Drunken theory of innocence

February 4, 2012

All my long way down the Rhine Valley and through the hills of Baden-Württemburg, with the slow drumroll of the Alps approaching, I heard stories from other Germans about the Bavarians I would meet ahead. ‘Bavarians are… different,’ they said. ‘They drink beer for breakfast,’ they told me with expressions of disgust, ‘and squeeze white sausages out of their skins like toothpaste.’ Most of Germany, I heard, was happy enough with the German Red Cross – in Bavaria, they insisted on the Bavarian Red Cross. In the city of Ulm, where the Danube forms the dividing line between the two states, people jokingly referred to the rest of Germany as South Sweden – over the river lay North Italy.

My introduction to Bavaria came in a farmer’s inn near Ulm. Gone were the dainty 0.1 litre beer glasses of Köln and Düsseldorf, gone were the green-stemmed wine glasses of the Mosel. Here I found handled china mugs, enthusiastically clumped together every five or ten minutes to mighty roars of ‘prost!‘ The toasts occurred with increasing frequency and for no apparent reason, starting with a couple of people and spreading infectiously down the long table, with people elbowing past their neighbours to make sure no-one was missed. With regular beer, I was told, glasses can be clinked at the top – but wheat beer, for true Bavarians, must be clinked at the bottom. ‘Weißbier und Frauen stößt man unten an,’ the saying goes – roughly translated as ‘wheat beer and women one bangs below.’ Even the women seemed to find this funny.

Bavaria is the stereotype most foreigners have of Germany – lederhosen and oompah bands, woodcock-feathered Alpine hats, buxom barmaids with white breasts bulging over beer mugs. All this was to be found in Munich’s Hofbräuhaus, a kind of temple to Bavarian drinking culture. When Paddy came here in 1934 he downed beer and schnapps until he lost consciousness, and was wheelbarrowed home by an obliging carpenter who put him to bed in his workshop. I’d been considering an experiment, guinea-pigging myself by knocking back drinks until I passed out, just to see what would happen – but the place is full of tourists now, and the staff seem a bit more jaded, unimpressed by the predictable drunkenness of American exchange students. I felt I’d come across less like an artist seeking the ghost of a journey, and more like just another Brit abroad, unable to hold my drink.

Nevertheless, I did get drunk. It was impossible not to. The beer is served in glasses almost as long as my forearm, as thick as my leg. And it was delivered straight to my seat, so I didn’t even have to move. I sat at a long empty table, thinking I could slip out quietly, but it rapidly filled up with drinkers who squashed me down to the furthest end, half-curtained by hanging coats, with no possibility of escape. All I could do was order beer and watch my companions shovelling down slabs of meat and dripping lumps of knödel while the oompah band played on – a clumping, heavy, ponderous music, geared less towards dancing than digestion.

White-bearded men appeared in green Alpine hats adorned with feathers. Pretzel girls in checkered dresses posed resignedly for cameras. Americans boomed at each other down the aisles, while Japanese tourists sipped coffee rather nervously and smiled politely at the drunks. My first impression of the Hofbräuhaus was that it was just a tourist trap – the glasses all had HB logos, and there was even a gift shop. It seemed stage-managed, artificial. I found myself drunkenly mulling the question of authenticity. It suddenly seemed very important to pinpoint what this meant. All travellers seek the authentic – a real, original ‘experience,’ unadulterated and unspoiled – but what on earth does that mean? The closest definition must be ‘innocence,’ a lack of self-awareness. Once a place becomes self-aware (or the culture of that place), once it learns to see itself from an outside perspective, different from other places in the world, it learns to sell itself. It plays up to its quirks. Its oddness becomes a selling point. Branding and marketing follow. It’s exactly the fault of travellers like me, or even of Paddy all those years ago, fuelling a market for the authentic, for an ‘experience’ you can write, record or take photos of. And the more people come searching for this, the more places like the Hofbräuhaus are obliged to provide that experience in a guaranteed supply – hence the hired oompah band, the bulging-breasted waitresses, the t-shirts in the gift shop.

I thought I was on to something. The more drunk I got, however, the more authentic it all began to feel. I tried to leave at one point, and a sinister black-bearded character motioned me back with a steak knife. ‘Trink, Nick, trink!’ he scowled, ordered me another huge beer, and went back to tucking into his shapeless pile of meat. Three old men commenced playing cards with an unfamiliar deck, tossing the cards down at amazing speeds and scooping small change into their laps. I learned from the man sitting next to me that they were here to commemorate a friend who died on this day last year, setting off a clanking round of ‘prosts’ and hefty handshakes. And when I looked again at the old guys in their feathered hats, leather trousers and green waistcoats adorned with assorted medallions and trinkets – their tables laden with china mugs, tubs of ham and pickles brought from home – I realised they weren’t dressing up for the tourists. They were doing this from pride. Pride, tradition and separateness – the things that Bavaria is known for.

My drunken theory of innocence felt increasingly irrelevant and silly. This was self-awareness all right, but it didn’t seem such a bad thing. A real folk culture still exists here, underneath the marketing. It just took a few drinks to track it down. It’s true, Bavarians are different. And yes, they do squeeze white sausages out of their skins like toothpaste.

This piece, and the others to come, can be downloaded on the Ether Books app, available for free from the iTunes Store.

4 Responses to “Drunken theory of innocence”

  1. proverbs6to10 said

    Nick – so good to hear you have made it to Munich. I should think you are now experiencing something of the winter that Paddy had and about time too! Bavaria without the snow is like Brighton without the rock.

    I can’t agree with many of the points in your piece here. I know that you change your view in the end but I am disappointed that you start with the view that the beer, the dresses; the lederhosen are somehow put on for the tourists. Whilst the ‘retail experience’ certainly panders to the tourist, I found the whole place incredibly authentic. I hope that you had the chance to explore all four floors. The place is a temple to beer and a warren of private dining and drinking rooms with large halls on each floor that appear to cater for different types of customer, just as Paddy found different types on each floor with the farmers on the ground floor in the Schweme. The white breasted waitresses holding four litres of golden beer in each hand are as authentic as anything you will find in Bavaria; you will certainly see this year round at beer festivals in many places in Germany, but Bavaria in particular.

    We may find the lederhosen a little amusing but Bavarians wear this all the time when out walking, or working or drinking. It is not for the benefit of tourists and some of it is incredibly intricate. You will find the men and women in traditional dress walking to the HB haus to take up their positions at nominated tables where they have met as friends for many years as you found with your card players. The list of regulars can be found on the HB website.

    Perhaps you were making use of literary devices but I think that most of the places you will travel through are not major international tourist spots and you will find traditional dress and festivals all along the way. We may have lost our authenticity in the UK, but I don’t think the same can be said of middle-Europe.

    Keep warm!

    My experience at the HB house is here http://patrickleighfermor.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/on-the-same-steps-as-patrick-leigh-fermor-2/

    • PaulD said

      Hallo Nick and Tom,

      my research so far indicates strongly that the authenticity of lederhosen relates to wheat beer by exactly the same factor as the authenticity of kilts relates to single malt whisky. These are tentative results however, much more research is needed. Burp!

  2. hi Nick — reminded me to tell you to make sure you go to the Hawelka coffee house in Vienna — as soon as I entered I knew I’d found my favorite room in the world — and it also turns out to have been Stalin’s regular meeting place when he was living in Austria on the run…

  3. Judy Stove said

    Hi Nick, good luck with your journey. I hope injuries aren’t giving you any more trouble.

    I haven’t seen much of Bavaria, but I did love Munich. Of course, it is a bittersweet kind of emotion, because one remembers the horrors which took place in Bavaria within the twentieth century – within the lifetime of many people – and not long after PLF made his journey.

    Dachau, after all, is a ten-minute train ride from central Munich. Near where I live outside Sydney, Australia, is the convent of an order of nuns whose founder, Father Joseph Kentenich, was imprisoned in Dachau from the early 1930s to nearly the end of the war. I went to visit Dachau to pay respect to him and all the others who were imprisoned.

    At Dachau, there is a map showing all the prison and slave-labour camps in Bavaria, of which Dachau was only the largest. There were probably at least 20, including one near the lovely sub-Alpine town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Richard Strauss’ town).

    How can one reconcile this beautiful region with those terrible deeds? One can’t, but it’s important to recall them.

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