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 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.



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
    Syria
    Eritrea
    Tanzania
    the Ukraine
    Saudi Arabia
    Japan
    Russia
    Switzerland (the Italian-speaking part)
    Denmark
    the Dominican Republic
    Turkey
    Hungary
    Italy
    Argentina
    Poland


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Highs and Lows July 2016

The early edition...

I haven't written much lately because I'm busy with teaching and failing at keeping the homestead in good shape. I've had things to say/write, but little energy to write them well, so instead I spend my evenings creating lesson plans and worksheets, reviewing the passive voice, and lying on the sofa with my cold fluffy pillow watching "the Mentalist" or "Big Bang Theory".

However, as always there were highs and lows this month, and I like reflecting at the end of the month on what's been going on - especially the positive things.

HIGHS

  • the C1 (Deutsch als Fremdsprache / German as a Foreign Language) test. It was a good experience, and I passed it!!

  • meeting a college friend of mine and three colleagues of his in Esslingen and giving them a tour of my favorite German city! It was my first official tour of Esslingen and so much fun! They were interested in what I had to tell them, were very enthusiastic about the places and views I showed them, and if they enjoyed it half as much as I did, then it was a near-perfect evening.

  • the arrival in Esslingen of four young exchange students from Sheboygan, WI (my hometown).

  • chaperoning this group and their German partners on a day trip to Ulm and leading the "Stadtführung Lite". They all joined me on the climb up the tallest church steeple in the world, and most of them went all the way to the tippy-top  (768 steps) while I waited at the third lookout platform.

The students climbed this; I did not.
  • my daughter's 23rd birthday
  • my son's 21st birthday three days later

  • another day trip with the student group to Tübingen, my second favorite German city.

  • seeing two of my former students at a film showing about Syria: before and since the war. I sat next to one of them, and during the "before" part it was so nice to hear him talk about his homeland. When a picture came up, he leaned over and told me what it was I was seeing. The "since" portion was heart-breaking, though.

  • finding out that in August I might be able to take over an integration course at the local VHS from a teacher who is going on family leave. The best part about this is that two of my former students are in this class, along with two other Syrians I know from another class at the Hermann-Hesse-Kolleg and the Sprachcafé! I am just waiting for official permission to teach at the VHS level.

  • in preparation for the above, taking a practice Einbürgerungstest (German citizenship test) and scoring 90% on my first try before starting to study. 56% is needed to pass. I just took that online practice test and scored 93%. Those darn colors pertaining to various political parties will get me every time - except for the Green party; I nailed that one.  The other wrong answer was a stupid misread of the question.

    Want to try your hand at the US Citizenship test? That one has 96 questions, so it will take a few minutes. I scored 92%. Here's a shorter one. Apparently the actual test is not multiple choice, but rather an oral test. The candidate is asked 10 questions, and she or he must answer at least six of them correctly.

    The pool of questions for the US test is 100 (from which the interviewer asks 10). The pool of questions for the German test is 310, from which 33 are asked (the last three are state-specific), and 17 need to be answered correctly.

    Back in 2008, all 310 questions appeared in the newspaper, and M copied the list and sent it to me. I still have this list, so handy that it took me less than two minutes to find it! It was one of those "I bet I'll need this some day" things, and sure enough.
my study material for the next few weeks
Update: I finished this book/workbook today.
  • receiving an email from one of my former Syrian students. He was just checking in and letting me know what he's been doing lately, about the integration class he's taking, and asked how I was. It's always so nice to hear from these students!

LOWS

  • the shooting in München on my daughter's birthday. Although this happens so often in the US that it hardly makes the news anymore, this type of crime is rare in Germany because the gun laws are quite strict. The shooter (an 18-year-old German-Iranian boy who had trouble in school and presumed psychological problems) had been researching mass shootings and acquired his weapon illegally - the serial number was scratched off. It also turns out that, despite knee-jerk reports that he was Muslim and shouted "Allah...", it now appears that he was a racist neo-nazi (I'm not going to capitalize that) who hated foreigners and Muslims.

  • finishing our tour of Ulm and arriving in plenty of time at the Bahnhof to catch our train back to Esslingen, and seeing on the schedule display that our train wasn't running that day. Why? No idea, no information. Waiting another hour for the next train.

  • the Republican convention, though this could be a high because most of what I watched about it was from late night comedy, and those guys are hilarious. I just didn't hear anything about or from the convention that could be viewed as positive. Hatred, paralyzing fear, the economy is in the toilet, and the world is going to hell - those are the messages I heard. I read something the other day about the dire state of the economy - the writer advised people to turn off the news, go outside and look around their neighborhoods and cities. Where is the evidence of the economic crisis? Are houses being built? Are gas prices low? Are people still driving SUVs? Are businesses advertising "Help Wanted"? Are people still loading carts full at the grocery store? Shopping in malls? Going on vacation?

  • learning on the day of the film showing about Syria that the US had had dropped bombs on and killed several families - more than 50 people - near the town of Aleppo, having mistakenly identified them as IS fighters.

  • reading a news story about a former student of mine from my first year of teaching at my last school in Wisconsin. I remember him well. He was one of the participants on my first trip to Germany with teenage students (17 of them!), and he was one of the good ones - great sense of humor, well-behaved, and just generally nice and thoughtful. I learned this month that he committed a heinous crime in Virginia - attacking a couple (the husband had just fired my former student's wife), slashing their throats, and leaving them for dead. He was apprehended and tried, and he was sentenced to 2 life terms in prison. How does a kind, funny, thoughtful, intelligent kid from a Christian family end up there 15 years after high school?

    I wrote a blog post about it but just couldn't publish it.

Since I don't like ending with negative things, I will close with this fat little brown bunny with floppy ears (Schlappohren) in a teacup.

Have a great August!!