Saturday, September 29, 2007

More Travel Worries

I am off to Frankfurt this afternoon to meet up with some friends (including Jen and Sparky), will stay overnight there and fly to Tallinn, in Estonia, tomorrow morning.
As usual, all these nagging worries come up when I am travelling to a country I have never visited, and about which I know nothing:

What do I wear, what is the weather like?
are the natives friendly?
How do I change money, what is the currency called, or does one pay in rubles or gold or glass beads?

What local customs should I observe, how should I behave so as not to offend local morals?

My invaluable Contact in Estonia reports that the currency is kroons, what a lovely name!

And she notes comfortingly:  there there are no moral standards here in Stonia. We`re wild and unpredictable!

Friday, September 28, 2007


Hungarian is a very difficult language, unrelated to any other European tongue. I sat on the train from Budapest to Vienna for three hours, in a compartment with 3 hungarians, and although they talked constantly, the only words I understood were: "internet" and "budapest".

This is the Hungarian word for "health", apparently. I think that if you can say it, you must be healthy.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Just did a little internet research (don't you just LOVE Google??) and found out that, as I suspected, the new American Embassy in Frankfurt is actually a former Nazi hospital complex, commissioned and built by the Luftwaffe between 1937 and 1941.
I can't decide whether-- given the present state of affairs-- this is appropriate or inappropriate.

A Day at the Embassy

As I write I am sitting in the express train from Frankfurt to Amsterdam, via Cologne, where I will get off. Have just spent a most frustrating morning getting a ery simple thing done: new pages in my passport.
My passport is very full, with visas and stamps from some very odd places. Now we are going to travel to China in December, and to get my work visa for that I need to have a complete passport page empty.
The information on the web page for the American Embassy indicates that the procedure is simple and does not require a previous appointment, no extra documentation, and can be done while you wait. So far so good.
But it does mean a special trip to Frankfurt, about 200 km from my house, and the office is only open weekdays from 7:30 to 11:30a.m. Groan.
So I dragged myself out of bed at 5 this morning, only to discover I was out of tea bags. Now I don’t function well in the early morning and without my morning tea (a habit I picked up in England) I cannot see straight.
Stumbled down the stairs (and there are a lot of them) and onto my bicycle, weaved my way through the dark and deserted streets to the train station.

Although some people complain about the train service here, I personally have rarely had anything but good experiences. The trains are frequent and stations are clean and orderly (and are now smoke-free, yay!), and the ticketing is straightforward (I especially like being able to print my own ticket from the internet). If you have a discount card, the journeys are reasonably priced (compare them with the prices in England or Switzerland... and much faster and more comfortable than driving). The ICE trains are white and sleek and quiet as an elevator, have power outlets for my laptop at every seat, and get you the 200 km in an hour.
The sun just coming up as we went over the river into Frankfurt. They have a nickname for the city: Mainhattan, because it is on the River Main and the skyline, with a bit of imagination, reminds you of New York. A city of bankers and sleek people, businesslike and a bit distant. The architecture tends to the massive and stony and the cars more Mercedes and BMW than VW. Frankfurt used to have a generous helping of American cars („Ami-Schlitten“) but not so much any more as the people indentify more with Europe these days.
I had never been to the Embassy in Frankfurt, so to be on the safe side I got in a taxi.
„Please take me to the American Embassy“, I said to the driver. He gave me a long look before saying, „OK“. The nameplate on the dashboard was Muhammed. I didn’t have the nerve to ask him where he was from; judging from his name and looks and accent he was probably from Pakistan. (I generally like chatting with taxi drivers. The last taxi I took was driven by a distinguished older man, who asked me what concert I was going to, told me that his daughter played the violin...I asked him where he was from, he said, Iran. I said, what was your job there? And he said, with a mixture of pride and shame, „I was a nuclear physicist“.

The embassy (strictly speaking it is not an embassy— that is in Berlin— but a consulate) is across the street from Frankfurt's main cemetery. It is not purpose built, but is an old military hospital, I suspect built during the Nazi era, and looks and feels like a prison. High steel walls and a very visible police presence.
Muhammed stopped the taxi in front of the entrance ("We are not allowed to drive into the parking lot any more," he explained) but was immediately accosted by a security officer (not even police or embassy staff— these things are all outsourced these days, probably he is employed by Blackwater) who was surly and told him to stop down the street (he called the driver "Boy" which under these circumstances is just as insulting as it would be in English).
There was a long line of people waiting patiently. They were all overly neatly dressed, the men in suits and ties, the children spotless. Quite unlike the normal rather practical clothes you would normally see. The line inched forward, each applicant having to show his papers at the gatekeeper's window. The man in the office was behind heavy safety glass and spoke via a loud intercom, so it was easy to work out what each person was here for. They had to take out their papers and press them to the glass, and then if they were deemed worthy, they would get a precious entry slip into the compound proper. I noticed that very few were carrying laptops (normally required apparel for this very businesslike crowd). Only the man ahead of me was. As he got to the window, the gatekeeper shouted at him, "you know you can't take that in with you!"
"Are there lockers here?", the man asked. "What should I do with it?"
"We don't have any facilities here! You can take it to the little shop at the intersection and maybe they will hold it for you, THEN come back here!"
I was next in line, and had the same problem. I had been waiting in line for 20 minutes.
What could I do? I asked.
Take it to the shop! he said. But at least he did give me an entry slip for the embassy.
The shop turned out to be a tiny kiosk about a half mile away, a shack on a busy multilane street. A very unlikely place for people to leave valuable computers. The nationality of the owner was not easy to discern, I am guessing Indian or Kurdish. He has gleefully seen this as a business op, and charges $8 to balance my precious laptop on the piles of foreign newspapers, candy, dusty tinned goods, and cigarettes, plus any number of laptops and carryons.
I sprinted back, and skirted around the line of people waiting at the gate, brandishing my entry ticket.
Then joined the queue of people waiting to be searched. We were only let into the building 2 at a time, otherwise waiting outside with no protection from the elements (fortunately it was nice weather). otherwise, the procedure was similar to the one we know in airports. The girl told me, "No electronic devices!" and I said, "I left my laptop at the kiosk" and she said, "You have a cell phone?"
My heart sank, as indeed, a cell phone was nestled in some back pocket. I loaded it into the tray... hoping they would allow cell phones. She said, OK, as a special favor we will hold it for you and you will get it back when you come out.
IF I come out, I thought to myself.
"And, take off your belt," she said.
"Will I get that back too?," I asked.
She smiled at that. "We don't want your pants falling down!"
It was comforting to get the flash of humor.
We were led across a courtyard, and through two more steel-reinforced doors.
The complex is enormous, and the place looks and feels like the hospital it was until recently. It still smells of disinfectant and medical machinery. Not the friendly place an American embassy ought to be. You can feel the tension and suspicion at every turn, probably justified in some cases, but there is an overbearing sense of paranoia that leads to exaggeration of the security setup.
I joined the people patiently waiting to be called. As an American citizen I was allowed to go to the second floor. From there I could look down on the huddled masses of foreigners waiting their turn... most of them simply want visas for visiting relatives, but (as I worked out while waiting in the first line) for many of them the process involves endless paperwork and up to three separate interviews— each one including a trip to Frankfurt and the senseless waiting and body searches.
As it happens, the thing I came for— the new passport pages— is simple and straightforward: they take your passport, you fill out a simple form, and they put it through a machine that sews in a few new leaves. The work involved takes a minute or two, and is free.
The woman handling my passport was middle-aged, German, and quite efficient. I took the opportunity to ask her about getting an American passport for my daughter, now 9, but it is complicated: she was born in South Africa but has been growing up in Barcelona, her mother was born in Egypt but has German citizenship, her father was born in Michigan but has lived most of his adult life in England and Germany.
The woman at the embassy said, yes, that is very complicated. "Your daughter has a right to American citizenship, but I am not sure how or where you can apply for it. It may well be that all three of you have to fly to South Africa."
This is NOT what I wanted to hear.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Carol, Tom, Elisabeth in Cologne

Isn't it strange? You meet a family for the first time, they live half a world away, and yet there is an immediate closeness and comfort from the first moment?
This was the case today as I met Carol and her family in the pouring rain in Cologne.
"I don't understand this," I said, "the weather has been marvellous for weeks!"
"It ALWAYS rains when I am in Cologne!" she said.
"Please, in that case, can you leave very soon?" I begged.

We climbed to the top of the cathedral. Warning: it is a long way up and no elevator! But all three of them managed it with aplomb. We were joined by my intrepid son, Lionel.

We walked along the Rhine river front, by which time the sun had miraculously come out.

We had lunch and were joined by the lovely Eva, former exchange student in Seattle:

Friday, September 14, 2007

Travel Panic

As if I haven't done enough travelling this year already!
A flurry of recent events and opportunities means that before New Years I am going to be in:
Budapest, Hungary
Linz, Austria
Vienna, Austria
Tallinn, Estonia
Riga, latvia
Vilnius, Lithuania
Zagreb, Croatia
Lljubjana, Slovenia
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Peking, Shanghai , Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Zhongshan, Foshan, China

But this week I am still in Cologne, (note to Carol: I will be there on the 18th! And to Jen: most probably in Frankfurt on the 29th, because I am flying from there to Tallinn on the 30th)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

More Thoughts on 9-11

Sorry about this entry, but I keep thinking about this... I don't want a political blog.. but I am trying to channel my view about all this.

Six years since the events of 9-11. Osama still not captured. Was he the mastermind? I am not convinced entirely; he came up on the radar at the time because of his admitted involvedment in an earlier attempt on the World Trade Center. Certainly he was part of the circle of extremists who carried out the hijackings, but oddly enough, although he has boasted proudly of various terrorist actions (including the first try at bringing down the WTC), he has never openly admitted to being behind 9/11. He has expressed joy at the atrocity, but it seems curious to me that he has not taken more credit.

Bush, embarassingly ignorant of the background and situation in the Middle East, used the events to launch a personal vendetta. What we tend to forget, 6 years on, is that immediately after that horrible day, the world was behind us. Including, with few exceptions, the Islamic world. Why didn't he grasp this opportunity to launch an urgent investigation into the terrorist network, with the help that he was offered by every nation in the region? Osama would, I think have been found in weeks and then we might have found out the truth about the extent of his involvement.

Instead, Bush saw an opportunity to try to increase America's political hold in the region. This idea meshed nicely with the views of some of his advisors, who had agendas of their own. It is now clear that Bush hardly gave a thought to actually following up the actual perpetrators, instead devoting his energies to drawing up plans to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran. He believed—and his advisors did nothing to discourage him— that these were easy targets, and regimes could be installed that would allow an extensive military and economic presence in the region.

All the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The money came from Saudi Arabia. Osama came from a powerful Saudi family. The terrorist training camps began in Saudi Arabia, and only moved to Afghanistan because of local rivalries. So why did Bush ignore Saudi Arabia totally? This has never been answered.

He did consult with some advisors, but other than Chalabi, who was interested in a role of power in Iraq, none of his advisors were from the Islamic world. Instead they came from the military, the oil companies, the lobbyists— in short, all of them eager to see an American military presence in the Middle East. He didn't even consult his own father, who after all had had some experience in this area.

When asked who he consulted, Bush said, "my Father", and pointed to the sky. What this means to me is instead of talking to people who had expertise, he talked to himself. This to me is a sign of mental illness.

But maybe it is me who is crazy. What do you think?

11 September

Where were you on the 11th of September? Amazing how this date has become etched in our world consciousness. And unlike many other "important" dates, this one is really global. On this day the world order was seriously changed...
I had gone over to my "second" apartment, to build cupboards and shelves for my girlfriend, who had just moved in. There was an air of optimism and hope... she was starting a new life, her son was upstairs sorting out his new room. What was the weather like? I don't know any more, anyhow it was not as beautiful as the bright fall morning in Manhattan.
Her son clattered down the stairs, saying that his cousin had called to say that there had been a serious plane accident in New York.
We didn't have any way to hear the news, she hadn't hooked up her radio yet and she is seriously against TV.
I called our friend Eva, who lived one floor down, to ask if we could watch her TV. She said grumpily, "Well, if you HAVE to... I have a terrible cold and I am in bed". But we came down and watchted in horror with the rest of the world.
Over the next few hours, I tried desperately to get hold of my youngest brother, whose wife was a stewardess for American Airlines... not only that, his bike ride to work takes him directly past the Pentagon. But the lines to America were all busy.
That night we had a concert... our (American) principal conductor changed the program at the last minute and just did one piece.
Sometime late the next day, I heard from my brother. Yes, he was all right, had been biking past the Pentagon just after the plane crashed... but the real miracle was that his wife, who had been scheduled to fly in one of the doomed airplanes, had traded the flight with a colleague, and who had to realize with growing horror, that her collegue and several other friends had been killed.
And do you remember how hard it was for the media to find a name for the collective atrocities on this day? It took weeks for a consensus to form, now it is just called "the events of the 11th of September" or 9/11.
But I am still convinced that the further developments would not have been so tragic if we had had a different president. One who had had at least some dim understanding of the world outside his ranch, or at least had the humility to seek qualified opinions on what actions to take.
I cannot help feeling that we are all now in that period when there are terrible fires in the towers, and none of us can imagine that the towers could at any moment collapse.

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