I thought she was joking but she said no. I asked her about Norman Lamont and the row with the Bundesbank and she thought this time I was joking. It was beyond comprehension that such a dispute could cause so much anger in London or threaten relations between the two countries, she said. No, it could only be an eccentric English joke.
There must be something going for the British jam industry at the moment, for I found in Paris that the French have taken to English jam too, especially marmalade. In fact they buy two tons of muffins a week at Marks & Spencer's on Boulevard Haussmann to go with the jam and the cheddar cheese, which all of a sudden is fashionable food. What is more they adore sliced white bread in clear plastic packets, imported the night before, along with sandwiches and fresh milk from across the Channel.
There are more tins of custard powder, packets of jellies, sponge rolls, apple pies, jam tarts, cream crackers and ginger biscuits displayed as new and exciting items on the shelves of Marks & Spencer in Paris than you would find in all the corner stores of Britain. 'If it is in a tin or wrapped in tartan, it sells,' Max Gillibrand, the store's food manager said. Perhaps it has something to do with Maastricht.
Go north to Brussels and ask the Belgians to think of Britain and they talk about football hooligans, the island mentality of its inhabitants and a thing called the 'English style'. It is not brogues and tweeds and raincoats; English style is antique and reproduction furniture, prints real and fake, silver-plated knives and forks, china plates and tea sets. The view is rather old-fashioned - a fantasy perhaps, as if Britain were still genteel and the only blight was the hooligan. They also think British cities are dirty and their inhabitants uncouth, which is why they know the fantasy is a fantasy.
On to Amsterdam: the young people of the Netherlands do not think of Britain, nor are they interested. It exists that is all; they have no interest in the country; they take for granted that it will go on producing television comedies and documentaries; Britain is an odd, grubby, backward place, inward looking and narrow- minded; they would never consider buying anything from Britain, especially if it had an engine in it, and they never link the English language they speak so fluently to Britain the nation. The language could have been invented solely for the Dutch to communicate with the rest of the world. I asked a 35-year-old Dutch journalist if he could think of anything positive about Britain and he said there was nothing that came to mind. 'The fact that I even had to think should tell you all you want to know,' he said. His editor said Britain was truly in a mess if its newspapers were sending reporters abroad to ask foreigners for an opinion.
The young Dutch tend to look west over Britain towards the United States. Their grandparents and those who were children at the end of the war remember Britain with great affection as their liberator, but that is about all. Certainly none of them look east to Germany with any affection. There was a group of about 15 German football supporters on the train from Amsterdam to Cologne. Two days earlier I had left 200 Scottish ones, mostly drunk, in my hotel in Brussels where the staff were in fear after confiscating 800 cans of beer. The German fans were just noisy, and they hushed up when the conductor marched past. When the Netherlands beat Germany in the European football championship, Dutch fans carried victory banners around the city saying 'Give us back our bicycles' - a black joke on the German occupation, when Hitler's troops confiscated all the local bikes. They have not forgotten it, 50 years and two generations on.
By the time you get to Germany, as I did in the middle of last week's gunboat diplomacy, you expect the worst. But it was not the case. Emotion had no place and nationalism, I was constantly told, must not be given a voice.
The first thing the British should know about the Germans is that the average person in the street actually admires them. And when British newspapers start bashing the Hun they cannot understand it. Some, though, will laugh and explain it away with: 'Britain still hasn't come to terms with its Lesser Power status', or 'if only the British would learn to be Europeans for a change'. But mostly they hesitate, smile benignly, and turn their attention once more to that huge issue that pushes all else aside - the cost, financial, cultural and political, of German reunification.
Veronika, 25, and Thomas, 30, are students at Bonn University. I met them in the English department. They have little faith in Chancellor Kohl and look upon east Germany as a foreign country. They fear that unification will make Germany too powerful and let loose the devil of nationalism. Already an evil undercurrent of racism was moving from east to west Germany, they said, and they recounted a story that the Japanese embassy in Bonn had advised all Japanese to wear a suit when visiting eastern Germany, never casual clothes, for fear that they might be mistaken for immigrant workers and assaulted.
Veronika and Thomas said they would like to turn the clock back and rebuild the Berlin Wall. Except for language they had nothing in common with east Germans. They seemed to worry about the future and looked at each other knowingly when I told them many students in Britain had trouble finding jobs when they graduated.
Veronika said she was fed up that everyone in Europe continued to remind Germans they were responsible for the war. 'OK, I'm sorry, but its not my war and I'm not to blame,' she said. Thomas pulled her up. 'I don't think you can get rid of German war guilt so quickly. Guilt has a positive influence.'
They spoke of the 'fresh air of British democracy' and wanted Britain very firmly in Europe for the experience it could pass on. There was very little wrong with Britain in their eyes, even the architecture was good (big windows went down very well). Most of all though, they admired the quality of public discussion and tolerance shown to dissenters.
The jam-loving girl sheltering from the rain found the British quite odd when she first crossed the Channel. She likes the way we live (architecture again, this time cottages), she finds the class system peculiar and she enjoyed the English more as she travelled north. The best pop music came from Britain and fashions usually hit London's shops months before they reached Germany.
Angelika Volle is a member of Germany's Institute of Foreign Relations. She closed her London bank account in August after almost 20 years because her British bank refused to give her a monthly statement and make regular transfers into her credit card account. She said it was like cutting an umbilical cord. What annoys her now is that two months later she is still waiting for the closing balance to be paid into her German bank and in the meantime sterling has been devalued, so she has lost on every count through what she sees as extraordinary inefficiency.
On the other hand she admires the British, has always given them the benefit of the doubt, adores their eccentricity, the way they can adapt, enjoys their humour.
By any standards she is an Anglophile. But she is worried because she thinks John Major, like Margaret Thatcher before him, does not realise the changes that have taken place in Germany. Germans are no longer prepared to be blamed for everything and there is great anger at the recurring stereotype of them in jackboots wearing spiked helmets.
Whereas 10 years ago they would not have acted without first winning approval from their allies, today there is a new assertiveness. 'If British politicians keep gunning Germany, German rhetoric will get harder and Britain may find she has painted herself into a corner.' She is glad both sides have decided to 'put a sponge' on their dispute over sterling and says mistakes were made on both sides.
I did not hear Germans slagging off Britain the way the Dutch, the Belgians and the French did. I was told by a colleague I would only have to wait a couple of years. But I never heard Britain referred to as a Third World power as they did in the Netherlands, nor that it should cease to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, or that only a moron would buy a British car.
The Germans for some reason seemed always to give Britain the benefit of the doubt. There may be clashes between London and Bonn but it seldom touches the ordinary German, who reads the latest about the Royal Family and does not care about the shot being scattered overhead.
On the train from Cologne to Paris I shared a compartment with a middle-aged clerk from an unemployment office in Hanover. He was on his way to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp today. He surprised me by reciting a list of Britain's leading racing writers, and he told me he watched the races on a feed from the British Army of the Rhine's television broadcasts. He also placed bets in England through his bookie in Lower Saxony and he complained about the size of the commission. He was grumpy and stocky and could have come from Yorkshire. He wasn't interested in Lamont v the Bundesbank. And then I had my answer. Who in Yorkshire is interested in Lamont v the Bundesbank? Perhaps only the local Tory agent.
DO WE MEAN THEM?
'The British people are beginning to think that the Germans haven't changed at all' Sir Marcus Fox
'Europe is going to find itself blown off balance to the benefit of a German domination' Lady Thatcher
'German policy . . . has produced many of the tensions in the ERM' Norman Lamont
'Do you think the Germans regard economics as the continuation of war by other means?'
Letter to the Times
'The Germans are getting too big for their jack-boots'
Sir Teddy Taylor
'I am sorry if anything has been said that greatly upsets them' Norman LamontReuse content