Tuesday, 15 May 2007
Nos.77 & 78: Germany and Austria
Owen Powell – 15th May 2007
“And did you give your gun a name?” I ask.
“Like in an American film?” Niko replies. “No. We didn’t.”
“But we did spend a whole day cleaning it and putting it back together,” says Stefan.
I order another round of Hoegarden.
I’m in the Prince of Wales near Covent Garden, becoming increasingly obsessed with asking about Niko’s German national service, and Stefan’s Austrian national service. I can see that they both want to talk about other things – about their experience of London, about their studies, about football – but I’m constantly drawn back to questions about guns. I’m not proud of myself.
And it’s not as if they don’t have a lot else to talk about. Although they’re both only 22, and have been in London for less than a year, they’ve packed in a lot of travelling and studying outside their home countries. Niko spent some time at boarding school in County Meath, Ireland, whereas Stefan studied in California for a couple of summers. They met in London when they both started a course at a French University on Finchley Road whose name is a seven-letter acronym – “Don’t ask us what it stands for,” says Stefan. Crucially for the project, however, their Masters in International Management also includes a three-month internship, so they’re officially “living and working in London”. Stefan is spending his three months in a consulting firm, while Niko is with a bank. He’s originally from Frankfurt, the banking capital of Europe – home of the European Central Bank and home (for a while, at least) to more Japanese banks than there were in Tokyo. (Home, also, I should point out, to Eintracht Frankfurt, Niko’s football team. He’s very proud that they weren’t relegated this year.)
However, in between studying in school, and studying at University, Niko and Stefan did their compulsory military service, as I might have already mentioned. Some form of national service for school leavers exists in at least 30 countries world-wide, and in 16 in Europe. For Niko in Germany, it lasted nine months, for Stefan in Austria it was eight (since reduced to six). There’s a fair amount of choice over what you do and where you go – including a civil (non-military) option. Niko applied to join the mountain infantry on the border with Austria, to experience a part of the country he hadn’t been to before.
While I’m asking dumb questions about weapons, Stefan and Niko are pointing out the great advantages of a non-discriminatory team activity that all young men go through at the same age. “You meet people from all different social backgrounds, which simply doesn’t happen in school,” explains Niko. “And everyone is equal, you are sharing a room with 20 people, sharing a shower, no-one has special treatment.”
Stefan agrees. “Of course, when you’re lying in the cold and wet, with people screaming at you, you’re fed up – but in retrospect, you learn so much about yourself, about discipline and teamwork.”
Before joining up, everyone has a psychological test, an intelligence test, and a full medical examination. “For some people, it’s the first proper medical they’ve had,” Niko points out. “Often people discover things in the medical that would have given them problems in later life.”
But what about the guns? Did they get to use live ammunition, I ask.
“Oh yes,” says Niko.
“And also, we got to use ... umm ...” Stefan searches for the correct word, and does a mime to jog his memory.
Niko watches and interprets. “Grenades. But it is all incredibly safe. Every bullet is counted out, and every empty shell is counted back in again. There are never any problems.”
Niko and Stefan have quite a bantering relationship. Niko teases Stefan, telling him that Austria is the 17th state of Germany, while Stefan points out that Austria has a very long and important history, even if it is a small state today. The national rivalry exists, to a degree, on the football pitch as well. The overall themes of their sporting relationship might be familiar to anyone who has followed Scotland or England over the years, where a ‘big’ country is occasionally bested by its ‘smaller’ neighbour (and then the smaller neighbour doesn’t stop going on about it for years and years). When I ask about the last time Austria beat Germany, Niko and Stefan reply, with one voice, “Cordoba”, as though it was seared onto their brain. It’s only when I get home that I realise this refers to a game in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, quite a few years before either of them was born.
“Football in Austria is in meltdown,” says Stefan, mournfully. “We’re hosting the European Championships next year, but all our clubs are falling apart. One team in Innsbruck were on the point of being sponsored by a brothel, with its name all over their chest. I suppose our true national sports are the winter sports. Everybody skis. People are almost born wearing skis.”
It’s not long before the Hoegarden leads us down the football path completely, and we have a good long reminisce about last year’s World Cup, held in Germany. Niko says there was a real sense of national pride, that there were people flying German flags and feeling very positive about their country – something that perhaps they haven’t felt “allowed” to do for a while. Even Stefan gets quite emotional talking about a famous documentary that followed the German team through the tournament, showing things like Jurgen Klinsmann’s inspirational half-time talks. Through the course of a whole pint, the conversation drifts across Europe, discussing players and tactics, with Niko frequently explaining just how good Eintracht Frankfurt are. Stefan notes how negative British sports journalism can be, compared to continental newspapers which would never be so intrusive or so personal in their attacks.
Niko and Stefan are enjoying London life, but say that it’s quite hard to meet English people. Most of their fellow students are German and French – in fact, the three-year course is split across three countries, with a year to come in each of Paris and Berlin. At the offices where they work, there appears to be a big age gap so socialising can be difficult. But I’ve had a great night out. Just as with Israel a few weeks ago, a shared interest in sports is a good starting point for a lively pub discussion about all sorts of matters – so lively, in fact, that I haven’t noticed my mobile ringing for hours. When I finally check, I have six missed calls from Rachel, and an evening meal is looking unlikely. Niko and Stefan send me on my unsteady way with apologies for ruining my dinner, and I start to wonder whether the next project should be to try to get drunk with someone from every country in the world ...