A Night with the Pfadis

Stranded at a train station, our hosts strike up another wanderlied
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.
A Kohte, being assembled by our adopted troop. The spoon is part of a private joke which is, alas, untranslatableWhen 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 place.
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 certain parts).
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.Campfire in a tent. The ultimate in Scouting luxury
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 them.
(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 praise. 
The singing contest, on a rickety stage(f) 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 sureAbendrunde. I am trying to interest some Pfadis in a certain website 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 me. 
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. 

Gut Pfad,

Phil Alderton

* I include this in the unlikely event of my German teacher reading this

 

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