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!’). Evoking images of Merkel assuring everybody that the migrant crisis would sort itself, that characteristically German word unbedingt speaks volumes. Wir schaffen es, unbedingt – we’ll manage, come what may. No fear of getting waylaid by traffic these days, of course. The Polizei are practically laying out the red carpet for us. 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 pass 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 the 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 ‘What’s another Year’. Next up, his other Eurovision winner ‘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, many 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, screaming for hugs. 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 most definitely isn’t pulling out all the stops 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

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 Howe’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 wonders                                                              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!’

Oops...

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?’    

Silence.

''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 I can think better of it, 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. 

'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”.

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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? ...

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