München with a Blonde: Part II

Day 4: On day four I woke up around 6 am, after only falling asleep a few hours earlier. I did not feel well (sick to my stomach, exhausted and super clammy).  I was running on less sleep than normal (many people have told me “you hate sleep” as I only need about 3-4 hours and I get irritated when I’m with other people and they sleep for hours on end, when we could be doing fun things instead) and had to be dressed and ready at Hauptbahnhof at 8:45 for a tour of Dachau. To say I was miserable doesn’t do justice to how I felt. I was sleepy. I was jet-lagged. I was hung-over. I was NOT hungry. It was bad. I took two Excedrin (with caffeine), drank half a bottle of Evian and got ready for the adventure I was most interested in learning about on this trip.

I arrived at the train station 20 minutes early for my tour, and they recommended I grab food and a drink, as it is a long day outside and full of walking. GREAT. I did my best Texas mosey over to Yorma, which from what I gathered is sort of like a convenience store, but with better food and made to order sandwiches (for Houstonians it was like a non-organic and highly efficient version of Nature’s Market). I ordered a large cappuccino, a croissant and some sort of schnitzel. I chugged the coffee, took one bite of the wiener and croissant, and shoved the rest into a pocket of my backpack.  I couldn’t stomach any food (some of this was stress related, as my appetite has been next to nothing the past two weeks [I lost exactly 9.4 lbs over the course of the trip]), which was unfortunate, as I really love the heavy and meaty Bavarian food culture.

James (my tour guide from the first day in Munich) had told me the best tour guide in the city for Dachau was with Radius (who I had already booked through), and that if I had an option, go with a man named Steve.  As I walked up to the introduction of the tour at the train station, the man said in his British accent, “I’m Steve, and I’ll be your guide today.”  SCORE. We boarded the train, and because it was mostly full I ended up having to sit backwards. This was bad for two reasons- the first is as I previously stated, I felt like I had been punched in the gut, and secondly sitting backwards makes me motion sick. I asked the lady across from me to switch, but she didn’t speak English and the train was packed like sardines.  Steve said it was only a 30-minute ride, so I figured I’d sleep and be fine.  This was not the case. By the time we arrived at the concentration camp, I felt like I did  going through customs in Amsterdam the day before- sweat, shaky and feeble. I have always loved WWII history, and have read numerous books on the Nazi regime and concentration camps, so I was fascinated to finally see one in person, I just hadn’t anticipated doing so while not being on my best game.

Dachau

The wonderful thing about our guide Steve was that he was very factual.  I overheard many guides sensationalizing what happened at this memorial site, which I found to be disturbing and wrong. He gave us facts. He told us what happened and how people survived. If you go to Dachau, make sure you go through Radius Tours and that Steve is your guide- he has given more English language tours of Dachau than any other person on earth (he also does 3rd Reich tours, but he was booked, so I couldn’t go).

If you aren’t familiar with Dachau, it’s the only work camp in Germany that has gas chambers (because this camp and most other work camps were used primarily for economic purposes- to fund the 1000 Year Reich).  It is also the ONLY concentration camp that was open for the entire 12 years until liberation day (many shut down early and many started later in the regime). ONLY ONE PRISONER SURVIVED ALL 12 YEARS. I couldn’t help but crying when he told us that. The temperature this morning was about 30 degrees.  I wasn’t cold (in 2 layers and a fur coat), but it definitely was not warm. When you think of the people being forced to stand in the great expanse of a yard, with little clothing on, you truly wonder how anyone survived at all. The first thing you notice when you walk through the gate of the camp (where the info center/café/bookstore is located was the former site of the SS’s gym and training facility and was just built 2 years ago- the architecture was beautiful, but I personally found it emotionally difficult to take photographs of anything) is the giant yard. It was exactly what you think a concentration camp yard would look like.  It was snowing and bleak. Immediately as I walked through the gate, my heart broke for the people who lost their lives at this horrible place, but also for those young people that were manipulated at a very young age to think that people different from themselves should be put to work as salves and then killed when no longer useful. It was a great reminder to be kind to everyone, as you don’t know what station they are at in their life.

We made our way through the camp just as a prisoner would have, and I learned something interesting- most would assume that the SS would be checking people in, giving them their numbers, shaving their heads, etc., but it was actually the prisoners that did almost all of this. The SS wanted to be as far away from the people that they hated and saw as imperfect. The people forcing others to work and giving punishment? Other prisoners. The way Steve described it was perfect- it was sort of like a game, and if you knew how to beat the game you won the ultimate prize, your life. For example if you worked in the marshes (on the far side of the camp), you were a dead man/woman. One month max.  If you had a skill, for example, if you worked checking parts in the factory that made guns, and an SS found out you knew how to carve a toy train, they would give you an extra bread ration to carve them a toy for their child.  If you did a good job, other SS would do the same.  Bread rations meant life.  Steve also pointed out that the “bread” was about half sawdust and half bread, and was small enough to fit in your pocket.  The photographs of bodies (and even some of the living) they found on liberation day were without a doubt the most disturbing things I have ever seen. Again it was truly amazing  that anyone survived at all being completely malnourished.

I had many questions about liberation, because I honestly haven’t done much reading about that portion of history. Something that broke my heart to pieces was when the Americans came to liberate those at Dachau, there were men and women so happy to have someone save them, that they knowingly ran straight into the electric fence and killed themselves. Many of the troops that came became violently ill from the piles of emaciated bodies piled up because they eventually ran out of coal to cremate the corpses, without a doubt it was the most upsetting photography I have ever seen.  There were also accounts of people that for the rest of their life would carry around a piece of bread in their pocket so they would never go hungry, or would wear two pair of underwear just in case they were taken from their homes again.  It was tragic that the camp not only took peoples lives, but it also took the humanity and happiness of so many that survived its horrific walls.

Next we saw where their bunkhouses were located. All have been taken down and two have been replicated- you’ll be able to see that in my photo below. These bunkhouses were made to hold between 200-300 people.  By the end of the camp over 2,000 people were living in each bunkhouse, many being forced to sleep standing for months on end. There were certain bunkhouses that were better to be in, if you were on the near side of the gate, it was said you had a better chance of survival.  On the far side was where the infirmary was, which eventually turned into 4 bunkhouses, as people were contracting diseases at disturbingly rapid rates. The entire situation was and is gut wrenching.

One thing that I loved about Dachau was the memorials that different religious organizations and countries have donated through the years.  There was one from the Polish, Russians, Christians, Catholics, and of course the Jewish community. Each was beautiful in a unique way and showed a different side to the life that was lost.

We ended the tour with the most difficult part of the camp- the crematorium and gas chambers. Steve explained that they never “forced” people to go into the gas chambers.  They wanted the prisoners to be calm, so they would ask questions like, “Who is a carpenter?” or “Who knows how to read?” asking for people who had those skills to come forward because they had a job for them (at this point the camp was filling up and they started to randomly kill people). Then they would make them strip down to go take a shower for their new job- the sign above the gas chamber actually said “showers” (in German of course).  And then they were killed. They calmly walked people to their death. Atrocious. I quickly walked through the gas chamber and crematorium because many of the people there had absolutely no respect for the memorial site.  There were grown adults taking pictures in the gas chambers pretending to be getting gassed. There were families taking smiling photos together. I found it rude, ill mannered and distracting. One college student in our group was with his parents and said (as his overly expensive Nikon he kept clicking was set on automatic [my SD card kept malfunctioning the entire trip-ughhh serves me right for being such a snob]), “I feel so weird taking all these funny photos where all these people died, but it’s just to good not to.” I almost socked him in the face (instead I walked out and spent some time in the church praying).

After I had some quiet time with the Lord reflecting everything I had just had the opportunity to see, I headed over to the information center.  The bookstore there is incredible, it had every kind of book you could ever imagine, in every language about concentration camps, Hitler, the Holocaust, and the liberation. In all honesty, the only thing I purchased on the entire trip for myself besides a Mas and a bag Haribo gummy bears, were 4 books from the bookstore.

The next tidbit I’m going to share is going to sound strange, but it’s 100% true. I was physically sick at Dachau. I had to sit down on the tour at one point and put my head between my legs because I thought I was going to barf. I was spent, and was concentrating and trying to learn more here than any other place I had been or was going. After the almost half day tour, I had to get something to eat. I went into the café (and here’s the weird part), where I had the best sandwich of my entire life. IT WAS SO GOOD I ALMOST CRIED. It was a tomat-mozzerella with some sort of green mayo pesto saucy goodness, on ciabatta bread. I wasn’t even hungry, but I ate the entire thing (it was truly as big as my face).  It was so enjoyable, that before I left I bought another to eat later on my trip. My favorite vegetarian sandwich was at the concentration camp. GREAT.

We left Dachau (it was snowing the entire time we were there) on the train around 3, and I had made plans the night before to meet James and Susan to go to the last open Christmas market. They met me at Hauptbahnhof and we walked over to a place called Tollwood (not sure of the spelling- but that’s how it sounded) where there were people everywhere with gleuvine, which is a hot wine and really warms you up when you’re cold and food carts and selling all sorts of crafts and Christmas-y things. I’m not one who likes knick-knacks, so I didn’t purchase anything but a large mug of gleuvine, but enjoyed watching everyone on the last day of the market (they have these all over the city in December, but most shut down after Christmas). By this time it was 4 pm and I was dog-tired so I cut across the Oktoberfest grounds, which were a 1-2 minute walk from my hotel, and went home to take a nap before going out to have dinner with the group from the night before.

Feeling slightly more refreshed after a 30-minute nap, I freshened up quickly (thanks Sweet Spot) and headed to a restaurant called Marmaris.  There is a HUGE Turkish immigration to Munich and there are Turkish restaurants everywhere. I happened to love Turkish food (one of my buyers owns a great Turkish restaurant in the Village called Istanbul, which has incredible hummus), so I was excited to nom-nom on the good stuff. I ordered two dishes; the first is Lamachun, which is a Turkish pizza.  It’s a flatbread with a little lemon and parsley on top. Simple and delectable.  My second dish was the Doner Kabab (translates to something like a dinner kabob), and it was also spectacular.  The rice they served with it was so good I wanted get more take with me, but unfortunately had no where to store it. Marmaris did not disappoint.  I also had half a beer with dinner, but was just so worn out emotionally, spiritually and physically that I called it an early night and went home after dinner around 9:30 or so. I wrote until about 1 when I finally was able to drift off to sleep.

Day 5: New Years Eve. Stupidly, I didn’t make plans with James and his friends the night before, and at that point I didn’t know his last name, have a phone number, email, or where he lived, so I had no way to contact him to see if I could join in his New Years plans. I figured I’d just stay at the hotel that evening and maybe walk down to the bar to have a glass of champagne so I could at least wear my sparkly Alice + Olivia dress I purchased just for the occasion.

I woke up around 6:30 and since I had no plans for the day (all tour groups were closed, and the city was literally shut down by about 5 o’clock); I headed out to Marienplatz to check out everything I hadn’t had time for on the first day. Marienplatz is like a large outdoor mall, think Louis Vuitton, Burberry, H&M, Zara, Apple, Swarovski and souvenir shops, but it also has an ice-skating rink and a huge outdoor market. I grabbed a crepe with raspberry jam and a mug of gleuvine since it was snowing.  As I ate my crepe, I had the idea to go ice-skating. I don’t particularly love ice-skating, nor am I particularly good, and ice-skating alone sounds really miserable, but something came over me and I did it.  Maybe I was hoping for a moment out of “Serendipity”, who knows.  I paid for my skates and after the challenge of figuring out what size ice-skate I wear in European sizes (heck I wouldn’t know what size ice-skate to get in America), I hopped on the ice. It was surprisingly fun, and they have these neat little things (I didn’t use one), that look like a bear on skis, so it won’t let you fall.  I’d never seen anything like it and was pretty fantastic.  There was a group of some really handsome men maybe in their early 40’s (my favorite demographic) skating together, so I skated with them for a bit, and then hopped off to check out some churches.

I made it a habit that if I wasn’t rushed for time, to walk into every single church I saw.  Some were spectacular from the outside, and simple inside, and vice-versa. One of my favorites was Autres de St. Peters, which means “The other St. Peters” (the original could be seen a block away from my hotel window). There was a mass going on in German, and I sat on the back row for a bit and listened to the mass. I have no idea what they were saying, but the acoustics were beautiful.

Right around the corner from Marienplatz, is one of my favorite places of the trip. Hofbrauhaus. As un-ladylike as it sounds, I love beer. Now, I am a bit of a beer snob, and won’t drink anything that isn’t craft or imported, so going to the BEST bierhaus in the world was high on my list (and although touristy, would come in second to Dachau on my MUST DO LIST). I walked up right as they were opening, which was perfect because the flurries had turned into full on snow.  I walked up the stairs, and into a giant room.  I described it to my mom as a room in a beautiful hall filled with table after table of strangers. It was awesome.  The first place I sat was a table alone along the wall, and tables were filling up very quickly, but no one sat by me. I felt like Forest Gump on the school bus, no one wanted to sit by me, heck no one even gave me second look. Then I saw this HUGE group of very attractive men walk into the room (are you catching on to a theme here?), so I waltzed my sweet self over and asked in my sweetest southern drawl, “Hey y’all, can I sit here?” I think about 4 of them jizzed their pants and the rest nodded as they drooled over the blonde, and moments later I figured out why.  They were ALL Italian on holiday from Verona. I looked like a bus had hit me, but something about me (probably my golden locks) makes Italian men go bananas (I’m not being conceited here, it’s just what happens). I’ve been on dates with two different Italians in America, and when I was in Italy years ago I had the problem of guys following me for blocks (which was scary then because I was only 16 years old). I can’t explain it; they just love me.

A few of the Italians.

As I sat in the middle of this table, everyone was vying for my attention, and all I wanted was a bier. I ordered my first bier and I ask the waitress (it took 45 minutes for her to get to our table, that’s how many people are in this place) for a menu in English.  She tells me they don’t have any (2 days later I found out they do). I have no earthly idea what the heck anything says, but I see a picture of a pretzel.  I point to that, randomly pick something from the menu, and order the Hofbrau Dunkel bier, in the liter size (as is pretty standard). I start chatting with the boys from Verona and we talk about everything under the sun. There were about 16 of them, and most spoke some English and 3 were studying it in school so they wanted to practice (this was also pretty common). A very cute one sitting next to me named Giacamo started to ask me about Texas.  He didn’t know where it was. GASP. So I drew him a map and gave him a geography lesson about America.  Then he told me the best places to go in Italy and the best things about Verona. We exchanged emails and he sent me info so I could meet them at the discotheque that night to celebrate the New Year with them. Then everyone ordered another beer, and to be perfectly honest, I can’t remember a whole heck of a lot, except that at one point the entire table stood up and sang some Italian song while cincin-ing (cheers-ing), and then the Germans in the room stood up and started singing some German song and prost-ing (cheers-ing). The neat thing was that with hundreds and hundreds of people in the room, there are no fights at Hofbrauhaus.  As I left, I asked a man that worked there if he saw many drunken brawls, and he said he hadn’t seen one in the 12 years he’s worked there. That’s impressive. The food they brought me was a giant potato (kind of like a potato dumpling) and this weird hunk of pink meat that looked like a hip or something, I couldn’t even tell you what kind of animal it came from.  However, it was good, and helped soak up the 2 liters of beer I had just consumed in a very short time (somehow I managed to get some cool photos with my Nikon, which is impressive because I was drizzity-drunk [the happy and calm kind] by the time I left.

Empty bier.

As I left Hofbrauhaus, I turned to get some coffee from the Starbucks directly across the street when I hear someone call out my name. “That’s funny, someone in Germany is named Avery as well”, I thought and kept walking.  Then I heard my name again, but much louder.  I turned around, and it was James, my guide from day 1. ABSOLUTELY AMAZING that in a city of nearly 2 million people, I ran into one of the 8 people I barely knew. We walked over to Starbucks, where we both got coffee and he invited me to have dinner at his American friends house and then go to a New Years party later. I WAS ELATED. I wouldn’t have to deal with Italian men proposing to me all night, and I had SAFE plans. Further proof that everything always works itself out.  He told me to meet him at Hauptbahnhof in front of the big Starbucks there at 7. It was 4:15 so that was perfect.  Gave me time to shower, take a nap, and sober up. I scurried to the hotel, slept for about 15-20 minutes, hopped in the shower and got ready.

This is where my story takes a not so fun turn.

After I had gotten ready, I threw on my running pants and my North Face and threw 15-20 euros in my jacket pocket to walk three or four blocks to grab some coffee, so I wouldn’t be a total zombie (it was like 8 euros for a cup in my hotel- ridiculous). It had just gotten dark, but Munich is an incredibly safe city (I only once felt scared or threatened by anyone, and walking alone at night is common and considered very safe) so I wasn’t worried. I walked about 2 blocks when a man stepped off a stoop and grabbed my arm and started speaking very loudly to me in German. “SPRECHEN SIE ENGLISH! SPRECHEN SIE ENGLISH!”, I yelled back at him. He reached for my wrist so I threw my watch off at him. He grabbed my hand so I tossed my ring, the entire time he’s just yelling all these German words I don’t understand. He wouldn’t let go of my arm, so I reached in my pocket, gave him all my Euros and yelled “HILFE! HILFE! HILFE!” (It was one of the words on the game that I learned and thankfully retained on my flight) and as he took them I twisted away and ran back to my hotel, bawling my eyes out. I told the concierge at my hotel what happened and she assured me she’d call the police and she kept saying Munich is safe, it’s New Years and all the crazy people are out.

When I got up to my hotel and had calmed down a little bit (and of course my internet wasn’t working- a common problem in Munich I hear), I realized that in the grand scheme of life, I was really lucky- he could have had a weapon, I could have had my entire purse with my passport, credit cards, and phone, and I wasn’t able to understand him, which is probably better. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I realized that besides losing a few Euros, the worst part was that I had to redo my makeup because I looked like a sick raccoon. I said a prayer, and then went on with my plans, there was no use letting something I no longer had control over effect my night.

 

I put on my dress, and walked cautiously to the central station. Since I was early, I popped into Starbucks to finally get my coffee. I walked in, and ordered my coffee when someone grabs my arm (my first reflex this time was to fight, but it was Starbucks, so I obviously didn’t) and I turn around and it’s a man I don’t know, but he is clearly Italian. “Hello, what are you doing beautiful” he cooed at me. He seemed harmless, so I said, “Obviously, I’m getting a cappuccino.” This is where it got good (I knew I should have left my coat on!), “Oh you are a beautiful American woman, I am Luigi and these are my friends [points to a table of 5 well dressed and gorgeous men].” I played his little game and chatted with them while I waited for James to show up. They were in town from Florence, and wanted me to come to some bar with them, where I would “have a good time”. I flirted with them a bit longer, got the name of the bar (obviously with no intention of ever meeting them there) and finally James walked in. I think it freaked him out a little bit that I was chatting with a big group of guys (later he kept asking if they were drunk or rude as we walked to our rail line), so he waited for me to finish my conversation, and we were on way.

We hopped on the rail and 2 stops later we were at his coworker Hunter’s house.  Hunter is from Maryland, graduated from Penn State with a mechanical engineering degree and also leads tours with Mike’s Bike Hike (and super knowlegable as well, if you can’t get James in Munich, ask for Hunter).  Hunter lives with his girlfriend Susann (pronounced Sue-soon, even Hunter calls her Susan because “it’s easier”) who is from Dresden in East Germany and she is a film producer for television. Also there was a girl named Kris there, she is also German (I had a really hard time understanding her as she doesn’t speak tons of English) and is a social worker for girls that suffer from eating disorders.  Susann was making dinner when we arrived, and I’ll give you a wild guess as to what she was making.

<Insert Jeopardy music here> Time’s up.

Tacos. And nachos. I COULDN’T GET AWAY FROM MEXICAN FOOD.  She was really nervous making dinner, because she didn’t want to disappoint the Texan (it was yummy).

After we ate dinner at their apartment, which was located in central Munich in a very neat building on the 5th floor looking out to the city, we had to wait a bit for Kris’ boyfriend Frods to get off work at the place where he is a chef, to head to our party (which ended up becoming an after-party, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Hunter has been helping Susann with her English by watching American movies, and playing my all-time favorite party game- CATCHPHRASE. If you think about it, what better way to learn how to describe things and learn common American terms than by playing a word game about pop culture?! We didn’t have teams, but just passed it around, and let me tell you, you haven’t played catch phrase until you’ve played it with: a Northeasterner, a Texan, an Australian, an East German, and a West German who knows very little English. You can only imagine the miscommunications that occurred. The first woman? Oh you mean Michelle Obama. How about a blender in YOUR kitchen? That would be a personal appearance (not appliance). This continued on for about an hour until it was 11:30 and we were going to walk over to the party and meet Frods.

We didn’t make it to the party until around 1:30 am.  If you are ever looking to have the craziest experience of our life, go to Munich on New Years Eve. I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS IN MY LIFE. I took about 20 minutes of film, and about half the time is me swearing because 1) I’m scared as people are throwing firecrackers (rockets as they call them) feet from me or 2) It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

Imagine the 4th of July. Now imagine the 4th of July on steroids.  Now imagine the 4th of July on steroids in a rage. Now imagine the 4th of July on steroids in a rage, partying on New Years Eve.  Now imagine the 4th of July on steroids in a rage, partying on New Years Eve x100. That was New Years Eve in Munich.

We walked out the front door of the house (where we had been hearing periodic fireworks since I’d been there), there was smoke everywhere and the popping noise was out of control. We walked about six blocks and there were men and women in the streets, where cars were still driving, shooting off rockets. Not little fireworks that you might let your kids play with, but full on mother effing fireworks. IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CITY. We had to stop walking for over 20 minutes near the Oktoberfest grounds because there were so many people shooting off rockets we couldn’t walk anywhere without getting hit. I’ve tried putting into words what it was like, but there are no words to do this celebration justice. The funny part is that in Germany you can only sell rockets ONE DAY out of the entire year, and that day is New Years Eve.  But it gets better.  Guess where you have to buy them? THE GROCERY STORE. It was so bizarre.  Needless to say, when the clock struck midnight, we poured champagne we had brought with us and prost-ed to the New Year. I’ve never been a fan of NYE parties (it’s amateur night when people who don’t normally do fun things, go out, get stupidly drunk, irritate people like me who have social lives every night of the year), so this was the perfect way to end the year, and start 2012.

After we finally made it to the party at their friends’ penthouse condo (they call them apartments there), it was about 1:30 am and I was exhausted.  By an act of God, the party was at 23 Paul Heysse and my hotel was 24 Paul Heysse- I could see my hotel from the party- there is no better scenario I could ever have imagined- all I had to do was leave when I was ready.

 

New Years Party with the Germans

We got into the most beautiful elevator I had ever seen and went up to Max’s condo- he had the entire floor and it was 3 bedrooms with views of both sides of the city. We could see the crazy people shooting off rockets from every angle (and some idiot was shooting them off his back balcony for a while as well). The party had a dj, but on an old school victrola. It was mostly guys (I don’t remember the actual statistics, but it seemed like there were about 5 men for every woman) and there were food and drinks galore. I was starving after walking in the street for nearly two hours (even though we’d only walked about 8-10 blocks) so I chowed down on some chili sitting on the stove. As I was sitting in the kitchen eating like a fat kid, two of the guys came up and wanted to take shots. Every time someone asks me to take shots, I always say, “No one wakes up in the morning and says, man I wish I’d taken more shots”. I declined. They insisted. So I watched them pour the shot and as they shot it, I threw it over my shoulder. Rude? Yes. Safe? Yes. Then Susann came to me with Jell-O shots. I couldn’t be rude to her after she’d been so hospitable, so I took one. It should be noted that a shot in Munich is probably about ¼ of the size of the shots Americans take.

By now it was about 3 am, and I was no longer a functioning individual. I was dog-tired. As I tried to thank the host and my new friends for showing me an incredible time, I got sucked back into the party because everyone wanted to take a picture with the blonde American girl. I think I took about 15 photos with people at that party, I’m sure they’re floating around on the Internet somewhere, and then I made a run for it.  Two guys I didn’t know asked to walk me to my hotel, but not wanting an awkward or unsafe situation to arise, I darted out and ran home. After wishing the concierge in the lobby happy new year, I shot upstairs and barely got my boots and dress off before my head hit the pillow.

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