On Monday, March 11, 1985, I almost missed my flight to Germany. I was late to the terminal and I was overwhelmed at the size of the airport. My ticket was for American Airlines so I parked at that terminal and hurried inside. I was at Gate 2. The plane was ready for take-off at Gate 39. Oops. I ran through the terminal like OJ Simpson in a Hertz car commercial except with I had a bigger bag and I wasn’t black, and I wasn’t fast.
I finally arrived at Gate 39, where a steward hurried me down the ramp and onto the plane. I hadn’t checked my bag but rather than scolding me, a stewardess pushed it in a hidden compartment and smiled as if that was standard procedure. I was sweating like a big dog in the country when I finally plopped down beside my colleague, Bob.
Twelve hours later we de-planed in Germany and the effects of jet lag hit me. It was not a pleasant sensation. It had been 80 degrees in Dallas. Here there was a layer of snow on the ground. It felt like 6:00 p.m., but here in Munich, it was 3:00 a.m.
Our Hotel had foam beds. The Germans figured that if a firm bed was good then a hard one was better. Mine felt like a threadbare blanket on a concrete slab, but I’m exaggerating—concrete would’ve been softer. In any case, it didn’t matter much since we only had time for a three hour nap. Before I knew it, it was 6:00 a.m.—time to greet the newborn day.
At breakfast (cold cuts and cheese) the hotel manager taught us the words “Guten Morgen” (good morning) before she allowed us to leave the hotel. At the light-rail train stop, the air was frigid. Bob wore a warm sock-hat. Just looking at the stupid thing made my ears colder.
Once inside the train, it was easy to navigate to the Siemen’s plant. We only had to change trains once. But on the second train, my tired brain was jolted awake by a cultural shock when a nearby passenger innocently opened his Munich newspaper. There on page two (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP) was a full-page ad featuring a young girl with her hands under her ample breasts to make sure you wouldn’t miss the fact that she was stark naked. She needn’t have worried—only a blind man could’ve missed it. The advertisement got my attention, but it wasn’t very effective since I didn’t notice what she was trying to sell.
At the Siemen’s plant, we were greeted by our hosts, Helmut, Carl, and Fritz, who had visited us at our company, Veeco Integrated Automation, on Miller and 635 in Dallas. They spoke near-perfect English. In many countries, you aren’t considered educated unless you were fluent in English.
As we started the introductory meeting, Bob was ready and eager (is anything as annoying the enthusiasm of a morning person?). For my part, I kept waking up (which meant—duh—I had nodded off).
At lunch, I noticed another obvious cultural difference. In the Siemen’s cafeteria, Helmut and Fritz each had a beer. I drank Pepsi (which the German’s saw no reason to cool). During lunch, I woke up to the sound of my companions’ laughter. They were laughing at me. I’d fallen asleep with my fork between my plate and mouth. Jet-lag ain’t as much fun as it sounds.
(Editor: Expect a letter from Mrs. Harmon, my seventh-grade English teacher decrying the use of “ain’t.” Tell her Johnny had jet lag…
Whoa…she may figure out that I didn’t write this stupid article back then…
Uh…tell her that Johnny almost missed his stupid arbitrary deadline and…
Tell her you’ll mention it when you discuss his big raise.)
By mid-afternoon, we were working like sixty when another culture shock shook us. The Germans pulled us out of the plant. They said they’d be in trouble if we worked more than eight hours in a day. Their insurance company said tired people make mistakes that lead to accidents. We need to import that logic to America.
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At the end of the week, Bob and I rented a BMW and drove south to Neuschwanstein Castle. Once outside of the big city we were flying along until we entered a village where a car was stopped to make a left turn. Instead of passing it on the right Bob pulled up behind it. Blam, Blam, Blam. A car rammed us, the car behind him rammed him, and the car behind the third slid in the snow and rammed us all.
I expected to spend the rest of the day with the authorities. But instead, when they ascertained that our rental was insured, they told us to drive on.
Even if you’ve never heard of Neuschwanstein Castle you might recognize it. It was the pattern for Walt Disney’s fairytale “when you wish upon a star” castle that was sprinkled by pixie dust in the introduction to each Disney episode. As a fortress, it was useless, but as an iconic tourist trap destination it’s been priceless.
* * *
At Siemens, we when we were finished we realized that we’d missed the mandatory trip to the Hofbrauhous—Munich’s famous beer hall. I didn’t drink beer, so I had hot Pepsi which passed right through me. In the men’s room I was hit with the most violent clash of cultures to date:
I was doing my business when I felt someone wiping off my back with purposeful strokes. She expected a tip, too. Maybe next time, lady. I zipped up and scurried out. In the meantime, Bob had run into another cultural difference. After he’d finished his drink he held up his finger to get another one. But in Germany, if you want ONE more you hold up your thumb. Two is designated by your forefinger. Bob was starting his third beer when I told him about the lady in the men’s room. By then he needed to go (in all meanings of the word) so we hightailed it back to hour hotel, clicked our heels together and chanted, “There’s no place like home.”
When that didn’t work we drove to the airport and flew back to our beloved Texas leaving those stinking culture clashes to the Germans.
Johnny Hayre worked at E-Systems/Raytheon/L-3 until he retired in 2013. He and wife Karyl have lived in Greenville since 2002 and are now “empty-nesters.” They have three living children and seven grandchildren, who are each beautiful, intelligent and all the usual parent-grandparent praises. Email him at GHB.JohnnyHayre@gmail.com.