Karin Gallagher

Christmas, 1999

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 brushes.

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 TÜ– 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 below.

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 midnight.

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.

Copyright (c) 2005, Karin Gallagher