May 272012
 
DH the Ettin.

Challenge Week: Reading, Durmstrang, Partings and Taxes  …and some Russian Grannies to take the edge off!

I guess we will call this a Quick Update and just hit the highlights.

Reading  – Monday I confessed to David that I could actually see some small print on my screen better without my glasses than with them.  I have been getting frequent headaches and know that my close vision is fuzzy at best.  So, David did what any thoughtful caring husband would do: He kidnapped me!  I got in the car to go with him to pick up DS from school, and, since DD wasn’t due home for several hours, he simply drove me to town after the pick-up.  He figured the less time I had to think about it (and potentially chicken out) the better.  We wandered a bit until he could locate the optical shop that he remembered would accept walk-ins.  The optician (optometrist?  I wouldn’t know the distinct certifications to look for here, but the guy seemed to know how to outfit eyes with glasses which is what I needed) spoke a little English, but not much.  So, it was slow-going.  It was the usual routine of testing my old glasses, dropping down little lenses into a rig and discovering what made things clearer or less clear.  As usual, the last couple choices were a coin toss and I was pretty sure I was picking wrong whichever one I chose. 

Once the gentleman did the exam he tried to explain our options, but the communication just wasn’t there.  He left the room for several minutes, then came back with a chart.  That helped!  Basically, he explained that even though I am a little young, I definitely need reading glasses.  I could opt for multi-focals, but that would limit my field of vision and force me to tilt my head up and down a lot.  There was an option for a  straight close-lens that would only really show reading distance.  But, we opted for the middle option, which would cover everything out to about a meter.  This would be good for both my reading and my computer work.  And, since those two activities take up about 10 hours of an average work day, it seemed like the way to go.

It was fun picking out frames from among the various relatively severe German styles.  I could have gotten something rather like what I have now, but I thought it might be good to find something that was easy to distinguish so I could keep the near and far sets less confused.

Amusingly, the optician was so short that trying to get the focal points right proved to be a mild challenge.  I kept thinking I had to stoop down so he could see my eyeline, but he kept correcting me and having me stare at a wall.  Eventually the requisite black dots were marked on the sample lenses.  But, I am crossing my fingers that it works out OK when they arrive over the next couple days.

Unfortunately, he explained that since 2004 the glasses are not covered by our insurance.  So, its an out of pocket expense.  And the prices were higher than we would have liked…. like close to $1000 US for some lower-end frames and the two lenses.  Ouch!  But, if I can see, this will be a very good thing, and when balanced out with other medical expenses which have been very light, I am sure we still come out ahead. I opted for a bit of a Naughty Librarian look with some dark plastic frames, so at least they should be a bit fun.  For that price, I really felt like they ought to be Fun!

Durmstrang– This was really the defining and least-comfortable feature of our week.  DS’s teachers and principal called us in to discuss his progress.  It was tense.  It was a bit awkward.  There were cultural things I don’t think either side understood.  The long and the short of it is that they want him to have learned German already.  I brought along studies explaining that it takes 4-5 years for a well-equipped English Language Learner in an ESL program in the states to reach 50% proficiency in English under ideal circumstances.  I tried to share some of my experiences working with ELL kids in the states.  But, they didn’t want to hear about it.  They need grades and test scores to validate his matriculation, and they have no clue how to get them.  It doesn’t help that he went through a pretty major emotional upheaval a couple months ago and cried a couple times in class.  He has turned a corner since then and seems a lot happier, but clearly his un-German emo-ness put them off-kilter.

So basically, they are stumped and unwilling to bend any further for just one student.  And, he really is just one student.  He is only the second non-fluent German student they have ever had at the school!  Definitely not in California anymore.  Someone was telling me the other day that it is a bit of a dirty little secret that the vast majority of the Turkish immigrants they get here are simply shuttled off to the lower schools and not encouraged to attend the Gymnasiums (the college prep track).  But, everyone in the room did agree that the gymnasium is the place DS should be- it is just that his German isn’t good enough to meet the standards, yet.  So, in the end they put him on a form of probation so he can stay with his class.  He will need to show a lot of improvement in German and pass a test next February to keep from being dropped back a grade.  We are looking for a new tutor and possibly some extra-curricular activities he can participate in.  I am not sure how we can fit it in during the school year, but maybe come summer he will be able to participate with the Pathfinders (German Scouts) or perhaps join a soccer club or something else fun where he can hang with more German kids in a lower stress situation. February is a long way off and who knows what will be happening then.  But, for now, at least, things are a bit more settled. 

Still, that definitely left a bit of a harsh aftertaste in my mouth.  After all the school issues we have had with DD over the years, this is a challenge we aren’t really eager to face.

DD on the other hand, had a rather fun challenge this week- but more about that in a moment- first…

She wasn’t quite sure how to respond when I admitted
that I Beep in my sleep 😉  But, then, who would be?

Wednesday was Kerstin Fondue Day!!! One of the reasons they held the meeting Tuesday is because DS’s dear and wonderful tutor, Kerstin, will be returning to the US this month and they wanted us to make plans to support his learning without her.  Her grant has expired and she has to go back sooner than she would like.  We were just getting to know her better and we are just as bummed as she is that she will need to leave before the end of the school year.  But, we decided to have one more dinner in her honor before she had to go.  She opted for fondue, so we had way too much bread and cheese and fruit and chocolate and rice crispy treats and brownies and marshmallows!  I admit, the stress of the week left us a wee bit more manic even than usual, but she seemed to weather it with good enough humor.  Hopefully, somewhere mixed in with the ‘socially horrified’ and ‘confused’, she also felt ‘appreciated and well-fêted’!

What Foul Sorcery Is This?

Thursday was Rube Goldberg Day!  DD’s physic’s class at Hogwarts worked in small groups to design a long chain reaction machine.  DS was very helpful in giving DD ideas and suggestions and they had fun cloistering together and designing up a storm.  In the end, the amount of time to prepare was pretty short, so all the groups had to scale back a bit.  But, it was still a fun and really educational experiment! 

DD and her poster describing acid-base reactions

Setting up- domino launcher knocks over book, weight swings and knocks
over bottle filled with vinegar into balloon with baking soda,
inflating balloon tilts tube, sending a shuttle down the ramp and setting
off the next section.

 DD says that pretty much every section needed some tweaking as they did their actual run-through, but I figure on-the-spot engineering is a pretty useful skill to have!

Looking down the line

Finishing Touches

Aftermath- note the inflated balloon.

Friday- Recovery Day!  Just. Normal. Stuff.  Phew!

Saturday– I got a bug in my bonnet and decided it was time for me to actually do our US taxes.  (No, we aren’t late- ex-pats get an automatic 2 month extension and grace period). Here is what I learned: It is a pain in the tush.  Really.  Normal taxes are a chore.  Taxes in a year when you moved to Germany?  Whooboy!  Also, most of the tax software isn’t really set up for it.  I tried three different programs – and yes, that means I did the majority of our taxes three times before running up against flaws each time!  Finally, I gave in and purchased Turbo Tax.  I had had an issue with them some years ago and sworn not to use them again.  But, as it turns out, they were really the only program I could find that was able to easily deal with things like foreign addresses, employers without a Federal Identification Number, and the fact that we pay German taxes.  Also, even with all the stuff we wound up giving to charities etc., and the many other itemized deductions we had, the fact that we did not have much mortgage interest last year meant that none of it really mattered at all.  Standard Deductions are Back, Bay-bee.  Not sure that is a good, thing exactly, but it was about the only simplifying factor, so I guess I will take it.  So, as it turns out we owe a bit since I am self-employed, and there is one piece of paperwork we are still trying to track down.  But, otherwise, I think the 2011 Tax Year Ritual is pretty much DONE.  Woot! 

Er… well, at least our US Tax Ritual…. This week DH gets to fill out some German forms, so keep your fingers crossed that it is a simpler process!

Eurovision Song Contest 2012 Saturday was also a European Traditional Day of Kitsch.  The Eurovision Song Contest can best be described as sort of an international combination of American Idol and The Gong Show.  Basically, each participating country goes through a selection process and sends an act to compete.  This year there were 26 participating countries.  Viewers and judges watch and may cast their votes for any country OTHER than their own.  Yes, their are politics at play.  Yes, there are some really goofy costumes, songs, acts, dancers, etc.  It is a spectacle on a grand scale. I was totally looking forward to it.

And. We. Missed. It!!!!

I had been hearing about it all week, so I wanted to watch.  I sat down with the TV on Friday, but I couldn’t find the channel, and DD was watching something, so I figured I would just wait and find it Saturday.  But, Saturday when I went to find the right channel not only was I unsuccessful, but 1/2 through my scanning process we lost our satellite connection!  DOH!  Luckily, the Internet is our friend.  We looked up some of the more talked about acts, and scanned through the amusing costumes and some of the wonderful history.  It is an odd mix of professional performers (Englebert Humperdink represented England this year, and Jedward were there for Ireland) and quirky little specialty acts- like this year’s number two group, the Buranovo Grannies who sing in Udmurt- with a little English punch.  (Their Party For Everybody! really needs to be seen to believed, I encourage you to turn up the speakers and dance along)  Loreen, the Swedish singer who won the competition with her song Euphoria had already had that song on the international charts for a couple months before she performed it in the finals!

Learning
So, what this week has taught me is that we are learning, but we aren’t Home yet.  We have been here long enough that we know how to live, but living well in our new country is still an unattained goal. We can get through day to day.  We can get glasses (knock wood), and engage in difficult conversations with schools.  We can get food, clean our house, buy clothes and go on an occasional fun outing.  But, it is still a lot harder than it was in our Native Land.  And, there are still many little things that we just haven’t a clue how to handle…. like finding the right channel to watch Loreen in a cage match with Russian Grannies!  Ah well, maybe next year.

May 192012
 
Rainbow over Hatten Tank

Seeking Out History

Recently, we have been talking a bit about what we want to do with this wonderful opportunity of living in the heart of Europe.  We want to visit more countries.  We want to eat nifty foods.  We want to see things that we would be unable to see and experience things we wouldn’t be able to experience in America.  We want to learn more German and French, of course.  And we definitely want to check out some of the more interesting historic and cultural sites that surround us!  To this end, David did a little research.  He asked around a bit (thanks Vladimir!!).  And, he managed to discover a nugget of history that neither David nor I recalled having been taught in school.

So, today we took off for France and experienced a little piece of the Maginot Line.

Basically, the story goes like this:  Between WWI and WWII the French got mighty concerned with beefing up their borders to ensure there would never be a repeat of their terrible losses.  So, they decided to invest in some defense.  They created an impressive series of fortifications- bunkers, tanks, turrets, pill-boxes, ammunition stashes, observation posts, etc. etc.  They were state of the art, extensive and expensive.  The main concept was that they would serve to give the rest of the French military time to get mobilized and into the action should any, ehem, unanticipated hostile actions head their way from Germany.  Unfortunately, as one of the articles I read pointed out, Generals tend to always plan for the war they just fought.  When the Nazi’s did make their move, they didn’t bother coming straight in across the fortified border.  They went up through Belgium instead, then just sort of walked on down after that!  Ok, I over-simplify.  But, not by a lot.  The Maginot Line has gone down as a boondoggle of enormous proportions- especially since reasonable assertions were made that the cost prevented other preparations from being implemented.

The nice thing for history buffs is that since most of the fortifications were not engaged by “the foe” (as all the documents inside refer to them), they are largely left intact!

We decided to go see two sites in particular- a smaller one located just outside the town of Hatten and a larger one in Schoenenbourg.

The Road There
[Reminder: all photos can be viewed in more detailed forms by clicking on them]

It is over an hour drive to the closest of the fortifications, so we set out to enjoy the trip, stopping for Ice cream and a couple other little stretches of the leg just for the heck of it.  We were surprised to discover that when we crossed the Rhine- further to the North than we usually do- the water to our left was a good 20 feet higher than the water to our right!  There are locks on that thar Rhine!

Gorgeous Day on the Rhine!

We discovered that this section has several locks.
When we drove back, we chose a different crossing point and
it, too, had the lock and the 20ish foot drop to the North.

Not a shabby road to drive down in Spring-
almost like the Open MRI of Tree Tunnels…

The French always have the best dog signs.

I took this to show the lovely Alsace countryside, but-
is that a funnel cloud in the distance?

Hatten

The fortifications at Hatten are largely one hill with a small concrete bunker inside.  There are anti-tank beams heading up to it, and lovely flowers surrounding the whole shebang.

These rods made it tough to approach the little fort

An example of the anti-personnel measures they had in place

I am pretty sure this mini-turret is not painted
with the right cammo design….
Inside they have a small museum. 

I think that soldier to the right is way too happy
about his gun.
I didn’t notice it when I took the photo, but there is a
bird Box hung just over the kids’ head!

Clearly this location did see some action.

I wondered what had made this large hole in one
of the pill-boxes…

It is forbidden to climb on the tank.
Main entrance to the historic site

Wildflowers surround the whole deal

DD and Me with the flowers

DS with the tank, which David points out is neither French nor German.

David with the tank

 Grave Yard
On our way out of Hatten, we came across their graveyard.  We thought it would likely have some really old stones.  But, then we recalled that graves in Europe are rented, not owned.  This set of stones seemed to have been removed to make way for new occupants.

It is not that unusual to be driving in a small town and see things like
tractors, but a horse cart still caught us by surprise!

Schoenenbourg

The actual Schoenenbourg site was far more impressive than I had expected.  Firstly, it is HUGE.  I mean staggeringly large.  One corridor alone is over 1 km long.  The majority of the structure is 30 meters below ground.  So, when you first enter, you must descend a long square-spiral staircase before emerging into the main section of the fortress.  It is 13 degrees C down there, so they advise you to dress warmly.  And, really, you are walking through a cave system with train tracks all the way down it, so the ground isn’t entirely smooth (but it IS entirely concrete and very, very hard!)  They advise you to wear hiking shoes, and I would second the recommendation.  As I mentioned, the corridor that connects the several segments of the fortress is 1 km long, and the segments themselves are each about 250 meters long, with little wings sticking out.  You must walk up and back each.  They tell you it will take about 2 hours to walk the tour loop.  And, during that walk I calculated that you will go around 4 km- not including the 60 stairs up to the turret, loops around smaller rooms, and the main stairs up and down.  Every so often they have empty wheelchairs stationed around the museum.  I imagine those likely get used on a fairly regular basis by people who had no clue that they will wear themselves out just checking out a little old fort!

Heading out to Schoenenbourg

We have arrived.  More than anything, the area reminded me
of a National Park in the US where one would go camping.

Schoenenbourg also did encounter some fighting- in fact it was subjected to aerial and artillery bombardment. The fort held out, though, and was largely in tact when the French surrendered and the commander was forced to relinquish the site.  Most of the damaged structures have been restored since the war. Indeed, I don’t recall seeing any damage that I could obviously point to.
 

The main entrance- no clue to the size of what is beneath!

They had the anti-tank precautions, as well.

Stairs Down.  DD wasn’t pleased with them, but made it OK.

This is the first of the many long tunnels you pass through.

Further tunnels and odd rooms stick out from the main one- this one
was rather interesting because there is no room.  Just a little altar for
prayer.

A better photo of the altar.

Small-gauge train tracks run throughout the fortress.  In some sections there
are also overhead wires for these guys.

Some of the cars.
Another of the tunnels.  The grooved walls seem to be
for the ease of laying various pipes and wires along the tunnels.

The kids working in “the works”. 

 There were a couple locations considered interesting enough to posses a tour guide.  I wish I had gotten a photo of the lady who stood here in the Machine area called “The Works”.  She was a grandmotherly woman who may have been taller than DS, slightly, but not by much.  She asked us what languages we spoke so she could give her spiel.  Then after delivering it in a rather pat German, struck up a conversation with us.  She told us about her children and grand children, told us about growing up in a small town in Germany where she was not allowed to speak her local dialect at school.  She told us about learning French a little English and a few French dialects.  And she quizzed us about what we were doing in the area.  Then she set the kids up for this special behind-the-chain photo :)

After we left her area, she did a couple more groups, then seemed to go on some sort of “walking the museum and checking that everything is right” tour of her own.  She was walking the same path we were, so we kept bumping into her!  Twice, I think, she caught me turning the wrong way down one of the confusing passages.  Doh!  Then, about 1/2 through the tour we came to a restroom.  It had no genders on the door- only WC.  So, David and I both headed in.  I realized right away that the seatless toilets were not welcoming enough for me to bother with.  I exited.  But, David found a urinal.  As I walked out the door, our new friend, the little old lady tour guide, passed me!  Poor David had unexpected company in the toilets.  He says she went about wiping down a couple sinks while he tried to concentrate on his own business.  Ah yes.  The differences of culture!

We hustled ahead and I am pretty sure we didn’t see her again after that:-)

These look like fine wine racks, but actually
they are for storing munitions!

A similar set of racks with their intended hardware.

Please police your brass!!!

This was the weirdest looking weapon thing we saw.
It had something to do with anti-tanks, but I am not
really sure in what capacity.
It looks like the eye-doctor would use those scopes!

And, another passageway.

Photo Op!  DS and Me with some rather large
metal objects!

One of the coolest bits of engineering they had-  this was a secret escape
tunnel.  There are two parallel tubes running to
the surface.  The one up top is filled with gravel.  If the fort was
being taken, you would pull a door and release the gravel into the
shoot underneath.  Then, you could crawl out to the top!

Minerals dripped down along the passages in places
creating miniature stalactites and stalagmites!

Call-center Recon Map

Call Center 1930’s bunker style.

Another geological point of interest- oil seeping down the
walls.

DS explaining the mechanism for the
counterweight that opens the turret above.

Diagram of the turret pop-up mechanism

Underside of the turret

Schoenenbourg Art

Another aspect of the fortress that fascinated me were the various murals scattered throughout.  They were created by the men who were living here and they were influenced by images from their time.  By this time my camera batteries were running down, so I apologize that some of the shots are blurrier than I would like.

Some images from the time- ads framed on the walls

Yeah, not exactly the same cultural standards that
apply today!!

This was hanging in the infirmary.

This mural was in the kitchen

As was this one.

A little ways in we discovered an exhibit with more of
the murals photographed and retouched.

Well, it is a French Military Base!

Blurry- but this is showing where the original pieces were in the fort
there was a second room with more examples in it,
but the lights were out in it and my camera wasn’t up
to the low-light task

Afterwards

After our visit, we were exhausted and hungry! We stopped in a little border town along the way and had one of the best meals I have eaten since we arrived.  The restaurant was froofy but inviting, and the friendly tri-lingual owner (French, Italian, German) greeted us at the door as she caught us  reading her menu while she opened up.  So early (6 PM) on a weekend, we were the only ones in the place. The menu was Italian and the cook was, it seems, French.  I had salmon in a tomato-cream sauce with rice (which was also doused in the sauce- I am willing to bet many of their diners come from a German eating tradition!).  DS ate an entire small pizza Margherita, DS got penne in a red sauce and DH had tagliatelle with the same salmon and tomato-cream sauce that I enjoyed.  It completely hit the spot!  After the filling meal, we headed out into a light rain and watched the full-sky rainbow that accompanied us on our way home. 

What an altogether Lovely Day!

DH raising one eyebrow at me for pulling a camera on him at dinner ;-P
(He was joking around, but the shot makes him look like Hulk getting
his Smash on!)

Luckily, it tasted far better than it looked!

A rainbow- terrific end to a wonderful day!

May 162012
 
Tell me your town is this serious about asparagus!
(And, no, I am not sure why it has a whistle tied to the stalks)

The Black Forest Phoenix

RIP Spellbound, Long Live Black Forest Games!  Today David and about 20-30 of his co-workers went in to their old place of employment and were hired by a brand new company.  I can only imagine the logistical organization that must have been involved in managing all of this so quickly.  There were huge stacks of contracts, The Friendly Lawyer was on hand, and everyone did lunch at a rather bemused Burger King nearby.  The only significant change in our new contract is that David will get the German Standard 28 days of yearly vacation instead of his previous 24.  I think we can live with that.  He starts officially on the 1st, so we have a couple weeks of partially-paid vacation to play with right off the bat, too.  David says that he plans to use it much as a teenager uses those final years at home- convincing me that I will be Really Glad when he is Out Of the House and Back at Work 😉   Mostly, right now, I think he will spend his time playing Diablo III and driving kids to and from school while I write. 

A couple of days ago all those who were to be hired by the new company went in to be seen and interviewed by the local publisher who will be hiring them for their biggest project.  That went quite well.  So, at the end of the day they all had a meeting and voted on the new name for the company.  David’s suggestion of Angry Hamster made it far into the voting and had passionate support, but lost out when a few folks with different aesthetics dinged it.  Black Forest had the nice local feel and the advantage of not offending anyone’s sensibilities. So, Black Forest it is.  Interestingly, the German version of the same name, Schwarzwald, did not garner much support.  The gaming industry is apparently anglo-centric!  We actually knew this, though since one of the recruiters David talked to when things were up in the air mentioned that almost all the European Gaming Houses spoke English internally.

Errata– Thanks to Florian for letting us know: Your employer must give you 4 weeks notice when you lose your job in Germany, so our 3 month Visa clock would not have started running until a month after David’s lay off notice.  And, there are other agencies and back-up unemployment claims you can make to acquire more money to support your family should you need it.  Also, Spellbound in its last incarnation was not yet the number two game maker in Germany, it was working on attaining this title.

Other Random Stuff

Both kids have a 4-day weekend for Ascension (AKA Flying Jesus Day).  We don’t currently have plans, but I really suppose we ought to make some!

The Berry Lady’s New Booth.  She is on lunch break here-
she just moves the berries out of the sun and leaves all the other
merchandise sitting on the counter.  No one bothers it.
I do love that aspect of this area!

Durmstrong seems to be undergoing a rash of practical jokes lately.  Earlier this week the entire senior class showed up to school in jammies and conducted a sleep-in-flash-mob.  Then, today we discovered this car in the parking lot.

“La Voiture Capturé”  The Captured Car– in French, oddly enough!

The best translation I can find indicates this says
“So to speak, Well-wrapped”

The school is also having roofing work done.  I rather wonder what the
pranksters might do with the scaffolding over the 4 day weekend!

Next week we meet with Durmstrong Staff to discuss DS’s progress.  DD has a performance coming up next month.  And, we REALLY ought to get out and about at some point while David is home- but I have a couple more books due over the next few weeks, so we will see what we can see!

Sound Evidence
I have been meaning to get a sample of this for ages.  Here is a (bad) recording of the school bell at Hogwarts.  Am I wrong?  That is the Westminster bells followed by the theme to The Exorcist, isn’t it?  (warning, the video clip is for listening not viewing, but I don’t have a good film editor right now, so the best I could do was white and wavy for effects)

May 092012
 
I told them to “pose like Americans” 😉

Festivities for All

Well, after all the stress of last week, it was about time to break loose and have some fun!  Granted, Fun is not always stress-free.  But, it does have the advantage of being… er… FUN!  So, without further ado, here are

Three Point Five Fun Things that Happened This Week!

First Up- DS’s 12 Birthday!

In Germany, the tradition is for the birthday celebrant
to provide small candies for his class.  So, DS here
is all ready to celebrate with a bag full of gummies!

DS receiving his presents in the morning

Dinner Guest!  

DS’s German tutor, Kerstin, happens to be an American from the Bay Area!  Too cool!  We had been meaning to have her to dinner for-evah, but one thing or another kept getting in the way.  We finally got all the pieces to fall in place this week.  Since she misses Mexican food, we did our best to accommodate her with Do It Yourself Burrito Bar dinner.

Festive Table- It was as Mexican as I could
manage given the circumstances….

Kerstin and DS

There was much silliness, dancing and loud laughing. 

We decided the entire event was decidedly Un-German in its conspicuous exuberance. 
Definitely nice to let loose a little from time to time!



Birthday Resumed….

Our Birthday tradition is that the Birthday Boy or Girl gets to pick the meals for the entire day.  Since DS had school on his actual birthday, we agreed to postpone his meal-picking until the weekend.  So, when Saturday came around he got us to take a trip to Strasbourg for sandwiches and croissants for lunch, then for dinner we tried out the American Tex-Mex restaurant in town called Coyote Cafe.  We had been warned that their Mexican fare may be a little less than authentic (thus the burrito bar at home!).  But, we figured the Texas BBQ was worth a shot.  And, it wasn’t bad!  It is certainly not going to be convincing any true Southerners that the chef has made a trip to the States.  But, it was passably pleasantly edible.

DS in the Coyote Cafe

Mexican decorations?  Interestingly, most of the
place seemed to festooned with black and white
photos of French people!

I was amused to note that this water is “naturally mild”…. As opposed to
all that spicy water you usually get in these parts!!

BBQ Spare ribs… with lots and lots of parsley… And a butter knife.
The fries were excellent!

Job Recruitment ad on the
bathroom door.

FRENCH FLASHMOB

Quick Anecdote- DS’s school was going to participate in a Flash Mob to celebrate Europe Day- sort of a European Union togetherness sort of deal.  Makes sense since Hogwarts is a European school dedicated to the ideology that Europeans ought to respect each other and get along. 
But, lets face it, when it comes right down to it, our particular branch of Hogwarts is run by French People.  And French People, as we have learned through experience, have some interesting concepts about organization.  One of them was that for this entire school field-trip, each student must individually procure his or her own Tram Pass for the day (‘NO MONEY!’ read the email).  Additionally, after the flash mob, they must somehow find their way home… on their own…. from the center of the Big City…  Boggle!

Thus, Tuesday morning, David and DD set off to France to locate and acquire the pass that would be needed.  After some effort, they successfully purchased it and headed back around lunch time.  As it happens, Tuesday is the day for the Kehl outdoor market.  So, they stopped to grab some food and revisit our old town center.  While there, they noticed the lady running one of the food trucks had stepped out to get something from her car.  As she returned to the truck with a bundle in her arms she was loudly startled by a swarm of pigeons that had sneaked into her booth while she had been gone!  She screamed, the pigeons flaps and feathers flew. 

Eventually she calmed down and settled back in to work and the pigeons scatters.  David and DD got their food further in the market and headed back.  On their return trip, David snapped this photo.

Prepping for another sneak attack!

Locals wondered why DD and DH were cackling gleefully as they walked….

Flash Mob Day

Alright, so, since this Flashmob sounded like fun and since DD needed to get home somehow anyways, we decided to go check it out.  DS was feeling a bit under the weather, too, so we went ahead and kept him home and decided to make a Family Event of the whole thing.  Unfortunately, we had never been to the Place Kléber, but we knew it was the main town square for the city of Strasbourg.  How tough to find could it be?  Right?

Wellll…. You can probably guess where this is going. 

Now, David is a control freak who hates it when other people drive.  But, he hates driving in France even more.  So, we agreed that I would take the wheel on this journey.  But, we got off to a bad start.  We couldn’t figure out how to tell Garmin where we wanted to go, and I accidentally left the map in the house.  After several minutes of struggle, I finally gave up on the electronic navigator and dashed back into the house to grab the map- and an umbrella.  Yes.  Springtime in this area means rain!

So, we were already feeling a bit keyed-up when we headed out of the driveway- which was partially blocked by a little green car.  Still, I was convinced I could pass safely.  And, I was almost right…. Only, my side mirror barely clipped their side mirror on the way by.  Since ours is designed to fold down and it was still in place, I had a pretty good sense that no harm had been done, but I glance at the other car just to make sure.  Seeing no damage and no other humans immediately around and wishing to avoid an unnecessary scene, I made an executive decision.  I kept going.

David was not pleased.  Stress in the car was high.  And, to make things worse, we still couldn’t figure out where we were headed.  Eventually, David managed to punch in what he thought was the right location on the Garmin and it started giving directions.  Once in Strasbourg, the directions got familiarly fuzzy.  The satellites do not like parts of the city.  French drivers were predictably French drivers.  And one truck in particular thought that my brake lights were illuminating an alternate roadway for his personal use.  On one turn, trying to avoid the truck’s dangerous pressure, while simultaneously dodging another car that seemed determined to turn from their lane into ours, I managed to catch one wheel on the 1 inch tall center island separating the narrow street from the tramway.  David looked like he would happily have leaped in my lap and driven from there if the design for the car had permitted it.

Perhaps this would be a good place to mention that ordinarily I really *am* a pretty good driver,  Knock wood!  I have never gotten a moving violation, nor have I been involved in a crash (though some guy did lightly rear-end me at a stop light once).  But, I will fully admit that this was Not My Best Driving Day.

Further complications arose. Unmarked one-way roads suddenly became unmarked two-way streets.  Other hazards, like trams and pedestrians and cyclists, started appearing at a dizzying pace.  Then, without warning, our directions stopped.  Actually, it is good that they did because at the time they were telling us to turn the wrong way down a one-way street!  DOH

So, here we were in the middle of Strasbourg, late for the performance, and having no clue whatsoever how to get to DD’s location.  I concentrated on driving and David took another whack at the Garmin.  This time we were able to compare the directions it gave with a sanity check on the map I had printed.  It looked good.  So, I Drove!  Feeling a bit looser, I even pulled out the camera to record a couple highlights of the city….
 

David nearly exploded when I pulled out my camera at a
long stop light to take a photo of the church under renovation.

Getting close to where I was pretty sure the square was located, we spotted a regulation Mall with its own parking structure.  Being unsure where else we might park, I went for it.  Yes indeedy, there were plenty of open spaces.  But… well, let us just say they were… narrow.  After three flubbed attempts, I finally managed to maneuver safely into a tiny spot against a pillar that David was sure I would hit.  I was sure I would not, so I was pleased to be proven right for once today!

From there we hoofed it.  Luckily, my direction-sense is usually pretty good and I had a fairly decent idea where the Square must be hidden given the layout of the surrounding buildings.  Relying on a couple vague street signs and my maternal-homing instincts, we maneuvered the correct three blocks to emerge at the Place Kléber- only about 45 minutes later than we had intended to arrive!  The rain had let up and we didn’t have too much trouble finding DD- even though she was now dressed in the identical T-shirt as all her classmates from the school!  That is not what she was wearing when she left this morning!

Apparently, we had missed the first run through of the Flash Mob- the one where they all pretended to just be hanging out in the square and just happened to get the urge to stand up and dance when this Hip-hop version of the EU Anthem just happened to play over a loudspeaker on a day that just happened to have EU information booths lining the square.  Ah well.  We *were*, though, in time for the encore performance, in which the students dropped the pretense and grimaced their way through 83 verses of some hipster singing about how we are all part of one big European Family to the tune of Ode to Joy.  I really wished someone had mentioned to the kids (who were being filmed by every parent and local TV station in town) that perhaps smiling would be a more convincing way to project European Unity.  But, maybe the message is more clear this way- “yeah, we just grit our teeth and bear it, but we each move our own way and hug at the end- and no one gets hurt.  We are all in it together, for better or worse!” 

Caught DD mid-jump!

Perhaps synchronicity wasn’t their strongest feature, but
they DID all show up and the DID dance!

So, all in all, I think it was a memorable event!  We stopped for ham and cheese sandwiches at a patisserie on the way out (French folks put butter on these, which makes all the difference as far as the kids are concerned!)  Then, letting David take the wheel this time, we headed home.  

A few Strasbourg sites that I didn’t include above:

Blurry, but apparently this is
“The Library of the Entire World”
ROCK ON Strasbourg!!!

This guy adorns one of the bridges- along with 3
similar statues
His other side- I think he is throwing a net
One of his friends….  Don’t these guys
just seem like they ought to be in Moscow?

If you are REALLY curious about the flash mob, I have included a couple of brief video clips.  The first one shows part of their second run through of the dance- this time with their T-Shirts.

The finale- Big Hug!

May 022012
 

The Adventure Continues….

You know how when you first heard about the concept of open heart surgery someone told you that they had to stop the heart in order to work on it?  And then they would get it started again once they had it fixed and everything would be OK!  You may have thought “wow, that sounds super-dangerous and like a terrible idea!  But, maybe it makes sense, and it is probably better than the alternative… Hmmmmm…”

That was this week.

Today Spellbound Entertainment GmbH shut its doors- soon, we hope, to morph into some slightly streamlined version of its old self with a new name, new owners, but basically the same raison d’ etre.  The heart is not currently beating, but we are watching the doctors unclog the arteries and waiting for them to use the paddles to get things going again….

So What Happened?

Basically, many months ago, they had a big contract blow up in a messy fashion.  They were getting things stabilized after that and had financing all set up to fund them over the gap. But, they had their bridge financing fall through at the last minute.  That triggered the insolvency that I reported earlier, which meant that the company came under control of the German Government.  The last couple months have been spent trying to work out a plan that would be acceptable to the team from the German Government- i.e. some plan that would show stable financing for at least one year of operations.  They came close, and are still working on it.  But at press time, they only had some of the deals finalized that would cover the entire one year period with their current expenses. 

So, on to Plan B. 

They shut down the old company.  They create a new company.  Then they rehire only enough staff to cover the projects that they have firmly in hand and signed for at present.  As more work gets nailed down (and there are deals in process), they hire back as many more as they can.  But, for a couple of weeks while the new company is being legally established, everyone is out of work.

So, What Does That Mean For Us?

The Scary: today David got official lay off paperwork.  Unfortunately, this is getting to be rather old hat with us!  What the heck is with this industry?!?  But, for goodness sakes, who would have expected the second largest gaming company in Germany to go belly up all of a sudden?  In any case, yeah, I had a couple hours today where I was sort of a zombie while I processed all this.  We had to do a quick run to the market and David kept having to drag me and face me in the right direction because I would sort of…. wander.  After the instability caused by his last lay off, I think it triggered a bit of a minor panic-attack.  But, I am feeling a bit better now.  Technically, if David is not rehired, we could get thrown out of the country in about 4 months, but that isn’t going to happen.

The Comforting: the entire company got the same paperwork, and the folks from the unemployment offices came down to Spellbound to give them a little talk.  Then they all walked over together to fill out paperwork as one big group!  Well, actually, as two big groups- they separated them into German and English speakers and handled them that way.  The poor French guys were in with the English speakers and got no special assistance at all.  The most fluent folks helped translate for everyone else. 

David has worked here just long enough to qualify for German Unemployment benefits- which amount to 60% of your normal salary.  So, you see, we are definitely not experiencing Germany as tourists!  We are right in there with everyone else.  In fact, perhaps we are even being Euro-fashionable!  Sigh….  His paperwork was, surprisingly, not among the most complicated for the very international group- the French folks again got the fuzzy end of the lollipop and are going to have a heck of a time, it seems.  And, anyone who was only hired recently is SOL.

The Good:  Since they already do have a couple of contracts signed and just need a company established with which to fulfill them, that means that his actual Unemployed time ought to be (knock wood) very short.  The current estimate David was given for his particular job was about 2 weeks.  Of course, we have heard similar things before.  But I am REALLY hoping it is true this time around!  

Other Good Things: we have had kind folks offer to help us should things get tight.  A very comforting thought, indeed!  Also, hey, it looks like David gets a short vacay!  It will even overlap with a couple days worth of DD’s, and the weather is getting quite pretty!  Luckily, we knew it was a good time to have a little padding, so we have a little bit of money set aside to handle the deficit.

Also, on the Good List- you have to admit that having the entire company go through something like this is a bit of a long-term team-building experience!  David says it was probably the most social day he has had in ages, with everyone sitting around chatting and gossiping and joking and consoling while they went through the process.  The folks who wind up in the new company will have been in the trenches together.  It will be interesting to see their interactions as they rebuild. In the mean time, people were exchanging emails and contact info that hadn’t been handed over the entire time he had worked there.  So, that was also a nice development.

Ok, well, that is pretty much what we know right now on that front.  What else is up?

The Hair

Well, let’s see.  I was feeling so good and Springy and Adventuresome earlier this week, that I dyed my hair again!  This time I went with the German purple color (that comes out coppery red in the light, and a more berry color in the shadows on me) and then dyed over it with some Blue that I got in the States on the underside.  That turned out sort of blackish on first rinse, but I think it will fade to a deep velvety blue-violet.  I figure everyone is looking at the weird American anyways, no point in hiding :-)  Though, to be fair, Germans dye their hair all sorts of weird colors- not Blue, though.  I am not sure why.  I have even seen green, but never blue dye here in Germany.

The basic look, lighter graduating down to dark

The stripes, the top color is a bit more
purple than it looks here.

Closer to the coloring as it looks indoors- outdoors it turns
much brighter and more coppery.  The unfortunate side effect of
German dyes on my hair.

The Plunge

Last Friday when I went in to see Tom, my physical therapist, he was holding an object that looked very much like a cross between a bathroom plunger and something that would be inappropriate to discuss in a family-friendly blog!  This, he said, was going to be much less painful that one of the previous techniques he had used.

Actually, it looked just like the things above, but without the IPA branding
(Institute of Physical Art, apparently). 

Ummm.. What?

At first I thought he was joking, but he was totally serious.  Apparently this is a newish therapy for releasing the layers of skin/muscle from one another so they can move/drain/function properly.  After injury, they can tend to adhere to one another and make things stiff, so the therapist needs to break the bonds that are keeping them from moving apart.

It works pretty much like you might expect… if you ever expected your PT to pull out a slightly obscene blue and crystalline plunger and attach it to your person.  He had me lay on my stomach then attached the plunger to my injured shoulder… then he, er, wiggled it!  It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it didn’t really hurt either.  It just felt… weird.  I guess it did what is was supposed to.  I am pretty sure I was able to move better after the treatment than before.  But… yeah.  VERY bizarre, and perhaps not my most dignified moment of all time!

Next Up: DS Turns 12, Our First Local Dinner Guest, and more on the Spellbound Saga when I have it!