This was what we came here for.
After an overnight train from Amsterdam to Munich, followed by a breakfast of sausage, sauerkraut, and beer at the Hofbräuhaus, we caught a second locomotive to Memmingen and trekked with bulging hikers’ backpacks from the station to the bordering community of Memmingerberg. That is where we found the object of our quest. We knew its general location to be there, though we were unaware of its exact proximity. So it was truly serendipitous when we discovered it just two doors down from our apartment rental. There it stood upon a grassy hill, a simple wooden bench affixed with a plaque bearing words which brought moistness to the eyes of my wife and in-laws:
Rudolf Recklau. My wife’s opa, may he rest in peace. A man of the kindest nature known to lend his car to total strangers, who could fix anything and dismantled mechanisms just to find out how they worked, who was an endless source of advice and simply-stated profundities such as “Life is too short to wear normal socks.” This bench was placed here in his memory and overlooked the house he was born in, as we discovered by comparing to an old black and white photograph of the building. Adjacent was a field possessing a lone apple tree, the branches of which he and my wife’s oma Viktoria had once fallen asleep in as teenagers and missed their curfews, one of other such trysts together that included a covert marriage. This lot had come to belong to Rudolf and remained in his possession even after their relocation to Canada.
It was not until his death that the property was sold to the city to be converted into a park. The money from that sale was transferred to Viktoria and subsequently distributed among their descendants, the share of my wife’s immediate family being used to fund a trip to visit Rudolf’s place of origin (and to explore a handful of its surrounding countries). We were to spend a full week based in his former township, where an official dedication of the bench was scheduled for later in the week on a day coincidentally coinciding with his date of birth.
When that particular morning came my wife ended up stuck in one of our apartment’s washrooms, its lock seizing at the same moment as the arrival of a handful of distant relatives together with the mayor of Memmingerberg. Luckily her escape was promptly facilitated by a ladder hoisted to the second story window, and we were able to collect around the bench with the others in time for a photo shoot. The mayor left soon after, but the relatives remained to get to know us, having only met my wife’s mother decades earlier. The rest of us quickly became acquainted with these cousins of hers, who turned out to be endlessly obliging companions and guides throughout our German sojourn.
Having already seen the site of Rudolf’s upbringing, one of the cousin’s took us to the place Viktoria had grown up in. Along our way to her former house in Memmingen we were treated to a walking tour of that community, through the brick walls surrounding the city center and along its internal channels, where local men wade with nets during the annual Fischertag to compete for the title of “Fischerkönig” (or “Fisher King”).
Later that same day we ventured to the nearby municipality of Ottobeuren to visit Ottobeuren Abbey, where Viktoria’s schooling had been temporarily relocated during World War II amidst the danger of bombing. Even as an atheist I could not help feeling moved by the church’s immaculately ornate baroque interior with its massive pipe organs and painted depictions of angels battling demons across high domed ceilings, such scenes an eerie contrast to the silence of the building. No sound from outside could be heard within, and what little noise did reach our ears consisted of whispers, the prayers of monks, and the occasional ringing of a handheld bell.
Another evening we were brought past fog-laden corn fields to a hall out in the country, where a battle of the bands was taking place between musicians from four of the area’s villages, featuring songs based mostly in percussion and wind instruments ranging from clarinets to tubas to alpine horns that took up half the stage’s length. With our limited grasp of the German language, and as the only people in attendance not clad in dirndls or lederhosen, our status as outsiders was readily apparent, though we were treated just as any one of the crowd. Arms linked with our own as everyone swayed side to side on their benches to the tune of “Que Sera,” and the raising of our mugs was returned happily with clinking glass during frequent renditions of “Ein Prosit.” Much of the rest of the entertainment was regional, such as the traditional folk dance Schuhplattler performed in this case to voXXclub’s “Rock Mi,” and multiple performances by singers in bathrobes emulating Austrian-Swiss artist Udo Jürgens. The bands’ sets also included a few Bavarian takes on popular North American hits like “New York New York” and “YMCA.”
This had been an event for the locals, but elsewhere its same sorts of merriments were taking place on a much larger scale at the more tourist-driven Oktoberfest. A few days into the festival we caught a morning train to Munich, standing out once again as the only ones on board wearing Western garb. Other passengers were getting a head start with bottles of beer they had carried with them, and upon arrival we made up for having neglected to bring our own by catching up with a couple of rounds at Augustiner am Platzl. With a buzz fit for the occasion of our coming there we walked a few blocks and ascended the several sets of steps in “Alter Peter,” emerging at the top to a 360 degree view of the city with the square of Marienplatz far below, its space busy with folks awaiting the chimes of the Rathaus-Glockenspiel to cue the dancing and jousting of its painted figures. But it was in the opposite direction that we espied a distant Ferris wheel and other looming structures marking the site of our day’s destination.
Back at earth level we continued onward to the Oktoberfest grounds, where we immediately sought out the spectacle of “Schichtl” at the insistence of my mother-in-law’s cousins, who had been teasing us during the preceding days with throat slitting motions of their thumbs. We hadn’t known what to make of these gestures, though their meaning became clear to us upon watching the cabaret which culminated in a mock beheading of one of the audience members. Emerging with our own necks intact we joined the steadily accumulating crowds milling about the various booths, rides, and of course the beer tents.
These were truly impressive in their size and elaborate decoration, especially considering the temporary status of the structures. We roamed from tent to tent, ultimately settling at a table in the yellow ribbon bedecked Winzerer Fähndl tent, where a waitress brought us liter mugs of beer precariously carried in a single arm load. We indulged in these and pretzels larger in circumference than my head, while a band on a center platform played many of the same tunes we had recently heard recited at the battle of the bands. As with that night we sang along and toasted “Prost!” at every opportunity. We stayed until the sun was setting and the tents could hold no additional bodies, and then took a train back to Memmingerberg to wrap up yet another day of overwhelming stimulation.
Among all the sensational sites and celebrations we participated in while based in Germany, the highlight of our week there was an intimate feast at a weekend house shared by all members of the family in the area, most of whom were in attendance. Freshly smoked sausage and pork schnitzel was passed around the table, accompanied by spaetzle, tomato salad, and a heaping plate of varied cheeses that we never quite managed to fully demolish in spite of determined efforts. All of this was washed down with perpetual rounds of beer brought in from a cousin’s brewery. We ate and drank to the point of discomfort, at which time we were prescribed shots of what the relatives referred to as “medicine,” but which was really just a bottle of hard liquor. Their knowledge of the English language was as sparse as ours of German tongue, but our common love of food and laughter was enough to bridge any communication gap between us, making us feel at home as though this family that we hardly knew had been part of our entire lives. If not for two absent members we would not have come to all be there together, and we were grateful.
Thank you, Rudolf and Viktoria, for coming to Canada, for building a life that ultimately brought my wife into this world, and for providing me with a link to a fantastic German culture which I might never otherwise have experienced on such a personal level.
Danke schön, und Prost!
– Cory Magnus Stumpf