The Pretzel Within
Hippos belching down drainpipes and other fun in Munich
1st May, 2003
"It's huge", she said. I nodded. We both gazed at it in silence. Behind us, the music
pumped on, a solid repeated rhythm. Omp omp omp - omp omp omp.
"It's not going to go away. You can eat and eat but it won't get any smaller." Omp OMP omp...
"We could run away, run away and never look back...?" OMP omp OMP omp
"They'd catch us. They'd catch us and make us come back. They'd make us come back
and they'd make us eat it and
we'll never finish it and they'll make us drink more beer and listen to more music and eat more
sausages and soon we won't ever be able to leave!" OMP OMP OMP
There was hysteria in her voice, but she was right. This was Bavaria, this was a Munchener Biergarten with 5000 people and and an oompah band and litres of Augustiner beer
and... OMP omp OMP
is no escape from the giant pretzel.
So. Munchen. Munich is an airy, historic city surrounded by the spring flowers and rolling meadows
of Upper Bavaria, and only a hour by train to the giant's playground of the Bavarian Alps.
So many different ways to get out and enjoy yourself. But this is Germany after all, an earnest land, so
when you have fun in Bavaria it must be serious fun. No free moment can pass by without a useful,
planned activity. A highly disciplined, orderly relaxation.
I got on a train to the Schwangau. The German concept of a train is an outlandish mixture of
comfort, timeliness and efficiency. I found it distinctly foreign. They don't understand,
as we do, that a railway company has nothing to do with passenger service, but must serve instead
as an employment and resthome for grumpy fat men, whose definition of value is the maximum discomfort
for the maximum price. Imagine this: you can travel anywhere in Germany on a weekend day, as far as you like,
when you buy a SchonesWochenende ticket. 28 euros. Absurd.
The journey was punctuated
with brief halts at a succession of tidy villages surrounded by immaculate
countryside. At each halt, glowing, brown limbed natives clambered on and off with bicycles,
rucksacks and enthusiastic
determination to make the maximum use of the perfect sub-Alpine weather. I looked at my own pale
limbs and travel worn
hiking gear and began to feel slow and stodgy in comparison.
Nothing could pale my spirits on such a day.
Everything was perfect. I took the smooth cable ride to the top of the Tegelberg, admired the crisp
view, and the daring of the
paragliders, stopped for a fresh-baked apfelstrudel und milchkaffee, and hiked down a
mountain ridge with breathtaking views of Neuschwanstein
Everything was too perfect. This couldn't be me! I'm not a Bavarian! Where were the chaotic accidents, the bad planning,
the Hungarian grandmother with a flick-knife, the unexpected nest of gerbils falling down my underpants? Where was the chaos and foolery
that I had come to expect during my travels?
Why was nothing going wrong?
Around me the Bavarians themselves, unconcerned in their orderly freizeit, huffed and puffed along the track, filling their lungs
with the mountain air and
sang Groß Gott! to each other as they passed by. They didn't have time to stop, like me, and consider whether a comedy piano
was about to fall on their head. What could I do to disturb such perfect planning?
Then I got it! I had absolutely no idea at what time the last train went back to Munich.
Chances were, I would sprint into the Bahnhof, my gear strewn behind me, only to see the last train puff off into the
distance, and spend the night in a ditch with a leprous beggar from Skopje.
Now I could relax, safe in the face
of unnecessary self-inflicted disaster. Despite everything Bavaria could throw at me, I could
still dissolve my life into chaos. I ran down the track laughing.
Huhn und Oberhenne
After the gesundliche Spaziergang, time for the beers. The people of Munich like to go for a quiet beer
with a few friends. Preferably five thousand of them at the same time. On a balmy summer's night, the great beer gardens
are a roar of people, and a flood of lager and sausages.
Part of Germanic fun involves singing. Now here's a strange thing. Most of the great composers
have been German speakers: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Mahler und so weiter. But a modern
German song sounds like nothing but a hippopotamus belching down a drainpipe. The last international
German hit was 99 Luftballons and that was 1983! (Nina Hagen. She's been dining out on it ever since. See Twenty years
of Nena here.)
The beer flows by the litre, the snacks get bigger, the dirndl-clad women begin heaving at the bosom.
A party of local girls come
by on a hen night, but, orderly fun again, each hen has a rank. The oberhenne checks out the boy, and gives permission to the
unterhuhn to chat him up. I love the opportunity to speak German. I love the shock and suprise that lights up a German face when
they meet a foreigner who has actually bothered to learn their language. Everyone is happy. I even thought my unter-hun might
lay an egg with suprise, but alas, Frau Oberhenne gave her marching orders.
Everybody likes to hear you speak German, that is, except the
tourist information people. They make their living giving information to lost tourists in English.
That's their speciality, as I discovered when I asked for advice in German. "I don't know what langauge to speak now", the information officer wailed." I
could see her point.
What if everyone marched in off the streets able to speak German? What if Americans wandered around
saying Wie kommt man nach dem Lust-haus?? The information woman would be
out of a job. "I'll speak English, or you might get lost," she decided, with this unspoken implication: "any more smart
talk out of you, sonny boy, and it's a one way sightseeing trip to the sausage factory - from the inside."
I took the hint, and managed to knock over an entire cigarette stand, hold my sausage at the wrong end and cross the
roads against the lights, as a good tourist should. Everyone could relax.
The Naughty Instructor
I had to do something with the colossal goodwill and healthy attitude I had built up over four days. There was nothing for
it: I had to join a beer tour. I joined the Crawl.
This is a simple yet brilliant idea hatched by those cunning Australians: a guided city tour, pub crawl and late
night party thrown into one.
And so I ended up in the Augustiner biergarten, with two Aussi beer guides,
some American girls we had picked up along the way, giant beers, and of course, 5000 new friends. I wanted to end on a cultural
note: we taught each other all the rude words we knew, in every language we knew. But nothing could beat, "I am overwhelmed
by the impudence of your pretzel, sir."
Later I fell back into my hotel room. There are fifty German TV channels available. Forty
transmit continual current affairs programs, serious and thoughtful discussions on a sparrow blight
or something in Turkmenistan. Eight of them are talk shows. All eight are interviewing
Nina Hagen, at the same time. "So, 1983, what a year for German music. Tell us about it..."
One channel features a humorous plastic sponge in a bucket, who raps. Finally the famous
european late night soft porn channel. There's a naughty aerobics instructor, who does a striptease in front
of an exercise bike. She murmurs in a disciplinary way.
Fun. Serious German fun. I fall asleep.