Functionally Stupid

http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/

All credit for the image goes to Malachi Rempen’s amazing comic about life abroad-  http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/

Please permit me to go on a brief navel-gazing expedition.   I have a singular frustration which has been building up and I’ve wanted to write about this for a while.

In the past seven days, three different people who know perfectly well that my German is terrible have switched to full Deutsch in the middle of a conversation and gone on for several sentences, looking at me the whole time as if I’m going to just intuit what they mean. It’s as if the part of their mind that knows that I won’t understand has gone on vacation.

It’s frustrating that I don’t understand- I know the basic vocabulary and grammar.  I understand more written German than spoken, but still not nearly enough.  After almost three years here, I really should be able to understand more.

I know that I am smart as hell. I know that I am competent. I know that I have an amazing grasp of some pretty sophisticated concepts and that I have an aptitude for trivia. I am, by no possible definition of the word, stupid.  Still, living here makes me feel like a perennial dunce.  In Deutschland, I can be verbally outpaced by a five year old.

It’s exhausting being in a place where I can’t handle simple governmental bureaucracy, or get a haircut without getting confused, or parse my junk mail without help.  It’s grinding me down.

I know quite a few Americans who live here, and most all of them just sort of fall right into the language.  They pick up other languages without a struggle.  That’s never been me.  Living for nearly three years in a place where I don’t have any degree of fluency has been a trying experience.  Living in a country where you don’t have fluency in the local language takes a toll on your self esteem.  Every day here is a challenge. Every day I feel more and more stupid.

I don’t really have a good closing thought for this post, or even a real point beyond just venting.    On Monday, I’ll pick up the Nordic Adventure posts again with Reykjavik, Iceland.  That’ll be fun.

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Hot Air Ballooning Over Bavaria

We interrupt this barrage of travel posts to bring you a post about something that I did a little closer to town.  Thanks to my partner-in-crime Jenny and her fiancé Robert, I had the opportunity to go hot air ballooning.  They wanted to try this, and if enough people joined in, the balloon company would come to us instead of us going to them.  Arrangements were made, weather was checked, and on the very last Saturday in May, the balloon company traveled to us in the afternoon.

The first order of business was setting up.  We were all enlisted to help set up the balloon and basket.  The actual balloon was packed into a giant canvas bag.  Most of the material is a very lightweight nylon, but the material closest to the hot air burners is a slightly more flame retardant canvas blend.

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First the balloon has to be inflated.  It’s connected to the basket, and pulled out over a large field.

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I large gasoline powered fan is used to begin the inflation of the balloon chamber.  Two of us had to hold the mouth of the balloon open at first.

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After enough  inflation is done with the fan, the flame jets can be used to heat the air inside to give it lift.

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The burners actually have very fine control-  they can do hotter blue flame or cooler (but more visible and thus cooler looking) yellow flame.

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Lift off was quite subtle-  there’s no acceleration like an airplane.  One minute you’re on the ground, and the next you simply aren’t on the ground any more. Once we were aloft, the navigation was simply based on which way the wind was blowing.  The blue vehicle with the white trailer is the balloonist’s partner following along from the ground.     They kept in contact via nearly functional radios.

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Once we were fully aloft, the view was pretty spectacular.  There was, surprisingly, no wind noise at all because we were moving at the speed of the wind.  It was very quiet, except for the occasional use of the burner to adjust our altitude.  It also wasn’t cold, to my surprise, because of the burners.  Incidentally, the plume of steam coming up from the ground in the far distance is a nuclear power plant.

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In this part of Germany, there are really only a few larger cities.  Most of Bavaria is really just villages of various sizes surrounded by fields of crops.  This was only fifteen or twenty kilometers outside of the center of Regensburg.  I’m not actually sure what village we’re looking at in this photograph.  From above, they all kind of look alike.

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This field, I am told, is where the Battle of Regensburg took place in 1809.  This is where Napoleon was shot in the ankle, apparently.

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Fields of solar panels are a common sight in Germany.  I didn’t realize until we were directly above one that sheep sometimes graze in between the panels.  Much easier than using a lawnmower around the solar panels, I imagine.

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Just after we passed the field of solar panels and sheep, two trains passed, one in each direction.  The first one was a longer Munich to Prague commuter line, and the next was a shorter commuter train which probably only went from Landshut to Munich.   The furthest wagon to the left is the engine, and the second from last is a two level wagon with upper deck seats.  The other three wagons all contain compartments of six seats each, which is much less fun than the double-decker wagon, but is much much quieter.

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After a while in the air, we had to look for a place to land.  This is the tricky part-  you have no steering other than the wind, and you want to avoid crops and powerlines.  Ideally, you need another field of just-grass.   While we were looking for a place to land, we passed fairly low over this village.  Lots of people came out to wave at us and shout things.   Most people are kind of fascinated to see a hot air balloon, particularly one this close.

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As we approached an ideal landing spot, the sun was low on the horizon and we got some pretty neat perspectives.

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After landing successfully at the edge of a crop field, we were joined by some neighborhood children who wanted to watch us break down and pack the balloon.

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Once the enclosure was completely deflated, the balloonist scrunched it together to prepare it to go back into the canvas bag.

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Last, but certainly not least, our wicker steed was ready to be disassembled and put back into the trailer.  This is the point at which a carload of random dudes wearing Lederhosen pulled up and helped us muscle the thing back into the trailer.  Bavaria is a ridiculous and hilariously fun place at times.

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Have you ever been up in a hot air balloon?

Going Postal

To anyone who grew up in the United States, the United States Postal Service uniform and vehicle livery is such a common sight that it’s immediately recognizable.  In the US, there’s only one postal carrier, and it’s a government agency.  Not so, in Germany.  Here, mail is privatized.   There are many different carriers in Germany, and the available carriers vary from city to city.  Here, the two big postal carriers are Deutsche Post and CityMail.

The Deutsche Post began life as Deutsche Bundespost, originally a government agency like the USPS.  It was privatized in the 1990s, although there is still governmental oversight.  The Deutsche Post went on to acquire DHL in 1998, and now it stands as the world’s largest courier company.   The distinctive logo for the Deutsche Post is visible on signs and bright yellow mailboxes all over Germany.

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Most places you can mail or ship things are just counters inside other stores, but there are a few main branches. The inside of the main post office near the Hauptbahnhof in Regensburg contains the same sorts of things that you would find in a US post office-  counters with lines of people, and displays of shipping and mailing gear you can purchase.

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As in the United States, postal vehicles are a pretty common sight.

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A much more common sight in Germany, however, is the postal delivery bicycle.  I see these on the street year-round- small packs of yellow-and-black-clad postal bikers traveling together in the morning.

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The postal delivery bike isn’t just limited to the Deutsche Post, however.  CityMail, Regensburg’s other often-seen postal carrier has the same delivery modes.  Here’s a CityMail delivery bike.

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As for packages, there are many carriers that have a presence here, but the Deutche Post owned DHL is by far the most often-seen one.  They have a rather nifty innovation in place all over Germany called a Packstation.  The Packstation is a sort of as-needed post office box.  When you sign up for the service, you’re issued a plastic card with a magnetic stripe, and you specify which Packstation location is closest to your home.    When you order a package, you can use the Packstation address and your unique Packstation account number as a shipping address.  On delivery, the Packstation service will send you a single-use PIN code to retrieve your package.  With your plastic card and PIN code, the Packstation machine will open a door so that you can retrieve your package.  It’s really, really nifty.

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Here’s one last picture before I wrap up this post.  While I was in Amsterdam, I noticed that DHL has adapted to the tremendous number of canals in the city by switching to a delivery boat.  I thought this was kind of interesting.

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Is the postal service where you live government-run or privatized?  Do you have more than one option for sending stuff?

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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.

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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.

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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?

Voting Time In Germany

I don’t often talk about politics, because it’s the fastest way I know to divide people.  However, it’s election season here in Germany, and that means the political placards are coming out.

Politics here are, by American political standards, incredibly complicated.  Germany has a multi-party system, with two major and three minor national parties.  However, the states here also have their own parliaments and there are many, many  more political parties at that level.    There are multiple elections- one for national races, one for state races.    Some of the political groups have really  entertaining names, too.

Here’s just a tiny selection of the many, many political parties here:

  • Anarchist Pogo Party of Germany (APPD)
  • Bavaria Party (BP)
  • Citizens In Rage
  • Communist Party of Germany
  • Ecological Democratic Party (ödp)
  • Feminist Party of Germany (DIE FRAUEN)
  • German Communist Party (DKP)
  • German Social Union (DSU)
  • Green Party
  • Human Environment Animal Protection (Die Tierschutzpartei)
  • The Left
  • Marxist–Leninist Party of Germany (MLPD)
  • Party of Bible-abiding Christians (PBC)
  • Party of Reason (pdv)
  • Pirate Party
  • Revolutionary Socialist League (RSB)
  • Social Equality Party (PSG)
  • Statt Party
  • The Freedom – Civil rights Party for more Freedom and Democracy
  • The Republicans (REP)

I liked the sound of the Party Of Reason until I found out that it was endorsed by Ron Paul.  Anyway, the biggest sign of the upcoming elections is the sudden manifestation of the political placards everywhere.

Most of ‘em are pretty dull, just faces with vague slogans.  For example, Astrid Lamby is with the Ecological Dems and she says values are choosable!

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This dude just says “you have it in hand.”  I hope he means the vote.

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I don’t know much about this candidate either, but her placards are nondescript as hell, and everywhere.

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This smug looking liberal bastard says that how you live is your choice.  The URL translates to “cheap and free,” so you can pretty much imagine the talking points.

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This guy “keeps the word.”  Literally.  He’s holding a giant word in his hands.

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“Color your world!”   Graf Lerchenfeld’s political slogan would be right at home with Disney.

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I’ve been saving the next few posters for last-  the Bayern Partei!  They advocate Bavaria breaking away from the rest of Germany.

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No, really, they completely want to secede from the rest of Germany.  Like now.

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This last placard is my absolute favorite.  I love this so much that I went online and found the source image instead of using a picture of my own, because it’s just so magnificent.  The slogan means “Paid enough.”  As in, “Bavaria has given enough money to the rest of Germany.”

The donkey shitting out gold is a particularly nice touch.

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And finally, we have the bastard side of politics.  The NPD, or National Democratic Party, is an extreme right-wing political party with Neo-Nazi leanings.  They’ve met with David Duke, and they’ve managed to stay just barely on the correct side of the law.  While Naziism and Nazi symbols and paraphernalia are illegal here, simply being a hate group isn’t illegal by itself.  The group has survived numerous attempts to ban them, and they’re still kicking.  In November 2008, the NPD published a document entitled “Africa conquers the White House” which stated that the election of Barack Obama was the result of “the American alliance of Jews and Negroes” and that Obama aimed to destroy the United States’ “white identity.”

On 5 September of this year, the NPD came to Regensburg for an authorized political speech.  The local newspaper Mittelbayerische  posted this photo of the speech.  The NPD people are on the right side of the photo.  The huge mass of people on the left, behind the Polizei vehicles cordoning off the area, are the counter protesters.  I’ve never been prouder of this city than I was when I saw this photo.

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Who would win in a fight, the Piraten Partei (Pirate Party) or a clan of Ninjas?