Gulliver would have been at home in Germany. When travelling in its southern climes it is easy to feel like one of the Lilliputs, especially when presented with a bread pretzel larger than your head, accompanied with a beer so large that raising it to your mouth almost constitutes weightlifting.
It is a land of excess and restraint, encouraging consumption in its 1,300 breweries and conservation through its exemplary recycling record. It is this juxtaposition of behaviours and the combination of the eccentric and straight-laced fastidiousness that forms the German identity.
The nation has spawned prolific artists, musical composers, philosophers and revolutionary religious thinkers, as well as a political legacy marred by extreme conservatism and right-wing aggression. Despite popular opinion, it is a nation not without its humorous side. How else can you explain an internationally renowned cultural festival to give homage to beer?
Munich is more than the sum of its Oktoberfest beer halls, however, and lunching on the grass of the English Garden is a peaceful way to while away an afternoon, predominantly in the company of locals carrying about their daily routine. A lush haven in the inner district of the city, the garden is the largest city park in Europe and plentiful in its options.
As we warmed ourselves in the afternoon sun, the sounds of the garden wafted around us: dogs panting on their daily walk; the whirr of cyclists as they pedalled through the greenery; tentative twangs on a guitar; and snatches of conversation in various languages. A small group slowly assembled nearby with various musical instruments in tow, greeting each other with warm familiarity. The unusual combination of a small hand-held harp, bongos and a guitar held the promise of something special, and we weren’t disappointed. It was a surprise, however, when the group undressed before starting to play. Nude sunbathing aside, Munich locals (?) are perceived as more conservative and socially exclusive than their northerly compatriots.
The Bavarian capital overawes with its assured elegance and sleek glamour, the obvious wealth of the city evident in the stream of luxury autos gliding along the wide roads and women in expensive furs brushing past in wafts of perfume. Lingering Bavarian tradition is evident in the restored gothic architecture of the old town and the customary Bavarian colours of the blue and white striped maypole pinpointing the market square. These details reflect Munich’s ongoing attachment to the remnants of a kingdom long since absolved, and demonstrate part of its inability to identify itself with today’s more progressive Germany.
The Bavarians are not alone in this attachment though. Public fascination with German culture is rooted in these very same traditions, with a penchant for the brass band oompah-music echoing out of beer halls, enormous-sized beer and breads served by busty ‘bierfraus’ in the traditional smocks and tunics, epitomized in the weeks-long booze-up of Oktoberfest. Avoiding this lager frenzy in favour of a later visit to Germany allows an insight into the ‘real’ Germany.
The fascination with Christmas is a pervading part of all German culture, both north and south. They have even managed to package the experience of it in the form of Kathe WÃ¶hlfahrt stores, a chain selling a dazzling array of decorations in a local vein, most notably hand-painted nutcrackers in various garbs and sizes. Massive trees with tinkling lights span three floors, reflected in the shiny baubles lining the shelving. Reminiscent of Santa’s elven workshops (or St Niklaus as he originally was known), they inspire the childlike festive wonderment of Christmas. Germany’s fairytale-like delights are never more captivating than in the midst of its markets, for the style of each town are prevalent. Evening Christmas markets are hosted in almost every town during the six weeks preceding Christmas.
Incorporating so many of the elements that have since become synonymous with the traditional Christmas ideals such as a fir tree adorned with glittering lights, the mouth-watering smell of roasting chestnuts, steaming mugs of glÃ¼hwein (an ambrosia of mulled spiced wine), and freshly baked marzipan adorning various stalls, these markets invoke the spirit of Christmas in a winter wonderland. Frankfurt’s grandeur and extravagant wealth is epitomized in its colossal tree, a draping fur towering above the five-storey buildings in the old town square, whilst the kitsch charm of Berlin weaves its magic in the form of a giant snowman miming to German Christmas-pop on stage, backed by dancers dressed as Mrs Claus. These nymphets caroused with unabashed enthusiasm, playfully defying the image of dour humourlessness with cheesy grins lacking any hint of sarcasm.
Whereas Munich is snugly secure in the centuries of tradition that have shaped and moulded the image that characterizes stereotypical German identity, Berlin is the burgeoning child of a new city, experimental, individual and free-spirited. The heart of the new Germany is found here, throbbing to the pulse of a techno beat. The Love Parade street rave in July is becoming a contender to Oktoberfest as the premium festival in the country, pushing aside the bygone era of brass bands and lederhosen for a new hedonistic revelry.
A night out in Berlin is an adventure into the surreal underbelly of this gritty capital. Our travels take us through record shops that function as night-time drinking haunts, crashing a house party after soliciting an invitation from the window two floors above the street, and some funky twirls on the dance floor of a club bathed in red lighting which had formerly housed Communist youth meetings. The bohemian element of Berlin are blossoming in these underground caverns of unconventional delights, and helping to forge the emerging new identity of the city in the wake of destruction and artistic oppression. The city was all but decimated during WWII, the optimistic spirit and resilience of the Berliners enabling them to survive not only the wartime destruction of their city, but also its post-war division, embodied in the Berlin Wall.
Germany, headed by developing Berlin, is confronting its troubled past, refusing to be plagued by it. The best example of this new social sensibility is found in the rebuilt Reichstag, home to the national parliament. Redesigned after reunification, the building’s faÃ§ade has remained, with a newly designed domed room and interior, blending the old foundations of German bureaucracy with a more modern philosophy. Slowly winding up a circular path to the top of the building, the path up the dome is a thoughtful insight into the new German consciousness, tracing the history of the building and its part in the national political identity. The main hall of the parliament in the foundations of the building below can be seen from the very top of the dome, demonstrating the ideal that the essence of good governance should begin at the level of its populous, and be held openly accountable for its method. It is a testament to the tenacious spirit of its people, a symbol of forging ahead whilst acknowledging the past.
This sentiment is further expressed in the national holiday, the upcoming Germany Unity Day held on October 3, held to mark the anniversary of reunification. On this day in 1990 the former communist East Germany was officially dissolved, creating a sovereign unified German state and beginning of yet another chapter in its complex history. Bridging the cultural, economic and social divides created through 40 years of separation is the ongoing challenge of the new Germany, yet it is one that its people will confront with their inimitable mix of forthrightness and flair.