Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Time to Play Catch-Up

I knew it was bound to happen: lots of work, many more activities, and none of the time to write about any of them. Two weeks have passed and my responsibility to document these goings on has passed right along with them. In order to make good, I will try and play a little catch-up.

Two weekends ago, Keith and I struck out for Salzburg. We were primed and ready with our trusty MapPoint Europe 2003 printouts that would show us every turn and nuance on our way from Munich. The only problem was, we did not take into account that severe thunderstorms the night before had closed main traffic arteries from Italy, and the stretch of Autobahn we were planning to take was choked with weekend traffic. We were told this information by my landlord, who just happened to be over that Saturday morning to repair my TV antenna. When he heard of our planned route, he immediate snapped into gear and mapped out an alternative one.

The new route was not going to have us break any land-speed records, but then neither were any of those sorry saps that had turned the world’s fastest highway system into a parking lot. Keith and I were not fazed, and if anything we were excited. Our new pathway took us through some marvelous countryside. I can’t tell you the number of small and charming towns we rolled past. Each one looking sleepier than the next, with green fields of grass and corn stalks that were twice as tall as the average man.

As we approached the border with Austria, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten my passport. “Think they’ll accept an Oregon Drivers License”, I said to Keith. “You better hope so, cause I am not turning around”, Keith responded. It was no worry at all because the concept of a “border” seems like a formality in the new European Union. The only indication that we were actually in Austria was a sign that said, well “Austria”. Simple = Good. Keith didn’t even have to stop the car. We were wondering if armed guards, who may be distant cousins of Arnold and who wanted to act like him as an action hero, might soon be attempting to shoot out our tires for not stopping. We just kept motoring along however, and soon found a parking spot along side the Salzach River.

Now Salzburg is known throughout the world for primarily two things. First, it is the city where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born. You can actually tour the actual home where he spent his youth. Second, the surrounding mountains and hillsides just outside of Salzburg were used in the filming of the musical classic, The Sound of Music. The actual sound of music, the kind you hear when people play real instruments, could be heard all over the old town section that Keith and I explored for the day.

Keith and I wanted to journey up to the city fortress that once protected and now overlooks Salzburg. We discovered that there is a tram that ascends the almost vertical incline directly to the fortress, but Keith and I were too proud, and too cheap, to buy a ticket. We instead thought it would be much better if we took the winding cobblestone street that lead to the entrance. Along the way, we had some impressive views of Salzburg.

When we got to the entrance gate, we discovered that no one was manning the tollbooth. To me, this meant it was time to hop the turnstile and continue with our journey. I wasn’t two paces beyond fully executing my plan however, when the toll operator, coming back from a bio-break, caught me red handed. I received a few scolding words in German that needed no translation. Keith and I both paid our admittance and headed up into the bowels of the fortress. The views from atop the structure were breathtaking. From one side you could see the city below, and from the other you could see the hills that were surely alive with the sound of music still to this day.

As we descended back down through the fortress, we noticed that the tollgate was now fully open and my good friend had turned in for the evening. Maybe if I hadn’t tried to sneak my way in, our little friend would have let us in on the secret that if we waited just 10 more minutes, we could have got in for free.

To be honest, Keith and I didn’t even scratch the surface of what Salzburg has to offer. Only being about 1:30 minutes from Munich however, I am sure we will go back. We decided to take the Autobahn back on the way home, but Keith wanted to fill up with fuel first, since it appeared gas in Austria was about 20% cheaper than in Germany. Americans will get a serious case of sticker shock the first time they go to top off Ole Betsy in Europe. To fill up your tank costs about 55 Euro, or the equivalent of $60. Ouch! Yeah, that is exactly what I said! No wonder people use public transportation so much. Poor Frank was the first one of us to discover this pummeling at the pump. He is now reconsidering whether he really wants a car during his yearlong assignment. I told him he could always get a SmartCar if he is worried about economy. He’d have just enough room for him and his laptop (maybe), but oh just think of the savings.

The next day on Sunday, Keith and I headed to Olympic Park, the site where the 1972 Olympics were held in Munich. Olympic Park contains one of the few groupings of hills within the confines of Munich proper. From atop these hills, you can see the world headquarters for BMW, as well as the observatory tower that is one of the most famous landmarks in the whole city. Also from these hills is a small set of benches that tell the story of the seven Israeli athletes that were held hostage and eventually killed by Palestinian terrorists during these games that will forever have the mark of death upon them. It is sad that after 31 years not much has improved the relations between these two peoples.

Keith and I went to the top of the observatory tower, riding the elevator that makes the 250-meter climb in about 20 seconds. Out on the deck you can see all of Munich beneath you. On a clear day, we were told you can even see the Alps in the near distance.

While we were looking out from the tower, we spied a basketball court within the park. Upon exiting the elevator from our trip back down to earth, we made a beeline for the courts, as there appeared to be some action. When we got to the court we saw several Dirk Nowitzkis in the making. Basketball still lies in the shadows behind soccer in Germany, but it is catching on nonetheless, thanks to the play of Dirk and other Europeans in the NBA. Unfortunately the popularity of the NBA has brought out a lot of flashy wannabe crossover, behind-the-back, no-look-pass, and then puke up a shot with two men in your face kind of play. Now this is all done, mind you, exclusively with the player’s right hand, as the players I observed could not dribble with their off hand.

I really hated the NBA at that moment. I hated what they had done to my game…our game. It is no longer a game about teamwork but rather how flashy you can be and how many endorsements you can generate. These German kids probably didn’t know or understand that the last time the Americans played in International competition with an ensemble of NBA individuals, they finished a miserable 6th place. They were beaten soundly by teams such as Argentina who functioned as a cohesive unit and broke down the American’s lack of defense and poor shot selection. Keith and I both wanted to play so bad that we must have had the look of depravity on our faces.

At one point we were motioned onto the court by two young German kids for a little game of 2-on-2. Keith and I were taller and more basketball wise, but we each gave up about 13 years on these kids. Needless to say, it wasn’t even close. We built a 9-0 lead before letting the kids rain in a few three-pointers to make it close, but the game was never in any serious jeopardy. Keith and I agreed to come back to the courts again, and this time look for a little more competition. We walked back to my apartment sweaty in our jeans and sweaters that were definitely not our preferred gym attire. We didn’t know that we would be called into action to represent our country by playing our game. We halfway expected this to be our duty as basketball loving guys, and we felt good that we had defended her honor proudly.

Wednesday of last week, I had a 3-day offsite meeting in the resort town of Garmisch. Alexei, my Russian co-worker who I am closely working with on my European Marketing Program, joined me on the drive. Alexei will be taking over for me in Europe once I return back to the States. He and I are working great together, but this was a special time for us to bond more effectively during the trek to Garmisch.

We left work at the end of the day on Wednesday, maps in hand of course, and struck out to navigate our way to Garmisch. Why in the world the maps had us go right through the center of Munich to begin our voyage, I have no idea. Just think of this for all of you back home: You have an American at the wheel, who never pulls over for directions; and you have a Russian in the passenger seat acting as navigator, who like his American comrade cannot read or understand road signs written in German. If this is not Glasnost personified, then I don’t know what is. “I think you should have turned there”, uttered Alexei in flawless English. “You think”, I questioned. It didn’t help that in Munich the name of a street can change three times in one square block. “Yep, you definitely should have turned back there”, urged Alexei. “Maybe we should ask someone”, he volleyed. “Naw, I think I see the river, and I got lost here the other night, so I think I know were I am”, I said confidently. Just before Alexei was about to teach me some curse words in Russian, we found the on-ramp to the Autobahn. “Patience is a virtue young Jedi”. Not sure if that line ever made it to Moscow.

Alexei was just as enamored with the limitless speed of the Autobahn as I was. “How fast have you driven your car here”, he said in a way that sounded very much like a challenge. “180 KMH”, I answered, which was the equivalent to 112 MPH. “I guess you don’t drive that fast in the States normally”, said Alexei. “Not unless we want to go to jail”, I quipped. Feeling much more comfortable with one another, Alexei asked to see what Old Girl had in her. I dropped the throttle and watched both the speedometer and the tachometer climb. The smile on Alexei’s face was priceless. I noticed his hand had slowly migrated to the “Oh Shit” position towards the roof liner of the car. I looked down at the speedometer at one point, and it read 230KMH, which is approximately 140MPH. The funny thing was that my foot was still not on the floor. My hands were sweating profusely as I had never driven anything this fast before. “You are flying”, Alexei let out with a burst. I guess this would be the next closest thing to flying a jet I may ever encounter. We were screaming by slower cars in the far left lane at this point. I tried hard to make only minor adjustments to the wheel to make my turns. I knew I had become accustomed to driving at that speed, when we had to break because of slower traffic ahead. I had to slow down to about 100MPH and it felt slow!

We found our hotel that evening, nestled amongst the Alps of southern Germany. In the winter, Garmisch possesses some of the best skiing anywhere in the Alps, but in the late summer, I couldn’t imagine a more serene and strikingly beautiful place. The Alps literally ascend before your very eyes in this little mountain village. While on one of my only breaks of free time during the days of meetings, I strolled alongside a wonderful lake that was replenished with glacier runoff. The trail winded through a marvelous meadow that appeared to be the front yard for the imposing yet grand Alps. I continued on the trail past the meadow and was soon swallowed up by a forest of firs, which were nice enough to let a few rays of sun fall through their outstretched canopy.

That night, we walked from the hotel to a structure that resembled a winter cabin, now converted into a lovely Bavarian restaurant. Along the way, we saw the last glimmer of sun as is shined onto the open fields and then as it reflected back a pink hew at the very tip of massive peak amongst the Alps.

This past weekend, I stayed put in Munich. Keith and Frank were both back in the States for meetings, and to tell you the truth, I was looking forward to relaxing and getting to know Munich a little more. Friday night I didn’t do anything. I was at work until 7:30 that night trying to coordinate things with the States and I was beat.

Saturday I got up and did some minor maintenance on my bike, which was part of my shipment of contents that had finally arrived from the States last week. It was so great to have my things with me. What I cherished the most besides my bike was my CD collection. I finally could listen to my CDs and forgo the torture that has become German radio. It is not that German radio is bad, but the consistency of good music played in any one stretch of time does not measure up.

Once I pumped up the tires on my bike, I was off to the English Garden. I decided to take the trails through the garden that headed north out of town alongside the Isar River. I traveled outside the park’s bounds and right on ahead for another 10 KM. I took a break in the small German town of Giesling outside of Munich. I grabbed two bottles of apple juice and watched the locals carry out their afternoon errands. Life seemed so much slower outside of Munich.

I jumped back on the saddle and headed back the way I had come. I rode back to the Seehaus, which I have discussed in earlier entries, and enjoyed a Bavarian lunch. That night after a much-deserved shower and nap, I head out for Leopold Strasse. This is the main artery that delivers life to the Schwabing neighborhood, and on this night they were having a street party. For about a mile stretch of road, the entire street was closed off to cars. Food booths of all ethnic variations were represented, as well as the local breweries. Live music was abound every other block and a sea of people meandered from place to place. Leopold Strasse is known for artists marketing their wares and that night was no different. Handmade paintings, etchings, and photography were visible to all who passed by.

Sunday I headed for Olympic Park to see if I couldn’t scare up another game of basketball. I sprinted on my bike back to the courts that Keith and I had played on just a week prior. To my utter disappointment, there was no one there. I decided to camp out on a park bench and see if anyone might show up. My patience was rewarded as a group of five guys emerged one after the other. I stood up and asked one of them if we could play “drei-on-drei” (3-on-3). The guys were really friendly and two of them asked me where I was from. I always say America out of habit. Of course they know you are from America because you talk really funny. When they ask you where you are from, they want to know from which State. When I told them Oregon, one of them said he had always wanted to snowboard on Mt. Hood. Amazing! Here I was seeing some of the most beautiful ski resorts amongst the German Alps, and I have a German express to me his desire to board down Mt. Hood. I loved it!

My new team and I took the court and succeeded in winning a hard-fought first game. My shot was a little rusty, but my ball-handling skills allowed me to get as close to the hoop as I wanted, so I could at least draw some defense and open up shots for my teammates. This collection of guys was much better than the week prior. I had to get use to the fact that when the defensive team rebounds a shot here, they only have to take it back outside the trapezoid shaped lane, this includes towards the sidelines. I’ve always grown up playing that you must take it out to the top of the key. This new rule cost my guys a few points and the Germans loved catching me at it. Its ok, I got them back in spades several times and shut down their hottest shooting threat. I had watched this guy warm up and he was pretty good, but I had wondered what he would do if he had someone on him who could play defense, other than the “matador” style I had seen in Europe thus far. My thoughts proved correct. He could not get around when I shut off his strong hand, and it drove him nuts that I actually moved my feet on defense. He was left to pass the ball to teammates who couldn’t or wouldn’t shoot from outside. They tried running a few screens for him, but the guys on my team knew exactly what to do without any translation, when I hollered out “switch!”

The game helped beat some rust off of me and it was good exercise on a nice sunny day. I even made some friends with some guys who said they would come back next weekend to play. I think it would be nice to get some consistency playing hoops again. The nicest thing that occurred was when one of the German guys on my team, hearing that I did not bring a basketball with me, offered and then gave me one of his basketballs to keep. He said it was rough and worn, but if I wanted it I could have it. I thought this was great and I thanked him immensely. So now I have a basketball, a place to play, and some newfound friends who enjoy the game like I do. Hopefully this will be a good sign of things to come.