Another early morning landing after an all-night haul across the Atlantic, and Frankfurt is the first city in Germany to welcome me.
As the plane circles lower and lower on final approach, I peek out of the window, thrilled and excited to see the land that I have heard described as clean, orderly and beautiful.
One more quick glance out the window before darting to my jump seat and strapping myself in for landing, the mental snapshot of red tile roofs becomes my memory marker for Germany. Wide expanses of red tile, all in place, all in line.
I suppose as far introductions to Germany goes, Frankfurt is a rather diluted version of the Land of Bier and Bratwurst I had envisioned in my head. I am slightly dismayed at the number of tall buildings and almost “Americaness” of the cityscape. I could be in Chicago.
I am alarmed that the airport police sport automatic machine guns. THAT is something one does not see in America everyday, at least not in the late ’80’s. With their green shirts and official efficiency, I find the German Polizei intimidating.
I am amused that in typical efficient Teutonic fashion, the “Trefftpunkt” or Meeting Point in the airport is literally a large red dot with four arrows pointing towards it. It is an actual meeting POINT.
I am taken aback by the sheer volume of people milling about, everyone intent on going in different directions, all somehow finding their way through the maze of humanity. The claxon of reverberating loudspeakers in German and mostly English advising passengers of gate changes, boarding calls, directions to missing connections underscore the babel of languages going on in rapid tempo around me. It is a physical, visual and aural assault of the senses.
I imagine a bird watching us from above would see a pinball game in real life, with families and luggage carts pushing by businessmen with briefcases. There are flight crews from across the globe, each in their own colorful uniforms, striding through the concourses with their air of cosmopolitan sophistication. Tourists scurry about in panic that they will look like tourists and somehow get lost or get swindled. Swirls and eddies of humanity form around gate podiums, clustering in a frenzied dance that ends when the plane door closes and the aircraft pushes away. Frazzled travelers are buying candies, magazines, perfumes, cosmetics and cigarettes from shops, sustenance for long flights, and treasures to bring home. It is unchoreographed and yet somehow human beings move through to their final destinations.
The departure and arrival flight board reads like a globe, and names of cities incite dreams about locations I have only heard about. And yes, there are indeed flights leaving for Kathmandu, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Mumbai and so on. I stand before the board, a bit in disbelief that these places do exist and one can fly there. The romance of travel, as interpreted by a cold digital display in a highly unromantic manner. My brief reverie is interrupted, as I am herded along by the rest of the crew, pushed along by tide of the impatient travellers behind me.
We are staying in a small town on the outskirts of Frankfurt. I get to the hotel, and despite the overwhelming urge to sleep, shower and head out into the cold damp German air. One of my fellow flight attendants has told me German bathing gel is THE thing to get, so I head into Karstadt, the first store I see, and marvel for a long time at the selection of bath soaps. I select a giant bottle of Badedas rose-scented shower gel, and another oversize bottle of Nivea body lotion.
With my ablution supplies in hand, I wander across cobblestone streets. I pass storefronts with colorful fruits and vegetables displayed out front. I stop to admire the flower vendor’s wares, and impulsively buy a bunch of roses, even though I know they will not likely survive the flight home (they do, and even pass through immigration and customs with no issue). I go to the food hall in another department store and buy a pretzel and some quark with chocolate and cherries in it, simply because it looks delicious.
Dinner is with the rest of the crew, in a restaurant they frequent every week on their layovers. They are Stammgaeste. I get my first taste of Jaegerschnitzel there, and also my first German Pilsner vom Fass. I am told it takes seven minutes to properly pour a Bier vom Fass, because the foam must settle. Seven minutes seems like an incredibly long time to wait for a Bier, I think. But who am I to buck against thousands of years of tradition? The restaurateur brings us shots of Apfelkorn at the end of the meal, a sweet apple-y exclamation point to end my German day.
The next morning, I wake up extra early and walk around town again. It’s barely past six and the delivery trucks are pulling up, shopkeepers are washing off their front steps. Bakeries are pumping the delectable aroma of bread into the early morning air, and the German day is shaking off rubbing the sleep from its eyes.
I love this hour. I do this in every city I can. Wake up, walk about, see life without the milling mobs of people. Paris, Amsterdam, Stuttgart, London….the motions are the same. I want to see how the locals get ready for their day, I want to be a part of that landscape, even for a fleeting moment.
I quaff a strong cup of coffee with extra cream, let the caffeine soak into my bones. Then I scurry back to the hotel, don my uniform and wheel my suitcase downstairs to meet the crew for the van ride back to the airport.
On board, I stand in the cabin and greet guests as they find their seats, get settled in for the long flight to Atlanta. English, German, with a smattering of other languages bubble in the air, the anticipation of an upcoming adventure, or the relief of going home. I think about the Germans who will be seeing America for the first time, who will have Atlanta as their touchstone for their first American city. I wonder if they, too, will feel swept away in the “foreignness” of the place. I am curious as to what their first impressions of America will be.