Saturday, March 30, 2013

Chapter 17: On German Roads

I received my German driver's license about a week ago, and Lawna is still working on hers. She has been busy working, and I have had more time devote to such things. We also received our car from the states this week. I helped Lawna get ready for her test today, and she should finish up in the next few days, and I managed to get the car ready for German inspection, which is more demanding than what we have in Texas. It didn't pass at first. I had to remove window tinting, which, although it is pretty much standard for hot, sunny Texas, is illegal in German. So, it has been a car and driver week. Which leads me to my topic: driving in Germany.

When  Americans think about driving in Germany, they often think about speeding along the famous autobahn, one of Hitler's few enduring projects which became a model for our own U.S. interstate highway system. I'll get back to the autobahn in a minute, but one of the common denominators I have observed about German traffic structure is a marvelous ability to keep things moving. In the United States, we are urged to drive safely. In Germany, one is urged to drive confidently. Safety is supposed to be a given, but really importantly, you need to be good at driving. As a consequence, their driving test is really challenging. The fail rate among Americans stationed here was around 80 percent for a long time. Then the military made the test available online and required a 100 percent passing score, but with unlimited and unproctored attempts available to the test taker. Basically, it is now an interactive tutorial rather than an exam.

It's still hard to pass! Germans are serious about driving. They demand driving expertise and the ability to keep traffic moving!

One thing that immediately struck me once I began driving here was how few stop signs and traffic lights there are. Sure, they exist, and you had better heed them, but, more often, you encounter traffic circles, or "roundabouts." We have some of these in South Texas, mostly at upscale shopping areas that try to look European. In Texas, roundabouts are a shopping outlet fashion statement. They play little significance in Texas traffic control. In Germany, however, and probably most of Europe, circles keep intersections flowing. The red light bottle necks that drivers have to suffer through on hot, South Texas days seldom occur in Germany. Sure, they have traffic jams, sometimes pretty spectacular ones; but roundabouts keeps such delays to a minimum. The same structure informs access ramps on and off the autobahn. Instead of straight ramps, access ascends in circles, sometimes accommodating several incoming streams of cars at once. All of this going in circles can be disorienting at first, especially through forested areas where you can't really see where you are headed. You just have to trust the signs, because you are simply speeding round through groves of tall trees somewhere! One feels like a dizzy spinning top. In time, though, the marvelous logic and efficiency of the system becomes clear, so that Germany is pretty easy to get around in by car, albeit fueled with expensive gas.

For the most part, Germans are good, courteous drivers. In my observation, German drivers have been pretty good about following speed limits. I admit that most of my driving has been in semi-rural areas, and the metropolises (metropoli?) may be more frightening. Kaiserslautern and Heidelberg have been OK. The fastest driving I've seen has usually been American military guys in muscle cars, which few Germans own. Which leads us to the autobahn. First of all, most of the autobahn does have a speed limit: 130 km per hour (about 80 mph), and in the stretches where there is no limit, the freedom to speed only applies to the passing lane, which is supposed to be used for passing. Cars do go very fast in that lane, but if they are not passing another car, they can get a ticket. Obviously, some people are trying to pass everyone, so that they never slow down. Just be careful when you decide to pass someone so that you are not mowed down trying to get into the inner lane. They do appear pretty fast! If you are a slow driver, there is also a place for you. The slow lane is usually quite slow, mostly held up by older trucks and cars. Until I felt more confident on the autobahn, I was spending a lot of my time there. Our rental car wasn't the swiftest of steeds and felt like it would break apart at  less than 100 kph, so for a time I hung out with the hay trucks. The autobahn seldom grows to more than three lanes per side and keeps Germany moving at a good clip. It provides emergency turn offs and a narrow soft shoulder, but few rest stops, and I have yet to see a scenic turn-off with a rest area for pictures. A few times I have wanted to stop for pictures, but felt obliged by traffic to move along. Maybe they have more scenic opportunities in the Alps.

American drivers also need to get used to narrower streets. Most streets and roads in Germany are only two lanes, each going opposite directions. Cities and towns in Europe are often hundreds and even thousands of years old. The roads still look like it. In villages that cling to hillsides, some of the roads are remarkably steep for cars, originally intended, I'm sure, for surefooted horses and mules. I haven't even been to the Alps yet. I'm sure some of those roads must be insanely steep and perilous. But even around here, a gentler hilly area, upgrades can be steep and the village streets be very narrow. Most streets have sidewalks with low curbs. People park their cars half on the street and half on the sidewalk, and this is perfectly legal. On our residential street, Talstrasse, cars are parked along both sides of the street, and one must take turns with oncoming cars to pass. In our neighborhood in San Antonio, all of those parked cars would have been towed or booted, or some angry neighbor would have taken a dime to them, but in Germany it is usual. We take it in stride and coexist in closer traffic quarters. Unlike in the U.S. where roads tend to expand to accommodate greater volumes of traffic, which keep growing exponentially as lanes are added; in Germany, traffic must accommodate to the restricted, comparatively static infrastructure of the roads. If you don't like it, walk or take the bus. Many do without complaining. Germany has many options for transportation, even in the rural areas.

Germans drive on the right side of the road, like Americans. I think it is the Brits who are lefties in Europe. If you travel from France to England through the Chunnel, you don't get to actually drive down there. That is probably good. I'm not sure how they would manage the driving direction switch otherwise. We haven't gotten that far yet. It will have to be for a future chapter!

Germany has to manage drivers in a very different environment than what we find in the U.S., and it is handled efficiently and expertly. Yes, it takes some adjusting, and I don't know how Lawna and I could have made it without a GPS device, but the system works, and there is a lot to see along the way. We still haven't used the train system, but when we do, I promise I'll report on it. For now, I'm still driving, and once Lawna completes her exam, so will she. I'm really itching to get my hands on my bike when it arrives. There is a whole world around us geared for that form of transportation, both in the country and the city.
Narrow Talstrasse
Roundabout just outside Spesbach

Friday, March 22, 2013

Chapter 16: Building a New Home

I've been away from my blog for awhile. We moved into our apartment a week ago, and the weather has mostly been rainy and cold. Today we had a respite with clear skies (clear in Germany just means not too misty). Lawna's week has been one of getting accustomed to her new job. She's working at a higher command level and in an job area that she has been away from  for quite awhile. It will take some adjustment.

I've been doing the apartment stuff--setting up utility accounts, getting some things repaired, fixing us up with internet access, etc. It's amazing how time consuming some issues can be that should be simple--turning things on and off. Our apartment is on the ground floor and contains the utility boxes for all of the other units. When someone else has problems with their internet or gas, the repairman has to come to our apartment to fix it. It is the same with our back yard in San Antonio: we have all of the neighborhood  utility boxes, even cable, which we disconnected years ago.

We received some of our household goods, but not the big shipment, and we are still driving a rented Mercedes that looks like my old Honda Fit, but it does not drive nearly as well. I have my German driver's license now, and Lawna has yet to take her test. She has to take it at her office on a business computer, but she has been too busy at work. I don't know when she will have a chance to get licensed. As a result, I drive  her to work each morning and pick her up in the afternoon. It actually works out well for me because I have the car for the day to fill out utility forms in Kaiserslautern and pick up stuff for the apartment.

Lawna has not been able to go to church since we left San Antonio, and she misses it. This morning as I was walking around the village, I found a Catholic church for her in the adjacent village of Hutschenhausen. It's a beautiful old country church and appears to be pretty active, all in German. I'm not a Catholic, but I think I'll go with her to church to connect with the community. Maybe they have a choir I can join. We can start just in time for Easter.

Memorial for the WWI and WWII war dead in Spesbach
The weather here is colder and wetter than I'm used to--South Texas boy that I am--but I like it. It's invigorating most of the time. The trick, of course, is dressing right. We might have some snow tomorrow. It was certainly freezing this morning, and the frost over the fields behind us gleamed in the early morning sun. I'm enjoying the dorfleben, or village life so far. I'm not working yet, and won't push too hard at it until we get the rest of our stuff. I've contacted all the people I know of to contact to teach college here, and I've kept them up with my  address changes, etc. But, this is the middle of a semester, so it may take awhile. Even DOD high schools will be winding down soon, so that substituting jobs will be scarce. I may try to work for AFEES at the base exchange.  Ramstein has more than just a BX. The Ramstein base exchange is a full shopping mall, with specialty shops, restaurants, a theater multiplex and giant food court. It is quite an enterprise, and a lot of dependents work there.

Right now, though, we're still moving in. We have a lot of goods on the way and a car. One of us needs to be around to deal with all of this. I can't wait to get our bikes. This place is bike heaven. This is going to be a wonderful three years.

Morning frost


After a rain

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Chapter 15: Preparing to settle in

Yesterday we had what we are told was an unseasonably late snowfall that closed the base for half a day. This morning, the snow cover was deep, and I had my first experience driving in such weather. I suspect it may actually be worse tomorrow morning because this afternoon the sun began to peek out and melt the slush on the streets. It is supposed to freeze tonight, and I figure that the water on the streets will harden like glass. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, so the slickness probably won't last long, but I drive Lawna to work in the dark, so it should be interesting.

Our new apartment will be ready to move into on Friday, though we won't receive our furniture and appliances until Monday. We bought some rugs this week and will try those on the floor this weekend, and do some general preparations to get everything ready for the big move. Monday should be lively. The housing office is sending over temporary furniture and appliances until our household goods arrive. Some of our preliminary goods are due to be delivered on that same day, and the cable company will be there to hook us up for high speed Internet. The village residential streets of Spesbach are narrow. I hope that not all of these trucks arrive at the same time.

I'm looking forward to being able to cook again. Eating out is fun for awhile, but taxes the digestion (and the wallet) after a time. We have a microwave oven in our guest room, but that gets old quickly, too. Soon! We will have our own place soon!

Also, I'm looking forward to exploring the community--just to walk around in it and absorb the neighborhood. Spesbach is a small village, but it is near larger villages which are all interconnected by walking and bike trails. Ramstein-Miesenbach has more going on, and it is pretty well adjacent to Spesbach, and Landstuhl is not far away. Landstuhl is a charming, hilly town with quite a few shops and restaurants, not to mention a castle ruin on a hill in the middle of town. These are all towns that ring around the base, and many Americans live in these communities. Landstuhl features an important military hospital that treats wounded American troops, sometimes to stabilize them for transport to the States and at other times to patch them up and send them back into action. Ramstein Air Force Base is a close knit military community, sending a lot of people off on dangerous deployments. I'm about as civilian as one can be, and I've never had much desire to serve in the military, but I do admire the community kinship that exists among the military families here. The people here are friendly and courteous, both on the American and German side, and they have been economically bound for a long time, so the feeling between the two cultures appears to be genuinely warm. Many German nationals work on the base at all levels, even at the security gates. When you see someone in uniform and say hello, you can't necessarily predict what language or accent you will hear in return. I just feel quite safe here, and expect that I will feel the same way in our new apartment. There's just not much crime in these parts. And, of course, unlike in the States, people aren't toting around guns unless it is part of their job. Germany has long had gun laws, and Germans don't experience much gun violence.

Lawna and I bought a dining room set today, and we have some other miscellaneous things to get. We have eating utensils, but not much in the way of cooking utensils. We need some tables or desks for our computers, and, well a short list goes on for awhile. Since we still have a house in San Antonio, we didn't take everything. It's all coming together, a bit more each day.

People in Lawna's office seem to think that this snowfall is the last gasp of winter and that spring should be arriving soon. Spring in this area is supposed to be quite beautiful. Ah, I want our bikes to hurry up and arrive. I may not be able to wait. I may rent one!

Auf Wiedersehen!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Chapter 14: Ancient Trier

We took another day trip today, this time about an hour's drive to the west of Ramstein to the oldest city in Germany: Trier. The weather wasn't quite so cooperative as yesterday: the drive was a foggy, drizzly one through the forested hills and wine country, and our walk through the old city was chilly and wet. Trier's old city is not as compact as Heidelberg's, and there was a lot we were not able to see. Also, being Sunday, many attractions were closed.

Trier is located near the borders of Luxembourg and France and attracts many visitors from the neighboring countries and features plenty of shopping and good eating in the town's center, interspersed with ancient buildings that date back to Roman times. Trier existed as an important city over a thousand years before it was settled by Romans and is notable for being the birthplace of early Christian theologian Saint Ambrose. Emperor Constantine spent time there and built a great basilica that now features Protestant services. It is an impressive structure which we saw only from the outside. Every door we tried seemed to be locked.
Constantine's Basilica
Later baroque addition to basilica

We did manage to visit two adjacent Catholic cathedrals, known together as the Liebfraukirche. One of the sanctuaries dates back to early Romanesque times, and the larger adjacent church is from the later middle ages. Unfortunately my i-phone pictures do not begin to capture the scale of these buildings.

Somewhere in Trier there is an ancient Roman gate, theater and bridge, and we did not get to see them. There is much more to see, and I'm sure we will revisit this interesting city, perhaps on a nicer day. Like last week in Homburg, people were out in numbers for their Sunday walk, which is a regular feature of German life. Weather does not seem to deter them, so neither did it deter us.

And, of course, clicking on any of these pictures will open larger images.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Chapter 13: Heidelberg's Ancient Walls

Today we celebrated finding an apartment by taking off east in our little rented Mercedes to the ancient city of Heidelberg on the banks of the Neckar. The drive is a little over an hour from Ramstein. The oldest evidence of human life was found near Heidelberg, and later it was settled by ancient Celts and eventually by the Romans. The old bridge that stands today is actually quite new in the context of the city's long history. Heidelberg has a beautiful old town which escaped the ravages of World War II allied bombings, and it has been reserved for mostly pedestrian and bike traffic. The steep hills and cobblestones call for some pretty hardy biking, which the young students and even older faculty of the University of Heidelberg appear to handle effortlessly.

The highlight and most conspicuous marker of the old town is Heidelberg Schloss (Castle) which sits majestically on a steep cliff over the river. It is accessible by car or tour bus, trolley or, in our case, hoofing it up some remarkably steep cobbled streets. It's a pretty good climb and well worth the effort. Once on the castle grounds you get a marvelous view of the city. Unfortunately, we did not get to see much of the inside: that is only available in a reserved guided tour.
We explored the exterior of the castle, whose towering ruins inspired most of the great figures of the Romantic period who viewed it on their Grand Tours. Goethe was especially fond of the site, and there are frequent markings in the city advertising Goethe's presence at particular locations, including one at a hotel/restaurant, Goldener Hecht, where we ate some apflel strudel and drank some strong German coffee, which I have come to love.
Up to the castle
The University of Heidelberg is one of the oldest in Europe. It was an important center during the Reformation where Luther proclaimed his doctrine of salvation by grace. We entered several of the large cathedrals and I was struck by the relative plainness of the interiors when the outside often looked more ornate; evidence, I assume, of the Calvinist iconoclasts who sometimes whitewashed ornate Catholic interiors during those fanatical times.
University library

Goethe drank beer here
Heidelberg is a stunning historical city and a gentrified tourist and hip academic locale. Fortunately, we were able to see it off season, so we found parking downtown by the river with no problem, and the streets were pleasant and relatively quiet. Old town started to become busy about the time we left, but we enjoyed sitting outside a Turkish owned cafe, eating Sophia Loren pizza, sipping Beck's beer and later Turkish coffee, and watching people and their children enjoy the splendid environment. The weather report had predicted some rain, but the weather remained perfect the whole time we were there, with scattered clouds that cast interesting lighting across the expansive cityscape. The air was comfortably cool, invigorating for climbing to the castle summit, yet mild enough to dine outside. It really could not have been improved upon. A wonderful day trip.
The old town bridge

Goethe was here, too, at the castle

Heidelberg Schloss

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Chapter 12: The Great Escape

We've finally broken the Ramstein base grip--I have a German driver's license. Lawna still needs to get hers. She's been driving with an international permit that we picked up at AAA in San Antonio. The Air Force frowns upon that, but we had to start looking for a place to stay. No, we haven't found one yet, but at least we have some rental wheels, and one of us is properly licensed. We looked at an apartment today that was very tempting, and the owner spent a lot of time with us and drove us around the little village of Konken to show us what our neighborhood would be like: a bakery, a public house and a few businesses including a bike shop, and it's linked with bike trails that extend all the way to France. The apartment had plenty of room--three large bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms--and seemed well maintained. It was all beautiful and serene, and we were about to sign on the dotted line, but further thought reminded us that its location is a little far, which is not such a problem if you have two cars, but I would be kind of stranded during the day, and it would be hard for me to get to the base to teach college classes (if that materializes the way I anticipate). It was hard to break away. The little village really was appealing, far from the noise of Ramstein jets. We have another appointment tomorrow, closer to the base, and perhaps I can round up some more for tomorrow as well.

We have eaten out on the economy a few times--nothing fancy, just cafe type food, and we have enjoyed every meal. No, I don't miss Tex Mex food at all. Not yet. In fact, the food court at the huge base exchange (really a mall) just looks kind of gross. I can't wait to move off this base! I like being outside the gate, and my limited German is serving me OK. Sometimes I encounter merchants who have limited command of English and with my limited command of German we meet in the middle and sort it all out. Yesterday, I took a walk across the base, and as I made it back to our guest house, I walked by some workmen who had a manhole removed from the street and one of them was spraying highly pressurized water into the hole. As I passed him, he lost control of the hose which then snaked around randomly and then slammed into his face, square in the mouth. He doubled over, bleeding and spitting out about six teeth. I went over to him and his work partner to see if I could help. His partner spoke no English, and the victim of the accident couldn't speak at all. I punched in the German version of 911 on my mobile phone and his partner called in the emergency. The German dispatcher must have referred the emergency to American medics, because they soon arrived, and neither of them spoke any German. I was happy that I could help somewhat to communicate to the German workers. My German is limited, and eventually a German speaking AP arrived to translate for the medics, but at least I was able to help during the interim. The injured man was 86 years old--normal blood pressure and cholesterol, a strong worker. Unfortunately, he will probably now have to wear a set of dentures and maybe even have some jaw surgery. His upper lip was in a bad way.

On Sunday, we bought a GPS device at the base exchange. It has made finding places so easy. We looked up some advertised apartment just to see what they looked like--we had no appointments. Most Germans don't like to conduct business on Sundays. After we got tired of house window shopping, I just punched in "sites of interest," and I thought that the GPS was leading us to an old castle. In fact, we never saw a castle, but we did end up in Homburg, a lovely university town that also happens to be the home of Karslberg beer. It was a sunny day, the air still and quietly bracing in the mid 40s. Germans were all over the city streets, just walking and visiting. Only a few cafes were open. We ate Doners at one of them (a Doner is basically a gyro, only wrapped in a bun rather than pita bread) and, of course, Karlsberg pilsners and excellent coffee. Everyday German cafe coffee puts anything Starbucks brews to shame. It tastes divine creamed or black. After our excellent Sunday meal, we joined the locals promenading along the streets, lined with many old baroque style buildings. Actually, many of the buildings are newer, but built in an older style. We became slightly lost (left the GPS in the car) and the temperature started to drop. Finally, becoming chilled to the bone, we found our way back to our rental car and headed back to the base.

Hopefully, we will soon find a home, a place to cook our own meals and enjoy our possessions. I'm looking forward to meeting new neighbors and taking on a new rhythm of life. I'm looking forward most of all to finally feeling like we are in Germany and not just at some culturally insulated US outpost, watching armed forces television, with shiny, bald headed news announcers dressed in military camo, focusing mainly on news about our various military missions across the world. It's a rarified world we are in right now! We do have the Colbert Report and Daily Show, which makes TV life minimally bearable. I don't know what German TV will be like. Maybe just leaving it turned off will be best.

Such is our news aus Deutschland. For now, auf wiedersehen!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Chapter 11: Pining for Deutschland

We are still trapped on base. We ventured out briefly with our sponsor to the village of Ramstein outside the base to get a rental car, but since I still have not gotten a base ID, it is a pain to get me back on base. I'm hoping to get my card today. Both Lawna and I have an international driver's pass that we picked up at AAA in San Antonio, but the Air Force doesn't really want us driving without a real German license. I'm hoping to take care of that today too. Lawna still needs to study for hers. 

As soon as we take care of these items, we'll start looking for an apartment or house. Our sponsor has been urging us to get one near the base, but others recommend living l further out and say that the traffic to the base isn't bad. This weekend we plan to just drive around the area and see what suits us. I would like to be near a train station and maybe a shuttle line to the base. Also, living in a little America doesn't appeal to me much. Lawna just doesn't want to have to drive very far to work. 

The whole transition process has been a bit of a pain, with an incredible amount of paper work that is hard to keep straight. Also, the orientation process seems kind of disorganized. It seems to me that base ID cards should have been first on the agenda. We can't do much without them. We're both kind of sick of Ramstein and want to see Germany. We also want to live in a place where we can cook our own meals. Our sponsor took us to the commissary the first day, right off the plane, to buy food, but when we arrived at our room, we discovered that there was nothing to cook with other than a microwave. No pots or pans or even forks and knives. Can't spread peanut butter or even uncork a wine bottle.

It will get better, and soon, I'm sure. But right now it's a pain. Having a car now will help, though we got lost on base last night trying to find our room. Ha! 

We changed our cell service to German T-Mobile, last night, but I need to go back to the phone store because it doesn't appear to be correctly activated. The support information is all in German, beyond my current linguistic abilities (I'm working at it!) It just seems like we are putting out small brush fires each couple of hours, but also gaining some ground, inch by inch. I'm sure we'll like it here once we get settled.As I told Lawna, we haven't made it to Germany yet. Ramstein is just a piece of America.  The weather has been mostly cold and gray, but sunny days are in the weekend forecast. There are a lot of ravens that call out during the night, and they sound like something out of a horror movie. We're used to the sounds of grackles in San Antonio, but the ravens sound really eerie. Oh well, before we know it, spring will be upon us with all with all the German celebrations and festivals that go with it. Once we have a place to live and cook, and all of our stuff arrives (and our bikes!), we'll have great fun.

I talked to some people at the education center. I may get to teach not only at Ramstein, but also have opportunities to teach in other parts of Europe and Turkey. I might actually move for a semester (at government or University expense)  to teach in another place. No promises, but it's a possibility. That would be cool. Since classes are sometimes in other areas of Europe, I would like to live near a train station. However, I have not even been offered a class yet. I don't have time for one at the moment.

Our Vonage distance long phone service is not available to us yet, as we have no direct internet line in our room, so you will just have to enjoy our ramblings via e-mail. The wi-fi here isn't the best, and people have told me to get used to it. Ramstein is in a rural area, and DSL is rare. 4G is non-existent. To get that you need to go to a big city. It may improve during the course of our stay. Of course, by the time that happens, there will be something still better.

We're keeping our chins up, taking it day by day. These frustrations will all be a distant memory soon, and the glories Germany will finally be open to us.


Today we finally received our ID cards and had our phones properly set up. We also took a drive around the area to visit the outlying towns where we might live. Some of the hamlets are truly beautiful, and this was while visiting them on a cold, gray day--which apparently is pretty typical German weather. I had been interested initially in Kaiserslauten because I figured there might be more to do there, but driving through it impressed me less than the promotional material we had viewed. I was surprised at how sizable a city it is. A smaller community with less traffic appeals to us more, as long as it has a community. Kaiserslauten and its amenities, including a world class orchestra, will still be nearby. We will be checking out apartments this weekend, and the weather should be sunny and pleasant. It is wonderful to finally get off the base. I did not take any photos outside the base, but I will include some in future posts. We have three years!

With much love from the land of edelweiss and pilsner,