Step number 59,248 in becoming a proper German is getting yourself a .de email address. Having noticed that a lot of Germans email me from a web.de account, that’s what I decided to go for. There are two things you assume when you sign up for an email account called FreeMail:
You get an email account;
It is free.
I like free.
You can imagine my surprise when, a month or so later, I received an invoice (Rechnung) from web.de for around €15. Assuming (clearly very dangerous in Germany) that it was a mistake, or possibly some optional extra that I was under no obligation to pay, I deleted it. A few days later, I received another one. About a week later, I got another one and, shock horror, the amount had gone up. It seemed they were serious about this payment malarkey.
Finding it hard to believe that every German with a .de account is paying for it, I emailed my old German teacher to ask if she was paying for hers:
What!? No, I don’t pay. Maybe you accidentally agreed to open up an account where you have to pay. They could have inserted some button that you can hardly see and pressed accidentally.
I heard a similar story from a friend. You should call and complain and tell them it wasn’t your intention to open up this account.
Crap. The one thing I dislike more than making phone calls in English is making phone calls in German. I decided to take the coward’s way out and, instead, replied to the email I had received and sent another message through the Customer Service page – not easy to find. I got a confirmation that they’d received my query and waited. When, after two days, I had got no reply, I knew I’d have to bite the bullet and call. Crap. (Again.)
The telephone number is buried somewhere in the site – I guess they hope that you’ll just give up and stump up whatever it is they’re asking for.
They hadn’t bet on the intrepidity of Frau von Grady, however. I trawled every inch of that blasted site and eventually found what I was looking for. The first victory. Amazingly, the automated system recognised my nervous muttering of my contract number – when had I signed up for a contract? – and I was put through to an actual person.
I explained the reason for my call.
Herr Helpful: Ah yes, I see that you’ve sent us two emails about this.
Me: (Grrr.) Why, yes, yes I have. Aaaaaaanyway, I didn’t sign up for a contract, I don’t understand why I’m getting invoices and I don’t want membership to anything. I just want the FreeMail account that I registered for.
Herr Helpful: I see. Let me just check… (tap, tap, tap)… yes, it seems that on the (insert random date) at (insert random time), you clicked on a button that activated your premium account.
Now, because of the way web.de is set up, with things moving around the pages, pop-up ads and various buttons that appear randomly, this is actually very possible. However, as I hadn’t handed over any bank details, given a credit card number or even double-clicked to confirm, I hadn’t given it a second thought.
Me: Well, that was a mistake. I didn’t mean to click anything. All I want is the FreeMail account.
Herr Helpful: OK, I understand. I’m cancelling your “contract” now. You won’t receive any more invoices from us.
Me: Great, thanks. But do I have to pay the previous invoices?
Herr Helpful: No, you don’t have to pay anything.
Me: (Phew.) Fantastic. WAIT! Can you please send me that in writing? (Because Germany…)
Herr Helpful: Yes, of course. You will get an email shortly.
As I sat clicking refresh and waiting for the confirmation, I contemplated how much entertainment value the staff at web.de would get out of my “recorded for quality purposes” German over the next 90 days. The email arrived. It was over.
Yeah, right. This is Germany. The following week, I received a “Mahnung” in my inbox. This is like a final demand before things get nasty. The next day, there was one in my letterbox.
Me: What’s “on the warpath” in German?
Manfredas: Auf dem Kriegspfad. Why?
Me: Because I’m on it. It all started a month or so ago. (Approximately four hours pass…)
Unwilling to waste another second of my life on the web.de automated telephone system, I decided to go down the email route again. Two extremely harsh, most likely very rude and, even more likely, in hilarious German, emails were despatched.
On day three, I received a very apologetic email saying that there had been a mistake in the system, that everything was now resolved and that I wouldn’t receive any more invoices or demands. This time I didn’t bother with a reply.
A couple of days later, I received an email asking me to rate the customer service at web.de.
I printed it out and used it to wipe my Arsch. Maybe I should send it back to them after all – if I can find their postal address…
I love reading. This is due to the fact that my mother read to me when I was a baby (according to my mother). However, a bit like dating an Eastern European woman, my love is becoming rather an expensive habit.
While there are several excellent second-hand bookstores in Berlin, they’re either very far out of my way, or not really that cheap. Wandering around Dussmann leaves me dizzy with desire, high on “new book smell” and, usually, broke. Books from Amazon cost next to nothing, until you factor in the postage and packaging. And, before you suggest it, I abhor the idea of e-books; I’m old-fashioned like that.
So, what was a girl to do?
As you may have guessed from the title (clever you…), I decided to join the library. Armed with some free time and the determination to tackle yet another German institution, I walked five minutes down the road to my local Bibliothek.
Deciding that I would “save” my German for when it was absolutely necessary, I slunk past the reception desk to see what they had on offer, and yes, to see if there was an English books section. There was.
It was time. I eyed the two women behind the reception. One was rotund, jolly and bespectacled; the other was rake thin, had classic “Bürgeramt Face” and was also bespectacled – a bit like a German, short-sighted librarian version of the odd couple. Anyway, you can imagine which woman I chose to assault with my German language skills.
I sidled up to the desk and told her that I would like to become a member. She smiled jovially at me, started shuffling things around on her desk and babbled away happily in German. Thankfully, I understood most of what she was saying. I dutifully produced my Anmeldung (registration document) and my passport. She explained some more stuff. I nodded, smiled and muttered “Ja” over and over again in an appreciative manner.
Then she surprised me by offering me a choice of colours of library card – have you ever heard of such a thing? I certainly hadn’t. I grinned at her and chose siren red. Or just red. Whatever…
I handed over €10 and she handed me my shiny new best friend.
Even though we had conducted our entire exchange in German, she clearly wanted to give a nod to my native English-speaking ways, so she started rummaging around for some pamphlets in English. She managed to produce leaflets in French, Spanish, Vietnamese and Arabic but, sadly, no English.
I assured her I could understand the German version (probably) and scampered back over to the English books section to have a proper look. There was the usual fare like Michael Connelly, John Grisham, and Tom Clancy, chick lit (i.e. stuff I don’t read) like Maeve Binchy, Cecilia Ahern and Nicholas Sparks as well as a few classics and welcome surprises. I selected a couple of books and went back over to my new library mom.
She informed me that it was all electronic and that I had to do it myself. I looked dubiously over my shoulder at a computer.
Libhilde: NEIN! Not that computer!
Libhilde: Do you want me to help you?
I promise I wasn’t faking helplessness. I’m just bloody useless at times.
Libhilde marched me over to a contraption beside the door and instructed me to place my card in front of it. I waved it around and the machine asked for my PIN. I entered it. Libhilde beamed. She then placed the two books on a scanner and both titles popped up on screen. I hit a button and we were done. My jaw dropped.
Me: Wow, this is so much more modern than Ireland!
Libhilde did that reluctantly proud face that only Germans can do and I left her to get on with her day. On my way out, I realised that the last time I’d set foot in an Irish library was probably close to three decades ago and they’d most likely updated things a bit since then. Still, at least I’d made someone’s day.
In case you’re wondering, my €10 gets me a year’s membership and I can use my card in every library in Berlin – there are a lot of them. If I want a book that isn’t at my local library, they can order it for me and I can either pick it up there or they will deliver it to my flat. There is a wonderful website (that I’ve spent half the afternoon playing with), where I can do pretty much everything from the comfort of my own living room. And, in the event I do leave my flat, they even have free toilets – a rarity in Berlin.
On Friday, my half-naked neighbour graduated to being full-on naked. While I’m not a fan of my eyes being assaulted by a swaying, sagging, dimply arse, I do have bigger problems with the guy.
As I’ve mentioned before, he’s an opera singer. Or opera student. Whatever. All I know is that it entails him singing sporadically, at the top of his voice, from early in the morning until late in the evening most days. I’m as much of a music lover as the next person, but I do need peace and quiet while I work (or nap).
Maybe if he’d mixed it up with a bit of Johnny Cash, I could have stood it, but it was wall-to-wall opera. Opera, opera, opera. I was going out of my mind. Sorting him out had been on my to-do list for quite a while, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it.
The helpful, and often fabulously entertaining, “Free Advice Berlin” Facebook page came to my rescue. On this page, people can post pretty much anything they like in the hope that a kind soul will help them out. Questions have included everything from people looking for unusual products or cool bars, where to neuter a cat or buy a TV, help with moving flat, and even a Russian asking someone to explain feminism to him. (Good luck with that last one.)
The post that caught my eye, however, was by a musician. He explained that he wants to study sound engineering and plays around 13 instruments, including the drums, which he practises at home. Amazingly, he was getting noise complaints from the neighbours…
People were quick to comment on this one and, luckily for me, this being Germany, there are RULES about this sort of thing. It turns out that you can’t actually practise an instrument (voice included) for more than two hours a day. I downloaded the “Merkblatt zur Hausmusik” that someone posted, which contains scary terms like “Gemäß § 5 des Landes-Immissionsschutzgesetzes” and “Einschlägige Gerichtsentscheidungen”. I wasn’t entirely sure what they meant, but I figured you probably wouldn’t want to mess with that stuff.
A quick perusal through my rental agreement backed up the general Berlin rules with more specific house rules.
Ah, lovely German rules.
After a night filled with bad dreams about jiggly, naked opera singers, I was rudely awakened on Saturday morning at 9.30am by the man himself. I repeat, 9.30 AM on a SATURDAY. This was war.
But instead of banging down his door like the fighting Irish woman that I am, I opted for the more civilised German approach. This involved me sitting at my laptop in a fury, with extreme bed hair and fluffy pajamas, and hammering out a “pleasant” letter to my neighbour, “politely” asking him to stop with all of the fucking singing because he was driving me fucking mad disrupting my work and my sleep.
I printed out the letter and the Merkblatt and, after making myself slightly less mental looking, popped them both into his letter box.
And now I wait. I guess there’s a good chance an angry, half-naked opera singer will show up on my doorstep. If that does happen, rather than resorting to fisticuffs, I’m hoping we can have a good old-fashioned sing-off. Throw in a couple of beers and a bit of Schlager and that would seem to be the most German way to handle things…
I recently committed my first truly (horrible) German act.
I was sitting at my desk one evening when the doorbell rang. I generally never answer my door as there’s a high chance it could be DHL or Hermes or any one of the billion other online companies Germans order from, leaving my hallway looking like a sorting office.
However, it was a bit late in the day for that, so I optimistically thought it might be my next-door neighbour coming to apologise for his incessant, inconsiderate warbling. I opened the door, willing to graciously accept his apology.
I stood face to face with a girl I had never seen before in my life.
Stranger Danger: I need the code for your Wi-Fi.
Me: Um, what? Who are you?
SD: Oh, I live downstairs.
Me: Riiiiight. And?
SD: I need the code for your Wi-Fi.
Me: (in my head) NEIN!
Me: (out loud) NEIN!
SD: What? But I’m a student and I’m only going to be here for a month and it’s going to take longer than that to get Wi-Fi set up…
Me: I know. Germany’s a nightmare but I really can’t give you my Wi-Fi code. Try the guy next door.
SD: He says he doesn’t have Wi-Fi.
Me: (in my head) LIAR!
Me: (out loud) LIAR! I see him on his laptop every day. Anyway, I’m really sorry, but I can’t help you.
I closed the door with her probably thinking I was a right bitch, and me feeling like a right bitch. But before you start thinking I’m a right bitch too, allow me to explain.
Germany has INSANELY strict laws against downloading. Fines start in the hundreds and can run into the thousands. An entire industry of lawyers has sprung up as a result of the intellectual property protection laws here.
Last year, a friend of mine rented out her apartment through Air BnB for a week or so. She came back to a fine for close to €1,000. She contacted the guy whose response was, “I was sick so I downloaded some TV shows”. Luckily for her, Air BnB stepped in so she didn’t have to pay it. (I was going to write something about her bacon being saved, but maybe a blog on Germany can have too much Schwein…)
OK, so as far as I can tell, the fine goes to the person registered in the flat. But if this chick is only going to be here for a month, chances are she won’t even register and then sod off back to her own country. Maybe she won’t download anything, but maybe she will. If she’s untraceable, maybe they’ll come after me. Paranoid? Perhaps, but that’s what living in Germany does to you…
My German friends whole-heartedly agreed with my decision. (Germans are a bit nuts about online security.) So, even if I do feel like a bit of an ass, at least I feel like a German ass. Progress.
And I know that neither of the neighbours mentioned in this post will read it as they (allegedly) don’t have Wi-Fi so I’m safe there, too.
In fact, the only crime I may be *guilty of in the near future is beating my noisy neighbour to death with his own music stand.
*(If he is found dead, I did not do it. Get me a lawyer.)
My passport expired last month. Ever the optimist, I assumed that getting a new one would be a relatively painless process. I went on to the German Irish Embassy website, filled in their little online form, and waited for the documents to appear in my letter box. A week later, I was still waiting. Now I know that the Irish are not exactly known for their efficiency – my good self excluded – but this was definitely taking the Pinkel.
I called up, explained that I’d filled in the form a week before and asked how long it normally took to get the documents.
Siobhán-Schwanhild: It shouldn’t take any longer than three days.
Me: Huh. Can you send them again, please?
The next morning they were in my letter box. They must have hired a German in the meantime.
I had a quick look through the plethora of forms and eventually located the actual form I would need to fill in. Page 1 – fine, page 2 – fine, page 3 – not applicable as I am no spring chicken any more (much as I pretend otherwise), page 4 – crap.
In order to apply for an Irish passport, you have to have your application witnessed by one of the following people:
Member of clergy
Bank manager/assistant bank manager
Elected public representative
Notary public/commissioner for oaths
School principal/vice principal
You have to sign the form in front of this witness, they have to complete a section of it, including a work landline number, then sign and stamp two of the four photos you need to submit – once they’re satisfied that the photos are actually of you, of course. I toyed with the idea of popping over the road, putting on my holy face and asking a priest to do it – maybe I could even fashion a halo out of some toilet rolls and a light bulb – but it felt a bit cheeky after my leavingthecatholicchurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxes fiasco, so I put that thought out of my head. A-men.
I scanned the list again to see if game designers, artists, writers, starving teachers and bunker association founders had appeared, but alas, they hadn’t. I then racked my brains trying to think of any lawyers, doctors, accountants or bankers I knew. I realised that, at least when it came to the passport application process, I had sadly been mixing in the wrong circles for the past year.
Luckily, there’s a police station across the road from where I work, so armed with all of my documents, photos and ID, I trotted over there. A jolly-looking policeman sat behind a glass screen so I started explaining (in German) what I needed and waving documents around. I obviously didn’t explain very well as he decided he had to come out of his glass box and into the waiting room to fully investigate what it was I was after.
Me: I need ein/einen/eine/einem signature. (Wave, wave) This is my passport, um, I don’t know the word for application – probably should have looked that up. You look at photos. (Wave, wave) You look at me. Is photo me? You are happy? Then you signature. (Wave, wave)
PC Pharamond Plod: NEIN.
PC Pharamond Plod: NEIN. The German police do not sign documents.
Me: But, but… look! Photo is me – no problem!
PC Pharamond Plod: NEIN.
I trudged out, defeated. Then, as I passed the Deutsche Bank on my way to the train station, I had another idea. An ex-student of mine works there – as a bank manager.
When I got home, I sent her an email explaining what I needed. Two days later, she replied to say, “NEIN, German bank managers do not do this”. Double sigh. Eventually, I managed to charm force one of the accountants at the school (who I’d never even met before) into signing it. It had only taken around three weeks longer than expected.
Herr Accountant: You are aware that your passport is very out of date.
Me: Triple sigh.
I marched over to the Irish Embassy, handed everything in, and paid my €85.
Me: You are aware that the German police will not sign documents. Why are they on the form if they are not an option?
Siobhán-Schwanhild: That’s funny. A lot of people have their applications signed by a police officer.
Me: Beyond sighing.
By the time I reconcile myself with the fact that maybe German police just do not like the look of me, the passport should have arrived.
*Not actually included on the list. Had you fooled though, didn’t I?
You can find ALL the information you need on applying for an Irish passport in Germany here.
Getting a home internet connection in Germany is notoriously painful. I’ve known bloggers who moved flat, said they’d be back, and were never heard from again.
People have died waiting for wifi (probably). In fact, someone told me that you had to wait for someone to die in order to take over their connection. But, with German healthcare being what it is (i.e. excellent), I wasn’t willing to wait that long.
My company of choice was Kabel Deutschland; I teach there so I already know half of the customer service department, which could come in handy if any problems arose. This, unfortunately, was not to be as they require a minimum contract of two years. With my temporarily permanent living arrangement, I needed something a bit more flexible. Having scoured a few free advice websites, I came across 1 & 1 Internet. As they’re an internet company, I figured emailing was a viable option, and I did just that a week before I moved flat.
The (probably) lovely Marco got back to me within a day, recommending the best package for my needs. Sounded good. I then muddled over the form for a day or so and sent it back. Cue a shitload lot of very confusing emails, of which I could understand around 10%. I’m a Luddite in English so this was way beyond my German capabilities. An angry-sounding German (not as common as you’d think) called me to shout incomprehensible things at me, while I trotted out “baby’s first words” in response. Anyway, I got through it and managed to get an appointment for only 19 days after I moved in. (You might think the “only” is sarcastic but this is Germany so…)
The modem arrived in the post, I’d arranged to have the day off work, and was dutifully sitting on my sofa at 8am, prepared to wait for up to five hours for the technician to arrive and work his magic. At 9.14, I received a text message saying that the technician had been unable to access the apartment and that I would have to arrange another appointment. Um, WHAT? I immediately called 1 & 1 but the customer service rep’s English was the equivalent of my German so that conversation was a non-starter. Someone else would have to call me back. Nobody did.
But the day wasn’t a total loss. That afternoon, I was off to meet the American Ambassador and family for a Berliner Unterwelten tour of the Humboldthain Flak Tower and “Myth of Germania” exhibition. Sometimes it pays to be the token English-speaking person. The family turned out to be lovely, they had a great time, and I got to watch scary security men say “Clear” into walkie-talkies and be ferried across the street in a super-vehicle with blacked-out windows. Click here to see hi-larious images of me in a shower cap and hard hat –
Anyway, after that life went back to normal. On Friday morning, I was leaving a lesson and on my way to my other job when the phone rang.
Me: Hello, Linda speaking.
Körbl: Hallo, you need new appointment with Internet Techniker.
Me: YES! Yes, I do! When is it?
Körbl: 10 minutes.
Me: 10 minutes past what? On what day?
Körbl: (Sigh) NEIN, 10 minutes from now.
Me: But, but… I’m not at home! I’m on the other side of the city!
I briefly scanned Schlesisches Straße to see if a helicopter pad had magically appeared since the last time I’d been there. It hadn’t.
Körbl: OK, we make new appointment. I call you later.
Me: (sinking to my knees) NEEEEEEEEEEEEEEIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!
This time, however, someone did call me and I managed to get an appointment only 14 days after the first one. (Again, not sarcastic.) Yesterday saw me dutifully sitting on my sofa at 8am in my favourite “Carpe that fucking diem” t-shirt, though I was more ready to “carpe” someone by the throat if nobody showed up this time. At 9.30, the doorbell rang. I’m not sure if the poor “Techniker” had ever had a woman so happy to see him, but he’s a German internet provider so he probably has women (and men) throwing themselves at his feet all the time. He stopped outside the door to put surgeon’s slippers on over his boots while I chuckled and thought, “German”.
I gleefully danced around after him as he tugged at cables, and made Star Trek noises with his “device”. I trailed happily after him down to the basement and back upstairs again, while shouting inane things like, “It’s a green light! Green lights are good, right?” I was like the puppy he’d never had – and probably never wanted. Finally, he announced that everything was working. I managed to refrain from flinging myself at his surgical slippers, but only just.
So, I now have wifi in my flat. I didn’t die, nobody else had to die, and the whole process only (that word again) took two attempts and around a month and a half. Basically, I am gewinning at life. So come on, Germany, what else have you got? (Probably shouldn’t ask that question…)
After you’ve found somewhere to live in Germany, registered your address, opened your bank account, applied for a tax number and left your religion, the next thing you’ll have to contend with is the health insurance issue.
Having health insurance is compulsory in Germany. While I think this is a nice idea in theory, as someone who goes to the doctor maybe once a year, it can also feel like you’re sitzpinkelling your money away.
Still, you really have no choice on this one. Even if you decide to be a rebel, and don’t take out health insurance for a few years, Germany will eventually send the Gerichtsvollzieher (bailiffs) after you and you will owe the full amount of health insurance premiums since you moved here, plus 1% interest. And that probably is as scary as it sounds.
If you’re in full-time employment, your employer has to cover 50% of your health insurance. If, however, you’re a freelancer (like me), you have to take the whole hit yourself. Although there is a lot of information about German health insurance online, I decided to save time and just ask some people I knew who they were with. TK Insurance won the poll, so I looked up their website.
Here’s the general gist – your contribution is calculated as a percentage of your gross salary. Currently, this is 14.6 percent (general contribution rate) plus a TK-specific additional contribution rate of 0.8 percent. Yikes. There was also this rather confusing section on the application form…
What if I earn between €450 and €4,575 a month?
I decided to stop faffing about online and just call an actual person. When I’d hung up, I decided I probably would need health insurance after all, as the information had given me a minor coronary. Even if you don’t earn anywhere near €4,575 a month (which I don’t), they’ll assume that the absolute minimum amount you’re earning is €2,100 and calculate your contribution based on that figure – whether you’re actually earning that much or not. This would have made my monthly contribution €314.69 – and would have meant that I would be moving into a doctor’s surgery to try to get my money’s worth.
Fortunately, I’m a firm believer in ranting so that’s exactly what I proceeded to do when I got to the staff room the next day. As luck would have it, one of the other teachers had just sorted out his health insurance that morning, for the princely sum of €75 a month. This sounded more like it.
I went home and looked up Mawista. It really does exist and is an insurance company dedicated exclusively to covering foreigners living in Germany, for up to five years. Their “Employee Flexible” package costs just €75 a month and covers medical treatment, dental treatment, temporary stays outside Germany, and even massages (though probably not the kind with the happy ending). Essentially, it covers almost everything TK does, but at less than a quarter of the price. Sign me up.
I filled in the ridiculously simple online application form and was informed that my application was being sent for processing and I would have my documents shortly. This was at 11.38. I went and took my washing out of the washing machine and was just hanging it up when I glanced at my laptop. It was 11.43 and my documents had arrived. I was covered.
I haven’t needed to go to the doctor or dentist yet, but hey, I think I might just start going once a month anyway. I may as well try to get some use out of the €75 a month that I would otherwise be spending on wine and cake…
Useful information for foreigners living in Germany can be found here
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sailaway from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain