Every country has its good and bad points, of course - and often, these are evidenced on both sides of the same coin. Germany and Austria are paragons of public organisation and efficiency, for example - Mussolini didn't have much luck in Italy, by all accounts, but here, the trains really did run on time. These countries parade this neat-as-a-pin efficiency as a matter of course, most noticeably in their public transport systems, for sure, but in many more, and subtler, ways as well. I was forever taken with the no-nonsense attitude of the locals, especially when dealing with shopkeepers, policepersons, or any other official. Almost always, one's question was answered with a prefacing raise of the eyebrows and a slight moue, as if the answer simply didn't require the articulated "Of course, you oaf - vot do you think we are, here, barbarians?" There was a genuine pride in Germanic entrepreneurial efficiency, as if 'efficiency' was paradigmatic to any concept of both the ethical and aesthetic heights of culture. It was entrancing. Getting around the place was never a problem; the people were always happy to point one in the right direction, or offer good advice on food (...er, on second thoughts...), places to see, ways to do things.
Of course, there is another side. On a sunny Sunday morning, with no-one about (the Bavarians don't go out on Sunday unless it's to a relative's place for lunch), I went for a bit of a stroll. The roads were eerily vacant, and, j-walking across an intersection, I came across an old woman walking one of those sorts of dogs - tiny, yappy, fluffy and pompadoured - that really deserve to be picked up by the hind legs and dashed against the nearest brick wall. She stopped as I came to her side of the kerb, lifted a finger, and shook it vigorously at me. "Nicht in ordnung, nicht in ordnung!" she vituperated, busily clutching her tiny demon-hound to her ample bosom with the other hand. Nonplussed, I asked her what was the matter. She gesticulated wildly, tracing my path across the intersection with a finger, whilst jabbering away at me in German (naturally). I suddenly realised that I'd committed a grave offence, the worst one a bloke can commit in all of Deutschland - be different.
It dawned on me that the reason that Germany was a place resplendent in its efficiency was that everyone does the same things the same way. All those manicured wood-piles swept back into view, all of those pretty villages, docile farm-wives, cooking their pastries, all those people lining up so civilly to board the U-Bahn - to be well-ordered in Germany is the pinnacle of ideology. Forget the old Ubermensch bullshit - the only reason Hitler got to where he did was that the Germans are enthralled by the social purity of the concept of following orders. Heterodoxy is a sin; to be laid-back is as bad a crime as not washing for a month. I began to wonder what all of those post-war German immigrants to Australia must have thought when they got off the ship and saw thousands of Aussies deliberately not giving a fuck.
We trundled through several impeccably tidy towns - Dingolfing, Plattling, Deggendorf - and suddenly we were in the Czech Republic. Not that any sign announced it as such, but the first place we pulled into, Zelesna Ruda, was definitely un - German! The train heaved to a stop, and became, instantaneously, a Czech train. Instantly, the floor was littered with empty soda cans and beer bottles, scraps of paper and cigarette butts. And that was only my contribution! Outside, the rusting hulks of old boilers and other machinery littered the countryside; weeds grew with gay abandon, and everything looked tired and run-down. Ah, I thought - back to reality!
The train jalopied through a mixture of tumbledown villages, open country and pretty forests, then suddenly and noisily, came to a creaking halt in a city called Pilzn. Could it be, I thought? I jumped out of the carriage, onto the platform, and, Pope-like, got on my hands and knees, extended my posterior heavenwards, and kissed the earth. I felt like one of those diaspora Jews returning to Jerusalem for the first time, except that in my case the object of the pilgrimage was decidedly more gustatorial: beer! Fate, as she had done to me a few times recently, had delivered me to the shrine, the Mecca, of drinkers - the origin of the greatest of all styles of amber refreshment. Oh happy day! This was really beginning to be a journey of which one could be proud.
I resumed my seat on the train next to the Titanium Princess, who simply shrugged and gave me one of those acute, withering looks that said (and may I remind you that I can read the leader of the opposition like the doyen of Pitman's Shorthand): You simpering, gormless, feeble-minded halfwit. A divorce court is too good a place for you.
I was, however, in such a state of euphoria that I simply cracked open a can of Pilsener Urquelle and said "There you go, my darling - I knew this trip would take a turn for the better!"
We rolled on, towards Prague.