Living like a high-class hobo (or how I moved into my apartment)

StockSnap_DD5Z08UIE0I struggled immensely to find an apartment which met my needs: close to public transport, as large as possible, with a private garden and a landlord who would accept my dog. I had given up on finding an apartment matching all the above requirements with light fittings and a kitchen too, as this would have been asking far too much, apparently. So when I found something just slightly over my price range, but with a private garden and close to a forest, I jumped to sign on the dotted line, and adjusted my budget to accommodate the higher expenses. I accepted that I would have to pay around 10 euros a day for a dog walker to take my dog out whilst I am at work, and that I would have to buy a kitchen and light fittings, and install a fence around my garden. These were all expenses I had hoped I wouldn’t have to carry when I moved here, but alas, here I am, adulting super hard in German.

I moved into my apartment yesterday. My container with furniture from South Africa has not arrived yet so I only have a few suitcases and a borrowed mattress with some bedding on it scattered around the empty spaces. The apartment is absolutely filthy, and since I don’t have any cleaning equipment I will have to pay a cleaning service to give this place a thorough scrubbing. In order to sleep without nightmares about cockroaches, I made do with some body wash and water in the bathroom, and tried to sweep the floor in the bedroom as best I could using a dustpan and brush. I was shocked that the landlord didn’t force the previous tenant to clean the place.

The used kitchen I purchased was transported here yesterday with some effort, and is being installed today by a man called Serje who speaks no English and has women’s earrings dangling from the ceiling in his van. I’m not entirely positive that he’s not a serial killer and that those are not his trophies, but since I have few other options available to me, let’s hope not.

Update: As it turns out, the kitchen worktop with attached sink is not going to work, so Serje has negotiated with me via Google Translate that he will buy what I need and give me the receipt. I have no choice but to agree to this, and for the hundredth time since moving here, I am at the mercy of strangers. I try to stay positive as my left eye twitches uncontrollably from never-ending anxiety. The financial pressure of making this move has been far more intense than I bargained for.

In the meantime, I am making coffee by boiling water in my clothes steamer, using a cardboard box as a table and hoping that the guys who have to connect my internet will hurry the fuck up.

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Free spirit or freeloader?

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We’ve all been there: You’re travelling abroad and you ask a good friend or family member who lives in Paris/New York/Zurich/Add City Here whether you can crash with them for a few days to save on costs for the rest of the trip. You’re a good houseguest, clean up after yourself and maybe even cook a meal or two before thanking them profusely and going on your merry way.

But what happens when the vacationer is a wanderer? A grown ass person who subscribes to some sort of childish gypsy lifestyle ideology where they aspire to wander around Europe/Asia/America/Enter Continent Here “indefinitely” whilst doing a few odd jobs or trying to find the right job and (this is key) mooching off kind-hearted friends. Now, I am sure that there are individuals out there who do not mind having to pay extra for food, utilities, possibly transport and having to sacrifice their privacy to accommodate this… ahem… free spirit. I am not one of those individuals. I mind. A lot. And I have had the privilege of coming across not one, not two, but three of these lovely tightwads.

I had barely clicked “post” on my first Instagram picture displaying a setting in my new city, when one of them came crawling out the woodwork. I hadn’t spoken to this girl in 7 years, but she acted like she had been a bridesmaid at my wedding or some shit. “Oh I’m coming to Europe and was wondering if you could host me.” Host her? I thought that it seemed like an odd choice of words. The image of a host and parasite popped into my mind… But I scolded myself for being quick to jump to conclusions. After all, maybe she just meant to stay for a few days? I made it clear that I am living in a studio apartment and I am not settled, but this did not deter her. She had just rented out her apartment in South Africa and was dead set on coming to Europe indefinitely to travel and do “some makeup and blogging.”

The warning bells were like foghorns.

Look, if you want to be a wanderer, I respect that. Heck, I admire it. But do it on your own damn dime. You’re not a college kid. Be an adult and take responsibility for yourself.  If you have to learn to forage mushrooms and crabs for food, then do so. If you have to clean toilets to make money, get on with it. That was part of the choice you made when you decided to live an alternative lifestyle. That’s what it is, a choice. Not an excuse to drag out your responsibility-free college existence.

Lastly, here’s a tip for all houseguests: Don’t overstay your welcome, and at least repay the person who opened their doors to you. Splitwise is a handy calculator designed to help you figure out just how much you owe your generous friend.

Happy travels everyone!

Finding a place to rent in Germany

Having just gone through the trials and tribulations of finding an apartment to rent, I can sympathize with the stress, confusion and anxiety that comes with this process. So here are a few guidelines which will hopefully make things a little easier.StockSnap_PQBKOX33PD

First, where the heck do you start looking? I subscribed to a daily update of properties in my city sent straight to my inbox from ImmobilienScout24, which is arguably the website where you can find the largest volume of properties for rent or sale. Whilst I really like the site and find it very user-friendly, my one bugbear is that you are unable to filter the results to search for pet friendly apartments. Since I am bringing my dog over and it is my primary consideration for selecting where I wanted to live, this was a major problem with the site for me.

A slightly smaller variety of properties (with many duplicates from ImmobilienScout24) can be found at Immowelt, where if you click on “weitere kriterien” you can search for pet friendly apartments by checking the “haustiere erlaubt” box.

Similarly, WG-Gesucht is a great resource where you can filter results and search specifically for a room in an apartment (WG Zimmer), a studio apartment (1 Zimmer Wohnung), an apartment (Wohnung), or a house (Haus).

I ended up finding my apartment in the Immobilien section of Kalaydo, so don’t ignore the smaller websites or even Ebay Kleinanzeigen.

You will need a short explanation for the terminology used when renting an apartment.

Zimmer means room. A 2 room apartment has a living room area and one bedroom, along with a kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen and bathroom are not considered in the room numbers. A 3 room apartment therefore has 2 bedrooms and so forth.

Haustiere are pets. Nach Vereinbarung basically means “permissible if agreed to”.

Bezugsfrei ab means “available from”. 
Kaltmiete is your “cold rent”. That means rent before electricity and sometimes heating, water, and other maintenance are included. 
Nebenkosten are additional costs such as electricity and whatever else is agreed to by the landlord.
Heizkosten are heating costs.
A Dachgeschosswohnung is an apartment in the attic of a house.

An Erdgeschosswohnung is a ground floor apartment.

An Einbauküche is a built in kitchen. This is what you will be looking for if you don’t feel like buying a kitchen and installing it (see my previous post on this for more).

A garten is a garden (fairly obvious) but the important thing to note is that most gardens are shared amongst many tenants so if you want a private garden you’ll be looking for the term “eigene garten.”

You will need to contact the landlord or estate agent to set up a viewing. At these viewings it is not unusual for up to 20+ people to show up, so be on time, dress nicely and make sure you have any documents requested on hand. Most landlords need a copy of your passport and proof of income at the very least. I also included a training certificate for my dog, my credit record and references from previous landlords.

I wanted my own garden and a pet friendly apartment, so I chose to live outside the city centre. I have a 40-50 minute commute to work but I would be paying a lot more for what I got if I was right in the centre.

Before you sign your rental agreement (take a German friend or colleague, trust me!) you will need to agree on a few things with the landlord. First, the kaution or deposit. As I mentioned in a previous post, this can legally be up to 3 months cold rent plus 16% tax. You can either open a bank account specially for this deposit, or you can choose to go with a kaution guarantee option (if your landlord permits it). There are two options here: a product from the bank that is essentially a loan or a product from an insurance company that is… well… insurance (duh). Some banks won’t give this guarantee to expats who have recently arrived. I am currently getting permission from my landlord to follow the latter route using Kautionfrei.

The second agreement needs to be regarding the “renovation” of your apartment. This basically means that you have to repaint the apartment. As far as I know there is no way around this, so what needs to be agreed is whether you will paint the apartment when you move in or before you move out.

There are many apartment scams doing the rounds, so always be alert. If the landlord cannot show you the apartment as they are “currently in a different country” or if anyone asks you to part with your money before the contract is signed and you have your keys, you have the right to be more than suspicious.

Happy house hunting and I wish you all the best!

Surviving Germany… when you speak no German

The single biggest challenge for an expat in their new country is the language barrier. When you come from a predominantly English-speaking region, it’s tempting to adopt the somewhat arrogant stance that everywhere you go, people should be able and willing to speak English. Whilst you might get by for a few weeks on holiday, this attitude won’t get you very far as an expat, or endear you to the locals.

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I realize the importance of learning German, but let me be honest here… German is proving to be a bitch. It’s difficult and confusing and the pronunciation does not come naturally to me. I will start a German course as soon as possible but in the meantime I am using a few methods to help me pick up a few of the basics. Please note that this is just my opinion and that because of our individual learning preferences not everything works well for everyone.

Firstly, a big thumbs up to Rocket Languages, a self-learning platform which I have used before to teach myself some basic French and which I enjoyed so much that I splurged again to buy the German course. The available courses come in three levels, the lowest of which promises to help you to reach good conversational level and the highest excellent conversational level. If you are prepared to invest at least 40 minutes to an hour a day, this can get you familiar with the basics for survival fairly quickly and effectively.

I also really like Memrise, a free language learning app (which can also be used to memorize other topics) because it is fun, interactive and can help you memorize the basic vocabulary in a few minutes a day.

For some passive every day learning, I love listening to Coffee Break German on my way to work. One of the perks of public transport is that you don’t have to focus on the road, so you can maximize your time learning a necessary language.

However, whilst I am still learning German there are things to be done that simply cannot wait for my German skills to catch up. One of the biggest issues I had immediately was opening a bank account. Out of all the traditional banks I found in my city, only two had an online platform in English: Sparkasse and Deutsche Bank. However, these platforms are fairly limited and you need to physically go into a branch (where they don’t/won’t speak English) to open an account. Since I didn’t have anyone to go with me, I chose a less conventional option: N26, a mobile bank with no physical branches, no monthly fees and a free debit card which arrived two days after I signed up. You can draw money from any ATM and also from grocery stores using the app, which is a good thing as you start paying for withdrawals after the first 5 ATM withdrawals every month, whilst the grocery store withdrawals are free.

So far, N26 has been really convenient to deal with and the process to sign up was hassle-free. I simply confirmed my identity via a video call with a friendly English-speaking man, and voila. I have already transferred money in and out of the account with no problems, drew money and paid for groceries using the card. It has limitations, and the products are not as varied as other banks (please introduce linked savings accounts, N26) but it is a very good platform to start with.

Next, cellphone contracts and insurance. I bought a prepaid sim card from the airport and found that it was a nightmare to register and set up. Luckily, I discovered this life-saving site: Foreign Money Saver. I have followed the recommendations these guys made for both sim cards and private liability insurance, primarily because they have done the research for me and because they provide a step by step guide to signing up, complete with screenshots and speech bubbles. After I discovered their site I also noticed that they recommend N26 which helped me feel better about the choice I made. I am not sure that I would follow all their recommendations (for instance, I need more data on my internet plan than the choices they recommend) but overall, this is an amazing site for newcomers to Germany.  The cellphone contract I went with from Simply has been a breeze thus far. The sim card was delivered in no time (with an extra sim card for my tablet thrown in) and it was easy to activate the sim card on the website.

I hope some of these tips will be useful for newcomers to Germany and for those who are thinking of moving to this confusing, maddening, bewitching and beautiful country.

The inevitable culture shock that comes with expatriation.

StockSnap_ZJTLF2SGUNBefore you relocate to another country, you generally do your research. You visit the country, scope out a few cities and read up on local customs. You feel prepared. And then you settle in for a few days/weeks/months only to be confronted with the realities of these differences and inevitably respond with, “what. the. actual. fuck.”

Or maybe that’s just me.

First, the big things. Scenarios I knew about before moving, but are no less annoying now that I have to navigate them daily.

  1. The kitchen thing. Seriously, what is this fuckery? Any foreigner who has every lived in Germany will know the near physical pain of having to deal with this frustration. You see, when Germans move out of their homes, they take everything with them. Ev.ery.thing. This includes the ENTIRE kitchen, including pipes, cupboards and countertops (and yes, even the kitchen sink), but that’s not all. When you move into your new apartment, there will be no light fittings or curtain rails. You will be greeted by wires dangling out of the ceiling. If you are on a tight budget, you can buy a used kitchen (eBay Kleinanzeigen is a great resource), and then pay someone to dismantle, transport and re-install it. I am currently trying to find someone to do that for me using Kalaydo, and will let you know how that works out. Speaking from current experience, the quality of your sleep and your health quickly deteriorates when you don’t speak more than 12 German words and you have to sort this kind of shit out.
  2. The kaution. This is the rental deposit that you have to pay before moving into your apartment/house. It can be up to 3 times the “cold” rent (this is rent without electricity, water, heating and other services) plus 16% tax. Absolute insanity.
  3. Paying for stuff you should technically not be paying for. Every single household in Germany, whether they own a TV or not, must pay a monthly amount of more than 17 Euros as a license fee. There is no way around or out of it. Other examples? My colleague and her husband recently got slapped with a 15000 Euro bill to contribute to the maintenance of “their section” of the road running past their home. I’ll say it again: What. the. actual. fuck.
  4. Sundays. Make sure you have all the emergency supplies you may need for the weekend because on Sundays and public holidays, everything shuts down. And I mean everything. No shops are open, no pharmacies or doctors are open, and most restaurants and coffee shops are also “abgeschlossen.” And don’t for a moment think you can spend your whole Saturday out and about enjoying your free time and then use Sunday to clean your apartment, mow your lawn or do the washing. Work is prohibited on a Sunday. This means (depending on your neighbors and how spiteful they are) that the mere sound of a vacuum cleaner or lawnmower can earn you a big fat fine.

Then there are the little day to day things that take some getting used to. For instance, before you have had half a chance to nervously stammer out your “Vielen Dank” to the waitress serving you, she has already curtly said “bitteschön” much to your dismay. Where I come from, saying “you’re welcome” before someone has had a chance to say thanks is at best socially awkward and at worst downright obnoxious. It took me a few days to realize that it is not meant offensively and a more accurate translation could be, “It is my pleasure to help you.”

Despite the annoyances, headaches and stress, it’s worth trying to take it all in your stride. In a few months (maybe years), I know this will all seem very normal to me.

Well, except the kitchen thing.

The bus that never comes…

StockSnap_F9EVIIW6SLAh, public transport. Super efficient, convenient and generally awesome, am I right? As it turns out… no. No I am not. At least not all the time. Waiting for your ride is no fun at the best of times. Waiting in the cold and rain, or when you are running late for an important appointment? Well, that’s just downright infuriating.

I hate being late. Rushing to an appointment or running through the airport to board a plane ranks up there with visiting the dentist or getting a tetanus shot. Despite having given myself 50 minutes to make the 20 minute trip into the city for my appointment at the alien office, I was left stranded by a no-show bus and ended up being half an hour late as I burst into the alien office (at which point I was rather disappointed at the lack of probing on the list of services offered) apologizing profusely. They didn’t seem to mind my tardiness, to my surprise and relief.

Speaking of public transport, I (much to the amusement of my colleagues) did not realize that one has to push the red buttons in the bus/tram to ensure a stop at the next station. I initially thought the buttons were emergency stop signals, kind of like the buttons provided to patients in hospitals. I have yet to encounter a bus trip where the driver did not stop at every station, but hey, maybe it happens. Something that still baffles me is the sight of people leaning on the button as though they will open the doors themselves if they only push hard or for long enough (I have yet to see this tactic actually accomplish anything), which is particularly strange when the next stop is either the central station or the final stop on the route.

More public transport woes are sure to follow, so stay tuned!

Protesting: a right or obligation?

StockSnap_24TVR5K8DZOn Friday the 31st of March 2017, I woke up to a flurry of activity on various social media platforms. It was bad news for South Africa. With Pravin Gordhan out of the way, the Zupta state capture project would be able to come to fruition. More than the plummeting rand, and more than the junk status rating of our economy, the Russian nuclear power deal was what had me really worried. With nothing standing in their way, the Gupta crowd are now free to enrich themselves and cripple our economy in the long term, to the tune of R3 trillion (the total amount of debt the government will have accrued when the deal goes through). The impact on the ability of the government to provide essential services will be severe.

People were (are?) afraid. Shocked. Angry. My Facebook and Twitter streams were filled with calls to rise up and do something, anything. All the while I saw the Gupta backed Bell Pottinger propaganda machine doing its job, and references to Zuma’s courage to take on so-called “white monopoly capital” being thrown around by ANC loyalists and some opposition parties alike.

A few of my friends vowed to take part in the nationwide protests planned for the 7th of April. But many I spoke to mentioned that they hoped that “people” would protest, making it clear that they themselves would not take part, but instead hoped that protest proxies would materialize to make a difference.

I get it. You think your black flag on Facebook is enough. It’s not.

Due to my current status as an expat, this may seem hypocritical but I can say one thing with certainty: Given the choice, on Friday the 7th I would do something I have only done once before: I would march. I would protest. I would bang my pots and pans and let my feet and my voice tell the world that I want change. Because, friends and countrymen, on the 7th of April, protesting is not a right that we can choose to exercise. It’s an obligation. If ever there was a time to take to the streets, to make our voices heard, and to stand up for those who we claim to care about, the disenfranchised and most powerless in our society, it is NOW.

Yes, I hear you. “I have a bad back.” “I’m afraid of being shot by police.” “It won’t make a difference anyway.” STOP.

For me, this is not about removing Zuma. It’s about changing the balance of power for good. For far too long, the South African government has been far too comfortable. Did you feel the tremor earlier this week? Well it’s time to make the earth move. The government should know what it’s like to be afraid of its people. Not the other way around. You have power. You have an obligation to use that power. If you are a tax-paying privileged person in South Africa, you have more power than most. This means that a few million (heck, maybe a few hundred thousand) people can change the direction of the country. Look at Iceland, look at Romania, Brazil, Argentina, and the Arab Spring. Even the USA can get a decent protest going.

For just one day in your life, get off your ass and get out there. Make your kids and grandkids proud. The future of the country cannot be left in the hands of the ANC (not the ANC we have currently anyway), or the Guptas. Nobody is going to “do the right thing” and remove Zuma. Gather your colleagues, gather your family, gather your friends, take your pans and spoons and join a protest!

Save SA has organized a legal protest with marshals, so it will be safe (if that’s your concern).

Rise up! Rise up!

The six stages of leaving your country of birth. Part 2.

Stage 3: Anger

When my husband and I decided to make our marriage work long distance for 2 years, the rational and logical side of my brain realized that it was the best possible solution for both of us. In fact, a big part of me respects him more for not just tagging along with me and instead deciding to do what he feels he needs to in order to be complete whilst letting me do the same. However, the non-rational side of me felt flashes of anger that our family would be separated as a result, with me and one dog (my St Bernard Great Dane mix, Mozart) on one side of the ocean and him staying behind on the other side with our two Yorkies. This stage quickly gave way to the next one…

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Stage 4: Denial

The stage of denial dragged on for months, even as I made the necessary preparations to move both myself and Mozart across to Germany. As close friends would break down into tears I would sometimes cry empathetically as I often do, but my own emotions remained strangely evasive as I went about my daily life.

Stage 5: Fear

In the final week before I departed, as the empty rooms in my house and the administrative emails from colleagues in Germany started filtering through the fog, I was gripped by sheer terror. Sleep eluded me. Little things like considering how I would move my two heavy suitcases through the airport and into a taxi by myself filled me with panic. I was a wreck. And then, all too quickly, the day before my flight arrived…

Stage 6: Grief

I still cry daily, and I can honestly say that this is by far the most emotional and most difficult decision I have ever made. Nothing could have prepared me for the intense sorrow I experienced saying goodbye to my dogs and especially to my husband. Even though I don’t feel that I made a mistake in coming here, I long to hold and kiss my husband or snuggle up to my dogs on the couch. There is a part of me missing and it hurts like hell. But I also know what is just over the horizon, and I look forward to my experience coming full circle back to Stage 1: Hope. Because isn’t that what all this is for?

I know that one day I will wake up and I will make it through the whole day without a single tear. I won’t feel anxiety trying to navigate a new city, or grocery store. I’ll recognize the words being spoken to me and respond without hesitation. I’ll feel more at home. And I will feel hopeful. Hope in the security of the love my husband and I share, knowing that we will be reunited and build a bond stronger than before, hope for a better, happier and safer future, and hope that we can build the life we both want and dream of in this beautiful country.

“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” 

― William Faulkner

The six stages of leaving your country of birth. Part 1.

Now that I am in my new home, more than 9000 km away from (almost) everyone and everything I hold dear, and still very much in the throes of this rollercoaster journey, I often reflect on the multi-faceted emotional aspects accompanying my decision to take the leap. The decision to uproot your life is never an easy one, but every person is different, and this is just the account of one girl who surrendered to the Viking blood in her veins and set out on the journey of her life from the tip of Africa to the heart of Europe.

Stage 1: Hope

Some of my reasons for leaving South Africa probably mirror those of many other South African expats, and will come as no surprise. The fear of violent crime (I have had a number of personal encounters which I doubt I will ever fully recover from psychologically), the uncertainty of the political climate, the at times shaky economy and sliding healthcare and educational systems… but another (perhaps more important) aspect was the growing and uneasy feeling that I just didn’t belong. I am not part of the growing number of white South Africans who are convinced that there is a genocide of white South Africans underway, or that they are an oppressed minority. In fact it sickens me to see that in such an obviously unequal society, these people still do not acknowledge their privileges, nor do they utilize these advantages to better the lives of those who are not so lucky. On the other hand there are a number of black individuals who tell me to go back to Europe (and I don’t blame them for their anger). Should I have stayed and tried harder to make a difference? I believed that I could for a while. But engaging both sides made me feel more and more disillusioned as time went on. It was then that I started a journey of introspection and hoping to find somewhere I could belong, and a place where I would feel comfortable having a family. Over time, I just didn’t want to stay anymore and made that clear to family and friends. I wanted out, desperately.

Stage 2: Excitement

Over the last few days I have often thought back to remember the day my current boss sent me a text saying that a position had opened up for me and asking if my husband and I would move to Germany. The next few seconds were pure elation, I remember looking down at my little Yorkshire Terrier who was wagging his tail and looking up at me quizzically and saying to him “You’re going to be a German doggie!”

Life is never that simple though, and I quickly discovered that this stage would be short-lived when I discussed the opportunity with my husband, who made it clear that he wouldn’t stand in my way but that he was not ready to leave. We were at an impasse. If I stayed I would resent him and if he left he would resent me. A long-distance marriage seemed like the only way for two strong-willed independent people to (ironically) stay together. We agreed to put a two year time limit on this decision.

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