From Iceland — For the Inspired Vacation, Go Corporate. Go Frankfurt

For the Inspired Vacation, Go Corporate. Go Frankfurt

Published December 5, 2005

“Listen to me, English-language street papers are the future for brand marketing,” I tell a crowd of young professionals sitting on the floor of a beautifully, if sparsely decorated, pre-war one-bedroom apartment on the west side of Frankfurt. It is the appropriate time to pitch a business opportunity; we have finished our wraps and a large amount of cider.
My photographer is in the kitchen, showing people the special options that his digital camera features. In the next three hours, everyone in our party will ask to closely examine his camera, then ask the price, then smile in delight.
I’ve been corrupting the immortal lines of the great Frankfurt poet Goethe all night—one of his great lines: “Enjoy when you can, endure when you must,” is as poignant and beautiful an utterance ever made about the human condition.
Our motto, though, for Frankfurt is: “You must enjoy, so long as you can endure.”
In the next 18 hours, we will pitch various business opportunities to another four groups of people, we will be the life of the party at clubs and bars where we will make a point of dancing like the crazed best man of the loneliest wedding in the world, we will appreciate corporate art, we will mingle, we will consume sushi and Starbucks in large quantities, and we will continue to do all things corporate.
When we go home, after three days in Frankfurt, we will never want to enter a bank again, and yet we will feel a connection with every man in a suit we pass. It is the perfect holiday.
Corporate Art and Privileges
You need to know the following things about Frankfurt for your planning: while the city is home to some of the largest conventions in Europe, including the legendary Frankfurt Auto Show and Frankfurt Book Show, it also has a lot of downtime. This means that there is an abundance of four-star hotels to be had on a typical weekend for almost nothing.
We chose a hotel based on the advertisement for a free mini-bar, and based on the fact that it was close to the main train station. While the four stars it purported to have seemed like four extremely lacklustre stars—the hotel had likely not been refurbished in decades, etc; the mini-bar was stocked with two beers and two bottles of water, and there was decent breakfast, good coffee, and an appropriate amount of corporate types to make us feel like we weren’t as cheap as we were. In fact, on our last day, a large American firm held a corporate meeting downstairs—an excellent tourist experience that we regretfully turned down in favour of a local corporate art exhibit.
Many guide books recommend going to the Main Tower, the tallest office building in Europe, at the heart of downtown. While there are some inconveniences to this: you have to ride a six-person elevator to the top, you must submit to a lengthy security check, and you must pay six euro for the privilege, the view is amazing – Frankfurt is a small European city, and from the 200-metre-high vantage point, you are able to get a full view of the city, the Main River, and the forests beyond, all of which vaguely resemble the medieval Italian city paintings.
An amusing side note on the Main Tower, while it costs six euro to ride in a small elevator to the top, corporate types ride all throughout the normal part of the building all day, which houses sections of the European bank. When we were visiting, the main lobby boasted an impressive piece of corporate sponsored art: Bill Viola’s The World of Appearances, one of the LA MoMA’s more celebrated exhibits a few years ago. When we spent a few minutes taking in the free display, we got curious glares from a number of business people, and indifferent shrugs from others—perhaps the most genuine way to appreciate modern art.
While going up the Main Tower is worthwhile, to truly experience art, not in the oh-isn’t-it-lovely sense, but in the oh-my-god-this-is-torturing-my-soul sense, you must walk down the parkways that go through the centre of town. In a design feat that would give Fritz Lang the willies, dozens of ultra-modern skyscrapers have been stacked against each other in an otherwise romantic, quaint old European downtown. Running as a central artery through these skyscrapers is a small, well-kept parkway, starting with Schweizer Platz. Here men, women and pedigree dogs walk in the shadows of buildings that are for the most part indistinguishable, but that combine well to look perfect—infallible and unsympathetic to any difficulty a human might have.
When we told locals that we loved this walkway they were appalled. The new Opera House, which butts against one end, is one of the more hated structures in town. And the skyscrapers, we were told, in what I considered to be extreme understatement, were “just for work.”
The isolating force of walking among these skyscrapers was so profound, especially with a recurring architectural touch of six-metre pillars at the base, drawing one’s eye straight up, that speaking to any passer-by seems unthinkable. I asked one of the group of locals that helped show us around the following: “have you ever had a non-work related discussion in the downtown area.”
“Not that I can remember,” I was told.
To test this theory, we later found a cosy bar in the downtown area—not cosy by world standards, as the bar did use concrete in most of its furniture, but it provided chips with the drinks. We ordered round after round of drinks, observing the patrons and trying to talk with them. We got nowhere. Finally, we spoke with the bartender.
“Frankfurt is not the type of place you would go to meet anybody,” he tells us. “It’s really not that fun. It’s not like Holland.”
We acknowledge that Frankfurt is not like Holland, but we ask if people ever cut loose.
“People wear jeans,” he says. A few minutes later he informs us that we’re the only patrons that have ever talked with him. He’s been working in the same bar for a year.
Sausage is a Wonder Food
If it weren’t for the sausages, Frankfurt would be a large, sweaty, physically unhealthy-in-all-ways tourist destination—something like Vegas used to be, I’m guessing. No amount of sausage studies will prepare you for proper Frankfurt sausage, but, sadly, there are a number of places you can go and get sausage that isn’t the wonder food that makes Frankfurt the best artery-choking financial capital in central Germany.
Die Klienmarkthalle, a covered market containing dozens of small, local shops on Ziegelgasse, is the place to get your sausage on. It also happens to be the place you’re least likely to hear English, which, it turns out, is a significant asset when you’re consuming sausage—who the hell really wants to know what’s in ’em? As Otto von Bismarck said, “People who enjoy eating sausage and obey the law should not watch either being made.” Best to be as blissfully ignorant as possible.
Unfortunately, a true Frankfurt sausage, typically about two euro with bread and mustard, is a massive meal, and extremely filling. As much as we tried, we were unable to consume more than two sausages a day, to say nothing of the disappointing Sunday realisation when we discovered no sausages were on sale on that day of worship.
If you could find sausages in Frankfurt, you were in a more authentic part of the city, and a part in which people might speak with you and be more outgoing. Late at nights, when, sadly, Die Klienmarkthalle was closed, we haunted the Curry Sausage huts, and struck multi-phrase conversations with a number of locals.
Regarding things that wash down sausage—first off, Frankfurt sausage requires no drink. It’s that good. But the local traditional drink in Frankfurt is apple wine—a raw kind of apple cider served at some of the more historic drinking halls in town. However, unlike the sausage huts, the apple wine halls were particularly unfriendly places. A possible exception is one of Frankfurt’s most prized tourist attractions, the Applewine Express—a train, running on the local transport lines that serves a bottle of apple wine and a hefty dose of polka for five euro.
The other celebrated tourist attraction is the Main River and the many museums just south of the river. The line of museums includes the local Architecture Museum and the Museum of Communication—there is no line whatsoever to get in, and exhibits are affordable.
Many tourist books warn of two things: the red light district, and the central train station. The red light district of Frankfurt turned out to be far from imposing—while worth avoiding, a walk through the area wouldn’t have ruined our day, or even scared us, had the photographer not accidentally photographed a pimp leaving a whorehouse. We inferred that it is best not to photograph in the red light area.
The central train station gets some colourful descriptions in a lot of travel literature about Frankfurt. We walked around the train station looking for the junkies who “stab at their arms and beg for change” and we found none. Instead, we came across a number of US servicemen—many large bases are close enough that servicemen visit Frankfurt for their partying. We also found a decent, if overpriced, magazine stand, and various car rental counters.
How to Win Frankfurt Friends and Influence People
There are many cities you visit just to see the sights and museums—Frankfurt should not be one of them. Frankfurt is the home of the euro, the corporate identity of Europe, seat of many of the mega industries that will dominate your fate and help to make your daily life more mediocre in countless ways. One shouldn’t just look at Frankfurt, one should take it in. Breathe it. Live it. Be corporate.
You should be warned, Frankfurt Corporate is Continental Corporate. British public school ways do not apply, nor do the more macho, dumbed down ways of America’s Who Moved My Cheese corporate culture. On the Continent, you have rethink the norms—you are not interested in insulting or manipulating, so much as safely climbing the ladder.
The best resource for mannerisms and dress in corporate culture are the cultural guidelines to American Gay Culture. A viewing of Queer Eye for the Straight Gay will tell you exactly how to dress and decorate your apartment in the inoffensive, vague affected way that a publicly-owned company might love in a young go-getter. Also listen closely to the gay friends in Sex and the City, and any of the superficial bullshit spouted on Will & Grace. GQ, Esquire and even the Advocate, all filled with corporate ads, can help you with empty banter and wasteful fashion tips. Years ago, this type of culture was described as Metrosexual. It is nothing so dangerous or interesting. Don’t focus on the fact that you’re stealing culture from Gay America, focus on the fact that you’re doing exactly what Gay America did, following corporate norms in order to fit in, win friends, and be welcomed at parties.
If you don’t have a proper wardrobe when you arrive in Frankfurt, no problem. You can go disposable, and purchase H&M clothes at one of the four retailers downtown (every person under the age of 35 that spoke with us told us that they shopped at H&M.) On the pricier side, there is the full range of the high-end brands—none of them German – on the shopping streets near the old Opera House.
Once dressed appropriately, going out is fairly easy. Again, guide books and specific names are useless, as the bar of the evening switches regularly, but if you simply walk the streets looking for a large crowd you’ll be fine. You should understand, straight off, that mingling with people you don’t know is not regularly done—if you see people doing this, you are in the wrong place. This does not necessarily mean that you won’t meet people.
The most accepted way we found to meet people was to exploit the corporate interest in hard work and research: order an extremely difficult cocktail from the bartender, one that requires significant exertion and lifting, if possible. On hearing Singapore Sling or Mai Tai or, I don’t know, a Bijou, a look of glee spreads across the bar. While the cocktails were typically nauseating and expensive, every cocktail we purchased started a conversation.
On our first Mai Tais, for example, we got the following apologies: “Frankfurt isn’t as bad as all the Germans say it is. You can get on a train and go anywhere.” “The people in Frankfurt mind their own business. Don’t take offence if they don’t talk to you.” “Nobody meets strangers at a bar in Frankfurt. We always plan.” And, “I’m sorry you’re here on the weekend. Nobody lives here in the weekend: the population is 600,000 on weekends, and 1.2 million for the week.”
It turns out, as much as everyone apologises for not talking, Frankfurters love to chat over a cocktail. Warning: this is not true of beer. We made the catastrophic mistake of buying some locals some beer, and we got the following quote: “Click the top of the bottle against the bottom. The way you click bottles together shows the way you take a woman.”
Networking Means Standing in Front of Half-Naked Women
If you can begin a corporate discussion, you are 99% of your way towards friendship. As it is not accepted to talk with strangers in Frankfurt, if you start a conversation properly, you are no longer a stranger. At this point, the underbelly of Frankfurt comes out: while Frankfurt looks like a tough, concrete steel and glass monster, it turns out many of its citizens feel run over by their work schedules—we found nobody in this charter-member of the EU who worked less than 50 hours a week. The goal for many of the locals was to get as far from the city as possible whenever possible—nobody liked to put up with shopping, even for books or CDs. Nobody liked to go out in bars near the city centre. The ideal place to live, we were told, was anyplace pre-war, before the corporate mentality that the city is now wrapped in took over. For walks, we were told by almost every corporate ladder-climber that one should cross the Main River and just walk around the older buildings and neighbourhoods of South Frankfurt. “But is there an attraction there?” I asked when I was told to go there the third time. “No, it’s just peaceful.”
On a Saturday night, our corporate friends took us in for a home-cooked meal, and we sat around listening to Jack Johnson on an iPod and I made various business pitches, then we went out to a local club and listened to Miami Sound Machine while watching erotic dancers. We were encouraged to dance vigorously. During the whole night, we felt surprisingly safe and athletic.
It was when we got home and checked our pockets and found the business cards that we understood what we’d been doing: we thought we’d been dancing and drinking. In fact, we’d been networking—our pockets were stuffed with business cards.
The next day, walking past the many brunch houses and public parks, most packed with families, of the northern side of town, we considered accepting one of our invites to brunch properly, to continue our discussion of quality of life and good furniture that we had begun at the club the night before. We were happy to realise that we had only limited obligations to our newfound friends—many of whom had informed us that we would be part of regular get-togethers throughout Europe, if we were interested. Having the invites from these members of the corporate structure, these cogs in the machine that would likely help to run us or someone we knew out of business in our lifetime.
And this is what made our three days in Frankfurt so satisfying. With minimal effort, we were able to become a part of the machine and then walk away from it. That we turned out making actual friends, and that we discovered that those oppressing with big business tactics are feeling oppressed by their own existence were bonuses.
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Icelandair provided tickets and a stipend for this travel piece.

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