Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ain't it pretty?

Payment has gone through so now it's official.

One down, only two more to go. :)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Summery heaven

Tomatoes and strawberries from local farmers - is there anything better? Assuming you don't have any space to grow your own in, that is. After getting sick in June threw me off track as regards eating healthily (although not as far off track as I was before), the sight of fresh tomatoes at the market last Saturday has helped steer me back I think. I definitely haven't had any problem fulfilling the recommendation to eat five or more portions of fruit and veg the last few days.

I do need to buy a few jars of olives or similar though - I was hungry by the time I walked home from work today and really thought I was just going to end up having some pitta bread from the freezer with lashing of butter since it was the quickest thing on hand. But I opened all the windows and just starting chopping veg so now, 40 minutes or so later, I'm about to sit down to a lovely pasta and veg meal, the washing up is done (except for what's still in use), I've washed the lettuce for my lunch tomorrow and I've made a smoothie for breakfast.

This morning I had a half-beaker of smoothie (just strawberries and some natural yoghurt) for breakfast. Tomato salad for lunch (tomatoes, basil and feta with a small amount of olive oil) and a late afternoon snack of strawberries with a small amount of sugar. And I'm sauteeing one courgette, one onion, some garlic and a huge tomato (my favourite red/yellow beef tomato), which weighed nearly 500g to have with some pasta for dinner. Perfect summer food.

Edited to add a photo, the light was nearly gone but the food was delicious. And enough leftovers to take care of another meal later this week.

Another one bites the dust

Just made my final payment to my Irish visa card. Feels so good. Still have the overdraft on my Irish bank account and my German mastercard (which I used to pay my brother's electricity bill a few months ago so that he wouldn't get cut off) but that visa card was like a monkey on my back and I am delighted to see the back of it. Even if the choice to clear that card rather than a chunk of my overdraft will end up costing me slightly more in interest, I don't care, it was the one to beat finally. The physical card is hidden away and does not get used at all anymore but I won't close the account until I have built up some emergency funds, in case anyone is wondering. Still waiting for my tax refund. I was going to use it to clear a large chunk of overdraft but now I'm actually thinking it would be better to use it to pay off my mastercard. Again, that's not necessarily the least expensive way of clearing my debt but it should nearly be enough to clear the whole thing and clearing one and just having one debt left to deal with is probably mentally more satisfying than carrying two debts for another few months.

My next two bills have come in so my annual expenses fund is now down to zero again. It is sometimes hard to not dip into that account during the year but such a great thing when those bigger annual bills come in and I don't get that panicky how-am-I-going-to-manage feeling.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday night chit-chat and sealed pot challenge

I was just going to write up a quick post and then I realised it's already after eight o'clock. Might as well make it a Sunday night chit-chat in that case. These long evenings are great. At least now I know why I'm feeling tired already. I went to Potsdam last weekend - lovely place. Went swimming in a lake, too and it was just too perfect for words. I was sorry we didn't get to do it every day. Will definitely have to think about going back there for another visit sometimes.
I didn't take too many photos. For one it was too hot to think most of the time and on top of that my nieces and nephew kept borrowing the camera. So I have lots of shots of our bums when walking ahead of whoever had the camera as well as plenty of half faces and bits of chin but not a whole lot of scenery. For some reason though, of all the pictures I did take I like this one the best. It's at the Sans Souci park, which was the summer residence for one or other of the Kaiser Wilhelms and these arches lead into where the orangerie is. Majestic is the word that comes to mind.

This next photo is one that I took in the botanic gardens in the park. I was trying out some of the different effects on my camera but of course now I can't remember which order I did them in. This is either soft focus or sparkle and is far and away the nicest photo of this pond.

Other than that, I'm just going to share one photo from a few weeks ago when I, without actually planning it, did a mini-clearout of my wardrobe. It was more of a folding and sorting than anything else but I also packed my heavier trousers and jeans into a basket at the bottom of the cupboard so that things have a chance to stay a bit less cluttered on the shelves.
 And after holding on to them for far too many years I found myself asking myself why on earth I still had some things. Going with the mood, I quickly sorted out some old tracksuit bottoms and a couple of tops that I know I'm never going to wear again. And, even better, by that evening I had tidied them into a bag and the following day I brought them straight to the clothes bank. Hooray for actually getting stuff out of the house. I think it was four tracksuit bottoms and three tops that I got rid of. A small start but all progress is progress.
And on with the chit-chat...

What are you:
Transition by Iain M. Banks (or Iain Banks if you prefer :) ). This is my book for next month's book club and since I failed spectacularly at even getting past chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby for last time, I thought I should get a good start on this. So far I've only managed a couple of pages though because I got sidetracked into re-reading The Hunger Games trilogy.

Listening to
The radio on the internet. Dublin's Sunshine Mix again (not as good as when it was Dublin's Country Mix but still good easy listening). 

Nothing really. Might re-watch another episode of Firefly later. 

Too hot for cooking this weekend, even if it has cooled down a bit this evening (so that it's only 26 degrees or so). I was at a barbeque this afternoon and had so much to eat I couldn't manage a meal anyway. But I got the first tomatoes of the year from the market yesterday so I'll make up some tomato and feta salad and maybe have a little bit of that with the rest for lunch tomorrow. There are also strawberries calling my name.

Happy you accomplished this week
Decluttered a little bit more by giving some old beach toys (bucket and spade etc.) to a former neighbour. They were actually stuff that was bought for my sister when she was visiting Ireland once and I kept them as she couldn't fit them in her luggage. She did get a couple of years use out of them during her summer holidays before I moved and since they were in good nick I just threw them in with everything else when I moved. Nice to have them moved on to someone who will make use of them. I also cycled to and from the barbeque today - I'm very nervous in general and in traffic in particular but I did it with only getting off to cross major crossings once or twice on the way there and not at all on the way home. I've kept on top of the washing-up all week and I did the ironing this morning, too, so I'm all set for the week ahead.

Looking forward to next week
Boss is away so I am hoping to get a chance to catch up on a few housekeeping tasks like filing and archiving. And it's my last week before two weeks holiday, which I am really looking forward to.

Thankful for today
Fresh tomatoes! Sounds a tad facetious perhaps but I mean it most sincerely. Also, living in a country that still has more or less unlimited clean water available for positively decadent uses like having a cold bath yesterday afternoon when it was very, very hot. So relaxing to lie in the cool water with my feet resting on the edge of the bath where the sun was coming in the window - I actually fell asleep for over half-an-hour. Luxury.

Bonus question: do you know any 2nd (or 3rd!!) langugages?
English native speaker. Fluent German. School French and I can get by in most situations if I need to (not without getting very hot and going bright red though!). Irish too, although I'm by no means fluent - same as a lot of people my age, I think - couldn't hold a conversation but can understand the occasional ad on the radio or few words thrown into an English sentence. I did Russian in college as my minor language but never followed up after leaving so I haven't retained an awful lot of that I have to admit. Can still write my name though, which is something. Maybe one day I'll get around to it again.

If you fancy joining in with Sunday night chit-chat, simply post your answers to the questions and head over to Half-Dozen Daily to link up.

As for the Sealed Pot this week, just a few euro went in on a couple of days when I stopped at the shops on my way home from work and carried the loose change home in my hand. I've realised that I really need a mini sealed pot in my desk at work, too, as I often have loose change from one thing or another. And one of my biggest temptations is having loose change in my purse and a craving to hit the vending machine - with a sealed pot on hand I could rid myself of half the temptation by sealing away the money before I could get at the chocolate. Saving and losing weight - two birds, one stone, dontcha think?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How much should I be saving?

I'm positive I must have posted about this before because it's a question that does exercise my mind from time to time. At the moment, I don't save a lot because I'm still paying down debt. I (shock!) don't even have the 1,000 emergency fund that Dave Ramsey & co. recommend having before paying down debt (other than minimum payments of course). I put money for annual expenses aside and have slowly started trying to add a bit every now and then to a travel fund.

Once I have paid all my debt off I am going to allow myself two months of spending every cent I earn if that's what I feel like and then I want to focus on really saving hard. Ideally I'd like to save as much as I've been putting towards debt the last few years - most of it into emergency fund followed by a big life plans fund once the emergency fund is at a reasonable level but also some into things like a travel fund and a splurge fund to use for gifts, concert tickets, books, that kind of thing.

I've seen this topic come up on various blogs over the last while (and terribly sorry for not giving a shout-out to whoever's blog I read it on today, it was a new to me blog that I linked to via two or three other links-to and I haven't been able to follow the same path to find it again). Rather than absolute cash terms, of course, the interesting question is to see what you save as a percentage of income. For example, if I expect that moving to a position in a university would entail a probable 40% reduction in salary for me, then the sensible thing to do is to make sure I am saving more than 40% now, for example 50%, so that when the 40% is gone I'd still be able to save 10% without it 'hurting' too much.

At any rate I also started thinking about pensions etc. Everyone says you have to be very careful to plan for retirement but the cynic in me honestly doesn't really believe that by the time I reach retirement age (which is now, I believe, 67 here) the world, complete with financial markets etc., will still exist in the same way it does today. However, I do still contribute money every month to a private pension plan 'cos you never know, right? The plan I contribute to does have some immediate tax benefits so that something at least. And of course, with every paycheck I am contributing to the state pension and all the other social insurances here. I decided to work out how much of my hard-earned cash is going to the government every month. These figures won't be absolutely right to the nth decimal place as I do get a payment from work for transport costs which shows up partly pre-tax and partly after, which skews things slightly but in the greater scheme of things (and since I rounded everything up), it should still give you a pretty good idea of what I already contribute to before I even see a cent of my money. I should note here that I am definitely a socialist and I don't have any problem at all with paying to fund the mostly excellent social net that Germany has. While spongers and professional unemployed people really annoy me, I also know that there are genuine reasons for people to not to be able to work and if it ever happens to me, I like to think that at least my basic needs will be met. My brother is on long-term disability, for example, and I have to agree with my cousin who, not having seen him for years and, on asking him where he was working, hearing that he wasn't, simply said, "Well, I'm glad my tax money is at least going to support some people I like."

Back to deductions, which are high in Germany. From my salary I pay the following:

  • Income tax - 20%
  • Solidarity surcharge - 1% (I think this is actually worked out as a percentage of income tax, i.e. 5% of it but it works out to 1% of gross salary more or less so I've just gone with that. The solidarity surcharge was introduced after reunification to help to fund the re-building of the 'new' federal states, i.e. the former East Germany)
  • Health insurance - 8% (I'm a member of one of the public health insurances - they're not state run, but aren't private either and the tariffs are now set by the government)
  • Nursing care insurance - 1% (This was introduced years ago due to the rising age of the population and the number of people who needed nursing homes. There's talk about making it obligatory to also take out a private insurance for this as demographically it's obvious that in future years, there's going to be an even bigger issue with this)
  • Pension insurance - 10% (I have an appointment in a couple of weeks with the central pensions place to make sure the time I spent making contributions in Ireland is counted towards what I'll eventually be able to claim here)
  • Unemployment insurance - 2%
So that's 41% of my salary already gone before I ever see it. My employer, by the way, has to pay equal or almost equal amounts for the social insurances mentioned above. And I can offset certain items against my income tax and solidarity surcharge every year so that 21% goes down when that happens. At least as an atheist I am spared having to pay church tax, which would be another 1% of income tax or something like that.

The private pension I pay into is another 6% (or 4% of take-home). Then there's the dental insurance I have, a modest 1.2% of take-home. Regular donations to charity are now just over 4% of take-home and I'll probably up this to about 5% next year. I also need to think about setting up a separate category for one-off crowd-funding and/or a micro-credit scheme like Kiva, which is something I've become more interested in lately. In case anyone has any spare money to give to a good cause, by the way, mmpaints is just US$380 short of reaching her goal to try and do some repairs and upgrades so that she can keep her small farm business going.

Oh dear. I suspect I may have actually had a point to all of that with the deductions but it's after eleven now, it's still over 20 degrees with nearly 70% humidity and my brain seems to have shut off. Would be interested to hear if anyone else wants to share what kind of percentages they're putting towards savings though.

The malt beer gulasch from the previous post, by the way, was entirely underwhelming. I ended up having to add in a whole lot of Worcestershire sauce just to rise it even marginally above bland. Great idea and a very simple sauce (easy to have a bottle of malt beer on hand) but if I ever do it again, I'll be experimenting with using lots and lots of spices in it. Upside: I was telling some people from choir about it last week and getting Germans to try and say Worcestershire is kind of amusing if you're in a silly mood. LOL

And here, just for good measure, if a photo of the lovely carnations I bought a couple of weekends ago. Carnations are probably one of my favourite flowers, especially when, like these, they actually have a scent.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Malzbier gulasch

I found a recipe for a type of stew made with malt beer in the slow cooker. I've never drunk the stuff myself, not sure why, but it sounded similar to the type of treatment meted out when making a Guinness stew so it seemed worth a try. The ten pages of discussion on the forum it was on all raved about it, too. Only problem was that in addition to onions and beef, it had pepper (as in bell peppers or capsicums) in it and I can't eat peppers. So I did what I usually did with recipes that call for peppers and just left them out. Life doesn't need to be complicated, you know. Of course, an additional problem was that I forgot to buy stock when I was out but whatever - with the strong malty drink and the main spice being paprika it didn't seem like a teaspoon of instant stock powder would make a huge amount of difference.

The final step in making it was to add a packet of a ready-sauce called Jaeger (or hunter's) sauce. That's basically a creamy mushroom sauce. Not being one to use many ready-sauces and having read in the discussions that the main reason for using it was to thicken the sauce, I decided to just make a simple roux. Then I realised that would involve heating the cooker and decided to try my hand at a buerre manie, which I read about last week. Have taken the butter out of the fridge to soften (shouldn't take long in this heat) and will finish up the stew then. It's far too hot to be eating stew really, but I thought it would be good to have cold during the week with bread. Loving that using the slow cooker doesn't heat up the kitchen the way the ordinary cooker would. I'll see how it tastes and if it's as good as it smelled earlier I'll post the recipe.

Not much else happening at the moment. I brought the bike that I bought second-hand about two years ago to the shop to have it fixed (gears were broken but that's why I got it for 20 euro) and get a general check done. Turns out they're so busy you can't just call in and leave your bike there, you have to make an appointment. So I'll have to go back in ten days and can leave my bike then. After that, I'll need to really start making an effort to actually use the thing, even if all I do is bring it to a nearby park and find a secluded corner to cycle for five minutes at a time in. I was never a good cyclist and being so overweight and so unfit now means that although you never forget how to cycle, that doesn't mean that the first time you get on a bike after years, you'll be able to do everything you could then. I know this because of my  last brief attempt to start cycling - I have more to gain this time though as not only will it help with getting fit and losing weight, Dusseldorf is a fairly flat town and getting around on bike is one of the easiest ways to get around. People are also fond of taking bikes rides along the river just for fun and that kind of thing and it'd be nice to be able to join in.

As for my weight, it's one month since I had my first set of photos done so I should have gone in again today. When I rang yesterday however, I found out that the guy wasn't going to be there. So now I'll need to try and leave work early on Wednesday to dash there and get them done then. Kind of annoyed about it as I had told him I would plan on coming in the first Saturday of every month. He also still hasn't given me a price although it's supposed to be less than the 73 I paid for the first session (plus three photos). I'm starting to think he didn't quite get that I don't want to get actual photos each time and just want to pay for his time and then at the end of a year get a big printout of all of them together or something. But I know part of the reason I'm having doubts is because I'm annoyed at them for putting me off today so will just have to wait and see what happens. As it turns out, getting sick and having a few days of junk food, along with last week's quarter-end in work and it's attendant less than wonderful eating choices mean that I haven't actually lost any more weight. I was only supposed to be weighing myself once a month but when I was sick and in the chemist's anyway I did and I'm almost the same now as I was then (two weeks ago). Sigh. Need to get back to being a bit more strict and, since it's the second month, I wanted to try incorporating more exercise on a regular basis too. Still, it's a weight loss of 4.1 kilos (about 9 lbs) since my heaviest weight at the beginning of April and I need to stay focused on the fact that downwards is all good in this respect. Having washed the bedclothes today, I'm looking forward to having a nice cool shower before heading to bed and, even if things haven't turned out quite the way I expected, at least ending the day on a high note.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The joys of der, die, das

I had my first German lesson this evening and spent the walk home just positively thrilling to the feeling of learning again. Well, obviously it wasn't my very first German lesson. That was more like twenty-five years ago (hang on, twenty-five years? Aaagh, feel old now.)

I'll probably do three double-lessons altogether and then go back for more later in the year if I feel I need extra help with the German aspect of the translator course. I feel like all of that simple stuff that I didn't quite get or was too lazy to learn when I first started out is finally just within reach of finally being permanently lodged in my brain. Need to try and spend 30 minutes a day now, doing drills and reading proper books, stopping to actually pay attention to the grammar in the sentences and that kind of thing.

Of course I have gotten carried away with enthusiasm for having found someone who could give me lessons and sort of forgot to time the lessons to a month when I actually have money to pay for them. D'oh! Here's hoping my tax refund comes through very quickly and in the meantime I'll just have to juggle as best I can. It's 35 per teaching hour and I did bring 70 euro with me today to pay. Completing forgetting about the VAT. D'oh again! So next week I'll have to pay the 13.30 I missed today plus the 83.30 due after that lesson. That's nearly 100 euro I had not budgeted for so I'll be doing my best to make sure to spend as little as possible otherwise. I'll try to push the final lesson into August then. And I'll try really hard to implement what I did today into stuff at work immediately so that I could potentially convince my boss to cover some or all of the cost. She was amenable to the idea when I broached the topic of the translator exam (they won't pay for the course because officially it's an English course and as a native speaker, I'm not deemed to need one of them but she said she would approve the exam fees for me) but when I mentioned last week that I had found somewhere to have lessons, she didn't say anything. So it's just going to be one of those situations where I'll have to suck it up and just ask outright. The worst that will happen is that she'll say no, I suppose.

So today I also finally learned that Tee, Kaffee and Kakao are all masculine nouns. I learned last year that all  types of alcohol except beer are also masculine. It's amazing what a difference that kind of small trick can make in my thinking. I probably get it right 95% of the time anyway simply because I've gotten used to how things should sound but it's so great to just know for sure. I also now have severe dictionary envy and think I'll need to save up to get one of these sooner rather than later. Mind you, I should buy an equivalent in English, too - my only proper English dictionary is a very old Collins one that's about three inches tall - to say it's not entirely complete would be an understatement.

In other news, it was quarter-end and therefore billing time at work this week, which meant long hours and not really managing to keep to my meal plan for this week. Had some small successes but really need to get back into the swing of things now. Have done a meal plan for this week, trying to do a better job of taking account of various things planned (no point planning on cooking a dinner on a night I won't be home until after nine and that kind of thing). I even checked the weather forecast to try and plan accordingly.