Everyone is Welcome in LA

With the U.S. currently gaffe-ing about matters both diplomatic and domestic, it’s little wonder the sentiment outside of the States is so wary—especially when it comes to booking travel. But count on California to do something to change that. I love this colorful, bright-eyed ad from LA Tourism, that both says and shows that #everyoneiswelcome. And to be honest—since we’ve acknowledged the population is so varied, I’d love to see such a diverse cast in a “normal” ad too. #goals

Pass or Fail: Updates in the “Visa Wars”

Maybe it’s on your radar, maybe its not—but a few weeks ago the E.U. voted to implement a new policy for American tourists requiring a visa to travel to Europe. It’s the latest development in what’s known as the “visa war”—an ongoing dispute based on the fact that the United States still enforces a strict visa policy for five European Union countries: Poland, Cyprus, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania despite agreements not to. In a tit-for-tat move, the E.U. finally decided to strike back and require Americans to get visas when they hop across the Atlantic.

The process for the last few years has been an open-border policy between the U.S. and the E.U. European nationals need to complete a form for travel authorization (the ESTA), which is typically granted within a few days, if not a few hours. And U.S. citizens get a stamp on arrival and unrestricted visitation throughout what’s known as the Shengen region for 90 days. All well and good. But see, reciprocity only works when it’s reciprocal, and leaving certain countries out because of their socioeconomic status is well…not reciprocal.

So now the E.U. is considering what this new policy will look like. While the new policy’s effective date is still undetermined, the reactions to it have been interesting to watch. As Americans, we can enter most popular touristy destination countries with little to no hassle—a simple visa-on-arrival, maybe a minimal fee. I remember a sense of shock when, planning my trip to Brazil in 2010, I realized that I needed to pay $160 for a tourist visa—even thought my trip was less than two weeks long. It’s our typical sense of entitlement: we’re a superpower, so we should have a super-powerful passport.

It’s our typical sense of entitlement: we’re a superpower, so we should have a super-powerful passport.

The experience with my Brazilian passport made me far more sympathetic to those who have to adhere to the stringent tourist visa processes in the States. I was lucky that I had a Brazilian consulate in the city I was living in—otherwise the special trip to get the visa may have scrapped both my travel budget and my travel plans. I recently read a very detailed account of what a Bulgarian national has to go through in order to visit the U.S., and it’s neither cheap nor funny:

I have to fill out a form on the US embassy website, accompanied by a photo with specific quality and dimensions. I have to schedule an appointment at the US Embassy (I either have to fly home to Bulgaria, or go to Madrid, since I now live in Spain). I have to pay a fee of $160, nonrefundable. I have to show up for an in-person interview…[where]…I have to present a body of evidence proving that I don’t aim to immigrate to the United States, but only want to have a good vacation and eat chicken wings in LA’s Chinatown, like any other traveler would. This “evidence” includes my work contract, my apartment lease, an invite from whoever I am visiting in the US with his/her address and a document that proves his/her status in the country (Good luck visiting a non-citizen). I have to specify where I will be staying, how long and provide a phone number where I can be reached at all times.

In comparison, if my friend from Los Angeles wants to visit me, all he needs to do is hop on a plane and get his passport stamped upon arrival in Spain.”

When all the particulars are spelled out…yeah, that seems unfair.

As for me, I have kind of mixed feelings about the “visa war”. In terms of the big picture, it is in some ways cool to see the rest of the world standing up to the U.S. and making us honor our policy promises. On the other hand, in this era of walls and bans and fears of outsiders, it makes me sad to think that another obstacle to moving around and meeting new people will soon be enacted. Americans in general aren’t good at getting out of bubbles—and many, when they do choose to leave the 50 States, will head to Europe because it has a sense of the familiar.

On the other hand, in this era of walls and bans and fears of outsiders, it makes me sad to think that another obstacle to moving around and meeting new people will soon be enacted.

So while I think it’s really important and right to have to answer for our governmental failures, I also worry that Americans will be so turned off by it (though let’s be honest, they will probably be turned off not by the actual policy forms than by the breathlessly overblown news coverage) and hunker down further into their comfort zones, further depriving the U.S. of the broader perspective we so desperately need right now.

Hamburger Sliders: Then and Now

My favorite thing to do when visiting an old city is to see how much of its architectural history is still intact. To wander through these old section of town is not unlike watching a 90-year old grandma busting a surprising move on the dance floor—they have surprising charm, elegance, and even a hipness to them despite the age. So you know I love this interactive feature from the Hamburger Abendblatt (and subsequent opportunity for punning).

Hamburg – eine Fotoreise von 1888 bis heute

What surprised me most about the Hamburger Abendblatt’s interactive feature, however, is not how different Hamburg is today from the Hamburg of 100+ years ago, but how similar it is. Through two World Wars and a lot of growth, you can still see those old bones all throughout the city. And yeah, they still can show the young’uns something.

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Deutschland: Year Eins

Last Saturday marked the start of my second year in Germany. Which seems insane. It feels like I just landed from California (oh wait, because I did…). But in seriousness, I learned a lot in the past year—about myself, about my new country, about people. In truth, I think a lot of things I knew already. I’ve been lucky to have traveled a lot, lived abroad, and worked cross-culturally before. But I like that my lifestyle now serves as a constant reminder of these lessons. Here are some of the ones that resonate most with me:

Practice Empathy

The constant struggle of being understood reminds me all the time to be more patient with others—whether they are struggling with language issues or struggling with simply finding words to express themselves. This goes for being culturally different too. My team at work is made up of myself, Germans, Brazilians, an Iranian, and the occasional South African freelancer. That means that on any given day, we’re working across an average of three cultures. It’s taught me to be aware of our differences, as much as we celebrate our similarities. Things that I might find offensive might be completely regular to someone else. When I get confused or frustrated, I try to always have my first reaction be to question, “Ok, is this a cultural thing?” and then go from there. (And truthfully, while sometimes it is, other times the person is just being a jerk)

Collect Moments, Not Things

Giving up so much of my stuff when I moved reminded me that you can live with less—and that I’m completely okay with having fewer things and more stories. I spent a lot of money on travel within the last year, but I’d much rather have the experiences versus a big television or fancier bike. Moving here was expensive, and if the choice is between buying something I don’t really need or having a nice night out with friends, I’d rather use the money towards doing something instead of having something.

Work is Not Life*

Speaking of traveling all the time…here in Germany, I have 30 days of vacation. And while it may amuse some of my friends here that I’ve learned lessons about working less (considering the crazy hours I do work), living in such a society has convinced me how imperative some sort of work-life balance is. This is honestly my biggest hesitation when it comes to moving back to the States—the feeling that work is always there. To some extent, it is here too (especially for me lately), but I also know that when I go on vacation, I’m untouchable. And for the most part, work respects that.

*and I’m writing this at 10 pm from the office, so this is definitely something I will continually remind myself.

Take Care of Yourself

My mom often tells me that I “burn the candle at both ends”—always taking on a full plate. But without the safety net of close family and friends, you wind up looking out for yourself a lot. That means knowing your limits, and when it’s necessary to push them. Here, I’m responsible for making myself uncomfortable and trying new things—but I’m also responsible for knowing when to take a night in and spoil myself.

Get in Front of People

Whenever you move somewhere new, you have to force yourself to be social, because otherwise, you’ll be a hermit. I’ve been really lucky to have found a crew of wonderful friends since I’ve moved here. A mix of German natives and expats, they both remind me what’s good about living here, and give me someone to vent to when I need to complain something Typisch Deutsch.

Be More Direct

This comes directly from the Germans, and it’s one lesson I’ve really relished learning. Americans always complain about Germans being rude, but what they are is direct. They say what they mean and they do so unapologetically. I love this culture of real talk—it’s a great tactic for professional as well as personal life. I’ve also been forced to learn how to articulate my own feelings more regularly. It’s not enough to not like something or to be upset: Germans want you to be able to analyze why you feel a certain way and why you think that is. It’s been kind of fascinating to be so in touch with myself versus the self-shrug we typically do in the States.

Celebrate Stupid

Stumble through your bad German. Ask silly questions. Push the red button. Wait. Try. See what happens. Squawk in surprise. Be embarrassingly American. Stick out like a sore thumb. Have fun. I’ve felt utterly ridiculous at least 3 times a day since I got here, and while some nights I am so frustrated I want to break something, overall it’s refreshing to laugh at yourself so often. I know that I’m trying. And it’s so rewarding when I finally do find success—whether it’s being able to ask the butcher for the right cut of meat, cracking a joke in German that makes my boyfriend’s best friend laugh, or giving a tourist directions.

After a year, I’m starting to feel things clicking. I’m starting to feel like I belong.

Eating Like an American in Germany

“Tacos.”
“Cheez-its.”
“Corn on the cob.”
“You know what I can’t find here? Pumpkin!”
“You looking for pumpkin? I got. You want?”

So went a recent conversation with my Ami* amie, Britt. Sharing a post-inauguration drink to drown our sorrows, we were resigned to staying in Germany, but bemoaning four years without our American food favorites. (And yes, this is definitely a First World Problem. Namely, a First-World Expat Problem.)

Sure, American food isn’t impossible to get. Certain specialty food stores have an American aisle, where bright boxes of Safeway familiars crowd together. And Amazon recently launched an online version (although a box of Twinkies was retailing for 11EUR, so perhaps it’s not the most cost effective). If one of us is going home for a visit, we collect the grocery lists of the other. Over-the-counter medicines, Trader Joe’s favorites, Target snackbags. Cajun seasoning and jars of peanut butter.

But the best is when friends come visiting from the States, bringing with them a taste of home that is as literal as it is figurative. It feels like Christmas to see the suitcases unzip and spew forth such delightful contraband as corn tortillas, bags of black beans, name-brand Sriracha, Louisiana hot sauce, boxes of ramen, gallons of Soy Sauce, my favorite Detox Tea. And the ever elusive cans of pumpkin puree, perfect for making pumpkin pie desserts.

Of course, there is an upside to foregoing our processed American food. It’s challenged me to do a lot of made-from-scratch cooking that I never would have bothered with otherwise. For my farewell Obama dinner, I made enchiladas. I could find basically everything I needed…except for enchilada sauce. So for the first time, I made my own (note that the recipe calls for Chili Powder, which is way easier to get in the States). And I’ll tell you what—I am NEVER going back to the can again. I make my own soup stock now too, like a regular Hausfrau.

And the local favorites are nothing to scoff at. German bread is way, way better than anything you can buy in the U.S. The meat and vegetables you buy at the market (even the chains) are typically all locally-sourced and seasonal—which leads to incredible taste. The cheese selection will blow your mind, and the dazzling array of quality two-buck chuck will have your winerack stocked for less than 20 euros.

But sometimes you’re hungry for more than just food. Sometimes you want a little of that Americana nostalgia that only a bag of baked-but-not-fried Goldfish crackers can provide.

Just be sure to ration them util your next visit(or) is planned.

*Ami is a German slang shorthand for American

Postcard from Tenerife

One of the delights of learning new languages is playing with the new words in the patterns of the languages you already know. In English, you can say, big to mean “cool”, “heavy”, “brilliant”. Germans will use their equivalent, groß, the same way. Do Spanish speakers? If they didn’t, they might now.

Over seven days in Tenerife, whenever we got a plate of delicious food or a glass of incredible wine, or turned a corner to see an amazing view, I’d hear Tim give a low whistle and say (to the baffled amusement of the Canarians), “Grande”. And Tenerife, the largest of the seven Spanish Canary Islands, deserves the word. Hovering off the coast of norther Africa, Tenerife is famous for its volcano, Mount Teide, the largest peak in Spain at 3,718-metres (12,198 ft); its stunning landscapes; and (most importantly for those visiting from northern Europe), its year-long sunshine and high temperatures.

We went all over but didn’t really do anything besides eat, drink, lay in the sun, and drive.

Long, winding drives through crazy landscapes both lush and alien. The road to Masca, which ribbons through the islands northwestern corner with hair-pin turns and cacti at every corner.

Through Anaga National Park, which occupies most of the northeastern corner and is luscious and green with Canarian pines.

We ended up at pristine beaches, thick with chunky sand and hunks of holey rock plunging out of the blue waves. I searched for sea glass in the crumbles of volcanic sand. We stacked colorful lava rocks in approximations of snowmen figures.

We passed through towns where the houses were built on each other into the mountains, balanced together like stacks of blocks. Little squares were still decorated for Christmas, and fat Santas rappelled down bright walls or dropped from wrought iron gates.

We ate tapas and paella, drank carafes of delicious cool red wine and tall cups of rum and pineapple juice—a lime bobbing at the lip of the glass. We bought avocadoes by the pound and ate a heaping bowl of guacamole every day. Our table was filled with vivid food—rosy slivers of Serrano ham, rough hunks of salami, moon-yellow slices of Emmentaler, pauncy green olives bloated with brine, persimmons and mandarins like little balls of fire. We bought spicy red Canarian mojo and topped everything with it—eggs, toast, avocadoes, potatoes—until the squat little jar was scraped clean.

We spoke Spanish, English, and German. Sprawled under the strong equatorial sun we talked about everything under the sun—about the ethics of keeping orcas at sea parks, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the differences between comets and meteors, the types of volcanoes, if it’s possible to grow a banana tree in a non-tropical climate (also known as our kitchen).

One night in the middle of our trip, we drove up to the slopes of Mount Teide to watch the sunset and the stars come out. We wandered around the edges of the volcano, a landscape full of rocks and cacti and wild openness. As the sun sank, we climbed up a burgundy finger of scoriaceous rock, it’s porous surface making it look more like coral than stone. The stars slowly began to appear—and there is no way to write about them without using every tired cliché in the book. It was incredible. A sky so dark and clear that, directly above us, we could see the faint flickers of the Orion Nebula.

And there’s no other word for that, I think, than grande.

Culture Shock #5: It’s (Unapologetically) Christmastime

Americans know better than to wish each other a Merry Christmas. Issue it with the best of intentions, and you’re likely to receive a lecture on political correctness. Holiday decorations have to be kept to generic winter themes, and even the traditional red, green, and white is often tweaked for inclusivity. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. Which is true, in America. But in Germany? Ah, homogeny.

I walked into my office in the first week of December to find not only a Christmas tree bedecked in the agency colors, but an Adventskranz, or wreath, in place of our weekly flowers and an interactive Adventskalendar, which raffled off prizes during every weekday in Advent. Advent wreaths are all over the city of Hamburg, in front of banks, city buildings, schools, and shops alike. It startled me a little to see such a flagrant show of celebration: the last time I saw an Advent wreath in public was when I was in Catholic school.

Christianity is the most popular religion in Germany, with about 67% identifying either as Roman Catholic or Protestant, so the prevalence of Advent memorabilia makes perfect sense. But on the whole, I’ve found Germany to be not as “in your face” about their religious habits (or, conversely, lack thereof) as other countries. For sure, not every German celebrates Christmas in the traditional sense, with church services and the religious hoopla—which is, of course, the reason for the season. Many of my German friends are not religious, but appreciate Christmas on a nostalgic or aesthetic level. In other words, it’s possible for the season to hold the reason at a pretty fair distance.

As someone who celebrates Christmas (or at least, doesn’t not celebrate Christmas), it’s hard for me to tell if this one-dimensional winter holidaymaking actually makes others feel excluded or is some form of incorrectness, the way we are so conditioned to believe in the States. Those who want to celebrate differently are, as far as I can see, welcomed to do so—there have been a few Menorahs around town as well. I really like that it’s possible to decorate or celebrate how you feel fit without feeling like anyone is pushing the “prepare for the birth of Jesus” narrative at you, or feeling that Christmas is a war that needs to be “won” or “lost”.

Rather, I think here, the society is better at understanding that sometimes, a beautifully decorated candle wreath in December is simply something that reminds you to reflect on the passing of the year. Or just makes your dining room look good.

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Scotland Part 2: The Panoramic Highlands

It was impossible not to look everywhere at once. Deep grey skies. Scotch-brown grasses that covered the mountains like ratty blankets. Tree-lined roads that erupted into steely blue expanses of the lochs, castles sitting heavily on their edges. We’d drive until we hit water, get out, take it in, listening to the strange silence of being nearly completely alone. And then turn we’d turn around and drive back again.

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Eilean Donan Castle
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The view from Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye

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Waiting for the Hogwarts Express

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