The Expat Bloggers's Meetup in Munich came around in September. And it posed a paradox.
Several visitors said they would look forward to seeing Munich from the locals' point of view. The real Munich. Not the Munich of alpine kitsch and cutesy schmarm. Not phony tourist traps with a gingerbread facade, and schmuck hanging from every eave. Not the fake Munich.
As one of the locals, a little shiver of panic went up my spine. I mean, Bavarian culture actually is kitsch, even by German standards. Take away the the Alps, the classic beer gardens, the palaces and the churches. You're left with....um, I dunno. BMW Welt? The Hauptbahnhof?
Maybe I exaggerate. Munich is a powerhouse of high tech, and a hub for avant-garde art in middle Europe. The splendid Munich Daily Photo captures much of the city's extraordinary, vibrant culture. A culture which integrates both heritage and modernity.
But the visitor's eye is drawn, inescapably, toward classic symbols. The impossibly large beer steins, the lederhosen-clad people on the street, the ornate archtecture, the statuary, the noble boulevards. And yes, the kitsch.
None of that is fake. People do wear Tracht as an alternative to business attire. They tell time with cukoo clocks. They build houses with steep-pitched roofs, white walls, oak parquet and impossibly-fertile window boxes. They really do drink beer by the litre, and they sure as hell put cheese on everything.
Most cheesy, fairy-tale fakery in the modern world is modelled on the cheesy, fairy-tale reality of Bavaria. Southeastern Germany exports many things, and the most prominent is a mental picture of what cute should look like.
An actual, not-fake hotel in Oberammergau.
Compare the actual Bavaria in the photo above with America's best phony Bavaria, below. Leavenworth, Washington, bids visitors a Herzlich Wilkommen on arrival and a hearty Bis Bald when they leave. And you know what? They almost pull it off.
Close, but no Zigarre.
Picture via Long Story Longer.
Anyway, The Honourable Husband is the wrong person to judge what's real and what isn't.
First, I work in advertising.
Second, I'm an American of sorts, and I have a Japanese partner. Both nations, from time to time, seem to prefer a good fake to the real thing. Just ask Umberto Eco.
What's up with this authenticity fetish? Why do we look down on fakes? Just because it's fake, doesn't mean it's wrong. Right?
Let's take a brief dip into the world of the fake.
A copy is a chance to improve on the original. When Tokyo needed a TV transmitter in the late fifties, they built one in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. Bucking the Japanese instinct for miniaturisation, they made it 13 metres taller. And painted it orange, for safety's sake.
When we lived in Japan, Master Right and I could see the tower from our home. How lucky we are to live in Tokyo, I thought! We could enjoy this handsome, hazard-free landmark, rather than having to suffer the scrawny, colourless original, as we would if we lived in silly old Paris.
When a fake fakes a fake
Neuschwanstein Castle weaves a perplexing tale of false authenticity.
Most visitors to Bavaria want to see the "real" building whose image has been seared into our brains as the archetypal mediaeval fortress. One in which fairy-tale characters frolicked, fought, or found love. Disney acknowledges Neuschwanstein as inspiration for its theme parks.
A story circulates about a Californian family visiting Neuschwanstein. Standing before the drawbridge, the mother declared "There it is! Sleeping Beauty's palace!"
Her ten-year old son shook his head skeptically. "Does Disney know about this?" he asked.
Neuschwanstein, getting a fakeover
And ask, he well might. This castle is no more mediaeval than Groucho Marx, Sigmund Freud or Charlie Chaplin.
Completed in the late 1880s, Neuschwanstein was one of the many follies of King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
(Yes, that king. Texts describe him variously as manic-depressive, autistic, or gay. (All were considered a slur in his lifetime. None should be considered a slur today.)
The castle surprises visitors with its modernity. Its kitchen would be considered up-to-date well into the twentieth century. Wiggy even installed central heating—he planned flush toilets, too, but never lived to see them.
In spite of it all, Neuschwanstein feels mediaeval; you expect a dragon to fly in and perch on a turret.
Nobody can pin down which actual mediaeval castle served as the model for Neuschwanstein; the Burg Eltz comes close. But somehow, the imitation seems as genuine as the real thing.
The picture below, of the marvellous Arizaphale and her Baby Angel on New Year's Day in 2002, is faked. It was not taken at the real Disneyland. It was taken at Tokyo Disneyland. Which makes it a doubleplussgood fake.
The Japanese designers chose to fake Cinderella's castle because it is larger than the original Sleeping Beauty's castle, which is in turn smaller than the original original at Neuschwanstein, which is much larger than the original original original at Burg Eltz.
When it came time to design EuroDisney outside Paris, the tables turned.
According to Wikipedia —and why would they lie?—the designers of EuroDisney felt it necessary to fake more carefully. In Europe, castles are, y'know, like everywhere. They sought influence from more diverse and sophiticated sources, such as the monastery at Mont San Michel. Do French schoolchildren snigger when they visit EuroDisney, knowing that the Imagineers faked the wrong thing?
Drag queens. Are they not the ultimate example of "fakes" which are always often better than the originals?
(I put the word fake in quotes because drag artists are, indeed, true originals.)
Like the city in which they live, Munich drag queens really lay it on with a trowel. I caught this grande dame at the Hauptbahnhof, on her way to Fasching in 2008.
Ah, one could go on. But for that, you'll need to wait for Part Two, where we trace another path of fakery from Bavaria to Japan, and back again. Bis bald.