Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Da Vinci close...

Last night the Mrs. and I stepped out on the town. At around 20:00, we jumped on a strassenbahn (streetcar or tram) in the direction of downtown Heidelberg. It was a gorgeous night -- light jacket weather. We still haven't completely figured out the schedule, so we managed to get on at one of the few times that it takes you to the train station rather than the central plaza downtown.

As luck would have it, the tram stopped very close to the restaurant where we wanted to have dinner. The driver got out with a big stick and manually switched the tracks to make the curve toward the train station! We though it was pretty funny. We did not however, see any signs of a pile of coal and/or shovel. The other passengers were slightly amused when we made an abrupt exit through the door he had had left open. Germans are fastidious rule followers; Brazilians (and this American) not so much.

We walked about 5 minutes to a little street that has several bars and restaurants. Last Saturday, we stumbled into a great Italian restaurant called
Da Vinci. It's a bit upscale with great ambiance and better than average food. On both occasions, the place was full with a good mix of ages/types. One of the most amazing things about this place is that you can get a decent pasta dish for under 10 Euros. Last night we split a pizza with cherry tomatoes and Gorgonzola. B then had spaghetti with sea food. I, as is my custom, downed a few Hefeweitzens. I wonder how Homer Simpson says "Ummm, beer" in German.

B has started to appreciate wine more since we moved here. Last night she had a nice Chianti. I resisted the urge to order fava beans and liver (a shame I didn't resist the urge to include this obscure reference). I've sworn off wine since I got blitzed at a restaurant with coworkers in San Diego in February. Based on my extensive (and painful) experience, there's no hangover line a wine hangover. B showed much more restraint and now seems much more willing to drink wine that doesn't taste like it was bottled by Bartles and James.

By 10:00 or so we were ready to head back to the ranch. The kids have had chest colds and have been waking us up multiple times each night so we were slightly toasted and generally beat. As an inveterate lush that has always refused to drink and drive, I LOVE THE GERMAN PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM!

As most who know me have heard ad nauseum, I'm a city kind of guy. It was great to see groups of teenagers out on the town in a city (and country) so safe that I can't imagine their parents think twice about letting them out the door. We came back to our tram stop with a group of three very cute and chatty 15 year old (or so) girls that made us think about what Emily and Sophia will be up to in a decade or so. It also made me think about what Robert will be up to as a teenager here and in Brazil. My two word sign-off for today? Lucky kid!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Very nice-nice…

Today we took the 40 minute trip from Heidelberg down to Baden-Baden or, literally translated, Bath-Bath. It was B’s mom who really wanted to go – I had my doubts. It turns out we have a new favorite city in Germany. Baden-Baden seems to have everything: museums, mountains, natural springs, a spa and the most beautiful pedestrian area we’ve seen yet.

When we first arrived, we got lost and went to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. As we tried to leave, we got carried away and started four-wheeling up a steep, snow covered incline. After about 20 minutes of white knuckle driving on B’s part, we managed to turn around and make it to the city center where we found a great parking garage. You would think the spaces were designed for people to park unicycles but we wedged the family truckster (Chrysler minivan) in and managed to squeeze (literally) out the sides.
We then walked around the pedestrian area and were blown away by the beauty of the buildings and the diversity of restaurants, bars and other businesses. Even though it was cold, there were a lot of folks in the street. The small cities are giving us a bit of Spring fever as we can’t imagine how beautiful they must be with nicer weather. Virtually all of the beer gardens are closed, the trees are bare and the weather hasn’t been stellar. With all that, these places manage to retain their charm.
As usual, after walking around for a good while we ended up in a café for hot chocolate and cake. This time I captured photographic evidence of our overindulgence. The cake gets an average score of 9 out of ten (we ordered 3 kinds). The hot chocolate didn’t hold a candle to the stuff we drank last week in Speyer.

On the way back, we got stuck in a wicked traffic jam around Karlruhe. Other than the kids putting Edelweiss (from the Sound of Music) on a seemingly endless loop, we made it through alright. It looks like I’m going to have that song in my head for a good while. Better than "Funky Town". Oops! Now you're going to have a song stuck in your head.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Die Bäckerei...

When it comes to making great tasting things with wheat, the Germans got done messing around a long, long time ago. We remember this almost every morning when we (usually in the royal sense of the word: I) go to the bakery to buy bread. As I've mentioned before, this is a habit B grew up on and I become accustomed to in Brazil. However, I must admit that the German bakery experience is better.

As you can see in the pictures below, there is a wide range of breads and rolls one can buy, both sweet and not so much. In most places, you can also purchase jelly, pasta, milk etc. We tend to stick to simple baguettes, both “regular” and whole wheat. Sometimes I’ll buy croissants, both chocolate covered (decadent, no?) and not.

Most bakeries also offer a selection of cakes that give you a sugar rush just looking at them. Eating cake on the weekends is an institution in Germany. It’s quite common to see folks on Saturday and Sunday afternoon drinking coffee or expresso and downing large plates of delicious-looking cake.
We still haven’t figured out what determines what bread/rolls are available on what day. The rotation in selection seems random but gives one a good excuse to try new things.

By far the busiest day at the bakery is Saturday. I guess people have more time to prepare meals and most bakeries are closed on Sunday. We have at least 3 bakeries within 5 minutes or so of our house. One of them even opens on Sunday. It’s interesting to see people buy a section of a large (and I mean large) loaf of bread. I’m assuming one orders by the centimeter (or inch if you really want to confuse the baker).

While we’re on the subject of great-tasting German wheat concoctions, Hefeweitzen, or wheat beer, is my favorite. It is now the only beer I drink. As the good book says, man cannon live on bread alone. I, unfortunately, tend to compensate for the lack of variety with volume. This is a dangerous endeaver as this beer is a bit deceptive: its slight sweetness belies a powerful punch (albeit with a velvet glove). It doesn’t help that it’s typically served in half liter glasses.

Although the glass pictured below is a bit banal, Hefeweitzen or Weisbeer (white beer) is usually served in really beautiful tall glasses (with a half liter mark to remove any doubt about its capacity). This post has inspired me to begin collecting pictures of said glasses. It will certainly be hard work, but somebody’s got to do it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Late March surprise...

We woke up to a beautiful snowfall yesterday. It also snowed a good part of the morning today. Luckily, it didn't stick. The garage in our building is underground so I got stuck today due to a layer of slick slush on the exit ramp. After a couple of brave souls cut a path in the muck, I got out. Barely.
In non-weather-related news, an electrician came on Monday and installed all of our lighting. My vote for the coolest fixture is the chandelier that B bought that has small bulbs as well as candle holders . It creates a great atmosphere at night although we haven't yet dined in the dining room.
Below is a long exposure shot of our building at night. The chandelier in our "wintergarden", as they call it here, is beautiful from the street (left side of picture, second floor). My camera failed to capure the gentle shadows the candlelight cast on the construction crew's portapotty, but trust me, they were there and they were lovely.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Brazilian American Princesses...

In her neverending bid to create the most feminine environment possible for our daughters, B, with the help of Disney's crack product development staff, has outdone herself on their room. I gotta think Barbie herself would find it a bit over the top...

But the most beautiful thing in the room is, of course, the princess herself!

(FYI - Sophia was sleeping so missed the photo op)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

This Old House...

I remember watching this show on PBS while channel surfing and marveling at New England homes that were over 200 years old. Today, we scrapped our plans to go to Baden-Baden due to inclement weather and decided to go to a town recommended by another Yankee. Ladenburg turned out to be another big surprise in a small package. This tiny town boasts Roman ruins that are nearly 2,000 years old as well as occupied buildings constructed in the 17th, 16th and even 15th centuries! I haven't traveled much in Germany yet, but it seems that it would be difficult to find a village more quaint than this one.

The building above was constructed in 1480! To provide a little context, Columbus hadn't yet discovered the New World! If he had lived in Ladenburg, he might never have been inspired to leave.

There were some kids rides setup in the main plaza as well as a sweets shack chock full of all kinds of good stuff. The kids enjoyed both.

After we walked around Landenburg for a while, we headed to a place we've been to before and loved: Speyer. We walked down the main drag and quickly ducked into a nice café. I had a stout espresso while Cristina and Sandra ordered the best hot cocoa I've ever tasted (there I go again with the superlatives). Both were really thick and as one would hope, chocolaty. Cristina's came with nuts which was an interesting twist. The kids had ice cream while B ordered white chocolate cocoa.

Tonight B and I went to an Italian restaurant the owner of the bar near our apartment recommended. We weren't blown away by the food but the place was interesting. It's nestled in the middle of a residential area almost by itself. I still think zoning practices in the US are misguided. People talk about how they don't know their neighbors. I think it's because it's tough to chat while racing by in our cars which are practically indispensable given that you don't find any businesses in our neighborhoods.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

No candlestick maker…

One of the things we like most about our new abode is its proximity to restaurants, grocery stores etc. Ever since we left Rio, we (at least I) have missed being able to take care of business sans car. Below I’ve grouped these businesses in zones based on how long it takes me to walk there. Here’s our ever-growing directory of local businesses:

Red zone (less than 1 minute walk)

- High end hair salon almost directly across the street (28 Euros for a {metrosexual} man’s cut!)
- Bakery (or “Backerei” which gives us each day our daily bread)
- Bar (hole in the wall where one can imbibe a cold one and get a nice nicotine contact buzz)
- Butcher (or “Metzgerie” where one can buy a mean wurst)
- Dry cleaner
- Pharmacy

Below is a view from the front of our building. You can see the sign for the salon (red wavy hair), the bakery (“Backerei”), bar (dark door on corner), butcher (orange letters on sign) and pharmacy (red letters in distance). By the way, you can also see the Strassenbahn (tram) arriving at the stop near our house.

Orange Zone (1 to 3 minute walk)

- Post Office
- Another bakery

- Two (relatively) large grocery stores (Plus and Lidl)
- Eyewear

- Antique Store
- At least 2 other pharmacies
- 2 sports books (filled with guys screaming at televisions)
- An espresso bar
- A couple of sports bars (with men screaming less violently at televisions)
- A couple of beauty salons (at least one of which is more reasonable than the one across the street from the apartment)

- A toystore

Yellow Zone (> 3 minutes)
Why would I walk more than 3 minutes from my house? Did you read about the other two zones? :-)
The dust is (slowly) settling…

We’re finally settling in to our new place. There are boxes everywhere and we don’t have our armoires yet (most German places don’t have closets so clothes are all over the place) but we’ve arranged our furniture and even bought a TV. Although we brought a TV from the States so the kids could watch their DVD collection, European television broadcasts in a different format (PAL, as opposed to NTSC in the States) and requires different voltage. Luckily, a fellow ex-Pat is moving back to the States and is in the process of shedding much of the Continental detritus his family has accumulated here.

B went to Ikea (with her Mom and Sandra) and dropped a small fortune (by Ikea standards) on our armoires and assorted other stuff. Ikea has an interesting pricing model. If you want them to get the stuff from the shelves for you, they charge 25 Euros, regardless of how much stuff you buy. They’ll deliver the whole store to your doorstep for a delivery charge of 80 Euros. Since we bought a total of 6 armoires (long story), we’ll pay our friends at Ikea to assemble them. The one for our bedroom is a real monster so, my near death experience installing lighting fresh on my mind, I’ll stay out the way this time.

On an unrelated note, I spied these two mini-cars parked near each other and though it was funny. One is a Smartcar (Daimler-Chrysler), the other is a Ford Ka. You’ll soon see Smartcars in the States (they’ve already invaded Canada). The latter has been common in Brazil for 10 years or more. I half expect to see the owners open the trunk, pull out big tin keys and wind them up before zipping down the street. You could literally park a Smartcar in many an American closet. We’re considering buying one to keep in the back of the van for emergencies. ;-)

Finally, I took some nice panoramic shots of our new neighborhood and a palace we went to last weekend.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

There is a lot going on…

We finally moved to our new apartment in the Kirchheim borough of Heidelberg. While the seemingly endless stacks of boxes tell me we’re not quite out of the woods yet, it’s safe to say the Prickrils are as happy as proverbial gophers in soft dirt (maybe that’s only a proverb to us Oklahomans).

I got in from 10 days in the States last Friday (March 2, 2007). Although severely jetlagged, I was up early on Saturday so I could get to our new apartment in time to greet the gentlemen delivering and installing our washer and dryer. I’m not sure how much longer I can take this exotic, fast-paced European lifestyle. I then went back to our temporary apartment in Bad Schönborn (or Bad Sunburn as some call it) to begin the laborious process of packing our things for yet another move.

Here’s the thing about moving: Moving next door is a nightmare, plain and simple; moving a greater distance than that becomes exponentially harder as you cross various socio-political/geographical boundaries, e.g., county, city, state, country, continent. That being said, we sure move a lot for people that avow such hatred of the process. How much longer will it be before you see us, voices digitally disguised, on a “Move-aholics” segment on Oprah? For those scoring at home, B and I have moved 4 times on 3 different continents in our 8 years of marriage.

Anyway, back to our apartment. On Sunday our good friend Thomas, a German friend and coworker also married to a Brazilian, came to our new abode to help install a few light fixtures (many thanks Thomas). As I’ve mentioned before, you often rent or buy dwellings in Germany that don’t have a single light fixture or kitchen. We bought some fairly attractive halogen track lights at Ikea on Saturday for 8 Euros each! Good thing they’re reasonably priced as this building’s architect is clearly a light freak. Everywhere you look there are wires dangling from the ceiling begging to power a light bulb or set thereof. I’ll spare you tales of my misadventures but will quit this subject with a piece of hard-won advice: turn off the breakers before you use pliers to cut electric wires* (have you seen the Travelocity commercial with the gnome?).

BTW, we have no kitchen! It’s scheduled to be installed on Wednesday. Definitely an interesting experience wrangling three kids with no sink or counters, though I can’t say I’d recommend it.

In closing, I’d like to make it clear that a couple of months in Germany have done nothing to squelch my American ingenuity. I arrived at home famished at about 9:00 tonight after a video conference with some folks in the States, only to find some leftover spaghetti (from the Pizza Hut in our neighborhood!) with no silverware in sight (said forks etc. being buried deep in a mountain of boxes). Since I had already found my toolbox, I wasted no time digging in with a spackling knife. While the first few bites were a little gritty, this tool is highly underrated as an eating utensil. I assume you’ll take my word for it.

* Those who know me will have no trouble believing that I actually cut into live wires. Stay tuned to this blog for a post on how my shoddy workmanship burned down an entire neighborhood in Heidelberg.