October 29, 2008


Ralf’s in Dublin. That means I’m on my own in the morning with the kids. K is thrilled because she gets to sleep in our bed and of course L comes at 5AM and we all snuggle together like a pack of wild dogs in a cave. Then the cat comes to respectfully request to be let outdoors. As punishment for the early hour I pick him up (gently), pet him (he’s very soft) and lock him in the pantry with his litter box. Later I wish I’d let him out.

It’s still pretty early (6:30 AM) so there’s time for a bit of play before school. I attempt to check email and fire off a bunch of quickly composed, terse replies that I hope don’t offend anyone.

Then it’s time to go to school. K can ride a bike now, better that me in fact, and wants to do this all the time now. Unfortunately it is raining so we compromise on the bike attachment where the girls can sit in comfort while I freeze and get wet. We get to the school without incident – actually that’s not quite true as the bike falls over on someone’s dog when the girls climb out but no injuries - and I attempt to dry off my glasses before heading home again.

The rain has just been toying with me up until this point and really lets go on my way home. I am wet, frazzled, frumpy (dressed for the gym later) and my hair is pushed up on my head because my ear warmers are riding up. I pass a couple of smartly dressed business people, who eye me without interest and maybe just a glimmer of pity. I wonder if they realize that here goes one of the great HCM strategic thinkers of our time. I want to go back and tell them but they won’t believe me and anyway, they probably don’t even know what HCM is.

This train of thought leads me to wonder how many of the schlumpy - albeit not so schlumpy as me - moms I see when I drop off the girls also hold down jobs and occasionally even clean up respectably.

I arrive home, again dry off my glasses, and get back to work.

Drop Trou

On Sunday morning when we have no other plans, the whole family goes to Sportscheck, which is a chic sports club. They have quality childcare, real horses to ride and pet and a good Italian family restaurant that we like a lot. German sports clubs are not as dramatically different from their American counterparts as grocery stores (see my Tengelmann posting) but they do have their differences. For example, the truly athletic wear all black, presumably so they’ll look like master race ninjas. Also you are expected to wipe down your machine when you’re finished with it - it is considered very poor taste to leave yout sweat on a machine. And in the locker rooms nakedness is not so much flaunted as celebrated, which violates my American puritan ethics. Anyway, except for the tacky naked cavorting going on in the locker rooms, Sportscheck is a classy establishment and Ralf and I like going there a lot.

So there we were in the restaurant, which was fairly crowded, and I have to say with all the love in the world that our beautiful kids were not looking their best. K has grown about 3 inches in the last month and her pants cuffs were practically up to her knees. Her hair, always a bit wild and not unlike candy floss, was all over the place and she had several large mosquito bites on her face. L was wearing a mismatched shirt and pants (after a very smelly and regrettable accident in the nursery) and a large pair of winter boots that forced her to goose step around without bending her knees. They immediately began jumping around and making noise, something that is frowned on in Germany in public eating establishments. Ralf, who had no trouble getting back in touch with his uptight German roots when it comes to brushed hair and matching clothes that fit properly, was trying to get the girls back into some semblance of order when L suddenly dropped trou and squatted in the middle of the restaurant.

I’m afraid that my first reaction was to burst out laughing. You have to understand that this sort of thing had never happened to us before so my response was neither practiced nor appropriate. K was in a diaper well into her threes and even L always seemed to understand the basic principles of keeping your pants on. And yet, there she was, squatting on the floor of our favorite family restaurant with a purposeful look on her face. It took me a couple of seconds to process the situation and stop shrieking with mirth, but when it sunk what was about to happen in I moved fast and somehow managed to avoid disaster. Picture a nice restaurant in, say, Walnut Creek and the same thing happening to a seedy-looking, sweaty German family, and the German mom scooping up her kid like a football and running off with her while babbling in German, and you’ll get the idea of what all this probably looked like to the other Germans in the restaurant.

You’ll be happy to know that L kept the lid on while we ran downstairs to the bathroom and seemed only mildly put out by the interruption.


One of the things I regretted while we planned our move back to Germany was that we’d lose our great neighbors. Not only were they good people to live next door to, they have a daughter about the same age as K and a 7-year-old son that L had a huge crush on. However, fate has smiled on us in that department. After we moved to California the German neighbor scene shuffled a bit as these things do and now there’s a little girl living right next door that is about the same age as K and L has a huge crush on her as well. She’s a very nice and polite-spoken little girl who sometimes seems almost too good to be true. When she comes over to play she chats me up almost professionally (“Hallo, Frau Schroeder, how lovely you look today, is that a new shirt?”) before making her play for snacks, an episode of the Bugaloos, etc.

She’s not angling for candy or chips, however – in fact, she doesn’t eat any junk food at all and once, when I offered her a piece of buttered white toast, informed me that she only likes whole grain toast. If I offer chips she politely refuses and requests fruit so now I buy apples just for her. For dinner (according to her mother) she eats all the broccoli she can get her hands on, while my kids munch on chicken nuggets, fish sticks and whatever fruit or vegetables I can hide in tomato sauce, popcycles or brownies. So, she’s not exactly good for my maternal ego when I compare her manners and eating habits to those of my own offspring, but she does seem to be good for K. Not in the sense that K has seen the light and now eats fruit of her own free will, but in the sense that she has someone to play with in the afternoon and doesn’t feel quite so homesick.

October 27, 2008

Remote working mom seeks sanity

A lot of people have asked me how I’ve adjusted to working remotely from Munich. Professionally I make it work by being available during the overlap hours, which is after 8PM here. From a family perspective I make it work by picking my kids up at 3 and spending the afternoon with them until it’s time for bed. But personally, I have to say that working from home in a different time zone isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds. Sure, you can lounge around in PJs until noon and work without interruptions but it’s a lonely business. I’m pathetically grateful when I see one of my colleagues working late on Skype or when I get an email message during my normal working hours. And sometimes I worry that I’ll wind up doing some geeky chair dance on my web cam and posting it to YouTube.

But I can’t complain. After all, I married a German. There was always that chance we’d live in Germany.

Let me take you on a quick tour of a typical day:

Sometime between 4-6 AM one of our daughters climbs into bed with us and it's a crap shoot whether more sleeping is to be had after that. If everyone isn't already awake by 7 the cat starts meowing, which gets the household into motion. Ralf makes coffee (that’s his job since I watch the kids every afternoon while he works) and at some point we remember that the kids need to be at school before 8:30 - this somehow catches us off guard every morning - and the rush to make breakfast, pack lunches and get everyone dressed (warmly) ensues. Once the kids are out of the house I sit in front of my computer with a second cup of coffee and peruse my email, wincing (we’re in the middles of system testing our latest release so emails usually involve more work than a 2-liner) and, I'm afraid, muttering to myself.

At some point I either drive to the gym or blow it off and get dressed. Or, if it’s Monday, I go shopping at Tengelmann’s, an experience that has merited it's own posting. Then I get to work in earnest, either writing detailed design documents or testing or preparing presentations for various events and customer meetings or researching the state of the talent management market. Although I’m a Human Capital Management generalist, I feel a special affinity for compensation because it: 1) involves math; and 2) it isn't as hard as payroll, benefits and general ledger.

At 2:30 I shut down my computer and pick up the kids. Then we play a bit in the playground outside our house and do various things of that kind until it’s time for dinner, a half hour of TV, a story and bed. Then I start my calls. . .

Sometimes I have a call before the kids go to bed and that gets really interesting. If one were to eavesdrop on various conversations it might sound something like this:

‘. . . Well, sure, but that’s just a me, too story. The real differentiator is. . . no, darling, not until after dinner. . .sorry, the real differentiator is the combination of Core HR and best of breed talent management modules like Compensation. Exactly. Stop hitting your sister! No, not you, sorry. What? Right, OK, so the point isn’t that it’s talent management, the point is that it’s Core. Drop it! What? No, not you, sorry.'

‘. . . I think that as long as we’re consistently behind two weeks on the overall release cycle it’s unrealistic to try to stop development in Drop 8. I mean. . . yes, Little Baboo, that’s very good, go play now, go play. . . Sorry. What? No, I don’t think the problem is necessarily the designs, although we could definitely use a catch up release. No, I don’t think using Confluence would. . . Bubi, mommy’s on the phone, not right now, OK, sweetie?. . . sorry. I don’t think using Confluence to write FDDs would help that much, Word is still the way friendlier documentation tool. PMs are backlogged enough without moving to a tool that wasn’t designed for functional users to do this type of work. No! No knives! No, not you, sorry. What I’m saying is that. . . '

‘. . . They’ll have to set up two sets of rules? That’s crazy. Lisa’s OK with it? Well. . . I guess she oughta know. But why? I mean, why two? But that's totally the same thing. Uh huh. I see. Sort of. Are you sure Lisa wants it? What about. . . ? Len-Len, you can go potty by yourself. No, not you, sorry. Yes you can, sweet pumpkin. . .’ ' ‘Y’know. I think I need to get off now. I’m really sorry. Let’s hook up later or tomorrow. Rightsorrybye!’

October 26, 2008


Tired today. Last night L refused point blank to wear a diaper to bed. She’s not quite 3 so it’s not like you can argue with her about logical consequences. Her killer argument is to scream as loudly as she can until you cave. So, we let her go to bed with no diaper, then before we went to bed I snuck in and changed her while she was sleeping. Feeling quite pleased with myself I went to bed, only to be woken up out of a deep sleep by L, who had had been very busy in her diaper. I wiped her down and tried to put a new diaper on but again she refused. Figuring she might make it through the rest of the night, and wanting to avoid a screaming match, I allowed this and went back to bed. At 3 AM there she was again, this time with a wet bed. I changed her sheets and this time insisted on the diaper and tried to go back to bed – this time she followed me. Although we were religious with K sleeping in her own bed, with L we were a bit laxer because L doesn’t think she’s entitled to something every day just because she does it once. They’re different kids and we’re different parents with them. But sometimes it comes back to haunt us, as last night demonstrated. On the other hand, if she sleeps she’s pretty easy to sleep with – she breathes quietly and doesn’t move much and is very cuddly and fragrant. So eventually we all got back to sleep, only to be woken up by K an hour later. K joined us and immediately begin asking in a loud voice for cookies. Once we got her quieted down the cat came in and started meowing to be let outside and then everyone was up.

Let me explain this. Before we had kids, Ralf and I would sleep until 10 then enjoy a cup of coffee with something chocolaty in bed until we felt like getting up. These were good years for the cat, too, because we would pet him while we drank our coffee. Once we had K we were unwilling to give up these quiet moments so we would give her a bottle with water while we enjoyed our morning routine. Once she got old enough to want cookies for herself, we started getting up early to have our coffee and sweet before she came. After all, cookies are bad for little teeth. Once L arrived, however, the cat was out of the bag. No matter how early we woke up they would hear us and sense the cookies and come so a new morning routine was born where we all sit in bed together and munch cookies while mommy and papa drink their coffee.

This is supposed to be a treat that is earned, i.e., we trade cookies for peace and quiet, but I can’t say it has ever worked out that way since the very early days. Now that the newness has worn off they are constantly angling for extra cookies, fighting over each others’ cookies and generally jumping around on the bed while Ralf and I try to enjoy our coffee. You might wonder how we got ourselves into this fix when the outcome is so obvious but it started out pretty well and deteriorated pretty gradually. We are constantly threatening no more cookies but it’s an empty threat because I’m addicted and unwilling to get up at 5AM and they know it. So basically, mornings aren’t much fun around here. ;-)

Sadly, on the few days the children are not here in the morning, like when they visit their Moma and Popa (Ralf’s parents) the cat usually manages to barf in the wee hours. We are a well-run household where someone is always available to wake up mommy and papa.

The cat is also the loser under this new children’s regime – gone are the days when he gets gently petted in the morning in a nice, quiet room. Instead he gets yelled at for waking everyone up (rightfully so) and pounced on by small children (which kind of serves him right for waking everyone up).

'You can have that one'

Both children like to cuddle with me in the morning, which I love unless: 1) I haven’t finished my coffee yet; 2) they fight about it; or 3) both, which is usually the case. It goes something like this: whichever child wakes up first comes into bed with us. If it’s L she might fall asleep again, if it’s K no chance. At some point after this both girls are clamoring for cookies and eventually Ralf caves and goes downstairs to make the coffee. K runs after him and brings the cookies back upstairs and both girls immediately start fighting over the cookies. By the time Ralf shows up with the coffee everyone’s yelling, including me. Then there are about ten seconds of silence while the girls eat their cookies and Ralf and I desperately sip coffee. At this point one of two things happens: 1) someone starts clamoring for a second cookie; or 2) everyone wants to lay on mommy. Usually K kicks it off and comes for a cuddle, which is nice for about 2 seconds until L gets wind of it and comes to edge her out. Sometimes I wonder why they are both so jealous of each other when it comes to me since they both get (I think) plenty of parental love and attention. But there it is and cuddling all too often degenerates into tears over who gets to lay on Mommy’s right leg.

This morning was kind of cute, though. K made her opening bid for stretching out against me on my left and L immediately scented danger and arranged herself full-length on top of me, then casually rolled over to her right, thus cutting off her older sister. Despite the irritation this caused I had to admire her technique. K protested that L is selfish and always hogs all the choicer portions of Mommy. L sat up, pointed at Ralf and told K, ‘You can have that one.’

October 25, 2008

Rigatoni with Summer Squash, Spicy Sausage & Goat Cheese

An easy, tasty Fine Cooking recipe:

Salt (add to the water you cook the pasta in)
3 tbs olive oil
3/4 lb. spicy sausage
1/3 cup finely chopped challots (about 3)
2 3/4 cups yellow and green zuccini or squash
3 oz crumbled goat cheese or feta
2 tsp chopped parsley
fresh pepper for accent
1/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano (optional)

Boil pasta in salted water until not quite al dente.
While it cooks, heat 1/2 tbs oil and cook sausage until almost cooked through, about 3-5 min.
Transfer sausage to a bowl and wipe skillet.
Heat remaining 2 1/2 tbs oil in skillet and cook shallots until they begin to soften, then add squash and cook until just tender, about 3-5 min.
Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water and drain pasta.
Add pasta back to cooking pot and toss in sausage, squash and 2 tbs. pasta water.
Cook over medium heat until sausage is cooked and pasta is al dente. Add water as necessary.
Remove from heat and add cheese and parsley.
toss until cheese melts, season to taste (salt, pepper) and serve with grated parmiagan.

October 22, 2008

Best Irish Stew Recipe

A friend recommended this recipe to me from the BBC Food site and everyone I've made it for just loves it:

Ingredients1½kg/3lb 5oz stewing beef, cut into cubes
175g/6oz streaky bacon
3 tbsp olive oil
12 baby onions, peeled
18 button mushrooms, left whole
3 carrots, cut into quarters or 12 baby carrots, scrubbed and left whole
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp chopped thyme
2 tbsp chopped parsley
10 cloves of garlic, crushed and grated
425ml/15fl oz red wine
425ml/15fl oz chicken or beef stock

For the roux50g/2oz butter50g/1¾oz flour

1. Brown the beef and bacon in the olive oil in a hot casserole or heavy saucepan.
2. Remove the meat and toss in the onions, mushrooms and carrots, one ingredient at a time, seasoning each time.
3. Place these back in the casserole, along with the herbs and garlic.
4. Cover with red wine and stock and simmer for one hour or until the meat and vegetables are cooked.
5. To make the roux, in a separate pan melt the butter, add the flour and cook for 2 minutes.
6. When the stew is cooked, remove the meat and vegetables.
7. Bring the remaining liquid to the boil and add 1 tbsp of roux.
8. Whisk the mixture until the roux is broken up and the juices have thickened, allowing to boil.
9. Replace the meat and vegetables, and taste for seasoning.10. Sprinkle with chopped parsley

The Quantum and the Lotus

This book features a dialog between a Buddhist monk who trained as a genetcist and an astrophysicist. They discuss a wide range of topics, including the nature of the universe and how Buddhism and quantum theory intersect. One very interesting point brought up in the book is the amazing unlikelyhood of this universe having all the right parameters to support life. Apparently there are no less than 15 parameters that needed to be calibrated exactly right, such as gravitational force, speed of light, mass of elementary particles, etc. This would seem to argue for a creationist force but as Buddhism points out, this doesn't solve the intellectual problem because who created the creator then?

Anyway, if you're struggling to understand the universe this is a good read.

October 21, 2008

They grow so fast. . .

L, my youngest, is a total mommy's girl and wants to snuggle all the time, although lately she's been having potty training pains and is obsessed with having her tush wiped with a moist towel (not that scratchy dry recycled stuff, thank you very much!). Other than the fact that I have to make about 200 trips to the bathroom with her every day, she is my little joy bug.

K is my big girl who looks at me with the same eyes I used to see in the mirror when I was her age. She's just turned 5 and already she's alarmingly competent at stuff like riding her bike around the neighborhood, getting down the big scissors from the top shelf, and all sorts of other things I don't want her doing. Today she went outside to play and came back in tears because the big girls and her best friend went off to share some secret that she wasn't allowed to listen in on. I just hugged her because what could I say? How can you make a 5-year-old understand that the same thing happens when you grow up but you learn to care a bit less?

But little girls are resilient. Ten minutes later all was well and all the girls spent the next hour laboriously creating a little 'jewelry shop' with handmade products cleverly formed out of blades of flowers, blades of grass and fall leaves. They were hanging on display all over the play structure. I wish I had a picture because they were quite lovely but the I couldn't find my camera.
It seemed I had walked into a scene from an earlier era, when kids played with things they found outside instead of expensive, lead-infested plastic toys. Is this the German influence? The Disney princesses are definitely known in Germany, although they don't have quite the same market foothold here. Or is it just the age?

October 19, 2008

Separated at birth

When I lived in Germany 3 years ago there was an interesting statistic that one in seven German children were not fathered by the man they grow up calling 'Papa'. That's pretty high, but probably reasonable given that one in three married German women admit to cheating on their husbands (not sure what the ratio for men is, but it's probably in the same ballpark). No wonder Ralf married an American! As you can imagine, growing up with these statistics, Ralf took a good hard look at Leni when she was born until she started looking so identical to him that people on the street started commenting on it. No question about whose child Leni is - guess which one's Ralf?

Bad eggs

I just finished filling out my absentee ballot and to my surprise there was an even scarier proposition for Americans to vote on than McCain and Palin. There was actually a proposition on the ballot to give animals that are raised to be eaten room to stand up and turn around in captivity. First of all, I had no idea that today's farm animals in California can't stand up or turn around, what are we, barbarians? But even scarier was the write up from the folks who are against this proposition. Something about driving the prices up so California farmers don't produce eggs any more and then we have to buy our eggs from Mexico and get all kinds of diseases from inferior Mexican eggs. Even granting that this whole Mexican chain of logic is valid, it's kind of scary that it's not worth it to California farmers and consumers to produce wholesome eggs without such callousness. I'm not trying to take on all the woes of the world, but voting no on this bill is like saying, 'Suffering is irrelevant as long as I don't have to pay another penny for an egg.' Surely there's a point where the trade off between suffering and personal comfort gets silly. Are chickens more important than children in Africa? Probably not, although who knows what God or whoever you believe in would say about that. But they are closer to home and more directly impacted by this election.

It's not about being humanitarian. It's just about being humane.

Vote for Obama. And please vote for the chickens, too.

October 8, 2008

Warning - Don't read this on an empty stomach!

German food is great, especially in the colder months. There is every sort of bread you can imagine, with every sort of wheat, nut or grain that there is. Some of the breads are dry and boring – for example, the other day we had lunch at our club and I swear we were eating mud bricks but there’s no accounting for taste because Ralf ate his with gusto and several comments about how much he missed real bread in the US – but if you find a good one it’s really good. Munich is also the home of the big-as-your-head soft pretzel. These taste particularly good with Radler, which is ice cold beer mixed with Sprite, and Obatzda, which is a cheesy dip made of Brie, Camembert, butter and paprika and topped with slices of red onion.

Now let’s talk about dairy. The milk here is just good. German cows (at least the ones you can see from the highway) are fat, happy creatures that have nothing to do but look for the most succulent blades of grass to make the sweetest milk. This lovely milk also makes the creamiest butter and yogurt you can imagine. You can lose a lot of weight eating German yogurt because it fills you up for hours.

I never really thought of butter as a delicacy until I watched a French friend of mine lovingly butter a piece of baguette and eat it slowly with her eyes partly closed, as if she had all the time in the world for that perfect slice of buttery Heaven.

There are also obvious German delicacies like Schweinebraten, which is pork roasted in its own juices with a nice, crispy, slightly burnt crust that forms as the outer layer of fat slowly roasts. A good crust is hard to do and the mark of a successful Schweinebraten.

And let us not forget to pay homage to the cakes of Germany. My favorite cakes are the Sachertorte, which is a rich chocolate cake with apricot preserves mixed in, and Prinzregententorte, which is a 7-layer yellow cake with chocolate cream frosting between each thin layer.

And finally, there’s a category of specialty items that take some getting used to but once you like them you’re hooked. For example, Schmalzbrot is pork fat mixed with pork drippings and little pieces of fried bacon spread on dark bread and topped with onion, parsley and a dash of salt. Then there’s Handkaese, which is a hard, incredibly stinky rotten cheese that that is served over dark bread, soaked in vinegrette and topped with raw onions for accent. This dish is popular in the Frankfurt area and is typically served with a sour apple wine that tastes fantastic after you finish your second glass. And last but not least there is Pressack, which is a meat-based gelatin with actual meat chunks marinated in (you guessed it) vinegrette and topped with (you guessed it again) onions.

Mind you, although I enjoy Schmalzbrot, Handkaese and Pressack, it’s not for everyone. About 3 years ago I read a funny article about how some typical German food products were sent to Africa for sampling and the Africans were scandalized at how a rich country like Germany ruins perfectly good food.


This is my tall, smart, handsome, super-organized husband Ralf, who thinks I am using my blog to rubbish him.

OK, it's not really that bad

I've gotten some feedback that people now fear the German highway after reading my blog. However, not to worry - I'm a terrible driver and I sort of manage. In fact, although I somehow squeaked through the system and earned a German drivers’ license years ago (although after I took the driving test the instructor berated me for 5 minutes in low Bavarian, which I didn't understand a word of until the driving school principal gently translated: 'You were supposed to downshift before stopping.') even I in my German-license-earning greatness don’t remember all the different rules of precedence for signs, lights and signals. Generally speaking I look for red and try not to hit other cars and that works pretty well. For what it's worth, if you just forget the main rules and focus on the exception rules you end up with a system that isn't that different from what you'd expect. Weird, huh? And yet, it works.

Here's an interesting factoid: The word 'berate', which means to upbraid or scold, is derived from the German word 'beraten', which means to consult. So I guess when you berate someone in German you're actually doing them a favor that they should be paying you for. ;-)

October 2, 2008

Rules of the Road

Driving in Germany is an experience that provides much insight into the meticulous German soul. In the US, the rules of the road are comprised of some basic and consistent rules, for example, on certain types of road the speed limit is always 35 mph, on the highway it’s 55 or 65 or whatever it is these days but it’s basically consistent so you don’t have to think about it on each stretch of road. There are also clear and consistent rules of precedence, for example, right before left at an intersection where there’s no traffic light. So to summarize, there are a few rules that apply pretty much everywhere and most of them make sense so they’re easy to remember.

For the average German, American traffic rules were designed for weak and retarded people. Just the fact that they can be summarized as I just did in a few sentences is proof of their basic inferiority. Even my husband Ralf, who has more insight into, and, I trust, appreciation for, the American character than the average German, thinks we’re a bunch of helpless, spoon fed idiots on the road. Driving a motorized vehicle is a privilege and should be treated as such by responsible adults who have taken the time to master the skill.

So anyway, car meet road. Road, car. What’s so hard about that? Keep reading.

The exception doesn't always prove the rule

Let’s start with the speed limit. There isn’t one, so in that sense all the nonsense you’ve heard about no speed limits on the Autobahn is technically true. However. Because there is no actual speed limit as such individual stretches of road need to be administered individually so the German roads are littered with speed limit signs. On some stretches the speed changes dramatically every 50 meters, which kind of sucks when you’re driving a stick shift. Moreover, at least for the highways I’ve been on between Munich and Stuttgart, stretches where you can actually go as fast as you want are few and far between, not to mention relatively short. And if you are at all a cautious driver it’s best not to be in the far left lane on those stretches because there will immediately be a silver Porsche or black Mercedes about 5 miles behind you blinking its lights and within 3 seconds it will be right on your tail without slowing down at all so you better get over.

Another weird rule is ‘right before left.’ We have that same rule in the US, you say – what’s so weird about it? What’s weird is that it means something completely different here. It means that when you’re driving along minding your own business and someone pulls recklessly out of a little side street to the right they have right of way. My husband and I argue about this one because I think it’s the most insane rule that ever existed whereas he’s been cleverly brainwashed since high school to think it makes sense. Deep down inside I think the Germans also realize that it’s a crazy rule because they came up with the idea of ‘main highway’ where cars coming from the right don’t have right of way. So when you’re driving you look to see if your stretch of road has a ‘main highway’ sign, which looks like a yellow diamond, and you hope that someone remembered to put up yield signs on the intersecting streets. All in all, this wacky dynamic right of way concept makes it even harder than having a consistently bad rule because you’re never sure if you have right of way or not. (To be fair: Ralf claims that he always knows.)

Much like the German language (more about this at another time), the German rules of the road are based on a few rules that make no sense at all and a bunch of exceptions that would make sense if they were rules instead of exceptions. Because there are so many exceptions (like how fast you can go, whether you have right of way, etc.), there need to be a lot of traffic signs, lights and signals to make drivers aware of the exceptions. This in turn necessitates a hierarchy of road signals so that if you are on a street that has a light and several signs that conflict with each other – I am not joking - you know what to do. Generally speaking lights take precedence over signs and red trumps other colors. Sign precedence is determined by shape and color, and sometimes the actual text of the sign will explain when the rule applies. This text tends to be pretty small, which may be one reason virtually all Germans wear glasses.

What's My Lane?

Now let’s talk about traffic lanes because there seem to be some unofficial rules about which lanes you are supposed to use based on what sort of driver you are. As far as I can tell, the far right lane is primarily for Polish trucks... although, I suppose they can’t all be Polish. Having all the trucks in the right lane makes sense to the extent that it keeps the trucks out of the main traffic flow. However, when you’re trying to get on the highway you’re competing with an endless row of trucks that have right of way, which means they don’t slow down or get out of the way even if it means risking their own lives, and certainly not yours. But except for when you’re entering or exiting the freeway, and they’re trying to squash you like a bug, they’re pretty well contained off to the right. The second lane is for women in smaller cars like Golfs or Twingos and Dutch tourists in campers. Generally speaking, that’s my lane. And the far left lane is for escaped mental patients or people in the second lane who muster up enough courage to pass someone (you may only pass on the left). Sometimes there are four lanes, which allows the German housewives to split off from the Dutch tourists.

The roads themselves are also different from the wide, friendly, environmentally horrible highways we Americans feel entitled to drive on. For one thing, German highways are poorly lit by American standards, which makes it easier for maniacal Porsche drivers to dazzle you with their high beams. For another, Munich (like many European cities) is built on the concept of a ring. Traversing the city generally means following the ring, which is difficult because the street names change periodically and intersecting streets masquerading as the ring try to tempt you off of it and then you find yourself in some place like Unterhacking or Oberamergau with no clue how to get back. The highways are also somewhat challenging to navigate – although they are larger and more like what Americans are used to, you need full knowledge of European geography to get around because the sign won’t mention a direction or the town you’re trying to get to, it’ll say ‘Salzburg’. This works well if you know where Salzburg is relative to where you are now. Of course, even Ralf doesn’t know every single point on the map by heart so he carries around this complicated little book that folds out into many different versions of a map depending on where you are trying to get to. This map is virtually impossible to decipher and it was in part Ralf's mastery of this task that allowed me to identify him as an alpha male and the future father of my children. There's also no way to fold it up again so you only want to use it for real emergencies because you pretty much have to buy a new one each time.

The upside is that German drivers are in the habit of paying attention while they drive, which is good for American newcomers because they can spot (and avoid) you immediately by your failure to understand street signs, your sloppy haircut and/or relaxed posture while driving, your tendency to pass on the right and the jerky moves your car makes if you are driving a stick shift. Note that this does not apply to the truck drivers so give them plenty space and keep in mind that they won’t get into nearly as much trouble for running you off the road as they would in the US.

October 1, 2008

Shake it, baby, shake it!

About seven years ago I was working as an implementation project manager at a large German multi-national car company. One of the things that struck me at this time was how formal some of my German colleagues on the project were. For example, one of the German team leads would shake everyone’s hand in the morning and following his example, so would everyone else on that team. And it’s not like he was super old or of royal descent or anything that might have explained it - he was just your basic mid-to-upper level manager working with the same people every day. I’m not a big hand shaker so I started grabbing a coffee when he came because if I missed the first pass he wouldn’t chase me down later to shake my hand, which would have been disturbing rather than just interesting. Anyway, in this somewhat unusual fashion we all worked quite well together but I always kind of wondered what was up with that.

Fast forward seven years later and when I pick up my kids at Kindergarten, what do they do before I can take them home? They shake hands with their teacher! Another mystery solved.
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