My European adventure begins here.
I arrived in Munich on January 29, 2018.
I picked to start there purposefully, because of its familiarity: I know the airport, I have stepped through the train station, I am comfortable on the U, I have a spot I like to stay at and I know a few humans there. Since I’ll be away from my home base for the longest time I have ever been, I wanted to begin where I somewhat knew what to expect. The airfare sale for my beloved IAD – MUC route on United was also a key enabling factor…
It was my 7th visit to Munich in a year, but even with our already existing relationship, I felt different this time: the previous 6 visits were work-related and therefore always engulfed with the pressure that goes with performance. Nostalgically adding to some of my emotions, Munich was the place I had chosen to conclude my IBM career a few months ago.
This time, I had no agenda, no destination, no meetings. Freedom. Just listening and watching. Neither tourist nor local.
I heard a lot of English, more than I expected. Obviously, at IBM, everything I participated in happened in English; German was a distraction, perhaps even entertainment, definitely mostly background noise. Now, along the streets of the Bavarian capital, I was surprised at how much of my second language I heard spoken, ornate with beautiful accents; at how much English music I heard in the establishments I frequented (does the entire world listen to Ed Sheeran?); and at how fluently the native people I interacted with conversed in it. To my delight, I also heard some French: I admit to eavesdropping on a business meeting at a neighborhood coffee shop. Rather than getting carried away with my excitement for my upcoming time in Paris, I focused on staying plugged into the moment. Be here.
Impossible to ignore, German moved front and center on this visit. Its mesmerizing tempo, powering character and possessive inflections. I can’t emphasize enough how foreign it still is to me. And I’m actually trying: two lessons into Rosetta Stone’s Level 1, I am already completely overwhelmed. I began to wonder, could it ever feel familiar? Nonetheless, I carried on uttering my basic greetings and gratitude clichés like an imposter, often responding: “I am sorry, do you speak English?”.
Everything I saw however brought me closer to this culture than the barrier of its language. Families lounging in Bavaria Park on an unseasonably warm and sunny January day, business men and women smoking cigarettes (in what I imagined to be between meetings) along modern buildings’ side entrances, commuters scurrying to shelter on a snowy afternoon in their Canada Goose jackets, sounds of pedestrians and their darling dogs thumping the cobbled streets, the very important Riesling selection process at the grocery store and lingering dinner conversations around mostly empty eclectic plates on Taco Tuesday; all of it made it impossible to feel lost in translation. Familiarity brought comfort.
I was in Munich, preparing to get outside my comfort zone. In transition for the adventure I was about to embark on: a 4-week, 7 (maybe 8, spending against budget performance pending) European cities tour, almost all of it alone. A cultural discovery, an extension for my edges, a mission for growth. The backpacking trip I never took as a college graduate, except a real grown up version of it: my backpack is just big enough for my Macbook Air; my hostels are modern AirBnBs and downtown Hilton hotel suites and my Tumi roller suitcase weighs at least 23 kilos. Most importantly, my life is fuller as a 42 year-old than it was 20 years ago. Indeed. Be here.
At München Hauptbahnhof, the main train station this morning, it didn’t take long for me to get a taste of the cultural discomfort I came to experience. I realized how cognitively challenging it was to find my way to my train to Prague. From the four attempts at printing the ticket I pre-purchased at the automated kiosk to getting to my first class seat on the ALEX, I had to pay attention to every detail. In a crowd of calm and carefully cadenced mostly Germans, I proceeded with reluctant confidence: “Excuse me, do you speak English?”. I was in the right place, for my ride through the German and Czech country side.
So long Munich, for now. I am eager to see you again at the end of this voyage and observe its impact on us. Meanwhile, see you in Prague.