Stupid Americans in Germany

In January of 2000, I attended a workshop on nanotechnology in Hamburg, Germany.  One of the hosts of the workshop, Dr. Prof. Siegfried Stiehl, went on to become the dean of the school of informatics at the University of Hamburg.  Several years later, he remembered me and invited me to be a visiting professor to each a course for their summer session.  I accepted, and Shelly and I ended up flying to Hamburg for a four-month stay starting at the end of March, 2004.  Our longest trip away from home, and we knew no German!  With the book “German for Dummies” in one of our four 50-pound bags (not counting the four other bags and two coats), we headed off!

Day one: Arrival

If you have read about our troubles with suitcases on our prior adventures, this next part will come as no surprise.  We were just off the plane in London when Shelly mentioned that her rolling carry-on bag handle was behaving strangely.  Indeed it was – it had broken the tubes that keep it fastened to the bottom of the bag and was swinging freely on the plastic attachment at the top of the bag.  This was not terribly surprising, given the fact that it had been packed so heavily that she couldn’t lift it into the overhead compartment!  I traded her bags and balance-roll-bounced it across the airport to catch the flight to Hamburg.  (Free advice, when traveling with a busted suitcase, do not ignore the sign that says “walking to concourse 4 is not recommended.”  Just give in and take the bus.)[1]

We arrived in Hamburg, found our bags (all but one of them – it came the next day), picked up the key that had been left for us, found the rental car, fit all of our luggage into it, and navigated our way to our apartment building.  All of this really boosted my confidence as a world traveler!  As a result, I went ahead and pushed the “let me in” buzzer on the door that I thought was to our apartment – figuring, “what the heck, nobody’s there!”  But I pushed the wrong one.  The one for an elderly lady with a walker.  A lady who spoke no English.  Not surprisingly, she wasn’t very pleased that a couple of foreign, non-German-speaking, huge-suitcase-wielding tourists came in when she buzzed the door open!  After we showed her the suitcases and keys and tried without success to find someone in the next apartment over who spoke English, she grumbled her way back into her apartment, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

A bit red-faced (and with my pomposity greatly reduced), we headed up to the second floor, where we were faced with two doors.  We knew that the apartment was on the second floor, but didn’t know which one to try.  It seemed to be time to try our keys in both and hope that we didn’t end up breaking in on a second wrong door in two minutes.  (It turns out that in Britain, and also sometimes in Germany, the “second floor” is the one two above the floor that you enter a building on; even though the rooms on that floor are numbered starting with 3.  The “first floor” is the one above the ground floor, even though it has rooms numbering 2.  This aside actually has nothing to do with the present discussion.)  We were saved in the nick of time by a couple coming out of one of the doors.  Now we knew!  So I put the key in the lock on the other door and turned it to the left until it clicked the bolt.  The door didn’t open.  I turned it to right until it clicked the bolt.  The door didn’t open.  I tried each turn again, pushing rather than pulling.  Click.  Shake-shake.  Click.  Shake-shake.  Click.  Shake-shake.  At this point, the man in the couple took pity on me, took the key, and opened the door.  I slunk into the apartment.  (Later, when there was nobody around, I tried the key again.  It turns out that door locks in Germany have three settings, “unlocked,” “locked,” and “super locked.”  So you sometimes have to turn the key around twice to unlock it, and then around another half-turn to free the catch: the doorknobs don’t always turn to open the doors.)

Day two: Settling in

Water woes: After a trip to McDonald’s for lunch, to the gas station for Diet Coke, and a visit from the brother of our landlady, we fell into a long but jet-lagged sleep.  The next day we got up, ready to head into work.  As we were getting ready, I thought Shelly was sure flushing the toilet a lot.  She thought that I was flushing the toilet a lot.  One time we looked over at each other, the toilet was flushing, we were in the same room, and it wasn’t the bathroom… We called the brother of the landlady and he’s set to fix it.  I like a long, hot shower as much as the Dutch like museums.  The showers in Europe are usually very skimpy on water, so I was amazed and overjoyed to see the water gushing out of the showerhead and eagerly hopped in!  About halfway through my standard shower time, the water started to get a bit cold.  I turned the hot up, which lasted 25 seconds and then went downhill fast.  One consequence of gushing hot water is that it empties a small water heater pretty quickly!

The first big scare: As I was drying off, Shelly casually asked me if I’d seen her passport.  Hmm… the first thing that they teach you in foreign travel school is never lose your passport!  This is always said with the same voice they used when you were in middle school and they said not to misbehave or it will go on your permanent record!  Panic ensued.  We searched the living area.  We searched the bags.  We searched the kitchen.  I even checked in the freezer (why is another story altogether).  We search again.  Once more for good luck.  Oboyoboyoboy.  We were sure it was going to go on our permanent record!  As we got into the car to head back to McDonald’s and the gas station, we found it sitting between the seats where we had left it.  Whew!

Day three: Shopping

I’ve learned in America: never buy food from a vendor outside the hardware store.  I don’t know why I didn’t transfer this knowledge to Europe.  Probably because of Bavarian Crème donuts!  Actually, Shelly and I have an ongoing argument about whether there are Bavarian Crème donuts: she thinks I’ve gotten this confused with Boston Crème pie, and that there isn’t Bavarian Crème anything.  I really, really like Bavarian Crème donuts.  So I got one.  Outside the hardware store.  But it wasn’t Bavarian Crème, or any other kind of crème.  It was just dry, stale, taste-free food from the vendor outside the hardware store.  The argument continues!

We got directions to a department store named Karstadt, where we went to pick up some essentials for around the house (pillows, cleaning supplies, bath mat, umbrellas, and 15 or so other things).  We were wandering about up and down the floors, arms ever more chock-full of items, with only a tiny basket to help organize, when a friendly cashier waved us over and put it all onto two giant bags.  On the way out, we found out where the keep all of the shopping carts.  In Europe, they have a neat system of leaving the carts out in the lot, all chained one to the next.  To unchain one, you put a Euro coin into a slot and pull the chain out.  When you are done, you put the cart back onto the end of the chain and then you get your deposit back.  Only we had forgotten to look for a cart until we were inside, and of course any loose cart is immediately scavenged by someone so that they can make themselves a Euro by returning it.  Good system!

Also on the way out, we discovered the dire consequences of not worrying about the fact that no little card had emerged from the kiosk on our way into the parking deck, even though the gate had gone up and let us in… We had wound our way down an incredibly narrow parking tunnel and come to a gate with a small kiosk.  The gate was down.  There was a little slot for a little card.  There was no way I was going to be able to back the car up the ramp, even if there were no cars behind waiting.  I pictured a whole bunch of angry Germans all stacked up in the tunnel because I didn’t have a card to put into the slot.  There was also a little “info” button and some slots for coins, so I pressed the button and waited.  Something in German,” said a male voice.  Something in English” I replied.  Pause.  Sweat.  Buzz – the friendly voice raised the gate and let us out.  I stuck a Euro coin in the slot as a sort of “thank you!” and zipped out before he could change his mind.  (We did the same thing again at a supermarket parking lot, although this time we had gotten a card and also had a native German with us in the car.  This box didn’t have a place to put in coins, but fortunately we were able to back out.  It turns out that you pay for the parking at machines in the lot before you leave, and then when you put the card into the slot it lets you out.)

Head Out on the Highway, Lookin’ for Adventure!

Shelly is an avid nature photographer, and her favorite subjects are wild animals – bear cubs, in particular.  We were glad that we hadn’t spent two weekends’ worth of Euros on an image-stabilized lens when we asked one of our hosts where we could find wild animals like Bears and they replied… “Hmm, let me think… the zoo?”  Another thought for a while and then suggested: “Canada!”  We had found bears in each of these places, but it wasn’t quite what we had in mind…

If you see a deal in the Internet that seems way too good to be true, it turns out that they are like deals elsewhere – they probably aren’t true.  Shelly found is a hotel room in Amsterdam for 1,95 Euros (the comma means decimal point over here) when they usually went for 195,00 Euros.  It looked like someone had skipped a few decimal places.  Woohoo!  She kept waiting for it to change to 195, but kept getting further and further through the sign-on.  Alright!  She got a secure Visa number to use and put the card info in… and it charged us 195 Euros (though it had just said that it would charge us 1,95).  Whoa!  Hold on a minute!  Well, it is pointless to argue with the computer, so we just counted our blessings and were glad that we could cancel without penalty and switch to another hotel.

We went to register where we live (sort of like a driver’s license in the U.S.), so that we could get a bank account and could get visas for our stay here.  On the way back, we took a wrong turn and ended up at a dead end.  Shelly saw a road on the map that I didn’t think I’d seen, but we found a really narrow one with the name she had said.  After we got down the one-lane, brick way we found a set of bars at the other end – it was a bike path!  Lucky for us, these European cars are small and I was able to squeeze between the posts without scraping the car.

Later that day, I went downstairs to get the suitcases that I had stored in the little cubicle downstairs that serves as a basement.  I had along with me the ten or so keys that are for various rooms and mailboxes and such around here; including the one for the tiny little padlock that holds the wooden door closed for our cubicle.  To my dismay, the large steel door to the hallway with all of the cubicles was locked.  No problem… tried key #1, key #2, key #3 … key #9, key #10.  Problem!  I was going to get the cooler so we could pack lunches and the small suitcase for clothes for our weekend trip to Amsterdam.  Of all the keys we have, this is not one of them.  The broken carry-on bag saved the day – we took it with us for the trip and had PB&Js.[2]

[1] Okay, so we ignored the sign in the Boston airport, before the luggage broke, but it’s still good advice!

[2] That’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for any Europeans reading this.