Germany revisited

August 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

Berlin as seen by Wim Wenders - Wings of Desire (1987)

Berlin as seen by Wim Wenders – Wings of Desire (1987)

I arrived in Germany for the first time twelve years ago, on a cold, grey morning in late March. After a nerve-rattling overnight journey from Paris, my sleep shattered every few hours by passport checks, my train pulled into Berlin’s Zoo Station. I hefted my backpack and stumbled off, still half-asleep, into a strange new world where everyone spoke a harsh, guttural language of which I understood scarcely a word. I was twenty, halfway through a semester abroad in London. It was my first time travelling on my own. It was also the first time I’d ever been alone in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

Berlin frightened me. It was huge and grey and unfriendly, built on a far larger than human scale. It seemed underpopulated, its broad windswept boulevards too large for the small crowds hurrying along them. I wasn’t surprised by the grey grimness of it – a large part of why I’d wanted to come was to see the setting of my favourite film of all time, Wings of Desire – but to see it on the screen was one thing, to find one’s self in the middle of it, quite another. I did enjoy following in the footsteps of Wim Wenders’s gentle trench-coated angels – I’ll even readily admit to getting teary-eyed looking down on the city from the top of the Victory Column – and I still have vivid memories of the mighty altar at the Pergamon Museum and of how when I came face to face with Frans Hals’s Malle Babbe at the Gemäldegalerie, I could have sworn I heard her cackling. But that night, eating a falafel in an otherwise empty snack bar on the Friedrichstrasse, all I could think about was how eager I was to be on the train to Prague the next morning, where I’d be meeting one of my oldest friends.

After three blissful days in Prague I was stumbling off another overnight train, this time in Munich, only to find that I’d miscalculated dreadfully in my travel planning. It was Palm Sunday. The city was a ghost town. Most everything was shut, the streets empty. At least the museums were open. The day became a forced march from Residenz to Alte Pinakothek to Neue Pinakothek, a desperate attempt to cram everything in because who knew whether I’d ever get back to Munich? At the end of the day I had a reasonable sense of Munich’s museums, but not of Munich itself – only an impression of splendid old buildings in the centre and seedy streets immediately south of the main station where my hostel was. The next morning I jumped on the train to Venice without a backward glance and no small amount of relief.

That was the whole of my experience with Germany for the next twelve years. I kept telling myself that as an art historian, I should go back, at the very least visit more of the museums, but my choice of PhD topic meant that any work-related travel (and, let’s face it, most of my holidays) consisted of hopping on the Eurostar to Paris. Then, last year, I learned that there would be a major art history conference taking place in Nuremberg in July 2012. I submitted a proposal for a paper and crossed my fingers. A few months later, it was accepted. I was finally going back to Germany.

I’m happy to report that this time round, Germany and I got on rather better. Why? I think there are several reasons. The first, a practical one – although my spoken German is still nowhere near where I’d like it to be, I can at least make myself understood and understand other people. (Inevitably, after a few sentences I have to stop them and ask if they by any chance speak English, but I’ve made the effort and it always seems appreciated.) The second, a more overarching one – I’m a much more confident person than I was twelve years ago, more at ease in my own company, better at meeting new people. After having sworn off staying in hostels five years ago after a particularly wretched experience in Amsterdam (having nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with being forced to share a bunk with a woman whose snore could have taken apart every dam on the IJsselmeer – after three nights I was a bleary-eyed wreck teetering on the edge of homicidal rage), I realised that the only way to make my speaker’s travel allowance stretch to an extra week in Germany meant… staying in hostels. And it turned out to be nowhere near as bad as I had dreaded. I was probably, on average, a good ten years older than most of my roommates, but in stark contrast to my first trip to Germany, I actually ended up chatting with them over breakfast and even going out for a beer with a few of them. (I fear I was a little hard on my Australian roommates in Munich in the previous post – they were friendly, even if it quickly became obvious that we had almost nothing in common.)

The last reason, I think, has everything to do with the time of year. Germany in March, like most places in northern Europe, isn’t the nicest of places. Germany in high summer is absolutely glorious. Even a big city like Munich feels relaxed and in a holiday mood in the middle of the week, the Englischer Garten overflowing with swimmers, sunbathers and surfers (I still can’t quite get my head round the fact that you can surf in the middle of Munich). I’m not a big beer-drinker, but beer gardens are definitely one of the highlights of a German summer. (The one in the Englischer Garten is good fun but my favourite was a much smaller one in Nuremberg, set into a chunk of the old city wall, where I had dinner with the other speakers in my session.) Frankfurt, the last city I visited, was by far my least favourite, charmless and too much like a large American city (the glass! the steel! the businessmen everywhere!), but Frankfurt in the summer has its own attractions – the parks on either side of the Main and the apfelwein taverns with their own little gardens.

This time when I left Germany, I wasn’t pacing around in front of the departures board at a station thanking some higher power that I would soon be putting the country behind me. I was sitting in a bar in Frankfurt airport sipping a last glass of Weissbier, leafing through my Rough Guide and planning scores of future trips.

And Berlin? I didn’t make it back this time, but work is taking me there in October. I can’t wait.

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