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Make Me Laugh, Bitte!

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A Walk in the Black Forest


by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey

There was once a writer living in London who decided to fly to Germany in search of something as rare as a cigar-smoking unicorn in California.

"And what it is that you are seeking, Herr Leavey"" inquired the customs officer at Bremen airport.

"The German sense of humour, bitte," replied the writer.

"So," exclaimed the German official, suppressing a Wagnerian belly laugh, "you must be planning a very long stay!"

"It all depends on how you define humour," explained the writer. "I subscribe to the theory, expounded in the Oxford Companion to the Mind, that women find jokes funnier when heard by the left ear. And vice versa, for men."

The official rubbed his head.

"Let me put it another way," continued the writer. "Did you ever hear a story about the German sense of humour""

"Nein," replied the official.

"Neither did I."

Which, I have to admit, seems odd, because a country that gave birth to Bach, Handel, Hoffmann, Max und Moritz, Morgenstern’s nonsense verse, Fritz Feld (the actor who debuted in the 1920s Der Golem as a court jester, and made Germans laugh over the next seven decades), the elegant cinematic innuendo of director Ernst Lubitsch (who once said, "I’ve been to Paris France and I’ve been to Paris Paramount. Paris Paramount is better"), Werner Herzog (who ate his boot, after it was marinated in hot oil for 24 hours), Loriot, Kraftwerk, the oompah band and produces 5,000 different beers, 300 types of bread and 1500 different sausages, can’t exactly be accused of lacking fun.

En route to Bremen from Gatwick airport, I asked the British Airways’ captain, a fellow Brit, if the Germans had a sense of humour. "I’m sure they do," he replied. "But you’d have to speak German to be sure."

Unfortunately, my German is limited to the ‘Meeting People’ chapter of the Lonely Planet German phrasebook. It was more than enough to get me to my first stop: Beck’s brewery in Bremen.

Capital of the smallest federal state in Germany, Bremen is said to be the most important centre of the European cigar industry, after Amsterdam.

Indeed, the Focke-Museum houses a reconstruction of Friese’s tobacco shop as it was in 1860.

If I’d had enough time to visit the Tobacco Museum in Bunde, Westphalia, I could have tested the cigar seesaw, the movement of which was supposed to ensure that a cigar burnt evenly, even when not in use.

It was advertised as "the most senseless apparatus in the world" by the Nuremberg firm that made it. They also produced an ‘Aaatchoo snuff-machine’, which had a lever on a spring that flicked snuff into the nose.

After a two-hour tour of Beck’s brewery followed by several steinfuls of their fine beer, I cornered the press officer. She explained how 3,000 bottles of Beck’s beer are drunk around the world, every minute of the day.

I was doing my best to catch up. Perhaps I should call in on the Mercedes factory down the road to see if I could borrow one of their latest models and drive to my next destination, Hamburg"

"That’s probably not a good idea," she said, "but it’s a good joke."

"Got any others I can take back home to London""

"Only the large number of visitors," she replied, "who ask for a pint of Guinness in our bar after the tour of Germany’s most successful export brewery."

A few hours and one relaxed train ride later, found me in a Hamburg souvenir shop looking at a selection of condoms, some obviously designed for a well-hung donkey and others for an under-endowed midget, alongside a married couple from New York.

Then the American woman sneezed.

"Gesundheit!" responded the shopkeeper.

"Thank God!" said the woman’s American husband. "Somebody who speaks English."

My thoughtful guide had suggested that if I was too tired for a late night comedy show at the St Pauli Theatre or Schmidt and Schmidt Tivoly, I could spend the rest of the evening in the InterCityHotel and watch the Harald Schmidt show on TV. Very funny.

The trouble is, German comedy is usually all in, well, German. It’s not that the Germans lack a sense of humour, it’s just there are people like me who cannot translate the jokes, aside from the cruder ones on display in Hamburg’s sex shops.

The next morning found me in the heart of the Reeperbahn. Some of us think the best time to be there is when its notorious live sex shows are shut.

For a few embarrassing moments, I was the only man walking through Herberstrasse – which is off limits to all women, aside from those surreally displaying their gartered and g-stringed wares in the windows, and anyone else under 18.

I gave a friendly wave to the girls but only one of them, a portly matron knitting a shawl while her dachshund lay basking outside in the sun, waved back.

Perhaps she knows a good joke, I thought. Most likely it was the sight of yet another middle-aged, male window-shopper whose Deutschmarks weren’t exactly burning a hole in his boxer shorts.

"May I ask why your dog is wearing black shoes"" I said to the dachshund’s owner.

She put down her knitting and smiled, "Because his brown ones are at the menders."

The girl in the next, open window decided to join in: "Why do women on the Reeperbahn wear handles on their sides"

"Dunno," I replied.

"They’re easier to pick up."

There was even more fun at Alsop and Stormer’s £3 million part new-build, part refurbishment of Hamburg’s Erotic Art Museum, whose exhibits, while often very rude, wouldn’t disgrace the Tate Gallery. My guide explained that the museum was housed in a former German weapons factory. "Is that a V2 in your pocket," I asked her, "or do you just want to invade Poland"" She smiled, wanly. But not twoly.

The best joke I heard was that the down-at-heel Reeperbahn faces gentrification, rather like London’s Soho. A good indicator of the imminent reality of this proposal is that Sir Terence Conran is planning to open a design centre there. Designer sex in Hamburg" Whatever next.

Next turned out to be a perfect lunch on the terrace of the Hotel Louis C. Jacob, among whose former guests was Marlene Dietrich, who once said, "My legs aren’t so beautiful. I just know what to do with them."

I used mine to head for Hamburg-Altona station, en route to the Black Forest.

Just before I boarded the overnight express to Oberkirch, I decided to try a typical German snack, Handkase mit Musik – a round cheese soaked in oil and vinegar with lots of onions. "The music comes later," explained the man behind the counter.

It was one way to ensure you kept a train carriage to yourself.

Just before I dozed off, Hans, a fellow passenger, outlined a typical German joke: "First, select an audience. Second, get their attention. Third, tell the joke. Fourth, wait for the applause. Repeat, if necessary."

In return, I recounted a true story.

A couple of years ago, I worked with the late Dennis Main Wilson, the iconoclastic BBC comedy producer who was responsible for The Goons, Hancock’s Half Hour and Till Death Us Do Part, among other famous British radio and TV sitcoms.

In 1945, Dennis was a young British officer who had just arrived in Berlin. He was ordered to enter the German National Radio HQ and seize the comedy archives to help reboost the morale of the German nation.

"After a long search I eventually tracked down bucketloads of broad comedy," joked Dennis. "But I never did find the German sense of irony."

Hans grimaced and said, "That story is almost as bad as the one about Beethoven – who was so deaf he thought his piano was an abacus."

Actually, Dennis later admitted he didn’t look far enough, there’s plenty of wit and satire in the writings of Goethe, Brecht and Gunter Grass.

The following morning I took my first short walk in the Black Forest, after a demonstration at the excellent Waldhotel Gruner Baum of how to make a real Black Forest gateaux – which, ironically, was invented by a man from Bonn. There was so much schnapps poured into the cake, I suggested they place a slice in a glass and let me drink it.

After a condensed version of the Gruner Baum’s famous ‘Schnapps Academy’, which normally takes three days to explain and demonstrate the history, production and correct tasting of one of Germany’s favourite stiff drinks, the newly arrived, young local tourist guide and I got lost trying to find our way to the castle overlooking Oberkirch. It was great, unscripted fun, which ended with a final mutual toast (‘Wiedersehn!’) of schnapps before I staggered off by train to Frankfurt.

There are not many laughs at the Steigenberger, or any other of the world’s airport hotels for that matter, aside from watching tired businessmen getting drunk and trying to pick up the only attractive fraulein gracing the nightclub.

This was more than made up for by my plush, executive suite, and something else the Germans have lots of fun with – breakfast.

Frankfurt Airport’s Steigenberger hotel produced one of the best breakfasts I have ever eaten, so good that I decided to eat three of them, including red, white and blue coloured boiled eggs, for England.

While I munched, I noticed the unusually large number of pipe smokers happily enjoying an early morning puff. Indeed, there seems to be few places where nicotine-addicts cannot light up in Germany – which is one of the last, great bastions of smokers. Thank God.

One diner, in between attempts at relighting his pipe, was morosely eating the first of two boiled eggs. "Excuse me for saying so," I said, "but those eggs would probably taste a lot better if you sprinkled some salt on them." He turned, exhaled, and replied, "It’s OK, I don’t like eggs anyway."

Afterwards, I tried walking off my triple breakfasts off on a tour of Frankfurt, home of the European Central Bank, which is housed in what used to be the headquarters of the world’s largest union – who moved elsewhere because the skyscraper was too small.

Just outside stands a giant thermometer recording the fluctuations of the EU, which is said to go down as easily as a glass of German beer.

When Frankfurt’s bankers and bureaucrats tire of counting their money, they spend it in the Zeil promenade, Germany’s most successful shopping street – it accounts for one per cent of the country’s annual expenditure.

There are also 35 museums for the city’s population of 650,000 (New York’s eight million inhabitants have only got 50), and over a hundred clubs. There is even a club for optimists; trouble is, no one knows any members.

On Deutsche Bahn’s luxurious new InterCityExpress train hurtling northwards alongside the Rhine, an announcement on the tannoy made my fellow First Class passengers laugh.

"What did he say"" I asked the attractive young fraulein next to me.

She smiled and translated, "The extra train we provided for the changeover at Dusseldorf has just left."

Who says the Germans have no sense of humour. 

___________________________________________

James Leavey flew to Germany from London Gatwick airport, courtesy of British Airways – one of the friendliest airlines he has ever had the pleasure to travel (BA operates 3 flights daily to Bremen from LGW and 4 between Dusseldorf and LGW. BA also operates LGW to Hannover with 3 daily flights): www.britishairways.com

He then travelled by train throughout Germany courtesy of Deutsche Bahn (German Rail), whose nationwide network connects over 6,000 stations. For more information about travelling by train in Germany: www.bahn.de

Other useful websites:

Bremen and general enquiries about Germany: www.germany-tourism.de

Hamburg: www.hamburg-tourism.de

Frankfurt: www.frankfurt.de

‘Schnapps Academy’ at Waldhotel Gruner Baum, Oberkirch, Black Forest: www.oberkirch.de

Becks Beer: www.becks-beer.com


Copyright James Leavey, 2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.

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