We try: Schützenfest

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The first beer in the Kneipe was quickly followed by the second, which was hotly pursued by the third, which was then – against my will and better judgement – followed by a forth. This was heavy drinking for a non-drinker. My conspirators might have been advanced in age, but they were certainly young in liver.

“No more for me, thanks,” I protested. “I’m tipsy already.”

“What’s the problem? It’s not like it could make your marching any worse,” said one. “I’ll get another round in.”

“Nah, I can’t handle another drink,” I protested. “I get all grumpy and need to pee every five minutes.”

“Now you sound like a real Alter Herr. Stop whinging and drink, it’s tradition.”

I began to understand that Schützenfest was really just a chance to dress up smart and drink beer. Or in my case, just drink beer.

The only plus side of all the drinking, was that it helped my German language skills. Dieter was still a bit of an conversational enigma, but I was getting some of it. Usually, when in doubt, I could guess from his body language what he wanted from me. If he got up to go somewhere, there was usually a very good chance I was also supposed to go there too. Sometimes this plan worked flawlessly. Other times it didn’t. Like when, at the end of our Kneipe drinking session I assumed he was getting up to rejoin the parade and so I followed him, and ended up following him, in my top hat, to the toilet. Where he looked awkwardly back at me, and I’d quickly tried to act normal, like I was also completely surprised to see him there.

Oh, haha. You too? Peeing. Am I right? Yeah. Peeing. Happens to the best of us. Ha ha. Me too … in my top hat, that’s right. I find it really adds some historical merit to the occasion.

After an hour of drinking, we all reassembled. I’d never walked as part of a parade before. It was a surreal feeling and felt great to march to the beat of the band, to be part of a mass larger than yourself, but who were synchronised to you. To be able to look out, in front of you, at row upon row of uniformed marchers as far ahead as you can see. At moments like that, you do almost want a “marauding gang” to arrive and try their luck. But that impressive sight of solidarity is quickly undermined when as soon the procession passes anything bigger than a bush, five people break rank to run off and pee behind it (as I also did twice). This is less likely to intimidate an enemy.

Well, unless that enemy is hiding in a bush.

For a full hour we marched, albeit it with frequent, unscheduled pee breaks, before arriving at a church in the next town. Here we were supposed to turn right into the high street where the real parade would begin, the part all the spectators had assembled to watch. In this small stretch of high street were several hundred of them, as well as the König and his dignitaries who were watching on from a specially created stage. As the various different marching groups passed this stage they would break into a real march. A ministry of silly walks style, full legged, fully stretched march. Waiting for this created a bottleneck, and rather than waiting the hour or so we’d need to hang around before our slot would open up, the imaginative members of the Alte Herren elected to break ranks yet again and, you guessed it, hit another Kneipe.

“Adam, I brought you a beer,” said one of the group, as I arrived back from my twenty-seventh toilet break.

“Great. Thanks.” I said in a manner that was not wholly convincing.

“Dieter, have you told him the story about the Pope and our Schützenfest?” he said. “It’s very interesting … No? Well, it all started in 1811, in that time you were not allowed to have  ̶  why are you not writing this down? You are a writer, yes?”

I picked up my pen and mostly just wrote the words HELP and DRUNK and WHY a lot. I had also stopped protesting about all the beer that kept arriving in front of me, since it didn’t seem to be helping, and I needed to reserve all my energy to walk straight in those rare moments that we were not drinking. In the beginning I thought this fest was about tradition and community. As stated on many of the various flags, under the slogan ‘Glaube, Heimat und Sitte‘ (faith, home, tradition). From what I saw, it would be more accurate to give it the motto, ‘Saufen, Saufen, Saufen‘ (booze, booze, booze).

At around 1pm we arrived back just in time for our high street slot. I’d been marching, and drinking, since 7am. I’d eaten nothing more than a Brötchen. It was probably the most drunk I’d ever been, at least while wearing a top hat.

Weary and inebriated, we regrouped for this final collective march, and I tried my best to look motivated, instead of drunk and hungry. Annett would be there, and excited to see me looking smart for a change. I could see other members of the group were also flagging – not literally, I’m not sure when the flag waving competition was, since no-one mentioned it all weekend – in enthusiasm. We clustered together, did a final round of handshakes and pats on the back, briefly discussed actually marching, but we were a mixture of too old and too drunk. I was mostly too drunk.

By this point, as we set off, I gave up trying to be in time with the band. That was now a stretch of a goal, and instead I focused mostly on not falling over, or hiccupping, or having to run away and pee. The rest of the Alte Herren seemed similarly troubled. Still, the assembled crowd clapped, waved, and took photos very enthusiastically. Or, rather, one East German girl did.

“You looked very handsome,” said Annett, giving me a congratulatory hug at the finish, “it’s nice to see you in something other than that same pair of jeans with the holes in.”

“Yeah, well, tradition,” I said, borrowing the motto of the weekend.

“But why didn’t you button your jacket up like everyone else?” she asked, reaching down and attempting to button my jacket for me.

“Oh…”, she said.

Back at the house, as I was packing up, and saying goodbye to Dieter and Margit, Dieter took a thick tome out from his bookshelf entitled Gegen Die Gladbacherischen Einwendungen – Geschichte der Pfarre St. Mariä Himmelfahrt, Neuwerk. Three hundred pages of stories, maps, and diagrams of historical merit.

“This will teach you everything you could want to know about Neuwerk and Mönchengladbach. Take it, it’s a gift.”

I wanted to say no. That it would be wasted on me, assuming it had no jokes about Apfelsaftschorle or Fenster auf Kipp in it. To just drop the ruse and tell Dieter than I’m not a real writer. That if I feel like doing something of historical merit, I’ll watch a movie that was released before 1999. That the only traditions I normally follow are paying my rent each month, and eating at the same Asian restaurant twice a week, the one nearest my house.

Instead, I said, “Thanks Dieter, that’s really kind of you,” then flicked through just some of the pages I knew I’d never, ever read, and pretended to read them.

“Wow, it’s very detailed,” I said.

“Yes, well, it needs to be, doesn’t it?” said Dieter, “Since you haven’t taken many notes.”

On the way back to Berlin, sitting in a speeding metal box provided by our friends the Deutsche Bahn (I have very little idea how trains work), I alternated between rehydrating myself, napping and reflecting on my Schützenfest experience. I’d been shown great hospitality and had really enjoyed the weekend, getting to meet many quirky, entertaining people. However, I know why Alex looked uncomfortable at various points. I strongly dislike returning to my childhood town in rural Norfolk, England. There’s too many unhappy memories. Too many Ghosts of Me Past. For some people, that is grounding. It’s the foundations upon which they’ve built their sense of self. Personally, it just reminds me of the Me That I Used to be before I became the Me That I Actually Like.

It’s easy to be dismissive of tradition. To think that we no longer need the ceremonies that signify the passing of another major life event. Whether it’s a birthday, a wedding, or a Schützenfest. But they still have their role. They jolt us out of our day-to-day routine and remind us that time has passed. That we’re getting closer to the next personal ceremony in which we’ll star, whether it’s adulthood, marriage, retirement, or just our own deaths. When done right, events like Schützenfest allow us to come together and reinforce the collective values that we hold dear. But it if we’re going to take on the responsibility of honouring long held traditions, we also have to be brave enough to improve upon them. Tradition is a choice about which of customs from previous generations we decide will be passed on and kept alive by our reverence. There is nothing good about denying women any opportunity available to men. This is the part of Schützenfest that I didn’t like. There’s simply no reason that there can’t be a Schützenkönigin, or that women shouldn’t be allowed to join in any of the Fest’s events. I hope whenever it is that I celebrate the next one, that this has changed. Until then, I don’t think I would want to take part again.

Later in the journey home, Annett turned her laptop towards me so I could see the photos Alex and her had taken over the weekend. After viewing the first four, we were both weeping from laughter, and couldn’t continue with the rest. In my head, I’d spent the whole day applauding myself for how well I was managing to fit in. I really thought I blended in, and gave a good account of myself. Now I was being presented with undeniable photographic evidence that I’d actually spent the day looking like Stan Laurel. I was unbelievably conspicuous. Looking at the photos was like playing the world’s easiest game of Where’s Waldo. I was immediately visible in every picture, just by the angle of my hat. It looked more like an oversized kippah with wings, than a top hat, perched as it was on the very back of my head like a headwear afterthought. If that didn’t give me away, there was my big silly grin, or my tie which was far too short, because I’d forgotten how to tie it, or the fact that I was the only person in the whole march who didn’t have my suit jacket buttoned because I couldn’t, or that I was inexplicably, carrying an umbrella, as if it were a weapon.

Oh dear.

The only saving grace in all this is that I only found out about it after the event, and so was spared a whole day of feeling like a floating English turd in Neuwerk‘s Schützenfest swimming pool. I was just happy no-one spotted my black socks were actually one-third grey. There might have been riots.

Maybe, ironically, if I can grapple for a positive conclusion amongst my complete failure to assimilate, it’s that, maybe, the humour that it generated might have enough historical merit to live on in Neuwerk folklore, even if this book doesn’t. Inviting an ill-prepared and ill-equipped foreigner who is unable to march or drink beer might even become somewhat of a “tradition”.

That would make me happy.

[1] Korn is a type of spirit. It is usually quite cheap. There is a reason for this. I would not strongly recommend it to you. It mostly tastes of wrong turns and regret.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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An illustrated love letter to the language of our adopted home. Join us as we take you on a tour through some of the German language’s greatest words, expressions, proverbs and language possibilities, all wrapped up for international delivery in the form of Denglisch!

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After two best-selling books I find I’ve become somewhat of a pundit for German life. Unsure about my position I take on a series of integration challenges. Readers will learn:

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Fifty new and advanced integration steps that explain the sticky friendship glue of Kaffee und Kuchen, the educational superiority of wood, and the rituals of the German Weihnachtsmarkt. You’ll learn how to blame the weather for most of your ailments, how to survive a visit to your local Baumarkt, why Germans take their kitchen when they move, and why you keep losing to them at table football. Adam Fletcher’s book is the ultimate, irreverent love letter to a nation that has gotten so under his skin.

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