I was recently on my annual vacation with my mother. We ended up in western Wyoming, floating down the Snake River with an American guide and about 46 German tourists. I guess most Americans prefer to take the "rapids" river run, but we opted for the "easy" version, which was apparently also attractive to the Deutschen. The Germans were a taciturn bunch, maybe even somber, but every once in a while one of them would crack a joke and they all would chuckle. One of them asked in accented English if this was the part of Wyoming where Dick Cheney lived. The guide said that the former vice president wasn't welcome in Jackson Hole, which is a liberal oasis in a red state. "But he does fish here now and again," he added. And then my mother quipped, "Yeah, and I heard he shot someone here once, too."
I laughed, and the guide laughed, because we speak English. The Germans nodded politely.
We were evenly dispersed on five boats, and a gentle rivalry arose among the craft. "We need some sort of fight song!" our guide said. "Anyone know any football songs?"
I am sorry to say that the only songs that came to mind were connected to the Third Reich, like "Deutschland Über Alles." This is indeed the fate of the Germans, to be forever associated with Nazism in my head. No matter how many Kraftwerk records I listen to, or how many tins of gingerbread I eat, my brain will always return to Dubya Dubya Two.
Being with all those Germans made me realize one thing: I missed Schroeder's on Front Street in the Financial District. Like Hitler's Prussian hideout, it's not the easiest place to get to by car or public transit, so I rarely go there. I usually end up at Schroeder's during Oktoberfest, but last week I wanted to be surrounded by stag antlers and beer steins as big as my head. When I got back from my trip, I headed on over.
Schroeder's is a big place — you enter the bar first, and from there an expansive dining room pans out in all directions. The waitresses dress in what can only be described as Heidi Ho ensembles, and real live Deutschefolk work there. It's meant to look like a big ol' hunting lodge. And though the Grammys may have removed polka as a category, the music is still alive and well at Schroeder's on the weekends. In short, the place is rad.
The bar is usually full of people who just got off work and have arrived by themselves, which makes for good conversations with strangers. I sat between two men in suits, both of whom were drinking hard liquor, despite Schroeder's great imported beer selection. The guy on my left was talking to the person on his left, and from their body language and timbre of the discussion, I judged that they had been strangers up to that point. They were talking about the mini-revolution that either was or was not happening in Iran. The Iranian government had tried its damnedest to block the press, so any information we were getting about the election was spotty and possibly unreliable.
"There's no way that guy won," said the darker-haired guy, referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "No one can like that guy."
"Well, look who won in Palestine," the man directly next to me said. I think he was referring to Hamas. The implication was, of course, that Arabs were nuts, and as such, they enjoy electing other nuts. But you could say the same thing about Germany. Hitler was elected. (And here's some trivia: The word "Iran" is related to "Aryan," and means "Lord of the Aryans.") We can't leave ourselves out of the blame game: The rest of the world thought we were a nation of deluded dipshits when we re-elected Bush.
I thought about inserting myself into the conversation, but didn't. There is something distasteful to me about having a rock-solid opinion about what is going on in Iran. We have no idea what it is like to be Iranian. As Americans, we are fed a bunch of propaganda. It seemed disrespectful to pontificate about something that we don't really understand. Then again, I seem to have no trouble passively associating innocent Germans with something that happened more than 70 years ago. But hey, I'm of European lineage. I have a right to be prejudiced toward my kind, right? And the Germans do make a mean bratwurst; I'll give 'em that.
Yes, I had Nazism on the brain. I watched the bartender scurrying back and forth, repeatedly lifting giant steins. That must be good exercise. The people actually drinking from the steins are countering any effects that the weightlifting might offer (i.e., a beer belly), but the bartender has the advantage of lifting 30 steins a night without imbibing from any of them. Leni Riefenstahl could really make a nice propaganda film out of that: naked, sculpted bartenders raising and pouring steins in Olympic slo-mo. Still, in my stereotyping mind, the picture I have of most Germans is like the guy in the Schroeder's logo: stout and jolly, in lederhosen and a feathered cap.
The conversation between the two guys switched from Iran to "futures," whatever those are, and I tuned them out. I spun around on my stool and checked out the dining room. There were families all over the place. Schroeder's is indeed a grab bag — businessmen, hipsters, couples on first dates, and little kids. There aren't too many places in the city that can claim such a diverse clientele. It felt nice to be a part of it.
When I left, I felt like that jolly fat German caricature in my mind's eye, waddling down the street with an oompah band in my head. It is time, I decided, to get rid of my Nazi associations, which I've held about fine people who simply went astray. I need to afford the same fair thinking toward Germany that I do to Iran. I vowed to not only go home and listen to my Kraftwerk records, but also to possibly even pull out some Heino. Jawohl.