Wednesday, August 31, 2005

“And we’ll have fun, fun, fun in the warm European sun”

(Note: Yes, that is my shameless Beach Boys lyric reference).

It was just a small news item, tucked away at the bottom of the page. So small in fact, that I almost missed it. Thankfully, I am armed with the correct information and can now be prepared for future “sun lounger encounters”, lest they turn nasty or I am accused of being “all wet”.

What in the world could I be commenting on? Trust me, you’d never guess…not in a million years…unless you have been the unwitting victim of this pool-side scam. Although my time in Germany has been brief, and my sunbathing opportunities minimal, I have no first hand knowledge of this ongoing feud between the sun lounger “haves” and “have nots”.

Apparently, the long-running feud between the Germans and the rest of the world regarding the reservation of sun loungers is coming to an end. As the story goes, Germans have a reputation for getting up at the crack of dawn to scope out prime sun real estate, either beach or pool-side. Once the sun lounger or deck chair of choice has been identified, the stake is claimed with the towel being strategically draped across the chair. New flash: Tourists are within their rights to remove towels if there is nobody there.

Sadly, this legal revelation will come as a blow for all those German tourists who believe that the draping of a towel is enough to secure possession. And it will hit them harder still to discover that it was one of their own countrymen who discovered it. A German lawyer by weekday, sun worshipper by weekend (and who incidentally has also been a victim of the sun lounger scam in the past) has finally set the record straight. There is no legal precedent that supports the water-logged notion that sun lounger possession is “9/10s of the law” when blanketed in terry cloth.

While his revelation is likely to bring him hero status among the many tourists who have engaged in heated discussions with Germans over the towel issue, it is unlikely to gain him any points from his fellow Germans. Still, it is nice to know that this notion “doesn’t hold water”...

German elections are around the corner…

With only about 3 weeks left in the campaign season, Germans head to the polls on September 18th to vote for their new Chancellor. What we have noticed in our brief time here is that politics are politics the world over…and this election is no different. And please, I am no spitfire political commentator...consider this the "layman's" view of things.


What are the big issues? The usual ones: high unemployment (about 20% in Germany), high taxes, a generally faltering economy, and immigration issues. No real surprises, as these are election issues in many countries around the globe.

The main candidates for German chancellor are Gerhard Schroeder, the incumbent, who is pitted against Angela Merkel, the challenger. Schroeder called for an early election (they have that option in Germany); most analysts contend that it was primarily a political strategy, as Schroeder is hoping to get elected to another 4 years before his approval rating drops any further. Apparently, he is an outstanding campaigner and can often make up ground when he is behind. At least that is the thinking.


Merkel, on the other hand, became the darling of the media and surged ahead in the polls early on. As best I can tell (remember, my primary source for news is the International Herald Tribune, which is not the bastion for political commentary), Merkel does not appear to be advocating too many radical or different positions than the incumbent. In fact, many of her positions are in the same vein and/or even go a little further than Schroeder’s. It seems that Germans are just tired and are ready to try “something new”, even if that person’s ideas are not altogether new. Unfortunately, a series of political gaffes and miss-steps have not served her well, and the race has tightened. Her most recent one involved using The Rolling Stone’s song Angie as her campaign song... without their permission. That pesky copyright infringement thing again… hope she has a better command of other international laws (smile).


As Buddy and I ran our Saturday morning errands, we noticed that the CDU, CSU, and SPD (political parties in Germany) had set up campaign booths manned by volunteers supposedly prepared to hand out brochures and talk “election” turkey. Either the limited foot traffic at 10 AM was a result of the fact that people can’t talk politics that early in the morning, or Germany has the same level of voter apathy we have in the US. As Buddy and I walked past the booths donned in party colors, we waited for a campaign volunteer to approach us to talk about their candidate or party platform. No one stepped forward…no one even tried. Volunteers just talked amongst themselves and sipped their coffee. I thought the idea was for the campaign worker to approach the pedestrian, not the other way around? There was not too much action going on at any of the booths, until some volunteers at the CDU booth showed up with freebies. Once they started handing out free t-shirts, the foot traffic increased at their booth.

Got it…people like the free stuff….

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Friday night at the movies

We have a pretty good movie theater in our neighborhood of Oberkassel. It does not show everything I would want to see, but then again, neither does the Theater at Buffalo Creek! As is becoming our habit on Friday evening when we are in town, we check out the latest flick…last Friday night was no exception.

One of the things I find so amusing are the German titles that have been given to US films. One does not need a huge command of the German language (really, none at all) to know which film is being shown, although having the movie poster in the lobby does help. Sometimes the titles stay in English, sometimes they are translated into German, and sometimes they are an English-German combo thing. Apparently, the fact that the films have either been dubbed into German or remain in OV (original version, which for us, means English) does not indicate into which language the title is translated.

This past weekend, we saw the new John Cusack-Diane Lane film Must Love Dogs. The title for the OV version is Frau mit Hund sucht Mann mit Hertz. With a little translation assistance, that works out to be Woman with Dog is Looking for Man with Heart.

Here are a few others that I throw out, simply for the sake of discussion:

* Der Date Docktor - Translated as "The Date Doctor", although technically there is no German word for date doctor. Originally, this was the Will Smith film entitled Hitch.

* Herr und Frau Schmidt –OK, technically, this is easy to figure out (Mr. and Mrs. Smith). I just like saying it.

* Das Comeback - Literally translated as "The Comeback". In actuality, this is the new Russell Crowe movie Cinderella Man.

* Das Wandelnde Schloss - Translated as “The Changing Lock”. In actuality, it is The Skeleton Key, the new film with Kate Hudson.

One other point to note: I am still not used to seeing people buying bottles of beer at the movie concession line and taking them into the theaters. I still do the double-take when I see and then I remember, “Oh yea, I am in Germany”. And no, “sweet popcorn” is not that good to eat either.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Miscellaneous Miscellani

I occasionally realize that there are things I have adjusted to “not knowing how to do” that normally I would not give a second thought to until it comes time to needing “to know how to do” this or that.

As examples….

ATM receipts: I still can’t figure out how to get a receipt from the ATM machine. When I obtain cash using my US bank account, an English language option appears, thus allowing me to select the options I need, including obtaining a receipt for my transaction. Yet, when I use my German ATM card, German is the only language option. Thankfully, I can select the right button to get the cash, as this is, after all, the main objective. The streak is alive at 5 months and counting, and I still have never gotten a receipt.

Pizza home delivery: Should be simple to order a pizza by telephone, but no can do. Buddy, however, has mastered enough basic German to get a pizza ordered and delivered 80% of the time. Just when we think we have this mastered, and we get a bit “cocky”, is when the pizza gremlins throw us a curve ball and we get the one pizza worker who can’t understand our German…To his/her credit, I understand why….

Dry cleaners: “Can I get starch in those shirts – Three dry cleaners later, we finally have figured out that indeed shirts can be ordered with starch (or the rough equivalent). After the fiasco of the lost dress shirts, we switched to a cleaners where one of the staff (weekend day mornings only) can speak a little English. I tried looking on the translation website and the language books for the phrase, but it does not appear that “can I get those shirts with starch?”, is really on the “need to know” phraseology list.

Customs forms: Another good use for French, as I can at least fill out the customs at the post office because the forms are in dual language…whew! Dodged that issue.

Moral of the story: Language school can’t come quick enough; bring on the German classes!

Friday, August 26, 2005

Driving on the Autobahn

Goofy me, I thought that “the Autobahn” was a specific road, like the “LBJ Freeway “ or “I-35”, rather than the network of German highways that is actually is. You learn something new everyday.

And yes, it’s fast, but let me answer a commonly asked question. There are speed limits of varying speeds throughout many stretches of the Autobahn. So, the Autobahn does not really live up to the “drive as fast as you want to drive” reputation that it has in the US. Sure, there are several drivers that have left us behind on the Autobahn in a blaze of glory, but that myth is a bit over-rated in my opinion.

There are a few other observations I have regarding this well-known and well-publicized road system:

1. German countryside is quite picturesque but you really can’t see much of the scenery from the roads of the Autobahn. This is a result of multiple tree plantings along the sides of the highways as well fence lines or panels that have been added to cut down on road noise I suspect. It is only when you get to a hill or the top of a bridge that you see this amazing view, and then it is definitely all worth it. Now, when you get off the Autobahn network and drive on other highways, the scenery is fabulous.

2. One thing I love about the German highways is that there are no ugly billboard signs, mobile home parks, abandoned buildings or gas-stations, or other unsightly monstrosities glaring back at you from the German countryside. You realize what a disservice we have done in the US to our environment when you live other places…

3. There is not a gas station at every exit, so be sure not to let your gas tank dip too low.

4. And yes, Germans drive on the right side of the road (I get that one all the time, too).

5. A recent roadtrip also clued me in to the fact that there are not many highway lights. At night, it is quite dark and it wasn’t until a late night trip home that we realized this. Add fog to the mix, along with dark roads and lots of trees, and it was something right out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

6. Yes, we stay in the right lane as much as possible (smile)….

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The “real” football

Besides a few key food items, like Mexican food, Rotel cheese dip, and fried catfish, art-films (in English) at the Angelica and Inwood Village, all the Law & Order franchise series, and of course, family and friends, the other thing I miss about living in the US is football. When I say football, I suppose I need to clear: American-style football. And not just football, but Texas football. It is a unique aberration of that sport fan that manifests itself this time of year in Texas, whether it is a fan at the high school, collegiate, or professional level.

As I conducted my daily review of other notable blogs, one of my fellow bloggers (thanks, Amber) had created a rather cool tribute to her team of choice. As noted to the right, the thought did not originate with me. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I'll beg her forgiveness for blatantly copying her concept. Thus, Hachie Gal will track her favorite football teams this fall, and their trials and tribulations on the gridiron. Check out the right hand side of the blog to see what I mean…

Well, I am indeed a “homer” (KTCK “The Ticket” lingo is still alive and well in my vocabulary, and I can even listen to the station over the internet). I continue to faithfully follow my teams, and cheer them on through the ups and downs of their seasons. Recently, there have been alot more downs than ups. In the case of Baylor, you must be a true fan if you proudly admit that you cheer for the team season after season, as they haven’t had a good season in years. Point in case: read today on the BU website that 17 players on the BU squad missed practice due to strep throat infections. Not a good way to kick-off the season (if you'll forgive the football metaphor).

Even if we had TV access (which we are still working on), I am sure our football viewing options would be minimal. Certainly, I would not be able to watch my favs on a regular basis but thank heavens for the internet where some of the games can be broadcast live (not the Cowboys, if you can believe that! Thanks, Jerry.).

Interesting note: There is the NFL Europe football league in Europe. As you can expect, a lot of US and Canadian football players play in this league. Many of the teams are actually based in Germany: Berlin Thunder, Amsterdam Admirals (based in the Netherlands), Cologne Centurions, Hamburg Sea Devils, Frankfurt Galaxy, and Rhein Fire. The Rhein Fire is Dusseldorf’s team, actually playing their five home games in the city of Dusseldorf. Unfortunately, they had a lackluster season in 2005, tying for last place with a 3-7 record. NFL Europe’s season runs from April through June of each year so we’ll have to wait a few more months before we can enjoy local football.

Unfortunately, not too much hoopla is made about NFL Europe or the Rhein Fire in Düsseldorf as the season came and went without Buddy and me even knowing it! Interesting side note: The Rhein Fire’s team colors are maroon and gold….think “Washington Redskins” and you’ve quite the correct mental image. This die-hard Cowboy fan may actually go into convulsions if I have to don maroon and gold clothing for a game. Some habits are just hard to break….

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Road trips

Let me continue with this driving theme….

We are starting to do roadtrips in Germany. There is so much to see that is within a 2-hour drive, we ask ourselves “why not?” and “why have we waited so long?” After hearing the travel tales of friends who have lived here for 4 years, and spending some car time with my German travel books during our last roadtrip, we realized "so much to see, so little time”.

We really have the German Tourist Board to either thank or blame. They’ve done a masterful marketing job of “creating” interest for many of these areas in Germany. They’ve identified several sections of German roads, small villages, and key sights that are worthy of touring. Not only has the German Tourist Board encouraged day-trippers and weekend travelers such as Buddy and I to join in the fun, entire vacation tours and packages have been created around these themes. So much so, that in the summertime, tourist hordes descend on these areas like bees to honey. Catchy names have even been assigned to create a mental image of the things you can see and do: the Romantic Road, the Fairy Tale Road, the Castle Road, the Alpine Road, the Wine Road…you get the picture.

As summer draws to a close, families get back into the routine of school, and those “Americans" go home (I say that with a smile on my face), Buddy and I now turn our attention to seeing some of these sights ourselves. Pictures, blog postings, and postcards to follow.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Obtaining a German driver’s license

We had been told that a German driver’s license (DL) would be required for driving in Germany. We knew that, we were prepared for that in theory, and we recognized that some research would be involved, possibly even a bit of time and money required. How difficult could it be? A bit more than you might think….

Since we only have the one car, and I will not be driving the company car, the need for a German DL did not apply to me. Buddy, on the other hand, would need one. You see, our US driver’s license(s) would be valid for up to 6 months but after that, we needed a German DL. This being Germany, we’ve learned that there is always a detailed process and at least one form involved in situations like this. This was no different: a myriad of rules applied in order to obtain a German DL, and much of that is driven (no pun intended) by the country/state that issued your original DL. We figured that the US DL could be converted quite easily to a German DL…we figured wrong.

If your license is issued by an EU country, you don’t even need to exchange it for a German one. For some non-EU countries, you can simply exchange your license, without the need for a written test, driving exam, etc. Some of the countries that fall into this group are South Africa, Canada, S. Korea, and many others, as well as selected US states (only of which 10 fall into that group). For many other countries, as well as about 35 of the US states, the applicant will need to do the following:

1. Take a written test that covers rules of the road and traffic signs.

2. Take a driving test that demonstrates you are a competent driver.

3. These written and driving tests are only administered by driving schools; some schools have simplified courses for experienced drivers. Either way, you are looking at completing a driving course that can range from 200 – 1000 euros. OK, so driving and written exams, time and money for school….

4. Upon completion of tests and school, apply at the local police station, bringing your passport, 2 photos, residence permit, and application for DL, an old driver’s license, and proof of tests, eye exam, and driving school, if applicable.

“That sounds like quite a hassle”, we say. “Which group do Texas DL holders fall into?” One guess….The last group. Don’t ask us why. We have no answer, nor have we been able to locate one. It is what it is.

As Buddy began to ponder the time and money required to get his German DL, we stumbled across a note in one booklet that said S. Korean DL holders could just exchange their Korean DLs for German ones. As luck would have it, Buddy had applied for and received a S. Korean DL, obtaining it by simply showing up at the local Korean police station and applying for it. No drivers test…no written test….well, there was that color blind test he had to take but we found a work-around for that. The best news is that S. Korean DLs are valid for 10 years and Buddy still had the license with him.

So….after getting the Korean license translated into German (I bore you with that detail, but it was accomplished with minimal effort and expense), and making application, he is now the proud holder of a German DL…he is officially legal.

Monday, August 22, 2005

A lovely weekend in southern Germany

As some of the more veteran blog readers will remember, Buddy and I traveled to Heidelberg in late May to attend a Baylor alumni event. Not knowing a soul in Germany and curious if anyone would really attend, we made the trek via train. In all, about 30 people showed up for a very nice BU Diadeloso event in Germany. As if visiting Heidelberg was not reason enough to go, we had hoped we might meet some nice Baylor grads living in Germany. We were not disappointed!

Fate was on our side that day, as we met a wonderful couple, David and Cindy, who are working at one of the military bases in southern Germany. Throughout the summer, we continued to correspond and this weekend, we went to their home to visit and do a little sightseeing. Could they have been any nicer? Not only being Baylor grads, they are warm and interesting people (native Texan/native Southerner.) whose hometown is Waco. The weekend was filled with great stories of living abroad, wonderful travel tips and anecdotes, and a lot of good food. They were wonderful and gracious hosts and it was the perfect weekend in many respects.

Britts 0805 001

Interestingly enough, the area they live in is simply “chocked full” of things to see and do. Two of the highlights were a trip to Burg Eltz and Trier. Burg Eltz (Burg = castle for you non German speakers; Eltz = family name...thus, Castle Eltz) is the sight of one of the most amazing medieval castles in Germany today.

Burg Eltz 0805 005

Surprisingly, this amazing structure was never destroyed in any wars (either the Eltz family was quite diplomatic or knew how to pick the winning side) and is still owned by the Eltz family. The castle was built down in a valley, rather than being built on the highest point, hilltop, or plateau, which seemed to be the going theory on castle building at that time. The castle is set in the most picturesque spot, albeit a long walk down into the valley. The good news is that capitalism does appear to be alive and well in Germany, as some guy realized that by charging 1.50 euros per person, he could charge people for van rides back up to the top of the hill. Trust me, it was the best 1.50 euro I spent all weekend.

Burg Eltz 0805 006

Another interesting place was the town of Trier, which is also the sister city of Ft. Worth, Texas. Go figure! Trier has the largest collection of Roman ruins outside of Italy, including an amazing city gate that is still standing (built about the time of Christ), and a basilica built under Constantine’s reign and direction. We only scratched the surface on this visit, so Buddy and I will definitely be heading back to Trier for a future weekend jaunt.

Trier 0805 001

Most of all, it was a wonderful weekend filled with beautiful scenery, lots of history, great conversation, good food, and of course, new friends. And yes, the good food, does include a trip to the US military base for Taco Bell for lunch on Sunday…it is the simple things you miss sometimes.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Uh oh...

Uh oh is right. We heard back from the landlords on our request to install a satellite dish on the outside of our apartment. Apparently, they have no issue with the concept but they feel fairly confident it would not be approved by the building's homeowner association, which is the next step in the process. Inside sources tell us that one of the neighbors refuses to ever approve anything. It was not an outright statement of "It definitely won't be approved", but our landlord's feeling is that this will most likely be akin to "fighting city hall". So, as we approach the end of month 5 in Germany, and still have no access to English language TV programs, we are not sure of our next move in the pursuit of this elusive thing called "TV".

We have not yet bought the German TV...which is a good thing. If we were to install satellite, we would have to make this acquisition since Germans use a thing called PAL, and US TVs won't work with this technology. I think it's been a smart move to wait on this purchase....

Before you say, "Five months without TV? So what have you been watching?" let me assure you that we are watching our own way. We have 3 TVs with us in Germany, albeit US ones, and they play DVDs just fine. Having created a rather extensive library of DVDs and VHS of US television programs and movies, we have been able to keep ourselves entertained. And thanks to my aunt, she is keeping us current on a few favorite shows from the US...mainly the Law and Order franchise. News? We read the paper or access CNN on the internet. Sports? A bit more problematic, but we are somewhat accustomed to not getting anything but soccer, cricket, and Taiwanese baseball from our time living in Taiwan so we are already used to that...

So as we ponder next steps, we are trying to determine what makes the most sense…go ahead and submit the request to the homeowner group or install ISH digital cable (even the name is not terribly appetizing) which provides maybe 6-10 English language stations and supplement this with our own DVDs and VHS tapes? Buddy is even wondering if there is a way to adhere the satellite to a free standing item, such as a heavy table and locate that on our balcony. This way we could still have our satellite but bypass the approval process…

Thursday, August 18, 2005

World Youth Day

Not being Catholic, I was not aware of what World Youth Day was or that it even existed. Yet, thousands of Catholic youth began arriving in Germany over this past weekend and Monday for this event of spiritual renewal for young people. The event will culminate with Pope Benedict XVI flying into Köln (about 30 km from Düsseldorf) on Thursday evening for a Sunday mass where 120,000 attendees are expected.

For Germans, what makes this rather special is that the site of the event was selected long before the new pope, who is German, was elected. Like most events, there is not universal support for this youth festival, although I suspect it has more to do with church doctrine, politics, and hype than anything specifically related to the youth day event. Estimates project that 800,000 people from 193 countries are expected to attend the event sometime during the week.

All I know is that I am seeing hundreds of youth pitching their tents along the Rhine across the street from my apartment. With Düsseldorf being so close to Köln, it is not surprising that surrounding cities would play host to these youth as well. Earlier this week on my nightly jog, I saw a tent city being constructed along the river banks with everything from sleeping tents, to meeting tents, to a church sanctuary, restaurants, and restrooms. Reminded me a bit of Waxahachie youth camp minus the camp buildings and with a lot more people.

Last night I heard music coming from the general direction of the river…strains of “I Love Rock and Roll” and The Doobie Brothers hit “Listen to the Music”….not exactly the music I heard at youth camp but apparently the World's Youth appreciate good old-fashioned rock-n-roll.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

It’s time for German school

I can usually become accustomed to not speaking a foreign language while living in a host country, at least early on before language classes kick in. Truthfully though, some days are better than others. I get to the point where I often unintentionally block out surrounding conversations because I can’t understand the words being spoken. I'm in my own little world. It is only when I hear English (or most recently Chinese) that I am jarred back to reality and realize I can actually converse with that person.

Not speaking the local language can sometimes be an easier adjustment; sometimes it is more challenging. Yet, what is the alternative? In the words of Nike, "just do it". Perhaps “easier adjustment” is not the best choice of words. I can become “functional”. You’d think that with this being the third country I have lived in, apart from the US, I’d be at best, somewhat immune to these linguistic challenges and at worst, possess some sophisticated coping strategies.

Still, a few recent occurrences have quickly reminded me that it is probably time to learn German. Point in case:

· I receive emails, paystubs, employee insurance materials, and employee communication from my employer, EDS Germany, all in German. Thanks to my EDS colleagues in Germany and Switzerland (you know who you are), they usually inform me of what I “need to know” versus what is “nice to know”. A gal can only beg for translation services for so long. And the online translation website has a 150 word limit.

· A morning “encounter” with a German postal worker who said nothing more to me than the following words “no English” (in English, and not altogether politely) suggests that perhaps some German postal vocabulary should be first on the list of topics in future language classes. Either that, or I need some remedial etiquette classes.

· A recent trip to Paris proved that even my 5 years of French language class in high school and college allows me to more effectively get around in France than I am currently able to do in German in Düsseldorf. While my French vocabulary and pronunciation is a bit rusty, Buddy and I got along quite well with the French speaking natives. At least I like to think so. I remembered even commenting to Buddy “this living overseas is not so tough” during our French adventure last week if for no other reason than I could communicate.

My senses tell me that it’s time. Everyday, my eyes gloss over words I cannot read and my ears hear conversations that are jibberish. From an intellectual perspective, my head tells me that it would be practical, interesting, and mind expanding to learn German while my soul tells me it would be downright liberating. Even a rudimentary knowledge of German would allow me to feel a little less isolated, a little more self-sufficient, and perhaps even endear me to my German speaking colleagues and neighbors. Why have I waited this long? (I have some theories on that, but the short answer is that only so much change and "new" things can be heaped onto a person at one time).

Armed with a new resolution to learn German, and a mindset to embrace the language, I am currently in the midst of locating a language school. One candidate rises to the top: evening classes 2 days a week, a reasonable price, and a class setting of no more than 5-6 students. Buddy and I could even take classes together. Class begins on September 6th…

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Wacky summer weather

Apart from the 10 days or so of warm/hot weather we’ve experienced this summer, I have spent most of my time this summer in sweats, jeans, and long sleeves shirts. That’s right! With officially only 3 weeks left of summer in Germany, we believe we are closing in on virtually little or no more hot weather. Even though much of the summer weather has been gray, cool, and rainy, you’ll get no complaints here. Good news for people without A/Cs. According to the Germans, this has been another unusually cool and wet summer, which they have not liked (being sun worshippers, it has wreaked havoc with the summer tans).

Every few weeks, we are informed by colleagues that a possible warming trend is headed this way, but most of the time, it never really materializes. Just yesterday Buddy was informed it might reach 80 degrees this weekend. Not too bad….I just wonder what is in store for us this winter….this Texas gal is a southerner not accustomed to harsh winters…

Monday, August 15, 2005

Washing and drying bed linens

Having been out of town for much of the past three weeks, I discovered that our laundry had really accumulated upon our return from Paris. Ah, welcome home. Still, how much laundry can two people really generate? Well, not that much, but remember that for me one load of laundry can take 3 hours to wash/dry, that the unit is a combo unit so I can’t multi-task by washing a load and drying a different load at the same time, and that the maximum washing load is about 10 pounds/maximum drying load is about 6 pounds. If you have been reading the blog, then you already know this.

No…today my tale moves to a different aspect of laundry…washing and drying the bedlinens. This should not even be a blog topic. However, I have learned to take nothing for granted, and this is one of those topics.

First, a little background: As you may not recall, Buddy and I were required to purchase a bed frame and mattress is Germany, as we did not take our own bed with us to Taiwan (so there was nothing to ship to Germany). Simply put, European beds are a different size, so the sheets we have from the US can not fit a German mattress. OK, that required the purchase of a new bed frame, mattress, and bedlinens (I’ll get to the issue of the mattress another time, but they have no box springs). Right now, we have the bed the equivalent size of something a little larger than a double bed but not as large as a queen size. So, to wash the linens, I have to break the sheets into two piles because the size of the washer/dryer can’t accommodate all the bedlinens in one load.

“Why don’t you just put them all in at one time anyway?” Several reasons but the two main ones are: (1) if the machine is too overloaded, it won’t work, and (2) the items in the machine will not wash and dry properly (i.e. damp linens, or worse yet, wet towels and sheets). So, you break it down into two loads. Time required: minimum 6 hours.

Again, you say “That should not be an issue.” Can’t you just put in a load of clothes, bedlinens, or towels, start the machine, go run some errands or hit a movie, and come back to take your dry items out of the washer/dryer? No, you can’t. Rationale: If you leave the items in even 5 minutes after the drying cycle finishes, they come out one wrinkled mess. I have tried different drying strategies, different washing and drying temperatures, reviewed the English operating manual that Buddy pulled off the internet, but we can’t seem to figure that out. For most items, you better get them out of the dryer quickly, and folded or hung on hangars ASAP.

So…now on to the bedlinens. Everywhere I look, bedlinens are made of 100% cotton. I love a good Egyptian cotton sheet, with a 300+ thread count. No cotton/polyester for me! They are scratchy, not soft, and are usually in some garish color or pattern (orange being a favorite of Germans I have noticed). With soft sheets, you pay the price! Upon removal from the dryer, I have never seen a more wrinkled set of linens in my life. I mean, they are beyond wrinkled. We have even tried to leave the linens a bit damp but they are still wrinkled. So, I am now pressing my sheets….and when I say sheets, I really mean a fitted sheet and a duvet cover because there is no such thing as a flat sheet in Continental Europe.

Welcome to my world….

Sunday, August 14, 2005

I see dead people…that is, I see dead people’s graves

OK, allow me one more Paris story. And yes, you are probably wondering how a Paris travel anecdote ties into today’s blog title. Well, believe it or not, a big tourist attraction in Paris is to visit La Pere Lachaise, a cemetery in Paris (thanks Mike and Matt for suggesting this – very interesting). I know, I can hear the wheels spinning in your heads, “Why would you do that?”

For one, the tombstones are works of art in themselves: very ornate in general, lots of wrought iron, stained glass, architectural elements, and garden statues, and even small buildings are constructed as tributes to the lives of the people buried here. It is quite extraordinary…now I know where some of the antique garden statues we see in US antique shops are probably derived from. The closest thing I can compare it to are some of the cemeteries I have seen in Louisiana (obviously, it is the French connection there) so that visual might help my US pals.

Apart from that, it is the sheer notoriety of the people buried here that is the big draw. Because this cemetery is so vast, there are tourist maps of the cemetery that show where all the notable people are buried. Before I go too much further, let me just say that this place is HUGE! We spent 2 to 2 1/5 hours here and we still only scratched the surface. However, let me give you a flavor of some of the people buried here:

* Oscar Wilde
* Sarah Bernhardt
* Marcel Proust
* Yves Montand and Simone Signoret
* Eugene Delacroix
* Honore de Balzac
* Maria Callas
* Isadora Duncan
* Frederic Chopin
* Jim Morrison (of The Doors fame)
* Heloise et Abelard
* Camille Pissaro
* Allan Kardec
* Charlie Chaplin
* Gertrude Stein
* Edith Piaf
* Moliere

It is simply a “who’s who” list of famous writers, painters, sculptors, dancers, singers, entertainers, philosophers, as well as I am sure many others…I wish I could say we saw all of the names listed above, but alas, we did not….a return trip is obviously in order.

Sidenote: the dude selling tourist maps at the entrance of the cemetery seemed a bit suspect, but if you go there, you must buy a map. Trust me, you will be lost without it. Each person purchasing a map invoked this guy’s query to find out where you were from, what you do for a living, etc. When he asked Buddy this question, my security-minded husband responds “Germany” but clearly he is speaking with an American accent (he is rather cautious these days about revealing too much info as Americans are not the most popular people right now). To which this guys says in a soft whisper, “Are you with the CIA?”

Yea, right….

Friday, August 12, 2005

What about passport control and security on trains?

Air travel has indoctrinated me to a litany of security measures that must be followed on airlines these days:

  • arriving 2 hours early for a flight
  • ensuring baggage is unlocked and under “your control” at all times
  • no packing of items from a list of 40+ banned products, including bombs, guns, and knives (check…got it…leave those at home)
  • no packing of hairspray and nail clippers in carry-on luggage
  • queuing in long lines to go through security
  • presenting the passport and boarding pass at immigration and security (multiple times)
  • taking off all shoes, belts, jackets, jewelry, etc. to pass through the security area (beep beep – go back through or be “wanded”)
  • removing the PC from the briefcase
  • yada, yada, yada

I have this drill down now, and can anticipate the next sequence of events as if I was constructing a process flow chart. If this, then that….

Yes, it is important. Yes, it is for our safety. And yes, terrorism has caused airports and airlines to resort to this level of checking. Still….what a hassle….

Which is why I am consistently so ill prepared for the low degree of difficulty related to security and passport measures on European trains. Take our recent trip to Paris:

  • No passport control: On neither the trips to/from Paris/Dusseldorf, and having passed through 3 countries in the process, was I ever required to show my passport. Not at the train station, nor on the train to the train conductor. Given the recent security issues on trains, I guess I would have expected somebody...somewhere...sometime... to request to see my passport. Doesn’t somebody want to know who I am? Better yet, I want to know who you are!
  • No luggage check: I know that practically speaking this would be a huge hassle. Yet, the recent bombs on Madrid trains have shown that train travel is vulnerable. All aboard…including those suitcases.
  • No security check: We just waltz onto the train…a mere 10 minutes before departure. C’est facile! Nobody checks to see what I am carrying, what is strapped to my body, what is in my luggage…

I like train travel…I like the relative ease of train travel. Which is why I am enjoying this mode of transportation. It just occurred to me, though, might it be too easy? Something tells me it is only a matter of time before that changes, too.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

France shuts down in August

I had been forewarned by Jorja K. that August in France is an entirely different beast. Thus, I should not have been surprised by the amount of businesses closed for the holidays during “cette mois”. In all actuality, our recent trip to Paris and central France was not really impacted as there was far more to see and do than we could ever realistically accomplish in 5 days.

By way of background and for those of you around the globe not familiar with the generous vacation laws in EU countries, most EU citizens have at least 6 weeks of annual leave, if not more. With that said, France literally shuts down in August; many hotels, shops, art galleries, restaurants, etc. take a 4 week extended vacation, usually from the end of July to the 25th to 31st of August.

This still surprises me. Point: If the summer time is THE tourist season, it stands to reason that these businesses would want to be open in order to capitalize on the tourist crush. Guess that is the blatant capitalist coming out in me. Counterpoint: Maybe that is why I saw so many tourists…hmmm….

Fortunately, Paris is chocked full of sightseeing opportunities, and none of the major sights are usually affected. Having been to Paris before, and experienced the traditional tourist must-sees (i.e. Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Tuilleries, Place de Concorde, Champs Elysee, Place Vendome, etc.), I was hoping to hunker down in one or two Parisian neighborhoods and experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of such places as Montmarte and St. Germain des Pres. Quick translation: crawl around in the antique shops, art galleries, one-of-a-kind clothing and book stores that are located on virtually every street and putz to my heart’s content. More times than not, though, a pleasant sign (in French) greeted us at the front door of many shops and eateries politely informing us of the business’ August closure. Even the touristy book and print sellers along the Seine were apparently on hiatus.

Example: One the restaurant recommendations we decided to act upon, Le Grand Colbert, was planning on closing the very next day for about a month. As we began to order, the waiter politely informed us that about half of the menu items were not available that evening in anticipation of being closed for the next 30 days. Hmmm…no chicken, salmon, steak, no veal….

Lest you get the impression that we did not have a fabulous time in Paris, let me be sure to set the record straight! It was a wonderful five days spent visiting with family, as well as exploring parts of France I had never seen before. Yes, multiple shopping bags were in evidence, lovely meals were had (Le Petit Cour – thanks, Mike and Matt), and even a few antique shops separated me from some of my Euros.

Just remember, though: forewarned is forearmed. Paris in August marches to the beat of slightly slower drummer.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Fountainebleau and Vaux le Vicomte

Being ever the organized traveler, we had already decided we wanted to tour the fabulous chateaux of Fountainebleau and Vaux le Vicomte. Words and pictures cannot describe how beautiful, opulent, and grand these chateaux are, so I will not even try. Interestingly enough, Fountainebleau was the hunting lodge for many French kings, including Francois I, Henri IV, and Napolean,


while Vaux le Vicomte was a chateau common in the time of the French Bourgeoisie.


Because travel to these locations, located outside of Paris, involved trains, train schedules, buses, taxis, etc. , we consulted Fodor's travel book, our hotel concierge, and the WWW. After a few misses enroute to Fountainebleau (the internet site provided us with bus lines that do not take one to Fountainebleau, taxis do not appear to even exist in Fountainebleau, a notable sidetour of the less than finer sites of the city was provided via the local bus lines), we eventually arrived at the chateau. The return trip back to the train station was a little less challenging although we kept stopping at local tourist offices for assistance...of which every 2 out 3 were not open. Yes, everything shuts down in France in August.


Part Deux of this daytrip then included a train stop in Melun, home of Vaux le Vicomte. Again, Fodor's and our internet notes failed us, because none of the buses appeared to have this tourist site on their route. The tourist "chateau bus" also appeared to only run on the weekends...never to the rescue, which we were able to find "one". Although travel tips suggested that this was only a 2 km walk, we would still have been walking through the wheat fields of Melun to find this place. It was worth it, however, including a rather laborious audio guide that provided me with more historical context about French owners, the plot and intrique during 1600's in France, and of course, the chateau, than I could ever have wanted to know.

Sunday, August 07, 2005


Buddy and I decided that a daytrip to Chartres was a perfect way to spend a Sunday in France. Being only a mere 60 or 70 minutes by train, we managed the intricacies of the French train ticket purchasing process and headed southward.

While the day started out cloudy and gray, it quickly burned off as you will see in the photos. For those of you who, like me, are shamefully ignorant of architecture styles, let me cut to the chase. The cathedral in Chartres is THE birthplace of Gothic architecture, as this was the first church to make use of the ornate carvings and flying buttresses that are apparently so characteristic of the style. Although we had been told that a trip to see the cathedral was a must, we were ignorant of this little known fact.


Another interesting tourist tidbit is that the churches in Chartres, especially the main cathedral are all known for the great examples of medieval stained glass windows. Unfortunately, my pictures cannot do these windows justice, but take it from me, they are quite amazing. Sidenote: church services were in progress when we arrived at the cathedral. I am always a bit uncomfortable touring a church while others are there worshipping. Somehow I feel a little awkward checking out the church for its historical, cultural, and architectural while others are there visiting the church for its intended purpose. No one seemed to object, and there were plenty of tourists, so I kept the flash off the camera and kept moving.



Besides trekking through 4 of the city churches, we also explored a bit of the town, seeing plenty of small-town French houses, restaurants, and canals.



An unexpected treat occurred when we literally stumbled onto a crepe restaurant for lunch. We did observe upon first entering the restaurant that no other patrons were having lunch. Uh oh, not a good sign. Within 5 minutes, apparently, the church crowd let out and hit the door, because all of the 10 downstair tables filled up within 10 minutes of our arrival...which was later quite understandable as the crepes were magnifique!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

It does not get any better than this....

A rather cool and blustry day did not diminish our first day in Paris: a leisurely walk though the St. Germain area, a boat ride along the Seine, and shopping along the Champs-Elysees...just to name a few. Having been to Paris before, and taken the "Paris Highlights 101" course for tourists, I still do not tire of seeing these remarkable sites. With no specific plans or destinations in mind, we simply took off armed with a map, a travel book, and a camera.

A few things held to form. St. Germain, while entirely charming and filled with great little cafes, did not provide me with my first purchase of the day. I felt confident that I would find that perfect antique in this corner of Paris, but alas, most of the antique shops were not even open. (A rather common theme). Never fear, Buddy charged to the rescue, making the very first purchase ...for himself, I might add (great pair of shoes by the way).

We also saw Paris' oldest church before boarding "une bateaux" for a ride along the Seine. The familiar sites of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, the Louvre, etc. welcomed us back to this fair city. A second theme held true...invariably some major landmark is under renovation just when we decide to never fails. On this trip, it was the exterior of the Louvre, which was a shame because the tuilleries were all in bloom. Never fear, could we have found the photo destined to be THE 2005 Christmas card shot?


After a brief break "pour dejeuner", we got serious on this shopping thing. Remember, I still had some birthday celebrating to do. Victory came in the form of some great fashions in a shop along the Champs-Elysee (the Budman felt the need to join in the celebration as well). Bud is showing me how it is done as we begin our mission.


Tomorrow, we head to Chartres.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Joyeux anniversaire à moi

I love celebrating birthdays! It doesn’t matter if the birthday is mine or yours, family or friend. I simply love a good birthday celebration. Count me in on any type of birthday festivities.

For that matter, I am all for birthday extravaganzas. In my book, birthday celebrations can begin as early as 5 days before the main event and can easily extend for up to a week after. I can even get on board with birthday celebrations that last an entire month. Any excuse to celebrate a birthday is OK by me: birthday breakfasts, brunches, lunches, or dinners, multiple birthday meals on the same or consecutive days, birthday trips, birthday parties (formal or the friendly get-together) birthday “spa days”, surprise birthday parties, birthday cakes, cookies, desserts, birthday gifts, flower, balloons, and cards…I think you get my point. Birthdays are reason enough to celebrate and I am for any excuse to extend that celebration for as long as possible…especially if the birthday is mine.

With that said, yes, today is my birthday. And without much forethought into the planning of this uneventful birthday (no major milestone here), I realized that as luck would have it, I would be celebrating my big day in the mother of all cities, the City of Light, Cité Magique, Temple des Amoureux, gay Paree!…you guessed it, PARIS!

It really happened without a lot of hoopla. We are meeting Buddy’s brother and partner in Paris for a few days, and this just happened to be the weekend they were coming. Whatever the reason, I can think of no grander place to celebrate a birthday than Paris.

Yes, the blog should be updated during this time, so check back for updates. I have no idea exactly what we will be doing, but I have a list a mile long that are all definite possibilities. Surely, I can find a suitable birthday present for myself while shopping in Paris….

Thursday, August 04, 2005

OK, I give...

Last weekend, we were in Waxahachie for less than 72 hours...yes, you read that correctly. Because Buddy and I wanted to attend a wedding of some dear friends, wild horses could not have kept us away. So, we made the quick trip back. Due to the fact that I already had either taken most of my vacation OR have it already planned (i.e. 2 weeks in Italy in November), we only had a few days to play with.

We flew out on Thursday AM, arriving in Dallas around 3 PM; by Sunday at 9 AM, we were headed back to D-FW airport (our flight departed at 2:50 pm, but we did not leave until almost 7 pm). I know I am preaching to the choir, but flying home to the US on US airline carriers takes an incredible amount of self-discipline, patience, and an ability to curb the tongue (which is not always easy for me).

I suppose it is too many years living abroad, flying airlines other than US airlines that has spoiled me. Yet, every time we fly on a US airline back/within the states, we are shocked by the state of our domestic airlines. I realize that American, Delta, Continental, Northwest et al are simply trying to stay alive, but the degree of difference in terms of customer service, state of the aircrafts, on-time arrivals, and the general hassle-free experience is shocking. I suppose I would not even be aware of the disparity in US airlines if that was all I flew; but alas, I am painfully aware of the differences as I routinely fly other European and Asian airlines.

Now, being that most of our travel is destined to/from D-FW airport, it will not take a rocket scientist to figure out which US airline we are predominantly interfacing with. Let me give you a hint (and in the words of Buddy) this airline is “nothing special in the air”.

Indulge me as I share a few examples:
  • Customer Service Attitude: Flight crews, flight attendants in particular, and ticket agents, are downright surly when dealing with customers in the US. This is a marked difference from their global airline counterparts. It does not matter if you are on crutches or in a wheelchair, have a small baby in your arms, or are Santa Claus in the flesh, each customer is treated with the same level of contempt. I sympathize, I really do. Asking a flight attendant for assistance or a question can be almost life-threatening…proceed at your own risk. I realize that these people are on the front lines trying to keep their jobs, and their company together. However, the customers are not the enemy; they are what are keeping the airlines in business.

  • Lack of consistent information – We are compliant travelers; just give us the rules and we will follow them. Nothing is more infuriating than when you contact the airline 3+ times to verify an answer to your question (ticket confirmation, baggage limits, regulations pertaining to traveling with pets), and you get 3+ different answers. I just pray that when I get to the airport that one of the answers I have received is correct. I now pack for multiple scenarios, just in the off-chance I have to pitch something from my suitcase (which I have had to do before).

  • On-time arrivals – Can I say, that without incident, I have yet to be on an AA flight within the past 3 years to/from the US that was not late for at least one leg of the journey? Multiple reasons abound: “the aircraft is late”, “the plan must be repaired and there is not a part available, so we’re flying the part in (or worse, trying to get you a new aircraft)”, or "bad weather". Again, don’t mistake the meaning of my message. I want my aircraft to be safe and I need to fly in safe weather. It just seems to me that US airlines are running things so tightly that they don’t have any contingency built in for problems. I have yet to experience this same issue on any Asian or European flights, whether it is domestic or international flights.

  • Everything is purchased: Meals, headsets, etc. must all be purchased. Not that either of those is too great of a loss. I make sure I am not depending on the airline to satisfy my hunger needs. Now I bring my own food or eat up heartily before boarding. Many people are even packing their own headsets…Things are not quite so dire on international flights, but that time is a-comin’.

I could go on, but will stop here. Suffice to say, I am thankful that most of my air travel these days does not involve a US airline. That day will come again…in the not too near future…but until that time, I will enjoy a hassle-free airline experience for all my US friends… courtesy of any airline other than a US one.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Creature Comforts

Living abroad exposes one to so many new experiences: history that is only read about in books, interesting people and places, exotic cultures, and delicious but different cuisines. One’s perspective can really be enlarged, for which I believe is a good thing in this global age.

However, on a recent trip back to Texas for a friend’s wedding, I realized that there are some things I miss. Not to sound like a homer, and in no apparent order, here is a list of creature comforts that I must admit were heartily enjoyed on my trip home last week:

· Texas heat – Yes, it’s true. Having had only a little real summer heat this summer, I can say I miss the dryness of Texas heat. For those of you suffering through 100+ degree heat, I know I must sound like a fool. Just remind me of this fact, when I complain about no A/C in Germany. Side benefit to Texas heat: my hair always does better with less humidity.

· Air conditioning – connected with the first bullet, all stores, businesses, and homes have air con. Sheer heaven.

· Wedding cake – What is it about wedding cake with sour cream icing that is so delicious? I had missed it so much, I had two pieces. No, Dorothy can’t get this in Oz.

· Tex-Mex - It’s a cliché, I know. Tex-Mex is simply good for the soul. Everyone needs a weekly dose to keep the body and mind in good working order.

· Barbecue – Ditto the previous comment re: Tex-Mex. OK, so there is a food theme here…

· Jumbo size, biggie size, super size, Texas size (whatever you call big size) glasses of ice tea – if sweetened tea, all the better.

· 24-hour shopping at Wal-Mart – We went shopping anytime we wanted or needed to and hit the aisles at the Waxahachie Wal-Mart. We arrived at 12:30 am (after the rehearsal dinner) just because we could! Jet-lag also contributed to that decision.

· Product availability - Yes, I found everything on my list at one store. With the exception of the new PC purchase, we picked up everything at Sam’s store. No empty shelves where products should be, but are currently out of stock. No “getting to the grocery store early in the day because by late afternoon, everything is picked over”. It was an embarrassment of riches.

· Crepe Myrtle trees – no where else are these trees as lovely as they are in Texas in the dead of summer. Next time you see a crepe myrtle, remember that I said this.

· Gas prices – You think it’s bad in the US! Enough said.

· English speaking hair dresser – Not that my German hair stylist doesn’t speak a little English, and is a vast improvement over my Korean and Taiwanese hair stylists in terms of capability, but there is still something comforting about getting your hair cut, colored, and high-lighted by someone who I can speak with. I relaxed in the chair for the first time in years, just knowing this simple fact.

· Old friends and family – they’re only at home.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

TV Update

The quick update is that we still have no TV cable or satellite in the apartment. I know, this is the 21st century and we continue to be amazed that this is still an open issue.

Since CNN and BBC News are the only English language channels on German cable, we elected to bypass the cable installation entirely. We figured, “Why bother?” On the flip side, we did submit a formal request to the landlord (per German law) to install a satellite dish. Originally we thought that our relocation specialist was handling the request; much to our chagrin, this action has fallen by the wayside. I guess after getting his commission on the apartment, he figured his work was done. So, after submitting this written request to our landlord in writing a week ago, Buddy and I are still waiting for the satellite installation verdict…not sure if that is a good or bad sign. So far, no white or black smoke is visible from the chimney.

We also figured that we would do all we could to ensure that nothing derails the approval process. We have tried to be “really good tenants”, get along well with the neighbors, comply with all the zany German quirks regarding the apartment (no washing clothes on Sunday, keeping our exterior hallway need and tidy, keeping loud noises, such as drilling and music to a low volume, etc.). We are the model tenants….or so we think. Well, we did have a little issue last week…something about leaving for the airport for a business trip at 5:30 am in the morning and “locking my door too loudly”. Is that even possible?

Not that we watch all that much television, but we are amazed that we have been without TV for almost 4 months. I guess when you have to do without, you can …looks like we will have hunker down and wait a bit longer.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Congrats to Juan and Amber

The blog has been a bit quiet for the last few days as Buddy and I traveled back to Waxahachie for a wedding. Some dear friends of ours, Amber and Juan, were married this last weekend, and we were not only there to share in their big day, but to also participate in all of the wedding festivities.

What impressed us most about the entire weekend was the love that was evident in each detail of the wedding ceremony. While Amber and Juan are both accomplished young adults with an exciting future ahead of them (personally and professionally), it was the affection and warmth that was a part of their wedding that was so endearing. Not only did friends and family travel great distances to be there and to share in wedding ceremony, but the events leading up to the actual wedding as well as the ceremony itself were filled with great love: between the bride and groom, by the parents of the bride and groom towards their children who were the first to marry from either side, for extended family who participated in the wedding as wedding party, pastor, and honored guests, and of course, in the good wishes of all the friends.

To the new couple:

Ámbar y Juan -
Felicitaciones a usted ambas sobre su boda reciente y recuerdospara una unión larga y feliz. Recuerde, "el viaje verdadero deldescubrimiento consiste no en buscar nuevos paisajes sino en tenerojos nuevos."

(translation: Congratulations to you both upon your recent wedding and best wishes for a long and happy marriage. Remember, "the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes".)