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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.