Ah, spring. As I sit here writing this, the sun is shining, the tulips have bloomed, and the birds are outside my window, sweetly chirping the news, “Frühling ist da! Now get outside and lose some lard, fatty”. As insensitive as they are, the German birds are as right as their bipedal and Birkenstock-bedecked brethren: Spring is the time to lose your winter weight. In fact, Germans have a word for the kilos or pounds that many of us that live in northern climates gain over the cold winter months; Winterspeck. Translating to “winter fat” or “winter bacon”, the extra pudge that we gain during the bleak months between November and March once actually served a few purposes for our shivering ancestors. First, as the obese know, and as many of us that have witnessed them sweating in January while wearing only a t-shirt can attest to, additional bodyfat keeps you warm. This is important since central heating did not exist in medieval times and a seat-warmer then consisted of placing a fattened sheep beneath one’s butt. Since a portly person sitting on a sheep would mean the death of the poor animal, this practice had the added benefit of having dinner nearly ready after the simple act of warming one’s buns.
Another benefit was that having an extra layer of blubber would help dump much needed calories into the bloodstream during a time of year when food was scarce, thereby giving the underfed a fighting chance to defend against invading hordes, or against their cold-bottomed and muttonless neighbors from stealing their sheep. Both of these situations now occur rarely. In fact, the only benefits of Winterspeck now go to the fitness industry, at least here in Germany. Once the almost perpetual darkness of winter gives way to the first light of spring and thereby the first chance to glimpse our swollen bodies, we recoil in horror and then immediately waddle out to buy running shoes and gym memberships…only to repeat the pattern next winter. This Sisyphean phenomenon was actually the inspiration behind the creation of my local gym’s new piece of exercise equipment where a stationary bike is fitted at intervals with ill-tempered weasels that nip at your feet as you pedal past each one. You will, naturally, be bitten as you climb on. Once astride, however, the fresh memory of pain prompts you to pedal very fast to avoid their teeth and you soon realize that you cannot get off, ever, for fear of being bitten again. Voila! Weight loss that stays off permanently. Pure Genius. The gym has, of course, dubbed this devilish device the “Vicious Cycle”.
Now, you don’t have to go the gym here in Germany to lose weight. That is because (and as a convenient segueway back to the list of how Germans are typically more fit than we Americans)…
4). Fitness is everywhere in Germany.
Aside from the mention in part 1 of how Germans walk or bike everywhere, there are a couple of other reasons that one does not need to pay membership dues in order to stay fit here in Deutschland. The first is…the beerman. Unlike in the states where people buy their own beer and drink water from the tap, many people here utilize the services of their local drink delivery company…der Biermann. The beerman is in actuality the local brewery that delivers not only cases of beer, but water, soda, juice, etc. The colloquial name, however, is derived as your order is delivered by a cheerful and garrulous fellow with a mustache that refers to your dogs as his “colleagues” and who talks ceaselessly about the weather. Though his facial hair and range of topics may vary depending on your locality, and regardless of the company name on his truck, this is the beer man.
“Why would anyone pay to have water or beer delivered…and what does that have to do with fitness?”, you might ask. The answer is, in addition to delivering your order, the beer man will carry it anywhere that your little heart desires, which usually means down into your Gewölbekeller. Most people will gladly pay to not have to trudge five heavy cases of water and beer down two flights of stairs to the cellar…unless you are me. As a display of typical American niceness, I told the beer man to just leave the order in the foyer upon his first delivery. As I hoisted that first case, I quickly realized my mistake. Luckily, I am a perpetual “on-the-bright-side-looker” and I found that I could supplement, or even skip, my usual workout. Imagine doing dead-lifts and lunges with boxes that weigh roughly the same as a fully-loaded olympic barbell and you will see what I mean. It even makes sense economically as I may be able to cancel my gym membership. Rather than paying both the monthly membership and delivery charge, I can instead save the fitness dues and simply bring that money directly to the chiropractor, albeit slowly, and with a cane.
The other reason for the lack of gym-goers here in Germany is the Trimm-dich-Pfad. Literally meaning “train-you-path”, this is exactly what one is; a circuit of fitness stations connected by a jogging path. Though I have seen a few of these in the states, they aren’t exactly popular, as all seemed to be in various states of disrepair and were being slowly swallowed by the forests that each had been installed next to during America’s brief love-affair with nature and fitness; the 70’s. Unlike here where each town seems to have at least one and all are well-used, the remnants of their American cousins – which peer unnoticed from the landscape like abandoned and wary strays – are a reminder that outdoor excercise in America peaked when Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Scwarzenegger were just starting their film careers. If you have to ask who either actor is, I rest my case. You are either to young to remember them and the collective hundreds of movies that they made, or you are too old and have simply forgotten them.
An interesting and long-winded side note on both actors, both Sly’s Rocky and Arnie’s Pumping Iron were filmed during the same year; 1975. This was a novel time to make movies, though not for the actors. Since it was so long ago (according to the Texas public school system) that dinosaurs still roamed the earth, directors would toss the actors who couldn’t remember their lines to the tyrannosaurs and simply hire another. Had Spielberg had the forethought, he could have filmed Jurassic Park back then and saved a bundle on special effects.
Being Hollywood newbies, Sly and Arnie, both strong enough to wrestle and defeat the dinosaurs, would help train each other for their respective parts. Arnie, for example, was fresh from Austria but his role was English-speaking. In exchange for being a stunt-double for the sides of hanging beef that Rocky punched during the movie, Stallone taught Arnold English. Where Sylvester’s beatings would actually damage the carcasses leaving them even more dead, Arnie’s only complaint was that Sly’s punches “teeckled a leetle”. Listen to Arnie even in his more recent movies. Does his accent still seem very strong after so many years in the States? It is not. He is merely mimicking the speech of his English teacher, Rocky Balboa.
Back to the trimm-dich-pfad, many Americans whom have never seen one may be initially puzzled, not just by the instructions in German, but because of the popularity of indoor video game-based fitness like the Wii. No amount of searching will uncover the power button. There isn’t one. This apparatus operates without electricity. That strange sensation in your hair is actually the wind and that warmth upon your face is the sun. Brace yourself; you are outside.
Like a fear-induced warm-up, the burst of panic you just experienced, as uncomfortable as it was, has sufficiently increased your heart rate. You are now ready to begin with the Klettergerüst (monkey bars). Reach up and grab the first rung with one hand, push off with your feet, and try to grab the next with your other. Since your muscles have atrophied from having exercised only your fingers, you most likely slipped and fell face-first into the dirt. Do not worry. Not only is this normal, the effect of falling doubles as a form of identification: Aside from having huge thumbs, having a clump of sod in your teeth and leaves in your hair will mark you as an American. This will make it easy for your fellow expats to identify you and then suggest that you both go grab a coffee, preferably inside.
5). Europe is smaller than most Americans think.
That sentence may seem a bit puzzling in how it relates to fitness, but it’s actually quite simple: Since Europe is less than half the size of the States, and Germany is roughly the size of Montana, fantastic and famous sites for fitness are very close. For you powder-hounds, the mountains of Austria and Switzerland are a mere 300 miles away, the same distance as from Boston to Philly. A mecca for cycling enthusiasts, the finish line for the Tour de France is only 414 miles away in Paris, less than driving from Philly to Cleveland. Even the adrenaline junkies can get their fix 961 miles away by running with the bulls in Pamplona, though I can’t, as a probationary German, recommend doing so: Not only is Pamplona as far away as Cleveland is from Florida, participating, like I mentioned in part one, will earn you a cancelled insurance policy, as well as the stern admonishment of a thorough head-shaking by an unimpressed German. You may as well publicly announce that you don’t like soccer and that Bratwurst is “icky”.
Since you will be travelling in your quest for exotic fitness locales, you will need a place to stay. If you can’t afford the luxury of a hotel, you will need friends that can put you up. Most people already have a friend or two that live in foreign countries, but if you don’t have any living where you would like to go, social media is a great way to stack the odds in your favor. Consequently, if there are any people reading this that live in the UK or Italy, I am now your friend. The exchange of Christmas cards isn’t necessary, but the exchange of foot size is if you are one of those people who keep slippers available so guests don’t muck up their floors. I mention this because, though I am not a large man, I do have large feet. Eve actually refers to my shoes as “Kindersärge” (childrens coffins). If you do not have any extra large Hausschuhe on hand, empty beer cases and duct tape will do the trick.
As a US citizen, you will be required to travel with your US passport in your search of foreign fitness frivolity. EU citizens are permitted to travel with only their ID card, but you, my red, white, and blue-bleeding compatriots, will need your official document and, if you are flying, you will have to present it at each border. As much of a hindrance as it can sometimes be, having your passport with you serves a greater purpose, much like guest slippers. Since you will undoubtedly be drinking while with your foreign friends, US passports make great beer coasters. Not only does the former allow you to travel here and enjoy said delicious beer in the first place, it also prevents you from being exiled by your hosts who frown on having their furniture tarnished. To put it a different way, the passport that you used to enter the country also allows you to stay as, though Beyonce is an advocate, and as catchy as her song is, just because you like your hosts’ coffee table does not mean that you should “put a ring on it”.
A word of warning: If you are travelling through Europe during July, there is a chance that you will be staying with your new-found friends during the soccer world cup. “Fußball” is not just more popular here than American football is in the US, it is second only to breathing in most Europeans’ list of needs and even then, many fail to do so during an entire match. Presumably, they have developed the ability to absord through their stomachs what little oxygen and CO2 is in their beer bottles, which is usually just enough to enormously bellow the word “TOOOOOORRRRR!!!!!!” when their team scores a goal. I can tell you from experience, this will scare the bejeezus out of you.
Only when the last seconds tick away do the fans finally inhale. This is especially important as they will need that burst of oxygenated red blood cells to muster the energy required to sprint out to their cars. As I witnessed after the World Cup last year, a German win is evidently the national signal for everyone in the country to rush out, climb inside their autos, and test their car-horns. For three hours. As a way to make it more convenient for German soccer fans to find their keys during this all-important drill, German brewers offer their .33 liter size bottles with pull tabs that double as key rings. Since most fans will have said beer in hand during the secret signal, there is no need for time to be wasted searching for car keys. Like Beyonce’s dance routines, exact choreography is crucial on a stage this large.
6). Even when drinking, Germans exercise.
Aside from the frenzied dancing that takes place atop beer benches inside beer tents at the various fall festivals, during May of every year, there is an event here that also offers exercise while drinking. Translating literally to “Christ Sky-drive”, Christi Himmelfahrt is a national holiday in Germany which is held each year on a Thursday, 39 days after Easter, to mark the day that the buoyant bearded one purportedly floated up and took his seat next his dad. Because of the father/offspring relationship, this is also Fathers Day in Germany. However, instead of receiving lame gifts like neckties and being forced to play golf like American dads, German fathers are permitted to take part in an all day event much more to their liking. You guessed it; pulling a wagon full of beer around town with their buddies and getting absolutely plowed.
The Bollerwagen, as it is called here, is similar to the high-sided wagons you might see an American dad pulling their kid around in. Like useless water into wine, the main difference is that the kid has been magically transformed into delicious beer. That, and the beer rarely calls you a Scheißkopf (poophead) before yelling at you to go faster. If this happens, the beer has most likely been drunk by all of your chums and has been replaced with your inebriated pal Fritz. I can only surmise that THIS is where the term “falling off the wagon” originated. Centuries earlier, Fritz’s counterpart, stone sober at the start of the day, probably drank way too much, passed out in his friend’s Bollerwagen, and then fell off…and out. Coincidentally, this is also where the term “on the Fritz” came from. For those of your unfamiliar with the phrase, something which is “auf der Fritz” is something that is not working properly, or “Kaputt”. “Did I watch the finale of Brechen Schlect (Breaking Bad)? Nein, mein Fernseher (TV) ist auf der Fritz”.
Since Fritz’s ample, beer-soaked body’s weight greatly exceeded the recommended 20 kilos that a normal kid (or load of beer) weighs, Fritz broke the wagon that he just fell out of and subsequently fell into history. If you think that the term might be more accurate as “unter der Fritz” (under the Fritz) as the ill-fated wagon was under him when it broke, you would be wrong. Fritz’s friends, skilled at drinking but not medicine, mistook him for dead and simply turned the broken wagon over and placed it on top of him as a makeshift headstone. Luckily, Fritz sobered up and survived, as did his legend.
In closing, it is my duty as an American to try and derail this healthy nation’s evil bid for world skinny-domination and so I have devised an even more evil scheme to dismount them: The Castle Beer Run. This exercise in ethanol-based endurement takes the tradition of the Bollerwagon and multiplies it by infinity. With such athletes like Lance Armstrong and Pete Rose as American idols, I have come up with a way to level the playing field and bring the immergesund (ever-healthy) Germans down a couple of notches to our level. Imagine that you are pulling a wagon full of beer like an average German in May. Easy, right? Now imagine that you are wearing a medieval helmet.
“Oh. Is it hard to breathe in that? Now you are running in smoggy LA”.
Imagine further that you have to guzzle a beer every kilometer until you reach the top. You are now jogging in beer-city, a.k.a., Chicago. The last nail in the coffin is the fact that you are pulling your wagon up a very steep incline to our hilltop castle, Burg Neuhaus (see cover photo). With everything compounded, you my hard-hearted and unprepared friend, are now basically crawling up the near vertical streets of San Francisco.
Unlike Marion Jones or Mark McGwire, you don’t need steroids to persevere and win this challenge, or even finish. All you need is beer. As we all know, one of beer’s euphemisms is “liquid encouragement” and, as hazardous as the aforementioned event’s participation is, you will get through.
Did you finish? Of course you did. You had beer cheering you on, encouraging you to keep going. Did you actually win? Herzlichen Glückwunsch! (Congratulations)! Now stumble through your victory lap and then celebrate by singing a drunken rendition of a song about perseverance.
Might I suggest “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child? Surely Beyonce’s voice can’t compare to yours. You are an amazing singer. Go on. You can do it.