Archive for August, 2012

Wide Open Spaces

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Coming to Germany from America, and from relatively small town America specifically, one of the biggest surprises has been the lack of yards. Remember last week when I said that in Europe, people build up instead of out? I don’t know if it’s because there’s not enough space, or if they just have a different cultural mindset (probably both, one causing the other), but they don’t really spread out. The price of real estate no doubt has a lot to do with it as well. Or maybe it’s just that “the yard,” or at least what I think of as a yard, is a distinctly American thing. We’ve never really lost that early frontier settler attitude, where we wanted not just a home but a piece of land to call our own, to farm or ranch or whatever, even if all we’re really farming is a lawn and a vegetable garden. When I lived in Mexico several years ago I was similarly struck by the lack of yards, and the few yards they do have tend to be locked behind iron gates. Going back to Utah after two years of that almost gave me agoraphobia, because the streets were twice as wide plus there was a (comparatively) massive yard on each side, so instead of ten yards from one gate to the opposite one there was suddenly thirty or forty yards from door to door–and then another big space in the backyard. Americans live in fields.

Our house here in Feuerbach is a town home which shares its side walls with matching town homes; we’re number two in a line of five. Our front yard is a porch area about four feet by eight feet, most of it full of bushes. Our backyard is actually pretty sizable, starting with a beautiful little terrace thingy and leading up into a hillside courtyard that we share with twenty or so other town homes and apartments. It’s not “lawn” so much as “vaguely manicured overgrowth,” but since the local weeds and wildflowers are short ground cover instead of tall desert grasses, that works out great. My kids and the neighbor kids range all over that area, and some of the friends we’ve made in the same complex will occasionally tromp through it to come say hi. This central courtyard does not “officially” touch the outside world, but when we were trying to move big pieces of furniture that wouldn’t fit through our narrow spiral staircase we found a spot where we could jump a short wall through a neighbor’s front walkway and carry our couch in through the terrace. My wife wants to buy some plants and start a little garden in that back terrace–she was a huge gardener-landscaper in our house back in Utah–but that will probably wait for next spring when we’re a little more settled.

One of the neat parts about building upward and conserving horizontal space is that we live close to everything we need. It’s just a couple of minute’s walk to the “downtown” area of Feuerbach, which has all the grocery stores and kebab shops and so on, plus there’s a train station if we ever need to go to another town or into the Big City of Stuttgart itself. But the best and greatest thing about building upward is that it saves so much of the countryside for, well, countryside. There’s a forest two blocks from my house–two blocks! It’s not a huge forest by any means, but as “local town amenities” go I’d rather be two blocks from a forest than from, say, a strip mall. And the interesting part is this: the first little bit of the forest is not so much forest as gardens: actual gardens and American-style yards, some of them fairly big, but not attached to anything. It’s pretty bizarre, in a way, these gardens in the middle of nowhere. I told my kids that these were elf gardens, and my 5yo thought that was awesome, but my 3yo, being a little more savvy, told me that elves were just in movies, and not really real, so obviously these must be fairy gardens. My 5yo, whose greatest goal in life is to become a fairy, thought that this logic was perfect. In truth, of course, the gardens are exactly what they look like: backyards that just happen to be far away from their houses. You can live in the city, with all the advantages that entails, and still have a neat little garden where you can plants flowers, raise vegetables, put in a swingset or a trampoline, and so on. It’s pretty cool.

I must admit that overall I’m torn. on the one hand, I love having a big yard. Our place in Utah had about a tenth of an acre–not considered very big, by American standards–and it was awesome. When we were shopping around for a new house last year I was appalled by all of the big, fancy houses all crammed so close together your side yard is essentially just a narrow gap between you and the next house. But I also have a passionate hatred for suburban sprawl–vast rolling fields of identical houses stretching as far as the eye can see, dappled here and there with a gas station or an Applebees. Denver seems to exemplify this banal excess, which is why I took such delight in destroying it in fiction (which fiction? Stay tuned to find out!). So while in some ways I love the American model of civic planning, in other ways I really love the European model. When I get back to the US in a couple of years and start looking for a home, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Stay in Europe, I guess. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Why Are You Here?

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Living in Germany is very different, obviously, from living in America. The first problem, which I alluded to last week, was the lack of stuff: we arrived with suitcases full of clothes, a handful of toys for each kid, and…that was it. When I say that we had no furniture, I need to spell this out to make sure you understand the implications: German homes, unless you’re renting a furnished apartment (which is rare) have almost nothing in them. They have walls and floors and ceilings, and the doorways have doors in them, and the windows have glass and exterior blinds (kind of like a blast shield you can raise or lower, almost like a blackout curtain) and…that’s pretty much it. The bathrooms had fixtures in them, I can’t forget that. We were very lucky in that our kitchen also had fixtures in it, including counters and cupboards. Most German kitchens don’t–even if you’re renting, you have to bring and install your own kitchen. Our electrical system was wired for lights, but there are no light fixtures, just wires hanging out of the ceiling with bulbs attached to the end, dangling bare like in a mobster movie. Some of the wiring doesn’t even have that, like the wires in the stairways that I assume are intended for wall sconces. And, of course, there are neither of our great American luxuries: carpets and air conditioning. Sleeping on the floor because we didn’t have beds yet would have been a relatively comfortable option in America, but here that would have meant sleeping on tile or hardwood or plain old cement. We borrowed a couple of air mattresses from some friends (that’s the really awesome thing–thanks to my wife, and to our church, we already had friends in town when we landed. They were enormously helpful and wonderful), but even then my 5yo and I ended up on the floor the first night. In a way, being jet-lagged came in pretty handy, because we were too tired to care.

And the air conditioning–most of the stores and office buildings have it, but homes don’t. I guess it makes sense, since by all accounts we’re not going to need it for long. We landed on July 26, the start of Stuttgart’s “hot” season, and even then we’ve been coasting along in the mid 80s while my friends back in Utah have been sweltering in the high 90s and low 100s. The last couple of days have been the hottest yet, finally getting up into the mid 90s, and this house has gotten pretty dang hot. We pretty much live with our windows and doors flung wide open (though we close the blast shields on whichever side of the house is getting direct sunlight), and we have a fan, but it still takes some getting used to. Add in the fact that the water doesn’t run as cold as it does in Utah–I don’t know if they bury the pipes deeper there, or what, but you can run the faucet for a minute or two and get some downright icy water if you want it, even in the middle of summer. Not so here. Staying cool isn’t impossible, it just requires a different set of skills, and we’re slowing acquiring them.

After the first week or so we finally managed to rustle up all the furniture we needed; we left the non-essentials for the second week, like tables and chairs, but in that first week we found beds and mattresses for everybody, including a crib for the baby, and a couch and a rug for the living room. I’ve never appreciated soft surfaces so much until I lived for a week without any. We also had to find, and this is another thing I forgot to mention we didn’t have, closets. German houses don’t have closets, and the reasoning I was given is that tax law counts each closet as a separate room, so including one in your home raises the tax. Weird, but there you go. You have to get free-standing wardrobes. So we now have some wardrobes to hang our stuff in, and beds to sleep in, and even a table to eat at. Getting all of this where it was supposed to go was an adventure in and of itself, because German houses are incredibly vertical–no ranch style homes, no sprawling American floorplans, just towers of small spaces stacked up on top of each other. We have a steep spiral staircase connecting them all, and let me tell you how not fun it was to haul 7 people’s worth of dressers and nightstands and bed frames and closets up that thing. Our house here is actually much bigger than our place in Utah, once you add it all up: we have a ground floor that’s mostly just a giant room with a bathroom and an unfurnished kitchen at the back (read: empty tiled cell with sink and dishwasher hookups), which we can sublet if we want but which we’re keeping as a guest room for people who come to visit us. This floor also has the laundry room, which is awesome; not every place here has one. The second floor (which is actually the first floor, because Europeans count them differently) has another small bathroom, our furnished kitchen, and a big dining room/living room that lets out onto a neat backyard garden–we’re on the side of a hill, so there’s a ground level entrance on this floor as well. The garden/terrace is awesome, kind of a big green courtyard in the middle of several buildings all owned by the same landlord, and there are a lot of other kids in the area so my kids have already made some friends. Some of them even speak English. The third/second floor has the main bathroom, two bedrooms, and the master bedroom, though I’m using one of the bedrooms as an office; it exits out onto a rear balcony shared with the master bedroom, so I can open the door and see the garden, and it’s awesome. The top floor is a sloped-roof attic kind of place, but very nicely finished and completely open, and we stuck three of the kids up there. It gets ferociously hot up there during the day, but can be pleasantly cool at night, and it has cool skylight windows that open wide and give a good view of the town. So anyway, yeah. Four stories, all connected by steep, narrow staircases. Taking the kids’ dressers up all three flights was an adventure. Some of the big stuff, like our couch and our kitchen table, wouldn’t even go through the stairs and we had to go around through the garden, which doesn’t actually connect to the street so we had to go through another guy’s yard and over a wall. We made a lot of friends that way :)

And that guest room? If you know me well enough to have ever been invited to my house in Utah, you’re welcome to come stay in this one as well. Consider it an open invitation. Just, you know, schedule it with me first.

And all through this process, as we’ve met our neighbors and worked out our permits and bought our used furniture from a dozen or more people, they all keep asking the same question: why are you here? The short answer is “because we can live anywhere, so why not have an adventure?” The longer answer is…more complicated. Constantly asking myself why I’m here has got me thinking about why I’m anywhere–why am I in Germany? Why was I in America? Part of it is because I was born there, and grew up there, and my family was there. Part of it is that I just never bothered going anywhere else. I lived in Mexico for a few years, right in the middle of college, and it was amazing and I loved it, but then I went home again. I’m not saying Utah is bad or anything–I know a lot of people who don’t like it, as it’s a very conservative community in the middle of a desert, but I love it. What I’m saying is that we have a tendency to accept the reality we’re given. I read a study once that said people tend to end up living within 200 miles of where they were born. Not everyone, obviously, but a significant majority. And there’s nothing WRONG with that, it just makes me think. If our best answer to “why am I here?” is just “because this is where I am,” then are we really getting everything we can out of life? I like to think that lives have purpose, and it seems awfully convenient to me–maybe even a little depressing–if that purpose is so vague or unimportant that it can be fulfilled just by hanging around the same old place, doing the same old stuff we always do. Some people have dreams, and they follow them to far off places–becoming an editor in New York, or an opera singer in San Francisco, or a scientist at whatever prestigious university specializes in that one field of study you absolutely love. What about the rest of us? Maybe your dream job and you life’s purpose is right there next to you already–I’m not saying we should move for the sake of moving–I’m just saying that wherever you live, and whatever you do, make sure you’re doing it on purpose, because you want to, because it’s the best possible thing for you and your family, and not just because it’s the path of least resistance. Have the ambition to demand good reasons for everything you do.

Why am I here? Because this is where I want to be. I can live anywhere, and I looked at cities all over America and Europe and even some other countries, and I talked to my wife and I talked to my kids and I thought about what I wanted out of life and I studied and I prayed and I picked here. This is where I need to be, and this is what I need to be doing.

What about you?

I am Lazarus, come back to tell you all

Monday, August 13th, 2012

My last post on this blog was June 22–June 22, for crying out loud. That’s almost two months. I didn’t INTEND to lose two months of blogging time, but the truth is that I lost two month of pretty much every kind of time, shoved onto the back burner in favor Three Big Things that I had to do first. And now I’ve done them, and I’m back.

The First Big Thing was the launch of THE HOLLOW CITY, my newest thriller from Tor, about a man with schizophrenia caught in a web of monsters, conspiracies, cultists, and murder. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve written, precisely because it was the hardest book I’ve ever written, and I’ve been delighted byt the positive response to it. People really seem to love it, which is awesome. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out. I toured with that book for three solid weeks, and it was nuts, and it broke my brain in half, and it was very hard to think of anything else, but I totally had to anyway because of:

The Second Big Thing was the major revision of FRAGMENTS, the sequel to PARTIALS, which I completed WHILE TOURING for THE HOLLOW CITY. That sentence contained A LOT OF CAPITAL LETTERS. Usually a book tour is a very hard place to get any meaningful work done; you get up in the morning, usually pretty early, pack, drive to the airport, fly to a new place, land, go to a new hotel, unpack, go to a book event, go back to the hotel, go to sleep, and in the morning you do it again. Every day for three straight weeks. I actually got to spend four days in San Diego for ComicCon, right in the middle of the tour, which gave me a nice break from the travel, but it was still crazy. Nevertheless, the revision had to be done, so I did it, and managed to finish it two days before the final drop-dead due date (I totally missed all the earlier due dates). It was hard, but you guys are going to love FRAGMENTS when it comes out next Spring. Huzzah! And then when I finished my book tour I came home and immediately left again for:

The Third Big Thing was, by far, the biggest and craziest of the big things. I packed up my family and moved to Germany. Why? Why not? People keep assuming there’s a business reason, or that we’re moving here for relatives, or something like that, but you know what? We moved because we could, and my wife is the kind of awesome person who says “yes” when I say something insane like “let’s move our family of 7 to a foreign country where we don’t speak the language, just for the hell of it.” I write full time, so I’m not tied to an office or anything like that, and I can email my editors from pretty much anywhere, so we decided to take a year and do something nuts that we might never again have the time or money to be able to do. We got here on July 26 with pretty much nothing: all the clothes we could fit in our luggage, some of the kids favorite toys, and that’s it. We had rented a house, but we didn’t have any furniture to put into it, and all seven of us slept on the floor for the first couple of nights as we started the slow process of procuring beds and couches and so on. We have most of that stuff now, which is good because most German homes don’t have carpets and sleeping on the floor was pretty crappy.

Those are my three big things. There was no room in my head for anything else. Just to really hit home how big those three things were, I had surgery in that same time frame and IT DIDN’T EVEN MAKE THE LIST. I had my tailbone removed right before I went on tour, and let me tell you how awesome it was to sit on an airplane every frakking day while still recovering from butt surgery: pretty awesome.

Last week I started writing again, back to work on my cloning book EXTREME MAKEOVER, which I love and which I hope to finish in the next three months before I have to drop everything and write the final PARTIALS book. Today, my writing urges somewhat sated, I started blogging again. I intend to blog much more often now, even more than I used to, as a sort of chronicle of my family’s adjustments to living in Germany. This is a ridiculously beautiful country. I live two blocks from a forest, their bread is even better than their sausages, and if you ask them they will put roasted lamb kebabs on a pizza. Almost everyone I’ve talked to is a board game player. Where has this culture been all my life?