Germany, 2008

APRIL 2008 — I’m on the Inner-City Express (ICE) headed for Paris. I got on one train headed south from Frankfurt and then changed trains in Mannheim. This train is making a direct shot for Paris, stopping in a few places like Kaiserslautern and Saarbrucken (both of which sound like kinds of cole slaw.)

Judging from the geography, it’s clear why Hitler’s Panzers didn’t come this way. The countryside is very rugged and there are a lot of tunnels. From what I can see on the map, we’ll pass by Nancy in France and end up at Paris Gare de l’Est. (east station.) From there, I’ll take a car to Fountainebleu.

I had an interesting time in Russelsheim, near Frankfurt, and then my driver in an Opel Insignia drove me to Eisenach in the former East Germany. (He hit speeds of 125 mph on the autobahn but was frustrated he couldn’t go any faster. Too much traffic, including trucks from places like Romania—now that the EU has opened more to the east. I didn’t even bother about asking whether I could drive. I’m sure there was some regulation against it.)

Russelsheim is where Opel is headquartered. We in America haven’t heard much about Opel but it is a very proud car company, which GM bought in 1929 as sales fell off a cliff during the Depression. I’m surprised that GM hasn’t fully absorbed Opel’s name. I interviewed interesting people, most memorably a 39-year-old woman born in East Berlin in the Communist system. Now she’s at the heart of helping a Western multinational design cars. Opel has world responsibility for designing GM’s medium-sized and compact cars. The new Saturns are being designed there, for example.

Eisenach is in Thuringia, a rolling wooded area. The East Germans made their Wartburg cars there, but when their system collapsed in 1989, the company fell apart. GM secured the rights to building a plant there and hired many workers, but only a relative handful. I spoke, for example, with the union chief who was a toolmaker in the old Wartburg plant. “It didn’t matter what you said or what you suggested. Nothing changed. So we said nothing.”

Because the East Germans were willing to try anything to save their way of life, GM was able to establish the Toyota method of production in Eisenach before they did it anywhere else in the world. That was my primary interest in it—for freaky reasons of history, it was where GM learned how to make cars the Toyota-way.

I had bad weather in Germany—snow when I first arrived, then rain, quite chilly. I wasn’t quite prepared for that, but I managed. I can see why the Germans go crazy at their summer wine festivals or when they hit the beach in Portugal, or wherever. The lousy weather combines with a very demanding culture makes it a very controlled, very disciplined place. I ate dinner by myself one night and watched an extended family eat next to me (two children, two parents, four grandparents.) They had very little conversation and no big laughs. Very tight.

I stayed in a little hotel in Oppenheim, about 25 minutes from the Russelsheim plant, on the banks of the Rhine River. (There was a big show in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden that filled hotels there.) It was a cute little town, set on a small mountain with the Katrinekirche at the top. This cathedral was built first in about 1225. There was an extensive network of tunnels and even a labyrinth built into the hill, I suppose for reasons of defense.

The surrounding countryside had a lot of vineyards, including some on very steep terrain, much steeper than anything I have seen in Oregon. They need specialized equipment to harvest it.

The Americans fought near Oppenheim in WWII, my driver told me, because it was close to where they wanted to cross the Rhine. The German army made a big stand there, attempting to prevent the Americans from crossing by blowing up bridges and such.

Things are frightfully expensive in Europe, with the euro at 1.58 against the dollar. This train ride is 170 euros, or about $250. A bottle of water at dinner one night was 5 euros, or about $8. That was very expensive water. Petrol (gasoline) is also very expensive, about $1.40 a liter or $5.60 a gallon.

Other quick observations—I was able to put a different sim card in my new Verizon Wireless World Phone. So I got calls from the States, and made a couple back. I was also able to make calls within Germany, to PR people and drivers and such. Wireless coverage here is much better than it is in the States. We are behind in this regard.

We’re also behind environmentally. The Germans use monitors to detect when someone is entering a room or public space. Then, and only then, do the lights go on. Esclators don’t run all the time. They sense when someone wants to ride them, and then they turn themselves on. And the Germans use a lot more diesel for their cars. The Opel I was in was diesel and offered great performance and great fuel efficiency. We ought to have more diesel-powered cars in the States, but we’ve had a bias against diesel because we think of diesel engines as dirty and not as powerful as gasoline engines. But that’s no longer true, if it ever was true.

The Europeans also are ahead of us with their train system. As energy prices keep increasing, we’re going to have to finally get more serious about rail systems.

In general, it’s been easy these past few years to be dismissive about the European economic style. I certainly have dissed them as the Old World. But in view of the current economic upheaval in the U.S., in which millions of Americans are going to lose their homes, it appears the Europeans have done something right. They’ve maintained a high standard of living that doesn’t seem as vulnerable as America’s.

We cross the border. There is no passport check. The same currency, the Euro, works so I don’t have to chance currencies. And my phone seemlessly moves from the German system to the French system.

Much of eastern France is completely rural, with the occasional village. It all reminds me of Vic Morrow in the old TV series, Combat, or Saving Private Ryan. It’s amazing how much of the American perception of Germany and France is still shaped by the past…

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