Friday, 4 May 2012

Bonkers "On Tour" In Germany: The Travel Bit Proper

Okay, so it has become customary in these trip reports on Bonkers to have at least one post devoted to a roundup of observations from my travels: part miscellany of mishaps, part random trivia spotted along the way, so this is that post. Excluding a couple of items which fell more naturally in my earlier "tour post", such as the German penchant for grungy music venues, with their unmarked doors and copious amounts of graffiti - and - rather surprisingly - loo paper.

So here are some other things that struck me during my week on the road (or on the train, rather) in Germany, in no particular order.


This one has been brewing for a long time...Have you noticed how the captain will always say something along the lines of: "Sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight!"? How odd. For given that in my case we are talking a short haul flight, with hard and relentlessly upright seats, overpriced meal deals involving brown sludge topped with hot water posing as luxury hot chocolate, and irritating scratch card promotions - that's always assuming you don't have a toddler kicking the back of your seat or a stag party in the same row - I don't personally see what is particularly enjoyable about it. I have heard rumours that on long haul flights with Qatar Airways your every whim is ministered to by almond-eyed Miss World contestants thinly disguised as flight attendants. Well, I know they are good for Earl Grey tea while flying over the Pyrenees, say.


Not so long ago, I remember the gradual replacement of the term "Christian name" by the more neutral "First name" on documentation such as visas and landing cards. I can understand the rationale for that, because not every person passing through an airport is a Christian - far from it. But lately I have noticed a parallel trend to subsituting the term "Family name" for "Surname". What's that all about? Might "Family name" not count as discrimination against single people, who don't exactly constitute a whole family unit as such, albeit they will usually have had one at some point. But as a term for your "last name", it strikes me as overly populous. Just saying.


We've all done it - and I seem to do it more than most - namely pick the longest queue at passport control, which turns out to have all the suspected illegal immigrants in it. In our increasingly multi-cultural society you would think that no particular ethnicity or other aspect of someone's appearance would strike the passport control officers as out of the ordinary. Perhaps decisions to stop and grill visitors at the border about the purpose of their stay is due to some irregularity with their passports, or a telling travel pattern that is somehow suggestive of illicit work.

I always used to think that a large amount of luggage might be the giveaway, but based on my own observations this doesn't seem to hold up. I've seen visitors get stopped who arrive with a single item of hand luggage, the better to deflect suspicion perhaps? Maybe they plan to hotfoot it down to M & S with their first week's wages and buy a triple pack of shirts and a pentuplet pack of pants. Or maybe they have got the art of handwashing their smalls down to a fine art. These are the sort of whimsical thoughts that flit through my mind during the long queue shuffling vigils at passport control...


On this trip two of my four hotel rooms, in Stuttgart and Berlin, looked out onto a building site. For 50% of my accommodation to have such an uninspiring aspect struck me as well over the odds, and by the end of the week I was finding the sight of cranes level with my hotel window strangely reassuring.


In Hamburg I was startled to find no soap in the shower cubicle, not even one of those annoying squeezy wall-mounted dispensers, whose displacement of soap I lamented in this earlier post. This meant that I had to nip out of the shower several times in the course of my ablutions to squirt some soap onto my hands from the dispenser over the sink before jumping back in again. There was, however, one unexpected fixture in the shower cubicle, namely a pair of water meters! We have a water meter under the sink in the kitchen, but this was my first encounter with two of the things in a shower. There was a red one one for hot water and a blue one for cold. Additionally, the shower had a hot and cold tap, also coded in red and blue. However, it took me a full five minutes of running freezing water from the red tap to realise that the hot tap was in fact the blue one. And of course meanwhile the cold water meter was cycling through merrily, swelling the coffers of the local utility company, Hamburg Wasser, as yet another punter was fooled into wasting water unnecessarily.

Okay, so this photo shows yet another unexpected place for a water meter - imagine this same style, but fitted to the wall in the shower!


While we are on the subject of waste, there were two incidents on this trip where I flouted the strict German guidelines for waste segregation. For as is increasingly the way these days, public litter bins typically come with four compartments: Paper, Packaging, Glass and "Other Rubbish". However, I was in such a rush to jump on my train to Berlin that I rammed an empty Chinese takeaway container, complete with bag, cutlery and residual gloop, into any old hole out of the four without even stopping to look. And not an hour later, I bought a choc ice on the train, but didn't like it. So at one of the first stations we came to (sorry, Göttingen!) I leapt off the train during its two minute stop and hastily stuffed the ice cream detritus in another unidentified bin compartment, knowing full well that my abandoned Magnum would shortly have melted into a milky puddle at the bottom, whicht some poor refuse disposal operative would have to swab off.


This observation is also long overdue...for reasons best known to himself the bass player donated a packet of pretzels to me in Darmstadt, which I dutifully ate on the way up to Hamburg. What a spectacularly pointless foodstuff are they?! Yes, the best that can be said about pretzels is that they are a "rigid, cylindrical, salt delivery mechanism". And that is being kind.


After the Stuttgart gig, I was making my way back to my hotel about 1.15pm, when two lads approached me in the middle of the shopping centre and very politely asked if I knew a good pub that opened late. And there's me thinking that if push came to shove I could clock 'em with the glass water bottle I had mineswept from the venue. Well, I know what Stafford is like at night, so I guess my view is a bit jaded. Later I told this story to a friend, who remarked:

"Glad your 'late night encounter' wasn't as scary as it could have been. I guess speaking German helped - I wouldn't have had a clue what they were asking for, and may well have hit them with the bottle anyway."


Okay, until I saw one of these with my own eyes, I would have dismissed the phrase "Trabant Limo" as a contradiction in terms, but not so. "Stretch Trabants" are very much alive and well in Berlin, and must surely be the last word in quirky and stylish transport for anyone attending a red carpet event. : - )

NB You can't see the cranes looking this way!

And here's a photo of yet another grungy venue in Berlin - you can't have too many, if you ask me.

Photo of Qatar Airways from, photo of visa application from, photo of UK border control from, photo of water meters from, photo of waste bin from, photo of pretzels from, photo of Stuttgart from, other photos my own


  1. As always, Vanessa, too many good things for me to single one out for comment.

    Mind you, I reckon that the recycling police and water-waster watchers will nab you the next time you land anywhere in Germany.

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

  2. Hi Anna,

    Kind of you to say so!

    And I fear you may be right, and that when I next go back to Germany my card will indeed have been marked by the relevant authorities. In my defence I didn't leave gum anywhere, jaywalk or spit. Okay, maybe just a little bit of jaywalking - late at night, when I swear I wasn't setting a bad example to small children.

  3. I am seconding Anna; I could have locked onto any anecdote herein and it would be a funny, spot-on one. But I've chosen just two. :)

    First, I think the "Last Name" issue might be America's fault. We've not, for as long as I've been aware, used Christian and Surname as labels, and I've been on planes next to Americans who (I'm ashamed to say) have called the flight attendants to ask which is which.

    And I couldn't agree more about pretzels. Ick. (The only exception I will allow is for mustard-flavored pretzels available at the Trader Joe's markets, which have a less chalky texture and deliver mustard flavoring in addition to salt. Other brands' mustard pretzels are just as disappointing as regular pretzels.)

    Wow, who would have thought I would have so much to say about pretzels?

  4. As always, enjoyed these small bits of your travel. But I couldn't figure out, so I'll ask: what's the purpose of those water meters? Do you pay for water used during your stay?

  5. Hi Natalie,

    Aha, so this "family name" trend may also be another American influence, you say? I am familiar with "last name" as an American term, but had no feeling for what was driving the move to "family name". Interesting... And given how much you Americans influence my bedtime and suchlike, I don't find it at all strange that this might also be another bit of "Americana"!

    Plus I learnt something today about pretzels thanks to you. The mustard variety was a new one on me - but as I don't care for mustard generally, I think I will be giving those pretzels an even wider berth than the regular salted ones!

  6. Hi Undina,

    I am as baffled as you are by the presence of water meters in individual guest showers. I was not charged for my water usage, though who knows what might have happened had I taken much longer to twig to the fact that the blue tap was in fact hot? : - )

    In my experience, properties just have a single water meter monitoring total consumption on those premises, and I thought hotels were no different.

    So I am afraid I have no answer for you on this one, but if anyone reading can shed light on the matter, do please leave a comment!

  7. On the trend to "family name" vs the older "last name" on forms in North America: I believe this has mostly to do with providing clarity for immigrants to fit in with North American naming conventions. It is, for instance, the custom in Chinese to put the "family name" first, then the "first name" or what was sometimes listed on forms as "given name". Eg. Mao Ze Dong (or Mao Tse Tung if you prefer the older transliteration). Just last week I had three Chinese registrants in a workshop where the form simply said "Name": two wrote their family name last and one wrote it first.

    With immigration from around the world and the high prevalence of forms and databases, especially to receive essential services, I believe it's simply a striving for clarity.

    Schoolmarm interlude is now over

    -- Lindaloo

  8. Hi Lindaloo,

    We were urgently in need of a schoolmarmish intervention, so thanks so much for shedding light on this naming conundrum! I hadn't thought of the different conventions in other cultures in terms of ordering first and last names. It all makes a lot more sense now.

    PS Watch out for an upcoming post on Bonkers in which you play a starring role...

  9. I love these random observations of yours, Vanessa, but you know what stood out for me? Curiosity about water meters in the shower. How can I get some of those, and can they be adjusted so teenagers who just stand under the hot water for 10 minutes doing nothing get a blast of cold water?

  10. Hi Dionne,

    Hahaha! An "intelligent" meter such as you describe that would "flush" your teenagers out of the shower with a cold blast after a set time period sounds inspired. Where to find one, that is the problem... : - )

  11. Hmmm, Natalie isolated the same two items I was going to...but I'll toss in my 2 pretzel thingies nonetheless...

    Am in complete accord on the family name vs. surname. I diverge from Natalie in finding it an American thing, though perhaps it is a regionality. Not sure where it comes from...and if you are headed down the path of "family" over "sur," how might tribes or clans feel slighted? Perhaps it is a peculiar Western was of accomodating the fact that many other cultures put the family name first, and not sur?

    (Feeling the need to point out that 1. I am an incorrigible American, 2. I've been to a fair number of regions, but have no sense of the regionality thing being likely.)

    As for those shoestring pretzel sticks...not only do I concur, but I offer that since childhood, the only reason for their existence I have ever solidly rested upon is the entertainment of children. You get more of them in a serving (sheer numbers serving to impress many children), they are manageable by small hands and mouths, they can be used in diversions such a construction and parlor logic games (make a house out of five sticks, etc), and look nearly the same even when broken.

    They are, however, quite useless for dipping or for giving any sense of satiety.

    And now I crane my head over the ledge of my window to wave at you over there, but with no cement mixers in view...

  12. Actually, I wouldn't mind one of those water meters in my showers either. I tend to "get stuck" in the shower, especially on chilly mornings when I'm very tired and really should be heading to work. Maybe seeing just how mych water I spend would be a good incentive to get out of the water :)

  13. I've just returned from Eurpoean travels involving many flights over the past 5-6 weeks,and am reliving the joys (ahem) through your hilarious post. My question about flying: why on earth can airlines not assign couples next to each other together from the get go? I'm forever being asked to switch seats when I travel alone. Now, but I go to great lengths to assure an aisle seat, and cannot give it up for a middle. Hence my saying no such a request on one flight. I would have been crammed in between two strangers who ( I know the drill) would have gradually melted into my tiny piece of private airspace real estate.

    I think"Family Name" is a translation of Nom de famille, which would be used in many countries. One of those terms that *sounds* normal, and then you realize you have never used it in a sentence. I've noticed it on international government forms, but don't recall seeing it on more local admin. papers ( state driver's license, employment forms, etc.).Or have I just forgotten?

  14. Hi ScentScelf,

    Lovely to hear from you and LOL at your "two pretzel thingies"! : - )

    It is a baffling business, this "family name" term. As Cheryl points out, it really is only something you see in print, which shows that it hasn't caught on and stuck in people's minds.

    Thanks for explaining the true purpose in life of these pesky pretzels - I can quite understand how they would be ideal for entertaining children, for all the reasons you describe! Love the uses in "parlour logic games" and "construction" in particular. Or what about the one where you have an edifice of said sticks, and have to pull one out carefully without disturbing / unbalancing the whole shebang - "Pick-up sticks", that's the name.

    And I do so agree that when broken, pretzels look much the same, and that they are useless for dipping!

  15. Hi flavourfanatic,

    Oh gosh yes, I am guilty of loitering in the shower on cold mornings too. You are quite right that watching a water meter might galvanise us to get out!

  16. Hi Cheryl,

    I agree that it is annoying being in the middle between a couple or in the middle of a row at all, indeed. Quite claustrophboic, on long flights especially. I have always assumed that couples get split up because by the time they make their booking, a combination of other couples and singles who were quicker off the mark have taken all the good seat numbers.

    Your "nom de familie" idea is an interesting one. Thinking about it, the Germans have "Nachname" meaning "after name", BUT also say "Familienname", so that would tend to corroborate your theory.

    We may never know the exact origin or purpose of the expression, but it is so true that people don't SAY "family name" - at least I am not going to start any time soon!