“I don´t walk, I ramble” I proudly told Francesca when she asked me if I like to walk. Walking for Germans means a Spaziergang on Sunday afternoon, after lunch and before “Kaffee und Kuchen”, when the stomach is full and the brain empty. It describes a mild way of slow movement in the neighborhood. While walking, adults talk, and children are bored.
Rambling (Wandern), on the contrary, means to get up early in the morning and do 20 to 30 km in the woods. As 30 percent of the German surface is covered by wood, places to ramble never are far away. Big cities even provide a Stadtwald, an area of wood planted and cared for by the city council. There are Volkswandertage, when rambling becomes a competion, and there is the First of May, our Labour day, when traditionally people first demonstrate and then ramble. For a few years now, it is very much en vogue to ramble along paths the pilgrims followed in the middle ages, like the Jacob´s way in Spain.
In a German wood, you won´t see any “no tresspassing signs”. By old law, the woods are open to everybody. And everybody uses them: national polls show that 61 percent of the Germans walk/ramble at least once a week. The most ambitious ramblers, some 780.000, organize themselves in the Deutsche Alpenverein. Its volunteers cater for 20.000 km of rambling paths all over Germany. Wanderkarten, surveyor maps, show every detail of the terrain. When trails cross, little signs fixed to the trees indicate where to go and how far it will be. Chances to get seriously lost are nil. Nevertheless, a growing number of people use GPS-tracking systems to find their way.
While in former days ramblers wore red-and-white checkered shirts, grey knickerbockers, green wool-knitted sock and a rambling stick, today you will see more sophisticated outdoor gear here than in Alaska. Germans love high tech, even if it is not in a car. Goretex, Polartec, Vibram–you name it, we have it.
When I was I a kid, my family went out to ramble every Sunday. As a child, I loved it. Each kid got a little daypack with salami rolls, apples and Sunkist, a childrens softdrink in a pack shaped like a pyramid. On our tours we could run, climb trees, balance on trunks, jump over creeks and sometimes, in rare moments of silence, we would see deer crossing our path. Then, after hours of steady climbing, the summit. What a grandiose view. For a few moments, we children, used to look up to everybody, could look down on everything. While in everyday life, the steep valley slopes stopped our view of the world, now we could see France, Switzerland and Austria just by turning around. On clear autumn days, our view touched the Alps, 200 miles away.
There are a lot of things that haven´t changed since. Still, it is good rambling etiquette to say “Guten Tag” (Good Day) or “Grüß Gott” (Greetings God) to everybody you meet in the woods. Still, in a mixed group, the men unvariably walk in the front, talking, followed by the women, talking. Normally, you walk on a circle tour, with at least one “Gasthaus” to stop, where a “Brotzeit” is served, simple food like “Erbsensuppe mit Würstchen”-pea soup with sausages-or slices of bread with liverwurst and mustard.
Alas, one part of the tradition definitely is gone–the singing. The “Wanderlieder” were beautiful folksongs everybody could sing. The most popular was “Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust, das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust, das Wa-an-dern,….“, probably because of the simple lyrics. The one I loved most went “Wem Gott will rechte Gunst erweisen, den schickt er in die weite Welt ..”–Whom God wants to do a favour he sends out to see his world. This song alludes to the deeper meaning of Wanderlust, the siren´s call of a new world many Germans follow still today.
For centuries, Germans left home to find a better life somewhere else. Often, they were forced to leave: sold as soldiers to fight for the British in the American War of Independence, expelled because of their religious believes, starved by famines, left jobless in times of recessions. Like my forefathers: on my fathers side, as early as the 16th century, they crossed the Alps from Italy to work in a mine in Southern Germany. On my mothers side, they left Austria in the 17th century for religious reasons and started to farm in East Prussia. My mother left home when the Russian army came after World War II, my uncle shipped to Australia in the 50ies to find work. Today, an average of 150 000 Germans emigrate each year. While the older ones head for Spain, Europe´s equivalent to Florida, the younger go to Switzerland, Austria and the United States.
Most probably, they will start to ramble in their new environment. So, if you see a rambler in a place nobody ever rambled before, just greet him with a hearty “Guten Tag”. If he answers with a “Gruezi”, he is Swiss.
But this is another story.