Here in Germany bad often means good. This was certainly the case regarding Bad Honnef, a town in which I stayed for six weeks with engine troubles. I sat at the dock, first with a disconnected drive train that required professional tools to rethread the massive iron flywheel, and then with a troublesome forward and reverse that required the skills of Ralf from KO (Koblenz). Fortunately I had the company of good friends of whom some showed themselves to be poorly mannered, greedy and a little cranky. I’m not speaking about the capricious Sigbert Mayer who is special in his own greedy, cranky way, I speak about Wilma and her consort Swan, two of the white geese that worked the docks at the rowing club. Over the weeks they became more like feathered dogs than birds. I couldn’t call them with human noises, but the sound of a bread bag opening would have Wilma muscling hard with her big black feet pushing her fast through the slough. At boat side she would wait expectedly for bits of old croissant or Landsbrot. The prospect of a bit of bread would get her very excited. She would paddle hard bringing her bulk up much higher in the water and reach into the boat with her long slender neck. She would wiggle all over. After I gave her a bit if bread she would settle down and wag her tail feathers with pleasure. All this action would get Swan over to join her. Swan was bigger and sported reddish brown accents to his well-coiffed head. The bits of colour somehow made me think of him as a small town Southern BBQ cashier. I imagined Swan working by day taking cash for briskets with extra mop sauce and then holding KKK meetings in moonlit fields by night. His head and neck feathers were very slick from searching out bits of river bottom. He would wait at boat side glancing first at me and then at Wilma and then at the bread bag. When I reached in to grab a piece they would both rise up and push against the boat with their chests and reach with their necks while I laughed. If I gave a bit to Wilma, Swan would hiss and I would have to scold him before handing over a morsel. If the bread was too big you could see it travel all the way down his neck. I figured that couldn’t be good, so I started using a knife to cut more custom-sized bites for each of my friends.
When I left Bad Honnef I was sad to say good-bye to Wilma and Swan. However, no sooner had I stopped the engines after a day’s running than a new best friend appeared. As I sat on the beach grounded, I could depend on Beak to come by to cheer me up. I watched him and we shared a few loaves of bread. When I got going I discovered that he was following me. As I took cover in a slough near Leutesdorf there he was and so I had company for the night. Not much of a conversationalist, Beak would entertain with his signature grunts and characteristic feeding practices that would have him lower his neck into the water and then tilt his entire body to better grasp tasty river bottom weed tops that he would bring to the surface. His face said ‘Ist Geschmack’.
Leutesdorf is a town with an interesting history. As is often the case among the communities along the Rhine,Leutesdorf found itself at odds with its wealthier and more gentile neighbour. In this case the neighbour is Andernach, a lovely walled community just across the river and over a bit. The Leutesdorfers could not restrain their envy and hatred of the opulent Burghers and their well dressed Dammen in Andernach and so it was decided that the men would don their armour, climb into boats and raid the town in the early morning hours. It was a moonless night and no alarm was raised as the Leutesdorf landing parties made their way across the Rhine to pillage Andernach. However, the early morning is also a time for bakers and so it was that two young apprentice bakers were out delivering their loaves before sunrise. From across the river the two could hear the splashing of oars and the occasional cough. They looked over the wall and to their horror they saw the boats filled with envious Leutesdorfers. It was too late to sound the alarm and even though the apprentices were only boys against the force of armed men, they saw that quick action was necessary to save their town. They devised a plan and waited. As the armed group got to the wall the bakers upturned the town’s bee hives onto the luckless Leutesdorfers. The bees swarmed under the men’s armour and the group ran back to their boats swatting and shouting as the bees stung them miserably. The town was saved and the boys ( and the bees) became heros. The scheming Leutesdorfers went back to invent calamine lotion and dream of revenge.
The fact that Andernach had bee hives in town underscores a continuing fact of life in Germany – small plot mixed agriculture. Yes, the country also has large operations that are needed to supply their incredible wheat and celery root needs, but it is a common sight to see a three hectare farm where there is a fowl house, half acre of wheat, sunflowers and vegetable plot as well as orchard. In Mittlenich where the boat sat for a bit, the yacht club had once been part of a larger farm that had succumbed to urban needs for homes and business. Still, the farmer was managing to keep it real with a very tidy operation. Every day, I would walk past the wide variety of chickens, ducks and geese in a large yard that displayed the intricacies of bird society. The black ducks would play with the small apples that would fall from the tree. One would guard an apple and then push it with his beak as another duck approached. Like a match between the Bruins and Jets, ducks would run as best they could to try and touch the apple. None would ever eat it. It was just a game.
All the birds interacted, albeit in flocks, amid a kind of community where birds of a feather stayed together (much akin to the tribalism that is inherent in German society). Overseeing the action were the roosters. The biggest and most aggressive of the birds, they stood their ground and watched the games of apple hockey with limited approval. The largest of the roosters had a wonderful appearance that made them look as though they were wearing pants and strutting about with hands behind backs (I know chickens don’t have hands). Occasionally, they would dart out at a duck that pushed the apple too close to a hen. I could not help but think how similar these birds were to my friends Swan, Wilma and Beak (you too Nose). Certainly, more aggressive, these chickens with pants were not the hand feeding sort. But, like the swans that glide the river edges and jetties, these birds were part of a community where each had their place in a balance that denied the need for brutality. Could it be that the humans in places like Leutesdorf could learn from the easy social workings of the small scale farm where birds of a feather may flock together but get along in a mutual respect?