From the average American’s point of view, Germans still seem to fall in two categories: either the crazed Nazi (the typical movie stereotype) or the no less crazed lederhosen-wearing, beer-steins-holding, knuckle-of-pork-and-pretzel-eating Bavarian in travel magazines.
Meanwhile the awareness of Germany being a democratic nation has spread across borders, but it keeps annoying me how often people still mistake Bavaria for Germany.
Until a couple of years ago, I had been thinking that people know that this folkloristic representation of German customs and lifestyle is not real, that it is a kind of Bavarian carnival where everybody enjoys wearing funny costumes and drinking a lot of beer.
But I’m not so sure about this any more.
I’ve been observing the perception of German culture in the US media quite a while (especially in the travel sections of newspapers and on the internet), and I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of Americans actually think that this is the authentic culture of present-day Germany.
And how should they know better? If they have been to Germany, it’s mostly Munich or some villages like Rothenburg ob der Tauber that provide a picturesque backdrop for tourists.
And the mass proliferation of “original” Oktoberfests in the US hasn’t helped either.
It seems to me that a few common assumptions about Germany are in desperate need of an update.
1. First of all, Bavaria doesn’t equal Germany.
Germany is a Federal State which comprises 16 Bundesländer (sg. Land). Bundesländer are comparable to the States in the US.
This is Germany. And the salmon-colored State in the south-east is Bavaria (=Bayern). As you can see, Bavaria is admittedly the biggest state within Germany, but it only makes up one-fifth of Germany’s overall expanse.
2. Blue and white are the colors of the Bavarian State, not the colors of Germany.
Every state within Germany has its own flag in addition to the flag of Germany as a whole.
This is the Bavarian flag.
While this is the German flag.
If you want to throw a German party, use the colors black-red-gold, unless you want a Bavarian fest.
3. The Oktoberfest is not celebrated all over Germany.
It takes place once a year in Munich, Bavaria and nowhere else.
4. Some of the food that tourists consider as ‘typical German’ is mostly eaten in Bavaria, if at all.
This is a knuckle of pork (Eisbein) with sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut was eaten almost everywhere in Germany, but I emphasize the past tense here. It is hardly eaten these days. Children hate it because of its sourish taste.
It is one of the dishes that restaurants in touristy German villages still sell as “typical” because the tourists want it, but in reality, not many people eat it any more.
As to Eisbein (knuckle of pork): This wasn’t eaten outside of Bavaria anyway, but even in Bavaria it isn’t eaten that often in an average household. It’s a high-calorie dish and more likely to please the elderly generation.
This is white sausage (Weisswurst) with a pretzel and sweet mustard.
Weisswurst is mainly eaten in Bavaria, but one can purchase it also in other regions of Germany.
And yes, we do eat pretzels. But they are called Bretzel and sometimes Laugenbretzel.
5. Nobody is wearing Lederhosen or a Dirndl. Seriously.
Outside of Bavaria, nobody in their right mind is wearing lederhosen or dirndl. But it is a popular disguise during Carnival.
However, one thing’s for sure about Dirndl: They make a sexy neckline.
Within Bavaria, some people may wear the traditional Bavarian outfit when they go to village fests or as a fashion gadget.
Having said all this, one might wonder why Bavaria or the south of Germany could become an emblem of Germany as a whole, even though Germany has beautiful and interesting regions that don’t resemble Bavaria at all.
There are two quite obvious answers.
The first is that the American Occupation Zone in Germany after World War II consisted of Bavaria and parts of Baden-Württemberg and Hesse. So the older generation of Americans got to know mostly this part of Germany, and they spread the word when they returned home.
The second explanation is that most of the American forces on German territory are/were based in the south of Germany.
All this might explain why the middle or northern areas of Germany are virtually unknown to the American public.
And it has been a regrettable omission of the German tourism industry not to advertise those parts of Germany more. As a start, I’d like to give you some hints of beautiful destinations north of the White Sausage Equator:
The most beautiful big city in Germany: Hamburg.
The most interesting big city in Germany: still Berlin.
The most beautiful German island: Rügen (in the Baltic Sea).
The most beautiful cathedral in Germany: Cologne Cathedral.
Beautiful scenic landscapes: Upper Middle Rhine Valley between Koblenz and Rüdesheim and Mecklenburg Lake District.
Go north folks!