Monday, January 30, 2012

Our Helpful Neighbor

The night we arrived in Germany, only a few hours after getting to our apartment, we heard our doorbell ring. We opened the door and our neighbor that is directly below us, Gertrude, introduced herself. We of course, introduced ourselves in turn, and she said that if we needed anything that we could certainly ask her and that she'd leave us to settle in.

That Saturday night, Gertrude came to our door once again and asked if we were free to join her for coffee on Sunday afternoon. We had no plans, so we told her that we'd be very happy to join her. She mentioned that many member of her family live in the United States and that she's been there quite a few times herself. She also mentioned that she also relishes opportunities to practice her English. This was refreshing for us, since there were less people than we initially anticipated speaking English.

Sunday afternoon rolled around and we made our way down one level to Gertrude's apartment. She ushered us inside and asked us to make ourselves comfortable. We had brought some toys for Brady to play with and were ever mindful that he wasn't getting into something he shouldn't. She had asked the night before if we both drank coffee and since I don't, she made a pot of tea in addition to coffee. She also explained that it is traditional for Sunday afternoon coffee, to have cake and whipped cream. She went on to tell us that her version of coffee is very informal and explained that a formal Sunday coffee would mean that we would not be allowed to serve ourselves, and that the hostess is not allowed to leave the room.

Gertrude is fond of children and had fun playing with Brady (he was a little nervous when we first got there, but warmed up to her quite quickly). We were constantly telling him to calm down and not to touch things, but Gertrude told us to relax and that she was keeping an eye on him as well.

We sipped our tea and coffee over cake and got to know each other. Gertrude told us that she had traveled with her husband abroad to Saudi Arabia for work. They were there two years and she admitted that for several months she was homesick. She also told us that she was forever grateful that some of the women took her around and showed her where to go in the area. Because of her experiences, she understands my situation, being in a place where I don't read or speak the language. She also takes it upon herself to help newcomers settle in and find the shops that they need or anything else about getting around. It's almost like a "pay it forward" attitude and I am grateful and know I would do the same.

She asked about our shopping experiences so far and to that point, we were pretty stressed about it. We had the Aldi's around the corner, and I had gone with Andy the day before, and come home very deflated. There was very little variety and I was nervous about how we were going to survive. Besides pasta and some meats, we had eaten Nutella on bread for several lunches. We had gone out in the car that Sunday looking for other markets, but since almost everything is closed on Sundays, we weren't able to look inside any of the ones that we'd found. Gertrude told me that she would be happy to take me to the butchers and another market, called Rewe. She said that it had much more variety, although Aldi's was good (and in most cases cheaper) to get the basic staples of milk, juice, bread, cheese, etc.

We happened to mention that we had acquired German cell phones, but were still without internet and the last time our family had heard from us was on the plane before takeoff in DC. She instantly insisted that we must call home using her phone. We told her that we couldn't, but she said that since so many of her family lives in the States, that she only pays a 3 Euro per month flat rate to make calls to the States from her landline. That information made us feel a little more comfortable about taking up her offer and I called my parents who weren't expecting to hear from us until Andy made it to work that Monday morning. We chatted a while longer about other miscellaneous things such as the Bahn (train) system and how to get around. When we left, she told me that she would stop by the next morning to take me to the butchers and the Rewe.

So, last Monday morning, we went out (in the rain with the stroller, yikes). To get to the area where the butchers and Rewe were, we had to go through the nearest S-Bahn (above ground train) station. She pointed out which trains go through and stopped at the machine to buy tickets and showed me how to use it. We walked through the other side of the S-Bahn station and a couple of blocks to the butcher. She was able to translate to the woman behind the counter for me. I was able to get some turkey lunchmeat sliced for lunches and the woman behind the counter gave Brady a rolled up slice of turkey to eat. Gertrude also showed me an area in the shop where they have hot food. They had small rotisserie chickens, hamburgers, and other lunch-type items. I got a hamburger for Brady to eat for lunch that day (he left behind a few bites and it was DELICIOUS).

We walked back towards the S-Bahn station where the Rewe is located. It was much larger than the Aldi's and was set up more like a grocery store. I was able to get apples, bananas, tortilla wraps (to use with the turkey), and a few other staples that we needed that day. I made plans to go back to get more food when I had Andy with me.

We walked back to our building and Gertrude and I made a few plans to meet up again in the next few weeks for her to take me on the train into downtown. It's supposed to get much colder than average (40 degrees is average and the forecast is showing 20 degrees the rest of this week), so we may have to postpone because that's a bit too cold to be outside for very long, especially with Brady. We are so fortunate to have a good neighbor, who speaks very good English, and is very kind to show me the ropes around here.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Willkommen in Deutschland

We finally have internet and I can tell you all about our journey across the ocean to Germany. Also, you can probably tell that I've changed the background theme of the blog to showcase our new status as world travelers. The first week has been pretty rough and I'll blog about the obstacles we've come up against in future blogs.

We had a flight leaving from Pittsburgh in the evening on Wednesday, January 18. We had a ton of luggage and my dad drove us to the airport. The plan was for him and Andy to get all the luggage inside the doors where I was standing so at no point would the baggage be "unattended." Once all the bags were brought in, my dad was going to park in the short-term lot and then he and Andy would take turns taking the bags to the check-in desk, once again, making sure the bags always had a person with them. Fortunately for us, there were several airport employees who push the handicapped in wheelchairs, waiting for their next assignment by the door we came in, and three of them gracious offered to help Andy get the luggage to the check-in counter. By the time my dad made it inside, we were already in the process of getting our bags checked. We got the bags checked, were told we wouldn't see them again until our final destination in Stuttgart (we had initially thought we'd see them in Frankfurt for customs and then have to recheck them), and my dad walked with us to security. That's where we said goodbye. Brady was too fascinated by the airplane suspended from the ceiling to even care very much.

While we were in line for security, I ran into a college classmate of mine, Hoai, who was helping her parents get all their bags to the security gates. The airport employee checking our passports against our tickets joked around with us a bit and we had a good laugh before we had to deal with the stress of getting everything ready to go through the x-ray machines. Since we had six carry-ons, we knew it was going to be quite a process. Those six bags included one roller bag, Brady's diaper bag, my purse, a backpack, a large tote bag, and Andy's computer bag. Then of course, we had Brady's stroller, our shoes, our coats and sweatshirts, and any computers inside the bags that had to be taken out and run through the machine. We had to have at least 15 of those bins filled, if not more. I'm always glad to be with Brady going through security, because they never make me go through the new x-ray machines. Andy on the other hand, was not so fortunate. We've flown several times since those new machines were implemented and that's the first time either of us has had to go through one.

We had arrived about two hours prior to our flight, but with checking all the bags, security, and the train to the terminals, we had about 45 minutes before we had to board the plane. We were fortunate enough to be in the first gate in our terminal and also in the same terminal as the kids play center. Andy took Brady there after we stocked up on drinks and snacks (we had a short connection in DC), while I tried to clear as much as I could off our DVR on our Sling Box. For those of you who don't know what that is, a Sling Box is a box that you connect to a cable or dish box that's also connected to the internet so that you can view and control programming on the go. We can view and control it on our laptop, our iPhones, and my iPad as long as we have an internet connection (which we haven't had until now). This is how we will view American television in Germany. The box is secured at my parents' house on a separate cable box, so we don't have to worry about changing channels on them or taking up their DVR space. Only problem is that we have to DVR all primetime shows because they start in the middle of the night here.

We boarded our flight to DC with no problems. Since it's a short distance and a small plane, my parents had warned us that they would take any large carry-ons and gate check them as there is limited overhead space. It was only two seats on each side, so I sat with Brady (he got the window seat of course), and Andy was across the aisle from me. It was a 45 minute flight to Dulles International, and Brady was very well behaved, playing mainly on his LeapPad.

We got to Dulles about 20 minutes earlier than we had anticipated, so our 50 minute layover turned into an hour and ten minutes. We were relieved to learn that, since we'd only heard about how hard connections are at Dulles. Fortunately, we were in the same terminal, but at the very end. Our next flight was at the opposite end of the terminal, so it took us 20 minutes to walk there (excluding the trip to Starbucks when we first got off the plane). Andy had stopped for a minute, so Brady and I trekked on, arriving at the gate first, only to learn that they'd already boarded half the flight already! We were there 40 minutes before the flight, but since Andy had our tickets, we had to wait for him, and by that time, they'd boarded the majority of the passengers.

Our airplane from Dulles to Frankfurt was a 777, so there were three seats on each side, with five seats in the middle. Initially, I had thought that we had three of the seats from the aisle over in the middle section, but when I got on the plane and saw our seat numbers, I realized I was going to be with Brady and Andy would once again be across the aisle. Mentally, I started to panic, because I knew this was going to be the tougher flight when it came to Brady and getting him to sleep. We were very lucky that the plane wasn't even half full, so we had the chance to sit together, with Brady in between us.

The pilot initially came on the intercom and said we were going to leave early and arrive in Frankfurt 20 minutes ahead of schedule. That didn't happen, and we ended up leaving 20 minutes late. We took off around 10:15PM EST. Once we were up in the air, they came around with pretzels and drinks, then proceeded to the hot dinner. It was cool that each seat had their own television that could either watch a variety of movies, see the flight's path of where we currently were, or simply listen to music. I took several shots along the journey of places we flew over. Places not shown included Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.

In German, it says the current time in the departing city, the arrival city, and the time it will take to get there.

The beginning of our journey showed the entire route.

Over Ireland

Over England

We had hoped Brady would fall asleep since it was so late, but we were wrong. About three hours into the flight, Brady started to get so tired that he was screaming. Most of the people were asleep by then, so we felt really bad. One minute he was screaming, and the next, he was passed out face down on the headrest. Finally, Andy and I were able to attempt to get some sleep ourselves. We both fell asleep for a short time (maybe 30 minutes), before Brady decided to shift positions and his head landed on my arm, waking me up. Since there was so much room on the plane, I jumped the aisle and was able to stretch out on three empty seats (not too much since the arm rests didn't go all the way up). When the light began to filter through the windows is when Andy and I woke up. Brady, however, stayed asleep the rest of the flight, through the breakfast service and landing.

He stayed in the position for landing, half off and half on the seat. We put the buckle over him and held onto his bum when we hit the ground.

Even though we departed DC a bit late, we still had an hour and a half to make it to our flight to Stuttgart. This afforded us a chance to stop and change Brady's diaper and grab some drinks and a snack for the next flight. Once again, our connecting flight was at the furthest possible gate and it felt like it took forever to get there. When we changed terminals, we needed to pass through customs. I was a little disillusioned about customs watching too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad and too many movies. When we handed over our passports to the customs agent, he didn't even look up. He was too busy chatting to the agent next to him in German. When we walked past, I mentioned to Andy that I thought it was a little odd that he was so disinterested.

We got on the flight to Stuttgart and learned that it was German regulation that any child under two years of age had to sit on a parent's lap for take-off and landing. They even had a special little belt that looped through mine, so he'd be more secure than as a lap rider on a US flight. He wasn't too happy about being restrained, but he was free to sit in his seat for a short time before we started descending. When we landed in Stuttgart, we hung around the gate waiting for our stroller, but it never came. We found out that it would come out on the carousel at baggage claim with our checked baggage. It was a bit difficult that we had so many bags on our persons, and then had to carry Brady to baggage claim.

We needed two carts to get all of our bags. We joke around in my family that the person who has to carry all the stuff is the "mule." My dad was always the mule growing up and that has now passed to Andy when it comes to our family. We say that with love ;) He had to link the two carts together and really work to push them to the car rental counter (pictured below).

We knew we were in trouble when it came to our rental car because we had no idea what car we would be getting and have seen and heard that European cars are much smaller than American cars (and I LOVE my big car for all that I can haul in it). Our suspicions were confirmed when we got a brand new Volkswagen Golf with a hatchback (pictured below). Since all the bags weren't going to fit in the car, we had to choose which ones we needed immediately and which ones we were going to leave behind at the car rental counter to come back and get later. When we trekked to the car and got everything loaded and ready to go, we realized there wasn't a GPS in the car, which the man at the counter said there would be. Andy had to run back in and get it, and since Brady was tired, he screamed the whole time Andy was gone.

When we finally had the GPS hooked up and our apartment plugged in, it was already 3PM, which was the time we were to meet the Bosch relocation agent at our apartment. Although the GPS said it would only take about 15 minutes to the apartment, with traffic and lights, it took almost 45 minutes. We pulled up in front of the building and rang the buzzer. The landlord, Hans-Georg, greeted us very warmly and showed us up to our apartment where the Bosch relocation agent was waiting. We needed to sign documents to she could apply for our residents permits in the morning and told us that we needed to meet her at the immigration office to acquire our visas. Below are pictures of our drive from the airport to our apartment.

Hans-Georg showed me around the entire apartment and the outside areas. He explained the way trash has to be sorted (separate containers for paper, glass, regular trash, and then a bag for foils, tin, aluminum, and plastics). He was very kind and thoughtful in that he had stocked our fridge with two types of milk and apple juice, brought us bread and pretzels, and had paper towels, dish soap, and toilet paper stocked. The apartment was furnished (pics to come in a separate post), and supplied with lines, hangers, a vacuum cleaner, and an ironing board and iron. Hans-Georg to Andy to the Aldi's right around the corner so Andy could get some dinner supplies for the night and also showed him what kind of soap was good to use in the washing machine.

We ate dinner, then all drove back to the airport for the rest of the bags because we didn't have any cell phones yet and if something happened, there would be no way for Andy to contact me or anyone else. We would have probably been able to knock out jet lag that first night, since we went to bed at 9PM, but had to be up early on Friday morning to meet the relocation agent at the immigration office. We all took a nap that afternoon, and although Brady went to bed at his normal time (as he's very used to taking naps), Andy and I were up until 4AM (not that we didn't try to go to sleep earlier).

We continued to struggle through Sunday night, but were able to go to sleep at a more reasonable hour on Monday night, as we were both forced to get up early that morning. We are now on a better schedule and I've taken every precaution to avoid caffine within 6 hours of bedtime. Brady has done very well since day one and I am very grateful that he adjusted well.

We are now well settled and even our air freight shipment has arrived yesterday. That means we have everything with us in our apartment and that's a comforting thought (Brady is very glad to have a few more toys that we were able to pack in our luggage). We look forward to not only exploring our own city of Stuttgart, but the surrounding cities and countries around us. It's been rainy some days and not others, so we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring and warmer temperatures.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Our Last Few Days in the United States

Tonight we board a plane that will take us halfway around the world to Germany! I can't believe that day has finally come, although in some ways it feels like it's crept up on us. We knew in May 2010 that Germany would most likely be our last rotation, so we've known for almost two years. We got Brady's passport in July 2010, when he was only 4 1/2 months old, so it's really funny to look at now that he's so much older. It'll be good until he's 5 1/2 years old, so he will look nothing like that picture.

Our return date is Saturday, July 21, 2012, and as you can see the ticker no longer counts down to Germany, but instead counts down the days until our return to the States.

When we got confirmation in April that we were really going, I was very nervous. The more time that passed, I became more and more excited about the prospect of travel and having the experience of a lifetime. It's perfect timing for us since Brady hasn't started school and we don't have to turn our lives upside down to do this relocation. This last month has been primarily stressful, with packing everything that the company was going to ship over there for us and getting our house ready for the movers. It doesn't help that this is the second year in a row that Christmas has fallen a few weeks away from a major move for us.

We are taking 6 checked bags (each one almost at 50lb), 6 carry-on bags (only one is an actual suitcase), Brady's carseat, and a stroller. I packed the 6 checked bags before I came to Pittsburgh, but had ordered things online and picked up a few things since, so I knew it was going to be a stretch getting everything in and under the bag weight limit of 50lb. Andy didn't arrive in Pittsburgh until yesterday morning, so my mom and I have been working on repacking all the bags since then. We finally finished about an hour and a half ago and we leave for the airport in about an hour. My dad is taking us to the airport (not a far drive since my parents live 5 min from Pittsburgh International Airport), and he's going to park our car in short-term parking and help us get all of our checked bags to the check-in desk.

Brady and I have been in Pittsburgh a whole week spending time with my parents and we've had a really great time. My mom is having her second knee replacement in late February, plus they are going to do some adjustments on the first knee, so we will see if they make it out to Europe. There are plenty of other family and friends who have shown interest in visiting, so we hope we don't go the whole six months without seeing them. Below are some pictures of the things that we've done in the last week.

Can't believe we'll be halfway around the world in less than 12 hours!

My brother, Alex, and his girlfriend, Lauren, came over twice with my adorable nephew, Kairo. Brady LOVES him and Kairo thinks he's another puppy so they roll on the ground together like crazy.

What move of ours would be complete without a farewell dinner at Ichiban? Brady was really interested in the chopsticks and even managed to eat a little salad with them.

Brady and Dubby playing blocks last night for the last time in a long while.

This morning, Andy took Brady out with him while he ran errands so we could get some more packing done. He went to Best Buy to recycle my old laptop and Brady got to ride in the car cart. His two favorite things are cars and puppies.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012