Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Highs and Lows August 2016

Today, August 31st, is the one-year anniversary of Angela Merkel's now-famous statement at the beginning of the peak of the refugee crisis - "Wir schaffen das" ("We will handle this"). Germany opened its arms to help the people fleeing from war, mainly from Syria but also Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, and we welcomed around a million refugees by the end of the year.

She has faced lots of criticism, some of it justified, and I won't pretend to know more than I do. However, I am glad to be here in a country where people in need have been able to come for help. I am personally grateful for the open borders that allowed people to find safety here, because as a result I have met some truly warm and wonderful people.

There are problems that still need solving. This has been and will continue to be an expensive venture. These refugees, who have already faced more horror than a person should have to face, now need to learn German grammar - which brings on a whole different type of exhaustion. They need health care, they need housing, they need job and/or language training, they want to work. While Americans argue about whether an athlete should or should not have stood during the national anthem before a football game, Germans are struggling with how best to handle and help the refugees who are here, reunite families, and help them integrate into our society and way of life.*

*Disclaimer: I realize many Americans are also dealing with serious life issues, and there are Germans who fuss about athletes and celebrities as well.

Fittingly, most of my August highs have to do with foreigners in Germany.

So here we go for August.


  • my last week teaching at the Hermann-Hesse-Kolleg language school. This wasn't a high because it was my last week, but rather because I enjoyed the week! My students were once again a really nice group of motivated learners. It was my last week because a group of American college students arrived for a 6-week intensive course, and I had opted out of teaching my Landsleute. My last group of students were dispersed into groups with the Americans, and I had two weeks off before starting to teach at the VHS (community college).
students from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Argentina, Italy, and Russia
  • meeting with a woman who works for the city of Horb about a project I have started - interviewing our local refugees about their stories and eventually publishing their stories in German in book form and online. She likes the idea and is willing to help me make this a reality.

  • meeting several of my former Syrian & Eritrean students for Kaffee und Kuchen at a local café and chatting for hours. They are such special people!

  • receiving my accreditation from the BAMF (Federal Office for Migration and Refugees) in Würzburg, which means I am officially qualified to teach at the VHS (Volkshochschule). When the director of the language program at the VHS sent in my documents, he requested a rush because the class I was to take over started in two weeks! I received it just in time, after a little prodding from the secretary of the VHS.

  • starting with a new class (they've been together a while, but I'm their new teacher because their former teacher is on family leave) at the VHS. The first week went well enough, and the students gave me helpful feedback on Friday to help me plan better for the next several weeks. The best part is that two of my former students are in the class as well as several others I know from the HHK and the Sprachcafé. It's nice to see familiar faces, and I feel privileged to be their teacher!

  • having one of my former Syrian students over to our house for an afternoon because he wasn't available when our group met at the café. I had planned on going to a nearby Biergarten, but it was way too damn hot to walk there - especially since there's little shade along the way. So we hung out here instead. He talked a mile a minute the whole time, and I am so impressed with his German! He has worked so hard, has made lots of contacts with Germans, and is very motivated. He has been in Germany for almost a year and has been learning German for nine months. I wouldn't be able to say with confidence that my German is better than his. I am so proud of him!

    He is from Aleppo, and his family is still there. One of the things he told me was that the destroyed buildings in Syria can be rebuilt. What worries him is the hundreds of thousands of children who cannot go to school. The children still in Syria can't go to school because the war is all around them and it's not safe. There are many, many other children who are living in refugee camps who also don't have schools to attend. This 19-year-old recognizes that without education, children have little hope for a decent future.

  • reading that the U.S. accepted its 10,000th Syrian refugee on Monday. Now, while I would give the U.S. the Golden Eyedropper Award for this achievement while they pat themselves on the back for it, it is at least something. 


  • seeing the picture of Omran, the little boy in Aleppo who was pulled from his bombed house and put in an ambulence. Despite the media moving on because there was an earthquake in Italy, I will not forget Omran's face. That dear little boy.

LINKS to share

this article comparing Americans' attitudes toward Jewish refugees during the 1930s and today's Syrian refugees. History is repeating itself, folks, and this time we can't claim we didn't know what we were doing.

this article by the same writer, who questions whether we care more about puppies than human refugees

That's August, folks. Bring on autumn!!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Meeting the Parents

M and I watched a fun quiz show the other night called "das Paarduell."  Celebrity couples competed against each other in various games, including trivia contests, silly games, and several versions of "Wie gut kennt ihr euch?" ("How well do you know each other?").

One of the versions of that last game went like this:

One of the pair was given an easel and a marker and told to write down five words pertaining to a given topic having something to do with them as a couple. Her partner couldn't see what she wrote down, but he had then 30 seconds to tell a story based on that topic. The couple earned 1 point for each word on the hidden list that the partner used in his story.

The first topic last night was "the first time you met his parents," and this got us to talking. M pointed out that we would have failed with that topic because he first met my parents in 1986 on their first trip to Esslingen. I was on the exchange at the time and in Esslingen, but I was not at the gathering where M and my parents met.

my Schwiegermutter on left, and my mom on the right, 1986
"Hey Mom! Twenty years from now, this boy will become your Schwiegersohn!"
The first time I was together with M and my parents was four years later when he was in Sheboygan on the exchange and I went with them, him, and another German boy up to my family's cottage for a weekend. My parents wanted to show the boys the north woods, and they brought me along as a younger person more willing to drive into bear country on a three-wheeler as well as someone who could speak German.

Northern Wisconsin, 1990
When M spoke at our wedding reception in 2006, he mentioned being slightly nervous leaving home and going to Sheboygan for the exchange. But, he said, since he already knew a really nice couple - my parents - he knew he'd have a soft place to fall if things went badly.

It doesn't work the other way either, because I first met his mum as the coordinator of the exchange program I was participating in when I arrived in Esslingen in 1986. Although M and I met each other for the first time during my six months in Esslingen, I already knew his mother well by that time.

So therefore we would not be able to describe together the moment of M meeting my parents or me meeting his mother. Often such meetings are awkward ("What if they don't like me??"  "What if I don't like them?!?"), but not for us! By the time we announced we were getting married, our parents were already close friends with each other and also with the host family M stayed with for those six months in Sheboygan. Between us all we had met often for dinners - even holiday dinners - and family fun. All there was left for them to say was, "Good choice!"

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Health Insurance, German Style

Many other bloggers before me have written about the jungle of German bureaucracy they've had to wade through in order to move here, study, get insurance, get a job, extend a stay, and so on. I never wrote about any of that because I had an easy transition. However, just to explain...

In order to remain in Germany longer than the length of a tourist's stay (i.e. to move here), I needed to apply for an (A) Aufenthaltstitel (residency permit).

In order to apply for (A), I needed (B) proof of health insurance. Health insurance is mandatory in Germany.

I could not get (B) public health insurance without having (C) a job.

In order to apply for (C) a job, I needed to have (A) an Aufenthaltstitel.

See how this works?

Truly, I have no idea how people whose husbands don't own a company navigate this nightmare. We solved it thus:
  1. I took out short-term traveler's health insurance through an American company (Sirius International), which covered me for the first month or two of my time in Germany.
  2. My husband's company hired me to teach conversational English classes to their employees once a week (which I am still doing). 
  3. With a note from my employer, I applied for public health insurance.
  4. With proof of a job, sufficient funds to support myself, and health insurance, I was able to apply for my Aufenthaltstitel.

Although I get a salary from the company, it's minimal and the monthly premium I have to pay for health insurance is quite low - less than €50 - and the company puts in the same amount. The company takes taxes, social security, and the premiums for health insurance, old-person-care insurance, joblessness insurance, and retirement insurance out of my check each month. They'd take the 8% church tax out as well if I hadn't officially (at the town hall) divorced myself from the church a few years ago to avoid this.

This year I started teaching German (that thing I was certain I would never do again) as a Dozentin (freelance teacher), and what I earn from teaching has surpassed my salary from the company. This required me to go to my insurance company and switch from Pflichtversicherung (mandatory health insurance) to freiwillige Versicherung (voluntary health insurance).

I was required to do this because the job connected to my Pflichtversicherung is no longer my main source of income. I am not allowed to just change the job that is connected to my Pflichtversicherung to my teaching job, because Pflichtversicherung is not available to freelancers. My options now are private insurance or freiwillige Versicherung. We decided against private insurance because:
  1. once you're in the private system, it's very, very difficult to get back into the public system even if your circumstances change, and
  2. while the initial premium would be less expensive than the freiwillige Versicherung, those premiums increase drastically with age, and in the long run (provided I live long enough), this option would be much more expensive.
Since we are not very good at predicting the future and I am the polar opposite of a risk-taker, we agreed that private insurance would not be the best option for me.

Right, so I applied for freiwillige Versicherung. Unfortunately the monthly premium for this insurance is based on household income, not just my income. To make this long story slightly less long, my premium, which was less than €50 per month, will now be...significantly higher.*

I could whine and bitch about this (and to be perfectly honest, I did a little). I haven't been and won't be teaching full-time, and the premium I'll have to pay is exactly one full week of my work at the VHS, or Volkshochschule (before taxes). If I went back to being a Hausfrau, I could keep paying less than €50 a month for health insurance. But how silly would that be? Teachers are needed in Germany, and I can teach (and actually enjoy it!).

I'm not going to whine, because this is part of living in a social state (or rather a social market economy). Those who can afford to do so pay more into the system so that the less fortunate are taken care of as well. M and I have a fine house, a car, employment, food on the table every night, and we can travel, dine at nice restaurants, and buy want we want and need. Why should I grumble about putting more into the system so that another family can also see a doctor when they need to? If I have what I need, I'm not going to begrudge someone else getting the help they need, especially when it comes to medical care.

I admit, now that we'll be paying more for my insurance, I'm considering actually finding a Hausarzt. So far I've only visited the Frauenarzt and the Zahnarzt because the one is required for certain pills that are wise to take at my age, and the other because I've always taken good care of my teeth. I also received great care when I inexplicably tore a groin muscle, which included an ER visit, x-rays, an MRI, and several visits to an orthopedist - and we never received a single bill. I was amazed, since such things cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket in the States even when one has health insurance.

I'm sure the system isn't perfect. But it's better than people having to go without medical care in a civilized country because they can't afford it.

*"significantly higher" = I went from what I think was the lowest possible amount one can pay to the highest possible amount.

Monday, August 8, 2016

In the News V

Goodness, it's been more than a year since I wrote one of these posts! Today, though, M told me about a story he heard on the radio that reminded me of this thread.

"I imagined Europe Differently"

A 31-year-old man from China had his wallet stolen while in Stuttgart, and instead of going to the police, he mistakenly reported to "a different office". The officials there couldn't speak Chinese and he couldn't speak German or English. They sent him to Heidelberg to a registration center - for refugees! At the center he followed the officials' instructions gestures and filled out an application for asylum. From there he was brought to Dortmund, and finally to the housing facility for refugees in Dülmen. He had to surrender his passport and visa. 

Only in Dülmen did someone happen to notice that he was very well dressed, and something didn't seem right about his situation. A helper with the German Red Cross saved the day by going to a Chinese restaurant for help. Someone there recommended they try a language app to translate between German and Mandarin. Wah-Lah*!!

It turns out he was a tourist and had planned to travel further to Italy and France to see places of interest. After two and a half weeks and additional confusion with the horrifying jungle that is Germany's bureaucracy, the man's asylum application was canceled and his passport and visa were returned to him. 

Eventually he was able to resume his trip.

8. August, 2016

Go Home, Hedgehog, You're Drunk

In the Netherlands last June a hedgehog nearly met an untimely end. The prickly fellow came upon part of a broken bottle with a fair bit of egg liqueur in it, and apparently attempted to quench his thirst by lapping up the spirits. Someone noticed the hammered little tramp lying in the road, so drunk he couldn't roll himself into a ball - which is how hedgehogs protect themselves.

The passerby notified the humane society, and Mr. Hedgehog was taken to a cell to sober up.

Sudwest-Presse, 2. June, 2015

And Speaking of Hedgehogs...

More recently the noises of two amorous paramours irritated an Erlangen resident so much that he called the police: he was hearing heavy panting somewhere outside his house. The authorities showed up and discovered a pair of love-crazed hedgehogs under the man's front steps. The little couple had been going at it in the cozy spot for twenty minutes. A hedgehog expert reported: they commonly hiss and snort loudly during their hours-long coitus ritual, and the male makes the most noise of all.

Südwest-Presse, 30. July, 2016

Have you heard any good stories in the news lately??

*My husband, whose French teacher once said to his mother that he just needed a kick in the arse once in a while, tells me it's spelled voilà.  :-)

Thursday, August 4, 2016

That is SO German...

In Germany there are clocks everywhere.
There's never an excuse for being late!

Since I have been teaching students from all over the world*, there have been many classroom discussions about what is typical for our various countries, languages, and Landsleute (countrymen and -women). I always find these talks fascinating, and I learn a lot.

We also, of course, talk about what is typical in Germany. Today something came up that made me realize just how German I am becoming.

The topic was social behavior. The Italians are laid-back and loose, they like to party and eat with friends, and it's not necessary to plan ahead for casual social gatherings. They are pretty spontaneous, and ready to drop what they're doing to have a good time. The Argentinians are much like the Italians: they enjoy hanging out with friends, they love a good festival, and it's no problem in Argentina to drop by at a friend's or family member's house without calling ahead first. They have lunch around 13:00 and then a siesta, which is nearly sacred. Dinner is often at 9:00 pm or even later.

They were amazed at the German need for planning, which they have already noticed though they haven't been here more than a week or so. "They plan SO far in advance for little things!" "You can't just say to someone, 'Want to grab a drink?' They need prior notice - several days at least - just to hang out for a while!"

I sheepishly recalled what I had been working on for the last three days - arranging a reunion of my former class to meet at a local café for Kaffee und Kuchen two weeks from now - and had to laugh at myself. Indeed, I'm settling in quite well here. I remember those students commenting on this same German quirk a few months ago. They said it seems like German life is all about Arbeit und Termine - work and appointments.

Then the Italian lass who is quartered in the apartments above our favorite local restaurant (and whom we saw last night when we dined there) piped up with a huge, incredulous smile: "She and her husband reserved a table last night for next month!" This is totally true, by the way. Hey, we were there anyway and chatting with the chef, and his reservation book was right there. Why not?

If you are invited to a German's home for coffee at 10:15,
this is when you should show up. Plan accordingly.

That was when one of the Argentinians mentioned that it's no problem to drop in unannounced at someone's house. I said, "Um Gottes Willen, don't ever do that in Germany!" Perhaps this is more of a Swabian thing than a German thing, I really don't know. But I've seen the face M pulls when our doorbell rings - even during the lunch hour when it's probably the postman with a box from Amazon!

The students asked me how it is in the US - are the Americans so punctual and anal about appointments and prior arrangements as the Germans? I said it's different there. When an American acquaintance tells you, "Let's get together soon/next week/after work some day", it means nothing. It's a variation on "See ya!" and you'll likely never hear from the person again. What's more, if you approach him or her again and say, "You suggested getting together soon. How about tomorrow?" the American will look at you with that "Huh?" look and start grappling for excuses why tomorrow won't work.

For appointments in the US, you should be on time, but you'll sit and wait a while anyway, so bring something to read. It's even standard in doctors' offices to find a sign saying, "If you have been waiting longer than 45 minutes, please let us know." When you report that to them, you'll hear, "The doctor will be right with you." And then you'll wait a while longer. [What's missing from the sign is "We're not going to do anything about it, but we know telling us will make you feel better."] Incidentally, German doctor offices don't bother with that sign. Despite the German emPHAsis on punctuality, you'll wait and wait at a doctor's office (unless you're privately insured), and they don't care.

This German/Swabian quirk fits me perfectly, though. I'm tired of the "Sure, let's get together soon" thing, so if we're going to do something, let's put it in the calendar. Then I'll plan around our get-together and won't let anything else get in the way. I received an email just the other day from a woman to whom I proposed a project for the Horb website. She responded and said, "Perhaps we should meet and discuss this. Are you free on Thursday next week at 7:00 pm?" Yep, I am. The appointment is now in my calendar and I will be there. This all seems perfectly logical to me. But to the laid-back personalities, it seems stiff and rigid. I get that, but I still prefer it the German way: clear, consise, organized.

I'm having visions of Sheldon from "Big Bang Theory" and his bowel-moving schedule. Somewhere behind his southern Baptist roots also lingers a German, I am sure.

That train's leaving at 15:18, I assure you. Not 15:20.
You late, you wait (for an hour for the next train).

Esslinger Rathaus with its astronomical clock;
not only do you know what time it is, but also
which zodiac sign we're in.

There are clocks here on Medieval town gates

Sometimes all you get's a sundial.
Still - watch the time, and have a Plan B
on a cloudy day.

*To date my students have hailed from
    the Ukraine
    Saudi Arabia
    Switzerland (the Italian-speaking part)
    the Dominican Republic