25 February 2010

Europe recap: Day 2, Munich

These are photos from the morning hours of October 26th, 2009, as I wrapped up my Munich itinerary and moved on to Stuttgart. My brief Munich fling was only a mere teaser, little more than time to lose the jet lag, but Munich nevertheless managed to impress; I will certainly be back.

I started on a sleepless morning, by taking a walk around my hotel area in the southern part of the city. With the fresh air and the rain-dampened streets, it was quite pleasant.

Automotive observations continue, since this trip IS automotive in character. And again, drawing my attention are small, spunky cars, like this Kia cee'd, that I cannot find stateside.

Back when American car companies ruled the world, they marketed completely separate lineups of vehicles for North America and Europe, with very little commonality, if any, between them. Then the Japanese rose to prominence, and while they eventually started to differentiate their American and European models to fit market tastes and needs, they kept more commonality in. Now that the Koreans are rising to their own prominence, they are following the Japanese example; this cee'd, designed at Hyundai-Kia's European research center in Germany, is made and sold only in Europe, but it is related to the Hyundai i30, which is available throughout the world outside North America (and in case of the wagon, even in North America as the Elantra Touring) as well as the Hyundai Elantra (primarily for South Korean domestic market and North America).

The Koreans do have a sizable presence in Europe. Daewoo used to do well before its bankruptcy, and even now, Daewoo-built models, like the Matiz microcar and the Captiva SUV, continue to sell well, though now that Daewoo is part of General Motors, they now make up the European Chevrolet range. SUV builder Ssangyong also manages to move a few of its light trucks in the European market as well, though its raised-wingspan logo is different from the Korean domestic market double-oval logo. Hyundai-Kia offers most of its lineup, including commercial vehicles, but does not offer the bad-ass Genesis luxury sedan, which is just way too big for Europe.

I also want to note the German license plate format. A standard plate, like the one above, has a blue nationality band on the left (EU stars and "D" for Germany), and letters/numbers to identify the vehicle. The first batch (GM in this case) identifies the registration office that processed the car's registration; since Munich is just M, this car is an out-of-towner. My Mercedes-Benz won't get the standard plate, but a special temporary plate reserved for export vehicles driven by tourists.

Now on to pop culture observations.

I am looking at a pole being used as an advertising board, featuring various concerts. While most are of interest to locals primarily, I am noticing a very familiar name: P!nk. Yes, the bad-ass punk girl with very catchy songs - and I especially love her confrontational lyrics - and someone I would definitely love to see myself.

P!nk's Munich performance will be on June 6th, 2010, taking place at a venue in the eastern suburb of Riem.

Continuing my walkaround, now I spot this street scene.

The signs indicate that I can either walk down the stairs to take the U-Bahn, or stay on the street level and take a streetcar (Stadtbahn). I can even do a "park-and-ride" here, judging from the bike rack.

In the background, I see a Deutsche Telekom store, with the familiar pink T. Deutsche Telekom's mobile phone division is known as T-Mobile, and it is a major player not only within Germany, but in the UK and the US as well, though very few Americans ever realize that T-Mobile is really a German company. Deutsche Telekom also operates pretty much all pay phones in Germany, so this is the company to talk to if I need calling cards to use the pay phones.

And that "Einbahnstra├če" sign can only be Onewaystreet. German is a language constructed like building blocks, where complex concepts can be described using a compound word made up of simpler words. It is also very logical in its grammar and syntax. For someone who is logic-obsessed (read: me), German is a great language to learn and speak. Unfortunately for me, German is not all that useful in my everyday life; even my French has pretty much gone to waste, and what I really need to speak are Spanish and East Asian languages.

Back to automotive observations. Here is a Fahrschule, or a driving school, where the window shows some of the international traffic signs that are standard in Europe and the rest of the world outside North America. I will need to get familiar with them before I hit the road; at least, they are vastly preferable to anything written out in verbose German that I cannot comprehend. Fortunately, verbose words are not used in Europe, unlike the US where trying to drive without understanding English can be REALLY dicey.

In fact, I would indeed find that there were only 6-7 words of "traffic German" I needed to understand, in order to navigate. I had already studied up on European traffic regulations, so I knew that the primary means of navigating into/out of towns was signs written as "town center" or "all directions" in the local language ("Stadtmitte" and "alle Richtungen" in German respectively), and that I would need to follow numbered routes using destination cities, rather than a cardinal direction.

If I were to move to Germany permanently, I would need to enroll in a driving school like this, and spend a fortune studying for the written exam, as my first step in getting a German driving license. It would then be followed up with an exhaustive behind-the-wheels program and a thorough health exam. And yes, I would need to do the whole thing; while Germany has reciprocity agreements for drivers from within the European Union as well as Canada and major East Asian nations, its treatment for US drivers depends on the state, and drivers from states notorious for cut-rate driving (that means California and Nevada) must start over from scratch.

Another European car worth a look. This is the current European Ford Focus.

The Focus was the first Ford that truly was a global car. The 1981 Escort was supposed to have been that global car, but massive bickering between North American and European engineers resulted in completely different cars. The 1994 Mondeo was almost a success in being a global car, but while it was an upscale family car in most of the world, it was marketed as a cheaper personal car in North America (where it was known as the Contour, with some external differences), and cost-cutting to fit the target North American market resulted in severe quality compromises for the Contour (something I know too well personally, as I used to drive a '99 Contour which I really hated).

And while the original Focus was identical across the world at last, it eventually diverged. The European version got a full redesign in 2005, and this is the redesign. The American version only got a facelift, before getting its own 2008 redesign, and now the two cars are no longer identical. The 2012 Focus will once again be identical across the world, however. In any case I hate the styling of this Focus; I vastly prefer the original.

The tighter streets and parking spots of Europe necessitate that a Focus-class car serve as a mainstream family car, a duty usually left to much larger cars like the Toyota Camry in North America. High fuel costs also necessitate the smaller size - and smaller engine displacement as well (also since engine displacement is a common basis for taxation). Despite being smaller and underpowered, the European versions of a given car often come with high-end options and higher price tags, to fit their higher-up market duties.

Another concert poster. This one features a familiar Irish name - U2. I can expect to see them at the Olympic Stadium on September 15th, 2010, according to the poster.

It's fitting that the poster is located at the entrance to a subway station, which is served by none other than the U2 line. The U2 line, in fact, will terminate at Olympic Stadium, so yes, someone in this neighborhood will ride the U2 to see U2.

Due to my presence in Germany, I am missing out on a U2 concert back home at Rose Bowl in Pasadena. I am making up for this with another U2 show in Anaheim, on June 6th, 2010 - the same day I can expect to find P!nk here in Munich.

At this point, I checked out of the hotel, and stored my bags at the pay lockers at Hauptbahnhof (the central train station in a given German city). Due to frequent train service to Stuttgart (twice an hour on InterCity-grade trains), I had not reserved seats in advance; I went to a vending machine to make sure to buy a pair of tickets, and to also buy reservations just in case, for a departure close to noon.

Now I am walking around one of the pedestrian shopping streets that fan out from Marienplatz. It's about 10 in the morning and the shops are starting to open up. These are my first moments on a German shopping street during normal business hours; my only previous German experience, a day trip into Cologne from Amsterdam, had been a Sunday too.

Walking around a German shopping area like this is always a joy. In addition to Bavarian themed tourist souvenirs, there are lots of things to look at, and a department store is also a delight as well. Some shops are specific to Germany, while others are well known international chains, like Sweden's H&M or San Francisco's Gap. And even some familiar names carry surprises; Esprit, which I normally consider to be a women's brand, sells both women's and men's clothing in its German stores, while H&M tends to be spread out over 3-4 adjacent smaller stores, rather than one larger store as is often the case in the US.

I'm also noting the trends favored by the German fashionistas: leather equestrian boots, usually black, paired with matching-colored tights and coat. German women are businesslike and rather masculine in their presentation. Those equestrian boots did give me a case of shoe envy, in any case. If I were to pick a pair up, I could expect to pay around €100 for a good example.

In addition to shopping and window-shopping, I am also doing some minor sightseeing as well.

My chosen sight for this morning is Frauenkirche, the building with the twin onion-domed bell towers. I am still incensed at the Vatican and its hatemongering ways, so my policy during this trip is to visit cathedrals to take in the sights and the arts but refuse to support the Church in any form. The Frauenkirche, where the nave is free but the bell towers charge admissions, is my first application of the philosophy.

I am, again, reminded that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is a Bavarian, and was the Archibishop of Munich around 1980, being based out of this very church.

This footprint goes back much longer, however. It is from the legend that arose from the construction of the church between 1468 and 1488 (fast by cathedral standards). As the architect designed the church, Satan approached him, and offered to help with the construction if the church would be built with no windows. The architect took up on the offer, and upon completion of the church, brought Satan to this very spot, at the nave entrance. While the church does have many lovely stained-glass windows, from this particular spot only one window is visible. Realizing that he's been had, Satan stomped his foot in anger, leaving this footprint, before descending back into Hell.

And I have that view Satan had back in the day. Indeed, that's the only window I can see. The church's interior is also very plain.

And this wrapped up my Munich tour. I soon walked back to Hauptbahnhof, grabbing some lunch snacks on the way, retrieved my bags, and hopped on the EuroCity (that's InterCity with an international portion - this particular train, though German, had originated in Graz, Austria) train, which arrived 20 minutes behind schedule. Nevertheless, I was only 10 minutes late into Stuttgart, and before long, was relaxing in the luxury hotel next to Stuttgart's own Hauptbahnhof, where I had a two-night reservation that was paid for by Mercedes-Benz.

The first Stuttgart photos from that evening will be my next installment.