One of the reassuring aspects of going on a whirlwind tour is that any stereotypes you could form are quickly whittled away. Find yourself in an impossible situation with impossible people, and all you have to do is keep going to try the next situation.
I believe I left off in the middle of a train delay on the way from Bochum to Augsburg. As you can see from my two videos — one at an Irish pub and another in a public square that is stony yet warm — Augsburg was worth the wait.
Imagine that students at the University of Georgia or the University of North Carolina, instead of walking from the older part of campus to their favorite haunts on Broad Street or Franklin Street, all hopped on trams for five minutes and then walked around friendly pedestrian thoroughfares, writing Bach-style fugues in the windows of coffeehouses. (Yes, I asked the young music student what she was writing, and her English was barely good enough to explain.)
That’s Augsburg. Fun, friendly people all around. All in a city with remarkable historic buildings still standing or faithfully restored after the wars.
It’s also a city that has had a good run in soccer. The major local club, FC Augsburg, played its way up the ladder and will be in the Bundesliga for the first time this season. The stadium is a neat one with some idiosyncrasies — I had to bend nearly in half to duck under one of the rafters of the stadium roof just to get to my seat.
I also had my first serious encounter with media officials who simply didn’t see it as their role to be helpful.
The press conferences here are UN-style. You pick up a translation device, switch it to your language of choice and go from there. In Berlin, I was asked to sign my name to pick up my deice. In Bochum, they just handed them out.
In Augsburg, I was asked for my “press card.” Not my credential, not my ticket for the press conference. A card that’s apparently quite common among print journalists in Europe.
Well, I don’t have a “press card.” And as far as the woman handing out translation devices was concerned, I wasn’t getting one. As if I had somehow conned my way to getting a credential and a ticket to a press conference, all in hopes of absconding with a set of headphones.
A BBC World Service freelancer was in the same boat, and we more or less formed a blockade to get someone in some position of authority to come over and solve the problem. (German journalists neither complained about us nor offered to help. That’s fairly typical.) Someone in a suit came over, listened to us and said, proud of his English, “Yes, you give your press card.” I pointed out, yet again, that we freelancers had no such thing.
They agreed to let us use our credentials as collateral. Turns out, this was just a warmup.
I was sad to leave Augsburg. The InterCity hotel desk clerk I saw two straight days later recognized me as I left the “McCafe” where I had been working next door and said a nice hello to “Mr. Durrre.” I felt like I was making friends. Getting around on the trams was easy, even if one wasn’t going where it was advertised.
Another long-ish train ride awaited, so I hopped on the now-familiar ICE, which takes us at speeds up to 300km/h in stunning comfort, with people who come by every 90 minutes or so to make sure you don’t go too long without chocolate.
Candy is everywhere here. And the funny thing is that dental care doesn’t seem to be a priority. Shops in the train stations carry every sort of travel need imaginable — except toothpaste. One large shop in Frankfurt offered bras, which I suppose could be a traveler’s unforeseen need. Not so sure why it offered ice cream scoops.
I had used the handouts at Berlin’s Abion Spreebogen hotel, then visited an “apothecary” (pharmacy) to find really slim selection and a pharmacist who seemed befuddled not by English but by the very concept of cleaning teeth. I settled on Sensodyne, which is a Glaxo product of some sort. I’ve concluded that it’s actually Glaxo’s waste product, scraped off laboratory floors. It was absolutely disgusting, and I was relieved beyond belief to find honest-to-goodness Crest at another “apothecary” in the giant Frankfurt station.
I didn’t have much of a chance to investigate Frankfurt. All I can tell you is that it’s huge. It’s a big, big city. The InterCity next to the station is terrific. The station is roughly the size of Washington’s Union Station but far sleeker.
The train to the stadium drops you a good 10-minute walk from that stadium, but it’s pleasant. The road is lined with trees and occasional buildings offering grilled food and beer.
The first hint of trouble in Frankfurt was that the media center was a large tent about 200 yards from the stadium. A big fan zone was set up between the two. Before the fans arrived, this was fun — I played a fast, competitive game of foosball with a company rep of some sort and accepted a very rare loss (10-7 final) with good humor. The fan zone wasn’t as fun going the other direction, particularly when the crowd around a stage pretty well blocked the path to the stadium.
At most stops, I’ve been given a ticket either for the formal press conference or the informal “mixed zone,” where you try to stop players as they walk by. For Germany-Nigeria in Frankfurt, I was given a mixed zone ticket. Given my limited lingual skills, that’s not much help.
In Berlin, I had been encouraged to trade with someone to get into the press conference. I know from other journalists that this is pretty typical.
So I stood in the hallway in front of the press conference and mixed zone doors, asking people if they wanted to trade.
A bearded, bureaucratic type stepped up to tell me such trades were not allowed. I said they were allowed and even encouraged. In hindsight, I have no idea why I thought that would be the end of it.
The situation escalated over a couple of minutes. The guy would leave me alone a bit, and I actually got into a discussion about a possible trade. But then he finally said firmly that I needed to stop.
I was adamant, and I poked my head around the corner to say this was simply ridiculous, and I wanted to speak to someone else. I didn’t have the steward in mind, but he seemed happy for the opportunity to crack some skulls, at least metaphorically.
“Go!” he yelled. “Auf wiedersehen!” (I’ve heard “Auf wiederschen” instead of the less formal “Tchuss” maybe twice on this trip.)
“You have no authority to tell me to leave!” I protested.
He patted his orange steward vest and repeated himself. “Auf wiedersehen!”
I turned back around the corner. For a split second, I simply wasn’t going to give this guy the satisfaction, and I so nearly announced again that I was looking for a trade. But self-preservation kicked in — having a credential yanked from my neck would put a crimp on the rest of the trip, even if I managed to appeal and get it back — and I stormed back to the media center.
The desk people at the media center told me they had indeed been told we couldn’t trade. I said, “They’re telling you one thing and telling Berlin another!” They seemed crushed, and I abruptly switched gears to reassure them none of this was their fault.
And they were so nice to me. They made sure I could watch the press conference on a TV in the media center, not that I could understand the Germans.
So I left in a much better mood and walked toward the station with my English journalism friend Carrie, who got a kick out of hearing the whole story.
I left without finishing my story because I guessed, correctly, that we could end up stranded at the media center. The game ended at 10:45, the press conferences ended at 11:15 or so, and train service started to wind down after midnight. So I got on the crowded platform and found that it wasn’t so crowded at all if you got away from the doors. Somehow, the crowd never realized what a good idea it would be to spread out. So I had plenty of elbow room on the short ride back to the Hauptbahnhof (main station).
Again, I took up residence in a McCafe, which was nearly full. I worked until 1 a.m., when my connection started to conk out. No more trains were scheduled to depart, and they had locked a few doors — including the door from the McCafe back into the station. So I walked outside the other door and out of the station, then back in so I could walk out the north exit by the hotel. THAT was locked. Back to the main entrance, back around the station, back to the InterCity and a wonderful but brief sleep.
The Hauptbahnhof also had a Starbucks, so I parked myself there and caught up on my travel plans online before heading to Leverkusen, my first stop without a major train station. Koln seems to regard Leverkusen as little more than a suburb, which the romantic in me wants to attribute to soccer jealousy — Bayer Leverkusen is a perennial contender, while FC Koln can’t seem to stay in the Bundesliga.
Leverkusen itself has pretty neighborhoods. I know this because I got lost. I wound up walking with a Russian man from Vladivostok who was there to cheer for Japan, and we occasionally stopped people to ask for directions. One elderly woman did not know how to get to the BayArena. Or the football stadium, when we tried to use the generic name. This conversation took place while we could see part of the stadium roof.
Once we found it, I had a terrific time. The hotel is actually connected to the stadium. The media center crew couldn’t be nicer. They told me I could swap my press conference or mixed zone ticket all I wanted, and they laughed at my impression of the “Auf wiedersehen!” guy.
The only truly disappointing part was dinner. I ate in the hotel instead of McDonald’s — yes, those were the two viable options. I got the hotel’s burger, figuring they couldn’t mess that up. Oh, but they did. It combined the firm texture of a hockey puck with the taste of a hockey puck.
The next morning, the helpful hotel staff told me how I should *really* walk back to the small Leverkusen train station. It was a lovely walk through a park that had a river (really a creek) running in a straight line down the middle. The path takes you by Bayer Leverkusen’s extensive training facilities. And there are dogs.
I’ve changed my travel plans because one game I was supposed to cover will now feature two teams that have been eliminated. That rules out a trip to Dresden, which I regret — the unanimous view is that it’s unimaginably beautiful. Instead, I’ll spend my last five days here hopping between Wolfsburg and Heidelberg.
Big photo gallery follows:
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