Travelling with a Mermaid

Schloss Nymphemburg, Munich, August 2022

Mythologically speaking, mermaids have traditionally been associated with things going wrong – thunderous storms, land-sculpting floods, shipwrecks, deception. Theirs is a dangerous beauty. They are the sirens of the sea, sweet voices drawing you in, hungry eyes patient to devour. They would not make good travel companions.

The Little Mermaid however seems to be pretty good at this travelling lark. Stepping up out of the underground train station she merely looked around and then was off, walking at speed. Her walk is not a loiter and I have to move to catch up. When we reach the pelican crossing and the little man is red, she waits patiently, but the split second that man turns green, her feet are on the road. Not once has anyone beat her off the line. Sometimes she glances back to see where I got to.

We sit down at a restaurant and her eyes flick around taking in all the new sights, reading signs – unlike me she reads German – and she’s encountering that delightful possibility of people watching away from home, where the people are so different, where they walk different, talk different, wear different clothes and embrace each other with a repertoire of unfamiliar gestures. She’s observing, thinking, learning.

It’s possibly worth pointing out that the Little Mermaid is no longer an innocent child. She looks like one of the portraits from the Room of Beauties in the Schloss Nymphemburg (Palace of the Nymphs): a soft rounded face and dangerous eyes. These portraits, painted back when Bavaria was a kingdom, show women from different social circles selected purely for their looks. The collection includes princesses and a shoe-maker’s daughter. The gallery was for the benefit of some king or other who was particularly intrigued by feminine beauty (sometimes it’s best not to ask) and he – someone should make a television series on this – ended up losing his throne over a dancing girl.

We admire fancy ceilings and walk through the park, visit the palatial hunting lodge, the palatial indoor swimming pool, the Greek style temple with its fancy white Corinthian columns. The Little Mermaid likes the Chinese wallpapers imported during the 18th century – a Napoleon era fashion. We walk through the bedchambers of the Bavarian royals; they’re filled with portraits. We both agree that the Queen’s study, with its Egyptian theme, is a good room. The Little Mermaid likes fancy furniture. We admire golden coaches and golden sledges. Lunch is salad in the gardens in front of the palm house. We choose table service. It’s the waitress’s second day at work. I have a rosemary lemonade.

We go to the concentration camp in Dachau. It’s not easy going to a concentration camp. You look at the space where too many people were crammed together in inhumane conditions, dying because they hadn’t enough food, had too much work, had barely anything resembling medical care, had everything worth living for stripped from them. The first crematorium was used to burn 11,000 human bodies. It wasn’t big enough, so they built another that was more efficient. When they ran out of coal for the crematorium, they dug a mass grave. When the camp was liberated, there were a few thousand bodies still waiting to be disposed of. And people kept dying: from malnutrition, from the brutalities their bodies had experienced in the camp, from the long-term effects of some of the experiments that ‘doctors’ had done on them.

The sun shines and we seek shade at any opportunity. The museum includes more information than one could reasonably read in a day, and you have to pause because this is not information that is easy to digest. A tightness forms in my chest. Thankfully, for us, cruelty is hard to comprehend. We cross the yard where the prisoners were forced to line up every morning and evening and where they were forced to witness their fellow inmates being tortured as punishment. We tend to silence.

At night we sleep in a hostel. It’s a while since I’ve stayed in a hostel. In fact, I wonder if the last time was in Copenhagen, on my trip to Finland and back. This one is nice, big and airy with trees growing in the courtyard. I like seeing the Little Mermaid asking people questions, hearing her speaking German, and seeing that she knows what she wants. We cook pasta in the hostel kitchen, chat with the women in the dorm room and sleep in bunk beds. The reduction in privacy is part of the trade-off. Simple accommodation, but there are people to meet whenever you feel like socialising. There’s something nice about being reminded of how many people are searching for interaction with other cultures, other people, other places.