Greetings from Europe, courtesy of e-mail, as we try once again to run around
the expenses of the European mail system. Our second year in Germany has been
much easier than our first, spending less time with bureaucrats and more time
with friends and travel, which is why we came to Germany to begin with.
We started the year in Portugal, where we celebrated Christmas 1998 and New
Year's 1999. For the most part, we read books, stayed in hotels instead of the
back of the car (we have the photos to prove it), ate boring meat-and-potatoes
meals, and drove around northern Portugal, which is like California, with the
same climate, eucalyptus trees, scrubby trees, and sandy beaches. Portugal has
the lowest standard of living in the EU, which means they are benefiting greatly
from EU loans and are building new homes everywhere. The car ran great, although
we had to take it to a Portuguese mechanic to replace the alternator
At the end of January we met our friends Wade and Anne and drove to Austria
for a week of skiing. While we didn't get any snow, we did get a lot of sun and
missed the normal -10 Fahrenheit temperatures. Wade caught a lot of air while Ron caught
his breath. Soon after returning to Darmstadt, the car needed a new starter
motor and a week later stranded Karin at work. The mechanic hadn't reattached an
alternator wire, which ran down the battery.
In March we took our car for its biannual TUV (road safety) inspection. The
Tܖ strikes terror into the wallets of young and old alike, and it is no wonder
that there are very few old cars in Germany. It includes an emissions and a
roadworthiness test, the latter covering everything from the obvious (brakes and
tire tread) to the obscure (rust spots and pieces of metal protruding from the
body, which is banned in case you impale somebody as you hit them). Although the
car passed the emissions test on its first try, it failed the roadworthiness
test as we had expected. Before it was all over, Karin steamcleaned the
underside of the motor, blow-dried condensation in a headlamp, and forked over
$500 for new tires, brakes, shock absorbers, and fees.
Karin finished her job teaching technical writing at the end of March, ending
one-and-a-half years of six-day work weeks and impossible questions about
English grammar. She spent the rest of her time in Germany immersed in chores,
from finding a new apartment to setting up a technical writing Web site to
dealing with our increasingly tortuous automotive problems. She even convinced
Kiplinger's magazine to publish a short article about our life in Europe, which
appeared in the May issue.
In April the first of numerous friends and family took us up on our free
bed-and-breakfast offer. Karin's mother, Astrid, came to help research Karin's
great-great-grandparents, the Duroys, who emigrated from the French-speaking
Alsace in the 1850s. Although they didn't find the specific town from which the
Duroys came, they did study the latest advances in croissant technology. Back in
Darmstadt Karin replaced the wheel bearings.
Next came Karin's friend Heidi from Seattle. With our German friends Michael
and Wolfgang, we went to Austria for five days of kayaking, canyoneering, and
climbing, followed by a trip to climb in Fontainbleau near Paris and to drop Ron
in Nantes, France for a one-week conference. The car sheared three of its four
alternator bolts. Meanwhile, Heidi fell in love with Wolfgang and, as of this
writing, the two are flying between Germany and Seattle every two months. The
day after Heidi left, our friends Jean and David popped in for a five-day visit.
Karin replaced the alternator bolts and found that the exhaust pipe had rusted
through. Our final visitor was Ron's mother Marj, with whom we visited Holland.
We went birdwatching in several national parks, walked along canals and dodged
reckless cyclists in Utrecht, and took Marj for an early morning swim in our
leaky tent while camped out one very rainy night. The car, realizing we hadn't
fixed the exhaust pipe and perhaps sensing a chance to poison us with leaking
carbon monoxide, purred happily along.
In the midst of all this, the manager of our apartment asked Karin when we
were leaving. She thought he meant for the weekend, but quickly realized that he
meant for good - apparently, the apartment had long been reserved for someone
else. Shock on both sides, a few phone calls, and the manager got us a reprieve
until June 10. Short-term apartments are uncommon in Germany and we scrambled to
find something. With only days to spare, we signed a four-month lease for a
place in a nearby suburb. It was almost twice as expensive and was situated on a
busy street directly over a pool hall (which opened even earlier than the
bakery), but was a nice three-mile ride from work, had a washing machine, and
was larger than our previous apartment. After a month it felt like home,
Turkish-accented German rising with the cigarette smoke from the pool hall
By early July, we realized that the car had to go before it gobbled up what
was left of our bank account. We also needed something larger in which to live
after Ron's job ended in September. To this end, Karin started cruising the
Internet and the used-car lots for camping vans and decided to stick with what
we knew, loved, and hated most: a VW bus. Hours before we left for vacation, she
found a 1986 model with low miles, a very low price, and an owner whose wife
wanted a Winnebago. He had built the interior himself and nearly cried as we
wrote the check. We arranged to pick it up in two weeks.
Our 10-day summer break took us to Finland and Sweden to visit old friends.
After driving through Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, we caught a ferry to Turku,
Finland, where we stayed with Ron's friends the Saarios. Every minute with this
70s+ couple was jam-packed and nearly wore us out. An experienced orienteerer,
Mrs. Saario took us on a short course in which you use map and compass to find
specific points as quickly as possible. After Finland we drove to Sweden to see
Karin's family friends, the Hallenborgs. Eighty-one-year-old Ulf took Karin
riding and drank Ron under the table while Majbritt cooked Karin's favorite
Swedish foods. After the crowded towns of Central Europe, Scandanavia felt like
the wilds of Antarctica. The car ran perfectly. However, one week later, we
washed and vacuumed it, rubbed vanilla-scented vinyl enhancer into its dashboard
and seats, and sold it to an unsuspecting student.
On August 11, we piled into the "new" VW bus with our
Sonnenfinsternisbrillen, or "Eclipse Glasses that Make You Look Really Stupid,"
and headed south to an obscure farmer's field just off the Autobahn for the
total eclipse. While one million tourists sat in the rain and the fog in
Stuttgart, we watched the eclipse unfold and begged for continued clear skies.
They lasted through totality, two minutes of eerie darkness during which we
could see the sun's corona. Five minutes later, it began to rain and we followed
several million eclipsers driving north in a traffic jam that lasted until
At the end of August Ron was back in the Austrian Alps, pushing deeper into
the cave his club is exploring there. He spent four days and three nights
underground and helped discover a passage that added almost 100 vertical meters
to the cave, which now has a known depth of more than 700 meters (~2300 feet).
Part of this passage is now named "Come, Ron," after his partner's repeated
pleas to squeeze through "just one more tight bit." He returned to a month of
frantic work at the university. Although most of his time there was a struggle,
he managed to end on a positive note, releasing a system for storing XML (a
successor to HTML) documents in relational databases and writing several papers
on the subject. The industry-oriented papers were well received; the academic
ones quickly rejected. Guess where his next job will be.
We spent our last two weeks in Germany preparing to be gainfully unemployed
by cleaning and packing. We started our trip in October with a visit to
Switzerland with Ron's mom, brother, sister-in-law, and step-aunt, followed by a
week with his mom visiting the Bourrets in southern France. We then made a
beeline to Britain, where we revelled in climbing, hiking, good beer, and our
ability to understand (almost) everything that's said. We've spent most of our
time in Scotland, visiting Ron's friends Sheila, Mike, and Geoff, and renting a
series of cottages so we can have heat, electricity for the laptops, and, most
importantly, English-language TV and videos.
In December we'll pick up Karin's mother, brother, and his kids in Germany,
then head through France to Italy for the holidays. We've rented a farmhouse in
Tuscany, where Karin's sister-in-law and her best friend Cindy will join us to
eat pasta, pesto, and prosciutto, stumble over the Roman ruins, and try to keep
Devin and Charmaine's kids out of trouble.
For the year 2000 we predict more unemployment, less money, and more than our
fair share of climbing, reading, writing, and traveling. It won't be all wine
and roses - it's cold enough in the bus to freeze the roses and wine gives you
hangovers - but it beats the alternative. When and if we are forced to become
wage slaves again, we're considering a couple of years' work in Britain or
France before returning to the States. In the mean time, we hope you overeat
during the holidays and make unfulfillable resolutions for the coming year.