Posts by Country

Monday, December 30, 2019

Sliding into the New Year

Aside from a few busy days and weeks here and there, the rest of 2019 was pretty relaxed. I spent time with friends, got back into bouldering a bit, did some hiking, took part in a few church conferences, gatherings and BBQs, went to Japan Tag again (just got some Japanese fried chicken and walked around), stopped by the kirmis (local carnival) a couple times, and ran around Phantasialand with my friend Robert.

Oh and I bought more land! This time it was a bit more expensive, but still a real steal. I look forward to seeing it when I go back to the States for a visit in February. Unfortunately, by then my Dad will have finished developing it without me, but at least we were able to work together a bit on the first one.

So, a quick summary of Amsterdam: on Friday, June 7th, I caught a late train to go meet my friend Garret at our AirBnB that we would be staying at for the weekend. Right off the start I was reminded of one reason why I don't take trains - delays. Fortunately, the tree in the tracks only delayed us for 20 minutes or so, but this was still inconvenient considering that it was already almost midnight. We managed to both arrive around 1am only to discover yet another fun challenge... finding the secret entrance to our accommodations.

It was a bit tricky finding the part in the bushes that led to the path behind the apartments but, thanks to Google Maps, we were able to feel our way to our destination. It was an interesting place with strange, seemingly makeshift facilities that could easily be mistaken for being out-of-order. Of course, this bothered Garret more than myself - I don't mind a little inconvenience so long as it all functions. But I digress...

We spent the next day walking around eating Indonesian food (really common in Amsterdam and really good!), Stroopwaffles, and samples of local cheese. Then, the following day, we visited the Rijksmuseum to see the big Rembrandt exhibit. We then basically finished the trip with a bit more walking around and eating stuff like Patatje Oorlog (Dutch fries).

In the months following the trip to Amsterdam, I finally got in a little local travel. Some of us did some hiking over by a nearby city called Bochum, and in a region of forest called the Neandertal (where the caveman was discovered). I actually found these hikes to be a bit unusual as they didn't exactly give the feeling of really getting away from it all. Sections of the hikes were pretty good, but they regularly intersected with civilization which, in my book, is a bit like cheating. In any case, I was in good company, so the nice scenery was more of a bonus.

We also got to visit some other local destinations, such as Gut Elim (a small farm in the countryside that belongs in part to the church), and Bielefeld where we met with many from the churches in neighboring cities. I have to say, Gut Elim is pretty cool. We've got a lot of space for sports and gathering together, and the farmers there also have some crazy animals (check out the video at the bottom).

We made it out to some other cities as well, like Hamburg, Aachen (twice), Brussels (Belgium) and Utrecht in the Netherlands for a youth conference. Aachen was great; we bought tons of chocolate at the Lindt factory, had an awesome BBQ and recorded hymns. Hamburg seemed like a nice city (even though, as in Utrecht and Brussels, we didn't see much), but the trip back was exhausting. We got stuck sitting in parked traffic on the autobahn for probably 2-3 hours. We even witnessed people from one car sharing food with the car next to them in order to survive!

Now, I did mention that the last few months weren't all bowling and glow-in-the-dark minigolf (though I did do these things a bit as well). I also dealt with visa concerns, confusing insurance documents, and the occasional 12-hour day of back-to-back classes. One of these classes in particular was quite strange. I had a business student come in who immediately decided he needed to test my German ability (even though I teach English)... I later found out that he was judging my professionalism based on said skill. He then proceeded to reject all tasks after only looking at the first question. After the first 20 minutes or so, we had about a dozen or so various tasks sitting on the table - all of which I would have to sort back into my files. At this point he asked about meeting everyday, including Saturdays, and then decided to "take a break". He left everything on the table and went home. I was stunned. It was only in the following week or so that I heard from one of the sales managers that this guy was giving him a hard time as well. It turns out the student had shown up the first day asking for the sales manager thinking that he, a German who works in administration, would be his English teacher. So, he was already confused and upset by the time he got to me. At one point he emailed the sales manager asking for a call back. During the call the student told him that he didn't think any of the tasks were of any use to him (even though he hadn't even tried them) and, after it was explained that my students are generally quite satisfied with my lessons, the student got flustered and demanded a call back, as he suddenly had a meeting; the response to this was priceless, "no, when your meeting is over, you call me back."

I was later relieved to learn that this student would no longer be my problem, or that of anyone else at our school. Good riddance.

As for the visa problems, I will be taking a long holiday in Southeast Asia for three weeks in January before returning to the States for a couple weeks to visit family in February. On the 5th of December I was happy to learn that I had been granted two more years in Germany (at the end of which I will be able to apply for permanent residency). I was not happy to find out that, due to a broken visa machine, and temporary visa documents not having been signed by the supervisor, the visa itself wouldn't be available for several weeks... possibly even until after I had planned to already be in Asia. This is a problem as I can't return to Germany without a visa. So, I had to make an appointment to go back later and get what's called a Fiktionsbescheinigung - basically a 13 euro visa extension. But no, this would also be a problem because my original visa is in my old passport - no extension possible. Instead, I would have to pay 55 euros for an actual visa that would replace the old one until the new one arrived. Good thing I recently got a raise at work!

Monday, May 6, 2019

Frankfurt Visa Run

The new year started out with a crash... in the first week I had my first ever motorcycle accident. I like to think that the circumstances were extraordinary seeing as, at least in my opinion, the city was somewhat responsible - I certainly wouldn't have crashed had the conditions been somewhat reasonable. It was raining "wie aus Eimern" as the Germans say, or "cat's and dogs" as we in the Anglo world like to say. I went to move over into the next lane without thinking about the fact that the train tracks running through the whole city were extra slippery thanks to the heavy downpour. So, of course, my tires slipped, and I lost control. I swerved back and forth a couple of times before veering sideways and flying off the bike. I then rolled a few times and somehow managed to watch the bike as it slid along with me. Luckily, I was moving just fast enough to avoid being smacked by it. An observer called an ambulance as I lay there trying to figure out if I could actually move. I had a strong pain in my arm that had me thinking it was broken. As I stood up my head was spinning, so I had to sit down a bit. Eventually I realized that the pain was emanating from my wrist - I had sprained it. After the medics checked me out, I found that the bike still ran despite a slight smell of gas. Aside from a few scratches, and a mirror having been broken off, it was in surprisingly good shape. So, I continued on and was only a little bit late for game night.

Now, you might be wondering why I sort of blame the city for my misfortune. Well, years ago Copenhagen had a similar setup with train tracks in the streets. Of course, they love their cyclists there more than their trams, so they removed all of the tracks in the streets in order to avoid such problems. You see, not only do vehicles slip on the tracks, and get into accidents as a result, but cyclist also often get injured when their tires get stuck in the grooves of the tracks. With this in mind, it would seem only reasonable to keep trains separate from other vehicles. Am I biased? Perhaps, but, of course, that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

Over the next couple of months I worked a lot and made plans for a trip to Amsterdam with Garret. I also filed my German taxes for the first time which was a blast... Not only is German a complex language to begin with, but their tax system isn't exactly simple either. Most people pay a few hundred euros to avoid doing this, but I figured I'd give it the old college try... why not? Sure enough, I managed to find a good internet guide and fill out the right forms. In the end, I was able to get the right deductions and put the money I saved toward paying a tax rate that ranks in at about the second highest among developed countries. I figure it's still worth it though, especially since I only pay that rate on a few thousand euros.

You'd think that after that the worst would be over, but no. This is Germany - bureaucracy is just part of life here. Actually, most countries are pretty bureaucratic in general when it comes to visa stuff, especially in Europe - Spain, for example, wasn't much better. It seems like just yesterday that I was at the good ol' Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) applying for my visa. Indeed, that was only a year and a half ago. Unfortunately, my passport only had a year and a half left... which meant that they could only give me a visa for that long as opposed to the usual three years that you get for work visas. Nevertheless, my first mission would then be getting my passport renewed. Wouldn't you know it though, the consulate here in Düsseldorf decided they no longer felt like issuing passports. So, I had to go to Frankfurt to apply there even though that's three hours away. Of course, you might think that one would just be able to apply through the mail and, technically, you would be correct. You just have to include a check for US dollars issued by a German bank. Thing is, German banks don't issue checks in US dollars. I tried them all. Any explanation from the consulate? Nope. They don't care. Nor do they update their website to reflect this reality. They also no longer accept credit card payments through the mail.

So, I went to Frankfurt... only to discover that the only do walk-in appointments on Tuesdays and Thursdays - not Mondays. That was not an option for me as I had to work, which meant that my six-hour journey would have to be repeated. They wouldn't even take my money without an appointment. The guy at the desk actually seemed to think that it would be possible, but then he called up and they said no. You're not even allowed to have someone else drop off your application. Making an appointment is not so straightforward either. I called in because I couldn't book the appointment on the website, but they assured me that is was possible. They then looked it up to explain how to do it, but then stopped and said, "oh, actually it's not there..."

I was eventually able to book an appointment (for a month later) by going through the "Apply for an Adult Passport" option (which doesn't apply to me) instead of the "Renew Adult Passport" option. A month later I went back to Frankfurt, got to the consulate early, which was good because I had to hide my overnight bag in the bushes (they don't allow you to take it in or even leave it with security), then waited till an hour after my scheduled appointment for what was, as usual, only a two minute process. What a joke! Glad that's over... at least until 2029.

Thankfully, over the course of my two visits I was able to stay with friends and visit some places.

One day we went up to Großer Feldberg in Taunus. After a short drive, followed by a short hike, we arrived at a large rock formation and a beautiful view. It was a pleasant surprise as I hadn't realized what my hosts the Osts had intended when they suggested that we take a drive in the hills.

The city also had some "Sehenswürdigkeiten" or "things worth seeing". Before leaving Frankfurt, I went on a walk through the Altstadt (old city) where I found some really nice landmarks. I saw the Römerberg Ostzeile - reconstructed traditional half-timbered buildings originally built centuries ago - and I had what is apparently the city's best Currywurst. It was good - they always are; I don't think there's ever any discernible difference when it comes to Currywurst... they just taste like curry!

Back in Düsseldorf, I got back to work. In April I got a new business course at Siemens up in Krefeld - 45 minutes away by scooter. Fortunately, I was able to get Reisegeld (travel money) to make it a bit more worth my time. I reckon this contract has added some padding to my regular income, so I suppose it's worth the extra effort. Plus it's a nice drive. Also the first hour there is consulting work which basically ends up being office hours for me - something I really miss from my first teaching gig in Hong Kong.

Oh, and the month of May also saw one other big score... see the video below.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Guten Rutsch!

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

Autobahn Angst

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

Summer in Düsseldorf

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

D'Dorf Siteseeing

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

The Long Haul

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, 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.