Posts Tagged German

The Thrill Of It All

“Won’t you help me Mr. Jesus, won’t you tell me if you can? When you see this world we live in, do you still believe in Man?”

(The Thrill Of It All, Black Sabbath, from the album “Sabotage”)

I have now finished Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, a thoroughly disturbing and unsettling, albeit excellently written and constructed, book. With a grinding hopelessness, Flanagan describes the atrocities and deprivations endured by Australian POWs at the hands of their Japanese captors, while working on the Thai-Burma railway during World War II. Reading about the astonishing acts of cruelty humans appear to be able to direct towards each other, peaking with accounts of the vivisection of American servicemen while still alive and fully conscious, left me depressed and despairing of the entire collective lot of us.

Obviously this is hardly an isolated case. Having a German heritage, I have spent a lifetime grappling with the fact that members of the same nation that read me bedtime stories, sang me whimsical songs, and developed wonderful Christmas traditions also murdered millions of Jews in some of the most horrible ways imaginable.

Unfortunately it is not something we can shrug off and tell ourselves that it was all in the past. There seems to have been a steady progression from Cambodia to Rwanda to present day Syria to remind us that nothing has really changed, and we are just as barbaric now as we always were. And it is not just “other countries” or “other people” who do these things. Every nation on earth has plenty of blood on its hands. Australians managed to kill enough Aborigines to completely exterminate the Tasmanian race.

And then someone turns around, runs into a burning building and pulls out a complete stranger. Is it possible that the capacity for acts of great courage and sacrifice can only exist because of our capacity for great cruelty? Why should this be so? How can both of these attributes exist within one person? And yet, I have read stories of Nazis who were devoted husbands and fathers.

I have certainly experienced enough firsthand examples of humanity’s amazing ability to display kindness and selfless courage to drag me out of the depths of despair, but I do not think I will ever understand our capacity to inflict pain and presumably derive enjoyment from doing so.

Now I am going to try and find something uplifting to read. Unfortunately positivity does not sell very well.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Mind Your Language

I am always happy to see my tax dollars at work printing expensive government brochures in exotic languages such as Tagalog, Vietnamese and Dinka, for people who can’t be bothered to learn the language of their adopted country. I would have thought that, as a matter of common sense or even self-defence, if I emigrated to a country the first thing I would do would be to learn the language, although I did meet an American who had been living in Costa Rica for five years and did not speak a word of Spanish. Personally I would prefer to see those tax dollars spent on English classes for migrants, such as my parents attended many years ago. I notice that none of these documents are presented in German but maybe that’s because the Germans feel they have caused enough trouble over recent years and actually make the effort to learn the language of their new country.

Who can blame the French for being upset that everyone expects them to speak English, even in their own country? Still, French linguistics does not easily lend itself to English pronunciation. Zoos seem to attract film crews and, on this particular occasion, we had a French one wandering about. At one stage of the shoot the director asked us to “put your turkey on the table”. Bemused, the keeper and I looked at each other and shook our heads. In the time honoured technique used by people the world over when the person you are talking to has no idea what you are saying, he repeated his request, only louder. “Put your turkey on the table!”

Exasperated, he finally pointed at the two way radios hanging from our belts, also known as walkie talkies. In French, the talkie obviously became a turkey.

Of course being completely ignorant of a language can have its advantages. Many years ago my wife and I spent over ten hours hiking through the jungle to a research facility situated in the Costa Rican rainforest. The day before we were due to hike out a small supply plane landed on the grass strip. Not being keen to repeat the arduous walk my wife asked about the possibility of being flown out instead. Being horrified by all forms of aerial transport I declined to join her, greatly preferring the walk, which turned out to be only six hours and gave us a wonderful encounter with a family of coatis foraging on the beach.

As the plane was in a rush to leave we hastily repacked, so that my wife took most of the heavy articles with her. Upon landing she boarded a bus bound for San Jose. The bus originated in Panama and had not yet passed its border check. Officials boarded the bus wanting to see everyone’s identification. My wife produced her passport only to be astonished to see a photo of me staring up at her. In our haste we had inadvertently swapped passports.

Speaking no Spanish whatsoever, my wife also feigned a complete lack of understanding regarding the gestures directed at her by the customs official, especially the one about coming back to his private office for further “discussion”. Fortunately the Costa Ricans are reasonably relaxed about such things (after all they have no army) and the customs official, realising today was not going to be his lucky day, eventually grew tired of the exercise and let my wife go. Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck, was obviously smiling on her that day.

To close, I am reminded of the recently retired American couple who decided to embark on a rail journey across North America. Some days into the trip the train pulled into a station. The wife asked her husband to enquire as to their whereabouts. He accosted the station master who replied, “Saskatoon, Saskatchewan”.

Upon returning to the cabin the wife asked expectantly, “Well, where are we?”

To which the husband replied, “I don’t know. They don’t speak English.”

Dr. F. Bunny

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Turning Japanese

I have just returned from two fantastic weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun. This being my first trip I was struck by the country’s unique ability to embrace both the old and the new. The people were all incredibly friendly, polite, law abiding and helpful. Compared with Australia, Japanese society seemed very structured with a long list of social conventions that regulate people’s daily lives. While this may appear restrictive once I had deciphered the system I found knowing what was expected in various situations to be oddly relaxing. It was probably just my German background enjoying the predictability of it all. The old joke about why the German crossed the road (The little man is green now. It’s allowed) is equally applicable to the Japanese. People formed orderly queues on railway platforms to board the trains, the doors of which always lined up with the carriage numbers marked on the ground. The trains were insanely punctual and reliable. People did not eat in public. Shoes were removed before entering temples, restaurants, homes, castles and sumo rings, which is a very common sense way of not tracking dirt everywhere. If you do decide to visit Japan do not, under any circumstances, wear a pair of lace up hiking boots.

Given that the majority of Japanese claim no personal religion they have presumably decided on their social conventions all by themselves, producing a set of guidelines that work for them. Considering their extremely low crime rate, compared with many devoutly religious countries, it certainly seems to be working for them. Japan does, however, have two major religions and, interestingly, most people profess to follow both.

Shintoism is Japan’s own home grown religion. It has no major prophet and no all-consuming deity. In fact there are eight million deities or spirits as all animate and inanimate objects contain a kami or spiritual essence. It is not necessary to swear allegiance and forsake all others to be Shinto. Anyone who practices Shinto rituals is counted as belonging to the religion. The Japanese have also imported Buddhism and see no contradiction in following both this religion and Shintoism, picking the best bits from each. It is refreshing to see religion working for the people instead of the other way round. Most people celebrate birth events according to the Shinto way but use Buddhist rituals for funeral arrangements. According to what one Japanese person told me the Shinto afterlife is not as appealing as the Buddhist nirvana. There are no Shinto cemeteries. Cremation is a Buddhist ritual. I was told that Shintoists believe the spirit returns to the earth and bodies were either thrown in the river or left on a hillside, presumably for scavengers to dispose of. I can feel myself becoming more Shinto all the time.

As a member of one of the world’s fattest countries it struck me how few overweight Japanese there are. This should come as no surprise as the Japanese consume virtually no bread products and no chocolate. In fact almost none of the places we ate at featured a dessert menu. Dairy products were also all but absent from the diet, which is probably sensible too as we appear to be the only species that drinks the milk of another well into adulthood (apart from my wife’s border collie who used to zip into the milking shed of any farm she visited, in order to clean up the spilled milk). Foods are minimally processed with a strong emphasis on raw foods including fish. I did enjoy my sashimi but I will be worming myself as soon as I get the chance. We cooked many of our restaurant meals ourselves much to my son’s indignation who felt that, as we were having a night out, the least the restaurant staff could do was to cook it for us. We made our own sukiyaki, which featured melt in the mouth Hida beef, that I’m sure was not particularly healthy given the reason for the meat’s flavour and tenderness was its intense marbling. We also concocted our own chankonabe, a stew containing seafood, chicken, vegetables, rice and egg designed to bulk up the sumos, and our own okonomiyaki, a type of savoury pancake filled with whatever takes your fancy. It was also good to see the Japanese making the most of local produce consuming a wide variety of unrecognisable mountain vegetables, as they called them. I found the fern to be quite tasty but I don’t think I will miss the lotus root. Our diet does not seem to be nearly as varied as theirs. All of this no doubt contributes to the fact that the Japanese now have the highest life expectancy in the world.

And the best part? Tips are neither given nor expected. Politeness and good service are an expected part of the culture.

Dr. F. Bunny

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