Archive for the 'Expat' Category


Germanised Canadian in reverse culture shock

After 16 years living in Germany, you start to pick up a few German habits.  You don’t cross the intersection when the light is red – it sets a bad example for kids.  You greet colleagues around lunchtime not with hello, but with a cheery Mealtime!  You say hello to everyone waiting already when you walk into the doctor’s waiting room. And whenever you’re at the supermarket checkout counter, or picking up stuff at the cleaners, or dealing with a teller at the bank, you do NOT make idle chit-chat.  In and out with sometimes barely a nod to civility is how it’s done.

So after eight weeks travelling through this great land we call Canada we arrive in the unusually parched Wet Coast west-coast town of Squamish, and it’s time to go to the bank.  I’m out of cash – not an unusual state this time around considering the incredible jump in prices we’ve seen for everything from fish to fowl – so the first morning after we get in I head to the bank, stride up to the teller and ask for my daily withdrawal limit.

After keying in my PIN number she informs me that acquiring the cash will take a minute as the cash must be dispensed from a machine back around a corner, and it’s in need of some sort of re-boot or whatever, and I say that’s OK, and then she asks me, So, do you have any plans for the rest of the day?

I look at her and hesitate that telling half-second which gives me away as someone with as much social savvy as a deer staring at headlights.Canada Osoyoos wildlife deer on trail

As I said, I’m kind of out of practice at this sort of thing, and after 16 years of dealing with German checkout counter ladies and bank tellers, it hits me as if she’s asked me if I’ve tried out that crazy new brand of multicolour condoms with the spiral ticklers.

“Yes, well, uh, I’ve got lots of plans lined up,” and I see out of the corner of my eye that the teller to her right has turned her head to look at me as if to ask herself, gee, he looks like a regular white guy and he’s got no accent, so what’s his problem?

I instantly switch to Canuck mode and try to come back with the breezy-bantery reply you’re supposed to, but it falls flat.

“Well, uh, we’re doing laundry at the moment, actually, it’s the fourth load already.  We let it pile up as we’ve not had a chance to get any done since Canmore and since then we’ve been through the Kootenays and well, you know how it is.

“Well, at least you’ve got a nice sunny day to do it,” she replies, the cash finally having been delivered to her wicket and I can count on the ordeal being over that much sooner.

It’s a good thing the cash came when it did as I was going to add, “and later on I’m taking my Mom to a funeral, well it’s not an actual burial, more of a memorial service for my former principal who passed away, and I was very saddened to hear it and I want to be there.”

I hope October is here soon so we can all start talking about hockey again.


jumping through hoops to get rehab

You never really learn how things really operate until you have to deal with them yourself.

All I want is some decent rehab programme, something to make sure I can walk again without a limp after ripping the body’s largest tendon and rendering my right leg useless for the time being.

Ian half-way home to HamburgMy regular doctor was telling me enthusiastically last week about a clinic where I could get a full morning programme of daily physio once the 6-week no-touch rule is over and I can finally take off this dead-weight brace it’s been so fun to drag around.

But when I went Monday to the specialist surgeon to whom he’d referred me to have the stitches removed and we later talked about physio, all he was able to offer me was a referral for two half-hour sessions a week.  The absolute bare-bones minimum available.  In Germany’s two-class healthcare system, if you’re a private patient you get silver service, no questions asked.  If you’re on statutory cover – in German gesetzlich – well, take a number, eh?  Nothing new there.

So this morning I went back to my regular doctor and told him of the enormous gap between what he was talking about and what the specialist gave me.

“Hmmmm…. let me do some quick phoning around and I’ll call you back in later,” he said.

Twenty minutes later he tells me the deal: in order to get rehab, I have to go first apply for it through the bureau that deals with pension issues.   Pension?  That’s the rapidly dwindling sum I’ll get when I retire, isn’t it?  I thought this was medical.

“It is,” he explained, “but your healthcare provider is responsible for your time off work.  They pay for that.  Your rehab is paid for by the pension people.”

The things you learn.

So he gives me a referral for a rehab clinic, reminding that I’ll first have to call the Hamburg pension administration bureau, who will set the ball in motion.

Knowing that sounded just a little to easy for words, I ask for and receive a direct number to call, some tips on what to say, and a merry send-off home.

The number they gave me was not in service.

Digging the right number out of the Internet, I wait on hold for the usual 10 minutes before speaking with a woman who informs me that my pension is administered not in Hamburg, but by the federal office in Berlin.  When I ask for the number in Berlin, thinking this is probably a routine thing,  I get an answer as cold as this late winter and probably as much as I should have expected: you can go find it yourself.

So I dig out the number soon enough and call the Federal Pensions Office and jump through the usual number-choice hoops before speaking with a woman who guides me through pages and sub-pages to the right forms to download and fill out.

There are seven separate forms totalling 17 pages.   Many repeat the same questions in a different way.  Some don’t apply to me, but I have to check a box anyway.  One ominous one involved giving my bank account details to permit them to extract any fees I might have.  No mention of what these fees might be for, or how much they are.

I don’t know why it has to be this complicated, but I suspect they do it this way to turn off those people who are intimidated by officialdom.  There must be a percentage out there who give up before even trying.

After filling all the forms that pertain to me, I have to take the bundle to my doctor to fill out stuff that pertains to them, then take that bundle to my healthcare provider who will fill out more little boxes, then I get to go to the post office and send the bundle off to Berlin.

Right now I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes so long to get approval, I’ll have long since passed the point at which rehab will do any good.


Cologne on high alert as Germany expat bloggers gather

by Dirk Dajerk

COLOGNE (CP)  A special task force has been set up in the western German riverside city of Cologne to prepare for what officials are calling “a catastrophe waiting to happen” as Germany’s band of English-speaking expatriate bloggers prepares to descend on the city in late October.  Police have already booked reinforcements from neighbouring Bonn and Aachen to help cope with the threat.

“They trash practically every place they visit,” moaned Cologne police desk sergeant Pensell Puscha.  “Just look at what they did in Dresden.”

Now generally known as the “Dresden Disaster,” in public safety circles, the 2007 bloggers’ meetup/donnybrook at the eastern German city on the Elbe is now used in training sessions as an example of how not to prepare for a visit from Germany’s English-speaking bloggers.

“Dresden was hit totally by surprise,” said Cologne city counsellor Bieriz Mylaff.  “By the time we called in for extra help, the rioting was totally out of control.  We’re definitely not going to let that happen to us.”

The annual bloggers’ meetup has grown from an informal gathering eight years ago of five online droolers desperate for the real-life company of anyone willing to tolerate for more than five minutes their tedious whining about the trials of expat life to an unwieldy gaggle of at least 25 who plan the event down to the last triviality for months in advance on three different platforms: their own blogs, an event website and discussion board, and now Facebook, that death of all blogs.  That’s not to mention the usual slurry of time-sucking drivel on Twitter.

“You’d think they could just decide they’re going to get together somewhere and have a few beers, but no-ooo,” lamented Cologne police detective Slyck Dyck. “From the morning after the last meetup ends they start planning the next one.  They plan side trips with Umlauts.  They plan Friday night dinners and guided tours the next morning.  They kick back for the afternoon, but that has to be planned, too.  They gather for a Saturday evening dinner and then go out to a frickin’ gay bar!  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“Then they all have this thing they call brunch when they’re all hung over on the Sunday.   They even make allowances for kids, the annoying little brats.”

The choice of Cologne as a meeting point and the timing itself has been the subject of controversy ever since both were decided months ago in an online poll.

“Cologne?  Nothing but a massive pile of bricks, bells and gargoyles surrounded by whackos, clowns and an ugly shopping centre,” lamented one blogger from Hamburg.  “I haven’t even considered going there for years.  That part of Germany is so full of whores, they outnumber the cars!  Even the neighbouring city of Bonn has decided to take action, setting up parking meters so the city can recoup a few losses on the clean-up.

“And while we’re at it, what about the timing?  Why hold it at the end of October? It’s damn near winter!  Didn’t we decide a few years ago to hold it closer to summer so we could at least have half a chance to enjoy a warm evening or two?  November in Dresden, we had to burn buildings just to keep from freezing to death.”

Critics are also pointing out the dangers of just walking around Cologne, citing the tendency of entire buildings to suddenly collapse in on themselves, swallowing up irreplaceable manuscripts by, among others, Karl Marx and Heinrich Böll –  along with the odd human life or two.  They’re calling for safety checks to ensure visitors won’t end up in some sort of black hole.

Feeling stung by the criticism, organisers are scrambling to reassure attendees as well as the general public.

“We’re gonna have like, fun and stuff, so they should just lighten up, you know?” said one organiser.  “Besides, if they don’t like it they can just stay home.”

The Cologne engineering department is taking no chances as the group is set to storm the upper reaches of their famous cathedral sometime on the Saturday. “We’ve installed structural reinforcements, so we’re reasonably confident the building will withstand the extra burden of the lot of them humping up those stairs to the upper reaches,” said chief city engineer Helmut Askew.  “We’ve also taken the precaution of installing audio reminders at every level suggesting they look up from their smartphones once in a while at the amazing artwork surrounding them.”

Participants are expected to hold a vigil in memory of one member who has been to every meetup since the beginning, but will no longer be attending.  J, or J for short, has finally decided that Germany – or at least Bonn – indeed does suck, and has voted with his feet accordingly.

J’s absence will most be felt on Saturday evening when the evening’s traditional gay bar outing will take place.

“He never really used to know whether we were in a gay bar,” said one blogger, “and so we had to remind him that yes, indeed, we were in one, even though he might not have realised it at the time.”

Other absentees include Eurotrippen, holder of much of the blame for the 2007 Dresden Disaster.  Having lived the expat life for a number of years, Eurotrippen and brood returned to the States in 2009 to become ex-expats, then returned to Germany not long after to become ex-ex-expats, but are now back in the States, finally having decided that the status of ex-ex-ex-expat is what they enjoy the most.  For now.

Any illusions the gathering is attended by all of Germany’s English-language blogging scene will be shattered by a brief Google search.  Perennial hold-outs include the culprits behind Observing Hermann, Planet Germany, Charlotte’s Web, Ich werde ein Berliner and some guy in Cologne itself who calls his kid His Holiness.  The Irish Berliner, voted in an informal poll of one as Germany’s most outstanding blog, is a newcomer to the no-show crowd.

“Well, that’s a good thing,” said one Cologne officer. “The damage would be much worse if they showed up, too.”


The Irish Berliner

I’ve been reading a great new blog called The Irish Berliner, written by, as you might suspect, an Irishman living in Berlin.

He’s a freelance journalist also doing an internship at the dreaded Bild Zeitung, but don’t hold it against him.

His writing is enthusiastic and refreshing and his latest post is the coolest thing I’ve stumbled across in a long time.  Imagine tooling around a real museum of history, pulling open filing cabinets and rummaging though the old Iraqi embassy in the former East Berlin 20 years after they beat back to Baghdad.   Oh, and dodging the cops to get inside.

He’s done it all, brought back words, pictures and a how-to-get-there. 



Vancouver: the most beautiful city in the world

A long time ago just as this blog was getting going I wrote about why I left Vancouver, a city consistently rated among the planet’s most desirable cities and site of the 2010 Winter Olympics, which start in less than two weeks.

One commenter says he agrees with the taxi drivers who, recognising my foreign accent and asking me where I’m from, tell me I must be crazy not only to have left Canada, but also its brightest pearl.

It will be 20 years this fall that I packed everything I couldn’t sell into a Honda Civic to begin a four-day drive to Quebec which changed my life forever.  Much of Vancouver has also changed since then, but one thing’s for sure: it’s still the most beautiful city in the world.

If you have a high-definition monitor, bump this video up to 1080p and push it to full screen.   If you’re prone to homesickness – you know who you are – be prepared to be moved to tears between timecode 1:36 and 1:46.

Thanks to Lilalia at Yum Yum Café.


It takes a village to take care of an old lady

Small-town Canada is changing, but the old spirit of helping each other out lives on.   Living as we do half-way across the world, that’s at least some comfort when things go wrong and we can’t be there.

As she told me on the phone last night, my mother was walking on the main street of the town she lives in half-way between Vancouver and Whistler four days ago when she misjudged the curb, fell forward, smashed her head on the ground, broke her glasses, and ended up with a black eye and scrapes on her arms and knees.

Two men who were there came over right away and got me on my feet again, she tells me. I haven’t been picked up by a man in years!

That’s because you don’t hang around in the local bars, I tell her.

Yeah, I know, she says, and laughs a bit.

Then she adds:

I was on the way to the post office to mail that package for (the little red-haired girl’s) birthday when it happened.  One of the guys stayed with me and the other went back to his truck for a first aid kit and they bandaged me up.  Oh, and two ladies who saw it all from the insurance company office on the corner came out and were quite upset.  They stayed and made sure I was all right, though.  They helped me get to the post office, and then one of them drove my car home for me.

They even drove you home?

Sure, they were really worried about me, because with the broken glasses I couldn’t get back into the car and drive anymore.


The German justice follow-up: you have to pay a little more

You might recall my friend S, whose story of a run-in with a bunch of hick-town vigilantes two weeks after he arrived in Germany a couple of years ago provoked dozens of comments and feedback on justice, or lack thereof, in this country.

Though he had to pay thousands of euro in fines and court costs, his story didn’t end there.  Turns out that the guy who jumped onto his car and then fell off as my friend was trying to get away from the lynch mob turned around and sued him in a civil case for a few hundred euro for damages for pain and suffering.

A few days ago I showed up in court to lend my friend a little moral support.  In contrast to his opponent, S. was alone,  representing himself because he could no longer afford a lawyer.

Without going too much into the details of nearly two hours of testimony, the other side had three witnesses who all said that S. was speeding like crazy through their neighbourhood.  They claimed that he could have driven around the man, but chose to try to run through him instead.  They also claimed there was nobody else around the car at the time.  All confirmed the man claiming damages was injured on his arm and leg when he fell off the car.

The fact the man had some scrapes and bruises is not in dispute, but their statements went completely against my friend’s testimony.  S. says that before he drove away from the scene, his car was surrounded by neighbours, one of whom tried to pull him out of the car, another who tried to wrench off a side mirror.  That’s when he decided to get the hell out, but that his way was continually blocked by the guy who first jumped on his hood before falling off and getting injured.

So the judge split it somewhere down the middle.  She said the guy claiming damages shouldn’t have been anywhere near the path of the vehicle, so he was partly responsible.  And S. shouldn’t have driven away, so he was also to blame.  He should have tried to get help…without, of course, offering any idea how anyone sitting alone in a convertible surrounded by an angry mob is supposed to do that.

S. has to pay a little over 400 euro for damages and court costs, or about one-third.  The complainant’s legal insurance will pay the other two-thirds.  The judge and the guy’s lawyer said he could of course appeal the decision, but that if he lost, his costs would be many times greater, and he’d have to carry them all on his own.  Because he’s got zero income, they worked it out so that he will pay out the €400  in drips and drabs over the next few months.

My friend was disappointed about the outcome as we hashed it out over coffee and a bite to eat after.  He said: the guy’s got a pretty good little business set-up, eh?  Shake down a few vehicles, get your friends to bullshit for you, get the insurance company to pay the costs.

Though I was sympathetic, I told him, look: it might not have come out the way you wanted it to, but sometimes you just have to pay a price for getting people out of your life and putting bad things in the past for good.  At least it’s less than they were gunning for.

A couple of observations:

The guy would never have taken this to civil court for the piddling amount he was suing my friend for if he didn’t have legal insurance.  It just wouldn’t have been worth his while.  Is legal insurance a good thing?  Not in this case.  It simply clogs up the courtrooms with minor cases that should have better been left to die.

And as my friend S. says, this whole thing isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong,  it’s about how much money you can negotiate.  I agree with him.  In the end, all it came down to was the money.

By the way…

I realise that not many bother to read comments, but one of the more than 50 that my first post on this attracted was a bit of a hair-raiser.  Read about commenter Keith’s story of German justice here. I tried to convince him to let me feature him in a post of his own, but he didn’t want to.

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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