Every blog has it: an apology for not blogging lately

Hey, sorry I haven’t blogged for a while.

There it is, done. Every blog has it, there’s mine. Thank you for not asking why – there’s no real reason: lifeworktravelbusykidsfoodshoppingmoreworkonlysomanyhoursintheday – yawn.

It’s OK – I used to run regularly and then I found in the autumn I wasn’t doing it, so I just made a few tweaks to my schedule and turned running into a habit. I’m going to do the same with this blog. We are only in Germany another seven weeks, so for the rest of April at least I am going to do a blog post every damn day. If that doesn’t turn it into a habit …

Do I have enough material for that? Oh yes, I got plenty. Trips to France, Italy and the Czech Republic. Some “how-tos” about how my family actually books and plans a trip. How wherever you are in Germany, you’re in a venn diagram. And the one I’ve been really waiting to write about tow-bars and white asparagus.

So this was today’s, stay posted for tomorrow’s but meanwhile you should at least get a picture, right? Well as this post isn’t really about anything, here’s a picture that won’t really fit anywhere else. It’s a craft project that anyone can make on long car journeys from Germany to Italy when your only materials are a few mandarins. This one I created in Austria, and it looks a bit like Edelweiss so that’s kind of appropriate. It’s available for sale on my Etsy site.

Mandarin peel Edelweiss
Mandarin peel Edelweiss
Advertisements

A bit further to the right

It felt exactly like expecting a baby, being told early on that it’s going to be a boy, decorating the nursery, getting little boys’ clothes, and then two days before you have the baby the doctor says actually, it’s a little girl.

How shall I put this? It’s probably easier just to come out and say it:

WE HAVE DECIDED TO LIVE IN GERMANY.

We arrived in Germany on 9 August on the back of the bad car experience and after a 21-hour train journey. We stopped here for a while because we have friends to stay with and it was closer to Strasbourg than Sweden. Obviously. So from here we could make trips into France to start getting things sorted over there.

Our friends here (well, family of a friend) live in a small village near a town called Eppingen. If you’re not so up with your Germany geography, we are about an hour north-west of Stuttgart, and about an hour an a bit from the French border. If you are up with your Germany geography, we are in the Kraichgau area of Baden-Württemberg.

So, this “family of a friend” have brought us completely into their lives. Yes, there’s been just the helpful stuff, like giving us a roof, WiFi, helping us buy another car (checked out by a mate who is a mechanic) and sharing the most enormous breakfasts with us. But they have shown us around their region, slotted us into family members’ birthday parties, gone on bike rides, adopted Joe into training with the local football team, given us the opportunity to help around the house … Joe said at one point, “This place is great, you could really live here.” And then we smiled and planned our first trip to France.

We started doing trips to Strasbourg from 15 August, and went there four times over the course of two weeks – initially just for a day, then for some longer stays, that sort of thing. We were looking for an apartment and it was tough going – not impossible, but let’s be honest, if you are a real estate agent and you have a couple from the other side of the world and she has some income from NZ sort of but no they don’t have French jobs but apparently they have some savings in NZ in their funny dollars whatever that means … and then you have a normal French couple with French jobs, who are you going to pick?

On the job front, we had called into a few places, left some CVs, they were all very polite but you got the feeling that the companies had not yet woken up from their summer slumber.

I wasn’t too upset about the lack of progress, I figured we just needed to be patient – that it might take a month or even two to get something.

But until you have an address, you cannot open a bank account, you can’t send the children to school, you can’t register or insure a car, and then you are eating into your savings by staying in hotels or hostels until you get your own place. I was starting to get worried about exactly where we would be sleeping the following week, “Do we need to book a week here in Strasbourg on Air BnB somewhere? Should we book longer?” etc.

If we absolutely HAD to live in Strasbourg, I think we could have done it. But it would have been the sort of situation where you have some pretty miserable days until you do get settled.

So on 29 August we came back from a trip to Strasbourg, back to our German family here in Kraichgau and we realised we felt like we had come home. We had already had offers to stay at someone’s apartment nearby, and offers to help fix one of us up with a job.

As I said, if we HAD to live in Strasbourg, we might have done it. But if you are only here for 12 months, why spend one or two of them being miserable when someone is standing there offering you everything you want, just a bit further to the right than you’d planned?

Joe and I went for a walk around the village at about 11pm that night to talk about it. We didn’t really talk about pros and cons so much, we just went with our longing to put a stake in the ground and start living.

How the children took it

Well, it was strange for me too. You’ve put so much preparation into going to France, mainly learning French, and then you turn it upside down and decide to stay somewhere where you speak about 50 words of the language. It felt exactly like expecting a baby, being told early on that it’s going to be a boy, decorating the nursery, getting little boys’ clothes, and then two days before you have the baby the doctor says actually, it’s a little girl.

“But I’ve painted the nursery blue!”

“But I’ve learned French!”

So yes, the children were initially pretty… well, not “upset” in the sense of tears and crying, but more that their own little planning and understanding had been “upset” by this decision. We sold it to them in the same terms that we had sold it to ourselves:

  • We could start living now. Open a bank account, go to school, register the car.
  • We could still visit all the sights and people we had planned to – Sweden, Britain, Paris; it doesn’t matter if you live this side of the French-German border or the other side.
  • We would be immersed in another language

And there were two unexpected bonuses for me. One, we had talked about having to live in a city. Now we are living in a gorgeous historic village, something I would not have thought possible when we started our early planning. And the second one is, we had always talked about the old friends we would visit. Now we have some new friends, people I had never met before we arrived at their breakfast table one morning, people who we have so much in common with and people who I now realise I want to share this year with. Fast forward to our Strasbourg Christmas: so there we are, the four of us, at home, cooking our dinner, opening our presents, and then? Instead we will be sharing that and much more with an amazing family, and their wider families.

I know that I will no longer qualify for the medal that says “Congratulations, you toughed it out and did it on your own!” But this way our own little family will be so much happier, so on balance I can live without that particular prize.

Tchuß!

Here are some snaps from our area:

IMAG0566 IMAG0569  IMAG0485 IMAG0490 IMAG0499

And the writing should have been on the wall here – this was Molly’s birthday, only our second day in Germany, and this was her gift from our hosts:

IMG_1405

Why France?

So, super. We’ve decided to do an OE, we can take a year off our jobs, and we’ll be gone July 2014 to July 2015. The next big issue was when we tried to narrow it down beyond “Europe”.

Middle of last year we knocked around a few options. Our last OE was in London, because we’ve done that, and because it’s a bit harder with two kids in school, we wanted to go somewhere else. We have lots of mates around Britain, some of our best friends in Sweden, family in Italy, an increasing number of mates in Germany – but where to settle?

I was plugging for Britain: we speak the language, it’ll be easier to get jobs, then we can go travelling on the Continent whenever we like. But Joe, who is British, wasn’t interested. He wanted language to be a part of his OE, particularly for the kids. So, I speak French and Italian…eh… conversationally, Joe and the kids don’t speak anything else at all. So we argued about this for a while – I could see his point about not wanting to do a repeat on England culturally, so I was arguing for other parts of Britain: “What about Scotland??” I put Aberdeen firmly on the table: it’s charming, it has high employment, it’s got to be a winner. But Joe wouldn’t budge: not Britain.

On 1 October last year we were on holiday in the South Island when the travel agent called me to say the cheap airfares had just been released.  We had until the end of the month to book tickets (the non-changeable kind) and pay. That night we tossed around Sweden, Slovakia and Scotland. By the end of the week we were in a car driving from Christchurch to Mt Cook and I said “Joe, WHERE are we going?” He knew I didn’t mean Lake Tekapo. I sat in the passenger seat stressing “oooh this is SO HARD” when I had a moment of clarity: actually, this is not hard. Someone’s grabbed you by the lapels and said “Carlene: I need to send you to Europe for a year – where would you most like to go? Just pick your favourite country.” My Favourite Country in Europe. Everyone’s got one. If it was the Wheel of Fortune – with every country in Europe on it – and it starts spinning, you’re standing there with your fingers crossed saying “Gee, I hope it lands on […]”

“France.”

“Sorry?”

“It’s France. I want to go to France.”

“France?”

“France.”

“Cool. France.”

“Done”.

And then Joe says “Where in France?”

Ah look, I guess I knew that question would come too. I had no idea. But Joe and I figure we are “City” people, and we need a certain size to find work. We aren’t going on holiday, it’s an OE. So before we get to Tasman Glacier I grab my phone, Google (literally) “cities in france” and start reading him the list.

“Paris? Marseille? Probably too big eh? OK Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg… hey I like the sound of Strasbourg!”

“Me too – done.”

So officially, we’re going to Strasbourg. No, we don’t know anyone else there – closest is some friends in Freiburg just over the border. But since we stuck our finger on the map and hit Strasbourg, that’s it, like, that’s where I want to go! I want to go there and make it my home. And OK look, if between now and July one of us lands some sweet job in Montpellier, well of course we’d just go there. But for now, look out, Alsace: we’re coming!

Are we brave, doing this? Taking two kids to Europe, no jobs lined up at the other end – are we the Super-Duper-Bravest-of-Brave People Ever? No. At the end of the day we’re going to a large, modern, Western country which has lots of stuff. We have the right to live and work there forever. We’re not going to Belize, or Kyrgyzstan, or Scott Base. And if it really doesn’t work out… we could just go to Scotland!

Why an OE?

OE = Overseas Experience.

If you’ve never heard the term “OE”, it’s a rite of passage for young New Zealanders: we have a preferable immigration arrangement with the United Kingdom so youngsters can do a working holiday there for one to two years, travel to Europe and beyond, and then come home again.

Joe and I did our OE in London from 1998 to 2003 – Joe is British so we could stay as long as we liked, and our son Jack was born there. In that six years we made many, many friends and when we left we talked about going back for a visit “one day”.

So a couple of years ago, Joe and I started talking more seriously about this “visit”. Neither of us liked the idea of taking 3-4 weeks’ leave from our jobs, rushing to the other side of the world with two kids, visiting maybe two friends properly, ticking off one big ticket item, heading home exhausted and not going back for another 10 years. Bugger that.

“Why don’t we go for longer…?”

“Why don’t we just do another OE?!”

We thought, instead of taking 3 weeks off work, let’s see if we can take 52 weeks out of our lives here. Let’s just push pause on everything we have in Auckland: rent out the house, see if our jobs would give us a year off.

Well, they both have. Joe’s work dictated the timing: July 2014 to July 2015. I feel this has reduced a lot of the risk involved in this project – if it all goes south, at least we have jobs to go back to. For many other areas, the romantic idea of pushing pause on your life hasn’t been quite that simple! But more about that in another post.

What a second OE means is that we can spend the time getting settled into a life on the other side of the world, not just licking the chocolate off the top. We will have the time to visit our friends properly and see some big ticket items.

And – and this is the best bit for me – Joe and I will have something to talk about when we’re in our 70s, rather than “Oh, remember that year we stayed home and paid off some of the mortgage? Yeah that was awesome!”

Why the blog?

Posterity? Pfffz. I figure if someone else had documented exactly how they took care of all their affairs in their home country (job, car, house, cat), travelled to Europe with their spouse and two kids, found work, accommodation and schools, and had a total blast, I would be finding that useful around about now.

Right now, it’s just over two months till we fly out and I’m in a happy place. A lot of the big stuff is getting sorted and that always makes me optimistic that there will be a solution for every other problem that hasn’t formally introduced itself yet.

My next post will talk about some of the big and small stuff. Right now I’m going to Google how to add some sort of date countdown to this blog – only 435 days until we’re back in NZ.