Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Illness abroad (or: Why I love the NHS)

The problem with being ill as a foreigner is that people not taking you seriously is now not only frustrating, but can actually lead to you being denied the treatment you need. Oh how I long for the days where I could afford to be ill, and the health system actually made sense. And then I moved to Germany...

Our UK health system is not (yet) for profit, so doctors and healthcare professionals are under no motivation to give you anything but the best treatment, especially since better outcomes means better ratings and less bureaucracy for them. This is true regardless of whether you are a starving student or a top earner: money just doesn't come into it.

The German system offers a big contrast to this, in that even for emergency care, if you cannot prove that you have an insurance policy that the individual doctor considers generous enough for them to make a profit from your treatment, you can simply be turned away or asked to pay as a private client. I myself was turned away from a hospital's emergency doctor because she did not want to have to deal with my European insurance card, and was told to try at a hospital an hour away.

I am in the fortunate circumstance of being able to rely somewhat on my college for assistance, in a way that most university students are unlikely to be able to. I would like to think that, were I in charge of an organisation with 4 billion pounds in assets, I too would cast a cursory glance over the welfare of those funding me. Unfortunately, many organisations strive to do the absolute legal minimum for their employees and nothing more, including where interns and temporary workers have next to no rights. It is tiring to hear congratulations about a company's increased profits, knowing that you still won't have health insurance or make minimum wage on a full time job, but at least some CEO somewhere has a second yacht. I digress for my own sake...!

During my time as UK ambassador for the European Student Think Tank, I wrote several articles, interviews and ran a national competition. This is an article that I originally wrote for the EST over the course of the last year, and if you’re interested in reading more of my work, here are the links to some further articles:

NHS in crisis?

The NHS (National Health Service) is one of the most valuable and most valued institutions in the UK. Set up in 1948 to provide healthcare that is free at the point of delivery and paid for through taxation, it has been maintained until the modern day as a system where the patient’s treatment is ‘based on clinical need, not ability to pay’.

But recently it has been claimed that the NHS is in crisis, and that it needs a massive systemic overhaul in order to continue. What could be the motivation for claiming this, and do these claims have any basis in reality?

In a 2014 report by the Commonwealth Fund, the UK health system was rated as the best when compared to the systems in 10 other highly developed countries, ranking first in almost every category whilst maintaining the second lowest expenditure per capita - clearly not a system in crisis. The United States, however, came last overall in the rankings, with spending per capita more than twice that of the UK system. The difference between them is the biggest challenge of this generation to face the NHS: that of privatisation.

The Department for Health’s funding allocation for private service providers has risen to 8% in the last financial year, and damning connections have been drawn between the Conservative MPs who voted to allow such change and their financial interests in private healthcare, though it is generally accepted even by these people that a move towards privatisation would not be a popular one. This is exemplified by a telling quote from the vice-chair of Conservative Health on the topic of charging patients additionally per appointment:

“It would be political suicide for a party to introduce this. They could only really do it if there was a feeling in the country that health services were falling apart.”

In my view, this should be a warning and not the end goal that it appeared to have become for the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who previously co-authored a book calling for the NHS to be replaced with private insurance, which, according to the above quote, could only be implemented if the NHS were ‘falling apart’. Despite strong opposition from the Labour party, the trend in this direction looks set to continue.

According to a recent report from the King’s Fund, the NHS is currently running a deficit of £1.85 billion (as of 2015/16) and is expected to make £22 billion of efficiency savings by 2020/21, despite having been rated 1st out of 11 for efficiency in the Commonwealth Fund report. The King’s Fund report also states that “[t]he principal cause of the deficit is that funding has not kept pace with the increasing demand for services”. The financial situation of the NHS due to dramatically insufficient funding is apparent when considering the graph below:

This underfunding of the NHS will mostly likely lead to the ‘crisis’ that is being used to justify privatisation. As can be seen from the United Status’ system, privatisation can mean worse service at a higher price, which could reduce standards or availability of care, ironically the very situation that the government is supposed to be combatting.

The conflict of interests between politicians and their financial involvement in business is not limited to the UK health sector - it is a growing problem across the continent and all over the world, especially in this age of ‘post-truth’ politics. If we don’t step up and engage with democracy, hold politicians to their promises and make them accountable for their decisions, then this trend is not likely to reverse in the foreseeable future.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Shopping in Germany

There are many things I consider superior about the way that Germans shop and the products offered. Despite most people being determined omnivores, vegetarian and vegan options are very much in fashion, as are organic and free range options. My favourite accidental finds are chocolate soy milk and vegan ice cream, both without the price increase that is standard for vegan products in the UK.

The bottle deposit system is also a wonder of modern times: you pay a ~20 cent charge on every plastic bottle you buy, which is returned to you once you bring the bottle back to a shop and put it in the machine to be recycled. Even if this doesn’t get everyone to recycle, it does provide an incentive and also gives homeless people or those in poverty a way to get a small amount of money while helping the environment.

Aldi, my favourite UK supermarket, is even more popular here. It is just as stressful a shopping experience here as it is back home. I have actually seen a cashier slam some products into a customer’s basket because they ‘weren’t moving quickly enough’, which in my opinion wasn’t even true. And of course, the aisle of random products you never knew you needed is just as fertile a ground for impulse purchases. Am I an adult? Yes. Did I buy an elephant cushion because it was fluffy and not very expensive? Guilty as charged.

It took me a surprisingly short amount of time to adapt to shops closing early on weekdays and completely on Sundays, so much so that even back in the UK my instinct was to defensively stock up on food on Saturday, so I could survive the following day with no access to modern shopping facilities. For families this surely means that Sundays and bank holidays are treated as more of a family day, since very few people are working or out running errands, but equally that does mean that only Saturday is of any use to people who work full time Monday to Friday, despite Munich being a large and very modern city.

Surely these factors must have an effect on the way citizens lead their lives. I wonder to what extent…?

Contemplating Munich’s history

This past weekend I visited two locations that offer insight into Munich’s tragic and horrific past: Dachau concentration camp and the Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism. The majority of the war’s brutal violence took place out of sights of the average British civilian. People were still massively affected by it, but modern day British citizens are not surrounded by countless locations of torture and human rights’ abuses, as they are in a city like Munich. The experiences of the Second World War were therefore always much more theoretical to me, felt by someone else in another time and place.

In Munich, though, this history resounds in every area of the city. Looking through the various city maps in the Documentation Centre revealed to me just how many Nazi organisations and buildings were stationed near my current home and work, and photos of the rise of the Nazi party were set in venues and locations uncomfortably familiar to me.

The parallels between the rise of the Nazi party and of the modern day European right wing really cannot be overstated. Economic difficulty for the working class, a growing interest in right wing rhetoric which is mistakenly deemed negligible, misinformation from the media and from politicians, and the offering of a scapegoat rather than critical analysis of who really stands to gain from this persecution. Are those who suggest we just let migrants drown in the Mediterranean any better than those who turned a blind eye to the removal of their Jewish neighbours?

The public enemies indiscriminately blamed for the country’s failures have also remained much the same. The Conservative government’s unpaid work placements under the threat of homelessness and severe destitution are reminiscent of the compulsory work camps for ‘work shy’ or ‘asocial’ individuals. People with disabilities were seen as a hindrance to society and a waste of resources, an opinion reinforced today by severe cuts to disability support and resources. Social differences such as religion or lifestyle were threats rather than an inconsequential inevitability.

Those who suggest that the Holocaust could never happen again need only look at the number of cases of harm and death occurring in the UK in detention centres, prisons and as a result of failing social care. Where is the outrage? Those who can disregard BBC documentaries showing state employees abusing and ridiculing vulnerable adults could surely disregard a neighbour disappearing.

And for those who think that our society could never go that far again, consider the few ‘senior’ prisoners in Dachau who were given slight authority over other prisoners. After all they had experienced, all the suffering that they themselves had endured and no doubt knew to be intolerable, some still found it in themselves to deliver cruel and unnecessary punishments to their fellow captives, siding with the authority figure despite knowing that this authority would inevitably kill them too. Once cruelty slowly becomes normal, it no longer shocks you, and without social pressure there is no motivation to stop.

It cannot be that within a few decades humanity has changed so significantly that this is no longer true, even if you believe that Western people are somehow different from those currently exploiting and being exploited more severely in other parts of the world.

I found one display at Dachau particularly moving. It spoke of one prisoner whose given name was Adolf, but who chose the nickname Adi to separate himself from Hitler. I have a close friend with the same nickname and the scale of the horror became somewhat clearer to me for an instant. These were people with nicknames. As ridiculous a statement as that is, it really is difficult for the human mind to comprehend that not only did millions of independent people with their own thoughts, preferences and experiences exist, but they also suffered in the most extreme ways.

Something I have found difficult to comprehend is the juxtaposition of decisions that are, to me, completely reasonable and completely unreasonable, even within the internal logic of the Nazi mindset. For example, knowing that many people will be living in a camp, and so designing furniture for their living space and producing it on a large scale, but not providing enough food for these people to survive there. Or ‘needing’ to execute criminals, and therefore keeping them in a camp for months and shipping them off to some foreign land to be shot instead of just shooting them on site.

Why put in excessive effort in some regards and none at all in others? Is the only motivation to extend suffering and to exert dominance? Or to make the whole process so drawn out and convoluted that it would be hard to track what was going on, and so no one would be hit by the full horror straight away? They would instead find out details slowly, giving them time to accustom themselves to it, and in the end decide not to fight against it. In other words, the system was designed to hide its true hideousness, since that would be impossible to cooperate with. Evil was made slow and mundane.

These ideas are indescribably appaling to me, and I am very glad that these locations are kept open to the public, so that we can try and come to terms with what we are capable of as a species. I opted to not join a tour group, so that I could have more peaceful reflection and less upbeat trivia as is common on guided tours, and I did indeed find that many visitors were jarringly energetic, keen to take smiley photos of themselves amongst the tortured souls of thousands, shouting to each other and joking as they took in the sights.

I feel that these individuals very much missed the point of the exercise and the only positive thing I could take from this was that we have surely made a large amount of progress as a continent when visitors feel the threats posed by these locations are no longer in any way relevant to our everyday experience. Let us hope it stays that way.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Sign languages

As some long-suffering readers will know, I spent 2 years in school attending a course in BSL (British Sign Language) where I became a big fan of BSL! You can read the post I wrote about it here. In summary for those unfamiliar with sign languages: yes they are real languages, no they aren’t just mime, yes they are linguistically complex, and no they aren’t internationally mutually intelligible.

I decided to put this last point to the test by starting a course in German Sign Language (DGS, Deutsche Gebärdensprache), which runs until I leave Munich in January. From what I have learned so far, the general concept of communication and grammar is similar between the two sign languages, and I would suggest that they are perhaps as mutually intelligible as German and English are, that is, sporadically and with great effort. The differing vocabulary both in terms of signs and in terms of mouthing patterns really do make anything but the most basic exchanges rather tricky.

You may be wondering what counts as a sign at all. After all, in spoken languages words are just words, aren’t they? Actually it is a little more complex than that.

In English, a ‘cat’ is not a cat. ‘Cat’ is a written representation of the spoken word ‘cat’, which is a description of the concept ‘cat’. The way that you use the spoken word ‘cat’ in a sentence evokes different responses: does the intonation suggest excitement or disgust? What does your accent say about where you are from or what voice you are putting on? How about volume? Sentence context? Is the word a homophone or slang for something else? Body language? All of these things are essential to understanding what you really mean by ‘cat’.

It’s the same with sign languages. The movement of the hand itself only has limited meaning, and to understand what the signer really wants to say, you need to look at their manner, facial expressions, lip pattern, the sign itself and its relation to other signs or spacial markers. For example, in BSL the same sign can signify either ‘metal’ or ‘nephew’ depending on which word you are mouthing and on the context, much in the same way that we differentiate between homophones like here and hear with no problem.

What I can say so far is that, much like having learned French before you learn Spanish, knowledge of a first sign language certainly helps you learn another, even though they are not mutually comprehensible. I’m looking forward to exploring DGS more over the coming months!

Sunday, 17 September 2017


This morning I ventured out to watch the parade marking the beginning of Oktoberfest. I had definitely underestimated how much of a big deal Oktoberfest (which of course takes place mostly during September) really is. As I travelled towards the city centre I noticed that about half of the people around me, including young children, were dressed in the appropriate dirndls and lederhosen, both of which can cost hundreds. I felt a little awkward in my jumper and jeans!

The parade consisted of traditional Bavarian clothing, music and yodelling, and even the horses were dressed for the occasion, if slightly confused about the whole affair. I picked up a flag that states "die mog i" in the Bavarian dialect ('das mag ich' in Standard German, or 'I like it' in English), a perfect way to sum up everyone's mood at the parade. Over the coming weeks I will have the opportunity to experience Oktoberfest in its full glory - I can't wait!


I decided to make the most of my new location by visiting a great friend of mine in Zurich, Switzerland, which is a mere 3.5 hour bus trip away. We visited many cities in Belgium, Austria and Germany together when we were both working in Belgium, so we figured that Switzerland was a no brainer.

The city itself is charming and offers wonderful views of the cityscape, river and mountains all at once. 

It is definitely worth a visit for at least a weekend, though it's not a cheap city for any length of time - an ice tea in a bar cost me £5, which would be ridiculous in the UK in all but the fanciest of locales.

We took a trip to the Swiss Museum, which offered an amazing high-tech view of the country's development. A particular favourite was the interactive books, which used projected images onto paper to create the effect of a real book with video display and a touchscreen interface. The museum did rely heavily on stereotypes, mentioning every few metres how rich the Swiss are and how they produce chocolate and watches, but I suppose this is to be expected from such a tourist-oriented location.

Interestingly, while outside the museum I saw two passersby signing, and realised that I had understood them - they were using British Sign Language! I had already learned a few signs of German Sign Language (DGS) from an online course and was sure that the signs would have been completely different had they not been in BSL. I am very excited to start my DGS course in a few weeks' time, especially as from what I have already seen there are quite a lot of differences compared to BSL.

Talking to my friend is also an adventure in code switching and in changing languages rapidly. When together we talk in French as in Belgium; when with German-speaking company we speak German and similarly for English. I imagine this will stay the same even when we are both back studying in the UK, as it feels unfair and unequal to speak in a language where one speaker has a higher level than the other, which is not the case for French.

Here's to more adventures together!

Edinburgh Fringe

This year I was lucky enough to be able to spend a weekend at the Edinburgh Fringe, which is a festival of theatre, comedy and lots more besides that runs for the whole of August. As was to be expected, it was cold and rainy the entire time, handily saving me from the heatwave I had been experiencing in Munich! There's nothing like needing a thick coat to make you feel at home.

Even for those of you on a budget, I really would recommend a trip to the Fringe, as many brilliant shows run on tips rather than selling tickets. And there are enough free shows for you to not only fill your day, but also be spoiled for choice - I actually found that many of the free shows put on by less well known acts were of a better quality than the popular ticketed shows! This included some student-run theatre which left me really impressed, and feeling rather lucky to have been able to see some acts that surely have a bright future ahead of them.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

German efficiency

If there were ever a stereotype I would like to be true, it would be that of German efficiency. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it's all wishful thinking.

I have been living and working in Munich for about 5 weeks and nothing has struck me as particularly more efficient than in the UK! Quite the opposite, actually. Take, for example, the ticket machines at train stations. Not only do they not allow you to select a different starting point than the station you're currently at (God forbid you should attempt to buy a ticket in advance), but the machines also seem to, at random, not accept certain payment methods, such as accepting credit but not debit cards, and then take an unreasonable amount of time to cancel the purchase instead of allowing you to change one minor detail.

And while we're on the topic of payment... UK debit cards essentially allow you to do everything except get into debt. German cards on the other hand... I was issued with 2 cards for my savings account, 1 to be used for ATMs, online shopping and payments abroad, and the other for use in shops and ticket machines. The first card is also a credit card, so would let me spend money I didn't have, a function I specifically avoided in the UK. Oh wonderful land of efficiency, please tell me why the functions of 1 UK debit card need to be shared across 2 German cards?!

Being that Germany is a big producer of pharmaceuticals, you would also be forgiven for thinking that access to basic painkillers would be as simple as at home, where you can pick up a pack of paracetamol for about 30p. As I've learned the hard way, the same pack costs about 10x as much here, and can only be purchased from a pharmacy, not any convenience store as in the UK.

One thing that I've found interesting, however, is how every adult, regardless of their age, is treated with a similar amount of respect. Interns are referred to as Mr or Mrs Soandso, just as their superiors are, and I have found myself challenging my preconceptions on who counts as a 'real' adult in way I wouldn't have done in the UK. But as the German insist on using Sir or Madam in situations where we usually wouldn't in English, as well as the fact that nearly all job titles have a male and female equivalent with no option outside of the gender binary, I also find that identifying a person's gender has become essential, even just when addressing them via email or discussing a client at work. Perhaps this is why gender issues seem to be more commonly discussed in England than in Germany: here there is no other option than to adhere to one or the other, whereas the English language leaves a lot of room for variation, for example by using a non gendered job title or by using the pronoun 'they'. The German approach also requires a lot more words to express the same meaning.

There is a lot to be said about the impact of language on a person's world view, it would seem!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Wieder in Deutschland!

This post marks the start of my year abroad. I am very excited to leave academia behind for a short while and pretend to be an adult for a few months. I'm actually getting closer and closer, as Germany is now the 4th country I have worked in, this time for Actual Money instead of volunteering or working minimal hours!

I'm working as a translator in Munich until January, when I'll move to Russia to study in Kazan, both of which should give me plenty of travel and language-related insight to write about, that of course being the original purpose of this blog.

I have already been here for two weeks, and I am delighted to say that everyone at work and at my accommodation has been lovely to me. Of course, the standard "Oh you're foreign? Let me explain basic concepts to you as if you couldn't have come across them in your own language and culture" does still apply, exemplified by the German recycling system - I am aware of the concept of recycling, I just want to know roughly what needs separating into what bin because it varies between councils, never mind countries.

The job itself mostly consists of preparing and carrying out translation orders for a global chemical engineering company, which means that some of the topics are very, very specific. This necessitates the use of a colossal database of translated chemical terms, but as with any text, you need to understand it to translate it - this is where I often come unstuck! However, the training I received in translation on the course in Germersheim last year is coming in handy, and I'm sure with more exposure I'll be able to make sense of it.

My work placement comes under Erasmus, which provides a bit of extra funding, though this may not be available for much longer if the UK withdraws from the scheme, so if you're looking to work abroad in future, adopting a casual second nationality might not be a bad idea. It looks like I'll be covered for the duration of my stay, though with Brexit going the way it is, all bets are off, and my year abroad could yet undergo some massive restructuring - stay tuned to find out.

Finishing second year

As I look back over the first half of my languages degree, I realise just how hard this past term has been for me. I fell ill just before I was due to take my exams, and thankfully was allowed to stay in college while recovering even though I wasn't sitting my exams.

This might seem pretty ordinary to you if you're not familiar with the Cambridge method of dealing with struggling students, but for those who are, it might come as a pleasant surprise to hear that I was allowed to stay in accommodation that I had already paid for, despite being signed off with exhaustion, as I was a potential 'distraction' to other students, what with my raucous tendency to sleep most of the time and to avoid socialising because I just felt so ill all of the time.

The university as a whole seems to be a system of horrendous protocols administered by more or less reasonable people: numerous rules were bent quite knowingly, by people who knew that I should officially be sent home, far away from my support network or the doctors treating me. In a way, I'm lucky to have even got that - many students in less sympathetic colleges are not given any right to stay in Cambridge, as though the hypothetical risk of them damaging the university's statistics or distracting others by visibly trying to recover is unspeakably worse than the risk of them not getting treatment at home.

As can be said of most of my ideas about Cambridge - people are realising that the university needs updating, and it could happen sooner if enough people cared about people's individual lives rather than maintaining tradition at all costs.