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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Prairie Ethnography (2a)—Bavaria

[a] Exotic RF
Click here for the other part of this Round and Square Series:
Bavaria 1            Bavaria 2 

I spent a week this past November in Germany—Bavaria, to be more exact. As part of my ongoing study of "divinatory economics," I was invited to a conference dealing with themes of pilgrimage from all over the world—Mecca, Compostela, Canterbury, Japanese temples on Shikoku, and, (my topic) Chinese sacred mountains. Sponsored by Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), the conference brought together scholars from all over Germany and, indeed, all over the world. We talked about travel, preparations, transportation, and belief. My paper considered the ways in which pilgrims "spend" their incense on China's southern sacred mountain.

The experience raised my ethnographic antennae in ways that rarely happen when I am in, say, East Asia. There, I am always at the ready, having prepared myself over three decades of language study, textual research, fieldwork, and, now, teaching. I have been working there so long that, like Stella, I have developed something of a groove.
[b] Transport RF

Not so in the world a little to the west of Mitteleuropa. Nope, my trip to Germany reminded me distinctly of another journey, well over a decade ago, to Melbourne (for another conference). I was astounded by how different everything seemed. To be more precise, everything familiar seemed to be just a little bit "off," like an everyday tea cup balanced crookedly on its saucer. I remember telling an Australian colleague that I would be taking the train "into town' later that day (the university was in the "suburbs"). "What?," she replied. Nobody says 'into town" here." Just a little different...just enough to be jarring. And did I mention that it was July, and cold?

My trip to Germany was a little like that, and it set me into Prairie Ethnography mode. German was actually my first "second language," so I can get by a little—more in terms of reading signs than chatting with people. I started studying it in high school, did a bit more in college, and then pretty much ignored it aside from the occasional scholarly book on Chinese history or a blockbuster issue of Der Spiegel. Over the years, my spoken German skills decreased to the point where I could barely say "Ich bin ein Beloiter" or "Hast du hunger?"

And that was the general situation as this prairie ethnographer boarded the Chicago-Frankfurt flight on United Airlines in early November. I arrived early in the morning and caught the shuttle flight to Nuremberg. By 9:00, I was in my room at my hotel, Der Graue Wolf, and had time for a nap before the afternoon conference opening was scheduled. And this is where the cultural stuff begins.
[c] Steeple RF

I drifted off into a kind of soporific urgency-meets-residual adrenaline kind of sleep. What seemed like hours later, I heard a gong. I half-awoke to the sound of the local church bells tolling...9:15. Back to sleep, and two gongs at 9:30. Next thing I knew, my alarm was going off at 12:30 p.m. Church bells. Culture. Check. This is not difficult for someone who has lived near Eaton Chapel at Beloit College, which chimes every quarter hour all day and night. The kindly operators of the local church in Erlangen stop chiming at midnight and don't begin again until 6:00 a.m. It is a civil gesture in a churchly universe. It was an almost exact replication of the experience I would have had on the same day if I had taken a nap in Beloit, Wisconsin.

Prairie ethnography? Yes and no. It was a wash, but now I was rested and ready for any cultural curve balls that might be hurled my way. Over the course of the next few days, I noticed two things in particular.

The conference got off to a strong start. The opening remarks were in German, and I quickly learned that the expectation was that German-as-a-Second-Language people would have to do their best. I immediately began compiling a list of frequently-used terms, and grabbed my weathered 1980 copy of German in Review. It sat at the corner of my angled desk for the next three days. Bedeutung. Wirklich. Ansicht. They all went into my field notebook as I struggled to wipe the grimy dust off of three decades of linguistic neglect.
[d] Countryside RF

Hardly had I gotten onto a second page of vocabulary review when the opening speaker concluded with a Germanic flourish (mid-argument forms of utter seriousness building toward a concluding, and conclusive...utter seriousness). I quickly put down my notebook and began clapping. A British colleague to my left joined me, as did a Spanish professor down the lecture hall row. The thin sound of a few hands clapping gave way to something else—something I had never heard before. It was the rhythmic din of knuckles rapping upon the wooden desks. First one, then a half-dozen, and then, seemingly, the whole room. Rapping, knocking, and a little clapping.

I was stunned. I looked at my new British friend and he shrugged his shoulders. I looked at an American colleague who had been at the university for the past year, and he gave me an "I'll tell you later" look. Then the next speaker began, again in German, and the applause when she concluded was another mixture of clapping and rapping. By the time I gave my lecture at the end of the second day, the room was filled with mostly rapping. We visitors had become acculturated.

Rules and Regulations
Later that evening—my mind whirling with a combination of jet lag and cultural questions—I went for a walk through the narrow streets of Erlangen. I stopped for a beer at a little tavern (one of many), greased the hinges of my rusty German a little, and ordered some grape leaves and hummus as a nice, globalized and commodified culinary accompaniment. Walking back to Der Graue  Wolf—over lightly frosted streets and under Christmas decorations, newly hung that morning over every intersection—I was stunned by the very legality of my social surroundings. Everyone, to a person, stood patiently at the stop lights until they turned green. Small crowds of marginally inebriated pedestrians sought not to cut a single corner. I have never seen anything like it in my life, anywhere...
[e] Audience RF

...except Japan and central Iowa.

I am used to a little bit of jaywalking as a fact of traffic all over the world. In Beloit, Wisconsin, it is common enough to dash across Main Street from the Turtle Creek Bookstore to Suds O'Hanahan's Irish Pub. In my "second home" of Alexandria, Virginia, daring pedestrians race across six lanes of Duke Street traffic with relative impunity. Like the rest of you, I have observed jaywalking (or running) as "normal" behavior all over these United States, not to mention France, Australia, as well as both nearer and farther flung locations, such as China. In Shanghai, I have seen whole families navigating eight or more lanes of traffic, only some of it with medians for rest and recounting ("where's grandma?"). And it is not just Shanghai. All over the world's second largest economy, jay-hurtling through missiles of traffic is as common as having rice porridge for breakfast. Indeed, most of us would probably say that jaywalking and crossing relatively empty streets on red lights is pretty typical, all over the world.

Except in Japan, central Iowa, and Germany.

One evening at about 1:00 a.m., my wife and I were on our way to Toledo, Iowa on a family visit. On a quiet, back country road, we encountered a red light temporarily put in place for traffic repairs that surely had to have been more lively during the day. Now, in the middle of the night, we sat...and sat...and sat for well over a minute in the cool, country-dark Iowa night. Alone. The light turned green, and off we went along blacktop lines surrounded by corn. In the rearview mirror I saw another car slow down as the light turned red again. It waited, I am sure, until the light turned green and it was legal to drive into the darkness.

[f] Streets RF
Similar things have happened to me in Japan, where I have seen even drunken salary men in worrisome condition wait calmly at red lights—no traffic to be seen—in the early morning hours. So common was this sight that I chalked it up to Japan and its island heritage.

And now I was seeing the very same phenomenon on a street corner in Erlangen, Germany. And it was not just once and not only late at night. Day-after-day I watched and even took a few notes. Only rarely did I see anyone dash across even the narrowest intersection in the most medieval parts of the city. By the time I had been there seventy-two hours, I already assumed that such scofflaws must not be from around here. I waited patiently with everyone else.
***  ***
What did it all mean—Bavaria, applause, traffic lights, church bells, and even a little sushi? We'll consider that on Monday in the second part of this Prairie Ethnography mini-series on Bavaria.

Hint: not everyone even thinks it's "Bavaria."

See you Monday.

Click here for the other part of this Round and Square Series:
Bavaria 1            Bavaria 2 

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