Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Song Stuck in my Head

The Banana Boat Song... enjoy!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Blackberry Temptation


As part of B's recuperation, we head to the nearby beergarten in the afternoon - he calls it his Krusovice (in Czech) therapy. On our way there, we have noticed bushes laden with huge, sweet blackberries. Despite his leg injury, B resolved to pick some of them, crossed a ditch, climbed up a steep incline and managed to pick a bowl full of berries before sliding down the slope into a thicket of stinging nettle plants.

While European stinging nettle plants look the same as their North American counterparts, B claims they are about one-hundred times worse. For five hours, his arm looked like a Klingon disease, covered with huge welts. He was in a lot of pain for most of the night and was a bit worried about the numbness but, having been through this experience myself before, I reassured him that it would be gone the next day.


We have been making mango lassies and adding the blackberries as decoration on top. The picture shows a wine glass filled with leftover from the blender (imagine blackberry on top). Recipe is as follows:

1 ripe mango, peeled and cut into chunks
4 ice cubes, crushed in blender
1/2 container of 1,5% natural yogurt (see picture)
2 tsp powdered sugar (see picture)
1 cup of skim milk
1 blackberry (as decoration, optional)

Combine all of the above in a blender and mix until smooth. Enjoy two tall glasses of mango lassi!

Monday, July 27, 2009

On the Mend

Last week was spent in and out of the orthopedic department at the university clinic in Frankfurt. I wanted to give a glimpse into how treatment differs a little from the US. As detailed in a previous post, B's leg was broken in Italy.

Upon our return to Oberursel, he first called up our "Hausarzt", or general physician. It is not unusual in the months of July and August to have to make appointments with alternate doctors because a lot of Germans (including physicians) are on a "Urlaub" (vacation). His general physician gave him a referral for orthopedic treatment.

B had to draw a number at the university clinic. We waited a while before the electronic display in the waiting showed his number and directed us to one of four "Schalter" or admission counters.

Once there, we presented the referral form from the general physician, B showed his TK insurance card and explained the reason for his visit. And then we waited, and waited, and waited... Waiting became the name of the game for four days. We would wait to see an orthopedic surgeon, for X-rays, for MRIs, more MRI's and finally to have his leg brace fitted. Occasionally, we had to wait at other locations to have MRIs done, for example.

Most striking was the fact that we only payed a total of 20 Euros co-pay for pain killers and the leg brace. Despite some of the waiting we had to do, we felt that B received good care, equivalent to the US. In fact, he got the MRIs immediately and they were better than one I had had in the US on one of my knees a number of years back. Plus, he got immediate results from a physician after the MRI, who then passed the information back to the orthopedic surgeon.

Some points worth noting - German physicians seem to prescribe Tylenol (Paracetamol) more often than any other painkiller. You have to insist on stronger stuff if a) you do not tolerate acetaminophen or b) your pain warrants something stronger. Be sure to ask a physician or pharmacist for drug interactions. Medication is described in German and dosage may differ from what is described in the printed material that comes with it as opposed to what your doctor recommends.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mad King Ludwig Lived Here

Neuschwanstein

Funny how I have low expectations for places I know to be touristy and high expectations for places I've never heard of.

I meant to blog about Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau before but never got around to it. We were pleasantly surprised upon arriving in Hohenschwangau by the fact that there weren't nearly as many tourists as we thought. The service in our hotel was very courteous and dinner (trout with parsley potatoes) was excellent. We had a perfect view of Neuschwanstein floating in a patch of fog at sunset.

While some visitors opt to take the horse-drawn carriage up the hill, I recommend doing the 20-minute hike by foot unless you are medically unable to do so. The horse carriage doesn't drop you off the front door of the castle. You have to walk another ten minutes after getting off. Also, it takes much longer to wait for the carriage then it does to just walk up the hill.

We arrived in the early afternoon on a Sunday and had pre-ordered our castle tickets through the hotel. Because we delayed by a traffic jam on our way to Hohenschwangau, we asked the hotel to change our pre-assigned tickets to the castle from 3pm to 5:45pm, the last time-slot for the day, and they were kind enough to take care of it for us.

Order tickets a day in advance of your arrival and you should be fine. Also, I recommend to see Hohenschwangau castle before Neuschwanstein. Hohenschwangau is more complete and detailed in its presentation and it paints a whole picture of King Ludwig of Bavaria and his family. If you are fairly fluent, request the German tour as 95% of tourists are from elsewhere and lines for the German-speaking visitors are much shorter. Once you arrive at the castle entry point, your ticket number will appear on an electronic display for your time-slot and you file in the appropriate line.

See Neuschwanstein castle from another angle by taking the path to the left of the exit and walking to the Marienbrücke, a bridge suspended almost 300 feet above the Pöllat waterfall. Also worthwile doing is the paddleboat (5 Euros for 30 min.) or canoe rental on the Alpsee nearby.

Now I can say - been there, done that and liked it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lookey, Lookey Italy

Italy

Traveling by train in Italy, you become very familiar with one word - ritardo. It means "delayed". And delays become even worse when there is a train strike, a common occurence in Italy.

Vernazza, Venice and Bolzano were our planned destinations. We made two out of the three before our vacation was shortened in Venice. But more about that later...

Vernazza, our first stop, is located in a very scenic part of the Cinque Terre region. A trail connecting five cliff-side towns is what draws nature lovers to this area. The five towns - Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manerola and Riomaggiore - are overrun by tourists (mostly Americans).

The food in most of the restaurants was poorly prepared and pricey. If you are not shocked by paying 10 to 15 Euros for a plate of pasta, then maybe an unsolicited 3 Euro per person bread and seating charge will do the trick. You can refuse the bread but they will still charge you.

Throughout this seven-day trip, we encountered various methods of being scammed and inconvenienced. In Vernazza, we went to a bakery and were harrassed by the owner for wanting one kind of pastry and not the one he suggested. He continued to harangue us even as we sat down to eat. At another restaurant, B ordered pasta with clams. What he got was mostly empty clam shells...

Venice, our second stop, is full of illegal street vendors peddeling counterfeit handbags. It's illegal to buy them and illegal to sell them and you don't want to be caught doing either. B was run over in a narrow alleyway by an illegal street vendor who was being chased by police. This happened fairly early on so we did not see very much of the city.

B was transported by ambulance boat to the hospital. An X-ray determined that his leg was not fractured and that he suffered contusions to his knee. On the second day, we had to find a place that sells crutches and we filed a police report against the vendor. The vendor had been arrested but they let him go with the ridiculous excuse that "he said he was under 18". He looked like he was in his late 20s.

We got a couple of souvenirs from Italy - crutches and brown socks. B had to buy brown socks because his were stolen from our room in Vernazza. We are glad to be back in Germany after this experience even though it took us 14 hours and an expensive train ticket to get back.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Koblenz

Koblenz, Germany

I visited the city of Koblenz a couple of weeks ago - much of it is under construction in preparation for the BuGa or Bundesgartenschau 2011. Preparations are under way for this huge event on both the river front, the Ehrenbreitstein fortress and the electoral palace. Entrance to the fortress was free, as it is undergoing construction. It was difficult to keep scaffolding and cranes out of my pictures so I didn't take that many. I had taken a video of the Rhine in Flames fireworks last year and it will take place again in Koblenz on August 8 of this year.

Oberusel has its own celebration this weekend called the Oberurseler Brunnenfest(in German). The three-day event includes music, food, even a couple of marathons.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Berlin - Rathen - Dresden

Berlin

I have a new favorite European city. I LOVE Berlin! We spent 5 beautiful days in Germany's capital before venturing south to Rathen for a short hiking trip and taking the train to Dresden.

We saw Berlin from above and below - literally. We went up on the TV tower to get a panoramic view of Berlin and on an underground tour of a defunct part of the U8. The "Berlin von unten" guided tour was unsual in that the 2.5 hour tour led us through dark tunnels of the underground and ended in a WW2 bunker in which part of a hallway was blocked off by an original piece of the wall. For this tour, we had to bring a bright flashlight and wear rubber boots (boots were provided for us).
While many tourists head straight for the museum island, we only saw two museums - the Dali museum on Potsdamer Platz with a large collection of Dali's drawings (no oil paintings) and the DDR museum, which provided a glimpse into what life was like in the former East Germany.
The weather was picture-perfect so we took a boat tour on the river Spree which is lined with cafes and beergardens.
Rathen

We then took the train to Rathen, a little town on the Elbe river known for the "Bastei", or sandstone rock formations, towering over it. Hiking in this area is just breathtaking and trails of varying degrees of difficulty lead through woods, towns, meadows and - inevitably - the next beergarten. We booked a room in a 13th century "burg" with a beautiful view over the river valley.
Dresden
Our last part of the trip was spent in Dresden. We went on a special 2.5 hour guided tour that took us to Kurt Vonnegut's famous "Slaughterhouse 5". Vonnegut was a POW in WW2, survived the decimation of Dresden in the meatlocker of this slaughterhouse and later became a celebrated American author. Our guide, Grit, did a great job explaining the architecture of Dresden, its history and its ties to Vonnegut's novel.
Dresden is an eclectic mix of architecture - what's old is new and what's new is old. We were fortunate also to catch part of the Dixieland music celebration on the river. Dozens of dinner boats and a few real paddlewheel steamboats float up and down the Elbe while people listen to the music onboard and from the shoreline. The evening culminated in fireworks over the river.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To the Tulips

The Netherlands


We spent a weekend seeing Delft, Amsterdam, the tulip fields and gardens and the seaside town of Volendam. A boat tour of Amsterdam gave us a glimpse of the maze of canals and leaning buildings that line them. Also saw a tiny little bit of the red-light district.

What Disney World is to kids, the Keukenhof Gardens near Lisse, the Netherlands, is to tulip and bulb flower lovers around the world. Millions of bright-colored tulips and, apparently, no deer anywhere near them because all the bulbs and plants were intact. A must-see for any expat, just like the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C.

We did a little shopping in Volendam - some Dutch specialties are sirup waffles, salty licorice and many different versions of wooden clogs.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Frugal Expat

The downturn of the economy is also affecting expats in Germany. Some of you may face layoffs and some may just want to cut down on spending because of recent losses in 401Ks and retirement plans.

Below is a list of ideas on living frugally. Feel free to share comments and ideas on how to cut down on expenses:

1. Create a Budget

Since no one is going to bail you or me out the way AIG or GM has been bailed out, creating an overview of your monthly expenses is the best way to start cutting costs. Put your Excel spreadsheet program to use and create a personal budget.

Enter regular monthly expenses like rent, utilities, groceries, car insurance, gas -you know, the things you need to live on. The emphasis here is on "things you need" not things you want. As expats, our travel budget is an important one and some of us may forego on getting regular haircuts and save up for a one-night stay in a real, fortress-like castle complete with in-room suit and armor. The point is, be clear about your needs and wants.

2. Start cutting back on luxuries

Do you really need a monthly pedicure? Can you buy your beer in the store instead of going out? Do you need to use the car or could you walk? Can you work out at home instead of the gym? Start trimming expenses from your budget that you can do without.

3. Spend wisely

Once you have identified your expenses, look for creative ways to save on the things you need. In the US, I found newspaper coupons to be useful only if you wanted to fill up your shopping cart with junkfood. In Germany, I regularly see discounts on essential and basic food items like produce and meat. These are labeled with an "Aktionspreis" or discounted price.

I also found that signing up to the frequent shopper points ("Punkte") was a way of getting brand-name items (from Villeroy and Boch or Fila, for example) for less at the grocery store. So instead of paying retail prices for brand name towels and luggage, I redeemed my points for these items at the grocery store. Ok.. this falls more under the "want" category rather than the "need" category.

Look at your insurance coverages and see if there are areas to cut back on. If you drive an old car, can you lower collision coverage or could you lower life insurance rates.

4. Sell what you don't need

I have not explored this yet but I can imagine that there is a good niche market for selling American things in Germany - i.e. desirable American brand names and items like the Levi jeans you never fit in or the Harley Davidson jacket hiding in the deep, dark corner of your closet. Check out Craig's List for Germany. Or contact your city hall to find out if you can participate at a Sunday flea market "Flohmarkt"), a popular way to sell a lot of your stuff at once. Some laid-off expats might have to pay their way back to the US and this is a good option to
lighten your load and reduce shipping costs.

5. Network

Put Twitter to good use and inform your friends of sales, bargains and great finds. Who cares if you are you are picking the lint out of your belly button - tell me where I can find a good deal on summer tires in Germany or which store just opened and is handing out free samples of stuff. Better yet - tell me who is hiring.

Use Facebook and other online social networks in the same manner - network with people who are great bargain-hunters.

6. Little ways to save

Think of every aspect of your daily routine as a way to save money. My list of examples:

a. Cut down on the time you shower, shut off lights in the room when you leave and encourage your kids to do the same. Turn off PCs and unplug TVs in the evening.

b. Take your lunch to work.

c. Cut down on using your clothes dryer and drip-dry your clothes on a cool German clothes rack. This will cut down on wear-and-tear of your clothes.

d. Wear your clothes more than once, especially if you layer them.

e. Instead of going out to eat, cook a healthy meal at home. Invite friends for coffee instead of going out to your corner coffee shop for a 3-Euro Latte Macchiato.

f. Rent a movie at your local Videothek, instead of going out.

g. Walk to the corner store and leave the car at home.

h. If you must travel (and expats always do), check out travel bargains. Americans are cutting back on overseas vacations so hotels and airfares are coming down.

i. Buy energy-saving bulbs and appliances. In Germany, fluorescent bulbs are less expensive than incandescent ones.

j. Email and Skype your relatives in the US more often. Regular mail and international calls are very expensive in Germany.

k. Look for seasonal bargains in Germany called "Schnäppchen". Unlike the US where you have 70%-off sales at clothes stores all the time, in Germany retail stores will have winter and summer-type of sales and discounts.

l. Haggle down prices whereever and whenever you can - be shameless about it. Think "AIG executive bonuses" when you do it. The worst that can happen is that someone will say "no".

m. Trade books/videos/music/skills with other expats. Your DK France for my Rick Steve's Italy.

n. If you have kids, encourage them to do all of the above.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fulda




This winter has been a long one and we were glad to get out of our apartment and take a half-day trip to Fulda (English version of the site is not very complete). The town is located about 1.5 hours northeast of Frankfurt.

We were surprised to find a big pedestrian area and baroque historical buildings, including a palace. One of the coolest structures is the "Hexenturm" or witches tower. We also found a street sign in the old-style German lettering. This being a university town, it is also very popular with students.

I can't wait for spring to start!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

German School Shooting in Winnenden

Winnenden German School Shooting

Hard to believe that this type of tragedy (from Spiegel's website in English) happens in Germany almost as often as in the US given that gun licensing (in German) is much stricter and tighter than in the US.

Having witnessed the aftermath of a shooting outside my own university dorm a long time ago (which resulted in an acquaintance of mine being seriously wounded and her ex-boyfriend committing suicide), I feel very strongly about gun ownership. I hope this opens the possibility of higher taxes for gun owners and making private gun ownership a much more difficult privilege to enjoy. I think banning guns will never be a reality as there are too many gun manufacturers lobbying to keep them around.