A friend whose hair, I think it’s fair to say, is receding faster than mine, has sent me a link for an Australian TV commercial that promises the wonders of “German engineering, for your hair”. A car could be a shoebox on wheels but with German engineering will purr like a pussy cat — years of exposure to television advertising has taught us that. But German hair?
Something called “caffeine shampoo” that comes from an aerodynamic red-cap bottle purports to carry the secret of an eternal head-covering for men. The original version, going by YouTube, is English, and shows a suddenly caffeine-energised red hair pushing along a white background, like a sunburnt worm spiralling through a snowstorm. Well, if the Brits are dopey enough to vote for Brexit (delisting 60% of exports and blaming foreigners for it), they’re silly enough to still be making ads with guys in white lab coats talking animatedly about a computer graphic.
But I am susceptible. At 52, though my birthday was only recently, I have deplumed at the crown to the point of sporting what most of Sydney now calls, I’m told, a “mosquito launching pad”, which, in my case, qualifies as cute humour because you could stand a tray of drinks on it.
When I moved to Munich from Paris three years ago, the most important thing for me was to attend the Oktoberfest: 10 days of drinking cold beer, with 6 million others, direct from glasses big like milk tankards. Second was to get myself a top-line BMW.
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Like degustation of the finest wine when in France, high in the expat male mind upon moving to Munich is that “Beemers” are made here. “A beautiful car, but is it really better than its rivals, though certainly more expensive?” cautioned a French friend who has recently converted — from Peugeot to Renault. “It’s merely a symbol of success,” he said, which, naturally, is why I want to see myself driving the streets of the Bavarian capital in one of these babies, the slightly receding but otherwise elegantly ageing virile type.
Cruelly, my wife punctured my Luftballon by heartlessly pointing out that we can’t actually afford a “what, Series 5?” (self-parking 7, she meant), what with the Paris mortgage; rent in Munich; school fees; my Irish “sinking fund” and — oh all right! — the additional financial drain of my laboratory hair-replacement program.
But Germany’s flair for engineering and building stuff has manifested itself in ways I didn’t expect. I shuddered at the news that a lift was to be installed in our building and that there might be, as Gert the elderly neighbour explained it, “some disruption”. Well, the works in progress were tidier than the kids’ room. The lift-builders, all dressed the same, put multi-sided metal bits in neat piles behind a little rope at the end of the day.
I came home one afternoon to find Gert (still with all his hair) standing po-faced among the workers. “We have struck water”, he told me. Over his shoulder, at the bottom of a seemingly interminable mine shaft, I could see a guy thigh-deep in swishing water, a flash light on his helmet. I imagined hearing the slow yawing of bending metal for weeks afterwards, like the crashed plane parts floating in the sea when Tom Hanks goes down in Castaway but miraculously survives four years alone on an island chomping into raw fish and drinking coconut milk. But really, almost nichts (“nothing” — I’m taking lessons). The water problem was fixed; the lift just went in, all glass and light metal. I can tell you, the experience really marked me.
I can’t claim to be exactly handy but it never mattered before I moved to Munich after a long stint in Paris. Some of my best friends are jazz musicians, notoriously unhandy as a rule — one, I recall, as good as ruined a door trying to change a lock. My German landlord, a big Bavarian with a bouffant who speaks American English like a native (though loudly), put up a bedroom blind when we first moved in — this is true, Mr Trump — in about nine seconds, to the astonishment of my wife. (When I read her draft excerpts of this text she said, “that’s rubbish. It was 90 seconds”).
Admirably on a later visit, he tried to hide his irritation (in psychology I think it’s called “rechannelling”) when, after a long lesson, I still could not “do the hoses” to re-fire the hot water system when rising pressure cut it out. This he did by telling me he had greatly amused a group of dinner guests explaining that he had a new Australian tenant who was not handy. They had all seen the Crocodile Dundee movies, so assumed I could — I’m paraphrasing — open a can of white beans with a long knife. I could see in my mind’s eye his big frame bent double over the table, dinner guests laughing like hyenas at tales of the new Oz tenant — useful around the house like a farting old dog.
Engineering, building and fixing stuff I’ve come to think, is linked to good civic behaviour — what the French refer to as civicisme, without always indulging it. In Munich they recycle a tout va, at the local swimming pool via a quite complex system of colour-coded bins (like the markedly less efficient red, green and yellow boxes of world trade negotiations). And how’s this for a statement of state-directed purpose? The Isar, the river that flows through the centre of the city — like the Yarra, Thames or Seine — was depolluted and cleaned up about 10 years ago so that vast numbers of locals now swim along its white-stoned banks in summer, hardly a broken beer bottle in sight. And this from a region with some 40 beers types, 627 breweries and more than 4000 beer brands. Perhaps it’s in these little ways, and not the grand gestures, that a city shows its true colours? A city that had the heart and soul but crucially also the organisational talent, to welcome 20,000 refugees in a weekend at the top of the European migrant crisis in September 2015.
At the newsagency across the street, I can leave a set of keys. The ground-floor hairdresser takes parcel deliveries for everybody in the building. Less appealing is that one is expected to do the same. Meaning that if you answer your inter-phone to the postman, Amazon or any other brand of brochure, brush or broom peddler, he’s on the way up. No matter that his delivery, for which you must sign, is for neighbours unknown to you — or for young David across the hall, and his Iranian wife Sarah, who knocks at the door with saffron soup on special days, the significance of which she explains, but who otherwise we never see.
Other little boxes can be found at the mouth of the Metro. These are newspaper dispensers. You lift the plastic lid, put in the coins, and take a copy, feeling like a pleasantly upright Muenicher. Once I was short 20 cents and felt wracked with guilt at helping myself, anyway. I returned to pay up later. It flashed through my mind relaying the fact of these things to my French mate, to stop by late at night in his new Renault and pick up a couple, for my front door or to position neatly in a corner of the living room, so that party guests might help themselves to a free paper when they visit.
Flushed by modern Munich’s sense of the collective, the good Samaritan spirit, I took to turning in my chair when first here to talk to the locals in beer halls and cafes in basic German — or hell, in English. My entreaties would fall on deaf ears. There’s little or no eye contact in Munich, especially with the opposite sex. You can walk along a viaduct in Paris, see a beautiful woman in the street 20 metres below and she will, as if wearing ball-shoes, spin around in a second to spot you looking. I always feel embarrassed. The eternal guilt of the 1980s-reconstructed, feminist Anglo-Saxon male. Looking dishevelled. No German engineering in the hair.
Mark Twain wrote a famous essay about the confusion inherent in “the girl” being the neutral “das” Maedchen in German, but that’s nothing. Much harder is the second verb at the end of the phrase (“I wish I could do it”, becomes, “I wish that I it do could” — and which “could”?) Well, try that fast after a few litres of beer at the Oktoberfest. But Twain was right about the fiendishly hard road to mastering the four cases, which change word-endings. So “a problem” with the hot water system would be “das Problem”, but more than one would be “die Probleme”, while with (all) these problems “mit diesen Problemen”, you’d rather just be back at the office, or trying to put a bedroom blind up against the clock.
*Richard Ogier is an Australian journalist and consultant in Munich