Day Five: What's German for "Unbelievably Wet"?
So, I'm getting into a bit of a routine here in Koeln:
6.00 wake up, get dressed, etc.
7.30 leave for Wuppertal
7.50 get lost
7.55 get found
8.15 arrive at Wuppertal
8.25 bless the efficiency of German secretaries (every morning there is a fresh thermos of excellent coffee and a bottle of mineral water on my desk. With cream, sugar, cups, spoons, glasses, etc.)
8.30 commence wrestling with combination of power adaptors, phone adaptors, trackball, disc drive, and incomprehensible buttons on phone
9.15 open window for a little air (the site is right near a couple of small farms -- really more vegetable gardens around houses. Most days it smells of herbs and grass. Some days it smells of manure, which is when one must perform an optimization between odor and temperature)
9.45 close sunshade
10.45 finish thermos of wonderful coffee <sniff>
10.50 open sunshade
11.30 dial into email to see if anything has happened since last night
11.35 realize it is still the middle of the night in Boston
11.37 realize picking up voicemail will be equally pointless
12.45 walk to cafeteria (called something else) for marvelous selection of potential lunches, if you like sausage and fried pork
12.50 settle once again for grilled vegetables and the world's best french fries
12.55 search bottled water section for non-carbonated water (still not successful -- you have to buy French water if you want it without bubbles, and Moevenpick is pretty firmly German. Yesterday the lunch special was pan-sauted rabbit.)
13.15 return to office and breath in welcome scent of fresh air
14.45 notice pleasant sound of rain lightly tapping against open window
15.10 notice air is getting colder, but scent of wet grass so intoxicating decide to put on jacket
15.45 small puddle on windowsill threatens stack of papers that need filing. Regretfully close window.
16.15 getting a bit stuffy in here
17.15 begin preparations to build ark
17.45 swim to car, inflate pontoon feature (standard on West German cars), and leave for Koeln
18.10 lose right-hand oar to passing truck. Fortunately, Hertz provides a spare.
18.30 arrive Koeln, search for street parking near hotel
18.37 wedge car into parking space between two even smaller cars. Commence internal debate on reason why Europeans can fit 6 adults in a Fiat, but Americans need an SUV for a family of 4.
18.45 bless the efficiency of German hotel maids (every evening my room is straighter than even I leave it, with a bottle of mineral water on the desk and classical music playing)
19.00 change into workout clothes
19.03 enter extremely well-mirrored gym and attempt to stare only at ceiling without being obvious
19.04 randomly push incomprehensible buttons on exercise bike until it starts doing something that isn't painful or that involves constant beeping
19.45 shower, get dressed in comfortable clothes (which is getting boring, since I only brought 4 changes)
20.00 meet for dinner
22.30 return from dinner (European restaurants are leisurely with regard to time -- people don't eat out often, and when they do they want to drink beer and talk and smoke and spend the night. There is no quick-meal-out concept here. But the beer is very good.)
22.45 commence wrestling with combination of power adaptors, phone adaptors, trackball, disc drive, and incomprehensible buttons on phone
23.00 pick up email. Hey! People are around now! Cool!
23.05 Hey! People want me to do work! Damn!
23.30 put away computer
23.35 read chapter or two in book (sometimes performed while in hot bath)
Days Six and Seven: Ready, Set, Shop! and Day of Rest
I have quite a bit of work to do, but I decided to spend part of today being frivolous. The shops here are only open Saturday 10-4, and not at all on Sunday, so really you can't be too frivolous even if your feet (and wallet) could support it. So this morning, after switching rental cars, I headed over to the shopping district. I stopped in the tourist information bureau to get some brochures. There is a pretty good zoo here, but apparently people from abroad don't go there, as the only brochure is purely German. I think "grosses cat" is pretty clear, but some of the words I'm going to have to ask for translation to understand. Not that it matters much, I guess. I can figure out that the tall thing with the spots is probably a giraffe. The zoo is one of the few things open on Sundays, so it's good to know about. The museum and the Dom are the others, but only limited hours.
The shopping district here is rather large, spreading for blocks in a rough rectangle. I started at one corner, which was obviously the high end. Hermes, Aigner, Villeroy and Boch, etc. The nicest of the three local department stores was a great find, as was the enormous bookstore with 4 whole shelves of English-language books. As I wandered further, I got into the part of the district obviously catering more to locals. I even found a farmer's market in one of the squares. There were the usual vegetable stands, but also a sausage maker, a wine stall, a butcher, and several
cheese stalls. I tried very hard not to look directly at the sausage making stand. Not that I'm squeamish, it just seemed a bit more information than I really need.
On the way back to the hotel, I indulged in local fast food. There are lots of little stalls scattered through the shopping areas here -- you can get little cones of sorbet or ice cream, fresh crepes with various sweet fillings rolled into a paper cone, or the world's best french fries. The french fries are simply amazing -- they fry them right there while you wait, in very small batches, so they are very fresh and not very greasy at all. They can season them with different types of salt and pepper, and they have a number of sauces. The smallest size is a huge cone you can
hardly carry for only $1.50. The crepes are about the same price, and again are made fresh in front of you. (Bizarrely, a 500ml bottle of Coke is more expensive.) I indulged in both for my "lunch" as I walked.
One thing I have discovered is that the statement that "everyone speaks English" is only partially true. Hotels, tourist information bureaus, and key contacts in stores speak at least some English. One can get by without knowing German, particularly if you gesture a lot. The vocabulary is limited, however, even for people like the concierge at the hotel. I've tried French as well, which is sometimes a better choice, but often is not. I really wish I knew some more German, particularly when I'm trying comically to describe knitting. On the other hand, I can indulge my favorite hobby of trying to decipher signs and slogans.
Day Seven: And the Oscar Goes To...
...unknown, for the most part.
This Sunday morning, Europe switched to Daylight Savings Time. For a week, Europe is an extra hour ahead of the US, putting us seven hours ahead of Boston here. This happened just in time for the Oscars, setting the start time to 4am, which you'll agree is only marginally better than 3am. However, it does mean that the show ends at about 7:30am here, right when everyone's watching the morning news.
I was watching SkyNews this morning while I ate my breakfast, shunning the seemingly endless CNN coverage of the Russian election:
"The latest results, with 45% of the votes counted, shows that Vladimir Putin has 50.5% of the votes. This is almost half a percentage point more than in the last count. We'll stay with this gripping story with full, un-interrupted coverage from Moscow."
"Yes, thank you Martin. I'm here in a Moscow polling station where absolutely nothing is happening. I understand something was happening a few hours ago, but right now it's pretty calm."
"So, do people there think that Mr. Putin will win this first round, or do they think there will be a run-off?"
"Well, Martin, as I said there's no one here right at the moment to ask. Earlier, people seemed very enthusiastic about Mr. Putin. Most of the people we questioned did vote for him."
"Thank you. We have the latest count. Mr. Putin is now up to 50.6% of the votes, trending upwards, and it looks as though a run-off will not be necessary. Let's go to..."
BBC World was no better, as they were firmly on financial news this morning.
"Many British workers are concerned about the sale of Rover, and in fact say that they are now less likely to buy a BMW due to their anger over the sale."
SkyNews was the obvious choice. Their morning show is really priceless, and I think I've been converted. They started out at 6:30 or so by reading the headlines of all the major papers, including the tabloids.
"The Times has a lovely picture of Vladimir Putin here, as you can see he's got this bit of roof above him that looks a bit like a halo. Nice photo, that. Over here in the Mirror the top story is on cleavage, not quite sure what that is, and they also have a bit on medicines ingredients."
Over the next hour or so, there was a half-hearted attempt to report on the Russian presidential election "looks like he's got 50% of the vote, so that's about it for that story" and some other leading news in Britain. Then they got to sports news, which was obviously more interesting to this particular anchor. He got very excited by the snooker finals.
We also got periodic updates from a very Bridget Jones-ish woman in LA on the Oscars. SkyNews didn't have a feed into the actual awards show, but there's some sort of press room where they can stand and wait to interview people. She had a dreadful position, sort of behind a lot of speaker stands and other equipment, and she quite obviously didn't get to interview anyone. ("Bridget! Go from LA! Now now now!") She did, however, let us know who had just won an award. Every few minutes, we'd switch to her, away from snooker or golf or something, and she'd say something brilliant like "Hilary Swank has just won the award for Best Actress for "Boys Don't
Cry". She's an unknown, really, although she was on that Beverly Hills 901..09...err...show."
The anchor back in London focused very strongly on local wins -- he kept a count, just like for the Olympics. "That's 4 Oscars for the Brits now, Michael Caine of course, two for "Topsy-Turvy", and Phil Collins won for best song. So that's good, then. A good year for British cinema."
I think my favorite moment was when the woman behind the speakers told us (with some minor enthusiasm) that Sam Mendes had won for Best Director:
"Sam Mendes, a 34 year-old *British* man, that's good news, has just won for Best Director for his film...er...."American Beauty"."
I'll have to wait until I get to the hotel tonight to see who won the rest of the awards. I do know they didn't go to any British nominees, but that doesn't seem to narrow the field too much for me. There were more updates on the car radio as I was driving in, but they were in German and I think covered only the major awards.
"something something something Michael Caine something Cedar House Rules something something..."
Day Nine: Hey! What Happened to Eight!
"I was just coming to them...Nine, five, six"
(10 extra points if you recognize the quote.)
Last night I wound up watching the German "Oscar highlights" show. It was anchored by a guy who looked amazingly like Jean-Claude van Damme, only smaller. He provided a summary of each section, then they would show a somewhat edited version of those events. Since they dubbed all the speeches and intros, I have only a limited idea of which scandals and jokes I missed. I did, however, get the "Blame Canada" song in its full...glory?...so that's good. I also liked the fact that they skipped the "boring" awards and had Jean-Claude quickly summarize who won. They didn't, however, skip the endless inexplicable Burt Bachrach movie song section, so I guess it wasn't entirely successful.
Waseem is back now, and gleefully charting out weekend possibilities. He's completely out of the box -- Majorca, Mykonos, and Barcelona have all been mentioned. I'll grant that it is cold, rainy, and grey here, but I think that's a bit much. I am threatening to draw a big black circle on the Hertz map of Germany for him to stay within. On the plus side, he handed me $80 as soon as I saw him (Steve's winnings from the Oscar party). So that's good.
Now that I'm finally finding my way to work without getting lost, I have a little more time to notice my surroundings. This is a very densely populated section of Germany, with several cities all clumped together. This is not to imply that it's New Jersey city sprawl -- actually, it's amazing how pretty the countryside is, and you pass farms and green space when you drive down the autobahn. My route to work slowly goes from big autobahns to smaller ones to side road to residential road. This last bit is a pain.
Right-of-way is handled differently in Europe, and is generally much clearer. On the autobahn, you can't pass on the right, and you almost always have right-of-way to merge to your right. To merge left, you must yield to the (faster) traffic. People blithely drift right without even really looking or signalling, so it pays to be paying attention. White lines and speed limits and such are taken very seriously, however. On the side roads, a "right-hand rule" applies. It's actually kind of like sailing rules. If you are entering a street from the right, you have right-of-way. You can cruise onto the street without even looking, and the traffic must give way to you. There are exceptions, of course, and large roads tend to be protected by yield signs on the smaller crossings. Smaller roads are not protected, however, so you find that you have to slow down a bit when you're coming to a crossing to make sure that no one's planning to pull out and sideswipe you. This makes for an interesting speed up/slow down situation, especially during rush hour.
The particular road that I take to the site not only is not right-of-way protected (slow down for crossings), but also has this very odd obstacle course system. Street parking is allowed on both sides of a 3-lane street, although generally they try to stagger the parking lanes so there are always two lanes of width free. This is not always followed, however, and of course delivery trucks, buses, and random cars sometimes pull up wherever they feel like it and block most of a lane. This isn't that unusual for Boston, though, so this is manageable. The part I truly don't understand is the big cement planters. Every so often, for no apparent purpose, there are a couple of huge cement planters stuck in the road next to the curb. They have a white line drawn around them and big warning signs, so they're obviously permanent fixtures. They take up the better part of a lane, though -- so if someone is parked (legally) opposite one of these bumps, there's only one lane remaining. In the evenings, there is often a line of 5 or 6 cars all waiting patiently behind one of these tree planters for a break in oncoming traffic. The result really is like some strange obstacle course -- watch for parked cars, watch for planters, slow down at all the crossings, careful of buses. It's completely bizarre. I suppose the planters do have the effect of slowing down traffic, but I have to wonder at a system that is DESIGNED to have only one lane available at several points. It would be different, I think, if they didn't allow parking opposite. Then there's the random bend in the road where erosion has removed half a lane of asphalt, the tree that leans out so far that if you're traveling in that direction you have to be in the middle of the road to avoid taking your roof off, and the tractor crossing where the tractors have right of way (coming from the right, you see). It's an interesting way to end your morning commute!
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