Monday, 20 December 2010

BBC Correspondent Brian Hanrahan dies: He represented a dying breed of journalist

This morning I heard the sad news that Brian Hanrahan, one of the BBC's finest correspondents had died. I've worked with Brian, many times in the last decade covering mostly stories related to recent German history. He was thorough, seeking the truth, a sticker for details, good research and facts and more facts. So many times when I rambled on, giving my personal take on events, he said to me "Just give me the facts"

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009

He was fair on those who worked with him and those he interviewed. He was a Mensch.

Today I remember after a heavy day of filming, the many thought-provoking conversations we had over dinner in Berlin and Leipzig and Dresden and Cologne.  We talked about the media, current affairs, history, books and art. He certainly shaped my view of the role of journalists in our day and age.  At every shoot I learnt something from him. In Dresden he encouraged me to still visit the world-famous Zwinger art museum with only an hour to spare on the morning we left.

Brian was far too young to die. May you RIP, Brian!

Here is an extract from my book, "From Rock to Kraut", about the first time I worked with Brian in November 1999 in Berlin to cover the 10th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.

"In late October 1999, almost ten years after the fall of the Wall, BBC News contacted me to ask whether I would be able to do some research for them on the fall of the Wall. I was busy celebrating my daughter’s 11th birthday party when the call came. As so often happens with the BBC, things were left way too late, and I had literally five days to try and find the people who correspondent Brian Hanrahan met on the night the Wall fell in 1989. 

Brian was in East Germany at the time and heard the Wall was falling via word of mouth. He went to the Bornholmerstrasse crossing. That night it was the first border post to open its barriers to the West. Brian and his camera team were there, going with the flow and talking to Ossis crossing into the West for the first time. Based on his footage, the Germans later made a film, and ten years later I had to find these people on the basis of very skimpy information……. 

For a start, the British, not being the greatest of linguists, made things extremely difficult. So all I was given was a list of people to contact, plus, in some cases, phone numbers from early 1990. Now it may sound as if my colleagues were being incredibly helpful. Well, there were some minor hiccups to start off with. For example, after unification in 1990, all old East Berlin phone numbers changed. I had also never seen the film and therefore did not know whether the names of the interviewees fitted East or West Germans. So where should I start to look? 

Single women may have married in the meantime and changed their names. And some names are very common. There was a certain Susanne Fischer whom they interviewed on that evening, and I counted seventeen Susanne Fischers living in Berlin. I gave up after phoning half of them. 

There was a particular waiter who Brian interviewed in a disco on the Kudamm—the famous and fashionable West Berlin shopping street—and who he was keen to have in the film as he was young and from the East. He came from Burg and I was given a number for him. With all East German telephone numbers no longer valid, this turned me into a super sleuth. 

There are only twenty-seven villages called Burg in Germany. So I required a map to try to work out which ones were in the former East Germany. 

There were three near enough to Berlin. BBC producer Paul Simpson, looking at the notes and having to deal with my calls of desperation then deciphered “Burg bei Magdeburg”. 

Now a young guy like that would have lived with his parents. I was told there was a restaurant in the castle in the village and assumed that he probably worked there. But then the restaurant no longer existed so I called the Tourist Information who passed me onto someone else: I called random people in the village, and it emerged that he had left Burg, like so many young people did after unification, and that he went to the West.

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009. Brian Hanrahan in Leipzig 2009, the last time I worked with him

Eventually I was given the number of a relative of his, who told me that he had moved to Munich, but was doing a course in Spain at the present time. Ten years after Brian filmed him, I reached him in Spain on his Spanish mobile phone and as fate would have it, he was going to be back in Munich on the weekend we were planning to finish filming. Having gone to such lengths to find him, I never met Marko. On the Sunday Paul and Brian flew down to Munich from Berlin to interview him, while I flew back to Trier, mission accomplished. Of all the sad stories of people who did not adapt to the pace of the West, Marko was one of the success stories, embracing the possibilities the West had to offer."




Tuesday, 23 November 2010

German Protestant head says a European Islam needed for dialogue


(c) Anli Serfontein 2010 - Nikolaus Schneider in Trier

Trier, Germany, 23 November (ENInews)--A European form of Islam needs to develop before a meaningful interfaith dialogue can take place on the continent, the new leader of Germany's 24 million Protestants has said.

"We are only at the beginning of a serious inter-religious discussion on a theologically high level and that is because there are problems with finding counterparts," the Rev. Nikolaus Schneider told ENInews in a 17 November interview in Trier.

"The imams who come from Turkey to Germany can hardly speak German and that means that we need to train imams in Germany at our universities," said Schneider, who was elected the new chairperson of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) on 9 November during a meeting of its governing synod in Hanover.

He had been the EKD's acting leader since February, when his predecessor, the Rev. Margot Kässmann, stood down after a drink-driving offence.

Schneider said that one of his priorities in his new post is to set up as soon as possible a meeting with representatives of Islam in Germany, which has about four million Muslims.

In recent weeks an intense debate has raged in Germany about the willingness of Muslim immigrants to integrate and learn the language. A book claiming that Turkish Muslims are not willing to integrate reached the top of the non-fiction bestseller list.

In a speech to mark Germany's 1990 unification, the country's President Christian Wulff also stirred controversy when he stated that Islam is part of Germany, alongside Christianity and Judaism.

Schneider told ENInews he welcomes the newly established Islam theology faculties at three German universities, as well as efforts to introduce religious education in Islam at schools.

In most of Germany, religious education is an obligatory part of the curriculum with separate classes for Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish students. There are however no classes for Muslim students.

"We need an Islam that has an academic formation in our country and at our universities, an Islam that is able to enter into dialogue with the social sciences and with the natural sciences in our country," said Schneider.

Referring to imams, he said, "They don't know our cultural background, and they cannot preach in such a way so that they can provide orientation to the conditions of our society, but they preach as if the people are still living in Turkey."

Schneider is also president of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, one of the 22 regional Lutheran, Reformed and United churches that make up the EKD.

On 20 November, he was a special guest at the Vatican of Archbishop Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising who was installed as a cardinal by Pope Benedict VXI. Marx is the former bishop of Trier that is within Schneider's Rhineland church area and they worked together during Marx's tenure in Trier. 

All articles (c) Ecumenical News International Reproduction permitted only by media subscribers and provided ENInews is acknowledged as the source.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Vatican cardinal says lack of shared communion his greatest regret

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009
Stuttgart, Germany, 22 July (ENI)--The recently retired senior Vatican official responsible for ecumenical affairs has said his biggest regret during his tenure in Rome is that he did not achieve an agreement on a common communion with Protestants.

"Today, there is a lot of convergence. So, we got closer to each other but we could not achieve the final breakthrough. I regret it very much but you cannot push the issue," said Cardinal Walter Kasper, who retired on 1 July as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

"The main thing that I did not achieve is the sharing of Holy Communion," Kasper told ENInews in an interview in Stuttgart, while attending, as a special guest, the 20-27 July assembly of the Lutheran World Federation.

Kasper, now 77, became president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 2001; he had served the previous two years as its secretary. Originally from Germany, Kasper is a former professor of theology in Münster and Tübingen, and was bishop of Stuttgart from 1989 to 1999.

Soon after he became secretary of the Vatican's unity council, Kasper took part in the signing on 31 October 1999, Reformation Day, of the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" between the Roman Catholic Church and the LWF. This aimed to overcome condemnations, dating back to the 16th century, between the papacy and reformer Martin Luther and his followers.

However, sharing in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, the central Christian sacrament that commemorates Jesus' last meal with his disciples, remains a point of contention. Catholic teaching prevents Protestants in most situations receiving communion from Catholic priests, and says Catholics should not receive communion in Protestant churches.

"Of course, I regret it very much because I know the concrete problems in families, and between good friends and partners," said Kasper. "I know what these problems are but I cannot jump over the whole existing doctrine. It is a problem that still exists but I think we also achieved some things. Maybe not consensus but convergence."

Kasper's words echoed those of LWF president Mark S. Hanson from the United States, who earlier in the day told a media conference that the Lutheran commitment to ecumenism will not end until Lutherans can share the Eucharist with other churches.

"We must continue the dialogue about theological issues that still prevent us from communing together," said Hanson.

The LWF president had been asked if he could envisage a day when a married couple in which one partner was a Catholic and the other a Lutheran could share in communion together with the blessing of both churches. Hanson responded by saying that it is the lay people of the churches who are driving and sustaining these conversations, and he acknowledged the "grassroots ecumenism" that is alive among lay people.

"If Roman Catholics and Lutherans can feed the hungry together, wouldn't it be good if they could be fed at the Lord's Table together?" Hanson said.

Kasper said in an address to LWF assembly delegates, "In the last years, we have been harvesting the fruit of the dialogue. I was more than surprised to see such a rich harvest, and that we have achieved much more than we could even dream before. There has been no ecumenical winter."

Still, he acknowledged that there is an unfinished agenda and that this should be the reason to continue the search for unity. "We can no longer afford to stick to our differences," Kasper told delegates.

In his ENInews interview, the former Vatican official stressed that dialogue and debate should continue. "I think for both sides it is the same thing. You must be patient, and you must be impatient at the same time," he said with a smile.

Kasper explained that he thought it may have been easier for him to engage in ecumenical discussions, since he had experienced division at first hand in the land of the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, thus setting in train the breach with the Catholic Church.

"The Reformation started in Germany. We are at the origin of the Reformation, and therefore Reformation and relations with Lutheran Evangelical people are a concern for us because it divided us for many centuries. It still divides families today," Kasper said.

He noted that he had studied and later taught theology at German universities that each had two theological faculties, one for Protestants and the other for Catholics.

"So, ecumenical relations belonged to our life. One has many Protestant friends. I was bishop in this diocese, which is half Protestant and half Catholic," he said. "It is a normal reality for us, and I think this helps us
a lot to understand the other angle, and to understand the urgency to work for unity and communion."

In an interview in November 2009 in Wittenberg, where Luther worked and lived, Kasper noted, "We have learned a lot in the last 50 years. At the university, I spent a lot of time teaching about Martin Luther, and I have learned from that experience too."

In his Stuttgart interview, Kasper acknowledged that some sections of the Catholic Church have difficulties with such ecumenical developments but said he had the backing of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Looking back at what has been achieved in terms of ecumenical progress in the last decade, Kasper said it would not have been possible without friendship with his counterparts from other traditions. He said a deep friendship had developed between him and the Rev. Ishmael Noko, the Zimbabwean-born LWF general secretary.

"Personal friendship and personal relations are fundamental to ecumenical work and for pastoral work because without personal relations, personal friendships and trust you can do nothing; it is the basis of all. Then, when you have friendship, if there is trust you can also speak about the differences and you
can also achieve good results," Kasper said.

Introducing Kasper to LWF assembly delegates in Stuttgart, Noko said, "You embody in your soul the spirit of ecumenism. You have been an encourager, when obstacles seemed insurmountable, and a truth teller." [

All articles (c) Ecumenical News International Reproduction permitted only by media subscribers and provided ENI is acknowledged as the source.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

World Cup 2006 changed the perception of Germany

With the German team firing on the World Cup fever in South Africa, I had to think back of what it was like when the World Cup was held in Germany four years ago. I ended my first book with the World Cup 2006 which forever changed the perception of the way the country was seen by the outside world. Here is an extract from the last chapter of my book: 
 
"For a month in the warm early summer of 2006, Germany was transformed into one big party venue, as the nation played host to the 2006vSoccer World Cup. Their catchy host slogan was “Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden—A time to make friends” was the official translation, which does not catch the spirit. “The world are our guests: at home with friends,” might have captured it better.


When I first saw the slogan, which was on billboards everywhere, I thought it was quite kitsch, but as the tournament went on, it absolutely caught the spirit of the new Germany. They were the perfect hosts and showed the world an unexpected side—they truly knew how to party!

Everywhere there were Fanmeilen—fan miles and Fan Fests set up where people could watch the games together. I was cynical of these venues at first, seeing them as something for the young. Louise went to watch the first game with friends on one of the squares in Trier. I stayed at home and watched on television, telling her I wanted to see the game and not be part of a communal piss-up. She came back and said no drinks were allowed in, but the atmosphere was brilliant.

When the World Cup started, Germany had a young, inexperienced soccer team and the decade since they last won a major tournament, the European Championships in 1996, had been marred by bad performances.

As the World Cup approached, they had very little local support. The hero of the 1990 World Cup, Jürgen Klinsmann, had taken over as trainer and was being criticised by Franz Beckenbauer, the legendary German player and coach, for his revolutionary training methods. Beckenbauer was responsible for bringing the World Cup to Germany, outbidding South Africa by one vote. While the BBC’s Gary Lineker was saying before the World Cup that one could never quite write off the Germans, no local soccer commentator gave them much of a chance to get beyond the Round of Sixteen. The team was made the focus of everyone’s disappointment about everything that had gone wrong in Germany since reunification—large debts, huge unemployment, and people’s dreams shattered. My German friends were joking and making bets about how long it would be before they were out of the tournament.


But it was my daughter’s generation that went to the Fan Fest for that first crucial opening game to show some belief in their players......"
Read more:

"She concludes with the event which reconciled us with the world, the World Cup in 2006”. " Vito von Eichborn, veteran German publisher













Sunday, 6 June 2010

Service: desert or dessert? Wie bitte?


Germans are reliable, is one of the myths that we foreigners have. And on a hot early summer Saturday in June, they have once more shown themselves more reliable than I actually wished them to be.
In my book on Germany I have lamented the fact that service as we know it in the Anglo-Saxon world is not a word understood in the same context or intent by people here.  To make things worse we live in a border area where the locals have unfortunately adopted the worst of the German idea of no service and the absolute top of the French concept of bad service:  a toxic combination.
So on this hot summer’s long-weekend Saturday, my husband and I decide to take the scenic route through the hills and woods of the Hunsrueck area to fetch our daughter  in Idar Oberstein from the Youth Camp 2010 of the Evangelical Church in Rhineland.


Idar Oberstein is famous for its precious stones and a mere 80 kilometres from our home. So we set the GPS system to take the minor roads, dreaming that we will stumble across some secluded beer garden on the edge of a forest with views going on forever over the hills. As the temperatures soared,  the first beer garden we saw in Reinsfeld was closed.

After about 45 kilometres of only seeing  ugly 1950’s buildings to eat indoors, we saw a sign for Erbeskopf, high in the hills of the Hunsrueck: the highest point in our state of Rhineland Palatinate. It is a winter a ski area. In summer there are challenging children playgrounds and a summer tobbagon run. The parking lot was fairly deserted for a long weekend Saturday afternoon, but my optimistic husband saw the sign for a Waldgaststätte (a forest restaurant) and so high in the hills there was a pleasant, cool breeze. Alas through the windows I saw the chairs were on the tables. He trusted the other side would still be open - nope it was very much closed and there was no tobbagon run on this perfect day for outdoor activities. Not taken aback we saw some people on a sun deck and wandered over to the Hunsrück House, where the café owner was happy to serve coffee and cake. At 12h30 in the afternoon it was not quite what we had in mind.
So we continued on the scenic precious stone route, through small villages and thick woods. I enjoyed the beauty, asking myself why people go to the much more touristic Black Forest, if  they can have it all here. Woods as far as the eye can see plus precious stones.
In the next village we saw a sign for a beer garden called Hühnerstall (chicken coop) and a quick drive over the parking lot confirmed that held true to its name; nothing to entice us to eat there. We followed and lost signs for another Waldhotel (Forest hotel). On the outskirts of Idar Oberstein we pulled into a lovely beer garden, under some big oak trees. "Third time lucky," I  proclaimed. However the outdoor terrace was deserted and twe were quickly told they only opened at 6 pm.
A few kilometres further we saw another sign for a beer garden.  Again no luck as the original beer garden was now used for second hand sales, but a few metres further on, next to a small pond, we settled at a pleasant-looking outdoor restaurant called Zur Weiherschleife.
The waitress came quickly. We ordered the  two specialities of the house; a Chili bread with a chicken salad and a schnitzel. The bottle of water also came quickly. The place was not full, only about every second table was occupied. We talked; I tried to better my tan, after my botched self-tan attempt. We drank water. We phoned our daughter to say we will be a bit late; we were still waiting for our food.


After 45 minutes our glasses were empty and my husband politely enquired where the food was - we are used to bad service, but by now we were going past 14h00.
The waitress did not know what we ordered, she came back to say the order got lost and the cook is refusing to let our order jump the queue. My small muesli and yoghurt breakfast was now seven hours earlier.
We were feeling sorry for ourselves, why us? Why do we time and again get hit by German lack of service? She disappeared and came back after a while, offering us a quick meal of fried egg and “Bratkartoffeln” – fried potatoes. No apology – she blamed the cook. Sorry is certainly not a word that exists in service here. By now the temperatures were heading for 30°C and I could not face gobbling down a heavy winter’s meal. I said a curt “Nein”; my irate husband joined my boycott.


Nothing in this city could please us, anymore. “McDonalds,” I whispered. “At least I know the service is quick and I know I will get what I ordered.” But alas this third-rate provincial town does not even possess a McDonalds. So three hours after we started looking for a location to eat, we headed to the town centre of

Idar Oberstein stopping off at a Turkish street food stall where my husband got himself a sausage roll and I opted for a potato salad. We ate in the car. A cheap outing costing us just over three Euros. 
Luckily we did not try the town centre as my daughter told me there 2,000 youths were trying to eat in 13 restaurants!

So yes the area is beautiful and yes it is even  worth a day-trip. But take your own picnic basket! By the way it is a poor area of Germany and people DO live off tourism: every second shop sells gem stones. Just don't try to eat there!



(c) Text & photos - Anli Serfontein 2010




Monday, 31 May 2010

German Police Inter-Cultural Sensitivity

One day each year, foreigners living in Trier, - and they make up 8% of the local population after all - can celebrate their cultures  on one of the city squares.

Yesterday on a rainy Sunday as people from the Middle East and Asia and Africa cooked their specialities, danced and sang, they were also introduced to German culture.

Coming from South Africa and having worked in the townships during the Unrest of the late Eighties and early Nineties, I for one, for many years  after moving to Germany, made a wide berth around anyone in uniform. Too many bad memories clouded my rationality. I wonder how many of the foreigners on the Kornmarkt yesterday are political exiles who still have nightmares from the way they were treated by men in uniform? Maybe even tortured?  In my experience many of us coming from the Third World fear dogs. However they were introduced to the law in their new country.

With intercultural (in)sensitivity the German police put their police dogs through their paces in dealing with criminals. In an impressive display an Alsatian jumped through an open car window and swiftly pushed the drug dealer out of his vehicle.

Now what was the message?  If you are criminal (and many in the population still think only foreigners are criminals) this is how we will deal with you, so don't try? Or on a friendlier note "Welcome to Germany!" 

Intriguing display!






Wednesday, 31 March 2010

German Catholics launch helpline for abuse victims




 It is seldom that I can just get on my bike and go to a press conference, but this one in Trier yesterday was a welcome change! 

Trier, Germany (ENI). The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has launched an official telephone hotline for victims of sexual abuse in its institutions.

At a press conference in Trier, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the German Bishops' Conference said on 30 March the helpline will be staffed by psychologists and social workers from the diocese of Trier.

Ackermann was appointed in February by the German bishops to handle mounting allegations of abuse in Germany's Catholic Church.

The crisis began when a school in Berlin run by the Jesuit order announced in January that there had been systematic abuse of pupils by three priests in the 1970s and 1980s. After the school had appointed a lawyer, it appealed for victims of abuse to come forward.

Soon it emerged that the priests involved also worked at other church-run schools and the problem grew. The scandal has so far affected most German dioceses.

Ackermann looked distressed when he told journalists, "I have in the past weeks had to read shocking examples and learned how strongly such an experience influences the life of every person." He said even long after they have happened, the occurrences have "really destructive traits".

Ackermann said, "Victims can now get a chance to come forward and report what they have kept silent about for decades because of shame." The bishop noted, "I have read many emails in the last weeks where victims have in detail portrayed their abuse and the after effects, and I must tell you honestly that I can only read that in small doses. It is shocking and one cannot just read it like regular post."

On 29 March Ackermann announced that 20 priests have been embroiled in cases of sexual abuse in his diocese between 1950 and 1990. He said although he was shocked by the number involved, "It is the reports of the victims that really upsets me and shocks me."

Asked whether the church was guilty of a cover-up, Ackermann said, "Those in church positions who did not clear up the problem, although they could have and should have, are of course guilty [of covering up]."

The bishop repeated an appeal to perpetrators of sexual abuse to admit their deeds, saying, "Only then will a way be possible to get to the truth and reconciliation."

The helpline should serve as a "door opener" for victims, said Andreas Zimmer, who runs the Counselling Services in the diocese of Trier. After an initial conversation with victims and listening to their wishes on what further action should be taken, they will be passed on to other professional counselling services in their own dioceses. "We (as the Church) have an obligation to fulfil," he said. 
 (c) Anli Serfontein 2010

Zimmer said they chose "experienced counselling staff [psychologists or social workers] with many years of professional experience, who are highly qualified to deal with traumatised people and are competent in the field of sexual violence".

A spokesperson for the movement We are Church, Christian Weisner, told Ecumenical News International he thought that a service operating three days, and afternoons-only will not be enough for a country-wide helpline.

"It can only be a beginning," Weisner told ENI. "It is a step in the right direction, but should have been done in 2002 already. It is too little, too late."

We are Church has run a telephone helpline for victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy since 2002 when the Catholic sexual abuse scandal broke in the United States. So far 400 victims have called in, 90 in the last two months.

Weisner said that questions around the cause of the sexual abuse in church institutions will be debated for a long time. His organization has called for the policy of mandatory celibacy of Catholic clergy to be abolished.



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Sunday, 21 March 2010

Books, people, publishers and blisters



The annual Leipzig Book Fair is truly a people's book festival and in stark contrast to the Frankfurt Book Fair which is all about deals.

Ever since Johannes Gutenberg invented his book printing machine (I visited the museum two years ago in Mainz), Germany has been the centre of the publishing trade.



From 1632 to 1945 Leipzig was the biggest book fair in Germany and in Europe. However after the divide of Europe and Germany into East and West after the Second World War in 1945, the festival continued in East Germany. It was however was overtaken in importance by Frankfurt.



This get-together of the publishing and media sectors with writers, readers and publishers has an invigorating air about it. In the hustle bustle of some spring sunshine the famous mix with booksellers, readers, plebs and wannabe authors like myself.

Nobel Prize Laureates Günter Grass and Hertha Müller were walking around being interviewed and talking to people, as was South African author Deon Meyer.

One hall is mainly for comics and cartoons and many young readers come dressed as their favourite manga figures.


Leipzig is Europe’s biggest Reader’s Festival with nearly 2,000 author events during the four days in 350 venues spread through the city. Over 2,000 publishers from about 35 countries display their books and authors here.



My book Basteln, Wandern and Putzen: From South Africa to Trier published in 2008 in Vito von Eichborn’s Edition BoD was again on display at my publisher’s stand in Hall 3. I was grateful for the welcome cup of coffee offered, while quickly catching up, taking a few pics and moving on.
.
I concentrated mainly on two halls - Halls 3 and 4 - looking at trends, new publications, making new contacts and having interesting conversations. Unlike Frankfurt it is so much easier to talk to the publishing industry here.
With my second manuscript now finished, it is time again to look for a publisher, while the translation rights of Basteln, Wandern and Putzen, are still being discussed. For someone as impatient as me, the cogs of this business moves very slowly.

I enjoyed the Fair much more than in 2008 - it was less overwhelming. And next year I will make sure I spend more time there; one day is far too short. And as we nurtured our blistered feet, next year it will be flat tackies (sneakers). (Or a wheel chair) Smart and comfortable are mutually exclusive!

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Latter-day Latin Lamentations

There I stood this week at the grave of Erasmus of Rotterdam in the Basel Münster at a loss to read the inscription in the lingua franca of Europe. Albeit the lingua franca of an earlier Europe, when a common written language prevailed - Latin. That was the world of this Dutch Renaissance humanist.

Coming from Africa I never saw the advantages of Latin as a subject. Moving from Jozi barely a century old to Germany’s oldest Roman town, a mere 2,000 years old , I was soon confronted by Latin.

In our area some secondary schools offer the option of pupils starting with Latin as their first foreign language when they, aged barely ten, start Gymnasium, the most academic of the three-tier secondary schools. Because numbers are low a lot of marketing goes into attracting pupils.My tri-lingual daughter was seen as a natural candidate.

„Latin is a dead language,“ I proclaimed loud enough for all to hear. Whereas the German intelligensia, in other words the professors, the architects, the doctors and lawyers were cajouling their reluctant offsprings to start with Latin, my kids started with French. My then 9-year old daughter duly reported my philistine views to the primary school headmistress, married to a top notch specialist.

„Mrs Fischer said Latin is not a dead language,“ she told me over lunch. „Oh and who speaks Latin?“ I retorted. „The Romans,“ came her quick answer. „And do you see any around here?“ I asked waving my arm around what used to be the Roman Zoo where they kept their wild animals, but where we now live, before readily supplying the answer, „No, we only have Roman ruins and dead Romans.“

So my children started with French – the only language they did not know. I scoffed at people who started off with Latin, as often in my experience teaching students, they were later in life very poor in speaking English. In my daughter’s class there were even pupils who started off with French and then took Latin, finishing school without any English at all, and this in this day and age.

I myself have learnt French and Portuguese without feeling a need for Latin and have dabbled in Spanish. But the German education system always catches up with us boorish halfwits from Africa.

And they eventually got my daughter. Any student studying for a Bachelor degree in either German or English in this country is obliged to have studied Latin. I always thought both are not classified as Roman languages. But my now student daughter explains, “Some Middle High German texts are only in Latin and the professors need to translate from those original texts.” For the three idiots who want to spend their lives in dark cellars translating those texts, it may be fine, but why punish everyone? And more effort seem to go into acquiring Latin, than Middle High German.

Studying German as a sub-major at Wits University all those many years ago, I managed in two short years to read Middle High German texts like the Nibelungenlied, read Faust One and Two, read Schiller and Goethe and novels from the Enlightenment to Expressionism. We read modern authors (well in 1979 they were modern) like Peter Handke, Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll. Now doing four hours of Latin a week, my student daughter seems to lack the vast knowledge of German literature, such as we acquired all those many years ago in southern Africa.

The same applies to English. I have now battled for a decade with incompetent English school teachers who marks what is right as wrong and often have absolutely no grasp of, or feel for the English language. It is rather different to Latin. They were most probably struggling with Latin, when they could have explored the vast literatures of the English language.

That probably explains why a professor of English here in Trier would in his introduction to World English literature tell students that Nadine Gordimer is a writer from the southern hemisphere (right), specifically from the New Zealand, Australia region (wrong). Did my learned friend ever open ONE of her books?

Our other South African Nobel Literature Prize winner, JM Coetzee, the only Commonwealth author ever to win the Booker Prize twice, no-one teaching English in Trier, ever seem to have heard of. And yes, Professor Doctor English, he actually lives in Adelaide in Australia these days.

PS As an afterthought, could anyone translate the Erasmus inscription for me.