Sonntag, 20. Januar 2019

Brit in Lederhosen - Sneak Peek

Have you heard about the digital consultant who's taking three months off work to drive around Europe in a VW transporter? The plan is to spell out the words “Stop Brexit.” Or the Welsh man who stands sentry every day outside the Houses of Parliament, Union Jack draped round his neck,  shouting very much the same thing? Well now a group of leading German MPs have also said as much in a very touching letter to The Times.

All as if we could somehow avert Brexit. 

If only....

Anyway, this past year I've been working on a similar 'loveshell' to our perhaps closest European neighbours - a book about my own affection for the Germans, and especially Bavarians. You'll be able to read about a range of amusing experiences likely to befall Germany-bound migrants. Such as bearing the brunt of a beer-fuelled human pyramid, sniffing snuff with hop-plucking grannies and being the (possibly) first ever Brit to drop a clanger in a Bavarian brass band. You might well recognise these stories if you've been following my blog 'Being British in Bavaria.' 

And the book's working title? 'Brit in lederhosen.' Or perhaps better 'Br(ex)it in lederhosen...'

Hilfe, I want to be Bavarian!
Follow Tim’s bid to become Bavarian and you’ll learn why complaining is national sport for Germans, why they’re most content when obediently sorting their recyclables and – despite following rules to a tea – they’re first to flout them when it comes to fêting ‘fifth season’.

 Union Jack in one hand, litre beer mug in other,

Tim Howe asks ‘Can you really transform a Brit into a Bavarian?

Samstag, 15. Dezember 2018

Cheerio Miss Sophie – same old sketch is must-see for Germans every Christmas

Year-end slapstick tickles the Germans' fancy like nothing else.  

Expats and migrants are often adept at picking up the local lingo and many have no great difficulty adapting to new climes and cultures. Yet when it comes to customs and conventions, the nitty gritty of daily life, they can still come a cropper. I arrived in Germany able to speak the language fluently. But it took ages to realise that a tersely uttered 'danke' really means 'nein danke'. And that a long-drawn out 'neeein' actually translates as 'ja'.

It also took me ages to suss all the details of German Christmas customs. I'd always thought of German Weihnacht and Christmas in Britain as being almost identical: Christmas trees, Winter Wonderland markets, glass baubles, tinsel, hot spiced wine, stollen and spicy gingerbread.

But here's a surprise. And it's something you'll find nowhere else in the world: whole families crowding around the TV on New Year's Eve to watch 'Dinner for One'.

While Brits flop onto their sofas every Christmas and binge-watch world TV premieres such as Mission Impossible Six it seems bizarre that Germans have to make do with an old black-and-white comedy – in English no less – which virtually no one else has ever heard of. And yet 'Dinner for One' is massive in Germany. This 18-minute skit about an English baroness’ 90th birthday celebration has run here every Silvester for the past 45 years. It’s broadcasted on almost every single channel. Think of the comedy’s popularity as such: just as every Brit can hum Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in their sleep, so too can almost every single Bundsebürger recite off by heart the opening lines to 'Dinner for One':

Miss Sophie: ‘Well, James, it's been a wonderful party!’

James: ‘Yes, it’s been most enjoyable.’

Miss Sophie: ‘I think I'll retire.’

James: ‘You're going to bed?

Miss Sophie: ‘Yes.‘

James: ‘Sit down, I'll give you a hand up, Madam. ‘

Miss Sophie: ‘As I was saying, I’m going to retire.’

James: ‘Ya, ya. By the way, the same procedure as every year, Miss Sophie?’

Miss Sophie: ‘The same procedure as every year, James.’

Just what is it about 'Dinner for One' that prompts millions upon millions of Germans to slap their thighs and howl with laughter every Christmas? Academic researchers point emphatically to the typical management structure of the country’s 3.7 million small and medium-sized enterprises. They claim that the ‘same procedure’ punchline reflects the nation’s desire for continuity and stability. Others, less academically and more hands-on, argue that the secret of the sketch’s success lies in Miss Sophie’s come-hither response to her loyal butler’s apparently innocent enquiry: ‘Same procedure as every year, James.’

This sexual innuendo delights Germans of all ages. The catchphrase has long entered their everyday vocabulary. It’s often used in newspaper headlines and advertisements too. It’s as well known in Germany as Vorsprung durch Technik in Britain.

So much for Miss Sophie & Co. But what still puzzles me after 20 years in Germany is this whole Father Christmas business. Children here are gifted by either baby Jesus, known as Christkindl, or Nikolaus. I typically mix these characters up, mistaking them for one and the same.

First I ever heard about Nikolaus was when I worked in an office in Bonn and we all turned up on 6 December to find a chocolate Nikolaus propped up against our coffee mugs. German bosses follow this custom every Advent, supposedly in honour of Bishop Nikolaus of Myra, famed for helping the needy around 325 AD. After his death, word of the gift-giving legacy spread, slowly transforming man and image into the modern-day, red-dressed chocaholic. The Christkindl, on the other hand, originates from Luther’s time. Ironically, it was Protestants’ attempt to de-bunk this whole Catholic celebration of Saint Nicholas on 6 December. 

How delightful that Germans still cling on to both figures, one historic, the other religious, rather than some beardy boozer from Coca Cola. But, as we're just about to discover, Christkindl and Nikolaus have a sidekick too. And I bet no one outside Germany has ever heard of him either.

Only a week into Advent and we get a terrible fright. Darkness is falling when a sudden thud at the front door makes us almost jump out of our skins. Peering out through the window we spot the shape of a ginormous figure plodding up our garden path.

This devil-like horned creature is actually Krampus. Half Gruffalo, half Godzilla monster, he's probably the last creature you’d wish to open your door to on a cold dark night. Let alone invite in and offer a piece of Plätzchen and glass of Glühwein. And yet that’s exactly what we end up doing, once we’ve established his real identity.

Local heros - scary Krampus (left) with Nikolaus

Dating back over 1000 years, Krampus’ sole role is to flag up naughty kids to Santa, before dragging them off to the underworld. That's what parents tell their kids, at least. Unofficially, he’s just an uncouth guardian angel, scary enough to put the wind up you. Like some Simon-Cowell-type ‘X-Factor’ judge. German readers - just think big mouths from Modern Talking.

Fortunately he’s not alone. Alongside stands Nikolaus, the absolute antithesis of the pot-bellied, larger-than-life All-American Santa. Tall and lanky, the Nikolaus outside our house looks more like the village priest. And since we booked him through the local church he probably is too. There’s just one small problem. Only children who polish their boots the night before will find them filled with goodies. Another key Christmas tradition I’d missed. Sadly, our child’s boots haven’t been cleaned since around Hallow’een.

You HAVE been gut, haven't you?

We come face to face again with Krampus and Nikolaus the very next day. It’s the duo’s annual appearance at the village Christkindlmarkt and I’ve just committed the classic yuletide blooper in the company of Bavarians – I’ve foolishly referred to Nikolaus as the Weihnachtsmann. Something only a Prussian would dare do. Well, it is all a bit chaotic and I’m trying to take a picture of Tildy shaking the old man's hand while an army of kids keep prodding me impatiently from behind. I can hear some of them quietly tut-tutting and one little boy politely corrects me:

‘Des is doch da Nikolaus!’


It’s almost like Krampus is punishing me when he hands over his birch stick, the one with which he beats naughty children. ‘Hoid moi guad fest,’ he says, motioning me to hold tight while the old man patiently plods through the meet-and-greet routine with his little guests. Some are not quite so little, actually. One girl must be pushing at least thirteen or fourteen. She’s reaching over to shake Nikolaus’ hand. It’s something of a one-sided conversation with all the usual have-you-been-good, have-you-listened-to-teacher type questions:

‘Bassd Du oiwei im Unterricht auf?’    


''Ho ho. Und machst Du oiwei des wos da Leahr sogt?’

Visibly embarrassed, the pubescent visitor is just nodding and giggling. Maybe she does still believe in the bearded benefactor, this is backwater Bavaria after all. Yet her eyes are clearly on the prize. She’s spotted the free bag of sweets which Krampus is preparing to hand her.

After Tildy’s encountered Krampus and Nikolaus a second time in as many days, reassured them she has been good this year, and collected her goodies bag, I slip off for a mulled wine. Snow’s falling and it’s icy cold. I notice some drinkers huddled under a patio heater. I’m quite surprised to see one of these contraptions in remote rural Lower Bavaria. Even Parisians have banned outdoor heaters because of their damaging effect on the environment. Still, this absurd appliance provides much appreciated warmth. Hugging my mulled wine like my last lifeline, I enjoy just standing there listening to snippets of conversation all around.

Although a little rough around the edges, there’s something mellifluous and singsong-ish about Bavarian dialect. One of my neighbours at the high table has just said

Mei Buidog schofft's den Hügl ned mehr houch.

My tractor can no longer make it up the hill.

Aha. Uttered in English, this might be aluding to the speaker's sagging libido. Spoken in Bavarian though, it simply sounds sweet. The three other mulled-wine sippers around the table show sympathy for the farmer’s plight, offering practical tips and advice on how he might soup up his vehicle:

‘Probier doch oafach moi de Kolbn und Dichtungsringe auszutauschn.’

Try replacing the pistons and gaskets. 

That's the Christmas spirit - Tildy & Co. singing in the snow

This is deutsche Weihnacht at its best – heavenly sweet aromas wafting from mulled wine urns, the local school choir singing ‘O Tannenbaum’, and the haunting blow of hunting horns. There’s something almost spiritual about this fairy-lit Christkindlmarkt. 

Most Bavarian Christmas markets run up til 23 or 24 December so still one or two more days to stock up on traditional handicrafts, gingerbread goodies like Lebkuchen, and enjoy one or two Glühwein under the enviromentally-destructive patio heater. 

And Dinner for One? 

31 December on (almost) every German TV channel. And here right now.  Enjoy!

Cult Cult comedy Dinner for One to get UK premiere after 50 years

Montag, 27. August 2018

Three cheers for no-nonsense American attitude to hellos and goodbyes

We'd been sipping coffee outside the Fresco branch of Whole Foods, chatting to my colleague Rod, recently removed from Munich back to the States, when he suddenly glanced at his watch and indicated it was time to leave. Then, instead of shaking hands, he simply got up and waved. At first I thought his friendly gesture was directed at someone across the 'parking lot'. But no, as he proceeded to head off, it was evidently intended for us. Over the following weeks as we sped down the Pacific Highway I noticed everyone else doing it. Regardless of how near or far the distance between them.

The New Yorker 20.08.18
Very soon I started following the American example, greeting people with a wave too. Admittedly, it felt a bit odd at first. Waving is surely just for royals and A-listers, isn't it? Or, for mere plebs, upon seeing someone you recognise across the street or winding down the car window for one final farewell, right? Well, not in SoCal, apparently. Americans even have a name for this gesture  the 'parade wave'. 

Let's reflect for a moment on the European way of greeting. With all the different ways of saying hello and goodbye we're easily confused. Should one kiss, hug, high five or hand-pump? Germans have a habit of knocking on the table whenever they get up and go. Or – and this puzzled me at first – they scrunch up their nose and blink both eyes at you. After 20 years in this country I still can't get used to either farewell gesture. Instead I often end up doing that very British thing of patting friends on the back or the arm. Cringe!

Whichever touch-feely approach we Europeans adopt, our greetings and farewells can be awkward at best and clumsy at worst. Particularly when we accidentally end up bumping noses, or knocking the other one's glasses off. Cringe again! 

Many fellow Europeans dismiss the U.S.A. these days as having losing the plot, but most Americans we chatted to were extremely sympathetic and apologetic about the current state of affairs. Many sounded confident about the mid-term elections. We left the country feeling generally optimistic. As for no-nonsense greetings, meanwhile, three cheers for the good ole 'merican way.
Prost America!

Samstag, 30. Juni 2018

Wochenende. Hit the autobahn, head for the hills.


‘So why have we stopped doing things at the weekend?’

Bea’s question one Saturday morning, just as I’m quietly munching my way through another slice of home-made organic bread laced with our very own mirabelle plum jam, catches me by surprise. And yet she speaks no differently than if she were casually asking me to pass the butter.

Truth told, we’d not done very much at the weekend for some while. We’d slipped into an easy-come, easy-go routine of ferrying our offspring around to play dates and reciprocating friends’ hospitality here at home. All that in between trips to the local swimming pool and short walks through the woods just above our house. Or simply hanging around home and garden doing general chores. In short, our leisure life had become predictably routine and repetitive. I hesitate to use the word 'uneventful' because we lead pretty busy lives. Still, if we were to break the mould we needed to get going and give ourselves a push.

Funnily enough we both had exactly the same idea. Within moments I’d pulled a map off the shelf and had it spread out on the floor. Bea, bent over her i-pad, was keying in words like ‘Alpine Hikes Bavaria’. To watch us so ardently immersed in this activity you might be forgiven for thinking we were planning to fly off to some far-flung corner of the world. We don’t speak for almost quarter of an hour until Bea suddenly looks up from her i-pad and announces ‘That’s it. Next weekend we’re going to the Alps.’ She then says the name of a place I’d never heard of and moves off to make a cup of coffee.

We live a mere ninety-minute drive away from the Alps – the foothills, or Voralpen – at least, but I can count the number of times we visit them each year on just one or two fingers. By living on the northern side of Munich we’ve long kidded ourselves that the mountains are too far away for just a day trip. In reality, having reached Munich in less than an hour we’re already half way up the hills. Well, almost. The Alps are actually so close to Munich that they creep up on you, springing into view long before you join the Salzburg autobahn that tenaciously snakes round the Bavarian capital. Several years ago Bea and I flew over Munich in a four-seater Cessna 150. One moment we were passing over the Marienkirche, Munich’s landmark church. I bent down to adjust my seat belt and when I looked up again we were already cruising over the snow-sprinkled Alps.

Hurtling down the autobahn with Munich straight ahead of us, these snow-capped mountains suddenly leap into view again. Towering majestically on the horizon, the jaw-dropping alpine scenery reminds me how lucky we are to have first-class hiking and ski regions almost at our doorstep. All of a sudden, taking a 240-km round day trip to the Alps feels just like a short hop, or Katznsprung as Bavarians say.


The walk we’ve chosen starts and ends at Fischbachau, a pre-alpine village crammed with picture-perfect houses decorated with so-called ‘Lüftlmalerei’. These colourful frescos depicting traditional local fairy tales or religious scenes are found on countless homes in Upper Bavaria. One such brightly painted building particularly catches our attention. Splashed over its facade is a life-sized painting of a harp player. But it’s no normal harp player. This one’s an angel and it’s straddling a Harley Davidson. We’re just gawping at this slightly unusual fresco when the owner suddenly appears through the side gate. My instinctive reaction is to apologise and quietly move on. But before I can do so the man is beckoning us over:

‘Wo kimmd ihr ha, wo gäd ihr hi?’

Where are you from, where are you going to he wants to know. We say we’re doing the Leitzachtaler Bergblick– a 14-km round trip along the River Leitzach, over meadows and through woods. And it’ll take us right back to where we parked our car, just opposite the eleventh-century Friedenskirche Maria Schutz, the oldest church in the valley. What’s unusual about our conversation though is how talkative this man is. Bavarians are usually quite reserved. But this one is quite different. Talking nineteen to the dozen, he’s already telling Tildy and her friend Simona jokes. ‘Why do Red Indians do this?’ he quizzes them, holding both hands flat above his eyes, as if scanning the horizon. The girls look baffled. ‘Because if they did this,’ he reveals, hands cupped over his eyes, ‘they wouldn’t see anything!’’


The thermometer is nudging 20 degrees – just the right temperature for a decent mid-summer walk. Any cooler up in the mountains and we’d need jackets; any warmer and we’d probably be sweating. Yet dipping our toes into the River Leitzach we get a shock. The water’s ice cold. No great surprise really – its source lies 200 metres high in the Alps. We stop for sandwiches and coffee at a splish-splashy waterfall, the crystal-clear water shimmering in the morning sunshine as it tumbles over the rocks. ‘Papa schwimm!’ the girls chant in unison, daring me to strip off and plunge into the glacial water. A hardened swimmer, I'm usually the last one to say nein danke to a nice fresh dip. But there’s no way I’m leaping into this water. It must be a good 12 degrees cool.


Crossing a bridge which leads us away from the river, we enter a small village. Every single half-timbered cottage with its identical-looking flower-box-filled balconies looks like something straight off a Milka chocolate box. One of these gingerbread-like houses has a sign on the garden gate warning ‘Vorsicht, bissiger Hund!’. The vicious dog is either having a midday nap or, more likely, it doesn’t exist. Germans often put up such signs just to scare off curious passersby.

'Free-roaming dog. If dog comes, lie on the ground and wait for help. If no help comes, good luck.' 
Just past the village we spot a cherry tree leaning over the pathway. Its aching branches are so heavily laden they’re literally touching the ground, almost to breaking point. The fruit is squelchy, juicy, overripe, and absolutely divine. Hanging from branches directly over the public footpath, it's crying out to be picked. We hastily fill our sandwich boxes, cramming in as much as we can..

Continuing the hike with slightly stained hands, we’re just passing a small Gastwirtschaft when we notice, a little higher up the hill, a group of farmhands loading piles of wood onto a gigantic bonfire. It’s the second or third such fire we’ve seen today. On the café terrace, meanwhile, half a dozen young waitresses prettily clad in dirndl are fluttering around busily decorating tables and clambering up stepladders to hoist up bunting and fairy lights.


Before Bea can restrain me, I’ve bounced up to one of the pigtail-braided waitresses. Standing there with peekaboo shoulder tops and revealing cleavage, she probably embodies every foreign male's idea of the quintessential Fräulein. It’s the chunky-heeled doll shoes that do it for me.

‘Tschuldigung, ist heut was los?’

I realise immediately what a silly question I’ve asked. It’s 21 June and of course something’s happening. It’s the longest day of the year and they’re preparing to celebrate summer solstice. This is the alpine practice of Sonnwendefeuer, lighting bonfires on mountaintops to ward away evil spirits. Traditionally a pre-christian custom, the Catholic Church ‘hijacked’ the heathen practice by turning it into a celebration of John the Baptist’s birthday which falls ust three days later. Ever since the fires have been known as ‘Johannisfeuer’. In recent years dare-devil youngsters have started jumping over the glowing embers in the belief that this purifies their souls and protects them from illness. Apparently the more people who leap over the red-hot cinders, the more purgative the whole process. Couples crossing over the fire hand in hand are said to signal that a wedding is on the way.


A little further on we suddenly spot, dotted around a meadow just above the path, a group of wooden sun loungers. Each curvy chair is wide enough to seat two to three persons. It’s the sort of furniture that wouldn’t be amiss in the relaxation room of an exclusive wellness centre. It’s a common sight in Bavaria – expensive furnishings dumped in the middle of nowhere, freely available to anybody who happens to pass by and fancies a rest. ‘If only we had one of these at home in the garden,’ sighs Bea, flopping onto such a model.

Oh, if only. Actually these loungers are so cosy it’s very tempting simply to stay put and just cancel the rest of the walk. But then reality kicks in. We’ve still got another half dozen kilometres to go.

These final six kilometres easily feel twice as long. Soon the kids are showing signs of fatigue. Fending off relentless pleas to carry Matilda piggyback, we suddenly pass a small chapel. A snow-haired man has just locked up the building and is pocketing the keys. ‘Grüßi Gott,’ I say, in typical Bavarian greeting style. I ask him for directions to the nearest Wirtshaus and, pointing to the tired kids, enquire how much further to Fischbachau. ‘Ooch, gar net so weit’ – not far at all – he says, gesturing across the fields towards a group of buildings clustered around an onion-shaped church spire. He also recommends a local hostelry which does great food. But before I can thank him in local dialect (vagelt's God!’) he’s jumped into a car and pulled up alongside us. ‘I’ll drop them off at the car park,’ he offers, beckoning the kids to climb in as he revs up the engine. Simona’s mother manages to hop in too. But only just. Before she can close the passenger door the vehicle’s already speeding off down the lane.

'Uuuh, have we just done the right thing?’ questions Bea, as we continue the walk on our own. Quivers of doubt suddenly cross my mind too. Standing sentinel by the chapel gate just a moment ago, the man had looked so trustworthy. ‘Oh, they’ll be there at the carpark, you’ll see,’ I say, seeking to reassure her. Sure enough, arriving back where we’d started out five hours earlier, Magdalena and the girls are waiting for us safe and sound.

Well almost.

Having tenaciously trecked almost a dozen kilometres of undulating pre-mountain track, Simona is suddenly hobbling around on one leg. Larking around on a bench in the carpark, she’d managed to fall off and sprain her ankle.

Still, in between Bea and I had been lucky to enjoy probably the most stunning scenery of the whole hike, traversing plateau-like terrain with wide-sweeping panoramic vistas of the Mangelfall mountain range, the eastern part of the Bavarian Alps. Looming up straight ahead of us we marvelled at the Wendelstein – at 1838 metres the highest local peak. We’d been up there once by cable car. The mountain top boasts a cosy restaurant, meteorological station, ginormous solar energy system and stunning views far into the Austrian province of Tirol.

When we roll up at the Café Krugalm, the inn we’d been recommended just a little further up the hill, the waitress apologises profusely that the kitchen already closed at 2 p.m. They’re no longer serving full meals, only snacks. We’re expecting just sandwiches and soup at the very most, but it turns out that Germans’ idea of just a snack is actually a full-blown hot meal. Very soon we’re tucking into wagon-wheel sized pizzas, piles of crunchy side salads and mouth-watering Kaspress Knödel oozing with Pinzgau Beer Cheese. But it’s the cakes that really steal the show at this mountainside eatery. A notice pinned up outside the kitchen reads ‘Cakes don’t make you fat, they simply straighten out the creases.’ Inside, a massive table stretches from one end of the kitchen to the other. It’s crammed with cakes, which we’re told are baked fresh daily. Spoilt for choice, I’m torn between the Gedeckter Apfel-Mandel and Versunkener Kirsch mit Joghurt. Both look irresistable. Unable to make my mind, I plump for rhubarb-and-joghurt cake.

With a big blob of Sahne, whipped cream, of course.

Mountain food has seldom tasted so succulent and the hike has wet our appetite for further forays into the Alps.

A guate!


Freitag, 23. Februar 2018

Slap-smack, whirls and twirls – Bavarian Dancing has me hooked.

The question on the poster taped up on a swing door at college instantly catches my eye:

Who fancies trying out Bavarian Dancing?

The words leap out at me, almost as if sounding a clarion call. Hadn’t I always longed to dance like a typical Bavarian? Germans have a saying that goes ‘Nichts hält jünger, als ein alter Tanz’ – nothing keeps you younger than an old dance. Maybe that’s exactly what I need too an injection of youngfulness. I sign up immediately.

Bavarian dancing, I’m surprised to discover, is not really Bavarian at all. It originated as an old Austrian peasant dance. It wasn’t long, however, until the nobility got in on the act too, popularizing it across the ballrooms of 19th-century Vienna. For the first time in history, dancing couples came really close and embraced each other. No wonder the waltz was considered by some as nothing short of scandalous. As for the “Bavarian” polka, that’s actually a Bohemian peasant dance which became fashionable around the same time.

But there’s something else I discover while googling, that rather shocks the puritan Brit inside me. While I'd been warned that Bavarian dancing is all about slapping both yourself and your partner on the hands and thighs, I took comfort from the belief that this is as far as it goes. Alarm bells ring, however, when a brief search on YouTube reveals a clip in which the male dancer lays his partner on the ground and proceeds to slap her backside. I surf a bit further, just to check I haven’t hit upon some unconventional, risqué Tanzverein that’s taking the whole idea of slapping your partner one naughty step too far. To my horror, I discover scores of similar clips shot at reputable traditional dance events all around Bavaria. Kids, youths, parents, aunties and uncles, even opas and omas – whatever the attraction of Arschklatschen, everybody seems to be doing it.

But Boarischa tanznochd sounds like it could be good fun. As for the bum-smacking add-on, well maybe if I look sheepish enough they'll let me off that bit. 

Bavarian Dance Night finally rolls around. Bang on 7 pm I arrive at the venue – one of the very classrooms I’ve been teaching in earlier today, in fact. Clad in lederhosen – what else, this is a Bavarian evening after all – I suddenly become uncomfortably aware that my outfit feels a bit big. Did I purchase a size too large or have I shrunk since the Oktoberfest? My Grösse “M” was obviously made more with the physique of the classic Bavarian Bursche in mind – sturdy yet stumpy. I’m probably not getting enough Heislmannskost, as the Bavarians call it – good solid meals such as pork knuckles and Knödel dumplings. Rather than cling to me, the whole outfit seems to droop off my backside. Just like those jeans adolescents wear, where the bum piece sags significantly below the waist. 

Glancing around, something else strikes me. I can’t see anyone else dressed in full Tracht, the traditional Bavarian costume. Merely one other male is wearing lederhosen, and that’s ‘matched’, for want of a better word, with a flashy Bondi Bitch t-shirt. Charming. Glancing around, I see that females outnumber men approximately one to five. It’s what the Bavarians call Damaübaschuß. ‘Surplus women’ sounds degrading. It makes ladies sound like a commodity. But it’s good news for us men, of course. Looking around I can see plenty of choice. Yet this is overshadowed by something that I personally find rather disappointing. Not one single female has donned a dirndl. It’s like going to a pyjama party in jeans and jacket. Ah well, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. Oktoberfest was ages ago, wasn’t it? 

About two dozen of us, a healthy mixture of students and teachers, are about to be serenaded by a five-strong live band, Schreinergeiger, who have set up shop right in front of the blackboard. Our trainer for the evening is Magnus. It’s funny how images we tend to have of the typical male dance teacher are so often hackneyed. Before tonight I would have probably pictured him prancing rather than dancing. Dressed in tights or Abba-style jumpsuit, bracelets and bangles dangling from the wrists, a silver pendant swinging nonchalantly around the neck maybe. I figured he’d be saying things like ‘Yo, just look at you darling!’.

But Magnus isn't camp at all. Actually, he's as straight as a toothpick. He not only talks straightly, he dresses drop-dead stylishly too. Cotton cardigan casually swung over tight polo shirt and slim-fit jeans to boot. Oh, and no jewellery. Not even a stud through the nose. This is the man, no less, who grooms Munich’s youth for the legendary Kocherlball, or “Cooks’ Ball”.That’s the early morning dance-fest that takes place every June underneath the Chinese Tower in the Englischer Garten. It's already down in my diary. 

After the briefest of introductions (‘i bin da Mognus’) and minimum small talk (‘guad gell, laßt uns dann scho moi loslegn’) – this is Germany, remember – it’s straight down to business. Magnus informs us that in Bavarian dancing it’s always customary for the woman to request the man to dance. And indeed to take the lead in every ensuing step. Personally I have no problem in that department, I’m more than willing to be led. My problem, it soon turns out, is I can’t find a partner who’s willing. Everyone automatically pairs up with the person they arrived with and I’m left standing all on my own. For a moment it feels like a cruel throwback to Year 9 all-boys school, when the sports teacher made us pair up to do exercises around the gym hall. I always dreaded this because I was invariably the one left without a partner. Several decades later, I almost dread being left out again. But, mercifully, Magnus comes to my rescue.

Hey, schau moi da, he calls.

Magnus is gesturing to an attractive-looking girl in a zebra-striped singlet and snug-fit leggings. Standing over in the corner, she’s also alone. Heaving an enormous sigh of relief, I take her hand and we gracefully slide in among the other couples to form one long polonaise, snaking around the room. I never pictured myself parading around my own classroom quite like this. It feels like we’re warming up for a child’s birthday party. That any minute a grown-up will call out ‘Food’s on the table!’ and we’ll all race into the dining room and murder the cake. All that’s missing here are party horns, paper hats and someone quietly throwing up in the corner.

Polonäse or kids' party game? Either way it feels funny parading around my own classroom.

All of a sudden, Magnus is calling us to stretch our arms out and link together to form an archway. Standing right at the end of the arch, my partner and I are first to go under. Holding hands, we merrily canter through. Wait a moment. Had I just said 'Yes I do'? And signed something too? Maybe I'm taking this whole thing a bit too seriously, but it almost feels like I'm in the wrong movie when we emerge at the other end and no one showers us with confetti.

With everyone finally through the ‘wedding tunnel’, Magnus starts on the next routine: Quintessential Bavarian-type hand-and-thigh slapping interspersed with slightly more elegant twirls and swirls, with the odd bit of tango and fox trot thrown in for effect. Bavarian dancing has to be a hotchpotch of just about every single dance style under the sun. Some pairs manage the quick-step transitions quite effortlessly. The way Magnus is encouraging us to place a foot between our partner’s legs makes me feel like we’re more in Buenos Aires than Bavaria. I’ve never tried tango before and am trying exceedingly hard not to misplace my left foot when I suddenly squeal 'Ouch!'. My right hand toe is writhing with pain. My partner has just accidentally stepped on my other foot. Still, I’m glad it’s she who’s committed the faux pas and not me. I’m generally the Tolpatsch, the one who always puts his foot in it outside the classroom.

During a short break it’s my turn to put the proverbial foot in it. Thinking we’re supposed to be changing partners, I turn to a colleague to ask if she’d like to be mine. ‘Na, sorry’, she replies, pointing emphatically to what looks like a carbon copy of herself. This, I discover later, is actually her elder sister. ‘Pech kabd’, bad luck, she adds. I know she doesn’t mean it unsympathetically at all, but once again it feels like I’m back at school, seeking an elusive partner. Sheepishly, I return to my own partner, just hoping to goodness that she hasn’t overheard this embarrassing exchange. Frankly, I’m quite glad no one has to change partners. We got off to a rather clumsy start but I have the feeling we’re moving nicely in time together now. I’m actually quite enjoying this.

Things continue to go smoothly until, all at once, we have to pair up with another couple. We’ve got to clap hands, slap-clap our partner’s hands, whirl them around and then perform this very same ‘act’ on the other two persons. I don’t know whether it’s just because I wasn’t following Magnus’ demonstration carefully enough or I’m just plain uncoordinated, but this is where I suddenly start to lose it. I feel like those poor contestants in The Generation Game. That’s the BBC show in which an expert demonstrates how to do something – such as modelling a vase using a potter's wheel or dressing up a shop window mannequin. They always make it look so dead simple. The competitors –  comical combinations like mum and son-in-law – then have to do likewise, but usually in much less time than the Meister. And of course they always manage to mess it up. Same here. Before each new number Magnus demonstrates the moves. Beckoning to a different girl each time, he draws her close to his chest and swirls her around the floor. Watching the ease with which he can just pick out any girl he fancies, and the way they bend like elastic in his embrace, it looks like Magnus has a dream job. 

As soon as we break for slightly longer my partner slips off. I expect she’s just grabbing a drink from the trestle table in the corridor and visiting the ladies room. But I really wouldn’t blame her if she seizes the opportunity to seek out a more suitable partner. Everything had gone without a hitch until I screwed up on the step when you have to take your partner’s left hand in yours and then your right hand behind her back to take her right hand in turn. I’m confused just thinking about it. Standing there, knotted together in this almost bear-hug-like embrace, our arms clumsily twisted around each other, I hadn’t dared peer up to see the expression on her face. A look of horror, most likely.

Suddenly she reappears, quietly sliding in alongside me as if she’d never been gone. For the second moment this evening I breathe a huge sigh of relief. She’s all nicely freshened up and, unlike me, still totally calm and composed despite cavorting around the classroom almost nonstop for the past hour.  She tells me her name, and asks about mine. I’m just about to reply when the band suddenly starts blasting out the next tune. Any further dialogue we might have attempted is drowned in an ear-shattering wiener-schnitzel polka.

Clap-clap, slap-slap. Gosh this is fun. Little do we know that the band behind us is about to strike the last note, pack up and go home. 

Falling into a hypnosis-like routine of twirls and swirls – briefly interspersed every couple minutes with a gentle mutual hand-slap – I remain on a high for the rest of the evening. I’m willing the whole thing to last just a tiny bit longer, but, spot on 9 o’clock – Deutsche Pünktlichkeit at play once again – the band sound out their final note. Sadly, next moment they’re squeezing instruments back into cases and pulling on coats and scarves. It’s almost as if they’re racing to catch the last bus home. Beckoning everyone to form a tight circle, Magnus lavishes praise upon us, saying 'Ihr hobt olle note oins vedeant' – you’ve all earned yourselves a grade one. Yahooo!

Magnus proceeds to dish out flyers for another free dance session he’s offering next month. This time it’s at the world-famous Hofbräuhaus. I consider asking my partner if she’d care to go along too. Looking round, however, I notice she’s vanished. Pity. I know little more than her name. The magical evening has ended all too abruptly. It’s unfair. Why can't this end like a fairytale ball? You know, Prince Charming standing there all forlorn, pining for his Cinderalla, and then suddenly falling to his knees as he discovers her glass slipper. My partner, it seems, has disappeared into thin air. What's more, she's taken all her footgear too. 

Last to leave the classroom, I instinctively reach for the braces on my lederhosen. They’re definitely too loose, because they'd kept on coming off during the dancing. But I couldn’t make them any tighter at all. There’s obviously one hole too few on each suspender strap. Small wonder the whole outfit’s hanging off me like a pair of saggy ‘gangsta’ pants. Miraculously, however, everything’s still more or less where it should be. Relieved, I vow to myself one thing. If I ever go Bavarian dancing again, I’m coming in a different lederhosen.

And it had better be size “S”.

Freitag, 29. Dezember 2017

Delayed at Munich Airport? Frankly, I can't think of anything nicer.

There's something almost romantic about Munich Airport by night. 

‘Coat off, darling. And put it in the tray’. 


‘Because we’re going through security control’.

‘Yes, but why?’

‘Ahmm, because, well, we’re at the airport. That’s why’.

‘But daddy, we’re not going on holiday’.

We're doing a family outing, as you do with so much freetime on your hands between Christmas and New Year. But our daughter seems slightly disappointed. She says “going” as if we’d promised her a holiday and now she’s discovered it’s all a great hoax. 

In a sense it is a hoax. Because we’re not flying off anywhere at all. We’ve elected to stay at home this Christmas. And yet I’m actually quite excited about just being here at Munich Airport. We’re booked on a night tour of the second busiest passenger airport in Germany. We’ve paid over 20 euros for the one-hour “Lichterfahrt", or Light Tour, but thirty minutes later and we’re still queuing at security control

Security finally cleared, we board our bus, ready to start the tour for real. I’ve been on scores of airport buses which have made us wait ages until all passengers are finally on board. And all that just to ride 500 meters to the plane. But right now our behind-the-scenes tour doesn't seem to be going anywhere at all. Apparently one of our fellow passengers has been pulled aside by security guards and is currently being interrogated about the contents of her handbag. We can’t leave without her. Monika, our guide, livens up the wait with facts and figures about Munich Airport. Her on-board commentary feels more like snippets of conversation eavesdropped between cockpit and control tower: ‘2015 – 34th busiest airport in the world. 2016 – 42 million passengers. Over 248 destinations worldwide’.

The coach finally moves off. The first part of the tour follows a stretch of periphery road also used by the public. Suddenly a black sedan overtakes us, tyres screeching. It’s a 30-km zone and the vehicle must be travelling at least 70 km/h. Last-minute passenger, no doubt. ‘Hurry up’, quips Monika ‘your plane’s boarding at Gate 20!’. Next up, we’re off public and onto private terrain. After courteously stopping to let a plane pass, our coach gently meanders around the “apron”, the area of the airport where aircraft are parked, loaded or unloaded, refueled and boarded. It feels odd overtaking moving aircraft. When we suddenly pass a Boeing 777-220, I almost feel like the coach is readying for take-off too.

After a while I get used to our guide’s clipped and curt, but also highly comical commentary. As we roll past the Satellite terminal, an extension of Terminal One, Monika motions to a wide-body aircraft, noting ‘Boeing 747-8. Destination Singapore. Lots of carrot juice on board!” This Boeing is second largest passenger plane in world. ‘1500 liter kerosene and 10% extra. 13-hour flight. Long haul!’, Monika adds, pointing to a line of supply trucks parked up alongside. As from March 2018, the world’s largest commercial passenger plane, the doubledecker Airbus A380, will also fly from Munich. To deal with the demand, Munich Airport is hiring 1,000 extra flight attendants. ‘Anyone fancy a nice secure job?’, asks Monika. Flashing a smile to two young girls in the front seats, she adds ‘flying sure beats working’. 

A little further down the apron we pass a Lufthansa jet festooned with pictures of FC Bayern players and the world-famous logo. ‘Carried our boys two years ago. Loved the deco so much we left it on!’. By “our boys” I assume she means FC Bayern and not her own sons; by “we” I take it she means Munich Airport rather than her own family. But you never know. Monika’s been working on the ground here for over 30 years. I suspect she almost blends in with the backdrop. In an aside she tells us her best experience to date was a stand-by, last-minute trip to Hawaii. Underscoring the happy memory, she adds ‘And only 150 Deutschmarks, ha!’.

I’ve been in and out of Munich Airport almost as many times as I’ve had hot dinners. But tonight I'm seeing the place from a totally different perspective. Monika is a formidable fountain of knowledge and insider information. That the airport, for example, has parking spaces for 200 planes – and that they sometimes have to put a “full” sign up at the entrance. Or that kerosene comes from the Greek word “keros”, meaning wax. It’s also interesting seeing the LG Skychef catering vans right up close as they dock onto the planes. The largest airline caterer in the world, LG supplies over 590 million meals a year. That’s a mighty mountain of grilled chicken and shrink-wrapped potato salads. Today I also learn why the highly controversial Berlin-Brandenburg Airport is taking slightly longer than the 13 years they needed to build its Bavarian brother. Monika commentates the issue as if it were part of her routine in a stand-up comedy act: ‘800 building alterations already submitted to contractors. Ready by 2020? I think not!’.

Everything we’ve seen today testifies to how Munich Airport has earned itself the title "First Five-Star Airport in Europe". I feel blessed having a world-class airport on my doorstep. After the tour we call in at the Winter Wonderland Market where we go ice skating. Well, Bea and Matilda do. I prefer to spectate from the side. But not before I’ve queued up for Bratapfel Glühweizen, a hot wheat beer laced with cinnamon and apple. It tastes absolutely divine.

I was interested to learn that this area known as MAC Forum is a massive draw in summer too. Having ripped out the skating rink and wood huts, the arena doubles up as Europe’s largest roofed-in Biergarten next to the airport's very own brewery, the fabulous Airbräu. There's even a maypole tree if you fancy swinging a dance leg before take-off.

Thumbs up for Munich Airport's Winter Market

Heading back home, bellies bulging with gluhwein and Nutella crepes, it strikes me that the Munich Airport experience is not merely just about flying. Spanning two terminals, MAC Forum is accessible to non-flyers too. And if you’re actually thinking of catching a plane, this is probably the one airport in the world where you might just want to be delayed.

Sonntag, 15. Oktober 2017

How come these lucky Germans are superfit at everything they do? I'm out of breath just watching them.

Fit for fun. Or maybe just for fun? Celebrating seven years Sour CherryThat's Martin and me with our "Glücksbringer" 

'Did you know that two out of three traffic cops these days are women?’, says Martin. I've no idea why he suddenly asks this. Actually, we’d just been discussing what a great pumpkin harvest it’s been this year.

Basically, I'm more preoccupied right now with the rather curious-tasting Bier-Wein-Mix-Drink in my hand. Drinking beer mixes has always struck me as a rather unsmart way of getting tipsy. I mean, beer is beer and should stay beer. Mixing it with anything else – and wine of all things – should be made a punishable offence. Anyhow, it’s the first thing I’m offered on arrival at the Sour Cherry Photo Studio, which tonight is celebrating its Verflixte Siebtes Jahr, or Seven Year Itch. A propos, no sign of any Marilyn look-alikes here, sadly. We’ve all been instructed to bring a little lucky charm with us. Mine's a teeny-weeny Muschel I found on the beach in Poland. 

Martin is expecting a response so, faking mild interest, I answer ‘Ah-ha. How come?'

‘Well’, he explains, ‘other day I parked for just two minutes outside Witmanns to get cigarettes. When I came back a traffic cop was writing me a ticket. A woman of course. And guess what?’ 

‘What?’, I respond. If this is a guessing game, I'm uncertain where it's meant to be leading us.

‘I know her’, replies Martin, ‘she’s one of my customers. I do her tax bills!’ 

He speaks the last sentence like a punchline, as if it were an enormous joke. To tell the truth, I’m unsure whether to laugh or just feel sorry for him.         

Instead I say ‘And she still gave you a ticket?’

‘Yepp’, replies Martin, ‘I pleaded with her, of course but she simply handed me the ticket and said des wern mia scho moi sengs – 'we’ll see about that!'.

‘Well’, I say, weighing up Martin’s rather restricted options, ‘You could have just refused to pay’. 

Martin shakes his head at this helpful but hopeless suggestion. ‘Na, na’, he responds, indicating that this is a no-go zone: ‘Here in Germany you can get arrested for that’.

Thomas, who’s been quietly listening to all this, suddenly joins in the discussion. ‘Ooh’ he chips in, ‘I wouldn’t mind being handcuffed by a woman in uniform!’ To underline this sentiment, he takes three short steps forward, raises his hands in mock surrender and says “Please, take me – wherever you like!”

I’m bemused. Only in deepest Lower Bavaria can you be talking one moment about the size of pumpkins and then move on, so effortlessly, to share male fantasies about being led away in chains by female traffic wardens. Still, it’s been an enjoyable evening and I end up arranging to meet Martin the following day. We’ve managed to dare each other to compete in Crosslauf, the annual six-kilometer cross-country organised by Mainburg’s Sportverein. It comes as quite a relief when Martin confesses he’s totally out of practice too.

My guilty conscience is pricking me, because the following morning I rise at the crack of dawn and do something I never normally do – I go jogging. Leaves streaked with autumnal yellowy-brown hues flitter from the trees as I enter the dense woodland next to our home. The sky is truly Bavarian blue, not a single cloud to be seen, and it’s unusually warm for mid-October - 17 degrees, I’d say. It’s a great day to be alive. I arrive back home beaming with joy, and all geared up for the ‘real thing’ – six laps around the hills above Mainburg – this afternoon.

After lunch, however, it’s so warm that I flop onto a sun lounger under the shade of our apple trees. I immediately fall asleep, and proceed to dream about cruising over the Crosslauf finishing post to tumultuous cheers and applause from the crowds. Waking up at ten past two, I panic. I have just twenty minutes to get to the starting point and register for the run. And I’m not even sure where this particular Sportverein is. I have to stop at Majuntke’s Garten-Paradies to ask for directions. Pulling into the club carpark with screeching tyres, I speed over to the starting banner. The only person still around is a young girl at a trestle table counting safety pins into a Tupperware box. I immediately bombard her with questions: ‘I’m late, yes?’ ‘They’ve left, right?’ ‘I can still run, OK?’

The girl, sitting there with her pins, looks me up and down suspiciously. It's as if I’ve just proposed running the race with nothing on except white sneaker socks and my competitor’s number tag. I fear she’s about to turn me away, because she says ‘Na, online Omeldeschluss war heit fria. 'etz könna Sie gar ned mehr’. It’s a bit like she’s saying ‘Too late mate’. But then suddenly her eyes light up, she smiles and says ‘i vastehe, is ’s just for fun, gell?’

 Just for fun is one of those lovely expressions that Germans bandy around so liberally, as if they’re blissfully unaware that it's not actually German.
'Ja, stimmt', I reply, somewhat relieved, ‘es ist just for fun’

Surveying the scene, I spot an elderly man breaking into a sprint close to the starting point. At this moment the girl presses a quarter banana into my sweaty hand. – Do a boh Vitamin – ‘Here, take a few vitamins with you’, she says.

Thanking her, I race off, hoping to catch the man up. It’s hopeless though. He’s disappeared into the distance before I’ve even taken three or four steps.

Although I‘m running far too fast at the start – that’s the impression I have at least – I gradually find my own pace and rhythm. It’s much slower. It's also a lot more sustainable, which is good, if I’m seriously intending to finish the race before everyone else changes clothes and goes home.

All of a sudden I hear the sound of feet padding the ground behind me. It’s hardly likely to be runners who have started the race after me. And I’m right. These runners are already on their second lap. Glancing behind, I realise they’re signalling to me to move over to one side so they can overtake. It’s a bit like those big black Audis that scare the living daylights out of anyone foolish enough to take a Mitsubishi Space Star onto the autobahn. I notice that a number of runners who promptly proceed to overtake me are a fair bit older – and a whole lot fitter too.

It’s weird. When I was chatting last night to Martin – he’s nowhere to be seen, by the way – about doing the race, we both had in mind that everyone would be running at a much more leisurely pace, casually chatting to each other about what else they were doing this weekend, and maybe also commenting on the relaxing countryside they’re passing through. Absolutely no question of that here though. These runners are drop-dead serious – they’re in it to win. When it comes to sporting ethic, it seems that Germans apply exactly the same principle to sport as they do to work. You do the work first and then you take a break to talk. In Britain, of course, it’s the other way round. As the next person comes up to overtake, I call out ‘den wievuidn?' – ‘How many laps have you already done?’ Instead of giving me a verbal reply he simply offers the hands-up-in-surrender gesture and surges forward, leaving me behind almost instantly.

Next to overtake is a petit young blond in a garishly yellow Rösle Lycra shirt, rinsed with sweat. Her long ponytail, more Rapunzel rope than ponytail actually, is swinging at great speed from side to side. I ask her the same question: 'Den wievuidn?'.  This time I receive a slightly more specific response – she holds up four fingers. Presumably to indicate she has is now on her fourth lap. At this stage of the race I am still just on my second. 

Straggling towards the finishing post among a group of runners lagging quite a long way behind the rest, I can’t help feeling a bit of a bluff package – Mogelpackung, as the Germans say. But to carry on running would draw attention to the fact that I'm at least two laps behind the rest of the runners. Better to pretend I'm already finished and just hope no one spots the difference. Breaking into almost a sprint at the very last moment, I stride past the finishing line to a round of cheers from unsuspecting onlookers lining either side of the route.

Just as I’m reaching for a glass of water behind the banner marked Ziel, the girl who’d given me the bit of banana calls out Ah, Sie hom's aa no gschofft! She’s right, I had also done it – well, give or take a lap or two.

Right then Martin appears. Ah, Di hob i übaoi gsucht – ‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere!’ Martin actually finishes the race behind me. But then he reminds me that at least he’d managed all six laps. 

Go on Tim, you can do it!

Gschofft! I made it! Well, give or take a lap or two..

At the Siegerehrung, the presentation ceremony, instead of being awarded lovely shiny trophies or medals, the winners in each age group receive a five-liter barrel of beer. No one seems to mind. As everyone’s leaving, I go up onto the Sportverein balcony. Looking down at some half a dozen tennis courts and running tracks, I’m struck by how fortunate the Germans are. Everywhere you go, from the largest city, right down to the smallest Kaff – villages like our Puttenhausen – Germans reap the reward of extensive state-of-the-art sports facilities. I enquire about the price of an annual family membership. At just over 100 €, it sounds remarkably good value. I make a note to sign us up for next season. Or to do a Schnupperdog, a trial-out day, at the very least. 

Celebrating with a plastic cup of fizzy water, Martin and I agree we both need to get into far better shape if we’re to stand any chance at all in next year’s race. We arrange to do a few jogs through the woods together.

Celebrating with a cup of fizzy water - Martin, Hans - at 73, eldest participant in race - and me

Apart from my general state of health – I’d possibly been overoptimistic here – there’s something else I'm now starting to feel more respectful towards: Deutsche Pünktlichkeit. I’d often taken punctuality in this country a little bit on the light shoulder. Especially, for example, when they expect you to arrive at a party bang on 7 pm. To avoid standing at the host’s doorstep at exactly the same time as everyone else – not good if you prefer to make a grand entrance – I would always make a point of getting there between 7 and 8. Not any more though. From now on, I plan to be more punctual for absolutely everything. That includes registering for next year’s race the very moment it goes online. 

Fit for fun? Maybe not quite. For the time being it’ll simply have to be just for fun. But hey, I’m cool with that.

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