A lot of things went through my mind when I considered Rhein en Flammen, the annual five date spectacle that takes place along the river between Koblenz (The largest of the five takes place in August) and Bonn (first weekend in May). I had been told that all the stops were removed for this event. Expect up to 200 illuminated boats, fireworks, and music, lots of beer and güt times. I was ready and I was not disappointed.
In my mind I had a vision of some tribal get down with fire lit icons and people singing their ancient songs as connection to the rites of May. My mind had me attending something akin to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will where leather clad youth would be beating the daylights out of kettle drums and the town elders would appear on a massive dais. What I actually discovered was an event very similar to Canada Day festivities at Winnipeg’s The Forks except here the fireworks go off to salute passing boats that are all decked out in their finest light bulbs.
The party itself is held on Grafenwerth, the island on the port side of the river at Bad Honnef that is home to a thermal spa and other attractions. People start filling up the grass lawns early and the music starts mid afternoon. I rode Bike Too over from the boat to check out the scene. I found lots of families enjoying merry go rounds and kiddies’ bungee jumping. On the stage the act was working through a version of Black Magic Woman with a pretty tasty series of guitar licks. I decided to stay and listen. Next it was Born to be Wild followed by a long string of American classic oldies. I found myself wondering – Doesn’t Germany have its own classic rock? What about Nina or Kraftwerk – ‘on, on, on the Autobahn’. It was also very obvious that this music was for the old folks. It really hit home that the classic catalogue is to my generation what Lawrence Welk and Montevoni was to my grandparent’s group. Here it was being ladled out as well recognized middle of the road music that was safe for all ages. What would Pete Townsend think now that his generation is long of tooth? Wonder if he’s still hoping they all fade away?
One thing about Germany is that there is no gathering without beer. Mixed in with the kiddy rides are stands offering a wide array of weißbier, kölsch and pils. Many just brought their own in plastic cases that hold 20 – 500ml bottles. In fact, coming over the bridge I was struck by how many 20 to 25 year old guys were carrying these cases. I also noticed that girls don’t carry beer. Like the world over girls drink beer, but guys buy it, guys carry it and its guys that take back the empties. Among the 25-year-old males and females that were coming over the bridge most were well on their way to happyland. This left me wondering who was going to drink all this brew they were carrying in? Evidently, the revelers on Grafenwerth were up to the challenge and the next morning revealed not an empty bottle, discarded cup or beer cap with-in the confines of the 20 or so acres that comprises the site. German organization and preparedness had the entire event choreographed right down to late night garbage pick-up.
This efficiency is pervasive with-in the German social order with much in life administered and regulated. Consider the school system. At the end of Grade IV students are tested to determine their futures. Those that score well are placed on an upper track through the gymnasium that takes them into university and the range of professions. Those that may not do quite so well in the tests are marshaled off into trades and vocations. A third group gets the equivalent of a Grade IX education and goes to work on the lower rungs of the employment ladder. I have been told that once the die is cast it is virtually impossible to change tracks. If you are slated for trades at age nine, university is simply out of your grasp unless you wish to attend as a mature student and pay high costs. I have been told as well that later in life university learners are not as valued because of their previous academic standing. Everything goes back to Grade IV. I know if this had been my fate I would not even be qualified to study to become a rodeo clown or outhouse attendant.
This organization has earned Germany an enviable place among the world’s leading economies. While, the country is having a bit of a slowdown at the moment, it still enjoys an unemployment rate between three and five per cent, a rate most social scientists view as indicative of near full employment in a society. To fill those places at the very bottom, Germany is searching the world for temporary foreign workers much like Canada is doing. The flip side is that while Germany is not looking for immigration the temps they bring in tend to stay and find ways to claw up a living in towns and cities where they live in contrast to the closed tribal identity that is mainstream German society. Indeed, at Rhine en Flamen there were very, very few faces of visible minorities. In fact, not a hajib, not a sari, not a fez was visible among the thousands of people. Of the four times I cruised through the site I saw one man of colour and one woman with a headscarf bringing her little boy to the rides after dinner. How different from Canada’s cities where gatherings are a cultural checkerboard where kiosks sell Sri Lankan curry, beside Portuguese fish, beside Ukrainian perogies in addition to booths selling mainstream burnt beef and fries.
Certainly, one thing I will take away from Rhein en Flammen is how the German people are prepared to temporarily put aside their well-considered responsibilities and just enjoy life’s simple things. Already I have discovered that Sunday shopping laws are strongly supported and not just because this is a massively Christian country but also because they can see the value in a day dedicated to connecting with friends and family. Stores close early on Saturday and many open late on Monday. Simply, German efficiency allows its economy to speed along on fewer days open. This gives them an opportunity to go down to the river for a few beers and blow up some stuff every year in May and follow through with a wide range of festivals and holidays that make Germans among the most party hearty Europeans.