Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Trabi

My blogging has slowed down considerably recently. Other than the last post, I had one post of a youtube video in the last 2 months. Unfortunately, nobody complained. Nevertheless, I will push on. Again, in the spirit of documenting my experiences as I go. And it may be long-winded. I still actually need to finish posting on my Africa trip, which is now over a year old. But this first. For those that don't know, last year I was part of an effort among friends/colleagues to acquire a Trabant 601. This is the Trabant, also known as a Trabi:

This is ours, and as you see it has a custom logo on the side. More on that in a minute.
At first this was going to be a post about an epic trip from Dresden to Krakow in the Trabi, but then I realized I should just start with a post about the Trabi itself, and get to Krakow another time.

The Trabant is basically the car of the DDR (GDR/former East germany). This was far and away the most common car in East Germany, and it was made not far from Dresden. I don't know the numbers, but judging by photographs I would say 90% of the cars on the roads during the time were a Trabi. Google 'Trabi" or "Trabant" to learn more about it. It was not built to appeal to customers. It was almost the only choice, and most had to wait 10-15 years or more to get one. For most of the 30+ years the Trabant was in production, it was more or less the exact same model, the 601, and it basically did not change. A '69 and an '88 Trabant 601 are more or less identical.

Dresden likely has the highest concentration of Trabants anywhere in the world I would say. Perhaps Zwickau has more. I'm not basing that on any stats, but I would be surprised if I was wrong. Drive anywhere in Dresden and you will see a Trabant.

And so, I became very curious about this fascinating tiny little car. They even have "Trabi Safaris", tours where for a price you can get behind the wheel of real Trabi and drive with other customers around Dresden. I never had any plans to have a car while in Germany, but I thought if I ever did, it would be fun to get a Trabi. But that was about the extent of it for years, just thinking about it. Then a couple years ago this fellow Cliff shows up in the lab. One of the first things he does after arriving in Germany is to buy a 70s-era BMW motorcycle. interesting. We get to talking and I say how I've always dreamed of having a Trabi, and we toss around the idea of buying one, maybe to share between a few people, and also to tinker around with.

Search the German Ebay for Trabant and you will see dozens of old Trabis for sale - almost all under 1000 euros. This was promising. But between Cliff and I we just didn't have the activation energy to pull the trigger. He had just invested in a new motorcycle, and I was thinking the German bureaucracy involved in purchasing, owning, registering, etc a new car was pretty daunting. As I said, we had thought of maybe getting a few guys to go in together on it. And then it occurred that maybe the coworkers in our lab would get a kick out of it. We approached our boss, Tony, with the idea of a "lab Trabi". Tony was instantly on board, and quite excited about the proposition. Within minutes he was on the phone with his local mechanic, inquiring into where and how the best way to get a respectable Trabi around here was. And before we knew it, the three of us were out looking at Trabis.

In the end, Tony was so game on the idea of a lab Trabi, that we worked out a deal. Tony would buy the Trabi and pay the initial expenses to get it running smoothly. Then everybody else that wanted to drive it would pay for registration, etc, and any repairs or costs that would come up over it's lifetime. A good deal. As it turns out, there's only 4 people that account for 90% of the mileage on the Trabi, and Cliff and I account for about 60%.

Since it's the lab car, we needed a logo. Nate had designed a logo for the lab, a mitotic spindle (the apparatus that divides chromosomes when cells divide, and the focus of most of my research), and so we had in translated into decals made to stick on the car. It actually turned out pretty nice, and Cliff, Misho, and I managed to professionally apply it to both sides in a few hours one evening.

There's so much more to tell about the Trabi, I really love the thing. Driving it is quite an experience. For example, there is no gas gauge. There is a stick under the hood with liters marked in it that you stick into the tank. It holds 24 liters (~ 6 gallons). It's a 2-stroke engine, like a motorcycle or a lawnmower, and you mix oil directly with the gas every time you fill up - mix it right into the tank. Top speed (in perfect conditions) is about 110 km/hr (70mph). The gear shift is on the steering column. etc.

We have the "kombi" - kind of the station wagon version of the Trabant 601. Basically instead of a trunk it's a hatchback. And it's functional - perfect for a trip to the gardening store:

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Obamamania in Dresden (Nu Glaar, We Can)

Tomorrow, Barack Obama is coming to Dresden. And the city is FREAKING OUT. It's quite impressive. The newspaper has been running articles on it for 2 weeks. The Dresden police have been rehearsing for the visit the same if not longer. The city has even set up a website specifically for the visit:

Obama will be here I believe less than 24 hours total. He will make no scheduled public appearances. He will give no speeches. But that doesn't matter. The hype is out of control. Not being one to ignore hype, I got involved with Nate and Cliff and we conceived and designed the following graphic:

For those not familiar with Dresden, the building there is the most famous Dresden landmark, the Frauenkirche. Below, "Nu glaar, we can" is a shout out to the Saxony German dialect, where instead of "ja" you sometimes will here "nu" for "yes". "Glaar" is a phonetic spelling of the Saxon "klar". So it's meant to be a "yes we can" with a local appeal. Cliff and I have made it into stickers. I'll write it again here "nu glaar, we can", in case anybody sees a sticker and googles it - this is where to give credit/hate.

To give another example of the mania surrounding Obama's 18(?) hour visit to Dresden, every single tram in the city, as far as I can tell, has been outfitted with a banner declaring "Welcome, Mr. President!". This has been on the trams for the last week.

Air Force One is scheduled to land at the Dresden airport sometime tomorrow evening, along with ELEVEN other planes of support staff. And that doesn't include the giant C-5 that landed at the airport a few days ago and unloaded a helicopter and limo that will be Obama's transportation while he's here. Less than a day!!

Anyway, the city seems to be encouraging people to get out and about to perhaps catch a glimpse of the president - but with no guarantee that he will even appear in public. Also, a sizable fraction of the Altstadt around where Obama will be staying will be off limits to almost everybody as a security precaution. You're not even allowed to swim or fish in the Elbe tomorrow - special orders. I think I'll go out to check out the commotion, maybe to the airport, maybe around the secure area. The city apparently is planning a celebration nearby featuring American activities such as "cheerleaders" and "mechanical bull-riding" (no joke, check out the webpage). If I see anything interesting, I'll post more.