Sunday, September 29, 2013

Driving in Germany 2: Verkehrsfunk

You're driving down the interstate, listening to the radio, probably singing along, shaking your head at the drivers around you who are drifting all over while talking on their cell phones, and suddenly the car in front of you swerves and you see a chunk of tire on the lane right in front of you. You're in luck and are able to navigate safely around it, heart pounding, glad you had both hands on the wheel!  Wouldn't it be nice if there were a way for drivers to warn each other of obstructions on the road?

In Germany, we have this. It's called Verkehrsfunk, or "traffic radio". This is a service that many radio stations provide for their region. As long as the driver has his radio or entertainment system switched on, he is likely to get traffic updates regularly as well as when something sudden or new shows up on a major road.  During the regular broadcast, often right in the middle of a song, the Verkehrsfunk busts in with its intro tone and the DJ makes her report: "Attention on the A8 Stuttgart toward Munich between Wendlingen and Kirchheim, there is a bag of peas lying in the right lane."  So if you are heading in that direction you know to slow down and/or get out of the right lane to avoid a nasty surprise or accident.

The interruption comes in even if we're listening to our own music on a CD or mp3 player, as long as the "Infotainment System", as Audi calls it, is on.

We have heard all kinds of warnings about various objects and obstacles on the Autobahnen and Bundesstrassen during our travels over the years. Just to mention a few of the more memorable ones:

   a bicycle basket
   an entire bicycle
   tree branches
   wild pigs (this one is fairly common)
   a hub cap
   people involved in an accident (Rule #1: Get onto the grass as quickly as possible!)
   people on an overpass throwing rocks at cars (What is wrong with people?!?)
   an ostrich who escaped from a zoo
   a dog
   a charcoal grill
   several sheep
   a picnic basket
   a dresser drawer
   a wheel (begging the question...where is the car that dropped the wheel??)
   a board of wood
   a shovel
   a mattress
   a surfboard
   a llama (escaped from a traveling circus)
The Verkehrsfunk also reports on something you will get very used to if you drive anywhere in Germany: Staus (traffic jams). Driving in Germany is a little bit like playing connect-the-traffic-jams. You just drive from one to the next, though sometimes (usually Sundays) you can manage an entire hour without coming upon one. For those of you who still think there are no speed limits on Germany's Autobahnen, sorry to disappoint you. Sure, there are stretches without speed limits, but the Staus are so frequent that you'll hardly get your rental car up to 200 km/h before you have to slow down again.

This service is helpful, though, and I wished for it often in Wisconsin. When you come to a Stau in Germany, it won't usually be more than 10 minutes before the Verkehrsfunk will let you know the cause of the Stau and how far it stretches. The length is reported in kilometers, of course, which still doesn't help me much, but M is usually driving anyway. Then you can decide whether to abandon the Autobahn and take another route or not. At the very least you know approximately how long you'll be creeping along, which should help with your impatience and stress level. No sense in getting your knickers in a knot if you know you're stuck for 12 km, because getting worked up isn't going to help.

Perhaps the most important announcements the Verkehrsfunk makes are the warnings of Geisterfahrer ("ghost driver"). A Geisterfahrer is someone who is driving the wrong way on a highway, and sadly this happens way too frequently, often causing horrible accidents. Officials are trying to figure out what, if anything, can be done to reduce the number of Geisterfahrer. Signs like the one above have gone up here and there, and some have proposed installing spikes on exit ramps that would puncture tires of cars using the ramps to enter the Autobahn, but that could prevent emergency vehicles from reaching accidents quickly.  I don't really know what can be done to prevent Geisterfahrer, since sadly they are often either drunk, elderly and confused, or suicidal. I'm just glad there are people and police officers who call in to the Verkehrsfunk to report these and other hazards, so at least there may be a chance to prevent bad accidents.

Unlike with commercials, I look forward to the tone that tells me the Verkehrsfunk is about to report. There's always the chance that there will be some announcement crazier than the ones I've heard in the past. I think the winner so far is the ostrich. The DJ added that people should please drive carefully in that area, because the Ostrich Frau was anxious about her husband's safety and eager for his return.

Fahr vorsichtig!  (Drive carefully!)

Driving in Germany 1: Speed limits
Driving in Germany 3: Stop sign

Thursday, September 19, 2013

One Year

It was a year ago today that I arrived in Germany to begin my new life here together with Martin. After six years of being married but living 4000 miles apart, it was time.  It has been a great year full of many changes. It's been fun getting to know more about life in Germany than I ever knew before despite frequent visits, spending more time with my husband than I ever have before, and living the normal life of a married couple.

I mostly relaxed my first year, did a lot of reading, some writing, some translating, and some teaching. I discovered I enjoy gardening to some degree, I really enjoy planning meals and cooking more than I realized, and laundry and cleaning are no big deal when they are not on top of a full-time job. Feminists would cringe at the list of activities I just mentioned, but I don't care. I am happy I can do those things, do them well, and enjoy them.

I loved my first year here and am grateful I was able to see my friends and family from Wisconsin several times in those twelve months.

It's appropriate that, at the one-year mark, I'm starting a few new adventures. A friend asked me to work with her once a week with an organization called Lebenshilfe. This is a Verein (Club or Assocation) that offers fun activities, outings, and assistance to people with cognitive, physical, learning, and/or emotional disabilities. The Verein members take interested people bowling, swimming, shopping, to the movies or a disco, etc., for example. My friend and I spend time with a group of young students after school for a few hours who would otherwise be alone because their parents are working. We take them to a park, play games, sometimes go to the grocery store and then cook something, go out for ice cream, and so on.

Next week I will also be starting to teach an Englisch-AG (basically an extra-curricular, after school English class) at  a school for students with learning disabilities. English is not a part of the regular school curriculum, and my AG is intended to be a fun enrichment class. There were more students interested than were expected based on past classes, and I hope I can do a good job for the students and keep them interested!

My English conversation lessons with Martin's employees continue, and we all enjoy them - even the grammar lessons and worksheets!  Martin has commented several times that it sounds more like fun than work, because there is more laughter than he expected. Sometimes I wonder if he and his business partner would like to join us rather than sitting on dull phone conferences...

And lastly, I am in the middle of a fabulous transcription project that is more interesting than any job I have ever done before. It's similar to the translation projects I've worked on a few times, and I really enjoy this kind of work - working at my own pace, at a desk at Martin's office, few distractions or interruptions... I thoroughly look forward to every minute I can spend on this project!

So this second year will be different from the first as I get back into the working world - though only part-time. I'm looking forward to my daughter's visit next week during a fall break from studying in Berlin, as well as both kids visiting us over the Christmas holidays. That will be my son's third trip to Europe, second to Germany, and first to our home here in Bildechingen.

It's been a good year, and I'm looking forward to all the coming years as well.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

You can't get there from here

Our lovely little town is on a hill above the Neckar Valley. The Neckar River flows from the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) through our state of Baden-Württemberg and flows into the Rhein (Rhine) River at Mannheim. Horb lies right on the Neckar, down in the valley.  The drive from our house to the Bahnhof (train station) in Horb takes about 5-7 minutes, depending on traffic, or 8-10 minutes by bus.


This weekend, however, we learned that a 4-block section of the heavily-traveled road going through Horb will be closed for badly-needed repairs. Traffic is being re-routed along the top of the hill near where we live, through the countryside and several small villages, to cross the river at the next possible point, just west of town. So the 4km (2.5 mile) bus ride to the Bahnhof will, for the next few weeks, be a 13.4km trip that will take at least 25 minutes.  We could otherwise drive ourselves down there via another route - which the bus can't use because it can't navigate the hairpin turns of the narrow road going down into the valley.  But then we have to pay to park the car all day at the Bahnhof, which can get expensive.

For those of you who know Sheboygan, Wisconsin (where nearly every street is badly in need of repairs!), this route is sort of like going from the Mall to Kohler via Sheboygan Falls. Enlarging the scale, say the road is closed from Milwaukee to Sheboygan, so you have to drive via Madison.

Why can't we just skirt around the closed road, you wonder? In Wisconsin, for example, if 4 blocks of a road are closed, we take a 6-block detour that adds perhaps 45 seconds to our drive. Here, there is one road that goes through Horb over the Neckar. One.

Looking at the map above, we live at point A. The Bahnhof is at point B. The red route shows the road going down into the valley and through Horb. The construction site is near the H (the former location of the hospital that closed down last year).  The blue route shows the 13.4km (8 mile) bus detour on little country roads.

This map shows our other option as well, if we go by car to the Bahnhof. The road marked in red is the usual route, and the blue road to the right (east) cuts the detour down to about 11km (6.8 miles). You can even see the hairpin turns that the bus can't navigate heading down into the valley. This route takes us down into the tiny town of Mühlen, over the Neckar, up the other side of the valley, and through the town of Nordstetten, which is up on the top of the hill opposite our side of the valley. Then we drive down again on the other side of the Neckar to reach the Bahnhof.

There is another road that goes into Horb, but it connects to the main road on the wrong side of the construction, so one still can't get to the Bahnhof. That secondary road gets us to the north side of Horb just left of the H, at the foot of the hill coming down into the valley from Bildechingen, facing another big hill on which sits the Stiftskirche (church), the Marktplatz (market place), houses, and businesses. You can't drive over that hill, though, because, although a narrow winding cobblestone road goes up to the Marktplatz from the north, there is no road going down on the south side. Only footpaths.

Normally this would not really bother us. I can avoid going down into town for months at a time. But my daughter, who is studying in Berlin this semester, is coming for a visit next week and we had planned to take some day trips. Our thought was to take the bus to the Bahnhof and catch a train to wherever we want to go. Now there's no way to plan well, because the bus schedule will be entirely unpredicatable. Martin can drive us down the hill via the secondary road and dump us on the north end of town, and from there we'll walk up the big hill, across the Marktplatz, perhaps stop in the church to pray the construction crew stays on schedule, down the hill through town, and across the river to the Bahnhof - probably a 12-minute walk. This is not a problem, and it's what we'll do. It's rather inconvenient, though, and a bit strenuous for those of us who are more out of shape than we'd like to admit.

The next time you have to take a 6-block detour (and yes, I know it's often more than that), be glad you don't have to completely circumnavigate the entire city to get to your destination!

**Update (17. Sept., 2013): There's a long article in the paper today about this construction and other construction projects in the county going on at the same time, and the ensuing chaos. One line from that article: "Ortsfremde, egal ob sie mit Navi geleitet werden oder nicht, sind aufgeschmissen." Translation: "Drivers unfamiliar with the area, whether they have a GPS or not, are screwed."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Serious Business

Being German must be pretty serious business. I feel like I sometimes stand out like a sore thumb because, being an American, I grin a lot. It's not always sincere, but when I make eye contact with someone I'm passing on one of the many walking paths around here, or do the awkward "shopping cart dance" with an fellow shopper in the grocery store, I tend to at least pull a half-smile.  If someone would let me in front of him in line because he has a cartful and I have just a loaf of bread (granted, that's unlikely to happen here, but still), I'd smile and say "Danke." But I've noticed that few Germans smile at strangers.

Germans are friendly, but in a distant sort of way. They nod at each other or greet each other when passing with a "Morgen" ("[Good] morning") or "Hallo", but they save their smiles for their close friends and family. We Americans have the reputation of being quite friendly and open, and part of that is probably due to the fact that we grin and smile a lot. We smile at strangers, dogs, babies, flowers, and sometimes at nothing at all. This comes across as friendly and happy to some, but vacuous to others. Do we have that much to smile about, or is it just a habit - like asking "How are you?" just as part of a greeting rather than a sincere inquiry?

Every Wednesday morning, as I wrote earlier, a bakery truck comes to our street. Every Wednesday the same 3 or 4 of us neighborhood women gather at the truck to make our purchases. These women, as well as the baker, are friendly, nice, and chatty. As we inhale the aroma of fresh bread and rolls, we talk about the weather, some strange goings-on in the neighborhood, and where someone is who usually comes to the bakery truck. There's plenty of chatter as we exchange pleasantries, but I'm the only one who's smiling. I feel like a feeble-minded dolt - while the others are grumbling about the cold, I'm grinning pleasantly because...there's fresh bakery at my door!!!

I'm learning that one can be pleasant without flashing the whitened pearlies all the time. For those who are not used to this, perhaps it looks like German people - especially the older generations - are unhappy. That's not it. They just save their smiles for times when there's something really worth smiling about.  It's not too unlike our American use of the word "love" vs. the German use of "lieben". We Americans love our parents, our children, our friends, our country, puppies, swimming, chocolate, sunsets, Christmas, our new laptop, a certain football team, lots of movies, and sometimes our job. Germans love their parents, children, and spouses. They enjoy swimming, they like puppies, they do their jobs, they watch movies, and they appreciate sunsets. They reserve "loving" for the people who truly invoke that feeling.  I like that! I hope my children don't feel the same about chocolate as they do about me...  My American bestie and I say "I love and miss you" when we write, but I would never say "Ich liebe dich" to a German friend.

Come to think of it, there's another German phrase that relays the affection one feels for those still in one's inner circle but beyond the parents, children, and spouse: "Ich habe dich gern." That means, if literally translated, "I have you gladly". The intent is, "I like you a lot." The Germans don't throw that phrase around lightly either, though - there is genuine deep affection attached to that phrase.

Our closest friends here - Martin's former landlords - are absolutely the exception to the "being German is serious business" thing. Granted, we're friends, but I think they are friends and friendly with everybody. I can't help but smile when I see them, in part because there are just not that many people I recognize around here, but more because they are some of the friendliest, most out-going and fun people I know. They are ever-ready with smiles, warm greetings, and invitations to join them for a birthday or garden party whenever there's one upcoming.

But back to smiling at strangers. To me, a greeting and a smile go together. I've been trying to learn the German way for the purpose of blending in, but I actually have to concentrate. It's simply a pleasant but emotionless greeting - shouldn't be all that difficult.  Ok, here comes a German man toward me on the sidewalk. He's a generation older than I am, and walking an unmanly-sized dog. If he were walking a collie, I wouldn't be able to restrain myself, but I don't like little dogs and so there's no danger of it bringing on a smile. They keep approaching, I keep walking - same side of the street. Since he's over 60 he's not staring into his Smartphone, but actually looking up. He gets closer, I keep walking, and remind myself to leave my facial expression as it is - which is actually expressionless. Just then he looks directly at me, and as I am about to deliver my rehearsed and grinless "Morgen" (not "Morgen!"), he beats me to it. He nods, and says "Morgen" barely parting his lips.  BAM! That damn smile is there before I can stifle it. "Morgen!" I say as I flash him my friendly American grin. Ugh.

I'll try again tomorrow.