I’m getting a tour of Munich from Gustavo, a Chilean with seven years of living in the Bavarian capital under his belt. Gustavo is no tour guide, but you’d be forgiven for thinking he is. First, he looks the part, dressed in a warm black overcoat, a scarf wrapped around his neck, and he’s armed with a tall umbrella that could just as easily be used to corral a group of straggling tourists. Second, he knows his history.
But before we get to all of that, we get off the tram near Müllerstraße for a short jaunt over to Fugazi for breakfast. Fugazi typically operates as an Italian restaurant, but it’s all about the brunch on this cold, November Saturday morning. We both opt for the Englisch Rustik –two fried eggs, sunny side up, sausages, bacon, and baked beans mixed with roasted tomato in a soup cup.
Gustavo is an architect by trade who’s recently opted to take a break in hopes of pursuing his passion – writing. He has two projects under his fingers, a non-fiction account of personal reinvention and a science fiction novel. But rather than get bogged down in the particulars of his writing, he prefers to ask questions and hear my story of an American writing in Germany. Naturally, I’m far more interested in hearing about a Chilean in Germany.
From Chile to Atlanta
Objectively, Gustavo’s story is more interesting than mine. He remembers the days of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, but qualifies his memories by noting that he doesn’t think Allende was a saint either, he being the elected Chilean president whose downfall was orchestrated in cooperation with Nixon and Kissinger, setting off a bad taste for gringos in Latin America that still hasn’t been washed away, even as election engineering karma has come back Stateside.
“If he were president today, I’d be against him,” he says matter-of-factly later during a walk along the Isar River. “But I’d never justify the dictatorship that came afterward.”
Between Chile and Germany, there was Atlanta where Gustavo lived for some years. Here he experienced many of the things that frustrated me about living in the United States, namely the car culture run rampant and its legacy of segregation that lives on to this day across the country.
“You see the divide pretty clearly,” he says, commenting on the defacto racial segregation during his one-hour commute from the northern Atlanta suburbs. “That city was made for cars.”
He saw the divide from both perspectives. Once while walking with his then-girlfriend, a black man told him in passing, “Your girlfriend’s ass is way too white to be here.” Confused by the sudden interjection, Gustavo started to turn to ask what the man just said to him while his girlfriend, knowing a conversation probably wouldn’t end well, pulled him away.
Another time, a woman tried painfully to categorize Gustavo’s ethnicity. It would be a difficult task, considering his mixed ancestry with dashes of German and Liverpool-English.
“I’m no different than people in the U.S. My ancestors saw the Americas as a wide-open space of opportunity,” he says about his background.
When he says he has a great-grandparent from Liverpool, I can see the resemblance in his face contrasted by his medium-length black hair pulled back into a short ponytail and thin beard (no mustache) that I would more closely associate with Latin America. If there were ever to be a Chilean-Beatles cover band, Gustavo could be John.
These specifics aside, the Atlanta woman couldn’t believe that Gustavo is Latin-American.
“You don’t look Mexican,” she said.
Munich: The Biggest Town In Germany
Ultimately Gustavo has nice things to say about both his hometown of Santiago and Atlanta, but he’s clearly in his element living in Munich. I can see why. On the first impression, Munich feels more manageable to other large, German cities. I note to Gustavo that while far from ghostly, the streets aren’t overwhelming. I think of exiting the Cologne main station where thousands of people are ushered out onto the Domplatz. Mobs of travelers and commuters are forced to instantly mix with substantial tourist crowds.
“Munich is the biggest town in Germany, we say.” It’s this town-like atmosphere that makes Munich feel more livable, a point that was made to me the previous night by an English writer named Rachel with 10 years of experience in the city.
“The city is great and we have the mountains just a short train ride away,” she said, cementing her point in my mind.
Though if Munich is a town, the rest of Bavaria must be villages with a very different worldview. Gustavo confirms this, sharing an experience with his girlfriend at the time while visiting her grandfather.
“He’s the most adorable old man and was great, but you could see the old mentality.”
One morning the grandfather was reading the paper and starts to lament the influx of immigrants and refugees into the country. He crumbles and throws the paper to the side.
“This would have never happened with Adolph!” he grumbled.
“I was just like, ‘whoa,’” Gustavo recalls. “So you see that mentality is still around with some in the older generation, unfortunately.”
Bombs and How to Approach Life
“Ah, I love that this is my city,” Gustavo says with a pleasant sigh as we work our way to Marienplatz where stalls for the forthcoming Christmas market season have taken over.
This is where we’re meeting Christie, a British transplant of nearly eight years to Wiesbaden in western Germany. Christie writes about German cuisine and is quite possibly my favorite kind of Brit – dry humor, apologetic to a fault by her own admission, and a humorously bleak outlook on life. It’s worth spending a moment to offer a couple of examples.
Gustavo had noted some areas that had been particularly destroyed by American and British bombers in World War II. As we pass another sight on our way to the Englischer Garten to watch the legendary Munich surfers, I recall a bit of trivia I learned a month prior while filming an episode of The Germany Travel Show. There’s a Nazi-built structure with grand Romanesque columns, a hint to Hitler’s hope to replicate the Roman empire, that escaped destruction because they covered the roof with grass. So when bombers flew over, the thought they were about to bomb a harmless meadow and focused their attack elsewhere.
“That’s actually quite clever,” Christie notes. Gustavo then reminds us that while this one building escaped damage, the rest of the city was surely flattened.
“Sorry about that,” says Christie, clearly reverting to a British instinct to apologize for anything that wasn’t directly her fault. Gustavo and I reassure her, “It’s okay. Remember, there were Nazis here.” After which she agrees and we continue onward to watch locals dressed in wet suits that make them look like human condoms spend their Sunday afternoon skating over river rapids. They do so for about 10 seconds until they fall in willingly or by choice to give the next human condom in line their shot at 10 seconds of glory in front of onlookers snapping photos with their cameras and mobiles.
Another moment that springs to mind is during the end of our walk as we discuss the various expectations put upon us by the modern world once one gets married – namely, have kids and stop traveling so damn much. This led to a bit of bleak but brutally honest wisdom from Christie.
“Approach life with low expectations and prepare to still be disappointed.”
Gustavo and I both break out in laughter as Christie continues her calm march forward.
“That is the most British thing I have ever heard. I love it!” he winces between stomach pains brought on by an uproarious laugh.
I agree. It reminds me of a conversation I had in Japan where I learned that whereas American children are taught they can be anything they can dream of (PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER! ASTRONAUT! COWBOY!), thus setting absurdly high expectations, Japanese children are taught to keep the bar at a more realistic height.
Who’s to say who’s right, but all I know is that I, in the end, was not drafted in the first round of the MLB, NBA, and NFL drafts by the Cleveland Indians, Cavaliers, and Browns.
Beer, Meat, and Music at the Original Höfbräuhaus
We part ways with Christie who has a train to catch back to Wiesbaden. Gustavo and I make one last stop – the original Höfbräuhaus. Normally this is something I’d wave off, not wanting to fight crowds who came to Munich with this at the top of their itinerary. But I decide that a cold Sunday afternoon in November is probably the best time to go to avoid the crowds, so I agree.
I’m instantly satisfied with my decision as soon as we walk in. It’s crowded, of course, but manageable. Gustavo points out where the tourists sit versus the locals. Tourists are in the front and locals go in the back where they have their mugs waiting to be filled up. The mugs are sitting in a cage lined up in perfect rows and columns, like a P.O. Box for beer.
Finally, mail is interesting again.
We easily find a pair of seats at one of the communal tables best known by way of Oktoberfest at the Musikanten Tisch seating area. That is, the best seats to hear the live band dressed in Lederhosen who starts up just as we take our seats.
Would I blast Bavarian music on my Bose stereo at home? Probably not. But few musical genres match environments like Bavarian music matches the German beer hall. I’m thrilled to be here despite my initial reservations about spending time at a place infamous for being one of the sites where Hitler had his early Nazi meetings and plotted his takeover of German democracy.
On that note, Gustavo points to the ceiling where the checkered blue and white Bavarian flags have been painted in a stylized fashion. The formation looks oddly familiar to me. I start to wonder if…
“Recognize that?” Gustavo asks with a grin. “They painted those flags over old swastikas.”
Ah, yes. That.
Thankfully the second floor where Hitler held his meetings is not accessible to tourists with the reasonable concern that it might be turned into some sort of pilgrimage site for the world’s worst characters.
Munich is Home
In the end, my tour of Munich ends up being less about the city and more about the people. Yes, I had enjoyed my time in Munich immensely. It has everything I ever look for in a city – walkable, interesting history, stories, and good food which I experienced not only at Fugazi, but also at Café Joon, Zitronengras Asia-Bistro, Burrito Company, and Mr. Pancakes where I had a reasonable portion of blueberry pancakes to set me off from Munich.
But it’s Gustavo and the fact that a positively, incredibly upbeat person like him is proud to call Munich home that makes me enjoy the city to an exceptional degree. Surely Munich is special if a man like Gustavo can forge such a deep connection despite being from the other side of the world.