I sort of almost started a soccer riot

As a rule, I’m a pretty peaceful sort of fellow.

The only person I can recall every having a real physical altercation with is my brother, but even those have been very few and far between. And ever since he became bigger and stronger than me, I’ve tried to make sure we settle any disagreements with words rather than fists.

However, in spite of my usually easy-going personality, I recently found myself ready to throw down in a soccer stadium.

How did this happen? It started with an invitation from some friends to accompany them to the Swiss city of Basel to watch a Fußball match. The home team, FC Basel, would be hosting their hated rival FC Zürich. My German friends informed me and the other Americans in the group that this was a heated series, and that no love would be lost between the two teams.

This was an exciting opportunity for me. I had not been to a soccer match in Europe yet, and was looking forward to getting an authentic taste of “the beautiful game.”

My German friend who had purchased the tickets also wanted us to have an authentic experience. To that end, he had bought us tickets for the “hooligan section” of the stadium, where the home team’s most loyal and committed fans stand.

On our way to the game, I was imagining the hooligan section as the equivalent of a student section at a college football game in the United States. I guess this wasn’t completely wrong: the hooligans, like college students, were definitely the loudest, craziest, and most intoxicated fans in the stadium. What I didn’t know, however, is that soccer hooligans are sometimes organized into gangs, will often set off firecrackers in the stadium, and might even attack a person who supports a rival team.

When we got to the stadium, we entered the gate to the hooligan section. Almost immediately, a very large Basel fan approached our group and wanted to know why we weren’t wearing FC Basel gear. The Germans among us tried to explain that we weren’t from Basel, but we wanted to sit among the “real fans” to get the full experience.

Our new Swiss friend wasn’t satisfied. He “suggested” that we sit on the edge of the section away from the other fans. And then he followed us to make sure we did.

Fine, whatever. I didn’t see any point in starting an argument.

Then I pulled out my phone to take a picture of the field. Immediately, Mr. Cheerful was back.

“Keine Fotos!”

Why was this random person telling me that I couldn’t take photos of this soccer field? In retrospect, it’s clear that he was just looking for a way to harass spectators who weren’t Basel fans. At the time, however, I was confused.

My German companions tried to intercede for me by explaining that I was an American and didn’t know the unwritten rules of this sort of event. This actually seemed to mollify the hooligan a bit, and he started to back off.

But at this point, I wasn’t having it. In my mounting frustration, I wanted to tell him that I would take photos of his sissy soccer stadium every day of the week and twice on Sunday if I felt like it. Fortunately for me, my level of lingual dexterity in German did not permit me to express these sentiments.

I settled for informing him that, despite my nationality, I could “understand what he was saying quite well, and…”

That’s as far as I got before my buddies hushed me with some variation of “shut up, you idiot” and promised the hooligan that I wouldn’t take any more pictures.

And I didn’t. Partly to avoid trouble, and partly because, after all that, THEY CANCELED THE GAME. A power outage in the stadium caused the officials to postpone the match. Talk about an anticlimax.

Lessons learned? First, it’s probably better not to sit in the hooligan section. Second, if I ever do sit in the hooligan section again, I’m bringing my brother.

 

Papa

The January sun was slowly fading behind the distant horizon as I made my way up the long, familiar driveway.

I wanted to see Papa, my grandfather, one more time before setting out again. My flight was the next day, and I wouldn’t be back for months.

As I pulled up in his front yard, however, it dawned on me that I might be too late. It was already 6:00 pm, and he always turned in early. I’m told that most farmers do.

I let myself in and could immediately see that all the lights were off. The house was quiet, save the whimpering of a terrier and the incoherent mutterings of a parrot.  

When I walked back toward his room, I heard the easy rhythm of an old man snoring. I was, indeed, too late.

The January sun was slowly brightening the distant horizon as I once again drove up the long, familiar driveway.

It was 6:00 am the next morning. He’d definitely be awake now, and probably had been up for quite a while.

This time, the lights were on. As I walked in, he suddenly appeared in the laundry room door, a look of bewilderment on his face.

And then he laughed.

We went in the kitchen, and he fixed me some breakfast: raisin bran and coffee. We talked about my travels, the pictures I had brought him, family… a wonderful visit.

Eventually, it was time to go. Him to feed up, me to finish packing up. A tight embrace, and we were both on our way.

When I walked into his house the next time, three months later, everything was basically as it had been. The terrier and parrot were still there. The photo album I had brought him was still on the kitchen table.

But the house was empty. And to me, it always will be.

Scheibenschlagen, and why you would ever want to do such a thing

Every February, we Americans miss a golden opportunity.

We mark the approaching end of Winter with a few tried and true (and honestly, kind of boring) traditions.

Don’t get me wrong; I like groundhogs just as much as the next guy, but dang, is that it? Couldn’t we jazz up the equinox with a little something besides large rodents and spring cleaning?

Yes, we could. And it’s called Scheibenschlagen.

Several weeks ago, some German friends invited me to join them at a Scheibenschlagen. I accepted, even though I had no idea what they were talking about. When the day arrived, we drove to a small town outside of Freiburg and hiked up a snowy hill.

At the top, I saw that the folks who had already arrived seemed to be roasting marshmallows over several large bonfires. On closer examination, however, I saw they were actually using their sticks to light the edges of small wooden discs.

This struck me, as I’m sure it does you, as odd. But this was only step one. After successfully setting their miniature frisbees ablaze, they walked over to a wooden board which seemed to be set up as a kind of launch ramp.

This, dear reader, is where the fun began.

Once they reached the ramp, the participants would start to swing their burning disc (the Scheibe) back and forth, until they finally whacked (schlagen) it against the board. This sent the flaming saucer soaring into the night sky, it’s quite literal burning ring of fire briefly illuminating the darkness beyond.

I immediately knew I had to do some scheibenschlaging of my own, and I was actually pretty good at it. The motion required to send the disc into the air was fairly similar to swinging a baseball bat (which, considering my less-than-impressive baseball skills, was more helpful than expected).  At the end of the night, I even tried my hand at the annual Scheibenschlagen competition. My luck quickly ran out against the more experienced Germans, but I did pretty well for a beginner.

Suffice it to say that I have a new favorite sport. This obscure southwest German pastime is basically like getting in some swings at the driving range, except instead of a golf ball, imagine sending a fiery discus into the stratosphere. My mind was blown.

I recently talked with Papa (my dad’s father) and told him about this life-altering experience. I suggested that I might do some Scheibenschlagen practice on his farm when I get back to the States. He suggested that I would do no such thing, but I’m hoping he’ll change his mind.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

 

More info on Scheibenschlagen can be found here.

Many thanks to the Zeuners for their kindness and hospitality. 

You don’t get any chances, so use them

“Sie bekommen keine Chancen, also nutzen Sie sie!”

The old man sitting across from me finished the sentence with a quiet chuckle.

“That’s an old GDR joke,” he explained, referring to the former communist nation of East Germany.

While I had not previously met Jürgen Runge, I already knew quite a bit about my new acquaintance.

Back in 1953, he had been a  chemistry student in the East German university town of Halle. But tests and lab practicals were the least of his worries.

He had also been the president of a protestant student congregation, and in that year the group’s pastor was arrested by the government’s secret police force. Runge, along with the other students that came to the pastor’s gatherings to listen and ask questions feared that they too might soon be thrown in jail.

I knew Runge’s story because I wrote my undergraduate history thesis on the East German government’s persecution of Christian student organizations, specifically focusing on the aforementioned congregation in Halle. In the course of my research, I had read some of Runge’s own writings about that time, and had even mentioned him in my thesis.

And now, at 87 years old, he was talking to me in person.

Runge never was arrested because of his role in the student congregation as he had feared. And after an imprisonment lasting several months, his pastor was released and returned to lead the group once more. But Runge’s Christian beliefs and his participation in church organizations cost him throughout his life. He went on to earn a PhD in Chemistry, but like many people of faith in the GDR, was relegated to jobs that were well below his qualifications. His children’s educational opportunities, like the children of many Christians, were stymied by the state.

Nevertheless, he continued as a church lay leader. Elected president of the regional protestant synod in 1984, he helped guide the church through the tumult of the late ‘80s, followed by German reunification in 1990.

By any measure, a review of Runge’s story in his old age reveals a life of consequence and meaning. But it was a story he told me about his younger years that, in the days following our conversation, has stayed with me the most.

As a youth, Runge had hardly any connection to church or faith.

His family wasn’t religious and didn’t go to church. But Runge says he started going as a teenager out of curiosity.

“Something that’s been around that long must have something to it,” he remembers thinking.

So he started going, and then got involved at his university’s campus ministry.

And he stayed. But it wasn’t the sermons, music, or activities that drew him in. It was that inside the church, unlike almost everywhere else in that authoritarian state, people could actually speak their minds. They could ask real questions. Not just about faith, but about morality, government, current events, or their hopes and fears. And, again, unlike almost everywhere else, they were accepted. Even if their opinions didn’t match the party orthodoxy (or church orthodoxy, for that matter).

Everyone was welcome. No matter who they were or what they believed.

And so, because of the persecuted East German church’s openness and acceptance, Jürgen Runge would serve it and its people for most of his life. Despite the hardships, opportunities, and worries that it would cost him.

Which reminds me of the previously mentioned joke that he told me offhand during our interview.

He wasn’t given any chances. In fact, a government that hoped for the death of faith actively tried to take away any chances he might have.

But he certainly did use them.

 

 

 

Note: Last week, I traveled to Halle to interview Dr. Runge and his contemporary, retired pastor and church superintendent Günter Buchenau. I wrote here about Runge because of my previous exposure to his story, but both men have spent most of their lives weathering storms of persecution and frustration while working to serve and support the church in East Germany. Like Dr. Runge, Pastor Buchenau did not grow up in a Christian family, but came to faith as a young man. He had also been impressed by the church’s welcoming, open environment. I’m deeply grateful to both men for assisting me in my research.

There are no spoons in Germany

Looking for a good way to stay humble? Let me make a suggestion: start learning a foreign language.

I’ve been studying German since 9th grade. Over the years I’ve had many amazing teachers, and because of their diligence and skill I am usually able to confidently communicate in the language. From time to time however, certain experiences remind me of how far I still have to go.

For example…

Several weeks ago I was in the student center at my dormitory in Marburg, ready to go about the task of consuming a delicious bowl of chocolate ice cream. I realized, however, that I lacked a utensil. I walked up to the counter and asked, in German, for a spoon.

Instead of handing me the requested item, the fellow gave me a slightly confused stare.

“We don’t have those here,” he finally replied in English.

This instantly triggered all my powers of intercultural deduction. Why was he saying they have no spoons here? As I saw it, there were only two possibilities:

1.      They actually have no spoons here.

Was this a cultural thing that I had just missed until now? Do Germans not use spoons? Now that I think about it, you can eat bread, sausage, and potatoes without spoons, so maybe they really don’t need them.

2.      I didn’t ask for a spoon and accidently said some other word.

No way. I’m 100% sure that the German word for spoon…starts with an “L.” Darn it. I definitely said some other word. But what?

“If you’re looking for a lion, you’re better off trying the zoo.”

Ah.

In my defense, the words for “spoon” and “lion” are a lot closer in German than they are in English. Löffel (spoon) vs. Löwe (lion).

But the fact remained: I had just asked for a lion in an eating establishment. I sheepishly clarified my request, took the spoon, and returned to my seat.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve made an embarrassing language mistake. It certainly won’t be the last. But maybe, just maybe, it will be the last time that I try to enjoy a bowl of ice cream and end up eating crow instead.

I’ll keep you updated.

The Germans locked me in a church

Greetings, everyone! Thanks for checking out my blog. I’ll be using this site to share some of my experiences here in Germany that I think friends and family might enjoy reading about. The first installment is below…

 

While in Marburg, I had the privilege of visiting and getting to know a wonderful church. They were incredibly generous and kind to me.

But they did lock me inside their building.

As you could probably guess, this little episode was an accident (I think).

Here’s how it happened:

I went to services and gatherings at the Evangelische Freikirche Marburg (Independent Protestant Church) for several weeks. This particular evening I was attending a Monday night worship service for young adults. This was the last church function I would have the chance to attend before moving to Freiburg, so I knew this was going to be goodbye.

The service and the gathering afterward were meaningful and enjoyable. As people started to leave, I tarried to speak with as many of my new friends as possible. When I was ready to go, I decided to first quickly use the church restroom. After doing so, I realized that the last few folks had left and locked up the building while I had been otherwise engaged.

My first thought was how fortunate I was that fire codes require doors in public buildings to be unlockable from the inside. Nothing to worry about.

If I had been in the U.S., the reassuring voice in my head telling me I wasn’t trapped inside a church at 9 pm might have been right. But it seems that German fire codes are a bit less stringent than their American cousins. I walked up to the church’s backdoor and pushed. And then pulled. Tried to find a knob to turn. Nothing worked.

I then began a systematic check of all other doors to the outside. All of them were locked.

At this point, I should have probably paused to ponder the theological significance of my predicament. Was this a sign? Was it punishment? Did the Almighty want me to derive some sort of meaning from all of this?

I hope not, because I didn’t. I just started looking for an unlocked window, which I found on my second try. I carefully hoisted myself over the sill and alighted gingerly on the ground below.

Freedom!

After looking around to make sure no one had seen what had just transpired (I was embarrassed and also didn’t want anyone calling the cops), I started walking home.

The moral of the story? The words of the Reverend Mother in “The Sound of Music” come to mind:

“When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.”

And thank goodness He did. That would have been a long night.

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