Achtung – Everything is Kaputt!

It’s been a long time since we last visited Germany so it was no surprise to find that, in the meantime, a lot had changed – some things for the better and some things, well… not for the better! The most obvious change was the extent to which automation has crept into every aspect of modern day life. Everything which could possibly be automated, has been automated, together with every other thing which should definitely not have been automated, but has been anyway. The results of this are exactly as could be expected…..

Germany is often late to the game because they traditionally wait to see how everyone else fares before jumping into something new. However, when they finally do join in, it is with an unrivaled enthusiasm which knows no bounds. After wrestling with the airport ATM’s which worked out surprisingly well, we headed for the airport train station to confront the ticket machines. All three machines were, of course, out of service and the repair guys pointed us towards the subway, where we found one machine and a long line-up. By the time I had figured out how it worked, our train had come and gone. Then the next train was cancelled and the station began to oveflow with people. I asked a policeman for advice. He said we should board any train which arrived and not wait for an emptier one because cancellations were a regular occurrence.

Our next brush with automation was when we disembarked at the central station. I had read that obtaining and registering a prepaid mobile phone card was a swift and painless process. It wasn’t! After more than two hours in the phone shop, watching the clerk wrestling with both his computer and our mobile device, we emerged exhausted. When we subsequently tried to use our smartphone, the automated system responded with, “Your available balance is zero. To speak with customer service, press 0”. There are no prizes for guessing what happened next. “Customer service is 30c per minute. Your available balance is zero!” Grrrrrr!!!

Our next challenge was the hotel, where internet access “should have been” but “was not” free. Getting access was complex and they wanted a separate paid account for each device. So, with no mobile and limited wifi access, we were beginning to really wonder about the usefulness of technology. The automated, energy-save system was free though. You insert the room key card into the slot behind the door – if you can find it in the dark – and then the light goes on – or not! At breakfast, I searched in vain for the coffee pot, but in Germany now, everyone has an espresso machine, so why would a hotel be different! These machines are great fun if you know which buttons to press. If not, then you end up like me, with an empty cup and a large pool of unspecified liquid.

If we thought the phone card process was exciting, we hadn’t yet experienced the rental car pickup. I had an online reservation and as I approached the counter, the girl said,”We have everything ready for you!” Being both a skeptic and a cynic, I was pleasantly surprised – too soon, as it turned out. The girl hacked at the computer and then compared my order form with the screen. “This doesn’t agree! The computer wants more money”, she said. She tried changing terminals, changing cars, changing everything, but the computer would not be beaten. Finally after an hour or so and a heated discussion with her boss (not to be recommended) the boss said, “Let me try!” and it worked first time (Ouch, that really hurt!) The car we got was not the one we ordered but we were glad to finally escape – out onto the congested highways.

The next challenge was the Autobahn service station where we had to navigate the futuristic washrooms (not advisable if you’re in a hurry!) You have to buy a ticket at the automated entry gate, then try using the automated facilities (if they are working) and then try to exit. It was not easy, neither were we impressed with the discount coupon for another visit (why would we want to go back there?)

Everywhere on our tour, we discovered that everything possible had been automated and the operational success rate was fairly discouraging. The famous German phrase, “Das geht nicht!” (that doesn’t work!) seemed to be following us around wherever we went. It left me wondering why nobody had come up with the idea of an automated repair company, but then, on reflection … maybe they have! Think about that!