The alarm on my work phone woke me with a start at 6am this morning, right in the middle of a dream that seemed significant at the time, but is now completely forgotten. I stared at the wall for five or ten minutes before finally scraping myself out of bed, and stumbling off in the direction of the shower.
I’m going to miss the hotel shower when I return home. The hotel shower reaches it’s requested temperature instantaneously, and seems to provide enough water pressure to put out a fire thirty yards away – or at least it would if I dared turn the tap any further than I have so far. The shower at home is more of an exercise in blind luck, and unpredictable torture – often decorated with the hair of several teenage daughters.
After another morning working flat-out in an imposing conference room, with everything I did presented to the assembled clients on a huge flat screen, we eventually left for lunch – and for the first time during these visits to Germany, I was invited out.
I really didn’t know what to expect as we walked from office to office, picking up people along our way. By the time we sat down for dinner we had assembled myself, two people from Romania, a lady from Portugal (or Japan – her history seemed complicated), a lady from Italy, and a lady from Austria. Thankfully everybody spoke English, otherwise it would have been a very quiet meal. I still can’t get over that so many of the people here speak three, if not four languages.
Lunchtime was a lesson in knowing your way around – we turned two corners from the hotel where I have been staying, and sat at a table in the street of a Persian restaurant. During all these visits to Germany, this restaurant had been hiding in a suburban back-street, half as far away as the supermarket I so often walk to. An elderly Iranian man came out and conversed with us in both German, and English – matching menus against people as required. He need not really have bothered, because I put my trust in the lady I have been working with, and she ordered for me. The chicken and rice dish that arrived perhaps fifteen minutes later was wonderful.
I couldn’t help but ask questions about each person’s experiences in Germany while we ate lunch – none of us were German after all. It seemed none of the people present really thought of their country of origin as “home” any more – they had all lived in so many countries that the notion of “home” had ebbed away somewhat. Of course they still joked about the cultural touchstones that so many of us know – especially the Romanian guys, who played off each other with barbed comments that made us all laugh until our faces hurt.
No sooner had we finished our meals, then it was time to return to the office, and the afternoon whistled past in a blur of further development work on the big screen. Shaking hands, and saying goodbye at the end of the day – and the end of this visit felt different this time – like a bond has been forged. Although we have worked together for six months now, today seemed like the first time everybody let their guard down.
We won’t talk about the huge quantities of chocolates the Austrian lady kept delivering to the conference room table as I worked.
After arriving back at the hotel, folding up my work clothes, and packing my bags ready to travel in the morning, I thought “what the hell”, picked up my wallet and phone, and set off along the riverside in the sunshine. I let my feet take me on a bit of a journey first to the southern side of the city, and then back into the heart of the city in search of somewhere to eat dinner.
Just as I was beginning to give up on finding anywhere vaguely “normal”, I turned a corner and remembered a bar I had passed several times before – a faux Americana restaurant called “Chicago Meatpackers”, near Willy Brandt Platz. Everything about it was wonderful – from the offbeat decor, to the friendly staff, and the fantastic food. After ordering a burger, some fries, and a tall beer, I made mental note to leave the hotel a little more often. Yes, I’m often wiped out when I leave the office at the end of the day, but how much effort does it really take to make the fifteen minute walk into the city, and sit in a friendly, relaxed bar, where you can get something hearty to eat, sit back, and relax ?
Of course there is a flipside to sitting in restaurants that I have alluded to before. When I travel with work, I’m almost invariably on my own. Sitting in a busy bar on your own, while surrounded by groups of friends, co-workers, and families out for the evening is kind of soul destroying. While sitting in the American restaurant this evening, I had a huge attack of the lonelies. Of course it passes, but it’s not fun.
While finishing my drink, a single American guy came in, and propped himself at the bar, ordering a drink and some food. I didn’t catch all of his conversation, but it amused me – the barman appeared to be teaching him that the beer could be bought in different sized glasses – showing each of the glasses to him. I remember the same demonstration taking place when I first visited, a couple of years ago.