(that's "nonsmoker", in English ...)
A few months after I came back from Germany in 2000, Shelby and I went with some friends to Lake Tahoe. While we were there, we stopped at one of the casinos in South Lake Tahoe -- after we came out, everyone else was complaining at length about the smoke -- did you believe how many people were smoking, and how much that place smelled?
My response was "huh? I guess so ... I didn't really notice." I'd gotten so used to public smoking in Germany, that it took months before I began to act like a typical American again, turning up my nose at people smoking in public.
Four years later, there's a lot less public smoking than there used to be (for one thing, the ban against smoking in underground U- and S-Bahn stations is actually enforced), but you can still tell that this isn't California. Last night Shelby and I went out to dinner; once we got back to our nice smoke-free apartment, I got a good whiff of myself and realized that I reeked of smoke. "There were people smoking there, weren't there? I didn't even notice!"
Last time it took me months before I was "immune" to people smoking around me -- this time, it only took me a few weeks. Hopefully this accelerated process doesn't end with me looking down in surprise one day to find a cigarette in my mouth, with no idea how it got there ...
Here are some pictures from our daytrip to Berlin this past weekend.
This is the trip where I learned not to try and do so much -- it was fun, but also a little problematic for me. I went there with a full day of activity planned in my head, buoyed by how successful our trips to Boston and New York were this past summer -- forgetting, of course, that we spent multiple days in each city and had a hotel room where Shelby could go back and rest whenever she felt tired. Here we only had one day and no hotel room, so we ended up making a lot of spur-of-the-moment revisions to the rough plan: moving more slowly, taking time to sit down, and changing destinations to places that were closer or more accessible.
Fortunately, we'd already been to Berlin, and this was just a fill-in-the-blanks trip, rather than a go-for-broke, we'll-never-see-this-town-again death march -- a good icebreaker for my entry into this brave new "hey, relax" school of tourism.
So much for the snow -- it's mostly melted away, except in a few shady areas. Today looks like it'll be the sunniest day we've had for a while. The 7-day forecast shows that we've got a week of mixed snow/rain to look forward to, though, so maybe we'll get our snow after all ...
Scout wanted to go outside (because she needed to, or because she was bored? It's getting hard to tell ...) Once we got to the ground floor, I was surprised to open the front door and find this:
Hamburg has an incredible public transit system. The subway and buses run on a frequent schedule throughout the day, and you have to travel for quite a distance out to the suburbs before you come to someplace where there's not a transit stop every block or so.
Another shocking contrast to American public transportation is that Hamburg's Busse und Bahnen are clean: torn seats, scratched windows, and the like are kept to a minimum. In comparison to, say, New York, where subway enthusiasts can geologically date the last time a station was rehabilitated by pointing to various layers -- look at that 1940s IND-style tilework, look at those 1970s earthtones, look at this doorway sign leading to something that hasn't existed for fifty years -- Hamburg's stations are frequently updated for no discernable reason. Near us, the Hauptbahnhof Nord station is receiving completely new tilework that looks exactly like the old tilework; there wasn't anything wrong with the old tile that a simple washing wouldn't have fixed. A herd of maintenance men moves from station to station, cleaning and fixing; any garbage or spills usually only stay around for the remainder of the day that they're dropped.
So, imagine my surprise when I was waiting for the subway on Friday and noticed something moving down among the rails: a little gray mouse, sniffing that day's garbage and darting in and out of sight. As a temporary German, I know that I shouldn't be cheering for vermin and civil disorder, but ... go, little mouse, go!
Even more surprising, in a different way, was the advertising sign for Stern (a German newsmagazine) greeting me as I got off the train at the Gänsemarkt stop. Now they're all over the city:
When a German newsmagazine wants to trash America, it looks a little more like this:
. . . and this was published before Schwarzenegger was elected governor!
(My overseas take on the whole Democratic-primary race: I'm sorry to see Dean go. My feelings about him ran along the lines of this piece: that Dean was the only inspiring and experienced member of the Democratic field, and had he run more as the moderate he actually is, rather than the zany populist that the media and certain of his supporters expected him to be, he would have remained a contender. Now we've got Kerry, whose android-looking-for-a-heart personality, Massachussetts liberalism, and painfully parsed attempts to explain his voting record (when he's not just hiding behind the mantle of "I was in Vietnam") make me long for Al "no controlling legal authority" Gore. I'll be voting for the Democrat, but hopefully the rest of America will turn out to like Kerry as much as the Germans already do ...)
A more useful subway sign: the electronic sign in the Gänsemarkt station, telling you that the next U2 train comes in 5 minutes (and that it's a short train -- Kurzzug -- so that you'll know where to stand on the platform). Note that I took this picture around 11:30 PM, and trains were still running every eight minutes in both directions. Compare this to San Jose, where the loser transit agency decided that it was okay to run light rail every 15 minutes in the middle of the day, and then wonders why ridership has dropped ...
Thanks to BoingBoing (where I get a lot of my interesting "news"), I see that the National Microcar and Minicar Club will be holding their 2004 meet in Huntington Beach, California in July. If it weren't for this whole living-overseas thing, I could be there -- but now it looks like I'll miss my chance to see multiple examples of my favorite cars, the BMW Isetta and the Messerschmitt KR200. (I've seen plenty of them in museums, but I've never seen one running ...)
This ties into Germany not only because the Isetta and the Messerschmitt are prime examples of materials-limited post-WWII German auto production, but because we see examples of their spiritual descendant, the Smart fortwo coupe, tooling around on the streets of Hamburg every day. There's a rental company, Sixti, that offers Smart coupes for rent for just 5 Euro a day! Since all of our dog-boarding options seem to be on the outskirts of Hamburg, outside of easy mass-transit range, I suspect we'll be renting a Smart sooner or later so that we can drop Scout off at a Hundehotel. (Small dog -- small car -- how cuuuuuuuuute!)
Stay tuned for the road test and photo spread.
More pictures: this time, photos that Shelby took while wandering around our neighborhood, with her commentary. (She's in charge of noticing quirky things that I don't notice anymore, because I'm used to them by now.)
Last night we were very adventurous and went out for dinner -- all the way to the ground floor of our apartment building. I can't remember if I've mentioned this before, but only the top floor of our building is apartments; the middle floors house various businesses, and the ground floor is Valentino's, a restaurant/nightclub.
The nightclub is only open on the weekends (it's not particularly loud, but you know it's there because you can hear a muted techno beat coming from somewhere down below); the restaurant is open on the nights when the nightclub is not.
We were the only people there for almost all of our dinner, which got us an inordinate amount of attention from the staff. The waiter sussed out the fact that we were English-speakers early on, and dealt with us (more or less) in English for the rest of the meal, all the while apologizing(!) for his English ability. The food was very good; we had some Merlot with dinner (the cheap bottle, which turned out to be a Robert Mondavi product from California!) and a cheese plate to die for as dessert. It was too expensive to become a regular thing, but good enough that we'll definitely be back, and a nice splurge after living like monks while waiting for my next paycheck to come in (the need to pay the deposit for our current apartment, coupled with the ongoing failure to get back the deposit from our previous rental, had caused a bit of a liquidity crisis ...)
This morning we went to the complex of municipal offices for Hamburg-Mitte and registered Shelby as a resident of Valentinskamp 40. This is the first step in getting her a set of giant visa stickers in her passport, to match the ones I already have. It was pretty painless, although I think that Shelby found the whole process more scary/intimidating than I did.
The bureaucrat behind the desk was very typical of German government employees I've dealt with before -- someone who managed to be helpful and brusque at the same time. I started things off on the wrong foot by making a foolish error and filling out the wrong form, but that was quickly rectified. There were also some squabbles about differences between the names we'd filled out on the form, the names in Shelby's passport, and German-vs.-American custom for married names -- was Shelby's first name really "Shelby", or was it "Shelby Lynn"? Was her last name really "Hogan", or "Rosiak Hogan"? I let the bureaucrat win in his preference for "Shelby Lynn", but I was able to talk him down into letting Shelby's last name be nur (only) Hogan. In about a half-hour, we walked out with a Meldebestätigung (proof of registration) showing that we both lived at Valentinskamp 40.
Shelby already summarized our weekend pretty accurately, so I won't do another recap here.
I will say, though, that I was pretty pleased with myself for ordering items from the women at the cheese and bakery counters correctly and without incident. This wouldn't have happened four years ago, mostly because my total phobia about dealing with people in German would've stopped me from even coming near that counter. When David Sedaris wrote about his experiences living in France and learning French, I really knew what he meant about reaching the point where you wish that you could buy meat from vending machines.
But now my German has improved beyond the point where navigating the day-to-day is a problem. Besides, now I've got a family depending on me; I'd just have to imagine Scout's face if she were to find herself deprived of meat and cheese for the next six months ...
My first non-Germany, non-landlord post, prompted by this item in the New York Times: Amazon Glitch Unmasks War of Reviewers.
It seems that there was a glitch in Amazon's Canadian site that revealed the true identity of anyone who'd posted an anonymous review ("Reviewer: A Reader from New York, NY ...") For a week, the curtain was pulled back to reveal cliques of jealous writers savaging other (usually more successful) writers, famous writers (including literary superstar Dave Eggers) defending their friends, and writers giving their own books glowing five-star reviews.
However, the second page touched on what I consider to be one of the real mysteries of Amazon: Harriet Klausner. Harriet is Amazon's #1 reviewer, having written almost 6,500 reviews. On most days, she'll review multiple books. None of her reviews rises past the level of a second-grade book report: she usually provides a one- or two-paragraph synopsis of the plot, following up with an "if you love (x), than you'll love this!"-style conclusion. It seems that she's never read a book that she didn't like, not even a little bit: virtually all of the books she reads get a full five stars.
Who is this person? Why spend so much time and effort posting "reviews" that offer no more content or insight than what's usually printed on the back cover of the book? How can you claim to read more than one book a day and take away anything meaningful from those books? In the article, she's grousing about how other reviewers are conspiring against her, organizing people to vote her reviews "not helpful" in order to take away her coveted number-one spot.
Um, Harriet, maybe it's just that you're genuinely not helpful ...
I'm not the first person to wonder what's behind the Harriet Klausner machine; the best guesses I can find on the Internet is that Harriet genuinely likes books, and her "#1" mantle is enough to score her review copies from clueless publishers. (Or advance copies from people looking for softball reviews -- thanks to Amazon's new full-text-search feature, you can see that there are a distressingly large number of books that aren't afraid to incorporate a blurb from Harriet in their front matter.)
I finally got the time to put up pictures from my visit to Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg a week ago.
Now you can tour our apartment and see how the German half lives.
I locked myself out of my blog earlier today -- through a boneheaded move on my part, I managed to delete the user "Kevin" from happybeagle.com's Movable Type system. After adding a new Kevin-user, I found that I still couldn't edit this blog, because the old Kevin-user was both the creator of the blog and the only user with permission to access it.
After using vi (the one true editor) to directly edit Movable Type's database files, along with some help from this handy Perl script, I was able to set things back to normal. Brought me right back to my college days as a UNIX bigot, I'll tell you ...
Four years ago, when I first stayed in Germany, I was on top of the world financially, because the exchange rate was so good. One Euro traded for about eighty American cents (more accurately, two Deutschmarks traded for about a dollar -- the Mark's exchange rate had been pegged to the Euro, but the great switchover hadn't happened yet). Germans were carping about trading their strong and well-respected D-Mark for the forever-doomed-to-weakness Euro -- the idea of the Euro reaching parity (1 Euro = $1) seemed impossibly far off, if not laughable.
So let's flash forward to 2004 -- where, this morning, one Euro costs $1.28. When the idea of a second German trip first entered our minds, the Euro was nudging parity -- not long after, it broke through and has been climbing pretty steadily ever since. (And all the Germans bemoaning the weak Euro are now bemoaning the strong Euro.)
Unfortunately, the climb doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon. Nor does our government want it to stop -- hoping, it seems, that President Bush can get some "it's the economy, stupid" bonus points in time for the election by pointing to a boost in U.S. exports.
We've not in trouble yet -- we've got quite a lot of headroom to go before that happens. Still, it's disconcerting when each trip you make to the ATM costs more than the trip you made before.
(Hopefully, at least, we'll see some of that short-term boost to US exporters show up in the other number that I watch obsessively ...)
Well, after receiving our ex-landlord's outrageous "final accounting" last Friday, I called him that same day. Over the phone, I pointed out that our initial deposit was twice what he'd said it was (his reaction was more "oh" than apologetic), and we came to a vague agreement that my share of any carpet-replacement costs should be pro-rated based on the age of the carpet. He asked me to send him an E-mail summarizing our discussion; I did so immediately afterwards.
So, naturally, it's been a week and I haven't heard anything back from him -- nor has there been any money deposited to my account.
I'll be sending a much stiffer letter tonight, after I get home and Shelby has a chance to look at my draft. I really hope that we don't have to go to small claims court before we see anything, but my feelings about this guy aren't getting any better ...
In the first of my "I'll tell you more later" entries, here's the belated story of last weekend:
I celebrated my 29th birthday by sleeping in very late, doing some laundry, eating lunch, and then heading out to a Weinmesse (wine convention) that I'd seen advertised the day before. After the ad in the subway caught my eye, I'd visited their Web site, saw that this was going to be a pretty large affair, and decided that it might be a good introduction to this strange new world of German wine.
The Messe was huge -- about the size of the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Festival back home, spread out over four floors inside an exhibition building. The first couple of floors held winemakers from the various wine regions in Germany, along with a few local cheese and chocolate makers. The third floor was split between more Germans and winemakers from across Europe (France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Greece); the top floor was everyone else (mostly South Africans and Australians). Did I learn a lot? Not really. Did I drink a lot of interesting wine? Yes! (I found a German winemaker offering a Pinot Noir, and it was awful -- I think we'll definitely stick with France for red wine while we're here.)
Between the remaining language barrier and a lack of experience with white wine, it was hard being as enthusiastic as my German bretheren, who would discourse animatedly and at length with each winemaker and then go off into corners to scribble tasting notes into dog-eared notebooks. In contrast, I tended to make a note of something interesting-looking and then wait until that booth was mobbed to get a sample, so that I wouldn't be stuck alone with the winemaker. The few times that I did have to make small talk, I got a big response by explaining that I was from California, and while my in-laws were part owners of a winery, these German white wines were still a big mystery to me, but your wine -- your wine, ah! -- was excellent!
(Actually, through poor word choice, I think that I may have accidentally upgraded Gary to a winemaker, rather than just a part-owner, but the likelihood of a Horst or Gunther showing up on the doorstep of McKeon Phillips to talk to Gary-the-winemaker seems pretty slim, so I think we're safe.)
After leaving the Weinmesse, I headed off to Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg, giant model railroad and tourist attraction. Even though I got there pretty late (6 PM) on a rainy day, it was packed full of people -- many families with kids, but also lots of couples and singles of all ages.
Miniatur Wunderland is an amazing spectacle -- almost 5,500 square feet of model railroad, with over four miles of track. The whole affair is broken up into different sections -- you've got Hamburg, with many well-known local attractions in miniature; there's an Alpine section featuring tall, snow-capped mountains, with ski slopes and chair lifts high above the tracks; another section is a mountain valley full of hikers and vacationers, with tracks running along the riverside through small towns; there's a more generic "city" -- and then there's "America", which is a strange almagam of the desert Southwest, the swamps of Florida, and Las Vegas. (Watch locomotives of the Milwaukee Road haul freight past Indian pueblos, or MBTA commuter trains from Boston stop at a station right next to the Space Shuttle!)
Their website says that they spent over 4 million Euro to build it, and it shows. Besides all of the trains, there are hundreds of automobiles travelling semi-autonomously through the city, sound effects, flashing lights, and animated items (that either move on their own, or move in reponse to visitors pressing buttons distributed along the railings of the layout). They've taken the model kits that most model railroaders only gape at in catalogs -- a Ferris wheel and roller coaster, or a giant construction crane -- and have bought, built, and customized multiple copies of each. Every 15 minutes the entire layout cycles from "day" to "night" -- and when it gets dark, a whole different scene comes into play -- houses light up, cars turn on their headlights, police cars and firetrucks with flashing blue lights chase around.
I'll definitely be going back for another visit -- one trip just isn't enough to take it all in. Pictures coming soon (honest!)
Shelby and Scout arrived safely in Frankfurt, and we spent most of yesterday driving back (through snow and driving rain) across Germany to Hamburg.
Scout has already claimed the couch, and shows no fear in having to use the elevator to get downstairs.
More later, but ... they're here!
I had a good birthday weekend. On the day itself, I went to a Weinmesse (wine convention) within walking distance from the apartment, followed by a trip to Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg. I'll write more later (and include some pictures of the model trains).
But now after a pretty packed workday, I've got to go home and get ready for my trip to Frankfurt tomorrow to pick up Shelby and Scout. I'll be picking up a car tonight and then leaving very early in the morning order to be at Frankfurt airport by 10:30.
Everybody here says "why don't you just take the train?" I say "more comfort, lots of luggage, Scout doesn't have to wear a muzzle in the car, blah, blah" -- but this afternoon it occured to me that I could've taken the train there -- and slept on the way -- and rented a car to come back. Oh well.
Grocery shopping on Saturday reminded me of something that I found amusing the last time I was in Germany -- food products that claim to be "American Style", or in the style of a particular U.S. state or region.
The item that first caught my eye was a packet of "California-style" noodles -- "with a fruity curry sauce!" You know, I can't count the number of times that I sat down with my friends back in California to enjoy those noodles and their fruity curry sauce. (In my experience, the word "curry" on a German food label just means "spicier than regular German food", rather than what an American might expect it to mean. They weren't kidding about the "fruity" part, though -- the list of ingredients claims to contain powdered apple, banana, and citrus!)
We move on to a tall glass jar with a stars-and-stripes label that purports to contain "real American-style hot dogs". First, these hot dogs are half again as long as a typical American hot dog -- second, they're in a glass jar, floating in some unidentifiable liquid. They remind me more of sad biology specimens -- the kind that sit in their jars of preservative on the back shelf of every high school science classroom -- instead of looking like something I'd actually want to cook and eat.
And then there are the ice cream ads in the subway, inviting us to experience the real taste of New York City -- where the taste of New York seems to be vanilla ice cream with some kind of frozen strawberry product swirled in. I can remember TV ads for a "New York Dream" ice cream something-or-other from the last time I was here -- the dream was, again, vanilla ice cream with something else swirled in. Apparently New Yorkers are unable to take their ice cream straight.
(On a side note, what is it with Germans and ice cream? Last night I watched a guy buy ice cream bars for himself and his girlfriend -- this on a day where it was snowing earlier in the day, and where they'd be going outside into near-freezing weather after they finished their ice creams ...)
Given today's events, I'm feeling pretty depressed, but I'm still looking forward to this weekend.
This Saturday will likely include a trip to IKEA to finish getting things ready for Shelby & Scout -- purchasing some sheets and towels, and the dog rug of Scout's dreams. The cleaning service is supposed to change our linens every two weeks and provide us with more of anything we need, but I figure you can never have too many towels of your own, particularly if you own a dog in a rainy climate.
On Sunday, I'll be celebrating my birthday (I'll be 29) and indulging my not-generally-known enthusiasm for model trains with a trip to Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg, a giant display railroad. This layout was featured in the last issue of Model Railroader that I got before we moved. Their Web site says it cost them 4 million Euro to construct, which handily beats out the only $3 million-or-so brand-new Great Train Story layout at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
After that, if it's a sunny day, maybe I'll walk around and take my first set of pictures since my arrival. (There are pictures from previous Hamburg trips stashed away here  and here [1999/2000].)
And then on Tuesday, I drive down to Frankfurt to pick up Shelby and Scout! That will definitely help to improve my mood ...
Anybody out there have experience with landlord-tenant law? Or with taking your ex-landlord to small claims court?
Remember my landlord story from a few days ago? Well, I got his final reckoning of costs via E-mail this morning ...
Kevin, the summary is as follows
Painting spots on walls, doors, fixing window screen living room, fixing
kitchen door, etc = 250
Dry cleaning 4 curtains living room and dining room = 204
Alma as per your note below (incl. washing anther 4 curtains which don't
need dry clean) = 120
Gardener as per your note below = 80
Replacing carpet (there are stains and dirty areas even after your
machine cleaning which can not be removed) = 1,750
TOTAL = 2,404
Minus Rent pay back 3 days in Jan = 184
GRAND TOTAL = 2220
Your deposit is 1899, therefore there is a deficit of 321, which I am ok
There is also sprint mail. Let me know if you want me to open or send
somewhere to you.
I hope you are settling in Hamburg well
I'm so mad I can hardly speak. To begin with, our deposit was $3798, not $1899. Thankfully, this is clearly noted in our original contract, and I brought my copy with me to Germany. And if he wasn't totally profiteering, and we really owed him $321, would he be "ok not claiming" that?
It seems that we're pretty much screwed (beyond his obvious "mistake" in the amount of our initial deposit), as we didn't document the condition of the carpet on our initial move-in walkthrough. Nor, unfortunately, did we discuss the condition of the carpet at move-out -- we did our final walkthrough with the understanding that the last thing I'd do before moving out would be to steam-clean the carpet. It wasn't completely pristine when we left, but it wasn't completely pristine when we moved in, either -- the carpet in one room had areas with a noticeable yellow tinge, and the entire carpet was wet from being steam-cleaned on the morning of the day we moved in.
As God is my witness, I'll never rent again!
#1: Since Shelby and Scout aren't here yet, I've got a lot of free time in the evenings -- so I finished this page of pictures taken while we were moving out: our rummage sale, our big goodbye party, our cute dog in a mostly-empty house. Maybe soon I'll get around to our pictures from Christmastime ...
#2: German ATMs are vastly more friendly that American ATMs: instead of giving you all of your money in a single inconvient denomination, they provide your withdrawal in an assortment of bills: 50s, 20s, 10s, and 5s. Why can't banks in the US do that?
#3: My tragedy is worse than your tragedy: A popular category of advertisements in the subway is appeals from various charitable organizations. They all seem to be trying to one-up each other with images of the pathetic/dramatic. In one station alone, we have:
#4: I watched an episode of South Park in German last night -- this was actually the first time that I'd seen an entire episode in any language! (Although I finally watched the movie for the first time last month.) I comprehended things at my usual level -- which is to say that I got the gist of it all, but if someone asked me to write a detailed blow-by-blow description, I would be helpless. Most dubbed programs are actually harder for me to watch than the natively-produced stuff; it feels like they speak faster so that they can credibly lip-sync the long German words into the space offered by characters speaking a more compact native language.
I'm still not on a "German" sleep schedule yet. Last night I didn't get to sleep until 4 AM; I forgot to set my alarm clock before finally nodding off to sleep, so I didn't wake up until 11! Fortunately, my manager is off at training today, and our group meeting isn't until tomorrow, so this less-than-auspicious start to my first full day at work went mostly unnoticed.
Yesterday I went through the mini-circle-of-hell that is German bureaucracy. I say "mini" because my experience actually wasn't all that bad; I met Helma outside my apartment at 9:30 and was fully legal to live and work in Germany by 1 PM -- a new record! There was still a lot of running around to various offices and waiting, though.
First we had to go to the Bezirksamt for Hamburg-Mitte, the central government office for the portion of Hamburg we're living in, to register my name and address. Eeach person living in Germany, including foreigners, has to register with the government each time he changes his/her address. I brought along a form signed by my landlord attesting that I now lived at Valentinskamp 40, 20355 Hamburg. Registration was pretty painless; some tapping at a keyboard, and I was done. (They remembered me from 2000; I was asked if I once lived at Koenigstrasse 7.) We couldn't register Shelby, since we didn't have her passport, but I was able to present our marriage license and have the fact that we were married entered into the system, so that on our next trip to the Bezirksamt, I could attest that Shelby lived with me at Valentinskamp 40, rather than having to get another signed form from the landlord.
After that, it was down the street and up a few flights of stairs to the immigration office. Most of my paperwork had already been sent ahead of time by the company (and again, they had some of my information on file from my last time), so we were able to breeze through the first waiting room full of screaming kids and sad-looking adults and go to a quieter waiting room upstairs. After some palaver (I'm glad Helma was there, since the immigration official spoke the most rapid-fire German I'd ever heard), some more waiting, and 51 Euro, my residence permit was placed in my passport. In the four years since my last permit, the permit has doubled in size -- now it's two giant-size stickers that take up two pages in my passport.
Finally, there was one last subway ride to the Arbeitsamt, the office where I had to register for a work permit. This was the worst of all, simply because it took forever, sitting in a waiting room with nothing to do while watching numbers creep along on the electronic waiting board. Eventually they got to my number (300), and we went down the hall to the designated room. There, an older man took my application papers and passport, gave some cursory glances through the supporting documentation that Helma offered him, and then shuffled off into an adjoining room to do . . . something. ("He is treating us like children! He doesn't even talk to us!" Helma exclaimed. "That's fine, as long as he comes back with a signed permit", was my practically-minded response.) And, eventually, he did.
So my experience with the much-feared-and-reviled German immigration and employment bureaucracy turned out to be the equivalent of a half-day trip to the DMV. Of course, I was the right kind of person (a white American) with the right kind of job (a short-term assignment, funded outside of Germany), and my company had done all kinds of paperwork and made a raft of advance phone calls on my behalf. I can imagine it being a lot worse for someone with a more sketchy immigration or employment status (and in the interest of equal time, I can imagine it being a lot worse for someone seeking to immigrate into and work in the US).
Next week, Shelby and I go to the Bezirksamt all by ourselves; we'll probably have Helma's help for the immigration office, though. Hopefully it all goes as well on the second time around.
I'm in Hamburg! Now I have a week to settle into our apartment and my work while getting things ready for the arrival of Shelby and Scout.
My flight was more or less uneventful. I had a seat in an exit row directly across the aisle from a bank of lavatories, which meant that I had people waiting for the toilet standing in my footspace for most of the trip, and got to see everybody's bizarre little stretching exercises.
On my arrival in Hamburg, I was met by Helma, who works in the office here, and we took a cab to the apartment. After waiting around for a while, an employee of the apartment brokerage showed up; I signed some contracts, was given a little tour, and was then left with the keys. After that, Helma and I walked around the neighborhood; she pointed out items of interest, guided me through some basic errands, and then left to take care of an emerging crisis back at the office.
I like our apartment; it's just the right size for two people and a dog who've put everything they own into storage. It's two stories, with a sleeping area at the top and everything else down below. The space is very light and airy, with lots of windows. There are some things I'm not happy with (whoever mentioned an "American kitchen" or an "American-style queen size bed" in the original advertisement has obviously never been to America), but overall it's far better than where I was staying in 2000.
One area of concern is net connectivity for Shelby. When the apartment broker gave me the tour, she pointed at the phone and said "that phone is more like a phone at a hotel than a real phone; more expensive. If you want it turned on, let me know; I'll tell the landlord and you'll get a separate bill." There goes our plan to hook up an ISDN modem -- if your house can't get DSL, Internet in Germany is like going back to the early 90s, with measured-rate access to everything; I'm afraid to think what the tariffs plus "hotel like" phone service might cost! Cruising for wireless networks shows there's an open network in our building, belonging to one of the businesses with offices on the floors below; however, it seems to be up and down at odd times, and their open-ness might not last long once they discover it's attracting people from the outside. Looks like it's time to look into one of the companies that's claiming to blanket Hamburg with a Wi-Fi network, available anywhere for a low monthly price. We'll see . . .
For me, moving is almost always a deeply depressing activity. I'm not exactly sure why this is, but there are certainly a lot of contributing factors. Over everything, there's the sheer physical drudgery of it all, the endless packing and carrying. I feel guilty about taking advantage of obliging friends (and if I decided not to take advantage of my friends and paid for movers to do the job, that feeling would be replaced by angst at spending a pile of money to bring in a bunch of apes to pack and manhandle our stuff). Each object purchased with good intentions for self-improvement reprimands me for my wastefulness as it is packed away unused. I try to avoid that feeling by swearing a new set of oaths: when we move into the new place, I'll live more simply and buy less stuff! I'll take the money I save and invest it! And as God is my witness, I will use this papermaking kit someday!
And if all that wasn't enough, there's our landlord.
Since he still has a pile -- two months' rent, almost $4,000 worth -- of our deposit money, I'll protect myself (for now) against casual Google searching by Anglicizing his name: let's call him Joseph-Mary White.
Two weeks before we were moving out, Joe was as easy-going and casual as can be about the subject of our leaving. You want your deposit back before you go to Germany, so that you can use it on the new place? Sure, that shouldn't be a problem. How about cleanup? Would it be sufficient if we pay Alma (his cleaning-lady-of-choice and favorite person in the world; she could pour dirt on the carpets, and he'd still think they were clean, because she did it) double her usual weekly amount to one final cleaning? Sure, that would be great. We agree to meet the day before final move-out for a last walkthrough of the place, so that we can agree on damages (or lack thereof).
Joe shows up on Tuesday night, pulling up to the house with his daughter Charlotte in the car. Charlotte is a toddler who is never happy, and tonight is no exception. She shrieks to be picked up; pretty soon, she shrieks to be put down. Scout comes out to see what the commotion is; she shrieks to pet the dog, and then starts shrieking because the dog is close to her! Eek! Opening and closing every cabinet door in the kitchen to see if they still work? We've got to lift Charlotte up onto the kitchen counter, so she can open every door, too. Opening and closing the windows in the kitchen? Charlotte shrieks to be stood on top of a bench, so that she can open and close the window, too (and then lean herself halfway out of the open window, five feet above the ground . . . "Joe, isn't that, uh, unsafe?" "Oh no, no, Kevin, that is no problem at all -- let's go in the bathroom and look at the medicine cabinets.") We continue going through every room in the house in this excruciating fashion for about an hour and a half, when Joe ends with "well, this all looks fine, but I need to come back tomorrow to inspect the floors, the walls, and the windows; it's too dark for me to see them properly." Now it's time for me to shriek! We'd been planning to leave early Wednesday, putting the house in Alma's hands for the final clean-out, but given that we just spent two hours going over the house from head to toe and he still didn't feel secure about signing off on the majority of it (what's left in an empty house but the floors, walls, and windows??), it was clear that I was opening us up to incurring a signficant hit on our deposit if I didn't stick around for a second walkthrough.
Later that night I call Joe to set up a time for the second walkthrough. I tell him I'm a little concerned about his level of aggressiveness during the inspection, that I feel we've taken excellent care of the house, and remind him that we've been paying $200 extra to have his gardener and cleaning lady of choice come to take care of the house and garden twice every month. He agrees that we've taken good care of the house, but . . . and things slide from there, ending in a heated argument about whether or not the carpet was clean on move-in (they steam-cleaned it immediately before we moved in, meaning it was wet to the touch on our arrival. How can you have a troupe of dirty, dusty people carry in boxes and stack them on top of damp carpet without the carpet getting dirty?)
We rendezvous the next day; I expect the worst, and quickly get it. (Although thankfully today Charlotte is left at home.) Joe opens by explaining that he's not trying to take our deposit; nothing would make him happier than to give it all back to me, but that it's our obligation as tenants to hand the house back to him as clean as it was on the day we took possession of it. However, it's quickly evident that he's carrying around some dream version of the house as it was in his head, and is ready to totally ignore the wear-and-tear aspects (legally, his obligation to fix) of two people living in a house for a year and a half.
Back when we moved in, I thought I was being thorough and protecting myself by being more careful than I'd ever been in documenting prior damage to the house during our move-in inspection. Now it's clear that I was nowhere near as thorough as I should have been; videotape and photographs of every wall would have been more appropriate. Joe's wife fancied herself an artist, so every room in the house had a wide variety of hooks, hangers, and nails, as well as being honeycombed with holes where previous hangers had been. In the dream version of Joe's house, these walls were freshly painted and pristine, until we moved in.
"Kevin . . . what about these nails and the holes here, over the toilet?"
"Joe, you and Anne had a giant framed poster hanging there; we've never hung anything at all in the bathroom."
"Ah. I remember the poster, but don't you think we would have used something more, ah . . . elegant to hang it up? I mean, these nails -- and wouldn't we have removed the nails and filled in these holes before we left? Also, you didn't mention these nails on your move-in sheet. You know that it is your obligation as a renter to write down all the damage on this sheet when you move in."
(Elegant? This is coming from the couple that beat a regular 'ol three-inch nail into the lath-and-plaster wall of the living room in order to hang something up!)
We go through a similar scene over some smudges on the wall -- they could not possibly be ours, because we cleaned all of the walls and did touch-up paint before we moved out! If they are not yours, why didn't you mention them on the move-in sheet? I point out that if the walls were so exhaustively cleaned, why does the back bedroom have a several-foot-long greasy/dirty smudge on the wall, at bed level -- where they had their bed, and where we had a six-foot-tall bookshelf?
Eventually, we work ourselves down to a list of 'his' things and 'my' things. For all of that sturm und drang, the list of 'my' things turns out to be pretty short, and more or less reasonable (except for dry-cleaning the drapes, something which I'm certain has never before happened in their lifetime, but was in our original contract). This week Joe is off 'getting estimates'. If he holds true to form by never paying for labor more expensive than any random guy he can find in the parking lot of a Home Depot, we might actually get off okay. One thing's for sure, though -- when we come back to America, we'll definitely be looking to buy, not rent. Stay tuned, friends.
(And if you made it all the way to the end, you deserve some kind of special award. Stick around; I promise that very few of my future blog entries will be as rantariffic as this one.)