My first week in Germany was already over. Late hours spent wandering through the acres and acres of green park; workdays and commutes filled with pondering about the intricacies of the cultural differences as slight as they might be; and a weekend of exploring Munich’s churches and museums were part of my past. But the majority of my trip was still ahead of me. The second week was the real start of my research; “the boss” was back in town, and no longer would I be restricted to the keyboard and monitor as my only workstation. The start of my week was relatively uneventful. I found myself exhausted from my first week across the Atlantic, exhausted from my attempts to assimilate to German customs of dining, and chose to stay inside and watch a movie on my computer. I took advantage of one of the benefits of using AirBnB rather than a hotel: I had a full kitchen to practice my culinary skills. This dinner wasn’t too elaborate though; I bought pre-rolled spaetzle, onion, paprika, olive oil, and chicken. The onion was finely chopped and grilled to a toasty golden brown in olive oil, and the chicken was sprinkled with paprika, giving a burnt red crispy skin. It was a nice change of pace to begin my second week in Germany.
The commute to and from work was always enjoyable. I never had trouble finding a seat to crack open my book and immerse myself into the lives of Manhattan Project scientists, many who hailed from countries and cities just a short train ride away from where I was. Tuesday of my second week, I finally saw a day where the U-bahn actually could fill up. Crowds of powder blue and white crammed into the subway to get to Allianz Arena, the color-changing balloon that hosts professional club soccer teams Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 München. With beers in hand, Munich fans wearing the blue jerseys for TSV 1860 München heckled good naturedly at anyone wearing the colors of the visiting team. As I said, I had yet to experience any crowded trains, and even this night I was only a spectator as blue blurs sped by in the opposite direction. The stations were packed, and trains headed away from the city center were nearly bulging from passengers pressed against the windows and doors, but my train was just about as quiet as normal. I tucked into my book and enjoyed the ride home, half daydreaming about attending a soccer match in Europe – just another thing to add to my bucket list.
Among the top sights in Munich is where the Olympics were held in 1972, Olympiapark München. The park is well-kept; concerts are regularly held at the stadium (Kiss, Metallica, and Muse, among others, were at Rockavaria the weekend that I had arrived – too bad I hadn’t heard about the festival any earlier), the massive swimming pool is open to the public for a small fee, and the Olympic Lake is kept placid and blue with the lush green grass growing around. I was told to avoid the Olympic Park over the previous weekend unless I had tickets to Rockavaria, and so I made some time to visit on that Tuesday. Getting off the train, I found myself in front of BMW Welt (BMW World, in English), a sleek exhibition center for the German luxury automaker. The building itself twisted and curved like a racetrack. The doors were open, and so I strolled in. Sedans, all-terrain vehicles, and motorcycles were spread all along the floor, shining with a metallic sheen and emanating that renowned German engineering. A Mini was juxtaposed just across from a Rolls-Royce, both companies part of the BMW brand, but both wildly contrasting automobiles. BMW describes the place as a temple, and I suppose if you love cars that much it could be true, but I felt no spiritual connection and mostly just moseyed around, took a few photos, and went back toward the Olympiapark.
Walking across a freeway overpass, you can see most of the park ahead. The stadium and main halls were draped in giant fabric sheets pulled tight with cables to make a oversized, robust tent. The stretched roofs looked like bouncy trampolines, giving the entire complex a light and relaxing feel. The fabric was semi-transparent so that the setting sun shone through the netted roof. The Olympiaturm, once the communications tower that extended nearly 1000 feet skyward, was now just a concrete pillar with a view. The height against Munich’s short skyline was dizzying just looking at it. I strolled along the paths; many others around also enjoyed the park. Runners, walkers, picnickers, readers, sun-bathers, meditators, yogis, nappers, and photographers made use of the grounds. Rolling hills sat as the backdrop to the scenery. I climbed to the tallest peak in the park, a green mound where many others spent their Tuesday evening either just taking in the view like me or catching their breath after a brisk walk or tough run up the hill. Cigarette smoke filled the air as a few people sat back and relaxed on the hillside. Some chatted on their cell phones while overlooking the stadium and pond below. Some were paired off with the ones they loved. I closed my eyes, and it must have been the combination of the smell of smoke in the air, the empathetic feeling of companionship, and my current setting in a foreign country, but feelings of that local bar in Amsterdam where Kierstin and I spent our last New Year’s washed over me. I smiled, content with the memory and happy to be able to miss the one I love. The sun started falling behind the taut roof on the stadium, and so I didn’t take much more time above Olympiapark. I wanted to see another attraction in that area, and I was happy to walk the 3-ish miles but wanted to get there before dark.
The trail between Olympiapark and Nymphenburg Palace must have been designed with ambulating tourists in mind. It was nearly a straight path alongside cool waters with quacking ducks paddling around and marshy shrubs pleasantly green. Again, like everywhere in Munich with a pleasing view and a well-kept walking path, the trail was filled with others; tourists like me discovering new sights, families spending quality time, or tired day workers enjoying a few hours of daylight. I ended up passing through a quaint German neighborhood with beautiful family homes topped with gabled roofs, ornate iron tracery covering the windows, and walls covered in green ivy, surrounded by bushes and trees. After a longer walk than I had expected, I finally arrived at the courtyard of the palace. The time of day kept getting away from me; darkness was beginning to fall again, and I hadn’t realized that it was already almost 10:00 PM. I hadn’t had dinner yet. The long summer nights of Munich were still catching me off guard, but I was happy for the daylight to spend time after work enjoying the city. The sun was behind the horizon but still gave soft twilight. I walked toward the lavish palace. Once the summer home of Bavarian royalty, it is now a relic of the past and a tourist destination. The garden was surrounded by pavilions larger than most people’s homes. Geese and swan and ducks and even rats crawled around the front courtyard where a garden pond had been dug and carved with precise, neat geometric angles. The sky darkened, and as I wondered if there would be lights that would turn on, the courtyard and palace buildings answered my questions with a simultaneous shimmering of faint yellow lights. After seeing the front and back, not really exploring as much as I would have liked to, I decided to try to find my way back home. I stopped at a beer garden to use their wifi and figure out how to get home – and to grab a beer, of course. It was a short tram and another ride on the U-bahn, and I was back in my bed for the evening.
At work the next day, I learned about StuStaCulum. Munich in June is apparently jam-packed with festivals. StuStaCulum was a small rock festival held outside and in the student dorms. Tents and stages were put in temporarily for the five-night/four-day festival. For just about $10, access to all concerts starting Wednesday night and ending Sunday was granted. My short-term labmates told me about the concert. Thursday was a Bavarian holiday, one that apparently, no one really knew much about other than that they had the day off, which was strictly enforced. I wanted to work on Thursday and get stuff done since we would be leaving on the weekend for Hamburg to do X-ray experiments but was told that I would have to just cram all my work in on Friday. A day off in Germany; of course, this actually turned out to be okay. I met up with some guys who worked on campus and lived in the dorms. It was really great to have an experience guided by a few locals. They definitely knew what they were doing. When the lines were too long at the entrance, we bypassed a queue and found a back entry as a quicker way in. When the line for beer looked like a major time sink, we found our way to a bar in the basement of one of the dorms (and the bartenders didn’t really care if we took our drinks outside to the festival.) We grabbed our beers and found a tent were a funk rock band was playing their smooth walking bass lines, mixing in a little spoken-word lyrics to give a nearly motley but actually strangely simultaneously congruent sound. The band seemed as heterogeneous as the music; the lead singer wore his hat backwards and a polo shirt with the collar popped, a style that didn’t quite match the drummer’s adult-sized onesie. After sitting around, sipping our beers and talking about playing instruments, swapping stories of concerts played and attended, and screaming along in German for an encore, the music ended and we moved on to find more to do. The Cuba Lounge spoke to us, apparently. The one Spaniard in our group must have felt some cultural connection to his language-brethren, and we all drifted to the direction of a tent set up and hailed as “Cuba Lounge.” The smoke from cigars saturated the air, making it hazy and filling our nostrils and lungs with tobacco; the poorly ventilated tent was overcrowded with Europeans dancing to a combination of Havana beats/bongo reggae/American pop. We pushed our way through the crowd to get to the bar and spent the night sipping mojitos, letting the alcohol in our bloodstream loosen us to the rhythm of the music. We didn’t leave until well after 2 AM when the grass outside that once was crowded with university students jamming to local bands was now wet with dew and covered in trash. I left the train with a few of the guys from the lab; they happened to live in the same neighborhood as my AirBnB. We walked together in the cool morning as the sun started to light up the sky. It was nearly 5 am. Luckily, that Thursday was that mysterious Bavarian holiday. I needed the time to sleep.
When I awoke, breakfast time had passed, and the afternoon was wasting away. In Germany, I was trying to borrow from the French: “Carpe Diem.” And so I hurriedly began to seize that day. A couple of my new German friends had offered to accompany me at the biergarten in the Englischer Garten. During my many walks through the park, I saw this biergarten with more tables than any in Munich. It was hard to miss; a giant tower in the style of Chinese architecture sat right in the middle. I met up with the guys, and we entered the park. The fields on the Bavarian holiday were striking in contrast to any other day that I had been strolling through. It was a different world in the Englischer Garten. People spread out and covered nearly every surface that had sun, bathing and tanning or tossing Frisbees or picnicking with friends and family. It was a gorgeous day, warm enough to almost have to wear shorts. We couldn’t resist sweet crunchy cones topped with ice cream from the peddler on the path. The heat melted the ice cream faster than it could be lapped off of the sides of the cone. Happy voices were heard before the Chinese tower in the biergarten could be seen. A lederhosen-donning Oompah band trumpeted into brass instruments from the top of the tower. Hundreds of people crowded onto the wooden seats of the picnic-style tables; large mugs full, half-full, and empty except for last bits of foam were the main table decorations. My German friends now serving as tour guides ordered small beers, knowing that this popular tourist-attracting biergarten had some of the higher beer prices in the city, money that could be better spent elsewhere (rational, in true German fashion), but I couldn’t miss out on a glass of beer bigger than my head, a giant pork shank, and a massive salted pretzel, nearly as thick as my wrist. I couldn’t eat it all by myself; I had to share with my gracious hosts. The four of us enjoyed our drinks, sharing a meal in the evening as new acquaintances, but discussing deeper topics like old buddies – differences in lives in different places and our PhD experiences and also more mundane topics like video games and superheroes.
I ended the night at Münchner Freiheit, the lively square in my neighborhood. I could get onto WiFi there and Skype with Kierstin, and so I spent a few evenings there, sometimes catching up with my loved one far away in Santa Barbara, sometimes writing, sometimes reading, often sipping a locally brewed beer. Nearly every night, white-haired men gathered around an oversized chessboard with four-foot-tall chess pieces and bet money on games. That night, two old men played game after game together as others spectated. A little old Asian man hunched over with his hands on his hips. He wore a blue cap backwards with “Hyundai” embroidered across the top in white capital letters. Cigarette boxes stuck out of the pockets of his green pants. His competitor was an old German man wearing a white T-shirt tucked in neatly. I watched as green 5 Euro notes exchanged hands over and over through the night. This scene could have been in any courtyard in any country, and as it turns out, while the parks and rivers and ports were refreshing scenery and the old architecture made for great photos, it was human interaction that proved to be one of the most significant and memorable happenings during my trip.
The problem was nickel. The metal, nickel, is what I needed for my research project, and the group I was working with didn’t have any. Gold is a great metal, shiny, conductive, resistant to the ambient atmosphere, but it doesn’t stick well to silicon dioxide, which is where nickel comes in. Nickel sticks to silicon dioxide, then gold sticks to the nickel. But we didn’t have any nickel. It sounds common enough; in the US, a 5 cent coin is called a nickel (which has some nickel in it). Surely, there has to be nickel somewhere. The four students who were going to help me with my experiments were busy planning their own experiments, and they were helping, asking others they knew where to get some nickel on such short notice, but I was worried that their own projects would distract them a little and wanted my plans to go through without trouble. Now, at UCSB, there are multiple groups who work on projects similar to mine. There is also a cleanroom devoted to evaporating metals. So I thought that there had to be someone around who could help. I went to Google and typed in my research field (organic field-effect transistors) and the university (TUM.) Something came up. I shot an email to the author of a paper that was written at TUM where they used nickel metal in their experiments. Plan B needed to be set in place, too, though. I searched online to see if TUM had a cleanroom. It turned out that it did, and it was just a few buildings away. This was all happening Wednesday. I was warned to get this done before the holiday since no one would be around, and many would take Friday off, too, to enjoy a long weekend. I poked my head into labs and offices, searching for someone to help me. Some people had already left for the week. Some offices couldn’t give me any help at all. Finally, just barely in time, I found the person I was looking for. She was in charge of the cleanroom and had nickel, but she also told me that it was 4:00 pm, and she was going home to enjoy her holiday. She said she was already packed and ready to go, and that I would have to come back next time. Panicked, pleading, I had to find a way to have her help me. She changed her mind, just for me; there was relief. Now, one of the four who were helping me had managed to also get me some nickel while I was busy begging this kind German woman to help me out, forming my backup plan. But if he hadn’t, this woman would have saved my experiment; I would have come all the way to Germany for nothing if I had no nickel. She could have gone home, she could have made up a reason why she couldn’t give it to me, she could have refused. But she helped, and I was grateful. But this act of kindness was just the first part of this story about the helpful locals on my trip.
Another issue that I ran into was how we were going to get the metal on my samples. Simply put, at UCSB, I can evaporate two metals onto my samples at once without moving the sample around. In my temporary lab, they had a home-built metal evaporator that was cleverly crafted and got the job done but unfortunately, could only do one metal at a time. Ideally, I would like a two-metal evaporation. Recall that during my panic and searching for somewhere to find nickel, I came across another research group similar to my own and sent an email. Well, someone from that group emailed me back, and he said that he had a system that I could use to evaporate my metals. This other researcher, Vijay, was generous enough with his time to come in on Friday, even though he had no plans to work on his own research, and help me with my project. For me, it was a hectic day. I started the day in the inner city in Munich, took my normal commute to the university, prepared my samples there. I had to go back to the inner city, since part of the university (where Vijay worked) was nearer to the city center. Vijay helped me with the sample, but we had issues with aligning it correctly, and the samples did not look very good. He offered to let me come back and try again. I thought about it, wondering if I should chance the experiment with what I had or if I should do it right. That other path I could have taken, it could have worked, but I knew I couldn’t take the risk. I told him I would be back. So it was another trip back outside the city, another set of sample preparations, and another subway ride back the opposite way. I had a train to Münster to catch that evening, and I wasn’t even packed. In between subway rides to and from campus and the inner city, I sprinted to my apartment, stuffed my suitcase full, and headed back towards Vijay’s lab. I took more time than I thought and wearing jeans and a T-shirt, carrying my heavy suitcase in one hand and my samples in the other, I tore through the bustling university center, arriving outside Vijay’s lab in the early evening, exhausted and drenched in sweat. He was unfazed and unbothered by what I thought would have been a huge burden to him. Vijay and I shared lunch together during the first attempt, and we had dinner together during the second attempt. The metals evaporating was like watching water boil (of course), and this gave us a chance to share deep thoughts about philosophy of science, a few thoughts on the state of research and its transition to something that seems more like a business model, the extinction of the dilettante scientist, and the differences between pursuing a passion and having a job. At the end of it all, I had to go back to school one more time to get the rest of my samples; I had to go back from school towards the city center; and after the entire hectic day and U-bahn rides back and forth and back and forth, I ended up missing my train to Münster. I had to take the next train, which didn’t leave until 3 am. In that dark, lonely train station with nothing to do (no WiFi, and my computer had died anyway), I was happy. Vijay had displayed incredible patience, waiting for me and offering to help not just once but twice on a day when most people had taken an extra holiday. He also demonstrated the value of a human connection, how to be nice to a stranger, help them out – how to be altruistic. I sent him an email after I finished my experiments, just to say thanks. He replied that he hope that life will be long and that someday we will share lunch again. Me too.