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Germany’s True Fifth Season

In Germany, the official fifth season is anything to do with Karneval, a few days of drunken spring debauchery that used to have religious undertones and a smattering of royal bashing. These days it’s just drunken debauchery. I’m not being glib because we have a similar party in the U.S.: It’s called college. But Germans love the fifth season because it’s when the rules allow them to be silly and unrestrained. Note the irony in being silly and unrestrained only when the rules allow. Germans don’t see that irony. They love Karneval.

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But it’s not the real fifth season in Germany. Not in a real season sense. The real fifth season occurs in that no-man’s-land between Christmas and New Year’s. You’ve always quietly felt that the year ends shortly after all the Christmas presents are open and the new year doesn’t get going until that first feeling of dread back at your desk. The Germans have always known that it’s actually a different season and they’ve even given it a name: Zwischen den Jahren. Between the years. It’s one of my favorite sayings because it’s so perfectly right, in a German precision kind of way (but without faking the emission tests). It’s not this year and it’s not next year: It’s between the years.

Perfect.

Unfortunately my second least favorite German phrase always rears its head between the years, refusing to leave, like a subterranean worm in Tremors. “Guten Rutsch!”, or have a good slide! We all assume a good slide into next year but without a direct object in that sentence it’s hard to know. Germans love it as a parting phrase between the years – on the phone, at the counter and, with a wink of the eye, while putting you under for a colonoscopy. There’s an apocryphal story that it comes from Yiddish which, like the definition of apocryphal, may or may not be true.

I’d love to end on an upbeat comment about Zwischen den Jahren but the only remaining footnote is a negative: Karneval follows just a few weeks after Zwischen den Jahren.

Things I Found Magical About Germany: Wagenstandsanzeiger

In these days of Skype-fueled long-distance relationships and low-cost airlines, the Wagenstandsanzeiger, or train car location sign (I know, German, right?) may not seem like such a magical beast but when I was a teenager it seemed as foreign as a bank that doesn’t need to be bailed out. It’s a sign on every German train platform that knows your train intimately and will tell you exactly where on your platform the train will stop – restrooms and all.

tumblr_inline_nzkq3sFpWx1sqqghr_500%255B1%255D[1]I came from a country where train delays weren’t measured in minutes or even hours but rather days. In my childhood, American passenger trains were never delayed by things like inclement weather or suicidal twenty-somethings. They seemed to suffer from depression, only getting up the nerve to traverse the country after a couple of stiff whiskeys and a stern talking to by the Minister of Transportation.

“Mother,” my mother would tell her mother through a plastic, yellow phone with a rotary dial, “The train was supposed to leave Tuesday but they say now it may be Thursday. We’re hoping to get there before we have to start back.” My grandmother never believed my mother. But after we arrived days late, my grandmother would complain about how late the train always was.

“I told you,” my mother would say. She never got along with her mother and, just to keep up the family tradition, I never got along with my mother either. My mother wasn’t blessed with any daughters so they drafted me for the role.

It was amidst this climate that I went to Germany as an exchange student and found the wondrous unicorn known as the Wagenstandsanzeiger. “You mean, they not only know which trains are going to show up at what time, but they even know which car will be where?” I thought my guest mother had become a wizard. How could they know?

My guest mother was just as surprised at my surprise: “Of course there’s a Wagenstandsanzeiger and of course it’s right!” She looked at me as though my skin had turned purple and I’d grown antlers.

And from that day forward I never rode another train without first checking the Wagenstandsanzeiger. It’s a tradition I want to pass to my children. Because I’m not their mother so they can’t not get along with me.

Things I Found Magical About Germany: VW Golf Combi

This only makes sense in the context of my childhood.

The VW Golf was introduced into the U.S. in 1975 as the Rabbit. It looked like the rejected offspring of a stalwart Volvo mother and a dull Honda father. Read: Small and boxy. It was a fuel-efficient, compact car for people who didn’t want to go Japanese. These people were the auto-buying version of punks. Or at least vegans. The Rabbit was supposedly a success but the only people who drove it in pre-cable TV Littleton, Colorado were college professors and … college professors. After cable TV, Depeche Mode and Robin Leach, yuppies who couldn’t afford BMWs also opted for the convertible version. At least it was German.

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But no one ever dreamed of a Rabbit station wagon. Why would you? College professors never drove station wagons and if you needed that much room you’d opt for a real one anyway – one that could hold everything needed for a week-long trip to grandma’s or house a small New Guinean tribe. Besides, about then Lee Iacocca invented the mini-van, saving Chrysler and making station wagons pointless.

Then I went to Germany as an exchange student and discovered someone had taken a compact car and made it into a station wagon. They’d taken a car with not very much room and added not very much room more. You could maybe fit a medium-sized wiener dog in the back or go to the bowling alley with your wife and actually take both balls (jokes on me, Germans don’t bowl). The VW Rabbit station wagon – or Golf Combi, as the Krauts say – seemed like a car that never needed to be invented and yet there it was. In fact, in Wegberg, Germany, there a lot of them were. Magic.

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The Golf Combi had such a hold on me that it was one of the first things I looked for on the VW Internet site, way back in like 1994. Maybe ’95. And I even almost bought one after the birth of my first child – I wanted us to be surrounded by magic. But I went for its mother instead – a 1996 Volvo 850.

The Volvo’s rotting in a field now. Probably home to several generations of rabbit.