Sonntag, 4. Juni 2017

Stretching it a bit - Califonia Dreaming comes to Lower Bavaria

It's not everyday you get to ride through the sleepy Lower Bavarian countryside in a chauffeured Californian stretch limo. 

We'd been at the local swimming pool and the father of one of Matilda's schoolmates offered us a "lift" home in his company car. The 5½-metre long sedan had caused quite a commotion when it arrived outside Tegernbach's Freibad and promptly swallowed up four or five parking spaces. 

Anyway, thank you Romulus of Romways Limos for everyone for chauffeuring us home in style....  

Door to door service and a royal wave..

Our sleepy cul-de-sac had certainly never seen anything like this before. The limo just about managed to scrape past next door''s timber truck. 

Samstag, 4. März 2017

When it comes to blowing away the winter blues, Bavaria's benchmark

I awake at half past six this morning to golden rays of sunshine streaking through a slit in the curtains. For a moment it feels like the long Bavarian winter might finally be drawing to a close - last week did after all mark the official start of spring. Let's not be lulled into a false sense of security though; we're still very much in the grip of wintertime. Last year it still snowed here late April. By that time, mind you, most of us had long stowed away the ski gear - we'd had enough.  

So what do Bavarians do to blow away their blues? They head for the sauna, of course. It's funny, really. Tourists tend to treat Scandinavia as the definitive destination for hitting the hotshed. They've probably been watching too many Scandi thrillers starring sweaty souls beating each other around the thighs with fresh-cut birch tree branches. Maidens in Lederhosen films might be dull in comparison, but as every self-respecting Bavarian will tell you, here is where it all began. 

Hey bro', that's my end of the bench....

Germans, remember, invented FKK - free body culture (local lingo for "getting nice and nude"), and they've developed a cult around everything to do with saunas. I was just reading that you can actually train to become a qualified Sauna Meister - a title which carries every much respect in Germany as that of, say, qualified accountant or  lawyer. 

Don't be fooled into thinking the man above is taking a swipe at the guy after some heated (no pun intended) argument. He's actually wafting cold air into the sauna, an intricate process known as "Aufguss", or infusion. More show than sauna, the Meister invariably cracks a few jokes about the pain he's inflicting on his captive audience before marching out to a hearty round of applause. Bavaria has more Sauna Landschaft, nude landscapes, than anywhere else in Germany. My favourite is the Kaiser Thermen, just south of Regensburg.

Just one tip if you're a foreigner - any form of clothing in the sauna is an absolute no-no. Brits and Americans typically find that hard to deal with, but really it's no big deal. When I arrived in Germany one of the first things I did was join a spa health club, the highlight of which was an underground landscape dotted with steam rooms, thermal pools and jacuzzis. No clothes, naturally. It was a bit like stumbling into the The Garden of Eden. Prude Englishman as I was, I nonetheless soon shed the towel around my waist.

Wild things - last week's ski trip to Lenggries

November and December, notorious for gloomy skies and dearth of sunshine, is not a great time of year in Bavaria. But from new year onwards winters here are just like winters should be - as cold as a dog's nose, yet with crispy clear air and bright sunshine. Yes, spring does typically arrive here later than in most parts of Europe, but Bavarians have a remedy for that too. In recent years they've taken to dressing up in kinky costumes. As animals. And not just for Fasching either. You'll also find Bavarians disguised as half-bearded policemen, vikings, and Elvis.

Donnerstag, 10. November 2016

Germany's shell-shocked, but Stars and Stripes just about saves the day

When German newspapers start running headlines in English you know they're gearing up for another shit storm.

On the day after the election my colleague from Texas comes into the staff room looking as miserable as the gloomy November sky. “Ooh my Gourd!”, he groans. For a moment it sounds like he's suffering from Muskelkater, those awful aching bones and limbs which Germans so enjoy complaining about.

I know it's not funny, but I almost choke on the brezel I'm chewing. As you might do when you want to laugh but suddenly find something's in the way. Because that’s the very headline on most of the day's German newspapers: "Oh my God!" And, underneath, as if some sort of afterthought, following a long editorial discussion whether readers would understand the foreign language expression – "Geht's noch?”. Yes, that lovely expression which Germans mutter when showing the middle finger.

Anyway, typically British, I simply reply “Oh dear”. My colleague, you see, had been worried what to tell his students. Even though I’d reassured him that the disastrous result was not entirely his fault. But now he’d really gone and added fuel to the fire: “I played them HIS Acceptance Speech, and one girl started crying. I’ve come to get some tissues for her.”

Not a brilliant start to any lesson. But deep down inside I know I'm not going to have an easy lesson either. After all, we Brits used to rule the USA too. And we weren't very popular rulers either. No wonder they kicked us out.

Suddenly however, I have a Geistesblitz - a brilliant idea. I’ll make the lesson topical yet totally avoid having to talk about HIM.

I go in and show the students Why Americans love their flag, which takes us back to the very first U.S. president, George Washington, and how the Stars and Stripes was born.

We all learn something new about American history. And – I’m delighted to say – no one cries.

"Trump wants only one dollar a year in salary"
 "I'd give him twice as much just for him to quit". 

Montag, 19. September 2016

High fives all round for "wheely" great tour of Munich. Just mind those naked sun lovers ahead!

Just one day before the Oktoberfest starts, and I'm staying in a lovely old-fashioned hotel with my parents right opposite the entrance to the Wies'n. It's been fun watching all the comings and goings, especially the beer maids queueing up for selfies under the Fest banner, linking arms with butchy-looking security guards. But we have another plan today, and before sunset I will have stood on one leg in central Munich and performed, in broad daylight, a pirouette. I will also have plunged through a crowd of naked sunbathers in the English Garden and dived into the "Eisbach", letting the current carry me downstream towards the Chinese Tower Biergarten. Boy, I must be desperate for a beer. 

To set the record straight, I don't normally put myself out there like this, and it certainly isn't punishment for losing a bet in the pub just before closing time. In short, the whole thing is totally unpremeditated and unintentional. That's what I'll be telling my lawyer, at least.

Wind back an hour or so. The day begins with me signing up for The Classic Bike Tour with Mike's Bikes. It seems a smart way of showing my parents more of Munich than they might normally experience by foot. Besides, even though I've lived in Munich for over 16 years I'm still not too hot when it comes to the city's facts, figures and history. As for what's what and what's hot, I always feel local guides are much better at explaining these things to visitors. Unfortunately my parents pull out at the last minute, They seem worried we might be practising for the next Olympics. "We haven't ridden a bike in ages", says mum, "why don't we just meet up in the beergarden when you take a beak?". I end up going along by myself. 

My parents needn't have worried. "This isn't the Tour de France", announces our guide called Abs, "it's the Tour de Munich - way easier". We're assembled under the shadow of  the Neues Rathaus on the Marienplatz, the heart of Munich. Abs begins by describing the ritual of the daily Glockenspiel, acted out in the clock tower just above us. "Don't expect anything exciting to happen though", he warns "It's the most over-rated thing in Munich". He proceeds to enact the "Schäfflertanz", performed by life-size figurines every morning at 11 sharp. "Come on everybody, dance with me!", he calls. No time to protest, I'm perching on one leg, arms arched over my head, hovering around performing a 360-degrees pirouette, alongside some 20 other unsuspecting tourists from Britain, Canada, America and Australia. "Oh my God!", chuckles Abs, as we complete this clumsy spectacle, "I can't believe you just did that", I'm dead sure the surrounding bystanders who've just witnessed us make fools of ourselves can't believe it either. Several of them are touting movie cameras, guffawing deep belly laughs. Delighted to have caught the whole thing on video, no  doubt. 

                        Abs, our guide, giving a pep talk at the start of the tour:
                                      "You CAN all ride a bike, can't you?"

Luckily that's all the dancing I'll be doing today. From now on it's just plain biking. But before we hit the saddle our guide wants to know if we can all actually ride a bike. "Hands up anyone who can't!", he says. For a moment I feel like a six-year old being quizzed by teacher on first day of school. "Cool", says Abs, as we all demonstratively dig our hands deep into our pockets. Poker-faced, he relates how the other day they had a woman from Texas on the tour. Putting on an accent he mimics: 'Oh yeah, I can ride a bike, I just can't turn left'. Abs tells the anecdote off the cuff, as if the lady's still somewhere in town, recuperating from the ordeal. But I suspect it's all part of a well-rehearsed script. Either way he's already won us over. Each time he asks a question and one of the group gets it right he zooms in for a high-five. My school teachers certainly never did that.  

We're soon off, weaving our way through crowds clogging the streets around the Hofbräuhaus. "Any one need a toilet, by the way?" asks Abs, pointing to the back entrance of Munich's most famous beer house. "One of the very last free loos in town", he tells us. Munich is an awful place to get caught short in, so there's a tip I'll definitely remember. 

First stop: Munich's most beautiful baroque church, the Theatiner Kirche. "I can't pronounce that", says Abs, "So I just call it Tina Turner Church". Abs explains how the church houses the Four Evangelists, lovingly sculptured by Balthasar Ableitner. "So then, what's love got to do, got to do with it?" Abs quizzes."Everything!" shouts an American lady, sprightly clad in lycra. "High five!" calls Abs, heading in for a hearty hand-slap. We all cheer. So far very good.

But I suppose you can't really do a tour of Munich's history without touching on a much darker chapter of German history, and Abs is already preparing us for this. "Sorry to dampen the cheery mood, guys", he says, explaining we're standing at the scene of the notorious Beer Hall Putsch. This is where Hitler unsuccessfully attempted to storm the Bavarian Defense Ministry in 1923. Just before I'd been humming that Tina Turner tune to myself, and everything had looked so peaceful in the sunshine. But suddenly a chill runs down my spine. We move on.

You don't HAVE to leave your hat on. Or very much else either, actually.  We're about to enter the no-clothes zone of Munich's best-loved garden.

Originally from the USA, Abs has been in Munich for just a year but can already quote chapter and verse on the city's history. I'm impressed too by his "insider" knowledge of the English Garden, the biggest park in Munich - larger than even Central Park NY.  As we ride into the 37 sq-km park he tells us to look out for one or two "local celebrities". I'm wondering which TV stars he's referring to, but it soon turns out he has something else in mind. There are six nudist "zones" in Munich, and we're already smack bang in the middle of the biggest. "You can't miss the Human Tripod", he says, explaining that this nudist enjoys waving to cyclists. But not necessarily with his hands. Hey....

It's not every day you get to cycle amongst a mass of nude sunbathers. Some of the group prefer to take their time, dismounting and wheeling their way through the clothes-free crowds. I manage to keep going, and we finally all reassemble at the Chinese Turm (below). Surrounding the tower is an enormous beer garden, and we all pile our plates high with currywurst and chips, washed down with a liter-mug of froth. When a brass band on the first floor strikes up, serenading one of the group with "Happy Birthday to you!" it almost feels like we've parked our bikes in heaven. 


             Cyclists' heaven comes with five storeys in Munich.  And if you're lucky, you'll                                        even get serenaded by the in-house brass band. 

Refueled, we continue the tour, stopping off next at Surfer's Bridge, at the top entrance to the garden. Strangely, I hadn't been here for over ten years, even though it's not even 10 minutes walk from the centre of Munich. Crowds of spectators stand admiring athletic looking Münchners as they queue to ride the 4-foot wave. It looks dead easy, but I guess none of the seasoned surfers dare try out their stunts there before practising elsewhere - without an audience. See amazing video. 

The four hours are over far too quickly, and after cycling along the Isar  ̶  passing some of the city's other five nudist zones on route  ̶  we turn back into the main thoroughfare, winding back at where we started. All told, the 31 € fee (21 € students) is excellent value. You really do see far more on this tour than you could ever hope to see by foot in a whole day, or say on just a one-hour open-top bus tour. And although the guides tell some jokes you perhaps might not wish to repeat to your parents this tour definitely offers something for all ages. The just-retired couple from Sydney certainly seemed to enjoy the joking around. And, given the leisurely pace we rode at, no one is expected to perform like Lance Armstrong either.

After handing back my bike I return to the nudist "zone", joining the crowds for a quick dip near the Eisbach or "ice brook". The fast-flowing water - usually bitter cold just like the name suggests - feels gloriously refreshing.

Strip off, cool off  ̶  just 10 minutes from the centre of Munich.


Mittwoch, 11. Mai 2016

Bavarian Blogger wonders who's reading and is he heading for Happy End or Dead End?

Hello? Ha-llo! Who are you, all you thousands of followers? 

The problem's not where to start, but how to end. Is there such a thing as a perfect ending?

I'm still trying to get my Book of all the Blogs - working title "Das Buch" - finished. So I started looking at how other writers finish their travel memoirs. Most seem to simply leave the reader in limbo. In How low can you go?, my favourite book on no-frills air travel, for example, Tom Chesshyre ends up saying "I suddenly have a moment of inspiration: 'Let's have a beer'. You call that an inspirational ending? Or take the brilliant Straying from the flock on travelling around New Zealand. This moving memoir, which had me on the edge of my sofa for 250 pages, "wraps up" with "I waved and went to the terminal". Did you? Wow.

Maybe I'm trying to go against the flow, but I don't want to leave the reader in the lurch like that. Of course if I'm ever going to finish the book I might have to. I'll just say something like "I ordered another Weißbier and waited for the sun to come out". Oops, just gave the grand climax away.

The other thing I can't quite get my head round is who actually reads my blog? According to the "ticker", since starting the blog in 2010 I've had 18132 visits. That's quite a lot of curious followers. Who are you all?

These last few weeks, however, have seen me grappling with slightly more pressing issues. Last week my car broke down on the autobahn. The friendly man from the ADAC car club talked about Totalschaden a word guaranteed to strike a mixture of fear and frustration into even the most tough-skinned German. It ranks close behind that other terrifying word Schienenersatzverkehr (replacement bus service). Until the vehicle is repaired or replaced my own resilience is being put to the test. Germans boast about their efficient public transport system. I'm now being forced to endure it myself as I travel from my home to workplace in Munich, making the 130-km round trip by bus, train and tram.

But back to the elusive ending dilemma. Maybe I'm just using it as a lame excuse for not finishing my manuscript and self publishing. I need something or someone behind me, jivvying me up. Or as the Germans say an "Arschtritt".

So am I heading for a Happy End or destined for a Dead End? I'll keep you posted as I carry on coasting around the Lower Bavarian countryside...

Samstag, 19. März 2016

Getting your face on TV is hot stuff in Germany . So why does it leave me ice cold?

One skill I teach in my Business English classes is how to write a letter of complaint. To introduce the subject  I ask students if there's anything they particularly like to complain about in Germany. Participants generally look at each other, nod their heads and answer in chorus "Everything!". At first I thought they were just joking, until I realised that making a complaint in Germany is no laughing matter.

You see, when it comes to complaining no one manages to get quite so fired up as the Germans. If something’s worth complaining about you can bet your last cent there's a nice long word for it in German. Take Schienenersatzverkehr – replacement bus service – for example. Unlike in England, however, where defect trains suddenly terminate in the middle of nowhere, at least German railways always keep you informed about "technical disruptions", and supply a convoy of buses to speed you on to your final destination. That's service for you. Yet German media is full of angry customers complaining about this, that and everything else under the black red gold flag.

One of the most popular complaint forums is a Bavarian state TV show called "Jetzt red i" - Steinbach or "Now it's my turn to talk". The idea is to give citizens from predominantly farming communities a chance to air their grief about local issues. The show champions itself as "fighting for your rights".

To distance itself from typical afternoon talk shows, which invariably degenerate into mud-slinging matches between divorcees, "Jetzt red i" yo-yos back and forward between burgers and a panel of politicians, linked by satellite - usually standing outside some flood-lit landmark, like the Bundestag or the Brandenburg Gate. The officious-looking politicians are supposed to offer up a sympathetic ear to the burgers' complaints and promise to deal with them.

I once watched this programme on satellite at home in England, so presumably you can see it everywhere from Munich to Mogadishu too. In one edition, which I'll never forget, an irate farmer protested about local male pigs being injected with drugs to stop them reproducing. Surely all men eating this meat risked losing their "manhood" too, didn't they? I forget if the politicians took him seriously at all but at least it made for entertaining viewing.

The show recently came to my neighbouring village, so I go along. I'm intrigued whether my fellow countrysiders feel so grieved about anything that they're willing to shout it from the rooftops on state TV. The venue, a hops hall, is actually so well attended I almost can't get in. Even though I arrive in good time every second chair is already draped with a coat or handbag – reserved à la German style. It feels a bit like the Invasion of the Beach Towels. You know, when you go on holiday and find all the deck chairs round the pool have been reserved by a certain nationality since the night before.

Finally, I manage to get the last remaining seat. It's at a bistro table, next to a policeman. Perched on our high stools, he tells me he's a community liaison officer, who visits schools and youth clubs. "Oh, how interesting", I say. Reminded of my own schooldays, when policemen would typically bring their sniffer dog into class and show us how they train them to catch criminals, I ask "Do you take your dog along with you?" "Actually no", he replies dryly, as if my brain software needs a major update, "we teach them how to surf the internet safely".

The programme is only 45 minutes long and over before it really gets going. Before I can attract the waitress girl's attention for another Apfelschorle the closing credits roll and celebrity presenter Tilmann Schöber is merrily wishing us "Servus mitanoind, Ois Guate!". He must be glad it's all over.

So what exactly was the purpose of the whole exercise? To be honest, I'm still trying to work it out. All I can say is that the citizens of Steinbach got little chance to have their say about the ways of the world. And if they did the "sympathetic" politicians in Brussels seemed more interested in verbally ridiculing each other than listening to farmers' problems in deepest Lower Bavaria.

I slip over to a fellow villager, one of six "lucky" locals chosen to ask the politicians a question. Actually I just want to pull his leg a bit because his question was "Why do you always let Brits have extra sausage?". He's referring of course to David Cameron's "Brexit" ultimatum to the EU. Thomas confesses that the "open forum" isn't as spontaneous as it might look. "We had a village committee meeting last week and chose six questions. Then we drew straws to see who asks them. We had to send our questions to the programme producers, who forwarded them to Brussels."

"Open" forum? Sounds rather locked up and censored to me. I suspect most locals in the audience just want to get their face on TV and wave to family and friends at home. And here's something I really feel fired up enough to complain about too: Even if I had wanted to respond to the outrageous complaint about Brits demanding extra sausages, there's absolutely no chance anyone was going to listen to me. Most likely I'd have been chucked out with "Hausverbot".

I don't bother checking the local newspaper's headlines the following day, but it's probably something like "Über Hundert Bürger finden den Weg zur Live TV Sendung" (Over 100 citizens turn up at live TV show). Yepp, that's how exciting it gets in this outpost of Lower Bavaria. Just imagine, however, the alternative headline: "Böse Briter kriegt Talk Show Hausverbot" (Bad Brit Banned from Talk Show). That really would have made a nice and spontaneous complaints forum.

Sonntag, 7. Februar 2016

Eight octaves too low and flunked flashmobber. Will I still make the A Capella band?

"This is Tim", says Nicole, presenting me to Vroni. "Oh good!", she smiles, "we are many many women!". We are indeed "many many women" ̶̶ around 50, of varied ages ̶̶ and just a handful of men. What strikes too is seeing so many people gathered for a mid-week social event. We're in a part of Bavaria where after-work social life seldom supersedes letting it all hang out once a year at Shrove Tuesday fancy dress parade.

Vroni directs The Wolperdinger Singers, ("Wolpis" for short), a local a-capella group. I saw their concert last weekend and enjoyed it so much that I'm attending practice night. Germans take their singing societies dead seriously. Munich alone boasts over 200 such choirs, including special line-ups for policemen, postmen, sailors and even a group by the name of "Bad Mothers".

Oh Happy Day!
 Born again - as a-capella wannabe..

"So are you soprano, alto, or tenor?" enquires Vroni. I have to think about this for a moment. My neighbours sometimes grumble about "Ruhestörung" (breach of peace) when I sing rather schrill in the back garden. "Ahm, I think I'm somewhere in the middle", I say hesitantly. Vroni puts me between tenors Claudia and Markus (above). She then presents me to the rest of the group, who give me a warm welcome round of applause. They haven't heard me sing yet, of course.

We kick off with some voice-tuning exercises. Vroni leads with "ooooh!", "aaaaah!" and "jaaa!", which we have to repeat, holding our voices fever-pitch high, as long as possible. I soon start to enjoy it, in a funny sort of way. It's all a bit like a tough workout in the gym. Sport à la a-capella. But the only things moving here are vocal chords. Next up we're into a medley of Udo Jürgens hits ̶̶ "Mit 66 Jahren" and "Aber bitte mit Sahne". Suddenly though I feel Markus prodding me gently in the ribs. "You're eight octaves too low", he whispers. To be honest, I'm actually relieved. I feared I might sound like the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

All of a sudden Vroni halts us in full flow. "Stopp!", she cries, "One of the tenors is singing the wrong tone”. Our choir mistress is not looking at anyone directly, but it’s quite clear who she’s referring to. I don’t dare look up or around, fearing I'll see everyone staring at me. That's how it must feel at school when you don’t want to answer the teacher’s question. You keep both eyes glued to the floor and pray the moment will pass.

Still, I'm soon back in the swing of things. In fact I'm enjoying it so much I'm swinging, quite literally. Suddenly, as we're singing a Scandinavian song with the chorus "Seidamadei doo doo dooo", it's Claudia's turn to prod me. "One 'doo' is longer!" she giggles. That immediately sets me off giggling too. Moments later Vroni calls us all to order, announcing we're finished for the night. I heave a huge sigh of relief. It's been fun but don't think I could have kept that up very much longer.

Afterwards there's fingerfood and drinks ̶̶ some of the members are celebrating birthdays. I’m just standing at a high table, chatting to my new colleagues, when suddenly all of them break into song. It must be a surprise performance for the birthday children. Not everybody’s singing, however. Only the very best singers. The rest are all seated watching. I'm caught up in a flashmob no one's bothered warning me about. A bit like Mr Bean in the scene where he’s in church singing with no hymn book, and can only join in for two words ̶̶ “Hallelujah, - lel-ujah!”. I don’t even manage two words. Totally out of my league, I gently slide sideways and then edge backwards until I’m out of sight. Then I make a run for it.

So then, one-night stand or something I can seriously sustain week after week? I’ve been browsing the Wolperdingers’ website; they perform concerts just about every month throughout Bavaria and beyond. Can I rise to that level of commitment? More to the point, will they want me back again after hitting all the wrong notes and flunking flashmob?

The girls' flashmob performance - minus me.

Driving home I ask Nicole when's the next meeting. "Shrove Tuesday in Abensberg", she says. "We're marching in the Faschingsparade and singing in every pub along the way". In full fancy dress of course. "Good. I'll come in my pirate's costume", I say, man-on-a-mission tone in my voice.
So, we're good to go. I'm joining over 40 million Germans on their annual let-it-all-hang-out-day.......

Flashforward to Fasching - Ready to rock with the "Wolpis"

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