All The Small Things

It was an off-and-on rainy day last Monday; Ella and I were spelunking, wandering around Odeonsplatz, searching out the beauty of Munich.  We found it, unexpectedly, in the U-Bahn station.  Lying in her kinderwagon, Ella was conked out, and it was beginning to rain a bit, so I figured we’d head home.  We went down an escalator, and down another, and went to wait for the train.  Now, this isn’t a particularly beautiful station.  Low ceilings, a little dark, not much art, though they do have Mozart playing through the PA;  the advertisements, for everything from plastic surgery, through furniture, to jeans, share a conviction: products sell best when the models are naked.  It’s not ugly, just average (the station, not the models, who are sublime).  There are beautiful U-Bahn stations in Munich, like the the one at Königsplatz, where they’ve taken the statues from of a Roman gate aboveground underground to protect them from weather, pigeons, and the occasional American bomb.  Back at Odeonsplatz, I took a seat on a wire-mesh chair and dragged Ella beside me.  I had a few minutes, so I got out my book (Paris to the Moon, a series of essays by another American Adam living in Europe with his kid) and started to read.

As I sat, and read, and listened, trains came and went, percussion coming in on cue, every three minutes.  Clang clang, whine, hisss, click-schhrruumph, mumbling and shuffling, schhrruumph-click, whine, clang clang.  My train came and went as I sat, and read, and listened.  Reading with Mozart and my daughter, time marked by the rhythm of the trains; it was a small moment, small beauty, in an unexpected place–Euope’s specialty.  It the small things that brings people back to Europe to study, to vacation, to live year after year.  Everyone wants to climb the Eiffel Tower, but it’s the graceful ironwork, not the commanding view, that gets you groping for your camera.  It’s the flaky croissant almost too cute to eat, warm bretzels from a talkative baker, the square of chocolate with your coffee that make Europe Europe.  Unexpected beauty, sudden grace, love put into the smallest things.  These you take home–a piece of Europe lodged in your heart.

To those living in Munich, these bits of unexpected beauty are oases, a refresher for the soul.  Just when you are too hot, annoyed by all the cars, wondering why there are no trees on the street, too tired to bother walking another five blocks to the U-Bahn, too fed up with bumping up against your own cultural ignorance, when you’re ready to go home, you find an oasis.  Two hours before my stint of reading in the underground, I was ready to go home.  We’d just started our walking around, but it was already a Monday.  Not a particularly bad day, nothing you could point to and say “X led to Y which meant that Z happened”, but enough to make you want to give up.  Then I noticed, up and to my left, in the cloister under which I was standing to keep out of the rain, several huge murals depicting the history of Bavaria: the ascension of the first Wittelsbach, pitched battles to consolidate the crown, the submission of defeated enemies to the Herzog; all this in vibrant color, three meters tall, stretching for 200 feet.  I stopped at each one, took some time to try to understand it, to soak this unexpected gift.  I’d been here several times before.  How had I missed them?  As I looked, others stopped.  It seems that most people, locals and tourists alike, had never seen them either.  After a few minutes I felt refreshed, ready to explore, to have another adventure with Ella.

These hidden treasures are everywhere in Munich.  The grand hall of Ludwig Maximilians Universität has a beautiful planned view.  There are two large statues flanking a grand staircase which splits half way up to allow for an arched door which frames a fountain outside.  This arch is echoed three times directly above, also in your peripheral vision on the left and right walls, and brought up into the ceiling dome.  It’s a perfect blend of art and architecture, giving you something to appreciate, still letting you get where you need to go.  But the view is almost invisible.  To see this it, you have to walk to the back of the room, turn around and flatten your back against a marble wall, and for best effect, sit on the floor.  How many people have ever bothered to do this?  How often is this view, this grand vision, simply missed as people rush from class to class?  It’s as if the architect knew that eventually a student would be so beaten down, so tired that she would collapse against this wall, stare at her feet a while, and eventually look up.  When she did, his masterpiece would be waiting to impart a lesson: don’t despair, there is beauty in the world, your problems aren’t so bad.  The waiting is the key.  There is no carnival barker, no one to shout: “Step right up, step right up folks, just look at this cupola!    See great architecture right here!  You there, with the long hair.  Yes, you with the backpack.  You look like a hippie, I’ll bet you like art.  Come on over here, give it a go.”  Instead the oases wait.  They wait for hundreds of years if they have to for the needy soul to find them.

Children teach you to appreciate small things in life, a laugh, a smile, a tiny fist struggling to clutch a toy.  They show you that hilarity can be as simple as a washcloth on your head.  They teach you to appreciate things in the moment, because soon someone will need to eat, or sleep, or have grown into a teenager.  When you stumble upon an oasis then, you’re ready for it.  You know how to let it take you in, how to appreciate it.  Before having Ella I’d have never read in a subway station.  I’d have found a park, a library, a coffee shop, somewhere suitable.  But she was asleep, and there were chairs, when else today would I have ten minutes of peace?  Sitting down, being still, opening myself up, I found something beautiful, something refreshing, an oasis in the city.

This is the piece of Munich that I want to keep in my heart.  A lesson I want to teach to Eleanor.  Be calm for a minute, sit still, and find the beauty around you before searching it out somewhere else.  It’s only fair, since she taught it to me.  Because I can’t take the U-Bahn or the murals home with me, I’ll take Sunday.  Sunday in Munich is how Sunday used to be in the USA.  Everything is closed except restaurants, coffee shops, and museums.  Perhaps it sounds awful.  Americans are used to having things the way we want them, when we want them.  We feel driven to go, go, go.  Squeeze one more errand out of every day.  But living here, I find Sunday provides a rhythm to life.  On an enforced day of rest, you can’t feel guilty.  You can’t spend an entire day getting increasingly irate, flitting from store to store, looking for the perfect toddler shoe.  Sunday here is the day everyone is out in the park, at the museum, breaking bread with friends.  It’s a day for yourself; a day to recharge; a day of rest.  I’m going to bring home a day for family, a day for the small things in life, a day to be calm, sit still, appreciate.  We’ll observe the sabbath, and keep the spirit of Munich in our hearts.

7 comments to All The Small Things

  • I read this with an undercurrent of knowing these times and a main current of joy for you and your fam finding these timeless, precious charms. It’s an amazing piece of civilization, open to everyone and found by only a lucky few. I do think you find a lower gear in your tranny when you spend some time living in Europe.

    You are doing the highest and best you can do with your life right now. Your daughter will always know of these times you spent and her appreciation of them will grow over time. Way to go, my spectacular son and since I can’t be there to see these things first hand, thanks for another well expressed day in the life of two vagabonds seeking meaning and grace in olde Europe.

    Love to all of you.

  • Brook

    Another wonderful entry, described beautifully so that I could really catch the feel of those stolen (gifted?) moments you’re talking about. They’re wonderful to discover–and they’re definitely available in the US too, although it sounds like they’re much easier to find in Europe.

  • Mom

    Okay, you made me cry. Beautifully said. We have so often talked about trying to “do” a real sabbath day, but our “American real world” always intervenes. Maybe you can help guide us to a more “re-creative” weekend. Thanks, and love to all. Many more Mozart moments to you.

  • Erica found some excellent toys for Ella in the Shanghai toy market (yay for everything child related being made in China) but I wasn’t sure whether it would be feasible or reasonable to bring them home just to store them until you return if you ever do. Suffice it to say, you, Laura and Ella are in our thoughts.

    Also, I’m on board with the no work on Sunday thing. We have lost so many traditions over the last 200 years. My question is whether the plan will pan out when homework somehow doesn’t get done on Saturday night. 🙂

  • becky

    I really appreciate what you have to say about the small and beautiful things in life and the need to be still enough and quiet enough to see them. Thank you for sharing them and may you savor many more.

  • Laura Spanier

    I think the thing to bring home, or as you put it, keep in your heart, is your ability to do this – to sit back, appreciate the moment, enjoy the quiet and beauty of your surroundings, and revel in the unexpected loveliness that can be found in the most unlikely places. Of course I don’t deny that Europe has much beauty and that life there can be exceedingly graceful. But it’s also so easy to throw yourself out of your normal life, and say “this is so much better/more beautiful/more whatever than what I had before.” Even moving from San Francisco to Seattle, we noticed it. We spent our first month here running around, exploring every part of the city, having picnics on the beach, going out after dinner to fly kites at Gasworks, walking a new street every day. But all too soon we fell into our normal routines – gotta go shopping, gotta do the laundry, got bills to pay, have to work late tonight, got stuff to accomplish, sorry – no time for a picnic, I’ll take you to the park maybe tomorrow kids.

    Something else you might not ever appreciate, having started out your parenthood with such a momentous change in your living situation, is that having a child *can* really slow you down, (even without a move to Munich!)….I stopped feeling like I had to be doing something every day, that if I wasn’t completing some project, taking some class, fixing something, making something, that I wasn’t accomplishing enough. And I realized that taking my daughter on a walk to see the flowers in the park was accomplishment enough for any given day.

    But of course, you still have to work at it. And I think you have to work a little harder at it to when you’re “back home” and it’s all too easy to fall into those routines, and forget to stop and appreciate the moment. So that’s my wish for you – as a friend and a fellow parent – that you can take this amazing thing that you’ve learned, and remember it, wherever you are!

  • Well said Adam! And I completely understand about the little things that keep you there. One day my daughter and I were getting groceries in Damascus and I’d had enough. Enough of the store, of the city, of the country – just wanted to go home when a little boy called me ‘auntie’. It was so natural and sweet that the one moment helped me to find the patience to stay… and we stayed for almost three years. I agree with Laura – the real challenge is noticing those same little things at home. Happy writing to you and your Laura!

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