The Lonely Life of the Bavarian Hipster


Right now, I’m looking at Holger Badstuber’s butt.   Is there enough of it, I ask?

Badstuber’s glutes appear in a photospread about the National-elf.  (English speakers: that doesn’t mean the German federal gnome, which would, of course, be called the Bundeszwerg. It simply refers to the National Eleven, our football team.)

The shots form part of a feature which  argues that our team contains the coolest dudes in Europe.  The editors point to hipness-highness  Jérôme Boateng and his fellow Berliners, before moving to the rebelliously T-shirted Bank-Platzers from Dortmund. caught Badstuber at Oktoberfest, sagging his Lederhosen.   “Sagging”, in English, is a technical fashion term.   To “sag”, is to allow the trousers to rest low on the hip, or perhaps beyond it, merely clinging to the thighs.

The caption uses the English phrase “baggystyle”.   Curiously, this English phrase does not occur in English.

Of more interest is the content of the caption. tells us that Badstuber wears these leather pants “like a hip Münchener does.”

From what I can understand, Bavarian hipsterhood has everything to do with the positioning of the trousers.   In the same article, Bastian Schweinsteiger earns World Hipster Meisterschaft points for sitting on his belt from time to time.

He would only consider a tattoo under medical advice, he later told the Bild, to hide his recent collarbone scar.  One wonders if he imagines an inking to be a hospital operation.

Apart from a low waistline, one can see little other hipness in the so-called Gärtnerplatz–Gang.   Mario Gomez uses hair-gel, I think.  That’s it.

Unless these boys have pierced something privately, one couldn’t apply the word “hipster” in good conscience.

Bavarians give hipsterhood a try, though.  We seldom make a fist of it.   There are too many alternatives.

Retro clothes are the first badge of a hipster.  The classic Brooklyn style apes the rat pack in the fifties: sharp black suits, fedoras, Wayfarers.  Berlin hipsters, understandably, drift toward the eighties—punk hair, carefully chosen athletic shoes, rude T-Shirts.

Bavarian hipsters go back even further.  They’ve rediscovered Tracht.

Tracht is about as retro as clothing gets.   If you wanted to get more retro than Tracht, you’d have to shoot a suit yourself, with a bow and arrow.  Even the lofty Goethe Institut, using a quaint turn of phrase which works in both English and Bavarian, declares that “Tracht is in”.

Young Bavarians, in their prime and eager to show off their bodies, embrace Tracht.   Not for them the pencil-thin skirts and form-fitting jackets.  Bavarians like to dance, leap, and point at a friend vigorously when they contradict him.   Tracht, though now considered formal, started out as workwear.  And young Bavarians love the freedom of movement it affords.

Bavarians of hipster age grew up on ski-fields, mountain trails and bicycles.  Their bodies are just a little too muscly to squeeze into hipster garb, which flatters the pale and consumptive.

Another badge of the hipster is his drinking habits.   Preposterous wine varieties and elaborate cocktails pass their lips nightly.   And the more they can talk about what they drink, rather than drink it, the better.

Bavarians, whether hip or unhip, have no need for anything beyond beer.  It’s the best in the world, you see.  And it has half a millennium of retro-cred.   But there’s little wiggle room to squeeze an extra slice of cool—in fact, post-modern beer experimentation is practically illegal.

Hipsters love art, but not all art.   The typical hipster wears the clothes of a hobo, but carries an expensive SLR, phototgraphing graffiti.  Along with arranging trash into an Installation, graffitarazzi snapshots reach the height of hip artistic refinement

Bavarians make no truck with this.  First, we don’t have enough graffiti.  Second, we know about art.   Real art.  Like, made by people who can draw.    Centuries of the finest galleries and academies make us rather too fussy.

To be a great hipster requires detachment.  One observes life, rather than climbing aboard and living it.   To many, this disdain of actual emotion earns a certain amount of status—I’m looking at you Berliners.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest thorn in the heel of Bavarian hipsterhood.

Bavarians look on life, and like it.   We have fun.  We find no need to use irony to comment on the misery of everyday life, since we’re not miserable very much.  We prefer optimism to pessimism, cheer to sneer, and energy to understatement.

Face it.  Bavarians will never be hipsters.  The best we can do is to wear sunglasses a little too often than is strictly necessary.  I guess it’s a start.

Three Theories of Bavarian Folk Music

Hypothesis #1:  Metamphetamines

I’m being held up at hornpoint.

The bandits look heavily armed.  One packs a small tuba, which in street-jive, is known as a euphonium.   Another points a valve trombone at my heart; if the weapon had a slide, I’d be a goner.  This gang is tough.

They ambushed us in a Wirtshaus, and they want our money.  They even changed the words to the old song, to better reflect their avarice; Grüs euch Gott, liebe Kunde.  We’re trapped.

It was at that moment the truth dawned.  The vacant expression.  The over-ripe smiles.  The repetitive movement of fingers and tapping of toes.  The endless licking of lips.  Bavarian folk musicians go around tweaked out on metamphetamines.

That would explain why they needed to extort money from innocent diners.  Addiction leads to crime.  Traditional Bavarian music is an expensive habit.  Have you seen how much lederhosen cost?   Or valve oil?  Or the dentistry to support an ombrochure?

There are many government sponsored programmes to help these poor folk-addicts—about one third of the Bayerische Rundfunk, for example—but most struggle with their addiction in grass-roots support groups like folk clubs, country weddings and talk shows.

I blame the Beer Purity Laws for this sad state of affairs.  Beer has stayed the same in Bavaria for four centuries.  Our bodies got used to it.  It no longer gets us high.   It doesn’t even space us out enough to crack a smile, the primary function of beer in Germany.  No wonder these chaps resorted to E.

I gave them a Euro, a currency which (at the time of writing) still holds enough value to purchase pricey imported goods like Eastern European drugs.  Someone in the back of the room gave a high-pitched scream that sounded like the beginning of a yodel, and ended it at an interval approximately four notes higher.  The pangs of withdrawal, I guess.

Hypothesis #2:   Bavaria has been colonized by North Korea

My husband and I tuned into the Bayerische Rundfunk, waiting for the next in-depth interview with a mover-and-shaker of the Bavarian intelligentsia on weighty matters of politics, the arts, or modern society, because our neighbor had stolen our copy of the Suddeutsche Zeitung to clean up after his dog.   We caught the end of a folk-music show.  You know, the kind that takes place in a fake Wirtshaus, the camera angles low enough not to reveal that it’s a set, and a Moderatorin in a Dirndl, with pink-lipstick and a spray-on tan.

We had just seen a musician smile.  The smile lasted a long time, through an entire song and well into the next.  It was ghastly.  A rehearsed smile.  A forced smile.  No, more than that.  The kind of smile you wear when you are truly terrified.

My husband, who is Japanese, made a telling observation.  “This reminds me of North Korean TV,” he said.  Form time to time, one can catch terrestrial TV from North Korea in Japan, and civilized humans gape in disbelief.

Horrified YouTubers the world over watch aghast as North Korean artists perform hokey music with utter technical perfection and absolutely no soul.  Like Bavarians, they seem rather fond of  the pianoaccordion.

The most popular folk-song in the DPRK is a jaunty little ditty called Potato Pride, an ode to all the many blessings the potato brings us. The lyrics, translated by my old pal Mr. Rob Pongi, run something like:

Ho Ho Ho, Potato Pride!
When the oldest villager received the potatoes
He prepared a birthday feast and invited all the villagers
From the delicious potatoes he made noodles
And delicious potato pancakes
Potato Pride!  He has so many!
Greatest Potatoes! No others can compare.
Ho Ho Ho, Potato Pride!

The parallels to Bavaria are a little too close for comfort—dammit if I didn’t hear the same thoughts put to music somewhere in the Berchtesgadenerland.  Or perhaps on Bayern Eins.

One senses an eerie familiarity with North Korean entertainers when one watches Hansi Hinterseer.  He’s an Austrian, I know, but a real Bavarian embraces the Oberösterreicher like a brother, does he not?

Hypothesis #3: Zombies.

“There were four boys in our family,” remarked a colleague in conversation, “and my parents desperately wanted us to join a traditional Blaskappelle and learn the trumpet.  But we had no interest.”

“Why,” I asked?

“You listen to the music, and it almost never changes.  It just seems…well, dead.”

That would explain a lot.  The average Bavarian folk-musician does play like a zombie.  Certainly, the blank face, pasty-faced skin and unchanging expression reeks of the undead.

For me, it was a toss-up between zombies and robots.  But robots are kind and friendly and help human beings.  Robots know how to throw switches so their electronic keyboards make a variety of sounds, and further, they have mastered the volume control.  And they sing better.  I was forced to conclude that Bavarian folk-music is made not by robots, but by zombies.  Listening to folk music eats your brain.

Look at a folk-ensemble, and see the embalmer’s art at work.  Have you noticed that Stefan Mross’ hair never moves?   (By the way, have you noticed that Joachim Herrmann never blinks, either?  But we can explore the subject of the Bavarian Parliament being zombies some other time.)

How do we deal with the menace of Bayerische Volksmusik?   Our choices are clear.   Rehab, political insurrection, or chainsaws.  Citizens of Bavaria, the choice is ours.

The English lyrics to The Potato Song are copyrighted to Rob Pongi and Tokyo Joe, and used with permission.   I believe that the reproduction of all content here conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism.  Rights reserved to originators.

Ordnung ist die halbe Gläubigkeit

She thought it was an act of courtesy.  A smile would be too much to ask of a government official early on this grey morning in the Kreisverwaltungsreferrat.  But she managed an indifferent “Grüß Gott”.

“Um, Grüß Gott…” I replied sleepily, as I handed over my  paperwork and Warthalleschein, or whatever they call those little numbers.  It wasn’t  ‘til I returned to my seat that the full meaning of what had just happened dawned on me.

A civil servant, whose salary my taxes had paid, had tricked me into worshipping a god I don’t believe in.

Bavarians would think little of it.  Grüß Gott is simply dialect.  It means nothing more profound or worshipful than a schoolgirl texting OMG.  Or does it?

What if the woman had greeted me with “Allah be Praised”?  What if I had been Jewish, and my religion forbade me from mentioning the word “Gott” at all in reply?

Bavarians dismiss this as a trifle.   The greeting, and others like it, are simply cultural remnants of a bygone era.  They mean nothing.  Most Bavarians are Catholic, but they still  fornicate, swear, and dance during lent.   Catholicism doesn’t get in the way of a good time.

Nonetheless, Bavarians often fail to understand how deeply offensive this can be to those of differing beliefs, or none at all.    In my own native land, the USA, controversies rage when religion enters state affairs.  But in Bavaria, it passes with great public acceptance.   I am constantly aghast at how blatantly the church in Germany asserts its role in running the show, in Bavaria especially.

The church gets not just acceptance, but active public support.  It shocked me to read that the state of Bavaria collects over one-and-a-quarter billion Euro every year in church tax.   Many seem outraged that this funds the salaries of  bishops and other church bureaucrats, but others point out that it also funds church schools and hospitals, which operate for the public good.    And one thing we overlook is that the church tax actually maintains churches—civic buildings of great beauty and grandeur, which genuinely enrich culture and preserve history.

Of course, inside these churches, schools and hospitals, I’ll be Grüß-Gotted, prayed for, and forbidden to party on a feast-day.   And thus, at least in part, it helps the church maintain its position as a dominant force in the culture.

If the church is such an important part of Bavarian culture, why does it need the government to act as a collection plate?    Surely, we citizens will see such value in what the church does that we will happily pay for it as an act of good conscience.  Even I, an atheist, contribute when I use church facilities—this happens regularly in Bavaria, since churches provide concert venues and meeting rooms for community groups.

I suspect this reflects a particularly Bavarian attitude—not unique to Bavaria, but certainly strong here.  That religion must be imposed from the top down.  Religion is not merely a matter of personal faith.  It is a means for maintaining order and civility.

Besides, we#re all filthy sinners.  If left to their own devices, people will cheat.  They’ll game the system, and get into heaven without paying for it.   A colleague recently decided to leave his church, and the bureaucratic hurdles he faced were enormous.

It astonished me to learn that one cannot be buried in consecrated ground if one hasn’t paid the church tax for a sufficient time.

“What about death-bed conversions?” I once asked a believer.  “Surely one’s own contrition is enough to get you into heaven.  And I assume that one actually buys a plot, and settles one’s account on the basis of the services provided.  You know, a user-pays system.”

He replied with a smile, “It will get you into heaven, but not into the cemetery.  Besides, there are work-arounds.  It’s tricky, but it can be done.”

Then he said something very revealing.  “It really doesn’t matter if you believe.  What you want is to be buried next to your ancestors.  The church tax reserves you a place in the churchyard.”

The recent controversy over a parent who asked for a crucifix to be removed from the public high-school classroom in Regensburg is telling.  And not just because the parent who demanded it was reported to be a scientist from an English speaking background.

Much of the public comment smacked of racisim.  Gerhard Weber, the CSU Mayor of Regensburg, questioned whether the parent appreciated the nation’s “hospitality” toward him and his family—to call this family a “guest” is an odd choice of word for a fully-fledged, productive, tax paying member of the Regensburg community.

It was revealed that crucifixes are removed, along with prayers renamed as “morning affirmations” and other such window dressing, only if a parent requests it—this, determined by a court order in 1995.   If everyone else feels comfortable, then what’s the problem?  We accomodate our “guests” grudgingly.

Bavarians embrace the church as a force of order and social cohesion.   In German-speaking cultures, order is valued as a moral virtue, rather than just a practical  necessity.   Sometimes disorder can be a moral virtue, too.  It can cultivate flexibility, perspective,  and open-mindedness.

The Bavarian Catholic church is notorious for its doctrinaire authoritarianism, and the current Bavarian Pope is alienating Catholics in the rest of the developed world through his inability to see how this might not work in cultures where order is maintained through civil means.

When we think of the Bavaria we love, what comes to mind?   For someone from abroad, it’s the sheer good cheer.  The celebrations, the music, the dancing, the laughter, the flirting, the fellowship.  A warm, open, accepting  environment, where the ability to share a beer erases personal differences.   Millions of people from across the world come here to experience it.

How un-Bavarian is the church!  An institution of rules and restrictions.  Of judgement rather than acceptance.    Where money matters so much, and grace so little.   Where the clergy expect the police to caution you against dancing in the street on a religious holiday.

Luckily, we manage enough wiggle-room to party.  You can’t keep a Bavarian down.

Legs, Breasts and Bavarians.

When the mind rests idle, it wanders to sex, does it not?   And nowhere is it more idle than that moment as you wait for your luggage  at the airport baggage carousel, before your smartphone boots up.

I imagine that’s why, when you arrive at Berlin’s Tegel Airport, you are greeted by a sex shop.   A full-on, whips and leather, sheathed and lubricated erotic supermarket.

As you exit  Frankfurt’s many terminals, taxis advertising table-dance clubs carry you around the city.  I hear it on good authority that during Karneval, Rheinlanders can have anonymous sex with whomever they like, as long as they are in costume.  Bavarians don’t go that far in Fasching, nor God forbid, Oktoberfest. Perhaps we have a permanent case of Brewer’s Droop?

Arrive  at an airport in Bavaria, and  the scene is different.  Munich Terminal Two, for example, soaks the atmosphere in cars and beer.   Augsburg and Nürnberg, I notice, are the same.    Airport sex shops, where you can find them, are tucked away discreetly, showing little but lingerie in their bare windows.   Tellingly,  you’ll find them near International Departures.

It sends a message to me: if you want to think about sex, in Bavaria, you ought to leave.

Of course, this is ridiculous.   Bavarians think about sex all the time.  Being human, they have to.   How?

To answer this question, we must look to one of our neighbours.  A certain Austran fellow, a Dr. Freud.   He was a big fan of the concept of sublimation.

What do Bavarians think about when they really want to think about sex.?   Where does sex pop up?  And what does this do to our culture?

The meaning of passion

Raised a Catholic, I am no stranger to statues of Christ.  Christ at the wedding turning water in to wine.  Christ teaching children.  Christ holding His hand vertical, side toward us, to give us His blessing.   It’s tempting tot think that He will make the sign of the cross at us, except the sign of the cross hadn’t been invented yet.

Not until I came to Bavaria, did I see Christ buck naked, quite so often.   He is scantily clad on the cross anywhere we find Him in the world, but Bavarians show His nakedness with great enthusiasm, and at every opportunity.

Easter weekend never ceases to amaze me in Bavarian churches.  Come Good Friday, Christ is laid out in the tomb like David Beckham selling underwear.     The cathedral at Regensburg becomes a temple to Eros, with its mood lighting and tomb that reminds me of a seventies bachelor pad.   And a very hunky Him.

In German, it’s easy to overlook this relationship between sex, and the death of our Saviour.   In other languages, including my own native English, Passion refers not just to the story of the death of Christ, but to an obsessive love.  The German phrase Leidenschaft,  which literally suggests an obsessive sickness, has trouble celebrating the sexual dimension in the way the word passion does.  The sexual undertones, to me as German second language speaker, take a back seat.


Of course, we almost never see a woman in a suggestive pose in Bavarian church art.    Presumably, in the Bavarian  Catholic church, women are not required for sexual acts in the same way men are.   If you catch my drift.

But this de-sexualising actually robs women, in many ways, of power and personal agency.

I asked everyone I could find for the name of a Bavarian feminist.   Surely there must be one.

But no.   Not a single person came to anybody’s mind.    Even Barbara Stamm, the current President of the Bavarian Parliament, did not occur to them.  As a member oft he CSU, she is unlikely to be campaigning for sexual liberty.

She, among a small group of women influential in Bavarian public life,  must suffer a good deal of gender invisibility.   I am told of the annual general meeting of a prominent Bavarian firm, where some shareholders asked about the annual report.   The company did not address the question of its policies toward women, as was expected.    The CEO replied with some indignation: they had taken these pages out of the report because the company wanted  to preserve the beautiful Bavarian forests.

Bavarians and Boobs.  A Love story.

What do Bavarian clothes say about Bavarian attitudes to the bodies they cover?   Or fail to cover—for what clothes reveal tells us our true sexual priorities.

For a nation so devoted to sexual restraint, Bavarians have an unholy obsession with boobs.

The classic dirndl, as we all know, pushes breasts to a level of such prominence that it practically becomes a woman’s business card.   Several of my female friends from abroad, who come from a less buxom gene pool, bemoan the fact that they cannot get the same result from a dirndl that the local lasses do.

Dirndls are also quite kind to a pair of generous hips, covering them in billows of fluffy linen behind which a stout pair of thighs can hide.   It complements the figures of women of all shapes and ages.   And to those on the thin side, the tight waist creates quite a voluptuous figure.

In many ways, this defines sexiness in Bavaria.  The impression of fecundity.    It’s improper to flaunt our sauciness, so let’s flaunt our fertility.

What does the male equivalent, the lederhose, say about our attitude to the Bavarian male?    Forgive me if I speak from the heart—as a gay chap, it’s a matter of some interest.

Tracht, for men, is the most bustless form of dress on the planet.  It underemphasises the  chest.  Sweaters and jackets are plain and collarless, and those silly bibs scarcely reach from pectoral to pectoral.  From the waist up, male tracht is a non-event.

No, a good pair of lederhosen is all about the legs.  What it does for a lad’s glutes and thighs is a joy to behold.  And the flap in the front gives every man an impressive bulge…or at least leaves a lot of room, which your imagination can fill in any way it likes.

As I wait for a bag here at the airport in Munich, a gentleman in Tracht bends over to pick up his suitcase, and I’m taking just such a little trip in my imagination.   Who needs Berlin?

ERRATUM:  Boy, have I been slapped down on this one!  First, I made a mistake about the location of the Love Parade.  Then I made a mistake about the location of—yes—the Rheinland.  And finally, that the sex shop I remember at Tegel has closed.  Please find amusement where you can.

The Creepy Season

I love it when German and English share a word.   I mean a real word, not stupid little working words like kann or halt or so.  A dignified, meaty word that says something specific, like kindergarten or schadenfreude or kaputt.

The word on my mind this season is, of course, humbug.  

In English, we associate this word almost exclusively with Christmas.   For that, we can thank the famous Charles Dickens, and his short novel A Christmas Carol.  

You may recall from your schoolbook translations, that the hero Ebenezer Scrooge uses humbug to describe Christmas.  It’s easy, in German, to assume that his character simply feels Christmas is nonsense or silliness.

So it goes in English, too, but it also carries an undertone of a lie.  The word hum, on which the word humbug is based, translates into German as brummeln.  Folklore tells us that people hum when they lie, as something to do with your voice when it can’t speak the truth.

As a foreign-born atheist, it never occurred to me that Christmas was anything other than a fantasy, largely the product of people who want to sell you something.   And it’s a happy fantasy, too.   A new baby arrives and the whole world feels good about it.  What’s not to like?

Then I moved to Bavaria.

Someone explained to me that in Bavaria, this nice little day I know as Christmas is just a pimple erupting on the vast, ugly face of a hideously holy season.   The period from All Souls to Lent gives me the creeps.

I mean, the whole thing lasts so long, doesn’t it?  Americans deplore the modern habit of decorating for the season before the well-known patriotic harvest festival of Thanksgiving, on the last Thursday of November.

But Bavarians start the season at the tick of the clock on All Souls, and don’t really stop “celebrating” (and I use the word only in its technical sense) until Ash Wednesday.  That’s more Christmas than a human being can bear.

And it’s such a jolly kickoff, too.  A visit to the cemetery!

Faithful Bavarians, of course, really start drinking…er, observing religious rites with the coming of Advent.

A house guest from abroad was helping to set our table early one December, and she lit all four candles on our advent wreath at once!   We had to explain that one simply doesn’t do that in Bavaria; the four candles are a different size for a reason.  She assumed that the varying heights were some kind of design element, perhaps recalling the differing lengths in the pipes of an organ, or perhaps a little bit of Swedish-furniture asymmetry.   To tell her that she had to wait until Christmas to really see the full spectacle was a little like saying that you could only decorate your tree one ornament at a time, over a period of several weeks.   Though an observant Christian herself, she though this was…well, a humbug.

We English speakers have so lost the religious meaning of the word, we can have an advent of anything.   It simply means an arrival; we refer to the advent of the web in 1992, or the advent of commercial air travel in the 1920s.   Thus, if the following phrase were to appear in English, I could say that the advent of Advent is marked by the opening of Christmas markets.

People talk about the commercialization of Christmas like it was something new. But the silly season has shrunk our wallets for centuries. The custom of wasting huge wads of cash on tasteless kitsch can be traced back to the traditional Bavarian Christkindlmarkt.

The granddaddy of them all, The Nürnberg market, confused us horribly.  Here’s how I understand it.

During Advent, wood carvers, wreath-weavers, glass-blowers and seamstresses set up stalls in town squares across Bavaria to ply seasonal wares. Somebody had the bright idea of throwing spiced wine in a Feuerzangenbowle (a primitive microwave) and selling it to shoppers to fend off the cold.

The drunken townsfolk would then choose a child, and dress it up like Gwen Stefani with her finger in an electrical socket, and get the poor kid to wander around blessing everyone. Or something.

Now, this is where the whole thing fuzzes up for a non-Bavarian.  They call the kid the Christ-Child, which to my ear, means that the kid actually is Jesus.  But she’s more akin to your run-of the mill angel, of the sort who sits atop a Christmas tree.   And by the way, she’s a girl, which throws a monkey wrench in the theological gearbox, does it not?

One need only have looked at the plentiful Krippen around us in Nürnberg, to sense that Bavarians take advantage of all the theological wiggle-room they can.   We can only imagine what the Blessed Virgin and her Holy Infant looked like.  But I guarantee that neither look like their images in your average nativity.  First, none of the infants have that newborn ET-shaped head.  And as a simple matter of scale, the smiling toddler-looking Jesuses would have demanded the Blessed Virgin sport a trick pelvis.

The Christ-Child must be an awful gig.   I mean, you can’t really stop for a chat, can you?  Eating the gingerbread or grabbing a latte isn’t allowed, because angels eat ambrosia, right?  We suspected that the Christkindl who wandered about Nürmberg that year had resorted to drugs; tweaked out on amphetamines, diagnosed my companions.  I replied that the facial expression you get after a draw on a crack pipe might just resemble the beatific peace of a saint, but they had already gone off to look for her dealer.

Now, what is the purpose of a Christkindl?   Apparently, it was to give Santa Claus a bit of competition.  Martin Luther’s idea, no less, and a jolly good idea it was, too.

It surprises many English speakers that St. Nicholas, to whom they corruptly refer as Santa Claus, is but one of many competing fantasy figures that hop about Bavaria this time of year.   It surprises them further that the original St. Nick was a pretty nasty fellow, who was more eager to judge the quality of child-rearing than to dish out dolls and model trains.   A child doesn’t wake up on St. Nicholas Day to open presents; but rather, to sigh with relief that he hasn’t been carted off in a sack.    It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

The real St. Nicholas was so awful and scary to Americans, that Coca-Cola reinterpreted him for their Christmas advertising (as well as making him arrive on December 25 from the North Pole.).  Artist Haddon Sundblom created the Santa we see today, clad in Coca-Cola red, and his elves were (suspiciously) known as sprites.   If you want to sell a product, you have to make people happy; the biggest shock which a visitor to Bavaria at Christmas feels is that the holiday has a dark side.

Which makes us rather look forward to when it’s over.  When the last goose-fat has been drained for the coming months’ roast potatoes—try doing that with a turkey, you non-Bavarians!—and the last filling has been cracked on the ceramic doo-dad in your Three Kings’ cake.    Not long after, we get into Fasching.

But even this is a bit odd in Bavaria; Fasching is muted compared with the raunchiness of Karneval.  It’s as though the adults are still expecting a slap from a Rute if they go too far.

It rather makes me long for Lent.   At least the beer gets stronger.

Fröhes Everything to Everyone.

Congratulations to MUH Magazine

Once a quarter, Chefredaktur Josef Winkler patiently translates MKB, and graciously allows it to appear in their pages of MUH Magazine.   Tonight, MUH carried off a prestigious Kress Award for German-language media, as the best new magazine concept.  Congratulations to Josef, his co-chef Nicole Kling, and the team.  Heartily deserved!

Ducks, Chickens, and Small, Irritable Dogs

Cast your mind back to the glory days of July 2011.   The authoritative nu/rap metal band Limp Bizkit played the prestigious Tollwood Festival at Olympic Park, and added a number just for the Munich audience.

It was a little ditty they called the Chicken Dance.   A short piece composed by the Swiss accordionist Werner Thomas, in the 1950s.  You probably know it as the Ententanz, or Duck Dance.

Why would they add this piece to their world-famous repertoire for Munich concerts, and Munich concerts only?

Was it a small tribute to Bavaria?  If so, why did they choose a Swiss piece, when they might have honoured a real Bavarian composer like Richard Wagner, Carl Orff or Lou Bega?

We may never know for sure.  But as an American, let me suggest that their logic followed this pattern.  “Munich?  Like, Oktoberfest, right?  We should play the Chicken Dance, because everyone knows that no Oktoberfest is complete without the Chicken Dance!

(The last part of the sentence is taken directly from a Frommer’s entry on the Munich Oktoberfest traditions)

Where did this idea, and others like them start?   Let’s take the world’s largest Oktoberfest after Munich, in the American city of Cincinnati.  It even calls itself Zinzinatti for the three days of the festival, which attracts over half a million visitors.  On a day-by-day basis, that’s a Wies’n-sized crowd.

Chris Kemper and Pat  Sheeran of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce agreed to a phone interview.  “You do know”, I began, “that in German, it’s not a chicken dance?”

One could practically hear their eyebrows rise over the telephone line.  “Oh?” asked Chris, in his capacity as PR Director.  “What is it in German?”

“It’s the duck dance.” I replied. “Does the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce have an official position on this matter?”

They laughed heartily.  “Well, duck tastes an awful lot like chicken,” replied Chris, ever the diplomat.

Pat, who has served nearly two decades with the Chamber, takes a sanguine view on the authenticity issue.  He pointed out that OZ does maintain a special German-ness advisory committee, an Ordnungspolizei for the Germanity of the whole affair.   In the beginning, the committee maintained strict standards—brass-band music only.   “But when I visited Oktoberfest in Munich, I couldn’t believe that everyone was playing Country Roads, by John Denver. They were singing about going home to West Virginia!”

One can understand his bemusement.  A country road from Ohio to West Virginia is no big deal.

I wonder what the committee makes of some other Cincinnati events?

The Pepto-Bismol® World Brat Eating Contest is a fixture of the MLE (Major League Eating) circuit, sponsored by a popular indigestion remedy.  In the allotted ten minutes, 2010 winner Joey Chestnut (whose name means Marron) beat early favourite Gravy Brown (whose name means Bratensoße). In spite of the fact that Brown “was draped in Lederhosen to channel the Oktoberfest spirits,” Chestnut won by a solid forty-two to thirty-one and three quarters.   A mere week before he’d become the World Burrito Eating Champion with a bowel-busting 47, though this record must remain informal because the sport of burrito-eating has no governing body.

Could Chestnut get through 42 Knödl in ten minutes, like a Bavarian could?

When American Oktoberfesters aren’t eating sausages, they chase after them.   In 2011, OZ will play host to the fifth annual Running of the Wieners.

No, this is not a foot race for people from Vienna.   It is a race for Dachshunds.  The American Hot Dog , as a sausage, is a bastardisation of the type found in eastern Austria, and is hence called a wiener.  Because of their shape, the dachshund is most commonly known across the Land of the Free as a Wiener Dog.  And because a wiener is also American slang for a male penis, as well as the surname of a Congressman caught tweeting a picture of his crotch, this makes Americans laugh.  It’s even funnier because these dogs must compete in a costume that resembles a curious elongated version of a Semmel.

Cincinnati Oktoberfest climaxes with a Chicken Dance, lead by the honorary Grand Marshall.  Past Marshalls have been highly distinguished.   Vern Troyer, better known as Mini-Me from the Austin Powers films, proved popular—but don’t you think it was a little cruel to ask him to flap his arms?  Crypto-rocker Weird Al Yankovic added a kazoo to the Chicken Dance mix.  Vince Neil, lead singer of Mötley Crüe (who has worked so tirelessly to promote German punctuation around the world) even earned a prize for his performance of the Chicken Dance.  Music channel VH1 declared it the World’s Least Metal Moment.

But the hero of them all, the man who really started the craze, is none other than our own Luitpold von Bayern, Prince of Bavaria.   In 1994, he served as Grand Marshall of the Oktoberfest in Cincinnati.  And he was a smash hit.

Pat remembers the Prince vividly.  “Well, to start, he was royal.  Since we Americans don’t have royalty of our own, he added a dose of glamour.   And when you’re up there in front of all those people, you can get swept up in the energy of the moment.  The crowd loved him.”  The event turned into the world’s largest instance of mass-synchronised dancing, and entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1995.

So, what did it feel like to lead such a spectacle?  The Prince was kind enough to grant me an audience in his offices at Schloß Kaltenberg.   He proved most candid and gracious in conversation; and in good humour, too.   In the course of an hour,  we pronounced Cincinnati at least five different ways.

I asked him to recall the moment.

“Well, it was rather an experience,” he began with a smile.  “I was standing on a pedestrian bridge above the street, conducting something like sixty or seventy thousand people. “

Chris Kemper clarified that the official count stands at 48,000.  But the event has become the stuff of legend.  “Probably about sixty or seventy thousand people claim they were there” he notes.

This clearly thrilled the Prince, but in a surreal way.  “I felt a little displaced” he confesses, “The Chicken Dance, as you know, is not very Bavarian.”

“German emigrants, and their descendants, naturally try to keep traditions alive.  But few places in the world have enough Germans from a particular region to make it regionally authentic.”

Prince Luitpold’s keen eye spotted some Cincinnati regionalisms.  “The Chicken Dance is something people would do more at Karneval.  The Cincinnati Oktoberfest is a street festival, and it feels much more like Cologne.”  Cincinnati’s German heritage, arguably, is a Rheinisch one; the city’s brewery district is even named Over the Rhine.   A local specialty is a meat-and-oats sausage named Goetta, (from the old German Götte) which originated around Hannover and Oldenberg.   Locals fry it for breakfast, and call it Cincinatti Caviar.

As the head of a brewery himself, the Prince travels extensively, and can speak with some authority on overseas Oktoberfests.

Moscow was a favourite of his.  The Oktoberfest there was full of good cheer and merriment, helped along by a T33 tank which one of the breweries displayed as a promotional item.

Perhaps the merriment got a little too rowdy, since now the Russian government has banned beer tents.  “It’s a measure against alcoholism and public drunkenness. “ the Prince tells us. “Funnily, nobody seems to think that vodka has anything to do with this.  The vodka industry in Russia is very well connected, I believe.”

“In Shanghai, there were two actors playing Ludwig II and Sissi.  Ludwig had red hair.”  But that wasn’t the oddest bit.  “In so many places, people want to depict Ludwig and Sissi as some kind of married couple.  They were cousins and certainly knew each other, but they were King and empress of two entirely different countries.”

One can appreciate how impersonating royalty makes him vaguely uneasy.  Clearly, for Prince Luitpold, love of one’s family and respect for one’s ancestors are inseparable.  The Wittlesbach family takes great care to protect names and images from their history; not necessarily for profit, but to ensure due care and dignity.

Thus, he is less concerned with Oktoberfests abroad, than with what  happens at Oktoberfest every year in Munich.

“The wedding party of the Crown Prince Ludwig—the reason for the first Oktoberfest—came at a time of the Napoleonic wars.  Bavaria was refounded in size and united different tribes of the region.  It was a celebration of national unity.”

But nowadays, it’s descended into something rather less, the Prince feels.    “Karnvalisms” as the he calls them, are OK in Ohio, but in Bavaria, it galls.  “The Oktoberfest is changing away from being a traditional show of the different parts of culture…into a mass-production, heavily-beer driven and  shows a rather strange picture of Bavarians.”

“This is strongly driven by the tourist office of Munich, probably one of the most tasteless organisations we have in Bavaria.  They are very strict. If you have a stand you are allowed to sell only…I don’t know…hearts of chocolate or radishes or whatever.  You even have to count the amount of toilet paper per guest which you must have in place.  So how can they authorise all these souvenirs?”

“You get felt hats that are far away form a felt hat ever worn by a Bavarian citizen in the traditional terms.   They are cheap to produce and cheap generally. You will find them in a white and blue colour—nobody would EVER dare to wear a white and blue colour hat as a true Bavarian…what we are showing is that we are a beer drinking nation where people are wearing beer barrels as hats and beer pouring out of their brain!  Why don’t you do a hat parade of hats sold on Oktoberfest and make a comparison of hats being used by normal people?  It’s amazing what people will put on their heads. ”

Clearly, hats are a flea in the Royal armpit.   But there are more important symbols, the Prince feels.

“Take last year.  On the first Sunday of the festival, below the statue of Bavaria, all the brass bands playing in the beer tents give an open air concert.  The head of the Munich tourist office was the honourary conductor—of course the conductor waves his hands about and the bands do what they like.   And she wanted to have as music the Preußen Gloria.   Not necessarily the place to do that.”  In the end, they couldn’t.  Understandably, none of the brass bands had thought to bring any Prussian sheet music along.

“I don’t think one needs to be too strict about things.  But if you fake history too much, and use it in an odd way, you lose your right to exist at some moment in time.   Do you need to exaggerate, to make traditional things a satire, a comic?  The management of the Oktoberfest in Munich is making a fool of that long tradition. “

Under those circumstances, the liberties taken by Oktoberfests abroad don’t trouble the Prince.

“If we export a good feeling, the idea that people can cross all social barriers drinking a beer and being suddenly friendly to everybody, then at least we have achieved something positive out of the tradition.”

And with that, may we all have a happy Oktoberfest.  It’s a Royal command.

Illustration of the Goddess Bavaria by Leo Slawik