“What is Schützenfest?” I asked.
“Only the biggest party of the year!”
“Yeah. The biggest party of the year, in very small places. Most Dörfer will have their own little local Schützenfest.”
“What do they do there?”
“The two most famous parts are the flag waving and shooting competitions.”
“You shoot at people waving flags?”
“No,” he said. “Those two activities are unrelated.”
“Feels like a missed opportunity there,” I said.
“I’ll suggest it to the Schützenkönig.”
“What the hell is a Schützenkönig?”
“Each year, whoever wins the shooting contest is declared Schützenkönig.”
“What about the person who wins the flag waving?” I asked, whilst waving invisible flags above my head.
“They probably get some Schnapps. Not much glamour in flag waving.”
“Fair point,” I conceded, dropping my invisible flags. “Does the Schützenkönig have special attire like a crown, cane, or powers, such as preferential parking?”
“No. Well, maybe a crown. Mostly you just have elevated status in the Dorf for that year. But you also have to buy things for everyone. It’s really expensive to become Schützenkönig. People even take out a kind of mortgage for that. Over the year, you’ll usually spend about thirty thousand euros.”
“To recap,” I said. “You enter a shooting contest. If you win, your prize is the chance to spend thirty thousand euro buying people beer and schnapps for an entire year?”
“Yep. It’s tradition,” he said, detecting my disbelief. “Traditions rarely make sense.”
“If that’s the star prize, I’d hate to think what they do to the people who come second or third in the shooting contest. Presumably they just take them off somewhere and shoot them?”
“Yeah, or maybe they are forced to take part in the flag waving contest. So, anyway, are you in?”
“You had me at shooting contest…”
Schützenfest, I was soon to find out, is a Middle Age tradition. Originally, it was a way of arming each village en masse with enough sharp shooters to protect themselves against “marauding gangs”, as Wikipedia describes them. I know from growing up in an underprivileged town that “marauding gangs” still exist. Although, in my experience, they’ve gotten lazier since the Middle Ages, and now they tend to just stay put, hanging around outside shops and bus stops, and being known merely as “gangs”.
Alex’s father, Dieter, spoke to the town’s Mayor to request if I, as an outsider, could take part in the festivities. Based on what ended up happening at the Schützenfest, I now believe that Dieter might have possibly mis-sold me to the town of Neuwerk, and this is where my problems began. I imagine the conversation between Dieter and the Mayor went something like this (in brackets is what should have been said):
Dieter: “There is this British writer, you know, like JK Rowling, and John le Carré and he is interested in coming here to Neuwerk and taking part in our Schützenfest as research for a book he is writing about Germany.”
(There is this British quasi-writer, you know, like Jeremy Clarkson. He’s been strong-armed into coming here by my son, Alex, and will write about it in some kind of gift book.)
Mayor: “Wow, he specifically wants to come to Neuwerk? That certainly is an honour. We best roll out the red carpet. What kind of book is he writing? Can he speak German?”
(He probably doesn’t even know where Neuwerk is, does he? What kind of book is he writing? I bet he doesn’t know his Der from his Das, right?)
Dieter: “Yes, specifically to Neuwerk. Presumably some book of anthropological or historical merit. He is a friend of my son Alex, who talks very highly of him. Yes, he speaks German quite well.”
(He has absolutely no idea where Neuwerk is. It’s a book of no historical merit, mostly about himself. Alex says he can’t speak German even though he’s lived here for centuries, because he is equal parts lazy and stupid.)
Mayor: ”I see no problem with it. Just make sure he sends us a copy of the book afterwards for the library. He can march in the parade with you and the rest of the Alte Herren.”
(I see several problems with it, but let’s just get him drunk and doing stupid things for our amusement. Make sure he doesn’t send us the book afterwards, we don’t have space in the library for every idiot’s memoir. He can march in the parade, but at the back, out of sight.)
Regardless of who they thought was actually arriving, I arrived, with my German girlfriend, Annett. We found the town of Neuwerk had gotten dressed up for the occasion. Because of the Schützenfest, we were greeted by blue, yellow, red and green bunting hanging across every street, front-gardens done out in displays of flags, and signs for the various local dignitaries and Vereine (organisations) that would be celebrating with us. Several old men toddled down the road in their green Schützenverein jackets. Another in a black jacket affixed with medals stood and welcomed people arriving at a nearby beer garden.
We discovered just how small Neuwerk is when we asked a woman pushing a pram for directions, and this person replied: “Oh, you must be Adam.”
It turns out, though, that this was Alex’s sister, Anja. After picking us up, she then brought us to the yellow house where Alex’s parents had been living for the past thirty-four years. After an hour spent in the easy, warm company of Alex’s mum Margit, who was plying us with near deadly quantities of coffee and cake (as German social custom dictates), Alex’s father, Dieter, arrived. At sixty-nine, Dieter has more energy than the average twenty-five year old. Dieter arrived, suited and booted, in his top hat, and took a seat next to me, immediately pouring us our first Alt beer. He then, in extreme-detail, began to tell me the entire history of the Schützenfest tradition, the proceedings for the rest of the weekend, the rules, the services, the people we would meet, the geographic area, as well as a quick two hundred and fifty year overview of the history of the town itself.
At least I think that was what he said. Dieter’s heavy Mönchengladbach dialect was causing some problems. From my side of the table the conversation sounded like this:
“Was machen wir Heute Abend” I’d ask, in my mangled German.
“Jetzt gehen wir fsfen lkhhdfun gefunfen und die hojhweritgkeit werden hjhfdgeladen und danach zur Kirche asdhen ein jaskdhad.” was the answer.
Because it would have been rude to keep interrupting the conversation to ask him to repeat himself for the umpteenth time, I’d just nodded and smiled a lot, like a heavily medicated, but quite happy, mental patient. When I felt I should be contributing something, I’d say one of my stock German phrases, something like “Sehr toll. Ich freue mich schon darauf” (Very cool. I’m excited!), while having no idea if I was supposedly excited about doing the washing up, being given a million euros, or attending my own public execution.
Annett would then usually say: “Sounds great, can I come?“
“No,” Dieter would answer. “Men only.”
“Why?” she’d ask.
Then, while regaling me with a story about someone or another, Dieter stopped, and nodded at the direction of my notepad, sitting in front of me on the table. I carry a notepad with me at all times. He looked a little offended that I hadn’t written any of his historical anecdotes in it. After all, Alex had told him that I was a “writer”. Based on the level of historical detail he was going into, it was fairly obvious to me that he’d not read any of my writing. If he had, he would know that I’m not a proper “writer”. I don’t need facts. Or history. Or research. Research? What’s that? That sounds like real work. The real work of a journalist or a historian. I’m unabashedly pop culture. I mostly write jokes about my girlfriend.
Anyway, not wanting to disappoint him, and reveal I was not actually the hot shot literary A-lister he had been expecting, I pretended to write what he was telling me, but instead I actually wrote down the funny German words that he was saying (and that I could understand). Words like Bruderschaftler, Zugführer, Hauptmann, Fahnenadjutant, and an anecdote from Alex’s sister about a German family she met while
After a lot more coffee, and even more cake, everyone stood up and walked to a church. At the church, something happened; it might even have been of historical merit. I did ask Dieter, and he did say words, and he did look sad when I didn’t write those words down, but none of these things helped in explaining what I saw and Annett didn’t come inside, so I couldn’t ask her.
However, while the service might have been bemusing, it did offer my first chance to get a look at this year’s Schützenkönig. Dieter pointed him out to me. He was standing to the right of the central stage, stooped over in a way that hinted at his advanced age, I would estimate that he was in his late seventies. He didn’t look like the first person you’d call when confronted with a “marauding gang”. He looked like the first person the marauding gang might call upon though, mostly because he was too old to run away.
After the ceremony we assembled outside the church to enjoy a beer and watch them raise the ceremonial Schützenbaum. Which they pretended to do by hand, but really did with a tractor.
In the evening, Annett, Alex and I walked to the neighbouring town, which was sharing this year’s festivities with Neuwerk. It was sharing them in a half-hearted way though, since it didn’t even have a Schützenkönig this year. Dieter explained that no-one there had wanted, or more accurately, could financially afford to be Schützenkönig, and so they were just skipping that part. However, they had successfully assembled a giant Oktoberfest style white tent with a Schützenfest band, long wooden benches, and alcohol. Lots of alcohol.
Upon entering, I expected a fairly raucous, lower-class experience that was rough around its edges, based on all the “proll” comments I gotten from people about Schützenfest. But this just wasn’t the case. It was actually all quite reserved and middle-class. It soon relaxed, however, and took on the atmosphere of a big wedding, with three different generations on the dance floor. After a few rounds of drinks we were talking to Alex’s old school friends, drinking far too much Korn, and pretending not to enjoy the live band’s music choices which jumped erratically anywhere from Elvis to 99 Luftballons to classic Schlager songs.
Then, something strange happened. We were with a group of about fifteen people drinking around a long wooden table. Suddenly, twelve of that fifteen (so everyone but Annett, myself and Alex) linked into a primitive chain and began rocking from side to side like drunken sailors.
“What are your people doing now, Annett?” I asked.
“This is called Schunkeln.”
“You’ve never seen Schunkeln?” Alex asked, with an equally dubious expression on this face. “It’s German synchronised dancing.” No, I had never seen Schunkeln.
Schunkeln was a revelation! I’m not an enthusiastic dancer. I’m sure there’s probably a good dancer inside me, but he’s mostly just inhibited by the sheer number of dancing possibilities. I’ve got all these different limbs and appendages that can be combined in infinite ways. But, instead, when I am forced onto one dance floor or another, I’m totally overwhelmed, and mostly just stand there looking uncomfortable, or like I ended up on the dance floor only by chance, having gotten lost on my way back from the toilet. I then shuffle slowly towards the corner and hope this is not one of those modern, blippy-bloopy, electronic songs that young people like and last for thirty five minutes.
I believe that if you took humanity’s smartest dancing minds – I’m thinking the ghost of Michael Jackson, Riverdance’s Michael Flatley, a handful of can-can dancers, Shakira and maybe Rick Astley – then rented them a meeting room in a Travelodge, with a portable CD player, a flipchart and some permanent markers, all with the explicit aim of solving dancing, Schunkeln is the solution they’d come up. Because it contains everything that’s good about dancing – camaraderie, movement, the touching of strangers, while at the same time, removing all of dancing’s annoying, hard parts. It’s not even physically possible to do it wrong. It’s like a happy nirvana state for rhythmically challenged people, like myself.
In fact, assuming you’re in the middle of the Schunkel, you needn’t do anything at all! Once your arms are linked to your neighbours, as mine were to Alex’s and Annett’s, you can just relax and sit there and everyone else is just sort of forced to dance you as if you were a primitive Schunkeln puppet.
Schunkeln is technically still dancing, but only if dancing were outsourced to India and so needed only the absolute bare minimum of effort and oversight. Which, in my humble dancing-phobic opinion, thus proves that Schunkeln is the pinnacle of all human movement and is vastly superior to almost anything, ever. In short, Schunkeln is awesome.
After several more Korns, and Schunkels, we left at around 11pm. I had to be up at 5am, after all… Why¸ you ask? That’s a good question, and one I’d asked Dieter several times.
“Tradition,” he would reply.