Friday, 29 April 2005

Long Lost Goods Reunited with Owners

So after 4 months and 6 days (goods were packed on 20 December, 2004), we have been reunited with the 3.5 cubic metres of household goods we decided we couldn't part with and should have with us while we are here. Items include a few cooking items (Gaynor's knives and 'Le Creuset' cookware), the custom-made bunk beds with mattresses, entertainment equipment (stereo, television, PlayStation, dvd player etc.) and plenty of books! Even though we culled our books heavily, we still have many and we think that is A Good Thing(TM). The rest of our belongings in Canberra we either sold, gave or threw away -- except for the piano which is having a sabbatical at Mum and Dad's in Brisbane. So at last things are looking more and more familiar, since we are both getting used to the surrounds and now have some previous 'familiar' with us.

Tuesday, 26 April 2005

Exploding Toads

A news item that recently caught my eye involved the issue of exploding German toads. As the famed Dave Barry used to say, "I am not making this up". Now, being a Queenslander -- especially one who did some (physical) growing up in a rural environment -- I am not unfamiliar with the ways in which a toad may die, but this is something even my country mates were unable to pull off.

Update: The always Extremely Useful Wikipedia now has an article on the toads.

Thursday, 21 April 2005

The People Truck

Or as they call them over here FolksWagon. While another Mercedes would have been nice (and there are plenty of affordable ones) we just couldn't manage to find one that would fit the family and the budget. The overall price wasn't so important -- since we think the vehicle will have little or no capital depreciation in the time we expect to own it -- but running costs were. So a diesel engine for running costs since it has an intrinsically higher efficiency and the fuel is cheaper[1].

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.

[1] 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


Well finally Gaynor's long suffering (as a British-born lass) has brought us a boon. After pressing the point with my employer -- and seeking a second and third opinion -- I was told that it would be no problem for Gaynor and the children, as EU citizens, to register their residency in Germany. Actually this has been our feeling for a while but my employer (and the second opinion also) wasn't keen on the idea of them registering without me. It might even have disrupted the residency-obtaining process in the Netherlands. But in the end we found enough of the right people (or convinced the unbelievers) that we should go ahead with it. So we did and now six sevenths of the family are officially resident here. My own residency is still in-the-process of becoming Dutch and then will be in-the-process of becoming German (which should be a lot quicker!). As a Ukrainian colleague here put it, "The Dutch officials will smile and be very nice to you, but they don't know the rules, might even give you incorrect advice and will take a long time to do anything. The Germans, on the other hand, may be a bit rough and unpleasant to you, but they know the rules exactly and will take care of it immediately if you are within them." Personally, I haven't come across many gruff Germans though, of course, one cannot rule out my considerable charm.

"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

The Prequels Are Coming!

Since we've had such fun doing this blog, we thought it would be a good idea to write up a few significant events that happened prior to starting the blog. I've already posted a couple (PhD graduation and Karneval!) but others will also include happenings during our brief transit time in Brisbane (Christmas 04 to early Feb 05) before we moved to Germany.

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 into your newsreader. Anyway, here endth the lesson.

Sunday, 3 April 2005

Chocolate is serious business

Yesterday we had a change of plans. We did not visit Aachen as originally planned but instead a friend offered to take us into Cologne where there is a CHOCOLATE MUSEUM. Thats right your eyes are not deceiving you, a Chocolate Museum. An entire 3 story museum devoted to educating the public on the history and manufacture of chocolate. The best bit is, of course, the tasting. Imagine, if you will, a fountain of chocolate into which wafers are dipped for your mouth's enjoyment as you look out along the Rhine (if you can take your eyes of the chocolate).
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

Holiday Überblick

The children have been on holidays for almost two weeks now. They go back to school on Tuesday which will be nice, though it has been nice having holidays and sleeping in. Fenton has taken this week off so we could do some sight-seeing. Here is a brief rundown of what we have been up to with some more blog posts later.

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".