Moleskine Musings from Germany

James Michner once said if you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people you might better stay at home.  He says so well what I have thought so often when listening to fellow travelers complain about the different and unfamiliar. In addition to seeing new places, it is the different and unfamiliar that makes travel so interesting.

I recently spent two weeks visiting Cologne, Munich and Berlin (the artsy, the conservative and the edgy) and it is the following observations of the unusual and unfamiliar that made it into my moleskine and helped shape the first impressions that now populate a previously blank page in my mind labeled Germany.

1.  Germans are a tough bunch.  They eat outside regardless of the temperature and outdoor restaurant patios are bustling in November.  There were more people outside than inside despite the cloudy, windy 7°C weather.  Unused blankets hang on the patio chairs for the weaker lot.  Although we Canadians talk big about thriving in cold weather and frigid winters, most Canadian patios have long since packed it in by mid-October.

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2.  Germans ride bikes….everywhere. Particularly in Cologne, bike racks are overflowing, bikes stand freely beside the racks and more are scattered haphazardly on the ground.  The bike lanes are safely located on the wide sidewalks, not on the roads. Seemingly a perfect situation but they are largely unmarked and with cyclists reluctant to slow down, a pedestrian (particularly an unaware, foreign pedestrian) has a greater chance of being killed by a cyclist than a car.

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3.  Germany’s intricate and separate regional and intercity train networks are confusing to the newcomer but at least the networks operate seamlessly.  Train connection times, however, can be short and with only a few minutes to change trains, neglecting to print your platform itinerary when you buy your ticket can be a mistake. Fortunately, I managed my tight connection at Hagan switching from the regional train to the intercity train to Cologne. As I momentarily leaned back on the door of the next coach to catch my breath it automatically opened and, with the weight of my backpack pulling me backwards, I fell flat on my back into the coach behind me much to the dismay of the seated passengers.  You might make mental a note to avoid this type of behaviour when trying to blend in with the locals.

Layering city transit networks (eg. Berlin) on top of the broader rail system adds a whole new level of complexity. This is frustrating for the simple-minded Canadian living in a public transit-challenged city like Toronto where underground networks are as basic as north-south and east-west.

Berlin has the U-bahn, a large underground system and the S-bahn, an above-ground train system but which also sometimes ventures underground and has one station beneath the U-bahn just to mess with your head. It also has a light rail system, a tram system and a bus system. Transferring from the U-bahn to the S-bahn can mean leaving one system completely and looking down the street for an entrance to the other. It took me some time to understand this and I resembled a bleary-eyed animal emerging from the ground after hibernation, squinting into the light as I looked around and then heading back underground thinking I’d missed it.

Now add to the mix the division of the city into multiple zones and offers of dozens of ticket types, each with different travel option permutations, and you can understand why planning my journey each day became a full-time breakfast activity. Even London’s very large underground and light rail is simpler than the Berlin network.

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4.  Germans pay no attention to privacy and intimate conversation when enjoying a meal out.  Particularly at German food restaurants, the tables are often set for eight or more and without a second thought you are seated with strangers who by the end of the evening aren’t.  Without WiFi and Google Translate to help you through the meal be prepared to smile and nod a lot.

5.  Germans love good coffee and pastry and the pastry selection is incredible so it is no wonder that overpriced, mediocre places like Starbucks have only a small market share. They are also completely undeterred by insects feasting on the pastries before they buy them. There are long queues of customers waiting to buy bee-covered cakes, sometimes with bees stuck in the icing and unable to move.

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6.  Germans build big stuff.  Stepping out of the train station in Cologne, the unbelievably massive cathedral smacks you right in the face. It is so large and in such a busy spot that it is almost impossible to take a good picture of the entire thing.   I didn’t try.

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It was built in fits and starts.  The construction frenzy began in 1248 and continued for 200 years until boredom and money problems set in.  So they stopped for a while, 400 years to be exact, and then finished it 632 years later in 1880.

Then there is the Glockenspiel, a giant cuckoo clock on Munich’s new town hall, a building of over 9,000 square metres with more than 400 rooms.  Life size figures dance to 4 different melodies from 43 bells, putting on a show that greatly overshadows its final act – a small rooster that chirps three times.

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Another massive creation graces the Bavarian foothills of the Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle, the romantic, medieval knights’ castle commissioned by crazy King Ludwig II as his mountain retreat and to honour his favourite composer and friend Richard Wagner.  It is the castle that inspired Walt Disney’s castle.

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In addition to the mountain cabin, Ludwig II (and those before him) spent time at their summer cottage just outside Munich, Nymphenburg Palace….another exceptionally large rustic little vacation spot.

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In modern-day Germany too there are large and unusual things such as the 12-metre high ice cream cone dropped and dripping onto a shopping centre, and the giant, golden-winged Ford Fiesta flying atop a museum in Cologne.

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And of course there is the 1.3 km long East Gallery of graffiti art painted in 1990 by over 100 artists on the remains of the Berlin Wall as a memorial for freedom.

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7.   German information counters can be light on information.  Arriving at the central bus station in Berlin, the 9 am bus to Poland, for which I had purchased a ticket on-line, did not appear to exist. Upon inquiry, the ticket agent directed me to the empty seat beside her with the sign that read Information.  When I pointed out that there was no one at the information counter she shrugged.  I asked the man sitting on the other side of the empty seat.  He was announcing departures and arrivals so must surely be aware of the bus schedule.  I showed him my ticket and again pointed out that the Information booth is unmanned “We have no information” he told me abruptly. “You have no information about buses? But you are the bus station.” I said. “It is true we are the bus station but we have no bus information.” he replied.   Eventually speaking to a bus driver smoking a cigarette on the platform, I found that the bus had chosen to leave half an hour early that day.   Don’t ask.

Often it took many questions before I had enough information to move around the city.  The efficiency of the German service industry means scoping their answers to be as lean as possible and offering no complementary information whatsoever.  It is only through follow-up questioning that the additional information is obtained that allows you to complete simple tasks such as boarding the train once you have a ticket.

And finally just when you think you have this country figured out, you come across something like this:

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Little kallendressers (ones who relieve themselves in the gutters) added by stone masons of centuries past under important statues such as Konrad von Hochstaden, the Archbishop of Cologne from 1238 to 1261. Yes, it is definitely the unusual and unfamiliar that make traveling interesting.

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