Whilst I’m out of the country on a trip to a mysterious undisclosed location, the daily blogging will be achieved through a series of travel-related posts, thanks to the kindness of my friends and family, and the wonders of post-scheduling technology.
This installment of The Travel Diaries is brought to you by Tim Morris. Tim is a third-year maths student at Durham University in England. However, he’s spending this year in Bochum in Germany, where he’s studying maths as an exchange student at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. He’s been writing a blog about my experience, which you can read here.
Some national stereotypes turn out to be true. Germans do drink a lot of beer, Brezeln (pretzels) are a popular snack, and if the huge variety and quantity of it available in the supermarkets is anything to go by, they like to eat a lot of Wurst (sausage). Things can indeed be quite bureaucratic, and the national desire for speed and efficiency manifests itself in the rate at which items are scanned through supermarket check-outs – terrifying the first time you go shopping, but you soon get used to it.
Others are not so true. German trains are actually often late, and people don’t generally wear Lederhosen except in Bavaria, and even then usually only on special occasions or for the sake of tourists. Another misconception is that Germans have no sense of humour. Although they can come across as cold in public interactions, this normally stems from the desire for efficiency – for example, if you don’t stop to exchange pleasantries at the till, you don’t waste any time on what is arguably a pretty superficial activity. However, when you get to know people personally, they love to laugh and joke just as much as the next person.
This sense of fun also expresses itself in a more corporate way in the large number of festivals and fairs they have. In this post I’ve put together a little rundown of the ones I’ve encountered or heard about:
Oktoberfest: Possibly one of the images that most readily springs to mind when you think of Germany is a tent packed with rows of benches and trestle tables lined with people drinking beer from the famous Maß (1-litre glass beer mug), being served by ladies dressed in the traditional Dirndl. Held in Munich each year and very popular with tourists, the festival lasts two weeks and is a chance to experience traditional Bavarian culture and food, and also get very drunk. I have yet to make it to Oktoberfest, though I have been to Munich on a school exchange, and the city is definitely worth visiting.
Herbstkirmes: Kirmes can be loosely translated as “parish fair”, and Herbst means “autumn”. This is a fair that takes place in villages, districts or small towns as part celebrations in commemoration of the consecration of the local church (according to the entry in my giant German-English dictionary). The one I went to consisted of lots of fairground games and funfair rides (you’re never too old for dodgems), as well as loads of food stalls, where fried button mushrooms featured particularly heavily. These are delicious and were served with garlic sauce, which was somewhat akin to the pot of tastiness that Dominoes very considerately includes with their pizzas for dipping your crusts in. I also bought myself a Paradiesapfel (toffee apple, literally “paradise apple”).
Weihnachtsmarkt: Germany is famous for its Christmas markets. These run from around the start of December right up until Christmas and can be found in virtually every town and city. They are a great place to pick up unusual gifts for Christmas, especially local delicacies and crafts, though sometimes you have to hunt through all the bric-a-bric and cheap tat to find it. In truth, the different ones I visited this year were pretty much all the same, and I imagine they don’t vary a huge amount year on year.
This doesn’t really matter though, as the best part of the Christmas markets is the atmosphere – it’s a great place to spend an evening with friends and grab a mug of Glühwein (mulled wine, literally “glow-wine”, because of the rosy hue it induces in the cheeks of the drinker). You can also treat yourself to some Lebkuchen (gingerbread), Gebrannte Mandeln (candied roasted almonds) or maybe just a good old Bratwurst (sausage, normally served as a hotdog). There are often choirs singing carols, and I even came across a trombone quartet playing, among other things, Thine Be the Glory. I initially assumed they were just ill-informed and unaware that this is an Easter song, but it turns out that it’s set to different words in German and is actually an Advent hymn, Tochter Zion (Zion’s Daughter).
Christmas markets seem to be on the rise in the UK, and it wouldn’t surprise me if in ten years or so most big cities will host one. If you get a chance to go along to one, jump on it – they’re excellent!
Sommerfest: Here in my Bundesland (federal state) there were a staggering total of four public holidays in the month of May, and as if that wasn’t enough my university decided to end the month with its annual Sommerfest (summer festival). There was glorious sunshine in the days leading up to this, but in a turn of events we Brits are all-too-familiar with, the day of the festival itself was miserable and rainy. However people still turned up in droves and were determined to have a good time. In fact, it seems nothing can dampen a German’s spirit as long as he has a beer in his hand, and there are always plenty of beer stands at such occasions.
Ironically for someone who chose to spend a year in Germany, I don’t actually like beer – the bitter taste doesn’t appeal to me, despite the fact that I am partial to consuming unholy quantities of marmite (made from a by-product of the beer brewing process, and one of the “essential” foods I brought with me to Germany). Nevertheless, this didn’t stop me from enjoying the festival, listening to bands on the different stages, hearing the university orchestra perform (indoors, thankfully), watching fireworks through a haze of rain, and bumping into and chatting with friends.
Of all the festivals listed here, this is perhaps the closest to something we have in the UK. Church or village fêtes have long been a staple of the British summer calendar, and I think most places in the UK have something of this ilk at some point each year.
Such occasions are a great opportunity for people to come together and enjoy being in one another’s company, and they act as a great reminder of the fact that humans are fundamentally social creatures. Wherever you go in the world, and whatever culture you find yourself in, celebrations of community always play a crucial role in helping to weave together the fabric of society.
In summary: festivities.