Munich, day 1
October 20, 2003.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Left Cochem yesterday in a rush, after realizing that I only had a half-hour to catch the only train leaving that day for Munich. The DB was a fucking nightmare yesterday, by the way, my only such experience so far in the entire month I've been here. So far my decision to be a tourist in the off-season has paid great dividends; the trains I've been taking during the week have all been nearly empty, and in many cases I've been the only single person in the entire car I've been riding in. Ooh, but no one told me about Friday afternoons on the DB, when apparently the entire damn population of Germany packs a bag and goes on an out-of-town weekend trip; or Sunday afternoons, when they all repack their bag and go home.
So, I was greeted at the Koeln train station yesterday afternoon with an ICE containing twice as many people as there were seats. And about 75 new people at my station all trying to get on too. And then 75 more people at the next station. And 75 at the next one. Und so fucking weiter! By the way, there is no more assured way to get completely pissed off at the entire population of Europe than to ride a crowded train with them. How have these people been managing to live in such close proximity to each other for thousands of years, man? Jesus! They refuse to get out of your way when you're trying to get past them; you say "Entschuldigung" (excuse me) to them and they just turn and stare at you like you're some kind of alien from outer space. And then half of them have decided that the left side of a corridor is the proper place to walk, while the other half have decided that the right side is the proper place, which means that there are people coming from every direction, all the time, each way simultaneously, and no one ends up moving anywhere or getting anything at all accomplished. God - never again will I complain about what now seems like the wonderful and calm orderliness of Chicago train riders.
Anyway, so I finally made it to Munich, at 8:25 pm instead of the 10:25 I told my host because of being tired as hell and misreading the 24-hour timetable, legs stiff as a board from basically being in a crouching position between train cars for five hours straight. And then I tried to call my host and tell him I was two hours earlier than expected, but it was Sunday night and all the places that sell fonekarten were closed. Sigh. So, taking a cue from my earlier frustrations of the tour, I decided to make lemonade with the lemons I had been handed and simply go wandering around the central-city area for awhile and see what I could find (which has become much easier to do this week, since Ricardo and Karin let me leave my impossibly-high stack of unsold books with them instead of having them strapped to my damn back all day long).
For those who couldn't already guess, the area around the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in Germany is always a shitty place to go sightseeing; it's a train station, after all, and no reputable business wants to be located next to the noise and riff-raff of a train station, so it's always near the Hauptbahnhof where you find the red-light districts and African FoneCentres and scary little pensioner hotels (which are the German equivalent of American Single Room Occupancies [SROs]). A good example: As I wandering through such a district myself last night, I passed a youngish-looking guy standing around on a streetcorner, loitering in that way that makes you realize in any culture that he's up to no good.
"Hey," he said to me in a quiet voice.
He rattled off a nonsensical phrase in German.
"Tut mir leid (I'm sorry)," I replied. "Mein Deutsch is nicht so gut."
"American, ja?" he asked, then looked into the sky a moment, gathering his thoughts. "Do you want to get...AIDS?"
"Do I...do I want to get AIDS?" I replied, confused.
"No, man!" His voice got even softer. "Do you want to get H?" (Slang term for heroin, for the less street-smart of you out there.)
So, that's the train district. But luckily I wandered into one of these crappy little pensioner hotels and found a fun little slacker artist working the deserted bar in the back, along with a couple of his slacker little artist friends who all get to drink for free when the boss isn't there, so I got to spend the rest of my time in the red-light district having this fun conversation with the three of them about the underground arts in Munich and what my tour has been like so far.
Finally I met up with my host, Sebastian, who drove me up to the far northwest district of Munich (near the Olympic Village) where he and his girlfriend Carolin live. (Sebastian owns a SmartCar, by the way, which are the cutest goddamn things you'll ever see - smaller than the tiniest car you'll ever find in America, cheap as hell, and designed with the same sense of hipster style as a Volkswagen or Mini.) Sebastian and Carolin are this wonderful young urban couple, and remind me very much of the people in Chicago I call friends - both artistic themselves (photography for both, although Sebastian is pursuing gallery shows right now and Carolin is doing it more as a hobby), both patrons of the arts too (including the poetry slam, which is how I met Sebastian in the first place), both working office jobs to pay the bills (Sebastian as a network specialist for a HR firm, Carolin as the executive assistant for the president of the Synagoge Juedisches Museum), both trying to eke a happy life out for themselves in a city that's great for the arts but lousy on the wallet (again, just like Chicago).
It was late by the time I arrived last night, so the three of us simply sat around their apartment, having a late dinner and shooting the shit. Carolin told me about this experience at her job that's been a big topic in the news recently; basically, the museum is about to open a new building and they plan on dedicating the space on November 9, the anniversary of the Nazi "Krystallnacht" when thousands of Jews were rounded up or outright killed in one terrifying evening here in Bavaria. Well, not just two weeks ago it was discovered that a terrorist group was planning on blowing up the new building, right on the day the ceremony was to take place. And not only that, but that the plans had been incredibly tight and most likely would've actually happened if the police hadn't found out about it. And not only that, but the police only found out about it accidentally - one of the group's members was arrested on an unrelated charge last week, lost his shit during interrogation, and basically blabbed the whole plan.
Carolin was telling me about it all, and how shaken up by the events she had been, and how for a week after the news she found it incredibly difficult (emotionally speaking) to actually make it down to her place of work and open the front door. And I knew exactly what she meant and how she felt, which brought us a little closer together, right on that first night. Unfortunately for the year I'm making this particular tour, fear of terrorism is a very common, very global experience, and also unfortunately serves many times as the icebreaker conversation for you and your hosts to get to know each other a little better. It's okay for what it is, I suppose, but sometimes I sure wish that it could be art or music or other such innocent conversations that could serve as the icebreaker instead. Just a sad truth about the world we currently live in, I guess.
So, off to bed at midnight, up at 8 a.m., so I could walk to the tram station with Carolin and learn how the ticket machines work. And then off to the city center for me, which has been quite the experience today. MASSIVE UNDERSTATEMENT AHEAD: Man, that Munich sure is a big city. I don't know why I never understood this before today, but Munich is one of the major urban centers of Germany, 1.7 million in population and spread out over a much bigger landmass than you usually see in America (as is the case with almost all the major urban centers of Germany). Maybe I was thinking it was smaller because of how my guidebooks treat the city - how they focus in glowing terms on the traditional aspects of Munich, the lederhosen and sauerkraut and Ocktoberfest, but how hardly any of them mention what an alive, vibrant, completely and thoroughly modern city it in fact is.
To be honest, there are a lot of traditional German elements here, much more than anywhere I've been this month and scattered all over the city on seemingly every block. In fact, it is precisely this contradiction between the traditional and the modern that makes Munich easily the most fascinating city I've visited on this entire tour so far. You can imagine Munich as a German version of Atlanta, maybe - this small oasis of liberalism and gay-friendliness and attention to the arts, stuck smack dab in the middle of one of the most conservative, most racist areas on the entire planet. And, just as Atlanta has a complicated history with the Civil War and slavery, so too does Munich have a complicated history as the birthplace and spiritual home of the Nazi party. And, just as you find this strange sort of pride in Atlanta over their role in the Civil War, and an attitude from many of their citizens that the South is a separate and infinitely better place than the rest of America, so too do you see a strange pride in Munich over being the capital of the Bavarian Empire, a separate kingdom that was around for hundreds of years before Germany first unified as a country, and so too do you see an attitude from many of its citizens that the South is a separate and infinitely better place than the rest of Germany.
I mean, I hope I haven't given the wrong impression; in fact, this city has a more vibrant underground arts community than just about anywhere else in the country I've been, not to mention one of the proudest and more public gay communities in virtually the entire planet. But even a five-minute walk through central Munich shows you how much the city struggles with this contradiction over identity; unlike a place like Koblenz, virtually all of Munich's impossibly-fancy buildings were reconstructed in the same exact style after the war, and even the modern streetlights are molded from an incredibly ornate Renaissance pattern. It is a strange and fascinating push-and-pull situation here, and it's become very obvious why so many Germans around the country have been telling me that Munich is a city unlike anything else you'll see en Deutschland. It's very, very true.
By the way, the police are everywhere in Munich, and they're all a bunch of fucking fascists; I myself have now been randomly stopped on sidewalks two times in the last 24 hours, for no other reason than that I was carrying a rucksack, forced to turn over my passport and open my bag while four of the meanest-looking motherfuckers you'll ever meet went over my papers with a fine-tooth comb and barked questions at me in a dialect of German that I didn't have the slightest clue how to understand. (Thank God Sebastian warned me ahead of time to leave mein Weed in Cochem; even one joint here gets you a night in jail, and if they catch you with even the slightest bit more than that, they will charge you with international drug smuggling.) The cops in Munich absolutely love hassling random young tourists for no particular reason, and take great delight in refusing to speak English to you, speeding up their German when you ask them to slow it down so you can understand what they're saying. As harsh as this is going to sound, dealing with the police here in Munich has made me profoundly understand why this was the home of the Nazi party in the first place, and why Hitler was able to gain such a strong foothold here first before then spreading his reign of terror all the way across the country.
Anyway, so I spent the morning walking around and doing all the tourist things, including watching the giant Glockenspiel in Marienplatz do its little dance, just like it does at 11:00 every morning (which may possibly be the stupidest thing I have ever consciously gone out of my way to do in my entire life, but was kind of fun nonetheless). A little of that, though, goes a long way for me, so in the afternoon I made my way over to the Gaertnerplatz neighborhood, just south of the central city proper. Ja, das is Kool! Far from being the seedy, sketchy neighborhood my guidebooks warned me of, Gaertnerplatz turned out to be this incredibly exciting yet laid-back artist neighborhood, full of used-clothing stores and cool little cafes and gay leathershops and the most beautiful little Bavarian punk-rock slackers you will ever get the pleasure of seeing in your life. (By the way, I think I've finally discovered the German slang equivalent of slacker - "Lebenskuenstler," literally translated as "leisure artist.") In fact, Gaertnerplatz reminds me so much of the Chicago neighborhoods where I hang (Uptown, Lakeview, Lincoln Square, und so weiter) that I've actually felt homesick being here this afternoon. Oh, so sad! I miss you, Chicago!
And thankfully, I think that's all I have to report today. Much, much more tomorrow, I'm sure - first, a barbeque tonight with Sebastian and Carolin, then tomorrow my trip to Dachau, the first concentration camp in Germany and one of the most well-preserved. Man, Munich...I just cannot describe what a pleasurable, surreal, utterly remarkable place Munich is. I'm home, you know? I'm home. Tschuss.