Diary of an Expat, Part 90
oh just learn german already why don't you
Headed back to New York again tomorrow, which will give me a chance to reflect on the marvel that is Berlin-Tegel. Actually, for the record, clearing customs and immigration at JFK last time was pretty painless, and this time I am hoping that I have TSA's Global Entry program to protect me against lines and other such injuries and insults.

Business travel, by the way, sucks. It sucks a lot.

This week has been largely spent at the office, which limits the degree of interesting reflections on German Life and Culture that I can have. I will say that the grocery store situation here is and continues to be insane. I can buy half a kilo of strawberries and a bowl of cottage cheese for €2.50, which is like... what... $3.20?

Oh, wait, I know what I can talk about.

I've talked in the past about statelessness. This is to be honest one of the things that being an expat has made most clear: a lot of the boundaries between states are artificial and, when you cross over them regularly, become increasingly bizarre and frivolous.

If you have ever watched a special on Educational Television about the RMS Titanic, you will have seen the Watertight Door Simulation. This was originally animated, and is now computer-generated, and in recent years and recent specials the CGI has gotten better, but it is always the same basic image and you can probably picture it in your mind's eye.

It's a cutaway drawing of the ship, and you can see where the iceberg has punctured her hull. Just like in a commercial for a feminine hygiene product, blue liquid spills forth, demonstrating the poor absorbency of Competing Product. "Titanic's captain quickly ordered the ship's watertight doors closed," intones a deep-voiced Narrator. "But the system had a fatal flaw." Cut to:

"The Titanic's watertight compartments were designed to protect her, but they didn't go all the way up to the deck," says Clark Kent, 'Titanic historian,' posed in front of a computer screen that is showing more complicated maritime models. "So water entering the hull could just spill over the top, compartment by compartment." Cut to:

The animated ship on the screen slowly tilting forward as blue liquid fills each compartment, as in an ice cube tray. Soon the bow is below water. At some point in here, Narrator explains for those of us who don't mind spoilers: "Titanic... was doomed."

A lot of what the modern state does is more or less similar. The state has a vested interest in its own protection for somewhat ephemeral reasons that, frequently, come back simply to the wellbeing and continued health of the state apparatus itself. Even as a small-government libertarian type, I could certainly entertain the notion that the average French citizen is not appreciably poorer off as a citizen of the EU than they are as a citizen of La Republique, and may indeed even be doing better.

Economic protectionism is a pretty good example of this. If you want to protect your domestic timber industry, simply raise tariffs until nobody is willing to import to you. If you want to keep heritage industries alive, subsidize the hell out of them to keep them competitive. Often times, though, the weight of the world around you overwhelms your ability to keep reality at bay.

This is more difficult to justify still in digital terms. The American Kindle bookstore is substantially richer than the German one. So... why the hell would I use the German one, then? Some weird belief that bits perform differently when they hit a national border? That's not even rational. The American Steam store sells different goods, at different prices. Music videos, by and large, aren't even viewable on German YouTube.

The Australians even had Apple, Adobe, and friends hauled Down Under to explain their ludicrous price tiering for purchasers outside the country.

I think a rational response to this is to simply ignore it, to be perfectly honest. There is no good reason to region-lock DVDs or, indeed, any digital content. Hence the increasing use of proxies and VPNs to circumvent this and allow people to purchase content from Netflix, and, presumably, the corresponding assault on such VPNs.

This sort of smuggling I feel very little guilt about, although, I suppose, I probably should. C'est la vie.

[Section break occurs]

I thought that I had posted this, but apparently not. Oh well; it allows me to add a brief addendum, which is that not all German travel experiences are superlative. Sometimes, for example, your taxi driver has never been to the airport before! ... Somehow. Sometimes, you have to explain what Tegel is twice, and then they have to search for it in their satnav anyway.

Naturally, of course, not knowing where Tegel is doesn't mean you don't know where the horn is, so there is that way of getting around it, at least. And my cabbie made extensive use of that horn when, for example, he wanted to go the wrong way up a one-way street into the airport drop off zone. You know, like any rational person.

Then, I was subjected to an enhanced screening by the German border guys. Which is actually fine, really. And it provided an excuse for us to come to just enough of a mutual understanding. When all was said and done, I knew just enough German to listen to him chide me for not knowing more German, and isn't that really the point of learning a foreign language anyway?

David Sedaris talks about that in one of his books — the process of learning French, and of being finally overjoyed when he could understand his French teacher's insults. This was a little bit like that. He was a very German young man. "Next time you visit, perhaps you will learn more German," he said.

Well, that will be in four days, so I guess we'll see, won't we?
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