Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bing Crosby Would Be Singing

"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas... just like the ones I used to know"

I've never seen such a sight. Growing up in central Virginia, we got snow. But not like the snow I've seen these past 3 weeks. Josh has absolutely loved it, since until now, his only experience with snow was the stuff that's already fallen. At 7 years old, he's finally been able to watch the snow fall from the sky, in all kinds of wonderful shapes and sizes. He's missed 2 days of school already and had 2-hour delays on several other days. As for me, I think it's beautiful, but I don't like driving in it one bit.

Just yesterday afternoon, we received about 6 inches of snow in a matter of hours. And that was on top of the other snow that has been building these past few weeks. The pics below are from one of the earlier snowstorms. They don't give any justice to the true amount of snow we currently have, but they give an idea of what a snowy evening in Landstuhl, Germany looks like.

The Streets of Landstuhl

Advertisement for an upcoming event

Neighborhood Grocery Store

Local Train Station

Sascha's Restaurant - a favorite of ours

Landstuhl Town Hall Christmas Tree

Pedestrian Crossing Zone

Steeple in Sepia-like Tone

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New German Wheels: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Nicki posted a bit back about having to register our new vehicle, but didn't go much into details about the how, what, where, and when.

First, as a DOD employee, I am eligible (as are my dependents of legal age) to obtain a drivers license here in Germany, after taking a 3-hour "Driver's Orientation" course and then passing a 100 question test. The test is comprised of 75 multiple choice questions followed by a section entirely comprised of German road signs. It's not an easy test. Passing score is an 85, and many of the questions are worded in a manner to confuse and frustrate the test taker. And some of the German signs are strictly in German, so the test does require some preparation and studying for us non-German speakers. I took the past in mid-November, and fortunately passed it (barely) on my first go. This helped us tremendously, because it took the burden off of my sponsor, who until then was driving us pretty much everywhere. After getting the license, I rented a sporty little BMW, which was fun to drive and a good test of my road skills in Europe. Anyway, back to the car buying story...

Must have been around late November, we bought a 2006 Volvo V70 station wagon. It all started when my sponsor was helping me navigate the entire Kaiserslautern Military Community (KMC) through dozens of used car lots to find a reasonably decent vehicle at a good price. Typical of any military community, there are all kinds of car dealerships around the KMC, selling Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and the rest of your typical German made autos. They carry new or used, German-specs or US-specs, manual or automatic transmission... anything you could possibly want.

After looking at a few vehicles around the local area, my sponsor offered to research some comps online and brought in the resulting matches the next day. One of the comps was the Volvo we ended up buying. It only had one prior owner, a doctor. And the car is fully loaded - GPS (programed for all of Western Europe), heated seats, sensor windshield wipers that automatically turn on when the windshield gets wet enough, a timer that heats the car at a specified time so that you don't have to warm it up in the morning while you wait, etc. It's also automatic transmission - a necessity for Nicki - and a diesel, which will be good for fuel efficiency when we're cruising the autobahn.

Once we bought the vehicle, I had to get it inspected (for free) on nearby Kapaun Air Station and then registered as a KMC military community personnel vehicle - registration is different than the typical German registration process. Seems like a simple matter... and it should be, except that Mother Nature had her own plans. The week that we bought the car was filled with snow, which at times closed the Kapaun Inspection Office, making it difficult for me to get the vehicle over to them. On my third try, they finally were open for business. Great news, until they found a few problems with the car; two dead light bulbs and a component needing replacement in the steering column. Then I had to coordinate with the seller to get the repairs done at his Volvo dealership, which he did rather quickly (during my lunch break the following day). Then, I ran the vehicle back to the inspection office, where the car passed the inspection with flying colors. Unfortunately, it was late in the day and I had to pick Josh up at school. So I had to wait to register the vehicle until the following day. The line at the registration office was similar to a California DMV - I must have been in there for an hour before reaching the first of three service desks. First they had to verify my eligibility status, vehicle history, insurance info, etc. and confirm that I filled the form in correctly. At the second window, I was issued plates for the car. At the third window, I paid the registration fee before finally becoming official registered vehicle owners in Germany.

One tip for future PCS'ers to Germany, if you have access to USAA and are eligible for car insurance through them, BUY IT. I'll be honest, I didn't search around for the best prices on auto insurance here in Germany, but the insurance we got through USAA is top notch. It covers us not only throughout Germany, but within a long list of other countries over here. And if we run into trouble on the road, there's an international toll free number we can call and USAA will send a driver out to tow our vehicle - all covered. Best of all, when I set up the insurance, USAA automatically sent our new insurance info directly to the registration office on base. So when I went in to register my vehicle, they didn't even have to ask me for my insurance card. It was already in the system on their computers.

Another tip for PCS'ers to Germany, if you happen to move here during one of the snowiest winters in a decade. Make sure your vehicle has winter windshield wiper fluid, and not the diluted stuff. Make sure it's the concentrate (good until -60 degrees C). For the first few days in our new ride, I thought the wiper fluid pump was bad, until I figured out that the fluid was just frozen. After pouring in a few rounds of concentrate, it melted and now is working like a champ. And the fluid is worth its weight in gold while driving in winter conditions, as the windshield dirties up in a hurry on the autobahn with all the wetness, salt, and dirt being thrown around.

In recent news, Nicki just passed the drivers test, so she has started to drive a bit also. With all the snow we're facing, and her general lack of driving experience in these conditions, she hasn't really been able to practice as much as she'd like. But she's doing great nonetheless.

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to go with my sponsor over to the German city hall in Kaiserslautern to request my International Drivers License. We're within about 3-hours of several other European countries from our spot here in Germany, so it's a must. I think we can get to France in under an hour, so maybe we'll celebrate my obtaining the Int'l license by going to one of the French border cities.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Winter Market in Landstuhl

It has been a couple of weeks since we posted (gasp!) anything to the blog, so I took the liberty of backdating this post to Dec 11, though it's actually Dec 21. I have a lot to post about, so I'll break it up chronologically as best as I can remember.

At the end of November, Landstuhl village engaged in a weekend-long Winter Market (not the official name, but not quite a Christmas Market either). Since our temporary quarters are nestled right in the heart of Landstuhl, it was an easy walk for us... in fact, the street in front of our temp apartment was closed off to vehicle traffic, so that pedestrians could take over and enjoy the small shops and food vendors abound.

These photos are primarily from Nov 27, but we took part in the market activities in some form or another pretty much every day of the event. They had rides for the kids, food and drinks for all, and all kinds of knick knacks for sale, including Christmas ornaments and random household items. We were particularly fond of the kinderpunsch (or child punch) and Gl├╝hwein (adult punch... heated wine). Josh and Sam enjoyed riding in circles on the various merry-go-round style rides. And of course, we ate bratwurst. And we liked it...

Friday, December 3, 2010

No License... But My Hair Looks Good

We are discovering that it’s taking much longer to get settled in here than it took just about any other place we’ve been. Because we were not given lodging on base (there simply was no room for us) and the snow has come early, it’s been even more difficult to get things done. To get a license here, I have to go to an orientation session and then take a test. I think I’m pretty set for the test. The trouble is finding a time I can go alone. A two year old really hinders that! Before arriving, I had initially planned on just sending him to the Child Development Center (CDC) on post. Come to find out, I have to have him up-to-date on his immunizations. I think in a previous blog post, I noted why I was negligent with that. To call and make an appointment with the US Hospital for immunizations, I call in the morning to see if there are 20 open slots available. If there are 20 open slots available, then I can make an appointment. If there are not, I need to call at around 10AM to see if they can take me same day. I can only make an appointment the same day. These are the requirements for a pay patient. These rules aren’t just for immunizations, but also sick appointments as well. I’m not sure why these rules are in place. At the Navy hospital, we didn’t have these rules. From what I understand, it’s much better for us to make appointments off base and have a primary physician /pediatrician off base/post which doesn’t really seem to be bad at all. In fact, I hear that many of the German doctors are great. Once I get Sam’s immunizations updated, I can then start trying to make appointments with the CDC. Apparently when I call, it has to be a month out and then with a little luck, I can get an appointment. So, it may be in my best interest to look for childcare outside the gates as well. The CDC business is just what I hear through the grapevine… not fact. I’ll have to post an update then.

The great news is that Mike has a license. At least one of us has a little freedom. Unfortunately, because only one of us has a license, only one of us can run all the errands. Usually errands are my job. Because of the snow and ice it literally makes it pretty impossible for me to run all the errands that need to get done. Mike even has to pick up Joshua from school. Joshua then has to stay with Mike at work or wherever he needs to run around to, until everything closes at around 5:00. I’ve tried hiking up “cardiac hill” in the ice, and although I’d do it by myself no problem, slipping and sliding up a hill, two year old in tow, scares me a little bit. Unfortunately the weather and the two year old are major hurdles. Here’s an example:

Mike needed to register our vehicle. He’s had the dealer's plates on now for a week. Something he was planning on getting done in one day. He picked up the car, then had to pick up Joshua from school at 3:00 and run several other errands (not to mention working somewhere in the middle), so the vehicle inspection had to wait. No problem, he would just do it first thing in the morning. We woke up to snow and a 2 hour delay for Joshua’s school. So, with nowhere for Joshua to go but work with dad (remember, I can’t walk anywhere without slipping everywhere and pushing an umbrella stroller through the snow), off they went. He drove to the inspection office only to find out they where closed until further notice. Day 3, inspection is open and after lunch, he plans to go. In my infinite wisdom and chomping the bit to help out, I hike up cardiac hill slipping and sliding the whole way to bring Mike some food to eat. The whole week he had come home telling me he didn’t have time to eat (this is when I realize that never again would I go up that hill in the ice with a child). I called him once I reached the top to tell him I was there and he was excited to show me our car (which I hadn’t seen yet). We got in the car and he decided we’d all head to the inspection together. I hadn’t planned for this. Sam and I hadn’t eaten so we stopped at the drive-thru for a bite to eat. We made it to the inspection office only to find out that we were missing the insurance booklet that the dealer should have supplied us. We called the dealer and drove to pick up the booklet. We initially planned to go right back to inspection office but at that point, we didn’t have enough time between having to pick Joshua up from school, having to return the rental car, and having Mike return to his work obligations. Mike dropped me off at the hospital so I could try and get the flu vaccine for Samuel and then I walked to pick up Joshua. Then I walked back to the hospital to get Joshua’s flu vaccine just in time for Mike to be done at work (and the inspection office to be closed). Day 4 was another weather delay. Mike was able to get the car in again only to find out it didn’t pass inspection (because of two burned out light bulbs and a busted minor part in the steering column). We called the dealer again to arrange for the vehicle to be fixed. Day 5 (today) the dealer fixed everything and we now have a registered car. HOORAY! Something that should have taken 1 day took 5. This is just one example.

Needless to say again, things have just taken longer. But, some of the easier unimportant things are taken care of, like my hair! I hadn’t gotten my hair done is 3 months. Thanks to my mother-in-law, I was able to get an appointment with her stylist to get my bangs cut before we left Virginia but I was in some serious need of a major visit! Because of my recent dye job, it highlighted my mangley gray hair when it started growing in. I looked online and found a place in downtown Landstuhl: Hair Adventures by Sven. It was easy for me to make an appointment a week out with Julia, and she was great. Even though our conversation was limited, I got a nice trim and a more reddish tint to my hair. I’m slowly going to go a little lighter and redder. Not so much blonde, as closer to my original color with a little more red probably and then work on growing it out again. Slowly slowly slowly. I didn’t tip after because… well, I wasn’t sure what I should have done. I honestly should have looked it up before going but it was something I overlooked. Here in Germany it seems as though 10% is normal (same as restaurants here), so after the snow let up (2 days later), I walked in with an envelope for her with a little more than that and a note thanking her and apologizing for not giving her the tip then and there.

A positive ending to what may seem to some as a “venting” entry. Just remember, getting a hair appointment is easy. It’s all the necessities that are hard!