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The German art of joylessness

The German art of joylessness

An encounter in a restaurant car reminds our correspondent of her countrymen’s unique ability to make themselves miserable

An encounter in a restaurant car reminds our correspondent of her countrymen’s unique ability to make themselves miserable

Lena Schipper | January 9th 2018

I have loved the restaurant cars in German trains for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to pester my parents to take me there for hot chocolate whenever we took the train to go on a family holiday. Later, they became reassuring remnants of old-school European civilisation, a far cry from the miserable airport departure lounges and station waiting-rooms in which I spend far too much of my life.

When, for the first time in a while, I went to have lunch in the restaurant car of a train down south from Berlin during a recent reporting trip, I was pleased to note that little had changed. The booths, with benches clad in bright-red imitation leather and tables illuminated by little lamps, were an odd but pleasing cross of American diner and Viennese coffee house. The food was seasonal – the autumn/winter offering was venison stew – and reasonably priced. It was served on polished china, with real cutlery. There was beer on tap, decent coffee and an impeccably polite waiter. It was all far superior to the packaged sandwiches and fizzy drinks travellers usually have to contend with.

None of this, however, seemed to impress the two gentlemen with whom I shared the red benches on this occasion. One was muttering under his breath about missing his flight while typing furiously on his laptop (the train was running a few minutes behind schedule). Another piped up every couple of minutes to complain about the lack of wireless internet, as well as the fact that he had earlier been told off for smoking in the loo. As time went on and the train continued its journey through a pretty, late-autumn landscape lit by a hazy sun, he talked himself into an expletive-laden rage. It was only thanks to the patience of the train attendant, whom he had called an “unhelpful arsehole”, that the grumpy gentleman eventually calmed down.

While he may have been an extreme case, his knack for allowing a small annoyance to make a perfectly pleasant journey utterly unbearable for himself struck me as familiar. I’d seen it in the friend who could spend hours talking about how much the colour of the neighbours’ blinds offended her, and in the colleague who felt a date had been ruined because the food, though delicious, had taken slightly too long to arrive. It was also visible in myriad acquaintances who returned from trips abroad complaining about unpunctual trains, filthy streets and general dysfunction – only to switch immediately to moaning that the German Servicewüste (referring to the alleged domination of Germany’s hospitality by gruff men and women whose chief purpose is to decline the customer’s credit card) was sadly devoid of the politeness of British policemen, the enthusiasm of American waitresses or the charm of Singaporean flight attendants.

Maybe this peculiar ability to allow banal little things to sap the joy out of life is the downside of the perfectionism and attention to detail that is usually regarded – both by foreigners and by many Germans – as the basis of the country’s success. Demanding grumpiness can be a good thing: it accounts for high standards in heating and insulation, because German tenants would rather spend months suing the landlord to fix the boiler than resignedly put on another jumper. It is reassuring if the engineer who designs the parts for high-speed trains does not let up until she is 150% satisfied. But when it comes to the journeys on those trains – or indeed any other part of everyday life – it might be better for the national psyche if we spent more time counting our blessings and less time finding ever more intricate things to complain about. Angry strangers in the restaurant car being, I suppose, a case in point.