Wednesday, September 5, 2007

How do you say 911 in German?

This is an important question. At some point you may need to call the police or an ambulance. Do you know what number to call?

I was walking home from work very late one evening and I saw someone trying to open some cars that were parked on the street. He didn't notice that I was a good 20 paces behind him so I started walking even more slowly. Then I realized that I didn't know how to call the police. So, I called a friend. Now I know that 110 is the number for the police. It doesn't matter what area code your mobile phone has, this number works everywhere. So, go ahead and program it into your phone.

So, here is a list of the most important number for you to remember and to write down (or print out):

Emergency Services
110 Police
112 Fire Department
1 92 22 Rescue/Ambulance
0711 - 70 10 70 German Rescue Helicopters
0551 / 19 240 OR 0551 / 38 31 80 Poisoning (
0180 - 2 22 22 22 ADAC (the German AAA)
0180 - 2 34 35 36 ACE (the European AAA)
0180 - 25026 Central Call Center for Auto Insurers
0180 - 5 10 11 12 ADAC: Travel Calling (This is an emergency way of finding someone while they are travelling on vacation.)
0800 - 111 01 11 Suicide Prevention

To block your mobile phone (in case of theft):
D1 01803/ 30 22 02
D2 - Vodafone 0172/ 12 12
E-Plus 0177/ 10 00
O2 (VIAG-Interkom) 0800/ 55 222 55

To block your credit card (in case of theft):
069/ 79 20 13 33
900 974 445 (International)

069/ 75 76 10 00
900 971 231 (International)

American Express
069/ 97 97 40 00

01805 / 021 021

069/ 79 33 19 10
001/ 31 42 75 66 90 (International)

Diners Club
069/ 26 03 50
0180/ 2 34 54 54 (International)

Friday, August 31, 2007

Do you want to bring electronic devices to Germany?

I moved my whole household to Germany and decided to keep some electronic devices. Small things like hair dryers we gave to friends, but my stereo and our espresso machines were big enough investments that we wanted to keep them. Do you know what will work in Germany and what won't? Do you have a good transformer?

Devices with batteries are no problem, but, basically, any devices with motors will have problems. The change in frequency (from 60 Hz to 50 Hz) is something that a transformer can't change. Sometimes motorized products become stressed over time and just break down. So, consider what you risk tolerance is for bringing motorized devices. If you are just going to be in Germany for a short period (1-8 weeks), then don't worry too much. But a year or more in Germany usually is going to test any questionable devices.

In case you didn't know, don't bring an NTSC television to Germany. Here they use PAL. What are NTSC and PAL? Well, NTSC is a North American standard for video transmision, and PAL is a European standard. That means that you can get it to work electronically, but all you will get will be snow. However, if you have a huge DVD collection and a DVD player, then that is less of an issue. Many televisions in Germany can take an American DVD player with a NTSC signal and show it. When you buy a tv here, just be sure that it is compatible with NTSC and that the tv has the same kind of video connector that your player has. There are lots of adaptors here, so you should be able to get it working.

Many people have asked me what kind of a transformer would I recommend. Well, there are several kinds, depending on your device. Most laptops and computers have universal power supplies. If you look at the power labeling, they will say something like "110-220 v". If that is the case then you can either swap for a German power cord or just get a cheap plug adaptor. You will find small, traveler adaptors at electronics store like Saturn or MediaMarkt. But, they should only be used for short trips where you are bringing a hair dryer or something like that. Don't use them often, because they do break quickly. I have friends who have been on business trips and had one of these things go out on them after 2 weeks abroad.

Since I have some large devices at home -- espresso machine and stereo -- I needed to get some devices that could transform some very heavy wattage. To figure out what kind of a transformer you need, you will need to calculate the wattage of the device. Find the power labeling and multiple the volts and amps (watt = volts x amps). This will tell you how powerful the transformer needs to be.

I looked into lots of options and even bought one transformer from Conrad Electronics. However, I would highly recommend that you avoid their transformer. Why, you ask? Well, it turns out that some devices from the US are sensitive to which way the plug gets put into the outlet. You will notice that in the US any grounded plug (the ones with 3 poles) can only go in one way. However, in Germany a grounded plug can go in upside down, too. Well, I had a nice power conditioner for my stereo that I had plugged into the Conrad transformer and it fried the device. I tried contacting Conrad about the issue, but they have ignored me. Ever heard the term "Service-Wüste"?

After lots of research, I found only one company that has the quality of device that I want. The company is called HSGM ( and they have superb transformers ("Transformator" -- some people just say "Trafo"). This isn't their core business, but they are really friendly and helpful if want to buy their products. What you will end up getting a very heavy device about the size of a bread box and with a very non-iPod design. It may not be attractive, but it is a reliable beast. They have built in a wonderful feature that senses which way the plug has been put into the outlet. If it is in correctly, you will hear a light "pop" after about 2 seconds. If you don't hear this safety mechanism, than either your hearing isn't good enough or you will need to rotate the plug. The safety mechanism will not pass electricity through the device if it isn't plugged in correctly.

Here is the website of transformer manufacturer if you want to contact them and buy one of their products:
» HSGM (Heißschneid- Geräte und -Maschinen GmbH)

For some more background info on the subject, check out the following websites:
» World Electric Power Guide
» Wikipedia: Domestic AC power plugs and sockets

Raising children bilingual

If you have children in Germany, you have probably been wondering how to help your children become competent in both English (or whatever your mother tongue is) and German. I know some people who have raised their children only speaking German with them. This is partly from the parents' interest in helping their children fit in and sometimes from the school boards who tell parents that their child has a deficit in German.

My father is from Norway, but I grew up in the US. At first, my father tried speaking Norwegian to my sister and I, but shortly he gave up. Back then, it was harder. It has been much easier for me to speak English with my children. Our first child, Lena, was stronger in English than in German at first. But, quickly German became much stronger, since she was in Kindergarten and everyone else was speaking German to her. In fact, she got to a point where she always answered me in German. She knew that I understood her, so it was easier for her to speak German to me. Our son, Niklas, is at a similar age now, where he answers often in German.

At a young age, children develop one language more than another. Then they will want to stay in that one language unless there lots of other impulses. It has been much easier to get our son to speak English than it was with our daughter. For our daughter she had only heard English from me and from books. But, we took a trip to the US for 3 months where the kids were in day care. There they realized that they had to talk in English to get along. That conversion took 2 days. Then, suddenly Lena wanted to speak English with me. Now Niklas hears Lena speaking English with me and he wants to speak English with me, too. He is just missing the vocabulary. When I drive them to kindergarten in the mornings, Niklas will say "ich bin dran", when it is his turn to pick out a CD to listen to. I try to play dumb and Lena will often help him out. But, I don't want to make it too difficult or else he will just give up altogether.

The most important way to help the children learn your mother tongue is to speak to them and read to them. When they answer, you can repeat what they said and in doing say you can say it properly. That way they hear what is right and you didn't have to tell them that they made a mistake. That way it doesn't feel like being taught.

There is also a lot of discussion around having more schools provide bilingual instruction in Germany. There are some schools that already offer this and more and converting or being created all the time. As a response to the PISA study a few years back that showed how poorly German students were doing, schools have been fundamentally reexamining their curricula. Many have seen the benefits that bilingual instruction offers and they are embracing this as a cornerstone of their revamped strategy.

The benefits to bilingual instruction are multi-fold. Firstly, it is a wonderful gift to a child. The earlier they start learning, the easier it will be. Researchers say that any language that comes into daily use before the age of 6 will be processed in the brain like a native language. This means that they child can learn through absorption, like a native, rather than having to memorize rules and vocabulary.

Secondarily, language learning helps in other areas of learning. A child who acquires a second language will have an easier time in learning mathematics and music. In learning languages, we learn to identify various kinds of patterns and this helps in so many fields.

An obvious further benefit is that the child can have greater connection to other cultures. If that other culture is part of their heritage, that will further ground the child and build their self-confidence.

Here are some helpful links for further information:

» "Learning a Second Language

» "Teaching Your Child a Foreign Language"

» Verein für Mehrsprachigkeit an Kindertageseinrichtungen und Schulen (A group promoting early language acquisition. The content is in English and in German)

» List of bilingual kindergartens and schools in Germany.

» Another List of bilingual schools in Germany

For those of you in Frankfurt, there is a new Kindergarten/Elementary School that is offering bilingual instruction:
» Metropolitan School Frankfurt am Main

I read this book and can highly recommend it to anyone. The German isn't very complex and is quite accessible:
"Mit zwei Sprachen groß werden."

Would you do it again? Move to Germany, I mean.

I recently had this question posed to me. Probably most people who have moved "permanently" to Germany have heard this question. I grew up in California and when Germans hear that, many of them stare at me dumbfounded.

For everyone, this is a personal decision that can be hard to quantify. I have met people who tried living in Germany and moved back to their homeland. Oddly enough, I have often found one peculiar pattern. When a couple moves to Germany, where one of the people in the couple is originally from Germany, it is usually the German who wants to move back to the US (or elsewhere). It seems to be that the memories of the country where they grew up seemed to have gotten rosier as they were away. Once they land in their "old country", they seem to be disappointed with all the aspects of reality that one simply can't avoid.

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, I moved to Germany because I was interested in my kids growing up in Europe and in them being close to a large pool of family members. For us, that meant Germany. Now that I have lived here a while, I am happy about our decision. I do get frustrated at times about how much harder it is to get ahead career-wise and financially than it is in the US, but there are upsides that make a decision much more difficult.

I have spent a lot of my life in and around large cities -- San Jose (Silicon Valley), Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. While the cities offer lots of diversity, they also bring lots of crime and stress 24 hours a day. When I first moved to New York, I lived in a corporate apartment directly across from the World Trade Center. That apartment was part of the collateral of 9/11. So many really positive and treasured personal values and beliefs make up the American personality, that it breaks my heart to see how the US has come to represent absolute corruption and arrogance in the world. There was a time where the US commanded respect because of how our leaders behaved on the world stage and because the founding fathers wanted to create a foundation that took the best thinking of their age and use that to be a permanent guiding light.

My descendants in America came mostly from Germany and Switzerland, where they suffered and personal and religious constraints. A mennonite family that was put in jail in Switzerland was able to make it to America and become part of the movement that helped shape the country that became the US of A.

But, now I want to live in a world where there is great understanding for varying opinions and the intent is to give everyone equality. I want a neighborhood which is clean and crime is something that doesn't come into my mind every night I go to sleep.

Being in Germany also means that I am within 2 hours flight of all the major cities of Europe. And, the flights are cheap. It is unbelievable that my flight to Rome cost less than my taxi ride to the airport. The difference between Rome, Paris, Oslo and Berlin is much greater than that of New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. Plus, so much is new for me. I truly love seeing so many new things in this world, even if they are older than dust. Walking in the footsteps of Julius Caesar in Rome is quite awe inspiring. Just around the corner from me, in Hamburg, I can walk along a canal and think back to the time when pirates were put on public display and even earlier vikings came along and pillaged the town. The rich history here is inescapable.

I did enjoy the times that I visited Napa Valley in California. It is beautiful and the food and wine there is amazing. But, it has become some a commercial machine and so ridiculously expensive, that the taste sours a bit in my mouth. My in-laws live in Wiesbaden in the Rhine wine region. When we visit wineries and eat there, I notice that a simply glass of wine and the food don't need to be ridiculously expensive to be enjoyable. I can truly appreciate fine wine and haute cuisine, but I prefer that to be the rare occasion, rather than the only option.

My life here is full of fresh air, non-pretentious friends, an awareness of the environment and plenty of traditions around the holidays.

Would I do it again? I would. I would love to hear your stories, too. Let me know how you feel about your decisions. Add a comment to this article and/or answer the poll at the upper right (it will be up until October 15).

German Table Manners, German Etiquette

Nick, over at "The Life in Germany" has a great article on German Table Manners. Remember that you will be the subject of conversation after a dinner party, so it is good to make sure that the impression left behind is the one that you intended.

» Blog article: "German Table manners, German Etiquette"

Friday, August 24, 2007

Learning a few soccer/football songs

Okay, so you've been to one or two soccer games here in Germany and you find the atmosphere somewhat addictive. However, you feel like the only one who wasn't in on the singing lessons. There are songs and rituals that happen at soccer games that can add to the enjoyment of the game. A few songs are common to many games, but each team will have one or two songs that are exclusively sung there.

Most importantly one should learn "Einer geht noch rein" (one more can go in):

Then, there is the obvious hand waving furor that happens during a corner shot. Of course, if you haven't been to a stadium and experienced a stadium wide wave happen, then you probably aren't reading this article.

If you live in Hamburg, then you should be familiar with Lotto King Karl's song "Hamburg meine Perle":
Wenn ich weit, weit weg bin
Ob in Juve oder Rom
dann denk ich "Hamburg meine Perle" und singe:
home sweet home!

I have to admit having enjoyed following the World Cup here in Germany. Of course there were songs created for the occasion. To cheer Germany on the song "54 74 90 2006" was created. Those were the years (except 2006) that Germany won the World Cup.

Becoming a dual citizen?

Many people, like myself, have come to really feel at home in Germany. As much as complain every now and then, we really are most happy here.

This was particularly true after I took a 3 month business trip to Los Angeles and took my family with me. It was thrilled for my children (at that time 2 and 4 years old) to visit America for the first time. They got to see a little bit of what it was like where I grew up, although I grew up in Northern California. They had fun and really enjoyed the beach.

But, when we came back I realized that I loved how clean the freeways were and how little traffic we live with on a day to day basis. My commute to work is 15 minutes by bike (or 30 minutes walking). The kids were thrilled to see their friends again. Plus, here we have my wife's family all somewhat centralized in or near Wiesbaden. Although we live in Hamburg, the trip isn't that bad and we get to see the in-laws quite often. That is a luxury that I didn't have as a kid. I grew up in California and my relatives were in Missouri and in Norway. So, visiting family every 1 or 2 years was a major event during summer vacations. A couple of times we got to spend Christmas with our larger family. So, watching the joy that my kids have in being able to spend lots of time with a large part of their family (although I wish they had more time with my side) just fills my heart. I never had that growing up and it was very significant for me as a child, exacerbated by the fact that my parents were divorced, meaning long trips on the weekend to visit my father.

So, I considered the option of gaining German citizenship. I figured that if I am going to live here long-term, then I should try to feel more integrated into society. I am slowly starting to understand some of the politics and I could imagine having a strong enough opinion to want to take part in major elections.

The next logical question is what would one have to do to become a citizen? The Ministry of the Interior has it all up on their website in English for anyone wanting the details, but here is a quick summary:

- live legally in Germany for 8 years (if you take the integration course, this will be cut down to 7 years and if you are married to a German citizen, this can be cut down to 3 years)
- declare allegiance to the German constitution
- sufficient command of German (from what I understand this is easier than one might think)
- ability to be self-sufficient (no freeloaders, please)
- don't be a criminal
- give up your previous citizenship

Ok, I was cool with everything up until that last point. As much as I feel at home here and want to integrate in, I am still proud of my heritage as my children should be, too. My connection to both countries is strong and I couldn't choose one over the other. Naturalized citizens are intended to only have German nationality. There are some exceptions for ethnic German repatriates (former German citizens who were deprived of the citizenship by the Nazi regime between 30 January 1933 and 8 May 1945) and elderly people. So, I might wait until I'm old before applying.

Alternatively, children born to a cocktail of parents can easily gain dual citizenship. For my kids it was easy. It is important to apply before they are of age. Since my wife is German and I am a US citizen, the kids could easily gain both citizenships, regardless of where they were born.

When traveling between the US and Germany, the children need to show the corresponding passport to the country into which they are traveling. To the US they have to show US passports and to Germany their German passports. This is required by law.

Since my kids are growing up in Germany, their children will not necessarily automatically have the right to become US citizens. If they spend 5 or more years living in the US, then their kids will be allowed to automatically gain US citizenship. But, they will need to document all travel to the US and be able to recite those dates. I supposed that once the US immigration department has their super-duper-computer up and running it will be easy for them to track how long anyone has spent in the US, but until then it is all dependent upon word of honor. When I was applying for passports for my kids the person at the embassy asked me subtly how long I had lived in the US. I thought the question a bit odd, but asked if I need to be more accurate than 32 to 33 years ( I have lived abroad in between). Then she let me know that I just needed to have lived there for at least 5 years. If you didn't know that this question was coming and you hadn't lived in the US for 5 years, I suppose this is how they catch ineligible applicants.

Unemployment statistics in Germany

There has been much discussed about the unemployment situation in Germany. Although the national unemployment level is around 11.5%, in each region the unemployment level vary dramatically. If you collectively look at the former Eastern German states, then you have an unemployment level around 15%, whereas the former Western German states average around 7,5%. If we get a bit more granular, it becomes more extreme. In the map above, the darkest areas represent regions that have unemployment between 20.8% and 25.1%. The lightest areas have unemployment under 7.7%. The furthest eastern part of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has an unemployment rate of 25%, which is a stark contrast to Munich, with an unemployment rate of around 4.2%.

The clear separations that one sees on the map go to indicate that the issues behind higher unemployment in certain regions of Germany are issues that have developed over a very long period. This issue leads to frequent debates and discussions about how to improve the situation. As such, I haven't seen any activity which has improved the situation and all ideas are still theoretical.

This is a very complicated issue as not only is there a huge deficit of job openings in East Germany, but employers are often heard complaining about the "quality" of employees. The debate often centers around attitudes of employees in East Germany that had been used to a lifetime guaranteed job before the reunification. After the reunification, the social state was dramatically changed and in modern business, employees are asked to take initiative and to be much more ambitious. After so many years living in a different culture, this is very hard to change.

Highlights from Germany:England game at Wembley

Thursday, August 23, 2007

American Journalist at Welt: Anjana Shrivastava

It is great to see Welt include some English editorial. I have read Anjana's articles and they are well written pieces that expose Germany from the outside. Please read her articles and add comments to encourage Welt to continue supporting her.

"Anjana Shrivastava: Entering the German Sector"

Welt: "Germany needs immigrants!"

Political Editor, Stefan von Borstel, writes in an editorial piece about Germany's need for immigrants. In his article, he sees the problem of the aging population and overall shrinking of the population as an issue that can be minimized by liberalizing of immigration laws. He notes that 456 top management personnel came from abroad and that currently the law offers an easier application process for a work permit to this group if they earn over 85,000 Euros annually.

I agree with his opinion that the laws are set up to work as barriers to foreigners, rather than as a way to have healthy integration and to improve the overall market.

Germany, like many countries, is very protective of its labor force. It is hard to explain to 3.5 million unemployed citizens why they are trying to bring in workers from abroad. This protectionism is also mirrored in the very strong social leaning politics that do everything to protect jobs at the expense of employers ability to stay solvent.

However, I am optimistic. The loosening of employment protection laws has been very helpful in motivating companies to hire staff. A strong economy motivates hiring and firing, encouraging businesses to grow and take risk. Highly protective labor laws, however, encourage companies to be very cautious about hiring and reduce the overall employment levels. This in turn motivates German companies to go abroad and set up operations in other countries with more favorable laws.

Changing the immigration laws and labor laws together would motivate not only more immigrants, but would also reduce exodus of talent. And, as Mr. von Borstel notes, Germany would profit greatly from having a talent pool made up of people with greater variety. The cultural and educational diversity only helps businesses find solutions for their customers that are more unique, but also can apply to greater geographic markets.

Adidas, one of Germany's greatest success stories, is a classic example of a German company who has moved some of their strategic thinking abroad, in order to find a talent pool that guide their company in a global economy. You will find their global marketing managed out of Boston. Of all of the US cities, I wouldn't have thought of Boston as being global, but it definitely has much more diversity than any city in Germany.

Please read Stefan von Borstel's article:
Deutschland braucht Zuwanderer!

American view on Germans

Do you have a Platzfreigabe?

If you are a golf player, then you probably know what a Platzfreigabe is. For those of you who want to play golf in a private club, which most golf courses are, then you will need to go through a test and receive your DGV-Platzreife. In this test, you will go through three parts. Part 1 tests your understanding of safety issues and general behavior. Part 2 tests your golfing skills. You need to be able to play at a certain level (it would be embarassing to have bad players out on the field). Part 3 tests your knowledge of golf theory. There are 30 questions, 15 are about the rules, 12 about etiquette and 3 general questions about the sport.

However, be careful that you don't lose your license! If you are caught two times breaking the rules, then you are in real trouble. That includes leaving divots (holes you accidentally dig with your golf club) or endangering other golfers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Right to vote for foreigners

Have you been wondering whether you are able to vote in German elections, and if not, then how can you gain the right to vote?

In 1989 several parts of Germany passed various legislation to allow some groups of foreign residents to vote. However, all of these actions were struck down by constitutional court in 1990. In 1999 Hessen and Rheinland-Pfalz created new draft legislation to allow non-EU citizens the right to vote in communal elections.

However, to allow foreigners with unrestricted residency status the right to vote would require a change in the Grundgesetz (constitution). This would require a two thirds majority yeah vote. It appears as though this issue will be resolved after the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) decides on the planned changes to citizenship laws. Then we will see at what level one will be allowed to vote.

Today approximately 1.2 million residents with EU citizenship are allowed to vote in communal elections. There are some EU countries where non-EU citizens are allowed to vote in communal elections. From what I understand, EU-citizens are allowed to vote in local elections if they are permanent residents.

At the EU level, there are efforts to have Germany allow full local election rights to EU-citizens. According to recently published National Integration Plan, the introduction of communal voting rights of non-EU citizens is currently being examined.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hundeführerschein = Dog Driver's License

If you have a dog, or are thinking of getting one, then you will need to learn about the Hundeführerschein. It isn't a license to allow your dog to chauffeur you around, but simply a dog owner's license. However, as you may have already experienced, in Germany this is not as simple as one might think. Unlike in the US (let me know if this is different in other states), where a dog license is a very simple registration process, in Germany you really have to go through a test.

The license certifies that you, the person walking the dog, are certified for this complex activity. The test is to see if you understand how to handle your dog in every day situations and to ensure that your dog won't endanger other people or dogs. The license is required by the owner and also anyone else who wants to walk your dog.

The test takes about 2 1/2 hours and is comprised of a practical and theoretical test. In the practical test, you will be exposed to every day situations. In the theoretical part, you will answer forty questions about handling and caring for your dog.

Additionally, you should consider having a tracking chip implanted in your dog by a veterinarian. In some parts of Germany, this is a legal requirement, but it may become a national requirement. The chip allows dogs that are found stray to be identified and connected with their owners. This became a big issue a while back when a small boy was killed by a dog. Now it may be that dogs found without chips will be put down.

Implanting a chip costs about 35 Euros and has no negative effects on the dog. The chip itself is about the size of a grain of rice and sits neutral in the body.

Martina added a good point of clarification. The license is only required for owner's of certain types of dogs. This is intended to reduce the potential danger that certain dogs can pose.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Burying loved ones in Germany

As with everything else, Germany has very restrictive laws on how to deal with burial of loved ones. One of our readers asked a question which has led to some information that could be helpful to other readers.

In Germany, there is a law that once someone has died, they have to be buried, even if they are cremated. It is, however, possible to buy a plot for a urn, which costs 450 Euros for a 10 year contract. If the contract isn't renewed, then the plot will be repurposed. If you aren't there personally, then you need to make a contract with someone to take care of the plot. That includes keeping it clean and placing new flowers there.

If this is of interest, then you will need to submit a request in writing, since it is usually only reserved for residents of the city where your loved one should be buried.

If you travel into Germany with ashes and it becomes known that you are travelling with human ashes, they will be confiscated. But, it is not uncommon that people "smuggle" them in and in secret set them out in a place that is of the loved-one's choice.

Smoking restrictions

Are you a smoker? Have you heard about the new smoking restrictions? I am a non-smoker, so I applaud the new laws, but I am sure many smokers will be frustrated.

In Niedersachsen and in Baden-Württemberg the new laws went into effect on August 1st. Most other places in Germany will put new laws into effect on January 1, 2008. So, have your last smoke before the clock strikes midnight on New Years Eve.

Basically, the laws try to protect people in work environments and public spaces. Because there will be variations in the law from state to state, you may need to find out what your local restrictions are and don't expect them to be the same when you travel within Germany. Basically, though, smoking in restaurants and bars won't be allowed unless you see a designated smoking area or room.

It looks like Germany may have some of the last Irish pubs where one can smoke, since it is now illegal inside pubs in Ireland.

For many Americans, the smoking culture in German is a bit hard to get accustomed to. Here are a few posts that Mausi has in her blog on this topic:
- thank you, come again
- I can see clearly now...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Customs Taxes between Germany and Scandinavia

Well, I am back from a lovely trip in the mountains of Norway. The weather was better than in Hamburg, but this shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with Hamburg.

If you travel to Norway, you can bring in and take out products of any amount without paying customs. Technically, you do have to pay customs, but the two countries have an agreement, which sets the customs fee at 0 Euros. The only exception here is alcohol being brought into Norway. For alcohol, there are strict regulations as to how much you can bring in without having to pay taxes. However, on our trip, we have a bit of wine and beer in the back of our car beneath some luggage and it was never checked. So, you can see that the laws may be strict, but inconsistently enforced. If, however, you are traveling without a car and you exit the boat in Norway with a big shopping bag from the duty-free shop on the boat, then they will possibly check you. I know a few sweet elderly ladies who got busted this way.

There is also the expensive tax issues of bringing a car into Norway, but this is only relevant to someone who is looking to relocate to Norway. That is a whole other can of worms.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Vacationing in Norway?

I am going to be out visiting my family in Norway for the next two weeks. So, I won't be updating this blog until then. 

If you are interested in visiting Norway, I would highly recommend it! It is a really beautiful country and nature lovers will want to come back often. Hotels are very expensive, though, as are restaurants. So, you might want to check into renting a cabin or bringing a tent and enjoying nature.

If you want to take a car or RV, then you can either drive through Denmark and Sweden or you can take a ship across. We will be driving to the northern tip of Denmark and taking a ColorLine ship across to Oslo. From there we will drive up to my uncle's cabin. We will probably eat tons of fish, since the fishing is so good there. But, you can also expect us to eat Fiskeboller and Lompe med Pølse.

Income tax calculations

If you would like to see an estimate of how much will be left over from your salary once you have paid all of your taxes, then try out this calculator from Spiegel.,1518,223811,00.html

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Health insurance for the whole family

Each parent will need to have their own insurance. It can be with the same company, but it doesn't have to be. It is fairly common for one person to have government insurance (Krankenkasse) and the other to have private insurance. However, private insurance is only allowed if you have an income above 47,700 Euros annually.

The children need to be covered by the same insurance company that covers the parent with the highest income. This potentially up until they are adults. If they start working, then they need their own insurance.

An interesting option in Germany is the "Zusatzversicherung" (extra insurance). Since the government insurance has a fixed type of coverage for all people, many people purchase Zusatzversicherung from a private insurance company. This way, you can get better service, reduce co-payments or have more types of services covered. For example, you may want to ensure that you always get a private room if you are hospitalized. Few, if any, of the Krankenkasses provide this. However, there are Zusatzversicherung packages that provide this.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Train strikes?

It looks like the locomotive drivers have postponed potential strikes until August 6th. If you want to stay up to date on the situation check out their website in German:

Immigration rights

It looks like immigration rights in Germany are being refined. It has been reported that the Federal Assembly has made stricter conditions around defining which family members may receive immigration rights and they have also are being much more strict in requiring people to participate in "integration courses".

I personally don't care for much of the tone around "integration". It would be wonderful to see the philosophy be structured around helping people become effective contributors to society and less of trying to "make them more like us".

Obviously, there is a need to reduce the number of people who are abusing the social support system. Yet, there are many, varying interests in this political issue and it is easy to cover up some of the personal biases against foreigners with new laws. I applaud politicians who see immigrants as an enrichment for Germany and who are focused on shaping the laws to reflect this attitude.

Really cheap travel

If you are new to Germany, you may not now about the cheap flights that you can find. You can find some truly amazing deals. If you check out the website, you can seach through all of the low price airlines at once. However, go to the airlines' own website to actually book. There are often rates there that aren't found on

We recently flew from Hamburg to Marseille for a long weekend on Ryanair. Two adults and two children round-trip ended up costing under 400 Euros. If we had waited one week longer to book, we could have gotten the tickets for half that price at the same airlines. You have to pay for each piece of luggage and the weight limits are VERY low. If you are overweight at the airport, it is expensive. But, they are somewhat flexible with the weight on carry-ons. So, travel light and try to survive on just carry-ons.

So, find out where your closest budgets airlines fly through and look at where the fly to. For example, I live in Hamburg and if we fly Ryanair, we fly through Lübeck, which is about an hour away by car. They do provide bus service from Hamburg, too. From Lübeck we can fly to: Marseille, Barcelona, Dublin, London, Milan, Florence and Stockholm.

Most loved vacation destination in Germany?

According to many, the baltic coastal area in Germany is the most loved vacation destination for Germans. It is a very beautiful area with lots of nature and some charming cities. It is also where you will find the sanddorn berries (picture above). These odd berries are extremely rich in vitamin C. There is a northern German tradition of using sanddorn syrup (sweetend with honey or sugar, since it is so-o-o-o-o sour otherwise) for breakfast in your oatmeal or yoghurt.

Timmendorfer Strand is relatively near Hamburg, offers upscale dining and Sunday shopping. The beaches covered with wicker beach chairs for rent can get very crowded during the school break period, though.

Others prefer destinations such as the island Rügen with its white cliffs and wonderful nature. The archipelago is simply charming for any boating.

Often couples or families will rent a house or apartment for a whole week (or two). This can be quite affordable and gives the opportunity to cook, rather than having to spend all your money on restaurants. Often you will be able to avoid the beach taxes if you have a rental. Just ask at the reception if they provide this.

More information in German can be found on the Deutsche Ostseeküste website.

What are your favorite vacation destinations?

Customs taxes

If you are receiving a package from outside of the EU, you need to be aware of potential customs taxes. It can be quite frustrating to receive a gift from someone in the states and the shipping and taxes end up costing more than the gift.

In the EU, packages from outside of the EU that have a total value (product value + partial shipping cost) over 45 Euros will have to pay taxes. This will equal about 19%. Often family members will send a package and mark it with a value of 30 Euros (+ shipping) to ensure that the receiver doesn't pay taxes. Beware, though, if you do mark something below its value that the customs folks may check inside the package to see if the written value is obviously stated too low.

I had a problem with a watch that I received as a gift in Los Angeles. Before I left, I took it back to the store and they said they couldn't replace it immediately, but they would ship me a new one. So, they shipped it to my address in Germany. When they did this, they left a price tag on it. The customs saw this and gave me a hefty bill for the taxes.

However, another time I had forgotten my camera in a hotel in Oslo, Norway. I called the hotel and they had found the camera and were willing to ship it to me. As Norway is out of the EU, this meant that the customs office would look at the package. When I went to down to pick up the package, I explained what happened. The person looked at me quite skeptical and then opened the package to see if the product was actually used. Fortunately, there were some pictures of me and my family on the digital camera that I could show him. Case solved and I didn't pay taxes. But, I did have to sign a form that held me responsible, just in case they later found out that I had been misleading them and they wanted to prosecute me.

Legal holidays

Depending on where you live in Germany, you will find that you have more or less legal holidays. Some are nationwide, but the majority of religious holidays are state specific. If you are looking on determining your city of residency, based on how much vacation you will get, then look for a city in Bavaria. Because of the heavy influence of the Catholic Church, you will find the most holidays there.

If you are looking for the most crazy holiday in Germany, then you will want to find a city that celebrates Fasching (or Karneval). The cities known for this holiday are Köln, Düsseldorf and Mainz. This is similar to the Carneval that one sees in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. There is a large parade where people are dressed in all kinds of great costumes. The German version adds interesting floats with political humor in them. From what I understand, the tradition was a way to celebrate the harvest. Just like in Mardi Gras, people in the floats toss all kinds of things out to the viewing public. The picture of the little boy in the devil's costume shows what most kids look like. The sit on their parents shoulders and hold out their hands, looking cute, in hopes that the people in the floats with toss them candy and stuffed animals.

To look up the legal holidays in your state, go to

Friday, July 20, 2007

Work and Residency Permit in Germany

There are varying rules as to who can get a work permit and for what duration in Germany. Obviously, citizens of EU countries don't have a problem, but Germany separates the rest of us into two categories "close friends" and "others". For those who are from countries that are currently considered to be close friends, Germany makes it easier to get a work permit and obviously also a residency permit.

If you are married to a German citizen, then you will most likely not have any problems getting a work and residency permit, although it may be a beaurocratic process.

Usually, the first residency permit is provided for a limited period (18 - 36 months) and then the applicant needs to reapply. If there aren't any outstanding financial obligations (e.g. unpaid taxes) or any crimes committed, then you can reapply. After 3 years of good behavior you can apply for an unrestricted residency permit. Then you won't need to reapply.

There are political discussions going that may change some of these basic rules. They seem to be fueled by three very different issues. Firstly, you see that there is a fear of foreigners who could be potential terrorists. Secondly, there is a huge need for talented workforce. Thirdly, there is a great amount of dissatisfaction by many residents from countries that aren't part of the close friends network. Many have been in Germany for years and even have children. Some of these children have become of voting age and are frustrated with their legal status. It is quite common to meet people who were born and raised in Germany, yet don't have German citizenship. They feel German, but carry another passport.

Humor: Deutsch für Dummies

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Organ donation

Being an organ donor in the US isn't a big deal. There it is typical that people sign a little card that is attached to the back of their driver's license. However, in Germany, it is quite uncommon for people to carry an organ donation card. This is due partially to people's misunderstanding of the issues and partially to low awareness of what they should do.

There is a good article on the topic at Lucid in Deutschland. Please read and fill out a donor card.

Buying Maternity Clothes in Germany

Christina G in her blog "An American Expat in Deutschland" wrote a helpful article for anyone who is looking for maternity clothes. My wife was 7 months pregnant when we came to Germany, so she had done most of her shopping the states. The rest of the blog articles are heavily centered around tracking her pregnancy, so you may also find other tidbits of interest. Enjoy.

German marriage license

So, you want to marry the person of your dreams in Germany and you want a German marriage license?

I got married in Germany and I really enjoyed it, but it is a lot of work to get the license. The Germans are very precise and they take their time. Once you get the stacks of documents together, you can expect a little back and forth discussions before it is all final and good. Typically, you need to plan at least 2 months for all of the paperwork. Talk to your local Standesamt to get the details.

Recognize that a wedding in a church has no official status in Germany. Only a wedding performed by the Standesamt counts. So, many Germans have two weddings. We did. Fortunately, the person from the Standesamt was very nice and they came to restaurant that we were using as a reception for the civil wedding. In a separate room there, they performed a very nice service for us. It was a bit odd having the church wedding the next day, since I was already married. But, when in Rome...

I did find some general information on that may also be helpful.

Meldepflicht (Requirement to register)

In German law, there are many "Meldepflichten". This means that residents are required by the state to register at various governmental agencies.

You will need to register at the local "Einwohnermeldeamt" when you move to a city or when you change your residence.

Civil status (Personenstand or Zivilstand)
You will need to register for births, marriages and death. If you die, this notification will need to be taken on by someone other than yourself. This is taken care of at the local "Standesamt". You will find that you will receive a "Familienbuch" (family buch), which you keep as a copy of the events in your family's life. For example, my shows who my wife is and when my kids were born.

If you have an infectious disease or serious food poisoning, that needs to be registered. You will probably be talking with a doctor if you fall in this category, but you should know that the sicknesses must be registered at the "Gesundheitsamt" (health services).

If you want to operate a business in Germany, it needs to be registered. I will have to do a series of articles on this topic, because it is quite large. But, if you are considering starting a business in Germany, you will want to have a lawyer (Rechtsanwalt) and a good accountant (Steuerberater) help you out. If you are employed then your employer will register with the proper authorities that you are employed.

Work related injury
Your employer is responsible for having work insurance. If you are self-employed, get insurance.

Most of your needs will be served at the Straßenverkehrsmat. That is where you will get your driver's license and where vehicles are registered. You will also need to have you car inspected regularly to ensure that it is in good enough condition to be driving on the streets. You will see stickers on your license plate that show when your TÜV Inspection has expired. You will then need to go to a local TÜV Inspection station and have your car certified. Some car dealerships and mechanics will offer to do this for you, too.

When you have a vehicle accident, this need to be registered with the police.

American Citizens Service Moves from Hamburg to Berlin

As of July 1, 2007, the American Citizen Services role of the U.S. Consulate General in Hamburg will be taken over by the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. ...

Is your German C1?

The Goethe Institut developed a testing system some years back to measure the level of competence in German. There is another parallel system used by the universities, which is supposedly also a good measure of competence, but I am less familiar with that.

Wherever you take German classes under the label Deutsch als Fremdsprache you will run into the competency levels set out by the Goethe Institut. You can see how they are laid out on their website (Goethe Insitut - Course levels).

I believe that mastery of a language is the most important part of feeling at home and that it will directly affect anyone's career. So, I would think that it would be in the best interest of the government to encourage foreigners to take as many courses as possible and become effective in German. However, that is not the philosophy, instead the focus is on getting people to a level where they can survive in the language, not excel. For example, the courses offered through the VHS only go through level C1 (the system goes to C2). I have gone though C1 and I would definitely not consider myself as having very good German grammar. Sure, I get along very well in conversation, but complex expressions and clean writing are out of my grasp.

I contrast this with my neighbor when I was a child. My neighbor moved to the US as a young adult from Germany. She took English courses at a local community college (similar to VHS, but more focused on general education). There she not only got to a level of strong competency, but she went beyond that. For years she worked as an executive secretary because her English was better than that of the majority of native speakers. That is what should be offered here in Germany.

I would like to see the state offer more language education and to go beyond the C2 level and give those who have the ambition the opportunity to succeed. There are further courses available to foreigners here, however they are only open to those who are pursuing a degree at a university. For foreigner, who is a professional, it is more important to get the language skills up that of their peers, rather than go after another degree.

Health Insurance explained (Krankenversicherung)

No, I am not going to explain how the health insurance system in Germany works. Why? Because, I am looking for tips as to where this is explained in a manner that is digestable.

I went to a few larger book stores recently, trying to find something to read on the subject. Obviously, I expected something like "Krankenversicherung für Dummies". But, fuggedaboudit.

I know that there is a difference between private insurance and public (Krankenkasse). With private insurance, doctors like to see you and with public insurance you can sometimes end up waiting quite a while.

Theoretically, everyone is insured in Germany. But, you still have to pay. I think. So, if you don't pay, do you lose your insurance? Even the public type?

I also believe that people above a certain income level are not eligible for public insurance. And, if you go to private insurance, then you have to stay with private insurance. You can never return. Is this like Hotel California?

Learning German

Perhaps the most action to take to feel at home in Germany is to feel a level of comfort with the language. 

When I first came to Germany, I took a 2 week intensive course at Berlitz. It was brutally exhausting, but very helpful. It was also a huge luxury that few can afford. Other options do exist, but this is a great fast-track means of building a basis in the language.

Fortunately for me, my wife is German and we started speaking German together shortly after coming to Germany. Then when I started working here I insisted on speaking German, although everyone spoke much better English than I spoke German. The first 3 months were hard. Every evening I would fall asleep early and my tongue felt like it was swollen. This kind of immersion got me up to speed quickly.

Then I started taking classes at the Volkshochschule in Hamburg ( The "Deutsch als Fremdsprache (DaF)" courses were very helpful. The courses are affordable and you really feel like you are making progress there. The teachers all take their jobs very seriously and really do a wonderful job. I believe that most larger cities in Germany have these schools.

Maneuvering through the complexities of life in Germany

I have lived in the US and Finland before. Now that I am living in Germany, I find that I really could have benefited (and still could) from a kind of guide book to daily needs. Who would know that you need to register in a city when you move? There certainly won't be a nice pamphlet that is handed to you when you enter Germany that lets you know that you need to also register your tv when you buy one.

Most of the people that I have met in Germany who moved here from other countries are very happy here. We just need a tool to help us get through the complexities. Hopefully, this blog will be a good starting point for just that.