Saturday, September 30, 2006

Tidbit Madness!

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*I have experienced Extreme Craving For Something Not Available Here #1: Oreos. I have actually heard Oreos are available very expensive here in some places, in very small packs only. Oh, I want Oreos.
* At some grocery stores, margerine is not kept in the refrigerated section. Guess it doesn't really need it!
* At Damon's work, they have platform toilets - they are shaped with a platform inside, so anything you leave sits right there on it. Apparently the appropriate thing to do is flush once, then flush one more time and use the second flush in conjunction with a provided toilet brush to clean up any streaks. There's something horrifying about the thought of a public toilet brush.
* What I have learned from tourism-in-exotic-locale ads on CNN International: You can golf anywhere in the world. Almost every ad takes pains to show the local golf courses. Why do something special to that area when you can golf just like you do in the US?
* We bought a used iron from someone who is leaving Damon's lab for a country with different electrical outlets. The iron must have been bought used by her as well: the price tag on it says 75.00 DM and under the word Rowenta on the side of the iron, it says "Made in W. Germany."
* In the "What strikes Germans as particular about the US" Category today we have: artificial flavors and colors. They are amazed at all the fake flavors added to everything from coffee to candy to oatmeal, and the incredibly unnatural colors you can find in said candy as well. "Hot pink goo - what is that?" "Why does coffee need flavoring?"
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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Visas!

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Finally, we have our Visas. We are using temporary traveler's health insurance, which allowed us to finally be eligible for a Visa. (Health insurance is required in Germany.) We had a German speaker from Damon's lab there with us to help. The rooms were all in a hallway, with no waiting area, and it was packed and disorderly. The woman who attended to us was brutally efficient. Unfortunately we were told we had to go get a letter from Damon's boss with yet more specific information on it than what we had, so we had to go back to the lab, then back to the office to try again. Then, she didn't even look at the extra letter we had gone to get. We also did not need police statements saying we hadn't committed any crimes in the US, despite being told we would need these and paying for them. Ah well, I am glad this part is over...for now. We think that it might say I am not allowed to work (I am on Damon's Visa), but I might be working starting in November. So, I guess we might have to go through this all over again!

* On Monday we had our first experience with the Deutsche Post. It was a little difficult because we could sort of understand what she was saying, but weren't really sure how she had worded it so couldn't tell if the right answer was ja or nein! Everything was eventually taken care of, though, and she gave us each a tiny bag of Haribo gummies shaped like the Deutsche Post logo! A note on the post office: it is far cleaner and more organized than any city post office I have been to in the US! Very efficient too - the package I sent to Witten (north of here nearish Essen) got there overnight. Sometimes the USPS is very efficient as well, depending on where you are.
* Still trying to decide what is worth it to have shipped. Today Damon's mom admitted to opening a couple of boxes and tinkering with them, so now we're a little confused as to which things are where, making it harder to decide which things should be sent. We know for sure that our hiking boots and other shoes are cheaper to ship than to purchase new.
* I saw graffiti that said, "Fuck you bitsh!" - it reminded me of that Engrish.com classic, "Fack you man."
* We got some pizza delivery menus in our mailbox. You can have beer or wine delivered with your pizza! They have deals on a liter of wine with your pizza just like Dominoes has Coke & pizza deals in the US.
* All the cranes I have seen in Germany are tower cranes - the kind that are anchored on the ground, go straight up and have a perpendicular boom at the top - even for little projects like houses. In the US I only saw those for large/tall projects and more often saw the cranes that come up at an angle. Comments from any engineers?
* In the basement there is a storage area hall before getting to the laundry room. On the doorway to the storage area from the elevators, the sign says (in English): "Gateway to the washing machines". It's like entering a whole new dimension!
* As we were standing around in Sindringen on Tuesday watching the locals watch us and do other strange tasks, the lab's Swedish dude commented, "I'm starting to feel like we are in a minimal-audience French movie." Hehe, I love French movie jokes.
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Merrily merrily merrily merrily....

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Yesterday, my husband's new lab had a canoe trip planned. They do a lab event like this once a year, and this was the first time they decided to try and canoe. Having just moved here, we don't really have much in the way of outdoor adventure supplies, if you could call them that, such as the synthetic "rain pants," water bottles, etc. So, we dressed in what we thought would waterlog us the least of what we have around - shorts and Tevas - especially considering that the forecast was rain.
The plan was to take 3 cars and a university van on the trip. Two of the cars went ahead on schedule because they were picking people up on the way, but the rest of us waited for the van to arrive (everybody called it a "bus"). Once it did, off went our car and the van.
We weren't even out of Heidelberg yet when the van broke down. We were behind it in the car and they just started pulling off. The university said it would be another couple of hours for them to send us another van - and the tow truck would take maybe an hour to arrive. Plan B - two people with us had cars back at home or the lab, so we decided to replace the van with two cars. The would-be drivers got into the car and went to pick up their cars while the rest of us hung out by the side of the road waiting for the tow truck - fun eh? When they finally returned, my husband's boss (the driver of our car) brought back croissants to make everybody feel better, with the breakdown and the cruddy weather. Then we all got into the cars and took off again.
All I have to say about the drive to our destination is this: the Autobahn is absolutely terrifying. I am surprised all German drivers are not dead by now.
When we arrived, it was pouring. The groups from the first two cars had already been waiting there a while, so it was a bit of an awkward start. Toward the end of the drive, the boss had actually been tossing around the idea of doing something else other than canoeing because of the horrible weather. It seemed like there was a big enough group that wanted to go on with it, so we all got in canoes/kayaks and started down the river. It was shallow and mostly calm, except for some rocky rapids here and there.
I had been assured it is actually rather difficult to tip a canoe, so despite my bad feelings about the whole adventure (probably paranoia from the infamous Sailboating Accident of 2002) I figured we'd be okay. I'm sure you can all guess where this is going.
Somehow we found ourselves in some rapids headed straight for the side of the river, where a huge rock and a low-hanging tree were waiting to greet us, unable to get out of the situation. We all ducked the tree, hit the rock, rode up on it, and got dumped into the cold-ass water. When I finally got my head out of the water and stopped slipping over and getting dragged, I saw my husband and H (the third person in our canoe) dragging themselves onto some rocks with the overturned canoe nearby. The big barrel we had put all our stuff in to keep it dry was floating at least 20 meters away already, and further all the time.
We bailed out the canoe, somehow all got back in, and headed off again. Thankfully nobody was injured, except me, of course. (Not bad....just all scratched up from the rocks, and there is something splintery embedded in my foot, which I am hoping will work its way out itself.) Our barrel got caught in a tree up ahead, so we were able to recover it pretty easily.
Luckily the rest of the trip was capsize-free. We rowed 21 kilometers. At the last portage (we had to get out three times to go around "wehrs" - not sure of the English word for these) my husband and I got into some nettles, though. Oh yeah, and we were really, really, really cold, but the rain finally stopped!
At the end of our route, one car was waiting to take all the drivers back to the start of the route to pick up the rest of the cars. They headed off and we all stood around trying to warm up and looking around the little town we ended up in - we could see some really cute run-down old houses/barns. Everybody was joking about surviving the van breakdown, crappy weather, and the water in general.
Not long after the car left, we all heard a noise: screeech - CRUNCH. "Ha ha, I hope that wasn't our car." "Ha ha, no way, after everything else today." We all went in the direction of the sound. There, in a little uncontrolled intersection next to all the adorable run-down old buildings, was the car. All the drivers were standing outside of it, unharmed, but observing that the front end of the car was totaled. Another car, much less damaged, was nearby.
It took an hour for the police to arrive - I guess here it is different from the US and not every little town has its own police force. In the meanwhile, townspeople started coming out of the woodwork to gawk at the huge group of non-locals standing around the kaputt car. It reminded me a lot of home - the people looked small-townish, acted like it, and their town was very cute, but clearly not special enough to bring in tourist money, so it looked a little poor. One especially funny thing I noticed was an old building, it looked like a town building of some kind from the early 1800s, which had two of those little quarter vending machines stuck on its side, like what you would see in a Wal-Mart lobby. (One had some kind of "SHOCKING" filled candy and the other had "Sticky Eyeballs" - not sure if that's candy or a toy.) This struck me as familiar to home somehow - maybe the lack of respect for something old that you can find in a lot of small towns at home.
A cab came to take the drivers back to the starting point while the rest of us waited. This took an incredibly long time as well, as we all froze and started to lose our minds and find the town more creepy than cute. One thing of note very different from small-town home: public transit buses went by regularly, with stops in the different towns.
Finally it was all over - everyone crammed into the remaining cars, the totaled car was towed off, and we started back to Heidelberg. This time we rode along the Neckar instead of the terrifying Autobahn, thankfully. The boss was hungry, and suddenly pulled off at the side of the road to grab us all apples off a random apple tree (they were everywhere), which was pretty funny.
I had the best hot shower of my life when we got home. Then we all met up again to go out to eat at the Kulturbraueri, which we also went to when we visited here in January. Luckily we didn't get into a bike accident while riding buzzed back home in the dark - although one of the other lab members did twist her ankle on the way home from the restaurant, capping off a freaking bizarre day.
And, this is about all the typing I can handle right now with the achy post-canoe arms!
Edit: No photos today since we were afraid the camera would get wrecked canoeing, but the town we had the car accident in actually has its own website, despite not being on our map of Germany! http://www.sindringen.de/ - very LOTR-esque name, isn't it? A fountain near the intersection of the wreck had a date from the 1000s written on it.
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Monday, September 25, 2006

Freinsheim Wine Fest

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Yesterday we went on an excursion with other guest house residents to a wine fest in Freinsheim, a little town along the Weinstrasse (German Wine Road) on the other side of Mannheim. We all took the train there - trains here actually go to small towns!
The town was packed with people there for the fest. It still has its fortifications from the Middle Ages built up around the center of town. After a short walk through the town we went out into the vineyards. The fest is set up along a walking path through vineyards, with 20 or so food and wine stands set up along the path. Every stand represents a different winery. All the food and wine is served on real dishes, nothing disposable. You pay about 2 euro to pretty much rent the glass you drink from, then get it back when you return the glass to the stand. Wine comes in quarter-liter or half-liter portions - BIG. They serve not just the usual wines, but also "new wine", which is not done fermenting yet, and wine schorle - like the schorle I described before, only with wine instead of juice. A half liter was only 1-2 euros at each stand, after returning your glass!
We started drinking on a empty stomach because we were not interested in any of the food at the first stand. At the second or third stand we found a sandwich that looked pretty easy to eat under the burning sun. Plus more wine. The sandwich turned out to be something called "sow's stomach". This is a meat/potato mixture encased in...yes, sow's stomach. Oh well, at least it's not brains. I really don't want to eat brains.
Halfway through the walk we stopped to sit with some reislingschorle for a break, and ended up sharing a table with a whole bunch of Americans who were ex-military and living in the Heidelberg area. That was pretty cool. The guy who talked to us the most was wicked trashed, though - not that we weren't getting there. They called us "Ammies", which is the first time I have heard that expression.
We ate more food along the way as well - some kind of bun with vanilla sauce on it came first. An old German guy asked to share our table. We said "Ja" and then he said more stuff and we had no clue what. Then he ignored us, heh. Germany is absolutely crawling with old people - like the rest of Europe it is aging and not adequately replacing itself. It's funny because the stereotypical German is a young punk like Lola in Lola Rennt - but there seem to be a lot more old people than young punks.
Then there was a pretzel - then cheesecake. We met up with our group again to get to the train. The train ride back was hell. Let me explain a funny thing about Germans - they are scared of drafts. Being outside in a breeze is fine, but if you are inside, letting that breeze in where you are is really horrible, will make you sick, etc. So, the train was a lot like an incubator inside - crowded and hot. We had to stand because there were a lot of people (again, mostly old). We just walked for hours under the burning sun drinking alcohol, and are now sweating it out in a hotbox. I actually began to feel like I might genuinely pass out, and tried to keep moving around to keep from locking my knees. Just as things actually started to buzz and turn fuzzy, we got to the first stop in Mannheim and some people got out so we could sit. Thank god...I think if it had gone a few more seconds, there would have been an embarrassing scene on the train as I passed out. I'm surprised that no one did. Drafts, people, they are good for you!!
Good news - I finally have photos online to accompany this blog. Check them out! http://picasaweb.google.com/carmellernh/GermanySept2006
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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Herbstanfang

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Herbstanfang is the first day of fall. Today the weather was gorgeous for the third day in a row! Once again, the river was lined with people sunning, sitting, biking, and playing soccer. We rode down to the Altstadt after Damon finished at a seminar he had to attend this morning, to pick up a few necessary things.

* Shoes! Damon needs a new pair of shoes. We wound our way down the very crowded Hauptstrasse and stopped at shoe shops along the way. God, thank you for bringing me to a country with decent shoe selection!! I am so glad! When in the stores, sometimes we had a hard time figuring out where women's shoes ended and men's began. In the US, this is pretty much never a problem, because women are expected to wear killer heels, sandals that barely stay on, dainty little ballet flats, or conservative brown mom-shoes. Here, they have an incredible variety of shoes for women! Never again must I suffer on a two-month shoe search because there's nothing for women that's both all-purpose and interesting to buy! (Well, not until I move back to the US, anyway.) Of course, I have no cash right now for shoes, but you can bet that if it comes my way, it's time for a pair of shoes that I can both bike and look cool in. And buying them will actually be possible!!
* Damon's mom contacted us today to report that it will apparently cost $847 to ship all the stuff we packed up to be shipped from their house. I have no idea how it could possibly cost that much, but I guess it does. The stuff is worth more than that total to buy new, but maybe all that stuff isn't necessary to the tune of $847. I'm pretty shocked at the price (and was a little shocked as well at the condescending tone of the email we got about it - we're well aware of what is available here and what the value of our things are, thanks)...so I guess we have to figure out a plan there. It cost less than $450 for the entire giant crate of other stuff we shipped here, so the price is just a shock (for the zillionth time, I said it again).
* Bells! At 6pm in the Altstadt, all the church bells were ringing. It seemed they were a little staggered, so that there were still some going after others finished. It seems a little odd to me that Germany has so many beautiful churches, but not many religous people to go to them....and the US has all these religious people and a bunch of really ugly churches. Maybe people can relate more to a modern church than to something that seems to be from a time gone by. (Well, historically there's a lot more to it of course, but I just wanted to comment on the architecture.)
* There are parakeets living wild near our building! They must be escaped pets (as in the parakeets of Chicago, and probably some other US cities as well). They make a huge sqwaking tropical noise.
* We took our trash down today and there are people in the building totally not sorting their trash. There was all kinds of food trash in the plastic/metal container. Nasty! The building really didn't do a good job of education on this one, though. We only knew about it because we read it in a book before we came. Everyone in the building is foreign so it's no surprise people might not understand the sorting. I already really miss being able to throw everything in one trash can!
* Roswitha, Leonie, and Silke are common enough names here to be on pre-embroidered towels at tourist stands. Cool!!!
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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Skype!

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I just talked to my sister in Seattle on Skype! Yesterday on our little bike ride we stopped by an electronics store and found a headset for the computer so we can use Skype. So far we just have the regular free account. With this, we can talk to anyone else with Skype for free. So please get Skype! I wish all of my family was on it, but I know that at the very least Dad probably never will. He calls them crooks.
Also while at the electronics store, I saw the weirdest thing: A Slayer wall clock. Not kidding. Yeah, you're all Mr. Badass Death Metal, and to prove it, you go to the local electronics megamart and get yourself a....Slayer wall clock.
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Friday, September 22, 2006

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Today Damon's off at a seminar all day, and I need to stick around the apartment, as the stuff we shipped from Boston might be arriving today! I'm glad it will be here, though I've kind of gotten used to the apartment being so stark and uncrowded. Things are going to change with Damon's piano and my desktop computer added to the mix. I'm also sort of nervous about the whole thing because apparently it's going to be arriving in a giant wooden shipping crate, which the shipper recommended we get a power drill to open. First of all, no power drill. Second, I have a feeling that this giant crate isn't going to fit in the front door of our building, much less into the elevator or through our apartment door! And, there's no telling if the delivery person who brings it will know English; I'm pretty sure I don't know any words pertaining to delivery of items, etc. I'm actually kind of hoping there is some kind of delay and it doesn't come today, because on Monday Damon might be able to help out, and maybe we could borrow a drill from someone by then. I mean, it is arriving on Alitalia, so the delay possibilities are in our favor ;)
Yesterday was a gorgeous clear day and we went biking along the river. At 6 pm, it seemed like everyone in town was sitting in the grass along the water or playing games. People here really like to be outdoors - a couple of days ago it was gray and rainy, and we walked down the river path and even then, there were just tons of people out playing soccer or sitting around. The coolest thing we saw yesterday was a gray-haired woman, very conservative and nice looking, probably someone's mom, sitting in the grass looking toward the river and the Altstadt at 6p, drinking a bottle of beer. Sweet!
We have to get used to the way numbers are said in German - they are a little backwards. Thirty-nine is neun und dreizig, or nine and thirty. With prices, this can be a little confusing because nine and thirty sounds an awful lot like 9 euro, 30 cents, when it's really 39 euro.
And in a topic I'm sure everyone's dying to hear about, I really hate our toilet! In my old apartment, I could clean the toilet once a week, and on this schedule would never see the porcelain start getting fuzzy under the water level - that would only happen if I let it go longer. Here, the toilet is fuzzy in only about 3 days. I think the water-saving flushing mechanism means that the water isn't really completely refreshed each time, so the water sitting in the bottom of the toilet still contains, uh, something of what was flushed. So, it gets gross faster. Yuck, man. It's WC Ente time!
Speaking of our apartment, we did find a catch about staying here - our stay in the guest house is limited to two years maximum. So, we really do need to find another place to live at some point, since even at the minimum possible we will be here slightly beyond the end of two years. I guess we can't avoid all trials and tribulations of finding a place ...in German... and all the extra furnishing and responsibility that a German apartment entails. Blast. The good thing about moving will be getting away from this construction site across the street...nothing but jackhammering the last two days. Not great for the ambiance, you know?
Well, back to fretting about the crate.
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Thursday, September 21, 2006

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Today we went to the grocery store on our bikes! So fast! Eat our wake, pedestrian-heads! It was really fun, except the part where I just about ran into another biker, but hey. We were riding home across the Neckar and it's actually pretty clear today so I could look over and see all the hills with Heidelberg in front of them while whizzing over a bridge on my bike and I thought, "No freaking way my life is this cool!!"
I see that I had 60 views on my blog today. Okay, who refreshed it 55 times?

So, notes at the grocery store, again:
* Some products have incredibly tall barcodes on them! The barcode runs the whole length of the packaging. Does this make them more efficient to scan?
* Beverages: Alcoholic beverages are sold right next to regular beverages. No specially segregated liquor sections here!
* Schorle madness!! Schorle is juice mixed with sparkling water. The most usual kind is apfelschorle (apple). We decided to test some different ones so we got two kinds of apple, plus peach and cherry! Yum!
* Toilet cleaner! They really do have Toilet Duck - only the name is a direct and somehow hilarious translation instead: WC Ente! (WC is imported from Britain, being an abbreviation for water closet; ente means duck.)
* The sheer size of the selections of candy and sausages are amazing. Making care packages is going to be so easy - just walk down through the insane amounts of candy and get one of everything.
* I saw the most bizarre pre-packaged sausage picnic kit - just a plastic bag, maybe one foot by one foot, with a checkered napkin or something, and a huge variety of sausage! All tossed together with no order.
* As many already know, checkers here don't bag your stuff - you have to bag it. They don't even have to stand doing their job like US checkers. They are ultra-fast at scanning, though, so it is really hard to keep up while trying to get your money together and find your grocery bag (usually have your own, you have to pay to get paper/plastic ones), etc. Luckily this store has a little extra space in the front so you can pull ahead with your cart and get all assembled before going.
* Not only are euro coins different sizes, so are the bills!
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Whew, the meeting with the dude is over and nothing really disasterous happened. It was awkward, because he was prone to long silent pauses. Then he handed me off to a postdoc I might be working with, who wasn't into the silent pauses, so that was a little better. However it is still a little awkward with the different body language and such here - it generally leaves one not quite sure where they stand. Since my head is so full of junk like cell phone plans and laundry detergent instructions, I found it hard to say anything that sounded really brilliant but thankfully I don't think they expected any real brilliance from me at this point. And, I asked about getting a salary and might actually get it! It wouldn't start until October 15 at the earliest though because of some administrative stuff, though. So we will see how this might help out with our insurance problem - plus it would help cover train tickets to school in Mainz and other associated costs.

* So far at the places where we've had tea, coffee, or hot chocolate, it has come with a little butter cookie. Yum!
* In the elevators here, strangers generally say hello and bye to you when getting on and off. However, no other conversation occurs. A girl came on our elevator with a bike the other day loaded up with empty beer bottles. She said hello and thank you in English when we held the elevator for her so I figured I could go with English, and commented that she must have had a great party recently (d/t the bottles). Silence. In Boston, no one ever said hello or bye on the elevators - but other conversation was fair game, like a comment on the weather, or "rough morning?" if you look disheveled, etc. It's sort of a funny inversion.
* Things are very private here. Every door in our apartment has a lock and key. When I went in for my meeting today, every office door in the hall was closed and it was silent. To get to the reception desk for the department, I had to knock/ring a bell to be admitted.
* I found this great site yesterday with some comments on miscellaneous aspects of living in Germany, and it's all right on! http://bicyclegermany.com/misc_.htm It mentions the roll-up shutters, which we have but I haven't addressed before. They make your place freakishly private. It also mentions the very complicated windows - which we also have. Our balcony door is also one of these windows - three ways to turn the handle, one to open the top for ventilation, one to open the door, and one to lock it. It's pretty neat, but frustrating before you figure it out! The best part of the site, though, is the very apt description of the toilet paper! "Yes, German toilet paper resembles either sandpaper or a blotter (if your lucky, you get the blotter kind). No, you don't have to carry your own toilet paper. Yes, Germans use it themselves. Yes, there is a reason, toilet paper is cheaper and more efficient - think about it. How many sheets do you normally use in America? If you use that many sheets of German toilet paper, you'll probably hurt yourself."
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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wir haben Fahrraeder!

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Today we got bikes! Both were used. We also got a lock (one for today, not sure why Damon did that, but it fits both our bikes) and baskets for both bikes. Everything for 450 Euro. I would have thought this was a lot until I got here and realized how expensive bikes are!
I haven't ridden a bike in ages! (It's a death wish in Boston.) We rode them home from the shop and it was so great to finally be moving around a little faster, as a lot of the things we need like the shops and the Post are very spread out. Riding bikes here is much easier than in the US, as there are tons of them, car drivers expect them, and there are easy bike lanes everywhere so you know exactly where to go.
However, I may need to evaluate my wardrobe. I was wearing boot-cut jeans and they kept getting caught on the chain. None of my other pants are any more narrow than this, but I need to be able to wear my regular clothes if I'm going to be taking the bike everywhere I go. I guess you can get ankle straps or something to keep the pants from getting caught, so I have to find one of those somewhere. In the meantime I don't even have a rubber band around here! So I'm not sure what I'm going to do about that. We also need helmets - almost no one in Heidelberg wears them, but if we ever want to go on a highway out of town I will definitely want one. Also I found out the bell on my bike is broken. We might go back to the shop to see if he'll give me a free new one.
My shoes also weren't really ideal for biking, which requires stretching your feet a little more at times...not sure what I'm going to do about that, either. Probably just suck it up because I can't afford new shoes right now - but we'll see how it goes. My bike is also ugly but it was easier to ride than the cute one I tried and has more gears. Blast.
Other fun was had changing my address with all my credit cards and the bank. You can't do it the usual way for an international address change - it's one step up. If you can normally do it online, you have to call. If you can normally do it by calling, you have to send it in writing. Changing it over the phone was no mean feat either, but a little bit entertaining (for Damon, who was just listening in).
BREAD! The broetchen (rolls) here are freaking great. We've had one with sunflower seeds all over them, ones with pumpkin seeds all over them, ones with varied seeds all over them, ones that are like soft pretzels in roll form. And they are like 40-50 cents each, and right next to our building. This may be how we save money for trips.
Speaking of trips, the guesthouse we are living in is having an upcoming trip to a little wine area on the other side of Mannheim, so we signed up. Maybe we'll meet some fellow Clueless International People, plus check out a town other than Heidelberg - all for only 3,50 euro! Yeah!
In other news, I'm really nervous for tomorrow's meeting with this guy I'm supposed to be working with while I get my degree. The truth is I don't have much background yet - just enough to get into the program, really - I have to build it now. I don't want to come off like an idiot, but I don't know much and don't have really specific research interests yet. Also, I thought his office would be closer to here, but it turns out it's near the Bismarckplatz. Argh, now I have to decide - walk and take half an hour, ride the bike and figure out a way to keep my pants from getting caught, or...? Hmm. Nerves nerves nerves.
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Monday, September 18, 2006

More Tidbits for Monday..

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* The ATM doesn't give us a receipt when we withdraw from our US account! This is a pain because we don't know how much it was in dollars until it comes across online. I'm used to my nice paper checkbook in addition to my online statements.
* We accidentally bought scented toilet paper - both disturbing, and not good for the crotch! I should have questioned the fact that it said BALSAM across the front under the brand name a little more. Speaking of balsam, it seems to be on a lot of things. It seems like our whole apartment smells like the toilet paper - really weird.
* We have to sort our trash into six categories! But the trash can they gave us only has two categories. We are still trying to figure out what to do about this. We are having a hard time remembering that we have to separate it at all - there's bio (food etc), paper, other, metal/plastic, hazardous, and glass (three kinds).
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Tearful Breakdown Number One

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I'm very pleased that I made it five and a half full days before my first Tearful Breakdown! Go me! Not that it was fun. I know things just seem worse right now because we have to pay for so much stuff at once, don't really fully understand a lot of the little administrative things we have to do and are just feeling our way through them as much as we can, and because so much of my future is still unknown, just not knowing what my work schedule will be like or how things will be when I'm commuting to Mainz and having class 10 hrs/day. Plus we are supposed to be travelling while we are here and have the opportunity to easily get around Europe, but I don't see how we will ever be able to afford to do that. Imagine the joint income of a couple working entry-level jobs at a grocery store in Des Moines, IA, and you will have a good idea of how much money we have. I know that it will be okay and I just have to get used to it, and we could always take out a loan or something in order to live it up like everyone is telling us that we are supposed to. We are lucky in that Damon has no school debt and mine is about 50% paid off already, and I will not be taking on any debt for grad school here, so we might have some room to take on a loan.
Speaking of school loans, I'm trying to find out how I can get mine deferred while I am in school! Turns out you can only apply for deferral (or hold, whatever it is called when you stop paying for a while) if you are enrolled in a qualifying US school or receiving unemployment in the US. Hmm...
We might have given up on the T-Mobile thing...it just left us so confused. I installed Skype on the laptop but it doesn't have a microphone, so I can't use it yet. I think that will be great for our international calling. We really only need the cell to communicate with each other, especially when I am spending a lot of time in Mainz, so we will have to figure out something for that. I guess I could use a pay phone, as they are still alive and well here ;)
The cabbie who picked us up our first day warned us that Heidelberg only has a month and a half of sun every year. I'm starting to believe it! There's only been one sunny day since we got here. Today the fog is so bad I can't see the hills that are usually visible from our balcony. On the good side, we like Seattle and this could be good preparation in case we ever decide to move there!

Tidbits!

* Today's morning adventure: cleaning the toilet. Some kind of aerosol can was left in the bathroom for us, almost empty and all rusted. As usual, can't read a word of it but the diagrams appeared to show that it was used to clean the toilet. I've never seen an aerosol toilet cleaner, but pictures don't lie! (And man have they ever been important to me since moving here!) So I tried it this morning. It worked...but I'm still off to buy some liquid toilet cleaner ASAP. I saw it advertised on TV so I know it's around here somewhere. The aerosol was too weird. And the liquid stuff allows you to sort of stand back a bit more from the inside of the toilet, which is a plus for me!
* The pillows are more narrow than US pillows, and the pillowcases button on! The buttons remind me of those old-fashioned kiddie pajamas with the buttoned-up butt.
* The ambulance sirens here are really different from in the US. They sound kind of quaint to me, probably because I've only heard a sound like it in movies before. They are much less annoying than US sirens!
* Still having trouble speaking German. Even in interactions where we know what to say, it seems like we open our mouths and all the words are lost and nothing comes out. Then the other person starts making an impatient/confused face, we panic, and out comes the English. Yesterday, it felt like a huge accomplishment when Damon sneezed and I managed to eke out a "gesundheit" before the English took over. Baby steps!
* SO MUCH GREAT CANDY!!! It's just nice to look at and know it's here and so cheap compared to the US, even if we can't buy much now!
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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Saturday Tidbits

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* All the mustard comes in tubes like toothpaste!
* The bus was confusing today - the last time we rode, Wednesday, everyone scanned their little tickets when getting on the bus. Today nobody was scanning them (except us so we are dorks!) - so is the bus free on weekends? Are they just betting on no one checking? Confused!
* Trying to get cell service was even more confusing. The plans are much different than in the US, and everything is really expensive. Calls to the US with the phone are $1.50 a minute but he told us with a landline calls to the US are less than 2 cents a minute. Huh? Then they have complicated plans where you get a landline on your mobile phone so calls are cheaper if you make them within 2km of your house. I think that's what he meant anyway. All of it was really confusing, I was pretty much speechless. Then we tried to buy a plan and we can't without our German bank account number, so we have to go back because we haven't gotten the card in the mail yet and didn't have the number with us.
* Americans met so far have fallen into two categories. It's only been less than a week so there are probably lots of other categories, but here's what we have so far: Helpful and Boring. Helpful Americans: are really glad to hear another American and want to help out however they can. In the T-Mobile store we asked someone where to find a good used bike and every English-speaking person in a 10-foot radius came up to us with suggestions, so now we have a lot of ideas! Boring Americans: rich kids who come to party the same way they would in America with the same people they would in America, only in a different location (maybe because their parents want them to get some "culture" which I suppose must be somehow found between all the partying with fellow Boring Americans. If there are categories, we would probably not even be in one, unless there turns out to be one called Americans Too Poor To Party And Not Been Here Long Enough To Be Helpful.
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Friday, September 15, 2006

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* All my banner ads are in German now! Haha, I can't read it - you lose, advertisers!

* Things seen at the grocery store today: giant pieces of sliced crustless bread and ink-black pasta! (These were marked Italian but haven't seen them in the US before). Also: "Fruehlingrollen mit Schwein", which is somehow much cooler/funnier than "Pork Spring Rolls".
* Laundry adventure: can't read any of the detergents at all. Not even sure what most of the things in the laundry aisle are!! We ended up getting detergent in tablet form because the other ones seemed to require measuring out mls of detergent but none of them came with cups for this purpose and we didn't see any for sale nearby. A little bit of struggle occurred with the waschmaschine in which we lost a precious 50 cent coin (the equivalent for us of precious laundry quarters in the US), then I got to use the cool drying rack. Uh, but it takes a long time for stuff to dry.

* We are watching soccer highlights. As the scores are shown, where US sports shows would play some wailing guitar music in the background, there is instead choral music playing!

* Today I had to get some passport photos at a photo booth in anticipation of eventually being able to get a Visa. There were all these instructions inside (thankfully also in English) about not smiling, not looking away, being perfectly lined up, wearing neutral colors, etc. That was already kind of funny in itself - because who can be that serious when inside a photo booth!? - but once the photo was about to be taken I had to try really hard not to laugh as this freakishly chipper voice yelled at me in German to get ready for my photo WHEE!! For some reason everything is a little more funny in a foreign language.
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Damon and I went for a walk in Neuenheim yesterday to check it out. It looks like the Brookline of Heidelberg - cute, expensive, and full of children (because it's where the people rich enough to have them live). Actually, it looks much cuter than Brookline, but probably because it's in Germany and everything is cuter (to an American).
Anyway, we came across something I know you would never find in Brookline in a million years. While walking down a residential street, along the side of the road on a railing was a cigarette dispensing machine! Later we saw another one on the same street. It seemed so random to be right there. We also stopped at a grocery store called Lidl which looks a lot like Aldi inside (same company, maybe?)...and they had a huge section of Mexican food like everyone said we couldn't find here! Since we have no money at this point we didn't get any, but that was interesting. We also got paper towels...and they are THREE-ply, like the toilet paper! What's up with all the ply? I'm surprised the US hasn't picked up ply-fever!
Things have looked up with the insurance issue. We found some insurances that are available especially for people on fellowships so they can get out of this trap. It would be a little over 200 euro/mo for both of us, which is about what work-subsidized insurance costs in the US, so even though it seems like a lot considering our limited income it's not bad at all. It's not as good as the regular state insurance, though. I'm still going to see if I can get 400 euro/mo somehow out of this guy I'm meeting with next week. I have a feeling I won't be able to, because for him that would probably mean a lot of paperwork or finagling that he might not be allowed to do. Everything is so formal here. But, will try anyway. The annoying thing about the coverage we can get is that childbirth insurance is separate. I don't plan on having a baby while I'm here, but can't completely exclude the possibility either, as I wouldn't turn one down if I got pregnant - and that insurance is an extra 90 euro/mo! (I'm really starting to wish this keyboard had a euro key.)
Our other fun adventure last night was trying to transfer money from our US bank account into our new German bank account. You can't do a transfer unless you can go to the branch bank in person. Um, not possible. So the only way to move money from our US account into our account here is to write ourselves a check, which will take 21 days to clear, or to withdraw money from the ATM (with lots o' fees of course). The withdrawal limit for us could only be cranked up to $600/day, which is 400-something euros/day. Paying the September rent and security deposit on our apartment looks like it's going to be a slow process! Damon's fellowship doesn't kick in until October 1, and the small advance payment his new boss gave him to cover us until then won't cover it either. Whee!
Starting over again like this is so surreal. It's just like our first days in Boston - tiny apartment, nothing of our own but clothes, no money to speak of, eating nothing but cereal and pasta and bread, no dishwasher, no garbage disposal, knowing nobody, wandering neighborhoods with no clue how we'll get back home, feeling and looking a little out of place, everything seeming so expensive that we'll never make it. The only difference is that a language barrier is added on. And the cigarette machines.
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Thursday, September 14, 2006

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This must be the pain-in-the-ass part they were talking about.
Damon got a fellowship right away. This pays for his living expenses for the next two years while he does research. Unfortunately though, because his money comes in the form of a stipend, it isn't considered employment. We need to have proof of health insurance in order to register with the town and have our Visas. This isn't really a problem for most of the foreigners who get fellowships because they have insurance in their home countries. Insurance in the US is different - insanely expensive if you don't have a job there covering it, and no state insurance - so we don't have that going on and have to get German insurance. We went in to get it this morning. It turns out that since he's not considered to be making any money, we don't qualify to get the cheaper public insurance. You have to be making at least 400 euros a month to get it (in a job not a stipend). Otherwise you have to get private insurance. The problem with private insurance is that it costs a lot more (they said probably 500-600 Euro/mo for both of us) and we have to be insured separately even though we are married. Public is cheaper and we would both be covered under one policy at no extra cost. So we have to find some way of getting public insurance. It complicates Damon's fellowship if he gets other work so I will probably have to get some employment making at least 400 Euro/mo so that we can get the public insurance. I do have arrangements to do some work in a lab but the only thing he offered to cover is my tuition for the master's program I'm starting in November. The program costs much less than 400 Euro/month, though, so even if I had him pay me directly so I had an income, it wouldn't make the cut.
Fucking hell.
On top of that we were warned against getting an account with the bank Sparkasse by more than one person, but where did we open an account? Sparkasse, because we had the secretary for Damon's lab with us to help translate and the only bank near us is Sparkasse so that's where she would take us. All the forms are in German of course so we can't really tell for sure if we are getting screwed over or how.
Add into all that worrying about finding an apartment for the longer term and all the warnings about how they don't come with anything, not even a fridge or stove or kitchen cupboards, and you are expected to even renovate it by professionals on your own dime before you move out, and having to deal with all that crap without any German....fuck. Fuck! Arghhghgh!
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Yesterday we went to the store to pick up some food and toiletries. It really sucks not speaking German. I'm not sure how you are supposed to just absorb it like they say when you can't understand anything at all, but it's only been a day and a half so I guess we'll see. Some things:

* The toilet paper is more narrow than in the US, and you can get even 3 or 4-ply paper!
* All the shampoo and conditioner were tiny bottles, maybe a third of the size I usually got in the US (of course I always got the really big one to save time and sometimes money). Then I went to get body wash and the bottles were huge! The one I got was probably twice what I could usually get in the US. That was just funny after having to shrink down on the hair stuff.
* I have to get used to milk in a box.

I don't know how I am going to get used to the toilets. Like I mentioned yesterday there is almost no water in them - just enough to fill the drain part at the bottom. I am not sure if this is supposed to conserve water, but it doesn't seem like it because when you flush it seems like more water than I have ever seen in a toilet flush comes gushing out. Anyway having almost no water means that when someone poos, the poo doesn't go into the protective water and just sits in the air, creating a completely ungodly smell both for them and for the next user (or for a public bathroom, other concurrent users). It's more rank that I had ever imagined.
The other annoying thing about our bathroom is the shower, which floods the whole bathroom when you use it. We went down to the office today to sign our rental contract and she asked if there were any problems, so we asked if there was a mop we could use because the shower gets the whole floor wet. She said, "Well I don't know what you are doing with your shower!" Er, turning it on? Also she insisted there is a mop in the room along with the broom and vacuum cleaner. We found the broom and vacuum cleaner and then what appears to be another broom. Is that supposed to be a mop?? I think part of the problem is the shower curtain, which is very lightweight and blows in and out while showering. It's gross when it blows in because it clings on to the showeree...ew. I tried weighing it down with some clothespins, which helped but only a little. I'm afraid to use more of them because I'm going to need something to hang up clothes to dry! (Turns out there is a dryer in the basement, but air-drying them is cheaper and we are EXTREMELY POOR now!)
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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

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Finally we are in Heidelberg. It is nice to finally be free after 3.5 weeks of being under the eyes of various parents...especially after the disaster yesterday morning when I was already sad we couldn't visit Hyde Park when we were so close and there was plenty of time, tired and stressed in general, then the in-laws decide breakfast is a great time to bring up politics. That was just a lovely way to go out.
The Lufthansa flight was pretty nice - much better food than the flight here in January on Icelandair, and free alcohol. The only cruddy thing was there were no air vents at the seats and it was really hot, so I didn't sleep at all, even though I can usually get in 2-3 hours of sleep on a red eye. Customs was freakishly easy (didn't say a word to us except 'hello'), we caught the shuttle right away to Heidelberg, and got an extra friendly taxi driver. We arrived at our temporary furnished apartment around 9:30a. It's small but brand new and stylishly furnished. It looks straight from an Ikea catalog. It also has a deck which I thought was a nice surprise! I got a short nap in but am trying to stay awake now to adjust a bit.

Tidbits:
* The bed is two twin-size beds that you can have together or separate - just slide them along a board on the wall that also doubles as a side table. No top sheet, just a fitted sheet and a comforter. It was like this at our hotel when we stayed here too - just not top sheet people in Germany?
* The toilet has two different flush buttons. Not sure yet what the difference is. Also there is almost no water in the toilet - just enough to fill the little hole at the bottom ...is that typical?
* No screens in the windows! I expected this but it's still kind of annoying to have bugs flying in (and potentially birds).
* There's a clothes drying rack on the deck! Neat!
* All the travel ads on CNN International - it's pretty much the only type of ad. All for countries you never see advertised on American CNN - Kazakhstan, Croatia, Qatar.
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