Bahnhofsviertel is the melting pot of the city: Turkish supermarkets, restaurants serving up Indian specialities and hip design studios all coexist here peacefully and show that Munich is not just a global city with a heart, but also a city of the world. Artist and musician Polina Lapkovskaja shows us her diverse favourite city district.
Paul-Heyse-Strasse has a charm that may not be immediately obvious to everyone. Nestled between the railway station and Theresienwiese (the Oktoberfest fairground), four lanes of traffic rush through; the car reigns supreme. “Perhaps it’s not the most beautiful street in Munich,” says Polina Lapkovskaja, “but it’s my street. I love it in its dysfunctionality. I love the entire Bahnhofsviertel area – it’s unique in Munich, and in my opinion also unique in all of Germany.”
In Munich, Lapkovskaja is better and very well known as Polly. With her band Pollyester, she has been making a very sweaty, punky and bass-heavy form of disco for 15 years, besides which she performs in the theatre. She composes music for plays at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin or the Münchner Kammerspiele (theatre), which is rarely just music, but often also a kind of rhythmised language.
Lapkovskaja is a universal artist, and anyone who has seen her once remembers her, thanks to her very individual style. This Saturday she is wearing something like cycling shorts with a brightly coloured raincoat. Storm clouds hang low and ominous over the city, and from Lapkovskaja’s apartment they look close enough to touch.
“Perhaps it’s not the most beautiful street in Munich,” says Polina Lapkovskaja, “but it’s my street. I love it in its dysfunctionality. I love the entire Bahnhofsviertel area – it’s unique in Munich, and in my opinion also unique in all of Germany.”
You would expect to find this apartment in an under-developed area of Berlin, or perhaps one of the trendy cities in Eastern Europe, but not necessarily in Munich. The apartment is located in a building that is typical of the area – built during the 1950s, probably as an office building. It is more like a labyrinth over multiple floors than a traditional apartment.
You can climb onto the roofs from one of the terraces, which Lapkovskaja loves to do. The inner courtyard onto which she then looks is rather like a miniature version of the multifaceted district: “There’s a Romanian Orthodox church here in the basement, from which you can always hear beautiful singing on Sundays. The services are very long, and afterwards you see lots of people dressed to the nines in the courtyard. The Kaschmir Bazar was in the courtyard next door until recently; they used to have African foods and a lot of hair products.”
And presiding over all of that, high up on the third floor with a gigantic robinia for shade, is Lapkovskaja’s terrace. It doesn’t take long to explain why she fell in love with this apartment five years ago, and how happy she was when she managed to secure it. This apartment is obviously a focal point of the neighbourhood for Lapkovskaja, but she has many more: there’s the Verdi Turkish supermarket, located just one street away, whose fame extends far beyond the limits of the district. “They have everything here,” says Lapkovskaja. “Trevisano radicchio, a strange vegetable (saltwort) called Mönchsbart in German – ‘monk's beard’ – ten varieties of tomato, Amalfi lemons and also very good dates.”
She certainly stands out among all the produce in her pink raincoat, but she doesn’t feel like she’s being looked at. Quite the contrary: one of the reasons she loves this neighbourhood is because it also allows its people the “opacity of their consumer habits” as she puts it.
She explains: “There are a huge number of shops here, and you simply don’t know who would actually shop in them. But they hold their own. For example, there’s an enormous second-hand shop on Landwehrstrasse. The shoes there look as though they’ve had ten previous owners. Or all the electronics shops with names like ‘Computer-Zentrale’ which have earned Schillerstrasse the nickname Schillycon-Valley.” All of those shops are still here – she doesn't know how, but she thinks it is great because they represent independent worlds that are beyond the mainstream. And these worlds thrive without being gawked at. “In general, there is great acceptance of the lack of transparency here.”
“They have everything here,” says Lapkovskaja. “Trevisano radicchio, a strange vegetable (saltwort) called Mönchsbart in German – ‘monk's beard’ – ten varieties of tomato, Amalfi lemons and also very good dates.”
This alone does not define the neighbourhood, however: there is another core element. “When friends come from other cities to visit me, and they get out at the train station, they are always surprised at how diverse and colourful this neighbourhood is. That is because of the place itself. Bahnhofsviertel isn’t big enough to allow independent, closed-off communities to form. All the different groups are constantly coming in contact here. The effect is that, although they have little in common, they deal with each other all the time,” explains Lapkovskaja. This results in a special kind of coexistence – a kind of friendly disinterest. That is important to Lapkovskaja, as she feels that exoticism – that is, gawking at the stranger in their otherness – is a red flag. Perhaps that is because she knows exactly what it feels like to be viewed as a stranger. Born in Minsk in 1982, she came to Munich with her mother in 1993.
Located on Beethoven-Platz, just a few minutes’ walk from the Verdi market, is another of Lapkovskaja’s favourite haunts – and indeed it is a favourite with many others too: the famous bar owned by Stefan Gabanyi. "Of course, the bar lives from the charisma of the owner. When you go there, you know it's going to be deep. Fittingly, the bar is also in the basement. Here it's not about seeing and being seen, but about sinking into conversation. Suddenly four hours have passed." Lapkovskaya's favourite drink, by the way, is the Americano, a light version of the Negroni, consisting of Campari, vermouth and soda.
However Lapkovskaja can only relax at leisure in the Gabanyi bar when she’s not involved in an upcoming theatre production, otherwise the Hauptbahnhof main railway station becomes her real central node in Munich. For example, she is having to commute to Hanover to rehearse at the Staatstheater there for “The Revolt”, a play about how senior citizens shape the last quarter of their lives. Lapkovskaja calls it a “kick-ass piece”, and it focuses on an old theme of hers: how can we succeed in taking an open, non-voyeuristic view of radically different lives? She doesn’t mind the commute – on the contrary, she loves clattering through the empty morning streets with her wheelie suitcase. The train to Hanover leaves at 4.11 am.
The Herrmann bakery located directly opposite her building, on Paul-Heyse-Strasse, is unfortunately still closed at that time. “Bakeries like that are sadly becoming rarer and rarer these days. It’s not a chain and you can really tell that the owner and baker has a few quirky preferences. For example, they offer at least seven different types of Baiser (meringue cookies). And he makes his pretzels extra-round and thick – you can’t find ones like those anywhere else,” she says.
And while she strictly eschews exoticism in other respects, she can’t quite curb her curiosity when it comes to the baker, Mr. Herrmann himself. “He is a real character. I am fascinated by him. Autograph cards of many Munich actors hang on the wall. I have been wondering how that could be for ages, and I think there are two possible explanations: either he himself used to be an actor and part of the ‘scene’, or people on the scene used to always meet at his bakery after a night on the town.” But the thing she likes best is the fact that this story is as unknowable as the entire shop. “It looks like a run-of-the mill bakery from the outside, but local customers know what they can get here and only here.”
Here, it’s not about seeing and being seen, but rather losing yourself in conversation.
Lapkovskaja hopes that this will continue for a long time, that the station district will remain just as diverse, with its noise and its much-used backyards. "Because there's one thing you have to realize," she says, "these intercultural biotopes also make a city worth living in."