Dienstag, 2. September 2014

Plug your earholes – this Englander's set to boom-bang-a-bang in Bavarian band


What’s the best way to get to know the locals when you move into a new area? In Britain it’s simple – just head for the local pub. But in Bavaria, to fully integrate, you must join what’s known as a “Verein”. The nicest thing about these associations – whether they involve playing skittles, skating on ice or fighting fires – you don’t actually have to do any of these activities. You simply need a strong bladder – but more on that later.

Here in the Hallertau it’s a straightforward choice: You either join a football club or sign up with a marching band. Every single town, often the teenyweeniest village, has its own “Blaskapelle” – or “blowing band”, if you want a literal translation. Frankly, neither option really fires me with enthusiasm. The only instrument I ever tried to learn to play – the humble recorder – was a disaster. I simply couldn’t blow and keep my fingers over the holes at the same time, and my poor music teacher was obviously at her wits end when she wrote on my school report “Tim is totally devoid of all motor skills”. So that just leaves football. Hmm…

Bavarians take their football clubs extremely seriously. When they talk of “Vereinsleben” – life as part of an association – they mean precisely that. Their whole life revolves around the club. When the village team plays, for example, housewives commonly spend all weekend cooking up a storm to serve their menfolk after the game. Sadly I’ve no time for football and my Hausfrau credentials would hardly pass muster, so it seems I’ve no choice but to try for the “Blasverein”.

For a second opinion on my musical talent – if you can call it that – I consult Stephan Ebn. Ex-drummer with pop diva Gianna Nannini, Stephan regularly tours with the band Middle of the Road, whose hits include  "Chirpy Chirpy Cheek Cheek”. They still play this earworm on Bayern Eins, and I catch myself humming it as I ring the bell of his studio in the pretty little town of Abensberg.

Foreigners often have this stereotype image of Bavarians dressed in lederhosen marching to brass band music, but Stephan quickly points out that Bavarians hardly play the best “Blasmusik” in the world. “That’s because of our beer consumption”, he tells me. “We join a “Verein” not to play music but to drink”.

I suspect Stephan already has a notion about my poor coordination skills when he suggests I try my hand first at drums: “Anyone who can’t play well in a band gets the drums”, he tells me. Standing astride a ginormous bass drum – 30 times the size of a regular pizza – Stephan demonstrates the basic marching beat, and then hands me the sticks. It’s easier than I expect and, feet pounding up and down to the Boom, Boom, Boom, I’ve soon got the hang of it. Next up, Stephan gets behind the full drum kit and shows me the “roll”, used to herald the start of a march. This is much harder, and Stephan patiently watches as I try, and retry, to multi-task on cymbals and drums, whilst pumping the foot pedal.

Boom-bang-a-bang...
  More Eurovision than Bavarian brass band, but good to go. 

The lesson's over far too quickly. Celebrating with a high five, Stephan encourages me to audition with our local brass band in time for next month’s Gallimarkt, the region’s greatest beer bonanza, second only to the Oktoberfest. There’s just one thing though, he says. All of a sudden I’m nervous. Will he criticise my deficient motor skills? But no, he’s pointing to my Bermuda shorts and smiling: “Don’t forget to wear Lederhosen, okay?”

Will the local Blaskapelle take me on? Watch this space…

Donnerstag, 10. Juli 2014

Wo-ho-ho and yodel-odel-eee. I've just become a Bavarian, fluttering my fingers to sounds of the seventies


Hands up if you want to build a human pyramid..


What’s the best-loved party song in Bavaria? Surprisingly, not the latest chart stormer. It's not a yodeller or an alpine horn blower either. It's actually a 1971 hit by Neil Diamond. Everyone – young and old – knows the refrain Wo-ho-ho, good times never seemed so good. And they know exactly what to do when it comes to Hands, touchin’ hands, reachin’ out, touchin’ you. That’s the signal to stretch out hands, flutter fingers in mid-air and form a human pyramid. Like members of some strange sect, willing the holy ghost to move amongst them.

I’m witnessing this weird ritual right now. It feels like a happy-clappy church event or  ̶̶   the mere thought scares me  ̶̶   a Neil Diamond fan club reunion. But actually, what’s happening here has nothing to do with that at all. It’s “Sommerfest” at my daughter’s kindergarten. Huddled up on beer benches in an enormous tent, we’re being jollied by a pop duo with the unpronounceable name of Leidlfestodreiba. “Where are you all, children?” asks the lead singer. Rows of hands rise  ̶̶  mostly grownups. Next moment everyone's clinking beer mugs together and breaking into the chorus of “Hey, hey-ey baby, if you’ll be my girl".

But it’s not only middle-agers who seem suckers for schmaltz. Local teenagers also crave songs their parents grew up with. It’s difficult to imagine Neil Diamond having the same effect on British adolescents. What is it about these tunes that makes so many Germans, regardless of age, slap their thighs and swing from side to side, as if under hypnosis? I ask Matthias if he likes this music. “Actually not” he says, “I’m more into rock”. Nonetheless, Matthias is dressed in lederhosen, and his wife and five-year old daughter are clad in very pretty dirndls. As if to excuse his folksy outfit, he adds “But this here is different. Local tradition. We have “Stimmung”, good feeling, you know".

Matthias describes “Stimmung” by sketching a rough graph. “Look”, he says, joining two axis with a 45-degree line, “The level of willingness to sing and dance rises parallel to the level of alcohol consumed. Oldies and German hits, known as “schlager” unite people of all different ages and music tastes", he explains. “You can have a group of different nationalities, all speaking different languages. And music is their universal language”. As if illustrating the global appeal of soppy songs when under the influence of alcohol, he cups his beer mug and starts swinging to the sound of “Country roads take me home”

This John Denver oldie  ̶̶  not even the BBC play it any more  ̶̶  is another typical crowd pleaser at beer festivals all over Bavaria. Hardly a day goes by without it being played on Bayern Eins, the state's most popular station, with a playlist so changeless you can predict what’s up next.  

There’s nothing very eclectic about the music playing here in the kindergarten tent, and yet we all seem to be tapping our toes to it. Some parents have even started swaying, doing little jigs, as they hover between bar, beer bench and child’s play area.

Yodel-odel-ee ­– back to roots with Reiser


To find out more about this phenomenon, I meet up with local singer songwriter Maria Reiser. Hailed as the inventor of “Yodelpop”, Maria describes her music as “Bavarian home loving” with catchy melodies and beats. We’re listening to her latest single “Glabbelwirt” and Maria is wearing a dirndl, of course. I tell her that any non-German dressing up in such clothes in England would be regarded as a bit odd. 

So why do young Bavarians get such a kick out of dressing up in traditional costume? Maria explains it’s all part of a back-to-roots trend, which begun when Germany staged the World Cup and – hitherto unheard of – started draping every available surface area with red, black and gold flags. “This patriotism, a sort of longing for local traditions, became a real movement from around 2010”, she explains. Privately, Maria enjoys Beyonce and Keith Urban. But she too admits singing along to Diamond and Denver.

Back to the kindergarten, and they’re playing “Sweet Caroline” once more. Before I can quietly disappear I’m being pulled into a pyramid of linked hands, and, wo-ho-ho, it’s actually quite fun. Matthias and Maria are right, the music, motions and traditional costumes – I’m one of the few people at the fest not wearing this attire ­– do create a sense of togetherness, the feeling of belonging to a local community.

Their music may be 40 years out of date, but young Bavarians are keeping local traditions alive and kicking, which must be good. I’ll sing along to that, even if it means fluttering my fingers and chanting Wo-ho-ho...


 Keeping traditions alive. Let's all drink to that.... 

Samstag, 10. Mai 2014

Where on earth's the Hallertau and what the heck's a Titty Twister?

Happy Hallertau - Beautiful beer served with a smile


Willkommen to the Hallertau. Spanning over 2400 sq. km it’s officially the largest hop-growing area in the world. Inofficially it's the land of Titty-Twisters, where they dance on beer benches with the Bürgermeister.

The Hallertauers are lovely people, but they do tend to contradict themselves a bit. They happily fork out the 20 € surcharge for "MAI" (short for Mainburg) on their car number plate, yet complain when Guiseppe at the local café jacks up ice cream prices by 10 cents every summer. They busily sign petitions calling for a local cinema, and like the MAI-Kino page on facebook. Same time they're premium subscribers to lovefilm.de. 

Language is a thorny issue too. Two Hallertauers living just a couple villages apart might speak totally different dialects. But they'd NEVER dream of conversing in High German. That's a foreign language. English is much easier. Locals struggle with names of foreign shops like "Woolworth“ (pronounced here as "Vollwort“), yet at carnival time they sail through the lyrics of "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?”  

Hallertauers can sit for hours on end, debating engine specifications and lifting capacity of their favourite tractor, the bulldog. But when the Bürgermeister starts dancing on beer benches at the "Gallimarkt" (the region's answer to the Oktoberfest), they drop everything and join in. Hallertauers love to boogy, even if they move more like robots. They go to "Titty-Twisters" - farmers' parties staged in massive tents, in places with delightful names like Niederpumpernickerl and Oberaffengeilbach. You'll not find these villages on Google Earth, but I’m told they're somewhere between Kleingundertshausen and the autobahn junction "Dreieck Holledau".

When I moved here ten years ago and initially commuted between Munich and the Hallertau, the journey between the Bavarian capital and Mainburg felt like it took forever. Not surprisingly, Münchners joke that the Hallertau is in the middle of nowhere. That doesn't bother Hallertauers at all - and me neither. Seen geographically, we're right in the middle of Bavaria. 

Dienstag, 15. April 2014

Heaven in Germany is a chemists with angels dressed in fitness garb


You're never more than a stone's throw from heaven in Germany 

just look out for the Apotheke sign.


Passing Marienplatz the other day I suddenly feel a throbbing pain in my right leg. The knee hadn’t felt right since a couple days, when I sprained it rushing for the train, which I could see pulling into the station from the other side of the carpark.  A typical situation in which you know what you’re doing won’t do you any good, yet the short-term alternative – missing your connection – overweighs all other potentially worse outcomes. Bursting out into an athletic sprint I'd managed to make the connection, slumping with relief – but not without a huff, puff and wheeze – onto a seat in the end carriage.
By Friday afternoon, however, I’m much the worse for wear from my Olympian performance. Doctors’ surgeries already deserted for the weekend, I decide to slip into the nearest chemists’ for some instant pain relief. German chemists are like nothing you’ll ever see in the rest of the world, where a chemists nowadays is usually a pop-up “prescriptions counter”, in the corner of a crowded supermarket. In Germany every single chemists is unique. My local store, for example, in the nation's largest hop-growing area, has entire shelves devoted to personal-hygiene products made from hops: deodorants, shampoos, face, toe and nail creams. Even the corn plasters smell of beer.

Walking in you immediately feel like you’ve arrived at heaven’s doorstep. Smiling assistants welcome you with a "Grüss Gott" (literally "God greet you"), all identically dressed in sporty t-shirts, often with flowing white gowns and matching clog-like footwear. Without sanitary gowns, however, they look more like training assistants in a fitness club, ready to help tighten your straps on the body building equipment. The best thing about going into a German chemists is that about five staff immediately appear from nowhere and offer you help and advice – all at once. A bit like that scene in Pretty Woman, where Vivian is being helped in and out of shoes and skirts by a dozen brown-nosing salespersons.

The customer-to-salesperson ratio is slightly lower in this particular chemists, perhaps because it’s right under the Altes Rathaus, home of Munich’s world-famous Glockenspiel, so it probably gets one or two tourists popping in too. Still, as I stand in queue, waiting to buy a bandage, I’m relieved to see plenty of sales tills open. Deutsche Bahn and Aldi should note this.
For a spring day it’s pretty warm – about 20 degrees –  and, wiping the sweat off my forehead, I spot an elderly lady über-laden with “Kaufhof” shopping bags looking as if she’s just about to faint. A saleswoman, quick off the mark, manages to break her fall, and with the other arm quickly grabs hold of a chair for her to recover in. Over in the corner sits another customer, a bald gentleman with a pretty sales assistant leaning over him. I may be mistaken, but from where I’m standing she appears to be massaging his thumb. Before I can do a double take though it's my turn to be served.

I ask for a bandage, explaining I need it on straight away. The salesgirl produces some scissors and waits patiently as I, still front of queue, clumsily cut off a piece and start winding it round my troubled knee. Seeing my difficulty doing this standing up she apologises for the lack of chairs, gesturing to the elderly lady sitting with shopping bags and the bald gentleman, who really does look like he's being thumb massaged. 

Chemists assistants look more like fitness instructors 


The elderly lady, I notice, is now fully conscious again and murmuring between pouted lips, addressing no one in particular – as people of a certain age tend to do – about not being able to find a single store in the Bavarian capital where you can sit down and rest. I’m about to suggest that central Munich, with its highest density of cafes and bars in the world, surely has enough seating to fill the Allianz Arena a million times over, when I suddenly find myself agreeing – nodding like a Chihuahua dog bobbling from a car mirror. What’s the point of cosy sofas in a Starbucks at every corner, when you’re in the middle of the weekly food run, stuck between freezer cupboards and toiletries aisle, and suddenly go weak at the knees? Whoever invented the expression “shop till you drop” certainly hadn't reckoned with the disastrous effects of collapsing in a German supermarket.   
Semi squatting on the floor, one leg tucked behind the other like a dying crab, I struggle to bandage my leg up as best I can in the circumstances, wishing there wasn't a crowd of onlookers queuing right behind me. My gaze drifts from the sales assistant, who’s grinning as if to say “We don’t get this sort of thing happening every day”, to the woman recovering on her chair, still holding forth about the lack of seating in Munich stores.

Thanking the kind chemist, I get back up on my legs again, hobble out onto Marienplatz – and search for somewhere to sit.

Mittwoch, 19. Februar 2014

The Divider Dilemma - how come there's not even a name for these things?


You know the divider thing you put between shopping at the checkout?

I never realised these things could create such conundrums til I came to live in Germany. 
I mean, why does the person in front never put the divider up between their shopping and yours? And if you put the divider thing up first do they ever thank you? Me neither.

Whenever someone puts it behind my purchases I don't know whether to thank them for taking the initiative, feel embarassed I didn't place it first, or just pretend I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer and didn’t see it.

Not enough that there are no rules for who places "the divider thing" in a land where everything else is so clearly fenced out and rulegoverned. I don't think there's even a word for it.


Is there really no German word for "the divider thing"?
 

Freitag, 7. Februar 2014

It's a long day's work in Germany - counting down to "Feierabend"

Bridging the gap between lunchtime and Feierabend....

Did you know that the most used expression at work in Germany has absolutely nothing to do with work? It’s “Schönen Feierabend!”

Germans say the equivalent of “Have a nice evening!” even more than “Da warte ich noch auf Feedback” -  a euphemism for "I gave the job to some poor jerk lower down the ladder and he hasn’t done it yet."

Other top-rated phrases, according to a report just out in  The Local  -  Germany's News in English  include “"Na?” (alright?), "Auf geht's zur Telko!" (time for conference call!) and “Ich bin ein Teamplayer".

Interestingly, the opposite of "team player" is “Einzelkämpfer” – an uncool label for someone who prefers to fight battles alone. I always grind my teeth when I read German "Psychotests" with titles like "Bist Du Teamplayer oder Einzelkämpfer?" (= are you a hero  or zero?). That speaks volumes about cultural differences between Germany and Britain or the USA, where individualists are seen as leaders, and teamplayers as sheep, simply willing to follow the flow.

Germans have of course good reason to love their "Feierabend". When British office workers are only just coming back from their lunch breaks Germans are already clocking off and heading home for Kaffee und Kuchen. "Feierabend" on Fridays, however, takes it to a totally different level, with work virtually coming to a halt just before lunchtime, as the "Gang", or step, to the canteen also signals the last "workstep" of the week.

Still, when Brits wish each other a nice evening at least they’re a lot closer to it. 5 o’clock is normal leaving time in Britain. Fridays included.

Freitag, 6. Dezember 2013

More Hahaha than Hohoho - some things never change in Germany



Dinner for One  -  typical German humour
 
No matter how long you live in a foreign country there are always things about that land which you remain blissfully oblivious of. And some things that you'll find out only through kids. When I first came to Germany I thought the only difference between German and British Christmas is that while German Kinder start getting gifts as early as 6 November, St Nikolaus Day, poor British kids have to wait till Christmas morning. Until I discovered something even weirder: whole families crowding around the TV to watch Dinner for One every single New Year's Eve.

While Brits enjoy world TV premieres like "Skyfall" it seems strange that Germans get offered nothing better than an old black-and-white comedy – in English – which no one outside Germany has ever heard of. "Same procedure every year" is as well known in Germany as "Vorsprung durch Technik" in Britain.

Ironically we import lots of German Christmas culture – trees, carols, advent calendars, stollen cake and Glühwein. And of course Weihnachtsmärkte which are now so à la mode in Britain. What a surprise then to discover that although Father Christmas has plenty helpers he has a special sidekick in Germany who I had never heard of. Until today, Nikolaustag, when he suddenly banged on my front door, just as it was getting dark.

It’s Krampus
, of course. A beast-like creature guaranteed to scare the living daylights out of every child. Half Gruffalo, half Godzilla, the legendary Krampus isn’t a visitor you’d typically welcome with open arms. Dating back over 1000 years, his sole role is to make Santa bypass naughty kids, and drag them off to the underworld.

Just as surprising though is the German Father Christmas. Always at Krampus’ side, Nikolaus is the absolute antithesis of the pot-bellied, larger-than-life Anglo-American Santa. Tall and thin, with only a hint of a beard, and a crooked wooden stick, Nikolaus looks more like the village priest. And since we booked him through the local church I think that's who we might have got.

Matilda remained cool throughout –even when grumpy Krampus gave her a dark look, as if to say “Have you REALLY been good?” Maybe she guessed the game and was just playing along, knowing full well she was going to get the gift at the top of her wish list –binoculars
.