I had an early start this morning and snuck in a round of golf as the sun came up. It has stopped raining for a change but it is quite windy and feels like autumn. Nice to be up and about though. I woke up just as it was getting lighter and didn’t want to wake Ariane so I left the lights off and got dressed in the dark. I paid particular attention to the socks and felt my way to a pair of summer hiking socks – the fancy sort which are specially shaped for left and right feet. I couldn’t see if I had got them the right way round but they felt good so I had obviously guessed right. I went out, played a decent 9 holes, came back to find everyone still asleep so made myself a coffee and settled myself on the patio for some early blogging. Then I looked at my feet (see picture). Good marketing trick, that left and right feet business.
Anyway, enough about my socks and apologies for that picture if you are reading this over breakfast. Today I am going to write about how to greet people in Germany. It’s not as simple as you might think. The easy fall-back option is to smile and say “Hallo”. It’s not hello but a definite hallo. No matter where you are in Germany people will understand you and probably give you a friendly nod and return another greeting. If you want to get fancy you can use the classic Guten Morgen, Guten Tag or Guten Abend depending on what time of day it is. That is very polite and will see you through the day. In England we say good morning right up to midday but I would recommend switching from Guten Morgen to Guten Tag at about 10:30 in Germany. Guten Abend kicks in from about 6:00 pm.
But if you are wandering around in Hamburg and cheerfully say “Guten Tag” to somebody over lunch they will probably answer with “Moin, Moin”. I always used to think that this was them just saying “morgen, morgen” quickly. But they say it at all times of the day. The origins of the word are not clear, but it probably does come from “Morgen” somehow. The Hamburger dialect is usually spoken in a chirpy upbeat manner and a friendly “Moin, Moin” makes you feel welcome. Just down the road in Bremen, the dialect is similarly friendly but there they only feel the need to say “Moin”. Apparently once is enough in Bremen.
Down south in Bavaria, they still regularly say “Grüß Gott” – greet God – which is quite formal and doesn’t mean you are a religious nut. As a child I went on a couple of camping holidays in Bavaria. Dad drove us down there in a classic VW Caravette in the days before the surfers had bought them all. I can remember him teaching my brother and I the most important two phrases we would need in Germany. The first was “Kinderspielplatz?” – because as soon as we arrived at the camp site we asked where the children’s playground was. The second was Grüß Gott. We went walking and, in the German tradition, our parents bought a walking stick for me (I think my brother was still too small). When you climbed a mountain or visited a tourist attaction you could buy little metal badges to nail on to the walking stick. It had a spike on the bottom and I was very proud of it. Back in those days it was taken for granted that walkers would always greet each other with a friendly “Grüß Gott”. If I am out in the mountains today, I always greet other walkers like this although they are usually surprised and take a second to gather themselves before answering. I hope this doesn’t die out. I suppose it is strange that a foreign infidel like me should want to uphold the tradition of such a holy greeting, but Bavaria wouldn’t be Bavaria without it’s nutty catholic history and over-the-top Baroque chapels and churches. So I don’t mind making a concession and saying Grüß Gott when I get the chance – it also reminds me of happy times going up proper mountains with my family and my stick.
I moved back to Bavaria about 20 years after those first visits, and as a young man I was for a while too cool to be Grüß-Gotting all over the place. I soon learned that a much cooler and somehow more casual greeting was “Servus”. Servus is pretty useful because it can mean hello and goodbye. The word actually means slave in latin, and presumably it was part of a greeting which meant something like “I am at your service”. Anyway, if I meet friends in Bavaria they will usually say Servus. Unlike the chirpy Hamburger accent, the Bavarians have a more subdued, you could say grumpy-sounding, accent. A mumbled “Servus” from a Bavarian farmer is about as far as you can get from a bright “Moin, Moin” from a Hamburger fisherman but both mean the same thing.
In the middle of the country, the “g” in Tag tends to be pronounced more softly. So Tag sounds like Tach – with the end of the word sounding like the ch in the Scottish word loch. Quite often they will miss the Guten out of Guten Tag and just say “Tach”. It can be a bit unnerving at first – you think they have just cleared their throat but they have just issued a friendly greeting. If you get to Cologne, things get still more complicated. Real “Kölscher” don’t pronounce the G at the begining of word like the rest of Germany, instead they pronounce it as a Y. So Guten Tag, sounds like “Yuten Tach”. The Cologne accent has a sing-song quality to it so it still sounds very friendly, if a little odd.
Finally, and I am only putting this bit in for my friend Alan, there are the strange folk who live in Hessen. The accent around Mannheim and Frankfurt is different again. The most distinctive features are leaving the “n” of the end of words and a refusal to pronounce the hard “g” when it is in the middle of a word. So that means that Guten Morgen sounds like “Gute Morshe”. Usually they leave the Gute out, so it’s just a simple “Morsche”.
All this is just another reminder of the strong regional differences in Germany. We tend to forget that Germany is just a federation of states that was thrown together as a country a little over 150 years ago. The regions cling on to their differences – and why not, I like it.
Bis morsche, as they say in Hesse.