Monthly Archives: February 2012

“Field notes” from Munich

Spring arrived in Munich a little earlier than I expected it to: Friday, February 24. (Well, at least I hope that was Spring’s official arrival and it’s not just being a tease.)

The day’s blue sky, sunshine and warm(ish) air demanded that I abandon my work and go exploring. So, I obeyed.

For this excursion, I headed to Munich’s famous Englischer Garten, its equivalent of Central Park, only bigger. A quick trip on the U-Bahn (the subway), followed by a short walk down a cobbled stone street brought me to one of the park entrances. Judging by the hoards of joggers, walkers, strollers, dogs, and bikers that bustled past me as I walked through, I was certainly not the only one that had obeyed the sunshine’s demand.

I followed a wooded path that ran adjacent to a tributary of the Isar River, the river that runs through the middle of Munich. I was struck the crystal clarity of this urban stream.

The warm weather had hastened the thawing process, turning most of the park’s dirt paths into mud, which required careful steps in places where many feet and bike wheels had already tread.

After wandering for about 30 minutes, I came upon a big clearing. Its network of paths were, in places, lined with benches, all of them occupied. This was certainly the place to be today.

At the farther end of the clearing a Greek-style temple called the Monopteros sits atop a hill. The temple beckoned me, and my feet turned in its direction without even consulting with my brain.

What Monopteros will look like when Spring is fully here. Image by LuxTonnerre

As I meandered around mud puddles toward the temple, the sounds of strumming guitars and singing voices came into earshot, which only further piqued my curiosity. When I came to the top of the hill, I was greeted by a few dozen people sitting or milling about. The guitars and voices belonged to two men standing in the center of the temple, putting on a show for anyone listening. I decided to sit on the temple steps for a bit and join the audience.

The interesting thing about being a foreigner is that I sometimes feel like an ethnographic “researcher,” observing Germans’ in their native habitat, watching them do what they do, and taking note of their behavior, language-use, and other cultural idiosyncrasies. As a “trained” qualitative researcher, a geeky idea came to me as I sat on the steps: I’ll make some “participant observations” about this day. And so, I took out my pen and notebook, and I observed.

The performance “venue” was pretty magical. From the hilltop, you get a fabulous view of the park’s expanse below. On the horizon, the steeples of several of Munich’s cathedrals tower above the park’s trees. The temple’s dome offered wonderful acoustics, allowing the music to echo down into the park.

The “band” was actually quite good. Their harmonizing led me to think this was not entirely an impromptu performance…they’d clearly done this before. I was very amused by their repertoire: all but one of the songs I heard them play were from English speaking countries…and from the nineties. For example, they sang lovely renditions of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Globalization is not all economics, after all.

The “audience” was quite a motley crew. Several groups of college-aged kids were camped out, some drinking beers as they basked in the sun and music. An older woman sat alone, leaning against a temple pillar. A pair of well-dressed men joined the audience and pulled out pipes to puff (unfortunately, I was sitting directly in the wake of their smoke, which eventually forced me to move from my well-positioned perch). A couple of moms stood chatting, while their rambunctious sons played on the hillside. Two young women sat and gossiped (in English, so I was privy to their conversation. One was clearly upset about a boy). Several dogs were also in the audience, obediently by their owners’ sides (German dogs are very obedient, according to my observations). There was a constant flow of people climbing the hill, stopping at the top for a listen, some taking pictures, and then walking back down again.

The view from the "venue" (but not from the same day). Image by Ludmila Pilecka

I listened to about 10 songs, until I was eventually chased away by more smoke billowing into my face, this time from the cigarette of a man standing next to me (factoid: Germany has one of Europe’s highest smoking rates).

When I got to the bottom of the hill, I navigated my way through a muddy field to yet another muddy path. I was then greeted by more music: an old man playing the accordion. Yet another talented street musician. I couldn’t tell if the songs were Italian or French, but they sounded like the stereotypical accordion songs you hear in Italian or French movies. I didn’t stick around to listen to his performance, however, as I was anxious to keep moving.

As I walked out of the park, I ruminated over my research exercise, which I guess brings me to the point of this otherwise pointless post. As I continue to get acclimated to my new life and surroundings, I can’t help but feel a bit like a wallflower, standing at the edge of the party, watching, but not (yet) ready to dance with everyone else. While, appearance-wise, I blend in pretty well with the Germans, I am still an outsider peering in.

And “peering in” has a couple of connotations. For one, I am observing a different culture, trying to learn their ways in an attempt to adopt them, so I can eventually become at least an honorary member of the club. Secondly, since being “the other” can, at times, be isolating, it leaves a lot of room for peering inside myself. I haven’t had this much space for self reflection since, well, before grad school held all my time, energy and mental capacity hostage.

Being an outsider also gives you empathy and compassion for other outsiders–perhaps something we need more of with the increasingly migrant human race.

In any case, a quick Google search revealed that I am not the only expat with a blog to write about being the outsider. At least I am not alone in that.

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Spazieren gehen

One of my favorite activities to do in Munich so far is going on a walk, or “spazieren gehen” auf Deutsch. Like most German cities, Munich is an easy place to be a pedestrian. Of course, it had the advantage of being a city centuries before cars were around, so automobile infrastructure was kind of an after-thought. But even with its now-busy roads, its sidewalks, bike paths and various means of public transit (subway, bus, streetcar, commuter train) are still bustling. The Germans don’t seem to have forgotten what life was like before the car, which¬†this recent article in The New York Times reminded me.

Granted, some of the places I have lived in the States, especially the last three, were relatively pedestrian-friendly. But Munich takes it up a couple notches. Within a few blocks radius of me, I can walk to just about anything I need on a daily basis: several grocery stores, my bank, a post office, bakeries (there are literally about 2 bakeries per block in my neighborhood), my subway stop, and stores of all sorts–from furniture to second-hand clothing to books.

An after-work occasion I delight in is taking a walk to my new favorite market, Lowenzahn, a tiny shop that sells only fresh produce, wine, cheese, bread, meat, and an enticing selection of oils and vinegars. The other evening, on my walk to Lowenzahn, I took new route along the edge of a large park called Theresienwiese, which is home to Oktoberfest (only a block and a half from my house!). The centerpiece of the park is a huge statue of the lady of Bavaria that guards the entrance of the “Hall of Fame,” which displays busts of important dead people (mostly men, of course…she says sarcastically). I was walking at sunset, and the sky above the monument was illuminated pink. I held my breath and slowed my pace as I became transfixed by the gorgeous sight and embraced the moment. Even on a bike, it would have been hard to truly appreciate that moment, while also staying vigilant of road hazards and oblivious drivers.

Bavaria statue

The lady of Bavaria and the Hall of Fame. Image by R. Pirkner

But “spazieren gehen” is not just a utilitarian way of going from place to place. It is also recreational and one way I am getting to know Munich. At least once per week, I take myself on a walk around a new part of town, in an attempt to etch a map of the city into my brain.

And it doesn’t seem to be just me, the newcomer in awe of her new surroundings, that fancies a recreational stroll, even if it is on a chilly winter day. On my first Sunday here, my flatmate took me to Schloss Nymphenburg, the former summer castle of Bavarian royalty, now a public park and museum. Munich was still in the holds of the cold snap that hit Europe, but the frigid temperatures did not stop people from playing outside. Children and adults alike were ice skating on the narrow canal that runs through the park. Families, pairs of lovers, and gaggles of friends strolled along the paths, some sipping Gluehwein (myself included) to keep warm. It seemed that half of Munich was there.

Schloss Nymphenburg

Schloss Nymphenburg's backyard. Imagine this covered in snow and about 20 times as many people in the picture, and that's what the day looked like. Image by Florian Adler

I am not saying I don’t think Americans take themselves on strolls in parks. There are certainly many places where that happens. But I think what struck me most was just the huge number of people that had the same desire to walk on the same miserably-cold day.

As my new reality slowly spoils me, it also reinforces how important it is, for me, to keep “walk-ability” at the top of my priority list for places to live. Without intending to be self-righteous, the pedestrian life has become a valued part of my everyday, and I simply can’t imagine giving that up. Walking slows down the pace of life and allows me to really pay attention to my surroundings and notice details I probably otherwise would not. It also frees up more brain space to think–or not think (i.e., meditate)–than both biking and driving allow.

And so, if you’ll excuse me, I have some walking to do.

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So we meet again, Germany

Ten years ago, I left my comfortable college town (Charlottesville, VA) to try out one of life’s uncomfortable, but worthwhile opportunities: living in a different country. I studied for a semester in Freiburg, Germany–a quaint college town in its own right. But, as a twenty-year-old American woman with only a beginning German language ability, life in Freiburg, at first, was by no means comfortable. I struggled with the frustration of feeling unable to express myself, the confusion around understanding a new culture, and then the growing pains of learning about myself in how I respond to such uncomfortable situations. In fact, I distinctly remember bursting into tears one day after my German literature class, as I attempted to ask my professor a question, but just couldn’t get it out nor could understand what she was telling me in response.

But, thankfully, with time, my German got better (much better!) and life became increasingly more comfortable–as they always say it does. And I learned the value of throwing oneself into uncomfortable experiences: you grow…a lot.

And so, here I am, ten years “older and wiser,” doing the same exact thing to myself. This time, I left a different, but equally comfortable college town (Madison, WI) and headed in the direction of another German city: Munich (or Muenchen, as the Germans call it). A much different town than Freiburg, Munich is one of Germany’s “big” cities, and while it’s also home to a university and also has quaint aspects to it (it is, after all, the capital of Bavaria, from where most stereotypically German kitsch comes–Lederhosen, Oktoberfest, etc.), this is by no means a quaint university town.

A fortunate job opportunity was my ticket to Munich, but I also came here to satiate my desire to reconnect with Germany and, once again, expand my perspective. However, unfortunately, the years of letting my German language ability lie dormant have paid their toll. While I have not regressed all the way back to how it was when I first arrived in Freiburg, I’m not that much better. But, as they always say, it will get better with time.

And so, with this blog, I will chronicle my reconnection with “der Vaterland” (it is literally, for me, the land of my forefathers), as well as muse over my expanding perspective. Since my job–and my professional (and personal) interests, in general–lie in the environmental studies realm, many of those musings will likely be related accordingly. In fact, another reason I decided to come to Germany was to flavor my otherwise primarily domestic environmental perspective with some international spice (granted, Germany is not the most exotic of spices, but it is an important one in environmentalism’s recipe nonetheless).

Without further ado, welcome to my blog. Please come again.

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