The Saxons Are Coming, Run for the Alps!

The Saxons are coming! Miners from the coal mines. Photo: Wikipedia

The Saxons are coming! Miners from the coal mines. Photo: Wikipedia

My German sucks. It’s not as bad as my Russian, but it’s pretty bad. You’d think that after spending the better part of a dozen years in Munich, I’d have picked up a few more phrases beyond ordering beer and food in a restaurant. Priorities. My biggest problem (excuse) in learning German is that I’ve always been paid for my English language skills. Nobody has given me any compensation for my German skills. (And if you’ve ever heard my German skills you’d say the money should have gone to them, not me.)

It’s so bad that often when I go to a bakery, the nice assistants tells me how much I owe her in English (and they always mix up numbers like 34 and 43). WTF? And then they normally ask if I’m from England. And then Scotland. They are normally shocked (and I’m pleased, believe me) when they find out I’m from the USA. Well, I’m from California but grew up in Florida, so neither is considered mainstream America. Because of this, I tell them ‘I’m almost from America,’ which confuses them and pleases me even more.

I want to improve my German: please speak to me in German. We live in Germany, for Pete’s sake. I sincerely believe that many Germans, who ALWAYS say they speak ‘a little’ English (and can understand BBC or CNN as well as I can), are simply looking for a free English lesson, which they will then use on one of their infinite number of holidays to some foreign land where English is understood more than German.

These costumes are from an indigenous Slavic minority near Dresden, the Sorbs. Never heard of them? Neither have most Germans and as for the Bavarians, they'd like to keep it that way. Photo: Wikipedia

These costumes are from an indigenous Slavic minority near Dresden, the Sorbs. Never heard of them? Neither have most Germans and as for the Bavarians, they’d like to keep it that way. Photo: Wikipedia

The statement about living in Germany isn’t exactly true. I live in Bavaria. Bavaria is a separate country-just ask any real Bavarian. And though my German sucks and my wife’s is very good, I can understand the Bavarian dialect much better than her. She’s got me by a mile when it comes to Hochdeutsch, but I’ve got her beat here in Bavaria, or even Baden-Wurttemberg. I will admit, however, that I have no fucking clue what the people are saying when we are in South Tyrol, but I hear that goes for everyone not Tyrolean.

Now, most of those shop assistants in the bakeries and butchers are real hard to understand. Like, impossible. You see, they speak a very special dialect of German, that sounds real funny to us who have lived in Bavaria so long. The biggest difference is how the Saxons say the ‘ch’ in words like ich (I) or dich (you). The Saxons butcher the ‘ch’ worse than the Berliners. They’ve managed to make the pronounced ‘ch’ less sensical than Berliner Weissbier, a beer with fruit syrup in it, yes, FRUIT SYRUP!

So, what should be one of the loveliest sentences in German, ich liebe dich (I love you), sounds like ‘ish liebe dish’ straight from a date night with Nag and Nagaina, the two cobras from Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

I have adopted Bavaria (not Germany) as my new home. Or to be even more specific, Munich, that world city with heart. And in doing so, I’ve also learned that for Bavarians, the Saxons are the butt of more jokes than any other German speakers, except the Austrians. And I think I know why.

Saxony, like Bavaria, is a Freistaat, a free state, which means absolutely nothing except it makes the natives of those two states prouder and more likely to say that they can secede from the Republic of Germany anytime they so desire. Pure rubbish, surely, but I simply nod and take another swig of beer whenever I hear it from a Bavarian. (It’s more often than one might think.)

This picture sums up succinctly how the Bavarians feel about the Saxons from Dresden. Photo: Wikipedia

This picture sums up succinctly how the Bavarians feel about the Saxons from Dresden. Photo: Wikipedia

So why do Bavarians have such a prickly feeling when it comes to the Saxons? Some of it probably has to do with the Saxons’ communist roots. A bit more, possibly, has to do with the Saxons desire to boil pig knuckles rather than roasting them in the oven. Also, as I’ve said, the Saxon dialect is strange. But the biggest reason (I think, no, I hope) has to be the fact that after the Fall of the Wall, so many Saxons moved to Bavaria and stole their women. And jobs.

One of the nicer areas of Dresden. Nothing can compare to it here in Munich. Photo: Wikipedia

One of the nicer areas of Dresden. Nothing can compare to it here in Munich. Photo: Wikipedia

The Saxons keep coming. The economy around Dresden, the capital of Saxony, continues to idle while the one around Munich hums. There are many jobs to be found in Munich, so the Saxons come to take them. They may not be the highest-paid jobs but they are secure jobs, with future potential to move up the food-chain. And while the Saxons are moving up? They get a chance for a free English lesson if I patronize a bakery, butcher’s or boutique they just happen to be working at the right moment.

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Germany Still Has a Wall that Divides

Usually punctual, very comfortable

Usually punctual, very comfortable. Photo: wikipedia

If you travel by train or car in Germany for any distance, a few aspects of Germanness are inescapable. They all share similar ideas of orderliness, tidiness, and structure. Other pillars of Germanness, especially in the workplace, include punctuality, productivity, and thoroughness. These are the things that unite them, a sort of common consciousness,  a Teutonic core.

But there are great divides and differences between Germans. These fault lines are often geographic in nature. Surely it would seem that the East Germans, separated for decades by a physical wall of concrete and steel, would contrast immensely with the Western Germans. And, in fact they do. There is also a mental wall that has been even harder to overcome.

Many an Ossi has struggled mightily to come to terms with ideas of deadlines, competition and overall productivity, which come easier to those Germans who recovered from World War II in American, French or British Zones of occupation. Communism’s inferior business model, coupled with an overzealous and EXTREMELY well-organized secret police, the Stasi, adds to many East Germans distrust and narrower world view.

All of this comes a little surprise. What is a bigger surprise, and which can only be discovered after spending some time in Germany, is the polarity between Northern and Southern Germany. That is the greater divide.

When I travel back to Florida to visit my family and friends, someone somewhere invariably asks me, “Why do you live in Europe? And of all places, why do you live in Germany? France, sure, Italy great, but Germany?”

My patent response is “I live neither in Europe nor Germany. I live in Bavaria.”

Bavarians are not really Germans, but more like the Austrians or the Schwaben (think Stuttgart). Or the Austrians and Schwaben are like the Bavarians, and neither are Germans. Yes, they speak dialects of the same language, the similarities are fewer after that. It’s like trying to tell an Scotsman he’s a Brit, or a Texan he’s an American.

 

A brief history of the land that is now called Germany

Up to 60% of the German population was killed in the 30 Years War. Photo: wikipedia

Up to 60% of the German population was killed in the 30 Years War. Photo: wikipedia

For nearly 500 years, Germany served as a (the) battlefield of Europe. Sandwiched between the stronger powers (empires) of France, Russia or the Austro-Hungarian conglomerate, Germany became a sort of jetty that dispersed the waves of desire of its neighbors by providing a complicated group of territories whose rulers were often at war or in allegiance with each other. All of this changed, and was bound to change the face of Europe dramatically, with the rise to power of Otto von Bismarck.

The Iron Chancellor put Germany on the road to power. Photo: wikipedia

The Iron Chancellor put Germany on the road to power. Photo: wikipedia

When Germany united, through Bismarck’s masterful abilities, some great timing and luck, it immediately proved too strong for Denmark, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, and eventually Russia. Only Great Britain could compete and contain the new industrial and military behemoth. Germany’s ability to produce, organize and analyze was beyond comparison with other major countries then, and is still so today. This has caused a plethora of problems for Germany-and her neighbors. It caused them then as it causes them now. Germany is, and has always been, the question of Europe. It is still so today.

After a few embellishments, or half-truths (lies), Bismarck was able to unite the peoples who shared a common language-German-under a banner that would one day at different points terrorize, amaze and astound the rest of the globe.

Germany will continue to do so, though one hopes that their darkest days of the Third Reich are behind them. Many in Europe are not so sure, though it’s hard to determine if it’s politics being played or authentic fear. The quicker the rest of Europe (and the world) can resign themselves to (or rejoice) the fact that a reunified Germany is a world player, the better off it will be.

Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland would be a formidable economic union

But how unified is Germany? Are there still many obstacles to overcome before they can truly take their place upon the Pantheon of Nations as their robust economy demands?

From east to west in Germany, the differences are stark and clear. Certainly those Germans residing near the border with Poland can’t be very similar to those Germans abutted against France. And they are not. But they are both more German than the Bavarians, those strange, independent and wonderfully quirky Bavarians, who queerly and surely seem to share few of the qualities of their more northern kindred.

Munich's most famous attraction (non-museum). Photo: wikipedia

Munich’s most famous attraction (non-museum). Photo: wikipedia

Americans think of sausages, beer, Audi, BMW, Schweinebraten and Knödel (roast pork and dumplings), Munich, beer gardens, Neuschwanstein (Cinderella’s Castle), Mozart, Einstein, the Romantic Road, the Alps, Mercedes, Nuremberg Parade Grounds, Nazism, FC Bayern, etc., when they hear the word Germany. Most of these first thoughts are either mostly Bavarian or completely Bavarian! Not German! Thyssenkrupp, E.ON, Ruhrgebiet, Currywurst, cabaret, Reeperbahn, Berlin, Hamburg, Dortmund, and the close proximity to one another of more than 25% of the total German population in North-Rhineland Westphalia, that is Germany!

In Bavaria’s sort of sleepy capital, Munich, closes at about 11pm every night. Goths are really strange. Many people still listen to Oom Pah-pah music in Bavaria, or a more modern version led by Helene Fischer. Pretzels are everywhere. Wagner’s music confounds, excites and is controversial. It’s played regularly. Festivals of planting, harvesting and moon phases abound and held weekly in Summer. A few extra kilos on the frame is still considered attractive-and normal. Bavarians drive south for fun-many have never been to Berlin or any other more northern German city.

Northern Germany has most of the vice. Photo: wikipedia

Northern Germany has most of the vice. Photo: wikipedia

If anyone wants to see a real German city, send them to Hamburg. Or Cologne. Berlin is in the midst of major transitions, it needs a few years. Maybe Dortmund, or Düsseldorf, or Hannover, those cities are real German.

Ruhrgebiet. This is Germany. Photo: wikipediaGermans have an edge, a strong affinity for industry, gray, rain and melancholy. Germans like hard rock, a bit of graffiti, wayward souls sleeping in the streets. Germans are accustomed to a bit of broken glass. Bavarians want (and have) little of that. Only the Swiss can call the Bavarians untidy. Germans eat more than pork and the trimmings-Bavarians can survive on only pigs and potatoes. Germans drink beer with strange names like Kolsch or Altbier, Bavarians drink the champagne of beers-lager, less bitter. Bavarian beer comes in big mugs, not flute glasses. Germans drink at night, Bavarians might have a beer for breakfast. Young Bavarians go to bed before midnight; Germans are in the shower preparing for the night’s festivities.

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For many years Germans were united in their basic political desires, win the Cold War (another war fought almost entirely over the idea of what to do with Germany), the World Cup and dominate Formula One. Now that they have them won, they are beginning to divide on ideas about the EU, integration, etc. Many Bavarians wouldn’t mind a separate country. The possibility of a chancellor for all of Germany being Bavarian is slim. Not impossible, but very slim.

If one is to get the EU’s support, it must be able to win the support of Germans (and Bavarians) from north to south. This is a more difficult task than winning that support from east to west. The Berlin Wall may be no more, but there still exists one that runs from east to west. But, regardless of the geographical location of native German speakers in Germany, one thing is certain. They all make jokes about the Austrians.

So maybe a recent report of a union of Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria and its neighbor to the west, Baden-Württemberg, was simply a silly season (Sommerloch) story, to tide us over till school starts. School does start later in Bavaria than the rest of Germany. Oh, Bavaria has more bank holidays than the rest of Europe. Go figure.