Death On The Brain

Every once in a while, a conversation with my German friends takes a rather unexpected turn, or reveals a facet of cultural divide that I hadn’t ever imagined before.

Earlier this week, I was chatting online with Jenny (my usual partner in crime) and I stumbled across an image someone had posted to FaceBook.  I thought it was hilarious, so I shared it with her.

grim

Her reaction?  “I don’t know what the grim reaper is.”

I was incredulous for a moment, but then I realized how fascinating this is, so we talked a bit more and I asked some followup questions.   She did know the Grim Reaper, as it turns out, but only by the German names.  In Germany,  he’s referred to as Sensenmann (Scythe Man), or as  Väterchen Tod (Father Death).

The things that are “common knowledge” for someone who grew up in the United States are often wildly different than that of someone who grew up in Germany or England or almost anywhere else.

Have you learned that something which you thought was common knowledge that turned out not to be?

erdnusscreme

America vs. Deutschland: A partial list.

During my time here in Germany, I’ve been spending roughly two weeks in the United States out of each year.  Last year, it was the week immediately after Thanksgiving and the first week of December.  This year, it was the first two weeks of November.

Spending two weeks back in the States puts a strong focus on the differences between the two countries.  It reminds me of what I miss about living in the US, and it suggests the things that I might miss when I return home at the end of my contract here.

Whenever someone asks me what I miss most about being away from the US, I skip over the obvious- friends and family- and go right to food.  I miss tater tots.

There are dozens of potato preparations in Germany, but none of them are precisely the same as the tot, nature’s perfect fried potato cylinder.  I’ve tried to explain tater tots to native Germans, and there’s always a bit of a blank expression.  I’m digressing a bit, though.  Let’s start the comparison.

America wins: Tater tots.  And steak.  My German colleagues all go to steakhouses any time they have a trip to the United States, because the steaks here just aren’t quite as good.  I don’t know if it’s the meat preparation or if it’s just the different types of cows.  Steaks are just better in the United Steaks of America.  There’s a variety of other food areas where the US takes the lead.  It’s rare to find good Tex-Mex here, which is why every time I’m in the US I try to hit Tijuana Flats with my brother.

Germany wins:  Inexpensive beer.  I read somewhere that they actually had to pass legislation to ensure that there would always be at least one beverage on a bar menu less expensive than beer.  I don’t know if this is true, but it has the flavor of truth, because beer is dirt cheap here.  It’s also damn tasty.

America  wins: Shopping at 2am.  Or on a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes I like to do my grocery shopping in the middle of the night, and nobody does 24 hour availability like the Americans.  In most places in Germany, the sidewalks roll up at around 8pm.  Everything for shopping is closed on Sundays, with certain exceptions.  Restaurants are usually open.  Movie theaters are usually open.  There are typically one or two pharmacies that are designated as 24 hour locations for emergency situations.  Shopping locations inside of Bahnhofs often have special Sunday hours as well.  If you want to do your clothing shopping or most grocery shopping, Sundays are right out.

Germany wins:  Relaxing Sunday afternoons.  Having one day that you can’t run errands outside of the house is actually kind of peaceful.  After living here for a while, I’ve found that it’s nice to just chill out on Sunday afternoons.

America wins:  Comfortable and large bedding.  The bedding sizes are smaller in Germany.  The largest size bed you can purchase in an Ikea is actually not much different than an American “Full” bed.  I moved here with my Queen-sized sheets, and they’re actually too large for my large Ikea bed.  I can still use them, but I have to tuck a tremendous amount of fabric under the mattress.    German beds don’t have box springs either, and the mattresses tend to be thinner.  Whenever I go to a hotel that has American-style bedding, I get a very, very good night’s sleep.

Germany wins: Smart and efficient bedding sizes.  I hated the German bedding sizes at first, but I’ve grown to appreciate the genius of it all.  Most German couples have two smaller comforters instead of one large one-  that way, each person gets their own and there’s nobody hogging the covers.  I’m still of mixed mind about the giant square pillows that are typical here, but they’re not all bad.

America wins:  Apartment shopping.  When you look for an apartment in the US, you go to an apartment complex, review floor plans, see a model, and pick one that’s becoming available in the near future.  Apartment complexes try to woo your business.  When you move in, they have closets, kitchen appliances, cabinets, and clothing washers.  These amenities are all selling points.  The refrigerators are all full sized, too.

In Germany, apartments are a real-estate transaction. You have to use a sort of real estate agent called an Immobilien, sometimes called a Makler.  They’ll show you apartments and you’ll pay an outrageous fee to the Immobilien for whichever one you select.  An apartment in Germany will not typically have any closets, so you have to buy something like an Ikea Pax wardrobe to store your clothing.  You have to specifically look for built-in kitchens because the normal German apartment does not come with any appliances.  If you are lucky to find built-in kitchen appliances, the waist-height refrigerator is far more common than a full sized fridge.  German kitchens don’t usually have in-sink disposal units either.   I still don’t know how to get rid of certain types of food items without just throwing them away.  One helpful colleague suggested using the toilet, but that won’t work for everything.

Germany wins:  Mayonnaise in a tube.  I cannot understate how amazing it is to not have to spend time trying to get the last of the mayo out of those small-necked jars they sell in the US.  I always wind up getting mayo on my knuckles and having to wash my hands immediately afterwards.  Mayo and mustard in toothpaste-styled tubes is brilliant because you can roll up the tube to get hte last bits.

tubes

America wins:  Cookies.  Germans don’t quite understand the art of the cookie.  It’s not a common item in German bakeries, and when you do find them, they don’t taste quite right.  The Ebner bakery near my office has a chocolate chip cookie which plainly shows a lack of understanding of the art.  The thing is three-fourths of an inch thick, with a larger diameter than any cookie has any right to have.  The best cookies I’ve had in Germany have been at the Subway restaurant chain, or at the San Francisco Coffee Company, another chain I was surprised to find here.    The cookies at Starbucks and McDonald’s don’t quite cut it here-  the American Starbucks cookies are better than those of the German Starbucks.

Clearly, I would write a great deal more about cookies.  I love cookies.  I’ll spare you the tedium, though, and move on.

Germany wins:  Everything else in the bakery.  The fresh breads, pretzels, pastries, and regular cakes are all amazing.    For a while, my breakfast every day was from the bakery.  I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been because I can’t stay away from the beer and pretzels.

There’s something here called a Butterbreze – a buttered pretzel.  Basically, they take a fresh baked pretzel, cut it in half, slather butter on the exposed breading, and slap it back together as a pretzel-and-butter sandwich.  They’re amazing and deadly and altogether addictive.

America wins:  The sheer volume of choice available in grocery stores.    This picture of the peanut butter and jelly aisle in an American  grocery store is my only defense for this point.  Yes, I said peanut butter and jelly aisle.

erdnusscreme

Germany wins:  The wide variety of non-dairy and meat-free options in the grocery store.  America is great for a wide variety of brands for most things, but the vegetarian and lactose-free set has more support in grocery stores here than I’ve ever seen in the US.  I do miss the Silk brand of soy milk, but there are plenty of options here that make up for its absence.

America wins:  Birthdays and Anniversaries.  In Germany, the custom is that on your birthday or anniversary, you bring the food to the office.  You pay for people you invite to your own birthday dinner.  The American custom is to make the person having the birthday the guest of honor.

Perhaps this custom arose from a desire to have people keep celebrations to themselves.  I don’t know, but I hate it.  I do not want to bring pizza to the office on my anniversary.  I do not want to bring cake to the office for my own birthday.  I would much rather just not tell anyone when my birthday is in the first place.

Germany wins:  Public transportation.  Unless you live in a major city in the United States, the public transportation pretty much sucks.  In South Florida, you need a car to get by- taking the bus takes five times as long, even for short distances.  In Germany, you can get anywhere in Germany using public transportation.  Inside most cities, you can get almost anywhere you need to go with the bus system.  In bigger cities, you have S-bahn (streetcars) and U-bahn (subway) systems as well.   I’ve been able to travel from my apartment to Amsterdam, to Prague, to Vienna, to Salzburg, to Berlin, and even just to my job without ever requiring a car.

That’s not to say that there aren’t down sides.  There are still some more remote or rural locations which have little bus coverage.  Bus lines tend to stop running around midnight in most places, so you have to plan ahead.  When waiting at bus stops, you’re at the mercy of nearby smokers (and there’s a lot more smokers in Europe then there are in the US).  In the summertime, you also have to contend with the reality that most bus lines don’t run air conditioners, and the guy next to you might not have showered since Christmas.

All in all though, it’s still better than driving in Miami.

poop-shelfAmerica wins:  Toilets.  I’m not even talking about the dreaded European washout toilet or shelf toilet- those things are disgusting and I don’t like the idea of seeing my business before I flush.  I’d rather it just disappear into the water, never to be seen again.  Luckily, I don’t have one of those poop catchers, so I’m spared that weirdness.

No, my issue with toilets is that it’s just really difficult to keep them clean here.  In the US, you can just pop a bleach tablet in the tank and that’ll keep things from growing inside your bowl.  They don’t sell the super strong chemicals here that they sell in the US, though, and so you have to brush your toilet at least twice a week, just to keep things from looking sketchy.  Additionally, the weaker strength of toilet cleaning products here means that I go through significantly more of those little things that dangle inside the bowl to treat the water than I would in the US.

stallGermany wins:  Fully enclosed bathroom stalls.  The majority of the toilet stalls in public restrooms here have fully enclosed floor-to-ceiling doors.  I was used to the American version where there are gaps from floor to shin and where the top is open.  I thought it was strange when I first arrived, but I totally get it now.  After two years with proper stalls, using the more open version that you find in the US left me feeling kind of exposed.

This is a good stopping point for this list.  I could probably keep listing like this for a good long while, but I need to save something for the mandatory comparison post that every ex-pat blogger writes when they have to go back home and repatriate.   As you can see, Germany and the US both have their strong points.  There are definitely things I’ll miss about Germany when I leave in a year, but the most important thing for me is that it’s never felt like home.

Fellow ex-pats: Do you find any of the differences between your homeland and your current home to be interesting or unsettling?

11doctors-50th

Grokking Expatriates In Sci-Fi*

I was having a conversation with Spring about Doctor Who, as we often do, and it occurred to me that The Doctor is actually an expatriate.

That’s really what this blog is about-  I started to write here originally just to tell my family and close friends what I was up to during my time in Germany.  Over time, however, my blog evolved into more than that-  I talk about life as an expat, and I talk about things that are different from life back in the US, different from the life I knew before last year.

Every third or fourth time I use the word expatriate, or expat for short, someone asks me what it means.  An expatriate is just somebody who lives outside of their native country, whether that be temporary or permanent.  The original meaning of the word referred to people who were permanently exiled or who had renounced their homes, but the word is used much  more generically now to describe anyone living outside their home country.

Doctor WhoIf you broaden the definition slightly of expatriate from country to planet, you can posit that the Doctor is actually an expat.   His homeworld is Gallifrey, a planet that is lost forever in time, but he spends an awful lot of time on Earth, hanging out with humans and generally getting involved with the culture.  That, my friends, is what an expatriate does.  Most of us don’t spend quite as much time running as the Doctor,  though, with the possible exception of Mandi.

Talking about the Doctor as an expatriate got me thinking about all the other expats scattered throughout geeky pop culture, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of them.  Since I’m a huge list-making nerd, this naturally led to me making a list of some of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy expats from movies, television, comics, and books.  There are far too many to include in one sitting, but these are some of my favorites.  I separate most of them into one of four basic categories: Last Of My Kind, Stranded, Out Of Time, and Expat By Choice.

The Doctor falls into the Last Of My Kind grouping.

jonnjonnzAnother memorable example of the last of his kind is J’onn J’onnz, the Martian Manhunter.  J’onn has taken on the human secret identity of John Jones, and he works as a police detective.  Here we encounter a major genre caveat:  Almost all comic book characters have had their story told and retold so many times that there are numerous versions, numerous origins, and numerous backstories.  J’onn was not always the last of his kind, and certain versions of him have other martians around.  In current continuity, there are green martians and white martians- J’onn is a green.  In most of the versions though, J’onn spends much of his non-crimefighting time observing and trying to understand humanity.

bigblueContinuing on in comics, we have perhaps one of the most famous expatriates of all time:  Kal-El of Krypton. Sent to earth by his father to escape a dying planet, baby Kal is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, and is raised as their son, Clark Kent.  The story of Superman is so well known in our shared popular culture that even people who don’t read comics tend to have at least some knowledge of the story.  One interesting question where Superman is concerned, however:  In most versions of his story, Kal-El really knows very little of the cultural heritage of Krypton.  He was raised on Earth, as an Earth child.  Does this mean he’s not really an expatriate?

I could go on and on about expats in comics, since many of the comic book heroes are living outside their home countries.   As my friend Frank Fradella put it when I bounced the idea for this post off of him, “…and geez… the entire “new” X-Men were expats. Storm, Colossus, Banshee, Sunfire, Nightcrawler.”  Frank is right-  if I keep listing comic book expats, we’ll never get around to other fun characters.  Let’s move on to the Stranded expats.

While most expat stories in the sci-fi/fantasy genre tend to be fish out of water stories, it’s a pretty common trope to have people stuck somewhere, trying to get home.  Heck, that’s the entire premise of Star Trek: Voyager.  I don’t count them as expatriates, though, because they’re living in a community of their own kind (i.e. on board Voyager) and they’re not really integrating into the society around them as much as they’re just passing  through.  Star Trek: Voyager is the sci-fi equivalent of an American Army base in Germany- just passing through, folks.

farscapeOften, however, the characters who fit this category are stuck.  They want to go home, but don’t know a way.  Like John Crichton in Farscape.  John is an astronaut and test pilot.  In the first episode of the series, he’s flying his module, Farscape One, and he is pulled into a suddenly appearing wormhole.  When he exits the other side, he’s in the middle of a battle between the Peacekeepers, a human-looking species called the Sebacean, and a group of escaped prisoners of various alien species aboard Moya, a living ship.  He’s pulled onboard Moya, and the rest of the series is a combination of his adventures with that group and his attempts to get home.

flashgordonFlash Gordon‘s story is not all that different than John Crichton, although in the wonderfully campy 1980 movie version, he’s not an astronaut, he’s a professional football player. (The original 1930s version had him as a polo player.)   During a series of pretty ludicrous events, he gets launched into space, and crash-lands on Mongo, before getting into a series of adventures with the various peoples of that world.  Flash adapts amazingly well, and ultimately winds up saving the various different nations of Mongo from their evil overlord, Ming The Merciless.  There have been other versions of Flash’s story, but the 1980 version is my favorite, partially because of the amazing Queen rock-score for the film, but mostly for the amazing cast, including Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, Max von Sydow as Ming, and the amazing Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan:

Gordon's alive?

Moving on, then.  The television series Land Of The Lost counts as a Stranded expat story, because the Marshall family (father Rick, children Will and Holly) accidentally moves through a dimensional portal and spends the rest of their time dodging dinosaurs and Sleestaks (humanoid reptilian bad guys) and trying to get back home.  I have no particular fondness for this series, but I like saying “Sleestak.”

Another great expatriate character who is stuck away from his home is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkel Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, known to most as the Wizard of Oz.  As with comics, there are many different versions of this character.  In some versions, he’s fairly benificent.  In the original book version, he really just wanted to go home.  In the musical Wicked, (my favorite version, incidentally,) he’s actually kind of a dick.

kevinflynnIn another of my all time favorites, the TRON series, Kevin Flynn has a rather interesting version of being stuck in another place. Since 1989, Flynn has been living in the Grid, a fictional virtual reality world.  We don’t really see much of Flynn’s life on the Grid, because the movie follows his son, Sam Flynn.  Still, it’s evident from what you do see that he has established a remarkable life for himself there.

fordprefectUp until this point, all of my Stranded examples have been humans.  However, one of my favorite expatriate characters isn’t human at all.  He is, in fact, from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.   Ford Prefect, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series, has been in many formats-  books, television shows, radio shows, a movie, comic books, trading cards-  the version pictured to the right is the movie Ford, played by Mos Def.  I prefer the book and radio show versions of Ford, but it was much easier to find a picture of the movie version.   Ford is a roving researcher for the titular Hitchhiker’s Guide.  He came to Earth to research it for the book, and got stuck for fifteen years.

We can go in with the Stranded examples for pages and pages, but I think it’s Time to move onto the Out Of Time category.  (See what I did there?)  These are characters who wind up stuck outside of their own time, like Booster Gold.  I said I wouldn’t do any more comic book heroes in this list, though.

fryI didn’t say anything about cartoons, though.  Take Philip J. Fry, in Futurama for example.  In the pilot episode of the series, Fry is a pizza delivery man who gets accidentally (ish) frozen in a cryogenic tube for one thousand years.  He wakes up in the future, and starts working as a delivery boy (naturally) at Planet Express, a delivery company owned as a side-business by Fry’s distant, distant, very distant nephew, Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth.  A quick side-note about Futurama-  this show is insanely smart at times.  From the earliest episodes, the creators plotted out certain things that get threaded throughout the series.  For example, in the future world of Futurama, owls have become vermin and pests, not unlike city rats of the present day.  Don’t believe me?  Watch the show again from the beginning, and watch for owls.

Bidi-bidi-bidi.Getting back to our expats in time, we have Buck Rogers.  Buck is another old character who has been in movies, television shows, comics, and even video games.  The version most people know about is the 1979-1981 television show Buck Rogers, in which he’s a shuttle pilot who accidentally gets frozen for roughly 500 years. Once revived, he joins the Earth Defense Directorate, finds love, and gains a pet ambuquad named Twiki, a little robot who seems to have been designed to cash in on the popularity of C3PO and R2-D2 from the newly released film Star Wars.

I can’t believe it never occurred to me before right now as I write this sentence that Buck Rogers + Flash Gordon = Farscape.  Hmm.

Enhance your calm, John Spartan!As with all my other examples of expats stuck out of time, John Spartan of Demolition Man was crygenically frozen.  Whatever happened to a good old time machine?  John Spartan is a cop, sent to CryoPrison in 1996.  They wake him up about forty years later to stop another escaped cryoprisoner, the dastardly Simon Phoenix.  You can tell that Simon is the bad guy because his hair is an unnatural yellow-white color.

Let’s move on to the Expat By Choice category.  I could reference Wonder Woman’s decision to leave Themyscira, but dang it, I said no more comic book heroes.

chewbaccaIn the Star Wars universe, Chewbacca could loosely be considered an expat.  He isn’t hanging out on Kashyyyk with the other Wookiees.  However, expanded universe canon states that he fled his home-world when the Empire enslaved the rest of the Wookiees to get construction of the Death Star back on schedule.  This means that technically, Chewie is more of a refugee than an expatriate.  Additionally, since he travels with his friend and business partner Han Solo to fulfill his life-debt (long story), Chewbacca isn’t really embracing the culture of any specific new place.

While I would love to say that Babylon 5 is full of expatriate characters, it really only has two:  Sinclair and Sheridan.  Both of them go to live on Minbar at different points in the series.   The rest don’t quite match the definition of expatriate because the different species on board Babylon 5 all have their own groupings.  You rarely see a Pak’mara hanging out with the Gaim, for example, and you would never see a Drazi living on the Vorlon homeworld.  It just isn’t done.   Babylon 5 is a merchant outpost and a travel hub, and although it’s referred to as a city in space in the opening credits, it really isn’t.  B5 is run primarily by EarthForce, and it has no predominant single culture.

spockSimilarly, Star Trek is full of characters who seem to fit the role of expat at first, but perhaps aren’t textbook examples.  We have characters like Quark on Deep Space Nine, and Worf on board the Enterprise (and later, Deep Space Nine.)  Quark is a merchant, and since the station is a trading post, he’s not really adopting the culture of a new home-world.  As for Worf, he has Kal-El’s problem.  Worf may have been born a Klingon, but he was adopted by and raised by humans.  His primary culture is the one that he’s most commonly in touch with.  Worf isn’t an expatriate at all.  He falls into a slightly different category though, and I’ll touch on that a little bit later on.  Lastly, from my Star Trek examples, there’s Spock.  Spock was raised on Vulcan, but one of his parents was human.  He chooses to live in Starfleet, which is mostly populated by humans.  Even later in his timeline, when he becomes an Ambassador, he mostly sticks around Earth until his eventual trip to Romulus for reunification efforts between the Vulcans and Romulans.

teal'cNow that we’ve covered Star Wars and Star Trek, I would be remiss to leave out the third Star* franchise, Stargate.  Teal’c is another character that looks human, but isn’t quite human.  He is a Jaffa, which is a genetically modified human with an abdominal pouch so that he can serve as an incubator for a larval Goa’uld symbiote.  It’s not as icky as it sounds, because the symbiote grants its host Jaffa enhanced strength, health, and longevity as well as rapid healing.  The Jaffa are also an enslaved race at the beginning of the series, serving as military forces to the System Lords, who are the initial run of bad guys in the show.  I’m vastly oversimplifying the sequence of events here, but Teal’c defects to the SG1 team and goes back to Earth in the pilot episode of the series.    He becomes a valuable member of the team, and he even tries to live outside of Stargate Command in a regular apartment at one point in the series.  Naturally, he wears a hat to cover up the gold embossed tattoo on his forehead whenever he’s out in public.

spikegilesMeanwhile, back in Sunnydale, we have a couple of Brits living in America.  One of them is Giles, a Watcher, and the other is Spike, a vampire.  (I won’t get into Liam… sorry, Angelus here, because his Irish accent was just too horrific for words.)  The expats in Buffy The Vampire Slayer tend to be much more like the textbook definition of expatriate.  Giles is sent to Sunnydale by the Watcher’s Council, and that’s not all that different than me being sent to Germany for my job.  As for Spike, I suppose when you’ve lived for a hundred years or more, it makes sense to try to live somewhere different.

travelinmattAlso in the Expat By Choice category is Uncle Traveling Matt, a Fraggle who spends most of his time exploring “Outer Space,” his term for the normal human world the rest of us inhabit.  Matthew is the quintessential exploring expatriate, constantly evaluating the culture and norms around him, even if his observations are more Jane Goodall than Terry Gilliam.  (For those of you that know me well, you know I couldn’t do a list like this without including at least one Muppet.)

A few paragraphs back, I mentioned that Worf isn’t an expatriate, and that he falls into a different category than the rest of this list.  That category is Third-Culture Kids. A third-culture kid, or trans-culture kid, in the real world is usually the child of an expatriate.  For example, an American couple has a child while living in Germany.  The child is American-born, but German by culture.  When the family relocates back to the country of their passports, the child has to deal with this cultural divide.  Third-Culture Kids are often multilingual, and are very often accomplished.  However, adjusting to their passport country after years of living in other cultures can be incredibly difficult and can take a great deal of time.  This is Worf in a nutshell, although he didn’t reintegrate with Klingon culture until very late in his life.

valentinemichaelsmithMy favorite literary Third-Culture Kid would have to be Valentine Michael Smith, the man from Mars, in Heinlein’s amazing novel, Stranger In A Strange Land.  Mike to his friends, Smith is the biological child of Mary Jane Lyle Smith and Captain Michael Brant of the Envoythe first ship to travel to Mars.  The fate of the Envoy crew is unknown for twenty years, and when another ship finally arrives to investigate, they find that Mike is the Envoy’s only survivorSince Mike was raised by Martians, he went the first twenty years of his life never seeing any other human, and he spoke and thought in Martian at the beginning of the story.  Michael Smith is an incredibly intelligent character, and it didn’t take him long to pick up most of the language, but the first two thirds of the novel deal with his adaptation to a completely alien culture- that of Earth- in a very detailed and fascinating way.

These are some of my favorite expatriates from Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Comic Book culture. What are some of your favorites?

*Don’t know what Grokking means?  I guess you should read Stranger In A Strange Land, then.  I’m off to MegaCon in Orlando this weekend, so you can tell me what you thought of it after I get back.

More observations on Germany.

It’s time for another list of random stuff that I find fascinating!  Ready?  Go!

Paper sizes:  In the US, the most well known paper sizes are letter (8.5 x 11 inches) and legal (8.5 x 14 inches), and then there’s a bunch of smaller sizes for envelopes and such.  The sizes here in Germany are metric, and the closest match to what I’m used to would be the A4.  You can see from the chart below that the A4 size is a little larger than Letter, and a little shorter than Legal.  After looking at the chart, I have decided that I will only write notes to people now using A0 sized paper.

papersizes

Mayonnaise and Mustard tubes:  A common mayo and mustard delivery system here is the toothpaste tube style.  While you can get the jar form that Americans are used to, there are lots of brands that show up in this form factor.  I was weirded out by this at first, but I’ve grown to kind of love this-  no more hunting around for a smaller spoon just to get the last bit of mayo out of the jar-  you just roll this down like toothpaste.  And the nozzle is star-cut so it even makes the mayo pretty. A further note about mayo here-  they separate the mayo into two types, deli mayo and salad mayo.  I still haven’t really figured out the difference other than a slight change in consistency.  I prefer deli mustard based entirely on the logic that deli sandwiches are delicious.

thomymayo

Laundry: I bought a washing machine for my apartment a few months after I arrived, and my friend Jenny promptly named it Gretel.  That’s fine, it seems like a Gretel to me also.  It’s not common to also have a dryer here, and so my laundry  mostly drip dries.  When I do want to use a dryer, I go to a nearby laundromat.  It’s the same basic idea as laundromats in the US- a row of coin-operated washers and dryers in a shop not far from the Altstadt.

The picture below is the main controls for Gretel the washer.  After an entire year with this washer, I still have no idea what most of these functions do.  Although to be fair, I didn’t understand most of the functions on my washer back in the US either.

gretel

Dry cleaning: I don’t know if this is just where I go or if it’s everywhere, but in the US, when I drop off my dry cleaning, they give me a ticket, and then I pay when I pick it up.  Here, I pay when I drop it off.  Aside from that, dry cleaning is pretty much identical here, though.  Hey, it can’t all be strange and unusual, right?

tschiboTchibo:  When I first arrived in Germany, I was thoroughly confused by Tchibo.  I couldn’t tell what their deal was-  they seemed to have coffee, dishes, and lingerie.  I’ve since learned that being a coffee cafe is their main focus, but that they rotate other products through just to be contrary and confusing.  My iPhone is also confused by Tchibo.  I was making a note about it to myself, and the iPhone auto-corrected Tchibo to ‘Tax Hobo.’

Also, their logo is supposed to represent a steaming coffee bean as far as I can tell, but I can’t look at it now without seeing it as a swimming sperm.  (Damn it, Heather, this is your fault!)

plungersPlungers: Ok, there’s nothing really different about plungers here, I just like this picture of a giant bin of plungers for sale in the Globus.  When I first got my apartment, I needed a plunger, and I bought it in the Globus.  I didn’t know how to ask for a plunger in German, and the woman I asked didn’t really speak very much English.  I used the word for plunger that came up in my handy dandy translation app, and it was spectacularly unhelpful.  Undeterred, I mimicked the motion of plunging a toilet, and the recognition on her face was immediate and clear.  She guided me right to where they were in the store.

I still have that plunger, by the way-  it’s in the shower, which is what I bought it for.  My shower drain is occasionally stubborn, and requires a good shower-plunging.

werner Werner: This is Werner.  He’s a robot in a local store called Conrad.   Conrad is sort of like if Radio Shack, Best Buy, a hardware store, and a hobby store all had a freaky four-way and had a child as a result.  I bought my television at Conrad.  I also bought a Mac Mini there.  They sell electronics, power tools, hobby items, remote controlled vehicles, and more.  Their catalog is this enormous thick affair that rivals the Sears catalogs they used to send out once a year.  The reason I wanted to show you guys Werner is that he can help you find stuff in the store.  When he’s not already helping someone, he hangs out near the front doors.  If you use his screen to select a specific type of product, he will guide you there.  The first time I saw a small group of people being led through the store by this friendly fellow, I was kind of enthralled because hey, I’m still basically a ten year old boy.

Snow Plows: They have snow plows in the US too, but I’d never seen one outside of a television screen because I lived in Florida.  As a life-long Florida resident, any technology that is used expressly for dealing with cold stuff is just fascinating to me.  They come in all sizes!  Here’s one that’s sidewalk sized and one that’s street sized.

plow1 plow2

Expat Tools

I was having a conversation with Alex of Ifs Ands & Butts about how we get our respective television fixes,and I realized that there’s a good blog post in talking about some of the technological tools that I use to get by in Germany without losing my mind.   I suppose I should post a Disclaimer: I have not been paid, sponsored, or otherwise compensated for endorsing anything in this post.  It’s just stuff I find useful for getting by outside my home country.

This list really falls into three categories-  Websites, Software/Apps, and Hardware.  Let’s start with the software.

iTunes11

iTunes:   Let’s start out with one of the two most important applications for maintaining my sanity.  Not only does this contain my music collection, without which I would be a ravenous, rabid beastie, but it also lets me rent movies from time to time, and it lets me purchase season passes for a few cherished television shows that I would be very sad to miss out on.  I mostly watch these programs and rented movies at home, but if I know I have a very long flight coming up, I sometimes rent a movie or two and load them onto an iOS device just to help pass the time in transit.  I use a variety of other methods to maintain my ridiculous volume of television viewing; this is just one of the methods I use.

SkypeSkype: This is the second important sanity-maintenance application.  Skype is a VoIP (voice over IP) application that lets you talk to people in several different ways.  It has an instant messenger function, for basic text communication, it carries voice, and it also does video chat.  Skype-account to Skype-account calls are always free, but that’s not where the true power of Skype lies.  The real strength of Skype is that it can call out to the existing phone network.  This means you can speak to people on their regular cell phones and land lines for a fraction of the regular telephone cost.  I bought fifty dollars of Skype credit roughly eight months ago and even with regular calls back to family members in the US, I haven’t run out yet.   It’s important to note that this is both a computer app and an iOS application.  I sometimes run Skype just for voice calls from my phone, and the sound quality is every bit as good as a normal phone call.  Lastly, I paid a little bit extra for what is called a Skype-In Number.  This is a local phone number in an area code of your choosing which connects directly to your Skype account.  In my case, I got an area code 561 phone number because the majority of my family and friends are in 561, a South Florida area code.  If they dial that 561 number, it costs them nothing more than any other local phone call, and it dials my Skype account directly.  If I don’t have Skype running, they get sent to voice-mail.   This is a thing of beauty.

A Slingbox:  Some people have access to HBO Go and Showtime Anytime accounts.  For those that don’t, a Slingbox is another useful way to view US-bound television.  The trick with a Slingbox, however, is that you have to have someone back in the US willing to leave it attached to their television.  Preferably someone who doesn’t mind if you occasionally take control of their television to view it remotely.  I no longer have a Sling of my own, but I do have a friend in a town outside of Chicago who lets me access his Sling from time to time.  It can be quite nifty.

Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, and Other Entertainment Websites: Each of these is a source of video or audio entertainment.  Spotify is now accessible in Germany, but it wasn’t when I got here.  There are various entertainment websites out there which help to complete the fabric of my pop culture addiction.  I make daily visits to The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Rachel Maddow Show online.  Of course some of these aren’t visible from outside of the United States, which brings me to…

hidemyassA VPN: A VPN, or “Virtual Private Network,” is a service that can be used in many different ways.  Many companies use them to help a remote worker access an internal network, or to help secure the work being done.  For an Expat, though, a VPN is most valuable as a means of making the Internet at large believe that you’re on an IP in the United States.  Why is this useful?  Many entertainment websites, because of International copyright and licensing laws, restrict access from connections outside of the US.  In order to access Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, and a bevy of other sites, you need to have an IP address that appears to be inside the United States.  There are many different VPN services out there.  The one I use is entirely software, from a company called Hide My Ass.  I’ve also seen hardware VPNs.  These usually consist of a specially programmed router that you purchase, and the VPN connection is handled automatically by that piece of hardware.

There are also several methods to catch up on your television that are of questionable legality.  I do not condone these next two methods, but I’m including them here for completeness:

      1. There are sites that will stream shows, such as watch32.com and movie2k.to
      2. There are torrents.  Sites like showRSS in tandem with a proper BitTorrent client can help you to grab shows as they air.

Google_translateGoogle Translate and Leo: Both of these exist as both mobile apps and Websites.  Google Translate helped me through my first few months, especially in the grocery store.  It has the nifty feature of allowing you to speak a word or phrase in German to your phone, and it will attempt to translate using basic voice recognition.   It will also pronounce things for you using simple speech synthesis, which can also be extremely useful. However, Google Translate isn’t always the most precise translator, which is where Leo comes in.  Leo on the iPhone is just a word translation app.  It will give you a variety of meanings, including pronunciation and the gender of the German word.  For anyone trying to learn the language, this is an incredibly useful tool.

Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messaging, and other Social Networking sites:  While Skype is great for making phone calls to a few people on a regular basis, the time difference between the US and here makes it unrealistic to keep in touch with everyone via phone calls.  That’s where social networking comes in.  As much as I despise Facebook, I can’t deny that it has made it easier than ever to see what’s going on with my nieces, to communicate with friends all over the country, and to make sure that certain technologically challenged family members can still see pictures that I post from my time here.  Without Facebook, I would have significantly less contact with my family.  Without Instant Messaging, I would be massively out of touch with everyone else.

Similarly, a lot of people use What’s App to communicate with other folks on disparate cellular networks using only your data, rather than typical cross-network SMS charges.  Hanley from Pink Parliament swears by TextPlus, which I haven’t used myself.  From her description, she uses TextPlus the way I use Skype: “Textplus is a life saver. I use it every day. You can get 1300 mins for 20 bucks, it works on both 3G and wifi and the other person doesn’t have to have it for you to call. You can call landlines and cell phones.”

plugadapter Electrical Adaptors: It should go without saying that someone like me is going to have a lot of gadgets.   The good news is that most of the important ones can handle the varied voltage.  Most laptop computers, cell phones, and tablets can handle the varied voltage without too much difficulty.  That just leaves the shape of the plugs.  The picture to the left of this paragraph is a set of electrical adapters that I purchased in the local MediaMarkt store for just a few euros.  As you can see, it’s got the US plug style on the front, and the German plug style on the back.  It doesn’t do any voltage conversion, but for most gadgets, that’s all you need.  You always want to read your documentation to be sure, though.  The alarm clock I brought with me from the US?  Utterly useless on this voltage.  I had to buy a new one here.   My electric razor can handle this voltage just fine, but the Water-Pik cannot.  My printer/scanner won’t work on this voltage, but I have a single voltage converter, also purchased in the US, connected to that one device.

By the way, I left my television behind when I moved, and bought one here.  When I move back, I’ll do the same thing-  this one will get sold off  locally for a very good price, and I’ll buy another set when I get into a new apartment in the US.  The reason for this is very simple-  the video systems in these two countries are very different.  Even if you aren’t looking at the electrical plugs, the video has different connectors, different picture types, and so forth.  I suppose it might be possible to use a German television in the US, but there are too many reasons to just start over with a US marketed set.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it does cover some of the most important things I use.  Fellow expats, what tools do you use to make your life abroad easier?