Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Our first two months in Germany...

I wrote this two months after we moved to Germany in 2007.  As it is a personal essay about our lives overseas, it seems fitting to repost it here before Epinions goes away forever.  Hope you enjoy… and I hope I can write about a new travel experience sooner rather than later.

Our first two months in Germany...

Nov 16, 2007 (Updated Nov 17, 2007)

The Bottom Line Every new country brings with it a wealth of different experiences, good and bad.

Today is a very important day for me and my husband, Bill. First of all, today is our fifth wedding anniversary. That's right. Five years ago today, it was a rainy Saturday morning and Bill and I took the plunge into holy matrimony on the campus of Virginia Military Institute. I re-entered life as a military dependent and Bill gave marriage another try. Happy anniversary, Bill. You are the love I never thought I'd find.

Today is also an important day because it happens to mark the end of our second month in Stuttgart, Germany. I am not a stranger to living life abroad. Before I lived in Germany, I also lived in England and the Republic of Armenia. Granted, I lived in England as a small child; my first memories are of my dad's swan song as an Air Force lieutenant colonel based at Mildenhall Air Force Base. I lived in Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, where I tried to work to better other peoples' lives while I tried to better my own. And now, I'm living in Germany as my husband's spouse. I don't have any specific purpose for being here, other than to be a family member.

Because I had both lived abroad before and traveled through Germany, I thought I would have some idea of what to expect. But the truth is, every country is different, and with every different country one experiences, a certain amount of adjustment is to be expected. It seems to me that no matter how much I prepare for that initial culture shock, it still happens.

We left the United States on September 16th. It was just me and Bill and our two beagles, Flea and MacGregor. I was worried about flying with the dogs, but they probably handled the flight better than I did. We landed at the big airport in Frankfurt in mid morning. I was tired, hungry, and cranky. I was not able to sleep on the flight thanks to the seat kicker sitting behind me and the reclining dude sitting in front of me. I was also not able to stomach the airline cuisine served on United Airlines.

Once we got off the airplane, our first concern was finding Flea and MacGregor. Bill approached an airport official to find out where the oversized baggage was being offloaded. He needn't have bothered. As it turned out, all we needed to do was follow the sound of Flea's incessant howling, which could be heard all through the baggage claim. We found our two dogs being watched over by a couple of confused looking Germans who welcomed us to take the dogs out of their custody.

A very efficient veterinary inspector came over to check the dogs' paperwork and make sure they were microchipped. We passed inspection, but she admonished us to get bigger carriers for our dogs if we planned to fly them back to the U.S. As we soon found out, Germans love their animals, especially dogs. As long as they're well-behaved, that is.

Bill had gone to get us a rental car and I was left with a mountain of luggage and the two dogs. Flea was pitching a big fit about being in his carrier. MacGregor, by contrast, was happy as a clam in his little portable den. He was able to watch the world go by at a safe distance. Flea was howling up a storm, causing people to give me looks that ranged from the quizzical to the annoyed. At first, I thought it would be more practical to keep the dogs in their crates so that I could keep my hands free. But Flea was so upset that I finally pulled him out of the carrier and put him on his leash. He searched the crowds of people, looking for Bill and howling only slightly less. A couple of intrepid Germans tried to converse with me about the dogs, but alas, I don't speak the language. Thank God MacGregor was laid back in the airport.

It wasn't long before Bill and I were ready to head south toward Stuttgart. I was plenty happy to let Bill tackle driving on the autobahn. By the time we started the trip to Stuttgart, my body was starting to give in to the need for sleep. I sat in the front seat of our rented minivan and dozed, alternately trying to get a radio station I liked. I chose a station that seemed okay and dozed off for a few minutes, only to wake up with an annoyed start.

"Every song on this station sounds like a Mentos commercial!" I snapped, as I searched for a station that would play American classic rock. Those who like German pop music, please forgive me for my initial violent reaction. Bear in mind, at this point I was sleep deprived, hungry, and decidedly irritable. We hadn't had a chance to get a snack in the airport because we were in a hurry to put an end to Flea's concert in the baggage claim. Peppy German pop music was the last thing I wanted to hear at that point.

We finally got to the Stuttgart area, but Bill got lost trying to find Patch Barracks, which is where our sponsor's wife was supposed to meet us. When we did finally find the post, we found that our sponsor's wife had stood us up. It wasn't really her fault. We were a little later than we expected to be, mainly because we were looking for Vaihingen and it turns out there are a couple of places called Vaihingen near Stuttgart. Bill went to the military police checkpoint and called someone from his new office, who helped us find the Marriott hotel.

Flea and MacGregor were well received at the Marriott. One elderly gentleman seemed particularly enchanted with Flea. He stroked him over and over again, giving him lots of affection. We spent less than 24 hours at the Marriott, but it was long enough for us to find out that finding housing in the Stuttgart area can be quite a challenge for many people. I spoke to one lady who said she'd been housed in that hotel for over five weeks.

The next day, we moved into a German hotel, run by an affable man of Albanian descent who had grown up in Montenegro. The staff was a lot of fun to watch because they behaved like a big dysfunctional family. The Hotel Vaihinger Hof is very popular with Americans because it's very close to Patch Barracks and relatively cheap. My initial reaction to the hotel was not a favorable one, but it grew on me quickly, mainly because I liked the staff. There was a young guy who worked there as a handyman who loved both of our dogs, even MacGregor, who is very shy and will rarely let strangers pet him. The handyman was also very fond of hanging out in the hotel restaurant and drinking a lot of the excellent German draft beer. Luckily, he was a friendly and funny drunk.

Bill and I spent six weeks at the Vaihinger Hof and over the course of those weeks, we witnessed a wide variety of guests. The most exciting ones would have to be the Polish professional cycling team who stayed an entire week. They pretty much took over the hotel and its parking lot, setting up a training area where they practiced riding on stationary bicycles. We could tell the Polish cyclists were stressing out the innkeeper because they were dumping strange chemicals into the drainage system and using up a lot of water and electricity.

I overheard the maid complaining about one room getting really trashed because a couple of the cyclists had indulged in too much alcohol. It wasn't long before I learned the word --krank-- the German word for sick. The maid used it several times as she spoke emphatically and publicly about the trashed room. The cyclists also left evidence of being krank in the hotel's parking lot... Unfortunately, I had to restrain Flea and MacGregor from trying to help clean up the mess.

A couple of weeks after that, I became krank myself with my first nasty cold/flu. The hotel staff was very nice to me. The maid, who spoke no English, would ask me every morning how I was. One night, the restaurant staff put together a huge tray of food for us when Bill went down to ask them if he could get some food to take to me. I was too sick to eat in the restaurant. Flea and MacGregor were plenty excited that they could share our scraps. They're still not civil enough to go to restaurants with us.

There was another American family staying at the hotel with us. They had been in the hotel since August. At this writing, that same family is still living at the Vaihinger Hof. They have found a house, but it's not available until the first of the year. The wife in this family is a dentist by training, but now spends her days homeschooling her three kids in the three hotel rooms allocated to them. We both commiserated. Sometimes living in a hotel can make one feel a bit like a refugee.

Bill and I spent a lot of time watching international CNN at first, but for some reason, we lost CNN about halfway through our stay. Flipping through the German stations on our TV, we noticed a few familiar American shows dubbed into German, as well as some German shows that seemed to be based on American concepts. For instance, we found a German version of America's Got Talent. We also found a fascinating German reality show called Our New Life, which featured stories about German families who moved to other countries. And we became fans of the German version of the game show, Cash Cab, which is called Quiz Taxi here. Watching German TV is not a bad way to pick up a few words of German here and there.

When it comes to finding a home, Bill and I have been luckier than some of our American colleagues. With the help of the extremely overworked and understaffed housing office at Panzer Barracks, we managed to find a beautiful home in the little town of Ammerbuch-Pfaffingen. Bill signed the lease in mid October, but we could not move in until the first of November. In accordance with German law, our new home had to be painted before we could take possession of it. By the end of October, Bill and I had found several favorite restaurants in the vicinity of the Vaihinger Hof.

We would often go to a lovely restaurant called Pizzeria Michelle when we were in the mood for good Italian food. As far as we could tell, the place was run by an Italian family. There was one lovely lady who served us every time we ate there. It was this lady who introduced me to the wonders of panna cotta, a dessert I had never experienced before we came to Germany.

We also found a great Greek place, where the owner would always greet us with a hearty Guten Abend! when we'd come in for an evening meal. The first time we ate there, I ordered an expensive fish dish. It seemed that not many people ordered this particular fish. We waited a long time the entree to come out, but when it finally did, I was very impressed. The owner brought it out, showing it off to a few other patrons as he brought it to our table with much fanfare. The fish had been slowly grilled whole and was accented with a delicious balsamic vinegar sauce. It was a wonderful treat. We would visit that restaurant again several times and each time, I'd order a different fish dish, satisfying my cravings for delights from the water.

And yes, we had a favorite German restaurant, too, where I enjoyed wonderful duck adorned with mandarin oranges and sauteed vegetables. We quaffed fantastic dunkelweizen beer, while Bill enjoyed his tender sauerbraten. We ate some good food in October, but to be honest, Bill and I got pretty sick of eating in restaurants. We both like to cook and neither of us needs the extra calories that come from restaurant meals.

Now, we're living in our house. Our landlord is a very nice guy who speaks English beautifully. I can stand on our deck and look out over a vast field. To the east, there's a big hill with a church atop it. To the south, there's another hill where horses graze. I can see a riding school from my windows, which is bittersweet sight for me, since I spent my childhood riding horses and haven't been in the saddle on a consistent basis since 1990.

At this point, we're still trying to figure out the trash system and get used to driving in Germany. I'm sure I'll have a lot to say in the coming weeks about our cross-cultural experiences. For now, it's just interesting to take in all of the different sights and sounds of our host country... and marvel at the fact that there's already snow on the ground in November!


The view from our backyard in Germany.  Wurmlinger Chapel is on the hill.

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