The Climb to Schlossberg Tower

In contrast to yesterday morning, I wake up feeling like whatever bug Pat was fighting has been evicted only to find it’s way over to me. I get up groggily at 6AM, but end up returning to bed until 9AM. When at last I wake up, Pat is already out of bed. We get ourselves ready and head to breakfast, debating what today’s agenda should be. Pat suggests we go hiking again. I suggest we hike up the mountain this time and take the cable car down, as my knees will not take another day of downhill. Pat does not want to work that hard, so I suggest we walk over to Shlossberg and walk up to the tower, which is supposed to be a fantastic view of Freiburg. I’m not sure why I wasn’t tipped off to the fact that if we walk up to a scenic overlook, we will also have to walk down, but I cheerfully propose this alternative, thinking it will give our knees a day to recover.

After breakfast, we wind our way through Freiburg to the restaurant the marks the start of the ascent to the tower. The sign says 1.2 KM to the tower and I smile encouragingly at Pat that it’s such a short walk. As we start up the path, we quickly learn how cramped our poor calves are from walking downhill all day yesterday–each step feels like a massive stretch. But, it feels good and we take it slow. A little too slow, perhaps–a group of octogenarian Germans passes us like we’re standing still. We pick up the pace a bit. After winding our way through several steep switchbacks, we reach a restaurant and realize it’s the same restaurant that we thought we were at below. I am a little perplexed that it seems like we’ve gone at least 500 meters, yet we have only made it from the entry point to the restaurant.

We continue up the incline, much of it as steep as basement stairs. We pass enormous trees covered in graffiti as well as ancient ruins also covered in graffiti–we are surprised by the tagging every where in this relatively small town. At last, the climb gives way to a flat place where a playground with large wood structures provides a place for young children who aren’t exhausted to burn off energy while their parents catch their breath. I notice there aren’t any children here. I recline on a chain link hammock in the middle of the structure long enough for Pat to take a rare photo of me. When I view the photo on my camera, I remember why I prefer to stay on the other side of the lens.

We continue on to the next stretch of the path, winding our way up even steeper climbs. Finally, we come to the ruins of a tower with a serpentine path up to the top. We look over the view and I shoot, enjoying the breeze as much as the scenery. I turn around to shoot the other side and see another mountain behind us. I lean back to take a shot and, there in my lens at the very top of the next mountain is a structure silhouetted against the sky that looks remarkably like the symbol we have seen marking the path to the tower. Yes, I have just discovered that we are not at the tower at all, but only at a stopping place on the way.

I break the news to Pat. The tower looks far off in the distance, but we are determined to make it there. All wisdom about “enjoy the journey as much as the destination” abandons me as I focus on putting one foot in front of the other to finish this climb. I wonder how they measured the 1.2 KM–perhaps it was as the crow flies or, perhaps they meant it was 1.2KM straight up? Whatever the case, we redouble our efforts and leave the octogenarians in the dust (I am not proud to say that I was pleased that they turned around at the first tower because I would have been humiliated if the climb to the top was just an afternoon stroll for them). At last, we come upon the steps leading up to a grassy field where the viewing tower sits. It’s a crazy looking structure–giant logs support a spiral staircase up the middle with viewing platforms at multiple heights.

We enter the spiral stairs and I start counting each step. Then, I realize that perhaps in Germany this is not considered OCD as they have actually numbered the steps for me. 159 steps later, we arrive at the second to last viewing platform, but the steps narrow and continue, unnumbered. I climb up 16 more steps to the next platform and discover that the steps go up even further, past the viewing platform and shooting into the sky like an abandoned step ladder. I climb to the very top, but the stairs sway side to side. I take a step backwards and brace myself against the rail, every fear of heights I’ve ever had suddenly screaming in my ears, “Get down!” But I will not retreat until I have at least a couple of shots from this vantage point–it truly is an incredible view of Freiburg below and, for once, there is no fog. I manage to let go of my death grip on the rail long enough to snap a few careless photos and then I retreat to the platform where Pat waits. A man comes up the stairs below and the entire tower sways as his weight shifts with each step. Although the swaying is less amplified on the platform than it was on the stairs to no where, I am happy when Pat suggests we go down another level and sit on a built in bench for a while. When we sit, we notice a small lock snapped on the fence below the rail. It is engraved with two people’s names and a date. It seems like a nice way to tag something.

We cautiously make our way back down, but my left knee immediately starts with it’s shooting pains after only a few steps. I use the handrails to lift myself down, trying to save my knee for the descent down the hill. My knee really shouldn’t hurt this much–oddly, it’s my right knee that I previously injured, yet my left knee always starts with the pain first, my right knee catching up later. We limp our way down to the restaurant, feeling very old indeed. We decide it’s past time for lunch, so we might as well take a break and eat here. Unfortunately, the nice restaurant is no longer serving lunch, only coffee and dessert, and they send us up to the beer garden above. It’s only one flight of stairs up, so we settle at a table there and Pat goes up to the stand and orders food for us. He returns with what looks like a plate of worms. It turns out, it’s some meat like bologna that’s been sliced into thin strips and tossed with vinaigrette. Pat frowns at it–he says it’s not prepared properly and that it isn’t what he had in mind. We each try it. While it isn’t as bad as a plate of worms, it’s not significantly better. We manage to get down a couple bites each and then shift our focus to our beers. The beer is good. We sit in the sun filtered through heavy trees and drink our beer thinking life is pretty good in spite of the bologna salad. The view was worth the climb and the sore knees and, after all, we’re sitting in a lovely beer garden enjoying German pilsner with nothing else that has to be done today.

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In Search of Dinner

Since we have returned late from our afternoon of hiking, we return to the hotel to quickly clean up and then hunt up a place to eat dinner. For some reason, I decide to put a little make up on and try to make myself presentable. I suppose I am thinking of the three men we encountered at dinner the night before when we sat at the bar of a crowded restaurant and Pat said they were making comments like we didn’t belong there. I don’t know what wearing make-up has to do with improving this situation, but I take a couple extra minutes to put it on anyway.

Now that I am wearing the fanciest outfit I brought with me–skinny black pants, a red sweater, and ballet flats–we wander around on the cobblestone streets looking for food. As it turns out, my feet are bruised from our long descent on a rocky trail–one of the two disadvantages of hiking in fivefinger shoes (not counting the odd looks). Each step reminds me how many stones I stepped on with nearly bare feet.

As we wander around on tired legs, we pass large clumps of bicycles. It seems there is a parking shortage for bicycles in Freiburg; some bikes are parked with a lock only through their own wheels, having no stationary object left to lock them to. There are virtually no cars in the old part of town. When one does venture through, they drive slowly, allowing the pedestrians walking down the middle of the road time to clear the way. It seems that car parking is limited to the outskirts of town and hotel garages.

We wander around past crowded restaurants, many full of university students eating mounds of fried food from baskets; it’s a university town. We pass those restaurants up as well as the “Wein” restaurants with their more sophisticated clientele–the wine is tempting, but it feels wrong to drink wine in Germany when the beer is so good. We wander past a restaurant that advertises its daily special as “fresh killed rabbit” and keep on going again. Finally, we end up back in the main plaza around the cathedral and choose a table outdoors at a restaurant across from where we had lunch the day before.

There are three restaurants here, their outdoor tables distinguished by the furniture style and the color of the umbrellas. We sit at the third, close to the restaurant entrance, hoping to be noticed since it is late to be sitting down for dinner in this small town. As we sit, we overhear an inebriated American one restaurant over and several tables down. He speaks so loudly, he might as well be shouting. Every person in the area can hear every word he says. He complains about the tables having numbers on them. I find it interesting what annoys people. There have been many times when I have been highly annoyed by something that seems petty and not worth the energy to others. But usually it comes down to something that ultimately makes me feel stupid. Like door handles that look like they should be pulled when they really must be pushed. It doesn’t take too many times smashing your face into a glass door that didn’t open when you’re not paying attention before you get annoyed by misleading door handles. Although, I have to admit that even now, imagining my face pressed against the glass from the view of a person on the other side makes me laugh out loud. But that is beside the point. Most of the time, what I find annoying depends on whether it makes me look foolish in some way and how cranky I am at the time. I try to remind myself of this when I want to dismiss someone as a nasty person–I have been that nasty person more times than I care to admit. But in this case, I am at a loss to explain why the noisy American is so perturbed by table numbers or why he feels compelled to shout his irritation to the world. I find myself wishing he would shut up, feeling like he reflects badly in all Americans. After all, those of us who are quiet go unnoticed while the rambunctious make a lasting impression.

The food comes. Pat has ordered cordon bleu for me. The German version is made with pork instead of chicken and I actually like it better than the French version. The pork is tender and juicy and the salty ham and creamy cheese set it off just right. It’s a huge amount of food, but this doesn’t prevent me from snagging a few spaetzle noodles from Pat’s plate when he’s not looking. I have a weakness for spaetzle. We enjoy our dinner, cleaning our plates, but we are too full for dessert.

We return to the hotel slowly, bikes with headlights passing us on the walkways as we go. The night is cool and the moon is rising, about half full. I try to remember if it’s waxing or waning–the top portion is lit, so the old trick of a “D” for “dying” won’t work tonight. I decide it must be waning and I realize that I did not buy a new tripod before the full moon, as I had promised a photographer friend I would after shooting horribly blurred shots of the full moon in August. I make a metal mote as we continue our stroll. The cathedral bells start ringing and are then echoed by another church’s bells in the distance–it’s 10PM and I have stayed awake all day. By the time we return to the hotel and get ready for bed, I fall quickly into a deep sleep.

Hiking the Black Forest

I wake up at 6AM, surprisingly on schedule for having gotten so little sleep the night before. Pat, however, sleeps until I wake him at quarter to nine in spite of the fact that he fell asleep two hours before I did the night before. He jumps out of bed and throws on some clothes–we have purchased breakfast with our room and he doesn’t want to miss it.

The breakfast is a large buffet that offers foods that range from the same kind of fare at American hotels to a very German assortment of meats and cheeses. I opt for a small plate of fruit, a croissant, smoked salmon, and a small piece of cheese. I go back to make a waffle, but someone else is using both irons, so I eat corn flakes instead. After filling up, we return to the room with me thinking we’ll get ready to go to the Black Forest immediately.

Pat, however, has other plans. He lays back down “only for a minute” and falls sound asleep. I get out my iPad and read. This has happened every time we’ve gone to Europe together. Pat can’t get started before noon and I can’t stop until I collapse around 1PM. I resign myself to trying to stay awake all afternoon and let Pat sleep, slipping out to the terrace to read since it’s more pleasant than our room and I think the sunlight will help reset my biological clock.

I return to our room around noon and wake Pat up. We are not going to spend an entire day in bed. Pat says he feels like he’s fighting something and I feel bad for waking him, but he gets up anyway. We pack a single day-hike pack, filling the water bladder and stuffing it with an extra lens for my camera, his rain jacket, two pairs of reading glasses, and an assortment of maps–our loot from the tourist center yesterday.

We walk to the street car and purchase two tickets. The ticket machine is in German and I am grateful that he is the one figuring out how to buy the tickets. When we get on the street car, we stamp our tickets in a timestamp machine, i ask Pat what happens if we don’t stamp them and he tells me that there is a big fine for not having a ticket. As we come to the next stop, a blonde woman gets on wearing a T-shirt and cropped jeans and carrying a black messenger bag. She could be a college student, but she looks closer to our ages than to a 20-something. Continuing our conversation, I suggest to Pat that if he sticks to speaking English, we might get away with not stamping the ticket, but he seems quite nervous about this suggestion–apparently, Germans follow the rules. A minute later, the blonde woman approaches us, holding out an ID that shows she is “control” and asks to see our tickets. Pat gives me the “I told you so look” as she examines our properly stamped tickets.

The street car takes us to the end of the line where we transfer to a bus on the same tickets. The bus takes us to the cable car, which will take us to the top of the mountain. I suggest that we hike up instead, but it’s over a 1200 meter rise in elevation and Pat isn’t feeling up to that kind of climb. A woman with two small daughters rides up with us. She tells us they were there the day before and have returned to retrieve a forgotten teddy bear. She was forced to pay for the cable car a second time, which hasn’t made her happy, but her ire is directed at the cable car operate, not her daughter. They talk softly and laugh often. Upon discovering that I speak only English, the girls practice their English a little on me–they start learning English and French in the first grade. One girl asks me, “What is your name?” in perfectly clear English. I reply with, “My name is Dianne” and we both giggle as if we’ve told a joke. I giggle because I think we sound like every language book I’ve ever used and not at all like a real conversation. I’m not sure why she giggles, but maybe I am the first person she’s talked to who can only communicate in English (as far as she knows) and she’s delighted that her English worked.

As we rise towards the top of the mountain, we go from lovely views of the valley up into a massive cloud of fog and rain. I’m not sure which gods I’ve offended, but it seems a continual theme that whenever I get to a great view point, there is fog. When Pat and I were here last, several years ago now, we spent a day hiking to the Feldsberg (the highest point in the Black Forest) after reading that the morning fog clears in the afternoon. The fog didn’t clear and we could barely see each other if we got more than a few feet apart. We also went to the Zutgsptiz, the highest point in Germany, on a cable car and had a similar experience. You’d think I would learn.

When we arrive at the top, we’re hungry. Realizing we have only a leftover bag of peanuts for a snack, we decide to get lunch at the restaurant. We gorge on lentils with a wiener and snitzel. Of course we each have a pilsner to wash it down. Pat orders a piece of cheese cake to top it off. I have a few bites, but it’s not as good as his Mother’s cheese cake–it took me a few times to get used to the less sweet version of cheese cake German’s make, but now it’s a favorite.

After filling our stomachs, we head for the trail. We have only 2 1/2 hours left until the last cable car goes back down the mountain, and Pat wants to do an out-and-back. I tend to think we might as well just walk all the way down, but I keep this to myself since Pat does better making these kinds of decisions on the fly than in advance. We set the alarm on his iPhone for about ten minutes before half our time will be up, so we can decide then.

The forest is different than Pat remembers it from his many childhood trips here. There are many deciduous trees and he remembers only pines. When we get lower, there are more pines, but they are younger and less dense than he remembers. It’s beautiful none-the-less and we see few people on this Tuesday afternoon. We hike slowly down a broad path, trying to preserve our knees. The forest is quiet, and so are we. Just as Pat comments that there are no critters, a huge woodpecker appears from behind a tree. I get out my telephoto lens, but as typical, it disappears again before I can get a shot. If we were in the states, I would say it was a Pileated Woodpecker, but it looks different and I don’t know the birds here.

We walk on, the trees clear briefly and we look down into a pasture full of reddish brown creatures that I am sure are cows. Pat thinks they are deer, but the long lens on my camera proves my eyes are better than his. We wonder if there are deer here–we have seen no signs of them.

As we continue down the mountain, the path gets narrower, steeper, and rockier. My left knee reminds me that I am 44 and I’ve asked a lot of my knees over the decades. We take smaller steps, careful of the rocks, trying to step lightly on now painful knees. I don’t like hiking as much when my knees are shooting sharp pains up my legs with every step, but it still beats laying around. I think again that we would have been better off hiking up than down, but I don’t say anything.

We find ourselves at a junction that doesn’t match anything on our map and has no signs. We debate which way to go. A man on a mountain bike appears from the path above us and Pat asks him for directions. We follow his advice and walk on. A few minutes later, our alarm goes off. Pat looks up the hill we have been working our way down, the grade seems daunting, and suggests we continue down instead of going back up. I agree, since that was my plan anyway, but I’m glad he thinks it’s his idea. We walk on as the trees grow thicker and the forest darker. Pat wonders if we will make it back before dark. I realize that we didn’t take anything out of my pack and put it in his when we left mine behind–the first aid kit, the emergency blankets, the flashlight are all back in our hotel room. If we were confident that we are on the right path, we wouldn’t have these worries, but we are not.

We continue down the trail, reaching another confusing junction. The problem with tourist trail maps is that they don’t have all the trails on them. I don’t know why people think you don’t need that information–it’s hard to locate yourself on a map if you can’t recognize the drawing compared to the situation. I suppose this is life, however, you never really know exactly where you are, but you keep moving forward in the hope that it’s the right direction. Another cyclist appears as we ponder the signs at this junction. He comes up behind us, pondering as well. I say, “Do you know where you are?” to him. Pat laughs because I have spoken to the man in English without warning. But the man answers, he thinks he does. Pat consults with him and we head down one of the trails.

The sound of hammering reaches us from the valley below and we think we must be getting close to civilization. We reach a dirt road that runs along a stream, with banks covered in purple flowers. They are so fragrant, the air drips with their sweetness. We pause to check the time; it’s nearly 6PM. We wonder what time the last bus stops at the cable car station. The trail cuts to the left from the road and winds through a pasture surrounded by electric fences containing goats. We pass by, watching the goats, especially a baby. They are preoccupied with eating and barely notice us except one, who follows us along the fence as if he thinks we might be good for a hand out.

The trail goes back into the woods, down another steep incline, and then comes out to a paved road. It is a country highway and we cross it at a blind curve, hurrying so as to avoid surprising any drivers. Then, it returns to woods. We are going slowly again, now. In spite of feeling time pressure, our knees will not tolerate a fast pace as long as we are headed downhill. When the path looks clear, we take turns turning around and walking backwards, stretching our calves and resting our knees. Walking backwards, however, is not easy, so we give up when the trail becomes rocky again. Eventually, we can see the cable car. We wind our way through an open field and one more wooded area to the parking lot, relieved that we made it, but still not sure of the bus.

We walk to the bus stop and read the signs. There is no where to buy a ticket and the signs are somewhat confusing, besides being in German. I decide that the sign indicates a bus will come in 7 minutes. Pat has to be convinced that the numbers are times–apparently the words only make the sign more confusing. We sit and wait, the cable car station is completely shut down, looking as if it’s been boarded up for the season, although I know the wooden shutters will open again tomorrow. The bus arrives in just 2 minutes, ending our worry, but it’s going the opposite direction. The driver tells Pat we can get on now and she will turn around in a few stops. So we board and ride. I’m glad we did because the views from the mountain road of the setting sun are fantastic.

When we stop at the turn around point, the driver turns off the bus and we sit for a few minutes. I notice a ticket machine on the bus and Pat goes to purchase tickets for us. He’s unable to decipher which tickets to buy and another man, having just gotten on the bus, comes over and helps him. Germans do not understand why my husband speaks German with no accent but doesn’t know how to do things like buy bus tickets. This man is patient, however. Now that we are legal again, we sit back down and enjoy the views once more as the bus takes us back towards town. We are tired and ready for our next meal.

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Getting to Germany

Having driven to the Atlanta airport, checked our luggage and picked up our boarding passes, we head for the MARTA station. We pause to do a time check and debate whether we’re better off spending the 3 hours until our plane starts boarding in the airport or going downtown for lunch. We want to allow plenty of time, figuring security will be tighter since it is the tenth anniversary of 9-11. I say, “Let’s go downtown–it will be more of an adventure than sitting in the airport.” Pat agrees.

Once we settle onto the MARTA train, we start calculating how long we will need to get back, get our carry-on bags out of our car and get in the security line. We have allowed ourselves 30 minutes of travel time in each direction and still have an hour and a half to get lunch. We get off at the Peachtree station since it’s an area I’m familiar with. I forgot that it’s a Sunday and the Atlanta downtown is not exactly hopping. We head towards the Olympic park once we find ourselves back above ground. It’s a beautiful day and the walk more welcome since we are about to take a 9+ hour flight.

We find a Googie’s hamburger place in the middle of the park. I order a coke float with my burger and we sit outside. There are plenty of people in the park. Some are playing a sport I can’t identify because they are downhill and all we can see is the top halves of people moving around a field. I assume it’s soccer. After relaxing in the shade of a giant old tree while we finished our meal, we head back towards the MARTA station. The walk is now uphill, the sun is higher, and the temperature is rapidly rising. Pat starts sweating through his shirt and then worrying about being all sweaty getting on the plane which probably makes him sweat even more. The platform is surprisingly warm considering how far underground we are. I think back to how long the escalator was and wonder if we are now so close to the center of the earth that the temperature is higher. ūüôā Pat, in the meantime, moves us to the center of the platform between two giant fans that circulate the air. He stands with his arms spread, trying to get his shirt to dry.

Back at the Atlanta airport, we are surprised that security does not seem any worse than usual. We get through the line in 15 minutes and neither of us is randomly scanned in the new “naked” scanners. When we amble up to the gate 45 minutes before our flight, they are all ready boarding all passengers. The boarding process for long flights is different than the short domestic hops–people take their time and settle in gradually. Yet, the entire airbus is full and everyone is ready to go well before our take off time.

The man sitting next to me (I took the middle seat) starts up a conversation. He tells me he’s on a business trip and I ask who he works for. It turns out he and I work for the same company! I wonder aloud how many people on this flight are our colleagues and what the odds are that we would end up sitting next to each other. He also was part of a smaller company acquired by our now mutual corporation. We swap stories of integration and he tells me that everything will settle down and seem normal in three more years. I was really hoping it would only be one more year.

As the plane reaches altitude and the movies become available, he reaches for his ear buds and I reach for my iPad. We do not talk again in the 9 hours that we sit next to each other until we are arriving in Frankfurt and he points out the location of the office he’s going to on the flight map. That’s OK. We’re unlikely to ever see each other again anyway.

The flight goes smoothly, although my knees start twitching when I get tired and it is impossible to get comfortable. I long for the days when I used to fly business class, but it’s hard to justify paying 4x the price for an already expensive ticket when the trip is only 9 hours. I nod off in fits and starts and wake again every 10 minutes. I think I managed to collectively get a couple hours of sleep, but I feel like I was up all night when the flight crew turns the lights back on and starts serving breakfast. Having lost 6 hours between dinner and breakfast, I’m not really sure I’m hungry, but I eat anyway.

When we deplane, there are no restrooms between the plane and immigration. The line is endless and moving slowly. We wait for over half an hour crossing our legs and trying not to think of water. A man is escorted away just before we are called to a desk. This often happens to Pat–he apparently has the same name as someone on the no-fly list. Having been detained 4 times now, we cross our fingers that this won’t be the fifth. Luck smiles on us and the agent stamps our passports. We find a restroom and our luggage and look for the train.

We take a bus to terminal 1 to get to the train. But, having done very little planning for this trip, we have to wait in another long, slow line to get our train passes. On most our trips, I take care of these arrangements, usually in advance. But here, Pat takes the lead since this is his birth country and German is his first language. I am reminded of a man who recently told me I need to learn how to follow; it doesn’t come naturally to me. I would like to think I am a natural leader, but I suspect I’m really just a control freak. While the ticket agent speaks fluent English, Pat’s command of German gets us 4 days of train travel in first class at a reduced rate, saving us about $550 Euros. Not bad for just letting him do the talking.

I have ridden the train in Germany before, but it’s more impressive to me this trip having taken the train from Portland to Glacier National Park back in the states since then. First, German trains are on time. Second, they run as efficiently as subways, often having only 3 minutes between arrival and departure. Finally, they are so quiet and smooth that you have to remind yourself you’re on a train. The first class car is an extra bonus–after being so cramped on the plane, it’s nice to lay back and stretch our of legs fully. I am always amazed at how tired sitting on a plane makes me feel.

In spite of being re-routed once on the way to Freidberg due to weather, we arrive only 10 minutes late. We find a cab and get to our hotel only to learn that our room won’t be ready for 2 1/2 more hours–it’s only 12:30PM. We check our bags and drag our tired selves around this ancient black forest town for an hour. Then we sit outside in a square by the farmer’s market and eat. Oh do we eat! I allowed Pat to order for me and he has chosen two dishes that we share. One is a “fine” bratwurst with fries and the other is some kind of dumpling stuffed with vegetables neatly ground and mixed with cheese. Both are good, but the brat particularly hits the spot today–maybe because it goes so well with the pilsner we drink?

We sit in the shadow of an enormous church that was razed to the ground during World War II and has since been reconstructed, stone by stone. They are still working on it or working on it again; scaffolding shrouds the main steeple. The courtyard below is full of vendor’s tents–it’s an open farmer’s market that apparently opens every morning and shuts down every afternoon. By the time we are done with our entrees, the tents are disappearing.

We sit a while longer, ordering meringues for dessert. They are served with ice cream, whipped cream, and carmel sauce. I resign myself to gaining weight this trip and relish the dessert. We are surrounded by locals and tourists alike. One table over, a group of Americans discuss their plans while failing at keeping their young children entertained, resulting in crying and whining. I wonder if German children expect to be entertained all the time, but none are around to watch.

We wander around the town some more, struck by the stone streets and the old architecture laden with flowers. Nearly every building has flower boxes at every window. We attempt to walk to the river, but get ourselves mixed up. At 3PM, we stop in a coffee shop to use the restroom, get directions, and buy a bottle of water. We head back to the hotel more than ready for a nap.

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Traveling on the Tenth Anniversary of 9-11

It’s just after 10AM and we are packed and ready to leave for our two week vacation in Germany. We are flying out of Atlanta because the flight schedule to leave from Chattanooga will not get us home in one day. We have a plan for today: we will drive to the Atlanta airport, check two of our bags, leave our carry ons in the trunk, and take the MARTA downtown for a few hours before our flight. We divide our bags between us and head out the door looking somewhat like pack mules.

The weather has cleared and warmed up again. It’s cool this morning, but promising to get into the upper eighties. We are preoccupied with our plans and have not given much more than a passing thought to the significance of this day. But as we cruise down the highway around Chattanooga, we pass under a high overpass with a group of people on it unfurling a huge American flag and waving. I wave back as we pass under the enormous flag, and am instantly returned to ten years ago.

I was at my desk on 9-11, thankfully on a reprieve from the constant travel that I did at that time of my career. My phone rang and a colleague in NJ excitedly informed me that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. At first, I waited for the punchline, assuming it was a joke. He didn’t yet know that it was an attack; it was just a crazy event for the next half hour until he called me back and told me that a second plane had crashed into the other tower.

I went down the hall to talk to my boss. He was getting updates and it was clear now that this was, in fact, the first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. In that moment, the sense of security I’d never known I had was shattered. Many of us gathered in the halls, talking quietly of people we knew who worked in the area. More news came in and we heard of the two other planes, one still in the air. Most of us decided to go work from home the rest of the day–it felt safer not to be in a building that once (decades ago) employed over 18,000 people.

When I got home, I turned on the TV and watched the news. I was on the phone with more friends and colleagues in the NY area, each of us recounting the stories we had learned of missing loved ones. For me, it seemed close to home even though it was a distant event. I was happy that all travel was suspended for two weeks–no one seemed to want to have a meeting in light of the tragedy. I had no desire to go get on a plane.

When I flew into Newark two weeks later, the airport seemed like a ghost town. I met with customers that day who had regular meetings in the trade center prior to 9-11. Two of them recounted their 9-11 stories. One missed being on the 11th floor of the first building when it was hit only because he’d stopped to get a cup of coffee. The other was in the street when the first tower collapsed, diving behind a dumpster with a woman he’d never met before and running for shelter in an abandoned building, barely escaping unharmed. They still didn’t know if the people they were on their way to meet had survived. I never learned the outcome.

I add these stories to my collection from people who had relatives in the city that day–one of my colleague’s daughters had a terrifying day just trying to leave the city to get to the safety of her parents’ home. Photos of one of our customer sites across the street from the destruction were forwarded around. An entire wall is missing from a data center that houses the equipment we make. Those of us who know the people that work there are stunned by these photos. These stories make what might just seem like something in the news feel next door. I am reminded of a person I once met who was sent to Grenada (or was it Panama?) in the military. He described walking through a suburban neighborhood while under attack. I imagine war in a whole new way when I hear his descriptions. I try to imagine where I would hide while soldiers go through my quiet suburban neighborhood shooting at one another.

These are the images that come to mind as we cruise along the highway. I think about what it would be like to live somewhere where personal safety is a foremost concern on a daily basis. In the ten years since 9-11, we have collectively forgotten the fear that the attack created and been more annoyed by ridiculous security rules in the airports that are hard to connect to increased security than worried about repeat attacks. I suppose that’s a good thing. After all, what would being afraid accomplish? At the same time, prior to 9-11, no one would have thought that a terrorist would crash a hijacked plane. Since that day, I’ve swapped many stories of “what we would do” with fellow travelers, each of us feeling personal responsibility for the safety of each flight in a way we never considered before.

I received a news alert from the Wall Street Journal that plans for car bombings on 9-11 were discovered and foiled. I feel oddly reassured by this news, I suppose the fact that they were found out and prevented is reassuring, but it always makes me wonder what else is going on that they haven’t found out about yet? I think the majority of the relief is purely selfish–the attacks were about car bombs and not planes and, after all, it’s a plane I’m getting on.

I feel like I should pause for a moment and honor the dead, the injured, and the chronically ill that resulted from 9-11. Yet, in some respects, do I honor them by flying on this day? Does the fact that I feel confident enough to get on a long, international flight say that we recovered well? It is impossible to know what the people most horribly affected by the attack would say, but since I am going to Germany today regardless, I choose to think they would be pleased. I say a silent thank you to the men and women who responded to the attack and an apology to those who did not survive. Then, I tuck away my fears and focus on the road ahead.

Canadian Pennies and Travel Prep

It’s Saturday morning and we’re leaving for Germany for two weeks tomorrow. We have a day to get ready. I am wide awake and it’s 5AM. The first order of business is to finish up on my backlog of work emails–I had nearly 700 I hadn’t replied to yet when I started this task last night. I’m now down to about 8 emails that I couldn’t clear out quickly, but I don’t want to leave knowing that those are still sitting there with the pile rapidly growing since I won’t have access from Germany. I sit at the computer and do the 6 tasks required to clean up all but 2 of the remaining mails. What’s left is a reminder about an online training class I’m required to take by the end of December and a notice about an administrative request that I want to remember to follow up on when I get back. Satisfied that my backlog is as clear as it’s going to get before I go and feeling pretty happy about only having 2 emails in my inbox for the first time since my last vacation, I set up my out-of-office message and shut down my work laptop so it can take a vacation, too.

That done, I make a list of the odds and ends that need to be taken care of before we go. I’m glad that I learned a long time ago to schedule travel so that I have a non-working day before the trip and another after we get home. I would have been up all night trying to wrap up lose ends if we were leaving today. Having done that before, I know it does not lead to a good start to a vacation, especially not one where we’ll lose 6 hours (mostly of sleep) between here and our destination.

Pat interrupts me and asks if I want to take a walk since we need to go to the bank anyway. Thinking about our 2 hour drive to Atlanta tomorrow followed by over 9 hours on a plane, I decide getting a walk in is important.

We head down to the riverfront, walking around the wetland to get there. We spot a Great Blue Heron standing in the water and stop to watch. Two more herons approach from the air, flying straight towards us, their wings casting giant shadows in the morning light. One flaps awkwardly to a landing near the one in the water while the other circles over our heads. The two on the ground commence an argument when the new arrival lunges at the one who was already there. Apparently herons don’t believe in first-come, first-serve. The original heron is displaced with a loud, complaining squawk as it rises into the air. The third heron must have decided the fishing in the wetland isn’t good enough for a fight because it banks away from the wetland and heads towards the wide waters of the river.

I think of an article I read several years ago that herons recovered faster than Bald Eagles when the use of DDT was banned and that the recovery of the eagles would eventually check the rising population of herons. I find myself wondering if there are any Bald Eagles here–I haven’t seen any yet, but there are certainly a lot of herons.

The show over, we continue to the riverfront more slowly than usual. My legs are stiff and sore from my workout on Thursday. I walk awkwardly and Pat teases me that I look like an old lady hobbling along. Each step reminds me that I hadn’t done a good leg workout for a month at least and that I probably should have gone a little easier. Unfortunately, going to Germany for two weeks isn’t going to make the next workout any easier.

We eventually make it to the end of the walkway on the river and head up one short block to walk along the store fronts that face the river park. Many are open for breakfast, but we have groceries to use up before we go, so we resist the temptation to stop. However, the smell of Julie Darling donuts gets to Pat this morning and he decides he wants a glazed donut to go along with his breakfast. We run across the street no where near an intersection, which would be quite dangerous if it weren’t a quiet Saturday morning. We dig out exact change to pay for the donuts, hoping to lighten the jingle for our trip. The woman who waits on us counts the change and rejects a Canadian penny. Pat tries to talk her into taking it on the grounds that the Canadian dollar is actually stronger than the US dollar (or at least it was when I was in Toronto a month and a half ago). She smiles and says, “I just don’t want to take advantage of you,” a quick and witty response that makes me laugh. We find a US penny, take our donuts and move onto the bank, Pat now making an argument to me that he thinks Canadian change is considered legal tender and that stores have to take it. I tell him that may have been true at one time, but I know my Canadian change has been rejected many times at many establishments, so I don’t think it’s true now.

When we get to the bank, our favorite banker, Clayton, is sitting at his usual desk inside the door. His face lights up with a smile that says he is genuinely glad to see us and I, once again, feel the warm glow of belonging. I am still astounded by the warmth of this man–I would never consider going to another bank just because I enjoy seeing Clayton so much. He gets out of his chair and walks around his desk to greet us, asking us how we’ve been.

After exchanging pleasantries, Pat decides to ask Clayton about the Canadian penny. Most people would have just answered to the best of their knowledge given that it’s just a trivia question, but Clayton gets on the phone, gives the person on the other end some special code that identifies him as a bank employee, I guess, and then asks if Canadian change is supposed to be accepted at stores. Now who else would do that? As I suspected, stores are not required to take Canadian change, but the care that Clayton takes to make sure Pat’s question is answered more than makes up for all the Canadian change we have.

We chat a while longer and then go to the teller to take care of our business. She is almost as friendly as Clayton, but without the familiarity of an old friend that Clayton conveys. Our business done, we stop to tell Clayton good bye and he wishes us well on our trip as we head out the door, walking over to shake our hands one more time. I feel like we’re leaving a friend behind.

Returning to our apartment, we take on the other tasks left before departing. I attempt to figure out if I can get data access from Germany, but am quickly reminded of the one disadvantage to having chosen Verizon wireless as my 3G carrier for my iPad–no service outside the US. I’m a little annoyed with Verizon when I get off the phone–they have an entire section of their website dedicated to international travel and how to get service outside the US yet they don’t actually offer any service. I assume someone in marketing thought it would be a good idea to have a competitive website to AT&T’s and threw up a page to fool unsuspecting international travelers. I find it odd that they would make this investment along with a call center for a service they don’t offer, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen companies create a marketing campaign before they actually have product to go along with it. I just wish they hadn’t wasted my time.

By the time our errands and tasks are done, we are both ready for an afternoon nap. I am nodding off as I try to resolve some issues with my various electronic devices and Pat has already given up and gone to lay down in the bedroom. However, the frustration of sorting out getting books and movies downloaded to my new iPad (having broken my old one and gotten it replaced has created some confusion in my accounts in that they don’t recognize this device) wakes me up a bit and I end up spending the time sorting things out instead of sleeping. Pat comes back out a half hour later and says he couldn’t sleep either, but as he starts to fuss with getting ready to go, I nod off and sleep a bit after all. When I wake up again, Pat has decided we should officially kick off our vacation with a margarita from Taco Mamacitos around the corner. I protest that it’s now 5:30PM and we haven’t started packing yet. He argues it will make packing more enjoyable. I get up and go look in the mirror, trying my best to wipe the sleepy look away quickly.

We sit at the bar at Taco Mamacitos and each order our favorite margarita along with chips and salsa. It seems like we are only there for a few minutes, but by the time we get home, it’s 7:15. I go into high gear and start pulling together outfits for hiking in the Black Forest, walking around cities, and one for going out at night (not that we’re likely to be able to stay awake late enough for that).

When I start putting my stuff in my roll aboard and half of the one large suitcase we will take, I discover that I really am a light packer. With plenty of extra space, I throw in an extra sweater and some extra T-shirts and even a long underwear top, just in case. I try to run through the list of things I packed and think of what I’ve forgotten this time (always forgetting at least one thing on every trip), but I can think of nothing else I need. I zip up the suitcases and sit down to relax. It’s now 9:30. It’s hard to believe it takes nearly two hours to put together the necessary items for a two-week trip, but it sure beats how long it takes to pack for a backpacking trip! After working on my blog and relaxing for a couple more hours, I go to bed hoping that the margarita didn’t muddle my brain so badly that I’m going to discover that I didn’t pack some basic necessity, but mostly satisfied that I’m ready for tomorrow.

It’s Official

It’s time. ¬†I must get a Tennessee driver’s license and plate today. ¬†I am officially 1 day late doing this since Tennessee law requires new residents to get their Tennessee license and plates within 30 days of arriving. ¬†In this age of online everything, it’s extremely difficult to get the required documentation to prove that you’re a resident, but I managed to come up with two pieces of acceptable evidence–our lease agreement and a printed statement from the bank.

This is the 4th time I’ve tried to get my license. ¬†The first three tries, the lines were too long. ¬†Pat went ahead and took care of his two days ago, so now we have a plan as to how to get this annoying necessity taken care of. ¬†First, Pat took care of my emissions test for me earlier in the week. ¬†Second, we arrive at the Drivers’ Services Center at 8:10AM, 20 minutes before they open, in the hope of being first in line. ¬†This did not work out so well–there are already 9 people ahead of us. ¬†We stand in the parking lot and watch the other people in line. ¬†3rd in line is a woman with graying hair sitting on a stool outside the door. ¬†At about 8:25, a man in a sports jacket and dress pants arrives and greets her. ¬†She has been holding a place in line for him.

At 8:33AM, someone finally opens the door. ¬†We all file in with the faces of people being sent away to prison. ¬†We line up along the wall, forming a square around the room. ¬†We celebrate by exchanging silent, happy looks each time a person ahead of us is rejected for not having the right paper work or being in the wrong place–one less person to wait behind when we get to phase 2. ¬†But, I feel bad for the graying woman who must have gotten here before 8AM–the man she was waiting for is being relocated here from Mexico by VW. ¬†Apparently he didn’t read the memo, because he’s there without the necessary proof of residency. ¬†The woman asks him to check his brief case twice to make sure he doesn’t have some document in there that would meet the requirement, but he doesn’t. ¬†She says sweetly, “Oh well, we’ll just go to the bank and come right back” in a subtle Southern drawl. ¬†But I know what she’s thinking, “You dumb &*#! ¬†I waited here for your for over a half an hour so you wouldn’t have to stand in line and you can’t even show up with the &*#^%$@ documents I told you to bring!” ¬†Well, that’s what I would have been thinking anyway. ¬†ūüôā

When we get to the window, the woman checks my documents, makes copies of them, and hands me a form and a number and tells me to go sit in the next room until my number is called. ¬†I am prepared for this since Pat went through it two days earlier. ¬†We sit down and I fill out my form. ¬†It’s now 9:00AM. ¬†I pull out my MiFi hot spot and work laptop and get online and start to work. ¬†It takes until 10AM before my number is called–partly due to a faulty license printer. ¬†By this time, I have finished a presentation I needed to get done before vacation, answered a dozen or so emails, responded to multiple instant messages, and caught up on several administrative tasks. ¬†I wonder if I could work from this waiting room every day–I get so much done here!

I walk up and hand the woman my form and other documents. ¬†She keys in all the information I’ve written down on the paper. ¬†As I watch, I wonder why we couldn’t do that from the web. ¬†I ask her if my motorcycle endorsement will transfer and she says “Yes” and circles an “M” on the form without looking at my driver’s license to see if I actually have a motorcycle endorsement or not. ¬†Just then, a man walks in carrying a helmet and asks about taking his motorcycle endorsement test. ¬†Confirming he has an appointment, she tells him she’ll be with him in just a minute. ¬†She finishes up with me and sends me over to wait to have my picture taken.

I stand there remembering my own motorcycle endorsement test. ¬†I don’t remember all of it, but I remember the three hardest parts: ¬†A slalom through tightly spaced cones at less than 20 MPH, a surprise swerve, and, the killer of those on big bikes, a U-turn at slow speed inside a tight box painted on the pavement. ¬†There were 10 people in the group that took the test that day. ¬†3 of us passed: ¬†a woman on a 50 cc scooter, a man on a 750 who was taking the test for the third time, and me on my little 250 Kawasaki. ¬†I seriously considered staying after and renting out my bike when I saw the next group full of 750s and bigger.

The woman who will take my picture is almost ready and she asks me to sit in the chair. ¬†Before she can take my picture, the woman who took my paperwork comes over and I hear her ask the photographer woman, “I’ve got someone here for a motorcycle test. ¬†What do I do?” ¬†The other woman replies, “Just have him ride up the block a little ways, turn around, and come back.” ¬†I find myself wondering how motorcycle death rates compare between Tennessee and Ohio.

After I passed my test that day so many years ago, on my ride back home, I was almost run over 3x. ¬†I was happy I knew how to swerve unexpectedly, gear down quickly, and to always have an alternate plan for escape from such situations. ¬†By the time I got home, I was also happy that I’d made the decision to trade in my Kawasaki for a 1340 Harley Dyna low rider. ¬†Although it was a few more weeks before I got my Harley, when I finally did, the noise and size kept me in drivers’ sights far more frequently than when I was on the Kaw. ¬†However, the Kaw was a life saver for the endorsement test–I never would have passed with the rake angle on the low rider. ¬†I couldn’t turn that thing around on a 2-lane road, let alone inside the box required by the state of Ohio. ¬†Sigh. ¬†Those were the days!

The woman at the Drivers’ Service Center hands me my new Tennessee Driver’s license. ¬†I look it over. ¬†It’s not as colorful as my old Ohio license, but I can’t compare side-by-side because they took my Ohio license from me. ¬†Although I’ve lived in other places for a few months at a time in the past, I’ve never become a resident of another state before. ¬†I am suddenly struck by the officialness of having a driver’s license and it being from another state. ¬†I guess I am a Tennessian–or whatever we’re called. ¬†After putting away my new license, I gather up my things and Pat and I walk outside. ¬†Pat drives me to transfer my title and get my new license plate (there’s only a rear plate in Tennessee), which, amazingly takes less than 10 minutes. ¬†As he rushes me back to my home office for my next conference call, I suddenly realize that I haven’t driven a car in Chattanooga once yet. ¬†Oh well, at least I can if I need to!