In Germany, lockdown to contain coronavirus outbreak has meant a summer without...summer itself

Starting with the opening of biergartens in spring and bookended with the drunken bedlam of Oktoberfest, German summers are a call for the outdoors for a population battered and bruised by long-drawn winters with gray skies and short days.

Prathap Nair May 16, 2020 09:24:10 IST
In Germany, lockdown to contain coronavirus outbreak has meant a summer without...summer itself

This essay is part of our 'a summer without...' series. Read more here.

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On a mid-weekday not too long ago, the near-deserted city center of Frankfurt, the city I recently moved to, looked like it was sleeping in after a long night of drunken debauchery. A typical weekday afternoon, it was not. Never have I ever seen the city so empty and bereft of human presence on a sunny day like this.

Roads were empty, shops and restaurants remained shuttered and the rare ones open had long queues of people — respectably social distancing — snaking outside them, desperate for a bit of retail therapy after endless days of lockdown-enforced confinement at home. I want to say these lines are reminiscent of wartime bread lines but I realise that’s an assault on hardships endured by folks who actually queued up for real food.

The only struggle I seem to have is the unavailability of limitless packs of pasta or fresh yeast to make my next sourdough loaf. (Before you pounce on me on a minor technicality here, yes you still need fresh yeast for quick results because in most cases, your sourdough starter may simply not be strong enough for a good rise unless you proof the dough for longer.)

A luminescent looking older woman strode past, wearing a clear plastic shield on her face as if she just walked out of the set of a sci-fi film, forgetting to hand over her prop. Earlier at the local train station, I saw two young boys sheepishly looking around, to lower their masks momentarily off their faces. Wearing masks has recently been made mandatory across Germany and this strange new accessory is taking some getting used to.

In general, the mood was sombre. This is not how I ever imagined summer would be in Germany.

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A man with a face mask walks in front of the Old Opera in Frankfurt, Germany. AP Photo

I have no specific love for summers. I grew up in Tamil Nadu and Kerala where stepping out for much of the year meant swinging between braving the sun and dying of thirst or enduring some public ridicule and carrying an umbrella. It’s a widely self-enforced habit in Kerala to carry an umbrella in the sun whereas in TN — where an umbrella is synonymous with rains — it’s considered emasculating. Do not ask me why but Tamil Nadu’s love for sun is rooted in a special kind of masochistic, (mildly) toxic masculine pride. Perhaps also why I won’t be caught indulging in the immigrant nostalgia of sun-drenched summer afternoons under mango trees.

Simply put, in India you stay indoors in summer, in Germany you stay outdoors. Starting with the opening of biergartens in spring and bookended with the drunken bedlam of Oktoberfest, German summers are a call for the outdoors for a population battered and bruised by long-drawn winters with gray skies and short days. This notwithstanding that fact that consistently in the past few years, the mercury level has been going dangerously upwards in the summer months, causing panic-buying and selling out of electric fans.

It’s little surprise then the depressingly monochrome winters that confine you indoors have made me a convert. This year however, beer gardens — where glasses brimming with frothy heads of weizen and pilsner or even alkoholfrei are shared with strangers in long benches under grand old oaks and lindens, sometimes without even elbow room to spare — have become #tbt memories to be relived only on social media.

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An employee of a restaurant at the Paulsplatz square puts up a parasol in Frankfurt, Germany, on 15 May 2020. The restaurants and pubs in Hesse have been allowed to reopen under strict regulations. AP Photo

In Stuttgart, where I used to live before, I have seen the orderliness of beer garden drinking sessions giving way to something unruly when beer tents, part of Volkfest — the prelude to Oktoberfest — opened its doors. Their usual stoicism replaced by festive gaiety, the otherwise crowd-weary Germans squeezed themselves into packed trains dressed in their lederhosen/dirndl finery to get to the beer tents. It’s a ritual that announced the arrival of summer, brimming with hopes of ausland vacations in distant waters (Cuba was a particular favourite last year).

Now with restrictions in place on hospitality businesses, social events and gatherings have long become tools of nostalgia. Hence it came as no surprise when Oktoberfest — the Coachella of drinking festivals that put Munich on the world tourism map — was simply cancelled.

Not to mention, nobody is taking this assault on their freedom lying down. “Germans are sneaking out of the house more, despite saying they support the lockdown. Mobile phone data shows the wrong curve is flattening,” a report revealed. There have been sporadic protests in some cities across the country, urging the government to speed up easing the lockdown measures.

Even though the country is fast easing its lockdown restrictions, Angela Merkel and her ministers are cautiously delivering the hard news that vacations outside the country this year might just not happen. Cancel your flight tickets against vouchers and switch your vacation to a domestic destination, they seemed to say. At this point, even travels within Europe looks entirely uncertain.

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The sun has set behind the buildings of the banking district in Frankfurt, Germany. AP Photo

Germans, much like their European brethren, take their summer vacations with an almost religious fervour — it’s not uncommon for businesses to simply lock up and go their merry way on a vacation for a whole month. Summer is also when the whole of Germany packs its beach wear and sunscreen and takes off to empty itself out onto the beaches of Mallorca or the Canary Islands. With that in mind and to ease the newfound reality of a cancelled summer vacation, television channels are already running programmes on ‘hidden gems’ worth visiting in Germany, selling people their own country as an alternative vacation destination. This pandemic will also cause serious dip in Europe’s tourism revenue this year.

For now, it looks like my summer will be confined to my balcony watching the rarely clear canvas of the empty sky without contrails left by (now grounded) aircrafts in their wakes, with store-bought beer in hand. Whilst on the subject, the silence of the skies is so deafening even the aircraft noise pollution activists want the aircrafts back in the skies, reported a local newspaper.

It’s a lockdown summer I’ll share with 80 million other dutiful Germans. It’s not that bad of a reality — I’m in the comfort of my own home, not walking miles to get to it. Even as supply lines have been disrupted and fresh Indian vegetables have become a rarity, the situation is not nearly apocalyptic. For a few more months, as the mask-wearing new normal continues, life as we know may not resume to its pre-pandemic reality and the simple pleasures of summer would have to be surrendered because the curve needs to be flattened. For now, despite displeased grumbles, this summer will be frugal in Germany. Given that this invisible bugbear needs to be contained, Germans largely seem onboard with the idea.

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