Update Neun:
"Exit Continent--Left"

Apologies for the extended ExpatD silence. My withdrawal from the
Fatherland was slightly abrupt, and filled with frantic, last-minute
touristing thrusts. Now, I am endeavoring to pull a Scott Christensen
(Scott "www.ewav.com" Christensen) by scribbling about events that are
weeks gone by. Normally, I don't let the sun go down on my reflections
without getting them written up. Memory is fickle, and mine triply so.
But, let's see about a little retrospection . . .

No, first flash-forward. For those (few) not in the know, I am all
repatriated--and was actually back in the States at the beginning of
October. The original length of my overseas assignment was three months.
It was just that there seemed to be every possibility of me getting it
extended if I so desired. So, my plan was always to stay through at
least the end of the year. However, I hadn't reckoned on the implosion
of the tech economy, even worldwide. IONA's Central Europe division was
having an ass-whipping of a quarter--making our director, I gathered, a
little more cost-sensitive than he might have otherwise been. And it
turns out I was a non-trivial cost. There was the apartment, the car,
the expenses--and of course the Silicon Valley salary (let's just say
there's not exactly cost-of-living parity between San Francisco and
Darmstadt). In a word, since no one was buying the software I was
helping to shill, I was starting to cost more than I was worth.
(Admittedly, a depressing thought.) So, back I went.  It was actually,
evidently, a bit of a close call--judging by the fact that I couldn't
get a final answer until less than a week before my scheduled flight
home. But, in the end, I was on that plane. (My *tenth* trans-Atlantic
flight I just calculated. Jesus! I'm really pushing my luck crossing
that ocean.) 

Learning of my imminent departure, I did the highly predictable thing: I
panicked--thinking of all the weekend travel I *hadn't* done--and toured
three cities in my last five days on the Continent.

You'll remember Simone, whom we met in Update Drei. Well, she finally
did as threatened, rung us up, and invited Thad and I for a day in
Frankfurt, on our last Saturday. As we'd been living just outside this
metropolis--but had seen no more of it than the train stations, and the
airport (repeatedly)--we enthusiastically accepted. The pair of us
hopped into the ole Golf on a glorious late September morning, and nosed
it NW. And proceeded to get spectacularly, and repeatedly, lost.
Luckily, I had made a special trip to the office that morning to charge
the cell phone. Lamentably, I had forgotten to charge the cell-phone.
This we discovered two minutes into our first panicked call to Simone.
Thad indicated this difficulty by holding the phone a few inches away
from his highly bemused expression. "Well, left here, anyway," he noted,
conveying our truncated directions message. But the whole nearly
disastrous operation ended up being a fine tribute to me, to Thad--and
to our nicely-mellowed relationship. We leaned back in our seats,
laughed constantly, enjoyed the sunlight, and maintained a fine
perspective. In retrospect, it's possible that September 11th had
something to do with it (the perspective thing).

One of a million commentators has pointed out that, because the attacks
on 9/11 were so random, in a sense ALL of us were killed on that
morning. It's just that most of us got a magic bonus life, were
miraculously permitted to live on. Essentially, we were all reborn,
phoenix-like. I suppose I should say a few words about what it was like
to be overseas on that day, that week. On the morning of, one couldn't
get into any of the news sites--nytimes.com, cnn.com, were completely
slammed. In an odd confluence of technologies, I had friends sitting in
front of CNN in the States, basically sending real-time updates via
e-mail: "ANOTHER plane has crashed into the south tower." "There might
be as many as six planes unaccounted for." "The South tower has
collapsed." "The NORTH tower has fallen down." I guess I don't have to
try and preach to anybody about the surreality of those words. I
remember running through the streets of Darmstadt, that night, or maybe
the next, thinking "the freaking World Trade Center is NOT THERE
anymore. Dude, this is seriously fucked up, right here." On my second to
the last visit to Manhattan, in 1994, my friend Wahoo, and our friend
Brandy, had stood in the plaza between the towers. We figured out that
if one person lay on the ground, and the other two stood above him, we
could get a picture with two people and both towers in it. That week,
Wahoo forwarded me one of those pictures, which I set as my desktop
wallpaper. My only other tribute was also symbolic. On the day of, for
some reason I felt like I needed some kind of identification: "I'm
American, dammit! I'm in mourning!" I improvised a black armband, which
I tied with bits of red, white, and blue ribbon. I wore that armband
every minute, until I once again set foot on American soil.

I guess I expected a lot of sympathy from my German colleagues, but not
that much turned up. I'm guessing they just weren't sure how to react,
what to say. At the risk of stereotyping: it seems that the checkered
history of the German nation has caused something . . . tentative, I
guess, in the German national character. They just tread a little
carefully. And I'm guessing it was that tendency that dictated in this
case. I did get a real outpouring of sympathy, though, from our British
colleagues. We had one Welshman in the office, Dean, who came from our
Dublin office; he was a genuine sweetheart about it. I also had a phone
conversation with someone from the London office. He began by offering
his heart-felt condolences--but he went on to express something that I
will always remember: He said (paraphrasing), "I don't know. The fact
that Britain *wasn't* attacked makes me wonder . . . if maybe we've
done something wrong. Perhaps we haven't been firm enough in opposing
terrorism, or staunch enough in supporting Israel . . ." I thought this
was incredibly touching. I tried to reassure him that he needn't feel
slighted--just grateful that they were spared. Between this, though . .
. and Tony Blair's comments, and the Queen's comments . . . and the
playing of the U.S national anthem at the changing of the Guard at
Buckingham Palace .  . . and (on a more personal note) my long
conversation with Ali after .  . . I think I will be a life-long fan of
what the British call the "special relationship" between them and the
U.S. God bless the U.K., seriously.

[A few hours after I wrote the above, the Sunday New York Times hit my
stoop, and it contained this article by Andrew Sullivan. (For those
who don't know AS, he's an Englishman transplanted to the U.S.; a
columnist for The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and
others; and a gay, Catholic, arch-conservative.  He's also a fine,
fine, fine writer.) He nailed it with, "What struck me here among my
American friends at the time was how instinctive their response was to
British support. It wasn't so much gratitude, I sensed, as relief. At
moments like these, the Brits somehow make America seem less alone in
the world."]

Tears didn't come at first. But I remember sitting at my little kitchen
table in Darmstadt the next night, reading the Wall Street Journal Int'l
Edition. I also got a copy of the Times of London from the day after
(which I still have). And when I read the first-hand accounts of the
people who jumped to their deaths, the flood-gates opened. I basically
spent the next week going into the office each day and reading the Times
and the Post top to bottom. And breaking down in tears with regularity.
Not a lick of work got done. God, so much has been written. I guess I
just wanted to provide the view from 5,000 miles off. Heck, when I
started this piece, I didn't even intend to address the whole subject.
In retrospect, I guess it was unavoidable. The tragedies also explain
why I didn't write until now. I just wasn't feeling very dispatchy.

So, a couple of weeks later, there Thad and I were arriving in
Frankfurt. Simone showed off the apartment she shared with her partner
Matthias; then busted out with three bicycles, for our personalized bike
tour of Frankfurt! Frankfurt has a reputation as a bit of industrial,
not-that-pretty, berg--but I found it quite the opposite. It was pretty
much levelled during the war--and has been rebuilt beautifully. We saw
the old and new Opera Houses, weaving among the glass towers of Deutsche
Bank, crossing the bridges over the river. Cycling is just the best way
to see a new place, I've always held. And Simone was a doll of a tour
guide. That night, originally unbeknownst to us, she was hosting a
dinner party, inviting over the Familiar Old Crew from our colleague
Roland's house in Darmstadt. So, we got to spend one final evening with
all the folks who had been SO extraordinarily nice to us over the past
three months. It was joyful.

The next day I took to the Golf by myself, and drove about 45 minutes
down the autobahn to Mannheim. It was a glorious day to be on the road,
and I reveled in the sunlight and solitude. Mannheim was also a great
surprise. They have a huge, lovely water tower, before a whole complex
of gardens and fountains--reputedly the largest and best art nouveau
gardens in Europe. There was also a great church, and a castle,
involved. Finally, the Mannheim Kunsthalle (modern art museum) was a
huge surprise. They had only a small number of works by "name" artists.
But the collection, overwhelmingly German, was very impressive--and
HUGE! It just went on and on. The interior of the building morphed and
shifted styles, and the collection went from conceptual installations,
to ultra-modern sculptures, to post-Impressionist oil paintings, and
just tons of other stuff. There was a Franz Marc painting (which you can
find online if you're sharp) called "Hund, Katze, Fuchs" which I
translated as "Dog, cat . . . and me." Overall, the gallery was a great
surprise. I'll always remember my day in Mannheim fondly.

So, that left a single work (ha!) week before our time was up; our
flights out were Friday. Thad had to jet out to Zurich, then Basel, for
some work stuff. (Did I mention I spent a weekend in Basel? I could say
a lot of great things about Basel. Beautiful, German architcture; fully
*30* museums and galleries in this city of like 200,000; stately Old
Bridge, ornate fountains everywhere.) So, I figured, well, I could sit
in the office and read Salon.com all week, pretending to work . . . or I
could finally take that damned trip to Prague. I was beginning to fear
that Prague was going to become the place I always almost go. (Astute
readers will recall me blowing off Prague in the spring, to stay longer
in Budapest.) First of all, numerous trusted advisors had made it clear
that I *had* to see the city. Moreover: this was my fourth trip to
Europe in three years. Unless work sent me again, I wasn't coming back
anytime soon. So, if I was going to see Prague, this was pretty much it.

I bought a train ticket, and travelled overnight on Monday. And. Erm.
Well--it turns out that I'm pretty much the only person on the face of
the planet to dislike Prague. I won't over-belabour my reasons. (In part
because I don't want to end on a huge down note, and in part because you
can safely discount my opinion anyway (as I'm in a minority of one).)
But, suffice it to say I found it very overrated. The "fairy tale city"
I was promised turned into a reasonable collection of interesting
architecture, a lot of spires. But they--and all the statuary, and
monuments--seemed to be covered in a disconcertingly thick layer of
soot. The storied Charles Bridge (which I promptly rechristened, for the
save of convenience, "Chuck B") was very nice; but probably not worth a
nine-hour train ride. The castle complex across the bridge was
moderately diverting, but well the inferior of any number of cathedrals
and castles I've seen elsewhere. The Old Town Square was cute, but I've
got much better Rathauses under my belt. The weather was all cold and
grey (which, I guess, isn't really the city's fault). And the throngs of
tourists . . . oh, my goodness . . . Ultimately, I left a day early, so
I probably forfeit the right to really criticize. But I'd heartily
encourage Eastern European travellers to give Prague a miss, and spend
the time in Vienna and Budapest (especially Budapest).

I have two final (important) observations on Germany and Germans: First
of all, Germans are NOT COLD. This is a foul slander--no less. Our
German colleagues and friends were NEVER anything toward us but open,
and loving, and giving, and engaging. And they smiled, and laughed, and
ribbed at all turns, frequently "like a bunch of giggling apes" (to
borrow a phrase from myself). The thing I will certainly remember most
about my time in Germany is the warm reception we received from the
German folks, God bless 'em. At that final-week party in Frankfurt, I
discussed this phenomenon with my friend Roland Schnir, who posited an
explanation for the stereotype: "Sure, some American tourists come to
Germany. They stay in Berlin for 2 days, then Munich for 3 days. And
they go to the crowded 'tourist biergarten' and the waitress is rude to
them, and they come home and say, 'Oh, the Germans are so cold and
formal . . .'"  I hope you read this someday, Roland--and I offer one
last (public) thanks for the princely way you took us into your home and
your heart.

My other, final observation is: the German language is *singularly*
unsuited to the musical form of rap. Word to the wise.

I took a few final notes on my travel day home: A sign in SFO notes: "Do
not smoke until you are in a designated Smoking Area, which in San
Francisco is outside of the terminal." 8^)  This is very San Francisco.
There's a phenomenon I've discovered, about flying back into SFO. The
first few times I returned home (after making the Bay Area my home, in
1997), I found myself getting very emotional about it; ogling at the
mountains and the Bay out the plane window, rolling down the cab window
to take in the Peninsula breeze, smiling out loud. I mentioned this to
my friend Mandy a few years ago, and she validated my feeling like a
champ: "I can't tell you how many times," she sincerely intoned, "I've
been on the verge of tears landing at SFO." Stepping out of the
terminal, I almost forgot to get down and kiss the (American) ground.
But I did. On the CalTrain shuttle, I listened to two Asian guys
speaking German in heavy Asian accents. This is very Bay Area. At the
CalTrain station, I looked up at a perfect starburst sun in a light
blue, perfect skin-tone sky, the perfect light breeze tousling my hair.
Yeah, that weather in Germany was already starting to get dicey (in
September). Probably best that we came back when we did. On the train, I
must have seen 40 American flags out the window; this is a shock for a
guy who hasn't been around. Walking through downtown Palo Alto, there's
a flag in nearly every shop window--and as I pause to note this, a
Ferrari with a big flag on its antenna rolls by. Very . . . Palo Alto.
8^)  A guy walks by in a "Got root?" t-shirt, which is perfectly Silicon
Valley. On this occasion, I am glad to be back. But, more, I'm so happy
and grateful to have gone. What a privilege.

And, as always, I'm grateful to ya'll for having read along. As someone
very wise and wonderful has often admonished me: "Be happy; be safe."