Tag Archives: everyday life

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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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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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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