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What I Learned in Germany

frankfurt germany

The first time I went to Germany (this was in 1991), I met an engineer at the big ISH tradeshow in Frankfurt.

"Your accent," he said. "You are an American?"

"I am," I said.

"You sound like you are from New York."

"Guilty," I said.

"You people are pigs."

"Why do you say that?" I asked.

"I've been to New York. You people heat buildings with steam! That is Nineteenth Century technology!"

"Yes, I know," I said, "but we have many old buildings."

"Pfff," he pfffed. "You don't know what old is! I have underwear older than your buildings! You should get rid of the steam!"

"Hey, we can't just get rid of it."

"You can if you have the will," he shouted. "We got rid of ours!"

"Well, actually," I said, "we got rid of yours. Remember?" I made the falling-bombs gesture with my 10 fingers.

"Ya, that's true," he said. "But still."

This is how we make friends in foreign lands. Just keep talking until you find agreement.

A few ISHes later, we stayed in a hotel just outside the city that used to be a slaughterhouse. There were carved animal heads above the main doorway. When you walked through the courtyard and down the hallways of this hotel the lights turned on and off automatically as you passed them. I was always walking in a pool of light, like an actor on stage. The lights followed me and gave me just enough guidance to find the way to my room. There’s some serious energy conservation going on there.

And when I got to my room and reached for the light switch I found that nothing happened when I flipped it. I tried it a few more times (Americans are nothing if not persistent) and finally slogged back through the small pools of light to the front desk to ask what the heck was going on. How come the lights in my room don’t work? Huh?

The person behind the desk smiled in an efficient German way and explained that I had to put my card key in the slot in the wall just inside the door in order to make the lights work. And the heat. There’s a panel radiator over there by the window. It has a thermostatic radiator valve on it and I could adjust that myself. But that valve also had an electrical component that was tied into the card-key slot by the door. If I was going out, there would be no reason for the heat to be on, right? And certainly there would be no reason for the lights to be on. Or the TV. Or anything else. I wasn't in the room, and this is Europe.

And I’m thinking like an American who might be staying at the Holiday Inn in Moose Snot, Maine. Or the Ramada in Cow Flop, Iowa. I’m thinking, hey, I’m paying for this room and if want to leave the TV on so that it sounds like someone’s in there when I’m out having dinner at Bob’s Big Boy, that’s my right as a good American. Isn’t it? And if I want to keep every light in the place blazing and the heat pump set on high (for all the good that does) and the hot water running in the shower so as to add humidity to the place, well, that’s okay, too. I paid for this room.

In Frankfurt, they just smile at you and tell you to stick your card key in the wall slot if you’d like electricity. They sort of force you to be a responsible person. It’s quite un-American.

We were on a bus and I noticed that we stayed in the middle lane of the autobahn, and that there were only trucks in the right lane, and nothing but maniacs in the left lane. I asked our English-speaking guide why we were staying in the middle lane, and why the speed of the bus never varied. I found this all very un-American.

She explained that trucks were allowed to go only as fast as they were currently going and that they had to stay to the right. And that even though our bus was allowed to go a bit faster than the trucks, we had to stay in the middle lane. The left lane has no speed limit, other than E=MC2, and is reserved for people who want to die right now.

“And what keeps the buses and trucks from cheating?” I asked, as any good American would.

“The cameras on the bridges,” she said, pointing to one as we passed beneath it. “They’re automatic and on every overpass. They check your speed and snap your photo if you go too fast. They send you the ticket in the mail.”

Well, that does sounds like Washington D.C., so never mind.

I spent some time on a job in the suburbs of Frankfurt. I was with a boiler manufacturer. This particular job was at a medical facility just south of the city. The job had two boilers, one lead and the other lag. They used both on very cold days. There were four-way valves on the boilers and each had a Brial circulator, which we don’t see in America. That was it – two circulators for the whole building. Each main circuit had a Btu meter because there were two tenants in this building and each would pay for the Btu they used each month. The boilers fired natural gas. Each was good for 92,000 Btuh, and they were in a room on the top of the building. There was no domestic hot water load on these boilers. They had electric, point-of-use water heaters for what little domestic hot water the place needed. The job had panel radiators and thermostatic radiator valves.

The system had a reset controller over there on the wall. This sensed what was happening outside and operated both boilers. There were also reset controllers on each boiler and that seemed strange to me. That made for three independent reset controllers on one job, all doing the same thing. It looked like the Department of Redundancy Department had engineered this system, so I questioned it. Figured I’d learn something new.

But here comes the best part. I was there with the contractor, whom I was told spoke no English. The building owner was also there and they told me that he, too, spoke no English. Then there was the guy from the factory, who was driving me around. He spoke very good English. If I wanted to ask the contractor or the owner a question, I was told to direct my question to the factory guy, who would then translate for me and get me an answer.

“How come there are three separate reset controllers on this system?” I asked the factory guy. “Seems to me that you could get the job done with just one. I wonder why this guy bought three. Seems like a waste of some serious money.”

And that’s when the owner’s eyes went as wide as cue balls. “I knew it,” he shouted in very good English. “You cheated me!” He shook his fist at the contractor. “You’re a thief and this man just proved it!” He pointed toward me and I was delighted that I could suddenly cause Germans to speak in tongues.

The contractor, who looked a lot like Sergeant Schultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes show, shouted back at the building owner, “He knows nothing! Nothing! He’s from New York!”

To which I plead guilty.

Ah, Germany.


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