I’ve excised the company confidential stuff, but it was 16 years ago and it should provide some amusement. I was notorious for writing trip reports like this when I came back to the factory (as we called the office at the company) including my trip to India several years later.
The Unauthorized Trip Report: Phillips, Hamburg, Germany
Travellers: Armen Chakmakjian,DF, TK
As one who generally feels somewhat the outsider in most situations, I was amused and simultaneously disturbed by my situation this Monday afternoon. There I was, asked to travel (literally at the last-minute) to Germany, listening to the banter of the crew in a language that I most associate Hogan’s Heroes, reading my free copy of the London Financial Times, and I was potentially the only person of Armenian descent on the plane. I left my wife and my kids at home, knowing that I would miss our wedding anniversary, and potentially would be showing up on Mothers’ day. Fortuitously, maybe by some divine inspiration, I bought all the gifts that I needed to worry about the previous past weekend. I was subjected to the normally exaggerated scrutiny that I personally receive at any airport, flashing my passport, smiling broadly and saying “Ehmerrica, Noomburrr Whone” as they poked and prodded at me and asking me am I carrying any explosive or combustible material. Bitter, you ask? Ahh, I’ll get over it.
Anyway, we were flying out on Lufthansa, which by my Wall Street Journal reading, was regarded as a model of air travel efficiency. My first observation about how the airline was run was the in viewing the video that they provided to explain the safety features and rules. This feature presentation was done by the use of characters who resembled a cross between Davey (of Davey and Goliath) and Toy Story. They were quite stoic and yet graceful as they fastened their seatbelt, attached the breathing apparatus (first on themselves, then on their equally stoic children). They were almost, well…cartoon-like. The flight attendants, distributed little boxes of O.J. at that point, which was quite pleasant, actually.
The next thing I noticed was that the Davey and his flying family were replaced by a map of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. A small plane was superimposed on the dot representing Boston. As the attitude of the plane shifted, so shifted the direction of the airplane on the display. A red line denoted whence we came. This display was punctuated at 45 second intervals with a display stating our numerical statistics of travel: First in german: geschwindigkeit uber grund, hohe, aussentemperature; then English: speed, altitude, and outside temperature. This proved interesting for about the first 5 minutes. Then it became quite annoying. I’m just not analytical. My attitude became “yes I am on a plane over the Atlantic ocean, heading toward Europe, enough already!”
Then the food was served. Airline food is notoriously bad, however, over the last several years in my domestic flight experience the food was pleasant, if not pretty good. This particular meal, the choice being chicken or beef, was rather…well…odd. It was as if they wanted to place a tiny little dish of food from each country we were flying over. The chicken was served in a tomatoey sauce that tasted like the Mighty Mort lunches of my grammar school days. The nostalgia was lost by the second forkful. One of the little dishes had some gouda and some Swiss cheese served with grapes (France? Switzerland?). Another had a tablespoon of shredded cabbage and carrots, a pickle, and some corned beef (Ireland, South Boston). Another had this pudding, or custard (I really couldn’t tell nor did I get a feel for locale while eating it). The coffee came by next, which was just plain bad. I did notice that everybody was consuming alcohol while I was drinking Coca-Cola. Wine and beer were being served liberally. Not wanting to be left out, and mildly disappointed by the meal, I noticed that there was a bottle that resembled brandy or cognac on the service cart coming by me. I inquired as to the bottle’s contents and was pleasantly surprised to have it be cognac. So I asked for some, consumed it and continued typing this account. By the time I reached this sentence, my desire to continue this story was drained like the last drop of the cognac in my plastic cup. As if to punctuate that feeling, the lights in the cabin dimmed. I stopped to get some rest.
We had a quick stopover in Frankfurt and finally after some 8 hours of being enclosed in a cabin in the dark we arrived in Hamburg. As I had attempted to sleep on the two legs of this journey to sleep and had failed in this pursuit, I was pretty tired. I believe that T.K. and D.F. were also quite fatigued. However, we checked into our hotel, freshened up a bit, and proceeded to the plant. During the driving through Hamburg to the hotel and later to the Philips plant I made some mental notes of what I was seeing. I felt as if I was driving through Cambridge and Back Bay, but somebody has changed all the signs to an unintelligible gibberish. Signs saying things like Getrankelieferservice, or things to that effect. Then there were the signs or should I more specific to call them poster boards for upcoming events? One in particular became a constantly recurring joke amongst the three of us. On this particular sign, there was a picture of a bald, husky, middle aged man with mildly psychotic look on his face. The title of the sign was “Aftahk Eschenbach!” which meant absolutely nothing to us. But this face reappeared about ever block or two along the roads on which we were driving. His face became rather annoying to me in particular, but as I’ll explain, later became a familiar crumb by which we found our way out from being lost in the center of Hamburg.
The Philips plant is on Stressermanallee. Here’s another thing that I found amusing. All road names in Germany were essentially 1 word. Osterhausenstrasse and Grindelweg and Grindelallee. This explained the signs I was seeing on the storefronts with Getrankeleiferservice and what not. In order to save space, get rid of the spaces between nouns and their modifiers. Weg, Allee, Chausee, and Strasse, were equivalent to our street designations, Way, Ave, Street and the like. Anyway, back to Stressermanallee and Philips. We arrived and were issued ID’s and were escorted by Mister M. B. (This habit of calling managers there Mister and co-workers “colleagues” was another amusing twist in the use of English to which we were exposed. Not that we do not also use these terms to refer to each other, but to the people we were visiting, Mister and Colleague were titles, a statement of position, whereas we tend to use it rare situations if we address ourselves collectively in a mail message). Anyway M. began a dissertation of where our exact position was relative to Greenwich England, and how many staircases there were on this level of floor due to the fact that the office area was built into a double sized tube manufacturing area. The Test Systems were positioned at certain crosspoints in the lab and phones were equidistant to them, possibly 6.5 to 6.75 paces, but that was not important, and here are the phone numbers. I should take a step back and say here that although I am being a sarcastic (a little anyway) I am writing it to amuse and not to be mean. We all thought that this “lets get all of the situational instructions out of the way first” was helpful. It’s just that it happened to immediately follow “Hello, Welcome”.
There were essentially two styles of personalities that were running into at Phillips. Dogmatic and Happy-go-lucky. I made the mistake of exposing some of our inside jokes to the Dogmatics, for which I was return strange looks of…well…”What’s the hell are you saying?” Most of the Happy-go-luckies, were easily amused by some of the jokes. The main joke about me this week was how Bratwurst cured my stomach ills from the beginning of the week. I ate Bratwurst and home-fried potatoes (or as they referred to them “greased” potatoes) pretty much every day.
Anyway, we then got to the heart of the matter. The full spec “Test System” wasn’t working, “My Company” was responsible for production and engineering delays, and that was why we had been kidnapped and brought here. They brought us out to the lab, and showed us how we were screwing up. At some point they noticed that we were falling apart, and that we hadn’t slept in 36 hours and relented, and let us go to the hotel to sleep. That happened to coincide with 5:00 pm CET, which was the time that they also, just by chance would be going home to their families.
The first evening, we ate at the hotel and had a rather pleasant buffet meal. I say this because after the airplane food, I was getting worried that except for the excellent bratwurst, that the rest of German cuisine was going to be English in its quality. Surprisingly, the buffet was good, and after that I slept…like a board.
The second day we fixed some problems, but had not closed on the main issue, which was that the Catalyst wasn’t working. The suspected cause was bad Hitachi rams, and we took the bad CDM’s out and it improved the situation, but did not cure it. That day I also had bratwurst for lunch.
For dinner that evening one of the TAG engineers showed us to a nice little restaurant near our hotel where we grilled him on a variety of topics. Language, EMU economics, Beers. We had started to notice that people made these cracks about each other’s part of the country. Some of the Hamburgers made fun of the Munichers, and vice versa. We learned from this gentle tribal ribbing going on that beers in Munich are much taller than in Hamburg. This later also became an inside joke that I would expose to a local and get strange looks. In one case, D.F. ordered a wheat beer served in a rather large Pilsner glass. I think that I was the one that made the crack to the waiter that this was a Munich beer, to which he look at me and replied with a look of shock, “Well, yes sir, this does happen to be brewed in Munich”. I tried to explain that we were told that blah blah blah, and he continued to look at me like I came from America or something.
Another quest that was foiled for the week was that I wanted to get one of those disposable Kodak cameras. Alas, with Teutonic precision, the stores close all close at 5:00PM. Maybe later on Thursday, till 6:30 I was told. We left Philips on Thursday at 8:00pm. I would look longingly on our drives to Philips in the morning, and then back to the hotel and see all the shops closed except for business hours. I never did get myself a camera. That same Thursday night we discovered that the Hitachi virus had infected not just the channel CDM’s but also the Sequencer also.
F. L., the local service person, was really helpful, and so we took him out for dinner. He and K. M., our TAG engineer, and the three of us went to another restaurant on Thursday evening, and we had some excellent dishes. I had a dish called “huftsteak” which was rather black- peppery and was covered with mushrooms. It was delicious. Our journey back to the hotel was difficult however. We took a wrong turn someplace and spent about 20 minutes driving around the center of town trying to find our way back. I happened to be driving at that point. It was the subtle differences in driving rules about which I was ignorant. At one point K.M. pointed out to me, in a very matter of fact voice, that I was supposed to stop before a red light, and not after it. She was perturbed by my driving. At my next opportunity I complied. The stop line that was painted on the road beyond the light nonetheless perplexed me. I was informed that I had already gone beyond the stop line and that was a crosswalk.
We circumnavigated the Alster lakes 2 or so times till I recognized the crumb which would lead my out of the forest. Aftahk Eschenbach! signs reappeared in front of me and I knew at that point I was close to our known path back to the hotel. So the annoying sign with the psycho on it saved us. Ok now you ask what was this sign. It turns out that it was an ad for the local classical radio station, and this guy was a conductor for the radio station’s symphony. His name was Eschenbach, and the word Aftahk means “premier” as it was explained to me. Apparently this sign was advertising the premier of the symphony’s season, Christoph Eschenbach conducting.
It rained for three days at that point and on Thursday night it had cleared up. Friday was also a gorgeous day, and we were looking hopefully to an early departure, but that was not to be the situation for us. The problems had not cleared up, but at the end of the day, when it was demanded that we stay for another week T. K. typed in the magic workaround that freed us from our software induced prison. That evening we left with all of our goals accomplished.
We found an excellent Italian restaurant, and celebrated out impending departure. The next morning, we had received word from Mr. M.B. that the production run went successfully, and he wished us a good trip.
I am now writing this story on the plane trip back. By the time you will have read it I will have been back in boston several days. It was a nice place to visit, but given the circumstances of the visit, I could have enjoyed it more.