Friday, January 22, 2010

Back in Germany

Friday 22 January 2010

I am back in Germany after a long leave at home. It’s been a very interesting 2 ½ months since my last entry!

I spent the first few days in November doing some basic in-processing in Heidelberg, then left on 5 November to go home on leave. After all the confusion and conflicting information in my USARCENT units about PDMRA, it was remarkably simple and straightforward to get credit for it here. I simply filled out my DA 31 leave form as “Ordinary Leave” with “Special Leave Accrual” typed on the line in block 7. Then in the remarks block I put “PDMRA: (date-date)” and “Ordinary: (date-date)” to account for the different sources for my accrued leave days. They processed it without a hitch. Now that I’m back, the “proof in the pudding” will be what shows up on my Leave and Earnings Statement after the completed form is processed. But I don’t expect any issues. (Knock wood)

I flew home on a non-stop flight (what a treat!) and spent the first couple of days back getting my temporary apartment set up, furniture delivered, etc. It was kind of a whirlwind leave in some ways, because there was so much to do. But I had so much time that it rarely seemed rushed or cramped. I just went with the flow and did whatever there was to do at the time. I got to visit with almost every family member, and got to spend more time with my kids than I have been able to in years. I won’t attempt a chronology here, as everyone who reads this was involved and already knows what we did!

I had a delightful and unexpected surprise during my leave when I followed up on a chance meeting I had on a plane flight last year when I was returning to Qatar. I sat across the aisle from a very interesting lady, with whom I talked almost non-stop the entire flight. We kept in contact through email, and decided to meet when I got home on leave. We had a wonderful time and got to know each other much better. We’ll be seeing more of each other. :-)

My departure was a bit sad as they usually are. But this time it had a whole different aspect because there is actually a realistic possibility that people can and will come here to visit me. :-)

On to my arrival in Heidelberg and what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks (gee, it seems like a lot longer than that!):

To start with my plane was three hours late getting in on Friday, which endangered my plan to get over to Housing and draw my quarters. I took a shuttle from the airport, showed up outside Campbell Barracks with all my bags, and went inside to find a ride. The Sergeant Major honchoed me around, which was very helpful. We went to housing, where I got the keys for the quarters I had chosen. (It was actually the option I had chosen – i.e. to live in quarters that were very close to work and the city transportation network, but to have a roommate. The specific quarters and roommate had not been assigned.) As soon as I walked in I immediately knew that it was a mistake. We went back to housing and I switched to an individual BOQ in Patrick Henry Village. It’s farther away from town, but it’s private which is a huge advantage.

My original plan was to take the BOQ temporarily and then to move out into an apartment on the economy. This would have to be at my own expense because I’m not authorized to have government-paid off-post quarters. I quickly discovered that this would simply be too expensive. So I’m living in the BOQ and expect to stay there. It’s a bit of a disappointment because it is not my idea of how I wanted to live here – I can’t just walk out the door and be in the middle of a German neighborhood, walk to the shops and market, etc. But it’s free, which will enable me to have money to spend on other things. And having a car makes a big difference as well. But I’m getting ahead of myself – I’ll return to the process of getting settled, and go into more detail about the quarters later.

After I was signed for my quarters we went to the PX for some basics – I needed sheets, a pillow, a blanket, etc. The sergeant major took me over there and I picked up a few necessities, then came back and crashed. The next day (Saturday) we went back to the PX and to the commissary, and I stocked up on various household sundries and food. Sunday was kind of a quiet day when I just rested and took stock of things. My main focus was trying to get a car, although I had a few other things I had to do as well. I needed to get set up on the internet and get a cell phone, pick up my mail, and also open a local bank account. All that stuff was taken care of by COB Monday, and I turned to a serious focus on buying a car.

I had been looking at various places people had suggested. My plan was to buy a “hooptie” (that’s the word people here use for what we would call a “clunker”). I would order a brand-new Jeep from the PX dealer here and drive the hooptie temporarily until it came in. I sat down with the PX car salesman and got a quote on a Jeep. There were several “ouch!” moments. The first was the price – not as much of a discount as I’d expected. I imagine that people in the US could get a much better deal at this point. The second was the fact that I’d have to pay for shipping it over here. Because I am on a one-year tour and not authorized to ship a POV, they can’t send the new car via military shipping, and I have to pay for it to get sent over. And finally, the wait – to get what I wanted would take until at least April or May, *if* I ordered it right away.

So then I went to shop for hoopties. The first challenge was just knowing where to look. I got suggestions from several people, but there was no one single reference to point me to different sources for used cars. I asked taxi drivers and bus drivers, and talked to people at the office. That led me to a couple of workshops downtown (who didn’t have anything) as well as to the “Lemon Lot” here on PHV. The Lemon Lot is just a place where people park their cars with for sale signs in the windows, and everybody knows to look there for cars. I looked at a couple but the selection was pretty slim. I got the best advice from a couple guys I chatted with randomly in the PX. They suggested some websites with classified ads, and those were by far the most productive sources. I spent an evening going over the ads and was prepared to spend all day Wednesday doing nothing but car shopping. I sent a lot of “call me” emails, and made a list of cars to look at.

On Wednesday I set out to visit car places. I looked at a Subaru 4WD that was very nice, but too expensive to buy as a temporary car. I looked at an Opel Astra that was a real wreck – needed a lot of work to pass inspection. I looked at a BMW 320i and test drove it. It was OK, but a bit long in the tooth. I took it to inspection and it turned out it needed work. The dealer said he’d fix everything, no problem, and then we talked about price. Surprise! His price on the windshield was in Euros, not dollars. It may seem obvious that it would be in Euros in Europe, but the car was displayed next to an American Kaserne, and all the signs were in English, so I expected the prices to be in dollars. He had no Euro or dollar symbols, just numbers, so I think it was deliberately misleading. In any case, this changed everything, as a Euro is worth $1.50 right now – the price was half again as much as I expected. We were haggling over this when my cell phone rang, and it was a call back from someone who had a Jeep for sale. I thanked the guy and went to look at the Jeep.

The seller was in Kaiserslautern, which is over an hour away. But the listing for this Jeep made it seem worthwhile. It was anything but a hooptie. A 2008 Wrangler, it had been purchased in March of that year and then the owner got deployed to Turkey. She shipped it there, which took a few months, then rarely drove it (and then only on post). As a result of this history, the Jeep had only 5900 miles on it! When sent to Germany in December she was finalizing a divorce, and decided to sell her Jeep and two motorcycles to pay the bills. I happened to see her ad the day she posted it, and met with her the next day. I drove it, we discussed the price, and I bought it. That simple. :-)

Well, not quite. (Nothing in the military is ever just “that simple” when you’re overseas). The first challenge was getting her the money. The second challenge was registration.


Monday, 22 Jan – well, ok. I started this entry on the 16th, re-dated it to the 19th, and here it is the 22nd. The task of a complete chronological account of my time here so far just gets more and more daunting, so I’m changing my approach (I have to post *something* or you’ll all think I fell off the edge of the planet!).

So – the remainder of this entry will be the story of my Jeep, and then I’ll give an apartment update later in a separate entry. Back to the process of getting the Jeep:

Since I had been thinking of getting a hooptie and expected to have to pay cash, I had been taking money out of my accounts as fast as possible. There is no way get large amounts of money over here directly without a local account. I had opened one, but the connection (aside: I am getting comfortable with German again – the first word that popped into my mind just now was “verbindung” rather than “connection”. That’s a good sign…) had not yet been established. So my only other alternative was ATM withdrawals. My bank allows only $500 per day to be taken out of an ATM. Fortunately I have two accounts, so I was moving money to my business account and making a $500 withdrawal from each account each day, to get enough money for a hooptie. I was hoping not to have to pay more than $3,000 or so, but they are a bit overpriced, especially if you want anything decent.

So I had been doing this and had $3,000 in cash, when I found the Jeep. She was trying to get about $22,500 for it, which is what the NADA said it was worth in its condition. The Kelley Blue Book said it was worth just shy of $20,000. Of course those prices are US prices, and things are more expensive here. She also had aftermarket wheels and tires on it that are like new, but I didn’t take those into account. I started at $18,000. We haggled on the price a bit and settled on $19,500. I think it was a fair price – certainly a lot less than I’d have had to pay for a new one. It isn’t exactly the configuration I would have ordered, but it is a cool Jeep and I’ll have fun with it.

Now, keep in mind that this was Thursday, and we wanted to transfer the car on Friday, so I could take advantage of the long weekend (and also turn in my rental car that was outrageously expensive).

Now the problem was that in order to buy it from her, she would need to pay off her loan and then get the rest from me one way or another. And her bank was in the USA. I could not register the car in my name until we got a lien release from her bank saying the loan was paid off. How to do that?

We couldn’t do anything until her bank opened up at 0730 central time, 1430 local time here. So I went home and then went back to Kaiserslautern in Friday afternoon (about a 100 km drive one way).

We started dealing with the process when the banks opened in the USA. Wire transfers can take up to 24 hours to process, so that didn’t seem like an option. I had a too low of a limit on my credit card, so we couldn’t do it that way without raising the limit. I called the bank to get the limit raised, and they said “We can’t do that over the phone – go to your local branch and they’ll take care of it, no problem”. Hmm – small problem – I’M ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD. Oops – well, sorry, can’t help you. So I called the local branch, and they offered to do it. But then we found out that a credit-card transaction would be held anyway by her bank, so no dice. Then my bank offered to do an immediate wire transfer since they know me. THANK YOU!

Her bank had the money within about ten minutes, and we had an hour yet before the registration office closed. Problem solved, right? WRONG. Her bank had to go through a bunch of processes to apply the money to her loan and to prepare the lien release, and then fax it over. Long story short, we begged, pleaded, and cajoled, all to no avail. The people in Kaiserslautern even kept the office open after closing time for us, while we tried to get her bank to send the fax. But they just couldn’t make their processes work fast enough. So – no registration in my name on Friday.

Because I had paid off her loan and the Jeep was already on my insurance, and because there’s no law saying you can’t loan someone your car, she let me take it over the weekend anyway. I appreciated that, and enjoyed the Jeep over the holiday weekend, intending to go back and register it on Tuesday when they had the paperwork.

I turned in the rental car in Kaiserslautern (it cost me an extra $90 to do that) and drove home somewhat frustrated but nonetheless happy. How can you not be happy when you have a new Jeep?

Me and my Jeep, in front of my BOQ

I really wanted to get out and drive around, but I had so many things to take care of that Saturday and Sunday just evaporated. (More on that in a later entry). But on Monday I headed out. I didn’t have a specific destination, but the entire area north of Heidelberg is part of a mountainous region called the Odenwald, so I just headed up in that direction. I drove east down the Neckar river and turned left into the mountains up a road that showed a ruined castle a few km ahead. (It turned out there’s no road to it and nothing to see, but it was a pretty drive anyway).

Partway up that winding little mountain road I saw a two-track heading off into the woods, so naturally I had to put it in 4WD and turn off. I drove for several miles through the woods, went through some puddles, and got a nice thick coating of mud on my new Jeep. It’s a Jeep thing - kind of like taking your dog out and just letting him run. :-)

I came out of the woods and followed tractor tracks through some fields until I got back onto the road in a little farm village that looked like it was about a thousand years old – I love places like that! I had my camera but never stopped to take any photos. I was having too much fun driving.

I kept following the roads, and stopped at a likely looking Gasthaus called “zum Goldenen Hirsch” (The Golden Deer”). It had a wildlife/hunting theme, so I ordered Wildgoulasch, a wildlife (probably venison) goulash with spaetzle (a sort of noodle). It was absolutely delicious. First came a salad, then the main dish, with a side of sliced pears and cranberry preserves. It was about twice as much food as I needed to eat, but of course I ate it all. That place rated a waypoint on my GPS. :-)

The ride home was picturesque (as was the whole day). I considered it a day very well spent.

Tuesday I went back to Kaiserslautern to complete the registration process on the Jeep. I wish I could say it was smooth and uneventful, but it was in many ways a reprise of Friday.

The first bad news was that the registration place didn’t have the fax of the lien release form. Never came. Her bank (USAA, by the way, from whom we had a right to expect much, much better service) claimed that it had been sent on Friday. We told them it had not arrived and asked them to send it again. That should be easy, right? WRONG. They didn’t have the document – they destroyed it after faxing it. No copy, no image, just shredded it. So they had to go through the same thing all over again. Now we were getting near closing time and facing yet another 200km round trip if we didn’t get it done. So we both just kept calling USAA trying to find someone who would help us. Nobody would get out of their little box or violate their little procedures, and we were getting quite frustrated until FINALLY she got someone with a brain and a customer service attitude, who was willing to actually print out the document and put in on a physical fax machine instead of just pushing a button on her computer and saying “the fax has been requested”.

Once again the nice people at Kaiserslautern vehicle registration had stayed open late just for us, and we got it done about 15 minutes after they were officially closed.

So I drove home with the Jeep registered in my name. But I wasn’t done yet. The final chapter to this little saga is that I had to switch from Kaiserslautern plates (see the KL prefix in the photo?) to Heidelberg plates (HD). I took care of this on Wednesday.

I also had to get a fuel ration card for the vehicle. The way it works is that you go to AAFES (the PX) with your vehicle registration and open an account. They give you a prepaid debit card for use at Esso stations, and you put money into your account. When you use this card to pay for gas at Esso stations, the money is debited from the account, and you are charged a special price for US service members rather than the retail price that Germans have to pay.

We are fortunate not to have to pay their prices for gas here. When I filled up today it was 1.37 Euro per liter, which works out to something between $7 and $8 per gallon depending on the exchange rate (!). The pump total on my fill-up was 61.85 Euro ($87.42), but instead I paid $37.95 by using my US ration card. That is quite a benefit!

Looks like I got almost 23 mpg, but I think that might be a mistake – I may have filled up and forgotten to reset the odometer. I’ll calculate that again before I believe it. I expect more like 15-19 mpg, which is what my old Jeep averaged.

Okay, so I have finally made a blog entry from Germany! There’s more to say, but it will have to wait.

Mood: Happy
Music: Silence


At 12:19, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love Jeeps.Love Heildelberg Love your story.Screw Lemmon Lots.


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