Missives from this corner of Old Europe

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Light on the River Isar that runs through Munich

For quite some time, I’ve intended to change the tagline on this personal blog. I’m not certain how long it’s been, but it might’ve been from back when I started that if you clicked on my site, you’d see:

pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

It was an allusion to the Wizard of Oz, as well as a commentary on the way in which each of us creates our persona online. Essentially, I was saying: read my thoughts here, but please don’t expend any energy looking backstage.

I’ve chosen to live in a country that takes privacy very seriously. Because of Germany’s complicated history with the government surreptitiously observing its citizens, there is a genuine desire to ensure users ability to control how much of their private lives they display. It’s easy to be cynical about such a position, and my friends who work in cyber security would quickly insist that most of what we think of as online privacy is an illusion. However, I continue to respect the lengths to which they go to keep fighting the proverbial good fight. Europeans in general and Germans in particular are earnest about this. Quite commendable, if you were to ask me.

Yet the above tagline no longer works for me. It’s no longer the message I want to get across here. Not remotely. Instead, I’ve decided to take on an entirely new position. Frequently some event will happen hereabouts and I’ll receive queries along the lines of, ‘What in the world is going on over there?

My response is to write this blog as a meta answer to that exact question. The new tagline:

Missives from this corner of Old Europe

Implied in this is my eagerness to take on whatever questions you might have. If you read something here that you’d like to know more about, say something in the comments or drop me a line via email.

Hope you enjoy the new direction, and I’m already looking forward to some lively exchanges.

Hey ladies: you want to take your relationship to the next level? Have I got a deal for you…

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The world famous, or infamous, Hofbräuhaus

For the second time in the last six months or so one of my Mitbewohner (flatmates) has decided to go shack up with his girlfriend. Move in with his beloved, in other words. All’s well. I wish each of them the best and wonder who’s going to move in next.

Then I strike on a comical thought:

There have got to be women out there who want to take their relationship to the next level, right? Well, my place appears to have some good mojo for just such an objective.

Is your guy hesitant for whatever reason? Will he not communicate his objections?

Have no fear! A few months at mine, and he’ll be raring to go. You’ll have him signing his name on the joint rental lease in no time.

You don’t even live in Munich, you say? No worries. Just send him over, and we’ll sort this out in record time. We might even get him hooked on the local beer in the process.

Just think: you get a new, improved version of your fella. Ready to talk commitment on the one hand, and the makings of an unhealthy relationship with particularly strong beer on the other hand.

I’d consider that a win-win situation, wouldn’t you?

Don’t all of you beat the door down trying to be first in line.

Our Lady in the glimmering sunlight

 

There’s a church at Mariahilfsplatz
 
Above is a photo I took only several days ago. It’s ok. I know it’s a decent shot. However, as much as I like it, it reminds me so vividly of one I didn’t get. It was years ago. Perhaps even in the first few years I’d lived in Munich. If I had a mobile phone at the time, which I’m not entirely sure if I did, I’m sure it didn’t have a decent camera. 

Let me set the stage. It was wintertime and very early in the morning. I had to be somewhere, and I was very likely grumbling about the time of day that I was expected to arrive. I’d just left the main train station in Munich, which was positively bustling with excitement. So many people rushing here and there on a weekday morning before the sun had even made a proper appearance. The scene reminded me of New York’s Grand Central Station on a Friday afternoon, and I suppose I even asked myself, ‘Where are all these Germans off to at this ungodly hour?’ I’ve since found out that what I saw was a common sight in one of our local train stations. People like to awaken early and get where they’re going, preferably before everyone else does.

Yet that morning, I had neither the time nor the consciousness to consider such things. Almost as if on autopilot, I trudged on toward my destination. Soon I was coming out of the underground system at the Marienplatz station, which is right in the middle of the historic city, and if I remember correctly, I was suddenly and miraculously more awake. Only several hundred steps from coming out into the fresh air, I found my eyes inexplicably drawn to look up at the Frauenkirche (Cathedral of Our Lady). 

At that moment the sun broke from behind the rows of buildings to the east, and the church was bathed in the brightest sunlight. Yes, I know it’s preposterous for me to be writing this down while telling you that words can’t describe how beautiful it was. It was similar to the photo above, which is why I’ve included it here – why it made me think of that shot of dawn all those years back. Here’s how I’d like to describe it, though, because I’d like to make a bigger point. If I can get you to think of a similar experience you’ve had, you’ll know exactly what I’m getting at.

Can you think of a moment in time that was so beautiful and so otherworldly, yet you didn’t have some device nearby in which to record it? No app that seamlessly allowed you to shoot a glimpse in time and instantaneously share it to acquaintances and future acquaintances far and wide? Maybe your camera was back in the car. Possibly you were out running and you’re one of those sorts that enjoys being out on the trail without such distractions.

Your memory could be like mine from years ago before these ever-present moment capturing tools took on such a central role in our lives, but it could also be something that happened last week or last year. Look, I read enough stuff about eschewing technology that I don’t want to fall into a clichéd pitch about how great life used to be before we sold our souls over to the machine. I read something years ago that you know a device or program or app has really made it when people start writing about how great it used to be and now they’re so over it. That’s not at all what I’m trying to get at. Not remotely.

Nevertheless, I’m frequently reminded that I couldn’t have experienced that moment looking up at Our Lady in the glimmering sunlight all those years ago if I’d been absent-mindedly stumbling through my day glued to my screen like I sometimes still am. 

This is a plea that you take a moment to look up sometimes. If you can’t let it stay home without you, leave your phone in your bag when you’re meeting up with a friend you’ve not seen in ages. I’m not advising something I’ve not done. It’s something I’m constantly telling myself. Constantly.

Sylvester spoil sport – get those damned fireworks away from me

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The best part of New Year’s Eve? The next morning

New Year’s Eve in Munich is awful. I like almost every aspect of living here, but there are a few things I simply cannot tolerate. What the locals call Sylvester is one of those things. I loath it. A lot. More than a lot, if that were possible. A whole lot.

It really comes down to one thing. It’s not the drunken morons; you get those everywhere. Well, everywhere I’ve ever lived. Even far up in the mountains in Colorado or Austria, they’ve got inebriated idiots. Not as many, but they tend to make up for their lower numbers with more noise.

But it’s really not the drunks. I enjoy a bit of good cheer. Truly, I do.

It’s personal fireworks. Call me a Spielverderber, I won’t take it personally. That’s a spoilsport for the non-German speakers. Or a party pooper. Or a stick-in-the-mud, even. You’re welcome to call me all of those names and more. Doesn’t bug me at all.

For me, fireworks displays are for professionals. There’s a reason why civilised places don’t allow the man on the street anywhere near fireworks. Each year, I imagine the hospitals filled with people who’ve blown off one of their extremities.

When I first moved here, I had no idea that New Year’s Eve was a night for such mayhem. I went out on the street at midnight, and there were people shooting rockets down the thoroughfare. At each other, at the cars and pretty much anywhere they could.

Aside from a few exceptions, like Karnival time or during the Oktoberfest, this place is a model of ‘Ordnung muss sein’ (order must prevail). There are other nights of the year when disorder is tolerated or even encouraged, and I’m totally ok with all of those.

Do I have friends and/or acquaintances who spend a small fortune on their own personal stash of rockets and whatnot? I do. Plenty of my circle of friends are chomping at the bit to light the damned things and run around like imbeciles. They’ll carry on like yahoos at a prison rodeo, and then they’ll go back to being model citizens the next day. As if Mr. Hyde had simply never existed.

Am I tolerant of these folk? Nope, not a bit. Not even a little.

I’ll be up early on New Year’s Day taking my dogs to the park and stepping over the refuse left over from the psychotic frivolity of the previous night. I’m pretty sure I’ll still have both of my hands.

It’ll be great.

 

 That golden hour

  
After a quite glorious autumn, we had our first proper snow here in Munich this last weekend and the nights have even been downright blustery. Seems ungrateful to complain about it, though, considering it’s been so beautiful thus far. And a stormy day can be delightful in its own way. Insert cliche about there being no bad weather just poorly planned clothing. 

Despite all of that – even after such an autumn and then several days of being completely overcast – there’s this unreasonable relief when the sun breaks out of the clouds and paints the sky so beautifully as in the photo above. The days are so short at this time of year that if you’re stuck inside in the early afternoon, you just might miss it. 

Didn’t miss this one, however. Far from it. This one was definitely savoured. 

Their brogues and their cheer and their utter joy

 

after all these years

I’ve connected with friends via social media and even met quite a few people face-to-face who I’d first connected with online. I was rather active on twitter back before it seemed to be mostly brands and marketing accounts, and between that and writing a tea blog, I made the acquaintance of quite a few of the no-longer-stranger sort of people who now inhibit my online village. It’s nothing particularly new, but it is funny when I’m asked where I know someone from and I sheepishly mention that we met via the web.
But this isn’t one of those stories. Not in the least. The guys on either side of me in the photo above are two geezers that I met back when we were all still kids. Not that I was particularly close to either of them back then, but thanks to social media being what it is they reconnected with mutual friends the way one does. Soon enough, we were similarly connected & there were the usual polite offers of, ‘Hey, whenever you’re in Munich, you should definitely get in touch.

Yes, of course. Like that was ever going to happen.

Well, it happened.

They flew in from Aberdeen for the weekend and I gave them my informal tour of Bavarian capital’s city centre. Of course there were libations and stories and political discussions and eventually a bit of the local fare. The afternoon became evening and the time somehow flew by as if we’d somehow been in contact all these years. It was that good. I could give you a list of superlatives about how intriguing and enjoyable the conversation was, but I’m not sure my words would do it justice.

We’d all heard about the horrible events in Paris the previous night. I suppose it might’ve been understandable if we were somehow morose or somber even, but I don’t think the thought ever crossed our collective minds.

Here were two guys – Jamie on the left and Martin on the right – whose lives were indescribably enriched by visiting our boisterous and slightly off-kilter art school back when we thought we’d figured it all out. Little did they know how much they’d brought to the table. That we world-wise and somewhat jaded American musicians and dancers and artists and writers had been just as grateful to meet these guys with their brogues and their cheer and their utter joy.

Of course the conversation veered to mutual friends we had lost. It was inevitable but somehow cathartic. They wanted more stories and I was happy to provide them. There was a tale they’d heard about something that I’d done at a funeral. I sheepishly assured them it was true. Guilty, as charged.

After safely depositing them back at their hotel, I walked the quiet streets back toward mine. What a curious and precious thing this is. All of it. Might sound cliche, but don’t take it for granted. Breathe in deeply and lean in. You’ll be glad you did.

up up up the stairs in Verona

going up up up in Verona
going up up up the stairs in Verona (photo: Meredith Marek)

Straight from late summer into what feels like winter, we’ve somehow missed autumn entirely. The leaves are yellowed and fall magnificently, but the temperature is blustery.

My thoughts are down south in Italy where I’m sure it’s not only warmer but they’re eating particularly good ice cream while maneuvering the cobble-stoned streets.

One of the first things I like to do when I arrive in a city with any sort of hills, is to go up up up and find the nicest view of the place. The photo above was a moment where I thought, ‘People actually get to live here.

Considering I live in Munich, which is another place where visitors walk around and marvel at the wonder of living in such a beautiful place, I appreciate the novelty of the tables being turned for a change.

Yet here I am back home dreaming of exotic ice cream flavours and homemade pasta and the reflection of the sunlight on the water. We’ve got sunshine and water and all the rest of it hereabouts, but it’s somehow just not the same.

 

How did the American get on the roof of the toilet?

 

one of our local papers this morning
 
This blog has been only about refugees lately, and as much as I’m still obsessed with the topic (more on that another time), there’s so much else going on. Other things need to be dealt with. And quickly. 

For example: people climbing objects in public & standing on said objects. Like in the photo above. 

The headline reads: ‘How did the American get on the roof of the toilet?

My strong suspicion is that he climbed up there. The question they probably wanted to ask was: What on earth was he thinking when he decided to scale the toilet inside the tent at the Oktoberfest? Why indeed. 

Good question. 

It is the Oktoberfest. There are plenty of similar stories during these two weeks. 

The curious thing is this isn’t the only instance of something like this happening these days. Not just in Munich & not just during this exceptional time of year.

While scrolling through my feed on a social media site, which I choose not to mention by name, I saw a photo of a rather curvaceous woman naked from the waist down standing on a pay phone with multiple police officers below apparently trying to coax her to come down. 

Despite the outlandishness of the visual, my immediate reaction was, ‘Where did they find a pay phone? I’ve not seen one of those in ages.

Once I got over that shock, I could move on to the more pressing question. Specifically, why are people climbing atop such objects?

Is this part of the Zeitgeist & I missed the memo? Should I be climbing on things & belligerently refusing to come down? That’d certainly make this blog more entertaining at the very least. 

I’m not going to include the image here of the woman I’ve mentioned. Nevertheless, I’m confident if you type ‘naked woman on top of pay phone‘, you’ll locate it rather easily. But you should probably do that soon. My suspicion is the web is going to be flooded with this stuff before you know it. 

Don’t look at the photo of his lifeless body on the beach unless you’re prepared to do something about it 

 

Münchners getting in the spirit of welcoming refugees
 
There’s a photo from Reuters that’s all over the web today. Has been for a few days already, and it’s disturbing. It’s not at all nice. It’s the opposite of nice, even. It’s a shot of a little boy who’s drowned & washed up on the beach. I’m not putting it here, but I am linking to an editorial on Deutsche Welle in which they discuss their editorial decision to publish the photo. This photo isn’t for the faint of heart, though. You’ve hopefully been adequately warned. 

Opinion: an image that touches us all

If you’ve already seen this photo & many others of children washed up on beaches, maybe you didn’t bother going there. 

I’ve included the joyful photo above of the locals bringing donations for the recent arrivals as a counterbalance to the abject sadness that the other image brings. When I know people are visiting Munich and they express interest in Dachau, I often recommend that they schedule something/anything joyful afterwards. Not to pretend that the concentration camp didn’t exist, but because it’s so thoroughly depressing to go there and see the documentation of what occurred, it’s important to be reminded of hope and resilience and that there’s even still goodness. 

Yet we’re not quite there yet when it comes to the immigration situation in Europe right now. The Hungarians are furious that Germany has opened itself up so overtly as a safe haven for refugees, and the situation is still so fluid that anything I might write here will quickly become old news. 

Nevertheless, I hear plenty of reasonable people questioning the practicality of Europe in general and Germany in particular taking in so many refugees. This is purportedly the biggest migration of people in Europe since the Second World War, and the ramifications of this mass migration are far from predictable. I’ve even heard that these newcomers could make up as much as 1% of the population of contemporary Germany. 

Quite a number of the residents of Munich have been unquestionably generous by taking donations of food and clothing and toys (and I heard even portable wifi, so the refugees could communicate with their far flung family members) to the main train station. Football fans in many stadiums last weekend held up signs that said, ‘Refugees Welcome.’ 

What happens when the novelty of taking in all these people wears off? There’ll unquestionably be a new disaster or outlandish political reaction that’ll distract us from the outrageous news we’re reading on a daily basis. 

Here’s the thing, though: this immigration crisis isn’t new. It’s been a long time building. The Syrian refugees might be overwhelming the system at the moment, but any reasonable observation over the last decade or more has made it clear that Europe’s lack of unity on this issue was a disaster in the making. 

That’s where the photo of the child on the beach comes in. You can be as cynical as you like about this topic – I’ve certainly pontificated on both sides of the argument that we as a society are responsible for those fleeing war torn countries. I welcome the argument, even. 
But look at that photo tell me that we shouldn’t finally be able to come up with something better than what we’ve been doing. For years, some European politicians have pretended that it wasn’t their problem. That little boy’s lifeless body makes it harder to stomach such a position. 

Another chapter in the book of Fafa

 

Fafa in Strasbourg on the River Ill
 
The last week has been filled with adventures while my mother was in Germany. She made her annual European trip, which included a week in France, and then she and I met up in Strasbourg before our return to Munich

She loves Munich – as I’ve often mentioned here, we lived here in the early 70s – and at the end of her trip, I asked again if she’d seen enough of the Bavarian capital. Would she want to venture out & see more of the rest of Germany. Although she’s already seen so much of my adopted country and especially of this beautiful city, she insisted that there was plenty more she wants to experience. Not only other cities & regions she’s until now only read about but most importantly shed like to continue to venture out from Munich as a starting point. 

We both agreed that it’s not always easy living so far apart, but her regular travel thisaway makes it a bit more tolerable. Like so many other familes living on separate continents, technology also allows us to regularly communicate in real time. Unquestionably, it’s a second rate substitute, but it at least provides some alternative. 

So what exactly have we been up to? Well, the photo above is on a boat tour of Strasbourg. That’s the River Ill, so we were quite literally ‘illing’. We ate a lot of Bavarian food; it’s possible we even are the equivalent of our body weight in Schnitzel. 

I’ve written about her here: Happy Birthday Fafa, which also explains that’s a nickname she’s gone by since she was a child. 

Because she’s so regularly here, my mom has befriended quite a few people hereabouts. This means she arrives with a bit of an agenda to see and be seen. And because she’s so gregarious, there’s often a new crowd of admirers asking when she’ll be back. 

Ella and Louis pondering her return