Saturday, May 17, 2008

Munich

English Garden

So how much do I like Munich? To be honest, I don't usually like cities. They're noisy, dirty, smelly, and I don't go to bars and clubs and night life doesn't interest me, so usually I do everything I can not to have to live in one.

But I'm finding that I like Munich a lot. First of all, it's got a lot of greenery. It's kept incredibly clean for a city, and it's very compact, so it doesn't take much to get out of it. Even within it, the Isar bike path, for instance, makes it so you can go stretch your legs. And the English garden is very beautiful. (It is however, a very German garden in that the approach is total control over nature --- even the stream and waterfalls you see within it were constructed with expensive engineering) It's also surprisingly quiet where I live at night. I'm very surprised by how nice that is. Getting to cross a few streams on my way to work every day does wonders for my spirit.

There are cyclists everywhere. I love cycling and cyclists, and a typical city street here during the day sees more cyclists than Foothill Expressway or Old La Honda sees on a pretty Sunday morning in Silicon Valley. Everybody cycles. Old grandmothers cycle. Young boys cycle. Even that cute girl in a mini-skirt rides, flashing her panties to anyone in her path (no, I didn't get a picture of that, but I should have). People ride new bikes and old bikes. You see hub gears and you see disk brakes and you see dérailleur bikes and you see heavy dutch commuters and fast road bikes. You don't see a lot of helmets. Now, you might think that that's because the prevalence of bike paths means that cycling is really safe, and you'd be wrong. Like bike paths everywhere, the bike paths encourage intersection conflicts which increases the chance of collisions --- in fact my first week in the office my office mate (a German) had a car-bike collision right at an intersection. The real reason cycling is safer here is that everybody rides --- when you have enough cyclists, drivers are forced to look out for cyclists everywhere they go, but Germans like to drive fast (despite nearly $8 a gallon gas), so I think traffic calming in the city has a way to go.

Before I arrived I had the feeling that I would experience a shock --- my past experiences with Europe have all been on vacation, so I expected that working here in Munich would show me the ugly side, if there is one. So far, however, it's been very nice. You really do get to live the European dream, of having good bread around the corner, of having an excellent public transit system that goes everywhere you might want to go. The city is very walkable --- I've walked to work every day this week, and you walk past all sorts of stores, grocery stores, luggage stores, bread stands, fruit stands. There is even a Segway store (though the price in Euros is not something you'd want to think about)

Speaking of Euros: it's expensive to live here --- despite the Euro being a strong currency, there are no signs that goods denominated in Euros are going to get cheaper any time soon. A monthly transit pass costs 60 Euros (and that's the cheap pass --- you can't get on the train before 9am on that pass!). I bought some freshly made pasta today at the market for 4 Euros. Ok, I couldn't have bought that anywhere near Sunnyvale for any price. Asparagus costed 5 Euros. I suffer from sticker shock every time I have to buy something mundane, like dental floss. And of course, electronics are priced as though each dollar was worth 2 Euros. But again, factor in the fact that what you buy is generally really good (as in Michael Pollan would approve), perhaps the price is generally worth it.

Here's another example of the European dream: the waiters and waitresses actually get paid a decent salary. That means that they don't need tips to survive --- tipping here is a matter of rounding up, not a matter of survival for the staff. It is nice to know that everyone here makes a decent living. Even the person selling you train tickets gets their mandatory 6 weeks of vacation a year. (Alas, I'm still on the American contract, so I'm stuck at 4 weeks --- and even that's generous for an American company)

The ugly: financial services here really suck. Opening a bank account is like getting a permit to start a weapons factory. My relocation specialist helped me make an appointment and it turned out to be ok, but my bank charges me 5 Euros a month as a service fee! (Try that in the US and see how many customers you get) On top of that, my wire transfer is taking more than 2 weeks to get through. At this rate, I might be better off going back to the US, getting cash in Euros, and then using that to pay rent. It is amazingly bad. And because people go on vacation for weeks at a time, sometimes you just can't get anyone to help you. Now until recently, no one in Germany actually had to save for retirement because the state pension was generous and took care of you (plus, they have universal health care, so you won't spend all your money on drugs to keep you alive). But I heard that that has been changing, so Germans will have to get more sophisticated about money. Hopefully that changes the financial sector some, but not soon enough to help me, that's for sure.

So there you go, that's how I like Munich. While I'm here, if you're a friend of mine, consider visiting! Especially if you're a cyclist. The cycling here is amazingly pretty, and cycling in Europe has to be experienced to be believed. Germany isn't the best country for cyclists (the drivers aren't nearly as polite as Switzerland's), but it's still miles better than the US.
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