Week Twenty-Seven

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This week I went to the French part of Switzerland to visit a friend. His town is near Lausanne, nestled in the middle of a stretch of vineyards, on the banks of Lac Léman, opposite the Alps. In the three days that I was there, we walked all over the place. We climbed up steep roads alongside vineyards on the hill overlooking the lake. We walked down tiny winding paths through the vines themselves. We climbed up towers overlooking the city, including to the very top of the cathedral in Lausanne, and we walked through the cobbled streets and shops down to the lake’s shore. Up and down and all around, I think we probably ended up walking around 15 miles a day, but it’s hard to judge. We also took the train to nearby towns, and out to other cities in Switzerland. All together, we visited the areas of Lausanne, Montreux, Fribourg, Bern, and Luzern.

This region has an ethereal beauty that can’t really be described or photographed– it’s something you have to see for yourself… The vines on the hills below, the spring flowers, the snow-clad faces of the Alps reflecting off the still waters of the lake… I know it’s a cliché to say, but it really takes your breath away.

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Costs

I spent a lot of money again, but actually less than I feared I would. Also, I didn’t really break the costs down that carefully while I was on vacation either.

  • €288 – trips (train tickets, food, souvenirs)
  • €26 – groceries
  • €29 – phone (used more data last month)
  • Total: €343

Weeks Twenty-Five & Twenty-Six

The last couple weeks have not been great for travel. After the shenanigans last week, I’ve been nervous when thinking about having to take more trains. As it turns out, it’s not the trains I should have been worried about. More on that in a minute.

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Last week, a friend from the US came to Europe and we visited Copenhagen together. It was a lovely city that reminded me quite a bit of Portland, Oregon, which I do miss. From the warehouse of street food carts at Paperøen (which turns into a party at night) and the upscale version of the same at Torvehallerne, to the fine/homey dining and fancy beer culture, Copenhagen definitely shares Portland’s love of mixing together the up-scale with the everyman, the weird with the comfortable, the unique with the traditional. (Well, maybe Portland isn’t known for traditional, so in that I suppose they differ.) Both also have a great transportation system, and are also incredibly bike friendly (Copenhagen moreso in both cases, since it is a European city).

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Yea, I feel ya, lady.

However, unlike Portland, Copenhagen is just so damn cold! By March, Portland is usually experiencing that weird spring weather, where it can’t decide whether it wants to rain, hail, or be sunny. By contrast, Copenhagen was quite firmly in the grey, rainy, windy and near 0 degrees Celsius camp. I got through the cold by looking forward to flying immediately afterwards to Porto, where the weather promised to get up to 17 degrees C.

Long story short, go to Copenhagen for food, beer, coffee, gaming, adorable shops, cool castles, viking history, beautiful canals with coloured houses in Nyhavn (an idea apparently borrowed from Amsterdam by King Christian V), and a cool language (check out that vowel space) plus Elder Furthark runes for those of you who are linguists out there– but go during the summer! By the way, you can also visit Sweden, by taking a short train from the Copenhagen Airport to Malmø. Malmø is quite small and there isn’t much there, but if you want a bit of quiet, away from the bustle of the big city, it’s still nice for a half-day trip.

Our last day in Copenhagen, we met some friends for a hot coffee, had an amazingly unique and delicious dinner, and were headed home via the efficient transportation system, when I received an email from Ryanair, the budget airline I was taking to Porto in the morning.

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Malmø, Sweden.

My flight was cancelled.  Apparently, there was some sort of air traffic controller strike in France (is anyone surprised?), and no airlines could fly over France. So even though my plane was not landing in France, since it would have to fly over it, the flight was cancelled. Ryanair reimbursed me for my flight; however, I had already booked a non-refundable train ticket home from that vacation a few days later and an AirBnB. Plus, now I had to get transportation back home from Luxembourg in the morning. Ryanair refused to reimburse me for this (of course), so I am basically out approximately €70. I also don’t know if I’ll have another opportunity to go to Portugal while I am here. Probably not this year, since it’s already looking like it will be a very busy 5 months.

I considered taking the time and going somewhere else for a few days, but honestly, I actually do have a lot of work to get done, and coming home gives me a chance to crack down on some of it before a trip to Switzerland next week. It also gave me a chance to attend a few different gatherings to say bye to folks who are leaving this semester. I gotta say, Saarland is a bit meh, but we have a great group of people that I will really miss. It’s hard to believe I only have 4.5 months left here before I move to Italy… and I don’t speak a word of Italian yet, aaahh!

Costs

I spent a lot on fancy food during my travels so far. It’s only been two weeks, and I’m already projecting to be way over my ideal budget (I expect Switzerland will be quite expensive too). Hopefully, I can stay within my break even budget. That reminds me… I have to catch up on my HiWi job hours.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €21 – other medical expenses
  • €30 – phone (called my mom a lot this month)
  • €17 – bouldering (wish I knew why they let me in for cheaper one of the times)
  • €230 – dining out/drinks in Copenhagen
  • €86 – dining out/drinks in Köln
  • €20 – souvenirs
  • €24 – groceries
  • €2 – laundry
  • Total: €775

Karneval Shenanigans

I left Saarbrücken for Karneval in Köln on Sunday around 10:00, with the intention of returning Monday night. The train took me through a connection in Koblenz to Köln. The festivities had already started for a few guys in banana costumes, who were drinking and blasting Karneval music on the train. Köln is the center for the Karneval in Germany, kind of like New Orleans is the center for the similar holiday, Mardi Gras, in the US. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, or Karneval or anything like it before, and I am not a big drinker, but I wanted to experience a bit of this unique holiday.

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I came in on Sunday and met up with some friends who were already there. We had just enough time to grab a late lunch and explore some of the beautiful sights of the city before dark, when we sat down with a glass of wine each at an outdoor patio restaurant. There was going to be a parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) so my friends were letting me stay at their AirBnB that night so that I could see the whole thing.

The parade was really something. Beer kegs lined the parade route, surrounded by clown-costumed families and friends, singing “Kölle Alaaf!” Bands, floats, cheerleaders, and standard bearers went by, each group dressed in their own colours. Many of the floats had some sort of political commentary, though I didn’t always follow it.

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As the floats went by, children in animal costumes asked for sweets by yelling “kamelle.” Those in the parade threw candy and flowers in the general direction of the yelling revelers, and the people on the floats rained literal armfuls of candy down at us. These weren’t always small candy pieces either. Often, they were regular sized chocolate bars, and a couple times I even caught actual boxed candy.

My haul was as big as any Halloween haul I have had in the US as a child, and it included not only countless chocolates, wafers, gummies, suckers, and two boxed candies, but also five flowers (that I received by throwing kisses to the people on the floats), an orange, and a small sausage, of all things. The family next to me had three kids dressed up in matching dinosaur costumes, and their loot consisted of no less than five full cloth bags of candy!

Some four hours after the start of the parade, we decided to duck out for a late lunch. When we were done a couple of hours later, the parade was still going on, and people were getting progressively more drunk. I had to catch my train back to Koblenz and then Saarbrücken (SB) early that evening, so we went back to the apartment, I collected my things, and headed out soon after. It was 19:15 when I left to catch my 19:53 train.

That was when it all went to shit.

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Since the rest of this post is depressing, I’ll intersperse it with nicer pictures of the Mosel river that I took on the way home (spoilers, I eventually did make it home), so I can feel less bad about the whole experience.

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Because of the holiday, the Stadtbahn (light rail) in Köln was running entirely irregularly. They gave up on posting the times and just announced that the trains were coming as they could. What should have been a 15 minute ride transformed into a 40 minute slog, with the trains stopping two or three times between each stop, presumably due to people on the tracks or who knows what. I really thought I’d miss my train to Koblenz, but I ran and made it.

My train, however, was late too, and I had a connection to catch in Koblenz to SB. Five minutes transformed to 15 and then to 20. My layover in Koblenz was supposed to be only 20 minutes long so I thought I would miss my connection, but it turns out my next train was also late. I would have 4 minutes to change platforms. As the train came to a stop, me and a handful of others booked it underground towards the next platform. Our train was still there. We ran up to it and pressed the door open buttons; the doors didn’t open for us; the train pulled away. These regional trains usually come in, open their doors for about 30 seconds, and then leave, so it was no surprise.

So now I was in Koblenz and had to find a new connection to SB. I went to talk to the Reisezentrum (trip center). The lady there wrote me an ersatz ticket, putting her official stamp on a form that said that I could take the next train, and that I would get compensated for the delay. I would have another layover in the middle, this time of only 4 minutes (not really enough time to transfer trains, as I had just learned from my last attempt).

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Still, I went back to the platforms and found my train. When it failed to leave more than 10 minutes after the scheduled time, it became quickly apparent that there was no point in staying on it, so I was already trying to get info from the train conductors in my broken German, and googling for new train times. By now it was around 22:00 and I had essentially missed all the connections to SB in other cities, so I needed to figure out a new plan, or else end up spending the night in a train station.

Me and a handful of others ended up getting off this train too. We all went back downstairs to talk to the Reisezentrum again. The lady I got this time was not very helpful. She tried to get me onto a train to Trier, where I would take a taxi for over and hour to SB. The idea was that Deutsche Bahn would reimburse me for those costs (i.e. I would have to pay for it myself first). The lady didn’t let me talk and clarify how exactly this would work. She just kept talking over me, saying that I should hurry up and catch “my” train to Trier. I declined, and told her I needed a ticket back to Köln, where my friend was still staying the night, thank goodness. She turned my ersatz ticket over, and wrote on it that I could take a train back to Köln, and stamped it.

I went back up to the platforms. The signs on platforms 2 and 3 kept switching info. The train back to Köln was supposed to come in to platform 3, but there was a train at platform 2 now and the sign and voice were saying this was the train to Köln. The train was just standing there. I asked a nearby employee if this was my train, but she didn’t know. She said her colleagues on the train believed it was meant to go elsewhere, but they also didn’t know. No one knew.

Eventually, that train took off to wherever it was going (not Köln I guess). At this point, I was getting pretty agitated. I went back downstairs to look at the boards, I went back upstairs to wait for the trains, I just sort of wandered around pointlessly.

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Finally, an intercity (fast) train came into platform 3, but I couldn’t tell any longer if it was my train or not. I asked a nearby Deutsche Bahn (DB) employee, and showed her the paper the Reisezentrum person had written me. The employee asked me if my original ticket was intercity (IC) or regional (RE). I didn’t know how to answer correctly in German, because the first leg of the trip had been on an IC and the second was supposed to be on an RE. Another nearby employee got roped into our conversation, to look at my note. He said it shouldn’t matter, and I should get on the IC train. Unfortunately, by the time he said that, the doors of the IC train were closed, and I was left pressing the button ineffectively (for the second time that night) as the train slowly took off.

There was one more train coming through Koblenz towards Köln that night. One last, late night, ultra slow, regional (RE) train. It was meant to come around 22:30, but was coming 20 minutes late. 20 minutes became 40, but it did finally come around 11:10 or so, and I made it on.

It took 1.5 hours to get back to Köln, because the RE train stopped at every single tiny stop along the way. When I got to Köln, I found the light rail again, and headed back to exactly where I had left from around six hours earlier. Thank the stars my friends still had their AirBnB for one more night, so I had a place to sleep.

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I left early the next morning, and went straight back to the Köln Hauptbahnhof (main station). I asked the Reisezentrum there about how I could get home now. They told me the upcoming schedule and assured me that the handwritten note the lady had given me the night before was sufficient to get me home. I got on the next train to Koblenz (again).

In Koblenz, my connection was a double train, where the two halves would split up in Trier, one going to SB and the other to Luxembourg. I asked three different people to make sure I was on the correct part, because I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. The train followed the picturesque Mosel River towards home, but I didn’t really breathe easy until we passed Trier and I knew for sure that I was headed the right way.

One stop before SB, the train got delayed again for another 30 minutes due to some issue on the tracks. When I finally got back to SB, I went to the Reisezentrum there to ask about compensation. It will take Deutsche Bahn two weeks to compensate me for my troubles, and the compensation will be just half the cost of my trip.

Lesson learned: don’t travel on Rosenmontag.

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Weeks Twenty-Four & Twenty-Five

It’s over!… Well, almost. I finished finals, but I have a paper and a programming project that are due at the end of March. I can’t say the semester is over until I’ve finished those things, but at least I don’t have any more finals for now.

The last couple weeks have been pretty crazy with finals overlapping a “block course” (intensive or workshop style course that takes place over a shortened period of time) in which I had a presentation. I won’t know my grades until much much later, but I am pretty sure I passed everything. I know I didn’t get full marks on everything, but to be honest, I am not that worried about it. I feel like I learned a lot, in the best way that I could, and if I missed a few definitions on an exam somewhere then oh well.

It’s been a long time since I had to learn in a university setting, and of course, I’ve never done it in Germany. Working a full-time job versus going to university are fairly different tasks. I feel like there were a lot of adjustments I had to make to my life over the last months, and I didn’t quite know how to do it at the start. My hope is that I will be in a better position next semester, now that I’ve seen how some of it should go. At every step, I have to fight my own penchant for escaping into time wasting activities when faced with a stressful task. My goal for next semester (starting now) will be to cut down on idle social media browsing.

I’m concerned, though, that to really be good at this stuff, there may be more for me to learn in the remaining 1.5 years than I think my brain can fully saturate in that amount of time. Part of the reason I do all that idle browsing is because sometimes my brain just feels too full. When I first came here, it was my hope to focus on learning in a systematized way, but after being here for a semester, I am concerned that spending energy fulfilling the more bureaucratic-style aspects of being in school is hurting the actual learning process. Nevertheless, having funding for 2 years of school still makes learning easier than working full time and trying to take classes in the evening. I’m just going to have to carefully pick my battles.

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In Amsterdam.

On the social side of things, at the end of the semester, once everyone was done with finals, we had party after party and we have more planned. I am not a big drinker, and I don’t tend to stay out too late, but it’s been so awesome to relax with everyone and actually meet up with people who I haven’t spoken to for a while as well. Some of the people were only here for one semester, so they are leaving now, and I regret not spending more time with them when I had the chance.

Costs

I think this has been the most expensive month so far, because I laid most of my travel plans for the next 3 months all down at once, and I definitely didn’t do it in the most efficient/cheapest way. Around €213 of it or so should get reimbursed way later since it was for plane tickets to the Erasmus meeting in Malta, but I’m gonna count it as gone right now. The price tag will shock you. =\

  • €208 – school fee
  • €45.39 – groceries
  • €34.5 – dining out/drinks
  • €7 – laser tag with friends (so fun)
  • €10 – bouldering
  • €33 – video games (in my defense I haven’t bought games in forever)
  • €12.76 – medical expenses (meds, vitamins)
  • €2.09 – feminine hygiene
  • €437 – plane/train tickets
  • €162 – AirBnB
  • Total: €951.74

This is the second month that I’ve been here when my expenses have been greater than my income. Fortunately, I still have a lot saved from my previous job, and I was way under budget last month as well. I do expect to spend a lot in the next couple of months since I am traveling so much, but that’s exactly why I wanted to come here with savings — so that I could actually enjoy my time here.

 

Plov

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When in doubt, add more garlic!

Plov is a popular Russian rice dish that came to Russia via central Asia. Everyone makes it differently. For example, some time after we came to SoCal, my mom had an idea to use cayenne instead of black pepper, which I’m pretty sure is a non-standard, but, in my opinion, awesome change.

Before we start, I have a few quick ingredient explanations and advice on substitutions. Firstly, if you don’t like chicken organ meat, the best alternative would be lamb. Secondly, barberries are a small, sweet and tart red berry, but they are kind of hard to find in the US. If you can’t find them, I think a good substitute would be pomegranate seeds or chopped up dried apricot. Finally, although I like to cook for family, I don’t consider myself a chef, so please don’t take the numbers below too seriously– do experiment with the amount of spices to your taste (I usually put even more garlic and cayenne). Enjoy!

Plov

  • 2/3 lbs (300 grams) chicken hearts and/or gizzards (or other meat)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cups (200 grams) white rice
  • 6-8 cups (1.5-1.8 liters) water (approximately)
  • 1/2 tablespoon (7 grams) whole coriander (or ground)
  • 1/2 tablespoon (7 grams) whole cumin (or ground)
  • 1/2 tablespoon (7 grams) red pepper flakes (or ground cayenne)
  • 2 tablespoons (30 grams) dried barberries (or other fruit)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1/2 head of garlic, peeled (yes, half an entire head, at least)
  • vegetable oil for frying
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Dried barberries. Yum!

Wash the gizzards thoroughly, and clean off any fatty/tough bits off of the hearts. (They don’t always do a good job of it at the store.) In a pot, brown the meat with a little bit of oil. Cover with 6 cups of water, add the bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Then turn to medium, and cook until tender (around 30 minutes if using chicken hearts/gizzards).

In the meantime, dice the onion and shred the carrot (e.g. on a cheese grater). Heat up some vegetable oil in a pan. If using whole coriander/cumin, roast them in the pan for a few seconds before adding the onion. Cook the onion until soft (around a minute) before adding the carrots. Cook for another two minutes.

Once the meat is tender, put two cups of white rice directly into the water. Add more water if too much has boiled out; it should be approximately 2:1 ratio of water to rice. Add the onion/carrot mixture to the water. Add the red pepper flakes/cayenne to the water. If using ground coriander and cumin rather than whole, add that to the water now now too. Mix it all together, and cook on medium until the rice is almost ready (around 18 minutes).

In the last few minutes, stick the whole cloves of garlic deep into the rice at regular intervals. Make sure they are well covered by the hot rice. Let stand until the garlic is soft (around 3 minutes). Then mix in the barberries (or other fruit), making sure they are evenly distributed as well. Serve hot.

Weeks Twenty-Two & Twenty Three

At the start of this year, my bike was parked in the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) while I went off to travel. When I came back, it was not stolen– I was a little surprised to still see it standing there. But when I took a closer look, I noticed that a big chunk was missing out of my saddle. When I took a closer look still, I noticed that… this was not my saddle. Yes, someone had stolen my bike saddle and replaced it with their old one. Thanks for the replacement, I guess?

Anyways, I hadn’t actually ridden my bike since then. Now I have, and so now I know why they stole my nicer saddle. This one doesn’t stay in place that well; it sort of see-saws up and down. This makes it incredibly difficult to go up hills. There are other issues with the bike, so I think I want to sell it now. But I don’t want to be out of a bike, and I also don’t want to go through the hassle of buying a new bike for just one semester (and having to resell it again when I leave). Even if I am selling it, I need to find a wrench to fix the seat or no one at all will buy it. Paradoxically, I almost wish the thief had just taken the entire bike, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Worrying about things is a problem in general right now. Finals are coming up and I’m studying like crazy. Besides that, I have a project, a presentation, and a paper to do, all of which I am slightly freaking out over. March is supposed to be the time that I work on the project and the paper, but I am planning quite a bit of travelling then before my intensive summer class starts. So yea, the next few weeks are going to be very very busy.

I don’t want to blabber on and on about school and stress. Unfortunately, I have nothing else of particular interest to share with you, apart from that I bought a whole smoked mackerel at a random market for only €4, and it was quite delicious.

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An old German study book a friend had from I think the early 1900s. I love the picture on the bottom left describing “die Mitternacht (midnight).” It’s a shame that I haven’t had much time to study German lately.

Costs:

Unfortunately I had a major fuck up and spent 100 Euro more than I needed to on a mistake in travel planning… arrgh. I plan to spend some more on travel soon as well, plus I have to pay school fees this month. I should still be able to spend less than I earn, as long as I actually eat everything that is currently in my fridge.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €20 – phone bill
  • €65 groceries
  • €20 – random market
  • €22 – dining
  • €28 – bouldering
  • €10 – small donation to a good cause
  • €300 – some March travel plans
  • Total: €780

Officialization 8: Going to the Doctors

Officialization TOC

Going to the doctors

You may recall that I had to sign up for the national health insurance (or else waive it) earlier in the school year. I decided to sign up for it to ensure that I would be covered for my pre-existing condition. Since then, I went back to the health insurance office and picked up my insurance card.

Since that time, I have gone to the doctor and the dentist a number of times, and I have to say, it was a breeze. The hardest part is making an appointment, since you might have to do it in German, but actually, a lot of doctors speak English, so even that part can be easy.

So basically, you just make the appointment, come in, show them your card, wait for the doctor, get your turn with the doctor, and then leave. No money gets exchanged and no bills get sent out, although you might pay for some prescription medication.

In terms of the wait, I haven’t had to wait longer than 15 minutes so far, and once you are in their office, they aren’t running around to other patients like they sometimes do in the US– you get them for the full time.

They do seem to be a little less thorough in the questions they ask you, but I think it’s more because they expect you to bring it up when you don’t feel well. Also, I did bring my medical records with me, and they came in handy when I had to double check the amount of thyroxine hormone that I was taking previously. They still took my blood to make sure I was on track (as usual), but because of the records, I was able to get everything done a little more smoothly/quickly.

Since I’ve been a few times now, I can give you the breakdown of costs for the services I received here and in the US:

  • Monthly fee:
    • US: $10-15 (but my employer paid the larger share)
    • Germany: €90
  • Synthetic thyroxine medication:
    • US: $10-15 / month
    • Germany: €5 / three months
  • Doctor’s appointment with blood work:
    • US: $100-150
    • Germany: €0
  • Dentist appointment:
    • US: $30
    • Germany: €0
  • Mouth guard that the dentist said I needed:
    • US: $300 (never bought it because of the cost)
    • Germany: €0
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Look at this awesome cast/holder thing that the mouth guard came with!

After calculating my health insurance costs in the US per year, and the costs here (including the monthly fees in both places, the copays/deductibles in the US, the cost of medication– everything), it has become apparent that being generally healthy in the US vs. being generally healthy in Germany costs about the same, at least for my situation.

However, as I understand it from the services covered under my insurance here, it seems like being sick in the US costs thousands of dollars more per year. Having children would also cost thousands more in the US. I can’t necessarily speak to the level of care that I would receive here in those situations, because I am mostly healthy now, thank goodness, and not pregnant. But judging from the level of care I have received so far, I believe it would be quite adequate.

Long story short, if you are covered under the national insurance system here, which has an affordable monthly cost, going to the doctor is cheap and easy!