Sunday, October 11, 2009

Deutschland, Part 1

I recently returned from a grand automotive trip to the Fatherland. My plan involved a whirlwind tour of Germany, hitting all of the major car-related sights, like car factories and the spectacular museums that each of the brands has attached to their headquarters.

I flew into and out of Munich, home of Bayerische Motoren Werke. My first full day was spent touring the city, since throughout Germany many of the museums and tourist attractions are closed on Mondays. But I got to do a great bike tour with Mike's Bike Tours, meeting a lot of great people and seeing some very cool stuff. Here's some of the highlights:

These are some good examples of the architecture that covered most of the cities of Germany. As anyone who's been to Europe knows, there are many more centuries of architectural history to be discovered there than anywhere in North America.

That night some of the crew from the tour went to the Hofbräuhaus to, what else, drink some beer. There was a group of 5 from Philly, plus me and Allison, a fellow Jew from Chi-town. We'd actually discovered our shared tribe when, at a certain point in the trip there was a memorial to a WWII resistance movement with stones set on top from people who'd visited, a very Jewish custom, usually used to pay respects at Jewish cemeteries. We were the only two to place stones atop it.

We hadn't talked all that much during the tour, but afterwards, sitting in the Hofbräuhaus, and especially when the Philly contingent had left, we seemed to really hit it off, getting into some fascinating conversations, including about our common anxiety about traveling alone. Planning and doing this trip had been fraught with anxiety for me, and it was great to meet someone who shared some of those feelings, and not feel lame about it. It really seemed to lift some of the weight for me. Thanks, Allison.

But it leads to another interesting part of the trip. I'd used the Rosetta Stone program to learn some German before the trip, but until this point, I hadn't used it at all, since I knew the front desk people at my Munich hostel spoke flawless English, and quite honestly, I chickened out. But I knew I'd be late to my hostel in Ingolstadt, since I didn't want to leave my wonderful conversation with Allison. My trip was the budget kind, so I stayed mostly in hostels, usually in big, cheap dorm rooms. I called the hostel, and to my surprise no one in the "Jugendherberge", the youth hostel, in Ingolstadt, spoke English. When you think about it, why would they? Any foreigners traveling to Ingolstadt would generally be picking up their new car at the Audi Forum...not exactly the kind of person looking to save money with a youth hostel.

So I had to struggle through my first real conversation in German, and by golly I got through it. It actually gave me the first hint of confidence I needed, if not to engage random strangers in banter, to at least try to use Germany when I needed to interact with locals.

That night, I took a train to Ingolstadt, Audi central.
The old town of Ingolstadt, situated on the Danube River, is a beautiful slice of well-preserved germania. It was a pleasant surprise, since all I was expecting out of this town, about halfway between Munich and Nuremberg, was a city built around a car factory. Its charm was undeniable, though, perhaps best represented by the main gate of the city, seen here.

Since I'd already toured the Audi museum on a business trip in November, I only did the factory tour. Unfortunately none of the manufacturers allow cameras into their factories, for obvious reasons, but I can give you a few juicy tidbits from each.

In Ingolstadt Audi manufactures their lower level products, like the A3, A4 and A5, as well as all their engines. We got a tour of the body stamping area and the main assembly line. It was here that I was introduced to the Audi concept of assembly line work groups. It’s a group of around 5 or 6 people with one quality specialist and one “group speaker”, who gets to boss people around. They stay at one area of the line, but they get to rotate between jobs, so it breaks up the monotony. Apparently each worker is in charge of learning additional jobs at their own pace to be able to take advantage of this. This group set-up seemed to inject a more social atmosphere than at the American plants I’ve seen, but my experience there is definitely limited.

I was also fortunate enough to be treated to lunch by a friend from Audi at the restaurant at the Audi Forum. The Forum is where Audi customers from around the world come to pick up their Audi and be treated to a world-class experience. All the manufacturers in Germany have a program like this, though Volkswagen doesn't extend this privilege to Americans. Here's a customer picking up their new Q5.

After Ingolstadt, I was off to Nuremburg for some good ol' fashioned non-auto-related tourism. But I'm a bit tired of writing now, so I'll save that for part 2.

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