Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Munich--Day I

Broad Readership:

I write to thee, as I did so many years ago (five, to be exact), from Munich, or Muenchen, or even München (as I can now write given the use of a Germanic keyboard, though it's not unfrustrating to deal with said keyboard since the z is where the y should be and other annoyances).

And perhaps also of moment, I am now officially a tourist, which I have not been since my arrival in Germania, and indeed not for a good long time, period. The difference is: when I first got here, I was working (bc of conference), and all through then and my time in Zürich, when asked I'd tell people I was working, and that was true. Being in Europe working (or, perhaps more accurately, "working") somehow appealed to me more than just being a tourist and being here for pleasure. The reason, I think, is that often traveling as a tourist isn't actually fun--things go wrong, there's no AC anywhere, the hotel smells like an unwashed dog, etc. But if you're _working_, then it seems less frustrating and ridiculous when things go awry.

Anyway: Lord, how I digress. Here's the point: I am now in München, and am touristing, and I will relate to you all the last few days of my time here in a manner largely chronological, though with the requisite DF commentary thrown in (as if I could _not_ throw commentary).

So: up bright and early day before yesterday when I departed die Schweitz at long last. There were no tears upon farewell; I'd enjoyed Zürich greatly, but I'd done the city good and proper, and twas time to leave. The train journey north to Deutschland was ... adequate. On the plus side, it was not the cattle-car experience of the Zürich-Berne debacle, but nor was it the open, opulent spacious comfort of the Visp-Zermatt leg. I shared a four-seat space with some nice Euros, it got tiresome having to sit there, but on balance it was fine and I read a dreary book ("Lush Life") to pass the time.

Arrival Munich! The trip from Hbf to Pension Haydn was uneventful and basically efficient. There were small annoyances (it took forever to change currency, and I said to a guy in line, "you're American" when he in fact was not--but in my defense he really really did look American). So: arrival pension, and it was/is entirely adequate. Not luxurious, not particularly nice even, but clean and well-kept, and blessedly there is not the critical mass of young travelers that I'd feared might make it a party spot (there is, fortunately, a hostel a couple blocks away, and I think that attracts the tweeniboppers and related annoyances--good lord how old I sound writing this).

So: after offloading all my crap into the tiny but very clean room (reminiscent of the dorm rooms my UCLA friends occupied, though they were crammed into them two at a time), I made some patented DF city maps and set off to explore the Munich. I headed to Marienplatz, which is more or less Munich tourist/commerce ground zero. The standard roundelay of tourist sights ensued: Munich Rathaus (again, government center, no vermin present)—check; St Peter’s Cathedral (complete with vertiginous and exhausting climb to top of tower)—check; Holy-Ghost Church (there are, you will have noticed by now, a profusion of churches in Munich)—check; Karlstor (one of many massive old medieval gates)—check.

It was another sweltering day in Central Europa, readers, and lord these people do not have a love for air conditioning. The second-best thing is to lounge at an outdoor café or restaurant and pray for a breeze, which is what I did (Augustinier am Dom, just out of the way and so freer of tourist hordes—and my newfound Schweitzer vegetarianism bit the dust when the waitress, trussed up in one of those fraulein outfits that looks painful to wear, brought me a menu overflowing with delectable Bavarian beef- and porkstuffs).

But here’s a weird thing: the Euros seem to love to bathe publicly in fountains. There are several very nice fountains along the shopping street that I wandered, and the locals seemed very willing to strip to the skivs and dance around in them, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald style. And on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, I was surprised to find more Muslim ladies in the headdresses and the full-on black coverings than I have probably ever seen in all my time in America. And many of these covered up Muslim ladies, with only eyes peeking out of their swaddling, have conspicuously expensive Prada or Chanel sunglasses on to boot. Welcome to contemporary Europa.

The initial impression of Munich: grand, and impressive, in an old-Europe sort of way. It’s well more urban than Zurich—in terms of scale and intensity of city atmo—but not as modern and edgy as Berlin. The people and style are more conservative, and more trad German; not surprising as we’re in the heart of Bavaria, people. It’s relatively clean and accessible, though, and enough English is spoken that DF can try to lead with German but default to English when the need strikes.

To resume the narrative: after grabbing a juice in a health-food snack and finishing a singularly dispiriting book called “Lush Life,” DF headed north up Ludwigstrasse to end the day by wandering throughout the Englishergarten, which is apparently one of Europe’s largest urban green spaces. The route took me past another park, the Hofgarten, which is smaller but insanely manicured and picturesque—they could set a scene from a eighteenth-century French courtly romance there—but twas not the final destination, so I had to move on.

Turns out that my route—basically, up Ludwigstrasse—angled away ever so slightly from the park as I went north, but it was worth it as the street passed both the city library and University. More meandering north, and finally I cut right, and after a few blocks, found myself in the Englishergarten. It was kind of a shock in the way most urban parks are: the grounds are perfectly nicely kept, but they’re vast and sprawling, and the trails are kind of rugged, so once you go in, you kind of feel immediately lost (or at least you do if you’re a clueless foreigner like DF).

But somehow I managed to emerge in just the place I’d been looking for: the Chinesicher Turm, a classic biergarten in the center of the park. The Turm itself is three stories high, in an ersatz, old-school Chinese style, and on the second story there was an no-fooling oom-pah band tooting out brass-band standards for the assemblage. If there is a more emblematic Bavarian experience, I’m not sure what it would be. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but I wandered anyway to the food stand, where they were serving absolutely massive (1L, I think) mugs of local beer along with the standard meat-and-potatoes fare (seriously). I grabbed a mug and some chow, found a picnic table, and enjoyed the oom-pah-ing in the early evening cool. It was the kind of moment that reminds one why one travels; these times make all the delayed flights and frustrating language issues and sketchy pension stays worth it.

Much much later, I finished up my refreshments and continued wandering through the park, far far north (and my damned tibia began to ache, which was more dispiriting than hampering—I thought I had the damn thing licked). The park population thinned as I wandered, and for a time whole, verdant sprawling half-acres were vacant as I traveled along the northward trail. But then I realized: I had no damned idea where I was, and it was getting dark. This didn’t make me feel unsafe as such, but it was a reminder that it would probably be a good idea to head back to the Haydn rather than, e.g., sleep on a park bench through the night.

So DF wandered west out of the park, in the rough direction of some U-bahn signs, and walked and walked and walked, and then walked some more, and just when I was all like “Time to turn around and just retrace all two and a half hours of the route I took to get here,” something spectacular happened: I emerged from the residential street I was on to a major artery with a big, delicious U-bahn sign. It was the U6—which goes right to Goethepl., a block from the Haydn. Blessed relief for my poor exhausted feetses. And as I cooled aforementioned feetses while waiting for the Ubahn in the company of a bunch of traditional Muslim folks (wives fully wrapped, and daughters increasingly wrapped as they got older, but sons and dads completely westernized in casual clothes, of course), I realized that I’d wandered like six or seven miles out of the city center, so far north that the bus for the airport (which is in like another German state) leaves from the Ubahn stop I’d found. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t walk a year ago, eh?

And with that, I was subwayed directly back home (i.e., pension), where I slept for at least ten delicious uninterrupted and richly deserved hours.