Germany from the Corner of My Eye

To look awry at a place, to glance and notice what is usually not noticed – this is a perpetual pleasure of travel. The pleasure is doubled since it signals that I am not overburdened with the rush of ‘important’ things in life, that I can reflect and see what is really important.

So what catches the corner of my eye in Germany, where I have now spent more time than I would have once imagined? The monuments, the colourful history, the careful management of everything and anything – these fade into the background. Instead, I begin to notice the moustaches (also on the men), the beer bottle in hand, the dogs, cigarettes and Würste.

Waiting at a railway station, in a shop, quietly sipping a coffee, I feel as though I am surrounded by moustaches. Hipsters and younger people may sport beards and low-hanging jeans, but slightly older people cannot resist the desire for bushy upper lips. Not the narrow stripes of a former Führer, not the pencil line of dandies, not the ram-dressed-as-lamb trimmings and ticklers, not the waxed twirls of cultivated eccentricity – no, these are bristling, luxurious affairs. From the bottom of the nose to the edge of the upper lip and then out to the side, the German moustache is really a celebration of facial hair. Look at a portrait of some key figure, and the moustache will be there. Pause to watch a passing bicycle and it will be swept back with the rush of air. Walk the street and you feel as though you are surrounded by hundreds of moving, bristling bushes. Often they seem to be one with the long nostril hairs that poke their way out and about, taking in the fresh air. Red, brown, blond, salt-and-pepper, or grey, they suggest many uses. Air filters perhaps, or a device for measuring the level of a beer, or a broom with which may adroitly sweep a table or the floor, or a clothes brush as one dons a jumper or jacket.

Herrnhut

The moustache may have its home on the upper lip, but a beer bottle’s home is in the hand. When I first met a couple of people meandering along the street, beer bottle in hand, I thought they were alcoholics. But something was not quite right: I am used to such characters leaving their preferred beverage in the brown paper bags provided by the bottle shop. Instead, these bottles were unwrapped, open, and drunk nonchalantly. Soon enough, I began to notice builders on their way home after work, women sauntering along to a café, train travellers, even children out in the playground – each holding a bottle. And in the evenings it seems as though you simply cannot be seen without a bottle. Forget the paper coffee mug of caffeine-addicted places, or perhaps the plastic water bottles that have been marketed so assiduously, for here the aqua franca is beer. I should not be surprised, really, since a half-litre of beer costs less than a euro. And those bottles appear in massed ranks in the supermarket, in the corner shop open for spatkauf, at the roadside snack stall, in chemists, hairdressers, green grocers, banks, churches … after all, you never know when you will need a beer.

A moustache on the lip, a beer bottle in one hand – but most human beings have two hands. Inevitably that other hand sports a cigarette. Barring Bulgarians perhaps, Germans would have to be the most enthusiastic smokers in the world. Roll your own if you want to be slightly alternative, especially if you are a woman, or go for the easy option and light up a tailor-made smoke. But make sure you puff away, since it is a national pastime. And you can smoke just about anywhere. A railway station may be rauchfrei, but that does not mean you cannot smoke at the station or on the platform. Instead, find one of the many yellow squares, with a helpful ashtray, and you can stand right beside one of the few non-smokers and smoke to your heart’s discontent. Go into a restaurant and it always has a section where you can ponder the universe over the curling smoke of your gasper. Above all, walk the streets, not so much to get anywhere, but to drink and smoke.

Then there are the dogs, which seem to have more rights than human beings. I remember my first encounter, on a bus. Standing, as is my wont on a longish ride, I felt something brush against my leg. Looking down, I noticed not a child, not a bag that had fallen over, but a dog quietly rearranging itself on the floor. It is simply expected that you can take your dog with you anywhere. Dogs have a right to go shopping, to enjoy a meal at a restaurant, to sip a coffee with its human companion, to fly on a plane, to take a rail journey, to turn on the television, even to smoke and drink like all Germans. Yet they have not yet taken to the idea of using the toilet. Instead, they simply use whatever spot is available. For some reason, Germans do not pick up after their dogs have emptied their bowels. So the art of walking is the art of watching, always keeping an eye on the footpath for the inevitable steaming pile. One would imagine that dogs would be expected to pick up after themselves. With rights come responsibilities.

In between the smokes and the beers, consumed with one’s dog, are the Würste. Forget hamburger or pizza for a snack or a meal on the go, a Wurst is the thing. A man sits in a corner of a small café and tucks into a leberwurst. On your way home from work, grab a bratwurst. Head to the markets and you will definitely need a currywurst. Whenever Germans are not smoking and drinking and being intimate with their dogs, they masticate Würste – short, long, thick, thin, dark, light, you name it, they eat it. The ubiquitous sausage also functions as a symbol, or perhaps a metonym, for so much else. Should one wish to indicate a dildo, a Wurst does the trick. Should eating be banned – say on a bus – then the image is not a hamburger but a sausage. Should one wish to indicate the health of one’s internal plumbing, then a Wurst is best. And why not, since they are made from the skins of large and small intestines?

wurst

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