The Motherland

7: Germany

Without Order, There Is Chaos!

Well, after what was a perfectly fine but ever-so-slightly underwhelming stay in Milan, what I needed was a locale that was fun and light and lively. And when your itinerary allows you to pick pretty much any destination, The world, as they say, is your oyster. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be having oysters anytime soon, and I would be heading in the opposite direction of fun and light and lively.

I was heading to Dachau.

If we’re being technical, Munich was the city into which my Eurail Pass would deliver me, but the main reason for the visit, beyond it being a convenient mid-way point to either Berlin or Prague (I hadn’t quite decided yet), was to visit Germany’s first and longest serving Concentration Camp, the camp after which all others – and there were so many more than I ever realized – would be modeled.

I’d arrive in Munich late in the afternoon and would of course feel compelled to visit its sticky-floored Hofbrauhaus. A tourist spot for sure, but when the main attractions are enormous mugs of beer and a live Oompah Band, well then hand me that Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and those tall black socks, baby, because this guy’s going touring!

That was a joke.

And it was like 50 degrees. 

Hello? Ehem (tap-tap) Is this mic on?

Anyway…on the way to my 35oz Hofbrau Dark and a plate of sausage and sauerkraut, I would pass through the Marienplatz and past its main attraction, the creepy-weird Glockenspiel, which isn’t so creepy-weird until you notice its life-sized puppetry staring down from above, just waiting to come to life, as they do a couple of times each day, forever haunting the dreams of children the world over.

First (unaltered) view of the Glockenspiel upon entering Marienplatz.
Second view of the Glockenspiel. Thirty-two life-sized figures straight from the gates of hell come to life twice each day to act out one of two stories. “For the children,” they say.
“For their souls,” I say.
Making memories of the Glockenspiel puppets go away.
“NOT IN A ROW
(That’s an old Stephen Wright Store-24 bit. Still amuses me. I don’t know, blame it on the Hofbrau.)

But whether it was the weight of my next morning’s visit, the chilly grayness of the day that had now passed, the tiredness I still hadn’t quite shaken, or something else altogether, I didn’t have the same feeling I’d gotten on my initial walks through other cities and towns. There was something about the vibe in Munich I just couldn’t put my finger on, and it would extend next door to Dachau as well. In the end it would be dog walkers, of all people, who helped me figure it out.

While Ernie and Hads would vehemently disagree, dogs can, believe or not, on occasion, be a wonderful means of meeting and greeting other human beings the world over. Mangy little mutts care not for the social anxiety of some of their owners, and said owners tend to trust their furry friends’ judgment of strangers. For me, a greeting from a friendly dog has been a way of sharing a smile and hello in every country, in any language. Here, however, when one passing mutt leaned out to say hello, something odd happened. The owner tugged the leash taut, and pulled the dog away.

At first, thinking maybe its human was being protective of my interests, or possibly my lack thereof (maybe those few holdout strands of cat hair on my collar raised a red flag), I thought little of it, made my usual eye contact, and gave my usual smile and nod of hello. But, I received nothing in return. Her eyes remained straight ahead, lips tightly pursed.

If it had only happened this one time, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. After all, everyone has their own stuff going on. But this happened multiple times – three, maybe even four times, the same lean, a similar tug, and a total lack of acknowledgment.

And then it occurred to me – it wasn’t just the dog owners, it was everyone

In fact, the only people who made eye contact on the streets were the two bicyclists into whose paths I’d inadvertently strayed. Not even my mouthed apologies and “gee whiz I’m a dummy tourist” shrugs worked here, as they had in other counties (Ich bin nicht unschuldig!). Instead, I received cold and angry stares from their lifeless eyes…black eyes…like a Glockenspiel puppet’s eyes.

On the thirty-minute train to Dachau, there was not a wrapper on the floor, not a single scribbling on a wall. That was nice to see. But there was no eye contact here either, nor was there a word spoken by the dozen or so passengers in my car. It was eerily devoid of any social interaction, the only sounds being those of steel wheels on steel rails, and the automated German voice announcing our next stop. 

At intersections across Europe, pedestrian lights are in full effect. Green for walk. Red for wait. In every country so far, these had been treated more as a recommendation than a hard-and-fast rule. And for the most part, folks abided, but if no cars were coming, pedestrians continued on their way. Not so here in Munich. Groups of four, five and six would stand staring straight ahead at the light on the opposite street corner. Waiting. Even if there were no cars for as far as the eye could see, no one appeared even the least bit tempted to challenge protocol – not even the young, hoodied, rebelliously immortal youth. 

Suddenly, for some reason, the phrase “Without order, there is chaos!” popped into my head. Where it came from, I haven’t the slightest, and I still have zero frame of reference for its attribution. But once it was there, it was there for good, at each and every intersection. The fact that it also happened to be in a cartoony German accent tickled me (one must find their own amusement when traveling alone), and so I would stand on each corner, smiling dumbly at the voice in my head, waiting with all the others for the light across the cold and empty street to turn green.

When I arrived in Dachau, I decided to walk the mile-and-a-half to its Concentration Camp. I wanted to walk the streets of the town through which tens of thousands of political dissidents, homosexuals, gypsies and Jews were marched to their deaths nearly a century ago. I wanted to look for houses that might be old enough to have been here then, and to contemplate what those who lived here might have thought as they watched these people, so many of whom were clearly no threat to their nation, lives, or livelihood, and how they could have allowed it to happen.

Fathers, sons, brothers, writers, bakers, accountants, musicians, teachers, doctors, salesmen…
The original Crematorium was soon too small to manage the supply of bodies. A much larger facility was built next door to handle the increasing supply. Both buildings still stand today.

Nearby Dachau Concentration Camp is mostly industrial today, at least it was on the path of my approach. Transportation businesses, offices, an athletic complex, the latter of which I thought was actually good use for the land, turning it into something that helps build futures, rather than destroy them.

I would later discover that the Concentration Camp buildings in which young SS officers were trained to hate, torture, and commit genocide, are still in use today, housing, of all things, the Bavarian Riot Police. I found this then, as I do now, reprehensible. If these buildings were not to be included as part of the Camp memorial as it stands today, how were they not torn down to the very ground, every trace pummeled into ash and dust?

I also found it terribly strange – and equally distasteful – that just on the other side of one camp wall, along which the old prison building still stands, where the worst of the torture and abuse and murders took place, are, of all things, residential apartments, two stories tall, allowing tenants an unobstructed daily view of a memorial to a living hell, while they grill bratwurst in their back yards on Saturday afternoons, enjoy a beer, and share laughs with friends, families, and their children.

How?

I couldn’t help but wonder how the town of Dachau, how Munich, how Germany itself could have allowed this to happen? How there isn’t a strip of land with thousands of trees buffering residents from a daily, visual reminder of the atrocities committed in their literal back yards. 

And I couldn’t help but wonder who lives there?

And at what age, and how, do parents tell their children about where they live. Why thousands of tourists come to their hometown every year, every week, every day. How do they explain what their recent ancestors, perhaps even relatives, did here, right there, in their very back yard?

It is no less disconcerting that the camp has been the subject of antisemitic vandalism throughout the years. In the very recent past people broke in at night and painted hateful things on the remaining prisoner barracks, barracks where 30,000 innocent human beings were crammed into buildings meant to hold 6,000, starving, diseased, and dying. 

I won’t go further into the details of what took place here at Dachau, as this is supposed to be an attempt at a slightly amusing travel blog, and not a history lesson on genocide. And besides, you know it well enough, and if you do not, I would ask you to acquaint yourselves with what happened then, and how it is being addressed in Dachau today. It’s emotionally overwhelming, and physically and mentally draining, but it’s also important, and necessary, and the least each of us can do. 

All of that said, my trip to Munich wasn’t all doom and gloom. I did manage to get to the Hofbrauhaus, after all, and despite my insulting the Glockenspiel, it truly is an amazing site to behold, especially when you first enter the Marienplatz. It’s also possible that some litigious American tourist with schnitzel on his Aloha shirt had sued the pants off some dog owner after getting his finger nipped by a passing Schnauzer, making them all a bit wary of passersby. Maybe Oktoberfest’s cancellation had put everyone in a temporarily dour mood, or maybe it’s the everyday weight and shame of Dachau they’re forced to carry on their shoulders. And who knows about the train, maybe locals in the next car up were all rockin’ out to Falco, in full Amadeus dress, and I’d simply chosen the wrong door. And maybe there’s something to be said for a little bit of order in our chaotic world.

Maybe.

The sun had finally broken through on my final afternoon, on the walk to my room from the Munich train station. The stunning St. Paul Church was ablaze in its late setting light. I toured inside, and in addition to its gorgeous architecture, was mesmerized by the most amazing and unexpected art installation. I walked outside just in time to see and hear the 6PM bells of its tall towers chime. 

Sun setting on St. Paul Church.

I crossed the street to the Oktoberfest site. Even if the festival had taken place this year, I would have missed it. Elle-B had said that it actually takes place the last three weeks of September, ending the first weekend in October. When she told me this, I asked her to say its name out loud, verrryyy slowlyyyy, in that obnoxiously cocky way I can talk when I’m being a know-it-all. Because my god, why would a festival that is literally named after the month of October, take place in September, ammiright???!!!

I am not right.

She was.

Goddammit.

When not filled with beer tents and international drunkards, there isn’t much to see beyond a large open field used for running and recreation, as well as a moving memorial to the 1980 bombing that took place at its crowded entryway, but there was a very pretty sunset casting a colorful and peaceful glow upon the end of what had been a very long and emotionally draining day.

The Memorial at Theresienwiese, the site of September’s Oktoberfest.

I crossed from there to Das Bad Restaurant which, despite its name, was very good – wonderful in fact. My Viennese Chicken entrée came with the best potato salad I have ever had in my life. I’m not even a potato salad guy, but if I had to describe it in two words, fucking amazing are the first that come to mind. The service was great – there was even eye contact – and the only thing that was cold was my delicious Augustiner Lager.

I walked to my hotel happy and sated in the cool and crisp evening air, reminded of Fall back home. I packed my gear for a morning train to Berlin, reflecting on the day that was, and appreciating how lucky I was just to be alive and free to air my petty little grievances about imperfect little places, places that might not be so imperfect after all.

BERLIN

When I videocalled Mom from Pariser Platz, with Brandenburg Gate as my backdrop, I could swear she got a little misty-eyed, but then maybe it was just the sunlight outside the store she’d left to take my call. 

Germany is where Mom’s roots lie, and it wasn’t part of my original plan – but if I had been to Ireland, the land of Dad’s roots, the least I could do was visit Mom’s as well. 

In Berlin I would walk through the very same Gate that Napoleon – and yes, Adolf Hitler too – had passed. I’d see the stunningly imposing Reichstag building. I’d stay at The Select Hotel – Checkpoint Charlie, so I course crossed its nearby square several times, enjoying a cappuccino at Einstein’s, made famous during the Cold War as Café Adler. I’d visit the last remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, and walk the exhibit beneath, a very thorough overview of the rise and fall of the Nazi regime. I’d expectorate upon the site of the Fuhrerbunker, and visit the Jewish Holocaust Memorial as well as the memorial for persecuted and murdered homosexuals. I’d walk Tiergarten, Berlin’s Central Park, and visit its Rose Garden, still pretty and blooming even this late in the year. I’d go to the Alte National Gallery and see the Impressionists, and even works by an artist named Hans Thoma, a family name. Uncle Hans, to be more fabricationally specific. I’d take a river boat up and down the Spree, and afterwards enjoy a beer and schnitzel at The Berliner Pub, one of several truly fine meals I’d have during my visit.

What do Napoleon, Hitler and I have in common, besides our diminished height?
We all passed beneath the Brandenburg Gate.
Berlin Cathedral.
The Reichstag.
I would wear both ketchup and mustard on my pants for the rest of the day.
Tiergarten.
You’d think the guy would have smiled.
Checkpoint Charlie.
America.
I feel smorter already.
The sculptor’s name is on the tip of my tongue…
The mouth. The uneven eyes. The limbless trees. This speaks to me.
A Paris Van Gogh I’d never seen!
Boy With Apple.
The greatest omelette I’ve ever had (after my own Pierre-Vedge-Chachere, of course).
Courtesy of Coffee Point Break Fast.

Berlin, for what it’s worth, does what I think is a remarkable and beautiful job of combining neoclassical and modern architecture. The hilariously unsurprising block-and-blasé design of the US Embassy being the lone exception in a city of wondrous architecture (upon completion, the German daily newspaper Die Welt ran the headline calling it “Ugly but safe.”)

And if it’s at all possible to do a good job of memorializing a past ruling party’s genocidal crimes – not to mention the infamous solution to deal with emigrating East Berliners, labor strife challenges and more – I would say that Berlin has achieved it.

The last remnants of the Berlin Wall (above) and the Rise and Fall of the Nazi Regime (below).
Checkpoint Charlie.
The memorial to The Wall’s former path. Today, cars casually straddle both sides.
So inside this striking building…
…is this alone.
Worth a zoom-in…
Worth a read.
The Holocaust Memorial. This is in central Berlin. Around the corner from the Fuhrerbunker.
Across the street from the US embassy. A street away from the Brandenburg Gate.
Each is a different size, a different height.
It’s stark and striking and haunting and appropriate.
At the same time, kids cannot stop from playing chase and hide-and-seek with their siblings.
At first I was taken aback, and then thought, maybe that’s the lifeblood of human perseverance.
Behind me is the site of what was the entrance to The Fuhrerbunker, where Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun took their lives. The bunker was a massive complex, encompassing several blocks.
It is said his body was burned outside the entrance. I gave the site the respect it deserved.

As unfair as some might say my critique of Munich and Dachau were in my very short period of time spent there, I might caution the same about my accolades for Berlin. I’ve noted before that these views are through my own narrow, high-aperture lens, which can be fine and funny and harmless when talking of fashion and food and French connards, but I do feel the need to mention it again here, in deference to the heavier subject matter.

If my friend Sprout were reading this – but since her last words to me before leaving were “In the interest of full disclosure, I want you to know I’m not going to be reading your fucking blog” – she probably isn’t, she would tell me and you and everyone else to lighten the fuck up, and, well, she’d probably be right. But, still.

Despite the reviews of Munich and Dachau, I would still urge you to visit the Concentration Camp should you ever find yourself in the region. It’s difficult and heavy, as I’d mentioned, but I think each and every one of us needs to remember what took place there, and to whom, and to put into perspective just how lucky each and every one of us is today. And then I would urge you to continue on to Berlin, and spend a handful of days at least. Its architecture and history, its museums, restaurants, nightlife, and lively vibe are refreshing and exciting, and a reminder of how a city and its people can accept and own an unseemly past, properly honor its victims and heroes, and rise above to start anew. It’s a place I look forward to visiting again some day, and when I do, I’ll be sure to try the oysters.

Until then…

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