Sunday, January 28, 2007

Mall Ratten...

Yesterday (Saturday, January 27th), we went to a big mall called Rhein-Neckar Zentrum in Viernheim, about 40 kilometers North of our temporary housing. It was an interesting experience. The mall is immense and essentially a single story. Points of interest:

  • There's a place to park your children ("Kinderland") that costs 1 Euro per child per hour. Needless to say, we'll be back for that alone...
  • The mall had some nice bakeries and even a butcher shop.
  • The place was packed to the gills with people of all ages.
  • The kids were excited to go to Toys R Us. Prices there were higher than in the States but not out of control.

I'd like to go back when the kids feel more comfortable being away from us. At this point, being dropped off in a place where they don't speak the same language as their playmates is a no-go.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Out on the town...

B and I just got back from our first night out in Germany. We took advantage of Marina's being here to leave the kids at home for a change. Even though we're in a tiny town, we were impressed with the nightlife. First we tried to go to a Greek restaurant down the street. It was really cozy inside, but we didn't have reservations and a table wouldn't have been available for hours. We escaped the bitter cold by stepping into a bar. Seeing teenagers hanging out together on the weekend reminded me of Brazil. A bit shocking to see kids so young in a bar, but they seemed to be behaving themselves.

We ended up in a restaurant where we'd had brunch the day we arrived (Glaushaus). The place at night was really nice. We arrived at about 8:30 and it was full but not crowded. We sat at the bar and had a couple of drinks and an appitizer. We then got a table and had dinner. B ordered a plate of steamed mussels in a gorgonzola sauce. I think they were the freshest mussels I've ever tasted. Absolutely incredible. By 10:00 the place was happening. Tons of people of all ages having a few drinks and smoking cigarettes like there was no tomorrow.

About half way through dinner we had a very smalltown German experience. I had seen a couple sitting at a table together since we'd arrived. I noticed that the lady was hunched over and soon realized that the man's dog (as big as a Lab) was lying of the floor next to him. The place is pretty upscale with a lot of well dressed young professionals, so it seemed really strange (but cool).

A really funny sidenote is that you can get a great Brazilian cocktail, a caipirinha, in just about any bar in Germany; and they're really good. B had a couple of them and was feeling no pain. I, as usual, had a few Weissbiers. I think I could get used to this place.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

In like a lion...

After a couple of weeks of winter climate Redmond style (this year's freak snowstorm notwithstanding), winter arrived in our corner of Germany with snow and really cold temperatures. I sent the van in today to get snow tires -- something I've always associated with cities like Detroit and Fargo.

B's sister Marina arrived yesterday after an 11-hour flight from Brazil. The navigation system in the van turns out to be a mixed blessing as it often gives you several options for the same destination. B seems to have a gift for picking the wrong one! Yesterday she arrived at the Frankfurt airport at the cargo terminals. She then picked the wrong city to come pick me up at work which resulted in an hour-long not-so-scenic tour of the Heidelberg area.

On the news front, it looks like we've found an apartment (we should sign the lease this Saturday, January 27th). Hard to believe, but we found new construction (add-on to existing building), a real rarity in Heidelberg. The apartment is right next to the S-Bahn line, a tram which goes directly to downtown Heidelberg. This apartment is the realization of a dream I've had since I left Rio: to live in walking distance of everything I really need (bars, restaurants, bakeries -- you name it).

A funny thing about German houses and apartments is that they typically come with very few, if any, fixtures and nothing in the kitchen! In Germany you can go to a store and buy an entire kitchen including cabinets, fridge, microwave etc. While I found this modular approach odd at first, it gave us a rare opportunity to rent 2 apartments that, since they are under construction, will be made to feel like one. We should move into our 4-bedroom flat the first week of March. It's right over a retail space which will save some poor soul from living beneath the Panzer division known as the Prickril kids (especially the girls).

Also, we made our first trip to Ikea yesterday. Looks identical to the ones in the States, including prices that make you think you misread the tag (and in a good way). We bought bedding so Marina wouldn't have to sleep in the van (my original suggestion).

Finally, in the interest of bloggistic integrity, a correction: it looks like some grocery stores here do accept credit cards. I must admit I had been on the brink of losing my faith in the German people.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Trip to Speyer...

Today we woke up, loaded the crew into the van and headed to Speyer, a city about 30 kilometers from our temporary apartment in Bad Schönborn. I made a quick trip there when I first visited Germany in September '06.

Cathedral in Speyer

Even though most people outside of Germany have probably never heard of it, Speyer has more than its share of interesting things to do. It's home to one of the oldest cathedrals in Germany, has an aquarium (on the Rhein) and a really cool "technik" museum.

The kids had a blast playing on a huge spider on the playground. We then had lunch at a nice café (Sophia still smells like a Marlboro). We ended our trip by going to a history museum that had a kids' exhibit on pirates (one of Robert's latest obsessions).

Next time we have a decent weekend weatherwise, we'll go back and visit the aquarium and teknik museum. The latter has a bunch of planes displayed outside on tall pedestals; one of them is a 747.

BTW, Popozuda did a fine job of keeping us on track.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

"Paper or plastic" in the Fatherland...

Let's face it: Americans love to shop -- even grocery shop. For those who have traveled abroad, American supermarkets offer a dizzying variety of everything from motor oil to toothpaste. As you can imagine, shopping in Germany has been a pretty interesting adjustment. A few of the interesting differences:
  1. Most food items are noticeably cheaper than in the States. Go figure.
  2. You have to deposit a Euro to get a shopping cart (you get it back when you return the cart).
  3. There are no free bags to lug your stuff home at the register. You can buy plastic or cloth bags that are meant to be re-used. Makes sense to me. Many people carry small baskets to the grocery store which seems pretty quaint.
  4. You can't pay with a credit card at most supermarkets. Cultural sensitivity aside, that's just weird.
  5. You pay a deposit on plastic Coke bottles. We never remember to take them with us so they're piling up in our apartment.
  6. There's no beef. You get this at butcher shops and it's not cheap (one of the things that's noticeably more expensive here).
  7. There's no fresh milk. Luckily, we're used to "boxed" milk from our travels to Brazil.
  8. Booze and wine are really, really cheap. Woohoo!

And a parting, related note: Refrigerators in Germany are really small and not very cold. Our temporary housing has a refrigerator that would leave many a dorm-dweller annoyed. I'm not sure if people go to the store every day to get fresh food or because their refrigerator won't hold more than a 24-hour stock.

We got wheels...

Our minivan got here. It's funny, but after only 2 weeks in Germany a regular size "mini" van seems enormous! Other than the diesel engine, it's identical to its American cousine.

Although the kids are thrilled with the entertainment system, B and I like the navigation system. It's never easy to get around in an old city that you don't know, but Heidelberg and the surrounding cities seem designed to throw one for a loop.

We've christened the female voice of the navigation system "Popozuda" (long story, but we're continuing a tradition).

Anyway, today is Saturday the 20th and we saw 5 different houses and apartments. We fell in love with the last one we saw so we're hoping things will work out. Stay tuned for details.

Finally, today we found a really cool American-style diner. We had a long wait between appointments and the kids were starving. The place is made from an old train car and filled with Americana. We went more for convenience than nostalgia, but had the best hamburgers we've ever eaten. The kids had one of their favorites: pancakes.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Our first weekend "across the pond"

Our first weekend that we didn't feel like zombies at least. On Saturday, Wolfgang (my friend and manager at work) brought his kids to play at a park in Bad Schönborn (the city where we're staying). We walked about 20 minutes along agricultural roads to a small "zoo" -- really a bunch of spoiled farm animals on display for the kids. The kids loved seeing the horses, sheep, goats and even a little village of bunnies. There was also a playground that the kids went nuts on.

Saturday evening we had company. It seems another member of my team at work married a Brazilian! Thomas, Luciana and their kids João and Joana came by. We had a great time watching the kids play and drinking a few beers (how else are you supposed to entertain in Germany?).

Sunday we met up with Wolfgang again. This time the entire family was in tow. We all headed out to a beautiful park in Mannheim. Among other things, we saw parrots flying wild and a good size flock of flamingos. Who knew?

Sunday evening it was back to Thomas and Luciana's house to help send a friend off to Brazil. Thomas has a killer veranda that I hope will be the site of many raucous churrascos (barbeques) this summer!

Before we met with Wolfgang, we went driving around Heidelberg and happened upon a really nice Italian restaurant. Europe seems to suit the kids as their table manners have rarely been so on point (especially Emily). Just a coincidence? Only time will tell.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

6 hours from now we'll be in...

B and I started planning trips we'd like to take using the "German Mapquest", We picked fairly random cities that we thought would be interesting and found it remarkable that many of them are less than 6 hours from Heidelberg. To wit:

Milan, Italy: 5 hours 50 minutes (578 kilometers)
Prague, Czech Republic:5 hours 50 minutes (514 kilometers
Paris, France:5 hours 24 minutes (541 kilometers)
Amsterdam, Netherlands:5 hours 2 minutes (502 kilometers)
Salzburg, Austria: 5 hours (479 kilometers)
Zurich, Switzerland: 3 hours 21 minutes (325 kilometers)

And last but not least, Hamburg, Germany: 5 hours 47 minutes (574 kilometers) [Thanks for the reminder Wolfgang].

I think our first long trip will be to Munich and then on to Salzburg. Emily recently fell in love with "The Sound of Music". What could be cooler than visiting the places where it was filmed? B can't wait to get to Paris as I owe her a purse from last Christmas (from a certain designer with initials LV). I'm obviously more excited about Salzburg. ;)

We've ordered a Chrysler minivan and should take delivery this week. Hopefully the entertainment system will keep the kids distracted on our many 5 hour (or so) trips.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Do the math!

When I set the clock radio in our flat, I was completely unable to decipher the labels on the dials and display. As such, I mistook a light on the disply for a PM indicator. The clock displays time in 24 hours so AM/PM are irrelevant. I somehow managed to set the PM time as AM. I paid for my laziness in not fixing this mistake this morning when I misread the clock, awoke and took a shower at 4:30 (the "1" in 16:30 was blocked so I thought I had overslept!).

I woke up the entire house (of course) and was only partially successful in getting the kids back to "idle". A quick trip to the bakery for fresh bread at 6:00 got me (mostly) back on B's good side. It will be interesting to see how late we sleep on our first Saturday here tomorrow.

Adjustment 1: Pace

I think the first adjustment we had to make has to do with the general pace of life in Germany. We arrived on a Saturday which was a holiday. As such, virtually all businesses except restaurants and bars were closed. The same thing applies every Sunday! Furthermore, supermarkets close at 8:00 pm (or 20:00 as it is more commonly expressed here).

At first glance, such limited hours are particularly objectionable to Americans, who have become accustomed to 24 Wal-Marts and lines at the Wendy's drive-through at 1:00 AM. Upon further reflection however, the idea of being forced to periodically disengage from the endless errands we could run becomes appealing. It's kind of like the relief you feel when you when you realize that the inconvenience of forgetting your cell phone at home is well worth the peace you'll experience until you return.

Although I haven't yet spent a weekend out and about with the family here, on a previous trip I enjoyed seeing friends and families enjoying their weekend together rather than spending their time in the checkout lane at Home Depot!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I won't say it was easy, but we made it to Germany on the morning of January 6th. All things considered, the kids were real troopers on the almost 10-hour flight from Portland to Frankfurt. It took us longer than expected to collect our 11 pieces of luggage (yes, we're nuts) due to our ignorance of the "bulky item belt", a separate location to which the car seats were diverted.

We found our shuttle driver with no problems, picked up a rental car and were at our temporary flat in Bad Schönborn within an hour of getting our luggage. We got a Ford minivan with a standard transmission and diesel engine. I'll give you $1 for each one of these you find in the US!

We're really happy with the three-bedroom flat. It's right above a small grocery/drug store and a fresh vegetable mini-market. There are plenty of shops and restaurants within a minute's walk, including a bakery where we buy our breakfast every morning. Fresh baguettes in the morning is a luxery we haven't enjoyed since our last vacation to Brazil. No doubt about it: these people know how to bake!

The kids and Bia are happy, if a little jetlagged. This morning Robert and Emily woke up at 6:00 -- much later than "normal" since our arrival. Another few days and our internal clocks should be adjusted to our new continent.