We Europeans

Getting away from it all

It’s not surprising that the best way to describe a profound longing for something unattainable is a German word: Sehnsucht. According to Wikipedia, it “is difficult to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state. Its meaning is somewhat similar to the Portuguese word, saudade.” Maybe, but it’s a lot more than that.

This Sehnsucht factor suggests the unarticulated conviction that life in Germany is less than ideal, what Gregor von Rezzori described as “a restless delusion welling from a melancholy deep within”. It may have something to do with the weather, but I think it’s more likely to be a reaction to the dullness of German life.

But you have to go some way back to explain the intensity of the Sehnsucht factor and the closely associated sentiment of romanticism. As in other national cultures, environment plays an important role. Germans have an almost mystical relationship with their environment of hills and forests. These must have played an important role in the shaping of the German psyche: a 1980s survey by the Bundeswehr concluded that the horizon across 80 per cent of Western Germany was only 1000 metres away…

Romanticism was an important element of German cultural life in the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to the Brothers Grimm, Schiller, Goethe and many others less famous. The impulse took an upward tack in the early-20th century with short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful incursions into Africa, reinforced by the growing presence of exotic animals in zoos and circuses, and reflected in the works of German Expressionist artists.

Today, German TV seems to throw further light on this tendency. There’s rarely a weekend that goes unadorned with a dramatisation of a Brothers Grimm fairy story or something that harks back to a traditional way of life, German-style. Sunday morning programmes also frequently feature overblown outdoor let’s-have-fun events where the cheer seems rather forced, even if the weather is good (most often it’s not).

Other programmes are mostly set in significantly escapist environments: sunny climes – most often the eastern Mediterranean, if not African safari country, or cooler but romantic situations like Scotland, Ireland or Cornwall involving elitist things like thoroughbred horses and country houses.

Uniforms have always appealed to the German psyche but, for a reason difficult to explain, TV viewers get excited not only at police officials in green but at people wearing medical dress. Most importantly, doctors and pharmacists in white have a mystique of their own. Maybe the bombardment, from 1700 hours, of TV spots for various forms of exotic medication helps explain this.

The ultimate TV environment is a cruise-ship scenario where the programme-makers have the directorial advantage that all the characters are German and the social environment decidedly chic. In all these different scenarios, which are invariably upmarket and elitist (to add to the exoticism), everybody including the natives speaks fluent German. The only exceptions are the horses.

In short, the German TV viewer seems to enjoy associating with the well-to-do even if he or she, by national standards, is not one of them. This shows the ability to respond to the lure of the exotic in yet another dimension.

Maybe the exotic syndrome is best explained by Paolo Ciucani, an Italian who renovates vacation homes for Germans in Tuscany: “We almost feel sorry for the Germans. They are so wealthy yet so unhappy. Maybe they come here to try and learn how to enjoy life. But they end up going back to the same miserable place, so they never really change.”

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