Assorted Musings: German Sojourn
German Sojourn
(March-April, 2000)
Day One:  Newark to Dusseldorf

I am currently sitting in the 1/2 full business class section of a nice new Lufthansa A340.  Perhaps because the flight is so empty (it's even quieter in back), and perhaps because it's almost entirely Germans, they keep refusing to duplicate announcements in English.  Waseem and I keep looking at each other like "Do you suppose that one means we can get our computers out?"  Since the staff is stereotypically efficient and strict, we fear stepping awry.  Waseem's cell phone earlier prompted quite a furor.  We keep shyly asking if we can work yet.

The movies on this flight are rather dreadful -- no temptation to stay up and watch something rather than sleep.  That's probably a good thing, but still!  We're in business with personal video screens and all that, and our choices are:
The Legend of 1900
Happy Texas
The Pink Panther
A documentary on The Great Castles of Europe
And, of course, the world map with a big red line showing where we've been.

The radio selections are equally odd.  Lots of Pet Shop Boys and "world music".  It's like they went for whatever was cheap.

I turn to reading material, but the most interesting thing I can find in the airline magazine is an ad for genuine (used) Lufthansa airline seats.  A set of 3 economy-class seats on a base sells for only $1000.  I can't imagine who would buy this -- sitting in coach is bad enough when you are going somewhere interesting, but can you picture finding them in your dentist's waiting room?  I suppose that would at least be appropriately purgatorial...

Ah, well, here's to red wine and sleep.

Day Two:  Marathon

Waseem and I arrive in the Dusseldorf airport at 6:45 local time, with 4 bad hours of sleep under our belts along with some dubious smoked fish from breakfast.  (Note to self:  European airlines might have cool designs and give you that foreign feel, but Rice Krispies are a fine way to start your day.)  The passport control officer is so bored that he doesn't even stamp my passport, thus removing any proof I was actually in Germany.  My quest to get extra pages in my passport before 2004 is not improving.

At baggage claim, we further improve our mood by being met by only 2 of the 3 bags we collectively checked.  Waseem's rollaboard made it, but not his big suitcase.  (As an aside, I think I underpacked.  I brought one big suitcase and a small overnight bag for a month.  Waseem, who's going home this weekend, brought a suitcase, a rollaboard, and a small overnight bag. Now, I realize he's planning to store things at the hotel and that he is
bringing over almost everything that he'll need until mid-May, but still.  I'm female and thus expect to have more bags.)  We file a claim with Lufthansa for the lost bag, throw the rest of our huge pile of black luggage on a cart, and trundle off to find Hertz.

This is not easy, as the Dusseldorf airport is not the thriving tourist mecca one might expect.  All the signs are in German and obscure-picture-language.  No English.  The airport is also under construction at the moment, which no doubt makes it even more confusing even for those who speak obscure-picture.  We finally puzzle out that the picture of the car with the big key over it might have something to do with rental cars and follow arrows.  After about 100m of wrestling our huge luggage cart over bumps and broken pavement, we see an Avis sign.  Not long thereafter, that blessed yellow sign appears on the horizon.  We meander through a parking garage and triumphantly find the Hertz office.   Given how our morning has progressed to date, I was a little nervous about Hertz.  It was entirely unjustified.  Gold service works in Germany, and our car was ready to go.  I picked up a Wall Street Journal, grabbed our keys, and asked for a map of Koeln.  I was told with great condescension and amusement that there was a map in the car.  But did it cover Koeln, I pressed?  Yes, I was told, with perhaps even more condescension.

Our BMW 320i was stocked with not only a marvelous road map of all of Germany (er, yes, there's Koeln right there), but also a magazine, a free CD to try out an Internet service, and an ad for something involving cars that we couldn't read.  We tossed it all in the backseat in the square millimeter of space not taken up with bags (in some ways, losing Waseem's suitcase was a good thing), and headed off for Koeln.

Our first encounter with the autobahn was really rather uneventful -- we found the A3 right where the signs said we would, and it took us all the way to Koeln with no trouble.  We weren't crushed by trucks or honked at by Porsches.  We traveled along at 130-140, nice and calm, watching the fields go by.  Waseem found German light rock, and we sang along to Madonna at 7:30 in the morning.  For reasons we don't understand, we seem to have activated a "feature" by which our radio changes stations randomly every 20 minutes or so, usually in the middle of a good song.  We're still trying to turn that off.

After about 30 minutes, we came over a rise and suddenly, there's Koeln. This enormous Gothic cathedral is right in front of us, with lots of very modern skyscrapers all around it.  Hello, and welcome to Germany.  We start paying attention to our directions and finally make it, with no wrong turns (though a few close calls) to the Hyatt.  We park in a space feet from the Rhine, and just sit for a moment, staring at the cathedral right across the river and the huge city surrounding it.  Then we remember how much we want a shower.

The hotel had given away our reserved rooms, but were willing to find us others to shower and change.  A quick 45 minutes later, we meet the team at 9:30am.

9:30 - 10:00:  Drive to Leverkusen
10:00 - 12:00:  Meet with several gentlemen who have useful information
12:00 - 13:00:  Lunch

The cafeteria at the Leverkusen site is huge, like one of those Moevenpick Marches, with stations for everything from curry to salad to jellied fish to sausages.  Roughly 60% of the dishes involve either pork or potatos or both, which I take as a sign of things to come.

13:00 - 13:45:  Drive to Wuppertal
14:00 - 17:00:  Meet with project sponsor
17:00 - 20:00:  Meet with core team of project to determine scope, schedule of project

I didn't know there was a 5pm meeting until about 10am that morning.  I don't think anyone else did, either, but it was an unpleasant surprise.  It lasted about forever, but it was very useful and we got an enormous amount of work done.  I can't complain about the results, although the timing wasn't great.  All in all, by the end of the first day I felt I knew a great deal about my role for the next few weeks, which is rare.  Usually the first day of a new project is spent finding the copy room, figuring out the phone system, and learning people's names.  I guess I'll do those on day two.

20:00 - 20:45:  Drive to Koeln
20:45 - 21:05:  Frantic unpacking to find regular clothes and shoes
21:05 - 23:45:  Dinner with far too much wine and far too few vegetables
23:45 - 00:15:  Finish unpacking
00:15 - 00:45:  Fruitless attempts to dial into email, more fruitful attempt to dial into voicemail
00:45 - 1:00:  Investigation of German phone system
1:00:  sleep

A very, very long day.  I should have skipped dinner to unpack and wrestle with phones, but I figure I'll get sick of the hotel room soon enough.

It's not a bad room, actually -- it's rather large even by US standards, with a good desk with plugs and dataports.  The bed is huge and features both a very firm mattress and a very soft duvet.  (Perfect)  The bathroom is a somewhat sinful experience, with both a large tub and a shower with one of those great European showerheads.  The TV has a great selection of German stations and a few English-language channels (CNN World, BBC World,
CNBC, Eurosport in English).  I can watch almost every US sitcom dubbed into German!  (Last night while searching for CNN I passed by Tony Danza on "Who's the Boss?".  Tony Danza really shouldn't speak German.)  Not bad. And, if you press your head right up to the glass of the window and lean a bit, you can see the cathedral.

Day Three:  Where the Heck Am I?

My first full day in Germany dawned far too early, although a good long shower and a good Continental breakfast certainly helped.  I watched Clinton address the Indian parliament (live on CNN!) while drinking good strong coffee and eating excellent bread with black current preserves.

Three food questions:
- Why can't the US learn to brew coffee?
- Why can't the US learn to make bread?
- Why are there no black currents in the US?

The CNN feed stuck with Clinton all through his speech, and was going to stay with the Indian PM's as well until it was clear that he really was going to give the whole thing in Hindi.  They stuck with him for easily 3-4 minutes before they realized there wasn't a translation available and gave up.  It was kinda funny, though, watching Clinton smile and nod just like he does in debates when he had no idea what this guy was saying.

The morning drive to Wuppertal is a bit daunting, as I am on my own with only a sketchy set of directions and two less-than-useful maps.  One is the roadmap of Germany, which is great for figuring out where, in general, Wuppertal is, but it can't go into much detail.  The other is a map of the site in Wuppertal, with a few major roads hanging near the edges.  So if I get within a few kilometers, I'll be ok.  Somewhere between "near Essen" and "turn left at the bierhaus" would be good, though.  I propped my handwritten directions (Sample line:  "Turn left after the big tree leaning over the road") near the gear shift and prayed.  I wound up making only two wrong turns, both easily corrected, and made it to the site in under an hour.  Each correct turn was cause for celebration, and when I finally
parked the car I felt like kissing the ground.  I'm just hoping I can reverse course this evening with as little trouble.

Three driving questions:
- Where's the turn for the A3, and why isn't it where I left it?
- Why isn't the sign for the B224 marked as such?
- Why is the client site next to a football field?

Unfortunately, my clip-on sunglasses exploded this morning when I pulled them out of my purse -- both lenses fell out, one sticking determinedly behind the seat belt fastener.  I finally excavated it, but I don't think those glasses are going to make it back to the States.  Whatever's left of them I'll bury ceremonially before I leave.  Fortunately, I have a set of prescription sunglasses I can use as well, and it's not really that bright. I just feel cooler wearing my clip-ons while driving down the autobahn in my little silver BMW.  It's an image thing.

The other unfortunate discovery I made this morning is that there are no coffee machines or other sources of refreshment in the office buildings here.  There also is no air-conditioning, but it's March and cold, so I'll be ok.  (I'm glad I'm not signed up through May, though.)

Three cultural questions:
- Why is it assumed that Germans (and in fact all Europeans) are camels, who can go hours without so much as a glass of water?
- Why are European kitchens and bathrooms so much more efficient and pleasant than those in the US?
- How is it that a large company that makes huge vats of chemicals can be considered "green" if they have no air conditioning?

In the evening, I made great time getting back to Koeln, so I indulged my little hobby at new client sites -- I got within a few minutes of the hotel, then I turned into a residential district.  Soon enough I found my way to a
shopping district with a supermarket and a drugstore and such.  Getting back I just kept turning left until I found the Rhine, then looked for the spires to take me home.  It would have been a very successful trip (Coke for DM 1.25, good Bahlsen biscuits and bananas), if it weren't for turning down the one-way street.  It was typically narrow and crowded, so just like in the movies I backed up into the square, narrowly missing patrons at the sidewalk cafe, and went on my way.  Lots of laughter from the locals.  Oh well, at least I got some bath salts for my huge tub.  :-)

Day Four:  Waseem, Your Cruise Director

Last night, after coming in from the bierhaus and sending email, I took a nice warm bath in my huge tub with my new bath salts while reading a book. *Not* a New Jersey hotel activity.  This morning I showered using my new "Dusche Das" shower gel, which is scented with grapefruit and something that's probably mint given the picture.  I can't quite translate the German, but I think it's supposed to be refreshing aromatherapy for energetic? days.  The bath salts are multi-lingual, so I had no difficulty there.

Unfortunately, one of the motivations for relaxing with a bath and a book is that the TV situation is really getting dreadful.  I mostly watch CNN, but it's not the headline news variety.  Every now and then you get stuck with some endless story on the political unrest in the Ivory Coast, which is probably very good and insightful but not very punchy.  There is also the very real possibility that there could be a major US news story that I hear about three days later when it finally is noticed by the International Herald-Trib.  I guess I'm too used to updates on the hour.

I did find MTV Europe, which is playing all sorts of songs you don't hear in the US.  A-Ha, for example.  The veejays are the same the world over, though -- visible bra straps and spiky hair.  There was also a great rugby match on Eurosport.  The nice thing about this for me was that the German and English feeds were equally incomprehensible.

On the social front, Waseem is going back to Boston this Friday for the Oscar party, but after that he wants to spend his weekends exploring Europe.  He keeps thinking that Prague and Berlin and Barcelona are just a hop away, but a Deutsch Rail timetable will probably cure that problem.  We are considering the following, however:
1)  Weekend in Paris (c'mon, wouldn't you?)  The high-speed French trains (TGV) come in through Koeln!
2)  Driving down the Mozel wine route
3)  Berlin  (travel by air, probably)
4)  Amsterdam
5)  Anywhere there's really good shopping nearby (Dusseldorf?)

I doubt any of these will actually happen, given workloads and the fact that we really only have from Friday night at 8pm to Sunday night at 10pm to play with.  He loves to dream, though.  None of this is helped by the fact that the train tracks run right by our hotel, so all night you can see (though not hear, fortunately) trains going all across Europe.  It's like being an addict who lives right near a crack house.

I'm encouraging looking for things to do in Koeln -- cheap, easy, doesn't take much time.  Most prominently on this list is the local production of Saturday Night Fever.  The concert hall where it is held is right across the river from us, and you can see the lighting they throw on the dome.  Lots of purple and red.  Very bold.  We're really hoping that it's in German. Other amusements include the chocolate factory, the large art museum, and the dozen or so very old (if you don't count the effects of bombing) churches.  We've been told several times that we really must climb the spire of the Dom.  That probably counts more as exercise than amusement, but what the heck.

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