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Some practical things that the last nine years of living in Germany have taught me…

Lately, I’ve noticed I’ve been getting lots of hits from the United States on this blog. Many of the hits land on my posts about the differences between life in Germany with the US military versus military contractor life. There must be many recent retirees or other people who have left the military thinking about taking the European plunge.

In early August of this year, Bill and I celebrated our ninth year of military contractor life in Germany. A lot has happened since our arrival in 2014, and this blog is full of those stories. Over the years, I’ve added updates to my military vs contractor series. Those posts are easy to find on this blog, although please bear in mind that until 2019, this blog was hosted by Blogspot. I did move the old posts to this blog, but they are formatted somewhat differently. Moving the old posts was very labor intensive, and I’m not even sure I got everything fixed properly! The job took several weeks!

I moved the blog to WordPress in the summer of that year, due to a very bizarre situation that arose. I’m not sorry I moved the blog, but that weird situation did change the way I do things and significantly reduced my readership. I also learned a lot from that situation, which I’ll explain more about later in this post.

As I survey the past nine years, I realize that I’ve learned a lot of stuff. Some of what I’ve learned has been very practical, and it will probably serve me well for the rest of my life, no matter where I live. Some of it has been unfortunate and kind of disheartening. The rest of it is stuff I might have learned anywhere.

Since there are so many people hitting the soldier vs. contractor posts, I thought maybe I’d share some wisdom I’ve picked up over the past nine years. Maybe it help some people… or maybe some will be entertained or amused. I will issue a caveat that some of what I’ve learned is a little disturbing, but it’s part of our story… and I like to be straightforward as much as possible. So here goes.

  • Citric acid is your friend

I’ll start with a relatively benign thing. Before I lived in Germany, I had no idea that citric acid would be something I’d want to keep in my house. Aside from when I was a kid in rural Virginia drinking well water, I didn’t have to deal with the insane hard water that Germany has. It was pretty bad when I lived in Stuttgart, but it’s even worse in Wiesbaden.

Citric acid is cheap, and it’s essential for getting rid of hard water stains and limescale. Vinegar is also good for cleaning glass and descaling things, but I’ve found citric acid to be much more effective. So now, I always keep it in the house… and I expect that won’t change if and when we move back to the States. Mix it with hot water and let it soak. It’ll really help get rid of that chalky stuff. Here’s a link to the brand I usually buy from Amazon.de, but you can also get it in local stores.

  • Adequate insurance is a MUST

I’ve written about this a few times, but I’m going to write about it again. Get insured. If you’re coming here as a contractor and could be here awhile, I highly recommend buying German insurance policies, rather than relying on USAA or another US based company.

Chances are good you won’t need your German policies, and I do understand not wanting to get into German contracts, which can be hard to break without sufficient notice. BUT… I’m here to tell you, German insurance policies are usually fairly cheap, and they can save your ass.

I recommend having a liability policy, at the very least. This is a policy that covers situations like when when you accidentally break another person’s property. If you have pets, you should definitely get pet liability insurance, which covers any damage or accidents caused by your pets (accidents caused by them will not be covered by personal liability insurance). You may also want to consider purchasing legal insurance, though that’s not as essential. All three of these products have been useful to us.

My husband and I had an unfortunate incident involving an awning at our rental house when we lived in Stuttgart. It was an old awning, and in poor repair. One windy day, it collapsed. Our landlady insisted that it was my fault that the wind blew down the awning. She wanted us to buy her a brand new one. We happened to have a German liability insurance policy, which gave her a very low settlement. She wasn’t happy about the settlement, but it was good that we had it, even though she still tried to rip off our security deposit to pay for a new awning. Which leads me to my next point…

  • Join the Mieterverein!!!!!

This is the German tenants union, and it can be very useful if you have a dispute with your landlord/landlady. It’s very inexpensive to join. We are members, although in our situation with our former landlady, we ended up using our German legal insurance policy instead of the Mieterverein. Still, I highly recommend that anyone renting a home on the German economy become a member of the Mieterverein at the very least. The above link will take you to the general site, where you can find the Mieterbund in the area where you will live.

I mentioned above that when we moved out of our last house, our former landlady tried to illegally seize our “Kaution” (security deposit), because she was upset about the low settlement she got for her awning. She didn’t directly charge us for the awning, since she had accepted a settlement for it. But she did make up lots of little charges that would amount to what she said she would pay for a new awning.

We used our German legal insurance to get advice from German lawyers, and we ultimately ended up suing her. It turned out she did a lot of things wrong, to include never doing an “protocol” when we moved in and out of her house, and never reconciling the Nebenkosten (other costs paid for things like trash). In Germany, it is the law that landlords reconcile the Nebenkosten every year. She didn’t do it for the four years we were in her rental house. Consequently, we had the right to ask her to return ALL of the Nebenkosten we paid for the whole four years we were in her house. It totaled thousands of euros.

Now, we didn’t end up demanding that she return the Nebenkosten, but it did help us build our successful case against her. There were other issues, too. Like, she also falsely accused us of theft, and charged us ridiculous fees, for things she couldn’t prove we did, on old stuff that needed to be replaced, anyway. She ended up having to return most of the Kaution she illegally withheld, plus she had to pay for court costs, her lawyer, and our lawyer… though I’m sure she had German legal insurance, too.

Moral of the story is… Make sure you are insured adequately! And if there is the slightest hint that there will be an issue when you move out, get the legal insurance ASAP. It won’t cover pre-existing issues, and there’s also a waiting period before you can use it. But… if you don’t want to get German legal insurance, you should at least join the Mieterverein. Sometimes, the memberships even include legal insurance for landlord issues. Also… don’t be afraid to use the German legal system to fight for your rights. It’s not that hard, especially if you have legal insurance. Unfortunately, there are landlords here who WILL prey on the fact that you aren’t a local.

  • Don’t be too quick to accept a house

I actually had a bad feeling about our ex landlady when I met her. I wish I’d listened to my gut. It might have spared us some grief. But, I did enjoy living where we lived, and dealing with ex landlady was educational on many levels. I wouldn’t recommend learning lessons the way I did, though. It’s very stressful.

When we moved back to Stuttgart in 2014, we were dealing with some pretty major life issues that made us want to settle into a house quickly. We also had memories of the housing shortage that existed in 2007, during our first Germany stint. Finding housing isn’t as hard as it was in 2007, though; so learn from us, and take the time to find a decent place that you’ll like, with a landlord/landlady who doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

  • Don’t get too involved in the Facebook group dramas

This was an unfortunate mistake I made in 2014. I joined a ton of local groups in Stuttgart, and got too sucked into the dramas of the groups. I’m not saying you can’t make good friends that way, or that being in the groups isn’t useful, informative, or entertaining. But those groups can lead to bizarre situations that can make your time in Germany more stressful and stupid than it needs to be. I could write about several of those that personally affected me, but that would make this post even longer than it already is.

I learned from our Stuttgart experience regarding Facebook groups. When we moved to Wiesbaden, I only joined the local pets group and continued to maintain the wine and food group I started when we lived in Stuttgart. I didn’t join any other groups. My life has been much more peaceful as a result, and I’ve gotten to know more locals. Your mileage may vary, of course. I’ve just seen a lot of drama erupt over social media, and was involved in way too much of it, especially in Stuttgart. So I recommend proceeding with caution and limiting the number of groups you join. Besides, those groups can eat up precious time that you could be spending on exploring Europe.

  • If you bring a car, consider joining ADAC or another auto club

Both times we’ve spent in Germany, we’ve had occasion to use our ADAC policy. One time, we went on a Baltic cruise and came back to find our battery dead. We called ADAC and they sent us a guy with a battery. He fixed our car on the spot, and we were on our way.

Another time, we were in France and some jackass deliberately popped our tire, hopping to rob us. He didn’t succeed, but he caused quite an issue for us. ADAC was a lifesaver there, too, helping us to get new tires and report the crime to the French police. There are other auto clubs besides ADAC, so do some research and choose one that works best for your budget and lifestyle.

  • Enjoy yourself!

I know not everyone likes living outside of the United States. We’ve seen a lot of people come and go, and some people are happy to go when their time over here is finished. Unfortunately, being a military contractor can be stressful, because contracts are won and lost all the time. When we lived in Stuttgart, Bill’s first company lost its contract. The new company hired him, but the next year, his job was turned into a GS position. In fact, that’s why we moved to Wiesbaden. Wiesbaden, by the way, seems to be much friendlier to contractors than Stuttgart was, at least when we were there.

Having now lived in both places for a total of nine years, I can honestly say that both have their pluses and minuses, and you really can’t go wrong moving to either place, as long as you manage your expectations and keep your eyes open. One thing that we have tried to focus on is ENJOYING our time here, and seeing places. And when you see places, don’t forget to explore locally. We missed a lot of really awesome local stuff when we lived in Stuttgart the first time, because we were so focused on seeing the rest of Europe. We also had to leave a year early, which sucked.

If you care at all about living in Europe for the experience, rather than just the job, then I urge you to make the most of your weekends and holidays. Go see Paris and Rome, but don’t forget about Stuttgart and Wiesbaden… and Mainz, Frankfurt, T√ľbingen, the Black Forest, the Rheingau… and any of the other really cool little places near where you live. Nagold is one town we completely missed the first time we were in Stuttgart and ended up loving when we came back. So I recommend going out to explore locally, and soaking up the culture. You may not have another chance… On the other hand, you may end up like me, and seem destined for European life indefinitely.

If there’s any interest in more posts like this, I’ll be happy to write them. Feel free to leave a comment or a question, because there’s definitely more I could share.

Now… time to write something for the main blog. See you next post!

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Eight years of contractor life…

I’ve decided to add another entry to my “contractor life” series. Aspects of this story might seem insensitive. Please bear in mind that it’s simply my perspective, and I’m trying to be honest about my personal experiences over here. Other people’s mileages may vary. Also, this article mentions suicide, so please proceed with caution. The featured photo is our current house!

This morning, I noticed that someone hit some old posts I wrote when we last lived in Stuttgart. They were about “contractor life”. I had completely forgotten that I had written those posts, which were pretty popular when I was still using the Blogger platform. I think I meant to maintain that series, but then March 2020 hit, and we all know what happened with that. ūüėČ

My husband’s contractor life in Germany has continued, and now we’ve lived in Germany for eight years. A lot has happened over those years. Hell… I just look at old photos from August 2014, when we first moved back here, I realize that Bill and I both look different. I quit coloring my hair, for one thing. The hardness of German water turned it into straw when I used color, and I hate going to hairstylists. I’m sure this look would surprise people who last saw me stateside, back in 2014.

Last time I wrote one of these posts, we had just found out that Bill’s old job was being converted to a GS (government service) position. At that point, we didn’t yet know that Bill would be an attractive candidate in Wiesbaden. He waited to apply for the job, mainly because we thought we wanted to stay in Stuttgart. At the time, I was a bit trauma bonded– and I didn’t want to move‚ÄĒ for all the wrong reasons. Finally, one of his old bosses came to him and told him that the folks in Wiesbaden were actually WAITING for him to apply for the job, and had requested him, personally. He had pretty much all of the experience and skills they were looking for. At the same time, I finally had a epiphany one night when I was home alone. Although I had been resisting leaving, I actually wanted to leave Stuttgart.

Actually, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to leave Stuttgart, as I wanted to move out of our old house. For several reasons, our former landlady and I didn’t get along at all. Complicating matters was the fact that former landlady’s ex tenant, an American who was also her “friend”, was monitoring my blogs and apparently reporting back to the ex landlady.

It wasn’t so much that I was posting a lot of stuff about the ex landlady, per se, as that I would occasionally vent in the blog when she would upset me. She had a habit, for instance, of yelling at me in my own home and treating me like an especially slow-witted child. I really resented it. Moreover, the whole time, former tenant (then living in the USA) was occasionally leaving me comments, then dirty deleting them, after reminding me about the importance of maintaining her “privacy”. It made for a very toxic, stressful living situation, which all came to a head when my husband sued the ex landlady for illegally withholding over 80 percent of our deposit (legal insurance for the win, though– get it if you come here).

I liked our neighborhood, but I didn’t like the house. Even if our landlady didn’t have a habit of popping over unannounced, blaming me personally for things that weren’t my fault, and yelling at me for inconsequential things, it was a house without much charm or convenience. It had two things going for it– a nice view into the forest, and a relatively low rent (low for Germany, not the United States). Because we lived there for four years, and we got tax breaks from living abroad, we were able to retire a lot of debt, including my student loans (about $40,000 when we arrived in 2014, and completely paid off less than four years later).

Okay, I also liked the fact that the house was close to Nagold, which is a great little town on the edge of the Black Forest. But the town we lived in wasn’t that interesting, and it was far from where Bill worked. Living there meant long traffic jams and a hideous commute for Bill. And, although the house was badly in need of renovation, our ex landlady acted like we should be grateful to be “allowed” to live there, and willingly put up with her micromanagement and surveillance without any complaint. She also seemed to think we should allow her to use our money to upgrade the house. I figured it was time for her to harass someone else– although hopefully not anyone from the US military community. We did submit her name to the non referral list, along with the paperwork from the lawsuit that took about two years to settle.

I also found the local Facebook environment in Stuttgart to be a little too dramatic, and it was way too easy to get caught up in the drama myself. Stuttgart has a lot to offer, and we still love going down there to see our dentist. But I had made the mistake of getting involved in too many local Facebook groups, and that led to a lot of embarrassing adolescent toxicity that frankly, at my age, I don’t have time for anymore. A move to Wiesbaden meant I could divorce that drama somewhat and start anew.

So, one day in September 2018, when Bill came home from a business trip to Africa, I told him that I wanted him to take the job in Wiesbaden. He threw his hat in the ring, and after a very perfunctory phone interview, was offered the job. In late November 2018, we made the intra-Germany move to Wiesbaden. I did write a series about it, which you can find starting here.

The former tenant finally left me alone after the lawsuit with the ex landlady was settled, although I suspect that she was keeping an eye on me from afar (either by watching personally, or having “flying monkeys” do it). But she did finally quit monitoring me. I now know that this will be a permanent condition, because sadly, she took her own life a few months ago. Maybe it seems tasteless to mention this part of the story, but it IS part of the story, and a reminder that sometimes some crazy stuff can happen that you might never expect.

I don’t know why the former tenant took the actions she did. I had her blocked on Facebook, and did not go looking for information about her, because I wanted her to leave me alone. However, she had worked for the same company Bill does. Last spring, he noticed she was no longer on the email roster and wasn’t showing up in the GS system. So, at that point, I decided to unblock her on Facebook and look her up, because I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be re-entering my life. That’s when I made the shocking discovery about her tragic suicide. The news was easy to find, as it was widely reported online. While I’m glad to know she’s permanently out of my life, I’m also genuinely sad for her friends and family. I’m even sorry for the former landlady, whom I know had held her in high esteem. I never would have expected this turn of events, either. It was truly a shock to find about it several months after it happened.

It’s hard to believe that we’re now coming up on four years in Wiesbaden. It’s been quite a ride. I will say that living here, in spite of COVID-19 and a few personal upheavals, has mostly been less stressful. For one thing, we have a much better house and landlord. Yes, it costs a lot more, but our landlord is much fairer and more respectful. He lives next door, but he leaves us alone. Our neighborhood is very friendly, and we don’t share walls with anyone. Many of our neighbors have dogs, too, so I worry less about them annoying people.

I only know a handful of people in the local military community, which is also, frankly, a plus for me. Again– less drama and less bullshit with people in the military community. Some people like being “popular” and are very extraverted. I’m not one of those people; I just like to write, and I like to be honest when I write. I did have a temporary setback with my blogs, because I felt forced to relocate them to WordPress. That was a real pain, mostly because it meant a lot of work reformatting the travel blog and starting over completely with the main blog. The upside is that I think the blogs are better quality now. I do have fewer readers, especially on this blog, but the ones who do read are of a better quality. I get fewer “drivebys”, and more people who are actually interested in the content, rather than stirring up shit and causing trouble.

Anyway, aside from the difficult and stressful divorce from our Stuttgart life, we’ve really enjoyed living in Wiesbaden. No, it’s not as picturesque as the Stuttgart area is, but Wiesbaden offers a lot of its own charms, and a very different culture. Personally, I think my husband gets treated better as a contractor in Wiesbaden. The US military’s footprint is smaller here, and the population in the military community is somewhat more mature. There’s less traffic and fewer traffic jams. And again, I mostly stay away from any military affiliated Facebook groups, except for the one I run. It’s a food and wine group, so there’s very little drama involved with that. I’ve found that people here tend to be somewhat friendlier, and if you like wine, Wiesbaden can’t be beat!

I’m especially grateful that we’ve been able to experience living in two areas of Germany. The last eight years have flown by, and we’ve been so fortunate to be able to see and do many exciting things, not just in Germany, but in Europe as a whole. So, if you’re reading this, and wondering if you should move to Germany, I would highly encourage you to give it serious consideration. Yes, there are some aggravations related to living over here. But, on the whole, I find living in Germany more interesting and fun than living in the United States. I especially love being away from the crazy political climate in the United States. The European lifestyle suits us and, once you get used to how things are done here, it’s not hard to be an expat in Germany. It’s also been very good for us financially speaking. The only problem is, now I don’t want to move back home. ūüėČ

I hope this latest installment is helpful. I know the current political difficulties in Europe will end up generating jobs, and that means that more Americans will probably consider making the move. If you have any questions, be sure to drop me a comment.

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Arran ruins our Saturday plans…

As some readers know, I have two dogs that kind of substitute for the offspring I never had.¬† I wouldn’t say my dogs are my life, per se, but they are very important to me.¬† And, just like all living things, sometimes they get sick.

A few years ago, my dog Arran had a mast cell tumor on his head.  He had it removed and, fortunately, it was pretty benign.  He healed quickly and never seemed any worse for wear.

I was hoping Arran would be one of those dogs who never gets another MCT, but I think he might have one now.¬† He has a hard, slightly ulcerated bump, right next to the top of his right ear.¬† It’s maybe an inch or so from where his first tumor was.¬† I suspect it’s a MCT because it seems to get inflamed easily.¬† Arran has also been spontaneously vomiting recently, for no apparent reason, and he’s had some pretty rancid gas.¬† Mast cell tumors give off histamine, which can cause bleeding, stomach upset, and gas.

Yesterday, as I was writing a new book review on my main blog, Bill came into my office to tell me that Arran had a huge accident in the night.¬† Sometime before we woke up, he went into the living room and had a bout of diarrhea on one of my new rugs.¬† We cleaned up the mess; then at ten o’clock, Bill called what I think will be our new vet.¬† Unlike our previous vets in Herrenberg, this practice has regular Saturday hours from ten o’clock until noon.¬† We got an appointment at 11:45am.

Bill met the wife side of the husband and wife team, who checked out Arran and spoke relatively good English.¬† She gave Arran a shot and some medications for pain and to settle his stomach.¬† He’s doing better today, but unfortunately, Bill had to leave for another business trip.¬† This time, he’s going to the States.¬† I’ll be here alone all week, which sucks.

I think after Bill’s trip, I will arrange to have the vet aspirate Arran’s bump and, perhaps, remove it.¬† There’s always a risk with MCTs because if you don’t get them all with really good margins, they can come back with a vengeance.

My other dog, Zane, has also had a mast cell tumor.¬† Zane is doing fine now, but he’s had his issues with stomach upset and the like.¬† He’s getting lumpier by the day, too, thanks to many old man tumors.¬† I hope none of them are dangerous, but I don’t want to put either dog through any extreme surgeries because they’re both getting old.¬† I suspect a lot of the tumors Zane has are fatty lumps called lipomas.

I was hoping to have something new and exciting to write about today, but unfortunately, it’s just another cloudy weekend on my own.¬† Maybe I’ll think of one of my famous top ten lists in the meantime, as I feed Arran a bland diet.¬† Arran was ravenous this morning, which is a good sign.

On another note, as happy as I am that my husband has work he enjoys in a place we both enjoy, I really hate it when he leaves town.¬† I especially hate it now, because I don’t really know anyone in Wiesbaden yet and don’t yet know my way around here.¬† I also hate driving, although I will do it if I have to.¬† I miss Bill when he’s gone.¬† I suspect I’ll be sleeping and reading a lot this week, hoping for prettier weather.¬† Last night, I told Bill it felt like he’d never left the Army.¬† He just doesn’t get to look like a hottie in his uniform anymore.

Oh well…¬† for President’s Day weekend, we have planned another trip to France, this time to an area we have not yet explored.¬† We’ve found a very inexpensive and pet friendly house to rent.¬† It might soon be time for another list of pet friendly lodging!

It’s a good thing they’re all so cute.
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Four years of contractor life…

Feeling comfy and secure?  Good!  Time to rotate.

I regularly get visitors to this blog from people who are considering the overseas military contracting life. ¬†Today’s post is update number four in my continuing series about what it’s like to be a contractor in Germany after retiring from the Army. ¬†Please note, I’m not the actual contractor; my husband is. ¬†However, he doesn’t write this blog; I do.

Something major happened last week. ¬†For those who haven’t been following along, here is a brief timeline of our four years in Stuttgart.

August 2014РWe moved back to Stuttgart after having been gone five years.  Our arrival came one month after Bill retired from the Army.  Bill has a job working at AFRICOM with a well known company.  I posted my first blog entry about the contracting lifestyle.  Four years later, it remains a very popular post.

September 2015– I posted an update of what life had been like thirteen months after our arrival.

April 2017- Bill had just found out that the first company he worked for lost its contract.  A new company would be taking over.  Not everyone would be hired.  It was a very stressful month for us as we waited to find out our fate.  Bill did end up getting hired by the new company.  He also got a tentative job offer for a GS position in Italy, which he decided to turn down.

July 2017- Bill started working for the new company doing the same job he was doing when he was first invited to come to Germany.

October 2017- My third update on our overseas military contractor lifestyle was posted.

Okay… ¬†so this past week, Bill had a meeting after work. ¬†At the meeting, he and his co-workers were told that the government has decided to convert their positions to GS jobs. ¬†The company Bill works for has been paid through the spring, so they will definitely have jobs until then, but after the money runs out, everyone will have to move to a different position or convert to the GS system.

This situation differs from what happened last year with Bill’s first employer. ¬†That time, the contract was simply lost, and everyone was on the hook to find a new job. ¬†Basically, everyone was told “Sorry and good luck.” ¬†Quite a number of people ended up having to leave Germany, including a couple of people who had only just arrived months prior.

This time, no one is losing his or her job with the company; however, everyone who decides to stay with the company will be moving to a different position somewhere.  Some people might decide to become government service employees, but if they stay in Europe, that will very likely mean a significant reduction in pay.  Not only is the salary likely to be less, it will also mean giving up the housing allowance and moving expenses, should a move be required.  Some might opt to work for another company or simply leave Germany altogether.

Bill was asked if he would consider going GS and staying at his current job. ¬†He said he wouldn’t, because it would mean an unacceptable reduction in pay and benefits. ¬†Bill has enjoyed what he’s been doing for the past four years, but not enough to forfeit five figures in annual pay. ¬†Aside from that, as a former Army officer, he’s used to changing jobs every few years.

Fortunately, in Stuttgart, Bill is qualified for a number of jobs and is well-liked by a lot of people. ¬†Not only does he have a lot of experience working as an exercise planner in Europe, Africa, and South and Central America, he also has a brand new master’s degree in cybersecurity to join another one he has in information management. ¬†The company he works for is very large and has contracts worldwide, so if there is nothing for him in Stuttgart, chances are good there’s something for him elsewhere in Germany or Europe. ¬†Or, we could go back to the United States, although neither of us wants to do that.

Given my ‘druthers, I’d rather stay where we are. ¬†It’s not that I don’t wonder about living in other places. ¬†I just hate the moving process and have had to do it way too many times over the first twelve years of our marriage. ¬†We like our dentist, our vet, and all of the amenities in this area. ¬†While I don’t love our house much, I do like our dog friendly neighborhood and our relatively laid back neighbors.

I will admit, though, that I do sometimes fantasize about moving to a different part of Germany, ¬†Belgium, Italy, or even Spain and travel blogging in a new area. ¬†I like new experiences, trying new foods, and meeting different people. ¬†I also sometimes muse about moving back to the States, buying a house of my own, maybe even finally getting a job somewhere, if anyone would hire me. ¬†But I also have two aging dogs who aren’t in perfect health, so I don’t really fancy looking for a new vet, putting them through quarantine (in island areas), or making them fly long haul across an ocean.

So we’ll see what happens. ¬†I won’t lie. ¬†I am a little bit stressed out by this development, especially since we just went through a worse version of it last year. ¬†However, some of Bill’s co-workers have been with the company longer and, when this has happened in the past, they were well taken care of. ¬†We have no reason to believe that’s not what will happen this time. ¬†At least this time, we have plenty of notice and not just ninety days. ¬†And this time, the company wants to keep everyone and reassign them rather than tell them “See ya! ¬†Wouldn’t want to be ya!”

Stay tuned for updates.

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Tips and traps: how to get the most out of a Germany tour…

It’s high time to think about making the most of your time abroad!

Every once in awhile, especially if the weather is grim, I like to offer tips based on my experiences living abroad. ¬†Bill and I have lived in Germany together twice. ¬†The first time we were here, we PCS’d with the Army and stayed for two years. ¬†The second time, Bill took a job with a government contractor. ¬†This time, we’re going on four years living near Stuttgart, although Bill did change companies last year. ¬†Besides living in Germany twice, I’ve also been an Air Force brat in England and a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia. ¬†At this point, I’ve spent a good portion of my life abroad, and I’ve learned a lot.

Many of my readers are in the United States, finding my posts about¬†what it’s like to work in Germany as a government contractor. ¬†I know some of my readers are contemplating a voluntary move to Europe and wanting to know if they can hack it. ¬†I also know there are many excited readers who will be moving to Germany with the military and want to know how to prepare. ¬†Today’s post is more or less for those people who are going to be moving to Germany to work for the U.S. government. ¬†It’s just a little wisdom I’ve gleaned after living in this community for awhile.

Tip #1– Do join a couple of Facebook groups.

Facebook can be an excellent tool when you’re abroad. ¬†When Bill and I moved to Germany with the Army in 2007, Facebook was just becoming popular. ¬†I didn’t join until we’d lived here a year. ¬†The people I interacted with back then were mostly in the United States. ¬†We lived in a town well away from the military installations, so I didn’t really know any Americans, other than a couple of people who had found things I’d written online. ¬†It was kind of isolating living far away from Americans, although in some ways, it was more peaceful. ¬†We had to figure a lot of things out for ourselves.

In 2014, I found several useful Facebook groups started by people in Stuttgart. ¬†They were a wealth of information, especially when we first decided to move. ¬†For instance, the rules regarding pet travel changed from 2009 to 2014. ¬†If I hadn’t joined Stuttgart Friends, I would not have known that and it might have complicated our travel plans. ¬†Another great group for newcomers is Moving to Stuttgart. I recommend joining one or both of those groups if you’re going to be new to Stuttgart. ¬†You might also join a group related to your hobbies or interests. ¬†They can help you make new friends and gain valuable information.

Trap #1- Don’t join too many Facebook groups.

I made the mistake of joining way too many Facebook groups when I moved here in 2014. ¬†I stayed in a few groups for much too long. ¬†It wasn’t until last year that I started dropping out of a lot of the groups. ¬†I’m much happier for having left most of them. ¬†Why? ¬†Because when you’re in too many Facebook groups, you are more likely to either be annoyed by, or annoying to, other people. ¬†With every group you join, the potential for getting involved in stupid dramas increases exponentially. ¬†Trust me; I know. ¬†I fully admit that I was involved in way too much of it myself for way too long.

At one point, I was probably in as many as ten groups. ¬†Some weren’t a problem because they either weren’t that active or they focused on subjects that weren’t controversial. ¬†Other groups were problematic because there was a lot of drama, gossip, and petty behavior that ultimately led to hard feelings and precious time stolen. ¬†Living in Germany should be a pleasure. ¬†It’s a wonderful opportunity to see and do new things, try new foods, and make new friends. ¬†Being involved in too many Facebook groups can lead to a lot of wasted time online when you should be enjoying Europe. ¬†My advice is to pick maybe three or four groups at the most and, when they are no longer useful, drop out of them.

Tip #2- Don’t hesitate to ask for help.

This is another Facebook groups related tip. ¬†Most of the available groups were created with the goal of offering help and support. ¬†There is a learning curve to living in another country, even a place like Germany. ¬†We’ve all been through it. ¬†So if you have a question about something, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Before you ask, be sure to search the group and see if your question has already been answered. ¬†That will help prevent people from getting snarky and causing unnecessary drama.

Trap #2- Don’t be too dependent on others for help.

One thing I admire about our first Germany tour was that we had to be self-reliant. ¬†I learned that I didn’t need social media to get my needs met here. ¬†Think about it. ¬†Americans have been living in Germany since after World War II and social media has only been around for maybe fifteen years or so. ¬†You don’t always have to rely on social media to get an answer. ¬†Sometimes, it’s awesome to find your own answers. ¬†It helps you become more resilient and a better traveler.

Tip #3- Do get out and see things on the weekends.

There are so many things to do in the Stuttgart area. ¬†Really… just take a few minutes and look at this blog. ¬†I have written a couple of posts solely dedicated to things to do on Sundays. ¬†You can fill many of your weekends with things to do and not even do the same thing twice for a good long while. ¬†This area is beautiful¬†and very accessible, even if you don’t have a car. ¬†Take full advantage of being here.

Trap #3- Don’t sit at home on the weekends and watch TV or hang out on the installations.

During our first tour of Germany, Bill and I focused on seeing major European cities. ¬†We flew to a lot of countries and mostly ignored what was in and around Stuttgart. ¬†When we didn’t have a trip planned, it wasn’t unusual for us to either park our asses at home and watch Netflix, or go to either AAFES or the commissary and shop. ¬†Please don’t make that mistake! ¬†The first time we were here, we¬†had to move after barely two years in Germany. ¬†Although we did see a lot of great European cities, we really missed out on local stuff. ¬†Since we are lucky enough to be here a second time, I’ve made it a goal to see more of what the Stuttgart area has to offer. ¬†Not everyone gets to come back to Germany, so I highly recommend making it a mission to get out there and explore. ¬†This might be your once in a lifetime chance.¬† Don’t blow it!

Tip #4- If you are going to look for information online, consider looking in places other than Facebook or official military sources.

Yesterday, Bill and I visited the beautiful Burgbach Wasserfall. ¬†Although we ran into a couple of Americans during our visit, I have never seen anyone in the local groups write about that waterfall. ¬†I found out about it by myself. ¬†After we visited nearby Glaswaldsee, I searched the community’s official Web site and found out about other things to do in Bad Rippoldsau on my own.

Also, sometimes interacting with people who aren’t part of the American community can point you in unexpected directions that will enrich your time here. ¬†When we lived here the first time, we had no local Facebook groups, so I haunted Toytown Germany, which was a great forum for English speakers living in Germany. ¬†It was a fascinating place, since it was populated by people from different areas who were in Germany for different reasons. ¬†I gained ¬†insight into German culture that I wouldn’t otherwise have. ¬†For instance, it was on Toytown Germany that I learned that many German men sit down to pee. ¬†Suddenly, the funny postcard that was posted by my landlord in his downstairs WC made perfect sense. ¬†Since many people on that forum are not here strictly to work for the United States, you get a different perspective about life as an expat. ¬†It can also be a valuable resource for finding certain items you might be missing, especially if you don’t have access to the facilities on post.

Trap #4- But don’t rely on unofficial sources when it comes to your work or any other official business…

This probably goes without saying. ¬†Obviously, you’re going to want official information for anything pertaining to the U.S. military or government, or whomever is your employer. ¬†I mention it because some people really are that dumb. ¬†Of course, they probably aren’t reading this post.

Tip #5- Consider making friends with a local, even if it’s only online.

It’s probably obvious, but I spend a lot of time online in different communities around the Web. ¬†I had the good fortune to make friends with a couple of native Germans before we moved here the second time. ¬†One friend is someone I met when we adopted our dog, Arran. ¬†She was married to an American who was in the Army. ¬†She lives in the States, but was very helpful when moved back to Germany.

Another friend is someone I met on a messageboard. ¬†I have never met her in person, but she lives in the area and has been extremely helpful to me since we’ve lived here. ¬†She answers questions about the culture, suggests places to visit, and even encourages me to learn German. ¬†I don’t even know what she looks like because she’s a very private person, but she has definitely made our second stint here a lot more constructive. ¬†And she gets a kick out of reading my blogs, too, sometimes clearing things up when I misunderstand something.

We’ve also gotten friendly with our neighbors, which makes living here a lot easier. ¬†We were lucky enough to find a really nice neighborhood where people are laid back. ¬†More on that in a minute.

Trap #5- But don’t forget OPSEC.

This, too, should go without saying.  Make friends, but be careful about what you say and do.  Loose lips sink ships, as the old saying goes.

Tip #6- If you are allowed to live off post, consider living further away from the installations.

Traffic in Stuttgart can be absolutely hellish. ¬†However, if you choose to live a bit further out, you might get more out of your stay in Germany. ¬†Why? ¬†Because you won’t be surrounded by Americans or the drama that can come from being around the installations. ¬†You will learn to be more self-reliant, getting the hang of things like shopping in German grocery stores, paying bills, eating in restaurants, and seeing things you wouldn’t ordinarily see.

You can typically get more house for your money away from the installations and, with some exceptions, people tend to be friendlier away from the built up areas. ¬†We lived in a friendly neighborhood when we lived here the first time, but it took a really long time before people would talk to us. ¬†I think we may have been the first Americans in that neighborhood. ¬†Since we’ve been back, we’ve run into our old neighbors, who were actually happy to see us. ¬†The neighborhood where we live now is even friendlier than the first one was. ¬†Last year, we even had a neighborhood party. ¬†Many neighborhoods outside of the military hotbeds have train stations or offer bus service, which can take some of the pain out of the traffic.

Trap #6- But definitely consider your lifestyle.

Living in Unterjettingen works fine for Bill and me. ¬†We brought two cars with us, so not having a nearby train station is okay. ¬†We also don’t have children and we like quiet. ¬†Obviously, some people prefer to be closer to the city for whatever reason. ¬†If that’s you, carefully consider your lifestyle before deciding to live way out in the boonies. ¬†It may not work out for you and moving is an expensive pain in the butt.

Tip #7- Consider buying personal liability insurance.

Trust me, it’s not a scam. ¬†You may also want to consider pet liability insurance, legal insurance, ADAC (or another auto club), and joining your local “Mietverein”. ¬†Bill and I have all of these resources at our disposal. ¬†They don’t cost much and provide great peace of mind. ¬†Our liability insurance has already paid for itself.

Trap #7- Don’t rely on American insurance to cover your needs.

I’m being very serious. ¬†Germans can be very litigious. ¬†Chances are good that if you have a mishap while you’re here, whatever USAA offers is not going to be enough coverage. ¬†Talk to Gerhard Koch. He’s in a lot of the local Facebook groups and he can hook you up. ¬†His English is perfect, too.

Tip #8- Do consider bringing your pets.

Pets can be wonderful companions when you’re a long way from home. ¬†During our first tour, our dog Flea was singlehandedly responsible for getting our neighbors to talk to us. ¬†Our current dogs, Zane and Arran, have helped me make friends with people in our neighborhood and provide incentive for me to get off my ass and take walks in the nature park near where we live. ¬†They also make good watchdogs and discourage people from breaking into your home. ¬†Most of the burglars in these parts don’t want to hassle with houses where dogs live because they make too much noise.

Trap #8- But again, consider your lifestyle.

It is becoming more difficult to travel abroad with pets (Lufthansa for the win, if you’re allowed to fly with them). ¬†Some German landlords don’t like to rent to people with pets because they can make messes and too much noise. ¬†And, when you want to travel, it can be a pain to either find someone to take care of them or travel with them. ¬†However, while we did often use a dog pension the first time we lived here, this time, we have learned to travel with Zane and Arran. ¬†It’s very doable in Europe because Europe is very dog friendly. ¬†I think it’s best to bring pets if there will be someone available to be with them during the day. ¬†Germans don’t like it when you leave your pets home alone for too long. ¬†Also, indoor cats are not really a thing here.

One of our neighborhood cats, just hanging around…

Tip #9- Look at real estate ads to get a feel for what houses are like here.

German houses are different than American houses. ¬†While the military provides a fairly generous housing allowance, not all contractors do. ¬†The contractor that initially hired Bill only gave us enough money to ship 5000 pounds of household goods. ¬†We already knew from the last time here that we wouldn’t necessarily end up in a tiny house. ¬†On the other hand, we also knew that we could end up in a place unlike our first house (and we did). ¬†So look at pictures to get a sense of what you should bring with you and what could be left in storage or disposed of in some way.

Trap #9- Don’t try too hard to househunt from the United States.

The real estate market here is CRAZY. ¬†While I understand how tempting it is to househunt from the States, whatever you find while you’re there will probably be long gone before you get to Germany. ¬†German landlords are allowed to be more discriminatory, since it’s fairly hard to evict people here. ¬†They’ll want to meet you and your family and any pets before they turn over the keys to your home. ¬†Most people end up in temporary housing when they get to Germany. ¬†It sucks, but it’s part of life. ¬†So embrace the suck and don’t waste time trying to find a house before you move here. ¬†Chances are good that you won’t succeed, unless you have a lot of help from someone who is already here.

Tip #10- Consider staying in a long term apartment instead of a hotel room when you first get here.

The first time we lived in Germany, we lived in a very simple German hotel for about six weeks. ¬†Living in a hotel room with two dogs gets very old. ¬†Since our return, a number of short term apartments have become available and there’s also Booking.com and Airbnb. ¬†This time, we spent a week in a hotel and then moved to an apartment, which wasn’t ideal, but was a lot better and more cost effective than the hotel was. ¬†Check Stuttgart Bookoo for leads, although be aware that the site is closed on Sundays.

Trap #10- Don’t be too picky about housing, but also don’t be too quick to lease.

Remember, you’re hiring a landlord. ¬†Some landlords are awesome and some are nightmares. ¬†Bill and I tend to be too eager to sign leases. ¬†While I do like our neighborhood, I don’t necessarily love our house. ¬†Sometimes, I wish we’d held out a little longer. ¬†But then I remember that real estate is CRAZY in Stuttgart and thank God that we did find a place that has most of what we need. ¬†Some people look for months.

In conclusion…

I could probably go on with more tips and traps, but I think this post is long enough for today. ¬†I may write a follow up at a later time, depending on how well this post is received. ¬†I do hope that if you’re reading this, you find this information helpful. ¬†And if you’re thinking of taking a contractor job, allow me to offer some encouragement. ¬†Bill and I have loved most every minute of our time in Germany during both tours. ¬†We see the opportunity to live here as a tremendous gift. ¬†And even if we didn’t like it here, we know that living here might make us appreciate the United States more. ¬†At the very least, it’s really broadened our perspectives in so many ways. ¬†So try it… you might like it!

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Uncategorized

Contractor life with a new company…

I know a lot of people find this blog because they are seeking information about what it’s like to work for a military contractor in Germany. ¬†Today’s post is update number three in my series about military contractor life.

If you’ve been reading earlier posts on this blog, you may know that in April of this year, Bill’s former employer lost its contract. ¬†When we got the news, we worried about what would be coming next. ¬†In that post, I mentioned that April is usually Easter time, and maybe the contract loss would be a blessing in disguise. ¬†For the most part, I’d say that is what came to pass.

In May, Bill was given a tentative job offer for a government position in Italy. ¬†We seriously considered making the move, but it soon became clear that moving to Italy would be a big, expensive hassle for us. ¬†It appeared that not only would the salary be significantly less, but we’d also be responsible for moving ourselves and it looked like we would not get a housing allowance. ¬†Bill applied for another government job in Germany and was on the short list for that one, but the story was the same. ¬†The only difference was that we wouldn’t have to move.

Then, Bill was offered a job with the new contractor. ¬†The new contractor is a much larger company than the old one and has deeper pockets. ¬†Although they did not hire everyone from Bill’s old company, they did take most of the best people. ¬†Bill got a significant upgrade in salary and benefits, although he will have to tolerate being a “hired gun” for a bit longer.

I can now see where people get the idea that government contractors make a lot of money, although I also know from experience that it’s not always the case. ¬†The old company was paying a lot less– basically a salary they would give a captain in the Army rather than a retired lieutenant colonel, although the housing allowance brought the salary up to a more respectable level. ¬†The new company pays a salary more in line with what guys like Bill should be making.

So far, the new company is better. ¬†The contract is better written and lasts a year longer than the older one did. ¬†Bill’s new boss is also great. ¬†Fortunately, both companies had good people in charge who treated Bill well. ¬†That’s a real blessing. ¬†So, with any luck, Bill will be able to stick with this firm for awhile.

That being said… ¬†I do love Germany very much, but I am beginning to think about what will come next. ¬†I don’t know that we’ll want to live here for years on end, like some people do. ¬†I don’t really miss America that much, but I would someday like to own my own home. ¬†Also, whenever you move to a new location, there is the chance to see and do new things and meet new people. ¬†We’ll be in Germany at least another year and probably longer, but I don’t think I’d mind moving to the next station, provided there is support and we don’t end up hanging out in Europe as tourists while we wait for things to get official. ¬†That’s what would have happened if we had moved to Italy.

The funny thing is, the government folks in Italy are still ribbing Bill about not taking the job. ¬†It does seem like a surreal twist of fate. ¬†So many people complain about how hard it is to get a GS job. ¬†Bill was offered one without even being interviewed, although that was because the Italy folks know him and know what they would be getting. ¬†If the new company wants us to move to Italy, I’d be alright with it. ¬†But only if they help us make the move.

I guess what it comes down to is the contractor life is not as stable as GS life is. ¬†The lifestyle can be turbulent, and that makes it difficult to make plans. ¬†Contractors also don’t get any authority except within their own company.

However, it is true that contractors can end up making significantly more money than government employees do and some contractors also offer superior benefits. ¬†That is the case with Bill’s new position. ¬†He’s making more money and getting better benefits. ¬†And he also has a good boss who was kind enough to let Bill come to Scotland with me last month. ¬†The only thing that does suck is that Bill has to earn leave again. ¬†But knowing him, he’ll have those hours made up in no time.

Another bonus to the new job is that Bill’s boss has told him that the company will help him pick up some extra certifications. ¬†For instance, Bill earned a master’s degree in cybersecurity last year. ¬†The new company will help him become certified in that field if he wants. ¬†Or they will help him get certified as a project manager.

Also, as a contractor, Bill has more flexibility. ¬†He can try for jobs wherever he wants to and isn’t just limited to places where the government or military want to send him. ¬†Granted, given what he does now, we will probably always be near a military installation. ¬†But that does not always have to be the case. ¬†The new company has jobs worldwide and, if Bill does well, he could certainly compete for the ones he’s qualified to do.

Frankly, I’m envious of all the opportunities Bill has. ¬†I’m wondering if it’s not time for me to start trying to get into a career again myself. ¬†But then I remember how much I like sitting around in my nightgown, writing blog posts. ¬†Here’s hoping Bill’s new job lasts awhile. ¬†I’ll just focus on being a good partner.

I get to look for more hot air balloons in the near future…

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Military

Almost three years of contractor life…

In August, should we last that long, Bill and I will have spent three years living in Germany for the second time.  As I explained in my first article about about the difference between Army life and contractor life, there are significant differences between living in Germany with the military and living here as “hired guns” for government contractors.  For the most part, Bill and I have enjoyed our time here with him as a civilian.  We’ve made an effort to see and do a lot more locally, have made some friends, and even attempted to learn more of the language.  This time, we feel very comfortable in Germany and it’s feeling more like home.  Which is probably why the developments of this week seem especially cruel.

Just this week, Bill told me that his company lost the contract he was working on.  Chances are good that the incoming company will offer Bill a job, but there is no guarantee that will happen.  Consequently, this week has been rather stressful, since the contract Bill works on will expire this summer.  We were definitely not planning to leave and even have a cruise planned.  I’m going to be super bummed if we have to cancel, although I did buy “cancel for any reason” travel insurance strictly because I knew this could happen.

I try to be philosophical and realize that Easter is a time of renewal and rebirth.  It could turn out that this event will lead to good things.  But right now, we’re dealing with the uncertainty of what comes next when a company loses a contract.  It’s especially stressful when you’re thousands of miles from “home” and will probably have to come up with the money to move back there should that become necessary.

So, this is yet another aspect of living the contractor life that can be worrying and stressful.  Bill and I would like to stick around for a couple more years, mainly because we moved six times within the last seven years of his time in the Army.  We have been here two and a half years and it’s finally starting to feel somewhat familiar.

And yet… although I have been to almost all of the European capital cities, I still have yet to see Berlin beyond the airport.  There’s still a lot I want to see and do and neither Bill nor I have any desire to go back to the States anytime soon.  At the very least, we definitely need to see Berlin.

It seems like this kind of thing always happens just when I pay off my credit cards, too.  Last time we lived here, I got really close to paying USAA all I owed them.  I think I was within $300 of having a zero credit card balance.  Then, Bill was unexpectedly called back to the States to take an assignment in Georgia at a post that was due to close less than two years after our arrival.  We moved, and were faced with the prospect of having to sleep on the floor for a month while we waited for our furniture to arrive.  We also moved into a house that had no refrigerator.  Before I knew it, I was whipping out the credit card to buy all the stuff we needed.  I know some people are fine with a month on an air mattress, but I’m no longer willing to put up with charley horses and sore backs.  I had a big credit card bill again in no time.

Last month, I finally paid off USAA and now have zero credit card debt.  I also came up with a plan to eliminate my student loans within the next two years.  Sure enough, weeks later, we find out we might end up having to move.  Maybe the end lesson is that I shouldn’t try so hard to pay off debt!

I guess I’ll just try to keep the faith.

Ah Stuttgart… please don’t tell me it’s the end…

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anecdotes

One year of contractor life…

About a year ago, I wrote what has turned out to be a very popular post about the difference between Army life and contractor life in Germany.  Today, I have decided to update everyone on how our first year has gone.

First off, Bill is doing really great work in his job.  His employers are very happy with him and he’s managed to get a raise in his housing allowance as well as a cash bonus.  He also just received a retention bonus which, as long as we stay for another year, he gets to keep.  Don’t throw us in the briar patch!  We still love living in Germany, so staying another year is not a problem for us.  Bill has also gotten to do some interesting travel during our first year.  I even got to go with him one time.

We ended up with a decent house in a nice neighborhood.  Although our house is a duplex and I was originally concerned about noise (both from us and from other people), it hasn’t been a big issue.  Our neighbors seem to have gotten used to our dogs and everyone is respectful.  I’ve also gotten more used to driving in Germany.

Bill tells me his office still needs qualified people, but apparently there has been a problem with German authorities issuing SOFA status to contractors.  We were very lucky because we got here before this became an issue.  Currently, a lot of people are only able to do 90 day stints (as long as the tourist visa lasts) before they have to either go back to the States or work somewhere else where this isn’t a problem.  I am told that the issue is being addressed, but there is no telling when or if it will be permanently resolved.  Also, I don’t know if this issue is affecting everyone or just some people in certain jobs.

Bill has also told me that adjusting from being an Army officer with clout and decision making authority to being a contractor (aka “hired help”) has been somewhat hard at times.  I often remind him that as frustrating as it is not to have any real power, it’s not his ass on the line if something goes wrong.  He says it helps to remember that, though I’m pretty sure he still gets stressed out a lot.

I was a member of the local Facebook groups Stuttgart Friends and Moving to Stuttgart for most of this first year.  I ultimately left both groups, but definitely recommend them for anyone planning to move to Stuttgart.  They are great resources for finding out how living in Germany, especially while on SOFA status, works.  You will know when it’s time to abandon the groups.  Also, Stuttgart Bookoo is a great site for finding housing or used items people tend to discard on their way out of Germany like air conditioners, furniture, washers, dryers, fridges, or transformers.  Toytown Germany is a good source of information for English speaking residents of Germany.  It also offers a non-military/US government perspective.

Duolingo offers a good basic place to practice your German skills.  I used it for about eight months, until I finished all the lessons.  Then I fell off the wagon.  I am thinking about restarting/reviewing Duolingo, since it has helped me understand more German.  I probably should take a class and maybe I will at some point, but for now I think it’s helpful… especially for those who have trouble getting out of the house.

Panzer Kaserne is going through massive building projects right now.  A new commissary is slated to open there in a couple of years and the high school is now located there.  In the midst of all of this construction, there is also a road widening project going on that has been in progress since the summer.  It makes getting to and leaving Panzer a bit of a pain.  Since a lot of in processing is done at Panzer, I’m forewarning newcomers.

Last year, there was some hullabaloo over German authorities cracking down on expired American driver’s licenses.  As you might know, if you have SOFA status, you get a special “license”.  But really, what makes you legal to drive is your US license.  German police were stopping Americans with expired licenses and forcing them to get them renewed (and they were not allowed to drive once they were caught).  This issue has since been rectified.  Still, if you think you might be in Germany for any length of time, you will want to renew your license before getting here if you can.

Worth coming back for…

This time around, I have been using Amazon.de a lot, as well as regular Amazon for shopping.  The APO mail system has been really slow lately, so it often makes more sense to buy stuff locally.  I still buy clothes and some other items from American Amazon, but use Amazon.de for appliances and stuff I need right away.  Amazon.de is pretty great about quick delivery, though unlike in the United States, you will have to sign for all of your packages.  Fortunately, Germans seem quite willing to accept packages for neighbors.  I have done it for my neighbors and they have done it for me.  Last time we lived here, I didn’t use local Web sites for anything!

I don’t know how long we’ll be here.  At this point, we are willing to stay for as long as we’re allowed to.  I can’t say I miss Texas much, even though some things about living in Germany can be a bit of a pain sometimes.  But you get used to it…  and really, some of the things that seem annoying at first can turn out to be blessings.  For instance, not shopping on Sundays…  you end up finding fun stuff to do instead.

So, that’s my update so far.  We’re making it just fine.

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anecdotes, Military

The difference between Army life and contractor life in Germany

I was going to wait until we got settled to write this post, but the mood is striking now. ¬†So here goes…

In September 2007, Bill and I moved from Fort Belvoir, Virginia to Stuttgart, Germany, courtesy of the United States Army. ¬†Because it was an Army move, we were allowed to ship about 17,000 pounds of our personal items and store what we didn’t send. ¬†We were allowed to ship one car at government expense and unaccompanied baggage. ¬†When we arrived in Stuttgart, we were given money for sixty days of temporary living expenses. ¬†The housing office, such as it is, was able to help us find a home and negotiate the rental contract. ¬†And we were able to access medical and dental services at Patch Barracks. ¬†Fortunately, I only required a contact lens exam and a dental cleaning and small filling (and I was actually very impressed by the services at Patch). ¬†If we’d had kids, we could have sent them to the schools offered on the military installations for free.

In August 2014, we moved from San Antonio, Texas to Stuttgart, Germany, courtesy of a government contractor. ¬†We had very little time to plan for this move. ¬†When we moved with the Army, we found out in November 2006. ¬†In January 2007, Bill deployed for six months; then when he came back, we had six weeks to get everything together and move to Germany. ¬†We knew well ahead of time, though, so I was able to do things like train our dogs to use their carriers and get started sorting out all of the red tape. ¬†This time, Bill got an informal job offer in late June and a formal one on July 8th… three weeks before we had to vacate our rental house in Texas. ¬†It was a lot more of a rush to get stuff taken care of so we could make the move.

Part of the reason Bill got hired is because there was a recent mass exodus of contractors, due to the work being taken over by a new company that severely underbid all the other contractors. ¬†It meant that the previous contractors were going to be paid about $20,000 less for their work, mainly because the new contractor wasn’t offering an education benefit to contractors with kids. ¬†Contractors have to pay for their kids to go to school, while military and DoD employees don’t.

We were given enough money to ship 5000 pounds of our belongings. ¬†Fortunately, the Army pays for storage for the recently retired; ¬†it’s only for a year, though. ¬†Then Bill gets the government rate on storage. ¬†Because there are only two of us, it’s no big deal that we only got 5000 pounds. ¬†Most of the stuff I really wanted to bring, I could. ¬†However, we did have to get rid of a lot of stuff and a lot went into storage. ¬†If we’d had kids, that 5000 pound limit would have cramped our style a lot more. ¬†Of course, we were also lucky because the guy that packed us for our move to Germany was just plain awesome. ¬†Wish I could say the same about the folks who packed our stuff for storage.

We had to pay to ship our cars– it was about $4000. ¬†It would have been less, had we been able to drive the cars to Houston and pick them up in Bremerhaven. ¬†But the logistics of doing that weren’t feasible for us. ¬†We have to repay Bill’s company for the plane tickets to fly to Germany. ¬†We pay for our temporary housing before we move into our permanent digs. ¬†We get a housing allowance, but it’s paid quarterly instead of monthly; it’s plenty for the type of house we wanted (and ultimately got). ¬†We did have to find the house and negotiate the rental contract ourselves; fortunately, we’re inheriting a house from a military couple and our new landlords seem to be pretty used to dealing with Americans. ¬†Special thanks to the Facebook Stuttgart Friends and Moving to Stuttgart groups for turning me on to Stuttgart Bookoo. ¬†None of these things existed when we were here last time.

Bill’s salary is somewhat comparable to what he earned as a lieutenant colonel– the difference is that it’s kind of split between a base salary and the quarterly housing allowance. ¬†He doesn’t have to pay as much in taxes as he would in the United States and he also gets retirement pay, though part of that is temporarily being withheld because he had a brief lapse in service in the 90s and has to repay a bonus he received back then. ¬†In about 18 months, we’ll be getting the full retirement pay, which should make things pretty nice. ¬†He gets medical, dental, and vision benefits, along with the usual retiree medical benefits, too.

And healthcare and dental care, for me at least, will be strictly on the economy. ¬†Bill was able to score an appointment to see a doc at Patch, but I don’t know if that’s going to be something he can do the whole time we’re here. ¬†We will also have to buy our own major appliances, whereas when we were still Army, we got to borrow them from the government.

Here’s another weird thing that happened. ¬†Last month, I got a new ID made because Bill retired. ¬†This month, I got another one made because we’re overseas. ¬†The overseas ID is only for use in Germany. ¬†The other one is for use in the USA.

We do get to use most of the services available to the military. ¬†For example, we get an APO box, which allows mail to be sent and received at US rates, although no one could get us a box before we came. ¬†Consequently, the boxes we sent here general delivery may or may not be on the way back to Texas. ¬†We get to use the PX/BX, commissary, hotel, and gas ration cards (allows us to get gas at prices closer to what we’d pay in the US). ¬†We get a USAEUR driver’s license good for Germany. ¬†We both have SOFA cards (last time, they were stamps). ¬†But life as a contractor as opposed to being a government or military employee is a bit more bare bones.

When it comes time to leave Germany, there is no telling what will happen. ¬†It’s my understanding that contractors win and lose contracts all the time. ¬†So it could turn out that Bill’s current company loses its contract and he’ll be out of a job. ¬†Or the next company may decide to hire him. ¬†In fact, I’ve heard that happens fairly often because it’s cheaper and easier to hire talent that is already local. ¬†For that reason, we could be in Germany for awhile. ¬†Or we could end up leaving next year. ¬†Bill says the contractor he’s working for now really bid low, though, so the chances of them losing the contract are pretty low. ¬†This probably means the company will keep the contract and we’ll end up staying.

We love Germany and hate job hunting… and I doubt the company will want to lose Bill now that he’s here. ¬†Not everyone can afford to spend as much money as we did just to relocate for a job. ¬†We know of some people who turned down positions with this contractor because of the somewhat stingy relocation package. ¬†If government contractors can’t afford to pay employees enough to move and take care of their families, they won’t want to come to Germany. ¬†If they do come, they probably won’t stay as long as they might. ¬†We don’t have kids and don’t need as much money to survive. ¬†We just have dogs and a serious case of wanderlust. ¬†Fortunately, Bill gets three weeks of paid leave a year and major holidays off!

It used to be that the Department of Defense offered contractors enough money that moving with them was more like a military move. ¬†But since the government is cutting back on the military, there is less money to go around and contractors are the first ones to feel the cuts. ¬†On the up side, it appears that there’s plenty of work to be done. ¬†Bill says he and his new work buddies are being kept very busy with stuff that normally would be handled by people in the military. ¬†Apparently, fewer military folks are being sent to Europe– again, due to downsizing. ¬†So guys like Bill are picking up the slack and, perhaps, ending up doing some work that may not be in their job descriptions. ¬†Of course, Bill has done this kind of work before and still has his Army work ethic, so he’s able to get the job done.

So why did we come here if it was such an expensive logistical hassle?  Simple.  No one in Texas seemed eager to give Bill a job.  We had a choice of moving to Germany or taking our chances in Texas, where there were no job offers on the table and we were in a rental house with property managers we absolutely hated.  Since we love Germany and Bill knew he could do the work and would enjoy it, the choice was easy, despite all that went into the move.

There have been some positives to our move, too. ¬†One thing I’m glad I didn’t have to do this time was get a physical, even though I could probably use one. ¬†I also didn’t have to go through EFMP screening since as civilians, EFMP doesn’t apply to us. ¬†I didn’t have to get an official passport, not that that was such a huge deal. ¬†It was just a pain to have to keep up with two of them.

Since we are ultimately paying for our transportation over here, we were allowed to choose which airline we wanted to use. ¬†In most cases, if you are flying on government funds, you have to use the cheapest American carrier for as long as possible. ¬†This wouldn’t have been an issue for us if we weren’t bringing dogs. ¬†A lot of American airlines don’t fly pets in the summer or require them to be flown via cargo services which can be very expensive. ¬†We flew Lufthansa, which allows pets to be flown as baggage, yet keeps them in a safe area. ¬†Instead of paying over $1000 to bring our dogs, we only had to pay $400 and they were there at baggage claim waiting for us when we arrived.

Also, because we aren’t here with the military, we aren’t forced to live in an apartment on a military installation, nor are we forced to use military lodging. ¬†Military lodging is fine if you want to use it, but we prefer being on the economy. ¬†Because we’ve been here before, the culture shock is not that much for us. ¬†Things haven’t changed a whole lot in the almost five years we’ve been gone. ¬†It probably helps that we’ve visited Germany twice in the five years since we left!

I am grateful that we got to move back to Germany. ¬†Hell, I’m grateful Bill has a job at all– especially in Germany, which was our favorite of all our duty stations with the Army. ¬†The beauty of this arrangement is that we could end up living here for a lot longer than the barely two years we got last time. ¬†We aren’t subject to the government’s whims quite as directly as we were before.

I’m sure I’ll have more to write about this experience once we’ve been here a bit longer and have settled into our new house. ¬†For now, all I can say is that it helps to have been here before, because when you come here as a contractor, there’s less support and you have to figure more things out for yourself.

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