It‘s a gray, cold dawn in Heidelberg, Germany - the air is heavy with impending rain and the few people up and about at this hour move quickly by on its weathered cobblestone streets, heading to work or to class.
A town of some 140,000 souls, Heidelberg (an adaptation of “Heidelbeerenberg,” which is German for “Blueberry Mountain) sits nestled in the steep Neckar river valley and is home to the renowned University of Heidelberg, founded in 1386. Its narrow, winding roads and dense construction hark back to its roots in the ancient world, first as home to a Celtic fortress in the fifth century B.C., followed by a Roman one in 40 A.D. until the Germans pushed them out in 260 A.D.
Today, however, Heidelberg is more medieval in physical appearance than anything else, with large castles dotting the hillsides, its hotels, shops, and cathedrals seemingly frozen in time - awaiting only knights on horseback to reclaim it. Yet this particular morning is given over not to the horse, but its successor, the truck - and they are everywhere, large and small, the ubiquitous tool of modern life.
Refrigerated trucks from Mueller Inc. and Perry Wilkens Transport are stocking up the bakeries and restaurants as I wander down the street from the Hotel Zum Ritter St. George. Sprinters and other vans come and go, leaving bundles of newspapers and magazines in their wake.
Then, ever so slowly, a phalanx of refuse trucks - painted bright neon orange and white - begin wending their way up the narrow stone streets, collecting trash, recycled paper products, and food waste in orderly succession. The garbage crews - all wearing brash orange neon work suits, making them look like astronauts preparing for a mission - silently move in concert to quickly empty the many trash bins perched haphazardly on the sidewalks.
Now and then, a bus slides by, the bark of their diesel engines muffled by the mist and gloom, carrying passengers more asleep than awake to the university (which employs 18% of Heidelberg‘s residents) or to one of the town‘s many hotels, eateries, and shops (as the hospitality industry employs 81.8% of the population).
Heidelberg is so pristine, its ancient visage perfectly preserved, thanks in large measure to its very lack of heavy industry. Because it has no factories and isn‘t a major transportation hub, the Allies didn‘t bomb it into rubble during World War II - a fate visited on the city of Mannheim, just down the road. Few tractor trailers come here to Heidelberg, for its streets are too narrow - here, the medium- and light-duty truck hold sway, puttering away at their tasks, taken for granted by the people they serve.
The wind picks up slightly and I feel the mist beginning to coalesce into raindrops. I cinch my jacket a little tighter, turn, and duck back inside the warm lobby of the Ritter -- leaving this city and its trucks to search for a warm cup of coffee.