Stepping down onto the street from the bright yellow No. 15 tram at the Zuffenhausen stop, a few stops short of Stuttgart city centre, the sub-zero early morning February chill immediately causes the exposed skin on my face to tingle. A few fine snowflakes drifting in the air from the unbroken grey of the sky serve to heighten the sharp contrast with the warm fug of the just-vacated tram interior, which had been packed with passengers – both seated and standing, including a noisy group of smartly-dressed schoolchildren, all carrying their colourful schoolbags. Seeing them already en route to school at just after 7 am is only one of many new experiences for me on this – my first full day in a new job in a foreign land.
Behind me a bell tings in the tram, the yellow doors unfold and close, and the electric motors whine up to speed as the driver accelerates the two linked tramcars rapidly away down the hill and into the city centre. Blue flashes and white sparks fly between the overhead wires and the spring-loaded pantograph mechanisms pressing up from the roof of each tramcar, and in the wake of the tram small swirling dust devils and litter fly out around the gleaming steel rails sunk into the cobbled surface of Schwieberdingen Strasse.
Following three of my new colleagues up the steep hill of a nearby side street, I find that I am shivering, despite my gloves and woollen neck scarf tucked into a warm grey top coat. I suspect that my shivers are due in part to my first day nerves as much as the ambient low temperature. Via a short flight of stone steps up to the door, the four of us enter a Metzgerei, or butcher’s shop, situated about 50 metres uphill on the right. Looking around while we wait our turn to be served, I realise the shop is more like a delicatessen, having an extensive display of non-meat products in glazed chiller display units and on packed shelves around the walls, in addition to the well-stocked fresh and processed meat counters.
The cheerful young rosy-cheeked girls in white aprons and matching hats bustle around behind the counters chattering brightly, which seems somehow surreal at this still early hour, especially following my day of travel yesterday, ending with a couple of drinks and a late night. I had rounded off a day that began with a pre-dawn departure from home north of London to catch the Monday morning British Airways shuttle flight from Heathrow, and ended – too many hours later – with sampling German beer in a Gasthof (inn) in Stammheim (my new home for the foreseeable future) on the outskirts of Stuttgart, state capital of the presently wintry Southern German province of Baden Württemberg.
However, on this frigid, grey Tuesday morning, the mouth-watering smells of hot, roasted meat and freshly baked bread pervading this busy shop are for the moment the overriding sensations. With a little prompting to refresh my rusty German linguistic skills, I am soon re-crossing the road, now armed with a brown paper bag containing a freshly-cooked and still hot portion of Wiener Schnitzel (breadcrumb-coated veal cutlet) in a warm, crusty bread roll – breakfast! It seems that for my colleagues this is the regular post-tram/pre-office morning routine, to be followed immediately in the office across the street by a self-served coffee, courtesy of an “instant” water heater, to wash down this tasty breakfast snack.
What an absolute contrast to my former familiar workday routine, an ordinary, working person getting up each morning at a fairly civilised hour from my own bed in my family home in England, then setting off to the same, familiar place I have worked for a while now, and alongside the same colleagues. And that has all changed only four days ago – last Friday!
As we walk the few short steps across the street towards our offices, my thoughts turn to just how I find myself here – several hundred miles from my home – in Stuttgart, southern Germany, in the chilly central land mass of continental Europe, in early February.
It all begins just a few weeks earlier. Early one rainy afternoon, I am busy at my desk, in an open plan office shared with a team of designers, when someone I vaguely recognise as the local branch manager of a staff recruitment firm approaches. He strolls across, perches on the edge of my desk, and starts a rather loud conversation (I think his visit to me is immediately following a mostly liquid lunch in a local pub), as though we are old pals.
“Hello old chap, how are you!” he slurs. Without further preamble he then tells me about a unique job opportunity, working as part of a team on a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) project in Southern Germany.
He fills me in on the details of salary and the generous tax-free living expenses on offer. The latter include a return BA flight ticket Stuttgart to Heathrow every four weeks, which can instead be taken in cash if not actually used. After giving me his sales pitch he hands me one of his business cards, then says: “Well, that’s the size of it, give it some thought old lad, but don’t wait too long, eh!”
With that as his parting shot he totters off. As he exits our office through the double doors, some of the nearby designers “down tools” and turn smiling in my direction, having been able to hear every word of my new friend’s confidential pitch while surreptitiously listening in. Echoing the general thoughts of most of my colleagues, Jeff – my nearest neighbour in the office – says: “I’d take that job if I were you, it sounds too good to miss!”
As it happens I have to agree, so the next day I follow up that verbal offer with a ‘phone call to confirm my interest. Just over a month later, I find myself at a British Airways desk at Heathrow, early on a dark February morning, collecting my open return flight ticket to Stuttgart, and on the way to my first ever, but so scary, overseas adventure!