IT might sound like I'm trying to pose as a world expert but that is definitely not the case. Apart from South Africa and Namibia, there are only two countries of which I have enough experience to at least be able to form an opinion and which I like to keep an eye on.
If I add up all our month-long and six-week stays in the Netherlands, I arrive at about six months of direct exposure. As for Germany, it might be more.
The motivation for the Dutch visits stems from the fact that my father-in-law came to South Africa with his family from the Netherlands in 1953 as an organ builder. We still have strong family ties and over the years friends have also been added. We have almost daily contact with the people there. They all know the correct word is braai, not barbeque.
The German connection started when our daughter went to Erkrath as an au-pair-Mädchen 12 years ago then settled in Düsseldorf. This city has gradually become almost a second home for us. As a result, I read the Rheinische Post several times a week.
In a recent edition of this newspaper from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, two articles immediately caught the eye. Probably because these are also familiar topics to a South African.
Does hair colour matter?
The first article's translated headline reads “Not just a hair colour”. The short summary in advance makes it clear that blonde hair is a multifaceted subject: “For a while blondes were presented in jokes as stupid and naive, but blond hair also depicted a divinity like the Christ child. What is it really about?”
My first reaction was mild surprise that blonde jokes also flourished in Germany. I haven't noticed them there yet. And I don't really have images of a blond Christ child in the back of my mind. Blue eyes, yes. It often strikes me how the West presents Christ as a person with blue eyes.
The article examines the value that (ethnic) Germans place on blonde hair. It seems to be most popular female hair colour. After that come all the shades of brown, then red hair. This information stems from research by the firms that sell hair dyes.
But now it also seems that women have been colouring their hair less in recent years. Even more interesting is the finding that German men have been colouring their hair more. And while the public prefers women with blonde hair, it seems men with dark hair are seen as more attractive than the blond guys.
At least I don't get the impression that hair colour preferences will lead to a Gexit or a revolt — not yet.
The cultural scientist Moritz Ege reckons the world has become more receptive to different hair colours. Constantly mocking redheads is a thing of the past.
This is part of a process of de-ethnicising beauty norms. In the past, blonde hair was widely associated with dominance and a high social status. This is now largely something of the past and Ralf Junkerjürgen from the University of Regensburg reckons you can go blonde with a clean conscience today.
The report ends with something that Dolly Parton would seem to have said. I think it was tongue in cheek: “I don't feel offended by all the jokes about stupid blondes, because I know I'm not stupid … and I also know I'm not blonde."
The other article I referred to has to do with a topic that we read more and more about in South Africa but which we don't really expect to come across in a country such as Germany. It is about ordinary citizens who roll up their sleeves and clean up litter. The headline is “120 kilograms of rubbish collected in 45 minutes".
This happened in the centre pf Düsseldorf, between from Immermanstraat and surroundings and the main train station. I know the area well. Almost 10 years ago, I walked there to the dentist quite a few times with my daughter. A dentist who seriously messed up her teeth. Fortunately, her later employer and another dentist stepped in and limited the damage. But that is another, expensive story.
If you consider that cigarette butts, plastic packaging and fast food containers weigh almost nothing, you can imagine how big the rubbish heap (müllberg in German) was, and it was immediately removed by the city's services. The handiwork was done by the Düsseldorf version of the Japanese Blue Santa organisation, which is passionate about a clean environment and has the ultimate goal of ridding the oceans of plastic.
Thirty-six volunteers wearing blue Santa caps and matching T-shirts over their warm clothes (it was already winter) went to work after the sounds of a taiko drummer died away. Some started sweating so much that they took off all the warm clothes under the T-shirts. The organiser, Eiichiro Kawasaki, mentioned that the team that represented Germany at the first Spogomi World Cup event in Tokyo was also involved.
Spogomi is a compound of the words “sport" and “gomi". Gomi is Japanese for cleaning up rubbish. Twenty-one countries took part in the first world cup. For some reason I was stunned when I read that the British team won.
Western Europe could do with civilian clean-up action. I am again mainly referring to Germany and the Netherlands. It is noticeable how many people smoke in the street then discard the stubs. The small tram stops are often littered with cigarette butts.
The municipalities are playing their part but it's a bit far-fetched to think that they can do everything. I sometimes wonder if the decline of the state here has not reduced some South Africans to the blame game.
Japan is known as one of the cleanest countries in the world, possibly the cleanest. Yet the Rheinische Post reports that there are no litter bins in public areas. Everyone takes their empty cans, bags, even cigarette butts home with them. To what can this behaviour be attributed? Perhaps to the fact that there are no cleaners at Japanese schools either. The pupils themselves are responsible and the schools are sparkling clean.
Europe is nowhere close to Japan in this regard. The weeds that grow in the side streets of some European cities often strike me. If I lived there, I would have removed them. But there are also organisations that not only clean up the environment but physically maintain certain areas.
Twice, I have I run into young people along the Rhine, close to Düsseldorf, between Oberkassel and Lörick harbour, who wanted to recruit me into the river's caring group. It is a civic organisation with members of all ages who keep the banks and areas along the Rhine clean and intact. They do not take over from the government. They help and fill the gaps.
I honestly think that South Africans who say they pay taxes and therefore have no further duty in terms of maintenance are missing the mark. I recently heard it again in our neighbourhood. We have beautiful green spaces and two dams from the old days that are visited frequently and require quite a lot of maintenance. The municipality does its part.
The old uncles can also do their bit on a Saturday afternoon and make the area a little more beautiful. And then drink a beer together, as the jungen Alten of the Mosel Valley do.
♦ VWB ♦
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