Couch v. Man
Unfurnished apartments in Germany come equipped with next to nothing. That means no closets, no kitchen sink, no cabinets, no oven, and no refrigerator; but mostly it means empty rooms. The bathroom, however, does come with your standard European toilet, shower, and sink. I’d never valued the presence of a toilet so much in my life until I came to live in Germany. The absence of any other major appliance in my apartment for almost two months forced my unlikely bond with the shitter. Another choice was the shower, but I tend to fancy a staunch flushing mechanism over a cheesy detachable nozzle any day… And just when I thought I was becoming accustomed to all the different rules and cultural norms of my new land, I was pleasantly surprised once again.
Furniture delivery day: I had to carry—more like push, drag, pull, and cajole—a six-and-a-half foot couch up two flights of stairs. A few days prior, my girlfriend and I bought some furniture at what might’ve been the cheapest store in all of Frankfurt. With only a scratch here and a nick there, we felt pretty darn good about signing ourselves up for a delivery on the coming Thursday. But, alas, the furniture would arrive at one in the afternoon on a day that felt like hot soup.
“This is gonna be fun,” I thought to myself as I peered out my apartment window and noticed a run-down orange box truck circling the resident parking lot. Within seconds, my sneakers were halfway on my feet and being worn as slippers. Two Hispanic German guys soon greeted me outside, where our incoherent communicative exchange immediately began. I mostly pointed in every direction and the Hispanic Germans mostly obeyed. They brought the couch, a solid wooden bookshelf, and three boxes of an disassembled entertainment center to the front walkway.
“Nummer zwei, bitte,” I said to one of the guys, and pushed the building door open, motioning upstairs in the most confident of manners. Neither of them came inside, and I just stood there, carefully holding the door wide open like it was a safe deposit box full of rare coins.
“What’s going on here?” I wondered while fixating on their every move; the bigger guy wa seconds away from failing my pre-judgment-based-solely-on-looks screening. But before I
could stereotype any further, my suspicion suddenly grew exponentially, when I
noticed they were strategically piling all of the stuff up against the building.
“Alright,” I whispered to myself, with the notion that, “I got this one, no problem.”
Even though I heard the door close behind me, I remained there with my hand out
by my side as if introducing a dear friend.
“Entschuldigung!” I rather loudly said. Clearing my throat, I then pointed up at the building.
“Twenty euro,” one of the guys replied. (Every time you try to speak German to a German, they’ll try to speak to you in English if they know you can hardly speak the language. And these guys were supposed to be Mexicans!)
“Floor 1 … ten euro, floor two … twenty euro, floor three … thirty euro.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” I murmured, “not even the five euros I got on me.”
I became infuriated, so I cursed loudly under my breath, just like I'd done many times back home in America. Then, I began to silently freak out: my eyes darted back and forth at the ground, my face became flushed, and sweat started forming on my brow and at my temples. I could barely even look at the two guys now. I felt like choking one of them and giving the other a severe and much-deserved Charlie Horse. Instead, I stood there frozen, in disbelief. They dropped everything outside, thanked me, and went on their way. And I watched like a lonely child as their truck left the area, callously deserting Am Nonnenhof 26  and creating a faint, yet almost cinematic-like dirt cloud in the process. I was devastated.
In moments of distress, I tend to pace a lot. This time was no different. Despite knowing full well that I would eventually have to deal with what laid before me, I paced back and forth for what seemed like an eternity. It was as if time had been suspended before I finally stopped and did an about-face, so I could sneer at the yellow concrete façade of my apartment building, with the dark colored oak furniture and beige fabric sofa neatly lined up against it; and I remained there, an angry man—in the company of my own misery for a solid three to five minutes. I was indubitably pissed off.
I yanked my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed my girlfriend at work.
“Hey babe,” she answered.
“Get home!" I was in shock and wasted no time saying things I shouldn’t have said. “what kind of country is this?” She gave me the loud-tone, nervous whisper:
“I can’t leave work."
“What if it rains? I can’t leave this stuff outside for six hours until you get home,” I said. “And
how you even gonna help me carry a couch anyway?” Fed up and frustrated, I decided I would do something about it. Sofort! 
In the next hour and a half, I methodically planned and carried out one of the most irksome
furniture-moving experiences of my adult life. (It was right up there with the Devis job in Cambridge, which involved that weird guy, and Mr. Devis spending half the day inside a dumpster, where we launched desks, chairs, and couches that landed nearly two feet from his head.) I sweated, cursed, squirmed, and squabbled while carrying a heavy-ass couch up two flights of stairs. Propped it up, pushed it forward—with a comforter underneath—pulled it
back, slid it on the floor, and did just about anything else I could do. Fortunately, nobody came up the apartment building staircase to witness my struggle with the formidable beast.
On one occasion, I swore the couch was going to bully me back down the stairs and land on my chest. As I pushed it up the stairs with all my strength on that humid day of annoyance, I could feel the blood rising again. And that’s when I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. All I could think about was my girlfriend coming home to find a large, heavy couch resting on my frail body, as I lay there lifeless from a one-man furniture moving battle. What a joke.
About an hour before she arrived home that evening it started to rain, which got me thinking … sometimes, you know, we may just need those unfunny challenges. So, yeah, I’m glad I
did it; and I’m glad we’re okay, the couch and me, that is. And I’m pretty sure I picked the lesser of two evils: one man and a couch … not a man, a woman, and a wet couch (which might be good thing under entirely different circumstances).
But what is the moral of the story? I would go on to ask myself, as I often wonder why life throws people curve balls when they're not even looking. And whether or not it’s a lesson that makes any sense, I try to find the meaning in it anyway. So, for this story, I thought of a man. I thought of survival. And I thought of victory. Which leads me to a message that I can proudly approve: The next time you're feeling down and out, try transporting a couch up a flight of stairs by yourself. It does wonders for your ego.
June 2007 – the six-month mark
1 Number two, please.
2 Excuse me!
3 Street address.
The Cream Cheese Epidemic
Flagrant misuse of cream cheese is common practice in Germany. It’s also what I'd come to identify as a public health problem for American expatriates living in the country. Unfortunately, many of them may not even realize the seriousness of this epidemic.
Let me provide an ordinary example of this real-life expatriate’s experience of being manipulated (rather unsuccessfully) while confronting the issue of cream cheese exploitation in Germany. Take your seemingly unassuming tuna salad sandwich at an unnamed local sandwich restaurant in Frankfurt. You’d expect the basics, right: lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers or onions (pickles do not have a prominent seat in most sandwiches). But wait—that’s only if you weren’t paying attention to how most sandwiches are built here in Germany. Right before that minuscule mound of tuna and “the basics” come together to form a sandwich the haughty sandwich artist will menacingly sneak a large scoop of cream cheese
onto the piece of bread. Wham. Just like that. You’ve been duped by the German cream cheese man (or woman)—the culprit behind every one of your food orders that’s swimming in cream cheese.
Lethargy had taken me off my game on the Friday I ordered a tuna salad sandwich that came with an obscene amount of cream cheese. I must have looked too quickly at the menu—probably overlooking what was even in the sandwich—and strangely forgot that cream cheese is too often exploited in Germany. By the way, I’m not a huge fan of mayonnaise, but tuna called my name that day so I had to answer; I just wasn’t prepared for mayo and cream cheese in the same sitting.
After chalking part of my order up as a loss, I remained hopeful about my second request: a
multi-grain bagel with cream cheese on the side. My only option was to move forward as a confident customer.
“Okay, so you want the cream cheese where?” she asked.
“I’d like it on the side. Not on the bagel,” I said.
“So you don’t want me to put the cream cheese on the bagel?” she said in disbelief.
“That’s right. Is there something you can put it in—so I can have it on the side?” I asked. And
that’s when I got the funny look, like I had just asked that she give me her shirt so I can try it on.
“You can pay over there,” she said with a snicker. I slow-shuffled to my left while keeping a
close eye on her and the bagel. Fortunate enough to make a cream cheese on the side request at the start, I wasn’t going to be bullied by this cream cheese nincompoop.
My order would soon pass and I would walk away with half my pride. Sitting there in a most
unattractive state was a glob of cream cheese on my plate—on the side. Hallelujah. It should have been a moment for the history books, as I very well could've been the first man to have broken the mold and reached a new kind of expat life, one in which I would not be dictated by cream cheese but would be the dictator of how I want cream cheese to show up in my order.
In summary, rather than go on record and detail every scandalous cream cheese incident I faced, let me just say that it’s been a long and arduous struggle as an expatriate who has been exposed to the inner workings of cream cheese corruption in this country. My fear is that there will come a day when the Germans can be seen wearing cream cheese on their faces. Sound strange? Perhaps. But I’m afraid there are no limits—no boundaries—to the Germans’ abuse and misuse of cream cheese. It's an epidemic of epic proportions, with American expatriates being the real victims.
I do have hope, however, because I know there’s at least something I can do to help the cause. And here it is, a promise of something from this moment on: the Germans will no
longer be able to fool this American with their cream cheese shenanigans.
November 2008 – a German social problem
When on vacation, I eat like a camel. There’s a lot of gorging and then sitting around for hours until the next feasting takes place. Pizza, sandwiches, and pastry, whatever I can get my
hands on. It’s primitive man at his best with little concern for the consequences. The only caveat to my ritual, that I can recall, took place on a two-day Big Apple trip, a la pre-Christmas season 2007, where the concept of mobility for the sake of enjoying crowd-pleasing tourist sites reigned supreme. There had to be movement in order to experience the holiday magic that is New York City during this most festive time of year.
Now, I’m normally reluctant to crash at a stranger’s house unless the occasion leaves me with no wiggle room for sleeping accommodations. In this case, a required overnight stay at any place other than the exorbitantly priced Manhattan hotels would certainly have to fit the bill. (There’s always a need to preserve one’s loose change for eight-dollar sausages and arbitrary purchases at batty street vendor stands.) Enter the affable colleague in the big
city office building with a generous offer to rest our out-of-town derrieres in her cozy apartment for the night, and we had ourselves a NYC trip in the making. Indeed, we also had our long-awaited line-up card ready: Wall Street, Ground Zero, The Battery Park Esplanade, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, Central Park, and the 7 p.m. Seventy Fifth Anniversary of the Christmas Spectacular show at Radio City Music Hall.
We ultimately hit all of our spots with vehemence on that brisk sunny day that chapped my face so much so that a Vaseline shower would’ve served only as a soothing warm-up activity. It was a splendid time—a fine day spent trotting the streets and inhaling the city’s holiday ardor, with constant breaks so I could shovel vast quantities of food into mouth. And, the weather was a pleasing companion to my girlfriend’s new digital camera that made its click on
every corner. But there’s always a price to pay for too much indulgence. It’s that certain cumulative effect in which the final result is always the same: a reflective moment on the commode at either the end of the day or the following morning. For me, it was right as I awoke at about nine in the morning in that stuffy studio apartment on West 72nd Street, where I could be found tiptoeing on a cold, creaky hardwood floor so as to avoid any obnoxious noises that might awake my sleeping beauty.
Had I known my discreet shuffle to the crapper wouldn’t have mattered, however, I would’ve stomped like an elephant while scratching my ass and singing a popular Frank Sinatra tune ... I quickly and quietly shut the old, white, cracked bathroom door and began my business. It was a little more than usual, but, no big surprises. Or so I thought. It’s always the flush you hesitate on. The bowl was plugged with too much toilet paper and there wasn’t even a friendly plunger to call on for assistance. By this time, my partner was prancing around the apartment like a bushy tailed squirrel. I don’t even recall how I specifically summoned her into the bathroom, but what I do remember is jamming my hand in the toilet in an effort to clear the obstruction. One full round of greased up toilet paper and I wasn't quite sure whether the coast was clear.
“Should I flush it?” I asked with a nervous crackle in my voice.
“Um … sure,” said Kathleen.
It was like one of those slow motion climactic sequences in the movies. Toilet flushes. Two sets of eyes watch the water spiral down the toilet bowl … water shoots right back up and starts to rise to a high level … water slowly goes up higher and higher, and higher and higher, and higher and higher … it’s at the top now … water then rapidly flows over the toilet bowl and onto the floor. wooosh.
“Oh no. it won’t stop,” she screamed.
“Holy crap,” I screamed back.
We grabbed the nearest bath towels and drop them on the floor, making frantic attempts to soak up the never-ending flow of shit water.
“Just grab some goddamn towels, will ya,” I said.
Several minutes pass and the overflowing toilet catastrophe is only in its infancy. Neither of us can stop the pain. Now in a complete state of panic, we reach for even more towels and throw them down on the floor. “Where’s the plunger?” There wasn’t one. I quickly reached for the water valve shut-off at the back of the toilet and turned it clockwise as hard and fast as I can. This provided some relief, but the water was still running, and the pipe started shooting off water in multiple directions. I straddled the toilet bowl, my feet making a splash in the virtual cesspool on the floor, and like a crack head anxiously awaiting the touch of his crack pipe I clasped the toilet head and removed its top. Then I reached inside and pulled the flushing device forward.
“Here, hold this up,” I said to Kathleen. She came in for the rescue with her left hand while simultaneously pushing the pile of drenched towels back and forth with her right.
“Alright. I’m gonna go get some help now,” I said. I dashed out of the apartment and down the hall to the nearest neighbor. I give a fierce knock. No answer. Same thing at the next door. No answer. And down the line I go. Nobody answers. It was nine-thirty on a Saturday morning for cripes sake. Apparently nobody could welcome a panic-stricken, fowl smelling stranger in need due to an untimely toilet bowl rebellion.
Next, I practically jumped down a flight of stairs and landed on the heels of my feet while shouting “h-e-l-l-o.” I ran over to an apparent maintenance room door in the lobby and began pounding on it. No answer. I stumbled upon a young woman with surgical gloves who was
standing in the middle of the hallway.
“Hi, excuse me. I’m having a bit of a problem with the … toilet … in the apartment.
There’s … uhh …water everywhere. Do you have a plunger I can borrow?”
“Hold on. Let me check,” she said. The woman ran around the corner into a dental office and comes back with a set of keys.
“I think we have one in here. Did you try Larry the maintenance guy?” she asked.
“Uhh … no,” I said. She opened a nearby closet door and within a minute turned around and handed me the happiest plunger I had ever seen.
“Thanks, I’ll bring it right back,” I told her.
Things began to calm down after I plunged the toilet to its death, and even though we still had the disgusting water on the floor situation, we didn't have to act as human plugs anymore, although we still needed to find Larry the mystery maintenance man.
“I’ll be right back, babe,” I told my girlfriend. This time, I scoured up and down all eight floors and then continued knocking on the maintenance door in the lobby. I spotted a half dead elderly woman with a walker making her way towards the elevator.
“Do you know where Larry the maintenance guy is?” I said.
“Barry … Danny … Gary … Bobby,” she babbled as I continually asked for Larry; I was on the verge of going clinically insane after making numerous attempts to learn of the man's whereabouts. Unfortunately, the old woman and I were on two different planets, so I abandoned my impromptu interrogation and ran back up the stairs, even going next door to ask the Asian man at the dry cleaner’s if he knew where to find Larry. The man was nowhere to be found. I dashed back to the apartment and lent some aid to my girlfriend, who was dunking an empty water bottle in the toilet. She looked like a pro the way she submerged the empty bottle in the toilet water, coming up seconds later with a full bottle; I watched in amazement. After delegating for a few minutes, I left once again for a last attempt to locate Larry. And just as I approach the maintenance door, a man came walking out.
“Are you Larry?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, with a stoner's look. I wondered if had been in there the entire time getting high off various cleaning solutions. But that didn't seem to matter—despite him grilling me with questions after I give every last detail concerning the fiasco—because next to the young lady with the surgical gloves and the sacred plunger, Larry was damn hero. He saved the day by making the toilet work just as horribly as it had in the first place. My girlfriend and I graciously thanked him as he watched us mop up the mess on the floor. We had some more work to do, for sure, but we're not givin' up on each other. After all, we have another day in New York City ahead of us.
Later on that morning, we met my girlfriend’s colleague and her boyfriend for brunch at a French bakery in the Time Warner Center. She asked us how we slept and if everything was okay for us in her apartment. We played it cool and told her everything was great. But then, right about the time the check arrived, my girlfriend came clean. Needless to say, her colleague was confounded upon hearing the news.
“Is there shit all over the walls?”
We assured her everything was fine and that we had only dirtied a few bath towels. Ironically, she wasn’t at all impaired by our little mishap. In fact, she even invited us back to her place for a future stay. (She drinks whiskey before breakfast possibly.) A couple of days later, I thought long and hard about what happened the morning that everything went to crap in that Manhattan apartment. I kept asking myself, what’s the lesson? Well, this is what I came up with: Don’t flush. If you’re staying over at someone’s place unsupervised, don’t flush. Don’t ever flush. Plain and simple. Just don’t do it.
December 2007 – as much as I’d like to forget, a NYC experience not to be forgotten
Vienna & My Valentine
Why yes, it is possible for a man to savor the sappy cheese and dance with the proverbial love swans on Valentine’s Day—without the slightest provocation from his dudes—and
wholeheartedly enjoy every minute of it. Actually, it’s superbly simple to do if you’re living in Europe, especially if you do it the way this guy did.
The idea was to devise an over-the-top weekend that had all the fixings of a quixotic adventure. But it had to be where two hearts could waltz within the confines of a splendidly
romantic estuary. Where the cold could be ignored by the presence of picturesque scenery and imperial treasures. And where harmony sounds like Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. Quite simply, it had to be a Viennese ball and other assorted treats in Vienna, Austria…
It was late Friday morning and I was sitting at my work station taking big gulps of my morning cup of Joe. There wasn’t much work to be done and I was feeling restless, adventurous, and romantic all at the same time. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Valentine’s Day was approaching, but I felt compelled to capitalize on the opportunity to celebrate my relationship against a European backdrop. I had my sights set on the Johann Strauss Ball at the Kursalon Wien in Vienna. Like most of my discoveries, it happened on Mozilla Firefox after too much German coffee and ample downtime.
“I’d like to take you somewhere for Valentine’s Day, honey,” I whispered to Kathleen on the phone, as I stood in the corner of the second floor hallway at work with my cell phone pressed close to my ear. “I found something online that I think would be nice. We could get all dressed up for it and…”
“Sweetie, what are you talking about?”
“I’m gonna take you to a ball in Vienna!"
With my intentions of waltzing in Austria with that special someone on what is the most manufactured holiday back in America, I was sure to become one of the world’s great
romantics. Not only that, but I’d have some recourse if ever I stumbled into a phase in my relationship where I became the victim of anti-romantic accusations. Wowing my little lady by dancing with the grace of a swan and the confidence of a lion in a magnificent, historic building in Vienna, Austria, was going to be something I could use for a lifetime. “Remember that time in Vienna—on Valentine’s Day,” I could say to her. Would there be a better, more effective
way to soften the heart?
Despite the bitter, cold winter air, the streets of Vienna exuded elegance and regality. We visited all the noteworthy tourist sights, in part during the peak of a charming snowfall: the masterful Stephansdom, the outstanding Schloss Belvedere, and the glorious Schloss Schönbrunn. We also drank coffee and indulged in rich, tasty cake as part of our afternoon desert, and affectionately tackled two large Schnitzels at a popular touristy restaurant. The presence of horse-drawn carriages, the spectacular opera houses, and the ever-present, magnificent architecture captured our attention in the most sophisticated of manners. The mood was set for what would be our very first visit to an official Viennese ball. We would presumably feel like a prince and princess in some of our finest attire. And I never thought I’d say this, but the simple thought of structured dancing amongst a bunch of European snobs
never sounded so good.
I wore a dark suit with a white pinstripe shirt and solid black tie, and she wore a maroonish red gown with a soft pattern that complimented her beautifully coiffed brown hair. The color of my shoes was a slight mismatch to the rest of my clothing, but they felt comfortable. Kathleen’s shoes had quite the opposite effect, but she looked so darn pretty that even she didn’t mind the possibility of getting foot blisters as an even tradeoff.
We took a taxi from our hotel to the event and were almost instantly enchanted by the grand atmosphere: luxurious chandeliers, a handful of young men and women sporting Mozart inspired costumes, and impeccably dressed patrons in dapper tuxedos and elegant ball gowns. As we made our way up and down the stairs and through the different Italian renaissance-like ballrooms, we couldn’t get in more than a few words to each other without cameras flashing in almost every direction. With a harmonious mixture of a glass of red for him and a glass of white wine for her, we made the rounds and got acquainted with the place like it was our job. And then she said it. And it just about ruined my mojo and took me off my game.
“Let’s go upstairs, babe, so we can get in one of those lessons for the Waltz. You’ve never done it before.”
“Huh!” I said. Surely I could figure out the Viennese Waltz on my own. I was savvy enough to get us to a ball in Vienna—on Valentine’s Day. Mimicking a few steps from Christoph the Casanova out of the corner of my eye while on the dance floor wouldn’t be a problem. I didn’t need to stoop to the lowly level of some beginner and put my reputation of being a natural at risk.
“Come on, babe. Let’s go,” said Kathleen; she grabbed my hand as I stood there nearly frozen in fear.
“No need to start sweating now,” I thought to myself.
Through much begging and pleading on my part, we chose the spot closest to the corner of the dance floor. Extremely anxious for some reason, I loudly announced to Kathleen that
my shoe was untied.
“Gimme a second, honey,” I said, weirdly turning my back to her and bending down to adjust my shoe lace, which was in a perfectly-tied knot. “There,” I said, despite having done anything.
As I rose back up to a fully erect standing position, the music started. Perfekt. I turned and
faced Kathleen, who had that excited look on her face, one that said, “I can’t believe my man is going to do the Waltz with me. This is so romantic.” But there was a problem: not much space. The dance floor area was so crowded with other couples that it was going to be difficult for me to find my range.… Kathleen quickly motioned for us to switch positions so my back would be to the dance floor, and then I gently yet firmly placed my right hand beneath her shoulder blade, while my left arm was extended along the line of the dance and holding her right. My feet were in the proper position, just under shoulder width apart, with my left foot slightly between her feet:
“Schritt, schnell, schnell, Schritt, schnell, schnell, Schritt, schnell, schnell … Drehen, drehen,
drehen, drehen … Schritt, schnell, schnell, Schritt schnell schnell,” the instructor was saying. I was off to a great start. Kathleen’s smile was getting bigger by the second. But then I suddenly got nervous. Really nervous.
“Wait, sweetie, my feet are all screwed up!” I said to Kathleen, as I was quickly becoming a disaster. I started landing on her toes every other step and she was getting increasingly
pissed off as a result. It didn’t help that my face was beat red and I was
sweating like a baboon.
“Are you serious!” said Kathleen. “What is wrong with you?”
“I don’t know, my legs feel like lead,” I said to her. She pinched my arm out of frustration.
We continued to move and made it look like we were doing the Viennese Waltz, but after a few more missteps and accidentally bumping into our extremely poised and good-looking neighborhoods for the second time, she had had enough. After angrily throwing out a “fuck” and a “shit,” she was now doing the leading. I was the woman. It couldn’t get any worse. I sucked at the Waltz.
A few more minutes of embarrassment and I made a sneaky proposition to Kathleen: “Let’s go get a drink and take a break for a bit. My legs keep locking up; they feel heavy. I promise we’ll go back out there and I’ll do it right. I promise.”
“Okay,” she thankfully said, the only thing missing from the scenario being a slap across my face and a drink poured over my head.
Perhaps another glass of wine was all I needed. Or maybe it was because I was momentarily relieved from the pressure of having to perform under such scrutiny and instruction, among a bunch of experts posed as amateurs, which is the way I saw it. I had the basic steps down. Kathleen was more understanding over her second glass of wine and even elaborated some on what I needed to do; we were comfortably chatting away like old friends. We even changed scenery for a bit, went to a couple of the other floors, and I gave her a romantic kiss on one of the beautifully decorated staircases. And I don’t know what it was, but when I went back out there on the dance floor later on in the night, I was a different guy. I actually performed quite well.
“You’ve got potential, babe,” said Kathleen.
“Thanks, sweetie. I feel more relaxed,” I said. I was doing the leading this time, with an
expression of contentment on my face and the lady I felt proud to be doing the Viennese Waltz with. I think she felt proud too, ‘cause I could see it in her face.
The ball was bustling that evening. It was at full capacity. But there was a moment, when we were out there on the dance floor for the second time; it felt like we had the place to ourselves. We were being swept away by the magic of Vienna on that cold February night. And it was a most romantic time in our lives.
February 2009, "Our Love is Here to Stay."
 Step, quick, quick,
step, quick, quick, step, quick, quick … turn, turn, turn, turn, etc.