Opportunities for travel are definitely among the perks of my job, and this latest trip to our offices in Kaiserslautern was no different. Our meetings started Monday, but several of us took the red eye flight arriving Sunday morning (in order to be a little more well-rested for work) and thus had several hours to kill.
Jill, Mike, and I drove down from Frankfurt, which meant several stretches of unlimited-speed Autobahn. I rented the car because I wanted to open it up, but unlike last time, I don't think we achieved the top speed of our Volvo. This hatchback was much smoother at 180 kph than the Opal van I drove while last in Germany for work was at 170, and it was certainly fun to drive.
Once we settled in to the hotel, we met with Steve and drove through the Palatinate Forest towards Neustadt. We wanted to check out the Hambacher Schloß, a small castle said to be the “birthplace of Germany democracy” because of a protest march held there in the early 1800s. It was a lovely drive through the winding roads of the forest, with only a couple close calls where the road narrowed through some villages. Luckily we had a navigation system or we might have gotten lost several times, but we made it to the castle and found that lots of others had the same idea!
After passing several prospective parking spots up because we weren't sure they were legal places, we finally got settled into one about a kilometer down the hill. While we were parking an older couple gave us their parking ticket, saving us several Euros and probably a second trip up and down the hill to get change for the parking meter. As it was, we climbed the hill to the castle and spent several minutes admiring the views and enjoying the beautiful 60° weather.
We explored the castle and had dinner in the 1834 restaurant. Unfortunately there were no seats outside but beer was still served, so we didn’t mind too much. I had an enormous roast pork chop, which was delicious and highly recommended. It was served with the back fat and skin on, which was excellent. Germany knows what to do with pork. (Beef, on the other hand… not as good.)
The work days were fairly uneventful. We learned how to work the automated espresso machine, which took a few days, and consumed dozens of little 250ml bottles of sparkling and still mineral water. Lunches were generally provided at the office, and weren’t bad.
Monday night we went to St. Martin’s, a little restaurant near a church. Several other colleagues had by now arrived, so our group had grown to eight. I had some mediocre French onion soup (it had an unexpected spice in it, which was a little off-putting, but was also quite bland at the same time) and something else I can't remember at the moment.
Tuesday we had a reservation at a restaurant called Flameküche, which was a neat little pizza place that had an all-you-can-eat plan. It was different than the typical buffet in the US because they brought out the different varieties of pizzas one at a time (well, two at a time, with the same toppings, because we were a large group) and they kept making new varieties until we called them off. They also brought out dessert pizzas which were flambéed at the table, much to our delight.
Wednesday was the last day of our formal workshop so some of the US participants started heading for home. Those of us still in Kaiserslautern went to the Brauhaus, a microbrewery downtown. Their beer was quite good, especially from the 3L tower it was delivered in, but the service was not. They only had one server for their biergarten when they could have used at least one more, and they screwed up our food orders, getting the sides wrong along with the size and doneness of our steaks.
Since the formal workshop was done Wednesday, we did not have catered lunch brought in on Thursday, and instead went to a small café inside a physical therapy school near the office. They only had a couple things on the menu, and they did not have enough of the special goulash to go around, so I ordered spaghetti with Bolognese sauce, which ended up being quite good.
Thursday afternoon I had a video conference with two teams in different US locations. While we had some technical difficulties—only two sites could provide video at a time—it still amazes me how effective that technology is. Being able to read the body language of the team I could see helped me navigate a difficult conversation, meaning it went much better than I would have expected if we had just used a simple conference call.
By Thursday night, I was the only one left, so Dan, one of the US ex-pats working in Kaiserslautern, invited me to join him and his wife at “a Pollo,” a chicken-only restaurant near our Dorint hotel and coincidentally their flat in town. Unfortunately, Dan’s wife ended up not being able to join us, as she had homework to do for her masters program, but the two of us still enjoyed a nice meal. I had the “extra hot” chicken dinner, which came with a Curry chicken soup and an ice cream dessert. It was not spicy at all, but it was good. I would definitely go back especially if I needed a quick place close to the hotel.
I did join Dan and Karen at their flat after dinner for a beer. Their place was quite nice, very tastefully decorated with what I found out was a mixture of some of their furniture from the US and some they bought in Germany. They also told me the typical excuse they have heard from several contractors who were running late was “there was a fiery wreck on the Autobahn,” which could be a bit of a non-sequitor if the local contractor was just there to install a new toilet purchased from the local home improvement shop. It was funny the next day when the colleague I was meeting for my first meeting was about 20 minutes late due to a wreck on the winding road through the Palatinate forest, his route to work each day.
Every night we were in Kaiserslautern we had at least a couple beers at the hotel bar, which typically led to interesting conversations. Those parts of the trip are the pieces that the video conference solution can’t provide, and are, in my opinion, equally valuable as a team- and relationship-building exercise.
After my meetings Friday morning I started my journey to Munich for the weekend. The TGV, the French high-speed train, goes through Kaiserslautern en route to Mannheim (and eventually Frankfurt), where I switched to the ICE (Germany’s high-speed train) for the remainder of the trip. The trip was uneventful, although I used the 15 minute connection in Mannheim to my advantage, buying a sandwich and some beer from shops in the station.
Since I had joined Dan and Karen for dinner the night before, I didn’t get a chance to watch the Illinois game in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. The train had pretty good internet access, though, and I was able to stream it from BTN2Go. I had actually tried to watch some of it from the Dorint after dinner but the internet was too slow. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the train’s internet was fast enough to work.
Upon arrival in Munich, I took a taxi to my hotel. It would have been easy enough to take the S-Bahn, which ran directly from the Hauptbahnhof to Rosenheimer Platz, the station below my hotel, but I didn’t have change for the ticket machines and was not really in the mood to deal with my luggage on the rush-hour subway. Luckily I arrived in time for the Illinois game in the second round, so I camped out in the executive lounge (where they have free beer!). I did have to trick ESPN into thinking I was based in the US, starting a VPN connection to a US endpoint to start streaming. The connection via the VPN was pretty slow. When I moved from my room to the lounge, though, the VPN dropped—and the ESPN stream continued, and at much higher quality!
The game itself was a good one. Michigan had beat us by over 30 at our gym in Champaign just over a week before, so it was hard to know what to expect, but we played pretty well and had a chance at the end to win. In the end the Tracy Abrams floater was just a bit short and the game was theirs. I was disappointed, but we played well enough to give ourselves a chance, and that’s what you want. Illinois ended up getting a #2 seed in the NIT, so it’s unlikely that win or even one more would have put us in the NCAA tournament anyway.
After the game, I walked to a nearby beer hall and ordered dinner at the bar. I had what turned out to be excellent roast pork, with a potato dumpling and a bowl of soup. I am not typically a huge fan of the potato dumplings in Bavaria, but covered in gravy, it was pretty good. The pork came with a slice of roast pork skin, as well, which added plenty of flavor and a nice crunch to the meal.
Ordering food at this place was a bit of an adventure. Just for fun, I tried to do as much in German as possible, even though my German is pretty terrible. I did well enough, although I’m not sure whether the bartender brought me an English menu because I asked for one so perfectly, or because of how much I butchered it. I also ended up ordering “ein maß Bier” (a large beer) when I meant to order “ein mehr Bier” (another beer), but that’s a mistake I’m willing to suffer the consequences of.
Saturday I went to the Viktualienmark, the famous Victuals Market, where I bought some mozzarella with tomatoes, a loaf of French bread, and some olives, which I ate in the beer garden with a Weißbier. Unfortunately the weather was quite uncooperative, and it sort of mist-rained most of the time I was outside. I kept wandering through the city, though, until I was hungry again, when I decided to have an early dinner at one of the Italian restaurants we had tried during Oktoberfest.
When I arrived at the restaurant, the hostess told me I had only an hour and fifteen minutes before my table was reserved for another party. She asked me if I had enough time, and I assured her it would be, thinking to myself that was really more up to the service of the establishment than the speed at which I eat. (Such an American, thinking dinner would take no longer than an hour…)
I had their caprese starter and spaghetti with a Bolognese ragu. I knew I wanted to try their pasta because I had selected a pizza last time and been underwhelmed and jealous of my fellow travelers pastas. I was not disappointed. Next time maybe I’ll try the pasta with Gorgonzola sauce, which I think it was Kortni ordered the first time we were there.
I had stopped a grocery store and bought a giant 1.5L bottle of water and some beer on my way toward the Viktualienmarkt and was getting somewhat tired at this point, so I headed back to the hotel. On the subway, I had the interesting and somewhat disconcerting experience of having a drunk Kosovar sort-of force me to sit down next to him and chat with him during a couple stops. I tried to just ignore him but didn’t want to escalate anything by clearly telling him off, so I played along. I think he taught me some Albanian gang signs, or at least claimed to. He was happy about America’s support for Kosovo’s independence, though.
I actually made it back in time to enjoy some more complimentary beers (What’s the point of having lounge access if you’re not going to take advantage of it?) in the lounge, so I hung out there and eavesdropped on some British guys who were talking about the whole situation in Ukraine.
Sunday the weather was still uncooperative, so I decided to head to the Deutsches Museum and spend most of the day there. This turned out to be a great decision, as they have over fifty fascinating exhibits. For example their mining exhibit is set up such that you go down some 217 stairs and follow a simulated mine for 0.6 km—low ceilings, dark lighting, and narrow cramped conditions and all. I also really enjoyed the Altova Cave replica, simulating the conditions at the real site in Spain, and the astronomy and flight exhibits as well.
The section on the space race was interesting mainly due to its point of view. I probably knew most of the US history on the race for the moon, etc., but I definitely learned some things about the Soviet’s successes, and all in all it was a more balanced presentation.
My main complaint about the museum was my lack of knowledge of written German. A large portion of the exhibits were in both German and English, but often the English description was just a one line title, whereas the German would be a page or two of content. There were lots of older areas where there was no English at all, too. They’re clearly in the process of renovating the museum, and I expect when it’s finished English speakers will not miss anything, so maybe I’ll make another stop in a few years and see how it’s coming.
After the museum closed at 5pm, I took a minute to regroup in a little hole-in-the-wall beer hall near the museum. The bartender spoke no English, and I had to ask him to slow down his speech for me, but I was able to order and pay for a Weißbier, so it was a success.
Upon finishing my beer, I headed back to the hotel, where I hung out until I was hungry enough to find an open beer hall in the Altstadt. I wanted a nice Bavarian meal of sausages and sauerkraut on my last night in Germany, and I found a good one at the Löwenbrau hall near Marienplatz. Five sausages of different types, sauerkraut, and some shaved horseradish went well with a giant pretzel. I splurged and had the apple strudel for dessert. Delicious. (But expensive!)
I went back to the hotel and packed up so I could have a leisurely breakfast in the morning before heading to the airport to catch my flight. I needn’t have bothered, because when I woke up I learned that my already reasonable 12:20 flight had been delayed until 1:55 due to the late arrival of the aircraft. This gave me more than enough time, but I took the S8 toward the airport as scheduled and settled into the Lufthansa lounge at the airport.
It turned out that many of the US Paralympic Team were flying home from Sochi on the same flight I was on, which was pretty cool. It delayed boarding a little bit, but that’s ok. Frustratingly, though, a couple people who had checked in with checked bags did not board the plane, and we were delayed another hour or so in our seats on board while their bags were removed.
All in all, it’s been a pretty solid trip. I’m sitting here in the air at 38000 feet with about another 100 minutes to go until we’re in Chicago, and it looks like they’re about to come around with the pre-landing sandwich, so this is probably a good time to shut down. Auf weidersehen!