Munich Guide: New Town Hall… and We’re Moving!

Life has gone from zero to everything!

Quick recap. We moved to Munich for Shane’s position. The original plan was to be in Munich for about three months, then the lab project would take us to Tena, Ecuador, for about two years. Like most, coronavirus put us in a state of limbo, but not anymore, folks!

The lab got travel approval, and September 13th Shane, Lucie, Meatball, and I are moving to South America!

Lucie and Shane
Meatball’s getting ready to travel too.

As such, it’s time for The Shwits Make the Most of Munich: Summer 2021 Edition!

Munich is living it’s best low-infection-rate-50%-vaccinated life, and they’ve finally allowed certain tourist attractions to open again after more than a year. One of those is the tower at the top of the Neues Rathaus, or the New Town Hall.

Fun fact. The New Town Hall is actually pretty new, despite its look. It was built in 1905, but the neo-gothic architecture style was apparently very popular at the time. It’s the centerpiece of the Marienplatz, the main square, and the glockenspiel is worth a watch if you’re there at the right time.

The viewing platform is above the clock.

I’m a sucker for a good view. Shane usually approaches these adventures with a little bit of dread because I make him take the stairs, but he lucked out this time. You could only take the elevator. After all of our trips to the Marienplatz, it’s nice to finally get a view from above!


Practical Info

How to get there: Take literally any S-bahn, U-bahn, Tram towards the Marienplatz. They all go there.

Cost: €6. Tickets can be purchased online (which is required right now, as part of the COVID-19 restrictions).

Opening Times: 10:00 to 19:00 daily (until 17:00 on Sundays).

Rating: ✅ Highly Recommended!

If you’re coming to Munich, you’ll definitely go to the Marienplatz. So, go up the tower! It’s worth it.


Tshüss,

Whitney

One Year in Germany!

Quite by accident, the end of May has become our official unofficial moving-aversary. This time last year, we were leaving the Netherlands for Germany, but this time seven years ago (🤯), we were leaving Pittsburgh for the Netherlands!

Leaving Oostersingel 72a!

In honor of our one-year Deutsch-aversary, I wanted to do a little reflecting.

What do we really think about living* in Germany?

* 6 months of which were in a hard lockdown in a 30 sq meter basement apartment with one window**.

** a window that looks at a retaining wall.

Our current view. The kitty makes it worth it.

German efficiency is a myth.

Honestly, I don’t know how this idea started – well, Ok, I kind of do. It stems from so-called “Prussian values,” and by the 1930s, the German reputation was built on Ordnung (order), which were mostly just rules and directness being interpreted as efficiency. If you’re interested, this article gives a lovely history lesson. For everyone else, all you need to know is that efficiency is a trait valued by Germans. However, “efficiency” is generally mistaken for a propensity for rules.

I suppose, theoretically, rules should make things more efficient since you should know exactly what to do. But what happens if things DON’T go according to plan?

like… oh, in the case of a global pandemic?

German angst.

Don’t know what to do about it? Well then, don’t do anything at all! Or, plan a meeting to meet about what to do. Either is acceptable.

We’ve had our fair share of inefficient interactions this year – from Shane’s contract to our residence permits to my freelance tax ID number, which I EMAILED about and received a reply by POST. Over a month later. Telling me I already had a tax ID number since it had been issued in the meantime. 🤦‍♀️

Germany also handcuffed itself during the coronavirus vaccine rollout. In America, there were stories of people getting spare vaccines from missed appointments. In Germany, people vying for those missed-appointment-vaccines were turned away because they weren’t in the proper priority group. Flexibility (in other words, a more efficient vaccination program) wasn’t an option.

I will give some credit, though. Once Germany gets it going – whatever “it” is – then it goes OK. Once there was clear guidance on how to handle new residency permits, our process was smooth. After some vaccine-rollout adjustments, the country is making progress.

The long and short? Take efficiency out of you vocabulary and you’ll have much more realistic expectations.

Learning German is hard… yet easier than Dutch.

…or for the inappropriate version that accurately depicts my true feelings.

I had such high hopes for learning German when we first moved here, but dddaaayyyymmm German articles are frustrating!

So, I gave up.

Well, I semi-gave up on learning German (will-we-won’t-we-need-Spanish?!) but 100% gave up on caring if I get the der, das, die correctly.

Currently, we can get by. Dutch has been very helpful with that since the sentence structure is the same and a lot of the words sound similar, so you can piece together meanings. Plus, we have mostly closed interactions – like at the grocery store or with the receptionist at the doctor’s office. You know what to expect out of those interactions, which makes them easier and manageable. And, similar to Dutch, we can both understand more than we can speak.

So why is German easier than Dutch? Because a German speaker doesn’t automatically switch to English.

Now don’t get me wrong, most people, particularly in a city like Munich, can and will speak English with you but you have to ask for it. And if they say no? Well, then you’re along for the ride, but that’s how you learn! I’ve found that I am much less self-conscious about my speaking capabilities when I know that English is off the table. German is in my brain somewhere. I just have to force it out!

I also notice that I am much less immersed in the language here than in the Netherlands. I’m working from home, we’ve had essentially no social outings to practice those basic skills thanks to lockdown, and we don’t have a boom box anymore. Yes, our old apartment had a legit boom box, so we listened to the radio all the time. It’s amazing the things you unknowingly pick up. We also haven’t been watching regular TV because (go figure) it’s all in German. In the Netherlands, most shows were in English with Dutch subtitles, so we would watch TV in English but hear commercials in Dutch. Before you know it, you’re singing along Kruidvat! Steeds verrassend, altijd voordelig! and wondering what in the heck you’re saying.

Kruidvat! Always exciting, always inexpensive!… in case you were wondering.

So, one year later, I still sound like an ausländerin.

Taxes are high, but it seems worth it.

Ah, taxes. Everyone’s favorite topic.

There’s really not so much to say about this. Taxes in Germany are pretty high. Shane loses about 35% of his paycheck each month, but that’s also paying for his health insurance (and mine, before I started freelancing), pension, and unemployment if he needs it.

Overall, it’s pretty similar to the situation in the Netherlands. The main difference is health insurance. Here, it’s included in the tax where we paid for insurance separately in the Netherlands. And about that health insurance, so far – no complaints! We’ve been to the doctor now for a couple of new vaccines and some health checkups and haven’t paid a dime (I mean… a 10 euro cent?). So, it feels like you’re at least getting something out of it.

Bavaria does not equal Germany.

A poll for the Americans:

When you think of Germany, what comes to mind?

Lederhosen & dirndls, pretzels, big beers, cute wooden alpine balconies?

While yes, all these things are German, they are typically Bavarian.

This seems like an obvious statement, but Germany is a big country! It takes about 7 hours to drive from Hamburg (the largest city in the north of the country) to Munich. So – ok, it takes longer for me to drive the length of my home state, North Carolina, but we’re talking Europe big.

There are also 16 states (Bundesland) in Germany, each with its own unique characteristics. For example, Bremen (a state and a city) was very close to us in the Netherlands and certainly had more Dutch-like characteristics, and Düsseldorf (and the other cities on the Rhine) have a distinct feel to them.

Oh, and the important one. Don’t you dare confuse a Berliner with a Bavarian, which are about as, unsurprisingly, culturally opposite as you can get. While the Nazi party may have originated in Munich, WWII and the aftermath had a completely different impact on Berlin. Munich (and Bavaria) is also a conservative mostly Catholic state, where Berlin is more left-leaning.

Long story short, visit Germany but drop those expectations!

When you come to Bavaria, order that weiß bier & weißwurst for breakfast and wear your lederhosen (especially during the Oktoberfest months) but don’t expect that to be the norm elsewhere.

Oh, and quick tip. In Bavaria, servus is hello, and order a brezen instead of a pretzel. 😉

Not how Shane envisioned post-PhD life, but it’s been worth it!

Let’s be honest, I could try to summarize what Shane said about this, but I won’t get it right. So he’ll write this bit:

Finish a PhD, get a good postdoc position (or two), and then transition into running your own lab – that’s the plan, right? That’s the ‘normal’ academic trajectory. Yea right – Covid really threw a wrench into that plan (as I’m sure everyone can relate to). Whitney has previously talked about our long and frustrating process of moving to Germany and gaining residency, so I’ll avoid re-hashing that. Instead, I focus on the past ~8 months of actually putting my PhD to use. All-in-all, totally worth the wait and hassle!

For this position, I switched ‘systems’ (aka, the animals we use to study evolutionary processes), leaving behind the 10+ years of experience in fish and fish-related research. Now, I work with Heliconius butterflies and I could not be happier. Why? Because it’s different! If find that I thoroughly enjoy learning a new system, new techniques, and new ways of thinking about things. Has this been harder than if I would have stayed in aquatics & fish? Of course it has – but that’s the whole point! My hope is that this will make me a better ‘scientist’ (still weird to call myself that) and broaden my options for when I branch out and form my own lab (fingers crossed I make it that far!).

Oh, and I would remise if I did not also mention my new lab and working group. Much as I spoke about the ‘system’, I am equally happy with my working environment. My lab mates, colleagues, and the general vibe within department are fantastic! The past ~8 months have been a joy and I look forward to the next few years!


Overall, I don’t feel like an outsider, but I certainly don’t feel integrated. I’m partially attributing that to coronavirus, partially to our perpetual state of will-we-won’t-we-move-to-Ecuador, and partially to my lack of trying.

Presuming we stay in Munich, my year-two goal is to try a little harder!

I’m not quite sure how to do that, but that’s part of the challenge of living abroad, I suppose. Tips are appreciated. 😉

Tschüss,

Whitney

Riederstein Hike: Tegernsee, Germany

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking “what-the-damn-hell!?” ’cause we got out of the city, baby!!

Tegernsee, Bavaria, Germany

This past Sunday was G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S and our first true summer-feeling day. When we met up with our friend, Theresa, back in March we talked about going for a hike when the weather finally turned. So, when a beautiful sunny day presented itself, we jumped at the opportunity to get to the mountains.

Do you know what’s really crazy? We haven’t been outside of Munich since September when we went hiking for our anniversary, and we haven’t been outside of Bavaria since we moved here nearly a year ago. I know a lot of people haven’t been traveling, but it still feels surreal.

Anyway, we met up with Theresa and our friend Giulia (who we also met in the Netherlands) for some *covid-protocol approved* outdoor fun!

The Tegernsee (see means lake) is one of the ~10 easily accessible Bavarian lakes about an hour south of the city. Our hike started in Tegernsee (the city) and looped towards Riederstein mountain for a spectacular view of the lake, the alps, and the towns below. Ironically, you can’t actually see Tegernsee city. This view is of the neighboring town, Rottach-Egern.

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my favorite parts of hiking in Bavaria (and Austria) is the beer huts! There’s nothing like a mid-hike beer to power you through the rest. Outdoor dining hasn’t been open in Bavaria since November. So, naturally, we assumed that the beer hut on the route would be closed. You can imagine our excitement when we turned the corner, and it was OPEN (and serving Tegernseer bier, naturlich)! …for take-away only, but that was ok. There was a sunny field waiting for us.

The local brew with the Riederstein peak in the background.

The Riederstein hike ends at the top of this peak – do you notice the small church? That’s where you’ll find those amazing views. It’s 20 to 30 minutes of straight uphill to get to the final destination, but the views are worth it, and you can always have a refreshment when you come back down. 😜

The beer hut with Rieterstein mountain.

Practical Info

How to get there: By car or by regional train (Bayerische Regiobahn) which runs every hour.

Distance from Munich: ~1 hour by car and 1 h 15 min by train.

Hike Direction: Starting at the Tegernsee Prinzenweg im Alpbachtal parking lot, follow the signs for Riederstein or Galaun (the beer hut). On the way back, be sure to head to the correct Tegernsee (there are multiple options!) – look for the Prinzenweg route.

Difficulty: Medium. There were some steep parts, particularly at the end, but the paths are easy to navigate.

Time: ~4 hours, not including time to relax.

Tip: Per usual, bring cash! For more details, check out this link (in German).

Rating: 🧡If there’s time

If you’re looking for a nice day trip from Munich with an easily accessible hike, this is for you. The town is also very typically Bavarian and very charming, with lots of options for food and other lake activities (in normal times).


The coronavirus numbers are slowly dropping here in Munich, and the beer gardens (and all outdoor dining) can open starting today! Maybe this won’t be a terrible summer after all…

Tshüss,

Whitney

Mittenwald, Germany & the Leutasch Gorge

There was a time, shortly after we moved to Munich, where I genuinely (and naively) thought that we jussst might get to take a weekend trip for our anniversary. But, ya know, life happens. Instead of a weekend trip, we hopped a train south, to Mittenwald, Germany, for a hike I’d been eyeballing – the Leutaschklamm!

Mittenwald itself is a terribly cute town nestled in the Karwendel mountain range, just 20 minutes by train past Garmisch-Partenkirchen – home to Germany’s tallest peak. Mittenwald is famous for violin making, frescoes, and hiking and is the headwater of the Isar River (that runs through Munich).

Mittenwald Bahnhof (main train station).
Mittenwald center.
A nod to it’s violin heritage.
Mittenwald, Germany

The outdoor possibilities from Mittenwald are extensive, but we came for one thing – the Leutaschklamm (Leutasch Gorge)!

There are 3 routes through the gorge – the Red, Blue, and Green. The Red Route (the Koboldpfad, or Leprechaun Path) takes you to your first photo spot – the Panoramic Bridge, which straddles the gorge below. It’s obviously a very Instagrammable spot, as evidenced by the line of guys waiting to take pictures of their significant others on the bridge… including Shane. Hey, it was our anniversary – he indulged me!

The Blue Route (the Klammgeistweg) takes you deeper into the gorge. Afraid of heights? Perhaps this isn’t for you. A majority of the path is this see-through metal grate walkway above the gorge! Slightly unnerving at first, but really cool once you get used to it. You’ll also get to hop across the German / Austrian border along the way.

It’s all fun and games until you see a dent in the walkway…
See Shane in the distance?
Germany to the left, Austria to the right!

The final route is the Green Route (the Wasserfallsteig), which takes you into the gorge. The pathway ends at a 23 m (75 ft) waterfall that was loud, but hard to see. Regardless, the walkway to the waterfall was worth it!

The entrance to the waterfall. It’s a one way, narrow path so, right now, masks are required.

And, a day in the German / Austrian mountains wouldn’t be complete without a beer hut. Mittenwald has it’s own brewery – notice the mountain on the beer bottle is the same as the mountain in the background!


Practical Info:

How to get there (Mittenwald): Easy – by train! There is a regional DB train from Munich to Mittenwald. Bonus: this route qualifies for the Bayern Ticket, so it only cost us €32 euros round trip for 2 people. You can travel with up to 5 people on one ticket, which drops the price to only €10.60 per person for a day of unlimited travel in Bavaria.

Distance from Munich: ~1 h 45 min by train and ~1.5 h by car.

Hike Direction: From the train station, follow the brown signs for the Leutaschklaam. You can’t miss it!

Difficulty: Easy. It’s really more of a walk than a hike, and very family friendly with interactive information signs along the way.

Time: All routes, ~2 – 2.5 hours.

Tip: The waterfall path costs €3 per person. Bring cash.

Rating: ✅ Highly Recommended*!

*unless you’re looking for a challenge.

Based on the easy access & cool views, I definitely recommend this trip – especially if you’re looking for an easy day outside of Munich. And, since the walk doesn’t take up you’re entire day, you have the added bonus of exploring Mittenwald. If you’re looking for a more challenging adventure, perhaps the Leutaschklaam isn’t for you, but Mittenwald is the starting point for a number of other hikes, including a via ferrata.


All in all, I’d say it was a successful 4-year anniversary!

Tscüss,

Whitney

Kranzhorn Mountain Hike, Germany (& Austria!)

We may not get to *actually* travel much this year, but I can at least say I’ve been to Austria twice! ANNDDD technically I’ve walked across the border, so if that’s not an adventure then I don’t know what is.

View over the Kranzhorn Alm. Not quite the summit.

We’re pretty lucky to have two friends from Groningen also living in the Munich area, so when Theresa invited us for a weekend hike, we obviously said yes. This week’s trip was unique because the mountain straddles the border of Germany and Austria. At the summit, if you look to the left, you’ll see Schieben, Austria. If you look right, you’ll see Windshausen, Germany.

The summit (1366 m), looking left over Austria.
The summit, looking right over Germany.

Technically speaking, this was an easier hike than our Ehrwald adventure. Wide, clearly marked paths, no bolted metal cables required. It lulls you into a sense of hiking security… but be prepared for a sore butt the next day. The first ~1.5 hours are nothing but up!

The mountain can be approached from either side, but we started our adventure in Nussdorf (aka ‘nut village’), Germany. This (less traveled) route starts directly from the small (free) parking lot towards the Kranzhorn Alm. The more popular route begins on the Austrian side, in Erleberg (with paid parking). The path is mostly through the woods, and although you’re constantly going up, it’s never too steep. We were even passed by several mountain bikers and power-hikers.

The two best parts?

You walk between Germany and Austria!

As I said before – walking across country borders makes me feel cool. The borders are marked by these painted rocks, so keep an eye out!

Blue and white for Bavaria, red for Tirol.
The beer hut, Kranzhorn Alm, has a petting zoo with the fluffiest chickens I’ve ever seen.
Black and white fluffy chickens!

One thing you can’t miss – the summit crosses.

You’ll find a cross on almost every summit peak in Bavaria (and Tirol), which are predominately Catholic states. The summit crosses started in the 1400s but picked up steam in the 19th century when mountaineering became more popular. The cross was obviously a religious symbol (as the mountain peak is closer to Heaven), but also a sign that the mountain itself had been summited. For some, a picture next to the cross is proof you made it all the way up.

We may not be religious, but I certainly think they make for lovely photos.

A third cross, on the Austrian side, for a smaller peak.

Since the Kranzhorn straddles the border, the summit actually has two crosses – one for Germany (the wooden one) and one for Austria (the metal one). Unfortunately, a picture of both at the same time was practically impossible, given the small summit area.

The Austrian summit cross.

And don’t worry. If all that hiking makes you hungry, the Kranzhorn Alm has got ya covered.


Practical Info

How to get there: Check out here (for Windshausen) and here (for Erlerberg) parking / starting info. Windshausen was only ~ 1 hour drive from Munich.

Distance from Munich: By car, ~1 hour. ~2 hours with public transportation (train + bus) .

Hike Direction: Head for Kranzhorn Alm (follow the fork/food symbol!)

Difficulty: Easy. Suitable for beginners or families – nothing special required!

Time: 3 – 4 hours, depending on your speed and how long you linger at the top.

Rating: 🧡 (if there’s time)

Not ‘highly recommended’ simply because there’s no convenient public transportation option. If you have a car and are looking for an easy day trip to the mountains, then definitely check it out!


Wednesday is our 4 year anniversary (!) and the mountains are calling us! So, until then…

Tshüss,

Whitney

Hello, Munich!

Tot ziens, Holland. Willkommen in Deutschland!

Moving day, 27 May 2020.

We did it, we made it to Munich!

Before I start, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge current world events – specifically the Black Lives Matter protests happening in America right now. As an American living abroad for the foreseeable future, to be honest, I feel a weird sense of disconnect. Maybe it’s the distance, maybe it’s jadedness. Black Americans being unnecessarily killed by law enforcement, for me, falls into the same category as school shootings: it happens far too often, people get angry, social media explodes, time passes, people forget, but nothing actually changes. This is inexcusable. Watching from afar though, this time feels different. It feels like people – all kinds of people – are finally fed up and mobilizing for change. As an American abroad, it’s hard to know what you should do in this situation, how can you help? As I mentioned at the end of my previous post, living abroad has instilled a sense of responsibility to understand other people’s viewpoints and acknowledge that the way I perceive the world can be vastly different from how you do. What we (Whitney & Shane) sometimes forget, is that sense of responsibility to learn should also include America. How we, as two white middle-class individuals, perceive America is vastly different than other communities. So, we’re reading, listening, watching, and broadening our perspectives to do our small piece to break the cycle. Black lives matter. People of color matter. What keeps happening in America is, without debate, wrong. If you’re an expat like me and feeling a little lost on how to support, a fellow expat and travel blogger has compiled a great post with a list of resources. It’s 2020, basic human rights – life, safety, healthcare, food – shouldn’t be a debate.

{insert clever segway}

Yeah, ok – I don’t have a clever segway. Back to the move!

Yes, that’s a big truck. No, Meatball did not ride in the back.

A lot of dominoes needed to fall for this move to be successful. We are, after all, in a pandemic and Europe still has some restrictions in place. Step one was to get to Leer, Germany – just over the border, about 40 min away from Groningen. Technically, the border between Germany and the Netherlands never closed, and we heard that people were still allowed to cross for gas & groceries (it’s cheaper in Germany), so we hoped for no problems and no problems we had (step 1 ✓)! Well, border problems I should say. We rented a cargo van. We got a small box truck (step 2 ✓). As you can see from the picture above, we had more than enough space…

Fun fact: my first time driving in the Netherlands was when I drove our (automatic) rental car from Groningen to Leer! Someone should really learn how to drive a manual car… OK but not really ’cause is 2020 and why do they even still exist?!

We rented an automatic. Obviously.

We did run into a small border problem on the way back into the Netherlands. Shane was stopped in the truck by border control. No worries, we had printed Shane’s job contract and our apartment lease as proof of essential travel. Where were those papers? In the front seat of my car about 10km ahead. 😑 All in all, it was ok. They asked to see the inside of the truck and Shane’s (now expired) residence permit. I guess since we were actively trying to leave their country they were cool with it. With minimal delay, we were back in NL (step 4 ✓), loaded & cleaned (step 5 ✓), and said goodbye to Oostersingel 72A (step 6 ✓)!

It’s ~8.5 hours from Groningen to Munich, and since we had the cat, we decided to stop a little over halfway. Luckily, as of 15 May, hotels were allowed to host tourists again, so we didn’t have to sleep in the truck on the side of the highway (step 8 ✓) and Meatball got to have her first hotel experience (fluffy duvet covers blew her mind). We were on the road early the next morning and arrived at our new home in Pasing (Munich) around mid-day.

Our new apartment building!

I’ll be honest, we were slightly nervous about the apartment: ~30 m2 (300 sq ft.), basement, only one sink – in the bathroom. Remember all that space in the truck and how it didn’t look like we had much stuff? Well, pack that into this apartment and we were slightly overwhelmed. But, we did as you do on moving days – drink beer and eat pizza as you unpack – and by the time everything was put away and organized it didn’t seem so small anymore!

Before…
and after!

We’re just about a week in, and I think we’ve found our groove with the kitchen. We were doing dishes by hand in our old apartment, so no real change there. And because the sink is right next to the kitchen area it doesn’t feel inconvenient. We cook all our meals, so there was some concern over the hotplate, but it’s been fine. The smallness honestly doesn’t bother us, but what may get old after a while is the lack of natural light. We get some indirect light from the window, but the view is blocked by a retaining wall. For now, it’s summer and the weather is lovely so we are using it as an excuse to be outside. Overall, the positives outweigh the negatives – the apartment has been recently renovated, our utilities are included, we have GREAT internet, covered bike parking (👍), and we are about 10 minutes walking to Pasing ‘city center’ (30 minutes to Munich city center by tram or S-Bahn). Ecuador has been postponed due to coronavirus until at least early 2021, so until we have a better timeline, this apartment will be fine!

Long story short, we’re on the way to becoming German residents!

This weekend we will be heading out to our local market and (if the weather cooperates) our first biergarten! Stay tuned for our first impressions of living in Bavaria!

Tired but unpacked.

Auf Wiedersehen,

Whitney