Party time in the fatherland.
The hardest working, most efficient people in the world. Oh, to live like a dog in Germany!
A preliminary sortie into the forest.
Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It’s from the forest that all European culture, the spiritual no less than the material, has emerged.
- Werner Sombart
In the year that I spent in Alice Springs, before I headed into the wilds of Germania, I had seen the film “Die Fetten Jahre Sind Vorbei”, re-titled for English audiences as “The Edukators”. That gave me a real sense that there was more to 20th Century German history than I had learned in school – a sense that there was an edginess to German society that hadn’t been imparted during those dull high-school hours, spent vandalising my text books.
Before setting out for my new life in Bonn I had tried to revise a little from those heavily graffitied tomes which hadn’t seen daylight in 18 years, thinking that with a little homework it would all come back to me, that I would be able to converse with wit and intelligence within minutes of stepping off the plane
Thumbing through those yellowed pages I still remembered a black and white photo of two very German looking blokes opening up the bonnet of a VW Beetle to discover nothing but a spare wheel. In a cartoon speech-bubble made of Tippex fluid, one sideburned bell-bottom-wearing fellow says to his turtle-necked friend “Well, fuck me, someone’s nicked the engine!”
The other bloke replies quick as a flash “No worries mate, there’s a spare one in the boot!”
Not much German grammar had taken root in my brain.
Nor did those lessons deliver a particularly accurate picture of German society. Our text books and language resources dated from the 1960s, so any cultural information contained in them was already hopelessly outdated by the time they ended up in my hot little hands. Our German teacher, a sallow Berliner with a sense of humour like a Prussian tax inspector, also spent a great deal of time and effort drumming it into us that the Germans were the cleanest, hardest working and most efficient people in the world. Not to mention the most morally righteous. These are the myths upon which modern Germany prides itself, mantras which are repeated until they become true – the Kaiser’s new clothes.
Along the way I had also gained the impression that Germany was rather cool and rainy. The Romans had been the first to remark on the cool dampness of the Germanic lands, and the story was repeated by every conquering army since, right up to the Americans fighting their way through the “WesternWall” of the Siegfried line in the 1940s. But, as I stepped out of Bonn’s railway station foyer, with miniature “breakfast schnapps” bottles crunching underfoot, bright sunshine burst through a gap in the clouds and the blaze of colour and activity which greeted me had me wondering if there had been any truth in the stories about the grey horror upon which so many unhappy foreigners have remarked upon over the millennia.
It was May 2006 and people everywhere were dressed in brightly coloured shirts, wearing huge furry hats with bells on them, waving flags, blowing plastic trumpets and singing drunkenly. For a moment I thought it was the welcoming committee from Radio Free-Rhineland, and I smiled, waved and walked down the railway station steps, beaming gratefully. Then I realised these throngs were paying me absolutely no attention and that many of their colourful shirts were in fact soccer jerseys. The words to the song being belted out by the conga-line passing before me went simply “Olé, olé, olé, olé, olé, olé!” over and over again. The repetition didn’t seem to deter the throng, if anything each verse served to whet their enthusiasm for the next, and more and more trumpet-wielding revellers joined the back of the snaking line as it passed around the Bonner Loch and up one of the narrow pedestrian streets into the town centre.
Bonn, like every city and town across the entire country, had been swept up in feverish preparations for the Soccer world cup. The Germans were trying to be on their best behaviour as they prepared for the expected deluge of foreigners. In the pubs and the shops and the restaurants the service was friendly and fast. Everything seemed friendly and fast. The bus drivers, the trams, the cyclists, the women… well, maybe not the bus drivers.
Germany’s black, red and mustard tricolour was flying from nearly every car roof and almost every apartment window. The German flags were interspersed here and there with the Brazilian’s brilliant green and yellow parrot-coloured pennant, the red checkers of the Croatian flag, or the colourful flags of a score of African, Caribbean and South American nations.
Joyful cheering and happy shouts of “GOAL!” could be heard each time the swinging doors to the gents’ room crashed open.
The streets swarmed with people in the national jerseys of two dozen lands, or shirts saying I heart Germany, or just Deutschland Deutschland Deutschland.
Even the pissoirs in the pubs had joined the party. The urinals had little green gauze mats in them, whereupon stood a little white plastic goal net, a little red ball attached to the cross bar by a piece of fishing line. If you directed a jet of urine onto the little ball for long enough, it would change colour from red to white. This was supposed to represent a goal.
German engineers had expended much thought and effort designing these contraptions, not just to make pissing in a standing position even more amusing than it already was for the German male, but also to splash urine onto the floor and across the front of one’s trousers. Like so many German designed inventions, these little novelties performed this task with speed and efficiency and at a surprisingly low cost.
In every pub on every corner in Bonn, joyful cheering and happy shouts of “GOAL!” could be heard each time the swinging doors to the gents’ room crashed open.
Amongst the crowd of colourful and boisterous revellers it was hard not to notice the dogs. Dogs were everywhere, some even dressed up for the occasion, usually in jerseys to match those of their owners.
The Germans love their dogs, and dogs love Germany. Dogs of all shapes and sizes were riding the buses and trams, hailing taxis at the kerb, patiently flipping through ancient magazines in doctors’ waiting rooms, going into restaurants and pubs and ordering meals or getting drunk in large groups, heading off for strolls down to the bakery in happy-looking packs, or taking joyrides in their owners’ cars; or just hanging around on street corners in small groups smoking cigarettes. Nowhere in the world are dogs as free to go anywhere they please and do anything they want – as long as they do it with a collar and leash attached.
Smokers were everywhere too, as no country in Europe gives smokers as much freedom as Germany. They smoked in the train stations and on the trains. They smoked in their offices and in the corridors at work.
They smoked in the bars, the cafes and the restaurants, which were divided into two sections: Smoking and Chain Smoking. They smoked while they ate, they smoked while they drank. They smoked while they browsed the news-stands and while they bought their bus tickets. They smoked while they used the toilet and they smoked while they slept. Smoking was the prerogative of every German 16 or over, and they were going to exercise that right to the full extent of the law.
It was possible to buy cigarettes in almost any shop, and if the shops were closed (which was often) it was possible to buy cigarettes from vending machines anywhere and any time the urge struck – in the streets, at the train stations, outside schools and inside Cologne Zoo. The chimps were happy about that, and could be seen hanging around the cigarette vending machines on their small bicycles, wearing a variety of amusing hats and harassing zoo-goers for spare change.
An island in the madness, and possibly the only place in Germany where smoking really was strictly prohibited and the rule was strictly enforced, was the Jugendherberge (youth hostel) where I spent my first couple of nights in the Rhineland. Actually, practically everything was strictly prohibited in the Jugendherberge, which had been carefully concealed in a forest on the Venusberg, a hill overlooking Bonn from the west.
As the sun crept back behind the clouds, the bus stopped on the side of a deserted road, in the deep green shade of ancient trees. Wordlessly, the driver communicated with a jerk of his thumb that could equally have said “This is your stop,” or simply “Get Out!”
The doors swung shut behind me and as the bus puffed and grunted its way around the next bend, the silence of the forest closed in. A small sign, almost obscured by moss, displayed a blue triangle with a pine tree and a hut on it. The sign indicated a not particularly well-trodden path leading away from the road and into the gloom.