Bring on the Mess

There’s fresh snow in Munich. At least three or four inches of it. The airport is a bit too quiet, in a way that fits the snow. I stumble forward in that tourist hesitation, the kind where I pause too long trying to figure out where to go, and then do a stuttering, half-tripping double-take as my gullible periphery mistakes German signs for clear, enlightening English. I’m surprised and intimidated by all the German printed and spoken around me, actually — intimidated in a way I’m not by Thai, Hindi or Nepali.

Still, I find my way out of the terminal, a new, pale stamp in my passport. 7:00 AM with twelve hours before my flight to Delhi. I speak to the woman at the information counter, change money with the British sounding girl at the bank booth, and buy a train day-pass from the train ticket lady. All three coo away my penny-pinching worries with their English, and I spend. All three tell me to bundle up against the cold, but I think they underestimate me. Floridians make all Americans look bad.

When I work up the nerve, the train ride is quite pleasant. All the colors here are grayer than I’m used to — especially the grays. It takes me a couple minutes to realize there is no chrome on the train or anywhere. Metal surfaces are dull and watery. Against the gray of buildings and power lines, and the super-gray of the empty sky, only two things pop: the snow, brighter than new paper, and the graffiti, which is richly colored and happily rebellious. There is a lot of it too, the graffiti — more than in New York, I think, along every fence and under every overpass.

A few seats down a group of men are joking loudly in American accents, and I flinch. I want to go and talk to them, find camaraderie against the offness of this place, but they repel me. They are too much, too noisy and American, too against the silent or delicately murmuring grain of the other passengers. Are they setting a bad example? Representing me poorly in the eyes of the natives, who are surely cutting against us with the swoops and shushes of their conversation? Or maybe I judge them more harshly than anyone else. I’ve experienced this aversion/attraction to fellow travelers before, but it feels unique here, surrounded by only white folks. In India I know that anyone with features like mine is usually either more lost than I am, or happy to help me find my way. But here everyone looks more or less like me (though their faces a little more square, and their smiles held differently). What makes me an alien is my ignorance, not my looks.

I keep expecting someone to come through  to check tickets, but no one does. Either authorities here are too trusting or I am, having spent 10 euros on a day-pass that perhaps I could have scammed by without.

The city center is clean, calm bustling, and too modern. But above, statues genuinely old stare down, or perhaps gaze. The building is gorgeous and castle-like, but to what end? A tourism agent directs me across the street to allegedly the largest bookstore in Munich, which I smugly find is small by B&N standards. I’ve been fantasizing about finding some grim, suede-bound journal in some musky-wooded, out of the way shop, but the crisp glass storefronts put this vision away. So I find a rack of Moleskins, so familiar, and but one to write this in. As I browse past unreadable shelves towards the exit, a store worker approaches and speaks to me. My confusion must have show, and instantly her face flashes with some understanding, and she walks off.

Then it is just wandering, timidly at first. I take out my camera and snap a few. But it isn’t worth it. Nothing exotic here, and good street pictures are next to impossible in the winter anyways. So I put it away and walk, swagger slowly returning. I start making eye contact again, and a cute girl smiles at me. After uncounted turns I finally settle down at a very American café, Sip & Dip. I point at a bagel sandwich, my voice still gone, and the barista answers me with perfect, unaccented English. So here I sit, listening to American soft rock, a canvas photo-print of the Flatiron Building hanging on the wall by my head. Two elderly women chatter and across the table from me and wolf down something too-cheesy smelling. Jet-lag and lack of sleep creep up on me as yawns and twinges of nausea. Still hours and hours before my flight out of here.

Honestly this place bores me. I judge too quick, I know. The city center is not the city, the city is not the country, and the country is not the continent. But there is no escaping it. It’s nice, it is. I see the appeal. Great for living, I’m sure, but what good is it for traveling? Why bother? Every minute I’m feeling better about my choice of destination. I want somewhere weird and bright and loud and fractal and fractured and built more carelessly and with more intuition than sense. I always sneered a bit at my peers who spent their semester abroad in Europe, and now I have an image to support my instinct. So forget Munich and bring on Gangtok. Bring on the mess.

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2 responses to “Bring on the Mess

  1. Hi Andrew. Your dad sent me the link to your blog. Just want to say, I usually have the same reaction you did to those loud Americans. I’ve been living in England 7 yeasr now, and I still cringe when I see or hear Americans in their loud-mouthed arrogance and thoughtlessness on otherwise quiet trains and buses. And in restaurants… the noisiest table is always a bunch of American tourists. Even in London they stick out a mile. I look forward to reading about your travels. Mona

  2. yes, I remember returning to Geneva after being in Italy, and all was so quiet and orderly and gray. As usual I love your writing and can really feel your emotions. momoxox

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