After spending six months living as an expat in Munich in 2013 I had come to know and love the city. It’s a great place to visit, but an even better place to live (except for the weather….).
On my first afternoon back in town I wandered the streets of the Haidhausen district. The day was brisk but with a sturdy leather jacket on I was warm enough as I window-shopped. I stopped for a latté (yes, I drink coffee now, blame it on the last Christmas present I gave to my wife – an espresso machine) and sat outside to watch the Saturday shoppers get their purchases in before the stores closed on Sunday.
“You know, I don’t believe I want to live in a country where you have to stay open on Sunday to do business. You shouldn’t have to work on Sunday.” (See That Thing You Do, you’ll be glad you did).
The Germans keep the tradition of Sunday closures going. I think it’s a good thing.
Despite it being November, the sun peaked out from the clouds for an extended stretch of time. Between the sunshine and the coffee I got so warm I had to take my jacket off. Everyone else walked by bundled up in boots, heavy coats, scarves and hats. Bavarians seem to do that whenever the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or the calendar says it’s no longer summer.
Sufficiently jazzed on caffeine, I walked over to the Ostbahnhof (east train station) and caught the U-bahn (subway) to the city center. On the way I dutifully stopped and waited (as I learned to do in Berlin) at all of the “don’t walk” pedestrian lights, even if there were no cars in sight. Because that’s also what you do when you’re in Munich.
At Marienplatz (the main square in Munich), I spied the glockenspiel on the Rathaus (city hall), but the figurines were still and silent at this time of day. Since Oktoberfest was over, there were very few tourists in the square. Instead, local residents were crowding into the smaller shops and big department stores to start their Christmas shopping. Unfortunately, the big, outdoor Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt) was not yet open. The Christkindlmarkt is a big street market associated with the four weeks of Advent. It started in Munich in 1310. I’m sure they sold different stuff back then. Or maybe not…
I missed my chance to drink glühwein again (first tasted in Seefeld, Austria, but that’s ok. Drinking hot wine while outside in winter in a cold climate is not my favorite pastime anyway.
Seeking some fortification after surviving on airplane food for the previous day, I went into the Augustiner Restaurant, a Munich landmark that is the prototype of the Bavarian beer garden. The monks started brewing beer here as early as 1328. I ordered a half liter of hefeweizen (wheat beer) and peered at the menu, trying to decide which kind of sausage I should have.
Deciding I had had enough sausage during my expat stay, I opted for the weinerschnitzel instead. You can’t go wrong when ordering a good schnitzel when in Bavaria.
Aaahhhh… Schnitzel, hot fries, and a wheat beer in a Bavarian beer hall. Seeing the men in their beer-drinking outfits of lederhosen (leather pants) and feathered caps, the women in their dirndls (dresses) with low cut blouses, and waitresses carrying giant pretzels in one hand while hoisting multiple one liter beer steins (“ein mass”) in the other, brings on a warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia in me. And I’m not even German.
I think I need to return to Munich once a year for the rest of my life.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the beer hall was that the floor was sticky. Stout middle-aged women dressed in dirndl dresses clutched multiple massive mugs in each hand as they pushed their way through the crowd to the tables (what strong wrists!). A little of the beer in each mug found its way to the floor during the trip from the tap to the drinker. The air was stiflingly hot and humid from the crush of thousands of revelers. The band was loud as it cranked through what must be Bavarian oldies. Most people were standing on the benches lining the sides of each table, swinging to the music and singing to the top of their lungs.
This was my first experience at the Starkbierfest – the Strong Beer Festival – at the Paulaner brewery in Munich, Germany. It was a Thursday night and the place was packed. Friday and Saturday nights are sold out months in advance. I had forgotten to get my friend Iris’ cell phone number so that I could text her to find out where she was in the crowd. She had reserved a table of ten. I wandered through the giant room, trying to find my friends and colleagues. It was a lost cause; there were simply too many people there to find a particular individual.
I finally went to the lobby and tried to get a beer from the bartender. She said I had to be at a table to be served any draft beer. I explained that I couldn’t find my table and I hadn’t even had anything to drink yet. She pointed to the wall across the lobby where there were lists of table holders. Aaahh! Of course, this is German efficiency at work, even in the beer hall.
I finally found the right table. It was near the front of the hall not far from the band. Iris was dressed in a fancy dirndl and standing on the bench. Surrounding her were her friends and new acquaintances, all standing on the benches, swaying, drinking, and singing. It was now about 8pm and some of them had been there since 4pm. It’s easy to meet new people and make friends in this situation. Everyone is there to be friendly and have a good time. Most of the women were dress in dirndls, a traditional Bavarian costume. Most of the men were in lederhosen (leather pants) with white shirts and suspenders. Some even had on the traditional mountain hats.
One guy at our table had on lederhosen but they were split down both inseams and hung on his legs like chaps.
“Dude!” I screamed over the music. “What happened to your pants?”
“I don’t know!” he yelled. “I bent over to pick up a beer mug.” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He didn’t care about his pants or the fact that his blue underwear was showing.
We got the waitress’s attention to order a beer. The beer is called strong beer because it has a 9% alcohol level, instead of 5% for typical German beers and 3.2% for common American beers. The beer comes in heavy clay mugs holding one liter (about 33 ounces – almost three cans or bottles). So drinking a mug is like drinking eight or nine cans of Budweiser. Hhhhmmmm. It tasted like a heavy ale, full of body and flavor.
I hoisted my mug, stood on the bench to watch the band, and tried not to fall over as the guy at the table behind me kept leaning over to talk to someone while sticking his butt out and bumping me.
The band had finished their medley of German oldies and segued into some well-known American rock and pop songs. The crowd loved it. Everyone sang along and pumped their fists into the air at the right times. I slowly drained my mug. I ordered another.
As I worked my way through the second mug, things started changing. It was getting later, the crowd was getting wilder, and the band was getting louder. I was enjoying myself. I even sang along to several songs on my personal banned song list, such as “I Will Survive,” “We Are Family,” and “American Pie.” I knew I had had enough when I found myself nodding my head to the beat and doing the arm motions to “YMCA.”
I couldn’t finish the second mug. It was too much for me. The band was done and the crowd headed for the exits. I stumbled to the U-bahn station hoping I would get on the right train and not end up in Austria.
There was no way I was making it to work by 8am the next day.
I had an art class at college. I was an engineering student but had to take at least one art class to be properly educated. I recall sleeping through most of the classes because they were so boring.
My wife studied art and graphic design. So I make an effort to take her to a museum once in a while. Having recently landed in Munich, we decided to go to the Pinakothek Der Moderne (the modern art museum). It only costs one euro on Sundays, which is a pretty good deal to enter an amazingly large, white, and mostly empty architectural gem.
Here’s a blue Picasso. I can sort of tell what this is, but I’m not really sure. I wonder what drugs old Pablo was on when he painted it.
I can recognize this as a painting that took skill to visualize what it should be and then to get the paint on the canvas in all of the right places. The following painting is different.
Good colors…, sure, why not. It’s very large, so it fills up a grand space. But what is going on here? It’s just some basic colors. I wanted to say something about this painting, but I held my tongue.
In an adjoining room there was an extensive special exhibition of pencil art on buff-colored paper. Most of the pieces were scribbles – circles, squares, random doodles. I could contain myself no longer.
“Even I could do that!” I said. “It looks like a child’s doodles from kindergarten class!”
A nearby German art class looked at me in horror. They must have understood me. After passing through a room full of oblong boulders, each with a hole partially cut into them, we came upon this:
I don’t know what the artist called this piece, but it looks like a pile of metal garbage from the auto wrecking yard. I could imagine the conversation the artist had with his or her parents.
Aspiring Artist: “Mom and Dad, I want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to go to art school at a private university to find my inner artistic being and create modern sculpture out of old car parts.”
Mom: “Whatever you would like, dear.”
Dad: “Garrumphh. %^$#%#$!” You better get a job after graduation…
I next found this piece:
I can see the utility for this item. It might be useful for sweeping up sawdust from the corner of a wood shop. I don’t, however, see the artistic merit.
It must just be me. I don’t get it. I am too analytical and practical to understand the artistic mind. For those of you out there who are artists, please explain the merits of the following piece. (I didn’t take a photo of it because, well, I just didn’t want to….)
The piece was a medium sized, colored chalk drawing of a man. The man had a t-shirt on, and no pants. A bunch of balloons were in place of his head. The balloons were tied to a string, which was tied on the other end to his penis. On his t-shirt was a picture of Jesus.
I was glad I got into the museum for only one euro. I got my money’s worth. I think.
Some Americans get a little nervous about their citizenship when traveling overseas. When Bush was president and the Iraq war was started, there was some ill will towards Americans in some countries. Some travelers didn’t want to obviously stand out as Americans. Of course, if you are wandering around Paris or Berlin with a backpack on your back and your head down in a tour map mumbling in American English about how to find the nearest McDonalds, it’s pretty easy to tell that you’re not a local.
I’m not suggesting that you should try to hide or even that you would be successful at that endeavor, but there are a few things you can do to make it not so obvious that you’re an American tourist.
First, check your socks and shoes. If you’re a man, wearing white athletic socks and white Nike cross-trainer athletic shoes is a dead giveaway. Better to have some black Pumas with dark socks, or nice leather loafers. If you’re a woman, wearing comfortable, practical walking shoes sounds like a good idea and you’re thinking that your feet will thank you after a long day touring every last exhibit at the Louvre. However, the local women most likely will still be wearing uncomfortable, impractical high heels. Because looking good is more important than sore feet.
Next, don’t wear shorts. Even if it is very hot, wearing cargo shorts (with the aforementioned white socks and athletic shoes) is a no-no. For one thing, nobody wants to see your spindly white legs and knobby knees. Instead, get a lightweight pair of pants. But not those travel pants with the zip-off shorts. Those just look dorky, and who would wear those around your own city anyway?
If you have one of those fancy travel vests with the 39 pockets, leave it at home. Those should only be used if you’re fly fishing in Montana.
Americans love their baseball-style caps. They might look great for cheering on the Yankees, advertising your farm’s seed choices, or making political statements, but in Europe and other places you might as well replace the logo on the front with a sign that says “I am an American! Be rude to me in Parisian cafes.”
A good general rule is to dress up a little more than you would do at home. Americans have a tendency to look, well, sloppy. Blue jeans, a baggy t-shirt, and a bulky hooded sweatshirt advertising the college you wanted to attend or dropped out of is the uniform of the American traveler. You don’t have to dress up to look like an insurance salesman. But you also don’t need to look like you just finished cleaning the garage.
Leaving some of the bright colors at home is good, too. The lime green shirt, orange socks, and purple pants might be fine for your golf course, but will look strange in many places in Europe. I was in Copenhagen, Denmark in the winter and I am sure that 99% of the people on the Strøget wore black. Black pants, black boots, black leather jackets, black scarves, and black hats. I thought I was at an undertakers convention. I had a bright blue ski jacket on and felt very conspicuous.
I don’t always follow these tips, but sometimes I do have minor successes. I was waiting for the elevator to go up one of the towers of the Frauenkirche in Munich, Germany when a woman asked me for the time. In German. I gave her a slight smile and answered her in English. She looked puzzled and walked away to ask someone else.
Curacao is an island in the Netherlands Antilles where they speak Dutch, Papiamentu, Spanish, and English. They also get a lot of Dutch and German tourists in the winter. My family was greeted by the owner of a restaurant in Willemstad first in Dutch, then in German, and then in Spanish. We didn’t say a word. Finally, he spoke in English and we all smiled.
You don’t have to shop at H&M or Zara before leaving the US, but a few minor tweaks to the wardrobe may help you blend in. At least until you open your mouth…
We had wandered the streets of Munich and ended up in the main square of the city, called the Marienplatz. The Marienplatz is usually full of tourists and is a great spot for people-watching. On one side of the square is the Neues Rathaus (the new city hall), which has a tower with a clock called a glockenspiel in it. At certain hours of the day, the glockenspiel comes to life to reenact two 16th century stories of a Duke and his wife, the plague, and some barrel makers. Stores and restaurants occupy the other sides of the square.
After the glockenspiel show, we headed straight for the nearest restaurant for a well-deserved lunch break. We were a getting a little tired of sausages and sauerkraut and were ready for some pizza. We were promptly seated by the hostess and a few minutes later the waiter arrived to take our order.
The waiter was a stout middle-aged fellow with slicked back hair. He wore a starched white shirt, black bow tie, and a small apron around his waist. So typically European! He had heard us speaking English as he walked up to us. He greeted us warmly in a thick German accent.
“Guten tag! Ja, what will you have?” he asked as he whipped out his little notepad.
His notepad was about 2 inches by 5 inches of rough buff-colored paper. In his hand he held a small pencil.
We gave him our order of a couple of pizzas and soft drinks as he scribbled away on this little notepad. With a final flourish of scribbling, he turned and scurried away.
The pizzas were very good. We devoured them, fueling our bodies for the planned afternoon of touring. With two hungry teenagers at the table, it didn’t take very long. It was now time to pay the bill.
Getting a waiter’s attention in a European restaurant in order to pay the bill is almost always a strange situation for Americans. In America, we eat, we pay, and we leave, so someone else can take our table and because we always have something else to do. In Europe, people linger over their table and waiters have centuries of practice ignoring diners.
Our waiter walked by. I waved. He ignored me. It happened again. I tried a third time to get his attention. Finally he got the message and came over.
“We’d like our bill, please.”
He rummaged in the pockets of his apron, looking for our bill. After a few moments of searching, he pulled out a crumpled piece of notepad paper.
“Fifty-nine Euros,” he said. I guess this was a restaurant where the customer paid the waiter, not one where the customer takes the bill to a central cash register.
As I dug into my wallet to get some cash, my brain started warming up. How could this bill be 59 Euros? These must be some expensive pizzas. I don’t think the menu had prices that high for a couple of pizzas and drinks. How could that be? On an impulse, I asked to see the bill.
“Uh, Can I see the bill please?”
I think this was a new thing for the waiter. He probably would go back to his waiter buddies and complain about the American tourists who wanted to see the bill. Imagine, who would do such a thing here?
He flashed the crumpled note pad page in front of my face as he waived it around. All I could see on the page were scribbles. Some were numbers, some were doodles.
“59 Euros,” he said again, more firmly this time, holding his ground.
His behavior was now getting my attention. My scam alert antennae were now in operation. I started to visualize the menu items. Let’s see, a large pepperoni pizza, a large sausage pizza, three Cokes, and a bottle of water. That should be about 35 or 37 Euros. Rounding up, it might come to 39 Euros.
“I want to see the bill again. Let me hold it.”
He didn’t want to give it to me. Now he pretended to not understand enough English to know what I was asking. I motioned with my hands, pantomiming him giving me the bill and me looking at it closely. Reluctantly, he handed it over.
I looked it over closely. Yes, I could see our individual items, and almost illegible numbers for the total. The final scribble showed a number that might have been a 59, but also might have been a 39. This guy was trying to scam us dumb Americans out of 20 Euros.
“Drei nuen, nein funf nuen!” I said, trying to remember the numbers in German. I pushed two twenty Euro notes into his hand.
He looked at me with a blank look like I was an idiot child who couldn’t count. That’s when I started to get annoyed. I decided to pull the supervisor card.
“Let me talk to the manager of this restaurant. Who is in charge here?”
Seeing that I was determined now, he quickly changed his tune. He muttered something in his accented English about mistakes being made. He took the notes out of my hand, plopped a Euro coin down on the table as change, and walked away.
“You see, kids,” I started in my typical Dad voice, “You never know when someone will try to take advantage of you. You always have to be on the lookout…” My kids rolled their eyes in response. They get plenty of practice with this reaction.
“Chalk one up for savvy American traveler.”
The outcome was different in Rome. We sat outside at a café on a glorious late summer evening. The view of the Pantheon was splendid. A horse and buggy were giving moonlit rides to happy tourists and local romantics.
The waiter, looking very competent in his European waiter uniform, attended to our every whim and desire. He whipped out his notepad and scribbled away. An appetizer, some vino, yes, a bottle of that fancy Italian water – no gas please… scribble, scribble, scribble.
All of the courses were “al a carte.” That’s Italian for “charge me an arm and a leg.” And we couldn’t pass up desert. It was chocolate cake. Not my favorite, but not to be missed by others in my immediate family. The waiter then brought us some limoncello, a cold desert wine to cleanse the palate.
After enjoying the nice meal, we enjoyed the view while hogging the table in European fashion. Eventually it was time to leave. It was the last night of our vacation, and a long travel day awaited us the next day. Time for the bill.
The waiter was nowhere to be found. I think he was in the kitchen practicing his penmanship. I approached a guy who looked like the manager, although his name tag matched the name of the restaurant, so maybe he was the namesake and owner. I motioned with my hands that we needed to go and wanted to pay the bill.
Without looking up from his newspaper, he said “One five nine Euros.” Astounded, I gave him my best blank stare. 159 Euros, you’ve got to be kidding me, that’s over $200! This isn’t even a nice restaurant, and the food was mediocre!
Before I could summon my best indignant, righteous anger, he pulled two crumpled pages of notepad paper out of his pocket while gesticulating wildly and spewing forth a rant in Italian.
I looked at the pages. They were illegible. Nothing but scribbles and doodles. There’s no way I could reconstruct in my head what we ordered and approximately how much it cost. As Kenny Rogers once said, you have to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.
Meekly I handed over my credit card. I had played the game with one win, and one loss. It was time to go home.