Stupid Americans in Germany (part 2)

The Big Day

At last, the big day came.  My first lecture.  I had prepared my slides.  I was training myself to speak slowly.  My big concern was how many people would be there.  They had limited the class enrollment to 20, which would be about 4-5 teams to do projects.  There were going to be other people: the dean, the leader of the group who I was working with, several staff members, and a few other professors.

I got to the room at 10, the official class time.  I had been told that class actually started at quarter-past, so I was not concerned to find an empty room.  Over the next 15 minutes, people began arriving.  Would there be too many?  Would they all understand English?  Finally, the time had come… the group leader was there, several professors, staff members, and the number of students crammed into every spare crevice in the classroom was … zero!  So much for worrying about too many!  Hamburg is a long way to come to teach a class with no students it in…

Well, it turns out that this is the first time ever that the University of Hamburg has started classes on a Thursday rather than on a Monday.  Also, this first Thursday class was on April Fool’s day – not making the students prone to believing stories about classes staring early for the first time ever.  The official hope is that they are all coming next week.  Maybe, but I’ve been busy preparing a glossy flyer with lots of pictures to try and attract as many as I can!  I later found out that the people who do scheduling had put my course at the same time as a course in “Interactive Techniques for Virtual Environments” that was being taught in German, thus siphoning off a large fraction of the potential audience!  At least I have my lecture prepared for next week…  All’s well that ends well.  A bunch of students showed up the second week, and I’m also working with Steffi Beckhaus (who is teaching the VR course) to provide some combined lectures and to work on projects.

American Music

American culture is appearing all over Europe in strange ways, and one that caught our attention here was music.  There seem to be “American music” stations for those of us that go in for that kind of thing, which is good.  The strangeness comes when there seems to be no further breakdown of the songs by genre.  As a result, we would hear a Madonna song, followed immediately by an old B-side beach music song, followed by a hit from the Rolling Stones, then an Abba song (remade in English by a Danish band or something) and then “You’re one of my kind” by INXS.  Very strange indeed.  At least the commercial announcements are all in German.

But there is worse to come.  Stop reading here and skip to the next paragraph or risk having a horrible monstrosity running through your head for the next few days.  You’ve been warned… We went to the Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands, where we toured amazing tulip beds and saw incredible displays of various flowers.  On the way in, however, we encountered a Calliope.  This is one of those electronically-driven free-standing mechanical musical instrument like a player piano except that it sounds like a mixture between a flute and an accordion, coupled to some cymbals and drumlike sounds.  Perfect for Polkas.  Perfect for Bavarian music.  This one, however, was playing “Go Greased Lightning” from the soundtrack for the movie Grease!  It actually played most of the soundtrack while we were there, but this was the worst-sounding song and it is still with me, running around in my head.  There were two wonderful things that happened as we wandered the gardens: we saw beautiful flowers and we got further and further from “go greased lightning, … toot, toot, toot, …, clink, clang… ” with every step.  Of course, they were selling CDs of the thing playing if you wanted to bring the music home with you!


Saturday night before Easter, we were coming back from a wonderful day spent touring a couple of small towns near Hamburg, in particular Celle.  The sun was about to go down, and Shelly wanted to get a good picture of it so we decided to take the Elbbrucken (Bridge over the Elbe) rather than the Elbetunnel that we usually took.  There is a magnificent span over the water, suspended by cables from two towers, that we envisioned taking us up to see a particularly red sunset through the smoke from the Easter fires – huge bonfires lit the evening before Easter.

So we followed the exit for the Elbbrucken, which we could see immediately off to the right of the A-7, the autobahn we had taken back to Hamburg.  Maybe as much as 2 kilometers away, we could see cars curving up into the sunset.  It was 7:30pm.  The way to the Elbbrucken is well marked, with signs at every turn and often even at the intersections where you go straight through.  After about five minutes traveling around ever-smaller roads looking, seeming to go in the wrong direction, I started to get worried.  I figured that the entrance to the bridge must be further back a ways.  After about 15 minutes of winding around various roads with lots of stoplights, we came across a huge column of smoke rising from the other side of a dike – we’d found an Easter fire!

All we had to do to get to the Easter fire was climb down an embankment (avoiding the large opening to some ground-dwelling mammal’s home), cross a small drainage ditch, wend our way around a barbed-wire fence enclosing a Mercedes Benz plant, push the trees away from a section of fence sticking out, and climb over the dike.  No problem!  It was really cool, a whole little village had gathered around a 40’ diameter, 20’ high pile of branches and shrubs that had been gathered together and set on fire.  The children were running around and the crowd was standing up-wind (opposite us) and watching the conflagration grow.  Next week, we’re going to have to ask what the reason is for building these fires, but it was fun to see!

Onward, still following signs towards the Elbbrucken.  During this portion of the trip, they were paralleling signs pointing to the A-1 autobahn, making it seem likely that we were still on the path to the large four-lane bridge spanning the Elbe.  Even though we were now in the heart of the port section.  Passing buildings that were half torn-down.  I asked Shelly what she was doing rummaging around in the back of the car, and she said “locking the doors!”  It was getting rather seedy-looking, and now the path to the A-1 had diverged.  After about 40 minutes spent following the signs towards the bridge that was at most 2 kilometers away when we started, I began to despair that we would ever find it.  The ever-present signs pointing left, then right, then straight spurred me on.  At one point, I was sure I had turned left too early, but when we went back and looked it was clear that we’d gone the right way.

At this point, we came to one of the triangular warning signs that in Germany mean to look out for something ahead: there is one for construction, there is one for parked cars in the road, there is one for broken pavement, and so on.  This one had a picture of a dog in it.  Actually, Shelly corrected me and pointed out that the animal on the warning sign was a sheep.  We were winding our way through the heavy-industrial section of the port of Hamburg on our way to a highway in the sky and there was a warning about dangerous sheep!  Then we saw another sign with the same figure.  Then we saw the sheep.  In the middle of the industrial section, to the right of the road, behind a thin wire fence beyond the guardrail.  Hundreds of sheep in the embankment near the road.  Big sheep.  Mommy sheep.  Baby sheep.  Baby sheep standing on mommy sheep.  “Stop!  Stop!  Stop!” rang out from Shelly’s side of the car.  We’d been looking for “cute fuzzy critters” (her term) all day.  I stopped and turned on the emergency brakes in the middle of the rough part of the port and waited for her to take her picture.  It took three tries and about five minutes (it was the last picture that would fit on her digital film, so she had to keep erasing the misfires or other sheep pictures), but it was a rare and adorable event, so I waited patiently.

Back on the road!  After 45 minutes following signs to cross the 2 kilometers from where we started to where we were going, the signs stopped.  No more signs telling us how to get to the Elbbrucken!  It dumped us right at the Hamburg Dom, the large fair that happens 3 times/year.  Then we saw a sign for the A-7.  At 8:30, one our after we left the A-7, we re-entered the highway about 5 kilometers past where we left.  We had somehow gotten across the Elbe (apparently on the various small bridges we had crossed) and were now 2 exits from home.  We got off at our exit and prepared to turn left towards home.  Just then I noticed something I had not seen before at that exit: a sign pointing to the right towards the Elbbrucken!  I just shook my head and turned left towards home.

Perusing the map when we got back revealed that this is not some sort of horrible fraternity prank being played on Hamburg visitors, but rather that the intrepid traveler should follow signs to Kölhbrandbrücke (singular bridge), rather than Elbbrücken (plural bridge) to take the trip we had anticipated.  Just one of the dangers of relying on partial knowledge of a foreign language: “Oh, sweetie, brücken means bridge – follow those signs!”