Climbing Out Of Germany’s Administrative Nightmare

Having made the brilliant/psychotic decision to become a freelancer at the start of the year, only now am I finally getting my head around what this means. In Germany, becoming a freelancer is notoriously difficult with their bureaucracy issues compounding when you dare step out of the line of full-time employment. So far I’ve had to deal with:

Getting a work visa as a freelancer - Immigration told us it was near impossible. Just get a normal job they said. You need to register the companies you want to work for with the Government they said. You need at least two job offers at once before they’ll consider it they said. You can’t get a freelance contract with any details relating to how you’re going to perform for the company they said. We got it anyway. Only two months of going back and forward from the offices and my poor boyfriend hounding them on the phone every day.

Registering with the tax office - This was a much easier process, and in fact it was the tax office who helped us with immigration when we were getting incorrect information out of them. Send an email to the right person and it’s done - having said that, if I didn’t have a partner who speaks German this may have been a lot more difficult.

Registering for proper health insurance – On my travel visa I’ve been getting away with paying towards an expat health provider for less than 30 euro a month. Now I have my work visa I think it’s time to join the rest of the German population, particularly if I’m going to be using their health services for anything other than emergencies in the coming years. I believe the rule is that when you earn over 400 euro in the month you have to contribute to a health insurance company and with that looking very likely in my first month of self-employment I have contacted an agent to help me. I’ve heard horror stories about how this has gone for expats in Germany, with some having to pay half their salary towards such insurance. Hopefully all my bad karma has been used up on the visa and with some good luck this won’t cause any issues.

Finding an accountant - That process has also just begun, with my boyfriend insisting we need to look at some local options as well as ones specialising in helping expats. To help get a tax number the company I contacted quoted me 200 euro – I’m glad I did that myself. And when we get a few more quotes to compare over how much it costs to do a tax return and get a definitive answer on what point I pay tax then hopefully this will be sorted rather quickly.

Licence changeover - One company has already asked me to do some driving in their car to a class and the thought of that is making me wet my pants a little with fear. I’ve never driven on the other side of the road, apart from during a holiday in Greece where I nearly caused an accident in the roundabout, then cried, then let my boyfriend at the time take the car back to the hire place. Not the best experience, and I’ve also never driven a manual car which seems to shock a lot more Germans than it did Aussies. Starting the lessons has been tough – I feel like I’m 17 again and so far can so only get to second gear without bunny hopping – and the whole process is going to cost around 1000 euro, with official translation of my Aussie licence needed, as well as a day-long first aid course and a driving and theory test.

It’s been a lot of work to get this far and there’s still so much to go – and it means that I’ve spent the last few months almost entirely on the couch researching, writing and learning. My life in London, where parties filled the time away from work, feel like a distant memory. Will it be worth it? I hope so. In a year from now I hope I’m happily settled into my freelance life, with work in both writing and teaching, and that illustrious book I plan to write is in my hot little hands. For now, it’s all about enjoying the little moments in between, and working hard for the future.

 

xx

Berlin; not a town for the faint-hearted

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There’s been a slight amount of radio-silence over the last week as I’ve been away in Berlin, Copenhagen and sorting the beginning of two teaching jobs and making sure I actually have a working visa. Now, today is the first chance I’ve had to rest and recover from what has been a manic seven days, and a very successful seven days at that. I’m now the proud owner of German residency and after the hoops we’ve had to jump through to get this it’s quite a miracle; and having taught my first business English class on Tuesday it feels like everything is coming together.

Heading for Berlin last Wednesday, it would be the third time I have visited Germany’s capital and one of Europe’s top cities for art, nightlife and culture. The problem is though that the last two times I’ve been to this place I’ve left feeling worse for wear; the city has something about it that makes you forget the need to sleep and find solace in one of the many brilliant bars on offer. I love a good party and I love to go out late, but in the last year these habits have dwindled as I start to consider my health more and make plans for the future, as well as making friends with people who feel the same. But Berlin is like a bubble where the party will never stop and no matter how much you insist it won’t be a big night because you’ve got an early flight/want to do some sightseeing/want to make it for the free breakfast, somehow at 1am you’re looking for dinner and complaining that you can’t find any sushi (possibly happened on this trip).

So we went to Berlin to see Robbie Williams and thought we’d start the trip with a bang, attending the Alternative Berlin pub crawl on our first night. The bars they take you to are more interesting than what the usual pub crawl offers and after making friends with some Australians and visiting death metal, ping pong and upside-down (yep, this actually exists) establishments we ended up at a reggae club dancing for hours on end.

It got to 3am and felt like time to go home. But as we were walking through one of the best nightlife districts we couldn’t help but hear some fantastic music coming from one well-lit bar. Wandering in to see what it was all about, in what felt like minutes later we were still dancing as the sun was coming up through the windows. At about 6:30am we headed out for some of the finest currywurst and walked home to find our hostel friends getting ready for their day ahead.

Before this visit, I was in Berlin with a group of friends and my family for New Years Eve. We spent the night on a boat and New Years Day was mostly spent at McDonalds and the hotel club room with my parents, trying desperately to get over our hangover. The time before that, I was in Berlin on the back of a two week trip to Poland for the Euro football tournament. My voice was on it’s last ropes and as a result of a night out with the hostel staff it was completely gone for three days afterwards.

While I don’t think I could live in Berlin at this point in my life – I loved big-cities throughout my 20s, but as I edge closer to 30 I appreciate things like space and peace - to visit this place is like entering an alternate reality where night and day don’t exist, everyone is your best friend and art is all around you in every form. I’ll always love travelling to Berlin, though I think I’ll always need a day to recover when I return.

My favourite nightspots in Berlin:

Matrix – Great for if you want to spend the night in one place, the music is really good (mostly commercial) and there’s lots of rooms to mix it up. Expect a long wait in the queue and have your ID ready.

Yesterday Bar – Where the Alternative pub crawl starts, but it’s great to visit on it’s own as well – the cocktails are lovely and the decor is vintage and will keep you amused for hours.

Monster Ronson’s Karaoke Bar – One of my favourite things about Berlin is the multicultural nature of it, and there are certainly a number of karaoke bars that have a great atmosphere. Monster Ronson’s is the best I’ve been to, with booths galore and foosball and pool as well.

Berlin Warschauer Strasse U Bahn/S Bahn - One of the great things about Berlin is that you can just head for an area and wander around checking out any bar that takes your fancy. If you get off at this station and walk across the bridge (passing the view of the o2 arena) you’ll find countless bars behind a host of currywurst stands to provide breakfast when you’re done.

Boat parties – the summer brings a host of boat parties all over Germany and the prices are very decent and often include drinks. We spent New Years on a boat (this one) and it was perfect – 70 euro for all we could drink (with good quality ones on offer) and although it wasn’t exactly summer there are indoor areas and the music is always good. So if you’re visiting Berlin it pays to have a quick google to see if there’s any going on!

Learning to Predict the Weather

The last couple of weeks I have once again been hit by the phenomenon of springtime rain, a concept that has taken some getting used to since moving to continental Europe. In Australia it hardly ever rained as we were in a shocking drought during my second decade in the country; meanwhile in England, while the country holds a visual reputation of never ending rainy days, I found it to be more of a whimper than a full blown storm most of the time, resulting in constantly getting your umbrella out and putting it back in your bag.

Springtime in the south of Germany is like London’s rain on steroids – every morning as the sun comes up it buckets down, leaving me feeling quite glad that for these last few weeks at least I haven’t had to go out there on my way to work. Next week that all changes though unfortunately.

My boyfriend and I were woken up by the storm the other night, not quite understanding what it was at first. Some workers have been doing scaffolding on the side of our house and he automatically thought it was falling down with the loud banging noises jarring in our ears. I, on the other hand, had thoughts of the apocalypse in my head. which I put down to the vivid dreams I tend to have quite regularly. So we clutched hold of each other like two little children for about 5 seconds before realising that it was just a bit of thunder. Our ridiculous reactions made us laugh for quite some time.

On the flip side, it’s lovely to be living somewhere where the seasons can be so easily pigeonholed. Reading children’s books I never quite understood what they meant when they referred to the spring rain, the long hot nights that only happen in summer and the snowy winters that took them inside for the Christmas holiday. Germany has very set actions during each particular season – in the winter they celebrate the lead-up to Christmas and then spend the next three months riding out the cold with growing frustration until the first signs of spring peep through in March.

Then this constant rain, until a few days over 25 degrees start to mix in with the springtime glow. June will likely be as it was last year, bringing more of those hot days and allowing you to turn the fan on for the first time and buy ice-pops for extra relief. And July and August… that’s the time for getting away on a beach holiday (an all-inclusive one preferably if you’re really German).

I like how these things are becoming annual traditions for me, and are allowing me to gauge exactly how far I’ve gotten through the year. It allows more time for reflection and celebration of what you’ve achieved since the last time you were doing these things.

I fly out to Berlin today and then onto Copenhagen for the weekend and I’m hoping the rain will be at least a bit limited for us to see these beautiful cities. When I return, I’m hoping the June weather will have well and truly hit and rain is a distant thought in my mind as I rejoin the daily grind.

 

xx

A Trip To Our Local Palace

Coming from Australia, continental Europe’s palaces never fail to impress me. Our country is not nearly as old as many of these beautiful buildings and the places in history which they hold are so interesting - they’re like time machines that take you back to a time that you can only imagine what it would have been like to live in.

On Friday afternoon, my boyfriend surprised me with an early return from work and some wine. ‘We’re going to Ludwigsburg to take advantage of this weather’ he announced, and with that we were on the bus in half an hour and headed for the residential palace.

I can’t believe it’s taken us so long – we’ve been living here nearly three months now – to finally see this wonderful place. It went beyond my expectations and I imagine we’ll be having many summer picnics here in the coming months. The best thing about it is how quiet it is – we arrived at 7pm on a Friday night with hours of sunlight left, and at one point it felt like we were the only people in the park!

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The gardens felt like they went for miles and every one had perfectly manicured flowers

The gardens felt like they went for miles and every one had perfectly manicured flowers

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The baroque style gardens had a quirky touch

The baroque style gardens had a quirky touch

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Rapunzel's hair!

Rapunzel’s hair!

An old-school carousel

An old-school carousel

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The gardens remind me of Versailles

The gardens remind me of Versailles

Can you find the pig?

Can you find the pig?

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Learning To Relax Around Naked Germans

The scene of the nakedness...

The scene of the nakedness…

I went to an all girls school in Melbourne and while you might think that would make it a lot more comfortable changing for gym classes and in front of one another, it was quite the opposite. I perfected being able to change a whole outfit without showing an inch of skin to the outside world and I turned my nose up at any girl who showed off her half-naked physique while doing something crazy – like changing into her uniform or coming out from the showers. I don’t want to see another naked girl! What is wrong with her!! My prudish nature continued until my late 20s, with changing after adult gym sessions taking place in the toilets when I couldn’t be bothered to manoeuvre my outfit with the above-learnt process.

Meanwhile, when I moved to Germany and heard about the wonderful-sounding natural spring baths in Wiesbaden, just half an hour away from Frankfurt, I put it at the top of my list to check them out. That was until I found out they were naked ones. ‘I knew someone who wore a bikini in there, and someone actually complained about them because they said it was distracting!’ a German friend told me, as my eyes widened with shock. ‘Everyone is naked and all the men are with the women, that’s the case throughout most of Germany.’

She was certainly right about that, and it was nothing like the spas I had experienced in Australia, where the masseuse hiding her eyes with a towel as I rolled over being the closest another woman had come to seeing me naked. As expected, I found England to be equally prudish about such matters, unless you played cricket with the boys in the country for some reason…

Anyway, my boyfriend found it laughable that I would have a problem with going to a sauna and being sans-clothes around other people. Having grown up in this culture, he is much more comfortable with the whole being naked in public thing. After discussing it for a while I figured maybe it was time to get over my hang-ups about getting my kit off and jump in the deep end; it’s worked before when I’ve been problem solving, why couldn’t it now? So we got a Groupon voucher for the best spa in Frankfurt and headed out to relax and have what was for me a very new experience. When we arrived, everyone was in bikinis. I was entirely confused. But there are sections for clothed people and unclothed people, it was explained, which made me feel a lot more comfortable.

We went for a swim in the clothed pools first and it was really enjoyable – I haven’t really been to a public pool since I was quite young, so experiencing the cool whirlpools, diving board, waterslides and the outdoor pool where you could swim indoors took me back to being a kid again. After an hour or two RZ suggested we go into the more adult area and my heart started to pound.

We went into the changing area, and while he slipped off his shorts with the upmost confidence, I resorted to my school days of taking my bikini off underneath my towel. It wasn’t so easy this time around, with me trying not to make it obvious how uncomfortable I was, but I got there eventually. Never have I been so thankful for a towel in my life – it would become my shield for the next six hours or so whenever I was experiencing feelings from slightly bashful to completely embarrassed.

Having said that, RZ assured me that everyone uses their towel in the sauna. This is fine I thought, I can just chill out in there whenever I’m feeling a little less comfortable with my nakedness! But as it turns out, people take their towels in, lay them out and just sit on them showing off all their best and worst assets. It took me a few hours to become comfortable with that, but by the end of the day I was at the point of happily lying down on my towel with my legs firmly crossed, which I would say is serious progress.

My comfortable-ness came slowly as the day turned into night. Seeing so many different people in all shapes and sizes around me just going about their business naked made the whole process a lot easier as I acclimatised myself.

I’ve grown up only ever seeing photoshopped and skinny pictures of other women naked, so it was quite refreshing to see what real bodies looked like, though I made a huge effort not to stare and to try and, like everyone else, just do my own thing.

We ended the day with a swim in the outdoor heated pool before getting our swimsuits back on and having a hearty schnitzel in the cafeteria for supper. It felt like I’d been on holiday for the day, my skin felt fantastic, and I no longer felt so horribly scared of being around other people with no clothes on. It’s something I definitely want to do again soon and for Christmas both my boyfriend and I gave each other presents involving spa trips.

While I’m not quite at the stage of heading there with my girlfriends or anyone apart from the guy who sees me naked on a normal basis anyway, I certainly feel a lot less inhibited about my body and any issues associated with it, and can see the benefits of relaxing in that feeling. Once again Europe, you have taught me something lovely and new! ;) xx

Visiting Frühlingsfest For The First Time

One of the fairs which Stuttgart is particularly proud of is Frühlingsfest, with the city’s major beer festivals taking place bi-annually as opposed to Munich’s once a year Oktoberfest event. Stuttgart has it’s own version of Oktoberfest in the Autumn too – Cannstatter Volksfest – and my boyfriend made a visit last year while attending an interview for the job he now has. So having been to the last three Oktoberfests and loving every one, for us the prospect of having a similar festival on our doorstep twice a year was pretty exciting. My collection of dirndls continues to grow and with lederhosen for girls becoming more popular it might just include some of that soon too. Oktoberfest to me is everything that’s great about Germany; from the relaxed beer gardens to the party atmosphere, to being able to make your own fun with cheesy English music in the background, it’s a great couple of weeks spent by all. And not to forget the fantastic food and beverages on offer; sorry to say Aussie friends, but it beats any BBQ in the backyard hands down. IMG_3347 IMG_3351 IMG_3353 So we travelled across Stuttgart on Saturday night to the festival feeling particularly excited about what would be on offer; I’d heard it was a younger crowd and obviously it wouldn’t be as big as the Munich version but so long as there is dancing on the tables I’d be happy. My first impressions of the festival were mixed; smoking was allowed in the tents which was probably the biggest downside of the night. For some reason it still seems to be very acceptable in Germany to smoke in public places, and coming from Australia which is at the forefront of getting rid of the deadly habit this still comes as quite a shock to me that so many people smoke in a seemingly well-educated country. That aside though it was definitely much more of a nightclub atmosphere than in Munich with flashing lights playing a big part in the beer tents after the sun went down. There were only three tents which was slightly disappointing but apparently that number rapidly grows for the Autumn festival, and the tents on offer this time around weren’t overly packed. At about 8pm we were able to get into one of the beer tents quite easily while the other two advised us to get there early in the day to either line up for the free tables, or try and purchase a day ticket. Finding a place to sit/stand/dance would prove somewhat more difficult, making getting there early a must in the future, but the party was certainly in full swing as we wondered through with Oktoberfest classic ‘Sweet Caroline’ booming from the band up front.

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The party gets going in one of Stuttgart’s beer tents.

The rides outside the tents were as ridiculously scary-looking as in Munich with every type of torture you could inflict on yourself imaginable. I’m not a big rides fan but RZ is and the prospect of returning here during the week with his work colleagues to give the roller coaster a test drive is certainly appealing for him.

One of the rides takes you through some kind of waterfall backwards and all over the place. I suppose it speeds up the hangover process!

One of the rides takes you through some kind of waterfall backwards and all over the place. I suppose it speeds up the hangover process!

For anyone coming to Germany for a holiday in the spring (end of April to beginning of May), I would definitely recommend giving this festival a go if you’re looking for the Oktoberfest experience of dressing in traditional German gear, drinking good beer, having a plate of chicken and a good old dance on the table. And even in the Autumn I’m told it’s a much cheaper option than it’s more famous brother (a beer is 10 euro with tip in Munich, in Stuttgart it’s 6.80) so it could be worth a visit then as well.

Suffering from Correspondence Guilt

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I’ve been living away from Australia for three years now, though I travelled for around 6 months before making the move a permanent one. While I had a lot of acquaintances in Aus before I left, nowadays I would say that amount has whittled down significantly. When you leave a country permanently, and the friends and life with it, it’s obvious you won’t be there for important moments in those people’s lives and when you’re not there, over time, they can forget about you. I’ve seen wedding pictures on Facebook I know I would have been invited to had I stayed in Melbourne. I’ve watched old friends make big life achievements through social media and wished I had been there through every step, but being so far away makes being such a good friend to everyone I knew before impossible.

I constantly prioritise keeping in touch with people, and particularly with my best friend there are regular Skype sessions where I feel like I’ve almost been there for her first years of marriage, buying a house, starting a business and having a baby. But it’s only almost. It’s a terrible feeling knowing that once-close friends have moved on without you and don’t see you as the person they can turn to for help and advice anymore, and there have been times I’ve questioned my decision to move abroad because of it.

The time difference is also such a big issue, with Europe in day-mode while Australia goes into slumber and vice versa. I try to Skype with as many friends and family as possible but there are only 7 nights in the week and with work in the morning, I can’t just grab a lunch break and talk to them briefly as it’s 11pm by this point over there.

I was discussing this with a English friend who is in Australia at the moment – over Skype of course – and both of us were expressing the constant guilt we feel over not being in touch with the ones we love enough. At any given moment, just looking through my emails, and Facebook, and Whatsapp, and whatever other programs I have that keep me in touch with people, there are countless messages I need to reply to. It can be overwhelming sometimes and reminds you of what you’re missing elsewhere while living your life here.

Of course I’m well aware that I’m bloody lucky to be in a position to have so many friends and family to talk to. Equally, the fact that we have these means of technology is certainly one of the reasons our generations travel so freely compared to the ones preceding us. I wouldn’t be living in Germany if it weren’t for the internet – Google translate alone has been a godsend. And Skype gives me the ability to talk to whoever I want for free across the globe. It’s an invention which can give anyone living abroad much needed strength and dulls the feeling of loneliness on command.

But having such technology, with the ability to contact our friends the world over with ease, also has an added pressure I’m not sure I was prepared for. Finding that my English friend was going through the same thing - trying to coordinate the sails of life abroad with holding onto the anchor of those back home, and struggling with the balance – made me feel less alone in my own struggles.

Constantly worrying over when to sit down and go through messages to reply to often builds up until it becomes too overwhelming, and then I end up not replying to people I care about. On the flip side, I feel frustrated that other people don’t seem to think of me as part of their lives anymore and don’t reply to my own communication. It’s a cycle of stupidity on my part really and it has to stop.

So now that I am settled in a city, hopefully for the long term for the first time in 3 years, I will make more of a conceded effort to plan my correspondence better. To save set times for it and not worry about it outside of those. People have gotten on with their lives since I left, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. And I’ve gotten on with mine too, which they understand.

A Munich Trip Without Oktoberfest

With the CELTA course officially over, my boyfriend very sweetly booked a trip to Munich for us for the weekend to enjoy some of the sights as well as relaxing in a hotel with all the trimmings. We stayed at the Eurostars Grand Central and from the moment we arrived I felt completely relaxed. I’m usually more of a hostel-girl so the massive buffet breakfast with accompanying live music, huge comfortable beds and a bathroom with everything was quite the treat.

With the boyfriend planning everything for the trip we had a long list of things to see. I’ve been to Munich three times now but every one of those trips has been for Oktoberfest – only one of them involved seeing something other than beer tents! So I was really interested to see what the place looked like when one of the biggest festivals in the world wasn’t taking over.

The answer to that was that is was very similar – the first place we went to after dropping off our bags was the Augustiner beer garden, which was packed on the beautiful sunny day, and there were scores of people still in their lederhosen and dirndls… so it wasn’t quite the change from Oktoberfest I was expecting after all :) but after having some fantastic chicken and sausages we headed out to take a look around the city and the beauty of Munich really shone through.

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The thing I loved so much about Munich was the way the buildings represented much of what I know to be German – so structured and regal and clean-looking. The whole city was in tune with this style and it was just amazing to walk around and see building after building with the same feel to it.

We also checked out the parks which were equally beautiful. The beer gardens were all through the main park in Munich, with a buffet style line-up for food and loads of options for drinks, desserts and sides to your typical Bavarian feed. The park was jam-packed for the beautiful sunshine and walking to one of the top peaks we settled for a while and listened to some great buskers playing English classics. The day was sealed by watching some of the surfing – certainly not the way surfing looks in Australia!

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After getting over all the walking we got our dancing shoes on and headed to Vogler jazz club which was the best night out in Munich I could have asked for. The food and drinks were very affordable and the music had a great Latino feel to it. Sitting up at the bar, my boyfriend was mesmerised by the bar man making cocktails and it looked like the perfect place to spend a birthday or have a celebration with the dance floor immediately filling up every time the live act took to the stage.

The next day we took advantage of the spa at the hotel. It wasn’t a massive one – the sauna could fit maybe five people. And if you’re wondering, yes it was a naked one, which I’m still struggling to get my head around. Luckily there were optional towels to use! The pool was really calming and had access to the roof top where we could see all of Munich, making for a nice end to the day.

On the final day we packed up and headed to the markets in the main square in the morning – with so many trinkets and food and more beer on offer Munich is clearly a place that is just as much fun outside Oktoberfest as during the festival. It’s only a 2 hour drive or train ride from Stuttgart, and I’m sure we’ll be back again soon.

xx