Every German stereotype ever imagined — men in lederhosen with a stein of golden beer in one hand and a rope of sausages in the other while swaying brightly to an oompah band — comes from the southern part of the country known as Bavaria. It turns out, much to my surprise, there is a whole northern part of the country that is far less oompah…y. After our excursion around the British Isles, Nate and I decided to investigate this “other” half for ourselves. We started by flying into Hamburg, the second largest city in the country.
In Bavaria, we had grown accustomed to the greeting “grüß Gott,” which generally means “God bless you.” No matter who says it, it feels like a warm hug from your grandma, which southern Germany is full of…well, not your grandma, that would be Twilight-Zone kinda weird (can you imagine hundreds of your grandma clones flitting about?!?). Once in Augsburg, Nate and I were handed 5 Euros each by a German grandma in her 90s. We had encountered this particular grandma plenty of times before in the lounge of a shopping center that was in walking distance from our temporary home. We’d go there to connect to the free wifi. She’d go there to get a 2 Euro chair massage. She loved to talk but did so too quickly for us. We could tell from hand gestures, though, that she was mostly lightly scolding us for sitting on the floor because it was bad for us (we sat on the floor so as to not hog two of the only three chairs frequented by elderly grandmas like herself). It rarely mattered that we couldn’t carry a conversation; she seemed to really enjoy doing the talking so long as we paid attention and smiled on occasion. The last time we saw her, she finished her 2 Euro chair massage and handed us each the money. Of course, we tried to refuse, but she said we were to use the money to buy some cake and coffee and to come talk with her again sometime. Then we parted ways, she to the left with her cane and Nate and I to the right toward cake. All this to illustrate that northern German is different. Instead of German grandmas blessing you, the acceptable greeting in Hamburg is “Moin Moin.” This means “beautiful morning.” For pronunciation information, look no further than the seagulls from Finding Nemo. Sorry, Northern Germany, you are no grandma.
Northern Germany is more like the rebel-without-a-cause teenager who graffitis with wild-yet-deeply-meaningful-abandon and occasionally get’s yelled at by southern German grandpas to stay off the lawn. As if to emphasize this point, we ran smack dab into a Christopher Street Day (CSD) Parade on our first trip to downtown Hamburg. CSD is the European equivalent to our American Pride parades. As it was my 35th birthday, we joined in the street dancing until I got distracted by an insatiable need to find birthday cupcakes. As one does.
Hamburg even had a seedy-underbelly called the Reeperbahn, pronounced “Raper-barn.” Kidding, that’s not how it’s pronounced; that’s only how most of the establishments look. We stayed here long enough for Nate to try out some urinals that were conveniently installed on the sidewalk as a way to prevent public urination (it works!), and for me to find some baklava because, again, it was my birthday. Stop judging.
From Hamburg, we jumped on a bus to the capital city itself: Big Bad Berlin. After a few days rest made possible through the incredible generosity of a TESOL colleague of mine and his family (Thanks again, Evan, Christine, and Eddie!), Nate and I took Berlin head on. Through a free walking tour, we were able to visit the place where thousands of books were burned by Hitler’s Third Reich, walk along a wall that until the late 1980s divided a city in half, and peer down at the last remaining portion of the “death-strip,” a space between two 10-foot tall walls that was filled with sand (so as to see escapee foot prints better) and dogs and/or spikes (so as to make sure the escapees didn’t make it to the other side). Germany is responsible for World War II and a genocide that killed millions of Jews, and it makes sure that every single man, woman, and child remembers their dark past. Sign posts all over the city serve almost as an outward expression of a desire for today’s generation of Germans to never forget or repeat those atrocities. In fact, one is hard-pressed to see German flags beyond those adorning government buildings. Most Germans we talked to had pride in their nation but were extremely cautious about displaying any kind of overt nationalism. Much to my surprise, they were often aghast that American school children are made to recite the pledge of allegiance at the start of the school day let alone have their own flag poles installed in the front yard. To them this is the kind of indoctrination that leads normally intelligent, kind people to blindly follow a bigoted mass murderer. This was a totally new perspective for me having grown up saying the pledge and waving Old Glory at the drop of Yandee-Doodle’s hat. At first I thought these Germans were over-reacting, but then I thought they might point out the recent controversy shaming Black athletes for using their first-amendment rights (another deep-seated American value) to kneel during the National Anthem in protest to inhuman treatment…and then I thought that they might just have a point. Touché, Germany.
Enough with all that deep stuff! We also got to spend one evening and day with two friends from Columbus, Brooke and Julio, who were passing through on their own European tour. Nate and I dutifully introduced them to the German tradition of buying alcoholic drinks from mini marts and the drinking them casually on the street. Because that’s a thing you can do in Germany. A thing that’s legal. And totally normal. Are you even listening, America? It was in one such mini mart that we met Malachi, an American man wearing full-length, brown robes. He sweetly asked me what my name was. I told him. Then he asked me what my name meant. I told him that it didn’t mean anything. He then urgently and somewhat alarmingly implored me to find out the meaning of my name because I was special. Then I started to think that maybe Malachi’s mood swings were chemically induced. My theory gained ground when he went on to explain that he was a musician from Brooklyn who had traveled from America with Prince back in the day. He’d occasionally interrupt his own story to yell at people who would sit in his chair that he had brought just for him. His outbursts would uniformly start with much name calling and then reduce to a simmer-state during which he would bless the offender and kindly thank him for vacating his chair. We said good-bye to Malachi, promising to research the meaning of our names as we left. That night we stayed in a boat-hostel on a river and fell asleep to the soothing quacks of a duck family who’d built their nest under our bedroom window. As one does.
The last stop on our Northern German tour, was in Belgium. Okay, it started in Aachen, which is the German city on the western border with Belgium, but our hosts lived just over the border. This confused me for quite some time until I remembered that European nations are basically the size of American states, so it’s kinda like crossing the border from Ohio to Pennsylvania if Pennsylvania once upon a time made all Ohioians stop at the border and produce documentation. Luckily, something called the “European Union” came along and eliminated the necessity for border patrol a few decades back, so we were free to pass back and forth as easily as I drive between Negley and Cannelton…with just as many deer.
The important thing is that we got to add another country to our list with very little effort. I’m kidding (number 31!). The important thing was that we got to meet and stay with yet another amazing family. This time we were hosted by Eva, Joe, and their daughter Lea. Nate’s dad knew Joe (not his real name, but I can’t remember his real name for the life of me — which apparently many Americans couldn’t either, hence the nickname “Joe”) from when he worked in the States for a bit. Yet again, Nate and I found ourselves being treated like members of the family. Joe took us to the point at which Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium meet. We successfully made our way through a hedge-labyrinth complete with water-traps. With the whole family, we walked around a rainy town in the Netherlands (number 32, but seriously, who’s counting?) where I was maltreated by a opossum hand puppet. We saw a beautiful old church that was converted to a book store. With Lea we went for a long walk through beautiful Belgium (I’m pretty sure) country-side. We visited The Most Gorgeous Church in All of Germany (Probably). We all even went to a German (I’m almost positive) street fair!
We did all of that, and yet my favorite part was getting to go for jogs with Eva in their vast backyard in either Belgium or Germany — very possibly both! I can’t do it justice here, but Eva and I bonded over those jogs and the time immediately after when we’d get into the cold pool in their back yard (well, she’d get in and I’d dangle my feet…it was coooold!). She was my running partner when I hadn’t had a running partner or even a place to go running properly in such a long time. I treasured every minute, even when my body reminded me just how long it had been since I’d been running. Running stripped away the nervousness I had about trying to communicate with Eva. We did talk a little, but we mostly just enjoyed the companionship because it was all we needed. A very special thanks to our very special forever family in Belgium (and sometimes Germany).
That’s it! We finished our tour of Northern Germany after three stops because we needed to get back down to our Bavaria. It was nice to see how the other side lived and to be a rebellious teenager for a bit, but our German grandma was waiting for us. Grüß Gott!