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

Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year, New (brace yourself)...


For Martin, that is, not me. ;-)

As shocking as that probably sounds, considering he is leaving the job that took us all across the ocean just over a year ago, it is utterly true. And the kicker is that since we live in a "company town" not an "industry town" (like Detroit), that also means we're moving. Sort of. Well, we are, but later. Except for Martin, who moves now since the new job starts February 1st.

I guess I'd better back up a bit. You may have wondered how the new job has been going (many of you have asked, and I have started a blog entry about it more than once but never posted it). From the first day, everyone knew it wasn't a perfect fit. But they all (including the HR director orchestrating the recruitment and overseas move) said, "just work yourself into the current project and we will change things later on."

As in any large organization with a big project already well underway, Martin has been just a tiny piece in the overall scheme of things. A tiny piece trying to catch up and grab both the power and responsibility that should have been his from the beginning in his position. With the ambiguous title of "Technical Specialist" within the testing group, it was management's hope that he would be the liaison between testing and design, and review and oversee (i.e. veto the errors) in all designs, before the mistakes came into testing. (Why test a bad design when you can fix it and test a good one instead?)

All well and good, except that the ideal world and the actual world function a little differently. Many people have taken Martin's advice, appreciate it, and seek him out regularly. Others have shrugged it off and gone their own way... as Martin is not a manager, he has no real power in their eyes. Some months he has felt like he has made a large impact there. Some months he has felt like a broken record in the corner that everyone ignores. He has had many tempting opportunities to gloat in that "I told you so" kind of way, as things have unfolded (but of course he hasn't).

As it happens, for the past six months his two managers have been working very hard to change things for him, even exploring lateral moves, etc., when he did some patentable work for another department on the side. Thankfully the people he works with have all been fantastic, making the whole situation pleasantly bearable. Many have become close friends, which makes the change all the harder for us.

The job interview was with a British consulting company's German subsidiary, about two hours west of here in Schwäbisch Gmünd (say that three times fast, I just dare you). They are a well-established, well-known consulting company (probably number three worldwide for transmissions, although they also do engine development). In their 300-person German subsidiary (50 Brits, 250 Germs) they have handed previous transmission projects that come in over to their British HQ. Currently they have two new projects and have decided to build an in-house group instead.

Martin will head up the new transmission design group, just two hops away on the organization chart from the top guy for the subsidiary. Initially, he will have sales and project management support, and borrowed design staff, but the idea is that the area would evolve over time. It is a substantial salary increase with a semi-annual bonus payment as well, all of which means that we can make a few adjustments in our lifestyle (increasing the travel budget, for one).

The rest of the story played out as you would imagine... he went to his current bosses with the news and they worked for a week to try to resolve the situation with multiple meetings, exploratory transfers, etc. ("Don't even bother to try to match the money, you can't," he told them... "but I would consider staying if I had more responsibility or challenge.").

The start date is February 1, and the plan is for Martin to take a room in the 60,000 person town of Schwäbisch Gmünd, and work on the permanent housing plan (don't know if we will buy new, renovate old, build custom, or what at this point). The kids, dog, and I will stay here for the next 12 to 18 months, only because Nicholas is just on the verge of starting at his new "therapeutic" Kindergarten, which A) doesn't exist in the smaller town of S.G., and B) we wouldn't have a chance of getting an open spot, fully paid for, with all the red tape in place within the next year (or ever) even if it did.

So we will be entering a commuting phase of our marriage, where Martin comes home every Friday night and leaves on Sunday evenings. Bummer in the short run, but the best arrangement we could work out, to go for the longer range plan. In a way, it makes such a big change easier to think about, as I don't have to pack up an entire household and move it in the month of January, I only have to pack up Martin's weekday basics.

As Nicholas' new Kindergarten is an all-day affair, from 8:15 to 4:00, and he has recently given up naps, I'm pushing up his bedtime to 7:00 p.m. So I will be a single parent of two for exactly three hours every weekday, which I think I can manage OK. The hard part, I think, will be being motivated enough to actually cook and eat real meals; I think I will tend to whip up the toddler food and a bowl of Corn Flakes for myself.

We also haven't decided whether to sell or rent the house here in Etting, come 2008/9. It is very rentable, particularly after the renovations we've put in, and since it is less than a mile from the Technical Development Center, and Etting is a sweet little town of 3,500 (within the city of Ingolstadt proper, pop. 120,000). Things to figure out later, I guess.

Schwäbisch Gmünd, although only half the size of Ingolstadt, is nicely situated (20-30 minutes drive) from both Stuttgart and Ulm. Stuttgart has an international school, a Montessori school, and an English playgroup of 25 years with 60 families strong. So with a bit more time in the car, a lot more is within reach, which makes up for the smaller city size, I think.

We have decided one thing about Schwäbisch Gmünd housing: we do not have the energy to survive another year of "do-it-yourself-major-renovations." If we decide to buy an older house and change it... we would hire it out instead.

I told you it was big news.

And that, my friends, is how the story of 2006 ends for us. Capped off tonight with an evening of appetizers, friends, and Silvester fireworks (a German tradition, everyone takes to the streets at 11:45 and shoots off modest items picked up at the grocery store) planned at home. If we had satellite TV installed, no doubt we would watch the New Year's Eve classic (since 1972) here, a BBC skit titled "Dinner for One."

Pigs are big good luck symbols for the new year here, I guess you were lucky if your family had a pig to take you through winter. Little stuffed swine are sold everywhere, even bundled with champagne splits at the drug store:

So I wish you all a "guten Rutsch" (good slide) into the new year, and "Schwein gehabt" (good luck, colloquially, and "pig had" literally). And a chicken in every pot.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas 2006, Unwrapped

The remainder of December was pretty busy with Christmasy events... Martin took some vacation time to unwind and we took advantage of the time to hit some Christmas Markets which are in every major and minor town around here, starting the first weekend of Advent and running through Dec. 23rd or 24th.

But before we get to that, let me tell you about our visit from Santa Claus! Our English playgroup meets every Tuesday afternoon, and on the 12th, we held our little Christmas party... and Santa (played by Martin, actually, since he has the build for it and was on vacation) dropped by with gifts and "naughty/nice" comments for each kid. Stephanie wouldn't leave my lap so I don't have a good picture of her with Santa, but here's a great one of Santa and Nicholas:

Of course, we went to the Ingolstadt Christmas Market -- for Nicholas, the best part about Christmas Markets is the search for cookies and the carousel rides. This year Ingolstadt added a second "historic romantic" market at the castle (at the eastern end of the pedestrian zone) in addition to the original market at the Theaterplatz. Here's Nicholas on the carousel:

Nicholas spied St. Nikolaus from the carousel and was very excited, so of course as soon as the ride stopped, we made our way over to him to receive a little treat. We also saw St. Nikolaus -- and a complete entourage of "scary guys" (our name for the Black Peter/Knecht Ruprecht character) -- at the Christmas Market in Hexenagger, about 30 minutes from us. That St. Nikolaus knew a bit about marketing; the treat bag included a slip of paper with the group's web site.

The Hexenagger market was gorgeous, held on the castle grounds and exterior, it seemed as much an "artisan" fair as a Christmas Market. (Sometimes the booths can be a bit tacky and flea-marketish, but there was none of that here.) It was great to just walk around, window shop, try the snacks, and listen to the a capella men's choir singing Christmas Carols. We went in the evening, as usual, since it is always nice to see all the light display... but that means that taking photos is a bit tough. I did find one place to attempt a shot:

We also went to the Christmas Market in Ulm, which is a largeish city (pop. 120,000) about two hours west of here. Pretty amazing that they have the world's highest church steeple (161.53m high and 768 steps) in their cathedral. The Christmas Market was right at the foot of the cathedral, and included live animals (donkeys, sheep) in the nativity scene as well as the required carousels, artisan booths, and various snack/treat booths. Here are a few pictures:

We never made it to the Munich Christmas Market (there are two markets there, one in a hip Greenich Village type neighborhood and the other right downtown on the Marienplatz, which is like a fairyland with lots of lights we've heard). The Nuremberg market, which we did last year, was definitely one of the nicest (should be, it is 1200 years old), and it would be nice to make it back there again as well. A friend told me about a small one in a tiny village 10 miles from our house that includes camel rides for the kids! Maybe next year. ;-)

Christmas Day was filled with the sounds of noisy toys being played with for the first time... and today (also a national holiday) we went to a restaurant with friends and then over to another house at 3:00 for coffee and cake (a common tradition on Sundays, and apparently holidays, here).

So that's the remainder of December, except for some big news which we will save for the New Year's report, since it fits so well with the theme. (Now we've got you wondering, don't we??)

We hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season and please know that our wishes and warm thoughts continue for you into 2007 and throughout the year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

St. Nikolaus Day 2006 Report

Another "Saint Day" has arrived. This one, St. Nikolaus, I believe we are all pretty familiar with... except I've learned a few things about the German St. Nick:
  • He wears a bishop's hat and robes, and carries a staff, a sack of goodies, and a book of good and bad deeds done by the children over the year (sound familiar?).

  • He leaves fruit, nuts, candy, etc. (cookies at our house) in the shoes of children that were laid out the night before (Dec. 5), to be discovered the next morning (similar to stockings, except only food-related, it seems).

  • He lives in Heaven, not the North Pole, and descends once a year for the day (Dec. 6) to visit children (and their shoes).

  • It is very common here to have "house calls" made by St. Nikolaus, either with or without his sidekick, Black Peter (Knecht Ruprecht). Costumes can be found cheap, and people rent themselves out for the two evenings (5th and 6th) or do it as a favor for friends and make the rounds in their social circle.

  • Black Peter is quite the character... traditionally he looks like something between a scraggly beggar hunchback and Death (with a large hood and beard obscuring the face). He carries a switch made of twigs, presumably to beat naughty children with, and also has an empty sack, should any of the really naughty ones need to be removed altogether. (This is explained to older children, not preschoolers, of course.) In Bavaria and Austria he is known as "Krampus" instead, but it's the same guy. Apparently (per Wikipedia), remnants of this tradition are still present in the character "Belsnickel" in Pennsylvania Dutch communities.

So, in our little world, while Nicholas was at Kindergarten on the 5th, St. Nikolaus had time to stop into our little morning playgroup and visit Stephanie and her friends. Some of the "big boys" cried, but not Stephanie... she was quiet and curious, and listened to the listing of behaviors done by herself and her friends (St. Nikolaus was prepped by all of us the day before, so he could create his all-knowing book).

Then at 5:00 p.m. we went over to a friend's house, where St. Nikolaus and Ruprecht stopped by... thankfully Ruprecht stayed very much in the background and nobody was frightened. Stephanie sat on our hostess' knee so I could take some photos:

Nicholas was a good sport about it too, and he didn't seem too surprised afterwards that St. Nikolaus knew all the details of his daily life (from taking walks with Daddy and the dog to reading books, listening to music, playing with trains, etc.). He took his turn holding the staff and listening to the little speech in exchange for his bag of goodies, pulled from St. Nikolaus' bag.

Back home, we put out Dad's boots for Saint Nikolaus' visit to our house, and then went to bed. In the morning, it was time to retrieve the treats and have a really unhealthy breakfast before heading off to Kindergarten.

At Kindergarten on the 6th, Saint Nikolaus found time in his busy schedule to visit the whole group (without Ruprecht) and bestow kindness and goodies on the Kindergarteners. The original plan was that the classes would take a walk in the woods and St. Nick would just happen upon them, but enough rain and mud overnight, and Plan B was put into action instead. Nicholas was very interested in looking for him, as I had hinted that if he tried he might find him today, still walking around delivering goodies in childrens' shoes. I picked him up with chocolate spread from cheek to cheek and another goodie bag in tow.

And that is how Saint Nikolaus Day is done in Bavaria.

A different character, either the elusive Christkind (Christ Child), an invention of Martin Luther to combat the Catholic Church and the entrenched St. Nikolaus; or Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man), a modern invention who looks amazingly just like the American Santa Claus, will deliver gifts to your house during the evening of the 24th (not overnight, and not on the 25th).

So globalization (or maybe just Hollywood influence?) has affected the Christmas icons as well. For our mixed household, it is easy enough to distinguish between the two, as one arrives on December 5th/6th, and one on the 24th/25th.