German Doner Kebab is a restaurant chain that does exactly what it says on the tin. The walls are bedecked with kitschy black-and-white photos of famous German sights: The Brandenburg Gate, Cologne Cathedral, Dresden, the Berlin Victory Column, and so on.
Yet this landmark-laden eatery is not set in the Bundesrepublik, but rather in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital city.
According to the UK Census, in 2011 there were 22,274 Germans living in Scotland. Five years after that census was taken, the United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union.
Despite voting by 62% to remain in the EU, Scotland has no choice but to follow its southerly neighbour out the door. How do Germans residents in Scotland feel now that Brexit is finally coming to pass on Friday?
On a Thursday evening in January, a group of students from the University of Edinburgh meet up at German Doner Kebab on Lothian Road – a meetup they have dubbed Dönerstag.
This is German Society, a mixture of native German speakers and learners of the language. They organize events such as flat crawls, academic talks and screenings of Germany’s answer to John Oliver, the heute-show.
We tuck into our meals; on my right is Thomas, an Economics student from Potsdam near Berlin and the group’s treasurer. Across the table is Jan, who is here on an exchange semester and is also from Potsdam. Eva, the society’s academic secretary who is from Bonn and is also studying Economics; and Lara, who is from London and is studying French and Spanish. They are all 21, with the exception of Lara, who is 20-years-old and has a German father.
The fact that they wouldn’t have to pay any tuition fees was a big incentive to study in Scotland. Thomas also liked that a Scottish Bachelor’s degree is four years instead of three: “I wanted to have dorm life in my first year, you don’t really have that in Germany.”
Eva adds: “The degree here is a lot more flexible, you get more options.” The range of clubs and societies was attractive, too. Jan was keen to be in an English-speaking country in order to practice his English skills.
Would they recommend studying here? “10 out of 10!” Thomas enthuses.
Thomas and Lara in Edinburgh. Photo: Chris Dobson
‘It was a surprise’
Marvin is a 28-year-old PhD student at the University of Glasgow, originally from Essen. He came to Scotland in September 2018 and has found Glaswegians to be “welcoming and open”.
He’s a member of Glasgow European Society and enjoys the university’s “international bubble”. In addition to friends and colleagues from around the world, Marvin now has a boyfriend in Edinburgh.
When asked about Brexit, Marvin – who is researching Economic and Social History – takes a long time to think. “It was a surprise but I wouldn’t say it was a shock,” he finally responds.
“In Germany, British politics had the reputation to be straight to the point, to be able to make compromises, to concentrate on the facts, and I think that reputation is gone. Now British politics is seen as something ridiculous.”
Marvin says that he would respect the right of the Scottish people to self-determination, but he is sceptical whether the Conservative UK government would allow this.
Has Brexit changed their perception of Scotland and the UK? Actually, Thomas remarks that he is surprised how little people talk about it.
Eva comments: “I feel like the whole university community is quite detached from it.” When I ask what their thoughts are on Brexit, they reply that they are “100 percent” against it. “Everybody in Germany thinks that the UK made a major mistake,” Thomas says.
“You can see that quite a lot in the way the media talks about it,” comments Eva. “It’s obviously not what they should be doing.”
Lara is a bit more concise: “I think it’s a shitshow. Nothing has happened in politics for three years. Let’s get on with it and let something else happen.”
“All the negotiations have been annoying people as well,” adds Thomas. “If you want to be out, leave.”
They express scepticism about Scottish independence, but also sympathy. “I think it’d be great for Scotland but I don’t know how well Scotland could hold up for itself,” Thomas says.
Despite sharing Thomas’ doubts about an independent Scotland’s sustainability, Lara declares: “I would be in favour. Just because England fucked up doesn’t mean Scotland must.”
Whereas in England Lara, who is half-German, has experienced some anti-German sentiment, in Scotland the students have received a warm welcome.
“There are so many international students,” Thomas says with evident delight. “It’s such a normal thing to meet people from different cultures and countries.”
The German Doner Kebab restaurant, where the group met on a Thursday evening. Photo: Alexandra Person
‘Always something new’
Thomas doesn’t even mind the Scottish weather, and he likes that Edinburgh is “small enough that you know your way around and can get to places easily but it’s not too small where you always go to the same thing.”
Jan agrees: “You always find something new and exciting.” Lara says that she likes how walkable the city is: “You can walk everywhere.”
Just as Berlin isn’t the be-all and end-all of Germany, Edinburgh isn’t the only side to Scotland. Forty miles to the west is Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city.
Although he continues to be baffled by the lack of double-glazing in some houses, Marvin says he would definitely recommend Glasgow to other Germans, although if they’re from a city like Munich which is known for its history and culture, they might prefer Edinburgh.
Marvin adds that he enjoys a deep-fried Mars bar, making him right at home in Scotland.