One or two weeks ago, I was sitting under a tree, smoking a cigar.
When out of nowhere came a young man, one of those cool guys with a hoodie and a charming smile: “May I sit next to you?”, he pointed to a second bench. “Because this is my Bodhi tree.”
Naturally, I said yes and offered him some gingerbread. I had bought more than I wanted to eat anyway. Because the large packs are much cheaper than the small ones. It’s like that with a lot of products, have you noticed? As a consumer, I always feel a bit cheated by this.
He offered to share his kebab, which I gratefully declined. Because honestly, how would you share a kebab in pita bread? That’s just gonna be one huge mess, making the rodents in the field happy.
“You know what a Bodhi tree is?” he asked and there I was, caught in my ignorance by the young fellow. He explained something about awakening and awareness and enlightenment and salvation and that Buddha Siddhartha Gautama had found all this under a Bodhi tree. Well, you can discover all kinds of things when sitting under a tree like that, I can confirm that myself.
Somehow it was lovely to listen to someone talk about Buddha in Swabian. Even if I didn’t understand everything. People think that German sounds harsh because they once watched a Nazi film. That’s like judging English based on “Full Metal Jacket”. (Which really does sound better in German.) But German has some rather soft and melodic dialects where you can listen to people for days on end, no matter what they are talking about. Swabian, Swiss, North and South Tyrolean.
And he was not overbearing in any way, not like those who want to hit you with all 84,000 teachings for the path from Samsara to Bodhi, as you experience with other Buddhists. Actually, he talked more about his own life, which I will not reproduce here, because that ain’t nobody’s business. I have a rule: When I sit somewhere and I’m writing and someone comes along and tells me his life story, then I’m allowed to use it. Because honestly, what do people think I’m doing when I’m loitering in the park with a notepad and pen? But if I’m just munching on gingerbread to attain at least the physical shape of a Buddha, then really no one can suspect that there’s a roving reporter sitting under the Bodhi tree.
The young man said that I looked like a spy, by the way. Which I understood even less than the thing about the four noble truths, because we were sitting on a hill above a small village in Baden-Württemberg. There’s really nothing to spy on around here.
It was November and no pleasant temperature, but suddenly there were people coming by every five minutes. Walkers with dogs, walkers with wives or husbands, walkers who said hello, walkers who said nothing, walkers who stopped and also talked about their lives. It reminded me of the movie “The Trouble with Harry”, where the paths of all the protagonists keep intersecting on a hill above the village. Have you seen that one? It’s a Hitchcock movie, but a funny one. Some people are afraid of Hitchcock because they think his films are cruel or something. Not at all. Even mild-mannered Buddhists can enjoy it.
Then he drove me home, because the Buddhist had a car and I didn’t. And he told me to go to the kebab store downtown and tell them that I was a friend of Yalçin. That would get me a free kebab.
I should really pick that up soon. After all, kebabs don’t get any better with time. They are very un-Buddhist that way.
But then – rather fittingly for the anniversary of the Spanish Flu – a small pandemic intervened, limiting my world travels quite a bit. As if I would have guessed, however, I had set up a treasure trove of travel tales, from which I can now draw. This month’s story, for example, I can illustrate with photos taken personally on the World War I battlefields in Flanders, where I went with a university field trip in February 2020. This unusually, almost frivolously, brief episode shall only serve as a teaser for the soon to be published full travelogue from Ypres.
But today, we focus on flowers.
If you’ve ever been to the UK in November, you’ll have noticed that corn-red poppies suddenly pop up everywhere. On the subway, in Parliament, on the evening news. And anyone who dares to walk down the street without a poppy on their lapel is stopped by soldiers who will urge you to patriotically wear a poppy. Because soldiers are well organized, they always have an extra poppy with them, which they are happy to hand over for a small fee. If you’re old, frail and can’t fight back, it’s quite possible to come home with as many as five of those plant patches, even if you only wanted to walk the dog around the block.
The heyday of this flowery season is November 11th, the anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting in 1918. But, when I came to England first, I didn’t know that and refused the poppy. By nature, I am skeptical of everyone doing the same thing. And even more skeptical of ostentatious displays of patriotism. So I preferred to give my money to the homeless, who, appropriately enough, were often war veterans. Colleagues of Mr. Lawrence of Arabia, it seemed, because they spoke of Iraq and desert warfare and such.
This novemberly custom is not only celebrated in Great Britain, but also in many countries of the happy and large Commonwealth family. In 1914, these countries were still too young and inexperienced and were “persuaded” by King George V to enter World War I. But then, Britain can’t always do everything on its own. Except for Brexit, of course, but that’s a different topic.
It was a poem written by Canadian military doctor John McCrae, In Flanders Fields, which turned the poppy into a famous symbol, already during the war. In May 1915, he buried a comrade and friend who had fallen during the Second Battle of Ypres. The blood-red poppies sprouted around the grave as soon as he was buried, and poof, the poem that would become the most popular English-language poem of the First World War was born. In Canada, it is something of a national poem.
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
John McCrae himself died in January 1918. But after the war, two women, Moina Michael and Anne Guérin, had the idea of using the poppies mentioned in the poem as a symbol of remembrance for the Allied casualties of the war. (Women had attained a wee bit of independence and freedom during World War I. Unfortunately, this only lasted as long as the men were away or the economy needed women’s labor. As soon as the men returned, the women were relegated to the kitchen again. As a small compensation, they got the right to vote and – in West Germany already in 1977 – the right to enter into an employment contract without the husband’s signature. Yay!)
For the festivities in November 1921, the lapel flowers were mass-produced for the first time and sold by veterans’ associations. The Chinese factory workers who churn out the plastic flowers today are probably thinking it’s for a New Year’s celebration or a birthday party. By the way, this division of labor is nothing new either, as I learned in the “In Flanders Fields Museum” (named after the poem) in Ypres.
Some 140,000 Chinese served on the Western Front. Not as soldiers, but as laborers for the British and French armies. World War I was even more of a world war than most people think.
But this and much more I will tell you in the detailed report from Ypres. As you have already seen from the photos, there will be a lot about war and death and commemoration. But also about a city rebuilt true to the original after its complete destruction and about the people now living there.
And about a bunch of students from the University of Hagen, getting high on Belgian beer. Except for that one weird student who stealthily absconded and discovered a secret underground NATO command bunker.
If you are interested, just give me another week or two. Soon, there will be plenty of news from the Western front!
As you can see from the comments below those articles, I have helped hundreds of people gain German citizenship, to regain a citizenship once lost, sometimes generations ago, and more often than not to discover that they have been German all along, without knowing it.
But I have also had to spread the disappointing news that law is complicated, tricky and sometimes a bit outdated. One particular pet peeve of German citizenship law has been the attempt to prevent dual or multiple citizenship. Because law needs to be complicated, there are many exceptions to this rule, some clear, some ambiguous, but many of you have shied away from the ultimate step of giving up your original citizenship, as usually requested in the German naturalization process.
Especially for complicated restitution cases, the German government has in recent years passed several regulations easing the requirements and permitting dual or multiple citizenship in more cases than before. In August 2021, in the last minutes before the end of the parliamentary term, the Citizenship Act was amended to include those new rules. (Not yet taken into consideration in my FAQ on German citizenship!) But these were band-aid measures for this or that particular group of people, turning a complicated field of law into an impenetrable jungle of law.
And then there was an election in September 2021, won by the Social Democratic Party (of which I am a member, full disclosure, never once having won an election in which I ran myself). Yesterday, the new government, a coalition between Social Democrats, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party announced their governing program.
Now, I don’t want you to get excited too early, because this is not yet a law. This is merely a declaration of intent. But it looks like the new government wants to make the pathway to German citizenship much easier. Specifically, the coalition agreement says:
Dual and multiple citizenship will be allowed.
This is a huge step, as many non-EU citizens hitherto had to apply for an exception from the ban on dual citizenship when applying for naturalization in Germany. This was a tedious process and I had to tell clients repeatedly to not even bother if it was clear that they wouldn’t meet the requirements of one of the narrow exceptions.
Naturalization shall be granted after five ears of residence, and after three years of residence in the case of exceptional integration.
If nothing changes, “exceptional integration” will be measured mostly by the level of German language skills. Studying helps! I just hope the new government will keep § 12b StAG, one of my favorite sections of the German Citizenship Act, which means that you don’t have to spend the whole qualifying time in Germany and even allows you to combine several stays. I have often had clients who were surprised to learn that they already meet the residency requirement because the time spent in Germany as a student a decade ago does count. (Holidays don’t count, though, sorry.)
Children born to foreign parents in Germany will receive German citizenship if at least one parent has been a legal resident in Germany for five years.
This is still not as easy as countries with ius soli, but a bit easier than the current rule in § 4 III StAG, requiring one parent to have been a legal resident for 8 years and holding permanent residence.
There will be hardship clauses for applicants wo cannot pass the language test.
This has hardly been a problem for people contacting me, but then, people going on the interweb, finding a blog and contacting a lawyer are a pretty self-selecting group of literate and savvy people. The formal language exams are indeed a problem for some people who speak German alright, but simply haven’t sat an exam for all of their adult life. Honestly, I think many native Germans wouldn’t pass that exam (or indeed the citizenship test).
This has nothing to do with citizenship law, but some of you will be happy to hear that
it shall become easier for foreign citizens to attend university or professional training in Germany,
especially as most universities in Germany are free of charge. Yes, also for non-citizens.
So what’s my advice?
If you qualify for German citizenship while retaining your original citizenship, just go ahead.
If you are in the process right now and have been told that you cannot (easily) maintain your original citizenship, put things on hold and wait until the new law will be passed. (No, I don’t know when this will be, but watch this blog. As you should do anyway, for a myriad of reasons.)
If your application for German citizenship has been declined in the past or you didn’t pursue it because you wanted to maintain your original citizenship, take another look once the new law will have been passed. A previous denial does not prevent you from applying again.
If you have given up your original citizenship in order to receive German citizenship, it may become legal to re-obtain your original citizenship and hold both of them. But don’t do anything before the new law will be in effect!
I have just started house and rabbit sitting for a family in Germany who will be flying to Tanzania for three months to work in a hospital there.
After the family of five had packed seven suitcases for a quarter of a year – two of them with donations for the people of Liuli -, the daughter, who might be about 10 years old, thoughtfully stood in front of the luggage and said: “Wow. This is really everything that we need to survive,” which already included stuffed animals and school supplies.
“And our closets are still completely full,” she continued. “It seems we don’t really need all the stuff we own.”
Traveling is the best way to learn real minimalism. The more often you pack and unpack your bag and laboriously drag it up the steep steps to the youth hostel in the castle on top of the hill (where youth hostels in Germany are often located), the more obvious it becomes that property and possessions are more of a burden than a liberation.
Only Emperor Karl (Charles) I of Austria was, at the age of 31, too young and impetuous to give up. Or rather, to point to the true instigator of this drama, his wife, the even younger and even more impetuous ex-empress Zita Maria delle Grazie Adelgonda Micaela Raffaela Gabriella Giuseppina Antonia Luisa Agnesewar of Habsburg-Lothringen, née Bourbon-Parma, was not ready to give up the throne. She had already thrown a tantrum when Karl had renounced his official duties after the revolution in November 1918, although, realistically, there had been no alternative.
“What the f***, Charlie? I want to be an empress, not a housewife.” Not that Madame had ever lifted a finger in the kitchen herself, but being Italian, she was a bit melodramatically inclined.
Besides, when she’d found herself an emperor, she’d envisioned more of a Napoleon type who would conquer all of Europe and stuff.
“Six hundred and fifty years of monarchy, and you just sign that away?”
“But Zita, we’re still young. We can start something new!”
Zita was much more attached to the job than her husband, who was actually looking forward to have more time to travel, to read books, to take it easy. Besides, he hoped, this would enable him to resume his interrupted law studies. (Austrian emperors and chancellors often come into office a bit prematurely and then have to let their studies languish.)
“Switzerland is also nice,” Karl tried to make the exile in Prangins, to where the imperial family left in March 1919, palatable to her. And that was not even a lie.
But once a relationship is in trouble, even the best vacation can only cover up the problems for a short period. Zita continued to nag: “As far as I understand, you are not only Emperor Karl I of Austria, but also King Karl IV of Hungary and King Karl III of Bohemia.” At some point, probably in a war of succession, the Habsburg numbering had gotten mixed up, and poor Karl had to suffer the ensuing confusion.
“Yes, but that was just by virtue of being Austrian Emperor. And for that post, I signed the resignation.” Sometimes, Karl wished that this would have relieved him of the ambitious empress as well.
“But you only resigned in Austria, not in Bohemia and Hungary,” the canny empress objected.
“There is no more Bohemia, honey,” Karl explained the new world order, “it’s Czechoslovakia now, and they certainly don’t want a king who doesn’t speak Czech.” Learning Czech is famously impossible because the language is entirely devoid of vowels: Chrt zdrhl z Brd. Vtrhl skrz strž v tvrz srn, v čtvrť Krč. Blb. Prskl, zvrhl smrk, strhl drn, mrskl drn v trs chrp. Zhltl čtvrthrst zrn skrz krk, pln zrn vsrkl hlt z vln. Chrt brkl, mrkl, zmlkl. (Personally, I am particularly sorry about this, because in Germany, I live not far from the Czech Republic and would very much like to learn the language of this friendly neighboring country. But I ain’t got the tongue-twisting talent.)
One morning, Zita came into the room all excited, the newspaper in her hand, and exclaimed, “Hungary is a monarchy again!” Indeed, after a brief interlude that we touched on in August 1921, Hungary had declared itself a kingdom again. However, one without a king. Instead, with Miklós Horthy, whom we already know from said episode, as regent. The regent is a kind of administrator, a straw man, someone who keeps the chair warm while the boss is away.
“They’re just waiting for you!” the empress was on fire, and Karl had to admit that events could be interpreted that way. Now, the problem was that Austria had forbidden not only the ex-emperor and ex-empress, but all Habsburgs from ever entering the country again. At that time, in the spring of 1921, the airplane had not yet been invented. So Karl put on a false beard, got himself a false passport (probably in Malta, it’s quite easy there if you have money) and secretly and undetected drove from Switzerland through Austria to Hungary.
The Habsburgs had already experienced some bad luck when traveling by car, but on Easter 1921 everything went smoothly. Until the arrival in Hungary.
The emperor had forgotten one thing: He had not informed Horthy. And the regent, who was supposed to keep the Hungarian throne warm for the king, was quite taken aback when one day the doorbell rang like in a Halloween prank, and Karl I, or from the Hungarian point of view Karl IV, or even, if one took into account the interruption of the monarchy, Karl V, stood in front of the door.
“Hello, it’s me, his majesty.”
“Well, I didn’t expect that. But please come on in. I’m afraid we only have a little soup left.”
Karl shared his plan to retake the Hungarian throne and was quite taken aback that Horthy did not want to vacate it voluntarily.
“Horthy, you swore an oath to me!”
“Yes I did, Mr. King, but you see, the global political situation …” And Horthy explained his fear that the Entente would attack Hungary if another Habsburg ascended the throne. This was, of course, a flimsy pretext. In reality, Horthy had simply become accustomed to ruling a kingdom without a king. Since he was also an admiral without a fleet (or even a port city), that suited him quite well.
What Horthy did not mention, was that he had already found a new best friend. Another Austrian.
The conversation at Horthy’s kitchen table was to no avail, and in the end the emperor had to ask for a guest room in his own palace in Budapest. It was just as well that the palace was not one of the smaller ones. On the other hand, perhaps that was why the Horthys were so reluctant to move out.
Karl I/III/IV/V stayed another week, every evening discussing possible ways to his re-enthronement, but at some point realized that it had been a fool’s errand to go to Budapest without any plan, without any agreements, without any allies.
They parted with face-savingly vague promises to keep in touch, and the emperor drove back to Switzerland. Honestly, the furor of his wife worried him more than the vacant throne and the already-inhabited palace.
And really, the time in Switzerland was even more unbearable for Karl than being bored in the guest room of his own palace. Zita was now bothering him almost every day, teasing him, sometimes even cheekily mentioning that maybe she should look for another emperor. (Haile Selassie, the Shah of Persia and the Emperor of California were top on the list of European princesses at the time.) And when he thought about it, Karl had to admit that this Horthy guy was somehow pulling his leg.
So he staged a second attempt to reclaim the Hungarian throne! In October 1921 and thus – appropriately for this little series – exactly 100 years ago.
“This time, I’m coming with you,” insisted Zita, who no longer had full confidence in her husband’s unconditional determination to succeed. Neither of them had any confidence at all in Admiral Horthy, whom they therefore again did not inform in advance. Conveniently, the airplane had been invented in the meantime; the two bought a Junkers F-13 and flew to Hungary.
This time the Habsburgs had even prepared a few troops, the so-called Legitimists. Because flying was new and unfamiliar, however, the imperial couple and the Legitimists missed each other and it took a while for them to find each other in western Hungary.
Back then, and you wouldn’t believe it if you wandered over the barren fields there today, western Hungary was a hot spot. Reading every month that World War I did not end in 1918 is probably as tiring as a long walk across the Pannonian Steppe, but even between Austria and Hungary there were still unresolved territorial questions lingering at the end of 1921.
This one was particularly tricky, because at the peace negotiations in Paris, or rather in the eponymous castles around Paris (Neuilly, Sèvres, Saint-Germain, Trianon, Versailles), Austria-Hungary was initially one defeated country, which then quickly split into several countries that wanted absolutely nothing to do with Austria-Hungary, which had, after all, triggered the world war in the first place. “Austria? Never heard of it,” said the Hungarians. “We were actually the first victims,” said the Austrians, and – surprisingly – got away with it. So the victorious powers awarded the border strip disputed between the two countries (essentially today’s Burgenland) to Austria, not least because Vienna would otherwise have been very close to the border with Hungary and would not have had sufficient agricultural land in its environs to feed the capital’s population, which has always been endowed with a healthy appetite. Moreover, by an unfortunate coincidence, Hungary was briefly communist at that very moment (you remember), which did not earn it any sympathy from the victorious powers.
Vienna, by the way, is still quite close to the border, despite the Burgenland, which is why this is one of the few possibilities to walk from the capital of one country (Vienna) to the capital of another (Bratislava) in one day, as I once spontaneously proved, just for the fun of it. This was not even possible between East and West Berlin, because the latter was not a capital. Jerusalem and Ramallah might be another option, but this will immediately hail protesting comments, denying the statehood of the one and the role as capital city of the other.
But back to the Burgenland conflict, the Middle East conflict of our grandparents’ generation. Although, actually, let me cut this short, because I myself do not understand what’s going on between Saint-Germain and Trianon, between Wieselburg, Ödenburg and Eisenburg, between the Association for the Preservation of Germanness in Hungary, the Association of German Compatriots from Western Hungary and the Action Committee for the Liberation of Western Hungary, between the Austrian Legion, the Royal Hungarian Western Hungarian Insurgents, the Legitimists, the Friedrich Liberationists, the Osztenburg Detachment and the Interallied Generals’ Commission. All these parties fought against each other, with each other, and among themselves.
About a few fields. (Burgenland is about the size of French Polynesia. Or Cape Verde. Or South Georgia and the Southern Sandwich Islands. None of that tells you anything, which just proves how small Burgenland is.)
You would think that after four years of world war, people would have been tired of fighting. But that was not the case. Not at all. Quite the contrary, in Austria things were just heating up.
And into that pandemonium, into that witch’s goulash cauldron, into that paprika powder keg, his imperial-royal highness Karl I and his wife jumped out of a plane to claim the throne.
It took him a few days to even figure out who was with him and who was against him. In the course of the discussions thus triggered, many of the brigades, parties, and free-army corps split into anti-monarchist, monarchist, revanchist, legitimist, moderate royalist, constitutionalist, Magyarist and dozens of other groups. But at least this had a pacifying effect, because now there was no more shooting, but debating. (Which is why there is no Hollywood movie about this offshoot of World War I. Which, in turn, is why you’ve never heard of it.)
For a photo at the train station in Ödenburg, they at least managed to gather a handful of soldiers paying homage to Karl I/III/IV/V.
The woman with the bouquet is Zita, who, because they were already at a train station, urged the party to travel to Budapest, to the great castle. So the imperial couple got on the train, together with a few soldiers, most of whom probably didn’t care about Karl, nor about the monarchy, but were thinking: “Oh, great, finally to Budapest! That must surely be better than Burgenland.” At that time, Budapest already had cinemas, pubs and pretty female students, because George Soros had opened a new university.
In the meantime, news of Karl’s renewed excursion to Hungary had reached Admiral Horthy. He was less eager about having to discuss the matter with his nominal boss again. Instead of setting the table and preparing the guest room, he rallied his troops to stop the train at Budaörs, a suburb of Budapest. On 23 October 1921, a small skirmish took place. 19 soldiers died. When Karl saw that the accession to the throne would not be a walk in the park, he called it off.
The person most unhappy about this was Zita. She herself had never renounced anything, so she still felt herself Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, Queen of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria, Queen of Jerusalem, Archduchess of Austria, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Cracow, Duchess of Lorraine and Bar, of Salzburg, Steyer, Carinthia, Carniola and Bukovina, Grand Duchess of Transylvania, Margravine of Moravia, Duchess of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Piacenza and Guastalla, of Auschwitz and of Zator, Teschen, Friaul, Ragusa and Zara (this has nothing to do with the clothing line, I think), princely Countess of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca, Princess of Trent and Bressanone, Margravine of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria, Countess of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz and Sonnenberg, Lady of Trieste, of Cattaro and on the Windisch Mark, Grand Voivode of the Voivodeship of Serbia, Infanta of Spain, Princess of Portugal and of Parma.
But before the couple could have a mighty royal quarrel, the two were already arrested, put on a Danube steamer and, at England’s insistence, taken far away, where they could do no more mischief: Madeira, an island belonging to Portugal, far out in the Atlantic, where Zita discovered that her “Princess of Portugal” was worth absolutely nothing. Portugal, always one of the most progressive countries in Europe, had dismissed the king, the nobility and the church already in 1910.
In Portugal, every citizen who has not yet been vaccinated receives a personal letter and a phone call. From this man: Vice Admiral Henrique Eduardo Passaláqua de Gouveia e Melo, the submarine captain from “Red October”.
The result? More than 98% of the over-12 year olds in Portugal are vaccinated.
It’s a pity that in Germany, all the George Clooney knock-offs, if we even have somebody like that, are anti-vaxxers. And Austria has sunk its submarine fleet in the Bay of Kotor after that nasty experience with Admiral Horthy.
Ex-Emperor Karl was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004. I didn’t really understand why. Really, these Catholics are weirdos. The Emperor Karl Prayer League has branches and places of worship around the world and a desperate appeal on its website: “We urge you to report answered prayers!!!” Well, if people in 2021 still believe that a dead emperor will help with an empty stomach or with a high-school chemistry test, how are we supposed to believe in progress?
Instead of a prayer, let me close with a quote by Karl Kraus:
Admittedly, a monarch can be an idiot for the duration of his reign; this does not contradict the monarchical idea. But if he behaves like an idiot even in the time when he is no longer a monarch, for example by the way he wants to become a monarch again, one should think that even the supporters of the monarchical idea should deny him the suitability for that position.
By the way, Austria did indeed get Burgenland in the end, but without its capital Ödenburg (Sopron in Hungarian), where the imperial plane had landed. So, both sides could feel like they won something, and there have been love, peace and Kaiserschmarrn for a hundred years.
Speaking of which: Writing really makes me hungry…
The other week, when I was living on a ship (did I tell you about that?), the camera must have suffered some water damage. Because one roll of film produced photos with black edges on two sides, and I am quite certain I didn’t hold my thumb in front of the lens for every single picture.
I will try to repair them, but for the moment, I will just put them out there and let you make up your own story about what happened that day around Beeskow.
So, I am curious what you think happened that day in Beeskow.
Once I’ll get around to repairing those photos, I will publish the true story of adventures on the boat, a stash of cigars and the lost city in the jungle.
At the German-Polish border, there is plenty of police right now. What are they looking for, I wonder and ask.
Cigarette smugglers, says the female officer, while her two male colleagues are ostentatiously of the opinion that they don’t have to respond to questions by mere citizens. Or maybe they are on strike. A lot of people are on strike right now. Because of inflation and stuff. But when there is deflation, no one pays back part of their salary voluntarily. Homo homini inflatius.
I ask whether the smuggling happens in both directions. The customs lady looks at me as if she were mentally checking her rudimentary knowledge of criminal law for whether stupidity is an arrestable offense. It isn’t. Otherwise the prisons would be full, I can tell you that, especially around Valentine’s Day.
Cigarettes are usually only smuggled from Poland to Germany, she says in a tone as if one might really know that from Sesame Street.
I thank her and walk to Poland in a deliberately inconspicuous manner. That’s quite easy. Guben, German side. Bridge. Gubin, Polish side. No passport, no barrier, no check. You don’t even get shot anymore. It’s a jolly good thing, this European Union. Now, people are only dying at the external borders, where you don’t have to look at it.
I am one of those Germans who, each time I cross the border, become aware, at least in abstract terms, of how much suffering Germany has brought upon our friendly neighboring country. Not least because my Polish flatmates in Bari have reminded me of this time and again. Not intentionally, I suppose. But they were young and hadn’t experienced anything interesting themselves. So they told stories about their grandparents. And there were always Germans who had set the farm on fire, drunk all the milk, slaughtered the cow, frightened grandma and shot grandpa.
And now the Germans are even smuggling the cigarettes away from under the Polish noses.
I decide, as a small gesture of reparation, to smuggle a cigar to the Polish side every day and smoke it there.
They have the more beautiful parks over there, anyway.
If you are looking for a park in Poland, by the way, you can always ask for Adam Mickiewicz. He planted a park in every small town. Really in every single one. He should be made some kind of national hero for that.
More stories from Poland. I can’t wait for winter, when I should finally find the time to write about my visits to Krakow and Auschwitz.
As you know, I consider timeliness to be overrated, which is why my report from Guben will be written sometime in the next few weeks or months.
But I do not want to withhold the current dramatic developments from you: The Polish Prime Minister threatens “Wold War III”. Poland announces the doubling of its armed forces. And overnight, the German Federal Police blew up the border bridges over the Neisse River.
Smart move or escalation?
My attempts to infiltrate right-wing extremist vigilante groups – purely for reporting purposes, of course – have so far failed because I’m simply not fat, stupid and ugly enough to fit in. I always get found out right away.