Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Bavaria

Last Thursday was a random German holiday, so we took a 4 day road trip through the Bavarian Alps.  Drove down to Munich on Wednesday night and Sara landed in Munich from the US on Thursday morning.  Our first stop was in Dachau - the first German concentration camp in a Munich suburb.
Dachau train depot

The famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work sets you free) sign

A chess set carved by one of the prisoners

Statue in Dachau

After Dachau, we headed to the place that has been on the top of my bucket list for a year - Neuschwanstein.  The majestic castle, built by Mad King Ludwig II in an Alpine valley, is legendarily the inspiration for Walt Disney when he envisioned Sleeping Beauty's castle.  There are actually two castles next to each other.  Ludwig grew up in the yellow Hohenschwangau castle, but - according to our guide - built Neuschwanstein because he was tired of living with his mother.  I should mention that both of these castles are mere summer and hunting residences.  Somehow, the natural beauty actually outshines these dazzling castles.

Neuschwanstein

The mountains actually make the castle look small

This priceless box made of ivory served as an 18th century safe

Carriage ride up to the castle

Neuschwanstein

Pretty impressive entrance

I love this view

The view of the valley from the front of the castle
We stayed the night in nearby Garmisch before driving to Salzburg on Friday morning.  Salzburg was a bit of a disappointment.  It rained the whole day and there wasn't a whole lot going on in the city.  If I had to do it all over again, I'd skip Salzburg and spend more time in the Alps, but we did take the Sound of Music Tour on Saturday, which was fun.
The back of the Von Trapp home from the movie Sound of Music

Gazebo from the movie Sound of Music

Austrian lake district

Church where Maria and Captain Von Trapp got married in the movie

After the Sound of Music Tour, we drove to Berchtesgaden to see Hitler's famous Eagle's Nest.  This building basically sits atop the world in the Alps.  My car could barely handle the drive to the public parking lot, which was followed by a treacherous bus ride up the side of the mountain, which only opened two weeks ago due to snow.  After the bus ride, you walk through a tunnel into the middle of the mountain and ascend the peak in golden elevator through the center of the mountain.  It is a massive feat of engineering and clearly the model for every evil lair that followed.  Again, it's the natural beauty that really is the star.
The tunnel into Eagle's Nest 
Atop the world

Above Eagle's Nest

My friend Natalie does yoga poses throughout the world

On the edge of the world


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Big News

In honor of Mother's Day, I thought I'd share with my blog followers some pretty big news.  Sara and I are expecting our first child, due in September.  I went back to DC two weeks ago and we learned that our baby is going to be a baby boy.  We are both super excited.

Giving a whole new meaning to 'carry-on.'


As far as the Foreign Service stuff is concerned, it couldn't have worked out better.  I will leave Frankfurt on June 17 and take two months of home leave.  I will start FSI training (non-language) in late August until my son(!) is born.  Then, I will go on paternity leave until November 2, when I will start Arabic training until summer 2016.  I'll take a few more training classes and then we will go to Riyadh in late August or early September.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Five Good Five Bad, Frankfurt

As I am winding down my time in Frankfurt, I will contribute to the FS' Five Good, Five Bad series.

The Good

1. Travel - There are absolutely fantastic travel opportunities from Frankfurt.  The airport has flights to practically everywhere and the flights are cheap.  Last minute deals abound, I often book a weekend getaway less than 10 days out (particularly, if I don't have a specific place in mind) and find multiple options for under $300.  Trains and roads are also great.  Four or less hours to Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Zurich, Brussels.  Less than 2 hour flights to almost all of Europe.

2. Running and biking trails - For me personally, this has been huge.  I started running while I was in DC, but I moved it forward here.  In part, that is because there are just hundreds of miles of running options.  I can run from my front door and go 15 miles while only having to cross 2-3 roads.  Weather allows for running outside 8 months of the year.  Simply put, if I had been posted somewhere else, I doubt I would have run a marathon.

3. Great Post for families - I don't have a family here myself, but Frankfurt is clearly a great fantastic family post.  Multiple options for good schools.  Lots of other kids around.  Two playgrounds on the Siedlung.

4. Great, easy shopping - I often overlook this, because it is so easy.  Numerous grocery store options with plenty of fresh produce.  Meats, cheese, and fish galore.  High end and low end clothes and electronics.  Malls.  IKEA.  If, somehow, you aren't satisfied with the German options, you are 30 minutes from the base in Wiesbaden with a U.S. style grocery store and PX.  Ramstein and its giant Commissary and PX are only 90 minutes away (I went to Ramstein twice in 2 years and left wondering why both times).  Oh, and Amazon too.

5. Cool shit - This is entirely due to my position and not really due to Frankfurt, per se, but I have gotten to do a lot of fun stuff.  I have toured Porsche and the largest commercial passenger plane in the world.  I have visited the European Space Agency and some of the world's largest banks.  I have met German governors, high-ranking CEOs, Senators and cabinet members.  I have eaten at a Michelin star steak house and seen a satellite that is now in space.  Pretty fun stuff.

The Bad

1. The Siedlung - The housing compound is perfectly okay, but nothing more.  There is not a single feature of my apartment that I will miss when I am at future posts.  Outside the war zones, I haven't heard of or seen worse housing in the FS.  There is nothing specifically wrong with it, but it just doesn't have anything special about it.  To make matters worse, it's in a fairly boring part of town.  Being on a compound, I don't have any German neighbors.  It's like being in Little America.  If that's your thing, then Frankfurt is for you.

2. The lack of community and support - I understand that this is a European malaise, but it still came as a shock when I arrived.  I assumed with so many people here, it would be easier to make friends, but it's actually harder.  The community is so big that you can never know everyone.  People don't introduce themselves to new people the way you do at a small post (I am as guilty of this as anyone else).  People aren't actively looking for new friends the way they do at a small post.  There are so many options for things to do that people hang out with each other less.  It took me 6 months to get a good group of friends and since then I haven't looked back.  But those first 6 months were hard.

3. Working in a Consulate - Working in the Consulate is quite different from working in the Embassy.  I may be more attuned to this because of my position in the Pol/Econ section, but it really affects your work.  Despite the huge consulate, our bilateral mission is quite small.  Political, Economic, and Public Diplomacy work is covered by just a handful of officers.  Most things require an extra layer of scrutiny.  Different portfolio than what you see at the Embassy.  I would consider working a political job again.  I would consider working in a Consulate again, but I don't think I would work in a Political/Economic job in a Consulate again.

4. Germans being German - Two weeks ago, I needed to replace a windshield wiper while on the road.  After 30 minutes, I finally found an auto parts store where they had dozens of windshield wipers available.  Somehow, it took us an hour to find the right part.  Why?  All car models in Germany have a unique identifying number listed on the registration, which allows auto parts stores, repair shops, etc., to input that number and see exactly what parts can be used.  Since my car is an American spec. car, it doesn't have one of those numbers.  Therefore, they couldn't figure out which part to use.  This is one of the most German things in the world - a brilliant system that, when it works, is absolutely fantastic.  AND absolutely zero ability to improvise when that brilliant system doesn't work.

5. Minor annoyances - There are a couple of things that regularly annoy me, but don't really classify as bad enough to warrant their own point.

  • No right turn on red - Waiting at a light for minutes for the light to turn green only then to have to wait for pedestrians to cross the street is extremely frustrating.
  • Sameness of the beer - All of the beer in Germany is good.  None of the beer in Germany is great.  Due to a 16th Century Beer Purity Law, there are basically only three types of beer - Lager, Pilsner, and Hefeweizen.  No ales, no stouts, no light beers, no ciders.  On a scale of 1-10, every beer in Germany is between a 6-8.
  • Internet issues - Germany is a first world, technologically driven country.  Yet, my internet regularly sucks.  I rarely get the promised performance of what I pay for and we often have streaming issues.