Monthly Archives: May 2013

More on Germany, less on luggage

Driving hundreds of miles on German autobahns you notice things.  Like, if the highway has three lanes in one direction, the far right lane is for slow-moving traffic, the middle lane requires you to be going at least 80 mph, and the far left lane is only for the BMW’s and Audi’s that cruise comfortably at 100+mph.

But I bet you knew that already. The most interesting thing I noticed, by far, was a truck I passed that had, proudly displayed on its side, a large banner reading:

Young European Truck Driver of the Year 2007

Well that caught my attention. Unfortunately as I was passing him in the middle lane, which meant I was doing at least 80 mph, I couldn’t take a picture. But here’s a link to the story about the 2013 young European truck driver competition.

A quick Google search didn’t reveal anything like that in the US, just this competition that seems centered mostly around a particular trucking company. And there’s no comparison in terms of prizes: a new $100K + truck for the European truck champion; $5K for the US winner.

So the banner and the explicit pride of the person still flying it got me to thinking. (Actually I found out that the 2007 winner was from Poland not Germany, but still the thinking occurred.) Germany, which by US standards must definitely be thought of as a socialist state, seems to have a significantly different attitude toward work than we do in America. From waiters, who don’t expect much of a tip because they are actually paid a real living wage, to truck drivers, who are proud of their work as a profession, not a job, individuals appear to consider the jobs they are holding as important in and of themselves, not just as stepping stones to the day they become rich. Which is the feeling you get in the US. People are doing manual labor or service jobs as a transition to something else or out of some sense of desperation/frustration.

There’s many reasons, I guess, for this difference. There does appear to be a German temperament; and German business and labor unions have more adult relations than labor and business do in the US. The German education system also contributes with a dual system that considers whether individuals are better suited for university or for apprenticeship in a profession.

Whatever the reason, you get the sense Germany is better positioned to weather the secular employment problem that is beginning to hit the West and will vex us for many years, if not decades to come. For Germany, gainful employment of its citizens is a priority and a matter of national policy; it’s a social responsibility.

Just Another Tale of Lost Luggage

Dateline: Berlin

Some of you who follow me on Twitter (@milouness) are aware of the recent adventures of two bags belonging to me and my mom. Actually the bags didn’t do that much adventuring, come to think of it. We were doing all the traveling, supposedly chasing our bags across four European cities while they remained snugly indifferent in London. This little adventure reminded me of some of the most interesting traits of the English and the Germans, well really of humans in general.

Warning: Stereotypes Ahead

1. The British are obsessively honest about their shortcomings. Wait till you get to Munich. The Germans are much better at this than we are. Said to me by a competent and honest British Airways gate agent for the BA flite to Manchester who tried to reassure us that our bags would eventually join us. Now our final destination was supposed to be Vienna so you may ask why we were going to Manchester, UK. To connect to a Lufthansa flight to Munich because that was the closest we were going to get to Vienna that day.

The trouble began when our American Airlines flight to Heathrow was about an hour late, due to thunderstorms at JFK. Apparently about half of the missed connections were to Vienna, making it impossible, on a busy travel Saturday, for most passengers to be rebooked on already packed flights.

My mom and I were the fortunate ones, or so we thought. We had lucked into the rare London to Manchester to Munich routing. I figured Munich was close enough to where we wanted to go so I cancelled one hotel and changed my car reservation. Everything was good to go but the bags.Luggage

2. People are too trusting of technology; suitcases only know to go where they are tagged. Throughout our amazing race day we were assured multiple times that our luggage was now tagged to follow us on the London-Manchester-Munich routing. We asked every human we could in London if our luggage was coming with us and they assured us it was. See, we scanned your luggage receipts into the system so your luggage is now linked with your new itinerary. It’s all set. I admit I was more trusting than my mother who warned: “Luggage doesn’t know anything about the computer. It only knows where it was tagged.”

3. People and technology can conspire to tell outright lies. Once in Manchester and with our luggage nowhere in sight, we went to chat with a competent Lufthansa agent. Right in front of us she called some Global Baggage Handling Command Center (that’s what it sounded like to me). No sooner had she mentioned the “Medina case” than the person on the other end seemed to recognize its complexities immediately. Your bags are being sent rush to Munich right now. They will probably be in Munich before you get there.

Given what actually happened, I am left to speculate that

a. She was actually putting on a show for our benefit, there was no person on the other line, and the Global Baggage Handling Command Center is a myth; or

b. The Global Baggage Handling Command Center was lying to her and they never did any of what they said they did; or

c. (and most likely) “Luggage doesn’t know anything about the computer. It only knows where it was tagged.”

4. The Germans know they are more competent than all the other Europeans (combined?) and are quietly cocky about it. Needless to say no bags showed up in Munich. (Eventually we drove to Vienna the next day to pick up the bags, who sure enough had always intended to go exactly to where they had been tagged.) So we approached the Lufthansa service agent, a magnificent woman of a certain age who anchored the lost luggage desk like an Athena. ticketsAs soon as she saw me clutching my wreath of tickets and boarding passes, she observed: I can tell already you have had a horrible day. Just start from the beginning and tell me everything that happened.

She allowed herself only the briefest moment of schadenfreude when I shared the British Airways personnel stated belief that Lufthansa would be able to fix the matter because of their superior skills. She telexed British who told her the bags would be arriving in Vienna the next morning on the same flight we had been booked on the day before. And so they did.

Now that I’m done with the luggage story, a few other observations.

5. The occurrence of Graffiti is a reliable indicator of political mood. The first thing I look for when I’m in a new city is the frequency and nature of graffiti. In Europe, for the last ten years or so, graffiti has been the worse in Spain, by far. No highway structures go untouched and graffiti often mars sides of buildings in quite nice neighborhoods. Germany, at least the part that was once Western, is largely graffiti-free. But as soon as you enter the former East Germany, you see it everywhere.

6. Berlin remains a construction Hot Spot. No matter which way you look on the horizon, you see cranes, never alone, at least pairs, triplets, even quintuplets. The beautiful Unter den Linden, which our hotel overlooks, is torn up for the installation of a new U-bahn stop.

7. Americans as a culture combine British cheekiness and German efficiency. These two heritages account for the largest percentage of the US population, by far. We have always been able to turn seeming contradictions into our national advantage.