Unfortunately we haven't had any real vacation yet. The problem is that we arrived at the wrong time – by the time we got settled and I got into the job enough to be able to use some of my vacation time (right now I've got 242 hours) winter arrived. Another thing about the timing of the job was that there were Factory Acceptance Tests (nothing like a FAT!) in Stockholm so by the time I would get caught up back in Frankfurt, back I'd go. At least, that's over now.
We celebrated Betty Lou's birthday at the three-star L'Auberge de l'Ill restaurant in Alsace. The owner and chef at the Mirabelle restaurant [in McLean, now defunct] are both from the region and they had told us how great it was, but how it's impossible to get a reservation at short notice. I called only the weekend before and they put me on a waiting list. When I called back Friday, at first they said they were still full, but then they said "Oh, Mr. Ludwick from Frankfurt? Just a moment." When they came back they said they did have room. I still don't know what happened – whether they thought if we were coming all the way from Frankfurt they could squeeze us in, whether they remembered that I had mentioned the previous time I called that it was for a birthday, or whether they thought I was an important banker! Whatever, it was great! We got there when they opened at seven and ate (we ordered the Dégustation Menu, which has nine – or was it ten? – courses), and drank (a bottle of Cremant, a local sparkling white wine, to begin and a red Bordeaux later), until after 11! We'd only had a little breakfast that day, so we were able to eat everything. It was probably the best meal we've ever had.
We looked at the map and a AAA guide that someone had given us and thought that it would take about 4 hours to get there. As I was checking the car before we left Saturday, I discovered that the battery tester said the acid was almost water. It had pooped out on us soon after we got it, after not being driven for a couple of weeks (living in the city, with decent transit is pretty good) but as it needed 1½ liters of water, I thought that was the only problem. (Fortunately a colleague had a battery charger, but I didn't get the battery tester until a couple of weeks later and hadn't gotten around to checking the battery until it was too late.) I guess there's always the possibility that the tester doesn't work, but our local repair place was closed for the day, and I didn't want to take a chance so I just bought a battery and installed it. [There were further battery adventures.]
Fortunately another guy had gone through the same thing a couple of weeks ago (they were preparing to spend the weekend in Austria when it happened – as it was already after everything closed they took the train to Paris instead) so I knew where he finally managed to find a battery and they were open Saturday (see Opening Hours). Anyway, once we got on the Autobahn (12:30), I realized that AAA travel time was based on 55, and if you do that here you'll be run over. It turned out there wasn't much traffic and at approximately 160 kph, we got there in a little over 2 hours! We also found a great inn, Le Clairière, just outside the town (basically the only thing in the town is the famous restaurant) and Crumpet enjoyed it too (the inn, not the restaurant).
I don't know if the following is repetitive of what I might already have sent, but I wrote it for a colleague in response to a query about how we really were doing here. Good old email! [You can tell this was a long time ago!]
We haven't really had an adjustment problem, maybe because we've done so much European traveling that we pretty much knew what to expect. The biggest problem we've had is getting used to short shopping hours (again, see Opening Hours). Perhaps another reason is that we live near downtown (and MITRE) and Frankfurt is such a cosmopolitan town there's lots going on all the time – many of the others are 45 minutes out in the suburbs.
That also means we hardly use the car around here – although we do have a garage space (several blocks away) usually it's parked someplace on our block. We did go to Alsace last weekend to a 3-star restaurant for Betty Lou's birthday, the longest drive we've taken so far (we have been to Heidelberg a couple of times to see friends at the MITRE military site there).
Since there are many Americans (mostly military) many people know at least some English. That with our gradually-improving German is adequate for most things, although every time we get some letter about our car insurance or heating bill, we realize how far we've got to go. Every once in a while there is a revelation when I realize that I can figure out some word I see in a store window from it's component parts. (The trips to Stockholm derailed the German lessons too, so I'm just getting back into them.) The American presence means that there are other conveniences that otherwise may not be available, like a place that repairs U.S.-standard VCRs and even one that rents tapes!
Betty Lou has been having a lot of hassles dealing with the DOD red tape to get a teaching job here. Even though they've got the transcripts from her Masters degree and the other graduate work at GW and Syracuse, they say they need her undergraduate transcript (we have had problems with things getting lost in the mail) before they can do anything! She has taught one class here for a junior college; sort of an SAT prep for soldiers and she really enjoyed it. Actually that may be the best deal for her: although it's only half-time work (and it pays the magnanimous sum of $9.50 per hour) they rate it as full-time, which she needs to satisfy the terms of her leave of absence. The money really doesn't matter, but it would be nice if she could get PX privileges to help make up for it. People tell us the best part of that is being able to buy gas – it's about half the price of buying it from a German gas station (at about $2.50 a gallon, good mpg matters here). [You can tell this was written quite a while ago!]
Crumpet has been enjoying it here also. Fortunately our apartment is on the ground floor and includes a garden, so she has plenty of new areas to explore. She took well to traveling and living in hotel; we even took her with us to France last week. Hotels are used to people having animals (normally dogs) so they didn't bat an eye. She did get a urinary infection a couple of weeks ago that was quite serious and we were afraid that it would be the end. In fact, we weren't really sure that she would survive the plane ride – she is 18! I hope we do as well when we're her equivalent age!
My job doesn't have a lot of technical content, but I knew about that before I came. It's mainly contract monitoring for an ATC simulator that Ericsson is developing for the Germans. The site leader and the German people I work with have been good to me and Stockholm is interesting, so things could be worse! In fact, the Ericsson people are very friendly too. The system itself is quite leading edge, or at least it was when the contract started 4 years ago. It uses distributed processors connected by an Ethernet LAN to the simulated controller and pilot consoles. It's programmed in Pascal. Actually, the main expertise I provide is knowing English since that's the official language of the project.
You realize here, where there are so many different languages, of the need for a common language. On a tour of the Stockholm City Hall (where they hold the Nobel Prize dinner) they had one guide for Swedish speakers and one for German, but the English guide had the largest group. As I looked at the members of our group, I realized that very few of them were native English speakers. There were Italians, Asians, Eastern Europeans, Indians and others but they all understood enough English to follow the tour.
Enough philosophizing, I guess this brings you up to date!