Expats No Longer

One American habit that I lost when I lived overseas was saying “I’m so busy!” [Try this out sometime: send an e-mail or a text message or have lunch with a friend you haven’t seen in a few weeks. Ask them, “How have you been?” If they’re American, I guarantee you the response will include the phrase “so busy”.] My Budapest life was designed with intent to be not busy. But as we wrapped up our lives overseas, flew back to Dallas, and returned to our lives in America, I quickly reacquired the busy-ness. Here’s the photographic recap of what we’ve been up to.

I cohosted a baby shower with my Budapest lovelies for our friend Julia, who’s having a baby boy in June:

My girls (plus Oliver!)
My girls (plus Oliver!)

Richie and I participated in a “family photoshoot” with the crew of expats that won the NAWA Quiz Night in April. The theme was… well, there wasn’t really a theme, other than “wear what you want”. Naturally Richie wore his sheikh costume that he acquired in Abu Dhabi a few years ago.

We certainly are the definition of a motley crew.
We certainly are the definition of a motley crew.

I had a last meal at my all-time favorite Budapest restaurant, Két Szerecsen, with my gorgeous friends from Germany.

The picture that Kati and Alina didn't want me to post (sorry ladies - it's too cute!)
The picture that Kati and Alina didn’t want me to post (sorry ladies – it’s too cute!)

We had a going-away party at Pata Negra. My first ever visit to Pata Negra was on the day that we arrived to Budapest, and I left the restaurant in tears (without my dinner) due to the stress. It later became one of our favorite places, despite the unpromising introduction. It’s only fitting that we had our farewell meal there, with yes, more tears!

The lovely women of Budapest that came to our farewell dinner
The lovely women of Budapest that came to our farewell dinner

We visited the Gourmet Festival in Millenaris Park with Sophie, Reiner and Oliver (somehow I ended up with a million photos of Oliver and none of anyone else… typical with adorable kiddos!).

Oliver prefers Richie's sunglasses over his own.
Oliver prefers Richie’s sunglasses over his own.

On Monday, May 25th, the movers hired by the Firm arrived to pack, box, and tape everything we own. They sent five men to pack a 140-sq meter apartment, and they finished in about 5 hours. I guarantee it would’ve taken us a week and it wouldn’t have been nearly as neatly done.

I originally called this organized chaos, but I'm just going with chaos now.
I originally called this organized chaos, but I’m just going with chaos now.
Moving, part 2.
Moving, part 2.

On our last night in Budapest, we had dinner at Bock Bisztro, a restaurant known for its twists on Hungarian food. it was featured on the tv show “Bizarre Foods”, and while the food I’ve always ordered has been fairly normal, poor Sophie was treated to the sight of this dragonesque claw on her plate.

This claims to be a chicken. I think not.
This claims to be a chicken. I think not.

Afterwards, to cleanse our palates of said claw, we went to our favorite wine bar for a glass or two of wine. Our flight was at 6 am, meaning we had to leave our apartment around 4 am – and with all our last-minute preparations, we decided to stay up the entire night. Our friends helped us on our mission to stay awake just a little longer!

Our last night in Budapest!
Our last night in Budapest!
This photo was taken shortly after the men gave a jar of salsa to a homeless man, who promptly licked it, declared it too spicy, and dropped it on the cobblestones.
This photo was taken shortly after the men gave a jar of salsa to a homeless man, who promptly licked it, declared it too spicy, and dropped it on the cobblestones.

And then we headed to our apartment for a last roundup of our belongings and a very short nap before we headed to the airport.

Dori and Archie were kind enough to see us off, and before they met us at the airport, they took this last picture of us in front of our apartment building. Sniff. Farewell, Oktogon 3.
Dori and Archie were kind enough to see us off, and before they met us at the airport, they took this last picture of us in front of our apartment building. Sniff. Farewell, Oktogon 3.

Our flights to the USA were uneventful. We were able to fly business class on the way back, which for Richie is nothing special these days, but this was only my second time (the first was when we moved TO Budapest). I’ve gotta say, having fully lie-flat seats, delicious food, and champagne is a great way to make sure you don’t have jetlag when you return from overseas. We came back refreshed and easily readjusted to our new time zone. That is – if you consider waking up at 6 am “adjusted”, which I generally do NOT.

The biggest help to feeling normal again? These two.

PUPPIES. I missed you.
PUPPIES. I missed you.

After being without the dogs for six months, it was wonderful to be reunited! They were very confused when my parents left without them (I think they had a really great time with the “grandparents” and with their poodle friends Gabby and Bailey!) but they have quickly returned to their decadent lifestyle of snuggling and chewies and treats.

Next time on the blog: the perils of house-hunting in a seller’s market. Stay tuned.

Repatriation Plans

More than three years ago, I wrote this post about our impending move to Budapest. It’s a little bit surreal, reading that first post again. Stefanie-of-three-years-ago was overly optimistic about her ability to learn Hungarian and her willingness to get off the couch. Now, it’s time to write about the other side… our return to the States. Here’s the FAQ on our repatriation.

When and where are you going?

We’re moving right back where we came from – Dallas, Texas – on May 31st.

Where will you live when you get there?

When we arrive, we’ll be in temporary housing. We picked an apartment close to Richie’s client in Las Colinas. The Firm provides us with 30 days of housing; after that, we’re on our own. Since we no longer own a house in Dallas, my number one priority is to find a home. We already have a fantastic realtor, and I’ve been checking out houses online for months, so hopefully the process goes smoothly. We’re primarily looking at Dallas homes that are zoned to RISD.

What will you do with the dogs?

Our temporary housing is pet-friendly, so they’ll be coming to join us as soon as my parents can make the trip up north. We have definitely missed them for the past several months (although, to be perfectly honest, I have not missed the early morning and late night dog walks).

What about cars?

We need them! We sold both our cars before we left, as they were too old to seriously consider keeping and storing them for our return. I visited the Houston Auto Show in January, so I’ve got a pretty good idea what I want, but Richie’s still making up his mind. He will have a rental car for 30 days, so we don’t have to make decisions on that immediately.

Will you be working?

I plan to, but not right away. There are a number of details that need to be seen to after our arrival (like house-hunting, receiving and going through our air and sea shipments, retrieving the items that we placed in storage before our move, doing any repairs or renovations to our hypothetical new home). It’s never a great idea to start a new job with a request for lots of time off, so while I’ll be searching for jobs upon arrival, I don’t anticipate working until a month or so afterwards.

Richie will start work a few days after we arrive, so thankfully he’ll have some time to do house-hunting with me at the beginning. I was a little worried that I’d be asked to pick our house entirely on my own!

And the #1 question we’re asked: Are you excited?!

The short answer is yes. I’ve missed my friends and family, my job, Mexican food, the ability to go to the grocery store without using Google Translate….

The long answer? I never expected to feel at home in Budapest. I thought that I might like it, perhaps I might love it in the way that you grow fond of a favorite travel spot, but I never expected that I would be genuinely devastated to leave it. We’ve built a life here that I love, with friends that I adore and are a source of strength and comfort (and fun!) to me every day. If I could just pluck all of our friends from Budapest and take them with us (as well as some of our favorite hangouts in the city, and the ability to easily travel to new countries for a weekend), the answer would be an unreserved yes.

Urban Exploration.

The weather in Budapest has been wonderful lately (hello, sunshine and short skirts!), which means that even the laziest and most decadent of housewives (ahem. yours truly.) wants to get out of the apartment. Today, after a lunch with some of my expat girlfriends, we decided to take advantage of the weather and take a stroll. As we were walking, we kept noticing these gorgeous buildings – or rather, buildings with the potential to be gorgeous, since we were in the 8th district. We commented that so often, we’re looking down at our feet (there’s a lot of stuff on the Budapest streets that you don’t want to step in…) and completely missing the interesting stuff above street level.

One of these poor guys is missing its head, but it's still pretty charming.
One of these poor guys is missing its head, but it’s still pretty charming.
A gorgeous building in the 8th district - can you imagine how it would look with just a little money and time?
A gorgeous building in the 8th district – can you imagine how it would look with just a little money and time?
This building isn't in great shape (especially the bottom floor, covered in graffiti), but whenever I see it, I long to buy it and fix it up. If only I had a few spare billions of forints lying around.
This building isn’t in great shape (especially the bottom floor, covered in graffiti), but whenever I see it, I long to buy it and fix it up. If only I had a few spare billions of forints lying around.

Our conversation about looking above our heads reminded me of some exploring I did in our own apartment building. The building we live in was built in 1873, which was in the sort of golden age of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Like many of the buildings from that time, ours has a set of servants’ stairs – a staircase at the back of the apartment building just for the household staff to use. I didn’t know that it existed for the first year or so that we lived here – the entrance on the ground floor is blocked by an iron door, and they’re no longer in use – but after a tour of some other apartment buildings with a guide who mentioned the servants’ stairs, I went to take a look. It was easy to tell why they’re not used – as I was standing there, I could hear the sound of plaster cascading down the walls and steps. The weird thing is that I never bothered to look above my head while I was checking the stairs out… until yesterday, when I went back to snap a picture in the sunlight. And then I noticed this.

Stairway to... nowhere.
Stairway to… nowhere.

At some point, a false ceiling was created, and now the servants’ stairs just… end. (This made me curious as to what they look like on the 3rd floor. The answer? I have no idea, because they’re behind an iron door. It sort of looks like the 3rd floor of the staircase has been turned into an apartment… but if so, that is one tiny apartment. It’s like 10 meters square!)

Looking down the servants' stairs from the 2nd floor.
Looking down the servants’ stairs from the 2nd floor. I would NOT walk on these.

It’s worth pointing out that while these stairs are pretty shady looking, our main staircase isn’t much to look at either…

The main staircase in our building, as well as our Communist-era lift that always makes visitors nervous
The main staircase in our building, as well as our Communist-era lift that always makes visitors nervous

Especially in comparison to, say, this gorgeous staircase we encountered on a tour in the 5th district.


And while I was exploring, I popped up to the 4th floor. I always wondered how the workers got on the rooftops of the Oktogon buildings to change the advertisements (our building has a Rolex logo on top), and now I know. On most floors, there are two apartment doors in the stairwell. On the fourth, there’s only one apartment, and the other door is this lovely creature that leads to the roof.

Someone clearly didn't like this door.
Someone didn’t like this door.

The best part is that someone has clearly locked themselves in the roof before, based on the chopped out pieces of wood and the fact that there is now a handwritten note on the door with the name and number of the building manager in case of emergency!

Up to the roof!
Up to the roof!

I thought about venturing up to the roof, but the state of the door dissuaded me…. I don’t know how to say, “I’m locked in the attic, please come rescue me!” in Hungarian.

Margitsziget (Margaret Island)

Now that our dogs have returned to the States (and are living in the lap of luxury with my parents), it’s hard to be motivated to return to my regular daily walks. This was especially true in February, where the wind, drizzly rain, and cloudy days made me glad that I had no puppy eyes staring up at me, begging for a trip to the dog park. However, Budapest is experiencing some pretty springtime weather (we actually hit 60°F yesterday for a brief yet glorious moment), and after spending a few days with the soul-sucking tasks of researching potential future jobs, houses, and mortgage rates, I was ready for an extended break from the computer screen.

Today, I headed to Margaret Island (Margitsziget in Hungarian). I’ve mentioned it briefly on the blog, as it’s a spot we often took the dogs on sunny weekends. It’s easy to access – the 4/6 tram that runs along the Great Boulevard has a stop just for the island – and you could spend an entire day exploring it. For the athletes, there is a 5.35km running trail (with nice spongy material, although it’s a bit bedraggled in spots), an Olympic swimming pool, various sports and athletic centers, and, in the summer months, the Palatinus Strand, a bath complex with swimming pools, a wave pool, and slides.

For those who enjoy ruins, the island has plenty of those. At one time, the island was actually three individual islands, one of which was known as the Rabbit Island. Beginning in the 12th century, this island was mainly known for its religious groups, with monasteries, convents, and churches vying for space – including a Dominican convent housing Margaret, daughter of King Béla IV. I’ve heard from a tour guide or two that the king promised his daughter Margaret to God if only he would stop the Mongol invasion of Hungary, so he gave her to the care of the Dominican nuns. I don’t know if that part’s true, but I do know that he later attempted to set her up with the King of Bohemia, but she refused to leave her beloved convent and took her final religious vows to prevent him from marrying her off. Cheeky of her. The island, combined with two others in the 19th century in order to control the flow of the Danube, now bears her name, and you can visit her grave there.

When the Ottomans invaded Hungary, they destroyed many religious institutions, so today, all that remains of the convent, as well as the nearby Franciscan church and monastery, are ruins.

Ruins of the Franciscan church and monastery - only two walls remain of the church
Ruins of the Franciscan church and monastery – only two walls remain of the church

This is the Chapel of Saint Michael (Szent Mihaly kapolna) – if I read the plaque correctly, it was originally from the 13th century, but this is a 19th or 20th century reconstruction, using the ruins that were found on the island. The bell is original, I believe. Services are still held in the chapel – I couldn’t go in today, actually, due to a mass!

The rebuilt Chapel of St. Michael
The rebuilt Chapel of St. Michael

For those who don’t find ruins fascinating, there are plenty of other sights to suit your fancy, like this gorgeous Art Nouveau water tower (you can go in it during the summer months for a view of the city). At the base of the tower is an exhibition center and a small outdoor theater for musical performances.

The Margaret Island Water Tower
The Margaret Island Water Tower

Or perhaps you like gardens? The island is home to a vast amount of green space, suitable for a pickup game of football or frisbee, but several sections of the park have been turned into gardens. In winter, it’s a bit bare, but in the late spring and summer months, it’s a riot of color. Today, I visited the Japanese garden for the first time. It’s on the far side of the island (close to the Árpád bridge) and was recently renovated, although there are still signs of remaining projects, cordoned off with plastic barriers.

One of two ponds in the Japanese Gardens
One of two ponds in the Japanese Gardens
This stairway takes you up to a beautiful sitting area
This stairway takes you up to a beautiful sitting area
This rocky wall in the background is a fountain in the summer months.
This rocky wall in the background is a fountain in the summer months.

There are also two musical fountains on the island. The first, close to the Margaret Bridge and the main entrance to the island, was recently renovated and features pulsing water to the beat of various songs, much like the Bellagio fountains of Vegas (although not nearly as grand).

A picture of our dogs with the fountain, pre-renovation... it looks much, much nicer these days, but it's currently covered in plastic wrapping to protect it from the Budapest winters. I'll take an updated picture when it reopens for business.
A picture of our dogs with the fountain, pre-renovation… it looks much, much nicer these days, but it’s currently covered in plastic wrapping to protect it from the Budapest winters. I’ll take an updated picture when it reopens for business.

I actually thought this was THE musical fountain and have been calling it that for three years now, but it turns out (per the official Margaret Island map) this is just “the fountain” and the “musical fountain” is on the opposite end of the island, near the Japanese gardens and the Árpád bridge. Strangely, it’s not actually a fountain, but a well, built in 1935 as an exact replica of a well built in Marosvásárhely, Hungary, in the 1820s. It had a special clock and musical chime that was powered solely by the well’s water. The Margaret Island version uses the less-energy-efficient method of electricity to run the music, and it had to be significantly repaired after sustaining damage in WWII. It was renovated again in 2014, and now is pretty gorgeous.

The Musical Fountain / Well / whatever it's called.
The Musical Fountain / Well / whatever it’s called.

There’s also what’s referred to as the Artists’ Promenade, with busts of various Hungarian painters and sculptors in all different styles and sizes.

I'm a big fan of this guy's mustache.
I’m a big fan of this guy’s mustache. And outfit.

My favorite feature of the island is one of the simplest, though – plenty of benches scattered throughout the park to bring a book and catch some sun. As soon as the temperatures hit 70 degrees, that’s where you’ll find me!

Things that are weird.

A few weeks before we moved to Budapest, Richie and I attended a day-long class about culture shock, designed to give us a heads-up about some things we might find unusual or unexpected in Hungary. I mostly found it unusual and unexpected that our “how to be Hungarian” class was taught by a Russian guy. On our way out, he mentioned that we would have a similar class when we moved back, except this time it would be about re-adjusting to American life. I laughed about that in the car on our drive home. We’re Americans! How hard can it be to act like ourselves?

Well, I’ve been in the USA on my annual home leave for 33 days now, and I’ve gotta say it. Things are weird. All of our previous trips over the past 3 years have been around 10 days or less, and most of that time was occupied with family activities. Now that I’ve had some time to meet up with friends, go shopping, drive a car, do laundry… I’m noticing the little things that are going to be a little disconcerting when we officially move back in May.

I can understand everyone around me. All of the time. Can I tell you a secret? In Budapest, I am *constantly* eavesdropping on the people around me. If they’re speaking Hungarian, I’m testing how much of their conversation I can understand with my limited language skills (answer: very, very little unless they’re talking about their dogs). If it’s French, I’m doing the same (answer: very, very little unless they’re talking about food). If I hear a glimpse of English, I’m trying to figure out why they’re here (tourist/student/expat) and where they’re from. And when I’m not actively listening, the voices fade easily into the background, like a TV that’s on the golf channel or a radio that’s tuned to the news. It’s almost soothing.

Here in America, though, I’m not used to tuning out people out. I can understand everyone and it’s maddening. In grocery stores, in malls, in restaurants, it’s like a thousand televisions are grouped around me, each on a different channel and each blasting at full volume.

People are overly friendly. I am no longer used to having conversations with cashiers, strangers in checkout lines, random people next to me at the clothing rack… you get the picture. It’s not just the language barrier – because I can usually pass for a Hungarian at the grocery store, and the most a cashier will say as you’re checking out is “[Store] card?” and “[Amount of forints you owe]”. And no one has ever asked me a question about the items I’m looking at or purchasing.

But here in Texas, you are downright strange if you don’t engage in a friendly and in-depth conversation with your cashier, or with the person in line behind you, or any number of people you encounter along the way. At HEB, the girl bagging our groceries commented on the amount of junk food Richie was buying, asked me if I ever cooked for him, and said “You’d better watch out, he’s going to get fat!” At Petsmart, the woman behind me in line noticed I was buying flea medicine for my dogs and asked me why I was buying one brand instead of the other. At Target, as the cashier scanned my socks, the random girl behind me started waxing poetic about how awesome the socks were and how she really should go back and get some. At a steakhouse, our waiter asked us what our plans for the holidays were and told us about how his family was coming to town to visit him and blah blah blah blah. I feel like Reese Witherspoon when she first gets plopped into Pleasantville.

Driving is scary. I miss the Metro desperately.

Winston is probably a better driver than I am at this point.
Winston is probably a better driver than I am at this point.

Sales tax gets me every time. I’m used to the VAT being included in the displayed price of items. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by a cashier, “Okay, your total is $X” and I’ve started to say, “Wait, I thought it was Y?” because I completely forgot about sales tax. Also, pennies are the worst.

On the positive side:

Laundry is amazing again. Laundry in Budapest is a drag. We do *have* a dryer, which is lucky – of the 15+ apartments we checked out in person, as well as the 50 or so I looked at online, ours is the only apartment that had one. But if I were to put a single pair of jeans in the dryer, it would take approximately 10 hours to dry fully. Seriously. I tried it. So instead I use a drying rack, meaning that one load of clothes takes all day. And one load of clothes, in a European washing machine, is about 3 pairs of jeans. I cannot tell you how baffled I was when I first did laundry at my parents’ house and my 6 pairs of jeans and 2 corduroy trousers were all washed and perfectly dried within 75 minutes. It’s a little sad how happy I am to do laundry!

Precious Cargo.

One of the aspects of our expat life that required the most research (and incurred the most stress) was transporting our dogs to and from Europe. I thought I’d share what we’ve learned through the process, as we have several friends who will be relocating their pets overseas in the upcoming months.

Most airlines have pet transportation programs. Based on my research, the two best airlines for international pet transport are Lufthansa and KLM. Both have pet hotels in Europe (Lufthansa’s is in Frankfurt, KLM’s is in Amsterdam) where pets are given food, water, and a bathroom break between connecting flights. You can also check out the Department of Transportation’s Incident Reports, which has information about every injury, accident and death related to animals on every flight that enters / exits / takes place in the USA.

There are three main forms of pet air transportation:

Excess Baggage: Depending on the type of aircraft you’re flying, and the route you’re taking, it’s often possible to take your pets as excess baggage, either in the cabin or underneath the plane. There are very specific height and weight requirements for cabin pets which vary by airline, but generally it would limit you to cats or dogs the size of a chihuahua or a Yorkie. If your dog doesn’t meet the height and weight restrictions, it can go underneath the plane in a specialized animal transport compartment. It’s pressurized and temperature-controlled (unlike the nearby luggage compartment) but space is limited, with only a handful of dogs permitted on each flight, depending on size. Additionally, these compartments don’t exist on many smaller planes, so if you have a connecting flight to a small city, it may not be possible to use this method. This is by far the cheapest way to send your dogs, generally ranging between $200 and $500 depending on the size of the pet and its kennel. To use this method, you must provide an approved kennel (we use Petmate Vari Kennel Ultra for both dogs), food and water bowls that attach to the kennel, and absorbent materials to line the kennel.

Cargo: Most airlines have a cargo division that transports pets. The pets will either be in the specialized compartment underneath a passenger plane, as mentioned above, or in an animal transport hold of a cargo plane (depending on the airline, time of flight, etc). These cargo companies don’t usually accept pets from the owners directly, but rather through an intermediary that specializes in animal transport. You contact the animal transport companies in your location (in Budapest, it’s Airmax Cargo) and provide them the pertinent information about your pets and when you want them to travel. They work with the airlines and provide you with a proposed route and price quote for each airline. These quotes generally are only valid for 30 days, so while I recommend contacting them a few months in advance, you may see some fluctuation in the original quote and the final contracted price. With these cargo companies, you can provide your own kennel and bowls, but you can also purchase the kennel directly from the transport company and have them handle everything for you. This costs a little more than excess baggage but is still pretty reasonably priced for an international flight (we got quotes between $500 and $1500 per dog).

For those who have to make a connection to get to their destination, this is the better option. The cargo company will schedule the flights so that the pet has an overnight stay in their pet hotel, so they will have an opportunity to get out of the kennel and use the bathroom, get fresh food and water, and sleep for a few hours between flights. With the excess baggage option, your pet follows the same path as your luggage, so he or she won’t be able to get out of the kennel for the entire journey. So for example, if you fly from Houston to Budapest, connecting in Frankfurt, the total travel time including layovers is usually about 16-17 hours. That’s a long time to go without added water and a bathroom break!

Door-to-door transport: This is the most comprehensive (and the most costly) option. There are several companies that specialize in international pet transport, with the most well-known ones being PetRelocation.com and Worldwide Pet Transport. This full-service option is basically effortless on the part of the pet owner. You request a quote from the website, inputting basic information about your pets and your home and destination cities. The company puts you in touch with a specialist for your region, who takes all the details and comes up with a quote. They handle *everything* for you, including the pre-departure vet visit to get the required travel paperwork, picking up the pet from your home and taking it to the airport, clearing customs, and bringing the dog to your home in your new destination. As you can imagine, this service is not cheap. We were given a quote of $8,500 to bring our two dogs from Budapest to Houston via one of these services, and that was with me agreeing to do all of the travel paperwork and veterinary visits on my own!

When we moved to Budapest, we used the excess baggage method for both dogs. It worked well enough – the dogs arrived safely, in good health and without any injuries or apparent trauma. We researched other options for the return trip, though, for a few reasons. First, have you ever tried to juggle two large dog crates, 4 suitcases, two carry-ons, a purse and a briefcase between two people? I have. It’s not fun. It makes you do stupid things, like take an unlicensed minivan taxi because you’re standing in an airport in a foreign country with all this STUFF surrounding you, and since he likes dogs, why not? (It worked out fine, but generally speaking, DON’T accept offers from random taxi men in the lobby of the Budapest airport. Or any airport.) We didn’t want to do that again when bringing our dogs home. And secondly, Winston has a few health issues – he recently turned 11 years old, and he has epilepsy. Both of these factors make flying a little more risky for him. I started looking into sending the dogs separately from us, a few days before our flight to Houston for Christmas.

I originally arranged for both dogs to go on KLM cargo planes, via Airmax Cargo. However, we hit a snag when we learned that the dogs would have an overnight stay in Amsterdam. Winston takes a daily medication for his epilepsy to prevent seizures. We asked KLM whether they could administer his medication at the pet hotel during his overnight stay – and they responded that they would be unable to transport him at all due to his health. Sigh.

So I began researching the door-to-door transportation options, requesting quotes and letting them know of Winston’s health issues. We got a preliminary quote from one company that stated it would be about $3,000 per dog under our circumstances. While that was a huge expense (especially compared to the $700 we paid in total for both dogs from Houston to Budapest), we thought that might be the only option for Winston given his health issues. So we proceeded to request a detailed quote… only to be told that the total for both dogs was actually $8,500. Yikes. That was completely impossible for us. [Note – some people assume that because we’re expats, all of this kind of stuff is covered by the company or included in our contract. That’s not true for many expats, and it definitely isn’t true for us. All of this is at our own expense. For those who are planning an overseas assignment, consider negotiating this into your contract if you have pets!]

Ultimately, we opted to send Lexie via the cargo service a few days before our flight, and Winston via excess baggage on our flight. My experience with the cargo service was wonderful, and I would highly recommend using KLM and their animal transport affiliates. They took great care of Lexie every step of the way, and they gave me a tracking number (just like a postal package) so that I could follow her progress. Winston also did great on his flight, although I was a little unhappy about his being unceremoniously dumped outside of the oversized baggage area at IAH.

If anyone plans to take their pets overseas, and would like to talk to me about my experiences or get more information about the research I did, just leave a comment or send me an e-mail! I’d be happy to talk about it.

Oktoberfest 2014

I wasn’t originally planning to blog about our third trip to Die Wiesn – for the most part, our trip was a simple copy/paste of previous years. We stayed at the same hotel (the extremely well-located and nicely appointed Anna Hotel), we arrived and departed via the same trains as past years, and our buddy Garrett once again flew in from the U.S.A. to join us. However, there was one very key difference this year: stitches and the German police were involved! And after being asked to tell the story several times over the Christmas holidays, I decided that perhaps I should write it down… as everyone keeps saying, it’s one of those great stories to tell the grandkids one day.

Spoiler alert: Everyone in our group emerged without an arrest record.

As I mentioned before, the trip started out very similar to past years. This year, our friend Aaron took the train from Budapest to Munich with us, and we met up with Garrett and his friends Kelly and Stu at our traditional restaurant to start the festivities: Haxnbauer.

Blissfully ignorant train passengers
Blissfully ignorant train passengers

I won’t bore you with a play by play of the whole trip (you can read about past Oktoberfests here and here). Let’s just jump to the fun pictures in lederhosen and dirndls and the story of how Richie ended up in the Red Cross hospital tent.

Me and Richie, all decked out in our traditional Bavarian outfits
Me and Richie, all decked out in our traditional Bavarian outfits
Kelly and Stu came from the USA for the festival and happily joined us in the lederhosen- and dirndl-wearing
Kelly and Stu came from the USA for the festival and happily joined us in the lederhosen- and dirndl-wearing
Me and Aaron! Who looks very Bavarian but is in fact wearing jeans.
Me and Aaron! Who looks very Bavarian but is in fact wearing jeans.
First beer: almost completed.
First beer: almost completed.
Feeling grand as the music starts playing and the dancing on tables begins
Feeling grand as the music starts playing and the dancing on tables begins
Me and Kelly, moments before the trouble starts...
Me and Kelly, moments before the trouble starts…

For those who haven’t been to the festival, it’s hard to explain the layout and the atmosphere, but basically each tent has rows and rows of tables and benches jammed close together. There’s perhaps one inch between your bench and that of the table behind you, and a fairly narrow aisle between the rows (perhaps 1 meter at most – basically enough for a waitress with an armful of beer steins to pass). Most tables are reserved beginning at 3 pm, and it’s very difficult to get a table reservation (nearly impossible for foreigners, as you must either write a letter or send a fax, in German, to request the table and many tables are set aside for “regulars” before the reservations even open to the public). So, if you’re without reservations, you show up before the tents open, around 9 am, and grab a table immediately. That gives you about 6 hours to enjoy the festival before the reservations kick in.

Beginning around noon, they begin to play music – usually a strange combination of traditional drinking songs and American classics like Sweet Caroline and Take Me Home, Country Roads. When the band is playing, people stand on the benches and dance and sing along. It’s a bit precarious, as you might imagine – people who have been drinking for several hours, standing on rickety benches with very little room between themselves and their neighboring tables – but until this particular day, we’d never experienced any problems.

Enter Pink Shirt Guy (abbreviated hereafter as PSG). From the moment we arrived in the tent at 9 am, PSG seemed a little… off. He was seated at the table directly behind Aaron, me, and Kelly (Richie, Garrett and Stu were seated across from us) and PSG was rowdy from the beginning. As new people joined his table, he would fling his arms open to give them a hug – and, since we were only an inch away, he’d usually smack us in the head while doing so. His friend, Leather Jacket Girl (LJG) elbowed me in the kidneys approximately every five minutes whenever she turned to switch conversations between her friends on her left and her right. While annoying, it was fairly innocuous while we were seated.

Once we were standing on the benches and the music began, though, PSG became far more obnoxious (and obviously far more intoxicated), swaying into us, dropping beer steins (from a height sufficient to shatter them), turning around and begging Kelly to take a picture with him, etc. He was so unsteady on his feet that poor Kelly actually had to leap across the table, with the assistance of Stu and Garrett, to avoid being knocked over. At this point, Richie had had enough. He said, “Hold this for a second, would you?”, handed me his beer, and stepped over the table to take Kelly’s place.

(Afterwards, Richie asked me if I knew what he was about to do when he handed me the beer. I said that I had my suspicions, to which he expressed his surprise that I hadn’t tried to stop him. I replied, “When has that ever worked?!” He conceded.)

A few seconds after Richie handed me his beer, the bench fell out from under me, I landed on the ground, and mass chaos erupted. I wasn’t able to get up for a minute or two, as there were a number of people on the ground and fists were flying above me. I crawled past the upended bench (still holding Richie’s beer!) and managed to stand up, only to have LJG begin pulling my hair (apparently I had taken her down with me as I fell and she was displeased. Sorry, but not my fault!) and she dragged me down to the ground again. I managed to wriggle away and stand up, face-to-face with Richie, who was bleeding from the eyebrow.

I gasped. “Richie, you’re bleeding!” He told me it was nothing, to which I think I said “Oh my gosh you’re BLEEDING oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh….” He finally agreed to go wash it off in the bathroom. Still holding his beer, I stumbled over to one of the waitresses and said, “Has someone called tent security? This is getting pretty bad…” She said they were on the way, so I went to round up our friends and our belongings. I handed off the beer to Aaron, dived in to snatch up my purse and our coats, snagged Garrett, Stu and Kelly and we headed for the restrooms to wait for Richie’s return, glancing back at the fray every few seconds. The men went into the restroom to check on my guy – but there was no sign of him. Luckily my phone was working (it had been finicky about making calls during the week) and Richie picked up – he was at the Red Cross hospital tent, getting stitches. He assured me that he was fine, that I didn’t need to meet him, and that we should go to the hotel and he’d meet up with us as soon as he was done. We exited the tent, and as we stood there while I chatted with Richie, we saw PSG and several of his friends, shoved against the wall of the tent, zip-tied, being handcuffed and surrounded by about 20 Bavarian police officers in beige uniforms.

So… what the heck happened? We pieced it together on the walk back to the hotel, and filled in the remaining blanks once Richie returned bearing his stitches and bloodied shirt.

Richie's stitches - at this point he had minimal swelling and bruising, but that quickly changed.
Richie’s stitches – at this point he had minimal swelling and bruising, but that quickly changed.

Richie had leaned over to PSG and said, “You’re knocking over the women at our table, man, you need to calm down or leave the tent.” In response, PSG head-butted Richie. This was what caused Richie’s bleeding – he’d been hit at exactly the wrong spot, where the skin is thinner, and it split. This is also what caused the bench I was standing on to fall. THEN, PSG grabbed Richie by the throat and began to choke him! Luckily for us, another person that had been sitting at PSG’s table was frustrated with PSG’s antics and punched him – so PSG released Richie’s throat, and Richie was able to get up and walk away. This punch, and the falling benches, started the mass chaos, with punches being thrown right and left. Our group of friends was lucky to escape the fighting!

The marks on Richie's throat from being choked, a few hours after the incident
The marks on Richie’s throat from being choked, a few hours after the incident

After Richie had gone to wash his face, Garrett and the others saw the tent security arrive and begin zip-tying the fighters (they don’t have handcuffs, so they use zipties as restraints). PSG apparently tried to punch the tent security guards before being restrained, which is why the Bavarian police ultimately arrived to arrest him. [Note from Richie: For Americans, this would be like punching a mall cop in Dallas (although Oktoberfest tent security guards are much tougher) and then getting arrested by the Texas national guard. The police in Germany DO NOT mess around.]

Meanwhile, Richie was in the washroom, inspecting the damage, when a kind tent security guard told him that it looked like he needed stitches and escorted him to a Red Cross tent. There, they did a brief inspection and confirmed that he did indeed need stitches, so they sent him via ambulance to a larger tent with more doctors. He asked the doctor there how often he personally sews people up at Oktoberfest. His response? Around 50 people over the course of the festival (two weeks).

While he was there, the Bavarian state police arrived to take his story and to ask if Richie wanted to press charges. Given that we were in a foreign country, while residents of a foreign country; that we’re not German speakers; and that Richie’s injuries were minimal, Richie elected not to press charges and to simply move on.

I was so thankful that was the end of the story. From the moment I escaped the brawl, I was worried about one thing only – that some or all of our group would be arrested. I’ve heard so many stories of fights breaking out at festivals, concerts, or other events where everyone involved was arrested, whether or not they were simply caught in the crossfire or actively participating. I knew that our group *shouldn’t* be in trouble, as none of us had laid a finger on anyone else, but sometimes when you’re in a foreign country and don’t speak the language, that doesn’t matter! We were very, very lucky. [Note from Richie: He attributes most of this luck to the fact that we were in Germany.]

Richie and Ross - can you see the swelling beginning?!
Richie and Ross – can you see the swelling beginning?!
Richie's black eye on the following day
Richie’s black eye on the day we left Munich

For me, that was the end of my Oktoberfest adventure. Any joy or entertainment I had previously experienced was just completely sucked out, and replaced with fear and dread – and I only had bruises on my legs and back! Richie with his black eye and stitches, on the other hand, approached it with his usual nonchalance and returned to the festival the next morning with Garrett and our friends Ross and Whitney, who had luckily arrived in Munich just after our harrowing experience.

So, will there be an Oktoberfest 2015 for us? Definitely *not* for me. We’ll keep you posted if Richie and Garrett decide to go 4 for 4….