The Hammer Game and Life on the Mild Frontier. Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 24.

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The porous membrane between city and country. A reconnaissance mission into Dransdorf’s nightlife. Comb-overs and perms – the height of village fashion.

***

From the dear village youth, one can tell immediately if the place has a good or a bad schoolteacher.

– Karl Julius Weber

Greece is pretty much everywhere.

– Marcus Steinbeis

Not that I want to dwell on it too much, but let’s revisit Arminius, or Hermann, or Old Blue Eyes – whichever you prefer – for a moment. After the death of Arminius thanks to the treachery of his own tribesmen in 18AD, and the later recovery of the precious third eagle which had caused Emperor Augustus so much pain (see Episode 19), the Romans assumed all was now hunky dory along the old Rheinal frontier. But there were still some nasty surprises and plenty of bloodshed in store before they could settle down to a comfortable and idyllic riverside existence. Two years after the last Roman eagle was recovered the first Germanic Legion arrived and began building a permanent fortified camp in Bonn. It wasn’t too long before the Romans regretted building their house of sticks. But that gory story will have to wait until next week.

I too was exploring my new frontiers and settling into life among the Barbarians. Dransdorf still retained something of a frontier atmosphere. I regularly saw a guy in rubber boots riding his bicycle across the tram tracks, past the bank, the ruined mill and the abandoned gas station, lunch slung over the handlebars and pitchfork over one shoulder. Tractors towing trailers full of hay or logs or cow-shit dominated the traffic, and my nose told me the fields weren’t far away – just a short walk up the hill and through the last cluster of houses, and there they were, in the golden dusk as it filtered through the mist. Happy cyclists and dogs named Waldi made the most of the almost never-ending golden summer twilight.

The Gaststätte zum Bahnhof was Dransdorf’s nicest pub – mainly because it was permanently closed.

Once settled I decided to check out the local drinking holes. There wasn’t much choice: a bar, two pubs and a Greek take-away; but I thought it would be good to find somewhere local to go for a beer in cases of emergency.

The first pub I tried, the “At the spring” (Zum Quelle), was practically across the road from my WG, so I figured it was worth popping in for a drink and checking it out. Once my eyes had adjusted to the acrid pall of cheap cigarette smoke and the semi-darkness broken mainly by the flashing lights of a fruit machine, I could see that it was packed. German Schlager music was blaring from the jukebox at top volume. In two and a half years, it was the only place in Germany where I found a jukebox, but the technology was sadly wasted. Schlager (explained a little while ago in the Bad Münstereifel chapter) is a music form which is totally unlistenable to anyone not from small town Deutschland, where the schlager-appreciation gene has still not died out.

The crowd shrieked and screamed above the jukebox, some swaying unsteadily and arhythmically together, doing their best to sing along with the music. Others gathered around corner tables in conspiratorial little groups. It was early in the evening, but people had already passed out on or under some of the tables.

In one corner a group of guys were trying to hammer nails into a large piece of tree stump, using the small end of one of those strange little European hammers, the kind that carpenters use in Australia to hammer tiny tacks into fine furniture. They shouted encouragement to each other, though most were well past the point of making an accurate shot. Some looked like they’d have better luck using their foreheads or their fists.

A red-faced man was yelling at me, one end of his moustache hanging in a glass of beer, gesturing drunkenly at the taps.

Ranged along the bar was a motley crowd of badly dressed middle-aged chain-smokers, growling at each other through once elaborate moustaches, now soaked with beer and drooping lopsidedly. Their moustaches weren’t in great shape either. In this pub nobody spoke English. In fact they barely spoke German. They roared and gurgled in the Dransdorf dialect of Bönnsch, and I couldn’t understand a word of it. Not that it looked like I was missing anything. I managed to find enough space between two leatherish jackets, one sporting a magnificent and complicated comb-over and the other a blond 1980s perm, and when a lull between songs reduced the din from ear-splitting to just frightening, I tried to order a drink. A red-faced man was yelling at me, one end of his moustache hanging in a glass of beer, the other hand gesturing drunkenly at the taps and waving what looked like a lace doily. It was the barman asking whether I wanted Pils or Kölsch.

Eiche Brutal is a popular and attractive choice for a village pub interior.

No one else looked at me and nobody spoke to me. I finished my beer, and after the bartender finally resorted to writing the price on a beer coaster so that this unwelcome foreigner could understand how much to pay, I left. I hadn’t even been inside long enough to unzip my jacket, but I felt – and smelled – as if I’d just monkey-fucked* a pack of cigarettes in a pigsty.

I wandered up to the other pub about three blocks away, a traditional 19th century tavern with its almost ornate red and yellow brick facade. What had once been stained glass windows onto the street had been replaced with large flat panes in aluminium frames. From the street I could hear an animated conversation underway but the interior was concealed behind frilly curtains. I went up the steps and opened the door, which triggered a string of cowbells to clanging. The interior had long since lost all of its original charm, through several misguided makeovers in the 60s, 70s and 80s, but to compensate, it had now all been redone in a dark-brown rustic log-cabinish or country kitchenish style which I discovered later was called “Eiche rustikal”, or rustic oak. As I was also to learn later, this style of décor was commonly referred to as “Eiche brutal”. I don’t think that needs a translation. As I opened the door and entered, all conversation ceased and the six people in the room fell into grim silence. “Guten abend”, I offered in my best German and friendliest possible tone. One man grunted, possibly in reply. The bartender pretended he hadn’t seen me and busily polished a beer glass, until it was easily the cleanest one in the bar. Certainly the only one that had been polished in years. He spat in it and put it back on the shelf.

There were chickens everywhere. Not real ones, but little chickens made out of porcelain or wood, or crocheted out of wool, or made out of toilet roll inners and cheap Christmas ribbon. There was a chicken shaped tea-pot, salt and pepper shakers which had been made to look like chickens, and photographs and paintings of chickens on the wall. A chicken shaped clock cockadoodledooed 8pm.

I ordered a beer, one of those little thimblefulls of Kolsch, and drank it in a silence broken only by the loud whisper of one client to another.

“What do you think he wants here?”

“Weisses niet”, came the whispered reply in Bönnsch.

I paid up, addressed the assembled Dransdorf-chicken-appreciation club with a hearty “Auf wiedersehen”, to which I got an even less enthusiastic grunt than my good evening had extracted, and left.

I crossed the road to the Greek take-away, and it was as if I had landed on a different planet.

 

***

 

*”Monkey-fuck” is an Australian colloquial expression for lighting a cigarette from the last glow of the preceding butt, or for lighting a cigarette in the same way from the fag of another smoker.

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