Happy Halloween

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Photo by: Toa Heftiba

For the last couple of days, on the news feeds of my social media accounts, Halloween jokes have been shared and costumes and make-up presented with a pinch of pride.

Growing up in Berlin and never having been anywhere near the United States or Canada, this holiday had always appeared to me as something…let’s just say “rather American”.

Even though one can find tons of decorations for this theme, I have never seen carved pumpkins lightening up the porches of houses or the windows of apartments in Berlin. Just like there are tons of Halloween decorations for one’s home, there are probably as many parties around here, where it’s all about looking spooky (or at least being dressed up as something) and having fun to ear-shattering music and expensive booze.

The only children dress ups I have ever known and been part of, were the ones we had in elementary school every once in a while but I have never, not even when I used to live in a house, come across groups of excited children roaming the streets in search of candy.

Therefore I have always assumed that Halloween was just another reason for us Germans to throw a party when (or because) there is no time to invade Mallorca on a short notice. I didn’t think much when I spotted a little girl dressed up as a witch, waiting in line at the supermarket next to her father today. But a few minutes ago, I heard someone ring my doorbell three times. After a few seconds of confusion I realized that the whole “trick or treat” thing was actually happening. In my apartment building, in a far, far away part of Berlin that even some locals  know from legends only without ever having been here. Who else would be standing at my door at this hour and weather?

I had no choice but to remain silent until I heard the muttering of children’s voices and tiny steps becoming more and more silent with the increasing amount of stairs walked. I have never felt so bad about not having any child- appropriate candy in the house. I really hope they had more luck elsewhere.

So even if Halloween is not such a big deal here, no matter where you are from,  I guess it is always good to have candy at hand. You never know.

Let’s Explore German Culture With Books

A couple of days ago I found an E-Mail in my inbox with the subject line: “Funny Book About German Culture”. As a huge bibliophile I was immediately interested in what this could be about, though at the same time I had an uncomfortable feeling that someone might ask me to promote something. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I don’t want to help other people getting their stuff out there, it’s just that sometimes the offers I receive are so obvious advertisements and so commercial oriented that I have become rather selective about whom I will “promote” and whom not. After all, I have created this blog as a source of information and a free outlet for my thoughts and ideas. If I ever do advertising, I want to make sure that it has to do exactly with what I am talking about on here and something that I myself would actually find useful if I were a random reader coming across this blog.

The book German Men Sit Down to Pee and other insights into German culture (what an irritating title at first, I agree), which one of the co-authors was so kind to provide me with for reading turned out to be a fun source of literary entertainment and pretty much a collection of all the topics I have been aspiring to cover over the course of the existence of this blog. So now I am more than happy to do fellow writers a favor and talk about how this book made me feel and why any novice to Germany and even locals themselves should have a look at this hilarious book . WARNING: This is probably not going to be a standard structured book review but a freestyle expression of thoughts. I am terrible at standard structured book review writing styles. Take it  or leave it.

This amusing read is pretty much a user manual to visitors to Germany. In its brief chapters, the book addresses certain parts of daily life in Germany, like “work”, “shopping”, “travel” etc and basically explains how Germans do things and why, which helps readers to understand why Germans are the weird creatures they are.

As someone who has spent most of her life here in Germany, I couldn’t help but take a big liking to this book. Most things mentioned in there were so accurate, I had to stop reading for a moment and say to myself: “Wait a minute…that’s really the way it is. That’s almost ME in there.”

Most people (understandably) don’t like stereotypes and sometimes I have been called racist for mentioning stereotypes or approving of some. But in the case of Germany, some stereotypes are simply true, though there may be slight variations from person to person, because they shape our daily routines.

In the beginning. the book talks about how Germans love rules and how no German will ever cross the street by red. So there I am, thinking back to a day when I find myself at a street crossing at 2.45 a.m. and even though the whole district of Spandau at this time of day  is just as dead as the traffic on the road, I can’t force myself to move before the little Ampelmann turns green because, due to so many years among Germans, I will just feel guilty about doing so. Even if I ever do run across the street by red, I don’t do so unless I have made sure that there is no police car nearby, not to mention the fear of being  caught by a police officer in civil clothes because in Germany you don’t need your uniform to do your job as a police officer.

Then I keep reading about Germans and their insurance fetish and I can’t stop myself from realizing how, at the gentle age of 20, I already am the proud owner of a medical, a liability, a work inability and a travel insurance. I even went as far as paying for an extra insurance against robbery and physical damage when I bought a new phone this summer.

Rumour has it that Germans like to be extremely punctual and believe it or not, unless you are talking about German trains, that is actually true. I will always remember the day when, upon meeting me in the street in Pristina shortly before class started, one of my teachers made the remark: “So if I see you in the morning on my way to class, I can be sure that I am on time, right?”

Lastly, I identified myself very well with how seriously Germans take politeness and their academic titles. It was only a week or so ago that I spent a whole 10 minutes at my computer screen, wondering whether, in an E-Mail, I should address my university professor as mister professor or mister professor doctor (he is not only a university professor but also has a Ph.D., therefore the doctor). And if I decided to use both of his titles should I write out all of them completely or would it be socially acceptable to make it “Dear Mr. professor Dr. XYZ?

These are just some of the aspects of living in Germany hat this book talks about. There were a lot of things I already knew from living here but also some things that seemed quite new, like the fact that hitting someone with a pillow in Germany counts as assault.

The funny thing is that all of these things are not something you sit down and learn about to do them right. No one has actually told me how things are done here. Once you are in the system, these things just rub off on you without you noticing until you read a book like this.

This is not only a good read for those who plan to live here. Even if you just want to visit Berlin for a few days or if you have a bunch of German friends and struggle to understand how come they are so weird and why they behave the way they do, reading this book will surely clarify things.

The Cost of Studying in Germany

Over the last couple of months, I have come across various articles shared on my social media networks, declaring (almost festively) that attending university in Germany is free for national and international students alike.

Now that I have some time as a university student behind me, I decided to write about the extent to which studying in Germany is really free. Let me tell you right away that I can’t actually name an exact sum as expenses may vary from person to person. I want to mention some aspects that are good to keep in mind considering your budget as a potential student in Germany since the term “free education” may be interpreted differently.

Tuition fees

In comparison to the American or Canadian system, in Germany there is not really such a thing as actual TUITION fees if you choose to attend a state owned university. The university staff and anything purchased for the university is paid by the government, not by parts of the fees that students pay. There is however, a fee you have to pay each semester in order to be or stay enrolled. This we call Semestergebühren or just semester fees which are (at the university where I am at) made up of the following:

contribution to student union: € 8,70

contribution to student government: € 48, 77

enrollment/re-registration fee: € 50,00

student public transport ticket (optional): € 189,10

The public transport ticket provided by the university is optional for you to obtain. Considering the cost of a regular public transport ticket, even the one for apprentices which would cost you € 740 per year, the university ticket is your cheapest option (€ 378,20 per year).  In Berlin it covers all regions A, B and C. If you study in one city but live in another, you can get a ticket that you can use in the city of your university as well in the place you live in.

The most important thing to mention here is that while you may have to pay an administrative fee here and there, your actual college credits are free. It’s not like I have to pay higher fees a semester with my 43 credits registered, than someone who chose to do 28 this semester.

Food and drink: Mensa Card

In order to eat at the university cafeteria, you will have to purchase a so called Mensakarte, a little card onto which you can put money to pay for your meals. You have to deposit € 1,50 upon receiving the card. Once you turn it back in because you don’t need it anymore, you will get the deposit back.

Prices in university cafeterias are divided into three categories: students, staff and visitors. The student prices are the lowest and the guest prices are the highest so if you don’t pay with your cafeteria card and don’t show your student ID, you will have to pay the guest price. The price of a meal for students can range from 55 cents up to roughly € 4, depending on what you want to eat.

You can use your Mensakarte in every university cafeteria of your town but (since recently) not in other German towns.

Textbooks

At the beginning of the semester in the first week of class, pay close attention to what your prof says about textbooks. Just because you get a list of books for the course, that doesn’t mean you have to have read ALL of them in order to pass. This semester none of my professors made a book mandatory. The information essential for the exams is always distributed in class or uploaded to our online platform. Some professors might give you a list of suggested textbooks and ask you to get only one of them, whichever suits you more.

Many of the textbooks I need are provided as online resources by my university. However, that option may vary from university to university as some are funded more than others. If a textbook is not available online, there is a good chance that it will be available as a hard copy in the university library or at one of the various city libraries. In Berlin most textbooks are easy to find in big book shops or can be ordered online. They usually cost about € 20 per book, except for the one or the other very specific copy (there is one I need for a seminar that costs € 99) but even for such cases there is always a textbook flea market organized by students at the beginning of the semester, or you can find offers on eBay.

Another important thing you need to consider is the cost of living in Germany. Some sources I have come across say that a student needs about € 600 a month to survive but that really depends on your lifestyle and whether you can get a good flat sharing deal. If you are lucky, you may even get a dorm room and live on campus but let me tell you that people wait several years to finally get a dorm room so flat sharing is much more popular here.

In a way one could argue that studying in Germany is not exactly free because a.) tuition is paid by tax money of those who work (an argument I recently heard by an American) and b.) there are the semester fees. But in my opinion, compared to the unbelievable sums students pay overseas just to get their credits, cost of living put aside, Germany is really the best option for you. If you are already willing to invest thousands of dollars into your education, in Germany you will most likely be able to save some of that money.  I shall write another post about the benefits of studying in Germany as an international student in the near future hopefully.

 

 

On German Culture Shock

I did not know that one could actually experience such a thing as culture shock upon coming to Germany. That was until I got in touch with the international students of my university, listening to their impressions of this place, over a plate of a tofu pâté at the cafeteria.  Berlin is so rich in different cultures and their customs that culture shock seemed non existent to me as there are cultural habits to be found for any type of person. All you need to do is just go for a walk in the district of Wedding or Kreuzberg and there you are.

However, regardless the multiculti aspect of this town there is still a chance that upon your arrival you will run into actual Germans and no matter how hard you try, bureaucracy will await you at every corner, especially during your first months.

So here is to the best of culture shocks you may (or may not) experience in Germany.

Insurance for everything

I once read a Facebook post of a Russian friend of mine that went something like: “After coming here I noticed that in Germany you have an insurance for everything. That’s so amazing. You know, they even have this thing where you have an insurance in case you go into a shop or someone else’s house and accidentally break something there. Your Haftpflichtversicherung (liability insurance) will just cover the costs of the damage.”

Indeed, universal health care is not the only thing we have to offer. Aside from the nearly mandatory liability insurance you can also have an insurance for your vehicle, your house, sudden unemployability, your pet, your personal belongings and even your life in case something happens to you and you don’t want to leave behind your family empty handed. If you do consider getting an insurance, the best thing to do is get an overview of all the offers that are available. As fancy as some of them may sound, not all of the insurances  are actually useful.

No fear of nudity

One of the remains of east Germany aside from the Berlin Wall chunks and Ostalgie shops is the idea of naturism in certain swimming pools, saunas and by lakes. Germans refer to it as free body culture.

I remember a day in grade seven when a group of us students, boys and girls alike, decided to go for a swim at one of the public pools in Pankow district. We approached the gates to the (regular) swimming pool area and the girls went ahead to buy our entrance tickets  when we noticed the boys who couldn’t get away from the fence separating the nudist part from the normal part of the pool. “Can’t we just go there instead?” they asked and looked at us with wide eyes, pointing at the patch of grass where men, women and children of all ages enjoyed the water and the sun in their birthday suits. We gave them a sharp no and pushed them towards the gate of the ‘more civilized’ section but it took only a few bottles of coke and packs of salt crackers in the glowing sun until the girls had no problem with the boys applying sunscreen on their backs.

Maybe it is because we are too busy with ourselves, not taking note of what is happening around us as we sit in mixed gender saunas of some wellness center or maybe it is just the general acceptance of this ‘tradition’ that makes most of us so indifferent to the shameful aspect of such practices.

Always APPLY for a job

I have never been to the United States and cannot tell whether this is a universal truth for this place but a friend recently told me about her surprising realization that in Germany, unlike in the States, you need a résumé and a cover letter for literally any job you want to apply for (unless you have access to vitamin B I suppose). Even if you just want to help out at a small bakery by a train station or work as a cashier at McDonald’s, you always have to turn in your résumé and a cover letter in which you explain why you are the best suitable candidate for the job. Furthermore, you should always check on what the specific application guidelines are for your position. Some employers request a hand written résumé in essay form instead of the regular chart.

Teachers and data protection

Despite the fact that the NSA already knows everything anyway, and despite the fact that some local comedians already refer to Germany as ‘a branch of the United States’ data protection is still kind of a big issue in German classrooms. Generally a teacher is not allowed to announce the grade of a student out loud for the rest of the class to hear, unless the student gives them permission to do so. When I was in college prep school, teachers would not even tell the grades of missing students to their friends who would bring them the news, because they feared to be reported to the police for disclosing private data.

First get a beer, then do your driver’s license

Beer, wine, champagne and cider can be purchased by people who are at least 16 years old whereas you may drive a car on your own once you are 18.

We love rules and we cannot lie

Yes, we like to follow rules so much, we would probably come up with more in our free time if we wouldn’t have so many of them already. For instance, even though this one is being disregarded more and more now, a German will not cross the street at a red traffic light, even if the street is entirely empty. Germans are big fans of punctuality, follow a certain dress code within their own walls and plan everything in advance. Also, be aware that a German is likely to correctly if you do something wrong. That’s just the way we do things so please don’t take it personally.

Guest Post: “CURRY 36″– BERLIN’S BEST CURRYWURST SNACK BAR

By Roman

The capital is Techno, the capital is sexy, the capital is wild. But above all, you are what you eat, and in Berlin we eat Currywurst. Whether it’s after a late-night booze up, for lunch or just a quick snack between meals, the Currywurst warms both the heart and the stomach. We love it and we want to know more about this “Street Caviar”. That’s why we’ve arranged to meet up with Roman – a native Berliner and Currywurst-lover: someone who knows his onions! He’s tried pretty much every Currywurst in town, but his favourite is still Curry 36.

Exterior view of Curry 36 in Kreuzberg, Berlin's best currywurst snack bar.

There are days when you just love your job. Today is one of those days. At exactly 3pm, we close our laptops, throw our coats on and we’re off! We hop onto the U-Bahn line 1, change to line 6 at Hallesches Tor and in less than 10 minutes, we’re at Mehringdamm. From the station there’s a good 100 metres walk and our mouths are really starting to water. (Keep reading here)

In the Sparkling of Crimean Wine, Youth Does not Know Age

Even though I have spent so much time here in Berlin that my humor may be considered German by now (it is nearly nonexistent or not understood by others), there are still some places in Berlin that I have never been to.

As I stood on the metro platform of Bundesplatz station on the U9 line, these first lines of my blog post crossed by mind.  “It’s right by the train station”, my professor told me only a few hours back. The white “S” (standing for S-Bahn or ‘city train’) on a green circular background, printed on the sign with the station’s name looked down at me, waiting to be noticed along with the arrow to my right.

I walked down the poorly lit hallways beneath the city of Berlin, walked up the escalator steps and crossed another platform, before I was greeted by sunlight again in an empty street lined by trees and small shops.

The cyrillic script caught my eye immediately. Had I not seen it at the first glance, I would have known that I had reached my destination the moment I heard a very familiar melody  coming from the speakers somewhere above the entrance.

“Здравствуйте”, I greeted the vendor who was sorting the new arrivals in a box on the ground. He acknowledged my presence quickly and went back to his work.

A Russian record echoed through the small shop as I approached the shelf selling alcoholic beverages in glass bottles. The song was not a new one and in his oriental accent, the singer’s words sometimes came out long, as if he was about to call to prayer. In the past few years, some Persian and Arabic speaking singers from Russia made a point of singing Russian romantic pop songs, giving them their own little exotic note.

My eyes scanned the contents of the shelf. It was a friend’s birthday that day and because I always had trouble figuring out what to get a man for his birthday, I decided that something consumable should be good enough.  Myself being of eastern European origin, the idea of something from that region sounded good to me, despite my personal dislike of alcohol. At the height of my eyes there were several types of vodka. Vodka pure filtered ten times, vodka filtered with milk, vodka with honey and pepper, vodka with gold foil and everything else that the Russian and Polish industry has come up with recently. Keeping it decent, I reached for a bottle of our famous Crimean champagne at the very top.

I did not want to bother about what it would look like to show up to Arabic class with a bottle of champagne and a pack of zefir sweets. Having the choice between the academic institution called university and my weekly Arabic afternoon course, the last one seemed a less abnormal place to show up to with these purchases in hand.

On my way to the candy shelf, the vendor appeared next to me. Looking at me with the heavy dark green bottle of sparkling alcohol in my hand, he tilted his head and asked: “Excuse me young lady, are you even 18 yet?”

Taken by surprise, I managed, for a brief moment, to forget my actual age of twenty years. Blaming his impression on my bright flower-print dress and assuming that it would be rude to remind him that champagne can be legally bought by anyone of minimum 16 years of age in this country, I just nodded and offered to show my passport for proof. For the very first time someone thought of me younger than I actually am. I would have given the fellow a tip if that were common in shops.

“We are open 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year”, he told me proudly when I brought the items to the register outside by the fruits and vegetables, debating whether I should add a pack of smoked Georgian cheese to my pile.

“If you’re hungry, just drop by any time and get something to eat”, he added and wished me a nice day, as I set off to my Arabic class.

Age is such a relative thing really. You want to be 14 again, you’re actually 20, some people think you are 30 and others assume you are too young to buy champagne. Welcome to Berlin! 🙂

Mind the Fine Print, Know Your Grammar: The Odds of German Pricing

One day a lady came into a beauty salon in Berlin and said: “I’d like to get some highlights in my hair please.” The hairdresser asked her to take a seat and started to work with the lady’s full long hair. When asked how many highlights she wanted, the young woman told the hairdresser to spread them out evenly over all of her head.

When told the price of her new hairstyle, the woman thought she must have been hearing things. “Wasn’t it only one Euro for the whole thing?”, she asked, thinking of the small advertisement she saw in the elevator of her house.  “No, ma’am”, the hairdresser said and explained that it was one Euro per strand, not one Euro for the whole service.

Even though this story might sound rather absurd to most of you, (I know, why would someone charge you by hair strand and not just give a price for the whole thing?) it is nevertheless a true story I was told a couple of years ago in Berlin and I chose it as an intro example because it illustrates a confusion that many people who are new (or old) in Germany have: the confusion with the local pricing strategies.

So before you find yourself in an awkward and surprising situation like the one above, let me guide you through some aspects of German pricing strategies that I have noticed so far (continuation may follow later).

Know the language, know the grammar

What gets most people into the pricing trap is the way that prices for goods and services here are being advertised. You may see a nice colorful ad on the train, like a bus company that offers trips from Berlin to many places in Germany in Europe. So you sit there, look up to the poster and see in large print Berlin- Paris ab 33 Euro! The first thought that is most likely to cross your mind at this point is: Awesome! I get to go to Paris for only 33 Euros! But let me tell you that no, you are most likely not going to Paris for only 33 Euros.

The trick is in the little word ab, which is German for starting from but because this little ab is printed so small, many people either don’t notice it, or the internationals who end up here have no idea what that word means.

So if you see a price X on an advertisement and it has the word ab in front of it, it means that price X is the lowest where you can start but normally the prices will be higher than what you see now. Especially for things like train or bus tickets you can pay that price only if you book several days or weeks ahead also, that price will be for a one way ticket and not a trip back and forth.

Hidden costs

Even though budget airlines have to state their ticket prices with taxes and extra costs included, which is why they also switched to the ab strategy, this rule still does not apply to all businesses in Germany. There is such a thing as a ‘hidden price’ that you will not know about from the start.

The best example for that are nail studios. When I went to one for the first time, the text on the window said: complete modeling 20 Euros, refill 15 Euros. I thought that was quite a good offer and went in to get my nails done. In the end, I did not pay 20 Euros like I thought I would but 27 Euros total.

That is because when nail studios state prices, they only tell you about the actual price of the refill or complete modelling alone. Depending on what it is you want to have done with your nails after that, be it French manicure in white or in different colors, with plastic gems or glitter, air brush motives etc., the price will vary. Since I wanted to get simple French manicure, which costs 7 Euros, I had to pay 27 Euros in total. Twenty for the actual service and seven for the design. By the way, each plastic gem costs about 50 cents to a Euro, so be careful when choosing to have one on each finger.

The same applies when you buy event tickets at a booking office. These offices are meant for people who buy the tickets in advance and who don’t buy them from the actual organizer of the event, which makes sense if you don’t have a credit card or don’t want to go all the way to the theater just to be told that tickets are out. In that case you just go to the booking office aka Theaterkasse near you.

Tickets bought at a booking office have an extra cost of 1- 2 Euros. So don’t be surprised if instead of 11,90 Euros you have to pay € 13,90. That is not necessarily something everyone knows and it is not always mentioned when you look up the prices online.

The last thing I can think of are taxis. Though I am convinced that this is more or less common knowledge, when you get in a cab, the taximeter will not start counting from zero but from € 3,40. So basically, getting into the cab alone will cost you over three Euros. That is done probably so that if you get in and choose to get out immediately without driving anywhere, the driver won’t end up empty-handed.