expat life: sending packages to germany, or woe be you customs office

Friday morning on my way to the Mainz customs office, I would have looked like a raving lunatic had anyone else been around to see me. “God damn fucking assholes,” I muttered loudly as I hobbled down the empty street leading through an industrial park to their offices. “Holding every damn package anyone sends to me while I’m pregnant. Because walking is just so much fucking fun right now. God damn bleeping bleepity bleep bleeps.” Why the customs office doesn’t just open the damn packages they confiscate, look at them, and send them on I will never understand. The stereotype that Germans are an efficient people may ring true in many cases, but it is never, ever true when it comes to the country’s bureaucracy.

Thursday I had received a letter from the customs people. It said that they had a package of mine. It said I needed to bring along the receipt from my order to pick it up. It also said that I had 14 days to do so. Except the letter had arrived 13 days late. Which meant that if I didn’t drag my ass down to the office the following day, my package would be sent back across the ocean. I didn’t know what to get angry about first: the lateness of the letter or the fact that they had once again confiscated and demanded to see proof of purchase for a package that was a gift. Sigh.

It is at moments like these that one particularly enjoys the convenience of the custom office’s pick-up hours. A whole four and a half hours a day, beginning at 7:30 am, weekdays only. How does anyone with a normal job ever liberate their packages? It is on the way to the Mainz customs office that you start to feel like you may actually, for real this time, be in one of the rings of hell. The signs meant to direct customers into the office have been designed by demons who I can only assume enjoy watching the frustrated, angry humans circle their goal unaware from atop the neighboring buildings. With popcorn. In fact I give hell complete responsibility for all customs offices everywhere.

At the Mainz customs office, the signs that you thought were there to helpfully direct you to its entrance lead you in a circle around the building (right past the entrance, which is tucked away on a narrow, unmarked street), but never point into the tiny street that guards the door. During my first visit I circled three times before noticing two fellows smoking outside of a door down the unmarked street and decided to take a look. The unadventurous might end up circling the building for eternity.

Having been to the customs office three times since, I no longer fall prey to their misleading signs, and instead of circling their building, I cut directly into the alley that leads to their entrance. At least there isn’t a line at 7:30 am.

I handed the woman behind the counter the letter I had been sent about the package. “And did you bring your receipt?” she asked.

“There is no receipt. It’s a present from my uncle,” I replied.

“Oh, ok.” She wandered off with my letter to find the package. After a few minutes she returned and placed a small padded envelope on the counter.

I looked at the label. Uncle Sprinkles had dutifully checked “present” on the customs form glued to the outside of the package. “So why is it that packages that have ‘present’ checked here get confiscated?”

“Oh well, anyone can check ‘present’ on the form, can’t they. And this obviously came from a company.” My uncle sends his packages from the used book store he runs. When the address is written by hand the customs office doesn’t intercept them. But this time he’d put one of the store’s stickers on the outside of the package. Though I do wonder why anyone would think a package addressed to “The Great Bearded One and Gypsy Momma Nikki” would be coming from a company I don’t know. And if the customs forms on packages have become so meaningless that the customs officers themselves no longer believe in them, then what the fuck do we have to fill them out for?

“Well, he owns a used book store,” I explained. “But this isn’t the first package you’ve intercepted recently. Why do my packages keep ending up here?”

She explained about companies again, that they intercept anything that looks like an order if there is no invoice affixed to the outside of the box. That they intercept anything listed as being worth more than 45 euros (I had previously thought that the present limit was 100 euro, but I stand corrected). And they don’t give a damn if you check “present” on the form or not. Oh yeah, and sometimes they intercept packages just because. Just because they like to do random checks and spread as much of their own bad mood around the country as they can.

I left the building with my package, happy to have avoided paying any fees, but still too disgruntled to shake the bad mood. On the bus again, I opened the package to find a zombie movie and a Fahrenheit 451 t-shirt (from these people—aren’t they brilliant?). My mood improved slightly, before I remembered that I could have had the package delivered right to my door two weeks ago when it first arrived in the city and had instead wasted another morning getting to, standing in, and getting home from the customs office. At least now I knew the score. No business address labels, no gifts over 45 euros, and hand grenades for the snarky demons on the roof.

Photo (cc) flickr user nadja.robot

Monday January 30th 2012, 2:32 pm 7 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,expat life,germany

birth prep classes and the alien game

When I find boredom creeping up through my limbs, I play what I call the alien game. To play, you look around and imagine how what ever is around you would look to aliens fresh out of the hatch. I imagine that it’s human procreation that would most baffle the aliens, assuming that they did’t happen to have a similar biological casing.

I imagine an alien returning home from an observation trip to Earth to give a lecture on what he/she/it/Zarlgdar learned and describing human mating rituals as he/she/it/Zarlgdar had understood them: “…and once they find a partner, they like to be alone to rub all their wet bits together.” The crown would gasp, or maybe just giggle and look at each other with raised eyebrows (unless of course they didn’t have vocal chords or faces or eyebrows). Think about any human custom long enough or describe it in an unfamiliar way, and suddenly everything we do starts to seem utterly strange and random.

Take leg shaving for example. Even though I did it myself for years, having given it up about six years ago has put enough space between me and the habit that I can no longer fathom what would inspire anyone to put so much time and money and effort into something that, to my eyes, looks so weird. I’m sure the aliens would be equally baffled. Which is why I sometimes find myself in situations where I feel like I might actually be the alien visiting Earth.

Like in my last birth class. Though I’ve been enjoying getting to know even more about my midwife’s philosophies and practicing relaxation and controlled breathing and positions on the yoga ball, classes have become a little boring. Conversations revolve around hospital issues—I am the only one in the class opting for a home birth—and I tend to keep my few questions about home birthing to myself knowing that they won’t interest anyone else and that I can talk about them with my midwife at a later appointment without wasting anyone else’s time. Not a big deal though; I figure the information could still be useful sometime and file it under “good to know.”

But during our last class and one of the many spontaneous question and answer sessions, leg shaving came up. A handful of women started chattering about how they wanted to make sure they had time to get their legs and bikini lines neatly shaved when the contractions started but before the birth really got rolling. Because they would feel uncomfortable being stubbly in front of the midwife/doctor/their partner. OK, weird priority from my perspective, I thought, but not surprising considering. Then came the topic of shit.

You see, when you’re pressing a baby out, there is pretty much no way to prevent a little bit of it coming along as well. It’s not the most pleasant thought, but hell, it’s not like anybody’s never dealt with the stuff before. And the way I imagine it, when you’re busy pushing an eight, nine pound baby out of your body, a little poop is the least of your worries.

More than a handful of my classmates were horrified. HORRIFIED. There were frantic questions and wide eyes. “Can you tell when it’s going to happen?” one woman wanted to know. “So that I could send everyone out of the room?” People nodded in agreement at the thought. “Or maybe I’ll just stop eating as soon as I go into pre-labor,” she went on. “If only there was some way to know when you were going to go into labor so you could fast for 24 hours beforehand.” Great. Just before beginning one of the most energy-intense experiences of your life, something often equated with the exertion required to run a marathon, start fasting so you don’t end up pooping a little in front of your partner (who loves you no matter what, right?), your midwife (who frankly doesn’t give a shit, hardeeharhar), and some doctor (who you’ll never see again). In that moment I didn’t even need the alien game to find our customs—particularly the western woman’s tendency to want to hide anything to do with her bowels or her body hair, though both tendencies I once harbored myself—really fucking strange.

Have you ever played the alien game? What struck you as strangest about your surroundings?

Thursday January 26th 2012, 9:00 am 25 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,gorilla parent (pregnancy)

moving to germany: frequently asked questions

Blogging is a contradictory sport: simultaneously solitary—me, typing alone at my computer—and yet so social—with comments and e-mails coming in from the interesting folks—you—on the other side of this screen. A lot of aspiring expats have sent me questions about how I ended up in Germany over my blogging years, and today I figured that the time had come to put my answers out there in an easy-to-reach place. If five of you bothered asking, then I bet at least ten of you would be interested to know. At least.

These are the top four questions that readers have asked. If any more occur to you, feel free to ask them in the comments, and I will add my answers to the post.

How did you end up in Germany?

This is where I would normally link to my au pair chronicles, which talk about my decision to quit my 9-5 job in publishing to take a job au pairing (ie nannying) for a family in Frankfurt Germany in detail. But I’ve currently got the whole thing down as I’m planning on finishing it (woot!) and republishing the whole thing as a weekly serial throughout the time when I’m going to be trying to figure out the whole “taking care of a baby” thing. So I guess I’m not getting out of explaining it again this time…

The story goes something like this: I graduate college with a degree in English literature. Two weeks after graduation I start my first full-time desk job. Said full-time desk job makes me fucking nuts. A year later—after breaking down in tears in a windowless grey meeting room over a pile of proofs—I decide to look for work abroad. I would have gone anywhere, so I started by looking at a lot of rather serious, scary jobs that I, in retrospect, am glad I didn’t get. On a whim I registered with an au pair placement agency and in two weeks I had an offer to live in Frankfurt with a family of seven. I accepted, quit my job, helped my mom move to a new house, and flew to Germany with a one-way ticket. (Despite the one-way ticket, I was expecting to come back after my year au pairing at the time, no plans of staying forever and ever then. I just didn’t want to have to commit to an exact date.)

Which makes the short, short answer to that question: completely by accident. I had never considering nannying before, and though I enjoyed the babysitting that I did occasionally, I wasn’t that into children. I just wanted a job that would allow me to be abroad and explore Europe. Au pairing was what fell into my lap, so an au pair I became. A German family responded to my application, so I moved to Germany. Au pairing turned out to be a huge pain in the ass, but it also was incredibly interesting and got me free trips to both Dubai and Cyprus, so in the end it was a pretty good score.

By the end of that first year I’d started to feel at home in Frankfurt, so I decided to stay and teach English.

How much money did it cost you to get there?

Because of the au pair job—which included room, board, health insurance, and visa organization—I didn’t have a lot of initial costs. I already had a passport, so I bought an adapter for my laptop (probably about 20 bucks) and a plane ticket (about 400 dollars I think).

After my year au pairing I went back to the US to travel for a few months, then returned to get my own life in Germany started. I stayed at my then-boyfriend’s apartment while looking for my own place and needed about 1000 euro (I think, my memory for detail on this one is a bit foggy) for the deposit on my apartment, as well as money (something between 300 and 400 dollars I reckon) to get me through that first month of apartment and job hunting.

How did you get a visa?

My very first visa—made out to “can stay and au pair for one year”—was incredibly easy. My host mother drove me around to all the necessary offices, filled out the forms, and paid the fees. American citizens—of which I am one—are allowed to stay in Germany for three months on a tourist visa, so I didn’t even need to do anything before arriving. I had my official one-year au pairing visa in my passport by November (I arrived in September).

My second visa was a bit more trying—I applied on the basis of having work as a freelance English teacher. If you’re considering doing the same, here’s what you’ll need (or what I needed in 2005): letters from your employers estimating how much money you will make working for them each month, proof of a bank account, a rental agreement (proving that you have a place to live and informing them of your rent costs), and proof of health insurance. If you only have one employer, you might still get through, but it is a really good idea to have at least two when applying for this type of visa (as otherwise the German government would prefer that the company hire you for real and pay into things like social health care and retirement funds for you). Many of my colleagues at inlingua, my main employer at the time, had only one employer and were given visas for six months. I had two and was immediately given a visa for three years.

Problems I encountered: the people at the Frankfurt aliens office are incredibly unfriendly and a lot of health insurance companies and banks don’t want to do business with you unless you already have a visa. Can’t get a visa without a bank account, can’t get a bank account without a visa. (Sparkasse, to name names, wouldn’t give me an account without one, but Dresdner, now Commerz did without blinking.) Which later became, can’t get health insurance without a visa, can’t get a visa without health insurance. (In this case I managed to convince the insurance agent that this was fucking ridiculous and to sell me a policy anyway.) Can’t get an apartment without a visa? Well, there I didn’t have a problem. My landlord was a frail old man used to renting to students, and he didn’t ask me any visa questions.

My advice to anyone trying to do this themselves is to get themselves down to the appropriate Amt and to ask for an application. Could be that requirements have changed since I went through the process, and it could be that each state has different hoops for you to jump through. Oh, and they really like it if you can speak German. (Bring someone with you to translate if you can’t speak German and can find a buddy willing to help. This will make them like you more.)

My third visa, as many of you have already read, is a “married to a German person” visa. That required a a good deal of paperwork (that then had to be expensively translated), but involved dealing with the very friendly Mainz aliens office instead of the “go home foreigners” aliens office in Frankfurt. So I might actually consider it the easier of the three. That visa is for three years, and if we are still married at the end of those three years, I’ll get a “stay in Germany forever” visa and can finally kiss the whole visa process goodbye.

Did you learn German before you went? Or did you learn it as you went along?

Before I moved to Germany I had already taken nine years of German classes (took it in high school and minored in it in college) under my belt. And yet I learned more German in my first six months here than in those nine years put together. So I’d say it was a little bit of both. During my first year here I also took some refresher courses at the Volkshochschule (VHS). Otherwise it was all trial by fire and practice, practice, practice.

If any of you have other questions about getting set up as an expat (or if I didn’t explain something in enough detail), leave ‘em in the comments, and I’ll add them to this post.

Wednesday January 25th 2012, 11:30 am 9 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,expat life,germany,gorilla travel

diy project: baby shelves and the fold-down changing table

I’ve done it, I’ve finally done it! Someone took a trip to the building supply store, brought me back some screws and some wood, and I built the baby-crapola storage shelf and fold-down changing table. Except I (cough cough) haven’t added the fold-down table bit yet. But who cares! All the baby crap is finally neatly in place, and now when she shows up we won’t be digging through huge piles on the floor! Just that thought alone makes me feel very calm. Plus now I can almost see the bed in my Wagen. Almost.

I kept the design for this shelf simple. For one because I’m not that good at building complex things and for two because moving a lot isn’t really my strong point right now. The materials were purchased new and as the nicely finished shelf boards I wanted to use to save time are kind of expensive, cost about 45 euros total, including boards, cheater wooden angle brackets, screws, and hinges for the fold down bit that isn’t attached just yet. It took a couple of hours to build, but would have been much faster had I been able bodied. Take a look:


How would a real carpenter attach a shelving block like this (scroll down to see the end product) to the wall? I had no frickin’ clue. So I put the top and bottom shelf on some L brackets…

…and screwed the middle shelves into the unit from the sides after adding the rest of the frame.

And that was it. Ta-da: the finished product. Behold!

While I’m at it, a very poor mousepad drawing of what the fold down changing table bit will look like, to be attached to the bottom shelf with hinges and supported with two lengths of tiny-linked chain attached to the wall.

To those of you who sent us some of the diapers on that bottom shelf: wohoo! I thought you should know that I still think you’re really awesome for helping us out with that. Crazily, we’ve ended up with more baby crap than we can possibly handle or use (gift clothing started coming in long after I had finished all my flea market über-preparedness shopping, unfortunately). So anything that doesn’t fit on the shelf is going into the flea market pile right now. Clutter makes me nuts, particularly living in such a small space. And how many fuzzy little sleepers that say “my cute friend” (barf) on them does one Peanut need? I may not know for sure, but I’m fairly certain the answer is not 25.

Tuesday January 24th 2012, 9:35 pm 9 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,diy,gorilla parent (pregnancy),tiny house livin'

black diamond express train to hell: bunker syndrome and recording

After three and a half days in a windowless bunker, you lose track of time. Have I been here for an hour? A day? A week? There’s no way to know for sure.

The bunker that played set to the recording of our new album felt like the set of a horror film. Bare concrete walls, long hallways with flickering flourescent lights and rows of closed metal doors. Every once in a while a creepy doomy metal band would practice for a few hours and provide an appropriate soundtrack. At first I was kind of scared to go to the bathroom—located across the stairwell and a long hallway away—by myself. But after a few days of doing so without being murdered, the place started to grow on me. I’ve always liked the smell of basements, and this place smelled like a basement even on the second floor.

A lot of people romantcize the process of making music. And maybe some parts of it live up to the fantasy. But recording is not one of those parts. Before I had ever recorded anything myself, I would imagine performers in sequins, bright stages, and live energy when I heard canned music. But the process couldn’t be any more disjointed from any of that. It’s just about the most unromantic thing you could do with your time and with your music. All in the name of trapping the sounds on little plastic discs.

When we record, we do all the instruments “live.” Which means all the instruments playing together. Which means if one person fucks up, everybody has to play the whole song again because you can’t just delete the bass track (or the banjo or the guitar or whatever) and replay it as it has been recorded on everybody else’s microphones as well. This is a pain in the ass. Some people record one instrument at a time which divorces the whole process even further from the heart of the matter, but can save you a hell of a lot of headache when the same guy keeps fucking up the same part and everybody looks like they’re plotting a murder.

But for better or for worse, that’s how we do it, and so the first days of recording always start with a whole lot of waiting for anyone doing vocals or adding any other extra trimming. I parked myself on the couch and sang along in my head during each take to make sure nobody forgot to play a verse that would fuck me up later when I added the vocals on top of the music. We went through the usual ups and downs, but managed to get ten songs recorded by Saturday morning. Two days of overdubs (that’s what you call whatever you play over the main track that you’ve recorded) followed, and let me tell you, recording the singing saw was a huge pain in the ass. Damn that instrument and damn me for not being better at playing it. But in the end, we all prevailed.

Every night we returned to the Au—an enormous squatted house/concert venue/vokü location/generally awesome place with a Wagenplatz out back—to sleep in the cozy bunks set up for the touring bands that play there. It’s the first place where the Beard and I slept cuddled together the night that we met, and sleeping there since has always felt a little festive because of it. Despite the fact that every night we’d pile into the sleeping rooms and pass the fuck out. And because that’s not very exciting (kidding—wait for it…) I shut the Beard’s hand in a car door on the second night, creating a mass panic that I’d broken his hand and promptly put an end to our chances of finishing the album before Peanut arrives. I feel like I owe the universe big for not letting that turn into the disaster it could have become. Physically hurting someone you love is pretty much the worst thing ever, and yet the Beard and I seem to have a talent for maiming each other. Go figure.

Today, back at home at last, I stayed in bed until noon recooperating. And then, breakfast and computer in hand, I stayed in bed some more. As tiring as the weekend was, however, I can barely fathom the fact that we’ve finally gotten the ground work laid for our second album (next up: mixing and mastering and label hunting). !!!!!!!!!! I can’t wait to share it with all of you. Yihaw.

Monday January 23rd 2012, 3:15 pm 6 Comments
Filed under: black diamond express train to hell,conspiracies,music

black diamond express train to hell: a new album and a video

Huzzah! At long last the day has come. I am in Frankfurt with Black Diamond Express Train to Hell recording a new album, carving our new songs into the pavement so we can finally share them with people wide and far. Not to mention FINALLY bring out an album after two years of schlepping around the same old demo, despite having made enormous leaps and bounds since musically. See, that “huzzah” was well earned.

While we were spending the weekend frantically polishing almost-finished new songs for the album, a nice fellow came by to record some of it for his series “They call it local.” By Monday the video was ready, and here it is for your viewing pleasure. Of course, it’s in German, but for those of you who don’t speak the language, there are also quite a few snippets of songs that will be debuting on the album. Plus a most excellent view of my serious bed head during the interview segments. Cheers.

Friday January 20th 2012, 9:00 am 5 Comments
Filed under: black diamond express train to hell,conspiracies,music

winter in the year of the apocalypse

The sun is shining and it is hailing, and any minute now I’m expecting a rider of the apocalypse to show up to try to sell me a magazine subscription.

On New Year’s Eve over 3,000 red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas. Scientists have since reported that the event was probably caused by collisions that occurred as the result of fireworks, that similar events aren’t all that uncommon, and that there’s nothing apocalyptic about 3,000 black birds falling from the sky at one time. Certifiably apocalyptic or not, the imagery certainly matches the mood that the ludicrously unseasonal weather we’ve been having has me in.

The mild weather has certainly made the winter easier to handle. There is less wood stove tending to do, and there are fewer layers to be put on in the morning. But it remains strange none-the-less. I am bracing myself for the worst—and expecting that it will rear it’s frozen head in the exact moment when I’m expecting the weather to turn toward spring. It is a confusing state of affairs, and I wonder how the plants will fare. Humans (and, I assume, many other mammals) can adapt fairly quickly when it comes to getting-by survival, but what happens if all the things we’ve learned to eat die away from under our feet? I don’t want to end up living in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Meanwhile, I’ve been neglecting my Wagen. Poor, lonely, little trash house has become the loading dock for my dirty dishes, clutter, and an enormous pile of baby paraphernalia. I bring a load of things in, and I take a snack out. But the weather is so warm that the cooking oil is still fluid, and I can cook a meal with the door open and without feeling cold. Unfortunately it is also so warm that the dirty dishes are molding before I get around to washing them. Damn it.

Did I mention that I am excited to get this baby out and to get my body back? Oooh am I ever. So excited that the thought of jogging makes me giddy. Of running to catch buses. Of being able to keep pace with whoever I am walking with. I’m even looking forward to being able to carry dish-washing water to my Wagen whenever the urge to scrub strikes me.

Having recently read the entire Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin, I constantly have the Stark family motto running through my head. “Winter is coming.” Or is it?

Thursday January 19th 2012, 9:00 am 3 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,daily life,wagenplatz

SOPA protest

Today websites across the virtual land are blacking out to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) up for a vote in the United States that could make it really really really hard for a lot of folks to continue to run websites without getting sued to pieces.

From what I’ve read so far, it sounds like a bad idea, and far too far to go in the name of stopping online piracy due to the negative effects it could have on millions of non-pirates. For the record, I would have blacked out Click Clack Gorilla today in solidarity, but I have no fucking clue how. I am also certain that if I did figure it out, I would never be able to get the site online again. So instead, some information to get you up-to-date on the issue, in case you weren’t already…

(And don’t be fooled German speakers! I did something else and listened to several minutes of this before realizing that this was a case of clever subtitling seeing that Hitler was talking about something else entirely…)

Wednesday January 18th 2012, 1:50 pm 4 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies

what would david bowie do?

Ch-ch-ch-ch, oh nevermind. Welcome to my round-a-bout way of saying “Hey look! I made some changes! Aren’t they neat? Do you like them? Should I do anything else?”

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, I swapped out the mass of text that used to populate the sidebar and put in click-able pictures instead. They amount to the same thing (all of the text now lives on my previously un-reachable about click clack gorilla page). But in my humble opinion they look a hell of a lot prettier. Call it a bout of winter cleaning—where I spend lots of time inside living out the best of (worst of?) my neurotic tendencies by organizing and re-organizing things and crossing some virtual Ts.

so if you’re a blogger…

I’d love to swap buttons with you. Now that I have finally joined the rest of the blogging world and made one. I want to fill out the “co-conspirators” section with a bunch of pretty buttons from awesome blogs—my one condition being that said blogs are somehow relevant to CCG readers. So if you write about offbeat parenting or dumpster diving or frugality or tiny houses or scavenging or diy and would like to wear the gorilla badge and have me wear yours, drop me a line (nicolettekyle AT yahoo DOT com). I have been trying to create the code for a “grab my button” graphic for two days now, and my website refuses to cooperate. (If anyone has any hints on that one, I’d be really really really REALLY happy to hear from you in the comments.) Thus the need to actual email contact.

Wednesday January 18th 2012, 9:00 am 5 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies

bauwagen life according to universalnetz.de

In search of interesting Bauwagen illustations this morning, I happened upon an interesting article about Wagenplatz living. I felt compellted to share it with you despite its being in written in German because it is accompanied by some ancient pictures of our community—pictures from the time before the university kicked us off of half of the land and put a really ugly chemistry building where a lovely bit of green used to be. You can see the article and pictures here. Click through the blue numbers beneath the picture to see all five shots.

According to the article, Wagenplätze originated shortly after World War II by homeless refugees and survivors. True or false? Who knows, but an interesting tidbit either way.

Photo: SP//universalnetz.de

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Tuesday January 17th 2012, 9:00 am 1 Comment
Filed under: conspiracies,wagenplatz