Together, Around The Table


Before we moved here, Melissa and I decided to scrap our old kitchen table and upgrade.  We went to Homemaker's furniture in Des Moines and bought a nice (for us) 8-10 person dining room table for our family and had it shipped to our house just in time to have it packaged, put on a container, and shipped to our new place.  Since then we also bought a breakfast-nook table for our main dining room.  That is the one that gets most of the use....unless we have company.

WAY BACK on December 3rd, I put the leaf into the new dining room table to make room for our coming guests.  My parents came on the 4th and stayed for 2 weeks.  We had a great time with them here.  We had some much-enjoyed quality time and encouragement, and they were, of course, always jumping in to lend a hand with the kids, meals, and tasks around the house.  They left on the 17th, and just a week later Melissa's parents were able to come, and we had more of the same.

WE ATE AROUND THAT TABLE A LOT.  Breakfasts and lunches and dinners.  Christmas meal with my family.  Christmas meal with Melissa's family.  Meals at the table were punctuated with birthday celebrations, opening of presents, playing UNO or Prince Caspian, and others.  When we weren't around the table we were just hanging out or watching TV or out and about exploring the Rhineland-Pfalz.  In short, we had fun - not because we did so much, but because we did it together.  It was nice to have company.  It was nice to see family.

This morning, Melissa left early to drive her parents to the airport for their trip home. While she was gone, I took the wing out of the dining room table.  It had been extended for company almost a full month, and now it is back to it's normal size of six chairs pressed into the corner, mostly to be used as a base for homework.  And it will be a while before it comes out again.

We like Germany.  No - we love Germany.  We can already see there are so many things that we'll wish we could take back to the states when that time comes, and we are content to stay here as long as my firm allows.  We have all adjusted really well and are not complaining.  But it's bittersweet.  We loved the company.  We loved seeing family, parents and grandparents and in-laws, and spending time sharing our new place, town, and country.  The hard thing about expat life is that this is one item you just can't package up in a box, put in a container, and have shipped to you.  Time with family and old friends is fleeting and far between, and the coming of New Year's Eve means that for us it's over for a while.

And that makes these otherwise Happy Holidays a little more somber for us.

The mild winters here in the Rhine Valley

"It's warmer here in the Rhine valley," they said.  "We get a lot of sunshine and not a lot of snow," they said.

"Oh sure it snows," they said. "But it really doesn't accumulate much." they said.

"Winter driving? Oh, hardly ever a problem here in Neustadt." they said.

"Just a light dusting every now and again.  Nothing like  the big heavy snow you get in Iowa," they said.

Well, they lied.

Dom zu Speyer & Weihnachtmarkt

TODAY WE DROPPED THE KIDS OFF AT SCHOOL, left Jazlynn with a friend, and carted off to Speyer, about 20 minutes away.

Speyer is a beautiful small city.  It's landmark is the Dom zu Speyer, an ancient Cathedral that holds the remains of almost a dozen former emperors and kings in the crypts beneath the nave, same laid to rest almost 1000 years ago.   It provides a striking view against the blue sky and some colorful artwork in the interior.

From there, we walked to the downtown for another Weinachtmarkt, another glass of Glühwein, and an excellent lunch that could only happen sans kids (photos).   We did a little walking and shopping, but it was too cold to enjoy outside for long.

Deideshiemer Weihnachtmarkt

THE SIGN OF THE COMING OF THE CHRISTMAS SEASON in Germany is the opening of the Christmas markets.

Thousands of cities and towns across Germany host outdoor Weihnachtmarkts,  where you can stop in and shop in open air-gift boutiques, and shake off the cold with a glass of traditional Gluhwein.

WITH COMPANY this week (my parents), this was a great time for visiting the Weihnachtsmarkts nearby. Last weekend we stopped into Neustadt's for some Gluhwein and conversation with some friends, then later that weekend went to the Christkindlmarkt in our Hambach neighborhood.

LAST NIGHT we walked to the train station and took a Regional Bahn (our first experiment in using the train system here) to Deidesheim, where the train dropped us off right outside one of the area's better Weihnachtmarkts in the area.  We completely underestimated the crowd -  the train was packed and the streets even more filled - But a bratwurst and glass of Gluhwein later we were no worse for the wear.

Weihnachtsmarkts are a a great way to get into the Christmas spirit.  I'm a noob at night photos, but even so a few pictures captured the great atmosphere in Deidesheim.

How we spent Danksgiving Part II

NORMALLY, OUR THANKSGIVING would be spent with friends and family back in the USA. But without a recognized holiday here and with the distinct lack of family, you sometimes have to improvise.

Saturday night the John Deere expat community gathered in a restraunt not too far from here where 7 or 8 families dined together on a traditional Thanksgiving menu: Turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, and some pumpkin soup (who doesn't have pumpkin soup on their Thanksgiving table? was excellent, BTW).  Unfortunately Melissa stayed home with the young ones who were sick, while Anna, Chase and I went to enjoy some good old English conversation (Topics included such things as, "What? Your kids didn't have to get the Meningitis vaccination?!?)  I give credit to the organizers, it was an excellent meal and atmposphere and a nice getaway.


All week long Melissa and a couple of other American expat wives in Neustadt had been  scheming on a Thanksgiving dinner for our families. And it was a rousing success -  It had all the marks of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, with Turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie...all of it just like if you were having Thanksgiving dinner a Grandma's house. With a few additions.

THE PRE-DINNER APPETIZER FOR THE MEN WAS A CUBAN CIGAR.  I had forgotten entirely that the lifelong ban I've lived under for Cuban cigars doesn't necessarily extend to Europe, so I was quick to jump at the offer. Maybe a little too quick, because it was only when I was sitting on the patio smoking a cigar with the fellas and noticed the kids gawking at me shockeyed through the windows did I recall that they probably have never seen Melissa or I smoke a cigar before, and that I might have just erased 10 years of no-smoking education from their minds ("Ah, but I don't inhale, kids.").

After the dinner and desert were down and the conversation was  still on high, Brian then broke what is sure to become another new Thanksgiving tradition - some Polish Buffalo Vodka.  I don't know how Polish Buffalo Vodka is different than any other kind of Vodka (it's all grocery store Smirnoff to me), but I am pretty sure that when I'm offered a Vodka from the place where Vodka was just about born it would be downright uncouth to turn it down. It was not a bad chaser for Turkey and pumpkin pie.

WE MIGHT HAVE STOPPED THERE, BUT FRANZ WAS NOT TO BE OUTDONE. Franz and Sabine were two of the local neighbors from nearby that accepted an invitation to join us for the American holiday.   Franz is probably in his fifties with more genuinely interesting stories than days I have on the earth, so when the vodka came out he started to to tell about his friend who does a little moon-shining. Soon, Franz disappeared from the house only to return a few minutes later with a clear unlabeled bottle of pear liquor made in someone's backyard.  That was genuinely pretty good too, but I think by that time you probably could have served us all a flute of antifreeze and we would have been sitting around commenting about how smooth it went down.

So our traditional Thanksgiving dinner from the last years this year was replaced by a dinner with our family from Iowa, one from Missouri, a Ohio family with Spanish roots, and German family in a country that doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving.  It had a traditional American fixings, bookended by Guban cigars, Polish Vodka and German moonshine.

And that was not a bad way to spend it at all.

Of course it's not locked. Do you think I'm stupid?

THE WEATHER HAS BEEN HORRIBLY LATELY, with an unnatural amount of rain, snow and ice.   So it was no suprise this morning when we woke up to a land covered in a sheet of ice and snow.  Unfortunately garages are rare, so that means that this morning began with an aggressive scraping of the ice off of the little BMW.

On my way to work I decided I was a little low on fuel, so popped into a gas station.  That's when the trouble started, because my car's fuel door was entombed in a casket of ice.

I have a push-to-release fuel door, and while parked next to the fuel pump I pushed it, and it didn't give a millimeter.  It was completely caked in ice inside and out. I managed to scrape the ice off of the door, and pushed again, harder, but it still wouldn't release.  I used the only tool I had - my keys - to try to scrape the ice as best as I could from behind the fuel door, but darned if it still wouldn't release.  It seemed, I dunno, stuck somehow.

AFTER ABOUT 10 MINUTES SOMEONE AT THE NEXT PUMP TOOK PITY ON ME, and happened to have a small spray bottle of antifreeze in his car.  He came over and started to spray around the fuel door and as I watched the ice melt away I figured that would do the trick, but still no release.  He handed me the bottle left to fill his tank and go pay, and when he came back he found me there still holding a now nearly empty bottle of antifreeze and still prying at my fuel door wondering how it is there could still be ice stuck behind it.  After a while my new friend decided he had better things to do and gave up, but he was nice enough to alert the gas station attendant inside that there was a big dumb American in the parking lot clogging the fuel pump because he couldn't get his fuel door open.

SHE RUSHED INTO ACTION,  taking a liter of water from the glass cooler in the gas station and warming it up, and a few minutes later came out with a piping hot bottle of water. She emptied the entire bottle of water over and into my fuel door. There was no physical way there could possibly be any ice left after that, so she stood back and motioned to the door, and I pressed again....and nothing. Stuck.

I looked at her and she and me, and she frowned, scratched her head.  I was thinking about how I must have damaged the door somehow when I was prying at it, and that I was going to need to drive to the dealership when it opens in a few hours and have them take a look, and thinking about how this was going to throw off my work day when I heard her ask, "Ist es verschlossen?"  Wait a moment...mentally translating....'Is it locked?'

"Nein", I said out loud emphatically.  It couldn't possibly locked, I'm not stupid.  And just to prove it, and I took my keys out of my pocket and hit the unlock button on the key fob.

And the fuel door popped open.

How we spent Danksgiving (part 1).


I'm not exactly sure how it worked out that cruelly for them. I suppose a couple things came together.   First, and obviously, Thanksgiving is not a recognized holiday here, so business and office places and schools were open and running just like any other day.

Secondly, the last time the kids were at the doctor's office he noted that they didn't seem to have Meningitis vaccinations, which are normal (required?) in Germany.   I didn't appreciate this at the time, but Melissa had experienced first hand the grizzly horror of taking the kids in for shots and decided she wanted me there for some additional firepower. I groussed a little ("C'mon, what's the big deal with getting some shots?") but relented and decided it would work best for me to come home a little early and help out on Thanksgiving, because that meant it would be easier to slip out in the afternoon while my US colleagues were on vacation.

MELISSA HAD A STRATEGY.  This time, she elected to employ the element of suprise.  The kids were unaware of their appointment all day long.  We went to work and school like any other day, and then came home to reheated Macaroni and Wurst. After supper, Melissa layed out some gift wrapped presents on the kitchen counter, one for each kids, and gathered them around the kitchen counter...and broke the news that in 30 minutes, they were all getting a literal shot in the arm, but that if they did OK they would get to come home and open a present.

And that is the point at which we officially lost control, and never regained it.

The kids cried the entire way to the doctor's office.   I should say that differently...the girls cried all the way to the doctor's office.  In a proud moment as a father, crying really doesn't explain what my two sons were doing.  They were wailing.

They wailed in the house as I carried them to the van. They wailed all the way to the office. They wailed as we walked across the street. They wailed in the lobby, and they wailed in the examination room while we waited for the doctor.  Then, when time for shots came, they really started to make some noise.

When we got into the exam room Camden tucked himself into the corner of the room behind an examination table and curled up into the the fetal position on the floor.  He screamed louder every time we told him he needed to "come out right now!".  As Jazzy, and then Anna, and then Kiersten got their shots (all crying)  and his time came closer he just cried and wailed louder.  Chase was 4th up to bat, and my brave seven year old son kicked and shook and screamed like we were about to hack off his arm.  In the end it took all three of us - me, Melissa and the doctor - to restrain him while the shot was administered. He hopped off the table still wailing - holding his arm like it was barely still attached- while we extricated Camden from his hiding place and forced him up on the table too and put the needle in his arm.   By the time we were done we had 4 crying kids (Jazz of all of them was fine), two exasperated parents, a nurse and a doctor trying to leave the room with the big loud American family as quickly as possible.

There is no sensation like the moment you take your kids back out to the waiting room and receive the burning stares of others asking quizzically What just happened in there? I honestly entertained a thought in my head of  which would worse, the Meningitis vaccination or actual Meningitis (give me a minute, still thinking). As we walked out,  I asked Melissa, "So is it always like that?"

"Oh yeah," she says, "I knew it would be bad.  I've had to pull Camden out underneath chairs and tables before. That's pretty normal."

So that will go down as one Thanksgiving day where none of us felt particularly like being thankful for much of anything.   Except for me.... I am thankful for my wife, who for the last 10 years has been taking our kids to the doctor's office to get shots without me.   And I am also thankful that we now have some early Christmas shopping done, as those presents "for being good at the doctors office" stayed on the counter - untouched - and will now reappear a little later under the Christmas tree.

When you're the dumbest person in the room.

IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW SMART YOU ARE. It doesn't matter that you have an advanced degree, or that  you're a respected manager, or that you have lots of good experience to share, or that you went to some fancy B-school, or that you happen to be a parent of 5, or that you've lived on two different continents, etc, etc. When you don't speak the local language, you are always the dumbest person in the room.

Take for example, the time way back in September when we decided to order a piece of furniture - a new kitchen table - from a local furniture store. We had the option to drive 45 min to a store that had english speaking salesmen, but decided we were going to "Live German" and buy local.   Melissa and I walked the store to find the table she wanted, and once she had picked it out the inevitable moment of engaging the sales person in dialague (is that what it's called?) came. I turned around to find Melissa had disappeared to the van with the kids, leaving me to negotiate alone.

What followed was a half an hour conversation with a salesman with no capability nor interest in understanding English.  At the end, I felt like I placed the order well enough, and understood it would be delivered to our house in 6 weeks.  So...what does one do in that situation when 8 weeks pass and no table has arrived?  One might, for example,  stop in the store (which I did) and get a long string of explanations from that same salesman that would be  perfectly clear to a German kindergartner. But to the Over-Educated-American-with-no-language-skills he might as well have been communicating with a pig.

After that failure, one might decide, frustrated, that it would be easier to send an email asking for some written help as to how to get our table, and ask for a written response (so that Google Translate has a chance to intervene).   And if one did that, then the salesman might, hypothetically, call back on the phone the very next day and repeat the same instructions (This time I was far enough along in my language training to say "But I don't understand German" in German, to which his response was, "You understand well."  Um, I'm pretty sure that's wrong, but I don't know how to tell you that.)  And then, somewhere in the chain, someone might finally  take pitty on you and your table will show up one Friday 10 weeks after you ordered it. Hypothetically.  And that whole time, between you and the furniture salesman, you are the dumbest person in the room.   Sure he gave us a table, and all it cost was my pride. And about a 1000 Euro.

That's what it's like every time I am in a meeting where I am the only English speaker. Although at first everybody is very gracious and agrees to speak in English, inevitably at some point the conversation switches from forced English to fluent German 'just to explain a few points'...and of course, it never switches back.  And during that whole time, I'm the dumbest person in the room.

THIS SUNDAY WAS THE FINAL STRAW. We go to a church we're really excited to be a part of. It is vibrant, culturally relevant, and a great environment for our whole family. The only down side we can see is that the entire service is in German. That makes it a little awkward for us, and church is a place where it can be hard to fake it.   A couple of weeks ago a greeter realized the situation we were in and graciously offered to set up a translation service until we had a chance to get acclimated.  What a great idea! We thought that meant headphones for us with a mic'ed translator hidden away somewhere in the building (that's how this normally works, right?). We were thinking that right up until this Sunday morning when the translator introduced himself to Melissa ("Hi, I'm Chris, I'm your translator").   and plopped down next to her. For the rest of the service - approximately one hour - he leaned close  and whispered the English translation into her ear, sultry-German-accented-word by sultry-German-accented-word. Thanks, I'm sure that was much less awkward for both of us.  It was a extremely kind gesture and we are really are thankful for the help, but...why do we have that  feeling like we're the dumbest people in the room again?

So for us, the reality has set in that it's not just about living German anymore, it's about living with a little pride.  We have to learn the language. We have to learn the language. I need to learn it so I can order furniture without laying awake the night before thinking about it.  I need to learn it so I can actually contribute to a conversation.  I need to learn it for my own piece of mind.  And Melissa needs to learn it too, because I'm not sure I'm OK with letting Chris whisper in her ear like that again for a long, long time. ;)







We Lewis & Clark'ed it to Hohe Loog

IN THE HILLS above the castle Hambacher Schloss sits a little wilderness retreat called Hohe Loog. In the summer months during the weekends there is a restaurant featuring brats and sauerkraut and similar German fare, and there is a large play area for the kids in the area outside.   Unfortunately, it is only accessible by foot so we hadn't made the trek there yet to check it out.   But today, with probably one of the last warm and sunny weekend days for a while we decided to take a little hike. Emphasis on little.

We had tried once before to hike there, but the trail goes up a steep hill and the kids tired out in about 2 km, so that day we ended up  turning back.  We hadn't ever consulted a map  but sort of figured it couldn't possibly be that much farther (this is what literary smarties call foreshadowing),, so today we parked the van in the Hambacher Schloss parking lot and headed up hill.

We walked. And we walked. We walked past the point we stopped last time.  Then we walked some more. We stopped and ate lunch, then we got up and kept walking....on and on and on....   The kids buzzing excitement gradually turned into silence, and then moaning, and then outright complaining.    By my count we had hilked 3 or 4 kilometers uphill when Melissa noticed a little yellow sign up ahead with "Hohe Loog" printed on it, causing her to make the ill-advised announcement, "Look, we must be here!". Unfortunately, it wasn't until we reached the sign that we could read the whole thing: "Hohe Loog: 1.9km". You must be joking.

By that time, though,  Dad was fully invested. There was no way we were going to walk 5 km and then give up before reaching the summit.  We might as well have been climbing Everest,  we we're going to make it to the top if we had to spend the night on that hill.  The route got steeper, the trail narrower, and kept winding through the woods.  The kids were so tired there were actually some tears.  But then....we made it....

Hohe Loog was a popular spot! Despite the fact we had only seen a few people on the trails, still there were probably a couple hundred people enjoying the day there. It had a play area that featured a slide whose size and speed would never be allowed in the US, as well as swings, play structures, sandboxes, etc.  Kids climbed all over the toys while parents sat on picnic benches munching on something from the kitchen. It wasn't long before our kids forgot how tired there were, and were running up and down the slide and climbing all over rocks.

But...they quickly remembered again when we announced it was time to go home. Suddenly all the complaining about tired legs returned.  We hiked on down the hill, this time choosing an alternate route that we thought might be a little shorter (which is was, apart from the 20 minutes we spent completely lost wandering back and forth before getting some directions from a stranger).  By the time we made it back to the van it had been a 5 hour trip, about 10km of hiking and some vigorous play on the hill.  It was a day well spent in the great outdoors.

And like a lot of things now, it was all about little victories. Example: For one of the first times here in Neustadt, we went somewhere and  recognized people.   Chase saw some kids from his soccer club. Camden and Anna saw kids from there school class, and Melissa bumped into a women she occasionally meets for coffee. Secondly, I actually managed a to get some directions from a stranger in German, using complete sentences that didn't include pointing and  ridiculous looking hand motions.

That's some progress!

When a BMW is not about vanity.

THE CAR BUYING PROCESS is - thankfully - behind us.

First there was The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van that severely bit into our car buying budget. Coupled with the extreme costs of German cars, and the realization that banks in Deutschland weren't just going to extend credit to a couple of American rubes that just tumbled off the boat (so to speak) we had a couple weeks there where we had to evaluate our options on our second car.

Long story short, we finally bit the bullet and shelled out some dough for a More-Reasonable-But-Still-Offensively-Overpriced commuter vehicle. Now with that behind us, let me take a moment to share the most important feature on this particular automobile:

That's's  a Beamer. ;)

Now, let's be clear. We're not into big expensive cars, nor are we  into vanity... and this is not a big expensive car. This is not the BWM 5 series you often see floating down the Interstate in the US.  It's not even the smaller 3 series.  In fact, you've probably never seen this type of car at all. This is the baby BMW, the 1 series...a 118d (Diesel) to be exact.   It's a good car for us first because it's small enough that we can probably stuff it in our suitcase and take it home with us when we leave in a few years.  It's also truly not about vanity (it's used and  pretty basic). In reality, it's about fuel efficiency.  And that's a big deal.

Let's start with gas prices in Germany. At first blush, you might think they don't seem to bad when you stroll across the border and see signs like this one:

The word Benzin is your basic unleaded gasoline, so you might look at this sign and say "$1.19 for gas? That's all? That's not bad!"  And you might think that until you filled up your tank. And you might still be thinking that right up to the time you  went up to pay at the register, and right then and there it would occur to you that you just got a one-two punch by the imperial system and the US Dollar.

First off, gas is sold by the liter here, and there are about 3.8 Liters in a US Gallon.  Secondly, that price you're looking at is in Euros.  There's nothing wrong with the good ol fashion US Dollar, but let me tell you - it's no Euro. So taking into account the Liter-to-Gallon conversion and the current exchange rate for the US dollar, current gas prices in Germany in American terms comes to this: $6.91 / Gallon.

To put that into perspective, I had Chevy Colorado before we came here that got 21 mpg (not bad for a pickup).  Now here, I drive 80km every day too and from just based on the commute alone and assuming normal gas mileage that truck would have cost me $16.35/day in gas alone.  $340/month.  $4200/year. And that's just for the commute.

Enter the BMW 1er.  In Europe fuel efficiency is published in Liters / 100km (in other-words, how many liters of gas the car requires to go 100km in normal conditions).  A gas guzzler might require over 10L/100km.  A 'fuel efficient' car is less than 6L/100km. And here's the beauty of the BWM 118d: It gets as low as 3.9L/100km.  Not impressed? I suppose those numbers don't mean much, so let's convert that to something more familiar:  The BMW 118d gets 60 miles per gallon. If that's not impressive, then consider that the 2011 Honda Civic Hybrid gets a mere 43mpg on the highway. The Prius gets 51.  And those are hybrids, in the BWM 118d we're just talking about a regular old diesel engine here.

It's not just BWM either...European car manufacturers have fuel efficiency at the top of their list of customer demands, and it shows up in their technology.  I won't go into how its achieved, there are a lot of reasons (example on the 118d, the engine shuts off when you come to a stop at a stoplight, and restarts automatically when you pop the clutch - without missing a beat).  But regardless of how, the what is that it makes gas affordable here...and that makes the  price tag almost seem justifiable.


The fall colors were really on display at Burg Hardenburg

There are plenty of dreary fall days in Germany, but today was fortunately not one of them.  So when we took the family to check out another nearby castle - Burg Hardenburg in  Bad Dürkheim - the fall colors were on full display. It was a fantastic castle in an even better setting.  The pictures hardly do it justice.

Normandy: We left for home a day early in protest of the protests. (Wait, did someone say 'home'?)

Sometimes you follow the news...and then sometimes the news follows you.

Sunday night we had plans to leave Normandy on Wednesday.  Those plans called for Bayeax on Monday, then Tuesday for the beautiful costal town of Honfleur, and then the long drive home on Wednesday morning.  But the citizens of France had other plans.

Sunday morning we were running a little low on gas, so I pulled up to a gas station in Carentan, where the pumps had a hand written sign taped over the display.  Roughly translated by Google, the signs said "This station commandeered for emergency vehicles."  Odd.  We stopped at a few other gas stations in town...all closed, and finally just about coasted into an open one in Insigny sur Mer, about 15km away.  Hmm...What was that all about?

We had heard about the strikes in France but really hadn't paid much attention.  French citizens across the country were staging protests to proposed changes of some of their social benefits.  We hadn't paid much attention, because in my experience the average strike in the US consist of a couple of guys with beer guts sitting in lawn chairs outside of a factory.  They are generally distruptive to exactly nobody except the ones striking.  But I'll give the French some credit here, they know how to strike.  Really.

The first objective of the strike was to barricade oil refineries, effectively starving France of gasoline.  We didn't realize this was going on, but all the while we were in France, Normandy's diesel supplies were shrinking.  In fact, by Monday when we drove past the same gas station where we had filled up in Insigny sur Mer again, it was out of diesel....and like most EU cars, The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van requires diesel.  It suddenly dawned on us the gravity of the situation...we had 800km to drive to get home and not enough fuel to do it, and no way of knowing when we'd be able to buy gas again.

We decided the situation called for hitting the road a day early,  foregoing our Honfleur trip (bummer).  That turned out to be a good decision.  The first gas station we passed on the autobahn that actually had some diesel left, had a line more than a kilometer long.  We drove through towns where traffic was snarled due to waits at the gas station extending far into the streets, further complicated by cars stalling in line.  It wasn't for several hundred kilometers into our drive that we (luckily) found a gas station with diesel and some tolerable lines.  That was enough fuel to get us out of France...probably...

Unless, of course, we got mired into "Operation Escargot", which we did.  Operation Escargot was an effort by French truck drivers to bring highway traffic to a stall by intentionally driving at a snail's pace on major highways.  Based on the news reports we expected to run into such protests near Paris, so we drove well north to avoid the mess, but still found ourselves in stopped highway traffic in Reims.  We took a detour through downtown Reims (just cleaning up after a protest march, by the way) and were able to get out of town unscathed.  Fortunately for us the country highways of eastern France were wide open most of the rest of the way home, if an hour or two later than we would have liked.

We were just about to the end of our trip, just crossing over the French border into Deutschland, when an odd thing happened.  Melissa and I both voiced the same thought at the same time to each other: "It's good to be home".

Home? This place that we've only lived for three months?  Where we barely speak a word of the native language?  Where you can't get mac-n-cheese or Ranch dressing?  Home, where you have to bring your own bags to the grocery store?  Home, where the Y and Z keys are swapped on the keyboard?  Where the cars are more expensive than our first house?



Normandy: Utah Beach, St. Mere Eglise and Bayeax

[caption id="attachment_323" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Church at St Mere Eglise"][/caption]

With Omaha Beach fully explored but the kids still yearning for some beach time, we decided to make a stop at Utah Beach, just North and West of Omaha.  Utah gets fewer visitors, probably because it doesn't have the notoriety of Omaha - only 200 American casualties on the morning of the invasion.  But it was still an important step in establishing a beach head, and  with the sun shining it was the perfect opportunity for the kids to find sea shells and capture some photos of Utah.

Just behind Omaha Beach lies St. Mere Eglise, a sleepy little town with a lot of Lore.  St. Mere Eglise was featured in the  movie "The Longest Day". The story featured there is of paratrooper John Steele who got hung up on the church spire where he remained for hours until finally being taken prisoner.   The church remains at the center of St. Mere Eglise, and in an odd commemoration an effigy of Steele hangs from a prachute from the spire today.

Next to the church is a museum dedicated to the 82nd at 101st Airborne. It wasn't big or impressive but it was kid friendly, and we'll take that over big and impressive any time. (Photos of St. Mere Eglise and the Airborne Museum).

Our last stop on our tour of France turned out to be Bayeax.  It wasn't planned that way,

[caption id="attachment_324" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeax."][/caption]

but citizens of France had other plans (more on that later).  And we like to go where the people aren' that worked out well for us, because Bayeax was basically completely closed for business on Mondays.  Nonetheless, we explored the town and the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeax,

Normandy: Round tripping through Pointe du Hoc, Arromanches and Longues sur Mer

[caption id="attachment_287" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Scarred Pointe du Hoc Landscape"][/caption]

THE KIDS DIDN'T want to go to Pointe du Hoc. After seeing the beach for the first time it was hard to get them to think of something else...but in the end for all of us - even the kids - this ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. Gave Dad some cred again.

In 1944 large guns protected by concrete casemates had been placed at the top of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.  The guns - capable of reaching both Utah and Omaha beaches - were taken out by the storied  2nd Ranger Battalion. Army rangers  scaled the cliffs  and suffered heavy casualties, only to find the guns had already been moved inland and wooden planks stood in their place as a disguise. The  Pointe du Hoc  landscape  is forever scarred with craters,  evidence of the massive naval and arial bombardment it endured in preparation for D-Day...shown in a few of our photos.  It also provides people (kids) a chance to observe (climb down into) craters and through some of the casemates to get a better idea of the combat conditions (play). Fun for the whole family.

On the other side of Omaha beach is Arromanches, a costal town on Gold Beach where the British navy installed a temporary harbor (Mulberries). The remains of the harbor are still visible from the coasts (photos), and Arromanches, a town of 500, now thrives on the visitors that come annually to see the remnants of D-Day.  On a warm summer day this would be a fantastic place to spend a day exploring shops or enjoying the beach.  On a cold blustery fall day,  I recommend sitting huddled in one of the pedestrian restaurants trying to keep warm by holding a piece of pizza and then moving back to the van as quickly as possible.  We elected to do the latter.

The last stop of the day was to Longues sur Mer, where a gun battery (photos) remains.  Unlike Pointe du Hoc the casements avoided destructions and the original guns are still in place.

Normandy: A Detour to Mont Saint-Michel

[caption id="attachment_280" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Mont Saint-Michel from the approaching causeway. "][/caption]

WHEN WE WENT TO Omaha Beach, we all learned a little lesson about ocean tides.  Now it seems Camden won't ever let us forget.

Enter Mont Saint-Michel... This former church, abbey & prison - or maybe better described a small city - is built upon a rock out in the middle of the sea.  Legend has it that the original construction was comissioned as a church by the Archangel Michael himself.

But none of that interested Camden as much as the fact that Mont Saint Michel is located

[caption id="attachment_314" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Sign saying that today, this parking lot is safe. Little consolation to Camden. "][/caption]

in what  is considered to be one of the most dangerous tidal beaches in the world.  When the tide is in, the abbey is surrounded on all sides by sea water and is accessible only by a narrow causeway.  Several of the parking lots get covered by the sea.  When the tide is out, it reveals miles and miles of flat sandy beach.  In the days leading up to our trip Melissa read aloud a few passages from a Rick Steves book that noted that the tide is said to come in with "the speed of a galloping horse" at 2 feet/second (Horizontal speed...OK, faster than a pack mule, maybe) and that in the older times people would make the pilgrimage out to Mont Saint Michel and become lost in the fog and caught up in the tide before reaching the island.  Modern day stories abound of tourists who parked at the wrong place at the wrong time only to come back to a car in a nice salt bath.  So with all that in mind, to Camden visiting this death trap was tantamount to suicide.  We would all probably be sitting in Mont Saint Michel enjoying a pretzel and taking in the views when a tsunami-like wall of water would sweep us out of the abbey (hundreds of feet above sea level) and wash us all out to sea. We were of course in absolutely no danger, but the mind of a 5-year-old just doesn't always accept that.  Now that we're back safe and sound, I'm still not sure he believes us.

Despite the scary monster tide, this is really a stunning place to visit.  It almost seemed surreal.  The view of Mont St. Michel from the approaching highway is idyllic, and the panorama from atop the abbey is impressive.  We uploaded a few of the better photos.

Normandy: Omaha Beach & The American Military Cemetary

WE THOUGHT THAT on our first day in Normandy we would avoid the history and museums.  We figured we would be too tired from the drive to pay much attention, so we decided to just take the kids to the closest stretch of sand beach for their first real-life chance to dip their toes in the ocean.  We hopped in the van, picked a close town, and set off the see the waves.

[caption id="attachment_270" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="View of the western sector of Omaha beach from the position of a concrete bunker. "][/caption]

In retrospect that was a little naive.  We picked the town of Vierville sur Mer as our landing spot, which turned out to not just be an inconspicuous stretch of sand but rather the western edge of Omaha Beach (lesson learned, there is no such thing as an inconspicuous stretch of sand in Normandy).    We walked out onto the beach to explore, and while the kids collected seashells I snapped a few photos of the beach and bluffs.  

Unfortunately for us, we picked a time when the tide was coming in. We were getting ready to  trek down to explore the rock-cliffs of Pointe et Raz de la Percèe - the Western edge of Omaha -  when we realized that there was some sea water sneaking up behind us on the beach and was about to cut us off from the shore, so we scampered back up to the parking lot to The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van. From the comfort of the van entertained ourselves by watching some other tourists  oblivious to the tide get stuck on a sand bar and have to wade in in their loafers.  Ah, that's good entertainment.

As a side note, this was our kids first exposure to the concept of a "tide", and the idea that water could come surging from the ocean unexpectedly, then trap and swallow you whole. That was enough to freak out safety-conscious Camden for the duration of the trip.  More on that later.

From there we took a drive through Vierville sur Mer and Colleville, ending up at the American Military Cemetery in Colleville.   There are no words to describe this place, and I wont even bother trying here...we'll just share our photos and say that it was an incredible experience.  

[caption id="attachment_271" align="alignright" width="300" caption="American Military Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer"][/caption]

Later in the week we returned back to Omaha Beach, to sunny skies and low tides.   There has been too much already said and written about Omaha Beach and there are others who are far better experts than us.  My only comment, I've read time and time again how far the beach was, and how high the bluffs were. Standing there in person, it just seems impossible.  It seems like there is a mile of beach between the ocean and the bluffs, and the bluffs seem impossibly high, and the firing positions in the bunkers of the beach seem far too is simply hard to imagine the task at hand for the American GI's that morning.  I'm not a good enough camera man to capture this completely, but nonetheless have uploaded a few perspectives of Omaha Beach.   The last photo in the bunch is a comparative between the church in Colleville-sur-Mer today as compared to June 6, 1944 as members of the Big Red 1 walk by.

A Week in Normandy

A  FEW WEEKS AGO Melissa and I stood in front of our wall-sized map of Europe (thanks Van Essens!)  and tried to figure out where our family could spent a week for a late fall vacation.  The kids are on the German school calendar and had two weeks off coming up in middle October, and it had been a long time since we had taken a family vacation together. So after some staring and hand wringing we pointed our fingers at Normandy and set about to make some arrangements.

Then only last Wednesday after an uneventful 9 hour drive in The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van we found ourselves pulling up into the drive in front of the French gite that would be our home for the next week.

The Gite - or French holiday home - was truly unique. It was located in the countryside (far, far out in the countryside) in the tiny town of Gorges, found only on winding roads through cow pastures and corn fields.   It was remote - too far for our big, loud American-sized family to disturb anyone (our closest neighbors were cows), which made it the perfect place us to operate out of for the next week.  It offered plenty of bedrooms, some really short doorways and hallways (head still bruised)  and a really cool perspective.

[caption id="attachment_265" align="alignleft" width="199" caption="The road our Gite was located on was bordered by long stretches of thick hedgerows. "][/caption]

Here's why...First, Normandy is a big, amazing place.  Most people like myself mostly associate it with it's WWII war history, but the reality is that there is much, much more there than just war history. It has a deep and ancient history and is rooted in an incredible culture that started hundreds - thousands - of years before June 6, 1944.  Having said that, the war history is hard to ignore.

For example...this Gite we rented was located in the countryside  in the middle of a triangle between the cities of Carentan, St Mere Eglise, and Periers. War history buffs would recognize at least two of those town names because they were ground zero for the 82nd and 101st Airborne's objective to link Utah and Omaha beaches for D-Day.  I stood for a moment in the front lawn of the gite and considered this: Had we stood there together on the eve of 6 June, we would heard the drone of C-47s high above, perhaps occasionally catching a glimpse as the sky is lit up by anti-aircraft fire.  We would have seen - from our bedroom window - men in parachutes float silently to the ground with M1s at the ready.  We would have winced as we saw a few of them sink helplessly into the fields across the road that had been intentionally flooded, or be cut down by defending troops who occupied the farmhouse just down the road (which had been de-roofed for a better view of the night sky).  We would have seen the paratroopers rally in bands and march East towards Carentan (indeed, there are photos of the paratroopers assembling in Gorges), taking cover among the hedgerows.  Later, we  would have heard the distant reports of mortars and artillery from Carentan as the paratroopers cleared the way for the invasion.  While it is true Normandy is full of history, that history is hard to ignore.

[caption id="attachment_264" align="alignright" width="300" caption="The road signs in this area read like Battle Histories"][/caption]

We saw a lot of stuff in Normandy, and will share the highlights in a few posts over the next few days.  In the mean time, here are a couple pictures of the Gite we stayed in and some of the surrounding area.

Der Winzerfestumzug: Yet another reason to drink some wine.

Three weeks of Neustadt's Deutsches Weinlesefest ended today with the highlight event, the Weinlesefest Parade. We had heard it was a massive parade,  and so the kids - having in mind Ankeny's Summerfest parade and all that candy - each went and found a big plastic bag able to hold as much candy as they could possible carry.  Unfortunately, they all pretty much went home empty handed, because although it was in fact a huge parade with 131 entries, it didn't feature candy.  What it did feature, however, was plenty of wine.    Adults brought (or bought) their own wine glasses and held them up to passing floats, who generously filled and re-filled them with a few ounces of wine.  After 131 floats, that's a lot of by the time the last float presenting the new Wine Queen for 2010/2011,  the parade was a-hoppin!



There goes a Saturday.

Right after we moved her we piled the crew into the van one Saturday and drove 45 minutes to a big furniture store. We bought a few things to fill out the house.  After seven weeks and several phone calls (in Germanglish) it finally all arrived this Friday.   Phew!....glad to have all of that behind us.  Here was our new computer desk fresh out of the packaging...

[caption id="attachment_251" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="29 Separate Pieces"][/caption]

Fortunately, it came with these easy to follow step by step instructions...

This turned out to be a drastic underestimate...

Fortunately, I only have 3 more pieces to go.

Deutsches Weinlesefest

Once again, the wine, food and fun came to us for Neustadt's l Deutsches Weinlesefest. We walked out our front door and to the entrance of the annual Wine Harvest Festival, celebrating the grape harvest and providing all of the local wineries an opportunity to move some inventory.  It was also another chance to take the crew on the Ferris wheel, grab some pretzels and wurst and hit a few carney games.  And as always, we captured a few photos. The view from atop a Ferris Wheel provides a few  good landscapes of the town from above.

Oktoberfest was a week ago and I still can't get that song out of my head.

Oktoberfest in Munich has to be one of the seven wonders of the World.  That's a spectacle I'd recommend nearly everyone take in once (and for your health, not more than once).  We spent the evening at the new Paulaner Tent in the heart of the Oktoberfest celebration.  At the last moment I decide not to take my Nikkon for fear it would get damaged (yup,  it would have) so the only photo evidence I have are a few grainy blackberry images. Even so, pictures don't quite capture all of the activity completely, but this video I found on YouTube from the Paulaner tent a few years ago pretty much captures it...just put this video on repeat for about 5 hours continuously and there you have it...and then  see how long it takes you to get "Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit" out of your head.  

You'd think car buying would be fun here. You'd be wrong.

When we left the states we sold our cars.  Thanks to a generous international relocation policy, we were able to cash in our cars for their full retail value at Kelly Blue Book Excellent condition.  At the time we had a gently used 2 year old Toyota Sienna and a 4 year old 4x4 Crew Cab Chevy Colorado pickup truck.  Ok, these aren't cars thar are going to turn heads, but they aren't cheap either... so I thought it would be no problem to cash those out and pick something nice in Germany. My thinking? A nice practical but simple minivan for the fam, and a BWM 5 or Audi 4 with some stomach turning power for Dad.   If figured if we worked hard on the minivan, maybe we'd even come out roughly even. So in my mind, the equation looked mostly like:

That turned out to be sorely misguided.  German cars here are extremely expensive in general. It's not hard to hit the car listing and find something with a few miles on it that still has a price tag of €40,000 (with the exchange rate, that's about $55k).   Worse, we're on the wrong side of the supply and demand equation thanks to our big family.   Seven passenger cars (that can actually seat seven real human beings and not ridiculously tiny people) are sort of hard to come by. Selection is limited for sure.  I walked into a VW dealership to tell them I was looking for a practical seven seater because I had a family of 5 kids, and the salesman's reaction was "Whoa. That is a BIG problem".  At another dealership, they sent me to the commercial vehicle dealer down the road.  The standard minivan with all the creature comforts just does are hard to find, and the ones that are here are predictably expensive.  

 So after much shopping and hand wringing,  I finally signed the papers on a used Ford Galaxy.  Haven't heard of that? That's because they don't sell it in the US (nor do they sell the Citroen C8, Pugeot 807, Seat Alehambra, or Renault Grand Scenic which were a few of our better options).  The Galaxy, as determined by our test drive, is one of the more spacious and comfortable when a used one finally came up for sale in town I jumped on it. 

Now, here's the part that is going to be hard for me to get over, especially with my Dutch roots.  Even though it was used, our equation now looks something like this:

And it's not even as if the Galaxy is that nice of a car...its definitley no Sienna.   European minivans - like the Galaxy -  are smaller, they rarely have sliding doors...and they generally have no trunk space. So in reality the European minivan compares to our Sienna like this:

That trip we're planning to take to France in October? The one to the place that's 8 hours away? Yeah, that's going to be really uncomfortable. 

And worse, I still have another car to buy. So I think I can scratch off the idea of cruising around Germany on the Autobahn in a fine Deutsches car with the BMW mark on the front.  I'm afraid in the end our equation is going to end up looking something like this:

You can send donations here at your earliest convenience.

Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt in Bad Dürkheim



This afternoon the family spent the afternoon at the Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt in Bad Dürkheim, about 20 minutes away.  Bad Dürkeim (besides having a name you can't help repeat) is another picturesque town on the Weinstraße.   The Wurstmarkt is a festival comes every year for the last 570 years seems like its one of the more well attended events in the area.  It was a carnival like atmosphere reminiscent of the Iowa State Fair (less Twinkies, more Wurst, same amount of beer).    

First order of business was to get some carnival food, so we stopped off and order up 3 plates of Wurst and fries.   Bad Chäse took a couple of bites of the fries and said, "These fries taste funny.  They taste like potatoes." Yeah, that says something about food in the US.    

Next stop was the Ferris wheel where Bad Cämden screamed bloody murder on the platform, so  Bad Melissä had to pick him up and force him into the Gondola...but predictably exactly ten seconds into the ride he realized he liked it.   Later Bad Änna tried her hand at the Hammer Swing carnival game (Life lesson learned: Carnival games are deceptively hard).  Bad Kiersten and Bad Jäzzlyn did well and seemed occupied just taking everything in.   

Bad Dürkheim also has a really cool castle and some other sights to take in, but we saved those for another day.  Also, Melissa found these pictures of Bad Dürkheim after the war. A few photos of the rest of the day are here.

Here's a culture lesson for you: The Pooh Shelf.

ONE THING YOU would notice if you visited our house is the toilet features.  This house has a full cast of toilet equipment.  The urinal, and the bidet are star players in the cast,  but the headliner is the poop shelf.   

Consider for a moment the nuance of the US toilet (and most German toilets for that matter). The simple design consists  of a bowl that contains standing water.  You probably haven't stopped to appreciate the mechanics of that toilet design, but the benefit of standing pool of water is that  it immediately isolates anything that should fall into the pool from the breathable air around it.   Maybe that doesn't seem like an important peice of the operation...but that's one of those things where the saying is true: You don't miss it until it's gone.

The Poop shelf toilet (I did not coin that name) is a relic of Germany and some other regions in Europe that isn't in circulation so much anymore, but since our house happened to be built a long time ago 2 out of our 3 toilets are of this variety.  It  works completely differently than a standard toilet. Instead of having a standing pool of water, the toilet is essentially dry (except for a very thin pool of water) and the bottom of the toilet is flat - like a shelf.  When you flush the toilet, a torrent of water rushes from the back of the bowl towards the front, sweeping everything in its path like a tsunami into a drain in the front.  On the plus side, it're not going to clog a poop shelf toilet no matter how matter how many kilos of hard cheddar you ate before bed last night.

But the one fatal flaw of the poop shelf is that anything that should happen to 'settle' on the poop shelf  remains exposed to open air. Some expats have come to describe this as the "lay and display" method.   It's all fully and completely exposed, able to breathe into the air like a spring bouquet of roses...

Now I, for one,  happened to be in the habit of taking a few extra minutes on the pot every now and again to catch up on the daily news (when you have a house full of five kids, you'll take all the quiet time  you can get).  But with the poop shelf toilet you can get rid of your dog-eared copy of Uncle John's Reader, because believe me - you're not going to want  to spend a second more time in there than you absolutely have to.   It's a little bit like a campground latrine experience, except the latrine happens to be located adjacent to your kitchen. 

Flushing isn't the end of the matter either. Although the flush is powerful, it never seems like the porcelain washes entirely clean. Thanks to the poop shelf I was able to expand my German vocabulary: "Bremsspuren", Loosely translated, it means you have to keep a toilet brush handy.  Fortunately our toilets come equipped with a convenient holder.  ( who's going to wash out the brush?)

As if that weren't enough, our family adds a twist.  Every child growing up has their little idiosyncracies.  Of course, among Camden's is this: He is occasionally reluctant to flush the toilet.   In the US, that was a little bit annoying.  Now, in our bathroom now it's not just annoying, when you open the door to the bathroom  it borders on a  medical emergency.

I've asked around from time to time on why the design of the poop-shelf toilet is still in circulation.  The only thing I've ever heard as a rationale is that it's an easier design in which to collect a stool sample. And no doubt, that it is.  We'll post a photo journal of that as soon as we've had an opportunity to test that out.

Burg Trifels and Annweiler am Trifels

There are no stores open and no work to be done on Sundays here, so we take it as an opportunity to go see this see the sights.  Today's visit was to the Burg Trifels in Annweiler, about 20 minutes away.  We hiked a steep path to the castle and then explored our way to the top, stopping to take in some amazing views. We ate lunch at the top and then hiked back down and then explored the Annweiler downtown with a little bit of ice cream. And of course, we took gobs of pictures.

Eating through Germany

 Although we've been able to generally maintain our American-style eating habits with the macaroni and cheese and Ranch dressing that we air-freighted over here, the reality is those things won't last forever.  So we have been slowly figuring out how to eat here.  Or better, how to eat well here.  Since you can't go to the store it seems and pick up in Iowa chop and a handfull of sweet potatoes like we used to, that means tackling some of the local cuisine. Melissa has introduced some Wurst and Fleischkäse to the dinner table and we sure like the rolls down at the local bakery.

But Flammkuchen (litterally, "flame cake") is the family favorite right now.   It's sort of like an thin crisy pizza, except it has a special white sauce. The sauce is a mixture of sour cream, quark ( a unique German item, basically tastes like sour cream), and creme fraiche (which also tastes alot like sour cream). You stir them together into a mixture that continues to  pretty much tastes like (suprise!) sour cream, and then spread it over a flammkuchen crust like you would pizza sauce.  The typical flammkuchen is then topped with diced ham and onion.  You can of course experiment with different toppings...Melissa's favorite is a Margherita variety with tomato, basil and little bit of mozarella and gorgonzola. Its really good.

We washed it down tonight with a local specialty, Neuer Wein.  We were driving back to Neustadt today and saw a few stands on the side of the road with "Neuer Wein" signs on the road. Its like an Iowa sweet corn stand except with less corn and more wine.  I stopped in one and asked the lady manning the station what exactly Neuer Wein ("new wine") was.   I understand about 20% of the German I hear, but gathered from her it was the early fruits of this years grape harvest - grape juice just before or, if you like,  just after it has begun to ferment.  We picked up two varieties, one that was just grape juice (ok for the kids) and the other that had already begun to ferment for Mom and Dad.   And the nice things is you can use the jugs for your lawn mower later. So we've got that going for us.     The thing is, I don't think most Germans sit around eating flammkuchen and drinking wine all night long, and neither can after a month here of a diet that would make Man v. Food's Adam Richman blush, we both recognize we need to figure out how to start  eating  healthy.  Some of our favorite staples are hard to find here (I had to work hard to find some sweet potatoes - found exactly four of them at the down town farmers market last Saturday -  and we still haven't spotted a butternut squash). But in general the fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats fare is excellent.  And although its been nice to take a few weeks off from the exercise regimen,tomorrow I think its going to be time to for me to welcome back the workouts with about a 150 wall balls. Thats when I'll realize how bad 4-5 weeks without regular exercise can really hurt.

House hunting in Heidelberg.

We like our house, but that doesn't mean we can't at least look for other options.  We took the fam and walked through a little bungalow in Heidelberg today.  It was built around 1200 AD, and has been remodeled about seven times by the French, Swedes, a few other armies (not to mention a  couple of lightening bolts. It sleeps about 500, not including livestock.  It had a beatuful view of the Neckar River and a nice wine cellar (that held a 55,000 gallon barrel of wine). The only problems were the fixtures were a little dated and it's a bit of a fixer-upper for our taste. I'm also not so sure of the plumbing system. Still was fun to look through.

BTW, one man's coincidence is another man's providence. Whatever you like to call it, try this one: We piled our family into our van and drove 50km to the city of Heidelberg, got lost a few times until we finally found a parking garage, found one of the few open spots and pulled up right next to a family unloading their van.  The mom turns to me and says (in English!)  "Is your name Aaron?"  I stood there dumbfounded for a second...but turns out we had pulled in next to the Van Essen family...their stats: another American family. From Iowa. With John Deere. And 5 kids.   We'd never met them before, although Melissa and Kimber had traded a few emails earlier in the week.   If you call it coincidence, then that's almost spooky!

The Little Red Switch (or Why I Paid Someone $50 to Reset a Circuit Breaker)

A couple of former expat friends of mine both once told me that there would be times that I would just feel stupid here in Germany.   This is one of those times.

You see that little tiny red button on the back of our computer? You probably  have one of those on your computer too, and 99.9% of you will never need to worry about what it does or what it is.   But I know what it is -I knew exactly what it was before all of this even happened. After all, I'm a degreed electrical engineer. Little red buttons are my thing.

That, my friends,  is a switch that controls the power supply on your computer. Computers are made to be used all over the world. When computer is in the US on 110V systems, the switch is set to 110v. However, when the computer is sold and distributed in countries that have 220v power, that switch is flipped by the manufacturer to 220V so the computer doesn't get fried when you plug it in to the grid. Most people don't need to know about it because its set by the manufacturer and people usually don't up and move to a new grid. But we are not most people....and  I knew all of that that:  About 110v vs. 220, all about manual switching power supplies, and about that little red switch. I also know not to plug it into the wall here before setting it to 220V, or bad things happen.  How do I know all this? Because I'm a degreed electrical engineer. Its my thing.

My 5 year old son, however, is not.  A couple of weekends ago, soon after our computer came over on the air shipment, my son found the computer sitting on the floor newly unpacked and decided to fire it up.  I was outside with some guests, and the first time I realized things had gone south was when he came out onto the deck and said, "Dad, I plugged the computer into the wall and then there was a pop and now all of the  lights are off  can I have some apple juice?" Wait, what was that first part about the lights not working?   What did you do again? The computer?   The red button!  The 220V grid!  Snap. 

Ah, but no worries, because your Dad is  a degreed electrical engineer,  so I can fix that. Fo once,  I can be the super hero with geeky but practical super powers.   You see, houses have circuit breakers that are designed to flip when there is a potentially hazardous short circuit, son (says me).  So all I have to do is find the fuse box and reset the breaker, says me.   Its no problem, says me, the electrical engineer.

After about 5 minutes of checking breakers though...small problem.  All of the breakers are fine.  There are two fuses boxes in the house, one up and one down (geek that I am, I had already scouted them out. You know, in case).  Normally breakers are labeled with what section of the house they control.  Few of these were, and the ones that were were labeled in hand-scribbled German. But no worries...just find the one that is flipped off and reset it. A degreed electrical engineer should be able to do this in the dark (which, incidentally, it was). 

Except, upon inspection I find that  all of them are flipped on? Now what? No worries, I'm a degreed electrical engineer, says I.  And of course, things are a little different in Germany, but Ohms Law isn't...something is breaking the circuit, and I just have to apply some brain power and figure out what.  After hunting and peering and checking the fuse boxes and light switches, etc, I finally notice a row of fuses below the circuit breakers.  A ha! Fuses! Now that's different... most American houses stopped using fuses decades ago because breakers are more convenient (they don't have to be replaced when they pop), but Germans aren't as much into convenience as they are precision, and so it makes perfect sense! We must have popped a fuse (says me).  Mystery solved! No problem.

Except these are little cannister fuses like I've never seen. Precise German fuses.  None of them really looked blown to me but I chalked that up to my untrained eye with respect to these fancy German fuses.   That must be it, the lights are off because a fuse is bad. Has to be... and son, you can trust me on this. After all, I'm an electrical engineer. 

So off to the store to find some fuses. Only one problem, this happened on Saturday, and by the time I was satisfied all of the breakers were fine and the culprit was the fuse the stores were all closed.  And in Germany, once stores close on Saturday they don't open again until Monday.  So we sat in the dark in our living room for a couple of days, stretching extension cords from the TV to the nearest functioning wall outlet in the entry way, daisy chaining the cords to lights and wireless routers and cell phone chargers...until Monday came. 

Armed with a sample fuse,  while I was at work Melissa ran to the closest BauMarkt (think German Home Depot) for some replacements. They were waiting for me when I got home that evening.  She asks me if I know how to change them.   No problem, says I, I'm a degreed electrical engineer and this is what I do! I'll have things working in a jiffy, says I (starting to feel like the geeky Mister Incedible again).   30 minutes later, I had replaced every fuse in the fuse box with a fresh one...and no power. Nada.

And so here is the point where I officially threw in the towel.  I know when I'm in over my head. The fuses were fine, the breakers fine, and obviously the worst had occured. We had damaged an outlet, or a maybe a switch or even some wiring in the house and now something was going to need to be replaced and repaired. There was now, clearly, some serious work to do.  It had to be, after all Ohms law is Ohms law, and something had to be broken., and if its not the fuses or breakers than its something big that requires somebody with a license and some training.  So I gave in and finally called electrician (actually, called someone who spoke English and asked them to call the electrician).  I was at least satisfied I had done everything else I could and could justify finally calling in the pros to do the heavy lifting. 

And so it was that Tuesday afternoon I was sitting in my office when the phone rang. It was Melissa, and she said the electrician was all done. Really? Already? Did he have to rewire something? Replace an outlet? Were the breakers bad? Floating ground? Contacts need cleaning? Was there some schpilkus in the genektigezoink? 

"He's done now. He showed me that there was a 3rd fuse box at the bottom of the stairs you didn't notice (pretty much in plane sight, you know, the one you walked by 50 times last night).  In that fuse box there was a breaker flipped off. He just left. I seriousy think he was here for 2 minutes."

So that's the story of the little red button, or "How I, a Degreed Electrical Engineer, Paid an Electrician $50 Bucks to Come Flip a Circuit Breaker."