Anya didn’t live near Chernobyl and wasn’t directly effected by the disaster – at least not more than anyone else in Belarus – but her father helped organize the charter flight that took the kids to Munich. By being the right age at the right time, Anya got a spot in the Chernobyl Kids program.
So at the age of 11, without speaking a word of German (much less the local Bayerisch dialect), Anya was dropped off at the home of a retired couple named Helene & Max. They speak neither Russian nor English, so communication was, well, difficult that first year. Nevertheless, they’re kind and generous people – qualities that transcend language – and they spent the month taking Anya all over Bavaria: hiking, biking, swimming, to parks, zoos, etc – all kinds of activities to keep an 11-year old busy.
They took to Anya enough that they invited her back year after year; all told she spent time with Helene & Max for 8 straight summers. In the intervening school years Anya studied German to break down some of the language barrier, and nowadays Helene & Max are almost like Anya’s third set of grandparents.
A few weeks ago, on our way to Austria for a ski trip, we stopped to stay with them for a couple days. Although we’ve met with them for dinner on a couple visits to Munich over the last few years, it was the first time that I’ve actually stayed with Helene & Max. (I wrote about Munich itself in this previous post).
They live in a town named Markt Schwaben, population ~12,000, which is mostly a bedroom community for people who work in Munich. It’s a 30-minute ride on the S-Bahn to the city center (the S-Bahn is a fast, frequent train service that connects Munich to surrounding towns & villages, and it’s one of the components that make Munich’s transit system amongst the best in the world). You could legitimately live a car-free life there, which is pretty unusual for a town of such size.
Despite it’s situation, Markt Schwaben isn’t really what I’d call a suburb. It was a town in its own right long before the train lines and autobahn were built. Although there’s no “old town” per se, there’s a chapel that was built in the 1600’s, and the town was founded in the 1000’s. There’s an old church (St. Margret’s; Bavaria is mostly Catholic), a small Gaestehaus (hotel), a great bakery (which makes superb Bavarian-style pretzels), a couple of Bierstube (pubs), and a family-owned brewery (namely Schweiger, available only in & around the town).
For me, travel experiences that involve visiting people in far-off places and seeing how they live are usually the most rewarding. Overall, I get the feeling that Markt Schwaben (and probably dozens of other similar towns in Munich’s orbit) is a pretty nice place to live. It’s safe, walkable, and friendly, if perhaps a little boring. But high-quality food & beer are readily available, cultural activities and the excitement of the city are just a short train ride away, and an hour’s drive south gets you to the Alps.
And beyond the town itself, Helene & Max were great hosts. They have a very comfortable home and were gracious in sharing it with us. It’s built on land where Max was born and has lived all his life; he proudly tells stories about his family and about his life in Markt Schwaben. Helene is a fantastic cook in a grandmotherly sort of way, and served us delicious, typically Bavarian breakfasts: cured ham, cheese, eggs, bread with butter and currant jam or honey, apples, and plenty of coffee. We were so full we always skipped lunch and went straight for dinner, which included things like knodelsuppe (bread balls in beef broth), sausages, and, of course, cheese, pretzels, and beer.
Our train onward, to Austria, departed early in the morning. They wouldn’t have had to, but Helene & Max woke up extra early to feed us breakfast and give us plenty of supplies for the journey: pretzels, semmeln (rolls), cheese, apples. It was a fitting end to our stay with some great people.
Helene & Max with Anya in their garden, from a previous visit to Markt Schwaben: