Friday, November 30, 2012

Red, White, and Blue - Variations on a Theme

We did a kitchen re-model back in the States, the effort was substantial, including moving a wall by about a foot to gain precious space in a cramped setting.

We salvaged the 1950-ies all metal sink and cabinet, stripped the grey paint and refinished it in bright red.
And we put a high backsplash of blue tiles behind it. The top part of the sink was white enamel.

The red, white and blue ensemble looked gorgeous.

Following the move to Germany, more building work awaited us. A new roof, a newly insulated  facade, costly and time-consuming.

We decided to keep the original appearance of the house intact to preserve the character of the building.  We also decided to put up new, old style shutters to break the uniform, slightly intimidating facade into smaller, friendlier visual units.

You can visualize the house pre-remodel as the poor cousin of the Amityville Horror house.

One of the measures to get rid of the severe look was painting the eves. Blue seemed a good choice.

I stuccoed the facade, taking advantage of the scaffolding the roofers had put up to get 25 feet up. The color of the stucco was white.

All that was left to do were the shutters. We discussed material, hinge types, and whether we would be able to find the traditional figurines that hold the shutters open.

Everything went well until the moment I voiced my desired color: red.

My pre-emptive explanation that the French colors were also red, white, and blue, that the Dutch used the same colors in a different order, and, heck, even the Brits had them, did make any dent.

The response "whaaat?" was not followed by a recommendation to see a therapist, but we did decide to wait another six months before we tackled the shutters.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Surprisingly Colorful Country

German buildings may never be as colorful as their Nordic neighbors, but this country certainly has become so much more vidid and expressive.

You need the distance of a couple of decades to appreciate the change. I saw the country in the 80s, and saw it with new eyes in the past few years.

Not all regions previously had the same degree of uniformity, though. The southern state of Bavaria, with its traditional murals and theme paintings, depicting life and work of craftsmen and guilds, on many historic buildings did have to overcome as much tristesse, to use a French word..

But even in Bavaria, buildings from the 20th century tended to exhibit the subdued, even depressed, shades of grey and beige that are now on their way out.

Building codes were the major culprit that kept any "real colors" off of German houses, and neighbors as well as historic monument preservation officials would take owners into court, almost aways assured of victory of the bland over the lively.

But something happened. Deep bordeaux red, bright Norwegian blue, sunny Tuscan yellow, can now be seen even in small towns. Furniture stores can now safely blast their presence onto your retina in obnoxious orange.

One of these days, I may research the phenomenon but for now, just noting the brighter sights will do.

The photo below shows a house in a small town on the Rhine river decorated with Salvador Dali style melting clocks.

And here is a set of garage doors from the same town, utterly inconceivable as everyday building art in Germany until two decades ago.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mercedes on the Sidewalk -- more than a symbold of the European Central Bank

Frankfurt, Germany, has been nicknamed Bankfurt for decades.

As the headquarters of Germany's big international banks, their skyscrapers still dominating the city center, and more recently as the seat of the European Central Bank (ECB), that nickname is not too far off the truth.

It was no surprise then, that the worldwide Occupy movement appeared in Frankfurt, too.

They had a great location on the wide green space right in the middle of the central banking area, next to and underneath the huge Euro symbol the world knows from news reports about the Euro crisis.

The camp managed to hang on through the winter of 2011 to 2012. In August of 2012, the camp was removed after the City cited health concerns.

The one block green space was fenced in, but the walking path through the middle was left open. Not that it is any pleasure to cross the space on a narrow path with fences on either side.

The feeling has something distinctly East Berlin ca. 1980 Iron Curtain about it, sans the vicious guards with their equally vicious dogs.

At the north-east corner of the green space, is the current HQ of the European Central Bank, with an information/souvenir shop on the first floor. The shop attendants sell coins, trinkets, blocks of shredded Euro notes, as they look out on the fences.

Just five or six yards further, a burly security man guards the ECB entrance.

Kitty corner from there is the Euro Symbol, and on any given day, there are not just tourists having their picture taken under the massive sign but there is guaranteed to be a CCTV camera or two.

On the lovely day in September, when we made another visit to Frankfurt, there was a line of some twenty TV cameras, the ECB was holding yet another debt crisis meeting.

Back to the entrance of the ECB. There was a card table next to it, where Occupiers handed out a flyer. The security man did not bother them.

He had his eye on the price. You need to know that the sidewalk between the street and the ECB door is about eight yards wide.

A comfortable, pedestrian friendly sidewalk. Had it not been for the latest, shiny black, model 600 or so Mercedes parked smack dab on the sidewalk.

Its Euro-diplomatic license plate let it be known that this was the ride of the chief of the European Central Bank.

We found it ironic that the machine was sitting on the sidewalk and that the man on the street had to navigate around it.

[Update 11/2015] The European Central Bank has moved to its glorious new high rise further upstream of the river Main. The green space fences are gone, and the grand Mercedes of the ECB chief does not block the sidewalk any more.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Court to 61-year old: Learn German

Wouldn't you know it? Life is going fine, and then some administrative folks get you in their sights...

An administrative law court in Southern Germany just ordered a 61-year old Turkish mother to attend a German language course.

Neither the defendant's note that she was actually illiterate, nor the fact that her kids all grew up to be fully German speaking, productive members of society, nor her age combined with her having lived in Germany for 30 years, could sway the court.

We have experienced German class first-hand and have seen older students struggle, so her outlook is not the best. My dear German officials, if you feel she must be "integrated" into German society, provide her with a private tutor.

Alternatively, our host country could adopt another U.S. policy: let her be.

Personally, I find the German style copied U.S. Immigration policies sub-optimal because they tend to try and implement them more thoroughly than their U.S. counterparts.
Take, for instance, the history and language requirements. My Japanese co-worker stateside became a U.S. citizen despite his English being crap after ten years in the U.S.

The Germans took the U.S. policy, and the result is: you will not get that German passport with the same level of language skills.

Heck, stateside, we even translate tons of election ballots.

Your best hope, in Germany as well as stateside, is to remain under the radar or find an official who is capable of weighing requirements against results.

The example of the Turkish woman shows one thing: even minor rules can become a lose-lose situation in a heartbeat.

Germany's image is tainted, as the existence of this blog post demonstrates.
The woman has to endure more stress. The courts and the officials waste money.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Transatlantic Bonds - Finance

Many German cities and other public entities entered into cross-border leasing contracts in the late nineties and early 2000s.

There are two versions, the first is sale of infrastructure and immediate lease back, the second is lease to a US entity and lease back to the German entity.

The selling point was "free, immediate money" and "you can buy it back after 30 odd years".

U.S. investors got their tax writeoff from the US government, German public utilities got their tax writeoff from the German government. With contract times of 99 years and numerous clauses about what the Germans could do or not do during that time, deals that looked sweet often began souring after a few years, especially when the recession of 2008 hit.

Several high-profile contracts have been dissolved, among them the lease of the complete water supply system of the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. The utility companies made a loss, the German tax collectors made a profit.

Leasing infrastructure is not a recent invention of finance wizards. One hundred years ago, the Prussian state government was leasing all over the place. One example is a police station in a small town. The government said: you build, we lease for 50 years at this rate, and when the 50 years are up, you get the building back.

It worked well for the government, and I know because we live in that former police station.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Internet Connection more Dangerous than Gun

This is one for the legal history books. We have definitive proof, well, in Germany, that the word is mightier than the sword.

Earlier this year, a court in Munich, Germany, sentenced an old lady for software piracy.
We all know that baby boomers may not all mellow out as they retire, there are white-collar criminal occupations you can excel at beyond the first social security check.

It is not the age of the lady that made me squint at the news report.

It is the fact that she did not have a computer at the time of the alleged crime, and she had no working internet connection.

She had a subscription, and proof she had no equipment to use it.

Under German law, you are responsible for any use of an internet connection that is in your name.

Compare this to gun ownership, and you will find that you can kill someone without legal consequences. Not too far from here and not too long ago, a hunting rifle went off when the owner was cleaning it during a break.

The bullet killed another hunter, it went right through the heart.

Meanwhile, home users, the people with the least technical knowledge, cannot do anything against a stupid piece of software that believes it captured your IP address as the endpoint of a torrent site download.

Maybe not all is lost because the other day a court dismissed a suit against parents, whose teenage kids had illegally downloaded songs. The court reasoned that the parents had clearly told their children to not download anything illegally.

So, if your good name shows up in a software piracy lawsuit and you have no working hookup, you should try and remember that this nephew of yours was at your place at the time, and you had clearly instructed him to not download anything.

It could just be that a judge might somehow get the absurd nature of the plaintiffs arguments if you state "I had no computer, no WiFi, but my nephew must have managed to download that movie anyway."

If this maneuver won't help, go to a bookstore and buy a copy of Franz Kafka's "The Trial".

[Update 5/4/2016] The blogster has written abundantly on "Germans & the Internet", for instance in German 4 Dummies: Neuland (aka. internet) or Who's afraid of Google? Turns out, lots of people and more recently on the continued desertification of the German internet.
Or this gem: German man writes harmless Facebook post - gets police visit at work.

But the simple fact that individuals who operate a public WiFi hotspot are fully liable for any real or imagined misuse of the access point by WiFi users is the ultimate admission of utter cluelessness by "conservative" German politicians. Of course, things could be worse. If your neighbor borrows your power drill to torture a person or non-human animal, even Germany does not hold you liable.

Enjoy the little freedoms, says the famously grumpy K-Landnews TheEditor.

The current German government still has not got around to remove the liability provision from the latest and greatest bill designed to propel Germany into the top 250 internet friendly countries on the planet.

According to this article, the chancellor wants to put her foot down and make free access happen.

Don't bet on it. The folks who insist on deterring copyright violations might just wake up to the other two time tested stereotypes used to curb internet access: child porn and terrorism.

[Update] Added "Or this gem:...."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Blackface, Purpleface, Redface

The Black-Eyed Friday post left a color impression, reinforced by the blackface folks in the Netherlands celebrating the arrival of Sinterklaas.

Stateside, blackface has a bad connotation, which makes it all the more startling to see Europeans donning it.  There are, as you would expect, Sinterklaas celebrations in the United States, for instance, in Rhinebeck. No blackface there, but ample dark paint in Holland, as seen in this picture.

In Germany, we saw blackface groups in the carnival parade in Mainz, and we also saw native German blacks in white marching bands.

In January of this year, the folks of the thelocal, Germany's News in English, ran an article about a play in Berlin, Germany, which featured a blackface actor.

The theater got redfaced about this one, because the, let's say traditional, shortage of German blacks has been overtaken by demographic change, and a spokesperson for the Initiative for Black Germans called this modern day use of blackface "idiotic".

We'll end this post with a less controversial choice of purple and green face colors as demonstrated by this Swiss marching band at a carnival night parade.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

No Black-Eyed Friday Shopping Here

One American custom we have not been nostalgic for is Black Friday, the retailers horror and the shopaholics wet dream.

The commonly broadcast definition of Black Friday being the day that retailers are finally making a profit, implying that they operate at starvation levels for the first eleven months of the year, is not necessarily the only definition of the day.

I have been calling the day black-eyed Friday because of violence associated with being that very first shopper in the door at Walmart at midnight. Running the risk of being trampled to death in a shopping stampede is not an exclusively American experience, injuries during sales events have happened over here.

But I am not aware of people having died, nor have I found any indication of pepper spray wielding moms defending that last toy.

Shopping in Germany is a fairly sedate affair, with the exception of some Saturday mornings in the final run-up to Christmas.

Historically, shopping around here may well be taking place in that comfort zone between ludicrously restrictive opening hours and the American free-for-all times where you can own a store or restaurant whose front doors cannot even be physically locked.

It took the Germans decades to get to their current supermarket hours, which generally are between eight in the morning and eight or ten at night.

Not that long ago, stores would close at six pm, with a single weekday where they'd close at eight. And that was already a hard-fought improvement over earlier days. In those earlier days, you could not even shop on Sunday in a train station convenience store if you did not have a ticket.

And they still close on public holidays.

We found that out one Monday morning as we were standing outside the small downtown market, going "but it says they open at eight, and it is already five to nine."

[Update 11/2015] This year, U.S. outdoor chain REI is opting out of Black Friday. They deserve a big thank you for this and will also get the blogster's outdoor dollars next time. The United Kingdom is doing Black Friday, although it should be named "the day nobody in the UK daintily stands in line for everything".

FaceBook, or the Digital Kindergarten

Showing off, being engaging, throwing parties, bullying others - these are not new and not specific to social networking sites like Facebook.

Simply by virtue of being the biggest and most hyped up site, the good people of Facebook Inc. get a lot of unjustified flak.

I would like to talk about how to get off Facebook.

Log in, delete the account.

What if you created an account years ago and never used it once? Worse, what if you have forgotten everything but the name and then have to wade through their "help" pages to figure out what to do.

Worse still, they just sent you an email asking if you logged in from a new location?

Which you did not, so your zombie account was definitely hijacked!

What was your birthday again (the one you used for web sites that have no business asking your for your date of birth), and what was the name of your first school? Why would you ever enter your real birth date on any web site other than your school's or a government site?

I do perform a reset password operation, which will hopefully lock out the bad guys too, and that's that.
From here on out, my Facebook account will be dormant again until they let me log in with a reset password only, without asking for a birth date that is close to my real one but not my real one, without asking a security question that is so secure that even I have forgotten the answer.

Is is so hard for companies to ask you if your email account is safe?

Or to delete an account if it has not been active for a year? Sure, maybe you spent the last year in a coma, in prison, or on that expedition in the Amazon.

If the public knew how many social networking accounts are zombie accounts, maybe those of us who do not spend a good part of their workday on Facebook could see that are not reclusive nay sayers to progress.

But it's okay, marketing folks like big numbers, and they need to feed their families, too.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Transatlantic Bonds - Personal

Within the first weeks we encountered several local examples of transatlantic bonds.

At the flower shop and nursery, where we bought two huge hanging baskets of petunias, the cashier volunteered that her sister was living in Seatte, Washington, where she worked as a nurse.

Our contractor told us that the in-laws of one of his workers lived in Florida.

The dentist's brother had spent some time as an intern in Seattle. The internship had come about through the support of the chief medical officer at a U.S. base not far away. That U.S. base, by the way, had been the second largest town in our neck of the woods for decades.

One day we were at the supermarket. We were almost done but were standing in the last isle before the checkout discussing if we were really done.

A black male in his late forties or early fifities, wearing a German style blue coverall, steered his cart past us. "Pardon me", he said.

The big smile he sported as said this was remarkable. The smile said "Hey guys, I recognize you, welcome."
We saw him several times in the subsequent weeks, once he crossed the street in front of our car at the car parts factory which is the biggest surviving industrial employer in town.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Pain Meds California-Style

The timing of the cat's return became the seed of our first household legend in  Germany.

The legend went: the cat came back to support our broken-wristed patient.

Admittedly, this sounds weird without the back story. A year earlier, the cat had its own episode of broken wrist, or rather, shattered paws.

She had lived as a yeard cat outside for years without incident. Then she vanished for a week and showed up the next Saturday sitting on her hind legs like a meercat or a prairie dog, bawling with every move.

X rays showed both front paws shattered, a jumble of bones like a Japanese stick game.

We had put her on worker's comp for the hundreds of mice she and her brother had killed and eaten.

When the doctors had put her paws back into a form that came as close to healthy paws as possible, she spent two months in a cage barely larger than herself, a sleeping pad on one side, a litter box filling the other half of the cage.

She handled the recuperation with incredible grace and good humor. From the moment we took her inside, this formerly ferral cat put her trust in us humans.  And now she had just survived more than two weeks on her own, without losing hardly any weight.

This is the back story to the household legend. It is understood that you may still find the household legend slightly weird, but hopefully also harmless.

The human patient did well, with the cat hanging out on the bed most of the time.

The strong opiate pain medication was running out, and the local physician who was providing the follow-up care after discharge from the hospital called us in for an appointment. In order for you to savor the following conversation, remember, we are in a small town in Germany at a local German doctor, a country doctor in many ways, whose main vice is well known to all patients -- he sneaks out every couple of hours into a secluded back area for a cigarette.

Doc: I am happy to be able to tell you that you do not need surgery. You should regain full control of your wrist without further intervention.
Patient: That's wonderful.
Doc: Your medication will run out in a few days, do you need more?
Patient: Not sure, the pain has lessened quite a bit, and I don't like the way the opiate makes me feel.
Doc: Well, yes, I really wish I could prescibe (he pauses briefly) California-style pain medication. It is the best medication against that kind of pain, beats these opiates any day, what a shame we don't have that.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Meet the Neighbors Thanks to the Cat

How do you meet your neighbors in a new country?

It may be more difficult than you think, or more easy. In our small town environment, pedestrians greet each other in passing. No need, and no expectation, to stop and strike up a conversation.

You are allowed to go and ring the neighbors' door bell to introduce yourselves. Just don't bring any gifts, that would raise eyebrows.

But you can do a neighbor-friendly version of the greet-and-go above. If you recognize someone as a neighbor, stop and see if they want to chat.

Equally likely, a neighbor may stop and talk when he or she sees you in the front yard.

Take it as is comes, don't force yourself to do things you are not comfortable with. If you were a hermit in the U.S., there's no need to play Mr. or Ms. Outgoing Citizen of the World.

If a neighbor invites you over without giving you a specific time, by all means, have a go at it.

In many social environments or cities in the U.S. you would call beforehand. In Germany, even in cities, you do not have to do this.

In our example, the way we got to meet the neighbors was very different. The cat did it.

Two of the cats had been allowed outside on the patio in the early evening. It was a mistake easy to make and impossible to correct.

They held their tiny noses into the wind, and took of towards the far corner of the garden. Dark cats in dark grass become invisible after a few yards, no invisibility cloak needed. We called, gently at first, trying our best to not sound alarmed. Yeah, good luck with that.

Over the next few hours, we'd check every thirty minutes, to no avail. Four weeks into our new-ish life, bummed out is putting it mildly. We tried not to blame the other one for letting them out.

It took immense efforts and led to clenched jaws and a bad taste in the mouth from so much tongue-biting.

I am not sure if I had never realized it or plain forgotten, but the following morning it felt I had a hangover just from stress. Weird.

As I open the patio door, there is a little meow. The tomcat is back. He greets with the little voice in the big body that earned him the nickname Mike Tyson.

He rushes in and heads for the food. No sign of the sister. I do a little dance of joy while he stuffs himself on kibbles. Then he comes over and leans against my leg. His harness is gone.

Worry replaces the joy of seeing him back unharmed. Conjectures and what ifs start swirling in my head.

That same afternoon, we print a picture of the missing sister, put a contact number on, bring the small stationary store cum post office a photocopy windfall and hit the pavement.

One hundred copies are soon gone, and we continue the next day. This is how we meet our neighbors. All one thousand of them, sort of. After day 2, every storefront in town sports a wanted poster.

The following two weeks, several hours each day are taken up with walks along likely routes an escapee would take, with dealing with a few pranks (we have your cat, haha), several inconclusive sightings and chats with people.

Someone is collecting old clothes and other stuff for charity or for resale, we cannot find out exactly for what. They put a basket at your door with a piece of paper listing what items they accept and a pickup date a few days later.

One or two neighbors stop us, warning us that these folks are pursuing a side business of catching pets and selling them to laboratories for animal experiments.

Now, that sounds like an effing urban myth, and I verify it on the trusty internet. For five days, life takes on an aura of Stephen King, of the mysteriously odd just under the veneer of an uneventful life.

As we hear more and more people give us details about these animal catchers and their devious ways, I have a ping or two of "do we really want to be here"?
I remind myself that they are just trying to be helpful. They are not doing anything other than telling a story, it's what we all do - but some stories are easily exposed as myths, while others - often hugely more important ones, like religion or a system of national values - are accepted truths.

As the number of days grows, our hopes and or efforts dimish. We begin to talk more about how the cat might be heading West, trying to get back to her home many thousand miles away.

In other words, we are merrily progressing along the stages of grief.

And we have made friends. Thank you, little cat.

It has been two and a half weeks since the cat got lost; and that plaster cast from our First German Music Experience is exactly one day old.

At midnight, pain wakes everybody up. A couple of pain pills, opiates by the way because the old surgeon did take pity with us, and we try to get back to sleep.

I go out to the patio, sit on our only lawn chair.


Meow, and the shadow of a cat on the left. I call her, she responds, I take a short step towards her, and she backs away. I approach a bit more, she back away some more.
One more short step by me, and she is back all the way on the other side of the street. Fuck.

I go back through the house to the front door. She is still there, right under the rear bumper of a parked car. I walk, she bolts into the driveway on the far side.

I go back, sit on the top of the stairs. She slowly comes back out of the driveway, "meow".

What happens next is condensed into the following account, recounted over and over when we tell everyone that the cat is back.

For over half an hour, with me sitting on the stairs and the cat under the rear bumper, we have this conversation:

Cat: meow
Me: meow

Over and over and over.

Then she comes over, rubs her head against the outstretched hand and starts purring as if there is no tomorrow.

And my account always ends with "you will not believe how glad I was that the time was one in the morning, pitch dark, nobody on the street to witness the conversation. I really dodged a visit by a couple of overly friendly burly guys with a straightjacket."

The Copyrighted Eiffel Tower at Night

Issues of copyright on the web creep up repeatedly, whether you are in Europe or elsewhere.

The present post is dedicated to the bruhaha surrounding photos of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, by night. Photos you take of landscapes and cityscapes are great mementos of trips, and who has not put up such photos on the web, in a blog, on one of the many picture sharing sites?

The company operating the Eiffel Tower has this to say about photos:
Q : Is the publishing of a photo of the Eiffel Tower permitted?
A : There are no restrictions on publishing a picture of the Tower by day. Photos taken at night when the lights are aglow are subjected to copyright laws, and fees for the right to publish must be paid to the SETE.

In Germany, trolling websites for photos where the credits are missing or that have been copied without too much thought from what you believed were free stock photos resources, are big business.

Some lawyers specialize in this, and they can send cease and desist letters and make you pay a "reasonable" fee. Which can easily be up to 1000 Euros.
So, be careful, use photos licensed under the Creative Commons Licence, make sure to add credits, and use your own if you really own them.
Since the K-Landsnews blog is not only designed to give information but do so in a light-hearted manner, we end this post by poking fun at the Eiffel Tower by night photo hounds.

Besides the obvious question "what are they thinking?", other questions about copyrighting photos of a building or landscape go through my fading mind: what about people who have photographic memory? Do they have to deny this element of their personhood when they look at the Eiffel Tower's sparkling lights?

Or, in the future, when enhanced reality glasses become widespread: will the copyright mafia bill your credit card every time you look at a copyrighted display, a work of art in a museum, or every time you hear a copyrighted song blaring out of a sidewalk cafe?

Can you spot the Eiffel Tower by night in the photo below? 

If you did find the Eiffel Tower by night in this photo, please see an optometrist as soon as possible for a "phantom vision" problem. The photo is from one of the many annual fireworks shows along the Rhine River. They are known as "Rhein in Flammen", generally start in early September, and every weekend another of the towns in the canyon section between Mainz and Koblenz hosts a show.

My preferred one is the show in St. Goar, where you have fireworks from both castles on both sides of the river and from the ridge lines as well as from a barge on the river.

For lack of a better description, I call it the IMAX show of  the "Rhein in Flammen" series.

If you really want a photo of the Eiffel Tower at night, just to to Las Vegas.

For those who have read this far, here is what the K-Landnews TheEditor had originally planned for this post: Take a picture of a piece of anatomy, call it My Eiffel Tower, photoshopped to a better size, with a few LEDs wrapped around it, dimly lit (mood lighting, if you will). Then ask the readers if they could spot the Eiffel Tower at night.

Aren't you glad, you got the fireworks picture instead?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A First German Music Experience

It was time to sample music in our new old country.

The people that brought you Beethoven and Kraftwerk, Wagner and the Scorpions, Lederhosen-clad Ooompa and 99 Red Ballons, would have something for our taste.

We started looking for an event small enough to be savored in depth, but also large enough to provide variety and keep these ADD prone American minds occupied.

It had to be outside of the big city, but not too far.

We just had to find it.

Soon, two festivals showed up on our radar. There was the Lott Festival, hailed as one of the first regular open air festivals in South-West Germany. And there was the NatureOne festival.

Both were on the same weekend in the hills some 80 or 90 miles west of Frankfurt, Germany.

NatureOne was to take place in an abandoned U.S. missile base from Cold War days, Lott was open air, on pastures just outside a remote village. NatureOne was projected to draw 50 000 people, Lott may one fifth of that.

NatureOne was techno and rave, Lott was billed as "Woodstock in the woods".

Lott sounded much more manageable at the time, so the decision was made. Part of the route to both festivals was identical, and there were NatureOne direction signs every few hundred yards. And not a single one for Lott, good.

It had been raining for a couple of days straight, but the rain had let up around noon and the weather was projected to be fine.

After navigating daintily around yet another abandoned U.S. base, this one an airfield, we found the event. It was not in the woods, but it did have a bowl, just like Woodstock.

The music was young and fast, with bands from all over Europe, food and other vendors wound in a semi-circle up and around the hill. People were dancing, drinking, eating, and had a hard time on the slick hillside.

There was a wide strip of tarp running all the way up the hill from the stage along the food vendors.  A certainly well-intentioned but tricky attempt to protect the farmer's pasture.

People slipped and slid, and watching your every step was strenuous after a while.

We were on our way out when it happened. A shriek, and "festival goer down".

That wrist was hurting badly, and control over the hand was gone. A paramedic showed up, we were holding our victim on both sides and made the few remaining yards to the road.

The Red Cross had a busy festival. Right next to us, a young man was on a stretcher, a leg broken. They were just getting ready to stick him in the ambulance and take him to the hospital.

The verdict for us: go to the hospital, the wrist appears fractured.

They let me drive after asking if I had had any drink. The answer "no" satisfied them, and they did not make us sign a bunch of paperwork, no waiver or the like.

In retrospect, it was not the bightest idea to drive late at night in a little known region. After getting lost, we made it to the hospital. The surgeon on duty was busy. Way busy. The nurse told us they had already had some 60 accidents for the two festivals combined.
NatureOne folks had their mishaps tripping on extasy and mud, Lott folks tripping on mud.

Waiting for the doctor took time, nothing compared to a US ER at night, but still.

This was the night of the "we have been to this hospital way too often realization":
the staff of the Internal Medicine ward greeted me like a friend and let me borrow a cold pack.

Our first German music experience ended with a wrist in a cast.

And no, the insurance company did not shut down the festival. Let us praise reason and unversal health care.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Personal Space Exploration

About an arm's length seems to be a typical distance in personal interaction.

And, in some cases, between cars while traveling at 100 miles per hour on the freeway.

Frankly, you can do whatever you want, just don't cozy up to a local member of the Hell's Angels or a band of skinheads.

Germans, including all the Southern and Eastern Europeans and middle Easterners living here, usually require a lot less personal space than Americans.

People don't line up nicely at public transport stops, brushes will happen.

More importantly, there are usually no sanctions if you unintentionally violate "personal space" and do not linger or grope.

This is in stark contrast to standing in line in England or in the U.S. The Germans have something of a hybrid model between the free-for-all of their Latin neighbors and the rigidity of the Anglos.

This being said, I have seen young kids being barked at by some German relic when the kids did not offer a seat on the train to a spry, in no way needy old guy.

Trash Talk about Recyclying

The German garbage collection and recycling system is legendary for its complexity and its, well, German way of enforcing things.

In every household, people have to separate their trash into, typically, four color-coded bins.

Blue bins or blue plastic bags are for paper.

Yellow bags are for containers and packaging (not paper packaging, not glass containers). Plastic bottles that have no deposit on them go here, too. Plastic bottles with deposit have to be returned at a store, which causes this issue: Fruit flies shut down space-age German tech.

Green bins are for organic, compostable waste (food scraps, yard waste).

Grey bins are for whatever is left over from that sorting job (except glass containers).

You take glass bottles and jars to collection points, where you put them into three containers for the three common colors of bottles and jars, that is, clear, brown, and green.

Batteries have no place in any of these containers. Any store that sells batteries is required to have a collection point for batteries, so you drop them off there.

Electric and electronic goods go to other places, again. You can pay to have stores take back bulky old washers, or you can schlepp them to collection points.

"Dangerous chemicals" have to be dropped off at collection points. These chemicals include paints, and solvents but also glues and foam sealants.

Enforcement of all of this is by inspection and weight. The blue and yellow bags are so thin that the contents are easily seen, and, of course, they break all the time.
Wind, rain, and sloppiness make for localized spills that show the reading preferences and eating choices of your neighbors.

If there is something in a bag that should not be there, it gets tagged, and you have to try again.

Unlike in Great Britain, for instance, where monetary disincentives (heavy fines) can bankrupt poor people.

Despite the effort asked from people who don't speak German, the system is reasonable enough. In the U.S., we had fewer bins but had to learn the different kinds of plastic and, for the longest time, we could put only plastic bottles into the recycling bin. All other plastic containers went into the "trash" bin.

Street festivals and markets around here are characterized by the absence of plastic dishes and styrofoam cups, which we really appreciate.

Some municipalities, including ours, are running free web sites for people to give away or trade stuff.

A three seater sofa on offer for a case of Coca Cola is quite practical.

But second hand clothing or thrift stores are rare and seem to be a recent phenomenon after decades of economy boom. Tucked away in the attics or basements of many small German town halls, you can find a second hand charity setup they call "Kleiderkammer" (chamber of clothing). A pair of quality jeans for 1 Euro is pretty cool, but the only Germans you typically see there are the volunteers who run the store and a few hapless folks on "basic means tested social benefits", the infamous Hartz IV.

They don't advertise, and there is quite a bit of social stigma attached to its use: you must be too poor to be able to afford new clothes.

Granted, even in the States, a lot of people would rather never be seen at the clothing equivalent to a candy store, as we jokingly called Goodwill, Thrift Town, and others like them.

Seasonal: Google vs. Doogle

There is another little David vs. Goliath story brewing, or so the friendly reporters at The Guardian claim. According to them, Google is threatening to sue the African mini ads site Doogle, as in
The Guardian does not mention what Google thinks of these other "doogle"s:

The fact that the little guy offered a pacifier (disclaimer) seems to not have been enough.

Although Google is happy ??? to accept the disclaimer of the French site

If you ask me, Google should have googled the word doogle because they would have found this entry in the urban dictionary: doogle - To bounce one's testicles to the left and to the right.

The mother of all definitions! Kharma is a wonderful thing.

Oh, before I forget. I first glimpsed into a Google office, wait into THE Google office when Google was "the startup on the first floor". Anybody remember? Yes, just off the 101 exit San Antonio Road in Mountain View, at the poor end of Shoreline. Not on the wrong side of the tracks, 'cause there were no tracks, but on the poor side of Rengstorff.

Gestures and Insults without Words

What are others saying or recommending?

This is a blog without a committment to great research. Yet, a few minutes with your favorite search engine help to get facts right or see what opinions other people have.

Gestures, using hands, feet, the head, are an important part of a culture and have provided some widely known and amusing or embarassing stories. Like one people where shaking your head means yes, and nodding signifies no.

Do Germans use gestures at all? Aren't they kind of stiff-ish?

If you get your knowledge of Germananic gestures from Hollywood movies ca. 1940 and later, you know the one gesture where they extend the right arm, holding the hand straight out, palm downwards. Click heels for emphasis.

That gesture can get you prison time in modern day Germany!

The other gesture we have seen in these agonizingly slow German cop shows is the Germanic handshake. Firm and reassuring. That one is perfectly legal and used frequently.

A short time ago, the need to research (equals: one Google search, reading no more than five of the results) burst forth again.

I found the website and browsed.

On their "gestures" page they say this:
1. When gesturing or beckoning for someone to come, you should face your palm downwards and make a scratching motion with the fingers.
2. Waving the hand back and forth with the palm up usually signifies “no”.
3. The OK sign and thumbs up are understood, but do not tend to be used that often. 
4. At the end of a presentation or performance, Germans often signal their approval or thanks by gently rapping their knuckles on the tabletop instead of applauding.

Hold on, that's sort of right and wrong at the same time, I thunk. Let's look at each of them in detail.

When gesturing or beckoning for someone to come, you should face your palm downwards and make a scratching motion with the fingers.

The krautnewsman says: This is the clandestine, close proximity version, most commonly used to tell your dog or your kid to come hither.  Or summon a partner in crime, you see. The arm hangs down the side. the hand never higher than your hip.

At any normal distance and under normal circumstances, you angle your arm forward, palm facing towards your chest, move all fingers back and forth. Or you can do the energetic American waving your hand as high as you want with optional yelling.

Waving the hand back and forth with the palm up usually signifies “no”.

Krautnewsman says: Me no understand. Must have been copied and pasted from another country's gesture page. The palm should be down, fingers level or slightly up. Then a couple of short, quick, lateral movements means NO.

The OK sign and thumbs up are understood, but do not tend to be used that often. 

Krautnewsman says: OK. The OK sign with the index finger touching or almost touching the thumb is hardly ever used. If used, it tends to signal not OK but excellent. As in excellent food.

At the end of a presentation or performance, Germans often signal their approval or thanks by gently rapping their knuckles on the tabletop instead of applauding.

Krautnewsman says: Yes, and they can do this not just gently but will occasionally turn up the noise level to just under airplane takeoff. Beware of that cute American move where a speaker applauds the audience for being a good audience and to thank them in return -- Germans do not do this, and do not understand it, it looks as if you as the speaker are conceitfully applauding yourself (padding yourself on the back). If you do want to thank a German audience, say Thank you, or do a one arm thank you wave, like a "hello" or "hi" gesture.

How to insult a German without a single word

Do you have heath insurance yet? Okay.

Stretch out your index finger, fold all other fingers tightly. Yes, just as if you were pointing at something.
Now raise the hand up close to the temple, and point that index finger towards your temple.
Give someone the bird is what they call it.

Alternatively, younger Germans can be given the finger, largely thanks to Hollywood and soap operas.
The stinky finger is their verbal expression for the gesture.

Gesturing during conversation

There is no general rule. We think of Italians, Spaniards or others as GWT (gesturing while talking).
Many Germans do it!
Women more often than men; folks in the South more often than those further North; young people with more abandon than older people.

Just follow the lead of whoever you are talking to.

TuneIn - a Lifeline

How easy it has become to stay in touch with the events back home!

The folks at TuneIn offer music and radio from around the little blue planet.

In German class, the teacher tells the students to listen to German radio and watch German TV to learn the language faster.

Despite having done this for other languages in the past, a short test with German radio did not go well. This was puzzling and will deserve some contemplation and analysis because the Germans have this vast public radio and TV system, and you'd expect variety and depth.

Which we did not find. We'll try again later.

We have been having such fun with TuneIn. Australian morning news can be cool, and the now defunct Dutch show we loved, will be missed.

We have a number of favorite NPR shows, like Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, Car Talk, Prairie Home Companion, to enjoy either live or via podcast.

But the near light speed communication of our times is perhaps best illustrated by the streamed radio communications of public agencies. When first exploring TuneIn, we listened to a New York police dispatcher, a mid-West Sheriff's dispatch (nothing going on, just static, as in real life?), and the train operators of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART).

We greeted the description of a car floating in the Hudson River with appropriate apprehension and worry over the fate of the driver. We chuckled at the BART train arriving at San Francisco's Embarcadero station.

In real time from an armchair in Europe.

An Internet Identity Crisis

Sitting at the computer and typing away for several hours a day to catch up with the German blog competitors is not just hard work and fun at the same time.

It also raises the question, how much personal information do I want to share?
What topics, if any, should I steer clear of?

After some thinking, and a Facebook friend request from a dear old stateside friend, I decided on a strategy.

There won't be anything about the ages of family members, their jobs or schools, or other juicy items.

I am not sure I want to be on Facebook because I have no clear understanding of the whole privacy debate, I told my friend.

The advice received was: set your profile to friends only, and lie about all the rest.

Sounds like the perfect thing to do.

Plums and the Ugly German

When you go from being the outsiders or the new folks to learning about the community, you will encounter upsetting events and sad stories.

A friend paid a visit the other day. We gave her some apples left over from the adventure of cider making as we were chatting along.

The apples, white fleshed, very tasty, from an heirloom variety not found in stores, prompted her to tell about a recent encounter down the street.

There is this former farm, with a good sized orchard of apple trees and plum trees.

The other day, as she walked past, she saw that the owners had no apparent use for the fruit.
Apples and plums formed a thick cover on the ground, rotting away.

The owner was right there on he other side of the fence, taking firewood for the house from one of the hallmark large stacks of firewood many detached houses in our region sport along a wall or under a tarp.

As she told it, she asked the man if she could pick up a couple of pounds each for cakes.
He refused.

Maybe we will never find out if the two, both long term residents here, have a history. But, these days, her food budget for two people is around 200 dollars a month.

Or if the man is not of a friendly nature, or simply had a bad day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

German Class -- the Melting Pot

The first day of German class.

This post is not about how difficult the language is or how you can survive with only a handful of words. It is about the people who showed up.

There are about fifteen, aged between their late teens and their late forties. A third or so are Turkish, then there is a host of other Western Europeans, from the young Italian male with slicked back hair to the woman from Iceland.

There is the Ethiopian mother of two who arrived a few months ago from Saudi Arabia with her German husband and two kids. There is the father from Egypt who was forbidden by his pregnant wife to demonstrate on Tahrir Square against the regime of Mubarak; she feared for his safety.

There is the older Chechen man who befriends the Italian within the first hour of class.

And there are two Americans, one a middle aged woman married to a German, the other a male in his twenties.
It turns out, the young man has a German passport but does not speak any German. Having been whisked away as a baby, he grew up in New Mexico.

The teacher is a round, grey-haired German. He has lived all over the world, mostly in South America, teaching German.

How they see you

As an American, you are generally welcome in Germany.

In the southern half of the country, there were so many American military installations until not long ago, that Americans were literally everywhere.

The vast majority of Germans will see Americans the same way many Americans see themselves and their own country: they like the people, they cherish the beauty of the country, they like the promise and ideas on which the country was founded.

And they don't like the government, greed, the absence of health insurance, or torture.

If you have German roots in your family, you get bonus points.

You also get bonus points over here if you are black or native American. For the first group, I rely on statements by black military veterans and Germans.
My claim of bonus points for native Americans rests largely on Sherman Alexie's smiling comment about European women and native Americans.
Then there was this kid who was half German, half Apache. The size of his female (German) entourage was a sight to behold.

And, in Germany, there are the books of Karl May, a prolific writer of Westerns and Easterns (mid Eastern based), who shaped the German view of native Americans.

Attitudes change, of course. When Obama was elected president in 2008 and my co-workers were discussing the election results the next day, my comment was: relax, at least you can now travel freely in Europe without having to claim you are Canadian.

No Sirens, no Gunshots, but Church Bells

A disclaimer may be appropriate: this post depends as much on where you come from as on where you end up.

If you moved from a well manicured gated community to inner city Duisburg, Germany, the minutiae are likely different. But the overall picture will be vaild.

For us, coming from a medium-sized city to a small town, the background noise was starkly different.

We hear a siren every few weeks, usually an ambulance picking up a heart attack patient or going to the scene of an accident on the freeway not far away.

No gunshots whatsoever.

There have been some high profile, U.S. style shootings by gun nuts. There was the murder spree of some neo-Nazis but there is so little gun violence that every shooting is big news.

Crime rates are low compared to the U.S. and even compared to other European countries.

For this post, I looked at studies by the University of Konstanz, Germany, to ensure that my gut feeling was matched by reality and not the product of the kind of whishful thinking that often accompanies migrants, manifesting a need to justify uprooting the family - and the cats.

So, here we are, with the church bells being the most prominent background noise of our life.
As a side note, the bells are no longer rung by humans but are electric and on a timer, which reduces their sound level at night.

Checking Accounts but no Checks

Get a bank account soon after you arrive in Germany.

You'll need one if you take a job, and government agencies, utilities and a host of others will want to do direct withdrawls and direct deposits.

The two main things you need to know about banking in Germany are:

1) Checks have gone from rare to practically extinct in this country.
Every once in a while, some company will send you a check called Verrechnungsscheck, which must me deposited into a bank account.

There are exactly zero check cashing stores in Germany.

2) Free checking accounts exist but you need to look for them.
Free accounts have actually gained in popularity around here. This is no big surprise with less regulation and less money in people's pockets.
But do look around. Some accounts are truly free, others require a minimum balance, others a minimum monthly deposit.

Overall, you will relish the absence of paper checks and the nicely pre-printed transfer forms.

Personally, I find some of the payment cards to be overkill, but there is less card fraud than in the U.S.

Online banking procedures vary between banks, some require you to purchase a small security device, others use SMS messages to send you a PIN vaild for a single transaction.

Again others are more U.S. like in requiring nothing more than username and passphrase for most transactions.

Some shops have been running paperless and cardless payment trials, using fingerprint scanners.

Transferring funds from the U.S. is not difficult, but you need to watch the fees. For smallish amounts, XOOM has worked well for us.

For the "only no government is good government" crowd, services like UKASH or fully digital "bitcoins" are okay for small amounts.

Hewlett-Packard be Damned?

You recall your wise earlier thoughts about the little things making the biggest difference in this newly small world?

Two days after the printer ink of your trusty Hewlett-Packard (HP) All-in-One ran out, one of these little things slaps you in the face.

You go to your local German office supply store and by printer ink. You come home, pop in the new cartridges, click on print, and the printer software flashes this message: illegal ink cartridges.

You verify the cartridges are the correct ones. You remove them from the printer, put them back in, jiggle them a little.

The message is the same.

A Google search exposes strange discussions about "localized" printer cartridges. You dig deeper and find other users who had problems with HP ink cartridges afther they moved from Europe to the US.

HP's support website does not say anything. But there is a cute "ask Meg" link somewhere on the HP website. You write a nice query, saying that you liked HP products in the past, and you describe your current issue. Send.

A few days later, an email from HP Germany Customer Support arrives. It says that you cannot use HP ink purchased in Europe without setting the printer to "Europe". It contains instructions on how to set your printer to "Europe".

You lose it. If you were a screaming madman, you would let out a yell that shatters the window panes. Instead, out comes a little whimper that only causes one of the cats to come over and ask "meow?" what's wrong.

Some more research confirms it. Hewlett-Packard makes printers that work with the different paper sizes of the US and Europe, that take either 240 or 110V without modification but that do not cartridges from the respective other continent.

They are sticking small chips on the bottom of otherwise identical cartridges. This way, they can sell cartridges in Europe for a lot more, and you, my dear consumer, are fucked.

A small chip and a software setting are all it takes to force you to buy their ink (other ink manufactures are locked out) at higher prices.

European consumer protection gives zip about this.

In my no longer humble opinion, this "feature" copied from the DVD and music mafia "regions",  should incur the wrath of consumers everywhere.

To me, making you buy their - and only their - ink is the same as a car manufacturer sticking chips on tyres so that you'd have to buy their tyres.  Wonder why no car maker has done that yet? Because they would be ridiculed out of business.

How long until they put a dirt cheap RFID chip in HP printer paper, so that you will get an "illegal paper" message if use the cheap Staples brand paper?

Seeing this blantant rollback of consumer choice, I regret that the tool of  class action lawsuits is not available in Germany.

Other printer makers may have followed HP's lead. Let's go paperless.

Where's our Stuff?

Wasn't there something else to talk about in the hectic first few months in your new host country?

Oh, the material possessions that define a household, right. The last time we saw those was almost five months ago on board of a truck that we had just jump started because its battery had gone dead.

The smiles of the loading crew, their gratitude for the jump start, it seemed like just yesterday.

We are camping in. The daily routines feel like camping, but with a roof over your head.

Dishes and pots came from several sources, some we bought, some we found in the basement.

Two changes of clothes make it easy for the neighbors to recognize you, but you begin to feel as if some aspects of life have slowed down while others have sped up.

First, there is an email. Your household goods have arrived in Europe, Thamesport. A short week later, the moving company arrives. The guys are sleepy after eight hours on the road, but a coffee can fix that.

You get busy, they get busy. Not long afterwards, your stuff is piled up high in the living room.
Thank god for the extra high ceilings.

Virtually all cardboard boxes are now taped up with green tape proudly displaying the seal of Homeland Security.

You have no reason to be paranoid. Nothing you packed was illegal, and you declared the five bottles of de-alcoholized wine. You shrug off the parting gift of your government and the 300 dollars they charged you for rifling through your stuff.

Shipment number 2 arrives only four weeks later, and there has been very little damage. A dent or two in a pewter goblet, a plastic washing basket that can be repaired with the duct tape you also shipped.

As you unpack and get comfortable with your old stuff in the new surroundings, there will be some occasions on which you wonder why this or that item made it into the boxes but that other one stayed behind.

You learn about progress with modern electronics. Isn't it great that your computer does not care whether you hook it up to a 240V power supply instead of 110V?

Telephone, Internet, and Satan

If you did the smart thing in planning your move, you got yourself a GSM enabled smart phone.
And you also went to great lengths to find an apartment within WIFI connectivity range of a German Starbucks. You also signed up majcJack or Skype to continue to have a US phone number and for free internet phone calls.

Well, you can see where this is going.

We were not smart. We had no GSM phone and no free WIFI in town. We had also not thought of buying a prepaid phone once we got off the plane, at one of the numerous cell phone stores run by Middle Easterners or Asians.

Instead, we found ourselves in the German countryside without phone or internet. And then the health crisis described in "Hospital, what Pain Meds?" hit.

What started as an inconvenience became a crisis faster than you can spell Krankenhaus.

The Deutsche Telekom salesman had a good day. He was ever so helpful, he unloaded thick and slick broschures on me, accepted the contract be made out in the name of the friend who had given me a ride to the shop, printed out the forms needed to transfer the contract over to me later.
Thus, my friend's signature under a 2 year contract came about.
I left the pink themed shop relieved and feeling smart. After all, I had asked the question: I have unlimited data, right?
His answer had been a succinct "yes".
When I voiced my satisfaction by telling him: "that's great, 'cause most other providers throttle the data."
He had smiled and wished me luck with the  voice and unlimted data plan at speeds of up to HSDPA.

The plan allowed connecting two devices, so, of course, I bought a modem and another SIM card to get the laptop on the blazing fast internet.

An hour later, my laptop was sucking down Microsoft Windows updates while I made phone calls on the One Euro smart phone that came with the plan.

With the laptop up to date, I checked my web email, and some forty minutes later, the old Dell became agonisingly slow, the email session timed out, and would not be restored despite valiant effort.

Next morning, still basking in the afterglow of a communication contract well done, I tried my email again. Alas, the result was identical to the night before. Could that Microsoft Windows update have broken something?

Only after a friend allowed me to use his connection, could I do some web searches to get answers. Disquiet began to emerge deep down in some emotional corner of my brain.

These long German sentences and the sometimes aggressive forum statements of Deutsche Telekom customers slowly coalesced into a jagged whole.

I had unlimited data, very true. Above a certain volume, Telekom reduced the data link speed to 64kbps, lower case b, not upper case B. The difference between lower case b and upper case B is a factor of 8. Eight times slower, or eight times faster.

I had been had.

My critical thinking was awaking from a stress induced coma, and my rudimentary arthimetic skills came to the rescue.

That Windows Update plus a few application updates, like Adobe Flash, had topped the "full speed" download volume within 3 hours. This left me with a 64 k data speed for the remaining 30 days and 21 hours of the month. I was curious to find out how much unlimited data I could consume during that time.

Still, even simple html web pages not loading, that did not jive with 64 k.
The friendly connection helped. I downloaded 2 network speed apps onto the smart phone and started my series of measurements. While on the friend's connection, I sent the first of what would become many emails to Deutsche Telekom and asked about the unlimited data. Yes, they said, you have unlimited data but after a certain volume your speed with be restricted to classic DSL. The next month, you start with the fast speed again until you reach that threshold.

By my standards, this was an organised undertaking. I measured over a total duration of two weeks, at set intervals during the day and in the evening, using both apps.

The great news was that the voice part of the plan worked. Calls to the hospital and to other people could be made. Yeaah, we had a phone plan with practically no data that cost about five times what any old phone only plan would cost.

To make matters worse, they also advertised unlimted data for landline connections and defined unlimited data as "no reduction of speed". Their pretty 100 page brochure included a footnote saying the plan I bought prohibited use of a data device, such as a laptop.
The network speed applications showed actual speeds under 100 bps (bytes per second) in more than 50 percent of measurements, and just a handful of sessions at over 500 bps.
In short, speeds lower than those of old dial-up modems two decades ago when only academics had ever heard of that internet thing.

The test series, formatted nicely as spreadheets, did not get a reaction other than "the contract is for two years". The friend who had signed the paperwork was getting nervous.

Almost elated, I found their network coverage plan. We lived in a black hole! One block in either direction, the map showed great coverage. However, we lived in a small square the map deemed not covered.

The last data point was in their terms of service. They committed to try and provide 64 kbps, of which 48 were download, the rest upload.

I cancelled the automatic bank withdrawl and sent them a termination notice, claiming bad advice (about the data volume and speed) and no advice (re the white spot on the map) as reasons for early termination of the contract.

Which got their attention.
But not in a good way. We were now in week three of the contract. Little had I known: we could have canceled in the first two weeks without giving any reason and without the slightest hassle.

Bummer. They refused to accept my cancelation, sending a payment reminder for good measure.

I started wondering. Was that how a deer in the headlights felt?

Less than a week later, their next letter. We are terminating your contract. I squinted, blinked, afraid the stress had gotten to me, but the words were still there. The attached payment reminder convinced me it was not a prank by the friend out to take revenge as he had become a shining example of "not good deed goes unpunished".

I paid the bill for the month, then waited for disconnection. On the first of the following month, a small X overlaid over the connection status icon greeted me.

The hardware, what was I supposed to do with that? From a friendly phone, I called Deutsche Telekom and asked for a return address for the hardware.

Keep it, the customer service rep said. Since we terminated the contract, you are not obligated to send back the hardware.

Thinking "WTF" but saying "oh, thank you", I ended this conversation.

Two weeks later, we had cable internet at 20 Mbps.

How Satan figures into this?

It has to do with all these tv channels we, as tv recluses, did not sign up for. But the neighbors watch TV via satellite, and many TV satellite dishes around here are emblazoned with "SatAn", an abbreviation of the German Satellitenanlage, satellite installation.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Buying and Insuring a Car

You are in the homeland of some of the world's most famous car makers, so go for it.

You will quickly realize that Beemers, Mercs, Porsches are kind of pricey. Volkswagen, too, is no longer the company that does cheap beetles or vans.

There is a good selection of quality cars, including from companies that new had a presence on the U.S. car market, like Dacia or Seat, and some U.S. favorites from Ford or GM.

Used car prices around here spiked a couple of years back after a cash for clunckers program in the wake of the Great Financial Fuckup of 2008 removed many older cars from the roads.

Take a bit of time, and you will get a good car for whatever your budget is.

If you have not opened a bank account yet, the dealer may send you off to do this. The government wants to suck the vehicle license out of your bank account.

Insurance is a different beast. When you start talking to car insurance companies, you may regret that you threw out a decade's worth of car insurance papers.

At least some insurers claim they will contact you stateside insurer and get records which will then be applied towards "good driver credits".

If you have no papers and an unwilling US insurer, be prepared to pay up to 140 percent of the maximum rates and work your way down by one grade for every two years of accident free driving.

The European car insurance market has undergone some deregulation, so it pays to shop around.

If you have had European car insurance before and, again, kept the paperwork, you may hit the jackpot. Go back to that insurer and see what they offer.

They are required to keep existing credits on the books and offer you the same rate for up to seven years after the end of the insurance.

After seven years, it is up to them what they do. It is rare but not unheard of that an insurance company will reinstate you even after 15 years. Don't bank on it, just count your blessings.

Life under the Tuscan Sun

Do not move to Germany in search of a life perceived as romantic and hip. That's what Italy and Southern France are for.

Disappointed writers or marketing exceutives losing their lustre should head south if they intend to take their new life and work it into a bestselling book and then into a movie.

Well, maybe Berlin. Berlin is hip. Like in the 1920s but without Einstein and, despite what many people will tell you, without communists. But WITH a National Public Radio (NPR) studio. Yes, my Tea Party friends and foes of Big Bird, it is true. NPR is sitting pretty in Berlin, Germany, while you are trying hard to oust that liberal from the city council of Berlin, New York, or some other Berlin, U.S.A.

Unless you move around the world within the cocoon that is the U.S. military, there will come a day when you wake up and crave somthing unattainable.

Like Cheerios.

Or Mexican food.

Or the really, really Big Sky of Montana.

Despair not. This is the 21st century, and flourishing global trade and the internet can accomplish the hitherto unknown.

You no longer need that pal on base as a commissary lifeline, now you can just be friends, with or without benefits.

You can buy Cheerios from an internet shop specialising in empty calories from all over the world.
You can make your own Mexican food by growing cilantro or buying it at the local farmers market.

And, with a large enough tv, you can have the Big Sky right in your living room.

What all of this is meant to illustrate is: the small world everybody was talking about when it was decades away in the future, that small world is finally here.

The main consequence of this for your new life in Germany is that you will likely trip over little things, such as where to say Guten Morgen, or Guten Tag, and where to say Grüß Gott, than over big things. Like that German language Mark Twain made fun of.

Translation software has improved so much. Buy a tablet, load that one translation app that is great with a wireless LAN connection. Use short sentences, and it will even talk for you.

Hospital, what Pain Meds?

As luck, luck -- really? -- would have it, our first week included a doctor visit on Friday and a drive to the local hospital on Sunday.

The lessons learned from this series of events can be summarized as follows.

It helps to have health insurance.

Which we did. In a country without HMOs, without network or out-of-network doctors, you pick a local general practitioner, trundle over there, make a co-pay of 10 Euros and get to see the doc.
The co-pay, a joke by American standards, is good for three months and also covers all referrals. What's more, the German government just last week decided to drop the co-pay because the insurers are sitting on a pile of cash.

Not all doctors are created equal.

People are people. Simple as that. Our newly found doctor needed no more than a couple of minutes and a few judicious probing pokes to diagnose a "skeletal problem". Four weeks later, a CT scan proved the man right.

Ibuprofen instead of Opiates.

What does not kill you, makes you more cynical. Searing back pain but no opiates. They really tread very lightly here when it comes to prescribing opiates. In the doctor's own words "not like in the U.S. where they hand it out like candy."
Whatever your opinion on treatment of severe pain may be, that pile of cash may, to a small extent, have to do with prescription practice.

We did end up going to the hospital a couple of days later, as the doctor had advised in case the pain should become worse.

That language barrier again.

The one week hospital stay was not so great. The food was excellent, but that does not help if you cannot eat it due to intolerance of their pain medication. Indeed, nothing stronger that something called Novalgin. With the unfortunate side effect to make some people throw up whatever calories they try to ingest. The staff in that department were friendly but some were foreign born too. The concept of English as the world's one uniting language was tested under potential live-altering circumstances -- and failed.
Once out, the local doctor continued treatment, and all worked out in the end.

As we will explain later, there is one indicator that you have been to a hospital way too often recently.

That indicator is that you can walk into any ward at 1 in the morning, borrow a cold pack, and they just ask you to be so nice and bring it back.

Getting Registered for Residency in Germany

You, and everyone else, including the Germans, for that matter needs to register with the Meldeamt at town hall or city hall. The German name of the latter has caused many an English speaker to smile when they first saw it: Rathaus.

You have about ten days or so after arrival to hit the waiting line at this office in the morning. Bring your passport and other supporting documents. If you happen to have a German spouse, you will sail through the process in mere minutes.

If you came on a work visa arrangement, your employer knows what you need to bring.

If you rent, bring a paper by the landlord saying that you live at that address.

There is no big centralized INS or USCIS in Germany. If you think, of course, they are not an immigrant country, you will want to reconsider. The lastest statistics peg the number of people in Germany from what they call "a migration background" at some 20 percent.

Not that different from the United States.

Back to that waiting line at town hall. In our case, it was a line of one. Once you are done with this, you'll need an appointment with the Ausländerbehörde, the German mini version of that INS.

You can be certain that these folks have learned a lesson or two and will generally treat you well. Notable exceptions not excluded.

I have been there before, at the very same county office as this time around. The tone and demeanour of their present crew were so different from many years ago, it was hard to believe.

Way back, the conversation went something like this:
"How big is your residence"?
"Two thousand square feet."
"Do you have a paper that shows that?"
"I own it."
"Well, anybody can make that claim."

I am sure, they did not have me on file anymore as the person who quietly left the office 20 years ago, went home, typed a letter of complaint, handed that letter in at the county commissioner's office, and returned 24 hours later to the Ausländerbehörde to accept their official apology.

Not so this time around. Friendly and professional. Left with a stamp valid for two years, just like the U.S. would do, including a work permit.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

They All Speak English! No, They Do not!

Well, it'll be so easy, they all speak English over there.

You have heard it so often that there seems to be no room for doubt. And, yes, it is true when we talk about the young generation in the cities, or about better educated older folks.

Where we live, however, the picture is more complicated, and you need some German to live a satisfactory life.

The dense network of adult education schools, called Volkshochschulen, is the go to facility for German language classes.
The name Volkshochschule shares the first word with that famous other "Volks"-thing, Volkswagen, so loosely and without irony, the Volkshochschule is the "people's college".

They are independent institutions, usually incoporated at the city or county level. They are financed through a complex mix of public funds, donations, grants, and course fees paid by the students.

As a foreigner looking to get residency status, you need to register with your local Ausländerbehörde (city hall or town hall will give you the details), and they will give you a paper about an "integration course".

The paper has two boxes, one indicates mandatory attendance of a language course, the other tells you that you "may" attend a class.

If you hand in that paper to your local Volkshochschule, you will pay next to nothing for hundreds of hours worth of class. In that case, you have to fulfill attendance requirements very much like for the school you finished years or decades ago.

[Updated] Free Smoking Paraphernalia for Kids for Christmas

Another jump to a seasonal topic.

Paraphernalia was a spelling challenge, hence the link to wordnik for both spelling and meaning.

Every year during the Christmas season, bakers in German speaking countries as well as other central European lands produce many tens of thousands of sweet bread "little people" as shown in the image below. They are traditional gifts for St. Nicklas (December 6) or St. Martin (November 11) and are typically available from late October to Christmas or so.
If you like sweet bread, get one or two of these warm out of the oven, and savor the arts of baking of old Europe.

There is a twist, which is the reason for the title of this post.

You can see the little guy below has a pipe. The pipe is made out of clay and backed with the doughman.

What's more, the pipe is fully functional, about 2.5 to 3 inches long (since the image has no dimensions attached).

This traditional pastry with the functional pipe does not seem to cause any uproar in the anti-smoking community or with anti-drug warriors.

I have to ask you, my readers, can you buy this pastry in the U.S.? In all my years, I never saw it.

And the second question would be how long could you sell this in California before anti-tobacco groups try to ban them and medical pot dispensaries would start giving away complimentary doughboys during end of the year sales?

Let me know.

Image by Micha L. Rieser licenced under Creative Commons, see

[Update 2014-11-5] Regular and frequent trips to every bakery in the county have resulted in more data on variants of decoration. Some bakeries have two versions, one with a pipe, the other plain - with a few extra raisins.
A new variant seen first this year has a lollipop instead of the traditional pipe.

[Update 2015-10-23] Saw this year's and noticed the local bakery chain only has the lollipop version. Are we seeing a lasting change and if so, why?
Lollipops are most certainly cheaper and represent a second treat. 

My Cats Do Not Speak German

If you have not been living under a rock or in a vacuum (figure of speech, not applicable to astronauts), you may have heard that animals from the same species may not understand each other in different regions of the globe.

It has been shown to be true for birds, and we can now claim that this is partly true for non-human mamals.

Our cats do understand the most basic European cat sounds and body language but they have, if you will, a distinct American accent.

Much worse, though is human German cat-speak. The critters are incredibly spooked by the stereotypical German human sound that is supposed to attract a cat. That sound is something like "pssst, psssst".
As soon as our German friend utters the first "ps...", their neck hair goes up, they turn and flee.

Isn't a hissing sound a nearly universal warning by land animals large and small? The "I hate you", or the "I'll eat you if you do not leave me alone " that cuts clear across vastly different vocal systems?

Who was that German who invented the psst, psst to communicate with cats? It is tempting to call that man, it would have been a guy, no doubt, a Neanderthal.

But we have finally found out that Neanderthals were not the silent brutes without a hint of culture we once believed they were.

Maybe it all started out as a joke, and native German cats, in their wisdom, chose to accept the call.

That Coveted German Driver License

You may never need one if you live in a big city. Even out in the country, public transportation is still pretty good after several years of decline from the level of "outstanding".

How you get that license largely depends on where you came from. The outrageously strict German system has become more managable. You can do your written test in a number of different languages, including English.

You may not need to do a behind the wheel test at all these days.

If you hail from the United States, you could be fortunate enough to be able to walk into the local German DMV (a county or city office) and swap your US license against a German license. A one page form you only need to sign, and a few weeks later you drop off the American licence and get the German one.

Information about this straight exchange is public. You can find detailed listings in German in this PDF file.

How a state gets to be on the list remains unfathomable to anyone accustomed to driving in the United States. Alabama is on, California is not, why?

If you have any control over from which U.S. state you move to Europe, plan well ahead, look at the list. Leave the pondering about constitutional questions, international treaties, and state rights to the scholars.

And enjoy that German European driver license.

What You See is What You Pay

There is a lot to say about the culture of shopping in a foreign country, and, I am sure, we will bring up some aspects in future posts.

Price labeling is my personal favorite when I come back to Europe. The price you see in the grocery store or any other store, is the price you pay.

There is no ambiguity, no guessing what amout of sales tax you are paying. If it says Euro 1.99, you are paying 1.99, not 2.20 or so.

As this example demonstrates, despite differences, the western world has embraced the .99 pricing system.
European minds work the same way as others with prices. Any opportunity to make yourself believe you paid less than you really did is warmly accepted.

Their minds also work the same way when it comes to attempts to work around transparent pricing. European airlines are almost as good as American carriers in inventing new fees, with a few weakening regulations blocking total ruthlessness.

But you continue to remain safe when shopping for groceries.

Home and the Lights are On

There are several English speaking web sites for expats in Germany, I like Toytown Germany.
Poke around, and see what they offer.

When we arrived at our new home a few hours after dark, there were a couple of surprises.

The hallway lights and the kitchen lights worked. We had power. It appeared, the previous renter had forgotten to hand in a moving notice to the utility company.

The hallway and kitchen lights were the only light fixtures left in the house. In case you do not know, when Germans move, the light fixtures and a bunch of other items considered not movable in the US will move with them.

We knew of this, so we had flashlights, which we did need in the living room, where we slept that night.

The second surprise came later that night. It may have happened to some of you, but not for the same reason.

The feeling of smooth, cold porcelain when you sit your naked behind down on a toilet in the middle of the night is stark and strange. And wakes you up instantaneously.

The resulting piercing cry will ensure that everybody else in the house is jerked out of their sleep, too.

There was no toilet seat. The renter had taken the god***** toilet seat.

A couple of days later, we found out the real reason why we had power. German utility companies leave the lights on for you. Instead of spending the equivalent of one month of power use on sending a person out to turn off power and then make another trip to turn it back on, they leave it on and eat the few kilowatt hours of electricity - if any - used by an empty house or apartment.

This is such a win-win situation that no for-profit company would do this voluntarily, you are saying?

You may be right, there is competition and some not so bad regulation.

Hit the Road, Samantha

We'll step around the mystique of German cars and German autobahns and focus on what is important when you have arrived after 12 hours up in the air in a cigar shaped metal tube.

The question is: can you safely drive in this country after a night with hardly any sleep?

The answer is: you can.

You will have to get used to the feeling that you have a lot less space than in America. Though, after half a day in an economy class seat, even Germany will feel a little like Big Sky country.
 In the old days of two Germanies, our standard description of the notion of "space" in Germany went like this: imagine the state of Alabama with 65 million people living in it.

Once you have found your rental car company, which is actually not that simple, you will pick up the car in one of the large underground parking structures.

Just so you know: Rental car rates in Frankfurt are crazy, not in a good way. An itty-bitty semblance of a car will set you back by as much as a nice eight passenger Toyota Highlander at a US airport.

If this is your first encounter with a German parking space, take a deep breath. Chances are, you will not find a single parking space in the entire country that is wide enough for you to open a car door wide enough by American standards of comfort. Unless you go to a US military base.

Before you drive out of Frankurt airport, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the car's GPS navigation system.
Oops, the cheap rental does not have one?

Go back inside the terminal and buy yourself a handheld one, or one of these antique paper thingies, a map. And while you are doing that, check in with one or two of the phone companies because your US phone may or may not work. Only the still fairly high-end GSM-enabled and SIM card capable US phones will work.

Now, head out.

Unless you manage to get seriously lost, you have a maximum of about five minutes before you hit a freeway. Use this time to clear your head and make peace with the Lord or whoever you believe in.