Being herded about the world to gawk at statues and buildings, to have just enough time off the bus to take a a quick, poor quality photograph is not my idea of the ideal experience of a foreign culture. One can purchase high quality photographs and even have ones own picture superimposed upon the local scenery to prove to the world that one has been there (even if one has not). Following a tour book is hard work and, at the very best, provides clues of how to get started. Tour books leave out some of the most important principles behind experiencing a country. Notice, I use the term "experiencing". This is not writing about pleasure and seeing stuff. If that is what you want, rent some videos and take a guided tour. What I will be describing will be the joy of just "being" in a foreign culture and learning survival without someone holding your hand, the joy of not just seeing stuff but learning about cultures and alternate ways of thinking.
In October, 1993 my mother and I journeyed to Germany, and we drifted about with only a skeleton of a plan, inventing, discovering and rediscovering one principle after the other in how to experience a foreign culture. She is one of an extremely small clan who is willing to set out on such adventures with me, the reason being that we had (successfully?) used a similar procedure in France and Italy the year before. After realizing the universality of some of the principles, I decided to journal the trip to illustrate the principles and share them with other travelers who are not always impressed by canned tours.
Many of the following principles have to do with communication and information exchange, while others have to do with cultures and ways of thinking. If you are at all like me, then only when you perform for yourself do words describing how things work take on true meaning. The tour guide only tells you what he thought was important. He is not going to tell you many of the facts you are going to need to survive and learn. These differ for every individual and for each case. Some critical items that will save time like WC meaning toilet, Hbf meaning the main train station, are useful to everyone and will be included here also.
Tour books are filled with page after page of directions like "Next, take a stroll down the Forichsstreistungstrasse where the locals love to hang out and sing late in the night." This is horseshit! Without the author's actual hand you don't get out of the airport without getting lost. But that is okay. Expect to get lost. Cherish it. Learn from it. Apply the knowledge, and as soon as you find yourself not getting lost, move on to another place to get lost. Some of the most memorable times on your trip and some of its greatest value will begin by getting lost, confused, and frustrated. From here on, when I say "lost", I mean all three of the above.
We were waiting at a baggage claim that clearly states arrival from New York. After ten or fifteen minutes We notice that we are the only ones waiting there. Sure enough, the sign refers to a Lufthansa flight that landed hours ago. Our bags wait at a carousel five rooms away. Does this waste time? Of course not. Because while we were waiting, we noticed that the Germans were walking through customs at lightning speed near the Lufthansa carousel, while long lines await the TWA flight. So we retrieved our bags, returned to the exit at Lufthansa and walked through customs with the other Germans, acting like we knew what we were doing, passing without so much as a blink. I figure that the Germans down at the TWA gate want to do their duty of scaring the shit out of the Americans as they arrive, so that they will stay in line during the rest of their stay.
The arrow to the car rental pointed directly towards a flight of stairs, which we proceeded to take. Fifteen minutes of wandering around and swearing and finding myself in a train station and after realizing that the arrow was pointing beyond the stairs, not down the stairs, I found Europcar, tucked away in a place you would never look in the United States. After logging over a million air miles and renting hundreds of cars, the difficulty of locating a car rental in a foreign airport startled me, and became the origin of this story. Later, I followed another arrow pointing to the stairs by going round the stairs and found myself lost again. This time the arrow meant "down the stairs".
A train station in the airport, what a logical idea! We used the knowledge on our return a few weeks later to save a fifty dollar taxi fare and about an hours time. This information is probably in the tour book, but seeing the station left a lasting impression on us and made it real. Why don't American airports have train stations? The Logan airport in Boston as well as the Atlanta airport are steps in the right direction, at least having subways.
When the car was not in its designated stall, I was not terribly surprised, but it was close, and I should have found it without returning to the rental office, but I did not. Learning how to operate the car completely took only three days. The most limiting detail was how to get the son-of-a-bitch in reverse. I have driven hundreds of rental cars, and never have I seen anything like the reverse on an Opel. The rear window defogger took 24 hours to figure out, operating the inside light without opening a door took two days, using the same principle I learned with the defogger, namely Europeans make a lot of multifunction switches that pull, push, twist and bend. I attempted to extract the needed information from the operation manual, which was in German. The fact that my weakness in German obstructed me was amplified by a discovery I have made about communication, which I call the principle of mature bureaucracy, which also explains why tourist guidebooks have a rather limited usefulness. The principle is the following; As a bureaucracy matures, its ability to communicate useful information approaches zero. In its attempt to communicate every possible thing to every possible person in the system, a mature bureaucracy floods the world with so much information that the user cannot sort out the needed from the not needed.
The instruction manual spends a great deal of its space warning you not to stick lighted matches into gas tank and to not slam the door on your fingers. This is placed in the manual by the car company lawyers with the idea that in the event someone sues the company, they were forewarned. The jury awards the injured guy 150 million dollars anyway, so it would have been nice if they had left that out, so I could have found out how to locate the damned defroster switch.
Next task is getting on the Autobahn. This should be relatively easy, but because the entire Autobahn concept is different from the US freeway system, you will be surprised. If you have a tour guide, you may never discover this fascinating fact. I first became suspicious when the car rental lady could not pinpoint my hotel, the 300 room Isabella, which is located within a few miles of the airport in Neu Isenburg and furthermore she herself had to consult an associate to figure out how to get to New Isenburg, which was only 3 miles from the airport. She instructed me to get on the 5 Motor way, which I "could not miss". Half an hour later, after following "5" signs until they disappeared, and being completely lost around the end of Frankfort Airport runway, I returned and started over. This time I followed a different set of "5" signs and found myself on the "5" motor way.
After winding around for about 10 miles I lucked onto signs for Neu Isenburg, which I followed in what seemed like at least three circles. I speak enough German to know that "Stadtmitte" means the center of town, so I followed these (This bit of information can be extremely useful in Germany. Memorize it!). After a few U turns, and after seeing only a few tall buildings big enough to contain 300 rooms, I located the Isabella. Having mastered Los Angeles freeways for the past twenty years, I found the fact that I was not prepared to deal with the Autobahn also fascinating. I soon learned that there is more than just a difference in the way the Autobahns are laid out. Indeed, the design of Autobahns represents a difference in the way people of different cultures think.
Autobahns are devised to get Germans from one city to the next in the most efficient way. With that purpose in mind, unlike the Americans who must place an exit ramp close to each politicians farm, or at least ten exits to each city that holds more than a few voters, major German cities may have one or two exits, one at the North of town, one at the Center and one at the South. Some cities do not get their own exit. Autobahns do not help one get around inside the city. Germans have mass transit for that. Autobahns do not have gas stations and restaurants at every exit. Indeed, gas stations and restaurants are part of the autobahn, totally disconnected from cities and city business. Makes a lot of sense doesn't it? American freeways are hampered by the fact that in addition to travel, they are designed for businesses, commerce, and politicians. I could go on with many details about autobahns, which tell so much about the German culture, but instead such discoveries will be left as an exercise to the reader.
The only hotel I had reserved in advance through a travel agent had translated the careful instruction that I needed two beds, one for my mother and one for me, into one double bed. We had to settle for a rollaway bed as a second bed. After the hotel clerk gave me a parking card for the nearby hotel parking lot I mistakenly proceeded to park in the local public lot. Tired, jet lagged, and frustrated, we crashed into bed two hours after landing at Frankfort. I knew I was in for some kind of holiday, having been lost seven times during the first four hours before what most people consider to be the beginning of the trip.
After a few hours of sleep, we found the courage to retrieve the car and head for Frankfort. The man in the city garage was even nice enough to let me out for free and show me where I should have been in the first place. At that point I first realized, without paying, how expensive parking a car is in Germany. Apparently, if a German leaves his car in a parking lot too long, he had best just abandon it there rather than pay the exorbitant fee. Germans would much rather people use public transportation and they offer a lot of negative reinforcement for car drivers to keep as many cars out of the cities as possible.
Leaving the parking lot, I follow a blue line on the map that leads straight as an arrow into Frankfort. Within two blocks I wander into an interesting maze of old streets, that are anything but straight, and in fact my street dead ends right into "Altstadt", the old city, which is always worth a visit. I am glad to have found it, but I soon realize that I have been following one of the latitude lines on the map. Does anybody actually give a crap about the latitude? The map is another example of a matured bureaucracy. So much information was on the map that the real streets were covered. The mature map must tell everything from which rest stops accommodate the handicapped, to which county holds jurisdiction. Each road has three or four numbers to describe it. One is the autobahn number, while others may be European highway numbers, state numbers, mile marks, and some I never figured out. Similarly, the bureaucratically mature highway must have signs to answer everyone's question. By the time you find the information you want you passed it. If you slow down to read the sign, you can bet that some peckerhead will be honking at you. Rest assured you will get plenty of practice in making U-turns.
After following Stadtmitte signs for twenty minutes, I realize that unless I locate a Neu Isenburg sign later, I will never find my way home. But not to worry, getting lost is what this is all about. I often wandered if my mother actually realized how lost we really were at times. Based on some of our experiences in Italy, I had to assume that she really knew and she, like me, had discovered that being lost is not something to worry about. By following the Hbf signs I know that the tourist office will be nearby and they will help me get home. After parking the car on the street in Frankfort, I located the largest landmarks I could find to help me relocate the car later. Actually, it helped some, but even then I walked around several blocks before finding even the landmarks. While lost I managed to find several places that I returned to later for a closer look. One nice thing about European cities is that they help tourists, by providing useful information. Rather than wasting time on tour books, I find it much more useful to go to a tourist information booth and chat with the people there. They love to practice their English. Buy the city guide map for a few cents, and follow it. Ask the tour guide what she recommends, then plot out your course.
Learning the language in any country or at least part of the language is possibly the most important item on my must do list. To go to a foreign country and miss all of what is to be learned from words is pretty close to inexcusable. Let me give you an example. I have known a little of the German language for many years, and as always, on this trip I bought a Berlitz tape for brush up. Now as I sit in the waiting room in Cologne, I notice the no smoking sign which in German, of course, says "nicht raucher". I soon realize that Europeans are finally catching up with Americans and are discouraging smokers almost everywhere. In studying the word closer in a blinding flash of heart throbbing insight I finally realize the origin of the word roach, which the hip generation used to describe the tiny little marijuana butt that became so short that it required mounting on a toothpick or "roach clip" as it was passed around. Without my knowledge of German I would have totally overlooked this richness of information. This is one of the many interesting things one can learn only in Trolinger's non-tourist guidebook.
Incredibly, I found my way back to Neu Isenburg with less than half a dozen U turns and false directions. At the card gate for the parking lot. I tried the card in the slot four different directions before the gate opened. Upside down and backwards was the correct card orientation. The room door lock was equally difficult to operate, and by the time we made it into the room I was fully prepared to kick the door down.
The most important item in the tour book was St. Somebody's Dom, so the next day centered around this location. Every church in Europe is under some stage of restoration, and this one appeared totally inaccessible. We walked all the way around it before finding one door being used by the construction people. We asked one of the workers if he could take us in. He nodded yes without hesitation. The rest of the city is so full of interesting sights that one hardly needs a guidebook. Just wandering from one interesting place to the next, never quite knowing what surprising jewel lay around the corner provided a magnificent day. We discovered foot bridges over the river, museums and churches everywhere. We visited the museum of modern art, where we also had lunch, then headed for the museum of ancient icons. We closed the place down that night, crossing back over the Rhein footbridge at sunset. Footbridges over a big river in such a town as Frankfort is a wonderful idea. This experience resulted in Trolinger's principle of ignorant appreciation. One of the greatest pleasures a tourist can experience is discovering and appreciating a site without first knowing that he was supposed to have seen that particular site. I admit it does add something if after discovering and appreciating the site, one then discovers that it was noted by someone as "not to be missed".
Before leaving Neu Isenburg we went grocery shopping to get our picnic supplies. Now here is where one needs to apply Trolinger's local's tools acquisition maneuver (TroLTAM, for short), a procedure that simply involves watching what the locals do to survive and then no matter how stupid it looks, do it. No matter how hard you try, you will miss some of the subtleties and look utterly stupid anyway, but then that leads one to another of Trolinger's basic principles of life: The most efficient way to become smart.....is by first being stupid. Of course I did not invent this, since it is simply a corollary of the homily that "we learn by making mistakes".
One of the interesting things I had noticed earlier in Frankfort was that European homeless and indigents don't use grocery carts like Americans do. The reason is that getting a grocery cart requires a one mark deposit that unlocks the cart from all of the rest. When you return the cart, you get your mark back. This we achieved like locals with only minor observation of a few locals in front. Of course when we got to the checkout lane we had failed to notice that all of the locals had brought a grocery bag with them. We walked out with groceries stuffed in purses, pockets and underarms, looking pretty stupid....but we did not make that mistake again.
How to select a hotel presents an interesting dichotomy. The tour centers will help you select, your travel agent can book in advance, or you can just find an interesting looking place, park the car and start walking from one hotel to the next. Forget the travel agent, since by now, you realize that you have no idea what city you will be in each day, not to mention the fact that they will choose the ones that pay them a fee, usually quite expensive. If you have a reservation, the problem is then that you have to find the hotel.
Unlike American cities, European cities all have thousands of hotels, most of which have only a few rooms. Finding a hotel after getting its street number and address is no trivial problem. To begin with, chances are your map does not have the street on it. Street names in a different language represent a problem in itself. When a street has a name like Charzletxmindigen, it is extremely difficult to remember and indeed, even to recognize. Over and over I would ask mother the name of a street next to something. Not even attempting to pronounce it she would spell it out C H A R Z L E T X M I N G I G E N. After the first two or three letters, I had lost all hope of using the information.
Another problem has to do with street design. In Europe streets go in every direction with few square corners, and even the straight streets change names about every hundred feet. Let me repeat that last sentence in case you did not hear it. Even straight streets often change names every few blocks! This seems extremely bizarre. Why would one have many different names for the same street? One conclusion is that the politicians are more interested in getting their names immortalized than in traffic control. Another possible explanation exists. The name of a street pins down a location much better for a local who has spent a zillion years learning where all the streets are (a much different way of thinking). The latter would be a noble thought, but you don't have to leave the United States to learn the answer. In Los Angeles we have a stretch of a street named Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard. Expect to see hundreds of streets in Germany that make this look like an abbreviated street name.
A zillion one way streets run for just a hundred feet or so and dead end. Making such observations is itself one of the great experiences of visiting foreign countries. In Costa Mesa, California, you can drive down Flower Street for miles when all of a sudden at its entry into a newly developed area the name changes to Sukiaki Avenue. Do you need two guesses to name where the development money for the project originated? Little imagination and the application of some of the very principles cited herein can lead to a description of the Los Angeles street naming system in about five hundred years.
Finding a hotel in Heidelburg was a fun experience that violated all typical tour guide recommendations. The tourist center told us that some convention in town had filled all of the hotels, that we could get one in a town nearby. We had only stopped there to get our one mark city map anyway since we had elected to use the walk around technique for Heidelburg.
To save mother's legs for more important things, I parked in the most interesting place I could find and I set out for the hunt. After the first hotel tried was full I walked onto the main walkway. Most of the hotels had no vacancy signs hanging out. After some frustration I continued along the main street. Suddenly I was distracted by a statue of a funny looking man, standing beside a pub doorway. He actually appeared to have said something as I walked past, as though he was beckoning me into his pub. Who was this Perkeo character anyway? Maybe a quick beer would help me decide to continue looking or to take the advice of the tourist office. .As soon as I entered the pub, I realized that it was also a hotel (with only four rooms in all), and not only that, the hotel had a room...... with a view, maybe the prime room in all of Heidelburg. So I had a quick beer and took the room without even looking at it as soon as I found that it had two beds. At this point I was so relieved I would have taken it if it had no beds at all. As I exited the pub to retrieve the car, and mother, I thanked the Perkeo statue, and I swear he seemed to smile at me.
As stated before, hotels discourage cars. In fact they tend to disregard cars altogether. What you do with your car is your problem. In cities like Heidelburg, one cannot even leave the car on the street, since street slots are reserved for the locals. Had it not been for this fact, I would never have learned all about parking garages. The parking garage in Frankfort had been such a snap that I failed to notice a few strange phenomena here. While the elevator buttons were numbered in batches of hundreds, designating parking spaces, the floors were numbered one two three with three being the bottom floor. I went up and down several times before getting out on each floor to see where the hell I was. The only other instance in the garage came about when I stuffed a 50 mark bill into a 10 mark slot. I wondered why it was so damned hard to get the machine to take it. German bills, like most of the other currency in Europe vary in size with each denomination. They should have made the fifty so damned big that I would never have dreamed of sticking it into the 10 mark spot.
The hotel clerk was extremely friendly and was quick to tell us what was worth seeing and what was not. The castle here according to her was extremely good and we could make it there in time for a tour. We took her advice. During the tour, which took us throughout the magnificent castle, we ended in the winery. Once again, I saw the statue of the funny little Perkeo. Who was this man, I ask the tour guide. The tour guide could hardly talk about Perkeo without laughing. Perkeo is the most famous jester of all times; he was loved by everyone in Heidelburg in his day. He made them all laugh. Perkeo was also a famous alcoholic; he loved to drink and he is said to have drank himself to death. But people in Heidelburg believe that his ghost is still here, and he often pulls little tricks on the locals who are quick to acknowledge a visit from Perkeo. A chill filled my body. At that moment I realized that maybe the statue really had said something! I could almost hear Perkeo's laughter echoing in the huge wine hall.
The next day we wandered about Heidleburg armed with our locally obtained guide map. Lo and behold we heard the sounds of an organ in a nearby church. Lets go! As we entered the church, we found the organist practicing, and for a while were treated to one of our most moving experiences of the trip. Now I could fully experience the religious power that can be generated in a huge gothic church with towering ceilings and sound. We stayed and enjoyed this pleasant surprise for some time.
That night in a restaurant we struck up conversations with some other tourists. One lady who had carefully researched the best sites told us about the so-called Romantic Road. During the night I plotted a practical course to catch some of this and began reading up on some of the cities. Perhaps our greatest discovery was the medieval city of Rothenburg where we stayed the next night.
Many people tout the wonders of the European train system. I have to admit it is nice, but one cannot easily experience Rothenburg and the country around it without a car. Rothenburg is a city within a stone wall system, a magical place built centuries ago, and somehow remaining intact. Even though it does have a McDonalds, the city people were wise enough to disguise it. Simply walking the streets of the city is as good as it gets for touring old Europe. Now I was too uninformed to understand that there are not enough hotels within the city to handle the traffic, and that most tourists stay outside, park their cars outside and take a shuttle into the city. Using my park and walk system, I found a room in a local Gasthaus in the dead center of town at a price that was the lowest I had paid in Germany so far.
After spending a pleasant few hours walking around the city, we settled in to the room for the night. Before going to bed we opened the window to experience some of the sounds of the village at night. The first thing we heard was a melodious voice in a small building that seemed to be located behind the church. Within a few minutes we realized that we were hearing the church choir practice for the next days service. We sat beside the window sipping tea and listening to our own personal opera for the next hour.
The next day we continued our drive up the Romantic road, stopping occasionally to marvel at the grape vines and wineries. We had already managed to find some of the Trolinger wines in the local stores and now we could see where the famous Trolinger grapes were grown. At one point we took a side road at random to a small village, with an interesting name, that was not even on the map and there we enjoyed one of the most picturesque sites of the whole trip, including beautiful flowers and ancient, "real" houses, a tiny village whose name unfortunately, I cannot remember.
I had heard so much about the wonders of Wurtzburg that I decided at least a drive through was warranted. As often is the case, the inside Germany we had already seen made the city just "okay". To replicate some of the most beautiful sights in a country in a place that is more convenient to tourists is a tremendous challenge that can only be partially successful. Seeing the real thing always seems more rewarding (and always less crowded). Actually, ninety per cent of the buildings of Wurtzburg (over 4000 buildings) had been leveled in World War Two, so what we were looking at were replicas anyway. By this time we just looked in a quick drive-through and headed for Cologne.
Originally, my idea was to enter the Rhein Valley at the South end of its best strip and drive to Koblenz where we would stay. Two problems changed the plan. First, it was raining like hell, and second, I missed the turn anyway. This brought forth the recognition of Trolinger's shortest distance principles of life. When traveling in foreign countries, no one best way to get from point a to point b exists, what appears to be the best route seldom is, and don't worry about the well known tourist sites (traps). While seeing the well known sites is okay, don't let them waste too much of your time. We drove straight to Koblenz using up the rainy day, got a good nights sleep, then took our leisure on the Rhein river South of Koblenz, which turns out to be the best part anyway.
We stopped in the first village that looked exciting, St. Goar, walked around, and before I could even ask the locals where was the best castle in the area, mother had found a flea market spread out along the Rhein. After paying our respects to the flea market, we asked a lady about castles and she told us to turn around and look behind us. There standing on a peak behind us was Rheinfel Castle, an ancient ruin, which is indeed written up in the books as one of the best, not to be missed. We had inadvertently taken the advice of the travel books.
We enjoyed a full day along the Rhein, went through castles churches, a few more villages and headed for Cologne. We had been lucky with a beautiful day. As though someone had planned the time the rain began again. At Cologne, I decided to again use the now proven walk around technique to find a hotel, and here I encountered the first potential problem with the method. The only place to park was the city garage, which fortunately was behind the target of our visit, the magnificent Gothic Dom Cathedral. Again mother waited in the car while I walked. By now the rain had almost stopped but it was dark.
After checking out a few hotels and looking for the best options, I turned quickly to return to my favorite. Suddenly I found myself hurtling over a retaining wall, that somehow appeared out of nowhere in the dark street. Landing on my head and arms, I sat stunned for a few minutes, checking to see if anything was broken. Fortunately, nothing seemed damaged with the exception of twisted glasses and a muddy face and hands. I considered myself lucky at that point. Later, I pondered how bad this could have been, me in a hospital and mother sitting in a parking garage.
A few (but not many) tourist sites are worth going back to especially if you want someone else to experience what you have experienced. But don't expect to get the same experience again yourself, and don't always expect the person you are with to have your experience. And when you get there, let the other person have his own experience. I knew that my mother would have a peak experience when standing before the Kohner Dom, a cathedral that looks like a mountain. Although I enjoyed, standing before this magnificent cathedral again, my strongest emotional experience was seeing her tear filled eyes.
Like many cities, Kohn is a city so full of good things to see, that you can set out on foot in any direction from the Kohner Dom, without any help and find "not to be missed" sites everywhere. Don't waste time reading about it beforehand. You will find as usual with tourist stuff reading about it is much more fun after you have seen it. Sometimes a little reading may help prevent your missing important points, but then, as long as you are being interested in what you are seeing, who needs important points.
Arriving in Bremen Germany was a rather strange experience. Upon arriving, we violated two principles that caused trouble, the TRolTAM principle and the walk and find hotel principle. We followed the exit signs instead of the locals leaving the train. Standing in what I thought was the front of the station I observed no taxis. We needed a taxi to get to a prearranged hotel . We wasted an hour before I hailed one passing. A few days later I discovered we had gone out the rear of the station and were standing behind it, not in front of it where thousands of taxis always sit.
In Bremen, I applied the DoWhalDo principle, that is doing what locals do in their everyday life but what we rarely experience can lead to great adventure. In Bremen, like many European cities, the locals figured out long ago that automobiles cannot be accommodated without destroying wonderful streets and buildings to make room for wide lanes and parking lots. So instead of building larger roads, they built smaller ones...... for bicycles. I checked the tourist guide to see if it was recommended. It was not mentioned. I ask the hotel if one could rent a bicycle anywhere. He looked at me rather strangely and replied "Why would you wish to rent a bicycle? The hotel bikes are quite nice and they are for your use." Bicycle lanes have their own traffic lights, roundabouts, and special access. With a bicycle in Bremen you can see in few hours what would take days to see with a car (if ever). Bicycling in Bremen was one of the most unusual and eventful experiences of the entire trip. I went up into the tower of Bremen, saw the old town, the Bremen Dom, Grimm's Fairy tale animals, and a lot more, but I have to say, the Bremen bicycle trails were the neatest of all.