Between the ages of 24 and 36, I made my home in Munich, Germany where I taught English to professional adults and began my writing career. My first novel, Summit Avenue, was published in May 2000 when I still lived in Grafing, a market town at the end of the light rail line heading east from Munich.
What I remember most fondly about my Munich years was how much time everyone seemed to have. I had time to teach, write novels, enjoy an active social life, and travel the world from French Polynesia to Namibia. We had eight weeks of paid vacation a year plus numerous public holidays.
During this time, inspired by Julia Cameron’s wildly popular self-help book The Artist’s Way, I took weekly “Artist’s Dates.” I took the train to Munich, got off at the Ostbahnhof, and set off on long aimless walks. Whole short stories would be created in my head during these solo jaunts. I became a flaneur and learned to carry a notebook so I could find a park bench, or, in winter, a table inside a café, to write out the story that unfolded organically during these serene, unrushed afternoons.
Each walk was a journey of discovery. Sometimes I ended up at a museum or a quirky shop selling journals made of handmade paper or a neighborhood I’d never explored before. More often than not, I’d find myself sitting on the grass in the Englischer Garten, a huge park the dominates Munich’s city center, an oasis of green nature you can get lost in. It says a lot about Munich that I felt safe to wander literally anywhere as a woman on my own.
One particular Artist’s Date in the Englischer Garten stands out in my memory. It was in the middle of the working day and the middle of the working week–freelancers can make their own schedules. I was sitting in the grass and writing in my journal while all around me people of all ages sat around, enjoying the lovely day. Some were sunbathing in various states of undress (nobody bothered about public nudity in Munich in the 1990s), while others read or played with their dogs. Students sat in circles strumming guitars and playing bongo drums. I think I spotted at least one digeridoo player. Lithe young hippies practiced Yoga. It was as innocent and bucolic a scene as you could find anywhere in a major city.
Then along came two conspicuously suited American businessmen who stared warily at all these adults splayed luxuriantly on the green grass and enjoying life. The younger businessman muttered to the older one, “What’s the unemployment rate in this country?”
My two compatriots seemed mortally offended by the concept of leisure. How very dare able-bodied adults enjoy themselves in the middle of a working day? The joke was on the businessmen, of course. Munich was booming. It was easier to find a job than an apartment. People dared to take time off because there was so much opportunity.
Living in Munich at that time, just as I was cutting my teeth as a writer, was a priceless gift to my creativity. If I had been in the US, working under one of these suited businessmen, my day job may well have sucked the life out of me. Or else I would have found myself enrolled in one of the Writing MFA programs that were popping up like mushrooms in that era, only to graduate up to my neck in debt from student loans.
But I believe there was another crucial factor that made those Munich days seem so expansive–this was before social media. Before I even had the internet. This was back when my life was analogue. (I only got my first internet connection at the very end of the 1990s after my writing habit was well-established and my first novel completed.) The landline telephone was a distraction at home, but if I went for a walk or an Artist’s Date, I left it behind. There was far less noise and static to distract us then. Now in 2021, our lives are dominated by digital media. The streets of Munich are full of “smombies,” or smartphone zombies, scrying into their phones and paying little attention to the real world around them.
To a great extent we’ve allowed our lives and even our minds to be controlled by digital devices. We’re losing our very privacy to data-mining. Not only is the boundary between work and leisure perilously thin as many of us find ourselves working remotely during the Covid crisis. We’re also losing the soulful sanctuary of an interior space that’s removed from these constants bleeps and interruptions and notifications.
Rebecca Solnit recalls the lost days of analogue in her essay, In the Day of the Postman. More disturbingly she notes how dystopian the world has become as we find ourselves in situation previously only imagined in science fiction.
A short story that comes back to me over and over again is Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’, or one small bit of it. Since all men and women aren’t exactly created equal, in this dystopian bit of science fiction a future America makes them equal by force: ballerinas wear weights so they won’t be more graceful than anyone else, and really smart people wear earpieces that produce bursts of noise every few minutes to interrupt their thought processes. They are ‘required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.’ For the smartest person in Vonnegut’s story, the radio transmitter isn’t enough: ‘Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.’
This dystopia is here now. Our lives are manipulated by constant interruption and media-manufactured outrage. It’s time to put away our phones and take our lives back, take our TIME back, and embrace a simple life where technology is our servant not our master.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.