Wednesday, September 01, 2004

On The Road Again

Hard to believe it's been a week since I checked in here, but, well, it has been. It's a lot easier to believe from this side of the screen, though, because the week was consumed with basically one thing: getting two editors, one at the New York Times' Arts news section, and one at the International Herald Tribune's Tech section, to coordinate my trip to Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. It's their 25th anniversary, and the last one I attended was one of the most thought-provoking, entertaining, and mind-blowing shindigs I've ever been at. I figured they'd really be pulling out the stops for the anniversary.

You'd think that something like this would be fairly easy to do. I get the assignments, we clarify what the editors want and when they want it and how long it'll be and so on, and then I do it. And, to be fair, that's just about how it worked. But there are always snags, and I really only clarified the assignments on Monday. That wasn't the problem, though.

For one thing -- and it's amazing that most people don't realize this -- I have to finance this trip myself, and then I'll get paid back. In my current financial state, this means borrowing a month's rent money from myself so that I wind up with three or four months' in a couple of weeks. But first I have to have it, and in the end I wound up borrowing it yet again.

Then I had to make my reservations, once the money cleared the bank. I did that this morning, going through Deutsche Bahn's online system, only to get to the very end of it and discover that they couldn't make reservations or give me an on-line printable ticket. Also, because it was less than 24 hours before I was travelling, the price had gone way up.

So I walked down to Friedrichstr. station to use the vending machine there. Not nearly as easy as the website, I'll tell you. Plus, it routed me totally differently, giving me an earlier departure time. Hell, I don't care: sleeping on trains is easy. On me, at least: I do remember being shaken awake by an old lady whose grizzled visage was the first thing I saw when I woke up. Apparently my head had lolled back and I was snoring like crazy, to gather from the sore throat that set in later. There were a bunch of old ladies, all going "Such a sound!" or "How does your wife stand it?" I was too embarrassed to make the obscene remark the latter comment fairly begged for, unfortunately.

But: one problem with the machine. When it spit out the ticket, it told me it couldn't make an international reservation for me. I doubt the train's going to be too full, but I have stood all the way from Frankfurt to Berlin on a day when it was over 100 degrees and the air conditioning blew, so I'm really hoping most people are going to Linz on Friday. Also, it was just the ticket that came out. I'd totally ignored the departure time and transfer (in N├╝rnberg), figuring it'd be on the ticket. Not to mention that I didn't have anything to write with.

My next adventure, after getting severely burned changing a $20 bill a guy had given me because he was €15 short on a debt (I got €12 and change), was getting a friend's cell phone topped up. She told me just to go to a Vodafone store and they'd do it for me. There was one opposite Friedrichstr. station, so I walked in. The guy even spoke English, which is good because cell phones are a new technology for me and I don't understand even the most basic stuff about them. I've never needed one and I don't want one in my life: you can send me an e-mail or you can call my answering machine. I'll get back to you. But everyone at Ars Electronica will have one, and they're all from different places, so if I'm going to get any interviews, I'm going to have to use one. And better to borrow than to buy one.

The guy popped my phone open and told me that it was a Debitel chip so there was nothing he could do. He offered to sell me a phone for €59 or more with €15 already in it, but the cheapest phone was just like the one I already had. Anyway, I didn't want to buy one and I didn't have the money. So I figured I was screwed. A quick phone call after I got home to a friend who writes about this business all the time disabused me of this: apparently Vodafone buys time from Debitel, or maybe it's the other way around. So I got on the train and went to Potsdamer Platz to Saturn, the big electronics store there, found the Debitel stand, and the guy told me all I had to do was charge it up with more money and I'd be good to go. He told me to hit the cashier on the way out and she'd sell me the card.

"Oh, we don't sell those, " she said, after I'd stood in line for five minutes (Memo: write a Sauerkraut on the German love of standing in lines some day). "You have to go downstairs to the Vodafone store."

Which I did. And they sold me the card. I had an overwhelming temptation to get out one stop early on the way back and rip the guy at the Friedrichstr. store a new asshole, explaining to him that people who behave like that and lie to potential customers make the entire company look dishonest, and that, in the extremely unlikely event that I ever am in the market, myself, for a cell phone, Vodafone is the last place I'd go.

One good thing came out of this. I got so disgusted with the runaround that I took a break and found the Cornwall Pasty Co., which is hidden across from the Marriott in Potsdamer Platz, which is itself hidden behind the Ritz Carlton. Their beef and Stilton pasty is so good that I'm still glowing from it, over 90 minutes later.

Okay, I just got word from Joichi Ito, one of my sources, that he's going to SMS me when he gets in. Now I gotta read the manual for this stupid phone again and figure out how to access that feature. Not to mention how to SMS him back. This was something I hoped to die at a ripe old age without ever knowing how to do.

Did I mention that I hate cell phones? I suspect I'll be very, very glad to hand this one back.

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