Deutschland Revisited

Last summer our family took a long-planned family trip and spent nearly a month in Germany, where I lived in my thirties. After we got back, a friend who’d never been there asked, what’s it like? I wrote at Christmas about the political anxieties afflicting Germany. But most of my thoughts about the country are far less gloomy. Herewith, then, scattered notes (and photo links) from a hectic family tour of Deutschland, and the amenities, artifacts and attitudes that left us by turns charmed, amused, puzzled, awed or envious.

The German diet. For a month we lived almost exclusively on bread, butter, cheese, meat, potatoes and beer. But it was really good bread, butter, cheese, meat, potatoes and beer! For bread lovers there’s nothing like standing in front of the racks in a German bakery and letting your eyes play across the loaves of Volkornbrot, Roggenbrot, and the rest. And then there are the pastries, tortes and other desserts. Go to any corner Baeckerei. Or, in Berlin, go to the food section of KaDeWe or Galeries Lafayette department stores. These are temples to baked goods.

Optimal travel: Germany’s highways and roads are in perfect condition; and public transit – whether buses or subways or trains – gets you where you want to go, when. One day a friend and I took a 20-mile bike ride out into the country from his house in Leipzig. We ended up in a small town, rode to the train station, and caught the next local train back. The train had a dedicated bike car, with special racks and hooks. That’s because lots of people commute by bike. Those hundreds of bikes outside city train stations belong to commuters from small towns who keep one to ride to their hometown train stations, and a second at the city Bahnhof, to go to and from their job. That’s a pretty good system. Germans are good at systems.

The autobahn, meanwhile, really does offer long stretches with no speed limit whatsoever. One German acquaintance mentioned having driven 310 kph a few days earlier – that’s 200 mph. Are you insane? I asked him. What about when a curve comes?

“Then I slow down,” he said.

Cleanliness.  With the exception of Berlin, which Germans don’t really consider a German city – at dinner one night in Munich we fielded a tirade from a young Bavarian lambasting the corruption, “foreignness” and filth of Berlin -- the cities are pristine. Sanitation employees in orange uniforms walk around tweezing up pieces of garbage smaller than matchbooks.

Some of what they tweeze up are cigarette butts. Everyone still smokes in Germany – at least, compared with here.

It’s a nation of conspicuous good conduct -- even the dogs. “How do they get their dogs to behave so well?” my daughter asked. That’s important, because those dogs spend a lot of time in cafes and restaurants, sitting docilely at their master’s feet. And they aren’t even “emotional support animals.” They’re just, you know, café canines.

One reason the VW scandal was so striking, and so enjoyable, is that Germans are generally very rule-oriented, even when there’s little chance of being caught. For instance, no one takes your ticket on the subway, and no gate prevents you from boarding without one. Yes, teams of roving conductors do occasionally check punched tickets, and fine you 40 euros if you don’t have one. But it’s my impression that you’re likely to be “controlled” about once every 50 rides, and at 3 euros per ride, well, you can do the math – and I think plenty of Americans would, and would “schwarz fahren,” or ride for free. But fewer than 1% of Germans take that option.

Similarly, when you park your car in a crowded city, in a free spot with a 2-hr limit, you self-monitor by setting your arrival time on a little blue clock-face dial that you leave on your dashboard. What’s to prevent you from constantly resetting it for extra time?  Dude, I mean, really! But Germans won’t. It’s the Kantian categorical imperative, worked deep into the civic self.

Just as deep is an abiding patience with bureaucracy. Famous funny remark (was it Twain?) concerning Germans and their complaisant submitting to bureaucratic procedures and delays: “Given a choice between one door marked ‘Heaven’ and another marked ‘Queue for Heaven,’ a German will instantly head for the latter.”

The flip side of this orderly conduct is an avidity for putting you in your place if you are in any way disorderly. The man who muttered darkly when I dared to cross a street against the crosswalk light (with no car in sight anywhere).  The waitress who could not conceal her annoyance when our children changed their order twice. The woman in the Bahnhof in München who literally shrieked at us for standing on the left-hand side of the escalator, thus blocking the “passing” lane. It’s stunning, the indignation sparked by small infractions. As if Germans are waiting for you to break the rules, just so that they can unload on you.

Random other notes: traces of awful history can be found, if you know where to look for them. If you pass through Berlin’s Mohrenstrasse Ubahn station, you’ll notice the unusually lavish, deep maroon marble of its columns and floor. That’s because the station adjoins the block where Hitler’s huge, pompous Chancellery stood; after the building was destroyed by Allied bombing, its remains were used to furnish the subway station.

A tee shirt I kept seeing, again and again, worn by younger people, boasting the slogan (in English): “Born in the 90s.” Why? What is the special significance of that to young Germans? As if to say, the whole trauma of division and reunion, the whole Wall drama, was before my time, so don’t implicate me in all that – not to mention the whole Nazi thing!?

Children’s playgrounds: awesome, like the one in the Berlin Zoo, which includes a giant pirate ship, maybe 20 feet tall, and a huge pink concrete egg (why?), with a big crack allowing ingress and egress. It was all I could do to keep myself off of that pirate ship.

The biggest, fattest, loudest pigeons I’ve ever seen anywhere.

A high level of quality design, and art in public places – so much cool, colorful, witty stuff to look at, making life more interesting and more lovely. A huge ice cream cone... made out of roses!  A bicycle... completely wrapped in colorful yarn!

A fondness for medieval festivals, where Germans of all ages indulge a curious heavy-metal historicism by dressing up as monks, knights, blacksmiths, or weird apparitions like this.

The fascination with ruins. On Berlin’s Pfaueninsel, or Peacock Island, built two centuries ago by Friedrich Wilhelm II for his consort, we saw structures, including a miniature castle, designed to look like ruins. Such oddities reflect German Romanticism’s obsession with time and death, and (relatedly) with the rise and fall of civilizations. This obsession informed the cockeyed theory of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, about what he called Ruinenwert – literally, “ruin value,” the concept that a building be designed in such a way that it would eventually leave behind aesthetically pleasing ruins. Such was the Nazi grandiosity that sought to place the Third Reich in the company of Greece and Rome.

Opulent and magnificent churches where you least expect them. Like the Wieskirche, an 18th century rococo pilgrimage chapel in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. Despite the deeply religious past that such glorious architecture hints at, a casual and untroubled atheism prevails in Germany today, even seemingly among the faithful. The uncle of a friend of mine is a retired Catholic priest. I asked him how he viewed a faith based on the idea of a Jesus who actually and miraculously rose from the dead, and a providential God who hears our individual prayers.

“Well,” he said dismissively, “that is a childlike belief.”

The mawkish romance of what Germans call “the southern mentality” – meaning, anyone from a warm clime. Meaning, Latins. Or even Southern Californians. This fascination with the südliche Mentalität reveals the superiority-inferiority complex by which Germans view themselves as harder-working than others, and thus more virtuous, but also as tragically incapacitated for pleasure. Solution: travel as often as possible to the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. Cheaper solution: choose a spot in every city, dump some sand there, and fire up the tiki bars and beach volleyball. Urban “beaches” have sprung up everywhere, including this one in the middle of Berlin, complete with palm trees and an old VW microbus, right by Checkpoint Charlie. Oh, and it’s directly across from the Currywurst Museum, where you can learn about, and sample, a staple of German street food, in what surely must be one of the world’s few museums dedicated exclusively to sausage.

I should say something about the enticing beauty of the countryside, and the special way towns and villages meld with the landscape. We spent a week in Murnau am Staffelsee, a market town south of Munich, at the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. Our house was near the center of town, in a residential neighborhood, but right across the street was a field with horses and cows. Behind it was the Nikolaus Kirche, a baroque Catholic Church looking over the town to the mountains beyond. A century ago, Wassily Kandinsky lived in Murnau with his lover, the painter Gabriele Muenter, and painted some sumptuously colored Expressionist studies of the church its graveyard.

Bavarians lavish attention on their dead. In the Nikolaus churchyard, fresh flowers and flickering candles adorn many grave sites – not just for special commemorations, but every night. In the center of the yard stands a crucifix and statue with a dedication to “to all our dead in the Sudetenland and to the victims of the expulsion” – die Vertreibung, meaning the expulsion of Germans from east and central Europe at war’s end. Such nationalist sentiment reminds you that Bavaria was the wellspring of Nazi agitation in the 1920s, scene of Hitler’s first failed attempt at a putsch. Today it remains known for its for conservatism, political and social. So I was surprised to attend mass at St. Nicholas one morning and discover that the priest was African. And more surprised to learn, later on, that he was having an affair with a woman in the town, to everyone’s general knowledge and no one’s particular concern.

On the sunny cobblestone streets of a town like Murnau, it’s hard to believe that seven decades ago, German cities lay in ruins, a terrible test of Speer’s oddball theory. The dreadful violence of totalitarianism and war is belied by the look and feel of German life today – unhurried, prosperous, complacently comfortable, and markedly progressive, its public places bedecked with public-health slogans and marketing campaigns using themes of Toleranz and world peace to sell cosmetics and fashion. The idealized quality of German life prevails especially in city squares. Remember those grade-school readers illustrated with drawings of idealized urban scenes -- kids playing in a beautiful playground, and people congregating at outdoor eateries, and lots of trees and shade, and wrought-iron streetlamps, and planters billowing with vivid flowers, as everyone romps playfully about, a train goes zips by in the background (public transit!), people toss Frisbees, the friendly policeman gives out directions and candy, and even the dogs are smiling? Well, that fantasy comes to life in places like Berlin’s Stuttgarterplatz and Savignyplatz. It’s ridiculous. All those people in outdoor restaurants and cafes, seemingly with the leisure and means to be convivial fur hours on end. The harried American is impressed and depressed in equal measure.

There are also a lot more couples making out in public places than you see here. Especially train stations. And I mean real kisses, not perfunctory pecks. What have we forgotten?

A final vignette. One afternoon we were sitting at a crowded outdoor cafe in Charlottenburg, an elegant section of Berlin. A police car pulled up, and three green-jacketed Polizisten began going from table to table, questioning people. Were they searching for a suspect? Had some dreadful event just occurred, a terror threat, an abduction? Beneath these dire questions, I suppose I felt a ripple of unease, a kind of historical shiver at the prospect of uniformed German officers going through a crowd. Was someone about to be hauled away for harsh questioning?

Nothing like that, it turned out. No, they were looking for the owner of a convertible parked nearby. The driver had left its keys in the ignition. The police wanted to find him and give him his keys back.         

For the traveler, such episode reveal one’s own default expectations, and bring home the reality of a society that in a number of important ways functions more optimally than his own. Oh, and politics? Before Nov 8th and the unexpected Trumprise, a German friend emailed me with the results of a national straw poll taken in Germany: Clinton 88%, Trump 7%.

If only they could have voted for us as well.  

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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