Time to learn a little about German customs and manners! Last week I held a speech at a German fraternity (Frankonia) in Heidelberg. Frankonia is a classic German Burschenschaft (roughly, "bunch of fellows") with a history dating back to 1817.
Burschenschaften arose at German universities in the early 19th century. It’s the usual story: young men away from home for the first time gather under one roof, make lifelong friends and connections, perform bonding rituals, and generally have a fine old time. Burschenschaften can be controversial in Germany, since some of them have been associated with right-wing causes and are to this day creepy, quasi-fascist institutions. Frankonia isn’t in that league. Membership is open to all regardless of nationality or ethnicity. The folks I met were extremely cordial and well-groomed; mostly sons of doctors and lawyers and engineers. They tended to talk about politics a lot, as is common here, but I heard nobody express dreams of a greater German Reich, or furtively consult a map of Stalingrad ("You won’t have much fun in Stalingrad!"). Just the usual bitching about high taxes and regulations, and plenty of sentences that begin with "What this country needs is for everybody to realize…" You know the drill.
The fraternity house itself is a tall, narrow 3-story structure built in 1890 on the side of the same hill that houses Heidelberg Castle. The ground floor has austerely attractive wood-panelled dining rooms and offices. On the second floor is a large hall for banquets and dances, and at the very top a tower balcony with stunning views of Heidelberg. Oh, and the stuffed heads of all the fraternity’s old dogs (R). The fraternity’s coat of arms (L) features a lyre and a sword. This shows that the members pursue interests not only in the "arts" (broadly defined) but also in Fechten (fencing). The fencing duels are more a stylized rite of passage than actual sport. Every member has to endure one in order to join, and they are also used to settle disputes among fraternities. When you are insulted during a visit to another fraternity, you take out your "visiting card," as the Germans call them, write your name on it, tear it in half, and give it to the fiend who insulted you. A genuine duel is then arranged, with seconds, an audience, plenty of tension in the air, and all the other trimmings.
During the fencing duel, the two men stand a sword’s-length apart from each other and trade blows. One stands in a protective position, shielding his head with a well-padded arm and his own fencing sword, while the other whacks at him. They then change roles. Almost always, one or both participants get sliced in the face (goggles are worn to protect the eyes). A doctor (former member) is on hand to sew up the resulting gash (Schmiss in German), and everyone eventually retires to drink away the sting. The Schmiss is worn with pride throughout the rest of the fraternity member’s life.
Many German social interactions, from family gatherings to business conferences, are composed of episodes of stiff, routinized formality followed by more-or-less unhinged alcoholic excess. It was no different at Frankonia. The meals are formal. A bell is rung to announce the meal, everyone stands up until short introductory speech has been made, and the meal is served, in courses. Ashtrays are place on the table just before dessert. Like many fraternities, Frankonia has live-in help; in this case a nice English couple who live in a basement apartment. The woman cooks, and the man tends to the house. The simple, tasty meals were cooked below and sent up through a dumb-waiter.
As the evening progresses, the large-scale communal drinking and singing begin. The most precious fraternity lore concerns the effects of excessive alcohol consumption. Specifically, of excessive beer consumption, which has very different side effects than excessive whisky or wine consumption. One of the brothers told me a tale involving a sieve which I, unfortunately, won’t soon forget.
The bathroom at Frankonia boasts a Kotzbecken (puking-sink). This practical device comes up to just under chest-level. Support bars are mounted on the wall behind it, and of course you can flush afterwards. This casual integration of things emetic into ordinary life is not unusual. All respectable German beer-houses have a Kotzbecken in the men’s restroom (and perhaps in the women’s as well). Some Kotzbecken even have a wall-mounted ashtray, since it’s rather difficult to smoke and throw up at the same time, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some German, somewhere, has mastered this. I am sure every Frankonia member will feel a thrill of pride when I report that the enamel on Frankonia’s Kotzbecken has been worn away by many early-morning sessions of Praying to the Porcelain Goddess.
I hugely enjoyed my stay there. The young men of Frankonia were very generous and had outstanding manners. For purposes of political balance, I promise to soon visit a meeting of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany and report my impressions from there. I anticipate the same amount of bitching about politics, but significantly less fencing…