“You too, leisurely walker, honor the memory of the upright citizen”
— Inscription on the Sckell monument in the English Garden in Munich, Germany
On quiet Sundays, I crawl through the apartment with a hammer in my hand and drive the nails that have risen up from the loose boards back into the floor. Then I lay a sponge in the sink to muffle the drip from the tap, stretch out on the sofa, and tell my imaginary analyst what I see in the brown water stains on the ceiling. I live in Schwabing, in a well-situated, run-down backyard cottage. No tenant above me, none below, just a squirrel that sometimes visits my windowsill. I found the centrally located bohemian pad that everyone is looking for in cheap Berlin in, of all places, expensive Munich.
I heard that the condo owners want to add a story to the building in order to raise its value; the neighbors are fighting this in order not to see theirs decrease. One person’s light is another’s shadow. Two opposing investment interests have become so deadlocked that for the time being they’ve put a roof over my head. The lease runs out with the eventual construction date, but perhaps I’ll continue to benefit from rival desires for investment returns. I don’t want to ask for anything more than a limited extension, because an open-ended lease would mean that I would have to come to terms with the location. And so I’m officially a Munich resident, but in the population register at City Hall, my name is merely penciled in.
“We love this neighborhood and don’t want to move to the outskirts!” proclaims a young family of four on a slip of paper stuck to a signpost on Clemensstrasse. They’re looking for an apartment with at least four rooms and 1,600 square feet. They’ve used a red wax crayon to draw a heart around their appeal. Three out of the ten strips with their phone number have already been torn off, in all likelihood by people interested in taking over the family’s current apartment.
One sees these apartment searches posted here with striking frequency, often with a photo of familial harmony or a pregnant belly, sometimes handwritten, at any rate always with the aim of somehow getting around the hardships of the real estate market through humanitarian appeal. I, however, have not yet happened upon any other apartment hunter’s sign actually claiming to love this neighborhood, and ever since then, I’ve been wondering how you can love Schwabing. I can see that one leads a quiet life here, that all the restaurants I can’t afford serve good food, that there’s no lack of organic grocery, baby, and book stores, but that’s what makes the district more like a good match than a great love. Love is attracted to imperfection; Schwabing, on the other hand, is a smooth surface that defies attachment. In Wedding, the poor district of Berlin I used to live in, there was never any lack of flaws; the area was able to generate a certain feeling for it, even if this rarely amounted to love. At any rate, I never would have pondered why a young family would put up signs declaring their love for Wedding. But then again, that never happens there.
The chess players in Münchner Freiheit Square are perhaps the most likable people in Schwabing. Even the drinkers resemble intellectuals when they contemplate the giant outdoor chess board between gulps and move a knee-high bishop. They seem cosmopolitan just because they’re playing chess, which connects them to all the other places in the world where it’s played.
You get to know the people here as quickly as the rules of the game. On and around the square, you always see the same characters. There is the lanky guy in glasses with a broad grin on his face. He never plays, but he always offers advice. And if he’s gone for a moment, he’ll soon come back with a beer from the organic grocery store. The old Japanese man wearing a hat with the traditional Bavarian tuft of hair can bend down just enough to grab a pawn’s head. If a chess piece falls over while he’s moving it, his opponent steps onto the board and helps set it back up. The bearded man brings his snack and eats the potato salad with a plastic fork that came in the package he bought at the supermarket. His gaze wanders like that of a teacher supervising school recess. An old man is sitting a little off to the side in a plastic chair. He babbles and swings his beer bottle; he drops it and the neck breaks off. He quickly picks up the broken bottle, leans his head back, and pours the foaming lager into his mouth. “It’s not easy to drink like that!” he shouts. I don’t have to worry about him, he lives his life in the shelter of inebriation.
There are many mediocre chess players shouting things like “take his rook!” from the chessboard sidelines: it’s almost like a boxing match. They clench their fists when they win, and they curse when they lose. And there are a handful of players who are above all that. They’re always relaxed and friendly. They leave their opponent ample time to think and allow him to reverse his move. If the opponent is in a tight spot, they propose a draw, and only when he refuses do they checkmate. There’s nothing to be gained from a victory, but perhaps a defeat gives them experience. It’s just a game. And they’ve only become so good at it because they’ve internalized this.
Sometimes a tourist, or perhaps an asylum seeker, dares to ask for a game. Then the opponents talk past each other in foreign languages, but they understand one other through what’s happening on the chessboard. I sit and watch them over the top of my notebook screen, because there’s no Internet in my apartment, but there’s an open hotspot here.
“What are these men doing?” asks a child holding its mother’s hand. “Oh, they don’t have anything better to do,” she answers and pulls the child away. Soon afterwards, the two turn into one of the streets that are standard here: featuring a clothing store, a shoe store, a practitioner of alternative psychotherapy, a nutritionist, a waxing salon, a nail salon, a solarium, a place for cosmetic dermatology, and then the sequence repeats. And the child never asks: “What are they doing there?” and the mother never says: “They clothe, fit shoes, treat, fast, depilate, manicure, tan, and get facelifts because they have nothing better to do.”
I moved from Wedding to Schwabing, from Leopoldplatz in Berlin to Leopoldstrasse in Munich, from migrants and an enduring German underclass to posh Bavarians and global citizens. There is probably no starker contrast between any two German metropolitan districts. I offer just three examples: chilled drinks, dog poop, and street music.
In the Kaisers supermarket on Wedding’s Müllerstrasse, they always carry cheap chilled beer, sometimes Oettinger, mostly Sternburg; that’s what the alcoholics buy who get drunk right outside the store on the broad sidewalk, and they’re not the only ones. There’s no cheap chilled beer at the Tengelmann supermarket in Schwabing, but cold Dom Perignon for one hundred and fifty-nine Euros a bottle. And I ask myself who goes for that—chilled, mind you, so it’s for the spontaneous buyer. But soon I see a man in his mid-thirties wandering around the store, just before it closes. He is still undecided; his body has just the right shape for expensive clothing off the rack, his three-day stubble measures exactly 72 hours, and he has the black wet-gel curls on his head arranged by a hairdresser. He motions for a clerk and taps on the glass of the locked sparkling wine cooler. He doesn’t even consider the possibility that the lady who invited him might prefer to drink a fruity, residue-sweet Prosecco instead of the bone-dry mineral champagne, he simply wants to bring a sparkling wine that’s universally recognizable as expensive, but of course with the same casualness he exhibits when he lays his Porsche key on the counter at the bar.
In Wedding, the dog poop was just the icing on the cake of consummate destitution, the epitome of the word “decline,” the last word to conclude a sentence with bulk waste, old clothing, and broken glass. Here in Schwabing, dog poop is an exclamation point on the tabula rasa. A compelling logic seems to be at work in Wedding, but in Schwabing shit like this demands explanation. I decide to investigate, and discover a young man some distance away, talking or typing into his cell phone, watching his dog as it poops, at the very least approvingly, no, even appreciatively. Actually, the young man would like to poop on the sidewalk himself, piss on the cafe chair, and suddenly bark at passers-by, but he’s too civilized for that. But he likes to watch from a distance when his dog is doing it for him. And I’m not sure, but I think it’s the same guy who bought the Dom Perignon at Tengelmann. This is not a reproach directed at Munich, there are certainly as many misfits in Wedding as in Schwabing. Everyone goes south at their own speed.
When a musician gets on the subway in Berlin, you never know what to expect. Perhaps it’s a virtuoso from the conservatories in Kiev, Minsk, or St. Petersburg. More likely a rapper or songwriter walking around with a paper cup asking for change, but actually hoping for an enthusiastic agent who will declare his evident amateurism to be the next big thing. And listening to every bad subway musician is always an even worse one, who has not yet dared to perform publicly, but suddenly thinks: I can do that too! The low point was two fourteen-year-olds wearing Palestinian flags in the shape of Israel on a chain around their necks, playing exactly three notes on the Melodica to a drum rhythm booming from a speaker. But there was also the Belarusian harpist in the Spichernstrasse subway station, for whom I let three trains pass by.
In Munich, street musicians are subjected to a quality test. They are only allowed to make music in public places if they play convincingly at an audition. There are three accredited accordionists working in shifts to fill the underground shopping mall at Münchner Freiheit Square with sound. They play their repertoire of seven songs over and over again, probably the ones they were permitted to play from their audition. And when I walk through the underpass to the tune of “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see,” the whole precarious openness of my existence is spoiled by the certainty of hearing the same song in the same place again tomorrow.
It’s hot, and the heat rises up into the brain, making the dendrites sag like overhead wires. It’s stewing under the cortex and every drop on my forehead seems to be wrung out of the frontal lobe. Otherwise clear thoughts now flicker. But not far from me are the beeches of the English Garden and the Schwabing Creek. I walk past tanned blondes in silk dresses riding Vespa scooters and carrying Vuitton bags in the sunshine, past the outdoor chairs of the cafés. The orange-red glow of the Aperol Spritz drinks blinds me, the clinking of ice cubes roars in my ears. The Munich inferiority complex looks to the south for compensation. Munich thinks of itself as Florence on the Isar River, as the northernmost city in Italy, or basically: as Monaco. And I have a distaste for this dolce vita. The sweet life is too archaic for me. Munich’s promenades were built by humans, but even ants form roads when they’ve found sugar. I would prefer savoir vivre, considered and wise, calling for the highest human abilities. I reach the English Garden and step into the cold water with both feet.
“Ciao, summer!” reads the headline of the local tabloid. The next day, August and the heat are gone. Now, when distant acquaintances, those who peck each other on the cheek but are not on a first-name basis, meet on the street, they no longer complain about the wasps, but share the rumor that a warm, golden October will come once cold September is over. Schwabing’s creek is still in its bed and has stayed the same, but its chill no longer promises relief. But there’s still one pleasure left for me, regardless of the season: every Monday morning, I go to the laundromat on Belgradstrasse before 10 a.m., when a load only costs two Euros fifty. I run one cold and one warm wash, and to pass the time I walk up and down the sidewalk outside, arms crossed behind my back in contemplation, dance a pretzel pattern in front of the bakery, and smile at the babies in their strollers. The young woman at the tram stop lets down her hair as she sees me, but it’s just a coincidence. Likewise, that the sun comes out when I hang up the laundry in the yard. I’ve found freedom and joy in that laundromat, precisely forty-six minutes all to myself to swirl the colored laundry of life through my head, so that afterwards it’s completely fresh when it dries in the wind and sun.
About the featured locations:
Wedding—no relation to the English word for the marriage ceremony—is one of Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods. While the city was divided, it was literally right next to the Wall, in a corner of West Berlin next to Tegel Airport, and was populated by migrant workers, for the most part from Turkey. It hasn’t changed that much since German Reunification, but is now regarded as the next place to be. The author lived there for six years while a doctoral student at the Free University of Berlin and a freelance journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Schwabing is a trendy, once bohemian, now bourgeois neighborhood of Munich, the Bavarian city enmeshed in a centuries-long rivalry with Berlin, the former Prussian capital. While in Wedding the underdogs live in a city of the artsy and cool, in Schwabing even high-income married couples consider themselves unorthodox and avantgarde, because the state of Bavaria on the whole is conservative and traditional. The author wrote this article soon after having moved there in 2015 from Berlin.