The Eisbach surfers and nudists in the Englische Garten have literally laid bare the Munich motto of “Live and let live” for all the world to see. So how much skin can you actually get away with flashing in city life?
I am standing at the underground station on Marienplatz one afternoon in August, wearing nothing – apart from a pair of swimming shorts. So how did I get here? Our office isn’t far from the Frühlingsanlagen park on the banks of the Isar River. In the summer, people sunbathe by the river in shorts and bikinis from early in the morning so I know the image all too well.
Munich is famous for the wave on the Eisbach, for swimming in the centre of the city, for barbecuing on the Flaucher meadows, and for its many ice cream cafés. However, on my way to work, I found myself asking: Is Munich really so summery and relaxed that you can spend a whole day topless in your swimming trucks, casually strolling around the city? I wanted to do a test to find out the answer.
I had no idea what I had let myself in for. In actual fact, I’m not really the type of guy who enjoys being in the spotlight, though this didn’t put me off my attempt. I must admit my last trip to the gym was quite some time ago and I haven’t quite managed to shift my indulgences from last Christmas but your common Munich resident is not just relaxed, but non-judgemental, too. Or so I thought.
I feel like I’m wearing the swimming shorts that Elton John would wear on holiday in Hawaii.
I arrange to meet the photographer Frank, who is going to document my attempt, in front of our office. I have donned a pair of swimming trunks, that couldn’t look more like trunks if they tried: tight, short and with a wild print of tropical plants and colourful flowers. I feel like I’m wearing the swimming shorts that Elton John would wear on holiday in Hawaii.
The mood on the banks of the Isar is chilled out: A couple of elderly men have rediscovered the joys of table tennis while a few women are lounging around in the meadows and studying for their university exams. A few groups sit directly on the water’s edge and listen to music from their mobile phones. Nobody here really cares what you’re wearing – or not, in this case. Nobody even looks up from what they’re doing. I don’t stand out at all and make a note in my notebook. “Swimming shorts fit in very well at the Isar.”
I head towards the city centre and stop on the square at Gärtnerplatz. The square is also full of people but instead of groups sitting on the floor, there’s a mix of prosperous young families, wandering around with an air of elegance, and a few young attractive women carrying organic smoothies. “Alexis, could you sit on that park bench?” Frank gets his camera out of his bag and fumbles around with various lenses.
Everything he is doing looks very serious and I don’t really like it. I would prefer it if he were using a inconspicuous little iPhone as we are now slowly starting to turn quite a few heads. I’m getting a bit embarrassed. What’s more, the photographer keeps saying things like “Now look into the camera”, “Lean back”, “Perfect, you’re doing great”. I feel like I’m coming across as an exhibitionist. A woman next to me frowns. Her glance drops to my colourful trunks. I can’t even try to imagine what’s going through her head.
In the window of a bookshop on Reichenbachstrasse, I discover an old book about the collected works of Vermeer. I have to buy it so I gather all my courage and head to the till. The cashier is either blind or intentionally ignoring my outfit. In any case, she puts my book into a bag without saying a word. I'm starting to wonder whether it’s normal to buy a heavy tome about art while dressed in your swimming shorts. When I turn to leave, the cashier says in a friendly tone “Have a nice summer’s day”. I make a note: “Munich book shops don’t mind swimming shorts.”
Next stop: Viktualienmarkt market I have noticed that the rule seems to be: The further away from the Isar we get, the more uncomfortable I feel. I start to wonder if I look like an Australian tourist who has lost his drinking buddies somewhere in the old town. Maybe I would if Frank wasn’t there, shooting my every turn and shouting through the crowds to tell me how to pose. Between the fish sandwiches and pickled gherkins, the tourists throw astonished stares in my direction. The locals in the beer gardens, on the other hand, seem to be intentionally ignoring me.
By now, we have reached Marienplatz square and, because I have had enough of walking, Frank persuades me to take the underground one stop to Odeonsplatz. A very bad idea. The underground is full and crowded. You meet the most colourful mix of people down here in the smallest of spaces. I am sweating even though I am practically naked. I stand next to a couple of girls who have just been shopping; they look me up and down and giggle. I see businessmen who are just counting down the minutes until they can take off their ties; there are people with pushchairs, people with dogs, and people with walking frames.
When I leave the underground, I make a note: “I would advise against wearing swimming shorts on the U6 line.”
Yet I am the only person in swimming shorts. And this time, I’m not imagining it: All of my fellow passengers eye me up with an incredible look of mistrust. Most of them are probably wondering if I’ve been at the Isar or maybe if I’ve just come straight from Mülllerstrasse (famous for its gay bars and clubs). When I leave the underground, I make a note: “I would advise against wearing swimming shorts on the U6 line.”
However, I’ve already forgotten all about it so we head off to Maximilianstrasse. There are a lot of stereotypes about Munich’s famous shopping street: that it is home to the most expensive cars, priciest shops, fanciest people, and a lot of Arabic tourists. My goal is to get into the Gucci boutique because I’d like to buy a man-bag. Before I can even get close to the boutique, the security guard spots me and locks the glass door in the blink of an eye. Annoyed, I stand in front of the shop. The security guard stares through the glass door and right through me.
Frank – always on the hunt for the perfect shot – stands on the other side of the road and snaps pictures between the parked cars. The doorman, who has been watching the situation, seems to get a flash of inspiration. He quickly unlocks the door again, greets me loudly and gestures me inside the store. I say: “But you just locked the door on me?”
He doesn’t bother to respond and instead asks me: “Are you a famous?” He has lined it up so perfectly that I can’t help but answer: “Yes, I play for FC Bayern. These stupid paparazzi have been following me all day.” The doorman looks confused. He’s not sure whether to believe me or not. I turn around and decide not to buy anything from Gucci today. Later I note: “Swimming shorts are a no-go at Gucci. Unless you’re a celebrity.”
Later I note: “Swimming shorts are a no-go at Gucci. Unless you’re a celebrity.”
In the evening, I allow myself to look back over the afternoon and am a little astounded as to how I managed to walk through town in this strange outfit without any problems. I rarely really stood out too badly. The locals in particular didn’t seem too interested in what I was wearing. The people of this city really don’t get their feathers ruffled too quickly. I go for a drink with friends and enjoy my beer in the last rays of sunlight on the Isar. And in my swimming shorts.