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Erica Berry: Postcards from Munich

On the front lines of Europe’s immigration crisis.

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Image by Flickr user Ilias Bartolini

By Erica Berry

Mined from the belly of Salzburg hillsides, salt was once called “white gold.” It passed down the blue-gray Isar River, tracing the line of the last glaciation, past rice fields green with glacier-melt and huddles of shaggy cows, to Munich on the Salzstraße, the salt road. I wonder who saw it coming; not the emergence of this medieval trade—the Romans had found Bavaria’s salt mines centuries earlier—but the actual piles of salt. Was the sodium greeted by red-faced dockworkers? Did the heaps gleam bone-white in the sun? Or was this artery one of Germany’s silent ones, behind steel doors and inside wooden carts, out of sight and out of mind to Munich’s butchers and blacksmiths?

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I visited Munich in late November. My red-eye out of Minneapolis landed in Amsterdam in the black squall of early morning, with a layover long enough to descend the stair-less ramp of an escalator to the subway and ride it into the city’s silent Sunday dawn. I had time to drink three coffees and eat a soft-boiled egg, time to notice what my companion called “the details”—the splash of hand-painted mosaic tiles underneath the eaves of a porch roof, the colorful, big-boned bicycles, their riders in black ponchos—before boarding the same train back to the airport, the terminal so stuffed with tulips that it looked like pointillism.

Meanwhile, 200 kilometers away, Brussels was on lockdown as a thousand cops scoured the empty city for a suspect in the Paris terror attacks of a week before. Public televisions showed footage of police running around with guns, jumping around corners. Moving through crowded transport centers, I did the normal things to blunt the throb of fear—stared at shoes, words—and I landed in Munich after dinner. Then I boarded another few trains to get to Pasing, a station just west of downtown, where I met my host, a German grad student, and drank tea with a splash of apple juice before falling asleep on her foldout couch. This is to say: the journey was easy. I smiled at the right times, flashed my passport at the right times, was the right type of traveler to get away with all this. I was visiting Munich with a graduate class in the environmental humanities, but it wasn’t until after I had booked the plane ticket that it occurred to me the trip would, by necessity, be a reflection on something else. I had signed up to be a transient in a city that had recently become a hub for them, though mostly of a very different kind.

Every day these men—single travelers—walked to the bus stop and tried to leave. They were waiting for asylum.

Last year, Germany registered 1.1 million asylum seekers. More than a third were from Syria, many others from Afghanistan and Iraq. Like me, many of them passed through Munich’s Hauptbanhof. Planning a getaway night at the end of my trip, I had booked a border-crossing trip to a hostel in Salzburg, where I planned to drink steaming, mulled Glühwein at the Chriskindlemarkt and catch some free classical music. It had not occurred to me that the route I would be taking into Austria had only recently reopened after a multi-week rail closure meant to stem the “influx,” or that the EU Interrail website called these changes “disruptions” and the global refugee crisis a “situation.”

These realizations were unsettling. It occurred to me this was because I had not actually been unsettled: forced to shift positions, forced to move from an unstable home. My discomfort hinged on the relative comfort of my traveling. In this climate, the motives of my journey—the pursuit of knowledge, even pleasure—felt slippery.

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A few days after arriving in Munich, I visited one of the city’s refugee registration centers, at Richelstraße. The warehouse was surrounded by a high chain-link fence, and had a basketball hoop outside the front door. To enter the compound, we stopped at a canvas tent and signed our names while two guards laughed over a game of hangman. It was Thanksgiving, and raining. A few days earlier, my group had met a German PhD student in cartography, a harpist, who had decided to devote the start of every day to the center’s soup kitchen. We had a free morning, and we were interested, so she put us to work slicing beets and sweet potatoes. I found pleasure in chopping root vegetables on Thanksgiving, performing a familiar dance with complete dislocation from the holiday itself. Beet-stained, my hands took on the same hue as port wine, or fresh bruises. At least it’s not onions, said another volunteer. Last week everyone was crying.

The registration center is a kink in the city’s pipeline of people. When we visited, there were 230 men from 17 countries staying in the bunkrooms there. A volunteer told me that they were picking up German, and that though they wanted to help cook and clean in the facility, bureaucracy was preventing them. Every day these men—single travelers—walked to the bus stop and tried to leave. They were waiting for asylum, waiting to leave Munich, hoping on places like Hamburg and Augsburg. A few months ago, they would only have had to stay for a few days, but the buses had stopped taking as many. I heard they might be at the center for eight weeks.

Lederhosen-sporting revelers were directed to the south of the station and refugees directed to the north, routed to smaller Bavarian towns.

When lunch prep was done, we had time for a short tour of the facility. Near the front door, a female volunteer—was she a guard?—stood in front of a table of electronic chargers. The plastic cords were tangled, springing from charge strips like summer seedlings. Were there 25? 40? A man in basketball shorts handed the woman a cell phone. She smiled and thanked him in English, before turning around to root through the cords. Behind her, a teddy bear sat on a water cooler. In the window, a plastic-wrapped heart cookie the size of my head hung from a red ribbon, silvery in the watery morning light. “#RefugeesWelcome” read the frosting, bordered by a frill of white. When her back was turned, I took a picture of the scene. I don’t know what I had hoped for—a token of witness, a snapshot of normalcy within the crisis?

But here, unknowingly, I crossed a line. A big-boned guard in a red polo leapt toward me. He watched me delete the photo, and he watched me apologize, red-cheeked. My group had already moved away, heading into another room. I walked quickly to catch up, past a cardboard box of green bananas and the plastic smack of a ping-pong tournament, past men on iPods, men clutching pale coffee in reusable, jewel-toned cups, men who were actually teenage boys.

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I used to believe humans were invisible in only one way. As a young woman, I often feel bound to a certain degree of visibility, of uninvited public appraisal. Overseas, this sense is often exaggerated. Last year, I lived in rural Sicily, where my freckled, blonde-enough self was always foreign. I craved invisibility. Once, on a run in the countryside, a man on a motorbike stopped and asked if I was married. Sometimes we are more exciting when we are abroad. I began to suspect that other “expatriates”—that code word for those who live overseas, and are white—had all absorbed this guise of importance. But in Munich, because I looked German enough, I travelled with relative invisibility. The few times locals stopped me on the street, they spoke German, and they asked for directions. I was not important, but I was not ignored.

Asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees often inhabit a different realm of invisibility. Homi Bhaba writes that these stateless transients occupy a paradoxical no-man’s land, neither insiders nor outsiders. In a migratory world, their livelihood, as he writes, “substitutes cultural survival in migrant milieux for full civic participation.” In Munich’s Hauptbanhof, I saw a refugee family leaning against the wall, noted the thin coats and thin smiles. I also saw many of the commuters not seeing them, a trained avoidance of gaze. Sometimes you are invisible because you blend in, but sometimes you are invisible because you have been erased, or you are deemed too painful to see.

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Five minutes away from the registration center, past back-door concrete alleys and more chain-link fences, Munich’s black-suited workers clutched strudels in the crush of the Donnersbergerbrücke train station. Ever since the arrival of two million tourists for the two-week-long Oktoberfest, Munich’s refugees have been routed mainly out of sight. A pipeline of people: still immense, effectively buried.

Every day of the September festival, around 100,000 tourists arrived by train at the Hoptbanhauf. The weekend before it started, 60,000 refugees arrived, too. Lederhosen-sporting revelers were directed to the south of the station and refugees directed to the north, routed to smaller Bavarian towns. Officials described the measure as one of mutual protection and peacekeeping. “Refugees from Muslim countries may not be used to seeing extremely drunk people in public,” said Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann. On Twitter, some criticized the decision with the hashtag #Oktoberfestung, or October Fortress.

I had never participated in a protest in a country that was not my own, but the energy was infectious.

Before the festival, the registration center I visited had held people for a few hours, giving them food, clothing and medical care before they passed through to other towns. But with the arrival of tourists, the city had shuttered the center, which was only one U-Bahn stop away from the Hoptbanhauf. The message was clear: there was not enough room downtown for all the different types of travelers. In the weeks after, volunteers waited for the city to start the center up again, but nothing happened. That’s when VoKü, the volunteer-run soup kitchen I had worked with, stepped in to organize beds and meals for longer-term guests at the warehouse center. Recently, back in America, I emailed the harpist to see how it was going. She said that as of mid-December, the men had had to leave the center, routed elsewhere to Bavaria. “Since then, we have empty halls again – waiting for what will happen,” she wrote.

The autumn revelry was long over by the time I arrived. I had come to expect Bavaria’s capital would look like ground zero—this, after all, was the worst refugee crisis since World War II. But I was surprised by how hard I had to look to see evidence of the refugees. Life went on, a well-oiled machine.

During the war, the city where Hitler gave his first political speech had been struck by 71 air raids. Later, much of it was meticulously rebuilt to pre-1940 standards, with many of the Third Reich buildings torn down or disguised in the process. For the first few decades after the war, Bavaria was what academics call an “economically backward agrarian state,” with above-average unemployment rates. Hop a few decades forward—past a winter Olympics and the terrorist attack that came with them, past a biotechnology park dubbed “Gene Valley” on the city’s outskirts, past federal investments in public transportation—and you find something else.

A day later I landed in America, where I got to skip all the worst lines. The right passport will do this for you.

The capital imposes the country’s highest city tax rates, so local corporations like BMW, Siemens, and Allianz pay up. This means the city has high per-capita investments in citizen life. It is rare, for example, to see a piece of foil blowing down the sidewalks. It is also rare to see someone jaywalk. The subway is seldom late, and very well connected. Everyone seemed to ride public transportation, and to pay for it, even though there are no turnstiles and I never saw guards ask to see people’s tickets. I saw one commuter clutch a chandelier in her lap, another holding a young, potted tree. I also saw a man in medieval armor ride a public bus, silver helmet on his lap.

Other notes: You need a license to own a dog in Munich, and the animals are so ubiquitously well trained that they are allowed in cafes. Germans call the city Millionendorf, or “village of a million people.” The tap water is so calcium-rich that it can powder the insides of empty glasses like a film of salt.

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Twenty minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve, Munich’s police ordered the closure of both the Hauptbanhof and Pasing stations after receiving news that the Islamic State had planned a string of scattered terrorist attacks. A few minutes later, Lutz Bachmann, the founder of the country’s anti-Islamic movement, PEGIDA, sent a tweet calling for all who had once welcomed disembarking refugees to return to the main station and risk the threat. “All welcome-clappers should arrive immediately at Munich’s main train station,” he wrote, in German. Meanwhile, as clocks struck in Cologne, some 360 miles away, hundreds of young men of “North African and Arab origin” allegedly sexually assaulted dozens of German women in a downtown square. The number of criminal complaints has since edged past 500.

The night after arriving in Munich, I had gone with a German and an American friend to a PEGIDA counter-protest in Odeonsplatz. This is the same square that Oktoberfest’s costume parade ends at, and the same square where the Third Reich once held memorial marches for fallen Nazi soldiers. Founded in Dresden in 2013, far-right group PEGIDA has seen growth amidst the recent influx of refugees. There were around 150 people at the weekly Monday rally, mostly white-haired and waving poster board signs while traditional Bavarian songs rang from mounted speakers. We blew plastic whistles and stood with around 500 other counter-protestors behind a series of metal gates the cops had erected to separate the groups. A ring of police—maybe 300 of them, uniformed, with batons—surrounded us. One of the counter-protest songs, Die Moorsoldaten, sticks in my mind: it had been written, and sung, by Germany’s concentration camps prisoners. A final verse translates to, “But for us there is no complaining, / Winter will in time be past. / One day we shall rise rejoicing. / Homeland, dear, you’re mine at last.”

I had never participated in a protest in a country that was not my own, but the energy was infectious, and as I stumbled through the German anti-Nazi chants, I felt the thrill of common cause. Squeezed tightly together, I was relieved to shed my tourist status: I was a body, I was noise. Only once, as my friend translated a PEGIDA sign, did I remember the passport that separated me from the crowd. I remember this particular sign-holder was a woman, younger and with darker features than many of the others. Some of the PEGIDA members screamed at us, but her face was blank and wilted behind her sign: They arrive because of wars that America starts. Why is this Germany’s problem?

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The day after Thanksgiving, I visited Dachau, just 10 kilometers outside Munich. From the local train station, a municipal bus drives past rows of blue-shuttered stucco A-frame houses, letting children in bright plastic backpacks return for lunch break and telling tourists in an automated voice, “Next stop: concentration camp.” Later, at the on-site museum, I learned that after liberation—but until the mid-1960s—the camp had held 2,000 German refugees who were expelled from Eastern Europe. The museum did not tell tourists that in September of 2015, around 50 refugees and otherwise homeless people had been placed in converted buildings at Dachau’s “herb garden,” a former slave-labor site. I did not know this when I visited, and I do not know if they are still living there.

The following morning, I went to Salzburg with my friend. Like the “white gold” of the Middle Ages, we traveled a pleasant route of cows and fields. At dinner in a crowded tavern, we ate next to two women who worked for an Austrian department of immigration. They were visiting for the weekend, leading training sessions for the hundreds of juvenile refugees who lived in converted warehouses outside the postcard-ready central city. We were surprised: for a town that had been taking 450 refugees a day in early autumn, the station had been quiet, noisy only with holiday tourists. It wasn’t clear the refugees were still in limbo, or in the city. Later, I found a series of lengthy forums on TripAdvisor confirming my false assumption: “The refugee situation was not visible, discussed or seemingly a factor anywhere we went,” wrote a cheery man from Michigan.

A day later I landed in America, where I got to skip all the worst lines. The right passport will do this for you. What took you overseas? asked the blue-breasted Atlanta customs official. After a pause, I told him it was for academic study, vacation. He smiled, raised his stamp like he was pounding a tin drum. Welcome home.

Erica Berry is a nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. Her last Guernica essay was featured on Eater’s best food writing of 2015 list, and her other recent writing can be found in the Columbia Journalism Review, Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, and with the Food and Environmental Reporting Network. She tweets, sometimes, at @ericajberry.

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