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Gift exposes culture clash

October 31, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

Driving west on Interstate 70 and given a choice between entering Washington County and possibly facing death in the electric chair, the alleged serial sniper pulled off the road and went to sleep.

Just couldn't bring himself to keep going, I suppose. He got so close - about a hundred yards away, or so, and then just couldn't in good conscience bring himself to cross the border.

I want to reach out, touch the sniper on the shoulder and tell him that really, we're not that bad. I know at first blush it may seem as if we are too dysfunctional for even a serial killer to stomach, but mostly it's superficial. Deep down, we don't meeaaan nuthin.

I mean, how can you distrust a community where a bunch of people dress up and pretend it's 140 years ago so they can ignite gunpowder and chase each other around a cow pasture? How can you fail to embrace a community that each year embarks on a frantic search for the biggest caterpillar? What's not to like about a city that encourages a bunch of Germans to bring it a big ole metal sculpture of a donkey?

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Oh all right, while the first two examples make perfect sense, I can understand if you're a little cloudy on the last one, so I'll try to walk you through it - to the extent that I understand it myself.

We are the sister city, see, of a city called Wesel in Germany. But is isn't pronounced Wesel, it's pronounced Vayzel, because the Germans pronounce "W's" like "V's" and "E's" like "A's" and "decayed animal flesh" like "sauerbraten."

I don't know if this W/V transposition works both ways, where the V's are pronounced as W's, but I hope not since I think it would sound pretty silly to walk into a car dealership and ask to test drive a Wolksvagen.

OK, so that's all well and good, but it still doesn't explain the donkey. How that happened, is that a delegation of Germans from Wesel led by the burgermeister came to see us earlier this month and brought the donkey as a gift.

A burgermeister is not a short order cook, rather it is a mayor. Now the obvious question is why, when you can spell it simply m-a-y-o-r, you would waste so much time and ink by spelling it b-u-r-g-e-r-m-e-i-s-t-e-r. All I can tell you is that it is a German cultural thing. Everything from cars to language is complicated. Like Mark Twain said, Germans stake a verb at one end of the sentence, stake a verb at the other end of the sentence "and in between they just shovel in German."

This, however, still does not explain the donkey. The donkey came about - and remember, this is their story, not mine - because an old German proverb says that if you go into the mountains and shout "Wesel," the echo comes back as "Esel," which is the German word for donkey.

Hagerstown Burgermeister Villiam Breichner accepted the donkey gift and captured the moment by saying what was on everyone's mind: "Honorable representatives of the City of Wesel, thank you for the gift of the donkey, but we really would have preferred beer."

No, actually what he said was, "With all the changes the world has seen over the..." oh never mind, it really wasn't that interesting anyway.

What was interesting, was that the Germans didn't realize they had bordered on a political faux pas by presenting the bi-partisan crowd with a mono-partisan icon. We had to explain to them that the donkey got to be a party symbol, because if you go into the mountains and shout "Democrat" the echo comes back "Jacka..." no, come to think of it, that wouldn't be right. If we proceeded with the echo theory, the animal representing the party might be closer to a muskrat.

So where do we put this donkey sculpture, which - how do I put this gently - bears a striking resemblance to the Trojan rabbit in Monty Python's "Search for the Holy Grail." Best advice I can give is to etch the Ten Commandments on it, so the ACLU will force City Hall to put it in the basement forever.

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