Flat Earth

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Talking shop

Forget Euro 96 or mad cows, the big news in Germany last week was the decision of the government to allow shops to stay open until 8pm instead of 6.30pm on weekdays and 4pm on Saturdays, a whole two hours later than now. Even more dramatically, bakers will be allowed to sell bread rolls on Sundays.

One inspiration for this upheaval in German life, which according to small shopkeepers and the unions will result in the destruction of the family, if not economic collapse, was Chancellor Helmut Kohl's recent visit to Washington. As he recounted on his return, in Georgetown shops were open at midnight. "It is getting harder and harder to explain to foreigners why such all-night groceries are illegal in Germany," he complained. Never mind after dark - a typical sight in German cities on Saturday and Sunday afternoons is that of the bewildered tourist wondering where everyone has gone.

What the changes will mean in practice, nobody knows. At the moment, customers have to turn up by 6pm at the latest, and get to the check-out queues 15 minutes before closing time. Anyone loitering in the aisles is liable to be thrown out by security guards.

You can see why the Germans are keen on European integration and open borders. Many of them are in the habit of driving into France, Belgium or Holland to find sensible shopping hours.

A living leg end

In Arab countries, I was told, you must not show the soles of your shoes to your hosts, as this is considered insulting. Remembering not to cross your legs usually does the trick, but just in case you forget, a Kuwaiti columnist thinks there should be a law against it.

Faisal al-Qanai was "provoked" by newspaper pictures showing foreign state guests with their legs crossed "as if those guests are sitting at a coffee shop or at their private houses". It was necessary, he said, "that a legislation or a protocol be made to ban such sitting fashions at meetings with senior officials in Kuwait."

Fair enough, you might think. Perhaps a little provincial in outlook, but if that's what the local customs demand, who are we to argue? The homespun impression, however, was slightly undermined by Qanai's next complaint: "In France, I was prevented from entering Maxim's because I was not wearing a tie."

Russian corn

The Brezhnev era was the golden age of the political anecdote in Russia. For example: A Georgian was standing on Red Square with a watermelon under his arm. "I'll have a watermelon, my man," says Brezhnev. "Yes sir, which do you fancy?" "What do you mean, which do I fancy? You've only got one." "Ah," says the Georgian "There's only one of you, but each time we elect you."

They don't tell them like that any more. But the presidential election has produced some new Russian jokes, such as: a bodyguard goes in to see Yeltsin. "Bad news, I'm afraid," he says. "Zyuganov has won 65 per cent of the vote. But there's some good news too". "And what's that?" "You, Boris Nikolayevich, have won 85 per cent."

And in a comment on the greater choice Russians now enjoy: a man is walking down the street when a brick falls on his head. "What an outrage!" roars the crowd. "You can't walk anywhere without a brick falling on your head". The police arrive, and identify the victim as an election candidate. "What an outrage!" roars the crowd. "There are so many of these candidates that there's no room for bricks to fall." If that's the best they can do, I think we need the Communists back.