I always held a fascination for Germany, more specifically Bavaria. It began with my parents’ almost yearly trips to München (Munich) when I was four or five years old. They would bring back dolls dressed in traditional clothing with shawls, hats, and sashes; a stuffed elephant (Benjamin Blümchen), who apparently held a variety of occupations as I had clothes for him to be a boy scout and a chimney sweep; chocolates that tasted like nothing the Easter bunny had ever left me; and books in a language with too many capital letters. I even had my own pair of lederhosen.
I often wondered about this far off place that my parents had to take a plane to get to, and which produced so markedly different takes on toys and clothes and chocolate. The pictures in my parents’ slide shows added to my wonder. The timber-exposed buildings, the elaborate Neuschwanstein Castle, the largeness of beer steins, the hats with feathers and pins, the merriment and splendor of Munich’s Rathaus-Glockenspiel (to my child-eyes, it was a marionette show for everyone, right in the middle of town) – this is not the stuff of adults!
As I got older, little changed my view. I found out that one of my favorite films – The Parent Trap – was based on a German children’s book by Erich Kästner. The pictures my sister brought back from her first trip with my parents looked much the same as from years before. As a special treat, we would eat knackwurst, and like the big beer steins, these were oversized hot dogs. Everything seemed bigger, and, therefore, more magical over there. When would I get to see for myself?
When I did get to Munich, it was an impromptu trip at the tail end of a week in Prague and Vienna that four friends and I took during a break while studying in the Netherlands. Two of the girls and I decided to take a few extra days and stop in Munich on our way back to Utrecht; the remaining two headed back home. I was so excited. I’d finally get to see what the rest of my family had seen. I’d get to find out if my childhood images of the place held true. If the train ride was any indication, I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Leaving Vienna we had nowhere to sit on the train. Once in Germany, we switched to a smaller train that would take us into Munich. We were happy of the late hour and the low number of travelers as seats were plentiful. My friend, Ximena, from Mexico, was teaching me and our other friend, Leslie, the words to La Bamba when we heard music coming from the next car. The sounds reminded me of the polka bands that played at a German restaurant back in Madison. We decided to investigate.
Entering the next car we discovered an Oompah band! They were on their way home from a gathering and competition. On their heads were hats with pins and feathers, and on their bodies were lederhosen. I couldn’t have pictured this happening nor could I have asked for a better greeting to Germany. They happily played for the crowd that began to gather in the car.
Munich, too, did not disappoint. I drank from the oversized beer steins, I tried on a colorful traditional dress, I ate knackwurst, and I saw the performance of the Glockenspiel. The city also had a surprise up its sleeve for me too – surfing! People were surfing in the Englischer Garten! My expectations had been reached and exceeded.
Though overstuffed with touristy sites and actions, this was a fantastic introduction to the country. I knew my childhood view was only a part of a greater, more complex culture and society. I knew that if I had the time to get out of the city center, I’d see many contrasts to my romantic image. But, such as that band on the train, I’d also see many reinforcements too.