Monday, June 29, 2009

Birthplace of Another Popular Meat



This is not a normal stopover for us. Or rather, it's not a city served by the MD-11, so I can't expect regular layovers here. But the business of deadheading crewmembers to and from assignments in Cologne dictates the occasional use of nearby airports. Frankfurt is only 100 miles from Cologne, so if the flight schedules are suitable we sometimes deadhead in or out of FRA and shuttle by car to CGN. Our schedules must be built to ensure FAA-legal and contractual rest before or after flight segments, and logistics are such that we are occasionally treated to a layover here in FRA (if that's how we're commuting) before or after operating in or out of CGN. I flew in to FRA this morning from Louisville, and am scheduled to sit here in for about 18 hours before being shuttled over to the CGN airport and to my airplane, where I will operate back to Louisville.

A three and a half day assignment to operate a single leg, and even then I'm not actually operating the flight. Or not much of it. For this trip I'm doing what is called IOE support. The captain on the flight is an instructor, and he's giving Initial Operating Experience training to a new first officer (just as I received my own IOE just a few weeks ago). Since the flight leg is over 8 hours, these crewmembers are required by FAA regs to have a break so that they're not at the controls for more than eight hours. Normally, the two crewmembers take staggered breaks, and a third crewmember--called an IRO, or International Relief Officer--takes each of their places in turn. But when one of the regular pilots is receiving IOE, they are not technically qualified to do their job except under the watchful eye of a training captain. So if the IRO is not an IOE training captain, the new F/O is not allowed to be at the controls when the captain takes his break. Ergo, an entire replacement crew is required.

One of the downsides of being an IRO is that you virtually never get to do a takeoff or landing (at least during IRO legs); you only occupy the front seats during the cruise portion of the flight. The IRO will be assigned a few other tasks for the flight, but s/he spends much of it in the bunk sleeping or watching movies, etc. So the IRO is colloquially called the "kitchen bitch," since, among other things, they often take care of the catering for the flight (on a long flight with some jumpseaters there may be 15 meals to dispose of). And the IOE support guy (me) becomes the IRO's bitch, which puts me waaaaaaay down the pecking order. But hey, it pays the same.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I found it a little disconcerting to be abroad and unable to tap into the company's resources as I'm used to. In that earlier post I was in CGN, and in that case I had traveled in with another crew and I knew where the crew hotel was (and a lot of our company people stay there). But this time I was traveling to FRA on my own, since the rest of the crew was flying around Europe / Asia and I was only needed for the crossing back to the US. This was the first time I had done this solo positioning stuff internationally. I was told that when I got on the ground a driver would be waiting at the airport specifically for me to take me to the crew hotel in FRA. (I always see these drivers with a printed cardboard sign waiting at baggage claim.) Well and good. But of course there was nobody there when I emerged from customs. After looking around for 15 minutes, I decided to consult my bid package (where our layover hotels and transportation providers have always been listed). But the transportation numbers and the crew hotel lists have been removed for economy's sake. Neat. So I have no idea 1) how I'm supposed to get to my hotel, nor 2) which hotel it even is. I could take a cab and be reimbursed, but I have no idea where to direct them to take me, and I don't want to stiff some poor schmoe who is somewhere there at the airport waiting for his pre-assigned fare.

After my last big trip abroad I decided to activate my phone internationally. I figured, cost be damned, sometimes a fella just needs to be able to communicate. And here was my vindication. I pushed the Louisville MD-11 scheduler button on my iPhone (I love that the phone knows how to dial from wherever you are) and she was able to put me on hold and call the German company who was assigned to pick me up and find out where the driver was. Problem solved, and well worth the $6 or $7 that it cost. And it sounded like she was sitting next to me. In retrospect, I should at least have figured out where our crew hotel in FRA was so I wasn't TOTALLY helpless. And it wouldn't have hurt to have the local number of the transportation provider in my pocket either. But this is the trial-and-error by which one learns.

Shopping in FRA.

So I got to the hotel about 9:am, which was about 2:am my time, and I headed straight to bed. I was up by about 4:pm local, which gave me a few hours of daylight to walk around. Here's another tidy, walker-friendly German city. Most everything is clean and in good order, and everybody is outside and active. People are friendly, and the sidewalk cafes are buzzing. Like Cologne, Frankfurt has a pretty extensive shopping district downtown, with large pedestrian-only plazas and a fun mixture of new and old architecture. The city straddles the Main river, just upstream of its union with the Rhine, and the river has walking / biking paths along both sides which appear to be heavily used. In fact, there are bike lanes all over the city, and once again it seems that a fair bit of the population uses bikes to get around.

Our hotel.

Obligatory hotel room view (the hordes clamber for it!)

As always, my attention turns to transportation issues. A couple blocks behind our hotel here is the Hauptbahnhof (which--somebody help me out with my German--translates roughly as "main train house" I think), the primary train station for the city. (I just spoke to the front desk girl who confirmed my suspicions, and said there is typically a hauptbahnhof in most larger cities, abbreviated Hbf on the train boards to differentiate it from the other stations in the city.) And once again I'm struck by how differently Europeans and Americans approach transportation. They put the big train station right near the center of town, and the city's bus and local train lines--above-ground and subway; they have both--all meet up here. So a visitor can get off their train and quickly get anywhere in the city on public transit. What a concept. The station itself is an architectural marvel, with its soaring glass and steel train sheds. The stations are a relic from an older time, I know, a time when train travel was an event. The sheds' height, rather than being intentionally lofty and grand, is intended to get the coal smoke and steam from the idling locomotives away from travelers; this was a concern during the heyday of train station design a hundred years ago. A modern station would have no such requirements spurring its design, and so we get Penn Station in New York, which is not so much a station as a collection of tunnels that vent into a common manifold.

The FRA Hauptbahnhof.

The central one of six or seven trainsheds.

Anyway, Frankfurt's Hauptbahnhof, in addition to being architecturally fascinating, has all manner of shopping--food, books & magazines & newspapers, electrical gadgets, some clothing--to cater to the needs of the thousands who pass through it every day. This isn't so different from, say, New York's Grand Central or Penn Stations, but you have to go to our biggest city to see it. Otherwise, trains are pretty much dead in the US of A. You either drive your car, or you take Greyhound, which is like a facial tattoo denoting desperation. Instead, we're all about airports, and travelers are expected to take their car to and from the airport. With a vast and largely empty country, this works. But how refreshing to just be able to walk in and out of the train stations here, without the phalanx of TSA agents (who too often strike me as high school dropouts who stood in their mirrored sunglasses tapping a billy club in front of the mirror at home saying "Respect my authoritah" before they answered the call to service). You can bring your dog on the train. You can bring your bicycle. You can buy food at the station and take it on board. There's almost unlimited space for luggage, and you get to just bring it with you. You get to walk around. During the trip. And you can actually see something enroute. When I'm going from Philly to Los Angeles, I'm very glad there's an airplane to get me there; but it frustrates me that Susan and I cannot get from Appleton to Chicago on the train for a whirlwind weekend (not to mention that Chicago is probably three times the size of Frankfurt and its rail station is pathetic compared to FRA's Hauptbahnhof).

I went back at sunset to get a sandwich, and the station is virtually as busy at 9:pm as it was at 4:pm. Trains come and go continually, and most of the shops and kiosks are still open after dark. Likewise, I'm told that (with our strange sleep schedules) if I'm peckish in the middle of the night in CGN, the train station is open 24 / 7 and has good food.

It's too bad that I'll likely not ever get a longer stretch here than these 18 hours. Since the MD-11 doesn't stop here, my longer layovers are likely to be in CGN. At least FRA is only a short train ride away if I find myself with a weekend in CGN and want a change of scenery.


Addendum: The Transport Situation.

I learned after posting the above that the reason we go in and out of FRA instead of CGN is because there is very limited service to CGN by US airlines. There's not that much commercial positioning done, but there's more of it going thru FRA than I realized.

I also learned that the company encourages us to use the excellent train service between the FRA station I so enjoyed and the one I love in CGN. If I had known this I would surely have taken this option rather than the 1:30 a.m. cab ride for the hundred miles to CGN airport (I do love the trains, you know).

Not that the cab ride wasn't interesting. The cabbie was a thousand years old, driving what appeared to be his personal car, a quite new Mercedes E-Class diesel (one of the few diesels sold in the US, though they exist elsewhere in the world in several variants, and I'm not sure which motor was in this guy's car). The hotel doorman pointed the guy out to me parked at the curb; I had expected a van or a marked car and dismissed the Mercedes pulling up as a hotel guest. When I came out, the driver was standing at the trunk, hunched over and with a noticeable palsy to his head and hands. He knew two words of English. But he must have been a race driver in a former life, as he drove the entire distance like he was fleeing from the polizei. This was, I believe, my first time on the vaunted autobahn, and he made good use of the absence of any posted speed limits, traveling never below 120kph and often up to and slightly beyond 180 kph (75-115 mph). He kept the radio on during the drive, and bobbed his head jauntily at the music, occasionally even conducting with his right hand a bit.

But--and here was the interesting part for me--he didn't let anything distract him from the primary task of driving, and it was not done absently no matter the speed. Both hands on the wheel virtually all the time, and it was thrilling to see strict lane discipline by him and everyone else on the freeway. The leftmost lane was NEVER occupied except to pass, and everyone made it a priority to to get back as far right as possible after passing. He even moved back right after a pass when he could see another pass impending ahead of him. All trucks were exclusively in the right lane, in a (much slower) constant-speed caravan. One begins to see why the Germans were so slow and reluctant to pepper their cars with cup holders. Driving at speed requires focus and concentration, and things will go awry very quickly at 100+ mph. If you're doing this you're not sipping on anything. A couple times he change lanes with a slight abruptness, or stepped on the brakes if something ahead did not look right, and again one begins to understand the German focus on stout, performance-oriented running gear. What seems routine in our driving takes on a different quality at speed. A spirited slow-down from 120 mph taxes one's braking system far beyond our casual city driving and in a manner quite different from, say, a panic stop from 40 mph. And lastly, when things do go wrong (which, fortunately, they did not for me), one appreciates the vault-like structure of the Mercedes-Benz. The safety features--crumple zones, high-strength steel cages, safety glass, anti-lock brakes, airbags, seat belt pretensioners, etc., etc.--suddenly appear far less like marketing ploys or silly luxuries for the rich and far more like things intended to save your life in a crisis.

Lastly, as concerns German radio stations, two words: acid trip. This guy picked a station for the first half of our drive that featured a positively bizarre mix of styles. There was the occasional '60s American / British pop hit by the Byrds or the Hollies, but most music was in German. There were a couple country-western songs--German country music!--with the singer doing his best to conjure a Brad Paisley kinda sound. Then there was the Chorus of Heidis and Helgas doing a kind of jaunty ABBA-style of singing over a thinly disguised oom-pah backdrop (the old head REALLY bobbed at that one, the rhythm and the palsy giving a kind of compound wave of appreciation). We were treated to Tom Jones's It's Not Unusual, with carefully copied instrumentals and the fatherland's best leather-panted imitator at the microphone. Surreal, even a little sickening. Lastly, and my favorite, the Village People's YMCA, but with different English words! Crazy For You sung to the tune & rhythm of YMCA. Why change the words and then sing it in English? It sounded like someone doing karaoke.

But it kept me awake.


Jon said...

Germany is not that big, so I imagine that all the trains in your picture travel to all corners of Germany or to different areas all together? Say surrounding countries, so even longer trips might be an option. It would be fun to check out the whole country on an extended weekend if in fact the train does such a thing.

wunelle said...

I don't know the whole structure here. Obviously the trains do head off to all corners of Germany, but many also head off to other places in Europe. Perhaps it's the kind of train: the bullet-like trains go long-distance and the blockier-looking red trains are more local. Something like that.

But one could clearly jump off from here to places quite far afield in Europe. The question is how many train-changes you'd need to make to get to, say, Barcelona or Warsaw or wherever.

CyberKitten said...

When I was in Rome some years ago I was impressed that trains from the main station went all over Europe. I'm guessing that you could sit on the same train all the way to Warsaw and probably on one all the way to Barcelona too. I think that city to city traffic would generally be pretty direct. If you want to get off the beaten track [grin] it'll mean more changes of course.