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!


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! 

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