To the Heart of Europe — Day 0/1: Into the Woods

21-22 May
Like all good journeys, my grad trip begins with me stumbling out of the house with my suitcase and then realizing that I’ve forgotten something while walking down the driveway. I rush back upstairs, grab my wallet, say a rushed goodbye to my parents and then run all the way back down to the terminus. And then nothing. It turns out that I am fifteen minutes early and the bus is sitting there, motionless as a corpse and about the same colour.

At the airport, I meet up with my other co-conspirators. Wilson is the quiet one — long and lanky, he stands to one side, quietly gentlemaning his way through life and showering everyone with witty repartees and warmth should the need arise. Dennis, meanwhile, is fair and swaggering, a walking testament to the idea that “nerds can be sexy too”. He’s also very eager to shower his fellow travellers with fantastic compliments, and no sooner have we met than he immediately tries one on Wilson. “Have you seen Wilson’s pants?” he says, pointing to a pair of ordinary trousers. “They are the epitome of style.”

I notice that they are both carrying very large suitcases. “Oh, it’s for the camera lenses.” It turns out that my fellow travellers, being professional photographers, have brought no less than four camera lenses between them. For us common folk who take our pictures normally, this is something that boggles the mind, and I can’t help grinning as I look at their unwieldy luggage and imagine them lugging it around the cobbled streets of Prague. Before setting off I had been rather worried that I was the inexperienced one.

Dinner is served a mere half-hour after we’ve taken off, and cleared a mere 45 minutes after that — say what you like about British Airways, but they’re frighteningly efficient and possess a warmth (however feigned) that would immediately endear them to any frequent flyer. Unfortunately this efficiency is balanced out by general ineptitude, as we get the exact opposite of what we asked for (Dennis asks for chicken and gets beef instead). But then again the food is not bad, and one must be happy with what he gets, especially if it’s a three-course meal. I only wish that the crew didn’t seem so harried — having just set down the remnants of my miniscule pudding, it is then whisked away, along with the contents of my tray, almost immediately by the attendants. Settle down for a night of sleep, but even though the cabin is dark, the seat comfortable (in relative terms, of course — whoever heard of a comfy aircraft seat) and the engine a steady, hypnotizing hum, I find it hard to drift off. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Wilson’s neighbour expounding at length the benefits of the UK, to which Wilson is nodding politely. Dennis and I marvel at his patience. How IS he still so nice after 120 straight minutes of lecturing?

For the next few hours my vision flickers on and off, my brain sinking into a stupor but refusing to switch off entirely. Watch “The Favourite” in a desperate attempt to cure this insomnia, but the sight of Emma Stone in bed with Olivia Colman ruins this entirely.


4:45. Three hours of sleep, none since crossing out of Siberia. On the other side of the aisle, Wilson’s neighbour is STILL going. As we fly past Copenhagen the sky is completely bright despite it being three in the morning — the effects of the midnight sun. Turning south and downwards, it continues, unabated, the light blinding us to the hour of the day. As we swoop down past the rooftops of sleepy London, it’s still bright enough for me to pick out the silhouettes of famous buildings one by one: the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament, even the grass courts of Wimbledon are winking at us as we float into Heathrow Airport. Bumbling our way into Terminal 5 and then through customs, we catch glimpses of the sky as it swells from deep blue ink to a beautiful lavender purple that really has to be seen to be believed:

Would have taken more of this, but by the time we pass customs and reached the waiting area, the vibrant colours have been replaced by a dull grey blanket, and we are left to amuse ourselves by other means. The succeeding short hop from London to Munich is uneventful and much longer than we’d have liked — the seats are cramped, the toilet inaccessible and the cabin filled with one British businessman too many. It’s with relief that we touch down at Munich Airport, make our way swiftly through customs, and walk into the cool, crisp morning air.

As our connecting train speeds its way through the Münchner suburbs, I try to catch a glimpse of what’s to come. It’s my first visit to urban Munich, so I don’t know what to expect, but so far nothing seems to be appearing at all. Only acre upon acre of green pasture flashes by, all identical, all sparsely populated, and I’m beginning to wonder if we have the wrong train. Then suddenly, countless buildings erupt out of the trees, a gazillion tracks abruptly appear left and right, and the train announces our imminent arrival at Munich Hauptbahnhof (Main Station). As we scramble to get our suitcases off the rack, I gawk at the express trains rumbling by, five miles long and on their way to goodness knows where, and at the never-ending buildings — always rectangular, glassy and somewhat soulless — jostling for trackside position, just like they do back in Hong Kong. But most impressive is the people everywhere: on the bridges above us, through the trees, moving in the buildings.

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This city has taken us by complete surprise. Everything has gone large, built-up, and expansive all at once. It’s a far cry from what I’ve experienced in other cities, where there’s a gradual shift from country to city — a small village, a cluster of houses, increasingly heavy traffic. But Munich comes upon you practically in an instant, a flatter and shabbier version of my hometown.

Do I really want to be back in all this?

Luggage dumping at hostel and lunch both rushed through, we split up to do our own tourism. Wilson is off to walk around the old town (and, from what I know of him, compose a dozen romantic poems); Dennis and I, however, are heading off for a few select tourist spots further out, so down into Munich’s U-Bahn we go, through impressive underground caverns that really bring a new meaning to the idea of station design:

If anything, this is how you make Moscow’s elaborate palaces look excessive.

Half an hour’s ride, and we arrive at our first attraction of the day, which is a carshow. But this is not your average car dealership: the first thing you notice as you enter BMW World is an aura of formality, the sort that makes you automatically lower your voice in hushed reverence of the surroundings. One might associate that with cathedrals, libraries, even opera houses, but not carshows.

Then there’s the people: although far from full, there’s still a lot of people milling around the exhibition grounds. Most of these tourists are 30- or 40-somethings from Mainland China, who defy the usual stereotype of noisy tourists and instead walk quietly through the halls. They seem to be inspecting cars and comparing their compatibilities, and I think I overheard an actual transaction for a Mini being made just next to me. Quietly balk at the €36000 price, but from what I’m told it costs twice or even three times as much to buy such a car in China, so small wonder that our northern neighbours are heading overseas just to buy a(nother) car. And it’s not as if there’s a lack of choice either: there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of BMW cars lying around on a closed circuit above our heads. Apparently you are allowed to drive a car on this circuit to test it out, and as we swivel our heads to look at this amazing sight, a sleek supercar quietly leaves the lot, bound for the insides of the building.

5

We soon discover, however, that BMW World is not just a salesground for the latest money-grabbing exercise from the Bavarian Motor Works. This is their company headquarters, after all, and it wouldn’t be complete without a self-aggrandizing monument. Which is why we now find ourselves in the building across the street, forking out euros to enter an exhibition that chronicles the rise of BMW from teensy engine manufacturer to worldwide car company.

The history of the company is remarkably well-presented, but far more interesting is how the museum presents the cars themselves. I’ve long been a casual viewer of motoring shows, and now that I’m finally face-to-face with the real thing, I can’t help feeling a little bowled over by its sheer scale despite not being a petrolhead. Cars old and new hide around every corner, being presented in ways that make them feel more like works of art and less like your average commute. There are cars piled up on top of one another, cars sealed in airtight Perspex cases, and even a motorbike hanging from the ceiling. It all makes for a very sleek, stylish presentation that reaffirms the German obsession with efficiency (at this rate, fast becoming the theme of the day).

But the sense of awe I feel is nothing compared to what Dennis is feeling. “This is an amazing museum,” he rambles. “Look at this 1972 520 — OH LOOK HERE’S AN ISETTA BUBBLE CAR.” He is taking pictures of cars from every conceivable angle, and since the museum allows you to get up close, he soon finds himself doing extreme close-ups as well. Every single one of the 5 Series (no, I have no idea what they are either) is meticulously photographed, and you might think that’s enough, but no, he then starts grouping them up in his photos. After a while Dennis tires of taking pictures by himself and decides to have me become one with his enthusiasm, and the camera goes back and forth as we take turns posing in front of cars. I can’t help feeling that we’re one BMW-assembled bus away from having him foaming at the mouth and dying of joy.

Our appetite for cars satiated, we walk around in the Olympic Park next door while Dennis phones his family and I ward off the many mosquitoes that have gathered round us (they’ve probably never tasted Asian blood before). Just as we’re about to leave his phone beeps again.

“It’s from a friend in Hong Kong,” he gushes. “I just sent him pictures of those cars we saw earlier, and he said it’s almost orgasmic.”

Well, who am I to talk?

After the excitement of the BMW Museum Dennis and I go to the English Garden for a change of scenery — well, “garden” is a bit of a misnomer. Most of the gardens or parks I’ve visited are carefully managed green spaces, but this one is a literal urban jungle that begins at the sidewalk and goes on for miles. Instead of lovingly pruned shrubs and flowers, as you might see in a city’s botanic gardens, there’s just trees everywhere we look, providing shade and more than a slight temperature drop. We’ve barely walked a few steps before the woods swallow us whole. It’s quiet in here, with only birdsong and the sound of the nearby River Isar coming through the trees — the traffic, the noisy commuters just down the road, all absorbed by treebark and flowing water. The solitude is at once complete and rather startling.

We lose ourselves in the woods, forgetting which track we’ve taken and which way leads back out into civilization. Pass the Chinese Tower, a rather amusing reproduction of a pagoda that does nothing for the two of us. Somewhere just beyond that, Dennis catches sight of possibly the largest dog both of us have ever seen. Its owner is hidden amongst the foliage, which makes the dog seem like the only other living thing for miles. When Dennis decides to photograph this humongous canine, it sits there, implacable, almost regal in the way it looks away from the camera and the man squatting behind it.

8

7:00. Dinnertime, and our newly reunited group head out to Marienplatz to experience what is marked as “authentic German dishes” on our itinerary. Whether the Hofbrauhaus in the old town district actually serves this I cannot say — none of us are well-versed in German culinary delights, and we certainly can’t tell bratwurst from Conchita Wurst. But we’re on an adventure, and getting stuffed is expected… so we go in.

The place is surprisingly less crowded than we’d thought it’d be: being the main restaurant in Munich and all, one’d expect it to be packed to the brim with visitors shouting at each other. Maybe it’s because I’m from the densest city on Earth, but I’ve kind of gotten used to being greeted with chaos in a restaurant: in Hong Kong people breathing down your back and hurrying you to leave is expected, if not exactly welcomed. But there’s no sense of disorder here at all. Instead, people mill around the tables, slowly examining tables for available space. Few, if any, walk out the door disappointed; everyone seems to find a table sooner or later. It is, however, still very noisy: not just because of the tourists shouting to each other, but because there is a Bavarian oompah band pumping out ditties in the middle of the restaurant. Even at the far end of the restaurant, where the three of us have now found a seat opposite a Japanese family, we can still hear the tuba honking its way through pieces that all just sound the same.

Not that we’re paying much attention to it after a while: there are like six hundred options on the menu and we’re trying to figure a way of eating the most without bleeding our wallets so early on the trip. Eventually we settle on pork knuckle, a sausage platter and chicken breasts. Feeling a bit guilty about neglecting balanced eating I slip in a salad when we’re ordering, upon which the waiter smiles and walks away, brings us our drinks after a while, and is then not seen again for 40 minutes. Admire the architecture and the capabilities of my new phone to pass the time:

An American mother-and-daughter couple replace the Japanese. She’s a frequent visitor, her daughter an English teacher on sabbatical from her posting in Russia. Being the person who can best pull off a British accent I try to make friends with them. Unfortunately roughly 500 other people have the same idea and coupled with the din that the Bavarian oompah band is making conversation is nigh impossible. Anyone who tries invariably descends into a shouting match, as happens when I ask the American tourists WHY I’VE SEEN SO MUCH OF THEM AROUND MUNICH.

“WELL,” she screams over the music, “WE AMERICANS JUST LOVE GERMANY.”

I ask her why this is the case. Why’d they be interested in Germany? The language barrier sort of makes it unattractive, for one thing. And the only history they have in common is a war that Germany lost very badly. Or are they just there to gloat over the people that they technically ruled over for forty years?

“Actually no… you know, Munich is so famous for its beer, and we just love the good beer that you can find here.” I try not to think of what it’s like during the Oktoberfest. “But Germany is just cheap on the whole, compared to America. Berlin in particular, there’s so many great deals lying around. It beats any other place in Europe. That’s why we love coming here, really.”

Her daughter nods morosely. “And it’s fun here, too,” she says, almost as an afterthought. I can’t help but notice how grumpy she looks, as if she’s annoyed with her surroundings. In the middle of the beer hall, the oompah band continues its onslaught. They seem to never run out of neither energy nor tunes to perform.

By the time our food arrives we’ve run out of topics to discuss, so I set to work chopping up our various bits of pork. German cuisine has a reputation for being rather carnivorous, but what they don’t tell you is how big the portions are as well. The pork knuckle is more suited to a family dinner than it is to one person (Wilson), and they don’t give me a plate of salad so much as a whole garden. Even the sausages are longer than any of us are used to. Of course, Germans are and have always been big eaters, but it’s still surprising how much value for money we’re getting here. Only through frequent swallows of beer (or in my case, lemonade) do we manage to finish everything. Make a mental note to bear that in mind as we chomp our way through Europe.

The beer is clearly getting to Dennis. In addition to debating seriously the merits of getting a mug from the souvenir shop (on our first day? While he’s tipsy?) he insists that we be his models for an impromptu photo shoot in front of the New Town Hall. Wilson and I humour this, only for him to spend half an hour looking for the best angles while loudly acclaiming the architecture and how good we look. To cap it all off he walks in the wrong direction twice before we manage to steer him towards the right platform on the S-Bahn.

If he’s like this today, I wonder, what’s he gonna be like in Prague?

Well, whatever happens, we’re all in for it now. Bed in Munich, after being awake for 41 out of the last 44 hours. A bunk bed hasn’t felt this luxurious for a while.

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