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In Which I Explore Germany with my Family

August 17, 2009

It turns out that Germany is more than just Berlin.  In fact, most people one speaks with consider Berlin a special world in and of itself – something crazy and beautiful and above and beyond the rest of Germany.  So when my family came to visit, we took the opportunity to see what else was around.

My mother, father, and sister came to this lovely country to see what I’ve been making of myself and to get a bargain priced personally guided tour of Berlin and the country.  We stayed in Berlin for the first three days, soaking in the sights before taking off to Heidelberg for three days, Munich for three more days and back to Berlin for a final 48 hours.  We explored these areas by foot, car, train, boat and bicycle.  It was pretty impressive.  Here are some things I learned:

  • Plan the details. The little things, like knowing where to eat, what transportation pass to get, and whether Rührei means scrambled or fried eggs are worth researching beforehand.
  • Speed limits are unnecessary. My parents are from the east coast and are ever bemoaning the obnoxious and inconsiderate driving habits of Californians.  “No one uses the passing lane correctly unless you’re on your way to Maine!”  I contest (silently, of course) that this is because they only have two lane highways on the way to Maine, but it turns out that they are right: it has nothing to do with road width and everything to do with driving etiquette.  Germans stick to the etiquette as if it were law (which it probably is) and maintain breakneck speeds on highways across the country with hardly any problems (the main one being, of course, that when there ever is an accident, it usually involves 50 cars or more.  But who’s counting?).
  • The Germans are (partly) right about Heidelberg. Any German to whom I describe my trip shakes their head when I mention Heidelberg and ask me, “What is the deal with Americans and Heidelberg?” (or, you know, the equivalent of that question in German).  There is a base outside of the city (so we’ve heard of it) and my uncle used to live there (so I have a personal excuse), I counter, but they are still puzzled.  Turns out Americans always go to Heidelberg and to Germans, it is just another small town.  In a way, they are right: the town is beautiful, but so are a lot of small towns in this country.  It has a river through it and a beautiful Altstadt (Old Town) and is nestled in a valley and all, but the castle, which is a key part of the town’s fame, is a hodge-podge of historical architecture so mismatched it would make any art history student shake their head and say, “what were they thinking?”  We also visited a number of other small towns in the region and each had its own castle presiding over it in a sort of no-longer-intimidating, almost comforting, crumbling way.  And yes, if you drive around enough, all the ruins start to run together and the castles that are still standing are crawling with tourists.  But here is where the Germans are wrong about these uninteresting small towns.  Uninteresting small towns where I come from are one street with a Burger King and some auto repair shops, an abandoned industrial district standing as a testament to the fact that people used to be able to make a living and sustain families here, and – especially if you’re in the Pacific Northwest – a pretty healthy population of meth users.  Castles?  Not unless this town is in New Jersey and then there may be a fast food franchise that looks like a castle and will sell you 3 hamburgers – unfortunately called “Sliders” – and Coke and fries for just $2.99.  No, we do not have exposure to the kind of history one finds in any small town in Germany, and will therefore find a fair share of charm in anything.  The houses with their red slanted roofs, the rolling fields of trees or crops or windmills.  And castles, even if they are ruins – in fact, especially if they are ruins!  Do you know how long ago something has to be built for it to become a ruin?! – are really very cool.  A constant reminder of how long the history of a place is.  I suppose if you grew up with it, you can become desensitized, but I don’t intend to.
  • Munich is weird and lives up to stereotypes. On our first morning in the city, we walked around, trying to see some sites and get our bearings.  We stumbled upon Königsplatz, a square that could have been in ancient Greece.  Then we walked through the rest of the museum district to Ludwigstraße, one of the main streets of the city, where we found a street fair that looked like it hadn’t sold enough booth spaces.  It sounded impressive from around the corner with salsa music blasting, but when we got there, it turned out to be a huge street with a handful of oddly assorted organizations and stands geared toward a loosely defined environmental theme (I guess BMX bikes are environmentally friendly?) and then a lot of meat grills.  We continued on through the city, where I began to notice the growing presence of teenagers dressed up like goth versions of Alice in Wonderland.  It was very odd.  I figured if there was a teen emo-glam population as big as what I was seeing, its reputation probably would have reached me before I got there, but all I’d heard about Munich was that it was very clean but pretty boring (and that is by people who live there, not just unimpressed tourists).  Nonetheless, I was weirded out, especially when my mother tried to compare my hair-dying phase with the costumes of these teen yahoos.  I do not usually defend that phase, but I felt the need to point out that my teen years rarely involved costume and certainly didn’t involve this ridiculousness.  It became clear when we entered the Englisher Garten, famous for being one of the biggest urban parks and full of English gardening techniques (as the name implies) as well as for a Chinese pagoda, a Greek-style temple, and a Japanese tea house.  And here was the answer to all of my questions about strangely-clad teens.  The Japanese tea house and environs were the site of a Japanfest, complete with bonsai and flower arrangement competitions, displays of samarai sword fighting, Japanese traditional singing, and all sorts of Japanese food and drink.  It clicked.  Japan was the home of Anime and Manga, entire industries of cartoon characters staring in comic books, television shows and films.  These young people were dressed up like characters from these franchises.  It all made sense, and though I didn’t forgive them for their obsessions with the kind of animation that gives me a headache, at least I felt like I finally understood them.  Then we saw some people surfing.  Because, you know, what better activity to occupy your Saturday afternoon.  The water entering the English Garden goes under a bridge at a high speed, creating a standing wave that is, in fact, surfable.  I did not expect to see surfing anywhere in Germany, so I left dually impressed.  We rented bikes and tooled through the Garden a bit, we ate some great food all over the city, we visited the Neue Pinakothek, one of three of the big art museums in the city and we drank a lot of beer.  Not particularly because we were thirsty or could only appreciate each other’s company three sheets to the wind, but more because they serve beer in such excessive portions one can’t avoid feeling tipsy after just one drink.  When in Rome, do as the Romans.  When in Munich, drink beer, a liter at a time, out of a glass jug called a Maß (pronounced Mahss).  I really liked Munich, but I was only there for three days.  I did find the city incredibly clean (especially compared to Berlin, which is broke, and therefore spends no money on removal of graffiti or dog excrement and very little on park maintenance), but I think if I hung around for a few weeks, I would also find the city lacking in spark and sparkle.

So I was happy to return to Berlin.  And showing my family around the city reminded me, as it always does, what a wonderful city it is and how lucky I am to get to know it.  Summer’s just warming up and everyone is taking advantage of it, so I think I’ll stick around for a while longer.  It was great to have my parents and my sister around for as long as they were.  And if you are looking for a bargain tour guide (all the sites as long as you buy me three meals a day!), I hear you can call them for a referral.

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