In a country where so many people speak English, only my cousin Maggie and I could make such big fools of ourselves.
It started when we were too friendly to our Airbnb landlord. Clambering with suitcases and backpacks up to a set of wooden doors in downtown Munich, Germany, we scanned the list of names to try to get buzzed into the building where we would be staying for our five days in Bavaria.
A man letting himself in turned to us and saw our puzzled faces — the look that would be plastered on our faces our whole time here. He said something to my cousin in German. I waited for her to respond, but she just stared blankly. Then the man spoke: “Is English better?” We smiled and nodded, “yes. Yes! English is better!”
Both of us have spent the past four months living in France and turning the blasters on our language learning. We’re both at a point where we can understand what the French people around us are saying and can even communicate in a somewhat eloquent way. Speaking the language all day makes our heads hurt a little and has helped us develop an affectionate yet pokey attitude toward the French. Living in southwestern France, Maggie has grown to despise the “French line” as she calls it. What’s a French line, you might ask? “They don’t know how to make one,” she’ll say.
After spending months trying to navigate one culture, we were happy to get a glimpse of a different one. And because we only had five days, we were embracing the fact that we would not always be able to navigate. Sometimes, we did not even try to.
We made it up the creaky stairs and knocked on Johann’s door. Our host, a tall German engineering student about my age, answered with surprise. “Ah, hello,” he said. “You’re here. I didn’t know, otherwise I’d have put my shoes on.”
He gave us the keys, showed us where the fresh towels were and pointed out a small poinsettia sitting on the table. “I got you flowers. Christmas flowers.” We said thanks. We made smalltalk, extending our back-home American friendliness across the small studio. He answered us nervously, then stooped to put on his shoes, making his exit. “Well, I have to hurry,” he said, taking the garbage out with him. Human conversation had pushed Johann from the room.
On Christmas Eve, my friend Jillian would explain this cultural difference to us as the “German timeout.” She’s been living in Munich for fifteen months, working as an au pair like I have been in Paris. During that time, she has tried and failed to make German friends (she has some now, don’t worry) and has been set up on some silence-ridden dates with German boys. To an American, Germans can seem a bit socially awkward at times, she said. They say what they have to say, and then stop. It’s like a YouTube video loading. I was about to point out how social and cool my German friends are in France, and then I remembered Johann’s panicked expression when we started making conversation. Sure, not all Germans. But a couple of them.
(I know I am over-generalizing here. None of this is supposed to give a balanced view of this place, or its people. These observations are just meant to underline the things we were surprised by during our foolish time here.)
We might not have been there long enough to reverse all stereotypes of German culture, but we hoped to at least get one thing straight: “Where is the ‘Glockenspiel?'” Maggie asked me the first day. More than just the xylophone-like instrument, apparently this word meant an actual place here.
If nothing else, Munich would have to help us find that out.
We came to Munich for the Christmas markets. As soon as we dropped our stuff in Johann’s apartment, we walked toward Marienplatz — the grand tourist-magnet square in the center of town. An ice rink sat at the gateway to the shopping street Kaufingerstrasse, which we ducked into. Little huts with vendors selling hot wine, bratwursts and roasted nuts lined the pavement outside of designer storefronts. We bought two organic (“bio”) bratwursts wedged into circular buns.
We drank mulled wine and stole the cups, already reaching Dumb Tourist Move Number 50 or so. I followed Maggie through stalls of hanging Christmas ornaments as she searched for small wooden ones for her dad. Rising above the trinkets was an ornate building with pointy towers and wooden figurines peeking out of openings in the front. We got closer and looked up. What is this building? Before we could find out, we got distracted by taking pictures of the huge lit-up pine tree in front of it. Tourist Move Number 51.
Little did we know, Dec. 24 is German Christmas, according to my friend Jillian. We spent Christmas eve in her company with a small group of Americans in an apartment near the Oktoberfest grounds. We told Jillian about our “bio” bratwursts. Organic food is a big deal in Munich, she said. She gave us big bottles of Bavarian beer and told us we did not have to keep up with her and her friends, who have grown accustomed to the Bavarian pace of drinking during their months here.
Jillian is learning the language of the country she’s working in, just like we are. Except her new language has a completely different grammatical structure and she just started learning it a few months ago. Still, living here has made the process impressively quick for her. She can already diss German men in bars who make fun of her for only knowing English, learn otherwise, and then ask her to drink with them (denied, in their mother tongue). You can read more about these encounters on her very funny blog, Whinespectator.
Beer and bars are a big part of the culture here, she told me. We went one by one to the small refrigerator to grab another beer. Someone across the table mentioned the word “glockenspiel.”
“Where is it? Where’s the Glockenspiel?” Maggie asked desperately. She got an answer, but I lost track of it during the night.
The next day, on the super-clean Munich streets, we pointed from building to building, saying “is that the Glockenspiel? Maybe that’s the Glockenspiel.”
We had international data on our phones. We could have easily found out which one it was. But we were being dumb tourists, so what would be the fun in that?
During our beer-drinking Christmas Eve, Jillian’s mother told me we have to go to a place called Garmisch. “Garnish?” I ask. “How do you get there?” Spelling the correct name on a sheet of notebook paper, she wrote down how to take a bus to the small mountain town near the Austrian-German border. After spending the next day not finding the Glockenspiel, we got up early the following morning and got on a bus to Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
At the bus station five minutes before ours was supposed to leave, a sign for Garmisch was nowhere to be seen. We asked a man in an official-looking vest for help in timid English. “I speak English,” he said, “but I pick up the garbage.”
We somehow found our bus and were soon winding around the bases of mountains. Garmisch-Partenkirchen was dwarfed by giant sheets of rock and distant snow. It was the first time I had seen snow since last spring in Minnesota, and I was determined to get closer.
The little train station at the bottom of the mountain held a few skiers buying day passes. We got to the counter, money out. “Do you know where you’re going?” the girl behind it asked. “No,” we both said, pushing our money even closer toward her. She took it and told us how to get to the top.
Following her advice, we were on a small train a few minutes later, ambling up into the shade of the mountain. Frost appeared on the ground. The rocks got more drastic. Then the train stopped halfway up the mountain. A man’s voice said something important in German over the loudspeakers. Then, he added in English, “change now.”
We got off the train and got on another that came from up the mountain, turned around and took us in the direction our first train was going. We joked: “not very efficient. Not very German.”
We recalled the chopping hand gesture Jillian demonstrated on Christmas eve. The hand gesture of Germany, she called it. Chop, chop, chop.
Soon, we were inside the mountain, underground. A voice overhead said, “and now for the most exciting part of the voyage!” Maggie retorted from her seat, “the most exciting part — a black tunnel of death.”
Then, we were in an underground station packed with weary skiers. Up some stairs, and we were outside, just below the summit of Zugspitze, the highest peak of Germany. We went immediately to a railing to look out over the endless peaks ahead. Suddenly, what had been green and brown was all slate gray and white. We crept over to where the skiers were clicking into their bindings and felt the crunch of snow under our shoes. It might not have been quite like at home, but it was snow, and it felt good.
A long spiel
We spent the next few days wandering around Munich, once again far from snow and any real signs of winter. We sat in the sun drinking coffee and watching dog owners scold their pets. We wandered back and forth along Marienplatz.
Again, we passed that pointed building with intricate wooden figures. We had seen it in so many pictures and now there it was, welcoming us every time we crossed the famous square. And, of course, there it was.
“I think that’s the Glockenspiel!” Maggie cried.
The Rathaus-Glockenspiel is the face of Munich’s New Town Hall, full of chimes and life-sized figures that move and tell a story to the bells’ tolls every morning. We did not see the wood carvings move, but we tried to get closer to them.
“Tower closed,” the sign by the elevator said. We took it up anyway. Though we couldn’t get up to see the view, we wandered back through the castle-like building at our own pace, climbing down stairs and peering into corridors like children lost at Hogwarts.
We had figured out the Glockenspiel thing. And in the midst of being silly tourists, we felt like we were kids again, playing together at Christmastime when all we knew was our home.
Tourist Move Number 100 — but it was worth it.
Other shameless tourist photos
Vases in the Residenzmuseum, Munich’s historic government residence that was restored after World War II.