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.