The Night Munich Ran out of Beer

At the Munich Hauptbahnhof, I stepped off the train from the airport and hiked a half-mile or so and found a pensione in the West End that had rooms at about $16 a night. The concierge was a helpful young man studying law and was very sorry but all the singles were rented, leaving only a room with three beds. I knew that late on an August afternoon, the housing situation would not improve until checkout time the next day and so offered to rent the room for 75 DM, about $50, and would see about finding some roommates on my own. I moved into my big clean room overlooking the intersection of Schwanthaler and Schleissstattstrasse, bath in the hall, and within the sound of the bells of Saint Paul's Cathedral.

Well anchored, I set myself adrift. Nearly every block of the city had at least one bistro, cafe, or restaurant. The gasthausen overflowed onto the sidewalk where soft voices discussed the delicious coolness of the beer and where to go next. Breweries advertised from the highest floors of the hotels to the coasters on the table. It seemed that Munich had something to do with beer.

I found a tiny place modestly offering a salty bowl of goulashsuppe for about $4. The proprietor politely corrected my pronunciation, which made me feel at home. I said that I was from California and that seemed to clear a few things up. He resumed his euchre game with one of the other two customers. Meanwhile I attempted a conversation in German with the other customer and we managed to toast the availability of our favorite brew and the strength of Odysseus. He was in an advanced state and even the Germans in the bar had difficulties communicating with him. I was myself dissolving into an unrequitable amiability and so went out in search of someone I could talk to.

In front of the pensione, two young women sat on their packs on the sidewalk as the sun set. They had arrived in Munich late in the day and were homeless. They had collected some sympathetic young men who were offering them places to stay, escorts to the best pubs, foot massages, cigarettes, advice on antiquities, help with their packs, and every possibility of polite conversation. Three young Irishmen led the market. The ladies were reluctant. The well-meaning offers notwithstanding, they did not see secure beds. The front office being closed, I introduced them to the concierge. No, they were full up.

Being a gentleman in possession of what they needed most that evening, I offered them my extra beds. Stephenie, seated on her pack, regarded me seriously, said she knew Tae Kwan Do, slugged me on the leg for punctuation, and accepted my offer. Everyone was pleased, especially the Irishmen, who were also staying in the pensione.

There was no shortage of enthusiastic help getting their stuff up the stairs. I disturbed the concierge once more, saying that I had gotten lucky, sold the other two beds, and needed another key. I moved the ladies in and discovered that they were parttime strippers in Cleveland, on vacation from school, delighted with Amsterdam, and bound for Mediterranean beaches. I immediately offered my services as a computer programmer and they said they would consult with me when needed. I counted myself no competition for the youth and wit of the Irishmen, who suggested we meet later at Mulligan's around the corner on Grollierstrasse. We shook hands all around and I set off alone for a pint of Guinness, exceedingly amused by circumstances.

At the pub, I struck up a conversation with a fellow electronics engineer from Munich who had worked in California, near where I lived now, and would soon work in Pennsylvania, near where I was born. After much agreement on many subjects, I told him about my roommates and he was eager to meet them. I said I would introduce him when they showed up and advised him that nothing was more erotic to women than technical talk between engineers. Soon after, the entire party from the pensione arrived.

The pub had filled to standing room only and no one complained of thirst. At our table were Americans, Bavarians, Irish, and a woman from Taiwan who kept everyone supplied with tobacco, spoke no German or English, and never missed a toast. At another table, I met two Munchener brewers wooing a red-haired high-school teacher from Minnesota; all did their best to empty the kegs.

Even though there seemed to be plenty of beer left, the place began to thin out so I walked out into the cool night air, still mighty pleased with myself, unwilling to call an end to the evening, but a little too happy to be out exploring the new city. When I tiptoed into my room, I found all the Irishmen, my roommates, and an Australian drinking bottled beer, rolling cigarettes, and rating cities for parties.

John was from Sydney and worked for a Taiwanese company that was in town for a trade show. I don't talk 'Strine myself but I do admire the language. John was given to effusive political and economic speeches and left the party with a date with the two American girls for dancing the following evening.

Two of the three Irish were brothers from Northern Ireland laying bricks and tile in Munich. The girls from Ohio were hungry and so the Belfast men boiled up some excellent white potatoes with our complements. The girls wanted to go to Dachau the next day and eventually to Barcelona. I recommended the architecture of Antonio Gaude. The third Irishman gave us directions to Dachau and I pushed the poetry of Yeats. At three in the morning, the last reluctant suitor was ushered out the door. I climbed into my own bed saying that I had never had better roommates, excepting Judy, Kathleen, Marta, Dawn, Davida, Eve, Sally, Paula, Wendy, and Marynoel.

The next morning, a light rain fell as my roommates and I walked to the Munich Hauptbahnhof and caught a train to Dachau. At the Dachau bahnhof, a trio of young Italian men attached themselves to my friends and we took a bus to the memorial and walked to the camp in the rain. All the original 25 wooden barracks had been torn down and two rebuilt for the memorial. The interior moat, barbed-wire fence, and guard towers that enclose the acreage had been restored. The large administration building had been turned into a museum displaying photographs and documents. Housed in brick buildings, several crematoria and gas chambers were in their original state. The camp housed about 50,000 people at a time and more than 300,000 people were executed there.

Most of my associations with the German language and culture came from war movies and newsreels of Hitler's speeches. The courtesy with which the German people directed us to the memorial and the fact that the nation preserved the site reminded me that Dachau was not just a German action but a human action, even a biological action.

We split up after returning to Munich. I discovered the Kunstbau, which adjoined an underground train station, and was sparsely furnished with a deconstructed basketball court jumbled into a pile next to the sawn-apart bleachers. Down the hall was a room constructed of corrugated galvanized iron and hung within with galvanized cans and pipes so that the observer was surrounded by zinc plate. Nearby, ropes and camouflage netting and tent materials hung from the heights. Near that was a large window through which an escalator carrying passengers down into the Königsplatz subway station could be watched. Upstairs, a room featured a large-screen video that showed a military and artistic assault on and within an old building, ending with a pan of a mystified audience applauding the production.

I detected a vital radicalism in Munich poster art advertising rock music or radical theater or new art. Its color was red on black, its motive political, and its message a warning. I supposed its intensity boiled out of a reassertion of the art movement in Germany that was interrupted when the Third Reich goose-stepped in and marched its independent artists off to Dachau. In comparison, American poster art tends to self- indulgence and hence political irrelevance.

A ticket to the Kunstbau was also a ticket to the Lenbachhaus, a more traditional gallery across Briennerstrasse. The ground floor was largely given over to an artist determined to revolutionize perception. Among the documentation of the roots of this movement was the statement that photography must destroy painting in such a way that photography itself could be destroyed. One room contained four exhibits of painted newspaper on the floor. In one corner, newspapers were carefully laid out in a large rectangle and a blue rectangle was spray-painted thereon. Next to that, the newspapers were randomly redistributed, which broke up the blue rectangle. In another corner, randomly arranged newspapers were painted with a large blue rectangle and next rearranged into a neat rectangle, which broke up the painted rectangle but in a different way from the first rearrangement. I took this very seriously.

Upstairs, the Lenbachhaus featured traditional portraiture of 19th century Bavarian artists as well as the wild post-impressionistic expressions of the revolutionary art of pre-World War I. I bumped into one of the brewers and the teacher from Minnesota and promised to meet them at Mulligan's Friday evening. Fans of Kandinsky and Klee would find much to appreciate in the Lenbachhaus. I visited the magnificent Frauenkirche, a cathedral that greatly exceeds my descriptive abilities.

I returned to find my roommates freshly showered and lounging about in towels. Nevertheless, they bade me enter. When Stephenie wanted to dress, she went behind me and asked me not to turn around. Soon enough, all was in order and John from Sydney knocked on the door and took them away to the dance. That evening, I returned to Mulligan's just to stay in practice, didn't really connect with anyone and so went home about midnight and turned in early.

In the morning, my roommates packed hurriedly for the early train to Venice, said good-bye, and hiked to the Hauptbahnhof. I spent the day acquiring a prodigious thirst at the Glyptothek, which housed a large collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, and the Antikensammlungen, which housed a large collection of ancient Greek pottery, mostly adoring Dionysis and his wine glass. As I walked back toward the pensione, I heard bottles clinking in the bags and packs of fellow pedestrians. Folks were stocking up, as if contagiously worried that Munich would run dry.

I returned to the pensione just in time to be swept into a party headed for Paddy's, an Irish pub in the university section of Schwabing, for yet another assault on Munich's vast reserves. This time we were to do it and do it right. The Irish were burning the candle at both ends and the middle, performing masonic feats of strength by day, entertaining all night, and enjoying every minute.

A pretty woman from London dumped a glass of beer in the lap of another young woman, threw a chair some distance, tossed a beer bottle over the bar, and kissed me. She bore watching. I was concerned about the safety of our party and stood vigil against incoming missiles. It occurred to me that in contrast to previous times when behavior was contained by force and morality, today behavior is being controlled by tolerance, which must become the target of the revolutionary.

Mike was born in Ireland and had lived in South Wales long enough to speak with a Welsh accent. John from Sidney showed up and pints around were ordered again and again. Gary and Eddy were brothers from Belfast. We fell into a discussion about British troops in Northern Ireland, insisted on their removal, united in a spirit of self-determination, and hoisted our brews. I called for the secession of California.

It was not difficult to procure a beer. The waitresses were supremely cooperative. You could not sit at a table unless you did your part to break the breweries. If you were not drinking up to speed, you must make room for those who were serious about the challenge. No matter how happy you were with a half glass of beer or how comfortably you lay on the floor, they would prop you up and ask if you wanted another. You must support the effort. If not, you must leave the table. At one point the two and a half pints of beer accumulating in front of me became an issue.

It was karaoke night, and while some solos did well, nothing so vast as a duet was acceptable but we accepted it anyway, applauding generously when finished. The sound system dominated the ears and you could talk to your neighbor only in a competing volume and with improvised sign language. I lost sight of Miss London and grew worried. I met Dave, a Londoner devoted to wit who did an excellent parody of the Beatle's Yesterday on his turn to sing.

We retreated to the back of the bar where the smoke was thickest. She was playing pool and I became alarmed. We were trusting her with sticks and stones. My friends calmed me down with the news that she had found a boyfriend who occupied her energies. I kept a wary eye. I supposed she could turn a perfectly reasonable fellow into a lethal weapon. I began to think that I looked like Richard Nixon. I took the pen out of my pocket and rolled up my shirt sleeves, which revealed my wristwatch, which I unstrapped and pocketed.

I walked outside for a bit of air and noted the location of the bar, which was where Werneckstrasse meets Fellitzschstrasse, once again intrigued by the German's love of the consonant. Walking up and down the street, coming in and out of the bars, I saw young people of all ages and races getting along quite well. I went back in and found that as crowded as the saloon was, I could navigate the aisles from front to back easily and quickly. The front of the bar had become as smoky as the back.

I talked it over with Mike and we agreed that while we had made a significant impact on the supply, the job was too big for us in one night and that we should all have one more round and go home. I admitted lamely that I had had enough, could barely think, let alone talk, and besides Mike and Gary had to lay bricks in the morning. Whereupon John ordered pints around several times again, and we rejuvenated political and economic discussions solved earlier and again regretted the loss of the two American girls who had escaped untouched to Venice.

The bar closed and the barmaids threw us out in several languages in such a way as to appear serious and to make us feel that we were welcome back tomorrow. We piled into Gary's car, which John guided expertly through Munich's late-night traffic while I balanced a case of empty beer bottles on my lap. I was in no condition to drive but if asked to fly an aircraft carrier, I would have tried. We stopped at an all- night market for more beer and assembled at my place for tobacco and another pint apiece. Complaints about the British resurfaced. The Americans having thrown the Brits out long ago, I launched into a speech on the ideals of American democracy, which made everyone sleepy. We parted company about 3 AM, vowing to go out the next night and do some real drinking.

I had no trouble waking as diligent construction workers started their hammering machine at 8 AM. I put myself more or less together and walked to the Hauptbahnhof and traveled to Regensburg on the Danube, the capital of Bavaria before Munich. I wandered through the old town's narrow winding streets, many closed to automobile traffic, others too narrow for vehicles larger than a bike, into Roman ruins dating from the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 179 AD, and into Regensburg's awesome and beautiful entry in the medieval cathedral race featuring seating for three times the population of the city.

Back in the shopping area, I became overwhelmed as I heard a woman accompanying herself on an accordion, singing her song of love and woe for coins while shoppers spent freely on expensive costumes for the unending boy and girl parade, briefly strutting in stardom before settling for a job sweeping up and finally retiring to the audience to cheer the pageant, the endless ode to joy, invoking the charms and incantations with which we ward off death's dart. Perhaps it was just homesickness sneaking up on me or perhaps I was wearying of my old illusions and needed another. If I have a personality at all, a question of little interest, it is merely a dam against a vast reservoir of sentimentality, unacceptably sloppy in cool crowds.

I decided to have a cold beer at a sidewalk cafe, got into trouble from the waitress for the 100-mark note, and then took a bus to Danaustauf, a small town to the east. Ludwig I, king of Bavaria, built a replica of the Athenian Parthenon on a promontory overlooking the Danube. Within the Greek temple, hundreds of marble busts of the great men of German history lined the walls, including a recent bust of Einstein. Two women were represented: Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, and Catherine II, czarina of Russia.

I got back in plenty of time for a plate of spaghetti and a pint of beer at the trattoria across the street from the pensione and then walked to Mulligan's as promised. The brewers didn't show up but I fell into pleasant conversation with two English-speaking Germans and drank three pints of Guinness, thick as cream compared to the draft beer of Munich. I remarked on the lightness of German draft beer and they revealed the vast range of bottled beer that Munich keeps in reserve just in case they run out of kegs of the lighter commodity. I learned that Bavarians consider themselves at some distance from Germany, resembling the position of some Texans with respect to the United States. The woman was friendly but pointed out that she did not need men. It occurred to me that if men began to say they didn't need women, our species was finished. This worried me for a minute but reflection on the behavior of my friends relieved me. Both agreed that religious fundamentalism was the cause of intolerance, which they would not tolerate. It sounded very much like California.

Mulligan's appeared to be slowing down so I took the subway to Schwabing and found that it was still early at Paddies, the masons not having shown up yet. I found it easy to make friends and was well underway when the Irish reinforcements arrived with John. Miss London was not there but a crew of five or six Londoners with shaved heads had captured a table and were delighting each other with outrageous statements. I couldn't catch the drift of their excited conversation and so wondered aloud what they had on their minds and Eddy said they had nothing at all on their minds and were determined to keep it that way. Gary and Eddy tormented John with several rounds of Waltzing Mathilda and made sure he had a beer in each hand, one of the Londoners was dancing on the table to the cheers of his encouragers, the bar closed or we ran out of money, somehow we got home, and John somehow made his plane.

The next day, I took a train to Brannenburg, which is in the Bavarian Alps south of Munich. The Wendelstein is a mountain that rises to 1837 meters, Brannenburg being about 500 meters. While not dressed for climbing, I hiked up a trail flanked by coniferous forests and pastures a mile or two to get some altitude and looked back on the valley that leads southwest to Innsbruck. Mist obscured parts of the mountains, leaving islands in the sky. I could hear cow bells clanking from the groves on the steep hillsides. I passed several guest houses where tourists could stay while exploring the mountains. One kept tame red deer within some fenced acreage. The Wendelstein can be reached on foot from Brannenburg if you are willing to walk the 11 kilometers or you can take a train. From Wendelstein, you can see peaks of 3798 meters on the horizon. The range is as rugged as the Sierra but much wetter and shows no granite.

I returned to the oldest part of Brannenburg, which is above the business section and has 3 small hotels that charge about $40 a night including a continental breakfast. It is also a farming community and neat as a pin. Folks said hello to me, a complete stranger, on the street. The older buildings are often large, made of native conglomerate stone, and have balconies with red flowers cascading generously over the railings. The old town also had an immaculate church from which the congregation could be heard singing. After the services, I poked my head into the church to see its ornate interior.

Further up the hill, I could hear the clinking of glass vessels and through the trees I could see an old ornate building of four or five stories. I stopped in the Schlosswirt, which is one of Brannenburg's hotels, and its schweinbraten mit semmelknödel is an excellent stick-to-the-ribs meal for a very hungry person not on a diet. A group of older men sat around a large round table drinking from large glasses of beer and amusing each other with comments stimulating their hilarity. Trophies of the hunt hung on the walls, being the skulls of small bucks, minus the lower jaw, mounted on wooden plaques, and in contrast to the Pennsylvanian style that exhibits the stuffed head of the buck as though in life. The clinking from the hill continued.

After lunch, I followed the sound to find laborers preparing the annual Schlossfest, held on the first Sunday in August. The big building was an old baronial residence, which the locals call a castle, and I found on one corner an ancient stone tower with slits in the wall for shooting arrows. I am enamored of any town with a castle. Schloss means castle, among other things. I can get my tongue around schl all right enough but coming back to ss results in something more like schlosh, especially after a beer or two, and a sloshfest it was, kegs of brew from Munich being sold by the liter. The men dressed in lederhosen and green felt hats and sold beer. Women in long, full dresses and aprons sold kuchen and coffee. Young musicians in traditional dress beat through the old tunes and several hundred of us mounted an orderly attack on the Munchener brauhausen.

I befriended the gate keepers, a merry pair whose duty it was to try to extort two marks for an official Schlossfest ribbon to each pedestrian on the path. I met a computer person who was into network software and a philosopher who asked me if I was certain I existed. I replied with certainty but got nothing further from him nor could I find within the computer person any knowledge of Immanuel Kant. I suppose I expected too much. However, we did drink unanimously.

I returned to Munich the next day, missed the first plane, finally made the connection, leaving much beer untasted, and let Lufthansa take me home. Apart from airfare, I spent about $75 a day, eating well, drinking triumphantly, visiting a museum a day, and left with a sense of regret, flying over northern Scotland, the glaciers of Greenland plunging into lakes, the Rockies at sunset, and arriving in San Francisco to learn that my company had downsized and that I was out of a job.

Jim Strope