Back in the (Former) D.D.R.

A Pleasant Trip to Germany, Part I

Note: I’ve been chipping away at this for more than a week. Scribbling notes, adding things, even editing (yes, editing – there used to be more), badgering myself every day to just finish it and post something. As they say, though … Wenn schon, denn schon.

Here, in schönes Leipzig, Germany …


Click to See Leipzig Maps and Aerial Views on Windows Live

 

  • Goethe wrote Faust: der Tragödie.
  • Richard Wagner wrote his very first sonatas.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the St. John Passion and Clavierübung.

And I … I Wrote This
Somewhere in the amorphous and slightly gummy responsibility stew that constitutes the job description of a Flight Simulator Community Evangelist, one can find the word "spokesperson". It’s just there to the left of "sluggish-blog-poster", and a bit below "river widener". It is perhaps ironic, then, that I’ve left the trade fair I’ve attended for the past week just as I was really beginning to be able to speak.  The event is held in Leipzig, which is in the region of Saxony in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik, aka East Germany. It has happened annually since 2002, and, with attendance approaching 200,000 people, is one of the largest events of its kind. I first attended to support the launch of Flight Simulator X last year, and made my triumphant return to demo an early Beta build of our new expansion pack – Flight Simulator X: Acceleration. Mike "Tdragger" Gilbert also attended, doing press demos and interviews "behind closed doors" to continue to get the word out about the triumphant return of Train Simulator 2.

The event is known by its proper German name which is simply: Game Convention

An astute reader likely will not need any help translating that name into English. After all, German and English share a considerable number of words in common. For example, the German words for "helicopter", "mousepad", and "radium" (it came up in a conversation about the glow-in-the-dark markings on old aircraft gauges) are, respectively, helicopter, mousepad, and radium. However, sometimes the same words don’t always mean the same thing. For example, in German also means "thus", wenn means "if",  and Handy means "cellular telephone". Thus (also), when Nietzsche wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra, he didn’t mean that the Persian prophet of the title was simply wandering around muttering "Me too."

In that vein, then, it is worth noting that, in this case, the actual translation of Game Convention is "Like E3, but Bigger, and With People."

In other words, a significant, well-produced, and very well-attended event in the world of electrical entertainment.

A bit over two decades ago, I took a year of German language instruction at Enumclaw High School, courtesy of the imperturbable Mary Ann "Van" Whalen. At the time, I didn’t think I learned much, unlike, say, driver’s education, in which I know I didn’t learn much. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, to find a few odds and sods auf Deutsch clambering out of my memory when I came to Leipzig for the first time last yearBy the end of that trip I was near-fluent in certain key phrases like "I don’t understand", "a bratwurst and a Pilsner, please", and "The Flight Simulator X will have been to you for sold in more than 19 Octobers from  like stores excuse me".  

I’ve found, however, that there’s really only one phrase I need to "go to ground" anywhere in the world and be instantly assimilated and well-cared-for: "Excuse me, please, I do not speak (your language) very well." This introduces a tempering dash of humility to the universal respect and unfettered admiration that I, as an important American and a Microsoft employee, naturally engender worldwide.

When I got in to the city on Monday, I wasn’t nearly as awkward as I was the first time, but I’d lost a lot of what I’d  learned. My conversation with the first cab driver was unusually short – "Hello, to the Renaissance Hotel, please" – and I sat in the back seat like a tired and aloof tourist.

When I made the return trip to the airport a week later, I sat in the front like a local, and wouldn’t shut up. We discussed the politics of German reunification and where the driver was when the Berlin Wall came down, we compared notes on our respective Windows-based PDA phones (his was nicer than mine), and he agreed with me when I posited that the most effective bit of Cold War propaganda ever employed was the myth that East German women look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But I’m digressing ahead of myself …

Across the Water on a 747 – Yeah We’re Livin’ in, in a Modern World
When I travel, especially in Europe, somewhere in my head I can’t help but feel just the slightest touch of a certain savoir faire. This is undoubtedly inspired by a lifetime (so far) of reading Ian Fleming, and the fact that I am, at heart, pretentious. However, while I do travel easily these days, and with more relaxed confidence than the average rube, my actions, demeanor, mis-and-near-miss-adventures and even the occasional near mis-demeanor tip the scales far closer to, say, Atkinson’s Bean than Connery’s Bond. I’d happily settle for Barry Nelson’s Bond or even Woody Allen’s (from Casino Royale (1955) and Casino Royale (1967) respectively), but no such luck.

This latest trip started at Sea-Tac in Seattle at about stupid o’clock in the morning, and the first leg was an uneventful hop to Dulles. From there, it was off to Frankfurt on a United 747-400, coincidentally the first time I’d been on a 747 since I rode along on my dad’s last flight as a United captain in 1989. This trip was also the first time I’d actually ridden upstairs in an airliner. It’s a lot like business class on any other airplane, but higher.

Anyway, I found my way upstairs, didn’t have a smoke, somebody spoke, and I utterly failed to fall into a dream. I tried to sleep, as I always do, but my brain rules its inner clock like the King of Circadia, and the diplomatic approach (sleep because it’s dark, not because you’re tired) never works. All it really respects is brute force. So, I read magazines, books, watched a few random bits on the in-seat video monitor, and played with my shiny new Nintendo DS Lite. My Brain Age is considerably younger than my real age, thank you very much, though it felt nothing of the kind when I shuffled off the airplane in Frankfurt.

Once again considering Fleming, I’ll borrow a few words from his first novel Casino Royale to describe the queue at Frankfurt’s temporarily-relocated-due-to-construction passport control office: "The scent and sweat and smoke of a (passport control office) are nauseating at three in the morning." It wasn’t three in the morning in Frankfurt, or in Seattle, but my head and stomach figured it felt as much like three o’clock as any other time. Enough said.

The final leg into Leipzig was short hop on a Eurowings BAE-146. The 146 is an interesting little airliner. From a distance, it looks further away than it actually is, since, with four engines, it really ought to be bigger. And it knows this – unlike most airliners, the wings don’t seem to flex at all, giving it the stiff-shouldered look of someone trying not to be noticed as they sidle self-consciously out of a party.

Round, Round, Get Around, I Get Around
At certain times of the year, this being all of them, I travel a lot. I love to travel, and I love to live up to my title and go forth spreading the word, as it were. I also have a nagging fear of becoming one of the so-called "road warriors" (without the cool Australian-built Fords) who just drag themselves from trade show to trade show, shuffling past sandwich boards that say things like "Welcome Interstate Managers", doing the same thing and seeing the same people no matter where they are in the world. The sort of half-homeless sad-sack that the song "Bright Future in Sales" by Fountains of Wayne was written about – "Seven scotch-and-sodas … and I don’t remember where I’m from", etc.

With that in mind, then, I always try to find something to do, to see, to learn, or a conversation to have that I wouldn’t find elsewhere. It might be something as seemingly simple as finding out the name and history of a building I can see from my hotel room window, trying whatever food or drink the area seems most proud of (within certain limits – if there’s a place that is famous for its mushrooms, I’m not going), or just exploring a bit if the trip affords any spare time. Anything that will stay with me, a cerebral souvenir to remind me that the world remains a big and interesting place.

To put some of this another way, I seek out and thrive on connection. There are places where I have found connections, and places where I haven’t, and I tend to promptly dismiss and forget the latter. When I try to establish a connection in a conversation, even in my mother tongue, in effect what I am doing is seeking or establishing a common language. In a foreign country, then, speaking to someone in German (in this case) is a logical extension. And unlike most things in life, I’ve found that the reward is roughly proportional to the effort – even the simplest conversation, when successful, feels like a major accomplishment. Last year, for instance, it took nearly two hours for a friend of mine to find a way to say "I am a waitress in a restaurant on a boat" in German that was pointed enough for my thick skull. Once it finally clicked, you’d think I had discovered a new Rosetta stone, I was so proud.

Hey, Things are Different Here
Initially, just noticing the superficial things, the novelty of the differences in the surroundings, can be enough to capture that flavor of actually having "been somewhere." That first cab ride I mentioned, a run in a Mercedes from the airport to the hotel, was my first real reminder that I was back in Germany. Even from my aloof vantage point in the back seat, I was easily reminded of what I will politely call the German cab driver’s enthusiasm for the road. I didn’t try converting 200 km/h to something I could more easily relate to, and it was probably just as well.

For an American on a first trip to a city like Leipzig, there are all kinds of things that stand out, even if you manage to overlook things like cobblestone streets, classic architecture, and the fact that the Polizei use the classic two-tone siren. (Trivia: the police cars I used to drive had this siren as one of the choices, but it was the last one, and most people wouldn’t bother to turn the knob that far. I always used it, so it became my "signature siren.")

Microsoft Spokesmodel Mike Gilbert Showing off a Ford S-Max

When walking in the city, one will notice that there are trains in the middle of most streets and that the tracks neatly bisect the crosswalks. And speaking of crosswalks, like the sidewalks, they are divided into two lanes – one for bicyclists only, and the other for bicyclists who want to try to hit pedestrians. And, still speaking of crosswalks, they are guarded over from the traffic lights by die Ampelmann, a unique variation of the "Walk / Don’t Walk" guy in traditional green and red, but dressed smartly, to the point of even wearing a little hat. The cars that will run you down if you ignore die Ampelmann (and if the bicyclists and trains don’t get you first) are, of course, heavily skewed toward Mercedes, BMW, and Audi. There are also a large number of Smarts, a car we’re just starting to see here in the US, as well as all manner of Citroëns, Seats, Skodas, classic Minis, Peugeots, even a few lingering Trabants. The (very) few American cars are usually models that we don’t see in the US, like the tiny Ka, and the less-tiny S-Max van, both from Ford.

There are far more smokers than one might be used to, and a lot of cigarette machines. There’s pretty money of multiple sizes, more coins, and far fewer cash machines. Speaking of money, one learns very quickly to keep one’s hands at one’s sides when purchasing something – the change is placed on a tray near the register to be retrieved at the appropriate moment. And it won’t take too many elevator trips to realize that the second floor in most buildings is numbered "1", and the first floor, aber naturlich, is called "EG". And even the most furtive glance at the newspaper box makes it clear that what’s on page 3 in the UK is on page 1 here.

While I don’t normally work blue, as they say, an American abroad will also notice a few differences in the rest room. First, in a public restroom, the stall doors generally go all the way to the floor. This, combined with the fact that most of the doors are weighted to swing shut on their own, and the lack of any lock-activated signage completely eliminate any of that pesky confidence that the stall is not already occupied. Second, the water level in the major appliance will appear absurdly and inefficiently low. This is reinforced by the fact that there is what at first glance appears to be a plunger mounted near every one I’ve seen. As it turns out, they aren’t plungers but brushes, in a nod to cleanliness. And the water level? Well, manipulating the mechanism on the wall at the back sets in motion an event I have christened Der Blitzflaushen. The sheer volume of water and the force with which it is introduced is, thankfully, indescribable, but I believe my term does it a certain justice. There is more to be said, (such as an emphatic suggestion to stand up, if appropriate, before pushing the button) but I do have my limits – in fact, I can still see them somewhere back behind me.

But Wait, There’s More
As charming as some of them are, too much time spent focusing on the relative novelty of the superficial things can be insulating, for want of a better term. As I mentioned above, Leipzig has some truly remarkable history. For example, as interesting as it is that the drink I had with dinner at Die Alte Nikolaischule was a surprisingly palatable mix of dark beer and Coca Cola, it is far more interesting to take note of the striking column in the courtyard. Looking a bit like a Roman candle, this single giant pillar marks the spot where, in 1989, first several, then hundreds, then thousands and finally 250,000 people gathered to protest the policies of their government. Said government then ultimately obliged by getting confused, issuing a few misunderstood proclamations, and then ceasing to exist. They say it was a bloodless revolution that came at only minimal cost, and it inarguably could have been far, far worse, but history shows that there were plenty of people that paid in advance.

The Bell Tower of die Thomaskirche

I mentioned the echoes of, among others, J.S. Bach in the introduction. Bach’s connection to the city is especially strong, as he was the cantor at a church toward the east end of downtown Leipzig called Die Thomaskirche. The current building, minus the prominent tower, was completed in 1496, but parts of the church date to 1160, which means that the church had already been around for 563 years by the time Bach got there. When he was hired by the city council to take over the choir, the minutes of the meeting read "Since the best men are not available, mediocre musicians must be considered." It’s easy, but ultimately dissatisfying, to miss these sorts of things while trying to be missed yourself by an enormous brown Mercedes disguised as a UPS truck.

When you’re heading back into the city from the Game Convention, ruminating on whether or not the girl working at the booth demoing some kind of new mousepad or something was actually wearing almost nothing but paint, you might miss a glimpse of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, the "Monument to the Battle of Nations". The largest monument in Europe, it commemorates the as many as 110,000 soldiers lost in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. The battle was fought by Napoleon Bonaparte and his dwindling army made up of French and conscripted German soldiers against some smaller German states and just about everybody else. His crushing defeat led to his abdication and exile, less than two years before he met his Waterloo at you-know-where.

The Hotel Kosmos

To someone like me who lives in a 118 year old state in a 231 year old country, a place like this that is so rich with  history is compelling. Walking the streets is an exercise in a sort of lateral archaeology, every building is another strata. Across from die Thomaskirche, for instance, is the Hotel Kosmos, an irresistable (from the outside, anyway) image of Sputnik-era "commoptomism".  The bakeries and meat markets in the city’s major shopping center might, albeit only briefly, distract you from the fact that they’re housed in the largest train station in Europe, though at only 82 years of age, it is far from the oldest. Every building wears its era, bright or dark, on its sleeve, and they all have their stories to tell.

He Seems to Mention Food A Lot
Yes. The food in Germany manages to include a number of choices from the "guilty pleasures" food group in every meal. If I walk into any one of a dozen bakeries and order a salami sandwich, I’m asked to choose from among 14 different kinds. There’s Kartoffelsuppe, Lieberkase (yes, I know it’s just fancy Spam), all manner of Wursts, good beer, and a wonderful Alkohol-frei beverage called Apfelschorle. Even the daily free breakfast buffet in the hotel, which at some hotels is worth little more than what you pay for it, is excellent – an embarrassment of riches. Never mind the fact that every day I eat here adds an inch to my waist and costs me at least a year at the end of my life. It’s worth it.

Making a Messe Things
Leipzig has been hosting trade fairs since at least as far back as 1165. After that, some things happened, then, in 1996,  a new venue, the Leipziger Messe

The Center Hall

Exhibition Centre, was built. The design consists of five massive buildings centered around an enormous elevated hall with a curved roof of glass and girders that looks like a cutaway of either a Zeppelin or a Bahnhof, depending on whether you work on Flight Simulator or Train Simulator respectively. There are a surprising number of trees growing inside the buildings, and a nice grassy area with a fountain and such that always seems to be full of other people who figured out exactly how to get to it from inside.  

A Day in the Habitrail

The buildings are interconnected with smaller elevated glass hallways that defy you not to  think of them as human Habitrails until the sun hits them and then they simply defy you to think about anything other than how not to pass out. In general, air conditioning isn’t a thing of ubiquity in the area, though it’s especially noticeable when you put more than 100,000 people under glass and then point the Sun at them. Thankfully, there’s a great deal to see as you blink away the sweat.

You And What Army?

The Hallenmeister Has Abandoned His Post

Microsoft certainly establishes one of the largest presences at this show, but we’re far from the only company that does things in a big way, making this event a significant undertaking for the logistical teams that work for the venue itself, or are contracted by the vendors. In addition to the usual suspects, like fork lift drivers and electricians and the sorts of people who can be paid to indulge the whims of companies like ours who say things like "Wait … what about a Halo 3 Ferris Wheel!?!? We can put it out back next to the fake beach …" The best job, or, certainly, the best job title, has to be die Hallenmeister. As far as I can tell, the Hallenmeister’s job is to sit in an smallish window office full of an absurd number of blinking lights that sticks out like a control tower of the interior wall of each of the five display halls and scowl politely, restraining himself from pressing whatever button would actually reveal his utter bafflement at the shenanigans that go on below.

Microsoft’s German office, based in Munich, does an extraordinary job of taking care of those of those of us from the product teams that fly in to support our titles. We had a large suite of meeting rooms, our own catered lunches, a private outdoor deck, and even a seemingly bottomless supply of my belov’d Apfelschorle. The event is big enough that my part of setup is traditionally very simple – all I have to worry about is getting my software to run well and look good. There are people everywhere for everything else.

People like Joe (pronounced "Yo") who works for the company that handles the logistics of the event and actually manages to be everywhere at once. Joe looks like a young Al Pacino, and knows everybody. If he finds someone he doesn’t know, he simply treats them as if he does and, with what can only be described as a boisterously wounded magnanimity, he shames them into "remembering" him. At Game Convention, the phrase "I’m a friend of Joe’s" is even better than "They said I was supposed to be invited to this …" anywhere else in the world.

There’s Christine, one of our senior business administrators with Microsoft Germany who, like every other "admin" at Microsoft has dark and unexplainable powers to conjure exactly what is needed the second before you need it. When I was checking in to the hotel, there was some trouble finding my reservation, since I have a first name for a last name, my passport shows my middle name which is actually a last name, and I go by a short version of my first name. I muddled along with things like "Entschuldigung, bitte, aber nein- diese ist mein Nachname, und diese ist mein Fürname … " then asked if the hotel clerk could call Christine and speak to her directly. They spoke for a few moments, then the clerk hung up abruptly, and I expected her to politely explain to me that I was a month early or something. Instead, though, Christine just appeared at the counter armed with a sheaf of confirmation numbers and things, and I had my key almost instantly.

Michael, our Marketing Manager for Games For Windows in Germany, is simultaneously completely affable and unusually enthusiastic. His English is so good that on the very rare occasions that he pauses to consider the right word, it’s jarring, like maybe he just got very suddenly sick. He’s extremely sharp, and he not only gets Flight Sim, he uses it himself at home! Given the large number of customers we have in Germany, and the passion they have around the product, we’re extremely lucky to have someone like Michael taking care of things in his part of the world.

Julia, Christine, and Someone Who Was Mad That I Took Her Picture

Then there was Madika and Julia (pronounced "Yoo-lia", more on that in a second) from the German office of the PR firm we use in many areas of the world. They arranged a big Microsoft (that’s redundant, in a way) dinner at a restaurant called Die Bayerische Bahnhof, which was, apparently a former Bavarian Train Station, though I never got a straight answer as to why there was a Bavarian anything in Saxony. During dinner, Madika, Julia, along with colleagues Mark and David, started swapping stories and cultural and language questions with me and my date for the evening, the lovely and talented Mike Gilbert. It was a lot of the usual break-the-ice sort of stuff about music and television, some shop talk and all that, then when it looked as if we’d all be friends, the conversation took a much deeper, even darker turn.

Say "Obligatory"

No matter how much common ground can be found in conversation (and I spend so much energy finding common ground that I bought a time share) among new friends over great food and amazing beer, there is undeniably some very volatile history between the peoples of the United States and Germany. Somewhere,  deep in the core of the American psyche, if there is such a thing, there’s a burning desire to shine a light on the darkest of these differences, to ask the magic question that might enlighten all of us, then put an ugly chapter to bed (along with that ugly mixed metaphor) once and for all. I kept almost bringing it up, then backing away, unsure if the mood was still too fragile or not. Then, out of nowhere, Madika broached the subject herself, and I had my chance. She asked a pointed and direct question, and I told her in German that I would answer her question with a question, and that I would accept the responsibility of doing so on behalf of all Americans:

"David Hasselhoff?!?! What are you people thinking?!?!?"

It felt good to get it out. And, for the record, Madika told us that she took down the ‘Hoff posters when she was about 14. That was good to hear – at least there’s hope for them to grow out of it.

I mentioned that I’d mention something more about Julia, but I will actually mention two things. First off, her name immediately brought to mind the Beatles’ song of the same name, one that Lennon wrote for his mother. Actually, it was only one line of the song that came to mind, and stayed all week, providing a maddeningly repetitive musical score to my continued attempts to speak German. "Half of what I say is meaningless …" Over and over again. It may well be, however, that I shouldn’t discount any form of communication that’s actually 50% meaningful.

The second thing was when the Microsoft group went to the vendor party at a venue called the Volkspalast, or People’s Palace. I ran into Joe again, and I managed to intercept him before he could start trying to convince Julia that they were old friends, and introduced them: "Yoo-lia, Yoe. Yoe, Yoo-lia."

Meine Boothfrauleine
Given that A) Game Convention is a lot like an amplified version of what E3 used to be, and 2) that, very generally speaking, certain sensibilities are different in Europe than here in the United States, it should come as no surprise to learn that a lot of companies hire what would inevitably (if not actually desultorily) be called "Booth Babes". And there were a lot of them. If you build a game that has swords and dragons and things, the code of a show like this demands that you hire a vacuously pretty young model with a permanent smile, and that you then give her two leather belts (or, as mentioned earlier, a scrap of cloth and a guy with an airbrush) and tell her it’s a costume. Her job is then to stand there, and sometimes to hand out product literature; other times she is expected to pose for pictures for or with customers who ask, and even the rather creepy skulkers who don’t. It is what it is and I’ll leave it at that.

(This being a progressive industry, there are opportunities for men, as well – take a close look at the photo below of me with "Hello Kitty" for example.)

Thankfully, Microsoft doesn’t exactly go in for that sort of thing. Or, rather, we do, but only sort of, and with more class. Microsoft Germany brings in young women, yes. But they give them actual clothes to wear. And, with all due respect to the girl who wore the paint – she could be another Jill St. John as far as I know – they hire smart ones. And then they train them on the products that they will support and demonstrate at the show.

Sarah, Mandy (Who Wouldn’t Stop Playing "Ratatouille", Turn Around, And Come Join Us For The Picture So We Went to Her) Me, and Ayşe

Last year, I was amazed at the staff that was there to support the Games For Windows section of the Microsoft presence. They came into the event knowing far more about Flight Sim than I’d have expected (note: not because of their gender or their age or any of that – no hate mail, bitte. Only because FS is a complex product and it’s unusual to find people who can show it off with only limited experience) and they picked up all manner of new and useful (under the circumstances) bits of FS ephemera from watching and listening to me. They spoke English to varying degrees, and I, at least, am fluent in FS-Geek, so we ended up making a very effective team.

This year was better still, since two of the three that I worked with last year, Sarah and Mandy, were back, along with newcomer Ayşe. In spare moments between customer visits, I’d practice my German which was better than it was last year, and they’d practice their English, which was also better than last year.

All of them proved to be very patient with my attempts at the language, and were excellent teachers. Sarah, a student in theology who is cowriting a book with her professor, was the most demanding, challenging me with a new word in just about every sentence. Ayşe, in school studying dentistry, wanted more of a quid pro quo, learning new English words from me like "ironic", "facetious", "technically", "subtle", and "mullet". Mandy, an architect and photographer who owns and operates a bar in Mallorca picked up a considerable amount of English, and then kept throwing in some Spanish just to complicate things. When she could tear herself away from playing "Ratatouille" on one of the PC’s that is.

Freudig Begrussen Wir Die Edle Halle
The venue, as I’ve mentioned, is gigantic, and covers something like 20,000 square meters. And, for the better part of one week every year, every inch is covered with gamers, games, and the people whose job it is to bring one to the other. The "booths", such as they are, can be massive – one corner of the Microsoft layout last year included a 300 seat arena. There are live musicians, movie theaters for demos (a word I will pronounce dee-mos for at least another week), a giant inflatable Bart Simpson, and the aforementioned … costumed demo staff.  The sheer numbers of people and the noise is incredible. Last year, there were ridiculous human traffic jams – one of which kept me from getting to lunch because I stepped off the platform from our booth and simply didn’t move for half an hour. This year, die Hallenmeister had people actually directing traffic, establishing one-way flows through the habitrails for example.

A number of other companies had stages, and actual seating, or at least open areas for crowds to gather. This was a fascinating phenomenon to watch: visitors would stand in line, sometimes for a couple of hours, to get in and see a demo, or even a pretty basic "pitch". Then, toward the end, they’d throw some swag – t-shirts, USB-enabled miscellany, even coupons for 5% off your first month’s bill with a new wireless carrier (I’m not making that up), and the crowd would go absolutely mad. At that point, whoever was on stage would introduce a sort of … cheer, I suppose. There’d be a challenge yelled from the stage, then a response yelled in unison from the audience, and it would get louder and louder, t-shirts and near-useless coupons flying everywhere, until everyone would applaud and then leave making room for the next group.

Last year, in the Microsoft arena I mentioned, the cheer consisted of someone in a Microsoft shirt on stage yelling "Ix-box!", and the audience response was to yell "360", in German, "Drei Sechsig!" It actually started up in our neighborhood once this year, and I ran over there because I wanted to exercise my right as an employee of Microsoft Games Studios and be the guy who yelled "ix-box!" The instant I was handed the microphone, however, the crowd just evaporated. Whatever it takes to get a crowd of German gamers to yell at you, I don’t have it … yet.

What About the – How Do You Say, Ah Yes – Customers?
While I did a few interviews and press demos at the booth, the number one reason I was there was to talk to our customers. This is always fascinating to me, getting a sense for how someone uses our product, how long they’ve been a customer, what they like, what they hate, what they hope to see next time, etc. As a very general rule (my amateur demography is hardly an exact science), I see a higher average level of interest in realism in European customers. There seem to be more people building cockpits and asking detailed questions about systems modeling and the like. I suspect that this is in some part because of the unusually high costs of (real) general aviation, not just in Germany but in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

There was definitely an above average number of people who really knew how to use the product. At a lot of shows, I’ll talk to someone who already owns FSX, and they’ll offer some feedback about how you can’t see very well to land when using the virtual cockpit of some aircraft, or about how they wish there was a way to easily reposition the aircraft in the sim – a quick introduction to <shift>-<enter> to raise the eyepoint and / or the "Y" key for slew can be met with astonishment. That simply wasn’t the case here. I passed along some tips, certainly, but they were far fewer and much deeper than average.

Speaking of hardware, my own attempts at using features like slew were maddening for the first couple of hours, as I continually forgot that, on the German keyboard, QWERTY becomes QWERTZ  as the "Z" and "Y" keys have swapped positions compared to the US layout. The booth furniture had a Saitek X-52 throttle and stick for each PC, which proved popular, and stood up well to the exercise of the more spirited visitors.

News to Me …

Each PC in the Games for Windows section also had a brand new Sidewinder mouse, which generated a lot of questions and feedback, especially about that one button nobody could reach. I renamed it the Blindsidewinder, since none of us working the booth knew they were coming or had even heard of them, and were totally unprepared to field questions other than to point vaguely toward another part of the Microsoft compound where, rumor had it, there were some people who knew some things. I immediately regretted renaming it, because then I was asked to try to explain, in German, what was an agonizingly lame pun to begin with. I had to start with the snake, then the missile, then the Microsoft joysticks that came and went, and then finally the mouse that has suddenly resurrected the brand. Then I had to illustrate the concept of being blind-sided which was almost too much.

Who Watches the Watchman?

In addition, this group had a much higher percentage of awareness of the fact that we had released a Service Pack for FSX, though it stands to reason that just about everybody who walked into the show was more web savvy than average, and much more likely to go out and proactively look for things. Awareness of the add-on community also struck me as considerably higher – the fact that our friends from Aerosoft were there (as they are every year) with an eye-catching cockpit display certainly helped.

The promise of multiplayer Red Bull air racing was universally well received. The Reno Races generated a lot of excitement, but awareness of the real event was dramatically lower than for Red Bull. The F-18 was, again, the clear winner in terms of first-choice aircraft, but not by nearly the margins we saw at Oshkosh. Even though it was certainly the roughest aircraft in the build, the EH-101 helicopter came, anecdotally, a very close second.

In fact, even though there were far more "hardcore simmers" at this show than I’d expect to see at such a console-oriented event in the US, they struck me as unusually forgiving of the obvious flaws in the early Beta we were showing. Moments that I found cringeworthy didn’t get anyone too upset. Simply explaining, or reminding them that the software was Beta (bee-ta) was enough in most cases, and they’d dig into another feature.

A number of those conversations netted us some new Beta testers, not only for ongoing FSX-related releases, but people to help test and eventually possibly write for our (finally) upcoming localized versions of the FSInsider.com website.

Ben

There are always a number of highlights: I met a teenager called Ben who shot approaches in the FSX Airbus better than anyone I’d ever seen. I had a surprisingly long and effective conversation with a gentleman who spoke no English but understood my halting German perfectly well – by reading my lips, as he is fully hearing-impaired. I met a retired Polizei helicopter pilot who uses FS at least two hours a day to stay sharp. And, of course, a lot of kids (wearing color-coded wristbands that indicated their age group and ostensibly kept them from getting to close to the painting with the girl under it) who loved bouncing the F-18 around and showing off the afterburner.

It’s always educational to stand face to face with the people who swap their Euros for a couple of DVD’s we put in a box.

Is it Possible to be Interesting When Your Vocabulary is About the Same Size as That of a Fairly Stupid Dog?
On my last night, after leaving the Messe for the last time this year, I went back to the hotel and dressed for dinner at a restaurant called Panorama on the top of the City Hochhaus building. The building, at 142.5 meters the tallest in the former East Germany, was built from 1968-1972. The structure, as designed by Russian-born German Modernist Hermann Henselmann, is meant to look like an open book; given the era in which it was built, I would suppose that to be

Schönes Leipzig

no more or less ironic then the Demokratische in Deutsche Demokratische Republik. The restaurant overlooked the city, affording a gorgeous view which, like my mood, was thoughtful and slowly going hazy-pink with the sunset (and the wine). I fought it for a while, then finally gave in to the inevitable sentimental reflection, and thought back on the people I’d met, the friends I’d seen again, and the strange sense of satisfaction I’d gotten from even the most basic of conversations when they were successfully conducted in German.

I can’t say that I developed a "command" of the language by any stretch of the imagination. I did, however, manage a series of reasonably confident requests of the language, and those got significantly better each day. By the end, I was at the point where I could do a lot of customer interactions (but certainly not all of them) entirely in German. That’s not to say that I didn’t make a fool of myself more than a few times in conversation, of course … For instance: I have (I wish I could say "had") a maddening tendency to confuse the German words for "hours" and "o’clock" and, conveniently, "before" and "after".  Two of the show days required us to staff the booth for 11 hours, up from the usual 9, which gets to feeling a skosh long after about the halfway point. It wasn’t uncommon for me to stretch, look at my watch in a rare break from customer traffic, and say something bloody brilliant like "There is only three more o’clocks after seven hours we close before. Yes?"

Ich habe "Savoir Faire" … nicht.

There were several occasions when I found myself communicating with people to the point where I was beginning to skip the bit where I’d translate everything to and from English in my head, only to run into a massive hole in my contextual vocabulary. I’d be referencing something fairly arcane, like the operation of an autopilot, or thrust reversers that only work when the airplane’s wheels are touching the ground, then I’d freeze, paralyzed, because I didn’t know a word like "if" or "because" or "always". It was an even stranger sensation when confidence wandered into overconfidence and someone would fire off a barrage of sehr schnell German at me, perhaps even at my request, and, after three sentences, I realized I hadn’t understood so much as a syllable. For a fraction of a second, it was frightening, feeling like I’d imagine one might when having a stroke. Then I’d take a breath, and offer my white flag with as much dignity as I could: "Excuse me, please, I do not speak German very well."

Even though it was frustrating if I wasn’t learning as fast as I wanted, there’s a certain freedom in trying really hard with a limited vocabulary. People tended to look out for me, finding a certain pitiable charm in my dogged determination to announce what time it is. Every time I spoke to someone for the first time, they’d get this gentle smirk on their faces as they tilted their heads to the side in a "Oh, bless his little heart" sort of way. (Except for one guy, who tilted his head in more of a "This American is an idiot. I wonder if I could grab his wallet?" sort of way.)

It makes me wonder if I’ll still have any German-speaking friends when and if my vocabulary actually improves. Thankfully, I’ve got at least a year to forget as much of what I’ve learned as possible.

Over the course of the week I had one memorable conversation after another. My proudest moment in German was the time that I was able to tell a funny story with something approaching reasonable timing, entirely in unhesitating German, start to finish. The story was about how I’d gone to get a haircut the evening of the first day, and I ended up in a place where no one spoke any English at all. To top it off, the woman who actually cut my hair … had never done it before. I was her first customer, and the only relevant words I knew were "haircut" and the phrase "Not so short, please."

Believe me, this absolutely killed in the original German. Und vun vas a salted … peanut.

Well, I Have to Go Back Now
For better or for worse, the single most memorable conversation I had at the show was in English, with a customer that I recognized from last year. It really struck me, so much so that I wrote it down almost immediately. It was about mid-way through the first full day of the show and a well-dressed and slightly dour young man … Well, I want to say that he walked up to me, but that isn’t right. It’s more correct to say that he "reported" to me, standing nearly at attention, peering at me through small wire-rimmed glasses. This was our exchange:

Customer: Hello. I come here last year, I see you, and I ask a question. Now it is one year later, I have returned, and I have another question.

Me: Yes, yes! I remember you – it is good to see you again! How are you?

Customer:  I am fine. And now here is my question.

Me: Okay.

Customer: When will the Flight Simulator X Expansion Pack Acceleration be available for sale?

Me: It will be out this fall, in time for holiday shopping.

Customer: Thank you. I will see you again next year, undoubtedly with another question.

With that, he inclined his head slightly in my direction, actually clicked his heels, turned, and strode away purposefully through the crowd. I did not see him again. I’m left wondering, even worrying a little, about next year’s question, and those after that. For some reason, I have a strange feeling they’re going to get progressively more difficult, but I can’t say why. 

In any language.  

Additional Photos:

USA Miss Liberty Fashion! We’re Number One! Take That, Europe!

It’s Great to See The Rest of the World Catching- Oh, That’s Just Mean, Never Mind

Microsoft Germany’s Local Support Staff Ensured That I Never Had to Leave the Booth For Any Reason Whatsoever

The Hotel Bar Made Me Feel Welcome, Even Naming a Drink After Me

Aerosoft’s Enviable Cockpit Display

Remind Me to Send Flowers on Motherboards’ Day

Because Why Not?

Popularity Contest

Why We Always Test Our Menus in German

Hello, Kitty!

 

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Thrilling Cities. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Back in the (Former) D.D.R.

  1. Francois says:

    Great story as usual Hal! I\’ve put a link on our news pages 😉

  2. Heiko says:

    Hallo,
     
    gut zu wissen, daß ich meinen Kommentar in Deutsch gemütlich schreiben kann. Es hat wirklich Spass gemacht, Deine ausführliche Abenteuergeschichte aus Leipzig zu lesen. Ich hoffe, Du hattest eine gute Zeit und konntest die Deutschen als gastfreundliches Völkchen kennenlernen.
     
    Ürbigens, Apfelschorle (apple juice + sparkling water) ist bei uns wirklich enorm populär. Ich frage mich, wann diese Mischung auch in den USA angeboten wird. (\’List\’ ist der Name der Coca & Cola Apfelschorlevariante)
     
    Ach ja, ein Frage hab ich dann doch noch. Du sagst, die Europäer legen größeren Wert auf Realismus. Wie ist denn dies Missionskonzept aufgenommen worden? Spielte es überhaupt eine Rolle? Ich hoffe ja immer noch auf einen Karrieremodus. Wird es hier zukünftig (evtl. mi Adrenaline) Neuerungen geben?
     
    Grüße aus Heidelberg,
    Heiko

  3. Unknown says:

    "David Hasselhoff?!?! What are you people thinking?!?!?" That comment alone made me spill my wine. Priceless!

  4. Michael says:

    You\’re wrong about "helicopter". "Helicopter" in german means "Hubschrauber". Sometimes people just use the english word "helicopter" for some reason.More and more the german language gets destroyed by stupid anglicanism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s