I typically steer away from reading books about cultural stereotypes. In truth, I find it too easy for an outsider, like a research scientist or anthropologist, to take on a country and its countrymen by seeking to define and distil an entire society down to vague generalizations. Look on Amazon and you will find books a-plenty fussing about the foibles of the French, the crazy degelijkheid of the Dutch or how charming and indispensable the Italians are. There is no shortage of quirky guides to the culture of whatever nation. Some are written by travelers, some by expatriates. Many are humorous – there is the Xenophobe’s Guide, a series put out by Oval Books. Others are a bit more sincere; for instance, Culture Smart! which offers up short introductions to a given country, slim volumes to complement your Lonely Planet, your Fodor’s or Frommer’s Guides.
In Leipzig, Germany, wander into Lehmann’s and here you’ll find Adam Fletcher’s two popular books about living in Deutschland displayed atop the language table on the second floor.
Again, typically, I steer myself away from reading such books; but last year, taking the word of a friend, I borrowed Fletcher’s first dual-lingo book, Wie man Deutscher wird in 50 einfachen Schritten/How to be German in 50 easy steps and rather enjoyed it. Fletcher’s writing, quirky and reverently irreverent, makes affable light of his new-found home, shares anecdotes about the cultural stereotypes and gives a joyful account of daily life in Germany. No harm, no foul, the book is a pleasure to read but one you can pick up and put down. Moreover, it is written in both German and English, ideal for those still hammering away at their Deutsch.
Recently, I received an e-copy of German Men Sit Down to Pee and Other Insights into German Culture by Niklas Frank and James Cave. It was a pleasant read but in comparison to Fletcher’s book, I found it lacked a certain something.
First let me say, I am thankful to currently be living in a country where men do sit down to pee. Originally from Canada, from my earliest years and on, I spent many a public restroom moment wiping off the urine of the previous idiot’s poor aim. It’s great to have a book that explains part of the reason men do this but also helps me feel I am not alone.
Like Fletcher, Frank and Cave cover the gamut of German idiosyncrasies in several sections ranging from ‘Basic Rules’ to ‘Shopping’, ‘Work’, ‘Getting Around’ and ‘Socializing’. Naturally, they talk about German drink and food (Bier and Wurst) and sex habits; for instance, they caution foreigners not to ‘flirt’ too hard or that if you hit someone with a German pillow, you can be charged; the said object can legally be considered a ‘passive weapon’.
Still fairly new to this country, there were some things I gleaned about my adopted country from this book. I already knew about Mallorca as the hedonist headquarters of German travelers, the 17th Bundesland, but I didn’t know it was nicknamed Malle (and interesting to note, the word also means ‘out of one’s mind’ in Northern German). I also read about the stereotypical Germans at the beach who enjoy digging holes or that you can mix red wine and coke, among other concoctions. So yes, a few surprises, a few tidbits of useful and amusingly useless information. This title is a welcome addition to the libraries of those who are, like me, in the discovery stages or even for those who have never been to Germany but are making plans to travel or live here for a crazy little while.
In terms of structure and pacing, the information is good, the writing definitely solid, rendering it both fluid and readable. The authors have talent, no doubt, and the mood of the prose imparts a general cheerfulness.
But now let me get to the ‘something missing’. I find the authors’ presentation lacks the character and personality that Fletcher brings to his work. Within the first few pages of How to be a German in 50 Steps, you gain some insight into the author’s background, where he’s from, why he’s in Germany. You know a bit about his agenda, his perspective and therefore, you can enjoy the reading journey, accompanying him on his ride to becoming ‘German’. In short, Fletcher allows himself to be present, making the reader feel present with him.
However, in German Men Sit Down to Pee, you cannot even find the author biographies. They are as anonymous as those who pen a prestigious scientific journal, where research comes first. By the end of the book, which reads like an article, we learn a great deal but know so little about the men behind the prose. Used to Fletcher’s approach as well as being curious, I went online to find the press kit to gather some idea of who these two writers were. I learned that Frank is German and Cave is Irish. For me, I would really be interested to find out how they met and why they wanted to write this book together. And also, what has Frank experienced as a German citizen to make him step back from his culture to analyze it and poke fun at its quirks? Or, why did James come to Germany and how is the country he hailed from less or more weird than Germany? Knowing their backgrounds, incorporating them into the writing, personalizing the gathering of research would certainly have made it more pleasurable for me.
As it stands, German Men Sit Down to Pee is good value (günstig) as a Kindle Book. But Fletcher remains the one to beat or at least, complement. Stiff competition.
Frank and James can comfortably share a space on the e-shelf with Adam Fletcher but if they plan to do a follow-up book, I hope/suggest they bring more of themselves into the writing.