Autobahn Priorities

After about six months of driving on the autobahn I am officially in the “who wants to drive on the interstate system anymore” band-wagon. This doesn’t seem like a big thing, but never forget I still call myself a Transportation Engineer. This is a major step for me.

On our trip to Poland back a few months I posted on Facebook that I was blowing out the carbs, in my fuel-injected, turbo-charged diesel. Car guys will get the fact that there is neither a need to blow out the carburetor nor a carburetor in my Jetta TDLie. Real car guys can probably correct me and tell me my Smokeswagon Diesel isn’t fuel-injected but as I said in the Facebook post: don’t harsh my mellow.

During that trip there were times I had the cruise set on 190 kph. With a family of four and luggage to boot in the vehicle. No, I’m not setting any land speed records, but come on, a four door sedan cruising at almost 120 mph. Not shabby by any measuring rod.

Mind you, my self-professed love of the original roadway is not all based on speed. There is a certain joy in humming along at 150 kph (about 90 mph) and just hitting the pedal on the right because you can. But it isn’t all love of speed. The fact that people will actually pass police cars is nice. Not shitting in your shorts when you see a police car on the side of the road while you’re doing 90 is ranking on the list, too.

Today I was popping down to Munich, about a 200 km drive that we made in 2 hours avoiding a 30 minute traffic jam, and I began to finalize my Autobahn Priority listing. All Mercedes want to be in front of the BMWs. All Beamers want to be in front of the Audis, and the Audis want to be in front of the VWs. I have yet to exactly place the Skodas, Fiats, and Alpha Romeos, and I left the American vehicles where they belong–off the list. Also not classified is who the VW wants to be in front of because as a VW driver myself, I would be polluting my statistical data set. I want to be in front of everybody, I’m just not driving there all the time.

Noticeably absent from the list is my favorite of all cars, the Porsche. Where do they fall in the traffic lanes of the autobahn? In the exact same spot the 500 pound gorilla sits: Wherever they want.

Free at Last!

Americans in general are more cognizant of their freedom. We’re taught at an early age freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the Bill of Rights. If we’re lucky we learn what that means, otherwise those of us who did learn are subjected to mislead “I’m offended” quotes on Facebook. I will admit though that knowing there is a Bill of Rights is more important than knowing the 3rd keeps us from having to quarter soldiers.

Few things are more American than the thrill of the open road. The freedom to move about the country and the countryside is ingrained in us. Especially in the South. Where there are fewer big cities, things are spread out, and we talk of how long between places is in minutes rather than miles. Getting your driver’s license in the South used to be a rite of passage. My daughters didn’t seem to revere it as much as I did, but then again I got mine even earlier than they did.

The Mississippi I grew up in gave licenses to 15 year olds. That is insane, but so is our love of cars. I once joked that we have a 0.95 driver to vehicle ratio in Alabama. No one called me on it so that means either they didn’t catch it or they agreed. Point is we love our cars and the freedom they bring us.

So yesterday mine arrived.

I went down before they opened to start the paperwork to pick up my Smokeswagen TDLie. Fresh off the boat and delivered to me covered in frost and ice, but it was my car. Not a rental, not a borrowed ride, not the government-owned vehicles I’ve been riding and driving in, my car. My little slice of what I brought from America.

After patiently completing the paperwork I finally got to drive off in my own vehicle with a grin splitting my face from ear to ear. People that know me know I smile a lot. This smile was bigger than that. It was bigger than getting my first car, bigger than buying my first car, bigger than driving my first Porsche, bigger than big with elation to boot.

It seems like it should be such a small thing, yet in the land outside my comfort bubble it is a sign that things will return, they’ll bounce back, and I will survive because I am free at last to do what I want, when I want, without having to walk or wait for the bus or someone else.

Next up, finding a house.

It’s too late now, Baby!

Today was my first solo trip to Wiesbaden. Quick recap, we flew from Mobile to Frankfurt from 10-11 Jan, stayed in Wiesbaden for a few days, then on 20 Jan my new boss came and picked Ginger, Lizi, Faith, and I up and brought us to our new temporary home in Grafenwohr. While there we’ve made a few quick trips, none too far. Ginger went to the Czech Republic to have her nails done (a story all to itself), and I’ve made a few work trips. This is the second time in two weeks that I’ve been in Wiesbaden overnight for work but my last jaunt was like my other quick trips around the country so far with someone else. Whether I drove or they drove, I was not alone.

I wasn’t nervous, but I woke up nearly two hours before the alarm went off and couldn’t get back to sleep. Last night I had arranged to meet up with two friends for lunch. We had met in Kansas City five months ago right about the time I was interviewing and contemplating taking this job. Again, a story for another time. Since the week before we had gotten stuck in a stau (I have got to figure out how to put umlauts in here) near Wurzburg I was afraid I might not make it on time. As a safety measure I decided to take off early to insure timely arrival.

At 0630 I rolled out of the house for about a three and half hour drive. I skipped breakfast thinking I would drive right by the McDonald’s in downtown Grafenwohr. Instead, the GPS told me to turn left instead of right at the first light. Last week Peter mentioned that we could go clockwise or counterclockwise, so I decided to go with the GPS and turned left. There was no McDonald’s for two hours.

When handheld and dash-mounted GPS units became popular I resisted the urge. It was hard because as a former surveyor and someone who played with the technology long before it became feasible for mass consumption this was harder than one might think. But it was mainly driven by the desire that I did NOT want to become one of those people who turned just because the machine told me to. Flashback to this morning, I turned early. No problem, I was headed on the autobahn in the wrong direction (though not counter to traffic so I was safe). My previous training told me to go down an exit, turnaround, and come back. Sure maybe it was 12 km, but I was good. Until I got there. My instinct said turn left, my GPS said right. I didn’t go with my gut. I took the road less traveled.

Needless to say, it did not lead me back to the autobahn.

On my previous drive by idiot box experience back in the early 2000s the machine thought I was an 18 wheeler and took me a long way out of the way to turn around. Thinking that might still be the case I pulled over, turned around and sat perpendicular to the road I had just come from. Twice. Neither time helped.
So I drove through some gorgeous country, quaint towns, tight roads, switchbacks, and did I mention it was snowing? Had I not been worried about the fact that I had no clue where I was I could have enjoyed myself. The views were spectacular.

After about 2 hours I finally got back on the autobahn headed towards Wurzburg and feeling comfortable. I made it past the construction and the grosse stau from last week without incident when the GPS unit started telling me to get off at the next exit. I made my way to the side but thought that since there was no big diversion it must be thinking I was on a side street instead of the autobahn. So I ignored it. And found why it tried to direct me off the road.

I used the left lane and passed up a mile or so of traffic stopped in the right lane until I finally got stopped myself. This was worse than last week. I put it in park. People don’t get out of their cars on the autobahn. Today they did. Normally I’m the first to jump out. Having never met a stranger I talk to folks stuck in traffic. But I only do that when they speak English it seems. I couldn’t even tell what they were saying because they spoke in German.

After about 15 minutes I heard a helicopter. Quick aside here. When I was studying for my license they told me that ADAC in this country was similar to AAA in the states. Similar, but like all things German (except the wine), better. This time they mean it. If you’re on a bus trip and the bus breaks down ADAC will come pick you up and take you to a hotel until they fix the bus. Back to today, another difference from AAA, the helicopter was an ADAC helicopter. It was a very nice helicopter, more like Blue Thunder than TJ’s in Magnum PI—nice chopper. Soon I noticed the traffic on the other side of the road was stopped, I guess so the chopper could land.

After about 25 minutes I heard the lady behind me talking loud and saw two guys ahead and to the right of me run around their car like a Chinese fire drill. Two cars ahead someone turned off onto the embankment. I followed.

Now this is the kind of thing I might have done in the States. I don’t know if it was a road, some kind of access, or just the first vehicle melted the snow and drove over the mud to get to the parallel road that was 250 meters away. Either way I got back on track.

It was Level of Service A the rest of the way, to through, and past Frankfurt. I was doing 150 entering some tunnels they built just for noise control. Not walls, not noise attenuation, freaking tunnels, giant tunnels to keep the noise down. In Frankfurt they do have some runways/taxiways over the road, but these tunnels are for noise. One other thing I try not to do here is convert my speed into miles, what’s the point? The limits are given in kph, and I’d rather think I’m going 50 through town than 31. But 150 is still fast. That’s keep the radar detector on and look out for cops hidden behind the trees fast. They use speed cameras here, but that’s a different story. I don’t know how to spot them yet, but they haven’t spotted me either so it’s a draw.

Once I got to Wiesbaden, I didn’t have the address of where we were meeting for lunch, rather I had the address of the District Office so I was a little concerned about how to find where I was going. On the plus side, I was right on time so I called one of the guys I was meeting who wasn’t far behind me. Then, when I got lost, I talked him through how to find me and I followed him the rest of the way in.
All in all, an adventure packed day. I’m still not sure why they’ve trusted me with the ability to create my own travel plans or drive my government vehicle all over the countryside, but it’s too late now, Baby! Watch out Deutschland, I’m going to be alles uber.


Yeah, it’d make a better ending to say the name of the song, but that’s in bad taste in this country. I’m slow but trainable.

Still There?

For those who don’t know, most of my family and I have moved to Grafenwöhr, Germany. So today (18 Feb) I finally felt completely overwhelmed. A real “WTF am I doing?” moment. Bordering on panic attack overwhelm.

Maybe it was the stress of having lived in 5 different hotel rooms over the last 45 days. Maybe it was not having viewed a single new place to live yet. Maybe it is the lack of a vehicle to drive around in. Maybe it was the whole 5100 miles from home in a new continent. But maybe it was just the third meeting in which I was the only non-German speaking person and EVERYTHING was being discussed in German.
For some time now I’ve been thinking about re-naming my blog. Over the weekend the inspiration of what to call it hit me: Outside the Comfort Bubble. I am so far outside my comfort bubble it isn’t funny. Today was just a massive exclamation and emphasis of that point.

It’s also an odd point because I started blogging not only because I wanted to write but because I had time on my hands. What I was doing at work at the time was easy. I was on cruise control. My blogging started to taper off when I reached into the unknown. Or as a friend, fellow engineer, and blogger would say I began to stretch myself. Even my writing began to taper off as I further reached with my deployment to Afghanistan. Since arriving in Germany just over a month ago the desire to write, to point out my observations, and just plain express myself has been building but that step outside the comfort zone is overwhelming. I am a sponge soaking in new information and trying to find a way to process it.

There’s the new location, new roads, new rules of the road for driving, new language, new staff, new support staff, new standard operating procedures, almost none of the things that I have taken for granted remain. I remain the most humble person you will ever meet, yet I was good at what I did. In taking this new job and moving most of my family I said, “I got this, watch and see.” Since arriving, I have gone from “WTF!” to “WTF?” What have I done? This is going to be a challenge. This is going to be harder than it already has been. I see that now.

At the end of the day on the way home I heard on the radio Tubthumping. Now it isn’t that I’m a big Chumbawumba fan, but something about the lyrics resonated with my eternally optimistic side. No, it isn’t that I was concocting a session wherein I alternated whiskey drink, vodka drink, lager drink, and cider drink. It is the reminder that I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.

It will be a few days before I fix the blogpage. It may be a few days before I post anything else as well. But it’s coming. I am reminding myself as I recently did my oldest daughter of my favorite piece of kitsch hanging in the Biloxi Hard Rock. It is a signed drum head from Alex Van Halen that reads, “Fall down 7 times, stand up 8!”