By now I’m sure you know how much I love small-town Germany (if you’re new to the blog you can read about it here), so I was more than thrilled to step off the plane and onto a train headed for the Sauerland. I was even more thrilled to find that it was 90° and sunny when I got there. And even more than that, it stayed like that the entire weekend.
If you’re at all familiar with the Sauerland then you’ll recognize that this is a pretty big deal. There are two things that should come to mind when you think of summertime in the Sauerland. One is its unpredictably bad weather and the other is Schützenfest. But with uncharacteristically awesome weather at my side it was much easier to focus on
surviving enjoying the weekend’s Schützenfest.
There’s a loud crack, the sound of metal splintering wood, and the wooden bird falls to the ground. The crowd of onlookers erupts and the band begins playing. Everyone rushes to offer their Herzliche Glückwünsche to the new Schützenkönig who now sits hoisted on shoulders.
You’ve just witnessed the coronation of a king. Beers all around! Or maybe a Radler, after all this is a marathon not a sprint.
Welcome to your first Schützenfest, the most curious tradition of small-town Germany! It’s a three-day party that separates the German from the Ausländer, a test of endurance (and of liver function), and the most German thing you’ll ever be invited to do. One minute you’re marching in the opening parade, two rows snaking towards the Schützenhalle trying only somewhat successfully to match your steps to the drum beats, and the next it’s the final day and you’re sitting on the floor sandwiched between two Germans and rowing an imaginary boat.
Behind the beer, the crowd surfing and the Schlager music, there’s more tradition in a Schützenfest than you’d realize. It’s a throwback to the Middle Ages, to a time of bandits and men joining together in Schützenvereinen to protect their towns.
Though there are no longer groups of bandits roaming the German countryside, the members of these shooting clubs still take the traditions very seriously. You can hear it in the music that they play, see it in the extravagant parades, in their devotion to the club rules, and the sheer number of members that still join these clubs.
Just like with the rest of my German-life, coming up with a strategy for Schützenfest has taken a lot of getting used to. Last year I went to two of the dozens of festivals and I crashed and burned. Hard. The American in me was ready to check out around 2am and the girlfriend in me wanted everyone to like her so she had a hard time saying no.
But you do learn fast. And it does get easier to drag yourself out of bed in the mornings. From last year’s pathetic performances, I’ve learned the one Schützenfest rule to live by: I’m not a German man so I shouldn’t drink like one.
With that realization Schützenfest gets so much easier. You’ll know to drink slowly, to take breaks, and to eat food a lot. To always, under every circumstance, refuse an U-Boat because one will turn into four and you’ll hate yourself tomorrow. You’ll let people tease you about drinking Radler and you won’t care because you know it saves lives. And you’ll refuse to exen unless of course someone challenges you to exen oder Elsper, in which case chugging is acceptable because those’re fighting words!
And on Day Four, when your entire body hurts and you’re so tired you can’t talk, don’t feel bad for feeling like crap. Everyone’s feeling it. The Germans are just better at hiding it, years of practice and genetics I guess. All you can do is grab a beer -or maybe a Radler– because there are 12 hours to go and it’s the only thing you can do.
By the end of the fourth night, which will come at the very reasonable midnight hour, you won’t be able to feel your feet or do much more than sway on the dance floor. The Schützenhalle will be emptier than you’ve ever seen it; there’s beer and remnants of broken glasses on the floor and someone will bring in giant tree branches (for a reason that still remains a mystery to me). Typisch Montag everyone says. Congratulations, this is what it looks like to be a Schützenfest champion.
It sounds exhausting, it definitely is, but it’s the most fun you’ll have all summer. The days usually play out in the same way; you’ll start at 10am, there’s more marching, dancing and singing, Currywurst for lunch (and probably dinner), and you’ll try and fail to keep up with what number beer you’re on. And then it’ll be 5am.
But none of this is what makes Schützenfest great. The best memories are the simplest ones, made great because of the people. I’ve always said that Sauerländers are the friendliest people in the world -and I’m a Southerner and we know nice- but each time there’s a get-together like this I see that more and more. Whether it’s someone (with some serious patience) who waits for me to string my German sentences together and then pretends they’re good, or someone that drags you onto the dance floor to row an imaginary boat with them. I feel incredibly lucky to call the Sauerland, Burbecke specifically, home.