To the Heart of Europe — Day 2: You Do It to Yourself

23 May
So tired I am that I almost sleep through the noise made by the rubbish truck that rumbles past agonizingly slowly at six in the morning. Almost. I wait for it to go by while contemplating the distance between my room and the toilet, aware of the limits of my urinary system. It’s not just a matter of climbing down and braving bright lights. It’s also about not waking two light sleepers, fumbling for the room key with bleary eyes, and navigating my way through a maze of suitcases, slippers and general peril to a toilet which will almost certainly be filthy at this time of day. Skip out of the room with a lightness that would have shamed most WWII escapees, and am just feeling rather pleased with self when the door shuts with a cannon-like bang.

Today Dennis and Wilson have plans to go to Dachau Concentration Camp, half an hour’s ride from the city centre and astonishingly close to suburbian Munich. Having been there on a previous visit I am in no mood to be reminded of Nazi atrocities so I head off by myself to visit some more genteel sights in the old town. Feel slight trepidation as I hop on a tram — first time I’ve gone solo on this trip — but it glides through the streets so effortlessly that I’m reassured. In no time at all, I’m at the other end of the city and gazing up at a MONSTER of a building.

Opened in 1925, the Deutsches Museum sits slap bang in the middle of the Isar. Saying that it is “big” is a bit like saying that the Pacific Ocean is “a large body of water”. It’s the only museum I’ve visited which contains EIGHT floors, and which has its own ISLAND, specially vacated for the Museum by the Bavarian government. The only other place I’ve visited which has its own island is Notre Dame, and that’s tiny compared to this giant.

The reason it is so massive is that the Germans, in its bid to surpass Britain’s technology in the aftermath of unification, built loads of gigantic machines and LITERALLY went into overdrive on the production. As such, there are full-scale models of industrial machines, stretching up to a roof thirty miles high; there are full-scale models of airplanes, soaring above an atrium wide enough to fit a small church in. But they don’t just focus on the mighty German machine, as the arts and crafts are also brought into the spotlight through glasswork demonstrations, avant-garde instruments and toys made for children. There’s even a detailed reproduction of the Altamira Cave in Spain and its cave paintings, because of course there’s one.

My favourite part of the museum, though, has to be how they dedicated a floor, a WHOLE floor, for a reproduction of a German mine. Not only is this the only museum I’ve seen which spotlights mining, it’s also incredibly fun to wander through. As you walk through the narrow, twisting tunnels, you can’t help but get distracted (and delighted!) by the endless bits and bobs that pop up every few feet. Is that flowing spring in the corner saltwater? How long does that mineshaft go? Why is this organ sitting in the middle of a mineshaft, and why am I suddenly reminded of the Phantom of the Opera? It’s a quiet, secluded corner of the museum where sounds have nowhere to go but echo through hallways. This has the effect of frightening the crap out of me every time someone in the gallery behind me blow their nose. But what the hell. It’s a mine, and therefore it literally rocks.

I like museums — like books, they pass knowledge on through generation after generation, only better — and the Deutsches Museum ticked off a lot of my personal boxes. But just as I’m beginning to dig deeper and really start paying attention to the finer things, one big detail blows the whole experience apart. It first occurs to me when I’m going through the physics section: this is a rather interactive bit and there are endless experiments here, telling you how gravity works and how sound travels and how bigger balls lead to faster droppings and stuff like that. But it’s a schoolday, so most of the experiments sit there forlornly, waiting for the few day trippers here to come along and notice them. I watch some young girl my age flick a switch, and the clangs of metal on metal echo to the end of the gallery and back.

And it’s at this point where the immensity of the place dawns on me. This is a truly massive place, with empty gallery upon empty gallery upon empty gallery, each populated by at most a handful of visitors. How many people are there in this museum? How much of it can I possibly cover in one day? And how much more is there to go before I meet a face that doesn’t belong to just another stranger? And then the facts sink in: I’m in Munich, 9000 kilometres away from home, the nearest help a 40-minute drive away from me. If I run into problems, there will almost certainly be no one to understand me, let alone help me out of the mess I’m in. I know I shouldn’t be wallowing in self-pity at this moment — I already do it far too much in my spare time — but right now, right here in this endless hallway, the solitude is crushing.

0

Rush to the canteen — this has to be my hungry stomach acting up, right? — but the moment I step in I feel instantly worse: the place is bland and functional, and the menus are all in German. Try as I might, I just can’t make myself step forward and ask the waitresses what they’ve got. My mouth dry, I walk out as fast as I can. Eventually I find another café in a faraway corner of the museum: tucked away, slightly claustrophobic, but at least less likely to induce paranoia. Fumble through my phone for a friend, just any friend, who I can talk to and help me out of this confusing roundabout of emotions. One breath. Two breaths. Three. “You’re just tired,” says a small voice in the brain. “Don’t think. Just eat.” So I bite into my salami and lettuce sandwich, and force myself to chew. It’s a long hard road back to normalcy from there, but I eventually manage with a little help from my friends back in Hong Kong, who — oh thank GOD — have popped online not a moment too soon.

There’s lots more to see, but it’s a beautiful Thursday and I’m not in the mood for the heaviness of scientific knowledge after all that. So half an hour later, I’m striking my way upriver, heading back into the old town. Walk through one of the city gates and get lost in a maze of winding streets that seem to offer up endless delights. I hop around the stores and restaurants of the Viktualienmarkt, enjoying the heady smell of sausages mixed with cigarette smoke (how is it that cigarettes smell much better in Europe than in Asia?). Turn a corner, and there’s the New Town Hall, site of Dennis’ sunset photo shoot yesterday and, unbelievably, even MORE gorgeous in full daylight. A short pop inside and a lovely clockwork show later, I wander through the streets and end up at Munich Cathedral, its tall spires dwarfing all pilgrims who come seeking Christ. A cold, stiff breeze blows through the alleyway. Legend has it that it’s the devil riding round, trying to force his way into the holy of holies. Well, it certainly makes you sneeze.

I phone the boys. It’s almost dinnertime and they must be starving. Au contraire: they’re at “some faraway palace or another” (I later find out they’re talking about Nymphenburg), doing one of their photo shoots, and not in the mood for food for another couple of hours. There’s not much ground left to cover in Munich, so I decide to go under it and see more of the city’s colourful U-Bahn stations. I’m looking at the ticket machines, trying to figure out which to buy, when a Middle-Eastern-looking man approaches me and holds out some coins. I shake my head. “I can do it myself, thanks.” He glares at me and pinches my arm with a force that can’t in any way be friendly. I shake my head and back away towards the nearest exit. Once I am up in the open sunlight, I run from the station as fast as I can. I have never been so close to crapping myself in my life.

Having travelled round a bit, through stations that look like the inside of a beer keg…

1A

… and stations that desperately need a lick of paint…

1B

… I arrive at the Maxvorstadt, the museum quarter of the city, and decide to look around for a bit to pass the time. Less chance of being mugged in museums, you know. In the shadow of the Egyptian Art Museum I find a bus parked on the grass, painted in colours best described as “seizure-inducing”. Blinking furiously, I notice they’re advertising a “bus concert” tonight at seven. It’s now quarter past and there are only two people on the lawn, sipping a coffee and enjoying each other’s company. Next to the bus is an election poster for the German Greens, a reminder of the European Parliament elections in three days.

Across the street, a group of boys are playing football on the lawn of the Old Art Museum, their joyful shouts punctuating the air as the ball goes back and forth. A few people are milling on the grass, enjoying the warmth and the golden glow of the dying sun. Just an average Thursday evening for the Münchners, and yet nothing captures what Europe’s all about quite like this. The camaraderie, the passionate embrace of society, the easy-going nature of the Germans, all seem to come together naturally in that small street scene. Even the wide-eyed, frantically gesturing drunks ambling up the street have a certain charm to them, as backlight bathes them in a golden glow. But this I only notice after I’m safely in the shadows.

Dinnertime finds me next to the water fountain at Marienplatz. (It’s my fourth visit here in 36 hours and I’m beginning to feel a bit like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. I even have the swollen feet to match.) The boys are still on their way, so I have time to think back on Munich and my time here. The architecture certainly stands out: from the sleek, stylish curves of BMW World to the sharp corners of the Munich Cathedral spires, this is a city that has always known how to look elegant whatever the era. The food here is also excellent: the sausages and sauerkraut from yesterday were absolute food heaven, and I could eat nothing but the pretzels here for a whole day and still be a happy man. Munich is steeped with that Bavarian culture everywhere, and it’s something that one might dig into and enjoy for weeks.

Yet at the same time, Munich feels so vast and so empty as a city. Everything here is grand and spacious, and no matter how popular the tourist attraction, there’s always room to swing your arms. Except for the clockwork show a couple of hours ago, I’ve rarely been less than six feet away from anyone — and even then they’re usually foreigners, like me. This couple asking me to take their picture now, they’re speaking Cantonese, and looking every inch like they could be my neighbours in Hong Kong. It makes you feel somewhat lonely when you stand in the middle of hundreds of thousands of people and yet feel as if there’s too much space around you. It’s all very well having me time to yourself, but sometimes you just want somebody to talk to, to share in the joys of experiencing a sight together. I loved BMW World more than the Deutsches Museum not because I was a car fanatic, but because there was somebody to share it with.

Perhaps it’s just being overthought. Personal connections are so easy to establish, particularly here in Europe. Approach most grumpy-looking people asking for directions, and they open up instantly if you’re nice or sincere enough. Maybe they’ll even take you there. And people really don’t judge you for what you look like or what you’ve said: sometimes we’re scared to take that first step, simply because we fear what the response could be. Racist abuse? An uncomprehending shrug? These rarely happen in real life, particularly in relatively liberal countries like Germany. If you need the friendship and the intimacy — to feel closer to the world, so to speak — then all you really need to do is ask.

These locals, passing through the Marienplatz right now… how hard can it be, really, to walk up and say hi? And yet it’s easier said than done. You know you should try, but your mind closes itself off.

My reverie is broken by the arrival of the other boys, talking about camera angles (what else?). Dennis, a die-hard advocate for Italian food, is practically bursting for a good plate of pasta, and the pasta addiction within me is asking for a fix as well, so we follow him to an Italian eatery on the Viktualienmarkt. Here pasta is not only made fresh, it’s also delicately crafted into shapes previously unthinkable for pasta. (At least, that’s our explanation for the 40-minute wait.)

Over the best carbonara on Earth and a slightly less impressive burger, we regale each other with tales of our time around Munich. The two of them have spent almost all of today in the suburbs — Dachau, Nymphenburg, Charlottenburg, all connected by sleek and efficient trams. “Dachau was a great suburb, you should have come,” they say. Photos of their exploits around the town are shared, and I feel a little guilty about spending so much time looking at old cogs.

Conversation soon turns to our experiences of Munich — it’s our last full day here in urban Munich, so we’re making our final judgments. All of us seem to think that Munich, for all its size, is a rather fluffy city: heavy on the culture, light on the substance. “I feel like we could have done this all in a day instead of two,” says one of the boys: there’s so much to see in Bavaria and we all feel that our time might have been better spent in Nuremberg or the Zugspitze. Wilson seems to have enjoyed it most of all, probably because he’s much more laid-back than Dennis and me. In between this we ponder why our grilled vegetables, ordered an hour ago, are taking so long to arrive at our table. “Perhaps they’re growing them in the garden out back.”

Filled with warmth by the delights of good Italian food, we saunter out into the dark, cold streets at long last. Dennis and Wilson zip up their thick jackets, whereas I amaze them with my ability to walk the streets of Munich with only a jacket on. Wilson asks me whether I need additional layers.

“Is it really that cold?” We laugh awkwardly and the conversation turns to other subjects. Barely suppressing a sneeze, I roll down my sleeves while they’re not looking. It’s been a long day. The last thing I need is more questions.

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