I was having a conversation with Alex of Ifs Ands & Butts about how we get our respective television fixes,and I realized that there’s a good blog post in talking about some of the technological tools that I use to get by in Germany without losing my mind. I suppose I should post a Disclaimer: I have not been paid, sponsored, or otherwise compensated for endorsing anything in this post. It’s just stuff I find useful for getting by outside my home country.
This list really falls into three categories- Websites, Software/Apps, and Hardware. Let’s start with the software.
iTunes: Let’s start out with one of the two most important applications for maintaining my sanity. Not only does this contain my music collection, without which I would be a ravenous, rabid beastie, but it also lets me rent movies from time to time, and it lets me purchase season passes for a few cherished television shows that I would be very sad to miss out on. I mostly watch these programs and rented movies at home, but if I know I have a very long flight coming up, I sometimes rent a movie or two and load them onto an iOS device just to help pass the time in transit. I use a variety of other methods to maintain my ridiculous volume of television viewing; this is just one of the methods I use.
Skype: This is the second important sanity-maintenance application. Skype is a VoIP (voice over IP) application that lets you talk to people in several different ways. It has an instant messenger function, for basic text communication, it carries voice, and it also does video chat. Skype-account to Skype-account calls are always free, but that’s not where the true power of Skype lies. The real strength of Skype is that it can call out to the existing phone network. This means you can speak to people on their regular cell phones and land lines for a fraction of the regular telephone cost. I bought fifty dollars of Skype credit roughly eight months ago and even with regular calls back to family members in the US, I haven’t run out yet. It’s important to note that this is both a computer app and an iOS application. I sometimes run Skype just for voice calls from my phone, and the sound quality is every bit as good as a normal phone call. Lastly, I paid a little bit extra for what is called a Skype-In Number. This is a local phone number in an area code of your choosing which connects directly to your Skype account. In my case, I got an area code 561 phone number because the majority of my family and friends are in 561, a South Florida area code. If they dial that 561 number, it costs them nothing more than any other local phone call, and it dials my Skype account directly. If I don’t have Skype running, they get sent to voice-mail. This is a thing of beauty.
A Slingbox: Some people have access to HBO Go and Showtime Anytime accounts. For those that don’t, a Slingbox is another useful way to view US-bound television. The trick with a Slingbox, however, is that you have to have someone back in the US willing to leave it attached to their television. Preferably someone who doesn’t mind if you occasionally take control of their television to view it remotely. I no longer have a Sling of my own, but I do have a friend in a town outside of Chicago who lets me access his Sling from time to time. It can be quite nifty.
Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, and Other Entertainment Websites: Each of these is a source of video or audio entertainment. Spotify is now accessible in Germany, but it wasn’t when I got here. There are various entertainment websites out there which help to complete the fabric of my pop culture addiction. I make daily visits to The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Rachel Maddow Show online. Of course some of these aren’t visible from outside of the United States, which brings me to…
A VPN: A VPN, or “Virtual Private Network,” is a service that can be used in many different ways. Many companies use them to help a remote worker access an internal network, or to help secure the work being done. For an Expat, though, a VPN is most valuable as a means of making the Internet at large believe that you’re on an IP in the United States. Why is this useful? Many entertainment websites, because of International copyright and licensing laws, restrict access from connections outside of the US. In order to access Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, and a bevy of other sites, you need to have an IP address that appears to be inside the United States. There are many different VPN services out there. The one I use is entirely software, from a company called Hide My Ass. I’ve also seen hardware VPNs. These usually consist of a specially programmed router that you purchase, and the VPN connection is handled automatically by that piece of hardware.
There are also several methods to catch up on your television that are of questionable legality. I do not condone these next two methods, but I’m including them here for completeness:
Google Translate and Leo: Both of these exist as both mobile apps and Websites. Google Translate helped me through my first few months, especially in the grocery store. It has the nifty feature of allowing you to speak a word or phrase in German to your phone, and it will attempt to translate using basic voice recognition. It will also pronounce things for you using simple speech synthesis, which can also be extremely useful. However, Google Translate isn’t always the most precise translator, which is where Leo comes in. Leo on the iPhone is just a word translation app. It will give you a variety of meanings, including pronunciation and the gender of the German word. For anyone trying to learn the language, this is an incredibly useful tool.
Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messaging, and other Social Networking sites: While Skype is great for making phone calls to a few people on a regular basis, the time difference between the US and here makes it unrealistic to keep in touch with everyone via phone calls. That’s where social networking comes in. As much as I despise Facebook, I can’t deny that it has made it easier than ever to see what’s going on with my nieces, to communicate with friends all over the country, and to make sure that certain technologically challenged family members can still see pictures that I post from my time here. Without Facebook, I would have significantly less contact with my family. Without Instant Messaging, I would be massively out of touch with everyone else.
Similarly, a lot of people use What’s App to communicate with other folks on disparate cellular networks using only your data, rather than typical cross-network SMS charges. Hanley from Pink Parliament swears by TextPlus, which I haven’t used myself. From her description, she uses TextPlus the way I use Skype: “Textplus is a life saver. I use it every day. You can get 1300 mins for 20 bucks, it works on both 3G and wifi and the other person doesn’t have to have it for you to call. You can call landlines and cell phones.”
Electrical Adaptors: It should go without saying that someone like me is going to have a lot of gadgets. The good news is that most of the important ones can handle the varied voltage. Most laptop computers, cell phones, and tablets can handle the varied voltage without too much difficulty. That just leaves the shape of the plugs. The picture to the left of this paragraph is a set of electrical adapters that I purchased in the local MediaMarkt store for just a few euros. As you can see, it’s got the US plug style on the front, and the German plug style on the back. It doesn’t do any voltage conversion, but for most gadgets, that’s all you need. You always want to read your documentation to be sure, though. The alarm clock I brought with me from the US? Utterly useless on this voltage. I had to buy a new one here. My electric razor can handle this voltage just fine, but the Water-Pik cannot. My printer/scanner won’t work on this voltage, but I have a single voltage converter, also purchased in the US, connected to that one device.
By the way, I left my television behind when I moved, and bought one here. When I move back, I’ll do the same thing- this one will get sold off locally for a very good price, and I’ll buy another set when I get into a new apartment in the US. The reason for this is very simple- the video systems in these two countries are very different. Even if you aren’t looking at the electrical plugs, the video has different connectors, different picture types, and so forth. I suppose it might be possible to use a German television in the US, but there are too many reasons to just start over with a US marketed set.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it does cover some of the most important things I use. Fellow expats, what tools do you use to make your life abroad easier?