Photos from Ulm

The wonderful thing about living in Europe is that other, interesting cities are only a short train ride away.  Today we took a trip to Ulm, which turns out to be the most appealing example of the German tendency to blend modern and ancient styles.  The city center is compact and walkable; the cathedral is impressive, even for Europe.  We found an assortment of sidewalk cafes and pedestrian walkway along the Danube, shops and more cafes scattered around the city center.  There were, in fact, so many cafes that we had some difficulty finding a place to eat a full lunch — which we definitely needed after climbing 768 stairs to the top of the Cathedral spire.  Ultimately, we found a Spanish restaurant, which was about to close its kitchen but had a few limited — and it turned out, delicious — lunch options available.

More photos are here:

Bavaria Photos

We traveled to Bavaria last weekend.  It was a fun, relaxing trip.  It rained on-and-off the whole time, so we didn’t feel much pressure to see all the sites — and instead treated it as a scouting trip for “next time.”  Still, we couldn’t help but bust out the cameras from time-to-time.

You can find these pictures and more at:

Drinking in Germany

Believe it or not, the Germans (or at least the Swabians, who live in the Stuttgart area) have beverage traditions other than beer and wine.  One of the first purchases M. and I made after I arrived in Germany was a soda siphon bottle; I love “fizzy” water, but carrying it up the hill seemed silly when we could just produce our own in the kitchen.  (Or, prior to getting the kitchen set up, in the bathroom.)  When I discovered that the German apple juice (Apfelsaft) is ridiculously tasty, I immediately started mixing it with our home-produced sparkling water .  I thought I was bringing a little slice of my childhood to Germany, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that juice or wine (but most commonly apple juice) mixed with sparkling water is a classic regional beverage.  It’s so classic, in fact, that it has a short name: Schorle.  Every restaurant menu includes it, as far as I can tell.

It’s odd how you can come to a new country prepared to embrace new traditions and find that those “new” traditions harken back to Thanksgiving dinners drinking sparkling apple cider while the grownups enjoyed champagne.

Some local traditions are, of course, more appealing than others.  The other local beverage specialty — well, excluding beer and wine — is a cola/orange soda mix called “Spezi“.  For people who actually enjoy the taste of cola, it’s probably not bad; for me, it falls into the “at least I can say I tried it once” category.

Tipping in Germany

I’ve read the guide books, of course.  I’ve even traveled to Europe before — but I still haven’t gotten the hang of tipping.  The theory is that you round up a bit, leave your spare change on the table, or maybe leave about 10% of the total bill.  So I try to do that, and I usually finding myself cheating up a bit — 12% really isn’t that much more than 10%, right?  Ok, if I do the math: maybe it’s more like 12.9%.  But who’s really doing the math anyway?  And what’s an extra 50 cents to me? It’s not really about the money, though.  It’s more that it’s hard to shake the idea that not leaving a sufficient tip is completely rude — that it’s actually making a stronger statement to leave a small tip (say, around 10%) than none at all, since that implies that you could have left more but chose not too.

I’m trying to re-train my brain to understand tipping in the German context. The German word for “tip” is Trinkgeld, which roughly translates to “drink money.”  Somehow, by thinking of the tip as leaving a few Euros for a drink, I can overlook the additional non-tipped money.

My take on tipping here is about 180 degrees from how other non-Germans see it, though.  The other day in German class, we were discussing tipping practices.  Generally speaking, most of my classmates found the customs in Germany significantly more generous than those in their home country.  (The other students are predominantly from other European countries and Turkey.)  In Germany, people generally tip their hairdresser (my reaction: “duh;” other students: “are you kidding?”), taxi drivers, and so on.  The list includes most of the professions that I would expect to tip; the amounts are just lower.

A few weeks ago, I went to pay our pizza delivery person. (Side note: we’ve figured out how to order in, and it’s been fabulous to have another food option!)  I realized as I went to pay the man that I didn’t know how much of a tip to leave, so I guess at something between 2 and 3 Euros (probably around 10% of the bill, maybe a bit more).  When I came back upstairs with the food, I described the amounts to M., and noticed his expression shift a bit.  “Was that not enough?” I asked.  “I wasn’t really sure what to do, so I’m afraid I totally stiffed the guy!”  M. grinned at me.  “Nope,” he said, “that was definitely enough.  I would probably have tipped about half as much.”

Sigh.  I wonder, sometimes, what the Germans think of me.  M., who has a good ear these things, says my accent (although noticeably foreign) doesn’t sound “American,” though I’m sure my tipping behavior is.

Strangely Normal

So I’ve been back in Germany for just over a week now.  When I left it was practically still winter, and now it’s “Hochsommer.”  (That translates to “hot!  and no airconditioning!”)  Despite the opposite seasons, the strangest part of returning has been how normal — how ordinary — everything now feels.  In February, everything was a new discovery (or new challenge): how do I select spices and keep the kitchen stocked the way I like?  How do I use a German tape-dispenser?  Where can I possibly find some reasonably hot crushed red pepper flakes?  (The answer to that last one turned out to be: import it yourself.)

Now, everyday actions just seem like the same sort of things I’ve always been doing.  I mean, yes, it still takes a few extra minutes to find the scotch — or whatever the German brand is — tape because the container doesn’t look how I expect it to, but the familiarity of that “oh, right, *THAT’s* the tape” moment somehow makes everything easier.  Taking the train into town for school has been the simplest thing ever.  Buying groceries is suddenly entirely uncomplicated.  I suspect that many people living in foreign countries go through a slow transition from “WTF” to “duh,” but because I left shortly after achieving the “duh” level of familiarity with my new home, my re-introduction was surpringly different from February.

I am, by the way, officially a resident of Germany now.  I can receive mail, and I can re-enter the country — as well as live in it — legally.

Home Sweet– Wait, Where Am I Again?

So it’s time to wrap things up in Germany for a while. On Saturday, assuming a certain Icelandic volcano cooperates, I’ll fly back to California. I’m not sure when I’ll return to Germany next; right now my best guess is sometime in June. It feels like I’ve finally settled in here — and I’m about to leave, without a return ticket arranged yet. The good news is that we have everything in place for my return, when it happens; and I’m definitely looking forward to not worrying about how communicate about basic needs to people around me. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet that pretty much everyone in the Bay Area speaks English.

In a way, I’m about to leave one home in order to return to another. Even though Germany doesn’t feel quite like a place I belong yet, our apartment here is my home. California, though — that’s home on another level. That’s the home where I will be rejoining my friends, my family, my coworkers. I know how to get around and where to go; I know what people are saying when they talk to me.

It's Even Missing the Kitchen Sink!

Our German apartment included a bare kitchen room when M. rented it, and what was a minor inconvenience for him is now a major hassle for me. I’m home all day, and I cook more, anyway. Our current kitchen arrangement is about on par with the best camping kitchens I’ve seen set up: yes, you can make it work, and at first it’s a fun challenge — but eventually you just want a proper kitchen sink. With a drain. On a stable, level, counter-height counter. (Right now, we wash dishes in the bathroom — because that’s what you do when you don’t have a kitchen sink.)

So we don’t have a kitchen installed yet. But we finally, finally have a time-line and a plan… I’ve spent countless hours pouring over the Ikea documentation, looking up all sorts of German words, and trying to figure out exactly what should go where. Eventually, I even found good information about how to use a phone-based service for ordering the kitchen; originally we’d thought we’d have to go into the Ikea store and bring all the supplies home ourselves. (The nearest Ikea is about an hour away by train + bus.) So today I had a lovely chat — in English! — today with an Ikea kitchen representation who reviewed our plan and said it looks great. And yes, not everyone in Germany speaks English. I’ve found that it’s very common among people who deal in any capacity with tourists; but buying a kitchen is something that I suspect tourists seldom do. In fact, I’d written an email to Ikea in (likely) rather poor German in which I’d mentioned that it might be better if someone who spoke English could call me back — and when the representative did call, she mentioned that she was the only person in her office with any English skills.

Since I plan to document our kitchen construction process, here are the “before” photos:

Note the plastic bag with packaging trash on the door handle, the paper bag with bio trash on the floor, and the bottles in a corner with nowhere to call home until they get recycled. There’s also usually an unkempt pile of paper trash, but I took that out this morning. The stovetop lives on a patio table, which will be excellent for dining outside — but which is too wobbly to chop anything on, so the only suitable chopping surface is the top of the refrigerator. Like I said, it all works — but it’s far from ideal.