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.


The Mystery of the Crucifixes


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.


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

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.