Schnick-Schnack-Schnook or Die!
The cradle of German civilisation. An early encounter with some Easterners.
Glimpsing the darker side of communal living.
To understand the people, one must understand their youth.
- Joseph Stanislaus Zauper
Lieber Bier im Bauch, als Wasser im Kopf.
- German proverb
Bonn’s officially sanctioned youth hostel, when it finally emerged from the subdued green light of the forest, was a large and clean and orderly brick and glass building, surprisingly free of moss, given its location. It had gleaming grey linoleum floors which squeaked under the rubber souls of the gleaming grey hostel employees as they went efficiently and silently (aside from the squeaking) about their rounds.
Situated high on the Venusberg with the forest at its back, overlooking Bonn’s southern suburbs, this building seemed to have been based on architectural plans which had failed to win a tender for a mental hospital in the 1970s. The poorly lit and echoing corridors gave the place the air of an institutional building with some vague sense of medicinal or religious use and the kind of ugly angular furniture that said “Have a seat if you like, but don’t get too comfortable.”
Archaeologists say that Germany’s first permanent settlement was in the forests surrounding this echoing brick and glass sanatorium. Like the youth hostel, that settlement was perched high on the bluff and protected on three sides by steep slopes. Back in those days, some time around 4080 before Christ, a wooden palisade fence across the fourth side completed the defences. The palisades have long disintegrated into soil, but nowadays the location is protected just as effectively from foreign hordes and the prying eyes of outsiders by poor signposting and an intermittent and unreliable bus service.
If a city has no backpacker accommodation it can mean only one of two things
The hostel was just as clean and sterile and soulless as every other Jugendherberge in Germany. Unlike backpackers’ hostels in the rest of the world, where youth from all parts of the globe gather together to swap travel tales, drink and have sex in crowded dorms with exotic strangers, these hostels cater mostly to groups of school children and hiking clubs for the elderly and the old at heart, Germany’s fastest growing demographic.
Bonn’s Jugendherberge was the only low-cost accommodation option in town. If I had put two and two together I would have realised that if a city had no backpacker accommodation it could mean only one of two things: either there was no reason for adventurous young foreigners to come here, or adventurous young foreigners weren’t welcome here. Neither explanation sounded particularly tantalising; and over the ensuing years I was to discover that neither explanation was completely true, but both had elements of truth in them.
The featureless cleanliness seeped from the whitewashed walls into the minds of all who stayed within them. Or at least that was the philosophy upon which the German youth hostel network had been founded, and it remains the fervent hope of the people managing them today. This place on Bonn’s Venusberg had nothing at all in common with Hans Meid’s 1910 painting titled Venusberg.
“We love our work here” the stooped and pale fellow behind the desk intoned tonelessly as he selected a key from 200 identical keys hanging in orderly rows on the board behind him. “I’m sure you will enjoy your stay,” he said without enjoyment. “You will follow me now.” It wasn’t clear if it was a question, a suggestion or a command.
He guided me down the corridor, his shoes squeaking softly past rows of identical grey doors on both sides. The grey light emanating from energy-saver bulbs vaguely illuminated his features at ten meter intervals; and the far off but much brighter green glow of the emergency exit sign gleamed faintly in his glassy eyes. Later I realised that he did actually have at least one glass eye, which may have partly explained this unsettling phenomenon.
He stopped, turned, inserted the key in a door. “Breakfast from 6 to 7. Three boiled eggs and three bread rolls per person per day” he said, without turning to face me, and without a further word he squeakered off the way he had come.
I entered the room. A rather well thought out design system meant that each dorm had an inner door and outer door, with the bathroom and shower between. This was probably originally a security measure designed to separate the psychopaths from the homeopaths. It now did a fairly efficient job of insulating the sleepers from the noise of early risers going about their ablutions, as well as from much of the noise echoing along the corridor as school groups and pensioners screamed and fought their way to the dining room for the bread rolls and boiled eggs which were served three times a day.
As I opened the first, outer door, I could hear terse voices and a flurry of activity on the inside. Seems I’m going to have some room-mates, I thought as I opened the door. I wasn’t sure if I would prefer to discover psychopaths or homeopaths, but as I stepped inside everything was suddenly silent and still. Two of the beds were occupied by what appeared to be sleeping people.
I tried to be as quiet as possible, dumping my rucksack on the floor and starting to unpack. The two ‘sleeping’ figures both sat up with bottles of beer in their hands.
“Oh, we thought it was the Hausmeister, and beer is not allowed in the rooms”, one of them said.
“Do you like beer?” asked the other.
“Yes, I like beer.”
“Here, have one.”
They were evidently homeopaths.
And so I was introduced to Andreas and Mario.
“Where are you from?” asked Andreas.
“Australia. Where are you from?” I asked.
“We’re from the ‘Ost’, the eastern part of Germany” Mario said, “So we are Ossies and you are Aussie!” He pronounced the two words in exactly the same way.
Fairly soon there was no beer left in the room so we went to a small supermarket a few blocks away and bought more. After that we took a taxi down town and found a pub.
Andreas and Mario came from a small town south of Berlin, deep in what used to be the German Democratic Republic. They were in Bonn hunting for an apartment for Andreas, who was about to take up a job with Deutsche Telekom, the telecommunications giant which was formed out of the privatised remains of the German government telecommunications company of almost the same name.
The WG tends to be fertile ground for poorly considered sexual liaisons and passive aggressive notes on the fridge. I was to experience only one of these two forms of communication.
It was also my great pleasure to be initiated into the limitless joys of house-hunting in Germany. A shared house or apartment in Germany is called a “Wohngemeinschaft” (literally “living community”), or “WG” for short. It’s pronounced “Veh Geh” which sounds very much like the German words for “pain” and “go”. However the WG has nothing to do with pain relief, nor with hippy style communal living. Like elsewhere in the world, there are generally two types: a group of friends who all set up together when they leave their respective familial homes, or a selection of misfits who barely know each other and are sharing simply because they’re too poor to rent a place of their own. Like anywhere in the Western World, the WG tends to be fertile ground for poorly considered sexual liaisons and passive aggressive notes on the fridge. Over the next several years I was to see more than my fair share of one of these forms of social interaction, and not very much of the other.
The German’s have a well developed network of websites where people can look for shared accommodation and I had done my homework in advance, well as much as I could, considering my lack of knowledge about the complex social behaviours associated with finding a German WG and my limited grasp of the language. The first few apartments I looked at didn’t impress me, nor did the people in them.
One room in an old farmhouse was nice, large, with a view onto the farmhouse courtyard; but the room was only accessible via the sole bathroom, shared by four other people. The woman who was showing me around fixed her sunken, dark-rimmed eyes on me through her Buddy Holly glasses and assured me confidently that this would not pose a problem.
“We already know what each one has under the clothes, yes?” she said, pushing a lacklustre strand of hair out of her face and making a wan attempt at a winning smile.
Her ten-year-old son inspected me through a pair of Coke bottle bottoms in a wire frame.
“Why does the man speak so funny?” he asked his mother.
“Because he is an Outlander, so he speaks Outland language.”
“Will he make schnick schnack schnook with us?”
“No Darling, he doesn’t know how to make schnick schnack schnook yet,” she said tiredly.
The kid looked disappointed and then turned towards me again, piercing my flesh with his x-ray goggles. I got the impression that he had worn his mother down with some kind of hyperactivity disorder, and a never-ending stream of stupid questions. I also got the feeling that I was quite possibly the 20th or 30th person to look at the room.
That was enough for me. I wasn’t going to hang around making schnick schnack schnook – whatever that was – with strange ten-year-old boys and their mothers who liked a good naked romp in the bathroom together with total strangers, or enjoyed using a toilet in what served as a public thoroughfare. There are very good reasons why we don’t install toilets in the corridors of our homes.
I politely made my excuses and sprinted to the nearest bus-stop.