Category Archives: On the road

The — almost — ubiquitous German wannabes

No wonder I have been running into “Germanness” and Americans who proudly tell me of their German ancestors at almost every turn. I know the immigration history of the United States enough to remember that Germans came in large numbers in the 19th century for religious and political freedom, peace and work opportunities.

But the neat map above shows a nuance of the outcome of this history that I had not been aware of. Almost all of the Northern states have counties with large ethnic German groups. While having jumped between four states and one district in my almost eight years of living in the United States, they were all situated in the Northern half of the country (except for a couple of months living in Atlanta, GA). That is, they are covered in the bright orange blanket in the upper part of the map. German heritage everywhere! 46 million Americans claim German ancestry — making them the biggest ethnic group in the United States. It shows in names, in people’s stories, businesses, in small stores and tourist traps, where German references in image and text are often adjacent to Austrian and Swiss products and landscapes.

Americans are happy to point out to me their connections to Germany, often claiming that they are German, too! It is the most frequently used marker that people pin on me: the German one. My accent serves as a reminder to ask: “Where are you from?” My response usually goes one of two ways depending on my energy level on a given day to indulge in American-style excited small talk about superficial commonalities referring to Germany, or not. I either play along with a smile, succinctly explaining that yes, of course, Leipzig is near Berlin. Or I am bluntly shooting back saying that I do not know their (fill in the blank for town) in West Germany where their friend/great-grandmother/father was visiting/living/stationed. Exceptions of true interest beyond small talk exist but remain rare.

I know and feel my being German everyday. It is a huge part of me and will always be. But that does not mean that I am only German. I am also a reader of novels from all over the world, a professor, a hobby runner, an Arabic learner, (and I guess a blogger)…. You get the idea.

One of the luxuries of life is not to have to explain oneself. As an immigrant this becomes even more treasured. For one, the explanation load to new friends, acquaintances and colleagues with references to strange cultures, pasts, and childhood products, TV shows etc. from abroad is way higher than within a given country and/or culture and might remain incomprehensible to non-natives. Second, albeit well-meant, confusions with Austrian and Swiss vacation visits make small talk even weirder. Why would I know anything about Salzburg or Vienna? Even the otherwise smart Economist starts its article on the German silent minority with an example of an “Austrian chalet.” ???

Many Americans think they know Germany, and most of them only West Germany anyway, but they don’t. They only mangle, albeit mostly positive, stereotypes with re-hashed fourth-hand stories. Beer, cars, Autobahn, Bavaria, pork, engineers… I am sure you got some of your own. We all do.

But it is okay to not always know, to not always connect, to endure silence.

The German heritage might be very visible in the map as a yellow carpet of assumed familiarity but day-to-day encounters show that few Americans know anything about the real Germany, let alone the current and former East.

Perhaps German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the United States this February 9 will help. As an East German, childless woman with a Ph.D. in physics she is a quadruple anomaly in politics but a great symbol for Germany’s past and present. Surely some of that will find its way into the more observant U.S. news media, perhaps bringing some of Germany’s realities to the many Americans who like to fantasize about their ancestors’ homeland.


The Secretary of State in the Strip Mall


It is was one of these days. I should have known when I stepped outside my house. It was gray, rainy, cold. It reminded me of Seattle in the fall (and winter and spring). But at least in Washington state the inside works efficiently, for instance when I got a driver’s license in seven minutes.

Not so in Michigan. While it offers sunshine often, its bureaucracy clouds the day.

The cute thing in the supposedly “United” States of America is that each state issues its own driver’s license, car registration and title. With each move, you have to get fresh documents. I am living in my fifth state now. Imagine the fun.

First, the nearest office for the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) showed two different addresses online. In the drizzle I directed my car to address number one. I arrived at a run-of-the-mill strip mall with dollar stores, nail shops and beauty salons. One bigger gray building looked official but turned out to be empty. I asked in the dollar store; the cashier hadn’t heard of a DMV office there.

I checked again online; off to address number two. I arrived at another strip mall. Same kind of stores; another small gray building at one end. Many cars sat in front of it, people streamed inside. Confidently I headed toward the building. A man in front of me held the door open. I rushed in…and landed in something else. Women with head scarves and some men with turbans sat at desks quietly reading. Beautiful rugs, book shelves and paintings decorated the room. The polite man at the door said: “This is a mosque.” He added the DMV used to be here. I sped outside and laughed hard in the parking lot.

Back to square one. I called a colleague who had visited the mysterious local DMV office before. He sent me back to address number one. He advised to look for a store labelled “Secretary of State.” He also mentioned he waited for an hour and a half.

It sat between LaVita Massage, L.A. Insurance and The Beauty Department. Announcing itself in glowing neon-letters like the other stores around it, a government agency did its best to hide from the residents who are forced to use it.

Inside women with toddlers, bands of young men, and older folks were waiting – in line, in seats, at booths. Warned of the waiting time, I had brought work. I drew a number and sat down. After a while a voice shouted people who need licenses need to come over to pick up another sheet. Did that, sat down again. After 45 minutes I reached a service booth with a person.

I had brought all my identification documents from this country and Germany: passport, green card, my still current Washington state driver’s license/ID, and my German driver’s license. In addition, I brought a rental lease, car registration, car title, authorization by the co-owner of the car that I can act on his behalf, copy of the co-owner’s driver’s license/ID, cash, check books and credit cards. Oh yeah, and the application form.

These were not enough.

No, a rental lease is not enough to prove residency. Another piece of paper with the address is needed.

No, all the identification documents were not sufficient. The real printed social security card needs to be brought! Unheard of. Never in my seven years as an immigrant did I ever have to bring my U.S. social security card anywhere. Usually you just have to memorize and give the number. Not even Homeland Security, otherwise quite demanding when it comes to documents, ever wanted to see it, or a copy of it. In fact, the social security card is not allowed as a means of identification as Americans feared a national tracking system could lead to Nazi-like persecution. (Remember each state issues its own IDs, hence my ordeal.)

No, not any car insurance but one in Michigan is needed to do anything about switching over the car. This includes getting new license plates. Yes, you have to change license plates in the same country when you move to a different part of it.

I keep telling friends and anyone who complains about German bureaucracy that U.S. bureaucracy is just as burdensome and annoying. In fact, it is enhanced because each state wants to squeeze its share of Benjamins out of you. The only redeeming, merciful gesture this unfriendly process offered was a pink slip. When I return with my additional documents, I don’t have to wait in line. Bottom line: it’s all about the Benjamins. That makes a strip mall a fitting place.

PS: It did not help that when finally driving to work, a bus that ran by kept flashing “Have a good day” on its digital display board.

Update: With the power of the magic pink slip my second visit a week later went more smoothly. The sun was shining. The Secretary of State was still in the same strip mall. Within about half an hour I got the paper work for my new driver’s license, registration and title. I’m officially a Michigoose now. Hooray!

Small but colorful: Gasworks Park Seattle

The third installment of my series of industrial sites around Seattle is Gasworks Park. The park is small. Its greens are framed by colorful machinery and the popular kite hill which offers a pleasing overview over the skyline of Seattle over Lake Union.

My favorite spot is the row of “hidden” benches that overlook the lake, where the duck tour ships cruise by, some actual ducks paddle along and brave rowers make their way across even in what feels like sub-zero temperatures. Best of all is enjoying the sunshine on one’s face on one of those rare sunny days.

When I first “discovered” Gasworks Park, a group of knights practiced their fighting. More commonly, kids, dogs and joggers hang out in the park. But the drum beats of the medieval group and the clinging of swords provided an unusual welcome.

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My reverse #culture #shock-ish bother list for #Germany

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Public restrooms in Pike Place Market in Seattle.

I returned from my most recent visit to Germany a while ago but the things that I noticed this time are still sticking in my mind.

As some of you might know I am always keen to notice differences in the United States compared to Germany. This time in Germany it rather stood out to me what I missed from the United States. So here is my reverse culture shock-ish bother list for Germany:

To explain the photo I posted along with this text I will start of with perhaps the most annoying item: German cities barely, if at all, offer free public restrooms. Even as a native knowing my way around it is hard to find them. Universities might be one place, if you are familiar with them (Leipzig). Bigger department store chains might be another, again, if you know about them (Berlin). But the rule of thumb is, there are none. You either pay or contract a UTI from holding it back. Paying is the healthier option. The argument goes, you get a nice, clean environment; without money they would be dirty and destroyed. If needed, such “public for pay” restrooms can be found in train stations. Once you find them, psychologically prepare for the price for entering this precious little place (literally called like that in German, Örtchen): 1€ or $1.35 (as of today) on average. But don’t expect the cleaning person to be overly friendly, money doesn’t overcome average German grumpiness necessarily. Outside cities, this might also happen if you drive along the public Autobahn. Even if it is the only rest area nearby, if it’s a fancy looking gas station and restaurant, it’s highly likely their restrooms are only accessible when you have the right coins ready.

Hence, the photo above with its huge inviting mosaic and gender-progressive message — placed in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. How often have I yearned for the ubiquitous restrooms common in the United States, in National Parks, any larger eating places, even small supermarkets, along highways, and in train stations. Restaurants (perhaps New York City might be an exception here) usually let you use their facilities if you ask politely.

Perhaps this is all connected to not serving another fundamental human need: drinking water. In my counting there is exactly one water fountain in all of Germany: in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Berlin, across from the U.S. Embassy. A small elegant water fountain provides fresh, freely flowing water for no charge. (The entire museum is free of charge and I can highly recommend visiting it as well as the memorial.) Not only are there no water fountains, but you also won’t be greeted with a free glass of water at any restaurant. No. You have to order the water and ALWAYS pay for it. Try asking for tap water only — same reaction. You have to order it properly and pay for it. The reasons they give vary, either for health or, more obvious, business reasons. Oh, and don’t forget to extra order your ice cubes. They are also missing unless you ask and pay. Oh, and be aware if you want to avoid being served the standard bubbly carbonated water fizzing up your nose from the inside, order stilles Wasser, literally meaning quiet water. An alternative is to keep your refillable water bottle nearby and make use of the precious restrooms you come across, as most city water is okay to drink, and after all you pay there already anyway.

Just as hard to find are free wi-fi connections OR those bought for a cup o’ joe (well, cocoa in my case.) Even universities don’t offer guest internet access just so by wandering around campus. Cafés and restaurants are also unlikely to offer you access along with food (except for the famously geek attracting Sankt Oberholz in the center of Berlin). After looking around Leipzig for some hours checking for the German equivalent of the friendly standard “Free Wi-Fi” labels on shop windows in the United States, I gave up and — oh the irony — landed in a Starbucks (remember, Seattle, founding place of Starbucks)! For a hot beverage I could finally check my e-mail in a corner extra set up for laptops. I asked a few friends about this. Because apart from the tendency of many Germans to not be tied to the internet 24/7 compared to U.S. users, what holds back shop owners to make wi-fi part of their sales pitch? I learn that German laws suggest if something happens on their connection because of a customer, shop owners would get into trouble, i.e. no internet, no risk. Hmpf.

What on the contrary to missing restrooms, water, and wi-fi is plentiful and easy to encounter is cigarette smoke. Perhaps the comparatively stricter U.S. policies in this regard have further sharpened my non-smoking sensibilities. But this time I developed a headache being trapped in an inner court yard full of smokers. They did go outside as smoking was verboten inside, fair enough, yet it made it hard for me to soak up fresh air after also being stuck inside. Well, I know, I can hear the voices, it was a particular spot and a particularly big crowd as I attended a conference. But beyond, my impression was that on average more people smoke in Germany. And while all the smokers I know are very rule-abiding and polite before lighting up, the rules are handled rather lax and vary. The once intended strict law to prevent smoking in and around eateries and public places has literally — excuse the cheap pun — gone up in smoke.

This relaxed attitude toward smoking in Germany derives from still seeing smoking as a kind of savoir vivre like enjoyment with no social stigma attached in contrast to an often implied lower social status or weakness in the United States. Yet, more rigid hierarchies persist in other corners of German society. Perhaps above all these occasional material annoyances, I missed a certain freedom to think and freely approach and chat up people. It is hard to describe this lofty mental liberty but I know other “Germanican space wanderers” like me experience this similarly. I missed the small talk, the sense that everyone can talk to everyone. Instead, authorities of all kinds exude their power. Be it the temporary power of a person at a cash register or the trickier situations of German Ph.D. students when it comes to earning their living at the bottom of the hierarchy in academia. Somehow everyone has their place, those who stick out are viewed suspiciously. Meaning also that when I arrive for the first days, my U.S. standard mood of positive enthusiasm hits an outward rather hard wall of what Americans might interpret as German grumpiness. But as the saying goes the harder the shell, the softer the core. So I have to reverse my U.S. mode of soft approachable public outside and hard private inner core as it is often falsely interpreted as superficiality by Germans when they meet U.S. Americans or those who soaked up their demeanor.

Thinking about this all, it struck me that all these phenomena have to do with the idea of public and private. Funny, that a country which prides itself on a social market economy and provides so many social services to its citizens (if not necessarily to those of other status living there), public spaces don’t offer free water, toilets, wi-fi, and non-smoking public areas are often still an afterthought. Whereas another Western country built on a stronger emphasis on individual achievement and a pioneer spirit of private autonomy freely gives water, restrooms, wi-fi, and has strict non-smoking areas in public spaces to consider everyone. Perhaps because it offers less social services, health care and higher public education just for steep prices. Similarly, Germany as a supposedly more social society nevertheless is hard to crack for everyone who is considered non-German. Try even as a legal immigrant in Germany or having grown up there all your life (with perhaps one parent having immigrated, let alone both) to say: I am German. It most likely won’t be accepted by many. Meanwhile, I can’t count how many times people in the United States have asked me when I will become a U.S. citizen, wholeheartedly welcoming me and assuming I would want to become one, why not?

The solution, and no doubt privilege, is to enjoy the perks in each place. And to embrace the refreshing muddle in my mind each time when I perform the delicate act of crossing borders, cultures, and restroom thresholds.

PS: Here is a short summary of the theory behind what it means to cross cultures in terms of intercultural adaptation and competence, by Nicolas Bowman, Assistant Professor of Communication STudies at West Virginia University:

Update Monday, October 21, 2013

It just so happens that Germany’s public national radio DRadio just published an entire report dedicated to the lack of public toilets in Germany! Perhaps they read my post for inspiration? Alas, the report is in German only, it was posted on October 21, 2013. (URLP:

Inauguration Impressions


I just returned from my trip into D.C. to witness the inauguration atmosphere in the city. Alas, we didn’t make it onto the National Mall completely, instead watching the ceremony at an also very crowded public viewing spot at the Washington Monument.

The photos below trace our journey starting at L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station where a bevy of vendors clustered around the entrance to loudly announce their Obama paraphernalia — from the standard items like t-shirts, caps, posters, hats, key chains, and mugs to “presidential water,” tote bags, hot dogs and burgers, special Washington Post copies and every other item you could print his and Michelle Obama’s image on.

Originally trying to get into the 12th entrance, the gate was closed about ten minutes before we got to it. We headed down to 18th street where the Washington Monument became a gathering place for all the others who also hadn’t gotten in. But the audio and video of the public screen was very glitchy: speeches, songs, announcements — all scrambled and garbled. So instead of touching emotions we heard more giggles and jokes. The song “America, the beautiful” sounded more like “Aaa- mm-mm -rr— eu–tt-tti—ffff–” and so on. The irony of “the most powerful nation in the world” versus the incapability of running a video screen with proper audio on a day that was planned for four years ahead of time didn’t escape the crowd. When Obama finally took the oath of office, huge cheers broke out, people chanting “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma.”

We took to listening to speeches on the radio via iPod mini and iPhone streaming, still, Obama’s speech was not really eliciting lots of emotion because the broadcasting was too delayed, skipped parts or was scrambled. In rare moments when the speech could be heard clearly the crowd was totally silent and we could hear the echo of the other broadcasts along the Mall floating in the air.

After Obama’s address, which I overheard at least one guy saying was “good,” we headed toward U-Street, first up on 18th, then 14th Street. Suddenly a crowd of people slowly marching broke out into singing the U.S. national anthem, people clapped. A vendor called out “Yes we did!”

We met another friend at Busboys & Poets where we enjoyed a well-deserved melted Brie panini and sweet potato fries, warmth and rest for our feet. It actually was not as cold as feared but still hours of standing and walking take their toll. Busboys & Poets was packed and showed CNN coverage on large screens. I noticed how different the inauguration looked on CNN: white reporters and experts mostly during the time we were there when they covered the time between the inauguration and the parade. On the Mall at least two thirds were African-American, probably more.

As we were leaving D.C., more people still came into town for the parade. Lots of them with U.S. flags, pins, special clothing in red, white, blue, prints of Obama. But see for yourself below, in my inauguration impressions.

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Halloween central

This gallery contains 27 photos.

Sandy. Halloween. Elections. Thanksgiving. It’s definitely a busy fall this year and I can barely keep up with posting. But it also gives me a chance to blog after a bit of a hiatus. And after a blurb on my … Continue reading

Visiting Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall

I admit it, lately I have slacked off on playing tourist in D.C. despite living so close by. But remembering my sight-seeing days when I first moved to the capital about two years ago, I made it a point to visit the newest memorial on the National Mall, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial . I saw the fenced off construction site around the Tidal Basin before, close to the road that leads you back to the mall.

Plenty of visitors shortly after its opening

The controversial quote

I also had read about the memorial in Time, which reported on the controversy of the quote chiseled into the side of Martin Luther King. U.S. poet Maya Angelou lamented the shortening of the drum major quote from his sermon as making him sound egotistical. It does sound more powerful in the longer, original version (forward to 8:15 min. in the video) and to me there seemed to be plenty of room on the wall for a couple more lines. NPR’s report on the opening to the public reflected some of the other criticism, that a Chinese sculpture made the memorial look Chinese.

The statue looks a bit square-edged, harsh in a way but the effect of the block with Dr. King as the “stone of hope” rushing out of the “mountain of despair” in the background is neat. It looks powerful and certainly different than the other temple-like memorials. The darker wall with longer, famous quotes makes a good contrast in the background.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

A couple of people at the memorial told me they liked it and don’t understand the criticism. The man I talked to said he knew Dr. King’s family and especially his wife but has the historical view of Dr. King as anyone else. He said he had heard that some people didn’t like that Dr. King is crossing his arms in front of him. But no, he really liked it, he said.

I was wondering why a white stone was chosen for the first Black American honored with a memorial on the mall. And what it means to African-Americans to visit the pretty huge statue of the leader of the civil rights movement that brought them more equality. Still, except for a few areas, D.C. sometimes seems segregated in its neighborhoods. Certainly Atlanta where Dr. King lived and preached, and is already honored with a huge memorial, that I visited a few years ago, is still cut into black and white squares like a chess board.

Almost 39 million African-Americans live in the United States according to the 2010 U.S. census , i.e. over 12% of the 312 million overall U.S. population. Given the role of African-Americans in U.S. history it seems that it was high time to have them represented, Dr. King can just be a beginning. Indeed, a National Museum of African-American History and Culture is slanted to be build in 2012 along the National Mall, too, and to be completed in 2015.

If I still live around here, I’ll make it a point to return then, too.