“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.


Filed under Germany

5 responses to ““Field notes” from Munich

  1. ancase

    A fine post. You might explore the concept of the “flaneur” as an organizing principle to describe your ramblings:


    This would also allow you say things like “fundamental to the modernist experience of urban space.” You could also contrast this to recent discussions about the “death” of the flaneaur in the digital commons:


    I won’t be impressed with your globalization argument until you stumble on to somebody playing the Gin Blossoms, Dishwalla, Candlebox, or at least Soul Asylum.



  2. Virginia Page Trovato

    Hi Jenny,

    I found your blog through Facebook and I’ve really enjoyed reading your impressions of Munich. It makes me want to travel! Anyway, I just thought I’d say hello! And congrats on your new job!

  3. M

    Looking forward to visiting you- we should go walking there!

    I once heard a busker in Ireland playing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I think it’s a favorite for Euro street singers trying to attract American travelers.

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