As I stepped off the plane, many emotions sped through my mind. Fear, anticipation, trepidation and curiosity gave me bust of adrenalin that made me extremely invigorated after the 7 ½ hours flight...to Germany. I had truly never been out of country. I was a new explorer moving overseas for 3 years and I was not sure that it was right.
|Die Polizei, Franfurt Flughafen|
This sounds extraordinarily familiar as I felt this way returning to the United States after living for 12 years in Europe. My Journey was beginning and I as nervous as I was on my first real date. As I arrived in Frankfurt, I was feeling very alone as I passed through customs. My wife to be had arrived weeks before and was meeting me at the gate. I was never gladder to see her. The airport had some differences that I instantly noticed. First, I heard no English being spoken except by my wife and myself. My wife speaks 4 languages including German so she was right at home. I personally had taken German in high school and college. I couldn’t understand one word. Second, there were people walking around with machine guns (a bit disconcerting)!!! What had I gotten myself into? We found our car and began our trip to Koeln, which is north of Frankfurt about 1 ½ hours by taking what is lovingly called the race track (the autobahn connecting Frankfurt and Koeln).
|The A3 Autobahn, "The Race Track." Bucket List item.|
As we pulled on to the highway (autobahn) I noticed one thing immediately, cars traveling at a rate of speed which land you in jail if attempted in Michigan. Little did I know that I was in for the ride of my what felt was going to be my short life. As we accelerated in my wife’s new Opel (the GM of Europe), I was surprised by the smoothness of the road and the pecking order of rules followed by every driver. Slower vehicles were always on the right and no-one and I mean no-one passed on the right (a favorite pastime in the US). As I was taking in the sites, I looked over at the speedometer and we were traveling at the sedate speed of 115 miles per hour. That truly took me for a loop as it felt like we were going slowly and ploddingly down the road. The true realty hit me as we were being passed liked we were standing still by a plethora of cars. I had never been so grateful for seat belts!
|You only have one!!!!|
The trip was progressing and I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the speed. About 45 minutes into our journey, we hit a traffic jam lovingly known in Germany as a Stau. As we progressed though the jam I began to notice parts of a car spread over the closed section of the highway. The parts got larger as we got closer to the accident which covered over a quarter of a mile. At the end there was what was left of a E Class Mercedes rolled up into a smoldering ball. Fire and police units were on hand with my final sight of the carnage being 4 body bags side by side on the road, a graphic reminder that you only had one accident on the autobahn. I swore to myself that I would never drive that fast (Ha, Ha, Ha!!!).
|The Koelner Dom, guardian angel of the city.|
After the shock of the accident, we arrived in Koeln and I settled into our temporary abode (a 4 star hotel) in the middle of the city. It was midmorning and my wife had class at Berlitz as part of her expat introduction to the country. I decided to come along for a brief tour of the city center while my wife was in class. We left the hotel and started toward the center of the city. I looked up and saw one of the most awe inspiring sights of my life, the spires of the Koelner Dom (cathedral). Getting closer, the spires loomed over the city like a guardian angel protecting the humanity below. It was a sight I would never forget and one that haunts me to this day. We finally got next to the Dom which dwarfed everything else with its grandeur. How did man ever construct this monument dedicated to God without his divine intervention? “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!” (Dorthy from the Wizard of Oz) We reached the Berlitz building and my wife informed me that I was on my own for a couple of hours and to walk around and take in the wonders. I was about to be intrigued and dumbfounded.
|The neat and clean streets of Koeln.|
Walking around, I was surprised at how clean the city was. There was no garbage on the ground and the smells were of street food and biergartens tickled all my senses. People were everywhere hustling and bustling to their destinations. I decided to get a coffee at an outdoor restaurant and watch the crowd. It was then that I saw one of the most amazing things. As in every city, there are the downtrodden of society. I noticed a homeless man sitting quietly against a building, invisible to everyone but me. He had a bottle of water, a sprig of grapes and a dirty backpack containing his worldly possessions. As I watched him eat his meager meal, I could not help but wonder how he got to such a point in his life. Then I discovered in part why the streets were so clean. After he finished his meal he did something that surprised and inspired me, he stood up and walked 50 feet to a garbage can and deposited the grape sprig and empty water bottle (a sight I would never expect to see in a major city). I was truly inspired by the fact that he was in the lowest rung of society and yet had respect for himself and those around him. I often wondered who he was after he walked away back into invisibility.
|"Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore!"|
Finishing my coffee and being male, I noticed from afar a tall slim woman approaching in a mini-skirt and looking sharp. I decided to sit a while longer to watch her pass before I left the restaurant. I finished paying the bill and waited. The closer she got, the more I began to notice there was something different about her. She was in a sleeveless dress and heels walking quickly and looking pretty good. The closer she got, I noticed something sticking out of her nylons and dark patches under her arms. Then she was directly in front of me when it came to me. She had not shaved. The dark patches under her arms were denser than mine and the something sticking out of her nylons was more hair than I had on my own legs (not all women in Europe are this extreme). A more interesting awakening to a new culture could not have left a bigger impression on an expat to be. Dorthy was right!!!
I’ll see you next week with more adventure into cultural differences and exciting escapades. The reality of travel can be truly experienced only by being there yourself. Take the time to get to know the world we live in personally and up close. Follow me on Twitter and check out my Facebook Fan Page by clicking the buttons on this page. For more travel information regarding Cologne, Germany follow the link to their Tourism Board: http://www.cologne-tourism.com/welcome.html