Tuesday, July 26, 2011

No Cell Phone, No Problem

Some of our readers may be shocked - SHOCKED - to hear that this 29-year-old Gen-Y'er doesn't own a cell phone. (gasp!) I am a marketing and demographical anomaly.  Surprisingly, I find it quite simple to go through daily life here without a "handy," as the German's like to call them.

Even when I did have a cell phone back in St. Augustine, I had the cheap "free" phone that came with signing up for our AT&T plan (although, that's more of a product of my cheap, I mean frugal, husband than my cell phone preferences), and I didn't really use it all that much.  I went through college and several years post-college without a cell phone and it wasn't until I took a job that had me frequently traveling across town to and from meetings in a less-than-reliable car that I finally got one.  My first several cell phones were so seldom used, in fact, that I had pay-as-you-go plans instead of regular monthly plans.  And I have never had a phone that can access the Internet.

When we moved to Germany last September, I had a pretty humorous "exit interview" with AT&T about my future plans for phone usage.  I could tell the person conducting the interview was a young girl probably just out of college, and I was throwing her through a few loops.. Here's how some of the conversation went:
AT&T: Can you share with me why you have chosen to cancel your plan?
Me: I don't need it anymore.
AT&T: So, you're leaving AT&T for another provider?
Me: No.
AT&T: What do you plan on using for your mobile communication?
Me: Nothing.
AT&T:  How will you make phone calls?
Me: We have a landline for local calls and I use Skype for long distance.
AT&T: Do you have plans to get a mobile phone in the future?
Me: No.
AT&T: How old are you?
Me: 29.
AT&T: (silence)

So, daily life here in Germany really isn't complicated enough to need a cell phone. Here are 3 reasons why:

  1. I don't receive enough phone calls to warrant a cell phone.  If someone calls while I'm not home, I can see who it is on caller ID and call them back.  We don't even have a voice mail for our local calls! (Note: Our phone is equipped with a voice mail, but it's all in German and we don't know how to set it up).  
  2. I don't drive anywhere (I don't know how to drive a manual car... but during August Bryan is going to teach me ... stay tuned for a he said / she said blog post next month about that adventure). There is no fear of venturing out in the car, getting a flat tire and needing to call for assistance.  That scenario just isn't going to happen.
  3. I don't want to pay the bills.  We live a remarkably low-bill lifestyle right now and want to keep it that way as long as possible.
So, regarding phones, I am essentially living up to mid-1980s technology standards and don't mind it one bit.  Bryan, on the other hand, does have a cell phone, but he never knows where it is, so it is of little use.  He told me that in December he put 15 Euros worth of minutes on it and still has 13.80 remaining.  The only time we make sure to locate it and charge the battery is when we get a babysitter so she can reach us in case of an emergency.   Our first few dates here sans cell phone were oddly liberating.  It was scary and freeing to say to the babysitter as we scurried out the door "We don't have cell phones so use your best judgement.  Just call 112 (Germany's 911) if there's an emergency.  See you around midnight - bye!"  

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What I've Been Doing - Bryan's Update

I have had a really busy summer so far.  Work/school has been in full swing and basketball has been going 4 nights a week.  Yes, Tuesday is currently the only evening I am home during the week.  Occasionally, I can make it home in time to play with Dylan for a while and say hello (while eating dinner) to Dana.  These past weeks have been grueling and could be a recipe for a total breakdown somewhere towards the end of the long basketball season, but I am trying to strategically use my ample vacation to minimize the insanity and prolong the inevitable burnout. 

Speaking of Urlaub (Vacation), we will be taking a couple of weeks off in August.  We can't wait to share our adventures with you.  We have established our budget and have made our accomodations (I will let Dana share the details of where we are going if she wants.) 

Since I spend most of my week on a bus and in the gym, here are a couple of noteworthy updates from me this summer.

Enjoying Germany's Public Transportation/ Mastering the 'Do Not Disturb' face

After 6 weeks of riding the bus from Borken to Münster every day, something happened.   I stopped getting sick when reading/doing work on the bus.  This was a far cry from my first two weeks where I almost needed to get off the bus halfway through the trip so I could throw up and was totally sick for the first 20-30 minutes once I got home. 
This is huge for me, as it means I get 10 extra hours of work in per week. 

I also noticed that I am typically the last person to have someone sit next to me on the bus.  Normally, if there is room, each person has two seats to themselves (one for them and one for their bag/jacket).  When the bus becomes more crowded, the people getting on must ask if they can sit next to someone else (implying that they move their crap, I want to sit down.)   I have learned that it must be important that you ask permission before sitting down.  I once sat without asking and the woman glared at me the entire 55 minute ride.  
Usually, asking for permission to sit is the end of the discussion with the person until it’s your stop and you need them to move again.  German’s aren’t very chatty when there isn’t beer involved.  This is a good thing, because the commute is more of a work time for me now and I would rather not be obligated to make small talk with somebody every day.
Anyway, I have noticed that all other seats are totally filled before somebody asks me to move.   I have thought about this quite a bit and can only think of a few reasons why.

1.       Maybe I smell.  You can’t rule it out. 

2.       Maybe I look like I don’t speak any German.  Unfortunately, this theory does not work in other situations.  We currently blend in well here (although I still won’t wear black socks under sandals and Dana won’t wear a scarf when it’s 90 degrees /35 degrees Celsius outside.)  Also, nobody on the bus knows if I speak German or not (see above:  we don’t speak, period.)

3.       Maybe I am incredibly good looking or really ugly.  I am still not sure which one I am, but it could be why nobody wants to sit next to me. 

4.       Maybe I have developed a great ‘do not disturb’ face. 

I am pretty sure it’s not number 1, 2, or 3.  Therefore, I am fairly certain that it’s #4.
The purpose of the ‘do not disturb’ face is to make someone feel (in the ½ second they walk by my seat) that asking me to move over would be a really inconvenient/confrontational task for them and for me, so they might as well ask somebody else. 
To successfully pull this off, it’s important that you must do it in a very discrete way.  Because you ride with a lot of the same people every day, you can’t overtly stare at somebody and say with your eyes while shaking your head, ‘there is no way you are sitting next to me.’  After all, it still is public transportation and you might be asking them to sit the next day.   
My key to becoming the last person with an open seat is to become very serious (and very intense) about what I am reading/working on at the time.  I don’t look up from my work, which I think helps add to the ‘do not disturb’ face.  It would almost appear that I would also be surprised to see you as well as annoyed if you were to ask for the open seat. 
If the theory ever breaks down (and it does occasionally), it is important to be extra nice when someone actually asks you to sit next to them.   If someone asks me to sit, I give an overly friendly, ‘kein problem’ (‘not a problem’) just to show them that there are no hard feelings and that the ‘Do not disturb’ face was not an ‘I’m a mean person’ face.  

Bryan's note:  Ok, I just realized after proof reading this that I spend way too much time on this bus.   Sorry to bore you with those details.  Here is the other update:

Basketball Boot Camp
The basketball team that I coach (2nd Mens) have been working really hard this summer.   We decided at end of the season, as a group, that we would do some sort of fitness program in the 13 weeks of summer that the gym is open to replace just having open gyms.  What they didn’t know is that they were about to join ‘Bryan’s Boot Camp.’ 
For the last 12 weeks, we have met two days per week and spent the first 45 minutes doing various basketball centric exercises.  The rest of the time is working on our individual games (shooting, 1 on 1, etc.)  
For the fitness part, we first do jump rope (we currently do 1200 as our warm up.)  Second, we do the Medicine Ball 200, which is the core muscle workout used by the University of North Carolina basketball team (essentially 200 sit ups/crunches.)  We recently did the Medicine Ball 200 twice in a row. 
After that, we play cards.  Not in the way you’d think.  We currently go through an entire deck of cards one card at a time.  However, all red cards are sit ups and all black cards are push ups.  Jacks count for 11, Queens count for 12, Kings are 13, and Aces are now 15.  That means when the entire deck is finished, we will have completed 210 push ups and 210 sit ups.  Add this all together and you have Bryan’s Boot Camp.
I figured we would be doing the last workouts with 4 people maximum.  I had originally said that these practices were optional, so only the serious guys would come.  What actually happened was the group grew in size.  We started with 12 and the group grew to about 18.  It’s back down to about 14 down each workout, but I have been pleasantly surprised how many guys are serious about getting better at basketball.  Even Dana and Dylan come to the gym most nights while we are working out and Dylan gets involved by doing jump rope (without the rope) and sit ups.  He did 30 sit-ups on my lap the other night.  I'm so proud.
When one of my players calls me ‘Drill Sergeant,’(and they do) I am quick to point out that I am doing the exercises right next to them (and I also point out that I am the oldest in the group) and a real drill sergeant would only shout the orders.   I am more of a crazy fitness instructor that really enjoys hearing people yelling in pain. 
As of Friday, we are finished with the 13 week program.  We did our final fitness test on Wednesday (and had the celebration party at my house on Friday.)  I am really proud of my team for working so hard this summer.  They have improved so much (with fitness and their overall basketball game) in the last 12 weeks.   I can’t wait for the season to start. 
Bryan's note:  That story wasn't much better. I will go try to get a life in the next month and come back with more interesting stories. 

Here are some photos of other things we've been doing lately:

Bryan played in Philip Lensings "transition game" from being a Wulfen player to a Borken player.  This was a friendly game in which Philip played for 1 team during the first half, then switched to the other team for the second half to represent his switch to a new team. This photo is after the game when Philip was giving a speech to the 300+ people who attended the game.

We went to a birthday party for one of Dylan's friends who has a trampoline.  It was so cute watching all 6 kids jump and run around together.  Miraculously, no one collided and bumped heads.

For the end of summer training celebration, we had Bryan's team over. I still can't believe we fit this many people in our living room. 

Dylan had a blast at our little party too.  Each time the buzzer rang and  a new person showed up Dylan would point and shout "New one! New one!" excited that there was somebody new for him to pester, I mean, play with.

Here is Dylan's reaction every time we watch the video of him and his "Papa" (Grandpa) on the choo-choo-train at a park in Maryland.  It never gets old.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dylan's Dream Come True - Open House at the Fire Station

One of Dylan's favorite things to do is walk by the fire station every day an see if any of the fire trucks are out in the parking lot.  He gets so excited he jumps up and down, points his fingers and shouts "Mommy!  Weee-oohhhh! Weeeee-ooohhh! Tee-tee taa-taaa!" (the sounds that a fire truck makes in Germany) and runs around the parking lot in a crazed state of excitement.

So, we knew it was going to be a pretty exciting day for Dylan when the fire station had its annual Open House last Sunday.  They had food and beer tents set up, all of the trucks were out and to Dylan's delight they allowed kids to sit  in the drivers seat, climb around and push all the buttons they wanted.

We planned on taking Dylan over there after his nap, but since we live directly behind the fire station there was simply too much noise and excitement happening outside of his window to make a nap possible.

The day would have been perfect had Dylan taken a nap.  It also didn't help that in the morning we tried to tire him out by taking him on a picnic to a nearby playground and lake, and let him run around for a few hours in the sun.  But it was clear after 45 minutes that he was not going to sleep, so we gave in and walked over to check things out.

Everything started out pretty well and Dylan was generally well-behaved until he realized that he was actually allowed to sit in the trucks and play with things.  He was good with sharing the back seats with other kids, but he went off the rails when he had to wait in line to sit in the driver's seat.  He cried and screamed a little louder with each kid who got a turn before him and, of course, like magic the tears immediately ceased when it was his turn.  He pushed all the buttons and pretended to drive the truck, but when his turn was over getting him out of the seat was a huge task.  Bryan had to grab him by the legs and was holding him completely horizontal while Dylan held on for dear life to the steering wheel and screamed at the top of his lungs.  Yes, we were those parents and he was that kid.  Needless to say, we didn't stay too much longer after that incident.  A pregnant lady looked on in disgust as she plugged her ears to stifle Dylan's nearby shrieks.  Bryan said to her as we passed, 'Just wait, your time will come soon.'

I asked him who he was talking to and he said "Oma" (Grandma)

This looks like a kid who's on a fast track to a meltdown.

Smiles after watching a demonstration of how the crane works.  
Finally, it's his turn!

"Don't you dare try to take me out of here!"

Watching another demonstration...

Dylan fought off some older kids to sit on this seat.  All those sit-ups and push-ups that he does at home (seriously... but that's a story for another blog post) have paid off.

Last photo taken on our way back home. He was one tired kid.  

Monday, July 4, 2011

Day Trip "mit Fahrrad" to Ramsdorf and Velen

Dylan is crazy over bike rides and multiple times a day he grabs his bike helmet and says "Mommy, Fahrrad? Fahrrad?  Yeah? Go? Mommy? Fahrrad? FAHRRAD????" Dylan prefers to call bikes by their German name, Fahrrad, and when I give in and take him for a ride he cheerfully claps his hands and shouts "Yaaaaaaay, Fahrrad!"

So this past Friday I decided to take Dylan on a long bike ride to see some nearby towns.  I particularly wanted to go to Velen, a town about 20 kilometers away (12 miles) because there is a famous Schloss (castle) there that we haven't seen yet.  So around 10:30 a.m. Dylan and I packed a bag with snacks, drinks and diapers and headed out.

Our area of Germany has fantastic bike routes from town to town that take you on lightly traveled country roads through farms and forests.  The paths are mainly 1-lane paved roads (farmers use them for their tractors and cars), but sometimes they are dirt paths and all are extremely well maintained. The route that we chose started in Borken (our town) and took us through Gemen and around the castle there, then Ramsdorf and Velen.  We've been to the castle in Gemen many time (it's about a 10 minute bike ride from our home), but I had never been on this particular trail before and saw the castle from a completely new angle that makes it look larger and more like it's from a fairy tale.

Schloss Gemen

Onward we went through the country roads about 8 km/5 mile to Ramsdorf, a tiny little village between Borken and Velen.  Another great thing about these bike trails is that although the majority of the riding is through the countryside, when you get to a town, the trail takes you directly through the center so you get to see the city instead of riding around the perimeter.

Ramsdorf, Germany

Church in the center of Ramsdorf, Germany
After our short tour through Ramsdorf, we headed out for the remaining 12km /7.5 miles to Velen.  I can't say enough about how great the bike trails are.  Another amazing thing is that whenever you begin to doubt or wonder if your going the right way, there are intelligently placed "Bike" signs on trees and fence posts the entire way.  At every crossroads there is always a sign with an arrow, and whoever put them up placed them in easy to see spots so I was never searching for a sign.

I did wonder a few times if pranksters ever flipped the signs around or tampered with them to mess people up and I had a few flashbacks of the "Jamborree" scene in the movie Troop Beverly Hills when the nasty Culver City "Red Feathers" turned the signs around so Troop Beverly Hills had to walk through snake infested swamps and cross dangerous log bridges to win the competition. Thankfully, no tampering has been done between Borken and Velen.

Rest assured, you're on the right track!
Taking this bike trail was very excited for Dylan because we got to see a wide range of farm and wild animals along the way. There were tons of cows and horses, and we also saw chickens, roosters, bulls, goats, sheep, bunnies and even a deer.  He's getting really good at his animal sounds.

The trail dropped us off in Velen right at the Schloss, and there really isn't a whole lot else going on in Velen. Officially called the Sport Schloss, this castle is actually a pretty swanky hotel and has a driving range, tennis courts, places for archery and a whole bunch of other sports and activities that you can partake in.  Dylan was super excited to get off the bike and run around, but unfortunately sitting in the bike seat for a solid hour make his legs immobile and he took two steps and promptly tripped and scuffed up his chin and his hands, so our first 15 minutes we spent sitting on a bench 'hugging it out' while he cried.

When he finally calmed down we walked around the perimeter of the castle, took in the beautiful grounds and fed the ducks.

Making around around the moat...

Dylan doesn't notice the ducks slowly creeping up behind him, but he soon will.

Lovely moat.  Even has a swan and lilly pads.

"Umm, Mommy? Why are all these ducks here?"

Dylan was happy to share his crackers with the ducks until one of the brazenly snatched one out of his hand.  Then is was time to go. One bad duck had to ruin it for the rest of them.

Velen's Church

The front of the Sport Schloss Velen
We got some lunch at a local bakery and sat on a bench outside the church and ate.  We walked around the town center for a few minutes, but it was getting late and I wanted to get Dylan home for his nap.  So we headed back to our bike.  We began our journey home and I quickly realized that the weather was not going to be cooperative.

No more than 10 minutes into our bike ride, it began to downpour on us.  Dylan really doesn't like to be wet in his clothes and I could hear him getting upset behind me saying "Mommy! Wet!  Oh, nooooooooo!  WET! MOOMMMYYYYYY!" So I turned into the nearest driveway and saw an open garage door.  We sped into the garage and nearly crashed into the farmer who was in there working on his own bike.  No explanation was necessary for why we crash landed in his garage, and he was friendly enough to let us hang out the 15-20 minutes it took for the rain passed by.

Onward we went and 25 minutes later we were back in Ramsdorf where it began to rain again and we took shelter in someone else's garage for another 15 minutes.  We finally made it home around 2:30 in the afternoon, 1.5 hours past Dylan's usual nap time, so he happily ran into his bedroom and jumped into his "sleep sack" to fall asleep.

So, for someone who normally rides her bike 3-5 kilometers (2-3 miles) per day around town, a 40km (24 miles) bike ride through the country was an excellent way to get some exercise.  Although, I must admit, I was in great pain just about every time I turned over in my sleep that night and my legs have been sore for many days.

Uh Oh.  We're going to get wet.

Taking refuge in Farmer Stefan's garage. 

And again in someone else's empty garage in Ramsdorf.  Dylan, who is not known for his patience, was excellent.

Friday, July 1, 2011

German Language Update

So, we've been here for 10 months now and our German is progressing ... slowly. Very, very slowly. We really underestimated how difficult this language is to learn and thought that surely after 10 months we would be able to speak and comprehend much better than what we're currently able to do.  Even though I had the advantage of taking a beginner German course, Bryan is leaps and bounds ahead of me with being able to speak. Now my course is over, I have completely plateaued with my progress.  Here are some common situations that I get myself in:

Going out with Dylan: Dylan is a chatterbox and he says "Hallo" and "Morgen" and "Guten Tag" to just about everyone we see on the sidewalk.  He also will say "Bless You" if he hears someone sneeze (even Oscar) and has been known to go up to strangers carrying recognizable bags from the bakery and holding his hand out for a piece.  He's so cute that even the most dour German passerby brightens up and talks to him. This usually leads to them talking to me, and I can get through about 2 questions (What's his name? How old is he?) before I just smile, nod, laugh if they are laughing at whatever they said and slowly walk away.

Walking Oscar: Like Dylan, Oscar has a "freundliches Gesicht" (friendly face), and I get stopped on the street several times a week by people asking me what kind of dog he is.  For Americans, stopping a stranger to ask a question isn't that unusual, but for German's this is out of the ordinary and in general, people here don't acknowledge others passing by unless they know them personally.  One person even passed us in their car, turned around and pulled into a gas station, got out and flagged us down on the sidewalk just to ask about Oscar. The problem I run into with this is that even though I can easily see that they're going to ask about Oscar, the framing of the question is less predicable than the questions I get about Dylan.  Sometimes they start with "Is he a boy or a girl?" Which shouldn't be too hard, but boy (Junge) and girl (Mädchen) for people is different than a boy dog (Männchen) and girl dog (Weibchen). Do you see how girl/person and boy/dog are almost exactly the same? This is super confusing when you don't catch the subtleties of German pronunciation. (Side note about that: words that should be such an easy translation are hard because of the pronunciation. Example: I asked someone what "fan" was in German and they said what sounded like "fenty lahtour" which I thought was ridiculous in comparison to such an easy word like fan. Then I saw the German word in writing - ventilator. Also an English word.  Duh!)

Back to Oscar, I don't get through many rounds of questioning before my true identity as a non-native German speaker is revealed.  It usually happens when I say "Er ist ein Golden Retriever mit Poodle" and  Golden Retriever and Poodle are said with a completely American accent. Conversation ender.

Giving Directions: If you are lost and you need to ask for directions, what kind of person do you target to approach?  Someone who looks friendly and like they live in the area, right? Well, the lady walking a chatty kid and friendly dog are very likely targets for direction seekers, so I also get frequently stopped with this type of question.  If the destination is too difficult, like a doctor's office on a specific street (I still don't know any street names here, just landmarks), I shrug my shoulders and say "Ich weiss nicht" (I don't know).  Usually when I attempt to help give someone directions, it backfires.  A few days ago I very confidently told someone that the bank was on the "links" (left) while I emphatically pointed to the right.   

Dylan loves pushing Elmo in the cart!

This is his "sad" face. Drama students - take note.

At the park on a really cool pulley/trolley thing.

Cowboy hat and gym shorts constitute a complete outfit in our house.

With Mommy in Winerswijk

Dylan calls this the "Bunny Auto" for obvious reasons.