Feline Border Control

I’m currently reading Nick Hunt’s fantastic book Walking the Woods and the Water, a beautifully written re-tracing of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul – albeit in a very different age. Leigh Fermor is one of my absolute favourite writers and people (I do plan to write a longer post on exactly why his work has meant so much to me and countless other wanderlusters in the near future) and I wanted to share a quote from Hunt’s version of the journey that particularly resonated with me. He’s just entered Bavaria – a land dear to my heart – and describes the experience of crossing the unassuming border into Austria:

Austria lay down a nondescript road that looked like it could only end in a suburban cul-de-sac, but brought me instead to the green Saalach river, where nothing stirred but a ginger cat picking its way across the bank.”

This sentence conjured up so many echoes of my own time living on a nondescript border with Austria, reached by its own footbridge over the Saalach’s mother river, and its own precocious ginger cat that patrolled the borderland. Perhaps there are hordes of them across Europe – feline guardians of an increasingly integrated continent. Perhaps it’s the same cat zealously making its way up the Salzach’s tributaries in the way that Leigh Fermor and Hunt and countless travellers before them have traversed lands guided solely by a river. Or perhaps I just need to step away from the travel literature for a bit. cropped-a023701-r1-02-2a1.jpg

Bits of Bavaria: Erster Mai

In the spirit of May Day here is my blog entry from exactly a year ago, when I spent May 1st in a small village in deepest southern Germany.


Erster Mai is a big deal in Bavaria. There’s no school, no work, and copious amounts of lederhosen, beer and brass bands – but the main attraction of the day for every town centres around a selection of strapping young men straining themselves red in the face for a few hours erecting a gigantic phallic piece of wood. What could be more German?

The Mai Baum Aufstellung follows a highly regulated timetable (of course), involving all sorts of traditional theatrics and staged trials that must be overcome. Mehring and the nearby village of Raitenhaslach alternate annually as to whose village green is going to be graced with the May Tree, but every year the men of the tree-less village “steal” it the evening before (along with the five hundred litres of beer). It is then dramatically re-seized by its rightful owners, and as “punishment” the guilty DSC_1324men are forced to help erect it alongside their rivals. No modern machinery is allowed in this endeavour, but what really drags the whole process out is that every metre it is raised all the men stop and shout that beer and hearty victuals are needed to replenish their strength or they will BURN THE TREE TO THE GROUND. Everyone finds this make-believe hilarious because German humour is awful. Litre mugs of ale and enormous sausages are produced and passed around until everyone has decided they’re up to the task again, and then back to cries of manly exertion soundtracked by cheery Deutsch brass music. By the end of the proceedings most of the village could not walk in a straight line.

Marcus jokingly said to me “I bet you didn’t expect this when you moved to Bavaria!”. I rather think that this scene was EXACTLY what I expected when I moved to Bavaria.

#NewMayDays Day 1: May Day!

Over lent a friendProcessed with VSCOcam with f3 preset of mine decided that instead of depriving herself of something she liked during the run-up to Easter she would instead try something new every day. She managed to make so much of the project (aided by the fact that she lives in Paris, sigh), that I thought I would liven up the start of this boring term of finals doom and gloom by doing something I’ve never done before, every day of May. To start the month off with a bang, today I experienced Oxford’s traditional May Day celebrations – something I entirely missed in my first year as my party stamina just does not stretch to drinking and dancing all night and then standing in the rain until half 6 in the morning.

May Day in Oxford is a mix of traditions old and new. Clubs that normally shut at 2am keep their doors open until past daybreak, kebab vans run right through the night and at 6am the Magdalen Choir sings madrigals from the top of their college tower. I did not go out this time round due to a combination of apathy and essay, but a housemate and I dragged ourselves into the drizzle at half 5 to go and investigate the morning proceedings. I have to say that the thing I found most surprising was the sheer number of people willing to wrench themselves from their beds at such an ungodly hour (or power right through from dusk until dawn) to indulge in tradition. Magdalen Bridge was closed off, and the high street rammed full of people, food stalls and G&Ds balloons; there were keenos from the countryside dressed up as pagan spring welcomers, students scattered across rooftops and hanging out of windowsills, and a more concentrated density of Oxford Brookes students than I’ve ever seen outside of a Fuzzy Ducks night. Everyone gathered beneath Magdalen’s tower to await the singing, and there was something vaguely touching about people old and young, drunk and sober, local and rural crowded together for an event that hasn’t changed much in five centuries (story of Oxford amiright?). Admittedly nowadays the singing is blared out through speakers – my tutor told me that back in his day if the wind was unfavourable there was no chance of hearing a single note – but the effect was vaguely magical nonetheless. It was over within a few minutes and everyone wended their way back into the centre or crawled home to Cowley, whilst the marching bands and Morris Dancers roused the rest of Oxford.

The practice of students recklessly hurling themselves off Magdalen Bridge into the Cherwell below is also something of a modern May Day phenomenon, although fortunately I didn’t witness any attempts today – the river is only about 2 foot deep and jumpers rarely escape unscathed. The practice only became popular in the 1970s despite self-righteous claims of “ancient tradition”, butit did make me think about the patchwork of old and new that makes up our Oxford today. So I enjoyed May Day festivities, but before we get too culturally superior let’s not forget what I was doing this time last year in Bavaria.


Erster Mai in deepest Bavaria


Bits of Bavaria: Torture

In another instalment of my time living in deepest southern Germany I visit Burghausen castle’s torture museum and terrify myself.

When I was wandering around the castle last week I caught sight of a sign with the word “museum” in it, and assumed this was Burghausen’s internet-famous shrine to itself. Three rooms of rusty iron implements later and I realised what “Folter” probably meant, and that I was in fact completely alone in the city’s torture tower. Now let’s make no mistake, I am super morbid – in fact my fascination with the grisly side of the past is almost certainly the underlying reason for my history degree – but I became absolutely terrified as I climbed higher and higher and passed more and more horrible objects with their gruesome and oh-so-detailed instructional diagrams. I lost it somewhat on the third floor, after a gleeful small child opened the iron door to an oven and explained to me that this was where they burnt accused witches alive. (I don’t actually know if this was entirely accurate information, in my horror I did not read the sign before fleeing down the stairs).

The first item that greets visitors is a large phallic wooden board. This thrilled me, and I instantly whipped out my iPhone because really, what is funnier than objects that are inadvertently shaped like penises? NOTHING. I was therefore very disappointed to read the explanatory sign and diagram telling me that these were purposefully lewd stocks designed for obscenely behaved women. It turned out that the entirety of the first room was dedicated to implements for punishing sex-crazed females – the medieval ladies of Burghausen were clearly not very well behaved. I learned some interesting facts, such as that Sweden was the only nation in Europe whose men did not enforce the use of chastity belts on their wives whilst away on business trips, and exactly which historical period E.L. James got all the inspiration for that syuper accurate portrayal of the BDSM community.

I became rather panicked about ten minutes later after accidentally shutting myself in a cellar strongly resembling the location of the last scene of The Blaire Witch Project, so rushed through the remaining rooms. I did have a good laugh at a ducking-stool type affair, specifically reserved for baker’s accused of baking too small bread rolls. #medievalproblems

When I finally exited through the gift shop, I laughed rather too hysterically at a prominently displayed Amnesty poster campaigning against the use of torture, and then cycled home to nurse my mental scars.


Bits of Bavaria: Clubbing

Another couple of excerpts from my au pairing blog last year, detailing the horrors of the clubbing scene in small-town Bavaria/Austria. Carina was the only other au pair in the village I lived in and she would periodically make us hit the clubs with her; unfortunately as we had to drive everywhere, no drinking was involved and it was all awful. 

Clubbing in Eggenfelden

Our evening did not get off to a great start: we drove half an hour to Eggenfelden only to be refused escape from the freezing tundra as I had forgotten my ID. The silver lining of this tragically embarrassing event was giant pretzels and cans of Red Bull from a petrol station during our second journey back, and the start of house music hour on Radio Deepest Bavaria. As well as the constant blizzard that kicks off every evening despite no chance of settling, our return journey was plagued by painfully sensible German drivers and gale force winds that buffeted Carina’s tiny car scarily close to the drop on either side of the road – particularly terrifying in the pitch black of rural nighttime.

(On a sidenote, a bonus of the double drive there and back was my first close up view of the chemical factory that is the sole reason that Burghausen is anything more than the poverty-stricken hole it had become by the end of the 19th century. Wacker Chemie employs 10,000 people and runs this mother. I’ve yet to meet a man between 20 and 60 who lives within 5km of Burghausen and does not work at the plant in some capacity; Father Merget is a chemist there, Carina’s boyfriend works the night shift, their football team is the pride of the region. It’s a cross between a monstrosity and a monument, illuminated 24/7 and breaking the skyline for miles around, crouching above the town like an industrial Mordor belching steam and occasional clouds of fire into the night. I try not to dwell on the fact that googling Wacker gives you an awful lot of information up until 1930, and then an awful lot from 1950, and a mysterious historical silence in the middle.)

We finally got into the club, where we spent an hour awkwardly dancing to some truly horrible music with lyrics like “bouncing on ma dick dick dick” from a DJ who seemed to think that mixing consists purely of poking the turntables at the most inopportune point in song, and making sure every track plays over the last for at least 10 seconds of uninterrupted dissonance. Everyone looked about 14. At 2am a pungent and inexplicable smell began to pervade the dancefloor, and everyone fled to the various VIP sections and smoking areas. We ended up in a Grey Goose bar with soft porn hip hop videos projected onto the walls and what looked like the entire cast of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding after a few hundred shots. The occupants of this room could have passed as the definition for “hair and fashion choices we will regret in five years”, and almost everyone seemed to be related or romantically involved. Probably both. A few minutes after our arrival some sort of beef began between the world’s worst gel and highlights combo and a male Snookie, and for the rest of the night a palpable tension simmered below the surface as the bar divided itself into two glaring and yet still hip wiggling factions. Montagues and Capulets, Jersey Shore style.

It did get better towards the end, when I just stopped giving a shit and really got my groove on with Angelica and the only vaguely stylish women I have come across since moving to this country. Although we did our best to wordlessly convince each other that it wasn’t so bad with our enthusiastic moves and stifled yawns, we mutually admitted defeat at around 3am and piled into our exit vehicle. I think we were all glad when Carina turned on the ignition and said, “We are never coming here ever again.”

Clubbing in Salzburg

In installment 2 of Clubbing Sober Makes Me Want To Kill Myself And Everyone Around Me, Carina and I travelled to Austria for the evening, and I wanted to kill myself and everyone around me.

German law forbids all forms of dancing on Good Friday across its territories (seriously, I couldn’t make this shit up), so we drove an hour over the border in order to “enjoy the night life”. Our journey into Salzburg was made unnecessarily stressful by a combination of mine and the GPS’s vast incompetence; we ended up outside of Schloss Klessheim and on the wrong side of the river before we finally nabbed a spot in a terrifying parking complex deep in the belly of the old city walls.

Hit up a tastefully lit trendy bar. Had some Austrian white wine – grim. I had forgotten that Austria has absolutely no smoking bans, so coughed through our pre-drinks choked by the smoke of a thousand cigarettes. The club was still worse – I saw one woman’s hair become accidentally alight on the dance floor, and despite showering this morning my own still smells like ash. PTSD o’clock. The place was already full of graphic face eating on our arrival, despite the standardly weird median age; although there was significantly less of the I-should-be-doing-my-homework-rather-than-drinking-this-shot bracket, there were a disturbing amount of middle-aged men and female supply teacher sorts. And I will never understand the love of techno here as everyone seems as completely incapable of dancing to it as I am.

The short of it is, I was a terrible sport last night. Although I did my best to keep up the party face and maintain chat with a range of conversational partners such as the gay Italian father-of-two, and the German “businessman in town for the night”, by half 2 my activities were limited to glaring at Carina and mouthing to “PLEASE LET’S LEAVE PLEASE”. At 3 I gave up and began playing Temple Run at the bar, literally ignoring each of the three men who approached me with that enticing chat up line, “why so serious?”. By 4 I seem to have completely lost it, as this morning I found a note on my iPhone reading “I despise life, Austria, men, but most of all Carina”.

So there you have it. My first trip to Salzburg. I don’t recommend it.

(Carina has since escaped to a city with a man she met during this particular clubbing experience… they’ve now been together for a year and are DEEPLY IN LOVE, so admittedly not an entirely wasted clubbing experience. For her.)

Bits of Bavaria: Choir

When au pairing in a tiny village in deepest Bavaria last year, I threw myself into the musical spirit and joined the local Catholic choir. Below is an experience I had that was straight out of The Hobbit.


Love some Catholic iconography

You know those moments that you can just feel you’re going to remember for the rest of your life? This evening I had one of those.

I went to my first choir rehearsal in the village church, made up predominately of over 60s who speak the deepest Bavarian, something I still only just understand; I guess the English equivalent would be trying to decipher a Glaswegian after he’s had five pints. The rehearsal began with one of the sopranos handing out birthday invitations that consisted of a date and a time overlayed over a giant image of her own face. We sang about the Virgin Mary in anqiquated German, and made fun of the basses.

Through a mixture of misunderstandings and excessive politeness I ended up in the village’s only pub with a few of the more senior members of the choir, completely to ourselves save for four pensioners playing vigorous Scharfkopf (the ultimate in Bavarian card games) and an aged barman. We sat on benches at a long wooden table and ate white sausage with bread; I concentrated very hard to decipher the conversation, laughed a lot about English food, and was regaled with facts about German cities and Bavarian stereotypes. And then when we had finally become the last people in this tiny hamlet pub, and the bar was closed and almost all the lights extinguished, everyone suddenly fell silent and exchanged knowing glances. With the one remaining light in the bar bouncing off of our beers and keeping everyone’s faces in shadow, they suddenly all began to sing.

It was the most surreal thing. They sang in perfect harmony, songs from the middle ages about knights’ quests and lost love, hunts and hearty feasts, and lots of other things from the Bavarian golden age that were lost on my English ears. They looked each other in the eye, swayed and gesticulated, and the barman didn’t even look up from his newspaper. At the end everyone clinked glasses and said goodnight and went on their merry way home by auto – despite being about three times over the legal limit. I hope we do this every week.