I’m counting the bottles

New Year’s Eve in Munich. We had planned to join friends for dinner and a viewing of fireworks, but a persistent flu bug has decided otherwise for us both. It’ll be a quiet evening.

We did, however, force ourselves to make an expedition early this afternoon. We had heard that stores close up tight all over the city on New Year’s Day, and since stores are closed on Sunday anyway, that would be an entire weekend without access to shops. Our tiny little fridge demands that food shopping be an almost daily affair, and we were running a bit low on supplies. So, we used the bicycle cart to haul crates of empties left over from pre-Christmas festivities back to the refreshments store, and took some time selecting, buying, and packing up the cart with replacements. By the time we left there to walk to the grocery store around the corner, it was 1:05PM.

The grocery store was locked. People were still inside, but a sign on the door said it closed at 1PM. Sharp.

We wandered a bit, coughing and dragging our flu-bitten butts miserably, but there was no sign of life in any of the other stores in the neighbourhood. On the way home we took a mental inventory of our larder, and decided that we could survive on beans and rice for the weekend. I was a bit distressed that we were out of black tea, but comforted myself with a glance at the load of beer in the back of the cart. I’ll manage without that small hit of morning caffeine, somehow.

This total absence of mercantile activity on weekends and holidays is a bit of a shock for us North Americans accustomed to a culture of 24-hour convenience. It took a long time to get used to grocery stores that are smaller than most corner stores back home, but this is a real challenge. We remembered ruefully that even a country town like Collingwood, Ontario (where Laird’s sister lives) has a 24 hour grocery store, and then immediately put the comparison out of our minds. We’re in Europe now, and things are different here. People believe that personal time off takes priority over spending money, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It just makes for a couple of a lean weekends on the learning curve.


Img_2306Last night Laird and I wandered around Marienplatz, watching the last-minute preparations before the opening of the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) today. I ate roasted chestnuts for the first time in my life, and consequently had to endure that song repeating in my head ("Chestnuts roasting o’er an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at my nose…")

Img_2310Not just my nose, as you can see from the picture — before I undertook the age-old ritual of scraping the frost off my vehicle in the morning.

Anyway, back to Marienplatz. I took Laird into Ludwig Beck department store to show him their fantastic selection of gorgeous, hand-made glass Christmas ornaments, things of amazing delicacy and beauty. As we left, we caught sight of a Hudson Bay blanket and Canadian flag on display near the door. Curious, we stopped to investigate, and to our delight found that an entire section of the store had been transformed into a shrine dedicated to kitschy Canadiana. Maple syrup, Moosehead beer, sweatshirts with Haida designs, fringy and and beaded creations made out of moose-hide… I spotted a bleary-eyed fellow in a scarlet Mountie uniform, sporting a long black ponytail underneath the hat.

"Psst. Are you a real Mountie?"
"Yes", he replied. "I’m from Canada", he replied, stating the obvious. I grinned and flashed the little Canadian flag pinned to my coat.
"Oh yeah?" He brightened up. "Where are you from?"
"Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver…. you?", I replied.
"Northern Alberta. There is a group of us here from all over Canada. We’re here for three weeks". He pointed at the kiosks and their wares.
"Nice! So, how’d you land this gig?"
He smiled. "It’s sponsored by Air Canada and the government to promote Canada and its cultural diversity.".

I looked around, and thought to myself that there wasn’t a whole lot of Canada’s cultural diversity on display here. Unless you were only taking into account the various tribes of the First Nations people.

"Do you have to sit here all day? Or do you catch shoplifters too?"
He laughed, and told me that he puts on talks and answers questions, but was grateful for a chair at the moment because he was exhausted from jet lag. We chatted some more, and as we left, Laird and I mused on our tax dollars being spent to promote stereotypical views of Canada. I mean, if they were really trying to push a stereotype, where was the spicy clamato juice for the Bloody Caesar tastings? Tim Horton’s donuts and the rrroll up the rrrrim cups? The 2-4’s of Keith’s beer and I AM Canadian rants? Hockey sticks? Snowmobiles? THIS is the stuff that Canada is made of. At the very least they should have had a stack of Douglas Copeland’s classic book, "Souvenir of Canada" for sale.

I suppose if they were to put a more honest version of Canadian culture on display, it would only confuse people. It would contain all the cultures of the world with samples of an international fusion of food, and music.

Later, outside in the square, we joined a laughing crowd of people who were gathered in a tight circle around an animated busker with a guitar. A comedian. We stayed for a long time, laughing at him take the piss out of just about every nationality represented in the crowd. He spared no-one, but reserved his sharpest barbs for fellow Germans.

A Mountie and a German comedian all in one evening; with respect to stereotypes, one hand giveth and the other taketh away.

Le snooze di Figaro

We went to the opera last night at the Nationaltheater/Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera and Ballet). Laird’s birthday was last week, and I gave him tickets to see Le nozze di Figaro ("The Marriage of Figaro") — an Italian language opera by Mozart, subtitled in German. Oh yeah.

As exciting as… well… not, in my opinion. Laird loved it. Which is all that really matters, after all.

Maybe I’m more of a symphony orchestra type person — so far I haven’t taken to this opera thing at all. Though I must say last night’s 4 hour marathon was far less excruciating than Aida, which we saw at a 2,000 year-old roman theatre in Verona this past summer. In that instance, boredom ground the shine off the novelty of the surroundings pretty quick, though I was entertained by the undisciplined hooting of the fans shouting "Brava!!" and "Viva Verdi!!". Opera hooligans. Who knew.

Anyway, the German audience was far more sedate, but delightfully eccentric. I swore I saw Andy Warhol’s twin in a tux during the break. Lots of fur and gowns and glitz from the ladies, gender-bender humans in zoot suits wandering around with champagne, and men with handlebar moustaches looking very Poirot. Odd and wonderful characters — unlike the the campy characters on stage, who only managed to annoy me. Their simultaneous scream-singing made it difficult to hear the orchestra, and I wished they would just shut up. I was less than impressed when they gargled out a tune I actually recognized with that vibrato thing they do. Ruined a nice song.

Ok, I’m a lout. However, after the performance, outside on the grand staircase in the cold night, my eagerly departing self came to an abrupt halt. I had a fleeting impression of a Salvation Army band playing Chrismas carols on the sidewalk in front of the opera house; the image dissolved into three french horn players and a bassoonist playing a beautiful lullaby. Munich has very high-class buskers; what a delight. Laird had to drag me away.

We finished the evening by walking to the elegant Tambosi cafe, passing a busker playing violin in the shadows of a narrow street. His breath steamed, and he wore black cut-out gloves and a dark scarf, and the ends of his pale fingers gleamed as they danced over the instrument. He was Fagin right out of the musical "Oliver", but playing classical music.

Tambosi was lovely. Opera music in the background while we ate our apfelstrudel, and this time I enjoyed it. Just the voice, and quiet instrumentals. I think my major objection to the opera spectacle is that it’s music’s answer to WWF wrestling; opera divas versus the orchestra pit. They really don’t play well together. In my opinion.

A human face

I took Jake for a walk this morning, and it struck me that if it weren’t for him, I might be invisible in this new place. And if it weren’t for other dogs, the people at the ends of their leashes would remain part of the faceless crowd for me as well. Our dogs barrel through all this reluctance to connect; they invariably stop and greet each other. Their lonely humans are then forced to stop and face each other with a smile, a nod, maybe a few words. After a few such encounters, we start recognizing each other’s dogs, and eventually, each other. The reticence dissolves, and we become part of each other’s community.

I confess to a ridiculous thought: When I first moved here and took Jake for a walk, I wondered whether dogs that were trained to respond to different human languages would still be able to understand each other in doggy language. Would a Canadian dog understand a German dog? Silly, I know. I guess I was so pre-occupied with not being able to communicate in words, I forgot that they aren’t always necessary to get the job done. In fact, they sometimes get in the way.

So when I read this article by an Arab-American who writes about people’s reactions to his new puppy, I was very touched:

I noticed something new was happening out there, something Arab-Americans have rarely experienced since Sept. 11. People on the street, in their cars, in the parking lot, and at the supermarket were giving me a new look—a friendly one.

Interesting how an animal can give us a human face.

Continue reading “A human face”

Lost in the urban woods

Gorgeous sunny day yesterday, the first time we’ve seen a clear blue sky and bright uninterrupted sunshine for what seems like months. We took Jake for a walk in the northern part of the Englischer Gardens, right at our back door and quieter — more forested and pastoral — than the southern section, which is familiar to tourists.

The number of people out doing the same startled us. There were literally hundreds of people — families, the elderly, joggers, cyclists, and dogs, dogs, dogs — out walking along the trails and paths. Everyone we passed had rosy cheeks from the crispness of the air, and a colourful scarf draped artfully around their necks.

The park is so big, we got lost. We crossed over the Isar river, and started following paths in the woods along the unexplored eastern shore. Our stroll turned into an afternoon marathon, and by the time we found our way back we had missed meeting our friends at the Deutsches museum.

It just never occurred to us to take a compass, or a map, or maybe taxi money for a lift back, for a casual walk in an urban park.

A good weekend. Saturday in the late afternoon I was invited to join my downstairs neighbours for "Tee und Kuchen" (tea and cake). We had a lovely chat, and I was surprised to discover that they are involved in producing books, garden books!! My determination to learn German was renewed as I flipped through the pages of gorgeous photography, wishing that I could read the words.

And communicate.

It’s a friendly apartment complex. Another of my neighbours is an elderly woman with an adorable Skye terrier, and though we can’t converse with each other beyond a smile and a "Gruss Gott", we always stop to fuss over our respective dogs in our respective languages. This morning I passed her arm-in-arm with an elderly blind man whom I often see walking along the path behind our buildings in the mornings. We stopped and greeted dogs as usual, she one-upping me with a cookie for Jake. As we parted I tentatively offered an "auf weidersehen" ("see you later"), which she quickly reciprocated. The gentleman returned it with something a little different, an "auf weiderhören", I think. Hören = to hear. Maybe I better stick to a simple Bavarian "Tchuss" from now on.

How’s the weather?

Thanks to last weekend’s cold snap, today’s temperature of 9C seems positively balmy. Most of the leaves on the trees came down after two days of hard frost — a steady drizzle that burst into a shower everywhere birds landed on branches. Today the resisters (leaves, that is) are being efficiently vacuumed into the air by a high wind.

Munich seems to get high winds fairly regularly, which was a bit disconcerting for the first couple of months. In Canada –at least in my experience — winds like this are harbringers of some major climactic event, like a violent thunderstorm or a blizzard, and at first I would unconsciously brace myself everytime it happened. However, here the wind just huffs and puffs in an "I’ll blow your house down" kind of way, and then stops. That’s not to say we don’t get some doozy storms here, but I’m assuming that those come up from the south, over the alps from Italy; there’s a definite latin temperament to the ones I’ve witnessed so far. A calm day, and suddenly some dark clouds overhead; a gale-force wind bursts into drenching horizontal rain without much warning, and just as suddenly, it’s over and the sun breaks out. All very exciting for the short while it lasts, but it leaves you wondering, "what was THAT all about?"

While we’re on the subject of weather ("hello, I’m Canadian"), I came across a blog today based out of Inuvik, in the far, far north. Martin of Eclectic Blogs bundled up in the -17C weather and took advantage of 4 hours of sunshine to take some pictures of a (as he describes it) "colourful fall day". Gorgeous. You can almost feel the vastness and silence of the place, well except maybe for the snowmobiles and bush planes buzzing around like annoying mosquitos, and the crunchy snow underfoot. Now that’s what I call weather.

It’s schnee-ing out


It’s been snowing since yesterday. Curses!! I don’t think I remember seeing snow this early even when I lived in Canada, well maybe except for Calgary, where I distinctly recall throwing snowballs during a freak snowfall on an August visit. But that’s beside the point. Albertans are apparently rednecks, who oppose the Kyoto Protocol, so they deserve that kind of treatment from Mother Nature. But here, in Munich, land of the environmental good guys!! Why???? My only consolation is that I’m getting email from friends back in Ontario who tell me they woke up to snow yesterday too.

Img_2305_1Our heat isn’t on yet. I thought this was some kind of thrifty European thing, to sit shivering in the house, wrapped in blankets and warm sweaters. I’ve been grateful for my laptop, which gets very warm on the bottom and serves double-duty as entertainment centre/electronic hot water bottle. Hydro is expensive here, and Germans are very dollar conscious, so I thought that "no heat" translated into "conservation". I mean, the lights in the hallways are on timers. There’s only one washing machine to serve the entire apartment building, and no dryer — everyone hangs clothes to dry. My tiny refridgerator is what North Americans would consider a bar fridge, the hot water in the bathroom and kitchen are on meters, the toilet — well let’s just say there isn’t enough water in it for a goldfish to swim in — and everything (I mean everything) gets recycled. There are more bikes parked outside the building at night than cars. Why would I expect the needless expenditure of nature’s resources for heat? I just assumed…

Well, I assumed wrong. My landlady was dismayed when I tentatively brought the subject up yesterday. Some guy will be here before 6:30PM today to fix the radiators.

Picture taken in the graveyard behind our place — I’m calling it, "The Death of Autumn".