Literaturhaus to Alte Pinakothek [On foot]
When we were new to Europe my wife would often admonish me on trips abroad for making it obvious that we were tourists. “Don’t take out that map!” she would say, or, “hide your camera!”. In her opinion, if you act like a local you won’t be swindled. Never mind that in the remote Swiss village our brown faces stood out like nuts on a layer of white cream. But you can’t explain this to my wife (trust me, you can’t), so I would look for a dark corner to glance furtively at my map, or hide behind a wall to take some candid pictures. We did not look like tourists any more, we looked like spies.
These days I find that maps and cameras open conversations. In Munich this happened twice in one day. On the first occasion a young black woman came up to me as I was poring into my map at an intersection, unsure whether to turn left or right.
“Hi” she said.
She held out a flyer. “This is something for you.” Her English contained an intriguing mix of African and German intonations.
“It’s about some work we are doing for children in Nigeria.” I saw some images of smiling black boys and girls.
“Here’s the website,” she pointed to the bottom of the flyer. “You can find more information there.”
“Great. Thanks! Are you from Nigeria?”
“Yes,” she smiled.
“I happen to know a Nigerian-American writer. His name is Teju Cole. Have you heard of him?”
This was like meeting a stranger from Mumbai and asking if he knew a certain Amit Paunikar from Bandra East. But I had no other Nigerian connection.
“No, never heard of him.” She seemed in a hurry to move on.
“That’s fine. Thanks for this anyway.” I waved the flyer.
I walked toward Pinakothek der Moderne, the museum of modern art. It was closed for renovation, and I found this notice after circling the entire complex looking for an entrance. The other Pinakothek galleries were nearby. I moved on. At the intersection where Gabelsbergerstrasse meets Barer Strasse, as I looked from my map to the street signs, I saw a woman few meters away get off her bicycle. I moved aside, assuming she stopped because I was in her way, but she shook her head and beckoned to me, the way someone would call a child. I walked up to her.
“What are you looking for?” she asked, pointing at my map. She was a short woman with thick glasses, well into her seventies. Her short hair, grey and white, gave her a boyish look, but she had the round and pudgy appearance of an old woman.
“Neue Pinakothek.” I said.
She pointed to a large building across the street. “This is Alte Pinakothek, and the next one, there, is Neue Pinakothek. But you must know: Neue Pinakothek is not new! It is from the 18th and 19th Centuries.” She meant that it hosts artwork from those centuries.
“Yes. I was actually interested in Pinakothek der Moderne, but it’s closed.”
“Ah, yes. Where are you from? India?”
“Yes.” She struggled with her English, so I suggested she could speak in German. She switched, instantly.
“The women in India are having a hard time these days, isn’t it?”
It took a couple of seconds to grasp what she was talking about. The New Delhi gang rape and the protests that followed received extensive coverage in the German media, and some of my German colleagues had even asked me about it. I must have looked puzzled for a moment, because she immediately toned it down.
“Don’t worry – it’s anyway all relative, you know. I live nearby in a community that was once a welfare housing society, but no more – it’s private now. And I come from a cultured background – I was a pianist.”
“Oh, how wonderful.”
“Yes. What I was saying is that in this city of culture, in my own neighbourhood, there are people of a very different kind. So it happens in all places. My sister lives in Ecuador, she is of a high-status there, and she says in that country too there are so many cultured people, amidst people of the other kind. So it happens everywhere. Which part of India are you from?”
“Bangalore. South India.”
“Ah, the south. For someone from the south you do not look very dark.”
“South Indians are supposed to be darker, isn’t it?”
I smiled and nodded. “You know a lot about India!”
She didn’t get this. The traffic around us was loud. I bent over and repeated myself.
“It’s just my interest in Geography and People!” she said. “That is all there is to society, isn’t it? Geography and People. Anyway, I wish you the very best. Alles Gute!”
This brief encounter lifted my spirits. I’ve never been volunteered help while looking at a map, and after this charming little meeting I stopped and peered at the map every hundred meters or so, whether I knew where I was going or not. But serendipity can only be plotted inside a novel.