A Night with the Pfadis
Phil Alderton hitches
a ride with German Scouts
Sitting down to dinner one
night, the conversation turned to our shared interest. This was
the first opportunity I'd had to do this, and I wanted to cover a
lot of ground in the time available. After making the mistake of
asking her to run me through the plethora of Scout associations
over there (one large, all encompassing benign Association won't
do. There's scores of the damned things), and explaining my own
bizarre role in the Movement (which probably took just as long), I
commented that I've always wanted to go on a camp in Germany.
Which is how I ended up feeling like a Cub and watching a tent
being put up, and relishing my first Scout camp for years where I
had no responsibilities whatsoever.
I joined the SI team, I vowed that I would never, ever write an
article in which I praised or in any other way discussed the
merits of one particular tent over another. Such a piece would, to
my mind at least, be the work of someone with no idea of fun and
be about as much fun as an irregular verb table. Sadly, I feel
obliged to break this promise temporarily. Sorry.
You see, I fell in love
with the German Tents. Never have I been so impressed a few bits
of canvas as I did when I went on that camp. To the weary Scout,
they are a dream, offering the kind of simplicity and comfort
which the ridge tents I've grown used to over my years in Scouting
are unable to give. If I had to give one reason for emigrating, I
reckon I would offer this as my excuse.
Take a mundane and common
problem associated with those green ridge tents, the transport of
the beasts. Encased in large, bulky sacks (which are, of course,
just a centimetre smaller than the size of the canvas you've spent
the last hour trying to fold up), they take at least two people to
carry, plus many more for the poles. They are only suitable for
standing camps, with a means of getting them there in the first
The Kohte, as they call it,
on the other hand, is the ultimate in co-operation. Four pieces of
canvas, a couple of poles, and some rope. Each member of the
patrol gets given a sheet of canvas, and carries a pole. If time
is short, the poles can be improvised from a couple of logs later.
Pitching takes only a few minutes as the poles are lashed together
to form a cross and the canvas is hung off the crossbar. Quick,
easy, and light (indeed, they even hold Kohte pitching races in
But, there's more. Are you
cold? Well, light a fire. In the tent. With no threat of burning
it down. If, as with me, the smoke from fires always gets in your
eyes and follows you around as you try to avoid it, having a fire
inside the Kohte has another advantage. All the smoke goes out
through the top, as the cross bars leave a chimney. Perfect.
I could go on and on,
extolling the virtues of these things, describing the way you can
put them together to make larger tents, or how it's even possible
to do a free-standing one, but I haven't got enough room. I will
though ask one question: where can I get mine from?
Having the campfire inside
a tent has other advantages - you can concentrate on things other
than when you'll next be blinded by the smoke. Like listening to
the lyrics of the songs. Sadly, although we were using German for
the vast majority of the weekend*, and would slip into English
just to talk to each other, we could only make out the words when
we had their songbook in front of us.
They covered a rather
larger, and often darker, array of topics than my troop's
repertoire does. Some were overtly political, harping on about the
benefits of freedom and comradeship, others were merely, to an
outsider raised on people mowing meadows for no particular reason,
slightly risqué ("Evil knight, evil knight/How far is our
land?/Evil knight, evil knight/How strong are our hands?"
is one that I remember particularly fondly). But we didn't really
care - it was enjoyable enough just soaking up the atmosphere.
Actually, they sung a couple of songs in English, but I didn't
work this out until the dying bars (the Scout sitting next to me
was surprised at my ignorance...but then it was the early hours of
the morning), and with the other I couldn't remember the words to
after the first line, so had to stick with providing the
accompaniment, in my own, inevitably flat, key.
Singing was, actually, the
whole purpose of the camp. Earlier in the day, in the courtyard of
a handsome and traditionally Germanic castle, the annual singing
competition for north-west Germany had taken place. Every troop
had to provide some form of song and some took this to the logical
extreme and provided costumes and dancing and all manner of things
designed to make the wooden cart acting as the stage shake
precariously. I would, if I had the time, offer a complete
run-down on the acts and my criticism of the judges' verdicts, but
instead, I give a rough outline of what I saw, heard, and learnt:
(a)The competition was open
to Pfadis (Pfadi = short for Pfadfinder = Scout) of all ages: Cubs
(Wölflinge), Scouts (Pfadfinder), and Rovers.
(b) The fruit tea they were
providing for free was well worth making full use of.
(c) Some of the groups
weren't making enough noise. Even from where I positioned myself,
five rows back and leaning against a tree, I struggled to hear
(d) A song in which one
boy, wearing a torn shirt, croaks "I'm not a tramp" and
the other singers reply with "You are a tramp" lacks,
for me at least, the diverse, emotive lyrics the classics are made
of, especially when we remember this is the country that brought
us Beethoven, Bach, and Humpe Humpe.
(e) When our friend's troop
were taking to the stage, myself and the other two members of the
English Contingent decided to cheer and applaud widely. About half
of the audience decided to join us in this spontaneous outburst of
The eventual winners of the tournament - a group of three Rovers
playing various instruments and singing an Irish Ballad with a
distinctively American twang thus rendering the words
incomprehensible (though who am I to pass comment on people
speaking in foreign languages?) - was certainly the most
professionally-produced piece there, but it does seem a bit unfair
when you consider that they were also the oldest entrants...
(g) The sails on the
porcelain windmill the town's mayor gave to every troop who
entered really did move when you blew on them.
After the competition, and
everyone had packed away, the hundred or so Pfadis in attendance
all legged it to the ice cream bar. We caused such an obstruction
in the street that the owner of a local pizza parlour whose
entrance the congregated masses were blocking, looked extremely
angry. We didn't mind. The English contingent continued their
policy of introducing themselves to everyone they met , everyone
had a go making obscene noises on the didgeridoo which was the
first prize, all amid much chatter and joking.
We were promised a bus, but
that plan was abandoned so we hiked to the site. What a sight it
must have looked - a hundred or so Scouts in uniform, many of them
wearing lederhosen, carrying poles and rucksacks and such like,
all traipsing in the same direction. The track once we left the
town was perfectly straight, so even if a hiker didn't know where
he was going, it would be pretty hard to get lost. We positioned
ourselves in the middle of the party just to make sure.
At the campsite, and after
all the Kohten were up, the opening ceremony took place. We all
formed a circle, some words were uttered along the lines of
"Welcome to the camp. Please don't kill yourself in the
half-built hut", then we found another song was sung - again
with guitar accompaniment - after which we linked arms and pushing
them down in sync with a chant. Don't ask me what it meant. The
same procedure was undertaken in the morning, so we enquired as to
what the song meant.
"It's about a rebel
who warns his village of a coming danger, but they don't believe
him. He gets killed saving the village, the villagers realise
their mistake, so spread flowers over his grave".
What a really charming and
uplifting way to start the day, I'm sure
you'll agree. Still, the whole circle thing was a recurring idea:
we ate breakfast in the circle as well. Compared to the traditions
of the troops I've visited back here, I actually prefer it. It
certainly must be a culture shock when a Pfadi visits a British
camp, what with all those silly flag procedures and saluting et
al. I was questioned as to whether or not we are militaristic, but
I fudged the response despite having argued the case on both sides
for many a year. It being very late at night and the fact I'd have
had to put my arguments into German may have been a cause of this.
Speaking of the night,
after a barbecue (which was very fine and another improvement on
the camps I have at 18th Truro) and before the campfire, we ended
up in another circle as a Rover demonstrated how to breath fire.
He drank some paraffin, held a flaming torch to his lips, and
spat, emitting enough light to make the candles that had been set
up outside some of the Kohten unnecessary, and about as much heat
as is required to solve the Germany's electricity problem. He
asked if anyone would like to have a go. It would be nice to be
able to claim that I, the eager, fearless, and ever-ready reporter
for SI, had volunteered. Heck, even the Cubs standing near us did
("No, you're far too small" was the response). Looking
back, I wish I had. But, having poured all manner of German
liquids down my throat over the years, all in the name of cultural
understanding and trying everything once (aside from that one with
the strawberries, which was pure gluttony), for some reason the
idea of sipping from a paraffin container just didn't appeal to
This was all some time ago,
now. By chance, I happened to meet one of the leaders we travelled
with in a German Scout Mailing list, but nothing really came of
it. I meant to write to another of our friends, but after a short
exchange of small messages upon arrival back in Truro, she went
abroad and I lost her e-mail address.
So now I am writing to all
of them. Lena, Martin, Tobi, and everyone else, when you read this
- if you ever do - take it as my way of saying thanks, in the
sincerest way I know, for inviting us, putting up with all our naïve
questions, and making us feel as welcome as we did.
And send me another email.
* I include this in the
unlikely event of my German teacher reading this