Author Archives: whittallm

Olympics Anyone?

You could be forgiven for not really noticing that the Olympics are currently taking place. The German team isn’t doing very well – they are suffering from fourth-place syndrome and missing lots of expected medals. First Brexit, the terrorist attacks and then the football European Cup have used up a lot of conversation and energy. Nobody is really bothered about the Olympics – especially as they aren’t going particularly well. Continue reading

Boring Lakes, Dull Mountains

The summer holidays are in full flight and for the first time for what seems like ages the weather has stayed hot and dry for a few days. It really feels like summer holidays now. No traffic on the way to work, everything is a bit quieter and people pass you on their bikes wearing flip-flops and carrying those straw mats that everyone lays on in Europe when they go to the beach. Or in our case, the Freibad – open air pool. Work is a little quieter too and for once we seemed to have synchronised our employees’ leave with the workload quite well. So that is why I am sitting in my office writing this.

And although I am now sitting at my desk and actually got quite a bit done, my mind is still down in the Allgäu – on the sunny shore of the Alatsee to be precise. I knocked off early on Friday and loaded the family into the car for another little camping weekend. The weather forecast was so good that it seemed a shame to stay at home. It worked out very well. We got a good spot on the campsite, we befriended a neighbouring family and apart from a few insect stings and sunburn managed to survive the weekend unscathed.

I have written a few posts about how beautiful the countryside is down there, so I promise not to rattle on about it too much. It gets a bit boring to read “away for another weekend and it was wonderful”. But I must not forget to tell you about a phenomenon called “Alpenglühen” or alpine glowing. The Alps only encroach onto the southernmost few kilometres of Germany and to the north of them is more or less flat countrrolling hills. If you are on top of one of the mountains the sun rises and sets over the flatlands. You get the first sun in the morning and the last rays at night. From our camp site this means that our tent was in shadow at about 8pm but the sun was still shining on the mountains half an hour or more later. Sometimes when the weather has been a bit rainy but is improving, a layer of cloud will hang around over the mountains even though a few kilometres into the flatlands the sky has cleared. If during this time the sun is setting it shines a very red light onto the higher mountain cliffs – if they are wet the reflection is even more powerful and they appear to be glowing red. We had a bit of Alpenglühen on Friday evening. It wasn’t the best I’ve seen but still breathtakingly beautiful and had everyone running for their cameras and phones to record it. You’ll have to take my word for it because by the time I had put my reading specs on and got my phone working, the summit was in shadow. I took a picture of some wispy clouds instead.

The rest of the weekend was without incident. It was cool at night, hot during the day and we spent two days next to a lake. The girls were in and out of the water, more or less continously, until Ariane and I nagged them back to the car in the evening. The only thing that spoiled the weekend for me was the trains. As we sat in front of our tent having our takeaway meals (Pizza on Friday, Kebab on Saturday) the local train would blast its horn as its two carriages ambled back and forth. I have never seen anyone on that train, but one of my daughters claimed she did see a passenger once so maybe it’s not just for decoration.

Agreed, a small local train on a single-track line is not the most offensive thing in the world but I am currently at war with Deutsche Bahn. Anything which reminds me of trains, casts a shadow over my otherwise cheerful and carefree demenour. Let me explain. Three weeks ago I had an appointment in Cologne. I took the train up there and finished the meeting in good time to catch my train back. I was keen to get back on time because the school holidays had just started and I thought we could all watch a film together. Unfortunately I got on the wrong underground by accident and instead of having plenty of time things suddenly got tight. I asked the woman next to me what to do and she told me where to change in order to get back to the main station. I reckoned that I could just about still make it. I checked my phone to see if the train to Stuttgart was maybe delayed a little… no dice. Bang on time, which isn’t as common as they would have you believe.

I had a three minute journey ahead of me and in three minutes my train in the main station would depart. I still reckoned I’d be OK. Just as the underground was about to leave a bald man ran up to the doors and managed to open them. It took us another thirty seconds to get moving. I gave the bald man (who looked like me) an evil stare, and mumbled that I hope I haven’t missed my train because of you. He was unphased.

When we arrived at the main station I ran up the stairs and slalomed through the commuters up to platform six – just in time to hear the whistle and see all the doors closing. I was literally 5 seconds too late. Still, I hit the little button to open the door and to my surprise it opened. I made a move to get in but a very large grumpy looking Deutsche Bahn employee stood in my way and said “Nein”. I didn’t actually say anything but my expression and gestures obviously showed my incredulity and she said “Nein!” loudly again. The door shut in my face and I stood there like an idiot. An angry idiot. It still takes a moment for several thousand tonnes of ICE train to get moving so I tapped on the windown and gave the employee a friendly hand-sign to signal my understanding for her strict observance of the health and safety regulations.

Well, there was nothing I could do. I got the next train an hour later and wrote an angry mail to the “Customer Care” mailbox. I got a load of waffle back which has made me even more angry. I suppose I could try and register a formal complaint against the employee (spitting image of Mrs Trunchbowl in Matilda if you’ve seen the film) but a spot of googling made me think that might not be a good idea. You see, over here, the courts are pretty strict about offensive remarks and signals. Due to the language barrier and the strange light in the station, she may well have misinterpreted my friendly signal and I don’t want to get in any trouble. My only consolation was that the elderly couple who initially looked taken aback at my reaction, then quickly agreed that I was fully justified in being less than delighted with the service of Deutsche Bahn and that Mrs Trunchbowl should have let me on. Grrr.

Whenever I heard the train blast its horn at the weekend, I got up and submerged myself in the cool lake. Did a few strokes underwater and by the time I returned to my spot, the redness in my face was due only to the sun.

Bis morgen!

Stuff Germans Say

My Dad is staying with us at the moment and this morning we got talking about strange things Germans say. The phrase which set it off was “tote Hose” which literally means dead trousers. There is a fairly famous German rock group called “Die toten Hosen” but the expression actually means that something is very quiet or “dead”. For example if someone asked “were there lots of people in the bar last night?” you might answer, “Nein, tote Hose.” It is a very common expression and until I translated it into English this morning it always seemed entirely innocent to me. Only when I explained that it meant dead trousers did I wonder whether it was really referring to the virility of the wearer of said trousers. I’ll leave that to the readers’ imagination.

One of the expressions I always liked was “es hat Hand und Fuß” – it’s got a hand and a foot, which is used to say that an idea is good or is well thought out. My Dad pointed out that in English you might say “that idea has got legs”. Well in Germany they like to go one better and give the ideas hands as well. Talking of going one better, in the English theatre it is common to say “break a leg” before someone goes on stage. Here they obviously don’t think that is enough so they say “Hals und Beinbruch” – break your neck and a leg.

Although there are some charming idioms, there are also some less attractive conventions in Germany. Whereas in Britain (and especially in business circles) the acronym has taken over (remember when people were gay and not LGBT?) in Germany they contract longer words or phrases by taking the the first letters of some syllables. So, for example, ein Transformer becomes a “Trafo”. Or Kriminal Polizei becomes “Kripo”. We have all heard of the infamous “Gestapo” but not many people know that it is a contraction of the Geheime Staatspolizei (literally, the secret state police). There are hundreds of these contracted words and it took me a few years to know what people were talking about. My favourite of all time, though, is used to describle the mullet hairstyle which was so popular amongst German footballers in the 80s and 90s. Here it is called the “Vokuhila” – a contraction of vorne kurz, hinten lang. This means, with admirable German clarity, “front short, back long”.

Bis später!

#101 Delusions

Well done, hoardes of loyal readers. You have survived 100 posts about life in Germany. You may have noticed that I set off a little quickly and have paced myself poorly. I had intended to write a post every day and then I thought five a week, which dwindled to three and now I haven’t posted for six whole days! In marathon running jargon, I have hit the wall. Or as the locals would say “er hat seine Pulver verschossen” – he has used all his gunpowder.

It’s funny – the first 70 posts came relatively easily. The healthy stream of posts over the first few weeks started to dwindle and eventually turned into a painful drip for two reasons. The first is that as the pressure of work has cranked up I have less brain space for writing. The second is that when I think of a new subject, I can’t remember if I have already written about it. If I were a proper writer, I would go back, read and notate all my posts so I could quickly cross-reference them and get back on track. That’s not going to happen.

One thing I have noticed about this writing lark, is that there are days when it comes easily and days when it doesn’t. So in future the flow of posts may be a bit lumpy, but on the good days I will try and rattle off a couple in a day.  I still intend to write another 100 posts in the next half a year.

My plan when I started was to write enough in a year for a book . I reckon I will need 200 posts, which will be corrected and edited down to about 120. I can then publish it on Amazon and at least say I have written a book. Once that monkey is off my back, I will use the generous proceeds to rent a house on the New England coastline where I will write the masterpiece to set the literary world alight in 2018. Unfortunately, I am going to need your help. Please use the comments or like buttons on the posts to give me some feedback. This inflates my already bloated feeling of self-importance and encourages me to think harder and write more. Please don’t be afraid to ask questions too – what would you like to read about?

Bis später!

 

Engineers

I have just returned for a weekend riding a very old motorcycle around the roads of an area called the Holledau (or Hallertau, depending on who you ask) in Bavaria. Apart from being a lovely place with excellent motorcycling roads, it is the largest hops-growing area in Europe. It’s not an area you would usually visit – after all, Bavaria already has Munich, Neuschwanstein and the Alps – but this just lends it even more charm. The weather was perfect, the ride went well and the company was good too.

Most of the Saturday was spent hanging around. The main event is on Sunday but on Saturday the organisers arranged for all the participants to go on a short ride of about 20km. The bikes are then put out on display in the large beer garden which is the start and finish area of the event. After they had been out for a little while the organisers had arranged for a large secure barn to house all the bikes overnight. This is a great relief because the alternative involves loading bikes back into vans and trailers – which is just what you don’t want to be doing when a load of your mates are there and there is beer to be drunk.

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Not just for looking at… every bike made it round the 120km course.

So we ended up sitting under the trees having a few glasses of the local “Jäger” brew. We then had a break and a snooze in the late afternoon and returned to the beer garden in the evening for something to eat. As in any self-respecting German beer garden, all the tables are the same – long with a bench on each side and comfortably seating 10 people. So it is quite common to end up sharing your table with another group, especially if there are only two of you. This is exactly what happened to us and soon my Dad and I found ourselves in conversation with a couple of locals.

They were both mechanical engineers. One specialising in building machines and the other a machinist. Even though they were not veteran motorcycle experts, they appreciated the old machines and were delighted that the vent was taking place on their home patch. After a while one of them got his phone out and proudly showed us the precisely milled headstock he had built for his BMW motorbike back home.

It occurred to me that there is a reason why the British manufacturing industry has declined while in Germany it continues to thrive, and it wasn’t just Margret Thatcher. Being an engineer is a profession which is really respected. In the suburbs and villages around Munich and Stuttgart there is every chance that you will meet lots of engineers. A quick google check, and I found out that mechanical engineering is the second most popular degree in Germany. In fact, five of the top ten degrees are engineering-related (including IT). In England things are very different – the first science (IT) is down at number five behind business studies, law, sociology and art. To be fair, both countries business studies at number one. The difference being in Germany that the business graduates will actually having something to sell.

We left the beer garden under the stars and wobbled the hundred yards back to our hotel, ready for a good night’s sleep in preparation for the “proper” run over 120km the next day. I knocked on Dad’s hotel room door at 8 the next morning and we wandered over for breakfast with the other motorcycle enthusiasts. The weather was even better than the day before – blue sky dotted with some benign cumulus clouds and not too hot. This is important because we ride the bikes in “appropriate” clothing. In our case this means an itchy tweed three-piece suit and tie. The only time Noel wears a tie is when he is riding his beloved old bikes and in Germany the eccentric “very British” rider image goes down a storm. We play up to it a little.

By ten o clock we were finally off and running. The scenery was perfect. Rolling hills stretched between the hops fields. Some times we would get a break from the sun by passing through a forest, other times we would be cruising along past open fields and quite often we would drop into the valleys and follow small rivers to the next village. It is fair to say that not a lot happens in many of the villages we passed through, so the locals had often set up chairs to watch us pass through. More often than not they were waving and smiling and always appreciated a wave back or a couple of toots on the old-fashioned bulb horn fitted to the bike. One bloke was busy waving the blue and white chequered Bavarian flag and I when I tooted the horn, he frantically upped the waving speed to indicate his approval. We pulled in for three pre-arranged stops (elevenses, lunch and afternoon ice-cream) and at each time the locals were out in force to oggle the bikes, ask questions and just generally make us feel very welcome.

When we finally made it back to base after a long day’s riding, the organiser had us parade through the now packed beer garden and said a few words about each rider. The whole thing was like an advert for Germany. Perfectly organised, lovely scenery, everything neat and tidy and quite beery. Our new-found English friends Simon, Steve and Nick were most impressed and promised to return. I certainly hope we go back next year and look forward to another old-fashioned weekend in a strangely charming old-fashioned corner of Germany.

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A serious Biergarten – can apparently seat 3000 people.

Bis morgen!

 

 

 

Timewarp

I am writing this from a hotel room in Haag an der Amper – a tiny village to the North East of Munich in a quiet, forgotten corner of Bavaria. My Dad, Noel, and I are taking part in a veteran motorcycle rally which we enjoyed for the first time last year. Noel brought the bikes down from Yorkshire in his van and we trundled over here yesterday. We are both riding Triumphs – Noel on a Model C from 1913 while I am on the modern machine, a Model H from 1918.

The event here is a great advertisment for German efficicency. It is perfectly organised and has the great benefit of starting and finishing in a very pleasant beer garden. This year there are a handful of Brits taking part too which makes things a little more pleasant too.

We arrived yesterday evening and took a stroll around the village looking for somewhere to eat. I did say this was a quiet forgotten corner of Bavaria but I had forgotten how quiet. It had been a rainy day so the beer garden was closed and we soon discovered that there was no other restaurant in the village. This is strange because you usually find at least a lone Gasthof in every Bavarian village – usually called the Gasthof Post or Adler. I found it tragic that a village could have a chruch but no pub. What is the world coming to?

We drove down the road to Zolling and soon found exactly what we were looking for – a traditional Bavarian Gasthof. The initial signs were not so good. There was a grumpy looking chap smoking a cigarette at the entrance and when we opened the door into the Gasthof everybody stopped momentarily and looked us over. Going into a rural bar in Germany can sometimes be a little daunting. Still, sturdy waitress soon served us a couple of beers and we settled in.

Things got better when Noel noticed one of his motorcycling pals, Ronald from Belgium, sitting at another table with three Brits. We said hello and joined them. Soon the beer worked its magic and we were all enjoying a lovely evening. The conversation switching between the superiority of pre First World War Bosch magnetos to Brexit, to politics, to music to religion – and back to Bosch magnetos. The food was excellent and the waitress slowly warmed to us and showed the hint of a smile every now and then.

The bar filled up with all sorts of different groups. There was a heavy drinking,  card-playing table of middle-aged men, next to them the “Dorfjugend” (the village youth) and behind us was a table full of the older generation. As the evening wore on everyone could see that we were enjoying ourselves and making a decent effort to speak German to the waitress. I could see the table of elderly visitors nodding approvingly about the Brit table and soon we were all saying how friendly and wonderful Germany was.

Looking around the bar, it really did feel like we had slipped through a wormhole to another time. The decor was heavy wooden tables and heavy wooden ceilings. Our waitress was in the traditional Dirndl dress which wouldn’t have looked out of place a hundred years ago. I had the traditional “Zwiebelrostbraten” – a delicious beef steak with onions. When I ordered it I was asked whether I would like it medium or well-done. None of your french “à point” nonsense here. You get your meat cooked in Bavaria. The “Wirt” (landlord) was wearing, of course, Lederhosen.

In the end we warmed to the Gasthof Hörhammer and it warmed to us. Must leave now – the events start on time here and the organiser, Otto, made a point of telling us all to be pünktlich – on time – this morning.

Bis morgen.

Lakes & Mountains

On Saturday, as I wrote in my last post, Alan and I were give a free pass to go paragliding. The sun was shining and the conditions looked OK. We were also just happy to be spending a day together away from work too. Because there was a west wind forecast we decided to drive to another flying area about 20km away from the campsite and our normal spot in Pfronten. Continue reading

Happy Camper

The school holidays have finally started in Baden-Württemberg. We are as relieved as the kids. Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, the two southernmost states in Germany, are always the last ones to break up. In other areas of Germany they have already been off for four weeks and by the time it gets to be our turn, everyone is really ready for it. The girls now have six weeks off and will not go back to school until mid September. The last few days of school involve various days out, parties and parents’ evenings. It turns into a bit of a marathon and we are just happy it’s all over. Continue reading

Terror

Well it’s been a busy week for would-be terrorists and murderers. Over the past seven days there have been four separate attacks in Germany – all of them by migrants. Donald Trump has helpfully noted that Germany let them in and so should expect no less. The details and motives of all the attacks are becoming clearer every day but they were a mixed bag. It started a week ago in Wurzburg – a 17-year old Afghan refugee injured four people with an axe before being corned and shot dead by police. Then we had the Iranian youth in Munich, who was actually born in Germany, shooting nine dead. A day later a young Syrian refugee killed his girlfriend with a kebab-knife (the UK press insists on calling it a machete) and injured a couple more before being arrested. And later that day another Syrian refugee blew himself up and injured others in Ansbach.

So, how do we feel living in Southern Germany after these attacks? When the news broke of each attack, the immediate conclusion is “these must be ISIS terrorists”. The attacks in Munich and Reutlingen, the only lethal attacks, now seemed to have nothing to do with islamic terrorism. The other two certainly look like they were. But on the whole things feel just the same here and even though we have 100 Syrian refugees living in Schönaich.

Last summer when tens of thousands were arriving in Munich on a daily basis and Angela Merkel made her “Wir schaffen das” (we’ll cope) comment there was a sense of solidarity in the country. Germany of course always feels that it has something to prove and this was a tall order but a good opportunity to show the rest of Europe how open and tolerant the country was. And by and large Germany has coped remarkably well. Meanwhile in the background, Merkel was working feverishly with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants coming into the country. She was also criticising the building of fences on the so-called Balkan Route but at the same time probably breathing a sigh of relief that the flow would slow down and it wouldn’t be Angie’s fault. The policy has worked and the number of migrants now arriving is about 15,000 per month compared to ten times that amount just a year ago. Interestingly about 5,000 are returning to their country of origin each month – and a further 2,000 are being deported.

I feel that the high level of optimism and the will to prove that it can be done was at a peak last year. There was a national sense of rolling up your sleeves and getting things done. I don’t think the “terror” attacks have changed this but I do believe the events in Cologne at New Year did take the sheen off things. In case you can’t remember, a group of about a thousand young men from North Africa and the Middle East gathered in the square in front of the main station and intimidated and abused several hundred young women. The clash of sexist traditions with an open and liberated society was a shock. The police and local politicians then fed the fire by apparently trying to play down the situation – possibly for fear of being labelled intolerant or racist.

In a similar vein there have been isolated incidents where an Imam has refused to shake the hand of female politicians or teachers “for religious reasons”. These incidents have led to a slightly tougher attitude. It shouldn’t be a problem to insist that treating men and women equally is “non-negotiable”. Anyone who is not prepared to accept that can’t realistically expect a future in Germany. Such statements are becoming more common and politicians from all parties feel like they are on safe ground.

In my home town with a population of roughly 10,000 there are over 100 refugees. Apart from seeing a few of them get the bus every now and then, most people will not have noticed any difference. The ratio is one per every hundred residents which is roughly equivalent to that of the country as a whole. For the time being it all seems to be less dramatic than the press would have us believe – I’ll keep you posted.

Bis morgen-ish!

Safe and Sound

I’m sitting on the terrace on Sunday morning and have just had a good read of the newspapers. The papers are mainly occupied by one story. Last Friday evening an 18 year old German/Iranian youth shot 9 people dead in Munich and injured several others. Shortly afterwards when confronted by police he shot himself. Much to the disappointment of the anti-immigration lobby, it seems he was not an islamic fundamentalist.

One of the things I always tell people when they ask me what I like about Germany is that it feels very safe here. It’s a good safe place to bring up a family. I stick by that – although we probably live in about the safest area within a safe country. I dare say that there are some rough parts of Berlin where you might be a little more careful about locking your car.

When I first moved to Germany I lived in a tiny village called Seeg, about 5 miles from the Austrian border. If you want to know what the countryside is like around there just watch Steve McQueen trying to jump the barbed-wire fence in The Great Escape – it was filmed nearby. When I arrived, in 1991, it was like taking a step back in time. This was a small Bavarian community where everyone knew each other and kept an eye out for each other. As a young man it could be a bit irritating that my neighbour knew more accurately when I had got home last night than I could remember myself – but I suppose it keeps a village safe. After a while, I got into the village rhythm of live too. Every morning I would leave my flat – without locking the door – and drive the short distance to work. There I would park my car, and leave the keys in the ignition. Everyone else did too. You often see people in American films trying to find a car to steal by folding down the sun visor until some keys drop out. No need for that in Seeg back then. Just jump in and drive away.

In Autumn I would often drive to Italy over the weekends to go paragliding with friends in a place called Bassano del Grappa. It was only four hours away and on a clear day you could see Venice from the top of the mountain. A few of us would meet up at a car park just over the Austrian border and then all get into one car for the journey and leave the rest parked up over the weekend. I can remember once getting back on a Sunday evening and finding out I had lost my carkeys. After a frantic half-hour rummaging through various bags and looking under all the seats in the other car I suddenly noticed something. My car key was still in the driver’s door – the keyring occasionally glinting in the headlights of passing cars. The irony of that particular weekend was that our van had been broken into in Bassano. Although luckily not much was in it because we knew that thieves targeted the area.

It’s not just the break-ins though, I also feel that the overall propensity for violence is lower here. It seems strange that a country which unleashed unimaginable brutality on millions last century would become a peacenik haven but perhaps that is the reason itself. Germany still wants to show that it is a reasonable, grown-up, sensible folk. You see it in the politics and the depth of debate that takes place before any military action is taken – Germany is never going to enter a war by accident. This same attitude trickles down to everyday life too. Violence really is a last resort. I can’t remember seeing a fist-fight in Stuttgart in the last 10 years. Ariane saw two drunks taking swings at each other (and broke it up to the amazement of her friend) a few years ago but that’s it.

Of course, things aren’t quite as relaxed as they were back in Seeg 25 years ago. We lock up our houses and we lock up our cars. We still lose the keys every now and then but old habits die hard. But on the whole, it feels safe here.

Which brings me back to the events in Munich two days ago. It does seem that if someone gets it into their head that they really want to shoot a few people and puts the work into finding a gun and ammo, then there’s not much you can do to stop them. We can only hope it doesn’t happen here and if it does, then hope that the police react quickly. In the case of Munich it looks like the police did an excellent job. Within an hour the city was more or less shut down. Apparently there were 2300 police and special forces personnel on the the job very quickly. I don’t know if they helped but it was reassuring to see so many mobilised so quickly.

I was also really impressed by the information and instructions the police released. At times like these the news channels all go into hysterical mode and get anyone they can who happens to be near Munich babbling inanely into the camera. The police made a point of not speculating at all and just telling everyone to stay inside. The Munich Police press officer has since become a bit of hero for his no-nonsense calm style. When they were absolutely sure that the shooter had been killed, but were not yet exactly sure of the circumstances, he told the press that the shooter “had died as a result of violence” (it sounds less dramatic in German). A journalist immediately butted in and asked “what exactly do you mean by that?”. The press officer answered “that means he didn’t just fall over and die”. Lots of other questions were thrown at him – mostly suggestive. Again he answered coolly “the only way to answer those questions is for me to speculate. And that would be highly irresponsible.” The journalists were horrified at the thought of having to go back to the stone age of only reporting actual facts.

The events in Munich on Friday and in Turkey last week have overshadowed the Brexit news. In today’s papers there is barely a mention. May’s visit seems to have gone down well and Merkel has been doing her best to calm things down and spoke of a friendship between Britain and Germany. Now that Trump has been nominated and is making all sorts of provocative statements about terror in Europe, the whole Brexit affair looks a bit dull by comparison. That’s probably a good thing and mean that I might get to talk about something else next time I am out in the evening with friends.

Bis morgen!