Tuesday, January 1, 2019
The end of my first full year in Germany ended quite well. As I said at the beginning of my last post, I got quite a bit of traveling in. Just three weeks after getting back from the States, I was again unterwegs or "on the way" - this time to Switzerland to visit my friend Stefan.
On Monday, December 24th, I packed my bags and went back to the airport to catch my flight down to Zürich. Stefan showed up shortly thereafter and we headed over to his friend Carl's for the night. The next day he had a job in Kandersteg; Stefan is a freelancing handyman, so he's pretty much always driving from one job to the next.
Thankfully, his first job landed us at a ski resort! After he sorted out some business with a local restaurant, we took the cable car up the mountain to do some "sledging" or sledding as we say in the Anglo world. As we, both over 6 ft (192cm), slid down the mountain on a single sled, we used our feet to steer and tried our best to stick to the sledding path. Unfortunately, at one point we got a bit distracted trying to film the ride, and we missed a turn. The following stretch was pretty intense as we basically almost fell off the mountain. We weren't the only ones though. A family behind us was also veering out of control while trying to deal with what was probably a black diamond run for skiers. We managed to make our way back up to the normal slope though, which was itself pretty steep, but doable.
Upon reviewing our video footage, we managed to spot the point where we made our wrong turn. The sign was light pink and, thus, barely visible in the light, snow-covered environment. That night we stayed at Stefan's friend Simon's place down a bit further south. Simon lives on a farm on the side of a mountain, so it was a pretty cool place to walk around.
The next day we went to a martial arts dojo where Stefan had a rather big job tearing apart a whole training room; a job that would take the next few days to finish. On top of that, he also had another job where we had to construct a custom crane using winches in order to move some massive bags of concrete chunks - definitely a bit of a mission!
Three days later it was time to head back to Düsseldorf for the night. After one night back, I got up the next morning and went to the airport again. This time I flew to Lyon in order to join some friends for New Year's or, as the Germans call it, "Silvester" (no, not the cat from the cartoon!). Unfortunately, I had some issues (no online check-in, wrong line, long security line, etc.) and I almost missed my flight. Luckily, after convincing some people in line at both the check-in and security to let me cut, and running through half the airport, I managed to catch the shuttle to the tarmac just as it was pulling away.
Once in Lyon, I booked a Oui bus to Grenoble and grabbed a local coach from there to La Côte-Saint-André where my friend Pau lives. We then ate cheese and played board games until dinner, ate dinner, then played more board games! The next day we went to the pool to swim and sit in the sauna a bit, then went back and played board games again (Pau has a couple shelving units loaded with games). Finally, the following day, after I walked the dog (spent most of the time chasing after it after it slipped out of its collar), we headed up to Lyon to spend Silvester eating Raclette with some other friends.
The next morning we went to Grenoble to do some skiing, but we didn't really have time, so we drove back down and visited the city before heading to the airport. All in all, it was a "Guten Rutsch" ("happy new year!") as the Germans like to say - a phrase that literally means "good slide". Something we did plenty of back at Kandersteg!
Sunday, December 23, 2018
November brought me back into travel mode. Not only did I get back to the States for the first time since my return to Europe, but I also finished the year quite strong in general. Though, if you ask my family, they might suggest that my visit was a bit... off. Seems the idea of working while on holiday doesn't sit well with a lot of volks.
Anyway, the first day of the month I crammed a bunch of stuff into my giant rolling duffel that I got at Aldi for 10 euros, and walked over to the airport to catch my flight to Seattle. The next morning we went for pancakes and I ran some errands. I stopped by Walmart and updated my glasses for $60 then went to the Department of Licensing to renew my license; the German government had insisted on taking my other one when they gave me my German one... kind of defeats any purpose they might have when one can just get a new license issued for 15 bucks back home!
That evening I caught up with the local church and, the next day, my brother over in Ellensburg. After getting back, I made my controversial move of signing paperwork so that I could pick up some hours at the college during my visit - starting that night. It's worth noting though that I basically only worked nights, so I was always available during the day to spend time with family... a win-win in my book.
Over the following weeks I visited my friends the Stampers down the street, voted for some local stuff, as you do, cleaned out some of my stuff in the attic, and got my motorbike up and running again. I still borrowed one of my mom's bikes when we went on rides, but it's nice to know that my cheapo machine still runs!
Near the end of my visit, I worked all night before spending Thanksgiving at my dad's, and then working that night as well... it was rough, but worth it! I got double time for three shifts because of the holiday. What's great is I basically managed to nullify the costs of traveling and missing a month of work.
On my last evening, I finally managed to meet up with my friend Josh who, having bought a VR headset years before, was excited when I suggested getting an Oculus Rift on a Black Friday deal. I had already gotten a really good deal on a gaming laptop, so it seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, the laptop, which was supposedly "Oculus ready", didn't work with the headset. I guess it just wasn't meant to be. So, after spending an hour with the tech people at Bestbuy trying to get it to work, we returned both the laptop and the headset (~$900) and I picked up the Oculus Go instead ($180). This turned out to be an excellent decision as, not only did I save tons of cash that I probably would have regretted spending after the fact, but the portability of the Go made it possible to submerse myself in virtual reality during my flight back to Europe! A bit weird, sure, but totally worth any looks from other passengers that I wouldn't be aware of anyway. Also notable is the fact that the Go actually has better video quality than the more-expensive Rift.
Anyway, I arrived back in Düsseldorf a couple days later where I found myself waking up at around 430 in the morning for the first few days. I was pretty pleased to be back in my own place and, more or, yeah, less, on my normal schedule. Most of all, I was happy to be free from the wild beasts that my mom calls pets... particularly the big one that has no concept of personal space!
There wasn't one day that I didn't come back to a ear-shattering, peace-obliterating chorus of howling dogs. Back in Germany, I enjoyed visiting the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) again, eating out with colleagues, and spending time with the local church.
Thursday, November 1, 2018
As summer continued, I managed a few more activities and one trip. On Saturday, the 25th of August, some of us rented a couple cars and drove down to Stuttgart for a wedding. On the way we had some fun testing out our rentals' performance on the autobahn - I got ours up to 200 kph (125 mph)!
After the wedding, we had a big feast and finished our 10+ hour drive down to Zurich in Switzerland. There we stayed with a brother named Marcos. The next day we finished the drive to St. Gallen where we celebrated the establishment of a new meeting hall.
When the meeting finished, we spent some time getting to know some of the local ones before starting the long haul back to Düsseldorf.
Over the next couple months, I got a few more summer activities in with some friends: made fires and roasted marshmallows by the Rhine, played laser tag, checked out a couple food festivals, and went to Aquazoo - the local aquarium.
During this time I had another visitor; one who had unusual behavior that, I suppose, could be described as comical. He arrived and immediately put his stuff everywhere... I mean everywhere. He then hardly left at all as the days went by, probably because he was chronically ill for the entirety of his visit (even when he came back for a second time a few weeks later). He also killed my muesli on a Sunday... which meant no way for me to buy more until the next day. And his habits... he made regular grunting and sighing sounds, cleared his throat in a loud and elongated way, breathed out loudly after sipping tea, snored super loud, used his snooze alarm several times (he didn't have to work... but I did), and constantly left the lights on in the bathroom (which, as I told him several times, triggers an annoying fan that drives me crazy). Of course, aside from all that, he's a really nice guy and I don't hold that stuff against him... much.
Now, if such an experience isn't enough to test one's patience, driving in Düsseldorf certainly does the job. I seriously think people in this city have something against driving anything that isn't a BMW or a Mercedes. It's actually not even a question of whether your vehicle is a status symbol here - that point my students have already confirmed. What really gets me is how much they despise anything that's slower than them. Don't get me wrong, I think the driving culture here beats ours in America by a long shot - people here actually seem to have some semblance of a code. However, that code does not align with road laws. The Germans love to drive fast. Everything here is a race. Red light? Gotta be the first one there. Two lanes merging together? Gonna go ahead and cut off the guy at the head of the line. Though, I suppose it's worth noting that this is technically more efficient than just staying in one lane. So, the front guy usually actually allows it without complaint... unlike in America. Nevertheless, the impatience here is stifling, especially when you're on a tiny scooter that can barely pull it's own weight... Literally, I can hold it back with my hands and the little wimp won't go anywhere. Thanks to the legally imposed limitations on this impotent toy, people here pretty much want me dead (a colleague told me as much), even more than they did when I was on a bicycle. I still haven't gotten used to the tailgating here - it's like they're just waiting for you to fall so that they can run you over... either go around or back off!
Even when you put aside the "me first" driving culture, driving here is not easy. People park where they want, even triple park, so that sometimes you actually have to drive into oncoming traffic to get around all of the parked cars... and the police do nothing because it's actually the city's fault for not putting in more parking (apparently they're trying to force people into using public transport). Then, when I try to go around, cars behind me expect me to let them go first because they're faster. I seriously had a guy behind me accelerating in order to try to scare me into stopping and letting him go first. Then, after almost running me over during his fit, he had the nerve to pull up next to me and berate me for being in his way. Well, I couldn't even keep up with what he was saying, so I just simply replied "mach Platz für alle!" which means "make room for everybody!"
The hatred for scooters here really defies logic. I mean, Germans are supposedly all about Umweltschutz (protecting the environment), but then they get all offended when someone drives something that's a bit more economical than what they drive (okay, a LOT more economical). I literally had a elderly couple walk up behind me while I was sitting on my scooter and say "stinkender Roller!" which means "stinky scooter!". What the heck!? You think a car would smell any better? Get your priorities figured out, people. Then again, they're probably just jealous because I don't have to drive around the neighborhood for an hour looking for parking.
Coming up on the end of October, I was getting ready to head back to the States for a few weeks when I realized that I had a bit of a problem with my apartment - the mold was coming back. Well, at first I panicked and started looking for a new place, but then I found the solution - a huge Luftentfeuchter (dehumidifier). I found it at Kaufland for 70€ (50% off) and got my landlord to pay for it. Problem solved! Thing pulls like two liters (half gallon) of water out of the air everyday. Crazy.
After that, I only had one more thing to do before taking off. I asked my boss for a "performance review" to which he said "you're looking for more money, right?" Well yeah, of course! And I got it - a 2€ raise for each of my 45 minute lessons. The next day I walked over to the airport and boarded my flight. I'm glad I didn't have to leave my place - it's so convenient!
Friday, August 24, 2018
On Monday, May 7th, I finally bought my scooter. I had lived in Düsseldorf for eight months with just a bicycle as my sole form of transportation. Yeah, I could have opted for the train on the days that were rainy, cold, snowy, etc., but why give up my freedom when it's going to cost me 70 euros a month (or more without a monatsticket). Besides, the bicycle was generally the faster option anyway. No, the exercise wasn't doing me any harm (at least, not initially), so I pushed through the rain, sleet and snow; all the while saving up every euro so that I could invest in more of a long-term solution. Okay, the last month or two were really hard on my knees - I even had to wear knee braces - but it was worth it in the end.
The only problem with my new nifty 50 was that it arrived gedrösselt or "dethrottled" meaning that it was limited to 25 kph (about 15 mph). This was not what I had ordered but, thankfully, it only took a few days for the Mechaniker to get the part in so that it could be ungedrösselt. I was also a bit frustrated that he kept putting off sorting out the appropriate TUV (in the end he never did) but, according to him, it doesn't really matter... I like my scooter, so whatever.
Two weeks later I went to the Altstadt (old city) for Japan Tag with a few friends. We walked along the Rhine looking for food and checking out all of the weird comic book costumes. As we got further along, the smell of marijuana got really intense... we did eventually find food - I got the Yakisoba. After eating, we watched some people playing drums then got some ice cream at Pia Eis. Pia Eis is probably the most popular place in town for ice cream because it's really good and only costs one euro for a Kugel (cone).
Over the next few weeks summer really kicked off. A colleague had a BBQ one day, church friends the other, then there was a wedding, a BBQ for a colleague that was going back to France, a birthday in Cologne, frisbee in the park, swimming at the lake, bowling with some newcomers from Korea, another wedding down in Stuttgart, usw.
I hosted a few visiting friends here and there, and tried to join Rollernacht (a night of skating through the streets of Düsseldorf with hundred of other locals), but I got kicked out because I was on a longboard, not wearing skates. I similarly got kicked out of the park for pushing my scooter (scary motorized machine that could hurt someone if it were to be turned on...). The park official threatened to have me arrested if I wasn't gone in 30 minutes.
The birthday in Cologne was interesting partly because of the scale of it, and partly because of three-hour round-trip journey. My scooter, which, at the time, could actually get up to 75 kph (now only 65 for some reason - still not bad considering that it's supposed to be limited to 50 kph) is only intended for getting around town... not for intercity travel. In any case, I saved about 30-40 euros (>18 euros each way by train) with the scooter which only took one 2.5 L tank (about 3 euros) to do the whole trip there and back. So, it was worth it. I also had to get a handyhalter (phone holder) so that I could use my GPS to navigate the Landstraßen (highways) and back roads that I had to use in order to avoid the autobahn (no translation needed I hope!). When I told the Mechaniker what I planned to do with it, he didn't miss a beat in saying, "bis drei wochen" or "see you in three weeks!". Yeah, it was a looong ride.
I also kind of joined a band during this time. My colleague, Wendell (the one who had the BBQ), has been renting out a room under a performance hall for the last couple decades in which he has stored literally about every piece of rock band equipment you could ask for. Him and his buddies, along with the occasional colleague such as myself, meet there regularly to spend the night jamming and recording their stuff. It was pretty cool to hang out and learn a few things from some guys who, while they know how to play pretty well, really just do it for fun on the weekends.
My summer wasn't all fun and games though. I managed to sort out a few details of my life here in Deutschland. Everything from Rentenversicherung or "retirement insurance" (required by law) to getting my own waschmachine for doing laundry. I actually got that from a friend who was moving and didn't need it anymore. Of course, I helped her move and chipped in for the cost a bit. Then a couple other friends, the same ones that installed it for her, helped install it at my place.
The expenses continued to pile up as I invested in a couple visits to the local healthcare providers. We've all heard the story that healthcare in Europe is more affordable... well, that's not necessarily true. I actually had free healthcare back in the states for one thing due to my low level of income there (and to the fact that I lived in a liberal state). In Europe people still manage to spend a bit on their healthcare. Some of my colleagues spend over 200 euros a month on it even though they're single like me. Of course, that probably still sounds good to some folks back in the states. In any case, I managed to get away with 59 euros a month for private care that only pays for medically necessary treatment. That being said, my surprise bill of 500 euros for a referral to get my heart, lungs and circulatory system checked out was covered. It seems that I got lucky because my doctor had checked the "Kurativ" box and not the "Präventiv" one. It cost me 10 euros every time I talked to the lady at, or visited, the check in counter (which adds up when your talking about checking office hours over the phone, making an appointment, coming in for said appointment, and then having to go in again to get a copy of the referral because the other place didn't give it back...). I also paid over 80 bucks for my initial checkup and a blood test that I had done as well as another 60 bucks for a standard visit to the dentist, so things can still get pretty expensive even when you live in a country with universal healthcare!
For all the expenses, I really can't complain though. Not only has the experience been "top", as the Germans say, but I've managed to put away quite a bit of coin. One of the companies I work for, JLC (Junior Language Club), likes to put on so-called "camps" during the different seasons - summer being the biggest one. So, not knowing how much work it would be, I accepted, at first, everything they offered me. That included four hours with young kids in the morning, and four hours with teenagers in the afternoon - on top of my normal work schedule... I had some days that were 13 hours with no breaks. Needless to say, that was as financially fruitful as it was stressful.
Sunday, April 29, 2018
For the second time in my life (the first was in Hong Kong before I put everything into my first investment) I've actually got a healthy bank account to go along with my stable living situation. I always imagined that this situation would lead to more travel but, while I haven't stopped traveling, I find that my motivation to leave behind the hard-earned comforts decreases with every month of consistent stability. Part of me would love to just drop everything in order to get back on the road - hence the title "Fernweh" (German for "travel nostalgia") - but then I wouldn't be able to get that elusive long-term reward of being financially and legally free to move about Europe without a 90 day limit. I feel as if I'm pacing myself so that I can actually get there, but my fear is that I'll become too apathetic by then to actually get back into it... the struggle is real. I've finally reached a point where I can fully experience the "first-world" problem of having the means, yet not a lot of willpower. But then, I do have friends to motivate me.
On Sunday, March 25th, I went to the P1 Flomarkt - a flea market up by the airport. I've heard a lot about how great it is, so I've finally gone to have a look. I was pleased to see that it really was quite a large event with lots to do but, even so, I still prefer the one on the south side. That same day I received a visitor who would be staying for about a week. It's nice to be the one providing hospitality for a change. Then again, it was an extremely busy week, as I was teaching at the so-called "camps" eight hours a day on top of my normal schedule. The joy of working every minute of the day peaked on Friday when I left one of my students at the Airhop Trampoline Park... good ol' diffusion of responsibility it seems. Next time I won't be so careless as to trust that my coworkers are counting heads properly. After that I still had an afternoon of bowling with the teen group, but that was much more relaxing. Not only did it not require even half the energy of literally jumping around all morning at the trampoline park, but pizza was provided as well! I also had camps the following week, but that was much easier. Only four hours a day, and I didn't forget anybody at Airhop!
Another few weeks went by, during which I tried to buy my new scooter (I was turned down by my bank because I hadn't had my account for long enough to qualify for financing), after which I took a weekend trip to visit Stefan. On Friday, April 20th, I got up at 3am and, over the course of several hours, took a train from Düsseldorf to Cologne to Mannheim to Basel Bad. Stefan picked me up there after which we drove to a job to start installing an awning, then inquired about another job nearby, drove to East Switzerland for some yard work and, finally, returned to finish installing the awning. After all of that, we made our way into Southeastern France, arriving at about 1am. We then camped in hammocks in a forest over by a friend's place for the night.
The next day we got ready for a day of off-roading! We found access to some nearby mountain forests and started exploring. We had to drive over a lot of debris and, at one point, we even had to break out the big guns and saw a tree in half in order to continue down the path. Luckily, since Stefan is a "heimwerker" (handyman) of sorts, he had all the power tools you could possibly need for any such-type situation. It was snap. We made our way through more obstacles - nothing his Jeep couldn't handle - until we arrived at the other side. We started down a normal driveway-type road only to meet our fate there. Wouldn't you know it, after all the off-road threats were over, we popped a tire on a normal road. Some branch was sticking out slightly into the road at what must have been the perfect angle, because it stuck straight into the tire like a hot knife through butter.
We ended up sitting around at the main road for a few hours before finally being rescued by the tow truck. It was a beautiful day, so we really didn't mind all that much. Of course, we had to be picked up in town by a friend and, because the Jeep was going to be a few days in the shop (Jeep tires are hard to come by in Europe), we would be without much in the way of reliable transportation for the rest of the visit.
Nevertheless, we managed the next day without four wheels. Actually, we had two each - our hosts had a couple mountain bikes for us to ride around. So, we took off looking for somewhere to swim. Our first stop was a stagnant pond by a house that looked like a murder scene... or abandoned at least. We rode on until we arrived at a small town on a river. After following the river a bit, we finally arrived at a swimming hole. The water was freezing, but we needed to cool off anyway. A bit further along we came to the dog show where Stefan's friends were, but we didn't see them, so we kept going till the next town. There we found a nice street market with lots of food and some random stuff. We got some waffles, had some ice cream, then decided to take a shortcut back through the woods. At first the path was quite nice, but then the trail started getting a bit rugged, before coming to an abrupt end. We rode between the trees for a bit but this became impossible as the forest floor turned to swamp. We then carried the bikes for a bit, hopping around to avoid patches of deep mud, until we reached a river. At this point we could see a clearing just beyond the trees, so we threw the bikes over the river, got a running start, and jumped across.
Finally, we were literally free and clear. We pushed across a field, rode along a dirt road and, finally, arrived back on normal streets. From there it was a short journey back to the house. That evening I got a ride to Reinfelder with some friends of Stefan's friends, took a train from there to Basel, Basel bad, then back to Düsseldorf. The next day I arrived at 7am, rode home and slept.
Three days later, I packed my bags and got on a plane to Paris. Garret had come to visit me just a month before; now I was on my way to return the favor. After I arrived, I started working my way across the city. My flight had been really late as it was (arrived at 7:10pm), but then I had to figure out how to get to the other side of a very large city where the public transportation is often shut down due to strikes - as was the case during my previous visit as well. I took a shuttle across the airport, got a train ticket (10 euros - machine only accepted coins!), got all the way across the city, managed to figure out my last leg, but then got stuck waiting for an hour for the last train due to, you guessed it, strikes. Thankfully, when it was all said and done, Garret had prepared some very nice steaks in his dorm in Jouy-en-Josas.
The next morning, Garret showed off his very fancy French press coffee machine. I usually don't drink coffee but, I've got to say, it wasn't bad! We also had some cured sausage and melt-in-your-mouth cheese. Garret really studies up on his French/European cuisine, so there was no questioning the quality of any of it. That day Garret was a bit busy with school stuff, so I went into Paris to do the tourist thing. I visited all of the things that I had certainly seen years before on a walking tour that I had taken (I literally wrote nothing about it back then, so it's hard to say!) - Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle and, of course, the Eifel Tower as well as the ever-impressive Arc de Triomph. I had been walking all day (along the river, through several neighborhoods, etc.) and was now in one of the most touristy areas. It was here that I decided to put to use one of the more useful backpacking tricks - I wandered down a random allee until I found a tiny shop with no attractive qualities and, from there, I was able to buy things at normal prices. I had already checked a few shops in the touristy area in order to find a cable to charge my dying phone/guide, but they all wanted 15 euros for what, in the end, only cost me about 3...
Finally, I charged my phone at a McDonalds while I waited for Garret to arrive. We went for a walk through a cool neighborhood that had lots of neat little shops with super-overpriced treats, then got dinner at an Indian restaurant that some fellow students had recommended to him. After that we took the train back to Jouy for the night.
The next day we rented a car, stopped at his local bakery for breakfast, and drove to Chartres. I had studied the cathedral there back in the day, so I had some expectations for this place. Well, I was not disappointed. The cathedral was more massive than I had ever imagined. I probably had to take a dozen photos and stitch them together in order to get the whole thing:
We walked around Chartres and ate at a super old-looking Creperie called Crêperie Les Trois Lys - seriously could have been from the 16th century! We then drove over to Château de Maintenon - a château, originally a castle, with huge gardens, super ornate interior, and a really cool aqueduct.
After all of that, we were ready to finally head back. We stopped at a few different shops, including a really old-school-looking farm organics store with all of the local produce you could ask for, and picked up some French white sausage for dinner.
We had lunch in Paris the next day on the way to the airport then I struggled alongside fellow train people trying to figure out what train would actually get us to the airport on time... despite the lingering limitations caused by the strike!
Well, I guess, with a little help from my friends, I've managed to get back out and do a bit more traveling after all. Hopefully they can convince me to do it all again soon!
Saturday, March 24, 2018
No matter where you are, the daily grind can really get to you. This is most certainly compounded by cold weather. I find that the dream of living abroad is only as good as the location you choose. Düsseldorf has been nice up till now, but the cold weather really takes its toll - especially when you're huffin' 'n' puffin' to get everywhere. Over the last few months this has gone from an excellent form of exercise to a rather unhealthy strain on my body. For one thing, while bicycles are supposed to be easy on the joints, my knees have been giving me serious problems. I've gotten to the point of wearing braces on both knees. Furthermore, the cold weather just makes everything feel like a constant battle for survival. It's no surprise that people start getting the frühjahrsmüdigkeit (early year tiredness/depression) real bad this time of year.
On Saturday, the 10th of February, my travel buddy Stefan arrived for a visit. Having a visitor definitely helps to break the mundane day-to-day routine. I met him at the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) at about 6am, after which we started right into a tour of the city. First stop: Trödelmarkt (flea market).
We then rode along the Rhine River, through the Altstadt (the old city), and back to my place. It was noon by the time Stefan finally put his stuff down. I pumped up my little inflatable raft so he could take a rest for a bit before our ride up to Angermund for the home meeting.
The next day, after the table meeting, we passed through the crazy festivities of Karneval on our way up into the hills. Stefan is a big fan of riding bikes on hilly surfaces, so this was the next logical place to visit. We found our way up to the top of the only hills in Düsseldorf where we stopped to visit the Wildlife Park.
It being a free Wildlife Park, there wasn't a whole lot to see, but it was definitely worth the visit. We then rode through the forest on our way to Spieleabend (game night). We followed a long path which wound through the hills for a good hour or so before ending abruptly in the middle of the city. From there it was a relatively easy ride to the meeting. Later that night I went back to the Hauptbahnhof with Stefan so he could catch his train back to Switzerland. About three weeks later I went back to the Hauptbahnhof to meet up with my next visitor - Garret.
Garret and I met about eight years ago in Paris. Up till a few months back he'd been working on getting back to France for what would be a more long-term visit. Garret has ancestry in Luxembourg so, after a very long and bureaucratic application process, he finally managed to get citizenship. With that, it was only a matter of tying up some loose ends back in the states before he was able to, at long last, achieve his dream of moving to Europe. Garret arrived in France just a month after I had also arrived back in Europe. Since his new home was so close to mine, we decided it was about time for a bit of catching up.
After stopping back at my place for breakfast, Garret and I started our walk around town. Unlike Stefan, Garret is a bit more interested in the local culture. So, we went to the local shops to get some German chocolates and other food. Then, after dropping that off at my place, we went into the city to meet my friend Tarek from Köln (Cologne). We had a good lunch followed by some Chococoffee and cheesecake. Finally, after a walk along the Köh (a famous shopping street in the city center), Tarek hopped back on the train home, and Garret and I went back to do some cooking.
The next day we went to the table meeting, had lunch with some of the others from the church, and tried some Leberkäse at the Hauptbahnhof. Finally, it was time to say goodbye, so Garret caught his train heading back to Paris.
Over the next week I finally got my visa, opened a bank account, and started shopping for a scooter. It was time to start moving up in life! Unfortunately, my timing could have been a little better. With the cold weather I was convinced by Peter to ride the train to one of the meetings one night... I hate taking the local trains. They're overpriced and, more often than not, they don't really save me any time. Sometimes they even take longer than just riding the bike because of the waiting times. But, I thought it'd be nice to accompany Peter just this once since, you know, it's just like five euros, right? Wrong. After waiting over a half hour, we finally boarded the train only to be kicked off after a couple of stops - we hadn't bought a zusatzticket (extra ticket) for our bikes! A zusatzticket is a full-priced ticket that you have to buy for your bicycle as if it's another person or something. But, at the time, I didn't really know that was necessary. So, we got two more tickets and waited for the next train to come... thirty minutes later. By this time we were cold, hungry and demotivated, but we took the train the rest of the way to Angermund. Then we started riding to the meeting only to realize, after about a kilometer in the freezing cold wind, that we were going the wrong direction. So, it took another 20 minutes or so, but we finally made it to the meeting.
After dinner we thought the worst must be over now. Wrong again. We checked our tickets and, upon realizing that we hadn't validated them, got to thinking that we could validate them at the station and use them to get home. The problem is that, while some tickets require validation in a ticket machine, others don't. The whole train system is like this - some places have machines in the trains, some have ticket checkers who can sell you tickets, and yet others require that you buy your tickets and even validate them before boarding. The inconsistency is a well-known problem here; one that frustrates many people. Well, it was just our luck... our tickets were the ones that you don't have to validate at all. This meant that they were no longer valid since we had purchased them for another trip. So, after we boarded, and put our bikes aside, the ticket controllers came over, looked at our tickets, and then proceeded to treat us like a couple of Schwarzfahrer (fare dodgers). Note: Germans don't like it when you break the rules. They wrote us up for 60 euro fines and then, when our stop came, refused to let us off the train (an illegal form of detention if I'm not mistaken!). They insisted that we wait a couple more stops which, as I tried desperately to explain, would only make our journeys home very long as we had no more Bargeld (cash) for buying more tickets. In other words, we needed to ride home in the middle of a very cold night. Nevertheless, they were set on making us regret our mistake, so my ride home went from a 10 minutes to about 30. Not cool.
The fun continued as I tried to pay the ticket to DB (DB in this case was Deutsche Bank, not Deutsche Bahn), ended up paying double (which took well over a month to be refunded) and, after a month, still had to rely on my bicycle to get everywhere because my bank wouldn't allow me to finance the scooter. I had been in such a hurry to finish paying off my property back in the states, that I hadn't left enough money in my account for the scooter. At least there's one upside there - my property is finally paid off!
Friday, February 9, 2018
Life in Düsseldorf has begun. We're now looking at a steady five-year plan... which is bittersweet for me. Since I first started living overseas I've avoided doing more than a year living and working in one place. But now, thanks to the promise of permanent residency and increased financial stability, I've decided to stay for a while. I don't like the idea of being tied to a place (I like change), but permanent residency in Germany essentially means residency (aka the right to live and work) in all EU countries - this is an opportunity that I just can't pass up. So, I went into the BürgerBüro (town hall) with my Anmeldung (rental contract) and passport in hand, got registered with the city, then rode over to the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) and applied for my visa. Well, actually, I applied for an appointment to apply for my visa... Four days later I went to this appointment only to find out that it was an appointment to set up an appointment to get my visa four months later. Yay.
In any case, I'm now living in Germany. The first order of business - sell my dodgy motorcycle. It died in the first week due to a bad fuse. The back tire also went flat. Oh, and the battery died again. No worries, I've got a bicycle now! Oh, that's broken too. I swapped it out at the flea market (had to pay an extra 30 euros), but the new one wasn't quite right either. So, I dropped it off at the bike shop by the Hauptbahnhoff. Of course, I would later come to realize that this place was charging premium rates but, at the time, I just chalked it up as another overpriced service (services in Germany, and perhaps most places, are a bit pricey, so it's often cheaper to buy new than to fix something). I went back to them a couple of times for different reasons spending around 100 euros each time. I got new gears, chain, kickstand, rear tire, front brakes, etc. After a few months I probably ended up replacing most parts on the bike.
As for the motorbike, I spent a couple weeks trying to practically give it away (other people selling the same bike as parts had it listed at the same price). In the end, a guy who had flaked out on a number of our arranged meetings finally showed up and loaded it into his trailer... well, good riddance.
Nevertheless, I still had a lot to figure out. I had to buy health insurance in order to qualify for my visa. I also had to get a new place - which I did but, two weeks after I moved in, my landlord told me I had to move back out ASAP in order to make room for her family who had randomly decided to fly up from Argentina for a three-month visit. Luckily, I had found a better place before that wasn't available until December - now only two weeks away! The timing was not only good for the landlady; I hadn't even really admitted it to myself, but I needed to get out of there. In just the two weeks or so that I was there, I probably discovered about 50 of her 500 pet peeves.
She was more than just a little concerned about Salmonella, and germs in general. So, making anything with eggs was scrutinized with prejudice - garbage with egg shells was to be taken out immediately even if the egg shells were the only item in the bag. Even a little water on the floor prompted a rushed cleanup operation with scrubbing, disinfectant... the works. I also took her laundry out of the machine once (it had been in there all day) so that I could do mine. 30 minutes later I was hearing about how it would all have to be washed again due to overexposure to the air. Nevermind the fact that she had used up nearly all of my value-sized liquid detergent in those two weeks without even asking. Then there was the onion "allergy". The first time she just complained a lot but, the second time I cooked with them, she decided that onions were no longer allowed in the house. I asked her if her "allergy" had any symptoms, only to confirm that her nose being unhappy was the only symptom (she didn't like the smell).
Okay, it's her house so, even though I was paying rent, I was happy to follow her rules (not easy getting a room for $250 a month!). I think she picked up on that though, because it wasn't long before she started finding ways to totally dominate the shared facilities. She started putting her stuff on top of mine in spaces that were reserved for me, even though she was already taking up 99% of all physical space with her makeup, fragrances, and boxes of random stuff. I had to move increasing amounts of her stuff in order to get to a little fridge in the closet where she had me keeping my food. I also had to dig through her stuff in order to get to my shaver, so I eventually just gave up on keeping any of my stuff in the bathroom. And even when I tried to use the bathroom for a few minutes in the middle of the day, she would get a worked up and tell me that I had to be quick. Then, after I had rushed in and out, she would forget that she even wanted to use it... things you put up with in order to save a few bucks on your rent, right?
Well, one benefit of living with a German was that I got to practice my German everyday. Now that I was moving to my own apartment (only 100 euros more per month), I wouldn't be getting quite as much exposure to the language. But then, a free weekly German class started at the meeting hall and, a couple days later, a German home meeting on Thursday evenings! I was now meeting five nights a week: Tuesdays for the prayer meeting, Thursdays at the German home meeting, Friday and Saturday at the regular home meetings, and Sunday nights for Spielabend (game night). This not only meant devoting a large amount of time to meeting, but also a large amount of energy to cycling. I had to cycle about 85 km a week just for the meetings when you include the regular meetings Sunday morning. That's not even taking my regular rides to the office into account... Let's just say that I was missing my motorcycle a bit, especially the few times when I got caught out in the rain - one of which almost destroyed my phone/navigation.
On the first of December I finally moved into my new apartment. The small private apartment was a welcome change from the large house that ironically didn't have any space for me. It came furnished, the bills were all included and it was certainly cozy. As the Germans say "klein aber mein!" or small but mine. The winter season was in full swing. The school that hired me (still waiting for the visa) invited me to a staff holiday event with lots of tasty food and opportunities to get to know other teachers and staff. Some of us from the church also went out for lunch followed by ice skating, and some Gebrannte Mandeln (roasted sugar-coated almonds) at the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market).
About a week or so later we got hit by the first of many snowstorms during which I found myself cycling in the snow. I also started having my first battles with moisture and mold in my apartment. My landlord picked up a dehumidifier, and I learned some things about relative humidity but, ultimately, I had to spray every surface with bleach and, when that proved to be a bit too toxic, vinegar. Unfortunately, it was a bit late - the mold had already spread under the wallpaper next to my bed. So, we had to tear things up a bit in order to replaster the wall. Thankfully it's been pretty okay since but, just in case, I make sure to make the extra effort to keep my little place as clean as possible.
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Düsseldorf is a really nice city with lots of opportunities and things to do. At the same time, it's actually quite small for a city, so it actually feels more like a town (it's even in the name "dorf" which means "town" or "village", and the Düssel is the river that the town was built on). In the end, the only problem here is one that you can't really avoid in Germany, Europe or, in fact, most countries - bureaucracy. Within the first couple weeks I already had a job and a place to live (which was pretty impressive considering that the city has a housing shortage), but I soon became painfully aware that these things were hardly even the first hurdle. In reality, it would be another several months before I was officially welcomed to the neighborhood.
On Saturday, the 21st of October, I joined a group from the church on an excursion to Schloss Burg - the largest reconstructed castle in North Rhine-Westphalia. There we saw lots of medieval relics, and I somehow ended up in the stockades.
The next couple days I walked around Düsseldorf and met with a new couchsurfing friend, Michael. I then stayed at Michael's for a night before having to finally resort to staying at hostels. The one night at Michael's was nice though - we had Baba Ghanoush for dinner, and really tasty Macedonian figs for breakfast. Later that day I had a successful interview for my future job as an English trainer at Sprachcaffe. That same day I also found a place for $250/month in an area called Rath. One of my couchsurfing hosts had suggested that I make a profile on wg-gesucht.de, which is where I eventually found a WG - or, rather, it found me. WG, or wohngemeinschaft, is the German word for shared housing. I was very happy to find such a deal in Düsseldorf... even if it was just a tad pink.
The next day I went to a couple more interviews just to see more of my options. I then spent the next few nights at hostels before finally moving into my new place. During this time I met some backpackers, one of which was a legal professional. She told me how to prepare before going to get my German license. Lucky for me, I'm from Washington State which means that I don't have to do the written or practical tests in order to get my license in Germany (reciprocal agreement) - I just have to give them a translation (70€), application (50€), and photo (7€). I also have to let them cut up my American license for some reason but then, after a few weeks, I'm all set with a German license which is valid all over Europe!
This is great because the written and practical tests cost a fortune (about 2000€). The next day was Saturday and, according to another backpacker, that meant that there was a massive Trödel & Antikmarkt (flea market) open down in Bilk where I could get myself a bike for less than 50€. I was definitely pretty motivated seeing as my motorbike was on its way out...
I also picked up some things for cooking at my new place - a rice cooker, waffle maker, etc. Then, two days later, I finally moved in. My landlord, Gabi, was real keen on having regular chats, making waffles, and eating dinner with all us housemates. It was a nice place for me... while it lasted. Unfortunately, a month later I would have to move.
The next day I went on another excursion with the church. This time we went to Geierlay Hängeseilbrücke - a suspension bridge in the low mountain range of the Hunsrück in central Germany. After a short walk over to the bridge, we crossed it then took the long way back through the valley. This was quite a bit longer than expected, but a beautiful hike nonetheless.
Friday, October 20, 2017
On Tuesday the 17th of October I hit the road again. This time I had a couple days drive ahead of me... this was exacerbated by the fact that my bike's condition was rapidly deteriorating. I couldn't even go over 100 kph (about 60 mph) without the bike overheating. It was evening time as I pulled into my prospective camping spot which I thought looked pretty promising. It was a densely wooded area with no sign of human activity... until I spotted a man with a dog. Actually, he spotted me. I was stopped at a sign, which unfortunately was a warning about the only dangerous large animal in Germany - the wild Boar. This already had me thinking twice about this spot, but then I saw this guy staring at me. I would later come to understand that Germans often just stare a lot in general when they don't know you, or are trying to figure out if they do. With this guy it was only when I turned around that he went on his way. He clearly wanted to make sure I wasn't planning on sticking around. Well, it's one thing to freedom camp when nobody's looking, but he was probably going to dob me in, so I got back on the autobahn... for another two hours. By the time I got to my next spot, it was dark, and I was actually pretty close to my final destination - Dusseldorf. I was happy to finally arrive at what turned out to be a beautiful camping spot near Cologne.
The next day I had my morning muesli before packing it all in. The final stretch wasn't easy. The bike overheated every 10-20 minutes which meant that I had to stop and add water to my leaky radiator... this wasn't so bad until I hit traffic. After about 30 minutes overheating in traffic, I was sure that the bike would be permanently damaged. At the first exit I could find, I pulled off to find a place where I could check the bike. It was way overheated by the time I finally stopped but, after adding the water, I was happy to find that the bike started back up without much difficulty. A short while later I finally arrived at the meeting hall in Düsseldorf. I could finally breathe a sigh of relief... against all odds, I had actually made it!
I dropped off my stuff then went to a Korean restaurant with a family from the meeting hall. After lunch we went on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the city that lasted all afternoon. During the tour I learned a few things about Düsseldorf that I've often referred back to. They told us about the Oberkasseler bridge, which was built upstream before being brought into place using tracks - this was the first time such a feat of engineering had been attempted, and it was a complete success. Another interesting fact is that Düsseldorf has more parks than any other city in Germany. This makes me happy because I don't really care for cities in general, so the more nature the better. They also told us about the Altstadt or "Old City" (a historical part of town that lots of people, tourists and locals enjoy visiting), and a church with a crooked spire. The church of St Mary and All Saints has inspired some really strange myths with regard to its spire. The one they told us on the bus says that it twisted away from a marriage that was conducted under the false pretense that the bride was a virgin. According to the myth, the spire will only twist back when an actual virgin gets married in Düsseldorf... it's been about 600 years now.
That night I rode over to the nearby suburb of Kaarst to meet my couchsurfing hosts with whom I'd be staying for the week. Over the following days, I helped out with Bible distribution in the neighboring cities of Essen and Cologne a bit before starting my search for a job and a place to live.
Monday, October 16, 2017
Going from Switzerland to Germany is quite a transition. Switzerland is one of the more expensive countries in Europe while Germany is one of the more affordable when you exclude the southern and eastern blocks of Europe. The food and language in Germany are also somewhat different. They both like their cheese and bread but, of course, they also have their regional specialties for these things as well as food in general. They also both speak German but, again, they have regional differences. In fact, Germans tend to speak either Hochdeutsch or Plattdeutsch (mostly northerners) while the Swiss will often speak Swiss German, French or even Italian. They even have a small region where the fourth nationally recognized language - Romanian - is spoken. Overall, when we talk about Switzerland and Germany, we are talking about two very distinct cultures which, without much consideration, could be (mistakenly) seen to overlap in many if not all aspects.
In any case, I was happy to find that Stuttgart offered more than a few cultural enjoyments. On Thursday, the 12th of October, I arrived at the home of my couchsurfing friend Willy. I had requested hospitality with Willy a couple months before while I was still in the states. After that we had gotten to know each other a bit over social media, so it was cool to finally be meeting in person. Willy comes from Peru originally. This actually gave us a really nice common ground to meet on in that we both spoke Spanish. In fact, I find that most Spanish speakers are pretty happy to get to know you when they find out that you can speak their beautiful language. It makes sense actually - Spanish was designed to sound good, so naturally its native speakers are inclined to speak it!
Willy welcomed me by taking me to his favorite place in town... the sauna. For those who don't know, many German saunas have a very unusual characteristic - they don't allow clothing. Apparently it's more sanitary this way. Well, while I wasn't exactly comfortable with the idea, I really didn't feel like I had much of a choice. As local customs go, it seemed pretty harmless. I also believe in trying everything once, and have tried much more terrifying things over the years (notably Balut), so it would probably be somewhat hypocritical, not to mention a bit wimpy, if I were to draw the line at being naked.
Well, the sauna is actually quite pleasant once you get over the sight of wrinkly old fat people walking around everywhere. Which, of course, brings one to the realization that nobody in this place cares at all about seeing a little flesh. Not that I thought they would but, to those who think this encourages lust or something, think again. Not one of these people had any interest in looking at anyone else. In fact, I think the only thing to be worried about is being blinded!
After a few hours of sitting in rooms of temperatures varying from quite warm to scorching hot, we went back to Willy's to make Sopa Peruana (Peruvian soup) - a specialty of Willy's home country. I can honestly say that Peru is now on my list of places to visit. The food is really good! The next day we had Pollo Estufado Peruano (Peruvian stuffed chicken) which was also pretty tasty.
That evening another couchsurfer showed up. Willy mentioned that likes to have lots of people around. I assumed one or two but, a couple days later, yet another backpacker showed up. And, as I mentioned before, it should probably come as no surprise that they were also Spanish speakers. I mean, even when you put aside the beauty of the language, I think people generally like to hear their own language. As they say, when you speak to someone in a foreign language, you speak to their mind. But, when you speak to them in their own language, you speak to their soul. I guess that's why in English we say things like, "speak English!" (e.g., when someone talks about something in an over-complicated way), and, "now you're speaking my language!" (even though the language hasn't technically changed).
Over the next couple days, I attended a local church conference in which both English and German were spoken. I wanted to practice my German though, so I got a German outline and focused on the German translation. It was pretty good! I actually understood most things without having to listen for the English words. The message itself was on recovery, specifically the recovery of God's original desire for us both individually and corporately. I enjoyed that "we are what we are until we're not", which is basically to suggest that we should grow through our experience. This is very practical because sometimes we worry about our condition (spiritual or otherwise) as if it's permanent even though actually, if we're open to it, it's possible to overcome our natural disposition. We don't have to be limited by how we see ourselves or how we think other people see us or expect us to be.
For the last couple days in Stuttgart, I enjoyed a few more cultural delights. One was Brazilian chocolate brought by our third arrival, Victor. He prepared it by melting it down with some other ingredients to make a special dish... the name of which I don't remember. We also had some Peruvian salad as well as what is probably one of my favorite German dishes - Zwiebelkuchen (onion cake). Willy recommended it to me and, when I saw that it was only a euro, I gladly gave it a try. You might think that "onion cake" sounds a bit strange, but actually it's basically just a giant Swabian quiche. "Swabian" because, to my great disappointment, I later found out that it's really more of a southern German thing... I later found some in Dusseldorf, but it was six euros a slice! As I mentioned before, different regions of Germany and Switzerland have their own cultures. In the southwest in particular there's a region called Swabia where, from what I'm told, people are notoriously thrifty (according to stereotypes they're even a bit greedy). As a result, it seems there's a deal or two to be found in this region- namely, Zwiebelkuchen.
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
After three weeks of non-stop travel around Europe, it was nearly time to move on towards the goal - Germany. As much as I dream of a permanent life on the road (maybe in about four years we'll be there!), one unfortunately has to work for a living. And, on Monday, the 9th of October, that's exactly what we did.
Stefan is a hard-working guy. He spends a lot of time driving around meeting clients and doing odd jobs for them. Like me, he can pick up as much or as little work as he's in the mood to do. Another nice thing about his work is that he is able to help me pay for my visits. It seems that every time I go to visit, he's got another job with which I am able to help. During this particular visit, I raked in probably about as much as I had spent over the last couple weeks of travel. Not a bad arrangement! After a long day of moving furniture, we headed back to his town to have a very enjoyable dinner at the home of our friend Pascal.
The next day, I swapped out the battery on my motorbike with the one that I had bought in Spain. Then, after a quick oil change, the old thing started up as well as if I hadn't left it sitting in a shed for the last year! I was quite relieved because the last time I had ridden it, the old beast had just about every problem you can imagine. As a few mechanics had warned me, these problems were signals of the bike's imminent demise. Of course, I only required short-term functionality, so no worries!
After my great success with reviving the motorbike, we all had lunch at Stefan's outdoor lounge area overlooking his town, Brittnau. The following day, I packed up my gear in preparation for my ride up toward Stuttgart.
It was several hours, with the usual adventures (I always say "it's not an adventure until something goes wrong!"): a pump that stole my money, a wrong turn up a beautiful stretch of autobahn... one of my brakes failing. Well, as my dad likes to say, "one of two things will happen." In this case, I'll either make it or I won't. Thankfully, I made it to my first camping spot... I just had to convince a forest ranger that I was just lost (he then directed me back toward the autobahn) so that he wouldn't come looking for me. I then turned down another road where I could camp without being found. Of course, I had the hammock that Stefan gave me, so that would probably afford a bit of leeway with locals anyway. As I've previously noted, the simple and non-invasive design of a hammock seems to have a slightly better appeal in the eyes of the authorities in Europe. So far, so good!