Thursday, March 24, 2011

ATTN: All Passport Holders! Have ALL Documents Ready!

      That headline is possibly the most important thing that all travelers; exchange students, vacationers, workers, and movers alike need to remember. Yes, it seems rather common sense, but do NOT underestimate these words. If not just to remind you to be prepared, or to give you a warning of all the requirements yet to come. For instance, 'Passport Holders' really is warning you that there will come a time when being a Non EU (European Union) Passport Holder is very different than an EU Passport Holder, such as in airports. *READ and FOLLOW airport signs very carefully!* Also, when referring to documents, yes of course your passport, visa or residency paperwork, school acceptance, military orders, but what they really mean is MONEY. Without a doubt, make sure that you have access to a proper (whichever country), working, and fully-stocked bank account. There are countless hidden fees everywhere (especially when its something that seems cheap), and you will need to have spare cash, or access to cash, for those 'emergency fees' (which are more regular than emergency).
      OK, thats my tidbit of advice for today. Hopefully the rest of this blog, with explain a little bit why the above is so important, but mostly, heres an update of that first few days in Germany - Bamberg, and getting settled in.
      Arriving in Bamberg went smoothly... despite the amazing amount of luggage I managed on the train. The next couple of hours, and couple of days, were a mess of running around, getting paperwork, filling out paperwork, turning in paperwork, and attempting to meet people although there was a surprisingly limited amount of english-speakers, and most offices close at noon for the day, or are closed for 1-2 hours for lunch, and then close by 4.
      My first encounters were at the International Office at the University where I paid to 'rent' some bedding for the semester (15€), and then we had to drive across town to another studentenheim (student apartments) to pick it up. But first we went to the apartments to check in with Herr Englisch (no joke), the Hausmeister (landlord) and drop off my bags. Meeting Herr Englisch was like driving down a highway in Florida in August when you hit those patches of intense rain and wind and you cant see 10 feet in front of you, and youre going about 25mph but it feels like youre flying through the rain, and then you a hit a sunny spot, no rain, calm, just to hit another patch of turbulent rain again a few minutes later. This is also how he speaks. A rush of words, then a big gasp, then a rush of words, did I mention a lisp? AND, he doesn't speak a word of english. Go figure. He looks like a typical 'Bavarian (though I found out later he is actually Frankonian (another subgroup of German, but which is a big deal/difference with Bavaria), tall, stocky, rosy-red cheeks' generally happy looking, until he starts talking, and then its just overwhelming.
     So, after some paperwork, and determining that I would have to open a German account so that the apartments could take out my rent themselves rather than me hand them a check, we went to see the room. 8 flights of stairs later (no elevator)... on the 5th floor (what Germans call the 4th, because the ground floor is 0), or roofish area, is my room! Now, why the builders decided to put the rooms on the right hand side of the hall I dont know, because the left hand side has the spectacular view of the old city skyline. The view from the rooms inside arent bad, just the next door buildings. So, enter the apartment and you have 2 wardrobes, 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, and a tiny kitchen area complete with mini-fridge, sink, and 2 stove burners. Luckily for us, whoever had lived there before left all of the plates and pots and pans so thats one expense I didn't have to worry about, though I did invest in some Dish soap and scrubbed all of them before use.
      When Herr Englisch opened the door to my room, I was really excited, but the first thing my tandem partner and I noticed was the smoke smell - it was bad, like walking into a club. You could only smell it dimly in the kitchen, but it was really bad in my room. I didnt want to say anything, as my first impression, I definitely did not want to upset or insult the landlord, but my roommate said something to me, and then tried to ask the landlord about it... being nice like 'I didn't think people were allowed to smoke' - and he took it the wrong way, got upset, and stormed out of the room. This all happened in German, so I was standing there and had no idea what happened, but he didnt come back, so I thought he was really upset. Needless to say, after relocating him in his office, it was worked out that they would come and paint my room and the kitchen the next day, as there were no other free rooms, and there was really no other solution. And it worked out since there was no carpet for the smell to stick too, and they replaced my mattress as well. (The next morning, I brought Herr Englisch a note in German saying thank you for his help, and to apologize for the stress, which he seemed to appreciate amidst all the gasps and sputters talking about I dont know what.) He did show me where the laundry room was, on the 2nd floor of my building across a roof connecting to the next building, down the hall, around the corner, up some stairs, and into the attic where there are 2 washers and 1 dry, which cost 1€ per wash/dry and you cant open the doors without having to pay again. Also, these washers are about half the size of a normal American washer and wash slower, to be more economical. Oh Germany...
      Then we went to pick up the sheets. We had to find the Hausmeister in one of the first-floor apartments, and we were greeted by a group of people who didnt speak much english and led us to a room down a hall where there was a pile of pillows, blankets, and sheets you could choose from. We were told that they were all freshly cleaned, so I picked what I thoguht would keep me warm and looked the least-used, until I had the time to go and buy somethings for myself. It seemed a rather ''sketchy'' operation, but my tandem partner and I just had to laugh about it.
       I was so sure I was pretty prepared as far as paperwork and banking goes, and I had, to a point. You have to open a German account, because you cant link an American account and a German account (via online or whatever) because they use a different system of numbers. And on top of this, to get money into the German account requires either multiple ATM withdrawals (of which US banks charge a percentage fee for the currency conversion) or a wire transfer which costs anywhere from $35-$50 dollars, acting as a 'direct deposit.'
       Also, where offices are, typically the doors are closed and there are no windows, so the hallways are very quiet and I was never sure if anyone was actually working... you have to knock on the doors, and even if someone responds, you can still get yelled at for coming in. (I know from experience.)
      I really have to say, those first couple of days were tough. It was overwhelming and intimidating, and I really had to question what I was doing. I really knew I was far from home, and I couldnt just call my mom or a friend when I didnt know something or when I was frustrated. Not to mention most students were either already on holiday or still in exams, so the apartments and the city were very quiet. And I really cant say that things 'began to settle down' and I 'got used to it after a few days' - it really happened immediately. It had to, things are what they are, and I had to make a choice to freak out and stress out, or to deal with it and move on. I chose the later (after much deliberation ;-P), and its worked so far. :)
      The next few days were spent of wandering around the town, witnessing the Fasching, or Carnivale parade in the towncenter consisting of local groups and their home-made floats... and everyones wild costumes, also meeting the International 'tutors' - students from the university here who help plan and prepare events for exchange students at the university. I found the good places to shop for groceries and toiletries, and also some good cafes and a couple of good bars. I spent a couple of days visiting my good friends at the university in Karlsruhe, where I had a wonderful meal of the French cuisine raclette - which I highly recommend to everyone to try. It was great to see everyone again, I have really come to appreciate when you can see someone after so long and pick up as if no time or distance had passed. Back in Bamberg, it was back to meeting some more International students, and discovering the wonderful German tradition of 'after-hour' or happy hour for CHEAP dinner and drinks, and making plans for Ireland. I have learned, quickly, to get over any shy-thoughts about meeting people, and I dont think I will ever turn back. In one night, I met an Irish guy, and a group of friends all traveling to Ireland together for St. Paddy's day, and a couple of girls studying in Bamberg from the states who were interested in going with me to Ireland. Have no fear people! Talk, ask questions, theres always a story to share, either between each other then or one you share together later! :) And with that, I leave you until next time, where these experiences help take me to the next journey... and the adventures there :)

Home for the Semester, Bamberg
Raclette @ Simeon & Lisa's in Karlsruhe
"Fat Tuesday" Fasching Parade in Bamberg

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