Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Last weekend we went to Germany!

Last weekend (a week and a half ago, actually - time flies when there's so little sunlight in the day) we visited Germany for the first time since moving to the UK!  Our purpose was more to visit friends than to visit the country, but it's so full with fun stuff to eat and see that we ended up with a nice dose of Germany on the side anyway.

It hasn't been that long and only a few things about Germany really stuck out to me while we were there:

1. Actually there's some really good food.  It always frustrated me that I lived in Heidelberg for six and a half years and by the end there was still no really consistently amazing restaurant that I could call a favorite.  My favorite restaurant ended up being an Eiscafe.  (Where I did indeed get a big freaking sundae while visiting!)  There's a lot of really mediocre food all around and even the famous bakeries were full of duds as I remembered it.
One bakery I particularly remember never being all that fond of was Wiener Feinbaecker.  We made a stop there while in Heidelberg anyway, to stock up on goodies for a train ride, just due to the lack of other options.  As it turns out, if you've been starved of German flavors for a while, Wiener Feinbaecker's stuff is pretty delicious.  Especially this salty Dampfnudel....

 I miss you, salty Dampfnudel.

A hazelnut horn-shaped thing, which I never cared for one way or another in the past, was amazing. Even the Berliner-Brezel, previously dismissed by me as forever disappointing due to its inability to taste like an American sugar donut, was delicious.

2. So many trees!  So, so many trees.  And vineyards!!  How could I leave a country with so many beautiful vineyards!?!

3. The light to open the train door comes on a lot faster in Germany than in the UK.

4. The UK's false "sorry" is, for me, so far preferable to the German habit of just unapologetically running into you and then looking at you like it's your fault and not saying anything.  Got this one straight away at the airport train station, and then it just kept happening the whole time.  So frustrating!

5. I find it much easier to speak German when there as a tourist than I did when living there.  Even though no one is going to know whether I'm a tourist or a foreigner living there, as a tourist I put less pressure on myself to be perfect because hey!  I'm just a tourist, you can't judge me for not being fluent, why should I be?  Without the pressure, it's much easier to just blurt out a bunch of possibly wrong German and not care.

6. That tower in Duesseldorf has a bunch of lights on it that are a clock.  This was my third visit to Duesseldorf, but the first time I noticed that.  Cool.

Taken at 16:29.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Awesome Birthday Present 2013: Stuck In Customs

1 comment
One of the many reminders that you're living in a different country than your family and oldest friends is when they send you gifts and they wind up being held in a warehouse somewhere instead of on your doorstep. I'd certainly developed a (not entirely positive) relationship with the Zollamt while in Germany, but for some reason it still came as a surprise to me when the gift D ordered for me from the US came to a grinding halt in customs after crossing the ocean. Oh...that's an import? Boo.

I know what the present is (FLUEVOGS!) so I was tracking it a little obsessively when it ended up in customs. After a day and no movement I googled how long this usually takes, and the answers were given in weeks! Nooo.... but when we came home last night after a couple of days in Germany, there it was on the floor inside the door: a letter from an entity called Parcelforce.

Parcelforce pays the customs duties and taxes on your behalf, then mails you a request to pay them back plus another fee. After they receive payment, they'll deliver your package on the day of your choosing. (That's the best part!  No taking half a day to find the customs office in some remote back alley maze!) If you don't pay within 20 days, they send it back to the sender. Of course, this item is a gift and it's weird to have to pay to import something I didn't actually have any say in importing, but it turns out the tax-free limit on gift value coming in the UK is something really low like £36. Also, it can't count as a gift if it's been shipped by the company instead of an individual. Shipping is apparently included in the value, so good luck staying under that line if you're shipping from abroad!

The charges are ugly.  The import value added tax alone is 27% of the price of the shoes (remember shipping counts so it's actually a lower percentage, but why should shipping count?!), and on top of that there's a customs duty of nearly £15 and then the Parcelforce's special handling fee (a "clearance fee") of £13.50.  All in all, I could have bought a whole other pair of less-good but still pretty decent shoes with the money I have to spend on importing them.

Please note, this is not a complaint against the sending of gifts from abroad.  These shoes are a gift for which I am very, very grateful and they are going to be awesome. But I do find it a little unfair to pay so much for something someone tried to send me as a present.  What if I couldn't afford the duties and taxes? (Damn near can't, really!) Someone was just trying to do something nice for me. I know there's not really a good alternative to this system since anyone could just claim gifts for everything they send if it were so easy.  Still.  Argh.

In this case there was no way around it because there is no EU source that supplies this particular pair of shoes.  If you plan to buy for someone abroad, where possible consider buying it online from a supplier in their country of residence to avoid both high shipping costs for you and the possibility of high import fees for them. :)

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

It's not cheap and the houses are small, but there are dryers!

This morning I woke up to this article floating around the internet: US Expat Describes the Best and Worst Things About England.  It seemed a timely read especially considering the previous couple of days saw this other article floating around the expat community - it describes the UK as being one of the worst places in the world to be an expatriate!  (The two articles turn out to be unrelated, though.)

The best/worst article gives me, having been quite the lazy blog-writer lately, a springboard for putting in my two cents on the things she discusses!
"Just because people speak English, do not be deceived.  It is an utterly alien place from America culturally"
Man, I don't know.  Really?  I think we did this the right way by moving to Germany first and then coming to the UK, avoiding a US to UK transition. But even still, I think "utterly alien," even if used in a sort of teasing British context, is an overstatement.  Unless the differences are so massive they're actually going over my head.  Maybe it's regional. If I moved from Des Moines to London I'd probably be miserable over the change in the people around me.  Coming from Boston (open relative to Europe, but on the low end relative to the rest of the US) to Heidelberg (some say a particularly cranky section of Germany) then back to Birmingham - Birmingham is feeling pretty damn friendly.  This may depend on political persuasion, too.  While we seem like lefty freaks in much of the US we were pretty centrist in Germany and still relatively centrist here.  A US centrist or conservative may feel some extra isolation.

"One of the biggest realities is the drop in the material standard of living.  British wages are not as high as in the US and things are more expensive."
Mostly true. In my job search the biggest shock was seeing the salaries.  They are seriously low. (My first thought was "How on earth can these people afford to make the pub their second home? How?!?") I wrote off some job postings at first, sure that the low salaries they were offering meant I was overqualified given my earlier salaries.  Nope.  You just have to take a pay cut if you want to live here.  The pay cut is not matched by a comparable reduction in the cost of living.  Compared to Germany, where we also spent some time on just one full-time salary, doing so feels more difficult here.  I haven't entirely pieced together if those are just cost of living differences or if there's been a change in our behavior and expectations since moving, but in any case it's a little less comfortable now, even though D had a slight pay raise in the new position here.  However, I'm not sure about the truth of the statement that things are more expensive than in the US, since it's been so long since I lived there. I do know that there is no way in hell we could have survived for two seconds on just one salary in Boston, though...and we've made it a few months here on just one.  I guess it depends a lot on where in the US/UK you're living.  I don't think we'd be doing so hot in London.
"Houses are very expensive and you will live in a house half the size you'd expect in the US, often attached to your neighbour and with a one car garage (if you are lucky).  There are no basements, so you feel cramped and everything is cluttered -- I've never seen a walk-in closet to date.  You will cram everything into a 'wardrobe' the size of your coat closet."
 True. Houses are expensive.  Whether they're more expensive than the US depends on where you're coming from.  Our neighborhood here is pretty comparable to or cheaper than our Boston neighborhood (which was on the very low end for Boston).  Compared to rural Iowa the prices here are terrifying.  The houses are indeed small and utterly lack good storage space, and this is something that you just start to deal with.  You have fewer things.  You don't feel as much pressure to have so many things.  It doesn't bother me so much when I'm here, but I do feel a bit wistful about it when I go to Iowa and see that my dad's house has three full-sized fridges and a chest freezer and he could have even more if he wanted - there's plenty of space. I'll never be able to throw parties as awesome as his in my little British house!  But there's less to clean, the houses are adorable, and maybe it's better to have less material crap in your life.  Plus, not everyone in the US has a giant house.  It really depends on where you end up living/working, and we weren't going to have a lot of say in that anyway, revolving around the difficult academic world as we do.
I've seen houses with basements here, so it's possible to end up with one.  You do often share a wall with at least one neighbor.  I guess I don't mind high density like that. It actually makes me feel at ease, safer, to know that there are plenty of people nearby.  I do wish my neighbor's smoke would drift in a bit less often, though.
"You will eat sandwiches in your office, not go out for lunch as is done daily in the US."
False. Everyone at my workplace in the US ate in the office.  Same in Germany.  I think D's current coworkers actually eat out for lunch more than any place I've worked! Is this really a thing? Even if it is, I'd rather eat in the office, it's much cheaper and usually healthier.
"You will not have a garbage disposal"
 True. I didn't have one in Germany either.  I grew up without one, my dad still doesn't have one, so I guess I don't really expect to have one, so this hasn't bothered me.  They can be handy but I don't really think about it.
"You . . . will be expected to hang your laundry out to dry"
Not expected, but you can!  I consider the ability to hang my laundry outside in a garden to dry to be a privilege!  It's free and the most relaxing of all household chores.  This is a privilege denied a lot of Americans because of homeowners' associations that have banned the practice.  In Germany we mostly had to hang things to dry inside.  That works fine but takes up a lot of space and contributes to dampness problems indoors.  We have to do that a lot of the time here too because of the rain, but yes, I religiously watch the weather reports and look forward to the days I can hang the laundry outside! 
As for being expected to do it, I don't think so.  Of the neighbors whose gardens I can see from my house, I'd say I've only ever seen laundry hanging in about 50% of them, and most of those it's not all the time so they are also using other methods.  I imagine everyone else is using a dryer or drying things inside.  When I have to dry things indoors, to help combat the dampness I usually dry them partway in our combo washer/dryer and then let them hang dry the rest of the way.
"As I type this, our laundry is hanging in the family room, damp, and when dry must be ironed.  All Brits iron, or hire someone to do it."
 Huh? I find my clothes come out more wrinkly if they've been through the dryer than if they've hung to dry (even if hung indoors).  I don't iron any more here than I did in the US. I'll have to ask around about this one!  I actually prefer to do my laundry here.  Every time I do laundry in the US while visiting now, I remember that top-loading washers and American tumble dryers are really hard on your clothes, shrinking, fading, and aging them more quickly.
"Our groceries are ordered on the internet and delivered to our front door -- as is typical for all supermarkets."
Not sure. I haven't noticed this being more common than in the US.  I don't use it because I don't ever really buy that much at once so it hasn't seemed necessary.
"A massive advantage of living here is the National Health Service.  If an American could understand it, they would be amazed by its magnificence."
True. God, it's so easy. It's so, so easy.  Yes, we pay in taxes. That's fine. It's so easy.  I take a medication and I have to pay for it out of pocket because I don't fit any criteria for getting it free - but most people do fit.  The pharmacist is always horrified that I'm paying for it even though it's like 7 pounds for a 3-month supply.  He has no idea how much I paid out-of-pocket for health shit in the US.  How insurance companies would find ridiculous reasons to deny coverage leaving me on the phone for hours solving things that ended up being typos. Denied insurance over typos. Rage. Seven pounds being the only thing I have to pay for anything health-related at all, and having it be EASY, feels like getting away with something.  Even in Germany there were co-pays and there was a complicated system of getting new referrals in person every quarter if you saw a specialist.
"The infrastructure of the country is in a much better state...there are no derelict buildings or crumbling roads."
It's intermediate.  There are derelict buildings in Birmingham to be sure!  Far more than in western Germany.  Eastern Germany did have quite a few.  In the US there is a lot of dereliction too.  It is a little surprising when I go back because I didn't notice it that much until I moved away.  As for roads and bridges, I don't really have enough experience with them here to say. We all know the US has problems since bridges seem to crumble right under commuters now and again. German roads and bridges are amazing, of course. I doubt any country has them beat for that!
"There is a deep love and care for the countryside that makes it compelling, and you can never tire of it.  It is the work of a thousand years -- a landscape built by man, layer by layer.  A masterpiece."
It's different. The English countryside is beautiful, but so is the American one. I can't say that one is preferable to the other.  I think on my most recent US trip the one thing that hit me the most was the size of the sky, the size of the views and vistas.  It's overwhelming and amazing.  In the English countryside, I feel like part of history and humanity. In the US countryside, I feel like part of the universe.

She goes on to talk in reverent tones about big mansions in the English countryside.  This is something I'm just not into yet.  They are nice and it's definitely a thing here to go visit them on the weekends, but it's hard for me to work up a sense of wonder about them, even though I can get going about a pretty church, no problem.  Rich people had nice mansions? Surprise surprise?  I guess I'm more interested in beautiful old things that regular people had some access to.  Why, I do not know.  I'm hoping to one day have an epiphany and be able to hop on the stately-home-loving bandwagon.

As for the second article claiming the UK is one of the world's worst places to be an expat - well, that's probably something difficult to measure.  Since they had to base it on something, they based it mostly on disposable income, I think.  Well, if you're coming from some rich western country to a poorer country you're going to feel rich!  And if that's your main measure of happiness in expattery, then great - and you'll find the UK to be pretty bad due to the pay cuts and all discussed earlier.  Also, our visas have a big statement printed on them: "No recourse to public funds."  This seems a bit crazy - we pay taxes so we should be able to take out from the system, too.  That is disadvantageous to expats living in the UK. I hope with time we won't come to find that the UK is bad for expats.  So far we are happy with it.

Well, I think I've gone on long enough here - I did have some other stuff to do today.  :)  If you're a US-to-UK expat, what do you think about the differences mentioned in the article?