The Germans

The first word I learned during my visit to Germany (1969-73) was “Entschuldigung”, or “Excuse me”. In a way it symbolized how I felt being among our German ‘hosts’. An intrusion, a bother; a useless gnat fluttering across their vision, whispering in their ears. The next words I learned were the ones of politeness, like “Bitte” (please) and “Dankeshern” (You’re welcome). After that the ones for ‘bathroom’ (which was more difficult; “W.C.” was the common term). I learned these were the first things one should learn when arriving in a foreign culture – the words for politenesses and requests for basic necessities required for human life.

I learned those basics and learn them quickly enough though not well. At first I was intimidated by the Germans with their gruff grunts and growling language that seemed full of hard S’s, R’s, K’s and G’s. The men seemed big and burly in their overcoats and most wore hats. The women seemed large to my ten year old eyes. The Germans kept their distance and we kept ours – for the most part. There was always some interaction – you had to. Unless you stayed on base all the time (and some Americans did, being afraid or uncomfortable around their German hosts.) And over time I found the Germans were generally friendly, helpful, and kind, albeit in a brusque kind of way, especially the older men, and they were polite, fastidious, clean and orderly – a meticulous brand of people who functioned like social robots, with a little bit of individuality hanging like fringe from the edges of a well sewn hem.

They were a strict people – not so much with us, the Americans. We were forgiven our sins since it was well known us Americans were like dumb children – but not so much with and amongst themselves. They held themselves and other Germans to a high standard of social behavior, especially the pubic ones. Everyone obeyed the rules, kept things smart and orderly, and walked fast! I learned to walk much faster than the average American. You had to do it – or get run over from behind!

Once on a business trip in the late eighties I was in a mall where I saw two teenagers horsing around rambunctiously when a little old man and woman came up to them, hunched over and frowning, and said a few hard things. The teenagers, two boys, just laughed and kept on. In a flash the woman whipped out her umbrella and began beating them right there! The two hoods scampered, stuck between the couple and a wall as the blows rained down around their head and shoulders. They did the avoidance dance, not fighting, while the old man shook his finger in time to their steps. After a moment the woman stopped and looked at them sternly while the man scolded them. They left much subdued, heads down meekly, as if recounting their sins with every step . . .

Sometimes I think it would be good if we here in America did that kind of thing for pubic good – for when their parent’s won’t teach kids proper behavior, then society should. And much better an umbrella thumping in some mall than ten years in jail – especially a German one. (I’ve heard their strict, but not bad – if you don’t mind having your civil rights violated on a daily basis if not more.)

The Germans seem to have a holiday for everything – still do, last I heard. In part this is because of their history. Compared to America, it is very long, well documented (unlike our Native Americans, who didn’t write), and complex. Each village and hamlet might have a festival based upon their traditions, and then there were the greater ones: the region and the country, and the traditional Christian ones – Christmas and Easter, especially. In one place I stayed at in 1978 they had an Asparagus Festival – and it was really fun. And like all festivals, it had a beer hall (a tent, actually) with a German oomp-pah band! It ran for a week – and I had great fun. An interesting time, to say the least (though the value of the dollar had gone down).

Their children attended school five and one half days a week, earning us American kid’s respect. Us Army kids had very little do do with the German kids, anyway. They were outside the fence – in “Krautland”, so to speak, and not on ‘American’ territory (thought the military was leasing the land). The ‘feeling’ of avoidance I think was strong on both sides. We” were the invaders; we had invaded their – the land of their parents, aunts and uncles, and rare was the German family who hadn’t lost some relatives, suffered some privations during the war. Not that I ever heard them griping. We would see the German kids from afar, even when standing right next to them. Only on the parks and their play grounds did I see them playing gleefully with their parents watching on, or walking dourly, soul-faced and somber, hands tucked behind them as they followed their parents obediently through stores and streets. Not like over here with kids running helter-skelter hither and skither here and there, yelling and wild armed waving. No, the Germans were quite a different breed.

They kept their towns orderly, their trains orderly, their buses on time, and everything well kept. Each Saturday morning like clockwork the ladies would appear – going into the cobblestone streets in front of their houses and sweeping everything – including the sidewalk. By each person taking care of their own section of land, the entire countryside was kept up – as clean as a garden it seemed. Even walking through the woods was an experience in ‘orderly’ to the point of strange. Odd stacks of wood would appear in the middle of nowhere where the citizens, going through the woods, would ‘clean them up’ by removing all the old deadwood and stacking some. Their woods were like parks there.

The Germans themselves – well, the colors were fascinating to me because it seemed everything was done in these bright primary colors – the crockery, the appliances, the toys. Tomato red, canary yellow, and sky blue. Even some of the cars seemed cartoon-like with their funny lines and bright colors. But they were fast and the Germans were good at driving them, though you would see the occasional fatal pileup or plunge in the mountains where they’d get to driving too fast for some turn. The streets in the towns – too narrow for one car, much less two – were often marked for going both ways. My dad would struggle to make a turn that only a chariot could have made; sometimes I could swear a car drove up on the side of a building to get around!

And those buildings: huge timbered frames, some overhanging the streets until the streets were practically enclosed; the strong smell of old wood and masonry, with just a touch of pine; those Alpine villages with their graceful filigrees and gold domed churches – we were constantly going places whenever we could, and I, when I owned a bike, would often go out on my own, making for the nearest bus station or train station and going “to town”, meaning the local German neighborhood or village we were in or near.

I remember one store: the Haushoff (meaning “head house”, literally translated) which was a towering department store. In it were the most amazing (to me, anyway) appliances, tiny things – washers and dryers and miniature ovens – and all the items were bright and shiny and painted in those primary colors. How many times have I wished and wondered why the American appliance market doesn’t offer more of these things – a two pants load and two shirt load washer, with a dryer to boot, that plugs up to your faucet and doesn’t take half a room. Efficient machines.

At the time I was there – “this time”, from the ages of about 11 to 13-1/2, the mark was worth a quarter, and bought a quarter’s worth of ‘stuff’. It seemed fair. Later on when I went over there to work with an engineering company for awhile (interfacing PAFACS CAD with AutoCAD ‘style’, including doing some pressure work on a special electrical vessel to be made) – the mark would buy you about ten cents worth of crap. The changes in attitude were there, too: the Americans, made poor by the devaluation of the dollar, were something to be pitied and charitied, not honored as heroes anymore. “We” had become a ‘burden’ on them; our welcome had worn out.

Yes, Germany has much changed over the years, but some things, I am sure, remain the same . . .

The Beirhall festivals being one. Beer was the most popular beverage (the water being considered untrustworthy to drink) – and is considered a ‘food’. They serve it for lunch, though nobody gets drunk. They save those occasions for their nights and their festivals. And boy! – what traditions they have!

The burning of the Heidelberg Castle was one I’ll never forget; nor a voyage down the Rhine. The endless castles and their ruins and secrets to hide. The graveyards so ancient their stones were black and ruined; the endless visages of statues with their blank eyes; cherubs and virgins carved there – frozen in time, their love never to be consummated, though their stone hearts were hard.

I remember another thing that will always stick with me, and that’s how Americans were (and still are!) prudes. The naked statues of children; the Madonna, nude – those the Americans would gasp, clutch their mouths, titter about . . . while the Germans just walked by, staring at them. I remember the bathrooms – just a wall in a park, set at an off angle to the path, where men could go to relieve themselves. Once I saw a fat German woman hike up her dress in front of me and take a squat to pee right there on the sidewalk. Stuck behind her we could do nothing but pause and wait, and then without a word she stood and walked on. Everyone ignored her, as did we – most studiously ignoring her and wondering at this kind of behavior which opened our eyes to things – and ways to behave in this country, though we didn’t go around peeing on the street. Even that was somewhat frowned upon. I gather that this was some country woman who had been suddenly overcome by the need to go. In which case in this land it was acceptable to do that. Apparently.

There were a lot of things to see and do, but the Germans – they were good. Just strange to my twelve year old eyes at the time. As I learned it all seemed normal, until I was being accepted by them – which is good.

But we always stood out – Americans always did. And it seemed no matter where we went – we did not ‘belong’ there. We were there for a reason, and that reason was leaving . . . all the time.

And so it went on . . .