The Strange Places I’ve Called Home: Munich, Germany

Marienplatz during Christmas.

Marienplatz during Christmas.

Check out the other seven parts in this series here.

In a way, we’ve come full circle. I started thinking about this series last year when a strange thought crossed my mind while getting off the train. After two years in Seoul, my brain had been conditioned to expect the doors to open automatically, but in Munich I had to physically push a button or pull a lever in order to leave. It’s a small change, but one that I never fully adapted to. Up until my last days in Munich, I would still find myself forgetting to open the door to let myself out.

It is in no way fair to compare Munich’s public transportation to Seoul’s, but I’m going to anyway. Seoul’s public transportation is far and away the best I’ve experienced in the world. Munich, on the other hand, is nice, but not great. Whereas Seoul’s trains and buses ran like clockwork, Munich’s were frequently delayed, and occasionally didn’t show up at all. It was generally reliable, but not completely, and showing up late for work because of a late train (or because of one of the numerous strikes) was a somewhat valid excuse. So much for German efficiency, I guess.

The other notable way Munich’s transportation was different than Seoul’s was the complete lack of turnstiles or gates. The system was largely an exercise in trust, allowing passengers to walk on and off at their leisure. In two years, I can count the number of times I was checked for a ticket on one hand. Amazingly, the locals go along with it, and the honor system appears to be working just fine. The transit system is in no way the strangest thing about Munich, merely the one that got me thinking about all the other little differences.

Of all the places discussed so far, Munich was unique insofar as it is the only place that I went without a plan. The only thing I really knew before departure was that Christine was in Munich, so I had to be there too. And I certainly got a good deal of grief from my grandparents, who–regardless of their worldly experience–could never quite forgive Germany for the events of World War II. I could only assure them that Danes take care of their Jews, and leave it at that.

Sydney enjoying one of Munich's many fine parks. They even provide complimentary sticks.

Sydney enjoying one of Munich’s many fine parks. They even provide complimentary sticks.

The first (and best) thing I noticed about Bavarians is their love of dogs. This fact cannot be overstated. Munich has to be the closest thing to a dog heaven as exists on Earth. The city has one of the largest parks on the planet in English Garden, and countless smaller ones. Dogs are allowed to roam around the parks off leash, and they are also allowed on public transportation, and in most shops and restaurants. The last point was especially shocking to me.

I clearly remember the first time I saw a dog in a restaurant. I was exploring Munich with Christine’s friend Helle when we ducked into a restaurant for a couple of mid-day beers. As we took our first couple of sips, a family sat down at the table next to ours, and with them was a giant, beautiful Golden Retriever. No one batted an eye, except for me, of course.

Although I had traveled around Europe on several previous occasions, Munich was my first experience living and working there. I was blown away by the differences in mentalities between work in Europe and my previous experiences in America and Asia. In Europe, the idea of working to live is firmly ingrained in the public consciousness. Work is how you make your money, but it doesn’t necessarily define you, your passions, or your worth as a human being. This revelation came to light when I was going over my work contract prior to signing. They informed me of the procedure to follow when I called in sick, and I followed up with the question, “How many sick days do I get?” A curious look spread across their faces, and they replied, “If you’re sick, you’re sick.” What a novel concept! In all of my previous years of working, the unwritten expectation was that if you could physically drag your sick ass to work, you better take some strong meds and get to it. Of course, I would soon find out how necessary this policy was, given the seemingly unending series of colds, flues, fevers, and other contagious maladies I caught from the adorable little germ factories we call “kids.”

Eventually, I came to love working at the kindergarten, though it took a great deal of time to do so. This, as much as any other aspect of Munich life, was a profound learning experience. I’m now fully convinced that any future children of mine need to grow up bilingual. Our school was a melting pot of cultures and languages, and the kids never missed a beat. They learned English and German from the teachers, but they also learned Spanish and Italian from other children in between. There are many aspects of life that young children have yet to learn, but inclusion of others despite their differences is not one of them.

And then there’s the football. Oh, how there’s the football. Bayern Munich aren’t so much a football club so much as a force of nature. Our safe little home in Kieferngarten was one stop removed from Allianz Arena, one of the epicenters of European and global football fanaticism. From August to May, a Red Horde would emerge from the ordinarily conservative and reserved locals. Once or twice a week they would pack our train to capacity, all the while singing the praises of their favorite team. Their steady, business-like progression through the group and knock-out stages of the Champions League became more of an annoyance than a joy. After listening to screaming kids for 8 hours, the last thing I wanted to hear was screaming adults on the commute home.

Still enthusiasm for Die Roten was nearly as infectious as the aforementioned kindergartners. And in our first year in Munich, barely two months after arriving, Bayern played their way into the Champions League final for the second year running. The previous year’s finale was played in Bayern’s home stadium in Munich, but this year, the stadium which more resembles a giant roll of bubble wrap than a sporting venue merely hosted 40,000 screaming fans for a public viewing. For the first time in the history of the competition, it was an all-German final, as the Reds squared off against arch-rivals Dortmund. The match was an exciting one, with all three goals happening in the second half. Bayern scored the final and decisive goal in the last minute of normal time, and held on through a few tense minutes injury time to win the match 2-1 and claim their fifth European title. It was quite the experience, but it paled in comparison to the World Cup the following summer.

As always, Germany was one of the favorites to win the Cup. Although they had not lifted the Cup since 1990, they had progressed to at least the semi-final in each of the previous three such competitions. Again, Germany progressed in its business-like manner to the semi-finals in 2014, this time to play hosts Brazil. Christine and I went to the public viewing and Olympic Stadium along with tens of thousands of supporters. What happened next was one of the most shocking results in World Cup history, a 7-1 dismantling of the best footballing nation on Earth. There is no “good” way to lose a soccer match by 6 goals, but the way it happened left even the most joyous German supporters stunned. From the 22nd minute to the 29th, Germany scored 4 times, increasing their lead from 1-0 to 5-0. The TV broadcast even had trouble keeping up, having to cut replays short in order to show the next goal. Those of us watching live started becoming more confused than overjoyed, asking, “Was that a replay? No? Another goal?”

By the 30th minute, the game was practically over, a fact that everyone seemed to recognize. I even heard some Germans say, “I’m actually feeling sorry for Brazil.” Indeed, that’s a fate no host country should have to endure. Germany faced a much stiffer test in the final from Argentina, but they ultimately prevailed for a well-deserved 4th World Championship.

Of course, Germany is about much more than soccer. Bavaria in particular is extremely proud of its traditions and culture, as well as its stunningly beautiful countryside. When Americans are asked to name German stereotypes, more often than not they’ll name Bavarian stereotypes. Beer. Beer gardens. Sausages. Pretzels. Lederhosen and drindls. Oktoberfest. Snow-capped Alps. And well, all of those stereotypical things are still very predominant parts of Bavarian life.

Starkbierfest. Bavarians can throw a hell of a party (with great beer, no less)!

Starkbierfest. Bavarians can throw a hell of a party (with great beer, no less)!

Culture shock is often about confronting the unexpected, but I almost experienced more culture shock by seeing what I should stereotypically see, such as men going to church in lederhosen on a Sunday. After my many travels, and after seeing preconceived cultural stereotypes so frequently overturned, I was not in any way prepared to witness one actually being true. “Sure,” I told myself, “Lederhosen and drindls may have been worn in the past, but certainly no longer.” I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Bavarians cling to tradition like few other cultures, particularly Western ones.

Nowhere is this prideful adherence to culture and tradition more visible than at the various festivals: Starkbierfest (for strong, dark beer, in February), Frühlingsfest (spring festival in April and May), and of course The Big One, Oktoberfest. I know the next statement will make me sound like an elitist snob, but I actually prefer the two smaller fests to Oktoberfest. In all three, you’ll hear the traditional songs, you’ll drink delicious beer by the liter, be surrounded by the bright festive traditional dresses and shirts, and dance on the tables with friends and strangers alike.

However, whereas Oktoberfest has gained an international reputation (along with the suffocating, tourist filled crowds that go with it), Starkbierfest and Frühlingsfest both feel more like the party they were intended to be. It’s easier to find a table. You don’t have to bribe your way into a tent. And you don’t have to wait hours in line to “return” the liters of beer you’ve consumed.

As alluded to several times already in this post, Bavaria is also beautiful. As a city, Munich has its own charm. Its hallmark cathedral, Frauenkirche, overlooks the city with its distinctive majesty. Parks cover vast swaths of town, giving the city a green hue in the spring and summer. And on clear days the Alps rise high on the horizon, begging to be explored.

Munich sits roughly one hour by train or car from the Alps. Stepping off a train in one of the many small, Bavarian mountain towns feels like stepping back in time. The country side is dotted with many small farms, and the sound of cowbells echo through the valleys. Suddenly, donning lederhosen and a checked shirt doesn’t seem so far fetched after all.

Upholding tradition and culture is great, but at times it becomes borderline ridiculous. Sundays and public holidays became more of a nuisance than a relaxing day off. Everything is closed except restaurants. Forget milk for breakfast or chicken for dinner? Bad luck, the supermarket is closed. Occasionally public holidays and Sundays ran together. For instance, over Easter weekend, the shops were closed Friday, Sunday, and Monday. So, you better remember to get everything you need on Thursday and Saturday, otherwise you’ll have a hungry few days. Coming from America, where shops are always open, this took a great deal of getting used to. In fact, I don’t think I ever got used to it. I know, because Christine and I complained about it every Sunday and public holiday for two years.

In many ways, I’m still processing my feelings and experiences from my two years in Munich. I enjoyed my time there, and I could even see myself returning if the right situation presented itself. One thing is certain: I already miss the beer.

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