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On a Personal Note: Funny little rituals.

It’s a bit quiet in the village as I write this, which is the evening of Easter Saturday. Earlier this afternoon, things were a little livelier, as we heard the sounds of a chainsaw, a high-pressure water hose and a very optimistic lawnmower, but something is missing. The church bells are not chiming.

This is — some of my readers know this already — a small village in the German countryside and stanuchly Catholic, which explains why, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the reassuring quarter-hourly chimes are replaced by the sound of local children banging blocks of wood together and chanting something unintelligible (unintelligible to me, at any rate). The bells, my wife reliably informs me, have flown to Rome. Not been flown to Rome, you understand: they have flown. I have given up asking her what she means.

How to party the German way

This is all in stark contrast to Maundy Thursday, which I spent in the company of my wife’s relatives, it being her aunt’s birthday. It struck me, as we sat in one of the local pubs tucking into a particularly fine steak (the sauce was excellent — I have to say that this area has more than its fair share of really good food), that this was an interesting way to remember the Last Supper, except that Jesus had other things on his mind.

Looking back on it, I suppose it was fortunate that the Last Supper wasn’t organised by Germans. I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t enjoy myself on Thursday — I did, especially the bit where I was drinking a glass of wine — but there’s a certain ritual you have to go through when you attend a German birthday party. I don’t think there’s an official term for this, but I call it “the corny rhyme bit”.

The idea is that a person or group of persons, instead of, say, proposing a toast (which is what happens in most other places), reads out an epic poem dedicated to the birthday person, possibly set to some half-remembered folk melody, in which rhymes feature so strongly, they make your toes curl. “Don’t waste time, make it rhyme”, to coin a phrase I just invented. Imagine you were on the receiving end of something like this:

Now you are a little older
And we can see your wrinkles,
We hope that you do not
Suffer from the shingles.

Except, of course, that it goes on for a good seven minutes. (Having mentioned the Last Supper, I now have a very unfortunate Pythonesque image of that historic occasion fuelled by several litres of Beck’s. It doesn’t bear thinking about.)

Why do English men wear ribbons?

But I digress. The point here is that Germans (like most other people, I should imagine) have a whole raft of little rituals that make little sense to an outsider, but are doubtless quite straightforward to the natives.

Easter (to return to where we were at the beginning of this discourse) is a fairly good example. A few days ago, I answered the door to some children who were selling painted hard-boiled eggs. This afternoon, my wife opened the door to some children who were begging for painted hard-boiled eggs. I can’t say whether these were the same children, but I can confirm that the logic here escapes me somewhat. Maybe the first lot were a little over-zealous with their sales techniques and the village is now suffering a severe egg shortage. I really couldn’t say.

One of the interesting side-effects of living in a foreign country is that having questioned your host country’s mystifying little traditions, you soon start to wonder if your own little imported ways might seem just as daft to an outsider. A few weeks ago, while much of the western world was going mad in the carnival season (or mardi gras, or fasching, or whatever else you call it), the British were organising pancake races. As for Easter, well, the symbolism of hot cross buns is obvious, but what would a German make of rolling eggs down a hillside? And Morris Dancing: grown men dressed up in costumes adorned with ribbons and bells, waving hankies in a remarkable unselfconsciously limp-wristed sort of way. (We’re back to Monty Python again.) The first time I ever saw Morris Dancers, I was petrified.

On reflection, then, I’m not sure if I prefer to be in a place where children charge for the privilege of babysitting their eggs or a country where the most exciting thing anyone can think of doing is catching a pancake in a frying pan: both ideas are crazy enough to appeal to me. But Germany has the better chocolate, so maybe I’ll stay here for the time being…

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