Often enough I am told that I have a love affair with Germany. Personally I would describe it more as a long-term relationship than a love affair but there is no smoke without fire: I have a fondness towards the country that many native-born Germans do not.
If I am engaged in a long-term relationship rather than a one-night stand then it follows perhaps that there are things about Germany that drive me to distraction. There must be a seven-year itch. No relationship is perfect after all — surely there must be one thing I would like to change about my partner?
The moralising perhaps? The automatic assumption of the moral high ground in any conflict situation — and the unabashed ticking off of perfect strangers that goes with it? Wait for a train at any railway station in this country and you can guarantee that when it pulls up at least one of the alighting passengers will give you an earbashing for standing in the wrong place before you’ve had the chance to move out of the way. It is not worth arguing. To argue means delaying your journey until the moralist has had the last word.
Or the pessimism? The unflinching belief that the sky is going to fall in on our heads at any minute? Maybe the cynicism? There is much that I admire about Germany and often I do not understand why those who were born here are so unrelentingly negative about the place.
The unimaginative holiday destinations. German cynicism is at its most intense when discussing any part of the planet which does not feature in a glossy travel brochure. Mention to a German that you are going to Serbia or Romania on holiday and eyebrows will be raised and snide comments will be made about you getting mugged or having your wallet stolen. Germans regard Eastern Europe as a primeval wasteland, a breeding ground for corruption and criminality — and thus they prefer to play safe and book a tour of New York or South Africa. Mugging is presumably less painful when committed at gunpoint.
They will quite happily receive any injections needed from a Serbian or Romanian doctor of course. You must never mention that without such countries as Serbia or Romania the German health service would collapse — to do so would provoke an argument which cannot be resolved until your opposite number has had the last word.
Germans and non-Germans alike complain about these things but they are personaliy traits, and these I must learn to live with. Personality traits cannot be changed; to attempt to do so smacks of character assassination.
Perhaps then I would like to throw out one of my partner’s possessions, one that really gets my goat. I must admit I am tempted to get rid of those stupid two-way escalators we have in this country. In theory they go up or down depending on which direction you approach them from, but in practice they move in the opposite direction just as you approach because somebody at the other end has got there first.
Every single time. But I will spare this rather unique construction for two reasons. Firstly, they are a uniquely German construction; no other country having ever been stupid enough to copy them. One day UNESCO will slap a protection order on them. Secondly, German escalators never work anyway.
As such, I would rather concentrate on a bad habit, something which might conceivably be fixed.
The smoking perhaps? Well, I have nothing against smoking per se. I would like it if German smokers showed more consideration and if the government would properly legislate in order to protect the interests of the many rather than the few. But as far as the smoking itself goes, live and let live.
A bit more awareness of others on public transport? I would like that very much but to press the issue would be to moralise. It’s also one of those issues where one can quite easily become an unwitting hypocrite if one is not careful.
And so instead I choose the Ganbei!
In fairness to Germany, Ganbei! is not actually a German word. Ganbei! is actually Mandarin Chinese and is typically uttered at banquets in the process of proposing a toast.
Loosely translated it means “cheers”, more literally it means “empty your cup”. One essential condition of the Ganbei! is that the cup must be emptied, no matter how vile the contents are.
However, any translation from Mandarin to English is extremely figurative and the most literal translations of all will appear to westerners as somewhat abstract. The most exact translation of Ganbei! goes something like this:
“Hey everybody. Let’s whack some of this foul venom down our necks. None of us really want to — but when we do we won’t feel so awkward and can do business with each other — at least until we stab each other in the backs!”
The reply, which is also Ganbei! can be translated as follows:
“Yes! Let’s ruin a perfectly good evening by gulping down this unadulterated snake’s piss! I don’t want to either but what the hell — we haven’t done this for at least twenty minutes. BRING ON THE HANGOVER!!”
The Ganbei! is truly international. In Armenia, I am told it is customary to appoint a Tamada, a toastmaster, to control the intake of brandy during an evening of Ganbei! As the job requires a degree of experience and a partiality for alcohol this has the inevitable side effect that the Tamada is usually sloshed before the main course — and all others must follow his lead or else be led outside and sacrificed in place of a sheep.
Germans are great lovers of the Ganbei! — and anybody here can be a Tamada. Unlike in Armenia, which produces a brandy so fine that Stalin was able to buy Churchill’s support at the Yalta Conference with it, German spirits are revolting.
Jägermeister is perhaps the best known of a seemingly endless of assortment of viscous cough-mixture like concoctions which taste like a mix of chewing tobacco and tree bark. Officially they are marketed as digestifs — and in a country where for many years most people thought that the best way to aid digestion was to light a cigarette this should perhaps be seen as progress — but such herbal liqueurs have long since wandered from the dinner table.
They cannot be consumed slowly as can a glass of whisky, and it is extremely unwise to drink them at room temperature. Neither can they be consumed when not in company. Instead they must be bolted down in one — and if one person feels inclined to drink then all others, regardless of their personal preferences, must join in. Any assertion that you do not wish to join in the Ganbei! will simply fall on deaf ears.
I am a Scot and so I feel that on this issue I am entitled to moralise. Any whisky worth its salt is the product of at least a decade of loving care. Our distilleries are guardians of tradition and their products are integral to our nation’s soul. Our national drink is best enjoyed slowly in a large glass with good company. It deserves respect.
Germany’s attitude to spirits is barbaric, and imported spirits are no exception. Whisky gets off lightly, “enjoyed” as it is in piteously small measures in the company of oversized cigars.
At least it never suffers the Ganbei! treatment. Other imported drinks suffer much more abuse. Germans regard Ouzo in the same way as Russians regard vodka: Once a bottle is opened it must be emptied before it gets warm, preferably while there is still frost on it. Ramazotti is drunk, not as in Italy as an aperitif served with lemon, but as a light alternative to Jägermeister.
As previously stated, in Germany anybody can be a Tamada. One does not need previous experience, although as in Armenia the most sloshed tend to appoint themselves most often. One does not even need to declare one’s appointment — it is sufficient to order a round of undrinkable bile for all present and call Ganbei!
As to when and why one would call Ganbei!, the German expression keinen Grund, aber immer einen Anlass just about covers it. There is no reason but there is always an occasion. Your team just won a match? Ganbei! You lost heavily against your local rivals? Ganbei! Weddings, birthdays, Fridays and Saturdays are all good occasions for a Ganbei!
If you are talking to the man on your left at the bar he will soon or later call Ganbei! and the same applies for the man on the right. If you are lucky it will be one of the drinks mentioned above, if you are unlucky it will be Dirty Harry, a liquorice based liqueur presented not in glasses but in small shot bottles with dice numbers on the bottom — the idea being to compare scores before deciding who pays for the next round of Ganbei!
Why would anybody wish to appoint themselves Tamada? I suspect that boredom plays a role: A successful round of Ganbei! can liven an evening up no end, for the Tamada at least. It is also not out of the question that while I find German spirits revolting, others may like them very much. In such cases they may feel awkward about drinking them alone. Many Tamadas also crave the attention that buying a round brings — the mere suggestion of the Ganbei! must be greeted with loud and enthusiastic praise of the sponsor, no matter what one’s true feelings may be.
Nothing smacks more of egotism, of purchased friendship and enforced bonding than the Ganbei! It also smacks of hypocrisy: Younger Germans are often heavily criticised for alcohol abuse, in particular their rapid intake of spirits, whereas the Ganbei! is performed mainly by older people and is socially acceptable.
Can one get out of the Ganbei!? It is difficult. Unlike in China, the German Ganbei! is usually performed by small groups in circles, glasses raised in full view. One cannot simply pour the contents onto the floor under the table.
Women are usually excused after the first couple of rounds or are offered sweeter alternatives with lower alcohol contents. They are disgusting nonetheless. One tip I have picked up is to profit from the confusion: One can usually absent oneself to the toilet and come back to find that the Ganbei! has been completed and that the Tamada, in his sloshedness, has mineswept your untouched drink.
The Ganbei! is my pet hate. Nothing turns drinking into a job of work more than the Ganbei! It is by far the worst German habit that I know and I would ban it tomorrow along with those stupid bloody escalators.
There is, I am happy to say, an antithesis. It is so beautiful that I must share it with you. If the Ganbei! is the worst of German drinking culture then Einschütten represents the best. Einschütten is not its real name, for it has no name. So instinctive is Einschütten that you need never ask anyone to do it.
You are more likely to witness Einschütten in the football stadium than anywhere else, although I can imagine that it happens at rock concerts too — anywhere in fact where beer is served in plastic beakers. Einschütten is to look at your friend’s empty glass, compare it to your full one, and then pour half your beer into your friend’s cup. You need not ask your friend to do this and nor will he offer. It is done without thinking as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
A more organic expression of camaraderie will you never find. No celebration of shared experience, no truer attention to a friend in need even comes close. He need not even be your friend yet; in such ways friendships are forged that long outlast the ninety minutes. I find it uniquely German, and yet they don’t even have a word for it.
I will have some celebrating to do in the next few weeks I am sure. There will not a be a bottle of spirits in sight. Hopefully I have something to celebrate this weekend when Dortmund play Schalke but if not, I have plenty of shoulders to cry on and plenty of second-hand beer to drown my sorrows. The best parties are always spontaneous — Prosit!