Sunday, July 01, 2007

A German respite

I’ve come to Germany for some meetings this week. Having a little time in Europe feels like a pleasant respite from life in Santa Cruz, despite the jet lag.

I’m staying in my usual place, Hotel Motel, a cheap (for Frankfurt) but comfortable and utilitarian place. I have a small room with a small bed and comforter (no sheet) and a window looking out onto a green, leafy park. Occasionally I find myself bumping into things in the room, but it’s quiet, clean and efficient. I also like the neighborhood, with plenty of shops, cafes and internet within walking distance.

Entering Germany was a breeze – even easier than entering my own country. Free luggage carts are provided to all passengers to ease their exit, the passport line went quickly, with the official not even asking me how long I planned to stay before stamping my passport, and I soared right through customs.

The taxi I took from the airport traveled down the freeway at a frightening 180 kilometers per hour, while the driver constantly removed one hand from the wheel to poke his GPS machine. I enjoyed the traditional German breakfast with a nice selection of teas, deli meats, cheeses, whole grain breads, jams, yogurts, pates, granolas, and sliced vegetables.

While I spent most of the day sleeping and overcoming jetlag, I did get out for a good walk. I like the small cars and the variety of houses and apartments (no gated communities or identically constructed complexes around here). I love the excellent walking and biking paths, the prevalence of bikers, and the courtesy shown by drivers to bikers and pedestrians. Now, in the summertime, I enjoyed the greenery and the beautiful flowers.

I stuck to park paths as much as possible and despite being in the middle of Frankfurt, was able to walk amidst greenery for much of the hour. I passed an adult male soccer game, where spectators relaxed around the field, or sat at tables just outside the fence enjoying grilled bratwurst, beer and gummi bears. Other than that, there was not much going on on Sunday, with almost all businesses closed.

Both in the morning and the evening, I heard the beautiful melody of church bells ringing, a surprise to me in a country so secular. I can also hear the regular roll of the tram.

The people are usually not too friendly or helpful to an English speaker here, though the Indian owners of an internet shop were nice to me today. But I don’t mind too much. It allows me an unusual and welcome period of silence, in which I speak only a few words during the day, and have a greater than usual opportunity to think and to drink in my surroundings.

I traveled here through the U.S., with a one day stopover. That also went better than usual. There aren’t too many fliers at Miami at 6 a.m., which helped the lines go quicker and the agents were more friendly. Everything – from the flights to the subway to the local trains, moved more or less on time and I was able to get where I wanted to go on schedule.

I was a little embarrassed for my country upon watching a couple from England enter the New York Jamaica subway station from the airport. The air was hot, stifling, and stinky. The station was dark and dank. And the train, metallic gray, is ugly. I knew they had images in their mind of the London Tube and the other European subway stations, which are brighter, cleaner, faster and more pleasant. Definitely not up to European standards, but at least it is relatively safe.

I was listening to A Tipping Point on audio book today. The author spoke about the small steps that were so critical in reducing crime on the New York subway in the 1980s – stopping fare beating and graffiti. The ugly metallic cars are used so that as soon as someone vandalizes it, they can use solvent to remove the graffiti. And making such small crimes unacceptable prevents the jump into larger disorder and criminality in the subway system.

Yesterday I walked with my husband to a local bagel shop where they also served a selection of pancakes. I ordered cranberry walnut pancakes and we sat at the simple tables enjoying the paper over our breakfast. The small, independently-owned business was full of couples, families and individuals. It was the closest thing I’d seen to a community hang-out in a town I generally consider an isolated suburbia, lacking a center or culture of its own. As we walked home, we passed a group of adults in the park practicing Tai-Chi. Most were Asian immigrants, but a few African-Americans joined them. I found it beautiful to watch them lifting their arms and legs in slow motion in the neighborhood park under the morning sun. I loved seeing people join together outside, bringing an aspect of Chinese culture I like so much to the U.S.

On the way to the Newark airport, a large billboard, Divorce Made Easy (through Mediation) caught my attention. It seemed to be directed at commuters. Frustrated with their drive to New York, upset by the fight they had that morning, they see the giant billboard and realize they can get a divorce and escape from all their problems. It’s made easy.

I was surprised by the emphasis on the 4th of July celebrations in the U.S. This year it falls on a Wednesday, which is inconvenient for those without much vacation. But it’s leading others to either take a five-day weekend or an entire week off. Radio shows were full of talk about barbeques as people prepared for the largest outdoor picnic day of the year.

The fourth of July is a holiday I can do without. I don’t miss it while in another country. But since I happen to be traveling back to Bolivia next weekend, I’ll be celebrating it with family next Saturday. It’s always nice to have a reason to bring people together and to enjoy a barbeque.

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