All parade participants got up at 5am, to get ready and then, at 6am, met together for breakfast (sponsored by the generous/financially reckless König).
When my alarm sounded at 5am the next morning, it was a monumental struggle to convince myself to get out of bed. I found that the Korn had left quite an impression upon my person, particularly my stomach, which appeared to still be schunkeling away. 5:30am, I did manage to hobble out to the hallway in my boxer shorts, where I was happy to see Dieter was not only awake, but raring to go, and already in full suit and tie. He looked a little bit disappointed at my dishevelled state and said several words, some of which I understood, and suggested that I should get my lazy, English ass moving.
Alex had warned me in advance that if I wanted to march in the parade, I’d need to sport the official uniform of the Alte Herren – black suit, black tie, white shirt, black socks, black shoes, top hat, and cane. The only thing I owned from that list was a pair of black socks, and even they were one third grey. I planned to wear them anyway, because I’m a maverick.
After a quick shower, I dressed, putting on the suit, shirt and tie I borrowed from a friend. It was the second time I’d borrowed this outfit and since it worked out great the first time, I didn’t think to test it beforehand. However, I realised, whilst squeezing, pulling, wriggling and cursing my way into it, that this first time was some three years ago. I’d eaten a lot of chocolate, and done very little exercise since then. As a result, in certain areas of my body there had been some additional and unwanted physical expansion. Simply put, I’d gotten fat. I could just about squirm my way into the suit, but the belt I’d packed for the trousers now looked the very definition of self-delusion. It was too late to do anything about it now, so I just decided to hold my breath all day and hope for the best.
As I stepped out into the hallway, Dieter was waiting once again of me, this time with the most important part of my uniform – the weapon. Everyone who marches carries a weapon of some kind. It can be an unloaded rifle, a wooden gun, or for the bands, just their instruments. In the case of the Alte Herren, that weapon was a cane.
“Here is your weapon,” he said, only instead of handing me a cane, he held out a plastic grey umbrella. I didn’t want to be ungrateful, but I wasn’t sure this would strike fear into the heart of my enemy. I took it and inspected it closely, in case at first glance, I’d missed a button that made it transform into an assault rifle. I had not.
“My weapon is an umbrella?“ I asked.
“Yes. Unfortunately, we’ve run out of canes.”
It felt more like cultural stereotyping. Because I’m English, and in England it rains a lot. It would take someone of very generous imagination to classify rain as a “marauding gang”. If it rained that day, I’d be the most equipped Gladiator in the Neuwerk coliseum. If it didn’t, I’d be more like a bearded Mary Poppins in a too small suit and non-regulation grey-on-black socks.
We left to meet the others for breakfast – a lively bunch of seven other gentlemen, with ages ranging from sixty to eighty-two.
“Adam,” said one, “you must drink a beer with us over breakfast.”
“Really? Now? At 6:30am?”
“Of course,” he said, holding the opened beer bottle out to me.
After breakfast, at around 7am, we assembled together . I’d eaten very little, since I was afraid of further stretching the confines of my suit. The procession was very impressive, as several hundred of us had turned out, in various uniforms that denoted which part of the Bruderschaft we belonged to. Several more important people were even riding horses, and there was a big horse-drawn wagon which the people too old to complete our marching route could sit in. Cheaters.
“Do you know how to march, Adam?” asked Dieter, as we assembled into our ranks. I was getting better at understanding him now after a day in his company.
“Yes,” I lied, because I wanted to look experienced, and… well, it’s just walking, isn’t it?
“Okay great. Then we’ll go to the front. Can you button your suit up like the rest of us?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” I said. I then proceeded to try and button the suit. The suit rejected this idea off-hand. ‘The chocolate,’ it said. ‘Remember that? Yeah, sure you do. Fat man. You know, just because they call it Ritter Sport it isn’t actually a legitimate sport, right?‘
“Oh,” said Dieter, looking on and laughing, before sharing the joke with the rest of our little group. It seemed to go down well.
Much like Ritter sport, in fact.
We assembled into our formation, me with my suit unbuttoned, and practiced marching a little bit and then as the brass band struck into life at the head of the procession, we set off. I thought I was marching very well. However, about thirty minutes of marching later, we stopped for a quick break, which the Alte Herren mostly used to tease me for my inability to march.
“I can tell from watching you that you’ve never served under the Queen,” began the first. “I’ve seen school girls march better,” added the second. “I’d say you’ve two left feet, but in your case that would be a compliment,” said Dieter.
Mobbing. Plain and simple. But it was also a sign of the light-hearted nature of the event. After about an hour of seemingly random meandering through the town, possibly just for the joy of waking up as many of its citizens as possible, we arrived at the König’s house. Which he’d thoughtfully decorated with signs and bunting and a big thick, thatch entranceway. Maybe he thought we’d miss it. We assembled in rows, facing the front of his house. He then came out, was introduced by one of the men on horseback and proceeded to walk with a group of other VIPs ceremoniously passed us all, then turned around and walked back again. A man on a horse shouted “Präsentiere deine Waffe!” (present your weapons!) to us all and for a moment you could almost have gotten lost in that ceremony of it. But then, someone shouted something like “Frage deine Mutter nach meiner Waffe” (ask your mother about my weapon) in response and a small section of the Bruderschaft imploded in laughter and the spell was broken again.
We reassembled and marched all the way back to where we’d started. The religiously inclined amongst us then attended a church service. The Alte Herren and I went to a different type of German religious institution called – die Kneipe.
At the Kneipe, Dieter introduced me, with great reverence, to anyone who was around. The conversation would usually go something like:
“This is our special literary guest from England. He’s writing a book about Neuwerk and Mönchengladbach!”
“About Neuwerk?” this person would reply. “Did you tell him about that thing of historical merit that happened really long time ago?”
“My book is not specifically about Neuwerk…” I’d say, before getting interrupted.
“Well, Adam. It started in 1812. There was a fire at the…”, then they’d look at the notepad in my hand, or in front of me on table and say, “why are you not writing this down?”
“Oh, sorry,” I’d say, grab my pen and write down whatever joke I’d heard one of the Alte Herren say when they thought I wasn’t listening, and so didn’t need to be of historical merit. Such as this joke:
After a night of heavy drinking, a guy wakes up caked in vomit. His wife stands over him, with a face like thunder.
“Oh, great. Looks like you’ve had quite a night,” she says.
“Oh, err,” he says, looking down at his soiled clothes. “It’s not what it looks like!”
“It looks like you’ve gotten stupidly drunk again and vomited all over yourself and your nice clean clothes.”
“No, that’s not what happened,” he protests.” I only had a few drinks. Then I was walking home with Stefan, and he was totally wasted and fell into a hedge. You know what Stefan is like. So I reached in to pull him out and he vomited all over me. Of course I was angry about it, but he apologised and gave me €50 towards the cleaning costs.”
His wife leans over and pulls a crumpled bank note from his top pocket.
“This is €100.” she says.
“Yeah. Well, he also shit my pants.”