Imre Karacs' Bonn Diary: All for the love of the banana...

I HAVE lived here for three years, but still cannot work out what it is that drives Germans crazy about bananas. Somebody is probably, at this moment, writing a PhD thesis about the true cause of Hitler's rise to power: the scarcity of bananas in the late 1920s. Well, it may be fanciful, but Germany did fight two wars in order to acquire colonies in hot climates. Draw your own conclusions.

What is beyond dispute is that, after the war, at the time when the German government was not even allowed to kit out a policeman without seeking permission from each of the four Allies, Konrad Adenauer clashed with the occupying powers over the world-market price of bananas, and won. The Communist East lacked bananas, and look what happened to them. Reunification, as any decent historian will tell you, was driven by Ossis craving for the fruit, and they have been gorging themselves ever since. Germans remain the greatest banana-eaters on the planet.

I report all this in the light of a disturbing event that took place in front of Cologne cathedral last Wednesday. At 9am sharp, artist Thomas Baumgartel attempted to drag a 14m-long plastic banana into the church. The gates were slammed shut and the police were called immediately. "I wanted a dialogue with the Church," the artist explained as he was led away. Apparently, he has been spraying bananas on the walls of Cologne for eight years. Now, we may never know why.

AT THIS time of the year Bonn is even more desolate than usual. The denizens of ministry car parks are crawling along the fast lanes of the autobahns, heading for the beach. "Lucky we got air-conditioning," their owners are saying. With most of Germany camped in the 17th Land - Majorca - the politicos have taken the election campaign south. Those of us stuck here must watch the phoney war on TV.

This includes one-tenth of the population: the unemployed. Oh, they can afford to go away all right, but are not allowed more than three weeks' annual leave. Their lobby organisation, the Working Group for the Unemployed, think that is very mean. The jobless, the group points out, need holidays far more than wage-slaves. "They need to recuperate from all the efforts tied to a life of unemployment," says their spokesman.

In fact, many of the unemployed manage to escape the hot German summer for long periods, because they need to sign on only every two months. So why is this group making so much fuss? Well, they point out, there is such a thing as the "13th month" salary, paid by most companies as a holiday bonus. The unemployed think it is unfair that they are not getting it. And who can blame them?

THERE are still some people here who refuse to sit on their bums while drawing welfare cheques. Unfortunately, real jobs are rather hard to come by, so they must be inventive. But Germany is the country of guilds, societies and brotherhoods, where, without the right qualifications, you cannot even sweep the streets. It's enough to reduce a man to a life of begging.

Or at least it was. Begging, I read in a dispatch from Berlin, is becoming a seriously crowded business. There are some 15,000 homeless people in the city, and guess where they are getting their pocket-money. It is high time to regulate this area of human activity - all others have already been brought into line. A university for beggars is a distant goal, but at last there is now a course, leading to a diploma. If you want an edge in the begging world, that is the one to aim for. The city authorities have recognised it.

Run by an association named "mob", an acronym for "Homeless on the move", the course teaches you how to dress - not too neat - and how to look - no suntan, please. There are instructions in security-guard avoidance, fare-dodging on the S-Bahn, and tips on how to blend into the surroundings while sharing a train carriage with a group of skinheads. There is only one snag: the course costs DM180 (about pounds 60) - or nearly a week's proceeds in the average begging tin. They don't have bowls. This is not the Third World, you know.

GERMANS are not given enough credit for creativity. Despite the odds stacked against an inventor, an amazing range of gadgets make it into German shops, on their way to conquering the world. The latest has just been released. It is a hand-held gizmo which you feed, for your amusement, with data.

OK, so the Japanese got there first. But this Tamagotchi is heart-shaped, and what you input is your dream partner: height, shape, IQ, colour of hair, etc. It doesn't wake you up in the night, demanding to be fed, played with, or disciplined. What it does is transmit the particulars of your ideal mate to kindred devices in the vicinity. When it has found a match, another little heart on the screen flashes, and the whole gadget vibrates in your pocket. Press a button, and the phone number of your future partner will appear on the screen. The manufacturers say it will replace lonely hearts columns. Just don't forget to change the batteries.

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