Friday, December 30, 2005

Cheap or Expensive

It is time for a round of one of my favorite games: cheap or expensive. Because I have doing an absurd amount of shopping since being in the states, I get to once again observe where things are the cheapest. I tried to figure out a pattern to this, but cannot see one. Leave a comment if you have any ideas.

Food: U.S.=expensive Germany=cheap

Wine: U.S.=expensive Germany=cheap (In fact the German refuses to pay more than 5 Euro for a bottel of wine, anything else is too much. The first time he did this I laughed. I have stopped trying get him to spend more. Now I just peel off the price tag when I get home.)

Gas: U.S.=cheap Germany=expensive (If you think gas in the U.S. is expensive, I saw it at $1.99 a gallon in Kentucky, go to Europe. We pay between $4.00 and $5.00 a gallon.)

Computers/Laptops: U.S.=cheap Germany=expensive (This is all relative I suppose, but overall Germany is more expensive.)

MP3 Players: U.S.=WAY expensive Germany=cheap (I really cannot explain the difference between the price of laptops and MP3 Players.)

Blue Jeans: U.S.=cheap Germany=expensive (Would you pay over $100 for Levi´s? I would not.)

Movies: about the same. Hollywood will charge you and arm and a leg for crap anywhere. Can someone explain to me why there was a need for "Cheaper by the Dozen 2?" After seeing the first one, I thought, "Now there is 2 hours of my life I will never get back."

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Adding it All Up

The cost of our American Christmas Bonanza:

Two round trip plane tickets: $1000
Rental car / gas guzzler: $450
Gas for the Gas Guzzler: $300
Gifts for the family: $500
Driving through SC in the worst weather of your life: 5 gray hairs

Singing "I love Rock and Roll" as loud as possible with the one you love while barreling down I75: priceless

The Blind Leading the Blind

An actual excerpt from our 14 1/2 hour odyssey today:

Claire: Honey, I have to go the bathroom. Can we turn off at this rest stop?

German: No problem.

The car exits to the rest stop. Both passengers are confronted with a big blue and white sign which provides the following information:

CARS <= TRUCKS =>

German: Which way do I go?

Claire: Right

German: Really? (while turning to the Right)

Claire: NO! Right! (while wildly pointing to the Left)

The car drives past the bathrooms and back toward the highway.

German: Good lord woman! Don't you know your right from your left??

Claire sits thinking and then turns to the German with an arched eyebrow.

Claire: Hey! You saw that sign, too! I may not know my right from my left but you can't read!

(150 miles later. Claire is driving. She changes lanes with a jerk. The German grabs the arm rest.)

German: Could you please watch what you are doing!

Claire: It wasn't me. It was the wind.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Long and Winding Road

The German and I are just heading out on the 2nd phase of our American Christmas bonanza. Phase 2 involves an 850 mile track from Detroit to Charleston, SC. This seems completely normal to me. Because my family is scattered across the U.S. and because of my far off college choices, I am used to traveling far to see the ones that I love. My German-in-laws think I am completely insane. Basically, the German and I are do the driving equivalent of Bremen to Italy. Although Germans do not mind traveling, it is not something that is done that often. Overall, Americans are much more willing to drive long stretches to do something than Germans would. Hence, a German would find a 1 hour commute crazy an American thinks that it is normal.

I do hate the long drive, especially in the dark. However, I am taking the morning shift and the German the mountain shift. Together, we will get there . . . Eventually.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Bowl Me Over

Yesterday the German and I survived the Day After Christmas. Our day involved two typical American events, and I am happy to say that after it all we are still married.

The day began at 5:45am. Because of this wicked case of jet lag we have, we are still falling asleep at the dinner table and waking up at an ungodly hour. I decided that because I was up, I might as well go to the mall for after Christmas bargains. The German said, "Honey, maybe I should come. I could be fun." It could be . . . in some parallel universe where husbands do not complain about how much money their wives spend and where wives do not yell at their husbands because they drive too fast. Actually, it was fun . . . for the first three hours. We strolled through the mall. There are small birds living in the mall and we fed them pieces of our bagel. The German dubbed them "Mall Birds," a special species that can no longer survive outside an air conditioned environment and can only eat crumbs from Starbucks. We found some bargains and saw some crazy mall walkers. But then I got grumpy and the German had to go to the bathroom. It was time to go home.

I should say that I have been back in the States for just over 4 days, and I went shopping on 3 of them. I never want to go shopping again. (My mother just dropped dead from shock when reading the last sentence.)

Fortunately, we did go home, had some lunch and took a nap. We slept just long enough to head off with some of my family to the next event of the day - The Motor City Bowl. It featured a classic clash of the titans: Memphis and Akron. After the glory (or not) that is the NBA, the bowl game was a bit subdued. There was a lot less advertising and the music was quieter, and people actually seemed to be watching the game. I love, LOVE football so it was fun to go. The German also enjoyed himself. He is a little scary with the random knowledge that he possess. "Wasn't that a screen pass? The quarterback is rushing I think? Shouldn't the coach use up more clock?" Seriously, he was impressive. We watched a really great running back, DeAngelo Williams, from Memphis. Check out where he goes in the draft.

As we all poured out of the stadium, food was the next item on the agenda. Unfortunately, my evening took a turn for the worse. I will lightly skip over the details, but it involved me being sick, but I was not vomiting. I will leave it at that. We walked to the best Chicago style pizza place in Detroit. They have fantastic pizza there. I hit the bathroom, and came back as everyone was ordering. I almost ruined the moment for everyone else because I decided to eat salad. The thought of that deep crust dough just did NOT agree with my stomach or bowels. I sat in the corner a little uncomfortable through most of the meal and made periodic pit stops. The rest of the family enjoyed the pizza though. Seriously - it is good pizza.

I was a little disappointed because you cannot get Chicago style pizza in Germany. Part of my pilgrimage back home always involves eating my favorite foods. But I suppose that it was that indulgence that led to my illness. Although I wanted to walk back to the car because I thought the fresh air would do me some good, I was out voted by the family (bad Detroit neighborhood and all).

When we got home, the German and I had a little tiff. I was not feeling well and he thought I was being pissy. It is true, I get very grumpy when I do not feel well. We are still trying to figure out how to handle each other in these situations. However, I figure that because we survived the day after Christmas at the mall, a college bowl game, and Claire's illness, it was a pretty good day for our marriage.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

American Culture: Just a Tad Over the Top?

Whenever I come back to the States, I always see things in a bit of a different light. The first time the German was here, he read all the signs from the airport to the house. It was the first time that I realized how many fast food restaurants there are in the U.S. "McDonalds . . . Burger King . . . Target . . . KFC . . . Best Buy . . . Pizza Hut." Try it sometime you would be surprised.

Last night we went to a Detroit Pistons game. It was the first NBA game for both of us. It was 3 hours of pure American culture stuffed in your face relentlessly. There was flashing neon advertisements, a drum line, a marriage proposal on a jumbo screen, half-dressed cheerleaders, a race between a dognut, coffee and bagel (I can only imagine that it is really funny when you are stoned), and loud music. Oh, yeah, there was also a basketball game, but I don't think that many of the people were there for the game.

The German and I were totally overwhelmed. It was difficult to take it all in. A serious case of jet lag did not help. When I compared the NBA to the German National Soccer League (which is the sport in Germany), German soccer has none of this. No cheerleaders, no music, no half-time show. However, they do have drunk, beligerant fans. I suppose everything is a matter of preference.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Rest in Peace, dear Toshiba

I will be having some trouble posting over the next couple of weeks. Yesterday my laptop died. Well, to be specific the hard drive gave out. It is amazing how sudden things like this can happen and how strangely calm I have been.

Yesterday morning I was checking my email and surfing the net. I was reading a blog and I tried to scroll down the screen. All of a sudden the screen froze and although I could hear the hard drive trying to work, nothing happened. There was a funny sound coming from the hard drive, like a marble rattling around inside. I tried ctrl+alt+del and nothing happened. I tried pushing the power button and nothing happened. I was starting to panic a little bit, mostly because I had to leave the house and go to the hairdresser. So, I just unplugged the damn thing.

On the way into Oldenburg I felt frightened. I have been known to have an anxiety attack every now and again. Close the eyes and deep breathing exercises (I was on the train - don't worry, I don't close my eyes when driving . . . most of the time). Although I calmed down, and the hairdresser took my mind off things for a while, I felt terrible spending money. I have a funny feeling that I will be buying a new computer. There is only one thing that prevented a complete freak out. Two weeks ago I backed up everything from my hard drive by burning a CD. I remember think, “I have not backed up in awhile. You never know wants going to happen. I should do that.” Boy, sometimes I think I am psychic.

When I got home last night, the German wanted to take a look. We pressed the power button. It tried to come on but after about 30 seconds we got a black screen that said, "HDD Password," and then it died. "Yup, it’s busted." Thanks for the update, sweetie. "I can fix it," he said enthusiastically. "NO!" I shouted before he could leave the room.

At this point I should mention that the German teaches computers at a vocational school, but he does not have any formal training building and repairing hard drives. This worries me. I do not want him to touch my computer. He looked very hurt and left the room without a sound. It is always a bad sign when he does not say anything.

"Sweetie, there are professionals for this kind of thing." I have a confession. I am terrified that he is going to fuck it up more, and then I will be stuck with nothing but anger, which will then become focused on him. I am no Dr. Phil, but I do not think that is very good on a marriage.

"You have to learn to trust me," was his reply. There it was. The one thing that has been most difficult for me in my 18 month old marriage: learning to trust someone. It is damn hard. The German is great at what he does, but I am afraid. My computer is essential to my work. If it becomes more screwed up, what will I do? Except use his, which is what I am doing now!

After 20 minutes of silence, we made a deal. Tomorrow we are flying back to the States to visit my family for the holidays. I will take the computer with me, and the German will buy a new hard drive and try to fix my computer. "If I cannot do it, then you can buy any new laptop that you want." "Well that is a great deal!" and I gave him a big hug. Although he was happy, he pulled quickly away and gave me a knowing look. "Within a certain price range of course," he said. Damn. He knows me too well.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Russian Drill Sergeant

Of all the characters that populate the movie that is my life, the Russian Drill sergeant evokes the most mixed emotions. There is envy, hate, friendship, amusement. I don't know if the Russian Drill Sergeant, who is also known as my aerobic instructor, is actually Russian. I am taking a guess though because she has a slight accent and the way she says the word three in German ("drei") is a give away. Anyway, in my world I have decided that she is Russian.

Today she kicked my ass. Monday is step-aerobics, which are not so bad. It started out slow, and she was playing her Cher/Whitney Houston CD (these are both surprisingly good for aerobics), but it quickly went down hill. We had to stand on the step with one leg slightly bent and then lift the other sideways, while wearing leg weights. My ass hurts so much right now. There are muscles hurting that I did not even know I had. Place your hands on your hips with your thumbs facing forward and you fingers toward your butt. Those muscles between your hip and your rear can really hurt!

We did a special sequence of steps and about 20 minutes later I was totally out of breath and wondering why I got out of bed this morning. Then the CD switched and we did the last sequence to a rock/hip-hop version of "We Wish You a Very Merry Christmas." "Swing your hand in the air," the Russian Drill sergeant said with a wacky grin. I almost fell off my step when I started laughing. However, it was all too much and my body was exhausted. Now the Drill Sergeant has ruined Christmas songs for me . . . Forever . . . When the music was over this crazy woman in the class (not crazy in the cute Claire way, but crazy in the I don't think she's taken her meds today way) shouted, "Let's do another round!" "NO!"

After the cardio comes the abs. Abs also started out completely normal. That's the thing about the Russian Drill Sergeant. She lures you into a false sense of security. "Lay on your back. Raise your legs so that they are perpendicular to the floor. Now raise your butt up into the air and lift your head up to form a crunch." Ouch. That hurt. "You should do this without rocking and momentum. Only use your abdominal muscles." Honey, if I could do that I would not be in this damn class. The sweet, sweet pain was barely tolerable. "It must hurt," she shouted. "Enjoy it!" She was totally oblivious to the groans of pain and cries for mercy from her students as she ordered one more set.

When it was all over I went home, pleased that I had managed to survive yet another class. Then I had chocolate chip cookies for lunch. Some might call that self-sabotage. I call it a reward.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Day of Rest

Today is Sunday, a day to rest. Germans take their Sundays very seriously. All of the shops are closed on Sunday. In fact in my town, the only things open are the church, the gas station, a bakery (for a few hours), my gym (for a few hours), and McDonald's. Although it is a bit inconvenient, I have learned to deal with it. However, my inability to plan meals ahead of time and then actually buy food often leaves the German and I no choice but to go to McDonald's on Sundays and I am good friends with the gas station attendant, where I often by things that I forgot at the store on Saturday.

I do wish that stores would open for a few hours on Sundays. A friend of mine complained that if the stores opened on Sunday, then she would have to work. I told her that she did not have to work if she did not want to, and in a country with over 10% unemployment, I am sure there is someone who will want to work. I understand Germans wanting to retain a certain quality of life, which is nice, but sometimes a girl has to buy tampons; no it cannot wait until Monday!

There are several things that you are NOT supposed to do on Sundays, which leads us to another German Social Sin.

5. Washing Clothes on Sunday

I have been informed that you are under no circumstances to wash clothes on Sundays. Sundays is a time for family, not for the wash. I guess the family is supposed to walk around in dirty clothes. You may think that I am exaggerating the strictness of this rule, but I am dead serious. One Sunday, I watched as my neighbor questioned the housekeeping skills of the woman up the street because she had the wash outside on the line.

I do not see how doing laundry takes away from the family on Sunday. I just don't get it. I do laundry when I have time, period. Often it is on Sunday. I don't have a lot of free time during the week so Sunday is the only day that I have to wash. Also, I do not own a dryer, I only have one line to hang clothes on, and my washing machine is small. That means it takes about 24 hours to wash and dry one small load of laundry. I do laundry all the damn time! I thought getting married was a big step in becoming a grown up, but the day I feel truly adult is the day I finally buy my own washer and dryer.

The Sunday rule perplexes me. One day I asked the German if he feels neglected because I wash clothes on Sunday. He grunted "No" from the sofa as he continued to watch his soccer match.

I have a load of towels in the washing machine right now. I feel so subversive. Fortunately it is night and thus dark and the neighborhood will never know.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

WARNING: It has been a long day - many bad words follow!

The "Black" Region turned white today, if for only a brief moment. The black region is the county I live in. Read my blog to find out why! The weather in north Germany is just awful in the winter: cold, gray, wet, rainy. However, today it decided to give us a break from all of the recent rain and graced us with snow. It was beautiful. I opened up the windows and peered out at the crystalline trees. As the snow fell listlessly, it was a perfect moment for hot chocolate and a little Frank Sinatra Christmas music. Then I had to ruin it all by going outside.

Snow was meant to be looked at - NOT driven in. Although I had a bad feeling about leaving the house, my weekend errands could not be put off any longer. I had several things on my list: dry cleaners, grocery store, bank, buy Christmas presents, etc. It was bad from the moment I left the house. I walked up to Smarty unlocked the doors and opened the door. That was mistake number one. As I opened the door, snow fell into the car and on the driver's seat. Fuck. I am going to have to sit in that. I turned on the car, shoved the laundry in the passenger seat and grabbed my snow brush.

As I was brushing off the car and scrapping the windows, I was again reminded about how I am simply not cut out for this kind of weather. Growing up in South Carolina has definitely left its mark. I am getting better, though. When I was in college outside of Chicago, I desperately had to dig my car out of the snow in order to get home before the REAL snow storm hit. After 15 minutes I had gotten half a tire free. Totally upset and freaked out, I did the only thing you can do in such a situation. I called a Canadian. As I held the phone in my half-frozen hand and wiped snot from my nose, I begged the Canadian, "Please, you have to help me, I don't want to be stuck here the whole winter vacation" (have I mentioned that I am a bit melodramatic sometimes?). Being the good sport he is, the Canadian came right over and dug my car out in 10 minutes. My hero.

Although the German tends to be my hero every other day of the week, not so much today. I understand though. He had a rough week and decided to stay in bed. Smart man. As I was wiping off the snow, I realized that my new, totally cute brown suede loafers are probably not the best footwear when digging out your car. After, I got Smarty all cleaned up, without thinking I opened the passenger car door to put the brush away. A huge glob of snow deposited itself right on top of my cashmere sweaters. Mother Fucker.

I sat in my wet seat and pulled out of the drive. Smarty takes a while to warm up, but she was a little steamy on the inside to day, and the right lens in my glasses fogged up immediately. I am completely, totally and utterly blind. Fogged up glasses don't help. So I closed my right eye and drove with one eye to the dry cleaners. I arrived at the cleaners at precisely 12:05. They closed at 12:00. Damn it. I hate, hate, HATE store hours here.

After going to the more expensive dry cleaners and fighting for the last parking space in all of Cloppenburg, I quickly ran through town to do my errands. Although the pedestrian district is a God send, shopping in Germany can be a little annoying, especially the weekend before Christmas. Here, the customer is definitely not the queen.

I walked out of two perfume stores after watching utterly useless saleswomen standing around. I have a problem buying gifts. I need recommendations, help and encouragement. I stared at the women, who stared back. It was like a junior high dance or some elaborate game of chicken - who will do the asking first. I am American. I expect them to ask first. They did not. So I left. At the bookstore I watched a rather large women cut in front of two other people for the check-out. When I paid, the sales woman asked, "Would you like that gift wrapped?" "Sure! That would be great." Large SIGH from the saleswoman, "Ok." Jeez lady, if you did not want to do it, you should not have asked.

Three hours later I got home with frazzled nerves. Why did I leave the house?? Why can't I enjoy the snow the way God intended it - in a warm house with lots of alcohol. It could have been worse though. My friend Cammie called to tell me that her windshield wipers stopped working on the highway. She had to keep pulling over to rest stops to clean her windows.

I promise to finish the list of German social sins. I have a good one for tomorrow. I would write it now, but my feet are still cold.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

My Aching Kidneys

There are certain things that you simply should not do in Germany. I call them the "German Social Sins." Once you commit one of these social sins, you are forever looked down up as a lesser member of the social order, or has been my experience, simply someone who does not know any better. Because you do not know any better, some take pity on you and try to "educate you." Run from these people.

I have gathered a list of some of my favorites, and I will document them over the next week for my friends who do not visit me, but should.

6. Wearing a T-Shirt Under Your Sweater

You MUST do this in Germany. I do not. I never have worn a t-shirt under a sweater . . . well perhaps under a really itchy one. I never felt the need and never really worried about the cold.

Two winters ago I bent over at a Christmas party and exposed some of the flesh of my back between my jeans and my short sweater. "Kind (Child!) you are going to catch a cold!! You had better put a t-shirt on or you will get ill." Hmm . . . I thought about this for a minute. I spent my college years (7 out of 10 anyway) in two very cold places - the Appalachian Mountains and the Chicago area. I was never really sick. Actually I can probably count how many times I have been ill on two hands. I asked the well meaning woman, "What do you mean I will get sick?" "Your kidneys, you have to take care of you kidneys!"

My kidneys?? I thought this was an outlier, a random moment. Turns out - the majority of German women like to tell me about how I am damaging my kidneys by not wearing a t-shirt. Honestly, I never gave my kidneys much thought. They are there. They do their thing and stay out of trouble. I have had a couple of bladder infections but never anything with the kidneys.

Last week yet another older German woman (whose advice was unsolicited I might add) told me again that I need to wear a t-shirt and cover my kidneys. "There is nothing wrong with my kidneys! I have not worn t-shirts for 28 years and I am a healthy individual." "Well, you could get a bladder infection you know." What?? A bladder infection is caused by bacteria and how will wearing or not wearing a t-shirt prevent bacteria from developing in my bladder?

I have a very good reason for not wearing a t-shirt. They make me sweat. I hate sweating and it makes me very uncomfortable. I am warm enough with just my sweater. I suppose though, that I should thank the older German women for their very helpful (or not) advice. It is amazing that I survived this long left to my own devices, you know running with scissors and all.

Now, if I can just get a message for my aching kidneys . . .

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

"To Heat or to Eat, that is the question"

I just read a very insane and thought provoking article on usatoday.com about how five states were denied increased funds for foodstamps. The states requested the funds in order to offset higher heating costs (read the entire article here: http://www.usatoday.com/news/Washington/2005-12-13-heating-bills_x.htm).

Basically, many poor people are facing increased heating costs this winter. As a result they will have less money for food and other basic necessities. In order to help out, 5 states asked the federal government for more money so that they could increase the amount of food stamps individuals receive. The federal government said no. That's right - no more soup for you.

Let's try to be fair, and see what the government has to say. Quoting the USA Today article:


Jean Daniel, director of public affairs for the Agriculture Department's Food
and Nutrition Service, said states can seek an increase in food stamps if they
document higher utility bills. That way, she said, the government can "make sure
that each individual is getting the right benefit amount ... not too little, not
too much."

Yes, we certainly don't want the poor to have too much to eat, do we.

Here are some facts about the Food Stamp Program. According to their website, about 25,681,000 people participated in the program in FY 2005. The average benefit per person was $92.70 per month. The entire program cost about $30,961,500,000 in FY 2005 (about $28,567,700,000 of that was in
benefits paid.)

To participate in the program you must:
(this is from their website, which is where you can also find more information yourself http://www.fns.usda.gov/fsp/):

  • No more than $2000 in countable resources per household (like a bank account, not including your house)
  • The gross monthly income of most households must be 130 percent or less of the Federal poverty guidelines ($1,698 per month for a family of three in most places, effective Oct. 1, 2004 through Sept. 30, 2005).
  • Net monthly income must be 100 percent or less of Federal poverty guidelines ($1,306 per month for a household of three in most places, effective Oct. 1, 2004 through Sept. 30, 2005). Net income is figured by adding all of a household's gross income, and then taking a number of approved deductions for child care, some shelter costs and other expenses.
  • If you are "able-bodies" then you must meet work requirements.

USA Today presents two views on the issue (quoting again):

James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, said the decision "will force people to choose between heat, medicine and food. ... We know that people will eat less. ... It will have particularly damaging effects on kids, especially poor kids." But Daniel said actual figures, not projections, are required. "We also have a responsibility to the taxpayers," she said.

Ms. Daniel is right, she does have a responsibility to taxpayers. But, you know what, I am okay with feeding people. In fact I will pay more in taxes if it means that children will have enough to eat. The food stamp program was only about 1.7% of total federal expenditures in 2004. I am okay with that figure. If the U.S. is a great democracy, shouldn't it spend just a little more making sure that all of its citizens have shelter, warmth and food?

I have heard the argument that there is too much fraud involved in the food stamp program and that the poor are overweight. As far as the fraud accusation goes, it is true there is fraud. But fraud also exists in almost every other government program (we could talk about for instance , issuing contract work in Iraq). As for the argument that the poor are overweight and therefore it is okay to deny them benefits . . . well that is so insane that I cannot think of anything to say.

Call me a "liberal" if you want (and I know some in my family will) but I think that living in a democracy should not involve asking yourself whether or not you will pay your heating bill or if you will eat.

PS: You know who else was a liberal? George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and most of the founding fathers. If I am a "liberal," then I think I am in good company.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Things People Say

I became an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in order to pay the bills, my student loan bills to be specific (by the way I feel the need to mention that Alan Greenspan is killing me, for the love of God please stop rising interest rates!). Unfortunately, being an academic does not pay very well (at least in Germany it does not) and until November the German was still locked into his indentured servitude (i.e. student teaching). Teaching English has been a lot more difficult and challenging than I ever imagined. I am consistently asked questions that I have no answers to. "But, Claire why do you say that in English?" "I don't know why! It is just what we say!"

I have had many amusing moments and I have now dedicated myself to ridding Germans of their bad English habits. This is not an exhaustive list, but my top 5.

1. I drive my bike to work.
2. We made party on the weekend.
3. What is wrong with the computer? It does not take function!
4. I do not have a clock. (they mean a watch)
5. He is looking at TV.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Pass the health care, please.

I was going to write about something else today, but while doing research yesterday about blogging, I came across a post, which is stuck in my head. I read Jon Armstrong's post about the problems he and his family are facing trying to get health care coverage (read about it here: http://www.blurbomat.com/archives/2005/12/10/denied). This post made me angry (with health insurance), frustrated (about the U.S.) and very happy that I live in Germany.

First, let me clear up some misconceptions. Germany is not a socialist country. Germany does, however, mandate that everyone have health insurance. The German government does not pay it all. In fact the German and I pay almost $400 a month for health insurance. I complained about this the other day to my mother, who was baffled. "I thought Germany is a socialist country. Don't you have universal health care?" Um, no. Germany does however subsidize (a little) the cost of health insurance and prescription drugs in order to keep costs down and it does pay for its poorest citizens.

The German government even subsidizes my husband and I. The German and I are "privately insured." This is what happens in my world. I need to go to the doctor next week. I will go and pay nothing the day of my visit. About 6 weeks later I will get a bill from my doctor (depending on what it is, from 20 Euros for a bladder infection visit to the German's 500 Euro dentist bill last month(!!) which is a whole other blog!). When I receive the bill, I pay the bill in full. Then the German files for reimbursement with the state government of Bremen and with our health insurance company. The German is a civil servant and has benefits that totally rock (the best thing you can do in life is marry a German civil servant, seriously, find yourself one). About 3 weeks after filing for reimbursement we get our money back. I have to pay for all prescriptions myself. I have dental (for the first time in 10 years, but I still refuse to go to the dentist) and they cover the cost of one new pair of glasses a year.

In Germany if you are not "privately" insured then they can be "legally" insured. Being "legally" insured in Germany is like being insured in the U.S. You pay a monthly fee (which is adjusted according to income, but is around 6% of your monthly income) and your employer matches what you pay to the health insurance company. When you go to the doctor, you pay a 10 Euro co-pay when you go to the doctor, every quarter.

Does this system sound in anyway communist or socialist? One of the biggest differences is that the German government has a "health minister," who is responsible for overseeing health insurance companies. That means that the German government makes sure that people are not being gouged, and if they are denied at one company, that they will get insurance somewhere else. Also, if you are an independent freelance worker (such as myself, besides teaching a class at the university, I am also a freelance ESL teacher) and you make below a certain income per year, the government will reduce the costs of your payments, so that even poor people have health insurance. (I hope I have not misrepresented the system. I will have the German proofread my post later.)

Health insurance in the U.S. just stinks. My blog has been mostly pro U.S., but I have to admit, when I think of health insurance, I usually think the whole country is a little bananas. I read a couple of comments on Jon Armstrong's site. Some talked about mobilizing Democrats and trying to lobby. But health insurance needs a serious overhaul in issue framing (see grad school professors - I can use the lingo you taught me!). The German explained the importance of mandated subsidized health care to my Republican father. "Look, people who get sick and have no health insurance go to work and are not productive and get everyone else sick. If they had health insurance then think of all the working hours you could save." Even my free market loving dad could not argue with that logic.

I think this may be a better way to frame the issue. Americans are not that interested in social justice. Well, they are until they have to pay for it. I went to a great university in the U.S., which I loved and of which I am very proud . Unfortunately they provided crappy health care to graduate students - and it is a place dedicated to social justice! If we are going to convince Hannity and Co. to do something, we need to start to speak their language a bit more. It may not be comfortable, but it is a beginning.

Smarty

I have a confession to make. I am a bit of nut. However, it is the things that make me nutty that is a bit strange - like car washes. The car wash freaks me out with all of that spraying water and those scrubbers coming at you. Because of that I tend to avoid the car wash, but unfortunately Friday it was unavoidable. Friday I made only my second trip to the car wash (as a driver) in my entire life. I am not kidding. This is true. Usually I just wait for rain to wash the car.

I have a great car - Smarty. I love to tell my friends back home that I drive a Mercedes, even if it is the smallest Mercedes in existence. My "Smart" car is so small it only seats two people and can only carry a few groceries. But it gets me from A to B in one piece and it is one of the few automatics available on the German market. (Confession number 2: I cannot drive stick. The German told me that driving an automatic is too difficult, but for the life of me I cannot follow his reasoning.) Someone once told me that my Smart looks like an elephant's roller-skate. Smarts are just entering the U.S. market, take a look at www.usa.smart.com.

Smarty needed to go into the shop to have her alignment adjusted (which I suppose we all need every once in a while!), but she was filthy. The German shamed me into vacuuming her and taking her to the car wash. The vacuum was no problem, but I was daunted by the prospect of the car wash. On the other hand, the shame of taking in my filthy car was bigger. So off I went.

I speak very good German, and I even studied it in college (Hi Prof. Sweet!), but my German is a bit like a bad knee, it tends to go out at the most inopportune times. I drove up to the car wash and the young man came out. I read my options and decided on the 10 Euro version, because Smarty deserves only the best. Then I began to get nervous and confused. "Do I need to get out of the car?" I asked. "Nein . . . theoijan . . . thaexth." I am not sure what the guy said other than no. I think the young German new this and just smiled and waved me on. I inched forward and noticed a big sign - "Achtung! Caution!" Shit! I tried to quickly read what I was supposed to do. The sign said something about turning off my engine and taking the car out of gear. But it was too late to get a second look at the sign. The car was loaded onto the automatic treadmill thing and there was no turning back.

Now panic started to set in. My car is an automatic. What does taking it out of gear mean?? Why do I have to turn off the car?? Will it blow up because of the water and soap? It did not dawn on me until later how absolutely stupid that thought was. I mean, my car does not blow up when I drive in the rain, why would it blow up in the car wash. (I told you that I am a nut. I really do not understand cars. I went to get an airfilter once, because I was told I should, and the nice young man at the autoparts store asked me what size engine my car has. Baffled, I looked at him and said, "Medium." To this day, I have no idea how I am supposed to answer that question). Back at the car wash I decided it is better to be safe than sorry - so I turned off the car. The car wash was sufficiently freaky. I was terrified of the dryers which hang from the ceiling and lower to match the height of the car. I thought they were going to slam into my tiny car.

The car wash spit me out of the other end, and there was another car hot on my tail. It seems that the car wash I choose is the assembly line of car washes. There is only one bad thing about Smarty. She is a bit sensitive and sometimes she does not like to start when you want her to. There I was at the end of the line desperately trying to start my car (I had forgotten to put her back into gear) and terrified that car behind me was going to crash into my rear. Finally she springed to life and off I went. I was so unnerved by the whole experience that I went to McDonald's.

There is a short postscript to this incident. I proudly delivered Smarty, all shiny and clean, to the mechanic. When I came back in an hour, nothing had been fixed. "That car is too small, miss. We could not fit it on the lift to put her up and take a look underneath. There is nothing we can do." I was a little upset, after all I had gone through the trouble of the car wash. I think the mechanic saw my disappointment. As I turned and walked away, and I heard him comment, "Who needs such a small car anyway?" I pivoted around and gave him my best "what the hell look" and said, "She is not that small!" Say what you want about my German, but I take insults about Smarty personally.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Knee Jerk Patriotism

Many Americans assume that when another American leaves the country that it is either for some sort of philosophical difference with the country or for military service reasons. Why leave this great country, right?
Well, I did not leave the States for philosophical reasons. Life as an ex-patriot does not involve sitting in Parisian cafes and smoking cigarettes and railing against the "man." At least for me it does not. I'm sorry, I am simply not that deep. No really, I'm not. And I did not leave the States for military reasons. I have never fired a weapon and I am not keen on ever doing it.

No, I left the States for love. Which is not to say that sometimes I do not have some sort of philosophical quibble with my home country. In fact, sometimes I go back and think the whole country is on crack. Really, does everyone need to drive a huge SUV and no I would not like to supersize my meal, thank you, my cholesterol is just fine the way it is. You could say that my politics lean to the left a little. My father jokingly calls me a "socialist," which I am definitely not. I think the free market economy is good . . . in moderation.

Germans, on the other hand, see me as an American, and therefore I must be a flag waving, George Bush voting, Iraq bombing freak. (Yes, I am exaggerating.) In fact, after meeting someone new I always get my least favorite question, "Did you vote for George Bush?" or its variant, "What do you think of George Bush?" I think these questions are the height of rudeness. It is like they are setting you up to say something stupid. Now, I am not a big fan of W, and I certainly did not vote for him, but every time I am asked this question, I want to shout, "Yes, I voted for him. Isn't he great!" I mean, really, after meeting a new German I do not ask, "Did you vote for Merkel?"

I do not think Germans mean to be rude, but some how things in their culture get a little twisted in my American brain. Although I consider myself enlightened enough to take a critical look at my country (because I want it to be better), now that I live abroad, I am susceptible to a syndrome that I call "knee jerk patriotism."

Knee jerk patriotism kicks in when people start to slam your home country with no apparent good reason. It happened to me yesterday. I teach American politics at a university here in north west Germany. After my lecture on political participation in the U.S. a student came up to me afterwards and made a comment about how screwed up America can be. "Boy, you guys sure do have problems with your democracy! You must all be on crack!" Knee jerk patriotism kicks in. "No, we Americans are not really on crack. You just need to think about how values can manifest them differently in other countries." Inside I was a bit angry. This person had never even been to the States. What the hell does he know! I am sorry if I am hesitant to take democracy lessons from a country that elected Hitler.

Although I have to admit that he is a little right. How can a country that disenfranchises thousands of people give lessons on running elections to others? However, I think what my young student was missing was the idea of "constructive criticism." I don't mind critiquing and suggestions about my country, but just telling me that is crap is not very helpful. The worst is when I am told to not take it personally. Yeah, right, I will keep that in mind. I do not want to give the impression that Germans hate Americans. Because they don't. They love Americans and the U.S. In fact, someone once told me that I am not a "real foreigner." It is George Bush that the Germans could live without.

Yes, I have definitely become more critical of my home since I left it. On the other hand, knee jerk patriotism will hit you in the chest sometimes, and all I want to do is sing the national anthem and eat apple pie.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Cookie Culture Clash

Life as an ex-patriot can be unsettling because culture clash arrives in the most unforeseen and unexpected places and times, as it did yesterday. Yesterday was Cookie Day. Cookie Day in not a special holiday anywhere but in my kitchen, where it is held with a certain spiritual reverence. Cookie Day is the one day of the year that I go crazy cooking - well baking cookies anyway.

Cookies are the perfect Christmas present for those individuals that you a) do not know what to get or b) do not want to spend much money on. Because I am an American in Germany, my cookies have a special flair, as I make traditional "American Style" cookies. I bake chocolate chip, sugar cookies, oatmeal raisin and one of my old favorites, peanut butter cookies.

Last year cookie day got off to a rocky start. First, I am not domestic enough to have a really good cookbook, and because I usually use my mother's, I was left with no recipes. That is when I discovered the beauty that is http://allrecipes.com. This website has saved me not only on cookie day, but also on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and before many dinner parties. After downloading my recipes, I was confronted with another problem - metric vs standard measurements. I only have one large standard measuring cup. How was I supposed to measure out 3/4 of a cup of brown sugar? Allrecipes.com has an answer for that too! The conversion chart was a life saver. However, once I measured out 150 grams of brown sugar, I had my doubts. 150 grams looks like a hell of a lot more brown sugar than 3/4 of a cup, but I went with it anyway.

The glitch in this whole process though is the damn brown sugar - which you cannot get in Germany! Sure, you can get brown sugar, which is more like raw, brown colored granulated sugar. But it does not have the consistency or the flavor of the sugar from home. You know what else you cannot get in Germany? Vanilla. No kidding. Sure, they have an "almond vanilla" extract, but its not the same. Also a no go in Germany - butter flavored Crisco, actually Crisco period. After several failed shopping trips I realized that Cookie Day (as well as Thanksgiving) will have to be supported by the monthly care packages from my mother. There is a line of "American" food, but I find it odd what Germans consider American: peanut butter, marshmallows, marshmallow fluff (yuck! Who eats that stuff past the age of ten), kidney beans, cranberries, barbecue sauce and salsa (both of which taste like ketchup). Certainly Americans make unfair generalizations about German cuisine which are simply not true. For instance, my north German in-laws hate sauerkraut. But, now I notice, Germans are guilty of the same thing.

After the hassle of making the cookies, and more than a few fowl words later, I was done. I proudly presented my bounty to the German (my husband). My husband loved the oatmeal (minus the raisins, he has some deep psychological grudge against raisins, me I do not mind them). "Try the peanut butter. I loved them when I was a kid." The German took one bite, turned up his nose and spit it out. "That's disgusting!" I was crushed. Tears began to swell. I felt like all of the time I had spent cooking was for nothing and my German had just rejected my entire cultural upbringing. It took him hours to calm me down.

This year, I was prepared to face the same cookie culture clash. I prepared my peanut butter cookies again. Damn it, I will make the German like them. Once again, I presented a platter to my husband. To my amazement, he ate a peanut butter cookie without comment. I do not think that he likes them, but he did accept them, just like he accepts all of my American cultural eccentricities. I was touched and remembered just how much I love him.

I just goes to show you that although you can lead a horse to water and cannot force him to drink, you can force him to eat a peanut butter cookie.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Dark Region

Many of my friends and family in the States think that I live an exotic life. "It must be so cool to live in Europe!" But living in Cloppenburg is definitely not cool. In fact, it stinks - literally. Since moving here, I have learned to smell the difference in pig, cow and chicken manure (in case you are wondering, chicken manure is the absolute worst). Cloppenburg is a small town in the northwest part of Germany, population about 40,000. Not including pig, chickens and cows, and we have lots of these. This part of Germany is an agriculture region. I did not grow up near agriculture. My dad was in the Navy. I grew up outside of Charleston, SC, in the cute, equally small town of Summerville. Which definitely does not stink of pigs, chickens and cows.

When my friends make the "exotic" comment, I always say that, "Life in a small town is life in a small town. Only, we speak German in our small town." This small town is located in the "Dark Region" of Germany. Actually it is call the "Black" region, which is an allusion to the Christian Democractic Party (CDU). The CDU is very strong here and receives about 80% of votes cast. Cloppenburg is also very Catholic. Really - the Italians have nothing on some of the people here.

My husband (who is Protestant) and I came to this area because he had to complete his student teaching (or indentured servitude, whatever). My mother-in-law was very distressed when she heard the news about our new home. "They are so Catholic down there," she lamented. (My husband comes from a Protestant county 45 minutes to the north). Now, as a Catholic who attended the best Catholic university in the world (Go Irish! Beat Buckeyes!), I was a little offended. "Really," I protested, "we are not that bad." "Well, they cannot drive," she insisted. I have not collected actual data to prove if Catholics are bad drivers, but there are a lot of them around here . . . Especially the tractor drivers. You are apt to see the tractor drivers on the main roads as you are dashing off to work at 8:00 am. This was a sight that I am not accustomed to, but now I witness daily in my "exotic" life.

The division between religions here is remarkable. I mean the distinct Protestant and Catholic communities that exist. It is almost like the 30 Years War is still being fought here. Then I discovered that the boundaries mentioned in the Treat of Westphalia, which ended the war, parallel the county boundaries. Some habits die hard I guess.

Cloppenburg is not all that bad however. The people can be very nice. There is a nice pedestrian district and a great open air museum. You should visit. Check out their website: www.cloppenburg.de

Rice's Visit to Germany

I could not let Ms. Rice's visit to Germany pass without comment. The Germans are a little upset that the CIA possibly used German airspace to transport prisoners to illegal prisons. Germans don't take well to being accused of human rights abuses, as you might imagine. Ms. Rice did not confirm or deny this incident, but did insist that the U.S. does not commit torture, Abu Ghraib prison scandal aside.

The Germans have lost a little moral ground, however. It seems that the U.S. kidnapped a German citizen, who is also accused of being a terrorist, and is keeping him in one of these prisons. The previous German government knew about this in 2004 but apparently did nothing. This is making the current administration very angry. I am not sure that our new PM, Ms. Merkel, would have done anything differently though. She cannot wait to get back in bed with the Americans, much to the chagrin of many Germans. Spiegel on-line has good coverage of the CIA affair from a German point of view, although it is in German (www.spiegel.de).

This incident reminds me of why the Germans did not want to get involved in Iraq in the first place. Wars have not worked out for them in the past. Perhaps you can understand their hesitation. I try to explain this to my American friends and family, but they still think that Germany should do something.

Such is the state of things in my Euro-American life.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

St. Nicholas Day

I started this blog this morning because I was confronted with a cultural dilemma, and I am not sure how to respond to it. Today is St. Nicholas Day in Germany, well in most of Europe. As an American married to a German and living in Germany for the for seeable future, I experience culture clash every once in a while.

Who is St. Nicholas? And why must I leave my smelly boot out for him? As any former graduate student would do - I Googled him. Well first I checked out one of my favorite websites - www.wikipedia.org.

Now, as a child in the States I was taught that St. Nicholas and Santa are the same. St. Nick is a jolly soul (wait, I think I just stole that from something . . .) who gives presents to children on Christmas Eve. Not so in Europe!! It seems that St. Nicholas visits children in Europe on the evening of Dec. 5. (Why do they get him early?? ) In fact, St. Nicholas day is the gift giving day in the Netherlands. St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of prostitutes (I leave you to make your own connection). I looked at my husband this morning and said, "Well what about Christmas Eve?" "No, " he responded. "That is the Christmas Man (Weihnachtsman)." I insisted that they are the same, but was not convinced.

So, who is the Christmas Man? According to my husband, that is Santa Clause, who is an invention of the Americans. Hmmm . . . Suddenly it was clear to me why Germans open their presents on Christmas Eve. They do not have to wait for Santa Claus. He came by on Dec. 5!! I never liked opening my presents on Christmas Eve. I always insist on opening presents on Dec. 25. Christmas Eve is big in Germany. That is when the Christmas tree goes up - another tradition that confounds me but is the subject of another blog.

Now, here is my dilemma. One day I would like to have children, little German-American children. What should I tell them about St. Nicholas and Santa Claus? Well, if they are the same "person," then the different holiday traditions clarifies one of the mysteries of Santa. How does he deliver all of those presents in one night? He doesn't. He delivers them on different nights throughout the world, to Europe on Dec. 5 and to the U.S. on Dec. 24. So my children, I think I will have to tell them that St. Nick will visit them twice. I am not sure how that will go over on the playground ("My mom says St. Nick will visit it me twice because I am a special German-American." My kids are totally going to get beat up.)

These are the problems that you face in a Euro-American world, which is the title of my blog.

For further info on St. Nicholas check-out:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Nicholas