Germany Forces Me to Join the 21st Century

While in Heidelberg, I took in the movie Asterix at the Olympic Games. I love Asterix & Obelix, but they’re obscure over here, and I knew that movie would never make it into U.S. theatres, and if I ever downloaded it, it would likely only be available in its original French, not dubbed into German. One of the things that amused me about the movie was that the Goths put in a valiant (and almost successful) effort to win the ultimate race in the Olympics with their superior chariot technology.

The Germans are the techno-geeks of Europe, and though I’m ahead of the typical American in my technological know-how, the Germans had me lapped several times over.

Just buying a street car or train ticket outside of the major foreigner-friendly train stations was a logic exercise. What’s the code of your destination? One way, round trip, or all day? With child, with dog, with bike, or by yourself? Paying with bills, coins, prepaid transportation card, or Eurocard? Need a seat reservation? Want a monthly pass? Oops, that 20 euro bill’s too big! Aiyyeee! Many a kind German passerby was dragged in to explain the system and push buttons for me.

The internet cafes were my communication hub for the trip, but it wasn’t like using a computer at home. I expected the system to be German, but the German keyboards were different, too, expecially with the @ sign requiring a completely different keystroke combination than at home. More significantly, other international travellers weren’t sending email: they were using Skype. And what a service it was: people could not only talk to their loved ones, with computer cameras on both sides, Skype on the computer was no less than a videophone. Needless to say, Peter got us some Skype.

I had been reluctant to get myself a German cell phone, because buying one here requires complicated negotiations and long-time contracts. But by the time I got to Cologne, I was so desperate, I begged the ever-present guy at the internet cafe on Marzellenstrasse for help. He nodded over to the huge stack of cell phones he was selling, and told me I could get one, SIM, personal phone number, mail box and text messaging for 10 euros flat, and use a calling card (or load an amount directly into the SIM) to pay for my calls, no contract required. He even thought he could just get my American cell phone to work with a 5-euro SIM, but as I suspected it didn’t. The frequency used on German cell phones works nearly everywhere, all over Europe and in Australia, too, and the German manufacturers don’t think twice about adding in the frequencies for the oddballs, like the US and Japan, too. My phone was US only, though, and really, I was ok in spending the extra 5 euros to get a phone I could recharge while in Germany.

And, oh, how I love my German “Handy.” The only thing it didn’t do that my American phone does is take pictures, but I had a camera. I could call Peter any time, call hotels about room availability, call a taxi, check what time it was at home, and with both iPod and cell phone at hand, I fit right in with the Germans. (Well, ok, I think most of them have cell phones that are full on mp3 players, movie cameras, and news tickers, but I’m sure I fit right in with 8-year-olds and impoverished third-world visitors.)

The family magazine I picked up had a link for downloading some children’s videos, and the music magazine I bought only had links to the sites where you could buy a particular song or album. DVDs? CDs? I’m not even sure how they’re pronounced in German, but I sure do know the word for download (speichern.) Over here, we still can’t figure out if downloading is legal or not! And while the reality shows here only let you vote for someone (which forces you to make lots of calls if you only want to get rid of someone), the German reality shows let you vote for or against a contestant. And I thought I’d miss my trashy German TV shows when I came back, but it turns out they’re online for free, too!

The German rail system isn’t just for trains, any more, either. It has a well-designed hotel reservation system (which was far preferable than putting myself at the mercy of Tourist Information, which is, god help me, the way I booked rooms in the dark 20th century) and runs a car-share service, called, um, CarSharing, not Autoanteilung. There’s even a bicycle-sharing service in Cologne.

And having helped Jim move into his narrow San Francisco tower home, I was utterly delighted to see movers using this device:


Up at the top window, someone would place a box on the ladder’s ledge and it would carefully lower to the ground, where the movers there simply picked it up and placed it in the moving van.

“Oh, what a great device that is!” I exclaimed to the movers. “You don’t have to negotiate the stairs with the furniture and moving boxes!” (As we’d had to do with Jim’s stuff.)

“Yeah, duh,” one of them told me. “It’s four flights up, we’d get sore hands moving that stuff.” Oh, if only Jim had been hip to German moving technology!

I live in Silicon Valley, I’ve worked in technology, and I hang with geeky people, but Germany out-geeked me. And thanks to Germany, I’m now geekier than I used to be.

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