Freitag, 10. Mai 2019

Cheers for Charles, lederhosen for Archie and boogying for a united Europe. Oh what a panto!

Here's what I missed....

 And here's what I saw: The Typical Bavarian on his soap box.  I'd just saved myself 50 cents by using the Hofbräuhaus' free loos, so I drop it into the chap's cap.  

'Measse vuimois,' says Prince Charles in faultless Bavarian. Then, switching to English, he adds: 'I had one of these as a boy.'

Der ewige Thronfolger – the eternal heir, as he’s known in Germany – has just been presented with a lederhosen by Markus Söder, Minister President of Bavaria. Just one teeny-weeny problem – it's about 30 sizes too small.

Suddenly, TV newsfeed of Charles and Camilla races from Residenz to Hofbräuhaus. The commentator reveals that the lederhosen is for the Prince's three-day old grandchild. What with proud parents Harry and Meghan parading the Wunderkind around Buckingham Palace and the announcement that Number Seven in line to throne's called Archie, it's been a right royal day.

Determined to catch up with Charles on his day trip to Munich, I'd stuffed a Union Jack into my bag and alerted Tourism Management students that afternoon class would be finishing a couple minutes earlier – just in case anybody wishes to come along too. I'm not too sure they do. 'You're really going?' one undergrad asks disbelievingly.

If I leave uni at 3:15, I can just about make it to the Hofbräuhaus in time to cheerily wave my flag at the royal couple. Perhaps they'll even autograph it. Done deal.

What a disappointment then to arrive at the beer house to see large numbers of Polizisten in bullet-proof vests already packing away security cordon and climbing back into their vans. I'd missed the Royals by just seven minutes.

It turns out that the Windsors are already on their way to the headquarters of Siemens. It's fast approaching 4 pm, rush hour time in Munich. Surely I can beat their convoy of limousines by jumping onto public transport?

It helps if you can actually read a U-Bahn plan. I end up taking the right underground line but in the wrong direction. By the time I reach Siemens it's just turning 5 pm. But it's the wrong Siemens. Eyeing me distastefully, staff at the welcome desk have an unwelcome message: 'Sie san do foisch.'

No wonder I'm wrong – everyone milling around me is dressed in suits. Me, just in shorts and sandals. For a split second it looks like the receptionist is about to reach below her desk. Presumably to hit a panic button and summon security guards to guide me off the premises. Any moment I'm expecting swarms of officials in dayglo vests to surround me, picking up commands on their ear-pieces and shouting fever-pitch commentaries down their mobiles. Instead, the reception girl calmly walks me out into the foyer and directs me down the street to Siemens Forum.

This time I think twice about entering. Stopping the first group of dirndl-dressed employees to come out of the building, I discover that Charles and Camilla took off 45 minutes ago. In the short time it's taken me to ride several stops on the subway, the royal party has made it across town at peak traffic time, toured Siemens Forum and checked into their penthouse suite at the Bayrischer Hof. 'Herzlichen Beileid' says one of the Siemens secretaries as I turn to go.

'Herzlichen Beileid?' Isn't that what you normally say in hushed tones to the bereaved? Perhaps I really should be mourning. After chasing Charles around Munich all afternoon I’ve twice missed him almost within a hair's breadth.

Heading back into the town centre, I stop off at the Residenz. That's where the royal couple walked the red carpet just a few hours earlier. Asking around, I learn that Charles passed right under the statue of König Maximilian Joseph. Squinting up through the sunshine, I spot two pigeons doing a jig on Max's ears, before snapping their beaks and flying off, leaving a trail of bird paint dripping down His Royal Highness' majestic forehead.
Ah well, let's face it. That's probably about as close as I'm going to get to any royalty today. 

Luckily the day's not completely over. Today, it turns out, is Europe Day. The Bavarian Staatskanzlei, or Department of State, is staging a series of shows at the Marienplatz. Peppered all around the main Platz are little huts with stalls encouraging Münchners to vote at the forthcoming Europawahl. Truth told, I'd spared these elections precious little thought. Not unlike most other Brits who clearly regard the whole thing as a bad dream. But spotting a photo booth offering free selfies with a EU star-studded backdrop immediately converts me to the cause. Next moment I’m being photographed in front of a banner proclaiming ‘Diesmal wähle ich!’ – this time I’m voting. 

Can't beat 'em, join ‘em. Count me in.

Meanwhile Ecco DiLorenzo Smart & Soul are playing a soulful mix of seventies, Chic-style disco. Just the right thing. Earlier, during harmonies from the Deutsch-Französischer Chor, I'd been laying back, luxuriating in one of the cosy deckchairs. But, as soon as I hear the opening chords to 'Le Freak', I leap up and join a handful of other revellers bopping up and down near the stage. Waving arms and legs around almost hypnotically, more Kate Bush than Beyoncé, we must appear quite comical to the rest of the audience, all superglued to their deckchairs. The sun's still shining as, just before 8 pm, the band breaks into its farewell offering – 'At the Carwash'.

At the Carwash? Yes, I know the Germans love their autos and all that, but it seems a funny choice of song title. Aren't they supposed to be encouraging everyone to abandon polishing their dreams on wheels on 26 May and get along to the polling booths instead?

But maybe that's not the point. What strikes me, boogying and bumping to Rose Royce, is that I'm surrounded by a mass of merrymakers of all ages and mixed European backgrounds – grooving together as one. Solid supporters of a United Europe. And just luurving the moment.

Heaven knows what the Herren from The Bavarian Staatskanzlei make of our trance-like motions, but I hope they approve of our symbolic show of solidarity on the dance floor. Prince Charles certainly would.

Montag, 18. März 2019

Green at heart, Munich parties with free Guinness and Eurovision legend

Marching for Melta - Tim and fellow teachers

Of the 530,000 foreigners living in Munich, the largest single majority is made up of Turkish men (around 40,500). That’s followed by Greeks (ca. 26,000) and Croatians (approx. 24,000).

You need to scroll much further down the list to find the number of Brits – some 6,000 – in the city. And still further to find the Irish contingent. And yet, when it comes to celebrating National Day in their adopted home of Munich, nobody seems to do it better than the Irish. As for the Brits and St George’s Day, perhaps less said the better. Most Brits would probably struggle to pin even an approximate date on the dragon fighter’s big day. April? May? June? Whatever.

But 17 March, St Patrick’s Day, woaaaah! 

I’ve joined in the celebrations this year at the invitation of the Munich English language teachers’ organisation, Melta, of which I’ve been a member ever since arriving in Munich twenty years ago. Once again, the organisation is joining the mass procession which marches a mile down the Bavarian capital’s most prestigious street. This year it’s a particularly special occasion as they celebrate their thirtieth anniversary. 

Oddly enough, for as long as I can remember I've made up all manner of silly excuses for not being able to go. Things like 'Oh dear, nothing green to wear.' and 'Wait, do I really like Guinness..?' But this year it's different. I decide it’s time to finally get my act together. That means registering attendance online the day before and ensuring there’s a train connection that will land me in the centre of Munich pünktlich and with plenty Pufferzeit to spare before the midday march-off. Living out in the Hallertau, the trip needs planning with almost military precision. 

The planning pays off and everything goes perfectly. First of all, the train’s exactly on time. That’s no Selbstverständlichkeit, when you’re reliant on Deutsche Bahn for getting you from A to B. And then the weather. After a week of blustery wind and showers the sky has suddenly turned navy blue, it’s 21 degrees and sonnig. As we set off down the car-free Ludwigstrasse, I’m handed a fistful of tokens for free Guinness at the after-parade party. Oh, and a green felt top hat. Do the Irish really wear these daft things? Someone’s also given me a small flag to wave. It seems we’re not just promoting our teachers' organisation but also Ireland’s most popular dairy produce.

Although Melta has officially been part of the parade for around eight years some members can remember when the event originated in the mid-90s. According to Randy, back then it was just a small procession and the marchers literally had to plead with police to hold back the traffic and let them pass through (‘Wir wollen hier unbedingt durch!’). No fear of getting waylaid by traffic these days, of course. With a record 1,500 marchers representing 62 clubs and organisations, Munich has become the biggest mainland European celebrator of St Patrick’s Day outside Ireland. 

Ninety minutes later and we cross the finishing line at Odeonsplatz, best known as backdrop to Hitler’s failed beer hall putsch in 1923. But wait, I’m suddenly left holding the banner on my own. Where is everybody? All the females, at least, have disappeared into thin air. 

Close to finishing line - and my free Guinness.

It turns out they’ve raced off to secure ring-side places to see Johnny Logan. For me, however, the lure of Freibier is far greater. I spend the next half hour queuing to claim my free Guinness from the Deutsch-Irische Freundschaft tent. By the time I finally reach the venue just around the corner, the legendary Irish crooner’s already launching into ‘Hold me now’. I quite liked the song first time round. But, thirty years on, the title almost has a ring of desperation about it. More plea than proposal. And judging by the expressions on some of my neighbours’ faces, I suspect the audience reaction is ‘No thanks.’

Yes, some of us remember Logan as a cutesy twenty-something year old, Hugh Grant hair mop flopped over forehead. Today’s beer-bellied, long white-haired Logan looks more like he’d rather jettison his whiter-than-white image, jump onto a Harley Davidson and speed off in a cloud of dust. Savouring another sip of Guinness, I close my eyes and prefer to picture Logan performing in his heyday. I imagine him fighting off hordes of hysterical girls swarming the stage. Opening my eyes again, I can’t help noticing an elderly man propping himself up against a high round table. Resting his belly on the bar-stand, he drains the remains of his Guinness and says ‘Ja, ja, jaaah!’ It always strikes me as odd how, when spoken like that in German, such a positive word can actually sound so negative. 

Logan, meanwhile, is joined on stage by a full band. Grabbing hold of guitar, he starts strumming more traditional Irish tunes. Such as ‘Irish Soul’ and ‘The Wild Rover‘. 

Wait though, what’s he saying? 

‘I won the Eurovision Song Contest three times.’ 

No Johnny. I’ve just been googling you and you only won it twice. Lucky no else is fact-checking.

How bizarre though. I could swear ‘The Wild Rover‘ was a dye-in-the-wool Irish song. But it turns out that everyone around here knows it as ‘An der Nordseeküste’. And so, here we stand in the shadow of an Italian Renaissance-style palace, shunkeling to an ageing Gaelic pop star belting out a Prussian sailor’s song.

Only an Irish man could pull that off.

Logan sings Hold me Now. More plea than proposition. 

Early evening, and, in keeping with proceedings, central Munich turns green too. Emerald-hued lights are beamed up and down major landmarks, including the Olympia Tower, Hard Rock Café and Molley Malone’s. But, this time, sadly not the Allianz Arena. World renowned for its innovative stadium-facade lighting, the arena is bathed in blood red. Having rolled out the red carpet all weekend to the Irish, Munich calls it a day when it comes to König Fußball. FC Bayern are playing Mainz 05.  

I’m no great football fan, but FC Bayern's 6-0 victory feels like a most befitting end to an all-round perfect day. And a great warm-up for next year when Munich celebrates its 25th Paddy Party.

Mittwoch, 13. März 2019

Time to say 'Ich bin Deutscher'

Lucky link – Britain and Bavaria

‘I solemnly declare that I will respect and observe the Basic Law and the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany, and that I will refrain from any activity which might cause it harm.’ 

In less than ninety seconds it’s taken to render the third and final verse of Deutschland über alles, and swear this oath of citizenship, I’ve suddenly become German. Climbing onto the rostrum, a photographer from the Mittelboar snaps me receiving my Einbürgerungszertifikat from the County Commissioner. Listening to each one called up almost feels like voting time at the Eurovision Song Contest – Croatia, Turkey, Poland, Lithuania, Bosnia-Herzegovina....

No points for any one today though. In fact, only one single nationality seems to interest the local press. Clicking his camera from different angles, the reporter asks for my take on the Brexit vote. I hesitate, wondering whether it’s wise to answer at all. How much time has he got? Stepping down from the podium, I pass two other Brits. It’s their turn too to take the oath only a fortnight before Britain bows out of Europe.

Na, Glück gehabt,’ – hey, that was lucky – quips the Commissioner a little later, as we mingle and mix over Kaffee and Gebäck. Was he too referring to the ‘B’ word? 

Standing for the all-pervading Catholic state party of Bavaria, our local member of parliament appears to personify the quintessential German politician: stern, solemn and straight-faced to a tea. Yet, face-to-face, just inches away from the Freistaat flag, I can’t help noticing a tiny twinkle in his eye.

Sonntag, 20. Januar 2019

Blow Brexit, here comes Brit in Lederhosen (it could be wurst)

Blow Brexit, I wanna be Bavarian!

Is it true that Germans….

do have a sense of humour?

are afraid of drinking tap water?

cycle in the nude at the weekend?

break all rules and go totally nutty once a year?

Tim Howe should know. Ever since over 900 German teenagers answered his call for a Brieffreundin, he’s been hooked on all things Deutsch, and especially Bayrisch. But what does it take for a Brit to become Bavarian? More than you’d imagine, actually.
But a strong bladder sure helps.


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!

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 is an instant attention grabber:
                                ~ Who fancies trying out Bavarian Dancing? ~

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. Having recently celebrated another round birthday, maybe that’s exactly what I need right now – an injection of youth. I sign up immediately.

‘Bavarian Dancing’, bizarrely, is not really Bavarian at all. It originated as an Austrian peasant whirl and twirl. It wasn’t long, however, until the nobility got in on the act, 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.

Conscious that Bavarian dancing is all about slapping both yourself and your partner on the hands and thighs, I naively believed that’s as far as it goes. Alarm bells start clanging, however, when a search on YouTube unveils a clip in which the male dancer lays his partner on the ground and proceeds to slap her buttocks. I surf a bit further, just to check I haven’t stumbled across an off-the-wall Verein that’s taking the whole idea of slapping your partner’s bum one naughty step too far. Incredibly, I discover scores of similar clips posted by traditional folk groups at dances all over Bavaria. Kids, youths, parents, aunties and uncles, even Opas and Omas – everyone, it seems, is busy slapping buttocks.

Bavarian Dance Night – sounds like it could be quite hands-on.

My heart sinks when, arriving at the event, it turns out were to dance in the very classroom I’ve been teaching in earlier that day. Embarrassingly, I hadnt even wiped the board clean. And that’s not the only discomfort. Clad in lederhosen, 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. 

Apart from a colleague from the Student Advisory Service who’s organising the event, I can’t see anyone else dressed in full Tracht, the traditional yet once again trendy 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. What also strikes me is that females outnumber men approximately five to one. Bavarians call this Damaübaschuß.

Surplus women­? Fine by me.

There’s just one small let-down. Not one of them has donned a dirndl.

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 foxtrot 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 around, 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”.

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