insurance

Fun with Beamte

So that was fun.

Today, I got official permission to live in the beautiful city of Hamburg.

Bezirksamt Altona-Hamburg

After a short sub-way ride and decent walk through some of Hamburg’s famous schietwetter, I made it to the building that hosted the multiple offices for important stuff. The only thing I was interested in there was the Wohnsitz Anmeldung, basically, residence permit.

While waiting in line at the reception, I overheard the woman in front of me be told that she had a 2.5 hour wait. I was happy that the local chair-lady of the VDAC had made us an appointment.

That is, I thought she made me an appointment until it turned out that only one was made for the other US student. I didn’t have one. Yet my German skills came in handy here (and some tips from my mother) and I started saying that I was a little annoyed about this and that I couldn’t understand it and that I hoped I wouldn’t have to wait now. I knew I had an appointment and I said I refused to have to come back again or wait. After huffing like that for a bit, I was told I was at the front of the line, given a form to fill out (to pass the time) and then asked to take a seat in the waiting area.

That was all fine by me and I got set to fill out the form, not able to complete it before being called to a desk. [note: In Germany, as I’ve experienced it, most bureaucratic offices have systems where you go to a reception area, tell the person what you’re there (at the particular office) for, asked if you have all relevant forms, and then given a number. The numbers are based on first-come, first serve as well as based on which official will be dealing with cases like yours. There’s usually an electronic sign in the waiting room which has flashing numbers on it, and a ding usually reverberates throughout the room when a new number is called. The room to which one is called is also flashed, and it’s generally a very orderly system].

At the desk, I handed over my passport and my Mietvertrag (rental-agreement) and the nice young lady in charge of me got set filling out information online while I finished filling out the form.

The Wohnsitzmeldung costs 10 Euro, but when it came time to pay, rather than handing it over to the lady, I was given a card and sent to a machine outside of the room where I inserted the card and paid the amount. It’s as if the German bureaucracy wanted to make it clear that the certain Beamtin was not the one handling my money… it was going straight to the state.

Another thing that surprised me about this process was the fact that I was asked for my religious affiliation; specifically, I was asked whether and in what faith I was baptized. I noted my surprise to the lady and she told me that it had to do with tax purposes. I think that in the U.S., since state and church are completely separate, it doesn’t matter what religion you are when you apply for residence.

About five minutes into the process, I was pleased to be handed a sheet of paper to look over for the accuracy of the info. It looked alright to me and I said so.

That was it!

Woo hoo. The other US student and I (we hang out quite a bit, though he and I didn’t arrive together today because I was running late) decided, after such a successful experience, we would take care of the last bit of bureaucracy while in this country. We had to get our “Aufenhaltsgenehmigung,” or “visas.” In Germany, one is allowed to stay in the country for up to three months without being a citizen. Any time after that, one must apply for permission to stay in the country. This is pretty standard across the globe, I fee, but I don’t know.

I do know that it’s a bit of a pain to get an Aufenhaltsgenehmigung. In order to get the Aufenhaltsgenehmigung, one has to have a registered residence. That’s why we couldn’t do the visa until today. One also has to have a valid reason to want to stay in the country (either work or education). Often, this is a Catch-22, because in order to get work, often one needs to have permission to be in the country. In order to get that, one needs work… and so forth.

The steps to get Aufenhaltsgenehmigung:

  1. Be in the country legally
  2. Have reason to be in the country (study or work; likely asylum as well)
  3. Make it to the local town hall and go to the “Auslaender [foreign]abteilung”
  4. Wait in line to be given a number
  5. Show proof of being in the country legally (passport)
  6. Have proof of residence
  7. Have all the documents that show you’re allowed to be in the country (for study: matriculation document and proof of funding of studies). For me, this meant having proof of the VDAC scholarship.
    1. As mentioned in a previous post, Germany has insurance Pflicht, so in order to study, one needs proof of insurance, so this document is also necessary
  8.  Have form “Erforderliche Unterlagen fuer die Antragsbearbeitung [required documents for the application process]” filled out
  9. Have a passport picture for the final product: the visa (this is something unique to Germany and (?) Europe. In the U.S., pictures are taken at the relevant offices. In Germany, one is expected to arrive at the office with ones own photo. There was a machine outside the office).
  10. Be given a number to wait to give all these documents to someone who plugs it into the computer…
  11. Pay 110 Euro to be allowed to stay in the country
  12. I have yet to see how this adventure continues

My fellow U.S. American and I were able to complete the first steps pretty easily. The Bezirksamt wasn’t far from the Ratshaus (townhall), and the Ratshaus was where we were supposed to go.

Germany has some pretty town halls. And this is only one of many in Hamburg, since each “Stadtteil” has its own. The “real” Hamburg Ratshaus is also its parliament, and that’s a pretty impressive building

This is the official Hamburg Ratshaus. The day of the photo, there were Chinese dignitaries in town. The Germans are hospitable people and don't mind giving up their flag for a day

This is the official Hamburg Ratshaus. The day of the photo, there were Chinese dignitaries in town. The Germans are hospitable people and don’t mind giving up their flag for a day

Yet, after that it went pretty down hill because he (my fellow American) didn’t want to wait what seemed like more than an hour, and I didn’t have my Versicherungsvorzeichnis. I will have to come back to the office at some point and complete the process.

Oh well. The lady at the reception had something up her… anyway, so I don’t mind coming back to deal with someone else. I burned off some steam going to IKEA (which, like I mentioned before, isn’t far from the Alona subway station) and drinking some free coffee.

Now, I have to get to class.

First Week in Hamburg, Germany

This post has been waiting a while to be written, (and it’s therefore been more than a week) and I’ve got drafts scattered all in my different notebooks, but it’s a late post since it’s a pretty hefty post and covers some intense experiences I’ve had, not all good.

Hamburg lay out before me on the morning of my arrival in the half-light of early morning, green plains, some darker green forests, a lot of curving and straight lines symbolizing streets and sidewalks, and lots and lots of lights left over from a night of normalcy for the city.

This is a beautiful city with a famous comforting orange glow

I touched down with feelings of numbness that had started before I even left the airport waiting room in Miami, and tried to feel happy about being here. It didn’t help that I desperately needed caffeine after a nine hour flight into the wee hours of my Florida body-clock.

Let’s start with the practical things since arriving in this foreign country.

I got to take care of a few things right away after meeting a very nice lady from the Women’s Club of American-German Exchange in Hamburg. The first things was the check-in into my new room at one of Hamburg’s many student dorms (dorms here are scattered throughout the city, rather than on a campus…which doesn’t completely exist here either). The check-in process was relatively quick. Too quick almost. I was allowed to pay my first rent and a collateral for the state of the room, drop my two suitcases off into my room, grab my laptop and some important documents, and then was herded quickly out the door again. I wasn’t to see the dorm again until later that evening.

After check-in, I was herded (a lot of herding going on, since I was kind of brain-dead) to the bank to open my bank account and forced to deal with serious questions that made the difference of paying 2 Euro 50 or 3 euro 50 each month. I went with the 3 euro 50 because I figured whatever the extra Euro was for would be worth it.

Then, I got to visit a university-affiliated insurance agency to find out if my US international insurance would qualify me for German university studies (I’m in a country where insurance is Pflicht, required). Turns out, I didn’t have all the documents and would have to come back. [I eventually got it all cleared up, but it involved some stressful e-mailing and worrying]

So, insurance was a “on-hold” matter, but I then had to go to the train station and book my ticket for Dresden, which was an organized seminar arranged for other VDAC students like me. My guide didn’t know which train I needed to book, and assumed that because seats were reserved, the assistant at the desk for the Deutsche Bahn would be able to look up a name and voila. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case (as I could have told my guide without even knowing how these things work) and so buying the ticket was another thing that needed to wait. At least I was able to buy my student discout BahnCard50 that basically takes 50% of all train tickets.

It wasn’t long into this whole business when I realized that my guide was new at introducing students through this program to Hamburg, and that she was working off a list that had been given to her by someone else. I think she and I were both glad when everything was taken care of.

We both went out to lunch  near the campus (to which she invited me) and I tried to relax and grasp the fact that I was in Hamburg. Instead, I was unhappy that I was about to be left alone on campus without a proper bag for all my stuff (remember, I only took what I needed since my backpack was still full of other stuff), encouraged to sit through a few orientating seminars put on by the campus (one was on how to access wifi [called WLAN here]), and had not even been able to wash my face since arriving from my overnight flight.

Needless to say, I only made it through two seminars and half of the campus tour before I decided to head home. On the way home, I stopped by a MediaMart to pick up a hot water kettle (sub-consciosly, I knew I wouldn’t want to have to go to the communal kitchen every morning for coffee or every evening for tea) and the internet router that no one told me to bring with me (my dorm didn’t get wifi until a few days after I arrived). Of course, as to be expected when being left to find ones way back home alone, I got lost and had to ask a few people for directions. Thankfully, I met a nice Hamburger (I could hear it in her accent) and made it home safely. There wasn’t much time left but to unpack stuff and send a few e-mails before I crashed in my freshly made bed.

So that was my first day. The second day I woke up with more things to take care of. I started by going to IKEA {there’s a really nice, new one not far from where I live!) to buy some things to organize my new “home” with and rounded up the day by going to seminars… a lot of them. There was a tour of the pub-quarter at 9 PM, but I wasn’t in the mood for alcohol and went home to go to bed early for the second night in a row. I did, however, manage to take care of getting to know my area a bit, getting my insurance clearance, registering for the online portal and school wifi, and other stuff. I was busy and able to handle a lot.

The question is, whether I was able to handle it all emotionally.

Emotionally, things were not as productive or positive.

This is a kind of friendly/non-threatening way to depict the way I was feeling for many mornings since being here.

No one told me how spoiled I’ve been in my life. Never before have I had to face such feelings of desolation or displacement, despite traveling often between countries and having spent three and a half years at a college away from home.

I spent my first week in Hamburg feeling displaced even though I knew I wasn’t “displaced.” I was right where I was supposed to be and yet I still felt strange to others around me and to myself. It was as if my ability to handle emotions had shut everything down and I was only working with the right half of my brain. I know Germany, I’ve been here before, but never have I been here a a pure individual. I was a daughter, a sister, or a friend. Now, it was just me.

At first, I thought it was just initial shock. I knew I was pushing my psychological limits by taking an exam the day before my international flight, so I figured the numbness was just me working off my shock. It wasn’t until I was in Dresden the first weekend (though, I rationalized how I was feeling there too, because I knew I hadn’t had enough time to settle in Hamburg and already I was in another German city) that I started to worry. I knew Dresden even more than I knew Hamburg. It was a place I had been three or four times. Yet I looked at beautiful buildings with the same distance I would look at them on google images on the internet.

I was doing things that I usually never did, like going out in the evenings to have drinks with the other Americans, or making ridiculously witty comments to relieve some of the frantic thoughts I was having about myself the entire time. I was completely free, but I wasn’t caring about where I was, who I was seeing or what I was doing.

When I got back from Dresden after a train ride during which I was able to be witty, conversational, polite and generally a pleasure to travel with, I broke-down from the pressure of keeping up a front. I called my parents for the first time since arriving (I hadn’t been able to do so, before then) and explained how I was feeling, and how lost I was.

At some point, my mother was able to calm me down my telling me that I was normal. This, how I was feeling, was normal given the circumstances and while it’s uncomfortable, painful, and scary, it’s not something to be scared of. Given my circumstances of extreme stress (exam), stress release (I passed), travel, and a huge life-change (alone in a “foreign country” with a lot of stuff to deal with at once), my body (mind) was protecting me.

So that was Sunday. It’s been a few days since then during which I’ve attended some orientation programs designed specially for MA students of German literature (the university orientation system is nice! One of the few things in which the university provides a hand to hold for the students during their application process and studies), found some sort of running mojo, cooked a few times in the communal kitchen, slowly met more and more students and built some sort of “relationship” with them. I went out for drinks for the third time in my life and actually enjoyed it, and got together a few times with a distant cousin who played a large role in making me feel valued and welcomed, and like myself, in this city . I’ve had several phone conversations with my family, done a lot of e-mailing, reached out to everyone and anyone who I thought could help me (including a counselor through my university), and generally am holding on until all these “first times” of first time eating in the dining hall (Mensa), first time going to the library, first time visiting a professor’s office, become routine.

Some of my best moments this past week were discovering a running route I can stick to that takes me along the Elbe river, finding out what sort of person I am, learning new things about the capabilities of people and communities, getting excited about the courses I’m taking and finding out that I am in fact in a city that is perfect for my focus of study, finding my way to the university by bike, exploring Hamburg and discovering what a wonderful city, it in fact, is, and sticking to my personal covenant of no-sugar for a year.

This is truly a great city and I can’t wait to feel “normal” again so that I can appreciate it for all it is. Right now, I’m trying to keep busy and slowly I have more and more spaces of time where I feel like my old self. I know I’ve been here for 9 days now, but I also know it takes a while to “arrive” after the physical touch down on “foreign” soil. I know I’ll look back on this first week and see how much I’ve grown because of it, but right now I can’t help but be annoyed at my brain. I think I’m ready to handle things now, brain. You can relax again.

So ja. That’s that. I’m sure I missed a lot to talk about, and there’s a lot left to cover, but I’m here for year, so we’ll get to that. For this go around, I just wanted to give readers a verbalization of what it really means to be abroad, and that a fair warning is indeed in order.

Mission – Prepare for Study Abroad

Before I get started, I just wanted to remind readers that I also have two other blogs that may be interesting: my reading log (perhaps not as interesting) and my running blog (more interesting and most often updated). 

As for this blog, I figured I needed to devote some time to actually talking about the study-abroad process and what it entails. This post is meant as an informal guide for college-level students trying to study abroad in another country while still enrolled at their home institution in the U.S. It’s also meant to be informative/entertaining for other readers, but will perhaps be most relevant for those I specified. Just a heads-up! 

The hardest part of studying abroad, if one’s life is often financially determined like mine is, is actually getting accepted to a study-abroad program. Such programs, like the government funded German Academic Exchange program or the Critical Language Scholarship, or the privately funded Federation of German-American Clubs exchange program are competitive and require a lengthy application process. if one has dual-citizenship, life is so much easier because one can just apply to the university like one would to a U.S. school. The biggest issue in such a situation would be that one is pretty much on one’s own. A program, once accepted to, infinitely simplifies matters. 

For those who were happy when the undergrad acceptance letters finally came in, completing a study-abroad application process can be harrowing. However, despite the time and effort it takes to apply, if one wants to make it to another country for a semester or a year, I don’t need to point out that it’s worth it. 

Yet, even when one is accepted for a program, there’s a lot that needs to be done (though still less than if one studied abroad independently). This post-acceptance work is what the rest of this post is about. I’m going to hypothetically assume that you, the reader, are said accepted person for grammar purposes  and to make my life easier (don’t you love grammar?).

Getting in contact 

The first point of motion is responding to the acceptance letter and beginning communications with the key person who will be responsible for you while abroad. This could be the study-abroad coordinator at the university you will be studying, a local member of the program who is geographically close to your position of placement, or a regional coordinator who gives you all the basic instructions and then later passes you on to the university coordinator or local member. This person may be the one who ends up picking you up from the airport when you arrive in your new location or who helps arrange the practical aspects of your stay, such as where you’ll live, insurance, local transportation passes…

Not many cities use waterways as transportation… Hamburg is one of them.

Insurance

which brings me to my next point. Before you leave for your destination, you need to have several things already set-up, especially because many things need to be coordinated through your home-institution. These points of preparation can be divided between academics and personal life. On the personal life side, things like insurance need to be arranged. I don’t know how it is in other countries. However, in Germany, all students are required to register and pay for basic insurance benefits. No matter how U.S. Americans feel about state-funded insurance, I am grateful that this is an enforced requirement.The last thing I’d want while studying abroad is to break an arm while playing soccer and find that a flight home on basic aspirin is less expensive and painful than emergency medical treatment. Sometimes, a student’s personal insurance in the States may count in Germany, but not always. Sometimes the university where you will study provides an insurance plan; this is also not always the case. Most usually, the program you’ve applied through will provide you with an insurance coverage plan. This plan needs to be recognized abroad and accepted as a suitable replacement for, in the case the the university you’re going to does offer insurance, any other insurance you may be offered. 

Mentor

That’s all I want to say for now about personal business, since that’s the main thing I have to cover while still here that’s not related to academics. Another good way to prepare for the experience is to find yourself a mentor, someone who has done the program or visited the same city/location as you as a study-abroad student and already knows some of the most important things. It really helps to already get an idea of what you should be prepared for such as the exhaustion of total language immersion the first few days, the new eating or dressing habits you may need to develop, the differences in student life. For me, the most important question was: what were some of the things you wish someone had told you/prepared you for when you went over?

Meeting with this person and being able to talk with him/her over phone/skype may be best.

Academics

The other hard part about preparing for study-abroad is making sure that everything is set-up for when you come back. I don’t necessarily mean having the bed made, everything dusted, and your friends arranging a welcome-home party (which of course is very nice), but having everything you do academically while abroad be recognized on your transcript and at your home institution. After all, while people talk about the experience of intense language and cultural exchange, meeting new people and seeing new things, you probably still want to finish your degree and take care of some academic requirements while gone. 

Again, if you go abroad through a program, this is easier than if you try to do it independently. Whether it is financially more friendly depends on the program. 

In some cases, you study-abroad while remaining enrolled at your home-institution. That is, while abroad, you pay tuition and fees to the home institution and get transient credits, or, in more other words, the credits you take abroad are counted as credits at your university. On the transcript, it may even say you took these credits at said home-institution, but that the study was off-campus. This situation is usually the case if the program is intra-scholastic and you participate in the study-abroad program as to fulfill the requirements of your degree. It’s helpful if you have financial aid at your home-institution that you can use, but is a little frustrating when the tuition and fees are more than you would pay abroad. 

The alternative to transient credits are transfer credits. This is an ideal situation if it means that you don’t have to pay tuition to your home institution and only pay the relatively minor student fees at your study-abroad institution. This means that the credits you earn are that institutions granted credits and you are considered enrolled at that school, receiving a transcript from that school. The main difficulty with this method of earning credit is that credits are not internationally recognized and degrees vary from country to country. In Europe, credits are based on contact hours and hours expected to meet with students outside of class, write term papers, and participate in local conferences. In the U.S. credits are purely based on contact hours. Furthermore, a class that seems suitable for your degree may not be recognized by the registrar’s office or the faculty as fulfilling certain requirements. This uncertainty makes transferring credits a little risky and i best if you are at the point in your degree where losing one year of studies is okay, or you have freedom of courses to take. 

Signing up for classes

Once you decide what kinds of credits you’re working for, it helps to also know what you’re studying for those credits. This is something that you may decide while still at home, based on whether or not your program starts before or after your home-institution semester begins. In Europe, most universities start mid-Fall. That’s weeks after most universities start in the U.S. The drop/add period is passed, the fees have all been due, and some students are already taking mid-term exams when the doors of the European university opens. So, it’s important to have a plan for how you register for classes, even if you can’t even sign-up for them yet. 

Here, having good communication with the study-abroad coordinator of your program at your home institution and the academic counselor helps. I found myself meeting with both several times in the week leading up to the registration deadline, and basically was signed up for four filler classes that satisfied being registered full-time. Then, I was able to pay tuition and fees, pay for a parking permit that I won’t even use, and look forward to seeing those credits on my transcript. Once I know what I’m actually taking while abroad (something that I’ll be advised upon during orientation at the university abroad), I can list the actual course names for the registrar to update. 

So, after that long post, you’ve basically seen what I’ve been up to lately. Now, all I have to really do to prepare is pack my suitcases. I’ve been told that I should be prepared for wet and cold weather. Oh boy.  Hopefully I have enough room. 

runner suitcase