German Ideas

I’m back from my German trip, which included the DLD conference and a bit of touring in Austria and Bavaria. DLD was a good crowd of people and speakers, though the programming was a bit of a mishmash. I’ll have some nice photos up soon.

One highlight was winning Lufthansa’s contest for innovative ideas to help aviation compete with trains. I mostly offered ideas you may have seen on this blog before, and a couple of new ones, but one of them was good enough to win their very nice prize, 2 business class tickets anywhere Lufthansa flies. I suspect I’ll return to Africa with these as that’s pricey to get to, even in coach. Of course I was helped by the fact that most conference attendees did not notice the contest/forum, and I had few competitors.

This was my 3rd trip to Germany (if you don’t count changing planes) but the first serious one as an adult. So some of these observations will be old but I felt it worth writing them down.

General observations:

  • Note to self: Go back and do more travel in Europe when the Euro was 80 cents, not $1.47. It does put a lot of sticker shock on the prices of things.
  • In particular, over $7 for gasoline, and they take it in stride. They use a lot more transit all over Europe of course, and drive a lot more tiny cars that are much better on fuel. I rented a Toyota Yaris, which actually was quite suitable except climbing some hills in the Alps. They need to start selling more cars like it in the USA, if just for parking.
  • Why do Europeans make good bread so reliably? In the USA, bad bread is just too easy to find.
  • The food in Tirol is great, a nice mix of Italian and Germanic. Surprised this hasn’t spread out more into the world. Tirol used to be Italian, now it’s Austrian.
  • We found a tremendous deal for SIM cards for our phones at the Schleker drugstores for smobil.de. For 15 euros we got 2 SIM cards, each loaded with 10 euros of airtime, and best of all 1/cent minute for on-network calls for the first 30 days. For us all we wanted was 10 days and thus they were like almost free walkie-talkies. Of course, higher prices while in Austria so nothing’s perfect but this rate was hard to beat. Unfortunately all instructions, menus etc. were in German.
  • OK, Salzberg, I get it that Mozart was born in your town. Really.
  • Pizza seems to be the top fast food of Bavaria and Tirol, with Donner Kebabs a close second. Now close to Italy you would think that made sense until you realize that Pizza itself, while Italian in heritage, was developed in the USA. (Not that Italians don’t know how to make it well, of course.)

Good ideas:

  • An old idea, but that Autobahn works. People keep to the right, and don’t block traffic that wants to go faster out of some sense of knowing what the right speed for others is. Lower accident rate, people going much faster.
  • Lufthansa has a very simple SMS check-in (for German Residents only) but you still need to get a card at the airport.
  • Boarding in Frankfurt, they had a sealed waiting area, and you had your boarding pass/passport scanned when you entered the waiting area, not when trying to get on the plane. As a result, loading the 777 was super fast, they just wanted to make sure you were in the rows they called. They did not allow Premier members to board early — but I think that’s the right thing to do anyways.
  • Stay in German Gasthausen and Pensions rather than fancier hotels. Cheaper and better experience.
  • For even cheaper calling if you don’t have a local SIM card, hunt for wireless and use Skype or VoIP from your laptop.
  • The pedestrian plaza at MUC airport to walk to the trains from the terminal is quite nice. Nice pedestrian spaces are not so common in U.S. airports which are all about getting people from cars to planes.
  • Deutches Museum, which we intended to spend more time in, but instead must return to again.
  • It’s fun to see how totally vanished the borders have become. I wonder if some day the disused border stations might be rented out as gas stations or convenience stores. Even the Swiss-Austrian border is just a wave through, no questions, no showing of ID. Meanwhile, the Canada-US border grows tighter, with passport demands and probably fingerprints some day.
  • Taking the side-roads when the Autobahn in Austria wants to go through a 20km tunnel. What views! Some of the tunnels don’t seem to bypass anything, they must be there to keep snow off the roads and highway noise away from the rural settings. Pretty expensive way to do that, though.

Ideas that may not be so good:

  • Almost all the toilets we used had their tank (and yes, at least some had a tank) mounted in the wall. Germans don’t seem to want to see the tank. Not sure how you fix it when it goes bad, though. Like Australians, some had 2 buttons (one for #1 and one for #2) or a way to stop the flush for a lesser flush. Perhaps I am confused and all were just on 3/4” pipe and had no tank, but some seemed to.
  • One downside of the local hotels: German beds, which involve two twins next to each other, and two independent integrated sheet/blankets. Really annoying for a couple sleeping together, hard to tuck in, easy to create air gaps. Easy for cleaning but that’s about it.
  • Most of the old towns had complex regulations about who could drive in and when. As such, it could not be expressed in international road signs, making it very confusing for tourists — and these old towns are the main tourist targets — who come in cars. Bring a good translation guide to try to understand where you can stop or park! I’m not demanding everybody speak English, of course, but in tourist areas a special effort is worthwhile.
  • Car rental is very expensive and has not reached the computerized ease of use seen from things like Hertz #1 Club where you just walk up and your car is waiting, keys in it. Of course it is a much less car oriented place, but there are still lots of cars. Unlike almost everything else, rental car companies advertise rates without taxes.
  • Germans for some time have been huge consumers of bottled mineral water, usually fizzy. I don’t like this myself, and in fact I don’t even like the bottled still waters which are the only alternatives a lot of the time. It’s not just the fact that it’s $8 for a bottle at most restaurants: bottled water is very un-green which you would think the birthplace of the Green party would understand. But when I asked for tap water they always looked at me strangely, and in one case even refused to serve it to me! Attempts to explain the ecological point always resulted in “that’s the first time I’ve heard that.”
  • Like many other countries, a hotel room for 2 is much more than a room for 1. Which is, I guess, good for the single traveller and bad for the couple. Of course, one main reason is that almost always a room comes with a fairly nice breakfast. Some hotels list their double price, some list a per-person price for a double making it harder to compare.

quick hits

Autobahn: Lane discipline in the US is terrible! (It's
not just CA.) People tend to get a clue in the middle
of nowhere when traffic is light, but sadly not in
urban/congested areas.

Borders: Doesn't this have something to do with the
Schwengen zone? Once you're in the zone, travel between
countries is easier. Yes, we should have something
like that with Canada.

Tunnels: Yes, they keep snow off the roads -- in the
form of avalanches, which are not only potentially deadly
but could effectively close the road until the snow melts.

It's interesting to discover how things are done differently
in other countries. Most Americans are too isolated in both
geography and attitude and lack a true world view.

Thoughts from Germany

"Borders: Doesn't this have something to do with the
Schwengen zone? Once you're in the zone, travel between
countries is easier. Yes, we should have something
like that with Canada."

Yes, of course. During normal times, there are no more border controls.
If necessary, they can be temporarily re-instated. This sometims happens,
not only to catch criminals, but also to stop hooligans from travelling
to a football game. But it's not such a big deal, since in Germany (and
probably in most countries in Europe) everyone has to carry a photo-ID at
all times and the police can always ask you to identify yourself. Strange
that this causes such a big problem in other countries. I recently saw
a map of the world with different colours with regard to how much government
surveillance there is. The US was at the top of the list, Germany somewhere
in the middle. (There is a lot of vocal opposition to increasing surveillance,
but this is basically a loud minority; most folks don't have a problem with it.)
Scandinavia etc was pretty high up on the list. There, the degree to which
personal data are publicly available is quite large. (OK, this is different
from government surveillance, but if the data are publicly available, then
they are also available to the government.) When Sweden joined the EU, there
was an extra agreement that this could be kept. Just to give you a taste: anyone
can see the earnings of and taxes paid by anyone else, no justification necessary.

"Taking the side-roads when the Autobahn in Austria wants to go through a 20km tunnel. What views! Some of the tunnels don’t seem to bypass anything, they must be there to keep snow off the roads and highway noise away from the rural settings. Pretty expensive way to do that, though."

I'm confused about this remark. Most tunnels exist because they go through mountains.

"In particular, over $7 for gasoline, and they take it in stride. They use a lot more transit all over Europe of course, and drive a lot more tiny cars that are much better on fuel. I rented a Toyota Yaris, which actually was quite suitable except climbing some hills in the Alps. They need to start selling more cars like it in the USA, if just for parking."

Not a problem when you don't have to pay for the education of you children, including
college, out of your own pocket. (Of course, you do indirectly through taxes, but
people with more children aren't punished and the amount pays goes according to your
income, so of course it is redistribution of wealth but it is a good thing.) Exchange
rates are noticeable, but completely uninteresting to the folks who live there. Some
things are more expensive, some cheaper. The only real way to compare is to see what
standard of living you would have in each country, with the income you would have if
living there. Even this is different for different folks, depending on what they
spend their money on.

"Most of the old towns had complex regulations about who could drive in and when. As such, it could not be expressed in international road signs, making it very confusing for tourists — and these old towns are the main tourist targets — who come in cars. Bring a good translation guide to try to understand where you can stop or park! I’m not demanding everybody speak English, of course, but in tourist areas a special effort is worthwhile."

This might be intentional. Basically, even for people familiar with the territory, there is simply
no reason to drive a car within a historic town. If you are travelling by car, park outside and
take the bus into town. Inviting more cars from tourists wouldn't be a good idea.

"Germans for some time have been huge consumers of bottled mineral water, usually fizzy. I don’t like this myself, and in fact I don’t even like the bottled still waters which are the only alternatives a lot of the time. It’s not just the fact that it’s $8 for a bottle at most restaurants: bottled water is very un-green which you would think the birthplace of the Green party would understand. But when I asked for tap water they always looked at me strangely, and in one case even refused to serve it to me! Attempts to explain the ecological point always resulted in “that’s the first time I’ve heard that."

Tap water might be greener, but I doubt that bottled water is worse than other bottled drinks
(which are mostly water). Not all fizzy water comes out of the ground that way; a lot is
carbonated after the fact. I think it has more to do with taste (fizzy water, that is). One can
buy machines to carbonate tap water at home. There are probably a few people who drink it because
they think it is healthier, but the trace minerals aren't enough to matter and actually the regulations
concerning impurities etc are stricter for tap water than for bottled water.

Yes, drinks are expensive, but it's a different model. In many restaurants in the States, drinks are free.
Here, for many restaurants food is a zero-sum game and profit is made only on drinks.

"Like many other countries, a hotel room for 2 is much more than a room for 1. Which is, I guess, good for the single traveller and bad for the couple. Of course, one main reason is that almost always a room comes with a fairly nice breakfast. Some hotels list their double price, some list a per-person price for a double making it harder to compare."

Considering the size of Germany, very few Germans stay in hotels while travelling privately. Most
guests are probably business folks whose company pays the bill. So, prices probably aren't as competitive.
Some have a price per room, regardless of how many people are in it, and breakfast is extra (per person,
of course). Double beds exist, but are a bit rarer.

Tunnels

While many of the tunnels would bore through a mountain, I was surprised to find a number of places where the autobahn entered a very expensive bored tunnel while the original road continued along fine though a perfectly passable valley floor. This was in Austria. I mean it was bored through a mountainside but it didn't have to be. In other places it would just have been built on the surface. However, as pointed out, that would mean it would get snowed on, get blocked by avalanches etc. Obviously a tunnel is more reliable (if more boring and more asphixiating -- a breakdown in a 20km long tunnel would be pretty scary) but the cost seems staggering. There are many places in the USA where a tunnel would really gain something major and they can't find funding for it.

As for the price of gas, I don't know if it really has to do with whether you have to pay for education or health care. Americans are paranoid about the price of their gasoline. Any politician thinking of raising it to world price would be committing suicide, or so it is thought. The reality is that while would gas prices would cause an ouch, for most of the middle class it would not be an unbearable one.

And no, I wasn't thinking one should drive in the old towns, but one does drive up to the edge of them, and it's good that everybody knows just what to do at that edge.

Bottled waters vary on how green they are. A large fraction of bottled waters are imported, sometimes from ridiculous distances. (Obviously Italian and French bottled waters are not going nearly so far to Germany as they are to North America, but it's still a lot further than local water is coming.) Flavoured drinks are usually made with local filtered water at a local bottling plant, but yes, they are not as green as plain tap water.

I'm a big guy, I drink a lot of water and having $8/bottle mineral water could sometimes double the price of a meal for me. But yes, many restaurants have historically tried to make their money off drinks, though mostly on the alcohol side. Of course, with $1.47 euros, the prices look higher to tourists than they do to locals.

And on room prices, we did indeed find that pensions and gasthauses meant for local tourists were much more nicely priced. In the ski areas, under 20 euros/person in spite of it being January for a room and breakfast. When I'm road tripping, I don't do much more than sleep in the hotel so like to stay in affordable simple places rather than 4-stars, which make more sense when doing multiple nights.

tunnels, costs

There is a toll on essentially all of the highways in Austria. Perhaps
that is where the tunnel money comes from. Also, Austria is a transit
country, and they collect fees for lorries etc passing through (which is
only fair, since they are using the roads).

Americans coming to Europe often remark that the price of gas is high.
However, for most people the total costs for a given standard of living
are what is important, regardless of how it is divided up. Obviously,
if one doesn't have to save money for health care, college costs etc,
it's easier to pay for things which are more expensive here. Of course,
a car is more of a luxury item here in that it is possible to live without
one, which is not the case in most areas of the US. In many areas,
one is better off without a car. It's just a different perspective.
Remember the European soldier who met a cannibal? The former said, how
could you kill people just to eat them? The latter replied, how could
you not eat people whom you have killed anyway?

Actually, the average American probably spends much more on gasoline than
the average European. (In England, gasoline is "petrol", gas refers to,
well, any gas, perhaps carbon dioxide, depending on context. Reminds me
of an Englishman (true story) who walked into a bar in the American
midwest and ordered a glass of water with gas. Thinking it was a joke,
the bartender replied "Will that be unleaded, sir?".) The average car
uses much more fuel than the average car in Europe, and even big cars
here get pretty good mileage. Add to that the fact that people don't have
to drive as much. (Something else: in all of Germany, over 80 million people
and no speed limit, there are about 3000 traffic deaths per year. I think just
the state of Texas has about twice that.)

I think the large majority of mineral water in Europe comes from Germany. Yes,
you might occasionally see Perrier or, at an Italian restaurant, some Italian
water, but most is local.

Mineral waters

Actually, in Tyrol and Bavaria, the Italian waters were more common. It is, of course, an affectation, there's nothing magic about springs in Italy, France, or Fiji.

Well, here gas also means any gas, but more commonly the fuel. You just figure it out by the context. On the other hand Benzene is a toxic component of gasoline, but not a word most know, except in the NE where there is a gas station with that name.

But in fact the world price for gasoline makes sense, and what I was remarking on was how well it's tolerated, when most Americans think $7/gallon would be a horror beyond horrors.

I presume these tunnels in Austria were built decades ago, so it would be old tolls, not new ones. We got lucky on the tolls, the car rental agency sold us an Austrian toll sticker that had not been used by an earlier client for just 2 euros.

Europeans have gone to smaller, more efficient cars (though I don't recall seeing a Prius or the like there, but I didn't hunt for them.) I also saw RVs. People are cutting back on RV driving in the USA due to fuel costs, but of course the distances people range are larger -- stuff is just farther apart.

While most tourists won't rent cars, as trains go where they want, for me it was a photographic must, and in the end well worth it for the more interesting, out of the way places it took us.

benzene, Prius

The English "benzene" is "Benzol" in German. The English
"gasoline" is "Benzin" in German. "Sprit" (related to the
English "spirit") is often used in German as a term for
both gasoline and diesel fuel. The same goes for "Treibstoff"
(yes, "driving stuff" is a good translation, though it actually
means "drive" more in the sense of "cause to move" than "drive
a car" (of course, these two meanings are also related)).

Why drive a Prius in Germany? There are several cars which use
about 4 liters of diesel (which is cheaper than gasoline here)
for a hundred kilometers (rule of thumb: divide 240 by one figure
to get the other, i.e. 4 liters for a hundred kilometers is 60
miles per gallon). One can get by with less by driving, say only
80 km/h. These include 4-door cars which are reasonably large.

Where the hybrid is good is stop-and-go traffic. However, since
most commuters use public transportation, a larger fraction of
traffic is long-distance travel, where essentially the hybrid
doesn't help much. It might even be a disadvantage since it is
more weight, more technology etc. I don't think a Prius can get
more than 60 m.p.g. on the highway. It probably also costs more than
efficient cars like the Skoda Fabia.

Stop and Go

I saw tons of cars on the urban streets in stop and go traffic, as well as on the highways, so hybrid technology could still be useful, but yes, if you do nothing but highways it is not needed.

Note that diesel has 15% more carbon per gallon -- part of why you get better mileage from it.

comments on comments on germany :)

just some thoughts:

europeans don't make good bread, only germany and austria, maybe switzerland too. most other countries stick to the tasteless white bread. it's the first thing germans miss, when they stay in foreign countries for more than a month.

Tirol is half austrian, half italian. but true, it has been switching between the two over the time.

Pizza is loved by the germans, along with döner and pasta. But pasta is rarely served as fast-food. It's not because italy is close, it's because hundreds of thousand italian people came to germany some time after the second world war. You have italian restaurants all over the place, and also turkish and greek imbisses. (they came in large numbers, too)

Salzburg = Mozart? Yeah, your right, I've seen that, too. My hometown is Bonn = Beethoven, really annoying, but the only way to put yourself on a japanese tourist agencies map :P

If you block traffic on a highway, you go against the rules and get a fine, which can be quite expensive.

Traffic signs, especially in cities, are really a total pain. They have thousands, because they think everything must be regulated. One of the results is, that many german drivers don't have common sense, they only distinguish between "i am right" and "you were wrong" ;)

The bottled water topic has a history in most countries, i guess. But truth, tap water in central europe is one of the cleanest waters you can drink. That's why the lobbyists invented the fizzled water, I guess. I never liked it either, they don't drink it in other european countries afaik.

bye

Tasteless white stuff

I'm not simply talking about tastes and styles of bread. There is good and bad "tasteless white stuff." The French and Italians do it far better than other places. And the standard German breakfast semmel is the white stuff, but it can be quite good.

As for Salzburg, they don't seem to mention that Mozart got tired of the town and left for Vienna soon enough.

And you can get good bread in the USA, and most other places. The problem is it's harder, and much easier to get bad bread.

More comments on comments on Germany

...from an American who's been living in Europe for a few years.

The toilet-tank thing: I think it is just a style, that they prefer not to see the tank. It only seems odd to those of us who are used to seeing it and don't think anything of it. Just one of those things that's not wrong either way, just different. Did you notice the toilet-paper holders?

About the double-single beds: I think it's mostly to give the hotel rooms more flexibility, that they can be used either as a 2-bed or 1-bed room. Easier cleaning is just a bonus, while less comfort for couples is a downside.

And I agree that good bread is easier to find here.

German Toilets

To quote Erica Jong, "The German toilet is unique for the little stage (all the world’s) on which shit falls" . Did you notice that they put the shit on "display", yet as you say, they seem to want to hide the tank?

That toilet

Actually, I only saw one of those toilets, and did indeed find it strange, both for that and the pee bowl/waterfall. But it had a tank. It was at a small family gasthaus in the Ötztal where they did not speak English. All the other places had ordinary bowls, but no visible tank.

German toilets

Certainly in all HOUSES I am familiar with, there is a visible
tank (and usually, but not always, the stage). I'm not sure
what the original motivation was. Maybe it cuts down on water
usage. It makes backsplash less of a problem as well.

Thinking about toilets in public buildings etc, yes, now that I
think of it (this has previously not been on my list of things
to notice), visible tanks seem to be the exception. Maybe there
is some system with high-pressure water in pipes, valves etc which
doesn't need a tank? After all, the idea of the tank is to provide
pressurized water for the flush via gravity.

Let's start a thread on bidets! :-)

No bidets

None of the places I stayed (there were just 5) had a bidets. Bidets are great, but I don't have room so I have a couple of Japanese style electronic toilets which try to combine the two.

Yes, at first I thought that these pubic toilets just had no tank, but some had a flush that's much like a tank based one, in that it peters off. Usually with high-flow piping you can flush as long as you like, but this may just be a new valve design.

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