Diary of an Expat, Part 3
Pillows, the Schufa, and the lingua franca
It's a cheery, warm evening in Berlin. I am sitting at my desk with a bottle of San Pellegrino, some fresh bread, a thing of salami (how do you measure salami when it does not come sliced? Dongs? I have a dong of salami) and, newly, some camembert. To harken back to an earlier post, this was part of a purchase that also included some deodorant, some fresh red currants, 2 litres of Diet Coke, and a quantity of Ritter Sport, and set me back about $20.

I realised, a few days ago, that one reason that everything seems so expensive here is that the 19% VAT is factored into purchases. As an American, I would mentally see €1000 and add in another 190 on behalf of the tax, but failing to include VAT in the price is illegal here, so what you see is what you get. For example, Amazon sells an identical computer monitor for €899 and $999, but while the German price is equivalent to around $1250, that's not exactly fair. Factor in the 9.5% sales tax in San Francisco and that monitor costs almost $1100.

(Some of you are saying "yes, but I don't pay sales tax on Amazon purchases." You may not, but you are supposed to — California allows you to report sales tax relatively easily, I'm told — and endorsing tax evasion is not the policy of this blog >.>)

But, anyway.

Beyond that. Germany goes well. As one of the helpful tips I intend for future immigrants, please note that of the many household conveniences the Germans understand well, the humble PILLOW ranks a distant and lonely eight billionth, right behind "deodorant" but ahead of "trash bags that can hold more than a sad handful of marbles." German pillows, which may well have been designed as torture devices, are strange smooshy squares about a meter on each side, which do not bunch up well for sleep and do not provide enough support unbunched. The bed, in this otherwise well-apportioned apartment, is a piece of foam about 3 inches thick, which does little to dampen the generally prison-like appearance of my housing.

So I've been longing for a good night's sleep. This week has been dominated by work, for me — work, and the quest for the elusive SCHUFA. The Schufa (sometimes written in all caps, I don't know which is correct) is a German credit report, and it provides information to a prospective lender about your creditworthiness. Now, in the real world I have terrifying debts, but in Germany my credit history looks like this:

1. Moved to Germany
2. Opened bank account
3. _

I am trying to rent an apartment, however, and for certain apartments a Schufa is required. Not for all of them, and in this case my prospective landlady appears to know that I am new. Partly, no doubt, this is because all of my papers are fresh; it may also be because, on meeting her for our 3:00 appointment with my agent (who happened to be late), I boldly inquired: "Excuse me, is the clock number good?" and went on to explain "my mobile phone has the clock number of three years" but that "I know not: you have three years?"

"Your agent," she replied in what for the purposes of this story I will describe as impeccable English, "is running a bit late."

But she wants a Schufa anyway.

She wants a Schufa, no doubt, because her boss wants the Schufa, and she probably wants it because the rules say that one must be provided. The Germans love nothing more than for rules and regulations to be closely observed (that's not true, actually. They love Journey more. I have heard "Wheel in the Sky" playing on car stereos twice in the last week, and a busker in one of Miss U-Bahn's stations, whilst mutilating a guitar, plaintively implored me: "Doo-hoon' stob! Bele-hea-fing!").

Here we run into a problem, which is that "the number of Germans who speak English" is much smaller than "the number of Germans who will speak English to you." I have been told that this is because they are self-conscious about it, but I think it is more that they do not like having to be put out of their routine. Which, in the abstract, is fine. But it means that when I asked for a Schufa, and at her barrage of rapid German asked if she could speak slower, or English, the lady at the credit office refused to do either, and also would not permit the use of a customer who volunteered to translate.

I do, however, find it somewhat frustrating. Germans, like many Americans, want the benefits of commanding a global economy without having to deal with that "global" part of it. They want the dynamism of being at the leading edge of innovation, but they want the human resources that are part of that dynamism to assimilate immediately. It's just not possible.

On several occasions, I have made good faith attempts to speak in German, but when inevitably the dialogue stalls out and I ask if they can speak Norwegian or, failing that, English, they respond with scorn. In one case, the English that followed was preceded by a heavy sigh; in another, I was simply shown the door. As I said in my previous diary entry, I know that there are also many Americans who adhere firmly to the "if you're here, speak English." And that's great, if shortsighted, but it's also a legitimate frustration for someone who didn't really have any choice about moving here.

I tried another office and found somebody more receptive, but they wanted a document I didn't have. It is a document that is rendered redundant by another document that I did have, but she was not swayed by this, and I lack the ability to explain properly. So instead, I'll go back Monday with everything I have. Passport. Visa. City registration permit. Social security number. Diploma. But that hinges on the clerk being willing to put the effort into translating my broken German, and that's a hit or miss proposition.

Of course, sometimes not speaking the language is beneficial. For example, at the supermarket a few days back I caused the clerk to fly into an agitated rage when, distractedly, I took the receipt that was falling from its machine. Later, a German acquaintance would tell me that they are required to keep the receipt until the transaction is completed, but even if this is general custom it's clearly not universal — both people ahead of me at the supermarket I just bought my cheese and salami at took their receipts before the transaction was finished, and the clerk simply shrugged.

In this case, though, the woman was old, and cranky, and would have none of it. Perhaps sensing that I was foreign, or retarded, she accompanied her stern lecture with gestures. "This," she said, making broad circles with her arms to indicate the register, "is my area, not yours." That much I understood; what followed, God knows.

Fortunately my German is limited. I know how to say "excuse me" and also "exactly" (genau, a word that forms at least 20% of German conversation), and I used these repeatedly whilst listening to her tirade, smiling the bewildered, slightly bemused smile of a chastised dog who does not really understand what he is being yelled at for. When she said "this is my space," I said "Oh, yes, exactly."

I did not say "oh, yes, it's your space until you want somebody to actually bag the damned groceries, and then it's all my space suddenly, ain't it, you aggravating cow?" which would've been better for the story but less beneficial for my future at Edeka Markt.

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