Monday, March 31, 2008

Visitors from Below the Equator

This weekend we got a visit from Kelly's cousin Sarah and aunt and uncle Lynn and Rick, who get the furthest travel award, hailing from New Zealand. Sarah is starting a four month exchange at the University of Göttingen, and the three of them took that opportunity to see other friends and family in Germany and Belgium.
We were first on their to do list, so quickly had to order some nice weather (i.e. a little sun after all the snow on Monday - but perhaps not quite warm enough for that new spring Kelly green jacket).
Chris too is sporting the new spring hair do; quite a change, though not too drastic in response to his momentously old birthday happening later this week. The newly arrived guests took jet-lag in stride and we managed to pack in quite a few walks/bike rides around the city and plenty of great conversation (talking with your dad's sister is always great for those stories that he never "seems to remember").

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Recently Played: The Modern Lovers - “Government Center”

In honor of the misadventures chronicled below, here's a shamelessly catchy cut from Jonathan Richman's first band. It'll make you wanna drop outta B.U.

The Modern Lovers – Government Center (1973)

A Streetcar Tour of Cologne: The Elusive 'Arbeitserlaubnis' Work Permit

I'd like to get some hours as an English instructor or tutor. But there's a trick. A person can't land a job without a work permit, and a non-European Union citizen cannot get a work permit (Arbeitserlaubnis) unless he or she has already found an employer prepared to underwrite the permitting of said alien. Or at least that's how it's been presented to me and the other Americans I've talked to here. Perhaps because the processing alone takes 6-8 weeks, many employers balk at job applicants who aren't already permitted. And honestly, I've procrastinated in filling out this paperwork – though not for nothing. But before I launch into an account of one day's quest to hand in my application, allow me to clarify that I doubt this process is any easier in the United States. (I don't wanna come off as some shrill, self-entitled American tourist whining about another country's long-standing governmental practices.)

This weekend I'd put the final touches on my German-language application. Wednesday I ditched class and, just after 8am, walked into the Ausländeramt in the Altstadt. Although I was informed that I was in the wrong building and, in fact, in the wrong part of town, the rebuff was quick and painless. Off to Luxemburgstrasse.

Two Bahns later I get to where I'm supposed to be and everything goes swimmingly until they realize I'm not E.U. Turns out, Yanks must apply for Arbeitserlaubnis in the Kalk office, on the other side of the Rhein. The news was deflating to say the least, but the woman I spoke with was friendly and helpful, spoke German slowly and clearly, and had printed matter to prove she wasn't just brushing me off.

Three more Bahns and I arrive at what's actually a rather beautiful building, especially for one housing municipal bureaucratic offices. I found the office I needed (they're sorted by claimants' last names; mine was something like “Be – Cr”). Here I must speak briefly about Germans relationships with doors. They prefer them closed. Certainly this is the case in offices, and I understand it carries over into some households, though I've no firsthand evidence to back that up. Office doors are almost never open, nor do they look inviting. The question is, does one knock and wait for an answer? knock and enter? barge right it? or meekly wait for someone to open the door and, merely by chance, collect you? I've been here ten months now, but I don't know the answer. This time I switched it up, trying a soft, single-knuckle wrap at the same time as I slowly opened the door. I thought it was pretty smooth, and believe I can say that it was recognized favorably and with approval. Leider, here came strike three. Wrong office, but I was getting warmer. No Bahns this time, just a walk to an adjacent building.

Tried the tap-and-push number again at the next office, but the door wouldn't give. Immediately after this sort of thing happens, I always second-guess myself. Was it locked? or just a stiff door? Should I try again? or will fumbling with the doorknob make present me as a burglar or schizophrenic? Speaking in a foreign language makes me exponentially more timid, and I resigned myself to waiting outside, hoping for an answer to my knock. I heard movement on the other side of the door but, after a period of some duration, felt compelled to knocked again. A woman on the other side yelled something to the effect of “Moment! Bitte!” I think she was irritated. And, yes, the door was locked. Once inside I was informed in no uncertain terms that this woman (based on the pictures pinned over her desk, an animal lover) was not the person who would under normal circumstances handle my case. However, today she would be happy to assist me. I turned in my much-labored-over application, and was informed that I was light about three items of paperwork. My German's far from great, but I believe I got the gist of what's needed to get things right. Ah, and I got a story out of it! She printed a page of material out for me, and told me that only the top half of the page applied to my situation. After a quick search, she dug out a ruler and carefully positioned it, low on the page at a 45-degree angle. She checked for accuracy, reached for her pen and then, guided by the ruler, drew a perfect straight line diagonally across the page. It was only then that I realized that what she was doing was striking through the irrelevant material. In the United States, we generally do this without straightedges; our paperwork is all the sloppier for it. Anyway, only one more morning Bahn and I made it to class in time for the second act.

A recap for any U.S. citizens who may someday need to apply for a freelance or self-employment work permit in Köln (Cologne). If you've already established residency in Köln and wish to apply for an Arbeitserlaubnis work permit, visit the Ausländerbehorde der Stadt Köln in the Bezirksrathaus Kalk, located at Kalker Hauptstrasse 247 (Haltstelle Kalk Kapelle, on the 1 and 9 lines). Bring your passport, obviously. There's a three-page form (Antrag auf Änderung zur Ausübung einer selbstandigen Erwerbstätigkeit) that asks things like where you went to school, where you've worked, whether or not you are diabolically wealthy, and what sort of work you hope to find in Germany. You also need a copy of your resumé/C.V., copies of any education certification, and possibly some sort of written confirmation that you're familiar with the German language. Though it didn't appear on the printed page, I was told verbally that I also needed a letter of interest from an employer. There, just so you know.

Monday, March 24, 2008

White Easter

It's late March, and Köln enjoys a fairly temperate climate. All the same, today is our fifth day of snow in a week, and by far the most substantial snowfall we've seen this winter. And the forecast calls for three more days of the same! This morning, even though we'd been up late watching East of Eden the night before, the cottony clumps drifting down from the sky had us perking up bright and early. I am utterly powerless against the beauty of a quietly falling snow, and insisted that we go for a little Spaziergang through the neighborhood while it was still coming down soft, slow, and thick, and before the blanketed sidewalks became pitted with footprints. We wandered for maybe an hour, while most of the city slept in.
For me, the walk was worth it just to hear the rubbery sound of snow compacting under our shoes. I think Kelly was glad to get out in it too, but as the below picture attests, she felt that it was a little on the chilly side for such an early morning.
Ah, and why no school or work today? Although a little snow doesn't bring this city to its knees, a Christian holiday slows everything to a grinding halt. Easter is a four-day weekend in Köln. One couldn't even buy milk Friday, Sunday, or Monday (Saturday becoming a shopping day of some urgency and driving us, helpless, toward Ikea). It's been a nice little break. Thursday was particularly hedonistic, with a visit to our coffee shop, a trip to the movies, and a round at the infrequently-open Schreckenskammer Brauhaus.

And we still have most of today left before the long weekend finishes. We were thinking of hopping a train to Düsseldorf or some other nearby locale, but this snow sure does make a warm couch and a nearly-finished book appealing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Weekend Excursion to Trier

We took advantage of a free Monday to spend Sunday and Monday in Germany's oldest city - Trier. It sits on the Mosel River, near the border of Germany and Luxemburg, so it is a perfect destination to try local wines and French influenced cuisine along with seeing the historical sites. As we enjoyed the Sunday morning train ride, we were quite surprised to pass a small town named Bitburg. Little did we know that we would be so close to the home of Bitburger beer. Once in Trier, we found a great place for lunch (including a tasty Bitburger - Bitte ein Bit) and toured the city by foot. The highlight of the afternoon was a trip to the Dom, where amazingly some of our photos actually look artistic.
Check out the organ in the Dom - it looks like the Star Wars Landspeeder (or so Chris says - I obviously have no idea what he is talking about).
Across from the Dom we tried some of the great Rieslings of the area, and for the first time, I actually found white wine quite tasty.
Monday morning we started with a delicious and large breakfast buffet. We were staying in a very nice large hotel in the middle of town with upwards to 100 rooms - but we think there may have been one other guest in the entire hotel (and this is only because we saw that another room had been cleaned, not because we encountered any small children in pig-masks). It was all a tad bit odd. True it was a Sunday night, but still, you would expect a hotel of that size and location to have some of the many tourists we saw staying there. After breakfast we did some birthday shopping for Chris and climbed up the tower of the Porta Nigra - the imposing 2nd-Century gate that was part of the mile long Roman wall. As you might guess we had some great views of the city.
We appreciated the uneventful train ride home, arriving back in Köln on schedule. For more pictures of the trip, you can look at our Trier Photo Album.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Recently Played: Madonna's "Burning Up" Turns 25

As of about a week ago, it's been twenty-five whole years since copies of Madonna's "Burning Up" arrived in stores. Actually, the song's a good bit older than that even - if you do a little digging, it isn't tough to track down live takes and demo versions of the song dating back at least as early as 1982.

Watch the rad video below - her first official music video - and attempt the exercise in futility that is imagining a world pre-Madonna (myself, I find it doubtful that such a world ever existed). The vid was directed by David Cunningham, who notably also helmed A-ha's music-video-era-defining "Take On Me."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Snowflake (New Knut)

She may be at the center of Germany's hottest zoological controversy, but Nuremberg's Snowflake is just too cute to care.
Latest story here. Yes, that is a bone in the third picture - but its kind of a cute one, no? Ah, and if you wanna hold on to this cuddly precious image, don't go reading this.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Weekend in Bruges with Lisa & Nick

One great thing about being in Europe is that it's not hard for family and friends to be tempted to visit you. This last weekend, we met up with Lisa and Nick who had been traveling through the Netherlands and Belgium. We spent two fun packed days and nights checking out the sites, indulging in delicious Belgian fare and partaking in some good old fashioned hanging out.
We're gonna do things a little different this time and include lots and lots of photos here (though I can't promise they all are as adorable as the one above). Here are the highlights with a few more words...
Friday evening Chris and I arrived at our bed & breakfast, where we tried their homemade special brew.
We then met up with Lisa & Nick at 't Brugs Beertje, where twenty minutes before we arrived Lisa was asked to pipe down the volume. Mind you this was a bustling bar. The complainers had the good sense to leave before loud excitable Kelly arrived on the scene.
After a morning of walking and shopping on Saturday, we feasted on scallops and prime rib for lunch. Then we had a trip to De Halve Maan brewery. Not quite as humorous as say the Red Hook Brewery tour, but it was interesting and ended with some delicious beer at the end. With over 200 steep stairs, leading to the roof, we had a great view of the city.
Saturday evening was spent enjoying many a delicious Belgian beer at Staminee de Garre, a cafe that both Lisa and I had on our "list" to visit.
Sunday the schedule was as relaxed and wonderful (read beer-filled) as Saturday. We sadly parted ways Sunday afternoon, where Chris and I managed to miss the last fast train out of Brussels to Köln and had a very long slow trip home, arriving after midnight instead of 8 pm.