Thursday, January 30, 2014

Our Trip to the Ausländerbehörde

It's now 17:00 (5:00pm) here in Berlin. A cold day, but not when you're dressed right. We woke up his morning with the sole purpose of getting ready for, and getting to our visa application appointment, which was scheduled for 13:30 (1:30pm). We arrived nearly one hour early at the huge, imposing Auslanderbehorde building, which gave us time to settle in and relax. We met our attorney at 13:15, and with her confident smile, we chatted and laughed (albeit a nervous laugh) until our number popped up on the screen.

Hugging by the frozen river.
We didn't say a word aside from "Hallo", "Ja", and "Danke Schön". The few hundred euros in attorney fees was well worth the ease of sitting back and letting someone else do the talking. We were in there for only a couple of minutes while our lawyer handed over all of our paperwork and documents (obviously saying all the right things to accompany the package). We then left the room, which we didn't expect we'd do, and returned to the waiting room where we tried to "breathe" while they processed the paperwork. We tried to fill the anxious void with talk of politics and culture.

After a while, about 14:20, she got up to check in with the official (who she actually knew from doing a lot of business at this office). She came back and, to our surprise (no matter how confident we tried to be), let us know that we were getting our visa stamped today. To which I, in shock at the speed and ease at which this had taken place, verified, "So... we got... at least one year???". She nodded with a smile and said, "Yep, now it's just a question of how long" (the visa will be valid). I sat back in my seat with wide eyes and a big smile. She told me to make sure and not celebrate visibly until after we left, to ensure that the officials didn't think we were being approved for something we don't deserve.

We put our smiles away and within a few minutes we were back in the room, where our visas were handed to us, with the official saying, "Zwei Jahre". That means "Two Years", guys. Yep, we can be legal residents of Germany for TWO WHOLE YEARS! It was more than we expected- we had crossed our fingers for even just one year. By 15:00, we were out the door, beginning a new chapter in our lives... officially.

We don't know what the future holds and where the winds will take us, if we will be here that entire time, but it is such a joyous feeling to know that we can be here for... uh-huh... TWO WHOLE YEARS, baby!

P.S. If you are trying to do this same thing, one piece of advice I have is to invest in an immigration attorney! I don't know that we would have gotten a one year visa, let alone two, without legal help.

Still in shock, we weren't jumping up and down, yet.
But, god, are we happy!

Oh yeah, baby!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Countdown to Our Visa Appointment

Last Wednesday, we rode the Ubahn to the Schöneberg district to visit our immigration attorney. She has a bright, spacious office on a side street near the Viktoria-Luise-Platz. It was a quiet, crisp afternoon and the city was blanketed in fresh snow. We were happily surprised that the clothing we had brought from LA was keeping us sufficiently warm in the below freezing air. So we were in good spirits and happy to finally meet Anne, who had been very helpful via email and phone while we were still in the US.

If we understand the language correctly, we're applying for an Aufenthaltstitels - a residence permit. In our case, this residence permit will also include the permission for me to work as a self-employed artist. Shannon, to her frustration, has to apply as my dependent/spouse. Ironically, according to Anne, Shannon's work permission will be broader than mine, allowing her to technically work almost any job in Germany. Whereas, I can only do artistic work. Anne says we will most likely be given 1 to 2 years permission to live and work in the country, and then we'll have to reapply and renew.

The requirements for this permit are pretty extensive:
- The basic documents - a completed application and our passports
- Proof of our civil status as a married couple. Our attorney asked us to get our LA county marriage certificate certified by the Secretary of State of California so that it's authenticity would be beyond question (it's called an Apostille, and you can get this certification for almost any document). We did that step a couple of months ago.
- Proof of health insurance coverage that meets German regulations. In our case we were advised to buy from a company called ALC. This insurer seems to be one of the only ones that a) we're allowed to buy because we're self employed and new to the EU; and b) meets the restrictions. It's barely affordable and it's coverage is so limited that it's almost useless, but it is our temporary solution to obtain our visa. After that, we can work on applying for better options.
- Proof of income and savings (work contracts and bank statements)
- Letters of intent from potential German clients (saying that they want to hire or commission my work)
- Letters of reference from past clients and such
- A concise CV
- Diplomas from university / art school
- A portfolio and any other materials (like samples of my published works) that prove that I'm an artist
- A fee (can't remember how much but it was a bit!)
- Two biometric photos each - we got these at a photo place after our visit with Anne

I think that's it? Well, we have TWO DAYS to make sure...

He had a hard time posing for pictures because he was so cold. Heh.

But I love the guy!

Yes, I love him so much that I want two nearly identical pictures of him. :D
He says, "Okay, can we stop taking photos now?" ;P

Can you see how red my fingers are? That was after having gloves off for a few minutes while taking photos. 

I could NOT get them to warm up!

snow resting on the branches

These kids were handling The Cold much better than we were...

Days to Visa Appointment: 2

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Second Snow!

Rahsan and I popped out to the grocery store to buy a couple of things and... got a little distracted.
But hey- it's SNOW!

Rahsan checking out the prices of the bike rental - 8 cents a minute!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bürgeramt: Our First Brush with German Bureaucracy

One of the first things you're required to do when moving to Germany is to register with the local Bürgeramt, which seems to be sort of a cross between a County Clerk's office and the DMV (they have a lot of different services, including driver's licenses, passport issuance, identity cards, and registration of addresses - which is what we had to do). If you're intending to live in Germany, you're supposed to register within 14 days after your arrival. It's called Anmeldung einer Wohnung. They want to know who you are, how many people are in your household (including children and spouse), and your physical address. We had heard that they also want proof that you are legally living at your address, whether as a tenant or a guest, so we had come prepared with a signed rental agreement from our sublet landlords. The clerk never even looked at this document (and it doesn't currently say to bring it on their website), but it was better to be prepared. Everyone keeps telling us that German bureaucracy is fluid, and you can be asked for different things at different times depending on the official you encounter. Aside from a simple application form, they also want your passport and your marriage certificate or birth certificate.

There are dozens of these offices all around the city. We had heard from a native German friend that you must go to the office closest to your address, but when we were speaking to our attorney, she was sure that we could go to any office in the city. She even called on our behalf and made an appointment - something we had tried to do online, but apparently more appointments are available if you call. The appointments available on the website (at least for the next two weeks) were scarce. After setting our appointment, our attorney chuckled and told us that the office we were headed to was one of the worst for non-German speakers. She printed out the form we would need to fill out and assured us that if we had it completed in advance and pointed at it with a smile, we'd be fine.

Back at home, we sat down to fill out the form, expecting it to be relatively easy despite being in German only. We figured that with today's online translation technology, we'd be able to fill it out without a problem. Four different translation sites later we were cursing our over-confidence and this so-called "advanced technology". In desperation, we started sending messages to all the German speakers we know, but no one was around. Our appointment was only a couple of hours away. I can't believe it, but we didn't even try googling "Anmeldung English" until this moment. Although slightly outdated, we found a helpful site with an annotated version of the Anmeldung form, with comments in English under each box. With this help, we had the form filled out in minutes and were ready to go.

We found our way to the office in Wedding. Walking into the building, we found ourselves in one large room with chairs in the center facing rows of numbered doors on both sides. At the far end, there was another room labelled "Information", and a long queue - we assumed this was for people who did not have an appointment and needed a number (suckers!). Everyone else was sitting on the chairs waiting for their number to pop up on these big scoreboard-like screens indicating which of the clinically identical rooms to disappear into.

Only ten minutes later than our appointed time, we were at last called into room 13. We had brought our German phrasebook and spent our waiting time rehearsing what we would say to the clerk to butter her up and explain why we were there. As soon as our assigned clerk's cold glare caught our eyes, our script crumbled and all we could manage was a badly accented "Guten Tag, sprechen sie Englisch?". Like our attorney predicted, she rolled her eyes and just said "Nein", and raised her eyebrows expectantly and impatiently as if to say "So what do you want???". We fumbled nervously to pull out all of our documents as she waited in annoyance. After that we didn't have to say anything. She typed in all of our information and gave us a stamped certificate (which was free, to our surprise). After 10 minutes we were out of there.

One visa requirement down!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Update on Candy!

So we got an update on Candy from her new caretaker about a week ago. I've been so wrapped up in the move that I haven't stopped to really look at this picture and think about her new life. We hear that this is what Candy does the most, which is no different from when she was with us. Look at that mug. Doesn't it look like there's a little smile on that face??? 

I appreciate this photograph. This photograph pains me. 

I believe she's happy, but how can I be absolutely sure that she has forgotten her former life? I have to believe it, for my own sake. I'm confident in one thing- she has the well-deserved pleasure of being the only kitty in the house- and NOT being picked on by Flash. She can lay in the sun, in peace.

Separately from this update, we heard that a friend of a friend (the wonderful matchmaker) visited Candy's new home and saw that she and her new landlord (it's always the kitties' house, isn't it?) are becoming the best of friends. That and this picture was the best news I've heard all week. <3


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Our First Berlin Flea Market

We spent this afternoon strolling an open air Sunday Flohmarkt (flea market) in the heart of Berlin with an old friend. It was a frigid day - at 3 pm the temperature was 0º Celsius but felt like -5º with the wind. Regardless, Prenzlauer Berg was filled with Berliners, walking the streets and browsing the vendors in Mauerpark.

Our guide today was our dear friend Rob, another expat who has lived here in Berlin for years. When Shannon and I met in San Francisco while working at Yerba Buena Gardens, Rob was a manager there, so we share a lot of memories of working at that place together. And it felt as if very little time had passed - we got along famously. Rob is a delightful guy, kind and generous and full of laughs. He is a performer, clown, actor, director, and teacher, and a very inspiring person to spend time with (website here).

So, Rob led us out into the neighborhood, and we had an excellent time walking and chatting about old times, about Berlin, about German language and culture, and much more. There were a lot of interesting people out, and everyone was very fashionable. Not richly dressed, necessarily, but distinctive and hip. Mostly youth, but also a few parents with cute little babies bundled up in snow suits in their kinderwagen (strollers). There are tons of restaurants and cafes in this area, and they were all buzzing.

In Mauerpark - where there is a section of graffiti-covered Berlin Wall still standing - the regular weekly flea market was also hopping. Tons of vendors selling clothing, jewelry, crafts, books, and records, mixed in with hot food booths offering wurst, waffles, Mediterranean food, and more. It was smaller than usual because of the cold, according to Rob, and also lacking the live music and karaoke that often happens there, but there were a couple of clowns doing tricks for the kids. Rob could teach them a few things if they came to his classes!

We had a bit of glühwein - a hot mulled wine that really warms you up on a cold day - before heading back into the neighborhood to find Babel, a Lebanese place that Rob recommended. I was starting to lose feeling in my fingers, so the warm restaurant and hot food was a great respite. I had an excellent falafel sandwich, which definitely was up there in quality with my favorite authentic Lebanese places back in LA, though maybe the pita could have been a bit fresher and softer. Shannon had a tasty lentil soup, and Rob - in good German form - simply had a bottle of Beck's.

After that, we headed back to our flat for tea and music and more laughter. It was an excellent way to spend our sixth day - and first Sunday - in Berlin.

Flash was happy to have us back home. <3

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Quick Drive Around Berlin

This afternoon we met our new friend, Lutz - an excellent journalist and writer - at Barcomi's Deli in Mitte, the central district of Berlin. Mitte was apparently the site of the original small town of Berlin. This was the first of many interesting facts and insights into the city that Lutz gave us today. We thought that we were just meeting him for a quick coffee and a hello, but that's not what he had planned for us...

Lutz whisked us away in his car and gave us an awesome free tour of the city. Like Los Angeles, a couple of hours of driving around does not even begin to cover all of the sights and neighborhoods of this place, but it was a fantastic introduction.
The German Cathedral at Gendarmenmarkt

We rolled through Mitte and onto Museum Island, the site of a number of monumental buildings with many rich layers of European history. We stopped for a few minutes next to the Lustgarten between the Berlin Cathedral and the Altes Museum. Lutz told us that there were once four buildings surrounding this square, and that they represented the four pillars of society - church, state, military, and the arts. The state in this case was a castle which was destroyed, and a new building is being constructed there now (which is something Berlin is known for doing).

We pulled up aside the Gendarmenmarkt. This beautiful plaza is home to the Konzerthaus in the center, and flanked by the identical French and German Cathedrals. We were told that this plaza is absolutely lovely in the summertime, and filled with people, art, and music. A place we will definitely return to!

We drove by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a chilling monument that we will come back to spend time at and fully absorb its impact.

Another sobering sight was Bebelplatz, where some of the Nazi book burnings took place. The building next the square was apparently the library from which they pulled the books they deemed necessary for destruction. We will return here as well, because in the center of the plaza there is a window in the cobblestones with a view of empty bookcases which would fit the 20,000 burned books.

We passed through the developing Moabit neighborhood, and the Schoneberg and Wilmersdorf area, where Lutz highlighted Viktoria-Luise-Platz, one of his favorite spots. It looked like a very nice neighborhood with a lot of pretty apartment buildings and little restaurants. We also passed through Charlottenberg, and down Kurfurstendamm, as well as past the gay-friendly area of Nollendorfplatz.

We drove through the beautiful, wintery Tiergarten, the famous central park of Berlin. This took us around the Berlin Victory Column as dusk fell.

The Berlin Victory Column
We ended our tour with a freezing walk to the top of a hill in Kreuzberg. At the summit there is the Prussian National Monument for the Liberation Wars, and a magnificent vista of Berlin stretching in all directions. This is one spot that we will come back to on a warmer, less windy day so we can actually appreciate the view!

This was a great way to spend our fifth day in Berlin, and an easy, relaxing way to sightsee with a very knowledgeable guide! As much as we look forward to spending time at these places on foot, the comfort of the chauffeured car was a great perk. We feel like we've gained a lot of inspiration for getting out and seeing the city in the coming weeks.

Having friends like Lutz to help us get to know Berlin is a wonderful thing. This place is huge and exciting, and full of history and beauty around every corner. Lutz said that Berlin is a city that is not as known for its beauty as Paris or London, but that the beauty is hidden. But, I found myself disagreeing for at least one reason. Coming from LA, and seeing, as I did today, so many people on the sidewalks walking together and biking on the streets, instead of everyone alone in their cars, I began to see beauty all around me.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Move: Part 2

Guten Morgen from Berlin! We're sitting in the large and drafty living room of the flat here, looking out on the grey skies above Prenzlauer Berg. It's the beginning of our fourth day here. There is a lot to do and a lot on our minds, from work to visa applications, but we want to take the time now to relate the story of how we got here.

Sunday, January 12

Surprisingly, we got to bed at a decent hour the night before, and didn't have to get up this morning until 7am because we were prepared. We had agreed with Shannon's parents (who were kind enough to be our ride) to leave for the airport at 8:30, knowing it was about a two hour drive to SFO.

A lot of people have been curious about how Flash handled this trip, and indeed, a lot of our focus has been on making sure he's comfortable and safe. After loads of research, we had chosen to fly with United, because they are the only airline to allow pets in-cabin without a weight limit. This was crucial because Flash is about 20 pounds and on some airlines, like Lufthansa, the weight limit (including the carrier) is 8 kg / 17.6 lbs. Some are worse, like Air Berlin, who require the pet and carrier to be no more than 6 kg / 13.2 lbs! It was out the question for Flash to travel in the hold, due to the terrifying number of pet deaths in cargo transit each year. We also, on the recommendation of our veterinarian, decided that a flight transfer was an option to be avoided, and that a single, direct flight was best for Flash. It's scary enough to go through one takeoff and landing for a cat, let alone two or more. United, our only choice, does not have a direct flight from any city in California to Berlin. The closest we could get inside of Germany was Frankfurt, and that flight was only out of San Francisco, not LA. From Frankfurt, we could choose to take a train or rent a car. A train would be a little faster but more expensive, and more frightening for Flash since he's used to car travel. So our plan had formed - drive to San Francisco, fly to Frankfurt, rent a car, and drive to Berlin.

So on Sunday morning, we were apprehensive about how Flash would do, and especially about his potential need to go to the bathroom during travel. We fed him early the night before and took away his water early in the morning, and hoped he would go to the bathroom before we left for the airport. We even bought a foldable travel litter box for him to use on the car ride to Berlin. We won't go into detail, but we were very happy that he emptied both tanks, so to speak, before we left!

On the drive to SFO, we received notice from United that our flight had been delayed an hour. It always sucks to add another hour to your travel, but this time it was a very good thing. After a tearful goodbye to Shannon's parents, we headed in to the international terminal with our mountain of baggage. As we approached the security checkpoint, we learned from a surly pre-screener that the new policy is that you're allowed only one carry-on and one personal item. In the past, we've each had one suitcase carry-on plus a laptop bag, purse, portfolio, and briefcase (as examples). This time, we were each rolling a small carry-on, Rahsan was carrying Flash and a laptop bag, and Shannon was carrying a purse and a camera bag. They wouldn't even let us into the security line with this configuration, so all our meticulous planning went out the window at that moment. We ended up shoving the laptop into a suitcase temporarily, and switching the camera bag to Rahsan's shoulder (since the pet carrier is not counted).

Now here comes the part where the flight being delayed was a good thing. Lately, even the slightest raise in my heartbeat, the smallest amount of added stress in any given situation, has initiated a panic attack for me. I've mentioned my anxiety on this blog before, but I'll share a little more this time. Like a trigger in a gun, the rude security checkpoint guy who turned us away and the realization that we may have brought too much baggage let loose a wave of anxiety that didn't dissipate until we were on the plane. 

Rahsan took me aside and assured me that it really wasn't a big deal (which of course I knew was true) and I took another dosage of anti-anxiety medication (I had already taken some to prevent such an attack). This one felt pretty bad- my head was spinning and I felt short of breath. Adding on that I felt like there was a time limit to my recovery and that my distress might have caused Flash additional nervousness, I couldn't really grab ahold of myself. I can think of at least three times that I mustered up the strength to walk over to the now-scary security checkpoint and each time I freaked out and had to rush back to a seat around the corner. Finally, when my time ran out, and after I had taken yet another dose of medication, Rahsan had the ingenious idea to turn on a Friends episode (my go-to natural anti-anxiety antidote) on his phone and told me to focus on nothing else but that. It worked like a charm. 

Now, when I say it worked, I mean that it got me past the first round of TSA agents and kept me in the line without screaming aloud in terror. But we had SO MUCH "stuff" with us. I told the travelers behind us in the line that we would be taking a while. Despite our preparedness of slip-off shoes and no belts or jewelry, we still had to put everything on the belt and through the x-ray machine, all while looking to the agents to tell us what to do with Flash and when. We knew we had to take him out of the carrier and walk him through the scanner, but it was especially hectic and loud this time, and the TSA guys honestly seemed in a worse mood than usual. They offered to let us take him into a room to take him out, which I accepted, but in that case they made us leave him behind while we walked through, and said they were going to pass him over the wall and around the hubbub. To my dismay, she laid him in his carrier on the floor by the belt and other travelers. I screamed without screaming, if you know what I mean, at the agent next to him. I turned into a momma bear and gave her the sternest look you can give someone with a stun-gun. I mimed angrily for her to pick him up off the ground and pass him over the wall. She quickly did as I said. I looked Rahsan in the eyes and asked him, "Are you sure you can handle all of this?", to which he stood up straight and replied, "Definitely. You go get our boy". 

I was reunited with Flash in the little security room and was so sad to see him absolutely terrified. I was immediately pissed at the agents in the room, which I probably shouldn't have been, when they told me in the driest possible way to take him out of his carrier. The poor guy did not want to come out but I was able to get him into my arms before one of the female agents took his carrier away to be scanned. The other agent stayed behind in the room with us, and after I gave her a puzzled look at the way she was hugging the opposite wall, she whispered to me that she is afraid of cats. I laughed inside, that this big and tough agent was scared of Flash. On the other hand, he is a 20 lb bruiser. I assured her that he doesn't bite, that he was simply afraid. He shrunk into a tiny ball on my lap and tried to burrow his way through my armpit to get onto the floor. Of course, I held onto him like my life depended on it. Finally, the first agent brought his carrier back in and dropped it onto the table. Flash, who doesn't usually voluntarily get into any carrier, rushed into it like a scared little rabbit. Ugh. It crushed me. I gave the two women a sharp look (not necessarily justified, I know) and walked out to Rahsan. 

He had nearly gotten everything out of the way of the other people in the line, even after they opened a bag to check our PS3, and he let me leave the security zone straight away to get Flash to a quiet place. I looked inside his carrier and spoke to him in my sweetest voice, but there was nothing I could do to calm him. His eyes were wider than I've ever seen them and his breathing was so visibly faster than it had ever been, that I was truly worried for him. Again, Rahsan, our rock and voice of reason, told me that he was fine and that we in fact did not need to call our vet to ask if he needed emergency help. 

Now, we had about 15 minutes until boarding, so we found the quietest corner near our gate and I stayed with Flash while Rahsan grabbed a couple of cups of wine, hoping that the alcohol would keep me from freaking out while on the tarmac and during takeoff (usually those are the only points during a flight in which I have panic attacks). Between last minute bathroom breaks and trying to cram some food into my mouth - to limit the burning sensation of the booze entering my stomach (that's a whole other issue) - it was impossible to relax. But ever since I had to take care of Flash in security, I had hardened myself against my own terror to focus on him. This was still the case, as I, with a shaking hand, grabbed some food out of a bag and offered it to him. Tears welled up in my eyes as he just stared ahead and shook, completely uninterested in the one thing that he desires above all else. I was in a bit of denial so I gently pushed the food up to his mouth, praying that that would somehow change his reaction. But nothing. He just stayed there, curled up in a ball, either gazing ahead in shock or jerking his head from one loud noise to the other. This was worse that I thought it was going to be. I felt horrible. "How do people fly with their pets so often?" I asked the universe. 

Well, it was time to board. Again, I zoned out and watched Friends on Rah's phone while he took Flash on the plane behind me. Luckily, we got the row to ourselves! That was something we had hoped would happen but thought for sure that there are never any open seats on an international flight anymore. Maybe this was due to the fact that we were in Economy Plus. Anyway, that was something we celebrated. Rahsan took the aisle, I took the window, and Flash was on the floor under the middle seat ahead of us, but longways so his carrier was actually mostly out from under the seat. His carrier fit airline regulations, so if the flight attendant had asked us to "stow" him away completely, we would have been able to turn him, but they never did (possibly because we kept shuffling our coats to cover him up every time they walked by). I had most of my mind on watching the show, and the rest focused on making Rahsan check on Flash every five seconds. When I did look down into the carrier (there's a flap on the top that can be pulled aside to see through) I saw Flash's eyes curiously looking at me and out the window. Within a few minutes, he looked as he looks in the car, completely comfortable and simply curious. I sighed in relief and continued to meditate to Phoebe's antics and Chandler's lame jokes. When it was time to take off (the point at which I had most worried about Flash being confused and fearful) Rahsan and I stuck our hand through the top of the carrier and pet Flash while we lifted up into the air. But Flash didn't seem afraid at all, and Rah and I agreed that this was the smoothest and quietest takeoff we'd ever experienced. Another sigh. We all settled in. The worst was over, we were sure.

Finally in the air and on our way, we were very much enjoying having the row all to ourselves. The flight went pretty well. We were surprised that we got two "meals", a snack, and a round of drinks all for free. We thought that sort of service had ended in 1999. We still had to share a crappy TV stuck on the bulkhead a few rows up. No "personal entertainment screens" in United Economy. We each got some snatches of sleep. Flash calmed down significantly and was able to eat small handfuls of food. And he only got restless in the later part of the flight, stretching and pushing his little face against the mesh windows of his carrier. As we descended into Frankfurt, we were worried that the loud noise of landing would terrify Flash again. But again we were surprised at how quiet the aircraft was, and at the skillfully soft touchdown executed by the pilot. We were feeling optimistic and excited.

That feeling disappeared quickly though once we realized that the rental car place was in an entirely different terminal! We had two carts piled with our stuff, and had to go up and down a series of elevators that seemed to get smaller and smaller each time. Seriously, we were wheeling these carts through the airport for an hour. Halfway through that time, we met Russell, an amazing beacon of hope in the endless nightmare of sweaty cart-pushing. He was an expat vet and airport information guide with wizardly white hair and an appropriately Gandalf-like disposition. He took us by the proverbial hand and led us all the way from the tram to the rental car office. He did this for no reason, really, except to be kind (and, he admitted, because he was bored on the tram platform). We know this because he refused a tip and told us it was against the rules for him to take one. He did accept a signed comic book from me and a grateful and desperate hug from Shannon!

By that time, the rental car company had marked our reservation as 'no-show' and given away all the cars in our rental class. That worked out, though, because our luggage wouldn't have fit in the small european size "wagon" we had booked. A friendly Finn upgraded us to a super fancy BMW, while also hitting me with the bad news that German regulations would not allow me to use my credit card's travel insurance and that I would have to buy the car company's in-house insurance. While I dealt with this, Shannon watched Flash and learned about German politics from another employee at the car company.

Soon we were on our way into the foggy Frankfurt afternoon. Initially we found ourselves driving in circles in a surreal fairy-tale forest, looking for a place, any place to pull over and let Flash out of his carrier and offer him the litter box. After that success, the nav system got us on our way to Berlin.

It got dark quickly, and Shannon, who'd slept less on the plane than me, sagged in her seat and passed out. I turned on the radio and tried to stay alert, but had to pull over several times for several cups of Kaffee at the funny little German gas station rest stops (all nearly identical in design). Driving was interesting, learning the German signage (which still confuses me a bit) and observing the driving culture. German drivers are more orderly than California drivers, staying in their lanes based on their speed, and quickly moving out of the way for faster drivers, apparently with very little ego, a big difference from LA.

When Shannon woke up, she focused on keeping me awake, pinching my ear and annoyingly rubbing the back of my head. It worked! We made it to the limits of Berlin and rolled into the city in our sweet BMW like bourgeois Americans.

We circled the block a few times looking for our destination apartment block, and found parking nearby. Our hosts helped us up the four flights of stairs and into their flat, which they had prepared for us. We received a brief orientation (continued the next morning before they left for their winter holiday) and then we passed out. It feels like we haven't entirely woken up since.

Aside from a few trips of necessity to take care of errands and shopping, we haven't seen much of the city yet. There is so much waiting for us...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Move: Part 1

We are sitting here on our new bed in our new flat in Berlin. It's 18:00 in the evening, dark and chilly out. This will be our third night here but it feels like it's been one long continuous day since we left San Francisco on Sunday afternoon. In fact, it's been a full week now of nearly unbroken intensity.

Right before we left!
* Shannon's comments are italicized!

Tuesday, January 7

This was the day that we had scheduled to actually move out of our apartment in LA. When we got up that morning, we knew that we were a bit behind already on everything that had to be done. But, we went and picked up the rental truck while still clinging to some optimism that we would, indeed, be able to pack everything out and leave in the early to mid-afternoon. Then we drive north while some daylight still remained, arriving in Oakdale (where Shannon's parents live, our last pitstop before Germany) in the evening.

But reality set in as we began a grueling day of nonstop boxing, lifting, and cleaning. I don't think we stopped moving for 14 straight hours, barely even stopping to eat. Luckily we had some help from family, especially my sister, who worked very hard for hours to help us stay on track. We whittled the place down room-by-room, with poor confused Flash watching us from his bed as everything disappeared in front of his eyes. By the end of the day, Shannon and I were exhausted, and still faced with the daunting prospect of driving 6 hours through the night.

We moved our bed into the living room for the last night we spent there because our other furniture was gone- and it's more fun that way!
This was the last thing we packed up. :)
Having fun with the empty apartment!
All clear!
The mess at the end!
But finally we had reached the last moments in our little apartment, our home for five years. My sister finally called it quits and said we said our goodbyes. Rahsan isn't afraid to shed a tear, but we were both caught off guard when he cried after she left. Shannon switched off the lights in the bedrooms and hallway, so that only one light remained, and turned to me with a look of surreal realization that we were actually leaving. We both acknowledged that this is really happening, and it hit us both like an elbow in the gut. We stood there for a while in the empty space just holding each other and crying. I surprised myself with my depth of emotion. It's complicated - leaving that apartment was a necessary and positive turn for our life, something that we have been very excited about. It was absolutely what had to happen. But we had built so much inside of that place. Our routines, our working life, our source of rest and rejuvenation - we were very comfortable and safe. And our relationship was nurtured and blossomed there. We were married while living there, and because of that there will always be a special significance to our memories of the space.

So, wiping away our tears and turning our gaze away from the past and toward the excitement of the future, we set off. Again, clinging to optimism, that yes, it was not crazy to start a six hour drive at 9:30 at night!

We made it all the way to Santa Clarita (30 minutes) and had some McDonald's, telling ourselves that the "protein" would get us through. It didn't. Within another half hour, I began getting really drowsy. Rahsan and I were on speakerphone with each other (I was driving our car while Rahsan followed behind in the rental truck full of our stuff) and suddenly I realized that I was near the point of falling asleep at the wheel. At this point, we were driving through the Grapevine, and there were no exits or shoulders. I could hear the terror in Rahsan's calm and stern voice as he preceded to say anything he could to keep me awake. He told me that Flash was in my backseat and it was my responsibility to keep him safe; he told me that it was just a couple more minutes to the next exit (even though it was further than that); he tried to keep me talking. It was one of the scariest things both of us had ever gone through. Rah got me from exit to exit to exit (at one exit we were hassled by a pair of suspicious CHP officers who probably thought we were up to something much racier than simply resting and watching some Friends on Rahsan's phone), until finally we made it to the Holiday Inn in Lebec to get some sleep. I apologized so many times, for getting us off schedule, for costing us money, and for putting him through that. He assured me that he needed the sleep, too. 

Wednesday, January 8

We woke up late after passing out in what felt like the most comfortable hotel bed ever, and fueled up on the cheap Holiday Inn continental "breakfast". Flash had not had as restful a night, to say the least. He was freaked out by the smells and sounds of the hotel room, and had prowled around the room a lot during the night. He didn't want to eat much or use his litter
box, even though we tried everything to soothe him. It was just too strange a place for him, I suppose.

But soon enough we hit the road, and managed to get to Oakdale by the late afternoon. We had made it! Our simple one day move had turned into a two-day epic ordeal, but we'd made it.

Thursday, January 9

We unloaded the truck all day, placing everything into an empty bedroom in Shannon's parents' house. We had way more stuff than we'd estimated, so it was a bit stressful realizing that everything would not entirely fit in the closet and attic as we'd hoped. But we focused on simply getting it off the truck, and left the storage puzzle to another day.

Flash was so happy to be at the house. He's spent a lot of time there, so being in a familiar space after the car ride and strange hotel was an obvious relief for him.

I had to work during the first part of the day, which left most of the unloading to Rah and my dad. Then he and I took the truck back to Modesto, the nearest Budget rental drop-off location (Oakdale is a pretty small town). The guy who worked there asked us where we were coming from, and then asked us why in the world we would leave LA. We told him where we were ultimately headed and I saw a bit of jealousy in his eyes. I told him to get out of there. Not everyone who's born in California's central valley should stay there, if there heart lies elsewhere.

Friday & Saturday, January 10 & 11

We spent two days sorting our stuff and packing our suitcases for Germany. It was a big job! Normally, you pack suitcases for a trip of a few days, or at most a couple of weeks. But we were packing up the necessities of our entire life. That's the nature of relocation. You really have to balance what you need with what you want, and fit it all into the strict weight requirements of international air travel. For instance, there was a last minute debate over whether we should bring my aging Wacom tablet or buy a new one. Our suitcases were all approaching the weight maximum and that tablet is heavy! It's very necessary for my work, but I've been thinking of replacing it soon anyway. But ultimately we managed to squeeze it in, and I'm very glad we did. Every extra dollar counts over here in Euro-land.

By the end of Saturday we had packed our suitcases like champions, and basically decided where everything else would be stored. We were ready to go! And just in time for Sunday morning...

Next: Part 2 - Getting to Berlin

Sunday, January 12, 2014

On The Eve of Departure

We're about fourteen hours away from our flight to Frankfurt! It has been a whirlwind of a week, and very difficult to find time for posting to this blog. On Tuesday and Wednesday we spent the most intense day in recent memory getting our stuff out of our apartment and up to Oakdale (where Shannon's parents live). That was followed by days of sorting out exactly what we're bringing with us to Germany! Tomorrow we'll be up early, and on our way to SFO for the most important moment of all so far - takeoff! More soon.

Days to Takeoff: less than 1!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Searching for My Home

I didn't know I'd have this many nerves. I honestly didn't think I'd have a hard time with it at all. From such a young age, I've dreamt of seeing the Big Wide World and meeting every single one of It's inhabitants. In my mind I've wandered the deserts and climbed the mountains and shook hands with prime ministers and discovered new breeds of butterflies with botanists deep in the Amazon and danced with the native peoples of a land which still hasn't been touched by "the outside world".

I spent nights awake, thinking of all the ways I could get across the seas.
I shed more tears each year that it didn't happen.

So why now, do I find myself breaking down and grasping at these familiar things around me that I've previously been so ready to leave behind? A lifetime of daydreams have prepared me for today... but I don't feel prepared. I don't feel ready. I am not ready.

Why can't I just relax and trust that we've done what we need to do, and that everything else will not just "work out" or "come together", but will actually be everything I've wanted it to be... everything I've needed it to be.

Maybe I'm putting too much pressure on myself. Maybe everyone's "Wow!"s and "I could never do that!"s and "What a HUGE change!"s have changed my excitement to fear. Will everything get done? I don't know. Will I still be shaking in emotional terror once I've arrived at my destination? I honestly couldn't predict it. I'm truly on a roller coaster and I have no idea where it will lead me, if it will stop on a hill or a valley. Hopefully it will never stop, but will slow down and turn into one of those kiddy rides that go at a speed in which you can actually view what you pass by. Or it could turn into a train that stops whenever I want it to, and glides by the places I don't need to experience...

Days to Takeoff: 8
**Days to move out of our home: 3**

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Candy

Tonight we said goodbye to sweet old Candy. She was ours for almost five years, and letting her go was very very difficult. How does one properly say goodbye to an animal who can't really understand what is happening or why things have suddenly changed? For her, there is no extra significance to the last stroke of her fur or the final kiss on the top of her head. She only knows that she is somewhere new, with someone new, and that Shannon and I are gone. She can't conceive of the permanence of this change. And that is, perhaps, the most heartbreaking part of leaving her. That she doesn't know.

We packed up all of Candy's things - her food, her favorite toy, her well-worn bed, among many other things - and then drove her over to her new place. It's a lovely little apartment, quiet and not too large. Her new owner, Emily, is very sweet, and very calm - really the perfect personality to care for an old delicate girl like Candy. We all sat on the floor in the living room and opened the door to Candy's carrier. She hesitated for a few minutes, just looking out the windows, trying to figure out where she was. Soon enough she came out, and actually seemed excited by the new environment. She walked all around the apartment from room to room, smelling and staring with those big glowing cataract eyes. And she was perfectly comfortable with Emily, rubbing and purring happily.

Candy ate a little dinner, we talked thoroughly about everything Emily needs to know, and then soon the time came to leave. Shannon had coaxed Candy into her little bed, and she was sleepily purring. It seemed the right time to go. Each of us gave her a final goodbye kiss on the head. She seemed fine. But as we walked out the door, her head popped up and she looked after us. As we passed the window she was craning her head to watch us walk by. Those big glowing eyes pierced us both right to the heart. It was a terribly painful moment. I won't forget those eyes catching mine through the glass. It's going to stay with me for a long time.

I can only hope she quickly forgets about us, and doesn't look at the door of her new apartment, expecting us to walk back through it. Her senility and short memory is a blessing. But she will be confused for a time. Emily will be showering her with attention and love, no doubt. Perhaps that will distract Candy enough to keep her happy while she adapts to her new life. She had to do the same thing when Shannon and I took her from her previous home. She has proven her adaptability. She is truly a wonderful old girl, with so much love to share with everyone she meets. We are lucky to have had her in our lives.

 We will miss you Candy.

Days to Takeoff: 10