Montag, 27. August 2018

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

                       
We'd been sipping coffee outside a Whole Foods store, catching up with an old teaching colleague, 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 approaching from the 'parking lot'. But no, as he proceeded to head off, I realised the hand signal was intended for us. Over the following weeks as we made our way through 'SoCal' I noticed everyone else doing it. Regardless of how near or far the distance between them.

The New Yorker 20.08.18
   
Before too long, I was doing likewise, greeting acquaintances old and new with an equally casual, hey-I’m-cool-with-it-man wave. Admittedly, it felt slightly odd at first. Isn’t waving meant to be the preserve of Harry, Meghan and other assorted royals/A-listers? For mere plebs in ‘old’ Europe it’s generally restricted to acknowledging a familiar face across the street or winding down the car window for one final farewell, right? Not so in The Sunshine State. What we call 'the royal wave' is known over there as the 'parade wave'.

It's difficult to imagine a more stark contrast. Both blessed and cursed with so many different ways of saying hello and goodbye, we Europeans are easily confused. Should we go for a 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 downright clumsy at worst. Particularly when we accidentally end up bumping noses, or knocking the other one's glasses off. Cringe again! 

Many fellow Europeans are quick to dismiss the U.S.A. as having losing the plot, but most Americans we chatted to seemed extremely sympathetic, some apologising profusely for 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 to cool-waving America!


Samstag, 30. Juni 2018

Wochenende. Hit the autobahn, head for the hills.



‘So why aren't we doing things at the weekend?’ 

This question one Saturday morning, just as I’m quietly munching my way through another slice of home-made organic bread laced with honey from Poland, catches me slightly off balance. Yet Bea says it in exactly the same tone of voice as if she were casually asking me to pass the butter. 

Truth told, we’d not been particularly overactive for a while. Unless of course you count ferrying your offspring around to friends’ houses and entertaining said persons at home. All that in between trips to the local swimming pool and short detours to Hoppla. I never really liked that shop anyway. I guess our leisure life had become pretty much like most people's: routine, repetitive and predictable. I hesitate to use the word ‘uneventful’, because we live quite busy lives. But you get my drift. Point is, if we were to break the mould we needed to get up and give ourselves a push. 

Funnily enough we both had exactly the same idea. Within moments I had pulled a map off the shelf and Bea was busy googling something 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 goes 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 seatbelt 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, we’re seeing these snow-capped mountains again. Towering majestically on the horizon, this 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 the Bavarians say. 


The walk we’ve chosen starts and ends at Fischbachau, a pre-alpine village crammed with picture-book houses decorated with so-called ‘Lüftlmalerei’. These colourful frescos depicting traditional local fairy tales or religious scenes are found on many 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 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. It’s a 13.5-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. When you first meet Bavarians they’re usually quite reserved, weighing their words at tortoise pace, as if preferring to size you up first. This Bavarian is quite different. Soon he’s even 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’s gently 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 fingers into the River Leitzach we get a shock. The water’s ice cold. No great surprise really – the source lies 200 meters high in the Alps. We stop for sandwiches and coffee at a splish-splashy waterfall, the crystal-clear water glistening 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. I’m a hardened swimmer, and 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. 
                                 

Nice pic. Pity no pralines.


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 quaint little house has a sign on the garden gate warning ‘Vorsicht, bissiger Hund.' I scour the grounds sceptically. Not a single sign of a vicious dog anywhere. Either it doesn’t exist (Germans often put up such signs just to scare off curious passersby) or it’s having a midday nap.

"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. We hastily fill our sandwich boxes, cramming in as much as we can. 

Continuing the hike with slightly stained hands we suddenly spot, dotted around a meadow just above the path, a group of wooden sun loungers. Each curvy chair is wide enough for two or three persons. It’s the sort of seating that wouldn’t be amiss in the relaxation room of an exclusive wellness centre. I’ve seen this before in Bavaria. Expensive furniture dumped in the middle of nowhere, freely available to anybody who happens to pass by and fancy a rest. ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to have one of these at home in the garden,’ sighs Bea, flopping onto one such model. It would. Actually they’re so cosy it’s very tempting to simply stay put and just cancel the rest of the walk. But then reality kicks in. We’ve still got another half dozen kilometers 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. ‘Servus,’ 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 good food. But before I can say Danke he’s jumped into a car, pulling up alongside us. ‘I’ll drop them off at the car park,’ he offers in local dialect, beckoning the kids to climb in as he revs up the engine. Simona’s mother manages to hop in too. Only just in the nick of time though. She hasn’t closed the passenger door when 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. A pang of doubt suddenly crosses 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 kilometers 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 enjoyed 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 meters the highest local peak. We’d been up there once by cable car. The mountain top boasts a cosy restaurant and stunning views far into the Austrian Tirol. 

                                 

When we roll in at the Krugeralm, the inn we’d been recommended just a little further up the hill, the waitress apologises profusely that the kitchen already closed at 2 PM. 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, pile-high plates of side salads and mouth-watering Kaspress Knödel oozing with Pinzgau Beer Cheese.  

Mountain food's seldom tasted so succulent and the hike has wet our appetite for longer 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’. 

‘Why?’

‘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.

Freitag, 29. September 2017

Never mind the daft lyrics and fake accents, these lookalikes are absolutely lush!

Sensational... even more Abba than the Abba themselves

Very first thing that strikes me, as I enter the landscaped gardens of Flora Mediterranea, is just how flamboyant everyone’s dressed: metallic blue draped gowns, glittery cat suits, lurex pants studded with sequins and earth-goddess hairstyles all round. And that, I’m tempted to say, is just the men. The other thing is the unashamedly retro music. Blurring out of the p.a. system is Boney M’s “Daddy Cool”. This doesn’t feel like 2017, somehow. More like 1977, I’d say.

I’ve come to what is actually a top-of-the-range garden centre in Haslach, a sleepy village right at the heart of the Hallertau. It’s the sort of countryside bolthole where you'd expect to see a performance by someone like the Holledauer Hopfareisser or Erdäpfelkraut. But an Abba tribute band of all people? A4U, as they’re called, are one of the dozens of ABBA tributes currently touring Germany. Copycat bands are big business in this country, with their own festivals, their own stars, and, so it appears, their own fans too. Judging from their larger-than-life costumes, these die-hard retros certainly aren’t making light of it. What dumbfounds me is not so much the comic costumes but that no one here seems at all troubled that the group they’ve come to see isn’t actually the real thing. 

Curiously, when it comes to tribute bands, Germans talk less of “cover” and more of “revival” music. I’m not quite sure how the word sounds to German ears but it makes me think of a singer who’s been sick and poorly but now he’s recovered. Come to the concert and celebrate! Come to think of it, “tribute” is an odd choice of word too. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “an act, statement, or gift that is intended to show gratitude, respect, or admiration”. From what I can gather pricewise, tribute bands certainly aren’t gifting fans with anything. Their sole purpose is to make money.

Pondering the misuse of English words in the German language, I eavesdrop on two middle-aged females seated next to me. Scrutinising the two “Abba” males larking around on stage in spandex playsuits, one turns to the other and says ‘Oooh, those boys are so much sexier than Benny and Björn!’ My own take is that this look-alike Benny appears a lot less healthy than the real one. The skinny guy can't weigh more than 60 kilos, max. I can't comment on his sidekick “Björn”, but as for the girls, the imitation Frida is only half as red as the original. This one’s more pink.

Yes, I know my Abba stuff. And, as a lifelong fan, I’d have paid good money to see the real deal live. I’m not too sure about this one here though. Whatever concert you go to here in Germany, whether real or imitation band, it’s expensive. That’s because German authorities tax live musicians at such an exorbitantly high rate it almost hurts. Or so I’m told. 

Luckily, however, I’ve got into the show free of charge. And this is something you can easily do in Germany if you’re tired of forking out for ridiculously over-priced tickets: Offer to review the event for your local newspaper. Regionale Zeitungen, it seems, are usually so short of staff that they rely to a great extent on freelancers to fill their pages. I’ve saved hundreds of euros this way: Acts like Chris de Burg, Cliff Richard, even the Beach Boys (or what’s left of them, at least) – all in return for reviews. 

So now I’m doing it for our local paper, the Hallertauer Zeitung. I hope my Deutsch is still up to it though, as I haven’t written German properly since completing my final thesis for university over twenty years ago. 

To give the “copycats” credit, they do actually sound quite like the Swedish originals. Especially when it comes to Dancing Queen, and Agneta sashays ostentatiously from one side of the stage to the other. At the end of the song she calls out, in a fake Swedish English accent, “Wheesper in your neighbour’s ear I’d like to get to knoooow you!’ It’s the ultimate in audience participation – and a sure tell-tell sign that they’re just about to break into Knowing me, knowing you

Yes, that other earworm, the one that starts “No more carefree”. When I first came to Germany, I couldn’t quite understand why some people found these opening lyrics so funny. Until a lady quietly took me aside, reached into her handbag for something and showed me. 

Never mind the daft lyrics. And never mind the predictability of the running order either. After Knowing me, knowing you always comes Mama Mia, doesn’t it? That’s probably what’s brought us all here in the first place, what we like most about ABBA – they’re just so predictable. No points then for predicting the final song. Some of the crowd have already donned their Napoleon hats, gearing up for Eurovision’s greatest hit. 

Mindful that the Hallertauer Zeitung requires my report tomorrow in order to make Monday’s edition – and that I’m going to have to look up words like “copycat” and “tell-tell sign”, which I don’t know in German – I skip the aftershow. And, mercifully, all those other those Boney M hits.

I hand back my press pass, shake the glitter dust out of my hair and, humming Mama Mia here I go again, head for home.

Sensational....joining the stars on stage
                           

Mittwoch, 5. Juli 2017

These days it takes only one "Moas" to send me sprawling. Keep quiet but mine's just a radler

It's exactly 100 years since they threw out their royal family. But that doesn't stop Germans ceremoniously electing another type of royalty every year. Sharing a half with Her Royal Highness, Beer Queen Angela Ertlmaier.


The Germans have a saying 'Dienst ist Dienst, und schnapps ist schnapps'. Don't mix business with pleasure, in other words. But when it comes to their Lieblingsdrink, Germans are far more flexible. I'm lucky to teach in a college that actively encourages mixing business and pleasure - right down to the last drop. Students follow courses in brewery technology and get to test the final product too. Our campus at Weihenstephan is home to the oldest brewery in the world - with a great beer garden to boot. This week my students wrote their final exam. Deciding where to go and celebrate afterwards seemed a bit of a no-brainer.

Bildergebnis für weihenstephan brewery
Just steps away from the lecture halls, where you can easily smell the yeast fermenting. 
No wonders students feel so happy here. 

Which is where I end up the other evening - the Braustüberl beerhouse. It's lovely and warm and I'm looking forward to a cool brew - or two. Scaling the few steps separating exam hall and beer hall, my colleague tells me how, after a couple beers with him, his students sometimes ask "Can I say 'you' to 'you'?". He says the second 'you' in a slightly husky voice, indicating a deeper level of familiarity. Sounds like a very German dilemma - not knowing whether to address someone formally with Sie or informally with Du. Grown-ups might go all their working life calling each other Sie, before retiring with a typical arm-linking, beer mug-clinking ceremony (so-called Bruderschaft trinken), in which they solemnly pledge to call each other Du till their dying day. Nothing to slap your thighs about, but then Germans never did take drinking to closer friendship on the light shoulder.

I'm last in line so simply grab what I guess everyone else is ordering: The classic liter. After all, as the saying in Bavaria goes, A Moas muss sei (literally, a liter must be). But, as I struggle to gulp down the final suds, I notice how most students are nursing just half liters - and drinking verrrrry slowly. 

Life's unfair. I mean, when you're young you can handle beer easily (young Germans, given half an opportunity, can drown a liter or two without batting an eyelid). Only problem is when you're studying you can't afford the full fling. So you go halves with a mate. Then when you're older you can afford to up the ante, but you just can't handle the quantity. That said, the average German manages to drink 104 litres a year. That's almost twice the amount consumed per capita in Britain. 

But not necessarily - you can cheat with Radler. Weihenstephan, by the way, is even older than the Bard himself . They've been brewing here for over 1000 years. 
To beer or not to beer? Fortunately there's a third option. Radler is part brew, part lemonade. For Bavarian purists that's almost akin to blasphemy. Anyway, served in liter mugs, it looks just like you're drinking the real man's thing. The problem, of course, comes when you splash out on a big beer and get handed a Radler by mistake...

Relaxing on the terrace overlooking the "green campus" (so called not just because of its green technology courses but also the whole site - beautifully bathed in a sea of greenery), and enjoying good company late into the warm evening, it strikes me that this could easily pass as the gateway to heaven.

Oh, did I not mention? This evening the students teach me a lesson too. I learn how to ‘prost’.

The golden rule of ‘prosting’ – the clinking together of beer mugs – is that you have to make obvious eye contact with everyone around the table. Flashing each other mischievous grins, they go on to tell me that failing to do so can lead to seven years of bad sex. Unsure whether they’re joking or not, I pop into the loo a little later and quietly fact check their claim on my smartphone. They’re dead right.

Time, I think, for another Radler.

                                                           

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