Thursday, April 17, 2008

Four Months Later

It has been four months to the day since we returned to Michigan. After a frenzied first week of errands and unpacking, we drove the minivan down to southern Illinois to spend a quiet Christmas with John’s parents. (We had to take the minivan because the Evo was stuck at the Mitsubishi dealership with a stripped screw on one front brake caliper, damaged by the service technician during a brake inspection!) We left Scotty at the kennel but took Cody with us because we didn’t want to lock him up in a concrete cell after the stress of his recent world travels. He weathered his first 9-hour car ride quite well, perfectly content to sleep on the floor of the back seat, resting his head on the console between our seats.

We spent a quiet New Year’s Eve at home, feasting on foie gras and caviar in front of the TV, and woke up to nearly a foot of fresh snow on the ground. John re-painted the office and baby room during his holiday, using environmentally-friendly paint so the baby and I wouldn’t inhale any dangerous fumes. John started work back at Chrysler on January 2nd, where the most common reaction from his colleagues seemed to be, “Are you back?” He still has mixed feelings about the future of the company but is pleased with his current position and pending projects and is planning to stick it out for the time being.

We had to wait nearly a month for our shipment to arrive from Germany. (Actually it took three weeks, but we asked them to deliver it a week later so we could get new carpet installed in the upstairs bedrooms.) Our shipment got stuck at customs for a while and I was terrified that they were going to rip holes in our boxes and go through our things, but all of our possessions arrived unscathed with the exception of one broken picture frame. In the meantime, I spent most of my days unpacking our belongings in the basement, rehanging artwork, and getting caught up on my writing. In the days after our shipment arrived, the house was a minor disaster area. I tried to tackle one project at a time – first the kitchen, then our bedroom closet, then the bookshelves in the living room. We went on a field trip to Ikea and bought new (smaller) office furniture, since our office will now have to double as the guest bedroom. Wandering the floors of Ikea (laid out exactly like its German counterpart) and listening to everyone speaking English was somewhat surreal. Not too surprisingly, we were comforted to hear a few German voices in the crowd.

It was a relief to finally get our kitchen put back together. I discovered a few items that I had left behind for the sake of saving space, like my favorite soup pot and steamer, and wondered what I had been thinking when I packed them away. I got started cooking normal meals again, but we soon discovered that our old kitchen left a lot to be desired. I had been spoiled by the well-designed cabinetry of our modest kitchen in Germany, and was now noticing everying that was dreadfully wrong with our kitchen in Michigan. We had been talking about remodeling the kitchen for a long time and we finally decided that now would be as good a time as any – especially before a baby arrives on the scene! I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks researching cabinets, countertops and appliances, collecting cost estimates, and, finally, choosing a designer to oversee our project, which will get underway in May.

Planning for our summer arrival has also been high on my agenda. Finding an OB/GYN practice, signing up for childbirth classes, and researching strollers, car seats, cloth diapers, and baby furniture have been all-consuming activities. Friends have donated boxes of maternity and baby clothes, which are much appreciated given that we have suddenly had to face the reality of a single income with no cushy expatriate perks. My dream is to start working on my novel again very soon. I know that my life will be turned topsy-turvy by the baby, so I hope to get some serious work done on my book this spring.

Readjusting to life in Michigan has not been as difficult as I expected. Perhaps we really had been mentally preparing ourselves for the move over those last few months, or maybe it was simply spending that interim week in an unfamiliar hotel environment that eased the transition. Coming back to our own house and belongings certainly made the transition easier as well. In the first few days we experienced the usual shock of suddenly being able to understand everything going on around us. In Germany, we had grown accustomed to being able to tune out surrounding voices and conversations in public places because it required such intense concentration to understand what was being said. When we walked into a store or restaurant here in Michigan, the impact of dozens of voices all speaking English simultaneously hit us almost like a tangible blow. After the initial shock, I have found that I enjoy being able to communicate effortlessly with the people I encounter in my day-to-day activities, and it is a huge relief not having to worry about understanding strangers every time they approach me with a mundane question.

Perhaps hardest of all has simply been getting used to the American lifestyle again. I am bombarded by the all-pervasive consumerism…the endless strip malls and fast-food restaurants, the constant barrage of advertising, the obsession with gadgets and the overwhelming desire for more and more “stuff.” I find it hard to believe how much of that “stuff” we have sitting right here in our house. After existing for two years on a relatively stripped-down lifestyle, I feel like there is an enormous amount of stuff that we can do without…and we are planning a summer garage sale to get rid of it all!

I am sickened by the “super-size” mentality of our culture. Everything is so big here…the roads are enormously wide and packed with hulking SUVs, houses and buildings and parking lots sprawl out over what could be open space…every product we buy comes in sizes several times larger than their European counterparts, whether it be milk, toothpaste or laundry detergent. Our neighbors produce enormous amounts of garbage week after week, while we continue to put one small bag in our can, still surprised that our garbage is actually collected more than twice a month (and we get a whole garbage can all to ourselves!). I have to remind John that only certain plastics go in the recycling, and the rest has to go out with the trash.

These initial impressions are starting to wear off as time goes on, but I think the pared-down experience of living in Germany will forever leave an impression on us. Here, they have to pound “reduce, reuse, recycle” into our heads. In Germany, it’s just a way of life.

I won’t lie; life is certainly easier here, and not only because of the lack of a language barrier. It’s fun to shop at that new gourmet grocery store down the road (on Sundays no less!) and know that I can pop over to a store at pretty much any time of the day or night when I run out of something. It is wonderful to be closer to friends and family again, who have welcomed us warmly back to the States. But I think John and I agree that we would have easily made the decision to stay longer in Germany if it had made sense for our future. We just “fit” there. We will never regret having taken the plunge, putting all of our trust in each other and establishing a new life for ourselves in a foreign country. We took on new challenges, traveled to amazing places, and made wonderful, lifelong friends. We learned a lot about ourselves and gained a new perspective on the rest of the world in the process.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned that there is much more to life than a full-time job. Burnt-out and ready for a change, I embraced the opportunity to become a Hausfrau with enthusiasm, and tried to take the best advantage of the free time at my disposal. I once thought that I would dedicate a good part of my life to a career in environmental protection. While that field will always be an important part of my life, I now know that I can gain fulfillment from many other activities. I’ve started down the road of writing as a profession, and hope to continue that pursuit as we start a family. Returning to America with a baby on the way has given me a new challenge to prepare for, and I welcome this next phase of that wondrous adventure called life with open arms.

One thing remains true: wherever we live, and whatever I do, part of me will always remain the Hausfrau.

For my readers who have come all the way with me, I thank you. I hope you've enjoyed the ride.

18 December: Cody Comes Home

John took his car down to the tire shop first thing in the morning to swap out his old flat-spotted tires. We ran some errands and then left in the mid-afternoon to drive the minivan to the Lufthansa Cargo facility near the Detroit airport, where we were scheduled to meet Cody around 4:00. We arrived about fifteen minutes early, checked in with the Lufthansa people, and waited in the car until a brown minivan showed up with Cody’s crate. We watched them unload Cody into a huge warehouse but couldn’t go see him until we took his paperwork over to the customs office at the airport for clearance. We had to sneak by and hope that he didn’t recognize us on our way out. (Yes, this is a totally convoluted process. We had to pick up Cody’s paperwork at the cargo facility, drive to the airport to clear customs, and then come back to the cargo facility to retrieve him. The customs agents never actually see the dog.) Meanwhile poor Cody had been in his crate for something like twelve hours, and we just hoped that he could hold out a little longer.

We parked at the terminal and found the customs office, where I handed over Cody’s pet passport and shipping paperwork to a surly female customs agent behind a glass window. She flipped through the passport for a minute and then said that there was nothing there to indicate that Cody had come from the U.S. I responded that we were working with a pet moving company and were not aware that we needed to provide such information. She insisted that we either had to provide evidence that he had come from the U.S. originally, or proof that he was worth less than $1,500 (there are additional requirements for show animals and those brought into the country for breeding purposes). Obviously we had none of this documentation, since all of Cody’s old shipping paperwork was still somewhere in Germany with our belongings, and proving what we paid for him would require searching through five-year-old files at home. I was furious and about to give the customs agent a piece of my mind, when John stepped in and said that we should call Air Animal (but not before telling the woman that he believed she was dead wrong about the requirements). I was fortunately able to reach our Air Animal rep on the phone immediately, despite it being close to 5:00. She was dumbfounded by the customs agent’s demands (her exact words were, “No one has ever asked for that information before”), but was quickly able to retrieve Cody’s shipping information from September 2005 and faxed it to the customs office. After several anxious minutes, the woman called us back to the window, handed back Cody’s paperwork with his customs clearance, and told us we were free to go.

Fuming but relieved, we returned to the Lufthansa facility, handed our paperwork and $40 in cash to the woman at the counter, and were finally free to be reunited with Cody. He had some water in his dish and sprang out of his crate, clean, dry and happy to see us. We quickly took him outside to piddle, amazed that he had made it all the way across the ocean yet again without having an accident in his crate. We loaded him into the minivan for the drive home, which took considerably longer in rush-hour traffic. Cody ran right up to the front door like he’d never been gone.

Both pets seemed to refamiliarize themselves with our house almost instantly, finding all of their favorite lounging spots and enjoying the view out to the back yard. Shipping Cody back and forth across the big pond has frankly been one of the most stressful parts of this whole process, but he has come through with flying colors both times!

17 December: Return to America

Leaving Stuttgart...Take Two. A shuttle bus picked us up in front of the hotel this morning and returned us to the airport, where we had to go through the check-in process all over again. After a short wait, we boarded the DaimlerChrysler Airbus for the very last time and settled into our comfortable seats for the 8-hour flight across the Atlantic. It was a non-eventful trip with spectacular views over the icefields of Greenland and Canada. As we descended over the sprawling suburbs of metro Detroit, I noted that it didn’t look quite so dreadful when dusted with a fresh coat of snow…but it was still awfully flat. I think I will be missing the topography of southwest Germany for a long time!

We had no trouble getting Scotty and all of our luggage through customs at the Pentastar Aviation terminal; they didn’t even want to see my tin of foie gras. A white Chrysler minivan rental care was waiting for us in the parking lot to take us through the shabby streets of Pontiac and, finally, home.

My friend’s husband had thoughtfully cleared our driveway and front walk of the six inches of snow that had fallen since yesterday. We quickly surveyed the exterior damage to our gutter and garage roof caused by a massive tree limb that fell in our front yard last fall, then let ourselves in the front door. We were met by a rather rank mildew smell that turned out to be emanating from the bathrooms. Our house had been empty for nearly seven months and all of the water had evaporated from the toilets, leaving behind a very nasty science experiment. Fortunately a little bit of cleanser and bleach went a long way toward alleviating the stink. Friends had plugged in our fridge, turned up the heat, and even left us a supply of essential groceries, so all we really had to do to get the house up and running was to turn on the gas hot water heater and the water itself. We wandered around the empty house, overwhelmed by all the work ahead of us…bringing all of our personal belongings up from the basement, putting our office back together, turning the guest bedroom into a nursery, unpacking our shipment from Germany once it arrives…Meanwhile, John wasted no time in uncovering the Evo (our Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, which has been stored in the garage) and getting it prepped to start the engine for the first time in nearly two and a half years. To his great pleasure (and a little surprise), it roared to life on the very first try!

By the end of the day we were exhausted, mentally and physically, and ready to put off all the work until tomorrow. Our high bed, fat mattress, and American comforter felt a little funny to us as we drifted off to sleep.

16 December: Auf Wiedersehen...Just Kidding!

We were up at 7 am, giving us plenty of time to enjoy a relaxed breakfast. Beth and Axel arrived at 8:45 and helped schlep all of our luggage down to their B-Class. We managed to fit everything in, just barely, and headed off to the airport. After we got all checked in (we only had to open up one of our six pieces of luggage for the security check, thank goodness), we returned to the outer waiting room to say goodbye to Beth and Axel. Beth and I tried to keep it short and sweet but I started crying anyway. I didn’t really fall apart until we went through the X-ray and into the big waiting lounge, where I had a good cry in the corner.

We sat around for half an hour or so and didn’t see the plane out on the tarmac, which seemed a bit odd. Then one of the staff members came in and started talking to a group of Americans that included a high-up female Chrysler executive whose name John recognized. We couldn’t quite hear what they were saying but we were pretty sure it involved a snow storm and finding hotel rooms. Sure enough, our worst nightmare had come to fruition – they had canceled our flight due to a massive snowstorm slated to hit the Midwest today. Apparently we were fated to spend one more day in Germany! Fortunately John had had the foresight to tell the hotel not to clean our room until after noon, in the event that our flight was canceled and we needed to stay one more night. (This was very important because we had left the cat's litter box in our room to be thrown out!)

We were in a bit of a daze as we re-collected our luggage (fortunately they were able to store two of our bags and the two cardboard boxes at the airport) and boarded a shuttle bus for the return journey to SI-Suites. We spent the afternoon at the hotel; John napped on the couch and Scotty curled up in a ball in the armchair, seemingly unphased by his brief journey to and from the airport. I called Beth to break the news and we decided to get together for one last dinner downtown. We took the U-Bahn one more time and met them at a tiny Italian restaurant a few blocks from the Königstraße. It ended up being an excellent meal (we all had different pasta dishes from the daily menu) and I was much happier spending our last evening with friends. Beth and Axel gave us a ride back to the hotel, taking us up the famous Weinsteige through the vineyards up and out of the city. This time we managed not to shed any tears.

The extra time in the hotel gave me a few more minutes to reflect on our time in Germany. I will miss so many things about daily life here…the sound of the church bells ringing out across Botnang at 7 am, noon, and 6 pm sharp…the cheerful yellow U-Bahn cars gliding up and down Schlossstraße…the lovely Altbau apartment houses lining the gently curving streets of Stuttgart-West….the Deutsche Post workers in their cheerful yellow uniforms, riding their matching yellow bicycles laden with the daily mail…the tidy piles of gelbe sacks lining the sidewalks on recycling day and the friendly garbage men who always smiled and said hello…the toll of the vegetable man’s bell as he walked up and down our street bellowing “Kartoffeln!”…all of the wonderful people (and their dogs) that we met walking in the woods (we never got a chance to say goodbye to Tessie’s parents or Itzy’s mom)…the tidy, carefully tended gardens of Botnang, dripping with flowers straight through October…Frau Dörr’s friendly smile every time I knocked on her door to ask a favor…the view of the Birkenkopf and the wooded valley from our balcony…the sun shining through the leaves of the chestnut tree outside my office window…life is in the details, and I hope I can etch these details into my memory forever.

Of course, I won’t miss hauling my groceries up two flights of stairs every week. I won’t miss Kaufland’s lousy vegetable selection, but I will miss the friendly cashiers at Neukauf. I'm looking forward to having a gourmet grocery store a few blocks from our house, but it won't be quite the same as our pilgrimages to the Markthalle for cheese and seafood. I’m looking forward to having a dryer and air conditioning again. John won’t miss being cooped up on Sundays, but I had a certain fondness for the enforced peace and quiet. It will be nice to do yard work any time I want, and not when it’s dictated by a Kehrwoche sign hanging outside our door. I will really enjoy not having downstairs neighbors who turn the hall light on and slam the door in the wee hours of the night and/or morning. Actually, having our own house and yard again will be a real pleasure! But these are all such little things, minor inconveniences really. When you look at the greater scheme of things, we’ve got very little to complain about. We came to Germany with open minds and a sense of adventure, and we leave feeling fulfilled and satisfied with our experience. We may not have mastered Deutsch, but we mastered living life to its fullest.

Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland. And I mean it. I will see you again. But visiting as a tourist will never be quite the same as the two years and four months that we spent living as expatriates in this fine country.

15 December: A Long Day Downtown

After yet another relaxing breakfast from the buffet, we turned in our E-Class wagon at the Führpark just around the corner from SI-Suites. John had filled out an accident report explaining my little foul-up last weekend, but since the office was closed, we just left the paperwork in the car. As we walked back to the hotel, I commented, “That’s probably the last Mercedes we’ll ever drive.”

We had plans to spend the rest of the day in downtown Stuttgart. I had a couple of goals in mind: to visit the Staatsgalerie (the state art museum) and see the Schellenturm, the oldest building in Stuttgart. We took the U-Bahn downtown (there is a station conveniently located right behind SI-Suites) to Charlottenplatz and went to the museum first – a bold, contemporary building that is one of Stuttgart’s better-known architectural landmarks (see photo, right). Unfortunately a large portion of the museum is currently closed for renovations, so we just got to see the temporary exhibition, which provides a snapshot of their collection. It was a nice way to seem some excellent artwork in an hour’s time, which is about as long as we can stand to be in an art museum anyway. Then we strolled over to the old neighborhood called the Bohnenviertel (literally “Bean Quarter”) where I finally got to see the Schellenturm, the last surviving remnant of Stuttgart’s medieval town wall (see photo, right). It is tucked between other buildings and now houses a restaurant; you’d never know it was there if you didn’t know where to look.

We headed back towards the Rathaus and spent an enormous amount of time trying to find the perfect sheets at Breuninger, the biggest department store in the city. Finally a saleswoman came to our rescue and suggested some Italian cotton sheets in a classy subdued stripe. (When she saw the style that I had originally picked out – but couldn’t buy because there was only one set – she frowned and told me in no uncertain terms that they were tacky!) What was even funnier was that we told her we were flying to America tomorrow and she said, “But…you’re German?” I’m pretty sure she was not a native German speaker but it was still pretty funny to be taken for Germans on our last day.

After trying to lose my purse by leaving it at the cash register (could baby brain be settling in already??), we tried to get into Café Planie for kaffee und kuchen but it was packed to the rafters, so we settled for crêpes from the Weihnachtsmarkt instead. We strolled up and down the Königstraße, took pictures around the Schlossplatz (photo, right), bought a book about Baden-Württemberg at Witwer, and then made our way over to Calwerstraße to find someplace to eat an early dinner. We scoped out several restaurants and decided to try a trendy-looking place called Weber that had a rather innovative “Schwäbisch fusion” menu. We managed to snag a table in the rear as long as we promised to free it up for an 8:00 reservation. We both ordered drinks (they had a virgin caipirinha on the menu for me) and waited for our pasta dishes to arrive. And waited. And waited. Finally I flagged down another waitress and inquired as to the whereabouts of our food. She looked a bit startled, disappeared for a moment, then returned and told us that our waitress never put in our order and had gone off her shift! We finally got our meals about an hour after we ordered. We were offered a complimentary dessert or coffee afterwards but we had pretty much had our fill of the place by then. The food was good, but it was a bit of a disappointing experience for our last dinner in Stuttgart.

Back at the hotel, I got into a bit of a panic because our Air Animal rep (the company that is handling Cody’s shipping arrangements) had sent me an email earlier today saying that we should have a complete copy of Cody’s E.U. pet passport for identification purposes when we pick him up in Detroit. His passport was of course with him at the Tierhotel, so I called this morning and left a message for Herr Ratibor asking him to fax a copy of the passport to the hotel. When we got back to the hotel this evening, we picked up the fax but discovered that we were missing the page containing Cody’s health certificate. We composed an anxious e-mail to Herr Ratibor asking him to resend the page in question, plus instructions to fax it to a Kinko’s in Michigan in case he didn’t get our message before we left on Sunday. That was all we could do, so we tried to settle down and get a good night’s sleep before our big day of traveling.

A few more pictures from our last day in Stuttgart:

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

14 December: Sweet Memories of Stuttgart

This morning I enjoyed one final, solitary breakfast at the SI-Suites buffet and then headed over to Botnang to take a few pictures of the neighborhood and give the car a bath. I even said goodbye to the nice young man who works at the gas station – the one who helped me out when my smart got stuck in the carwash. He seemed genuinely sorry to hear that we were moving back to the States and asked if we would ever be coming back.

I spent the rest of the day in downtown Stuttgart, wandering around the Weihnachtsmarkt and doing a little shopping. I snacked on a crêpe slathered with Nutella, bought some wooden Christmas ornaments, and searched several of the big department stores for sheets. We are bringing our European bedding (comforters and pillows) back to the States with us, and I wanted to buy a nice new set of sheets to fit them. Unfortunately I couldn’t seem to find a pattern that I thought John and I would both like, so I’ll have to drag him around tomorrow to pick something out. I did have success in the form of a cool pair of winter boots. I had admired the boots in question several times at a shop near the Rathaus and saw that they were on sale for a good price, so I went in to try them on. I had an extremely successful transaction all in German with the nice saleswoman. I told her my feet were always cold in the winter and she assured me that my toes would stay nice and warm in these Gore-Tex boots. When I came up to pay for them, she asked me if I wanted them in the box and I said no, explaining that they would be going in my suitcase back to America on Sunday. All in all, it was a triumphant day for my German skills on my second-to-last day in Stuttgart!

As I drove up Schlossstraße on the way out of the city, I involuntarily began to cry. I think this is the first time I’ve gotten truly emotional about leaving Germany. It just seemed to hit me all at once: no more lovely strolls along the Königstraße, no more people-watching in the Schlossplatz, no more convenient U-Bahn rides or trips to the Markthalle or shopping for flowers and asparagus at the spring market in Schillerplatz…and that’s just what I will miss about the city itself. In my miserable state, I decided to drive over the hill to Schloss Solitude and take a walk around. It was dusk, and the palace was all lit up and glowing golden against a pale gray sky. I walked in a big loop around the palace and stopped to take some pictures. Through the arched portico I could see the long line of lights stretching away into the distance, a straight shot all the way to Ludwigsburg. John called during my wandering and said he was ready to be picked up, so I made my way slowly back to the car and headed off to Sindelfingen and the Mercedes complex for the last time. We had dinner at the Biergarten again and got most of our packing done this evening so that we could enjoy our last day in Stuttgart tomorrow. This included stuffing two large cardboard boxes full of alcohol (a couple of bottles of wine from our 2006 trip to France, several Rieslings and Eiswein from the Mosel, and a bottle of whisky from Scotland), pet paraphernalia, and miscellaneous gifts, books and other items that had not made it into our shipment.

I’ve put a few pictures of Botnang and Schloss Solitude on Flickr:

13 December: Apartment Handover

John picked me up around 11:00 this morning to go over to the house for the official handover of our apartment. We were supposed to meet Monika, our relocation rep from Professional Organizing, but she was late. While we waited, Frau Dörr arrived. I had warned John that I thought Frau Dörr was going to have her own painter come, because she didn’t understand that Daimler was bringing their own contractors. Sure enough, both painters showed up, along with a guy from the cleaning company, and quite a bit of confusion ensued. I basically told John to keep quiet until Monika arrived; it wasn’t our problem, after all. Monika explained the situation, but of course Frau Dörr still wanted to use her painter because he had done all of the work on the house previously. Monika finally said that he was welcome to put in a bid for the work as well. I was just happy that we didn’t have to do any of the talking!

So, the apartment handover is just a formality – give the place a once-over and hand over the keys, right? Wrong! We were not prepared for them to go over the house with a fine-toothed comb, but this is Germany, so what did we really expect? I had thought we were in good shape: the floors and walls were all in good condition; I left the picture-hanging nails in the walls so they could patch the holes; and the place was virtually spotless. There was some discussion about the fact that we were leaving some of the curtains and light fixtures behind and I explained for the umpteenth time that we had not been able to sell them and the new tenants were welcome to use them or get rid of them, but we were not taking them down and throwing them out ourselves!

Then the cleaning guy came out of the kitchen and said he wasn’t sure they could get the oven door clean. I can’t for the life of me remember the condition of the oven when we moved in, but there was certainly some baked-on gook on the door that I couldn’t get off. There was much discussion over whether the new tenants had looked in the oven or not (I don’t think they did) and finally Frau Dörr pointed out that the tenants were buying the kitchen from us, so the issue was really between us and the tenants. Monika suggested that we might want to talk to them about whether an “adjustment” was called for the in the price of the kitchen and I wanted to blurt out, “They’re already getting it for a steal!” Let’s just say there is no way I am giving them any money back for a dirty oven door.

Other miniscule details were pointed out, like some marks on the doorframes left by the pets brushing up against them. Monika stated matter-of-factly that painting the walls was included in Daimler’s refurbishment package, but painting the doorframes was not. I pointed out that I thought the marks could simply be wiped off, but Monika insisted that if painting was required, we would have to pay for it. There were also a couple of dings in the wall in the outside stairwell from carrying furniture up and down – these were also our responsibility. Finally, we wound up down in the basement, where Frau Dörr muttered something about the washing machine not being exactly spic-and-span. Oh brother!

While we were at the apartment, Dorota F. called to say she was still at the hospital with her mother and was not going to be able to make it. I made arrangements with Frau Dörr to leave Dorota’s things in the garage so she could pick them up later.

Suffice it to say, we were feeling rather deflated by the time the meeting finally came to an end. Usually we are the ones to leave everything in better condition than we found it. Heck, I’ve always done a better job of cleaning apartments when I’m moving out than is called for. We still don’t know how much of the damage we will be held responsible for, but hopefully it won’t break the bank.

We handed over the keys and the garage door opener and had Monika take a picture of us with the Dörrs. Despite the regrettable disagreement over the kitchen, which left things on a bit of a sour note, we could not have asked for a better relationship with our landlords. I know plenty of people in Germany with absentee landlords who have a heck of a time getting even minor repairs completed. We were lucky enough to live next door to our landlords and have a very amiable friendship that encompassed trading dog-walking duties, two memorable dinners, fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes, and many enjoyable conversations. I know Frau Dörr would have liked me to do more work in the garden, but we never used the yard and frankly I did a lot more of the clean-up work than our downstairs neighbors ever did. In the end, we parted on a high note and well wishes were extended all around.

And that was it – we walked down the familiar stone steps one last time, shut the gate behind us, and said goodbye forever to our little green house in Botnang.

I drove John back to work and then headed downtown to have my last heisse Schokolade with Beth at Café Deli. This was our last chance to talk face-to-face about my novel, and Beth gave me the best advice in the world: to stick with the story that I wanted to tell, not to worry about what other people thought, and to stay true to myself.

This evening we went over to Jürgen’s house for pizza and beer with Gert, Volker (another of John’s friends from work) and Jürgen’s girlfriend Sonja. Volker used to work at smart and John had told him how much I loved my smart forfour, so he made me a wonderful little pen & ink drawing of the Brabus. I was very touched! Jürgen also gave us a nice coffee-table book about the Nürburgring. The highlight of the evening was driving the Nordschleife in Jürgen’s elaborate video-game setup, which includes a real car seat and realistic pedals. I only did one lap because quite frankly, it made me sick to my stomach! I think I will satisfy myself with memories of driving on the real track. I think Jürgen was about ready to cry when we finally said our goodbyes. He is a great guy and we are really going to miss him!