Category Archives: Germany
I left America in 2005. I don’t know when I started telling people that I would never move back, but about two or three years ago, I realized that I meant it.
You know all that shit you hear about Europeans being indolent socialist sponges? It’s fucking Bible true. Europeans work fewer hours every week and get more vacation every year. They are harder to fire, so when their bosses ask them to do unreasonable shit like work on a weekend, they say ‘no’ and the conversation ends.
For a foreigner, integration means becoming just like them. If I ever move back to the States, I would have to find a job where I was paid a wage in exchange for my labor, rather than just my presence. Even if I wanted to move back, I’d be homeless in a matter of weeks.
Biking in Berlin isn’t as Cadillac-smooth as it was in Copenhagen, but it’s fundamentally a safe, feasible way to get where I need to be. On the days when it’s not possible to bike (snow drift, flat tire, urban riot), a comprehensive public transport system takes me within walking distance.
This means I haven’t sat in a traffic jam or looked for a parking space since Star Wars Episode III was in theaters. The parts of my brain that managed those things are now devoted exclusively to cheese and wine pairings.
Again, the stereotypes about European food are all actually facts. It fucking is better here. Europe has bakeries like America has Starbuckses. The coffee is blacker, the fruit is fruitier and all the scientists are too busy eating to genetically modify anything.
People think food service is slow and rude in Europe. This is incorrect. The meals are just so good, the waiters are reluctant to give them away.
I don’t think any country has successfully divorced health from income, but at least it’s less blatant here than in the US. When I inevitably get hit by a bus, I’ll get repaired, I won’t get an invoice.
Americans bitching about socialized medicine is like starving African kids bitching about the new Facebook layout. After seven years in three European countries, I wish bureaucrats would find more of my life to socialize.
Being a foreigner is awesome. When I do something a few standard deviations weirder than the median, people go ‘he’s weird because he’s foreign’ rather than ‘he’s weird because he’s an asshole’. Being treated this way isn’t a privilege I’m going to give up just so I can go back to speaking the same language as everyone else.
Guantanamo, drone strikes, enhanced interrogation, too big to fail, more with less, flavored milk, the TSA, the filibuster, the Bush tax cuts, the death penalty, Sarah Fucking Palin, bankruptcy reform, wardrobe malfunction, Twilight–this isn’t a culture that represents my values.
I’m not actually making the argument that Europe is better than the US. A lot of people prefer driving to walking, libertarianism to a nanny state and getting rich to paying taxes. That’s totally fine. But at this point, it’s totally not me.
I’ve lived in Sydney, London, Copenhagen and now Berlin, and none of them are perfect. I don’t want to stay here forever. I don’t want to not want to move home. I just know that, on every dimension I care about, living in the States would mean a sacrifice I’m not willing to make.
Part of me will always be ready buy a one-way ticket back to America. I just have to make sure America’s ready to have me too.
“My mother told me that the positions they do are all just for show,” he says. Rückert explained to her son that he shouldn’t worry if his first girlfriend didn’t moan loudly during sex and that the actors in porn movies use lots of lubrication.
I went to the doctor as soon as I got back from Albania.
Me: I think I need a cast of some kind.
Doctor: What’s the problem?
Me: I have pretty bad foot pain. I’m pretty sure I have a metatarsal stress fracture. I can barely walk.
Doctor: Who diagnosed you with the metatarsal stress fracture?
Me: I’ve just been looking around on the internet, and that’s what it most sounds like.
Doctor: Well, I don’t think you have a stress fracture. So, who are you going to trust? Me, or Doctor Internet?
Me: What do you think I have?
Doctor: Foot pain.
Me: … Wait, is that the diagnosis? That’s my symptom. Are you allowed to do that?
I’m getting orthopedic shoe inserts today. And buying the URL for doctor-internet.com.
This weekend I finished Tina Rosenberg’s The Haunted Land, about the attempts of former Communist countries to come to grips with their pasts. The section about East Germany was particularly good:
Once a girl I went to school with up till twelfth grade called me in 1985, saying she was in the neighborhood. She was here for an hour and we had coffee and cake. My son was here and I introduced him–briefly, he didn’t even sit down. I saw her report. She wrote it was obvious I loved my son, and as a result the Stasi developed a package of measures to take him away, trying to prove I was neglecting him, portraying him as antisocial.
As Rosenberg puts it, East Germany was ‘the most spied-upon people who ever lived’. The Stasi had 6 million informants for a population of 16 million. At a 1989 protest march against the regime, more than half the 70,000 marchers were Stasi informants.
After the army, [the Stasi] was East Germany’s largest employer. There were 2,171 mail-readers, 1,486 phone tappers, and another 8,426 people who monitored phone conversations and radio broadcasts. […] There were dissidents with literally a thousand people spying on them.
This, for me, is the most chilling part:
The genius of the Stasi had nothing to do with political information.[…] Practically no information in the Stasi files discussed East Germans’ political ideas. The dissident groups’ politics were certainly not secret information–just the opposite; dissidents publicized their views all they could. But the Stasi was not interested. Political views mattered only as a recruitment tool.
[…] The Stasi recruited children as young as six. […] The child would tell him who came to the house, what TV channels his parents watched, who their friends were. […] There was no information they didn’t find useful.
What interested the Stasi was the psychological portrait of the person being spied upon, his character, his weaknesses–women, alcohol. […] The informer could leave the meeting having refused to speak of politics, satisfied he had told the Stasi nothing, while in fact it was the chitchat about the subject’s drinking or family problems that gave his handlers exactly what they needed to them blackmail him. The whole purpose of informers seemed to be to collect material to recruit new informers. Perhaps this was the idea: East Germany would be safe only when every East German was Stasi, a chain of people ach informing on the others, 16 million long.
I haven’t posted this week because I moved. To a real apartment. Because I am a functioning adult.
The last four days have been like a reality-show challenge: Move into a completely unfurnished apartment. In a neighborhood you’re not familiar with. In a city where you’ve never shopped for furniture before. In a country where you don’t speak the language. Do this without a car, while working full-time and while hosting a houseguest from Copenhagen.
Day 1: Dirty Deeds
Arrive at 10 am, pick up keys from former tenant and discover he hasn’t cleaned the apartment before moving out. Sit crosslegged on the crackling rug and negotiate with IKEA to deliver a bed before you next see Halley’s comet.
Take tram to thrift store with the canvas bags you stole from last week’s pre-emptive IKEA trip. Thrift store has nothing of use, and don’t deliver furniture anyway. Depart feeling like a spurned marauder.
On tram ride home, talk IKEA into letting a van driver pick up your furniture for you, instead of trekking to suburbs to get it yourself. Pay 100 extra euros.
Back at apartment, frantically google ‘thrift stores berlin open late’ to try and get some lightbulbs before it gets dark. Give up and go to a real furniture store, spend way too much buying two lamps for your three dark rooms. Move them around as you clean after dark.
Day 2: Cash and Carry
Wake up early for more googling. Identify three secondhand furniture stores in Wedding and send houseguest to Prenzlauer Berg in likely-futile search for lamps.
Spend two hours at ‘Penny Land’ buying the kind of household items you only notice when you don’t have them: Welcome mat, cutting boards, garbage cans, soap, sponges, extension cords.
Receive text from houseguest: ‘The motherload. Get here. Bring cash.’
Bike to specified address, find acre-long junkyard of used furniture. Resist urge to drop to knees and tear off shirt like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption.
Pick out all the furniture your cash will allow, put it in a pile and start haggling. Call Van Guy. He can’t pick you up for two hours, so walk to the other junkyard across the street. Wheel your items on a donkey cart back to the first junkyard before Van Guy gets there.
You haven’t eaten all day, and Van Guy refuses to help you carry anything up the stairs. Eat at your new dining table for the first time: Falafel and salad, easy on the yogurt sauce.
Spend next two hours carrying furniture to your fifth-floor apartment. Wonder how much of this houseguest can take before he deletes you from Facebook.
Day 3: The Quick and the Bed
Think about furniture at work all morning. Go to gym over lunch to de-stress. Receive call from furniture store: ‘We’re outside your building with your couch. Where are you?!’ Dash home in gym clothes to let them in. E-mail boss to apologize for leaving computer on and ask that he pour out the coffee you left on your desk.
Attempt cooking in new apartment for first time. Realize as you turn on the stove that you have no olive oil or salt. Saute vegetables in vinegar left in cupboard by former tenant. Chicken bouillon is mostly salt, right? Sprinkle some on top.
Spend rest of evening building IKEA bedframe. Two people, three master’s degrees, two and a half hours.
Lift mattress into bedframe, feeling genuine sense of accomplishment. Sit on mattress for first time and feel it sag down the sides. Mattress is now an upside-down taco, resting on middle support bar. Lift mattress back out of bedframe and set on floor again. Note that this feeling, monumental accomplishment followed by instant failure, must be what it’s like to be elected president.
Day 4: Photo, Finish
Struggle not to unload IKEA-related bile on coworkers when they ask you how The Great Furnishing is going. Visit another round of junk stores on the way home. You still only have two lamps.
As sun sets, take train to furniture-burbia. Ask IKEA employees how to solve mattress-taco problem. Buy recommended bed-slats and spend the last of your willpower staying awake to put them together. Put bedslats into frame and mattress onto bedslats. Carefully climb on top, roll back and forth, appreciate horizontality of sleeping arrangements for first time. Ask houseguest for one last favor: Take the lamp out of here.
After 6 weeks of paperwork and procrastination, I finally got my health care sorted out enough to see a real live doctor this week.
I have a recurring running injury in my hip that never really got fixed when I was in Denmark. Danish doctors are generally laissez-faire to the point of neglect, and my last conversation with my GP consisted of:
Doctor: We got the results of your x-ray. There’s nothing abnormal with your hip.
Me: OK, but it hurts when I go running.
Doctor: Well, there’s nothing wrong with it on the x-ray.
Me: Well in that case I should probably see a specialist, right?
Doctor: But there’s nothing wrong with it.
Me: But it hurts.
Doctor: I don’t see that on the x-ray.
Seeing a doctor in Germany so far has been a completely different experience. I was worried about finding someone who speaks English, but my health insurance (there are private ones and public ones here, and I’m on the public one) has a list of doctors online that you can search by language.
When I arrived at his office, I was told that I had to pay €10 for the appointment. It’s the first time I’ve paid for health care in five years, and I got a bit nervous that I was re-entering the ‘health care should be governed by the same mechanism by which we buy jogging shoes!’ economy that makes healthcare in the U.S. such an cornmaze gangrape to interact with.
I later looked this up online, and it turns out that there are a few nominal fees built into the German system, basically to keep people from seeing the doctor all the time for specious shit. Everything else has been free since then.
My doctor is in his early 30s, fluent in English, gay as Christmas and, most distressingly, cute as hell. His office is right next to work, and now I see him at my gym. We nod at each other but don’t vocalize. Once you’ve discussed the consistency of your bowel movements with someone, you can’t backtrack to flirting.
Anyway, he basically wouldn’t let me leave his office until he ordered every possible test and made sure I was telling him all the relevant information about my hip. He also asked me if there was anything else bothering me, physically or mentally. None of my doctors in Denmark ever asked me that.
So yeah, viva Germany. My hip hurts less now that I’m not the only person who cares about getting it fixed.
I bought a book called ‘The Way to Dictatorship’ at a flea market last weekend. My German’s still clunky, but it’s apparently an exhibition that ran in a museum in Berlin in the early 1980s. It collects art, photos and propaganda from 1933, just as Hitler was coming to power and the opposition was being stomped invisible.
The book is like 400 pages long and weighs as much as a Dutch bicycle, so I hope to be posting a few photos at a time for the next few weeks. I might even translate some captions.
because I find myself increasingly sitting knee-over-knee, rather than figure-four. Sometimes I fold my hands on my upper knee! Socialism!
I listened to a podcast this morning about the dilemma of making textbooks in postwar Germany. Education of the population was obviously a priority for reconstruction, but the only textbooks were either a) Nazi as hell or b) written before the Nazis came to power, i.e. old as hell. It took years for the administrators to create new textbooks, and in the meantime they simply blacked out the inconvenient parts of the existing textbooks.
According to the podcast, it was only in the 1960s that education materials started including atrocities committed by the Germans. Before then, it was fine to talk about Dresden, or the Allies shelling refugee ships in the Baltic (which I wasn’t aware of before I moved here) or the terrible shit the Russians did as they bulldozed from Stalingrad toBerlin.
You could talk about Hitler as a sort of Pied Piper, entrancing the German people into nemesis without their full consent or understanding. But you couldn’t stretch the blanket of responsibility over the whole country until much later.
It seems to me that the fundamental dilemma for educators is that it’s impossible to educate a population without propagandizing it. You can’t teach people about their country without making them proud.
We think of subjects like history and sociology as somehow neutral, that the methodology is simply 1) find out what happened and 2) tell the story without bias. But evenbeyond the impossibility of ‘objective’ research, there’s no such thing as neutrally telling a story. Here, lemme try something:
- A man walks into a store and buys a litre of milk.
- A store sits on a street corner. A man enters. Five minutes later, he exits with a litre of milk in his hand.
- A jug of milk stands in a refrigerator. A man removes it from the fridge, lays it on the counter, pays and carries it out of the store.
Even to describe an incredibly simple event, you have to decide whose perspective you’re going to tell it from.
Country histories tend to be told by the Washingtons, the Lincolns, the Rockefellers. This is totally understandable. These are people that made stuff happen, and stuff happening is basically a synonym for history.
But the story of America would be significantly different if you told it from the perspective of women, blacks, immigrants, Native Americans, Iowans, deaf people, baristas or bus drivers.
And that’s the dilemma. Whoever’s story you tell, they get to be the main character. Following a protagonist by definition allows them to explain their actions. No matter how hard you try, hearing the full story of what led Hitler to the Final Solution, or what led Mao to the Cultural Revolution, is going to make readers identify with them. However many times we saw Tony Soprano murder, cheat and shittily parent his way through north Jersey, our contempt for him was always tempered with the knowledge of what drove him to his actions.
This is exactly the problem German educators were struggling with in the ‘50s and ‘60s: How do you tell a country’s history without making citizens proud of it?
I know this is all terribly obvious. I’m just in awe of how hard it must have been to write history in Germany for the 30 years after WWII. Before you could even debate which story to tell, you had to decide who got to tell it.
Ew, Munich, seriously