Monday, August 25, 2008

Medieval In Marburg

I have wonderful memories of the Ohio Renaissance festival. Every year I looked forward to the Mud Men in the Theater in the Ground, The Swordsmen, The Joust, British accents of mixed quality and a smoked turkey leg the size of a maraca. But the whole event seemed a little odd to me once I learned a thing or two about history and saw a few too many historical epics.

The amorphous time period bugged me a little. Queen Elizabeth paraded around with tenth century Norsemen and nineteenth century pirates. I understand it was all fantasy. I mean, the town was set up in an Ohio cornfield. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth that chunk of land was home to the Shawnee and Iroquois not bawdy washer-women and jugglers. I also feel Renaissance festivals have an unrealistically low leper and plague victim population. These aren't observations meant to ruin the great time everyone has at the Festival but they have made me wonder if Europeans 1) even have Renaissance festivals and 2) if they do, how accurate is the historical presentation in a world where castles from the sixteenth century line the Autobahn and old stuff maybe doesn't seem that rare or even that cool.

So, you can imagine my excitement and interest when I first saw signs for "Mittenalder Markt" or "Medival Market" in Marburg. They apparently have Medieval Fairs. This could be legit. Marburgers have a town square where they used to hang people! How cool is that? (Note: I realize it would not be cool for the people being hung, or for anyone who objects to capital punishment, like myself. But it is cool in an Oh-My-Gosh-This-Place-Has-Been-Around-Forever kind of way. Glad I clarified before you judged.)

The clocktower overlooking the Marketplatz where justice was handed down for a few dozen centuries in Marburg.

Saturday a group of us traipsed down our hill from the dorms and up to the castle to investigate Medival history in a place that can actually claim it. By the way, the walk up and down the hills of Marburg guarantees every Fulbrighter will leave with a healthy cardio-vascular system and thighs of steel (or at least two heart attacks).

I could tell we were getting closer because a steady stream of children with wooden swords and adults in chain mail were flowing past us. As I explained before, I am used to the festival being a huge production, but the scale of the event was more on par with the Ohio State University Faire. That's not to imply it wasn't a blast, even if I did a lot of smiling and nodding and not a lot of bantering in a British Accent.

We arrived as a children's performance was underway. Three grown men making fools of themselves while kids dressed as knights charged them and proudly swore their oath of honor to an eight-year-old queen. It's a living. Because it was a live performance there was plenty of annunciation and simple words for the little people in the audience. I felt like I should be sitting with the kids, giggling uproariously. Truth be told, the kids probably picked up on infinitely more layers of German comedic subtlety then I ever will. Bummer.

The juggling and pantomime were also right up my alley. You don't need someone to explain juggling six objects is tough and balancing a torch on your chin is risky. Somehow, I got that. Yeah, context clues. We also learned a great Medieval-sounding tune called "Terra Hossa."

Terra hossa! Terra Hossa! Ja Ja Ja, Hurrah! Terra Hossa!

It sticks in your brain, and I was humming it a bit today. If you want to know the tune, get a little tipsy and try adding a melody to the words and it will be 85% correct. After the jugglers taught everyone the song, they started asking where everyone was from, trying to call out the most distant travelers. People were yelling "Giessen!" "Frankfurt!" but none of the Americans piped up. We were all a worried we might get called up or forced to banter in broken Deutsch, and there is nothing more humiliating than a public Deutsch-slapping. So we pretended Berlin was a fer piece to travel to see the Marburg Mittealder Markt and Cincinnati a quaint burrow somewhere north of Aachen.

There was something comforting in knowing the demographic at Medieval Fairs in Europe and the U.S. cater to similar crowds. There were plenty of kids that looked like avid Magic the Gathering fans (I know the type, I was once a player myself.), and trendy Goths that fused several centuries and cultures into their tattoos, body piercings and gaudy leather bow-ties. There were also people dressed in dead animals and full armor who just seemed like visitors. I guess when you own a few halberds, you really need to seek out opportunities to show them off.

And, of course, there were plenty of families wandering around with Junior waving a wooden ax while Dad chowed down on a Speckstick (bacon kebab) and Mead. While there were no turkey legs, there was plenty of food and beer to go around. I guess when you really think about it, there weren't that many dining options available in Medieval Marburg, anyway.

So, how authentic was the experience? I can confidently say that I saw no ninjas or pirates. Everyone seemed to have a sense of when the Dark Ages went down and they dressed (and ate) accordingly. But it was still a fanciful take on the period. There were more fairies than lepers and more highlanders than monks. But it's a good time. Why ruin it with plague rats and religious oppression?

Huzzah! Terra hossa, terra hossa...

Also of note this weekend was the Fulbright pub crawl. Klaas, our guide to all things German took us through the city, showing us the trendy club-ish bars and the seedy local pubs. I only mention this because I genuinely feel beer and where it is imbibed in Germany are key to understanding the people and Germany's history...or something like that. One of the beverages I sampled is called "Bananaweissen." The name intrigued me, but I was hesitant. The last time I tried something for its name (Tunafischpizza) I found myself with dry tuna and hard boiled eggs on a chunk of bread. But I went against my instincts and ordered the thing. It's on the menu, so people must like the stuff.

I am here to tell you that I am one of those people. Banana juice mixed with wheat beer is wonderful. Don't knock it 'til you try it. It's very a-peeling and once I started I just couldn't split (I had to. I tried to resist the temptation, but obviously failed). We ended the night at a bar affectionately known as "The Dungeon." It's just off the old Marktplatz where the glockenspiel rings out the time with a rooster and herald. You enter a dark green door and descend into what must have been a thirteenth century wine cellar. The lighting is mostly supplied by candles and you need to stoop through a stone archway to get to the seating area. It was my kind of joint. It became even better when I noticed a large picture of Statler and Waldorf, the old Hecklers from The Muppet Show, hanging on the wall behind the bartender. Below the portrait is a mini bar with two stools and red velvet trim, just like the opera box the Hecklers hang out in. I will sit behind the bar and heckle the wait staff if it's the last thing I do in Marburg (and it may be. I don't know how long an obnoxious American could survive in a cramped dungeon while hurling insults at anyone within range).

"Whadda ya call a bitter German? A Sour Kraut! Doh, ho ho ho!"

"You'll take Gross Pils? Fill out twelve forms and wait about six months for your socialized medical professional to notice you exist! Then maybe you'll get some gross pills! Doh, ho ho ho ho"

Note: A Grosse Pils would be a large Pilsner. Also, note that this is not a completely fair comment about socialized medicine. Finally, note that it really isn't a very funny joke in the first place and clearly demonstrates why I need to build up some material before sliding into the red velvet booth.

I hope your weekend was delightful even if it mostly centered on the 21st century and didn't involve Banana beer or the Muppets.


Deutsch Heutewort: vogel (masculine) - Bird

Es ist einen Vogel! Es ist ein Flugzeug! Es ist...Superman! Hammer!
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's...Superman! Awesome!


Anonymous said...

To be honest, I feel so much better about the Ohio Renaissance Festival. Who knew that a corn field right next to a flea market and butter Jesus could produce a festival, that despite a few misplaced time periods, is similar to a European version. After all, they have a head start: They have a really castle and don't need to make it out of plywood and paint from Home Depot. I'm glad you enjoyed yourself and I can't wait to chat with you in German!

Carolyn said...

Although German beer snobs might look down on your appreciation for Bananaweissen, the German exchange student whom I met recently assured me that it's acceptable to order a mixed beer drink. Although she prefers a solid German dark beer, she finds beer and Coke to be particularly delicious and refreshing on hot days.

KMTK2001 said...

What a classy joint!!!! Statler and Waldorf on the wall!!! - So wonderful that their spirit lives on ........

(we are having a ball reading these)

Michael said...

Haha, I appreciate how PC you are being with your jokes. I think some European conscientiousness is rubbing off on you :)

Mama B said...

Despite your lack of Deutsch, look how well prepared you are for life in Marburg! Your renaissance experiences. Your sense of the absurd. Your bravery of palate. Your Muppet literacy...

Matthew said...

Grendel, Grendel, Woo-Hoo!
Grendel, Grendel, Woo-Hoo!

It's funny, Skiz and I were just talking about how much I enjoy the Mudmen from RenFest.

Matt, I'm reading all of your entries and am living vicariously through them. So think before you write something like, "..and then I stumbled into a dragon lair and was devoured messily and all fire-y," since I would experience that unpleasant (and cool!) experience as well.

Oh, and if you have time to waste time on the internet-time place, then spend that time watching "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog" which is from Joss Whedon. Have a good time!