In the last sequence of the movie „Gravity“ Dr. Ryan Stone separates the rescue vehicle from the Chinese space station and starts her descend back into Earth’s atmosphere.
I also separated when I left China. Mongolia was still outer space. Scary silence and isolation. I hit the Exosphere when I entered Russia, it got shaky and the weather got hostile. I passed the Stratopause at the border to Ukraine. Still I was surrounded by an unfamiliar environment, but the descend became more stable. Then a massive slow down and warming friction when I hit the Tropopause at the EU border. Being able to speak English and German felt like being able to breathe again.
I am nervous, when I approach the border to Germany. It’s a familiar feeling. I had it many times. It was especially strong when we entered Iran. But now? I don’t enter a foreign country. Germany might have changed, but probably not too much. But what if I have?
I have reached the velocity threshold. The parachutes get expelled and I start to re-establish ground communication.
I take out my smartphone and switch off „airplane mode“, get some Euros at the Sparkasse ATM and start to read the system messages. Damn, only warnings:
„Vorsicht bissiger Hund“ (Danger, dog bites)
„Eingeschränkter Winterdienst. Benutzung des Radwegs auf eigene Gefahr“ (Limited winter road clearance service. Use cycle lane at your own risk)
„Anlieger Frei“ (Residents only)
Indeed, that must be Germany. I admit I like it a lot. I even smile when I see an Aldi supermarket ad stating: „Einfach weil Aldi schon fast zur Familie gehört“ (Simply because Aldi almost is part of the family). Actually I don’t know if there are more signs in Germany than in other countries or if I just can read all of them and therefore get the impression. But I guess it’s the former.
Rules of Engagement
Sometimes I cycle on a Landstraße (country road) for a few kilometers. Cars pass me with more than 100 km/h. They overtake each other and it all looks a bit scary. But I feel absolutely safe. 100km/h is faster than the speed limit in many countries. But this is just a single lane Landstraße not the Autobahn, where we have no speed limit at all.
I trust these drivers. It doesn’t look chaotic, it looks skilled. And nobody is honking. It’s actually a pleasure to watch. I even stood a few minutes on an Autobahn bridge and watched the traffic. It’s an incredible system of individuals all sticking to rules so everybody can move fast.
I find this something all highly developed countries have in common: They have a lot of freedom, but also a lot of rules. The German Autobahn gives you all the freedom to drive as fast as you want. But we also have a strict driver’s education and getting a driver’s licence here takes some time and money.
Freedom and rules create trust. And this trust usually defines a culture. If everybody only drives 5 km/h you don’t need rules or trust. Or if there are no rules at all you automatically get stuck everywhere and your freedom is useless. Ask an Indian.
When people think about Germany or any other highly developed country they often see only one part, not both. That’s why some say Germany is overly bureaucratic and too organized and slows you down. Others say you can drive as fast as you want, drink beer all day in public places and smoke weed at the nudist beach. But the big picture includes both parts.
I also think that’s where a lot of xenophobia comes from. When people talk about foreigners in a bad way they usually think about someone who only enjoys our freedom without knowing the rules. For example someone who comes to Germany just to benefit from our welfare program and then also brings the whole family. Even those, who have a welcoming attitude towards foreigners usually put effort in the process of integration. Integration is nothing but teaching people the rules, how to use our freedom.
Of course you can use freedom without rules, but you won’t get respected for that. Nobody likes the reckless drivers on the Autobahn or some speed-tourists who came here for the thrill. Whereas I personally have no problem, when a skilled Porsche driver flashes the lights to remind me I am blocking the left lane. Because I am „only“ going 200 km/h and he wants me to move out of his way, so he can pass with 260 km/h.
Making use of freedom might feel like a thrill. But protecting and enforcing freedom is more about skill.
After thinking about that I better understand some US weapon enthusiasts now. I think the weapon is not only a symbol for freedom, but also stands for rules and trust. If nobody is armed, you don’t need trust. Knowing your neighbor has a weapon, but doesn’t do anything bad with it, is a reminder that there are strong cultural rules everybody can rely on. I think taking away the weapons might feel like taking away the trust. That’s why it is difficult. And I admit, I also like the Autobahn and I enjoy the trust among skilled drivers. Even though many people die on the roads. Usually because someone didn’t stick to the rules. However, I favor ensuring a good driver’s education over a general speed limit. I think it is the wrong way to minimize risk by minimizing freedom.
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
I can’t look at hovels and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in
I often get the feeling people imagine me as a totally free traveler. I admit, I have a lot of freedom. But I think what is hardly visible but even more important are the rules I made inside of me. One rule is to cycle almost every day. I have seen backpackers in hostels spending two days in bed watching movies, completely exhausted from the search for a new stimulus. Freedom can be devastating, if you have no rules to handle it. Writing a continuous blog is another rule I stick to. It means a lot of work, but for me it is a bit like the TÜV (Technischer ÜberwachungsVerein – Technical Monitoring Association). The TÜV is where we have to take our cars in Germany every two years for a complete checkup. That way we ensure all cars are still working properly. This blog is my TÜV. If I feel like I cannot write about my experiences any more, I shouldn’t continue traveling.
I soon follow cycle lane signs, that lead me on paved roads and sandy forest tracks. I want to share some first impressions of Germany with you:
After the last rainy days, the sky is clear today and it is around 8°C. Very good conditions. On 836m I stand on the last pass of this journey. Only a few kilometers away the river Main has its source. I will follow the Main down to Mainz, where it joins the Rhine. I will then follow the Rhine up to Mannheim.
Only after dark I finally arrive in Kulmbach, where Nora, my warmshower host is waiting for me. She prepared a delicious pumpkin soup and later takes me to the Kommunbräu, one of three breweries in this little town with only 25.000 inhabitants. Delicious.
The weather stays good and I very much enjoy to be able to talk in German again. The downside is, that I also understand all the hostile things. In other countries, if someone doesn’t smile at me I don’t try to understand what he wants. But now I am forced to.
He: Halt! Warum haben Sie jetzt das Auto fotografiert? (Stop, why did you take a picture of that car)
Me: Ich hab nur das Schild fotografiert. (I just took a picture of the road sign)
He: Fahren Sie weiter! (Keep moving!)
The second day I make it to Bamberg. Undoubtedly, one of Germany’s most beautiful cities and UNESCO world heritage.
The next day is cloudy. I pass several small villages and that’s actually what I wanted to share with all the non-European readers already for a long time. So many tourists visit the big cities of Germany, but look at how beautiful a random German village looks like.
It’s not only beautiful, there is just nothing missing. Several hotels, very high class restaurants, bakeries, butcheries, supermarkets, mobile network coverage. In so many countries people move to the cities because there is electricity, there are proper houses, markets and a sewage system. In Germany the only reason to move to a city is because of work and because you want some more variety of entertainment like theaters, discotheques or cinemas. And because there is usually no bush telegraph coverage in big cities.
In the evening I arrive in Schweinfurt, where Florian my warmshower host is waiting for me. He takes me to a pub where we meet a colleague of him. The pub offers again beer of a local brewery and today also Flammkuchen all-you-can-eat. Another German/French speciality you shouldn’t miss, if you visit the region.
The river Main is meandering a lot, so I usually start early, because it’s easy to underestimate the distance. I often have breakfast in bakeries and lunch in butcheries, where they offer pastry and Braten. Usually some yellow press newspaper is laying around.
In the afternoon I arrive in Würzburg and spend the evening with my sister and her family. The boys like the big bicycle and I brought some camel socks from Mongolia for the winter.
I’m very lucky with the weather. Since I entered Germany, the days usually are above 10°C and no rain. The bicycle lane is paved and I move fast. However, some spokes are broken again. I hope I make it to Mannheim. My last warmshower host is in Aschaffenburg.
The next morning I realize my watch stopped working overnight. I got it as a farewell preset from Jan, a friend of mine. That was good timing.
My mind closes. It’s clearly noticeable. I often find myself cycling fast but lost in thoughts. Mannheim is coming closer. In the early afternoon I arrive in Frankfurt am Main, one of the internationally well known cities in Germany, because its airport is one of the biggest hubs in Europe.
If you google Frankfurt, you will see a lot of images of this skyline and might get the impression, that it is a big city like Bangkok or Seoul. In fact it is the financial center of Germany and the European Central Bank is situated here, too. But it actually is a village. With only 730.000 inhabitants it isn’t really big, but also if you walk just one kilometer north of the city center you will end up in residential areas with children playing on the streets and nudists laying in the park. The skyline looks impressive only from this angle, but is the reason some call Frankfurt „Mainhattan“. I don’t wanna bash the city. Actually I am trying to do the opposite. I like that it is such a normal city with old churches in between the skyscrapers. Many business people cycle or run along the Main river to stay in shape.
Actually I wanted to spend another night in Mainz at a warmshower, but four attempts to find a host failed. It’s a lovely city. I wanted to show you some pictures of it. Not today. I take a shortcut and make it to the Rhine river just before sunset. I pitch the tent a last time. That’s what I wanted to do anyway, because I have spend so many nights in it and want to say good-bye to this little fellow. Thanks for keeping us dry.
The last 70 km to Mannheim aren’t too special for me. I expected a lot more emotion, but it all changed so slowly and now I am close to where we started. I cross the Rhine a last time in Worms. The Garmin still makes some sounds and the cycle lane signs are like system messages. But I am on manual control now. I know the area. I have cycled to Worms several times before.
So here I am hanging on the parachutes of friendship and one of the best social security systems in the world. The details of my world are getting more and more visible. Speed has been reduced to a point where I am ready for touch down. I don’t have a job or apartment yet, so I am not exactly sure where I will land. And if you have seen the movie „Gravity“ you know that this part of the descent is critical, too.
The flame of the BASF chemical factory gets visible. I pass the towers of the garbage burning facility. The region is rather industrial. The bicycle was invented in Mannheim in 1813 by Karl Drais. And the car was also invented in Mannheim in 1886 by Carl Benz. I guess the people of Mannheim like to move. The bicycle lane sign says 6.7 km to Mannheim city center. The last kilometers I feel it: I’m nervous. It’s over soon. I can’t stop it.
I breathe in deeply and brace myself.
I am Mission Control.
Impact is inevitable.