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The Dangerous Business of Going Out Your Door I am often tired of myself and I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little. I do not bring back from the journey quite the same self that I took. - W. Somerset Maugham

Accepting a Truth in Munich

GERMANY | Saturday, 7 May 2016 | Views [557]

Munich’s lesson for me was this: I need people.

I know it’s obvious, and everybody says it, and I have even said it. I have known it to be one of those universal truths, but I haven’t really always believed it, not deep down on a visceral level. Instead, I have always enjoyed quiet and solitude, and have actually desperately craved it of late. But unlike the pleasant and peaceful isolation I encountered in Tromsø, Leipzig was the first place where I felt burdened by loneliness. I blamed it on various things, but later realized that I had to shoulder some of the blame as well. I didn’t start conversations with anyone. I didn’t go on any group tours. When I heard other lodgers in our communal kitchen, I waited until they had left before I went in. Why? I feared that my language skills were too rusty to attempt small talk with strangers. Leipzig didn’t have any free walking tours, and I didn’t want to pay for one. I didn’t know what kind of people were lodging in my pension and whether they would be the type of people I would want to talk to. So, I kept to myself, because that was the easiest and most comfortable thing for me to do, and because I did not yet know that I needed those interactions.

By the time the train brought me to Munich, I had adjusted to solo travel again. I felt re-energized and ready for activity once more. Though I had not had a face-to-face conversation with anyone in over a week, I no longer felt particularly lonely. In fact, I dreaded the shared living quarters of my Airbnb arrangement: A room in someone’s apartment. I hoped I would have enough space and privacy. However, I was looking forward to meeting up with two acquaintances who lived in Munich.

Plunging into the main tourist areas, I floated amongst a swarm of others checking off the big names: Marienplatz, the Glockenspiel, the Frauenkirche, the Viktualienmarkt. But the crowds had the same effect on me there as they did in Prague, leaving me disenchanted and disinterested in the must-see sights. I would have liked to sit in the Biergarten at the Viktualienmarkt, but found it awkward to do alone. So, I retreated to a quiet restaurant away from the crowds where I had dinner before returning to the apartment, and quickly excused myself to my room.

My two acquaintances had to cancel our plans unexpectedly, so I continued my solitary explorations. After a couple of days, I decided to join a free walking tour. It was a large group, and I didn’t see any other solo travelers at first. I made some passing comments to two ladies in the group who I thought were friends, but I maintained some distance, not wanting to intrude. It turned out that they were also solo travelers and had just met during the tour. One was from Virginia and the other was from Portugal, and I was happy when they asked me to join them afterward. We went to the Viktualienmarkt, bought wurst on rolls, and sat in the Biergarten. It was a little drizzly, but the thick foliage of the chestnut trees kept us dry on that perfect spring afternoon while we shared stories and laughs over our steins. It was the element that had been missing so far in my return to Germany.

Thus reinitiated to conversation and companionship, I stayed in the kitchen the next morning, my last full day in Munich, instead of rushing away when my Airbnb host came in. Our topics – travels, marriage, work-life balance, government, culture, politics – were better suited for a pub than a breakfast table. It seemed that we understood each other well, but she closed with a remark that took me off guard: “You have a European soul.” It was as if she had pinned a badge of honor to my chest, and I wished I had taken the time earlier in my stay to talk to her more.

I had no plans for my last day but to drift around aimlessly. Snow flurries started falling as I wandered through the spring festival, but it was otherwise surprisingly similar to any county fair at home. Just as I started heading toward some free museums to warm up, I got a text from a lady I had known back home. She was living in Germany now, and was passing through the Munich train station on her way home from Italy. She would have just over an hour to wait for her connecting train, and wondered if I had time to meet her. Of course I did, and I was very happy for the opportunity. Over a lovely coffee in one of the bustling cafes in the train station, we had a nice time catching up, using Du (the informal you) and a bit of English. It was so serendipitous that we were able to meet during that little window of time, and I was incredibly pleased that she had thought of me and made the effort to coordinate our meeting. My spirits were higher after that meeting than they had been the whole time I had been in Germany.

Leaving Munich, I understood for the first time in a long time, that I too need people. My “people cup” is not very big, so it doesn’t take much to fill it, but it still gets empty. Even with my solitude-seeking self, even when I don’t think I need them, even when I am not ready for them, even when I am uncertain whether I will like them, I still need people. We all need some interactions, some connections to others outside of ourselves. And with that, I’m reminded of a quote from Somerset Maugham, “I reflected that men are more interesting than books but have this defect, that you cannot skip them; you have at least to skim the whole volume in order to find the good page. And you cannot put them on a shelf and take them down when you feel inclined; you must read them when the chance offers, like a book in a circulating library that is in such demand that you must take your turn and keep it no more than four and twenty hours. You may not be in the mood for them then or it may be that in your hurry you miss the only thing they had to give you.”

Tags: germany, maugham, munich, people, sabbatical, solo, travel, truth


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