Friday, July 14, 2006

July 14th, 2006 - Arrival in Munich, Germany

Well, I made it after a pretty easy flight. It's amazing how the equally contrived Sarah Jessica Parker (by way of Matthew McConaughey) vehicle "Failure to Launch" and the Harrison Ford conspiro-myster-thriller (the title was something about “Hey You Kidnapped My Family” or “Didn't This Movie Get Made 5 Years Ago With Mel Gibson" I think) plus one of the little blue Sonatas from the many sample packs I brought along can pass the time. It was bizarre to realize that I had entered this aluminum tube in San Francisco but would walk out the door alone in Germany.

Other than a huge tour group of Jehovah's Witnesses (uh, sorry, that’s probably our bad, Germany…) the airport was easy. Customs was incredibly quick. I showed my passport for about 10 seconds, got my bag and was on my way. I followed the signs for taxis and walked right out to a tan, newer model Mercedes. Oh right, I’m in Germany. Sweet. Despite my meticulously-printed Google Map, the well-dressed, fifty-something driver in the late model Mercedes taxi didn't seem to have any idea where the marked location was. Soon, a group of 5 or 6 other drivers had gathered, none acknowledging me in the slightest. They seemed to be confused as to whether the location was in Munich or Neufinsing. This was a question I could not answer for them. I'm still not sure why a marked location that seemed to be right off the main loop road was so baffling.

Well, apparently it got even more confusing because as we headed out of the airport, the driver stopped a few times to check and recheck what I had assumed would be a very clear map to someone living in the city. Outside the airport, I didn't recognize any names on signs with the exception of a few that were close, but not exact, matches to the ones on the map. Of course, the driver seemed to systematically turn the opposite direction of these anyway.

As we wound down single lane country roads through cornfields (that for some reason took me by surprise so close to a major European international airport), the driver would occasionally mutter something in German that at first seemed to be addressed to me. Sometimes I would respond with a good natured chuckle implying “I hear ya, brother,” but I stopped doing that after "scheisse" starting being included with increasing frequency. I kept hearing something like "Dis is scheisse mos,” but in between would be comments that sounded like "oh I see," so I felt like he was working it out in his own way.

I don't know what the trick turned out to be but we eventually found Karl Maier BMW, a modern looking dealership with several nice BMW bikes parked out front including a bright red F650 GS with two hard cases and a piece of paper (I speculated with my name on it) taped to the windshield. The driver waved his hands dismissively at the meter discretely built into the rearview mirror of the Mercedes and continued to mutter in German. It seemed like he wasn't going to charge me the whole fare since we'd driven around for so long. When I heard something that sounded vaguely like "drei drei" (and after I repeated "ein, zwei, drei" in my head to work my way up through the German numbers I knew to get to “three three”) I gave him 40 Euros and told him to keep it. He seemed fine with that.

From 2006-07-13 Germany, Austria and Switzerland on a motorcycle

When I walked in the front door loaded with luggage and motorcycle gear, the amused-looking people sitting at a table by the window gave a casual look of acknowledgment and showed me to the front counter. At the counter, I met Stephanie to whom Don from Beach had told me to give his best. Everyone I told I was from San Francisco said something about having been there recently. Sometimes I forget that while we go elsewhere for vacation, our home town is an international tourist destination. Stephanie copied my passport, California license, and international license. She started to explain a few line items on the a form but then couldn't find the English words she was looking for and just pointed to blank spot for a signature, which I provided. I asked about the $1000 deposit I'd been told to bring in cash or travelers checks, but she didn't seem to know anything about it.

Traveler’s checks seem like such a (pardon the pun) foreign concept in the day of the ATM machine, but the prospect of walking into a bank in Germany and withdrawing that kind of cash was not too familiar either. In San Francisco, I had allowed myself to be sent from one Wells Fargo branch to another until I found one that could issue them. In the end, Stephanie insisted that contrary to what Beach had told me, the deposit had to do with Beach not them. So that meant I would just carry $1500 in traveler’s checks around with me. I had gotten an extra $500 to bribe cops, border guards, and possibly the KGB. Yes, apparently I did think I was taking two week trip into a Cold War spy thriller.

Stephanie and I walked back outside and right over to the red F650 GS I had seen earlier and waited for a guy to come out and give me the rundown. Despite being about a third as long as the one I got when renting the same bike in SF as a dry run, it covered the basics. He was also nice enough to get me a cable lock to use for my helmet. At that point, he shook my hand and said "Okay, bye." So there I was, direct from my overnight transatlantic flight with a backpack, duffel bag, helmet bag and leather jacket hanging off me, apparently not in Munich but in Neufinsing, standing next to a brand new BMW motorcycle wondering if everything I brought was going to fit.

Finally, with the duffel strapped across the passenger seat, a full backpack on my back, and every nook and cranny of the hard cases filled, I tentatively headed out onto the road. The bike felt fine although I was very glad I had decided to rent one for a day back in San Francisco before the trip. My confidence in Google Maps still intact, I checked the directions carefully, and while I wasn't sure which way was north or south, I figured I had a 50% chance. Within a few minutes, I wasn't seeing the expected cross streets the way I started out so I swung around and tried the other way. Then again, I didn't see them that way either. Hmmmm.

Very aware of the potential for a downward mood spiral stemming from lack of sleep, intense heat in my heavy leather jacket, and a foreign environment, I decided to just kind of go with it and systematically try the options. I started to figure out that signs on the roads showed the town you were entering on top and the town you were leaving crossed out below. Makes sense. After retracing the main road a few times, each time venturing a little farther in each direction, I finally saw signs for the town that (based on the map in which by this time I had completely lost confidence) the hotel appeared to be in.

The "town" turned out to just be a collection of buildings around a central three-way intersection. While there was a "gasthaus" or hotel, the name on the side did not match the name on the confirmation email I was sent. After trying each spoke of the central intersection a couple times, I decided to stop and ask at another hotel up the road. Responding in an obvious tone, they informed me that the hotel I was looking for was in fact the one with the different name right in the center of the junction I had been crisscrossing for the last half hour. Stupid Americans...

I was shown to a room and worked out through hand signals and broken English that I could ride the bike 3 km to the train station for a half hour trip into Munich. After a rest and some time for my shirt (which had already been drenched under my leather) to dry, I went downstairs to find that the guy who said he'd give me directions to the train station was no longer there and that the woman behind the counter spoke even less English. Whenever I'd say “train,” she'd say what I thought was "point" to which I'd say "Munchen" meaning that “Munchen” was the "point" to which I wanted to take the “train.” She finally listed a couple turns I thought I understood so I commenced repeating them over and over in my head as I headed out the back door to my bike.

But you already know how this is gonna go, right? There were no signs for the train station. I even stopped and looked it up in English-German dictionary I had hastily installed on my PDA before leaving San Francisco, but I hadn't seen any of the words for "train" on any signs. I took a chance on one turn marked with an S in a circle (heck, the train in Boston is the T) and parked at what looked like it could be a train station. I walked all around the complex but didn't find anything, I eventually asked at a hotel, and the clerk helpfully showed me the "Poing" stop on a train system map. Oh, the woman at the hotel was saying "Poing, not "point." Turns out you walk up some stairs through a break in the bushes and you're at a train platform. I was starting to wonder if everything on this trip was going to be this hard for me.

Which brings us to the ticket dispenser on the train platform; everything was in German and I didn't know any of the places on the map, much less the number of zones I planned to travel through. I bought the same ticket as the person in front of me, never mind that no one ever checked or collected it. I noticed some people sticking their tickets into a little machine on the platform that seemed to stamp them but couldn't quite figure out what was happening there. By the way, I later figured out that the machine essentially validated the ticket for a period of time. Something like a transfer that allowed the ticket to be used for connecting trains for the next couple hours or so. I also learned that the reason the tickets are not checked is that Germany imposes hefty fines for riding without a ticket. The threat of periodic, random ticket checks were enough to keep everyone playing by the rules. This seemed to be the order of things in Germany.

While standing on the platform waiting for the train, I found myself trying to look at people and determine from their appearance whether or not they spoke English. I realized it's a lot different traveling in South America, for example, where it's easier to guess who lives there and who is visiting. In Germany, I'm pretty much walking around with people sharing my same ancestry. Anyway, it's weird staring at someone and trying to determine what language the thoughts in their head are in. Oh yeah, for some strange reason I don't think I had ever heard a child speak German and it somehow struck me as odd.

So I got into the city and, after getting really turned around (I appreciate you restraining your reaction of utter surprise), found my way to what I thought was the main beer garden - oh, sorry - bier garten. Beside rows of picnic tables and some cafe style umbrellas, several people were playing bocci and enjoying beverages. I managed to order a bratwurst and a beer in an impressively large stein from a German speaking but distinctly Japanese looking guy behind the grill. Good stuff. I began to suspect I might just be living on sausages this entire trip - in equal parts because of the taste and because they were typically the only things I could identify on the menu. When I picked up my order, I was handed a little, yellow plastic coin with an embossed image of a beer stein on it. Cool, a party favor. I wouldn’t figure out until my next bier garten what this token was.

From 2006-07-13 Germany, Austria and Switzerland on a motorcycle

From 2006-07-13 Germany, Austria and Switzerland on a motorcycle

With a nicely buzzing head from my Beer Garden 101 experience, I found my way back to Marienplatz, the main plaza in the middle of town and site of the Glockenspiel. The Glockenspiel is a giant, public cuckoo clock on acid (although ludes might be more accurate since it didn’t seem to do much of anything while I was there). I was tempted to have another beer at a table in front of the clock but decided against it. Instead, I walked into a hotel just off the plaza and made a reservation for the next night. The other hotel was fine, but I felt like if I was going to be in Munich, I might as well be right in the middle of things rather than a 30 minute train ride away. Plus, if I found another beer garden, I could just stumble home instead of having to take the train and ride the bike back to the hotel.

From 2006-07-13 Germany, Austria and Switzerland on a motorcycle

From 2006-07-13 Germany, Austria and Switzerland on a motorcycle

I confirmed that I’d made the right decision as I found myself struggling to stay awake while waiting for the train, and I still had to ride the bike home from the train station in Poing. Images of a gruff German conductor waking me up at the end of the line in Stuttgart were just enough to keep me conscious despite the soothing click of the train. Something else must have kept me awake on the motorcycle ride back to the hotel although I can’t say I remember much of it. No, I didn’t get lost, smart ass.

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