Author Archives: Tiffany

Travels in the French Alps and Swiss Alps

Over the winter holiday, Eric and I took a week-and-a-half long trip to the Alps. First we visited the French Alps in the towns of Annecy and Chamonix. Then we toured the Swiss Alps around Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). All the areas we visited were breathtakingly beautiful.

French Alps

The French town of Annecy is a lovely lake town. We toured Lac d’Annecy on one of the tour boats and there were many great views around the lake, including several other towns and villages and four chateaus. We also toured the Palais de l’Ile and Château d’Annecy. The Palais offered a historical perspective on the region, while the interior of the Château was more focused on artistic installations. Since we visited the town a few days before Christmas, the Christmas market was in full swing near the Church of St. Francis. There were many free samples and a wide array of products on offer, though I would say it was one of the more commercial Christmas markets I’ve been to in that many products were not regional and most vendors sold goods intended to be gifts or consumed at home, as opposed to food and beverages intended to be consumed on location. Finally, Annecy also had a ton of gourmet food shops. I imagine you could have a fantastic picnic along the lake in the warmer months with food sourced from the fromageries, charcuteries, patissieres and boulangeries. We settled for buying some fancy caramels to eat in our hotel room as it was too cold for a picnic. Also, if you are in town on a market day you’ll find even more tasty morsels on the streets and alleys – the market was impressive for a town of that size.

Tiffany in the Alps, near Chamonix

We next drove to Chamonix, a French town known for its views of Mont Blanc and skiing. Chamonix is a very touristic town given its popularity as a ski resort. We stayed there over Christmas, and were pleased to find that many shops and restaurants in town were open even on Christmas Day. Thus, the potential nightmare we faced by running out of toothpaste on the morning of Christmas Day was easily averted. We didn’t ski while we were there because we decided it would be too expensive since we would have to rent and/or buy all the gear – one downside of moving to Europe with nothing but two suitcases. The conditions were pretty poor for skiing anyway – there wasn’t much snow and about half of the trails were closed. We even heard they were making snow on one mountain, something Eric was affronted by given that we were in the Alps! The weather was also poor for viewing Mont Blanc from the Aiguille du Midi, so sadly we did not get to go to that observation point. We did take the Brévent cable car to get a view of Mont Blanc across the valley. The views were nice, but the hot chocolate we had at the top at “Le Panoramique” café was terrible.

The day after Christmas Chamonix and the surrounding area were hit by a snow storm. We finally got the snow Eric had been hoping for on this trip, but we also had to drive through it on our way to Montreux, Switzerland. The drive was quite an experience as we got to try out snow chains for the first time. Even with them we nearly wrecked the car twice on a particularly treacherous village road just over the border in Switzerland. Due to the snow it took us most of the day to get from Chamonix to Montreux, with a few stops for food and sightseeing; the GPS had estimated a mere 45 minutes.

Swiss Alps

We next made Montreux our base for four days while we explored the Swiss Alps. Montreux itself was mostly just OK. The old area of town, Vieille-Ville, was quite nice to walk around and take in views of the lake. The promenade along the lakeshore was also a pleasant place to walk. The main attraction, Château de Chillon, is about two kilometers outside of town, and accessible from the promenade. We toured Chillon and learned a great deal about the local history. The tour was quite extensive, and we felt rushed to get through it all before closing time even though we probably spent 3 hours there in total. The views of Chillon from along the lakeshore are particularly nice.

While staying in Montreux we also visited the Gruyère district. We visited La Maison du Gruyére, a operational cheese-making museum. The cheese-making process was interesting to see, and we got to sample three different ages of Gruyère cheese. We also visited the old town of Gruyères and the château there. The Château de Gruyères was another lovely place to visit. The interiors of this château are a bit more current than the others we visited on this trip, as it was lived in until the 1930s. Thus, the feel of the place is more Victorian than medieval. As the château sits atop a hill, there are some fantastic views of the countryside. We also visited the Cailler chocolate factory in nearby Broc. This was a fun place to visit, but be warned that when we went, there were masses of visitors and tour groups. We had to wait about 2 hours for our tour to begin, so we had to entertain ourselves in the gift shop and movie theater beforehand. At the end of the tour you get to sample as many chocolates as you can stand to stuff your face with, so don’t pig out on purchased chocolate before the tour like we did. (If Eric goes back, he’s bringing a water bottle of milk.)

Vevey is just north of Montreux and has a very nice old town and the best photography museum Eric and I have ever been to. You could spend a whole day in this museum because the audio guide has several minutes of audio (in English, among other languages) for almost every single display case, and there are five levels to the museum!

Further north along the lake is Saint-Saphorin. This place is a spectacular little village amid the Lavaux vineyards. It is all old stone houses and cobbled roads, and there are footpaths that take you up into the vineyards. It is an incredibly tranquil place.

We spent the New Year in Lausanne on the final leg of our journey. For New Year’s Eve the tradition is to light up the cathedral at midnight. Eric and I went to see this, and it was OK. We looked at it for about ten minutes and then left. Lausanne itself was just mediocre as a destination — there are some nice shops and churches to visit, but not too much more to recommend it.

When we headed back to France, we found several more cute towns along the shores of Lake Geneva. Morges, Saint-Prex and Nyon are all worth a visit. Morges has a pleasant old town and harbor area. Saint-Prex is a small, peaceful town, and if you can find your way up to the church, the view is worth it. Nyon has a nice château with exhibitions covering the town’s history as a center of porcelain production and the history of the château as the municipal prison.

Switzerland was mostly a good place to visit, but at times it was breathtakingly frustrating and expensive. As for the frustrating bits, they were mainly due to either the universally poor standard of customer service in Switzerland (for example see Eric’s post on Hôtel Bon-Port) or due to the timing of our visit. As we found out, visiting Switzerland just after Christmas and into the first few days of the New Year is not an ideal time – many restaurants, especially in the small towns and villages, close up for several weeks to take their own vacations. Of those that don’t close for several-week vacations, many of the remaining close up on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. So, just watch out for that if you take a trip there yourself around the winter holidays. Also, parking seems to be terrible in all major Swiss cities. There is virtually no overnight parking, and if there is it tends to be very expensive. The high cost of visiting Switzerland was inevitable, but even though our hotels and meals cost more than we would have liked, we found that most of the attractions were relatively inexpensive. The hotels of Montreux and Lausanne actually offer special cards that get you free public transportation within the region, and the one for Montreux gives special discounts at many of the nearby attractions.

Getting Indian Visas as Americans in France

Eric and I recently attended a friend’s wedding in India. Before our trip, we were excited to be adventuring to a new country and new continent; however, for us to travel to India, we first needed to obtain tourist visas, which turned out to be a rather expensive and somewhat stressful process.

First off, we didn’t fully consider the visa issue while we were trying to make up our minds about whether we should take the trip. In retrospect, that did not show great foresight on our part, because we delayed and delayed the decision; then with one month before the wedding we realized we definitely wanted to go and that we would need to acquire visas for this trip, ASAP. The timelines we found for acquiring an Indian tourist visa in France without going to Paris directly were not quick.

In France, to get an Indian visa you must use the services of the company “VFS”. From what I gather, the Indian government has basically outsourced the entire visa application submission procedure to this company, both here and in other countries. Luckily for us, their website for France has all the information available in English as well as French.

To apply for a visa, you first have to fill out several form pages on an Indian government website. You will possibly (probably?) have problems with the website’s security certificate. I did in both Chrome and Firefox. This is not a very inspiring sign, given that you are about to submit a ton of personal information over the internet. Obviously you always want to use due caution with such issues, but this is apparently a common issue with this website — several online guides on how to fill out this form, as well as the website itself, mention that you may need to download the security certificate. The output after filling in these form pages will be a two-page long pdf.

You’ll need to submit this along with any additional supporting documents requested and your passport to VFS. Submitting our passports was something we were really uncomfortable with, given that we are foreigners in France and our passports contain our French visas. Handing over our passports for days/weeks is not something we had ever been required to do in the past — when we have applied for other visas while in Europe, it was understood by the governments we were working with that people who are foreigners should generally retain possession of their passports during the visa process. Luckily we did not have any problems while VFS had our passports.

The woman we worked with at the VFS collection point in Lyon indicated that a month “should” be enough time to get our visas, but mildly scolded us when we affirmatively answered her question about whether we had already purchased our plane tickets. Ultimately our passports were returned to us by post after approximately two weeks processing time.

Unfortunately, being a foreigner in France meant we paid a premium for these visas. The price was somewhere around 140 Euros per visa, and that was only for 6-month validity, single entry visas. This included a bogus 25 Euro fee because we hold US passports. If not pure greed, why US passport holders are subject to a special fee no on else gets stuck with is beyond me, especially when there is already a 30 Euro fee for all foreign passport holders.  We were a bit disgusted when we found out our American friends who had obtained their visas in the US were able to get 10-year, multiple entry tourist visas for only about 50 USD more than their base price (which was also much cheaper); we would have paid at least an extra 100 Euros per visa for that privilege.

Hopefully in the future the visa process will not be so expensive or such a hassle. In my research on the visa issue, I found out that extending the “Visa on Arrival” program to US and other nationality passport holders has been proposed. If that proposal is put into practice, I imagine it will make traveling to India a much more enticing prospect for many tourists.

The Incompetence of Göttinger Hausverwaltung (GöHV)

Today I’ve had what I can only hope is my last communication with Göttinger Hausverwaltung. If it is the last interaction I ever have to have with them, thank goodness; if it is not, hopefully any further communications are only about the return of my deposit — I’m doubtful about the odds of that happening though. For now, let me share a cautionary tale about doing business with Göttinger Hausverwaltung, the biggest property management company in Göttingen, Germany. The gist of this story? Do NOT do business with GöHV, no matter how desperate you are to find an apartment in Göttingen — and I know if you are looking for an apartment in Göttingen, the odds are that you are very desperate.

When I first arrived in Göttingen, I needed to find an apartment quick. Everything depended on it — it was mid-April, I had signed a contract to start a job in Göttingen in May, I had just “moved” from the US — if you can call lugging two suitcases of stuff on a trans-Atlantic flight “moving”, I had no pre-established network of people, and all my research told me I had to get a place to live before I could get my visa, work permit, bank account, health insurance, tax number, etc. So I, too, was desperate to find a place and get the ball rolling on these other important aspects of starting life in a new country, as I had less than three weeks before I was supposed to start working.

Thus, I visited as many apartments as possible over several days while I stayed in the local hostel. I eventually got lucky and found an einzelzimmer in the city center. It seemed ideal due to location, size, and price –it was by no means perfect, but better than anything else I had come across in the few days I had been searching. The grad student living there helped arrange the whole exchange since I barely spoke any German.

When the day came to officially turn over the keys, the previous tenant, the representative from GöHV (Frau Alexandra Deeke), and I met in the apartment. The conversation primarily proceeded in German between the previous tenant and Frau Deeke. He pointed out things that belonged with the apartment, such as cabinets and shelving, and also pointed out damage to the apartment that either needed fixed or were things that the apartment agency already had records of. The previous tenant translated for me. He told me some things would be fixed in the coming weeks by GöHV, and other things — such as a hole in the plaster caused by a door handle — would not be fixed, but GöHV knew about them and I would not be liable for them when I moved out. Seemed reasonable enough, and the rest of the exchange went how one would expect. In the end I signed a couple papers accepting the apartment and confirming I got the keys.

Within a week or two, GöHV tried to contact me about setting up an appointment for the repairs. I ended up visiting their office in person to arrange this because I was not confident about speaking German on the phone. The receptionist sent me to Frau Deeke, who spoke with me in English, and told me I could contact her in English anytime in the future if something needed fixed or I had other issues.

Over the next year and a half or so, I had several problems that did require repairs. The hausmeister was slow to get things done, and the prices they billed were high when they determined it was my duty to pay for certain things. These weren’t really major concerns for me, but were just what I came to expect after hearing things around town about GöHV. However, it was pretty ridiculous one time when I received a bill for work done in my neighbors’ apartment. I talked to my neighbors about it, and it turns out GöHV was trying to charge 70-some Euros for the repairman to spend about three minutes plunging their toilet. The mistake in regards to who should be charged was chalked up to a clerical error of some sort — I’m going to go ahead and say it was actually incompetence, based off more recent experiences.

Fast forward to my exit from Göttingen. The problems started soon after I handed in my written notice to GöHV. In my notice I said I would be looking for someone to take over my apartment before the end of the three months, a nachmieter. I started showing my apartment within days of giving notice. I immediately found a student who said she definitely wanted the apartment and all my furniture in it. She seemed to have some problems getting ahold of GöHV and filling out the application form at first, but eventually got it. I interacted with her for about a week and a half. She was offered the lease, but since apparently Germans are assholes when it comes to apartment hunting and will straight up lie about their intentions, she ultimately turned down the contract about a week into the week and half I spent interacting with her. No one at GöHV bothered to tell me this (let alone that they offered her the contract in the first place). Apparently that was not relevant information for me to know. So, I lost valuable time searching for other possible tenants.

Also, a couple of days after giving notice, GöHV started giving out my phone number to people who might be interested in the apartment. I guess I would have agreed to this, except they never asked if this was ok with me. Random people just started calling my phone all times of day. Further, it soon became clear that GöHV was giving out incorrect information about my apartment — specifically the address and the date it would be available. Later on they started giving people specifically interested in my apartment wrong information altogether by giving out information on an entirely different apartment.

For the next round of possible nachmeiters, I told them it was a race to the finish and whoever applied and signed the lease first would get the apartment. Several applied, and several others attempted to apply but were turned away. Yes, GöHV was turning people away when no one had actually signed a lease yet — why bother having back-ups, right?  After I heard back from some that they were turned away from applying, I personally went into the office with yet another prospective tenant. He too was turned away from applying, and I was told they sent the lease to someone several days ago. News to me! I contacted that person and he promised he was going to sign the lease. Then several days later he contacted me to say he was not signing the lease after all. I immediately called up the prospective tenant I had personally visited GöHV’s office with, and arranged to go there again with him on the next day, a Saturday. He was finally allowed to apply for the apartment, and we were told he would be the only one considered at that time, and he would find out on Monday, at latest Tuesday, if he would be given the lease.

My appointment to turn over the apartment to GöHV was scheduled for that Monday, because I had to move to my new home in France, and the time investment and cost of returning to Göttingen after I moved were too great. There was a possibility I could stay longer in Göttingen to take care of the key exchange with the nachmieter, but the GöHV employee I spoke to on Saturday said I should go ahead with the appointment on Monday before the nachmieter had signed a lease.

Monday morning comes, and Frau Deeke shows up to our appointment to hand over the keys. First of all, she refused to speak English with me and my husband, even though I know from previous interactions that she speaks English. Second, she was very rude to my husband by basically ignoring him after discovering his connection to me and that he did not speak German well enough for her. Then the real problems started. The areas that we had painted were “uneven,” and it had to be fixed because a nachmieter was not secured yet. When we started to ask whether I should stay and see if the prospective nachmieter was approved and/or to re-do the painting, she really started to get flustered with us. She said she would deduct money from my security deposit for wasting her time with this meeting if I decided to stay. She would not clearly explain the options and outcomes if I stayed and fixed things, or if I just left then. Then she started to note all sorts of other problems with the apartment. The kitchen cabinets should have been removed, as well as the laminate flooring in the kitchen, the shelving in the entrance should have been ripped out of the walls, the window shades removed, and apparently the hole in the wall caused by a door handle was now my responsibility. Most irritating of all, apparently it was my responsibility to make the kitchen perfect — a kitchen that was impossible to make perfect because GöHV had allowed some previous tenant to paint over the tile backsplash with white paint, thereby allowing it to absorb grease and food stains. All of these things the prospective nachmieters had been willing to accept as is.

My husband and I became very frustrated, because it became clear that she had every intent of finding problems so that GöHV could take as much of my deposit as possible. Even the hole in the wall, which I was told I would not be liable for when I moved in, was something she was adamant I would be responsible for paying. Ultimately we decided to just hand over the keys and leave that day, and attempt to move forward with our lives knowing GöHV would probably try to keep all of my nearly thousand-Euro deposit. That afternoon I got a message from the most recent prospective nachmieter saying his application had been rejected by GöHV — he nor I never found out why; he was employed though, so the only things I can think of as the probable “cause” are that they just rejected him to screw with me, or they rejected him because he wasn’t German and might be more difficult to interact with like me. They told him they sent the contract to someone else. How that is even possible, I have no idea, since on Saturday they told us he was to be the only one considered at that time. I emailed back and forth several times with a GöHV employee, and they refused to tell me who the lease was sent to, citing “privacy concerns.” All they would say was that they would contact me in writing when the apartment was rented out.

The following week I had a German friend call them up. The GöHV representative he spoke to said the apartment was still not rented, and she could not find any other information about what was happening with it.

Weeks have since gone by with no communication from them. Today I finally received a letter from them saying the apartment has been rented. The brilliant minds over at GöHV apparently thought it was a good idea to send this letter addressed to my old apartment — an apartment they know I no longer live at. I gave them my new address when I left town; good thing I’m having my mail forwarded, I guess. Not only that, but they couldn’t even be bothered to delete the obviously non-applicable information on their form letter advising me to make an appointment for the inspection and to hand over the keys.

In conclusion, I advise you not to do business with GöHV. During my interactions with them, they have demonstrated a degree of incompetence (as well as indifference and at times spite) that I have never before experienced with a property management company. Even the most basic duties of property management seem to be a special challenge for them, so if you are searching for an apartment in Göttingen and ever expect to have repairs or one day move to another place, do whatever you need to do to avoid renting from GöHV.

French grocery shopping and kitchens

So, I’ve been in France for a week now, and I’ve already noticed some distinct differences between the German and French grocery shopping experience, as well as the kitchens in which the food is stored and prepared in.

Here in France, people obviously love food. In some ways it is more similar to the American love of food than I would have thought. In our town there is a huge supermarket rivaling the biggest Wal-mart Supercenters in the US, complete with the now-obligatory sushi counter and anchoring a variety of the typical side businesses such as dry cleaner, bank, hair salon, etc. The aisles of groceries seem endless, and to my surprise a large portion of them are filled end-to-end with processed foods. From pre-packaged baked goods to single serving microwavable meals, the variety of processed foods possibly even exceeds that found in the US. It is France however, so there are also extensive wine, cheese and produce sections. My stereotyped expectations were, of course, primarily based on the idea of open-air markets selling whole, fresh foods, but my experiences in German grocery stores also led me to expect less of the processed, pre-packaged stuff. Yes, there were also supercenters in Germany, but nothing comparable to the American versions I was accustomed to. Further, there just wasn’t that much of a selection of processed foods — at least not a selection you wouldn’t be bored of after a week.

Supermarkets aside, France also has more to offer in the way of outdoor farmers’ markets. There is a market in our town six days a week. In my town in Germany, which was at least twice the size of my new French hometown, there was an open air market only three times a week. The French certainly seem to make it easy for daily grocery shoppers to find what they are looking for. Paradoxically, the refrigerator in our French apartment is twice the size of that in my German apartment — maybe to fit the vast array of cheeses a French person would want to have on hand? I’m not sure yet how to reconcile these differences; it could be that French people just enjoy eating and everything related to it more, whereas the Germans seem to take an “I eat to exist” sort of approach. Neither culture, however, seems to think that real ovens are important to have in rented apartments, and that I’m not sure I will ever be able to rationalize.