Monday, October 31, 2011


Today was a hodgepodge. We began the day in Geilenkirchen so I could complete the shopping for my sister's birthday gift. On this, our fourth day of driving, we navigated toward the city's center; this was easy enough. Parking was more of a challenge. My husband listened to Blanche the GPS narrator, and went through a roundabout, taking the second exit. Instead of veering sharply, he continued in a much smoother fashion and that was ironic because it took us directly to the bus stop. An elderly woman was patiently waiting and she glared at us reproachfully because we dismissed all of the traffic signs that forbade us from driving into the bus lane. We hurriedly drove through the restricted area and parked in a hotel parking lot.

It's very difficult to be the passenger in your own car. It's especially difficult when you're in a new country with different traffic laws and roads. I've developed some type of car sickness due to the stress of riding in my own car and listening to the driver (my husband) say things like, "The sun is so different here. It's blocking my view." 

We spent an hour in Geilenkirchen and then headed off to the base to take care of some more administrative tasks. We obtained a gas ration card for my car and then went to the post office to mail my sister's birthday gift. A sign on the door read that the office will be closed November 1st for All Saints' Day. I didn't immediately feel that this holiday closing would impact me since today is October 31st. I tried the door handle and it appeared to be locked. A man walking out of another door said, "Oh I'm sorry ma'am. The post office is already closed. It closed at noon today in observance of tomorrow's holiday." What could I say except, "Oh! Okay! Thanks. I'll come back Wednesday."

We decided to go to the readiness center to inquire about delivery for some appliances to our new home. Everyone there was in a celebratory mood due to the Tuesday holiday, and they were very helpful and eager to answer our questions. We received advice about furniture, bicycles (our other goal for today), and online sources to aid in our continuing transition.

Afterward, we went to the base's version of a department store. It's a limited selection but I only needed one item so we thought it would be a good option. My husband is an avid runner and I've decided that I need running pants in order to try to hone my athletic skills. With so much countryside, I figure Germany is the best place to get into the fitness habit. 

I wanted to try on the pants since they're the first legitimate pair of running pants I've ever owned. I brought them to the dressing room area where there were three stalls. Logically, I tried the first one. There was some resistance but that was only because I was pushing the door in instead of pulling it out. With a little force, the door finally opened and a nice Italian man was inside, in the middle of buckling his belt. My face immediately reddened and I apologized profusely. He smiled and said, "Hello!" I was embarrassed; he was not.

After the dressing room incident, we decided to eat some lunch off base since everything was closed for All Saints' Day (early). We ended up back in Geilenkirchen and went to a nice cafe where I ordered a caprese salad and my husband selected a baguette with tuna. The ubiquitousness of tuna is worth mentioning. It's available here on many sandwiches and even pizzas. 

We placed our orders and then I needed to use the bathroom facilities. Luckily they were situated across from our table. I walked over to the door and noticed that a sign said something about .50 euro. A small fee is required for use of many of the bathrooms here so I just assumed that I needed to insert a coin. I went back to our table to get one and my husband said, "I just went and I didn't need any money. We're paying customers." Since I was fresh off the dressing room incident, I didn't want to commit another social faux pas. I got a coin and went back inside to the sink area. Then I attempted to insert a coin into the next closed door. I couldn't find a slot but I kept thinking the coin would eventually slip through whatever crease I was prodding. As I was silently cursing under my breath, I heard the unmistakable turn of the toilet paper wheel and realized someone was already using the bathroom.

Red-faced once again, I walked out of the bathroom and scurried to the table where I informed my husband of my new misjudgment. He was amused. The lady in the restroom came out eventually and I was able to finally use the facilities without incident. I returned to my seat to find my husband snacking on my caprese salad. He thought it was an appetizer

After our eventful lunch, we went to the recommended bicycle shop. I don't know how to convey the importance of having a bicycle here. We have regularly walked four miles one way in order to drink one beer. During these walks we are passed by many bikers who are arriving to their destinations in half the time it takes us. We're ready to join this fast-paced crowd.

We don't necessarily want to spend 500 euro on one bike, so our first option is a used-bicycle shop. We followed the GPS to another tiny village and successfully parallel-parked on the street. The shop looked as if it might be closed but we were undeterred and continued to the back entrance. We were greeted with yet another sign on a door that read something about September 30th and something about October 31st. These are the times when knowing the German language is imperative. Since the shop appeared fully-stocked we just assumed they closed early today, won't be open tomorrow, and so we'll go back on Wednesday.

I looked up one other address for a bike shop and it was in the Netherlands so we thought we'd take a little drive there and see what this place had to offer. After 20 minutes of riding in the car, and starting and stopping to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to claim their right-of-ways, we parked at the location and immediately saw it was indeed a bike shop-- a motorcycle shop. The language barrier announces itself again.

We went back in the direction toward home and stopped at the Rewe, a grocery chain here. That was a successful trip except for my mistake of buying jasmine rice when I thought I was getting orzo. We thought we would make it home in time for a run but Daylight Saving Time occurred yesterday (one week later in the US) so the sun was already down at 5:30. I made the jasmine rice for dinner. Instead of creamy shrimp orzo, tonight's dish turned into a renegade gumbo.

We're expecting most businesses to be closed tomorrow due to the holiday. This will give me a chance to study for my driving test on Wednesday so I'm not complaining.

It's almost 9pm here and the doorbell just rang downstairs. My husband answered and I heard a chorus of voices, and then the door was shut abruptly. I went down to investigate and asked, "Who was at the door?" 
"Trick-or-treaters!" he replied.
"Oh no! We don't have any candy! Were they dressed up?"
"Yes. One was a cat. I opened the door and they said, 'Gloocky-Glongh'." 

Gloocky-Glongh is my husband's interpretation of what must mean trick-or-treat in German.

I quickly fashioned some makeshift bags of gummy bears and chocolate, just in case we have some other Gloogky-Glong-ers. We're attempting to fit in when we can.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bed Quest

I know you're expecting to hear about the purchase of our amazing bed and I'm sorry to disappoint you. We began our day at a used furniture store in Heinsburg. Many of the items are procured during estate sales and that quickly becomes apparent. We saw a beautiful china cabinet that might be perfect for our dining room, except for the obvious 'EO' signature etchings in the glass.

From there we moved on to a more traditional store, also in Heinsburg. This was a huge warehouse almost identical to something like a Haverty's. The showroom was impressive and even included a fine china section. We were immediately able to ascertain that the items in this venue are out of our budget. The clerks seemed to be amused by us. I usually feel accosted by salespeople in furniture stores but we had the upper-hand this time. I think the clerks knew we wouldn't understand their sales pitch so they didn't even bother.

For months we have been planning to buy our new king-sized bed from IKEA. We deliberately waited until we arrived to Germany because we thought the quality would be better, and since it's a European brand, less expensive. We were wrong on both assumptions. The quality is the same (not bad- not the best) and IKEA is actually more expensive here.

IKEA is 40 minutes away in Dusseldorf. This journey required us to take the Autobahn. We thought we would just jump in and get our feet wet even though this is only our second day driving. We were immediately confronted with the insanity of this highway system. Within one minute of merging, a Mercedes whooshed by us. It was going at least 130mph. I was uneasy the entire time. We were clocking about 75mph most of the time and other cars were passing us as if we were standing still. Blanche, our GPS announcer, was telling us when to exit but also providing additional information that wasn't needed.
"Take the next exit, exit 47a to 13b to 48c to Geisghisdgndkfglunmph." Inevitably 13b and Geisghisdgndkfglunmph turned out to be the only important indicators and we spent valuable time looking for 47a and 48c.

We arrived at IKEA and discovered that it looked like any IKEA in America so we were instantly comforted and excited. We weren't intimidated by all of the Swedish names because that's the way things in IKEA are always named and described. I'm not sure why, but I was definitely shocked to find that any translations of Swedish were done in German.

Imagine walking into a furniture store, searching for a bed. It's helpful to know if a mattress is soft, medium, or hard. Fortunately for you, that description is available. We had to use Google Translate to determine the German words for soft, medium, and hard.

We decided on a bed and mattress and our next plan of action was to find a clerk who speaks English. I planned on asking a nice-looking young woman who seemed eager and knowledgeable. She was busy. I was left with Helga. Helga effectively ignored me for a few minutes. We finally made eye contact and she gruffly barked, "Hallo."
"Hallo," I replied nervously. "Sprechen sie englisch?"

I assumed she would immediately direct me to a colleague who is fluent in English. Instead she proceeded to enter into a staring contest. I lost and sheepishly asked, "Anyone? Speak-a English?"
She gestured behind her and dismissed us.

The only thing behind her was a wall so we assumed she wanted us to go to the front desk, or to leave the store entirely. We decided to just go home and decide firmly which items we want and go back to IKEA on a Wednesday afternoon when it won't be so crowded and hopefully Helga will be using her day off.

We drove back home, stopping in Geilenkirchen along the way so I could choose one more birthday gift for my sister. To our dismay, all of the shops were closed. It was only 5pm. Apparently everything shuts down at 3pm on Saturdays and aren't open at all on Sundays.

Defeated, we drove home and thought we might try to go to the local Oktoberfest celebration in Gillrath. I took another look at the flyer that was left on our doorstep last week.

Unfortunately we did not go. I couldn't determine the correct address.

I think our only safe goal is to drink some German beer by the end of the day. This was accomplished by some Erdinger we had at home-- very good. And I think beer might also be the logical aim for tomorrow since everything else will be closed.

Adventures in Driving

We were at the base very early this morning to get the tags for Greta. This process took about 30 minutes and right after that we headed off to another base in the Netherlands to finally drive her off the lot she's been sitting on for weeks. The paperwork there didn't take long and before we knew it we were doing the walk-around to assess any damage that might have occurred during her voyage across the ocean. Luckily she looked perfect! It was such a relief to see the car after a month-and-a-half wondering and worrying whether everything would be okay and on time.

Though the car is German, it wasn't actually manufactured in Germany so that means we didn't get true European license plates. Here, they are required for the front and back of the car. My husband was a little upset about this because he doesn't necessarily want us to always stand out as American, but I'm glad. Hopefully this will warn other drivers of my possible ignorance about traffic rules. If I don't take my turn when I have right-of-way, maybe they'll see the plates and think, "Oh well, she's American! That's why she doesn't know!" And then they'll wave merrily and toot their horn as we all continue safely on our ways. We'll see.

We thought we would feel exhilarated because we're free and on our own. I think we've experienced some of that sentiment today, but being on our own also means no one else is there to translate what traffic signs mean. We, like everyone else we've met here, are relying solely on our GPS to take us everywhere. For some reason the woman on our GPS sounds like Blanche from The Golden Girls. It's sort of comforting to hear her southern drawl, and also funny to listen to her pronounce words like Waldfeucht and Puth.

Today was the first time we were able to control the radio and that was interesting. Radio announcers seem to switch back and forth from English to German to Dutch. A string of songs will be in English and then without rhyme or reason, the next few songs will be German. There is also a chance of stumbling upon a French song because the Canadians have a dedicated station. We finally settled on The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" before it was succeeded by a Euro-techno-pop tune that transported us back to reality.

By now it was lunchtime and we were both getting hungry. We decided it was the perfect time to eat at a European McDonald's. It seems like everyone we know has done this within their first month of being here. The menu was mostly standard McDonald's fare with a few regional selections. I ordered McNuggets and he tried the Chicken Satay Sandwich (tasty). I was amused that the wording on the packaging was Dutch, aside from "I'm Lovin' It."

After lunch we stopped by a Volkswagen dealership in Gangelt. The front license plate for my car had to be drilled on since there were no pre-existing holes. We parked at the dealership and then attempted to go inside, of course going to a locked door first. We walked over to another door and a man emerged from the parking lot and said something in German. When we asked if he spoke English he said, "A little" and then continued to speak German. We decided he meant for us to follow him inside.

We showed him the license plate and told him we needed a holder and some screws for it. He stared at us blankly and my husband took over.
He hoisted the plate into the air and said, "Sir, we please need holder" as he drew an air-rectangle around the plate. The man eventually nodded and brought us a holder.
My husband then said, "Oh, danke! Danke. But we need screws." Again, the man's face turned to stone. After trying to say the word 'screws' using a few different inflections, my husband finally made a twisting motion with his hands and said, "Zoom! Zoooooooom!"
The kind man immediately said, "Ah!" and said whatever the German word for screws is. He then produced some and brought out another man to put the plate on my car.

Back on the road, we headed over to our new home. We were intending on going just to put our name on the mail slot to ensure postal delivery but the landlord's family happened to be there working so we were able to go inside again and take mental measurements of the rooms. Seeing the house again affirmed our decision to live there and we can't wait until the 11th to finally be settled.

After the pit-stop at our new house in Tuddern, we drove 3 minutes to Sittard in the Netherlands. We navigated toward the town center and followed signs for parking. As soon as we parked, we heard someone yelling something that sounded like, "Parkiiiiiiieeeeeennng." We looked up and saw an elderly man leaning over his balcony, gesturing at the car. We realized he was telling us no parking was allowed. Other cars were parked there so we concluded it must be for residents only. We moved the car and continued on, eventually coming to a parking garage.

We aren't anywhere close to being proficient in the German language yet, and this was our first day actually driving ourselves, so maybe it wasn't the best idea to drive to another country and confront a different language. There isn't a nice way to say this so I just will: Dutch doesn't make sense. I just don't get it. I feel like a toddler who only knows how to point, try to sound out letters, and scream in frustration. I don't know how safe it is for us to be driving around having conversations such as:
"Do you know what that sign says?"
"No. I mean, it's red and has a red line through something. Is that a picture of a person on a bike?"
"I think it's a motorcycle. So I think that means we can drive here too...... right?"
"I don't know. What does that mean in German?"
"I haven't ever seen a sign like this in Germany."
"Oh. Well. I don't know. Just keep going I guess. And then stop if it seems like someone gets mad."

The parking garage was different than any I've ever seen in America. At first we thought it was closed. We drove slowly down the ramp and stopped in front of what appeared to be a wall. We pressed a button for a ticket and the wall opened up into the garage. We were pretty impressed with ourselves for figuring this much out, and we left Greta parked safe and sound.

Sittard was amazing! I'm looking forward to going there for the market, especially when the weather is nicer. We walked around for a while and went into several shops. One of the advantages of the Netherlands is that even though their own language is confusing, a lot of people do speak English. Many of the stores here are easy to figure out because, let's face it, a pharmacy looks like a pharmacy and a shoe store looks like a shoe store.

The best shop we saw was called America Today. It seemed to be a store dedicated to whatever is currently hip in the states. We were curious about how we're projected to dress so we went inside to look around. The entire place is modeled after an Abercrombie and Fitch. There are lots of hoodies for the guys and plaid skirts for the girls. We were quite amused that this is how they think most Americans are dressing. Also entertaining was that we were the only potential customers in the store. We left without stocking up on our rugby apparel.

We had dinner at a great little cantina near the square. The mojitos were refreshing and the food was inventive and delicious. All of the shops were closed by the time we finished eating so we called it a night and headed back to the parking garage.

We began the descent down the stairs and immediately noticed that the entrance was closed. A mild panic immediately began to set in. We hurriedly walked back to the entrance we drove through and it was still heavily fortified. My husband began power-walking toward a little station resembling a phone booth that looked like it might say 'Parking.' This entrance was also closed. We began wondering what we were going to do. Should we call one of our friends for help? How could we explain that we'd only had the car for a few hours and now it was locked in a parking garage in the Netherlands? Should we attempt to ask a stranger walking by for advice? Should we just go back to the cantina and have more mojitos?

Finally my husband realized that there were instructions in German, Dutch, AND English. Our breathing returned to normal and we read that we were to insert our parking ticket into a little machine. This caused elevator doors to whisk open. We took the elevator down a floor and ended up in a brightly-lit corridor. After opening the door, we walked through and made sure Greta was still waiting. Thankfully she was there, probably wondering why we ever bothered to send for her if we were just going to lock her in a parking garage all night.

Our night drive back through the Netherlands was stressful. Bicyclists always have the right-of-way there and they definitely take it. They'll dart out into the street like a fleck in the corner of your eye. Before you know it you're right on the tail of a Dutchman pedaling away at the speed of 2 miles per hour. Pedestrians also don't seem to notice or care about cars barreling toward them. The street lamps have bulbs the color of caution lights. When I saw them ahead, I said, "Wait! Caution lights!" Then nothing happened and we both realized they were just lighting our path. Confusing.

Tomorrow we'll be going to some furniture stores to see about getting a bed for our new house. I think we'll be staying in Germany so at least we won't have to try to understand Dutch. So far I've been getting by with smiling and nodding. We'll see how well that goes over while trying to select a bed.

Gute nacht!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

My Car is Here!

My car has arrived, finally! The absolute latest date it could be delivered to us was the 28th (tomorrow), and we were getting worried Greta wasn't going to make it and we'd be car-less for another weekend. Late this afternoon we were informed that she has made the 4-hour trek from Bremerhaven to Schinnen. We're going to the base very early tomorrow to take care of everything that needs to be done in order to actually claim the car as our own.

Tomorrow we're lucky enough to have a ride to the base. For the past two days we've been getting there on foot, 2.5 miles one way. It's a pleasant walk alongside verdant pastures and ancient farmhouses. The weather has been cool and windy which is nice when you're working up a sweat. We're beginning to be able to greet passersby with confidence. All it really takes is a simple nod and a cheerful, "Hallo!" Another important benefit of all this walking is that instead of gaining weight, we have actually dropped some. Keep the bread and beer coming!

Today I helped my friend at a Halloween carnival for kids of military members. It was fun seeing all of the children dressed in their costumes and playing games. I enjoyed having a reason to get up and going, other than walking to the base and spending all day there going from office to office. It made me feel normal. I can't wait until all of this in-processing is finished, both of our cars are here, all of our things are here, and we are in our own house. It's so close!

Some of our guesthouse neighbors invited us over for dinner this evening. It has been really easy meeting people here, especially the ones who are also new. I like hearing all of the advice from those who have been here a while but it's also comforting to sit across from some newcomers and know that they're feeling the same way we are.

This weekend we're planning on pricing some bikes and going to furniture stores. It's the first time we've been truly independent, and with our own transportation, since two weeks before we left Georgia.

I was planning on taking my driving test tomorrow but since Greta is here I've received a last-minute reprieve! Now I'm planning on taking the exam next Wednesday. I really am terrified of failing. It would be humiliating to tell my husband I didn't pass. I hope I'm worrying needlessly, otherwise that bike is going to come in really handy.

Monday, October 24, 2011


We're still waiting on my car to arrive. The latest possible date is the 28th and I'm convinced it's going to take that long just because it can. We're continuing to rely on friends to take us everywhere.

Yesterday (Sunday) we slept in and then decided to take a walk to a nearby village called Gangelt. It seemed like everyone was outside taking advantage of what might have been the last temperate Sunday afternoon for a while. People of all ages and fitness levels were biking, walking, and riding horses. I've never been in a place quite like this. Everyone goes outside when the weather is nice.

Eight miles later we ended up in a bustling square. There were two small restaurants, a small pond, and a playground. We directed our attention to cheering and yelling, and it was coming from a soccer field on the outskirts of the square. This was one of the ubiquitous soccer clubs They were playing a lively, competitive game, decked out in elaborate uniforms. I wonder what their day jobs are.

We continued toward downtown Gangelt and ambled around the downtown area for a few minutes. Something to note about all of these places is that everything, aside from some restaurants and cafes, is closed on Sundays. In larger towns, such as Heinsburg and Aachen, people walk around and window-shop. It's still a reason to be outside on a Sunday.

We headed back to the square and took a seat at the cafe to grab a beer before our long trek back to Gillrath. I will forever hold this location dear to my heart. It is here that I had the wonderful, refreshing, delicious Bananen-Weizen. It's just a regular Hefeweizen mixed with a small amount of banana puree but I believe it's the nectar we were meant to drink. It is now my mission to find this concoction wherever we are, especially if we have a long walk ahead of us. Potassium is important.

Our return home was also pleasant. The sun was going down so it was already colder and much more windy. But people were still enjoying the remnants of the day. It's easy to walk several miles when the road ahead of you is so peaceful.

The road ahead.

This evening we had dinner with our friends at a Greek place called El Greco. I guess I didn't really imagine Greek and Chinese food in Germany but I'm glad it's here. Ouza was brought to us right away and the food was great. 

Think good thoughts for us and hopefully tomorrow Greta will return to the motherland so we can drive her around and reclaim our independence!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Trying to Blend In

Yesterday was filled with more adventures in Aachen and Cologne. We met a great couple during some of our briefings and they invited us to hop a ride with them. We're already getting better with the train stations! We bought an all-day ticket for four people instead of purchasing individually. We saved about 80 euro by doing this. I guess you just learn these things one day at a time.

We arrived in Aachen at 11am and bought tickets for an English-speaking tour of the Aachen Cathedral. The tour began at 2pm so that gave us time to have a light snack at an outdoor cafe, and we were also able to visit the cathedral treasury. It was amazing! At one point I was standing in front of a glass case with three reliquaries. They contained the belt of Mary, and the belt and flagellation rope of Christ. My thought was, "This can't be real." It's mind-blowing to know you're standing in a place that was constructed around 792. And of course, the relics are real.

The tour of the cathedral was also great. Our tour guide spoke perfect English. I am endlessly impressed by all of these people who can fluidly switch from German to English. We learned a lot and were able to stand directly in front of the remains of Charlemagne.

After the cathedral tour we stopped for some glasses of wine. We were hungry again and since our train tickets were for anywhere all day, we decided to go to Cologne for dinner. It's so convenient to hop on a nice train and relax for 40 minutes on the way to another awesome city. 

By now the sun was down and it was windy and freezing in Cologne! We stood in awe of the Dom once again and then made our way to a restaurant. We were walking on a narrow side street when suddenly a man darted out of a hidden door into our path and exclaimed to my husband, "You have iPhone? You will take a photo!" He put his arm around my husband's shoulders and steered him toward a darkened pub. None of us were sure what was happening. Was he going to steal our iPhones? As you might imagine, we have been briefed about the possible dangers of trusting strangers. 

Throwing caution to the wind, my husband barely hesitated and strode confidently into the bar while we stood in the doorway. Then, instead of staying with the two women, the other male in our group followed him in so he wouldn't be alone. At this point, we're thinking we might as well head to dinner and retrieve our husbands from the dungeon later.

The man gestured for my husband to situate himself behind the bar and then he handed him an iPhone. After that he rushed back to his friends and they all struck a pose. Apparently he was asking if we knew how to use an iPhone so one of us could take a photo of their group. Silly us. 

We ended up at another beer hall, this one much smaller than the one we chose last weekend. The room was full of long tables that were all apparently reserved. We thought we found one that was available and as soon as we sat, a waiter rushed over and bellowed, "You want to eat? This is RESERVED! Upstairs you go!" 

We dutifully trotted upstairs and came to a woman dressed as what appeared to be a bar wench. She was sitting at a table guarding two large oak doors. She beckoned us to move inside and we were confronted with a tiny room. As soon as the door shut behind us, all of the noise stopped as if we sucked it out with our presence. All eyes were on us. Mouths were agape, forks suspended halfway. We began fidgeting and I think we all wanted to turn around, flee downstairs, and find a McDonald's. 

The waiter who yelled at us suddenly appeared and told us to sit down in the middle of one of the tables. As we approached, I distinctly heard a man say, "Ugh, Americans."

I sat down beside a man who immediately grabbed his belongings and pulled them to himself. I guess he thought I was going to steal something. The restaurant was still silent as we sat and took off our coats. We tried to only maintain eye contact with each other. A waitress arrived and we ordered our drinks. The people on both sides of us smirked. Eventually people began talking again but we were gaped at boldly during our entire meal. No one smiled.

This was the first time I've experienced hostility since being here. We are living in a very small village right now and everyone has been so nice. Cologne is a huge center of tourism so I assumed people would be tolerant. I wonder what their perception is of Americans. We were polite and ate everything we ordered, even if we weren't sure exactly what it was. It was very uncomfortable sitting among these people who obviously have strong preconceptions of us. And how do they immediately know we're American? 

I will be happy to learn German so I can hear what they're saying about us. Then I will respond, in German, "When you visit America, I hope you don't receive this treatment." It was strange.

After dinner we boarded the train back to Geilenkirchen. Ultimately the day was great. I think we must have just happened upon a local restaurant nestled among the tourist streets. It was certainly a little discouraging. Whatever they must think about us, I hope by the end of our time here we will have changed some of their minds.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Walking and Talking (trying)

Today we finished all of our business at the base before lunch, so we had the rest of the day to relax. We took a 6-mile walk on the bicycle paths around this village. It was such a nice day and it seems like everyone was outside walking, biking, or just talking to neighbors. There is a strong sense of community here. We live a couple miles away from what appears to be a genuine soccer club. From what I can tell, on Sundays these grown men play soccer and then retire to some sort of clubhouse where they finish drinking the weekend. It's great. I think America should do this more often (including the women, of course).

As we were walking we saw something in the sky that looked too small to be a plane and too large to be a bird. It was noiseless and I was beginning to think it was a European UFO when it suddenly and silently sailed above us and dipped into a field beyond some trees just ahead. It turned out to be a glider and we're assuming it was taking off from some kind of aviation training field nestled behind a yak farm. Just another Friday afternoon in Gillrath, I guess!

We worked up an appetite and decided to walk to the local Italian restaurant, Il Genio's. I brought along my German-English conversation pocket-guide because I hoped it would make me fluent while ordering. The waitress approached our table and greeted us. That went over well. Then she asked a question, which I assumed to be, "What would you like to drink?"
Hurriedly I replied, "Alt!"
Immediately she appeared baffled and repeated it questioningly, "....Alt?"
Then I became uncertain, worrying that I just ordered a drink that didn't exist. I uneasily replied, "Alt........?"
She hurried away and when she returned she slapped an alt down in front of me and gave my husband a traditional Bitburger. We were confused but thirsty, so it didn't really matter.

Unfortunately, I think I made the waitress nervous. She obviously didn't speak English and I'm clearly still bumbling my way through German but I didn't mean to terrify her. She avoided us like the plague for the rest of the dinner. She wouldn't even come back to take our table to take our order. I saw one of the Italian brothers gesture angrily toward us because he knew we were ready to order. She grimaced and shook her head slightly. He sighed and, in perfect English, asked, "What would you like?"

I was too deflated to try the native tongue again so I just pointed at the item number. We ordered another beer, this time a hefe weizen. I thought maybe that would make more sense than an alt. When we asked if we could have one he shrugged and said, "Why not?" The terrified waitress delivered the beers. She tiptoed over to our table and then heaved the beers down as if they were on fire. All throughout dinner I kept seeing people order drinks and none of them looked like the beers we were having. I guess there's some secret brew code we're missing.

The food was great. It's authentic and amazing. We were sat on the patio (enclosed and with heat lamps this time of year) and everyone was smoking around us. The smoke doesn't necessarily bother me but it was definitely different than eating at an American-Italian restaurant. I haven't seen a smoking section in years.

Families, groups of friends, and people on dates were dining around us. It's funny how the white noise of laughter and conversation sounds the same no matter where you are. I guess the language of food and fun is universal.

Tomorrow we'll be spending the day in Aachen. Hopefully my new camera will be here soon. Everything here is worthy of a photo and I want you to see it all!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tuddern, Our New Town

I don't know why, but the days here are lasting forever. We have so much to do but we're limited because our cars aren't here yet. We're relying upon our friends heavily, and thank goodness for them. We are also fortunate to have some great neighbors who have helped us a lot in the past two days. They offered to drive us around to look at houses yesterday morning and, lucky us, we found ours!

The first appointment we went to was in a remote village. The landlady was an older German grandma-type. The house was huge and she didn't mind asking us (in German-- our friend translated) if we have children. When we said we don't, she replied, "Ohhhhhh no. This house is too big for you." We've noticed that all of the homes are on the large side here though. They typically have a large square footage, not including a fully-finished basement and upper level. We were worried we weren't going to find anything in a size that fits us.

Our next appointment was in a great little village called Tuddern. We've been hearing about Tuddern since we arrived. It's right on the border with the Netherlands, specifically a town called Sittard. This is the perfect European place I've been picturing. I'll be able to ride my bike to the market on Thursdays and Saturdays, go for coffee at a nice little shop, and have lunch at sidewalk cafes when the weather is nice.

Our landlords are an older German couple but their son, Arndt, will be our main contact. Fortunately for us, his English is almost perfect! The house has a big master bedroom, guest room, and another room we'll use as an office. The yard is great and there's even a garage so my husband can do manly things. The kitchen is nice and our dining room and living room are huge! Windows are everywhere and we can't wait until our November 15th move-in date.

We spent all of today at the Family Readiness Center doing base-processing. It covered everything from finance to deployments to how to sort your garbage when you live in Germany (more complicated than you might imagine). It was a lot of good information but now I'm left with that first-day-of-class headache that always seems to happen when you've been sitting in a room staring at PowerPoint presentations for hours.

This afternoon we met with Arndt and his father to sign our pre-lease agreement. We arrived promptly and knocked on the door of a beautiful, massive house in a village just outside Tuddern. We stood outside for a while waiting. Finally a neighbor across the street walked over and told us we should knock on the door on the side of the house. We made our way around and noticed it was a huge workshop. We eventually knocked on the correct door and were welcomed into a massive warehouse-type building by Arndt's brother, Thomas. We asked what kind of shop it was and at that moment Arndt came walking out and said, "A blacksmith shop!"

And it really was! A no-kidding, old-fashioned, full-fledged blacksmith shop nestled in the verdant farmlands of Germany. I'm still experiencing these moments that make me feel like I'm on a film set. Arndt told us his grandfather began the business and it's still going strong after three generations. He even showed us a photo album of ironwork they've made. It's incredible.

Arndt's father, Herr Busch, soon came in to sign the agreement. He cheerily extended his hand and said, "Hallo. Busch." He then apologized because he only speaks German and we apologized for only speaking English, with Arndt translating. We completed all of the paperwork in a glass-encased room Arndt called the Winter Garden. It was perfect and idyllic. They even have the perfect German dog. Her name is Ophelia and Arndt said, "When she is bad, we say, 'Ohhhhhh, Phelia!'"

Tomorrow it's more paperwork for my husband at the base. I'm studying for my driver's test and I also need to get serious about learning German. It feels weird to be unsettled. We've been living out of our suitcases for over a month now. We're already tired of being in the guest house, especially now that we've seen our permanent house and have started imagining what it will look like with all of our things.

The weather has been nice the past few days but I keep hearing that it will soon take a turn. The last two winters were apparently harsh so people are prepared for an early snow. I definitely don't have the wardrobe for these conditions. It hasn't even gone below the 30s yet and I'm already wearing my heaviest winter coat! But if everything goes well, we'll be in our own house, with our own blankets and Snuggies (courtesy of my brother) by the time winter really comes.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Everyday Tasks

Last night I made a pasta concoction that will be called Just-Moved-to-Germany Pasta. It consisted of orzo, red bell peppers, red onions, garlic, and a little olive oil. Coupled with a simple green salad, it wasn't too bad. But it definitely was not the Greek stuffed peppers I had in mind. I had to make-do with what we found at the grocery store on base. I think a bottle of wine cures most things though, so we're fortunate that the store stocks some good varieties. 

Since we're on the kitchen topic, let's talk about some of the household differences. The first one that perplexed me was the washing machine. Dryers are pretty basic, but this is what the washing machine looks like:

Luckily the guest house left detailed instructions about how to use all of the appliances. But guess how long it takes to wash one small (and when I say small, I mean it) load of laundry. I'll just tell you because you won't believe it unless you've been here: an hour and a half. And to dry the same load it takes at least an hour and forty-five minutes. I've found the dishwasher to actually be more efficient than the one in our former apartment, but I still had to use to make sure I was using the correct settings. Oh well, one day at a time.

Today I began studying for my German driving test in earnest. He was able to take his test on the base back home but I will be taking my test very soon here. My car has made it to port and through customs so we're looking forward to seeing Greta in the motherland... although I must admit that it terrifies me to drive here. People pull off the road doing high speeds at will, the Autobahn is as crazy as it's described, and tractors are frequently ambling along at any given time. I'm scared to death of failing the 100-question test on my first try. The manual is much more daunting than the one I used to study for my initial driver's test at 16. 

We have two appointments tomorrow to look at possible houses. Luckily our guest house neighbors are currently out-processing and don't mind driving us around in the morning. I am very proud of my husband because he's already had his first German phone conversations with the landlords. They've gone something like this:
"Guten abend, Fraulein Busch."
"Uhhhhmm... yes, a little."

Eventually the meeting is arranged. Sometimes the Fraulein has to ask her husband to get on the phone but it all works out in the end. We'll learn this language in no time!

Wish us luck with house-hunting. We've heard some horror stories but we're going in with open minds and, of course, being homeless.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Aachen and Cologne

We've had our first experience with a big European city! Our friends let him drive (for practice) to the train station in Geilenkirchen yesterday morning. We dropped off the car and boarded a train to Aachen. Aachen was very cool. We saw the Aachen Cathedral, final resting place of Charlemagne-- Crazy! I couldn't believe we were standing in a place that began construction in 792. How is it still standing? We can't build subdivisions today that last hundreds of years.

Our stay in Aachen was brief because we wanted to get as much time in Cologne as possible. We got on an ICE (Inter-City Express train) and began our 30-minute ride. The train was filled with Germans, of course, but we were standing across from a few French people who were drinking wine and having a great time. It was really interesting hearing boisterous German conversations next to exuberant French conversations. I was surprised that I remembered some French from college. I only understood enough to know when they were talking about food, and then when the conversation switched to what time they needed to be at the airport. That's still much more than I know in German at this point!

We arrived, exited the train station, and immediately rising grandly in front of us was the Cologne Cathedral. It was breathtaking! Standing in front of it was humbling. I can't believe structures like this actually exist.

We walked around inside for a few minutes, marveling at everything in front of us. Tourists were everywhere so we didn't feel out of place with our giant cameras around our necks. The history is stupefying; this is where remains of the Three Kings are enshrined.

We exited the Cathedral and it was blustery and cold so we decided to go to what seemed most logical: Gaffel am Dom, a beer hall!

(This photo is not the best quality because my camera is on its last leg. But no worries, another is on the way!)

This looked exactly the way I imagined. Lots of people were sitting at long tables drinking beer, eating wurst, laughing, and singing. It was great! We drank several traditional Kolsch and were on our way again.

We stopped at a couple more pubs (The Museum of Beer and an Irish place), saw the Lindt chocolate factory, and sat along the Rhine watching cruise ships. It was a great day and a good overview of what's in store for us next time we go.

We got back on the ICE and settled in for our trip back to Geilenkirchen. We were all tired but satisfied, and the ride home was relatively quiet. When it was time to depart, we all stood up and prepared to leave. For some reason the sliding doors we selected to walk through weren't opening automatically. I'm not sure if this is because the hour was late, we chose the wrong door, the door was broken; who knows? The notable thing about this situation is that our reactions to missing our stop were not sedate.

Our friend immediately tried to pry open the dysfunctional door. When that didn't work, two in our party began sprinting across several cars to try to find a door that opened. I turned around and since they were already gone, I stayed with our He-Man who was still attempting to open the door using willpower and brute force. Finally I heard my husband screaming, "Hurry up!! Hurry up!!!" Apparently they had found a door and were already on the outside of the train. We barreled through the train in a panic and flung ourselves out, breathing rapidly and acting as if the train itself catapulted us to safety.

The best thing about this was that all of the people we were passing as we ran hardly took any notice. They literally put their fingers on their books to hold their place and looked up at us as if they expected us to act exactly this way, and then went back to whatever they were doing as soon as we were off the train. Even the crowd we leapt into had no reaction. We were high-fiving and congratulating ourselves on not missing our stop, and I'm pretty sure the train sat there for another three or four minutes so it's unlikely we had to make that production in the first place.

Our day in a nutshell: Charlemagne, Three Wise Men, Kolsch and bratwurst, and a lively sprint from the ICE. Not bad for our first time in Cologne.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Houses and Hinesburg

Yesterday was relatively sedate. He went back to work to take care of some more tasks and I stayed home, unpacking a few more things. Afterward our friend drove us around to look at possible houses. We didn't fall in love with any of them, but I have to say that I felt European riding around in a Peugeot listening to techo music.

We ate dinner at a great steak place in Hinesburg-- a very cool little town! The waiter was kind and patient, and allowed us to try some German. At first he thought we were from England. When we told him we're American, he immediately told us his brother lives in Chicago and he has a sister in Indiana. That made the world feel smaller, if just by a little.

Today we're up early so we can spend the day in Cologne! I think we will also see a little of Aachen since we'll be switching trains there.

I can't wait to show you photos of the Dom!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Grocery Stores and Cabbage Patches

Yesterday we woke up early and went to the base to get our IDs and take care of other administrative tasks. This basically means that we went in and out of various buildings and I stood by dumbly as military people conversed in acronyms. At one point I was sitting in a waiting room with people decked out in their flight suits, and we were all pretending to watch Transformers.

We went to the grocery store on base to pick up some essentials and I got very frustrated because I couldn't find things like garbonzo beans, crushed red pepper flakes, red wine vinegar, and spinach. We were also a little rushed because our ride was waiting outside. Once we got home, I had a mini-breakdown and it went something like this:
"I can't make the stuffed peppers now! What are we supposed to eat for dinner?"
He replied, "Babe, it's okay. We can just figure out something else."
Sobbing, I said, "But you don't understand! We don't have a car to drive to another store and even if we did, we can't understand any of the prices or read the labels!"
By now I am somewhat hysterical and he calmly said, "It's okay. It's just the second day. Things will get easier."
I bellowed, "We are helpless! Lost!! Confused Americans!!"

Eventually I calmed down. It seems like a silly thing to get upset about, but think about it. Any time you've ever needed something and one store doesn't have it, you can easily go to another store. We don't have our cars yet; mine is scheduled to arrive no later than the 28th of this month but that's still a little while to wait. And even if we did have a car, we don't know where the nearest grocery store is. We couldn't even tell our driver how to get back to our house. The directions to anywhere here are, "Go through the first and second roundabout, then take the second turn on the next roundabout. After that, drive by two green fields and one cabbage patch. Wave at the old man on the bicycle, look at the cows on your left, and drive by three windmills. Ours will be the oldish-looking house in the middle of two other houses that look like a church."

After my little fit we decided to take a walk to attempt to get our bearings. The walk was great! We kept passing people and they would smile and greet us with words that sounded like "pafall-di-gong" or "un-shuldy-glaghh." We just smiled, nodded, and hoped they weren't actually asking us any questions.

The scenery looks like something from a movie. Everything is so idyllic and I had to keep reminding myself that we're walking on a little bicycle path in Germany. It still seems crazy.

After our walk, our friends picked us up and we headed to a German restaurant for dinner (thank goodness). I had my first schnitzel and it was amazing! We also had some really great Belgium beer. I know you're thinking, "Who cares? I've had Belgium beer before." That's what I thought before I tasted this stuff. It's true what they say; it is better than any beer I've ever had. It was a dark beer but somehow it was light, refreshing, and almost sweet. The restaurant was great and we even attempted a little German. This went over much better than our previous night's dinner. When I tried to order in German, the waiter stopped me and said, "Please. Just speak English." Fail.

Despite being happy and excited that we're here, I already miss home and everyone so much. It's little things that trigger it. My computer still has the old time zone on it and I think I'm just going to leave it this way. Right now, it's 3:35am where you are while it's 9:35 here. You're in a deep sleep and I just ate breakfast. It makes me feel very far away. Yesterday I kept asking what time it was and then I would think, "Okay, it's noon here but in real life it's only 6am." 

I'm glad today is Friday because tomorrow we're going to Cologne! We'll finally get to do some touristy things and we're really excited!

Hope you're having sweet dreams.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Look Out, Germany!

We're finally here!

Our flight felt like forever and we didn't sleep at all, though we should have tried. We experienced our first language barriers during the flight. The pilot was German and all he said that I could truly understand was, "Dusseldorf." So at least I knew we were on the correct flight. We landed at 6am local time but it was midnight for us. We didn't have any trouble getting through customs and all of our bags arrived, to our relief.

It was a great feeling coming out of baggage claim and seeing our friends waiting for us. Seeing familiar faces after a long flight to a foreign country is a huge comfort.

'Welcome to Germany' Gifts from Friends!!

The guest house wasn't quite ready when we arrived so our friends took us to their house and we were able to take a short, much-needed nap. We woke up around 1:30pm local time, and it was just enough sleep to make our eyes feel puffy and our stomachs feel weird. With no time to waste, we set out for two different bases in order to accomplish setting up a checking account, picking up our mail, and getting a few groceries.

It was overcast, misty, and cold all day. This also contributed to our disorientation. I found myself wondering how I'm ever going to figure out how to navigate around roads whose names I can't pronounce, quickly convert a dollar to a Euro, and of course, how to stay warm with winter coming so quickly.

This evening our friends took us to a great Italian restaurant where we had our first German beers! It was a good end to a very busy day, both for us and them. We are very lucky to have them here to hold our hands during this confusing transition.

I'm very glad to be here but I'm also feeling the pressure of everything left to be done. At least we're finally sleeping in Germany tonight!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Last Night in Atlanta!

We have arrived back in Atlanta by way of Dallas/Ft. Worth. Apparently it was less expensive to fly out of Minneapolis to Dallas, and then fly to Atlanta instead of just going direct. I will never understand why that makes sense.

We had a great time in Minnesota and today's goodbye was hard because it's always hard to say goodbye to a mom.

We are waking up early tomorrow and heading to the airport around 8am for our flight to Newark at 12:30. Then we'll have an hour layover and from Newark it's direct to Dusseldorf.

It doesn't seem real to me that tomorrow we will be in another country, permanently. I think it will set in when Friday rolls around and we realize we aren't leaving. It's been fun telling people at the airports what our final destination is. The reactions are mixed:
"Wow! That's great!"
"I could never do that."
"It's going to be so cold!"

I think the most interesting conversation we had happened during our layover in Chicago on the way to Minneapolis. A middle-aged man who was a priest sat beside us and asked the time. That led to a conversation about time zones and he told us where he was going. Apparently he lived in a small town in North Carolina and had never really been out of it. On that day, only his first time flying, he was moving to Paris. He said it was due to a mid-life crisis, and he also felt like this might be his last chance to really change direction and do something big. I wished him good luck (in French) as we went our separate ways, and I hope he really does find luck in his new life, just as I hope we do.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lakes and lakes...

We've been in Minnesota for a couple days now. We went from one big lake (Michigan) to a lot of small lakes, and I can't remember their names. It's been unseasonably warm here and in Michigan so I packed completely wrong. I brought boots and jeans and everyone here is sunbathing.

We didn't have cell phone signals or the internet at his dad's house. When I say he lives in The Wilderness, I really mean it.

Trail in The Wilderness in Grand Haven

I thought we were going to have reliable phone signals at his mom's house, but apparently it's situated in a ravine so I go outside and hold my head at odd angles in order to complete a conversation. Speaking of phones, ours were turned off yesterday. Our friends in Germany have a cell phone waiting for our arrival so I guess that's the next time we'll be in the 21st century again.

I feel like I've spent most of the past week in the middle seat of an airplane or scrunched in the back seat of a car. I'm already tired of traveling and we still have a lot ahead of us. The conversations I've been having with my friends and family are beginning to feel a little sad. I know we'll still communicate when we're in Germany but it won't be as easy as picking up the phone and the time difference will make things less convenient.

I'm having fun with his family but I can't help thinking how nice it would have been to spend a relaxed week with my family too. My mom drove 2.5 hours one way to Georgia last week to spend only about 5 hours with me. We had lunch and said our goodbyes in the driveway. It was sad. Then my sister came on the weekend and we were able to spend a good amount of time with her, but then she had to rush off so we could go to the flea market and our goodbyes were said in the parking lot of Panera.

It's just hard to say goodbye in general. Moving would be so much easier if everyone you loved could live on the same street.

I think we're going to another lake tomorrow. They really meant it when they said Minnesota has 10,000 lakes.

Monday, October 3, 2011

See ya, GA

Today we're leaving Georgia for Michigan and then Minnesota. This past weekend was a great way to end our time spent here. My sister came up for one last visit and we went to a Greek festival Friday night. Saturday we spent some time driving around Macon, seeing some places we always meant to see but never had time. Saturday evening we had dinner with our great friends who hosted us for the week.

Yesterday we went to the local flea market. This was my second (his third) attempt to unload some things we didn't need. We were there for about 3.5 hours and made an $80 profit. I guess that's pretty good for an afternoon at a huge yard sale. We thought it was amusing that we spent the night before enjoying dinner in a very elegant restaurant and then headed to the market to practically give away our possessions at just a dollar and sometimes 25¢. Oh well. We weren't going to do anything else yesterday anyway since our home for the final 2 nights here has been at the lovely Ramada Inn Conference Center beside Burger King.

Terrific view.

Next time we speak, I'll be in Michigan!