Saturday, April 18, 2009

We Don't Really Want To See Them Either

I remember reading twenty years ago in a travel article on Europe that if you wanted to visit Germany with your children, the best place to go was...Switzerland. Honestly, it said, the Germans do not like children, go spend your time - and money -somewhere where you won't feel like a leper for walking through the door with creatures under the age of 30. (MAYBE a mature 25 in some more tolerant circles.) You know - the whole children should be seen and not heard philosophy of our grandparents generation.

But we were on our way to visit Kat and Tim - and two year old Sam - in Munich this week, friends from our grad school days who were currently living in Albania and were now only 3 hours away by car. The opportunity was too good to pass up. We left the older two with my parents, who were also visiting from the U.S., piled Aidan and Matthew into the car, and had an amazingly pleasant trip - they both slept for almost 2 hours and woke up just as we were entering Munich around 12:30. Really too good to be true.

We were so psyched to be travelling light.

Kat and Tim - and Sam - were staying in a beautiful guest house on the outskirts of Munich, within walking distance to the zoo, really perfect for a two year old. In any other country. Us walking in with two MORE two year olds was more than the landlady could take. I swear, she was outraged just at the sight of us.

I was honestly shocked at the hostility. Since I speak German fluently, I'd forgotten how condescending SOME Germans can be to foreigners. (And to be fair, most are exceptionally friendly to Americans, speaking English and helping out when they see someone looking like they need it.) But this lady was pissed that we had the nerve, the absolute gall, to bring children into her home.

It was unpardonable and she took the offensive immediately. She rudely asked my husband to move our car off her space. The request was not unexpected, parking is ALWAYS an issue here, but the tone was inexcusable. And this was someone who earned her living in the hospitality industry! I obviously use the term loosely - any tourist magazine can tell you that Germany has a barely existent service industry. She followed Damon to the front door - like he was an errant schoolboy - and then waited on the front steps to make sure he did as he was told.

Kat and I sat in the garden watching the boys run around the lawn, while the men when to pick up some sandwich materials for lunch. Well - this was too much. "You are going to have to be be quiet. Will this be a problem?", she swooped down upon us to ask. Kat was used to the treatment - let's face it, this is how Germany earns its reputation - but I couldn't resist. "Well, since we are having a conversation, absolute quiet IS going to be a problem." I replied. "Well, I can't have those babies crying here, " she retorted and I promised her, that as two year olds I could guarantee that there would be absolutely no tears or tantrums all afternoon. Did she notice my sarcasm? She certainly noticed the comment I ostensibly directed at Kat as she turned to leave. "I see you've been experiencing German hospitality firsthand." I really couldn't resist.

After a thorough discussion in German - where I explained that her request was more than reasonable and that we would certainly respect it, but that it was her tone I had taken offense to -she went back to serving the man on the neighboring patio, bringing him two or three courses for lunch, pouring his tea, probably also cutting his meat for him and tucking in his napkin under his chin. Obviously her husband. No kidding. The elderly man with the suberservient, overly indulgent younger wife, the beautiful, immaculately tended garden you weren't allowed to use, even the little Schnauzer running around all our legs- all you needed was a son coming through the back door in his SS uniform, and the picture of old Germany was complete.

I don't like to play the Nazi card, but sometimes it just fits so perfectly. And I do wonder. The couple was definitely part of the generation known as "Nachkriegsgeneration", or kids born after the war. The husband might have been a child during the war. I can imagine they didn't have a warm and fuzzy "Sound of Music" childhood either. Life sucked. Kids were a burden. It's a lost generation really.

Later she chased me down and yelled at me AGAIN about keeping the kids out of the flower beds - while I was in the process of doing exactly that. (What did she think I was doing, giving them instructions on how to best go about pulling up a tulip?!) I couldn't help but think about the story of the Selfish Giant written by Hans Christian Andersen. (Who must have had some experience in this area himself.) The giant chases the children out of his beautiful garden, eventually building a huge wall to keep them out, and without the children, winter and cold move into the garden. Spring doesn't return until the children discover a hole in the wall and come back in to play.

I'm not saying that everyone has to love children. And I am the first to say that there are some places that should be off limits to children - I don't want to go to a fancy resturaunt or theater surrounded by noisy, snotty- nosed kids either. But what is life without some joy and laughter? What is the beauty of a garden - the cold, sterile beauty of a well-tended flower bed - without the occasion to enjoy it?

I feel sorry for the wicked witch. She was born at a time without joy and laughter -at a time when even children, or especially children, had no joy and laughter. At a time when there was a wall around the garden. All she has is her tulip bed and her routine, cold, sterile existence. A wasted life - only because she was not able to grow beyond the limited confines of what she knows. Kat asssumed she had no children, but I see the greater horror. She has two. Two who she has raised with the same emphasis on self-preservation, on taking care of one's own little corner, without thought to a greater good or to anyone besides themeselves.

But I digress. I'm tired of discussions on the German psyche - and I'm tired of everyone tracing it back to WWII. It's been 60 years. Get over it and move on. It's okay to say hello to your neighbors; it's okay to trust again. It's safe again to smile. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall." But that's a different fairy tale.

So we headed to the Munich zoo - so full of children and of parents obviously enjoying their children - that it was a different world altogether. Here we fit in. And this is Germany too - a small, fragile bud amidst the sterile tulip gardens. And this is the Germany that will win in the end. As the tulip gardens fade, the children grow. The angry old couple is left to their solitude as the rest of us procreate - into a better tomorrow.


  1. Ha, ha.

    Don't worry some Germans don't even like you to have a normal conversation if you're in a cafe. They give you 'the look' even if you aren't a kid, or totting kids around with you.

  2. Darn noisy Americans! All that LAUGHTER and JOY! IN PUBLIC - what are they thinking? Sorry - the bashing is too easy. I'll have to come up with something twin-related for the next essay - keep me out of trouble!

  3. Wow, what a story! I have a friend who is of German descent...this explains a lot! lol

    Btw, dropping in from ProBlogger! :)

  4. To be fair - I've got some good stories to tell too. The PRE WW ll generation especially tends to light up at the sight of a large family. Also - have had three stories of lost wallets lately - and all have been turned in to the police station with up to 300 Euros still there. Also heard of a beer garden in Munich that has a complimentary child care center - I'm not sure if I can count that as child friendly or not, but I am sorely tempted!