Just before Christmas, as we walked through the Englische Garten in Munich, I realised the water level in the Eisbach – a man-made river that flows through the park – was particularly high.
“I bet the surfers would love this…” I remarked, having seen the young men and women dance atop the man-made wave during an early summer’s visit a few years ago.
“Do you think they will be surfing today?” Katrin asked, but I was doubtful. It was barely above freezing, and that was on the footpath. How it must have been in the water itself I could not imagine. But of course, the failure of imagination was all mine, for as we turned the corner to come within sight of the permanent wave that curls back on the river just after it passes beneath the road at the bottom of the park, there were some black-clad figures, only their eyes and noses exposed to the elements, dropping down onto their surfboards from the brick embankment to the amazement (and bemusement, it has to be said) of the onlookers gathered on the bridge above.
Surf culture can appear in the strangest of places – a fact explored by Michael Scott Moore in his book Sweetness and Blood, an extract of which appeared on Under a Grey Sky a couple of years ago. That detailed part of his trip to Cuba, to see how surf culture had developed on the island, but the book also takes the reader to Munich, and the wave of the Eisbach.
“Eisbach surfing is a tourist attraction. People sit on the Prinzregentstrase bridge or stand under the trees on the canal bank, watching surfers. On the bank you hear the thrilling rush of whitewater and smell neoprene wetsuits and surf wax, mixed (oddly) with cool river air instead of sand and salt. You wait in line and place you board on the crest of the rapid. You can push off from your butt, or jump in feetfirst. But the wave is tricky. Perpetual motion reverses the usual rules. The wave moves more than the surfer. I wasn’t used to that. Instead of building speed and running forward ahead of a moving swell, with the wave’s energy at your back, you have to balance and steer into a powerful, oncoming current. The idea is not to move forward, but to resist going backward, if possible with lots of fancy tricks. You feel like a bird in a wind tunnel…”
The surfing scene in Munich began as an outlaw movement, with one eye on the wave on one looking out for the police. Technically it is still illegal to surf the river system, but the authorities now turn a blind eye. But still, in this city of rules and order, where the streets are as clean as the Alpine air, and everybody and everything seems so well presented, the black-clad figures riding the wave on a December afternoon still have something transgressive about them… and Munich is all the more richer for them…
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig