or, Yes Fulbright, I went to a German Frat Party, but it was all for the new cultural experience
I started packing two weeks ago. I loaded books, papers, and pamphlets into DHL boxes and sent them home ahead of me. This left my bookshelf and desk an empty expanse of sterile space. Nothing agitates me like an empty book shelf and now I’m living with eight. On Friday I started the second stage of packing. Because I’m flying from Dublin to Frankfurt, then turning around the next day and flying to Ohio, I asked Katie, a Fulbrighter in Frankfurt, to hang onto my extra bags while I’m in Ireland. Saturday she would pop up to Bonn to collect my luggage, meaning I had to pack everything for Ireland on Friday and squirrel the rest of it away in bags that will sit dormant for the next three weeks in her dorm.
Down came my decorative pictures of famous German buildings. Down came the maps of Europe (gifts from Aunt Karen and Uncle Troy before I left). My room is blank, all dusty white walls and clothing. My return feels starkly real.
I picked up Katie from the train station and stashed my non-Irish luggage in a locker so we could briefly explore the city. She’s staying until the end of August, but has several friends who are headed home and she wanted to squeeze in parties Friday night and Saturday night, so she only had the afternoon tour to the former western capital. Because of a late night celebrating, she didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before and didn’t have time to grab breakfast before boarding the train. This building hunger becomes key to the following story:
I lead the way past Beethoven’s statue and the disturbing, massive heads of Bonn’s favorite martyrs to the beer garden on the banks of the Rhine.
As soon as we were seated, a waitress wandered over to take our orders. Our Kölsch quickly appeared and we could share stories of the 4th of July, her travels in Scandinavia, and my frequent sojourns to Belgium with mugs of the local brew. We also had the opportunity to watch the towering sycamore, which provides the entire garden with shade, rain slabs of bark on the tables and strollers of unsuspecting patrons.
In fact we got to chat and watch bark for an inordinate amount of time since our pizza refused to make an appearance. Like good, acculturated Germans we just assumed the proprietors were encouraging us to linger over conversation and not rush to the entrée and out the door. After forty-five minutes and a finished glass of beer, our hunger brought our American service expectations raging to the fore. Where the hell was our food? Honestly, it’s just pizza! We tried to catch our waitress’s eye, but she never glanced our way. We tried a polite “Entschuldigung.” Nothing.
Finally I was up and caught her carrying a tray between the tables. “Uh, ist unser Pizza…” “It will be out immediately.” This second part was in English with a perfect German clip on the end of the sentence. I was sent scurrying like a shameful kinder. Our food arrived after a few more minutes. Sweet relief. Sated, I lead a tour of the main campus buildings i.e. the University’s castles. In desperate need of a bathroom we dove into my department’s labs where Katie was appropriately awed by my master key and inclusion in the department’s annual who’s who photo collage.
With a stop for coffee and a stroll by Beethoven’s home it was time to pack Katie off to Frankfurt with my few worldly possessions. Appropriately Bonn also saw fit to send her off with a good Rhenish drenching.
Of course the train was significantly delayed and the arrival board was on the fritz. As trains and destinations appeared over the track that had nothing to do with Frankfurt, we were confused and concerned we had missed a detail in the garbled announcements. Then we saw the native Germans on the platform were looking equally befuddled. While bewildered Germans would normally be a terrifying sight, here it was comforting.
With Katie finally headed back to Hesse it was time to turn my attention to my evening. At the farewell barbecue, Nils, a paleobotany graduate student, invited me to a “Beerfest” at his fraternity to enjoy an authentically German experience. His one request, “Wear something nice. Do you have a smoking jacket? This is something nice.” This made me a little uneasy. While I remembered my rock hammer, Chuck Taylors, and hot sauce, I never bothered to bring my Hefner-designed wardrobe. I hoped a blazer would do the trick.
I’ve checked in on these fraternity boys periodically through the year as Nils suggested it might be a way to practice my German. They put up with my stuttering attempts to communicate in my new second language and seem willing to teach me news turns of phrase. They are also willing to share their beer. I just hoped they would serve it if I was a little underdressed for whatever this ‘Fest turned into.
The fraternity system (Studentenverbindung auf Deutsch) in Germany is stuffed with traditions and rituals that go back to the 18th century, some even originating in the 14th century with the founding of European universities. Apparently Bonn has one of the highest concentrations of fraternities in the country along with Heidelberg, Gottingen, and Marburg, all old university towns. German fraternities were the testing grounds for democratic thought, though some took on a strong, nationalistic bent that made them controversial through the Second World War and its aftermath.
Politics aside, they seem to function much like American fraternities with older members mentoring the younger classes, and the Alumni (Alte Herren) serving to financially support the house and help them professionally network. Unlike American fraternities, there is no fee for participation. Living in the fraternity’s house is one of the best deals in town (Bonn has notoriously high rent, thus my dormitory accommodations). Most of the guys in the fraternity seem to participate simply for the cheap rent and not because of some long-standing family tradition. Along the way they all become friends, and enjoy hosting events like this Beerfest.
I showed up in a sportcoat and slacks, with hardly any further information. Katie and I had seen guys wandering around that day wearing fraternity colors and riding boots, sporting fencing foils on their hips. Nils confirmed these guys were also celebrating the end of the semester with a fraternity party. Would this be a massive social, like a fraternity formal in the States with every member bringing his orange-tanned girlfriend for drunken dancing in formal wear? If so, this could be a little awkward without a date. Or would this be a fencing bout as described by Mr. Twain when he visited the University of Heidelberg. If so, this could be awesome and maybe a little bloody.
When I entered I was greeted by the fraternity president who took down my name and its pronunciation. “When this is read, simply stand and toast the group.” Apparently seats would be involved in the events. More clues were accumulating. I went downstairs to the bar and saw a lot of Y-chromosomes. This was not a co-ed affair. New clue. It was good to have one.
Koen, a graduate student from the department and another guest of Nils, joined me to offer some explanation of the event. He told me this was a Kneipe, a night of singing and drinking that goes all the way back to the Dark Ages. The tradition is so old that the word “Kneipe” is now synonymous with a tavern, pub, or any place where singing and alchol can be enjoyed in equal measure. With this fresh nugget of trivia we were summoned to the meeting room where a long wooden table was decked out with candles and the wood-paneled walls festooned with coats-of-arms and dusty flags. Here I switched into Anthropologist mode as a well-practiced, familiar-yet-foreign ritual took place around me.
I took a seat near the middle of the table, far from two long boards that were laid across the ends of the table. These seemed to have an official function and I needed to avoid finding myself in the way of the ceremony (if that’s what “singing and drinking” become in Germany).
Koen took a seat on one side, and a older man who was probably seventy years old sat on the other. He and a companion represented the Alte Harren and their presence immediately signaled this was a different kind of frat party. I would spend the next couple of hours trying to keep pace with my grandfather.
A brother struck up a march on a piano in the corner, and two other members tromped in, decked out in red jackets hung with red, black, and white ribbons. Each wielded a sword that was also decorated with the fraternity’s colors. We stood as they marched to the end of the table and rapped their swords on the boards to call us to attention. I deemed it a good choice to be in the middle as the concussion from the blade rang through the room. We were directed to open small green song books to number 143 and we started in on a hymn-like student song penned in 1875. It occurred to me that Luther revolutionized the mass by adapting drinking songs as hymns. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” never seemed like a very rousing tune for the inebriated, but it has a passing resemblance to much of the material we performed last night.
Between each verse a uniformed guard would introduce a different group. First the visitors who were all too bewildered to offer a toast, then the members form other chapters, then the alumni, and finally the current house residents. After six verses of formal German text we fell back into conversation. A few minutes lapsed, the swords hit the table and we struck up a new song, this one the anthem of Bonn. The lyrics refer to the city but the tune was originally composed in the 1600s for Heidelberg University and everyone just copied the melody. We received a report of that semester’s accomplishments and a piece of paper went around that some people signed. I started to, thinking it was some kind of attendance sheet, until my septuagenarian neighbor warned me, “This is for speaking. Perhaps it is better to take action rather than make words.” I agreed and hurriedly passed the page on.
Speeches were offered, toasts shared, and we sang. Repeat. We were dismissed to use the facilities. When we came back, there had been a changing of the guard, and we swung into a chorus of “Gaudeamus Igitur.” Then jokes started. The guard would point his sword and you stood and delivered some comedy bit, maybe a skit or long form joke. After the punchline we knocked the table in approval and took a swig from ceramic steins that would probably find a happy home in a historical museum. Two senior members were called to stand on their chairs for a rhetorical challenge. The first launched into a speech, the sword would slam down and the guard would yell one of the words in the speech. The opposition would take that word and start his own speech. They volleyed words and insults and I doggedly tried to follow, usually just laughing when everyone else did. And we continued to drink.
As the beer continued to flow the songs began to involve a lot more swaying and shout-outs and challenges to see the bottoms of glasses. I started to gets some ideas of how to bring this home. This was a drinking party, not a party where you drink. The alcohol makes the jokes funnier, and the speeches more spontaneous. This needs exportation, a true symposium where the group shares wit and insight, and Warsteiner. I think its key to have a kind of program, someone at the head of the table calling out which song needs to be cued up, and who should speak next. But then, I may be one of the few American twenty-somethings who thinks improvised speeches and good jokes are a way to pass a Saturday night.
After jokes and a snack of wurst with Bavarian mustard that caused a Bavarian brother to wax philosophical about the beauties of his homeland, the ceremony broke and went on the road. We trooped to the Rhine with mugs of beer to watch a “friendship sealing.”
Each fraternity member has a collection of ribbons. Each ribbon has the fraternity’s coats-of-arms, and something personal to the brother, usually a quote. You receive your first ribbon from a sponsoring older brother and you collect smaller ribbons from brothers who are your equal. On the river, near a cannon used to defend the city from roving Prussians and French, the ribbons were unveiled. They each had an Ernest Hemingway quote that said something about the promise of the morning. With this sealing swig:
the ribbons were pinned and a German copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” handed off. I took a little American pride in the moment as Papa’s words stirred German hearts.
We adjured to the city for late-night pizza and bleary rides and walks home. While the pizza might be a new addition to the tradition, I have a feeling the latter woozy journey back to the dorm is part of the ancient tradition, stretching back to the 13th century when swords were used for more than calling the next verse.
I hope you’ve managed to wander into a new cultural experience recently or maybe learned a new song from new friends. If not, try tracking down a German fraternity brother. He’ll teach you a tune and offer up a “Prost!” even if you’re not wearing your smoking jacket.