Magazine column

The Towel Truce

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Source: Youtube channel, commercial

‘Tis the season when Americans and Europeans head for southern beaches to face the Teutonic menace: Germans who get up early, the better to reserve – efficiently and ruthlessly – their beach chairs by placing hotel towels on them before heading off to the breakfast buffet.

The stereotype is as old as the phenomenon of German mass tourism itself. Its classic artistic exegesis is a 1993 television ad by the British brewer Carling Black Label. It is set to the soundtrack of “Dam Busters,” a British film from 1955 in which strapping English pilots bounce bombs over a river and into a Nazi dam. Rather unsubtly, the 1993 spot features, well, a strapping English lad bouncing his towel over the swimming pool and onto a beach chair before the German hordes can occupy it.

Like many stereotypes, this one is true. And towels are the least of it. Try eating at a self-service restaurant. In some countries you might order, get your food and then find seating. In Germany, that etiquette will find you holding your tray and standing forlorn amid tables “reserved” with jackets, scarves or hats. The exceptions prove the rule. My favorite lunch spot in Berlin, the Flamingo Fresh Food Bar, has taken radical measures: While in line for your food, you see a photo of a German tourist (sandals, white socks, the works) placing his towel on a beach chair. “In the interest of all our patrons, including yours,” the caption reads, “we ask you not to train here.”

Some German universities have become so annoyed by students reserving carrels with piles of books that they’ve introduced meters that are free of charge and run out after an hour. But battle-tested German students simply return at the top of every hour to reset the meter. Incidentally, forget about spontaneously reserving a good German hotel for July. “July?” the receptionist replied to my wife. “Of course. Were you thinking July 2020 or 2021?”

Carling Black Label’s ad plays on stereotypical tourists.

In my unscientific ruminations, I have concluded that this pathology of obsessive reserving is really a yen to order the future, whether it’s the next hour or the rest of one’s life. It points to a deeper Germanic discomfort: the unacceptability of randomness, chance, and uncertainty. A proper German future, like a proper German citizen, ought to behave itself and follow rules.

Ponder the vastly different reactions of a German husband and his American wife we know in Berlin when they first entered their newly purchased home. He grew wistful, caressing the very walls between which the couple would grow old together. She saw a good “starter home” that would do nicely for a few years.

There is a theory ascribing the German angst about the future to the Thirty Years War, and all the other wars Germans subsequently endured. Those Germans who cleared the rubble of the last one, the story goes, taught their children the need to save, to plan, to preserve, to book ahead. Those children are today’s package tourists.

By this logic, Syrians may one day become our next poolside bane, once their war is over. And isn’t that something to pray for? Ultimately, this problem of the future – the fact that you cannot place your towel on it – torments not only Germans. It describes the human condition. The Buddha might say that we suffer because we cannot be sure we will find a table, a beach chair, a house, a life. Viewed this way, the approaching beach season becomes more promising. If we’re all in this together, why not share the Carling Black Label by the pool and watch the soccer game together?

One last thing about this stereotype. A couple of summers ago, a British travel site commissioned some empirical research. Yes, the study found, the Germans really do it. And yet – wait for it – “Brits are twice as likely to reserve a sunbed with a towel.”

A flying towel also features in Travel Supermarket’s ad.

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