Seattle off the beaten track: Museum of Communications

To continue my series of industrial sites around Seattle, next is a visit to the Herbert H. Warrick Jr. Museum of Communications (@museumofcomm) in the Georgetown neighborhood. Credit for finding this treasure trove goes to J.

The museum is housed in a cube-like building. It contains an impressing collection of especially telecommunication artifacts. It has a hands-on exhibition of the history of the telephone since 1876 and, as its website states, virtually all of the equipment is operational. The clicking noises of the switches definitely add to its atmosphere.

Friendly expert volunteers are eager to explain what the curious items are about, how they worked and how phone technology has changed. Plus, it is for free. A great place to visit around Seattle off the beaten track. Just make sure you plan ahead. It is open every Tuesday 8.30 am to 2 pm and every first Sunday of the month 11.30 am to 4 pm.

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SoDo Seattle

After now having lived around Seattle for several months in a row (and inspired by a couple of friends to revive my blogging), I want to share some photos I shot in  industrial sites around the area. This series depicts one of my favorite areas in Seattle: SoDo.

SoDo stands for South of (King) Dome, the old stadium. It is one of the industrial parts of town and reminds me a bit of the former industrial parts of Leipzig.

I love the huge cranes along the port, which look like big elegant giraffes to me. I love the faded color aesthetics suggesting better days some buildings might have seen in the past. And I love the back drop of the city against its rusty Southern neighborhood where fancy bakeries (make sure to visit @MacrinaBakery) nod hello to newly opened marijuana shops across the street and where the green and white Starbucks mermaid watches on her throne over the buzzing city. But see for yourself below.

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Homeschooling is “verboten” in Germany but embraced in the US — a conundrum solved

The case of the German family Romeike has been ongoing for several years and has being covered in German and U.S. news media for a few years now. I’ve seen it popping up now and again. But thanks to a kind forwarding gesture, I got to read the latest, well-written summary of the Romeike’s case in the Economist. Moreso, the Economist does a good job of comparing the homeschooling situation in Germany — it is “verboten” — with the situation in the United States where it is embraced.

Indeed, homeschooling is “verboten” in Germany. I have never heard of any kids being home-schooled. Everyone I ever encountered among my friends in college or elsewhere has gone to a German school. The article does a good job of reflecting the German situation, also that Germany overall features a very secular society and more so than in the United States where one has to be more cautious to make jokes about believing people.

I would say the case of the Romeike family has been so prominent in the U.S. and German media not only because of their unusual asylum request to the U.S. on the grounds of fleeing Germany as refugees of “religious and social persecution,” but because it is a very unusual case in Germany. I don’t know how many other parents want to home school their children, but this is usually not part of German discourse. Everyone just goes to school, and more so than in the United States, attends a public school. Currently, there is an even greater push to make schools models of “lived tolerance” by using the concept of “inclusion,” in which children with different (dis)abilities, ethnic backgrounds, and levels of achieving (9th, 10th or 12th aims) learn side by side.

Upon hearing of the story, J. commented: “Germans don’t let their kids be brain-washed. They’ve had bad experiences with that in the past.” Indeed, the article also refers to the Nazi time, and German angst toward groups that threaten societal consensus.

But I also think Mr. Romeike’s comment about “the German mentality” is quite appropriate, that “things have to be a certain way.” I explored a similar theme in a study on why political blogs are not flourishing in Germany compared to the United States and France.Broader German society believes in institutions which are recognized as authorities. If individuals want to stick out of that community, for instance individual bloggers or in this case individual parents, they are viewed with suspicion by society-at-large and are not recognized as doing official business. Especially since, except for some schools, nothing is really wrong with German public schools on average. For the most part, only if you have an official stamp and permission, broader German society recognizes something as legitimate. German parents fashioning their own permissions is usually not part of it.

Welcome to your routine health care disruption

It’s been churning in my head for days. Again. It happens every time I move: the pharmacy-doctor-health insurance triangle got me trapped for just trying to cover basic needs.

This is nothing new for people living in the United States with a U.S. health insurance. It’s an unfortunate situation that haunts those who live here longer than just for an internship or for a study-abroad year during which most typically people carry along a health insurance from their home country.

If you live in the United States for real and are not super rich the health care disruption will get you, again and again. It’s daily (non-)news that the unsystematic system is broken. It’s frequent talk among colleagues and friends. It’s always good for a rant to share the latest absurdity. By the way, this has little to do with Obamacare; it was broken before and still is because of some fundamentally weird ways it has been set up. These are my two cents on the issue after having dealt with it from a patient perspective, or rather consumer perspective. After all, you have to remember it is all about the money, not the human.

So to my German or otherwise non-U.S. based readers, I want to offer a current sliver of experience with this strange arrangement. Alas, it differs so much from the German system (the only other health care system I have experienced) that it will be hard to explain all its kinks. Before getting to my most recent adventure in this bureaucratic jungle, here’s a quick primer on some fundamentals (flaws):

For starters, most typically you only have health insurance if you are employed, i.e. the employer picks your health insurance. If you’re out of a job, you are out of insurance. But while you are employed AND your spouse is employed you can also be double-insured.

Within the plans that your employer offers, you can choose between different alphabet soups of HMO, PPO, HSA, etc. I won’t even go there; it’s a mess to understand that is usually explained in a brochure as big and thick as a Spiegel magazine. A big dividing line runs between, most often, cheaper plans in which you are only allowed to visit pre-approved doctors in your state and those in which you can freely choose a doctor across the entire country (yeah, land of freedom!). You better think hard which one you pick because you’re only allowed to switch your plan once a year during a pre-defined, short period (unless you have a birth, death or wedding or other “life-changing event”). Otherwise you’re stuck.

Second, insurances do not necessarily cover all body parts. In my wallet, I currently carry 5, yes, 5 cards to “insure” the health of my entire body: 1 for my mind, 1 for my teeth, 1 for the rest of my body, 1 other one for the rest of my body (second insurance via J.), and 1 for prescriptions.

So you would think I am good to go. It’s in fact the best combination I have had so far in the country. Before, when I was only a student in Ohio, the university as my employer would not offer dental insurance. I shelled out about $100 each time I saw my dentist. When I was an intern, my employer did not offer me insurance but I had to look for an alumni insurance for recent graduates on my own.

Now with 5 jokers in my pocket, you would think it does the trick to be covered. But the thing is, you never know what is covered for how much until you visited your doctor. Which is the next thing that differs.

To find a doctor you first call the insurance to ask which doctor is covered. Then a robot-like human of the insurance tells you on the phone in legal language (after you work yourself through an automated message system and wait on hold for at least 15 minutes) that you still need to check with the doctor’s office if they work with your insurance. Then you call the doctor’s office and ask if they are working with your insurance. After they say yes, you cross your fingers that this is true, and you can finally make an appointment.

This still does not mean that everything routine you do is covered, e.g. yearly check ups on teeth, eyes or a standard physical. I had to pay over $100 for a routine eye check (which I hadn’t had for about two years). I had to pay over $400 with insurance to get my wisdom teeth removed. I had to pay over $100 for my routine dental check up. You get the idea… Almost every time you visit a doctor you pay a co-pay (Praxisgebühr) or a fee afterwards, or both. For each visit, at any doctor’s office, you either get a bill right away or an “explanation of benefits,” which tells me that my doctor’s office will send me a bill later.

I know Germans pay a lot each month in health insurance fees. While the monthly fee here might be sometimes lower, this is not always the case. Especially with Obamacare many people pay way more and get less and/or were forced to go to a new doctor (yes, call your insurance again to make sure the new one is covered.) My old dentist dumped me because of Obamacare and the university forced me to take on another insurance from their “wide” menu. Others pay thousands of dollars more for their family and still have to pay co-pays, fees and bills in addition.

So, now that we warmed up and considered these simple rules as the fertile ground for happy interactions with your insurance, doctor and pharmacy, we can dive into my current adventure.

Since I moved recently, I found myself a new doctor (remember lots of calling to figure this out). I had to ask the new doctor to write me a prescription for a routine medication I take regularly. Nothing extraordinary, something millions of people take all the time.

The doctor wrote the prescription. This does not mean that you get a neat little slip to take to the pharmacy of your choice. No, it means the doctor’s office calls in to a pharmacy that you need to pick in advance. Pharmacies here are usually at the back of any bigger supermarket. Imagine that inside your favorite supermarket, not far from the butcher’s counter, is another little counter or set of windows. That is where pharmacies are typically located. (Of course, also big drive-through pharmacies exist so you don’t have to leave your precious rolling metal cage.) Luckily, I already knew where I get my groceries most often. I gave the doctor the name of my supermarket.

I discussed with the doctor if I can keep using the brand I have been using. She said she did not know but that the pharmacy can tell me which generics I might be able to use instead. She said she cannot give me any medical advice on that. Brand v. generic plays a role again for what your insurance might cover or not. In my case it supposedly only covers the generic, not my brand. Hence my question to the doctor which effects a generic might have on my body. My doctor advises me to “shop around” at different pharmacies to get the brand I want.

In the supermarket pharmacy, I show them my shiny prescription insurance card. The assistant says the insurance covers the brand and the generic. Mmh, why did my insurance tell me they only cover the generic? Who is right? Happy that I can continue with my preferred brand, I learn I need to return to the supermarket the next day to pick up my brand.

The next day the pharmacy calls me, which is nice enough. But they tell me, oh no, they do not have my brand after all. Just the generic. I get the name of the generic. The pharmacist says it has the same active ingredient as the brand. I google it. Lots of horror stories pop up on different sites. Luckily, it just takes me three more phone calls to other supermarkets to “shop around” in the area. One supermarket tells me they don’t have a pharmacy albeit it says so on their website; the second also does not carry my brand, but the third does. After waiting on hold on the phone for another 10 minutes I get to talk to my new lucky chosen pharmacy. The assistant there cross-examines me quickly and starts a profile on me. Now my shiny new prescription joker gets activated; I give them all sorts of numbers they want to know. The pharmacy says they will send me a text message when my brand is delivered.

We’re not done yet. After finding the new lucky pharmacy, of course, I need to call my doctor’s office again to tell them to call in to this new pharmacy now with my prescription information. And by the way, also that the doctor needs to change the prescription so that I can pick up several packages at a time as my insurance allows. (Something my original pharmacy told me.) Otherwise, I have to go back to the pharmacy (which happens to be about the furthest distance as possible from my address in the same city) every so often just to pick up something I use all the time.

I just wait for 10 minutes on the phone of the doctor’s office to relay that I found a new lucky pharmacy. They say they will call in to this new one, adding the new information about several packages at a time.

Now I am only waiting for a text message from my new lucky pharmacy.
If I am super lucky my prescription insurance will cover the routine medication.
But who knows… I am yet to hold the right brand in my hand after working on the issue for just four meager days. And to see if a bill will follow.

Paying a visit to the Pumpkin Patch

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Hopefully the Great Pumpkin will show mercy on me as I just finally carved my pumpkin this afternoon. Perhaps that’s why the little fellow looks a bit scared. Yet, I know the Great Pumpkin — as J. has assured me — will reward me with a home-made zucchini bread for bringing it to life, even if its soggy top already foreshadows its decline. Alas, the circle of life of a pumpkin is short, especially as it has been bitten by frost at night. To bring it full circle let’s go back to where my journey with the pumpkin started: the pumpkin patch. While it was not my first time carving a pumpkin, it was the first time I visited a pumpkin patch. Because around this time of the year, it’s easy enough to just pick up a carving pumpkin from any supermarket as the first couple of photos show.

But it is so much more interesting to stomp through the mud of a real pumpkin patch, to see the glorious orange fruits attached to a stem, rolling in the soil, sprouting leaves and blossoms. It’s an experience I never had in Germany even though people there do grow a small variety of pumpkins [Kürbis]. But nowhere else than in the United States have I seen the range of color that squashes take on. Just like the leaves on the trees are turning in the fall, pumpkins here range from very pale yellow to dark green, with all shades of yellow and orange in between, patterns of two and three colors melting into each other, and twisty, curly shapes contrasting with the smooth ball-like iconic orange pumpkin for carving. I also loved to see the blue, red, and white corn, which beyond Halloween is already heralding the next holiday of Thanksgiving. I also inhaled the fresh smell of apples whose skin has not yet been waxed to produce the artificial supermarket shine. After checking out a wheelbarrow and wading into the wide field of fruits, I picked my first pumpkin.

Please enjoy my photos below which tell the history of J. & my pumpkin, born at the Mosby Pumpkin Patch nearby, stored on the balcony for two weeks, and now decorating my desk.

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Germans #privacy controversy? Not at second glance

A writer for The Atlantic recently puzzled over the seeming contradiction that Germans register their address in the Einwohnermeldeamt, an office each city runs to keep track of residents, and Germans’ aversion to Google Street View and any kind of census.

Yes, I can see how this is a contradiction that might strike someone with an “outsider” perspective. Just like I have trouble reconciling seeming contradictions in the United States such as its parallel emphasis on working hard with barely vacation days while also stressing entertainment and being with your family as values, its emphasis on the dishwasher-to-millionaire narrative while at the same time suffering from a striking gap between well off and not so well off people connected to structural injustices, or its parallel tolerance for death penalties in certain states and many people’s claim that god is to be the one to call on life and death. Anyway, I’m getting off track.

As people in the comment thread on The Atlantic pointed out, Germans HAVE to register. You need the document of residency registration for example to create a bank account and for other official or necessary matters. There is a fine if you don’t register in a certain period of time after moving to a different city. It might also have to do with Germans’ tendency to recognize hierarchies, authorities, and order — Ordnung muss sein!

But if Germans can avoid bureaucracy without fearing punishment from authorities, they will. For instance, I know several Germans living abroad who have not officially de-registered from their (former) German home towns. After all, it feels weird that remaining a German citizen you are not even allowed to use your parents’ address as an “official” German address, making you on the books homeless within your home country. Ironically, in the United States, official documents often ask me to include my “permanent home address” as opposed to a separate entry for the place where I now live. I would have done the same, avoid de-registration, if the Einwohnermeldeamt would not have forced me to do so. (Here is a good summary about Auslandsdeutsche in different countries by the BPB, in German.) Hence, my trouble with not being able to vote during the German federal election this year (the first time ever as a result of the de-registration).

If you are registered the ballots automatically come to your German address when it is voting time and you opt for voting via mail. That is one advantage. But it is less okay if people come to your home or even into your house, as was done during the census, to ask you all sorts of questions — i.e. a census. It, for example, also included a question on which religion one belongs to — and matters of faith are considered a very private, if not intimate, matter by most Germans. At least it was voluntary to answer this question. The census disturbed Germans also for historic reasons, as Conor Friedersdorf also remarks. But he limits it to the experiences in West Germany. East Germans are just as suspicious, if not more so, when it comes to intrusions of privacy. Just think of the Stasi, the secret police in the former GDR, with its “IMs” (or indirect employees), spying on neighbors, colleagues, and friends (even spouses in some cases.)

Just as certain bureaucratic processes cannot be avoided in the United States, such as showing a utility bill or proof to pay rent at a certain place to obtain an I.D. or driver’s license in many states, Germany is having its bureaucratic hoops in place. They might just be more plentiful in certain situation (I will come back to that in another year or so). Grudgingly, I think, citizens in both countries comply with what they have to put up with to get on with their lives. But it might not change their critical stances toward them or related issues.

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: