Twentieth Century Blues

I look out of my window to a street of pastel apartment buildings. One is duck-egg blue, another a buttery yellow, with white plaster decorations picked out against it. Some have multicolored Art Nouveau friezes, such as borders of flowers under the windows. It is a very pretty effect, both in sunshine and as a backdrop for falling snow. The quality of the light here makes them seem like dollhouses: the sky here even late at night in the winter still has a purple glow. It’s soft, and stars are few, and it’s like living under a dome of light.
I moved to Munich last year to continue my work as a historian. “People pay you to do that?” I am frequently asked. Indeed, it is my job. “Do you teach?” Not right now, but I have, and expect to again. I moved to a city I hadn’t visited, in a country I didn’t know, in a language I hadn’t learned. Conversationally, I still struggle to express myself beyond the level of a toddler. But this has enabled me to observe more. In the same way that the loss of one sense is said to enhance the others – being deprived of verbal input for the first time in my life, I register much more about the environment than I would if I were tuning in to the conversations and signs around me. Instead, I notice the textures of the walls, the behavior of the many dogs, the people who leave their bicycles unlocked, the smell of the bakery, the sound of the… well, the sound of the nothing a lot of the time. It’s so quiet here that it’s beautiful and eerie at once.
Here, in a city to which I have no history or connection, (ancestral or communal) for once I am just an observer. This has not been the case elsewhere. For instance, when I lived in Singapore, even though I spoke the language, my out-of-place-ness was too visible and inescapable: I felt myself being observed everywhere I went. But here – as a 5’9” blonde - I can blend, and am taken for a local (until I open my mouth). So it is like being undercover. Indeed, when I first arrived, walking these unfamiliar streets and hearing the police sirens that are like those in French films, it was easy to imagine myself as a participant in some kind of spy thriller.
Not only do I not know anyone, but nor does anyone know me. Before I came here, I was in a town where I couldn’t walk 100 yards without running into someone I knew. After that, the anonymity here is liberating. I wander around on my own, looking at the architecture, imagining those who walked the same ways in the past.
Around the corner from my place is an apartment building with a plaque recording that Hans and Sophie Scholl lived there seventy years ago. This brother and sister were university students, and Nazi resisters. For their efforts to condemn the Third Reich, Hans and Sophie were executed.
I stand in front of their building, and wonder what the neighborhood looked like when they lived here. In many ways quite similar: the Apotheke on the corner would have been recently opened, and the market square, overlooked by the ornate schoolhouse, would have been much the same. Although the number for the route has changed, the nearest tram still follows the same track south, past the art museums to Karlsplatz.
While I research the histories of different cities, I find myself living in one that struggles to come to terms with its own past. It memorializes those who resisted, and looking at old maps I can see the streets that have been renamed in memory of those who stood up to Hitler. Meanwhile, other buildings still carry evidence of where Nazi insignia were removed after the war. The museums tread a difficult path, between brushing over 1933-1945 as an unfortunate blip in an otherwise glorious past, and focusing on it in great – and disturbing - detail.
Meanwhile, other buildings reach out from much further in the past. In the ornate baroque churches, I haltingly translate to myself the inscriptions, and wonder how much of the city would be recognizable to someone who lived here two or three hundred years ago. In their Counter-Reformatory beauty, I feel like an interloper: and never have I felt so protestant as when surrounded by gilded cherubs.
I walk back along the rainbow streets to home. Small dogs scurry past me, living a freedom unknown to pets in cities with leash laws. Occasionally a pair of green eyes will be watching from inside a window, cats that are rarely seen on the street. The tram slides past me and I watch it sway round a corner. A store selling traditional costume has dirndl- and lederhosen-clad mannequins on the roof, looking down on the street. A strange mix of heritage and modernity, it seems rather apt.