Friday, February 5, 2016

Freiburg memories: my first car and German customer service (not)

Okay, this one is not going to mean much to very many people, but I found two slides of  my first car. In 1995, I bought a 1979 VW Golf diesel. Here it is, probably parked somewhere in St Georgen  (I had a friend who lived in Hartkirch, but I can't even remember her name) – and probably a bit too close to the intersection.

The car cost me 1,000 DM. But the insurance was a shocker – around 100 DM a month because I was a young driver with no record for the Germans, who could not get their licenses at the time until they were 18. I got my license in Mississippi 90 days before my 15th birthday because I had taken a safety class. By the time I bought my first car, I had been driving for around 12 years.

I bought the car in the spring of '95 and drove it to England for summer vacation (the year when George Soros weakened the pound, making the UK affordable).

When we drove off of the fairy and onto the island, the car suddenly began roaring, and the engine had little pressure. The pipe to the muffler had broken open. And it was the middle of the night.

We drove thundering through the night doing around 60 km/h on the highway. When we reached the Orbital around London, we stopped at a VW dealership that we found and slept in the car until they opened. The Englishman welded a piece of metal onto the pipe for us. When I asked him how long that would hold, he said, "forever." He didn't want any money, so I bought some new windshield wipers from him. The customer friendliness was astonishingly high.

When we made it back to Germany, I wanted to continue on alone to northern Italy to meet another group of friends, but I had a problem: some noise was coming from under the hood. I took the car to the dealership in Freiburg to show them that a hook holding the generator in place had come off, so the generator was bouncing around a bit. All I needed was a single hook to be screwed into place. The guy at the counter then showed me a 3-D explosion of my entire engine, which I could not understand at all, and asked me what hook it was. I told him we should go out to my car, and I would show him, but he said he was not the Meister, so he couldn't do that. I don't remember exactly how all of this ended, but eventually I had my new hook (I remember it costing me something like one mark) and drove down to Italy, possibly a day or two late.

The comparison of customer service between the UK and Germany very much impressed me at the time.

On the way back from Italy, I drove through France instead of Switzerland to avoid tolls (I was still young, with little savings). In Mulhouse, I drove into a torrential rain. Water was piled up on the street, and a power outage meant that traffic lights were not working. Fortunately, it was a Sunday, so the roads were basically empty. But at one of those intersections, a car that did not have the right-of-way continued driving. I slammed on the brakes to stop, but my car just slid along the water. I nailed the other guy in his left doors doing about 40 km/h. He was probably doing 60 in a 50 zone.

He jumped out and began screaming at me in French, "You killed my wife." In the car, a five seater, there were six people: him, a male friend, two adult women, and two children. Because he was so sure of himself, I wasn't sure of myself. The police arrived and had to saw the people in the backseat out of the demolished car while I watched. They informed the man that I had had the right-of-way. And no one had died.

My car would not move any longer, so the police towed me and it to some spot where it would be picked up and junked. I had to find a way to get back to Freiburg, some 40 minutes away, and I did not know anyone who owned a car, so I called a friend who might. Luckily, he was able to organize someone to come pick me up in the middle of nowhere. I packed up my camping stuff, put it in her car, and this was the last I ever saw of my 1979 VW Golf. The photo was taken while I waited for my friend's friend to pick me up. I did not buy another car until 1998.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Freiburg memories: Martinsbräu

This passage to the Fressgässle and Martinsbräu is where I used to go have lunch quite often when I worked at the University. Not much has changed in this image (but if you notice anything, drop me a comment). The Fressgässle, in contrast, was completely renovated years ago and changed quite a bit. It is a good example of something I wish I would have taken a picture of – I took pictures of monuments and outstanding things, not everyday things, and it is the latter that interest me today.

Martinsbräu is what Americans now call a craft brewery. It serves local cuisine, and you sit next to the copper vats where the beer is brewed. It's an okay beer; Freiburg is actually a wine region.

I remember an old slogan that Martinsbräu used. Thankfully, they have abandoned it, for it was an insult to the city, though no one I pointed that out to seem to realize it at the time: "Ein Bier wie unsere Stadt - naturtrüb" ("a beer like our city – naturally cloudy", though trüb also means "dim, sad, and turbid"). The slogan clashed with the city's attempt to position itself as the Solar Capital of Germany (which has also since become Green City Freiburg).

At the top of that building is a dancing school where they also have concerts. My long-defunct a cappella sextett had a memorable concert there, where my three-year-old stepson, who was sitting in the audience being held by his aunt, ran up on stage crying to be with his mom (who was also in the group). When we sang our encore, he held her hand on stage. It was a mellow lullaby-like song, but the audience was rolling on the floor laughing.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Freiburg memories: Theaterläden and Weingarten

When I arrived in Freiburg, Cinemaxx was still a parking lot. The modern buildings there today replaced more modest structures seen in this picture. You can also see them at the right of the theater (the big building on the left) in the picture below, taken from the cathedral spire around 1994.

The buildings were not much to look at and were probably intended to be provisional anyway, a bit like the train station nearby. The trees to the right behind the theater are where the parking lot was. A relationship of mine started there – in a large pile of leaves.

Not much else has changed in this photo that is visible, but I would like to draw your attention to the concrete high-rises in the background. Zoom in, and you see that they were a dreary gray. Today they have at least been painted and/or clad with attractive metal siding (see this photo). The change is significant because it shows how many decades it took for Germany just to build up basic infrastructure without being able to focus on aesthetics. But since I got here, the focus has increasingly been on aesthetics, and the built environment has become noticeably more attractive.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Freiburg memories: the clown

I remember two "public figures" from my first few years in Freiburg. One of them is the famous beggar from the fountain at Martinstor, a descendent of a Swiss nobleman; the other, a clown who used to perform on Saturdays in the center of town. His entire show consisted of two things: walking behind other people and caricaturing their gait; and acting as though he was pulling streetcars and buses. The amazing thing was that the streetcar and bus drivers always played along.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Freiburg memories: Basler Tor

Basler Tor is a weird place. It is basically a collection of prefab concrete high-rises. Little information is available about its history online, but there is no indication that any historic gate or anything was ever here. Visitors to the city might believe that Basler Tor sounds like one of the remaining historic city gates (the two that survive are Schwabentor and Martinstor), but in fact Basler Tor was quite far out of town in the Middle Ages. I don't believe anything was here before these structures were built. In fact, the photo below – apparently taken when construction had just been completed – seems to indicate that the road to Merzhausen did not even run straight to the train station; there is now a main artery where those cars are parked on the left. The image also seems to have been taken from a balcony on a building preceding the current Victoria complex.

(Note: I had saved this image locally for later use, but I now cannot find it at all on the web in order to source it properly. If anyone knows where this is from, please drop me a comment below.)
It's extremely ugly, but this is where I had my first two apartments (WG-Zimmer) in Freiburg. I rode to work every day from here down the street on the bottom right of the photo. Practically everything has changed. The small buildings on the right have given way to modern office complexes. You can also still see the Renault sign in yellow. The slogan was "Ein Renault vumm Schneider isch ä Plaisir," which has not been saved for posterity on the Internet.

Quite possibly, travelers between Freiburg and Merzhausen went down Lorettostrasse – and also Reiterstrasse. As this photo shows, there used to be a direct connection between Reiterstrasse and the intersection below; the photo shows the intersection around 1994, with a view of Lorettoberg, from my balcony within Basler Tor. At this point, there was no longer a connection between Reiterstrasse and that intersection. But Merzhauserstrasse had already become a four-lane road where cars are parked above.

Today, Merzhauserstrasse only has two lanes but also a streetcar running down the middle – and the rails are on a grassy area (see this photo). Note that there are no bike lanes in the image above; people had to ride their bikes on the streets and sidewalks without any special area. Now compare that to the photo under the previous link.

My first apartment (WG) in Basler Tor was where the founders of Crash, a local heavy metal bar, first lived. My housemates told me the place used to look even more run down, but it was modest even at the time. I had a tiny room (12 m2, around 120 square feet). In the building next door, I found a 20 m2 room and decided to move. For me, the decision was easy, but the Germans all thought the move was a big deal. The landlord in the old place freaked out and wrote me a nasty letter, saying he would not have rented to me at all if he had known that I was only going to be there for half a year. The other three people in the old flat also reacted with dismay, saying they didn't know I wasn't happy with my room; they seem to take it personally, but for me the room was just too small. And the woman in the new flat – the daughter of some local farmers who had a stand at Cathedral Square – also was quite nervous to be moving in with someone she didn't know. It was all a culture shock for me. And incidentally, after I moved out of my first apartment, a guy moved in who was the DJ from Stuttgart – the one that had played the Brazilian song that Fanta 4, a group of rappers from Stuttgart, used in their famous first hit.

I wasn't very happy in either apartment. In the second one, I didn't really even have a proper bedroom door; my housemate's father had installed a sliding partition between the dining area and the living area to create a separate room out of the latter. But anyone sitting at the dinner table could hear everything going on in my bedroom and vice versa. Apartments were extremely expensive and very hard to find at all at the time, so these were the conditions in my first three years in Freiburg.

I'll close with an image just 100 meters down from Baslertor of a small house and a small vineyard on Lorettoberg. My daughter concurs: nothing here has changed at all over the past two decades.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Freiburg memories: Schlossberg, Gerberau, and Fischerau

In my first semester as an exchange student in Freiburg, I continued taking Dutch classes. My Dutch teacher was a guy my age, and he told me I should meet his wife, who was also from the States. I went over to their place in Gerberau, a street in the pedestrian zone of downtown Freiburg, and we took a trip through the black forest in their Volkswagen golf. They had to park their car more than five minutes away, which I found to be absolutely bizarre at the time.

They were a funny couple. He (a non-smoker) would hide her cigarettes. She would then say "two weeks" – meaning that was how long he wasn't gonna get any. I also remember learning the word "tranchieren" at their place, so we must have carved a turkey there for Thanksgiving or Christmas once. The Dutchman also used to boycott shops when the service was bad, which was practically everywhere. (When I recently reminded him of this, he couldn't remember.)

Their apartment was really cool. It had a hatch that opened up to the roof, where we sometimes hung out. When I showed this picture, taken from their roof, to my daughter, she could not believe her eyes – no wind turbines, no hiking tower. In fact, the entire Schlossberg arena was developed for hikers sometime in the late 1990s. There used to be a citadel up top, which the French razed when occupying the city centuries ago. Now, you can at least view the foundations and get an idea of how big it was. But when I arrived in Freiburg, none of that had really been developed as a park.

In the second picture, you get a glimpse of Gerberau. I believe one of those buildings has the following written on it still:

Wenn dieses Haus so lange steht,
bis aller Neid und Haß vergeht,
dann bleibt's fürwahr so lange stehn,
bis diese Welt wird untergehn.

Yet another rather unlikable saying: "if this building is still standing when envy and hate are gone, it will probably have remained standing until the end of the world." Not exactly something I would put on my building, but successful Germans tend to be rather paranoid about everyone else being "envious" even today. It's their way of not wanting to share.

This street was historically the first one outside the city wall. Called Tanners Road, it was where leather and textile were processed. As a result, the water (which is no longer visible under the street) was dirty. (Ironically, my friends lived above an Asian carpet shop – one of the few stores on that street that is still there today.) This is what it looks like today.

And this is Fischerau, one street removed. Here, the water was still clean, so you could eat the fish. Fish Road is now home to numerous specialty shops, such as a Japanese furniture store and a honey shop. You can easily imagine what Gerberau might look like today if it had water running down it. Fischerau is Freiberg's Little Venice. I make sure to take everyone down this street when they visit Freiburg.

And by the way, I am still in contact with my old Dutch teacher and his wife. As chance would have it, we will all three be moving away from Freiburg in 2017 – me, for good and them probably until they retire.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Freiburg memories: Augustinerplatz

When I arrived in Freiburg in 1992, Augustinerplatz had not yet become the major meeting place that it now is in the warm season. Today, it is packed with young people when the weather is good (see this photo). The owner of Capri, a café/bar at the edge of the square, recently told me that, as far as he can remember, the square became a huge place to hang out at the end of the 1990s. A friend of mine who used to work at the café in the mid-90s told me last night that he remembers selling people bottles of beer, and they would then sit outside – but there were not so many as there are today. One reason may be that you could still park cars on the square in the 1980s. It may have taken citizens a decade to become accustomed to going there.

By the time the square had become a popular hangout, I had kids and no longer did much hanging out in the evening – so I was quite shocked to see that poor people came through collecting bottles, which they could return for the deposit. In a way, I guess that's great – another source of income, and at least the bottles don't lie around getting broken. But it still left a weird taste in my mouth.

The square has the largest section of the historic city wall that still exists. Notice that it is an opening to a parking garage, and you can also see the public toilets on the left (they are quite smelly). The photo was taken in the mid-90s.

Here is another view, where you can see the (still unrenovated) Augustin Cloister (the big yellow building). Look closely, and you can see that the playground behind the trees did not yet have any gate separating it from the square. As the place became a hangout for drunk young people, the gate needed to be added to prevent these folks from spilling over into the playground at night. I have fond memories of going there with my kids.