Monday, 28 November 2005
He didn't know where he was going.
When he got there he didn't know where he was.
When he got back he didn't know where he had been.
And he did it all on someone else's money.
Monday, 21 November 2005
The first surprise: school is only a half day, starting at roughly 8 o'clock and finishing somewhere between 11:30am and 1:30pm. This makes arranging one's errands a little challenging as most of the shops and offices do not open until 9:30 but children may be home from school as early as 11:30. Furthermore this means the children leave for school in the winter while it is still dark and freezing.
Next point. Because they are only at school for half a day, they are expected to do large quantities of homework. Which means I have the pleasure, first of all, of convincing them to do it -- I guess I'd have to do this in Australia anyway -- and secondly of attempting to assist them without a good knowledge of German. Much less emphasis was placed on homework at the children's last school (all were in primary school) in Australia. Of course, I realise the boys are at high school now but the German education system seems to go from the sublime (children starting school at 6 or even 7 years old) to the ridiculous (classifying the children into a secondary school at the age of 10). You should be aware that there are four levels of secondary school each aimed at a particular outcome. So students at the Gymnasium are on the track to university while attendees at the Realschule are anticipated to be skilled but not professional workers. In our case, Mara is in her final year at the Grundschule (primary school) and we are in the process of discussing with her teacher where she should be going for the remainder of her education life.
The schools have no program to assist non-Deutsch speaking children and most of Joshua's teachers put it all in the too-hard basket last school year. So there was almost no help for Josh to learn German or understand the work but this year (only two months later!) they expect him to complete all the work and have sent home notes about failure to do homework. All children here start English as a second language in 3rd grade. Interestingly, despite being native English speakers our children and many other bi-lingual (in English) children I know only seem to get average to slightly above average grades in English as a subject. This is largely due to the emphasis being on grammar and not so much usage and fluency.
German teachers, on the whole, are an antique breed -- lacking in flexibility, unable to cater to children that are different and placing unrealistic expectations and demands. This last point includes such things as 'You must have this book by tomorrow' or 'You must have your bike at school tomorrow' and that is the first you hear of it. I have found this demonstrates that they sometimes seem to be living in a world that they think revolves around them. While I have no problem getting books and bikes to school for my children asking for it within less than 24 hours is just not always possible.
The teachers hand out a lot of loose leaf papers for work and are obsessed with having them all neatly filed in 8 or 9 different colours 'schnellhefters' (the plastic loose-leaf binder type folders with fold-down metal prongs). Two of our close German friends -- who have also both spent time in North America -- agree that German teachers are, on the whole, over-paid, lazy and self-important. Here endeth the rant. Stay tuned for our blog on Prague.
Tuesday, 1 November 2005
Daytrip to Venezia (Venice). I was very excited to be visiting Venice. We drove to a parking lot on the mainland (less expensive than the few on the islands) and caught a bus over the bridge. From here we caught a water bus (vaporetto) close to San Marco -- the main square in Venice which you've all seen pictures of in books or on postcards. We alighted from the vaporetto a stop too soon. Half the stops were 'San' something and when in unfamiliar territory all look the same. This gave us the opportunity to wander through a couple of quieter campos (like a common courtyard or a small square), cross the Grand Canal and see a couple of gondeliers at work. (Joshua seemed convinced we would be lost in Venice forever). Eventually making it to the main square, it looked just like the postcards but with more people and pigeons.
We queued to see inside the Basilica San Marco (Basilica of St. Mark) which was very beautiful though we generally agreed a little overdone. Mosaics every where with lots of gold. In the basilica we viewed the Pala d'Oro (translates as 'golden altar screen') which is decorated with icons and 2000 uncut, but polished, gems. I also saw the Treasury, containing a number of relics, which I found rather bizarre and grizzly despite their gold cases. Both the screen and the items from the Treasury were looted from Constantinopole in 1264, Fourth Crusade.
Another vaporetto ride to the island of Murano to watch a glass blower in action, browse the shops and make a small purchase. On the way back to San Marco the low-sitting vaporetto was hit by a wave completely drenching Ariana who loved every minute of it. From thence we caught another vaporetto down the Grand Canal and then to the Campo San Sebastian -- to find the setting for one of my favourite novels 'Miss Garnet's Angel'. We found the church and the statue featured in the novel and took a number of photos (to the amusement of some locals as this church is not on the normal tourist itinerary).
So our general impressions of Venice are that it is very beautiful but in parts quite showy and touristy. At that time of the year also very full of tourists. I am still amazed at how American accents carry. Also, we don't recommend bringing a stroller. Plenty of foot bridges with stairs and no ramps.
Unfotunately Fenton became sick late in the day (coming down with Joshua's bug), but still managed to get us back to the camp ground.
Fenton remains sick as a dog (or at least a very ill one).
We packed up camp in the morning and travelled on to Firenze (Florence). We had booked a room in a hotel since we were only planning to stay one night. The Hotel Dalí is right in the centre of the city and navigating the inner streets were very difficult -- even with a GPS system (it had the direction of some of the one-way streets incorrect). Parking was hell but the hotel was very convenient being in walking distance of everything we wanted to see.
There was a museum dedicated to working models of Leonardo's designs. This was very popular with the children and Elijah managed to injure himself. The Duomo (cathedral) was less showy than the basilica in Venice and in my opinion, more tasteful.
While strolling the streets I ducked into menswear shop to buy Fenton a 6€ tie. We ended up with an Italian-designer wool suit, a shirt and two ties -- they gave us a great sell including a 'large family' discount! Fenton looks great in a well cut suit that fits. Finally we queued for Del Academia which is a famous gallery with the main attraction being Michelangelo's 'David'. It also contains many Catholic-themed paintings. 'David' was magnificent, of course.
Overall Florence was more to our taste, we think, than Venice. Fenton thinks it is because it is a comparison of academia to business (and which one does he prefer hmmm?). You'll have to come and see it for yourselves.
Originally our plan had been to continue on to Rome but as were all tired we decided to spend a little longer in Florence before returning home. We'll Catch It Next Time™.
Departed from Florence for home late in the day and stopped overnight once we were a few hours out of town.
Friday, 21 October 2005
Italia: 4th - 9th August
We packed up our tent in drizzly München and departed for Lago di Garda. Our original plans included at stop, at Joshua's request, at Schloss Neuschwanstein. This is the fairy-tale castle constructed by the Bavarian King Ludwig II in the late 1800's and is featured in many tourist brochures as well as in the opening title for the Sunday Disney program when we were growing up. We decided to by-pass it this time, due to a shortage of time (see below), but will Catch It Next Time™. This is a phrase we use when we can't see everything we'd like to see but is in keeping with our general travel philosophy of 'Do a few things well'. One reason for the lack of time was Gaynor had some last minute children's clothes shopping to do in central München. So while Gaynor, Ari and Elijah chuffed off to the city, Fenton and the rest packed up camp before heading in to pick them up. Unfortunately, parking in the city centre and meeting up were endeavours fraught with frustrations. There's a reason public transport works so well in big cities!
The trip to the lake campground (Camping La Rocca at Manerba del Garda) was roughly 450km (about 5 hours) and Joshua became ill and slept most of the trip. Not a happy camper. Gaynor couldn't remember in which language to thank her first Italian shopkeeper going through German, French, English and finally grabbing onto some Italian. Once again, we set up the tent in the dark -- this time with help from some nearby Dutch children.
5 - 6 August
These days were enjoyed doing next to nothing. It would have been exactly nothing but for the fact that we had given the staff the week off. Gaynor and Joshua's idea of nothing (and usually Mara's too) is reading for hours on end. Elijah and Ariana's is swimming, monkeying at the playground and playing any ball sport. Fenton's idea is laying next to the lake and/or exploring and Bryna's idea is hanging out with whichever person is doing what she feels like at the time. Perhaps the main reason we went to stay at the lake was to do nothing and thus to come back feeling rested.
The campground -- which also included many caravans and campervans -- stipulated rules regarding siesta. No loud noise or swimming in the pool between 1 and 3pm. Most local shops are also closed during this time. Elijah seemed to have trouble getting the word 'siesta' out with alternate versions including 'cemetary' and 'seminary' -- all synonymous with dull and boring in Elijah's mind.
Lago di Garda is a glacial lake, very touristy -- particularly popular with German and Dutch holiday-makers -- but with beautiful scenery. There is a reason it is so popular. Here's a hasty panoramic photo of it taken during an evening walk.
Drove the scenic route through the mountains on the western side of the lake and stopped for a light picnic lunch on Strada Panoramica (name says it all -- see the postcard shot below which is overlooking the lower reaches of the lake) in San Bartolomeo. We then pressed on to the lookout near Tignale which was so high and had such a steep descent down to the lake shore that it was dizzying (Gaynor felt this literally). The view was too much to take a photo of so here (8.2MB file) is a short movie at the lookout. The rest of the drive continued among spectacular mountains, through deep mountain passes, impressive grottos and tunnels near Prabione, Prà da Bont, Sermerio and Tremosine.
So apologies that there are not many more photos of us lazing about or otherwise having a good time but were too busy doing nothing. All in all, though, a very relaxing and enjoyable time. Just the tonic!
Next post: Our intrepid adventurers move on to Venice, Fenton takes ill and they come across a navigational problem not even GPS and a map can solve!
Monday, 12 September 2005
Germans play some interesting sports such as table tennis, handball, soccer/football and tennis. Table tennis is a rather unserious leisure sport that we play during the break at school. There are four big slabs of concrete on concrete stands with a steel net and white lines marked on the concrete slabs. These are our tables and are situated in the school grounds. We play a version of table tennis which can involve up to 15 people. You stand in two lines at the sides of the table with the person at the front of each line standing at an end. One of these first people will serve and once they have hit the ball they will run around the table and join the next line. The person on the other end will return the ball. The next person in the first line will run and take the place of the person who served and hopefully keep the ball in play and so on. It very fun and very energetic once you get down to four people. This game is called 'rundlauf' (literally translated as 'run round'). In this game you commonly have two 'lives', a zero and a nothing. When you fail to keep the ball in play two times you are out. When the final two people are left they will play a short match to two or three points to determine the winner.
Handball is really fun because you are allowed to knock people over, at least if you are defending. It is a mix between basketball and indoor soccer. If you want to know more about the game go here. Last school year I played a handball tournament which our team won and I scored the goal that got us into the final. I did not really know how to play handball but my friend told me 'Get the ball. Dribble round the court. Don't step in the semicircle and throw the ball into the goals'.
As you may well know, Germany is hosting the 2006 soccer World Cup. Soccer is a very dominant game over here. Every little kid plays soccer and the sport gets serious very quickly. Sometimes kids are not allowed to take excursions with school or family because they have soccer training. I believe that often soccer players fake penalties to receive free kicks. I don't really want to go into the theory of why they fake or how they seem to fall down so much and dramatically.
A few months ago, my family, some friends and I went to see Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith. It was in English with Dutch subtitles which were very funny. There were Dutch subtitles because it was a cinema in Holland. Last Friday evening my siblings, the same friends and their father and I went to see the movie 'Madagascar' in German. The voice dubbing was OK and the movie was still pretty good and I understood pretty much all of it.
At home we receive television channels in Dutch, French, English and German with the majority in German. We watch 'SpongeBob Schwammkopf' almost daily which is almost as funny in German.
I have finished the new Harry Potter book twice and I have just started to read books I received for past Christmases. Our Playstation still seems to be in working order and lately we mainly play 'Gran Turismo 2' and 'Mission Impossible'. Elijah has taken a liking to 'Gran Turismo 2' because it includes his favourite car, the Audi TT Quattro.
Tuesday, 23 August 2005
München: 1st - 3rd Aug
We had invested in a GPS-based navigation system and one of the main components arrived a few days before we were due to depart. Unfortunately, it was a slightly different model to the one needed and was unusable. The supplier (internet-based) was located in Frankfurt which was more or less on our way. So the plan was to depart early-ish Monday morning and pick-up the GPS gear on the way. Frankfurt is about three hours away. The plan went swimmingly well (i.e., we found Frankfurt) until the directions we had expected us to follow a non-existent sign! After a 2 hour unintentional tour of Frankfurt -- including the city centre, a lengthy traffic jam and the same stretch of autobahn 3 times! -- we got where we needed to go, made the exchange and were finally on our way. Subsequently we arrived in Munich later than desired (but the navigation system worked beautifully!) and set up the tent in the dark in record time.
The campsite was pretty crowded and the owner of one of the tents that we set up very close to came out to point out how close we were. Her concern was that having too many synthetic tents so close together was a fire hazard. In my most diplomatic manner I tried to reassure her (I wasn't going to be re-pitching the tent then!). She wasn't that difficult and once she got to know Gaynor a bit she was much happier about matters. Turns out she was an Englishwoman stranded in Munich with a blown car engine and 4 young children. We got to know her and the children well over the next few days.
Our general rule of travel is to try to see a few things well rather than more things with less time. So the plan of attack was to see inner city Munich one day and the Deutsches Museum the next. Though before touristing got underway in ernest we started the day with present opening for Ariana's 6th birthday.
We caught public transport around Munich with a unlimited family day ticket setting us back 8 euro. Quite good value we thought. A bus to the nearby underground train and then half a dozen stops into Marienplatz itself.
This photo (boys and Bryna in foreground right) shows the old town hall (very Gothic with plenty of fabulous gargoyles) facing onto the square and the twin onion-domed towers in the background belong to the Frauenkirche (Women's Church). This is the main (certainly the biggest) church in Munich and was the cathedral for the current Pope when he was First Bishop of Munich. Photos show some interiors of the Frauenkirche as shot by Joshua including looking down the central aisle and the elaborate tomb for King Ludwig Some-Or-Other.
Other highlights included the street performers (see the photos of the children's favourite and them watching him) , wandering the English Garden and sitting on a rug listening to some light jazz at the old Royal Residence. Gaynor also squeezed in a bit of shopping and Mara and Ari went to the Toy Museum.
The trip home was eventful since we were now travelling with the English woman (Wendy) and her four children and had a desperation to obtain a suitable birthday cake for Ariana before the shops closed (She can 'kitchen sink' with the best of them and we didn't feel the need for the ongoing grief). Rain and public transport did not improve the mix. Fortunately all turned out well with some creative train-hopping by Fenton and (since there wasn't much pre-planning before separating) a good working knowledge of Gaynor's thought processes (also by Fenton).
This day was reserved for the Deutsches Museum (go to your preferred language and check out Exhibitions for a listing of the Museum's contents). We didn't take many photos of this fabulous and large place, instead purchasing a guide in English. It is a technical museum and if you'd like to know more I'd encourage you to check out the website and then book your airplane ticket! Remember, there's always free accommodation (for selected guests) in Juelich a scant 6 hours away.
Family favourites included the complete V2 rocket (Joshua), the solar-powered plane (Elijah), the gondola (Mara), the history and techniques of glass and ceramic manufacture (Gaynor), flying the model plane (Ariana and see photo below) and pressing any button within reach (and many out of reach, Bryna).
Met up with Wendy and her children just before closing and joined them back at the campsite for a barbeque dinner.
Wednesday, 13 July 2005
- 1/8 Depart to München (Munich)
- 2/8-4/8 See München, including the Deutsches Museum.
- 4/8 Depart to Lago di Garda in Italia via Schloss Neuschwanstein (Joshua's request).
- 4/8-12/8 Enjoy relaxing at Lake Garda, probably at Manerba del Garda (close to Brescia on the map below).
- 10/8 Day trip to Venezia (Venice).
- 12/8 Depart to Firenze (Florence).
- 13/8 Depart to Roma.
- 15/8 or 16/8 Return home.
Jülich-Roma (via München, Manerba del Garda and Florence)
- Distance: 1623km
- On motorway: 1502km
- Tolls: 63,80€
- Fuel cost: 122€ @ 1,00€/l and 7.5l/100km
Roma-Jülich (via Switzerland)
- Distance: 1437km
- On motorway: 1416km
- Tolls: 59,80€
- Fuel cost: 108€ @ 1,00€/l and 7.5l/100km
And to make it more of an adventure, we are planning on camping! Hopefully, we'll have a digital camera before we leave and can share some photos soon after our return.
Monday, 27 June 2005
So the date was a trip to the movies to see the latest Star Wars adventure. While there is a cinema in Jülich, we went to Heerlen because the Dutch don't dub their movies. So we could see it in English with Dutch subtitles. So while it sounds a bit decadent and/or bizarre to go to a whole other country just to watch a film, it was only a half hour away. It was nice to spend sometime with Fenton without our beautiful children.
Fenton spent the last few days in the Netherlands learning Dutch. 'Why?', you may ask. It's a requirement of the job. Despite living here, he officially lives there and is required to do an introductory Dutch course. This has caused havoc with his embryonic German.
The weather lately has been almost like an Australian summer with temperatures in the low 30s and has made me feel much more at home. If the temperature gets above 30 here the children are sometimes sent home from school, which they look forward too. The higher temperatures mean we have had more water bombs fights, more ice-cream and more visits to the park.
Thursday, 23 June 2005
It was originally a five day course with a weekend after the second day. However a Dutch train strike on the Friday meant there was no course for that day. So perhaps that was a reasonable introduction to some Dutch customs. I took the trains from our village to Utrecht with a total travel time of about 3.5 hours on three different trains. The train from Köln (Cologne) to Utrecht (known as the ICE - International City Express) is quite nice, travelling around 130 km/h, with airline-type seats which have a power point and head phone jack (you provide the head phones) with audio programs available.
I enjoyed the course -- there is a fair bit of overlap between German and Dutch and with my German vocabulary getting much bigger this made it easier -- though I do seem to be coming home with a sore throat from trying to pronounce some of the sounds. The course was taught in English and, even though everyone spoke it (other participants were Bulgarian, Ukrainian, French, Italian, Pakistani and Turkish), I was the only one who spoke only one language. Sometimes I really feel that here mono-lingual is mono-brow. *chest thump* "Ug. Me Fenton. Me speak English."
 Technically, I live in the Netherlands. That is, I have an official address there and Gaynor and the children official reside in Germany. Hopefully soon my Dutch residency permit will be approved and I can then officially move to Germany. So at the moment, I just holiday in Germany a lot. :)
Thursday, 9 June 2005
Mara was quite keen to come to Germany and, even though she has had her own challenges, seems to be generally happy about life. Her biggest trial to date seems to have been the teaching style and personality of her teacher. She is still enjoying school but, with the language and cultural barrier, initially found it difficult to understand the requests of her teacher. This, along with the early starts -- their bus leaves around 7:45am and Mara, like her father, is not a morning person -- made for a few weeks of personal adjustment. She seems to be pretty much back on top of things again, learning the language quite quickly.
Her teacher likes the children to memorise poetry and Mara has done quite well at this, despite not being able to understand the first few. Here (wav file, 691kB, higher quality) or here (mp3 file, 63kB, lower quality) is a recording of the first one she did, receiving many compliments for her pronunciation.
She has made good friends with a local girl in the village who lives with her three siblings on a small farm. They have horses (the girl's father trains them) and a lovely yard with various swings, see-saws etc. and consequently it's a popular place for our children to visit.
There is a kindergarten in the village -- the group is known as the "Wild 13" from a German children's book -- which Ari is attending until the summer holidays. One of her teachers speaks a little English but Ari, in general, doesn't need to know a lot of German to get by. She is picking it up reasonably quickly and is now becoming very interested in reading and writing. Her progress in these skills has been a little hampered by her insistence that she learn it on her terms, which, however, do not always correspond well with reality.
German children generally start primary (elementary) school at 6 years of age but it's certainly not uncommon for them to also wait until they are 7 before beginning. It's quite a flexible approach and they seem to be keen to make sure that children are mature and adjusted enough to be able to make a successful transition. Ariana, of course, has been chomping at the bit to start school since the middle of last year. She was a little put out when informed that she would still be in 'pre-school' (known more correctly as 'kindergarten' here) until at least August, when her friends in Australia started 'proper' school in February. So it wasn't really an option to wait another school year before sending her. In addition, if we return to Australia in September 2006 she will at least have one year of schooling under her belt. Although German children are at kindergarten until they are 7, very little in the way of structured learning goes on here. It's very much like pre-school with plenty of finger-painting, recreational play, stories and singing. However, once they hit primary school (the Grundschule) it progresses quite rapidly and they are down to business.
In one of Gaynor's previous posts she mentioned briefly a trip to Brückenkopf Park in Jülich. Among the attractions there is a small zoo. When we came across a peacock, Gaynor, in a conversational tone, asked the bird to present his tail feathers. When the peacock refused the request, Ariana said to Gaynor, "Mum of course the bird can't understand you. It's a German bird!"
Bryna has taken the move to Germany in her stride. Though we were concerned about travelling with her from Brisbane to Amsterdam to here (a total transit time of about 32 hours door-to-door), she journeyed exceptionally well, sleeping almost the entire stretch from Singapore to Amsterdam.
She still isn't saying much -- having about equal vocabularies of German and English, a dozen words in each -- but who needs to with four siblings at your beck and call, a very accurate pointing finger and an insistent tone. She loves to be outside, taking rides in the baby trailer on Elijah's bike and walking along the neighbour's low wall.
Monday, 16 May 2005
Joshua is now attending high school. They have a few different kinds of high schools here depending on your academic level and expected job vocation. Those hoping to advance to a university education generally attend a 'gymnasium' (pronounced GIM-narz-i-oom, with the 'oo' as in an Australian-pronounced 'book'), with those going on to further education (technical college or similar) attending the 'realschule' and others going to the 'hauptschule' (main school). So Joshua is attending the local gymnasium located in the nearest town. His classes start early (7:50am) and he gets himself there via train (7:24am from our village) and foot. So far he really seems to be lapping up all the new and interesting subjects, which he probably wouldn't have started for a few more years in Australia. I'm sure he'll post about this soon.
He has made a good friend in a German boy who recently returned with his family from a few years in the US. His father is also a physicist and working at the Forschungzentrum. His English is excellent as is his German and so he often translates for Josh. The family lives in a nearby village and have been very friendly and helpful to us. In particular, the mother has helped Gaynor with shopping and socialising. The boy and Josh decided (for their own nefarious reasons) to tell their German classmates that 'hokey-pokey' was a rude word in English. Sure enough later that day during class, one of the boys in the class dropped his pencil and let out a 'Hokey-pokey!' much to the bemusement of the (English-speaking) teacher and the barely suppressed giggles of Josh and friend.
Elijah was probably our most reluctant to come to Germany, having settled into a fairly nice lifestyle in Canberra and generally being a bit resistant to altering the status quo. He is attending the 'grundschule' (primary school) along with Mara, though next school year -- which begins after the summer in about September -- he will be going to one of the next level schools. See the first paragraph in the part about Joshua for a run-down on the options. We will push to have him attend the gymnasium with Josh, since he really is a bright boy, though he has shown a leaning to go where-ever most of his friends will be attending. Friends and relationships are quite important to Elijah.
We've been encouraging him to get out and about a bit more, by playing with some of the children in his class (there is a boy just down the street) and he does this somewhat. He also enjoys spending time with Joshua's German-who-just-returned-from-the-US family. Probably because he can speak English with them. One thing he has missed so far is the rugby season which has just finished here and just started in Australia. There is a reasonably local team (including juniors) at Aachen. I expect next winter the boys will want to be involved. Elijah's grandmother has kindly offered to record some Australian football games and send them over. Hopefully this will help to keep Elijah (and the rest of the family too!) in the (sport-watching) lifestyle to which he has become accustomed.
Thursday, 12 May 2005
Friday, 29 April 2005
Tuesday, 26 April 2005
Update: The always Extremely Useful Wikipedia now has an article on the toads.
Thursday, 21 April 2005
After a fair bit of searching, I found a 1994 7-seater VW Caravelle ('VW' is pronounced 'fou-vee' here). It's white and a previous owner had been a heavy smoker. When I first saw it at the car yard, it was quite, well filthy is the best word for it. So I managed to negotiate the trader down a couple of hundred euro (I am traditionally pretty hopeless at bargaining) and got professional cleaning and a one year guarantee thrown in. While it wasn't an absolute bargain, I think it was a pretty fair price, especially considering it has only 154,000km on the odometer (which frankly I have a hard time believing). The cleaning, which took a couple of days, made a vast improvement and though the smell of smoke still lingers, it is greatly reduced. I'm amazed at how sensitive the nose of a non-smoker can be to residual tobacco fumes. In fact, I had my suit coat hung on the back of the front passenger seat for about 20-30 minutes and after putting it back on and away from the vehicle I there was the distinct smell of smoke on it. Anyway, here are some pictures of an identical vehicle.
I paid a sizeable deposit when the contract was drawn up and this enabled me to take the 'Fahrzeugbrief' (registration papers) with me. So armed with this, a 'Doppelkarte' (literally translated as 'double card', like an insurance cover note) and Gaynor's residence registration papers we headed by train to Düren -- about 10-15 minutes away and is the main town of the local shire, Kreis Düren -- and to the 'Strassenverkehrsamt' ('Street traffic office'. Oh how they love their compound words!)
Registration consisted of waiting in line for a clerk (unfortunately for us ours was non-English speaking), having them check through the papers and assign a licence plate number. She asked if we wanted a particular sequence of characters but we declined since I wanted to have the car driven that day, knowing how long custom plates can take to make up. She then hands us a 'smart card' which we take to an automatic payment machine (the card contains your payment details) and then cough up the cash (about 30€). We then head back to her, but she looks confused and asks where our licence plates are. We beat her at her own game by looking even more confused. Across the language divide it eventually comes that we need to go to one of two shops in the building complex to collect the plates. Having seen these shops on the way in and wondering what they were for, it suddenly clicked. At the shop, they look at the character sequence you've been assigned, pull out a blank plate, arrange the characters on the press and make your plate right there! So much for waiting for a custom plate. We could have ordered something more exciting than 'XQ 928'! We paid another 30€ to the lady at the plate pressing store who, speaking excellent English, helped explain the whole process that we had just about finished! We took the plates back to the clerk who placed some official stickers on them and that was it. I kept expecting to have to pay the 'real' registration costs which I estimate will be about 350€ per year, excluding insurance -- which is taken out privately anyway (this is the purpose of the 'Doppelkarte' mentioned above). However, she didn't ask for the registration money and so I expect they will send me a bill.
She also didn't ask to see our fervently sought residency permit! I even presented it as part of the paperwork, but she declined it. Quick conclusion: We didn't need one. Gaynor's passport was sufficient. Quick emotional response: Arrrrgggghh!
So the short of it is, we are once again independently mobile. The past couple of months have been an excellent time to think about what a valuable and convenient resource a car is, but I'm glad the pontificating is over.
 The price of diesel is currently about 1,05€ per litre compared to petrol/gas/benzine of 1,15€ -- convert to your currency of preference here. Based on ~20Mm per year, the difference between an 11l/100km petrol van and an 8,5-9l/100km diesel van is about 50-65€ per month.
Wednesday, 20 April 2005
"So why was this whole residency-registering caper so important?" I hear you asking (after some prompting from me). The single most important reason was so that we'd be able to hire DVDs. As side benefits, we could also register a car and have our household goods from Australia clear customs (in Gaynor's name). And so we are now the proud owners of a 'people truck' and in fact our household effects will effectively be affected here next Tuesday (26th April). More on these soon. I'm still applying for the video store membership.
Wednesday, 6 April 2005
Update 14 April: Mara has just posted about our trip to Dreamworld.
The website hosting this blog allows you to set the time and date of the post and so we will date the entries around the time they occured, so it should appear chronological and seamless. Thus if you can't seem to get enough of what we have been doing, feel free to check back in the archives!
Unfortunately, backposts do not appear in the Atom newsfeed for the blog. If you aren't clear on what an Atom newsfeed is (correct answer is: alternate format to RSS) look here (if you don't know what RSS is, look here). The Atom article also includes links to some newsreader software but doesn't include Mozilla Thunderbird which I use and which handles both RSS and Atom feeds. There is even a Windows version!
I find RSS and Atom very convenient for getting a nice sampling of news items from sources and on subjects I prefer. The ABC does them, as does Slashdot and a host of others. The link for the feed of this blog is found on the left under Links or just put this URI http://fentonetal.blogspot.com/atom.xml into your newsreader. Anyway, here endth the lesson.
Sunday, 3 April 2005
The museum is situated on a small isthmus on the Rhine river right next to a Sports Museum. The first exhibit was on art in chocolate and consisted of sculptures made entirely of chocolate including; a very realistic leg complete with fishnet stockings, a demonstration of at least 50 individual (and unique) people in ranks marching, carrying placards and waving fists. Very impressive.
The most popular part was probably the working mini manufacturing line they had set up which culminated in the previously-mentioned chocolate fountain. It went from starting with the cocoa beans (kakao in German) through roasting, crushing, blending, rolling and conching (homogenising of the liquid chocolate through mixing under heat and pressure -- discovered around 1870 by Lindt). Some of the chocolate goes to the fountain and some to be molded and packaged (which is the next part of the mini-factory). The small samples they produce here are the ones they offer you at the front gate. The entire room was heavy with the aroma of warm chocolate. Quite a heady but relaxing effect!
Other interesting things we learnt included that it takes 35 cocoa beans (almost a complete fruit) to make one bar of full-cream milk chocolate; 100 beans could buy a male slave (means Fenton is worth about 3 chocolate bars!); some Aztec emperors were named Cocoa (or whatever their word was) because of the value of the beans. And finally, as you would expect in a museum, there was some old chocolate, the oldest being a 100 year old chocolate Santa from the Lindt factory.
So two things. One, it tells you what kind of family we are since we saw this before the famous Cologne cathedral and two, if you are ever in Cologne we'd recommend you put it on your itinerary, before or after the cathedral :)
Friday, 1 April 2005
On Good Friday we ate homemade hot cross buns (as is our tradition) and watched our neigbours have all their family visit and go to church. The village is very Catholic. Saturday we went to our church easter activity in Aachen. Sunday was church and chocolate. On Monday we visited the Zitadelle (Citadel) in Jülich and toured the historical museum. Very interesting. Yesterday we went to Brückenkopf Park with a family from church. This is a big park on the edge of Jülich with a small zoo, playgrounds, gardens and some historic buildings. Today we are staying home and then Saturday we plan to go into Aachen to see the cathedral there. It is quite famous as Charlemagne is buried there.
If you are wondering where Jülich is, get a map of Germany (or better still the Rhineland), find Cologne and Aachen and draw a line between them. Jülich is just on the Aachen side of halfway.
Spring has sprung which is lovely with all the trees and bulbs in bud and bloom. However I'm coming to understand why my English grandmother seemed obsessed with brollies and jackets. Its a lot like Melbourne weather, but over here they call it "April wetter".
Tuesday, 29 March 2005
We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.
-- Robert Wilensky, 1996
(As a sideline, the "infinite monkey theorem" makes some interesting reading, though, of course, for us experimentalists there are the required experiments. Those preferring a more cerebral debate may wish to look nutters.org or in Wikipedia.)
Let me get to the point of this post which is to state the bleeding obvious. There are some very strange things found through the Internet. For instance, what to do if you have a dog which you must exercise, must have control over while doing so and have to get somewhere but decline to use your own power? The obvious -- but to me, oddly uncomfortable -- answer is to invent The Dog Powered Scooter And the strange thing is, I cannot exactly say why I both want to giggle and scowl disapprovingly at the same time, though I do like the double-dog version. I can say that it almost seems the perfect invention for the many people around here who exercise their dog whilst seated on their bicycle.
Monday, 21 March 2005
- Most supermarkets are discount supermarkets (like Aldi) and have a smaller range of products but at very low prices. This means that to get everything you want cheaply (even every day things) you need to go to a couple of them.
- They list price comparisons which give the price per 100g or per kilo for most products. So you can compare different size products quickly.
- At the checkout they don't pack your groceries into anything. They don't have plastic bags since you are expected to purchase reusable bags, but of course you can bring your own. So it's a mad rush to get all your stuff on the belt and then down to the other end with the trolley to collect. The counter after the scanner is very short and so only holds a few groceries!
- The checkout people seem to be rather impatient and doing the mad rush is difficult if you have a lot of shopping.
I've checked out the local markets in the market square which is right in the middle of town. It sets up twice a week (Tuesday and Saturday). Shopping in the market square is more fun and the produce is generally very fresh.
They have an incredible range of dairy products! From cream -- where you have fresh, sour, creme-fresh (halfway between fresh and sour) and quark (halfway between sour and cheese) -- to cheese (of which there are at least 57 varieties) to yoghurt (another large range of choices) to cream puddings.
Other popular items are cured meats and sausages including salami, ham (12 or 13 different kinds) and the wursts (liver-, schinken-, brat-, blod-, weiß- and more).
A few items seem to be unavailable or very difficult to find. For example, vanilla essence (or extract), baking powder in quantity (all comes in little satchets), brown sugar and rice bubbles. I have, however, managed to locate the ingredients and bake my first batches of ANZAC and chocolate chip biscuits. So we are settling in fine!
Bryna has taken a great liking to bratwurst (a slightly spicy pork sausage) and rotkohl (a pickled red cabbage). Ariana however is missing Australian sausages, though we didn't have high hopes for her when we came.
That will do for now. I will cover bakeries and cakes later! :D
Thursday, 17 March 2005
Then we moved to Canberra. Turns out some places can measure four distinct seasons by the changes around them and not just by checking the calendar month. The colours in autumn were gorgeous instead of a couple of trees that looked like they had gone off a bit. And, after living through six and a half Canberran winters, I finally understood what the longing for the warmer weather meant.
But not until the last few days have I ever seen such an abrupt arrival to spring. Last week was snow and temperatures hovering around zero (or further below!) and this week, wow! Small birds flittering everywhere with some kind of happy chirping and chittering going on. The sun is shining, the grass seems greener and the air is warm. I mean I haven't actually seen Bambi gently grazing in the forest yet, but I FULLY EXPECT TO any day now. I know that the last weeks have had an almost unprecedented late winter cold snap but, seriously, the warmer weather (and the attendant Disney atmosphere) has come on faster than you could say "Frühling". Well faster than I could say it anyway.
Sunday, 13 March 2005
The problem being that, officially, we aren't here yet. Even though my work and the house we are living in is in Germany, I am employed by a Dutch organisation, F.O.M. (which in English stands for Fundamental Research on Matter. More on them here and about the division I am employed in here). So before we can be German we have to be Dutch. Technically, it is only me who has to be Dutch then German. Gaynor and the children are all EU citizens (they entered Amsterdam on their British (EU) passports) by virtue of Gaynor's English birth. So they are pretty much free to wander as they please but if they intend to reside somewhere they have to show valid health insurance and income support.
So I am almost Dutch now. That is, I'm waiting for my Dutch residence permit to be finalised. Of course, applying for that wasn't straight forward either. I had an appointment with the immigration authorities at the local town hall, a week after we arrived, only to find out my birth and marriage certificates weren't acceptable. Turns out my marriage certificate (which had been accepted by a number of Australian bodies previously) wasn't more than a commemorative one anyway! Naturally, I'd been warned to this fact by Gaynor some years earlier but it seems that piece of information had been filed in my mind with "Things I May Need to Know One Day", right next to "Things to Recall If I'm Ever on a Quiz Show". For the documents to be legally recognised they need to have an Apostille afixed to them. This is an extra stamp ($60 per document) which essentially authorises the document as legit (it is issued by DFAT) and makes it recognisable under a 1969 Hague Convention to which Australia became a party in 1991. I can hear that last filing drawer opening as I type ...
Anyway, so the procedure now is to get my Dutch residence permit approved (within two months), then to go with the family to the German embassy in Amsterdam to get official stamps in our passports to say we can go and live (and I, work) in Germany. Then, we go to the local town hall here and register with the immigration police. This then gives us a German residence permit. Exhales slowly. Which brings us back to our stuff arriving in a few weeks in Hamburg. The best we can hope for is a fluke of bureaucracy where our German residence permit are finalised by then. More than likely though, we'll need to pay for storage of our things until the rest of the paperwork has lined up.
Not that this has been a rant (well not exactly), but this is the price of staying together as a family, the way we chose to do it. Oh, as a happy side benefit of obtaining our German residence we'll be able to register a car.
Friday, 11 March 2005
Though the blog bears my name, all immediate family members (who can read and write) are members and (hopefully) should contribute. I expect that the number and diversity of posts will increase once we finally have a full-time internet connection at home. Until then, you'll just have to make do.
For starters though, I came across this interesting/bizarre article about a future tourist named John Titor. Go Science!
Wednesday, 9 February 2005
The day after the lolly-throwing parade we witnessed another tradition that goes along with Karneval. A number of townsfolk dressed up in, I suppose, traditional outfits which consisted of a fez (truncated conical hat with a tassel) and a matching brightly coloured silken shirt (bit like a jockey's colours). They go around the village carrying a circular sheet and an effigy and stop at pre-arranged locations. Oh they also have a small band as part of the entourage. Several of the people carry stick brooms, just like you would expect a stereotypical witch would have. So anyway, the band plays some cheery type music as they march around the streets stopping, eventually (actually, its sooner rather than later) at the locations they have already arranged. And when they stop, the following ritual happens.
A head broom carrier says something official for a minute or so and then the non-broom carriers who are holding the circular sheet with the effigy on it count to three and then launch the straw man as high as their co-operation, strength and the laws of physics allow. The other broom holders stand around the outside of the launching circle with their brooms up (sweeping end high) and help guide the effigy back to the sheet if he happens to become a bit wayward. Of course, as he's launched the crowd gives a cheer and after he's landed the band gives a quick ba-bom. They repeat the official spiel and launching another two times after which they break up with some satisfaction and cheeriness and have something to drink. The adults, of course, consume some alcohol (we'd seen both beer and probably schnapps going around) and everyone stands around chatting in a congratulatory and happy manner.
After they have consumed a small sufficiency, they gather up their things, the band strikes up again and they march onto their next location, which for the two of these that I witnessed -- one in our village and one in Jülich itself -- was another 20-50 meters further on. Don't need to overexert yourself I guess.
For our village run, they stopped between our house and the next, though this was due to our neighbours being long-time residents of the village. They had a few children and grandchildren involved in the parade and they brought out some of the alcohol for consumption. Our neighbour, Herr Nieveller(sp?), was most surprised to find I didn't drink. Also, they had two sheets and effigies, one for the adults and a 'competing' one for older children with some good natured rivalry going on between the two. We were invited to the church yard later that evening for the burning of the effigies and some fireworks. The whole tradition is designed to sweep out (with the brooms) the winter spirits (represented by the straw man) and welcome in the spring (probably represented by the alcohol :)). It's a good thing they have kept it up all these years since it seems to work.
Thursday, 3 February 2005
One of the best rides was the Tower of Terror. They have a tower that goes to 38 stories high. You sit in a car and it shoots you along the track and up the tower. Then you travel the same thing backwards. Joshua didn't want to go on it but Aunty Donyque tried to bribed him with $10. Mum said instead of $10 try with sweet things first. So Joshua said give me a king size packet of Skittles and I'll go on it. So he went on it with me, Dad and Aunty Donyque. On the ride, when you get to the top you start floating out of your chair. The first time I went on it, I had to hold one extra tight because my seatbelt didn't go in far enough. The whole ride lasts about 27 seconds and Joshua says it goes 150 to 160 kilometres per hour. Here are some pictures of the Tower of Terror.
My favourite ride was The Claw. Mum went on it with me and Aunty Donyque. It swings 9 stories high and it spins a little. When we got off I said 'You get a great view from the top' and Mum said, 'You kept your eyes open?!' I went on it twice and both times there was a short line.
A family favourite ride was the Raptercoaster (we all went on that about 4 times.) After a few times I dared Josh to go without holding on and I did that too.
Some off the other rides we went on were the:
- bumper cars. I bumped every one about 3 times.
- Angry Beavers. It just goes round and round and up and down inside a fake mountain.
- Vortex where you spin around fast and stick to the walls.
- log ride were we got soaked.
- Wild Water Rapids ride with a fake elephant that squirts water out of its trunk.
- Wipeout which was cool. It had a fake shark swimming around the bottom and you could see some money that had fallen out of people's pockets while they were upside down.
- Swinger-Zinger (Chair-O-Planes). It goes round and round and made Mum and Dad feel sick.
- mine carriage ride where you get jolted and it was very fun.
There is another area called the Blue Lagoon with a pool and three water slides. I like the toboggan slide. At first I felt not very sure about it but it was fun.
Dad really wanted to go on the river cruise and he kept saying "Let's go on the river cruise baby!" but we missed it. None of us really wanted to go on it anyway.
It was a real good day!