Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Deutschland Diaries Part 2: Mittenwald

Mittenwald is a small town in Bavaria, Germany, that the mother was dying to visit. And so we did.

The train from Munich pulled into the Mittenwald station at 8.30 pm. The town was dark and deserted, as though there was a curfew on. As is habitual with us, we had no hotel booking. It was 6 degrees Celsius, I was wearing nothing warmer than a windbreaker and that damned trolley bag kept slamming into my thigh as I carried it for about 600 metres until a group of young men that got off the train with us pointed us in the direction of what they said was a hotel, but turned out to be a beer garden guesthouse wherein we rented a small room that we later discovered had no heating and no WiFi, all for a ridiculous 80 Euro.

The best of beginnings it was not.

As I dragged the bag into the garden up to the entrance of the guesthouse, I spotted a huge white mass of soap suds by the gate and wondered what became of the normally active environmental consciousness of the Germans.

After a good dinner of pizza and pasta at an Italian restaurant around the corner while fully exploiting its WiFi connection, we spent the night shivering beneath one blanket (the mother refused to use hers after she found strands of hair on it that didn't stray from either of our noggins). After a miserable breakfast, the mother set out to find alternate lodgings, while I got ready to get the hell out of there (I must admit however that I had no wish to venture into what I considered was below freezing no matter what temperature the weather app displayed). It was Monday and apparently the staff's day off; there wasn't a soul anywhere in the guesthouse. The keys to the room included one to the front door, which had to be locked. Nobody had thought of mentioning to us where we were supposed to deposit the keys after locking the front door when checking out. So I kept them (with the key card to the luggage room from the hotel in Munich that I'd forgotten to return to reception), thinking I'd return them the next day

The mother called me to the garden as I got the bags out.
"I want to introduce you to someone."
"There's no one here.."
She pointed to the white fluff. "Meet Snow."
"That sludge is snow?! I thought it was a mass of soap suds!"

The pile of 'snow' was adulterated with fallen leaves, dirt and mud. What happened to its purity and fluffiness depicted innumerable times on TV? I felt cheated.

The second hotel was a far cry from the first. The room we rented (for the same rate) was equipped with every amenity and both the interior and exterior were very pleasing to the aesthetic sense, as the balcony looked onto the craggy Alps that towered over the edges of the town.

The room with a view. Breathtaking, innit?

More craggy mountain tops

My only complaint was of the miserable WiFi connection, but at least it existed.

A walk about the town revealed more of its inhabitants and visitors—old people. There was no one there under the age of 50. I felt weirdly out of place.

It was Eid that same day and the first one ever without sheer khurma. Not that I missed it but the occasion necessitates the satiation of the sweet tooth. We celebrated with baklava from a Turkish restaurant and Kinder Bueno ice cream from a shop selling gelato. A very satisfactory break from tradition.

I might have forgotten to mention that with regard to clothing, I was grossly unprepared. My only thought had been the Munich run, and besides a waterproof windbreaker, compression tights and a couple of tees, all I had for the Alps was a thick sweater and jeans. I moaned as I thought of the warm coats back in Prague. This is the story of my life. Pitiful. Oh, so pitiful.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Deutschland Diaries Part 1: Munich - The München Marathon

Ladies and gents, I give you... The Deutschland Diaries. 

Hereon, I solemnly swear to chronicle the entirety of my experiences in the fatherland in The Deutschland Diaries, with narratives and pictures, no matter how long it takes and not get sidelined until the series is completed. 

If someone had told me last year that I was capable of running a kilometre, let alone 10, I’d have laughed right in their face. But that was before I started running with the Q8FootSoldiers every Friday morning.

It was with trepidation that I registered for the 10km event of the Munich Marathon. I’d run 10km just once, in 81minutes, however this race required completion in a minute less. Even though a trickle of self-doubt seeped into my consciousness like a noxious gas, the excitement grew with each passing day as this would be my first official run.

A few days before the event, friend and fellow runner Lord Aymz—to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for bullying me into joining the Q8FootSoldiers—sent me an image of a runner with the following text: ‘This time I will be great. This time, I will fight harder than I ever have before and never look back. This. Is. It.’

That was the final boost of confidence I needed.

The day before the race, I traversed the picturesque five-hour train journey from Prague to Munich’s main station and then took a tram to the Olympiapark to collect my race kit and number. The lush green park, with its rolling hills and lake, was an unexpected sight. The proceedings at the event arena were so well-organized that despite thousands that signed up, there were no queues. Several companies were exhibiting and selling sporting goods, and I somehow got talked into splurging on a pair of barefoot-running shoes (how’s that for an oxymoron?). There was a pasta party as well, for participants to stock up on carbohydrates that would contribute to their strength and endurance for the marathon the next day.

The Olympiapark. 

Why does this remind me of the Shire?

Who agrees that the Olympiaturn (tower) has an uncanny
resemblance to Kuwait's Liberation Tower? =D Or vice versa
I suppose, since this was built in 1968.

A ChampionChip kept track of pace. After the run one was entitled to a souvenir medal, refreshments like flavoured milk, pretzels, apples and bananas, physiotherapy and showers.

The Day dawned clear and bright. The Underground station was dotted with several dark pink race kits strung over the shoulders of commuters and the exhilaration escalated as I realized I was part of something huge. I befriended two lovely German women who were also doing the 10km run.

Excitement was fever pitch as we walked as close as we could to the starting point amongst the 3,000 or so runners. My breath fogged before me; it was 7 degrees Celsius. I wasn’t used to the chill, having begun my running journey in Kuwait’s sweltering heat, but it was without a doubt much more preferable. I noticed jackets upon the cordons; apparently these were placed there by runners for charity. 

The human barrier at the start line.

The gunshot echoed through the street, the smoke from the barrel rising above the heads of the runners. We were off!

Note the smoke!
It had rained the night before, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the deep blue of the sky, the autumn gold of the trees lining the path forming a stunning contrast against it. As if in agreement, my iPhone played Michael Bublé’s It’s a Beautiful Day to start off with. I could hear the synchronized thudding of feet pounding against the damp road over the music. Spectators stood behind the barricades, cheering us on.
The sun bore down but the canopy formed by branches of trees on either side of the path never let us feel it. 

Autumn gold.
After about 2km, loud cheers and applause rose from around me as a runner flashed by in the opposite direction with a BMW in close pursuit. The car had a timer upon it; 17 minutes. He must have completed 5.5-6 kilometres. I was awestruck. Somehow, witnessing his incredible feat and the determination behind it motivated those present to go a bit faster, as evidenced by runners suddenly overtaking me!

Water was handed out at the 4km mark in front of the majestic Siegestor or Victory Arch. I spotted a bystander holding a poster that said, ‘Good luck random stranger’. Grinning, I went on. Bands played at different stages, bolstering resolve. More water and banana quarters close to the 8km mark. At this point, my knees implored me to stop but I silenced them. Just when my resolution began to waver, I noticed two little girls on the pavement holding their palms out to the runners. I high-fived them and felt a tingle of energy thrusting me forward. I’d never felt anything like it.

The Siegestor in the distance. It has an inscription on the back
that translates to: 'Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war,
reminding of peace.'

The final kilometre led into the Olympic Stadium. With just about a 100 metres left of the track, my iPhone very obligingly played my power song. Adrenaline pumped through me, eliminating the exhaustion. Fussy knees forgotten, I bolted towards the finish line, my spirit soaring as I noted the time displayed. I’d finished in 70 minutes, shaving 9 minutes off my predicted time. If it was possible for your heart to explode with joy and satisfaction, that would have been my moment. I have miles to go in terms of fitness and endurance, but this is a decent start.

At the end of the run, I had a pleasant encounter with a friend of a college friend (this one) from Pune. It was slightly amazing that we found each other in the multitudes of runners, considering we'd never met before. I also reunited with one of the German women I befriended, who invited me to Mannheim and Heidelberg to visit her. I might just taker her up on the offer on the next trip.

There were a few heart-warming moments from the run that have stayed with me. I spotted a family of four running with their two children, neither of which could have been older than twelve, and marvelled at their stamina. At one point, a woman went past me pushing her baby in a stroller. Later, I passed a woman running determinedly with a prosthetic leg. The most touching however was a man charging forth with another in a wheelchair. The runner had a paper pinned to his back with the words: ‘Beste Freund’.

Why do people sign up for runs such as this? For some, it is steeling themselves to completing the challenge without chickening out due to the witnesses present. For others, it may be to share their passion with those that participate. Some might run to raise awareness or funds for a charitable cause, while an elite few for the glory and to officialise their triumphs.

Whatever the underlying reason may be, it’s always you you’re competing against. You that is defying the odds and shattering the limits the voices inside you may place upon you. There is no stronger contender.

Image courtesy: The mother.