In the fall of 1997 I attended the "Fringe 97" Conference, a gathering of optical scientists from about 25 different countries who share the common goal of developing better ways to analyze and interpret optical information. The meeting was held in Bremen, and I chose to tag on a few days of vacation, since I had enjoyed this region so much before. I traveled with a co-worker, James Millard, who is a rising star in the world of non-linear optics. We arrived in Hamburg, Germany on Friday, 12 September at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon after twelve hours of overnight flying and two hours of London layover. I had planned a number of side visits to professional friends in Northern Germany and had concluded that having a car would be the most efficient way to achieve what I wanted to do (maybe the only way). We picked up an Avis Fiat and proceeded, in typical WWT fashion to get lost even before we left the airport.
I am always fascinated by the inability of a society to communicate simple information needed by tourists. Communication is much more difficult than any of us realize. It is not hard to conclude that wars start this way. Even so, between the two of us we managed to find our way to the center of Hamburg by following "Centrum, Stadtmitte, and HBf (Hauptbonhof)" signs. These are three of the WWT "must know" terms for traveling in Germany (ref. WWT Gets Lost in a Heidelburg Parking Garage-1993). I had some advantage over James since I speak and read a little German. He seemed to have more faith in me than perhaps he should (I admit, I often was just guessing the meaning of a sign) and he followed orders (most of the time). Sometimes, the rapidity of my response to those speaking to me in German was impressive even to me. The key, of course, is to always (that is, mostly always) be aware of what the person is going to say to you before he says it. We do the same thing in our own languages. We used the park and hunt method to find a hotel, which turned out to be well suited for Hamburg and we wound up near the train station, paying 130 Marks each, about $90, for rooms with breakfast. This got us rooms that were more like an American walk-in closet, equipped with a bed that we hung off of in every direction, and a shower with wash rag sized towels.
One of the first things we did after we stopped laughing was take the "Stadtrundfarht" (seriously, this means city round tour) for a few hours to get a lay of the city. We spent the next two days readjusting to the nine-hour time change by hitting about five churches, a museum, and two art galleries and walking a hundred miles around the city, which, by the way is a beautiful, clean, and friendly place. Hamburg was essentially leveled during World War II, even the churches, so most of what is there, beyond foundations, is less than fifty years old. I was glad they rebuilt some of the old Gothic churches, but I was sad to see a concrete column with joint stripes painted on masquerading as a mountainous stack of hand hewn stones. Only the Saint Michael’s Cathedral had not been rebuilt. Much of its bell tower stood in the middle of a pile of bombed out rubble, left in this state to commemorate the war dead.
By Saturday we had the subway system figured out so we hit the outlying places. One of the coolest experiences of the day was to be inside one of the cathedral towers when the bells began to chime. I could almost feel the presence of God inside the tower with each toll of a 120 decibels of sound reverberating within my body. The bells give one a medieval feel. On the other end of the cultural spectrum we discovered a most unusual is a place called Reeperbom (okay, we didn’t exactly "discover" it), a red light district where prostitutes hang out and women display their wares in show windows. I have not seen one quite like this before. The women were extremely aggressive with their pitch. It was very strange to have a beautiful, twenty-year-old woman approach me and offer for 50 marks (about $30) to do whatever I wanted. "You give the orders. I can give you a massage, we have sex, and then we go for a drink. I’m yours for a few hours." It goes without saying that we just looked and laughed.
The whole thing seemed surreal, leaving me with the impression that it was just a tourist attraction, a sort of scam that no one actually follows through. The place was packed with men, women, tourists, locals, kids on skateboards, old ladies, and old farts (even older than me), all gloating over the prostitutes and sex shops. We went into a sex shop to see what the attraction was. They had some unbelievable stuff. Especially such things as the "Pocket Pussy" fascinated me. I made up for this crude cultural expedition by spending most of Sunday in the Kunsthall (Hamburg’s art gallery, which houses one of the finest art collections in Germany.) I had decided to use this opportunity to do some homework for an art class I am now taking. Here I had the opportunity to see authentic art from the middle ages as well as more modern pieces of Picasso (The Guitarist), Manet (Nana), Brancussi (Der Kuss), and so on.
We drove to Bremen on Sunday afternoon where we linked up with the conference committee. Those of us who had helped to organize the conference were treated to one of the best meals I have ever had in the little artist’s village of Worpsweder. The meal had three types of wines, eight courses, and two desserts. Before the meal, our host, Wolfgang Osten read the menu and explained options. Interestingly enough, when he came to the wines which included a French wine, Paul Smigielski, a French friend, was quick to point out to the wine steward that the listed French wine had been referred to incorrectly as a Beugolea. While this didn’t add to the taste, it did add to the conversation as we drank it. We ate from six o’clock until midnight. I was in bed by 1:30 AM and up again at 7.
The "Fringe" conference always attracts one of the most complete collections of world experts in optical interferometry one will ever see in a single spot. Most of the papers were interesting; I only slept through three or four papers.
Monday night was the conference banquet for everyone, another feast supreme, held in the old city of Bremen. As a member of an exclusive organization known as the Order of Holoknights and being the most recently chosen "Holoritter" it was my duty and privilege to select and knight the next one, who we had all agreed would be Professor Ole Lokburg, of Norway. After the dinner, I presented a sword (a beautiful, gold enladen Excalibur) to him. Ole, who had presented the banquet speech, is a well-known personality in the field. He seemed truly excited when I read his name from the parchment scroll I had prepared and he never hesitated to kneel and let me touch his shoulders with his new sword, renaming him "Ole of Norway". It was indeed a fun night. Some one later told me that the Knights of Holography is the epitome of a good old boys club. I think she may be right, but it doesn’t stop me from being proud to be a member. I have knight brothers all over the world who have vowed as I have to help each other in every reasonable way in both work and play. I like that.
By Tuesday afternoon, James and I were so saturated with "Fringes" that we left the meeting for a while to climb the tower of the local "Dom" cathedral. We arrived at the cathedral at near closing time, which normally would be bad. In this case, however, the local custodian seemed to take a special interest in us and gave us a personal tour, encouraging us to go into the tower. As we ascended the tower, I could still hear him arguing with a group he had denied admission to the tower because of the time.
Tuesday night we attended an open house at the Bremen Institute for Application of Radiation (BIAS) (Radiation is Strahlung in German). By now, the German beer, the wine, and the tons of rich food began to make me realize that I would not be able to fit on the homebound plane, so I decided to cut the night short. I was in bed almost by midnight.
The conference ended on Wednesday at noon with a talk by Professor I. Ostravasky, the wife and co-worker of Yu E. Ostrosky, one of the most famous Russian optical scientists of the century, who had died last year. We all felt a deep respect for this soft spoken, white haired lady. Her lecture was pretty outdated and I slept through most of it, but at the end I joined the other 250 attendees in a standing ovation.
Actually, the festivities were continuing with a BIAS 20th anniversary celebration and we were, indeed, invited to more banquets and speeches. But we had some choices at this stage. Since our return flights were from Frankfort, a few hundred miles to the South, and since I had German colleagues along the way at Oldenburg and Muenster, we elected to head off and do our bodies a favor.
Both visits to Oldenburg and Muenster were real eye openers. At Oldenburg we began with a round table discussion with Professor Klaus Hensch and his team (which included a vast selection of magnificent pastries, tea and coffee), then we toured his labs. Klaus’ work in optical inspection of ancient antiquities and art has always fascinated me. He has gone into the same churches we toured to study the problem of deterioration of art works. We left with new ideas and enthusiasm and agreements to do some teaming. I also left with a resume of one of Klaus’ graduate students, a potential future MetroLaser scientist.
We were in Muenster by 10 PM, took the first hotel we could find and by midnight were hopelessly lost and practically in heaven, walking the streets of Muenster. Having downed a few German beers, each of our mistakes in choosing directions brought on more laughs and we couldn’t take the map too seriously. I only hoped we would get back to the hotel without getting arrested. Our visit to Professor Gert von Bally at the University of Muenster was equally rewarding. Gert is applying optical diagnostics to the field of medicine and he is also doing pioneering work in archiving by holography. Professor Ichirou Yamagouchi of Japan who had also been to the Fringe conference joined us there. Ichirou taught us three Chinese symbols that make up his first name, one, mountain, and mouth. (He is the number one son of a man named mountain mouth) What a name! I promised to visit Ichirou when I go to Japan next year.
Since we had to be in Frankfort for the Friday morning flight, so we took off after lunch. Our plan was to drive the magnificent stretch of road along the Rhine River from Koblenz to Mainz, where many castles exist and maybe even go in one. This would have worked entirely except for a massive two-hour traffic jam near Cologne. So we avoided Koblenz and began the drive to a village called Boppard. We made stops for brief walks including a stop at Rheinfeld, a castle near St. Goar, but the light was quickly failing us so we moved on up the river. By the time we reached the end of the better part of the drive, night had fallen so we stopped in the town of Bingen for dinner. (Remember Hildegard of Bingen? This was the place) We sat in a sidewalk café having dinner and overlooking the Rhine. Almost thirty years earlier, I had walked this very street after having been "dumped" here by the ferry that travels the Rhine.
Getting the Frankfurt airport was easy from here. Getting a hotel room was another problem. We quickly found ourselves lost again in the airport. We could see the Sheraton hotel where we had hoped to stay in the airport, but we could not get to it. Finally after about 10 U-turns we located the reception and found no vacancies. By this time we figured the trains were easier to deal with than a car so we turned in our car and took the train into Frankfurt. Upon arriving in the station, the train was ready to leave, so we jumped on without taking time to get a ticket. It seems that no one ever checks tickets on this run, but I do usually buy one anyway. I apologize for stealing a 6-mark ride from the railway. I had a few hours left to sleep before heading back to the airport.
The trip was too brief, but nevertheless, I came away with new enthusiasm, new ideas, new friendships, renewed old friendships, new knowledge, and new invitations to attend similar meetings ranging from Crete in May, 1998 to Madras India in 2001. The world’s worst tourist has just begun to write……stay tuned.