Christine Madden

journalist | editor | dramaturg | literary translator

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From Bierfest to mass protest: a week in Munich

There’s more than one way to experience the rock-concert vibe in Munich. The past week demonstrates, whether for party or protest, how young and old come together in Bavaria’s capital in the spirit of Gemütlichkeit

Revellers dancing on the tables at Munich’s Frühlingsfest. Photograph: Christine Madden

“Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!” Thousands of young people are standing on beer table benches – when they’re not jumping up and down on them – bellowing the traditional Bavarian beer-drinking song along with the band. They’re at the Frühlingsfest, a kind of mini Oktoberfest in April and May on the same festival grounds. Even though their final year leaving exams are taking place during these weeks, having a stonkingly great time.

The phrase could be translated as “A toast to relaxed, good times”. Gemütlichkeit is a very hard word to render in German, and Bavarians have basically claimed it for their own. It carries the sense of cosiness and relaxed, jolly conviviality. Gemütlich, however, is exactly what it isn’t in the beer tent. This is more like a rock concert, the tent jammed to the rafters, the crowd shouting along to the band playing oldies from the 80s and 90s. The people dancing on the tables are drunk on beer and enthusiasm. Most of them are dressed in Lederhosen and Dirndls.

I’m sitting in a section on the side with a workplace group that booked its table in advance. It’s clearly not the cool place to be. At the adjacent table, a woman in traditional dress, who’s realised this and doesn’t like it, stands up by herself on the bench her comrades are sitting on and jumps up and down. By the time I leave, she’s got her boyfriend to join her.

I can’t hear myself think, let alone hold a conversation with anyone whose ear is further than two centimetres from my mouth, but that’s hardly the point. The atmosphere is electric and infectious – as the woman jumping and swaying dangerously on her bench next to me would concur.

Revellers or rebels? Protesters with nothing to hide at the #noPAG demonstration in Munich. Photograph: Christine Madden

There’s a greater sense of Gemütlichkeit a week later at a very different gathering. On 10 May – Ascension Day, a bank holiday in Catholic Bavaria – a crowd assembles on the Marienplatz, the main town square in city centre Munich. They’re coming together for a demonstration to protest the new Polizeiaufgabengesetz (PAG), a policing regulations act that will give the Bavarian police force enlarged powers of surveillance, allow them to take action in “threatening danger” (as opposed to “explicit danger”) and theoretically make it possible to detain someone indefinitely without trial. The organisers of #noPAG are expecting 7,000 protesters. Up to 40,000 people turn up, carrying signs and banners, wearing T-shirts and stickers with anti-PAG slogans.

Like at a rock concert, the sense of belonging, of coming together for a common cause is strong, the camaraderie palpable. The Marienplatz is so full it’s impossible to manoeuvre through. The crowd swells into the side streets on all sides as far as the eye can see. When they start their planned one-kilometre march, there are so many more people than expected that the first people in the parade reach the end point at Odeonsplatz before the last stragglers on Marienplatz have even begun to move.

The governing party, the CSU, immediately criticised the demonstration and its organisers, the minister for the interior saying the protest was based Lügenpropaganda (mendacious propaganda, something that sounds a lot like “fake news”). The Bavarian minister president, despite sticking to his policy, strikes a more conciliatory tone, wanting to enter into dialogue with the PAG’s critics. The opposition, including the SPD, Green, Linke and other parties and organisations, continue adamantly to oppose the revised law. The government maintains the new law is necessary to ensure safety. The opposition asserts that it transgresses the federal constitution, encroaching on personal freedoms and privacy.

Bavaria will host state and local elections in October this year. The lines of opposition are sharpening. The one thing they all have in common: they believe in the Bavarian state and their ability to represent it. Their vision of how to uphold a peaceful, functioning and indeed gemütlichBavaria differ widely.

A sweet deal for pensioners

An innovative Munich start-up employs pensioners to bake old-fashioned, traditional cakes. It offers them the opportunity to earn money, feel useful and meet people – and their customers, to enjoy cakes baked with love

Oma Rosemarie (Rottmann), with Opa Günter (Haun), at work at Kuchentratsch. Photograph: Christine Madden

The sweet, warm fragrance envelopes you as soon as you walk through the door. Hidden in a courtyard from the busy street, the Kuchentratsch cake shop entices you in. Just beyond the counter, the doorway to the expansive kitchen stands open, affording a view to the bakers hard at work. Despite the size and industrial fittings of the bakery, you could imagine you’ve called in at your granny’s. The bakers here are all over 65.

Brought into being as a start-up by Katharina Mayer – who, in her 20s, is far from pension age – Kuchentratsch (translation: cake chat/gossip) is not simply a bakery. It’s also a social enterprise and thriving experiment. As an answer to the question “What kind of society would I like to live in when I’m old?”, the company was established to give pensioners the opportunity for suitable employment that also puts much-needed extra funds in their coffers.

“I started by asking myself, ‘Where can you get a really good piece of cake?’ But I always got the best cake at my own granny’s,” says Mayer.

Read more here

Published by The Local Germany, 9 March 2018


There’s no place like home

Unique, well-loved Munich café Kaffee Espresso & Barista is shutting down – another casualty of gentrification

Counter culture: baristas Heike Kahms and Boris Sliskovic at Kaffee Espresso & Barista. Photograph: Christine Madden

My “office” is changing hands, and I’m as gutted as the premises will be when they close it down. Strictly speaking, it’s not actually a workplace, but a local and much-loved café. I discovered this place almost seven years ago when I moved into the neighbourhood. It’s not showy or flashy, it doesn’t scream at you with shop-window marketing or streamlined, chichi interiors. Yet it emanates charm, intimacy and welcome. It has style without being stylish, beauty as opposed to fashion.

Munich is a property hotspot. Crushing difficulty in finding accommodation has become the norm. This situation has existed for decades, getting more difficult by the hour. But while German law protects private individuals regarding their rental contracts, no such protection is on the books for small businesses. This is what happened to the owner and proprietor of Kaffee Espresso & Barista, Thomas Leeb. Without any warning, he was unable to renew his lease, and he’ll have to move out of his establishment. After 15 years as a fixture of the local community of Neuhausen (centre-west Munich), the café will cease to exist.

Interior of Kaffee Espresso & Barista. Photograph: Christine Madden

“I’ve lived here for 10 years, this is my local café,” says patron Christine Knesebeck, who visits almost daily with her dog Tonio. “It has a special atmosphere. There’s nothing like it. It should actually have protected status.”

Kaffee Espresso & Barista – which has the name Café Hausbrandt over its door – could be seen as a work of art; “people experience it that way,” says Leeb. “It’s a meeting place with many faces. We grant ourselves leave to express our individuality.” The café – which is, he says, a shop that serves coffee – is unique in several respects. The concept behind it combines a display and sales point for espresso machines, their accessories and the quality coffee to prepare in them. The same coffee is also prepared for customers who want to step into a mini, café-sized wormhole to a relaxed, 360-degree, full-sensory experience of another, more romantic time and space. Vintage posters from early 1900 onwards cover most of the wall space. Plush leather couches and rattan chairs surround polished stone and mosaic tables in intimate clusters. Lit shelves scattered throughout the café groan with different kinds of coffee, cups, coffee pots and espresso machines and a wide array of their accompanying paraphernalia. Leeb even lavishes attention on the choice of music, which ranges from French chansons and Latin rhythms to quirky Italian songs. Boxing this place up won’t just be a gargantuan task – it’s the vivisection of a social ecosystem.

Street view of Kaffee Espresso & Barista. Photograph: Christine Madden

The district council is able to intervene to protect the atmosphere of its locality, but only concerning the sale of a building. In a case such as this, unfortunately, its hands are tied. Local government can do nothing to prevent the demise of Kaffee Espresso & Barista. “An appeal could be started,” says Anna Hanusch, the chair of Munich’s ninth district, where the café is located, “but ultimately the lessor has this right.” Although German law bestows certain protections on private tenants, small businesses and their owners have no such security. It would be necessary, acknowledges Hanusch, to change the law on a national level. As she also lives in the area, she says, “the café is a real institution, it’s a great shame” that it will close.

“Businesses have no protection whatsoever,” Leeb states. “That goes for rent increases and lease cancellation. Rents can be doubled. It’s called the free market.”

Corner wall, Kaffee Espresso & Barista. Photograph: Christine Madden

The lessor of the premises apparently has another patron lined up for the space – who will be putting a café in it, quelle surprise. But whether someone can also put an equivalent atmosphere in the space is doubtful. This is a neighbourhood café, and the locals who frequent it feel a strong sense of ownership – and great regret to see it vanish. Many people come here in the mornings for their coffee, sandwiches and pastries – takeaway or not – meeting and greeting one another as you would at your local pub. Patrons come and go throughout the day, in groups or alone, to work or hold meetings or to have a chat or just a moment’s respite with a coffee and a bun in an atmosphere described by barista Heike Kahms as “an Italian living room”. Shutting this down is gentrification without gentility.

Interior of Kaffee Espresso & Barista. Photograph: Christine Madden

Leeb is actively searching for a new premises in the immediate area – which he acknowledges will be no easy task. In the meantime, Kaffee Espresso & Barista will close its doors to many desolate customers while he and his team box up the interior, which in its comfort and style emanates a certain, diva-like dignity.

“Building owners could decide to leave a café and not throw people out on the street,” laments Knesebeck. “I will miss this café very much.”

  • Do you frequent this café and will miss it? Or do you mourn the loss of a beloved local fixture in your neighbourhood? We’d love to hear from you!

Bar area of Kaffee Espresso & Barista. Photograph: Christine Madden

A peek into the back office at Kaffee Espresso & Barista

Interior of Kaffee Espresso & Barista. Photograph: Christine Madden


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