This post requires a bit of Miles history.
I was born in Frankfurt Germany. My mom was German (she passed almost 6 years ago) and my dad was an American serviceman. I lived there until I was almost 8 when I moved to Los Angeles with my dad and step-mom 1. I mostly grew up in LA. I spent my high school summers and most of my college breaks in Germany with mom. All, told I’ve spent about two years in Germany since I was 8.
I have dual citizenship. I have a sister, a niece and a number of cousins still in Germany. I have several friends in Germany that I’ve known for many years.
I also have two kids with whom I do not speak German. I feel lame about that; begin bilingual is such a gift. I’ve spent enough time in Germany to understand that not everyone looks at the world that same as Americans. In some ways I feel German, but I mostly feel American2. Still, I’m a citizen 3. My kids are citizens. I don’t feel as connected to the country as I’d like.
So I’ve moved to Germany with Robie and the kids. We’ve been here almost a month 4. We intend to stay here a bit over two years. Return target is summer of 2018.
When talking to my friends about the move, the question that’s caught my attention the most is this one “so, why you moving to Germany?”
I see that as a funny question. I think the question itself is more surprising than someone’s decision to move to another country for a time. Why wouldn’t you move to another country?
The world is a big place, consisting of more than foreign languages, and interesting (or sometimes gross) food. It’s more than religious wars, or petroleum. It’s more than backpacking on the train, getting drunk and trying to get laid.
For me, foreign travel is about the surprises. Not the crazy stories about waking up somewhere hungover, not the crazy drivers, pickpockets, or weird encounters with the police. Those things are not surprises. While those things may be undesirable, or avoidable, many travelers should not be surprised when they happen.
The surprises I’m talking about are the things you never knew to expect or think about. unknown unknowns. Some examples
Hail to the KKK
When I was in high school and visiting mom for the summer, my friend Mishi 5 showed me an article from the magazine Stern, or Spiegel 6 about some KKK rally somewhere in the US. She thought it was crazy that this would happen without them being arrested, but it seemed normal to me. I’m no fan of the KKK, but the article just portrayed a rally. No explosions or burning crosses involved. In the US, it’s the KKK’s actions that are illegal. In Germany, the KKK itself is illegal. Even if you never light a single match or never wear a bedsheet on your head, you can be guilty of a crime. Membership itself is enough to break the law in Germany. She and I argued about this for an hour or two.
In a way, this isn’t really surprising. American politicians talk all the time about how other countries have different laws. The surprise for me is not the existence of the law, I was surprised that Mishi really felt that the KKK should be illegal. My arguments about where do you draw the line had no effect on her. My arguments about who draws the line did not sway her at all. That argument gave me a much deeper appreciation for what the ACLU does. They take some crazy positions that really do seem absurd at times, but the line has to be drawn somewhere and I’d rather push it way over there to make sure it’s not close to me. Germans are happy to take that risk.
Give him some space
I lived in Israel for a little over 2.5 years. During that time, three people I knew lost a parent, and one coworker died.
Jewish culture/religion has a thing called “Sitting Shiva”. The immediate family of a lost one sits together in one home for a period of seven days 7 The days right after the death of a loved are the hardest. They are the times when we need each other the most. So when someone is sitting Shiva, you go visit them and mostly you just shoot the breeze. Politics, a good joke, sports, whatever. The main point is to be another human being reminding them that they are not alone. You don’t have to know the person particularly well. I visited Mooly Eden, a way up there Intel manager, when his father died. He knew me because he knows everyone but otherwise, we’re not buddies.
I also visited my friend Nava when her father died. Three of us got in the car on a school night, drove an hour and a half to get to Jerusalem, where she grew up. We spent an hour or two with her and drove another hour and a half home. On a school night. The look on her face when she saw us told me that the time was well spent. She was not alone in this world.
I worked with a man Oz, who died while I was there. Everyone at Intel loved Oz. Great guy. You can’t not love him. The Saturday after he passed, my girlfriend Shlomit and I got into a car, drove an hour and a half to visit his parents, who we’d never met to pay our respects. They seemed surprised at how many people showed up over that weekend. They seemed to really appreciate how well respected he was at Intel 8. All these people came all this way because of your son. His life was a good one. He touched many, professionally and personally. You should be proud.
Experiences like this taught me that the American approach to death is all wrong. When I was back in the US, my friend Eric’s dad died, unexpectedly. Most of the people around us avoided Eric. “don’t bother him. Give him some space. Try to take some of his workload”. huh? That’s all wrong, I thought. I went and talked to him. “Sorry your dad died.” We chatted for a while about his dad, his family and life in general. Space is the last thing that Eric needed.
It’s hard out here for a pimp 9
Experiences like these, and I’ve had others, are a big part of why I am in Germany now and why I think everyone should spend time somewhere they’re not familiar with. They’ve happened already in the couple weeks I’ve been here.
There’s a question I like to ask my friends: If you had do something illegal as a profession, what would it be? Most of the answers are a interesting, some would grow pot, my cop friend would do identity theft, I would be a smuggler, one friend says he’d be a pimp 10
In Germany, Jens is the first person I asked this question and I was surprised by the answer. Jens used to be a construction guy. Stairs and roofs. He found it too hard on the body so he does something else now. His answer: he’d do construction type stuff under the table. “Working black”, the Germans call it. The problem is the tax man. In the US, people take it for granted that house cleaners are not reporting their income. In the US, most people don’t care. When I go out to eat, I try to leave the tip in cash (even when paying with a card) in order to give the waiter the latitude to be creative in their taxes.
Here, tax evasion is that serious that just painting someone’s apartment for a little extra cash puts you at risk 11. When I mentioned my surprise to some others in me and Jens’s circle, they agreed, don’t mess with the tax man and proceeded to give examples.
One way that underthetable labor in the US can be seen as different is that in the US, it’s often/usually illegal immigrants. 12. In Germany, the folks who are most likely to do under the table work are Eastern Europeans. People who are legally allowed to work in Germany due to their citizenship in an EU country.
It’s scarier to pay a legal immigrant on the side in Germany than to do the same with someone who is in the US illegally.
This surprise is probably not life changing for me, though it does make me wonder whether Germany wouldn’t be even more economically successful, if the business environment were to be de-regulated a bit. People are perhaps less likely to start their own business or tinker in their garages. I’m not sure yet, whether Germans think that things are the way they ought to be, but it does make me feel a bit Republican. 13
The first half of this post was written months ago. Fast forward to August…
More surprises have happened. The greatest one is that my older sister and I are really getting along really well. The kids love her and she dotes on them. She and Robie have a good connection as well. My disappearance at age 8 came at great cost to her. As a teenager, she was basically my primary caregiver. Some of our relatives blamed her for my disappearance. In the years since my reappearance, things have been strained for a variety of reasons. Coming here, I was hopeful to see her a couple times but from our first phone conversation, it was clear our conflict was a thing of the past.
We’ve visited her twice now for a total of about three weeks. Hopefully, she’ll be able to join us on a trip to the north coast. Additionally, she was instrumental in us finding our apartment. I don’t know where we would have ended up without her. The housing market here is really tight. Some foreigner without a job is at a disadvantage.
This surprise alone has made it worth the move.
Why do they call it the city of Angeles
Los Angeles, that is. Try crossing the street and you’ll find out.
Europe has a reputation for being more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. There’s the joke in the movie LA Story where Steve Martin drives two houses down to visit a friend. 14. Amsterdam has public bikes all over the city.
Germany is not pedestrian friendly. If I had to name one thing I wish were different, this is it. Here’s a picture of a crosswalk taken from outside our kitchen window. I cross here all the time.
Cars rarely stop for us. It’s a spot designated for crossing. I can stand there, with our stroller, holding onto Malcolm, who’s set to just run off. Cars just blow by. It’s not just young guys in their sports cars, but also moms with kids there in the car with them… they blow right by.
I’ve had two other experiences where I was walking down the sidewalk and a car went in or out of a parking lot in such a way that I had to stop to avoid being hit. My friends tell me that it’s a Frankfurt thing and that other parts of Germany as better. I do live in the suburbs. I guess I’m spoiled by Portland drivers. Here, it feels more like NY or Boston.
Awesome Public Workers
As Republicans like to remind us, Germany is a Socialist country 15 and damn near communist. As such, my experience with government bureaucracy has been fantastic. Waaaayyyy better than the equivalents in the US.
First, we wanted to register the kids as German citizens. My sister took us to the local “city hall”. Daniela lives in Bad-Sooden Allendorf, population 8k. The office we went to had one(1) person working there. In about an hour and a half, and 30 euros later, we had passports for both kids. That included walking around the corner to get pictures. 16
Second, you have to register with the local government within two weeks of moving to a new place. The lady for that was awesome as well 17
Third, getting a visa for Robie was super easy and took about a month and 100 euros. In contrast, getting a green card for my mom took about 10 months and almost $2000. 18
More to come
There are other surprises, but I’d like to get this post out there. There are a couple others I want to write, but I feel compelled to talk about why I’m here before covering my more normal type of topic.
Out of curiosity, if you’ve made it this far in the post, please leave a comment or send me a mail firstname.lastname@example.org. I wonder how long is too long.
Life here is good. Lydia has been in Kindergarten for a bit over two months. Making friends, but her German progress is slow. Malcolm starts in October, right after he turns three. 19. Robie is making great progress learning the language on her own. She starts a program mandated by her visa in September. Four hours a day, five days a week for the next year. It may not be intense enough.
Robie is going to martial arts classes again. Though she got her brown belt shortly before coming here, the classes are in other kinds of fighting forms.
Me, in a way, I’m living a similar life as before. I am about the publish my Android app in the PlayStore. It’s the app version of my VocabularyBuilder. That’s been fun and interesting. I’ve enjoyed playing with my little quadcopter (for $28, I highly recommend it). I’m building a bigger one cause I want to fly “first person view”. There’s a local hobby model airplane club, that I want to join as well.
I’ve gotten the CNC itch again as well, and I might build a small dremel based one. With all the 3D printing/maker stuff out there, parts have gotten a bit cheaper than when I built this
All in all, I’m enjoying life here. My German is getting better. The family is having fun. I get to experience new things.
actually, I was kidnapped. My mom had custody of me and one day dad asks me “you want to visit USA?” I loved going on trips, so “sure!”. I should probably do a blog post just on this topic. It’s very common, but when two countries are involved, possession is effectively 99% of the law. Here’s a very interesting article on the topic The Snatchback ↩
When my mom used to hear me say I’m half American, half German, she would say “which half?” ie, my left or right half… It’s semantics, but I do agree that she had a good point. She preferred “I’m both” ↩
The German army has an ongoing draft. All men must serve in the Army for a year and a half. That’s relaxed a lot and most of the people I know do civil service, AmeriCorp style. I was drafted myself, but I got out of it pretty easily, claiming medical reasons. I did a lot of running at the time and my knees often hurt as a result. They make it pretty easy ↩
It’s actually been 5, but I’m just now getting around to editting and posting this ↩
Her name is actually Michaela and everyone called her Michi. Since my ears are mostly American, I hear it as Mishi and that’s how I addressed her in letters. Eventually, it came to my attention that I’m spelling it wrong, but I continue to spell it this way and she signs her mails to me as Mishi as well ↩
German equivalent of Newsweek or Time ↩
Sheva/שֶׁבַע means seven in Hebrew ↩
they surely already knew he was a great guy, but unless you are in semiconductor engineering, you wouldn’t necessarily know how capable he was ↩
somewhat surprising since he’s religious. When I asked why, I joke about the “interviews” or “on the job training”. No, he just thought it’d be an interesting crowd to be around ↩
the person paying is actually more at risk ↩
most Americans take it as a given that the Hispanic they’re paying in cash is not there legally. Hopefully, we’re wrong more often than we think ↩
actually, small ‘l’ libertarian, is likely the better label ↩
I have personally witnessed such behavior myself ↩
not actually true. ↩
My step-dad told me a story of discovering his passport was about to expire. He couldn’t leave the US for a couple days and it cost $200 to get a new one. He was already in the system. ↩
as an American, I still question what business is it of theirs where I live? ↩
To be fair to the INS, the one time I did talk to someone on the phone, she was super helpful, not at all rushed, and told me of several additional questions I should be asking. ↩
Germans go to kindergarten from 3-5 and go to 1st grade from there. Americans would recognize it as pre-K or perhaps just daycare. The training requirements to be a teacher as similar to getting teaching certification ↩