Monday, March 23, 2015


Among the many expenses that I would have considered absurd half a year ago but which have now started to take chunks out of my monthly budget, a car would be by far the biggest.  It hasn't happened yet.  I consider privately owned cars a bit of an anachronism, something like a relic from the last century.  It is hard to see how they contribute to efficient or even pleasant travel these days.  I have a bicycle to get to work, buses around town, a car rented by the hour for quick dashes, longer rentals for road trips, the train for middle distances, and the plane to see the world.  This list is too long already; where would my own car fit into this?

The reason I'm considering the purchase at all is the same that drives all the other unexpected purchases.  The reason doesn't yet exist in this world, but its or rather her, to let the cat out of the bag, imminent arrival is getting Flucha and me into shopping like never before.  The need for clothes, furniture, tools and care products has taken me to websites whose existence I didn't know of this time last year.  And what's up with pink?

The car is not exactly a need, but because I work in Switzerland and Flucha lives and works in Germany, there will be a moment in the next three months when I'll want to be in Heidelberg double-quick.  I could take the train, which I do every weekend, but last weekend's experience had made me reconsider my smugness about cars.

On Friday, my train to Basel ground to a halt in a village of no import.  The announcement of a passenger incident promised no good.  The local train out of the adjacent platform had been canceled.  Another train pulled into the station ten minutes later, but it only took us to the next town, Rheinfelden, famous for its brewery, and then stopped.  Railway traffic had been suspended between Rheinfelden and Basel.

Outside the station, yellow buses were waiting to take us to Basel, but that was not an option for me.  The journey would have taken too long for me to make my connection.  Luckily, I overheard a woman in the same predicament, on her way to Germany like me.  She had the same idea that had come to me – go to the other Basel station and gain ten minutes in the process.  We shared a taxi whose morose driver promised nothing but drove like a champion, insisting throughout that we wouldn't make it.  A good many Swiss Francs later, I stood on the platform a few seconds before the train rolled in.

This being Switzerland, such a disturbance must be a rare exception, I thought.  But when I arrived in Basel on my way back from Heidelberg on Sunday, I found that the train to Baden was canceled, with no reason given.  A rail replacement bus was advertised, but it didn't go all the way.  "What's wrong with this country?", I wanted to ask the man in the information kiosk, but he was just doing his job and I settled for "How can I get to Baden or Brugg?" instead.

We spent precious time discussing whether I needed to go to Baden or to Brugg before he put my final destination, a village halfway between the two, into his computer and printed an alternative connection for me.  With a "Good luck!" that was as full of encouragement as it was of doubt, he sent me off to the ticket machine and on the race to the platform.  When the train left the station three minutes later, I was on it.  Nevertheless, to the question of how I'll get to the hospital when new life emerges, I must now also add whether I'd like to avoid weekly travel dramas.  Could a car be the answer?

I haven't thought about cars in years.  But, and this is the main motivation for this post, when I flew to Hannover last week to show my new employer’s logo at a conference in Göttingen, a rental car was waiting for me at the airport to take me there.  The car was brand-new, with only 10 kilometers on the clock.  Another only was the number of cylinders.  There were only three.

Three-cylinder vehicles have become popular in Europe as a way to achieve legally mandated fuel economy goals.  It’s a valid strategy; the fuel consumption numbers that emerge from standardized tests are impressive.  Still, these cars achieve the uneconomically high speeds that are only permitted in Germany.  On motorways, the consumer feels no downside.  In cities, however, the story is quite different.

Off the stoplight, the three cylinders propelled our Citroën C3 forward with the desperate intensity and high-pitch noise of a Formula 1-homologated lawn mower.  More than once, we inadvertently caused terminal panic in people crossing the street far ahead of us.  Surveying the situation from the safety of the other side, their look changed to one of utter incomprehension when failing to square the vicious noise with our speed, which was perfectly compatible with safe conduct in a pedestrianized urban environment.

It was fun to drive that car, but only in a momentary way.  Later I will come to realize that having a car sit around in the driveway while I cycle to work is rather wasteful.  I will also come to realize that I don’t want to have to drive for three hours at the end of an exhausting week at work.  The train is so much nicer, no matter what.  And when Flucha does the Kate halfway through June, I just have to cross my fingers and hope I’ll make it on time to see the head of the heir appear.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Waffle House

Four days into my new job and almost back from the first assignment, in one of the darker recesses of Charles de Gaulle, almost ready to board the plane that would take me to Zurich, I was wondering how best to keep memories of the travels (or possibly travails) that will pile up hard and fast this year.  Trinkets were the first thing to come to mind, something local but useless, entirely uncreative and prone to accumulation and dust collection.  Not a good idea.  Better would be something marginally less useless, T-shirts for example, but what UGA in Athens, Georgia, where I spent the past two days, offered, didn't pass my taste test.

I could keep the stubs of the embarkation cards.  I used to do that way back when they were still made of heavy paper, handed to you upon check-in.  Now they're displayed on smart phones.  Not a good souvenir either.  There were a few other options, but I rejected them all.  Instead,  I'll write a little something, pointless but subjective, about all the places I'll visit for work.  I'll label the category out of office.

If there's one thing that encapsulates Georgia, from the narrow perspective through the window of the airport shuttle, an hour and a half of darkness on the way to Athens and a bit more than that on a foggy day back to the airport, it's Waffle HouseWaffle House is Georgia.

You might argue it's peaches.  That's what the state marketing department tries to communicate, but the only peaches I saw were syrupy halves scooped from a tin, served during one of the coffee breaks of the workshop I attended.  They didn't make an impact among the chunks of pineapple and mango.  Waffle House, in contrast, stood out.

Waffle House was everywhere, at every freeway exit and at every highway intersection.  There were a few scattered about the suburbs of Athens as well.  I half expected to see them on license plates, glorified as if they were Idaho potatoes, but there it was peaches.  Everywhere else, it was Waffle House, and everywhere it looked the same, rather elegant in a minimalist-modernist way.

The restaurants were all based on elongated rectangular footprints, built from brick without embellishment but with a panoramic glass front pulled around one of the corners.  Inside one could see hanging from the ceiling a long line of regularly spaced spheres that cast a light like lemon yogurt.  Against the back wall was the kitchen.  The diners sat by the window, a bit like Hopper's Night Hawks but without the curves.

What exactly Waffle House is I didn't bother to find out.  My guess is fast-food franchise.  This was America, after all.  On the other hand, it's rather un-American to understate your assets in the bright world of neon advertisement, and I doubt the House sells only waffles.  That, by the way, would also be un-American.  Waffles are Belgian, or at least the thing the Belgians are most mocked for.  Georgia seems to be a confused state.

Maybe I just misunderstood it, because there was some consistency:  The Belgian theme continued at the bar.  The local Terrapin Brewery made available a few fruity ales that were better left alone and a concoction that even the bartender could only describe as interesting, the ominous inflection in his voice indicating that this was no regular beer.

I have dramatically changed my attitude towards beer over the last year.  Before I went to Brugge in June, I drank only Pilsener, the bitterer the better.  Then I was faced with the madness the Belgians put into bottles (and then pour into a thousand distinct glasses), and redefined my world.  What I wouldn't call beer came in a wealth of flavors that it would have been a shame not to explore.  In Brugge, I discovered Achel, had my first proper Lambic, a geuze that tasted like sparkling citric acid, and an Ingelmunster Kasteel Donker that weighed in at 11%.

In the bar in Athens, memories of Brugge coming back to me, I choose the "interesting" Liquid Bliss two nights in a row, a black beer that tasted strongly of dark chocolate and peanut butter.  It was rich as a meal and not to everyone's liking.  Sitting with me, another German, his taste buds more traditionally attuned, drank it only reluctantly.  I put my feet up next to the fire and marveled at the weirdness of the world.