The Germans and the new frugality

The New Frugality

Copyright: www.colourbox.comCopyright: www.colourbox.comIt happens again and again: a young foreign woman enrolled perhaps at the Goethe-Institut, is charmed by a polite, well-brought-up German man who suggests they go out for dinner. Perhaps there are candles; perhaps not. In any case it usually goes well enough.
Then the bill arrives and the German Romeo starts to add up exactly who has eaten what. If he is sensitive, he notices that his would-be girlfriend is showing signs of embarrassment, and so he says: “I tell you what – let’s just split it in half.”

Most other societies, it must be said, ensure that the male leaves the restaurant table significantly poorer. My German friends say that this is merely the by-product of feminism; the unspoken assumption that since men and women are equal, it is an affront to women to pay their way.

Odd relationship

I see it differently: Germans have an odd relationship to their cash. The coming recession will put it to the test. How can it be a fundamental German virtue to save money if your (German) bank gambles with the cash and loses it? Is it still shameful to be poor – or are we all in some way impoverished during a recession?

An interesting new book, Berlin für Arme (Berlin for the Poor), gives useful tips for hard times. Go to auctions of lost property, is one suggestion: you can pick up for very little money, hats, suitcases, ski-equipment. Another tip: leave the light on in your corridor because what forces up electricity costs is not the length of time that the bulb is burning, but the constant switching on.

National embarrassment

Cover `Berlin für Arme´, Bernd und Luise Wagner; Copyright: Eichborn Verlag The book is interesting because of the national embarrassment about admitting to poverty. When I lived in Bonn, there was a mother who always apologised for the absence of her son from football training. The boy had real talent but she constantly made excuses: illnesses, the sudden visit of a distant relative. Eventually the teachers discovered that she did not have the money for new football boots, or for the bus trip to away-games. Or what about that urban legend: the middle class housewives who hide their Aldi shopping in bags from more exclusive shops so that neighbours will not think bad of them? Now these sad, hidden moments are giving way to a new openness about the fact that one is having to improvise to make the money last until the end of the month.

Partly the reason is a growing disillusion with the banks. Squeezed for credit, they pass on their problem to us. The American poet Robert Frost used to say: “A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain.” For a while, at the beginning of this already rather troubled century, it seemed as if the Germans could borrow their way to happiness. Credit card debt – a staple part of British or American existence, but a rarity in Germany – reached unprecedented levels. And now ? It’s back to basics.

It is fashionable to save

The fascinating feature of Berlin für Arme (Bernd and Luise Wagner, Eichborn Verlag) is that it encourages the urban poor to rediscover nature: to use parks, to go for walks, to swim in lakes, to pick berries. All free. I have been working for a while on a book about food and war and have been gathering recipes from the first and second world wars: dandelions, acorns, turnips and potatoes were all very cheap, or free, ingredients. To make something delicious out of them required time but mainly imagination. I now have over 80 different recipes for potato dishes. Two years ago (when I first started collecting) it would have been unthinkable to serve sophisticated dinner guests potato-based meals. Now, I have potato salons. And not just for old people who (sticking to their wartime habits) still save used string and wrapping paper in their cupboards. It is fashionable again to save – and to talk about it openly. One neighbour, a building contractor, drives his Mercedes to the Bahlsen biscuit shop in Berlin every Saturday morning to buy 2. Wahl Leibniz Kekse – usually broken or in some way, imperfect but, as he says, the perfect way of feeding oneself on long trips down the motorway. And cheap, of course. What is new: he now invites one to go along; a shared rather than a secretive experience.

The new Zeitgeist

Copyright: www.colourbox.com The fact is careful use of resources has always been a Prussian, or a German virtue along with hard work (Fleiß) and punctuality and Ordnung. The financial crisis is driving Germans back to traditional values, and that’s no bad thing. The New Frugality, the Neue Sparsamkeit, is not the same as Geiz (stinginess). At its best, it can help shape new patterns of social solidarity. In my Berlin neighbourhood it is now common to rent a DVD and invite four of five friends to watch with you. Much cheaper than the cinema: you pay for the DVD, but the friends bring drinks and food. Even the impoverished soccer mum is no longer ashamed of approaching the school management board for financial assistance. There is a sense that in this recession the “typisch deutsche” virtue of Sparsamkeit will create a more thoughtful and considerate society.

As for those young German men who insist on dividing up bills with their dates – perhaps they have really captured the new Zeitgeist.

Roger Boyes
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper “The Times”. He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column “My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

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November 2008

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