Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Hi there, it's me again. I've been on vacation. But now I'm back to tell you about the trip I took to a distant and exotic land. I journeyed to a place where the inhabitants speak a mysterious language, wear a distinctive native costume, perform peculiar dances, eat their traditional foods and, in general, jealously guard their ancient cultural traditions. You guessed it—I went to Bavaria.

In the years since we moved from Germany to the US, back at the turn of the century, we have gone back to spend a few weeks every summer. We mainly spend our time in My Favorite Wife's native village in the Palatinate (die Pfalz, just north of the French Alsace region), visiting with her family and especially giving our kids an opportunity to spend some quality time with their cousins, with whom they've managed to maintain a fairly close relationship over all these years, despite the distance. It's not an inexpensive proposition and I agonize over the cost every year when I book the flights, but it's important to me that the kids have a sense of their larger family connections, especially since they don't have any cousins or other close relatives of similar age on my side of the family in the US. MFW and I of course also enjoy seeing friends and family that we only get to see once a year.

We don't spend all of our time in MFW's home village. We generally spend a day or two in Mainz, where we lived for many years, and visit old friends who live elsewhere in the general area. In recent years, as the kids have gotten older, we've been taking the opportunity to spend some of our German vacation time doing traveling a little further afield. This year the destination of choice was the land of beer and Lederhosen.

One of the things that I find fascinating about Germany is that in a country about the size of Montana, there can be considerable differences in culture within the span of relatively short distances. The most obvious manifestation of this is how dialects change from place to place. These are not subtle differences either—a German from one area can travel 50–60 miles in any direction and find people speaking a local dialect that is somewhere between difficult to understand and completely incomprehensible. Other cultural features change from place to place too; for example, the type of Weinfest at which wine is normally served in a half-liter (about a pint) Schoppenglas is something peculiar to MFW's area that you won't find anywhere else in the country. There are also many food specialties associated with specific areas. But for the most part, these kinds of things are minor variations on a more or less widespread base culture.

We'll Just Have A Small Glass, Thanks

Bavaria somehow stands apart. As you might expect, there's a distinctive Bavarian dialect (or family of dialects, actually) that is largely impenetrable for many outsiders, especially when you get out into the countryside, where many of the inhabitants won't make even a token attempt to speak to you in the standard ('High") German that is used in business, government, mass media etc. And there are various culinary specialties (such as beer served by the liter—my personal favorite) that are typical for Bavaria.

The Bavarians somehow go further, though, in expressing their cultural identity. One aspect of this is the style of dress. Many regions of Germany have a traditional folk costume of some sort, but it's not something that anyone would actually wear on the street. Not so in Bavaria; it would be an exaggeration to say that everyone runs around wearing Lederhosen (men) or a Dirndl dress (women), but it's also not highly unusual to see people wearing that kind of clothing, especially on festive occasions of one kind or another. There are distinctively Bavarian styles of music; what we Gringos refer to as "oompah music" immediately comes to mind, but there are many other styles of folk music, some of which is played on specifically Bavarian (or, perhaps more accurately, alpine) instruments. Bavarians also maintain a tradition of folk dancing in their own peculiar style (more on this later).

We Really Dress THis Way

My own first brush with Bavarian culture occurred around 1989 or so, when I worked for one of the Big Eight consulting companies (back in a previous century when there still was such a thing) in Frankfurt, Germany. I was sent to Munich for about six months to work on a project. My partner in this enterprise was a certain Herr L., who was representing our client, the Frankfurt office of a major electronics company; together we were supposed to be overseeing some work that was being done by a third company in Munich that was developing some banking software for our client. Herr L. and I worked mainly with Frau W., who was an outside consultant to that third company.

Herr L. was an interesting character. He was some ten years my senior and wore suits that were elegant, but about 20 years out of date. (Yes, this was back when we all wore suits and ties to work, something which I am surprised to find myself kind of missing sometimes, because it gave my job at least a thin veneer of professionality and dignity.) Herr L. was a skinny guy with thin, jet-black hair that was carefully glued into place by some kind of pomade, and he sported a jet-black, pencil-thin moustache à la John Waters; I always thought he looked a lot like a riverboat gambler. He never really produced any useful work in any of the various projects I collaborated on with him, but he was pretty amusing. His most prominent talent was his ability to drink copious quantities of beer, all the while chain smoking. Dinners with him generally started around 7 PM or so and inevitably ended about 1 AM with me suggesting that we might consider heading back to our respective hotels and him saying yes, but we should at least have one last Gute-Nacht-Bierchen (a "little goodnight beer"). For Herr L., getting the assignment to travel to Munich, the city of beer halls, was a little like Charlie Bucket winning the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

Six months was more than enough time to experiment with the local cuisine. There was one restaurant I remember that served pretty much every part of the cow except the hooves; I can't recall ever seeing cow's udder on any other menu, for example. Another weird thing that I encountered in various restaurants was Kalbsbriesmilzwurst, a word which I still can't say without laughing. It's a sausage made of calf's thymus (or "sweetbreads", a term which has always sort of mystified me) and spleen (which is another fun word to say). I swear I'm not making this up, even though MFW remains convinced that Kalbsbriesmilzwurst is just another word I made up for my own entertainment.

Munich is kind of an interesting place. It's full of imposing monuments and buildings that are meant to impress on you the power and majesty of Bavaria as a political entity, sort of like a Bavarian equivalent of Paris or London. Its culture is an odd mixture of snooty urban chic and provincial alpine charm. Frau W., who was a local, gave herself the assignment to ensure that Herr L. and I would be properly impressed by the city. We happened to arrive in Munich at a time in March, which, Frau W. needed us to know, is Starkbierzeit, or "strong beer time". It seems that the tradition, started by monks around 1630, is that during this period that coincides with Lent (Bavaria is highly Catholic), one drinks a particularly nutritious—and highly alcoholic—Doppelbock beer, ostensibly to maintain one's strength while fasting. Over the centuries, the two weeks of Starkbierzeit have taken on the character of a major festival, sort of like Oktoberfest but not nearly as overrun with drunken tourists. Strongly encouraged by Frau W., and with the enthusiastic participation of Herr L., we of course did everything in our power to maintain our strength, though we skipped the fasting part.

Wait, where was I? I've kind of lost the thread there. This was about my family vacation, wasn't it? I guess I should go easy on the brandy when I'm writing this stuff.

Enduring the Deprivations of Lent

Anyway… We started our Bavarian journey in the small town of Füssen, visiting what I assume to be one of Germany's most photographed landmarks, namely, the Neuschwanstein castle of King Ludwig II. You may not know the name, but I'm sure you've seen the picture of the fairy-tale castle that looks like it could have been designed for Disneyland.

A Modest Home

Neuschwanstein is one of three castles that King Ludwig II had built for him to feed his fantasies of how a monarch was meant to live. Ludwig was kind of a tragic figure. Crowned king of Bavaria at the age of eighteen in 1864, he reigned during a period when monarchy was becoming an obsolete model of government. He fantasized about living the life of an absolute ruler (he idolized Louis XIV of France), but the reality was that his power to govern was greatly constrained by both the Bavarian parliament and by the power of Prussia, the major center of power in Germany, who, sort of like that tough-looking kid from down the street who your parents constantly warned you not to hang out with, cajoled or coerced Bavaria into various adventures that weren't exactly in its best interest. Ludwig escaped into a kind of fantasy world, fueled by the heroically-themed operas of his idol Richard Wagner, and embarked on building projects intended to create a kind of physical manifestation of that fantasy world. His extravagant construction projects, of which Neuschwanstein was only the first, practically bankrupted the Bavarian treasury, ending with his removal from power by a government commission on grounds of insanity and his death under mysterious circumstances a day later.

I had been to Neuschwanstein a few times before, the first time with MFW alone, then later when my mother and then my brother came to visit us in Germany. One of the things I noticed was that the crowds seemed markedly smaller this time. In particular, there was an amazing absence of Americans. On previous visits the place was always crawling with GIs spending some of their free time seeing the sights, and with American tourists and students. The GIs mostly disappeared from the picture during the drawdowns of US military bases during the 1990's, but there were always still plenty of tourists. This time I noticed hardly any of my countrymen, though. I imagine it has a lot to do with both the state of the economy back home and the relatively high cost of turning dollars into Euros.

We went to look at a few other things in the area around Füssen. One of them is the Wieskirche, which is a fantastically ornate church built in the mid-eighteenth century in the rococo, or late baroque, style. From the outside, the building, which sits in the middle of what is basically a large cow pasture, is fairly plain-looking, so it's all the more remarkable when you step inside and see the amazing fresco and stucco work.

Go For Baroque

One of our other destinations in the area around Füssen was a place called the Partnachklamm, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The entrance to this place is very close to a stadium that was built for ski jumping in 1921 and used for the 1936 Winter Olympics. The stadium was open, so we could wander in and have a look around. Those ski jumping towers look big enough on TV, but it's even more impressive to see one up close, reinforcing my general feeling that ski jumping does not look like a good idea.

I'll Stick to the Bunny Slope

The Partnachklamm, our actual destination, is a deep alpine gorge that has been made accessible to hikers by means of a system of platforms and tunnels. The trail takes you past a thundering river that goes shooting down through the narrow spaces between the sheer rock walls of the gorge. I can't really describe the experience in words, so you'll just have to go and see it for yourself.

Built to Last

On the way back from the Partnachklamm we stopped at Schloss Linderhof (Linderhof Palace), another of the extravagant building projects of Ludwig II. Linderhof is comparatively small (by Ludwig's standards), but it's pretty opulent inside and surrounded by meticulous landscaping on the outside. It's the only one of his three residences that he lived to actually see completed. One of its features is an enormous artificial grotto that Ludwig had built into the hillside above the palace for the purpose of performances of Wagner's operas for himself and his guests.

A Tasteful Little Cottage

The next stop on our journey was Munich. As noted previously, I have been there many, many times, but the last time was well over ten years ago, so I didn't know my way around all that well anymore. I took the family on something of a wild goose chase trying to find one particular restaurant that I used to frequent while I was working there (the one with cow's udder on the menu). As far as I could remember, it was kind of diagonally across from the Hofbräuhaus, one of Munich's more famous beer halls.

As it turned out, we never did find the place. I think that it may have been on the site of what is now the Munich Hard Rock Cafe, which I have since learned has only been open at that spot since 2002, well after the last time I had been there. Curse you, Hard Rock Cafe! I have poked my head into a couple of those establishments and have yet to figure out what exactly the attraction is. It seems like nothing more than a place to buy an overpriced sweatshirt with which to commemorate your overpriced meal. I don't know what's wrong with me that I can't get all excited about seeing a few random relics like Jimi Hendrix's belt or Madonna's sunglasses on display.

While wandering around the inner part of Munich, which (like most larger German towns and cities) is a pedestrians-only zone, I observed a phenomenon which I didn't really remember from my previous trips there. Maybe it was because we happened to be there on a Saturday night, whereas when I traveled there for business it was always during the week. Anyway, apparently it's the custom for guys who are getting married to dress up in silly costumes with a bunch of their friends to celebrate Junggesellenabschied, or "bachelor's farewell". To finance the evening's festivities, the soon-to-be-married young gentleman collects a bunch of random odds and ends and then goes around with them in a large rectangular tray that is supported by a long strap attached to both sides, enabling the tray to be hung from one's neck. You may have seen something like this being worn by the cigarette girl in a nightclub in a movie from the 1930's or 1940's. In German it's called a Bauchladen, or "belly shop".

Said bachelor then accosts random passers-by, entreating them to spend a Euro or two to purchase one of his random pieces of useless merchandise. At least, this is the explanation I was able to puzzle together while talking to the somewhat inebriated gentleman in bright red lipstick and a Dirndl dress who was eventually able to talk MFW into spending our hard-earned cash on a sort of pocket-sized disposable raincoat, something which we had not previously realized that we need. I saw a few groups of women engaging in a female variant of this custom. Trying to find a picture of this somewhere on the web (my daughter, who was standing by with a camera, was too shy to take a picture of our bachelor friend), I came to know that this is apparently something done all over Germany, but I can't recall ever having seen this in all the years I lived there. Maybe it's something that's become popular more recently—just another thing to make me feel old.

Embarrassing Himself in the Name of Freedom

While in Munich we went to look at another curiosity, something that I had read about but never actually seen. Munich has a very large city park called the English Garden. The English Garden is to Munich what Central Park is to New York City (in fact, the English Garden is larger than Central Park). Through part of the English Garden there runs an artificial creek called the Eisbach ("Ice Brook"). The Eisbach enters the park at the southern end; it comes shooting out from under a bridge with a fast current that I think I read somewhere is created by a pumping station. The current creates a small but fast-moving wave that has turned the spot into a well-known place to go surfing. This has been going on since 1972; the city tried for years to ban it as a safety hazard, but finally gave up and officially legalized it in 2010.

The surfers take turns jumping from the concrete bank of the river with their short boards into a spot where the current creates a sort of upward stream. A surfer typically rides the current for around 30–60 seconds before either getting washed off his board or just losing the wave. It doesn't exactly look easy, but all of the surfers we watched seemed pretty skilled; I just wonder how much practice, including getting smacked up against that concrete, it takes to become proficient.


From Munich we moved on to Salzburg, Austria. Admittedly, Austria is not Bavaria, but culturally they're pretty much cut from the same cloth, so I'm still counting it as part of our Bavarian vacation, especially since Salzburg lies more or less directly on the border with Bavaria. Salzburg is well known as the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a fact which Salzburg milks for everything it's worth, touristically speaking. The other dominant feature of Salzburg is the Festung Hohensalzburg, a forttress built in 1066 and then successively improved and expanded through the early sixteenth century. It was the seat of power of a long line of archbishops who derived considerable wealth through their control of the salt that was mined nearby.

The City That Salt Built

I had been to Salzburg around 25 years ago, but I didn't remember very much about it, so walking around the old part of the city, visiting the cathedral, the forttress and other landmarks, it was almost like being there for the first time. There was one place I really wanted to visit, a beer garden at the far southern end of the older part of the city that I recalled from that earlier trip, but I was afraid that I might be leading the family on yet another wild goose chase, similar to the one we went on while looking for that restaurant in Munich; MFW didn't remember the place at all. However, in this case my memory proved correct—we located the Augustiner Bräustübl on the map about where I remembered it, and once we got there (me leading the way with my skeptical family in tow) it turned out to be the place I remembered.

The Augustiner Bräustübl is housed in a massive building that I think is part of a monastery. Inside the building there is a long hall with a number of alcoves that sell foods of different kinds. Off of the hallway there are a couple of really large beer halls, but on that day there were only a handfull of people in those, because the real action was happening in the outside beer garden, it being a pleasant summer day.

There is supposedly table service in the beer garden, but it didn't seem to be on offer the day we were there. Instead you go to a cashier and tell him what you want (either a liter or a half liter of beer, or a soft drink), pay and then he gives you a receipt. You take your receipt to the service area where you either select your soft drink or give your mug(s) to the guy manning the tap to be filled. You select your mug from one of the shelves that line the wall. These are heavy stoneware mugs; before you give it to the server, you wash it under a cold stream of running water in a big fountain-like thing. I am not sure what the purpose of this is; the mugs I got off the shelf all looked perfectly clean to me, and I can hardly believe that Germanic hygiene concerns would permit any such establishment to provide its customers with unwashed eating utensils of any kind under any circumstances. My guess is that the point of this may be more to cool it down a bit before filling it with beer than to clean it.

We enjoyed not only the beer and the food, but also the general atmosphere. Part of the atmosphere was a group of six or eight boys at the next table. They looked to all be around 16 or 17, and from their general demeanor I would have guessed that they had already made quite a few trips to have their mugs filled (the drinking age for beer and wine is 16 in both Germany and Austria). Most of them were in regular street clothes, but a couple of them were dressed up in fancy Lederhosen.

At some point both of our kids were up to get food from one of the stands that were along one side of the beer garden, so it was just MFW and me at our table. Without warning, one of the Lederhosen boys sort of stumbled over from his table and sat down at ours. He didn't say anything, he just kind of sat there with a foolish smile on his face. Unfazed by this unexpected visit, MFW immediately began interrogating him. His name was Roman and he and his buddies were in town for some sort of school trip, and were just having a few refreshments before getting the train home. He explained all of this in thick Austro-Bavarian dialect. He claimed that a few of them were dressed up in the folk garb because they just like it.

At some point our kids showed up and joined the Austrian guys at their table. Having been raised bilingually, they speak German well, but it was clearly a challenge for them to understand their new hosts. Roman continued to sit with us. Periodically his cell phone rang; each time he explained that it was his father admonishing him not to miss his train home (again).

When MFW and I see someone dressed in this kind of costume, we generally think of one thing: Schuhplatteln. Schuhplatteln ("shoe paddling") is a sort of Bavarian folk dancing style for men that involves hopping about while rhythmically slapping ones knees, thighs, and feet in time to music. Usually this is done by a number of men in unison. It's a lot harder than it looks, which we verified when MFW asked Roman, "Can you platteln?" "Of course!", he replied, looking faintly insulted. He cajoled one of his friends to join him and with MFW and I doing our best to imitate a generic oompah-band type song, the two of them flailed about wildly, an event which was captured on video by my daughter for your viewing pleasure.

Not for Beginners

During our stay in Salzburg we took a little trip back across the border into Germany, to the Berchtesgadener Land. At MFW's insistence we went on a little boat ride on the Königssee, a long lake nestled between alpine peaks. She has this thing about riding on boats; somehow, no matter where we go on vacation, we end up on a boat at some point. About half way through the trip, the boat stops before an enormous sheer rock wall, and one of the guys from the company running the boat tours plays a tune on his trumpet so that you can enjoy the very clear echo.

On the way back to Salzburg we stopped to look at the Kehlsteinhaus, a sort of mountain retreat built by the Nazi party high atop a tall mountain peak as a gift for Hitler's 50th birthday. We were expecting some sort of museum, but there's actually not all that much to see, much of it being not open to the public, and apparently Hitler himself only made ten or so very brief visits to the property, so the historical value is sort of limited. The most interesting part of the visit is really the journey up the mountain on a narrow, winding road; you have to take a special bus up and down. The view from the top is pretty spectacular.

Leaving Salzburg, we moved back into Bavaria, to a little town called Aschau im Chiemgau. Aschau is a somewhat nondescript little town situated at the foot of a chain of high alpine peaks. Our interest in it is almost purely a matter of family history. My son was born with a fairly nasty congenital deformity of the feet, and it was here, after much stress on the part of his parents, that he was operated on and his condition more or less corrected in a specialty orthopedic clinic for children. He has heard about the numerous trips made there for pre- and post operation care over the course of a good two years, but since he was just a toddler at the time he has practically no memories of the place, and he wanted to see it again. His sister, who was a couple of years older during the period, also wanted to visit some of the places she remembered from that time. The fact that it's located in a fairly picturesque area made it an appealing place to spend a couple of days anyway.

One of the things the kids wanted to do while we were there was to hike down a long trail from the Kampenwand, a long rock face high atop one of the mountains surrounding Aschau. One way to get up there is to hike, but that's a multi-hour trip even if you're an avid hiker in good shape. An easier way is to take the Kampenwandbahn. The Kampenwandbahn is one of the many cable lifts that operate throughout the Alps to enable hikers and skiers to get to the top of high mountains with relatively little effort. At the bottom of the mountain you get into a little gondola that seats four people; the gondola is suspended from a wheeled contraption that rides a cable that looks to be a little over an inch thick; a second, somewhat thinner cable pulls a whole string of gondolas along the thicker cable and up the mountain (around 5,000 feet high).

It feels reasonably safe as you leave the little station at the foot of the mountain because you're traveling maybe 30–40 feet off the ground at first; it's high, but not unreasonably so. But then… at some point you look down and realize that you're hanging from a little piece of wire, easily several hundred feet off the ground, and it's too late to turn back. Not for the faint of heart—MFW, for example, who does not like heights. It doesn't help that all the way up the kids are saying things like, "Look, mom! Look! Look how high we are! Look down!"

Don't Look Down

Against all odds, we did ultimately make it to the summit, where we found ourselves surrounded by breathtaking views and… cows. One of the features of Bavarian alpine culture is that in the spring, the dairy farmers drive their cows up to the Alm, a high mountain meadow where they will spend the summer grazing. Each morning the cows are milked and the milk is then more or less immediately processed into cheese. At the end of the summer the cows are decorated with flowers and driven back down the mountain for a sort of homecoming festival.

You Look Lovely, Darling

Making our way through the cow herd, we did eventually reach the cow-free part of our journey. Going up a mountain is strenuous, but hiking down a steep mountain trail for several hours is also pretty tiring. The last time I did this, I had my two-year-old son on my shoulders most of the way; I'm not sure how I did that, but I was a much younger dad then.

Aschau is not far from the Chiemsee, another large lake, in the middle of which are a couple of islands. One of these is called Herrenchiemsee, and is the site of Ludwig II's third major building project, Schloss Herrenchiemsee. This particular palace was intended to be a copy of Versailles and a monument to Louis XIV of France, who, you will recall, was Ludwig's great idol. This place is absolutely enormous, but only a small part of it was completed before Ludwig's untimely end. The parts of the interior that are finished are, as in Ludwig's other palaces, pretty overwhelming in their opulence. The building, huge as it is, is also only a fraction of its originally intended size; the plans were for another huge wing on either side of the main building, but only one of them was partially completed at the time of Ludwig's demise, and that was later demolished.

My, That's A Big One

While we were there, in one section of the palace they had an exhibition on the life and times of King Ludwig II. It was one of the better exhibitions of its kind I have seen; being something of a lightweight history buff, I found it tremendously interesting and was sorry I wasn't able to see more of it before the family began admonishing me that we needed to get moving so that we wouldn't be late for the Heimatabend in Aschau, which was to be sort of the crowning event of our trip before we returned to home base the next day.

The closest translation I can think of for Heimatabend would be "folklore evening". It's basically a show of music and dancing in the local style. You would think that most of the audience would be tourists, of which there are quite a few in Aschau in the summer, but it looked to me like there were plenty of locals there as well.

Our master of ceremonies was an old guy who told jokes and introduced the various acts, providing a little bit of historical or anthropological background for some of them. He spoke in a thick Bavarian that I had to strain a bit to understand, although he probably would have told you that he was speaking his clearest High German. His jokes were a rich source of cultural insight, such as the one about Fensterln, a practice in which a young man leans a ladder against the side of his sweetheart's house in order to secretly climb in through her bedroom window to, um, visit her. In this joke, old Alois sees young Sepp sneaking through the village, carrying a ladder and a flashlight:

Alois: And just where exactly do you think you're going?

Sepp: I'm going Fensterln, you old fool! Can't you see that?

Alois: Of course I can see that, but in my day, we didn't take along a flashlight!

Sepp: When I see your old lady, I believe it!

Ha ha! Most of the jokes were in this somewhat bawdy vein.

Bavarian Standup Comedy

There were a lot of musical acts in this show. It opened with about a half hour of the brass band just playing their music. They then became the providers of background music for the various folk dances that were performed by an adult group and a separate children's group. Now, these guys knew a thing or two about Schuhplatteln!

Don't Try This at Home

The musical acts were all of the folk variety, in keeping with the theme of the evening, but very professionally performed. There was an instrumental duo consisting of a guy who played an accordion while accompanied by a woman who played a harp, both instruments, as our MC explained, being of a specifically alpine variety. There was also a trio of three women who sang several lovely but mostly incomprehensible (for me) songs in harmony while one played a guitar.

The Real Deal

The final musical act was three guys playing the Alphorn. Our MC explained that this is really a Swiss thing, originally developed as a means of communication between mountain tops. I have seen pictures of these funny-looking things many times over the years, but it was interesting to finally get to hear what they actually sound like. Doesn't seem like a very efficient means of communication, though.

More Charming than a Phone

And that was my vacation. Then I flew home and went back to work. The end.