Feb 252012

A Driving Force

Because I forgot to include it in part 1, Here is DS’s
Jugend Forscht Swag.

Alright.  So, when last we left our merry adventures Stephanie was doing her Lucy impression, Little Blue had been pronounced a Dead Parrot, but there were those among us who were hoping that news of its demise was premature.  And, David was preparing to take a co-worker down to the auto dealer to see what could be done….

The Demise of Blue

Little Blue was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about this.  Little Blue was dead as a doornail.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wondrous may come of the story I am about to relate….

My apologies to Dickens, but, there you have it.  Blue. Doornail. Dead.


Well, crud.  We take a beat to accept this fact, and then move on.  But, we realize that obviously we are still complete Newbs when it comes to German autos.  And, we still aren’t entirely certain if we may have been snookered- or if so, by whom.  So, David wrestles down his typically over-developed sense of Independence, and resolves to ask for help.

Buying a Car in Germany.  Step One: get yourself a friendly lawyer…..
First thing Monday morning David catches one of the execs at the company and walks him through The Story of Blue, from the wild trip with Vladimir to make the purchase from the Russian auto dealer back in May, all the way up until Blue’s complete collapse last week.  The exec listens to David’s story and then immediately suggests utilizing the assistance of- the company lawyer!  Woot!  Marc, said lawyer, is a bright and personable fellow with whom we have had nothing but positive interactions. So, David is quite relieved and pleased by this turn of events.  He once again runs through the entire saga for Marc’s benefit and we dutifully gather up all the paperwork we have in our possession.  Marc conveys that he suspects that the original gentlemen who sold us the car were the ones being shady.  There is a small chance we may have some recourse there, but the main thing now is to get us a car that works.  He offers to go down to the dealership with David later that day to see what is what and act as a knowledgeable translator.

Long story short, if you find yourself having to negotiate tricky and confusing business issues in Germany, bringing along a bi-lingual German lawyer makes a heck of a lot of sense!  The first day they basically established that, yes, Blue was dead and Yes, the dealership would likely give us a good deal should we purchase our next car from them.  They talked over potential options and ran a lot of numbers.  After going over various scenarios in detail, it actually turned out that through a quirk in German financing combined with incentives that the dealer was offering, purchasing a New Car (tm) might actually be less expensive in our case than going with something used.

Next, David and Marc went to see a friend of Marc’s who works at the Audi dealership down the street for a sanity check.  He confirmed that the suggested offers by the VW dealer sounded on the up and up, and were, in fact, better than he could do for us.  So, hooray for due diligence.  They agreed to meet back at the dealer on Wednesday to arrange specifics.  At that point our intention was to purchase a factory-built car to our specifications.  So, David and I obsessed over specifics on the web site that night.  (So much so that we completely blitzed going to my PT appointment… Whoops!) There were really only a few features we cared about, and a couple others we liked.  Bare bones- but new and reliable- was fine.  Once it was clear we were doing business, the rental car became a non-issue, so we were able to get everyone where they needed to go while we worked through the specifics. 

I will let David pick up the story on Wednesday:

Ok, we went in and talked to the new car guy in question.  He was happy to see us and sat us down and started rolling right away.  Asked if I know what I was looking for, so I pulled out our printout and my list and said “basically that”.  The printout actually proved to be too hard for him (since it lists _every_ option whether it is standard or not), but my list was easy, so I just listed off stuff that was nonstandard and he config’d from there.  He upsold us on a ‘match’ package that included a bunch of the features we wanted plus a bunch we didn’t really care about but that were positive (mirrors, windows, climacontrol, usb port, etc…). End result was an ok price anyways, which was in the ballpark.  Worked out the whole thing and Marc asked him for a printout so he could show the quote to other dealers. I also said that although the price was in the ballpark, that I would only consider the whole price meaning it needed to deal with the repairs, rentals, etc… as part of the package when making my decisions.  Ok, this would take longer he said since he’d have to negotiate it, also I wanted to know when we could get the car in question.

He promised to research availability and go talk to the other groups and work stuff out.  Could he call us later and make another appointment?  Ok, we can do that.

Went back to work, and got a call from the dealer there.  He said oh no, it wasn’t going to work after all because the car rental was from June which was too expensive.  Oh dear.  I tried to explain to him that I had only had the rental car for a week or so, but it was a fuzzy conversation.  I let him talk to Marc.

Turns out he just meant the new car would not be available until June, which was too long, but that they had a couple cars in stock that were quite close that maybe we could work something out on.  Uh huh, here comes the bait and switch.  Ok, we can consider them.  Eye roll.  Show me the options and give me the numbers and we’ll see.  We’ll be in at 4.

Went in at 4 and gave him the evil eye.  He said he had two cars that had the same feature set and rambled on about how it had X, Y, and Z feature included (particularly stuff that was part of his upsell) and I pointed out that the actual features I cared about were this and this, and that anything else may be perfectly pleasant, but wasn’t something I planned to spend money on.  He showed me the details on the first car after which I said ok, what does it cost, and he cringed a bit and quoted me a price which was much higher than before.  I pointed out that this was a lot higher than before and he said no no wait, and promised it wouldn’t be the final price and that we should go look at the cars.

Oh also these aren’t NEW from the factory, they’re “germanword” which means they’ve been driven from the factory and been on the dealer lot since then.  Basically showroom cars.  This is apparently less cool than new from the factory, but still counts as new for resale.  Car #1 for example has 29 kilometers on it.  I think they thought I would care, but after checking with Marc, no, the only person it would actually matter to is me, so that’s a German thing.  I noted it as an ‘oh I see’.

We went out and saw car #1 – a sporty trim black VW comfortline with automatic transmission and pretty much the same feature set we have in the rental car.  It has bigger tires (not the year round ones unfortunately), the dual climate control, radio with media adapters, lights, and various fancy stuff.  Basically a bit better than the completely bottom of the line one we’d been shooting for, but as I said, more expensive.  I said yeah, looks nice, but more expensive.

We then saw car #2 – clearly the lesser vehicle, a grey VW comfortline with some of the stuff the other one had, but just all around less of everything.  It did have the auto-park though where you let go of the wheel and let it park itself.  Ewww.  It was 500EU less but lacked the dual climate control, media setup, and just a whole lot of goodness.  So the decision between the two cars was easy.  But, the grey one was obviously not the right choice, which I assume is why they showed it to us.

Ok, went back inside with my give me no shit look (Marc was clearly enjoying himself too much) and said so it’s clear that you’ve exceeded where we started here, and like I said, it still has to deal with the repair work, rental, etc…  So put it all on paper and show me where you’re at.

At this point he wrote it all out and made an offer of the whole shebang for XXk – the better car, the repairs, the rental, etc…  At the 1.9% financing deal (which was what makes new cars work better), Xk or so residual after 4 years, the 4 year full service contract (covers all servicing except stuff that wears out through normal use – so you still have to pay for new tires / breaks unless they are defective rather than worn).  End price – X EU / month.

Fine.  I can do that.

So we then spend a long time of him pitching us, talking about the work to make arrangements for everything, how cool such and such was, yadda yadda.  Marc finally leans over and says – “You know, I don’t know if its just a language thing, but this guy apparently has no clue that he could have closed the deal half an hour ago.”  I say “Yeah, perhaps we should just tell him.”  So we do.  If he can deliver exactly what he has described – everything dealt with at the price we agreed, then we’re good to go.

He seems a little surprised to find this out, but promptly regains his composure and calls his boss over.  I was worried there might be shenanigans but mostly the boss was just helping do lots of complicated paperwork with the lender to deal with the fact that I’m an international buyer.  Whole transaction is fine and friendly, they do it as described with no surprise costs, and work out all the paperwork.  Questions come up occasionally but nothing unreasonable, and the credit check comes back positive, since I do in fact have a German residence, bank account, employer, etc.. to vouch for me.

Marc reads all the contracts which are pretty ordinary stuff, and after I make sure everything is taken care of, I sign them.  We need to bring some stuff in in the morning (2 pay stubs, passport, the insurance confirmation asap though I doubt we’ll have that by morning) and we should be good to go later in the day.

Back to me…
And, that is exactly what we did!   Well, almost.  David spent most of Thursday jumping through all the German hoops (registering the car, getting plates, etc)- actually, it took so long that we had to take another German Paperwork Day off work.  Once he got that all in, the dealership said they would need another day before they could release the car.  Apparently there is a requirement that the car undergo a complete inspection before it can leave the lot.  Since we had to be at Jugend Forscht when it would be ready, we couldn’t pick it up until this morning.  
But, without further ado, I am happy to introduce, the fabulous, the wonderful- please put your hands together for a polite welcome of- The Paris Family’s New Car!!!!  (We haven’t agreed on a name, yet, but I am leaning toward Lola)….
David, his main salesman and the sales manager, Far less slimy feeling
than the ones we have done business with in the states

Lola getting accustomed to her new parking spot,
with the mosquito bush to keep her company.
That is the cup holder in front.  The thing in the middle is adjustable and
removable-it serves as a bottle opener… for your Car Beer.  I am not joking. 
The VW guys sheepishly told me it is a Bavarian thing 😉

The dash.  The middle display will tell you everything from your fuel
efficiency to the current population in Beijing, I think. 
And, it is able to be set to English!
As far as pointless accents go, it isn’t a bad one!

A picture for the Wheel People. 
Apparently the Potenza moniker is a thing?

The kids discover the car hiding in our usual spot.
DD does not like the New Car smell

Put em up!  (there is plenty of room in the back, thankfully!)
Lots of room between the kids- and a pulldown arm-rest for enforced separation!
We were really excited by the media dock since it is supposed to be able to
play ipod, but it doesn’t seem to work with mine.  Could be it is because mine
is old, or from the US or there could be a bug.  Not a make or break, but
still a little disappointing.

The Cockpit (this is from when it was still on the lot- you can
tell they hadn’t vacuumed, yet!)

Hee!  It has a sunroof.  We had joked about getting one of those.  Nice :-)

Radio. Media. TP.  TP- really?  Gosh this car does everything!
(you can also see the dual climate control- complete with:
Seat Warmers, Woohoo!)
So, there you have it.  No clue what next week holds, but I will let you know when we get there!
Feb 252012


Picture this: The large, tiered conference hall is filled with several hundred of the nerdiest Germans you will ever see.  These are the High Schoolers competing in this year’s Youth Research (Jugend Forscht) competition, their parents, teachers and the corporate sponsors putting on the event.  An enthusiastic announcer voice gently encourages the crowd to “Please welcome, all the way from England, that fuuuunky band… Put your hands together in a polite round of applause for THE FUNKY DEVILS!”  That’s right, a polite round of applause you all.  Let’s not get carried away!

A low murmur of growling brass seeps in as what appears to be a high school marching band + Synth and electric bass makes their way to the stand.  They are dressed in red, like devils I suppose. But, I am detecting no funk.  They start with something vaguely recognizable with lots of-
               -terrible solos.  Then they move to a repetitive composition written by someone in their village… It is about a sleeping giant who comes out to play at night.  I rather like it, but the Devils are not playing well this night.  They seem to have one OK sax, a good drummer, 3 alright-but-weak girl singers, one bodacious blond who I am sure would love to be Adele, and possibly the worst brass section I have heard in several decades.  Mistakes are uncomfortably glaring, and those of us with any appreciation for pitch squirm in our seats.  Actually, in that room, that may have just been me.  Still, it is painfully obvious to all that the band sucks.  The crowd applauds politely.

3 hours later….

The crowd has been worn down.  We have just sat through a very German awards ceremony.  More on that later.

The devils are called back to the stage.  They are not smiling.  Clearly they had their rumps handed to them during their 1/2 time talk.  But, they start to play and.. –Hey, They are a LOT better.  Apparently they also had time for a round of practice and several music lessons. Or, maybe the songs are just more familiar.  Whatever the case, this set is much easier to listen to!  They start with ‘We Are the World’.  Mini-Adele has to reign herself in constantly to blend with her cohorts, but they make it through.  At some point she encourages the audience to clap along.  The crowd complies- politely.

And I instantly understand why people claim that  members of certain pale-colored racial designations may not possess great quantities of things such as “rhythm” or “soul”.  I believe the rumors were started by anyone who happened to watch German scientists trying to clap.  These folks cannot feel the beat!  Nor do they seem willing to move a single muscle more than what is required for the action they are completing.  No one sways.  No one is nodding their head to the music.  They are all sitting stone silent, unmoving, politely clapping when it is the socially necessary thing to do.  No more.  No less.  At this point, I start to crack up.

Mini-Adele starts in on “I Will Survive”.  The contrast between her voice and those of her song-mates is impossible to disguise on this one.  But, the rest of the band has relaxed and is finally holding its own.  Soon, one of the braver factions of the audience, I think a group of teachers in the back, starts clapping along again.  But, they are way too slow.  It is like a death clap!  They are only clapping on the first note of the measure, and the song is building to its crescendo!  I try a little experiment and start clapping double time.  Several folks around me immediately switch to my rhythm. But- they just can’t hold it.  The poor woman two rows ahead of me hasn’t successful clapped on an actual beat throughout any of the songs.  People get confused.  There is clapping all around me, but none of it is synchronized.  I decided to cut my losses and stop.  I think the other clappers are grateful.  No more pressure!

I look around again.  I am surrounded by statues with very bad haircuts.  Now, please understand, I am a geek, and proud of it.  But, this crowd would make the guys on Big Bang Theory look like the Blues Brothers.  Eff-it, It has been a long day, I am going to let loose a little.  I start to sway.  I let my shoulders roll in time to the music.  I nod my head.  David is aghast!  Compared to the room, my minimalistic movement looks downright wild.  He can’t understand how someone who is often so shy can simply not care what attention is upon her as soon as music starts playing!  But, I am having too much fun.  By now, the absurdity has enveloped me like a warm, giggly blanket and I am insulated.  I feel no pain from social sanction.  I start to bop a bit more.  David says he thought I was about to jump up and dance in the aisle- and I might have if I hadn’t thought it would mortify DS in front of his peers.  Social sanction on myself is one thing, on my kids it’s another.

Luckily, Mini-Adele quickly finishes up her solo, and polite applause follows.  I use the momentary mild-loudness of the room as cover for the unbidden peels of laughter that overwhelm me.  I love Germans.  I love geeks.  I love nerds.  I love scientist.  But, Good Golly people.  Music is mathematical.  Learn to Clap!!!

Jugend Forscht

As you may have guessed from that last anecdote, we spent the day today at Jugend Forscht.  Actually, DS spent the last three days there.  We all just joined up with him today.  Basically, the event he went to is a regional science fair competition.  Winners receive modest cash prizes with first place winners going on to the next level of competition in May.  From what we can tell, it is a way for science firms to keep an eye out for future talent.  All the while encouraging careers in science, and the idea that science can be both fun and profitable.

Mostly, it was about what you might expect.  Lots of smart kids showing off projects they had developed.  DS’s group was the youngest one at the event.  Most folks were in the 12-16 range.  I think the oldest kid was 19 and the youngest, in DS’s group, was 9.

DS manning the booth

Molding stuff.  Ick

This was competing (and won) in the Math category. 
But, we didn’t really understand it.  It had to do with the degrees
of travel an axe blade went when its handle was moved around.

Still, what could be wrong with Axe Math, right?
The teacher was showing DS how it worked.
This guy was predicting weather by observing the behavior of a frog
You GOTTA love Der Wetter Frosch!!!
Bennet won first place in the Chemistry category by making tape

There were two winning algae projects, this one from DS’ school was
about which algae made for the best biofuel

This one was all about how best to grow algae

DS’s teacher, Frau Wirtner trying to convince students to
do a more challenging display with their Sails for Cargo Ships

This young lady was DS’s chaperone through most of the event- smart, kind and friendly!
Her project was about the balance between nitrogen in the soil,
the bacteria that help plants and the sugar plants make.

Here are a few interesting tidbits in no particular order:

“SICK likes what you have in your head.”  
Just looking for a few SICK minds?
So many puns present themselves, but I should mention SICK is the
unfortunate name of the chief sponsor of the event.

The 3 hour Awards ceremony started with- a magic show!  Honestly, the crowd of hyper-intelligent logicians and their mentors seemed rather underimpressed.  Wonder why?

Entertainment for the kids on the second night involved a hip-hop dance show with songs DS found questionable.  He is not fond of swearing, and the repeated use of the F-word and B-word in English shocked him a bit.  But, he liked the dancing itself.

The first night meal was apparently not covered by the organization.  Should have sent him with more cash.  Whoops!  He did have (barely) enough, but had left some in the room, so it made for an awkward moment or two.  He also didn’t bring his jacket (thought they were eating inside at the hostel), so he may have been a wee bit chilly.  From what I can tell, this was largely his only mishap- other than slightly fumbling his speech when the judges were there.

He did manage to buy a bag of American-style marshmallows which he happily shared with his grateful roommates. 

Bowling in Germany is just about the same as bowling in the US.

You can sometimes tell if someone is dull or interesting even if you don’t speak their language well.  That guy who gave the 45 minute speech about coffee makers in the middle of the Awards Ceremony?  Definitely BORING.

On the other hand, watching them announce all the projects and show the kids
on the huge screen was pretty fun!  Nice trio there!

Cute doesn’t win awards in German Science.  This is probably for the best.  But, it means that the 9, 10 and year olds with the adorable American 11 year old, trying to convince the judges that their project on mold vs. plastic was worthy of consideration alongside the teens making biogas out of specially selected algae sort of lost their best secret weapon.  Honestly, I think they all had a ton of fun and learning experiences to foster some serious growth.  Still, who could resist these guys?

Local Germans like the local amusement park Europa Park.  When the host announced that everyone would get a pass to Science Days at Europa Park in November, the crowd (gasp) *responded*!

Young Germans speak pretty decent English.  Almost all the groups we encountered had at least one student with English good enough to respond to our sciency questions in our native language rather than theirs.  We usually gave them the option of speaking German, but mostly when they figured out we were English-speakers, they would just switch over, apologizing for their perceived lack of skill!  Can you imagine Americans doing that?  I can.  But, right now it is just a pleasant dream.

After all the student awards, it was the Teachers’ turn!  I thought that was both smart and cool on the organizer’s part.  DS’s school got two of the teacher/school awards for a total of 500 EU.

Frau Wirtner posing with her award while huge children (who could those be?)
float overhead….

The student awards were a little confusing, with many categories and levels and such. But we got to drive one of the winners home.  So, a brush with greatness!  His project was a chemistry experiment about trying to create tape using household ingredients.  He found that a mixture of sugar, glycerine and corn starch with water worked best.  I think he got a 75 EU award plus a trip to the next event.

Here is Bennet winning his award

Breaking down the conference hall took roughly no time flat!

20 minutes later

Tomorrow look for A Tale of Two Golfs

Feb 192012

Too soon?
Sigh.  Yes, the car is dead.  Or, so they tell us.  David went down to pick it up- after it spent a week in the shop- and they informed him that the cost to repair it was higher than the cost of the car.  It is tough enough for us to figure out whether mechanics are messing with us in the states.  Here… haven’t the foggiest.  They said something about the engine body and head and, er, kaput…. David plans to go tomorrow with one of his co-workers to try to speak with them more thoroughly about it (he figures a native speaker will be a big help).  After that?  Well, it looks like we will need to invest in something a bit more reliable.  We are going to look into leases and other potential financing that may be able to gain us a better form of transport.  I am sure the process of watching us muddle through German Finance in German will be a fun filled circus for the innocent bystander, so stay tuned!

More on that later, but it does lead directly into:

I cried again this weekend- but, it isn’t what you think!  It wasn’t from the frustration of having the car die.  Or even from the compound hit of discovering that the valve on our new washer is leaking all over the laundry room floor, on the same day that we discovered that the fridge is still frosting over to the point it is uncloseable every couple weeks. Nor did it have to do with confirming that the voucher that the Cable company promised us to get the work done that should fix our television has still not arrived a week and a half after they promised it (we haven’t have TV in over a month!).  No no.  All of that was and is frustrating.  And, I suppose in the sitcom of our lives, it might make for an amusing anecdote someday.  But, today’s emotional outburst was truly classic TV.  I suspect a scene like this has been in most family comedies since Lucy:

Knowing that we will be needing to get a new car, in Germany; and further knowing that we currently have access to a lovely manual transmission VW for another day or so, I asked David to please teach me how to drive a stick shift.  Or, more precisely, to reteach me how to drive one, since my dad did actually teach me way back when I was 16.  The only problem now is that, well, I haven’t actually driven a stick since I was… hmm… 18?  That is about 25 years of muscle memory and driving habits to try to undo!

David was great and patient and really clear about the mechanisms and everything.  But, I must re-stress the fact that 25 years really is a lot of muscle memory to undo!  I believe any fly on the window would have most often overheard the phrase “the clutch, the Clutch!  THE CLUTCH!!!”  perhaps followed by something about remembering to use the clutch, the clutch being your ‘safe place’, using the clutch before doing everything else, and, of course, “remember the clutch”….  I think there may have been a bit of a theme going.  Somewhere toward the middle, any interloper would have been treated to big, wet, Lucy-worthy tears as an attractive mother of two sobbed out ridiculous things like:

       “I can’t” and
           “I suck” and

                          and who the HECK is that guy in the van looking at!” 

We were in the parking lot at Edeka, but someone stopped to take a smoke break– and watch the entertainment, apparently.  None of this is very flattering, I know, but I have vowed to keep this as honest as possible.  In any case, like Peter Pan’s shadow, my wandering composure was tacked back into place (with soap, since we couldn’t find a needle and thread), then the lessons continued.

David took both my ‘notes on teaching Stephanie’ (more praise, smaller chunks, fewer numbers!) and my rather stereotypical emotional outbursts in stride and patiently talked me through it all.  By the end, I am pleased to report, I was able to successfully start and stop the car, shift into first gear, drive around the parking lot without stalling, and then park.  We only had one major gear-grinding incident, where the stick somehow didn’t get into the right position and we both thought perhaps some workers in the distance had started using a chain saw! er, oops.  Otherwise, progress was made and I am convinced that should we have to get a car with a manual transmission, I will, with a great deal of effort and kindness from my spouse, eventually be able to drive it. 

So, on to other things!  For instance, Fastnacht!  Things are in full swing, though our car mishaps caused us to miss a few of the planned events this weekend.  At DS’s school, Thursday was a “party day”.  Most of the students wore costumes to school.  This is one of DS’s good friends in his outfit: 

We weren’t sure how seriously they would take it,
so we just sent DS with a hat, that way at least he was participating.

Half way through the school day, people dressed as witches and fools came to the rooms and led the students out.  They all gathered in the main hall and proceeded to have a little assembly, where many of the classes shared songs etc. that they had been working on (DS and his class sang one about a kid getting ready for school amid chaos).  More partying followed, but DS got called away for a rehearsal for Jugend Forscht.  That will be in Freiburg this week.  2 nights in a Youth Hostel with other students, train rides, bowling, a short speech in German, a longer one in English, judging, prizes, the whole works!  The car issues do complicate things, but, we will face that challenge as we get to it.  Next week we should have much to tell!

Hexen Essen
In the mean time, yesterday was supposed to be one of the bigger celebrations.  But, whatever was up, we largely missed it.  We got to the market as people were leaving in the early afternoon, then we noticed fireworks at night and got back downtown in time to see a few folks going to some party, but most people just walking home.  Ah well.  We did manage to see a few things:

Just hanging out
The Witches Camp- All the witches appeared to be men in various forms of drag. 
There were also folks in historic garb ranging from what looked like the mid 1700’s through
the early 1900’s
They were cooking over wood fires.  I liked the smell, but the smoke bugged the kids.
On the other hand, DS LOVED this- reams and reams of shredded paper in the middle of town

Kids of all ages played in the fun fluff
By the time we got there, many of the witches were off duty

But, this one kindly put his mask back on when he saw me taking pictures…
This style square head with the red kerchief is definitely the traditional Witch Form around here

Earlier this week, the severe cold spell we had been having finally broke, and with the higher temperatures came some very lovely snow.  It was still only a couple inches worth, but it was the most we have seen since we got here.  DS was, obviously, thrilled.  DD and David and I also enjoyed it, though.  Here are a few pics I posted on Facebook earlier, but those of you who only follow here may enjoy seeing them.

DS made a snowman with his tutor.  I love the nose!

DS, how did your hair get so snowy?

Aha!  Headbutting snowballs… that would do it!

DS took this photo of me outside his school

This is the look I get when I interrupt snow viewing with a photo request

Special shout out to Christian and Kim who helped us get DD’s phone issues straightened out.  Who knew that “roaming” was a GOOD thing in Europe!?

Next week: Car Update and Jugend Forscht Adventures!

Feb 102012


The Ill river in Strasbourg freezing over. 

You may have heard tell the Europe is presently a little chilly. This is not being exaggerated!  It is, indeed, COLD.  “Ah”, I am tempted to say.  “But, it’s a dry cold!”

Even here in one of the warmer corners of the continent, we are seeing daily temps hovering around -7 degrees C (about 19 F).  A typical night this month drops to about -13 C (8 F).  There is snow drifting down into Africa and even the Sahara Desert- the first, we are told, in 30 years!

We haven’t gotten much snow, but we try to make the best of what we have.
Interestingly, the snow is so cold that it is complete powder. 
You can blow it off you hands or trees and it will float on the breeze!

For this reason, it is particularly important at this time that we have reliable transportation.  Unfortunately, Little Blue, our petite second-hand VW Golf, has been feeling a wee bit under the weather, so to speak.  Actually, it has been hacking up a lung and chirping like a cricket.

Saturday, realizing that we were likely to have some issues if we delayed any longer,  David took the car down to the VW dealership about 1/2 km from our house.  There, it merrily chirped and coughed for the service rep, who regretfully informed David that the earliest they could work on it was Wednesday.  But, if we brought it in that morning the dealership would rent us a car so we could get the kids to and from school.  Fair enough.  At my behest, David also asked if they could please do an oil change when they had it in there.  I had noticed the oil looked a bit, well, inky black actually.  So, I had been eager to get it cleaned out. The rep noted it on our appointment.

So, we avoided driving it as much as possible for the next 3 days, and dutifully brought it back Wednesday morning…. Only, now the noise seemed to have stopped.  With the skeptical mechanic standing by, the car would make nary a peep.  They agreed to check it out anyways and rented David a pleasant enough little dealer car…. with one rather large quirk:

Passenger Side Pedals!

 It had been used as a Drivers Education car!  The passenger side pedals override everything else.  So, no one is allowed to sit in front!  Um… Groovy?

From the outside it looks pretty standard.

At the prescribed time, David returned the rental and picked up our Little Blue.  Not only had they failed to find and fix whatever the issue is.  They hadn’t even done the oil change!  Apparently, it “wasn’t due on the schedule”.  To say I was displeased would be an understatement.  I knew darned well that it was a matter of when not if the car would break down with me and the kids in it- Or, worse, would break down as I was on my way to pick up one or the other of the kids.  I was not looking forward to this experience.  Plus, we had just spent 100 EU and a difficult day for essentially nothing.

As it turns out, I was both correct and incorrect about my guessed outcome.  I will let David pick up the story from here:

David’s Tale

So this morning I pile into the car with the kids at our usual unholy pre-dawn hour to go to school and we head off to Gengebach.  Everything seems fine until we get most of the way there when all of a sudden the car starts to both sound and drive as if it had swallowed a bison.  There’s nowhere to pull off to the side of the road instantly, so we limp to the next exit and pull off across a bridge and into a clear area on the other side.  Stop the car and get out and look.  Nothing obvious inside, but its clearly hosed.  

Ok, time to test out our new ADAC (German AAA equivalent) membership I guess. 

I read the roadside assistance number off our info and call.  A prerecorded message babbles at me in German for a minute and then tells me that no one is available right now, please call back later.  CLICK

Um, what?

I try again and this time hear it offer me another menu option if I press 1.  I guess I hadn’t pressed it in time before (?) and this time manage to make it to a dispatcher.  After a brief conversation and my member number it turns out this fellow speaks pretty decent English, which makes my life easier.  I describe our problem (took car in yesterday, car is toast now) and that we’d like to take it to the shop that saw it yesterday and can you please send someone.  The kids pipe in from the back seat to remind me to tell them I have two kids with me (tends to speed things up), and he asks how old.  I try to explain where we are (Garmin gives us the street name at least).  Ok then, help is on the way.  It should arrive within the next 2 hours.  Oh and do I have a warm building to stay in?

Excuse me?  Did I mention it was well below freezing and we can’t have the car running because the engine is busted?  I point this out to him and he doesn’t offer any helpful advice, just says that no, they can’t get someone there sooner than that. 

Sort  of diggin’ the ADAC
megablock set

So we wait.  At first it is just time ticking away, as everyone reads / draws / sits / etc… but it becomes increasingly obvious that with the car off the heat is leaving rapidly.  We get everyone as bundled as possible and I make a point of checking on everyone repeatedly.  Wiggle your toes, how are your fingers, etc… sorts of stuff.  We’re doing decently, but its clear DD’s feet are the least well insulated of our extremities and are getting cold.  Ok, shoes off, DS can sit on them.

Lots of giggling ensues, but it does seem to do the trick.  Everyone stays warm enough now and we wait.. for the two hours stated.  

We then get a call from someone with whom I have almost no luck communicating.  His German is really thick, and he doesn’t seem to understand much of what I say.  Eventually he hangs up and I really hope he’s headed to where we are.  We give it a few more minutes and I consider calling the dispatch to try to relay more information.  I get out of the car and look for him, since he had asked me to do that to make it easier to spot me.

Finally a yellow ADAC van pulls up in front of us (not a tow truck) and a second ordinary car behind us.  An older gentleman gets out of the ordinary car and upon seeing the ADAC car smiles and shakes my hand.  He was apparently just a random fellow making sure we were ok. I thank him for doing so and he climbs back in his car and takes off.  

I go talk to the ADAC guy, not sure what he can do from here.

The ADAC fellow is a small older man with the incomprehensible German I had spoken to before.  His van clearly has no towing supplies but has a whole bunch of tools.  I vaguely wonder if a miracle will occur and he’ll magically fix the car.  He opens a bunch of cabinets, pokes through stuff, pops the hood, and looks at the car.  After turning it on for a moment he turns it back off and then tries to explain something else to me that I didn’t understand (par for the course with him unfortunately).  Finally he goes and fetches a brochure from his van that has a picture of a tow truck on it and says his colleague will come to tow us.  Great.  

Ok then, he hops back in his van and drives away, leaving us sitting there again.

Time passes.

Not that much time fortunately, and then I get another call.  This turns out to the tow truck who wants to know where we are located.  I explain to the best of my ability and he says ok he’ll be there in half an hour.  Um, its pretty cold out and I have two kids here, can you make it any faster?  Unfortunately no, he’s (somewhere incomprehensible) that is 20km away and it’ll take him the full half hour.

Ok, we wait in the car.  Colder now that the door has been open, but we’re ok.  Everyone is still engaged and seems to be doing fine.  35 minutes roll by and we’re hoping I did in fact manage to describe where we are when the tow truck shows up.  Young fellow is driving it who looked a lot like a tow truck driver you’d get in the States.  His German is much easier to understand and he seems to get a bit of our English too when I’m talking to the kids.  There’s only barely enough room for us in the truck so we drop everyone’s backpacks off in the car and climb in. 

More fun ADAC toys!  Collect the whole set!

We arrive at the VW dealer without incident and the tow truck guy looks around for a good parking spot, and failing to find one just unhooks the car in the middle of the parking lot.  Here, sign here, and he hops in the truck and takes off.  Usually I would have expected him to put it in a spot or something but eh, not today I guess.

The service folks at VW basically recognize me and I describe that I had bought the car in for a noise yesterday and that today it had a big noise and drives badly.  The receptionist talks to the technician who seems to say ‘eh’, and she says please wait until he can come see you.  Now that we’re all somewhere heated it is all a fair bit easier but I’m feeling fairly annoyed to be back here with a broken car after having taken it in to be fixed yesterday.

I don’t really feel like I’m getting proper priority so I use the car location as an excuse to talk to the receptionist again.  The tow truck left my car in a bad spot see, we should probably move it.  The lady didn’t quite get it, but the older lady next to her did and explains that we were towed there.  Oooh, I understand now, your car had to be towed today!  That changes things.  Hang on.

She runs off to chat with the technician again, and we do in fact get much speedier service thereafter.   I talk to him about what happened, and show him the car.  He turns it on for a moment and then right off again.  Um yeah.  He talks to his boss and they decide that the problem may very well be the timing belt work that was done in Kehl by the other VW dealer, but that they’ll need to open it up to see for sure.  They can’t do it today but they can do it tomorrow.

No, they don’t have a rental car available, but when he realizes I was towed by ADAC and am an ADAC member he says ADAC has a rental car program and I should just talk to them.  How exactly would I do that I ask.  It ends up with him calling ADAC on the phone to ask them about it.  ADAC says you only get a car if your current car is ‘destroyed in an accident’ which mine isn’t, so no dice there.  He then gives me the number for another car rental place and says I should call them.

Do you have a car available tomorrow?  I ask.  Yes.  Ok, I will take that one.  Oh uh, ok.  We make arrangements to pick it up tomorrow and then walk home.  Not terribly far but still negative whatever degrees.

So… end result:

Everyone home safe and sound and properly warmed up.
Car at the shop waiting to be examined.  Probably going to be shenanigans getting it fixed and paid for.
Rental car available for Friday – Monday when I go pick it up in the morning.

I think that’s enough difficult German conversations for one day for me.

Warming Up

So, what is the proper follow up to such an adventure?  Mothers everywhere know: Hot Chocolate, warm showers, lots of hugs and a good meal!  I chose fresh French bread and a French-peasant-style chicken dish made with lardons of bacon and mulled cider : )

Nice Crumb if I do say so myself!
Good Crust

DD’s Design Center Trip

DD was lucky enough to have our other Big Adventure for the week.  Her art class at Hogwarts took a fieldtrip down to the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, near the Swiss border just outside Basel.  The trip had been planned for a month.  But, her Art teacher got ill and was unable to lead it.  So, the French and Math teachers took over.  After a 2 hour bus ride, when they arrived the museum did not have a record of their appointment!  While the kids stood outside throwing snowballs, the teachers argued with the staff.  Eventually, they were allowed a tour of the grounds, but not of the current exhibit.  The buildings were designed by famous architects, and I correctly identified the one by Frank Gehry- who designed a building very familiar to Los Angelinos- the Disney Concert Hall.

Here are DD’s photos:

Gehry’s building

Leading a tour of the very cold students

The “VitraHaus” by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron- We thought it had a Lincoln Log effect

Map of the facility- they make and design high end chairs

This narrow path ran around the grounds.

There were apparently images being projected inside this

Another view of Gehry’s work

Sculpture in a snowy field

Tadao Ando designed this conference hall based off of
Japanese Tatami sleeping mats

More of the Tatami conference room

Walking Single File on the Path

This wall is just… a wall.  It creates a courtyard- or a place to walk around with tours.

Feb 042012

Today we braved the cold and wandered downtown to check out the Narrentag.  That means “Fool’s Day”, and is the first of several events we intent to attend during Fastnacht.  It WAS cold, though a bit warmer than some days this week.  Even Tom, my local Physical Therapist said he thought he would skip the event this year because it was just too cold.  As we left, this is what the thermometer said:

That is a negative 4 degrees Celsius,
or about 25 degrees Fahrenheit
This residue is from the ice and
salt that has been on the streets
I left these in the car overnight!


At first, it was just sort of a jumbled, boggling mass of humanity.  There were stands selling basic street food and folks dressed in a variety of costumes. At one end of Mainstreet, some sort of weird obstacle course was being run by various teams of costumed revelers.  It was judged, I think, by cheers directed at a doll that was being raised and lowered to indicate score.  The whole thing was loud, indecipherable and crowded.  But, oddly, DD who is usually opposed to such things, was getting a kick out of all the costumes and weird images.

Fuzzy people on a platform

The balcony is on City Hall… I think the Mayor may be there

The guy with the cart is doing the obstacle course,
but I couldn’t see through the crowd or follow along.

Someone would raise and lower the little doll and people would Cheer
Some of the many costumes around
Vendor selling fool pins
Native American themed costumes, animals and pirates were all the vogue for
folks opting not to don more traditional wear.  The lady to the left has an
idealized Indian Princess image on the back of her sort-of-faux-apache garb.

This was all very confusing!
Not speaking enough German to make out what any of this meant, we almost wandered off.  After 1/2 hour of pushing through crowds and freezing our tushies off, we had had about enough.  But, first we went into a local shop to defrost and pick up a few things we needed- and perhaps a few things we didn’t need….

We decided to go ahead and get this opalescent cowboy hat for DD-
I told her I was pretty sure it was part of the “ostentatious American” costume

But, Wait!
As we came out, we realized that people were starting to gather along what appeared to be a parade route!  Sure enough, shortly after 1 (I will guess 1:11, since all such things seem to start at 11 after the hour this season), LOUD explosions began to erupt from down the block.  Soon, we could make out Band Music and Heralding Drums and Trumpets.  We lucked into a great spot at the turn in the road, and settled in to watch the event….

He would shout out something that sounded like “NARREE”
and folks would answer something like NAROOH! But, I have
no idea what any of it meant, other than that “Narren” means fool.
This gentleman was next.  And note the lantern!  I wonder if he is from Bühl!
I am guessing these first guys may be guild masters of sorts, or perhaps local political leaders.
The third guild-masterly guy, I am going to guess Band Master-

Since he was closely followed by the first of several drum and bugle corps to kick things off!
They played mostly a trilling fanfare.
The first group of Fools!
A really LARGE noisemaker!

Great masks

Carrying a more modest noisemaker
The ladies with the face masks were really creepy-
and the gentlemen behind them were LOUD-
they are the ones who fired off muskets to start things off!

Another band, I noted that most of the groups had folks of all ages

Local groups came next, this one had slides that they let people along the parade
route go down into a bucket of packing peanuts, and a booth that blew fake snow onto you!

 Many of the smaller groups seemed to be elementary or even preschools, others were community groups, or, perhaps just friends and neighbors.  Most carried small hard candies that they would give to kids in the audience.

Bath Toys

Beach Hunks

Devils- these folks were fun

They would go around bopping kids in the crowd

Definitely one of the more creative entries-

They were an art gallery!
These were the Offenburg Crows

Cute Crow Family

Even the youngest kids got in the act- and they brought “nests” in case they got tired!

My favorite group of the parade-
Claire, I expect to see you dressed like this at some point!

These guys seriously were rocking out.  We had started to leave,
but when we heard them come around the corner, we decided to wait- good choice!
LOVE the effect, but how they managed to play through the masks and still sound good is beyond me!

By that point, we could no longer feel most of our extremities, so we decided to ditch out.  But, definitely a fun event!

Remembered to get a picture of myself when we got home- I got a Gandalf hat for me :)