Let me explore more this question of how outsiders can hope to understand a foreign country. My strength as a school pupil was French and German basically because my parents took me to these countries in the 1950s - when such travel was very rare.
And I continued my studies of things French and German until my second year of University (after which I switched to politics and economics) although never losing my fascination with these two countries. It was, frankly, my love life which gave me a chance to develop my French language skills (in the 1980s); and writers such as Richard Cobb, Theodor Zeldin and Julian Barnes have helped sustain that interest.
But I have had more reasons actually to learn about Germany – with a brief but important 2 weeks in 1961 at a course at Gottingen University (which introduced me to the immediate post-war novels of Heinrich Boll); then a couple of months living in Berlin in 1964 and working in a Germany company (Robert Bosch Elektronik no less). This Berlin stay introduced me to the works of people such as Bertold Brecht, Kathe Kollwitz and the German Realist painters in the Berlin galleries.
And then there various visits to Berlin in the years immediately before and after 1989 – the latter thanks to a project in Prague with German company (which rather spoiled my perceptions of Germany – although the company was actually Prussian!
Things went further downhill in 2010 when I resigned from a project in China managed by the Germans – mainly because I felt so claustrophobic in the anthill which is Beijing but also because the German bureaucracy was so intensive.
My readings of, and experiences with, German history, literature and society have been complemented recently with two major books – Peter Watson’s German Genius of 2010 (which righly criticises the contemporary fixation of Brits with the Nazi period) and Simon Winder’s Germania of the same year.
But perhaps the best single text for understanding Germany is Germany – unravelling an enigma
I came across recently a fascinating collection of essays about this issue of understanding other cultures - Inner Lives of Cultures (2011) ed Eva Hoffman which had this to say -
We live in a world in which various kinds of cross-national movement – migrations, travel, various kinds of both enforced and voluntary nomadism – are ever on the rise; and in which flows of fast communication are multidirectional and constant. If we are to meet with each other on the basis of trust rather than tension or insidious indifference, we need to have ways of getting acquainted with each other which are more than cursory, or purely instrumental. But how can this be accomplished? What kind of knowledge is needed to feed meaningful cross-cultural contacts? To enter into the subjective life of another culture – its symbolic codes, its overt beliefs and implicit assumptions – requires, as any immigrant or nomad can tell you, a considerable effort of consciousness and imagination; a kind of stretching of self towards the other, and a gradual grasp of differences which are sometimes imperceptible and subtle.Of course, cultures are neither static nor monolithic organisms – they are complex, changeable and internally diverse. What is considered healthily assertive in one culture may be seen as aggressive or hostile in another; certain kinds of personal disclosure which may seem quite unproblematic in one society may be seen as embarrassing or entirely unacceptable elsewhere.Finally some nice photographs celebrating Romania's landscape here