Würzburg: A rough start

In the middle of November, my husband and I moved from Berlin to Würzburg to start our new jobs. I’d be lying if I said everything went smoothly and we adjusted easily to our new home.

Once you’ve been living in a place for a while, it’s interesting to go back and remember how you felt when you first moved there. For this reason, I kept a record of our first month in Würzburg. In future I’ll go back to more travel-oriented blog posts.

Leaving Berlin

Before starting our new jobs, we wanted a bit of a break, and so we headed off to my home (South Africa) to visit family and friends and enjoy some sun. We booked our tickets back to Berlin for the 14th November, and we would have to drive to Würzburg the same day, as our jobs started on the 15th.

Crazy schedule, yes, but we wanted to spend as much time in Cape Town as possible, since we could only make it there on the 28th October. When we organised it all, it seemed manageable, but at the time we didn’t know that 1) my husband would come down with a bad cold the day before we had to leave Cape Town and 2) I would have to visit my old work due to a last minute request from an outside organisation that required my assistance. 

Leaving Cape Town

So, we arrived at Tegel around 10 after having left Cape Town the afternoon before and flown via London, went back to our apartment to shower and change, and then I went to my old work. In the afternoon I rushed back, hurriedly unpacked my suitcase full of summer clothes and holiday shopping and filled it up with a week’s worth of winter clothes for Würzburg. We watered all our plants, then headed to the car to drive to Würzburg. It takes 4.5 to 5 hours to drive there, and my legs didn’t appreciate it, since I hadn’t had time to lie down since the previous night’s long trip.

Welcome to the sticks

A German friend jokingly suggested we watch the movie “Welcome to the sticks”, since we were moving from a big city of almost 4 million to a town of 127 000. A lot of Germans warned me, in fact, that it would be quite a culture shock. Perhaps I should have taken them more seriously.

We arrived at our Airbnb in Würzburg at night. We’d only been able to find accomodation in Höchberg, a nearby village. Würzburg itself is surrounded by a number of satellite villages. Höchberg, as the name informs, is located on a hill, and it was quite an adventure parking our car on the steeply sloped driveway, as well as getting it out again in the morning.

The Airbnb was a one room apartment with a bathroom. After having stayed the last two weeks in a house in Cape Town and prior to that in our Berlin apartment with separate kitchen and living room, it felt odd to be cooped up in one room. But our plan was to stay in Airbnb’s or holiday apartments until we could find a furnished place to rent for a few months while we looked for a longer-term unfurnished apartment.

 We really felt the difference to Berlin staying in Höchberg, a quiet village. In the evening in Berlin, we could leave the front door of our building and find shops, restaurants and people all around. Naturally this was not the case in Höchberg, which added a bit to a sense of isolation. Höchberg was a pleasant enough village though, which even had a maypole, reminding us that we were now in the state of Bavaria. There were also a few restaurants around, though none were open by the time we arrived. The bus to Würzburg ran only every hour, so we realized we’d be commuting by car to work that week.

Starting the new job

My first day of work didn’t go very well. I had to go to HR first thing in the morning (8:30am). On checking the address the night before, I discovered that the HR building was located near the main university campus, while my workplace was on the medical campus. As Würzburg is not that big, I hadn’t expected it would take long to get from the one to the other. But, surprise! – because the public transport in Würzburg relies on slow trams and infrequent buses, it could take me 45 minutes to an hour to get from one to the other.

My husband’s new office was not far from HR, so he dropped me off by car in the morning. Everything went ok with the morning appointment, and I managed to find my way to my building, though it took a while to get there. The bad thing was, I had to go back to HR again at 2pm for another appointment. Luckily my work said I didn’t have to go back to the medical campus again afterwards, or I would have spent half a day on trams/buses. In between the two appointments, I did usual first-day-of-work-stuff: a tour of the building, getting keys, meeting the IT guy. Soon it was time to head back to HR.

In our first week in Würzburg, it was still quite autumnal

I used Google maps to plot my route, which turned out to be a mistake. It told me I should take a tram and then a bus. The tram ride went off without a hitch. Ah, except for the fact that I had to buy a new ticket because in the morning I’d accidentally bought the type of monthly card that requires something additional called the “Stammkarte”, which I didn’t have. I arrived at my tram stop and looked for the bus stop that Google maps had recommended. According to the map I had found the correct spot, but strangely, no buses seemed to be arriving. I waited a bit, then decided to check other bus stops nearby. There were lots, but none of the signboards mentioned the bus I needed. I began to feel anxious, because time was ticking on and I didn’t want to be late for the appointment. Also, I was freezing.

To cut a long story short, nobody around seemed to know where the bus stop was, and in the end I phoned my husband who found a bus leaving from another stop that would take me where I needed to go. But I arrived 25 minutes late and everyone seemed to have gone home for the day. It looked like I wasn’t going to be officially appointed that day, so it was a day of unpaid work (not that I managed to do much anyway). If I would go back to the other campus now, it would take another hour and I’d arrive just in time to leave again. My husband’s office was closer, so it made more sense to wait for him to finish work and ride back to Höchberg. Cue another hour in the cold, as I’d run out of money. At last I found an ATM and a café to have a very late lunch and warm up for a bit.  Unfortunately my husband had to wait for a late meeting, so I ended up walking around again in the cold. At  least there was a fantastic sunset, which cheered me up a little.

It was just my first taste of the public transport system in Würzburg, and so far I wasn’t loving it. I guess I got spoilt by Berlin’s amazing public transport system.

Falling ill – cold #1

The next day I woke up with a sore throat, no doubt a combination of catching my husband’s cold germs and being frozen the day before. It was our first weekend in Würzburg. That day we’d planned to meet the tenants of an apartment, who were going to sublet it from mid-November. We did some errands first in the morning, both of us a bit grumpy due to being sick. The apartment viewing went ok, and the tenants seemed keen to take us as sub-letters. I don’t really remember what we did the rest of the day, just that I felt miserable because of the sore throat. I think we just walked around a bit.

The next day we took a trip to Rothenburg, which I enjoyed despite my cold. It deserves its own post, so I’ll write about it another time.

First week in Würzburg

My cold had made it past the sore throat stage to the runny nose/cough stage. But it being my first week at work, I felt I couldn’t very well stay at home. I dragged myself into work all week, and it felt like the longest week ever. My new boss wasn’t there that week, so I didn’t find out yet what the work plan would be. In total contrast to my former lab, which was very international, I was also the only non-German. With my cold, it was hard to communicate in my own language, never mind in another language, so I mostly kept quiet. I didn’t want to infect anyone by interacting too much. At lunchtimes, we sat in the cantina, and between the noisy surroundings and my ears being blocked from the cold, I couldn’t hear enough to follow the German conversation. So I just ate my lunch while the others conversed.

People start work earlier in Würzburg than in Berlin, so despite the cold I had to drag myself out of bed earlier than usual. We also needed time to get into the city from Höchberg. Mornings consisted of being dropped off by the highway surrounding the medical campus and hiking up the hill to work. The medical campus is sort of an island surrounded by highways, and there’s not much else around. I missed the morning routine I had in Berlin of walking to get coffee with my colleagues.

My computer didn’t yet have the usual programs loaded onto it that you use for analyzing data, so I was limited as to what I could do. I downloaded free trial versions of some of the programs so I could at least do some data analysis from previous projects. Because of my cold, I had to go to the bathroom countless times a day to cough and blow my nose. I was in an office of seven, whereas in Berlin I’d shared an office with only one other in the last months. I felt myself missing the privacy a bit. I also found out that in the lab itself people didn’t have their own bench space. It made me feel a bit “homeless”, since for the last 19 years I’d always had my own bench space to work in, where you could set things up and have your reagent bottles organized. But, whoever said things would – or should – be the same?

Back to Berlin

Finally Friday came. We were driving back to Berlin for the weekend, and I could barely contain my joy. I couldn’t wait to get away from Würzburg. I had even started fantasizing about quitting my new job and going back to Berlin. If my husband hadn’t also had a new job, I would have been even more tempted. However, realistically, I didn’t want to let my new boss down, so I knew it was just a fantasy to make me feel better. 

It was a great feeling to arrive back to our apartment in Berlin – home! That weekend we really enjoyed meeting up with some friends and being back in a city where we could get around more easily. I was already fed up with the slow public transport in Würzburg, and the car culture. I missed being able to get to work in 15 minutes by bicycle. Due to my pregnancy, it had started getting too uncomfortable to ride a bicycle (my stomach hurt afterwards), so I was pretty much reliant on public transport. Even if I hadn’t been, biking is not as easy in Würzburg. It’s hilly, and the network of bike lanes is not as wide as in Berlin, meaning you often have to ride in traffic.

Coffee and cake with friends in Berlin

Second week in Würzburg

The weekend went by too quickly, and it was with a heavy heart that I headed back to Würzburg. The next week was better than the first though. My boss was back, so he gave me some grants to read through, and we at least got to discuss the upcoming projects. I still had the cough – if I get a post-cold cough, it always lasts for about 16 days after the first day of the cold. I was still a bit deaf and having trouble following the conversation at lunchtime. One plus was that a cheerful new person had arrived in the desk next to me, who was at a similar age and career stage. She’d been away the week before. It was nice to have someone to chat to.

December was a month of mists

This week we were staying in a different apartment, this time in Sanderau. It was a much better location, as I could take a tram into work. The tram was quite slow, and it was stressful with my coughing fits, but at least it was a single tram ride. This suburb was also closer to the centre, so we could walk around at night and there were various restaurants to choose from. 

Plum crumble from a restaurant in Sanderau

Finding a doctor

I spent quite some time that week trying to find a new doctor for my pregnancy. As always in Germany, many practices were full up and wouldn’t take new patients. To make matters worse, for pregnancy there is a weird system in which doctors get paid a quarterly fee (Pauschale) for each pregnant patient. If you change doctors in the middle of a quarter, as I had to to do due to my move, the health insurance will still pay all the doctor’s bills but the doctor won’t get this Pauschale. As a result, some of the doctors refused to see me, while others told me I’d have to pay everything myself, despite the fact I was already paying expensive health insurance. I was quite shocked, since it wasn’t as if they wouldn’t be paid for my visits. Clearly many doctors just want to make money and don’t care about patients. This stressed me out a lot (which is a great thing for them to do to you during pregnancy). Luckily I found a very nice doctor in one of the villages outside of Würzburg who agreed to see me despite the lack of Pauschale. So I was able to book my 20 weeks appointment for early December.

Death and floods

They say it never rains, but it pours. Well, that Thursday turned out to be one of those days where it poured, metaphorically. It should have been a nice day, as we were looking forward to a friend visiting us in Würzburg. She was travelling back to Berlin and made time to stop off in Würzburg so we could meet for dinner. We arranged to meet at the Hauptbahnhof (main station).

Then, in the afternoon my husband got the shocking news that his grandmother in the Czech Republic had died. Neither of us had expected it, as it was actually his grandfather who hadn’t been well for some time. Although his grandmother had some health problems too, she’d seemed well the last times we’d seen her. However, suddenly she became ill and unexpectedly died of kidney failure. 

It was too short notice to cancel the dinner, so we went ahead with our plans. We went for dinner at Bürgerspital, which turned out to be very nice, in terms of both food and friendly service. Unfortunately my cough, which had seemed ok, suddenly got worse that evening. So there was a lot of coughing both at dinner and on the way home.My husband was upset when he first arrived at dinner, but felt better as the evening progressed. Certainly he was glad to have two glasses of wine. We walked our friend to the train station afterwards, and then headed back to the apartment. We hadn’t mentioned his grandmother at dinner, but now we started to talk about it. My husband suggested stopping at the bridge for a Glühwein (Kinderpunsch for me) as he could use another drink to drown his sorrows.

View from the bridge, where you could buy a Glühwein (or Kinderpunsch in my case).

When we arrived home I went to the bathroom, and noticed something strange after washing my hands: there was water on the floor under the sink. It looked like the pipe was leaking water, so we called the owner. He fiddled around with the pipe but that only seemed to make the water pour out faster. There was even water outside of the apartment, heading to the neighbour’s doorway. In the end he went to fetch a mop and some new towels, as ours were soaked from our attempts to dry the floor. He also brought us a bottle of wine as an apology (wine seems to be central to everything in Würzburg!). We cleaned up all the water together, and it seemed like the flow had stopped. He said he’d send someone around the next morning to fix it, and not to use that sink in the meanwhile. We were leaving the next morning anyway, thank goodness. 

What a day it had been, and now flooding to top it off. My husband opened the wine and we sat chatting for a while. After some time, I went to the bathroom again. As soon as I entered, I realized that the floor was all wet again, and what’s worse, it was not just water but a strong-smelling solution of bleach! It was definitely not coming from the sink anymore, and seemed to be leaking from the wall. My husband’s analysis was that a grey water pipe somewhere in the building was blocked, causing leakage/overflow whenever anyone put water down the sink. And now, someone seemed to have poured bleach down their drain in order to unblock it, and it was flooding our apartment.

The best part was, after drowning his sorrows, my husband was a bit drunk and pretty useless. I sent him upstairs to tell the neighbours what was going on and see if anyone had poured bleach down their sink, while I got to work mopping up all the bleach in the bathroom and the rest of the apartment. The fumes were terrible, and my cough became even worse. It was simply a nightmare. In the end, we went to bed at about 1am. It took me about another hour to get to sleep because of coughing. We were quite happy in the morning to pack up and leave, as the floor was wet again the next morning. One more day of work and we could return to Berlin.

Back in Berlin

That weekend we visited the Lubbenau/Lehde (Spreewald) Christmas market with some friends. Spreewald is an area of many canals, originally settled by Slavic people known as Sorbians. Punting down the river on a boat called a “Kahn” was the traditional way to carry things around, and nowadays as a tourist you can also take a ride on one of these boats. From the Christmas market at Lubbenau, the boat carries you from Lubbenau to Lehde, where the folk museum is situated. The Lehde Christmas market takes place in this museum and is wonderful to wander around.

A Sorbian tradition: the “dzecetko” (in German “Christkind” blesses people and gives them a little gift.

A funeral in the Czech Republic

After another weekend in Berlin flew by, it was back to work in Würzburg. My cough cleared up towards the end of the week. In the weekend we drove to Czech Republic for the funeral of my husband’s grandmother. When we visit his family home now, I mostly end up babysitting his nephew (4) and niece (2). I was asked not go go to the funeral itself, and stay at home with the toddler instead until the reception. I felt pretty upset about this as at the time I didn’t know there is a strong Czech superstition that pregnant women shouldn’t go to funerals.

The weekend we were there was the weekend after St Nikolaus Day (the 6th December). This meant that for the first time I got to experience the Czech tradition of St Nikolaus and Krampus, at a kid’s event at a local pub. Every year, St Nikolaus brings the kids some sweets (if they’ve been good), while Krampus (who looks like a shaggy beast with horns) is supposed to scare the kids into behaving. Krampus looks quite scary – one little boy there didn’t want to go anywhere near him. He set his fears aside to get some sweets from St Nikolaus though.

Cold #2

The next week, on the Monday, I started with another sore throat. Apparently when you’re pregnant you’re more susceptible to colds. How miserable to have felt healthy for only a day or two before getting sick again. Luckily the cold only lasted two days and didn’t develop beyond a sore throat and sniffles. By Wednesday I was healthy again – and ready to enjoy the Würzburg Christmas market! The first snow of the season made an appearance, although it melted before it reached the ground.

Cold #3 (Flu?)

Then, late on Thursday night, another cold unexpectedly started. At least, I assumed it was a cold – but two people who caught it from me experienced it more like flu. This time it started with a cough. I didn’t sleep much because I was coughing a lot. At first I thought maybe it was a continuation of the previous cold and I’d just got to the coughing phase. I went to work on Friday thinking I’d be ok, but it was a mistake because I had to cough a lot. By the evening I also felt like I might have a slight fever and felt tired – maybe a sign that it could have been flu.

However…we’d planned long in advance to meet friends in the Harz mountains that weekend for either snow-shoeing or winter hiking (depending on the conditions). Everything was booked and the one friend was someone who we hadn’t seen since she’d moved away in August, so cancelling wasn’t an option. My friends and I just hoped I would feel better in the weekend, and I hoped especially that I would not give anyone else the cold. At the time I still thought this might be the cough phase of cold #2, and normally by the time I reach the cough phase I’m not infectious. Unfortunately we discovered later that it must have been a new illness starting on the Thursday, as I infected my husband and one of my friends.

Snow arrived in Harz just in time for the weekend

Harz is one of my favourite places, but it was hard to enjoy it that weekend, feeling so grim. I didn’t sleep well both nights because of the cough. On Friday night I also almost threw up just before bed, and had bouts of shivering in the middle of the night. Come the morning I felt a bit better, although tired. The plan was to do a hike from Torfhaus to Wurmberg. It was a pretty, snowy hike, but I didn’t have much energy. There were some steep uphills. It was a great relief to reach the top of Wurmberg, where we had something warm to eat in the hut.

Wurmberg is always particularly windy and cold

Then it was time to head down. Wurmberg is often especially windy, and yet again a strong wind had started as we started walking down from the top of the hill. It blew ice crystals in your face and took your breath away. I covered my face with my scarf as we headed over the top of the mountain where the wind was worse. Once on the slope, it was ok again. However, by this time I was feeling a bit nauseous after the exertion, and almost threw up again, giving my husband a fright with the horrible sounds. Once that had passed, I was ok to walk down. I had to tread carefully on the last half of the way down, as the ground was a bit slippery. It was a good job we’d stopped at Globetrotter before the hike to pick up some hook-on spikes for my shoes.

It was a relief to be done with the hike. Not sure how I managed it really. Being pregnant and having a cold isn’t a good mix. I was going to stay in bed while the others went for dinner, but some new people had arrived on our floor and were talking in the common room right outside our room, so I joined for dinner in the end. It was a relief to feel the baby start kicking and moving around again as I sat down for dinner, as it’d been quiet that day. Apparently walking often lulls them to sleep though.

After another sleepless night spent coughing, I didn’t have much energy in the morning. The weather had changed in any event, warming up, so the snow had become slushy. Over breakfast we decided that instead of a long hike we’d go and visit a famous old mine that is a world heritage site. To get there we did a ramble through countryside that was quite pretty.

When we got to the mine, we discovered there was a Christmas market on that day, and the tours were only running later in the day. We spent some time wandering around the Christmas market. The market was in the mine museum buildings. I still felt poorly, so my favourite part was just sitting and listening to a band who were performing Christmas carols.

Historical mine

Afterwards we headed back across the countryside. We had to cross one steep hill, which led to more dry heaving on my part. Poor body. But the rest was ok. I was happy to reach the car and sit down. We dropped one friend off in Bad Harzburg and another later on in Göttingen. On the drive home, my husband had started to come down duty what I’d had, and was feeling terribly tired. By the time we got home, he had fever, so I have him paracetamol, which helped.

My cough was still bad and I had another night of not sleeping. At least it seemed to have moved away from the initial phase where my throat had been irritated towards a genuine cough. But the coughing fits were intense and frequent, so I decided to take sick leave. I’d only drive my colleagues mad anyway, and wouldn’t be able to work. In the end I took 3 days off. My cough was still there when I returned on the Thursday, but I had some things to do before Friday, which was the last day before the Christmas holidays would start. I was looking forward to heading off  for 17 days away from Würzburg and having time to recover from all the colds. Not feeling well combined with starting a new job and missing Berlin and our apartment really cast a cloud over our time in Würzburg. It was tempting to think about leaving and never coming back. I hoped I would feel better after a break of 17 days.

Visiting Charlottenburg Christmas market in Berlin. We spent a few days in Berlin before heading to the Czech Republic.

Christmas holidays

Unfortunately our holiday also didn’t go quite as planned. Our idea had been to spend Christmas with my husband’s family and then take a road trip to Budapest via Slovakia between Christmas and New Year. Certainly we thought we couldn’t spend longer than a few days with the family because babysitting the young nephew and niece is exhausting. They are 2 and 4 years old. They can be cute and funny, and it’s great that they love to spend time with us, but it can get quite intense when they follow you everywhere you go all day, and even more so for a few days in a row. As soon as I left the bedroom in the morning, they would pounce on me, wanting me to play. Relief would only come at 8pm when it was bedtime. They would often jump on me, and the 4 year old once ran right towards me and hit me in my (pregnant) stomach. He was just playing, but it really hurt for a moment. I felt I needed a break from it or I wouldn’t feel rested enough to go back to work in the New Year. 

Christmas cookies. As you can see, little people were always around me 🙂

We planned to leave on the morning of the 28th. But in the morning, my husband’s sister came to our room to tell us that their grandfather (90 years old) had sadly passed away during the night before.  We cancelled our plans for that day, and I babysat the kids while the others went to town to make funeral arrangements. The funeral was set for the 31st December, so travel around New Year’s was also out of the question. My husband had to work from home on the 2nd and 3rd January, so we couldn’t take a holiday afterwards either. My heart sank as I realized that after 5 days of intensive babysitting, at least another 6 days of it lay ahead.

At this point I started to feel very down. It had been our last chance to get away before the baby would be born. I felt trapped by all the child-minding, knowing that in a few months I’d have my own to take care of too, and in between there was nothing but work, in a town I wasn’t yet too keen on. In the morning when I woke to shouting and screaming outside the bedroom door and the voice of the 2 year old repeatedly asking where I was, I dreaded leaving the room, knowing I’d be jumped on as soon as I went out. It was pretty tiring, especially being pregnant. Yet, I felt selfish to be feeling upset about this, since a member of the family had just died.

Another funeral in Czech Republic

Once again, I had to stay away from the funeral due to being pregnant. This time they explained that it was because of a Czech tradition that pregnant women shouldn’t attend funerals, so at least I knew the reason why. Although I didn’t agree with it and again felt sad to miss the funeral, I went along with it so as not to upset my mother-in-law on a day that would already be difficult for her. It made me feel sad for quite a few days, as my husband’s grandparents were also part of my family, and it felt wrong not to attend their funerals to say goodbye.

The end of holidays

In the end, I survived a grand total of 12 days of kid chaos – not without its fun moments of course! A day trip to Adršprach-Teplice Rocks (a national park) helped me feel sane again, and I did a bit of hiding from the kids for a few hours a day thereafter, to get a little bit of a break. As my husband had to work from home on the 2/3 January, and we ended up leaving to Berlin only on the 4th January, arriving in the evening. I hoped that the weekend appointments with friends would end the holiday on a more relaxed note and re-energize me to take on Würzburg and a new year of work. 

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