Yeti

When Carol and I decided to move to Europe, we knew we would need a car right away — so we made the unconventional (and possibly mad) decision to buy one in advance, online. Since we didn’t want to spend any more money than necessary, we decided to get a used car.

And since we were going to be using it for the first couple months in the UK, but thereafter on the continent, we decided to buy a left-hand drive car from a British dealer (i.e., in a place where right-hand drive cars rule), thus limiting our selection of both cars and dealers.

Oh, and the brands that we were most interested in are generally not sold in the US, so we had had no direct experience with them.

What could possibly go wrong with this scenario?

Improbably, as it turned out, nothing.

The car we settled on was a 2013 Skoda Yeti. From a couple previous European trips I had seen a lot of Skodas on the road, and they looked attractive and well-built. Researching them a bit, we found out that although Skoda is made in the Czech Republic, it is part of the Volkswagen Auto Group. Most of the internals come straight from VW (the Yeti is basically a Volkswagen Tiguan underneath). While Skodas are priced quite reasonably, they are well crafted, and indeed are often better-reviewed than their VW-logoed cousins.

More Yeti photos, please!

When Carol found out that the UK’s Top Gear guys loved the Yeti in particular, I was there.

After about 15000 kilometers or so, I’m hugely impressed with our little brown beast. It gets good fuel mileage, has nice acceleration and handling, and despite the many ways we have tried to break it — such as exceeding the max load by a few hundred pounds and, in an early blunder, fueling it with gas instead of diesel — it has performed brilliantly without a complaint.

Given my last car, the Ford POS that nearly ruined me in the US, I couldn’t be happier. A couple hours ago, as Carol and I passed the car on our way in from a walk, I hugged my Yeti.

Have you hugged your car today?

Jet Noise

Yesterday (Wednesday the 31st) we said goodbye to Freiburg, the sunniest city in Germany. Randall’s first Deutsch language class was over at the Goethe-Institut.

See a gallery of photos from our month in Freiburg

When we left, Randall came out with us.

This was not the original plan. Initially the idea was that he would stay on in the city, learn German for a year, then go to college in Germany — probably in Munich. Carol and I, meanwhile, would wander around other parts of Europe looking for some place to put down roots — but always close enough to Germany that we could respond quickly if Randall had an emergency.

While all of us, especially Randall, threw ourselves into the plan wholeheartedly, we knew that it was an experiment with a great many unknowns.

Over his weeks at the Goethe-Institut, Randall did a magnificent job of linguistic learning and adapting as quickly as possible to his new foreign environment. But as the time wore on, far from his friends, his mom, his girlfriend, and the town he grew up in — surrounded by an unfamiliar culture and a (still mostly) foreign language — he began to feel unbearably isolated and homesick. With the day looming when Carol and I would leave as well, it became increasingly clear that it was time for Randall to go back home to Charlottesville and the good care of his mom and his buds.

He is still enthusiastic about the idea of learning German — at home — and then attending a German university when he has the linguistic tools in place to make a realistic go of it. Alternatively, he may decide to go to college in the US after taking the rest of this fall as a gap semester.

But either way he will be based in Charlottesville for the foreseeable future.

photo of Randall

I love all my children awful, and whatever time we can spend together is precious to me. Randall is a little different from the others, though, in the amount of his growing up that he and I have been joined at the hip.

When he was a toddler and he would wake up in the night, he would run to my futon and jump in (often on my head). As he grew up, we explored train museums, went to autumn festivals, watched Power Ranger movies, and read aloud a veritable library of child and young adult books together. We saw so many movies with each other we can have whole conversations in film quotes. Wherever I’ve been he’s been there too, all these last 18 years.

About 48 hours elapsed between the time we realized Randall needed to go home and the time I sent him through airport security this morning to climb on the big silver bird. 48 hours to get used to the idea that, instead of being a few hours drive from one another, we’ll be on opposite sides of an ocean until circumstances once again bring us together.

As I write this, he is hopefully enjoying the last leg of his air trip. I know after his three months in Europe — two in the UK and the last, difficult one in Freiburg — he can’t wait to get back home and rejoin all those folks he’s been missing. And I have been genuinely joyful myself to see him so excited at the prospect of going back.

But the space he occupied in my life just this morning feels awfully empty tonight as I watch the sun go down in France.

I took the photo above of Randall outside a little French bakery, right before we took him to the airport. Next time I see him it will be on a blurry Skype connection.

There are a lot of melancholy things in this world, but this much I know for sure: jet noise is the saddest sound.

Germany don’t make pancakes.

Remember those cooking skills you had in the US? Don’t count on them surviving a trip across the ocean.

A couple weeks ago, I served my family hockey pucks for dinner. Not that I used that description when I touted the meal I planned to make. What I said was words to the effect of “I’m gonna cook up some pork loins tonight, with maybe some lemon green beans.”

But what they got was hockey pucks. Actually, I guess they were more like rubber drink coasters. With a side of rattan sticks.

There was a time not too long ago when I was sufficiently competent to prepare a dish of juicy, appealingly-spiced boneless pork loins, and accompany it with crunchy green beans lightly pan fried in olive oil with lemon and sea salt. But now, not so much.

Once you’ve been cooking a while, you come to depend unconsciously on your local milieu. In the US, when I bought pork loins, they were always a certain thickness. The Germans apparently like theirs cut thinner. So they cook a lot faster. And turn to leather a lot sooner.

Also, it’s surprising how disorienting it can be to use a different system of measures. Your favorite recipe requires a cup of flour and a half pint of buttermilk? Buwahahahaha! Say hello to Mr. Millilitre! And that carton of butter that used to come helpfully packaged in 8-tbsp sticks is now a featureless hexahedron. Which helps explain why my Alfredo sauce from Wednesday night resembles a yellow slag pond.

Of course, that’s all assuming the store even has the ingredients your recipe calls for. We are currently staying a couple blocks away from a massive supermarket that sells maybe a dozen different types of muesli. Want some oatmeal instead? Then you better be prepared to pick it out of the muesli by hand, ’cause otherwise you’re not finding any.

And pancake mix. (Yeah, I make pancakes from a mix. Sue me.) After combing the store seemingly for hours one day, I finally came across the one miserable little plastic bottle of pancake mix in the store. It’s the kind you add milk to, shake, and pour out to make sad, vinyl pancakes. It paired perfectly with the ampule of industrial maple syrup I winkled out from its hiding place in the pickle aisle.

When you cook, do you have a set of favorite “go-to” spices you depend on? Of course you do!  When you come over here, you’ll be unusually lucky if you find them under the same names in German (or French or Polish).  Ever try to tell the difference between Oregano, Basil, and Marjoram just by eyeballing piles of dun-colored leaves in different glass bottles?  I didn’t think so.

Finally, there’s the equipment. For some reason, I can’t seem to master a stove (or “hob”) on this side of the Atlantic. The burner knobs are demarcated with ascending numbers — from 1 to 6, or 1 to 10, or 4.73 to the square root of 59, or whatever. The higher you go the hotter it gets, right? Except it never seems to work quite right. On the hob I was using tonight, pretty much every setting from 3 to 9 had the same heat, which was roughly the equivalent of the fusion-powered inferno at the heart of the sun.

Anyway. I’m hopeful that before too long I’ll get comfortable with my new culinary environment and begin once again to produce edible meals.

Meantime, want to join me for some Chewing Gum Casserole with Patent Leather Pie?

The Mystery of the Crucifixes

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Walking and driving the area around Freiburg, including the adjacent area of the French Alsace, we have come across quite a number of monumental crucifixes in places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them — at the corner of a vineyard, in someone’s front yard, jammed uncomfortably up against a modern multi-family dwelling, and so forth.

Where did they come from? What are they for? (Aside from the obvious devotional aspect.) At first I thought they were war memorials — among the many, many that commemorate the unimaginable slaughter of the First World War. But it turns out they’re too old; the ones with dates all come from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And insofar as I can tell with my anemic German, they don’t seem to mention war.

Take a look at some more of the crucifixes »

And while there’s a great similarity in style from one to the next, they’re all subtly different in detail. Before coming here, I’d never heard of these monuments. Google seems oddly silent on them as well; I haven’t been able to find any reference to them despite a number of differently-worded searches.

Ah well. They’re handsomely made, and a useful reminder of one’s own mortality if one is inclined to accept the reminder. And like the stone churches, the medieval town halls, and the cobblestoned streets, they speak across the years of a world very far removed from this one.

Bureaucracies

Warning: This post is dull as dishwater. If you think you might be interested in moving to Germany someday, it could be useful to you. Otherwise, you’ll probably want to move along. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Last week I got to deal with, respectively, the immigration and the health bureaucracies of Germany. And survived, though it was a near thing. (You should understand that I’m a confirmed introvert. I don’t enjoy dealing with strangers even in my own language. In a tongue of which I speak little and understand less, it gives me the fan-tods.)

Alien Nation

On Wednesday, I went with Randall down to the Aliens’ Department (Ausländerbehörde) where we boarded a ship for the Gamma Quadrant. Okay, that was just to see if you’re still paying attention. We were really there to submit his application for a student visa.

This was actually our third visit in as many weeks to that office suite. The first time we foolishly arrived about 45 minutes after the office opened — only to find that the numbered tickets for being served that day had already been distributed to the hundreds of refugees, asylum seekers, and miscellaneous other would-be Germans who got there ahead of us.

The next week, we arrived 15 minutes before the office opened, and it was still kind of a close call. (True confession here: I cut the line. Which is sort of tantamount to murder in my sad little ethics book. I’ll never live down the shame.) Anyhoo, we got a number — which gave us the privilege of waiting in line for 3 hours or so, in order to make an appointment to come down the next week and submit Randall’s application. After getting the appointment we were also sent downstairs one floor — another ticket machine, another (mercifully shorter) line — to register Randall’s local address with the authorities.

Over the next week, we prepared the necessary documents ahead of our visa appointment. Those included:

  • the visa application itself (2 pages, pretty easy to complete)
  • documentation that Randall was registered at a school here
  • proof that he has health insurance that works here
  • proof of financial support — in this case, printouts of my pension payslips and retirement fund balances, and my word as a right guy that I’d be paying the freight
  • Randall’s passport (and mine too, which I fortunately brought along out of an abundance of caution)
  • a spare passport-type photo of Randall

All in all, it wasn’t a burdensome packet to put together. (As compared with, say, Carol’s walking nightmare of trying to register our car in France.) I was increasingly worried as the time approached, though, because Randall and I had somehow failed to catch the office number where our appointment was to take place. We decided the nice woman at the Aliens’ Department desk just forgot to tell us. No wonder, with all those legions of people to help!

So, on the day, we got down there long before our stated appointment time to make sure we could find out where to go. I probably should have twigged to the fact that our set time was, coincidentally, precisely when the ticket line opens up. After speaking to several people we realized, even with our vestigial German, that we were supposed to get another ^@%*£+!/>@ ticket and stand in the $&£*!~:^@ line again.

Oh well, at least we were really early this time; I wouldn’t need to cut the line. Instead, we got to queue up with a few hundred of our close friends in the narrow, airless corridor waiting for the ticket machine to begin serving.


Did you know that Freiburg is well beloved for being the sunniest city in Germany? In a country with as much gloom and chill as Deutschland, that’s a pretty glorious thing. Indeed, buildings in this country don’t even need to be air conditioned; the Germans are admirably practical people, and they realize it would be foolish to waste resources and generate greenhouse gases to have A/C when there’s only one month a year when you really need it.

That would be August.


Back to the line. After a relatively swift, if sweaty, 2.5 hours, we made our way back up to the service desk. The woman there verified our documents were in order, then pointed us to a private office where — huzzah! — we could submit our paperwork. After all that had gone before, the interview itself was quite anticlimactic. 20 minutes later, give or take, Randall’s passport had his visa stamp and we were back into the August sunshine and headed for Schlappen for a half liter of Freiburg’s best.

Medicament

A couple weeks ago, I realized with an unpleasant shock that I was almost out of my asthma medicine. I guess that’s what happens when you take the damned stuff every day.

The true horror for me was not that I might run out of the medicine; in that case the worst outcome is just that I’d have an asthma attack, turn blue, and die a slow, choking death. No, far worse was the prospect of having to deal with the German medical establishment and make a complete ass of myself in an unfamiliar language.

But you gotta keep the pharmaceutical companies in business.

Before I left the US, my doctor wrote me prescriptions for my various medicines. Unfortunately, those little pieces of paper don’t cut a lot of mustard with pharmacists here. To get my US prescription filled here, I would have to (1) go to a local doctor and ask him to write a prescription; then (2) take that prescription to the Apotheke (pharmacist).

So, having the address of a doctor recommended by our Airbnb host, I walked down to the office, dithered outside for a few minutes screwing up my nerve, then marched in to face the receptionist.

As it turned out, she was great. She knew about as much English as I do German — but with good intentions and the occasional awkward chuckle we managed to establish what I was trying to do, and get an appointment set up.

It helped going in that I knew a few of the words I would need, like Rezept (prescription) and Medikament (medicine). (Actually, Medikament sounds more to me like the problem you have when you’re out of medicine, but whatever.) I’ve found generally that even if my command of a language is pretty laughable, I can still brazen it out if I memorize two or three words beforehand that apply to the situation. Apropos which, thank God for Google Translate. The two searches that show up on my phone most frequently now are translate german to english and translate english to german.

Unfortunately, my health insurance (GeoBlue) was no use at all. The receptionist asked me if I had any, and I duly handed over my little laminated card, but the office folks couldn’t seem to make head or tail of it. On the other hand, the visit only cost me about 22 euros altogether, so the card wouldn’t have saved me that much.

Anyway, about two hours later I was in the office with the doctor, who spoke excellent English. And it’s possible that in that context the prescription from my US doctor may have helped me. I brought it along to the appointment, and not only was it a quick way to show the doctor what I needed (including dosage, etc), but also probably lent more credibility to my request — given that the man didn’t know me from Julius Caesar (whom I’ve been told I resemble).

Shortly, I had the German prescription in my sweaty hand and was off to the Apotheke, where I had to pay in advance for my medicine. Oddly, neither the doctor nor the pharmacist would accept a credit or debit card; I had to use cash in both instances. I’m not sure if that’s a Germany-wide thing — I suspect it might be — or just a policy of those two specific vendors.

So all’s well that ends well. My kid is legal, the bureaucratic dragons are slain, and as soon as I finish writing this, I’m off to the Apotheke to pick up my prescription.

If I’m not back in two hours, please send help

Urgencies

This past Sunday, Carol and I went to Heidelberg for the day. Straddling the placid Neckar River in Baden-Württemberg, the city hosts one of the most impressive castle ruins in Europe. It has also been a college town since the 14th century, when the excellent Heidelberg University was founded in 1386.  We found the city to be beautiful and bustling, and even—despite the legions of visitors on a sunny weekend—quite gracious.

Have a look at our photos from the trip »

It was also my first real immersion in the German Autobahn experience, which was terrifying  sphincter-twisting  nerve-searing interesting.

The Autobahn comes in two flavors: the kind with speed limits (about half the total Autobahn mileage in Deutschland) and the kind without. Traveling on the latter, which I was for maybe half the trip, I posted a personal record by getting our trusty Skoda Yeti up to about 145. That’s kilometers per hour, mind you, but it was still pretty thrilling for me. Of course, at that speed, I had an unending parade of German and Italian performance cars passing me as if I had brought a golf cart to Daytona. But that’s exactly what those cars are made for. It’s actually kind of fun watching a Lamborghini Gallardo drop you like a bad habit on the Autobahn.

Know what else the Autobahn is good for? Bathrooms.

I’ll probably be talking a lot about bathrooms in this blog, because … well, never you mind why. Let’s just say I’m a 58 year old guy, and keep the HIPAA police happy. If you’re coming from a place like the US, where there’s a free public toilet about every half block, you may find Europe a little … cavalier. But on the Autobahn, blessedly, you’ll get treated to a rest stop about every 10 or 15 miles, just like back home.

Anyway, more on that important subject as time goes by.

ABCs

One of the things that I, as a former Art History grad student, looked forward to most ardently about living in Europe was all the medieval masterworks I would see: cathedrals, abbeys, castles and chateaux, altarpieces — you get the picture.

The first great castle I saw — Conwy in Wales — I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Visiting the amazing, quirky Romanesque church of Anzy-le-duc — one of the rock stars of medieval architecture books — was like meeting Elvis (or at least Ian Anderson). And the hits kept coming: Autun, Vezelay, Salisbury, the Tower of London….

But after a while, something odd happened. I could no longer get myself out of bed in the morning to go see a cathedral, unless maybe there was a serious patisserie on offer as part of the deal. What I had come to find is that, in a great many European towns and cities, you almost literally can’t swing a dead cat without smacking a thousand year old building. Or as Garrison Keillor might say, over here miracles of medieval craftsmanship are no more rare and wonderful than rocks.

In our family we’ve even coined a term to describe this satiation on ancient monuments: ABC — “another bloody cathedral” (or castle).

At times, though, there yet comes the occasional architectural gem to shake me out of my torpor and restore my sense of wonder. And today’s destination was just such: Strasbourg Cathedral.

The foundations of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg were laid in 1015 AD. It was built over a period of more than 400 years, reaching from the Romanesque through the early and late Gothic periods, and harmoniously incorporating elements of all those styles. For over 200 years it was the tallest building in Europe, and is indeed the tallest building built during the medieval period. And does it soar!

Chancel of Strasbourg Cathedral showing Romanesque influences Column with figure sculptures at Strasbourg Cathedral Stained glass window from the south aisle of Strasbourg Cathedral

Influences from the Romanesque period, as well as perhaps from early Christian and eastern empire churches, can be seen most clearly in the wide, handsome chancel (left, above). The round, gold-painted dome with its hieratic tableau overlooks echelons of painted figures, and rounded arches, as opposed to narrow and pointy ones.

Elsewhere, the church wears a pretty familiar array of style cues from the early and high Gothic, but there are some wonderful surprises as well. The large chamber to either side of the chancel, for instance, features a soaring central column supporting the vaults high above. In the south chamber, the column is fantastically bedecked with holy figures (center, above).

But the true glory of Strasbourg Cathedral is its glass (above, right). Respendent in brilliant reds, mystical dark blues, and a vibrant palette of supporting hues, the windows impart a richness to the church that photos unfortunately are inadequate to capture.

For more pictures of Notre Dame, as well as the lovely, lively old town that surrounds it, check out our Strasbourg gallery.