April 30, 2004

So Who Reads This Thing, Anyway?

So who reads this thing, anyway?

I seem to have collected a following (albeit a minor one) of regular readers, and while some -- Shelby, my parents, the occasional American co-worker -- are easy to pick out of the crowd, I'm curious as to who the rest of you are. (Particularly the readers from Germany!)

So please leave a comment and say hello! (If you're worried about making a comment and then having your E-mail address harvested by spammers, don't worry -- leaving your E-mail address is optional.)

Posted by Kevin at 03:41 PM | Comments (8)

A Voyage To Saturn

Last night, while Shelby was in her German class, I went to Saturn. Saturn is a German electronics-store chain -- this particular store, off of the Mönckebergstraße (one of Hamburg's main shopping streets), claims to be the largest electric-goods specialty store in the world. I get the feeling that their count is missing some store in Tokyo (or even the giant Fry's Electronics in Sunnyvale), but spread out over six floors, Saturn is big.

I was looking for a few particular items: a new Wi-Fi card for Shelby's laptop, lightbulbs for our floor lamp that decided to burn out all of its bulbs at the same time, a can of compressed air (the collected dust of four years seems to finally be taking its toll on Shelby's hand-me-down machine). After rounding those up, I roamed the store, geeking out until it was time to go meet Shelby outside her language school.

I started out on the top floor, which sells music and movies. In the music department, there's a section for German music, there's a section for French music -- but there's no section for American music, because it makes up the majority of what's in the store. Everything you've ever heard about America's total supremacy in the entertainment industry is completely true. Personally, I'd be pretty disturbed if I walked into the average American music store and found that most of its content was in, say, German, but most consumers here seem to lap it up.

Then I went down to the cameras. I found that Canon has already eclipsed my measly 5-megapixel camera with a new 'prosumer' digicam, the 8-megapixel PowerShot Pro1. While playing with the toy, I felt a temporary twinge of geek envy -- I should have waited to get this camera! -- but then reflected that had I waited to get that camera, I wouldn't have had a camera for the first three months we were here. And the street price wouldn't have fallen yet . . . and I'd be just as covetous of the next-camera-after-that down the pike. Where does the circle end? After finding this site dedicated to Minolta manual-focus cameras yesterday, it's almost enough to make me want to break out the old Minolta XD-11, buy some classy used lenses at KEH Camera Brokers, and go all-manual. Or I can just wait five more years, and then probably get a digital SLR with more resolution than my dream camera, the Pentax 67.

In a disturbing encounter, I moved on from the digital cameras to the tripod section -- and there, out of the blue, someone starts to speak to me in English about a particular model of tripod. I hadn't said a word -- his choice of English couldn't be because I'd opened my mouth and revealed my foreignness. It was obvious that English wasn't his first language. Which can only mean one thing: that my Americanism still sticks out like a sore thumb, even if I don't do anything but just stand there. Damn. It must be the white tennis shoes ...

(White tennis shoes? It's a strongly-held fiction among certain "in the know" American tourists -- most notably the kind of people who hang out on the Rick Steves message board -- that white tennis shoes simply don't exist in Europe, and that wearing them will instantly mark you as an American. Conversely, wearing some other color of shoe will allow you to "go native". As a matter of fact, I am wearing white tennis shoes, but I bought them at Karstadt Sport here in Hamburg -- right across the street from Saturn. And if nobody here wears white shoes, then there certainly are a lot of Americans walking around . . . )

Posted by Kevin at 07:20 AM | Comments (1)

April 29, 2004

At These Prices, We Should Get Sick More Often

Last month, Shelby went to the emergency room, and this morning the bill came due. I'd been waiting for this bill for some time, wondering how much it would cost -- so I opened it with some apprehension, and ran my finger down the list of itemized charges to the bottom line to find we were being charged a total of ... 67 Euro!

67 Euro?!?? With all of our travails over the past couple of years, we've developed an acute awareness of what various medical procedures will cost us, and this is just a little more than the cost of our deductible for visiting an American emergency room. Maybe they're expecting further reimbursement from our insurance plan -- but the bill seems very complete, and makes no mention of insurance (nor have any German claims appeared in our insurance company's online claims database).

This is on top of the custom orthotics Shelby got last month, which cost us a total of 75 Euro. Our insurance company doesn't even cover orthotics (unless you meet certain tortured conditions), and after a quick Web search, it seems buying a pair of custom insoles in the States similar to what Shelby got here would cost us at least $150.

You can laugh at me later if (or when) the whole German system collapses under its own unsustainable weight, but right now this whole socialized-medicine thing doesn't strike me as so bad after all.

Posted by Kevin at 10:22 AM

April 28, 2004

Signs of the Times

Spargelzeit: Among the top contenders for a German national delicacy would have to be Spargel -- white asparagus. During the brief Spargel season (roughly May to mid-June, according to what I can find), everybody goes a little crazy over this vegetable. We're definitely entering into the season -- our local supermarket hung out a huge banner this week declaring it to be "Spargelzeit!" (Spargel time!) Markets and vegetable stands everywhere have bundles of asparagus stacked up for sale. Even our latest stick of butter came with a spargel recipe printed on the wrapper. Shelby and I will have to sample some spargel dishes at the local restaurants (maybe we can find a restaurant that offers a Spargelkarte, a special menu of nothing but asparagus-centered choices) -- then we can go home and try some spargel dishes of our own, perhaps using recipes from spargeltreff.de ("The Meeting Point for Friends of Spargel").

Alice kommt: Yesterday morning, seemingly every other advertising sign inside the subway became part of a mysterious ad campaign aimed squarely at every red-blooded heterosexual male in Hamburg. Each ad features the same hot babe in a form-fitting dress, tossing off a coquettish glance at the reader, with a tagline about "Alice": Alice kommt (Alice is coming). Alice is coming into your life. Alice can't resist you. At the bottom of each ad is a URL for the website www.alice-kommt.de -- where you see nothing more than a slightly repackaged-for-Flash version of the same ads. If you follow the "Curious? Click here" link at the bottom and register for the website (my good friend "Biff Q. Mombeko-Jones" always lets me use his personal info to register for dodgy websites), you're provided with a new page where you can download a PDF of each of the three ads -- and that's it. (At least Alice is helping to further the Adobe brand!) So now I'm curious to find out what "Alice" will be; I'll admit that I've let this piece of sexy advertising lead me around by the nose. I'm guessing that it turns out to be something related to alcohol, cigarettes, cars, or mobile phones, typically the four most popular things to advertise to men inside the subway -- with an outside chance that "Alice" will turn out to be a tortured acronym for some government program. Maybe it'll turn out to be an innovative combination of all of them!

Valentino's, RIP: A couple of months ago, Shelby and I ate at Valentino's, the restaurant/nightclub that takes up the bottom floor of our apartment building. The food was very good, and the service was excellent ... because we were the only two people in the restaurant. After that, every time we'd walk past the restaurant's windows on our way home, we would look in and marvel at how empty it always was -- often three or four people, at the most -- and wonder how they could possibly stay in business. Now it looks like we've got our answer -- they couldn't. After a couple of weeks during which the restaurant stayed dark and newspapers piled up on their front step, Scout and I went downstairs this morning to find a cherry picker on the sidewalk, with men in the basket pulling the "Valentino's Restaurant" banners off of the front of the building. This news posting on a Hamburg-nightlife website claims that Valentino's is only closing for renovations and will come back better and even more glamorous than before, but I have my doubts.

Posted by Kevin at 10:32 AM

April 26, 2004

An Uneventful Weekend

We didn't do too much this past weekend: I guess that after a week and a half of doing something every single day from morning to night, we were ready to sit around.

Still, we got around: I investigated the English-language book market, we celebrated the enlargement of the European Union, and we each finished a book about ancient conspiracies.

On Saturday, I decided to cross off an item that'd been on my to-do list for a while and check out The English Bookshop, a store near the Holstenstraße S-Bahn stop that supposedly offered a good selection of used English-language books. It appears in just about every guidebook I've seen; after just a few minutes, I had to wonder if any of those guidebook authors had actually been there. The store occupies three adjacent storefronts on the same street; each individual shop was dirty and dishevelled in that seedy-used-bookstore way. I didn't linger too long; not only could I not find a book under five Euro (even among a stack of battered and sun-faded Penguin Classic paperbacks), the store was testing my fear of death -- either I'd pull the wrong book out of a stack and bury myself, or would perish in a fire started by rogue sparks from the eight or nine plugs protruding from every electrical outlet. For extra wierdness, an English food store co-existed with the bookshop, so you had a box full of marmelade jars sitting on the floor in front of the true-crime paperbacks, and bottles of shandy sharing a shelf with a stack of National Geographics.

I made up for the disappointment of The English Bookshop by checking out another bookstore, this one selling new English-language books, and was pleasantly surprised -- not only did they have a good selection, but they also don't try to nail you on the Pound-Euro or Dollar-Euro exchange rate. A mystery: this shop (and others we've visited) was selling new paperback copies of The DaVinci Code, with a cover price in dollars and the imprint of an American publisher -- but you can't find the paperback for sale in the USA! Are they dumping these overseas while they milk the American hardcover market for as long as they can? (Similarly, you can buy trade-paperback copies of Neal Stephenson's latest two books, Quicksilver and The Confusion, over here, even though the second book has just been released! They're no bargain, however -- the paperback copies cost 23 Euro a piece because they weigh fifteen pounds each. Other people seem to like them, but I worry that this is the series where Neal Becomes Too Famous For An Editor Who Says No.)

On Saturday night, we went to a food-drink-and-culture fair held in the plaza in front of the Rathaus. The European Union will be getting larger soon, and this was a state-sponsored chance for us to celebrate our EU bretheren and soon-to-be-bretheren. Booths sold food, drink, and handicrafts from the various countries, bureaucrats tried to hand out pamphlets nobody was interested in, and a couple of stages provided music. Shelby and I chose to celebrate by drinking German beer and eating Italian pizza and garlic bread. Scout came along, too; for the number of potentially stimulating things going on around her, she was a very good dog -- just sat next to our table and waited patiently as we finished our food.

On Sunday, we just lazed around and read -- Shelby finished The DaVinci Code (not one of those paperbacks, but a hardcover that had come over as her dad's on-the-plane reading material), while I finished Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, a book that came to my attention after several DaVinci Code reviews referred to Eco's book as "the thinking man's DaVinci Code". Both books involve the Knights Templar, conspiracies, and Deep Secrets kept across the centuries. I can't speak to Shelby's reading experience, but I found Foucault's Pendulum to be suitably gripping, despite being incredibly dense throughout (with a near-constant flow of historical references, both conventional and esoteric, it was able to make me feel significantly undereducated much of the time; however, I suspect part of the flood is meant to create the mood that the conspiracy theorist feels when he is Decoding the Plan -- that everyone has gotten into the act).

Posted by Kevin at 12:13 PM | Comments (4)

Netherlands Pictures

I haven't forgotten them! It's just that there are a lot of them. I'll put them up, along with my trip narrative soon -- in the meantime, you can read what Shelby had to say about the trip (the Amsterdam portion; everything else) and content yourself with this sneak peek:

(Click on any of the pictures for a larger version of that image.)

Posted by Kevin at 09:39 AM

April 24, 2004

Poor Dog!

After we picked up Scout from the Hundehotel on Monday, we suspected that she might be a little sick. When she only ate half of her dinner on Wednesday, our suspicions increased. On Thursday night, when she not only totally ignored her usual dinner but also refused a slice of cheese, we knew that our little dog had to go to the vet. (There had also been some waste-product-related clues, but we won't go into that.)

So, Scout and I walked down to Dr. Bielan, the Tierarzt who'd previously given Scout her German immunizations. He diagnosed Scout as having general digestive upset, and gave her a couple of shots, along with medicine to take home and directions to come back on Monday for a third injection.

The first thing this vet does is attempt to ply the dog with treats; initially, Scout had been doing what she'd done at home, which was to take the treat in her mouth and then let it drop to the floor. After her shots, however, she was walking around the room sniffing out her dropped treats and snarfing them up -- and after that, taking new treats from the vet's assistant! "Next time she won't eat, you should just bring her down here with her dinner!" Ha-ha.

The medicine we were given to administer to Scout at home is basically a tube of clay! The clay is supposed to coat her digestive tract, protecting irritated areas and encapsulating any bacteria or other nasties that are causing problems. So, twice a day, we get to squirt out (it has a consistency a little more liquid than toothpaste) a fair amount of this stuff and smear it inside Scout's mouth. On one hand, the "smear it in" method of dosing is brilliant -- there's no pill to spit out! -- but that doesn't mean it's easy. During last night's test run, we ended up with digestive clay all over our hands, Scout's snout, and the floor, but I think we got enough inside her to make a difference.

(The tube advertises that it has a "pleasant vanilla flavor" -- how many dogs wake up in the morning thinking "I hope my person gives me some more of those yummy vanilla treats"?)

Last night, she ate half of her dinner -- and sometime between last night and when I came down this morning, she ate the other half. It looks like we're on the road to recovery.

Posted by Kevin at 09:20 AM

iTunes, etc.

In 2000, for my first time living in Hamburg, I lugged my entire CD collection along with me from the States in a giant zippered case. This time, thanks to the wonders of advancing technology, I've traded the giant zippered case (which would now have to be considerably larger) for eight gigabytes of hard-disk space: before we left, I downloaded iTunes for Windows and 'burned' (or is it 'ripped'? I don't know what the cool kids call it) all the CDs onto my laptop, letting me safely leave the majority of my CDs in storage while still providing me with an endless music source at work.

iTunes automatically compiles a top-25-most-listened-to list of songs: after three months of leaving it on random play and skipping through songs I'm not interested in, I've finally created a top-25 list that's not a random mishmash and is actually representative of my tastes:

  1. The Christians and the Pagans (Dar Williams, Mortal City)
  2. Don't Worry About the Government (Talking Heads, Sand In the Vaseline)
  3. Roseville Fair (Bill Staines, The First Million Miles)
  4. Mystery Spot Polka (Brave Combo, Polkas for a Gloomy World)
  5. Denton, Texas (Brave Combo, The Process)
  6. A Better Wife (Erin McKeown, Grand)
  7. Laika (Moxy Früvous, Bargainville)
  8. Dreaming My Dreams With You (Alison Krauss, Forget About It)
  9. Southern California Wants To Be Western New York (Dar Williams, Mortal City)
  10. Arrival (Dar Williams, The Honesty Room)
  11. Saturn's Light (Deb Talan, A Bird Flies Out)
  12. A Kinder Columbus (Deb Talan, Sincerely)
  13. Infamous Angel (Iris DeMent, Infamous Angel)
  14. The Fairest Of The Seasons (Nico, Chelsea Girl)
  15. We Close Our Eyes (Oingo Boingo, Boingo Alive)
  16. Rapture (Peter Mulvey, Rapture)
  17. Question Mark (Peter Mulvey, Rapture)
  18. The Stanford Jonah (University of California Marching Band, Here's To Thee -- The Cal Band Centennial Recording, 1891-1991)
  19. Let The Mystery Be -- Live (10,000 Maniacs, Few & Far Between)
  20. Heart To Heart Talk (Asleep At The Wheel, Ride With Bob)
  21. Walk Down By The Water (Bill Staines, The First Million Miles)
  22. My Tears Are Nothing (Brave Combo, The Process)
  23. The Battle Of The 5 & Dime (Cafe Noir, Window To The Sea)
  24. The Wolf (Catie Curtis, Truth From Lies)
  25. Just Getting By (Catie Curtis, Truth From Lies)

Another feature of iTunes is that you can 'share' your music on your local network -- people using iTunes on other computers can listen to, but not copy, the songs in your local library. Since my office is full of Macheads, there are a lot of shared playlists for me to browse, and I can see what the average Hamburger is listening to. There's a lot of the predictable techno, but what always surprises me is how many of my co-workers love rap. Once I got into the car of my boss-at-the-time to drive somewhere -- he's a home-owning family man in his mid-30s, who always dresses in a crisply buttondown style, like a model for a German Land's End catalog, but when he turned the key of his BMW, out blasted the high-volume rap music.

You'd think that my iTunes library, heavy on the folk and acoustic side of things, would be completely ignored. But one day I checked to see if anyone was looking at my library, and eight people were connected! I seem to be serving some sort of unmet need. It's a shame that iTunes doesn't provide you with a way to see exactly what songs your remote listeners are listening to ...

Posted by Kevin at 08:52 AM

April 22, 2004

In-Laws in Hamburg: The Last Day

Yesterday was Gary and Shirley's last day in Hamburg (and in Germany, if you don't count their 5 AM trip to Hamburg Airport this morning).

We tried to start out by taking a tour of the Rathaus (the city hall, ornate home to Hamburg city and state government), but they weren't offering any tours until Saturday. So, we settled for lunch in the restaurant behind the Rathaus instead. (The restaurant shares the same building as the Hamburg Stock Exchange; you'd think that in the middle of a workday, the exchange floor would be used for trading -- but no, it was hosting some kind of light & sound [& beer] show, featuring musical selections from The Lion King. Strange.)

After lunch, Shelby was still tired out from yesterday, so she went home for a nap, while I went on with the in-laws to Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg. They were properly dazzled by the intricacy and detail of it all, while I continued to notice details I'd missed on my previous visits: a UFO that occasionally descends from the ceiling over the German countryside during "nighttime", or a dog kennel with a yard next door where little HO-scale dogs were going through agility training.

After Miniatur Wunderland, we walked to St. Michael's Church (der Hauptkirche St.Michaelis, or "Michel"), where we paid 2.50 Euro each to ride the elevator to the top of its tower for a fantastic view over Hamburg:

Click on the image for a much larger version of this panorama picture
(but be warned, it's
huge -- roughly 800x6000 and 860 KB!)

. . . after coming down, that was pretty much it for the day. We headed home again and met up later for a low-intensity dinner at Block House (a German steakhouse chain about on the same level, food-wise, as a Black Angus in the USA). Then it was back across the square for one last drink at Gary and Shirley's hotel, after which we said our goodbyes -- we headed home, and they headed back upstairs to pack.

A great vacation -- but sadly, now back to real life!

Posted by Kevin at 08:42 AM | Comments (1)

Attack of the Audio-Guided Zombies

Something that started bothering me at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and continued to bother me at the Alte Nationalgalerie on Tuesday: the proliferation of "audio guides" inside art museums.

On a certain level, they're pretty handy, especially when you're in a poorly-signed museum in a foreign country: punch in the number that appears next to a work of art, and a voice (usually that of a Cultured English Person) whispers into your ear, telling you more than you'd ever want to know about the item in front of you.

The problem appears when you're at a crowded museum that gives everyone an audio guide, like the Van Gogh museum. Then you end up with a crowd of people standing ten-deep in front of the most popular paintings, staring slack-jawed into space as they wait for the audio guide to finish its entry for a particular painting, thus granting them "permission" to move on to the next item. People may be done with actually looking at the painting, but that doesn't mean they'll step aside so that newcomers can have their chance; the audio guide's not done yet! All you can do is elbow your way into the herd, hoping that you'll get your chance in front of the art as everybody slowly shuffles along, following the Officially Approved Numerically Increasing Audio-Guided Path.

Even in an uncrowded museum (the Alte Nationalgalerie), once an audio guide was placed in my own hands, I was surprised to find how much it was influencing my viewing habits. That's an interesting-looking painting over on the other side of the room -- but wait! The guide hasn't finished telling me about this painting yet! I caught myself looking around each new room, hoping for paintings with an audio-guide number on the wall next to them. I found myself lingering far longer at certain paintings than I normally would, just to hear every thrilling detail about how the artist died of tuberculosis three months after finishing this, his last painting.

Thankfully, the Alte Nationalgalerie was small enough that I was able to reach the end and tear my headphones off before I completed the conversion into becoming one of ... them!

Posted by Kevin at 07:56 AM

April 21, 2004

In-Laws in Berlin

And now we've survived our second day touring greater Germany alone with Shelby's parents (even after waking up at 5:30 to catch a morning train to Berlin). Highlights of yesterday:

  • The Pergamonmuseum (home to giant reassembled wonders of antiquity like the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate)
  • The Alte Nationalgalerie
  • The Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (see the history of divided Berlin, and what lengths people would go to in order to escape from East to West)
  • The East Side Gallery (definitely looking much worse for wear than the last time we saw it, three years ago)
  • Shopping at KaDeWe

Today we meet Gary and Shirley at 10:30 for one last day in Hamburg ...

Posted by Kevin at 08:25 AM

April 20, 2004

In-Laws in Hamburg: Day 1

Everybody survived Gary and Shirley's first day in Hamburg. High points of the day:

  • Picking up a very appreciative Hund at her Hundehotel, after a trip that took far longer than appreciated (German Word of the Day: Stau [traffic jam]).
  • The obligatory one-hour cruise through Hamburg harbor (hopefully everybody got something out of my decidedly less-than-literal translation of the tour guide; as we were riding through the container port section of the harbor, and he started reading names off of containers and telling fascinating facts about each shipping line, I decided it was okay to cut back to translating the very high points)
  • Wine shopping (we filled four of the six slots in Gary's wine holder, and we haven't even gotten to the real wine stores yet!)
  • A long walk with the dog through the Planten un Blomen
  • A nice dinner

And now it's off to meet Gary and Shirley at their hotel, from where we'll set off to catch the morning train to Berlin!

Posted by Kevin at 06:14 AM

April 19, 2004

We're Back!

We got back from the Netherlands last night. We had a lot of fun (Holland: recommended!).

Shelby's parents followed us back from Amsterdam (they'll be seeing the sights and sounds of Hamburg and Berlin for the next three days) and I'm just on the computer briefly this morning before I go off to pick up the dog. Please expect a few more days of more-or-less silence after this brief note ...

Posted by Kevin at 06:58 AM

April 10, 2004

Goodbye, Goodbye

We leave bright and early this morning for our 7-day river cruise through the Netherlands. After that, Shelby's parents are coming back with us to Hamburg for a few more days. (Note that the Viking River Cruises website has the maps swapped between our cruises and the 9-day "Tulips and Windmills" cruise; we're not going to Brussels and Antwerp! To see our itinerary; choose April 11th from the "Choose a Date" popup.)

So at a minimum, no blogging until at least April 19th, and realistically, not for a few days beyond that. 'Bye until then!

Posted by Kevin at 01:20 AM

April 09, 2004

What We're Missing Tomorrow

(Click for a larger version of either image.)
By leaving for Amsterdam tomorrow morning, we're missing one of the only-in-Germany (as far as I can tell) traditions that I was most looking forward to: Osterfeuer.

On the night before Easter Sunday, giant fires are lit all over the place. Why? Ostensibly, it's to celebrate Christ's triumph (Phoenix-like, as it were) over death; the tapers that light the candles in church on Easter morning are lit from the ashes of the previous night's fire. In reality, the whole thing is rooted in ancient Pagan celebrations -- lighting fires to drive out the last bit of Winter -- and I think that most people take part just because it's fun to go totally crazy and light gigantic fires once a year. (Those cones are about three or four stories tall; they're built using whole trees!)

There'll be an Osterfeuer held in neighborhoods all across Hamburg; I took these pictures in 2000 in Blankenese, along the banks of the Elbe river. Right across the road from these fires were multimillion-Euro riverfront homes; people were standing on the balconies of those houses with beer in hand, cheering the fires on even as they propelled giant bits of burning flotsam through the air above them. Sure, the fire department was parked right there, but I think that this illustrates a fundamental difference between German and American attitudes towards risk, social occasions, and having fun -- in America, bonfires of that size would probably be held in the middle of a sports stadium or a giant empty field (or just not held at all), with spectators kept far away, just to make sure that Everybody Has Fun And Nobody Gets Hurt.

Also, a random piece of American Easter miscellania:

In 1953, it took 27 hours to make one Peep: the story of Marshmallow Peeps (and why the company that makes them is called "Just Born"), from slate.com.

Posted by Kevin at 10:53 PM | Comments (1)


Just in time for us to leave on another vacation, where we'll take more pictures, here are the pictures from our weekend in Vienna.

Posted by Kevin at 10:38 PM

More Landlord Song & Dance

More continuation of the ongoing struggle with our ex-landlord: on March 15th, I requested for a second time that he send me receipts for his security deposit deductions; on March 23rd, he finally responded with "I'll come back to you shortly".

(I've given him a new pseudonym in this episode: our ex-landlord shall be "Biff", while his wife will be "Ophelia".)

. . . and then time marched on, with nothing but silence from Biff. Finally, on April 7th, I wrote him again, requesting the receipts a third time, saying that my patience was wearing thin, that he had more than exceeded all the deadlines established by the law, and that I considered this a serious matter, even if he did not. Later that day, I got this reply:

Was mailed last Monday to the address you provided. Sorry for the delay
but it took some time to finish the work and get all the receipts.

. . . so supposedly he sent the receipts a week and a half ago, and they haven't shown up yet. What mailing option did he choose -- twelfth-class mail? Anything I've ever sent from San Jose to Southern California took a few days, at most. Maybe there was a glitch in the system, and the receipts will be waiting for us once we all get back from vacation. Judging from prior experience, however ...

I don't know what to do if the receipts don't show up. Part of me wants to give up; just thinking about Biff at this point almost makes me feel physically ill. The prospect of any return seems less and less the farther we go down the rabbit hole. On the other hand, I don't want to let the bastard just win and walk off with $1450 of our money, ready to turn around and do to the next poor sap what he did to us.

One thing is clear, though. For the benefit of future search-engine users: if you're thinking about renting the house at --- Washington Street in San Jose (or any other property, for that matter) from Biff Slobotnik and Ophelia Hammerseley, don't. It's not worth the trouble. Biff may seem like a harmless eccentric when you first meet him (and someone who's indifferent about his own property to boot; anyone who would drag a piano over an unprotected hardwood floor, leaving giant grooves in its wake, wouldn't seem like the guy who'd haggle endlessly over a pair of nail holes), but he's strongly focused on getting as much from you as possible while giving up absolutely nothing of his own in return. Rent from him, and prepare to be harangued repeatedly about how he's only trying to get you to live up to your obligations as a tenant -- but turn it around and remind him about his obligations as a landlord, and you get nothing but "you don't understand", "it's not as simple as you think it is" -- and when the excuses run out, stonewalling and silence. I don't expect any landlord-tenant relationship to be perfect, or want our landlord to be our friend, but it certainly could have been far better than this.

Update (May 13, 2004): We did get the receipts, as promised; they arrived in Torrance a couple of days after I wrote that entry.

However, this grudging compliance doesn't mean that I don't think that we were totally scammed:

Item #1: All of the receipts are dated between March 9th and March 23rd. Given that Biff originally advertised the house on craigslist.org as being available at the end of February, it seems odd that he didn't do the work during February, a time when the house was presumably vacant for an entire month. Instead, the work begins a week and a half after I ask him for receipts. Hmm.

Item #2: The "professional" receipt -- the one that came first in Biff's packet, and listed all of the work done -- comes from "Home Renovation Services", a business that's not listed in the San Jose phone directory or registered as a business name in Santa Clara County. Given that the receipt refers to the bathroom as the "WC", a distinctly unamerican oddity of usage, I'd suspect that Biff, who comes from Europe, had a hand in writing the receipt himself.

Item #3: Biff's original breakdown of expenses ran as follows:

Painting/handyman work: $250
Dry cleaning curtains: $204
Final cleaning by cleaning lady: $120
Gardener: $80
Carpet replacement: $1750 (of which "our share" was $1000)

. . . for a total of $1654.

The final breakdown, that came with the receipts, went like this:

Cleaning lady: $120
Gardener: $80
Dry cleaning curtains: $110
Glass replacement: $130
Materials: $157
Labor: $910

. . . for a total of $1507, which means that we got a "refund" of $147 along with the receipts.

So what happened to the total carpet replacement in the first estimate? You know, the carpet that we so irreparably damaged that all the carpet in the house had to be replaced? Well, it turns out that merely steam-cleaning it again, along with replacing a frayed patch in the hallway, was sufficient after all. Hmm.

Having freed up $1000 by not replacing the carpet, it looks like Biff went to town in figuring out what additional work he could have done on his house at our expense. During our final walkthrough, Biff and I went over every scratch and ding in the house in excruciating detail -- what was new, what was old and reported on the move-in inspection sheet, what was old and not reported on the move-in inspection sheet. We made a list of things that we were responsible for paying for, and a list of things that he was responsible for paying for. Looking at the list of work that was done, it's clear that he decided to throw all of those lists out the window and just charge us for everything. I think the dodgiest thing on the entire receipt is the single unelaborated line charging us $910 for "Labor". How many people labored? How long did they labor for, and what was their hourly rate? But let's look at the rest:


  • Removed hooks (We removed any hooks we added; therefore, we're being charged for pre-existing hooks.)
  • patched walls (We filled in the holes from our hooks, so again, Biff is charging us for his own hooks.)
  • paint touch-up (We didn't repaint over the patching, so this is legit, to a point.)
  • adjusted drawers of kitchen cabinets (One door on a kitchen cabinet was slightly out-of-true, so that you had to force the doors slightly to get them to close completely, and so they stuck on opening. This is clearly a "wear and tear" issue -- and the landlord is supposed to make allowances for wear and tear. The cabinets were ancient and made out of plywood, not top-dollar precision machinery, so it's not inconceivable that they'd stick over time . . . not inconceivable unless you happen to be Biff, that is.)

Utility room
  • Replaced broken glass (In my stupidest moment, this was one piece of serious pre-existing damage that I managed to overlook during the move-in inspection. Still, this was definitely here before we moved in -- and considering Biff lived in the house for years before we did, you'd think that this would be the kind of thing he would remember ...)

  • painted walls (a need not mentioned during our move-out inspection)
  • paint touch-up (Why this is different from "painted walls" is unclear.)

  • painted stained areas
  • painted door frames stained areas and baseboards

Living room
  • painted deteriorated area on top of fire place (Damage that wasn't our fault -- the only thing we did to the mantel was put Lladro statues on top of it -- but we didn't list it on the move-in report. This is something that I clearly remember Biff putting on his list of things to fix during the move-out inspection, because he was being theatrically magnanimous about it.)
  • painted stained/duty areas

Dining room
  • Covered hole on piano wall (Not our hole -- and not something we'd have noted on the move-in inspection report, either, because there was a piano there! I suspect that they bashed the piano against the wall when moving it in or out of the house -- just like we watched Biff dig deep grooves into his hardwood floor while rolling the piano out of the house.)
  • painted stained/duty areas

Master bedroom
  • replaced broken blind handle
  • adjusted window screen

  • Painted stained/duty areas (About the only "stained" areas that I saw in the garage were stained from water damage, because Biff needed to put a new roof on the garage. This is another thing that was clearly noted on our move in sheet -- again, because I remember Biff being theatrical about putting it on "his" list: "You see? This is something that you have written down, so I know that it was already there!" Of course, if asked, I'm sure that he'd claim to have discovered some other area that needed repair.)

  • Steam cleaned carpet
  • Repaired damaged section on hallway

So in our year and a half of living on Washington Street, we supposedly caused approximately $1,000 worth of damage (counting supplies and "labor") to the paint alone. Biff would have us believe that he did touch-up paint in every room and cleaned all of the walls immediately before we moved in, so any damage to the paint and walls was obviously our fault. This is completely ludicrous: for one, Biff and his family lived in the house up until a few days before we moved in -- if he can't manage to do repairs on an empty house in less than two months, when did he find the time to do all the work he claimed to do on the house just days before we moved in? The house certainly didn't smell of new paint, and any patched spots were obviously very carefully distressed to match the surrounding walls' existing level of dinginess. Second, on the day we moved out, you could still point to scuff marks and dirty spots on the walls that matched furniture they had in the house -- a long greasy/dirty smudge along a wall where they had their bed, but we had a bookshelf; in another bedroom, scuff marks at foot level where they had a desk, but we had a bed placed against a wall. Biff himself acknowledged much of this pre-existing low-level damage during our excruciating move-out inspection, as he searched for root-level causes for why we were guilty of everything -- "Why are those marks on the wall? You had nothing there? Hmm . . . ah, that's right, we had (piece-of-furniture) there, didn't we!"

In response to this, Biff would ask (and did ask, repeatedly, during the move-out inspection): "If you didn't cause this damage, why didn't you write it down on the move-in inspection sheet? If you didn't write it down, then there must have been no damage there!" At the time of the move-in inspection, I thought I was being thorough -- indeed, I was being more thorough in noting damage than I'd ever been before. In retrospect, I was being nowhere as picky as I should have been, and taking photographs (or video) in every room would have been more appropriate. But the greatest reason for the discrepancy between the move-in and the move-out inspections was that Biff himself had transformed into a completely different animal. The Move-Out Biff was possessed, driven to look for flaws, spending hours poring over the walls and opening and closing every drawer to verify its smooth operation. In contrast, the Move-In Biff was relaxed, detached -- if there were any problems inside his house, I had to find them, since he was hanging back and not helping at all. He certainly wasn't pulling open any kitchen drawers to demonstrate that they worked. And if he was ready to pronounce a room with scuffs, scrapes, and nail holes as "okay", can I really be faulted for thinking that to him, this amount of low-level, pre-existing damage was, well . . . "okay"?

Looking back, one might almost think that the move-in version of Biff was setting us up for something . . .

So why not take Biff to small-claims court? Believe me, I've looked into it. Unfortunately, to be sure of being successful, I would have had to be much more thorough on the move in inspection, given the vague and extensive list of damages that Biff is claiming. There are definitely grounds for argument here -- that the "labor" charge is excessive, that wear and tear matters are the landlord's responsibility, that paint is an item with a definite service life, and that tenants are liable for (at most) the fraction of that service life that they actually spent living in the house. However, it seems that most cases of this type degenerate into "he said"/"she said" arguments where, in the absence of absolutely conclusive written proof, the benefit of the doubt is usually given to the landlord.

At the very best, maybe I could argue/convince/connive/wheedle Biff out of some additional amount of cash, but the thought of going through several more months of back-and-forth negotiation with him -- and given the amount of work it took to get him to provide material he should have willingly provided without us even asking, it's not worth it. Again, I'll trade off the likelihood of getting back a fraction of the money Biff bilked us out of and the certainty of raising my blood pressure against the peace of having this idiot out of my life forever.

So enjoy your money, Biff -- I hope that you choke on it. I hope that the free paint job you got from us gives you great pleasure. It's hard to see how people like you can sleep at night -- but of course, it's always the most crooked who seem able to sleep the soundest.

And if you're looking to rent a three-bedroom, one-bath house on the edge of San Jose's Japantown, conveniently located next door to a daycare full of perennially screaming children and owned by a double-talking, ethically-challenged landlord, I've got just the place for you ...

Posted by Kevin at 10:05 PM

April 06, 2004

Arrrrrrgh ("Low-Cost" Car Rental)

So much for Sixti.de, "the discount car rental". In my review of the Smart car we rented from Sixti, I finished by noting the various ways that their "from 5 Euro/day" rental could end up costing much more than that.

It turned out that there was one more potential hidden cost that I overlooked.

On my way out the door this morning, I checked the mailbox, and found the official receipt for the car I'd rented on Friday to drop Scout off at the Hundehotel. I'd brought the car back 70 minutes later than I'd reserved for (2:10 PM instead of 1 PM), and so they charged me a "late return" fee of 38.75 Euro!

Yesterday, I turned in the car about 45 minutes later than my scheduled return time. If they apply the same fee, then my "low cost" rental odyssey -- once you include the original rental fees, late fees, topping off the tank, and going to the car wash -- could end up costing me almost $200! For that price, I could have rented a Mercedes convertible (or two) for the weekend, and not had to worry about going to the car wash afterwards.

I turned the car in later than I originally said I would; I can't deny that. Still, whenever I've rented a car before, a matter of a few hours has never been a cause for concern, unless the delay was enough to push me into renting for an additional day. I notice that in Sixti's FAQ, they state that the minimum rental period is one day. I'll send an email to their customer-service people this afternoon, and see what they have to say on the matter . . .

Posted by Kevin at 10:53 AM

We're Back

Pictures from Vienna coming soon -- there are quite a few, so it takes longer.

In the meantime, from the motorsports section: the HappyBeagle.com road test of the Smart coupe. Join us as we drive the European cars that you can't!

Posted by Kevin at 08:28 AM

There's Got To Be A Story Here

The sign from Scout's Hundehotel
(I misquoted it the first time)

How many English- and French-speaking people came up the road to ask about animal/human accomodation before they felt compelled to make this sign?

Posted by Kevin at 08:21 AM

April 02, 2004

Just Too Busy

Been too busy lately to write much here . . .

My old colleague Lance is in town this week (in olden days, we worked together on the same small project; now we're just belong to different tentacles of the Hamburg octopus) -- on Wednesday night, Shelby and I met up with him and went to the DOM. We caught up over a sit-down meal of Wurst, Pommes, und Bier (that good-for-you carnival food again), and then went out to ride some of the more outrageous rides. A fun night.

After that, it was all buckling down and working for the weekend, trying to clear the board so that we can go to Vienna tonight with a clear conscience (my conscience -- I'm sure that Shelby will have no problems).

The pre-weekend started early this morning, when I went to pick up a rental car to drive Scout out to her Hundehotel in the country. The car was a 10-Euro-a-day Smart car; when the rental agent took me outside to show me the car, she asked me if I knew how to drive an automatic! Only in Germany. (Actually, the Smart had a semi-automatic "Tiptronic" transmission, which was a genuinely new thing for me.) I came back to the apartment to pick up Scout, and we set off. We've been having gusty winds here for days, and the puny two-person Smart was getting pushed all around the road; I quickly got sore wrists from making abrupt corrections back in the right direction.

Eventually we arrived out in the boonies where the Hundehotel was located. It was a substantial complex of brick buildings at the end of a dirt road -- interestingly, at the head of the road was a sign in English and French that said "HOTEL IS FOR ANIMALS ONLY. NOT A HOTEL FOR PEOPLE." I wonder what happened to make them up a permanent, professional sign, in those particular languages . . .

Scout did her usual thing -- whining pitifully, looking at me with a sad, take-me-home expression -- until . . . sniff-sniff . . . "is that a farm next door?" Waggy tail time!

I think that she'll be fine. (At least until she gets the nail clipping and tooth-brushing that we paid extra for.)

Back on Monday after we get back from Vienna!

Posted by Kevin at 03:25 PM