Thursday, May 18, 2006

Germany

Out of all the places for phase 1 of this client project, Germany wouldn't have been my top choice. Spain or Italy sound much nicer. Not so sure about the UK. But Germany it is, and here I am. The other problem was missing the Cleveland Marathon this weekend. Nothing I could do about that either.

Getting here was somewhat uncomfortable, as most long flights are. I did manage some sleep on the way from JFK to Amsterdam. The flight from Amsterdam to Dusseldorf was only about 40 minutes in a puddle jumper.

Upon arriving at the hotel at about 2pm, I tried to call home, since I had figured it to be 8pm there. When Debbie didn't answer after repeated tries I started to panic - she had driven home from Connecticut, and should have arrived hours earlier. The panic was worse because I couldn't call anyone else - all my numbers are in my cell phone which was at home since it wouldn't work here. Of course I finally found out that Cleveland is 6 hours BEHIND Dusseldorf, not ahead of it. So it was still morning there, and Debbie wouldn't be home for hours.

Early on, I had only eaten at the hotel and at the client cafeteria. Nothing really great to speak of, but lots and lots of volume. Breakfast (and today, lunch) buffets sure don't help when it comes to controlling intake. Some of the food is quite interesting - the white asparagus as a main course is very good. The waitresses will tell you to eat it because it's good for you. Yeah, but not the gallon of hollandaise you smother it in. You can still order meat or fish as a side dish. Other German favorites abound as well. I feel like I'll weigh a ton when I get back.

Without a car, and a couple miles away from the city center, there's not much to do (except work) and I'm not getting out much. I run in the morning, and walk in the evening, mostly along the Rhine River. It's wonderfully serene, with very wide park-like areas on both banks. And there are walk, bike and run paths galore all over the city, with several stretching for miles and miles along the river.

Work is ok. The client contacts all speak English, but some are hard to understand. The counts can be intense because of the language and because some are tightly scheduled. The good news is that there isn't an over-abundance of follow-on work. So I do have some time to myself in the evenings.

After a few days of hotel food, I finally did venture out some. Yesterday Pam and I walked along the Rhine to a restaurant that I had discovered right along the river. It was nice eating out on the back deck overlooking some yachts. The folks didn't speak much English, but we managed - I wound up with a ball-o-burger meat with fried eggs on top for 7 euros. Pam got filet mignon for 8 euros. Then today we figured out the subway/train situation enough to ride it to downtown and old town Dusseldorf. Being a stranger in a strange land, especially when you don't speak the language means that you spend an awful lot of time being lost, dazed and confused.

Old town is like a typical European town with cobblestone streets, shopping, and several nice restaurants and bars. We ate at a German place where I sampled 4 types of sausage with kraut and fries. This on top of the appetizer of tons of cheese with bread. This is fat/cholesterol heaven.

Speaking of lost and confused, we somehow found our way over to Cologne (via a train from the main station) the next day. More cobblestone streets, bars, restaurants and shopping. But there were two differences: this is the actual home of the original cologne, and there's one mother of a cathedrals here. It seemed to me that it put Notre Dame to shame. We took a $4 english tour and learned about the history of the place. Turns out the the Magi (yes, the original three wise guys) are supposedly buried there by the altar. How's that for history? Then we climbed something on the order of 350-400 feet to the top of the tower. As Lori had said, you must have bats in your belfry to do something like that. Quite a view from up there though.

Every morning I make the usual choices about how long, far, fast to run, etc., but also one of four more choices: east or west bank of the Rhine, and north or south. Today it was south on the east bank, and it wasn't the greatest, even though the footing was good - too much industry there. I've got it figured out now: for longer runs, north along east bank is best, and for shorter runs, south on the west bank rules.

There were two choices Pam and I could think of to see more of the best of Dusseldorf: take the train to a palace built in the 1800s (supposedly rivaling Versailles) and take a city tour. In order to get a more thorough and varied outlook, we went for the city tour. After walking around old town and exploring some more very old churches, we got on the bus. The speaker spoke German first and then English, and it was a bit distracting. After riding around town for a while we got on a boat for a river tour. That was pretty neat. Then the tour wound up going up to the Rhine tower which is 168 meters high - way above the surrounding buildings. But only a little higher than we climbed yesterday. We could see Cologne, our hotel, way up and down the river, etc. Pretty neat too.

So the tour was decent. We were lucky with the weather - it was cloudy, but at least there was no rain like we had yesterday. As a result, I left my umbrella at a restaurant. I think I'd still like to see the palace though.

No discussion of experiences in a foreign land would be complete without a note about bathrooms. Pam and I tried everything we could think of when asking if there was one in the Dusseldorf main train station: men/ladies/women's room, toilets, rest rooms, potties, you name it. We got the same answer from two different information persons: There aren't any of those in Dusseldorf. A bit later on while we were still wandering in the station, Pam asked what "WC" means. That's when it dawned on me: having been to Europe before, I should have known what to ask for. One other thing: there are public walk-in urinals all over town. They have a little boy peeing logo on them. Very handy if you're of a gender who is able to stand during the act. No help for sitting type genders.

For the second to the last evening, Pam and I went back to old town to shop for a few last-minute souvineers and to eat dinner. Picked up a couple things, and the Agentine/Spanish steak place was really good. Then it was time to take the subway back. We thought we had these things figured out really well. The U77 comes closest to the hotel, but it stops running at 7:30pm and also doesn't go on weekends. That's ok, because we can also take the U70, U74 or U76, which are only a little farther away. It was 7:50 and we were waiting for a U74 or U76 when we saw a U77 come by on a different than usual track. Pam said, "Let's catch that one", but as we were getting on, I had a few reservations: 1) it was on the wrong track, 2) it was after hours, 3) based on 1 and 2, it may have possibly been going the wrong way. I mentioned being dubious, but continued to get on anyway. As the doors closed there came two more resevations: 4) we were the only people on the train and 5) one guy outside was wagging his finger at us in a strange manner.

The train left and after a few minutes pulled up to stop at a subway-train graveyard. There didn't appear to be any way to get out without walking on the tracks, although this turned out to be not completely the case. As the lights began to go out in the train, I said something on the order of, "we're in deep s__t!". We ran up to discuss the situation with the driver, who smiled but didn't speak English at all, except to say, "10 minutes, one stop". After moving over to a different train, he got us going back to the station again after the mandatory stupid-American 10-minute penalty waiting period. There we were able to finally get off and then onto the U74 for the ride home.

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