Tuesday, December 28, 2010

There’s coffee…and then there’s THIS

What do you get when you send a fairly-illiterate-in-German -and-fresh-off-the-boat-expat grocery shopping? This:

Caro, the coffee alternative
Sure, it looks normal enough with its gold and blue label and image of a delicious cup of coffee. But what’s inside is most definitely NOT delicious coffee. In fact, as I later learned, it isn’t even coffee at all.

Let me back up. I’ve been in Germany for about a month and a half now. And one of my favorite things about living in another country is grocery shopping. Stores are filled with excitingly different items and brands. But all this newness (and my low German vocabulary) comes with a price: you don’t always know what you’re getting. But then again, how else would I have learned I actually do like stinky sheep cheese?

So a few weeks ago, I went in search of a good instant coffee to hold me over until we bought a machine. I stood in front of the coffee shelf for about 10 minutes trying to decide between brands based solely on product labeling aesthetics. From the impressive line-up, I selected a perpetrator, er canister.

As soon as Thomas got home that evening, I performed my ceremonial “showing of the day’s purchases” like a kid proudly holding freshly made macaroni art. Usually it goes well. Today, the macaroni was didn’t go over so well. Here’s the transcript of what followed:

Thomas: Wow, you…uh… you bought Caro, huh? he asked cocking his head to one side as if the angle would make my imminent reasoning clearer. (Since then, I’ve received this same reaction from numerous people.)
Me: Umm…yeah. It was a really good price, and the label was prettier than the generic brands. (I could feel my speech beginning to get slower and slower) Besides, it’s made by Nestle. The other Nestle coffee was twice as much.
Thomas: Do you know why that is?
Me: No…..wh—
Thomas: Haha, no, no. You’ll find out.

The next morning I made my first cup of Caro and slowly took a sip. What the –!?!

I ran to the computer to research the odd black liquid in my cup. Caro is actually a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The ingredients listed on Wikipedia, best describe the flavor: “Caro is made up of soluble solids of roasted barley, malted barley, chicory, and rye.”


But since I bought it, I was determined to drink it, so I’m down to half a canister (which, because I bought the biggest one, makes 50 cups).

While the taste kind of grows on you, I’m happy to report we bought our new coffee machine last night. So starting today, it’s good-bye Caro and welcome back Joe.

My knight in stainless steel armor has arrived

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A German Christmas party: eat, drink and … line dance?

They say the best way to learn a language is by total immersion. While I generally agree, more often than not, Thomas and I stick with English at home. We’ll start off in German, but invariably switch back once my vocabulary begins to stifle the conversation. I guess we just prefer our conversations to go beyond in-detail weather descriptions or me asking for 250 grams of sliced cheese.

But this weekend I got a full immersion experience at Thomas’ company Christmas party. Even though many people there could speak English quite well, I tried as best as I could (after a few glass of wine fortified my courage) to only speak in German. With my vocabulary being limited, I had only a few topics I could speak to comfortably. Fortunately, large parties provide opportunities for dialog repetition. Seven hours later, I could explain my thoughts on the Bavarian accent quite well.

Language barriers aside, the party was quite fun and entertaining. Thomas’s company is more laid-back than most German companies. For example, everyone from intern to CEO addresses one another casually using the informal du-form of “you.” (German, like many languages, has two forms of “you.” The polite and formal “Sie” (always capitalized) and the more familiar, informal “du.”).

So it was no surprise that party felt more like a bunch of good friends celebrating the holidays together rather than a stiff office party where everyone keeps an eye on the clock.  The evening was full of great food, drinks, a band made up entirely of employees, stories of humor and appreciation and even a few cowboy hats and line dancing – something I, coming from the southern half of the U.S., found particularly amusing.

Christmas party in Germany...with line dancing
Why this pinch of country-western culture? One of the employees was moving to work at the company’s U.S. office … in New York. I looked at Thomas, and he grinned. Payback for Americans thinking all Germans wear lederhosen, I guess.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hello neighbor, could we borrow a cup of … crowbar?

Every few days we’ve received deliveries of furniture, dishware and electronics from local and online stores – replacements for things we chose not to ship. Amazingly, each item has made daily life so much easier. Who would have thought crisping bread in a toaster would ever feel luxurious?

And last week, we got word from the company delivering our household goods from the states that they’d be here on Friday. Great, we’d climb a major rung of domesticate living ladder, we thought.

But as the saying goes, anything worth having is worth the work (or something like that). We had assumed we’d ordered a full service delivery to our apartment. But here’s what we got:

Enter the wooden crates...yes WOODEN CRATES.
At 5:30 p.m. - just after dark - the crates arrived. And here I thought only vampire coffins and cursed museum relics came in wooden crates.

The crates were about 2,5 meters (over 8 feet) tall...and a gazillion pounds
The “movers” turned out to be a freight shipping company. So after they helped Thomas wheel them to our apartment entrance way, they left us with the sealed, metal-band-reinforced crates. And to adding to our stress level was the German concept of Ruhezeit (where you shouldn’t make noise after during certain hours, like after 8 p.m.). Yeah…busting splitting timber and carting boxes and furniture up several stories won’t make noise.

Crate 1 of 2.
So, we stood there for a few minutes looking up at the rectangular monsters blocking half the sidewalk. At least it wasn’t snowing.

Then it started snowing.

I knew our neighbors across the hall had been doing a lot of interior construction, so what better time to introduce yourself than when you need something…especially something as common as a crowbar…or better yet, a chainsaw. Unfortunately, they had neither. They also probably think we’re insane now. Super.

But somewhere along the way, we must have earned some moving karma points. Another neighbor (the husband of Thomas’ co-worker who also lives in our building) had a small, manual handsaw and – more importantly – a willingness to help.

For the next two hours, Thomas tore the crates open, board-by-board. Then the three of us hurried all of the long-awaited contents out of the snow and into the building.

One down...one to go
We finished around 8:30 (slightly breaking the sacred Ruhezeit, but too tired to care).

The next day...

Even though our belongings were safely inside, we still had to deal with the empty and now unstable crates looming outside. Unlike in the U.S. where we usually just pay someone to cart of large amounts of waste, in Munich, you’re on your own…unless you give at least a week notice. And don't even think about taking wood to the regular trash. There's a special handling facilty for that, of course.

The morning after
So while I spent most of Saturday unpacking boxes inside, Thomas spend about seven hours tearing down the crates and stashing the wood in our underground parking spot. It's a good thing we don’t have a car. But maybe now we can build one…out of wood. Oh wait, I just remembered, we hate wood now.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Swallowing cats to catch flies

You know that nursery rhythm where the old lady swallows a fly, and then swallows a cat to catch the fly, then a dog to catch the cat, etc.?Well,  I’m starting to feel a little like that old lady.

A couple of days ago, Thomas and I discovered a nice public library. But in order for me to get a card, I need to provide proof of address (in addition to paying €18 and showing my U.S. passport). But I can’t provide this proof of address until I register with the Munich (something all German citizens and residents must do when they change cities).

But, I can’t register with the city until I complete the residence card process. And before I can do that, I need to pass either a Göthe Institut A1 language exam or show proof of my university degrees. Sounds simple enough except that the next open exam isn’t for at least another week or two and proof of my studies is currently travelling though Germany – without me.

You see, we’re still waiting on our household goods to be shipped to Munich. Yeah...here’s how that’s been going:
  • Exactly two months ago today, the moving company came, picked up our boxes and furniture and trucked it down to Chicago where they (hopefully) packed it all tightly into a ship container.
  • About four weeks ago, we had no idea if our container was still cruising the Atlantic Ocean, sitting on a deserted island confusing the local fauna or somewhere in Germany.
  • Three weeks ago, we were notified it had made it Bremen where it must clear customers. But in order to clear customs, they needed a detailed log of each box’s contents – in German.  Fortunately, we’d already done this in part for our records and the original transport company. So Thomas sat down one evening and painstakingly translated the 20 pages, itemizing everything we own in German.
  • Last week we were told it finally cleared customs and that we had to pay a few hundred Euros in standard port fees. Ok, done. But since then, all’s been quiet on the northern front. I’m not sure if the container is still in Bremen or if a delivery man will pop by any minute. Guess I’d better change out of my Rocket Squirrel pajamas…just in case.

So that’s where I am. No university degrees, no residence card, no Munich registration, no library card. And the worst part? I really wanted to see if they had a copy of this book (yes, I’m judging it favorably by its cover alone):

Title Translation: Bring me the head of Nicolas.

Friday, December 3, 2010

I’m sorry, my German isn’t very good … and apparently neither is my math

In Germany, many shops only accept cash, or sometimes called an Electronic Cash (EC) card (which is like a debit card). Being a U.S. American (I can’t speak for my friends in Canada and Mexico), this is very different. In the States, I rarely carried cash. Plus, I earned “points” with every credit card purchase which equaled cash back later. A $2 cup of coffee? Charge it.

I don’t have an EC card here yet. Thomas added me to his bank account, but in order to get a card, we have to go to the Post Office to have my identity verified. I should mention here that Germans take personal identity and privacy very seriously, which I think is great. But added security measures often come with a convenience cost.

But not having an EC card hasn’t been that big of inconvenience; I’ve been fine with making a trip to the ATM with Thomas every few days...

…Until today, that is.

Each day, I go to a couple of markets to acquire fresh items with which to create something that resembles some state of food (I’m still to master opening the oven…more on that another time).

Today I went to a larger store just down the street. But because grocery shopping is still very exciting –   so many new and different items to try – I got a little more zealous than my wallet was comfortable with.

As I placed each of my edible treasures on the checkout conveyor belt, a sense of dread began to set in. How much was that box of chocolates? I forgot I picked up that bottle of Glühwein. That deli cheese was €4??

And, as is so often the case, my delayed intuition was right.

Cashier: Das macht €38.45. (That comes to €38.45).
Me: Ummm…[looking at the €25 in my wallet as if they’d somehow multiply if I keep counting them.] Leider…ich habe nicht genug. Ich muss etwas zurück geben.(Unfortunately...I don’t have enough. I must give something back.)

I quickly handed over a higher ticket item: a beautiful bottle of Cuban rum. The cashier, without the least bit of empathy for my predicament, snatched it up and walked over to her colleague for a register key to remove the item from my bill.

By this time a line had begun to form behind me.

Cashier: €22.10, bitte.
Me:        .........

Looking at the money in my hand again, I started recounting it in German. No, better do this in English, I thought. Crap…wait…how much is this?? I felt a warm sensation flooding into my face. Somehow in a mounting sense of panic I’d forgotten how to add. I frantically handed her all of the paper bills from my wallet, plus a couple spare one and two Euro coins from my pocket.

She counted my wad of monetary shame once…twice…looked at up me…and then counted a third time. I instantly thought I was still short. But to my relief, she mumbled something I didn’t fully understand and gave me several Euros back. I grabbed my rum-less bag of groceries and hurried out, without making eye-contact with any of the (hopefully patient) customers behind me. For once, stepping outside and breathing the bitter cold air felt amazing.

So what did I learn? Have plenty of cash on hand; select items more conservatively; and start going to a different grocery store.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Taking the trash out - German style

There's a lot to learn about trash and recycling in Germany. In Munich, there’s an entire website dedicated to what goes where and even an interactive game where you can virtually sort waste. 

Waste is divided into several categories, the first three of which we can easily dispose of just outside our apartment:
  • Restmüll - non-toxic, non-recyclable or otherwise compostable other waste.  
  • Bio - pronounced like BO which it kind of smells like since it consists of food scrapes and other organic materials (but not cat poop...in case you were wondering. Yeah, we checked). The cool thing about bio waste is that the city collects and composts it so you can complete the circle by buying it back as fertilizer for your garden.
  • Paper.
We have restmüll, bio and paper bins outside our apartment

The majority of the other categories, we bundle up and carry to a disposal station down the street. These stations, called Wertstoffinsel, are all over the city and accept:
  • Brown glass.
  • Green glass.
  • Clear glass.
  • Certain types of aluminum - for example aluminum cans are OK but not aluminum foil. 
  • Materials labeled with a Grüne Punkt - such as most plastic product packaging.
Wertstoffinsel disposal station - for this we just take a short walk down the street

Aside from the slight annoyance of looking a bit homeless by trekking the sidewalks, garbage bags in tow, the bins themselves don’t have lids you can lift. They have holes about the size of a small salad plate so you have to dig into your bag of crap and toss items in almost one at a time. In part, I think it’s the city’s way of “encouraging” you to bring your own reusable packaging to stores or get items like cheese wrapped in paper from the deli instead of the plastic, commercially packed kind. If so, it’s working. I’m much more conscious of product packaging when I buy groceries now.

And of course, other items such as wood, cork, clothing, electronics, chemicals, batteries or toxic waste must be taken to a special handling facilities. Cat poop, as toxic as it smells, is fortunately considered restmüll, again, just in case you were wondering...

And if you think you can shirk your waste disposal duties, think again. There’s trash police! Occasionally, the bins outside your residence may be inspected to help ensure proper waste disposal adherence. If you’re caught breaking the rules, you could be fined. As Thomas said, imagine what people in the U.S. would say about that! The government is in your trash can! GASP!

Sure the process seems complicated at first, and it's certainly less convenient than in the states (mostly because many people either don't bother to recycle or recycling centers sort items for them), but it’s much better for the environment. So if it means a cleaner tomorrow, I’m more than happy to sort, transport and even reduce our household waste. And eventually I’ll master the system so I can stop asking Thomas so where does this go? ten times a day.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

These boots were NOT made for walking

Anyone who knows me, knows I love high heels. The higher the better. But today, a pair stiletto-esque boots were my downfall. Literally.

The sidewalks around my neighborhood are made up of individual, slightly uneven stone squares. They look nice, but they don’t play nice with long skinny heels. I was going along my way quite well until my heel caught the edge of one stone just the wrong way and KER-plop. 

I didn’t fully hit the ground, but my bag of groceries did. Fortunately there was no damage to my veggies – only to my pride. But now I know why so many Munich women wear flat or low heel shoes around here.

Looks like I’ll need to adjust my day-to-day footwear, because black and blue knees are a definite fashion don’t.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pork...the other meat I don’t eat

Bavarian Holzfällersteak...not the "American steak" I'm used to
I’m a mostly pescatarian living in a pork-lover’s paradise. What does that mean? Well, I eat fish but try to refrain from eating birds and land animals 95 percent of the time. Occasionally, I’ll make an exception for something like an excellent beefsteak. Last night was to be one of those exceptions.

Thomas and I walked to a nearby, traditional Bavarian restaurant. One look at the menu and I quickly learned that Bavarians really like pork, something I definitely don’t eat. And not for religious reasons. I like pigs, I just prefer them alive.

So after asking, what’s this word mean? about 30 times, I figured I’d mastered the menu and was ready to order. Ich möchte das holzfällersteak ohne speck, bitte. (Translation: I would like the holzfällersteak without bacon, please.)

A few minutes later, the waitress placed a slab of suspiciously light colored meat in front of me. I looked at Thomas and asked, What…is…this? He took a bite and grimaced. Pork.

I was perplexed. I said ohne speck. I didn’t know holzfällersteak was a pork steak topped with more pork.

Thomas explained how much of German cuisine in the south is centered around pork because beef prices are much higher.

As I looked down at my meal, I felt guilty for ordering a plate of Ms. Piggy after having regularly donated to a pig sanctuary in Arizona. I started to wonder if this was karma’s way of punishing me for giving into meat-temptation.

Needless to say, I didn’t eat the pork steak. Afterwards, we went across the street to Burger King (insert your favorite American/hamburger joke here) where I got a subpar veggie burger.

But I’m not giving up on German-Bavarian cooking…I just might have to modify a few recipes and try them at home. Anyone up for holzfäller-tofu-steak?

Friday, November 19, 2010

A lot of stress, a few cocktails and a little cat pee

We’re finally in Munich! Well, actually, we have been for a couple of days but I’ve been horribly sick since the day before we flew out. I credit that in part to the intense stress mounting up to our departure…and to the numerous cocktails I had at our farewell Madison party.

I’ve only been here a short while and already there is much to write about. Today, I’ll start with the beginning – getting here.

Thomas and I drove to Chicago and stayed 1.5 days in a hotel to limit the time the cats had to be in their carriers. We made a couple of trips to the airport to drop off our luggage and then ourselves and the cats. (It’s important to note here for everyone wondering – no, all of my remaining clothes, shoes, accessories and assorted household goods did not fit into our luggage. We had to make a last minute run to the post office and begrudgingly hand over $172 to ship a box which should arrive next week).

When we got to the airport with the cats, the people in Lufthansa were awesome. They even gave Thomas and me an entire row of four seats all to ourselves since having a carry-on-cat under your seat means less legroom.

At Chicago O'Hare, kitties and luggage in tow

I also learned a few important things about flying with pets. Whether your pet is flying under the plane or under your seat, you’ll need to be prepared to remove Fluffy or Fido from the carrier for airport security:
  • For under-the-plane, this was easier since we were off to the side, away from most of the foot traffic and chaos. But you’ll need to hold your pet for a good three or four minutes while the official examines the crate and bedding.
  • For under-the-seat, this was a little more stressful. Quickly removing coats, sweaters, scarves, belts and shoes is challenging enough, add a stressed out feline into the mix and you’ve got quite a carry-on obstacle course! For obvious reasons, you can’t run a pet though the x-ray machine. So you’ll need to remove him, run the carrier through, and walk through the metal detector with 10 terrified claws latched into your skin, praying you don’t trip the sensor. Surprisingly, my cat was not nearly as hard to handle as I had feared. And he was more than happy to return to his carrier after it had cleared x-ray.
Once we were aboard the flight, my neighboring passengers were treated to the often loud, and not-so-musical sounds of periodic cat cries. Luckily, it only appeared to annoy one older lady who I didn’t care for anyway since she kept annoying the flight attendants with various non-cat-under-the-seat-related questions and complaints. I figured the mutual annoyances cancelled each other out.

At last we landed! As Thomas and I walked through the Munich airport, he noticed something wet had dripped onto his shoes. He thought it was from a drink. But I had a sinking feeling that said otherwise. It took a quick carrier sniff to realize it was cat pee. Poor baby couldn’t hold it. Not his fault, but now we had to find a pet supply store for shampoo pronto!

Thomas found one (without the navigation system that was supposed to be in our rental car from Sixt). We rushed to our new apartment, and before I could even take a tour, I had the bathwater started and a soaped up stinky little furbaby and his carrier. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to take his medication out of the side pocket before submersing it in the bathwater. So now it looks like I’ll be taking on the “finding a vet in Germany” challenge on a little sooner than expected.

In the meantime, I’ve managed to dry out some of the pills (which have been reduced to white powder) on a paper plate. That, combined with the plastic syringes I use to administer the medication (without the needle) will no doubt make a great impression should our landlady open the cabinet when she drops by tomorrow…

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Karma of ill repute

Stuck between a rock and a hard stressful place
As a continuation of my last post, I should say my day started off pretty well, before taking a sharp turn south to O'Crapville.

I called the Metro office first thing in the morning, and to my relief, someone had turned in my license plate and documents. An hour later, I attended a weekly meeting where nearly everyone was wearing a tie in honor of Tie-Tuesday, a totally random fad of which I am the only female advocate for at work. Sweet!

But mid-morning, I received a large helping of stress, with a few near-tears on the side. What could be so bad? Let me give you a numerical list in chronological order:
  1. My friend who's giving me a ride across town for my USDA appointment tomorrow morning  (required to bring the cats to Germany) told me he might not be able to give me a ride back due to a scheduling conflict at work. No biggie I though, I can take the bus or cab worst cast. Getting there on time was, after all, the most important thing. And I really should mention that he has been absolutely awesome in constantly helping me out/putting up with me these past few weeks.
  2. Twenty minutes later, the guy who bought my car last night emailed me complaining about "some noise the car was making." What noise?!? I emailed him back and explained that when I handed him the keys last night, the car was running fine. Plus, it's had two clean inspections in the past month and half. His response, "I'll look into it and let you know what the problem is." Great. I hate to sound callous, but it's really not my problem now. The car was fine; he took it over, and supposedly now it's not. Plus, I've been super nice to this guy. He got the car for a couple thousand below blue book, I put up with his continual tardiness and, because he's new to the U.S., I explained (several times) how the registration process works. Can't wait for his next email...insert eye roll here.
  3. Five minutes later, my vet called. They mixed up the cats' microchip numbers on the paperwork yesterday, and they needed me to come back in to get new forms -- a big problem because I was now car-less, the vet's a 45-minute drive from my work and my I needed the papers for my USDA appointment TOMORROW morning. Fortunately, they called the USDA office and learned they could fax the corrected papers. Whew...I think. Let's see what happens when I show up tomorrow morning for the endorsement appointment.
  4. Two minutes later, as I was telling a co-worker friend of events 1-3 when my phone rang. It was my credit card company. Long story short, my card number was compromised, and I had several fradulent transactions trying to post to my account. Because the credit card company had to now close the account, the representative told me they'd send me a new card "within the next week or so." But, I won't be here for another "week or so." I more or less explained my relocation to the rep, and he promised to overnight the cards to me at work. So here's to hoping they arrive tomorrow as promised. 
A short while later Thomas called me. I'd forgotten to let him know how the car sale had gone. And then he received a message about fraudulent credit card activity so he began to worry that something terrible had happened to me. Oops! After I assured him as I was still alive, I explained events 1-4. Funny thing is that before I spoke to him, I seriously felt like breaking down into a sopping pile of tears at work. But just hearing his voice again made me feel like everything would be OK...as improbable as that notion seemed just moments before.

As we neared the end of our conversation, he asked if I would call our moving company to check the status of our shipment. I decided that based on my luck today, I'd be better off calling tomorrow. At the rate I was going, calling now would probably end in the words, "What?? We're moving to Munich, not Monaco!!"

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cats, cars and carelessness

Today was an important day in our move. And it started at the unreasonable hour of 5 a.m.

My morning mission was to prepare the cats for their pre-flight vet inspection (which must happen no more than 10 days before the flight). This is just one of the many steps required to relocate a pet to Germany. I trimmed nails, applied kitty claw tips (to avoid carrier destruction) and carted each cat up and down the stairs and across town through terrible rush hour traffic. But at least the appointment was a success. My vet cleared them to fly and filled out the ream of required paper documentation on them. Next up in the feline department: the USDA endorsement appointment this Wednesday. At least that appointment is sans mes chats.

After dropping the cats off at home and assessing the copious amount of cat furring re-coating my normally red coat, I hurried off to work -- a place where time hasn’t yet told my to-do list about its rapidly approaching departure. So I worked until it was time for my next move-related task: forgoing my vehicular mobility...

I met the buyer for my car at the bank. For the most part, everything went smoothly. We exchanged money for keys and signed the necessary papers. I took my photocopies and license plate (unlike many other countries, in the U.S., the plates belong to the person who paid for them. The buyer must purchase new ones when he or she registers the vehicle) and was on my way.

I boarded the bus to my apartment slightly numb from selling my beloved car, but relieved the sale was complete. I got off the bus and walked home in the same oblivious state of mind. It wasn’t until I laid my purse down on the counter that I realized something important was missing – my license plate and copies of the documents. I frantically called the bus’ lost and found office, but it was closed. So here I am still dwelling on my blunder hours later, hoping someone will turn my stuff in. Maybe the universe will take pity on me and my hopeless forgetfulness. But I guess I'll have to wait until to tomorrow to find out...

Monday, November 8, 2010

The A, B, Cs of learning German

One of my goals in Germany is to pass the TestDaF language proficiency exam required for university entrance. I intend to study for my master’s degree in Munich. Exactly what I’ll study is not yet clear. But no matter what I select, I first need to prove that I can read, write and understand the language at an academic level. Sure, no problem. Except that I need to do this by June if I plan to enroll in the winter 2011 semester. Crap…I mean CERF.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a system created by the Council of Europe to help standardize learning. Mastery of German – and most other European languages – is divided into six levels:
  • A1 – beginner
  • A2 – second level beginner
  •  B1 – intermediate
  • B2 – second level intermediate
  • C1 – advanced (or upper intermediate)
  • C2  - mastery
To help me reach the Cs, I’ll be attending a language school in Munich. But the level at which I should start was a slight area of debate between Thomas and me. He thought that since I’ve been more or less studying the language (off and on) for awhile now, I would easily be in the B category. But the As were more to my liking. So we put it, er, me to the test.

First I took this free online test, from Cornelsen. It featured a separate test for each level. Result: B1. Score one for Thomas. But I still wasn’t convinced. So if at first you fail succeed, try, try again, right?

So then I checked out another online test offered by Deutsche Sprachschule Dresden. This one was an 80-question test which, at the end, ranked you as A1, A2 or B1. I scored A2. Success! Sort of…

It’s not that I don’t want to be challenged, and I could probably handle the B1 course. But, I’d like to feel comfortable in my first class, not frustrated and incompetent. Besides, I figure adjusting to live in Munich will be challenging enough in the beginning, and I’m sure there will be plenty of other opportunities to feel inadequate.

So it’s off to A2 class in just a short few weeks!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The unhappiest place on earth

While doing my final packing and purging, I came across several old pieces of jewelry I received from ex-boyfriends. Since I'm not the overly sentimental type, I decided to try selling them at a local pawn shop. 

Maybe the pawn shop decision was inspired by my recent frustrations with would-be Craigslist buyers. Or maybe it was because I'm nearing the end of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Of course, perhaps the latter should have been more of a deterrent...

That said, I’m not even sure where to begin in describing this experience.

Let’s start with the parking lot. I felt like I’d been transported to an 80s movie where blinged up people walked around with boom boxes on their shoulders…only instead of boom boxes, it was a wide assortment of audio/visual equipment and curious "collectibles."

Then I walked in. It was like a showcase of abandoned dreams and harsh realities of mismanaged finances – guitars, wedding rings, top-of-the-line home theater equipment and sadly, much more. 

I awkwardly queued up in the sellers’ line. While waiting for my turn, I overheard arguments other sellers were having with the clerks. One man was unhappy with ascertained value of his massive silver chain collection. Another woman was mad about…well…I’m not really sure. She just keep grunting and hitting her hands against her thighs.

Finally it was my turn. While I was waiting for the clerk to value my items, I studied the very large, very colorful sign hanging above the counter stating that all transactions are reported to the police daily. Even though I was selling my own stuff, I suddenly found myself  feeling like I’d stolen a kitten from a lonely old woman. It didn’t help that the clerk inspecting my items looked like Santa Claus. I started to rethink the whole pawning thing...until he started counting out the cash.

In the end, at least I made my wallet a little heavier and my accessory drawer a little lighter.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Spatially challenged

Thomas suggested I try a “test pack” to make sure everything that’s left in the apartment -- more specifically, my closet -- fits into our luggage for the trip. No problem…I thought.

It's like Wardrobe Tetris. Too bad I'm terrible at that game.
OK, so I might have a slight problem. As you can see from the photo above, I’ve filled three suitcases and still have quite a lot to pack. And going out shopping with a friend the other night certainly didn’t help.

I could have sworn that my clothes, shoes and various remaining odds and ends would easily fit into two medium suitcases. After all, I’ve already shipped about seventy percent of my closet. But now, I’m finding that my shoes alone will fill a suitcase. Crap.

But let it be known: no skirt, scarf or stiletto shall be left behind. Even if it means I have to wear 22 layers of clothing at the airport.

What that's Mr. Immigration Officer? Sweating? Oh, no...I'm not nervous, I'm just a closet hoarder. Literally.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I don’t deliver

For the past few weeks, Thomas and I have been selling a lot of furniture, electronics and random things we don’t want to carry over to Germany. Thanks to Craigslist and Yammer, we’ve been pretty successful.

But anytime you try selling stuff to the general public, you have to expect a few eye-rolling moments. While I ignored most of these, I’ve included a couple of my favorites (typos included).

  • Nearly new Dyson vacuum posted for $400
    • Potential buyer: “I give 200 dollars cash today. Let me know when/where to pick up.”
    • Me: “Really? Two-hundred whole dollars?? THANK YOU! I posted this item for sale more than 13 hours ago and was starting to feel that all was lost. You, kind sir – or madam – have certainly rescued me from this most uncomfortable state of resale purgatory. Please meet me at the corner of hellhath and frozenover at 7 p.m. But, because I am soooo grateful for your help, I will only accept $100, at most. I just hope that you carry money in pennies because I have penchant for large amounts of incredibly small change.
  • Toaster posted for $5: 
    • Potential buyer: “I’m really interested in ur toaster but need it delivered to the address below. Thanks.”
    • Me: “Of course! I would be more than happy to drive across town to present you with this toaster. I do hope you will find it to your liking. It does an amazing job toasting gluten-based items. As with any large purchase, I’m sure you would like to try it out first. Therefore, I shall bring a hand baked, pre-sliced loaf of bread for you to sample. Of course, there will be a nominal delivery change of $52.73 (exact change only). Please let me know at what time I should arrive and I will make haste.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A few of my favorite (study) things: Part I of...how many ever I decide to write

I've often heard that Ph.D.'s love theorizing about doing stuff, while everyone else actually does stuff. This got me thinking. Maybe I should aspire to a Ph.D. in "studying."

I have this sort of love/hate relationship with studying. I like it...in theory. I enjoy perusing books stores, drinking large lattes during all-night cram sessions and wearing dark-rimmed glasses and pleated skirts. The problem is that none of these things actually equate to real studying. They only succeed in lightening my wallet.

When I have to sit down, open a textbook and focus, the latte quickly tastes stale, the glasses hurt my eyes and the skirt becomes restricting. It only takes a few minutes before my mind starts to wander and I end up surfing trashy celebrity gossip sites or checking out the daily Woot for the seventh time.

Fortunately, when it comes to my German studies, I've found a way to stay focused...for a little while at least. Instead of paging through one super-intense grammar book after another (which are painfully lacking in the illustration department), I mix it up.

I recently stumbled across a great vocabulary building app for iPhones and iPod Touches called AccelaStudy. Granted, some of the words are bit beyond my immediate speaking needs; I'm pretty sure Die Kapitalbeschaffungskosten (cost of funds) won't come up in too many of my conversations early on...or ever. But, overall, it does a good job exposing you to a wide variety of words.

So now, when I get bored with a book, I switch to my phone. When I get bored with that, I'll watch a children's cartoon in German. When I get bored with that, I'll start contemplating obscure academic degree programs and end up blogging about them here. Welcome to my derailed train of thought.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Giving notice

It's hard to leave a company that lets you get creative with fruit.

Up until recently I've been conflicted...and downing antacids like pink-flavored Pez. It all had to do with this thing called "two weeks notice," or TWN for short.

In the U.S. it's common to give just TWN when leaving a company. In part, it gives the employer some time (albeit, not much) to get ready for a personnel change. And it helps protect the soon-to-be former employee should the company decide to say "How about you just leave today." And this does happen, because unlike in some other countries, many companies here can fire an employee without cause. We call that "at-will employment." And in my case, being prematurely "let go" would not only mean financial loss, but also the loss of health care coverage.

But what do you do when you consider your coworkers good friends? Giving TWN not only feels callous, but it also means you can't share a big step in your life with people you care about. Plus, it makes weekend recaps rather dull:

Coworker asks: What'd you do this weekend? 
I think: I woke up early to triple check pet import requirements...hauled my cats to the vet for vaccinations and international micro-chipping...sold my couch, TV and dining table...had a minor nervous breakdown...started itemizing all of my belongs...read and re-read German residence card requirements...[inaudible, even to my own mind]...joined several expat forum websites...added eleven to-dos to my list...and finally fell asleep on the floor while streaming a two-month-old episode of the Daily Show because I've had NO TIME to keep up with it...
I say: Not much. Just ran a few errands. Nothing exciting.

So against the advice of my family and non-work friends, I decided to give five weeks of notice instead of two. I gathered up all of my courage, drank about two liters of coffee and took deep breaths until I nearly passed out. Then I went into my boss' office and said I had an announcement.

It's important to mention that I work for the public relations department of a large company, and several of our people have recently migrated to the marketing department. So my boss' first question probably shouldn't have thrown me off.

Her: You're going to marketing, aren't you?
Me:  What? Wait. What? No. Wow..no no, nothing like that. I'm just moving to Germany.
Her: Wait, What?

The next few minutes were fill with hugs, laughter and a few tears. I felt like a huge moving truck had been lifted from my chest, and upper management said I could stay as long as I wanted. Whew!

Of course, I wouldn't recommend others stray from the TWN rule unless they're sure they'll like the response from management. But for me, giving more notice was definitely the right choice. The antacid market may see a dip though.