The D&O Diary was on assignment in Europe this past week, with the first stop in Munich for a series of meetings with my friends at Munich Re and their global insurance company clients. My visit to Munich not only coincided with Oktoberfest, but also with the Day of German Unity (Tag der Deutschen Einheit), the annual German holiday celebrating the country’s 1990 reunification. The annual holiday celebration is hosted in the German state presiding over the Bundesrat each year, and this year Munich, the state capital of Bavaria (or as the say in Germany, Bayern), hosted the celebration.
Munich is a prosperous and pleasant city and its population of about 1.4 million makes it the third largest city in Germany. The Isar River flows along the city’s east side, running northward from the Tyrolean Alps to a junction northeast of Munich with the Danube River. Munich itself is relatively flat, but one very clear day while I was there I was able to see the Alps -- about fifty miles to the South of Munich -- from the top of the Olympic Tower.
For the reunification day celebration, the main north-south street in the old city center was blocked to traffic and lined with tents for each of Germany’s 16 länder (states), including the three stadtstaaten (city-states) of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen. The tents featured products from each state, as well as food and beer characteristic of the region. I sampled an enormous variety of sausages, and in many cases I had absolutely no idea what I was eating -- which is probably just as well, because when it comes to sausages, some things are better left unsaid. I did make sure to find out the name of the sausage I liked best – it was Thüringer Rostbratwurst, a spicy sausage made with majoram, caraway and garlic. I also sampled some Currywurst, about which the less said the better,
I was pleased that this year’s holiday celebrated the 22nd anniversary of reunification, because it allowed me to deploy my second most-favorite German phrase, which is zwei und zwanzig (twenty-two). Unfortunately it does mean that I will have to wait thirty-three years to use my most-favorite German phrase, fünf und fünfzig (fifty-five). My stock of German phrases admittedly is pretty limited. But zwei und zwanzig sure came in handy for the recent German holiday.
Many in the crowd at the holiday street festival were dressed in traditional Bavarian attire, with men wearing lederhosen and the women wearing dirndls. I was struck that those wearing the attire were not restricted to one age group – old and young alike were dressed up in the outfits. I was also struck the people wore the traditional attire with admirable nonchalance, as many people wearing costumes often are self-conscious about it. I found myself wondering who the people were who chose to dress up in the costumes for the day and I noticed that in general they seemed to be healthier and better looking than the crowd as a whole. It also occurred to me that the outfits may also reflect a certain level of prosperity, as a full Bavarian getup appears to be pretty costly. I will say that the women wearing the dirndls looked great, as the dresses are often worn in a way that, shall we say, emphasizes and flatters the feminine figure.
Munich has a reputation as one of the most livable cities in the world, and one of the main reasons for the reputation is the incredible amount of green space in the city. Just opposite the front door to Munich Re’s historic headquarters building is the main entrance to the Englischer Garten (English Garden), an enormous public park that is larger than New York’s Central Park. In the park’s center is the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower), a five-story wooden structure that at least in its basic shape is reminiscent of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Surrounding the tower is a large beer garden, and on a sunny fall afternoon, the beer garden's more than 7,000 seats were full of people enjoying the dappled sunlight, talking, and drinking beer, while listening to an oompa oompa band playing music from the tower's second story. Further north in the part is the Kleinhesseloher See, a man made-lake that in the early October sunshine reflected the leaves' changing colors (pictured above at the top of the post).
At the southern end of the English Garden I saw something totally unexpected. There, at the mouth of the Eisbach, a man-made stream that runs through the park, people in wet suits were surfing the standing wave formed by the strongly flowing water. The river surfing was absolutely fascinating to watch, although I think anyone would have to be insane to even attempt it. The surfers I saw appeared to be quite skilled, but I suspect there are some serious injuries from time to time.
Early one morning before the first of my meetings in Munich, I took the U-bahn (subway) out to the city’s west end, to see more of the city’s green space at the Schloss Nymphenburg (“Nymph’s Castle”), a baroque palace that was the principal summer residence of the rulers of Bavaria. Behind the main palace building is a 490-acre park that includes both formal gardens and thick woodlands. (By way of comparison, the National Mall in Washington is about 309 acres). On a sunny fall morning, the castle’s grounds were quite beautiful. Alas, there are no beer gardens on the castle grounds, a rare city site that didn’t involve beer in some way.
On the other hand, this time of the year, another of the city’s large parks is entirely given over to beer. The city’s world-famous Oktoberfest celebration is staged in the city’s Theresienwiese, which is essentially turned over to the city’s brewers, and where each year the brewers construct what amounts to a beer-themed amusement park complete with carnival rides and swarming with crowds of people. Each of the major breweries hosts their own enormous “tent,” which is actually a large, enclosed wooden structure holding thousands of people. Every year the festival attracts nearly 7 million visitors, the vast majority of them from outside Bavaria. Each year, the thirsty visitors, many of them dressed in traditional Bavarian attire, drink about 7.5 million liters of beer – and they drink it one liter a time out of the enormous glass beer steins.
It is probably just as well that that the traditional serving size is measured in liters rather than ounces, because it is much easier to accept that you are drinking just one liter of beer rather to think about the fact that you are also drinking over 33 ounces of beer at a time. Inside the beer tents, a band plays a combination of contemporary music and traditional tunes. Periodically, the band calls out a chant that goes something like this
Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, der Gemütlichkeit
Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, der Gemütlichkeit
Eins, zwei, drei g'suffa!
Zicke, zacke, zicke, zacke, hoi, hoi, hoi,
Zicke, zacke, zicke, zacke, hoi, hoi, hoi, Prosit!
With the final shout, everyone clinks their glasses together and takes a drink of beer. (All of this makes a lot more sense after the first stein). As the evening progressed, I found that I enjoyed singing along with many of the German drinking songs, despite knowing neither the lyrics nor the melody. As you might expect a crowd full of insurance professionals adapted to these circumstances effortlessly. Although one of our group did lose his glasses and another lost her cell phone. (In the interest of maintaining friendships, there are no pictures here of our group at Oktoberfest.)
The Oktoberfest celebration was great fun but I have to admit that I felt a little fragile for my presentation the next day. I will say that I grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Munich and to meet so many industry colleagues. I am very grateful Munich Re for inviting me to be a part of their event. Munich is a wonderful place, worthy of many return visits.
The Alps (viewed from the Olympic Tower in Munich)
Do Your Worst: Currywurst und Pommes Frites mit Bier
A Sunny Fall Afternoon in the Beer Garden
The Walking Man Statue (Outside the New Main Entrance to Munich RE's offices)
Isar River in Munich
In the English Garden