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:

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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."