I went to Munich and loved most of all the haubtbahnhof—the central train station. The München Haubtbahhof is magic. It is efficiency embodied. It is so many hellos and goodbyes, beginnings and ends, stories waiting to unfold. The building is vast, the ceilings high and full of skylights. Trains await passengers at platform after platform: this one going to Paris, that one to Prague, others to Dresden, Vienna, Rome. The whole place pulses with the invitation to move, change. People move through the main hall and down into the corridors below to catch trains to anywhere in the city and surrounding suburbs: the blue U-Bahn to Lehel or the red S-Bahn to the Karlsplatz and beyond.
I went to Germany in search of some elusive bit of connection to the land that birthed my story many moons ago. My mother’s parents were born in Texas and Missouri, but they were as German as two Americans could be. They were the children of the children of immigrants from Lutheran villages in Saxony, Germany. They came from Germany and settled into small, self-contained German Lutheran communities, and even in 1920, when my Grandpa was born, his family spoke German at home. So, I went to Germany to listen to people speak German, to hear the language, gruff and inefficient, come tumbling out of native speakers’ mouths. I went to see the orange tiled roofs, to see the Alps and the Alpine houses with their flower-boxed balconies. I went to eat weisswurst and drink Hofbrau in the Viktulienmarkt biergarten, to hear the glockenspiel in the Marienplatz and ride the Zugspitzbahn to the top of the tallest mountain in Germany.
Of course, none of this rivaled the time I spent standing in the Munich central station.
* * *
One summer when I was in college, I lived with my sister in Manhattan. I was taking a course on teaching English to speakers of other languages, so each weekday I joined the current of commuters heading south. I made my way from the Upper West Side to Midtown on the 1-train, and from there to the Eastside on the Grand Central shuttle, emerging finally from the underground labyrinth in Grand Central Terminal. With its hundred-year-old tile floors, half-moon and arch-shaped windows, and constellations of the night sky on the soaring ceiling above, it draws travelers into the feeling of beyondness, moreness, even as it is frenetic and humming with the din of moving people.
Each morning, I walked through Grand Central’s main concourse and through a corridor that emptied onto Forty-Second Street. That corridor was a miniature market, a hallway of crusty loaves of bread and fresh pastries, wheels of cheese and cylinders of cured meats, a jewel box of fruits and vegetables, and at the very end, just before the doors to the sunny morning light outside, a glorious flower shop. This daily routine of moving through the city, of joining the tide, the body heat, the breath of a crowd coursing through underground tunnels, of breaking away to catch my next train, of climbing steps and peering up until the sudden vastness of Grand Central flooded my view, and finally meandering past offerings from the hands of farmers, bakers, butchers, and gardeners—this was more than a routine, more than requirement. It was ritual and rite, heavy, laced through with meaning, holding me even as I attempted to hold it within me for future memories like these.
What is it about train and subway and bus stations? They are loud, chaotic, tough; they are rigid and ordered, schedule-bound, unfeeling. And yet they are spaces animated by people. They are dead until filled by the pulsing of human life and movement. And when they are filled with humans, they become containers for so much human experience. They hold comings and goings, longings for home and thirst for adventure; they hold loneliness and reunion, plans and listlessness, ambition, desire, hope, and yet failure, monotony, the mundane.
* * *
I’m particularly in love with one picture from my trip to Munich. It’s an image of the flower shop inside the haubtbahnhof, which is a kind of greenhouse within a greenhouse: a many-windowed shop in a many-windowed building with a vast skylight roof. The shop sits on the east edge of the building, which opens to the alstadt, the old city, where domed churches, cobble streets, stone spires, and window boxes, abound. Turrets, balconies, and rust-colored roofs show faintly through the hazy gray afternoon light behind the shop. In the foreground, escalators descend into intricate subway seams under Munich: “S” and “U” icons on a bright blue sign direct travelers below. The flower shop alerts travelers to its presence with one German word in neon green cursive against the glass: Blumen. Flowers.
I returned to that little blumenladen over and over again. I stood in the middle of the train station, travelers shuffling around me, and stared at that cursive neon word. Blumen. It drew me in; it knew me. It was as if the flower shop was waving a continuous, warm hello in one of the most impersonal spaces on earth. No one lives at a train station. No family owns or cares for it or welcomes others to it. It does not sleep or wake, open or close. It knows only time-tables, and therefore has no rhythms. But that flower shop was soft, friendly, welcoming, homey. And that experience of hominess in a place so very far from home somehow rooted me to myself, my story, the people hurrying around me, the city of Munich, the nation of Germany, the continent of Europe, the world, the universe, and indeed, God. That flower shop in the grand no one’s land and therefore everyone’s land of the train station told me I’m not alone. I am here, me, with myself, and I am here with all these others, these living people, these fellow humans. I am here to stand in the midst of this ever-moving place and wonder at the movelessness, timelessness, of this persistent little blumenladen. It whispers, and through the noise each shaky soul hears its blessing: in chaos, blumen; in weariness, blumen; in arriving or departing, blumen. Blumen, blumen, blumen. You are not alone. You will never be lonely.