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Prague: Paris To A New Generation

Prezanians rebel, even with victory [1993]. When dissident playwright Vaclav Havel became Czechoslovakia’s first post-war democratically elected president, he deemed the presidential palace to be far too opulent a place in which to get things done.

He promptly moved the home of his emerging nation’s government to his modest apartment, surprising no one: “Bohemian” means “free spirit”, and as Prague is the natural as well as geographical capital of Bohemia, la vie boheme is the order of the day.

Prague has systematically and unabashedly established itself as the Paris of the MTV generation. The Warsaw Pact is ancient history; anybody coming to get a glimpse of an “east bloc” city is embarrassed to find himself three years too late.

These days the small cafes which dot the streets of the stare masto are teeming with tweedily shabby-dressed chain-smoking writers arguing over endless cups of espresso, world-weary American 19-year-old lit majors having philosophical discussions straight out of Woody Allen movies and scruffy-looking Marx-bearded chess players brooding over their boards.

Never was Prague’s Bohemian spirit more evident than in August, 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded Prague. A cultural revolution was ignited by this violation, and artists and the intelligentsia burrowed deeply underground, but never stopped producing. Books were secretly distributed in manuscript form; apartments became private art galleries and theatres. This hoard of artistic artefacts was thrust forth to a culturally ravenous population after the “velvet revolution” of 1989.

When word of Prague’s renaissance began filtering through the Eurograpevine, Go East, young man became more a way of life than a slogan. This seductive city, so durable and unconquerable that it resisted the Soviets’ knee-jerk attempts at uglification, remains a fairy tale setting that is irresistible.

It is old (even the “New Town” dates to the fifteenth century), and the city is a potpourri of beautiful parks and greenery. Its Gothic masterpieces are unintimidating, and its baroque and Renaissance architecture all somehow managed to sidestep being ruined or razed during centuries of European and Communist strife.

It is no wonder then, that Prague has become home to what seems like every artist, poet, painter, writer, actor, musician, model and student whose careers have been stunned by the lingering recession of the Western world.

The city’s main drag, Vaclavske namesti, is an explosion of bustling shops, news and fast-food kiosks, mid-range (but overpriced) hotels and impromptu shows throughout the day. Whether it’s a fashion show, buskers, street magicians or just a Danish backpacker getting hassled by the police for throwing firecrackers, there’s always something happening.

The atmosphere is right out of ‘sixties American television – it’s the “good parts” version with all the music, free love, long-hairs and street-corner philosophers, while strife, generational misunderstandings and Vietnam have been tastefully left on the cutting room floor.

A walk from the Mala Strana, or “little quarter” across the fourteenth century Charles Bridge towards the Old Town on a summer evening is a “Who’s Who In Prague” tour. The bridge, one of 16 that span the Vltava River, offers spectacular views of the city and Prazsky Castle, and everybody knows it. Groups congregate amidst the eighteenth- and nineteenth- century statuary and on, around and actually in the pylons at both ends of the 603 meter span, clumped as discretely as New York City neighbourhoods: 20 metres from the architectural grad-student crowd will sit a group of hashish-smoking, guitar-playing flower children, while a nearby commercial film crew frantically sets up a shot before they lose their light.

Everywhere there is a palpable feeling of a reborn city coming in to its own. The thriving expat community didn’t come here to escape the realities of the “real world” so much as to a haven in which they could create their own.

“I’m 25,” says Amy Leanor, Program Director for a soon-to-open radio station, “I got a communications degree from U Mass at Amherst, and the best I could do at home was land a spot at Blockbuster Video. I’ve got opportunities here I could never get anywhere else and I live like a Queen for like $A400 a month. If that’s escapism, I escaped.”

But expats aren’t the only ones flourishing – they’re just loud and proud about “finding their own”. The Czechs, on the other hand, never lost it, and continue to use anything as an opportunity for entrepreneurship. The law of the land here used to be “if it’s not required, it’s forbidden”. Restructuring the law to keep up with regulating rediscovered freedom is a process lengthy enough to ensure that when an entrepreneur starts up a business, it’s legal until someone can prove it isn’t. So state-run cafes become performance art centres, apartments house language schools and night clubs, galleries and theatres open everywhere and anywhere with impunity.

In the basement of Radost FX, for example, Prague’s latest “New York” style nightclub, sits former President Havel’s former bodyguard Jon Bok. Bok recently opened a literally underground art gallery – in the club’s Gent’s room. Visitors to the loo can, on alternate evenings, see or buy paintings or listen to Czech philosophers speak and rant. In the West, some might think a Gallerie Toilet a bit on the odd side, but Bok told Prognosis, Prague’s English-language paper of record, that “it doesn’t matter what people think of me. When I come home with my pockets full of money and my wife is happy, then I’m happy too.” And a lot of money is being made here, as more and more Volgas, Trabants and Wartburgs, replaced with Mercedes, BMWs and Audis attest.

A city that attracted 5.3 million visitors last year alone, though, would have to be more than just a playground for black-clad, ambitious new-age hipsters, and to young and old, Prague doesn’t disappoint. “I came here first with my father, two years ago,” says German-born Prague resident Christian Schwenk. “He did the cathedrals and the opera while I was dancing and getting trashed in the clubs. When I lived in London, he came to visit once, since I moved here he’s been over four times!”

For culture-vultures, Prague’s a treasure-trove of castles, cathedrals, museums and classical music and theatre, and if you stayed a year you’d only see half of it. World renowned for its tower-packed skylines, playfully sculpted facades and lofty spires, Prague gives the feeling of being on the set of a knights, dragons and maidens movie. The prerequisite walking tour starting at Vaclavske namesti, down through the Old Town past the Tyn Cathedral and St. Nicholas Church, across the Charles bridge and up the steep hill to the Prazky Castle is enough to instil inspiration to see it all, or intimidate into dashing for the nearest beer hall – in either case, Prague is accommodating.

Nightlife, which at least a few people have come here for, runs the gamut from classical concerts at the Dvorak Museum and Nosticky Palace to jazz in the Red Hot &Blues and Cafe Nouveau, to head-bashing heavy metal in Rock Bar Uzi (also known for its tattoo parlour) and everything in between. For pub-crawlers, Prague is a utopian free-for-all of cabarets, cafes, beer-halls and coffee houses, all abuzz about…well, everything.

Czechs make some of the world’s finest beer, and there’s a huge variety of it. More important, it sells from around $A0.40/half litre (this is not a typo). Be sure to wander into some of the older, more run down, out-of-the-way beer halls that ring the city. You walk in to a smoke-clouded room, sit at picnic-style tables and before you can say “Pivo prosim” a half-litre tankard of pilsener is thumped down on the table in front of you (if you’ve had enough, say it fast; the next round comes out with neither request nor warning!). Shunned by trendsetters, you’ll find your drinking companions in these establishments to be burly Czechs washing down several buckets of suds after a long day of thinking about it.

For homesick Americans, Brits and Aussies, stopping into the Globe Cafe at Janoskeho 14 is entering a bastion of English-speaking civility. Owned by a 26-year-old expat American, this used bookstore-cum-cafe has evolved into the epicentre of Prague’s expat cafe society. One California-healthy meal and several cappuccinos later, you’re braced to take on the oh-so-hip party animal crowd that swarms RC Bunkr until three am.

As you ride home through cobblestone back streets in a Volga taxi on a rainy night, it’s easy to imagine the place as the perfect backdrop (which it was until 1989) for a Ludlam thriller. The city’s rolling hills, winding roads lined with fifteenth-century buildings and entrenched cafe society were as powerful a magnet to Cold War spooks as they are to the hundred thousand or so expats and nouveau-Bohemians who now call Prague home.

If You Go …

Visas
Australian and New Zealand citizens require a visa to visit the Czech Republic, available from the Czech Embassy or your nearest consulate. Visa prices range from $A32 for a single entry 30 day stay to $A90 for a multiple entry 90 day stay; you’ll need a passport with more than six months’ validity and one passport sized photograph.

Getting There
Qantas ((02) 957 0111) offers standard economy fares from $A2,099 ex-Sydney via Fankfurt or London, count on up to $A2,800 during May-August. Student travel specialists STA Travel ((02) 281 9866) have flights to Prague via Rome and London for around $A2,200-2,400, but they’re the best bet for as-yet unpublished special discount fares.

Money
The Czech currency is the Crown (Kcs), and the exchange rate hovers at around $A1=Kcs19.00. Changing money on the street is dangerous and unnecessary; rates aren’t great, ripoffs are common, and legitimate exchange offices and kiosks are practically on every corner. Note that Crowns can’t be converted anywhere outside the CR, so don’t change more than you’ll need.

Guidebooks & Information
Prognosis, Prague’s excellent English-language bi-weekly newspaper/cultural bible, is an indespensible source of up-to-the-minute practical information in this fast-changing city. Check it for reliable restaurant, cafe, club and pub listings, reviews and prices. Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe on a Shoestring is great for sights but outdated; Let’s Go: Europe has an excellent accommodation section; Frommer’s Eastern Europe is hands down best for history, culture and architecture.

Getting Around
Prague has one of the cheapest and most sensible public transportation networks in Eastern Europe. Buses, trams and the gleaming Metro (underground) run from about 05:00-midnight, and night trams take up some of the night owl slack. Tickets, currently Kcs4 ($A0.20), are available at newsstands, tobacco shops and from dispensing machines in Metro stations. Hailing a taxi in the street can be an expensive proposition, always ask that the driver uses the meter (“Zapnete taximetr, prosim”).

Where to Stay
Everyone’s going to Prague: accommodation is scarce and reservations key. CKM Agency (Zitna 12; tel. 24 91 04) has listings of available space in hostels and hotels; Cedok (Vaclacske namesti 24, tel 24 19 71) is an agency specialising in short term (from one night/$A30) placement in private apartments.

Hostels (up to about $A13/person): Estec is a huge and very popular complex (Metro Devicka and bus 217 to the Stadium then follow the crowd, tel. 52 73 44); Domov mladeze-Penzion is a good second bet (Dykova 20, tram 16 to Perunova; tel. 25 06 88); there’s also a newish, hard-to-find and comfortable hostel above the Central Train Station for Kcs175: walk out of the upstairs exit near the bus stops (follow the signs that say Cafeteria), turn left, walk to the end of the building, left again and through the small door that says “Hostel”.

Food &Drink
Czech food, a German-influenced Slavic cuisine, is heavy on the potatoes, with delicious dumplings and soups, roast beef, boar and duck, but Prague is packed with restaurants serving everything from Middle Eastern to American; Lebanese to Mexican and all points in between. U Cizku, Karlovo namesti 34, serves classic Czech cuisine in a very traditional seting; Jo’s Bar, Malostranske namesti 7, is a small and noisy, but authentic, Mexican cafe; U Sedru, Na hitich 13, entrance around the corner on Narodni Obrany, has excellent Lebanese specialties; Red Hot And Blues, a honky tonk, Tex-Mex/New Orleans creole legend also features live music on most evenings, Jakubska 12; if you’re dying for a pizza, head for Pizzeria San Pietro at Beneditska 16 for a classic Italian atmosphere and excellent thin-crusted pizzas and Italian food. For street snacks, kiosks and fast-food restaurants (including one of the world’s slickest McDonald’s) abound, and don’t miss trying a plate of something in the few remaining state-run “milk bars”, where cheap hot meals can be had for about $A2.00.

Clubs & Pubs
When these places close, new ones will take their place: consult Prognosis for club and pub listings. Rock Cafe, Narodni 22 – rock and disco, films in the afternoon; RC Bunkr, Lodecka 2. Hard drinking PIB’s, good live bands, young, hip crowd; Klub Alterna Komotovka, Seifertova 3, is like a totally groovy place to check out some disco and sway to some vegetarian minimalist relaxation pitches; AghaRTA Jazz Centrum, Krakovska 5, Prague’s answer to London’s Ronnie Scott’s: very cool jazz (nightly at 21:00), very cool-jazz-loving crowd; Radost FX, Belehradska 120, Rock Bar Uzi, Legerove 44 (Metro I.P. Pavlova), Za Porucskou Branou, Za poncskou branou 14 (metro Florenc) is the classic smoke filled woozy-patroned Czech beer-hall, but if you’re looking for some English conversation, hit the Globe Cafe at Janoskeho 14, or Ziznivy Pes (The Thirsty Dog) at Obecniho House, namesti Republiky.

Discounts
Museums, galleries, exhibitions, plays and the opera all offer student discounts, and some hostels will accept an ISIC in lieu of a IYH Card; travellers under 26 (student or not) can also get significant reductions in European train and plane fares ex-Prague; always show the card before buying the ticket, and oftentimes you’ll be asked for your passport as well.

Trains, Buses & Car Rental
There’s frequent rail service to all European capitals; tickets are always cheaper ex-Prague than vice-versa, so it’s a great place to jump off on a European excursion; tickets are available on the ground floor of Praha hlavni nadrazi, the Central Train Station near Metro Museum. CSAD Travel at Na prikope 31 (tel. 236 5332) and Bohemia Tour, Zlatnicka 7 (tel. 232 3877) offer cheap international bus tickets. Car Rental is absolutely unnecessary unless you’re taking a day trip out of the city (and can be an expensive proposition as police, empowered to impose on-the-spot-fines, find any excuse to). Avis: Opletalova 33 (tel. 2422 9848); the cheaper ESOCAR, Husitska 58 (tel. 691 2244)

Bluetooth Is Coming…And How…

What do feisty contenders like Germany’s Hüft and Wessel and Sweden’s C-Technologies have in common with giants such as Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens? Bluetooth technology: the most quickly adopted industry standard in history.

And very soon you’ll own something that’s Bluetooth enabled – whether you know it or not.

Analysts say that Bluetooth, which allows broadband-speed wireless communication between computing and other devices, is at the cusp of ignition, but that its mainstream use is still one-and-a-half to two years away, despite the early release of British Telecommunications-enabled devices this year.

But oh, how it will go mainstream: in a June 29 report on Bluetooth, Merrill Lynch upped its market estimates of Bluetooth device penetration to an astounding 2.1 billion devices by 2005.

Early Problems
The main obstacles right now are robust software to operate the chips and a perception–if flawed–of the chips as being overly expensive. Not quite accurate, said Karl Hicks, a manager at Datamonitor’s technology division.

“Some would say that there’s a problem with price at the moment,” Hicks said, “but the cost is really only $15 or $20 per chip currently, and when you see the kinds of announcements and developments in Bluetooth, the large economies of scale will begin to bring prices down very soon.”

Merrill Lynch vice president and European seminconductor analyst, Andrew Griffin, who co-authored the Merrill Lynch report on Bluetooth, agreed. “We’re looking at the average price per chip dipping below $5 in 2002, but some firms will have reached that price level by 2001,” he said.

Another mildly worrying subject, according to Griffen, is the development of “bulletproof, robust software that won’t irritate the end user.” Point-to-point solutions are one thing, but software that can cope consistently with other kinds of applications–for example, cell phones speaking with PDAs, laptops and other devices–is still under development.

“Software issues aren’t going to prevent Bluetooth from taking off,” Griffen said, “but it will prevent it from taking off this year, and we won’t be seeing any of the really super sexy applications just yet.”

Why It Will Work
“It’s really simple,” said Johan Boman, chief financial officer of Sweden’s C-Technologies, which recently unveiled the first mass-market Bluetooth enabled device. “We expect Bluetooth to be the definitive standard for communications, replacing infrared and all other existing options. Companies simply must cope with it to have a place in the market.”

While the technology is currently under heavy development by major American manufacturers like Motorola, Dell, Microsoft and Intel, smaller European firms have some distinct advantages.

Ericsson, which initiated the standard, had the stunningly good sense to see that a) they had a hot one on their hands, and b) in order for it to succeed the standard must be open and royalty free. The result has been industry support by all major computer manufacturers, and a current membership of almost 1900 companies in the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) of Bluetooth device manufacturers.

The beauty of the open standard is that it allows smaller companies, which can move much faster on a new technology, the luxury of full entry to the market at this early stage. For example, take Neuer Markt gem, Hanover-based Höft and Wessel, which specializes in interactivity and mobile communications (they make the gizmo that the conductor uses to charge your credit card for tickets aboard European trains, and the one you paid for your rental car with at the airport last month).

The company, which made a name for itself in European mobile computing with the wildly successful “Taschen Kasse” mobile cash register, is now looking to empower its Web Panel with Bluetooth. The Web Panel is already a model of inteconnectivity, a wireless web device that can run both Windows Pocket PC and Linux operating systems.

Or take C-Technologies, whose Anoto division recently brought the first mass-market Bluetooth-enabled product, the Anoto Pen, to market. The pen, a bit chubbier than a Mont Blanc but with thinner versions planned, has a built-in camera and recognition engine that allows users to write a note on patterned paper by hand, and then send it as an e-mail via Bluetooth.

C-Tech is already a producer of popular handheld devices that lend themselves quite naturally to Bluetooth, such as the C-Pen and handheld scanners–and the company has already unveiled prototypes of these devices enabled for Bluetooth.

These companies are far from alone. This week, IBM and Toshiba announced they will offer Motorola Bluetooth devices across a range of their products. IBM also said it will produce Bluetooth-enabled PCMCIA cards, allowing users of current notebooks and laptops to connect easily with future Bluetooth devices.

And Ericsson will soon release its Bluetooth-enabled cellular phone wireless handset, which will work with any make or model Bluetooth-enabled phone. Analysts agree that Bluetooth, whose standard operates on the same frequencies worldwide, allowing users to use Bluetooth devices anywhere on earth, will substantially change the way devices communicate.

“That’s the really exciting aspect of Bluetooth,” said Jörg Müller, research analyst for new technologies at Value Research Management.

“People talk about the cable-free revolution; I’m not really interested in avoiding cables, but I really mind if I have to use 15 different adapters, like when I have my Alcatel cell phone that can’t connect to my car, which is wired for Siemens,” he said. “Or when I already own a Siemens headset and buy a new Motorola phone. In these cases, Bluetooth would let me use all my devices together.”

What It Does & How It Works
Bluetooth wireless technology lets a device speak, at broadband rates, with other nearby Bluetooth devices instantly and securely, and uses the same frequencies worldwide, so your cell-phone from the US can speak with your VCR in Hong Kong. Each chip can support up to seven “slave” devices, and that mini-network can in turn can be slaved to a second master–the possibilities are mind boggling.

The buzz over Bluetooth is just beginning, and while many products are in development, there’s a somewhat slow ignition process at the moment, but that won’t last long: it’s merely a matter of momentum.

“It’s a bit like the first fax machine or the first video phone,” said VMR’s Müller, “until there are more users you’re not going anywhere. The consumer only benefits when there’s a broad range of Bluetooth devices on the market. I’m really sure that this has a very big future, but at the moment, there’s a struggle to get enough products to market for the concept and the platform to really take off.”

Analysts agree. “I don’t think we’ll see very much happening this year,” said Johan Montelius, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. “We’ll see lots of press releases and a few products coming out, but the big thing is next year.”

For European investment opportunities, look to manufacturers like C-Tech and Höft and Wessel, as well as infrastructure and mobile telephony companies. But don’t forget an important player: “white devices”. Dishwashers, refrigerators and other kitchen appliances will be heavy users of Bluetooth in the future. As a Massachusetts Institute of Technology guru told the crowd last week at a London advertising convention, the majority of Internet communication in the coming years will be “machines, not people.”

So when your fridge calls your grocer to order more Nutella, Bluetooth will have come of age.

And Now, A Little Trabant Joke

TrabantThe Trabant (1949 to 1989) was the GDR’s answer to the Volkswagen. Intended to be economical, convenient and ubiquitous, it succeeded in being only the latter.

Despite production times from hell (the average Trabant owner waited nine years to get their lemon), the Trabi, as it was affectionately dubbed, is still one of the most common cars on the road in Eastern Germany.

Each Trabi took so long to build because its plastic pieces (most of the vehicle’s parts, aside from the frame, hood and other necessarily strong sections, were plastic) were molded by workers running hand-operated molding systems.

A plastic car, you say, with a two-stroke engine that you had to wait two years to own?

That reminds us of a little joke.

A Texas oil man heard that there were cars in East Germany so popular that buyers had to wait years to take delivery of one. He immediately sent a check to the Trabi factory.

The directors, sensing a propaganda coup in the making, arranged to send him the very next car off the line.

Two weeks later the oil man was in a bar, speaking with some friends.

“Ah ordered me one o’ them Trabis them folks over there in East Germany wait 12 years to get,” he drawled.

“And you know what? Them East Germans are so efficient. Wah, just last week they sent me over a little plastic model so I can know what to expect!”

 

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This (minus the graphic) appears on page 250 of Lonely Planet’s Germany travel survival kit.

Retroshock: When The Familiar Is Unfamiliar

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An American returning to the United States after living abroad finds himself in the unique position of being, for a time, a stranger in his own land.

Everything he has attuned his body and mind to accept as normal no longer is. Hearing English spoken in the streets, not having to work out what to say to a shopkeeper in advance, and even plain old-fashioned jet lag are all symptoms of what some refer to as “retro-shock”: The familiar is unfamiliar.

“We warn volunteers before they go, telling them that they will experience culture shock; different sights, sounds, smells, but that none of this will be anything like coming home,” says Cammie Noah, public affairs officer for the Northern California field office of the Peace Corps. “But you can never prepare for re-entering an American supermarket for the first time. You walk in and see 17 brands of chili and there are so many choices you walk out with nothing.”

Indeed, the sheer amount of consumer goods available in the United States is startling to one who has spent time away. Ken Eckern, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based medical supplies salesman who was asked how a two-week trip home to the States was, replied simply, “They got a lot of stuff in Target.”

Scott Hepworth, Stake president of the San Jose East chapter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says, “One of the first things that people returning to the States see is the monumental waste – throwing food away, excess packaging and these things are very disturbing because you tend not to notice them before you go away.”

For many, retro-shock begins on the flight home. One man said that on his recent Delta flight from Frankfurt, the captain addressed the passengers, saying he was speaking from the “flightpit.” Had political correctness so changed the American lexicon, he wondered, that “cockpit” was now a sexist or sexually charged term?

“And then the captain told us that the temperature in New York was 45 degrees. For the last three years, I’ve been living like the rest of the world, in Celsius. For a second I thought it was 115 degrees Fahrenheit in January in New York.”

This type of confusion, though it lasts only a few seconds, occurs frequently during the first two weeks after returning, and many say it can be very disorienting.

“When I first returned from New Zealand,” says Hepworth, “I had dreams for about a month where I was driving on the left-hand side of the road.”

The Peace Corps, one of the largest organizations that regularly assigns Americans to overseas posts, says the feelings of displacement are universal to returning volunteers.

“Every Peace Corps volunteer has gone through this,” says Michael Learmouth, a public affairs officer for the National Peace Corps Association in Washington, D.C. “Anyone who (gets stationed overseas) has to go through culture shock twice, and some feel that the returning culture shock is the worse of the two.”

Reversal of Customs
To effectively function in a foreign country for an extended period you have to fully adapt to the customs of that country. Upon returning to the States, the readjustment from what has become “normal” must be reversed, and some say the turnaround is never quite complete.

“After a year or two of being away,” says Amy Portnoy, a New York-based international media consultant, “you think about what life is like in the States and how things work here – you build up a lot of expectations and slightly flawed memories and you’re usually wrong, because your expectations are based on sort of a synthesized middle ground between the two cultures.”

The feeling of displacement during the readjustment period, where neither home nor the foreign residence can be considered “home base,” can produce a range of symptoms: from the mild, such as confusion about weights and measures or stomach problems from readjustment to the local food, to the more serious such as depression, paranoia, a feeling of being “left out” or floundering.

Sublime to the Ridiculous
The readjustments run the gamut “from the sublime to the ridiculous,” laments David Wilson, an American journalist who recently returned from a two- year European assignment. “I get annoyed that even after a month at home, every time I try to turn on the bathroom light I turn off the hall light!” (In Europe, light switches are generally placed outside the room, and switch down for “on.”)

“The first few days back were hell,” recalls Timothy Philips, who taught English in southern Poland. “I was walking in a cloud, and every time I walked into a shop I felt something was missing, because I didn’t have to work out in advance what I’d say to the shopkeeper. And for the first week, every time I heard English spoken on the street I’d want to ask them where they were from, because over there a native speaker was a novelty. Sometimes I’d feel sorry for the person I was speaking to because they got subjected to two weeks of pent-up English!”

Aside from physical discomfort and temporary confusion, there is a feeling of frustration among returning expatriates over not being able to express what they’re going through with their friends at home. “Most people at home can’t relate to these experiences,” says Eugene Patron, a Miami-based free-lance correspondent who spent most of 1991 in southern Africa. “Climbing a sand dune in Africa at sunrise gives you a feeling you can’t explain to someone who’s never done it and those feelings are yours alone. But that also means it’s difficult to relate the stories of your trip in a meaningful way.”

The Peace Corps’ Cammie Noah agrees. “It’s a big problem. When you talk to people you want to tell them what you’ve been through and they don’t want to hear it. They’ll say “How was Uganda?’ and you’ve gotten into it for 30 seconds and they want to start talking about Mary being pregnant and what’s new on television.”

Key to easing back into life in the States are support groups. The Peace Corps has a department dedicated to helping returning volunteers re-establish their paper trail (such as obtaining employment, referrals and health insurance) as well as counseling.

Elaine Neufeldt, treasurer of the non-profit Northern California Group of Returning Peace Corps Volunteers (NorCal), was an overseas volunteer in Kenya from 1969 to 1972, and in the East Caribbean from 1979 to 1981. “We’ve got 720 members, and we find that many of them have been frustrated by their inability to find really receptive listeners,” she says. “We hook up with them to help them ease back in, because anyone who’s been overseas has a lot of weird things to talk about that we can understand.”

Birds of a Feather
Other returning expatriates, such as journalists or teachers, find support from those in the same field who’ve had similar overseas experiences. And on- line computer services offer a forum for “chats” about traveling or life in foreign countries.

“There’s a difference between a tourist, a traveler and an expatriate,” says free-lance writer Patron. “When you’re living and working overseas you feel different; special and kind of radical, and when you get home there’s a feeling like you’re still in motion, or not rooted yet. It can be very confusing.”

Easier Each Time
Those who repeatedly live overseas, though, say that each time it gets easier to readjust, and that the first time is definitely the hardest. “Separating becomes easier the more you do it,” says a translator who has lived abroad on and off for eight years. “The more you leave and come back, the easier it is to say, “OK, this is here, that’s there’ and keep realistic expectations about what it’s like to return home.

“A big difference about coming home is that when you’re away, every day is like an adventure,” she says. “When you’re away, something always happens; whether it’s good or bad, it’s something new, and I miss that.”

 

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED
Returning Peace Corps volunteers interested in contacting the Northern California Group of Returning Peace Corps Volunteers may write to NorCal, P.O. Box 2547, San Francisco, Calif. 94126 or call the Peace Corps at (415) 744-2677.

Russian Cooking Comes Of Age

Russian-Borsch-Recipe-Me-cookingAs fodder for guide book humor, Soviet cuisine led with its chin. It’s not that there wasn’t any good food available in the country, it’s just that you had to search long and hard for it. In between looking and finding, visitors were faced down by enormous portions of overcooked vegetables, potatoes slathered in vegetable oil, mystery meat and the occasional pancake with sour cream.

And at Moscow’s middle-eastern restaurants, one would wondered whether ” belly dancing” meant theirs or the dancer’s.

Now days, with availability of high-quality fresh ingredients from around the country and the world at an all time high, Russians are cooking up a storm. And despite their reliance on just a tad more fat then most Western chefs, they’re pretty darn good at it.

The newly-slicked-up Russian Television stations – and their sponsors – have not been slow to capitalize on this trend. One of the most popular cooking shows on Russian television is Smak (which sort of translates to ‘Pleasant Taste’), sponsored by Uncle BenE’s rice and hosted by Andrey Makarevich, former lead singer of the famous 70’s and 80’s-era rock group Time Machine. Now a bit older, a bit paunchier but still as charming as ever, Makarevich’s show features recipes from and appearances by famous (and not so famous) guests.

On May 8, the day before Victory Day, Smak featured cartoonist-cum-television commercial actor Ufimtsev, proffering his recipe for what he calls Baked Chicken and I call ‘Victory Chicken Statue on a Bed Of Wild Rice’ (you’ll get it when you see the recipe).

In a halting, slightly nervous but mostly confident manner, Ufimtsev set about chopping garlic, mushing butter and generally being the elder statesman about the kitchen.

And lo and behold, as the thing started to take shape, I realized that this was the Russian version of the chicken my fat- and-cholesterol-fearing father prepares in New York using a metal contraption that looks something like a Tonka super sex toy, designed to hold the chicken upright during cooking so that the evil fat drips away from the meat. ‘Boy, this is terrific’, says dad, and judging by the looks of things on Smak, Russians think so, too.

UfimtsevE’s Victory Chicken Statue

(From Smak)

Chicken:

one medium-sized chicken, washed

small bunch of dill

several (6 to 8) cloves of garlic

1 cup water

one stick softened butter

1 thick 500 ml or 750 ml glass Bottle (such as a European beer bottle)

Rice:

One cup wild rice

two cups cold water

one tablespoon softened butterv
dash salt

Chicken

Fill the bottle about a quarter-full with water, and add about two cloves of crushed garlic. Impale the washed chicken on of the bottle so that it looks sort of like a chicken statue. The chicken should reach almost, but not quite, to the bottle bottom.

Spread the softened butter all over the chicken, using your hands, followed by crushed garlic. Place the chicken statue on a cookie sheet (to catch fat) in a pre-heated 200°C/400°F oven for about an hour or until done.

The fat drips from the outside of the bird onto the cookie sheet; from inside into the bottle, steaming water infuses the chicken meat with garlic aroma. The contents of the bottle are later discarded.

It didn’t explode on TV, so I don’t see why it would at your house, but for the attorneys’ sake, I should say that the whole thing is AWFULLY DANGEROUS and should all have a warning label and don’t try this at home unless you’re a professional. Use as thick a bottle as you can. If you’re still worried, you’re probably the kind of person who thinks that baseball bats should have warning labels.

Rice

In a small pot, place the rice into the cold water, add butter and salt, bring to a boil; stir briefly and reduce to a simmer and cover the pot for twenty minutes or until the water is gone and small steam holes appear in the surface of the rice on the pot. Don’t stir during cooking and for God’s sake don’t overcook it or keep opening the pot to see if it’s done all the time.

Spread the rice out on a serving dish large enough to accommodate the chicken. When the chicken’s done, place it on the bed of rice (Smak, of course, prefer that it be Uncle Ben’s!). Um, before you do that, it’s probably good to remove the now- filled bottle – grasp it, with the aid of a pot holder, and pull the chicken off the top carefully with two forks.

Chop finely the bunch of dill and three cloves of garlic, and mix the two together in a small bowl. Pour some of the pan drippings on top of the chicken, then sprinkle the garlic-dill mixture on top as a garnish.

You can modify this recipe to be Fatly Correct by ditching the butter and not garnishing with pan drippings; the inside of the bird will still be sumptuous and moist. If you’re really into it, remove the skin, but AFTER cooking. Come on, live a little.

How To Read A Guidebook

Near the registration desk at Jakarta’s most famous youth hostel, Wisma Delina, I watched with growing disbelief an exchange between the owner and an angry backpacker.

“A room,” the owner said, “costs 13,500 rupiah per person.”

“No it doesn’t,” insisted the backpacker, fervently jabbing at a listing in his well-thumbed guidebook, “it says right here that it costs 12,000.”

A traveler who expects a guidebook to dictate pricing policy to the hotel industry is in for a shock. As the guidebook market has become more competitive, publishers have been going to greater lengths than ever to convince readers of their thoroughness, accuracy, and authority. But you can’t forget that a guidebook is intended to be just that – a guide.

“I’m glad I’m in the book,” the owner told me later, when the influx of shelter-seeking backpackers and tapered off. “But I have that same argument 10 times a day. People don’t seem to accept that I set my prices – the guidebook doesn’t.”

He’s right. And it’s not just prices; some travelers take a listing the guidebook to be the word of God – and then become incensed when the book’s wrong.

“A traveler standing on street corner, shifting his eyes between a guidebook and the empty spot where he expects to see something the book describes,” said Berkeley screenwriter Natalie Cooper, “has a deer in the headlights vacuousness that I think is incredibly funny.”

As a guidebook writer I know that all guides, even the great ones, have their inaccuracies. A typo can put museum on the wrong side of town. An off the beaten path site or attraction that appears in a book may be teaming with tourists a couple of months later.

A good write-up in a popular guidebook sometimes results in a price hike. And a cheap bus from A to B go out of business or be taken over by thieving greedheads by the time you ask for your ticket.

But it shouldn’t stop you in your tracks.

Rolling With The Punches
Rolling with the punches is the key to enjoying yourself on the road. Even the best guidebook can’t prepare you for everything you encounter. Even if it could it would take away much of the delight of traveling. When I’m on the road I expect surprises – in fact that’s one of the main reasons I enjoy traveling.

Sometimes the surprises books bring are even pleasant. “The super shuttle,” writes Tony Wheeler in Lonely Planet’s San Francisco City guide, “costs 11 dollars.” Well, my driver charged me $10 for the drive and if anyone thinks I argued with her and pointed in my guidebook they’re nuts.

Travelers can get the most out of their guidebook by carefully selecting a guide that suites their needs.

“One of the quickest ways to see if the book’s right for you,” said Bill Dalton, who founded the Moon handbook series in 1973, “is to look at the index and the table of contents together; play them against each other and from those to you can surmise the breadth and scope of the book.

That’s key. Before you do that though, you’ve got to decide just how much information you want. When researching in Russia, I used the excellent Blue Guide to Moscow and St. Petersburg for architectural and historical information. But for just visiting the city, I’d probably want less detailed history and culture and more general and practical information.

Watch out for books that loaded down with features you don’t need. When I went to Costa Rica for two-week vacation all I wanted was bare bones practical information on how to get to the nearest beach. But on a recent trip to Munich I looked for something to give me a broad range of information like history, culture, architecture and entertainment.

Getting at What You Need
My colleague, Tom Brosnahan, author of Lonely Planet’s Guatemala, Belize and Yucatan guidebook, stresses information accessibility.

“A good guidebook is a knowledgeable, insightful, well informed friend who’s been to the place before you and is helping you get through it,” said Brosnahan, who suggests that you read some paragraphs and see if you can get all with the author’s “voice”. Does it sound friendly” Pithy” Florid”

That’s very important. Peter Moore, who writes about travel on the Internet and speaks about it on radio, said: “choosing a guidebook to accompany you on your travels is as personal a decision as buying a new pair shoes or a new coat. If you’re not comfortable with it, you’re going to have a terrible time.”

“Wherever possible,” said Fred Hornbruch, owner of Philias Fogg’s Travel Books in Palo Alto, “I compare the information of an area I’m familiar with to see if the author covers it as accurately and completely as I want.”

That’s not a bad strategy. When I plan a trip to place or region where I’ve been before, I loiter in book shops looking at every guide they have, looking up off the beaten path places I remember. The book that has the most of them listed – and described well – usually comes home with me.

Some key points:

Prices change. Prices, if listed, are there as a guide to costs at the time of research. They’re not intended to be accurate forever, or even spot on when you by the book. What they are, though, are generally accurate representations of price ratios relative to each other. If you notice that the prices you encounter are, say, 5 to 10% higher than those quoted in the book, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be similarly higher elsewhere in the country. But a hotel that’s 10% cheaper than its neighbor will likely retain that price advantage.

Things change. Good places go bad, bad places go broke. As a traveler, your instincts are what you should be following; use the guidebook to hone them.

Get what you need, not what’s prettiest. Check the proportion of color photos to text to see if what are looking at is primarily a picture book with text or text complemented by pictures. Three pages of photos to one of text is a distinctly leaning to a coffee table book!

Do your homework. Even if you have a loyalty to a particular guidebook series, check the competition is well. All publishers have a couple of books that they’d just as soon forget about – books that aren’t quite up to the series standard for one reason or another. It’s your responsibility to find the best book for your trip. You may find that you want to buy more than one book to cover all of your interests.

And when you do find a mistake or a piece of dated information, perhaps you’ll find it some consolation that, while it may have annoyed you for a minute, we’ll be getting mail about it for the rest of our lives.

Checking Out The Russians In The Hoosgow

The unique thing about St. Petersburg’s new Holiday Hostel kept distracting me as I walked through, checking for bugs under the beds or other tell-tale signs of sloppiness (I didn’t find any). What I was hearing was shouting, and it was coming from…right…next…door. Look at it as a selling point or a travel agent’s nightmare, but it’s certainly unique that the Holiday Hostel’s building is adjacent to St. Petersburg’s Kresty Prison.

Kresty is St. Petersburg’s main holding prison; if you’re busted here, Kresty’s where they take you to await whatever it is that awaits you. And while news reports of a Mafia takeover of the 18th-century City on the Neva are preposterously overblown, crime has increased to the point that Kresty is doing brisk business indeed.

But what distinguishes Kresty from, say, New York’s Riker’s Island, is that Kresty is located on a main boulevard, and prisoners can get to the windows. Russian families are quite close, and in true Russian style, the families of the accused line the street outside, bonding with their inmates.

On any given day, you can see dozens of these well-wishers lining Arsenalnaya naberezhnaya. Mothers, fathers and sometimes even drunken friends stand crying. Wives and girlfriends stand close to the concrete fence, moving their arms in what may look like complicated dance moves, but what is in fact a crude code, known to inmates and prison guards alike.

The prisoner, let’s call him the receiver, makes himself known by holding an article of clothing out the window (they stick their arms through the bars or through holes in the steel mesh). When the sender, down on the street, identifies their man, they start waving their arms about, tracing Cyrillic characters in the air. The receiver waves up and down to signal “I understand”, and side to side to signal “repeat”. Under this method, after three or four minutes of waving, one can clearly discern the message, ‘I-c-a-l-l-e-d-y-o-u-r-f-r-i-e-n-d-M-i-s-h-a’!

The process, understandably, is time consuming (a message like ‘I called your lawyer but he was out to lunch’ could take half an hour or so), but the family and friends on the street below (again in true Russian style) bring along sausage, bread, cheese and thermoses filled with hot tea. Of course, some bring along a bottle of vodka – just to pass the time.

As I left the Hostel, I walked past some of the families waiting to send messages. A black Mercedes-Benz was parked outside; next to it stood an attractive Russian woman in a revealing dress. She was looking towards the prison window and waving. But this woman didn’t need no stinking codes: she was speaking into a cell phone, and as she looked across the prison yard, a tear formed in the corner of her eye.

This was written for Lonely Planet Online in 1995 and subsequently an edited version ran in Lonely Planet’s St Petersburg city guide. That version subsequently made it into the second edition of Lonely Planet’s Russia, Ukraine & Belarus guide. In the latest version, the author who updated the text said that the prison was currently running tours for a fee.

 

Infineon Posts Eighth Straight Loss

Infineon Technologies AG on Tuesday posted its eighth consecutive quarterly net loss – E328 million ($356.5 million), triple its year-earlier loss – despite a 13 percent rise in revenue to E1.48 billion.

The company is the second-largest semiconductor manufacturer in Europe. Infineon and rivals in its main business – making memory chips for personal computers – have suffered through two years of depressed demand and falling prices. In the market for memory chips, only Samsung Electronics Co. has shown a profit for the most recent quarter.

Ulrich Schumacher, Infineon president and chief executive, told analysts during a conference call that while the company had improved its revenue and market share, it could not compensate for the dramatic decline in prices of memory products.

Infineon said that demand from computer manufacturers for memory – which accounts for more than 40 percent of the company’s sales – had picked up. But analysts warn that the outlook is dependent on corporate replacement cycles and increased investment in infrastructure.

Analysts said the results were laced with higher-than-usual extraordinary expenses, especially those for inventory depreciation. Onetime charges totaled E157 million in the quarter.

Andrew Griffen, a Merrill Lynch Co. analyst, said that when viewed on a “clean basis” – that is, without extraordinary charges – the loss per share was about 24 cents, or a slight improvement over the 25 cents Merrill had predicted.

“The revenues were better than analyst consensus,” another analyst for Merrill Lynch said. “We had expected E500 million in memory division revenues, which actually came in at E609 million.”

Viktor Dammann, financial analyst at Bank Vontobel in Zurich, said the “good news” was that the cost of making a 256-megabyte chip – including research and development, depreciation and sales channels – had dropped to E5.40, 50 cents lower than expected. “This was mainly due to a steep increase in production,” he said.

Infineon said memory-chip productivity had reached more than 6,000 wafer-starts per week after upgrading its state-of-the-art 300-millimeter facility in Dresden, which accounted for 40 percent of its dynamic random-access memory production in the quarter.

Journey To Prague

American pilots in Europe are constantly amazed that, in a Skyhawk, you’re often just two hours away from another country. (See related story on how an American with a PPL can rent and fly airplanes in Europe.)

Ten years ago, at the dusk of the Cold War, a trip from Munich to Prague, one of Old Europe’s most beautiful and elegant cities, would have been unheard of. But on a recent sunny autumn afternoon, two friends and I made that two-hour flight. It was both a piece of cake and the thrill of a lifetime.

The Route From Munich to Prague direct is just under two hours, but I’d thought up an interesting little sidetrip to Ceske Budojovice (Budweis). This would be both a leg-stretcher as well as a pilgrimage of sorts to one of beer-lovers’ most holy spots: birthplace of the Czech Budweiser brewery. I figured on a brief stop there, and then we’d depart for the 35-minute leg to Prague.

The return flight would be direct. Nothing could be simpler.

Red Tape
In Europe, the radio work is still in English, and Jeppesen makes the maps in English, too. But the Red Tape Factor was becoming a supreme worry in making my flight plan, as I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer to the procedure for crossing the German/Czech border. Something about a NATO Identification Zone kept coming up, which sounded mildly alarming to say the least!.

In the end, after many phone calls and several blind leads, it turned out to be as simple as a flight from Miami to the Bahamas: a simple filing, in English, of an ICAO International Flight plan form.

Okay, the Czechs are a bit more procedural than their Bahamian counterparts, but it’s essentially the same thing: the plan must include your exact time, altitude and the place where you’ll cross the border. A little nervous about getting all that right, I held off on filing my plan until I picked up my plane at Munich Flyers Flight Club in Augsburg airport, just west of Munich. There I got a final weather briefing (confirming the predicted clear skies and 20kt headwind at 10,000 feet), and faxed off the plan.

I’d verified my intentions by phone with Prague Flight Information regarding the stop in Budweis, and had meticulously noted checkpoints along the entire route to ensure I crossed the border just where I said I would, about four miles north of Philippsreut, a village nestled in the Bavarian Forest.

I phoned Munich Flight Information right after filing my plan, and they assured me that everything was okay. With that, I got out Cessna D-EHMB, a 172, and was in the process of fueling when the airport loudspeaker blared, “Pilot of Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, contact Munich Information!”.

My flight plan, it seemed, had been ixnayed by Czech Authorities, who now said that there were no customs officials in Budweis – it was direct to Prague or nothing. The idea of hours of flight planning down the commode and then hastily planning a direct route to Prague while sitting in the cockpit didn’t strike me as particularly pleasant, but we reached a compromise: keep the original flight plan, but turn left over Budweis and head up to Prague.

Munich Airport – Europe’s busiest during peak hours – doesn’t provide flight following services as such, but would give me a transponder code and keep vague track of my progress, ensuring I didn’t venture into restricted airspace or veer glaringly off course.

And, I’m almost sad to report, the flight was almost extraordinary in its ordinariness.

I’d secretly hoped for bizarre instructions, exciting NATO complications and cloak-and-dagger intrigue – perhaps the odd MiG scramble at the border. But the flight was as routine as they come. Well, there was something: finding checkpoints was difficult because each and every town we flew over looked identical! Cluster of red-roofed houses with a church in the middle? Why, that’s clearly Dingolfing..or Straubing.. or Deggendorf ..or possibly Ingolstadt!!.

With the help of a goond flight plan (and, okay, a great GPS and the help of two very keen passenger/navigators), we reached the border transition area spot on time. Munich Flight information handed us off to Prague Information, who gave us permission to climb to 11,500 feet and cross the border. We were in!!.

To save a bit of time, they let us turn left heading 06 degrees on a beeline for Prague, rather than subjecting us to the farce of overflying the now forbidden city of Budweis.

Flight Level Five Five
English may be the language of the skies here, but you’d best speak very slowly and clearly: controllers are used to conversing with non-native speakers, who use a more formal – if stilted – version of the language.

Transition levels in Europe are different from those in the US, where it is above 18,000 feet. About 15 minutes south of Prague, at 9,500 feet, I had a little moment of confusion when the controller then told me to “descend to flight level five five.”.

I replied, thinking I was being clear, “Mike Bravo, leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet”, and got back, “Cessna Mike Bravo, I say again, Flight Level Five Five.” .

Allrighty. “Mike Bravo is leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet,” I said, slower and even clearer.

“Cessna Mike Bravo, I repeat again,” he said, audibly put out by my rebellious behavior, “descend to Flight Level Five Five.” .

We probably could have gone on all day like that had I not just shut up and said “Roger, Flight Level five five!” And descended to 5,500 feet.

Turns out that was the right thing to do for the wrong reason: As my friend Michel McAloon wrote to correct me, “In most ICAO countrues the published transition altitude may be as low as 3000 feet. Pilots when climnbing through the transition altitude are expected to change their altimiters to the QNE standard of 1013.25 hecopascals (29.92 inches Hg).

Buzzing The Rooftops
Despite that hiccup, things were going swimmingly, and having abandoned my flight plan I was happy to quit looking at the map and let the Prague controllers call my every turn. Prague Info handed me off to Prague tower, and I saw the city just ahead, but I hadn’t ever landed there and couldn’t see the actual field, so I was a bit trepidatious. But I’d figured that, since they had me heading 06, I must be on a straight-in approach to runway 06, right?.

“Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, descend to maximum 2000 feet, QNH 1023 and turn left bearing 310 degrees”.

Hmm. Confirm the altimeter setting and..that seems a little, uh, low, as I’m about 500 feet above the ground at this point. My front seat passenger, a Brit, says alto voce “I can see bloody dogs on the ground we’re so bloody low!”.

He’s right, but this is seriously fun; actually instructed to barrel in low over the hillsides and rooftops, with the city of Prague now off my right wing and my passengers boisterously humming Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries.

The hills dropped away and we were now at the relatively sane height of about 800 feet above the rooftops. I finally saw the airport just ahead, but we were number two after an Austrian 737. The tower asked us to, “make now a left turn for one orbit” (more controllers’ stilted English), then to fly right along over runway 31, turning left just past it to enter the left downwind for runway 06.

I’ve gotten used to shorter, European airstrips so I put it down gently right on the numbers. I was in the midst of telling my passengers, “On behalf of Air Nick, I’d like to welcome you to Prague” when I noticed we could have taken off and landed again in the distance it took for us to trundle over to Taxiway Charlie – Runway 06 is 12,188 feet!.

And then began the rock star treatment: the Follow-Me car was a nice touch, and our plane was met by a minivan bearing the gracious Mr Vlastimil Sovak of the Czech Airports Authority Handling Agency who cheerfully offered hotel booking assistance, information on getting to town by taxi or public transport, and then whisked us off to our own private customs and passport control while our plane was refueled. He even made the exchange office employee cut short his lunch hour so we could get busfare to the center!.

Prague is a spectacularly gorgeous city, and it’s so old its “new town” dates to the 15th century. Alas, flying directly over the spectacular city center is forbidden.

20 minutes after leaving the airport, just outside the Staromestska subway station, we were treated to a sweeping view across the Charles Bridge to the magnificent Prague castle, home to Czech royalty since the 9th century. It seemed that around each corner was another architectural masterpiece!.

We spent the evening wandering Prague’s ancient cobblestone streets, and shopping for the justifiably famous Czech glassware. That night, while I caught up on sleep, my two passengers set out to do the town’s lively bars and clubs, sampling the famous beer and, I’m told, getting treated to several on the strength of the tale of their journey.

The next morning we headed back to Augsburg with no barreling, no low passes, and nary a MiG to be seen. With the exception of a slight detour over a restricted area just inside the German airspace I’d somehow (ahem!) overlooked in my flight plan, the return flight was, technically, eventless.

Isn’t it amazing how technically eventless flights can leave you with memories for a lifetime?

An Autobahn Experience

With the dollar so far down against the Euro, it feels as if the only favorable exchange rate left to Americans is one of distance: you still get 1.6 kilometers for every mile.

When the crowds of the Oktoberfest have taken their toll, and you’ve just about overdosed on museums and local sights, it’s time to head out on your own.

The famous autobahns, the freeways that make up Germany’s wonderful highway system, and the country’s compact size mean that within a half-hour of Munich’s center you can be driving through rolling green hills with the Alps practically at your feet.

And when you consider that Chiemsee, Salzburg, Vienna, Baden-Baden and Strasbourg are all within day-trip reach, the proposition gets even more attractive.

But while Americans are among the world’s most dynamic drivers, covering incredible distances each year by car, many here find themselves facing a whole new set of baffling rules and practices that amount to an entirely different driving culture.

Passed At 110
“I was going about 110 mph – fast enough to be dragged away in handcuffs at home,” said Mark Walsh, a Chicago native living in Munich, “and I got passed by a guy on a motorcycle with a passenger!”

An American driving on the autobahn is very likely to have just that sort of disconcerting experience 10 or even 15 times during an hour’s drive. On U.S. highways, getting from Point A to Point B may be the primary objective, but in Germany, it’s not just getting there, but how fast you can possibly do it.

Here’s How It Can Be
A black Mercedes appears in my rear-view mirror. It wasn’t there when I looked a second ago, and now it’s bearing down on me with great vigor. An angry flash of headlights – it’s almost on my rear bumper! I swerve frantically into the right lane and the black beast accelerates past me as if I were standing still, leaving swirling exhaust fumes and a turbo whine in the air. I glance at my speedometer: It reads 180 km/h – 113 miles per hour.

“Every German driver is convinced of two things,” says Munich native Oliver Bengl. “First, that they are an excellent driver, and second, that everyone else on the road is an execrable one.”

Bengl is exceptionally qualified to comment – he’s been a professional driver on Germany’s roads and autobahns for 10 years, in everything from Munich taxis to long-distance freight trucks, from film company vans to one of Bavaria’s most beloved vehicles, beer delivery trucks.

Wind in the Hair
Bengl suspects that Germans, who behave extremely conservatively in everyday life and business, simply need the release of high speed and feeling the wind in their hair – even if that wind is just the light puff of their car’s air conditioner.

“The average German,” he says, “spends his day in close contact with very conservative people. When he gets into his big car at the end of the day, he reverts to a Stone Age hunter mentality – he’s King of the Road.”

This assertive on-road demeanor has resulted in gesticulation (at best) and sometimes even physical fights at the roadside. It is for that reason that it is now a misdemeanor in Germany to “gesture obscenely or shout insults” at other drivers, punishable by a large fine.

Speed aside, driving on the autobahn is a very enjoyable mode of transport that can even be cheaper than public transportation if you’re traveling with someone. And contrary to public belief, there are speed limits on about 85 percent of the autobahns.

Speed limit signs are red-ringed circles containing a number. On autobahns it will usually be 110 or 120 kilometers an hour (70-75 mph). Speed traps occur rarely, but they do happen. If you don’t see a sign, there’s probably no speed limit.

All other road signs are international symbols and almost always instantly understandable.

One key exception is the puzzling circle containing a striped black slash over a blank white background.

This means, basically, “Any sign telling you not to do something before you saw this one is now overruled.” For example, the “slash” sign can end a no-passing zone.

The Kreuz
The Kreuz – the German version of a cloverleaf interchange – can be very confusing, too, even to veteran German drivers.

Modeled after, it would seem, Los Angeles’ most confusing transfer points, a Kreuz connects several highways. Signs are not what they could be, and it’s best to slow down and pay attention: Exits come up fast, and if you miss yours, it’s usually a long drive to get to where you can turn around and try again. The best strategy is to stay in the middle lane until you can figure out which way is off, then get there fast.

And Bengl adds one warning: “No matter how fast you go, someone’s going to be faster; no matter how clear your rear-view mirror is, check again… . There’ll be someone there.”

While traffic is outwardly more orderly than in the States, there’s vicious competition for passing lanes, usually from taxis.

The best bet for inexperienced drivers is to stick to defensive tactics, staying slow and safe and letting the taxis do what they wish.

There will be a far higher number of bicyclists on the streets than you may be used to, and while they usually have a separate lane, be on alert. Motorcycles and scooters are also more popular than in the States, and it’s considered very bad form indeed to sideswipe any of them.

Finally, remember that there is no right on red law in Germany.