I just got back from two weeks of business travel – a week outside of Düsseldorf and a week outside Aix-en-Provence.  I got a small taste of what working in the private sector is like, as well as a contrasting study of small enterprise R&D in Germany vs France.

I first spent a week in Kaarst, which is 10km outside of Düsseldorf, at Sirah Laser- und Plasmatechnik GmbH, the best little laser-company in North Rhine-Westphalia.  It’s a scrappy little company of roughly twenty people, and they offer a free week-long laser training course for their Matisse series Millenia pumped CW Ti:sapphire lasers.  Our lab bought a Matisse last January, and as the person who has been primarily responsible for operating it over the last nine months, I’ve mostly wanted to throw it off the lab roof.  In early October they emailed me that there was an open space in the training course, and after signing up, they opened up a second spot so our new permanent researcher, Patrick, could come as well.  Yay for company on a five day business trip!  That also meant Patrick had to put up with me humming Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express the whole way to Düsseldorf City, even though we neither rendezvoused on Champs-Elysees, nor met Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

Patrick and I were a little concerned that a five day laser training course was about three days too long, (“Day 1: What is a laser?, Day 2: Laser Safety”, etc.), but it ended up being a half hour of theory in the morning, followed by working on their demo unit for the rest of the day, with a precisely one-hour lunch break. One of the co-owners of the company picked us up from the hotel each morning a little before nine, and each night someone from the company took us out for dinner.  One night each in Kaarst, Düsseldorf, Köln, and Zons, which made for a nice little tour of the area.  Düsseldorf has a giant concrete radio tower with an observation deck where you can see the whole area.  The NRW region is the driving force of the German economy, and it shows.  Coal burning power plants speckle the horizon everywhere you look.  The night we went to Zons (a somewhat preserved medieval town), the head of the company took us to a giant brown coal mine in the area.  Rather than dig what we can now refer to as “Chilean-style mines”, the mines in the area are open-cast style mining.  This means there’s just a giant pit in the ground.  When I say giant, I mean 48 square kilometers giant.  That’s about the area of Evanston, Wilmette, and Skokie, IL, combined.  The whole thing is something like 200 meters deep (the Washington Monument is 170m for comparison).

© Raimond Spekking / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL

Although work has slowed down at the mine due to the high costs and low energy density of brown coal, people in the area seem really proud of the mine.  There’s an observation platform where you can park your car and stare into the abyss.  I would think in the States something of this scale would  have protesters chained to the digging machines or bombing the conveyor belts.

Köln was a pleasant surprise, we managed to stop by after work one night and tour the cathedral.  The cathedral is one of Europe’s largest, depending on your definition of large (highest, widest, longest, best height to width ratio, etc.)  The cathedral is directly next to the train station, so Patrick and I were able to quickly see the church exterior on our stopover on the way to Kaarst.  We went back one night to see the interior, featuring a Gerhard Richter stained glass window that angered Cardinal Meisner so much he said is was “better suited for a mosque.”

To get from place to place we were shuttled around in a Mercedes-Benz Viano, which made for my first introduction to the German Autobahn.  I found out that my internal Awesome-o-meter tips from “Totally Awesome” to “Pants-Shitting Terror” somewhere between 185 and 190 kph when riding in the back seat of what is essentially a commercial panel van with a wheel alignment that pulls noticeably to the right.  I think we topped out around 195kph, or maybe I just stopped glancing at the speedometer.

In reward for putting my life in the hands of Sirah employees I was consistently rewarded with my fill of hearty German dinners – lots of schnitzel and wurst, and Düsseldorf steak, roast beef with a mustard onion crust that probably took a decade off my life.  Yeah, I ate that twice.

Laser training itself was really helpful, I highly recommend it if you’re one of the hundred or so people in the world using Sirah’s Matisse.  All killer, no filler.  When Patrick got back to the lab this week he realigned the cavity and increased the output power by almost 40%.  Each day started at 9, with “Guten Morgen!”s all around and went until 18.  I was surprised to see all the workers punching in and out each day with an electronic time-card system at a twenty-person laser company, but it is Germany.  The most entertaining quirk of the week was experiencing the German love of academic titles.  Coming from France, where I am uniformly addressed as Monsieur, was almost jarring.  Herr Doctor this and Herr Doctor that.  Supposedly if you become a professor after getting two doctorates you can become Frau Professor Doctor Doctor Whatever, and everyone is totally cool with it.  You just start piling up your CV in front of your last name. Last night I bought my holiday tickets back to the US on Lufthansa.  Check out all the titles they toss around for the confirmation email footer, just in case you were worried that the Chairman of the Supervisory Board wasn’t qualified enough:

Corporate Headquarters:
Deutsche Lufthansa
Aktiengesellschaft, Köln
Registration:
Amtsgericht Köln
HR B 2168
Chairman of the Supervisory Board:
Dipl.-Ing. Dr.-Ing. E.h.
Jürgen Weber
Executive Board:
Wolfgang Mayrhuber (Vorsitzender/Chairman),
Dr. Christoph Franz
(Stellvertretender Vorsitzender / Deputy Chairman),
Stephan Gemkow, Stefan H. Lauer

People even put their academic titles on their mailboxes.  This of course can cause slight problems, as the guy running our training told us.  His neighbor knocked on his door one day, pleading for care for her sick mother.  “I’m not really that kind of doctor” in no way dissuaded the woman.

“Anything you can do to help, Doctor,” she pleaded.

After a few frustrating minutes, he finally inquired, “Is she lasing?”  I think that finally cleared things up.

Also, two side notes on German bathrooms.  For starters, this was in the men’s room at Sirah:

Second, the toilets at the hotel were backwards:

I’ll let you think through the implications of that on your own.

Aix-en-Provence was an equally nice, but markedly different experience.  Unlike Germany, Aix-en-Provence is the Dorian Gray of weather systems, with each day sunnier and more temperate while there’s probably some long-lost Cezanne painting growing colder.  One of the Ph.D. students from my lab, Leïla, moved her research to a company outside of Aix-en-Provence last May, and I spent the week helping her with her research.  (This Ph.D. students researching at companies idea seems more common in Europe.  The company financially supports the student during their Ph.D., and usually hires them after they finish their degree.)  Each morning we’d take a coach bus out to work and arrive a bit before 9am, followed immediately by a coffee and cigarette break.

The only bad part of the day was the bus ride, simply because the drivers choose the music to play on the bus stereo.  The morning bus driver played Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream every morning.  The evenings’ selection of Celine Dion hits was welcome  in comparison.  Katy Perry’s music is certainly catchy, I’ll give that to her -  that tripe sticks in my head all day long.  I wanted to take a ball-peen hammer to my temple.  I think I exhibited the full Kübler-Ross over the course of the week.

Tuesday’s ride was “No, this can’t be happening, not to me.”  This was swiftly followed by anger about this terrible song being in my head all day.  I’d say I roller-coastered between bargaining and depression on Wednesday and Thursday.  By Friday I was singing along.

Thankfully we arrived each day a little before most everyone else, meaning I was already at my desk for the complicated morning hand-shake ritual.  When you show up to work you go around the office and say “Bon jour!” and shake hands with everyone else.  For women it’s double cheek kisses.  No “Hey everybody!”, no waves.  Handshakes and kisses.  If you arrive a little late your penance is spending the first twenty minutes of your day shaking hands with everyone else in the office.  Well, it probably means that many companies are mostly kisses, as illustrated by the below Allele chart:

However,  Focused Ion Beam technology is, unfortunately, a handshake dominated field.  It seems like a strange practice in what is globally a more casual work environment, but in retrospect I think it’s a nice idea.  Stopping to individually acknowledge everyone isn’t such a bad idea, and it certainly served as a gateway to get to know everyone there a little better than I think I otherwise would have.  If I was the French-speaking visitor for four days working in the US,  I think most people would have just smiled and ignored me.   There are quite a few professors at UVA who even go out of their way to avoid eye contact in the hallway.

The rest of the work day is mostly squeezed around generous coffee and cigarette breaks, along with a hour and a half lunch.  Surprisingly, it works.  Leïla and I got a lot done, and I got to know some of the researchers there, who are all really nice folks.  I’ll probably be headed back for a month or two in the early spring, and I’m not complaining.  The nicer weather should let me get in better shape for riding season, and it seems easy enough to get back and forth to Paris for the weekends now that I have a small social life here.

We had originally planned for me to stay in Aix-en-Provence for three straight weeks, but decided on the train down that having me out of the lab for five straight weeks (Germany bookends) wasn’t a great idea.  Consequently, I win the award for most over-packed person for a four day trip ever.  So Friday night, my giant bag and I jumped a TGV back to Paris for the three day weekend.