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Vagabonding through changing Germany online

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bees. A few birds sang gaily, yet a bit drowsily, falling
wholly silent now and then, as if awed by nature's loveli-
ness. A weather-browned woman, her head covered with a
clean white kerchief with strands of apple-blossom pink
in it, knelt at the edge of the waterway a bit farther on,
cutting the long grass with a little curved sickle, her every
motion, too, caught by the mirroring canal. Along the
highway below tramped others of her species, bearing to
town on their backs the green fodder similarly gathered,
in long cone-shaped baskets or wrapped in a large cloth.
One had heaped her basket high with bright-yellow mustard,
splashing the whitish roadway as with a splotch of paint.
Vehicles there were none, except the little handcarts drawn
by barefoot women or children, and now and then a man
sometimes similarly unshod. Oxen reddish against green
meadows or whitish against the red soil were standing idle,
knee-deep in grass or slowly plowing the gently rolling fields.
Farther off, clumps of cattle ranging from dark brown to
faint yellow speckled the rounded hillocks. Fields white
with daisies, yellow with buttercups, lilac with some other
species of small flower, vied with one another in beautifying
the more distant landscape. Still farther off, the world
was mottled with clumps of forest, in which mingled the
black evergreen of perennial foliage with the light green
of new leaves. An owl or some member of his family hooted
contentedly from the nearest woods. Modest little houses.


with sharp, very-old-red roofs and whitewashed walls
dulled by years of weather, stood in clusters of varying size
on the sun-flooded hillsides. Nothing in the velvety,
gentle scene, so different from the surly landscape of factory
districts, suggested war, except now and again the red-
banded caps of the men. The more wonder came upon
me that these slow, simple country people with their never-
failing greetings and their entire lack of warlike manner
could have formed a part of the most militaristic nation in



FOR some days past every person I met along the way,
young or old, had bidden me good day with the all-
embracing "Scoof ' . I had taken this at first to be an abbrevia-
tion of "Es ist gut,'' until an innkeeper had explained it as
a shortening of the medieval "Grilss GoW* ("May God's
greeting go with you"). In mid-afternoon of this Saturday
the custom suddenly ceased, as did the solitude of the tow-
path. A group of men and women, bearing rucksacks,
baskets, valises, and all manner of receptacles, appeared
from under the flowery foliage ahead and marched past me
at a more aggressive pace than that of the country people.
Their garb, their manner, somewhat sour and unfriendly,
particularly the absence of any form of greeting, dis-
tinguished them from the villagers of the region. More
and more groups appeared, some numbering a full dozen,
following one another so closely as to form an almost con-
tinual procession. Some marched on the farther bank
of the canal, as if our own had become too crowded with
traffic for comfort, all hurrying by me into the south, with
set, perspiring faces. I took them to be residents of the
larger towns beyond, returning from the end of a railway
spur ahead with purchases from the Saturday-morning mar-
ket at Niimberg. It was some time before I discovered that
quite the opposite was the case.

They were "hamsterers," city people setting out to scour






the country for food. "Hamster" is a German word for
an animal of the weasel family, which squirms in and out
through every possible opening in quest of nourishment.
During the war it came to be the popular designation of
those who seek to augment their scanty ticket-limited
rations by canvassing among the peasants, until the term
in all its forms, as noun, verb, adjective, has become a
universally recognized bit of the language. Women with
time to spare, children free from school, go "hamstering"
any day of the week. But Saturday afternoon and Sunday,
when the masses are relieved of their labors, is the time of
a general exodus from every city in Germany. There is
not a peasant in the land, I have been assured, who has not
been regularly "hamstered" during the past two years. In
their feverish quest the famished human weasels cross and
crisscross their lines through all the Empire. "Hamsterers"
hurrying north or east in the hope of discovering unfished
waters pass "hamsterers" racing south or west bound on the
same chiefly vain errand. Another difficulty adds to their
misfortunes, however, and limits the majority to their own
section of the country. It is not the cost of transportation,
except in the case of those at the lowest financial ebb, for
fourth-class fare is more than cheap and includes all the
baggage the traveler can lug with him. But any journey
of more than twenty-five kilometers requires the permission
of the local authorities. Without their Ausweis the rail-
ways will not sell tickets to stations beyond that distance.
Hence the custom is to ride as far into the country as pos-
sible, make a wide circle on foot, or sometimes on a bicycle,
during the Sunday following, "hamstering" as one goes, and
fetch up at the station again in time for the last train to
the city. In consequence the regions within the attainable
distance around large cities are so thoroughly "fished out"
that the peasants receive new callers with sullen silence.
I had been conscious of a sourness in the greetings of the
20 291


country people all that Saturday, quite distinct from their
cheery friendliness of the days before. Now it was ex-
plained. They had taken me for a "hamsterer ' ' with a knap-
sack full of the food their region could so ill spare. Not
that any of them, probably, was suffering from hunger.
But man is a selfish creature. He resents another's acquisi-
tion of anything which may ever by any chance be of use
to him. Particularly ''der Deutsche Bauer (the German
peasant)," as a "hamsterer" with whom I fell in later put it,
"is never an idealist. He believes in looking out for him-
self first and foremost" — which characteristic, by the way,
is not confined to his class in Germany, nor indeed to any
land. "War, patriotism, Fatherland have no place in his
heart when they clash with the interests of his purse," my
informant went on. "Hence he has taken full advantage
of the misery of others, using the keen competition to boost
his prices far beyond all reason."

Many a labor- weary workman of the cities, with a half-
dozen mouths to fill, many a tired, emaciated woman, tramps
the byways of Germany all Sunday long, halting at a
score or two of farm-houses, dragging aching legs homeward
late at night, with only three or four eggs, a few potatoes,
and now and then a half-pound of butter to show for the
exertion. Sometimes other food-seekers have completely
annihilated the peasant's stock. Sometimes he has only
enough for his own needs. Often his prices are so high that
the "hamsterer" cannot reach them — the Bauer knows by
years of experience now that if he bides his time some one
to whom price is a minor detail will appear, perhaps the
agents of the rich man's hotels and restaurants of Berlin
and the larger cities. Frequently he is of a miserly dis-
position, and hoards his produce against an imagined day
of complete famine, or in the hope that the unreasonable
prices will become even more unreasonable. There are
laws against "hamstering," as there are against selling



foodstuffs at more than the estabHshed price. Now and
again the weary urban dweller who has tramped the country-
side all day sees himself held up by a gendarme and despoiled
of all his meager gleanings. But the peasant, for some reason,
is seldom molested in his profiteering.

The northern Bavarian complains that the people of
Saxony outbid him among his own villages; the Saxon
accuses the iron-fisted Prussian of descending upon his
fields and carrying off the food so badly needed at home.
For those with influence have little difficulty in reaching
beyond the legal twenty-five kilometer limit. The result
is that foodstuffs on which the government has set a maxi-
mum price often never reach the market, but are gathered
on the spot at prices several times higher than the law

"You see that farm over there?" asked a food-canvasser
with whom I walked an hour or more one Sunday. "I
stopped there and tried to buy butter. 'We haven't an
ounce of butter to our names,' said the woman. 'Ah,'
said I, just to see if I could not catch her in a lie, 'but I pay
as high as twenty marks a pound.' 'In that case,' said the
Unverschdmte, 'I can let you have any amount you want
up to thirty pounds.' I could not really pay that price,
of course, being a poor man, working hard for nine marks
a day. But when I told her I would report her to the
police she laughed in my face and slammed the door."

It was easy to understand now why so many of those I
had interviewed in my official capacity at Coblenz had
expressed the opinion that sooner or later the poor of the
cities would descend upon the peasants in bands and rob
them of all their hoardings. The countrymen themselves
showed that fear of this now and then gnawed at their
souls, not so much by their speech as by their circumspect
actions. The sight of these swarms of "hamsterers"
descended from the north like locusts from the desert gave



the prophecy new meaning. It would have been so easy
for a few groups of them to join together and wreak
the vengeance of their class on the "hard-hearted" peasants.
Had they been of a less orderly, lifelong-disciplined race
they might have thus run amuck months before. Instead,
they plodded on through all the hardships circumstances
had woven for them, with that all-suffering, uncomplaining
sort of fatalism with which the war seems to have inoculated
the German soul.

Thus far the question of lodging had always been simple.
I had only to pick out a village ahead on the map and put
up at its chief Gasthaus. But Saturday night and the
"hamsterers" gave the situation a new twist. With a
leisurely twenty miles behind me I turned aside to the
pleasing little hamlet of Miihlhausen, quite certain I had
reached the end of that day's journey. But the Gastzimmer
of the chief inn presented an astonishing afternoon sight.
Its every table was densely surrounded by dust-streaked
men, women, and older children, their rucksacks and straw
coffers strewn about the floor. Instead of the serene,
leisurely-diligent matron whom I expected to greet my
entrance with a welcoming "Scoof I found a sharp-tongued,
harassed female vainly striving to silence the constant
refrain of, ''Hier! Glas Bier, bitte!" Far from having a mug
set before me almost at the instant I took my seat, I was
forced to remain standing, and it was several minutes before
I could catch her attention long enough to request "das
beste Zimmer." "Room!" she snapped, in a tone I had
never dreamed a Bavarian landlady could muster; "over-
filled hours ago ! " Incredible ! I had scarcely seen a fellow-
guest for the night during all my tramp from Munich.
Well, I would enjoy one of those good Gasthaus suppers
and find lodging in another public-house at my leisure.
Again I had reckoned without my hostess. When I suc-
ceeded in once more catching the attention of the distracted



matron, she flung at me over a shoulder: "Not a bite!
'Hamsterers' have eaten every crumb in town."

It was only too true. The other inn of Miihlhausen had
been as thoroughly raided. Moreover, its beds also were
already "overfilled." The seemingly impossible had come
to pass — my chosen village not only would not shelter me
for the night ; it would not even assuage my gnawing hunger
before driving me forth into the wide, inhospitable world
beyond. Truly war has its infernal details !

As always happens in such cases, the next town was at
least twice as far away as the average distance between its
neighbors. Fortunately an isolated little "beer-arbor"
a few miles farther on had laid in a Saturday stock. The
Wirt not only served me bread, but a generous cut of some
mysterious species of sausage, without so much as batting
an eyelid at my presumptuous request. Weary, dusty
"hamsterers" of both sexes and all ages v/ere enjoying his
Spartan hospitality also, their scanty fare contrasting sug-
gestively with the great slabs of home-smoked cold ham, the
hard-boiled eggs, Bauernbrod and butter with which a group
of plump, taciturn peasant youths and girls gorged them-
selves at another mug-decorated table with the surreptitious
demeanor of yeggmen enjoying their ill-gotten winnings.
The stragglers of the human weasel army punctuated the
highway for a few kilometers farther. Some were war
victims, stumping past on crippled legs; some were so
gaunt-featured and thin that one wondered how they had
succeeded in entering the race at all. The last one of the
day was a woman past middle age, mountainous of form,
her broad expanse of ruddy face streaked with dust and
perspiration, who sat weightily on a roadside boulder,
munching the remnants of a black-bread-and-smoked-pork
lunch and gazing despairingly into the highway vista down
which her more nimble-legged competitors had long since



In the end I was glad Miihlhausen had repulsed me, for I
had a most delightful walk from sunset into dusk in forest-
flanked solitude along the Ludwig Canal, with a swim in
reflected moonshine to top it off. Darkness had completely
fallen on the long summer day when I reached Neumarkt
with thirty miles behind me. Under ordinary circumstances
I should have had a large choice of lodgings; the place was
important enough to call itself a city and its broad main
street was lined by a continuous procession of peak-gabled
Gasthduser. But it, too, was flooded with "hamsterers."
They packed every beer-dispensing "guest-room"; they
crowded every public lodging, awaiting the dawn of Sunday
to charge forth in all directions upon the surrounding
country-side. I made the circuit of its cobble-paved center
four times, suffering a score of scornful rebuffs before I
found a man who admitted vaguely that he might be able
to shelter me for the night.

He was another of those curious fairy-tale dwarfs one
finds tucked away in the corners of Bavaria, and his eyrie
befitted his personal appearance. It was a disjointed
little den filled with the medieval paraphernalia — and in-
cidentally with much of the unsavoriness — that had col-
lected there during its several centuries of existence. One
stooped to enter the beer-hall, and rubbed one's eyes for the
astonishment of being suddenly carried back to the Middle
Ages — as well as from the acrid clouds of smoke that sud-
denly assailed them ; one all but crawled on hands and knees
to reach the stoop-shouldered, dark cubbyholes miscalled
sleeping-chambers above. Indeed, the establishment did
not presume to pose as a Gasthaus; it contented itself with
the more modest title of Gastwirtschaft.

But there were more than mere physical difficulties in
gaining admittance to the so-called lodgings under the
eaves. The dwarfish Wirt had first to be satisfied that I
was a paying guest. When I asked to be shown at once



to my quarters, he gasped, protestingly, ^'Aber trinken Sie
kein Glas Bier!'' I would indeed, and with it I would eat
a substantial supper, if he could furnish one. That he
could, and did. How he had gathered so many of the food-
stuffs which most Germans strive for in vain, including
such delicacies as eggs, veal, and butter, is no business of
mine. My chief interest just then was to welcome the heap-
ing plates which his gnomish urchins brought me from the
cavernous hole of a kitchen out of which peered now and then
the witchlike face of his wife-cook. The same impish little
brats pattered about in their bare feet among the guests,
serving them beer as often as a mug was emptied and
listening with grinning faces to the sometimes obscene
anecdotes with which a few of them assailed the rafters.
Most of the chents that evening were of the respectable
class, being "hamstering" men and wives forced to put up
with whatever circumstances required of them, but they
were in striking contrast to the disreputable habitues of what
was evidently Neimiarkt's least gentlemanly establishment.
In all the wine-soaked uproar of the evening there was but
a single reference to what one fancied would have been any
German's chief interest in those particular days. A maudlin
braggart made a casual, parenthetical boast of what he
"would do to the cursed Allies if he ever caught them
again." The habitual guests applauded drunkenly, the
transient ones preserved the same enduring silence they had
displayed all the evening, the braggart lurched on along
some wholly irrelevant theme, and the misshapen host
continued serving his beer and pocketing pewter coins and
"shin-plasters" with a mumble and a grimace that said as
plainly as words, "Veil, vhat do I care vhat happens to the
country if I can still do a paying pusiness?" But then, he
was of the race that has often been accused of having no
patriotism for anything beyond its own purse, whatever
country it inhabits.



When we had paid rather reasonable bills for the forbidden
fruits that had been set before us, the Wirt lighted what
seemed to be a straw stuffed with grease and conducted
me and three "hamstering" workmen from Nurnberg up
a low, twisting passageway to a garret crowded with four
nests on legs which he dignified with the name of beds.
I will spare the tender-hearted reader any detailed descrip-
tion of our chamber, beyond remarking that we paid eighty
pfennigs each for our accommodations, and were vastly
overcharged at that. It was the only "hardship" of my
German journey. My companions compared notes for
a half -hour or more, on the misfortunes and possibilities of
their war-time avocation, each taking care not to give the
others any inkling of what corner of the landscape he hoped
most successfully to "hamster" on the morrow, and by mid-
night the overpopulated rendezvous of Neumarkt had
sunk into its brief "pre-hamstering" slumber.

Being ahead of my schedule, and moreover the day being
Sunday, I did not loaf away until nine next morning. The
main highway had swung westward toward Nurnberg.
The more modest country road I followed due north led
over a gently rolling region through many clumps of forest.
Scattered groups of peasants returning from church passed
me in almost continual procession during the noon hour.
The older women stalked uncomfortably along in tight-
fitting black gowns that resembled the styles to be seen in
paintings of a century ago, holding their outer skirts knee-
high and showing curiously decorated petticoats. On their
heads they wore closely fitting kerchiefs of silky appearance,
jet black in color, though on week-days they were coiffed
with white cotton. Some ostentated light-colored aprons
and pale-blue embroidered cloths knotted at the back of the
neck and held in place by a breastpin in the form of a crucifix
or other religious design. In one hand they gripped a
prayer-book and in the other an amber or black rosary.



The boys and girls, almost without exception, carried their
heavy hob-nailed shoes in their hands and slapped along
joyfully in their bare feet. In every village was an open-
air bowling-alley, sometimes half hidden behind a crude
lattice-work and always closely connected with the beer-
dispensary, in which the younger men joined in their weekly
sport as soon as church was over. Somewhere within sight
of them hovered the grown girls, big blond German Mddchen
with their often pretty faces and their plowman's arms,
hands, ankles, and feet, dressed in their gay, light-colored
Sunday best.

Huge Hlac-bushes in fullest bloom sweetened the constant
breeze with their perfume. The glassy surface of the canal
still glistened in the near distance to the left; a cool, clear
stream meandered in and out along the slight valley to the
right. Countrymen trundled past on bicycles that still
boasted good rubber tires, in contrast with the jolting
substitutes to which most city riders had been reduced.
A few of the returning "hamsterers" were similarly mounted,
though the majority trudged mournfully on foot, carrying
bags and knapsacks half filled with vegetables, chiefly
potatoes, with live geese, ducks, or chickens. One youth
pedaled past with a lamb gazing out of the rucksack on
his back with the wondering eyes of a country boy taking
his first journey. When I overtook him on the next long
rise the rider displayed his woolly treasure proudly, at the
same time complaining that he had been forced to pay
"a whole seven marks" for it. As I turned aside for a dip
in the inviting stream, the Munich-Berlin airplane express
bourdonned by overhead, perhaps a thousand meters above,
setting a bee-line through the glorious summer sky and
contrasting strangely with the medieval life underfoot
about me.

At Gnadenberg, beside the artistic ruins of a once famous
cloister with a hillside forest vista, an inn supplied me a



generous dinner, with luscious young roast pork as the chief
ingredient. The traveler in Germany during the armistice
was far more impressed by such a repast than by mere
ruins of the Middle Ages. The innkeeper and his wife had
little in common with their competitors of the region.
They were a youthful couple from Hamburg, who had
adopted this almost unprecedented means of assuring
themselves the livelihood which the war had denied them at
home. Amid the distressing Bavarian dialect with which
my ears had been assailed since my arrival in Munich their
grammatical German speech was like a flash of light in a
dark comer.

By four I had already attained the parlor suite of the
principal Gasthaus of Altdorf , my three huge windows look-
ing out upon the broad main street of a truly picturesque
town. Ancient peaked gables cut the horizon with their
saw edge on every hand. The entire fagade of the aged
church that boomed the quarter-hours across the way was
shaded by a mighty tree that looked like a giant green
haystack. A dozen other clocks, in towers or scattered
about the inn, loudly questioned the veracity of the church-
bells and of one another at as frequent intervals. Time
may be of less importance to the Bavarian than to some
less tranquil people, but he believes in marking it thoroughly.
His every room boasts a clock or two, his villages resemble
a horlogerie in the throes of anarchy, with every timepiece
loudly expounding its own personal opinion, until the entire
twenty -four hours becomes a constant uproar of conflicting
theories, like the hubbub of some Bolshevik assembly. Most
of them are not contented with single statements, but insist
on repeating their quarter-hourly misinformation. The
preoccupied guest or the uneasy sleeper refrains with diffi-
culty from shouting at some insistent timepiece or church-
bell : ' ' Yes, you said that a moment ago. For Heaven's sake,
don't be so redundant!" But his protest would be sure to



be drowned out by the clangor of some other clock vocifer-
ously correcting the statements of its competitors. It is
always a quarter to, or after, something or other according
to the clocks of Bavaria. The wise man scorns them all
and takes his time from the sun or his appetite.

Over my beer I fell into conversation with an old merchant
from Nurnberg and his sister-in-law. The pair were the
most nearly resentful toward America of any persons I
met in Germany, yet not so much so but that we passed
a most agreeable evening together. The man clung dog-
gedly to a theory that seemed to be moribund in Germany
that America's only real reason for entering the war was
to protect her investments in the Allied cause. The woman
had been a hack writer on sundry subjects for a half-cen-
tury, and a frequent contributor to German-language papers
in America. As is frequently the case with her sex, she was
far more bitter and decidedly less open-minded toward

Online LibraryHarry Alverson FranckVagabonding through changing Germany → online text (page 24 of 29)