Thursday, July 22, 2010

About the food...

We are in a unique position to really find out what food is like here, since we have no kitchen and must eat almost all of our meals out. It has been very hard to find a bad meal here! We eventually did at an Italian place, but I suppose it's our fault for deviating from the great Bavarian offerings here.

It's funny, because when I read descriptions on the menus, even in English, the entree usually sounds fairly unappetizing. I guess they don't mince words much. I have generally been very surprised and pleased by what shows up on my plate. As I have mentioned before, the salads are really good and fresh, with great flavor combinations-- like one with curried chicken and fresh oranges. There are a lot of deep fried items on the menus, and schnitzels and bratwurst, and many items are accompanied by fries. None of these are things I would usually eat, but there have been plenty of other options. And, the quality of the meats and everything is so good that the meals don't feel as heavy as you'd think. The other night, Jeff and I had steaks that were just amazing, accompanied by fries. I don't know what they did to those fat little wedges, but I swear that they had almost a butterscotch flavor to them-- also enhanced by some kind of dipping sauce that was more like hollandaise than aioli. Salads come with a lot of pickled vegetables, which I love. And I thought I knew what sauerkraut was, and really enjoyed making my own, but it is nothing like what they make here. First of all, they serve it warm, and it is heavily spiced, with allspice and cloves, for example.

Restaurant food seems to cost about the same as it would in the US. Maybe a little cheaper, even, but of course we did most of our eating out at happy hour, and I don't think they have those here. Wine and beer is very affordable, and of course very good! I'd never had a German red wine before, and I really can't understand why! They are delicious, and remind me very much of California reds. A local recently confirmed this impression, telling me that many of the original vintners in CA were German, and brought their vines over to propagate. Ironically, what we need to keep under control when we eat out is our water consumption. It is unheard of to serve tap water at the table, and so we have to pay for our bottled water-- almost always carbonated. I find myself drinking a couple of glasses before we go out so I can save a few euros!

The style of service is also very different, but I kind of like it. Waitstaff are generally paid a reasonable wage, and tipping is very minimal. No one is overly eager-to-please, trying to get everything just right for a higher tip. You seat yourself, and the table is yours for the evening-- no trying to rush you out the door so someone else can sit there. Someone will come and bring you a plate of napkins and silverware for you to place for yourself. Service is a little slow, and food doesn't typically arrive all at the same time-- so the rule is to just eat yours when it comes, and don't wait for the others. It all seems so laid back, with the emphasis being on the food. But of course everything is also very clean, which is extremely high on my list. So far, we've eaten most meals outdoors-- it will be a slightly different experience when the weather changes.

I have yet to go to a real grocery store. We don't have a car yet, but we'll rent one on Saturday and I will finally be able to put some substantial food in our fridge. Fortunately, there is the daily open market that I mentioned previously. I have bought a lot of produce there, and it is all great. And, I think, quite a bit more affordable than in Portland. This is very satisfying to me-- that we can afford to actually shop from farmers, and to do so on a frequent basis. Today I also bought some dairy products from the local convenience market, and all of it was both organic and very affordable. This is fantastic!! I will have so much fun cooking here.

The greatest challenge with eating here actually has nothing to do with local food. We had Amelia's food allergies tested before we left Portland, ostensibly to simplify matters once we arrived here. She has had so many limitations that I hoped we could find out some good news and eat more freely now. Well, there was good news but also some bad. She had graduated from many of her old allergens, including eggs, corn, bananas, melon and tomatoes. However, she has since developed a severe allergy to peanuts and almonds and.... the dreaded GLUTEN. Believe it or not, she hasn't had a bit of bread since we arrived here! The only way this is possible is because there are so many other good options for her, including potatoes, which are served everywhere. The hotel we're at has a crazy-extravagant "continental" breakfast. There are plates of cheeses and cold cuts, desserts, weird salads-- even one with oysters-- sausages, eggs, breads, an assortment of mueslis, fruit salad, and a range of yogurts. Amelia really packs it in, usually eating a bowl of muesli (with fruit juice in it,) three breakfast sausages, two slices of ham, and fruit. She is a very happy camper! And she has also had more meat on most days than she used to have all week! She doesn't mind of course, and I keep watching for a big growth spurt!

We were told that people here really like to eat sweets, and boy!-- They weren't joking! People hand Amelia candy all day, and there are bakeries on every corner selling cakes and danishes. I am trying to just be flexible and not make it a big deal. Also, the portions are huge! I think I've probably finished everything on my plate only a couple of times. Even salads are hard to finish. I have heard that Germans do not like to waste, and my sources confirm that they do indeed finish their portions. I'll work on it-- it shouldn't be too difficult!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Getting Set Up... and a Tale of a Very Frustrated Shopper.

So, we have been here for almost a week now, and have one week left of being able to stay in the hotel. We are very very excited to move into our place, and are fortunate enough to already have bought our washer, dryer and refrigerator from the previous tenants. However, we don't have ANY other household goods.

Originally, I had imagined quite a different scenario than the one we're in. In that story, we arrived in Germany with a very large deposit in our bank account. This included our "buy-out"-- the money we received for not shipping anything-- our per diem funds that we would use for buying our meals in the next two weeks, money from selling our cars (the one that would fetch a substantial amount hasn't sold yet) as well as some sort of salary from Jeff's current job-- he didn't work for the last month in the US. As you may have guessed, none of this was in our account upon arrival! There had been a big miscommunication somewhere, which we are still trying to determine the source of. Of course, this was bad news. We managed to have some of the funds expedited, but we are not in nearly the same situation that we had originally imagined.

So, now we have paid a huge amount of money to our landlord for the deposit and rent, as well as the payment for some home repairs before we move in, and... We have no furniture, beds, or cookware. I had thought, so naively, that I would hop from shop to shop, just picking out what suited us best, not worrying so much about bargains, etc. I had expected to find plenty to choose from, as well. I was smart enough to have already ordered dishes and sheets and blankets from an online shop here in Europe that will deliver them to us this week. Whew! And they were a great price. What I was also quite unprepared for is how much our money would seem to shrink as we converted it to Euros! All of this was just my own ignorance, but it has still thrown me for a loop! We visited a huge furniture store here in town yesterday, and it was a little sobering. Not only was everything super expensive, but it was also... wide, square, short leather couch sets, like this one. The general aesthetic here seems to be 80s modern to very modern. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but I just can't seem get into it. And, did you realize that IKEA is not a bargain store in Europe? The style has never particularly appealed to me, but I always could count on this store when I needed something cheap and easy. A co-worker of Jeff's kindly drove us to one an hour away, and we spent a couple of bewildered hours there. The prices are much higher here, and it didn't have nearly the same selection! The two curtain panels we would have liked for our room were over $70! We did buy a number of smaller items, especially for Amelia's room, but still no beds, mattresses, tables or chairs. Or curtains.

Oh, another thing-- our apartment does not come with overhead light fixtures. The ceilings are bare with wires coming out, so that is one more thing that we need to find for each room. Fortunately, ours DOES come with a kitchen-- most people take their whole kitchens with them when they move out of a place! Although I cannot imagine any other option than the "cash out" simply for the sake of having the money on hand to pay for our apartment, it is a little hard to think of all of the essentials that I loved and got rid of. Pots and pans! Our couch! Light fixtures! Long gone, and unbelievable expensive to replace.

There are a few German design blogs that I follow, and I was so fortunate to stumble upon a French shop that will ship furniture here for a reasonable price. Not only are the pieces beautiful and to my liking, but they were actually much much more affordable than what I found here. The only drawback is that it will probably take a month for them to arrive. I am hoping to find a little patio set that we can use on our balcony to ear our meals. And we will need to buy mattresses and have our beds on the floor for a while, just like we did all three years that we lived in Portland.

Amelia has the BEST little girl's room! It's on the far end of the building, with two huge arched windows that look out onto our neighbor's courtyard. It is long and has three pretty alcoves in it. I am having it painted all white this week, and then I'll paint the inside of the alcoves pink. I ordered a canopy-less version of this bed for her, and am looking for a cozy little chair and a bookshelf for to make a reading corner. Her room is bigger than both of our previous rooms put together.
I bought her some pretty floral bedding at IKEA, and a very pink blanket, as well as a little lamp she was smitten with.

So, we inch along. The other complication is the fact that we don't have a car yet. Jeff has to get his military license before he can drive. The test is very very long and tricky, and he almost passed a few days ago. He'll take it again tomorrow, and if he passes he'll get the license on the same day. We are shopping for a car right now, but the rules are very strict, and he can't even really test drive until he's licensed. Fingers crossed!!

I hope this post doesn't give the impression that I am not super glad and thankful to be here. I would be mortified to be perceived as complaining about all of this-- we are really excited to be here. It's just so much more complicated than I had imagined, and I am trying hard not to waste my energy worrying about all of the basics we need to get squared away. I am really looking forward to where we'll be at in a month or two!

Friday, July 16, 2010

HOW many hours left in this day?!

So, it's about 1:30, but it feels like forever ago that I woke up at five a.m. Once we had breakfast and Jeff left for work, this is how our day unfolded:

1. Meet with a friend (Yosef) of our landlord's who will take us to pick out some carpet-- but need to make a couple stops on the way.

2. Go to the bank, take out some money for lunch and carpet buying, etc.
For some reason, I can't get money from the ATM. It says 0.00 available, but I know we do have money in there.

3. Try to call the bank in the US on my cell phone. (The phone was passed on to me by someone who left.) I get messages in German about the call I am making, that I cannot complete it, but I can't understand the instructions. I also gather that I am about out of minutes on the phone, and that I need to buy more. Ah, yes-- that's another reason I'm trying to get money out of the bank! Most businesses will not use my Visa card-- they need a Euro card, which we don't have yet....

4. Go into the bank to change the American dollars I have, so I can buy time on my phone.
The teller tells me that I need to come back once the till opens, in half an hour. I don't want to be late to meet the guy taking me to the carpet store, so I head over to the apartment. He arrives shortly, and I tell him I need to go to the bank.

5. Stop by another bank that is closer to the apartment. They will not change my money, and instruct me to walk to the first bank.

6. Walk to the first bank and wait in line for 20 minutes. Amelia is whining and trying to lay down on the floor the whole time. She is not used to walking everywhere, and it's very hot. Finally, it is my turn. I give the teller my money, he does some slow calculations and... Asks for my passport. I don't have my passport with me. We go back and forth a bit, and he tells me he absolutely cannot help me.

7. I manage to call Jeff to see if he has my passport, or if I might be able to go back to the hotel and pick it up. Unfortunately, he has it with him on the army base. I have a few Euros, but not much, and still need to be able to buy lunch for Amelia and me.

8. I make a very wise decision to halt all activity and buy a scoop of watermelon gelato for myself and my tired, cranky, hot little girl. We sit down and eat it, I wipe a few tears away, and we both soldier on.

9. I go to a T-Mobile store and ask if I can buy some more time with my Visa. They say no. I ask the girl helping me to at least listen to the message I keep hearing from the company on my phone and try to tell me what it says. She tells me I have no minutes left, then talks to someone else. They decide there IS a way for me to buy some time with my Visa. She even does the adding of the time from the card I bought for me. I feel a little better.

10. We go back to the apartment, and I tell Yosef I don't have any money today to shop with. He says it won't be a problem, that we'll pay when the carpet is delivered.

11. We drive to the carpet store, and, naturally, everything is very expensive. It will cost us almost $1000 to put carpet in two bedrooms, including labor. Everything just costs so much more, especially with the dollar being so weak. But we HAVE to put something down. I call Jeff, and he says to just go ahead. But, I don't have the special form with me to use to skip the German taxes (19%!) on this purchase. We can make the order and reserve it, but we'll have to come back soon to bring the form and make the payment. This will delay our move-in date for our apartment.

12. Yosef insists that he must take Amelia and me to an Italian gelateria close-by. Amelia can't believe her good fortune! We sit and chat and eat chocolate gelato-- the day is getting a bit better.

13. The original plan was to go to a furniture store after this to compare prices, etc. but it's getting too late now, and I need to meet our landlord at our apartment soon. We return to the apartment, meet with our landlord to give him a check. (Side note-- here, it is customary to pay a deposit of 3 months rent, in addition to the current month's rent, although it is later returned with interest.) We get that done.

14. I ask Amelia if it would be OK if I just gave her a Lara bar for lunch, and she thinks this is a great idea. We walk home, she eats, and now she is taking her nap (thank goodness!)

This afternoon we will be going to IKEA, thanks to a co-worker of Jeff's. Fortunately, Jeff was able to pull cash out of the bank while on base today. I am SO glad that tomorrow is Saturday, and Jeff will be able to spend two days with us while we try to figure it all out!!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

First Impressions...

Well, first of all, it is SUPER HOT here right now. Apparently, this is unusual. Also, Germans don't seem to believe in air conditioning at all, but they do seem to be firm believers in cooling from the inside out-- "eis cafes" are packed out, people everywhere digging into huge gelatos and ice cream sundaes. We have yet to try this method, but it looks pretty effective...

So, I have been trying to think of a word to describe Amberg, and I think adorable, picturesque and idyllic are the best I can come up with. The city was originally smaller, and walled in, with a river running around and through it. The "old city" is the downtown, with the smaller shops, theaters and cafes. All of this is still mostly the antiquated structures, including cobblestone streets and wooden bridges. Our apartment is right in the center of all of this, on the main pedestrian street. There are larger, more modern roads outside of the walled city, and this is where you'd find things like car dealerships and big stores. All along the outside of the wall is a beautiful parkway for people to bike and walk along the perimeter of the original city. There are streams and gardens and play areas all along the way-- we have been taking this route over to our apartment as we do our business. We have eaten most of our meals so far at restaurants in the main plaza by the very big, very beautiful old church, with a big fountain and outdoor seating-- incredibly dreamy! And we hear those church bells tolling throughout the day.

Something that struck me right away as we drove from Frankfurt to here is that the terrain looks very much like Portland's! Lots of wild greenery along the roads, but also beautiful farmland. Really lovely.

The driving over here is intense. Cars drive really fast, tailgate like crazy and there is little space between cars in their lanes. Drivers are very aggressive, gunning and breaking all along the way! We've already heard stories about American drivers being intentionally bumped from behind for not being speedy enough! Jeff will be taking his driver's test soon, but I have no timeline for doing it. I think I'll just wait until it seems like I need to be driving-- I plan to get a bicycle soon, and that should meet most of my transportation needs-- the train station is a 5- 10 minute walk.

The quality of food here is very high. All of the produce is super fresh and beautiful. All of the eggs have yolks that are a deep copper color-- scrambled eggs come out very orange! Although I don't particularly care for most traditional heavier fare, I think I will love eating here. I've noticed that there is an open air market set up in the mornings in the plaza I mentioned earlier. All of the produce was beautiful, so I am very excited to be able to do daily shopping there-- it's a few blocks from our place.

More stories and updates soon!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Leaving Portland...

Well, this time next week we'll be on the airplane, starting our Big Adventure. There has been so much to do, of course, and I am just waiting for the moment when we are at the airport and there is nothing left to take care of. Our house has that empty sound, everything echoing off the walls. We have an air mattress where a couch should be, that is where I'm typing from.

The next few days are just a series of goodbyes and checking things off the list. Not fun. I think we're right on target in terms of what must be done, so that's comforting. What hasn't been so great is that I have been pretty sick for the past three weeks. I had bronchitis and a double ear infection as well as a severe sinus thing, and ended up resorting to antibiotics for the bronchitis. Unfortunately, the ears and lungs are in trouble again, and I don't feel like I can do the being-a-good-patient thing much more. This is no time to rest! But I'm trying. On Tuesday I go in for a "Myer's Cocktail" which is not nearly as fun as it sounds. It's and intravenous infusion of vitamins to help get my immune system stronger, and give me an all around boost for all that I have ahead of me. Let's hope it's just the ticket!

I have been so struck in the last few weeks by all of the warmth and support we have received from everyone we meet. People are SO enthusiastic when they find out our plans, especially strangers! Not once has someone failed to express their congratulations and good wishes for our next chapter, particularly people we have just barely met. Our yard sale was two full days of verbal blessings and enthusiasm from anyone who came by wondering where we are off to. We hear all sorts of wonderful stories about how beautiful Germany is, how friendly the people are, and what a great place it is for children.

Even people who are sad to see us go have made this time sweeter. I have had neighbors just call and ask how they can help (I inevitably send them to the post office), lending us an air mattress, dishes and whatever else we might need. Another newer friend came over and helped me pack, then gave me an acupuncture treatment. The same friend announced early this week that she was bringing us dinner that day, and that we'd be going to her home for dinner the following week. She also rounded up some chairs for us to sit in after we sold all of ours! A woman who moved into the place I was working before I closed my practice did a trade with me for a facial, but then called and asked me to come back for an extra service she wanted to give me yesterday! She also loaded me up with trial sized-cosmetics, exactly what I needed for traveling. A former co-worker of Jeff's has happily taken Amelia to her house all day while we took care of business the last couple of weekends. Today we went to say goodbye to a waiter at the restaurant that I would always take Amelia to when we went out for breakfast a couple times a month. He has been so kind to us, and it was a sad and sweet goodbye-- and he bought us all breakfast! Many times, I have been very surprised where most of our help and support has come from-- not necessarily where we would have expected, which makes it even more touching to me.

Although it seemed unusually hard for me to find my place here in Portland, I feel quite loved and taken care of as we prepare to go. I am so thankful. It has also been comforting to me to experience people on the other side-- Germany-- also looking out for us, even before we've arrived. The previous tenants of our future apartment are leaving us their cell phones, and we bought some major appliances from them for cheap. Jeff's team members are giving all sorts of insider information that will make the transition much easier, and I get a real sense that they all look out for each other. I mean, someone even went out and visited the local preschools for us, and now we have a spot for Amelia in the Fall. I know I mentioned it before, but the details are all coming together so nicely! We are really excited and happy, amid all of the stress. We still just can't believe this is all happening, and again, just feel incredibly thankful.