Culture Shock #6: History is Live

“Ja, Hamburg is full of bombs.”

Three sets of eyes turned towards the voice. It was Ingo, one of our freelance copywriters. He sat, completely relaxed, behind his computer, as the three expats discussed the latest breaking headline: a bomb threat had closed the subway. Only this wasn’t an ISIS threat or a domestic terror attack. It was a (potential) blast from the past.

 


It turns out that we had translated the headline wrong. When the line read, “bomb found”, they literally meant “found”—as in, discovered in a construction site. According to a Guardian article, back in World War II, the British and American Allies pounded Germany with 1.5 million tons of bombs. Officials estimate that 15% of the bombs failed to explode—which means that throughout this country, thousands of live bombs are hidden like Easter eggs, waiting to be found.

Luckily, this being Germany, there is a system in place for when such a bomb is found. This past weekend, for example, we were returning from a visit to see Tim’s family only to find out that a massive evacuation was taking place in Frankfurt, where we had to change trains. In the largest evacuation since the war, 60,000 people were ordered to leave their homes for the day as experts came in to defuse what’s known as a “blockbuster”—a bomb large enough to flatten a whole city block. Over beers and a pizza at the central station (which was outside of the potential detonation radius, don’t worry Mom), we watched the coverage of the evacuation. Uniformed officers went door to door, ringing every bell and ensuring that everyone had properly exited the area. (The Guardian also tells me they used helicopters with heat-sensing cameras to make sure nobody was left behind). Then a team of police explosive experts came in and defused the bomb—and by the evening, everyone was back at home again. Like clockwork.

This type of occurrence is regular. So regular that Ingo didn’t even bat an eye when he heard what we were talking about. But in America, the bombs that fell in Europe in WWII are just lines on a history page. It’s hard to imagine that this type of Frankfurt bomb fell with a legion of others—and harder to imagine the type of flattening damage the bombs unleashed when they did explode on impact.

Amid all of the recent controversy about race and history in the States, I’ve found it so fascinating to see how Germans deal with their blemished past. I think part of it helps that the history is still alive for people to experience. You can still see the signage in Berlin that routed the trains to their different concentration camps. You can visit the camps. Theoretically, you could even be blown up by an active munition. It’s hard to glorify a history that weighs so heavy on you—and that’s one thing that should be appreciated about the German approach to history. They not only allow, but insist on that weight. They refuse to forget. And so history—its evil, its beauty, its danger—doesn’t die. It lives, breathes, and demands to be remembered.

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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

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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Dear America: Election Reflection

Forgive me if this post is a little meandering, I was glued to the screen all night watching the election unfold. It felt strange to be far away during such a huge (and hopefully historic) event. I told Tim on our goodnight call that I missed home and wished I could be there to celebrate with the women in my life when Hillary won.

I was never cocksure of her victory, nor was I the wholehearted supporter of her that I was of Barack. I didn’t always agree with her, and at times, I wanted her to just open up already—her guardedness and scriptedness were almost as exhausting as Trump’s bombasticity.

But I recognized in her campaign fundamental aspects of my own life—how it feels to be the woman the men in meetings keep interrupting, how it feels when a man tells you the way you think is “cute”, how it feels to be intelligent and opinionated when society expects you to be docile and quiet. Like many, many women watching her campaign, I felt years of deep frustration rising. I wanted it to explode, so that we could heal. I thought we had momentum on our side. The same hope that buoyed me eight years ago sat in the back of my throat as I woke yesterday morning and wore my white and read the news and cheered my friends and family at home for voting.

But as the hours slunk away, the numbers on the New York Times site grew in stride with a numbing realization that I’d been wrong. About when Trump hit the 270 electoral vote count, a friend texted from the States and asked how I was feeling. “Shame?” he asked.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about all morning. I felt self-conscious on the bahn to work, as if everyone could tell that I was American. (Possibly they could, when I began to tear up as Hillary conceded.) My colleagues shook their heads in disbelief when I walked in. I met a half-American friend for coffee and when we tried to talk to each other, we found ourselves literally speechless.

Am I ashamed? That would mean that I am embarrassed by the way the majority of my country voted. I’m not. I understand how it could happen and why it did—as Americans, we have long come to value entertainment over education, choosing willful ignorance and fear over doing what’s right, especially when it feels inconvenient or too risky. This understanding could lead two ways, one of which, certainly, is shame.

But the other, and the one I feel today very deeply, is disappointment. I had such high expectations of you, America. I thought we were moving forward. I had a hope that this country still had the decency and the reservoirs of strength to not let fear take the wheel. I thought that you were smart enough, and self-aware enough, to realize that though Hillary might not be your top choice, she was still the best choice. That even if your candidate didn’t make the ballot, choosing not to vote or to vote for a 3rd-party candidate with no shot of winning was a sabotage of selfishness.

In one of the email leaks the nugget came out that Hillary, in a private speech, said that politicians ought to have a private opinion and a public opinion. Many of her opponents used this statement to reinforce the idea that she couldn’t be trusted. But I think it sums up a very essential truth that we, as Americans, seem to have forgotten. Being a politician isn’t about making your voice heard. It’s about speaking for the people. Just because gay marriage doesn’t apply to me personally doesn’t mean that it should not be offered to those who want it. Or just because I would not personally have an abortion doesn’t mean that no one should have abortions. A responsible citizen and a responsible politician do the same things—they make well-informed decisions with the greater good in mind.

And in my opinion, this translates to voting decision as well. Even if Hillary wasn’t your personal top choice for politician, looking objectively at her credentials and experience it is beyond a doubt that she would be the best leader for our country. As the old proverb says, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” We were each those old men in this election cycle, and I’m disappointed that more of us didn’t realize the responsibility we carried—whether you voted Trump, Clinton, 3rd-party, or not at all.

We will continue to be those old men in the next four years, and keeping that perspective is what is motivating me right now. It is easy to feel hopeless and defeated now, but if I learned anything in the last eight years, it’s that when you feel the most frustrated is when you should take the most action (#dontboovote). Nihilism gets us nowhere. Ennui gets us nowhere. Cynicism gets us nowhere.

It was a stunning defeat, America (liberals, progressive, hopefuls, all). So give yourself a chance to breathe and process, and then pull yourself back together. We have work to do, and a long road still to walk. When you get tired, take my hand. We are, and will be, stronger together.

Being a Faraway Friend

If we’re friends, chances are I’ve imagined your death. If we’re close friends, chances are I imagine your death on a regular basis. Does that sound weird and off-putting? I promise I’ll justify it. 

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What prompted this confession was a fascinating piece recently put out by BBC Travel. Bhutan’s dark secret to happiness talks about how Bhutanese culture promotes thinking about death on a constant basis in order to maintain happiness. “In Bhutanese culture,” the author writes, “one is expected to think about death five times a day.” Research has apparently shown that thinking about death relieves the psychological threat of dying by compensating with thoughts of happiness. The sum of the article was basically YOLO—seize the day and appreciate the things you might not ordinarily notice.

Okay, but thinking about your own death has nothing to do with imagining the deaths of your friends. But for me, this sort of contemplation leads me to same sort of “You Only Live Once” mentality when it comes to relationships. Rather than reflecting after the actual loss of someone I love and care about, that, hey I should have spent more time with them, or I wish I had checked in more with so-and-so, I get a chance to correct my course before the dreaded “It’s too late”.

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Living abroad is an amazing experience, but it is also a humbling one. I hit the 6-month mark of my move to Germany at the start of last month, and am feeling myself settle into one of the roughest phases of culture shock. The “honeymoon” of moving is over and now’s the point that homesickness and feelings of loneliness start to take over. I’m combating it two ways—by making sure I’m meeting new people here in Hamburg, and by giving the relationships back home plenty of nourishment.

In today’s age of technology, there’s absolutely no reason at all that someone who lives far away should be thought of as “gone”. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to check in with two faraway friends every week—whether by a FaceTime call or a long email or a simple Facebook post letting them know they were on my mind. Moving frequently in my early twenties meant creating friendships across the globe, but sustaining those relationships means making an effort. And occasionally, that effort requires an imaginary eulogy to remind me of what I might be missing. 

Drafting your fake eulogies gives me a chance to reflect on what I love about you—to pluck out my favorite memories and breath new life into them. To remind myself that I am so lucky to have such a variety of people in my life—that these people fill my life with joy and silliness, with culture and intellectual conversations. With fierce opinions and crazy dreams, with tolerance and optimism. With inspirational words that keep me going, and comforting ones to remind me that I’m not alone—no matter how far I range from home. 

I got a Blue Card! What is a Blue Card?

Americans abroad and at home know this election cycle is no joke. My timeline lately has been flooded with comments, jokes, and threats to flee the country. Well, I’ve already fled the country, but additional salvation came today, in the form of a little card from the utterly unpronounceable Ausländerangelegenheiten (er, Foreign Affairs office).

“I got my Blue Card!” I cheered to my German friends.

“That’s awesome!” “Congrats!” “Woohoo!” “So…ah. What is a Blue Card?”

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Simply, a Blue Card is a new-ish work and residence permit for non-European Union nationals who hold what the EU considers Specialized Jobs. For those familiar with American visas, I think the closest approximation is a cross between an O-1 Visa and a Green Card—marrying specialized knowledge with a pathway towards unlimited (permanent) EU residency. This specialized knowledge is demonstrated through academics; basically, if you hold a Master’s degree or higher that is specific to your field of industry, you could qualify. The other qualifier is making a minimum annual salary. It comes in the form of a tricked-out card that can be scanned and holds your biometric data. Looking at the thing is pretty cool—it’s covered in holographs and hidden patterns.

This all sounds very straightforward, but in truth, it’s pretty confusing. This is largely because the Blue Card is a fairly new permit, and not everyone is clear on the process or the conditions that need to be met. I visited three different government offices—the Hamburg Welcome Center, the main Hamburg District Office, and finally, my neighborhood District Office. According to the Hamburg Welcome Center, I did not qualify for the visa because my M.A. degree was not in their database. I could pay 200 Euro to get my degrees transferred, but in their opinion, it was not likely I would be approved because my institution wasn’t on the list. According to the main District Office, I didn’t qualify because of the industry sector in which I work (I guess it wasn’t “specialized” enough). My neighborhood office looked at my paperwork, said everything was fine, but warned that my employer would have to increase my salary annual to meet the EU salary requirement.

Wildly confused, I took to the Googs. There, more contradictions. Some sites say the Blue Card is only a residence permit, not a work permit, while others say the opposite. Some say that it is wholly dependent on your employer, while others say you can use it to work anywhere. Some say it requires an interview, others say it’s just a quick confirmation of your details while you get your fingerprints made. At the end of my research, I was so confused by the information I found online and received in person that I nearly gave up on the whole process. The saving grace? Expat Facebook groups. I put out an all-call for others who’ve gone through the process, and asked my most important questions. I’ve gathered the answers here as a reference for others looking for clarity, and also to show that, even in real life, there’s not a set precedent—meaning that everyone’s experience is a little different.

  1. Do you need a residence permit in addition to the Blue Card?

MV: No, the Blue Card serves as both, a residence and a work permit. It is initially limited to a timeframe that is equal to the length of your contract plus three months.

GJ: The blue card is a residence and working permit at the same time. Just have special requirements because it targets a highly qualified professionals.

MR: Blue card is a residence and work permit

CN: The blue card is a residence permit too, so nothing extra required

Ok. We’re all agreed. It serves as both work and residence permit.

  1. Does your salary need to change every year to reflect the requirements in the Blue Card application? Or am I good if my salary exceeds the current requirement for 2016 and the Blue Card is granted?

MV: No. As long as you meet the requirements for the Blue Card, you are set until you need to extend it.

GJ: As far as know, your salary doesn’t have to change every year. It has to meet the requirements at the moment of applying every time. There’s no a maximum salary required to apply. Just a minimum.

MR: I’m not sure about that cos I earn much more than the minimum. But I think as long as you qualify for 2016 ~49k euro per annum, it should be fine, because they never called me in again to check my current salary

CN: I guess that as long as your salary doesn’t drop to below the minimum requirement you’re good.

Ok. We’re all agreed—contrary to what the Ausländerangelegenheiten said, you do not need your employer to sanction a yearly raise to match the EU requirement. (Darn?)

 

  1. If your job changes (promotion, for example) do you need to reapply for the Blue Card?

MV: No. I am basing my response on the fact that my husband got promoted once in the two years we’ve been here and he did not need to reapply. His work contract was re-written though, and naturally those details were provided to the Welcome Center, when we extended our stint in Germany.

GJ: The blue card is restricted to your position, employer and location for the first 2 years. If you change any of them I understand you have to apply again. After the first two years you can request an unrestricted blue card.

MR: Yes, you need to go to the office to get a change of a supplementary card (paper form), which states your job title. That’s just annoying admin work but no big deal.

CN: Promotions have no effect. It is issued for a specific period and then you either renew it or apply for permanent residence.

Eh. Kinda? Promotions should not effect your status, but if your job significantly changes or you switch employers you may run into some trouble. There may be flexibility within that—I guess it depends who is approving your request.

  1. Is it tied to your current employer?

MV: Yes. This is true until one reaches the 21 month mark i.e. You have been employed and paying into the system for 21 months. At that instance, your Blue Card can be changed to a status that allows you to work for any employer.

MR: Tied to your current job + employer -> any change has to be approved by the foreign office

CN: It’s not tied to an employer.

My Blue Card has not indication of an employer on it, so this is still hazy for me. I assume that you have to at least notify one of the government offices, but I wouldn’t 100% say it is tied or not tied to an employer.

  1. **If so, do you know if you need to get permission to switch jobs?

MV: I believe you’d need to reapply / revisit your status with the Welcome Center. Also, I think this is dependent on the kind of job you switch to in the future.

MR: Yes, I need to get permission in the first 24 months to switch jobs/employer

CN: No permission needed to change employers.

  1. Have you gone through the permanent resident process on it? (at 21 months in?) If so, was it pretty straightforward?

MV: We just had a discussion with the Welcome Center about this stage since we’ll actually be at 24 months this October! The paperwork is straightforward but my husband and I have to be proficient in German at a B1 level. If we choose not to go through the permanent residence process at this time, we can revisit at 33 months when we need to be proficient at least at an A1 level. For us, we do want to head back to the US (I know! I know!) for a bit so we’re struggling making a decision here.

GJ: I did. It’s quite straightforward. If you present the documentation they request, you shouldn’t have any problem. I did it after 33 months because I didn’t have the B1 certificate. I got the letter with an appointment to deliver my picture just a couple of days after I handed the documents out.

MR: I am applying for my permanent residency now at 21 months

CN: My partner went from blue card to permanent residence and it was really easy. I qualify too and just need to submit my docs (via email to the Welcome Center and then they’ll schedule an appointment. No stringent interview and they’ve even relaxed the German level requirement for me (and for my partner).

  1. For the appointment, is there an interview or anything you have to do? Or do you just need to submit the application in person?

MV: You do have make an appointment an appear in person with all your paperwork and fees. The interview is straightforward – they just gauge if your answers are commensurate with the work contract. They do biometrics/ fingerprinting at this time as well.

GJ: For the appointment, it is important to bring all the documents. They may ask you a couple of things if it’s not fully clear in the documentation.Nevertheless, if you have the possibility, ask your employer to support you by hiring a relocation agency. They do this kind of paperwork for a living and are the real experts. Not to mention that they are well known at the welcome center. I would recommend you to get all the documents they request and take into consideration that you need a working visa covering the time between your starting date and the date you finally get the blue card (it could be easily one month after the appointment date).

MR: There wasn’t an interview for me. It was just my application in person. The blue card is relatively new and many staff at the foreign offices are not familiar with the procedures and requirements. I called the central office in Nürnberg a few times to request for info but there is not much they could do. Hearing from people who had completed the process brought so much clarity to the murk, and showed me one crucial thing. It sounds shady, but ultimately, the staff member processing your application is the one deciding the approval of the Blue Card.

My interview (more detail on that below) was fairly straightforward. I was nervous going in, but basically all they want to do is confirm your details and enter it into the system. They’re not grilling you on your qualifications or if you are, indeed, specialized enough.

Pro Tips:

  • Show up to your appointments on time and with your documents as organized as possible. I clipped everything together in the exact order they had requested. Like in most bureaucratic offices, the staff tends to be stressed—a little effort to make their lives easier goes a long way. True story: I was misdirected to the wrong meeting room for my Blue Card appointment, and was a few minutes late. The officer I met with said that I was so late she couldn’t see me—then asked to double-check my documents so she could reschedule our appointment. When she saw how organized my paperwork was, she changed her mind and was able to quickly process me in the remaining time.
  • Just because it’s the Office of Foreign Affairs, don’t expect to be spoken to in English. It helps to review some key vocabulary related to your application, or if possible, bring a German friend. Of course ask to switch languages if you need to, but if you can muster some German to greet them or at least say “thank you”, that helps tremendously.
  • Don’t necessarily take everything the official offices say as gospel. If I had listened to the Welcome Center, I would never have proceeded with the application process, because I didn’t want to pay to have my degrees reevaluated.
  • Don’t necessarily count on your employer knowing the correct visa process. My company, though international, had no understanding of the visa processes for non-EU nationals.
  • Ask questions from those who have already gone through it. There are so many amazing references available online. My favorites are Girl Gone International (all-women expatriate group) and ToyTown Germany (great for reading posts, but I was never approved by the admin to actually ask a question).

Have you gone through the process? I’m curious to hear about your experience, and what holds true or untrue for you—let me know in the comments! If you have questions to add, let me know!

 

Oktoberfest an der Alster: Celebrating Hamburg-Style

I had really hoped to get down to Bavaria to celebrate my first Oktoberfest in Germany—but with a packed work schedule, coordinating with visiting friends, and the rest of real life, somehow time got away from me. Should I also blame in on the common conviction that Oktoberfest is held in October? Sure! Machen wir so.


The world largest folk festival, Oktoberfest, ironically only overlaps with October for one weekend, and is held annually in Munich. An interesting bit of history, per Wiki,

“The Munich Oktoberfest originally took place in the 16-day period leading up to the first Sunday in October. In 1994, this longstanding schedule was modified in response to German reunification. As such, if the first Sunday in October falls on the 1st or the 2nd, then the festival would run until October 3 (German Unity Day).”

The festival is a Bavarian tradition, but other cities in Germany will hold their own satellite versions of the event, complete with keg-tapping, raucous music, traditional outfits, INCREDIBLE food, and the requisite table dancing. So we gathered a crew and made a reservation at Hamburg’s Hofbrau an der Alster for opening day—myself, the lovely Carolina (in from Los Angeles for the weekend), my work partner, André and his wife, Marcela (who has a rockin’ Youtube channel), and of course, our official German cultural bridge, Tim. Oktoberfest isn’t complete without the outfits—traditional dirndls for the ladies, and lederhosen (leather pants) for the gents—but we added our own spin. Marcela sported “ladyhosen”, a shorter version for women; André had on a Tirolerhüte, a traditional wool or felt Alpine hat; and Carolina has the traditional Edelweiß necklace. (And at one point, both of our menfolk wore the Hofbrau decorative ribbons like Hendrix-style headbands). Once we got to the Hofbrau, we saw all kinds of variations—lederhosen with T-shirts, dirndls worn with converse sneakers—it was a riot of color, braided hair, and checkered shirts.

The one thing Tim was adamant about was making sure the guys had tall enough socks (apparently a huge faux pas to show up without them. For those of us sporting a dirndl apron, we had to do a bit of research to ensure our apron bows were tied on the correct side—right for taken, left for single, a center bow for “maids” or virgins. It is only knotted in the back if you are a widow.

The food at the Hofbrau is amazing, and so we ordered a tableful of it. Literally, to the point where we could not fit anything else on the table. The Filipino in me of course loves Schweinshaxe (grilled ham hock), which comes with a thick, crispy layer of skin over soft, seasoned meat. We also has Käsespätzle (cheese noodles), pretzels, and Weißwurst (white sausage, served with sweet mustard). The Weißwurst came in a little pot of water, and had to be peeled out of their skins before we ate…an act that got more challenging after a Maß of beer!

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Speaking of! What makes the beer at Oktoberfest special? No matter where you are, the beer served has to conform t the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Beer Purity Law. According to the 1516 Bavarian law, the only ingredients that could be used in the production of beer were water, barley and hops. There are only six breweries that can produce Oktoberfest Beer—even the beer we drank at the Hofbrau in Hamburg came from one of them. Beer is served by the liter in large glass mugs called Maß, which are solid enough to withstand hearty cheersing and, when full, will easily make your arm tired as you chug. (So drink faster?) I loved watching the waitresses, who looked diminutive in their pretty dirndls, beast 8-10 Maße from the bar to their waiting tables.

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It also wouldn’t be Oktoberfest without music and dancing. Our festival had a little traveling band that went from room to room, playing music. In the main area was a stage with a bigger band—they started with traditional music, but then started to integrate some Bavarian-styled pop covers as the night went on. After the first liter of beer, everyone was on board with jumping up on the benches—singing across the hall and laughing like crazy.

So it wasn’t Bavarian Oktoberfest, but it was definitely German—loud, drunken, and a Maß-load of fun.