Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Adventures In Borken - Part 3 - Pfand Thief

 I found all sorts of cans on our Sunday walk around town.  Evidently, there were some good outdoor parties around town.  Yesterday, I was so excited to turn the cans in to our local grocery store.  Unfortunately, the metal cans would not correctly scan in the machine.   So, I took these 12 cans (3 euros worth) to our other grocery store that is checked by a human.  About halfway through, the store clerk checked the bar code and somehow knew that these were not legitimate cans.  

Upon further investigation, I had found all cans that came from the Netherlands (that doesn’t charge pfand) and tried to get money for these cans.  I was really embarrassed that I had tried to get money for smuggled cans.  What was even worse was that I couldn’t properly explain what had happened to clear my name. 

I started by explaining to the store clerk that I found all of the cans in the park, but quickly learned that this explanation was not making me look better, so I just said, ‘Sorry’ and got out of there as quickly as possible. 

In Germany, a daily trip to the local grocery store is quite common, so it’s not like I can avoid seeing the grocery store clerks.   Moving forward, Dana is going to be doing all grocery store shopping until they take down my photo that says, ‘Do not take pfand from this man.’

Do not Accept Pfand from These Guys!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Adventures In Borken- Part 2 - Nie Gemacht - German for 'No Soup for You'

Dana went around town to a couple of Hund Salon’s to get a price quote for Oscar’s haircut this week.  One place gave her a reasonable price (Oscar was not there) and one place flat out refused to give a price (Oscar was there).

When Dana asked the second store owner how much it would cost for Oscar to get bathed and shaved, the owner flat out said, ‘Nie gemacht’, which means, ‘I will never make.’  Dana asked the owner in German, ‘This is a dog salon, right?’  The owner said yes, but still refused to give Dana a price by repeating, 'nie gemacht' and showing her to the door. 

We were surprised that the store clerk didn’t even give Dana a ‘screw you’ price (giving a price so high that it implicitly says, 'screw you.')  He flat out refused service to our poor dog.  That means one of two things:

  1. That dog salon is really a drug ring and is not really a dog salon. 
  2. We waited too long to get Oscar a haircut. 

We hope the first place sticks to their word after they see our dog.  Otherwise, I will need to go to a farm that has sheep and shear Oscar with those clippers.   Though it might be a good blog post, I really hope it doesn’t make it that far.

Nie Gemacht!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I am Sorry Kreis Office - You Are Not So Bad After All

It would be way too presumptuous to think that the Kreis officials are reading this blog and heard about Sunday's rant post on their office.   Nevertheless, the Kreis office turned around my paperwork in less than 3 business days (last time took 3-4 weeks) and had a new work visa waiting for me this morning.  I couldn't believe it.

I am really excited to be done with this process (and more excited to not miss getting paid by the University).
As exciting as it is (for both me and the County workers who deal with me every other day), I put a damper on it all by saying as I walked out of the office, "Bis nachste jahr/ until next year."  So, until next year, we are done with our Work Visa paperwork.  Woo hoo!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Adventures In Borken - Part One - Kreis Office

Last fall, I spent a lot of time in the Kreis office in Borken.  It’s essentially the county office of the city we live in.  It’s like any city/county/state office in any country; stinky, slow, a glimpse of hell on earth.

Welcome to your local city office
In case you still aren't convinced that you are an outsider to the country, there is a sign that says "Alien Registration" in English to answer your question.

Unfortunately, this picture doesn't capture the waiting room smell.

Since moving to Germany, I have filled out an acre of trees worth of paperwork and jumped through numerous hoops (they actually had hoops to make me jump through in the office.  They sometimes at least give me a piece of chocolate upon completion.) in order to get our work permits and residential permits set.  The paperwork load required for a work permit here would be equivalent to the American paperwork needed to establish and name the 51st State after yourself.  

After 6 trips to the office and our passports settled last fall, I was under the impression that the worst was over with.  That was until this week.

Monday morning, I received a call from my colleague at the University saying that we’ve run into another ‘devils circle’ with the new University contract that starts next month.  A devil’s circle means the University won’t sign my work contract without a work permit (from the Kreis office) and I cannot get a work permit without a work contract from the University.  And around and around we go.

I immediately left for Borken late Monday morning to get my paperwork ‘stuff’ and head to the Kreis office.  ‘Stuff’ means every conceivable piece of paper they could ever need.  Being a veteran of going to these offices, I have learned that you need to be prepared with every original possible document you can imagine.  Everything is in play (marriage license, birth certificate, dental records, a drawing of your family from Kindergarten class.) 

I arrived at the office at 1pm, and saw that the office was closed…for the rest of the day!  The office is only open from 8:00am to 12:30 pm, if there is a full moon, and the tide of the North Sea is out (ebb.)  A crucial day was wasted. 

The next morning I came to the office armed with an unsigned contract from the University, a letter from the Chair of the Finance department confirming the validity of the contract, as well as everything else I could possibly need.  I was ready to get this over with.   Little did know, we were only getting started.  

In previous 3-4 trips to the Kreis office, I had successfully navigated our paperwork and the conversations around in German by myself.  This time, as the office worker was explaining my insufficient paperwork, I was not catching any of it (or the rationale of it).  After navigating previous conversations in German, I couldn’t say that I only speak English.  I had so many questions, but couldn’t ask them, due to my bad German.  I felt like going down to my knees and beating my head against the ground (a tactic used by Dylan when he can’t communicate with us.)  Finally, the office clerk wrote down the three things that were missing and sent me on my way. 

  1. More paperwork to fill out for me, Dana, and Dylan.  It’s not much, but enough to overwhelm you when it’s all in German. 
  2. Income statements for the last 3 months.
  3. Letter from our landlord (who lives 2 hours away) stating that we will stay there.

As of yesterday, after waiting in the really stinky waiting for an hour, I handed in all of the paperwork and should hear the results in the next week.  Upon completion, I will need to go back for 1-2 more times, depending on the results to get this over with.

One more reason to love Germany.  Another castle (Raesfeld) that can be reached by bike.

Schloss Raesfeld

Schloss Raesfeld

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pfand - Playing the High Stakes Game of Bottle Deposits in Germany

I have become obsessed with Pfand during our first 6 months in Germany.   Pfand is the German word for bottle and can deposits.  These amounts can range from €.08 (a beer bottle) up to €.25 (for a plastic water bottle.)  With the strength of the Euro (currently €1 equals $1.40), finding bottles has become a high stakes game for me (at least in my mind.)    I don’t consider this looking for bottles.  Rather, I consider this a hunt for $.35 pieces on the ground (or in the trash can. More on this later). 

In just the last week, I found nearly €4 of pfand in various places around town.  The way I see it, this is a €208 yearly bonus for us.  I won’t be able to quit my job, but it helps.  Here are my 3 keys to success for finding pfand in Germany.  

Be ready at all times. 

You never know when you will find a random bottle, so you always need to be on the lookout.  There have been plenty of times when I find pfand while walking Oscar and Dylan around town.  It may look a little silly to pull 3 empty beer bottles out of the bottom of Dylan’s stroller after a long Sunday evening walk, but I am okay with the potential embarrassment.

Also, I have learned that long bike rides are a good source of pfand income.  I now bring an empty backpack with me to fill on my long Friday bike rides.   Preparation is the key. 

Be willing to get a little dirty

These bottles may or may not be a little dirty and they may or may not be lying in a trash can.  Sometimes, to overcome the fear of filth, I have to imagine these as chocolate candy bars (which can be purchased at the grocery store for €.29).  I have limits as to how far I will go to grab an empty bottle, but if it’s the only thing in the trash can, I will go for it.   There have been times when I just have to walk away from a potentially toxic bottle in the middle of some trash.  Even I have limits. 

Do Your Research

In Germany, some bottles are pfand-free, so you need to know which bottles will bring you the best return.  I will admit, I have spent a couple of extra minutes in the beverage aisle at the grocery taking mental inventory on which bottles do and do not require a bottle deposit.  Hopefully, this research can minimize the amount of times I need to reach into precarious areas and not reap a reward for it.

Now it’s your turn.  I’ve just humiliated myself on telling you about how I go for pfand (disclaimer:  Dana does not share the same feelings as me.)    The question is, ‘would you (or do you) look for and pick up extra bottles if they were €.25 ($.34) per bottle?  


"We're taking it up a notch."

I’ve just taken this thing to another level.  I made my brother in law get out of the car at a stop light to get a .25 bottle on the side of the road. He questioned me for a second, but saw the serious look on my face before he could rationalize with me. 

Just like Izzy Mandelbaum says on Seinfeld, “We’re taking it up a notch.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hotel Foltice - Wrapping up the Winter Travel Season

It seems really quiet around here after an eventful week with Robyn and Dan. Here are the highlights:

I spent weeks teaching Dylan how to say "Aunt Robyn" and "Uncle Dan" leading up to their arrival.  He calls Dan "Uncle Deeeeen" and Robyn is "Bus."  We have no idea where "Bus" came from.  I swear he can say "Robyn" quite clearly, but only when she is not around.  Whenever she was near we would ask Dylan "Can you say Robyn?" And he would smile and say "Yea ... Bus."  And thus, a new nickname is born.

The above photo is Bryan, Dylan and Uncle "Deeeeen" playing Angry Birds on the iPad.  Side note: if you have an iPad, or electronic device that has the Angry Birds app on it, don't let Bryan near it.  He was completely obsessed - obsessed to the point that they actually won the game before Dan and Robyn left.  One day I yelled at him for playing it too much and not being social and he called me an "angry bird" under his breath.  

On their first full day here, Dylan face-planted teeth first into our glass coffee table.  We're lucky he didn't lose any teeth, but it was pretty ugly and bloody and he was not his usual self for the rest of the day (but, who would be after that?).  We still went into Munster in the afternoon for some walking/shopping and we introduced Robyn and Dan to döners, our favorite Turkish food.  They are very similar to gyros, but better.
Robyn and I had a girls night out at one of our local restaurants, Kaffee Klatsch.  There is a waitress there who speaks excellent English, so we were pleased to be seated in her section.  My German, although it is better that it was a few months ago, is still barely passable. The class I'm taking is good, but my brain is really slow.  I seem to know a lot of individual vocabulary words but can't put any of them together to make a comprehensible sentence to a native German.

Bryan took Robyn and Dan to Winterswijk, Netherlands on Saturday.  I stayed home with Dylan because we didn't have his car seat (long story; totally my fault). See the previous post about Sergeant Peabody to learn how the car ride there went.  Turns out Winterswijk has a really good specialty beer store with lots of special Belgian brews.  This is where we learned that Dan and Robyn are total beer snobs, so don't even try to serve them run-of-the-mill American style beers.  If you do, Dan will give you this line:
American beers are like sex in a canoe.  F#$%ing close to water!" 
On Sunday afternoon we left for Karneval in Cologne.  It was our first ever full night away from Dylan, but I was really more worried for our babysitter (read: worried for us that she'd never come back after dealing with Dylan for 24-hours straight), than I was about being separated from him for a night.  Actually, I was really looking forward to it since he has been in a major clingy phase for the past few weeks and it's starting to get under my skin.  According to Dylan, here are just a few of the things that only "Mommy" is allowed to do for him:
Feed him, bath him change his diaper, read to him, hold him, put him down for a nap, wake him up, kiss him goodnight, and play with him.  He follows me into the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen and closet; if I'm out of his line of vision even for a second he screams my name; if I have the computer on my lap, he straddles my lap and sits facing me blocking the computer; if I'm talking to someone on Skype, he climbs behind me on the couch and flicks my ears to distract me (Did Bryan teach him to do this?  It sounds like a 'Bryan' tactic for getting attention.); and he generally has to be touching me at all waking moments of his day (again, sounds like Bryan). 
Anyways, back to the trip... we made it to Cologne around 5:30 p.m. and promptly changed into our costumes and headed for downtown.  I am a glass of beer, Robyn is a cowgirl on a horse, Dan is a sleazy wizard, our friends Kurt and Claudia are Elvis and Pippy-Longstocking, and Bryan is a lion.

It's really easy to get in the spirit of Karneval in Cologne.  Almost everyone is dressed up, but the costumes are happy and in good fun (not scary like Halloween).  There is German Karneval music playing everywhere and impromptu street dancing and singing can break out at a moment's notice.  We got back to the hotel around 1:00 a.m. and crashed.  We had another big day of parade watching and festivities that we needed to rest up for. 

Thankfully our hotel had a nice, big continental breakfast in the morning with extended "Karneval hours" for those of us who needed to sleep in a little extra on Monday morning.  It is difficult to get used to the German breakfast of cold cuts and cheese and Robyn had to send Dan back to the buffet when he showed up at the table with only a half a kiwi and a mini croissant.

We made it into town around 11:30 and found a spot on the parade route.  The parade had already started, but it lasts for more than 4 hours.  The coolest thing about the parade is they throw candy from the floats (way cooler than beads), so you don't really even need to take a break for food since it is provided for free, as long as you're quick enough to snatch it mid-air from the people around you. The man next to me took his candy-snatching very seriously and was dubbed "The Human Vacuum."  He gave me evil-eyes every time I snagged one from his grasp.

The floats are also huge and come dangerously close to the edge of the crowd.  It doesn't help that the parade route is along ancient cobblestone streets. In the picture above the big pink float is about to round the corner and come our way. 

We headed home around 2pm and had a special treat of European Union trivia and Karneval trivia games courtesy of Bryan (also the driver, drinking alcohol-free beer in the photo above for those of you wondering...) for the ride home.  We were all pretty exhausted once we got home - all of us sat around quietly reading. The above picture was also the last photo that I took while Robyn and Dan were here.

Wednesday morning came quickly and we saw them to the train station so they could continue on their trip to Brussels and then Amsterdam before heading home. 

This wraps up our winter tourist season at Hotel Foltice.  We're looking forward to the spring and summer travel season to begin ... who is going to be our next guest???

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sergeant Peabody Gets “Blog-Posted”

Sergeant Peabody reporting for duty!

Hi everyone.  I just wanted to give you an update now that we are back from Karneval in Cologne.  That will be a whole separate post.  In the meantime, here is a story from our time with Dana’s sister Robyn and her husband Dan, our second set of guests this year. 
Saturday was scheduled to be a pretty quiet day with us making the trip over the Netherlands border to Wintersvijk.  (Click here for our previous Wintersvijk post.)  Around noon, we made the 19 km (11.4 miles) trip to Winterswijk from Borken. 

Aware of the Europe bathroom situation (they usually cost 50-cents and they are not very plentiful), we all went to the bathroom immediately before leaving.   Robyn has been given a notorious car trip nickname of Sergeant Peabody for her frequent rest stop requests, so we made sure she was all set before leaving.  

As we drove through a city called Oeding before the Netherlands border (9 km/ 5.4 miles from Winterswijk) and 8 minutes into the 20 minute trip, Robyn called from the back of the car in a very nice and polite voice, ‘Bryan, if you know of a convenient spot to stop off, I really have to pee.’  My immediate response was, “What?  No.  We are halfway through a 20 minute trip and I know for certain that you went right before we left.”

Robyn responded with an “I don’t think I will make it to Winterswijk if we don’t stop off.” 

I initially told her that the only place I knew of was the Cotton Club, a “Sauna” (read: brothel) right over the Netherlands border.  I argued, “if you really have to go, I can drop you off at the Cotton Club.”  Not wanting my sister-in-law to get a disease for a petty rest room break, I decided against making this the only option.

Knowing that we were going to get gas anyway in the Netherlands, we stopped at the first gas station over the border and I told Robyn “Ok Sergeant Peabody, I will stop off here, but that means you will get blog-posted for this.” She agreed to the terms and thus a new term was born, “Blog-posted.”  The term can be used when somebody does something so ridiculous that it’s worthy of a blog post. 

Now, any time Robyn stops off for a break, we will yell while giving a salute, “Sergeant, reporting for duty!”

That’s the risk you run when you spend a week with a blogger; anything you do is fair game.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hotel Foltice Pt. 1

Bryan, John and the babies in the Borken town center.

We are in the middle of having company here at Hotel Foltice.  Our friends from church, John and Rachel (and their 7 month old) came to visit us for a couple of days.  John is heading the leadership/pastoral team for Celebration Church in Belfast, Ireland.  Hopefully, it’s the beginning of great things to come in Europe. 

It was great to have them over and Dana always steps up the cooking when we have company.  I love it.  She had spaghetti ready on my way back from picking them up in Dusseldorf Weeze (though they really need to drop the Dusseldorf part…it’s not even close to there.)   The next day, she already had sheppard’s pie cook.  It just needed to be reheated and we were set. 

We spent their full day with us showing them around Munster.  We introduced them to Doner’s for lunch and showed them some good shopping around the city.  Strangely enough, the highlight was trying to get their British Pounds (they had just come from Ireland) converted into Euros at a bank.    

We first found a Sparda Bank, where we were told that they did not change money over, regardless of what the currency was.   We were directed down the street to the nearby Sparkasse Bank and went inside to get their money changed.  

When we arrived at the counter, I asked the banker, in German, to change the money into Euros.   We handed him the British Pounds and after 2 seconds of looking at it, the banker gave this horrific look on his face as if we farted after eating hot dogs and ice cream all night (not that I would know anything about that) and quickly passed the money back to us.   He told us to go to a Western Union down by the train station (15 minutes away by foot) to get the money changed.  I even tried to ask in English (maybe I asked wrong somehow) and the answer was the same.

Afterward, we speculated what the banker would have done if we had given him a less valuable currency and easily agreed that he would have wiped his nose with a US dollar if we tried to change it over there.   

Nevertheless, we gave up on that scavenger hunt and went on with our day. 

Dana and I had a great time and really got to know John and Rachel even better.  Dylan was a gentleman to his friend, Anikah.   We joked that for 5 years, we lived 8 houses down from each other in Florida, and it took us both travelling 5,000 miles to get to know each other better.  

Here are some pictures from last week. 
Dylan and Annika were fast friends.  He did a good job sharing all of his toys.

"Here, Annika - smell my feet!"

Dylan piled up all his books around Annika and they had a book reading party.  So cute.

Our little travelers.  So good together.

Rachel and I in the Borken town center.