Archive for the ‘Road Warrior’ Category

Einbürgerungsurkunde: An American Simplifies Life in the EU

September 22, 2011

Rome, September 20, 2011 – I got my German naturalization document today at their embassy here in Rome. It had been signed in Köln in March and was countersigned in Rome today. (Einbürgerung means naturalization, and urkunde is an original of a paper, a document.)

The German Embassy is a big concrete building left over from the Fascist era, which somehow seems fitting (though so are most of the elementary schools in Rome since that was a project of Mussolini). Like the American Embassy and every other embassy in the world (including the Italian one in DC), the moment you walk in you are on their territory, in this case, German soil. They speak some Italian—the guards, for instance—but everybody there are Germans, as were the two embassy staff who checked my passport, did my fingerprints, helped me with some other forms, and congratulated me on becoming a German citizen.

Well, in the sense that life is an adventure, that was a little one, painless (for a change) and no risk of any bone breaks.

Having been born an American without giving it much thought since, all at once I sort of realized that becoming a citizen of a county is a serious thing. It’s not like applying for a grant or filling out a health club membership. It’s hard to describe. At the embassy they all speak German; they dress and act German more than Italian; they’ve got the German flag there and the big eagle symbol on everything. All of a sudden, that’s your heimatland. The embassy staff even reminded me it was my responsibility to ensure that I wouldn’t lose my American citizenship by becoming a German citizen. I had already checked that so it’s not a problem, but it’s another sign that formally becoming a citizen of a county is not quite like joining the local pool.

Informally, they asked what my family story was, how old my mother was when she came over, about where my other relatives were. They even wondered how my family felt about my becoming German. The question alone was a little unsettling, but as I said, it’s an adventure, this chapter of which I’m a German, at least here in Europe. The embassy woman in charge of my case asked if my mother had considered also getting a German citizenship, but she understood that if she is an American and only visits for an occasional vacation to Europe, maybe it doesn’t pay.

She said they get a lot of applications, but virtually none in Italy. I think that’s because Italians are already EU citizens, so there’s no motive for them to get a German citizenship. Plus, how many German Jews are in Italy? Very few. (For those leaving in 1939, I don’t think Italy was a great choice of refuge.)

Then we talked about places in Germany. The staff were very personable, and they really made me feel like they were glad I took the trouble to do the application and show up for the naturalization. I did not expect that from the German Embassy, since everyone operates from behind an inch of glass (though in the paranoia department, Americans are by far the leaders, with the Brits not far behind).

The German embassy is on a regular street and people actually drive up and park in front of it. A fence surrounds the American embassy, and the sidewalk around that is closed on all four sides. You have to cross the street constantly to get around all the detours, with no help from the American guards who just stare at you like you probably have a bomb in your backpack. Friendly, those Americans. Nothing like that for the Germans. Just a nice, neat, large concrete building a few doors down from the HQ of La Gazzetta dello Sport (the pink (in color only) national sports newspaper that founded the Giro d’italia—a long-distance bike race—103 years ago).

Unlike bank tellers, the Germans came out from behind their glass and met me in a waiting room to do my naturalization across a table. Also, the Germans work by appointment. In the US Embassy, you show up before they open and a line forms around the block, like you’re buying tickets to see The Rolling Stones. (Another reason I am glad to not have to deal with American visas.) If anything at all goes wrong, you spend the day in that line.

The nice passport photos we all labored to get here for me were annehmbar nicht (not acceptable)! Because they use digital image recognition, the pictures have to be just so. You can smile, but your mouth can’t be open more than a tiny amount. My agent told me hers were rejected for the same reason. (It’s the same in the US if you get a new passport, btw.) So she told me to do what she had done: walk to the local metro station two blocks away and pay 5€ to get photos in a machine for passports, which helps you get your head just the right size, etc. The metro machine photos were nice. The machine prints them on real photo stock, which is also better. I could have saved a lot of trouble for me and you at Moto. Sorry about that.

There is a strange feeling doing something so normal, like searching for a 5-euro note in your wallet while seated in one of those little cabinets in a metro station—something you see other people do and think you would never find yourself doing—the tiny details. The photo repair guy was there to service the machines. We talked a little, and I thought, here I am speaking to an Italian photo repair guy as a tiny step in becoming a German citizen at an embassy two blocks from the Castro Pretorio metro stop, which happens to have these machines in it next to the ticket dispensers. Nobody could write that script. He advised me to use the second cabinet. “The photos work better and there’s more room; it’s more comfortable,” he said.

My passport will come in four weeks. When these guys say four weeks, they don’t mean 29 days, they mean 4.0 weeks. The embassy woman said if I don’t hear from her to email or call. But it’s a done deal. I paid the 59€ passport fee and the 21€ for the shipping of my papers from Germany and from Boston, and it all got signed and stamped for printing, with even the photo glued onto the original passport page. Then it gets bound into the passport book with the blank pages, I think in Cologne again.

Well, it was a little scary, but I’m really glad I did it. It’s a big advantage to have EU citizenship if you are all over the world like I am. Practically speaking, this means I can get paid here and not have to bill through a US company. And I have barely adhered to the visa laws for the last three years, always making sure I don’t stay 91 days, and using my visiting professor status to avoid having to get a real visa. The bureaucracy of a German passport is nothing—nothing!—compared to getting an Italian visa. And the German citizenship is for life. The visa you have to do for every single 90-day stay, and it has to be done less than 60 days in advance, and half the time it doesn’t come through on time anyway. It’s crazy as only Italians can be. So now I never have to deal with that again, which is a problem for every American working here lacking Eu cittadinanza, as they call it.

Today on Italian radio they happen to be playing all the songs from Mary Poppins as it was done here in Italy. A spoonful of sugar translates to: Basta un poco di zucchero e la pillola va giù.

P.S. For more about my travels, see Travels of a Thermodynamicist.


Travel Is Hell (and 119 Slices of Life There)

August 18, 2011

Buddhism short-circuited whining centuries ago.

Buddhists accept that the brief interval in which our souls exist isolated within mortal biological vessel, must, by its nature, imply suffering, and life proceeds from that premise. This is why sensible Japanese eschew Buddhism for weddings, preferring Christian or, more often, Shinto ceremonies, but console themselves about the deaths of their loved ones by going to Buddhist temples. Given the assumption of inevitable suffering throughout life implies—it must be a relief to die.

As a fully licensed road warrior, a professional who carries a pocketful of frequent flier and car rental cards, I spent my company’s accumulated wealth as I saw fit (while realizing a lot of my expenses might not ever be reimbursed) when I was a CEO.  Now, still a road warrior, but traveling for business mostly on my own account, I depart a Shinto and come home a Buddhist.

A deep sense of relief infuses my body as it enters a cab to Dulles or Logan or Fiumicino airports for the beginning of its next immersion into life as an aerospace missionary. Cut from the umbilical of the clothes in my closet, the toilet articles in my bathroom, and the electronic gadgetry on my writing desk (which has no room for writing covered as it is by equipment, wires, and the power supplies and connectors necessary to make them all cooperate), I am my own universe.

I will survive in nature as a component within the air transportation system. I’ll sleep, not under the stars next to a whitewater river with rafts dragged on shore for the evening and embers slowly dying in a campfire, and not even in a building, but rather—inside giant machines, their turbine engines whining and their seat belt signs turning ever on and off, always accompanied by a Pavlovian bell that induces even a soundly sleeping soul to unconsciously check the long-ago-fastened metal buckles.

Life becomes simpler. Whatever I don’t have, I’ll live without or buy or improvise. This simple life has in fact itself been purchased by contracts that are large compared with my actual salary, or by invitations to be that special speaker who comes right after the keynote speaker, that old guy whom they bring in to say something intelligent. Combined with the nth round-the-world airline ticket, 40 nights in overpriced hotels, several weeks of rental cars, Shinkansen tickets, and elegant meals with inelegant people—within the sea of that banality, a pearl of divinity must exist. Somewhere.

Whatever prep work I didn’t do will get done in a plane, a taxi, or a waiting room. Two shirts and two pairs of pants yield only four possible sartorial combinations. Dressing simply, I’ll live among the natural elements and commune with their spirits, for instance the aroma of Jet-A (aka jet fuel fumes). I won’t be alone; Eurodiesel exhaust mixed with a 6:00 a.m. cold mist will waft through the Parisian streets and alleys and red-light district and path along the Seine with me. I’ll experience life with them, and through them.

When I try to get the defroster to work, the rented red Chevy Cavalier sprays tobacco ashes on me. But it doesn’t matter. Life wasn’t designed to be comfortable. It was designed to pique the senses and test the mind, and that is what nature will do for me and to me for the next one, two, three, four, five, six, ten weeks.

Buddhists love life. They love it through its discomforts, its disappointments, its raw bitterness. The life of the itinerant traveler, lugging laptop, palm top, batteries, cell phones, cigarette chargers, wall charger, thumb drives, brochures, business cards, ear plugs, wallet, passport, tickets, books, magazines, pens and pencils, Ray-Bans, and maybe an emergency ration of Diet 7-Up, all in the eternal blue JanSport backpack, wasn’t built for comfort, or convenience, or sleep maintenance, or great eating, or perfect biking and swimming opportunities.

That life deprives you of those things whenever it can. At home we do not give thanks for an electrical outlet. But the occasional rate AC plug next to an unoccupied seat near the gate of my next flight is the day’s gift, my friend, my soulmate. A yogurt stand with sugar-free walnut flavor is my kill. An empty middle seat is my bed at night.

The struggle against the entropy of the universe seen at an average sustained speed of 60 mph, 24/7, maintained for weeks, with the occasional brilliant victory addict me. Cable TV, which I don’t have at home (actually, I don’t have any TV at home), catalyzes the metamorphosis from Shinto to Buddhist: tuning in to CNN Sports Summary on Flamingo Hotel cable in Solna, just north of Stockholm, watching that one golfer on that one hole, where she sinks the 58-foot putt, is meaningless if you haven’t watched all her missed gimmes. The tie-breaking homer in the bottom of the 13th is just another sailing baseball if you haven’t lived the inning-after-inning-after-inning monotony of a 1:1 deadlock through a steady Pittsburgh drizzle.

That’s the lure of travel, not the friendship of the carpet upon which I sit because the power plug isn’t near a seat by my gate at the airport. The white-hot heat of success is thermodynamically powerful only when coupled with the cold dimness of its frustrations, a few, in fact 90119, of which I’ve collected.

A few preliminary examples: an 80°F, 25m, non-turbulent pool with marked but empty lanes that’ll be open for the next 75 minutes is an everyday occurrence for me in Rhode Island. But I score that victory in Colombo, or Graz, or Kuala Lumpur, and it’s an event worthy of a nine-dollar phone call home. Hey! I swam 60 beautiful minutes in a real pool! The girlfriend, or my dad, thinks: For this he flew 10,000 km and disappeared for a month?

I plan to convene a road veteran’s conference for the purpose of canonizing and agreeing on the numbering of these inconveniences that create the freezing, entropyless cosmic background of travel against which our daily lives are pitted. Then, when we brush past each other in the stairwell of the 16-story hotel whose elevators, all two of them, kicked a breaker and died during the 8:00 a.m. rush to check out, we won’t need to say any more than “18? 15 for me yesterday — in Sydney can you believe it?” And we’ll nod and trudge ever downward.

In the next few weeks I’ll present all 119 of these little inconveniences. Perhaps you’ve encountered the same or similar ones. Maybe your red Chevy Cavalier was a Toyota something-or-other, or a fellow traveler was saturating your aisle with ear spray from open-style headphones in economy, not plus,instead of changing their kid’s diaper in public.

If you’ve had unique and discomfiting travel experiences you’d like to share—and that have helped you toward a Buddhist appreciation of travel as inevitable suffering, from which you have returned a better, wiser person—feel free to share.


Rick Fleeter

author, Travels of a Thermodynamicist