Magic Germany: Rundlauf Tischtennis

Something amazing happened my first day of school in Germany at Gymnasium (German high school). During a break, kids from the adjoining elementary school spilled out into the playground and mobbed a monotone cement ping pong table. They began hopping and yelling excitedly. As I moved closer and saw what they were doing, I felt like my entire life had been a lie.

Rundlauf Tischtennis
Pic thanks Oranjejon via Creative Commons

On that day I realized America had been making a grave mistake. Ping pong tables were not something to be given at Christmas and repurposed as craft tables by Easter. They were actually useful recreational gear that could entertain more than four for far longer than just a few weeks of vacation. In Germany I discovered ping pong tables – excuse me, table tennis tables – had a place in society.

I was enthralled.

The kids weren’t playing monotonous rounds of Smack the Plastic Orb as Hard as You Can, they were playing round-the-table (I guess?) table tennis. A player hits the ball across the net and then steps to their side. The player at the other end volleys and then steps to the right or left only to cycle around to another turn on the opposing side. The game continues until a player flubs a hit – and then they’re out. Players are eliminated until only the final two remain. And once a champion is crowned, they are quickly forgotten as the next round starts without a word.

Rundlauf. Tischtennis.

Noise. Anticipation. Defeat. It felt very Thunderdomey. Or at least Dodgebally. And I couldn’t give it a shot because I was too old (or so I thought).

In my childhood, my friend Sean was the only one with a table that was actually used, and that was only because we cajoled him into games in the hopes of getting a glimpse or even a few words with his older sister Kate. Tables sat ignored and unused alongside PlayStations and Gameboys. And that day at Gymnasium I mourned the hours we wasted playing Combat on Atari 2600s when we could have been facing off in Rundlauf Tischtennis. And the occasional round of Smack the Plastic Orb as Hard as You Can.

So much youth wasted!

In turn-of-the-century Berlin, I finally got my chance to play at Ping Pong Country events and eventually Dr. Pong (though by then I had kids). And now there are apparently similar ping pong bars in the U.S. But I can’t help but feel my childhood was incomplete.

Rundlauf Tischtennis, you complete me.

Things I Found Magical About Germany: Wagenstandsanzeiger

In these days of Skype-fueled long-distance relationships and low-cost airlines, the Wagenstandsanzeiger, or train car location sign (I know, German, right?) may not seem like such a magical beast but when I was a teenager it seemed as foreign as a bank that doesn’t need to be bailed out. It’s a sign on every German train platform that knows your train intimately and will tell you exactly where on your platform the train will stop – restrooms and all.

tumblr_inline_nzkq3sFpWx1sqqghr_500%255B1%255D[1]I came from a country where train delays weren’t measured in minutes or even hours but rather days. In my childhood, American passenger trains were never delayed by things like inclement weather or suicidal twenty-somethings. They seemed to suffer from depression, only getting up the nerve to traverse the country after a couple of stiff whiskeys and a stern talking to by the Minister of Transportation.

“Mother,” my mother would tell her mother through a plastic, yellow phone with a rotary dial, “The train was supposed to leave Tuesday but they say now it may be Thursday. We’re hoping to get there before we have to start back.” My grandmother never believed my mother. But after we arrived days late, my grandmother would complain about how late the train always was.

“I told you,” my mother would say. She never got along with her mother and, just to keep up the family tradition, I never got along with my mother either. My mother wasn’t blessed with any daughters so they drafted me for the role.

It was amidst this climate that I went to Germany as an exchange student and found the wondrous unicorn known as the Wagenstandsanzeiger. “You mean, they not only know which trains are going to show up at what time, but they even know which car will be where?” I thought my guest mother had become a wizard. How could they know?

My guest mother was just as surprised at my surprise: “Of course there’s a Wagenstandsanzeiger and of course it’s right!” She looked at me as though my skin had turned purple and I’d grown antlers.

And from that day forward I never rode another train without first checking the Wagenstandsanzeiger. It’s a tradition I want to pass to my children. Because I’m not their mother so they can’t not get along with me.

Things I Found Magical About Germany: VW Golf Combi

This only makes sense in the context of my childhood.

The VW Golf was introduced into the U.S. in 1975 as the Rabbit. It looked like the rejected offspring of a stalwart Volvo mother and a dull Honda father. Read: Small and boxy. It was a fuel-efficient, compact car for people who didn’t want to go Japanese. These people were the auto-buying version of punks. Or at least vegans. The Rabbit was supposedly a success but the only people who drove it in pre-cable TV Littleton, Colorado were college professors and … college professors. After cable TV, Depeche Mode and Robin Leach, yuppies who couldn’t afford BMWs also opted for the convertible version. At least it was German.

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But no one ever dreamed of a Rabbit station wagon. Why would you? College professors never drove station wagons and if you needed that much room you’d opt for a real one anyway – one that could hold everything needed for a week-long trip to grandma’s or house a small New Guinean tribe. Besides, about then Lee Iacocca invented the mini-van, saving Chrysler and making station wagons pointless.

Then I went to Germany as an exchange student and discovered someone had taken a compact car and made it into a station wagon. They’d taken a car with not very much room and added not very much room more. You could maybe fit a medium-sized wiener dog in the back or go to the bowling alley with your wife and actually take both balls (jokes on me, Germans don’t bowl). The VW Rabbit station wagon – or Golf Combi, as the Krauts say – seemed like a car that never needed to be invented and yet there it was. In fact, in Wegberg, Germany, there a lot of them were. Magic.

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The Golf Combi had such a hold on me that it was one of the first things I looked for on the VW Internet site, way back in like 1994. Maybe ’95. And I even almost bought one after the birth of my first child – I wanted us to be surrounded by magic. But I went for its mother instead – a 1996 Volvo 850.

The Volvo’s rotting in a field now. Probably home to several generations of rabbit.