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!