Each morning I make a point of going on a walk. For an hour or two I go through the neighborhoods to the woods (Wald) above our house. As it’s a managed woodland, it’s filled with gravel paths for walking and biking. I use a great map app called CityMaps2Go, to find my way. The app features downloadable maps for individual cities with small details like walking paths and parking places. Getting to know the ways through the neighborhood is interesting but I always feel relieved when I get to the wooded area. It’s peaceful and green and somehow feels safe.
Aside from burning off the calories from Jola’s Franconian cooking, the value of the walks is getting to interact with some of the other walkers.
The groups of walkers I encounter are relatively predictable. You have the chatty 40-something ladies dressed like athletes. The 60-something’s dressed like hikers with walking sticks. Then there are the 80-something’s with actual walkers and deadly serious dispositions. Inevitably there is a group of retired men of indistinguishable age, always in elegant outdoor dress like a Land’s End or Brooks Brothers catalogue. In between there are dog walkers, dog trainers, people recovering from injuries, farmers, people pilfering fruit and others foraging for edible mushrooms.
There are rumors that Franconian people can be distant at first meeting. There is even a joke that Franconians are this way because they live in a paradise and they don’t want anyone to know about it. Having visited the Kellerwald, loosely translated as “secret beer garden in the woods,” I can see why they might want to keep it local and cozy.
The Franconians I run into on my morning walks are not going out of their way to make conversation. This is fine with me since I almost always look like I just jumped out of bed and a conversation would be difficult anyway. However, in the weeks I have been walking, I feel that I can make the following generalizations:
1. A typical Franconian probably will not smile at a stranger. If you smile, the response is most often a facial expression that can be read as suspicious or grumpy. Often a quick “Morgen” will follow but with a straight face and sometimes a raised eyebrow.
*An exception to this rule occurs when the person has a dog. People with dogs are friendlier. It seems ok to smile about animals.
2. If it’s a really good day, you will get a head nod, which in Franconian seems almost like a handshake. I’m getting more “morgen”s and head nods lately so maybe I’m starting to fit in!
3. Waving is not a thing here. The other day I came across a farmer driving a tractor. We had to pass each other on a small dirt road. I kind of waved and he looked at me like something might be wrong.
4. If you are across the street from someone or if they are in mid-conversation with someone else, you don’t need to say anything–head nod or otherwise.
Case and point: I was walking uphill in a neighborhood about 2 Kilometers from our house. l saw a man and a women working on their garden across the intersection from me. Based on the rules I have outlined, I was sure I did not need to say anything to them and even more sure that they would not say anything to me. So, you’ll understand my shock when across the road, the woman shouts a friendly sounding, “Haaaallo!” A bit surprised but excited by such enthusiasm, I respond, “Haaallo!” And keep walking. But then, she continues talking to me. Puzzled, I slow down. Finally she says a name I recognize and the word “Eltern” (parents). Then it becomes clear: she is the mother of one of Thorsten’s childhood friends. Giving myself the benefit of the doubt and hoping I’ll understand her, I cross the street. The husband continues looking serious until she explains how she knows me. Then he starts with a welcoming smile. We have a lively chat (mostly auf Deutsch I’m proud to say) about how she recognized me from photographs she had seen. So here I am on a walk and a perfect stranger knows me from a photograph! Then as I look up the hill in the direction I was originally headed, I see a neighbor putting her trash out. The thing is, she is standing there, “putting her trash out” with her ear out to the street, for the entirety of our conversation until finally my new friends shout, “Komme vorbei!” (Come over) and she walks down and then they introduce us. In this situation all the Franconians are smiling and me too. She asks me a few questions, and I answer as best I can and we hug and shake hands and I’m off for the remainder of the walk. Up the hill into the woods, walking tall and feeling happy to have met them.
When I was almost home, I came across an old man and his dog. It was certainly our second encounter and true to form the second meeting was much warmer than the first. This time instead of a grumpy face or a short “hallo” from the man, he asks me why I’m out without my walking stick today. I can understand him better than I can respond to him, so now I smile and shrug. Then he says, well it doesn’t really matter (auf Deutsch of course.) I smile again, nodding and say, “Genau” (Exactly).
Lucky for me the people of Franconia warm up quite quickly. The second time you meet them they are already your friends. For the most part, people here don’t actually live up to their stand-offish reputation, although the various reactions to meeting strangers can be kind of entertaining if you don’t take it personally.