The Cooperative Kino

Last week, we discovered the cooperative movie theater.

The cooperative concept is something dear to me, but I have never considered or encountered a movie theater operating under this business model. This particular venue has over five hundred and thirty co-owners. It runs by a team of eighty volunteers, the majority of whom are owners. To my knowledge, there is only one salaried worker, and that is the bartender.

Yes, there is a bar at this theater.

Last Tuesday was our first evening there. One of V’s co-workers, M, invited us to a show about the north coast of Germany. This is a film where the visuals did most of the speaking, so we decided it would be appropriate given our limited language comprehension. After purchasing our tickets, we each grabbed a half-liter beer that we were permitted to bring into the theater. I was completely excited. In my younger years, I had tried smoking joints before entering the cinema, but given the length of previews in the US, the majority of the high was gone before the movie even began. There was also the time I wound up sneaking beers into a movie, but the bottle clanking and associated nervousness made me vow to never attempt this again. Now I get to sit with a beautiful beer glass and drink openly with all of the other patrons? The novelty of this alone made me blissful.

I liken this facility somewhere between my hometown independent movie theater and the bookstore slash casual theater of my favorite fictional town. The auditorium is quiet small, with perhaps eight rows of normal theater seats, with just six to eight chairs per row. In front of these are two rows of leather couches. The row closest to the screen is a collection of beach-style chairs that lean back to save the customers from pain that stems from being too close to the screen. Before the film started, a volunteer (to whom V and I spoke before M arrived) introduced not only the feature, but also the two American transplants to the audience. The theater is definitely a comfortable, community space.

The theater's pub and the doorway to the patio.

On Friday night, we decided to return. The location rarely shows English language films, but I really liked the vibe and I was curious if the bar hopped regardless of the cinema schedule. Plus, the bar is quite beautiful in that it is all wood with a large outside area. There was a good crowd of primarily middle-aged patrons. I was able to check out the bulletin board and noticed that musicians sometimes played. Sitting at the counter, V and I spent our time talking with the barkeep and a volunteer owner, J. J was amazing, sweet, and someone I would like to be. She professed her hate for having only one job, and is currently employed as a social worker helping the disabled in their homes and as a German language teacher at the local technical college. She invited us behind the scenes, where I promptly shushed V’s loud talking since a film appeared to be running. “Hey, it’s okay! We only have one today and he asked for an intermission smoke break,” the young, male projectionist told us in near perfect English. We meet the old projector, Emma, named after a children’s book train. Commenting on its durability, J said, “They don’t make them like this anymore. If they did, they would never sell any new ones.”

J and the young projectionist spend a bit of time lightly arguing about the value of Emma versus the new digital machines that the co-op is considering buying. We ask about the economic state of the theater, given that it is a Friday night and there is only one customer, “Sometimes there are shows like this. We always break even, but we could not do it without the volunteers.” I learned the Deutsch word for volunteer earlier in the evening as I asked J about opportunities: ehrenamtlich, a word with the root honor. As much as the English word volunteer suggests acting of one’s own volition, I know the concept is often tied up with the drudgery of requirements for high school students or corporate employees. Having honor directly in the word elevates the status nicely. “Alright, paying customer is back!” the projectionist remarked, shooing us away so the lone patron could get his money’s worth.

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Four Foreigners and a Barbecue.

Last Saturday, V’s coworker, A, invited us to a barbecue at her home. Her husband, S, lives in The Netherlands and they take turns every two weekends visiting one another. He would be around and the weather was lovely, so the plan was made.

The gathering was just the four of us, four non-Germans (A and S are originally from the Ukraine) in a German backyard for a barbecue of typical German fare. S set up a tiny, charcoal unit. As he put it together, it resembled a child’s Playskool toy. I imagined one swift flick of his wrist sending the grill soaring to the other side of the yard. “Where we are from, we always used wood to cook the meat,” he told us in his thick Russian accent, adding, “At least they have really good meat here.” V later admitted his initial intimidation by our burly host, but I found the accent charming and familiar, having been privy to Slavic culture often enough. A’s accent is not as strong, but her look is classically Eastern European. In character, she is slightly eccentric and very refreshing, saying off the cuff remarks and employing wildly animated gestures. V captured a great photo of the couple: A impulsively jumped on S’s back, one arm around him, the other towards the sky, while S swigs from a bottle of beer. The picture could easily be a figure skating pair performing the gold medal-winning move in the stereotype Olympics. A has a rambling manner of forming her silly musings, and she frequently checks with S in quick Russian for English words she cannot recall. “She actually used to be good at English, but now she’s forgotten it since she’s learned German,” S says. V and I can only hope our German will be as good as her English.

We feasted on various types of meat, a few slices of buttered bread, and some potatoes. S enjoyed shaking a bottle of German beer and using his thumb to direct the alcoholic explosion over the food and flames. I prepared a salad of mixed greens with feta, onion, strawberries, almonds, and a balsamic reduction. Our hosts said they never had strawberries in a salad before, but I think they liked it. I anticipate hosting many dinner gatherings in the coming months, and I am curious for the reactions towards our typical meals.

We inquired about the couple’s experiences in Germany, excited to get a real immigrant perspective on the land we have only known for a month. They shared a story of going back to a pet store after a rabbit they had purchased from it a few days earlier died. S imitated the pet shop employee: “Vhere is zee body?” After they informed him that they buried the animal and were not looking for a refund, the cashier added, “You haaf to weturn an item dat ez bad, you bring et beck! Vee vant to know vhat is vrong vit zee wabbit!” They recounted a drunken experience near Berlin that included running across the Autobahn in the middle of the night. “There was blood on your legs too,” A laughed, never indicating from where the blood came. There were more stories, but I’ll just leave you with the fact that I advised V to never going hiking or drinking with S if he wanted to remain alive and intact.

As it grew darker, the stories decreased until we were quiet on the grass. Those moments when you can just be with people without worrying about the silence are great ones that often indicate emerging friendships. We remembered that a meteor shower happened recently and we wondered if we could see any residual shooting stars. While the sky was not very dark, I realized that I had yet to really look at it here in Aalen. Our hotel is in the center of the town where the brightness really prohibits gazing. In this yard, we could detect some constellations and stars, and indeed a few made their way across the sky as we watched. It will never stop being neat that we live on a planet, all the northern land of which shares this same “sky” (view of outer space, is really what it is.) As we walked home, V remembered our night drive through the Colorado mountains when the stars were in front of us. He never would have thought he would live in Colorado, and now he lives in Germany. I have experienced that feeling a number of times, that feeling that happens when I reflect on my circumstances and realize that I never imagined I’d wind up quite exactly where I am. How cool is that? And what does it mean for where we will wind up in the future?

To the Hofbrauhaus!

After a night at our local tavern that included us providing Deutsch counting lessons, punks with head tattoos of highly contested content, and stolen marijuana accusations that led to near physical assaults, V, Joan, and I had to wake up early to catch our train to Munich. Joan is a friend from my time in Albany, a woman whose passion for food and hiking matches my own, but whose capacity for dancing and libations far exceeds most anyone. She had been visiting Germany and Switzerland for several weeks and decided to spend her last days visiting Aalen and joining us for a weekend trip to the closest tourist city. Ideally, this is the start of semi-regular adventuring for V and me.

The first leg of the journey was unremarkable. My travel companions attempted naps in the cabin, despite the stale heat and continual door slamming. When we transferred, we wound up on a train with a large number of soccer match attendees en route. The young, sunglassed boys behind us amused themselves by practicing English and offering us beers from an older man’s crate of bottles (he was happy to share with fellow sports fans). It was approximately eleven in the morning, and both V and J succumbed to the pressures. Despite drinking relatively little the night before, I was reluctant to begin drinking so early, knowing that München would inevitably lead to a few pints. Instead, I enjoyed trying out some Deutsch from our invaluable and hilarious Lonely Planet phrasebook. I asked, Was für ein Sternzeichen bist du? Unfortunately, I have yet to memorize the Deutsch answers.

Are there lockers at every major train station in Europe? How I love them. Our hotel about twenty minutes from downtown, we simply shoved our goods into one €3 locker and began our walking tour of the city unburdened.

Aalen’s high temperature has been averaging about 60 Fahrenheit; Munich easily hit 82 that Saturday, making for a sweaty, but pleasing day on our feet. The best building of the day was the Neues Rathaus, even with missing the Glockenspiel performance. While my knowledge of history and architecture leaves something to be desired, I was overwhelmed in its presence. How many years and people does it take to craft such a structure? The creativity of the included carved figures and designs is remarkable. Honestly, I could have sat at the Marienplatz all day, scanning the building for new discoveries. Some other notable sites were the Englischer Garten and the surfers on the “perma wave” (aka water tube surge), the Viktualienmarkt and the fountains where people drink from the spouts and cool their beers in the pools, and numerous bachelor and bachelorette parties in traditional Bavarian clothing of cleavage baring dresses and lederhosen. Lunch and dinner consisted of typical German fare, with Abendessen being at the infamous Hofbrauhaus. What a pain in the ass it is to find a seat there, but it was worth the rowdy atmosphere and head-sized pretzel. In the evening, a wandering soul (born in Mexico, name of French origin, lives in Barcelona, travels extensively) invited us out with his friend. We wound up at a tight, dimly lit, wooden-everything bar with odd paintings suggestive of Bayerisch men’s extraordinary sexual prowess. V and I could not even fit a drink in us, so instead we laughed while watching through tired eyes groups of Germans dancing and singing to what I imagine is their equivalent of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.

Sunday’s weather was radically different. Storming. Cold. We picked up pastries for our subway ride to the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. My dorkiness and sentimentalism rears its head again; I easily could have stayed all day analyzing the crafts and I was moved by the knowledge that this whole, gigantic museum carried artifacts of people who have lived on this land for a far greater duration than us Americans of immigrant heritage can comprehend. Still thinking of all the meat from the day before, we opted for an Indian food lunch that was fantastic and nourishing. Indian is a cuisine that I could eat everyday and while much of my own cooking is inspired by its flavor profile, I desperately miss V’s mom’s specialties; every trip home to New Jersey meant a bounty of homemade, freezer-ready dishes bound to be warmed up over the coming weeks. The rain held long enough to visit the Hofgarten and Odeonsplatz (stunning in grandeur) before a quick trip to the Stadtmuseum and their Typisch München exhibit. It was nice to see paintings of the sites we had visited, but time warped one hundred fifty years or further into the past, with little figures depicted in radically different clothes, riding horses and picking market fish out of fountains. What must it have been like to live in the countryside and venture to a city like Munich for the first time?

In the end, this all felt much longer than 29 hours.

(I’ve included my first gallery in a post! Click the thumbnails below to see larger versions of my photos.)

A Modest Account.

V’s birthday was on Friday, so we decided to take a hike up to Aalbäumle, a hilltop tower that overlooks the whole city of Aalen. While the Germans seem to be good at everything, I think they are quite poor when it comes to hiking trail signage. Perhaps the expectation for marked routes is purely American. Perhaps instead Germans have memorized the routes before setting off on a walk in the woods or that maps and markers are unnecessary given their special skills. However, this would not explain the misdirection provided by fellow path walkers that increased the trailhead to destination duration of about twenty minutes to ninety.

A tower-top picture by V.

We eventually made it to the tower, and did so without killing or injuring each other (thus escaping the fate of many significant others when lost together and debating potential route rightness). We ate our packed lunch while trying to read the Deutsch graffiti and feeling the tower tremors as each fellow visitor ascended and descended the narrow stairway. The view was quite spectacular, even given that it was a cloudy day. I thought back to December when I drove to a scenic viewpoint in Boulder, Colorado, gazing down at the city and plains beyond it and wondering if that would be my home come May. I prefer this view: rolling green hilled farmland next to towns of red roofed buildings next to farmland and repeated again. Boulder captivated me with the lifestyle I believe I could have easily lived there, but Aalen is beautiful and challenging.

The path trailhead is at the Limes-Thermen, a mineral bath destination that appears to play an important part in the city’s tourism. We paid our fee, changed in the unisex locker room (changing stalls are provided), and endured the stares of many as we entered the first pool. We are still not sure if the looks were due to our obvious awkwardness, because of V’s skin color or hairy chest, because we spoke English, or just because there is little else for most people to do when soaking in warm mineral water aside from gawking. We tried the various pools, inside and out, small and large.

Then, it was time for the sauna.

A kind worker directed us to the sauna area. “Zoot,” she motioned near her crotch, “Ooff!” she pushed her hands away from her body, indicating bathing suit removal was expected beyond the turnstile.

I once visited a spa in Queens with some friends from yoga class. There, the clothing optional areas were single-gendered. I remember the many women and girls (primarily of Korean descent) brushing one another’s hair in front of rows of mirror, scrubbing their own feet, and jumping in small pools. I’ve gone skinny dipping a few times, including with a group of boys in the midnight ocean waves in Long Beach Island. I shared open showers and topless tribal dances with women in the woods of a Michigan festival. I do not consider myself prudish and I do not think nudity must only be reserved for sexual encounters. I know stories of the German saunas.

Yet, I still felt very modest! I think this is because for every one female in the sauna area, there were ten men. And also because it was daylight, and the areas between saunas are bright; people walked naked between various rooms and laid on lounge chairs, their bodies on overt display. Being that it was Friday, the facility was not particularly crowded either, but the shyness of exposing my relatively young, female body in front of all these older men was strong. So, I didn’t. I went between and into saunas with my towel wrapped around me, as did V who had not attended a sauna or experienced communal nudity before. The damp sauna was amazing, with a series of lights on the ceiling that faded in and out and added to the trance-inducing experience. There was a fellow there, bear-like and determined, who stood and scrubbed his whole body down with salt that was provided near the entrance, making me feel as though I was at a watering hole where animals soak and clean. I made a mental note to determine if there are women-only hours at this particular facility and to use the exfoliating salt myself next time.

Salad, potato with yogurt, and African-spiced steak.

We had dinner at a lovely restaurant in the pedestrian area of town. We were waited on by a young woman whose English was Irish-accented (having been born there and moving to Germany at twelve years old), and who gently corrected our German as per our request. The prices are quite reasonable, especially given the quality and portions. When we were full and pleased, we wandered to our new, favorite little bar to play darts, practice German, and share beers with friends from the hotel and the locals. I am not sure if it is this town or if it is us, but the rumors are proving false: Germans are not wholly unfriendly with new people, as they have been welcoming and warm in the vast majority of our interactions. Perhaps they are even a little too friendly at the bar. By the end of the night, I was requesting water and nearly falling asleep on the table, having consumed a drink or two too many provided by our generous new friends.