Thursday, October 3, 2013

Chapter 33: At home in Germany


Most of my blog entries have been about trips that Lawna and I have taken, mostly around this area. The majority of our time, of course, is spent around home or at work. When it is a daily routine, it seems unexciting to write about, yet it may be more interesting to those who are curious about how we are living and getting along.
our apartment building

We live in a ground floor apartment in the small village of Spesbach, about 15 minutes from Ramstein Air Force Base. The morning commute is easy. Our apartment is fairly old, built probably in the 1950s, maybe even earlier. It's hard to tell here in Germany. Old buildings are often so well maintained. I think we have some buildings in this town that date to the 1700s. Our building is four storeys high, with two American service men living on the two floors above us and a German divorcee and her teenage daughter living in the attic apartment at the top. They have quite a stair climb each day. I don't think that any buildings in our town have elevators. Even in cities, only the most modern buildings have elevators--usually hospitals. When people move into upper level apartments, their movers must lug all the furniture up manually. These are strong dudes (and sometimes dudettes). Consequently, most German furniture is smaller than American. We brought a sofa from the US which could not fit through the door to our German living room. We had to park it in the dining room and buy a smaller German piece. Once you get used to the smaller scale, American furniture begins to seem oversized and obnoxious. There are some furniture stores in Landstuhl that cater to American tastes, but we much prefer the sleeker lines on display at German home stores like Möbel Martin.
view from our back patio

Our apartment has no air conditioning, and it does get hot in the summer. Of course, it's not nearly as hot as San Antonio, and the hot period lasts only a few weeks, but that can be a few weeks of misery. Fortunately, our ground floor apartment stays pretty cool. We are surrounded by shade trees and sunken partly below ground level, so our configuration produces a cavelike effect. In our first summer, we ran fans for only a few days. Sylvia and her daughter upstairs, though, must have had a miserable time. For heat in the winter, we run steam radiators. Most Germans keep their windows open during the winter. That sounds crazy to a south Texan, but if you close up your house with steam heat running, you will develop an unhealthy mold problem. So, the windows stay open a crack with the steam heat cranked to a comfortable level, and in the morning you open the windows wider to air things out. Germans don't put screens on their windows. Some Americans insist on them, but most landlords won't pay for them. We've been going native without them. No problem so far. I've been bitten by mosquitos in the woods, but not in the house. We occasionally find long legged spiders in our bathroom, but we just coexist peacefully.
spider webs in our back yard

Apart from the distant sounds of planes from the air base, it is remarkably quiet out here at night. There is pretty much no crime (at least none that I've heard of) and we feel completely safe to walk anywhere, even at night. Nothing much is open at night, so there's seldom a reason to walk anywhere. We do have a friendly gasthaus nearby, across a field in the adjoining village of Hütschenhausen, where we like to order jägerschnitzel and drink beer. We sometimes walk home past the soccer field and through a grove of trees near the farmfields in the dark. It can be pitch dark, lit only by the moon, if there is one.
neighborhood Gasthaus

Appliances are smaller here. We have a fairly spacious kitchen, yet little workspace. It's hard to pitch in together preparing a meal. It can take awhile for our landlord to fix things. When Michael and Victoria visited in July we were washing dishes by hand because our dishwasher was not working. We finally received a replacement yesterday. It's not all our landlord's fault. We're all kind of busy and have trouble coordinating availabilty, and, truth be told, I kind of enjoy washing dishes by hand. It's challenging with one small single-well sink, but the routine is enjoyable. Our landlord is a reliable man, probably about my age, and friendly with a thick Pfalzer accent. Instead of ja, he says yo. I enjoy his visits. He is very handy with repairs and never forgets to complete a job. However, he does operate on country time. After awhile living here, I really don't mind.

Our washer and drier are European style--energy efficient and deadly slow. It's easy to spend a whole day on wash. The barrel capacity is low, so washing requires more loads than in the States, but they do a good job. Our laundry room is much bigger than the glorified wash closet that we have in Texas, and the doors are thick and when shut keep out most of the washing noise. In fact, we have all of the building's utility meters and control centers in a central room in our apartment, so if anyone has a plumbing, electrical or internet problem, the repair people have to come into our apartment. The steam and plumbing make all kinds of racket anytime anyone in the building is showering or laundering, but the thick, solid German walls and heavy wooden doors successfully block the sound from other rooms. Unfortunately, Michael and Victoria had to sleep in the utilities room with all the gurling noises. If it bothered them, they didn't complain.

Our walls are rock solid. Hanging anything requires a strong masonry bit. We initially bought some wall hangings to brighten up the place, but finally gave up trying to mount them. We would like to get our deposit back when we leave, so we'll just live with spartan walls. German ceiling lights give off mostly soft white light with a subtle mix of colors, like though a prism, and create interesting effects on plain white walls. They partly compensate for not having wall hangings.

All of the apartments above us have spacious balconies, even the attic flat at the top (which is really quite nice. I helped Sylvia carry up a big bag of catfood and she showed us around.). Our apartment has a ground level concrete patio with well shaded landscaping. Lately, spiders have been spinning beautiful webs on the adjoining fences and across bushes, and the effects are stunning, especially in the morning when they are bejewelled with dew drops. We also have a neighborhood black and white cat that we love to greet. He has the run of the village and may be the father of the rest of the cat population, and has gradually become less wary around us. We don't know who he belongs to, but he's a regal looking guy.

Germans love dogs. There are numerous dog training centers in the area, and many people take walks in the country every morning and evening. German dogs are generally very obedient and many walk side by side with their masters without a leash. They are welcome in public places such as restaurants and stores, and I have never felt uneasy around one. Some of the breeds are pretty big! I wish our dogs, which are still in San Antonio with our son Brian, could have grown up here. Our golden retriever Rascal would have loved running through the fields without a leash. Of course, we would have had to get him properly trained. Dog owners are responsible for their dog's behavior and droppings.
fields for walking (with or without dogs)

It's a peaceful life that I will miss when we return to San Antonio. Germans around here tend to be reserved compared to the French and respect privacy. They are not unfriendly, as some Americans perceive them to be. They can be direct and plain spoken; they don't mince words and don't politely suffer fools. Sometimes store clerks can seem a bit unfriendly, but I was told that smiling is often interpreted as flirting, so female clerks tend not to smile much. If you need help, however, they will usually stay with you until you are satisfied. Restaurant servers never rush you, even when it is closing time. Once your food is delivered, no one interrupts you again. You have to ask for your check. If you sit and wait for it, it will never arrive. Once you inhabit a table, it is yours until you are ready to leave. Tipping is generally unnecessary. Servers are paid better than in the US. Tip only if you really like the service, and then give it directly to the server when he or she picks up your payment. In Germany, a tip is an authentic act of appreciation, not an obligation.
Spesbach soccer field and biergarten

When we arrived, we bought a flat screen television at Saturn (Germany's equivalent of Best Buy) and a salesman with iffy command of English managed to maneuver us into buying a new 3D set and blu-ray player. 3D strains my eyes, but we have it anyway. None of our stateside DVDs or Blu-rays will play on it because of region restrictions, but I have found several beloved movies that are not available in the States. Also, it is a smart TV with an internet connection, so we haven't bothered with cable or satellite. We can pick up BBC news and Huffington Post, along with Euronews and Die Welt (in German). Mostly, we just rent movies on the base and buy a lot of blu-rays. We don't miss cable TV. Walks in the country are more fun, even in the winter.

downtown Spesbach

Germany has bicycle trails everywhere, and I love using them. If you have the stamina, you can bike anywhere. The hills can be pretty crazy. The main boulevard on the base is not well equipped for bicycles, though many people bike to work, and the nearby city of Kaiserslautern is pretty scary on a bike, at least downtown, perhaps because of all the newly arrived American drivers. Most businesses have bike racks for parking, and they are well used. German bikes stores sell much greater variety than in the States, including hybrid motorized bikes that give you an extra push up steep hills, and a host of carriers, panniers and baskets. Many people rely on their bikes. I see quite elderly people tackling hilly streets, weighed down with baskets full of groceries. It's easy to stay healthy here.
Spesbach bakery

My Hütschenhausen bike mechanic is a portly retiree who runs a bike shop out of his home on a back residential street. It's a shop that you definitely have to look for. In fact, the actual show room with merchandise is in his basement, completely invisible from the street. But, people in Hütschenhausen know where he is. The business has been in his family for two generations, and he doesn't speak a word of English. With my nominal German, we communicate with a lot of hand gestures, and sometimes long, uneasy pauses ended with a hesitant "Wie gehts? Alles gut?" (What's up? Everything OK?) We have become sort of minimally communicative pals, and he has helped me out a lot. Despite my meager German, he has invited me to visit any time, whether I need work done on my bike or not, just to hang out. He has a retired friend, Fritz, who does speak some English, and sometimes helps us out. Both are retired, one fixing bikes and the other riding bikes and operating ham radios. They like to stand around and complain about German taxes. My own German is slowly improving. I can often say what I want to say, but when a German replies, speaking rapidly, I can't understand the response. I have to say "Langsam, bitte. Ich spreche nur einige Deutsch." (Slowly, please. I speak only some German) Life is fun.

road to nearby Katzenbach

We have our discomforts in life, but most are from the outside: job stresses, some health issues and anarchist House members back home whose government shutdown abuses make remaining here seem even more attractive, despite the fact that our own government isn't paying us. But, Germany has its problems too. Mostly, this is a good time for them as the strongest economy in Europe, but the last election demonstrated the fissures, with Angela Merkel winning pretty handily, but facing a stubbornly divided government. Polarization seems to be a theme nearly everywhere. Perhaps it has always been this way and we just tend to view the past from a distorted rear view mirror. A good bike ride, a pleasant walk and a nice glass of wine as the sun goes down makes it all seem far away. I have my best friend with me, and she's all I really need.

Spesbach war memorial

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