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.

Two (to Three) Weeks in Hamburg

What? These past two weeks have been some of the longest in my entire life. There’s something to be said about the conception of time and how some people will tell you that the more different things you undertake, the slower time seems. Conversely, routine is the quickest aging mechanism, and yet, surprisingly it is routine that keeps most of us sane and gets us through life, so I won’t say that any method is more desirable over the other.

I will say, however, that different days everyday are unavoidable when moving to another country. Just the act of seeing new things everyday, even if it’s not the last time you see them, makes everyday seem new. Also, one does a lot more getting lost, and thus more seeing new things. Over the past three days, I’ve gotten lost thrice and seen new buildings, coffee houses, and bell constructions (there’s a bell series on the facade of one of the buildings in the Hanse Viertel that plays the “Ode to Joy” refrain on the hour; that was a nice surprise).

I really can’t list all the different kinds of things I’ve seen, but I wish I could because Hamburg truly is a city that one can fall in love with.

It’s balanced by a fine northern German bourgeoise attitude though. Since I usually spend my time in former East Germany and/or in Berlin, I am used to people being much less “nobility” conscious. I realized yesterday while “getting lost” that I live in a rather well-to-do neighborhood, and that the people who live here driving Feraris and BMWs are probably thinking of me as the “poor student.” This attitude carries over when I ask people for a little direction help in the street or on the bus and I feel patronized a lot more than I am used to in the States.

But I don’t blame people for labeling me as “poor” or “helpless,” because that’s how I’ve been/am. After arriving in the country with about 500 Euro and receiving my first scholarship stipend of 600 Euro, 300 were paid right away as collateral for the state of my room. Then 100 for “moving-supplies” (read, a mini-spree at IKEA–but I really needed a good lamp, yo!). I paid 200 for BahnCard50 and a train ticket to Dresden for the official VDAC opening seminar (that will be reimbursed hopefully soon). I also paid my Studium-Geburen (student taxes that are a joke of a tuition) of 250 Euro. Are you following with the math? I had 250 Euro left after those important purchases. Then, I used about 100 Euro for a new pair of running shoes that I DESPERATELY (you have no idea) needed:

These don't look like they've seen 605 miles, but they have.

These don’t look like they’ve seen 605 miles, but they have.

And 90 Euro for, wait, what’s that thing called? You know, one of those things that you need in winter in Europe but would look ridiculous wearing in Florida, even if it’s their coldest day? Oh yeah, a good “fall/winter” coat. Yep.

So how much money does that leave me with?

Not a lot.

Good thing food in Germany is very inexpensive. Some of the interesting conversations I’ve had with “natives” and other “foreigners” are about the price of food in Germany compared to in the US, and how this balances with the price of rent. It turns out, you can eat really well in Germany and still be homeless, but you can have a huge house in the US and still be starving.

That being said, I’ve had to really watch my food budget. Basically, I worked out that I can spend 2 Euro a day if I spend about 20 a week on basic groceries like apples, oats, yogurt, carrots, ham, cheese, some other fruit source, and occasionally some lettuce. 2 Euro sounds like nothing in the States, but here I can get a decent meal in the Mensa for 2-3 Euro plus a coffee in the student run cafe on campus (that I may, or may not, have been going to a lot; it gives me some sense of familiarity in my day), plus! I can also get a roll for dinner to have with my ham and cheese.

This miserliness is hopefully only temporary though. Next month, I pay my rent (wonderfully subsidized by the local German-American Women’s Club) of 125 Euro and then I basically have the rest of my stipend to save for travel and have a little more luxury with my budget (read: the occasional beer, perhaps?).

I’ve heard it’s bad manners to talk about money

Pretty sure talking about money is up there on the list with standing on your chair while drinking iced tea.

but I figured that it’s definitely part of the student experience and the study-abroad experience. Money is especially an issue when you are cut off from quick funds at the ATM machine (walking for hours to fund the ATM that has a partnership with you bank is not quick; also, note that Bank of America ceases to have a good relationship with Deutsche Bank, so it really isn’t more helpful to open an account with them before coming to a place like German. I have to pay a charge plus the exchange rate when extracting money now). Not to mention, if you’re not familiar with the exchange rate of the currency you’re using, it can be a bit of shock to see how much purchasing power remains the same despite paying five dollars for every four Euro. So finances are an issue while abroad, and it’s something to be prepared for when going.

But my life has moved beyond the realm of the free-observer of German culture and life and into that student-life, particularly.

I had been attending the orientation seminars the first two weeks and been among students. I also had been going out in the evenings to some of Hamburg’s best “pub”-quarters like Sternschanze or some pubs near the campus. [note: I’d like to write about the German “pub” culture sometime and how it’s much more similar to Britain’s than something like the “party-culture” in the U.S. is] Not to mention, I was in the process of submitting my MA thesis prospectus, so I was definitely academically involved. I just hadn’t been going to classes.

This week was the start of classes (again, my tardiness in posting means that I’m already into my third week here, but you don’t mind, right?)

Damn. It’s weird to sit in rows with other students facing a teacher or professor who will be the task-driver for the next few months. I haven’t done that since May, so I think, besides everything else I need to get used to, I need to get used to this again as well.

I was surprised to notice that classes are structured much like they are in the US graduate classes. The professors gave us a chance to introduce ourselves and our reasons for wanting to be in the class. Then organizational matters like online-webboard logins and class structure/layout were discussed. I don’t know why I expected something else to happen (maybe because I was in Germany or something) and I thought I’d have to get used to how things were done here, but really, I think I can handle this. I think the one major difference is that there’s less work expected during the semester from the students. I’m used to having a term paper be the main evaluation of a course, but that has been combined with weekly assignments or sets of annotated bibliographies or projects on the side. Here, unless one has to do a presentation (Referat) as part of the participation for the class, one is not responsible for anything except keeping up with the reading material and writing the paper at the end. Of course, one is expected to contribute to class discussions, but how to prepare for that is left up to the individual.

Only one of my classes is a “Vorlesung,” lecture. So I only spend my time in one of these for about 1.75 hours a week. The rest of the time is standard class setting with tables and chairs.

Another difference between classes here and the US (which I had been told about but actually only came across in two of my seven classes [no! that’s not a lot of classes. It’s only seven meetings of 1.75 hours once a week, so it’s not like seven classes in the U.S]), was the fact that teachers ask for input on how to run the course and which works to read. I’m used to having professors tell me “read these three works by the middle of the semester.” I’m not used to them giving me the freedom to suggest another work that may work well with the subject of inquiry. I think that student-input requires a trust that the students here have a better base knowledge of all subjects, which supports my theory that Germans generally leave school with a better Allgemeinbildung (general education).

Despite mentioning two big differences, I’ve already mentioned a lot of other smaller ones and could continue discussing them. But there’s time. 🙂 I’m here for another ten months. I also have some work to do, despite nothing being due next week, so I’m going to get on that as well.

First, another long-ish run on the Elbe is in order.

Happy Weekend!

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.