Rentenversicherung? Isn’t that the musical with all the HIV stuff?

This statement will only be understood by a few of my readers:  I mailed my V901 form about a month ago to the Deutsche Rentenversicherung Bund in Berlin.

Here’s what that means for those of you who don’t speak German Bureaucracy:  Rentenversicherung is German for pension insurance.  Every person who earns a paycheck in Germany contributes a portion of their check to the pension fund, and the German government does some form of matching.  It is in this way that people create retirement funds in Deutschland.

While I was in Germany, I was “localized.”  This means that I was on German payroll, German benefits, German vacation allotment, and so forth.  My 401k back in the US sat, stagnant, with no contributions for those three years, but a part of every check went into the Rentenversicherung.  Three years of monthly contributions is not a fortune, but it’s still a tidy little sum of money that I’m eager to reclaim.

While I could wait until I reach retirement age to get a tiny check from Germany every so often, there’s a way to get this money which is much more useful to me now.  Americans who pay into the German pension fund have an option to file a form to request that their contributions (but not the matching funds from the German government) be paid out to them.  The V901 is that form.  There are a few guidelines:

  1. You must not have stayed in Germany for more than five years.
  2. You must not have lived in Germany for at least 24 months prior to filing your claim.  Or anywhere in the European Union, I think.
  3. You must not be averse to filing a really complicated eleven page document through regular mail.   I wanted to go to the German Consulate in Miami to do this, but they said I just needed to mail it directly to Berlin.
  4. If you’re not American, a completely different set of rules applies to you.

I mailed this out over a month ago, and my response was a letter yesterday from an office in Hamburg with, you guessed it, another form to fill out and mail back!

v901

How many forms do you think I’ll need to fill out before this claim is completed? 

Editor’s Note:  I’m attempting to blog every day in November with CheerPeppers.  I don’t expect to succeed because life be crazy, but any blogging in excess of my previous post-free month is a win, right?

A Regensburg Morning

Editor’s note:  This post was inspired by the Daily Post’s one-word writing prompt:  Morning.

For almost three years, I woke up to the same set of sounds.  Morning in Regensburg was predictable, and my bedroom window looked over a fairly busy residential street just outside the city center.   Many students for the local university lived just a few buildings down the street.  With no air conditioning, I left the window cracked open almost every night.

Around 4:30 or 5:00 Am, the street sweeper would come by.   By 6, the garbage truck would roll past, and the pedestrians would start their commute,  hard soled shoes clicking on the sidewalk.

Some of the people would pull little wheeled suitcases behind them.  The rhythmic clack-clack-clack of their rubber wheels meeting the sidewalk seams became very soothing to me.  To this day, that sound makes me sleepy.

In winter, the sounds were basically the same, but the street sweeper would be a snow plow, and the footsteps would often be muffled by freshly fallen snow.

My sounds in the morning now are more muted.  The weather in South Florida is too hot, too humid to sleep comfortably with the window open.   We never have Winter here, and cool air is only felt two or three months out of the year.  It’s almost never cool enough to sleep with the window open.

My apartment now is far enough away from most traffic that I only hear a passing vehicle if it’s extremely large or has artificially amplified mufflers.  People do that in South Florida, making their tiny economical cars sound like angry racing dragons.  I don’t really understand the motivation.

It’s quieter, sure, but sometimes it’s a little too quiet.  I’ve taken to running a small fan in the room just to produce some white noise.  I think I sleep better here than I did there, because I don’t hear every street sweeper, every drunken student singing through the streets as they come back from the bars in the Altstadt at three in the morning.

I miss the rolling suitcases, though.

Do you sleep with your windows open?

[Retro Post] Stuff That Makes Americans Go “Bwuh?!”

Editor’s Note: What follows is a post which was completely written in April of 2014.  For some reason, it languished in my drafts folder for the next twenty months until I just noticed it now.  I probably didn’t feel like it was finished, and I assumed I’d come back to it later.   It’s possible that some of these observations found their way into other posts, but I wanted to post this entirely in its original form anyway.  This is a snapshot of my mindset roughly halfway through my time living in Germany.  Here we go!


After more than two years in Germany, it’s easy for me to forget just how much I’ve adapted to life in Germany.  These things are all normal facts of every day life for me, but I never experienced them in the United States.

Unexploded bombs are a regular occurrence. Several times a year, I see news articles about how U-Bahn service in this city or that city had to be suspended because a crew of workmen found another unexploded bomb left over from World War II.   Typically, they either contain it or do a controlled detonation to dispose of the ordinance and then life goes on as normal.  This happens so often in Germany that nobody thinks it’s unusual.  I think it’s amazing though.

You don’t have to try the door handle of a toilet stall to know if it’s occupied.  The stall doors here have color markers built into the latch similar to what you see on airplanes that go red when the stall is occupied and are either green or white when it’s free.  It’s a tiny, simple thing, but it’s absolutely genius and I will desparately miss it when I get back to the States.

Almost everyone brings their own canvas bags to go grocery shopping.  Canvas bags are a crunch-granola thing in the United States-  most grocery shopping in the US involves leaving the store with a slew of plastic or paper bags.  Here, the stores sell the canvas bags at the register and actively encourage you to bring your own.  Additionally, there are no grocery baggers here-  when you ring up your groceries at the cashier, you have to turn around and put it all in the bag yourself.  I love the idea of canvas bags, but I’m really looking forward to having a bagger again-  I always feel like I’m in a panicked rush to bag all of my food before the next person’s groceries are slid down the ramp by the psychotically fast cashier.  Grocery shopping should not be that stressful!

Ice cream is perfectly normal almost every day, even in January.  It’s slightly harder to find ice cream in the winter-  many of the Eis stores close up shop for the winter or change to other products (like crepes!).  There’s always a few places to get ice cream though, even in the dead of winter, and Germans love their ice cream so much that I’ve seen a man eating ice cream at -18C.  That’s right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Walking in the bicycle lane makes me uneasy.  The sanctity of the bike lane is very important here, because bikes are used much more commonly than in most places I’ve been to in the United States.  Most people will ring the bell on their bikes to alert you that you’re in the way, but not everyone is that nice.  Some will just run you down.   Incidentally, bicycle bells are standard equipment on most new bikes here, for exactly this reason.   I’ve gotten so used to this aspect of life here that if I walk in the bicycle lane, I feel skittish.

Late night television commercials border on pornography.  Short and annoyingly repetitive commercials appear on broadcast television for various phone sex lines.  This doesn’t happen on every channel, but it’s always on at least one channel after 11PM.  I would include a YouTube example, but the little jingles can be annoyingly catchy and I’m not cruel enough to earworm anybody with that today.

Is there anything about where you live that non-locals would find surprising?

Don’t Make Me Sick

For my second full week back in the United States, I got to experience the joy and delight of having a cold.  I’ve been meaning to write a post about healthcare in Germany for ages, and being sick for the past week is a perfect lead in to the topic.  Being sick in the United States is a very different experience than being sick in Germany.

“Sick Days” are a very American concept.

While I was employed at our German office, I had German health-care and I followed the local rules for being sick.    In the German office, if you are sick, you go to the doctor on the very first day, and the doctor will give you a slip of paper that basically says don’t go back to work for however many days they specify.  There’s no “sick time” in the German office-  my benefits there included a generous count of vacation days, but the concept of “sick time” just isn’t used.  If you’re sick, you’re sick.  German employment laws are fiercely protective of the worker, and a company can’t easily fire someone while they’re out sick.  So, sick people stay home from the office in Germany, and rarely come in to get their colleagues sick.  That’s a very American behavior.

In the US office, however, the rules are different.  I came back to the US with a very finite amount of sick time, so I was only able to stay out of work for the first day of my cold.  On the second day, I schlepped myself into the office with my bag of cold medicine, tissues, and so forth.  Nobody wants to see you in the office when you’re sick, but if you have no available sick time, you must go or risk a disciplinary action.

Socialized medicine is actually pretty nice.

When the Affordable Care Act first started to gear up in the US, I remember seeing this comic in one of the local newspapers.  I saved it back then because I knew I’d be writing about this at some point:

healthcare01

 

My personal experience with socialized medicine doesn’t at all fit the negative talking points of the FOX News narrative.    I found the entire system to be uncomplicated and reasonable.   While I was in Germany, I had Techniker Krankenkasse, a large and ordinary public health insurance which was arranged with the assistance of my employer.  Private insurance is available in Germany, of course-  you just have to be willing to pay more.  I never found it to be necessary.

Because this insurance is subsidized by the government, my tax rate was higher and I saw less of my paycheck.  However, I went to the doctor several times in Germany without ever paying a cent.  One of those visits included a very small procedure which even required after-care, and there was no additional cost.   When I needed antibiotics, I paid only five Euros.    The same doctor visits here in the US would be $20 or $35 per visit, and the generic antibiotic wouldn’t be less than $10.   The higher tax rate in Germany was worth it, if only for the convenience of not having to pay anything to the doctor’s office.

The actual visit to the Doctor’s office.

I only went to one doctor in my time there, so I don’t have a frame of reference to tell you if my experiences are common.  My doctor’s office was a nice, naturally lit affair with pleasant decor.  The starkest part of the office was the waiting room, a square room with a table in the center and magazines to read-  in other words, it’s just like every doctor’s waiting room you’ve ever seen.

healthcare02

Whenever somebody arrives to the waiting room, everyone already waiting says hello.  Germans aren’t typically this inclined to greet people they don’t know, so I assume this is one of those cultural expectations that I just have to accept.

The checkup room is a big airy space.  And this is the part of writing the post where I realize that my meager count of doctor experiences in Germany leaves me with very little to talk about in this post.  Let’s move past this admittedly lovely checkup room, to talk about drugs.

healthcare03

Pharmaceuticals auf Deutsch.

One of the things that was difficult to get used to when I arrived in Germany was that you can’t get drugs in the grocery store.  In the US, you can get aspirin or Tylenol in Publix.  In a shop like Walgreens, you can get a can of coke, develop your film, buy a toy, and still fill your prescription.  In Germany, everything is separated-  food in the grocery store, drugs in the Apotheke.

Pharmaceuticals are more or less the same everywhere in the world, but the packaging is different.  Germany doesn’t use those amber plastic pill vials that are so ubiquitous in the United States; most drugs are distributed in flat packs like the one pictured below.

healthcare04

Where an American pharmacy would print a label with specific instructions on how to take your medicine, a German pharmacist will just write the instructions on the box.  See the handwritten 1-0-1 above?  That means take one in the morning, none at lunchtime, and one at night.   When they hand you the pills, they go over it verbally just once, and in my case, the pharmacist reminded me to be sure to finish the prescription.

Beyond that, things are more or less the same.    The individual pain killers are all available in Germany, just under different names.  Tylenol is Paracetamol, for example.  Vicks products are sold as Wicks.  Aspirin is still called Aspirin, though- Bayer is a German company, after all.  The only drug that I was never able to find a German analog of is Sudafed.  Any time someone visited from the United States, I had them bring me some 12-Hour Sudafed- that stuff is worth its weight in gold to me.

Being able to go to a Publix at 9pm here to get two more types of cold medicine, including one that will theoretically knock me out:  That experience is priceless, and it made me realize that if I have to be sick, I’d rather do it here, even though it’s significantly more expensive.

Have you ever visited a doctor outside of your home country?

Ampelmännchen

(This little post was written months ago, but I never got around to using it.  I’ve been hip-deep in getting moved over to Florida, so it seemed like now would be a good time to post it.  -Steven, 5 October)

One of my favorite things about visiting Eastern Germany is seeing the Ampelmännchen, or “Little traffic light men.”  This happy little fellow is left over from the former German Democratic Republic, so any city that was part of East Germany before German reunification in 1990 is likely to have these little guys on their walk signals.

The Ampelmännchen were designed by a German traffic psychologist named Karl Peglau in 1961.   Peglau wanted to create a traffic light that would be both cute and appealing to children, yet easily accessible and understandable for elderly Germans.  Also, I didn’t know before writing this post that “traffic psychologist” was a career option.

The Ampelmann is so popular that some cities in Western Germany have adopted the symbols, and an entire souvenir industry has sprung up around them.   There’s even a store in Berlin where you can buy all manner of Ampelmann swag- t-shirts, hats, buttons, keychains, deck chairs, earrings, and more.

These particular Ampelmännchen were spotted while I was in Dresden.

ampelmann-1 ampelmann-2

Do you own any Ampelmann swag?  What do you suppose the green Ampelmann is carrying in front of him, a baguette?