Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Trip to Erding

Suffering under the burden of having to take 6 weeks of vacation a year, and only having taken 3 weeks so far for our trip to Canada, Elena and I decided we needed to get caught up. So last week we took off work and made a quick getaway to the small city of Erding, in the state of Bavaria in south-western Germany. The city is just north-west of Munich; in fact the Munich International Airport is closer to Erding than it is to Munich. But aside from that, Erding -- despite it's population of only 35000 -- is known throughout Germany for two things: the largest thermal bath park in Europe, and the largest wheat-beer brewery in the world.
Naturally, we visited both.
Erding is typically Bavarian in it's architecture, and we enjoyed a little stroll the old city center after squeezing through the tiny gate.
With it's lively-coloured buildings, pedestrian-only zones and a small river flowing through the middle, the downtown is an idyllic place to wile away a morning.

Erding's thermal bath park is very impressive and difficult to explain to North Americans not accustomed to the German concept of "Therme". Imagine a spa crossed with a giant water park: a massive complex of inter-connected buildings with three retractable roofs housing everything from saunas and whirlpools to water slides, where the lines between 'indoor' and 'outdoor' are blurred.
After spending the better part of two days there, we can whole-heartedly recommend it if you ever find yourself in this part of Germany.
Judging by the fact that there are two tours daily at the wheat beer brewery, they also have a large number of visitors. It was an informative and entertaining tour which allowed us to see every step of the process is making the world's most famous wheat beer. Wheat beer is a cloudy, thicker, slightly sweet beer. It is sometimes referred to as "liquid bread".

Although much of the process is automated and involves all the modern technology you would expect, it is entirely naturally-brewed and there are none of the additives found in many North American beers. The final stage of the process actually takes place in the bottle during its storage in the brewery's climate-controlled warehouse, capable of housing up to 15 million bottles.

The tour ends at the brewery's restaurant beside the stills, where everyone is treated to that most typical of Bavarian meals: white sausage with sweet mustard, a large pretzel, and of course: wheat beer.
We enjoyed the complimentary lunch with a friendly elderly couple from north-eastern Germany who were travelling around in an RV.
Interestingly, the brewery had something else from north-eastern Germany on display: an intact piece of the Berlin wall, presented to the brewery's owner (it is still privately-owned) on the occasion of his 70th birthday.       

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The View From Here

We have just acquired two new things of great importance: an apartment, and high-speed internet. It's not that I'm ranking those things as being of equal standing, but using a USB stick in an area with very weak (sometimes no) network coverage or scurrying over to one of Elena's relatives just to check our emails and update this blog until now has made me appreciate the convenience of modern connectedness.
It's been about a week since we moved in to our new digs, and we're glad that we don't feel like long-term guests anymore. It's a small apartment, but the space is maximized by having only a few rooms and a high ceiling on one side due to the slanted roof. Also, being on the top (4th) floor of the building with a balcony to the south and a sun-room to the north affords us plenty of natural light and a nice panoramic view of Balingen. As the interior is either devoid of furniture or an embarrassing post-moving mess, we would prefer to introduce you to our new dwelling by showing you a few pictures with a view toward the outside.
 On the south side, the neighbouring building is slightly lower than ours, allowing the hills of the "Schwäbische Alb" region just beyond Balingen to be seen.

On the balcony, the view to the left is of residential housing; to the right is the downtown, complete with church steeple. 
 On the north side is another apartment building, but also a nice patch of green in between. The highway is hidden behind the row of trees, but the sound of traffic isn't usually loud enough to be noticable.
Being closer to the highway and the downtown mean that both of us are that much closer to work and most stores, and we're thankful that we've found a place that suits us.
Who knows, maybe we'll even post photos of the inside if we ever get it to a presentable state.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Opening Day

We've been back in Germany for about a week now after spending a good part of April in Canada. Admittedly not the best month to visit, but the weather wasn't as bad as it could have been and we accomplished (most of) what we set out to do. We did our taxes, and instead of packing more our remaining belongings in Canada in a shipping container and waiting weeks to get them, we decided to take advantage of the fact that there were four of us -- two of our nieces came with us -- and jam as much as we could in our luggage for the trip home, including forking over a bit of extra money to the airline so that we could each take an extra suitcase. We did manage to bring the important stuff with us, but there are still some things we'd like... just a fair warning to any of you who plan to come to Germany in the next while. If we find out, we may saddle you down with extra luggage.
The jet lag hit particularly hard this time around for some reason; despite having a weekend to recover, our first days at work were brutal, and we're still not entirely back in the groove. But the weather has more than compensated for our troubles, and after a cool start to the week the temperature has been steadily climbing the clouds gradually fading. Today was the high point, with not a cloud in the sky and the mercury hitting 30° (86 F). Today being a Saturday, the implications were clear. It was opening day of the European city lifestyle. People descended on the old city center; strolling through the pedestrian-only zone and sipping drinks at outdoor cafés.   

The city center is never actually closed during the year, it just lends itself well to fair weather as you can imagine. And despite the sudden heat, thankfully people didn't take the North American approach to summer apparel and strip down to the bare minimum. Elena had to work, so after dropping her off I thought I'd get a jump on the week's grocery shopping to leave the rest of the day free for a bit of yard work, odds and ends, and of course just enjoying the day. I should have known by now that many Germans also plan their Saturdays in the same way -- not just when there's good weather -- and so when I went to the two grocery stores where we usually do our shopping, both of them were already packed and had long lineups at the checkouts... at 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning. I should point out that the entire downtown pedestrian zone is set up as a farmer's market on Saturday mornings, and also has many customers with baskets in hand at 8 o'clock. By late morning much of the produce is gone and vendors begin packing up their tables and trailers. By early afternoon there is no trace of them, and the area is wide open for people to enjoy the day along with a scoop of gelato.   

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hamburg III: The Cool Display

Most of the exhibition visitors either operated commercial kitchens (i.e. restaurants, hotels, hospitals, etc.), or were dealers and planners for the industry. Although the vast majority were from Germany, I was recruited into action when foreign visitors showed up, all of whom spoke English to some degree or another. I did need to take care of a few German visitors myself, and that was a bit nerve-wracking.
The company I work for was up against some stiff competition from the other displays, but was up for the challenge. Not to be outdone by the smells and tastes coming from other kitchens, we had our own professional chef along with some assistants showcasing the usefulness of our commercial refrigeration appliances.
There are two things which easily attract the attention of passersby, the first of which is offering a delicious snack free of charge. Not too much; something you can hold in your hand but which looks haute-cuisine. Our chef whipped up a selection of canapés early in the day using a variety of fresh breads, cheeses, smoked meats and salmon, and topped them with colourful vegetable garnishes. He then put them in our shock-freezer where they plunged down to -30°. Throughout the day he would take them out, let them unthaw for 5-10 minutes, and hand them out to groups of people while enthusiastically explaining to them through his wireless headset microphone that they were actually prepared many hours earlier and had in fact been frozen solid for much of the day. He spoke passionately about the technology we use to pull this off, and proceded to also extoll the merits of our quick-cooler by showing how he was storing fresh baguette, smoked fish and 3-day old pasta and potatoes together with no transer of aroma or flavour. Most people were quite impressed by the canapés, as was I. Just to be sure, I continually tested them throughout my three days there.
The other way to get people to spend time at your display of course is to offer free beverages. All you had to do was wander in and one of our hostesses would appear before you asking if you would like something to drink. From our chilled beverage counter we offered spring water, cola, juice, and white wine. Although many visitors requested something from our espresso/cappucino machine, the biggest draw was the fact that we had the Black Forest's most famous pilsner and wheat beers available from our bar - on tap.
Welcome to Germany.

Six o'clock was happy hour. After 9 hours of stress without a break, weary sales teams would desert their dry displays and gather at the displays of business partners who had liquid refreshment to offer... i.e., ours. Men loosened their ties, women kicked off their heels, and everyone chatted about the highs and lows of the day.
Suddenly everyone was a friend.
Even the competition.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Hamburg II: The Exhibition

The reason I was in Hamburg of course, was to attend the biggest commercial gastronomy exhibition in Germany with my new employer. Although the primary purpose was to get to know our regional sales reps and dealers as well as see how things are done from a marketing perspective, I was free to periodically roam around to familiarize myself with the industry in general and our business partners and competition in particular.
The exhibition basically consists of multiple enormous halls containing the newest, the biggest, the most high-tech and of course most expensive commercial kitchen appliances, tools and gadgets (many of which I didn't even know existed) in the world. A good percentage of the exhibitors had professional chefs (some of them famous TV chefs) working fully functioning commercial kitchens, demonstrating their wares by creating every imaginable gourmet delight in record time and dishing it out free of charge to whomever happened to be standing in front of them. You can begin to imagine my enthusiasm. Every now and then I thought "And they're paying me to do this?!"
I actually only made it though a few of the halls, so I can't tell you what was in the other ones. But from what I saw, I can tell you that there is no kitchen task so small, that some company somewhere hasn't made a machine to assist you in that operation. Case in point - I'm not making this up - there was a company proudly displaying a large, fully automated cutlery sorter: pile your various-sized spoons, knives and forks in one end, and it will dispense them in the appropriate holder at the other end. I suppose you would have to have an extremely high-volume dining hall to justify such a purchase, but items like that made the exhibition a fascinating experience.
Close to our display was a company proudly showcasing a huge kitchen island I think any of us could live with. This stainless steel beauty features two convection ranges and one gas range, three various sized frying stations, a built-in barbecue grill, a pressable griddle, several sinks and overhead faucets, all controlled either manually or with three touch-screen LCD displays.
My favourite two items were a little simpler, and conveniently displayed side by side. Just think, you too can have your very own mongolian grill on the patio, composed entirely of stainless steel with a marble ledge. 
Or, if you're a little more old-fashioned, you can spring for the partitioned frying pan the size of your entire stovetop. Breakfast for the whole family couldn't be easier.
"Who wants bacon, eggs, sausage, pancakes and apple fritters?"

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Hamburg I: The City

While Elena had Saturday through Monday off of work, I was in Hamburg beginning my new job at an exhibition. I arrived back home from Hamburg late last evening with a lot of experiences packed into three days, and a few photos to boot. I thought it would be convenient to write three seperate entries over the next few days, and this is the first one: my impressions of the city.
Hamburg is a port city in the north of Germany, and I found it to be very different from southern Germany in a number of ways. For one, the architecture is closer to that Denmark, their neighbour not far to the north. Although there is what I would call a general style, there is not uniformity among the buildings, with many of them managing to stand out from the crowd as far as colour, facade, or general design.

This is true of the culture as well: it is an edgy university town with a strong artistic flare and a huge music scene. Everywhere I looked there were ads for musicals or concerts.
It also has an abundance of great restaurants featuring international and new cuisine. We travelling across town with some business associates to eat at a very authentic Argentinian steakhouse with a large charcoal grill.
This is where the difference between northern and southern Germans became pronounced. While the artsy, well-dressed locals were trying to enjoy a quiet evening in Latin style, the Swabians and Bavarians in our party were howling with laughter at jokes being told in turn, and ordering more beer. Southern Germans are known for a number of things, but subtlety is not one of them.

Friday, March 9, 2012

On the Move

As I wrote in the last entry, things are changing fast for us.
For one, we've finally found an apartment which suits us, and plan to move in on May 15th. I say "finally" because we've been looking for several months. It's not that our expectations were so high, it's just that the Balingen rental and real estate market is so hot that most of the good properties and units are gone before they even get on the open market. It's one of those things where you have to be well-connected to hear about who's going to be selling or moving out soon, and then swoop in before they get a chance to put an ad in the paper. Elena was fortunate enough to have a colleague who is planning to move out of an apartment which she owns, and it happens to be in a very good location for us: within walking distance of Elena's work (and the church), and very close to the highway. We'll do another post when we move in to show you around our new digs.
Another big change concerns my work. The story goes like this: About a month ago I began to develop rashes on my hands. I assumed it had to do with the unusually cold weather we were experiencing, but thought it odd that I had never had anything like that during a Canadian winter. Then it began to get worse even as the weather was getting better, spreading up my arms almost to my shoulders. At that point Elena booked me a doctor's appointment. Our doctor took one look at it and asked if I wear a watch. I don't, but he said he asked because it looks exactly like a nickel allergy. I told him I work with nickel-containing parts every day. He looked at me with a half-smile, nodding his head as the career implications sunk in. My only formal training and experience is in trades dealing with metals. He delicately explained that it would be quite difficult for me to continue in my current position without taking measures to ensure that my skin does not come into contact with nickel - a component in almost all steels, and especially metal coatings. Wearing gloves and long sleeves all day along with other precautions would be necessary, but I would not be a very effective or happy worker.
Around the same time I found a job posting for a sales rep at a commercial refrigeration applicance company very close to Balingen. I have never done anything of that sort, but I had two things going for me: they wanted someone with a technical trade or experience to be able to deal with technical issues and questions, and they wanted someone fluent in spoken and written English because the position concerns product dealers outside of Germany. Check and check. Although they were also hoping for someone with sales experience, I decided to take a shot at it anyway. I sent a resume hoping that the job wasn't taken yet and Elena and I prayed about it because we didn't see much else for me in the way of career options. Amazingly, I got the job. I may do a post about that experience, it's quite miraculous. I gave my two-weeks notice, and yesterday was my last day working in Gosheim after nearly four months. I left on good terms and was even told they would try to find another job for me in the company if my new job didn't work out.
I took today off to do some errands and relax a bit, because my first day of work with the new company is actually tomorrow: I'm flying to an exhibition in Hamburg with my new boss! We're scheduled to leave tomorrow morning and come back Monday evening. They said my only job at the exhibition is to be curious. I can do that. Get to know my new colleagues and even check out the competition. I've never been to Hamburg, but I'm told it's a beautiful city. I don't know how much I will see of the city, but I'll let you know how things went.
One other thing that's (sort of) new is that we plan to be in Canada for the first few weeks in April! The flights were booked about a month ago and we haven't kept it a secret, but it came to my attention that not everyone has heard about this through the grapevine. So I thought I would mention it here. We need to do our Canadian taxes for last year and pack up a container of what's left to ship here. It also works out that the Easter holidays mean we'll get to spend a bit more time with family.
So, we hope to see a lot of you in a few weeks! But before that I'll try to let you know how my new job is working out.