Saturday, October 9, 2010

My trip to Germany

Like many people these days, I have become a frequent traveler. This past week I have been in Germany visiting Mannheim, close to Ludwigshafen, near the Rhine River. The week before, I was in Savannah of Georgia and Tallahassee of Florida in the USA. The next week I plan to be in New Jersey on Monday and South Carolina the remainder of the week. The following weeks, I shall be visiting Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana states. Before I visit my parents in Bangladesh in the third week of December, my calendar is filled with all my scheduled flights to different places within the USA.

For many people, traveling is fun, but for some others it is or can be a painful experience. (My parents, who had visited many parts of Asia, Europe and North America in the 1980s and 1990s, no longer like to fly. In their advance ages it is too difficult and tiring for them.) I don’t know which category I fall into. Like some frequent flyers, I do have my share of mixed experiences.

As I write this on Saturday from inside a first class cabin in the Lufthansa flight en route to Detroit, today is surely one such bad day. I was not supposed to be flying to Detroit. I had a confirmed First Class ticket with a confirmed seat number assigned in the Lufthansa flight, flying out from Frankfurt to Philadelphia. The flight was supposed to leave at 1:50 p.m. As always punctual in my life, I had left my hotel, Holiday Inn in Mannheim, early at 10:30 a.m. in a taxi. The distance from the hotel to the airport is only about 75 km. I arrived at the airport at around 11:30 a.m., way before my departure time. When I tried to check-in at the ticket counter, I was told that the flight was overbooked and that I had been put in a standby position. This was heart-breaking news for me who had looked forward to returning home in suburban Philadelphia by 5 p.m. The ticket I bought was no cheap ticket either, it cost almost $6000 for a roundtrip flight in the First Class, and everything was confirmed days before my arrival at the airport. So it was very irritating to learn that I was put in a standby list.

The ticket agent advised me to proceed to the flight departure gate and said that they would take care of me one way or another. Worried and depressed from such a turn of event, I walked all the way to the gate and quickly explained my situation with the Lufthansa agent there. He explained that the original plane, scheduled to leave from Frankfurt, had to be abandoned for some mechanical problem and that a smaller plane instead was leaving for Philadelphia which required some passengers, even in the first class, to be put on the standby list; and that he was aware of my situation, and would let me know if the situation improved any bit (meaning: if some passengers had opted to fly tomorrow for cash or other considerations). So, I stood concerned and waiting, hoping for some miracles that would eventually allow me to fly back. I promptly called my American Express travel agent in the USA explaining what had gone wrong with my booking. She was simply surprised to hear the problem, and advised me to approach a Lufthansa supervisor. I could not find any supervisor other than the two agents who were busy explaining the same problem to other disgruntled passengers.

After nearly an hour of waiting, around 1:10 p.m. the agent called my name along with many other names to approach the counter. He told me that there was no way I could fly in the original flight today, and that the airline instead would be willing to take me to a hotel where I could stay for the night so that I could take the flight on Sunday. Depressed and angry, I called my travel agent again who advised that I talk to the Service Center agents. While quickly pacing the floor towards a nearby service center, I inquired if she could book me for an alternative flight leaving out of Frankfurt that would eventually bring me to Philadelphia tonight. She was able to locate a Lufthansa flight leaving for Detroit shortly. I requested her to book me for the flight and find a connecting flight to Philadelphia. It was also in the first class cabin.

Within minutes, I was able to find the center and told the agent if she could see to it that I am put on the flight leaving shortly for Detroit. She was non-committal at first and said that with my checked out luggage for Philadelphia, it might be difficult. After some calls to the baggage area, she issued me a ticket for Detroit and said that my Delta flight to Philadelphia from Detroit was also confirmed. She requested me to hurry back to the departing gate. The gate was about to close, but the agents were aware of my situation and let me in. So, here I am writing this from a plane that I had no clue that I would be taking. With some luck, God willing, I shall be landing in Philadelphia at around 9:45 p.m., some five hours later than my original scheduled arrival time.

The Lufthansa flight crews, serving at the First and Business Class cabins, are some of the most professional and competent crews. They are serious, always smiling and willing to make the air flight an enjoyable one. The food served is also of very high quality. No complaints there. After arriving a short while ago in Detroit, a Lufthansa agent told me that my luggage unfortunately had not arrived, and that after arriving in Philadelphia via Delta I should report about my missing luggage so that they could deliver it to my home the next day. She then advised me to proceed to the local terminal by taking a shuttle and check in with the Delta Airlines where my connecting flight would take me to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, she forgot to give me a transfer voucher, and the Delta agent said that while my ticket is confirmed, he can’t issue a ticket without endorsement from Lufthansa. So, I went back again to the main international terminal to collect the endorsement from the Lufthansa. The agent waiting there was very apologetic for my troubles. I rushed back again to the local terminal and showed the endorsement. This time, I got my Delta ticket. So, here I am in Detroit Airport waiting for my flight to take me to Philadelphia. So, in spite of all the fine services of the cabin crew and apologies of the Lufthansa agents, with such a bad experience with a confirmed First Class ticket and seat, I doubt I would ever advise anyone about taking a Lufthansa flight.

Counting this time, I have been to Germany twice in the last 12 years. The last trip was to Düsseldorf almost this time of the year in October. I remember that I did not bring any jacket with me and was feeling cold at night walking down the historical neighborhoods around Dortmund. This time, I brought my jacket and was well prepared for any cold spell. However, this time the days were very pleasant, real autumn-like, and the nights were not unpleasant either; one could walk without requiring a jacket.

During my trip, I had the opportunity to interact with many highly educated Germans who when asked about the reunification experience reminded me that it was a worthy cause. As one may recall while East Germany had a socialistic economy, West Germany had a capitalist system. Thus, while the East Germans had enjoyed a rather secure lifestyle that could always depend on the communist government and the state apparatus to ensure that the basic necessities of life were not denied to any citizen, the West Germans had to do it the harder way where it all mattered about individual efforts to either go up or down on the economic and social ladder. To most Germans, born much after the Second World War, and living in cities outside Berlin, the Berlin Wall was nothing more than a small annoyance that had separated some families on either side of the wall. It was not a big deal to most Germans! But with the collapse of the Wall and the ensuing end of the Cold War, it was felt that the broken country had to be reunified, and no artificial wall, brought down by then, should or could justify separation any longer. The reunification was surely a painful exercise that demanded sacrifice on either side. And no people in our time had put up a better effort to win this than the Germans.

As a nation, the Germans really fascinate me. They are a proud, prudent and well-informed people that know their place in history. They know the meaning of sacrifice and hard work. They know that the days ahead are going to be harder and tougher, which would require them to change their old habits. And they are already making that change. Most people have switched to biking, or use of public transportation to come to work. The majority of the cars used on the streets are getting smaller and less gas-guzzling than ever before. Most offices don’t have air conditioning systems. Even the few that have such facilities don’t usually turn these on unless absolutely required. Major hotel chains don’t waste energy and other resources the way their counterparts do in the USA; this is also true with American owned hotel chains. Almost all school-going kids walk to their schools. This is a big difference from the USA where kids are picked up by school buses.

In my taxi cab ride to the airport, the driver told me that he had a pretty good business of his own, earning nearly three thousand euros a day. Half a dozen people used to work for him. Then two years ago, he lost that business. He now works for a limousine company that provides its services to some of the largest corporations in Germany. He now makes less than a tenth of what he was earning before. But he has learned to absorb the change and is not complaining. With that attitude, not just limited to this cabbie, Germany surely can show the way for the rest of Europe, which seems still unwilling to make the sacrifice.

The days before my arrival, Germany had just celebrated its 20 years of reunification, and had paid off its last penalty for starting the World War I. The penalty was supposed to deter it from ever fighting another war. As we know, the victors were wrong. The penalty only strengthened the ultra-nationalists leading Hitler to come to power. And then we had the Second World War that saw the death of tens of millions of civilians, not just within borders of Germany but also outside it. The victors cut Germany into two halves, and let these two go in the opposite directions. And that experiment too has failed. Germany is united and stronger than ever before. Its economy is stronger than any other European nation today.
Is there a lesson for the rest of the world to learn from the German experience? Sure. But as we know we shall continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. There is a name for such a behavior. It is called insanity.

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