SOUTHERN Germany is seducing me with a magnificent Monday afternoon. It’s uncharacteristically sunny, 14 degrees Celsius and t.shirt weather. And I am observing this all unfurl from the luxury of my First Class train seat aboard German Rail, part of the vast Rail Europe network.
The train winds its way south from Munich, along languid lakes flanked by gregarious Germans, who have flocked outside to sun themselves in the spring sunshine. It’s been a long, cold winter but Germans know a thing or two about being in the wilderness, not only literally but politically, the legacy of two World Wars still a part of the national psyche. But I’ve been travelling to Germany for almost 30 years, even before the Berlin Wall came down, and have had the pleasure of watching Germany blossom.
For nearly three decades I’ve discussed Germany’s politics and social issues with my close German friends – whom I regard as family – as well as strangers. Back in 1987 we were talking about the Berlin Wall, never imaging a few years later we would be discussing its welcome demise. We’ve spoken about the flood of refugees from the east into the west after this globally significant event, the social and economic implications of this, and the rise of neo-Nazism.
On my return to Germany in 2007 we waxed lyrical about World Cup Soccer, which Germany hosted in 2006 and in which they placed third, and I returned in 2014, the same year Germany won the World Cup. My friends told me for the first time they felt they could legitimately be proud to be German and had finally shaken off the shackles of the past. And this sentiment resonated on every street corner.
On this trip, we spoke about Chancellor Angela Merkel, terrorism and the Syrian refugees. And it’s a topic on the tip of almost every German’s tongue. Scratch the surface and while many admire their left-wing leader, there’s mounting concern about what to do with the flood of refugees in a country which already is bursting with a population of 80 million. Right-wing views also exist, with some strangers blatantly offering their opinions that refugees only wish to migrate to western Germany, ignoring the less wealthy east.
Even Merkel herself is said to be backing away from her open-door policy. Some admire her stance of bailing out the Greeks and their financial woes, when other countries have wanted to flee the problem, others says she is too lenient. German National Tourist Board CEO Petra Hedorfer, at an international press conference I attended on this trip, admits that challenges to the nation’s tourism include refugees (and the negative impact on infrastructure); border controls in the Schengen area (which allow free movement between European countries); and reassignment of hotels, trade fair halls and leisure facilities to immigrants. Hedorfer also says terror attacks, racism and Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), also pose challenges.
My train journey takes me from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where I am writing some nature stories for a travel magazine, to Nurnberg, and north of Munich, where I have the delight of sampling Bavarian beer, for a major Australian news organisation, for the best part of a week. I visit Magdeburg, a former East German city, for the international German Travel Mart, before I again catch the train to Bremen, to visit my close friends, and then finally on to Berlin, to fly home.
German Rail boasts a reputation of being on time, but long-term travellers say its standards have slipped and on one of my tight connections, where I had just 10 minutes to spare between trains, my train arrived 5 minutes late, making for an uncomfortable race through the crowded station with 20kg of luggage. Days later, my train is 20 minutes late on my journey to Bremen. And then 30 minutes late on my last leg from Hannover to Berlin. Deutsche Bahn Head of International Sales Dr Tobias Heussler admits standards have slipped and for the first time since 2003, the company has made losses. This now-private company intends to invest 50 billion Euro by 2020 into infrastructure. But for the most part, it deserves its efficient reputation and is still tracks ahead of many rail systems around the world. (Queensland Rail, are you reading this?)
Even small train stations such as Garmsich-Partenkirchen have rail offices where you can request a print out of your daily itinerary, including the platforms from which your next train departs, which is extremely helpful when you have only short connections between some trains. While the smaller trains don’t offer a food or drink carriage, larger inter-city trains such as the ICE do. While the beer is good, the food leaves a little bit to be desired.
My train journey ends in Berlin, which is fitting as this is where my conversations about Germany began some 30 years ago. I’m staying for one night at the Hotel NH Collection Berlin Friedrichstrasse – part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group – which is one easy underground stop from Berlin’s main train station. This 240-room hotel overlooks the Altmarkt and captures the essence of Berlin with its funky art depicting city scenes and landmarks. It also offers a free “lazy Sunday” 5pm checkout. I’ve fallen in love with Berlin over the years and this brief afternoon is one of the world’s truly great cities is no different. From my hotel, which is smack bang in the centre, I easily amble in one direction along Under der Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate which epitomises historical Berlin. I then wander in the other direction past the Berlin Museum towards the city’s modernised quarter of Hackeschehofe, home to countless alleyways bursting with eclectic art. Around me, there’s an invisible line where the Berlin Wall once stood.
All too often, when Australians dream of travelling to Europe they speak of the “sexy” destinations like Italy and France. And yes, Germany has weathered its seasons of major challenges and will continue to do so while it remains one of the powerhouses of European politics. But history has continually proven that this is a strong, smart country capable of overcoming great adversity. Check it out. Spring is in full bloom and Germany is in the wilderness no more.
The Global Goddess travelled on a first-class German Rail Pass (5 days within one month) as a guest Rail Europe – http://www.raileurope.com.au. She stayed in the NH Collection in Berlin – http://www.nh-collection.com/de/hotel/nh-collection-berlin-friedrichstrasse, part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group (www.preferredhotels.com), thanks to the assistance of Preferred Hotels & Resorts. For more information on Germany contact The German National Tourist Office – http://www.germany.travel
I know you all think I’m all sleek sophistication when I travel…who am I kidding, NONE of you think that. So it shall come as no surprise that quite often, in fact, I stuff things up. Particularly when communicating in another language. Yes, foreign culture and communication are tricky business. Have a read about how I managed to mangle both on my most recent German trip.
I am a lover, not a fighter, so imagine my utter delight to discover that when I’ve been sprouting the phrase “Deutschland Uber Alles!” on not only my social media sites, but to a few German friends, it has mysteriously fallen fatally flat. What I thought was akin to “Vive la France!” turns out to be a phrase favoured by the Nazis. I only discovered this on my last day, when my German friend and I were making a video message of us to send to her elderly parents. And at the end, in some kind of triumphant punctuation mark, I declared: “Deutschland Uber Alles!” The video captures her turning to me horrified and saying “Don’t say that, that’s a Nazi phrase” and the terrified look on my face at this realisation. Good times. I also currently now have several neo Nazis following me on Instagram who believe I am a sympathiser. Awesome.
2.Read the Signs
Following on from my previous point, sometimes I get things wrong. Seriously wrong. There I was, checking into the gorgeous NH Collection Berlin Fredrichstrasse Hotel. The Guest Relations Manager admitted that the hotel was full, so he had most kindly upgraded me to a king suite. And just as we arrived at the door, I waxed lyrical about what a wonderful name my suite had on the door, pausing for several moments to purr, out loud, the word “Haustechnik”. Turns out I was standing in front of the “housing technology” or utilities cupboard and my actual suite was two doors down.
3.You, you or you?
In some ways, the German language is relatively easy to master, as many of its words are similar to those in English (eg: Bus and…well, Bus). However, there are certain specific rules that make it a tricky language for native English speakers. One which has been tripping me up for nearly 30 years is the word “you”. You see, Germans don’t have just one word for this, but three, and it depends on with whom you are speaking as to which one you should use. In fact, your entire manners are judged on this. Unfortunately, for me, my brain switches continually to the “impolite” or “casual” form which is “du”, which in my head sounds most like “you” and I am constantly offending complete strangers in the street and during business transactions. Essentially I am declaring to all an sundry I am a Brisbane bogan who eats with my hands.
Don’t wet your pants over this headline, as they don’t really exist. Despite asking this question many times to both strangers and friends, no one can give me a definitive answer on what, exactly, Germans do, when they need to go to the toilet when they are out and about. Remember that scene from the movie Bridesmaids where they ate the dodgy food and were all struck by a sudden urge? This happened to me twice in two weeks. After indulging in a stodgy diet of meat, potatoes and beer, constipation became my constant travelling companion, until my bowels made the sudden, and urgent decision to empty. The first time, I was “lucky” enough to be in a shopping centre, but fumbled furiously with my wallet searching for a Euro coin to enable me to enter. The second time, I raced into a café (this is apparently what Germans do) only to find a long line of people with similar issues. On a cold day in Berlin I broke into a sweat and started hopping from foot to foot like those slap slap dancers at the Munich Oktoberfest. Unfortunately, for me, no one gave the proverbial.
5.Magnificent Merkel and Awesome Obama
Australians have a bit of a love affair with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama, which, frankly, is pretty understandable when you see the successive idiots who have been in charge of our country. But apparently, not all Germans agree with our assessment of Merkel and Obama. In fact, both are a bit on the nose. So, if you’re thinking of befriending a few German strangers with a conversation along the lines of “how about that Angie?”, be aware she’s rapidly losing popularity among her own people for her lenient stance on refugees and for bailing out the Greeks. Obama was also in town when I was in Germany (coincidence? I think not), and his efforts to convince Germans to participate in a trade agreement was met with mass protests. On the plus side, if you’re looking for hordes of hot cops, head to any major train station during one of these protests.
It kills me to say this, but German humour kinda deserves its poor reputation, particularly the more you head towards the former east (where I’m also pleased to report that double denim is still all the rage). I was posing for a group photo in Magdeburg when one of the tourism representatives suggested a “funny phrase” to make us smile. “Say, double cream cheese,” she laughed outrageously. I told her I didn’t quite understand why that phrase was particularly funny. “It’s not just cream cheese, it’s DOUBLE cream cheese,” she said, slapping her thigh. Thus proving that some things have no translation.
Almost as flat as east German humour are German hotel pillows. They are like giant pieces of ravioli that someone has forgotten to fill. In order to have a decent sleep, you must first fold this pillow several times. The doonas are also a mystery. You don’t get one big doona on a double bed, but two separate doonas. In some hotels, they even remove one of the doonas if they know there’s just one guest in the room as if to sadistically point out that yes, you are single, and yes, you are all alone. Your empty life with your empty ravioli pillow.
8.We’re missing a Ms
So, I’ve spent the past two weeks getting all haughty with hoteliers who have insisted on calling me Frau Retschlag. I am not, nor have I ever been, Mrs Retschlag. It was only when I queried this phenomenon with my German friends that they explained there is no German equivalent of “Ms” and that any female over a certain age is automatically referred to as Mrs. Like a burqa in the Middle East, I guess I’ll just have to wear this one. Or find a husband…
The Global Goddess travelled on a first-class German Rail Pass (5 days within one month) as a guest Rail Europe – http://www.raileurope.com.au; NH Collection in Berlin – http://www.nh-collection.com/de/hotel/nh-collection-berlin-friedrichstrasse; and The German National Tourist Office – http://www.germany.travel