Sometimes, you could get the impression that Germany is just one big, sloppy mess. Well, that’s what you might think if don’t know much German. Even if you’re just past beginner stage, though, you could start to wonder if Germany is as modern and secular as it first appears: every city seems to have a huge “mass” that it’s very proud of. Yes, that’s right: no German city, even in the generally protestant North, is complete without its Messe.
The Messe, however, is not just a Catholic mass – no, it’s a peculiarly German creed of an entirely different persuasion: and unlike other religions, the Messe cult doesn’t divide and cause strife, because it really is all about bringing people together – 170,000 over five days in Berlin this week. Yes, that’s right: if you haven’t got bored of my ramblings by now and gone and looked it up, Messe is also the German word for trade fair – and I’m at the ITB tourism Messe in the German capital.
Having said that, a Messe really is a quite different phenomenon to what the British understand under the words “trade fair”. Off the top of my head, I can think of two cities in my home country that have dedicated trade-fair venues: London (Earls Court) and Birmingham (NEC).
Now let’s think about Germany. Well, three stops down the underground line from my place in Hamburg are the Messehallen of the Hanseatic capital. If I then get on the train and head south, it doesn’t take long before I hit Germany’s biggest Messe in Hannover (home of the world’s leading digital technology trade-fair, CeBIT). If I change trains there onto an ICE headed towards Stuttgart, I go through Düsseldorf, Cologne and Frankfurt – all of them Messestädte, the latter boasting the world’s most important book trade-fair. Stuttgart’s got a Messe too, by the way, and Munich. And as I head back north to Hamburg via Leipzig and Berlin, I go through another two very well known trade-fair locations. I wouldn’t want to miss out on Nuremberg, by the way, which has the world’s largest toy fair : yes, despite my recent 25th birthday, I’m just a big kid at heart.
And being a big kid is essentially what the whole Messe thing is about. These huge exhibition halls are regularly transformed into temporary themed wonderlands that you just want to run around shouting about. The Berlin tourism fair, for example, that I’m currently writing from, has hall after hall of country-stands, each more colourful and inviting than the last. There’s the Italy stand, tempting you with its cheese and ham, the America stand with burgers and fries, and then there’s the Hungary stand… Well, here’s were the big kid in you shivers: despite this Eastern European country being homonymous with hunger, they had nothing better to offer than a string of red onions: but hey, why worry about that when you can just sidle on over to the Bavarian tourism authority one hall further on: they’re offering beer from 10:00am onwards. What do you mean kids don’t like beer? This one does!
What else do big kids like? Huge statues of guys holding swords? Hermann, who I reported on last year, is here. Dancing and frolicking? Well, courtesy of the Turkish guests of honour this year, you got it! Or how about a tropical playground with palm trees, running water and a rocking ship? We’ve got one of those too! Or what would you say to a two-storey, space-age capsule with countless escalators to run up and down? Just stop by Dubai and the Arab Emirates and go for it!
Yes, the Messe is a truly fine thing. Sure, there’s some business done here – some very important business no doubt – but that’s all done in the first days during the week when the general public aren’t allowed in. As of Saturday morning, though, hordes of Germans (some with children, some with nothing better to do) will be storming the ITB looking for possible holiday destinations, product giveaways and – of course – free food. And if daddy wants a free beer, why not? No-one has to bring their car since the exhibition halls in Berlin – like all German Messen – are kitted out with several train stations and tube stops. Superb!
In fact, looking at the whole picture, the Messe really is a German religion inasmuch as it is a celebration of everything that makes Germany great: huge quantities of food, impressive logistical and organisational capabilities – and a willingness to have childish fun even wherever possible.