Saturday, May 31, 2008

Frankfurt: Predictable And Nice

Frankfurt. What to say. To me this is a city with few surprises. A city that is close to the culture I grew up with. A city were everything works and life is quite predictable. Nevertheless there are elements in the city that make it enjoyable to live or stay there.

Frankfurt: Predictable And NiceFrankfurt is a major business center in Germany. Just to mention a few facts. Frankfurt is the largest civil airport in Germany with close to 1000 flights a day. The Frankfurt Rhein-Main airport, as it is called, is huge. Here is also the largest US military airport outside the USA. Most middle east military missions are started here and after the Gulf War many wounded US soldiers were flown here and into Heidelberg. Frankfurt is also the main hub for German and international banking. The German stock exchange has its seat here and one cannot spend a day in Frankfurt without noticing that banks run and rule the city. I would go as far as to say that without banks Frankfurt would still be a village. All high-rise buildings in downtown are banks. The key players are Deutsche Bank, DG Bank and Kommerz Bank whose memorizable architectural structures of glass and steel form and shape the skyline and looks of this city. The Kommerz Bank is currently adding another 280 yard tall skyscraper in the center of the city right across the Frankfurter Hof, which is a classic hotel dating back a hundred years.

The city itself has 650,000 inhabitants and close to 600,000 jobs. Literally hundreds of thousands of people commute each day into Frankfurt. That causes major traffic jams but the Germans are orderly and they have things pretty much under control. A public subway, train, trolley, and bus system make it possible to get anywhere. The train station is the busiest passenger train station in Europe with a quarter of a million passengers each day. Nevertheless, many people simply can't leave their BMW or Mercedes at home. So, the whole city is hooked up to an on-line real-time parking monitoring system. On all major roads, signs display how many parking spaces are available anywhere in the city. One can read "Opera district 743 spots available, Zoo district 125 spots available, etc." from these LCD displays. When it comes to utilizing roads and sidewalks for parking Germans are less orderly than I thought. They are like the rest of the world. If the car fits on the sidewalk people will park it there. I rented a car for convenience. Lucky as I am, I got a Beemer, a 316i. Unfortunately not all freeways are free of speed limit. I could never test the limits of the car, but on the short 5 mile stretch on the way to the airport I could briefly push the odometer needle past the 115 m.p.h. mark. Most pieces of city highway have a 60 m.p.h. speed limit. All cars on the road are in good shape. Junk cars and rolling piles of scrap metal that can be found on US highways do not exist here due to the very strict regulations. Cars that do not meet all stringent safety requirements are simply pulled of the road. This makes it hard to own a car that is older than ten years. It also makes owning a car an expensive habit, the cheapest cars that one can buy are in the thousands of dollars range. Besides the top brands as Mercedes, BMW, and Volkswagen, tiny fuel efficient city cars are very popular. They are usually referred to as the "2 people and 2 cases of beer" cars as they can fit only two people and two 20 bottle cases of beer.

Frankfurt is not a big city. There is a small downtown that can be crossed on foot in about 30 minutes. It has a few shopping streets such as the Zeil which is also an area with some outdoor action on weekend evenings. Food and beverage stands stand wall to wall on a busy Friday night. Drinks are primary a wide variety of beers, but also wine and champagne. Food covers typical German dishes such as "Wurst" but includes also pizza, Thai, and seafood. Outside downtown, cozy little residential areas start. Actually, some are not that cozy, especially those that were created in the building boom at the end of World War II. In the next circle villages surround the city. Most of these villages grew and melted with other villages. However, unlike in many other places the villages here kept their original look and feel and did not lose their individuality as they "collided" with the neighboring villages. Beyond these villages is a belt of green, especially to the north were the Taunus, a hill range, nears the city. This region is reachable by car or train in half an hour. Here more villages can be found. These villages are separated from each other but all have easy access to the city via freeway or public transportation. Many expensive suburbs can be found out here from where people commute to work.

Besides banks one can also find historical buildings and cobble stone roads in down town. Frankfurt was founded about 1250 years ago and its original name was Franconofurt. It was a trading post on the Main river. The German Kaiser's were crowned in the church just steps from the old city hall and in those days Frankfurt was the heart of Germany. All Holzfachbauten, houses built with a wooden frame in a certain architecture style, in downtown were destroyed during WWII. So were the churches and city hall. Even though today everything looks old and original, most structures have been rebuilt in the late 50s. Strolling around the area called Roemer puts one back hundreds of years in history, especially in the evening.

One of the things that give you that warm fuzzy feeling inside are the alleys of old large Linden trees. This was a very stimulating and comforting feeling to me. It is hard to explain, but a powerful back-to-nature, getting-away-from-the-city, airing-your-lungs feeling. I enjoyed it immensely.

On Saturday, after spending the morning working in the office, Vincenzo, a coworker, his girlfriend Melisa, and I went to an open-house celebration of the Binding brewery. Binding was celebrating its 125th anniversary. The tour of the brewery was boring because it wasn't educational and hardly any explanation on the equipment was available. The other activities, however, compensated for the boring tour. Two big beer tents kept the crowd entertained. The museum handed out free goodies such as coasters, balloons, etc. The best part, needless to say, was the selection of cheap beer. We had dark wheat beer which is a rather unusual combination since most wheat beer is light in color. The "Dunkle Weizen" was delicious as were most of the other beers I had during my stay. Later we zipped in the Beemer to Schlossbon were a friend of ours had invited us for an afternoon hike in the woods. The weather turned out to be perfect. After several days of rain before, we now had sunshine. The forest was beautiful. It was a mix of needle, primarily fir, and leave forest giving it a dark touch. That and speaking German with my friends caused many memories to bubble up within myself. I even had to think about "Haensel und Gretel" one of the most famous German fairy tales. It was a true get-away. I haven't felt so far away from work and job pressure in a long time. Having the two young kids of Richard, our friend, around us certainly contributed to that pleasure of forgetting work for a few hours. We played with pine cones, enjoyed the fresh air, and chatted about the traits and character of the typical German. We were out in the woods for a couple of hours and saw farms without electricity and small villages. Even wildlife, deer and a snake, crossed our trail. The fresh air increased our appetite. Anke, Richard's wife, spoiled us with a three course dinner. Cheese and sausage sandwiches, champagne, beer, ice cream with Rumtopf (fruits soaked in spiced rum for a year), and Schnaps as a night cap. A delight. (I am gaining weight here, primarily because of all the chocolate and beer.)

On Sunday, we split the day again. We spent have the time in the office and the rest in near by Wiesbaden. Wiesbaden is just forty minutes west of Frankfurt. It is a smaller town but has a large shopping area. We strolled through the pedestrian areas of down town and did some window shopping. Remember, it is Sunday and all stores are closed. So, window shopping is the only kind of shopping one can do. Later we stopped by a McDonald's. It looks US-like but unlike the US they serve beer here. Another difference is the price. A burger with coke and fries is US$7. And to make it convenient, one can even pay in US dollars here. No Marks needed.

Live in Germany flows at a slower pace. A 36 hour work week and 5 weeks of vacation are common here. As far as I know, five weeks of vacation are enforced by law. The minimum wage is above US$10. A country of milk and honey? Not quite. High taxes, lots of bureaucracy, high cost of living, etc. form the downside. But to make a good judgement of the system one would have to live there for at least half a year.

No comments: