I’m back. For real this time.

Six years ago I spent 13 months in San Diego as an exchange student. I had a blog back then to keep my German friends updated about my California adventures. Now I’m back and it is back. Except this time it will be in English, it will be public, and anyone who is interested – for whatever reason that might be – may share my expatriate experience.

So, what brought me back? This guy:

May 2009

We met on campus in 2008. We thought this was just going to be one of those crazy college things. Fun while it lasts, and a happy memory to take with me once my time is up and I have to go back to the real world, i.e. Germany. That’s probably all it would have been if smartphones hadn’t come up right at that moment.

Just after I left, he bought himself an iPhone, and that thing condemned us to stay in contact, constantly. Somehow we skyped every day, for hours, for years. I came back for a month long visit half a year after my first farewell.

February 2010

And again, the year after.

April 2011

And again, same year.

September 2011

And even the year I started working (in Germany’s best and funnest city no less).

August 2012

And the year after that, when any sane person would long since have moved on with someone closer to home.

March 2013

At some point we had to admit to ourselves that we weren’t going to shake this. In December 2014, he suggested we might as well save some money on future plane tickets and spend them on a wedding and greencard for me instead.

After one last visit of mine (my 6th) to California, we celebrated an unforgettable wedding with the best people in the world in an ancient monastery by my hometown.

Kloster Bronnbach, Germany, August 2014

But a romantic German church wedding doesn’t quite make me elligible for a Greencard through marriage. So we followed it up with a quick-and-dirty city hall wedding less than a week after I arrived with my four suitcases at San Francisco airport.

September 9th, San Francisco city hall

(Yes, we wore the same clothes again for the second wedding. We’re cheap like that – or I like to call it practical.)

So much for the backstory. As of September 2014, I am a legal permanent resident in the US. That makes me a German expatriate in California, and if you know me (or not) and are just a little interested in what it’s like to be a German on the Westcoast (more specifically, in Silion Valley), this is where you can follow my rants and ramblings.

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Driving for Immigrants, or: Conquering the DMV

Whoop Whoop, six and a half months after moving here, and six frustrating visits to the DMV later: I have my (interim) driver’s license! To save others the frustration and endless wait I had to endure, I thought I’d share some valuable lessons about the DMV I’ve learned along the way.

To anyone who has never been to the US: Without a license, you’re not a complete person. Getting anywhere takes forever, or is downright impossible, and that makes you a social outcast. Plus, once you have one, you can finally stop dragging around your passport everywhere you go, because the license also works as your ID.

There are positive things to mention, too: People here are remarkably friendly and happy to offer you a ride. That may not make you feel much better, because you hate being in someone’s debt or at someone’s mercy. But at least, you can count on help in an emergency. And at least in theory, it is easy to get a license.

Lesson Nr. 1: DON’T WAIT

If you, like me, came to the US on a K1 visa, or are here without a greencard for some other reason: Do not wait too long before you get your driver’s license. There are legal presence requirements to getting a license, and if you don’t have a greencard, you will have to prove that you’re in the States legally, and for a sufficiently long period of time, in some other way.

In my case, I needed my passport and a copy of my I-94. The I-94 is a record that is created every time you enter the United States. You never see it, it doesn’t get handed to you at the border. But you can print a copy yourself, for free, on Homeland Security’s web portal. The I-94 expires after three months, and for a license you need to prove that you will be in the States legally for at least another 30 days. So: Go get your license in the first two months after arrival!

Lesson  Nr. 2: Hope that Social Security doesn’t screw it up

Another requirement for a driver’s license is a social security number. More precisely: You either have to have one, or you have to be not eligible for one. If, say, you are in the US on a Student visa, you are usually not eligible for a social security number, and therefore the DMV doesn’t need you to have one. But if you are theoretically eligible to have one – and if you entered on a K1 visa, you are – you must have yours to apply for a driver’s license.

Getting one is even easier than getting a driver’s license. In theory. In my case, the Social Security Administration took my application and kept my documents (including the marriage certificate that cost me 15$ and that I only had one copy of), only to never create a record for me and to never send me my number. I waited in vain, and in the end had to get another marriage certificate for another 15$, go to my local Social Security Administration again, apply again, and wait another two weeks. Then, finally, I received my social security number and made another attempt at the DMV. So: Make sure you have your SSN before you go apply for a license!

Lesson Nr. 3: Don’t come in too late. Or too early.

The DMV is known for being a ginormous pain in the but, whatever you errand there, and regardless of whether or not you are a citizen. Think of the worst story you have ever heard about this particular government establishment, take it at face value, and then expect even worse.

You will have to wait forever to get your errand done. You can save yourself quite a bit of time if you make an appointment online, but as the first available appointment is usually a month from now, this is not an option if you’re in a hurry. See Lesson Nr. 1 for why you should be in a hurry.

So prepare yourself for an endless wait once you show up at the DMV with your I-94, your SSN, and/or any other documents you need to bring. If you’re clever, you’ll be there at least 30 minutes before they open, so you can be one of the first people in line. Yes, even an hour before they open, there will already be a line. But if you’re early enough, that might still be a short line.

If you’re even more clever, you can come in shortly before they close and start hurrying everyone through – and this is a tip a fellow sufferer in the DMV waiting line shared with me. I have not tested this and cannot guarantee it works. According to her, the DMV officials will start moving down the line much faster towards closing time to get everyone taken care of. I can’t quite believe they’d dawdle all day, making you wait for hours, only to get hectic towards the end. But feel free to try it out.

photo by http://oppositelock.jalopnik.com/

Just another line at the DMV

Lesson Nr. 4: Check their opening hours

Guess what happened to me once I finally had the SSN, waited for months and months for the greencard, and was finally ready to try again? I got up at 6 a.m., rode my husband’s bicycle to the DMV, only to find that they were closed for the day. It was President’s Day, a holiday. You might think it serves me right, I should have known. Well, I checked their website to see if maybe they might be open, and among the list of national holidays they are closed on, President’s Day was not listed. The lesson here: Do not rely on their website for opening hours. Only go on a day there couldn’t possibly be a reason why they would be closed. And be prepared to still be disappointed.

Lesson Nr 5: Do not trust DMV employees to know what they are doing

At my very first visit, I was told I needed to take the written driving test again, as my previous license had been expired for too long. However, I’d have to wait two hours for that, and they would be closing in one. Wouldn’t I want to come back early on another day? So I did, and the next time I was told there was no need to take the driving test.

At attempt nr. 4, I was also told by one employee I could at least get an interim license and drive around with that until the Greencard arrived. I paid the fee, had my picture taken, and then was told by another employee I would not get a license. For anything they tell you: double-check.

So, can I drive now?

Yes, I can. At long last. At attempt 1 I was told I need to come back another day for a written test. At attempt 2 I was told that was not the case, but I needed my social security number. At attempt 3 I was told I also needed my I-94. At attempt 4 I was told there was not enough time left on it and I would have to wait for the greecard. At attempt 5 the DMV was closed. At attempt 6 I waited for 3.5 hours, but finally walked out with the interim license, and the actual license has since come in the mail. Success!

And I’ll put that little yellow plastic card with a horrendous photo of myself to good use soon. For that, see my upcoming tale of a San Diego road trip!

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What I miss about Germany

The first time I came to the United States, it was all fun and rainbows: two semesters of study abroad, a year under palm trees on a beautiful campus, all paid for by my parents and the German state. The only two minutes I missed Germany were on Christmas, and apart from that I just enjoyed all the new things, people and customs. I never wanted to leave and secretly started to dream how wonderful it would be if I could just stay forever.

Well, I’m back and this time it’s for the long haul. Not surprisingly, the experience is a little different when you know there is no going back, and when you are an adult who has to pay their own bills, find their own way and who is responsible for their own problems.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But Germans are excellent at complaing and pointing out what’s wrong, especially when everything’s going great. So here come the little things I miss in California:

Quark

Quark is simply not known here. I can think of so many reasons why it should be popular here, but somehow it isn’t. It’s tasty, it’s low in calories and high in protein, and very versatile. What’s not to love?

But here, Cheesecake is made with cream cheese instead, potatoes are covered in oversweetened ketchup instead of Kräuterquark (creamy herb dip), and bodybuilders just drink more protein shake. I did find one place that carries quark. 200 grams of it cost you 5 dollars at Wholefoods, as opposed to the 75 cents per pound it costs at home. Outrageous, I thought, but impossible to resist the cravings … Sadly, Wholefood’s quark tastes like gone bad, puréed mozarella. I’ve had to accept that my existence will henceforth be quark-less.

Quark on Wholefoods shelf

Small overpriced tub of something that doesn’t deserve to be called quark.

Brot

Not surprising: American bread is squishy, sweeter than some German cakes, and inedible when it’s not toasted. And I revolt against keeping bread in the fridge, wrapped in plastik. Real bread is wrapped in a towel or placed in an earthenware bowl. But at least – unlike my failed quest for quark – I solved the bread problem. Somewhat. I figured out how to bake my own. It’s chewy, has a crunchy crust, doesn’t need to be toasted, and I can put as many seeds in there as I want. Let’s not talk about how much time it costs to make one tiny loaf, and how fast they’re always gone … Good thing I have no job at the moment.

Fresh yeast

… is also unknown here. All you get is dry active yeast and instant yeast (I had to google the difference). I have yet to make a single dough rise with that stuff – which is one of the reasons I learned how to make sourdough instead of regular bread. And I don’t quite buy into the theory that dry yeast produces the same taste as fresh yeast.

Nougat

It’s a sugary paste made with hazelnuts. Lots of German candies and Christmas cookies contain it – and combined with chocolate, it makes the best cookies. Nougat in baking is completely unnknown here. Not even the most specialized stores cary it, sales assistants have never even heard of it. I was deeply disappointed, had to redo my entire cookie strategy for this holiday season, and once again leave a store feeling let-down by my new home.

Baking nougat (Quelle: J. Jeibmann, http://www.jeibmann-photographik.de/)

Sticks of baking nougat (Photo: Jürgen Jeibmann)

Rollläden (solid blinds)

You’d think in a country where the sun shines bright every day and people love it icy cool inside, they’d have figured out how to keep the sun from glaring through the windows. But no, all you find are flimsy blindes and shades, occassionally a curtain. I miss the solid, set-in-the-wall blinds many houses have in Germany. They let you sleep in pitch-black darkness if and as long as you want to, and keep the sun out much more effectively than thin strips of plastik – a blessing on hot summer days! My unsexy solution to that problem: sleeping masks.

Bike paths and bike racks

Cyclists really are an endangered species here. Thanks to all the exhaust fumes you have to fear lung cancer at 35, and cars rush past scaringly close because there are rarely any bike paths set apart from the road. And while it takes about an hour to cycle from one end of Munich’s inner three rings to the other, one hour here barely takes you to the nearest supermarket and back.

Once you arrive at your destination, sweaty, sunburnt and saddle sore, there are rarely any bike racks. I’ve taken to chaining my bike to the shopping cart cage or stop signs. I’m told that is not allowed and could get my bike impounded if I leave it there too long. So now, grocery shopping is a deeply stressful experience for me. Risk your life to get there, do 5 minutes of speed-shopping in a plane-hangar-sized store, try to fit all the huge boxes in one single backpack, and then try to get home without dying.

Preservative- and coloring-free groceries

It’s not just the foods I can’t find that get me. What’s worse are the foods that should be the same as at home but are not. Virtually everything comes with a couple of additional ingredients. Butter? Has either salt or “natural flavor”, because butter that tastes like butter doesn’t taste like butter enough. Yogurt also needs “flavor” to to taste like yogurt. Smoked salmon? Has added preservatives and colors, because salmon has to be pinker than salmon. Cream cheese? Has extra stabilizers because eeeew, there could be perfectly natural liquid pooling in there!

I’ve had quite a few tantrums by now, looking for pepperoncinis, dairy products, pudding powder, soy sauce, and many other things, and instead found Yellow 5, sodium benzoate, MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, tetrasodium pyrophospate, BHA and worse. Amazing how such an affluent society cannot afford real food. Of course German products have some flavoring and preservativs in them, too. But not like this. And not every last one of them.

German and American vanilla pudding food labels

Instant pudding comparison – guess which one is the German, which one the American ingredient list.

Single-sized fruit

It’s like with the chicken and the egg: Was first America’s food too big or its people? Jumbo-sized packages of everything clog your pantry and tempt you to just eat another pound of chips (the bag isn’t even half empty yet!) and strongly discourage you from grocery shopping on your bike. Seriously, one carton of milk, and your backpack is full …

This really annoys me because I have no other way of getting around than my (husband’s) bicycle. I can only buy a few items at a time because more will not fit on my bike, my only mode of transport. And I constantly have half of everything left over: Half an onion, because the whole would have caused overflow in the pan, half an apple, because more would not have fit into my cereal bowl. Why grow ridiculously huge fruits and vegetables, only to have the flavor watered down to nothing?

Huge onion in my hand

Onion that would make three dinners, if it didn’t mold first.

Sweets and pastries that taste of something other than sugar

My favorite is the birthday cake section: Dazzlingly bright frosting in un-food-like, forbidding colors, garish sugar figurines on top and somewhere burried deep some spongy sugar-mass that is the cake’s base. One bite of the smirf frosting (that won’t even get you down to the actual cake dough), and you feel like your taste buds just died of diabetes. Why so sweet? Well, if you make your cake sweet enough, you can mask the fact that you used nothing but the cheapest ingredients and your product has no taste nor texture …

Scent-free things that naturally have no scent

When we moved into our new apartment, I embarrassed myself and shocked the building manager by pointing out that one of the closets smelled bad. He then explained that that is the linen closet and they routinely spray a “linen scent” in there to make the place feel more welcoming an homely. To me, it just smelled like someone had left some toxic waste on one of the shelves.

Then there are scented trash bags, scented women’s hygene products, scented drier sheets … Artificial scents are everywhere, while there’s nothing more embarrassing than being caught with body odor. If your laundry smells like a field of bleach flowers, your trash bags like jasmine and your bathroom like caramel, that’s fine – but don’t you dare smell like sweat after two hours at the gym. Perverse country.

 

/End of rant. But wait – there is a happy ending! Thanks to a lady at the DMV, I found a German store. It has a restaurant and Biergarten, is run buy a German family, and actually sells groceries imported from Germany. They may cost five times what they cost at home – but they are the real deal. I haven’t tried their Quark yet, but their vanilla pudding powder, gingerbread hearts and Zigeunersoße (spicy sauce) are as German as it gets. Gourmet Haus Staudt may not be able to solve all of my problems – but now at least I have a sanctuary for my cravings.

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Things we do to not be a boring married couple: Oktoberfest

“Watch out, you won’t be partying every weekend once your wife gets here” his friends told him.

“You’ll do so many fun things once you’re finally together” my friends told me.

They were all a little wrong and a little right. Inbetween getting legally married, finding and moving into our first apartment, trying and failing multiple times at getting me a driver’s license, getting me insurance, a bank account, a library card, a social security number, etc. – there wasn’t all that much time to get bored.

And with him working 14 hours and me working virtually zero hours a day, his and my need for out-of-the-apartment excitement vs. no-further-than-the-couch downtime don’t always match. Interestingly, it’s not always my workaholic who is drawn to the couch and not always me who wants to go out.

But – there are some things we did do together so we wouldn’t have to feel like all adventures stopped after our wedding. And yes, we also did them them because they were fun, and friends insisted, and our couch wasn’t shipped right away, so we didn’t have to sit anywhere at home. This was the first:

Oktoberfest by the Bay

The main differences between the Oktoberfest in San Francisco (hosted by a local German club) and the one and only true original in Munich are:

  • Family friendliness. The Munich Oktoberfest is not the greatest place for little kids (though I’m sure they love the sweets and some rides), while the one in San Francisco is boring for anyone but a kid (no rides, few sweets, no dancing on the benches, no drinking excess and it closes early.)
  • In Munich, all drinks and food are horribly expensive. In San Francisco, food and drinks as well as parking and tickets are horribly expensive.
  • They give you excellent overpriced beer in traditional 1-litre glass mugs in Germany. In San Francisco, you get pretty good (imported) beer in a plastic cup – unless you first buy your own mug, which is also plastic, and costs 10 dollars. You definitely wouldn’t see this in Munich either:

Come to Oktoberfest, but don’t drink too much. That’s not what it’s about. Right? … RIGHT?

  • There is an actual dance floor at the Bayfest that not only serves for dancing (like I’ve never seen anyone dance in Munich) but also for cute show numbers from the host club. They put on a little play, chopped up an actual wooden log, and even threw in some Schuhplattler and an Alphorn trio. Who cares if that’s more Swiss than Bavarian – they brought the sound of the alps into a San Francisco harbor hangar!

Alphorn trio at Oktoberfest by the Bay

To my surprise, however, the music was surprisingly authentic. In Germany, I never cared for traditional brass music. But as an expatriate, you suddenly find yourself missing things you had nothing but disdain for at home. Their Musikkapelle sounded so much like a German brass band that I’ll even forgive the description “sizzling oompah music” on their website.

And we were not the only ones in traditional Bavarian clothing – although there were a few of the anime-style miniskirt Dirndls with knee-high socks that I had expected. This lady seemed to have a lot of fun and is my favorit example of the non-German Oktoberfest adaptation:

The new-world Oktoberfest style – as long as you’re having fun!

The food was less delightful than the entertainment: Bratwurst or dry Schnitzel on very flimsy bread rolls, made extra-soggy by sauerkraut I didn’t even try, deep-fried pickles (no idea who came up with that), fries, salad with nice and heavy ranch dressing, and little plastic flasks of Underberg for the digestively challenged.

Underberg stand with sales ladies

Would I go again? Probably not. But not because Oktoberfest by the Bay is bad. On the contrary. Given the very different cultural setting and regulations they surely had to work with, they managed a marvelous recreation. But I’ve learned one thing: If you’re homesick, don’t chase after foreign interpretations of what you miss. Better to embrace the things only your new culture can offer, and keep an untarnished memory of home.

Mr. and Mrs. German

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Why a month in the ghetto made me hate ice cream

When I came here, we didn’t have an apartment of our own yet. For the first month after my arrival, we shared a 160 square feet (14 square meters) bedroom in a house with we’re not sure how many other people. In a neighborhood that is rumored to have had the highest homicide rate in all of the US 20 years ago. Wikipedia confirms this, so it must be true.

Picture this: East Palo Alto (a misnomer as it is actually exactly north of Palo Alto) is a dusty, dry ditch populated pretty much entirely by non-white people. Palo Alto is an economic gold mine with exorbitantly priced homes and one of those fabled tech start-ups at every street corner. They are about 160 feet (50 meters) apart from each other. All that physically separates them is the 101 freeway, and a bridge spanning across it.

One side of the bridge is all dirt and potholes, the other side of the bridge is sparkling fountains and tall trees arching over the road and bike lanes.

North of the bridge:

Heap of trash in the dirt

By the side of the road just north of the bridge

South of the bridge:

University Ave, Palo Alto

University Ave, Palo Alto © 2014 PlannerDan, plannerdan.com

Lucky for me, East Palo Alto may still be ugly, but it’s far less dangerous now. Gentrification has had its effects, and though the place is still dirty, at least it’s no longer dangerous.

I’m sure that white poodle that always strolled around the neighborhood without a leash on and without an apparent owner is part of the new neighborhood watch.

To my suprise, sharing a tiny room between the two of us wasn’t so bad, as I was alone in there pretty much all day. And sharing the house with (rough estimate) 10 Mexican migrant workers wasn’t so bad either, because they were also working all day and otherwise clean and quiet. I never found out how many there were, because there seemed to be a very high fluctuation. I suspect there were 10 – counted by the number of cars that parked in front of the house at night. The only constant face was the guy who slept on a floor matress outside our door. But even his name I never learned.

The actual challenges of living there were things I hadn’t expected: our Mexican neighbors playing Mexican pop songs (and Céline Dion) at full blast from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. every evening, and their cocks’ crowing waking us at 5 a.m. every morning. Around 10 a.m., when I was trying to get some work done on my laptop, they’d usually tend their tiny front yard with extremely loud machinery such as leaf blowers and gasoline-powered hedge trimmers.

Whenever the neighbors were quiet, I was entertained by a turbaned elderly Indian-looking ice cream vendor who drove his shabby ice cream truck by our window at five minute intervals, always playing the same melody, over and over again.

Example of an ice cream truck

Not the actual ice cream truck. His was smaller, probably backyard-selfmade, and definitely wouldn’t have passed any health inspection. (C) icecreamtrucksforsale.com

In between the Indian ice cream vendor’s rounds, an elderly Asian lady pushed her candy cart down to road, incessantly ringing a bell to anounce her coming. She was usually closely followed by a young Latino drawing a hand car full of tamales for sale. His prefered method of noise harassment was a squeaky horn.

I have now developed a thorough dislike of food vendors. I also found out that that ice cream truck jingle is a thoroughly racist song which justifies me in my violent hatred thereof:

After four weeks, my ghetto experience ended. We found an apartment in a different area after just one afternoon of nervous searching. We saw it, liked it, and put down $150 to have it put off the market and reserved for us immediatly.

On September 30th, 2014 we finally moved.

Shared house in East Palo Alto

Goodbye East Palo Alto …

Apartment front

… hello Redwood City!

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