Monday, May 04, 2009

Munich (Pt. X)

Note to readers: This is the tenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part IX here.

Der Rathaus-Glockenspiel
Train rolled into Munich at six in the morning. It was cold and nothing was open. I found a sunny spot near the Tourist Information office and played guitar, waiting. A smiling policeman who spoke no English let me know that it was okay to play, but not to try to solicit money. No busking. Ja, ja, mein Herr. Just killing time.

At the Tourist Information Office, I learned of a walking tour of Munich to occur later in the morning and booked a room; a private room, a room of my very own in a pensione. The pensione was an old, converted inn within walking distance of the train station, somewhat shabby, poorly lighted, no frills. Nonetheless, it was blissful luxury after all these weeks of dormitory sleeping. I dropped off the pack and set out to join the walking tour.

I joined a group of maybe 2 score people consisting of tourists from all over. We started in the Marienplatz, right in the heart of the city. There stands the tower with the Rathaus-Glockenspiel in the New Town Hall. At 11am every day, the glockenspiel chimes and mechanical puppets emerge from within the tower to perform their cuckoo-clock dance. The display was amusing and playful in a uniquely Bavarian way.

Munich sights
Our guide was a lean, young German, a serious intellect, with dark curly hair and wire-rimmed spectacles, dressed in black. In spite of his somber appearance, he had a positive, realistic outlook. He told us how sometime around 1158, Henry the Lion, the Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, built a bridge over the Isar River near a settlement of Benedictine monks, then got rich by exacting a toll from merchants carrying salt from Salzberg, along the Salt Road to points west. A town grew out of the profits. Thus was Baaden-München (By-the-Monks, Munich) born.

Our group made a leisurely stroll through the heart of the city. There were many sights to see. Among them, the Frauenkirche, "Cathedral of Our Blessed Lady," consecrated in 1494. Munich was a Catholic stronghold, a papal island in a sea of Lutherans during the Thirty Years War.

Walking the streets, listening to the stories, watching the locals go by, I learned. Bavarians are very different from their Prussian brethren. They are happier, more prone to laughter, less insistent on order. All the more curious then, that this was the place where Hitler staged his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, the birthplace of National Socialism. But, by 1945 the Bavarians had had enough of it. Allied armies rolled into Munich without a fight. Not like Berlin, where Wehrmacht soldiers made their last stands against the triumphant Red Army.

More Munich
When the tour ended I had a long distance to cover in a short amount of time. I had another event scheduled, another tour. German trains leave on time, so I made a headlong rush through crowded squares, over crowded sidewalks. Yes, I would make it. I would make the train. Happy-go-lucky Bavarians made way for me. It was time for me to see another example of German efficiency. An efficiency of an altogether different nature . . .
Dachau prison yard
On the outskirts of town lies Dachau, one of the places where they brought them: the gypsies, the Jews, the homosexuals, the political dissenters. Dachau was a prison camp, the first of its kind. Two hundred thousand prisoners were taken there. Twenty-five thousand of them died: neglect, malnutrition, suicide, incineration.  SS storm troopers (evil, best avoided) and their dogs patrolled the grounds.  There was torture and neglect; there were beatings.
Fence and guard tower
We toured the grounds. Few words were spoken throughout. There was a somberness, akin to the stark emptiness of a morning-after hangover, but much deeper;  profound.

Even then, in October 1999, back home in America, Republicans argued about the validity of US involvement in World War II: George W. Bush and Pat Buchanan. Bush could never have seen the incinerators. Bush could not have understood the feeling that comes over you, when you stand in the middle of that yard.

The Dachau tour concluded. A residual horror clung . . . a hollowed-out queasiness. I returned to Munich and went to a biergarten for brats and German beer. No, Dachau would not change the perception of these happy Bavarians. They weren't the only ones who looked away. Nazi cruelty occurred on a different scale, using a different implementation, perhaps. But there were also the Killing Fields in Cambodia.  There was also the ethnic cleansing in Serbia.

That night, alone in Munich, the questions came percolating to the fore. I am here, living the life. I’m traveling through foreign lands. To learn. To learn about people, about truth and the nature of things. I stood amid a flood of stimuli and data, but no answers were taking shape. Surely, there must be some answers. Somewhere. Drift away . . . shabby room in shabby pensione, let darkness descend . . ..

The next morning, I drifted from sleep to a dream-laced moment. I had been on the road, changing bases for a while; and it took a full awakening to remember that I was in Germany, in Munich, in a shabby pensione in a shabby room. Then, I was proud. A proud international traveler.

The imperative for the morning was to find a laundry facility. As I wandered about, laundry sack in hand, Germans did their best to guide. But instructions were invariably delivered in German. So, I just had to keep looking. Walking through the Banhopf, I came upon an elderly couple, holding hands. They walked in front of me, through the crowded station. Then, the woman suddenly fell back, still clutching her husband's hand.  Her head cracked against the concrete floor. She stared, mouth agape, her eyes rolled, a pool of blood formed beneath her head. "Scheisse!" gasped her husband. Then I was tearing through the station, a sack of dirty laundry in hand, shouting, "Doctor! Doctor!" Paramedics came and took her in an ambulance. No conclusion to this story; the actual outcome, unknown. Choose a happy ending.

Musical instruments in the Staat Museum
Eventually I found the laundry and washed sweat-soaked travel clothes for the remainder of the morning.  Next I was on to the Staadt Museum where they have ancient and varied musical instruments from all over the world. Very interesting. The museum staff was friendly, eager to explain exhibits. But they spoke little English.

And then, another night in my shabby room. On the morrow, I would hop on the train for the quick ride back into Austria, to Salzberg.

To be continued...

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