I moved to London as a student the day after 9/11, having decided not to live a sheltered life behind ancient walls, but to experience what I expected to be a contemporary, cosmopolitan Englishness. When I unpacked in a tiny room painted in the kind of pale green I had previously only seen on trips to Eastern Europe, in a flat off a busy road full of pound shops with hideous neon signs and pubs that drew their clientele from the local council estate, it dawned on me: this was London, not England.
England has always fulfilled fantasies for foreigners — in particular for Germans such as myself. Writers and thinkers — Heine, Goethe, Hegel, and Marx — all famously wrestled with the heady mix of admiration and disdain they felt for a people that expressed its national pride both openly and quirkily. In the second half of the 20th century, the English people's nonchalant attitude to being English — an attitude to nationality the Germans had lost for good reasons — attracted the attention of those familiar with both cultures who had endlessly to explain why the English still so much enjoyed poking fun at the Germans and why the Germans still weren't ready to take it lightheartedly.
In short: Germany and England always had a special relationship, the source of mutual attraction being never fully to understand the other.
Today, however, the peculiarity of this relationship is as worn-out as the good old "Don't Mention the War" joke: while an interest in Germany is rising in England, at least among young people, the German fascination with England is decreasing.
When you mention that you work in England, you are met with a certain friendly indifference: a respect for the fact that you made it somewhere else, but also a sense that England doesn't have much political and cultural influence. Despite successful exports of mainstream popular culture, from the Beatles to Kate Moss, the notion of a dominant, influential, thriving "Cool Britannia" seems all but absent: the perplexed admiration Germans used to have for Englishness and English culture has lost its strength. Why?