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Story 5: The Long Way There


Moral of the story: When traveling for a gig, especially out of the country, make extra sure you know where you’re going, transportation, logistics, and who to talk to, how to reach them and other pertinent information BEFORE you go. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t try to wing it or you may be disappointed. Oh, and take a dictionary you may need for translating. (This story takes place in the late 1980’s when we didn’t have cell phones or computers, but the moral still applies.)

I worked frequently with a particular consultant at the time of this story. Together we served a client in Chicago in an organizational development capacity. I was the graphic recorder of the team. This work lasted almost two years. I flew to Chicago about once a month or every 6 weeks. The client decided to do their annual strategy session in Europe as a treat for the staff. They selected Marbach Conference Center on Lake Constance in Southern Germany as the site for it. Lake Constance borders on Switzerland and Germany and is just north of Zurich.

The consultant and I were invited to be there with them. For various reasons, everyone needed to travel separately. The client wanted to get there earlier than we had to be there. I called the client a couple of days before I was flying out to double check on some details about getting around once I got to Zurich. That’s where I would be flying into. But the client was already in the air and so I never got to talk to him before I left. I assumed that the hotel I was staying in would guide me once I was there.

After landing, I spent the rest of the day and overnight in Zurich. The client had told me to take a cab to the conference center from the hotel. I remember him mentioning that the Center was just on the other side of a body of water. I was due at the conference center the next morning. We would be starting the 3 day conference that evening and needed to refine plans and set up.

So, bright and early, I went down to the concierge to get a cab. He asked where I was going and I told him to Marbach Conference Center. He said he didn’t know where that was but he would look it up on his map.

He came back after a few minutes and said that Marbach was north of Zurich, well into Germany. When again I asked him for a cab, he almost laughed and said, you don’t want to go by cab because it will cost you an absolute fortune. You need to take a train. So, I said ok. I figured he was local and knew what he was talking about. He told me how to get to the train and I was off.

When the train pulled out, I sat back for what I assumed was no more than a half hour trip, knowing that Marbach was the first stop. Well, the train kept going and going and after about an hour, I started to get nervous. Something wasn’t right. It dawned on me that I was on a ‘run away’ train and couldn’t get off. The first stop was Marbach alright, but Marbach, the town, around 3 plus hours from Zurich by train, I learned.

As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t have cell phones or computers so, being on the train, I had no way to get in touch with anyone. I just had to sit it out and hope for the best.

When we got to Marbach, Germany, I got out of the train and looked around. I was in a very small town, like a village. I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I needed to get back to the conference center and that a terrible mistake had been made. I tried to talk to people around me, but they all shook their heads and said in German, “I don’t speak English”. No one spoke English. I didn’t panic. I tried to remain calm but I was stressed. I saw a sign down the street that looked like a hotel so, dragging my luggage, and with my paper roll over my shoulder, I headed that way.

The person at the check in desk didn’t speak English. I knew three German words:  salt, pepper and thank you. I was almost in tears of frustration. Finally, the guy felt sorry for me and he went to find his teenage son who took English in high school. The boy thought he knew English but he really didn’t, so we didn’t get too far. Finally, they decided to call a woman in town that owned the taxi company (1 or 2 cars at most) and she sold cars in the lot next door, the little town’s one stop shop for transportation.

They thought she might know some English or what to do with me. As it turned out, she knew a little bit, enough to figure out my plight. She started calling around to her buddies and they figured out where I was supposed to be – Marbach Conference Center, not the town of Marbach. I had overshot the conference center by about 3 hours or so.

To make a long story shorter, she offered to drive me in her taxicab  back to where I was supposed to be. I was delirious with relief. I was also silently praying that once we got there, the client would pay the fee.

So for the next almost 3 hours, we wound our way around all kinds of little towns in southern Germany. She had learned English in high school, too, but was rusty. It had been years. As we talked, though, her English improved greatly, which she was delighted about. And even though she was mixing in English and German, somehow I knew exactly what she was talking about. In essence, she gave me a tour of southern Germany that I otherwise never would have experienced and the whole event thrilled her, and me too, actually.

When we finally arrived at the conference center, I was eight hours late for the job. The client was there and paid the $175.00 taxi bill (which is equivalent to around $400.00 in 2022). He wasn’t exactly happy about it, but he was gracious. We sent the driver off with hugs and thank you’s and I had ½ hour to spare before we started the evening kickoff session.