Friday, July 22, 2011

GPS, take me to the Frankfurt Airport!

I recently taught a course for a client of mine in Kaiserslautern, Germany, which is about an hour and a half southwest of Frankfurt.  Naturally I flew into Frankfurt, rented a car, and drove to the course location.  Being new to Germany and concerned that I might have trouble reading the road-signs, it seemed obvious that I should rent a car with a GPS navigation system.

In fact, when I'd emailed my course contact for "good directions from the airport to Kaiserslautern" her advice was "rent a car with a GPS."  Ha!  Okay, sounds good.

I am not a fan of jet-lag, and so I flew in a couple of days early to allow my biorhythms or circadian rhythms or whatever rhythms are involved to sort things out and, like, let me sleep in the nighttime and stay awake in the daytime.  This is especially important when one is planning to deliver 3 full days of stand-up training.  Having the GPS was nice because it helped me explore the area without any concern that I might get lost and not find my way back to the hotel.  I like GPS.  When Andrea and I took a trip up the California coast for our 25th wedding anniversary it was great to be able to type in "seafood", let's say, or "Golden Gate Park" and have it find our way for us.  I'm a fan.

When the course was over it was time to fly home and, unfortunately, I had a 9:35am flight out of Frankfurt.  Given the drive time and the vicissitudes of international travel security, I knew I had to leave very, very early in the morning.  It seemed like 6am should do it, but I am paranoid about being late.  I left at 5:30am.

I got everything into the car, fired up the GPS, selected "airports" and looked at the selections.  It started off with "Terminal 1, Frankfurt Hahn", then "Terminal 2, Frankfurt Hahn", then just "Frankfurt Hahn".  Following these it listed airports located in cities other than Frankfurt, and given that all three "Hahn"s were exactly the same distance away I assumed it didn't matter which one I picked.  I picked the general one, "Frankfurt Hahn".  I figured once I got close I'd be following signs to "rental car return" anyway.

As I traveled along things seemed okay, at first.  But then, after a while, it seemed like I was being directed to smaller and smaller roads, and away from the main "A" roads (the Autobahns, as you may know).  I was momentarily concerned that I'd somehow goofed up the GPS settings, but a little sign would routinely confirm that I was indeed on my way to the airport; with an airplane symbol, the word "Hahn", and and arrow pointing me to continue.  So I did.  The road got down to a one-lane-each-way affair, and in more than one case I had to slow down for farm equipment.  And a cow.  Still, little brown signs with airplanes on them beckoned me onward.

As I approached the airport I really began to wonder.  It just didn't look like the airport I'd flown in to.  "Oh well," I thought, "maybe we're approaching from the other side".  Sometimes GPS takes you on the scenic route, but it gets you there.  I saw a car-rental-return sign for "Sixt", which was the right company, and so I pulled into the lot and parked.

Nobody was there.  Nobody anywhere, really.  No signs telling me what to do.  No clearly-marked doors. Crickets with German accents.  Sauerkraut tumbleweeds.

I saw a workman off in the distance, wearing a plastic green-neon-colored vest, enter a small portable office.  He was the only person I could see anywhere so I walked the 200 yards or so, knocked on the door, and asked if he could help me.  He was very cordial, and began to tell me where the entrance to the airport was and how to get there, and how to turn in my rental car keys... when I just thought to ask him "this is the Frankfurt airport, right?"

"Yes," he said, and then after a moment, "Frankfurt Hahn".

"Is there another one?" I asked.  His eyes got big.

"Oh, no, you want the main Frankfurt airport?  That's Frankfurt Mainz!  This is the little one, just for local, private planes!"

Ah.  The "little" one.  "How far away is the big one?" I asked, but before he could answer the look on his face told me everything I needed to know.  Far.  Quite far.  Frankfurt is a large city and I was on the wrong side of it, with the rush hour just beginning.

"What time is your flight?" he asked.  I told him.  He slowly shook his head.  I think he was about to offer me somewhere to spend the night.

You may have heard that the autobahn has no speed limits.  This is, for the most part, true.  I capitalized on this fact at this point, big time.  I'd rather not go into details, except to say that I think I experienced a slight degree of Einsteinian time-dilation on the A4.

I made it (barely, OJ-ing my way through the airport and running up to the gate at the last minute, just like in a rom-com but without Jennifer Aniston), but you may be wondering... what went wrong with the GPS?  It was simple: nothing.  The average GPS, when displaying a list of locations, orders them by distance - nearest to farthest.  Had I scrolled down I would have found more entries for Frankfurt, including Frankfurt Mainz, and I probably would have stopped to ask someone before getting too far down the road which was the right airport for me.  Perhaps my car rental agreement would have made this clear... had it not been, you know, in German.

This was just another in a long line of examples illustrating the dangers of relying too much on technology.  In years past I would have figured out my route on a map, and in so doing would have educated myself about the city of Frankfurt.  With the GPS I didn't have to, so I didn't, and then my ignorance reared its head when I misused the GPS.

And darn near got stranded in Germany.

People who know me well often point out that I am overly concerned about allowing enough time for things.  I always show up early to places, often sitting in my car and listening to music until my appointed time arrives.  I wanted to write this blog so I could just give them the URL to it whenever this particular criticism is offered...

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