Jul 29, 2017

Unemployment

Today was Saori and my last day at work. It may be Saori's day for awhile. It will be mine for over a month.

My normal routine is to wake up at 6:30, throw on some work-ish clothes, grab some museli with milk or toast a slice of bread with butter, brush my teeth, and out the door at 7:00 to 7:10. I walk less than five minutes to the Schwab/Bebelstrasse U bahn and wait about three to five minutes for the Ubahn. The Ubahn takes me to the Hauptbahnhof where I join the masses and change to the S-bahn subway trains. I take it one stop, across the Neckar river, to Bad Canstatt, where I meet Rafa nominally at 7:30, but more often 7:45. I'll often buy a coffee from the cosy Turkish coffee shop Glora and one extra for Rafa. Sometimes, I buy a sandwich there too or a pastry for breakfast.

I did all that today. Today's special at the Turkish coffee shop was a large cappuccino. Definitely with some chocolate shaved on it today. Intellectually I know its my last day. Emotionally, I felt nothing. It felt like a totally normal day, nothing to get excited about, nothing to get sad or nostalgic about. It wasn't until I saw the tents going up for Oktoberfest, and realizing that I was not going to be in Germany when Oktoberfest kicked off, that I felt that twinge of something different, of loss and change.

My last day at the office felt quite normal. Friday's are short anyway. Moll from the construction administration side came up and said we needed to give construction details for the stairs because the structural engineer didn't provide a plan, so I just modified my stair details to include structural information like welds, bolt types, etc. I cleaned out my desk, sorted the loose pile of papers, cleared out the downloads folder in my workstation, set a "That's All Folks!" showcard as my desktop, and  emptied the trash. I wrote an email to my boss, and the two people working on this project all the of the issues, questions, and unresolved items that I knew about, no matter how small they were. I left a note at a coworkers desk who had left earlier in the week for vacation, and who mailed me a card at the office wishing me the best. The office has a pretty rigorous system of file management so everything was already in the right place, and with both my projects in Revit, all the drawings are in one location, so there wasn't much organizing to do apart from clearing out old invalid files.

In the end, as I started to make my rounds to say goodbye, everyone who wasn't already gone or on vacation came out, okay, so six people in total including the boss and his wife, and they all wished me the best and shook my hand, and gave me a wrapped book as a parting gift. I left on good terms, and people I think are really sorry to see me leave. It was gloriously beautiful outside when Rafa and I stepped in the electric car to head back to the city. He dropped me off at the Bad Canstatt station as usual, and I thanked him for the nearly two years we carpooled together. It will not be the last time I see him before I leave, but it was the last time we were to be coworkers.

I've got mixed feelings leaving the office. On the one hand, I was a project architect with the entire scope of the building in my hand, and responsible for all of the drawings. The bosses never draw, they just redline a bit, or make a quick sketch, or make lists of things to check or reference. It's a rare thing for an architect to have complete responsibility for all of the drawings in a project. I will miss that opportunity. I liked my coworkers and we got along really well. We were all friends and we always stepped up to help each other with projects or for advice or resources.

My relationship with the bosses was a bit challenging- one has a really aggressive attitude and the fact we had such hard times communicating meant there was an added level of frustration between us. He sounds angry all the time and not because he's speaking German. It wasn't until I realized that he talks to everyone in that particularly harsh tone that I stopped taking it personally. Boss 2 I got to know a bit better since he spoke English pretty well, and we had a lot of drives on the road back and forth from meetings.

Anyway, in the city center after I was off work, I grabbed a slice of pizza at the main square since I was famished and also to have something to cushion the blow of all the booze I imagined would be thrust at me at Saori's abschied party.

It's a tradition at her office for departing architects and even interns to have lengthy abschied (departure) parties. Depending on the number of people leaving that particular week (there's a revolving door of interns) and the length of time the people had been at the office, these parties range from a few hours to the better part of a day. Invariably, the people leaving cook something from their home country or bring in some food, along with several cases of beer and whatever the local spirit from their country happens to be. In return, the office gifts them the latest monograph of the office's  work, a small gift, and always a giant card made from scratch featuring the a photoshopped scene with the heads of all the project team members on various animals and other people in the scene. There is a short speech usually made by the team leader, and the departing employee also says a few words.  This happens early on, and then the drinking, singing, and chatting usually continues at least until midnight. It helps that the office has a massive kitchen with a beer refrigerator and an electric stove range, which opens out into a terraced garden with lots of seating. The only thing missing are lights strung between the trees, which according to one landscape architect, aren't used because they don't look professional.

Uzi, Saori's current team leader, spoke for her while I took a lot of photos. Her coworkers really loved her, and there were quite a few tears. She was presented with the monograph, a bunch of money pooled from the office, an Adidas backpack, and a penguin rain poncho, which she struggled into and fought her way though thanking the office, even though her voice shook with the emotion of holding back her tears. After she spoke, there was a lone voice from the back, who asked, "Saori, are you really leaving?" I knew it was Constantine, and it is hard to explain here why it was so particularly wrenching. Someday, I hope Saori writes about her experience at the office, where so many exceptional, bright, warm, and eccentric people from all over the world come together to punish themselves in a kind of prison where even the jailers don't know why it's a jail. A strange sort of place where extroverts can thrive on the continual parties and outings in and out of the office, and introverts quickly thaw and feel comfortable unfolding whatever delightful personalities they were holding back.

There are great, warm-hearted, and sparkling people all over the world, and I speak from experience when I say this. And I know we will make new friends and aquaintances in Portland. But more than the lifestyle, access to Europe, benefits, and vacation time, it is absolutely wrenching to leave behind a lot of people who really love Saori and I and are willing to do so much for us.

In addition to my four types of salsa, Saori also preperared Japanese Okonomiyaki, a kind of vegetable savory pancake with potato starch, and that went quickly. People hovered on the salsa, and everyone seemed to like different ones. I took shots of some delicious vodka, had a few beers, tried to convince Olena to stop singing the "Macarena", and played with Ella, one of Louisianan Micheal's daughters who is seven and apparently indefatigable when it comes to parties.  I chatted with a lot of people and talked about our future plans, and our upcoming "yard sale in the sky." I've come to know a lot of Saori's coworkers, and I'm sad to leave them too.

We said our last goodbyes and disentangled ourselves from the party, taking part in a surprisingly large and efficient kitchen cleaning before we went. We got home late, totally drained.

Jul 27, 2017

second to last day working in Germany

Today was my second to last day at the office.

I walked to the village grocery store and bought the following items:

  • Bag of washed salad leaves, which I astounded Magda by eating entirely, out of the bag, with chopsticks, in the office kitchen
  • Gummi bears, because gummy bears in the US, like so many other things, are inferior to German ones. 
  • A mini-can of Fanta
  • Cilantro
  • Bottle of local wine from the winery next door, to be presented as a gift to my former boss, because it's something I never really resolved, or didn't really resolve in the way I want it to be closed. He was hurt that I left on such short notice, and hurt that I didn't give him a chance to address the reasons I left. And they did a lot for Saori and I. More than a bottle of wine will resolve, but I want to say goodbye and thank you anyway.
Tonight I had a mild panic attack at the train station. Intellectually, I'm prepared, and I know I'll be ok if I follow my list, question my assumptions, and ask for help when I need it, but something about standing in front of my last day at the office got me breathing hard with a pounding pulse. I think it means I need to take a day or two this weekend to balance out what's going on in the various parts of my mind that don't talk to each other as much as they should. 

When I got home, I had a beer, and started working on salsa. Saori's last day is tomorrow too, and although I'm bringing in Zucchini bread to my office, Saori is having a party at hers, and I volunteered to make a variety of salsas from "mild" to "Mayan sacrifice". 

I have to say there is something delightful about making salsa. There is the satisfying feel of a sharp blade slicing through taut tomato skin, the sharpness of fresh onions, the intriguing and dangerous small when you slice open a habanero chile. The deep oceanic green of the jalapeno, the bright sunshine green of the cilantro. Balancing the flavors, salt, sweet, spicy, sour. Tasting the salsa deepen and meld together after an hour, and after six. Finishing an entire goddamm bag of tortilla chips and realizing you've also eaten half of the salsa you just made. 

I use a simple recipe from Rick Bayless, who compiled it from Mexican cooks, and honestly I'm never going back to store bought salsa again. Salt, tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, garlic, lime juice, cilantro, and ground cumin. Saori will eat it directly by the spoonfull, no chips required.

Jul 26, 2017

A Spoon Full of Sugar

Saori went to her yoga class today. It was a small group of women including her incredibly pregnant instructor, and the actress who plays the part of Mary Poppins in the local production of the eponymous musical.

It's perhaps too far to say that Germans have no taste- the entertainment that sells here seems to be either extremely 80's, extremely kitschy, or extremely spectacle-driven. Or all three. Procol Harum is coming to town. Starlight Express just ended a 20-year run in a nearby city. In Stuttgart we endured over a year of Rocky, the Musical and Mary Poppins, and the latest show to run for the next year will be The Bodyguard, the Musical. Needless to say, I'm already sick of "I will always love you." Meanwhile, in Hamburg, construction nears completion on the theater which will run The Lion King for the next thirty-odd years.
And these shows aren't cheap either. My coworker tried to get tickets for one of them, and a cheap seat will run you 80 euros. Most of these musicals, I might add, are also translated to be performed and sung in German.

I digress. Today I applied for a Spermüll permit, which basically means I can haul a bunch of crap to the curb and the city will come pick it all up for free. Whatever isn't scavenged, I mean. A nice thing about living in a high-density community is that about a third of what is set out on the curb is saved from the landfill by people who want that Ikea chair or old book or planter.

It's a little past 11pm, and I'm exhausted. I'm killing time blogging while I wait for my chocolate zucchini bread to come out of the oven. Baking for coworkers is kind of a thing here, especially for special events like birthdays. I'm going to bring it in the day after tomorrow, when it's at it's best.

Jul 25, 2017

email, German style

More from the To Do list:
  • Correct ad at IFA
Saturday, I posted an ad for our apartment for rent at IFA, the German language school frequented by a lively mixture of young international professionals, Indian Bosch engineers, and American military intelligence analysts living on the nearby base. 

I didn't hear anything on Sunday, which was ok, maybe due to the weekend. I didn't hear anything monday either, which was odd. I took another look at the email address I used, one I had set up through Deutsche Post, their "epost" service. I had registered for the account because it offered free fax service, which meant I could send a pdf as a fax to a number, and I figured I could use it as a separate email account. About that... I opened up a new message to send a test message to myself. Way too many fields in the "recipient" area. It turns out to be literally an electronic messaging service. Even though I have an email-type address, there's no actual email. You write an email and they print it, stuff it in an envelope, and physically mail it to the recipient. In my defense, everything is in German with this account. 

So I set up a new GMX account instead, and today after work, I swung back by IFA to scratch out the old non-email email and write the new one in.

I hope it was actually all moot- one of Saori's coworkers wants the apartment and is willing to buy the furntiure. So I sent her info to the owners and asked if we are ok to invite her to a meeting between all of us next week. 

Jul 23, 2017

networked housing

We found our current apartment through a friend of a friend. After visiting 40 apartments in Stuttgart, filling out applications detailing our debts and salaries, competing with slick young schwabisch Bosch engineer power couples, one of Saori's coworkers was contacted by a former neighbor who wanted to know if she wanted to take over his apartment. She didn't, but she knew someone who did.

In a stroke, we neatly sidestepped the 2 months rent paid as a fee to the apartment broker, the $2000 cost of adding in a kitchen which is typical for starting to rent, and we even had our deposit waived. The fact it was a gem of an apartment with staggering views, an envious roof terrace, and low rent in one of the trendiest parts of town was simply an incredible boon. Even after living here for over two years, we still tell each other how lucky we are with this apartment.

But we need it off our hands to move to Portland. So Saori's been pushing it through her office network, and today we had two young architects come take a look. The first was an Iraqi woman, recently graduated from the university in Stuttgart, who was looking for something bigger and so that her family could come and stay for a month in the summertime. She liked the place, but thought that possibly, maybe, there might be an issue with the fact her father is 80 years old and there's six flights of stairs to the apartment. I have a feeling it's just not going to work.

The second visitor brought a gift of coffee and chocolates, also a woman architect from north Africa who loved the terrace and all the storage space. She confessed that she loved to shop and needed space to organize all her clothes. There was also a sad tangent: originally, she was hunting for a larger apartment with her long time boyfriend, but after her family rejected him as a potential husband, they were forced to break up.

On the Portland side, we are also using our social networks, and by we, I mean Saori. One of the interns at Saori's office is from Portland, and his parents came to visit him as part of a European vacation. We exchanged info and they invited us for dinner when we come over. Saori emailed them later about where they live, and as it turns out they own two properties in Portland which would be coming vacant soon. Not hip, but 2 bedrooms, close to light rail, and within a 20-30 minute commute to my office. So we are chasing that right now.

Jul 22, 2017

Moving Lists

I'm in really strange moment. I have a long list of to-do items which range in scope and complexity from "buy habanero chiles" (for Saori's goodbye office party salsa) to "find next home for 1-2 years in Portland". It's baffling and overwhelming and made all the more surreal by the way we are still going to work and coming home to our apartment as usual. It's that unsettling gap between knowing everything in our lives is going to be absolutely upended and actually seeing it happen.

Here's a look at today's to-do list, with some explanatory notes.

  • Buy Habanero Chiles. We have one week left at our office each. Saori is going to have a party at the office and I'm in charge of making three different salsas of varying intensity.  Habanero chiles are only available reliably from the international gourmet produce market hall downtown, so I had to make a special trip to pick them up. I also picked up some nice looking Jalapenos and some really good tomatoes. I ate one when I got home, raw, just cut into slices. Delicious. I don't even like tomatoes all that much. I will miss the vegetables here in Germany. 
  • Buy American Beers I'm going to bake a zucchini bread for my office, and present my bosses each with a six pack of good American craft beers as a goodbye and thank you.
  • Post Apartment ad at IFA The saying goes that it's easier to find a job in Stuttgart than an apartment, but we've obviously been too cautious about spreading the word on our apartment being available. We are on the hook for the rent for September if we don't find someone that the landlord approves. We also don't want to lug down all the furniture six flights of stairs, and it would be nice to get some money back from what we paid for the washing machine, table, chairs, etc. The problem is that most people also have to give three months notice to their landlords. Best case is we find someone who is ready to move in and buy everything. Worst case is we pay September rent, AND have to lug everything to the curb. I might be willing to compromise on the furniture if it means we don't have to kill ourselves struggling. Hell, I would probably pay to NOT have to bring it all down. To widen the search for people, I put up an ad at the local language school today. The people at this school are young or not so young professionals, usually recent arrivals to Stuttgart or Germany. It's insanely hard to find a good apartment in Stuttgart and we have a prime location and a beautiful apartment. So we'll see what turns up. So far, no emails, but I just posted it and it's a saturday.
  • Calculate housing budget. Quick google search about what percentage people should pay for housing, and then running some numbers on my salary and the really high state taxes in Oregon. Based on 30% of our after-tax income, we should be looking at apartments in the range of $1200 a month. In Portland, like everywhere, it's possible to find our two bedroom apartment for that much, it's just a question of how close it is to city centers, downtown, and mass transit lines. 
  • Facetime Tay. No luck, Tay was out at somebody's lakehouse for the day. Glad to hear he's enjoying the summer. 
I did enjoy the bonus of strolling through the saturday flea market. I stumbled across one of my favorite cameras, the MINOX 35 line, one of the last produced in the 1980's, complete with a leather case, so I negotiated a good price for it. No idea if it works, so I loaded it up with film and I'll take some shots this week. I will miss the cheap film development here in Germany. It occurred to me later, that it was actually kind of cool to be able to speak and negotiate in German about cameras which are relatively rare outside of Germany because Germany had such a strong camera industry. 

This morning I walked through the Saturday market at the church square about a five minute walk from where we live. Flower vendors, bakery trucks, fresh fish on ice, the fruits and vegetable vendors, families out with their kids. Cafe tables with people enjoying breakfast and coffee on the sidewalk. Baguettes peeking out of hand carts, a landscape of cheese. I know I'll miss it because there's really nothing like it in the US, but I feel oddly detached like I can't not take it for granted. 

Jul 6, 2017

We are coming back

The sleepwalkers have awakened.

For better or worse we are moving back to the US. Why, of all times, now? We were actually considering moving back for the past year, or even longer. We took a trip to Portland right after we married, primarily to see if it was the kind of place we could see ourselves living. I was sick, probably the release of accumulated stress and travel, but I got a feel of the city.

Cutting through a lot of things, and taking a cold look at our current situation, we asked ourselves:
Are we going to retire in Germany? No. Definitely not.
Are we going to build our careers in Germany? Only at the expense of our careers in the US, with more difficulty and opportunity cost in salary. While the practice of designing buildings has many similarities, the facts remain that salaries in the US can be almost twice what are available in Germany for the same position, and that architecture remains a business dependent upon relationships, dependent upon trust and effective lines of communication.

I could get there in Germany, but it would take at least another five to ten years to overcome German distrust of foreigners and the language barrier, and learning at half the rate that I would get in the US in my native tongue. So, if we're not building our careers here in Germany, what the hell are we doing here, apart from whiling away the years in the mild hedonism of fresh strawberries, cheap, delicious breads and cheese, enjoying the walkable city life, sipping wine on the roof, and weekend trips to old European cities? And summers and winters / scattered like splinters / and four to five years slipped away. When your life starts to remind you of Jimmy Buffet songs, maybe it's time to take stock of where you are and where you're going.

We are moving to Portland, a city we picked out of many with strong architectural job prospects and a coastal city in the western US where we feel a little more cultural kinship, but still relatively affordable- cheaper than Seattle or anywhere in California, with a walkable downtown and a commitment to mass transit.

I went to the US in April, paid for tickets and hotels out of my pocket, hunted jobs and interviewed in Atlanta, Research Triangle North Carolina, and Portland. In Portland, I had five interviews in a day and a half. I got great offers from three of them. After a lot of negotiation, I accepted one of them, and have a start date in September.

A little over two weeks ago, Saori and I told our offices we were leaving, and I started working on the list of things to do which will take us from where we live now in Stuttgart to Portland with necessary stops in Saint Louis and Phoenix. It's a lot.

Jul 3, 2017

Wildbad

Our one year anniversary happened to fall on a Sunday on a three-day weekend. We both loved to travel, but by the time we got around to planning where we wanted to go, we were too close to the travel date to get a reasonable price. So we planned a trip to Porto and took an overnight trip to someplace bad, wild bad.
Bad Wildbad is a small thermal spa town nestled in a deep valley in the Black Forest, a 90 minute train ride from Stuttgart. We got up early Sunday and rode out on a mostly empty local train with big windows. The scenery was really nice, especially once we started following the small river up the misty valley. The town has a few small main streets with restaurants and black forest souvenir stores, some very nice hotels, and two large, historic thermal bath complexes.
We stayed at the Atina Hotel, a small pension with maybe 20 rooms, a short walk up from the main road. It was obviously a large old house or apartment building. The entry and much of the interior was plastered with posters of cruise ships and travel brochures. The remainder was overwrought and intensely decorated with all kinds of crap, mostly from the 60’s to 80’s. French porcelain clowns, doileys, and displays of tea varieties from India, long turned to the same gray. Our room, which turned out to be a pretty spacious suite, came with a balcony and a rotary dial telephone.
We took a delightful and recently updated funnicular up to the crest of the valley, where we found an equally delightful shed selling hot cinnamon bread. Apart from the thermae, the town is also well known for its hiking and a recently opened tree canopy walk. For a few Euros, also conveniently available packaged with the funnicular tickets, you can take a short stroll along a walkway built on tree trunks high over the forest floor. The walk terminates in a giant wooden spiral ramp, which winds up and up and up well over the high tree canopy, and affording great views of the mist moving through the forest, the valley, and the surrounding mountainous countryside. We hiked back to the funnicular (stopping for another delicious cinnamon bread) before heading back down to the thermae.
The Palais Thermae is a gem. Built wellnover a hundred years ago with the patronage of Kings, the ground floor is imagined as a arabesque or Moroccan bath, with successive pools, saunas, steam rooms, resting rooms and sun decks added over it's long history. Intricately worked tile everywhere, stained glass, arched stone doorways, bronze fittings, and marble statues. The natural light filtering in to the dim halls gives it an even more fantastic, surreal appearance.
When you arrive, you receive a chip bracelet which is used to track how long you spend, locks and unlocks lockers, and what you buy while you are there. The arabesque ground floor is bathing suit optional- the upper floors are completely au-nautural. We showered, enjoyed a lazy swim, scheduled a traditional massage for Saori, and worked our way through the labrynthine bath complex, ending up getting some sun on the modern wood terrace with a new massive tensile shade canopy. If one can overcome the American squeamishness about nudity, there is really nothing more relaxing than a few hours at a place like this. Best is to sweat in a Finnish suana and then cool off in a shower and a quick dip in the cold plunge pool, followed by a short rest in a reclining chair. Saori said the massage was one of the best she’d had, and that the masseuse was also obviously trained in theraputic massage. Actually, the town was full of people with mobility difficulties and older people who come to the bath to help them heal and gain strength and flexibility. The other big thermae complex in town is actually focused on wellness, with many clinics attached to it.
We spent nearly four hours there in total, taking a break partway for a refreshing beer at the small, marble bar. Even with the massage and drinks our total bill came to about $70.

We ate dinner at a traditional southern German wirthaus or tavern, and took an evening stroll in the summer twilight along the little creek running through the town. There are lots of really terrible geographic effects about being in northern Europe, but one upshot are these summer evenings where when you get those rare, warm sunny days, it's s t r e t c h e d out, with an incredibly late, slow sunset and a luminous twilight blue sky over the dark green fields, dusk into the 11pm darkness.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende...