What is an American Dream? Does it really exist?

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This first article is the first of many to come as I embark on a road trip with my wife and daughter and try and answer the question of whether the American Dream still exists or if it is just a faded memory. The idea of a journal had several stories to go along with that. We’ll start off with my absence from the country. On our last visit in 2015, it was during the era of President Barack Obama and despite the States’ best relations with Germany, Europe and the allies, combined with a sound economy and low unemployment, the country was stuck with inner-strife both on social and political levels. Fast forward to this year, and we see a different environment. America is isolating itself, the conflicts have exacerbated and it feels like the country is on the verge of a civil war similar to what happened in Spain. Yet there has to be some bright sides to what is going on, right? That’s why I’m embarking on that journey to understand the logic of my (still) fellow countrymen from an outsider’s point of view and show the readers what I saw.

Another idea came from a presentation a former student colleague did for her student-teaching in Saxony a year ago. She wanted to know from me what the definition of the American Dream is and whether it exists. She teaches English and Geography on the high school level. And while this essay was based on my discussion with her on that topic, I’m hoping that my journey to Trump’s America will provide some light on some topics of concern, which includes our encounters with locals, discussions with family and friends and just simply looking at the landscape for people to see and better understand. And for me, as an American expat having resided in Germany for nearly 20 years, to understand.

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So without further ado, the first entry here starts with this question:

What is an American Dream? Does it really exist?

 

This is one question that is really broad because of different success stories from people with different backgrounds, plus how it has developed since 1945. If one wants a very simple definition of the American Dream, it would be the strive for personal success, which means people grow up in a traditional family with siblings and two cars, who usually go to church on Sundays, involve themselves in extra-curricular activities in school to find their fame,  find their sweetheart in high school whom they later marry, graduate and either go to college or take up a profession, and then repeat the cycle over and over again. But if I was to go by that definition, it would be similar to the question about freedom in America, which was discussed in an episode of Newsstory a few years ago and by today’s standards, the term of American Dream would be considered naive at best.

 A link to a review I did a couple years ago is enclosed here:

 https://flensburgerfiles.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/genre-of-the-week-america-is-not-the-greatest-nation-on-the-face-of-the-earth-any-more-the-newsroom/

  

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the success of the American Dream has not only been based on the materials they possess- be it clothing, cars, music they listen to, movies they watch and friends they have, but also based on the haves, have nots, used to haves, wished they had, wished they would’ve hads, etc., and I’ve seen that the success of the Dream has veered away from striving to become successful as a person to the strive to be associated with a certain group as a way of having a sense of belonging. This especially includes political affiliations for if you are a member of one political party, you alienate the others who are in the other party. If you don’t make the right amount of money to keep up with the Joneses, you are looked down upon as trash. If you cannot conform to the neighborhood, the neighbors will make sure you do with force.  And if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ, you don’t deserve to be in heaven. All of these senses of belongings started creeping up in the 1990s and have dominated the American scene ever since, especially since September 11, 2001 with the attacks on Washington and New York, which resulted in the lives of 3300 people being lost. Especially when we look at the key elements of money and power, religion and politics they have dominated the dinner tables and classrooms in the States and have destroyed families, marriages and even friendships because whatever opinion you might have, your own individual ideas and thoughts, don’t matter to the others because that’s not what they want in life. If you ask whether the American Dream still exists today as it was 25, 40, or even 50 years ago, in its original form, it no longer does because today’s American is raised to belong instead of raised to be individually successful. And if people look at you differently, they will make note of that either in person or through social media. 

 

Link: https://flensburgerfiles.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/genre-of-the-week-are-you-lost-in-the-world-like-me-by-steve-cutts-and-moby/

 I’m actually happy that social networking never existed during my days in school because  it would never have allowed me to be successful as a person because I was different from most people. I was raised poor with my parents having job-hopped during my time growing up. My father was a teacher before he became a robotics technician by the time I was in my last year in high school. My mom worked in many fields before settling down as a massage therapist and worked with people with developmental disabilities. The community in Minnesota I grew up in, had their typical American status quos where the baby-boomers and the war-generations had established themselves and it was expected that their kids were to follow their footsteps. If they fail or try and veer off in their own direction, they are looked down upon. This happened to me because of my dad’s father (my grandfather) being a successful American football player and sheriff of the county. Since my dad failed to live up to the family name, he tried to get me to make up for that, especially with American football. Didn’t work. The sport wasted my time and I wanted to spend time with other people, travel and take photos, bike and just be me.  I had my own dream of becoming either a teacher or civil engineer and not having much “materialistic” items in the house got me to being creative with things from the nature when growing up. Despite all the bullying and peer pressure I got from my family and peers in school, I somehow bucked the trend and showed others that I could be better than others in things that are not mainstream and require pressure and boos from fans.  But that was with direct confrontation and not what students are doing in school with facebook, twitter and other means of e-communication. Had that piece of media existed, I don’t know what would’ve become of me, to put it diplomatically speaking.

 After high school, I followed the trend in going to college and collecting some very valuable experience, especially through travel and photography, but also through social work. Yet my breakthrough came when I met my college sweetheart who was from Germany and was doing her exchange program at my college. After she left I took her advice and went abroad- something that was absent in the American Dream, if looking at it from a naive person’s perspective- because a true American never lives abroad as everything he/she wants to have is in the States. However there are some like me who beg to differ and wanted to try something new, and learn new cultures, something that would make me a universalist like Emma Watson. To this day I have no regrets taking that step because I knew that I wanted to explore new places and try new things. It was at that time where I started my career as a teacher, something that I still enjoy as much as I do with writing. 

But looking at the American Dream from a universalist perspective, and also from a modernist’s perspective, we see five different strands of Americans fulfilling their dreams:

 

  1. The traditionalist role- following the footsteps of the forefathers by striving for a career, having a house and family and fulfilling the duties of going to church and engaging in social events in their own circles. The majority of people, esp. in rural areas still have this role even though the numbers are decreasing.

 

  1. The universalist role- these are people who don’t follow the American Dream and are wanderers, looking for adventure until they settle down somewhere outside their home. This where I fit in. Ironically, two other classmates of mine are in that boat too, as they have been living in Germany since 2014.

 Link:

 https://flensburgerfiles.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/americans-in-germany-2-hometown-locals-part-i/  (This has two parts)

  

  1. The disadvantaged role- these are people who struggle to make a living because of adverse conditions, such as long-term unemployment, abuse, discrimmination and other social issues. Sadly this applies for over 65% of the American population and affecting all race. This also applies to the undereducated who are also ignorant.

  

  1. The experimental role- these are people who instead of following the traditional role, they discover themselves through the creation of alternative lifestyles-regardless of whether they adopted them or created them. This also includes homosexuality, feminism, aethesism and the like. Basically it’s individual preference. These people usually don’t experiment with things from other countries so they don’t do much travelling outside the States unless they are doing it for a cause.

 

  1. The multicultural role- these are people who used to lead the American Dream until they decided to travel for a while and see new cultures before they return home to share with others. I had one classmate who did just that, having left Minnesota for five states, three countries including Germany and then resettling in the States. Only a few of these kinds you will find in the country today

 

But the categories are not completely etched in stone as there are some outliers that have made it successfully despite having come from broken households. This applies to several players in the NFL and NBA who have come from that category but found their way to success, despite having still face adversity because of their skin color. Michael Oher (the film The Blindside) is the poster boy for this rags to riches category that still exists but the numbers have dwindled over the years. We also have some who followed the traditionalist line as a child but veered off to become a rebel and hippie, putting them into categories 2,4 and 5. That number has increased over the years because of their tiredness of being controlled by their parents regarding every step they take.

 To summarize the debate and clear up the matter, the American Dream still exists today but definitely not in the form it used to be. And despite Donald Trump’s feeble attempts to right the country into that traditional role- which will never happen because he has been a symbol for dividing the country into the neo-right vs. neo-left (a recipe for a civil war similar to what happened in Spain in the 1930s)- the American Dream has branched off into several segments, each of which has its own ways of struggling to establish a foundation which families can thrive on, and each of them are so different that they can never get along unless they find one common ground that could destroy the US, such as climate change and all the fighting that has come from it. If they could at least look at the issues that threaten the existence of the American Dream in any way, shape or form and tackle them together without the use of religion, politics and other items dividing the country, then we can maintain this Dream for generations to come. Otherwise if they don’t, we won’t have much left of the US by the time our children reach our ages. And with my daughter closing in on the 10 mark at the time of this post, time is running short to make that change.

 And from my experience, even if I’ve had my share of trials and tribulations as well as successes, if there is one thing we can learn from it, it is this: There is a thing called TEAM. Not like in German, where we have the Toll, Eine Andere Machts (I even witnessed that with our group presentation in Novels and Films with Volkmann a couple years ago), but this one I learned from football: Together, Everyone Accomplishes More.  We just have to allow for others to develop their talents and utilize them to help others. 

May the journey to find the good to turn things around begin. To be continued…..

Fl Fi USA

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Historic Structures and Glasses: Restore vs. Replacement in Simpler Terms

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Co-written with sister column, bhc-logo-newest1

The discussion about the preservation and reuse of historic places has existed since the 1950s, thanks to the preservation laws that have been in place. The German Preservation Laws were passed in 1958, whereas the Historic Preservation Laws that established the National Park Service and National Register of Historic Places in the USA were enacted in 1966. Both serve the lone purpose of identifying and designating places unique to the cultural identity and history of their respective countries. Furthermore, these places are protected from any sort of modernization that would otherwise alter or destroy the structure in its original form. Protected places often receive tax credits, grants and other amenities that are normally and often not granted if it is not protected or even nominated for listing as a historic site.  This applies to not only buildings and bridges but also to roadways and highways, windmills, towers of any sorts, forts and castles, citadels and educational institutions and even memorials commemorating important events.

Dedicating and designating sites often receive mixed reactions, from overwhelming joy because they can better enjoy the sites and educate the younger generations, to disgruntlement because they want to relieve themselves of a potential liability.

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Since working with a preservation group in western Saxony on saving the Bockau Arch Bridge, a seven-span stone arch bridge that spans the Zwickau Mulde between Bockau and Zschorlau, six kilometers southwest of Aue, the theme involving this structure has been ownership. The bridge has been closed to all traffic since August 2017 while a replacement is being built on a new alignment. Once the new bridge opens, the 150-year old structure will come down unless someone is willing to step in and take over ownership and the responsibilities involved. . Taking the structure means paying for its maintenance and assuming all responsibility for anything that could potentially happen. And this is the key here: Ownership.

Who wants to own a piece of history? To examine this, let’s look at a basic example of a commodity where two thirds of the world’s population wear on a regular basis- the author included as well: glasses.

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The author’s sunglasses: the older model from 2005 on top; the newest pair from 2018 at the bottom.

Ever since Marco Polo’s invention, glasses have been improved, innovated and modernized to not only make the person look great in appearance. It also helps them to better see the environment surrounding them, regardless of whether they are near-sighted or far sighted, have astigmatism or require bi-focals to read, or if they want protect their eyes from the sun in the form of shades. Glasses can be plastic or metal (or even both). And like the historic structures, the materials can be recycled if no one wants them. Yet by the same token, many of us love to keep them for the purpose of memories or give them away to those who need them. For over 30 years, I have worn nine pairs of glasses and two pairs of sunglasses; this does not count the eight years that I primarily wore contact lenses, which was during my time in high school and college. Like our historic structures, glasses have a life span. They are worn until the frames develop rust and corrosion, the vision changes or they are broken.

In some cases, many look for a new frames because they want to “look cool” in front of their peers. The “look cool” mentality has overtaken society to a point where it can be applicable to about everything: cars, clothing, houses and especially historic places and structures of interest. Basically, people just ignore the significance of these structures and things that had been built in the past, which hold memories, contribute to the development of a country, region or even community, or are simply fashionable. Still in spite of all this, one has to do something about the glasses, just as much one has to do something about the historic building.

So let’s take these two pairs of sunglasses, for example. Like in the picture above, the top one I was prescribed by an optometrist in 2005; the bottom one most recently in June 2018. The top one is a combination of plastic and steel- the temples, ends and hinges are made of steel; the eye wires are plastic. The lenses are made with Carl Zeiss branded glass with a sealcoat covering to protect it from scratches.  The bottom ones are plastic- frames, temples and nosepiece; the lenses are plastic but with a sealcoat protectant and dimmers to protect the eyes from the sun. The brand name is generic- no name.  The difference is that the changes in the eyes required new sunglasses for the purpose of driving or doing work outside.  As I wear the new sunglasses, which are not as high quality but is “cool,” according to standards, the question is what to do with the old sunglasses?

There are enough options to go around, even if the sunglasses are not considered significant. One can keep the old pair for memory purposes. Good if you have enough space for them. One can give them away to someone who needs them. If they are non-prescription lenses, that is much easier than those with a prescription. With the prescription lenses, one will need to remove them from the frame before giving them away. Then there is the option of handing them into the glasses provider, who takes the pair apart and allows for the materials to be recycled.  More likely one will return the old pair to the provider to be recycled and reused than it would be to give them away because of the factors of age, quality of the materials and glass parts and especially the questions with the lenses themselves. One can keep the pair, but it would be the same as leaving them out of sight and out of mind.

And this mentality can be implemented to any historic structure. People strive for cooler, more modern buildings, infrastructure or the like, but do not pay attention to the significance of the structure they are replacing in terms of learning about the past and figuring its reuse in the future. While some of  these “oldtimers “ are eventually vacated and abandoned, most of them are eventually torn down with the materials being reused for other purposes; parts of sentimental values, such as finials, statues and plaques, are donated to museums and other associations to be put on display.

The Bridge at Pointer’s Ridge. Built in 1910 by the Western Bridge Company of Omaha, NE. The Big Sioux River crossing was one of five bridges removed after years of abandonment in 2012. Photo taken in 1999 when it was still open.

One of examples that comes to mind when looking at this mentality are the bridges of Minnehaha County in South Dakota. The most populous county in the state whose county seat is Sioux Falls (also the largest city in the state), the county used to have dozens of historic truss bridges that served rail and automobile traffic. As of present, 30 known truss bridges exists in the county, down from 43 in 1990, and half as many as in 1980.  At least six of them are abandoned awaiting reuse. This includes a rails-to-road bridge that was replaced in 1997 but has been sitting alongside a gravel road just outside Dell Rapids ever since.  A big highlight came with the fall of five truss bridges between Dell Rapids and Crooks in 2012, which included three through truss spans- two of which had crossed the Big Sioux. All three were eligible for the National Register. The reasons behind the removal were simple: Abandoned for too long and liability was too much to handle

This leads me to my last point on the glasses principle: what if the structures are protected by law, listed as a historic monument?  Let’s look at the glasses principle again to answer that question. Imagine you have a couple sets of glasses you don’t want to part ways with, even as you clean your room or  flat. What do you do with them? In the case of my old sunglasses, the answer is simple- I keep them for one can reuse them for other purposes. Even if I allow my own daughter to use them for decorating dolls or giant teddy bears, or even for artwork, the old pair is mine, if and only if I want to keep them and allow for use by someone else under my care.  The only way I would not keep the old sunglasses is if I really want to get rid of them and no one wants them.

Big Sioux River Crossing at 255th Street: One of five bridges removed in 2012 after decades of abandonment. Photo taken in 1999.

For historic places, this is where we have somewhat of a grey area. If you treat the historic place as if it is protected and provide great care for it, then there is a guarantee that it will remain in its original, pristine condition. The problem is if you want to get rid of it and your place is protected by law. Here you must find the right person who will take as good care of it as you do with your glasses. And that is not easy because the owner must have the financial security and the willpower just to do that. Then the person taking it over does not automatically do what he/she pleases. If protected under preservation laws you must treat it as if it is yours but it is actually not, just like renting a house.  Half the places that have been torn down despite its designation as a historical site was because of the lack of ownership and their willingness to do something to their liking. Even if there are options for restoration available, if no one wants it, it has to go, even if it means taking it off the historic registry list to do that.  Sometimes properties are reclaimed at the very last second, just like the old glasses, because of the need to save it. While one can easily do that with glasses, it is difficult to do that with historic places, for replacement contracts often include removal clauses for the old structure, something that is very difficult to rescind without taking the matter to court.

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In reference to the project on the Bockau Arch Bridge in Germany, we are actually at that point. Despite its protection as a historic structure, its designation was taken off recently, thus allowing for the contract for the new bridge at the expense of the old structure to proceed. Yet, like with the pair of old glasses, last ditch attempts are being made to stop the process for there are possible suitors willing to take over the old structure and repurpose it for bike and pedestrian use. While neither of the communities have expressed interest, despite convincing arguments that the bridge can be maintained at a price that is 100 times less than the calculated amount, the group working to save the bridge is forming an association which will feature a network of patrons in the region, willing to chip in to own the bridge privately. Despite this, the debate on ownership and the bridge’s future lies in the hands of the state parliament because the bridge carries a federal highway, which is maintained on the state and national levels. Will it become like the old pair of glasses that is saved the last second will be decided upon later this fall.

To summarize briefly on the glasses principle, glasses and buildings each have a short lifespan because of their functionality and appearance. We tend to favor the latter more than the former and therefore, replace them with newer, more modern and stylish things to keep up with the pace. However, the older structures, just like the discarded pair of glasses, are downgraded on the scale, despite its protection under laws and ownership. When listed as a historical site, the proprietor works for and together with the government to ensure its upkeep, just like lending old glasses to someone for use, as long as the person knows he/she is “borrowing” it. When it is not listed , they are either abandoned or torn down, just like storing the glasses in the drawers or even having them recycled. However the decision is final if and only if no one wants it, and this could be a last-second thing.

The Bridge at Iverson Crossing south of Sioux Falls. Built in 1897, added to the National Register in 1996. Now privately owned. Photo taken in 1998.

We cannot plan ahead for things that need to be built, expanded or even replaced, for there may be someone with a strong backbone and staunch support who will step in the last minute to stake their claim. This applies to replacing older, historic structures with modern ones that have less taste and value. In the face of environmental issues we’re seeing globally on a daily basis, we have to use and reuse buildings and other structures to prevent the waste of materials that are becoming rarer to use, the destruction of natural habitats that may never recover but most importantly, remind the younger generations of our history and how we got this far. While some of us have little memories of our old glasses in schools with the exception of school class and party photos, almost all of us have memories of our experiences at, in, or on a historic structure that deserves to be recognized and kept for others to see. It’s just a matter of handling them, like the glasses we are wearing.

 

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The Dos and Don’ts of Biking in Germany

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It’s that time of year. The shovels are being put away. The chains are oiled. The brakes are checked. And now with the sun coming out, the bike trails and streets are filling up with a pair of wheels, ridden by people with helmets; some of whom are towing trailers with children while others are carrying baskets full of food and other supplies.

It’s spring time, and with it, the season of cycling. And while biking is the best alternative to the car, like the car, German laws apply to bikers to ensure that both the cyclist and the others are safe.  In Germany, there are strict guidelines pertaining to bike safety that apply. Those violating the laws are subject to fines and penalties. In serious cases, one can get a point from the German Department of Vehicle Registration in Flensburg (Kraftfahrtbundesamt- KbA) and possible a ban from driving (or in this case, biking).

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To give you an idea of what to be aware of, here are some examples of guidelines to pay attention to:

  1. Thou must have proper lighting.  What is meant by that is that you must have a functioning head light and tail light- operated by a battery or a dynamo (which activates the lighting as you pedal your bike). In addition, you must have reflectors (nicknamed in German as cat’s eyes) on your bike pedals, spokes, tire rim as well as your head- and tail lights. Some of these are integrated in the lighting already. All new bikes have these components installed already.  However, for used bikes, they are a must.  Penalty for having improper lighting, including those that don’t work is 20 Euros per part. That means if you have absolutely no lighting or reflectors on your bike, you could face up to 80 Euros! In other words, light it up and make it work for your bike. 😉
  2. Thou must have functioning brakes.  Here, both the front and rear brakes must be present and in working condition. That is very obvious when you have to use them for unexpected circumstances. No brakes and you could break someone.  No brakes and it’s 20 Euros- sometimes per brake. So brake it in and have it ready for use.  🙂
  3. Thou must have a functioning bell or horn. Imagine you are biking and you encounter a person listening to music and not paying attention. Hollaring and screaming don’t help. But the bell does! The louder, the better and the safer both parties are. Without the bell, you could have 20 Euros sucked out of your wallet. That’s equivalent to 10 packages of Ricola cough drops, if you think about it. Save your voice and ring a bell, will ya? 😉

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While the Danes are really good about alerting their bikers to pay attention, as you can see in this picture, sometimes we just need to learn common sense when it comes to where and how you bike. We all know that showing off and even overloading your bike can give you some problems- both with the bike as well as with the law. For instance:

4. Biking on a sidewalk (Bürgersteig) is definitely NOT allowed, unless you can prove  that you are a child.

While some cyclists have tried imitating a seven-year old in   front of a police officer, they were greeted with a pair of high-fives in cash- equivalent to 10 European clams. 😉  If you nearly cause an accident, it’s 15 and if it  actually happens, it’s 25 plus a date with Judge Marilyn Milian from the People’s Court. And you can imagine how that would turn out, as you can see in the clip below:

So don’t do that.

5. Biking with no hands on the handlebar:

If you want to impress a girl, you might as  well impress Mr. T, whose reaction will come down to “Gimme Five, fool!” Do you want to give the man in a police uniform a high-five? If so, I guess you won’t be  having a date with that girl after all. 😉

6. Also not cool is biking through a traffic light when it is on red.

One has to remember,  when you have red, then cross traffic does NOT stop for you- not even the moose, like in the film below:

Here is where the lovely Danes at the KbA will get you. If caught alone, it’s 60 Euros            plus a point on your record. If you nearly cause an accident- meaning other drivers            have to slam on their brakes and swear at you (YOU SON OF A B****!) it’s 100 and a            point. Yet if you cause an accident, it’s 120 Euros, a point and you get to meet Judge            Marilyn Milian of the People’s Court- again. You can imagine what her reaction                  would look like:

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And lastly, for the rules of the road, you should have all eyes on the road. They are antennas- they detect everything right away- some of which can even save your life. Ears are good for listening to anything coming your way. That means without the two, you’re bound to go down like the rest of the fools trying to break the rules. For instance:

7. We’re in Germany and we are to the Right.

To the right is both a literal phrase and also a figurative. Just ask Kim Darby whose character Maddy Ross used it in True Grit in 1969. To the right means when traveling down a street with marked bike lanes, you go with traffic- meaning on the right. To attempt to pull a Mr. Bean and bike on the left will result in a sequel to Planes, Trains        and Automobiles (see the scene from the original below) plus 20 Euros to watch the sequel, produced by a police officer leacturing you about it,  when it  is done. 😉 Oh and by the way….. doing the same procedure while on a one- way street means an additional 15 to the 20 you owe them- 35 in total!

8. The No-Bike Zone.

Just as bad as biking the wrong way is biking in a pedestrian zone, or as I call it, The No Bike Zone. Guarded by the Klingons dressed in a police uniform, if you enter this zone, stop! Go back and find another way! Otherwise, you might want to learn a few words of Klingon, like the lady at the Volkshochschule in Vienna (Austria). You’ll need it to pay         them 20 Euros for the fine.

9. E-biking is not cool!

We’ve seen a lot of E-bikes on the trails; but we’ve seen the other version of E-bikes, meaning people listening to music on their iPhones or biking while talking or even texting. If you think you can multi- task, remember these German words: “Es geht nicht!”  If you bike and listen to music, it is 10 Euros, however, if you have your iPhone or Smartphone in your hand even, it is 55 Euros. Why? Because texting and biking can kill a friendship. Communication is key! Put the phone down!

10. Put the beer down!

While biking with a Radler (English is Shandy) is a common German culture associated with biking, too much shandy is not a good thing. Just like with drinking and driving, drinking and riding will cost you dearly. Pending on the severity and the number of related offenses, one will face at least 2 Flensburg Points, hundreds (or thousands) of Euros in fines, a ban from the road, a seminar on how to properly behave on the road,      and finally, a lecture of a   lifetime in court. And you can imagine how this                             would turn out:

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If you follow these ten commandments, you will be able to govern the bike trails properly and enjoy a tour around the lake or in the city, pending on how you bike and where you go. Biking is a priviledge that reaps rewards when you are out there. However, as there are many people around, the world does not evolve around you as the biker, but the others as well. So when you follow the rules of the road, the world will be yours and you will have the best time cycling on Germany’s bike trails, be it on the bike motorway, in the city, in the country side or wherever you may go this spring and summer.  So get out there and happy trails until we meet again. B-)

 

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Leipzig Book Convention 2018: No Record but Lots of Suspense

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LEIPZIG-  If there is one theme that would sum up the 2018 Leipzig Book Convention this past weekend, it would be suspense. While members of the committee had expected another record year with a possible 300,000 visitors, that mark was missed by a long shot and for the first time in six years, the number of visitors at this year’s convention had decreased. 271,000 visitors went to the convention that took place from 15th to 18th March, a decrease of 14,000 from last year’s number of 285,000.  But despite the decrease, there was a lot of suspense in this year’s convention, which goes beyond the theme of Romania as the guest country. Here are some examples based on the author’s annual visit together with family members:

Snow and Cold- The decrease in numbers had a lot to do with Old Man Winter’s last grasp. Snow and blowing snow, combined with extreme cold temperatures brought vast parts of central and northern Germany to a near standstill, with parts of Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia taking the brunt of the storm.  Frozen overhead lines and crossing points were additional factors that led to the shut down of the main railway stations in Leipzig and Halle (Saale) and the cancellation of train services spanning seven German states and points to the east. This led to overfilled streetcars and buses to the Messe Convention. Adding traffic jams on the major highways also because of blowing and drifting snow and many who wanted to go to the book convention decided to stay home- at least until the sunniest day of the convention, which was the last day (Sunday). But even then, the one critique point that seems to be the problem in Germany is snow removal, where much of the parking lots were still unplowed when guests arrived on Sunday, undoubtedly the peak of the four-day long convention.

Fighting the Right- Another factor affecting the numbers is the increase in the number and influence of the far-right media. Several publishing companies producing such propaganda in newspapers and books were present, mostly in Hall 3. This included Compact and Neue Stimmen, a pair of most prominent magazines that have ties with the far right groups including the Pegida, National Party (NPD) and Alternative for Germany (AfD), the third of which is currently in the German Federal Parliament as an opposition to the newly created Grand Coalition with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.  Especially on Friday and Saturdays clashes broke out between the far right and far left, resulting in police involvement and arrests. As they wanted to avoid massive conflicts like it happened at the 2017 Book Convention in Frankfurt/Main, it was met with partial success for despite measures to prevent violent outbreaks, the far right, with its anti-democratic and anti-European policies kept many away because of their strive to commit strife. On the flip side, several prominent authors who have written about right-wing terrorism and its threat to democracy were on hand. One of them, Norwegian author Åsne Seierstad, won the European book prize for her work on Anders Breivik, a far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in two separate attacks in 2011. People like Seierstad believe that right-wing extremism has been on the rise since then, including her home country.

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Peaceful Co-existence- While the snowstorm and the far-right made waves in the media, one aspect that was seldom touched was religion. In Hall 3 there was a section where Christianity and Islam were in peaceful co-existence of each other. At least four booths with publications and newspapers on Islam and another seven on Christianity were found clumped together with people gathering to both sides of the aisle. Interesting was how the two religions attracted the people. On the side of Islam, people came in droves because of their interest in the religion and the literature that pertained to it. This is disregarding how it was written- which was either German or Arabic with a couple English examples.  This included the Islam Newspaper in German, which judging by my observations, has a lot of culture and history, but go along the mentality of the Native Americans as described by historian Dee Brown: “We are still here.” Why? Because of attempts to suppress their culture by the domination of Christianity and the western way of life, one can see that Islam still exists and the impression is that they are open to anyone wishing to learn at least a bit of the religion. There had been fears that the religion would dominate the European landscape. That is not true. The people of Islam wish to have a sort of peaceful co-existence that has not existed for a long time, for many since the time before the Arab Spring of 2011 which led to millions fleeing the war-torn areas. On the other side, Christianity was presented in a marketing fashion. While on the way to the main entrance of the convention, we were greeted by hippie-style Christians who gave us a free coupon to one of the booths that was giving away books dealing with stories involving Christ, philosophy and the existence of God. Another booth was continuing the Martin Luther celebrations of 500 years ago by illustrating the printing press used to produce the 500 Theses written by Luther. And then there was Christianity in the form of music and schools that offer both. Target language was both German and English and they attracted a fair number of people. Yet despite the moderate increase of younger people joining Christ, the numbers have decreased on a global scale thanks to corruption, sex abuse scandals and attempts to associate Christianity with far-right figures, such as US President Trump. One can see the desperate attempts to convince people to join by giving away books upon leaving the Buch Messe- and seeing tons being discarded in garbage cans in the parking lot. It does appear that if Christianity was to regain its original form, it may need to separate itself from politics and reinvent itself by adapting to the needs of today’s generations, a step that has been taken in some aspects, like homosexuality, but in others- like tolerance- it’s having problems doing.

IMGP1721

Blocks at the Manga–  While the Manga exhibition, located in Hall 5, attracted its typical individuals, which included superheroes, waitresses in short skirts, aliens, and people dressed up in outfits dating back 125 years ago, one has to look more carefully at the trends that a person can find. While the theme from last year  was lighting in Japan, this year’s theme seemed to be boxes and its several shapes, designs and sizes. No matter whether they were lunch boxes, jewelry boxes or even mini-storage boxes or even designer boxes  found at booths like the Sega games, it was a real treat just to see these boxes while looking at the products typical of Japan, which include stuffed animals, sweets, games, books and even dishware, just to name a few.

IMGP1695

Thinking Scandanavia- To round off our tour of the Buchmesse, we have some literature recommendations worth noting. One of the unique aspects of the convention was found at the international book section in Hall 4 and in Scandanavia. Consisting of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finnland, the themes most commonly written by authors in the region  consists of mysteries, tourism, mental well-being and lastly photography. Two books that represent fine examples of such works is a Danish work by Meik Wilking entitled The Little Book of Lykke: The Path to being the Happiest People in the World, which focuses on the Danish secret to being the happiest society in the world. This includes the way of life, physical and mental well-being, mentality towards materialist items and money as well as the power of the bicycle.  Another is a collection of night-time and sometimes underwater photography by Finnish author Petri Juntunen entitled “At the Heart of It All,” where he brings the new meaning of photography to light, as he focuses on relicts and other non-life forms that are shone down by a ray of light, showing the interest from above.

IMGP1733

To sum up the visit and the highlights, the 2018 Leipzig Book Convention may have not set any records this year, yet judging from the news and my own observations, one could not get enough of the suspense that was presented, both positively as well as negatively. Still, as themes, such as religion, extremism, social and cultural issues and current affairs (such as environment and climate change) become the everyday norm, such book conventions like in Leipzig and also in Frankfurt/Main will need to adapt in a way that these issues are addressed and people understand them and take action. This action should also include putting an end to hate and violence, a commodity that has always been a burden to society but one that seems to become a universal problem on all fronts, especially since the end of 2015. It is only hoped that the next book convention will bring about constructive themes and discussion instead of propagizing hatred and inequality based on things we don’t like.

The next Leipzig Buchmesse will take place  from 21st to 24th March 2019. To see more photos of the Buchmesse, please click here as it will take you to the Files’ facebook page and its photo album. Please feel free to add your photos and impressions of the Buchmesse. We love to see them. 🙂

flefi-deutschland-logo

Leipzig Book Convention 2018: No Record but Lots of Suspense

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LEIPZIG-  If there is one theme that would sum up the 2018 Leipzig Book Convention this past weekend, it would be suspense. While members of the committee had expected another record year with a possible 300,000 visitors, that mark was missed by a long shot and for the first time in six years, the number of visitors at this year’s convention had decreased. 271,000 visitors went to the convention that took place from 15th to 18th March, a decrease of 14,000 from last year’s number of 285,000.  But despite the decrease, there was a lot of suspense in this year’s convention, which goes beyond the theme of Romania as the guest country. Here are some examples based on the author’s annual visit together with family members:

Snow and Cold- The decrease in numbers had a lot to do with Old Man Winter’s last grasp. Snow and blowing snow, combined with extreme cold temperatures brought vast parts of central and northern Germany to a near standstill, with parts of Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia taking the brunt of the storm.  Frozen overhead lines and crossing points were additional factors that led to the shut down of the main railway stations in Leipzig and Halle (Saale) and the cancellation of train services spanning seven German states and points to the east. This led to overfilled streetcars and buses to the Messe Convention. Adding traffic jams on the major highways also because of blowing and drifting snow and many who wanted to go to the book convention decided to stay home- at least until the sunniest day of the convention, which was the last day (Sunday). But even then, the one critique point that seems to be the problem in Germany is snow removal, where much of the parking lots were still unplowed when guests arrived on Sunday, undoubtedly the peak of the four-day long convention.

Fighting the Right- Another factor affecting the numbers is the increase in the number and influence of the far-right media. Several publishing companies producing such propaganda in newspapers and books were present, mostly in Hall 3. This included Compact and Neue Stimmen, a pair of most prominent magazines that have ties with the far right groups including the Pegida, National Party (NPD) and Alternative for Germany (AfD), the third of which is currently in the German Federal Parliament as an opposition to the newly created Grand Coalition with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.  Especially on Friday and Saturdays clashes broke out between the far right and far left, resulting in police involvement and arrests. As they wanted to avoid massive conflicts like it happened at the 2017 Book Convention in Frankfurt/Main, it was met with partial success for despite measures to prevent violent outbreaks, the far right, with its anti-democratic and anti-European policies kept many away because of their strive to commit strife. On the flip side, several prominent authors who have written about right-wing terrorism and its threat to democracy were on hand. One of them, Norwegian author Åsne Seierstad, won the European book prize for her work on Anders Breivik, a far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in two separate attacks in 2011. People like Seierstad believe that right-wing extremism has been on the rise since then, including her home country.

IMGP1726

Peaceful Co-existence- While the snowstorm and the far-right made waves in the media, one aspect that was seldom touched was religion. In Hall 3 there was a section where Christianity and Islam were in peaceful co-existence of each other. At least four booths with publications and newspapers on Islam and another seven on Christianity were found clumped together with people gathering to both sides of the aisle. Interesting was how the two religions attracted the people. On the side of Islam, people came in droves because of their interest in the religion and the literature that pertained to it. This is disregarding how it was written- which was either German or Arabic with a couple English examples.  This included the Islam Newspaper in German, which judging by my observations, has a lot of culture and history, but go along the mentality of the Native Americans as described by historian Dee Brown: “We are still here.” Why? Because of attempts to suppress their culture by the domination of Christianity and the western way of life, one can see that Islam still exists and the impression is that they are open to anyone wishing to learn at least a bit of the religion. There had been fears that the religion would dominate the European landscape. That is not true. The people of Islam wish to have a sort of peaceful co-existence that has not existed for a long time, for many since the time before the Arab Spring of 2011 which led to millions fleeing the war-torn areas. On the other side, Christianity was presented in a marketing fashion. While on the way to the main entrance of the convention, we were greeted by hippie-style Christians who gave us a free coupon to one of the booths that was giving away books dealing with stories involving Christ, philosophy and the existence of God. Another booth was continuing the Martin Luther celebrations of 500 years ago by illustrating the printing press used to produce the 500 Theses written by Luther. And then there was Christianity in the form of music and schools that offer both. Target language was both German and English and they attracted a fair number of people. Yet despite the moderate increase of younger people joining Christ, the numbers have decreased on a global scale thanks to corruption, sex abuse scandals and attempts to associate Christianity with far-right figures, such as US President Trump. One can see the desperate attempts to convince people to join by giving away books upon leaving the Buch Messe- and seeing tons being discarded in garbage cans in the parking lot. It does appear that if Christianity was to regain its original form, it may need to separate itself from politics and reinvent itself by adapting to the needs of today’s generations, a step that has been taken in some aspects, like homosexuality, but in others- like tolerance- it’s having problems doing.

IMGP1721

Blocks at the Manga-  While the Manga exhibition, located in Hall 5, attracted its typical individuals, which included superheroes, waitresses in short skirts, aliens, and people dressed up in outfits dating back 125 years ago, one has to look more carefully at the trends that a person can find. While the theme from last year  was lighting in Japan, this year’s theme seemed to be boxes and its several shapes, designs and sizes. No matter whether they were lunch boxes, jewelry boxes or even mini-storage boxes or even designer boxes  found at booths like the Sega games, it was a real treat just to see these boxes while looking at the products typical of Japan, which include stuffed animals, sweets, games, books and even dishware, just to name a few.

IMGP1695

Thinking Scandanavia- To round off our tour of the Buchmesse, we have some literature recommendations worth noting. One of the unique aspects of the convention was found at the international book section in Hall 4 and in Scandanavia. Consisting of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finnland, the themes most commonly written by authors in the region  consists of mysteries, tourism, mental well-being and lastly photography. Two books that represent fine examples of such works is a Danish work by Meik Wilking entitled The Little Book of Lykke: The Path to being the Happiest People in the World, which focuses on the Danish secret to being the happiest society in the world. This includes the way of life, physical and mental well-being, mentality towards materialist items and money as well as the power of the bicycle.  Another is a collection of night-time and sometimes underwater photography by Finnish author Petri Juntunen entitled “At the Heart of It All,” where he brings the new meaning of photography to light, as he focuses on relicts and other non-life forms that are shone down by a ray of light, showing the interest from above.

IMGP1733

To sum up the visit and the highlights, the 2018 Leipzig Book Convention may have not set any records this year, yet judging from the news and my own observations, one could not get enough of the suspense that was presented, both positively as well as negatively. Still, as themes, such as religion, extremism, social and cultural issues and current affairs (such as environment and climate change) become the everyday norm, such book conventions like in Leipzig and also in Frankfurt/Main will need to adapt in a way that these issues are addressed and people understand them and take action. This action should also include putting an end to hate and violence, a commodity that has always been a burden to society but one that seems to become a universal problem on all fronts, especially since the end of 2015. It is only hoped that the next book convention will bring about constructive themes and discussion instead of propagizing hatred and inequality based on things we don’t like.

The next Leipzig Buchmesse will take place  from 21st to 24th March 2019. To see more photos of the Buchmesse, please click here as it will take you to the Files’ facebook page and its photo album. Please feel free to add your photos and impressions of the Buchmesse. We love to see them. 🙂

flefi-deutschland-logo

FlixBus to Enter “Fernverkehr”-Market as FlixTrain

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One of the former Locomore train cars to be used by FlixTrain  WIkicommons

Munich-based bus provider to offer long-distance train services to compete with German Railways- The Bahn. Expansion is expected.

MUNICH- “Actually, for us is the train like a big bus.” When the CEO of FlixBus Jochen Engert mentioned this in an interview with the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, the first thing that came to mind is how to get passengers from point a to point b on the tracks without getting nickeled and dimed by the German Railways- The Bahn. When FlixBus was established in 2011, its primary goal was to provide travelers with an affordable and painless way to get them where they want to be, while on the highway.  Today’s FlixBus covers 80% of all bus markets in Germany, providing 120,000 daily connections to over 1,000 destinations in 20 countries, from Bucharest to Bordeaux, Kiel to Milan and from Luxembourg to Prague, with stops big cities like Berlin, Hanover and Frankfurt, as well as smaller ones like Jena, Bamberg and Wolfsburg, just to name a few.

While FlixBus is making its American debut this April, providing residents along the West Coast with the signature modern green double-decker busses that Europeans are accustomed to, the company is making a splash on the railways. In a railroad market where the Bahn predominates long-distance rail services with its white, black and red ICE-trains and InterCity services, as well as its red and white Regio-trains, passengers are going to see the light green trains, known as FlixTrains competing beginning in April. At a cost of 10 Euros per single ticket, passengers can travel on the Flixbus going up to 200 km/h (125 mph)- equivalent to most IC-trains and the older ICE-trains between Berlin and Stuttgart as well as between Hamburg and Cologne. The plan is to have 28 stops available for up to four trains traveling in each direction per day on both routes.

The routes are somewhat familiar for they had been used by other private train services. Locomore was the first to provide daily services from Berlin to Stuttgart via Wolfsburg, Fulda and Frankfurt/Main. Starting in December 2016 until its insolvency in May 2017, Locomore operated one train in each direction, stopping at 18 stations. It had planned new routes between Berlin and Binz, Berlin-Hanover-Cologne-Bonn and Frankfurt-Augsburg-Berlin. In August 2017, the Czech-based Leo-Express and FlixBus acquired Locomore’s assets and have started painting the Locomore trains green to show ownership of the services. The trains will be run under FlixTrain by April. The Hamburg-Cologne line used to be an independent entity  known as HBX, where trains stopped in Osnabrück, Düsseldorf and Essen. The HBX was acquired by FlixBus and will start operating under FlixTrain at the end of March.

While this FlixTrain experiment will be done gradually (starting with two trains in each direction per day), the plan is if successful, the Flixtrain will provide more trains on these two routes and expand to include more cities in the near future.  The caveat behind this expansion is twofold. Firstly, despite its generous offers of: long distance trains at 200 kph at a price equivalent to a trip by FlixBus, coaches with an eatery, children’s playground and air conditioned seating, free Wifi and films and ordering tickets online or with an app, it will be difficult to lure passengers away from their loyal Bahn or car because of the advantages both has, plus private trains have as many problems with train delays and technical issues as other train services, both private and public.  Secondly the provider would have to choose carefully which cities to expand their services to for many reasons: 1. The train engines would need to be compatible with the track as some areas are not electrified, 2. They will need to be aware of the other trains that serve the cities and their customers and 3. The train’s availability on a daily basis may present some problems as private trains tend to have a difficult time sharing the track with the competitors.

But despite the possible setbacks of Flixtrain, there are some lines that couple possibly benefit from the expansion should business be successful and people turn to them instead of the Bahn and its reputation of being late most of the time and having overpriced tickets. Some potential candidates include:

Saale- Route (Leipzig-Jena-Saalfeld-Bamberg-Nuremberg)- Especially residents in Jena, Saalfeld, Lichtenfels and Naumburg have suffered a great deal since the ICE-train was rerouted onto the new Berlin-Leipzig/Halle-Erfurt-Nuremberg-Munich line in December 2017 as they had to face taking Regio-trains to Erfurt or Leipzig just to catch the next available long-distance train. Despite efforts to have faster Regio-Express trains available by December 2018, it may not be enough for many  who have already invested a year’s salary in a new car. With FlixTrain, it could serve as a medium to long-term fix for people going to either Berlin or Munich without changing trains.

Dresden-Hof-Nuremberg Magistrate- It has been 16 years since the last ICE-train has served this route and plans to electrify the line has been really slow-going- the requirement for having a long-distance train. Yet if diesel locomotives are available this would be a temporary fix until the electrification is finished. For people in Bayreuth, Hof, Zwickau, Glauchau and Chemnitz, having a FlixTrain would be a blessing as they could arrive at their destinations in time that is much quicker than with the motorway, which runs parallel but is beset with traffic jams caused by accidents and narrow four-lanes. Currently MRB-Rail operates the Hof-Dresden portion and the Bahn the rest, both as RegioTrains.

MDV Route- Consisting of the lines Leipzig-Naumburg-Weimar-Erfurt, Chemnitz-Glauchau-Gera-Jena-Weimar-Erfurt and Erfurt-Kassel-Dortmund-Cologne, the route has similar problems with electrification as the Dresden-Hof-Nuremberg Magistrate but between Weimar and Glauchau. Still the route has potential for attracting passengers who have been forced to deal with mostly RegioTrains and a pair of InterCity trains per day.

Schleswig-Holstein-Express- Connecting Hamburg with Flensburg via Rendsburg, this route has rarely seen Fernverkehr since the Bahn pulled its ICE-trains off the tracks three years ago and Germany and Denmark allowed the inter-rail agreement to run out at the end of 2016. The trains have operated regionally but people would benefit more with long-distance rail services between Hamburg and Denmark via Flensburg with the option of extending southward. As an alternative one could route a train through Kiel before entering Flensburg, yet a pair of bridges will need replacement and the tracks need to be added.  FlixBus already has bus connections in Scandanavia and could benefit with a pair of FlixTrain services going through Denmark.

North Sea Route: As the North Sea region in Schleswig-Holstein is very popular, especially during the summer, this route between Hamburg and Sylt via Husum would be beneficial for a FlixTrain. Originally, this route was operated by Nord-Ostsee Bahn Rail before it went bankrupt in 2014 and was taken over by the Bahn. Yet many customers are dissatisfied with the old-timer trains and the service of the Regio-Trains. Plus only a handful of IC-trains connect Sylt with Frankfurt on a daily basis.

These are the top five routes FlixTrain should pursue if it is successful and decides to expand. There are other routes to consider, yet one has to think about the advantages and disadvantages to having a cheap train service with the same services as the Bahn’s. Therefore to conclude, here are a couple questions to think about (let alone comment on):

  1. Would you prefer FlixTrain over the Bahn (or other rail services)  if it was to come to your town?
  2. Which rail routes, aside from the five mentioned ones, would you like to see FlixTrain using and why?

 

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New ICE-Line and ICE City Erfurt Opens

ICE-T train stopping at Erfurt Central Station. Photo taken in March 2017

New High-Speed Line Opens after 25 Years of Planning and Construction. Erfurt and Leipzig to become ICE Cities. 80 ICE trains expected in Erfurt daily.

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BERLIN/ MUNICH/LEIPZIG/ERFURT/COBURG/JENA- It took the signing of former (now late) German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s signature to allow for the project to begin- 25 years ago. That in itself was as historic as US President Dwight D. Eisenhowers signature in 1956 to launch the US Interstate Highway System. It took 25 years, from the time of its signature until the time of its completion, costing over 12 billion Euros, and resulting in 37 bridges- including the 8.6 kilometer long Elster-Saale Viaduct near Halle (the longest in Germany)- two dozen tunnels and the complete makeover of five different stations- the main ones of which are in Erfurt and Leipzig.

And now, Frankenstein has come to life!  🙂 The new ICE line between Berlin and Munich has opened. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Richard Lutz (CEO of the Deutsche Bahn), German Transportation Minister Christian Schmidt as well as the primeministers of the states of Bavaria, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia plus many celebrities were on hand to open the ICE-Line as a pair of ICE-3 trains passed through the new stops of Nuremberg, Erfurt, and Leipzig-Halle as they started from Munich and ended in Berlin. The ceremony happened today with the grand ceremony taking place at Berlin Central Station.

With that new line, not only will the cities of Leipzig and Halle will profit from the long-distance trains stopping there on a daily basis, but also the ICE City Erfurt in central Thuringia, where as many as 80 ICE-trains will stop to board people on a daily basis travelling on the N-S axis between Berlin and Munich via Nuremberg, as well as between Dresden and Frankfurt via Leipzig on the W-E axis.  Along the N-S axis, one can travel between the German and Bavarian capitals in just over four hours, two less than its current travel. Between Dresden and Frankfurt, it is expected that trains passing through Erfurt will need only three hours instead of the normal five.  Planned is the new ICE-Sprinter connecting Berlin with Munich with a stop only in Erfurt. That stretch will take only under four hours.  Another is planned for Halle-Munich and Nuremberg-Berlin, each of which will take less than three hours.

Prior to the opening of the new ICE line, a person needed over six hours along the line that went through Naumburg, Jena, Saalfeld, Lichtenfels and Bamberg. That line will be relegated to Regio-trains which will be a total inconvenience to people living in Jena and points to the east. With that will mark the end of long-distance service for the first time in over 115 years. The state of Thuringia is working with the Deutsche Bahn to provide better access, which includes a new long-distance InterCity station in Jena to be opened in 2024.  (More on that here).  The ICE line will mean more development for Erfurt, as the ICE-City plans to build a new convention center and series of hotels and restaurants around the station to better accommodate customers and visitors to Erfurt.

ICE-4. Photo by Martin Lechler

The new line will mark the debut of the newest ICE train, the ICE 4, which will travel alongside the ICE 3 from Munich to Berlin. The ICE-T will continue to serve between Dresden and Leipzig (for more on the train types, click here).  At the same time, the older two models will be phased out bit-by-bit after having travelled tens of thousands of kilometers for over 25 years. The newest models can travel over 300 km/h and has compartments for bikes, available upon reservation.

While the new line, scheduled to be part of the train plan come 10 December, will compete with the airlines and automobile in terms of travel time, there is a catch that many people do not like: From Berlin to Munich, one will have to pay at least 125 Euros one-way, 40 Euros more than with the present route. Despite having more Regio-trains providing access to Erfurt and Leipzig/Halle from Jena and elsewhere, it will become an inconvenience when it comes to changing trains and having to rush to the nearest ICE train with very little time left.

Still it is up to the Bahn to decide how to adjust to the situation as it plans to allow for time for people to adjust and get used to the new line. After a year or so, it will make some adjustments to better serve customers who are out of reach of the new line. By then, one will find out whether the billions spent on this project was worth its salt.

Video on the VDE8 Project- the ICE Line Berlin-Erfurt-Munich:

And a map of the new line: