Munich: A Shwitastic Guide!

22 days.

That’s how long it took for me to get around to buying a cheese pretzel (käsebrezel, as I now know). This may seem insignificant (which, ok it is), but I love cheese and I surely love that cheese on a pretzel – ERGO – this is an unacceptable situation.

My pretzel antidote is part of a bigger concern: not taking full advantage of our new city. It’s easy to get caught up in the routine of life, especially with everything going on in the world today. As a way to hold ourselves accountable, I’ve created a ‘Make the Most of Munich’ map – a Munich bucket-list, some might call it. Without further ado…

Icon Color Key (i.e., our recommendations):

⚪️ Yet to visit. [grey]

🛑 Eh, it’s ok to skip this. [red]

🧡 If there’s time, check it out. [orange]

✅ Highly recommend! [green]

If you’re curious about something, check out each icon. I’ll be updating as we adventure, so you’ll find links to our experiences here!

Have we missed something? I’m always interested in ‘hidden gems’ or unique experiences. So please, let us know what we’re missing!

Tschüss,

Whitney

Feature image icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

Germany: First Impressions

Ah, first impressions. They can make or break a relationship. So far, Germany has been kind to us. We’ve been here for two weeks, so I thought I’d put on paper (on screen?) our first impressions of living in our newly adopted country.

Learning German is a must.

Ok – so we could probably get by without learning German, but our quality of life and feeling of integration will certainly improve by speaking the language at a basic level. In the Netherlands, everyone was willing to speak English. In the beginning, multiple (Dutch) people told us not to even bother trying to learn Dutch. This was good for us as first-time expats, it took a lot of pressure off, but it was also bad because it removed the feeling of necessity. We knew we could get around without it. Here, plenty of people speak English, but I feel a much bigger pull to learn German. For me, it’s part guilt – I’m in their country, I should speak their language – and part “do-over”. I get a second chance at becoming fluent in a language! So, for now, I’m particularly motivated to learn. I’ll report back on my attitude in a few month. 😜

So far, learning German has been much easier because it’s so close to Dutch (I could understand just about everything, I was just sh*t at speaking…). On the other hand, learning German has been hard because it’s so close to Dutch!

For now, Meatball and I are having a lot of one sided conversations in German (“Es tut mir leid, Meatball, aber ich habe kein essen für Sie!”). My favorite word so far? Schmutzig (dirty).

Recycling / trash collection is serious business.

Grey bins (trash). Blue bins (paper). Brown bins (compost). Yellow bins with sub-bins for white, brown, and green glass, for plastic, and for aluminum.

It’s a lot.

A “trash island”.

Maybe other places have this kind of trash and recycling system, but Groningen surely didn’t! You can find the grey, blue, and brown bins at your house. As for the yellow bins, you have to find die Wertstoffinseln (recycling islands – pictured above). BUT THERE’S MORE! If your glass or plastic bottle has a pfand (deposit) – indicated sometimes by the word, sometimes by a symbol – then those bottles have to be returned to a store to have the deposit refunded.

We did have bottle deposits in the Netherlands, but it was much more straightforward. The magic word was statsiegeld, and it was either there or it wasn’t. No deciphering required.

Don’t get me wrong, I like all the recycling, especially that we now have the ability for composting, but we did literally double the number of trash cans in our house. So, some adjustment was required! If you’re new to Germany, I found this website to be incredibly helpful.

Food Costs are lower, but not at the markets.

If you’re new to the blog, then check out my ‘Dear Holland‘ post. For everyone else, it goes without saying that we LOVED our market in Groningen. I am sad to report that while our new local market is very cute, it can’t compete. Less variety, higher prices. Sigh. So, we’re back to shopping at grocery stores.

Plus side. The grocery stores are very nice with varieties comparable to that of an American grocery store. It’s honestly, kind of overwhelming. The one exception being produce… We’ve had a tough time finding things like fresh broccoli, cauliflower. Another missing item? Canned salmon. Tuna, anchovies, herring? Yes. Salmon? No. We have noticed that a lot of the produce originates in Germany, some even Bavaria – which is fantastic! – and might be the reason why we’re not finding certain items. They just aren’t in season! Relatedly, with our market in the Netherlands we were able to shop ~80% waste-free with re-useable bags, re-useable egg cartons, etc. So far, that’s not possible here, but all the plastic is recyclable (so they say). So, while I would prefer to be as waste-free as possible, until we nail-down our stores-of-choice at least there’s comfort in the fact that it’s not all going in the landfill.

We’ve shopped for two weeks now, and both weeks we’ve been under our normal food budget. Let’s hope that sticks!

Munich has a nice biking culture.

It’s common knowledge that we’ve adopted the biking lifestyle. Shane heard during his interview that the biking culture in Munich was really good – maybe not Holland good – but good, nonetheless. We moved here with the intention of buying bikes, and we did just that during the first week (and both struggled through a one-way English – German conversation… please refer to point #1). Similar to the Netherlands, there are several bike paths that keep cars and cyclists separated. Unlike the Netherlands, about 40% of people wear helmets.

Soon, we will be going on our first real biking adventure into the city center (~30 min away by bike). For now, we are in the helmet-less crowd since that’s what we’re used to, but if there are a lot of interactions with cars then maybe we will join the helmet-people.

An upgrade from his old bike. It has 21 gears!
My new bike needs a name. I’m open to suggestions!

Beer gardens are everywhere!

Shane and I always joke about the fact that, as an American, there is this mystic of the autobahn. THE AUTOBAAAHHHNNN (said like “the claaawwww” in Toy Story) – this magical road where you can drive any speed you want and not get a speeding ticket! Then you drive in Germany and you realize that autobahn literally translates to “highway” and the glass shatters. It’s just like driving on the interstate in America. I’m sorry if I just shattered your glass.

Well let me do it again, folks, ’cause the famous Bavarian biergartens are well… just terraces!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love it. In no way am I sad to see a beer garden at every turn. It was just one of those lightbulb moments.

I am under the impression that if a restaurant has outside space, then that space is called a biergarten. I am also under the impression that each biergarten exclusively serves one of the six main Munich brand beers: Löwenbräu, Spaten, Hofbräu (from the famous Hofbräuhaus), Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, and Paulaner.

Just for you, lovely readers, I promise to dedicate some time to properly research beer gardens and Münchner biers. You can expect a full write up later.😁

Overall first impression? We like it, and it’s not so far off from living in the Netherlands. We’re still working on transitioning life (gym, phone number, bank accounts, etc.), but for now, Germany, and Munich in particular, seem like they have a lot to offer. I’m excited to start exploring!

I’ve also learned that auf weidersehen does not mean goodbye, but literally translates to “to see you again”. Seems strange to sign off a blog this way. Instead, I defer to the more informal and commonly used…

Tschüss (bye!),

Whitney

Hello, Munich!

Tot ziens, Holland. Willkommen in Deutschland!

Moving day, 27 May 2020.

We did it, we made it to Munich!

Before I start, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge current world events – specifically the Black Lives Matter protests happening in America right now. As an American living abroad for the foreseeable future, to be honest, I feel a weird sense of disconnect. Maybe it’s the distance, maybe it’s jadedness. Black Americans being unnecessarily killed by law enforcement, for me, falls into the same category as school shootings: it happens far too often, people get angry, social media explodes, time passes, people forget, but nothing actually changes. This is inexcusable. Watching from afar though, this time feels different. It feels like people – all kinds of people – are finally fed up and mobilizing for change. As an American abroad, it’s hard to know what you should do in this situation, how can you help? As I mentioned at the end of my previous post, living abroad has instilled a sense of responsibility to understand other people’s viewpoints and acknowledge that the way I perceive the world can be vastly different from how you do. What we (Whitney & Shane) sometimes forget, is that sense of responsibility to learn should also include America. How we, as two white middle-class individuals, perceive America is vastly different than other communities. So, we’re reading, listening, watching, and broadening our perspectives to do our small piece to break the cycle. Black lives matter. People of color matter. What keeps happening in America is, without debate, wrong. If you’re an expat like me and feeling a little lost on how to support, a fellow expat and travel blogger has compiled a great post with a list of resources. It’s 2020, basic human rights – life, safety, healthcare, food – shouldn’t be a debate.

{insert clever segway}

Yeah, ok – I don’t have a clever segway. Back to the move!

Yes, that’s a big truck. No, Meatball did not ride in the back.

A lot of dominoes needed to fall for this move to be successful. We are, after all, in a pandemic and Europe still has some restrictions in place. Step one was to get to Leer, Germany – just over the border, about 40 min away from Groningen. Technically, the border between Germany and the Netherlands never closed, and we heard that people were still allowed to cross for gas & groceries (it’s cheaper in Germany), so we hoped for no problems and no problems we had (step 1 ✓)! Well, border problems I should say. We rented a cargo van. We got a small box truck (step 2 ✓). As you can see from the picture above, we had more than enough space…

Fun fact: my first time driving in the Netherlands was when I drove our (automatic) rental car from Groningen to Leer! Someone should really learn how to drive a manual car… OK but not really ’cause is 2020 and why do they even still exist?!

We rented an automatic. Obviously.

We did run into a small border problem on the way back into the Netherlands. Shane was stopped in the truck by border control. No worries, we had printed Shane’s job contract and our apartment lease as proof of essential travel. Where were those papers? In the front seat of my car about 10km ahead. 😑 All in all, it was ok. They asked to see the inside of the truck and Shane’s (now expired) residence permit. I guess since we were actively trying to leave their country they were cool with it. With minimal delay, we were back in NL (step 4 ✓), loaded & cleaned (step 5 ✓), and said goodbye to Oostersingel 72A (step 6 ✓)!

It’s ~8.5 hours from Groningen to Munich, and since we had the cat, we decided to stop a little over halfway. Luckily, as of 15 May, hotels were allowed to host tourists again, so we didn’t have to sleep in the truck on the side of the highway (step 8 ✓) and Meatball got to have her first hotel experience (fluffy duvet covers blew her mind). We were on the road early the next morning and arrived at our new home in Pasing (Munich) around mid-day.

Our new apartment building!

I’ll be honest, we were slightly nervous about the apartment: ~30 m2 (300 sq ft.), basement, only one sink – in the bathroom. Remember all that space in the truck and how it didn’t look like we had much stuff? Well, pack that into this apartment and we were slightly overwhelmed. But, we did as you do on moving days – drink beer and eat pizza as you unpack – and by the time everything was put away and organized it didn’t seem so small anymore!

Before…
and after!

We’re just about a week in, and I think we’ve found our groove with the kitchen. We were doing dishes by hand in our old apartment, so no real change there. And because the sink is right next to the kitchen area it doesn’t feel inconvenient. We cook all our meals, so there was some concern over the hotplate, but it’s been fine. The smallness honestly doesn’t bother us, but what may get old after a while is the lack of natural light. We get some indirect light from the window, but the view is blocked by a retaining wall. For now, it’s summer and the weather is lovely so we are using it as an excuse to be outside. Overall, the positives outweigh the negatives – the apartment has been recently renovated, our utilities are included, we have GREAT internet, covered bike parking (👍), and we are about 10 minutes walking to Pasing ‘city center’ (30 minutes to Munich city center by tram or S-Bahn). Ecuador has been postponed due to coronavirus until at least early 2021, so until we have a better timeline, this apartment will be fine!

Long story short, we’re on the way to becoming German residents!

This weekend we will be heading out to our local market and (if the weather cooperates) our first biergarten! Stay tuned for our first impressions of living in Bavaria!

Tired but unpacked.

Auf Wiedersehen,

Whitney

Dear Holland: a love letter

If you’re reading this, then we are officially no longer residence of the Netherlands.

I started to write this post a few days ago, but something just didn’t feel right about it. Last week, we finished watching the Michael Jordan documentary on Netflix, and it made me realize that we’re having our own version of ‘the last dance’ – our Last Dutch Dance! Naturally, I started wandering around the house muttering things to Meatball like “This is the last week of squeaky floors! 🙌” and “This is the last week you can sleep in a king-sized bed! 😣”. It made me realize what was missing from my original post was a little bit of heart. Yes, I can tell you all the standard reasons why the Netherlands is a great country to live in (work/life balance, universal healthcare, pragmatic attitudes) – if you’re interested in specifics I’d love to talk about it in detail one-on-one. Instead, I’d rather tell you all the personal reasons we loved living in Holland.


Our Apartment.

I first want to pay homage to our little apartment over the flower shop. Actually, for Dutch standards, it’s not so little, but when we first moved here in 2014 from a 2 bedroom + living + diving + sunroom apartment in Pittsburgh, it sure felt small. Despite all the apartment frustrations (squeaky floors, mice, bees, perpetually cold, terrible wifi) it’s been a great apartment. It came furnished, we can walk to the city center in ~5 min, we have some great views and a really cool landlord.

Over the years we’ve learned to deal with all the quirks: Meatball can catch mice, I can catch bees, Shane bought a space heater, and well – the wifi is still shit. Suddenly, the furnished apartment we found on the internet from across an ocean turned into a home.

View from the living room window.

Bikes!

Biking just outside Groningen city (May 2019).

Now, I realize that this one is quintessentially Dutch, but it’s true! Bikes. are. life. The average number of bikes per person in the Netherlands is 1.3 (and 1.4 in Groningen), and it makes sense. The majority of trips are made on the bike. To the grocery store, to the city center, to work, for leisure activities. And you can’t just have one bike. If you have space, then one should always consider keeping a guest bike, or a crappier bike to take to the city center where the risk of being stolen is higher.

Shane and I bought bikes the first week we arrived. Miraculously, Shane has managed to keep the same bike all 6 years. I may or may not be on bike #4 (2 stolen, 1 rusted apart). Regardless, I will never forget that first week re-learning how to be comfortable on a bike. Over the years, I would say we fit right in. We’ve mastered the art of biking with your hands in your pockets, transporting crates of beer (or a cat, or Christmas tree), staying up-right after a few too many drinks, and navigating the mayhem of a four-way-free-for-all-bike-intersection unscathed.

Biking isn’t always fun though. We’ve both had our run-ins – with cars, buses, scooters, and other people. One time the side mirror of a car caught Shane’s bike handle and just pulled him along… only slightly scary. We’ve also had our fair share of weather. We don’t have a car, so rain or shine, wind or heavy wind, if you need to get from A to B then it’s to the bike, Batman! Sometimes it would be nice to have a car, but the ease and accessibility of using the bike outweigh the occasional inconvenience. Plus, bike maintenance is much cheaper than car maintenance…

We sold our bikes just before we left Groningen. Shane spent €60 on his bike the first week, and sold it for €25, making his net bike cost per year (excluding maintenance) €5.80. Over the years, I spent €270 and had to give the damn thing away for free because no one would buy it, bringing my bike cost per year to €45. I personally think I won this contest, but I’ll let you decide for yourself.

The Market.

Our first Saturday market trip (June 2014).

This is not a secret. We love our market!

Het beste markt van Nederland 2016! 🥇 *humble brag*

It’s the best market in the Netherlands every year in my book! This will be, hands down, the number one thing we miss in Groningen. We have shopped at the market every Saturday from the moment we arrived. Why? It’s cheaper than the grocery store, there is more variety, you can find local produce (or at least national produce), and it has a great atmosphere. Plus, it’s just fun to have a ‘spice lady’, a ‘dried beans guy’, and a ‘THE veggie stand’.

Relatedly, another thing I am going to miss is making people happy with exact change. The Netherlands doesn’t use the one and two-cent euro coins. Instead, if you’re paying in cash, then your purchase will be rounded to the nearest 5 cents.

For instance, at the grocery store, you weigh your own fruit and print a sticker with the final price. If I wanted a single banana, then smart-me would find the banana that costs €0.17, because when I pay in cash I’ll only pay €0.15! But, if my banana is too heavy and comes out to be €0.18 cents, well then I’m overpaying for that banana (by a whole €0.02)! Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

At the market, vendors LOVE exact change and with the rounding system, it makes it easy! I would LIVE for those Saturday “ooh mooie!” (ooh, great!) moments. Unfortunately for me, making people happy with exact change has become a casualty of coronavirus.

Our last Saturday market trip (May 2020).

Food.

Clockwise from top-left: brokkelkaas, stroopwafels, Groninger droogeworst, and puur pinda rotjes.

If I’m being honest, Dutch food isn’t all that exciting. I’m stereotyping a little, but a typical day would be bread (with butter, jelly, or hagelslag) for breakfast, bread (with cheese or a savory spread) + a boiled egg for lunch, and some form of meat and potatoes (and maybe veggie) for dinner.

The Dutch only eat “warm” at dinner, so when Miss Americana here showed up on day 1 of my new job asking for a microwave to re-heat my leftovers I was met with some confused looks. Another food faux-pas: mixing peanut butter and hagelslag (sprinkles) on the same piece of bread. This makes no sense to me, as hagelslag is typically chocolate flavored, and who doesn’t love peanut butter + chocolate combo?!

There are a few things we will miss though, like droogeworst (dried meats, spiced regionally), stroopwafels, zuurkoolschotel (sourkraut casserole), stamppot (potatoes + endive or kale mashed together), and Groninger mustard.

The two things I will miss the most? Gevulde spekulaas, which I’ve raved about before, and cheese. I am unabashedly a cheese snob now. Brokkelkaas anyone? 😋 Shane’s top choice? Droogeworst with cheese accompaniment.

Terrace Culture.

First sunny day [pre-coronavirus] (March 2020).

Of all the restrictions we’ve faced during the coronavirus lockdown, I think this is the one that hurts the Dutch the most. Especially since the weather has started to turn warmer. Terrace culture is no joke here – if the sun is out, then the terraces are packed. I like to lovingly refer to the Dutch as ‘anti-vampires’, a group in which I now include myself, because if the sun is out then people are in it. It’s also comparable to cats when they find that one sliver of sunlight…

Sun-kitty.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging. Over the years we have come to worship the sun like the Dutch. It’s almost like you’re brainwashed to think “Sun. Must sit. Terrace. Beer. Now!”. Don’t want to pay for beers at a restaurant? No worries, generally speaking, there are no ‘open-container laws’ here. We just pop some beers in a backpack and head out. One of our favorite spots was the Oosterhaven (East Port) just down the street from us.

The Oosterport (March 2020).

The Weather.

Beautiful Dutch day on top of the Forum in Groningen (December 2019).

If you don’t complain about the weather, are you even Dutch? I’m pretty sure NOT complaining is a reason to fail the integration exam… So, I would be remiss not to bring it up.

Long story short? It’s a love-hate relationship.

Love: The sunshine! When it’s beautiful outside, it’s really beautiful. Even if its cold, a sunny day changes everyone’s attitude. When it’s warm and sunny the city has a certain inspiring energy to it.

The Witte Molen on a sunny day (March 2020).

Hate: The lack of sunshine. Sometimes, it will go literally weeks without seeing the sun. This can be particularly uninspiring in the winter when it’s grey all day and dark at 16:30. And, in Groningen at least, there are always a few weeks of thick fog that add to the gloom.

Shane’s work building in fog (Nov 2015)

Love: How fast the light changes. Sunrise and sunset change so quickly that it’s noticeable from week to week which gives you hope during those dark winter months. We are currently coming into peak light season, where the sun will come up at ~05:00 and set at ~23:00.

Hate: Trying to sleep during peak light season. Blackout curtains required! 😆

~23:00 June 21, 2019.

Love: The weather is consistent. When in doubt plan for windy, cold and rainy. Plus side, I have a lot of jackets now!

Hate: The weather is consistent. I miss having true seasons. I don’t necessarily miss those stiflingly hot & humid North Carolina summers, but inevitably I reach a point in the spring (right about now actually) when I’m just sick and tired of being cold all the damn time. When it’s June and I still have to wear a jacket… 😑

We have had some heatwaves (last summer) and were lucky enough to see the canals freeze, so temperature swings do happen. Just don’t expect to wear shorts all summer, or see snow in the winter.

Frozen canals during the ‘Siberian Bear’ (March 2018)

Despite my love-hate relationship with the weather, I can say without a doubt that moving to the Netherlands was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We’ve had a lot of personal milestones over these past 6 years: we got married, traveled to 17 new countries, learned a new language (sort of), Shane got a PhD, and I’ve found 2 jobs. But I think, more importantly, moving to another country has completely changed our perspective on life. When the scripts are flipped and your the outsider, the immigrant, the person who doesn’t understand the language – it changes you. Personally, I think it’s made me bolder, more patient, more compassionate, and instilled a sense of personal responsibility to understand others’ cultures.

A bucket-list item – the pyramids! Cairo, Egypt (April 2017).

We’ve also grown as a couple. Moving across an ocean with another person can go one of two ways. Thankfully, for us, it’s only brought us closer together. We’ve both moved out of our comfort zone in one way or another, and had the benefit of the others’ support to get through it. And, thanks to that Dutch work/life balance, we’ve had the financial means to enjoy living in Europe and the time to establish life priorities as a couple. Quarantine ain’t got nothin’ on us!

So, to the Netherlands, and to Groningen in particular, we are forever grateful! And to all the people we’ve met along the way:

Dutch, Canadian, Chinese, Finnish, German, Indian, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Luxembourgish, Mexican, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Syrian, Swiss, and Turkish

Thank you for welcoming us and making our expat life complete. 💛

And with that, we’re off to the next chapter – Germany!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Groningen Round-Up 4 (Quarantine Edition)

It’s been about six weeks since I last posted about our trip to Munich for Shane’s interview, and, despite being in ‘intelligent lockdown’, quite a bit has changed since then!

First up… can you spot the difference?!

If you guessed bikes vs flowers well, you’re wrong. 🤷‍♀️

But you were close though – so good try! The temporary tourist center building has been taken down! The tourist center moved into The Forum, which is a massive and beautiful new building that’s home to not only the tourist center, but the library, study rooms, a kids center, a movie theater, and multiple places to have a drink and a snack. We are lucky to have checked it out back in December because it’s been closed since mid-March and won’t reopen until at least June.

View from the top of The Forum.

And no, you didn’t read that wrong – ‘intelligent lockdown’ is the official term for our status here in Holland.

What does that mean exactly? Well, pretty much the same as most other places. Bars, gyms, massage parlors and sex shops (lol) have been closed since mid-March. Restaurants are closed except for take-out. Weed shops were initially closed but were deemed essential (😉) and re-opened for take-away after 24 hours. Masks (at this point) are optional.

Stored-away chairs and tables in city center.

Essential stores are still open – including the market! *insert singing angels*

Like most things right now, people have a lot of opinions about what should and should not be open. The market was not excluded from this but, it’s open-air, bigger than a grocery store, and providing an essential service so it stayed. To keep people separated, they have expanded the width of the market to include the street, and stands must have a way to keep people 1.5m apart from one another. They have also implemented ‘market police’ so to speak, who walk around ensuring people follow the social distancing rules.

The ‘market police’ in yellow, and barriers to keep cars/bikes out and limit the flow of pedestrian traffic.
Our veggie stand with designated spots. Not pictured is the tape on the ground so you know how far back to wait in line.

Other than the gym, life hadn’t changed much for us up until Friday. My job wasn’t very WFH friendly, so 4 days a week I was hopping the bus to head to work (and properly disinfecting when I got there).

Ok – so maybe Shane felt the effects of the closed climbing gym more than I…

Why up until Friday?

Because I’m officially UNEMPLOYED BABBBYYY!!

I know. It seems like a really odd thing to be celebrating right now given that millions of people in America are unemployed and not by choice.

For us, my last day at work means that we are one step closer to our next chapter in life – Munich!

Quick update here. Long story short, we’ve been delayed for one month – our original plan was to move at the end of April. We should technically be there as I write this. Shane should start work on Monday but, the consulate is closed, so he’s unable to get a temporary visa which would allow him to start working. We can enter Germany with just our passports for up to 90 days, but this doesn’t give you the right to work. The new plan is to apply for a work visa with the German consulate if it opens after May 20th, when the Netherlands re-assesses the lockdown, or we will head to Germany at the end of the month (on our passports) so we can register with the city of Munich and apply for residency. This option also gives you the right to work. Option 2 may delay his start date one more month, but in a corona-world you do what you can!

As for the move to Ecuador, that is postponed. For how long is still uncertain, but currently Ecuador’s borders are closed so until they re-open we will be hanging out in Munich.

And until Munich, we will be enjoying our last month living in the Netherlands! It’s certainly not an ideal way to leave the country – we had hoped to make it to a few more museums, or take some weekend trips, but I guess that’s our fault for waiting 6 years to do those things.

In the meantime, we’ve been up to… well, probably what everyone else has been. Baking, Nintendo, people-watching from our windows, and walks. A lot of walks.

I’ll never not be excited by police on horses.
Bikes don’t interrupt sidewalk construction in this country!

Oh! And I almost forgot – we celebrated our last King’s Day on April 27th. Indoors. On a G-O-R-G-O-U-S day. Probably the best weather on King’s Day we’ve had. Well played, Netherlands. ✌️

To anyone reading this, stay healthy, stay sane, and remember…

It will get better again. 🧡

Tot ziens,

Whitney

The adventure continues!

Six years ago, we moved to the Netherlands so that I (Shane) could complete a PhD.

Last March, I completed said PhD. Since that time, I’ve searched for a postdoc position while working as a freelance science editor. Why such a long job search? Well, there are a couple of issues:

  1. My research interests are very specific.
  2. I need a long-term position; most postdocs are 1-2 years, which complicates Whitney’s ability to find a job.
  3. The location needs to have options for Whitney to work (i.e., biotech).

As you can imagine, these stipulations have severely limited my options and, to be perfectly honest, caused me to reconsider my academic ambitions. Nonetheless, we persevered (I say we because Whitney continually supported and encouraged me) and we finally have good news to share –

I got a postdoc position!

Image result for the cat's out of the bag gif
Get it? The cat’s out of the bag…

In her last post, Whitney covered our recent train trip to Munich. What she purposely omitted from this story was that the trip wasn’t all fun and games (don’t worry, she’ll have a ‘fun times in Munich’ post soon enough).

In truth, I had an interview at Ludwig Maximilian University. To keep a long story short, the interview went well and I accepted the position!

Got the offer while we were still in Munich.

Safe to say, I am very excited for this position. Not only does it meet all of the requirements I listed above (my specific research interests, longer-term, and a good location), but it also fulfills additional ‘wants’ of mine. I’ll try to keep this as short as possible as I explain:

During my PhD, I studied how adaptation to the local environment can influence patterns of speciation and biodiversity. More specifically, I studied how visual adaptation affects behavior.

Why is this important?

Well, if you think of our our day-to-day lives, we humans are greatly influenced by our visual perception of the world. Vision influences the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the mates we choose, and whether or not we step in front of that on-coming bus. Thus, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that similar processes are important to other animals.

To this point in my research career, I have worked exclusively in fish model systems (threespine sticklebacks, zebrafish, African cichlids), as they are very amendable to studies of visual perception and behavior (fish have similar visual systems to humans). Obviously, it would make sense to continue within fish-based research for a postdoc position, as this plays to my expertise and comfort. However, postdocs are a time to expand and learn new techniques. Thus, we come to my new position at LMU.

I will continue to explore how the local environment influences visual perception and corresponding behaviors, but will expand to incorporate other sensory systems and aspects of neural anatomy. Excitedly, this project will not be fish-based, but focus on the Heliconius butterflies of Central and South America. Evolutionary biologists have studied these butterflies for nearly 150 years and, much like the African cichlids of my PhD, Heliconius represents a large radiation of multiple species that have adapted to differing environments. Thus, this project will challenge me to learn a new model system and to incorporate new variables into my research (e.g., chemosensory perception and the anatomy of the brain).

Image result for heliconius
image courtesy of: Wikipedia

The most exciting part of this project? It’s mostly field-based! Though I didn’t include this as a ‘requirement’ of a postdoc position, it was a strong desire. I’ve completed a fair amount of fieldwork over the past ten years (in British Columbia, Tanzania, and Corsica) and was hopeful I could continue to do. So, after a few months of organization in Munich, it’s off to Ecuador! Best of all, Whitney and Meatball will join!

That’s right, the whole clan is moving to Tena, Ecuador for 18-24 months!

At this point, details are still being worked out. For now, we know that I will start in early May and that we will need to find temporary housing in Munich. In ~July, we will move to Ecuador. Whitney has given her official notice at work and will finish up at the end of April. We’re not exactly sure what she will be doing in next ~2 years, but we’re hopeful she can find a remote position or, at the very least, work as a science editor as I have done for the past 6-7 months. Regardless, she’s not going to miss the opportunity to live in the rainforest for two years. After fieldwork, we will return to Munich for the remainder of the position (~2 more years), which should give Whitney ample employment opportunities (biotech is well-represented in Munich).

So, after a long period of relative quiet, the pace of life has picked up dramatically. Per tradition, we celebrated my new position with a trip to ‘t Pannekoekschip.

We’ve also started learning Spanish (we’re ignoring German language requirements for now) and will soon need to find apartments in Munich and Ecuador. As more details develop, life is sure to become even more hectic. Nonetheless, we’re excited. We’ve been anxiously awaiting our next move for a long time, so it’s fun to know that it’s finally happening!

Stay tuned for more updates. Up next, Whitney has plenty to say about her ‘independent woman day’ in Munich while I was interviewing.

Until next time,

Shane

Groningen to Munich: A Train Adventure

🎶 This is the story of a girl, who took a train around the whole world! 🎶

Ok, not quite, but that song popped in my head as I started to write this so you get what you get.

This IS the story, though, of a girl who reluctantly agreed to take a train from Groningen to Munich and had a grand ole time!

I mean come on. Look at that face!

When we first decided to take a city trip to Munich, my go-to reaction was to start looking for flight deals. Shane, on the other hand, took it as an opportunity to make a pitch for the train.

It’s “more CO2 friendly” and “doesn’t take that much more time” and “you can walk around” and “we’ve never done it before”.

Valid reasons *I supposeee*, but I wasn’t convinced. I needed an excel sheet. How does anyone plan anything without an excel sheet? Here are the facts:

  1. We would only save 2 hours on total travel time by flying.
  2. We would only save 60 euros total – 2 people, round trip – by flying.
  3. We’ve never done it.

What can I say, I’m easily convinced. Train it is!

ICE International, that’s us!

Remember when I said that we would only be spending 60 euros more, in total, compared to flying? What I didn’t mention is that we also booked ourselves a first class ticket, baby!

This also took a little convincing, because (in my opinion) the difference between first and second class on a Dutch train is not worth the upgrade. The seats are a little bit bigger and you have less hassle trying to find a seat during rush hour, but that never bothered me enough to warrant a first-class upgrade. But, since we would be spending the majority of our time on the German train (5.5 hours, to be more precise), I agreed to first class.

Two words: Worth it.

We took the German Inter-City Express (ICE) high-speed trains from Arnhem, the Netherlands to Munich with a switch in Mannheim (on the way there) and in Duisburg (on the way back). There are 6 variations of the ICE train, itself. We travelled on the ICE 3 and ICE 4.

One major perk of first-class on the ICE is that your seat reservation is included in the booking price. Unlike Dutch trains, your departure time and seat are specifically linked to your ticket. If you would like a guaranteed seat, then it must be booked ahead of time. Relatedly, if you miss your train you can’t just take the next connection*, as the seats have already been booked.

*if you miss your connection, you should find a DB service point in the station and ask for help to re-book.

It is possible, though, to take the train without booking a seat and sit anywhere you want. Each seat is numbered and has a status: if the seat lists only the route then it has not been reserved, if the seat says “ggf. freigeben” then you should “release if necessary”, aka you can sit there until you’re asked to leave.

Considering a seat reservation (in second class) is only 5 – 10 euros per person, it seems worth it to me to reserve a seat. Especially if you’re traveling a group or during busy months.

Shortly after we left, the seat changed status.

The other benefit of first-class? Isn’t it obvious?

Look at that leg-room! There is also plenty of storage for small and large suitcases above the seats, and a luggage rack at each end of the ‘carriage’.

Look at those happy first-class campers!

Apart from the leg-room, another benefit of taking the train instead of flying is the opportunity to get up and move around. Once place you can move around to is the ‘board carriage’ aka: the restaurant car!

For a train, they have a pretty extensive menu. Of course, the usual drinks – coffee, beer, wine, sodas. For food, a variety of sandwiches, soups, fries, and some snack foods like chips, and all for a very reasonable price considering you’re on a train. For example, a 0.5 L of beer was only €3.20 and curry worst with fries was €6.90. Compared to airport prices, this felt like a steal!

Took a walk for a coffee.

Another first-class benefit: in-seat service.

Of course, you can always walk to the restaurant car and you can certainly bring on your own food and drink (as we did), but if you feel inspired, lazy, or a just little bit baller, you can stop a service attendant on their regular walk-throughs and order from them directly.

Plus, at your seat you’ll be classy AF sipping your drank in a real glass instead of a paper or plastic one.

TIP: You need cash to order from your seat. The restaurant car accepts cards and cash.

Regardless, if you are seated in first class then you’ll also get a little freebie snack. We got a bar of chocolate and some mint chocolate bites.

Before we knew we could order from our seat…

Do you know what else was VERY impressive? The SPEED of these trains! Dutch trains don’t tell you how fast they are going, plus they go through a lot of towns so I’m not sure they are designed to go at high speeds. These trains though… 293 km/hour = 182 mph! 🤯

Approximately 8 hours later, well-fed, stretched, and rested, we arrived at Munich Hauptbahnhof (central station)!

Take home message:

  1. Taking the train was worth the little bit extra. While slightly more expensive and a little longer travel time, the time passed quickly and it was nice to be able to walk around.
  2. First class was worth the upgrade. The reserved seats, the extra legroom, and the (literal) first-class service! It made the journey much more enjoyable. I did walk through second-class and it was also nice, but as you can imagine less space overall. In addition you get free newspapers (if you’re a German reader), unlimited free wi-fi which was actually decent, and charging capability at your seat.
  3. Book seats ahead of time. If you’re opting for second-class, it’s worth the few euros to secure a seat, especially in peak season. Second-class also has free-wifi, but it’s limited.
  4. Pack those snacks! No train ride is complete with out snacks. You can bring whatever you like on to the train, the only restriction is no personal food in the restaurant car. Forgot snacks? Then there are plenty of options on-board.
Inside Munich central station.

Soon to come – more about our few days in Munich!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Happy New Year from Holland!

Ah – the New Year. The practice of leaving the old behind and ushering in an era of new beginnings. When you say it like this, it sounds calm and peaceful, right?

Not if you’re in the Netherlands.

Ok – so maybe my video isn’t that dramatic but it surely felt dramatic!

Notice that constant low rumbling in the background? That’s the sound of non-stop fireworks being set off in gardens, in the middle of the street, in parks, and in trashcans all over the city.

And do you notice that (despite the fog) you can’t actually SEE any pretty firework lights? That’s because it’s not about what you see, it’s about blowin’ sh*t up.

Let’s back up a little.

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day in the Netherlands, aptly called ‘Oud & Nieuw’ (Old & New), is the one day of the year where fireworks are legal.

Correction: the one 8 hour period of time where fireworks are legal.

From 6pm – 2am all bets are off. You know that horror movie ‘The Purge’, where for 24 hours crime is legal? This is how that feels – minus the burglary and murder.

I started to type ‘vandalism and bodily harm’ in that list, but I couldn’t in good faith. This year a man and child were killed in a firework-related fire, and they are still counting injuries and tallying damage costs.

In 2018, citizens of the Netherlands spent 70 MILLION euros in total on fireworks. And to reiterate, that can be used LEGALLY for 8 hours.

They can be purchased at shops like the one below, which we can only assume make enough money in the month leading up to Oud & Nieuw that it can afford to be closed the other 11 months of the year. In addition to shops like these, you can buy fireworks in the home improvement stores or online. Granted, some types of fireworks are still illegal to purchase, but no worries. If you want the big boys you can just pop on over to Germany and bring back what you want.

“Always the lowest price!”

Like I said before, technically it’s only legal to set off fireworks during the designated time, but let’s be real, this doesn’t stop people from starting earlier. Each day after Christmas the booms increase, culminating in the ‘main show’ which starts at midnight and rings (booms?) in the new year.

If they are illegal, how can people start so early? Two words.

No enforcement.

Until you’re blowing up trashcans and bus stops (yes, that really happens) then the police will leave you alone.

Between 2 trashcans is a logical place to set off fireworks, right?

One thing that IS highly enforced are the ‘Vuurwerk-vrije’ (firework free) zones. For example, we live directly across from the main hospital where, for obvious reasons, they don’t want firework chaos. There was a constant patrol of people making sure these zones truly stayed ‘firework free’.

I made Meatball her own firework free zone.

This year, to add an additional level of danger and mystique, the temperature dropped quickly and a thick fog set it. You really had to pay attention to where you were walking!

Fireworks over city center in the fog.

Because we live in the city center, we only witnessed smaller displays. As you might imagine, the further away from the city center you get the larger the show and the bigger the fire.

Yes, this brings me to my next Oud & Nieuw tradition. Bonfires.

The photo above was from our first Dutch Oud & Nieuw in 2014, but you get the picture. Bonfires in the street.

Bikes. Christmas trees. Furniture. Whatever-your-heart-desires.

Burn it.

My dad asked the reasonable question “So does the fire-department work all night then?”. Short answer: no. They just let it burn.

We did discover a leftover bonfire the next day though, on what I liked to call our “survey the damage” walk around the neighborhood.

Notice the street sign in the pile…

And, unrelated to fireworks but also an Oud & Nieuw tradition, olliebollen!

Had to have our friend, Kaitlin, try them!

I would describe olliebollen (literally translated to ‘oil balls’) as a giant deep-fried donut hole, traditionally made with or without raisins and dunked in powdered sugar. They are available starting mid-November, but the bulk of the olliebollen are eaten on New Year’s Eve.

As evidenced by the line that wouldn’t stop growing…

So, my DOs & DONTs for Oud & Nieuw?

DO: Get to the olliebollen stand early! I suggest the ones with raisins.

DON’T: Wear a nice coat out. Firework-induced burn holes are a thing.

DO: Come prepared! Arm yourself with sparklers & firecrackers. You never know when you might need them.

DON’T: Be indoors at midnight! Embrace the chaos!

and finally…

DON’T: Expect to sleep that night. In America, the main party is the lead up to midnight, and here all the parties start at the earliest 10pm and most at midnight. Bars & parties not your thing? No worries, the fireworks last well past their 2am cutoff. They will be sure to interrupt your sleep. 😉

Happy New Year from us to you!

Tot ziens,

Whitney