Monday, May 23, 2011

A Foreigner Among Foreigners

In 1998, I lived in Munich, huddled within the textured white walls of a tiny efficiency apartment charitably doled out to university students by the city’s Studentenwerk. There, my small room perched several stories above a first floor inhabited, on one side, by an Italian restaurant and, on the other, a police station, whose cars blared their panic-inducing two-tone sirens by night and by day. Down the street, the BMW plant began cutting sheet metal at 7 a.m., even on Saturdays.

From my apartment, I could see the architectural magnificence of the Olydorf, the 1972 Olympic Village, where some people took great pride in their apartments. Their stepped terraces, decorated with flowerboxes and spilling over with vining plants looked beautiful from my large square window. I felt bad for the reciprocal view offered by my sad gray-green building, which was casually shedding small bits of stucco onto the sidewalk below and occasionally onto Moosacherstrasse, which thrummed with the regular movement of cars like blood through arteries.

On Sunday mornings, when I usually suffered from a hangover that robbed me of my peripheral vision, I would force myself to get out and roam the streets, which I did even at night. I had no fears there. Almost no one bothered me. And I say almost because, once, a man did. But that's another story, for another time.

I had an admirer in those days, a dark haired man who worked in the restaurant kitchen, a man who seemed to know my schedule. He would stand outside smoking a cigarette and staring at the cinderblock walls surrounding the dumpsters. He always turned as I left through the glass door, my shoe heels clicking against the broken asphalt. “Ciao, Bella! ” he’d shout loudly at me before tossing his cigarette away and going back inside to--I assumed, based on the rubber gloves in his back pocket--wash dishes.
I usually rode the subway from the Olympia Zentrum stop, where drunks stood by the Imbisse near the heavily populated bicycle lock-up and drank Apfelkorn or the horrible, enamel-dissolving Obstler from tiny bottles they lined up like soldiers on the high, chairless tables. I nodded to the few World War II veterans I had come to recognize, one of whom told me he was kept as a POW by the British. I doubted some of his story because he was forever incandescent with alcohol, pinkish eyes tearing, nose leaking, mucous running like a frightened woman towards his upper lip. If someone had ever struck a match near him, I feared he would explode in one giant conflagration. So, I moved quickly past him, having faltered near him once and having been forced, thanks to my lack of a hard heart, to listen to his story. Not that it was uninteresting, just slightly incoherent, even accusatory. He thought I was British and was quietly giving me the business about his suffering and privations.

Munich's Theatinerkirche, a sight that makes me
teary-eyed. I never thought it would take me so long
to get back.
Often, I traveled to the wide and regal Odeonsplatz, which was the city’s hub. I emerged from the dark earth somewhat recovered and near the base of the towering, ochre-colored Theatinerkirche, with its giant Baroque dome and twin clock towers. Feldherrnhalle stood before me, a massive neoclassical memorial to fallen military leaders and behind it, the shadowy Dodger’s Alley, once travelled by those who wished not to salute another Putsch-related memorial plaque Hitler riveted to the side of the monument that faced the Hofgarten.

And then, the delicious walk to Marienplatz: past the modest Residenztheater and the opulent state opera, whose interior walls were either mirrored with beveled glass or painted an icy blue and accented with silvered acanthus leaf moldings. Beyond this, the shops: furriers; tobacconists, whose scents wafted onto the street with each movement of their shop doors; music stores in whose windows sheet music fanned and gorgeous violins suspended over burgundy velvet. There were ‘antiquariats,’ where I looked for prints and carefully flipped through gently yellowing first editions of Mann’s Buddenbrooks under the disdainful gaze of the storekeeper, who knew I was an impecunious student, but understood by my accent that I was a foreigner with at least one of the currencies then enjoying a high rate of exchange. Still, I often tried to hide my foreignness, and the longer I lived there, the better I became at it, until no one knew I was not one of them--a Bavarian who spoke the same broad vowels and deep-formed consonants authentically.

This was how I spent my days when I was not at the museum, where I catalogued the Wittelsbacher collection, harvested lavender from the roof garden by climbing through the window above my desk, translating correspondence into first halting, then lilting English. I, a foreigner among foreigners, with a disparity soon entirely undetectable.

This was originally written, in slightly different form, for Dan Waber's hypertext project, "That Reminds Me". Soon, there will be more....

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