This is an edited extract from the Nordic Walking chapter of Make Me German. Which is why it begins in the middle and ends before the end. You can read the whole thing inside the book.
…As I was browsing the activities book at the hotel reception, while talking to the concierge about who makes the worst tourists.
“What tourists cause the most trouble at the Hotel? The English?” I asked.
“The Dutch, señor. They are so loud. Getting drunk all the time. The Germans complain about everything, sure, but they are okay. English people don’t really come here, it is too … how you say, tranquilo?”
There was nothing tranquilo about me when at that moment, I turned the page in the activities book to find an entire side devoted to Nordic Walking classes. “It says here that there is a 7am Nordic Walking session every Monday at the beach. Is that still happening?”
“It says that? Where?”
“It says it here,” I held the page up for him, “€5. One hour. 7am each Monday.”
“Well, if it says it there,” he shrugged dismissively, returning to his PC. I could see that he was Facebooking.
Unfortunately, it was 10pm on Sunday night and the reservation hotline number said weekdays, 9-6pm. I called it anyway, on the off chance.
“Hola,” a deep, male voice answered.
“Hello. I’m sorry to call you so late. Oh, err, can you speak English?”
“Yes. English. Kein Problem,” he suddenly sounded less Spanish.
“I was just reading in the activity book of my hotel that you do Nordic Walking at 7am on Mondays?”
“Nordic walking,” I confirmed.
“Nordic walking? Hmm…” he then shouted to someone behind him, “there’s someone here asking about Nordic Walking?”
“Was?” a woman’s voice answered, auf Deutsch.
“Nordic walking!” he repeated.
“Nordic walking?” she said it like she was hearing the word for the first time. Obviously this was not a regularly booked activity, at least not at 10pm on a Sunday night.
A woman came on the line. “Hello. You are interested in Nordic Walking?”
“Yes,” I said. “That seems to be the rumour. It says in the book that you do a 7am Nordic Walking session?”
“7am?!?!” She said it like she was hearing the number for the first time.
“Yes. That’s what it says here in the book.” I read out the whole ad from start to finish.
“Well, if it says it there.”
My belief that a) she had written the ad and, or, b) I had dialled the right number reached zero.
“Are you running this class tomorrow morning? I would like to take part.”
“I see. How many are you?” she asked.
“I’m one.” That sounded weirdly esoteric, “I mean…it’s just me.” I corrected. I could almost hear her mental calculations, balancing a lay-in against €5 and deciding it was not worth it.
“I love Nordic Walking. It is how you say? My big hobby. So it is okay for me. But if you are really just you – maybe we can do it later?”
“Perfect. Yes. Later would be better for me as well. 10am?”
“It really just costs €5?” It seemed extremely cheap. “It hardly seems worth an hour of your time, to just earn €5.”
“Yes. But luckily this is not my, how you say – primary income? I love Nordic walking, I go every day for body conditioning. So if you want to come and join that’s no problem for me.”
“Well, if it’s at 10am my girlfriend will also join, so that’s €10.”
“Hoopla! I’m rich. See you at 10am.” That was that. We were going Nordic Walking.
At 10am, we were enthusiastically greeted in our hotel lobby by an eccentric Austrian woman named Nora and her German partner, Wilfried. Wearing a Barcelona shirt, he had his hat on backwards in a style popular in the 1990s, goggle style wrap-around glasses usually popular with scientists, and pilots called Biggles, all in all, he gave off the curious aura of a fifteen year old inexplicably transported in the body of a fifty year old, and trying to make the best of it.
Our instructor, Nora, was a similar age, with two thick black braided pigtails, dressed from head to toe in fitted sportswear, with a special sort of wrap around sport corset to keep her back straight and her stomach in, a stomach that she told us had swollen slightly since she’d opened a cooking school nearby. Despite agreeing that we could talk German, she addressed Annett in German, and me always in a enthusiastic hybrid mix of both English and German. English where she knew the words, German where she didn’t, or where she simply forgot she had intended to talk English. A mix that could only be described as very anstrengend.
“So here we have the Poles,” she said, handed us our poles. “Not the people. Ha! The Walking Poles. Now most people they are making the Nordic walking very falsch. The poles should be facing rückwärts,” here she made an exaggerated backwards motion with her own pole, than fully clarified the notion of rückwärts. If you’re in any doubts, I can confirm that rückwärts is indeed the opposite of vorwärts.
“Yes, rückwärts,” she said confirming we were both making the right rückwärts motion with our poles. Then they come before your body just a little, 20 Zentimeter maximal. Now the most important motion, no that’s the wrong word in English, sorry, movement, movement not motion.”
“Motion is also correct,” I informed her.
“Oh? Is it? The most important movement is the Überkreuz. The legs must überkreuzen.” She began demonstrating, überkreuzing on the spot, with her two poles balanced across a shoulder, like a soldier’s rifle.
“Annett, what is Überkreuz auf Englisch?” she asked.
“Yes, cross over. So we take the legs and we überkreuz.”
“So, poles facing rückwärts, legs überkreuz and we go. It is kompliziert, yes? Normally you see the old people, they are doing it wrong. They put the sticks just in front and they tap, tap, tap.” With this she hunched over and mimicked an elderly person hobbling and tap, tap, tapping down the road outside the hotel. “This is okay, but it is no body conditioning.”
“All this time, I thought Nordic Walking was just walking plus poles?” I said.
“No. Everybody is thinking this,” with this came an exaggerated shake of the head. Everything she did took on this curious exaggerated quality. Like normal human expression but afforded a more generous, theatrical budget.
“It is not. Nein. It is a different Art to walking. It is more like skiing. You have the same motions like skiing. No, not motion, movement.”
“Motion is also correct,” I said.
“Oh? Yes, you have the same movements, yes? You see. Arms back, legs überkreuz and you glide. See? Glide,” she said as she disappeared down the road gliding and überkeuzing like her life depended upon it. Which it might have. Possibly she was actually ninety seven, but all the body condition and überkreuzing that given her the look of a fifty year old.
“See? Glide… Now you try.”
This is an edited extract from the Introductory chapter of Make Me German. Which is why it begins in the middle and ends before the end. You can read the whole thing inside the book.
…If you live in one place for a long time, as I had in England, you are constantly surrounded by people that speak your language and share your culture, so it’s easy to forget how special it is. You see only its flaws and minor inconveniences. Or perhaps even worse, you think that the way you do things there is the right way. That there are normal people, and strange people, and fortunately enough, as chance would have it, you were born into the normal tribe, and all those other people over there, from other places, foreign places, with their strange cultures and languages and dress – those people are the strange ones.
Then, suddenly, you’re somewhere else with a completely different idea of normal. You’re dumped into situations where you no longer know the default way to do things. Where you are no longer a master of language, a genius of local geography, an expert on the mating customs of your nearby tribe. In the face of millions of people doing and thinking things differently to you, it’s only logical to conclude that maybe, there might also be something to their method? That your normal is actually just what you are used to. While it has become your magnetic north, the reference point to which everything else is aligned; it is nothing more than that. To these other people, your strange and often primitive ways and beliefs are south-south west.
Over time, you replace words like normal, strange, right and wrong, with just different. This is not the only thing you learn. As you try and fail to complete even the simplest of tasks – buying toothpaste at the supermarket, telling the taxi driver where you want to go, ordering that burger, only without the pickles. You realise that while you left to reinvent yourself, the first thing you actually became is a complete child. A time when curiosity and ignorance went hand in hand.
It’s magical. No, really! You get a few more golden years of happy, care-free ignorance in a Disneyland of foreign novelty, as sponsored by other people’s culture.
The great thing about children is how they are excited by everything. Something as simple as a puddle can give them pure, unrestrained existential delight. There’s no special reason that adults lose this sense of simple joy, other than the specialness of puddles gradually gets bludgeoned out of us by endless puddle repetition. Now, when I look down at a puddle, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a puddle. In fact, it’s probably about the seven millionth time I’ve seen a puddle. I might have been more excited six-million-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine-thousand times ago. By now, I don’t even see the puddle. I see the puddle’s effect on my responsibilities. I see wet socks. I see the end of summer. I see old age.
Which is why everyone needs to move abroad! You see, expats get to experience a unique phenomenon, called Foreigner Vision. This is like a magic pair of glasses, which we wear each day of our foreign existence. Through its special lenses, we get to peer out at a more interesting, colourful and exotic world. A foreign world. That’s not a puddle, it’s a foreign puddle. Full of special foreign water. Filling an exotic foreign crevice of an interesting foreign street. Stepping in it is not just a mild, soggy inconvenience – it’s an adventure!
As well as the world being slightly more interesting to you from the inside-out, it’s also possible that the world might be a bit more interested in you from the outside-in. Just like children are given special treatment to speak their minds freely, so will you be. After all, you’re no longer just an ordinary Belgian or German or Englishman in a rather cramped pool of millions of others. You have something new to offer the people of your adopted nation.
Now you’re exotic, like a mango.
Suddenly your boring family memories can be retold to your new friends as sprawling cultural exposés. Your simple pub stories can become great, enchanting fables from a romantic, distant land. Indeed, any mundane, seemingly “everyday” detail from your old life might be exciting to someone who doesn’t know it. Soon, you might find yourself enthusiastically recounting the story of Marmite like it’s .
But then, over time, your relationship to your adopted nation begins to change. Before you prided yourself on your outsider status. On your ability to not understand what was happening around you. You enjoy not being able to eavesdrop on the people on the table next to you. Not being distracted by the meaning of the T-Mobile advert on the billboard in your street. Not having to be outraged at the latest political scandal. You have a lot of quiet, you time.
But as the years roll by, you slowly begin integrating, first by learning the language, then by become an increasingly important person in the lives of your partner, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Suddenly, without even noticing, you find that when your partner’s Grandma phones, you are expected to talk to her, even just to say a few broken words in your adopted language. The longer you stay in your new nation, the less feasible it seems that one day you might leave. The more you begin to understand about the country you now call home, the more you realise you still don’t know and for the first time this irritates you. You may understand all the specific individual words in the sentence of the in-jokes of your new friends, but not the cultural references that live within them. Slowly, you’re no longer defining yourself by your outsiderness, because you now want to be an insider, one of them…
This is an edited extract from the Schlager chapter of Make Me German. Which is why it begins in the middle and ends before the end. You can read the whole thing inside the book.
…“I think Schlager works because Germans listen to everything else in English,” Fred began, “Schlager lets you listen to German music. But it doesn’t have to compete directly with English music, because it’s its own unique thing, with its own rules.”
“Ok. What is that unique thing?” I asked, picking up a guitar that was laying by my feet. I put it in the official guitar-playing-position on my lap. Fred looked on, now expecting me to play it. Which was a reasonable assumption. However, looking down at it, I was reminded again that I have no idea how. Fred looked on. I plucked at a string or two, nervously.
“I’ll just put that back then,” I said, returning the guitar to the floor.
“What was I talking about?” asked Fred. “Why Schlager works? Right. Well. It’s about feeling content and rooted to where you come from, where everything is okay and the world is no longer big and scary. That works best in your native language.”
“Oh,” he added “it must also have a 4/4 beat.”
“What’s a 4/4 beat?”
“It’s a unit of time, four bars. In that time period a different number of beats can occur. With Schlager, it’s always a four over four beat. It’s that thumping constant in the background, usually a kick drum.”
And with that he began clapping, with a big fake grin on his face. Well, unless he really likes clapping. “It’s 1,2,3,4 – 1,2,3,4 and we’re clapping and we’re happy and everyone knows what’s coming, yep, again, 1,2,3,4 – 1,2,3,4. You try.”
He was right. You did know exactly when to come in. I did my best to do it wrong, but you couldn’t. You could veer just slightly out of time, only for the beat to find you again and gently right you back into time. There we were, two men in a bedio, clapping to the beat of non-existent Schlager.
“I dare you,” he said, over our claps, “to find me a Schlager song that doesn’t have it.”
“Please don’t,” I said, still clapping, “2-3-4, dare me to do things 3-4, Fred. It’s how I ended up here in the first place, 2-3-4. Can we stop clapping now?”
“Yes,” he said, dropping his hands to his lap.
“How realistic do you think it is that we can create a convincing Schlager song?”
“Can you sing?” he asked.
“Ha!” I laughed, “Can pigs fly?”
“No. How is that relevant?”
“It’s an English … forget it. No. I can’t sing.”
“Then, that could be the problem. But we’ll worry about that later,” he said, turning back to his computer screen, and arranging different documents next to each other. I moved over next to him and saw that they were lyrics to different songs.
“What I’ve done, is create a Schlager blueprint. It’s based on the work of the world’s finest Schlager performer.”
“Helene Fischer?” I guessed.
“No,” he laughed, “She wouldn’t be fit to kiss this guys feet.”
“I would, assuming I knew any other Schlager singers.”
“Dj Ötzi!” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Who the fuck is Dj Ötzi?” I asked.
“Oooh, that could be a Dj Ötzi song,” and with this he began singing “Ötzi…Ötzi…who the fuck is Ötzi? La la la la, D-J-Ö-T-Z-EEEE-Y” to the tune of Who the X is Alice.
“He’s a God,” continued Fred, “a Schlager God. No-one has worked as tireless to prove how simple Schlager is to pen and produce than Austrian hit machine Dj Ötzi.”
With this, Fred’s speakers burst into life, making me jump in my chair, by emitting what I now know to be a 4/4 beat, over which came a succession of vaguely tuneful oooh’s, aaaah’s, and baby’s.
This was Dj Ötzi’s seminal masterwork “Hey Baby”. Everyone in the entire world knows this song and everyone over the age of eight hates it, yet would be stuck singing it for days should they accidentally hear it somewhere. It burrows itself deep into your brain.
We began dissecting three Dj Ötzi hits, the lyrics to which Fred had put side by side on the screen.
“Do you see any similarities?” he asked.
“I see a lot of ooh’s, and aah’s and not many, you know, words.”
“Exactly. Words are cheap.”
“Why do you people keep…” I said, before being interrupted.
“–It’s all chorus. I know people throw around phrases like ‘it couldn’t be simpler’, but really, Dj Ötzi proves it couldn’t be simpler.”
“Maybe that’s why I get tired of Schlager so fast. It’s all sugar, right? With Schlager it’s all super sweet chorus. It’s not a balanced musical diet.”
“Yeah, it’s mostly empty calories. You get full, but there’s little actual nourishment.”
“So, what’s our song going to be about?” I asked.
“Well, you’re the guy who writes nice things about Germany, right?”
“Germans are desperate for that moment when they can sing patriotically about Germany again. For a big sing-along Deutsch-land, Deutsch-land. But they’re not allowed to do it.”
“As a foreigner I’m allowed to,” I said.
It was exhilarating, just diving in like this, but then if you stopped for even a second to read back any of the lyrics, also equal parts horrifying. Once we’d written a bunch of them down in our document, Fred focused exclusively on the music. I just tried to stay quiet, so as not to disturb him in the vaguely trance like state he entered. He’d pop up on the keyboard, play a few keys, sing the chorus, shake his head, dart across to the accordion, play a few bars, nod, return to the computer, whistle, do something with his music app and then repeat.
Slowly, over an hour, he layered all the little bits of musical something into what would become the basis of our song. He came out of his mini trance by chucking me a headset and microphone. “It’s time.”
“Really? Time to lay down vocals,” I said.
“Easy now, Kanye.”
Once we started singing, it became abundantly clear that I can’t.
“No. It’s Apfelschor–la, up at the end.” said Fred interrupting me, “la-la-la-la-la-la-la, it’s a higher note.”
“Okay. La la la la, up at the end.” I repeated.
There were high notes and low notes? Who knew? The only notes I ever received were angry and written by Annett. Music was a fascinating new world for me.
Eventually, after a few hours, Fred compiled it all into a rough cut. Rough cut. More great musician vocabulary. So far, my favourite part of the whole project.
“Are you ready?” Fred asked, finger hovering over the play button.
The first pre-Ötzi version
The 4/4 beat crashed in, the pretend crowd began cheering, the intro was building and then, finally, after thirty seconds of build-up, we heard ourselves sing. We both shuddered. It sounded like someone was kicking a swan to death. It was clear this was not the vocal work of consummate professionals.
“We sound totally baritone, Fred,” I said, with authority.
His brow furrowed. “Do you mean monotone, maybe?”
“Yeah, that as well.”
After the song finished, he looked at me nervously for a response, I looked to the ceiling, pretending I was carefully mulling it over.
“So what do you think?” he said, when the silence got too much.
I leapt up and hugged him, grinning like a maniac. “Fred, you big, handsome genius! I love it. It’s obviously Schlager, but you’ve also added a bit of a Ska type vibe, it’s its own awesome thing. You’ve invented your own genre! Fredlager! It’s definitely way better than I imagined.”
The music was perfect. Maybe that was the problem, it was too perfect. The vocals, in comparison, were one very unmelodic man and his eccentric German friend. Fred then began doing his best to tune us (me), and we discovered firsthand the limits of his software, when he exceeded them, and his entire computer crashed.
Before the final recording session, I played the rough cut to just about anyone who would listen. Mostly, they responded enthusiastically. As the long intro built, and the cheering grew, they’d usually already be clicking, or tapping a foot. The instrumentation worked. Then, after thirty seconds, I’d hear the vocals kick in, and see their face contort in pain, like something really heavy had just fallen on their foot.
The problem was obvious. I was the problem.
We decided we had to start again. “It’s just not right” Fred said as I arrived at the bedio, pacing around the room, scratching his head.
“What’s not right?”
“All of it. I’ve had an epiphany. Everything we did last time is wrong. The lyrics are too clever, there are too many words, too many verses. It’s like someone inappropriately molested Schlager.”
“There are a lot of words, I’ll give you that. But words are not cheap. Ours are funny. Can we kick out a few per line and try it again?” I said.
“That’s not going to be enough. We wanted to make Schlager. That was your brief. Proper, trashy, sing-along Schlager. What we have is too safe. It’s flat.”
“So, now what?”
“Back to basics. We need to channel our inner DJ Ötzi’s. What would He do?”
“Kick out 70% of the words and replace them with ooh’s and aah’s?”
“Exactly,” said Fred, nodding. “We must trust our master. We must follow His way.”
“I don’t know, isn’t it kind of cheap just to rip off his style?”
“No, it’s Schlager. Schlager is not about originality. That’s the problem. We tried to make music, when we should have been making Schlager.”
“Your problem,” began Fred, handing me my microphone, “is that you’re playing too safe, too controlled. That’s why your vocals are so bad, they’re flat, you’ve got to let yourself go, you’ve got to dare.”
“How do I do that?” I asked.
”Watch this,” with that, he turned to his computer and played a YouTube video of some Schlager singer from the 70s. “Hear that thing he does with his voice? The kind of ooh and aaah, the way he over-pronounces the last syllable of each word?”
“Yeah, he really makes love to those words.”
“Exactly,” said Fred, nodding. “Make love to our words, Adam. Imagine you’re on stage. Work the crowd, really give them something.” With that, he opened his hands out to an imaginary, adoring audience.
I sang, louder and as with as little reservation as a reserved me allowed – “I’m going to really give the people somethin-ah, there’s gunn-ah really like my somethin-ah, YEEEEAAAHHH.”
“That’s it,” said Fred, bringing his hands together, “Okay, we’re ready.”
Last time we sang sitting down. We’d cue the music up almost line-by-line, sing, playback, practice, cue up again, repeat. This time we both stood up, so we could move around and really open our diaphragms (Fred told me this word, I misheard and thought he was going to open a diagram). We also sang the whole song from start to finish, then looped it and sang the whole thing again. It was like a real duet. We danced, we looked at each other, there was even one moment when I contributed some instrumentation, by playing air guitar. Finally I’d found an instrument I could actually play.
The imaginary crowd were treated to the gig of their imaginary lives.
One hour, and many repetitions later, we collapsed back onto that couch, completely hoarse and feeling sorry for Fred’s neighbours, who’d been subjected to nearly a full hour of high intensity off-key oohh’s and aaah’s (which now comprised 50% of the song’s lyrics).
But then Fred played the new song for the first time. The music was mostly the same, just with a few instruments removed.
The final post-Ötzi version
“Great riff,” I said, nodded my head to the beat.
“Thanks,” said Fred. “But that’s not a riff.”
“Oh.” …Find out what happens next and at the song’s unveiling, in the book.