NOTE: I posted the original version of this blog late on Tuesday evening, 8 June.
Within hours, I had received comments, calls, texts and emails about Alex's life and times.
So I decided to telephone him today, both to refresh my memory and to ask a few further questions. As a result of this telephone call, I have today re-drafted
the part of this posting which tells his story.

In this blogposting...

*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Fourth Day



Munich is quite a City - with a capital C. There’s a lot more to it than the Oktoberfest.

On the train from Cologne an enthusiastic young couple had been singing its praises to me. They told me that survey after survey has, apparently, shown that Munich is Germany’s favourite city and a recent poll of its readers by Time magazine put Munich at the top of a list of the most liveable cities on earth. My friends on the train, and a few others who joined in, went into raptures about its artistic and cultural life, its joie-de-vivre, its opulence.

The lateness of the train meant that I had to sit smilingly through what seemed like hours of Munichophilia. Together, my fellow-travellers managed to set the place up as something between the Garden of Eden and Emerald City.

As a matter of fact, I had begun to discover some of its qualities even before I’d set foot on the station platform. Its setting - clearly visible from the train as it draws nearer to the city - is almost unimprovable. It’s surrounded by mountains, forests and lakes, many of which are visible from its central streets, too. Almost within metro distance there are national parks, fantasy mountain-top castles, ski resorts and dark forest drives.

And you only have to spend a few minutes in the city centre, as I did on this busy Monday morning as its citizens went about their business - to realise that Munich is prosperous, wealthy and cultured. It teems with expensive-looking boutiques, restaurants and street-cafes. Well-turned-out Munchners throng its streets and lanes well into the night - even in late March. You get the feeling that the city knows how to enjoy itself and ‘show off’.

Munich has four - four - art galleries of international importance. Both BMW and Siemens have their HQs here. It has one of Germany’s topmost soccer teams and has hosted the Olympic Games (albeit the tragic Games of 1972).

It has a self-consciously relaxed, cosmopolitan, metropolitan, ‘capital city’ feel about it; a feeling which, moreover, hits you right between the eyes almost at once.

The pleasing jumble of lanes and alleyways that make up what’s left of Munich’s altstadt (‘old city’) sits happily beside its well-restored and rebuilt boulevards and great public buildings. There are so many street-cafes that you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a city much further south, on the Italian or French shores of the Mediterranean. It’s a happy and apt coincidence that the Italian for 'Munich' is Monaco.

For me, one of its most exciting and impressive sights, though, was the famous Viktualienmarkt (‘food market’), which sprawls across an open square near the Marienplatz. It’s packed with stalls selling provender of limitless variety and description. Cheese, fruit, vegetables, seafood, wine, beer, honey, fruit juices in any combination you like (I tried banana with pineapple and honey - it was scrumptious), plants and flowers, bread and cakes, soup, sweets and chocolate.

Bunting and flags fly everywhere, brass bands really do play oompah-music and the weisswurst (German ‘white’ sausage) is delicious (but only if eaten before midday).

In the Viktualienmarkt Munchners grab an hour to do their food shopping. They buy their weekly house-wreaths here and have their lunch leaning against a counter at one of the numerous ‘soup kitchens’.

And, as you can see from the picture, they also record tv programmes there - specially for people who don’t know what to do with a stick of rhubarb.

The street entertainers were of an uncommonly high order, too. In this one single day of idle wandering and exploring, I saw two Russians in full Red Army uniform singing those sentimental Cossack folk-songs that always end in tears, a man on a unicycle, a small theatre group performing what looked like Macbeth, a choir of Bavarian children singing a song that sounded like - but wasn’t - The Happy Wanderer, two motionless statue-people...

So....on this sunny, early Spring morning, which one was Munich? Garden of Eden or Emerald City?

It was both. And, like both, it had a darker, less ‘polished’, less marketable side, as every city does. And it was only as I wandered round its streets and squares that Munich’s less savoury, and regrettable, place in history emerged.

Munich was the birthplace of Nazism.

In 1920 Hitler proclaimed the odious 29 articles of the National Socialist Party at a mass rally here and in November 1938 the appalling Kristallnacht was promulgated on the balcony of the Town Hall by Hitler himself. Thousands of Jewish shops and other business were wrecked and looted; 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

The holocaust started in Munich. Dachau is a few minutes away by train....

Which reminds me...

There was a street-entertainer I almost forgot to mention. His name is Alex.
In the middle of Munich’s busiest shopping street, Alex was playing an orchestral xylophone (as you can see in the picture). I have to tell you that it was one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. It was mostly ‘xylophonised’ versions of piano classics like Rondo All Turca or Chopin’s waltzes but he also managed to transform pop songs and jazz into fantastical musical treats.

He played with a gentleness and deftness of touch that brought the instrument to life. He made love to it. I could almost hear the xylophone breathing and sighing as he played. I was transfixed, along with a good many other passers-by. I stood there listening to, and admiring, his musicality for over half an hour.

I even asked him if he played requests. He had just played a little Bach and it reminded me of the first piece of Bach’s music I ever heard: the Preludium in E major. He played it at once, right through and from memory.

I bought one of his CDs and as he was signing it, I decided to invite him to have a coffee with me. At the time, I thought that there would be little chance of his accepting my invitation. This, though, was a ‘go for it’ kind of holiday - so I went for it. And I’m glad I did.

I helped him to load his xylophone into the back of his van and then we retreated to a nearby coffee shop.

Alex’s accent was American, so my first query had to be how a middle-aged American ends up playing a xylophone in a Munich shopping street.

And as he talked, a few minutes turned into most of the afternoon. My coffee remained undrunk as I listened, so I ordered another. The second cup went cold, too. Because, as Alex told me his story, the darker side of Munich made its presence felt. He was living proof that the city had something to be ashamed of.

Alex is Jewish.

Late one night in 1941 his grandparents were taken away by the Gestapo. Alex’s mother - Ruth - hid in a dustbin when the attack happened, and remained there listening to the screams and the verbal and physical abuse.

She never saw her parents again. She was eight years old.

Utterly alone, she made her way to the house of a gentile family her parents had known. At great risk to themselves, they took her in and arranged for her, and another Jewish schoolchild who had been orphaned that night, to be taken to Switzerland.

She stayed there until the end of the war, ‘adopted’ by a shopkeeper in Geneva. Her new ‘parents’ were very musical and she learned to play the piano and the violin there. This love of music stayed with her all her life. Alex believes that it was the only way she ever found of expressing her emotions and memories of the night her parents disappeared.

In later life, she would pass on this love of the expressiveness of music to her only child.

At the end of the war, Ruth - as part of a large group of other Jewish school-age refugees, was transported to the USA, where she was informally adopted by a Jewish family in New York City.

She married a violinist with the New York Philharmonic in 1955. Alex was born in the Bronx ten years later.

Alex spoke a lot about his mother; how she was, by turns, lively and full of laughter then taciturn and sullen for days on end. As Alex grew up, Ruth increasingly expressed a determination to return to Munich, the city of her forefathers. It was her one ambition to try and find the place where she had hidden in her dustbin.

She brought Alex up to fear no-one and to hate no-one. Somewhere in her heart - and despite her unspeakable ordeal - her ambition to the day she died was to take her son ‘home’ to his roots.

And she had been equally determined that the visit would be in a spirit of forgiveness and understanding.

Ruth did not achieve her ambition. She died in 1993.

But after her death, Alex took on board her homeward-bound dreams.

Alex has a soft and gentle voice. To hear him shout - or even to imagine him losing his temper at all - is unthinkable. But as he told me about his eventual pilgrimage to the city of his mother’s birth, it was touched with tones of compassion, sorrow and love. To me, they were the sounds made when a heart breaks irreparably - sounds ignored or even unheard by the world as it passes by.

Alex came home to Munich 15 years ago.

Although he is a highly-qualified civil engineer he prefers to make music with his xylophone for the people of the city.

Music transcends all languages, faiths and political beliefs. Music uplifts, restores and reinvigorates the soul. Music gives pause for thought, rumination and recollection.

And Alex’s music brings sweetness and harmony to the streets of a city which holds, within its smartly-coiffured and comfortably middle-class walls, secrets and horrors of the worst conceivable kind.

Not all those who wander are lost....


... will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 7 July at the Yellow Coffee Van, near the Swirle on Newcastle’s Quayside. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com


Mietek Padowicz said...

Apologies, for not leaving more comments. Reading your trip is like walking in another man's shoes. A man who has taken tat long vacation he has always wanted to. I envy you and am pleased for you. A pity you aren't trailing a BBC camera crew, it would have been as good as anything David Dimbleby or Joanna Lumley have done. Hope I have distracted you with my own writing. Laters Ian.

Ellie said...

Ian, you know I have been to Munich and I have never been able to describe it accurately ~ I need never visit again because all I have to do is read your blog...Munich is the ONLY place I have been to that has the two extremes you describe so, so well - fabulous beauty and warmth, then an underside that is horrendously black and gruesome.
A fantastic piece of writing, sir.

Alison said...

Loved the piece - especially moved by the Xylophone story Ian. Your writings are a treat to read.


Ian Robinson said...

Thanks for all your comments, here and elsewhere, about Alex's story. They inspired me to get in touch with him again. As a result - and for the first time in the history of this blog - I have withdrawn and re-drafted posting 203, as you will see from the note at the top.

Hildie said...

It strikes me as remarkable. Ian,
that you uncovered all this about Alex and his family on what was, after all, a fleeting visit to Munich. Were it not for your insatiable curiosity, and genuine interest in people and their lives, we truckshunters would never have learned about Alex's story.

I'd like to say hello to Kev who has made a return to the blog of late. Kev, I have heard via the truckshunter grapevine that you have been a bit poorly recently ...
I do hope that things are much better for you at the moment.

Ellie said...

Ian does have a remarkable gift, doesn't he Hildie?
Alex's Mother's story made me cry!
Incredible writing, sir. Thank you.

Hildie said...

He does indeed, Ellie .... Ian, I mean .... have a remarkable gift for writing .... also for talking,
wouldn't you say?!!!
To anybody ....
anywhere ... any language .....
he is a compulsive communicator ..
and long may it continue!

I've just arrived home from a sleepover shift and looked at my facebook page. What a shame .... Michael wrote on facebook last night that he would be on Radio Newcastle at 6a.m. today ....
I could have had a listen to him if I'd known. Anybody know who he was covering for?

It's a funny life... being a Truckshunter ... have you ever actually said,
"I'm a Truckshunter" ... to anyone?
Try it ... just casually mention it ... in passing .... you'll find it's quite a conversation stopper!
People don't half look at you funny!!
It takes a bit of wriggling out of,
and a great deal of explanation!
And, when you get to the bit about the AGMs, that are held every month, that's when they start exchanging glances with others around them.
Nevertheless, I STILL think it's the most fun you can have without taking your clothes off.
When I'm doing one of those sleepover shifts , like I did last night, I somehow never manage to get off to sleep , no matter how hard I try .... oh, if only Ian was still on
"The Nightshift".
I'm sure he wouldn't wish it though! Life is so much more exciting for him now ....
as it should be ... he so deserves it ...
and I'm really glad he is still sharing his adventures with us!
Neville tells me he is keeping up to speed with "The Grand Tour" and I know that Mike and Pauline at the Yellow Coffee Van are reading it too.
p.s. To Ellie - have you given up your new job then?!

Sid said...

Michael would have been standing in for Frank Wappat Hildie.
I understand Michael is also doing Franks spot tonight. I heard him last week, and it was a very nice change. Have a listen folks, it has to be better than watching the football.....

Hildie said...

Thanks, Sid, that'll be it then.
I didn't know Frank had two spots on a Sunday. I've asked Michael
(via facebook) how many shows he's doing today.
He answered, "Just the three."
He's a busy boy then!!
I listened to him last Sunday evening ... he is a great presenter ... lovely and cheery ... and he knows SO much about music. He's an encyclopedia virtually!

Hildie said...

Amazing what you find out on facebook .... Paul (Wappat that is!) was out last night celebrating his birthday (which is today) and he didn't get home until 7.40a.m. Sounds like he had a splendid time! Good job HE's not on the radio on a Sunday!

Happy Birthday, Paul.

Val said...

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned to a friend at work that in our house we're very much into Eurovision and as usual had bought the double cd of all the songs so we had our favourites before even the semi finals. She mentioned that she'd noticed that an old work colleague of hers was putting things up on Facebook {I think] about Eurovision - he sits in on Radio Newcastle she said!
Small world Michael!!

Hildie said...

Val ..... Michael should be on 'Mastermind' with what he knows about Eurovision. I'm not kidding. You ask your friend. Apart from that, me and Maureen and Sid think he should have his own Radio Programme.
Anyway,Val, the 7th July ...
is this the AGM that you are coming to?!!

J_on_tour@jayzspaze said...

What an amazing story told so well about someone returning to their ancestral roots & bringing some joy to the streets following such tradgedy

Alison said...

Your writing is unbelievable. You have so much talent, you listen empathetically to people who are maybe initially strangers and find out so much about them. Like another Truckshunter - the expanded story moved me so much and brought tears. The photographs are wonderful to and tell a story and create atmosphere - and combined with the stories incredible. I have travelled on business to some interesting places - but I cannot - like you do talk so easily to people - and also to get people to open up and talk easily to you about incredible moving things. It is a very very special creative gift. It is what made you such a wonderful broadcaster. Thank you for this - and keep talking to people, listening and above all writing.

Regards to you and all Truckhunters

Hildie said...

I feel I should be putting a little notice up, on behalf of Ian saying

When Michael was doing his radio programme last night, I asked him to say hello to some Truckshunters who I knew would be listening. I had a phone call from Ada this morning. She said a neighbour had heard Ada's name mentioned, and had come knocking at her window to tell her there was a request being played for her on the radio. Isn't that sweet?! We had a little chat .... and I'm glad to tell you Ada's feeling much better and is hoping to see us at The Yellow Van on 7th. July. She's lovely ...
always makes me smile ... when I told her Ian was in France again
... quick as a flash, she said, "The monkey!!"
Hope to see you soon, Ada.
And don't worry about Ian, he's joyfully living more chapters, courtesy of Eurostar.

Ellie said...

Hello, everyone - I'm back from Wales! The visit was to be there for my daughter who had an operation. All is well and she is recovering quickly.
Looking forward to the next AGM and, Hildie - your earlier PS to me - yes, I'm not working ~ gave it up as a bad job (and pun IS intended). Speak soon, x x Waiting with baited breath for 204 x x

Vivienne said...

Hi Ellie,

I'm pleased to learn that your daughter is making good progress after her operation. I hope she's feeling 100% very soon. You must be feeling very relieved that she's on the mend.

I'm looking forward to seeing everyone on 7th July.

Michael said...

Hi folks...apologies for not popping in very often, been a bit busy at work!
Thanks for your kind words about the shows I've been doing sitting in for Frank Wappat whilst he's poorly.
Val, you must tell me who this old work colleague of mine is that you know - I'm curious, ha ha! Is it Sarah?
As for the next AGM, with it being on a Wednesday it might be a bit tricky for me to get there, but I'll see if they'll let me out for the day (they owe me a few days off, ha ha!).

Mietek Padowicz said...

Looks like we're all apologizing. Been too busy with the world cup to read much of anything and then I had my own writing to do. Humbly submitted here for your approval http://scurvytoon.blogspot.com/

Soon as the WC relaxes to a less insane pace I'll have more free time.

PS Ian Have telling anybody with a brain to read your brilliant essays. Keep it up.

Vivienne said...

Hi Mietek,

Just had a quick look at your blog, and wow you have been busy! It looks very impressive, but I'm sorry I'm not a football fan so didn't take time to read it.


Vivienne xxx

Mietek Padowicz said...

No Problem Vibienne, in a few days it's all over and there will be loads of telly instead.