I’m going to miss Germany. Twenty kilometres from Cologne, we call this ‘das vergessene Tal’, the forgotten valley, but I don’t think I’ll forget it. I sit up here in my lounge, looking down over the valley all cloaked in mist, it’s tranquil and verdant, the only sound is birdsong. They like it here too. In a month from now I’m off to a new life in Portugal; fish, olive oil, sun and amanha. Amanha is Portuguese for ‘mañana’ but it doesn’t have the same sense of urgency. That’s never been in the German dictionary, of course. When you want something done, it just happens (apart from Deutsche Telekom but let’s leave that one for another time) and it’s done well. A guy says he’ll be there at nine and he’s there at nine. They don’t drive through red traffic lights. There are no speed limits on the motorways. What more could a person ask for?
Try using a credit card here and you’ll get a shock. Germans save and use cash not plastic. Now isn’t that refreshing? While the rest of Europe struggles with bankruptcy and cutbacks, things here have got back to normal quite quickly. Recession? Inflation? They know all about that and avoid it like the plague.
Maybe the Cologne people are different, but what surprised me most is that they’re actually not like Germans at all; they’re really nice. I know all my neighbours; we go to dinner parties and barbecues at each other’s houses, celebrate birthdays and help each other out. Liberal? Conservative? You have this preconception of Germans as rather blinkered, po-faced people but, believe me, they’re not. Scratch the surface and they are more liberal than the Dutch. Institutionally liberal, I’d say. They have no idea until it’s pointed out to them but the idea of racial prejudice, xenophobia or homophobia doesn’t occur to them and it’s not political correctness; it’s that the idea genuinely offends them. I guess it’s a throwback to their history but, believe me, this is a country that has come good.
It’s actually rather a beautiful country as well. This is Bergisches Land and, although it’s quite close to the big city, it’s hilly, rural, agricultural, forested and rather like the North Downs without the people and traffic jams. You go east and it gets better. Go south and you eventually come to the Schwarzwald, home of the gateau, of course. Turn left and you’re into Bavaria and the Alps to your right. Lakes and mountains, medieval towns that have been maintained like that for centuries, lovely old gasthauses with biergartens. The shops are all closed on Sunday. If you want a pinta you have to go to the filling station. Straight up. It means you have to spend time with your family. You have to take the day off and relax. Now isn’t that refreshing?
Yes, I’ll miss this place. I think it’s the best-kept secret in Europe.