Europe current locationIttekimasu!

I’ll warn you now, this is probably going to take a while to read. If you want to skip to pretty things, click on the image gallery at the top left. Based on my last trip to Japan, I estimate I wrote a small novel on my trips, so I doubt I’ll be any less long winded here. However, this time I’m working for most of it, and since I can’t really discuss what I’m working on, that should cut a good 8 hours out of the day with which I’d bore you. At any rate, it’s all just a warning; hey, a lot of people said my last one was very entertaining! So, here goes, and thanks for reading.

About a month ago, the project lead at the company I’m contracting with asked me the question I’d been waiting for since June: “How soon can you go to Dresden?” Something critical came up that we couldn’t do in Austin, so it had finally come to pass. I asked the management if it would be possible, since I was already in Europe, to take a week’s vacation after the two weeks we’d require in Dresden, Germany, and it was approved in relatively short order. Thus my trip was set, and after several thousand dollars worth of reservations later, I’d made plans to work in Dresden, visit Berlin, and finally to visit my friend Anjanette and her husband D’Arcy in Finland. This was exciting.

The new year rolled around, and I had about a week to get ready. I started organizing things and adding on to my new toy; a Canon EOS-20D Digital SLR camera. At first I was nervous about taking it, but then it occurred to me: if I don’t use this for taking pictures in Europe, what AM I going to take pictures of?? That, along with all the other standard electronic gear I have been accumulating for the trip, began to pile up in my mind. A huge list of to-dos occupied my time, and I was getting, on average, four hours of sleep a night the entire week. This caught up with me Thursday the 6th, and after a huge celebratory sushi dinner with my friends Victor, Dylan, Casey, and Cyndy (the latter two who joined me on my 1999 Japan trip along with my friend Pat) I went home and passed out, wasting a night of preparation. As you might expect, my time was limited, and I found myself, as always, getting ready late into the night before my trip. I wasn’t as completely screwed this time however; my flight wasn’t until 11am, so going to bed at 4 or 5 didn’t mean I was going to get a mere hour of sleep like my last Japan trip. The pugs got a trip to PetsMart and Petco, then were taken to holiday at Casey’s. I’m gonna miss those kids! Afterwards, I worked steadily Friday night packing and cleaning, as my friend Elizabeth might be guesting at my house while I’m away, and even though she said she didn’t care about my house being a mess, I did.

This night also contained only two real crises. Number one was that my dishwasher decided that tonight was the night to start spewing water all over my kitchen floor. Great. The bigger problem was that my cat, Ifurita, had a raging urinary tract infection and was on meds that he needed to take at night. He, as he is good at, had vanished. He wasn’t anywhere in his usual spots, and I half thought he had run out the back door when the pugs were outside earlier. Just about the time I was going frantic, he stepped out of my bedroom! His reward of course was his nasty-tasting (for a cat) medicine, while being held down by my sister, Kati, who had come over to help me pack. Kati had to leave early as my nephew, who had been sleeping on the couch, woke up and was none too happy about being there. Regardless, she was a great help and probably saved me an hour or two of sleep! I finally got everything I needed ready and my floor vacuumed about 3:30am. This was not too shabby for me. I threw myself to bed as I needed to get up about 4 hours later.

The alarm went off way too soon, and I discovered that, unlike going to Japan, I wasn’t all razzed to get up and moving. The grogginess just would not wear off despite taking a shower and trying to hurry. My friend Kathryn (who lives next door) had graciously agreed to lose her sleep-in morning to take me to the airport. She came over about 8:15, and after making us both lattes we managed to get out the door at 8:40 or so. She dropped me off at the Continental loading zone at Austin Bergstrom about 25 minutes later. I’m asking so much of her; she’s taking care of my cats, going to the bank for me, checking the mail, doing my dishes, and watching the dishwasher. PLUS she drove me to the Airport! She’s the best!

I walked up to the ticket line, which was effectively deserted, and it seems that Continental has hired someone whose sole purpose it is to maneuver people over to the automated check in consoles. I don’t mind these, generally, but I really wanted to make a seat request, and I wasn’t sure about those seats. I wanted a seat on the two long flights with a power port for my laptop. We went through the process, and for once he actually checked my passport date. It was a replacement for a lost one, and the date on it expired in 1999. However, the passport office extended it, with a little disclaimer in the BACK of the thing. I always worry that someone will think I stuck the thing in my inkjet and I’ll end up in some Turkish prison, clacking a tin cup against the bars and yelling, “Look at the amendments page!! It’s real!!!” The seat selection only let me choose seats for the initial two legs; the last leg had the same flight number so the computer conveniently eliminated that. It wasn’t in the rows I knew to be under the power section. Drrr…

I left my bag with the checked baggage security and he asked me to push down the handle. It never occurred to me that someone could use that as a plunger for a bomb. Ack. Amazingly enough, despite all the gear I was carrying with me, I was through security in under 5 minutes in total including the short line, and I didn’t even have to take off my shoes. I located the gate, which was empty, and walked one more down to the original flight to Newark I had considered. I wanted to change those seats. The 777 from Houston to Newark was fine, but the 767 from Newark to Frankfurt I didn’t think was. She told me that it actually was in the correct section, but she had a seat up front if I wanted it for more leg room. I took it, but realized after I walked off that it would be hard to have the gear I’d need out. Drat.

I then went looking for something to seal up the zippers on my backpack with. I’d heard some horror stories about pickpockets, and wasn’t about to lose anything. These wouldn’t stop anyone, but they might help deter it. I located some locks at the store, which I purchased, but quickly realized the lunacy of this; they were in that horrible hard plastic blister packaging I can’t stand and that everyone seems to use these days. Here was the problem – at home, I have to use a knife or scissors on this type of packaging, and even then I end up mangling the box, my fingers, or both. How, I thought, was I going to open this thing up in a secure location where everything remotely sharp or serrated was illegal? You’re not *allowed* those things in there, so what kind of moron decided that was okay packaging for an AIRPORT? I ended up taking it to the security checkpoint and a nice security guard took it in back and cut it open for me, keeping the slivers of sharp plastic in case I had any bright ideas.

I got some breakfast tacos, then cracked out the laptop for a quick check about wireless access. They use T-Mobile HotSpot at Bergstrom, and after checking the locations in Europe, I decided to get a one-month subscription. It probably couldn’t hurt, anyway. I signed up, and seconds later my mail started pouring in. I started the message to everyone about the site, but realized I was way short on time and abandoned it for later use. As I got on the short flight to Houston I realized I never downloaded to new source for the website I had been working on for my local copy and wouldn’t be able to work on it during the flight! Well, maybe in Houston they’d have a HotSpot, since I was now enabled.

They didn’t.

Well at least not where I checked, which was in the big area at the end of the Terminal E corridor. As usual I’d had to walk from one side of the airport to the other, but somehow came in from the opposite side than I’d expected. I couldn’t get the code, so I left it for Newark, as I had no time left. I was happy to be on a 777 again; I love those planes. As I approached the gigantic engine, I felt a glimmer of happy, even if it wasn’t the plane bound for Tokyo. I had agreed to a middle seat, and as I recall I said to the guy at the automated ticket console, “I don’t mind middle seats.”

Famous last words. While I had my happy power port, there was a large woman to my left who had not one, but TWO one year olds. Fortunately, one was another seat and an aisle away, but they had twins on their laps, and they weren’t calming down. I really don’t see how the airlines can get away with not having a seat for an infant. I know it’s a huge expense for everyone involved, but having them sit, unbelted, on your lap? How is that any safer than having my laptop out during heavy turbulence? On my right I had a nice woman from Jersey who was coming back from Cabo after escaping her family for a few days. Across the aisle, though, a Latin-accented couple was causing trouble with the flight attendants; they had a toy poodle with them in a carrier, but were refusing to put it completely inside the carrier and zip it, then place it under the seat. This actually delayed the plane, and only after being threatened to be thrown off the plane did they push the dog completely under the seat. They didn’t zip it, though. After takeoff, the kid was making all kinds of rattling shrieks and cries and kept grabbing at my face laptop. In the woman’s defense, she was trying hard to keep him from doing so, but it really was getting annoying. The Jersey woman had suggested I move to the aisle seat behind us to the right, and I probably should have done so.

My only saving grace on the trip came from a generous act of John, a friend of mine from work. As I left the office on Thursday, he pulled me aside and offered up his Bose active noise-canceling headphones. “Are you SURE??” I asked, as they’re rather expensive. He said he didn’t mind, as he wasn’t using them right now anyway. If you’ve never heard these things before, they use a principle of sounds waves to reduce obnoxious, droning noises to next to nothing. They do this by sampling the noise, inverting the phase (flipping the amplification and rarefaction, effectively), and introducing it into whatever you’re listening to, even if it’s nothing. The two out of phase waves cancel each other out and the noise is GONE. On planes, this is DAMN cool. That droning engine noise you’re used to goes bye-bye, and suddenly you’re just listening to a movie with headphones on in a quiet room. It would have been easy to forget I was on a plane if it weren’t for the lack of space and the small child attempting to pluck out my eyes. It’s actually quite a start to take them back off, because you realize just how loud planes really are! I watched most of Vanity Fair in the background while I did some coding, and was fed several times over the course of the short, three hour flight. So short, in fact, that we didn’t finish the movie. The sad part was that we ended up stuck on the taxiway because the tug attached to the plane at our gate had broken down and they didn’t know when we’d get in. They eventually started up the movies again… but from the beginning. Jersey Woman was anxious to get home to her family, but she’d missed the beginning of the movie anyway. She reminded me of my Aunt Cherie, so I liked her. We finally started moving a few moments later and we were off the plane in short order.

I haven’t been to Newark in quite some time, and it’s changed so much I don’t remember. It’s huge, and insanely busy. I stopped into Barnes and Noble to buy a phrasebook, since I know next to nothing in German, and then headed to my gate. This walk was from gate 72 to gate 134! There were 139 gates in this terminal alone, and there are three. Scary! The lines of people headed for Amsterdam, Madrid, and other fabulous places were massive, and it was pretty hectic in that corner of the terminal. They had a neat food court nearby which had a sushi place, but I soon realized it was the fast-food variety anyway. My flight came up an hour faster than I expected, since my watch was still on Central time. Whups.

When I got on board I headed for the front aisle seat in coach. As I approached, a German man and his son looked at me like small puppies and asked if I was sitting there. I said I was, and he said his wife was in an aisle seat a few rows back, and asked if I would mind trading. After verifying it also had a power port, I didn’t see that it was a problem. They thanked me immensely and I moved to the seat. The down side of this was that the section was already full and almost all of the overhead bins were stuffed to bursting. Now I really appreciate the bins on a 777; the 767’s are pretty small. I managed to squeeze me things in two different bins then took my seat.

A few moments later an Asian girl approached the row and said she was sitting beside me. I moved out of the way, and she put a few things in the seat then searched for any open space in the overheads. She found some about three rows back, then came back and sat down. We both agreed the plane was completely packed then introduced ourselves. Her name was Hena, and she was originally from Hong Kong, but now was studying IT (SAP) in Mannheim, which is about an hour outside of Frankfurt. She had spent the last few months in the US traveling, but now was headed back to Mannheim for an internship. We had a great conversation most of the way, and I showed her a bunch of pictures from Japan while explaining my website. She gave me a lot of tips about Germany and told me a few useful phrases in German. At one point I told her it had hit me that I was missing my dogs, and she suddenly did the cutest thing ever.

She reached behind her and offered me her Pooh doll. She had brought with her a smallish stuffed Pooh bear, and now, he was talking to me. She was making him move like a puppet and giving him a voice in a really high squeaky kind of way. Pooh was very happy to meet me and showed me his little piggy, which was in fact not Piglet, but was his piggy. Over the course of the flight, Pooh became sleepy, hungry, and was going to write a letter to the CEO of Continental complaining about unfair treatment of Pooh Bears on international flights with complete disregard for the level of Hunny Pots on 767s. Okay, I suggested he do the latter.

The flight was extremely short, at least to me; it was only 7 hours in total. This, as it turns out is nothing when you sleep for 4 of those hours. Yes, I actually managed to sleep with help from the Bose headphones and several episodes of NCIS. I did not, however, work any more on the website, so the power port mostly went to waste. As the plane came to a stop at the gate, I dove out of my chair and back 3 rows to rescue Hana’s bag so she wouldn’t have to crawl back over people. I had some problems getting back up to where she’d pulled my stuff down, but we managed to pull it together.

Customs was a joke; we were in and out in 10 minutes, and they did no final check after getting our luggage. Just one glance at my passport, one stamp, and away we went. While waiting for the bags, I tried in vain to get my cell phone to work, as it should, but wasn’t successful. I don’t think the guy I talked to at Cingular enabled International Roaming correctly. I’ll have to call them. We exited the Customs area, and I exchanged some money while Hena waited with the bags and got her cell phone working. 60 bucks got translated to about 37 Euros. Whee. One thing I noticed about the Frankfurt airport – there were dogs everywhere! People apparently just brought their dogs to the airport to meet and drop off people. Man, wouldn’t that be cool? I couldn’t believe how many dogs I saw, and was sad to not see any pugs. Heh.

Hena had called her boyfriend’s parents to pick her up, and since they were coming in 10 minutes I waited with her. We exchanged contact information, and we’re going to see if we can’t get back together in Frankfurt before I leave. She doesn’t know for sure, but we’ll see. The German couple arrived a little while later, and I met them briefly, but forgot how to say “how are you?” when the time came. Drat. We said goodbye, and I headed off for the other terminals where my flight would be.

The interior of Terminal C in Frankfurt is very modern and cool looking. It reminds me a lot of the new Terminal E in Houston, too, which makes it seem like a lot of places are going that way. Lots of glass and steel supports. I walked past a big bear art installation and rode the little train to Terminal B, since I had no idea where my flight would be. I knew it was Lufthansa, but that was pretty much it. As I rode the escalator back down to the floor, I saw a gigantic flight board which mimicked that of Narita in volume, but not in technology. It still used the old-fashioned flipping letters to announce the information, and the whole time it was making this “clickclickclickclick” noise as it changed the information. There were six free Internet stations from Samsung nearby, which I vowed to go try out, but only after I found my check in. This wasn’t easy; there weren’t any real signs anywhere denoting the different airlines. At least I found the flight information, but it was pretty cryptic since it was surrounded by 400 other flights. I started to get a little nervous until I noticed a big orange Lufthansa check in area nearby. I then approached the Fast Check In guy, who was talking to another man in German.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?” I asked, feeling completely bizarre about that question. It was legitimate though, since I don’t speak any German at all, and if he didn’t at least speak passable English I’d be screwed. His response made me chuckle.

He paused and stared at me for a second as if I’d just made the most outrageous query in the history of queries, then he cocked his eyebrows and said with only a light accent:

“Of COURSE,” he muttered, which I half expected to be followed with “I’m under thirty and I’m German, where do you think this is?” It wasn’t so much snotty as him being amazed I even had to ask. I explained where I was going and he pointed me down to Terminal A. I thanked him and headed that way. This actually didn’t help very much because there were literally 280 different windows to choose from and many different lines to wait in, none of which appeared to be the same as any others. I surveyed the area and looked at the flight info again. There was a number at the end I didn’t initially recognize, but after seeing the window numbers I realized it corresponded. 278 was in the sequence of the windows to my left, and I headed to it. It was another automated ticket counter, and an Asian woman who spoke English with a German accent walked me through it. This one was slightly more complex than the Continental one, but made sense for the most part. My bag wandered off through the maze of conveyor belts, and I began to wander the mall area of the terminal, as I had a good two hours to kill. I was really feeling out of water now, and the language barrier was also getting to me, a lot. I would have given a lot to have a travel companion about then. No wonder I hung around with Hana so long.

I stopped into an electronics store and saw that the cell phones that matched models in the US were way more expensive here. I was looking for a European pre-paid SIM card, but was unable to locate one that was obvious, and I was feeling very anti-social at the moment so I didn’t want to ask. I headed back down a corridor which was lined with very nice shops selling watches, purses, toys, clothes and….

In my amazement, I stopped walking.

Porn.

Not just porn, but sex toys and all that goes with it. There was a smut shop right there in the middle of the airport, with dildos plainly visible behind the signs sporting the mostly-naked chicks in lingerie. Funniest of all, the store’s name is, and you can see from the picture so you’ll know I’m not making this up, “beate uhse”.

“Okay, yeah, I’m definitely in Europe,” I said to myself.

Further down, a brand new Maserati was prominently displayed in the hallway. People, including me, were stopping and gawking at it. I can’t imagine how much it costs. As I rounded a corner I noticed a small bookstore which had a big rack of manga (Japanese comics) translated into German! This surprised me. I called my parents on a T-Mobile pay phone, briefly since it was now 3am Houston time, then doubled back to a coffee shop where I bought a latte in order to stave off the oncoming jet lag. I tried out the free Internet stations in an attempt to locate a T-Mobile HotSpot and send a few emails, and outside of being slow and having funky keyboards, they weren’t too bad. Very convenient if you need to check reservations or something. I wouldn’t use them to buy anything though – you can’t close the browser so anyone can just back up to see information.

I finally got bored, so I decided to head to my gate. The checkpoint was a breeze, by comparison, as I didn’t even have to take out my laptop here. I then began the World’s Longest Walk to my gate, which was again 34 gates away. I stopped into a few stores along the way and judged that some things cost about the same, such as alcohol (unlike Japan, where it’s super cheap for the most part), other things cost less, like Tag Heuer watches, and some things, like my Motorola Razr V3 cell phone, are astronomical. 893 euros! That’s over a thousand dollars!! And I thought I got ripped at $500….

I finally reached my gate and cracked open my laptop. As it turns out, and I realized this from the signs along the way, the entire airport has HotSpot, and so I would have been fine earlier just using the phone from my computer. Sigh. I got the source code I needed and finally sent the announcement email I had saved. Shortly thereafter they announced boarding of the flight to Dresden and I got on. It was a standard 737, but with Recaro leather seats, which were nice. I took my aisle seat on row 10, and a few moments later was asked by a woman in German if she could get in to her window seat. I basically caught what she said, but I think it was mostly situational anyway. I still felt bad I couldn’t say anything back though. That’s SO frustrating! I tried to remember what Kevin had told me about how to ask for water. Picture a floating head above my shoulder while I appear deep in thought.

“In Germany, when you ask for wasser, this typically means sparkling water. If you want plain water, ask for wasser gas.”

Since I couldn’t remember the latter phrase, which I had on a paper in my bag, I decided to go with the sparkling. The girl next to me ordered something complex and was handed a tomato juice. I think she asked for no ice. When it came to me, I broke into German Mode, and with all my gusto asked for, “Wasser.”

This prompted the flight attendant to respond with something long, twisted, and complex, with an obvious questioning tone at the end. My brain reviewed this information looking for what I knew of the word “ice” in German, thinking that was the question. That query came up null, so I broke down, ashamed.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Plain vahter, or wiz babbuls?” she asked again, in her cute German accent, and I responded in my embarrassment that I wanted wiz babbles. I drank my sparkling mineral water and contemplated my failure for the rest of the short 40 minute flight. East Germany looks pretty much like Texas from high up. One of the male attendants passed by me, and I think that he spoke English and what I’m pretty sure I saw on his tag as Japanese, in kanji. I didn’t get another chance to check, however. We approached Dresden and I had one of the most hair-raising landing experiences ever as the plane was pitching left and right wildly, I guess from a strong crosswind, even as we were about to touch down. A second before the pilot mostly leveled out, and he managed to get one gear on the ground then the other a second or so later. Phew. We taxied to the new-looking terminal and were off the plane in Dresden in no time.

-- Hik