Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Helping YOU navigate moving to Germany

Well, Stina and I have gotten this far, and I think it's useful to share our experiences. We found no good how-to guides, and really didn't know what to expect. Let me break it down for you future movers into Germany, specifically Magdeburg:

Step zero: decide what, where, and why, and move to get those things done. Americans have three months from the time you enter the Schengen Treaty zone (includes most of Europe). If you want to work here, it's pretty much the same procedure as in other parts of the world. Make contacts, send out C.V.s (definitely convert your resume to a C.V. Do it here), pound the pavement. You are looking for a job that no German can do, otherwise the officials might deny your application and send an otherwise unemployed German citizen to do your job. If nothing else, teaching your native language somewhere is a good option. It will be very important for you to have official documents stating your qualifications: college and high school diplomas are good, official transcripts seem to be working as well: get certificates for anything and everything. Decide where you want to live and make that happen. Knowing what you hope to get out of the experience of living in Germany will help you make all your other decisions.

Step one: find an address. Whether this means finding an apartment to rent or a friend willing to let you stay with them for a few months, you can't really do anything official without a physical address. See our blog here for our experience with this part of it.

Step two: register your address. Go to the official building (you'll have to ask someone which building it is for your city... I've registered at police stations, city halls, and the Bürger Büro here in Magdeburg)

Step three: get a German Bank account. Almost all transactions are made through the bank. Rent comes out of the account directly, as will fees for electricity, internet, and insurance. If you work, paycheck deposits are also directly made from your employer to your account.

Step four: get health insurance. Whether or not you get a job will define how you go about this. If you work as a freelancer or don't work, you will need private insurance. If you get a contracted salaried position, you will need government insurance (which are still handled by private companies). Stina has the former. I will have the latter. Stina pays 51€ per month. According to reliable sources, I will pay 20% of my gross income of 2000€ per month, 7.9% for health insurance, 9.95% for what I think is the equivalent of Social Security, 1.4% for unemployment insurance and 1.1% for "nursing care insurance". Stina set hers up by calling a coworker's mother who works in the insurance industry, and I set mine up by asking my boss for help, and she took me to IKK and talked to them with me.
You should set up health insurance within the first month of your arrival in Germany. If you're reading this and it's been more than a month, I think, but am not sure, that it is acceptable to cross the border and return to reset the date of your arrival in Germany. If you don't get it within your first month in Germany, you can talk to someone who knows about the insurance industry and the laws governing it and get help from them. I'm still not clear on how it all works, but essentially we told someone in charge our dilemma, and they figured out any workarounds we might need.

Step five: assemble your various documents for the Ausländerbehörde (Foreigner Authority) and make an appointment. The packet of documents should include passport photos (done biometrisch-ly; they'll tell you how), a copy of your lease, proof of health insurance (something from the insurance agency that states that your health insurance conforms to paragraph 11), proof of financial support (i.e. a contract offering gainful employment), passport, copy of your address registration paper, a pink form that they will give you to fill out, and, if you are working, a copy of your University transcript or Diploma. A strange warning: we heard someone was denied because the agency thought their apartment was too big for just one person and said she had to find a roommate. Germany does have 80 million people in a country the size of Montana, so perhaps overcrowding is an issue for them. Magdeburg has empty apartments galore, though. [edit: Stina corrects me. It was about the money. They thought she couldn't afford it. She brought more proof of more money, and they allowed it.]

Step 6: submit all materials to Ausländerbehörde and wait. We've heard tales of it's taking as few as 2 weeks. Stina's been waiting 3 weeks now. We hear they have to return it within 4 weeks. We've also been quoted up to 6 weeks. (A lady in Bonn said 6 months. I can't imagine that). I will have to pay 50€; we're not sure for which part of things the fee is. Stina's on her way out the door with 50€ just in case she has to pay it, too, though she was never told of this fee.

Good luck! If you have more questions, visit our ...And Contact Us page (http://andjuggling.com/contact.html)

Disclaimer: this is our experience, which is incredibly specific. It is also not guaranteed to be accurate. I hope it is nonetheless helpful.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Life in Germany

I apologize on behalf of Brendan and myself. We have been so busy getting used to this new life we are making for ourselves that we haven't kept you all up to date. Here is my attempt to rectify that.

We now live in a two-room apartment in Magdeburg, Germany. In the three weeks we've been here, we have managed to furnish it nearly completely for free. People who are moving out leave what they don't want to take with on the curb, much like in Seattle but times a million. First we found a table across the street, and a full-length mirror. Then we found a few chairs. Then a loveseat. The loveseat was kind of far away, but we endeavored to carry it home. About halfway there I gave up. My arms were too tired and, most of all, my fingers hurt from gripping the edges of it. Thankfully we were very near our neighborhood grocery store and Brendan had a great idea. Why not use a shopping cart to take it the rest of the way home? Unlike some stores in the US, they don't put alarm sensors on the carts here. To ensure people return the carts to their proper resting place, one must insert some amount of money (between 20 cents and 2 euros) to release a cart. You only get the money back when you return the cart.

This worked like a charm. We got the loveseat home without further strain and returned the cart a few minutes later with no one (from the store, anyway) the wiser. A few days later we found a couple nice looking mattresses on the curb in our friends' neighborhood, even further from home than the loveseat had been. This time we took advantage of the month-long tram passes we had recently bought and hauled the mattresses onto first one tram, then another, until we were much closer to home. A short walk to the grocery store, then the cart served us once more the rest of the way. Now we have a bed and an extra mattress for couchsurfers and friends and family!

Last week a couchsurfer we had communicated with a bit via the Magdeburg couchsurfing group rang our doorbell. We thought this was a little strange as we had no plans to see him that day. We invited him up and he told us that his flatmate, who was moving out, was getting rid of a couch that would fold down into a bed. This was exactly what we were looking for (more sleeping space for couchsurfers and friends and family!), so we went with him to his place to look at it. Turns out he only lives about a 15 minute walk away. Along the way our couchsurfer friend explained that he had left a phone message that we didn't get because our phone was off, and he had sent us an email that we hadn't checked. His housemate was about to put the couch out on the curb and he wanted us to see it and lay claim before this happened. His sudden arrival to our place suddenly made so much more sense!

We really liked the couch, but it was way too heavy to carry all the way home, especially since there were no grocery stores on the way. We told him we definitely wanted it and that we would figure out some way to pick it up with a vehicle in a few days. We started walking home and were talking as we walked about how we would be able to pick up the couch. If only we knew someone with a van or a truck! we lamented. Kind of like that guy, we said, pointing to a man who had just parked his big van. What harm in asking? we asked. We approached this man and Brendan explained (in German, of course) our situation and asked if there was any chance we could borrow him and his van sometime soon to pick up the couch. He was super nice and said he was free right at that moment. Ten minutes later we had the couch in our apartment! Not only did he drive it and us over to our place, but he also helped carry it down three flights of stairs and up two.

We are also making good use of a wonderful place called Lirum Larum. It is like a thrift store, but everything there is free. We've been giving them many things that we find on the curb that are in great condition but that we don't need (toys, children's clothes, rugs, etc.) and taking things that we do need (dishes, towels, clothes, utensils). I am interested to see if we can get involved volunteering with them. Speaking of getting involved in things, I joined a choir! Marc, the delightful couchsurfer who gave us the couch, is a member of several choirs, and now I am also a member of one of them. I went to a rehearsal with Marc just to check it out and I loved it, so I joined that night. I will already participate in a concert on Friday!

We are finding it very easy to make friends in Germany. Couchsurfers, sure, but also random people we meet on the street, and neighbors. At this very moment Brendan is playing Magic with the two college students who live in the apartment just on the other side of the courtyard. This weekend we are hoping to go bowling with the middle-aged couple we met through one of our shopping cart expeditions. Manny approached us as we were loading up the mattresses and asked if he could help. We started talking and he noticed our American accents and when we told him we just moved here he said he had some stuff from when his daughters lived at home that he could sell us. We went over later that evening to see the stuff and were treated to the lovely hospitality of Manny and his wife, Ines. The stuff wasn't yet gathered together, so we made further arrangements to see it the following week. When we went back, they gifted us with a set of 6 glasses, 6 tea-cups and saucers, and six dessert plates.

We spent the weekend with our new friends Suzie and Bastian, and their adorable dog Bailey. I met Suzie at the Berlitz training in Hamburg. She and Bastian planned to go to Munich for Oktoberfest and they invited us to join them. They picked us up on Friday evening and we arrived rather late at Bastian's parents' house in a small village about 2 hours outside of Munich. We ate some pie then went to bed. The next day we drove to Regensburg and walked around for about an hour, then took the train to Munich. We knew we couldn't experience Oktoberfest the way the locals do because it would have meant getting there very early and since we didn't get to sleep until 3am, well, you get the picture.

The village where Bastian grew up

A shop in Regensburg

Hanging out in Regensburg

A cat in Regensburg

The first sight to greet us in Munich as we stepped off the train was a man in Lederhosen lying on the platform in a drunken stupor. That turned out to be par for the course for the rest of the day. We walked through Oktoberfest feeling a little like we were drunk because of all the weaving we had to do to avoid the actual drunk ones, surrounded by the fumes of beer and fair-food. Outside the beer tents the ones who did not get there early waited outside the doors, hoping for a chance to be let in if space opened up. We saw some get in and decided it was worth waiting a while to see if we could get in, too. Though we were enjoying playing 20 questions while we waited, we still gave up after an hour of the line not moving at all. It's possible we are the only people in history to visit Munich during Oktoberfest and not spend any money there.

Dirndls and Ledehosen and drunk!

The view inside the beer tent we did not get into

Carnival rides at Oktoberfest

My favorite part of visiting Munich was seeing and listening to an amazing band of buskers near the Rathaus, then seeing the beautiful Rathaus with the full moon peering over it. We took a much more full (of drunk people) train back to Regensburg, then drove back to the village. We stopped on the way at a gas station to pick up some local beer for 1 euro a bottle. Please take a moment to compare that to the cost of a glass of beer at Oktoberfest, which is 10 euros. Yikes!

The band of talented buskers

The moon and the Rathaus

No seats for Suzie and Bastian on the train

We are savoring these days of being unable to work. Hopefully in about a week and a half I will receive my residency permit and work visa and begin working that same day. Brendan will soon get a work contract and then take his paperwork into the Ausländerbehörde and soon enough he will be working as well. For now, though, we can stay up and sleep as late as we wish, join friends for weekends away and homemade dinners and hours of game-playing, and take long walks with crisp leaves underfoot. I hope we will still be able to do many of these things even after we begin working full-time, but I know it will be harder.