Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Europe Photo Entry #13: Rhine River Cruise and Frankfurt

Funny story before we get to the pictures. We stayed in Frankfurt for a couple of nights without really seeing the city; it was just a jumping off point for a day cruise down the Rhine river, and to see the Frankfurt temple. Our hostel was right near the train station, which meant that it was smack in the middle of the red light district. Our second night there, we finished dinner a little late, with barely enough time to do our laundry before the laundromat closed. In fact, we decided that while Michelle waited for the check (at seriously one of the best Chinese restaurants I've ever been to), I would go get our laundry.


I discovered after leaving the restaurant that the only reason I hadn't been accosted by any prostitutes up to that point was because I had Michelle with me. On my way to the hostel, they were out in force. I discovered that their preferred method of getting attention (aside from strutting) is to yell, "Sir, you dropped your credit card!" and then pretend to hold your card in the air. Clever.


Once I got to the hostel, I ran into the room, packed our bags with clothes, and went into the bathroom. The bathroom was behind two doors, one door on the room itself, and then another door a few feet away which enclosed a little hallway between the bathroom and the bedroom (we had a private room). Out of habit, I closed both doors on my way in. The bathroom door had a deadbolt that I didn't bother locking because I was alone in the room.

After I was finished, I walked through the bathroom door, and then tried to open the second door. It was locked. I took out my room key, and it didn't work. That's right. They rented us a room with a door that locks automatically upon closing, but didn't give us the key.


At this point I had several options: 1) Yell for help (but we had yet to see anyone else staying at the hostel, and they would have had to hear me behind two doors); 2) Wait for Michelle to wonder why I hadn't shown up and come back to the hostel to look for me (although she didn't have a key to the room); 3) Break through the door a la Jack Bauer.


I have a few iron-clad rules in life, and one of the most important is this: If you are left with only one option which requires you to act like Jack Bauer, that is the option you must take, without exception. Perhaps more importantly, I knew I couldn't just wait for Michelle to come find me because she would have panicked. In a bad, bad way. Whenever she doesn't hear from me, she assumes I've been hit by a car or abducted by Al Qaeda. Considering that we were in a seedy neighborhood in a foreign country, she would probably have assembled a search party which would include the German police, the U.S. Embassy, Interpol, NASA, and Superman.


With that in mind, I leaned back and kicked the door right next to the door knob, just like I had seen in all the cop shows. I didn't even budge. It's my own fault; I was too cautious. With wounded pride, I let loose with a more serious second kick. This one made some cracks around the knob. Encouraged, I busted through with my final kick.

The door swung open.

The weirdness wasn't over yet; on my way to the laundromat, accidentally ran over a middle-aged woman's toes with my carry-on bag (she was wearing closed-toed shoes). I apologized, and then a second or two later she suddenly started jumping up and down and yelling in German. When I looked to see what on earth the commotion was about, her friend said something along the lines of "You ran over her foot!" (or at least that's what I deciphered with my high school German skills). I didn' t run over her toes very hard, and given the delayed reaction, I think they were hoping they could get the dumb American to pay for their dinner or something along those lines. No dice.

The next morning, when we checked out, I felt a duty to inform the hostel owner that I had jacked up his door.

"Just so you know," I said, "Because we didn't have a key to the door outside the bathroom, I got stuck in there."

"Really?" he said. "It shouldn't lock."

"Well, it did," I said. "So I had to...get it open myself."

"How did you do that?"

"I had to...force it open."

The Indian man looked confused for a second, and then it clicked. "Oooooh." Fortunately, we were never charged for any damage, which makes this man one of the last honest businessmen in Europe.

Anyway, here are some pictures of our Rhine river cruise. The Rhine has a ton of castles on it because it was the main thoroughfare in Europe during the middle ages, and any fool with a castle could charge a toll for safe passage. I've forgotten most of the names of these castles.

By the way, Michelle has told me that I can't post these pictures unless I inform you that it was very windy that day. Which it was.

This cliff to the right of me is the legendary "Lorelei", the most dangerous point on the Rhine. An old German legend has it that a ghostly woman named Lorelei would sing and distract the sailors from their task, sort of like the Sirens. She was the subject of a poem by Heinrich Heine. And, other than a few terrible movies, that's about all I remember from my high school German class.
This is Marksburg Castle, the most significant castle on the Rhine, and the only one we went inside.
Looking down on the Rhine valley from Marksburg Castle.
The Frankfurt Temple. Yes, I'm wearing sneakers in that picture. We only packed a backpack and a carry-on apiece for this trip. I wasn't going to lug my dress shoes around.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The War on Denny's

I wrote this letter in a fit of righteous anger. It's a long one, but it gets better towards the end. Michelle almost died laughing when she read it. Just know that this letter really is going into the mail on Tuesday, and I mean every word of it.

February 15, 2009

Denny's Call Center, 203 East Main Street P-8-6, Spartanburg, SC 29319

Dear Denny’s:

Anyone who knows me well knows that getting ripped off is my number one pet peeve. And you have ripped me off, Denny’s.

Over the years I have not been a frequent guest of your restaurants. Until this month I had been perhaps four times in my life. My wife, on the other hand, is an enthusiastic connoisseur of your Reese’s peanut butter cup pie. Notwithstanding the infrequency of my visits, I was excited to hear that you had promised a free Grand Slam breakfast to anyone who came the Tuesday after this year’s Super Bowl. My wife and I are frugal people who seldom eat out. We can’t afford to try new places very often because on the rare occasions that we do eat out, we hate to take chances. So this promotion was a rare opportunity to get us into your restaurant. I’m sure that’s exactly what you had in mind.

We expected the Denny’s in midtown Anchorage to be slammed, no pun intended. We were right; so many Alaskans had succumbed to the siren song of free pancakes, eggs, sausage and bacon that there was a two hour wait. “No problem”, we were told, “You can have a rain check.”

Ah, a rain check! Perfect! “I’ll take two,” I said. “One for me, and one for my wife.” If we couldn’t eat for free today, we could wait until next week.

And so, patient people that we are, we returned to Denny’s the following Wednesday, determined to finally get that free meal we were promised. After sitting down in a booth, strange things began to happen. We saw an elderly gentleman sitting about 20 feet from us, who appeared not to be in his right mind. He was using foul language with the staff, and eventually had to be kicked out because of his offensive behavior. I am quite certain that he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol (not unusual for Alaska, although I’m more accustomed to seeing it on the city bus).

After our waitress took our order, we pointed to the rain check coupons. “We can use these, right?” we asked. “Oh yeah,” she said. So far, so good.

We enjoyed our food immensely, although I admit that food always tastes better when it’s free. While we were eating, though, another man began to make a scene with the wait staff. Again, the man appeared to be drunk or high.

Our waitress brought us a bill for $14.90 (that’s two $6.95 meals, and an extra $1 order of hash browns for my wife- there is no sales tax in Alaska). She specifically told us, “they’ll take those off the bill for you,” presumably referring to the charge for our two meals.

We left a generous tip (hey, we got a free meal, right?) and went to pay at the counter. Here is where the whole experience soured. I handed our rain check coupons to the restaurant manager, who immediately pointed to the fine print on one of the coupons: “One coupon per order per visit.”

“Oh, OK,” I said, “But we got these the day of the Super Bowl giveaway.”

“Yes, I know, that’s when EVERYONE got them,” the manager sneered at me, as if only a child would have thought that it mattered when I got the coupons.

“But, you see, my wife and I expected to eat together that Tuesday. If we had been able to eat that Tuesday, we would have both eaten free.”

“Yes?” the manager said, as if to say, “So what?”

“And they told us this was a rain check. And when someone tells me that it’s a rain check, I assume that means I get the same thing that I would have gotten, only later. So that means if we could have eaten together for free that day we should be able to eat together for free now.”

“I’m sorry, that’s not what the coupon says.” Oh, good, I’m glad we’ve established that for certain.

“And there’s nothing you can do about it?” I said, incredulously.

“Nope.”

“So even though we were told it was a rain check, we have to pay for one of the meals?” I said this with the maximum amount of irritation one can muster without yelling.

“Yes.”

“Listen, just look at us. We’re not a couple of high school kids trying to pull a fast one.” (I was on my lunch hour, wearing a shirt and tie.) “Are you’re telling me there’s NOTHING you can do?”

“I’m sorry, that’s what the coupon says.”

“And there are NO exceptions?”

“No.”

At this point, I considered just walking out of the store without paying. I still wish I had. Instead, in the name of civility I paid the $7.94 bill, while practically shouting through the restaurant, “I’M NEVER COMING TO DENNY’S AGAIN!”

Now, I'm a lawyer, so I understand the importance of reading the fine print. But I’ve also worked in several customer service jobs in my life. I used to be an assistant manager at a video store, so I know what it’s like to deal with angry customers (YOU try telling a mom with three small kids that she can’t rent Cinderella until they pay $35.48 in late fees). And yeah, some people were constantly trying to get out of late fees. But something that we were told constantly by upper management is that each customer is worth about $200 a year, so when push comes to shove, some leniency is required to avoid driving them away.

I find it absolutely implausible that this manager really couldn’t do anything for us. If nothing else, she could have rung it up as two different orders. And I’ve eaten out enough to know that a REAL restaurant writes things off all the time in order to keep customers happy. I assume that the manager is not a franchisee who actually cares whether her franchise makes a profit, because her attitude positively screams, “GIVE ME YOUR MONEY AND GO AWAY!!” Basically, she took what was looking like a good experience at Denny’s and turned it into a terrible one.

So here’s what I’m going to do, Denny’s: Unless I am compensated for the $6.95 value of the Grand Slam, I am declaring non-violent war on your restaurant. That’s right, Denny’s: you will become my enemy.

Of what would such a war by non-violent means consist? First of all, I can guarantee I won’t set foot in a Denny’s again. Neither will my wife.

Furthermore, anytime Denny’s comes up in conversation, I will mention what a terrible place it is, how much I hate it, what a bunch of rip-off artists you are, etc. No one who mentions Denny’s in my presence will fail to know of my deep hatred for you. I will also post this letter on my family’s blog, so that all of our friends and relatives will know what happened, and to guard their wallets whenever they enter your walls.

I will also instruct my children in the ways of Denny’s hatred. They will be taught that Denny’s is the worst restaurant in the world, that the food is bad and overpriced. When we are on family trips, we will boo Denny’s from the safety of our car. If it’s 3:00 a.m. and we’re driving in the middle of nowhere, we’ll bypass every Denny’s until we find a Steak ‘N Shake or Waffle House. Hopefully our children will carry these lessons into adulthood. You can call this brainwashing if you like, but just know that you are never getting my kids’ money either.

Perhaps you think that none of this will matter to you, Denny’s. Maybe you think that you won’t lose much if you only lose my family and me as customers. But guess what, Denny’s: whatever amount of profit you miss out on by losing our business, it has GOT to be more than $6.95. The potential future profit on Reese’s Peanut Butter Pies alone must be several times that amount.

So do the right thing, Denny’s. Reimburse us for the rip-off, and we’ll assume this was an isolated incident and all will be forgiven. Otherwise, you can be sure of three things: If we want to get ripped off by a rude restaurant staff, we’ll go to Italy; if we want to hang out with potentially violent drug addicts, we’ll go to a methadone clinic; and if we want good home cooking at an affordable price in the wee hours of the morning, you can find us at IHOP.

s/Matthias Cicotte

UPDATE: http://matthiasandmichellecicotte.blogspot.com/2009/03/dennys-redeemed.html

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Rothenburg

Rothenburg is one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in the world, with the original wall that surrounds it and everything. In my opinion, it's a must-see if you're ever in or around West Germany. There were the coolest looking buildings, lots of fun little shops (one of my favorites was a Christmas shop that had all sorts of Christmas decor and a huge tree in the middle), and delicious little pie crust pastries called "schneeballen" that were to die for. We got here on a Romantic Road bus tour that went from Munich to Frankfurt and stopped along the way at different points of interest. We got on the next bus the following day and finished the tour after spending a day/night/part of a day in Rothenburg. We stayed in this quaint, medieval hotel that was really more like someone's home. Here are some pictures of part of the town as the sun was about to set.
You could actually walk around nearly the whole town on the inside of the wall that's shown below. It was pretty high up, so you could get a good view of the town as you walked around.
We went to a museum that showed the different ways they would punish lawbreakers back then, one of which is shown below. I think this particular one was warn as punishment by women who were caught gossiping:
We also went on a city tour with a man dressed in costume who spoke as if it were back in the times when this town was thriving and practicing cruel and unusual punishment. It was one of my favorite parts of the time there.
Here are just some cool shots of the buildings.




This is the bell tower that back-in-the-day would warn the Rothenburg residents outside the city walls to hurry in before the gate was locked up for the night. They would do this nightly so they wouldn't be invaded. Once they closed the gate, they would refuse to open it. There was a little miniature compartment that was big enough for only one person that could be used by anyone who didn't make it back in time but if you were the second guy, you were out of luck and would have to sleep under the stars until the morning when they'd let you in.