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?

August Break: Thursday Nights

I’m on an August Break from my regular blogging schedule. Here’s today’s picture.

A big chunk of my limited social life takes place on Thursday nights.  There’s a regular Stammtisch that I attend.  Tisch is German for table, and one of the many meanings of Stamm is regulars.  In other words, Stammtisch is a word which is loosely based on the idea of a table of regulars.  In America, this would just be called a Meetup.

Mine is a bunch of people who meet regulary to drink and socialize, and I’ve made some very dear friends through this group.  Included in the lower half of this photograph are the kick ass Converse boots (and left knee) of Cat, one of the just mentioned dear friends.  This photograph was a happy accident, by the way-  I accidentally start the camera on my phone quite often, and I usually wind up with pictures of my pocket lining, or of artful blurs.  Sometimes the camera records a happy accident, like this kind of nifty shot of a regular Thursday evening Stammtisch.

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Thursday nights are also the one night a week that I’m almost always in the Altstadt, which gives me a chance to walk past this view.  It’s easy to get jaded, but this set of buildings is amazing, and I try not to take the scenery for granted.

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Have you ever been to a Stammtisch?  How about a Meetup? What kind of group was it?