Sunday, February 06, 2005

Crumbs And Catchup

Lord, it's been a while since I checked in here. I wish I had a better excuse than the one I have: I had a difficult project to do this week and I did it, after which there were chores to do and an important meeting yesterday at breakfast-time. Just not interesting enough to write about.

A couple of people wrote me to question my figure of €30,000 to move to Montpellier, and there were enough doubters that I sat down and re-counted. Actually, that first figure I just pulled out of the air, but once I actually started adding up my current debts and inventing some fanciful figures for this as-yet unfound apartment (three months rent, deposits for the telephone and utilities, possible purchase of a couple of appliances, since it's not unthinkable that there wouldn't even be a stove in the place when I rented it), it began to appear that I could do it for a little over half that. The main thing is I want three months' living expenses in the bank to make up for the work I won't be doing or getting during the transition.

That's the part of what I do that I found the hardest to learn. In the days before e-mail and the ease with which computers deal with magazine layout and design and printing, there was the Three Month Rule: I could be sitting pretty today, but not have any work. This meant that in three months, I wouldn't have any income, so I had to plan for that the best I could. Things have speeded up these days. Not only can you get a magazine out quicker, but e-mail has eliminated the week-in-the-mail (and maybe it'll get lost) factor with the stuff you write.

But operating on the tiny margin I currently operate on, that sort of insurance is important to a move like this. In fact, as I write this, I'm a bit anxious because I don't have any pending work. I like to work. And it's not just the money.

Although I gotta admit: money's nice, too.


The saga with Deutsche Bahn finally reached its ignominious end this week as a letter appeared in the mail in response to my last one. "Dear Mister Ward," it began, "thank you for giving us the opportunity to explain the happened difference in the pricing for your travels Berlin - Paris and back. Deutsche Bahn offers ist costumers [sic!] special prices." They then went on to say that there are a limited number of cheap tickets and they'd been sold out by the time I reserved. Of course, they failed to address the fact that they never bothered to explain this or offer an alternative.

Stapled to the letter was a document resembling a train ticket which was headed "Kulanzgutschein." Gutschein, I knew, meant coupon, but what was Kulanz? Guilt? My dictionary rather stumbled on this one, defining it as "obligingness, accommodatingness, generousness, fairness," only the last of which I recognize as an English word. "Kulanzleistung," the next word in the column, is defined as "gesture of good will," so I get the idea. Anyway, for the next year, I have a €20 coupon to use against a ticket.

Not exactly the kind of solution I was hoping for, but hey, it's a Kulanzleistung.


I had another run-in with German officialdom this week, too. I'd been corresponding with a friend in New Jersey about the horrible state of travel magazines, the fact that there isn't a travel magazine published in America that meets the needs of any of the travellers I know. Basically, these days you have varying degrees of travel porn, led by Conde Nast Traveller's "Paris on $3500 a day" mentality and descending to various flavors of "how to find the Eiffel Tower during your one day in Paris" kinds of articles. In short, they all seem to be about travel as conspicuous consumption and not about travel as a learning experience, a way to connect with history, or a way to have an in-depth experience of another culture.

As it happens, she and I are of two different, but hardly incompatible, schools of thought. She's a backpacker and adventure traveller, while I believe that human beings have been endowed with the intellectual and technological wherewithal to invent comfortable hotels, good food, and flush toilets. Don't think for a minute that I didn't enjoy reading about her latest adventure, nor that I wasn't almost as upset as she was that the book she proposed to write afterwards was pretty much dismissed out of hand by the agents (let alone the publishers) she submitted it to.

Anyway, this dialog reached the point where she threw a couple of magazines into an envelope and mailed them to me so I'd have some idea of some of the things she was talking about. Now, you'd think this would be the sort of thing that'd slide right through customs: a couple of back issues of magazines, both of which had obviously been read. Nope: I got a notice from the postal customs bureau that I was to present myself to them within seven days of their receipt of this mysterious package (which turned out to have been clearly labelled as to its contents on the little green sticker) to explain what it was. Further, I was to bring duplicate copies of any order form so they could see how much I'd paid for it, and, if said forms were not in German, I was to bring an authorized translation.

Now, I deal with this crap all the time. I frequently get promo copies of CDs because of my radio and journalism work. As often as not, they just come directly to me. Sometimes they get opened by an inspector, who then tapes the package shut and sends it on.

I hate going to postal customs because it's 20 minutes away, way the hell down by the building from which RIAS (Radio In Allied Sector) used to broadcast. Once you're in the building, time stops. To say these people are in no hurry to deal with you is an understatement. It took me 40 minutes to get called on.

You'd think that after 11 years they'd recognize me, but no. Or, rather, they keep it quiet. The boss, in fact, once waited on me when I had a package of CDs to explain, back when I had a radio show three times a week, and, after looking at the CDs, said "I listen to your show. I like it." And let me go.

Anyway, this time a far meaner guy threw the package down on the counter and barked "What is it?" Old magazines, I think, I replied, noting silently that it had already been opened and sealed. "Open it!" So I did. See? Old magazines. "You realize that when we call you here you have to come in," he said, fixing me with a steely gaze. "You can go."

And no, I don't think this aspect of things is going to be different in France. Small-minded civil servants are a fact of life everywhere, and in societies like we have in Europe, where a job with them is a guaranteed lifetime sinecure, where no amount of incompetence can get you fired, this is the way these people act.

Not too much different from Deutsche Bahn, when you get right down to it.

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