My first visit to Germany since the fall of the Berlin wall was a ball. No, make that a rolling stone hustling down the ol' mountain of memory at full speed while being covered by the attractively green moss of living traditions. Zipping down the autobahn in a trick Citroën Picasso rental at 85 miles/hr to, at what must have been 160km, be shamelessly overtaken by the new king of minis, the above Chrysler/Swatch SMART car (US introduction due in 2006 and yes, that's Swatch as in the fashion watch maker) was bloody humbling. To then observe we-own-the-left-lane Audis approach, seemingly out of nowhere in the rear view mirror, at an alarming but still legal 200km was downright ego-deflating and a test for rusty reflexes. Rediscovering Lübecker Niederegger marzipan from a house that's been in business since 1806 was yummy, especially the so-called white bread without the usual chocolate skin. Spotting numerous dubious references in newspaper cartoons and public rest room graffiti to Austrian rulership in the Californian provinces and what this said about American short-term historical memory loss was funny as hell. The quality of food even at freeway rest stops condemned their US equivalents into the toilet while the wealth of bread choices proved overwhelming but always delicious. The popular quark -- residing somewhere between sour cream and cream cheese -- and the caffein-free herb tea Roobois from South Africa hinted at future marketing opportunities for entrepreneurs introducing either to US audiences.

Revisiting the ancient inner cities of my old haunts Tübingen and Reutlingen reminded me of the utter lack of aged culture in the US but also proved that appreciation's possible only in the return. The sheer ugliness of the new Euro currency showed what happens when multiple cooks attempt to work on a single dish. The sighting of a cigarette ad depicting a vivacious woman taking an outdoor leak below the caption Equal Right for All perhaps took the crown whereby the Germans demonstrated their national sense of avantgarde to this prodigal son.

"Geiz is geil" translates as "Stinginess rules" although geil is literally "in heat" and "Ich bin doch nicht blöd" becomes "Am I dumb or what?" - as in paying full retail. The former is the new battle cry of Saturn, the latter Media Mart's answer, both discount electronics chains like our Best Buys, Circuit City or Good Guys. Still, five-storied Saturn's CD selection in Hamburg put to shame Barnes & Nobles' and Borders', domestically seemingly matched only by Virgin Record's super stores and resulting in a rich harvest of new acquisitions that soon shall make appearances in our world music pages.

Germany, from Kiel in my native Schleswig-Holstein to Leverkusen in the Cologne region, Stuttgart in the south and Darmstadt by Frankfurt, was so clean and well groomed that local Taos would be regarded as a veritable dump by comparison.

But returning to the vast open spaces of the US and its relative lack of bureaucracy also reminded me why the US remains my chosen home for now. Our gas-guzzling giant SUVs completely absent on German roads became an instant symbol for both our corporate lack of environmental issues and parallel insistence on freedom of choice and expression, something that seemed both adolescently immature and powerfully invigorating in that cultural frisson one feels after returning from travels abroad. For example, Germany charges you for incoming and outgoing city water since the latter has to be purified. Rain water as collected by roof surface is taxed as well but allowances are made for garden usage. What follows is a pictorial gallery of select Lübeck, Tübingen and Reutlingen shots. Due to an extended weekend that saw Armin Krauß off on Friday while proprietor Holger Fromme passed me by in his Renault Espace 10 minutes from his plant -- my precise arrival remained unannounced due to a snafu with the phone system -- the planned interview with Avantgarde Acoustic's principals then finds itself substituted with a wholly visual tour of their facilities, walked through with Holger's right hand woman Sonja Baudach.

The fortified entrance to Lübeck's partially water-enclosed Altstadt was guarded by a Sister of the Blessed Discs, alternately known as Ivette, my beloved wife, or the penguin, christened thus by my dad for her monkish but warm outfit. In either case, the wind-chill temperatures were punishing, the Indian food divine and the sights everything a tourist craves - including the spoofy find Barry Trotter, the utterly unauthorized book chronicling the makings of a Hollywood movie based on the best-selling Harry Potter Rowling books, something we spotted in the small English section of a bookstore whose lopsided walls, rickety floors and cozy environs inside an ancient building adjacent to the cathedral catapulted us backwards to times when the guilds ruled and had their call-signs hanging as intricate shingles from the rafters or were proudly waving as roof-top standarts.