May 01, 2004

Mayday in Munich

Seven years and a day ago I boarded a train at Roma Termini station in a pinched, stressed-out state of mind, having worked a full day and having then been unable to get any cash because the interbank link back to the UK was broken and I had no money in my Italian account. I had, moreover, been unable to reserve a cuccetta, that is, a bunk, and was obliged to make do with a regular seat in a cramped compartment in last class. The compartment was full and it wasn’t long before I felt quite uncomfortable as we headed north through Firenze onward slowly to Bolzano and the Alps.

I was on the train because I couldn’t afford to fly, and because I hated my job and Mr B________ had fixed me up with an interview in Munich at the main German offices of the company whose Swedish affiliate employs me today. The interview had been scheduled for May 1st, a national holiday in both Italy and Germany, thus, I thought, I would be able to steal away undetected without arousing my Italian employers’ suspicions.

Albrecht Altdorfer. 'Alexander's Victory (The Battle at the Issus)', 1529, Oil tempera on wood. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

It was a 12-hour overnight trip, but there was no way I could sleep in my seat, though two or three in my compartment were snoring peacefully all the same. By the time we arrived at München Hauptbahnhof I felt haggard and stale. I walked aimlessly awhile wondering how I might telephone Herr Marx, so that he could let me in to the locked and otherwise deserted offices where the interview was to be held. I had no phone and no Deutschmarks, nor, it seemed, could I withdraw any cash. Fortunately I found a payphone that accepted my credit card, made the call, and and alerted him of my imminent arrival.

Herr Marx (his real surname) could have been then-president Bill Clinton’s long-lost identical twin brother, so striking was the resemblance. The interview went relatively well, and if I came across as exhausted or bewildered, he was kind enough not to mention it. At least I didn’t answer anything with ‘Jawohl, Herr Mr President, sir…’ He seemed more concerned with my complete ignorance of the German language. I would need to start learning it if I were to get the job, he said. Interview done, I had ten hours to kill before my homeward train was to depart.

Albrecht Dürer. 'Self-portrait', 1500, Oil on wood. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

I walked through the city, looking in shop-windows, admiring the splendid Rathaus, stopping to change the 20,000 lire note I’d found, with great relief, tucked away in a pocket of my suit. This was enough to buy some chop suey from a stall in a crowded mayday market set up in a park or garden of some kind near the centre of town, in which I was more than once nudged or clunked by passing old-ladies brandishing walking-sticks like weapons, whom I could almost hear thinking take zat! and get aut of my vay!, and to admit me to the Alte Pinakothek art gallery, whose airconditioned rooms I explored in an outright stupor of wonderment at the quality and variety of works on display, even though now, when I try to bring them to mind I cannot clearly recall what pieces I saw. The present images would, I gather, have been among them.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. 'Self-portrait', 1629, Oil on wood. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

After about thirty-six hours without sleep, I begin to go a little mad. I hallucinate, catching fleeting glimpses of misty somethings from the corner of my eye, and I become obtrusively paranoid, and imagine that I am being stared at, or talked about. As I sat slumped at a station café table, palely exhausted, dehydrated and somewhat deranged, I imagined hearing snatches of English conversation and whispered namecalling from the passers-by…

Luckily, on the return trip my only companions in the campartment were a quiet young couple, so there was room enough for the three of us to stretch out and get some sleep. Another full night awake would have left me in a terrible state. At one point in the Alpine darkness I imagined I heared the couple having almost-silent sex right beside me… in case I heared right, I lay still, feigning sleep and leaving them to it.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 'The Land of Cockaigne', 1567, Oil on panel, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

I was back at work before 10 the next morning, having showered and shaved and downed coffee, but I was there in skin & bone only, so very tired, and got nothing done. I never did hear back from Herr Marx, but about two months later, when I had at last decided to quit my job that I hated, and had lined up a series of interviews in the UK, I received a call from a colleague of his in Vienna saying ‘You start with us here on Monday, yes?’ ‘Uhhh, as it happens, no, I do not’, I replied.

Posted by misteraitch at May 1, 2004 10:26 AM | TrackBack

I imagined hearing snatches of English conversation...

The same thing has happened to me: when dozing off, foreign languages in the street turn into disconnected English phrases. I wonder if there's a name for it...

Posted by: gabriel on May 1, 2004 10:56 AM

Interesting story...I remember those awful states of being when jet-lagged and unable to sleep for a few days, that feeling of disconnectedness! Munich is a wonderful city, so full of fabulous art museums and ancient buildings, it is too bad that you weren't able to enjoy it fully!! Was anything happening regarding May Day celebrations that you were faintly aware of? I just wrote in my blog about May Day (Walpurgisnacht in Germany, Vappu in Finland) so this is a timely question.

Posted by: Marja-Leena on May 1, 2004 05:15 PM

re: I received a call from a colleague of his in Vienna saying You start with us here on Monday, yes? Uhhh, as it happens, no, I do not, I replied.

So what happened? Why not? How did you get to your present job?....

Posted by: giovanni on May 3, 2004 06:47 AM

By the time I got the call from Vienna I had already given notice to quit, but this was a job with a three month notice period, so I couldn’t easily leave immediately. Besides, I’d arranged a series of five interviews in the UK, out of which, I felt confident, I would get at least one firm offer. As it turns out, I got two definite offers, chose one, but, when I moved back to the UK, was unable to begin it (another long, but not very interesting story). After another couple of weeks Mr B________ helped me find another UK-based job. The job I'm in now is my second since then…

Posted by: misteraitch on May 3, 2004 11:36 AM

Once when I was very tired and dozing in the passenger seat of a car I thought I saw lots of people in white silk pyjamas sitting up trees. Thankfully the image only lasted half a second. :)

Posted by: Claire on May 3, 2004 02:15 PM

My worst travelling experience began with three full days of sleep deprivation. I suffered similar paranoia, complete with hallucinated (or at the very least wildly misinterpreted) whisperings. A bad trip, in more ways in one.

Posted by: Ray on May 8, 2004 05:43 PM


I just wanted you to know that you can see 6 of Vrubel's pieces (including Lilacs) at the Guggenheim in NY from now til January 2006. It's an exhibit called, "RUSSIA!" It's really wonderful. I just went there today. I fell in love with Lilacs. So, that's how I found your blog. I hope you read this in time. Right now--you don't have to fly to Russia to see it!


Posted by: Stacey on September 25, 2005 08:33 AM
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