Unlike other times I’ve traveled abroad, this time I’m living here. This means adding the challenges of a language barrier, currency exchange, measurement system conversion, and cultural differences to all of those regular mundane tasks involved in moving to a new town. It’s been very interesting, although fortunately for me, many Germans speak English well and there are many Americans that work here.
The German phone numbers are a bit confusing. They consist of a long string of numbers of seemingly arbitrary lengths instead of the standard ten digits we have in the U.S. Getting set up with a new cell phone should have been the easiest task here. I went to a store that catered to Americans and decided to get the least expensive plan with a discounted new phone. James, in fact, also left the same day with a new phone and a slightly better plan. There were a lot of customers in the store at the same time and due to a mistake, the salesman activated my new account but set it up with the wrong plan. In Germany, the Telekom communication company limits the number of accounts a new customer can open in place of conducting a credit check. So since my plan was already activated (in error), the company wouldn’t accept what looked like my request for a second plan. Canceling the error, which rarely happens because salespeople are not supposed to activate the plan before a customer checks and signs everything, takes about ten days. I’ll be negotiating a better discount on the phone once I’m able to finally pick it up.
After a week here I located the closest Waschsalon, or laundromat. Fortunately this also gave me the opportunity to visit the town square near Mainz Cathedral in the Altstadt (old town), where giant wooden barrels were being transported for a future Christmas celebration. The Waschsalon was empty when I arrived with only a phone to call for assistance and a number of large posters with directions in German. There were also two letter-sized papers posted with some directions in English. As in the U.S., I suspect that every Waschsalon has slightly different routines to get used to. At this one, the way you paid was similar to ordering from a vending machine. I had to insert Euro coins or bills first and then push a number or letter button for the washer or dryer I wanted. For 50 Euro cents, I could also buy powdered detergent for each load that was dispensed from a machine into a plastic scoop. I couldn’t figure out how to use the only large Waschmachine at first because the “on” button was under a STOP sign with a list of things I couldn’t read. After I put two people’s week’s worth of laundry into four tiny machines, I realized that the list probably had to do with things to avoid putting in the machine. Lesson learned.
The dryers were actually large enough for all my laundry. A few middle aged ladies came in as I was reading on a bench around lunch time. They were there only to use the dryers for wet sheets and towels they had brought from home. I had heard that European dryers take an extremely long time to dry clothes and that many Europeans don’t have dryers at all. One of the ladies asked me something after I had moved out of her way. After my confused look, she asked again in English whether I wanted my seat back. When she left I wished her a good day – “Haben einen guten Tag.”
Searching for a place to rent has been the most fun aspect of the move so far. The apartments and houses are significantly smaller in general than American homes, but there are a number of large places too. James and I are setting appointments to view a few homes next week. At an information meeting, I learned that German homes receive visits from a chimney sweep even if they don’t have a chimney. While chimney sweeps still dress traditionally with a black cap and suit, they seem to be more like utility maintenance workers, checking things like heating ducts in addition to chimneys. It’s considered good luck to touch a chimney sweep’s gold button – a superstition I think I’ll skip.
For the most part, utilities are paid directly to the landlord or the utility company. Everyone, so I’ve been told, sets up direct deposit for this rather than using checks. On December 15, a new system will become standard so we’ll have to transition our payments soon after we set them up.
So what is there to do for fun in Mainz, you ask? First of all, as in many towns, the area surrounding the train station seems to provide a lot of entertainment. Mainz is home to many college students who all seem to live or travel in through that area. On my first walk to visit the train station I noticed not one but several hookah stores and bars, casinos (which seem to be prevalent all over Mainz), and a Thai massage parlor. Of course, there are also many international restaurants and shopping there as well.
In addition to a variety of public parks and town squares, there also several museums here. This week I visited the Naturhistorisches Museum whose feature exhibit is currently about rats. The exhibit had a few live rats and mice in elaborate habitats, a coloring station for kids themed on the Pied Piper, and many pictures with all kinds of information on rat behavior, related animals, and so on. The museum building itself consists of a tall modern glass tower and a connected church building. It was fascinating to walk through a vaulted church hall lined with taxidermied animals. The original natural history museum was actually located in another building in town over a hundred years ago, moved several times, destroyed during World War II, and eventually rebuilt in its current location. The best part of the museum was the animal exhibits on the upper floors. These held more stuffed animals grouped by habitat with labels, so I used this visit as an opportunity to learn a variety of new animal vocabulary words. My personal favorite: der Waschbӓr (literally “washbear,” as it looks) as the word for raccoon.