If one national group is particularly common on the Euro trail, it is Australians. But rampaging pleasantly at a near second is Canadians: our international policies are inoffensive enough, or at least pale in comparison to that of our neighbours, that few Europeans have any base qualms with us. Our reputation for caricaturish politeness and gentility precedes us and softens our presence. We are generally welcomed. And despite how common we are doing the Eurotrip thing, every meeting with a fellow Canadian seems like an astounding and cherished event. Meeting others from Toronto, the largest city in Canada, all the way in Munich? What a crazy coincidence! We should be fast friends!
As though being fast friends isn’t, itself, inherent to the process of backpacking in Europe. I could make references to Fight Club and single serve friends, but Eurofriends often involve multiple meetings. I think of them more like foxhole friends, or platonic, amicable infatuations. You meet people so quickly and so frequently that you can only get the broad strokes of their personalities, the gesture drawing of who they are, and generally you are so inebriated or pumped up on international travel that everybody seems fascinating and clever. You share an intense and highly specific time together and this bonds you like glue, though outside of that specific context you may never meet again and, indeed, probably wouldn’t readily associate with one another. Intimacy and an embarassing willingness to share, the kind it would take weeks or months to build up with home friends, flourishes almost instantaneously over the most ludicrous, obvious things. You like fancy buildings in Munich? You like beer, too? Let’s be besties.
Our roommates in the Munich hostel were three laconic Toronto siblings with charmingly hilarious names (Adrian! Ariel! Cleopatra!), and the nights we ended up spending with them generated huge, nostalgic wafts of home: we drank in a scuzzy bar with people we hadn’t met, walked around town for a while, and ended up getting kebab or falafel. But for the occasional Germanic roadsign and the looming shadow of Munich’s hauptbahnhof, it would have felt like I was stumbling around Bloor. (Another note on how I was that guy at the hostel: the second night I walked back with the roomies after Zack had already gone to sleep, and we were accompanied by a guy clearly hoping to get somewhere with one of the sisters. She did not seem particularly interested, but he had the persistence of the drunk, and eventually I cockblockishly shouted him down, declaring that he would wake both my cousin and the Korean man we had as a sixth roomie, opening the door and then slamming it in his horny face.)
The second day we began true exploration, going on a long walking-tour ballyhooed by everyone who had told me about Munich. We walked through the major facets of the city, and it became clear that Munich, at least, has no interest in talking about that unfortunate Nazi business. Despite being a major centre for Hitler during the heyday, history has been mostly whitewashed from the city. This is not to say that I expected men and women in lederhosen and toothbrush moustaches self-flagellating in the town-square, but hearing about the history and seeing such little reference to it in the city was jarring. The few outward displays, remnants of history either obscure or symbolic (a small plaque, a gold line between cobblestones), were Lilliputian to the point of purposeful occlusion, indeed unnoticeable but for a studied tourguide to explicitly point them out.
The day ended, as one would expect of any day in Munich, with beer. To put a point on it: beer is typically served there by the litre, and our tour guide sternly admonished that 20 minutes after pouring, the beer would have lost most of its flavour. Munich beers are, of course, delicious: many of them wheat based, full, hearty, and none of them tasted particularly carbonated. There are six major breweries inside of Munich itself, and the gardens and halls devoted to each abound everywhere. The beer was so good that, when Rose ordered a half-beer half-lemonade concoction, I was horrified on Bavaria’s behalf—and then I tried it, and was shocked to discover it was delicious, and not the heinous swill I assumed it would be. The Germans, especially Rose, know what they are doing.
We were finally able to seize Donny the following day, and ventured around the Olympic Park, almost kind of climbing up onto a big hill and catching a Madonna concert for free for some reason. The same night, someone from the tour the day before told us that a bar downtown was hosting karaoke, and we all headed directly there. It was the experience of that bar which caused me to egotistically coin and continuously use the word “anageonistic” to describe how out-of-place everything seemed: it was Munich’s Irish pub hosting the Karaoke night, and after a few drinks I got up to painfully sing some Meat Loaf (be thankful: it was not one of the 8 minute epics), while a German couple danced 1950’s American swing in front of me, seemingly to the strains of my Lowenbrau-soaked vocal cords.
Hoping for a more dour and German experience the next day, we decided we needed to see Dachau, because this was our Eurotrip, and damn it, we would absorb some horrifying WWII history. It is hard to describe the feeling I was overcome with there: dread approaches it, but doesn’t quite capture the searing sense of melancholy and depression about humanity and all that trite business. I walked through a few of the camp houses which had been converted to museum displays. I took in as much as I could, but when I came to a display on the poetry written by some of the prisoners, I just about lost it and had to go outside.
I am not huge on taking pictures of myself in front of things, and I’m not really sure why. The monuments and vistas I photographed on the triphave all been captured probably a bazillion times before in history, and really, the only new thing there to photograph was me in that place. But a dislike for photos of myself means that I only appear in my own photos occasionally, with friends or maybe once-a-city, as though to prove that I didn’t construct my trip out of a few hours on Google image. I have largely grown accepting of the impulse in others, as it does seem natural, but in Dachau, I became repulsed. I saw a couple wandering around, taking grinning “This is us in front of the concentration camp!” snapshots and I almost wanted to lecture them like the holier-than-thou douchebag a bachelor’s degree and a haughty sense of traveler’s pride made me feel I was entitled to become.
We met up once more and decided to try to change the tone of the day. In Munich, the English Garden is an enormous park featuring a man-made river (the lazy kind) that pierces through it. The walking tour had crossed through the beach-y part of the park, and we marked it down for future exploration. It seemed like the perfect way to distract ourselves from the terrors of human history.
For whatever reason, I could never have conceived Germany as a hot-weather country: I pictured it as eternally buried beneath the depths of a Northern European chill, one that called for sweaters and insanely huge piles of food to insulate oneself. I was terribly, terribly wrong, because Munich by mid-August is sweltering, and the Garden was already full: the clothed lined one side, the naked (and invariably elderly) sprawled along the other. I was still remarkably pale at that point for someone who had spent the past three weeks in the sun, so we took to the shade, and had turns floating down the lazy river (once, Rose and I had to shout warnings at one another to avoid the aging German genitals that decided to flop into the water just as we were barrelling down in the currents).
When one fully embraces the hostels-and-partying atmosphere, it is easy, at times, to forget that one is in a foreign country. There are enough English-speakers around that, no matter their adorable-to-hysterical accents, one feels at home. The foreignness of the environment begins to recede, especially as the Eurotrip friends become more and more abundant, and the Atlantic suddenly doesn’t seem so big. It’s just a lazy vacation in the sun: you go the beach (or the river, as the local landscape dictates), you lounge with friends, and you eat and drink in highly inadviseable amounts. We went out for lunch with another Torontonian to a Thai restaurant he had found, and made it through a German supermarket without once being confronted by an unfamiliar alphabetic symbol. But for the occasional naked European geriatric, it’s basically just like Canada (and even then)!
It is appropriate, then, that we at least went to a beer hall for our last German meal. It was drenched in stereotyped Bavariana, the tables enormous and wooden, the atmosphere darkened and thick, the smell of meat everywhere – indeed, we felt as though we were inside of a giant sausage. We passed by the kitchen and were confronted by obscene piles of meat-products, either presented whole (more Western countries divorce meat from animal, and thus we never see a head or tail or hoof and we are happier for it) or in the process of being ground down, reconstituted, and shoved into other meat for cooking and consumption.
Our waitress gave us a surly, unimpressed Tag, dumped our menus and evaporated. They were, of course, in German, and we attempted to decode their vaguely familiar but utterly indecipherable descriptions. Rose was still with us, and she began going down the menus step-by-step, detailing the food for our pitiful monoglot ears, until the waitress reappeared and produced English menus. Even with English descriptions, many of the dishes seemed untranslatable, their appeal surely requiring both German blood and citizenship.
On our walking tour, our guide vehemently reinforced that everything one conjures when considering the ur-Germany is actually Bavarian, and it was hard to argue. The buildings, the unfortunate history, the food and drink, the clothing, the at once charming lilts yet bewildering harshness of the language all seem to issue forth from Bavaria. The backpacking experience, then, is capable of insulating one to a pretty high degree: even in the depths of uberGerman Germanness, it was hard not to feel at home, surrounded by new friends capable of filtering the experience back into a familiar tongue, or still newer friends from our actual home. You have to work, sometimes, to remember that you are somewhere else in the world.