Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Day After Christmas

My sister's visit here is nearing its end. I wanted to make sure she had some really great pommes frites in Belgium before leaving. We decided to go to a tiny pub in Tongeren where the beers are unique, the staff are friendly, and the fries are great!

My sister and husband had Rochefort 10s and I ordered one of my new regulars, a Grimbergen. For our second rounds, the pub owner decided to make recommendations. He asked my sister, "What do you like? Sweet? Dark? A little bitter?"

"Dark beer, not bitter but not too sweet either," my sister replied.

He disappeared behind the counter for a few seconds and then popped his head up so he could gaze discerningly at my sister. Squinting and cocking his head to the side, he muttered, "Yes... hmm... for her, a dark beer."

He plucked a glass from the cabinet and expertly poured the new beer. My sister took a sip and said it was exactly what she liked. Satisfied, he turned to me. I began naming off my favorite Belgian beers. He interrupted and exclaimed, "Why wouldn't you have the best beer imaginable?!"

I said, "Yes! Of course that's what I want!"

St. Bernardus Abt 12- 10.5% alcohol content
I was not disappointed. After one more round of these stiff beers, we were having the greatest conversation of our lives! We ruminated philosophically over our pommes frites and curry ketchup. Three hours later and two sheets to the wind, we agreed it was time to make our way out of the pub. 

We said goodbye to a friendly couple seated next to us. We always meet nice people at this particular pub and they are usually curious about why we are there. It seems like most Belgians have been to California for some reason, so we talk about that for a while and then ask them to suggest places we should visit while we're living here. Our list is very long!

We mentioned to the bartender that we went to the O.B.E.R. Chrimstas beer festival. He seemed impressed and insisted that I put my email address on a mailing list for another association of beer lovers. I thought it was a great idea at the time but in retrospect I'm wondering how I'll ever read the email since it won't be written in English.

We made our way outside and walked toward the Saint Catherine Church, one of the oldest churches in Tongeren. It is breathtaking and this is the first time we've seen it at night.





After we finished our tour, we heard children laughing and other sounds of merriment. We followed the noise to an ice skating rink! I have never been ice skating and neither has my sister. There aren't too many frozen lakes in Florida. 

We stood at the gate and observed the skaters for a few moments and then I declared that we would do it! First we stopped in at one of the restaurants in the square to have a quick, delicious bite of mussels and croque monsieurs.

Fully sated and filled with lots of built-up courage to combat any bruises we might incur, we went back to the rink to rent skates. Having grown up skiing and ice skating, my husband is a winter sports pro. He carefully led us out onto the ice and gave us pointers. In no time, my sister was skating around like Dorothy Hamill. As she whizzed past me I yelled, "I thought you'd never done this!"

"I haven't! I guess I'm just a natural!" she replied, as she camel-spinned past me.

I eventually made my way around the rink three times without holding on to the edges and I considered that a very big success.

I can safely say that I never imagined myself spending the day after Christmas drinking beer at a bar in the oldest town in Belgium, and then ice skating in front of a church built in 1294. I still can't believe this is my life.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Aachen, Amsterdam, and Christmas Eve

We've been very busy the past few days! I wanted my sister to see a Christmas market so we decided to go to Aachen Tuesday. We woke up bright and early and had a filling breakfast to prepare for our day of shopping and excitement. I was apprehensive because this was my first time negotiating the train schedules on my own. I checked and double-checked the departure time and we arrived with ten minutes to spare. My sister asked if we had time to grab coffee and I said, "Oh no. The schedule says the train will be here at 10:30 and the one thing you should know about German trains is that they are NEVER late."

10:30 came and went. I was confused and assumed I read the schedule wrong when suddenly a voice boomed from the intercom. All I fully understood was the first word: Information. The voice spoke for about a minute and when the announcement was over, the other people waiting sighed and expressed annoyance. It was safe for me to conclude that the train was late.

The weather was rainy and cold, as it has been for the past two weeks. We decided to wait inside since it was a little warmer. This brings me to another interesting observation about Germans. It seems as if they do lots of things in silence. I've been to several grocery stores with no music piping over the speakers. Waiting for trains is also achieved soundlessly. I'm not a quiet person by nature but I never realized how much I enjoy talking until moving here. I wanted to pass the time by speaking with my sister but I felt so uncomfortable breaking the stillness in the room. Eventually we went back outside, braving the damp chill so we could at least whisper quietly without suffering reproachful looks from those who wanted to stand in repose.

We waited another 15 minutes. I kept thinking we must have missed the train somehow. The Information Voice called out to us several more times. Everyone grew more and more agitated (silently, of course) with each announcement.

Suddenly we all heard a train in the distance. Ears perked up and people began peering over the edge of the platform. When it became clear that the train was facing toward Aachen, a low murmur of excitement spread through the crowd. The train was on the other side of the station and when it stopped, people began running toward the stairs to get across. Some even hopped over the train tracks, shuffling over the rocks. It was the oddest stampede I have ever witnessed. At least 50 people galloping through a train station, and the only sound came from the pounding of shoes on pavement. No one yelled, shrieked, or even breathed loudly.

We followed the absurd legion to the other side and then came to a complete standstill as one man (somehow chosen) boarded the train to find out if it was going to Aachen. We waited, mutely, and he emerged moments later to inform us that this was not the correct train.

Of course, I only knew this because a collective sigh arose and everyone around us began trudging back to the stairs to return to our original waiting area.

By this time, the train was an hour past due.

We were only there for a few minutes more when the whole scenario was played out again. We heard a train approaching. It was going to stop on the other side. Once more, people dashed madly toward the stairs, and some bravely leapt over the tracks. Finally, this was our train.

The journey after that was uneventful. We had a nice time at the market even though the weather was dismal. My sister liked Aachen very much and I was happy to have gotten us there and back in one piece.

My sister's time here is nearing its end. I definitely wanted to show her my favorite city so we made our way back to Amsterdam on Saturday. It's such a great city for wandering. All of the streets are so beautiful and unique and it's been one of the only European cities (so far) that make me feel truly foreign.

My sister was able to see everything we've seen and, as it turns out, a little more. One of our final stops before dinner was to the Red Light District. My original opinion of the area was that it's overrated. I was wrong. This time, we decided to turn down a side street. Almost immediately, things looked different. The narrow alley was softly illuminated by a ruby glow. As we approached, the walls seemed to get tighter and I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. I turned slightly to focus on the object and realized it was a woman.

She was young and very pretty, clad in gaudy lingerie. All of them were. I suddenly felt ashamed. Obviously I have no purpose to walk through the Red Light District, other than to gawk and stare at a way of life I will never experience and can't possibly understand. I felt bad for them. I can't imagine what their lives are actually like. What a different view they must have looking at the streets from inside their tiny boxes. It was unsettling.

Our first Christmas Eve in Germany has been very nice! We made gingerbread men, rice pudding, and minced meat pie. We also went on a long and challenging bike ride to justify all of the holiday food we'll be eating.

Fireworks have been going off in our neighborhood for the past few hours. I wonder if it's a Christmas Eve tradition here. Back home, we only set off them off on the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve. I guess any reason for fireworks is a good one. At least it proves that sometimes Germans do get loud and rowdy.

Frohe Weihnachten!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Antwerp and a Beer Festival

When we found out we were moving to Germany, I knew we would miss Oktoberfest by a few short days. I began searching for a winter beer festival in the hopes that 2011 wouldn't end without us sampling some amazing brews. I found the Christmas Beer Festival in Essen, Belgium.

We decided to drive, visiting Antwerp on the way. We were only able to spend about three hours in Antwerp so I'll reserve my opinions about the city until I have a chance to see more of it. Guidebooks indicated that the train station is one of the must-sees, so we made that a priority. It was very impressive!


The drive from Antwerp to Essen was 25 minutes. Once we arrived, I must admit that the outside of the building was unremarkable. It was a school or community gym adorned by a simple banner that read 'Heuvelhal.'

Inside was entirely different. We stepped into an expansive room filled with hundreds of people. After we had a moment to take it all in, we purchased our souvenir tasting glasses and some tokens. Each sample of beer filled the entire glass and most cost only one token (1.50 Euro). Lines weren't long and the crowd was well-behaved. 



This event was organized by O.B.E.R. (Objective Beer tasters Essen Region) and I would venture to say that at least half of the attendees took the task of tasting very seriously. The other half were just hoping to stumble back to the train station still standing. 

The sheer selection of beers was staggering. Over 150 Belgian varieties were at our fingertips to try. We weren't the only people to represent America. We met one person from Colorado and a group from South Carolina was rumored to be in attendance. Later in the evening we shared a table with a Dutchman, an Irishwoman, and an Englishwoman.

Several young Dutchmen crowded around our table for much of the evening in the hopes of chatting up my sister. We took the opportunity to ask them what they really think of Americans. Most of them were kind. They said things like, "Oh, I like Americans. I went to San Diego once and it was fun." One of them told us he learned to speak English so well because he watched Friends when he was younger. Another explained the importance of soccer by comparing it to college football. 

These were all interesting topics but I am also curious about negative impressions of us. Only one of them was completely candid. He said, "I don't like Americans. They are self-centered. They think the problems of the rest of the world don't really affect them so they choose to remain ignorant to everything other than what's right in front of them."

It was sort of eye-opening to hear such an unguarded statement about my own country. By the end of our conversation, he thankfully concluded that he didn't think all Americans are self-centered.

I know it isn't my role to change what someone may believe about the people of an entire country but it's nice to see that despite our differences and places of origin, we can still express our opinions and have a nice conversation. Or maybe that's just the beer talking.

At any rate, the beer festival was a complete success! It was a great occasion to try some unique, amazing beers and an even better opportunity to meet some very interesting people. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Sister's Arrival

My sister has been here for four days and everything is great, except for the weather.

She was set to arrive at 8:02am Wednesday. I hardly slept the night before because I was afraid of missing the alarm and being late to retrieve her. I woke up bright and early at 5:30 just to give myself enough time to get lost or do something else wrong.

It was very dark and also raining. I typed 'Dusseldorf Airport' into Blanche, the GPS, and set off around 6:30am. Driving in inky blackness during a storm was very disorienting. I don't think the roads here are well-lit. Street lamps aren't as bright and reflectors are also absent. I was doing my very best to keep Greta between the lines.

This was not my first time driving to Dusseldorf alone. I did this a few weeks ago when I had to meet my husband at IKEA, but this was my first time going back to the Dusseldorf airport since our arrival. I was very jet-lagged during our drive to Geilenkirchen that day so I don't remember much about getting off the plane and into the car.

Everything seemed correct during the first few minutes of the drive and then I ended up in the Netherlands. I thought this was a little strange since I didn't remember driving through Holland in order to get to Dusseldorf. I checked Blanche to make sure I was en route to the Dusseldorf airport and it seemed like I was still on the right path. Because of our close proximity to the Netherlands, sometimes my driving begins in Germany, goes through the Netherlands, and ends up back in Germany. I thought this might be one of those times.

I was making quicker progress than I'd expected and was looking forward to getting to the airport at least 20 minutes in advance of my sister's flight landing. Suddenly traffic came to a complete standstill. I'm assuming I hit rush hour traffic somewhere and it was terrible. It caused me to lose 25 minutes. I didn't go into a panic just yet since I knew that even if I arrived at the airport when the plane was scheduled to land, I'd still have time to spare since she would be going through customs.

As soon as the traffic cleared, I saw that I was very close to my destination. I began seeing little airplanes on the information panels I was passing and I thought, "Wow! Despite that setback, I'm still going to make it! This is great!"

As I approached the airport, I had an odd feeling about how small it seemed compared to what I remembered from my own arrival here. But I pressed forward. Blanche directed me to the 'Arrivals' parking lot where exactly four cars were parked. I was almost in full panic-mode at this point. I parked the car and strode semi-confidently into the lobby. It was as desolate and empty as an old Western outlaw town after a gunfight.

An employee walked past me and gruffly said, "Morgen," as he went outside for a smoke break.

I greeted him and then decided to follow him to ask if I was in the correct place.

"Entshuldigung, sprechen sie English?" I asked.
"A little," he said.
"Ok. Thank you. Is this the Dusseldorf International Airport?"
"No."
"Oh I see. How far away is the Dusseldorf International Airport?"
He gestured in the direction behind me and impatiently replied, "It's at least 25 minutes away. You're not even close."
I retrieved the address from my phone and asked, "Is this the correct address?"
He brusquely replied, "I don't know the address."

With that, I was dismissed. I thanked him and apologized because I wasn't sure if he was already having a bad day or if I'd just contributed to it. Frazzled, I returned to Greta. When I originally put my destination in the GPS, I only searched for airports nearby. I did not use a specific address. I realized that Blanche was taking me to the nearest 'Dusseldorf' airport to our house, instead of the one an hour away. I was currently sitting in my car at the Dusseldorf-Monchengladbach regional airport.

I quickly redirected Blanche to the Dusseldorf International airport, which was now making an appearance on the list of optional destinations. The man was correct. My estimated arrival time was 25 minutes later, which would make the time 8:40am. My sister was probably going to think I'd forgotten her.

It was still raining but the early morning darkness had subsided. I put the pedal to the floor on the Autobahn and resolved to get to the airport without any more blunders.

I was so relieved when I saw the airport looming ahead. It was obviously much larger than the regional airport. Blanche lost her bearings when the time came for me to park. There were so many options. I had no idea which areas were for short-term parking. Running out of time, I pulled into a garage and pressed a button. I thought a ticket would pop out but a German voice blared out of the box instead. I said, "Oh! I'm sorry! Is this for short-term parking?"
"No!" he barked. "Parking garage FULL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

I backed Greta down the ramp and took a right. I came upon a regular parking lot and decided to try my luck there. I received a ticket and was able to park and then I hurriedly made my way to the lobby. Reading the signs as I walked in, it dawned on me that I did not know my sister's terminal. My plan, now that I'd managed to get myself inside the airport, was to find the nearest information desk and ask them to locate my sister since I couldn't do it myself.

I was run-walking down the corridor and suddenly there she was. Somehow, after all of my ignorant mistakes, I had chosen the correct door! I almost broke out into a run.

"Hi!! Where have you been?" she asked. "I thought you had gotten into a car accident or something!"
"No, no. Nothing like that. But I did go to the wrong airport."

She shook her head, as if she had anticipated something like this might happen, and then we hugged and were joyfully reunited!

The weather has been absolutely abysmal since she's been here. The sun hasn't peeked through for any duration longer than a few minutes and it is raining constantly. It is also extremely windy and very cold. The bright side to all of this is that we had dinner in Maastricht yesterday evening (nice tapas restaurant) and when we stepped outside, it was snowing!

I saw snow for the first time last Christmas in Minnesota but this was my sister's first experience with snowflakes. It was really great to see her react the same way I did.

"OH MY GOSH!!!!!!!!!!!!! Is that.... is it really..... I can't believe it!!!! Is this............. snow?!?!"

The snow turned back to rain as we were driving home, and nothing more happened over night, but the weather is still dreadful. We are braving it today to go to Belgium for a Christmas beer festival!

In 4 days, my sister will visit 3 countries! And who knows? Maybe we'll even have a chance to build a snowman.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Amsterdam!

I think my favorite city so far is Amsterdam! We arrived at the Sittard train station around 9:20 yesterday morning. Our train was leaving at 9:45 and we expected to be confused while buying tickets since it was our first time taking the train in Holland. Fortunately, a nice couple approached almost immediately and gave us a discount voucher for the parking garage. How lucky! Then, as we were puzzling over the ticket-purchasing procedure, two employees came to our assistance. They explained how to get two tickets for the price of one. Before they showed up, we were going to pay almost 180 Euro! I'm constantly impressed by all of the people who are so willing to help us.

The train ride was two hours. Based on this experience alone, I think the trains in Holland are nicer than those in Germany. Leg space is ample and the seating is more comfortable in general.

Our view upon exiting the station was amazing:


We were advised to be careful in Amsterdam. I guess pickpocketing is common, especially in tourist areas. Most of the streets we walked along were very crowded but I never felt uneasy or worried about anyone getting too close to me. I think if you follow the general rule of keeping your bearings straight, everything should be fine.

Since this was our first time in Amsterdam and we have the luxury of being able to visit frequently, we decided to keep things low-key. The major attraction on our agenda was the Anne Frank House and Museum. We found the house on Prinsengracht easily; it would have been hard to miss because of the long line of people waiting for admission. We were in line for about thirty minutes, and that was less time waiting than we originally thought it would be. 

The tour is self-guided. It takes visitors up and down narrow stairs that are more like ladders, and straight into the tiny room that Anne Frank lived in while her family was hiding. Walking through those doorways makes the pages of her diary come to life. I can't imagine how confining those walls must have been. This building is such an important piece of living history and a must-see for anyone making a trip to Amsterdam.



Amsterdam is such a gorgeous walking city and I can't wait to return when the weather is nicer. The building architecture was unique and beautiful. We managed to go off the beaten path into some residential areas. I'd consider myself a very lucky girl if I could live in any of those canal houses!


We were also, of course, curious about the Red Light District. Based upon its worldwide reputation, I expected it to be much larger. In actuality, it seemed the area encompassed only two blocks. The atmosphere was akin to walking in the seedier part of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. There were definitely ladies of the night perched in windows. None of them looked particularly happy. Being there felt very surreal. 

Some things I've always heard about Amsterdam proved to be true. People were smoking marijuana-- everywhere. The infamous coffee shops lined every street and street corner. All ages, gender, and people from many different walks of life were lighting up. It was impossible to avoid that strong, distinctive smell. I didn't see anyone acting crazy or out of control. If I didn't know what they were doing, I would have easily thought they were all just smoking cigarettes and relaxing with friends. 





Bicyclists were everywhere. Parking garages exist just for them! It was a pleasant feeling to walk around a city without worrying about crossing streets in front of cars, but the possibility of being injured in a drive-by-bicycling exists. They come out of nowhere and sometimes don't even ding their warning bells until they've already swooshed past you, brushing your hair to the side with their handlebars.

Our first jaunt to this city was a success! There are so many things left for us to do. We can visit the Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums, see Madamme Tussauds' wax museum, and take a boat ride through the canals. We want to enjoy a beer (or several) from a brewery at one of the few surviving windmills in Amsterdam. Maybe we'll rent bicycles and picnic at Vondelpark. The options are endless! The list would be incomplete without a mention of at least one risque attraction. With the Red Light District already covered, how about the Sexmuseum? 

Enjoy a few more photos of our day in Amsterdam.


I almost forgot to tell you we finally found margaritas!
The day was truly a success!


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Back to Aachen

Today we took our bikes on a seven-mile ride through the woods. It was cold, wet, and windy but the climate didn't detract from the beautiful scenery. I still can't believe I can ride my bike through the German forest on a Sunday afternoon.

While there are countless experiences to cherish, we are still dealing with challenges. We went back to Aachen yesterday to try and finish our Christmas shopping. It was another rainy, frigid, and windy day but we decided to act like real Germans and forge ahead despite the inclement forecast.

By now we know how to purchase our train tickets with little fanfare. As we were standing at the machine, a German woman approached us and asked if we needed help. We said yes, in the spirit of being polite. Instead of just talking us through the process, she stepped in front of us and started pressing buttons. She asked where we were going and my husband told her our destination.
"How many people you buying tickets for?" she asked.
Thinking the answer was obvious, my husband glanced at me and said, "Uhhmm, two. We're both going."
"Ah," she said thoughtfully. Then she began pressing the buttons in earnest.

The price came up on the screen and it was almost 16 Euro. We thanked her and she walked away, proud of herself for helping the clueless Americans. We assumed that this price was for two tickets to and from Aachen. We waited for the stubs as the machine buzzed. One ticket was produced. Once we checked it and realized it was for one person, we went back to the home screen to begin again. The woman approached questioningly.
"We needed two tickets. This is just one ticket," my husband said.
For a moment she looked confused and then shrugged her shoulders and began walking in the opposite direction. I appreciate her effort but I think she might need to take some more English lessons before she attempts to offer assistance to foreigners.

Aachen was still beautiful, even without the sun shining. We fought through the rain and the crowds to find some nice gifts. We drank hot mulled wine, or gluhwin, for the second time. It's the perfect beverage for a German winter day.

We decided to try lunch at a recommended restaurant. We have searched in vain for typical Mexican food. When I say typical, I mean queso, enchiladas, and margaritas in salted-rim glasses.

The first sign that this might not be the place we were expecting was its location-- right beside a Pizza Hut. Upon entering, our ears were assaulted by loud American pop music. We found a seat near the bar and perused the menu. There were 'Ultimate Nachos' and even an entire page dedicated to 'California Cuisine.' I'm not sure what made those particular offerings California-style; the featured items included a club sandwich and a burger with avocado. Incidentally, we were at a different restaurant a few weeks ago and something was being served 'Florida-style.' It was just a basic pork dish... with peaches. I think they got their states confused because that clearly should have been 'Georgia-style.'

Anyway, this restaurant definitely felt American. If I closed my eyes, I could have been in a Chili's.

Despite having an extensive beverage list, we didn't see any margaritas. Undeterred, my husband asked the bartender if he could make one.

The bartender quickly looked from side-to-side, leaned down toward us, and quietly said, "I cannot make a margarita. I am sorry."

I'm beginning to think there's something illegal about margaritas here. That's the type of reaction we received the first time we asked for one at a "Mexican" restaurant in Sittard. We aren't sure why they can't be made. The bars are always stocked with tequila and all of the other required ingredients. We even Googled "Why don't they serve margaritas in Germany" to no avail.

Disappointed, we went with a mojito and some type of beer with tequila. We decided to find a different restaurant for actual food.

On the way to our new destination, we were singled out of the crowd by a man. He gestured us over and began speaking to us.

"Sorry, sorry, we speak English only."
"Ohhhhhh. Okay. Well. This place is for... how do you say in English... a place for good cause..."
"Charity?" my husband offered.
"No, no, not charity...."
"Fundraiser?" I asked.
"Well... you just go inside, okay? And you buy things."

We had no idea what this man meant, or why he wanted us to go through the archways in front of him, but we didn't hesitate. This type of situation frequently happens to us. I never wonder where we're being lead until we're already too far in to second-guess what we're doing.

As we walked into a large courtyard, we passed by a nun sitting on a stool and eating a piece of blueberry pie. She smiled and held up the pie. We smiled and nodded.

We saw a sign for some type of cafe so we followed it. When we arrived we realized that we were in a convent and this was some type of bake sale for donations.

Neither of us wanted a pie since we still hadn't eaten lunch so we silently and reverently made our way out of the convent and back onto the street.

Some of our experiences are so ridiculous. The summary of our day would be: We spent 10 Euro more than necessary for our train tickets because a German lady tried to help us. We mucked through the rain and wind at the Christmas market and drank some hot wine. Then we went to the Chili's of Aachen and astonished the bartender when we ordered margaritas. After that we passed a nun eating blueberry pie.

C'est la vie.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bicycling by Night

Bike Path
One of the things I miss most about home is the sunshine. It's a given that the day will always shorten during winter, but it gets dark here much earlier than in Florida. Yesterday we decided to take a bike ride around our village. Bike paths are everywhere! I think it's actually easier to get your bearings by biking rather than driving. All of the paths seem to lead to each other so it's almost impossible to become truly lost.

We set off around 4pm, thinking that we would have plenty of time for an hour's ride. About half an hour later, we were pedaling like Tour de France competitors. The darkness did not happen gradually. Instead, it was as if someone suddenly just flipped a switch and we were encased in shadows.

We did manage to make it to the Netherlands before darkness fell. Now I can officially say I've biked in Holland. I thought I would be nervous riding beside cars in traffic but drivers there are very considerate.

I like using the bicycles already but I'm looking forward to spring and summer when the weather is nicer and the days longer. Although, I've been told that summer days here can last until 11pm! But let's not get ahead of ourselves. One season at a time.



8TN66P5H3T68

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Catching Up and Sharing Photos

We finally have Internet at home! Instead of making this a catch-up entry, I'm just going to sum up the goings-on of the past few days and share some photos.

Thanksgiving turned out wonderfully because we had guests! Our departing friends who sold us the desks came over and it was a very nice evening. Having others at our table made the day feel like a real holiday. Much to my relief, the food was great!

First Overseas Thanksgiving
On Saturday we went to Aachen for the Christmas market. It was beautiful! We drank mulled wine and found some unique gifts for our families.

Aachen Christmas Market

After spending several hours taking in the sights in Aachen, we decided to take advantage of our all-day train ticket and go to Cologne to see the Christmas market there. It was definitely worth the trip once, but we preferred Aachen. Cologne was so crowded. Hundreds of people were stuffed into tiny walkways through the vendors. Trying to negotiate through everyone was very difficult and we were constantly coming to a complete standstill. Of course, it was still beautiful!

Koln Christmas Market
The Dom behind Christmas Firs
We returned to Belgium Sunday. The weather during our previous trip there had been foggy and cold:

Foggy Belgium
The weather this time was still cold and very windy, but luckily the skies were clear. We walked around, taking in the people and all of the sights and then we ended the afternoon drinking some Belgian beers and eating pommes frites at a cozy cafe.



The countdown to my sister's visit has begun in earnest! She will be here in the middle of the month and I'm very excited to see her! We will show her Aachen, Cologne, Belgium, and the Netherlands and we are also planning to cross a few more places off our list. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Still Internetless

I feel as if I'm going on Day 1,000 without Internet at home. I have so many photos to share and no way to upload them until we have our connection here.

When we began the process we were asked if we needed a modem. My husband said no since we already have one. Turns out, you actually do need the modem from this company. I'm not sure why we weren't told up front. It took about four days for us to realize our mistake and now we are waiting for the correct modem to arrive by mail. It was supposed to be here yesterday.

Hopefully it will come today and all of the roadblocks will be gone. To date, setting up Internet in our home has been the most frustrating task we've encountered.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pre-Thanksgiving (or just a normal Thursday if you're German)


Plans to have the Internet at home were foiled once again. Now the expected date is Monday. I was hoping to be able to Skype with my family for the holiday but I will have to settle for a phone call instead.

I obviously know Thanksgiving is an American-only holiday but I guess I didn’t realize how different it would feel being here instead of back home. Even leading up to today, there were no turkey sales or cranberry sauce displays, no cartoon turkeys hung around the grocery stores. It’s just another day.

Last Thanksgiving we were newly-engaged and our moms were meeting for the first time in Florida. His mom flew down from Minnesota and my mom picked her up at the airport a day before we arrived.  They got along like old friends and we were all very happy to be spending the holiday together. It was very relaxing sitting on the back porch sipping wine, sharing stories, and becoming a family. We certainly didn’t know then that we would be so far apart during the next Thanksgiving.

Any other year, delightful aromas emanating from the kitchen would cause me to wake up and begin the countdown to lunchtime. This year my husband went to work and I am meeting him for lunch. Then I will return home to begin cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time on my own. I never imagined I would be undertaking this without guidance from my mom. I’m also missing the noise and laughter from my brother and sister and the occasional drop-ins from extended family members throughout the day.

Of course, making Thanksgiving dinner in Germany is accompanied by other unique challenges. The ovens here are very small compared to the ones in America. My roaster won’t even fit into the oven completely unless I turn it at an angle. Because of this, we are just having a small turkey this year and I guess that makes sense anyway since there are only two of us.

Since we’re on the topic of kitchen appliances, I promised to tell you about my first time using the dishwasher. I used Google Translate in order to read the settings. The rough translations are: Normal with Fast Forward, Normal without Fast Forward, Fast Program, and Short Coils. Coils?

Trying my best to understand, I decided to go with Normal without Fast Forward. Each of the settings is accompanied by a letter (Normal with Fast Forward- A; Normal without Fast Forward- B; and so on). I turned the dial to ‘B’ and pressed the power button. Nothing happened. I cranked the dial all the way around and back to ‘B’ and pressed the button once more. Again, nothing happened. I made sure the door was entirely closed and tried the button one more time. This resulted in silence. I called my husband into the kitchen for reinforcement.

“Okay,” I said. “I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong.” I went through the whole process, this time with my husband supervising. He agreed that it seemed like I was doing what makes sense.

He proceeded to open and close the door a few more times, applying different amounts of force each time and ending every try with a press of the button. We were perplexed.

Frustrated, I exclaimed, “Great! I’m just going to have to call Arndt again and when he comes over he’s going to stand here in the kitchen and stare at the dishwasher with me, just like we did with the washing machine last week. Why can’t this just be easy?!”

With that last desperate question, I shoved the door closed, pressed the button, and the dishwasher miraculously lurched to life!

We turned to each other, shrugged, and then left the kitchen. All of the dishes came out clean and spotless. Perhaps the trick is getting angry, yelling, and punching the door. I guess I’ll find out later today when I wash the dishes from Thanksgiving dinner.

 I hope your Thanksgiving is happy and wonderful, filled with football and family and lots of great food.

Today (and every day) I am thankful that we can still communicate despite the distance separating us. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Furniture Follies



*Note: We still do not have Internet access at home officially, but my crafty husband has temporarily used his phone to give us a wireless connection. I will be catching up on my posts!

I am so glad to finally have all of our furniture. We have been sleeping in the guest room since we moved in because we were waiting to purchase a king-sized bed. We thought it would be easier to purchase our bed and some other pieces when we got here. In retrospect, we should have bought them in America and had them shipped.

First of all, a European king-sized bed is not the same as an American king-sized bed. This means that we will probably not ship this bed back home. We have two separate mattresses put together to form one large bed. All in all, it doesn’t really make too much of a difference unless you happen to roll into the crack while sleeping.

We also needed shelves, a television stand, and some butcher blocks for the kitchen to maximize space. For now, we decided to buy all of these items from IKEA in order to save some money and to be able to get everything all at once. The drive to the IKEA in Dusseldorf takes almost an hour one-way. We go to that one instead of the closer one in the Netherlands because we have the advantage of purchasing high-dollar items without paying the 19% tax that is standard in Europe. But since we are residents of Germany, we may only purchase tax-free in this country.

We went to IKEA twice before our serious purchase day (last Friday). We were confident that we knew the ropes: 1.) IKEA accepts only cash or the IKEA Family Card, 2.) You must bring all of the cash with you because the ATMs inside the store will not recognize our American debit cards, 3.) You must purchase all of the items and then wait in line at customer service in order to re-coop the 19% tax money. Armed with a wad of cash and our lengthy item list, we set out for Dusseldorf with high hopes and visions of Swedish meatballs.

We had a relaxing lunch at the cafeteria, blissfully unaware of the afternoon that loomed ahead. Since we’d already been to the store, we knew the layout and it only took us an hour-and-a-half to gather our furniture. We took our list to the nearest Information Desk and the employee gave us a sheet of paper with a barcode. Paying was straightforward. Our total was exactly as expected based on pre-calculations and we were excited to know that we would be receiving a couple hundred Euro back once we visited customer service.

Conveniently, the customer service area is the same as the warehouse (where we picked up our items) and it also houses the van rental area. We already knew we were going to need to rent one of the IKEA vans in order to transport our hefty load back home. You may rent a van at 9 Euro per hour and the only condition is that it must be returned to the store by closing time of 9pm.

I waited in the customer service line while my husband took care of the rental. I finished before him and when I approached, I knew something was wrong because of the distressed expression on his face.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“No. Apparently they need a passport. Do you have yours?”
“No.”
“Well, I don’t have mine either.”
“Well. What are we going to do?”

Another employee heard our conversation and told the person helping us that it would be okay to rent to us as long as IKEA had copies of all of my husband’s identification. We do have German and also International driver’s licenses so we were relieved to find that these were sufficient for the rental.

After the paperwork was completed we went to the parking lot to do the walk-around of the van. The IKEA employee was a young man—we’ll call him Frederich. Frederich’s English was impeccable. He explained the rental procedure in detail and sent us on our way with a friendly, “Tschuse! See you in a few hours!”

Frederich went back inside and we spent 20 minutes loading the van with our wares. Satisfied that everything was packed tightly and ready for transport, we hopped into the cab. My husband turned the key in the ignition and the van immediately lurched forward, halfway onto the sidewalk. As soon as he reached to put the van back into the park position, he yelled, “This isn’t automatic!”

Normally this wouldn’t be a very big ordeal. Although I have never learned to drive a manual vehicle, my husband has had experience (years ago) and if we had been starting off on a journey through the streets of Atlanta or Chicago we would have just taken a deep breath and placed the van back in ‘drive.’

As you already know from previous posts, driving in Germany is no easy task. We were not prepared to possibly cause an accident on the Autobahn. Frederich had already told us that if we were to cause significant damage to the van, we would automatically be responsible for paying 650 Euro (including the 19% tax, I’m sure).

My husband decided to go back inside and ask Frederich if they offered any cars with an automatic transmission. I waited in the van, hopeful that we would just be able to switch to another and be on our way. He emerged from the store, shaking his head and then he got back into the van.

“So I guess they only have manual vans?” I quietly asked.
“Yeah. When I told them we weren’t comfortable driving it all the way back home, Frederich said, ‘Sorry, good luck!’ and then helped the next customer.”

We stared at each other for a few long moments and then we began to laugh hysterically. What luck! First, we almost had to walk away without renting the van since neither of us had our passports. Now we were so close to driving away and the only thing standing between us was a gear shift.

Beaten and broken but not yet defeated, we decided to see if anything would fit into my car. We retrieved Greta from the parking garage and pulled up behind the van to begin the transfer. We were elated to discover that everything would fit! We would have to come back the next day to pick up some of the boxes, but it was all going to fit!

We walked back inside to return the van keys and to store what we had to leave behind until Saturday. Frederich was surprised to see us.

“What happened? I saw you loading something in your car.”
Sheepishly we replied, “Yes. Unfortunately neither one of us wants to risk a 650 Euro bill if we get into an accident. It looks like everything will fit into our cars so we’ll take what we can tonight and come back tomorrow for the rest.”

Good ole’ Freddy gave us a refund and sent us on our way.

The drive home was uncomfortable. My seat was pushed almost up to the windshield so some of the boxes could fit. I was positioned like a question mark for the entire hour.

We made it safely and my husband was able to construct the butcher block that night.

We woke early Saturday morning to go back to Dusseldorf for the last trip. We both drove because we knew that the remaining boxes would not fit inside just one of our cars. I was following my husband and we had almost reached the highway when he pulled into a gas station. I thought he was just filling up so I stayed inside my car. He approached and asked me if I had the receipt so we could retrieve everything from storage. I did not. Incredibly, we both left the house without even thinking of taking the one piece of paper that stood between us and our remaining furniture.

We decided that it would be futile for both of us to spend 25 minutes driving back home. Based upon whose car gets better gas mileage (Greta wins easily), I was elected to go home, get the receipt, and meet him at IKEA. This task should have been simple and direct but of course I immediately became stuck behind a tractor I couldn’t pass. After the driver turned into a field, I was significantly slowed down by two more tractors. I had to wait behind a line of cars in the next village because a large semi-truck was attempting to parallel-park between two houses on a narrow cobblestone road.

After an hour’s delay (on top of an hour’s drive), I finally arrived at IKEA. Thankfully, the rest of the day was uneventful. We had lunch at the cafeteria again. I can safely say that I have had my fill of seeing signs of Swedish meatballs everywhere I turn.

Kudos to my husband for putting together all of the furniture in just two days! I don’t think we will be making a trip to IKEA again any time soon. This experience has caused me to have nightmares. Instead of dreaming in black and white, I’m seeing blue and yellow.

The moral of the story is that we are persistent in the face of setbacks. After several attempts, we have finally conquered IKEA. I think our hardiness will be one of our best qualities during our life in Europe.
            

Monday, November 21, 2011

Blog Blackout

We expected to have Internet in our home today. It was installed late this afternoon but we have discovered that we need a modem in addition to the router we already purchased.

I am very eager to share photos and anecdotes but both must wait until I can communicate without typing on a tiny mobile phone screen.

I'm ready for this adjustment period to pass! Until then, imagine the stories I'll tell you about our most recent trip to IKEA and the trouble I had using the dishwasher for the first time.

It's all worth the wait.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

German Appliance Repair: Lesson 1

We have now been in our home for almost a week. Internet is scheduled to be installed next Monday and our oil will be delivered Tuesday. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping everything goes smoothly but it seems like all of these tasks are accompanied by unexpected complications.

Our washer and dryer arrived two days ago. The men who brought them told me that the piping for the water was incorrect and I would need to call the landlord. Arndt said he would have a plumber look at the piping Wednesday (yesterday). The morning came and went. At 11:30 the doorbell rang and I was surprised to see Arndt waiting. I opened the door and he informed me that the plumber was busy so he would take a look at the dishwasher. I didn't bother correcting him and saying, "I think you mean the washer" since he pointed down toward the basement instead of the kitchen.

We headed downstairs and Arndt asked me to explain what I was told about the pipes. I tried my best but speaking about plumbing hardware is not exactly my forte. As soon as Arndt saw the piping he exclaimed, "Who did this like this!"
"I don't know," I replied.
Looking directly at me, he asked, "But who did this?"
I quickly glanced behind me, thinking surely there must be someone else in the room. "I have no idea... we have only lived here five days."

He assumed the position of The Thinker (standing upright) and muttered, "I have never seen something like this. Why do someone do something like this?"
Gently, I said, "The person who delivered told me that the former tenants might have had an American washer. So would that explain the piping?"
Arndt's eyes suddenly brightened. "Yes... YES!! That is the reason why! Okay! So how do we fix?"

Again, I was dumbfounded. Obviously if I knew how to correct the problem I would have done it myself. We both stared at the pipes along the wall for a few minutes. Every 20 or 30 seconds, Arndt would tug one of the pipes and say, "Hmmm..." Finally he exclaimed, "Bring a screwdriver to me!"

I retrieved a toolkit and he found the correct screwdriver. He disconnected one pipe and then stuck another down a tube. He told me to turn on the machine so we could test it. We both stood back and watched as the water sloshed around inside. After a minute, Arndt declared the repair a success and as he walked back upstairs to leave he said, "Just be careful when it rains a lot."

I still don't know what he meant by that but it isn't raining so I've been washing clothes.

Things with the house are improving but it will take some more time before it begins to feel like a home.

As soon as we are officially settled, I'm going to really buckle down and learn German. I have aspirations to be completely fluent but I'll take it one lesson at a time. It will be helpful to order confidently in a restaurant, exchange pleasantries with others, and understand grocery store lingo.

My husband has learned how to say goodbye in German. It's actually very funny. Since that is one of the only things he can say with assuredness, he makes a point to say it at the end of every interaction. At the grocery store, he always says farewell to the cashier, even if she is already scanning the next customer's items. "Tschus!" (sounds like Schooosss)

At a restaurant, he always tells the waiter and any other staff we see upon exit, "Tschus! Tschus!"

If we are buying bread at the bakery, he waits until the opportune moment to tell the baker, "Tschus!!!!!!!!"

After each of these interactions he will turn to me and say, "See babe? You just have to learn the language! It makes things so much easier."

With the benefit of these tutorials, I will certainly know German in no time. Or at least how to say goodbye if I need to end an awkward conversation.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Belgium!

I can now say that I have been to three countries in a month-and-a-half! Our new friends who sold us the desks offered to take us to Belgium to look at antiques and drink some great Belgian beer. The weather was extremely foggy yesterday (Sunday). We were hoping it would eventually lift but since it did not, our view of everything we passed looked as if it were rising out of the mist. It was also incredibly cold.

Our destination was only an hour away and we passed through Holland quickly. We spent a couple hours at a market in Tongeren. I was amazed by how many vendors and shoppers were out-and-about despite the weather. I suppose they are accustomed to these murky winter days.

After browsing for a while we stopped at a pub to have beer and pommes frites. As usual, I was not disappointed by my beer and the french fries were amazing. They are cut like our steak fries but aren't greasy, soggy, or too crispy.

Our friends took us to another great source for antiques after our snack. We spent almost an hour there. The pieces of furniture were so great. They are like nothing I've ever seen at an American antique shop. Some of the items for sale were from monasteries and Spanish villas; incredible!

We were hungry for a real lunch by the time we were finished with our second stop. We went back to the market and enjoyed the most savory mussels I've had! And of course, more beer. A self-guided tour of a breathtaking Catholic church was the icing on the cake for our perfect first visit to Belgium.

I took lots of photos but will unfortunately have to share them with you later since I'm on a public computer until we have Internet at home.

Today was my first time driving alone. The GPS coordinates for the base were input incorrectly. This led to me to listening to Blanche say, "Turn right on... road." This "road" took me to a defunct gate in the middle of nowhere. I pulled off the road and navigated to the address of our guest house since I know how to get to the base from there. 15 minutes later, I arrived at the guest house and proceeded to the base gate.

While living at the guest house, the route we took to base was officially for only bicycles and pedestrians. But if you are a resident who lives off the path, it is my understanding that you can use that path to go to main roads (driving slowly, obviously). We saw many other people (Germans) doing this in the month we were at the guest house and were never once told we could not.

Today I approached the main road from the bicycle path and was confronted with construction. I decided to turn around and go back to the guest house and try to navigate a different way. As soon as I backed up, a man walking his dog pointed at the sign, glared at me, and yelled something in German. Probably something to the effect of, "You idiot! The sign forbids cars!"

Almost to the point of tears, I turned back around to face the construction. I inched forward and suddenly one of the trucks moved and I realized the road wasn't closed after all. The construction workers gestured for me to move forward onto the road and I was so grateful I almost blew them kisses.

I finally reached the familiar fortified gates of the base and was thrilled to see things I know. My happiness was quelled when I had to drive around for 10 minutes in order to find the family readiness center. At one point I was driving through the Italian portion of the base, but I finally made it here.

Hopefully I will arrive safely back in Tuddern before the day is finished. It is only 11am. I can't imagine what other adventures await.

Moving Day

We are officially in our new house! I'm excited to finally be in our own space with our own things but there is still so much to do before we can truly relax and feel at home. We do not have Internet yet so I drive all the way to the base in order to catch up on emails and keep my connection to the outside world.

Moving day (Friday) was smooth. The movers arrived promptly at 8am. They were efficient and had everything inside our house by 11:30. We also received three schranks (wardrobes) to get us started. They aren't the most beautiful pieces of furniture but we are grateful to have them since this is our first time living somewhere without closets.

We were also expecting a washer/dryer and refrigerator delivery. They had not arrived by noon so we thought they must be having lunch and we decided to follow suit. We were gone for only 30 minutes and we came back home to find a note from them stating that our order had been canceled because they came at 12:15 and we were not there. Now those deliveries are re-scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday). I imagine I will be spending most of tomorrow doing laundry.

We spent the rest of the day unpacking boxes and wondering how we acquired so much. Items I was sure I'd gotten rid of mysteriously transported themselves to Germany and now they are well on their way to collecting dust in the basement.

We live very close to a shopping center so we went to stock up on some essential groceries and cleaning supplies. Absurdly, I decided I wanted to cook a real dinner for our first night in the house. That was a silly undertaking considering our kitchen is 3x smaller than any I've ever had, and the lack of space is even more pronounced when the counters are piled with various pots, pans, plates, and glasses.

We decided to first try a discount grocery store called Lidl. It was very similar to an Aldi so we thought we knew the drill. As soon as we walked in I realized I'd left my grocery bags in the car so I asked my husband to go outside and get them. Five minutes later I was perusing the produce selection and he approached me, empty-handed.
"Where are the bags?" I asked.
"You can't get out of here unless you buy something," he breathlessly replied.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you have to go through one of the cashier lines to exit and the lines are so long. I would literally have to buy something to get back to the parking lot. Do you want me to get a shopping basket so we can grab some things?"
"Sure, I guess we don't have a choice," I said.

A minute later he came back without a basket and said, "The baskets are outside. We'll just have to buy a couple things so we can leave."

After this little adventure we decided to just go to the Rewe, a "normal" grocery store that doesn't trap you inside.

I had big dreams about the kind of meal I was going to prepare but we ended up with spaghetti because I was too confused about types of meat and German instructions on products. At least I know how to boil water and make spaghetti sauce.

We had a lovely dinner and decided to call it a night. While showering I noticed the water never really got hot and was getting cooler and cooler. I supposed that maybe this is how things would always be at our house so I didn't think too much of it. Stepping out of the shower, the air around me was also colder than I would've imagined. Again, I chalked it up to being in a new place.

Later, I was getting dressed in the bedroom while my husband was taking his shower. I kept hearing him exclaim things like, "Whew!! Woweee!! Ooooohhh!!! Yikes!!" I vaguely wondered what was going on, but he's an adult. I figured if something were truly wrong, he'd take care of it.

When he came into the bedroom he was almost delirious. "The water was freezing!! FREEZING!!!! I think all of our oil is gone!"

Immediately I went into a panic. I can handle the air around me being cold but I do not ever want to take a freezing cold shower and then step out into a freezing cold room. I'm from Florida. I have no basis of knowledge for these types of situations.

My husband reassured me and said we'd take care of getting oil the next day. I reminded him that it would be Saturday and I doubted anyone would care about our oil problem. We went to sleep, shivering.

The next day, we decided to make another run to IKEA for some little odds and ends. We were heading out the door when our landlord's son, Arndt, stopped by to give us something for the dishwasher. My husband mentioned to him that we ran out of oil the night before.
"No way! Not possible!" he incredulously replied.
"Yes," my husband said, "I'm afraid so."

They went down to the basement to investigate. Apparently the switch for the heater looks very much like a normal light switch. Someone had turned it off accidentally. Arndt left and I said, "Geez, I wonder who did that?"

Sheepishly my husband told me he was sure he was the culprit.

I wonder how much more trial-and-error is in store for us.

We set out for Dusseldorf and our driving experience there was the same as all the others. We were scared on the Autobahn, found ourselves in lots of roundabouts, drove in the streetcar lane, and parked illegally.

The biggest mishap of Saturday is that we forgot to take out cash before we left. We tried several banks in Dusseldorf and none would take our cards because they don't have European chips. Slightly upset but not completely defeated, we took the little cash we had and determined to spend it on something. The first few euros went toward meatballs and beer in the cafe, and the remnants of our money were spent on some useful items.

We were on the way home by 5pm and it was already getting dark. Having no cooking ambitions on this night, we walked to a local Greek restaurant and had a very pleasant evening eating good food and drinking good wine. Tzatziki sauce and Ouzo will cure just about anything.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Goodbye, Guesthouse!

Tonight is our final night in the guesthouse! Two and a half months after bidding adieu to our apartment and most of our belongings, we are now only hours away from finally sleeping on our own bed. The day began with us thinking that only our small shipment would arrive tomorrow. Luckily we received an e-mail mid-morning informing us of the arrival of the rest of our household goods. We are ecstatic! 

Our walk-through of the house was scheduled for 3pm today so we decided to pass some at a secondhand furniture store in Sittard. Our driving adventures in Holland are never-ending. The first store we visited was closed-- permanently. We input a second address into the GPS and arrived at another store, but not before driving through one of the ubiquitous roundabouts. I must admit I'm already tired of these junctions. Today, we managed to drive around a roundabout twice before exiting. I felt like Clark Griswold in European Vacation. "I cannot get left!!!!"

After perusing the furniture store, we decided it was time for lunch. At this point it was only around 12:30 so we knew we had more than enough time to eat lunch and then drive to our new home for the walk-through. Lunch was great. I definitely think we're having better luck with restaurants in Holland. We have yet to be served by a waiter or waitress who does not speak close-to-perfect English and of course that is very appealing to us. 

On the return trip, my husband decided he wanted to try to navigate without the aid of the GPS. His innate sense of direction is much better than mine and before I knew it, we were on the highway and headed to Tuddern. I was very impressed! We may not be the best at roundabouts, but at least we know a landmark when we see it!

Our cheerful landlord's son greeted us when we arrived. We performed the walk-through and were very pleased with everything. Tomorrow will be a long day for us but I'm so excited that we will be settled into our home for the next few years. 

Although I'm very happy, we are still not in the clear. Our home is heated by oil and it is our responsibility to fill the oil tanks. When we originally saw the house, we thought the oil was over 80% full. We commented about this during the walk-through today and were informed that the tanks are almost empty. They looked full because of a strategic shadow. Yikes. This was an expense we had not officially planned for so it was a big surprise. Oil can be quite expensive here and we obviously aren't planning on freezing during our first winter.

We also don't know if our television is dual-voltage. This means that we might have shipped a TV here needlessly. We can always use a transformer but that pulls a lot of electricity so we are just hoping that it works for Europe as well as America. If not, we will probably just end up purchasing a new one at some point. 

And then there is the panic that sets in when you walk through a new space and begin to wonder if all of your furniture is really going to fit in the way you originally imagined. We thought we were going to need a lot of new furniture and now we're worrying that we might have too much. In the end I think it will all turn out fine. Empty rooms have a way of looking smaller than they are.

I'll be very relieved when we're finished with all of this waiting! Hopefully we'll be settled just in time for our first Thanksgiving in Germany. We might be some of the only people in our neighborhood to celebrate, but we're going to find a way to fit a turkey inside our tiny European oven. Don't worry; I'll let you know how that turns out.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Weekend Shenanigans

Our search for my husband's touring bike has been in vain. We've completed our own thorough research and visited several shops off the beaten path in the Netherlands. Saturday we ended up in Heerlen, a nice city with a very active shopping district. Our luck with driving in the Netherlands has been the same. While trying to park we drove down a one-way street. Twice.
My husband was making a left turn onto a tiny side street when he suddenly braked and said, "Oh wait! This has a Do Not Enter sign!"
"It's not a Do Not Enter sign," I replied. "It's a No Stopping... or Restricted No Stopping. Either way, you can drive down the street in this direction. Just don't stop."
He stopped and made a 3-point U-Turn Austin-Powers-style.
We eventually found a parking spot but we couldn't figure out how to add more than a half hour to the meter so we made a note of our time limit and set off to the bike shop.

The shop ended up being in a large shopping mall. It took a long time for us to find the actual store because we were confused by the information panel. Finally we found it but we were disappointed with the selection. Most of these bikes were of mediocre-quality and came without a lengthy warranty.

We decided to try one more shop in Heerlen. Once we got in the car, Blanche (our GPS) advised that the next shop was within walking distance of where we were. By that point we'd already left our parking spot and since we were having problems distinguishing one-way streets, we just continued forward. We approached a roundabout (no surprise there) and entered the circle. It is our understanding that once in the roundabout, you have right-of-way. Out of nowhere, a Playmobil-sized car zoomed into the circle in front of us. My husband slammed on the brakes as the other driver cheerfully waved.

After regaining composure, we proceeded to our exit. Another problem with being unseasoned drivers in the Netherlands is that we don't understand all of the rules well enough to know if someone else has broken them. At different intervals throughout the rest of the day we said, "I wonder... did that guy have right-of-way?" Perplexing.

We arrived to the location of the next shop and it was apparently located in another shopping mall. We walked around the mall for 10 minutes searching for the store with no luck. It was past lunchtime and we were hungry and confused so we decided to go to Sittard and try to locate a bike shop we've heard about there.

Having a Grimbergen in Sittard
Once we walked into the square, we realized that the day was beautiful and sunny and it would be a shame to continue our fruitless search. We plopped down at the nearest cafe and proceeded to people-watch for the next few hours. The pace here is so relaxing. Everyone seems to enjoy their food, drink, and socializing. I can definitely get accustomed to Saturdays like this.

We have also been searching for two desks. We were originally thinking of going to IKEA but we decided we'd rather have something less modern. I combed through the base's version of Craigslist and came across two perfect desks listed by the same seller. We had been playing cat-and-mouse all weekend but I finally touched base with her yesterday afternoon and she invited us over to take a look.

Their house was huge and filled with wonderful antique furniture they have collected throughout their time here and also when they were stationed in Italy. The age of these items was mind-blowing. They had some pieces from the 18th century! Also of note was their extensive scotch and wine collection. We all ended up in their basement cellar where we eventually ate dinner together and sampled some of the libations.

This enchanting couple offered us lots of invaluable advice about living in Europe and military life in general. Having been in the military for over twenty years, they have certainly experienced ups and downs but I think they are un-jaded and I find that very refreshing.

Toward the end of our 7-hour sojourn, I asked them to impart some advice for the newlyweds. Without hesitation, the husband said, "Don't ever think you're the one always giving in. When it gets to the point that you believe you're always the one settling, making a concession, indulging your partner; well, that's probably when you're giving in the right amount. You might think the grass is greener somewhere else but it isn't. Stick together."

I think that's solid advice from a couple who has been married thirty-one years.

Needless to say, we bought the desks and she will be delivering them at the end of the week!

I love finding treasures (people and desks) in unexpected places.

Friday, November 4, 2011

I miss you.

I've been really homesick this week. I know I'm beyond a tender age, but this is the first time I've lived further than 3 hours from my family. It's hard. I'm constantly looking at the time on the clock here and counting back to whatever time it is at home. Right now it's 4:30am at home and I'm wide awake, almost halfway through the morning. It still doesn't seem right.

I miss all of my friends. So many times throughout the day I think, "Oh I wish _____ was here! She/He would love this the most!" I know some of them will eventually visit, but who knows when that will be? Whenever it is, it seems far away.

We're tired of being in the guest house. After almost two months of being displaced, it's time for us to be back in our own space, surrounded by our own things. I can't wait until we can feel truly settled once again.

Daily life can be exasperating. It takes twice as long to accomplish simple tasks. Yesterday we were back in the Netherlands and we ended up in a chic shopping district. Back at home it's very simple to look down a street at the storefronts and immediately know which is a beauty shop, eye doctor, sports store, bookstore, etc. Here, we must walk all the way down the street and peer into windows in the hopes that we'll see something inside that indicates the type of shop. This gives a whole new meaning to window-shopping.

I know this will get easier when I learn more of the language and have been here long enough to understand how everything works, but it's still frustrating.

The good news is that I finally found a bike yesterday! We thought I would end up with something from the Netherlands, but we decided to purchase from the shop on base. I rode it yesterday and I love it! I can't wait to have some bicycling adventures. Maybe I'll find it easier riding a bike than trying to avoid bikers while driving.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Licensed!

I'm officially licensed to drive in Germany! The written test was definitely more difficult than I remember the U.S. counterpart. I crammed for three hours last night and arrived at the base early this morning to tryout my knowledge. First we watched a 50-minute video about driving in Germany. Our TV host was a gentleman who was dressed like an old-fashioned police constable (reminiscent of the one who rescued the Banks children in Mary Poppins). His strict German demeanor demanded immediate respect but it was difficult for me to find him dignified because all of his segments were accompanied by a techno-pop song trilling in the background. It was humorous instead of informative.

After Constable Corny's instruction, I was confronted with 100 questions, a mixture of multiple-choice and match-the-road-sign. I agonized over several distance questions. I made myself feel better by remembering that I was a Communication major so it was impossible for me to be expected to convert kilometers to miles with any kind of ease.

As a test-taker, I try not to second-guess myself too much. I put a little star by questions I'm unsure of and then move on. When I return to my uncertain answers, I'm either very certain of my original response or I realize anything I say will be a complete guess. I went over the test once and then announced to the room (2 other military spouses), "Well, that's as good as I'm going to get!" I then proceeded to the office next door and handed my exam over to one of the proctors.

He graded the exam with lightning speed and informed me that I passed with an 87%. What a relief! I received my temporary license and left the base with a sense of accomplishment and renewed hope that I can achieve anything in this country! Yes!!

I drove to Geilenkirchen so we could have lunch at a little sandwich shop. We ate here during our first week and I still think their baguette is the best I've had since being in Germany. The food was delicious again but we unfortunately sat beside two bratty teenage girls who obviously thought we were uncouth for ordering in English. I became so aware of their staring that I began to think I was cutting my sandwich wrong, holding my napkin incorrectly, blinking at the most inappropriate time. I don't blame this on us being American in a German sandwich shop. I'm pretty sure we just sat beside some bratty adolescents, and that translates in any language.

Feeling ambitious after my driving navigation to Geilenkirchen, I decided I would drive us to the Netherlands to take care of some more household tasks. We accomplished what we set out to do and a bike shop was next on our list. I thought, "Wow, I'll just keep driving! I'm doing so well for my first few hours being a European driver!"

Of course, I spoke too soon. I came within several inches of colliding with a bicyclist as we were leaving the Netherlands. Bicyclists don't always have the right-of-way in Germany, but they always have priority in the Netherlands. The conspicuous bike lanes aren't obvious to my untrained eye. I clearly terrified the poor biker. He didn't even have time to curse me because it happened so quickly. I suppose this is an extension of me getting side-swiped by the bicyclist yesterday. Today's incident has made me very reluctant to drive in the Netherlands. The Dutch are fearless!

We eventually made it to a bike shop and were chagrined to discover that bikes here are very expensive. We putzed around the used section for a few minutes and then decided to call it a day since it was getting late and the time change has caused the sun to set much sooner than we're accustomed.

We'll be trying another furniture store tomorrow in our quest for the perfect king-sized bed. If we can't find one, we'll have to bite the IKEA bullet and go back to Dusseldorf in order to fully-stock our new home.

With the driving test behind me, I feel like I can accomplish so much more, maybe even learn the German language! I'm less hopeful about speaking Dutch. One day at a time.