I’m aware I haven’t blogged for quite a while. Lots of reasons why not – when it comes to writing, I excel in diversion tactics – but it’s mainly due to a most enjoyable tandem trip along Germany’s Romantic Strasse, from which my husband and I have recently returned.
Our cycle route took us from the Nazi rally grounds of Nuremberg, through delightful and welcoming cobbled-stoned medieval villages (some seething with Japanese tourists on whirl-wind European coach tours, giving the impression that as it was Monday it had to be Germany) to the fabulous and over-the-top Neuschwanstein castle near Fussen. The castle inspired Walt Disney to create his own fantastical fairy-tale castles that we all know and love.
This is the second big cycle trip we’ve done in Germany. The first being a four-week adventure along the river Elbe from Magdeburg to Prague, then back through the Czech Republic to Magdeburg via Bamberg and Leipzig. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys cycling, especially as it is flat most of the way. I really promise it is.
This recent trip increased my respect for Germany. For a start it’s a staggeringly beautiful country, at least three times the size of the UK, with around the same size of population. So it feels as if there’s room to breathe and expand.
There is a real sense of national pride too, particularly in the way the Germans care for their cities, towns and villages. There’s very little graffiti, no litter, and gangs of badly behaved drunk adolescents throwing up on pavements on Friday and Saturdays nights do not appear to exist. Certainly not where we were.
Then there’s the beer and ‘kuchen’ (cakes). Zwetschgenkucken, or plum tart, is to die for.
If you want to avoid developing a gargantuan belly, these have to be consumed in moderation (The UK is reportedly second in the obesity stakes to the US, but Germany is certainly giving us a good run for our money). But it’s difficult.
After a long cycle ride and rather a sore bum, the anticipation of gazing at a litre of ice-cold local beer, brewed often on the premises of the Gasthaus (a kind of B&B) where we stayed, made for the great moment of our day. This started with a smacking and puckering of the lips, followed by the first long delicious swig. Then closed-eyed silent awe as the cool fluid slipped down our parched throats, chased by joint sighs of deeply-felt gratification. It’s impossible not to order another.
There were lots of other things that impressed me about Germany, such as how each community makes its own yogurts and cheeses, usually has its own slaughter house, and makes a point of buying vegetables from local farmers rather than supermarkets. In fact, Germany doesn’t really do supermarkets, although shopping outlets such as Lidl are fairly widespread.
Germany also ‘farms’ solar power in the form of enormous fields full of solar panels, which take you by surprise when you’re whizzing along on the impeccably kept network of cycle paths that criss-cross the length and breadth of Germany.
But the thing that has most stayed with me is the conversation I had with a retired teacher. She lives in a small village in deepest Bavaria, and had been the head-teacher in the local school for most of her career. Now she was part of a group of elders who helped struggling young people living in the area.
At the time we spoke, she, together with several elders from her village, and the mayor – yes, the mayor himself – were working with an eighteen-year-old girl who’d got herself into severe debt, and was also pregnant. By closely involving the girl, they were discovering what she needed, and what could be feasibly achieved on her behalf. Most importantly, they were actively encouraging her to take responsibility for herself within the community, at the same time as conveying to her that they really cared for her. This is what I call thoroughly heart-warming collective parenting.
Try as I might, I cannot imagine the mayor of most, if any, towns in the UK doing this, nor indeed elders of the community gathering together to help young people in this way. I was deeply impressed, and wondered if PM David Cameron might take a few pointers for his ‘Big Society vision that he is currently promoting.
I left Germany with regret. This is a country that works – Oh, the joy of clean, quiet trains arriving and departing bang on time – and seems to really care about its youth. Yes, of course the country’s got its fair share of social problems, and visiting the concentration camp at Dachau wasn’t much fun.
But I regarded it as more of a reminder of how dreadful human beings can be to each other. The Nazis weren’t the first group of appalling despots to behave like this, and, as we are increasingly hearing from many parts of the world, they certainly weren’t the last.
Moreover, I find it tragic that we, as a species, seem incapable of learning from the past, and unable to stop inflicting terrible atrocities on each other. There won’t be much left of anything if we carry on like this.
So I confess I felt a little dispirited when I returned to the UK. But things have settled down again, as things normally do. Anyway, autumn is on its way, and I plan to thoroughly luxuriate in summer-time remeniscences of German beer and Zwetschgenkucken as the evenings draw in.