I'm home again from Hamburg - actually, I got in at about one o'clock in the morning after a late-night flight, but I'd sensibly booked a day's holiday for today, so I get to catch up on my sleep and blogging rather than going to work. And wow, that was a fantastic German Memory Championship! I'll blog it in installments, just to keep the suspense going and also because I'm much too tired to write up the whole thing today.
I flew in around lunchtime on Thursday (with FlyBe, who I've never used before but are cheap and perfectly nice, so I'll probably use them again) and found that finding the venue and my hotel was extremely easy - 25 minutes on the S-Bahn takes you from the airport to a train station right next to the Hamburg University buildings where the competition was held, while right next to the station on the other side was the Radisson Blu hotel (formerly known as the Radisson Sas - what with SAS Furniture in Beeston closing down and now this hotel chain changing its name, it's been a bad time for SAS enthusiasts just lately) where most of the competitors were staying. It's possible that I might still have managed to get lost, but as I got off the train I ran into a whole mob of memorisers who pointed me in the right direction.
The Radisson hotel will be very nice when it's finished, probably. At the moment, it looks from the outside like they still need to finish adding walls, roofs and other such essentials, while on the inside there are some classy and shiny new bits and a lot of bare boards and unfinished sections. And also, from eight in the morning until eight at night, a lot of loud hammering and drilling noises all day long, for which half-price meals in the hotel restaurant are supposed to compensate.
My room was very nice, with lots of pillows, international TV channels, comfortable bed and all the bits and pieces that you expect in the good hotels. It also, weirdly, has a window between the bedroom and bathroom, so if you really want to you can sit on the bed and watch someone else in the shower or on the toilet. There's a venetian blind on the bedroom side of the window, but even so, I don't know why they thought a window was necessary in the first place. Anyway, I didn't stay long in the room, both because of the deafening construction work and because I wanted to see some of the city before spending two solid days remembering stuff.
My conversation with the receptionist had made it pretty clear that my ability to understand German had deteriorated in the couple of years since I was last there, but you don't need to speak the language to use the super-user-friendly and efficient train ticket machines or the trains themselves, so I went down to the Hauptbahnhof, assuming that was the best way to find the city centre. And indeed it is, unless you leave the station by the south exit, in which case it's an experience more comparable to getting a train to King's Cross and wandering out into the streets to see the sights of London. But by a strategy of walking around and turning the other way whenever the word 'Erotik!' loomed in front of me in blue neon, I eventually found my way back to the train station, out the other side and into the proper shopping area. Which is really nice, and I'd recommend it to anyone.
A little bit of sightseeing later, it was back to the hotel for a half-price dinner with a gathering of German Gedächtnissportlers which confirmed that, yes, I definitely can't understand even the most simple conversation in German any more. Resolution for next year - go on a refresher course and improve my language skills. It's so embarrassing when I go over there and everybody effortlessly switches to talking in fluent English whenever I'm nearby. And then bedtime, in preparation for the excitement to come.
The competition didn't start until 2pm on Friday, with a press conference/opening ceremony at 11:30, but since the building works prevented me from having a lie-in, I went back into the city to get some rubber bands to hold my packs of cards together (the cardboard boxes are getting rather old and falling to pieces, and I'd hate to lose a stray card somewhere along the way as they travel around the world) before heading out to the university. Rather than having breakfast at the hotel, I decided to get the event off to a traditional start and go to McDonald's. I really am eating more healthily nowadays, but you can't beat junk food for a memory competition.
And so began the thirteenth German Memory Championship, the first one held in the north of Germany (my knowledge of German culture is sadly lacking, so I have no idea what kind of social or political significance this has, but everybody else felt that it was a point worth making) and brilliantly organised, as always, by Klaus Kolb and his team. As usual, there was a great sponsor, Nintendo, a very professional look to the whole event and lots of media people scurrying around. The press conference was held in a very stylish lecture room, watched from the walls by photos of eminent professors including Agathe Lasch (1879-1942), the first female linguistics professor in Germany, who wore a monocle and looked very cool.
The field of competitors was even stronger than is usual for the German championships - the publicity booklet handily was able to list all the favourites by their current titles: German Champion 2008 Johannes Mallow, South German Champion 2009 Simon Reinhard, North German Champion 2009 Boris Konrad, Vice-World-Champion 2008 Gunther Karsten and Women's German Champion or German Championship Runner-Up 2006-2008 Cornelia Beddies [I don't like the idea of having women's titles in a sport where men and women compete on equal terms in the same events, and I was pleased to see that there was a minimum of mentions of it this year]. Oh, and also that foreigner who won the world championship. There were also a whole lot of other competitors, old and new, most prominent among them probably Dennis Müller in his first really big competition but having claimed some very impressive results in training and probably a star of the future. Plus the usual mob of juniors as well - if only we could get the same kind of thing going in Britain, maybe we'd have somewhere close to the same number of good adult memorisers as the Germans have...
Hannes and Cornelia got to sit up on the stage and do quick memory demonstrations at the press conference, joined by Klaus, Tony Buzan and the Nintendo representative, whose name started with S and had a J in it somewhere, I think. I'm bad with names, have I ever mentioned that? Tony gave a very lengthy speech, in English, informing us that the world's greatest thinkers (Tony and his friends) had a meeting in Kuala Lumpur last month at which they proclaimed that it is no longer the age of information, but the age of intelligence (in the same way that it was once the age of agriculture, or the age of industry). This made the 2009 German Championship particularly special because it was officially the first memory championship of the age of intelligence. How this differed from the announcement a few years ago that it's now the millennium of the mind, I'm not sure, but it got a round of applause. During the course of the speech, Tony asked his young, German-speaking, audience to split into groups of three and discuss among themselves questions like "What is it more important to manage than to manage knowledge?" and asserted that "The world is in the trouble it's in because we're thinking informationally".
But I shouldn't be nasty about Tony's speech, since a) everybody else seemed to genuinely appreciate it (although the Nintendo woman looked downright baffled) so clearly I'm just being a miserable old cynic, and b) Tony later told me I'm looking really great and asked if I've been exercising. I think I really do look quite a bit less obese than I did at the world championships last year, so I was very flattered. And anyway, who am I to criticise someone who's unquestionably one of the world's great speakers - he went on for at least fifteen minutes, without pause or reference to any notes, and I'm sure he could have carried on all day without repeating himself if he'd wanted to.
The shorter speeches from Klaus and Madam Nintendo, as far as I could understand them, were more along the lines that memory and learning are not only good for you but can also be a lot of fun. There were Wiis and DSs set up in the hall outside, demonstrating all the cool brainy games now available. Gunther made a quick announcement that he wasn't going to be competing this year after all, apparently because he just wasn't prepared well enough for it, although he did say later that he'd be back for the world championship. He's growing his hair long and was unshaven - I think he's going a bit rock-n-roll in his old age.
Then it was time for a free lunch in the university cafeteria down the road, and on with the real business of memory. Even without Gunther, this was going to be the strongest competition we've had for a long time; for one thing it would answer the question everyone's been wondering (or maybe it was just me) - who's the best nowadays out of Simon and Hannes? Simon had a year away from memory competitions, during which Hannes improved himself up to similar world-beating levels, and the two of them were hot favourites for the German championship. I knew that I'd need to be at my best to win the event, and I wasn't sure whether I'd been quite as assiduous with the training as I should have been.
As always, the adult competition was confusingly split into two different events - the German Memo Open, listing everybody's scores, and the Deutsche Gedächtnis Meisterschaft, for German competitors only. This makes the statistics website seem to say that Gunther's won twice as many championships as he actually has, but for the purposes of this blog, I'm just going to talk about the GMO. By contrast, the UK championship has trophies for the best three British competitors and one for the best foreigner, but only lists the results as one competition.
Tune in tomorrow to hear what actually happened at the championship!