The adventures of a born-and-raised-in-Michigan girl (OK, woman) who's moved to Bavaria with her husband, kids, and dog.

Friday, December 30, 2005

The House (Long with Many Pics)

Alright, here we go! Lots of ground to cover, so let's get started. Martin made about 100 phone calls and looked at roughly 50 houses (some just drive-by viewings) before we settled on this one. I think everyone knows that housing prices are steeper over here, and that in general you get less house (and property) for your money over here than in the U.S.

That said, we first started looking at new construction; the open floor plan and newer styling being most appealing. Unfortunately, we'd either have to wait 12 months for construction to be completed, or buy a new home from a builder that hadn't been sold yet (this was what Martin looked into). Lot sizes are much smaller here because property prices have increased steadily over the last 20 or 30 years; property alone is $70 a square foot, to give you an idea of the real estate market here!

While we did entertain thoughts of buying a specific house that was built in 1998 and about six miles from Audi, the lot size was one of the major drawbacks (remember that 90 pound dog we have in addition to the two rugrats?). The lot on this particular home is typical -- about two yards in front to the street, a yard on each side, and another two yards between the back of the house and the property line. And your neighbors have the same amount of space on their lot... so the whole neighborhood feels a lot more like a group of detached condos... or homes in a residential neighborhood in Chicago (minus the nice backyard, though). Poor Bella would have been pretty restless pretty quick, and in this particular town we didn't see a park nearby.

So we ended up with the house we have, and I am really happy Martin looked so long and hard for it. He did a great job of narrowing down the location, and found a neighborhood built in the 70s, when the lot sizes (and houses) were bigger. The lot we have now would have a duplex on it (four family home) if it were sold to a builder today. As it is, we are living in a two family home with a finished basement -- the former owners had one child and lived on the second floor (they converted the upstairs kitchen into a bedroom) and in-laws living on the first floor, where they all shared kitchen and dining space.

So if you've been paying attention, we basically have a three bedroom, two full bath house. The first floor has the former in-law bedroom off the living room, which we are going to use as a library/office. The finished basement has laundry, guest room, playroom, and a sewing/hobby room.

There's tile flooring everywhere, and lots of evidence of 70s styling. The two big "features" that have GOT to go are the furnace (functional reasons, more on that later), and the kitchen (aesthetics). Everything else is in good shape, more or less. Oh sure, the windows could be replaced at some point and the exterior could have a slightly more exciting color than barely cream... but that's all down the road.

Anyway, time for some pictures. The exterior first, of course:

You can see how our yard is fenced in in this shot, with the short cement wall, black slatted fence above, and 10 foot tall cedar hedge on the other three sides (driveway open). Here's a closer shot of just the house:

And a closer view of the front door:

Technically, we don't have a back yard, but a side yard. (The actual back yard has two storage sheds, which Martin has put to good use but are too boring to show here.) So here's a shot of the side of the house:

And this is a side view of the terrace, which is right off our living room (directly above is a small balcony off the master bedroom). There's quite a berm from the terrace to the grass level a few steps below. You can only see about half of the terrace here, it's obscured by bushes... it's a good size for a grill and deck table, chairs, etc. There's also a second small patio off the terrace, which I plan to use for kids' sandbox, kiddie pool, etc. Here's a another view of the terrace:

Here's a broader view of the street (with moving truck out front), the house next door is a four family home (neighbors Doris and Peter live on the lower level next to the driveways):

A few more shots of the outside. We have three very tall evergreens in the front corner of our yard (don't ask me what species, etc., I don't know, but I can tell you that they remind me of the kind you'd see in Washington or Oregon, not Michigan). Anyway, they're planted a bit close together, so they create a really cool hiding spot or fort or what have you for kids:

Here are a few "texture" shots. This one of the pavers in our driveway:

And here's the texture of our front walk:

And a closeup of the front porch railing (yes, we had a green Christmas but have snow now):

On to the interior.

Most of the rooms have paneled ceilings (very 70s according to Martin), which are kind of a honey oak color now that they've aged. This is actually the living room with a hideous light fixture left behind -- when Germans move they take all light fixtures and the entire kitchen with them (cabinets, counters, appliances). Since this light fixture is pretty ugly, I can see why they left it behind:

Nicholas' bedroom is the exception to this look (white walls, paneled ceiling, light oak laminate floors), as his bedroom was once the second upstairs kitchen. You can get a good idea here of what the windows and radiators look like in the house, and if you look closely you can see the wires from the missing ceiling light fixture:

The most interesting architectural feature inside the house would be the stairwell. It's in a semi-circle shape and goes the full two flights from basement to second floor. The stairs themselves are tan marble with a bit of peach, gray, and white, and both flights of stairs have a patterned glass block wall embedded in one wall:

Personally, I'm not crazy about the tile (yellow speckled with brown) that surrounds the second floor landing, but that's about all I'd change:

The first floor hallway and second floor landing have tile that's white with gray and tan marble-like streaks, set in a diamond pattern throughout. You can also see the black and white railing on the landing here. Kind of reminds me of a 70s attempt at art deco:

The bathrooms must have been redone when the second owners (we are the third) bought the house and converted it for their needs. The tile just looks really late 80s to me, which is good enough to leave alone. Here's the first floor (guest) bath tile border, which is near the ceiling (German bathrooms are tiled everywhere but the ceiling itself), fixtures are all in medium gray:

There's more to see in the second floor bath, since they left the mirrors and cabinets behind (not so in the first floor bath!). Here's the wall tile, sort of a greek theme, in soft light green with peach and warm gray, with some mirrored highlights:

Here's what the vanity and sink area look like... the sink still strikes me as huge. The first floor bath's sink is equally as wide:

This cracks me up, it's a quarter-round corner shower, with sliding doors. All I could think of when I first saw it was that gadget from Woody Allen's "Sleeper" film:

OK, get your fringed vests and leisure suits out, and some boogie on the stereo... these last few pictures will REALLY take you back to the 1970s!

This is a closeup of the glass in the interior foyer door:

As an aside, there are doors everywhere in this house. Germans are very energy conscious (i.e. cheap) and they generally don't heat a room unless they are using it (and rarely heat hallways, as "you don't live there"). So there's no central thermostat, and each room/window has its own radiator with a control.

All those doors really block the "flow" of a floor plan, as you can imagine. So far we've removed several doors, one from the kitchen to hallway, another from living room to hallway, and a large bifold set between dining room and living room. We actually decided to heat our hallways. But when we went to remove this interior foyer door, it got pretty darn breezy. So we put it back! It'll stay until we replace the front door of the house, and hopefully incorporate some windows somehow.

OK, the moment you've all been waiting for... that 70s kitchen! Just remember that I told you it was going to be redone solely for aesthetics (the appliances are all Bosch and just a year old). Here's a shot of the counter, OH-SO-LOVELY-JUST-CAN'T-GET-ENOUGH backsplash tile, and cabinets:

And more cabinets, with that wonderful gold inset glass front (feeling disco-ey yet?):

Love that tile:

This I found interesting; since everyone composts right in the kitchen (there is weekly "bio" pickup curbside), no one has garbage disposals. Instead, you have this little center inset in your sink:

And then when that fills up, you remove the sleeve (there's a drain beneath) and empty it into a bucket (with lid) attached to the cabinet door below the sink:

From there it goes out to the street (we have no less than four categories of garbage and associated cans, but that's another post!).

The last photo I'll leave you with is from our foyer floor. Built into the 70s tilework (which is another thing that has to go!) is a doormat, which says "Guten Tag" when you're coming in and "Tschuess" (Bye) when you're leaving.

So "Tschuess" for now and I hope you enjoyed the photos and commentary. :)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Location, Location, Location

Having participated in a few too many real estate transactions of late, I thought I'd start the description of the house off with an explanation of where we are.

We are in the state of Bavaria (south central Germany), halfway between Munich and Nurnberg. The city (pop. 120,000) of Ingolstadt is in the center of the county of Ingolstadt. The county is made up of four townships; three outlying townships and one central township that includes the city of Ingolstadt and a little sprinkling of a few extra towns.

We bought a house in the tiny (pop. 2,000) town of Etting, within the township of Ingolstadt; i.e. one of these little "sprinkled" towns. So we have all the advantages of being in the city limits of the big city, and all the advantages of living in a tiny town too.

Etting is one mile north of Audi HQ (northwest of the city of Ingolstadt), which is why Martin picked it. He started out looking on the east side, and quickly discovered there are three oil refineries (read "constant smell") in that area. No wonder the housing prices were good. ;) Another area he steered clear of was the south side of the city, as it gets pricey the closer you are to Munich. Even so, we're only 45 minutes or so to Munich, which is nothing when compared to the typical Detroit area commute.

Etting is about a five minute drive to the main shopping center (West Park), and a ten or fifteen minute drive into downtown Ingolstadt (known as "old town," bounded on the south by the Danube). The mile-long stretch between Etting and Audi is filled by community garden space, not unlike the community garden project run at County Farm Park off Washtenaw Ave., back in the day.

About 1/2 mile (halfway to Audi, shown here in gray) south of the house, we found a small skateboard park and playground area. We were able to navigate home from the park using just the community gardening access (gravel) roads and about 50 yards of residential street.

"Downtown" Etting consists of one main intersection (no traffic light, the town is THAT small). Ettingerstrasse (translates as "the road to Etting") which you can take south to Audi and then on to Ingolstadt, is crossed by St. Michael Strasse (St. Michael's church is on the intersection's corner).

We have two butcher stores, two bakeries, a couple of banks (including ours), and a small outlet of a grocery store chain (something along the size of a Buster's Food & Drug Mart, for Ann Arborites). There are also two kindergartens, one is downtown (800 yards) and the other (formerly Catholic) is 200 yards from the house. Kindergarten here is what we would call Preschool. Running both half and full days (I believe) from age 3 to 5, it consists of structured play and social time. Preschool (age 5), what we would call Kindergarten in the U.S., follows with a little bit of learning mixed with play; and then just plain school (age 6 onward) corresponds to our first, second, etc. grades.

Our street is really one of the outermost streets in Etting (along the southwest side of town), which was another thing that was appealing about it.

So that sums up our location, and gives you a little overview of Etting.

Meet the Neighbors

When Martin first arrived in October, he rented a room in a farmhouse in a large town (Geisenfeld) south of Ingolstadt. As soon as he found the house in Etting and was able to complete the initial purchasing stage, he moved in, as the house had stood vacant for five or six months. So he was living out of a suitcase in the house for about three weeks until we arrived (Nov. 30). During that time, he'd met our next door neighbors (our driveways and garages are next to each other), Doris and Peter, and their tiny ten year old dog, Zuzu (sp?).

Doris is from Wolfsburg originally, and has a son in his 20s who works at VW there. Peter is from former East Germany (somewhere), and Martin got a kick out of the "CCCP" written on many of the power tools he borrowed from Peter in the first weeks. We're pretty sure it's a second marriage for both, but personal details are a little sketchy right now (particularly as my German vocabulary, not to mention grasp of the etiquette rules, are quite limited right now).

Anyway, I hadn't heard much about them from Martin during November, before the kids and I arrived, except to hear that Doris was a little nervous to hear that a rottweiler was moving in next door.

As described elsewhere, our first day in Germany was consumed with bureaucratic paperwork, mostly involving getting our dog.

On the second day (Dec. 1), Martin went to Customs to meet up with our two sea containers (they were driven overnight from Hamburg where they'd been stored since before Thanksgiving, waiting for our arrival). Around 9:30 or so, everyone (Martin, truck drivers, the movers, sea container trucks, and waste removal truck) descended on our little street.

Shortly after the incoming chaos of furniture and boxes began sweeping into the house, Doris and Peter stopped by with dog treats in hand to meet Bella and the rest of us. Bella made friends instantly, of course, with all of them, including Zuzu. We chatted a little bit (Peter knows some English, Doris knows none) about the ages of the kids and the length of the flight, etc., before going back to directing the flow of boxes, etc.

Later that afternoon, they came by again. Peter brought tools and immediately jumped into work mode, helping out by running out for gas to confirm the lawnmower, snowblower, etc. could still be started. Doris invited me (and a sleepy Nicholas) over for a cup of tea, and Bella managed to worm her way into the invitation as well. She made sure she found all of Zuzu's favorite spots, ate a few more dog treats, and then just laid down and watched.

Nicholas had a few shortbread cookies, and our cup of tea turned into a glass of champagne, instead.

An hour and a half later, we emerged, having had a very nice conversation (Martin's curious reaction: "What did you talk about?" underscores my grasp, or lack thereof, of the German language). I felt that my German improved tremendously just on that first day, as we both struggled to communicate. You know, you can really say a lot with gestures, and a few key phrases ("I understand," "I don't understand") that move the conversation forward.

All in all, a very nice little welcome to the neighborhood.

Since that first day, Doris has stopped by to say hello a couple of times, and Peter has been a regular visitor and great new neighbor going way above and beyond... helping us put together some cheap dressers we got for the kids (remember all those built-in cabinets we left behind?), installing simple light fixtures (German households generally come without fixtures and without any kitchen cabinets, countertops, or appliances, as people remove them and take them with them), and troubleshooting our Internet access (or lack thereof) and wireless LAN.

All stuff we could do by ourselves, but great to have another pair of hands pitching in, for the price of a neighborly beer or two. Bavarian currency, I guess.

Moving Day(s) Again

The unpacking began on December 1st with the arrival of our stuff, and continued on Friday December 2nd. We did a little unpacking on Saturday, but mostly drove around and got some things done (groceries for the kids, a trip to Toys R Us for the German version of a diaper genie and a booster seat, etc.). We also drove around to get acclimated, and so I could see some of the other houses Martin had looked at and we'd discussed in earnest on the phone back in October and November.

Sunday saw a little more unpacking, and a nice visit to the Ingolstadt Christkindl Market, i.e. the local Christmas market (literally translated as Christ Child Market). We browsed the artisan stands and tried some fried noodles with sauerkraut and sausage, as well as mulled wine and dampfnudel (a big soft steamed dough ball or "noodle" with vanilla sauce and cinnamon) for dessert. So a pretty relaxed weekend, all in all.

Monday was the last day the movers were with us, by then we were just redirecting orphaned boxes into the right room and unpacking some quick and easy boxes, to get rid of the packing material sooner rather than later. Fortunately, they will come back whenever we call them, to make another box pickup (the garbage and recycling rules are quite strict here, so it would be a huge problem to get rid of the boxes and packing paper on our own).

I got a kick out of one of the movers, Allen, who hails from Portland, Oregon and has lived in Munich for five years. He coaches a pro baseball team in the Munich area, which is how we found out that Ingolstadt has its own pro team. No hot dogs in the bleachers, only beer and wurst, but it sounds like it's close enough to the real thing. The things he misses most about the U.S. are Cheetos (which he gets from Poland but can't find in Germany) and oddball American kitsch, like our "Jingle Bell Rock" dancin' Sylvester Santa.

It's two weeks later now, and we are in very good shape regarding unpacking and settling in. Kitchen, dining room, and the beds were set up first. Then we focused on arranging the two full bathrooms and the kids' bedrooms (purchased new dressers, etc.), the playroom, and picked away at the living room.

Last on the list are the guest room and the library/office, both still to be done. The office is last because we need to install a new floor (currently plain cement), probably carpet is the thinking this week. After the flooring goes in, the oak bookcases Martin built in the U.S. get attached to the wall (too tempting for Nicholas to climb!), and only THEN do the millions of boxes of CDs, books, and videos get unpacked and set up. So you can see why we're waiting a bit on that project. Ugh.

Our Funny Customs Story

I think every international move needs a good customs story, and ours has been no exception.

As stated elsewhere (somewhere), Martin met our sea containers on the morning of December 1st to escort them through Customs (on the advice of the Audi relocation folks).

Naturally, our household inventory (detailed list of boxes and their contents) had been translated into German by someone, somewhere, on our behalf. Item number 493 on the English inventory of boxes, was "totes," referring to a stack of blue Rubbermaid storage bins and lids we'd used in the garage.

Well, what should have been translated as the word for "containers" in German, was instead translated as "tote" with a question mark following. So the Customs official told Martin right up front, "I don't have a problem with anything here, except I would like to see the 493 dead bodies you have," as "tote" is the German word for corpse.

Ooops. !!!

A pretty big translation error, and obviously the Customs official realized that couldn't possibly be correct (and at least she had a sense of humor about it). After explaining that we weren't trying to import any illegal immigrants, and describing what a "tote" (English) actually IS, Martin and our household goods were waved right through.

So that's one new German vocabulary word I'm not likely to forget anytime soon!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

My 34 Pound "Lap Infant"

Well, we arrived November 30th at 8:20 a.m. Despite the pre-flight fears of how horrible the whole flight *could* have gone, we all came through it with flying colors.

As expected, Nicholas was the fussiest passenger of the four of us (we had the "bassinet" row, right behind the bulkhead, and Stephanie slept shortly after takeoff through the entire flight; she woke up five minutes before the bassinet needed to be stored for landing). But even Nicholas had big eyes at the gate for the plane and baggage "choo-choos" before we boarded. He was very interested in all the sights (lights) and sounds during takeoff, and then was entertained by the food, drink, and great set of new books that Grandma thought to buy for the trip. Let me tell you, I was pretty sick of that Thomas the Train book, and Elmo's Ducky Day, but it kept him plenty quiet so it was all worth it.

Since Stephanie was sleeping like a log in the bassinet, Nicholas discovered that my lap was a much better place to sleep than his seat. So my 34-pound "lap infant" got four hours of sleep to my three hours.

All in all, I can't imagine it going better, actually. Several people stopped on their way off the plane to compliment me on how good the kids had been during the flight, so that felt good.

Both at O'Hare and Munich, we got gate transport service on a fluke (two flukes, technically). The reservations hotline had told me that was reserved for disabled passengers only these days... gone are the days of special requests, I guess. So I was really happy that we got so lucky. And Nicholas got to ride on the little cars, so that added to the experience.

Bella flew Lufthansa Cargo, and did just great. The cargo guys took good care of her at the dropoff point, and were very reassuring. Since we arrived at the gate quiet early, we could see them load her crate onto the conveyor and into the belly of the plane. They were so gentle with her, and I cried when I saw her moving onto the plane... it was such a relief to see her just sitting there, looking around (i.e. being Bella), that I knew I had one less worry to deal with that day.

The biggest headache with the whole experience was the paperwork for Bella. Getting it prepped in the U.S. was bad enough (it involved a trip to Lansing and back one day, just before Thanksgiving, to get a bunch of stuff stamped by the U.S.D.A.). In doing the research for her customs requirements, we discovered that she needed to have a personality and behavior evaluation done, to be registered properly here (not really for customs). So being the thorough person I am, I had Martin roughly translate the law to determine what the personality evaluation covered, then created a form and had our vet in Canton complete it and mail it to me in Grand Rapids. Turns out the evaluation is required for Customs as well, and no U.S. vets are certified to perform the evaluation. Are you following this? We needed to have an evaluation done before bringing Bella into the country, except our country of residence was not certified to perform the necessary evaluation. Hmmmm...

Well, after a closed observation session and some testing of her training -- as well as some smooth talking from Martin -- Customs agreed to release Bella into our hands on the condition that we would get her tested here ASAP. Whew!

Anyway, that is the flight story, in a nutshell. Still no Internet access at home, it was promised for this week but now looks like it will take another two or three weeks. So you will have to wait for the super duper long posting about the house, with a million pictures. :)

Everything else is going fine, we are still wading through boxes of course but a huge amount was accomplished in this first week so it feels good to be this settled so soon.