Monday, December 31, 2012

Apartment Hunting Websites: Review of

For my upcoming move to the Kaiserslautern area, I began searching for apartments in the area at the beginning of December. I am using both , a German real estate site recommended to me by some Germans, as well as the military's AHRN (Automated Housing Referral Network; I've heard housing staff pronounce it as "Ahern") website.

AHRN is a database of housing that has been approved by the local base's housing office. Landlords have to agree not to discriminate based on (US) federally protected statuses and they also must agree to the housing office's policies. For example, most German contracts require quite a bit of notice to end the lease.  Since military folks might have to leave quickly because of deployments or permanent changes of station (PCS), landlords with listings in AHRN must agree to being given shorter notice (a month). Also, the listings are without commission, or as the Germans would call it, provisionfrei (provision, or commission, free).

It's extremely helpful to have this resource available, especially when apartment hunting from afar. Even if one doesn't use AHRN, one still must have the rental contract approved by the Housing Office. Staff there review the contract to make sure that it is legal and that it fits with standards that they set. I have heard that they must also inspect the apartment. Military members and staff must report to the housing office within two days of arrival to be briefed on housing issues.

I have been searching through AHRN and am glad to have this helpful resource. Listings include information such as how many bedrooms and baths there area, pet policies, utilities estimates, and other information that is standard for real estate listings.

However, the one downside to the site is that some of the properties are...somewhat depressing. I have seen some with brown 1980s style tiled bathrooms, or even worse, pink tiled bathrooms (I detest the color pink!). If one is looking for a penthouse apartment with a balcony and a great city view, AHRN isn't so much the place to search. Many of the listings are out in the country (or at least for the Kaiserslautern area they are). Not all of the apartments look dated and I'm still grateful for the service, but I'm actually more interested in a penthouse style apartment so I might need to look in other sources for an apartment. The main issue I will be facing is to find an apartment that is commission free and will allow a Housing Office approved lease.

U-bahn & accordians...

From April 18, 2011

if the dude jumps onto the U-bahn with an accordion, chances are that he´s not on his way to band practice. Just sayin´...

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Moving to Germany: Moo the Cat Comes with Me, Part 2

Moo: I'm going where?!

After I researched airline requirements, I needed to find out what importation requirements there would be from Germany, the US (especially the Department of Agriculture), and the military to bring my cat  with me to Germany. I emailed back and forth with the state veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture and she was very helpful with explaining the requirements; she even sent me a checklist of things to do.

Keep in mind that these requirements are for a pet/companion animal; there would be totally different requirements for a breeding animal or one for sale, I am sure.

Here is what I found:

1. To move to Germany, the cat must have been microchipped with a microchip that meets certain ISO standards (International Organization for Standardization). This microchip can be read by the German microchip readers and are 15 digits long. If your pet doesn't have a microchip that is ISO compliant, but has a different chip, you could, in theory, buy your own scanner and bring it with you so the pet's microchip can be read. However, the microchip scanners can cost quite a bit (sometimes around $100) so it would make more sense to get the pet remicrochipped with a $35-ish ISO compliant chip.

2. The cat must have a rabies shot that is more than 21 days old but less than a year old. Be sure that your cat is microchipped BEFORE you get the rabies shot! The vet must register the rabies shot to the microchip to prove that the correct animal has been vaccinated. If you do it in the wrong order, you will have to get the animal revaccinated. I also found on some documentation that the vet's signature on the rabies certificate must be in blue ink. Even if you think that doesn't apply to you, it might be good to request blue ink just in case you need it for some reason. I believe the blue ink requirement is because it would be more difficult to forge/photocopy something recorded in blue ink. I had some snafus with this step; originally, I had Moo vaccinated at a mobile vet clinic at a pet supply store to save money on a office call. The vet gave me a carbon copy of the papers so the ink appeared black. I had a dickens of a time trying to get ahold of the vet for a certificate signed in blue because she was only a contractor. I was worried about receiving it in time so I ended up taking Moo to another vet and getting his shot redone. What a pain!

3. Within 10 days of the flight, the animal must have health papers (for my move to Germany, I am using the form called the "Veterinary Certificate to European Union") signed by a USDA approved vet who certifies that the cat is healthy and fit to fly. You would get this done at your regular vet if he's approved by the USDA. Your vet may have the papers but you can also look for them for the Dept. of Ag. Since I'm paranoid about having the most current edition, I will print them out and bring them myself since my rural vet  doesn't get too many of these cases.

4. After the pet has been checked and has had the Vet certificate filled out with a vet who is USDA-approved, a vet at the USDA must examine the certificate and complete the APHIS 7001 form, International Health Certificate. The certificate will cost $38 from the USDA. The papers can be mailed to the office or you can take them in person. Since I have such a limited time frame, I plan to drive to the USDA offices right after my regular vet does the health certificate and get the papers signed then. I was worried about the papers getting lost in the mail or not being in time for the flight, which is right after holiday closures. Plus, to pay for overnighting the paperwork by mail both ways would cost more than just making the hour drive to the USDA office.

Bring the copy of your cat's rabies and microchip certificates, as well as the veterinary certificate.

Be sure to check with the USDA about their office hours as well as when they're available to do the international health certificate. My state's office only has certain hours that they do this and I made an appointment. The vet even told me that Mr. Moo is welcome to come with me inside; she has been so nice and helpful :) I'm totally feeling like a crazy cat lady at this point, for sure, because I'm happy that Moo gets accompany me for errands and of course, for the move.

Snow help me, if I have to buy winter tires...

As someone who's from a northern state, I'm quite well versed in driving in snow...and ice...and slush...and a combination of all three. When I was researching the western edge of Germany where I'll be moving, I looked at snowfall averages and winter temperatures and was pleased to find out that the climate is a bit more mild than where I am currently living. It appears that they get snow but not as much as we do here, which sounds good to me.

I learned that there are some strict German laws on the tires that one uses (is this a surprise? There are definitely a lot of German laws and regulations to shift through for everything, pretty much :), especially for winter tires. The most important rule is that in conditions of snow and/or ice, the car must have either winter tires or (all season) tires marked with M+S (mud and snow). Failure to have such tires can result in a ticket. Apparently there is a saying that one should use winter tires “von Oktober bis Ostern” (from October to Easter), as a rule of thumb, to account for the snow season. The winter tires marked with a snowflake are highly suggested but the all season tires marked with M+S are also acceptable.

While researching this, I decided that I would just get the all season tires to avoid the expense of buying one set of tires for snow and one set for the rest of the year. I felt confident in my decision. Why buy extra tires if they're not needed? I'm a northerner and I *know* snow. I was given immediate pause when someone who had moved to Germany from a state farther north than I where I live said that she wished she had bought winter tires. What?! Oh no. If someone from a place with a lot of snow is saying that winter tires are recommended, then that makes me think I'll need them. I couldn't really figure out why, if the area doesn't get a huge amount of snow, the tires would be needed. I was told that it's hilly there and that the roads don't get plowed/salted much. 

So, is this true? Is it hard to get around? How has it been to get around with or without snow tires? How often do you get stuck? Are the roads really not maintained when it snows?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Moving to Germany: Moo the Cat Comes with Me, Part 1

Moving to Germany: what to do with Moo?

When I first found out that I was going to move Germany, I realized that I had a huge dilemma: what would I do with my cat, Moo, who has been my companion for the last nine years and is considered part of the family and well known for his Moo antics? At first, I thought that I might need to leave him behind. I was really worried that he would be incredibly stressed from moving. He's a rather mellow cat, so I think that I would the one doing the stressing, but still, it was a definite concern.

There seemed to be many hurdles to overcome with bringing him; my main concern was finding an apartment that would allow him and a secondary concern was how on earth I would get him to Deutschland. After all, it's difficult enough to find an apartment in the States that allows pets; I couldn't imagine trying to find a place in a foreign country. I inquired with my friend/current landlady and initially she was willing to keep him, as she does love the critter very much. It was a difficult decision, but I felt like it would've been better for Moo not to have all the stress of moving, and let's be honest: I was originally relieved to have the stress lifted of trying to find a place and to transport him.

It would've been hard to leave behind my companion & yoga partner!

However, some things changed for my friend, and she was not able to take him after all. I felt a moment of panic, but I was also relieved. I would have missed Moo so much; he's been a sweet and cuddly companion for nine years. Plus, in the last six months we had to put down our family dog of 12 years as well as my horse I had owned for 10 years. It would've been really difficult to lose one more family member/animal in the same year (though it wouldn't have been as bad as him passing away, of course).

Jumping into problem solving mode, I started searching online to see how difficult it would be to find an apartment that would allow a cat.I was relieved to find that in Germany, it's a bit easier to find a place. There might be a pet deposit or the rent might be a bit higher, but it appears that there are more places that will allow a pet. I have heard that Germans are very fond of their pets, so maybe this is why. (An aside: people can often bring their well-behaved, leashed dogs into many restaurants, so that really takes enthusiasm for pets to a new level! I have never personally seen a dog in a restaurant in Germany, but I have seen one in a restaurant in Paris so the French must also be quite fond of their pets too.)

He even helps sort paperwork! He's a very helpful kitty.

After finding that it shouldn't be impossible to rent an apartment that allows a cat, I started researching what a person needs to do to when she wants to include her cat in her PCS, or, Permanent Change of Station (moving), as they say with my employer. Below I will list some of the steps that I have taken; they are up to date as of December 2012, but if you are planning to move your pet, be sure to also do your own research because things change and your situation may vary.

I will start with the steps that I took with arranging to bring my cat with me on the flight; I'll write about other aspects in subsequent blog posts because this will be loooooong!

1. Decide how your cat will be making his way to the new country. Basically, there are three main ways of doing this: bringing the cat as your carry-on baggage on your flight, having him ride in the cargo area of the plane during your flight, or having him shipped separately. The first two options aren't cheap, but the last option is probably the most expensive way of going; I believe that I read that one company charged $600! I chose the first option; the flight I am taking doesn't even allow animals in the cargo area because it's not climate controlled. I have heard some horror stories of animals dying in the cargo area because they weren't suited for the climate in it, but I haven't heard of this from anyone that had experienced this directly.

2. Be sure to book your cat's plane travel right away! Do it right when you book your flight, or immediately after. If you book online, depending on the airline, you might need to call the airline to amend your reservation to include your cat. Airlines limit how many pets are allowed in the cabin, for example, and these spots fill up quickly. I booked my flight ticket through my employer's travel agency right around Thanksgiving, and then it dawned on me that I needed to book travel for Moo, too. I thought that I had enough time because it was more than seven weeks before the flight, but I called Delta anyway. I was glad that I did! The flight only allowed four pets in the cabin for the flight, and Moo took the last spot. I would have been out of luck had I not reserved that space because the particular plane for that flight did not allow animals to fly in the cargo area.

3. Start preparing yourself for sticker shock for how much everything will cost to get your beloved furball overseas. Moo, as "carry-on luggage" (which I'm sure he isn't looking forward to!), is a crisp $200 fee for the international flight (which I booked on the phone but will pay for in person when I check in for the flight). That's grating on my nerves a bit because I'm going to have to stick him (inside his carrier) under the seat in front of me and consequently I won't have any legroom. Even worse, of course, is that he's going to be rather squished! It's crazy to have to pay $200 for this "privilege," but it is just something I'll have to accept (and by extension, he will, too -- poor Moo!).

4. Make sure that your pet, his carrier, and his accessories will meet all of the requirements for the flight, as well as those of the destination country. For example, some airlines have blackout dates when animals can't travel in the cargo area because of extreme temperatures. Some smooshed-face breeds have restrictions because of concerns of them being able to breathe. Particular breeds may be banned in your destination. Learn about this ahead of time to avoid major problems and heartbreak. There are many rules related to the carrier/cage, feeding the pet, tranquilizing him, etc. Check with your airline as well as with the Department of Agriculture. There are so many things to check; this is just a start! For example, certain types of pet crates are forbidden in the cargo area or you may have to replace the flimsy hardware on them with more substantial metal parts. Most airlines require that the animal be able to stand up and turn around freely without his head touching the top in the crate if he is being flown in the cargo area. For animals going as carry-on baggage, it's okay for their heads to touch the top of the carrier, but they still must be able to turn around in the carrier. The carrier must meet carry-on size requirements. Don't just go by the tag that says "airline approved." Actually check with your particular airline because their requirements vary.

5. Find out what you must do with the cat at the airport and on the flight. The first part of this would be to find out about TSA screening requirements, and definitely check their website for the latest information. At the time of my search, I learned that I must remove Moo from the carrier and walk through security with him. If I don't do that, I would have to take him in his carrier to a separate screening area to be checked. I'm not sure what that would entail so I'm going to put myself in peril of being scratched by a panicked cat and walk through security with him in arms. Being a smarty pants, I noted that it's unfortunate that I can't wear my coat and oven mitts to avoid being scratched, but that would probably be viewed as a security risk itself so I'll avoid doing that. The animal must be leashed during this process, which brings up another problem: metal on the animal's collar might set off the alarm. Thankfully, there is a way around this -- I bought a metal free harness and leash from a pet supply store that specializes in pet airline supplies (which I'll review in another post).

Once you get into the airport itself, it should be easier sailing. Just don't remove your animal from the carrier if you can avoid it. You won't be allowed to remove him during the flight, either, so avoid envisioning Fluffy chillin' on your lap as you wait for beverage service.

Merry Christmas, Howdy Partner: What I'd Want in a Western

I'm hanging out with the family (Merry Christmas to those who partake, by the way!) and we're watching (well, they are - I'm working on the computer!) a Western from the '60s. It's amusing to me to see women in pioneer style clothes but who have '60s style somewhat beehive-y hair.

One geezer "merchant" in the movie said that he deals in whiskey and women. I commented that I prefer men and Merlot, myself ;)


It's not a white Christmas here at my family's house in the west side of the state, but based on the police scanner Facebook page for where I currently live, it is there -- and it sounds as if the roads were nasty last night! I hope that they're cleared up and my friends over there are enjoying the white Christmas.

From my Western to yours, enjoy the holiday!

Store Review: Phil's Stuff, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Phil's Stuff

722 Wealthy Street Southeast
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503
Hours: usually Saturdays 10-4 pm; if building looks occupied at other times, knock to be let in
Buying/selling antiques, estate items, architectural items, as well as metal yard art

On Wealthy Street, in a southeast neighborhood that is reviving itself through new businesses, a store packed to the brim with curiosities awaits for shoppers looking for the eclectic. The store is part antique store, part local crafts store, and part...well, one wouldn't say junk store so much, but owner Phil Ondersma's title of "stuff" fits very well.
Need a hand? Phil has 8 of them he'd be willing to sell to you for $99.

Right down the street from a bustling block of businesses and restaurants such as the Meanwhile and Electric Cheetah, Phil's Stuff is a fun place to visit while in the neighborhood. The store is overflowing with merchandise; some is antique and some is just interesting. Phil specializes in period pieces for historic home renovations. One can find old heating vents, skeleton keys, and doorknobs that are original as well as vintage. Other antiques grace the shelves, too, whether it's the strange ceramic arms that were previously used to display gloves in stores or if it's some vintage magazines.

The store even carries some new items, too. There are some great yard sculptures, including flying pigs made from recycled scrap metal like license plates and bolts, as well arches, metal spikes with decorative elements on the top for garden ornamentation, and many other goodies. Cast metal coat hooks, bottle openers and other tchotchkes in the shape of animals, angels and mermaids round out the unique new merchandise.

Metal "Flying" Pig

Phil is as interesting as the "stuff" he sells. He's often decked out in a festive Hawaiian shirt and brings his little dog to the store too. He is a bit gruff but it gives him character, which certainly explains the eclectic store. He's always busy in the store, whether it's greeting a regular customer, or buying some curiosities to resell from people who bring them by the store. Keep in mind that Phil's travels in search of antiques sometimes make for irregular hours; on some Saturdays, the store might not be open so it's advised to call ahead of time.

Some of the cast metal pieces available.

For a fun afternoon, stop by Phil's Stuff on a Saturday. After that, it's just a few blocks to bars, restaurants, and other stores on Wealthy.

There's no business like (metal) monkey business at Phil's.

I'll be leaving...on a jet plane

I am excited to announce, after 12 years of wanting to do so, that I am moving to live and work in Europe. It's great to finally realize a goal that has been that long in the making. After all, I feel that I am a person of my word and I am glad to have accomplished what I set out to do.

I'll be living and working in western Germany.