Thursday, June 29, 2017

Driving Update

I passed my written test!!  This is a huge accomplishment and puts me one step closer to getting my license.

This license is turning out to be the longest (and most expensive) license I've ever gotten. and I've had 5.  I'll admit that I've not been the speediest at pursuing it, partially due to circumstances (needing Matthew to be in town for certain parts, not taking the kids with me, the opening hours/availability of the driving school, courses, government entities, etc) and some due to my general dragging of feet.  I've listed the requirements at the end of this post below.

I guess, all in all, if I had really hurried and avoided any failures, the quickest the entire process could be completed is 9-10 weeks.  I started the process in April and probably have another 4 weeks now at the very minimum. At least now that Brandtley is in Kindergarten and I can complete #8-10 on my own, I can hopefully move forward more quickly. Now that I've made it this far, I'm determined to finish.

Also, each of these items have a cost. I haven't added them all up...I don't really want to. But I've invested enough time and money (and also own a car in my name that I'm not currently driving) to get it done.

Interesting side note: I've seen estimates of €1,500- 2,000+ for a not-previously licensed beginner to obtain a license, including the full course of instruction in the car.  So, getting a license here is a really big deal. The majority of this cost is obviously for the private instruction, for which I've only paid € far.

Also side note: the TÜV is where the German license testing both written & practical, occurs. Similar to the DMV but without the paperwork/documentation portion. And much cleaner. TÜV (pronounced like "toorf"to english ears) stands for Technischer Überwachungsverein, English translation: Technical Inspection Association.  While in a part of town that would not be uncommon for the DMV, it was extremely clean and reminded me of an upscale auto-workshop with a garage in the back and a waiting room in the front next to the testing room.  I actually took a picture to show Matthew as I waited. You first pay for your test, then take a number & wait for your turn to enter the testing room where there are 13 computers. Other than waiting for the testing room availability, there are no lines. And it was an overall pleasant, if slightly confusing, experience as I deciphered the signs to figure out the process.


Steps to getting my German Driver's License:

As a recap, only certain states in the US have complete reciprocity with Germany, and the lucky holders of licenses from these states simply fill out the paperwork, make an appointment, and exchange their US driver's license for a German one. Some states have partial reciprocity and only the written test is required. And then others, like Georgia, have nothing. We are among the unfortunate ones who must complete the entire process (though hopefully with a shorter instruction period since we've driven for nearly 20 years each and have already put in many many many practice hours behind a wheel over those 20 years).

So far, I have made it to step 7 of the following (which must be completed in order and you cannot move forward without proof of completion of the prior):

1. Get a certified translation of our US licenses by ADAC. 2 week turnaround. €55 per license.

2. Select a nearby driving school and go there to register as a student. Purchase the study material for the written test at this time. (The driving school also provides info on the location, schedules, & registration of the safety courses needed for step 3).

3. Attend a Safety and First aid course.  7-8 hours in a classroom. All in German. Not fun, but not hard. (I've heard the nearby town of Siegburg has a course in English but you need to register & you might not be able to complete it as quickly due to availability)

4. Vision exam. Fairly standard.

5. Photo taken. Also not hard. Some safety courses will provide the vision test & photo on the day of the course.

6. Appointment at the Stadthaus to register for our intention to obtain a license and provide proof of items 1-5. Then wait a few weeks to get letters from the "TÜV" (pronounced like "toof") that we may proceed with our intention to test for the license. Begin studying for the written test during this time.

7. Once letters have been received and you feel you are ready, it's time for the written test. Our driving school required that we pass it with them first before they would approve us to take it at the TÜV.  (They're responsible for only sending on prepared students or lack of preparation would reflect poorly on them & call into question the quality of their instruction.  Makes sense, but that meant we have to pass the written test twice.) I passed at the school, and they handed me documentation to take with me to the TÜV, along with a list of TÜV locations with their hours. (I don't know if the partial-reciprocity individuals have to take it first at a school or if this is because we're "all in").

Y'all. This test. There is a question bank of over a 1000 questions and only 30 will be on the test. But you can only miss 3 and still pass, so you must be prepared for all of them. Some questions are hard/technical. Some are well worth knowing if you'll be driving here: things like street sign meanings, and priority/right of way rules which are different than in the US.  And some are just common sense if you've driven before.

Thankfully, we can take it in English. However, the English translation is just different enough that you really do need to review all of the questions. For example, I would think that "pavement" is what you drive on. But no, the "pavement" is either the side of the road or sidewalk. Not where the car drives.  So, parking on the pavement and letting pedestrians out on the pavement creates a different situation (and answer) based on the meaning of this word.  And some words I still don't know the meaning of - like what in the world is a Sunken Kerbstone??

8. Drive with an Instructor. The driving school did not allow me to schedule instruction time until I brought proof that I had passed the written test at the TÜV, which I guess demonstrates sufficient knowledge of the rules.  The instructor will evaluate my driving and decide if I can proceed to take the practical test at the TÜV.  If not, I will be required to practice with him for however long that takes. If I did not have a prior license, I would be required to complete something like 20+ hours in the car with an instructor, so at least I'm hopeful to avoid that!

Also - important timeline info that I found out yesterday when registering for instruction - my instructor will contact me in the next 2 days to schedule our first session. Once he approves me to take the test, whenever that is, there is a 3 WEEK delay before I can actually take it at the TÜV.

9. Practical Test at the TÜV. I've been told that it's common for Americans to fail this at least once. It will all be in German, and I am not allowed to bring a translator. And of course, I will be taking it in a manual transmission car. So I'm fully expecting to fail. I don't know if this makes me more or less nervous.

If I fail, I must wait 2 weeks before trying again.  I'm unsure if I'm required to go back to the driving school before the next try. If I fail 3 times, then I must wait 3 months before the 4th try.

10. If I ever pass the practical test, then the final step will be to make an appointment to go back to the Stadthaus to exchange my US license for my new and very precious German license.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

I wear my sunglasses at night...

I've mentioned the length (or lack thereof in winter) of the days here before, but it still just amazes me. When we moved here, I did not expect the constant gray and darkness of winter, or conversely the constant brightness of summer.  We still marvel on a regular basis at how bright it stays well into the evening. Despite having to convince the boys that yes, it really is bedtime despite the sun looking like it's 4:30 pm at 8pm, we've been enjoying the long evenings when we can sit outside after dinner, or long after putting the kids to bed.

A few days ago was the summer solstice, so out of curiosity, I looked up the sunrise and sunset times. Technically, sunset was at 9:48pm. However because of our location, it takes the sun a LONG time to fully disappear behind the horizon.

Here is what our street looked like at "sunset" at 9:48pm:

And here it is at 10:30pm. Streetlights on, but you can still clearly see down the street. Lots of light.

When I went to bed at 11:15pm, it was fairly dark but I could still see the light from the sunset at the edges of the sky.

Sunrise is technically at 5:18am, but like the long sunset, when Matthew left the other day at 4am, it was already getting light.  I've been surprised by how much I've enjoyed the long days, especially when the weather is clear and beautiful, which it has been a lot lately.

It's just recently started getting "hot".  This week we had several days with temps in the 90s (F), one of which hit 98℉. This has been a sweaty week since I've been doing double drop-offs & pick ups of both boys at school while Matthew's been working.  I'm estimating that I cycle a minimum of 8km on those days, plus a few km of walking to any errands I need to take care go shopping, see friends, or Deutsch class.  Needless to say, my water intake has gone up ALOT, I'm getting the first tan I've had in years, and I'm sleeping great despite the sunlight!

Also, it's important to know that there is no air conditioning here. Most of the time it's not really needed. Even when the temps get hot, it's usually only for a short time and a few days later it's back in the 60s-70s. Plus, Europeans seem to be adamantly opposed to it: central air-conditioning spreads germs, allergens, harbors mold and is not energy efficient. BUT you can purchase a small, room air conditioner on Amazon. I've held that knowledge in the back of my mind as the temps start to heat up.

Our house has held up surprisingly well, so far, though. I don't know if it's the age of the house with its 2-3 ft thick stone & concrete walls, that it was built with the intention to stay cool, but we've guessed that the interior temperature has stayed in the mid 70s even on the hottest days. It has actually felt cooler on a 98℉ day here than our house in Atlanta did WITH air conditioning. Those awesome automatic exterior shades really help, too. Our windows only get about 2-3 hours of direct, hot sunlight each day (by design??) and so, we lower the shades during that time.

Growing up in the Southeastern US, it was common to see/tour old antebellum houses that had a central hallway. I remember the tour guide always pointed out during the tour that the doors on either end of the hallway could be opened in the summer time for a breeze.  I used to think that this was evidence that they were really desperate for air conditioning, but can now vouch for the design's effectiveness. It's pretty common most days to find our house open like this with a breeze flowing through the middle:

I'll keep you posted as to whether we break down and order an air conditioner.  I think we'll be getting a fan for the bedroom soon, for some airflow at night.  After all, it's still only June and we have to make it through August. :)

EDIT: After posting, I realized it's not actually correct to say "NO air-conditioning". Grocery stores have air conditioning, as well as the commercial shops downtown. But I am not aware of any houses having it.  Even the largest office building uses water from the river pushed through pipes in the center of the building to cool it.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Hunting for Coffee?

Thursday was another holiday for Germany, so the kids were out of school and most shops were closed. However, many cafes in Köln were open, including a coffee rösterei that we've been wanting to try in our ongoing search for coffee.  So, the four of us took an impromptu trip north to Köln for coffee, brunch, and a stroll through the Belgische Viertel for ice cream.

As our resident coffee snob expert, Matthew has kept a running tally of the coffee we've tried, and I've asked him to share in case anyone else could use some coffee info around here. From his list, we buy #4 most frequently, since it's the most convenient (I go to the grocery store nearly daily). It's the best we've found at the grocery so far.

[Also, we highly recommend Cafe Bauturm in the Belgische Viertel on Aachenerstr.  The Käsespätzle was amazing as well as Matthew's bio burger which was huge. Jackson got a large, fluffy banana pancake with chocolate sauce and was not disappointed either.]


On the hunt for good coffee

During our brief tenure here in Europe, we continually have occasions where we find that some long-held perception is unhinged or contradicted.  My internal perception/value system for what good coffee has been completely associated with U.S. available roasters and I have struggled with finding beans that I like here.  Now that I am unable to rely on a trip to one of my favorite roasters in Atlanta,  I have been on a months-long search for good coffee to make in our home.

To add some complication to my quest, it's worth acknowledging that Europe is primarily geared toward an espresso culture.  Said another way: if coffee is served anywhere, it's an espresso based beverage.  Are you at a restaurant?  Don't bother asking for a cup of coffee - order an espresso or latte machiatto instead.  Still want one?  Make sure you ask for a café Americano.   In Germany, you can get a cup of coffee at some cafés but you have to order it as a Filterkaffee (filter coffee).

While I'm willing to forego my filterkaffee when I'm out and about, that doesn't change my desire to having brewed coffee in my own home.

Arabica vs. Robusta

When buying beans in the U.S - most higher end roasters only sell 100% Arabica beans.  I reached out to one of my favorite roasters (RevCoffee in Smyrna) and while they don't advertise 100% Arabica, they confirmed it to me this afternoon.  Another species of coffee, Robusta, is generally used for lower end coffee (think instant coffee and Folgers).  There is a lively debate on the Robusta vs. Arabica issue that you can read about from the Atlantic here.

However, some espresso connoisseurs place a high value on Robusta blends for the better crema texture that the species lends.  Crema is the froth that sits on top of a shot of espresso and can dramatically affect flavor and finish.  We witnessed this fact today by tasting a few Robusta espressi today at Moxxa Coffee in Cologne.

The Moxxa barista took great care in telling us that it was appropriate to stir in the crema to sufficiently mix it in with the shot.  I can say that it was good, albeit a different experience from most espresso that I have tried.  Moxxa's philosophy is that predominantly Robusta proportioned coffees can be used for espresso and Arabica blends are appropriate for filter/pourover/etc.  Other roasters strongly believe that the bean species (read: Arabica) is paramount to crema and therefore only 100% Arabica should be used for espresso.

In My Cabinet

My cabinet is full. of. coffee. 

Here's the list of what I've purchased locally (that we like):

1. Kurt - Der Kaffeeröster
Found at their café here: Clemens-August-Str.55 Bonn, Germany 53115

2. Einbrand
Found at this Edeka market:

3. The Barn - Berlin
Found at the Black Coffee Pharmacy in Bonn:

4. Gepa
Found at any Edeka

5. Moxxa Ethiopia Sidamo
Found here in Cologne near the Belgian Quarter (Belgische Viertel)

I tried only the 100% Arabica offerings from each brand and while taste is subjective, I preferred The Barn and Gepa most.   

I noticed that The Barn offers subscriptions - the first service of its kind that I've found here.  We picked up one of my favorites, and Ethiopia Sidamo from Moxxa yesterday and I'm anxious to try it.


U.S. roasters I like:

Counter Culture Coffee

Blue Bottle - Online

Rev Coffee Roasters - Smyrna, GA

Almost forgot:
Octane Coffee


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

No big deal, Mom

This kid. Y'all. I have to take a moment to brag on him.  Every time I get to hear him speak German, I'm impressed. But this morning was exceptional.

Back story: several weeks ago, he lost his keys to his bike lock.  I have the spare key on my keyring, so, while inconvenient, the loss wasn't the end of the world. (However, at least once, Matthew showed up at school to pick Jackson up, realized that he had taken the wrong keys, and had to come all the way home to get my keys in order for Jackson to unlock his bike. Really inconvenient.) 

Jackson knew he had lost the keys while riding his bike, but we had no idea where. After looking for a few weeks, we chalked them up to lost forever.

Fast forward to this morning as we are dropping Brandtley off for his first day of kindergarten.  While I am helping Brandtley to put away all of his new kindergarten gear (lunch, water bottle, backpack, shoes, house shoes, rain boots, rain pants, sport clothes, and jacket), I'm vaguely aware of Jackson having a conversation in German with one of Brandtley's teachers.  The teacher turns to me and asks me something about keys in German.  I nod, but am only half focusing...not paying attention enough to catch the full translation and meaning.  A minute later, Jackson & the teacher walk down the hall and return with his lost keys!! 

Jackson very simply and quickly made small talk which led him to a conversation that expressed his loss of keys and then discovered that the kindergarten had found his keys outside on the sidewalk after we last visited!  To me, this entire conversation is huge. So much information. Shared so naturally. So easily. To him, it was nothing. 

I recently made a phone call to the US and purchased (in English!!) a gift using my credit card. The whole call took maybe 3 minutes, but I hung up amazed at the ease of the sheer volume of data I had successfully conveyed so quickly, accomplishing a very simple task that would have been so complex and taken so much longer in German.  My mind was overwhelmed at how effortless life in my native language can be and how accustomed I've grown to the daily effort of trying to communicate (or trying to avoid communication) otherwise.

I love that Jackson has no idea why I was so impressed this morning. I love that he is already internalizing a second language. As the frustration is about to start fresh for Brandtley as he enters daily German kindergarten, it is so encouraging and rewarding to see the fruits of Jackson's effort and the skills he is already gaining.  I am so appreciative of the little moments of success that show us the progress we've made.