My friend, a Unitarian minister in Boulder, cautions against too much prayer. “It’s dangerous” he tells me, “because prayers are so often answered.” I know now what he means. I wanted to go some place “different,” I told my family and friends. “Some place where I don’t speak the language and where I can get completely out of my routine,” I professed bravely. What could I have possibly been thinking?
Today, I am overwhelmed with differences! To begin with, my attempts to learn German have gone poorly. Partly because the crush of responsibilities inherent in getting ready to leave home for two months is heavy, and partly because my Tex-Mex Spanish seems to be entrenched in that area of my brain set aside for foreign languages and refuses to give way, my feeble attempts at German meet mostly with blank stares, and I retreat to a sort of pigin English even I don’t understand. I imagine the clerk at the Penny Markt down the street, where I have been several times already, looking for cleaning supplies and something to eat, groans audibly when she sees me walk in.
But the flight from America is smooth and the plane relatively empty. I have room to stretch out and I get an hour or two of sleep. We pass over Holland and into Germany. The fields are arranged so beautifully, everything looks neat and tidy. But no mountains are visible because of a slight haze. The flight attendant assures me they are there and worth seeing on a clear day.
No one is at the airport to meet me. My sponsor, Joao, is at home with his wife waiting for their new baby to arrive momentarily, but it is a short ride from the airport to the Institute and I can at least manage a taxi. I’ve been going over my German phase book for an hour while on the landing approach and while I wait for my bags to appear in baggage claim. “FAA-ren zee mikh BIT-teh tsoo DEE-ze(r) ah-DREHS-seh?” Over and over. I’ve got it, I’m sure. But when the moment arrives I’m struck with palsy, apparently. I blather something, poke the letter with the address at the driver, and somehow communicate where I need to go. Well, at least I can see from the traffic signs we are heading in the right direction.
German engineering is a marvel. The taxi is a Mercedes-Benz, of course, new and powerful, with all of the latest gadgets, including a GPS route finding computer in the center of the dash. It has a little hand-held gizmo, similar to a VCR controller, that you use to enter the city and the street address, and the computer offers a display that shows you each intersection as it comes up and a green arrow that shows you which way to turn. Very cool!
But, uh, maybe the interface could use some work. Or maybe my driver cannot speak or read German either and has not read that part of the instruction manual that cautions against programming the computer while driving. He is apparently a mute, since I have not heard one word from him since I engaged him 10 minutes ago. I am hoping he is deaf, too, and didn’t realize I botched that German phrase so badly. Or maybe he has heard me perfectly and has written me off as a lost cause, I don’t know. He leaves me to my thoughts as he struggles to drive and punch the letters into the computer.
There is no keyboard. To enter the letters he must punch the right arrow key eleven times to move the cursor to the “K”, then the left arrow key eleven more times to bring the cursor back to the letter “A”, and so on. Has anyone noticed German words are particularly long?
By the time he has finished we have nearly collided with two large, sturdy-looking German long-haul trucks and run three other passinger cars off the road with our lane weaving. I’m thankful to be alive. Heading in the right direction is just icing on the cake. I will give him a big tip when we arrive at our destination.
Science is flourishing in Germany. The European Southern Observatory (ES0) is part of a group of institutions located on a campus just north of the village of Garching bei München, which is itself northeast of München. My apartment is in Garching, less than a mile walk from the campus. The campus, as well as the village, is undergoing heavy construction. There are cranes and large trucks everywhere. Streets are blocked off. It looks a bit of a mess, to be honest, but my driver theads his way through and locates what appears to be the ESO. (Signage appears to be an afterthought on the campus, or maybe it just hasn’t been installed yet.)
I finally realize that Reception is at the top of the long, curving stairs in front of me. Or at least I think it is, I can’t really see it behind this tower the stairs curl around. There is NO WAY I am carrying these bags up there! It takes me seconds to figure out that these bags are very unlikely to walk away by themselves, as much as they weigh, so I grab the lightest one containing my computer and head on up.
The young girl at the reception desk is smiling. I try my German on her. She stares at me. I try my pigin English (where is this comingfrom!?). She speaks a bit of English, I throw in a few Tex-Mex words, somehow I seem to be getting the idea across. I’m a visiting scientist. I will be here two months. I am to pick up the keys to my apartment here. Et cetera. Joao probably informed someone I would be arriving when he went home to be with his wife and the new baby.
Well, uh, actually, no. The only other person who knew I was arriving has gone on holiday this week. “Oh, really?,” I say in perfect English.
We finally manage to track down a secretary in Joao’s department. She has never heard of me, but if I say so… I frantically search my backpack for the letter that assures me I am going to get paid for my time here. Finally, after more phone calls, including one to Joao at the hospital, or wherever he happens to be, a packet of materials is found. Inside the packet is my apartment key. Hurray!
I do have an office reserved, on the fourth floor. The secretary will show me the way. I follow her through the strangest building I have ever been in. Kafka must have spent time in Germany designing buildings. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland. I feel like I am being led down the rabbit hole. The building appears to have thousands of levels, stairs appear to go nowhere. One half of the building is completely isolated from the other half, except for a secret passageway known only to the permanent residents. It is one large maze of the sort they build out in the corn fields in Colorado to amuse the locals and confound the tourists.
“Do people get lost here?,” I ask. She laughs. All the time, apparently. There is a cartoon in the canteen that shows a skeleton and someone has written above it “Visiting Scientist who couldn’t find his way out of the building.” I would be leaving crumbs behind to form a trail, but I haven’t had anything to eat since some time yesterday. Lunch does not appear to be on the horizon.
When we arrive at my office, it is occupied by someone else, but I figure with the way the stars are aligning today it would be more unusual if it weren’t occupied. I converse a bit with the occupant, a visiting scientist like me who will be leaving on Saturday. So maybe I do have an office, after all.
The secretary leaves for her lunch, offering to meet me at one o’clock and take me down to the head of the car pool so that I can get an ESO car to transport my bags to the apartment. She is out the door and gone before my sleep deprived mind activates. A car!? She wants me to drive a car into town! I knew I made a mistake not studying those German traffic signs in my phrase book. Lordy, they are going to let me have a car. What in the world are these people thinking?!
At one o’clock I am signing my name to something (I don’t want to know and I sure as heck can’t read it) and being handed the keys to an ESO car. I can do anything I want to do with the car, but if the mileage is not filled out in the book he is handing me after I return, things will be “nicht gut” between us. Something about his mannerisms when he says this suggests that this might be IMPORTANT, so I take careful note, although personally I’m thinking if I get the car into and out of that village with those narrow and construction-constricted roads without a major accident it will have been a pretty good day. The rest of the instructions (if there were any) were in a language I didn’t understand, but I figured I have been driving cars for nearly 40 years, so how hard could it be?
I haul my bags out to the car, load them, and drive off. I spend about 10 minutes driving around looking for an exit from the parking lot. (My phrase book, unfortunately, is with the rest of the gear in the back, and I can’t remember the word for “Exit.”) Finally, I turn up a narrow driveway, but there is a barred gate at the far end. Nuts! I’m trying to figure out how to get the car into reverse to back out of this long, narrow driveway, when the bar suddenly goes up and I am set free.
I’m barrelling down the road at about 60 miles per hour, when I suddenly notice that it doesn’t feel like 60. Am I in a time-warp brought on by jet-lag? Oh, wait, no. Those are kilometers per hour. That might explain why there are 10 cars backed up behind me.
Well, anyway, I am in no hurry to get into an accident, so I putter along, trying to make out the German traffic signs and signals. And all of a sudden I am at the first real-life roundabout I’ve ever driven into and I am momentarily confused. The only authentic roundabouts I have ever seen were in England and Australia, and in both of those countries you drove around them in a clockwise fashion, on the left. I’m pretty sure you drive counterclockwise and on the right in Germany, but I didn’t even check when I got in the car! I’m even more confused by the fact that these village streets are so narrow and cars are parked in the street and on the sidewalks in such a way that I’m afraid I am going the wrong way on a one-way street. I quickly tuck myself behind another slow-moving German driver and start praying this driver is going somewhere near where I am headed. Fortunately, he is, and I find the street my apartment is on in a short time.
And so begins my adventure with German locks. Now you might think putting a key into a lock and turning it wouldn’t be so hard, but that’s because you don’t remember what it was like the first time you had to do it. After a lifetime of locking doors in my own house, I am suddenly forced to admit I don’t know the first thing about how it is done in other places in the world. And you look like a damn fool standing in front of the door to your apartment building rotating the key this way, then that way, then this way, again. Nothing working. You begin to think people are reporting you to the police.
But all that is nothing compared to the embarrassment you feel when after 10 minutes of this unfriutful activity some other resident just walks up, turns the key, and pushes the door open, rather than pulling it. Aaauuughhh! (There is something about the way German doors are hung, and I haven’t figured this out yet, that gives me the wrong visual clues. I find I do this a lot.)
My apartment is nice, but barren, completely barren, and I will only be here a week before I move to another one that I can hopefully keep for the duration of my stay. It has one large living room, furnished with Colorado-style western furniture (!?), a bedroom, a small kitchen, and bathroom. No dish soap, no hand soap, nothing whatsoever. (There was a bit of toilet paper that I discovered only after it would have beenway too late to discover there wasn’t any, thank goodness.)
Bed linen is furnished, but some of it I don’t know what to do with. For example, there is something that looks like a doubled sheet. It seems to me something goes inside this, but I can’t imagine what. The pillow cases have the opening on the long end of the pillow, instead of the short end.
The refigerator is small and is built into the rest of the kitchen cabinetry, so I didn’t discover it until I was doing a general inspection of everything in the cupboards. I have 15 wine and apertif glassess, but only four tea cups, and those of the sort you might use at a 10 year-old girls tea party. I’ll have to think about finding a mug somewhere.
Fortunately, there is a small grocery store nearby, where I have picked up a couple of supplies, although shopping is an adventure. When you are looking for dish soap you have to look at the pictures carefully, since dish soap is sold near the toilet bowl cleaner and in similar packaging.
I can’t read the packaging at all, but I can mostly make out what I need. I did find some Müsli for cereal, which the Europeans do so much better than we do in the US. But I couldn’t find milk for it and for my tea. I walked past the refigerated dairy cases 10 times before I decided to ask for the “milch”, which I pronounced incorrectly. Finally, I got directions which amounted to, I think, from all the hand waving, “go down there to the end of the aisle with the eggs you idiot and it is right in front of you.” And, sure enough, it was. Although the milk was in an unrefrigerated box and it took me 20 minutes when I got home to figure out how to open it. There were directions on the box, which I didn’t understand, of course, but a picture, too. I studied the picture for hours, it seemed like, but I guess that was in German too, because it didn’t do much to enlighten me.
Anyway, I finally got it open and I made myself a tiny cup of tea and I began to think while I was drinking it that maybe I will survive here after all.