Monday, July 30, 2012

Bend over for the taxman

Behind the water tower

It's been about a month now and that means it's finally time for a payday.  While in the states people usually get payed every 2 weeks or bimonthly, here in Germany, payday is once per month... and in reference to the post title, German taxes... OUCH!!  I knew taxes in Germany were high but after finding some tax rate calculators on the internet I had come to the expectation that I would be receiving more than I actually did.  The tax calculators were pretty accurate in determining the income tax, but what I failed to realize was that much much more is taken out aside from the income tax.  So how much did I lose?  A fleshy 40% chunk of my gross pay (commence cringing).  The taxes are broken down such that 21% can be attributed to income tax / reunification tax.  About 8% is for nursing and health care insurance, and the final 11% is for pension and unemployment insurance.  As a result it doesn't really feel like I'm making significantly more than when I was a poor grad student.  It feels a little disappointing.

Other unrelated things of note, I had milk rice as mentioned in the previous post.  It's pretty much as I imagined and described, essentially tapioca pudding with cinnamon & sugar.

Energy drinks seem to be popular around here with 10000 different varieties in the shops that I've never seen or heard before.  One interesting drink in particular was Red Bull Cola which apparently existed briefly in the States at some point but was later dropped from the US market and is currently primarily marketed in Germany and Austria.  It tastes like a cola with a twist that's hard to describe, having a somewhat earthy or raw essence to it.  I thought it was interesting that coca leaves are listed in the ingredients.  However, the alkaloids are only present in trace amounts.

Germans have an interesting way of drinking beverages with food as well--or perhaps they're just more decidedly classy than their American counterparts.  The difference is that if you were in the States eating at a food joint, cafeteria, or what have you and you bought a soda can / bottle / water / etc. you would likely open the drink and pour it straight into your mouth--lips to can.  In Germany I've noticed people will also get a small glass with which to pour their drink and drink from--lips to glass.  It's just somewhat humorous to see people with their 300 ml (10 oz) drinks pouring into tiny glasses several times to quench their thirst as opposed to drinking straight from the source until satisfied--but to each their own I guess.

Friday, July 20, 2012

3 weeks in

The town water tower

It's been about 3 weeks since I've arrived in Germany and I'm slowly becoming more acquainted with it, kinda.  The city I'm in is really quite small and I'd say it's not really a touristy destination at all--with its grungy feel.  It's hard to get a grasp of my surroundings as I'm at the mercy of public transportation--of which I'm not really a fan.  I long for the moment when I can own a car again and experience the freedom and fun that driving provides.  It'll probably be a couple more months before that happens though.

A couple observations and interesting things I've noted in the past week:  it was lunchtime and I went to the cafeteria at work as per usual except there was a sweet smell of cinnamon in the air like there was some kind of new dessert being offered.  It wasn't a dessert though (or was it), it was one of the main entrees for the day, a giant platter filled with "milk rice" topped with cinnamon and sugar.  It was pretty unexpected that most of the German workers were getting this dish of what seemed like a dessert and solely eating that for their lunch.  Perhaps I'll give it a taste if it makes the menu rounds again although I don't think I could handle an entire giant plate of it. 

Other food items that are commonplace aside from the various typical meat and cheese related items are fruit-flavored things, especially apples and "exotic" or passion fruit flavors.  Apple juice, sparkling or otherwise is seen as frequently or is as commonplace as a Coke or Pepsi here.  Along with the fruit theme, there's an orange / coke soda mix which is really popular over here--one variety is called "Mezzo mix." It's not too bad--doesn't taste that far off from a normal Coke though. 

One particularly nice thing about "drinks" here in Germany is the rebate system that exists for essentially every bottled or canned beverage.  In grocery stores there is an automated receptacle where you can return your empty bottles and cans (for recycling I assume) for a 25 euro cent rebate per each.  That means a 6-pack of any-size soda will net you 1.5 euros back on return.

Bottled water in America costs more per gallon than gasoline.  Here you can get a liter of mineral water for 45 cents after returning the empty container.  A can of orange Fanta? 45 cents after rebate.  A 20oz bottle of sprite or coke?  About 80 cents.  The rebate even applies toward expensive drinks like Red Bull and more.  As a result, you can buy crates of drinks at the grocery store which are very cheap, just bring back the empty bottles for your refund.  However, the rebate from what I've seen isn't redeemed as cash but used for your next purchase at the store (credit).  It's a pretty great system which encourages recycling by imparting an inherent value to containers and pricing the beverage closer to it's actual value.  It's unlikely that this system will ever get picked up in America but one could hope.

Wind farms in development

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

German porcelain thrones: your treats on display

Mr. Clean's German cousin

The toilet post was a bit backed up with me being clogged with work.  Anyway, the gist of this post is to comment on the fact that toilets in Germany aren't like those in the States or Japan or most other countries I've been to.  They operate like conventional toilets in that they serve as flushable receptacles for poops and other things--however, the key difference is that for whatever reason the Germans felt that their toilets needed to have a "ledge."  A simple bowl-shaped design was clearly insufficient apparently.  There are many reasons why the ledge is a terrible idea but the commonly stated explanation for this design trait is that the Germans, being a health-conscious peoples, seem to prefer being able to inspect their brown deposits before walking away and going about their usual activities.  While I'll admit that pooping out of the water will surely make obtaining a stool sample very easy--is this convenience really worth having to poop out of the water every time?

Photo from:

Due to the fact that a ledge exists and depending on one's stool consistency, things get a bit, let's say, "streaky."  The Germans realized this as well, but instead of foregoing the ledge and adopting the bowl-design, they've adapted to the problem by placing and requiring the use of a toilet brush next to each and every toilet so that you can clean up your own messes.  What this means is that you'll find a nasty toilet brush everywhere--even next to public toilets.  What makes things even more difficult to understand is that there are a variety of toilet ledge designs out there, with ledges in the front, back, etc.  Perhaps a forward ledge design was thought to provide a balance in giving individuals a choice of whether to make a wet or dry deposit depending on how far one scoots forward on the toilet seat.  With a rearward ledge as seen in the above and below photos, this wet-dry flex option is not really feasible.

Photo from:

Another thing I've noticed that's rough about doing toilet business is their paper.  It's tough (I've commonly seen 3-ply) but all the stuff I've encountered feels like sandpaper.  Feels bad man.  Maybe it's just a personal problem and just another thing that I need to get used to--I don't know.  SOS, need my plush Charmin ultra softs.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Future astronaut

My first week at work is complete and it's been an exhausting ride--waking up at 6am and getting home from work at 6-7pm.  Hopefully things will begin to settle down in the future but an interesting curve ball was thrown at me today in that me and my coworker were given company medical examinations to assess our "pre-work" health I assume.

It's the first time I've had to go through something like this and it was quite an interesting process in which I began to feel like a lab rat being examined to determine if it's space-worthy.  Everything began with the basics: a full-range of eye exams, height, weight, then a lung-volume measurement (?) test.  Following that, they hit me with the needle and drained me of my blood which was the first time I've done such a thing.  It's shocking to see how fast and forceful the blood pours out of the needle, filling up two large vials in a matter of seconds.  That experiment went fairly well and perhaps I'll finally be able to find out what my blood type is when the results are posted.  Later we had to pee in cups for a drug screening, followed by a slight disrobe on a medical bed whereupon I was spritzed with contact solution and what seemed like 100000 octopus suckers were attached all over my body to obtain an EKG.  What was left was a final one-on-one medical examination by a doctor in his office.  The whole experience was a bit distressing in that we were given a sheet of paper with a list of tests and locations in German--after going through each test, it would get a check and we would be directed to a new location with an unknown fate.  The entire time I was unsure how far the exams would go but thankfully they didn't go as far as to include rectal screenings. 

Evidently these exams are completed fairly often to ensure the health of the workforce.  I suppose it's a nice thing to constantly keep tabs on your own health--just another thing that will take some getting used to. 

That's all I want to mention for now--as a bonus, here's a picture of the thing that watches me while I sleep every night.  Yeah...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Work begins

It's been a couple interesting days recently.  The city I'm living in is not bad, initial impressions were tainted by the dark and rainy weather that was had when I arrived two nights ago.  Days with nice weather definitely help give the city a more positive feel.  There were some difficulties in trying to get a work permit the other day, but things were finally sorted out today and I was able to complete my first day at work.

I can't give away too many details but what I can say is that I'm the first of two members of a brand new lab and will have the opportunity to essentially lead my division of work as more workers begin to funnel in with the coming months.  The work space is pretty amazing and "state of the art" and the surrounding areas are mind-boggling with the degree of industry nearby (think New Jersey's industrial complex).  We essentially have our own private bathroom which is pretty nice as well.  The prospects are exciting and should hopefully be a great experience.

Outside of work I've been to a few grocery stores and will have to get used to the small store sizes and limited selection of items that go contrary to the lifestyle that exists in America.  There is an array of interesting and "unique" flavors and items that I've noticed including the frequent "American" or perhaps a box of "cat chocolates."

Another interesting facet of life in Germany is the water.  Germans seem to rarely drink normal straight water, let alone water in general.  However, when they do, it's nearly always mineral water--highly carbonated.  The Germans seem to love their carbonated beverages and it seems like everything is carbonated, fruit juices, waters, sodas, flavored waters, and more--with the exception of milk unless I just haven't found that variety yet.  If you go to a restaurant or in my case when I went to open a bank account, I was asked if I wanted something to drink and requested water.  A glass of room-temperature mineral water was provided--leading to another topic being that ice is seemingly non-existent here.  Most drinks are consumed at room temperature or sometimes chilled, but not with ice.  It will take some getting used to this change but it seems these are just cultural things that just need to be dealt with.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Germany, the beginning

I'm in Germany, it's late at night, and I'm writing this post from the temporary student housing sub-let that I signed for before I got here.  Sounds good?  Well, it's cheap, and... that's about it.  A German college student went off elsewhere (on holiday perhaps?) for two months so I've paid to inherit his quarters in the meantime.  As a result it doesn't quite feel like home and it somewhat adds to the anxiousness that's crept in within the last half-day that I've been here.  The gravity of my decision to move finally started to sink in after arriving in Frankfurt--that I'm really taking a blind-folded leap of faith as far as my future is concerned--having never been to Germany, let alone Europe. 

The days preceding this quest were spent saying sad farewells and goodbyes to friends in Seattle, followed by rigorous apartment cleaning, clearing, and packing.  Four years of accumulations were eventually funneled down to 3 luggage bags and a carry-on.  This process was a complete nightmare and I hope I never have to repeat it and will strive to keep the quantity of my possessions to a minimum until I know I'll be settling down for a while.  I managed to catch one of the first non-stop Seattle to Frankfurt flights which are offered by Condor airlines for a pretty good fare (~500USD each way).  Things I noticed about my flight to Frankfurt; most of the people I was flying with weren't actually going to Germany but were transferring to other locations, Condor's plane is small for an international jet (767), the flight time was shorter than advertised at around 9 hours (going through a North-Eastern diagonal of Canada, past Greenland and the arctic to hit Frankfurt from the North).  Flight positives: "cheap" fares, received a random free seating upgrade from economy to premium which provided more space, free alcohol if you so desire, and a faster exit as a result.  Flight negatives: no personal in-seat TV-screens or monitors, tiny overhead bins, Sarah Jessica Parker movies, and water condensation dripping from the "roof" or ceiling of the plane onto seated passengers below.

After lassoing all my baggage and meandering through the Frankfurt airport maze, I managed to rent a car with GPS to get down to Mannheim where my "apartment" is located.  Being able to drive a manual-transmission (standard) car in Germany on the autobahn was pretty exciting although it was a giant sensory overload trying to figure out where to go, how to operate an unfamiliar vehicle, and keep everything together on the road simultaneously.  The car I drove was a 150hp turbo diesel beast (lol) of a Nissan "Qashqai" (???) equipped fairly well with a 6-speed gearbox.  Driving on the autobahn was fairly relaxing and manageable (though I have a bit of experience driving at high-speeds on the track) and cruising speeds as high as 180kmh were achieved during the short journey.  I arrived in Mannheim and was taken to my housing and shown a few landmarks and key locations along the way.  The Mannheim that I've seen thus far seems perhaps only slightly ghetto with a slathering of distributed graffiti (tags).  However, these are just the initial impressions and observations.

There's more to come, including a discussion about German toilets in a later posting.