Thursday, October 23, 2008
Trains, planes and automobiles.
My wake-up call was for 5am, because we needed to meet down in the lobby at 6am to catch our shuttle to the train station. Volkswagen graciously provided this transportation, but it would be the end of our concierge treatment this trip. While I'm thinking of it, I would like to thank all the people of Volkswagen who treated us so well on this trip, from our contact, Jill Bratina all the way to the drivers who gladly took us where we needed to go (when we weren't driving ourselves).
The driver took us to the train station in Berlin ... a massive multi-level transportation hub that was quite easy to navigate, even without speaking German. We found our gate and even had time to buy a few souvenirs before our train left. Lugging all of our equipment, our luggage and our tired bodies, Greg and I made it to the platform with several minutes to spare. We got on the train and I almost immediately fell asleep. Before I knew it the train was slowing down, entering Hanover.
We quickly grabbed up all our stuff and left the train. Standing on the platform, we were pretty much on our own for the first time since arriving in Germany. Looking for a representative of the train service, I used the phrase I had come to say with expert diction over the last few days ... "Spracken ze Englis?" (I didn't say I knew how to spell it). Thankfully, many people in Germany speak English and we found out that a city train to the airport would leave in 20 minutes, or a taxi ride in would take only 20 minutes. We chose the cab, fearing getting to the airport late and causing a chain-reaction of missing flights.
So, we started our day in a VW van, then a high-speed train, now a VW cab (Germans really LIKE das Auto) and we were about to board a small commuter jet to be taken to Paris where we would catch our Air France transatlantic flight back to Atlanta. I'm typing this on the commuter jet and plan to post this blog from the Charles de Gaulle airport.
So I guess that means it's time for a recap. Without repeating anything I've already said, let me just say that Europe has changed much since my last visit as a member of the U.S. Navy back in the late 70s. What I remember as a slightly backward, dirty, smelly place then is now a state-of-the-art technologically advanced union of nations that has come together to make positive changes for all their citizens. I will remember most the smells of the bistros along the Champs Elysee in Paris and the Bauhaus's in Germany. I will remember then helpful town-folk of Wolfsburg and the beautiful quaint city that VW calls home. I will remember the historic city of Berlin. And I will remember the camaraderie of working closely with Greg Glover under very trying conditions with multiple, tight deadlines. He was a true gentleman. Currently he's asleep in the seat to my right, getting some much-deserved rest. I calculated it. During this entire trip, from the time we hit the ground in Paris to leaving the ground from Hanover, we each got only 15 or 16 hours sleep (that depends on if you count when I nodded off during an engineering lecture).
I would also like to thank our boss, Derrall Stalvey for making this trip and our assignment possible, all the producers back at the station who kept their heads when we were waiting for a slow internet connection to deliver the story that was in their show with airtime fast approaching, online producer Mike Andrews for keeping our blogs posted and to all the people at Volkswagen's communications department who assisted us in getting to the places we needed to go and getting the footage we needed to tell the story.
If you don't mind, now, I'm going to close the laptop and get a few winks before we arrive in Paris. - Louis Lee
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
We were off to another bright and early start after only 2 ½ hours sleep. This was the big day ... the chance to see the operations of the Volkswagen plant in person. The first thing that impressed me was the smell. I know, not exactly your first concern, but having worked in a factory, this is important. There was no nasty smell of process fluids or ash or any of the other irritants that come with the job. This factory, as big as it was, had excellent ventilation, the temperature inside was very comfortable and overall, it was just very clean.
After lunch we had to head to the train station for our trip into Berlin for the Governor's reception that night. For Europeans, the train is probably the most-used form of inter-city transportation. And the high-speed rails in Germany are comfortable, affordable and efficient. Once we left the station in front of the VW plant, we quickly achieved speeds of 200kph. This made the trip to Berlin fast and smooth. While on board the train, Greg and I tried to get a head start on some work. We actually recorded the voice track of our 5 o'clock story about the factory on the train. If you go back and listen, you can hear one of the VW employees talking on his cell phone in the next seat, and near the end, the train's engineer making an announcement of some sort (it was in German). And thanks to Suzie Bowling, our IT manager, we were able to edit that story while traveling to Berlin.
When we arrived in Berlin, it was almost dark. On our way to the hotel where we would freshen up before the reception we passed several important landmarks. We passed the German government building, equivalent to the capitol building in Washington, D.C. We also passed the Brandenburg gate which stood boldly at the Berlin wall for so many years. We all made a promise to ourselves that no matter what the time ... when we were done working tonight, we would go out and visit these places.
As far as the reception, you saw it on our air. What you didn't get to see was the $1.5 million Bugatti on display at the VW Group Pavilion where the reception was held. The car was out of this world, and on display behind a glass fence. I asked the attendant some questions about the car and was amazed to find out the price and that it has a 16-cylinder engine. Don't ask about fuel economy, it doesn't exist for this car. Then, to my surprise, the gentleman (seeing the camera around my neck) asked if I would like to have my picture made with the car. I was thrilled that he would let me behind the glass fence to stand near the car. So you can imagine how my thrill factor was increased when the man held the driver's side door open for me. WOW. The soft, supple leather seats were like being held in your mother's arms. Except your mother can't go from 0 to 200 kph in just over 2 seconds!!
Finally, after we put our 6 and 11 o'clock stories together and sent them in, Greg and I met with some VW employees (two of whom were "experts" on Berlin) for a walking tour of the most famous places in the city. We learned that the hotel we were staying in is was actually in East Berlin during the Cold War. Just a few blocks away was the Brandenburg Gate ... a massive structure that faced East Berlin and was "hidden" from the free world for years. Next, we visited a couple of places where there are monuments to the Berlin Wall and remnants of it. We thought of the people who died trying to pass this concrete barrier just to live free. Puts things in perspective for you. Finally, we saw Checkpoint Charlie, the U.S. Army sentry point.
It was well after 2a.m. By the time we returned to our rooms, having walked more than a mile around this historic city, but it was well worth it. - Louis Lee
Tuesday, Oct. 20
Today, we all got keys to brand new Passat wagons. We were to drive them, via pre-programmed navigation systems, to the town of Oschersleben, about an hour away from Wolfsburg.
These are also clean diesel, turbo-charged 6-speed manual tranny speed demons. Several times, I had to look in the rear-view mirror to remind myself that this was a station wagon! When we got to Oschersleben, we ewre treated to a surprise.
We were going to ride passenger side in some of Volkswagen's hottest race cars, driving by the top drivers on the circuit! First, I rode in the Scirrocco. After a nearly two-decade absense, this little rod is back and making up for lost time. Having flown in a fighter jet, I can tell you that this experience was almost as physically demanding!
Next, we took out a diesel Jetta. And the thing that amazed me was that this car was nearly STOCK! It even had a dashboard and armrests, for cryin' out loud. To top it all off ... an automatic transmission! That didn't stop the car from pinning me to its seat and going for an "E" ticket ride on the forumla one rated track.
After the muscle, we got a chance to see some of VW's brains at work. We allowed a Toureg to parallel park itself using the new Park Assist technology. Tonight we're having dinner with the mayor of Wolfsburg and will ask him some questions about how it is to have such a major auto manufacturer as his biggest industrial citizen. - Louis Lee
Monday, Oct. 20, 9:00pm EDT
You know it's Fall here, too? I know, that sounds silly. I mean, of course it is! But, to me, the falling leaves, their crunch under foot and thier aroma wafting aboard autumn breezes was always associated with the south. Strangely enough, even in Europe the temperatures drop, the foliage changes color and the sun shines brilliant gold in the afternoon.
And that's not where the similarities end. Here, too, people love being out on the water. From the old-timer we met this morning patching holes in his hull to the young whipper-snapper whom we didn't meet as he sped by, jumped in his schooner and harnassed the winds to the other end of the canal. Yep, these Wolfsburgeons (is that even what they call themselves or have I made up a word?) love the water. So much so, there's a sandy beach with volleyball nets and bleachers for cheering on, well, volleyballers.
And, they love to bike. There are trails everywhere. And there are joggers and inline skaters. The people are great. It didn't take long to find English speakers who were well informed and anxious to help us with our little video project for folks back in the States.
Another thing we learned today: decyphering street signs in a foreign language while driving at a high rate of speed through a stange land is not ideal. No, no accident or anything. Just not a good idea.
Our meals were a definite high point. Lunch we picked up at an old house on the grounds of a 400 year old castle. And dinner was in a brauhaus that was constructed back in the 1400s. And what did I have to eat? What would you get to eat whilst in Germany, I ask you? No, the other thing. That's right! Kraut and sausages! The Bavarian Experience is now complete...hold that thought...driving German cars at a test track tomorrow? Okay, it's not quite complete.
Today, we had nothing scheduled by our Volkswagen hosts, so we borrowed a brand new Golf 6 (which many people in this town still haven't seen and they're built here) and headed out to see the town and talk to the folks. First stop was the Wolfsburg castle for which the city was named. It was amazing. The grounds are so beautiful, especially now in Autumn.
For lunch, we stopped in a little Brauhaus near the castle. A very charming restaurant with a cheerful hostess that spoke some English. After looking over the menu, I decided to try some Salmon over pasta with a cream sauce. On the topic of lessons learned tha hard way, I found out that if you want water, order it flat, natural or "no gas." (Nuf said).
Greg and I were both a little startled when a family came in after us with their family dog in tow. Thinking this was unusual, we realized it must be allowed, because the hostess promptly showed up with a bowl of water for the dog before she even took the order from the family.
Thanks to an English-speaking navigation system, we were able to find our way into the city to talk to average people about how they like living in the shadow of VW. By the way... the new Golf 6 is a clean diesel with a 6-speed manual transmission. I can't remember the last time I've had so much fun driving a car. Quiet, smooth, handles great ... and great fuel mileage.
We found several citizens who spoke English well enough to tell us they love Volkswagen. Their comments ranged from how well the employees are treated and paid to how environmentally friendly the factory is. They also mentioned that VW gives back to the community in the areas of education, art and social responsibility.
Later in the evening, we had an informal dinner in the nearby town of Fallersleben. We all sat around a huge stone table and enjoyed fresh-baked pretzels and butter. Our hostess here spoke NO English and it was very funny trying to communicate. I wanted some butter for my pretzel, and asked for "butter." After getting a very confused look from the waitress, I looked around to see if any of the German-speakers in attendance would offer to help. No, they just waited to see me get myself out of this. I pantomimed spreading butter on the pretzel. And again, I said "butter." Finally, with an expression of understanding, the waitress said, "Oh, BOOTER!" Obviously, I had the right word, just the wrong pronunciation. Anyway, the Schnitzel was awesome. - Louis Lee
Sunday, Oct. 19, 4:00pm EDT
Flying through the night, we met the sun again just before we crossed over mainland Europe. Destination: Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. A seven hour layover providing us our only "play day."
The plan was simple...sprint off the plane, find a locker in which to leave all of our equipment and luggage, then hail a cab to the Eiffel Tower. Well, thanks to THE TERRORISTS, they've ripped out all the lockers. No longer can an honest, trustworthy reporter/photographer team from the hills of Tennessee store anything in the internatronal airport.
This snag called for care discussion. Would we throw in our respective sight-seeing plans and go in search of some way to burn seven hours in the airport, or would we suck it up and bear the burden of our heavy load? Being only 25 minutes from the City of Lights just doesn't happen everyday.
Deliberations took only 5 minutes, full speed ahead! We loaded up our bags, our carry-ons , camera and all its equipment and went in search for a driver. Vive la France!
And, it was absolutely worth it. The sights, the smells and the pictures will last a lifetime, but much too soon, it was a sprint back to Charles de Gaulle (well, with such tonage, a "sprint" may be a bit over zealous!) One more leg to Hanover, Germany, then my first Autobahn.
You must be 18, I learned, to drive in Germany. This is a good thing, because...do you know about the autobahn? On many portions of said thoroughfare, there's no speed limit. None. Fast as you want to go, that's cool. Want to go faster? Now, our driver was great. A true seasoned professional...but, I am glad I was too darned exhaused to do the conversion from kilometers per hour to miles per hour...or I may have been a bit terrified!
Tomorrow the work beings. Hello, Wolfsburg. Hello, Volkswagen!
Greg was right about the cramped seats on the plane. I had to get up many times to walk up and down the aisles just to keep from going stir crazy. My only still-time was when I was watching movies. I got to see Hancock, with Will Smith, Get Smart with Steve Carrell and The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton.
Of course, while the seats were not the best in the world, who cares. They were taking me to Paris, then on to Wolfsburg, Germany! When we landed in Paris, I was able to cross another itrem off my "bucket list." We took an expensive cab ride into the city and I took pictures of the Eiffel Tower. WOW. It was so surreal. I couldn't believe I was there.
We also strolled around looking for souvenirs and took another cab to the Champs Elysee, one of the most famous streets in Paris. Greg crossed an item off his "bucket list" when he sipped a cafe au lait in a bistro on the Champs Elysee. I was just there for lunch. I had a hot dog on a baguet with cheese (la fromage) and fried potatoes. After that it was a cab ride back to Charles deGaulle Airport and a more thorough security screening than I'd ever been subjected to. I won't go into to graphic detail, but the security officer owes me a fancy dinner. - Louis Lee
Sunday, Oct. 19, 1:15pm EDT
Channel 3 Eyewitness News has landed in Hanover, Germany. We are 60 kilometers (40 miles) from the VW Headquarters in Wolfsburg.
Sunday, Oct. 19, 10:13am EDT
Greg and Louis are at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris awaiting a non-stop flight to Hanover, Germany. After an overnight flight from Atlanta, they landed in Paris one hour ahead of schedule about 6 hours ago. Louis says the flight had "a good tailwind." A six-hour layover in Paris became a seven-hour layover which gave them time to go into the city for lunch. Paris is six hours ahead of Chattanooga's time zone. Wolfsburg, Germany and Paris share the same time zone. The Channel 3 cell phone works great in Europe so there should be no problem communicating with the station so that viewers can stay up to date on the trip.
Saturday, Oct. 18, 11:00pm EDT
We slipped the surly bonds of earth around 9:15...a full 30 minutes past our appointed time of departure, but with a tail wind at 18 knots, the pilot seems to think we'll make our destination an hour before the time listed on our boarding passes.
No problems in the run up to our trip...we found a spot in the economy lot close to the terminal and encountered a number of very helpful people at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Ah, but that exchange rate. OUCH! For $500 American, you know what we received? 330 Euro, ladies and gentlemen. Now that hurts.
Once we're airborne, champagne is offered. I love Air France. Shortly thereafter, it's time for dinner. Now, we had a meal in the terminal just about three hours ago, mind you, but...well, this is a meal served on a plane. Of course I said YES. Tabboulah and salmon...delicious. Sautee of beef with carrots and mashed potatoes...are you certain this isn't Air My Granny?
We're now at 35,000 feet speeding along at 700 miles per hour, the belly is full and one would think it'd be time for a nap...but there are movies to watch, so that's not in the gameplan! Now, don't get the wrong impression...yes, each seatback has its own 6" flat pannel, but we're not in a chartered jet, nor are we flying first class. No, we're still in the center aisle of an Airbus 340...something Louis and I remember everytime we take a breath. You see, we're both manly men of the broad shouldered variety. And these seats were obviously designed for kindergarten field trips...either that, or the Airbus people are also members of the Lollipop Guild...
Alas! Until I win the lottery I suppose, international travel will always be a blessing and a curse! ...but, Paris awaits, then Germany...and that makes my inability to take a deep breath right now somehow less important.
Saturday, Oct. 18, 4:00pm EDT
Greg and Louis are about 24 hours from arrival at the Volkswagen headquarters in Germany. This will be the first visit ever by a Chattanooga television crew to the VW home office. The pair will drive from Chattanooga to Atlanta on Saturday afternoon to catch an overnight flight from Atlanta to Paris. They will have a few hours to layover in Paris on Sunday before catching the second leg of their flight to Hanover, Germany. They will then travel by car to Wolfsburg, Germany which is about 90 minutes away. Arrival in Wolfsburg is expected to be around 4:00pm EDT on Sunday. Louis and Greg plan to meet up with Mike Pare on Monday, reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, to begin our joint coverage.
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