Memorial Day weekend was coming to an end, but unlike most Americans on that three-day weekend, I was not heading to sandy beaches or to the choppy waters of boat-filled lakes to relish the sunny days and patriotic barbecues. As I drove up toward the golden bricks of Henley Gate into UCSB’s campus, I peeked over at Goleta State Beach, blanketed in umbrellas, towels, and happy beach-goers enjoying the sunny weekend. It would be a few weeks before I would see the beautiful blue Pacific again. I collected some supplies from lab – shiny squares of pure silicon, a small electric motor, and flakes of obscure polymers synthesized by my co-workers – and I headed back home to pack the rest of my things. Kierstin and I grabbed a quick lunch, squeezing a last date into a full schedule before we headed to the airport. The engines roared and the wheels below lost contact with the black asphalt underneath as air molecules zooming under the wings of the plane lifted us into the clouds. After just a short layover in San Francisco, I crammed into the wide aluminum can that would jet across an entire continent and a cold ocean to take me to Germany. I was headed to Munich on a research fellowship, hopeful to make new discoveries with international collaborators and ready to explore the Bavarian capital.
Kierstin and I had just traveled to Europe in December, and so I was feeling more confident than I would have been as a lone visitor to an unfamiliar place. “Unfamiliar” would actually be an inapt description; I knew how to buy my train ticket, had a map to direct me to my apartment, and was visiting a city that Kierstin and I had actually spent a few hours exploring during our first trip through Western Europe. Rentals from AirBnB were the roofs over my head for the next few weeks, and I was already acquainted with the subtleties of the service. But being alone, not speaking the language, and not having the crutches that technological conveniences normally provide for me (e.g., no internet access due to inactivating my cell phone) made me still feel a little uneasy about my new situation. I would soon have to get over this feeling though.
To begin, the local restaurants were frustratingly intimidating in my first few hours in Germany. People packed in tightly around small tables with romantic dim lighting. I wasn’t quite sure if I should just walk in and seat myself or if I should wait awkwardly by the door until someone helped me. I passed restaurant after restaurant, reciting in poor German how I would ask the waiter if he spoke English. Finally, as my growling stomach grew louder than my brain’s uncertain questions about social norms, I strutted into a Thai food joint and grabbed a seat at the bar. The bartender replied that he spoke a little English, and it turned out it was enough to get me a drink and my first meal in Munich. There was nothing authentically German about that first dinner, but I would have plenty of time to try the salty gravies, steamed vegetables, and thin fried meats that epitomized rural Bavarian recipes.
I spent the first few days getting acquainted with my surroundings. I found two apartment rentals near the university (according to Google) but it turned out that my university had two locations: one near the city center where I was staying and another on the outskirts of this main district. The physics department, where my professor held his chair, happened to be on the outskirts of the main city. I found this out after walking around on the first day, wandering aimlessly in and out of large lecture halls, study centers, and the library. Eventually, I found a way to access wifi and typed the address that my German hosts had provided – I was nearly 10 miles away from where I needed to be. This didn’t prove to be too much of a problem, though. Instead of a short walk, my morning commute was a nice twenty minute ride on the Munich underground, the U-bahn. The students that I worked with said my location was ideal; the Schwabing borough, where I was staying, was where I could find all of the good food and sights, which was just fine by me. My first host had his father meet me and give me the keys. Slavko was tall and tanned and greeted me with a cigarette in his mouth. He extended a calloused hand and greeted me with a deep, “Hello!”, his thick German accent unmasked. Any uneasiness about this my new temporary home and my first living arrangement was lifted by Slavko’s natural warmness. The apartment was modest, a small twin bed low to the floor undivided from the kitchen area. There was no division between living room, kitchen, and bedroom. The undersized twin bed sat low to the floor on a short metal frame. The walls were bare and just a small white lamp decorated the room. It was enough for the two short days that I would be there though.
I wandered most of the time for those first few days. Up and down the various long-named strasses, I would stumble upon small parks overgrown with green, unfamiliar to the eyes of a Californian. Painted houses with white window frames lined the streets. The university buildings blended in with the resident buildings, shops, and restaurants. A classically German church sat at the end of my street; the steps were a vantage point for the late sunset shining right down the middle of the narrow city street. Of course, I wasn’t there only to take in the sights, eat out, and drink beer. My main purpose was research, and I was eager to get started right away, to make connections, and to begin discovering. My sleep schedule was not yet acclimated to Munich time, and I awoke before 5 am with the sunlight not yet creeping in through closed shades. Around 6:30 am, I left my apartment to see how much of the city had risen from its slumber. The roads were empty except for a few garbage men collecting trash, and the sidewalks had few other pedestrians at such an early hour. Nothing was guiding me, but after walking a few blocks, the smell of fresh baked goods filled the air, and my nose became navigator. The bakery was not yet open, but the glass windows behind the counter were being filled with fruit-filled pastries and flaky croissants. Giant, soft pretzels were rising in a red hot oven. The two women running the bakery flew in and out, back and forth, carrying trays of warm breakfast goods. They opened the front door a few minutes later, and I failed miserably in trying to communicate in German, but they happily helped me in English. My first breakfast was a pastry with an impossibly long name made with a sweet yellow custard surrounded by delicious baked flaky dough washed down with a cardboard carton of rich chocolate milk. The local cafes (and the boxed chocolate milk) would be staples for my future breakfasts in Europe.
I learned to enjoy the differences between Germany and America and took time to make sense of this new land and their odd customs. Not just the most striking things, like the language, the ubiquitous use of public transportation, and the dining experience but little things, like money and paper towels, caught my attention. The Euro notes were not all the same size like the US dollar but had different sizes corresponding to their worth and different colors. In principle, wallet organization and money exchanges could be a bit easier this way. A push for sustainability means that paper towels were non-existent in most restrooms. Rather, a roll of robust reusable cloth is unrolled and rolls itself back up into its container after use. The inner workings of this device still puzzle me; I’m left wondering if the reusable cloth has a built-in cleaning mechanism or if the drippings after hand washing are shared by everyone to use it. Another difference was daily work in a university lab. In both countries, it probably varies from lab to lab, but my experience in Germany was vastly different. For example, Germany emphasizes the workday as being the standard Monday through Friday daylight hours. At my university, for safety reasons, it was not allowed to work past 9 PM unless you had another coworker working with you, a buddy system for research. Some research facilities won’t even allow that; they pay for insurance that only covers accidents during a certain time period so work is strictly forbidden on night and weekends. Another thing that was striking was the group comradery. I think I was lucky to be in a group that was so arms-wide-open, and so I don’t know if my experience represents German research very well, but to give an example, lunch was a huge event, requiring multiple large cafeteria tables to seat everyone who tagged along. Coffee breaks were plenty. A group run was scheduled twice per week for anyone who wanted to go. And Friday evenings was the time for beer with coworkers. It was fun to be so readily included in such a tight knit group.
A day in the life of a German researcher was wonderful. I didn’t have the same pressures that other graduate students in Europe might face; my own advisor was thousands of miles away without any daily expectations for me, and so I can’t say that every PhD student has the same experience that I did while I was in Germany. After waking up with the sun (every day golden rays shown through the giant bay window in my new apartment and provided a very natural alarm clock, replacing my cell phone’s alarm for the few weeks that I was in Germany), I would mosey on over to a café and grab food. A quick meal and a short shower, and I would head to the U-bahn underground to catch my subway to the university. German public transportation was probably the best that I’ve ever used in my life. No strange smells, no overcrowded trains, no sweltering heat, no complicated routes. Knowing no German, I managed to travel by bus, train, and subway without much hassle (barring the rare times that the U-bahn would turn around before reaching my stop after announcements and notifications that I didn’t understand.) The open windows on my morning U-bahn would let cool, refreshing air and bright warm sunrays into the car while I opened my heavy book and read about the history and making of the atomic bomb, a story of the Manhattan Project, which interestingly and coincidentally described settings only a few miles from where I was. This became part of my morning routine. After that first morning ride outside the city center and past the student housing community, I emerged from the underground station into a landscaped meadow with light purple flowers and tall green grass surrounding gravel paths leading from the U-bahn station to university buildings. A giant concrete egg stood stark against the landscape; I later learned it was a nuclear research reactor. Modern university buildings surrounded the other sides of the U-bahn courtyard with construction crews adding to the growing campus. After clumsy searching, I had found my workplace for the next few weeks.
The physics building at the Technische Universität München was familiar; there was nothing striking or memorable about the two-story brick structure. I found my host, Volker, a friendly, soft-spoken postdoc who was glad to help me get started on that first day just a couple of hours before lunch. We walked from office to office, trying to learn name after name and handshakes following handshakes as I was introduced in a whirlwind fashion that was guaranteed to not let me remember who everyone was. He showed me to a crowded office where students squeezed their workstations onto long tables cluttered with papers and books and electronic devices and lab equipment. PhD and Master students as well as a few undergraduates sat side-by-side in the small office, often changing places like a mad tea party, moving in and out while I was there, sometimes spilling their own work over onto my temporary workspace (or rather, I had encroached on their normal desk, and they were such polite and gracious hosts that they only set up on my desk when I was not already working.)
I met Spaniards and Italians and Greeks; there were student who hailed from as near as Munich itself and as far as China. Edo, Nitin, Franzi, Yuan, Max, Claudia, Lorenz, Christoph, Dan, Weijia, Johannes, and many more – names familiar and foreign in this internationally diverse research group. Lunch with my new coworkers was at the Mensa, which is the place to go for mediocre cafeteria food. It actually wasn’t that bad; the food was low price, and there was always an option for a hot meal. Salty meats and dark gravies were typical on the Mensa menu, and there was always fresh fruit and salad. To me, the most entertaining part of Mensa dining was my research companions. The group regularly lamented how terrible a fate it was to have to eat at the Mensa every day, which was amusing considering how easy it was to change this destiny (just by packing a lunch or finding another place to eat on campus.) When I pointed this out, they relinquished that the convenience and cost were enough to keep them coming back, but the quality and repetitive menus kept them complaining. For me, even after my short stay, I eventually was able to sympathize; by the end of the trip, cold cut deli meats on a soft French roll sounded worlds better than the seasoned beef drenched in salty gravy ladled onto my tray by apron-donning hair-netted German Mensa workers. Lunch was always long, and a coffee break always followed before returning to work. “The Boss”, as they affectionately referred to my new proxy professor, was out of town during my first week, and strangely (to me), he was in charge of safety training. Any lab work would be put on hold for those first few days. Luckily, so I wouldn’t fall behind in my research, I had brought backlogged data and spent the tail end of that week typing away, inputting numbers into spreadsheets just as I would do at home, but instead, I was in Munich.
That night, I paid my first visit to what would become my favorite spot in Munich: the Englischer Garten. The verdant fields surrounded by green leafy trees stretches along the Isar, a river running through Bavaria. It’s one of the largest urban parks in the world, eclipsing New York City’s Central Park in square miles. I spent many late evenings and mornings walking and running up and down paved trails and stomped paths, crossing stone bridges over the creeks and streams that sliced through the massive garden. And yet, I probably still did not behold the park entirely. It was an escape from the bustling city; branches from tall trees intertwined, forming a border that blocked out noises and sights from the surrounding Bavarian metropolis. Rather than the sounds of rumbling traffic and buzzing pedestrians, blackbirds with bright orange beaks, song thrushes with fat vanilla-white chests spotted brown and black, and chattering fieldfares sang in the trees above. Rather than the Italian renaissance buildings on Ludwigstrasse and the Gothic timber-framed shops and homes, sturdy and lofty oaks and deciduous maples surrounded lush fields. I stumbled upon a few small biergartens, hidden kiosks and folding chairs where I could buy and drink mugs filled with delicious cloudy German beers. After walking through the winding paths that night, I found myself in an open field with the sunset filling the blue sky with mixtures of swirling cotton candy pink and bright golden rays. The Monopteros was unavoidable, a temple modeled off of those from Ancient Greek soaking in the sun on a rolling hill. I watched the sunset over Munich from this small vantage point, and checking my time, I learned just how north I was.
In what would become a typical weeknight for me, I had spent the past few hours wandering through the park, and it was already past 10:00 PM. The high latitude of Germany continuously fooled my circadian clock; as far north as I was, the sunset would come late every night, and I would often find myself in the garden or wandering the streets of Munich or catching sights in the last bit of sunlight not having had dinner yet. It turned out to not be as much as a problem that I thought it would be, but that first night I was a little worried that I would go to bed on an empty stomach. The kitchens at the bars were open late though, and I sat myself in a dimly lit, mostly empty eatery. The waitress came and started jabbering in German, me not understanding much beyond the sparse “ich” and “die” that gave no clues as to what she was saying. I asked if she spoke English, and she pinched her fingers together and replied that she spoke a little. She brought me a menu and offered to explain (to the best of her ability) any of the options. Wanting my first taste of German cuisine but not wanting to take any huge risks, I honed in on something familiar, but something that I knew was regional: schnitzel. Years of participation in American consumerism told me that this was a representative staple of the black, red, and yellow horizontal bands. A cut of pork was beaten until thin, then dusted with flour and smothered in eggs and bread crumbs. The soppy coated meat was fried to give a delicious thin crispy coating and a well-cooked tender inside. The waitress set my plate in front of me, and chimed, “Good appetite!” At first I thought it was a comment on how late I was eating; she must have assumed that I already had dinner and that I had a good appetite for having a second, late night meal. But then I realized that the restaurant staff in Germany chime in with the French well-wishing of, “Bon appétit!” before each meal. Knowing that I spoke English, she translated this for me. I thought this was funny; of course, I told her that I spoke no German, but I, like probably most of the Western world, knew the phrase, “Bon appétit!” I appreciated her intention to accommodate me in this strange place though; it’s a reflection on the German hospitality that I experienced while I was abroad. I enjoyed my meal and my tall Bavarian beer alone while watching the soccer game on the bar TV.
That first week was filled with more of the same: Mensa lunches, late evenings strolling the garden, and soccer games on TV while eating bar food. One night I was seated next to an older gentleman who ordered soft baked pretzels with a mysterious cheesy blob specked with green and white unknowns for dipping. I asked if he spoke English, and he said modestly, like most Germans I had met, that he knew a little. He helped me order the same thing that he had, and I had an authentic Bavarian dish, Obatzda. We clinked glasses and continued watching the soccer match on the television across the bar. I finished off the night with a hot plate of apfelstrudel, piping hot cinnamon apples in a flaky crust drowned in a vanilla sauce. The next day was Friday, and for graduate students in the physics department at TUM, Fridays are for beer drinking. In a pleasant little field near the building, we sat on benches and shared drinks. I brought some California IPAs from the states, and they introduced me to another new Bavarian beer. I was told that I could spend every minute of my trip in Germany drinking Bavarian beer, trying a new one every time I finished the last, and I still would never try every beer in the small German state. Dan, one of the students who I would be working closely with the next couple of weeks, invited me to his apartment for more imbibing after our post-work gathering.
We caught the U-bahn together, but I stopped off at my place to change clothes. He wrote his address on a scrap of paper, scribbling a rough map of the area. I had actually moved apartments by now, and my new place was little farther from Dan’s. But my old place had been two blocks away, and the nights that I had spent walking around and debating what restaurant I wanted to be brave enough to enter as a solitary foreigner had familiarized me with the area. The one thing that he had forgotten though was to leave an apartment number. I can now empathize with the generations before me who never had constant contact with friends and family through smart phones. I stood in a courtyard, surrounded by three apartment buildings. My only option was to just try one. I buzzed a building, not even trying to speak German through the intercom. “Hi, does anyone named Dan live in this building?” A clumsy, almost useless phrase, but it was all I had. Luckily, the person on the other end was very helpful and told me that I probably wanted the white building behind me. There were about 30 names listed on the apartment’s intercom buzzer. Dan is from Spain, and so even though I didn’t know his last name, I figured I could eliminate all of the Müllers, Schmidts, and Köhlers. As I was scanning up and down the list, the door opened. It was Dan! He said that he had left a note, but one of his neighbors must have taken it down. He knew I should have been arriving soon and decided to check.
We climbed a few flights of stairs to the very top of the building. Dan showed me around, introduced me to his housemates and friends. They were university students, mostly, or college-aged and working, all crammed into this tiny flat. The kitchen was just as small as the tiny Santa Barbarian one that barely fits Kierstin and me, but it was shared by the 5, 6, maybe 7 or so people who lived there. Despite close quarters, one thing that could be enjoyed emphatically was the view. Leaning outside the kitchen window, you find yourself level with the roof of the building. It was an amazing sight, the city of Munich was visible left and right. Behind the curved tile shingles on the roof outside, the clouds rolled and formed white fluffy shapes like soft pillows; two grey towers dominated the view over the brown and blue and white residential buildings. We drank beers and talked about the weirdness and differences between our two different cultures. After a few drinks, Dan’s friends invited us to see a movie; an American movie, they told me, but they weren’t sure what it was. They often went to these “Sneak Previews” of new movies where they just buy a ticket and aren’t sure what they are going to see. The movie was called Big Game, and while it was meant to be serious, it was comical. To give a sense of it, Samuel L. Jackson, the very same Snakes on a Plane Samuel L. Jackson, was cast as the president of the United States, and his plane was shot down over Finland. After my few beers and skipping dinner, I wasn’t feeling up to watching the film. I skipped out and caught a cab back to my apartment.
The next day, Saturday, I spent my time sleeping in, wandering around, and, of course, taking advantage of my packaged all-inclusive fellowship (meaning free food.) Having finally adjusted to the time schedule and then overshooting it completely, I woke up close to noon. (On the previous four days, I had woken up at 5 am or earlier without any alarm clocks or anything.) Nothing too exciting happened on Saturday, but I did use Google to help find what was supposed to be one of the best burger places in Munich. Only after four days of Germany, I was already craving that American classic. Hans im Glück, which translates to Hans in Luck, is named after a German fairytale where the protagonist, Hans, works seven long years and saves enough to visit his mother. To get there, he trades his wages for a horse that doesn’t let him ride, then trades the horse for a cow that won’t produce milk, the cow for a pig that ends up being stolen goods, then quickly passes off the pig in exchange for a goose, and his goose for a grindstone, which should be useful if he learned to use it. However, he stopped to rest and the heavy grindstone fell into a deep river. He makes it home to tell his mother how happy and lucky he was to have finally gotten rid of such a great burden. The restaurant itself was set with a fairy tale theme; the menus had storybook pictures. Grey walls with a faux fence pounded into the concrete surrounded plank benches and tables. I sat outside where a white canopy protected from inclement weather and dome lights hung bright overhead. Patrons who didn’t know one another, strangers, ended up happily sharing tables on the crowded patio. I wondered if this was a natural behavior that emerges in the no hosts/seat yourself restaurant culture. For my dinner, I gladly traded my own money away for a couple of drinks and a burger topped with salty prosciutto ham, sharp and savory parmesan cheese, and fresh spring mix on a multi-grain bun.
Sunday was the end of my first week abroad. I woke up early and went on a run through the Englischer Garten. I stayed in the park when I finished, having found the Kleinhesseloher See dug into the middle of the green land. I strolled along lakeside after my short run while watching ripples from the wind sail across the placid water. Geese honked, drowning out sounds of traffic just nearby but now in another world completely. The park consistently struck me as pleasantly strange juxtaposed next to the busy city adjacent. I looked at the murky green water, wondering how deep it was and wondering if people ever dove in and went for a swim. I could see the dark shadows of boulders through the water, but as I got closer, the rocks sprouted fins and gills and darted away from my ominous shadow; I saw that these large black fish ruled the lake. Other walkers and runners passed on the trail as the cool morning ended with the warm sun climbing higher into the sky. My stomach growled, and I wandered around looking to obey its wishes. I found a very classic looking European café in a courtyard in the Schwabing district, something that I would expect to see if Germany was just like the movies. A bright pink sign bore the letters, “Münchner Freiheit”. It was the place that morning to get a good breakfast.
Giant umbrellas sat unopened on outdoor tables as Sunday guests welcomed the warm rays from the afternoon sun. In front of the café windows, small round tables sat on the grey cobbled pavement, encircled by black basket chairs with modest gray pillows; red blankets were draped over the chairs for keeping warm, but they would be unused on that pleasant afternoon. The smell of sweet pastries from inside the café filled the air, mixing in with the cigarette smoke lingering outside. There were more seats outside than inside, and the day was nice so I found a place and ordered hot chocolate and quiche. A waiter with a thick accent dressed in a white button-up with a black vest and red apron, just like the waiters in every painting of a European café, brought me my rich hot chocolate, slightly bitter but so delicious topped with cold, sweet whipped cream. He and his coworkers danced in and out of the café carrying trays of precariously stacked glasses of orange juice and beer and milkshakes; plates over plates like a tiered wedding cake filled with eggs and toast and fruit and sandwiches. This was a perfect place to watch others and listen to the mixed overlapping frequencies of banal Sunday morning conversations. The seats outside started to fill up, and an older lady with thinning, bright red hair asked in German if the seat next to me at my table was free. I gestured my hand in a welcoming wave, and she sat next to me. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she strained her eyes to read the tiny text on the menu, and she finally asked if I could help her read it. I had to apologize and spit out in broken German that I didn’t know the language that well. She found help elsewhere, and I was soon on my way to my next adventure for the day.
The Duetches Museum was next on my list. Some of my new coworkers had recommended it, and it was only a few stops on the U-bahn to the museum. As it turns out, it’s considered the world’s largest museum of science and technology, making it a perfect stop for me, wonderfully aligned with my interests. The museum was built on a small island in the Isar; the river ran green below the bridge that I crossed to the museum’s entrance. The size was overwhelming. Right passed the entrance, I entered an exhibit with boats all around and planes hanging from the ceiling. It took me at least an hour to browse and learn about merchant ships, canoes, warships, Chinese junks, fishing vessels, steam boats, the evolution of scuba gear, and just about anything maritime. An U-boat was dissected and open for exploring; the smells of a machine well-oiled filled the air. I hadn’t even covered the entire floor when I realized that I had spent so much time in one place, and there were 5 or 6 levels and only a few hours until closing. Power engines, machine tools, electricity, mining, physics, chemistry, I happily marveled at the history of human progress. The exhibits had me climbing underground to a cold, dark, and damp simulation of a mined cavern and trekking back up flights of stairs to see replicas of fundamental physics experiments and the countless winged vehicles that had once took to the sky. The information was awesome, and I was exhausted at the end, but it was fun. I am glad that I went. The museum announced its closing after a few hours, and I was a little disappointed, cramming a last few looks at the history of space travel before I found an exit. After a scenic route home, stopping at a few Churches and revisiting some sights that Kierstin and I saw during our first trip to Munich, I found my way home. Not even a week had gone by since I had arrived in Germany, and plenty of adventure had already been had. But there was still room for more in the next couple of weeks.