Saturday 2 February 2013

Xenophilia Ancient and Modern

"Guest" workers had their passports confiscated
With great relief we were told this week that as citizens of a country still in the European Union (whatever spooky plans David Cameron may be hatching) we did NOT have to be examined by the Erfurt Foreigner Office before being allowed to stay.  

I could stop going over in my mind the horrible memories of the interview experience as a “guest” worker in 1978 in (non-EU) German-speaking Switzerland. These had included a medical examination of my teeth and private parts, an interrogation about my religious views, and having my passport handed over to my tyrannical employer, manager of a winter sports hotel near Interlaken.

At Athens, foreigners WERE invited to the party
Although they had their faults, the ancient Athenians knew a thing or two about how to treat the guests residing in their city.  Even the staunchest critics of Athens seem to have been impressed by its cosmopolitan atmosphere: one anti-democratic pamphleteer, by custom called ‘the Old Oligarch’, observed that the Athenian instinct to ‘mingle with various peoples’ made their city the most colourful and well-resourced in the world;  eight centuries later,  Julian, the last pagan Emperor, said that the Athenians still made strangers more welcome than any other people, Greek or non-Greek, in the world. I don't think the resident aliens in Athens had their bottoms inspected before they were allowed to join in public processions.

This can’t be said about the bureaucrats of Illinois. I don’t want to be a party-pooper on the birthday of the Territory of Illinois, recognised as an entity on 3rd February 1809. But our warm welcome in the  former DDR has reminded me of the worst xenophobia I have personally ever suffered. 

Illinois School Nurse Look-alike
Our children needed to go to the local state school in Illinois for a semester. A year before we arrived, I had investigated the State Education Board policy on immunisation. Our poor offspring received a large number of injections in accordance with its stern stipulations. But when we turned up at the Board’s offices, clutching all the certificates, we were told by a mountainous nurse that the injections had not been spaced out the correct number of weeks, that UK medics clearly knew nothing about immunisation, and that our children were absolutely barred from school.

Fortunately, after arguing fruitlessly for an hour, and managing not to ask why she looked so like John Travolta in drag in Hairspray, it suddenly occurred to me that in the Land of The Free there must be a religious exemption clause. I thereupon had a miraculous conversion to a religion which did not allow immunisation. The children’s father twigged and simultaneously had one too. 

Zwingli, still proselytizing in the 21st century
I couldn’t remember the words "Jehovah’s Witness". But for some reason the Reformation Swiss Protestant Ulrich Zwingli leapt into my head, and I told the nurse I was now converted to Zwinglianism. [This was all very unfair on Pastor Zwingli, since immunisation had not been invented in the 1500s]. Delighted that I had come up with a complete fabrication on which we could all agree, the nurse allowed the children, despite the lethal threat they presented to public health, to go straight to school. 

Somewhere in a file in the offices of the State Education Board in Evanston, Illinois, is the signed testament to our conversion. Dank sei Gott that there has been no need to produce an equivalent document in Germany.  The EU has a purpose, after all.

1 comment:

  1. I might just, then, make the observation of present day Athens unfortunately presenting, by many accounts, a rather different attitude towards foreigners...