Aug 212011
 
Köln Cathedral

We had so much going on this week, I am not even entirely sure where to start!  Frustrations, progress, friends and a lot of travel are sort of my key impressions looking back.  Let’s just hit the highlights and share a few photos then, I guess!


The Week started inauspiciously.

Monday was an errand day, and frankly it pretty much universally sucked.  We began at the auslanderburo, the government office set up to deal with auslanders- immigrants like us.  We needed to get a paper from them that said it was OK for me to take integration classes to learn German and that the government would help pay for them.  We expected some hoops.  But, what we got was the most officious German small-office bureaucrat we have thus-far encountered, who unsympathetically informed us that I would not be allowed to take classes until David had been here for 5 years!  Um.  After 5 years, I hope not to NEED integration courses!  She really was entirely unpleasant without quite straying to rude.  Whenever we would ask (politely) for clarification or indicate that we had been informed otherwise by 3 different agencies, she would just tersely say “That is the fact!”  Clearly we were getting nowhere and we left feeling frustrated and a bit mortified.

Next, we were off to the local equivalent of the DMV.  Our US drivers licenses are only good here for 6 months, and David has now been here for 4.  Clearly we need to get this dealt with.  The agency is located in a huge government office we had never been to, but, far from being the line-filled monstrosity that is the CA DMV, there were very few people inside.  David found the right window and talked with the nice young woman inside for quite a while.  He came away looking shell shocked.  She had given him a list of all the things that we would need in order to get our licenses.  It included some fairly typical things (eye exam- though not given at the DMV, but acquired elsewhere), some less typical ones (a red-cross course for first responders to accidents), and some real head scratchers (a certified translation of our original CA drivers licenses!  Where does one even get such a thing?)  I think there are close to a dozen items on the list- NOT including the actual drivers tests that we will need to take.  Oh, jeeze.

After that it was off to the bank to try to get Swiss Francs.  This one was comparatively easy.  David just ran in, they withdrew the money from the account as Francs, and away we went.   Only, just today I confirmed that we got short-changed by 20 Francs!  The exchange was supposed to be 200 EU for 220 Francs, but they only gave us 200 Francs.  Not knowing the exchange rate off the top of our heads, and not fully understanding the oddly-written and fully-German receipt, we thought that we had paid 220 EU for 200 Francs. Which would explain why we, you know, only had 200 Francs!  Ah well, not a huge deal, but it did cause me much confusion about exchanges later on when I was buying things in Zürich.

So, by the end of Monday, I was a stressed out and vaguely emo camper.  Especially since I knew that David would be gone for the next several days and we had a long week ahead. 


Köln (Cologne)

Tuesday David left for his big Sales trip to the GamesCon gaming convention in Köln.  He, the CEO, the CFO and the CTO were off to press flesh, show off wares and try to make some business at the world’s largest game-industry conference. Think an even more populated E3- in Europe.  I will let him post details of his trip, but, knock wood, overall it sounds like it went relatively well! Here are a few photos that caught my eye:

Köln cathedral, next to the river and the train station

Folks line several fences along the bridge with locks- most decorated to say who they love.  David says the other side of the bridge has fences so covered you can no longer see the actual fence.

Lots of rivers in Europe, but this happens to be the same one we live near- the Rhein!
European Booth Babe- Katarina from League of Legends

Camels, cause who doesn’t need camels at a game conference?

Hornet Car

Woot!  Hope it is better than the last one and nothing like 4!  (Note to designers, BRING BACK HOTSEAT)
First day was only Industry Folks
Second Day the crowds descended!



Meanwhile, back in Offenburg……

The kids were signed up to meet up with the local support group for immigrant teens.  This is the group I have mentioned before that is run by the German government and the Catholic church.  As I have also mentioned, the women who run it all give me a somewhat nun-like vibe, but I am not entirely sure why that is.  Gonna need to think on it!  In any case, David had spoken with the group and they had invited the kids to join them in their outtings and such.  But, he hadn’t actually RSVP’d them to do so.  So, when we showed up for the first event there was a little bit of confusion over who we were and why we were there!  Luckily, it was sorted out quickly- despite my terrible German.  I had a couple hours on my own, so I decided to run some errands.  In fact, I got my hair cut!

It is so strange that such normal little things become Big Deals when you are trying to accomplish them in a foreign culture.  But, I had definitely found getting my hair done to be an intimidating prospect.  In the end, it was really quite easy.  The cutter spoke almost no English and I spoke almost no German, but we still managed to figure it out and, yeah, I do like the cut I got.  So, it is all good!

Shorter, lighter and just a little flirty

While I was doing that, the kids went on a walking tour of Offenburg with a bunch of mostly-older teenagers from around the world.  DD bonded with a young woman named Kate, who is from Georgia in Russia.  Kate claims to be 22, and I believe her- but DD is less convinced.  “She is smaller than me!” she exclaims incredulously, not yet fully aware that her 5’6″ puts her firmly in Adult Woman Mid-range, so many full-grown women are smaller than her.  DS felt a bit out of his element, but still learned interesting things- like that the whole town is full of “fire cellars” where folks in times past would go to hide during sweeping fires that raged through.  Also, there seem to be churches and chapels everywhere.  It became a running gag among the students that here is the “Big Church”, here is the “Little Church”, here is that “Really little Church”, here is the “Hidden inside another Building Church” etc.  Apparently even the auslanderburo has a chapel in the middle of it!

The next day was a bit stressful from a parental point of view.  We got up early, went down to the train station, and I dropped the kids off with the auslander group again- this time for a 6.5 hour fieldtrip to Karslruhe to see two museums!  First, they went to the natural history museum- full of far too many dead things for DD.  But, since they were free to wander, she just avoided the rooms she didn’t like.  Then they took a tram to the Arts and Media museum, which was full of artsy cars, historic machines and, on the top level, historic Video Games!  They played Pong and Sonic and a version of Pac Man.  They hung mostly with Kate again and had a good time.  But, by the time they got home, they were SO TIRED.  Overall, though, I think they are getting some good lessons in self-reliance. Something they will definitely need in months to come.  Unfortunately, David had our camera for these two days, so I have no photos.

That evening we went back to the train station for the third time and picked David up.  Three trips to the train station in one day, and I have STILL not ridden a German train!

Zürich

The next morning we were up early again.  This time the kids and I were off to Zürich to meet up with some friends from my high school and their families.  It was a 2.5 hour drive, so the longest one I had been on since arriving here.  And, I had to stop and buy a “vignette”- a sticker that serves to prove you have paid the 40 franc fee for using the Swiss highway system this year.  It was slightly intimidating, but proved easy enough in the long run- though the kids did have to help me figure out what the nice border officer was saying when he told me how much to pay. :-)

Quick impressions of Switzerland:

  • Tunnels- there is a series of about 1/2 dozen tunnels that you go through just after the border that are quite impressive.  The longest one is the Bözburg tunnel, which is 3.7 KM long!
  • Cows- I guess a country known for its dairy ought to have a few of these critters around, eh?
  • Beautiful green hills and farmlands- like Germany, but, if possible, even greener!
  • REALLY expensive.  (I mean really!)  Ice cream was 4 francs a scoop- that is about $5 US.  Yowch!
  • Great rapid transit- frequent trams and buses to get you everywhere.
  • LOTS of languages.  There are 4 official languages, I am told: German, French, Italian and Romanch.  But, many folks speak English, too.
  • Gorgeous city center with the Old mixed in among the New.
  • Likewise, many beautiful, fit people mixed with just normal looking folks.  We were on the bus with 3, unrelated men each of whom looked like they could have been cover models for GQ.

We had a really lovely time catching up with Hans & Diane and Kim and meeting Kim’s wonderful family.  Another shout out to Kim & Christian for being such amazing hosts.  She and her kids had just gotten back from the US a couple days earlier and yet everyone soldiered through their jet lag with grace and generosity well above and beyond.  I could not be more grateful!

Here are a few photos from our visit:

Ok, I stole this from the web because we weren’t allowed to take photos- Saw Chagall’s famous stained glass at the Fraumunster- Breathtaking  
Here is the chapel from the outside

Kim’s elder DS and my DS had some serious building to do!

Next it was off to the Tram Museum- DD had words with the driver

DS just wanted to be the driver
All the trams are swapped in once per month for historic tram days.

Hans and Diane between trams

DS pushing Kim’s eldest in the minitram

Took this picture on the tram on the way over to the museum- Don’t smoke, Don’t be broke, Don’t play an instrument, Don’t saw the seats and Don’t kick the seats with cleats!
The museum displayed kid ideas for similar signs.  I like no parachuting, no elephants and no crocodiles best, I think. 
Horse Meat from Canada.  Kim says most of the horse meat sold in Europe is from North America because there is no market for it there.

The Limmat going into Lake Zürich
Stephanie, Hans and Kim

Stephanie, Hans and Kim in front of boats

Drinking fountains in Switzerland look different!

You can drink from all the actual fountains.  Too cool!

My best picture of Kim’s younger DS.  Wish I had a better one, he is a complete cutiepie.
The kids “fishing”in the lake

Zorba would be proud

DS liked the raft

Our wonderful hosts- Christian and Kim

A Regatta coming through

Kim’s secret recipe for success- Prosecco!  (pretty darned delicious, I must say!)

DS still hunting for fish
I am pretty sure we looked like hicks at the back of the bus on the way home- Kim was kind enough to confirm it for me :)

Fast Friends

On the drive home I discovered that there were more sections of the autobahn without speed limits than I had originally thought 😉  Took us less than 2 hours.  All in all I have to say this was an excellent week.  Lots of chances for growth and learning, friendship and even a bit of relaxation! 

Aug 142011
 

Just by way of introduction….
          If you ever see me looking like this:

Put me to bed in a darkened room- I have a migraine!
In fact, I had a migraine for about 3.5 days last week, but, luckily, it was gone by the time (dun dah dah DAH)

Our Stuff Arrived!!!

And, knock wood, No Bedbugs!

Check it out.  Here is our living room pre- and post- movers:

Before
After
Before
After

Our wee empty apartment is now a wee fuller apartment!
Here are a couple other favorite arrival photos:

DS only brought the little grey kitten in his luggage- here she is telling the new arrivals of her adventures!

My Spices!  Yay for Pensey’s!

DD’s Gargoyle made it unscathed.  She is pleased!

Other than the boxes, we got Our 3 Beds, a cedar chest/bench, a folding table and 4 folding chairs.  I actually was a bit stressed about the whole thing, so I took DS out to run errands while David and DD handled movers.  Seemed fair since I handled the whole shebang (and the last 3 weeks of packing) from the other end.  This time the movers were only there for about 2 hours.  They drove down from Paris, carried up our stuff, had David check off each box as it came through, helped put the beds together, and then toodled off.  Easy Peasy.

Less Easy Peasy? Figuring out what to do with all this stuff.  As you may recall from earlier blogs, Germany has no built in closets.  And, you may have noticed from my exhaustive list of 9 furniture items, we didn’t really bring much in the way of storage with us, either!  So, clearly we are going to need some stuff in which to put our stuff!

Stay Tuned on that project.  It may take some time……

Geek Priorities
But, the most important action item, of course, is getting our computers up and running!  Geeks that we are, we have 4 main computers.  One for each of us.  And, we now know that they are easily convertible to 230 current by flipping a switch and attaching a new cord.  Unfortunately, all the peripherals (monitors, speakers, etc) are not so easily convertible.  Nor is my Kitchenaid mixer.  And I LOVE my Kitchenaid mixer!

While still back in the US we went to Radio Shack and Fry’s and pestered the local fauna about which adapters and converters we might need.  Honestly, they weren’t a great deal of help.  The Radio Shack guys tried.  The Fry’s folks were (as usual) completely absent. But, we did have a nice time kibitzing with several Europeans all trying to find adapters for their particular countries.  We eventually wound up buying 3-4 converters and a few adapters, figuring we would solve the rest of the issue from this end.  Now that we are on “this end” I must admit that this is an item for our Not Easy Peasy list!

First off- the adapters we bought:

 So, that is where you are supposed to plug in your appliance.  Notice anything interesting?  Me either at first.  But, then it became REALLY obvious.  These are not grounded outlets.  One of these is supposed to be rated for up to 2000 Watts.  WTH sort of appliance needs 2000 Watts of energy and doesn’t have a grounded cord?  Boggle.  Tell ya what, my Kitchenaid and all 3 monitors definitely have grounded cords.

 Notice anything interesting about this side?  Us either, at first.  But, let’s just move on down to the next photo, why don’t we.

All German outlets these days are recessed.  Sunk.  Pushed back.  Dug in.  You *cannot* reach them with a flat plug like the ones on the converters 2 above.  Luckily, you can reach them with an adapter like the one seen directly above.  But, needing an adapter for your converter seems… silly.

Now for the excitement.  I found something that would fit!  We brought our DVD player from the US so we could watch our Region 1 DVDs.  Ok, great!  Plug it in, flip switch.  Lights, whir, Excellent!  Attach to TV, hit Play- “Something Strange, in the Neighborhood- Who ya gonna call- GHOSTBUSTERS!”  Looks like I left a DVD in the machine.  But it Works!  A little loud, but definitely functional!  Woohoo!  Stop the DVD, walk away for a couple minutes.  Come back to-

Smoke!  Small grey wisps of what is definitely smoke.  Ah Crudmonkeys!

Rescue the DVD, Unplug machine. Let it air.  Frown deeply and breathe slowly. 

What went wrong?  Well, I am not 100% sure. But, I think it has to do with the adapter I chose.  It was the larger of the two and apparently had 2 settings.  One for up to 50 Watts with no particular warnings.  And one for “up to 2000 Watts”, that warns to use only for “non-electronic heating appliances”.  50 or 2,000 Watts?  Really?  How does that even work?  I can wire a light, but this stuff is beyond my ken.  In any case, seems that the lever was switched to the 2000 Watt setting. In retrospect, that was probably not the correct one!  DOH.  So, now we are almost definitely minus one US DVD player and possibly minus one less-than-useful $50 voltage converter.  In the plus column- er, well, honestly not much in the way of additional understanding!

But, we do still need to figure out how to get adapters that WILL work.  Only now we need to do it in German.  Wish us luck!  

Other Adventures:

Every weekend we try to do a couple things.  1) we try to get out and explore someplace new.    2) David tries to take the kids out for a long walk.  Sometimes I go along and sometimes we combine 1 & 2, but we figure these are good uses for our German weekends.

This week we skipped #1 since we will be spending the week on that project (Köln and Zurich- Next blog!).  But, David wanted to take the kids for a walk today, so around lunch time he gathered them up and headed out.

About 20 minutes later the sky opened up.  I mean it was WET.  For the next hour and a half it alternated between torrential cloudbursts and dry spells or sprinkles.  I had no idea which direction they had chosen to walk, but I thought they might appreciate a ride home, so I tried calling.  Only to discover that we had no cell service for some reason!  All three cells at home (kids and mine) were unable to call out.  Come what may, their journey would be unassisted by me.  I laid out some towels and a sign by the door:

Hopefully it means “For Drying”

Then I waited.  And waited. Finally, the phones started working again and I got a hold of David.  It wasn’t a good connection, but they were on their way home and they were fine.  Here is what they looked like when they arrived:

He even brought home a loaf of bread

Not a drop of water on them!!! They had waited out the first downpour in an ice cream parlor, eating the kids’ first triple scoop cones ever.  The kids thought this was quite the wonderful adventure to be sure!  Then they had made their way home ducking into strategic locations along the route.  The weather was hot and humid when they left, so, yeah, that is how they were dressed.  No jackets or hats.  Just some good timing and judicious use of shops, awnings and bus-stops.  Definitely some memory building there!

Anyways, next week’s blogging should include some fun stuff.
European Travel, Gaming Cons and Friends
Tschuss!

Aug 092011
 

Finally.

Got a call yesterday that says that our stuff will arrive Wednesday night or Thursday morning!  Computers!  Clothes!  Stuffed animals and games!  3.5 months into our adventure and all that packing will apparently pay off :)  Woot!

And Yipes!

Seems so long ago

Remember how tiny those 7x7x11 crates looked when we were trying to decide what to take back in March?  Now that we are fast approaching autumn and living in a place less than 1/2 the size of our old one (with no storage!) those crates in my mind seem impossibly huge.  How will we ever fit even our most necessary possessions comfortably into our new home?  Clothes alone will overwhelm us.  Heck, BEDS will overwhelm us!  We have lived out of a single suitcase each for the past 3-4 months.  And there is simply nowhere to keep all the spare towels and bedding I packed with all our breakables. I never anticipated the level of compactness of this particular German abode.

Then there is the fear of what won’t arrive safely.  What if the computers are damaged?  Or worse, what if somewhere along their journey our items picked up (cringe) bedbugs!  Eeep!

But, all that is just letting my imagination get the better of me at this point.  First we need to actually get the stuff here!  Even now I wait by the phone for confirmation of their schedule.  I guess it will be sort of an exciting and emo-filled pseudo-Christmas as we open all the boxes and memories flood in.  Like a family trip to the attic.  Plus, as big and overwhelming as they are, I am soooo looking forward to having a real bed again!  This lovely Ikea couch is HARD.  Add that to cement floors and concrete walls and wooden benches and our life is pretty much all unyielding solids.  A few soft comforts from the US could really make this a more welcoming place- especially once winter arrives!

So, anyways, that is probably Thursday since they have to make several deliveries in Paris on Wednesday before heading our way.  The following Tuesday, David takes his trip to Köln (Cologne) for the big gaming convention.  Wish him well.  The company could use some security in the form of more work, and David’s team is on a sales run.

Then, just after he gets back, the kids and I are going on an overnight trip to Switzerland!  I am really looking forward to that!  Actual European Travel!  And Friends!  

So, already a busy month shaping up.  But the normal hustle and bustle doesn’t stop.  Also on the list this month: we have to get our car inspected, we need to get paperwork so I can take German classes, we need to get started on studying for the German drivers exams, and, of course, we need to learn as much German as possible and review all the standard subjects to prep for the kids to start school!  DD starts the first week of September, so time is slipping by quickly.

Oh, and we need to fill out our television tax form.  18 € per month for having a TV in your house.  Ouch.  And still more paperwork!  Germans really, really love the paperwork!

But, today.  Today there is not much happening.  Cloudy and rainy out- even a little cool.  Making chicken stock, cleaning up in prep for the move-in.  David has the car, so the kids and I will stick close to home.  Thinking I may make a loaf of bread. 

Oh, speaking of bread, there is something I didn’t share.  Had my worst kitchen disaster since moving here!  Tried to convert a batter bread recipe to fit in the pyrex baking bowl I have here, but, er, I failed.  Think of Lucy and Ethel’s experience with the huge loaf that took over the oven and you get the idea.  Batter bread everywhere!  I should have taken a picture, but at the time I was completely demoralized!  Now, well, yeah, ok, it was pretty funny :)  Obviously I have yet to master the whole European Cooking Experience.

So, anyways, that is where we are at.  Prepping for the move-in, prepping for school, prepping for travel.  Should have some good pictures in weeks to come :)

Aug 012011
 
DS and a mural outside the school- That quote at the top right is an unusual choice!

DS has been accepted to Durmstrang South and will be starting there in mid-September.  He and DH went down this morning and met the principal who helped the fill out the paperwork and got DS two books at the library (both in German).  The school is located at the base of the hills of the Black Forest in Gengenbach, Deutchland.  The town itself is known for being picturesque and having the “Worlds Largest Advent Calendar“.  Apparently DS can take the train from Offenburg and a schoolbus will pick him up and take him to the school.  Both of which are good, since his school is approx 20 minutes to the south of our house and DD’s is about 20 minutes to the north!  Definitely more adventure to come!

DS really likes the physics part of the mural

Modern compared to Hogwarts- that is the Black Forest in the background

One of at least 2 outdoor pingpong tables.