American cigarettes became a currency as people scrabbled for food.
In this city of Berlin, for example, women - Trümmerfrauen (rubble women) - scrabbled through the streets, scavenging in the years after the war. That kind of experience has to inform your attitude to food and material goods.
On top of that, Germans do not actually earn very much compared to those in other European countries - less than in France and Spain and about two-thirds what a comparable British worker has.
And the German wage has barely risen over the past decade. They are frugal because they hold back on pay.
Accordingly, Germans hold their wallets tight to themselves.
Frugal at the dinner table. Frugal too, in the finance ministry.
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