A case of the Bad Münstereifels. The second course.
Nothing works so poorly on children than a threat which cannot be fulfilled before evening.
- Johann Paul Friedrich Richter
Man has the children that he wants to have; he produces the descendants he deserves.
- Georg Sticker
By the time I stumbled out of the forest and dragged myself, caked in mud, bleeding and cursing all God’s creation up the steps of the youth hostel, I had missed dinner. Worse, there was also no beer. And by that stage I was too exhausted and dispirited to try and find my way back to the town, through the forest in the dark, for a beer and a feed.
Back in 1909, a bushwalking schoolteacher by the name of Richard Schirmann had the first idea for the youth hostel concept. Legend has it he was out hiking with a school group when they got caught in a thunderstorm. They took refuge in a village school building in Bröl, in the high country not far to the southeast of Bonn, and from there the idea was born. The following year he opened the doors to the first temporary hostel in the school where he was teaching in Altena, a small town 100km northeast of Bröl, on a loop of the Lenne River which joins the Rhein at Duisburg.
Altena clings to the slopes around the 12th century Burg Altena, an imposing fortress of dark stone, as was the norm in the 12th century. Not too long after the provisionary hostel in Altena was in business, the operation decamped up the hill to its first permanent site at the Burg. Thus started the tradition of punishing guests by forcing them to hike up mountainsides in order to reap their reward of boiled eggs and bread rolls.
In an article in the Kölnische Zeitung in 1910 Schirmann outlined his concept for a network of youth hostels; and by the end of 1911 a total of 18 hostels had opened their doors. Pretty soon they began to pop up in the forest like mushrooms in a wet autumn – by 1921 there were 1300 of them, and that number doubled by the end of the 1920s. The fungus spread across Germany’s borders and became Hostelling International, now present in 90 countries around the globe.
That night the hostel in the forest above Bad Münstereifel played host to a group of students from the Bunzenberner-Realschule, or the Fritz Hinkel Schule für Behinderte Idioten, I forget which. Their teachers had decided it would be much better to stay in one of the luxury hotels in the village where they could enjoy a few beers on the terrace at sunset and an enormous breakfast buffet in the morning; so they left 60 teenagers unsupervised to spend the night in the hostel. I was shoehorned into a room on the same wing as this rabble, and at 10 o’clock sharp the airlock at the end of the corridor was sealed. The screaming, shouting, schnapps-guzzling door-slamming, furniture smashing, corridor-running, Insane-Clown-Posse-At-Volume-Eleven-Blaring went on until after 3:00am.
It wasn’t the last time I would be the unfortunate victim of this oddly paradoxical laisser-faire attitude to German child-rearing. It seemed so totally at odds with the general norms of German society. Children were pretty much allowed to do whatever they pleased, were given priority in all social situations, were never scolded, never disciplined, never asked to wait until the adults had finished speaking before butting in. Many times I heard parents say that it wasn’t up to adults to correct children, as they were innocents and knew instinctively what was right and what was wrong, and must be allowed to find their own way in the world, make their own mistakes, or they would never learn. Then at some point in their 20s or 30s it was as if some internal switch was flipped; and they would join the workforce and without ceremony, without question, metamorphose from undisciplined and discourteous petty criminals to obedient, “bürgerlich” conformists, ready at the slightest provocation to whip out the German “no-finger” and wag it in the face of the infidel.
I crawled out of bed at 6:30 for a breakfast of bread rolls and boiled eggs and coffee made from socks and dish-water. I hunched over this feast, my eyes sticking out of my head like two pickled eggs which had been dipped in tabasco sauce, then grabbed a lift down the mountain with a 30-something couple who had also stayed the night there – though fortunately for them they’d had a room in another wing of the building and had slept peacefully. I jumped out at the train station and realised I had two and a half hours to wait before the first diesel would chuff its way wearily back to Bonn. It was three degrees Celsius, nothing was open and I was thrilled to bits.
When my fingers had finally lost all feeling and my guitar playing deteriorated to the point where my ears were too damaged to care, I looked for other options.
At half-past-eight the Cafe/Bar and Konditorei, a pastry-shop which served alcohol, across the street from the railway station finally opened. Coming through the door was like entering the atmosphere of another planet. No, not one of the planets on Star Trek where the sun is shining, visibility is good and the air is sweet to breathe. The cigarette smoke hung in a dense pall at the regulation 1500mm height.
The place had only been open for 10 minutes – it was hard to understand how so much smoke had been created in such a short time. Due to a quirk in the ventilation system, it was especially thick in the section with the little non-smoking signs on the tables. Of course it wasn’t law to have a non-smoking section, and if a non-smoker ever entered the place they could take emphatic refuge in the fact that at least it was marked “Nichtraucher!”, and there were no smokers actually sitting in that corner. The important thing was that there was a sign saying it was so.
The rest of the place was packed, though the only Konditorei client clearly visible was a dwarf in one corner, short enough that his visage bobbed just below the smoke horizon. He eyed me with a sadistic leer as the ash dropped from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth – and the little grey cylinder tumbled to the floor via his scarlet suit jacket.
Not one person in that smoky box considered – even for a moment – opening a window. I was to become accustomed to this truly German phenomenon. They are terrified of draughts, believing that they cause everything from the flu, to urinary tract infections, to “Kreislaufstörungen” – a whole suite of imaginary but potentially devastating disturbances in the Teutonic Chakra. Something as simple as leaving a window open can result in up to six months on sick leave if one invokes the magic word: “Kreislaufstörung.”
I spent the next 45 minutes trying to attract the waitress’s attention through the nicotine haze, so I could pay too much for a pastry baked the day before and now well-smoked on its wire rack, and a coffee which smelled of detergent and was cold when it arrived. It took me some years to realise that it was by sitting in these smoky little airtight boxes that Germans maintained their skin-tone at the regulation field-grey. At least I could be safe in the knowledge a draught wasn’t going to sneak up behind me and give me a pulmonary embolism! I looked at my watch and dashed for the door. The train was at the siding and would be leaving in five minutes.
I moved into my new apartment that afternoon, and 20 minutes after dumping my backpack I was squeezed into Matthias’s Volkswagen Golf with my four new flatmates and Matthias’s girlfriend, and off to the tenpin bowling centre, where we made ample use of the bar and the gutters on either side of our lane. Fortunately Matthias had only had seven or eight, and manage to avoid the gutters on the drive home. After that first drunken afternoon I felt like I had chosen my flatmates well; and once again I felt my faith in the wisdom of this German experiment returning.
The next day I faced my first day in a new job, in a new country, with a stinking hangover.