The Langenscheidt German-English (or, since I bought it in Germany, “Englisch-Deutsch”) Dictionary translates the word kitsch as kitsch, the adjective kitschy as kitschig. This comes as no surprise. To someone with a knowledge of German even as cursory as mine, the “sch” phoneme is enough to suggest a Germanic etymology. Just to make sure, though, I consulted the dictionary. Indeed, language dictionaries have a reputation of giving at times creative or painfully literal, and sometimes just plain gauche or incorrect, translations. From personal research, I have discovered that the word has a subtly different meaning in German. In English, I would say that “kitsch” could be applied to some sort of stupid tradition or decidedly outdated aesthetic à la lumpy Christmas sweaters in bright colors with reindeer, and singing ties (worse yet, singing ties with lumpy Christmas sweaters). In German, I have been told that it is more akin to “gaudy” and “over-the-top” à la lumpy Christmas sweaters in bright colors with reindeer, battery-powered lights, and gold bells. Because old traditions (e.g. Christmas sweaters) have very particular aesthetic elements (e.g. reindeer and bells), kitsch is similar enough in both languages.
We begin here, with this definition, because it is comforting, and appropriate, that this word exist in German. I find that many students who study abroad (myself included) are initially taken by the novelty of everything. Heck, I still think the name for cellphone (“Handy”) is sort of cute, the wild red poppies that dot the yellow fields of unnamed plants on my way home are inspiringly painterly, and the mustard from a toothpaste tube is a genius idea that should definitely be adopted by the rest of the world. I have even ordered waldmeister ice-cream, a uniquely German flavor, multiple times even though I don’t care much for its somewhat medicinal taste. It’s silly, I know, but when everything is so new, daily life seems that much more poignant and colorful, and mundane occurrences seem more like fantasy.
But last weekend, I had an experience that, though enjoyable, made it incredibly difficult to continue to fabricate my naïve wondernment. I first noticed a sign for the Gonsenheimer-Erdbeerfest (Gonsenheim Strawberry Festival) my first week here. Indeed, living in Gonsenheim, it would be hard not to notice a sign for it. Large green posters could be seen on virtually every street corner and in every store window in the small suburb of Mainz. Most of my coworkers, however, had never heard of it or, if they had, had never been.
For two weeks, I revved myself up for my first real German summer festival. (I already have plans to go to the Bregenz and Salzburg Sommerfestpiele, and there is a big festival called Johannisfest in Mainz in a few weeks—I know that neither Bregenz nor Salzburg are in Germany, but I imagine these are festivals in the same tradition of Sommerfestpiele, just less fruity.) Furthermore, if previous posts were not evidence enough, I will be forthright about my soft spot for (and some soft spots because of) food. I imagined several people bustling between stalls, eating Erdbeerkuchen, drinking some alcoholic realization of strawberries (it is after all summer in Germany), and wearing strawberry hats in the same vein as Wisconsin cheese hats.
To give credit where it’s due, the strawberry hats were Ambika’s addition. Ambika is a friend who is studying in Freiburg for the entire year. She flew into Frankfurt from vacationing with her family in Sweden and spent some time with me here before returning to Freiburg. Last Sunday morning, Ambika and I thought it would be fun to go to the Erdbeerfest, so we began walking down one of Gonsenheim’s big streets, expecting small children dressed as strawberries, strawberry beer carts, and commemorative lederhosen. Would a strawberry-shaped hot air balloon be too much to ask for?
But the street was only marginally busier than usual, and only a few stalls were out. We kept walking and asked someone at one of the stalls where we should go to see more of the festival. (When we’re together, Ambika does most of the talking. Having already been here for 9 months, having taken German at the graduate level at the University of Iowa, and having a natural knack for learning languages, Ambika speaks impeccable German.) The “big part” (please take note of the very purposeful addition of quotation marks/inverted commas) of the festival was farther down the street a few blocks. We walked as directed and came to a park approximately half the size of a standard US block that had about 5 tents and a small stage surrounding a handful of tables that seemed all the fewer because they were mostly empty. Most of the stalls sold nothing strawberry-related (pottery, jewelry and one’s general flea-market goodies, certainly no commemorative T-shirts let alone lederhosen). The alcohol looked decidedly standard. Both being self-declared amateur gastrophiliacs, we were most excited for the Erdbeerkuchen. We tried it at two stalls. The first slice was unapologetically store-bought, with machine-perfect fluted edges on the exceptionally dry cake covered in a solid mass of still-frozen strawberries. The other slice, which looked more promising, was also unbearably dry and had a cream filling that tasted like it was made from cream that was about to go bad, but had lasted just long enough. I know that, in general, German cake is not as moist as cake in the US, but this cake was bad by international standards.
The stage featured a volunteer band and their very low-bowing director, playing music I would expect to hear from a German brass band. Somewhat disheartened, but having a wonderful time nonetheless, we went to a very German restaurant for a lunch of schnitzel (of course), Spargeln in Hollandaise sauce (it is both strawberry- and asparagus-season in Germany), and Salzkartoffeln (which, as the name suggests, is nothing more than boiled potatoes with salt). We were seated at the same table as a very nice, old German couple, with whom we (meaning mostly Ambika) chatted for a while. During our meal, the mayor of Gonsenheim came to eat in the restaurant with her large entourage. Everyone in the restaurant seemed to know each other, which gave the whole experience a very comfortable, easy feeling. Afterwards, we went to a busy bakery and polished off 2 slices of proper, delicious cake (one Erdbeerkuchen and the other some Frankfurt cream cake that Ambika wanted to try).
Walking back home we encountered what I could only reason was the mascot for the Erbeerfest (or the village idiot, but I think that the notion of a village idiot is one found only in cartoons), a strangely-dressed clown-like man who would dance little jigs and mime and point for no apparent other reason. We also were lucky enough to see the parade, the entirety of which passed in the time it took us to walk a block. There were no floats, just two marching bands, some cars that heralded the arrival of the Erdbeerkönigin and Erdbeerprinzessen, and a minivan with a very confused-looking family that I imagine was mistakenly included in this parade.
One of the Erdbeerprinzessen gave Ambika a white rose. Two blocks later, Ambika gave the rose to a group of old women. If you know Ambika, this comes as no surprise.
The word kitsch is very fitting; it was sort of a ridiculous festival and, it seemed, many of the locals thought so as well. But it was endearing in its own way (much like, yes, lumpy Christmas sweaters can be endearing). It bleached out some of the tint in the rose-colored glasses through which I had thus far seen Germany—even Germany can be sort of ridiculous and kitsch. After all, people, no matter where you are, have some similarities. Insofar as people are people, they are, almost unfailingy, without exception, at some points in time, a little bit kitsch.