Category Archives: Germany

Survivor: Oktoberfest, episode 1

“You can’t survive Oktoberfest without drinking beer.”

Several people have told me this over the past few days. And they are so right.

Oktoberfest, Munich’s annual celebration of beer, Bavarian-ness and debauchery, started last weekend. I still have to survive it for nine more days.

I say “surviving” somewhat literally. I live a block and a half away from the fest grounds (a.k.a. the Wiesn).

I found this picture from a previous Oktoberfest on Wikimedia. It’s the view towards the Wiesn from my street, at the intersection a half-block from my building.

My street is a main thoroughfare for fest-goers. From morning til night (or, rather, very early the next morning), streams of people wearing Dirndl and Lederhosen flow down my street; by about 6pm those streams turn into raging rivers of people…drunk people…slurring, staggering, stumbling, singing, arm-in-arm, drunk-friend-holding-up-drunker-friend, drunk people. Leaving my house is usually an upstream struggle.

But wait, it gets worse.

I also live across the street from a hostel, one that has a tendency to get rowdy even when it’s not Oktoberfest. Its rowdiness caliber has increased at least threefold this week.

It gets worse still.

Next to the hostel is a restaurant that hosts an “after-party” every night of Oktoberfest. So, to fall asleep, I must tune out the din of pulsing dance beats and drunken chatter, and the occasional outbursts of song from drunk men (always men) or ambulance sirens (Munich’s emergency fleet has certainly had their work cut out for them this week).

I am desperately trying to stay in the spirit and hold onto the perspective of “what an interesting cultural experience this is.” But I have accepted I will be sleep deprived for at least another nine days.

And, following locals’ warnings, I have made sure to drink the beer. I mean, I have to survive.

In the next episode of “Survivor: Oktoberfest,” I will offer a glimpse into what it’s like on the Wiesn.

Image by Usien/Wikimedia

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An encounter with an old man in a park

Sometimes the briefest encounters in life can leave incommensurately larger impressions on you. I recently had one such encounter.

I was spending the afternoon in Schlosspark Nymphenburg, the gargantuan backyard of the former Bavarian royal family’s excessive “summer palace” (now an urban park). I had gone to do “research” for an article I am attempting to write. So, naturally, my notebook and pen were in my hand throughout the afternoon, and I erratically stopped here and there to take notes.

On one such occasion, I had stopped in the middle of a wooded path, unaware of the curiousness of this action. As I was scribbling, I heard footsteps behind me slow and then stop right next to me.

I looked up to the smiling face of an elderly man. He immediately exclaimed, “Oh, Sie schreiben in einem Tagesbuch!” (Oh, you’re writing in a journal!)

I smiled hesitantly and answered a mere, “Ja,” afraid he would ask me more questions, thus forcing me to reveal my still-poor German speaking ability.

Then, without hesitation, he asked me if I would like to accompany him on his way to the palace.

In a split second I weighed my options. This old man—with his glasses, visible tooth work, and old-man uniform of khaki shorts, white socks, and a slightly baggy striped polo short—didn’t look predatory. So he probably meant no harm. But, aside from the fact I was not walking in the direction of the palace, my gut instinct compelled me to answer, “Nein danke, ich gehe allein.” (No thanks, I’ll go alone.) Then I told him to have a nice day in the nicest smile I could muster from my perplexity of his invitation, so that it didn’t seem like I thought he was just a creepy old man hitting on a young woman in the middle of a heavily wooded park.

He didn’t seem offended by my decline, just a bit disappointed, and he wished me a good day in return.

As I watched him walk away, I actually found myself feeling bad that I had turned him down. I wondered two things: why did he want to walk with me to the palace, and why was my instinctual reaction “no.”

While I will never know the answer to my first question, I think the answer to the second one has something to do with the distrust in strange men that has been socially engrained in me, for better or worse. Even a kind-looking, curious elderly man is still a stranger and triggers the self-protection instinct.

But, still, I wondered if this encounter had become a lost moment to make a random, but meaningful connection. If I had accepted his invitation, would we have had this unforgettable, life-altering conversation? Or would we have awkwardly fumbled through chit-chat? Or would he have turned out to be really just a creepy man, whose age gives him the façade of kindness?

As I am writing this post, reliving the encounter in my head, I am led to ponder whether we sometimes just look for meaning in fleeting encounters—whether or not any is actually there—in an effort to feel connected to people. Or, at the risk of being over-philosophical, perhaps the randomness of life is what you make of it.

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Das Bauernleben: A first glimpse of life on a Bavarian farm

This weekend I got my first taste of farm life in Bavaria. I WWOOFed for a small farm about an hour outside of Munich. Here are some of my first impressions.

The farm, which has been in the family for generations, is now primarily a horse and cattle operation, with a flock of chickens for kicks (although, I didn’t get to meet the cattle, as they are currently “summering” in Alpine meadows). The current generation of farmers is a young-ish couple with Gerber-baby-adorable eight-month-old twins. One member of the previous generation also lives there: the father of the husband, a relatively silent, old man who spent most of the time sitting around swatting flies, but showed up punctually for every meal.

The farm considers itself “Demeter,” which is the strictest level of organic (or “bio,” as the Germans call it) farming in Germany. In a nutshell, it follows the rules of biodynamic farming as proposed by Rudolf Steiner, the same guy who started the Waldorf schools. Demeter principles include planting according to cosmic rhythms, acute attention to nurturing the soil without chemical inputs, localized production and distribution, and the respectful treatment of animals.

My first, first impression is that farming reminds you of the limits and capabilities of your body in a way many people don’t normally experience in today’s “modern” world. As someone who sits at a desk to make her living, I was reminded mostly of my body’s limits. In fact, as I type this blog, I am wincing from a pain in my arm I acquired from lifting too many heavy loads of horse poop with a shovel. Despite this, I found the sensation (and the results) of physically pushing myself to get a job done to be quite satisfying.

Secondly, the experience revealed the importance of community-building within a farm. Everyone has to pitch in to get everything done, from mucking out the stalls to drying the dishes. The community also encompasses other farms in the area. I learned my host farm is part of a Demeter cow cooperative, of sorts; that is, the farms share the responsibility of rearing and tending the cows, as well as the fruits of the labor: meat and dairy products. They also share equipment and knowledge, as they have regular meetings (with other Demeter farmers) to discuss biodynamic methods and principles. Evidence of this sense of community lay in the warm atmosphere of the party my hosts held the night I was there, at which the cooperative’s farmers were in attendance; as well as in the hurried group effort to move some newly-cut hay into shelter, so it wouldn’t get soaked (and, thus, ruined) by a quickly approaching storm on my first afternoon.

Third, Bavarian farm houses–or rather, farm complexes–are so cool (for lack of a more eloquent superlative). While my host farm’s house is not the most spectacular of those I have seen from the outside, I finally got a chance to see one from the inside. Many Bavarian farm houses are huge and shelter both the people and the animals–that is, the people live on one side, and the animals (usually the cows) live on the other side or in a wing, of sorts. (Unfortunately, I don’t own a camera, so I can’t provide pictures for a visual explanation.) I wondered what this physical connection between human and animal living space does to the farmers’ mentality around their relationship with animals.

Fourth, I guess I never realized how rigid the day’s work schedule on a farm must be. There seem to be certain windows of the day in which various tasks can, or must, be done. For example, the horses must be fed at certain times and their stalls mucked frequently. This brings a rhythm to the day I don’t experience at my desk job. Also, not once did I find myself losing focus and thinking, “I wonder what’s happening on Facebook right now.”

Finally, the experience exemplified how trusting and welcoming people are capable of being towards strangers. Not only did I trust my host farmers to keep me safe and relatively cared for while under their roof, they trusted me to be respectful of their household and their property and warmly included me into their family and community.

I will be interested to see how my thinking about farm life might change, or not change, the more I experience it.

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On becoming a more assertive bicyclist

As a dedicated bike commuter, I was overjoyed when the weather became tolerable enough to get back in the saddle. However, I quickly realized I was mentally ill-prepared to take on Munich’s streets. Even having learned to maneuver the Calcutta-like masses of students on UW-Madison’s campus, I have never before experienced a magnitude of bike traffic like Munich’s.

On one hand, it is a beautiful thing that so many people get around by Radl (the Bavarian version of the German word for “bike”). Munich’s diversity of bike commuters is much richer than the mostly young and (0ften) liberal crowd typical of most American urban biking scenes. To add to the expected herds of university students and young professionals, the biking population also consists of business men and women in suits (and sometimes pumps, if the latter), elderly women with shopping bags, elderly men just putzing along, chic middle-aged ladies with designer bags, and kid-toting parents.

Of course, the magnitude of bike commuters is likely due to the fact that Germany, in general, is a much bike friendlier country than the US. Biking is so much more engrained in its culture and its infrastructure. For example, Munich has a remarkable network of bike paths and lanes (and many of the latter are placed on the sidewalks, rather than in the streets), which makes navigating the city much easier on bike than by car. I have also found drivers to be much more mindful of cyclists than in the States; in other words, they actually look for cyclists before making a turn.

On the other hand, the popularity of biking creates a hazard of its own: more cyclists.

Having never before shared the road with so many bikers, I was a nervous wreck during my first couple of weeks in the saddle, as I acclimated to the ways of the road. I was that annoying slow biker that swerved or stopped at any sign of confusion. I felt like a skiddish horse every time a biker would narrowly whiz past me in the bike lane, sometimes so close I was surprised I wasn’t knocked over.

A lesson I recently learned is to avoid Munich’s bike paths on Sundays, especially warm and sunny Sundays. The paths are swarming with cyclists: from your super-sporty, why-the-heck-is-he-going-that-fast road biker to the wobbly child who leaves you guessing which way he is going to weave as you attempt to pass him.

Biking is especially tricky in the pedestrian and tourist-heavy parts of town. In these places, you have to add clueless tourists unfamiliar with Munich street etiquette to your already busy radar.

I have found Marienplatz (Munich’s pedestrian mecca) to be the worst. Beware the tourist who steps into the middle of the street looking only through his camera’s viewfinder, or the one standing in the middle of the bike lane totally unaware of the oncoming cyclists frantically ringing their bells at her! Even though biking through Marienplatz is my most direct work-to-home route, I have resorted to riding home the long way, just to avoid its mayhem.

Thus, in order to survive as a bike commuter in Munich, I am learning to become a more assertive cyclist. I can’t falter when I see that car about to turn at the intersection I am about to cross–more often than not, the driver knows I am there. I can’t panic when approaching an area congested with pedestrians and other cyclists–I have to weave my way around with confidence. I can’t startle when someone passes me too closely for comfort–I have to stay cool and move over. And I can’t get nervous when I want to pass the slow biker I’ve started tailgating–I have take a deep breath, ring my bell and hope for the best.

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Slow travel: a state of mind

Last time I was in Europe (ten years ago), my traveling philosophy was quite different than my current one. I was like most college juniors on a study abroad adventure: I wanted to see as much as possible. Just about every city I visited whizzed by me, as my travel mates and I rushed about to make sure we saw every medieval cathedral, art museum, castle, and/or sculpture garden our guide books told us to see.

Probably the most extreme case was my race to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa on a one-hour train layover. I just had to cross the famous architectural blunder off my list. Now, I don’t actually remember the tower all that much. Instead, my hurried trot through the busy streets while schlepping my heavy pack and my anxious worry over missing my train connection stand out more prominently in my memory. (Fortunately, I did successfully see the tower and make it back to the train station in time.)

Interestingly, most of the sightseeing I did while studying abroad are my hazier memories of that experience. Sure, I could flip through the hundreds of pictures I took to refresh my memory; but, in reality, the photo album I had carefully pasted together has taken up a long-term residence in the bottom of a box that I never unpack. Instead, my most vivid and fondest memories were the experiences I had actually living in Freiburg.

These days, the idea of running around a new city (or from city to city) trying to see every sight listed in Lonely Planet seems very unappealing. I much prefer to linger in one place and get to know it in a more genuine way.

Recently, I learned there is actually a term for this kind of travel philosophy: slow travel. Not surprisingly, this concept is part of the whole “slow” movement (e.g., slow food).

In a sense, slow travel is about mindful travel. In “A manifesto for slow travel,” the editor of the the travel magazine hidden europe explains, “Slow travel is about making conscious choices. It is about deceleration rather than speed…And slow travel also reshapes our relationship with places, encouraging and allowing us to engage more intimately with the communities through which we travel.”

The Huffington Post‘s Omer Rosen wrote a consciously generalizing plea to globe-gallivanting college students to settle down and sit still, which I wish I could have read ten years ago (although, I wonder if the appeal of slow comes with age). He essentially places hither-and-thither traveling under the umbrella of consumerism–it’s more like crossing a place off your shopping list than actually experiencing it.

Through the narrative of my recent day trip to Dachau, I’ll offer my take on some of the basics of the slow travel philosophy.

1. Do not travel with a definitive agenda.

I toured Dachau with no real agenda other than to follow my impulse. For example, my impulse told me to buy a delicious-looking piece of raspberry chocolate cake and eat it sitting in the sunshine, even though it was before lunchtime. It also told me to wander along the footpath that ran parallel to the town’s river just to see where it went.

2. Move slowly.

In other words, walk (or bike) as much as you can. My day in Dachau was a “spazieren gehen” sort of day. It helped that the town has a fabulous network of walking paths conveniently labeled with signs to help you steer yourself around. I ended the day with a solid set of blisters–it was the seasonal debut of my flip-flops, which tend to always punish me for banishing them to the closet for months.

3. Experience everyday, local life.

A tiny taste of Dachau's charm. Image by Unknown

This can mean many things. Suggestions I’ve seen include taking a cooking class from a local chef, learning some phrases in the local language, and volunteering with a local organization. Since I was only in Dachau for the day, I count my walk around the main city cemetery as my everyday life experience.

While walking around a cemetery might sound like a morbid activity, German cemeteries can actually be beautiful and peaceful places. Some of the ones I’ve seen are more like forests with grave sites as underbrush. This cemetery was one such cemetery. Its graves were incredibly well cared for; nearly all of them were neatly landscaped and adorned with fresh flowers. Burning candles even stood watch at some of them. And I witnessed a couple dozen people carefully tending their loved ones’ resting places. Perhaps it was the sunshine, or the flowers, or my general mood, but I felt very moved by the experience.

4. Do what you really want to do, not what you think you should do (or what the guide book tells you to do).

You might have heard of Dachau because of the darkest part of its history: it hosted a former Nazi concentration camp. While this association taints its name, the town is otherwise very charming.

I actually chose not to go to the concentration camp. Among my reasons, the day was ridiculously gorgeous and I decided I’d rather enjoy the beauty of the world. (Also, for context, I have previously visited another concentration camp, Buchenwald; and as German major in undergrad, I quite-intensely studied the Holocaust and Germany’s coming-to-terms-with-it. So I wasn’t feeling a lack of exposure to that history.)

However, this is not to say you should totally ignore your guide book. If you really want to see a certain sight, do it. But only if you really want to.

I ended up visiting a sight mentioned in Dachau’s tourist brochure that was not what I really wanted to do, but what felt I should do: the city history museum. When I wandered into the small museum to check out how much it cost, the reception area was empty. Upon realizing my presence, a women walked in from outside, where she was gardening, and gave me a very friendly greeting. After asking her the entrance cost, I felt guilty saying “no thanks” and bought a ticket. I think I might have been one of the few, if only, museum visitors that day.

The museum was not a waste of time. I saw some interesting Bavarian artifacts, and the exhibits offered good language practice, since they were in German. It was just not what I really wanted to do, which brings me to…

5. Revisit a place that makes you happy.

What I had really wanted to do was revisit the garden of Dachau’s palace. I had already meandered through it that morning (I had eaten my cake at the palace’s cafe, which overlooks the garden), and I found it so beautiful that, once I had done everything else I felt like doing, I wanted to return to it. So, after I finished with the museum, I did.

The garden was bursting with tulips and other flowers and bordered by pink-blooming trees. Since it sits atop a hill, it offers an amazing view of the Bavarian landscape, which the day’s clear sky made even more spectacular. Munich’s cityscape poked out in the distance, and the Alps loomed in the horizon (I think they might have been under the influence of the Foehn, a warm wind that makes the Alps look larger than usual).

For about an hour, I sat on a bench under one of the blooming trees with my notebook and my thoughts, alternately writing and gazing over the landscape. I was fully content.

A glimpse of Dachau Palace, but not from the same month, so the flowers I saw were a little different. Image by Adele Claire

6. Be a resident of your destination, not just a visitor.

At its core, slow travel is about becoming a temporary resident of your destination, not just a tourist. The slow traveler learns how the locals live, does what the locals do, and savors the time it takes to get acquainted with the place and the culture.

So, as I plod along in building a connection with Munich and the rest of Bavaria, with no departure date in sight, I guess you could call me an extreme slow traveler.

A few resources to read slowly…

The Art of Slow Travel,” from the Independent Traveler

Slow Travel Europe delves into a deeper explanation of slow travel and provides other relevant links

Another take on slow travel by a grassroots organization dedicated to all things slow

Berlin has its own slow travel website…I wonder if I should start a Munich satellite site?

The World Institute of Slowness offers info on other things to do slowly

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Spargelzeit is nigh!

Spargel! Image by 4028mdk09

In Germany, April showers bring Spargel.

Known to us English-speakers as asparagus, Spargel—specifically the white variety—is a celebrated national symbol in Germany and a sure sign that spring has arrived. Affectionately called “the vegetable of kings” by some Germans (mostly because, back in the day, only royalty could afford to eat it), as soon as the white stalks start popping up in markets, you can sense the country tremble with excitement.

The official debut of German-grown Spargel is still a couple weeks away, but that has not stopped market vendors and grocery stores from whetting everyone’s appetite with early-bird white asparagus from Greece. Even though Germans don’t consider Grecian Spargel the crème of the crop, I bought my first bunch this weekend out of curiosity and impatience—I, too, share Germany’s enthusiasm for asparagus.

In my endeavor to eat somewhat seasonally, asparagus is perhaps the only vegetable I refuse to cheat with out-of-season. To me, asparagus heralds the impending bounty of the growing season, and I want to preserve that magic. So when asparagus season (Spargelzeit auf Deutsch) rolls around, I become gastronomically giddy.

Spargel still art. By Maria Vos (1878), not a German artist.

As I channeled my excitement to write this blog post, I soon discovered I was not the first with the desire to tell the Spargelzeit story. There are piles of other articles that have already done it justice.

So, why reinvent the wheel? At the end of this post, you’ll find a sampling of some of the articles I found. Within the first couple sentences of these pieces, you’ll get a sense for the fanfare around Spargel in Germany.

(And to the Germans reading this, I recognize I am generalizing your culture’s obsession with Spargel. If you actually don’t like it all that much, I apologize for assuming otherwise.)

If you don’t have the time or curiosity to browse those links, here are the “Spargelbasics.”

Spargelhistory

While the dawn of Spargel cultivation was around 2000 BC in the then-major civilizations (Rome, Greece, and Egypt), it reportedly first sprouted in Germany in the 16th century.

During the Renaissance, Spargel was extolled for its presumed medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, though the truth of these claims has since been falsified. Still, no one can confidently explain the origins of Germany’s obsession.

Nowadays, the city of Schwetzigen considers itself the world’s Spargel capital, and is the center of the “Asparagus Triangle,” a trio of western German towns hailed for their Spargel-growing prowess. The city even commemorates the veggie with a statue (see below).

Schwetzingen's Spargel statue. Image by Hermann Luyken

Spargelscience

Official Spargelzeit is mid-April through late-June, when growing conditions in Germany are optimal (although I wonder what this year’s funky weather will do to the harvest).

White and green asparagus are actually one in the same plant: Asparagus officinalis. The difference lies in how they are grown. White asparagus is grown under mounds of soil to prevent the sun from turning the stalks green. Apparently harvesting them is also more labor intensive than their green brethren.

But Spargel’s health benefits may outweigh the labor costs. It is a low-calorie snack packed with vitamins and minerals, and is apparently good for cleansing the system, if you know what I mean.

Spargel field. Image by Harald Bischoff

Spargelcooking

To eat white asparagus, you have to peel it before cooking (unlike the green variety). Boiling seems to be the preferred, if not the only way of cooking it. In fact, Germans even have special pots specifically designed for boiling Spargel.

Spargel is traditionally served drowning in Hollandaise sauce and accompanied by Schinken (ham), Kartoffeln (potatoes), and a glass of white wine.

During Spargelzeit, Germans supposedly dine on the “edible ivory” at least once a day. Collectively, they consume an average of 70,000 tons of Spargel per year.

Spargel mit Hollandaise und Kartoffeln--lecker! Image by Elya

Did I mention Germans really love Spargel…

Further Spargelreading

Buried treasure: white asparagus” in The CS Monitor

White asparagus time in Germany” on the German Mission to South Africa’s website

Land where asparagus is king of spring” on Boston.com

Spargelzeit: Asparagus Season in Germany!” on germanfoods.org

Deutschlicious: German white asparagus season” in Honest Cooking (includes a recipe for a traditional Spargel dish)

The White Asparagus is Here” on German World Online (includes wine-pairing recommendations)

Asparagus: Green versus White, Not Just a Different Color” on donajuana.com (a more agronomical perspective)

Edible Ivory: Germans Are Obsessed with Asparagus” on Speigel Online (a snarky take on the obsession)

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Same place, different times

Imagining present-day places in past-tense times can be fascinating. One way to do so is by “reading the landscape,” as my former environmental history professor, Bill Cronon, puts it. And “landscape” refers not only to picturesque countrysides and wildlands, but also to urban spaces and other human settlements.

Reading the landscape entails asking questions like what does today’s landscape tell us about past land uses; what social forces were behind those past land uses; and why was this street named after a king who rarely set foot there and not the blacksmith whose shop was on the corner.

Perhaps because my senses are generally more open in a new place, I’ve become an avid reader of landscapes here in Munich (granted, doing proper landscape readings requires in-depth historical research, so my readings have been more like skims). One “landscape” I have recently become smitten with is Odeonsplatz, a public square in the city’s Altstadt, or the old city center.

Historically, Odeonsplatz has been a place for pomp and circumstance. It is situated at the end of the traditional parade route that stretches the length of Ludwigstrasse (named for King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who also commissioned the construction of the square), down which ceremonies of all sorts still march today. When parades arrive at the square, they are greeted by three grandiose structures: on the left is the former royal residence; on the right is the ornate Theatinerkirche (a catholic church), and straight ahead is Feldherrnhalle (loosely meaning “commanders’ hall”).

Parade's-eye-view of Odeonsplatz. Image by Florian Adler

Historical accounts highlight Odeonsplatz’ tainted past. It was here that Hitler staged his first, but failed coup in 1923. When Hitler had finally succeeded in taking over Germany, the square became a favored Nazi ceremonial and procession grounds.

But this tainted past is juxtaposed with its more cheerful present. Odeonsplatz now hosts happier, more inclusive festivities, such as the annual St. Patty’s Day street party, which I recently attended. (Factoid: Munich has one of the largest populations of Irish people outside of Ireland). A mix of Germans, Irish, and at least two Americans (me and a friend) celebrated with an assortment of traditions from both Germany and Ireland: Guinness, Bratwurst, Irish song and dance, and, of course, a parade down Ludwigstrasse.

Another juxtaposition of Odeonsplatz is its stateliness and its more pedestrian side. It was commissioned by royalty, designed by a prominent neoclassicist architect, but built by commoners (although none of their names made it into the history books). Its namesake was Odeon, a nearby building that was formerly a concert hall for “commoners” and now houses the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior, a conversion that took place when the building was rebuilt after WWII. (This link has before and after pictures of the building; beware, the text is in German).

But even though the original music hall is gone, Odeonsplatz is still a musical venue for the common folk. The square is regularly host to musical acts ranging from street performers, such as the pianist I saw the other day (don’t ask me how he got a grand piano there), to Munich’s annual open-air classical music festival.

Odeonsplatz’ pedestrian significance can also be read in its present-day orientation: it is one entrance to the Altstadt’s pedestrian zone. On a typical stroll through the square, you’ll encounter a myriad of folk: from tourists to bike commuters, and from people drinking coffee at the square’s historic cafe to protestors demonstrating against [insert social/political cause]. A new, favored ritual of mine has been walking home from work, just so I can pass through the square to see what is happening there that day.

And, if I could go back in time, back to Odeonplatz’ early years, I wonder what a normal day on the square would have been like…

Odeonsplatz facing Ludwigstrasse circa 1900.

p.s. Check out this 360 degree panorama of Odeonsplatz (although it is usually not as empty as this picture shows it to be).

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Adventures in making friends

The hardest part about moving to a new place is making friends. For me, friends are the glue that connects me to a place. It’s only when I have established a social network that I feel settled.

So, moving from Madison, where I had a fabulous collection of friends (miss you all), to Munich, where I knew no one, has been a challenge, to say the least. And, as an expat, an extra layer of difficulty is added, since you also have to assimilate to a different language and culture. Making friends is not very easy when you can’t express yourself properly in a conversation.

In other words, the flip side to the glamor and adventure of living abroad is the (initial) loneliness.

The Internet abounds with articles from expat blogs and websites stating the importance of making friends in your new country. There are even e-How instructions on how to do so. The collective thesis of these articles can be boiled down to: 1) you are not alone in your loneliness–it happens to nearly all expats; 2) making friends is essential to an expat’s happiness, but it can be hard to do; and so 3) you just have to put yourself out there.

Thus, as I have done before when I’ve landed in a new place, I’ve swallowed my natural shyness and put myself out there. So far, it has reaped some interesting, sometimes comical results.

Scoping the English-speaking crowd

Each major city in Germany has an online community for its English-speaking crowd called Toytown. One of its key functions is a digital bulletin board for “meetups,” which members organize. There is a meetup for practically any activity one might be interested in: from knitting to cross country skiing, home brewing to the general beer drinking.

Although I don’t want to build a social network entirely of English speakers, I will admit, they are the low-hanging fruit. So, I have been experimenting with the meetups in hopes of finding at least a couple people with whom I make a meaningful connection.

The first one I tried out was the weekly German Stammtisch, an informal gathering for non-native German speakers to practice the language, while also drinking alcoholic beverages. I thought speaking German with other non-native speakers would, at least, be a safe way to polish my rusty German. However, at the time I had not yet been in Munich a week, so I was still scraping off the thickest layer of rust. Needless to say, I had a hard time carrying a conversation with anyone. My confidence was further dashed by two young Russian women who kept telling me they couldn’t understand me with my American accent.

I ended up falling into a decent conversation (in “Denglish”) with a young German man who, oddly, had come to the Stammtisch to learn to speak in his native language more slowly (apparently his grandmother kept complaining he talks too fast). While he indeed spoke in slow pace for me, my brain and confidence eventually hit a wall and I had to leave…quickly.

Next up was girly cocktail night. “Yes! Potential female bonding,” was what I excitedly thought to myself when I discovered this meetup. But, based on my first foray, I fear my bonding needs might be different from what girly cocktail night can offer. The night was, well, very girly.

Don’t get me wrong; the girls were very warm and friendly. But as a not-very-girly girl, at times I sipped my cocktail uncomfortably (I was the only one who ordered a whiskey cocktail; everyone else ordered a Mai Thai or other sugary concoction). I feigned interest when the conversation turned to shopping, and my mouth hurt after a couple hours from the constant smile I had plastered on my face. I left feeling both judgmental and socially exhausted.

The most recent meetup I attended was a Democrats Abroad event. At least there I would find like-minded folks, I figured. And I did. But the event was sparsely attended, and I found myself pondering whether it would be healthy for me to become heavily involved in a group bound together by the same opinions, especially at a time when I am seeking to expand my perspective.

Despite my hesitations about each of these meetups, I intend to give each another shot. One shouldn’t make judgements based on first impressions, after all.

Friends in workplaces

My organization (a research center) is a hub for smart, interesting people from around the world, who like to have deep, intellectual conversations. They provide a refreshing alternative to the boring-but-necessary getting-to-know-you chitchat about where you’re from, how long you’ve been in Munich, what you’re doing here, etc.

Every Friday brings a work happy hour, each week at a different establishment. Not only has attending these been a great way to become familiar with the city’s menu of restaurants, but it is a guaranteed evening of thoughtful conversation. For example, so far, I have learned about disability literature, the decline of funding for the humanities in the UK, the environmental efforts of the British army, and what it’s like to be a professor at a college on the US-Mexico border. Most exciting, for me, was the lengthy conversation I had with an American academic who is big in the field of religion and nature. He lent me an interested ear as I talked about my Masters research (it has a life after grad school!).

The only unfortunate thing about this social outlet is that the people are transient. Many of the happy hour attendees are the center’s visiting fellows, who are here for three to nine months. So friendships I may form here will likely be fleeting. But I guess one’s social network is never really static, anyway.

Making friends with the locals

Several of the “How to make friends as an expat” articles I found emphasize that, to create a happy life in a foreign land, it is crucial to also make meaningful connections with “the locals.” Speaking from previous experience, I concur.

Interestingly, according to one survey, Germany is one of the least friendliest countries for expats. Thankfully, my experience has been the opposite (one survey does not a sound generalization make, after all). For example, my German flatmate and I became quick friends, and she’s been very proactive about introducing me to her friends, who have all been equally welcoming and friendly. To them, I say, “Danke fuer eure Offenheit und Freundlichkeit!”

Outside of my flatmate and her friends, I have not yet been terribly daring about immersing myself in a German-only crowd. But I did find one group that piqued my curiosity: Munich Bluegrass Friends.

That’s right, Munich has a community of American folk music enthusiasts, who are not themselves American. Perfect.

Last week my fiddle and I attended their monthly Bluegrass Stammtisch (similar concept to the German one, only substitute conversing in German for strumming the banjo, but keep the alcoholic beverages). The jammers convene at a bar called Oklahoma Saloon, which touts itself as the “oldest honky tonk in Europe.” The saloon is covered in stereotypically western kitsch: from the swinging door to the mounted bull horns. It’s pretty awesome.

The Stammtisch strummers were incredibly welcoming. The group consisted of about a dozen older men (i.e., in their 50s and 60s), one younger man (and the only other American), and one other woman. I had the feeling this group might be representative of Munich’s bluegrass crowd in general. Pretty much every bluegrass instrument was present: guitars, banjos, mandolins, a stand-up bass, two other fiddles (in addition to me), and even a steel guitar. And the repertoire was authentic: traditional old time, bluegrass, and Irish tunes. Were it not for the German-speaking between songs, one could have easily mistaken the scene for one you’d find in your average American folk music bar. I was tickled by the whole experience. I think I’ll definitely become a regular.

So, as my hunt for friends continues, I expect more slightly awkward moments and more of the same getting-to-know-you conversations, but I am hopeful that I will eventually forge a few ties that branch into a social network, thereby emotionally binding me to this place and enabling me to feel fully at home. Onward.

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“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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