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February 2003

Go West, Junger Mann

How two Bavarians made their home in America’s capitol

Like many German expats living in America one of my favorite pastimes is searching for ways to characterize my host country. Driving through Washington, DC, I ponder pithy one-liners that will cause my interlocutor’s eyes to widen in grateful appreciation of my insights. Imagine my anticipation at the prospect of chatting with two Bavarians whose combined time as expats in America exceeds 50 years. What would they have to say about America and Americans? And what of the Bavarian character—had it withstood the test of time or crumbled in the face of the American way of life?

The reality is that both Maximilian Schwendl and Alois Bruckbauer are individuals who resist any kind of typecasting. Both work at the German Embassy in Washington, DC, as drivers and that is where any similarities end. “Der Schwendl Max,” as he is affectionately referred to by his diplomat clients, is probably the only embassy chauffeur who clocks in for work dressed in a checkered shirt and Timberlands. He drives a Ford truck to his downtown appointments, where it no doubt successfully contests the limited parking spaces outside the Capitol and the State Department.

For Schwendl, the pick-up is a life-style decision. He owns the same model privately. Born in the village of Eholfing near Passau, he came to the United States with the Bundesgrenzschutz in the 1970s, after which he spent a couple of years as a schoolbus driver before joining the Embassy staff. Accompanied by his dog, Buwee, he has come to embrace a life-style that is both intensely American and strangely Bavarian in its rugged insularity, touring the length and breadth of the country with a particular fondness of its remoter corners.

Alois Bruckbauer really is “out of Rosenheim,” which he also left in the 1970s, to serve at the Embassy with the Bundesgrenzschutz before transferring to the local staff as a driver. His Bavarianness is expressed through long-time membership of one of two local Schuhplattlvereine and an equally long-standing devotion to the popularization of Bavarian music: he plays guitar with a partner on accordion at the “Old Europe” restaurant in Washington’s fashionable Georgetown. While the demand for Bruckbauer’s musical services has declined along with the generations of American servicemen stationed in Germany, the interest in a Bavarian way of life is alive and cheerfully kicking. Bruckbauer has traveled to conventions as far away as California, where Schuhplattlvereine thrive just as happily as in the forests of Vermont with all the trappings of German Vereinsleben: newsletters, chapters, zealously observed regulations and a fastidiously happy observation of Bavarian tradition.

While these two men are almost antipodal in their approach both to their regional heritage and their host country, they share a genuine enthusiasm for America, which has given them the opportunity to be the people they are, Bavarianness and all. On Max Schwendl’s trips out West he is never short of people to talk to in local diners who recognize his like-minded individuality and share his interests in the great outdoors. Are their conversations “superficial”? As far as Schwendl is concerned, friendliness and generosity of spirit are more important than being able to quote Freud. He has met locals who recognize him (and his dog) after one, even two, years of absence and will step up to help him haul crates of Paulaner into his self-made boat prior to setting off on some white-water rafting.

Bruckbauer resonates Bavarian Gemütlichkeit and is clearly enthralled by Bavarian traditions and some of their more idiosyncratic permutations. His particular hobby-horse is collecting accordions and string instruments associated with Bavarian music. He owns over 30, some of them so rare that he has been approached by the Smithsonian Institute for donations to their collections. Like Schwendl, he doesn’t have a bad word to say about Americans and considers himself privileged to work and play in a tolerant and welcoming environment. Although he doesn’t own a truck, he has realized his version of the American Dream by purchasing a Winnebago, the quintessential RV (recreational vehicle), with which he tours America, albeit on a more modest scale than his Bavarian colleague.

Driving back through Washington, to my home away from home, I pondered again on generalizations and stereotypes. But none came to me. Instead I was left with a sense of enthusiasm and admiration. Time to get out the map and plan the next road trip.

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