Sunday, May 20, 2018

Tips and traps: how to get the most out of a Germany tour...

It's high time to think about making the most of your time abroad!

Every once in awhile, especially if the weather is grim, I like to offer tips based on my experiences living abroad.  Bill and I have lived in Germany together twice.  The first time we were here, we PCS'd with the Army and stayed for two years.  The second time, Bill took a job with a government contractor.  This time, we're going on four years living near Stuttgart, although Bill did change companies last year.  Besides living in Germany twice, I've also been an Air Force brat in England and a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia.  At this point, I've spent a good portion of my life abroad, and I've learned a lot.

Many of my readers are in the United States, finding my posts about what it's like to work in Germany as a government contractor.  I know some of my readers are contemplating a voluntary move to Europe and wanting to know if they can hack it.  I also know there are many excited readers who will be moving to Germany with the military and want to know how to prepare.  Today's post is more or less for those people who are going to be moving to Germany to work for the U.S. government.  It's just a little wisdom I've gleaned after living in this community for awhile.

Tip #1-- Do join a couple of Facebook groups.

Facebook can be an excellent tool when you're abroad.  When Bill and I moved to Germany with the Army in 2007, Facebook was just becoming popular.  I didn't join until we'd lived here a year.  The people I interacted with back then were mostly in the United States.  We lived in a town well away from the military installations, so I didn't really know any Americans, other than a couple of people who had found things I'd written online.  It was kind of isolating living far away from Americans, although in some ways, it was more peaceful.  We had to figure a lot of things out for ourselves.

In 2014, I found several useful Facebook groups started by people in Stuttgart.  They were a wealth of information, especially when we first decided to move.  For instance, the rules regarding pet travel changed from 2009 to 2014.  If I hadn't joined Stuttgart Friends, I would not have known that and it might have complicated our travel plans.  Another great group for newcomers is Moving to Stuttgart. I recommend joining one or both of those groups if you're going to be new to Stuttgart.  You might also join a group related to your hobbies or interests.  They can help you make new friends and gain valuable information.

Trap #1- Don't join too many Facebook groups.

I made the mistake of joining way too many Facebook groups when I moved here in 2014.  I stayed in a few groups for much too long.  It wasn't until last year that I started dropping out of a lot of the groups.  I'm much happier for having left most of them.  Why?  Because when you're in too many Facebook groups, you are more likely to either be annoyed by or annoying to other people.  With every group you join, the potential for getting involved in stupid dramas increases exponentially.  Trust me; I know.  I fully admit that I was involved in way too much of it myself for way too long.

At one point, I was probably in as many as ten groups.  Some weren't a problem because they weren't that active or focused on subjects that weren't controversial.  Other groups were problematic because there was a lot of drama, gossip, and petty behavior that ultimately led to hard feelings and precious time stolen.  Living in Germany should be a pleasure.  It's a wonderful opportunity to see and do new things, try new foods, and make new friends.  Being involved in too many Facebook groups can lead to a lot of wasted time online when you should be enjoying Europe.  My advice is to pick maybe three or four groups at the most, and when they are no longer useful, drop out of them.

Tip #2- Don't hesitate to ask for help.

This is another Facebook groups related tip.  Most of the available groups were created with the goal of offering help and support.  There is a learning curve to living in another country, even a place like Germany.  We've all been through it.  So if you have a question about something, don't be afraid to ask for help. Before you ask, be sure to search the group and see if your question has already been answered.  That will help prevent people from getting snarky and causing unnecessary drama.

Trap #2- Don't be too dependent on others for help.

One thing I admire about our first Germany tour was that we had to be self-reliant.  I learned that I didn't need social media to get my needs met here.  Think about it.  Americans have been living in Germany since after World War II.  You don't always have to rely on social media to get an answer.  Sometimes, it's awesome to find your own answers.  It helps you become more resilient and a better traveler.

Tip #3- Do get out and see things on the weekends.

There are so many things to do in the Stuttgart area.  Really... just take a few minutes and look at this blog.  I have written a couple of posts solely dedicated to things to do on Sundays.  You can fill many of your weekends with things to do and not even do the same thing twice for a good long while.  This area is beautiful and very accessible, even if you don't have a car.  Take full advantage of being here.

Trap #3- Don't sit at home on the weekends and watch TV or hang out on the installations.

During our first tour of Germany, Bill and I focused on seeing major European cities.  We flew to a lot of countries and mostly ignored what was in and around Stuttgart.  When we didn't have a trip planned, it wasn't unusual for us to either park our asses at home and watch Netflix, or go to either AAFES or the commissary and shop.  Please don't make that mistake!  The first time we were here, we had to move after barely two years in Germany.  Although we did see a lot of great European cities, we really missed out on local stuff.  Since we are lucky enough to be here a second time, I've made it a goal to see more of what the Stuttgart area has to offer.  Not everyone gets to come back to Germany, so I highly recommend making it a goal to get out there and explore.  This might be your once in a lifetime chance.  Don't blow it!

Tip #4- If you are going to look for information online, consider looking in places other than Facebook or official military sources.

Yesterday, Bill and I visited the beautiful Burgbach Wasserfall.  Although we ran into a couple of Americans yesterday, I have never seen anyone in the local groups write about that waterfall.  I found out about it by myself.  After we visited nearby Glaswaldsee, I searched the community's official Web site and found out about other things to do in Bad Rippoldsau on my own.

Also, sometimes interacting with people who aren't part of the American community can point you in unexpected directions that will enrich your time here.  When we lived here the first time, we had no local Facebook groups, so I haunted Toytown Germany, which was a great forum for English speakers living in Germany.  It was a fascinating place, since it was populated by people from different areas who were in Germany for different reasons.  I gained  insight into German culture that I wouldn't otherwise have.  For instance, it was on Toytown Germany that I learned that many German men sit down to pee.  Suddenly, the funny postcard that was posted by my landlord in his downstairs WC made perfect sense.  Since many people on that forum are not here strictly to work for the United States, you get a different perspective about life as an expat.  It can also be a valuable resource for finding certain items you might be missing, especially if you don't have access to the facilities on post.

Trap #4- But don't rely on unofficial sources when it comes to your work or any other official business...

This probably goes without saying.  Obviously, you're going to want official information for anything pertaining to the U.S. military or government, or whoever is your employer.  I mention it because some people really are that dumb.  Of course, they probably aren't reading this post.

Tip #5- Consider making friends with a local, even if it's only online.

It's probably obvious, but I spend a lot of time online in different communities around the Web.  I had the good fortune to make friends with a couple of native Germans before we moved here the second time.  One friend is someone I met when we adopted our dog, Arran.  She was married to an American who was in the Army.  She lives in the States, but was very helpful when moved back to Germany.

Another friend is someone I met on a messageboard.  I have never met her in person, but she lives in the area and has been extremely helpful to me since we've lived here.  She answers questions about the culture, suggests places to visit, and even encourages me to learn German.  I don't even know what she looks like because she's a very private person, but she has definitely made our second stint here a lot more constructive.  And she gets a kick out of reading my blogs, too, sometimes clearing things up when I misunderstand something.

We've also gotten friendly with our neighbors, which makes living here a lot easier.  We were lucky enough to find a really nice neighborhood where people are laid back.  More on that in a minute.

Trap #5- But don't forget OPSEC.

This, too, should go without saying.  Make friends, but be careful about what you say and do.  Loose lips sink ships, as the old saying goes.

Tip #6- If you are allowed to live off post, consider living further away from the installations.

Traffic in Stuttgart can be absolutely hellish.  However, if you choose to live a bit further out, you might get more out of your stay in Germany.  Why?  Because you won't be surrounded by Americans or the drama that can come from being around the installations.  You will learn to be more self-reliant, getting the hang of things like shopping in German grocery stores, paying bills, eating in restaurants, and seeing things you wouldn't ordinarily see.

You can typically get more house for your money away from the installations and, with some exceptions, people tend to be friendlier away from the built up areas.  We lived in a friendly neighborhood when we lived here the first time, but it took a really long time before people would talk to us.  I think we may have been the first Americans in that neighborhood.  Since we've been back, we've run into our old neighbors, who were actually happy to see us.  The neighborhood where we live now is even friendlier than the first one was.  Last year, we even had a neighborhood party.  Many neighborhoods outside of the military hotbeds have train stations or offer bus service, which can take some of the pain out of the traffic.

Trap #6- But definitely consider your lifestyle.

Living in Unterjettingen works fine for Bill and me.  We brought two cars with us, so not having a nearby train station is okay.  We also don't have children and we like quiet.  Obviously, some people prefer to be closer to the city for whatever reason.  If that's you, carefully consider your lifestyle before deciding to live way out in the boonies.  It may not work out for you and moving is an expensive pain in the butt.

Tip #7- Consider buying personal liability insurance.

Trust me, it's not a scam.  You may also want to consider pet liability insurance, legal insurance, ADAC (or another auto club), and joining your local "Mietverein".  Bill and I have all of these resources at our disposal.  They don't cost much and provide great piece of mind.  Our liability insurance has already paid for itself.

Trap #7- Don't rely on American insurance to cover your needs.

I'm being very serious.  Germans can be very litigious.  Chances are good that if you have a mishap while you're here, whatever USAA offers is not going to be enough coverage.  Talk to Gerhard Koch. He's in a lot of the local Facebook groups and he can hook you up.  His English is perfect, too.

Tip #8- Do consider bringing your pets.

Pets can be wonderful companions when you're a long way from home.  During our first tour, our dog Flea was singlehandedly responsible for getting our neighbors to talk to us.  Our current dogs, Zane and Arran, have helped me make friends with people in our neighborhood and provide incentive for me to get off my ass and take walks in the nature park near where we live.  They also make for good watchdogs and discourage people from breaking into your home.  Most of the burglars in these parts don't want to hassle with houses where dogs live because they make too much noise.

Trap #8- But again, consider your lifestyle.

It is becoming more difficult to travel abroad with pets (Lufthansa for the win, if you're allowed to fly with them).  Some German landlords don't like to rent to people with pets because they can make messes and too much noise.  And, when you want to travel, it can be a pain to either find someone to take care of them or travel with them.  However, while we did use a dog pension a lot the first time we lived here, this time, we have learned to travel with Zane and Arran.  It's very doable in Europe because Europe is very dog friendly.  I think it's best to bring pets if there will be someone available to be with them.  Germans don't like it when you leave your pets alone for too long.  Also, indoor cats are not really a thing here.

Tip #9- Look at real estate ads to get a feel for what houses are like here.

German houses are different than American houses.  While the military provides a fairly generous housing allowance, not all contractors do.  The contractor that initially hired Bill only gave us enough money to ship 5000 pounds of household goods.  We already knew from the last time here that we wouldn't necessarily end up in a tiny house.  On the other hand, we also knew that we could end up in a place unlike our first house (and we did).  So look at pictures to get a sense of what you should bring with you and what could be left in storage or disposed of in some way.

Trap #9- Don't try too hard to househunt from the United States.

The real estate market here is CRAZY.  While I understand how tempting it is to househunt from the States, whatever you find while you're there will probably be long gone before you get to Germany.  German landlords are allowed to be more discriminatory, since it's fairly hard to evict people here.  They'll want to meet you and your family and any pets before they turn over the keys to your home.  Most people end up in temporary housing when they get to Germany.  It sucks, but it's part of life.  So embrace the suck and don't waste time trying to find a house before you move here.  Chances are good that you won't succeed, unless you have a lot of help from someone who is already here.

Tip #10- Consider staying in a long term apartment instead of a hotel room when you first get here.

The first time we lived in Germany, we lived in a very simple German hotel for about six weeks.  Living in a hotel room with two dogs gets very old.  Since our return, a number of short term apartments have become available and there's also and Airbnb.  This time, we spent a week in a hotel and then moved to an apartment, which wasn't ideal, but was a lot better and more cost effective than the hotel was.  Check Stuttgart Bookoo for leads, although be aware that the site is closed on Sundays.

Trap #10- Don't be too picky about housing, but also don't be too quick to lease.

Remember, you're hiring a landlord.  Some landlords are awesome and some are nightmares.  Bill and I tend to be too eager to sign leases.  While I do like our neighborhood, I don't necessarily love our house.  Sometimes, I wish we'd held out a little longer.  But then I remember that real estate is CRAZY in Stuttgart and thank God that we did find a place that has most of what we need and landlords who are basically decent folks.  Some people look for months.

In conclusion...

I could probably go on with more tips and traps, but I think this post is long enough for today.  I may write a follow up at a later time, depending on how well this post is received.  I do hope that if you're reading this, you find this information helpful.  And if you're thinking of taking a contractor job, allow me to offer some encouragement.  Bill and I have loved most every minute of our time in Germany during both tours.  We see the opportunity to live here as a tremendous gift.  And even if we didn't like it here, we know that living here might make us appreciate the United States more.  At the very least, it's really broadened our perspectives in so many ways.  So try it... you might like it!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Beautiful Burgbach Wasserfall, and lunch at the Klösterle Hof!

A few weeks ago, after Bill and I visited Glaswaldsee in Bad Rippoldsau, I read up on what else was in the area.  I learned that the tiny spa town, also home to the wolf and bear park, is also where there are beautiful waterfalls and hiking trails.  In fact, Bad Rippoldsau is not only beautiful, but one could spend a whole weekend busy with things to do in nature.  And if it's too rainy, there are spas to visit in nearby Bad Peterstal-Griesbach and a glass blowing factory in nearby Wolfach.  Once again, I am reminded of why I really like where we live, for Unterjettingen is just on the edge of the Black Forest, where there are plenty of cool things to do.

Today, while everybody else was watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle getting married, I had tentative plans to visit two waterfalls.  We only made it to one, the Burgbach Wasserfall, which is very close to both Glaswaldsee and the wolf and bear park.  After reading up on the official info, which is in the first link in this paragraph, I read a more personal account of visiting the waterfall.  A very helpful guy who lives in The Netherlands wrote up his experience hiking around the falls.  

Bill was a little worried there would be rain today, but we had perfect weather, at least while we were actually hiking.  There is a large, free parking lot on the side of the road, where there is a map showing where the falls are.  The waterfall can be accessed by two trails.  One is .8km, but a bit steep.  The longer one is about twice as long, but a bit more gradual.  We took the short hike to the falls and the longer trail back.  I think that's the better way to do it, especially if you're in crappy physical shape like I am.  The .8km trail is a bit steeper, but it's shorter.  You still have to walk up hills on the longer trail.  The hills aren't as intense, but they take longer to climb.  I do recommend taking the longer trail back, because it's a very beautiful walk.  In fact, we even saw a family with their young boy riding his bike and the mom pushing a stroller.  That's pretty hard core!

Below are some photos from today's hike to the waterfall.  Afterwards, we had a marvelous lunch, on which I will report after the photos!

The helpful map.  There is also a picnic table near this map, though we also saw people eating lunch by the falls.  Bear in mind that it's a wild area, so there are no trash cans or other facilities at the falls.  There are also no admissions fees!

The first glimpse of the creek...

We're in the right place.  We took the road in the photo.  We could have also turned right onto another road which allows a longer hike to the falls.  The longer way appears to be easier, but it's kind of deceptive.  The hills aren't quite as steep, but they last longer.

The area is full of beautiful wildflowers.  I don't think I quite did them justice with my camera.

Helpful signs show you where to go.

Peaceful creek...

In the distance, I spotted what appeared to be a burg on the mountain.  To get to the waterfall on the shortest route, you pass through a neighborhood.  It appeared that they had a trout farm there, though I can't swear to it.

I stopped on the trail to take a photo.  There are some beautiful views.

Our first glimpse of the falls.  There were a few other people there and some who had braved a walk up to the burg we spotted on the way into the woods.

Near the base of the falls.

I think it was worth the trip... the falls are very photogenic and not too hard to get to, even if you're not in great shape.

After a quick pit stop, Bill and I headed back down the long way.  

Der Burgbachfelsen...

Glad I had a zoom lens.

This is what the road looked like most of the way down.  However, we made the mistake of going all the way back to the highway.  I would not advise doing that, especially if you have children or are in any way mobility challenged.  There isn't much of a walkway by the road and it gets very busy with scary bikers and speeding cars.  There is another, well-marked trail on the gravel road before you get to where the traffic is.  That's probably the one you'd want to take, rather than trying to walk by the highway.  However, because we didn't take that trail ourselves, I can't swear to the accuracy of my advice.

Stop and enjoy the views!

That's a wrap!

This was on the walk back, which was pretty scary due to no sidewalk or trail.  However, I did get a few shots of the wildflowers.

The restaurant where we had lunch was at a hotel called the Klösterle Hof, which is the site of an old monastery.  Bill and I had noticed it the first time we visited the area, but didn't happen to be there at a time when it was open.  Today, we had no problem getting a table, even though there was a wedding going on at the huge church next door.  There are a couple of other restaurants near this hotel, but I had read about the hotel restaurant and noticed the stellar reviews.  Having eaten there today, I can add my own stellar review.  We really enjoyed our lunch, even though we got caught by a rainstorm. 

We sat outside at first, along with a large group of bikers and another couple.

A very kind waitress, who appeared to be working alone, brought us wine and water.  I loved the little wine barrel pitchers the wines came in.  I had a riesling and Bill had a gray burgundy.  Both were local and very good.  The riesling tasted of limes, while the gray burgundy had a honey essence.

We ordered our food and waited a bit, but the sky began to darken right after the church bells stopped ringing for the wedding.  Our waitress kindly opened a previously closed dining room for us, since all of the inside tables were taken.

It was very quaint and comfortable. 

Bill ordered the fresh trout, which probably came from a very local source.  It was grilled with lemon and served with a green salad and parsleyed potatoes.

I had Seeteufel medallions (a dense white fish-- kind of like catfish without the dirt flavor) with white asparagus and Hollandaise sauce... as well as the aforementioned potatoes.

This sauce was the real deal.  No blender cheats with this one!

And a nice table full of digestives, of which we did not partake.  Our bill was about 62 euros and well worth the expense.  I felt great after lunch-- not too stuffed and like I'd eaten really high quality food.

While we were eating, a group of gentlemen from the wedding showed up.  If I had to guess, I'd say they might have been part of a band.  They came in, had a round of beer, and headed to the church.  We saw them all waiting on the front stoop as we drove past on the way home.

The outside of the restaurant and hotel as it was pouring rain.  There was no rain once we got over the mountain toward Freudenstadt.  Had it not rained, we might have tried to visit the other waterfall I read about.  As it is, we'll save that one for another day.  I would love to go back to the restaurant and try the Black Forest ham, which I noticed the lady sitting next to us having.  It smelled wonderful.

A trippy photo I took as we drove through the misty mountains.  I love visiting the Bad Rippoldsau area.  It feels like a mini vacation.

Below are a few more photos of Burgbach Wasserfall I took with my digital camera.  I'm really glad we visited.  The falls are beautiful and, at least today, not nearly as crowded as some of the other waterfalls we've visited.  I would highly recommend a trip there, especially if you're looking for something different and cheap to do.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Lunch at Pizzeria Permesso in Ludwigsburg...

We had yet another beautiful day here in Germany.  I was somewhat tempted to take a hike to a waterfall.  But then I remembered the large collection of empty beer bottles sitting in our pantry and how they've been collecting dust for months now.  It had been ages since our last trip to Heinrich 3000, a drink market in Kornwestheim, which is a town near the city of Ludwigsburg.

Since we had all of those bottles and I was jonesing for some kind of beer other than German, Bill and I decided to have lunch in Ludwigsburg and then visit the drink market.  We walked to the main square in Ludwigsburg's center and noticed an Italian restaurant called Pizzeria Permesso.  As we approached its outdoor seating area, a very pleasant gentleman kindly welcomed us to sit down.  We happily obliged.

We were seated under a large canopy, shaded from the perfect May weather.

Pizzeria Permesso has a wood fired oven for making pizza.  I saw a couple of pizzas going by that looked very good.  Their calzones also looked pretty excellent.

Bill ordered a glass of Primitivo for himself an a glass of Montepulciano for me, along with our usual sparkling water.  I was pretty impressed with the water came with slices of lemon and an ice cube!  I don't think I've ever had ice in a drink in Germany unless I was at a fast food place on post.  It was a nice surprise!

Ice in the water! 

For lunch, Bill ordered Spaghetti Bolognese-- spaghetti with meat sauce-- and I had Tagliatelle Salmone.  We were both very happy with our dishes.  I especially enjoyed mine.  Not only was the dish made with a cherry tomato sauce instead of a cream sauce; it also had the most perfectly cooked pieces of salmon I've had in a very long time.  It was absolutely delicious!

While we were waiting for our lunch, we noticed some really cute children playing nearby.  They didn't have a care in the world!

Bill's Spaghetti Bolognese was a hit!  It came sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.

But my Tagliatelle Salmone was even better.  Not only was I impressed by how this dish tasted, I also thought it was beautifully presented, complete with a couple of mint leaves.  I saw several other dishes going by, mainly salads, that were also beautifully plated.  And again, the salmon was cooked perfectly.  It practically melted in my mouth because it wasn't too dry or overcooked.  Next time, I'm going to have to try a Lachs (salmon) filet.

We took our time finishing lunch and our wine.  The wait staff was professional and unhurried, which was nice to see.  

I took this picture right after two adorable little girls, both wearing ponytails and maybe about five or six years old, who were holding hands and playing in the square, came over to talk to Bill.  He patiently explained to them that he doesn't speak much German.  I'm not sure if they got the message, but the did eventually say "Tschuss!"

Bill asked for a double espresso, but they brought him a single.

I had a hefeweizen because the guy sitting near me had one and it looked refreshing.  I probably should have had one of the very beautiful desserts they had on display instead.  Maybe next time.

A cannon went off and sparkly stuff sprayed into the air as a newly married couple emerged from the church...

The Saturday market was also freshly cleaned up.

Pizerria Permesso is conveniently located in the Marktplatz.  I'm surprised this was our first time visiting.  I'm sure we'll be back, because I liked their food more than what I've had at La Signora Moro, another Italian place on the square.

After Bill paid the check, we headed back to the car by way of the Sparkasse that sports a large metal Sparschwein out front.  The first time we saw that piggy bank, Bill made an inappropriate comment.  Actually, it was an unintentionally inappropriate comment.  The pig reminded him of a metal bull that was once used as a torture/killing device.  On some days, the bank opens the pig so people can see inside.  Bill said he didn't want to go in there because he was afraid someone would close the door and turn on the gas.  

The Sparschwein, whose name is "Louise", is the largest piggy bank in the world.  The above video offers a risk free look inside.

He clearly forgot he was in Germany...  We laugh about it now, but I'm pretty sure I gave him one of my patented horrified looks.  Talk about black humor!  But I know my husband, and it was definitely an honest faux pas.

We passed a book store that was advertising games, including "Klug Scheisser".  Klug Scheisser is a game Bill often hears on German radio.  It literally translates to "smart shit", but colloquially means "smart aleck", "smart ass", or "big mouth".  I see it's also usually spelled as just one word.

We enjoyed a brief shopping expedition at Heinrich's and came home with lots of Belgian and Icelandic beers to try until our next trip to Ludwigsburg.  It's a very pleasant town.  We should definitely visit more often.