Thursday, September 29, 2005

Road trip

DAY 11 of “Chancellor Watch” – Both the SDP and CDU parties called Wednesday's talks "fruitful" and "serious". But added they were still not ready to formally negotiate, or decide on a chancellor.

A three-day weekend is quickly approaching, thanks to a German holiday on Monday. Never to waste the travel possibilities of a long weekend, Buddy and I have decided to check out a stretch of Germany known as The Romantic Road, or Romantische Strasse. This section of German countryside runs for 180 miles between the cities of Wurzburg in the north and Fussen, located in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps to the south. Clearly, this vast amount of touring cannot be adequately done in three days by “Young travel standards”, so we have decided to visit the upper section of this area in our upcoming weekend.

The name itself is not intended to attract lovebirds, so to speak, but rather uses the word romance to mean wonderful, fabulous, and imaginative. And of course, this road started out as a road on which the Romans traveled.

For this trip, we’ll concentrate on the crown jewel of The Romantic Road, Rothenburg-ob-de-Tauber. Although it can be fraught with hordes of tourists, this time of year should help us manage this challenge. We’ve been told if we only have time for one town on the Romantic Road, then this is place to visit. Supposedly, this town is the best preserved medieval city in Europe. So, we’ll start in Wurzburg on Friday PM and head south as far as Dinkelsbuhl, seeing Rothenburg-ob-de-Tauber somewhere in the middle.

Wurzburg is about a 3 hour drive, so this is Friday night’s destination. And yes, road trips do require the careful packing of the vehicle to ensure that all necessary roadtrip paraphernalia are included. This includes the proper selection of CDs to ensure road trip appropriate music is in order, travel books in the offchance we see something not on the itinerary and need more information, road snacks and beverages, camera, reading material (usually in the form of Entertainment Weekly magazines that are now piling up in my living room), sunglasses (although today’s clouds, cool weather, and gray sky may negate the need for these)…just to name a few.

Pictures will be forthcoming, so check back regularly.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Visit to the Local US Consulate

DAY 10 of “Chancellor Watch” – Word on the street is that prior to today’s next round of exploratory talks, both CDU and SDP parties are beginning to find some common ground with both sides still very interested in Sunday's Dresden election. It is unlikely that the election in Dresden will tip the scales firmly in either direction. The slight advantage that the conservatives currently hold may diminish, however, which could further complicate the negotiations and strengthen Chancellor Schröder's claim to power.

This morning, I trekked down to the Düsseldorf US Consulate office for a purpose that will become apparent in just a moment. By way of background, there is not a full-blown US embassy in Düsseldorf (or “mission” as they are technically called in embassy lingo) like we had in Taipei and Seoul. No, this is just a small office located on the 10th floor of an office building in Düsseldorf. Easy enough to find, with hours of operation while not technically “user-friendly” (9 am-12 noon daily) are well published, and of course, English-speakers to handle my multiple “pre-visit” questions by telephone. Still, it is a government office with the government mindset for rules and regulations…do you get the visual?

Today, the purpose of my visit was to request additional passport pages to be inserted into my US passport. So, after passing through the first floor obligatory US security check including passport review, handbag inspection, “body-wanding”, and requests to turn off of my cell phone and leave handbag in a locked area, I was whisked into an elevator where the security guard granted me access to the 10th floor. I was unable to punch the floor I needed; rather the security guard had to do that for me with a key of some sort. Upon exiting the elevator, I then walked through a metal detector, showed my passport a second time for inspection, signed into the visitor book, and was “buzzed” into the inner sanctum of the US Consulate Office. So far, so good. And yes, that is exactly the kind of security I expected having been to other embassies in the past and in light of heightened US security measures worldwide.

Amazingly, I was the first person into the office that morning, as no one else was waiting ahead of me. “OK, I’ll be in and out in a jiffy”, relatively speaking. I already knew my visit might take up to 30 minutes as that had been one of my “pre-visit” telephone inquiries. Strolling up to the counter, I greeted the US official with a cheery, “Good morning,” only to be met with stone cold silence. And, yes, he was an American and yes, he did speak English. Pressing on, I succinctly explained the purpose for my visit, slid my passport under the bullet proof glass, and awaited next instructions.

I was quickly informed that previous immigration officials from other countries had used the “wrong pages” located at the back of the passport for general visa and passport stamps. Oops, sorry about that but I did not stamp the pages…others did. I tried to gamely interject that “yes, I could see that but did the nice Mr. G-man see that I had already had passport pages inserted once before? And this had been done in the center of passport?” Oh, yes, he saw that, and yes, those had been “done wrong, too”. (Mrs. Roark, 12th grade English teacher is rolling in her grave right now…"done wrong”????). I decided that nothing would be gained by pointing out the grammatical error, as I still needed to get new passport pages.

After listening to this diatribe (I just let him lecture me for a few moments, as I was not going to get a word in edgewise), I politely asked, “So now what do I do?” Moments later, I was informed that the “rules had just been changed on Monday”, and that an exception would be made in this case. “Oh wow, thanks a million” – I mean we are only talking about putting blank passport pages into a passport here…

After completing the required paperwork (there is always at least one form required in any governmental transaction), I left the office fifteen minutes later with a new and improved passport in hand. As I departed, I began to hear the next lecture beginning for a woman who needed a marriage form for getting married in Germany. Her third trip to the office, and each time a “new” requirement was unveiled requiring a new document to be produced. Bless her heart…I feel her pain.

Isn’t it reassuring to know that government bureaucracy is alive and well the world over?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Beware of Bikers

DAY 9 of “Chancellor Watch” – Essentially, no side is budging. Both Merkel and Schroder believe that they have the right to be German Chancellor. Merkel’s team says that they won’t even begin grand coalition talks until the Schroder camp admits upfront that Schroder will not be chancellor. Essentially, this is pre-requirement before any other discussions can take place. On the flip side, Schroder’s team admits that no one group has a mandate and he has as much right as anyone to stay in the job. He has thrown out the possibility of the two parties sharing the chancellery, each for a couple of years. That would be akin to saying, “OK, Bush you have the first 2 years; Gore you get the last 2 years”. Amazing.

I have heard of driving defensively. Now, I can add this to the list: in Germany, one must walk defensively. Tell me more, you say….

Well, throughout the city of Düsseldorf and other German cities, there are biking paths that have been clearly laid out for city bikes (not motorbikes, though – they ride on the streets, unlike Korea). These paths are usually denoted in red paver bricks in one section of a gray concrete sidewalk or marked off in white paint. Kinda like an HOV lane on the sidewlk but for bikes only. Walkers beware! If you walk in a biking path, you do not have the right of way; if you are hit, you could be held responsible. Fortunately, most of the bicyclists have a pleasant little bell on their bike that they ring ever so courteously as they ride up behind you to alert you of their presence.

Still, I can get caught up in checking out my surroundings and be totally unaware that I have ambled into a bike path or worse, the path of a biker. I feel like I need a license just to walk to around to ensure I can interpret and adhere to the traffic signs for pedestrian traffic. So far, no walker-biker altercations, but I have had a couple of close calls.

Please note: Let me allay any concerns regarding the trams. I have no trouble watching out for these. I clearly “check left, check right, check left again” (thank you, catch phrase from high school driver’s education course) before crossing a tram track.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Passport Stampage

DAY 8 of “Chancellor Watch” – German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has said he's in favor of a grand coalition government between his Social Democrats and Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats. Yet, he is not willing to give up the leadership of Chancellor just yet. Neither is Merkel prepared to back down on that point either, as she continues to say she deserves the post since she received the most votes. Further discussions to be delayed until after next Sunday’s vote in Dresden due to the death of a local candidate just prior to the election halted all voting in that district, including Chancellor (see blog post for 9/15 for details). So, is Dresden destined to become “Florida” in this election?

Call me crazy, but I LOVE to get stamps in my passport as I enter and exit various countries. Fortunately, travel in Asia afforded me multiple opportunities for ample “passport stampage”. So many stamps have been received to date that I have had extra pages inserted into the passport already on a previous occasion; I’ll need to do that again, most likely this week, as I am running out of room once again.

Now a different scenario plays out in Europe. With the receipt of a German resident visa and this thing called an “EU zone” which is supposed to allow for freer movement between EU countries, I simply show my passport to an EU immigration official, he/she looks at my document, checks the computer for whatever it is they are checking for, and then hands me my passport back…with no passport stamp. Bah humbug!

Now, I am primarily speaking about air travel here, as there are no passport stamps at all for rail and/or car travel. A recent train trip from Germany to Paris resulted in no one even asking to look at a passport, let alone receipt of a passport stamp.

So far, the only exception to this rule has been in the UK, where entry into Britain will result in receipt of a passport stamp, but no stamp is received upon exit. Not sure why the rules are different for the UK, but they are…

Again, why should I care? I don’t really know except that I simply like the look of a nice thick passport. Yea…it’s kinda dumb.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


DAY 7 of “Chancellor Watch” – Clearly, Sundays are slow news days for these kinds of topics. Things are supposed to pick up next week and some type of progress is supposed to be made. TBD. Germans do seem a tad pessimistic on this one, as well as the German business markets and EU business analysts…

Lots of business trips and late nights at the office (Deloitte and EDS home office) of late. Other than work and the occasional weekend trips (which we do love and avail ourselves of at every opportunity), I am afraid we have been quite the boring people. This has created a bit of challenge on the “girlfriend front”.

In all seriousness, a rather big challenge for me right now is meeting some girlfriends. Although we have been here for about 6 months, we have had few opportunities to make any deep friendships, in part due to the hectic work week (which sometimes spills over into the weekends) and our business and pleasure travel schedule. We have located one English church, but summer traveling schedules for everyone has not allowed for any connections there. I know, summers are always a time when people are traveling with family, go home to the states, etc. We hope that will change and that we'll be able to meet some more folks this way.

I have also joined the American Women's Club in Düsseldorf in the hopes of connecting with some women as well, as I am finding that I do miss the girl-chat and GNOs (girls’ nights out). Many of the activities are designed for non-working women as you can imagine, and are scheduled during the day. Yes, I know this will not come as a shock, but most women are still the “trailing spouses” so they have lots of time on their hands and bit more flexibility, unlike me with a day job. For example, this coming week, the monthly coffee, the pumpkin patch shopping, and a few other events are planned as day activities. Sadly, I must opt out (not that the pumpkin patch shopping would really be high on my list, but the "meeting people” aspect would have drawn me in). There are also some evening events that I will check out, so I have not despaired yet.

Third new city…third new expat assignment…so this should not be anything new. Still, it can be hard to make those connections. And yes, as a working woman (with no kids), I can be the “proverbial square peg in a round hole”.

So, for all those girlfriends of mine out there reading this blog, know that you are thought of fondly on this day, and very much appreciated.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

And to think, I thought the sound of that police siren was rather charming

DAY 6 of “Chancellor Watch” – Well, this is by no means a political science lecture, but here is the latest: Neither of the 2 main political parties have enough votes to push their candidate into the chancellery. So, both parties are required to find another smaller/lesser party with which to build a ruling coalition. Problem is that even if 2 parties band together, they still don’t have enough votes. Thus, it appears that Schroder’s and Merkel’s parties are going to have to work together to build what is being called a grand coalition. The opposition conservative Christian Democrats, who narrowly won last Sunday's election, are demanding that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democrats step down. Leading CDU politicians said that their leader, Angela Merkel, should be chancellor in a grand coalition. However the Social Democrats are insisting that Schroeder should lead any such coalition. Yea…next week’s round of meetings look to be productive, huh?

I must confess that the exporting of certain American products and concepts overseas does not especially make me shout from the rooftops with glee. Yes, there is something a little disheartening about seeing a KFC or Burger King restaurant on every corner in Seoul, Taipei, and even a few in Germany (or for the rest of the world for that matter). Likewise, I am often quite proud that the only Hollywood movies that are seen fit to show outside the US involve either comic book characters, space aliens, or young men driving fast cars and shooting guns. No wonder the world has just a skewed view of our country at times.

I think you get the picture (although there are exceptions: not that I mind being able to find a Starbuck’s anywhere in the civilized world, including the new one that just opened up less than a 10 minute walk from the apartment).

Add another export to the list: NYPD sirens and flashing red cherry lights are now being put onto all German police cars. Yes, that quaint sound of European police sirens (you know the one I mean….watch any movie with its location set in Europe and listen for the siren sound…it is quite distinctive).

Once again, the exporting of America has now moved into the vehicles of German police cars. Why? What is the rationale? I really kinda liked the other siren sound…it was just so…European! Supposedly, German citizens are becoming less responsive to the old look and siren sound after years of absorbing US popular culture, especially crime shows on television.

Ah, yes, such TV stalwarts as Starsky and Hutch, Hill Street Blues, Kojak, and The Law & Order Franchise (although I am a personal fan of this last one)…are not only another excellent example of the American export but apparently the impetus for change within German police departments.

Makes me so proud….

Friday, September 23, 2005

Update on Friends

Don't you love mobile phones? Even in the middle of an impending natural disaster when you can reach almost anyone, it makes me wonder why we even use landlines anymore? (Sorry to those friends who work for SBC; I am sure there is a response for that one, but even 2nd and 3rd world countries are skipping over putting in any more land lines in and going straight to mobile phones).

With that said, on to the reason for the post. My college roommate and family (Kim, Scott, their clan of 4 daughters, and 2 dogs) have safely evacuated the Houston area and are now ensconced in central Texas at their ranch. We spoke by phone...they're out ahead of the traffic snafus, they're OK, and they're waiting to see what happens next....


DAY 5 of “Chancellor Watch” - First coalition talks between Germany's two biggest parties broke up Thursday with conservative leader Angela Merkel saying there were "clear differences" between her and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's ruling party. Uh, I think we knew that BEFORE the elections. So, still no progress on who is to be declared chancellor….

Not much of a blog post today. I am just sick to read of impending Hurricane Rita and the possible devastation and loss of life. As if some of those people have not been through enough. It is at times like this, I do wish I was back in Texas, to check on friends and family, and to do something productive to help. It is not easy to read and watch from afar….

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Traffic Signs...they are not that intuitive

DAY 4 of “Chancellor Watch” - 12 out of 16 German election experts polled predict Angela Merkel will eventually top incumbent Gerhard Schröder in the fight for the chancellery. Only one analyst believes Schröder has a chance at forming a coalition government and blocking out Merkel in the coming weeks. Merkel and Schröder still both claim Germany's top job after Sunday's election decided nothing. It now appears we are in the phase entitled “there is no ‘new’ news on this situation so we’ll fill our media airtime with ‘expert’ chatter while we wait for the ‘real’ news”.

On to today’s blog post….

Now that the driver’s license and car order are behind us, thought I’d share with you some our recent learnings regarding streets signs. Perhaps the Germans are right to require foreign drivers to take a written test, because I swear, there are at least 60 plus street signs that we had never seen before moving to Germany. For those of you who have lived in other parts of Europe, I’d be interested in knowing your experiences on the subject…did you have a similar reaction?

With that said, we have located this handy-dandy little book that shows all the street signs used on German roadways today, with a brief explanation in English no less. Thank goodness, because we failed our quick quiz on several of them. And yes, let me answer your question upfront: some of the signs are intuitive, some of them are not. Why don’t you try your hand at interpreting the following signs by choosing the best answer…correct answers at the end of the post.

Street Signs 0805 011

a. this road is not a two lane road
b. no cars allowed to drive side by side on this road
c. no overtaking allowed on this road
d. no red car can drive next to a black car

Street Signs 0805 019

a. drive ahead only
b. you may drive straight
c. one way road
d. this sign actually should tell me something useful?

Street Signs 0805 012

a. maximum speed in this zone is 30 kph
b. ending speed in this zone is 30 kph
c. beginning speed in this zone is 30 kph
d. I am confused….aren’t answers a-c very much the same? (if you pick this one, you’re wrong (buzzer sound is going off))

Street Signs 0805 003

a. maximum speed in this zone is 30 kph
b. ending of speed zone of 30 kph
c. beginning speed in this zone is 30 kph
d. I am really confused now (if you pick this one, you’re technically correct, but it is not the best answer)

Street Signs 0805 015

a. stay to the right of this sign
b. no parking to the right allowed
c. no stopping here
d. end of prohibition to no stopping

Street Signs 0805 018

a. no trucks allowed
b. no vehicles or combinations over length shown allowed
c. no trucks or combinations over length shown allowed
d. trucks or combinations over length shown must take this route

How do you think you did? At least you had multiple choice answers. When Buddy and I tried to do this, I think we were unable to accurately interpret over 80 % of the signage. Granted, once you get the system into your head, it actually does start to make sense.

Answers: 1- c, 2 – a, 3 – c, 4 – b, 5 - d, 6 - b

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

German Potpourri

DAY 3 of “Chancellor Watch” - The inconclusive poll has left Schröder and Merkel jockeying for power. By law, either one can become the next chancellor. But, it's the German president who can eventually weigh in and name a candidate if talks drag on.

A few updates…in no particular order…

* Tidbit #1 - it should be a crime to travel to London on business and see nothing except the inside of hotel and conference rooms. Two days in London and I have nothing to really show for it. I take that back; I have a stamp in the passport (future blog topic) and a Starbuck’s city mug.

* Tidbit #2 – A new blog topic will grace the start of each blog posting entitled “Chancellor Watch”. This little blurb will appear at the start of each day’s blog posting to provide nothing but a quick update on the status of the new German chancellor. And while we are on the subject, can I just say how refreshing it is as an American to see that the US is not the only country that has “election hiccups”. For once, we are not the only nation that is the brunt of bad election jokes and electoral circuses. So, Americans take heart: the United States is apparently not the only major western democracy unable to pull off an election.

* Tidbit #3 – After almost 5 months of waiting on the car order (yes, we ordered a standard black BMW, with leather seats, CD changer, and sunroof – that was the extent of our special options), we finally have our new car. Sans leather seats and sunroof. Heck: 2 out 4 ain’t bad. And to think, we waited all this time for that (she says with a smile on her face and a song in her heart).

* Tidbit #4 – We received a request by the landlord to have an apartment handover meeting. Excellent! Only been here 5 ½ months (heavy sarcasm noted). We sense there is another issue…more to come…

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

And the winner is….

Well, apparently…no one. That’s right. Merkel and Germany's conservatives won a narrow victory on Sunday but fell short of the majority needed to form a coalition government with their preferred partners, the pro-business Free Democrats. Weeks ago, Merkel had been predicted to handily win the election, but in the weeks leading up to the election, either voter indecision, the ability of Merkel to differentiate herself as the “voice of change”, or a series of political gaffes resulted in Merkel only claiming 35% of the parliamentary vote.

Schroder, on the other hand, gained 34% of vote, but cannot be declared the victor either. Neither candidate has the required majority to govern based solely on the votes they received.

To make matters worse, there are still the 2-4 seats up for grabs in the election in Dresden, due to the death of a candidate resulting in the election for all candidates, including Chancellor, being delayed for 2 weeks in that district.

So, as things stand now, we have both candidates claiming they have a “clear mandate” from the people to serve as Germany’s next chancellor. Sorry, ladies and gents, 34-35% is not a clear mandate. In my book, a clear mandate should be at least 50% or more. I realize it is just the rhetoric of politicos, but still, basic math should be a prerequisite for government service. Maybe that is why Merkel had problems explaining the new tax proposal…

Secondly, neither of the two people can become chancellor without forming a coalition government with another party. So, who is going to take whom to the big dance? Which parties will now put aside party platform differences that were once so divisive, and form a coalition that will allow either Merkel or Schroder to become chancellor?

Bottom line: No new German chancellor just yet. This topic should be fodder for at least 2-3 weeks of media speculation, water cooler talk, and yes, more campaign stumping…

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Fall, Fall, Fall

Yes, fall weather has arrived in Düsseldorf! I know many of you are still battling 90+ degree weather in Texas, and probably some humidity along with that heat. Hang in there, though... For Buddy and I, the fall weather seems to have appeared almost overnight. I had begun to see the leaves on the trees looking a little "less green", almost with a yellowish cast to them.

So, on the past two morning runs, it came as no surprise that leaves were now lightly dusting the ground. Not a lot had fallen and not from all of the various trees, but enough to signal the end of summer. Additionally, all the fruit bearing shrubbery and trees were exploding with color: the pyracanthia shrubs along the path were especially beautiful, laden with huge orange and red berries. Everywhere I looked, there was a sea of orange, red, and purple berries peeking out and waving to me as I ran past.

No, the leaves have not yet officially changed colors, so if I was to take some photos for sharing purposes, they would not look too different from what you are probably seeing in Texas. In other words, all you'd see are green trees. Yet, the temperatures have indeed fallen, with yesterday's high temp in the low 60's and this morning's temp (as I look out at my thermometer clock - thanks, Barry), being in the low 40's. To top things off, the sky was clear and blue, and a beautiful sun shown overhead. Picture perfect!

Yesterday's apparel: jeans, a Gap long-sleeved T-shirt, and fleece long-sleeved shirt jacket...glorious!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Apparently, the Pope won’t be voting…

Tomorrow, September 18th, is election day in Germany and its citizens head to the polls to vote for Chancellor. The race has tightened up significantly, with the two main candidates literally neck-and-neck in the polls. Pollsters, national media, and political think-tanks say that many voters are disillusioned and will not even bother to cast a vote. Other reports cite that as much as 25% of the German population are undecided as to who to vote for. It appears that the winner may simply come down to who shows up at polling places on Sunday. Should be interesting…

And while we are on the topic of Germans casting their vote for Chancellor, it appears that one famous German will be a non-voter in Sunday’s election. Pope Benedict XVI has already stated that while he is technically still a German citizen with an address in Bavaria, he will not be casting a vote on Sunday…either by showing up at polling location to vote or by absentee voting.

Unlike most Germans, Benedict has had the opportunity to get a first-hand impression of both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, when he met with them during his visit to Cologne for the Catholic World Youth Day in August.

The Pope is “mum” on the subject, but apparently the pope’s bro provides this comment. “He's the sovereign of the Vatican and doesn't think it's appropriate for him to get involved in the affairs of another state”, adding that Pope would definitely follow the election, albeit "not passionately." Maybe the Pope just wants to stay out of it. Seems he has been criticized in the recent past when he has spoken out on a number of other political hot potatos, albeit controversial referendums. But he has stopped short of backing political candidates, including this upcoming German election. Perhaps this pontiff prefers to keep private his personal preferences pertaining to politics…(how about that alliteration?).

Being that the election is on Sunday, I thought that his rationale for not voting might be a bit more simplistic and more along these lines. Something like, "Sundays are bad, because I kind of have to run a major world religion," comes to mind.

Friday, September 16, 2005

We could all learn a little something from sheep

Work has been hellacious the past two weeks. Lots of unexpected, last minute business trips along with long working hours, including evenings and weekends. I’ll spare you the saga as we all have our own work challenges and series of long days from time to time. And in the grand scheme of things, my work troubles truly pale in comparison to what those people who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina have been through as well as the volunteers reaching out to help.

Suffice to say, that besides eating and sleeping, the only activity that has been a part of my daily routine over the past few weeks has been running. Running can be cathartic to me in many respects. Most of you reading this will probably groan inwardly as I make this statement. Stay with me for just a moment, though. Besides the obvious benefits of exercise, running gives me a change of scenery that is so incredibly necessary when your home and office are one and the same. Often, fourteen hours later I realize, I have not even left the apartment for the day! That's when I throw on the running shoes and hit the pavement.

Rhine Sheep 0805 011

Running also clears my head and requires me to focus on something else for at least 30-45 minutes (or longer as my Saturday morning runs have proven in the past). Takes me outside of myself. Years of running in the “Hachie” as well as running in the country (Mike, Kay, Bud, and I running on Black Champ Road, seeing Bud McCrady every Saturday morning hauling hay or checking his cattle) became routine occurrences. It also taught me to not only appreciate the beauty of the outdoors, but the value of seeing the scenery not from a car or bike, but from foot. You are amazed at the things you see on a 3 hour run that you would otherwise miss.

For that very reason, I have never been a very disciplined treadmill runner. In Taipei and Seoul, it became a necessity given the road conditions, number of people, lack of green space, and bad weather. Not so in Düsseldorf! With the Rhein River just a two minute walk from the apartment, I can be on the running path in mere minutes. I could even run to the next village (11 km away) from the running path if I wanted to, so there is plenty of “running” room.

With all that said, my greatest enjoyment when I am running these days is getting to see “my sheep”. They are not literally my sheep, but rather a local owner apparently has permission to graze his flock along the Rhein riverbank, thereby feeding his sheep and providing the city a useful service by keeping a lot of the grass trimmed. Some days I see them, some days I don’t, as they vary their grazing locations. Usually, I smell them before I see them.

Rhine Sheep 0805 003

Still, there is something endearing about running along and watching the flock: seeing mothers taking care of new lambs, hearing the mewing of a stray sounding the alarm “I’m lost”, and watching with amazement as an adult sheep hears the cry for help and leaves the flock to circle back and pick up the straggler. I am not even sure if it is actually the mother of the stray that provides the help; it seems it is just the nearest sheep that provides the assistance. Moments later, lamb and flock are reunited.

Rhine Sheep 0805 010

Other times, if I am running just around dusk, the sheep “leader” of the flock often moves the group to the area where they will sleep for the night. Usually, this is under a bunch of trees or bushes. The flock forms a single file line, and all the sheep move that direction, “baa-ing” occasionally, but no one appears to be really too upset that their sleep or eating has just been interrupted. They simply get up and go. The flock just needs to stay together, and besides there is food and rest to be had at the next grazing spot.

Rhine Sheep 0805 007

Quite a metaphor for life, and so relevant in these days of Hurricane Katrina and strangers helping strangers. Some days, we need to be the sheep that helps the straggler, whom we may not even know and who is in trouble or pain. Other days, we need to be the leader that takes the initiative to care for the flock of sheep, move them to a safe haven, even if for the night. Finally, there are some days that we simply need to be a good “follower” and trust that the lead sheep knows what’s best for the flock, not complaining that our creature comforts are temporarily inconvenienced for a bit. Just pitching in and doing our part - we can eat and sleep later…

And just to think...I got all this from watching “my sheep” on my daily runs. Pretty amazing…

Thursday, September 15, 2005

All eyes turn to Dresden

For those of you not particularly interested in elections even in your home countries, please forgive the next few days of blog posting as there will probably be a higher number of posts pertaining to Sunday's election for German Chancellor. I am reminded that the rules for elections can differ significantly... even within democratic nations.

Take this example...

Germany's highest court has ruled that preliminary official results from Sunday's general election should be released on Sunday and not kept secret until a deferred by-election two weeks later. Apparently, a by-election in the eastern city of Dresden has been triggered by the death of a far-right parliamentary candidate from the NPD party. Not even a candidate for Chancellor! As far as I can understand, German election law requires a separate election to be held in the event of a candidate's death, with this election coming about 2 weeks later. A replacement has already been found for the candidate who died, but there isn't enough time to reprint ballots before Sunday.


Very interesting...continuing on....

The German constitutional court (Supreme Court equivalent, I believe) rejected appeals by unnamed citizens demanding the preliminary results, usually published several hours after polls close at 6 p.m., be kept under wraps until after an October 2nd by-election in one of the country's 299 election districts.

Translated: a certain subset of German citizens will be required to wait 2 weeks to cast their vote for German Chancellor (highest elected official in Germany), but the results of the election held on September 18th will be made public anyway.

A few initial thoughts:
(1) Why bother going to the polls 2 weeks later?
(2) If it is a tight race (as has been predicted), do the candidates still get to "campaign" for two weeks after to "get out the vote in this one remaining district?

German politicians and legal experts are now starting to comment that a delayed election could throw into question the legality of the national vote. Could this be the next political election hot potato, supplanting the "hanging-chad/pregnant-chad" debacle in the US Bush-Gore election?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

You can get anything in the Amsterdam airport terminal

Last Monday, another very last minute business to Bristol, UK required that my flight journey take me through the Amsterdam airport. Bristol is a lovely city BTW…so green, on the western coast of England, close to much history – Stonehenge, Bath, etc. – we’ll be going back, for sure! That is another blog topic, though.

Normally, I am quite bummed about having to “do the connection thing”. Invariably that is a recipe for disaster for me. As it turned out, I did have a little flight delay issue, but it was not a show-stopper and in the end, what can you really do?

On the return trip home, I did have a bit of window of time to kill in the Amsterdam airport. Let me just say this: I would go back to Amsterdam for no other reason that just to shop at the airport. OH...MY...GOSH! Just like Tom Hanks character in The Terminal, I could live for weeks on nothing but the items purchased from the airport shops. I would never have to leave the airport. This includes high-end luxury goods, clothing for pretty much any need (suits, dresses, casual, shoes, handbags, accessories), jewelry, newspapers and books (much in English), restaurants, drugstores, and grocery stores (yes, I can even buy food at the grocery store), post office, every type of telecommunication device required under the sun….and of course, all the perfume, chocolate, liquor, and tobacco products I could possibly ever need (which aside from the perfume is not much). Surely I could land a paying gig, possibly even take up residence at the airport hotel?

Before you start telling me that all airports are like that, let me say, "Not the ones I've travelled through". That includes Hong Kong, which I still consider the best airport I have ever flown in/out of.

For once, I was bummed that my layover between flights was as short as it was! Plus, how many airports offer the option of buying tulip bulbs in nearly every airport gift shop? It cheered me immensely just knowing that was possible…for a fleeting moment I was tempted to bring home some Dutch bulbs. Then, the thought of the face of a German customs clerk appeared in my head and I thought better of it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Pick a Tap, Any Tap

Well, it comes as no surprise that Germans are “pulling out all the stops” in trying to predict Sunday’s election results for chancellor. There are a number of ways to try to predict the winner, with these methods ranging from the scientific to downright wacky (exit polls, newspaper polls, “the man-on-the street” opinions, think tank techies who “have the inside track”). We are familiar with many of them as they are often used in US presidential elections.

Personally, I like one of the German approaches because…well …it is so German. It seems that while beer has always been a national symbol, a mark of local pride, and a diet staple, it now have been given a new role: election indicator.

Called "Vote with Your Throat," the poll, sponsored by a local newspaper, consists of two beer taps, each one decorated in honor of an election candidate, either Schroeder or Merkel. It appears that one bar has decided to measure its patrons' thirst for change -- one beer at a time.

Planning to vote conservative? Then order a Merkel Pilsner (from the black tap). Prefer to stick to the current regime? Then, take a sip from the red tap for a Schröder Pilsner. Apparently, the volume of beer poured is digitally measured, and published daily on the paper's Web site.

At last count, the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) is in the lead with 1,312 liters (346.5 gallons), a fact that many are attributing to the fact that Berliners are anticipating the goodbye party for the SPD," and that many of those who ordered the Schröder Pilsner are drinking it "to drown their illusions”. Supporters of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on the other hand have so far only drunk 1,199 liters. Unfortunately, I can’t read German so I am not sure how the voting, or shall I say, drinking is going.

It seems that many agree with the overall assessment of the beer experiment: in the end, it may not really matter. A Merkel Pilsner and a Schröder Pilsner may come out of different taps, but they both pour the exact same beer.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

German Class Update

Sorry that the sequel blog post for German school is a bit overdue. You see, I did not attend class on Thursday.

It wasn’t as if I intentionally planned on not returning to the scene of the crime: session 2 of German class. Especially, after my less than enthusiastic reaction to the introductory session. I can report that Buddy did attend the second class and had a much more positive reaction than I. No, my reason for not attending had everything to do with a business trip to Warsaw that resulted in a late night flight back to Düsseldorf.

I had just about made my peace with the idea that I was going to proceed with German school and enroll in the 8 week semester. Now, as I look at upcoming travel schedules for work, I can already see 5-6 potential conflicts when I am going to be traveling on business. Seems that may not be the best recipe for learning a language if you are going to miss 40% of the classes. A new dilemma unfolds….

Perhaps I should investigate this 1:1 tutor option....

Friday, September 09, 2005

A Debate About the Debate

Last weekend, German Chancellor, Gerard Schröder and Chancellor Candidate, Angela Merkel, held a televised debate. Polls show that while Schröder seemed to best Merkel during the debate, observers believe she gave a better performance than expected. Most critics concur that there were no apparent gaffes on either side, and that most likely, the debate did not really do anything to swing the election back in Schröder’s favor.

With that said, I am starting to either (1) observe a trend in lack of independent thinking on the part of Ms. Merkel, or (2) a really good job of trashing Merkel in the media is being done by Schröder operatives. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Merkel has already had that little issue about using the Rolling Stones song Angie without getting copyright approval (see blog posting of 8/31/05 for more details). On Tuesday, she was accused of copying her closing statement in a TV debate from former US President Ronald Reagan. This time, Merkel's short speech at the end of her head-to-head duel with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder bore a striking resemblance to Reagan's statement at the end of his debate with then President Jimmy Carter in October 1980.

Here is where politics come into play. Schröder's Social Democratic Party outed the story to a German magazine that Merkel's speechwriters had copied the statement because they were convinced that it had helped swing the election in Reagan's favor. Merkel's CDU party, who have a clear lead in the polls, acknowledged that she may have borrowed something from Reagan's plea to voters. Merkel’s people say she “simply drew inspiration from it”. I might suggest a different word for it…plagiarism.

You remember the bit: Reagan encouraged his prospective voters to ask themselves a set of questions before going to the polls: "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to whom you will vote for. If you don't agree…then I could suggest another choice that you have."

In her closing statement, Merkel asked her potential voters to engage in a strikingly similar kind of electoral soul-searching: "Is our country better off than seven years ago (when Schroeder came to power)? Is growth higher? Is unemployment lower? Do we have less bureaucracy? Are our pensions and health care better? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, then I think you have probably already decided who you will vote for. But if you have any doubt, if you do not want things to carry on as they are, then you have a choice." Yes, sounds similar to me.

Some things are the same the whole world around: death and taxes. I would also add politics to that group.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

What Do I Know About LOT? Not a lot.

A little more than 24 hours ago, I was informed of a last-minute requirement to travel to Warsaw, Poland on business. Having been there once before, I felt I could maneuver the airport, ATM machines, taxi queues, etc. relatively easily, especially since I was a return traveler. Long story short, it was a quick in-and-out trip, which was relatively hassle-free.

As my meeting broke up earlier than expected, I was hoping to catch an earlier flight back to Düsseldorf. Unfortunately, no earlier flight was available on Lufthansa, the carrier I had flown earlier in the day. However, LOT, the Polish national airline carrier, a Lufthansa partner as well as a Star Alliance partner, had seats on its 5 pm flight.

Suddenly, I was faced with this quandary: do I fly an airline carrier I have never heard of or no nothing about their safety record? Or do I just take a deep breath, and climb on board a no-name carrier, resting calmly in the blind assurance that all will be well? Truthfully, I would most likely have passed on flying an unknown entity, but the thought of a bath and an early-to-bed routine (my morning had started at 4:30 am) rated a bit higher in priority than any potential safety concerns.

While the Warsaw airport, named after Frederic Chopin (how refreshing - cities actually naming their airports after cultural icons as opposed to only politicians), is quite old and dilapidated, a renovation project is currently underway. Still, you can imagine my trepidation as to the potential condition and age of LOT’s fleet as I stepped off the bus and walked across the tarmac to walk up the stairs to board the plane (you got it: regional flight, so we board the aircraft on the tarmac).

Well, it was lovely flying experience. Very new plane, albeit only a 70 seater. Clean. Leather seats throughout. Smooth flight. English and Polish speaking pilot. I must confess, though, that I actually did read the safety brochure, locate my exit rows, and watch the safety demonstration, just in the off chance I might need that knowledge…

Would be curious to know what you would do, so post a comment below by clicking on comments or the pencil. (I know, a shameless ploy to get people to post comments on my blog).

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Guten Abend! Mein name ist Hachie Gal

(Technically, my first and last name would appear in the above phrase but the name has been changed to protect the innocent).

Yes, my first session of German language school was last evening. I was psyched, pumped, an eager beaver, ready-to-roll, locked and loaded, rarin’ to go, …in the famous words of that screen legend, “let’s get a move on, we’re burning daylight”. I couldn’t wait to start German class. And, I must confess, I was less than impressed.

Let me say upfront that I know I am a type A, highly motivated, and at times, anal retentive person who is probably every language teacher’s nightmare. (A recent work colleague has said that if he had to pick out the one Friends character that is most like me, it would be Monica. Guilty, as charged.). Yet, my idea of language school is not memorizing German phrases. I want to know why, how the language hangs together, and to be able to put into context what I am learning. Perhaps I expect(ed) too much from the first class?

Interestingly, my class only has 3 students, and we all speak a different native language: Japanese, Korean, and English. How the teacher is going to pull this one off is of great interest to me. Yet, 8 weeks is a long time to sit in class if you are not on-board with the instruction methodology or the teacher. I am thinking that if I am even referring to it as an ”instruction methodology” that I may be putting way too much thought into this thing. Can’t I just show up, and go-with-the-flow? Apparently, that remains to be seen.

Oh yea, my language book has no dictionary, so I can’t even look up a word. How is this possible? Had I not been around-the-block on this language school thing before, I might not have known any differently. But I do… (Surely there is no way German is harder to learn than Chinese - say it isn’t so?)

Check back on Friday morning for a follow-up report on German class. I shall return to the site of my linguistic demise of last evening…more resolute…more determined to make this thing a go. Side note: the jury is still out on whether I actually sign up for the entire semester.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Another icon of childhood TV...

After school must-see TV always included Gilligan...the man whose red shirt and white pants always looked so fresh even after years of being stranded on that blasted desert isle. Simply put, the day can't come to an end without saying, "Little buddy, we are going to miss you."

Looks like he'll be taking another trip of sorts that is definitely longer than a three hour tour...

PS re: Lucerne

Appeared to have my facts a little inaccurate (thanks, Stefan, for the heads-up). Lake Lucerne is bigger than the Lake Zurich but it's not the biggest lake in Switzerland. That title apparently goes to another lake....Lake Geneva.

A Foggy Day in “Lucerne” Town

(Hopefully, Gershwin won’t mind the slight title alteration).

Our recent trip to Zurich also included a day-trip to Lucerne, which is about an hour or so by car from Zurich. Lucerne is a much smaller city than Zurich, with only about 100,000 people, but interestingly, Lake Lucerne is the biggest lake is Switzerland.

A thoroughly charming city and one worthy of revisiting. Apollo did play a cruel joke on us by allowing the sun to come out only as we were getting into the car to drive back to Zurich. Guess we’ll just have to make another trip (smile).

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Zurich … a great weekend

Last weekend, Buddy and I made our inaugural trip to Zurich, Switzerland. Many reasons to go, which will become self evident as this posting continues….here they are, in no defined order:

• A first time visit to Switzerland (let alone Zurich) allowed us to add another “stamp” to the passport, figuratively speaking, of course. (Buddy and I are still hacked that we can't get passport “stampage in Europe, as we like the look of these bulging passport pages).

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• Zurich is a great city, with just enough to see and do for a weekend without feeling rushed or overloaded.

• Lovely city that is extremely user-friendly. I am thinking that the 1 hour and 15 minute flight will be an easy repeat weekend trip when international necessities, such as English language books, cheap DVDs and CDs, clothing, etc. require a trip outside of Germany.

• We actually saw the city through the eyes of “locals”…which really is the best way to visit a city. Our friends went “way above the call of duty”, doing much advance legwork for sightseeing, restaurants, hotels, and shopping. Thanks, Stefan - you are the best!

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• Easy daytrip to Lucerne…charming, indeed.

• Visiting new friends who will hopefully become old friends….

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Although the weather was cloudy for some of the weekend, it did not dampen our enjoyment….we’ll be back….

Friday, September 02, 2005

Go speed racer… go speed racer…go, speed racer go…

I thought we might be the slowest drivers on the Autobahn. Well, apparently, there is someone else a bit slower than us. It seems that an 80-year nursing home resident decided he wanted to go shopping at a local area up the road from his residence. Gramps did not have a car, but he did have wheels of a sort…his motorized wheelchair.

As necessity is the mother of invention, Gramps struck out in his wheelchair for a little road trip. I like his thinking, but the execution was a little faulty. Top speed on the wheelchair is only about 10 kilometers per hour (6 mph).

Picture it this way: You are a trucker rolling down the highway. As you clear the hill, what do you see up ahead of you on the Autobahn but Grandpa “put-putting” in his wheelchair? Several passing truckers notified police and one quick-thinking driver even positioned his rig behind the man, thereby, protecting him from the speed demons that normally travel down Germany's largely speed-limit-free expressways.

Police were on hand to collect the man after he made a slow exit off the freeway and returned Gramps to his home, via a more conventional mode of transportation….an automobile.

Now, what I what I want to know is this: did Gramps ever get his shopping completed?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Excitement in the Hachie

Forgive the dual blog posting, but it is not often a celebrity personality has a brush with the law in Waxahachie. It appears that the Rev. Al Sharpton’s driver was driving a tad bit too fast on I-35E last Sunday afternoon. According to the Daily Light, “too fast” is defined as 110 mph. Yep, that is too fast.

According to Mr. Sharpton, the story is a fabrication and an outgrowth of Texas politics. Not sure I buy that explanation; can’t I get someone in the Ellis County DA’s office to fill me in on the “rest of the story”?

You can check out the story for yourself on the Daily Light website: Any driver worth his or her salt knows that you can’t speed through Hill and Ellis Counties….you’ll be stopped for sure!

And yes, we do read the on-line version of the WDL every day from Germany...