Europe current locationWhen my cell phone started buzzing incessantly this morning, I really thought about pressing snooze more than once. The debate raged in my head for about 30 seconds, but then I realized I had to clean up some in the kitchen before I left, so I forced my worthless, fatigued hulk into a shower. This did manage to wake me up at least. I dressed quickly, washed and put away my dishes, then ran out the door to breakfast. I was hoping to get in a little early this morning so I could make my reservations for Berlin and subsequently Helsinki.

This time in the lobby I did a quick scan for anyone I knew, but couldn’t locate the people I’d met. I knew Tom was gone, but Andrew and Annie were still here. My morning standard was modified today with a small glass of fresh-squeezed kiwi juice (!), which was a big surprise. I took a seat at a random empty table and began to wolf down my meal. Andrew arrived a few minutes later, but didn’t see me at first. I called out to him, but he didn’t seem to hear me either until he turned around when walking back to the table he’d already positioned himself at. He said hello, then joined another coworker I’d not met at a table behind me. As I crunched away on muesli, the people next to me ordered cappuccinos, and were subsequently delivered two steaming cups of frothy espresso drink. Ah hah! This is what I need to do. Today I was almost done, however, so I just went with the normal coffee. It’s *good* coffee, however, and I really wish I could get it on site. The coffee from the vending machines leaves a lot to be desired. Andrew walked by again and asked how I was doing. I had a full bite of cereal and mimed that I was just okay, even though I’d slept well last night. When my bowl was depleted, coffee drunk, and tart, but nummy kiwi juice finished, I put on my coat and headed out to my awaiting car, which was as usual blocking the drive. Annie came in as I was leaving, and I said a brief hello.

When I stepped out of the car to walk into the building it became all too clear to me that the temperature had dropped, remarkably. In truth, it probably wasn’t all that much cooler, but it was damp, overcast, and windy, and this made for quite a difference in how my body interpreted the weather. I zipped up my coat and marched my way toward the front entrance. My ears started to get numb about halfway there. As I was about to enter the building, it hit me that I’d not locked the car again. When I came out last night, it was open, and since I’ve been keeping my camera in the trunk during the day, probably wasn’t a good idea. It was relatively safe, what with the security walking around, but I’d rather not risk it. I whipped around and marched back to within radio range of the car and clicked the lock button on the remote, witnessing the mirrors swing shut from afar. I raced back inside where my ears slowly regained their feeling.

Upstairs, I tried, quickly, to get online to look for reservations. Somehow it had taken me a full 25 minutes to get from breakfast to the conference room, and I only had five minutes until my testing cycle. Michel arrived, and I decided it was better to work first, then go look for travel info. I even decided to forego coffee so that I could get started, and that’s a pretty big step. I walked with Michel down to the test lab, and we had our test session. Afterwards, I returned upstairs with him to wait for the next one.

I started to look around for hotels in Berlin, but having never been there, I had no idea where the best place to get a hotel was. Michel had suggested I check out of the current hotel then return here later so that I wouldn’t have to pay for my trip to Berlin, but I didn’t like that idea. I didn’t want to have to pack again, and I had food in my mini fridge that I couldn’t take with me. Plus I’d end up leaving my stuff in the car, which I also didn’t want to do. Janice liked his idea.

“People are really nice here, they’re not going to steal your things,” she told me, and really tried to get me to follow Michel’s suggestion. Personally, I really like having a “home base” and this was it. Spending a little money on a hotel didn’t bother me, and the convenience of not having to pack my entire bag for one night away seemed worth the effort. Rene helped me locate the best spot for convenience’s sake, and after much deliberation, I decided on the Holiday Inn City Centre East. It’s apparently not too far from most of the tourist attractions, and is within a short train ride of where the Berlin walking tour originates from. I was very pleased to know that it was set in stone finally.

Another change of plans occurred; I was going to follow Kevin’s advice and park outside the city, then take a train in. However, Janice and the rest seemed to think it wasn’t too hard to drive to the hotel and leave the car there (for a fee). Once I was at the hotel, however, I should leave the car and take public transportation. This was actually my preferred way to do things, since the train map I can actually read. It looks remarkably like the JR map of Tokyo, and I understand that mass of multicolored spaghetti. While I was deciding on hotels, this was a major factor since the hotel had to be close to the train I needed. It was actually pretty hard to map the streets with the trains, but I managed to overlay the two with a little help from Google. Hence my aforementioned hotel decision. I’m still worried about the drive, not so much getting from Dresden to Berlin, but really just getting around in Berlin in a car. I don’t even know what to expect it to look like, so every European movie is just spinning around in my head, painting a picture of Germany, France, and Great Britain combined. We’ll see how my image compares with the real thing.

The flight to Helsinki was another matter. I looked up flights, and there were two leaving from Frankfurt after mine: a 10:45 and a 1:30PM. The inherent problem was that my flight didn’t arrive in Frankfurt until 9:40am. I asked the people who had been through Frankfurt a lot, and they all agreed. Don’t do it. Janice had the only dissenting opinion initially, as she’d done a connecting flight in under an hour, but she was even a little sketchy about it. I finally decided it was insane, because if I was delayed, for ANY reason, I would be completely screwed. The 1:30 PM seemed to be the only option, but this got me in at 5:30PM, and it would mean I’d miss pretty much all of Saturday, and that’s really half of the time Anj can spend with me. Hrm…

Janice then had another radical idea, which I initially rejected. She suggested I leave on Friday night instead, after work. I thought this was a terrible idea, because I wanted a full day of work, and my reserved time was 3-5. “Oh just work late on Thursday,” she said. She had a point, actually – nobody uses the test lab at night, so it might not really be an issue. Plus, I was on track for being complete before then anyway. I decided I needed to talk to Anj before I could make the reservation, however, so I figured I could do it at lunch. I walked out of the room to get coffee, even though it was almost lunchtime.

The breakroom vending machine ignored me when I ordered it to provide for me one instant cappuccino with an extra shot of “espresso” (I put quotes because it’s not really faithful to the real thing). The big metallic box kindly ignored me. I realized that the little LED message board was saying something else entirely, and I deduced from what it looked like that it was “not vending” at this time. Fudge. I headed toward the next closest break room I could think of, which was not super close. As I entered, I ran into Rene (a different one) and Daniel, who are both working on the same thing I am. We had a long discussion about our findings and other items, and I suddenly realized it was well past 11:50, when everyone heads for the cafeteria. I quickly ended the conversation and raced my way back to the room. As expected, everyone was gone. I dropped off my coffee cup, spilling some on the table, and then walked quickly towards the cafeteria, waving at Annie in the stairwell as I passed.

I searched the now-full seating area for my group. It took about four passes, but Rene stood up and waved at me, letting me know where they were. I walked into the service area and nabbed a tray. The entrees today seemed very much not appetizing, and all of them came with an evil nemesis of mine since childhood: brussel sprouts. Ick. I searched for something more appetizing. They had some pea soup which looked okay, but it didn’t really fit my idea of a decent lunch. I decided on a baguette sandwich and a cup of “hunter’s soup” which is creamy and orange. Annie and her co-worker Vijay had walked in at the same time, and they both seemed to agree that the available items weren’t too happy. Annie ended up getting a mini quiche (I think), and we walked together to the register. I didn’t realize you could get receipts here, and I really wish I had known. I’ve been spending money all week on lunch, but have been using the electronic currency. Well, I know how much I put in, how much I’ve spent, and it should be easy to track when I get a refund at the end. I invited Annie over to sit with us, and she couldn’t locate Vijay, so she sat down across from me.

The soup was actually pretty tasty, but I have a feeling with a name like “Hunter’s Soup” I probably don’t want to know what was in it. The sandwich, on the other hand, was a big baguette, with a few slices of proscuitto, tomato, lettuce, and… butter. Not mayo. Not mustard. Butter. And not just some butter, but a LOT of butter. We’re talking SLATHERED here. Not since I was a bored 12 year old on summer vacation when Mike and Dave caught me eating dallops of the creamy yellowish goo using the aerial antenna from our cordless phone have I had so much butter. (true story, ask Dave. Sad, but true) Eventually, I started wiping it off as it would squeeze its way out of the bread from time to time.

Annie and I had a good conversation about Japan; her mother lives in Tokyo (she’s actually Chinese). I could tell at some point that the guys were obviously waiting on us to finish, so I hurried up and finished my food. The second Annie got the last bite of her banana in her mouth, Rene asked, “so we will take a walk, yes?” and the crowd stood up. I asked Annie if she wanted to join us, and she said she did.

“I take a walk every day,” she said, as we walked out. We ran into Vijay again on the way out, and Annie said she’d meet us in the lobby as she needed to go down to 1 to get her coat. Everyone from Dublin obtained theirs and then went downstairs to the lobby, where Annie was waiting. We all took a stroll around the lot, and Annie and I discussed a number of things, but since it was so cold outside, we ended up talking mostly about how we decided what to pack. Since I was going to Finland, I said, I had no idea what to wear, and ended up bringing too much stuff. She jokingly said I could borrow her big leather coat, which made everyone look like a big bear. As we went off to our respective locales in the building, I asked if they were going to dinner anywhere tonight. She assumed so, and I gave her my room number so she could find me when they went.

When I arrived back in the room, I realized I’d never called Anj from my cell in the car. People were discussing Skype, so I thought this might be the best way to call her anyway. I managed to get it to work on the internal network, but it was the most round about way known to man, including two trips across the Atlantic Ocean to make a call. I called Anjanette on it, using her cell phone number she’d given me months ago. She did pick up, but because of the freaky connection, she could barely hear me. We decided to continue the conversation on IM, where it wouldn’t cut out every other word. We initially had some trouble connecting up, but managed to find one another.

I realized that I would be arriving on a Saturday anyway, so my question about whether she had school then was moot. However, I still asked if she could come get me on Friday night, and she said she didn’t mind. Cool. We chatted a little more, then my test time started to roll around again. I knew I’d have big lulls in testing where I could check into flights anyway.

Michel only walked me to the room this time; he really didn’t need to stay. I still can’t get into the lab without his help, but outside of that, if I really needed anything, I could call him. I thought it was crazy really he’d been hanging out in there all this time, actually. While I was waiting on a test, I called the travel agency that had made the reservation for Frankfurt to Dresden and easily changed my flight to the day before. I’d have to leave a short while after lunch, but I’d make it to Frankfurt by 3. The Dublin crowd all agreed that you only really need about 30 minutes to catch a flight, at best, since the place we’re at is about 3 minutes away from the airport. You can SEE it from the front door. And it’s not tiny. At first I tried to get the agent to get my flight for me, but realized that it was more of a hassle than it was worth to get it done through him, so I thanked him and got on to Travelocity. My only problem was that my login didn’t work for some reason, and I couldn’t retrieve my account information either! I just registered again and all was fine. The flight was 700 bucks, though, and that’s a pretty penny for such a short flight. Still, all I have to do is get off one plane and get on another; I can probably even check my bag all the way to Helsinki since it’s the same airline. If I’d taken the cheap European airlines, I’d have to get to weird airports and pay extra for my heavy bag, so this was worth the extra money. Afterwards, I hit a huge snag today in testing, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do the rest of the time I’m here. At least I don’t have to worry about what to do *after* I leave now. Only two more reservations to make, eventually – hotels in Stockholm and Frankfurt.

I returned upstairs to meet Janice; I assumed we were going to get SIM cards like we’d discussed for a few days. Annie had been emailing, letting me know they were planning on going sometime around 7pm, but not sure when exactly. Janice wasn’t ready to leave, however, so I decided just to get a SIM in Berlin if she couldn’t lead me to a store. I invited her and Doug to dinner, and they were interested. I’d just call them when I got back to the hotel and found out what we were doing. I did a brief demonstration of Skype for Janice by calling Bianca – I’d fixed the proxy, so now it actually worked – then raced out the door for the hotel. I’d wanted to have time to work out, but it was already just about 6pm.

I flew down the expressway to my exit, then got in the right exit-only lane. Somehow I assumed the actual exit was further down, so I stayed my same average 70MPH or so speed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the exit appeared. It’s a very sharp turn, and I knew at that speed I was going to be a big pile of shredded metal, if I’d even be able to do so. I slammed on my brakes, hard, and brought the car down to a slow enough speed to be able to turn. My backpack, which I’d brought abnormally into the car from the trunk, shot forward onto the floor of the passenger seat. The blinkers were on; I think maybe this was an automatic event of such a hard brake, or the backpack hit them on the way in. One of the two. I had a hard time focusing on the road, and nearly didn’t make my second “follow the major road” turn either. Dunno why that was exactly.

I sprinted inside the hotel for my key and asked for it with my nifty bit of learned language. The man I knew behind the counter said something excitedly in German, then went, “Ah! You have learned your first bit of German! Very good!” He handed me my key.

“Just a little bit,” I told him, and smiled as I walked out of the door. I hurried my way into the garage and took the same spot I usually do. This time I deftly swung into the space, without even having to straighten out, despite the big concrete pillar next to it. As I got my things out of the car, however, there was a big plastic ribbon X over the exit door for Augustus. I wandered the garage a little, until I found the exit for the building next door, took the stairs up to ground level, then walked across the courtyard to the main entrance, grumbling about it all the way. As I entered my room, I was surprised to find the TV on; it was a message indicator. The message was from Annie (in text on the TV) saying that they were meeting in the lobby at 6:30. It was already 6:20! I guess no workout for me. As I started to dress, Annie called my room. She asked if I’d gotten the message, and I told her just. She said we were going to Carmelo’s, the same Italian place Andrew had eaten at yesterday! Cool. I called Janice and Doug in Dublin, and told them the plan. I didn’t have any directions with me (Annie’s directions she’d emailed me were on the Exchange Server at work, and were inaccessible from here), so they got the street and the restaurant and seemed to know where it was.

“If we don’t show up,” Janice told me, “then we couldn’t find it and we decided to go elsewhere!” I quickly changed into some jeans and my hiking boots, then moved briskly to the lobby carrying my camera bag for the first time since Monday.

I ran into Annie, and her friend Vijay also showed up. Eventually Andrew walked through the door as well. We finalized Carmelo’s, then got into Andrew’s car for a trip down the main road that runs in front of the hotel. Andrew apologized for not getting the message that I wanted to join them last night, but I said it was my fault as I’d not sent the message in the first place! Besides, we were on our way there anyway. We turned into a tiny alley about a kilometer or so down, and this led to an extremely tiny restaurant with big glass windows and about three parking spots. As luck would have it, there was one spot open, but it was tiny. Vijay insisted we could make it, and despite my best efforts to turn into a 2 dimensional object, we still managed to fit. Getting out, however, I could have used the lack of depth.

The restaurant really is bitty, but has a nice atmosphere. A short Italian man with long hair greeted us; apparently Andrew has eaten here three times this week! He insisted he should get a frequent diner discount. At first we were worried; all the tables were reserved. He managed to seat us at the 6-top in the back corner, since we still had Janice and Doug on their way. We took a seat in the tiny space and glanced through the menu. I was glad of one thing – while all the descriptions were in German, the names were naturally in Italian, so I knew what everything was, for the most part. At first I was going to order Spaghetti Carbonara, but Vijay suggested the Rigatoni alla arrabiata, or ‘angry round tubular pasta”, which should be spicy. My final decision came from the fact that my mom makes the best Italian food in the world (seriously, ask anyone about her lasagna… I have people who will travel hundreds of miles to eat it) and she makes spaghetti carbonara. I couldn’t imagine theirs could be better than hers, and I was afraid of being disappointed, as I always am when I have lasagna away from her. Well used to; I won’t do it ever again! I know better. Annie ordered a pork scallopini dish, with tiramisu as an *appetizer*. She really wanted the tiramisu, but also knew she wouldn’t be able to eat it if she got her food first! Her new nickname is “Tiramisu Annie” which isn’t very original, but she knew we’d always remember her for this. Andrew did get the carbonara, and Vijay got a type of pasta I’d never heard of before which starts with a T. (It ended up looking like linguine, but thinner.) I suddenly got two text messages from weird numbers, and it seems that my cell had roamed to a new service, and they send you messages when you get connected.

This, mind you, was a good 45 minutes after we’d met in the lobby, and that was 10 minutes after I’d called Janice. They still hadn’t shown up yet, and we’d given up on them. As we sat, however, the Italian man had answered the phone and was chattering away in Italian. He kept looking at us, and Vijay quickly surmised what was going on. “It’s Janice,” he said. “She’s fluent in Italian you know.” Sure enough, the man came over, and mimed to us that the two people in the chairs that were empty were on the phone, and they were on their way. I assumed he spoke some English, but not even as much as I’d thought. They had apparently gone to a different Italian place on the same street. Our salads arrived first (we’d ordered them separately) along with Annie’s beautiful tiramisu. I told her that my friend Molly would be all over that dessert; it was her favorite. We kept watching the windows for signs of Janice and Doug, but every car that arrived contained a different set of people.

At that moment, my cell phone rang, and since it read “Private Number” I assumed that it was my parents. Not that I thought about the fact that it was 2pm in the States, and they were most likely not at home. I ran outside the restaurant and answered. It was Brian, calling to say hi, ask what time it was, and how much it was costing me to talk to him. “A buck a minute, dude,” I told him and he quickly got off the phone. I laughed about this somewhat, but thought it was neat that people could call me in Europe now.

Our food arrived moments later. Mine wasn’t what I expected, I think because I was thinking of the arrabiata at Romeo’s in Austin. It’s probably my second favorite dish there, but this was nothing like it. The round, tubular pasta was simply and lightly coated in olive and chili oils, along with a light amount of tomato sauce and crushed tomatoes. Vijay mentioned how long the sauce seemed to have simmered, and I was inclined to agree. It had a very deep, complex flavor, and my only real complaint about it was that it wasn’t really what I wanted. Andrew’s spaghetti carbonara looked pretty good really; I might try coming back next week. Even so I’m still worried it will disappoint me. :) We got to talking about travel, and apparently Andrew has been here 18 times in 18 months. “I average one trip a month,” he said, somewhat exasperatedly. He also travels to Japan as well, sometimes immediately after the Germany trips. Wow. That’s a lot of frequent flier miles.

After dinner, we ordered the check and a tiramisu, this one for me. I figured, it looked good, Annie said it was the best she’s ever had, and Molly would be insanely jealous of me getting some. ;) The tiramisu eventually came, but not the check. When the waiter arrived, Andrew asked again in German for it, but minutes passed, and still no check. “He never seems to take his eyes off of what he’s paying attention to,” noted Vijay. “Also, we have the ‘back table syndrome’: he can’t get to us because he gets distracted along the way.” We finally ended up asking a woman who worked there for it, and she sent over the waiter. Vijay paid for the whole thing; we’d worry about divvying it up later. We smushed our way back into the car and drove back to the hotel. Janice and Doug never did show up. I hope they got a good meal!

I realized halfway back that I’d not noticed where he pulled out of, and might not be able to find it again. That’s unfortunate. As we turned the corner onto the street up to the hotel, they pointed out Zorba’s, a Greek restaurant that also happens to have free Internet access. “Get drunk on ozu, browse the net,” said Andrew. This might be really handy since it’s only a block from the hotel and, well, anything’s better than the hotel. Andy still had to go out and get gas, so he dropped the three of us off and said bye. They’re on a flight back to Austin tomorrow, so they’re leaving at 5am. Yuck.

Inside, Vijay decided to go straight to bed, but Annie was going to get a quick swim before the health center closed. I decided to lift weights, since all that pasta was going to go *somewhere*. I quickly changed in my room, this time wearing my swimsuit so I could use the hot tub. I walked across the chilly outdoor plaza, into the hotel, and down to the gym. I was really weak today; I guess my muscles are rebuilding. There were attendants cleaning up, so at 9:30 I ran to the pool area to make sure I had time to soak. I left my coat, socks, shoes and gloves in a locker in the dressing room (actually shoes on a rack just outside), then walked into the pool area. It’s a long pool with a smaller one ahead of it that I assumed was the hot tub due to the heavy bubbles coming out of it. However, when I put my foot in, it was cold. Huh? I was confused. I did a quick scan around the room and noticed that the person swimming laps was indeed Annie. I took a quick dip in the pool; I’m not a big fan of generally swimming which I think is because since I started scuba diving, being on the surface or not being able to breathe underwater is just boring to me! I got out a moment later and noticed a small ladder going in somewhere, but this went to the part of the pool that goes outside. That was freezing!

I headed back to the bubbly part and Annie stopped swimming to talk. She said they didn’t really have a hot tub, per se, just a steam room and sauna. I told her I wasn’t a big fan of saunas so much, since I don’t like the heat like that. Hot tubs I like, just not saunas. She went back to swimming, and I tried to sit in the bubble water, which didn’t do much but throw me around. As I got up out of the pointless bubble soak, I noticed that yet again there were naked people in the pool outside. Still haven’t gotten used to that. Annie happened to get out at the same time and said she was going into the steam room. I thought it was worth a shot, since the cold water had only stiffened my muscles. She warned me about the possible nakedness, but that we could keep our clothes on. That was a good thing, I thought. She led me to the steam room, and we passed Vijay who appeared to be taking a nap under a blanket in the solarium. I left my stuff under Annie’s robe, then went through a glass door into the steam room.

Suddenly, we were in ancient Rome. The foyer room was all marble and had little rooms with marble sinks all around the outside. It was warm in there, but not hot. She pointed out a marble table where they give massages. She led me through another opaque glass door to the actual steam room, and this one was definitely on the warm side. A fountain in the middle of the room was pouring out cool water and Annie splashed some on the marble benches and laid down, saying it was a little hot. YEOW, she wasn’t kidding. I yelped continually as I touched my back to the stone. “I wish I had a tape recorder!” she said, laughing at me. We stayed there in the heat for a while, and soon I couldn’t tell if it was the water I’d splashed on me or sweat that was dripping off my face. “Probably some of both,” she told me.

We left there, and this time she led me to the sauna, which was off to the left. Unfortunately, as we arrived, a man had opened the doors; it was too close to closing, and they were cleaning them out. “Are they finished?” Annie asked, and the man gave an affirmative response. That was unfortunate. We grabbed our things as we headed out, and said goodbye before entering the dressing rooms. She was going to change upstairs then go back down to the bar, but I was a little too tired, and it was a big hassle to come all the way back to the lobby after getting back to my villa. She said she’d see me in Austin, and we both entered our respective dressing rooms. I noticed, once inside, that there were no towels anywhere to be found. Fortunately, my suit dries fast. I put back on my socks and shirt, zipped up my coat, and then nabbed my hiking boots from the rack.

It was downright FREEZING outside, but then I also had wet legs. Speed was definitely foremost on my mind at that point. I double timed it back to the villa, headed upstairs and worked on the rest of this log until it was super late. I have to get up very early tomorrow to try and leave by 6am, so bed is a very important thing at the moment!

--Hik