Wednesday, April 16, 2008

nocturnal emissions

I am on a night train from Maastricht to Liege to Aachen to Bremen. This morning, I flew from Alicante to Maastricht with considerable regret. Alicante was sunny and thus glorious, like the town 2 hours south of it where I hung out for five days, Alcazares. I made the wonderful discovery that Spain is substantially more obsessed with fresh squeezed orange juice than anywhere I have ever been, including southern California and the Netherlands. I learned that they call this zumo (pronounced thumo) and not jugo (like other spanish speakers), who they consider a soccer player. In one of my first blog entries, I gushed about how happy I was that my hotel in Bremen has a fresh OJ machine. That was pure coincidence. The Hotel Innside in Bremen remains the only hotel, restaurant, or other edifice in Germany with a fresh OJ machine. The Spaniards are one up on you there.

But not height – which explains a lot. Indeed, the sometimes subtlely supercilious Krauts can literally look down on most Spaniards. The Germans and Dutch seem to be the tallest people in Europe. Spanish men are comically insecure about height, and this is reflected in that they are by far the least polite people I have yet encountered. They are constantly posturing. When you go to a restaurant, bar, or hotel, the waiter says digame, which is the command form of to tell. Tell me. Not, can I get you anything? What would you like to drink? Tell me. It is an order. Men always greet each other with the little 15 degree head tilt. Lift your chin a little bit so maybe you will look a centimetre taller. They view please and thank you as signs of weakness and submission.

This also gives me a new take on the famous Spanish racism directed against Mexicans. This is legendary in Mexico, where a Spanish accent buys you clout and respectability like a High British accent in Alabama. Part of this racism is the usual – Mexicans are darker, and never had an empire, and I have yet to talk to any Spaniard who spouted against Mexico and was ever there. But it is also that Mexicans are polite, funny, warm, and informal. If any man acts this way toward a Spanish man, this fosters perceived power inequity.

I got a sleeping car on this night train, which is a first for me. My brother Steve loves them, and although they are both Spartan and Lilliputian, so do I. It’s easier to sleep while horizontal, but the other advantage is that it is the most private and isolated travel option. You get your own little room, and none of the doors or walls except the window to the outside is transparent. You can forget that stressed travellers are lugging heavy bags through the aisles, pleading with conductors, etc. I got the sleeping car by the latter tactic, which works fairly well. I only paid for a seat, which cost €95. The German conductor then realized that there were no seats left. He was firm. You will proceed to car 104, the seat car, and stand. Aw dude. Come on. It is after 1 AM and 6 hours to Bremen. Have mercy. Nein! And you may not change your ticket because you already purchased it! He briefly lectured me on the importance of following rules. I amused myself by biting off all kinds of racist ripostes. I can’t wait to pull mein F├╝hrerStreich on you. Then the Belgian conductor showed up, a short bespectacled man. The German conductor began enlightening him in German, assuming I spoke none, and I wish that were true cause he was bitching about me. BTW, Germans who want to covertly insult Americans: as you know, your word for American is quite similar to ours. So, even if the American standing next to you speaks no German, if you keep gesticulating negatively and using the word ‘Amerikaner’ then you are not being nearly as subtle and clever as you think.

The Belgian conductor then turned to me and asked me a bunch of conversational questions about Spain. I barely remembered to readjust from Spaniard rules – I was very polite, nondomineering, and chinflat. The Belgian conductor nodded and left. I went to car 104 and tried to curl up in a corner on my suitcase. German conductor saw this and started bitching more, so I stood up and prepared for 6 hours of travel hell. Five minutes later, the Belgian conductor came to me. Here, he said, please come with me. I did. Six cars later, he put me in a Belgian sleeping car. He said it cost €225, but I could have it if I did not make a mess. Sold, I said, and thanks!

Barely 2 weeks later, and I am immersed in travel hell. I was supposed to be in Rome for 2 days, then Florence for five. Due to a severe disagreement between me and Brussels over the necessity of remarkably trivial modifications to the grant – the majority of which were provably inconsistent with earlier requests – I had to leave Rome for an emergency flight to Bremen. Brussels also spontaneously decided that their final deadline for approving the grant would be 9 April, rather than 12 May, as they previously said in writing. Most Program Managers’ heads would have exploded, and I was decidedly grouchy. I then worked 70 hours from 5-8 April (which includes a weekend) to implement said modifications. On 7 April, Brussels again rejected my final proposal, I reworked it more, and they finally approved it on the 8th (yesterday). So, barring any new surprises, the BRAIN proposal will soon become the BRAIN grant, and I will soon officially be Program Manager.

I then tried to get a flight to Paris to catch my connecting flight to San Diego. No, I was told, you must fly from Florence. If you miss any part of the flight, your seats will be cancelled. Including your return flight from San Diego. It is a computer thing. Any programmer, engineer, or remotely intelligent layperson recognizes and hates this tactic: blaming greed or human error on technology. The source of the computer glitch is not an insurmountable software obstacle; it’s extreme greed to overbook seats and have any possible excuse to cancel tickets. Thus, at 2 PM yesterday, I had to find a way to get from Bremen to Florence within about 16 hours, or the whole trip would be ruined. Solution: €873. I arrived in Florence at 11 PM, went to the hotel, asked for a 5 AM wakeup call, and crashed. Now I am flying to Paris, then San Fran. Hence I got less than one day in Rome and only a few hours in Florence.

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