I was not looking forward to going to the fest. I’ve been to many in my expat life, their novelty has faded and what was before a quaint ritual, filled with song and drink, became a repetitive provincial loop, losing all charm and devolving into vulgarity. It does not help that my friends in Germany, and in this, one of its most conservative parts, are to a degree, as I am, aesthetes. Yes, snobbery is something you work at. Like mocking my last sentence for ending in a preposition, it’s a skill derived from earned knowledge, best combined with aloofness, irony, and an inability, if not actually disdain, for earnestness. So a fest, themed around cabbage and a moustache contest, on my mother’s penultimate day of visit…
I’d been there many years ago when I found it charming, when the toasted candied almonds, the beer, the songs, were like the stone of the churches and the curves of the narrow roads, interesting and dissimilar to what I had known. There was, back then, the little tent, with the Eritrean ladies roasting green coffee beans huddled around small open stoves, more robust and well designed than the street cookery I saw in India a few years later, but of similar style. There at the end of the train tracks, next to the large plastic corn booth, at an entrance or an offshoot of the festival, a little outpost, under a small tent, fresh, sweet coffee of the kind banned by Khayr Bey and first brought to Venice in the late 1500s.
But this time, it was more a dutiful thing, for my mother, on the tail end of the trip she had planned for so long for her 70th birthday, that had taken her in the weeks before to the camino for a week in which she walked toward the ocean, toward the octopus cooked in the Galician style, which happened to pass through Santiago de Compostela.
And later that took her through Portugal, still eating octopus and magic egg tarts, and then off to El Andaluz and that peninsula city of my grandmother’s family, Cadiz, that seems so intent on leaving its continent and floating off into the ocean.
After this trip, then, back to me, on the outskirts of that industrious conservative city, that wealthy private city of the automobile, of the engineer, surrounded by the kraut fields, that city of stables that became the manufacturing heart of a rebuilt Western Germany, the economic engine of Europe, so proud of its craft, so sure of its way, and increasingly resentful of all those places, and people, it carries atop it’s frugal economy…first the east in 89 and still, and then the greeks, and then the southern countries of the EU, and now the refugees… and with every step resentments, from the self made, the builders of their homes, the earnest hard workers for which self assuredness of will was certainly the only legitimate cause of success. In the fields then, where the license plates have two letters and mark you out even more provincial than if you were of the city that fights against the trains that will bring it into any prominence, that fears the size and troubles of its larger cousins in Bavaria, the north eastern city island of Berlin, the industrial heart of the Rhine River, or the detached Hanseatic city of the bridges and ports, to celebrate in autumn, the special pointy headed kraut, and perhaps a coffee. And so I went to see it anew, to suffer but accommodate my mother with her wide eyed anticipation.
It is a refreshing feeling to be compelled by something warmly genuine, that it allows me for a moment to set aside my cynicism. Cynicism, of a barrel dwelling kind, of which by the way I am quite proud, is trait I enjoy, but requires work and attention. Respites can not be planned, they just happen when something seems right, and for that it needs to lack artifice, or at least camouflage so I do not see it. Perhaps it was the antibiotics, that after months of sickness and pain, had started to work their way through my rather rotund body as I contributed to the formation of a future super bug, perhaps it was the warmth of the sun that seemed to apologize for having left this summer so short, by making itself present in the middle of October, or perhaps it was, because heeding some sort of advice, oft quoted by my father, I was “in the proper frame of disposition”.. Whatever the case I enjoyed so much the wandering through the kitsch, the spotting of the beards, the stamp maker that for seven euro fifty crafted on the spot in a somewhat cocky display of skill on an old band saw, a stamp for my mothers ceramics, the selection of noble large pointy cabbage turned into fresh sauerkraut packed into small orange pails I would later use to top my homemade reuben sandwich.
We sat in the tent, like so many fest tents, and I watched as my mother ate a stuffed cabbage leaf, and reminisced about the food she ate in her childhood, in Argentina, the daughter of eastern European refugees. Food that for me was adopted and foreign and yet to her familiar. And so it was better, it was good.
We heard the band, like so many bands, but they were playing a Pogues cover, and then songs in schwabisch so thick that after over a decade I could still not make out the words. And then LeadBelly
and the cranberries, and with each song lost in the eccentric geekiness of their enjoyment, playing as much for each other as the crowd that was surely filled with their friends, the energetic clapping somehow more rhythmically aligned than was usually the case at German gatherings, the band made me smile. Is it worth preserving, such a thing and such a time? Yes, my future self, will be nostalgic for that.
We left , after only two beers and a meal and too few songs, having also bought red cabbage cake, to bring home to the father I had infected with my sickness and lay beneath the comforter, desiring a roasted chicken and not a strange vegetable cake. On the way out, wondering if after so many years the ladies of the coffee were there, we headed toward the end marked by the plastic corn booth.
To my surprise the small tent, was now a rather large white tent, african music playing, something like this
the men gathered around the cash box, the women serving food, generations of people eating and toward the end, sitting in a squatted position behind the cooking area, a row of women, roasting coffee. My mother and I had one, demi sus, in a small cheap porcelain cup with no handle, overfilled and awkward to carry, clumsily purchased in my broken auslander german, answered by a man, aged and of cloudy eyes, selling the tickets in his broken german.
As we had walked toward the fest, in a proper state of disposition, I had complained to my mother of a type of loneliness, of that geeky thing that I had always had, that had landed me the moniker of “walking encyclopedia” when I was in second grade, one part showy nerd, one part curious sponge, of that thing dismissed as “trivial and useless knowledge”. And she said to me, “and if you could, why wouldn’t you know the names of the clouds?”