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.


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.


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



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.


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.

Herzlich Willkommen

Or, how I came to be in Freiburg writing this entry

If you’ve read our About page, you have a clue why we’re in Germany on this fine sunny day in August. On the first of the month, we installed Randall at the Goethe-Institut here in Freiburg, where he’ll learn the German language for 10 months or so, in order to attend university here next fall (2017).

Most German public universities are tuition-free, outside of a modest administrative fee, even for international students. You still have to pay for books and supplies, of course, as well as all your living expenses in this not-inexpensive country. Still, when you consider the caliber of the schools here — the university Randall is aiming for is rated something like number 14 in the world for his specialty, Physics — it’s still a screaming bargain.

I’ve read that the reason Germany does this is to attract motivated, well-educated young people in the hope that many will stay and contribute to the country’s success once they graduate. Which makes a lot of sense.

Meantime, our route here has been a bit circuitous.

In May, Carol left the US to take the Queen Mary to the UK, in preparation for Tamsyn’s graduation from the University of Edinburgh. Why the boat trip? you may ask. It was all for Pippin the Wonderdog. Slightly too big to fit in an under-seat airplane carrier, and too old and fragile to travel in airline cargo, His Fuzziness’s only transport alternative was a kennel on the QM2.

Randall and I joined them after his high school graduation in early June, taking a more prosaic approach via Icelandair.

After spending a couple months in the UK, we took the Chunnel and raced across France to Freiburg. Check out the photo gallery links below for an idea of what we’ve been up to.