by Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, September 2011
The last time I’d been in Germany for more than a few days was when I was 17 years old. I traveled across the country with two friends, a bike, a German phrase book, and a German love song taught to me by an American woman of German descent. So few people spoke English that it was better to deploy whatever German came to hand—which usually meant the love song. And so I assumed on this trip I would need an interpreter. I didn’t appreciate how much the Germans had been boning up on their English. The entire population seems to have taken a total-immersion Berlitz course in the last few decades. And on Planet Money, even in Germany, English is the official language. It’s the working language used for all meetings inside the European Central Bank, even though the E.C.B. is in Germany and the only E.C.B. country in which English is arguably the native tongue is Ireland.
At any rate, through a friend of a friend of a friend I’d landed Charlotte, a sweet-natured, keenly intelligent woman in her 20s who was also shockingly steely—how many sweet-natured young women can say “Lick my ass” without blushing? She spoke seven languages, including Chinese and Polish, and was finishing up her master’s degree in Intercultural Misunderstanding, which just has to be Europe’s next growth industry. By the time I realized I didn’t need an interpreter, I’d already hired her. So she became my driver. As my interpreter, she would have been ridiculously overqualified; as my chauffeur, she is frankly preposterous. But she’d taken on the job with gusto, going so far as to hunt down the old German translation of Dundes’s little book.
And it troubled her. For a start she refused to believe there was such a thing as a German national character. “No one in my field believes this anymore,” she says. “How do you generalize about 80 million people? You can say they are all the same, but why would they be this way? My question about Germans’ being anally obsessed is how would this spread? Where would it come from?” Dundes himself actually made a stab at answering that question. He suggested that the unusual swaddling techniques employed by German mothers, which left German babies stewing in their own filth for long periods, might be partly responsible for their energetic anality. Charlotte was not buying it. “I’ve never heard of this,” she says.
But just then she spots something and brightens. “Look!” she says. “A German flag.” Sure enough, a flag flies over a small house in a distant village. You can spend days in Germany without seeing a flag. Germans aren’t allowed to cheer for their team in the way other peoples are. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to, just that they must disguise what they are doing. “Patriotism,” she says, “is still taboo. It’s politically incorrect to say, ‘I’m proud to be German.’ ”
The traffic now eases, and we’re once again flying toward Düsseldorf. The highway looks brand new, and she guns the rented car until the speedometer tops 210.
“This is a really good road,” I say.
“The Nazis built it,” she says. “That’s what people say about Hitler, when they get tired of saying the usual things. ‘Well, at least he built good roads.’ ”