independent

Friday 18 April 2014

The German region that finds even Aldi and Lidl too pricey

Angela Merkel often takes time in her speeches to praise the typical Swabian housewife from south- west Germany for her frugal housekeeping and balanced budgeting.

A fondness for penny-pinching housewives might not sound too important but it should have us all worried because this particular housewife is the German chancellor's alter ego and the homely personification of how Germany would like the troika to act here in Ireland.

Mrs Merkel likes to tell her fellow countrymen that there would be no financial crisis if only we had all acted more like Swabians and stayed away from the lure of easy credit.

What Frau Merkel wants, she tends to get but it won't be easy for us here in Ireland to become Swabians overnight.

Hard work, thrift and a visceral detestation of borrowing are not Irish characteristics or at least they have not been for some time.

Swabian life, which was deeply influenced by a strict form of Protestant belief called Pietism in the 19th Century, is all about understatement.

Swabians call this "hälinge reich" which means "secretly rich" and look down on Bavarians, Hamburgers and Berliners who are a little more showy, although still sober compared with their Irish counterparts.

Swabians famously wear fur coats to guard against the Alpine winters but the fur is always on the inside.

You may think you are halfway there already if you shop at discount stores such as Lidl and Aldi but you'd be wrong.

Heide Sickinger and Waltraud Maier, two well-to-do housewives from Gerlingen, near Stuttgart, told a French media organisation investigating the Swabian lifestyle recently that they could not afford to shop at the discounters and went instead to individual farmers and butchers.

"The quality is better," Mrs Maier said, "and you can buy two carrots rather than a whole kilogram."

She never throws anything away -- old bread is made into bread dumplings, for example. Many of her neighbours grow their own fruit and vegetables, and bottle or pickle them.

The two women only buy what they really need (with the exception of a flatscreen TV). Even a wardrobe counts as a luxury purchase -- because Swabians don't buy cheap. They value quality, which means a wardrobe has to be solid wood, so it lasts a lifetime.

Swabia's spiritual home is the small town of Gerlingen, which has a population similar to Kilkenny's and has the highest purchasing power in the state of Baden-Württemberg, around €500m a year, but none of the boutiques and luxury shops common at that level of wealth.

The Bosch family, who founded and owned the electronics company of the same name until they gave the entire company to a charitable foundation, still lives in Gerlingen.

Despite the family's wealth, locals say the Bosch children wear clothes that had clearly been mended.

Some Irish people have already benefited from Swabia's habits. University College Cork awarded an honourary doctorate to Swabian Isolde Liebherr last summer for her family's contribution to life in Kerry where the Liebherrs have provided hundreds of jobs. The degree citation praised her Swabian qualities of "reliability, diligence, commitment to the task, loyalty" as well as "pride in having one's feet on the ground".

While few of our billionaires are as thrifty as the Bosch family, we do share one trait with the Swabians; a passion for house buying. Swabians are regularly mocked by other Germans who believe that the southerners waste their days working to save for a little house.

The Swabian saying "Schaffe, schaffe, Häusle baue" -- which translates as "work and work to build a little house" -- is often trotted out contemptuously by other Germans who are happy to rent their whole lives long.

While the Irish and Swabians may share what often seems to be an irrational fondness for home ownership, the Swabians save rather more than we do; couples usually put aside a third of the house price and then take out a mortgage with fixed repayments for 25 years which makes them immune to interest rate hikes (and, of course, cuts).

There is one other passion that Swabians and the Irish share; Mercedes cars. The Swabians make them (and drive them to destruction) while we happily buy them.

At first glance Mercedes may not seem a very Swabian product but in Baden-Württemberg the car is seen as a well-built vehicle that can last you a lifetime rather than a status symbol.

There is an old Swabian saying that "I buy good tools because I can't afford to buy bad ones".

Perhaps Enda Kenny and the other Mercedes-driving cabinet ministers might want to learn it before the troika returns in a week's time to begin another inspection. That way, they can show that they are a little Swabian too.

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