Diary of an Expat, Part 56
Insurance
We have entered the stage of Berlin known as "fall," aka "the season where you no longer use your refrigerator." You no longer use your refrigerator because, for keeping things like drinks and perishables cold, outside works just as well.

The cold snap that has hit here hit rather abruptly, as last week was a startlingly gorgeous one — 20 degrees or more on the weekend, nice enough to walk around with long sleeves. Today I went to a sporting goods store and bought some mittens, and a cap. The mittens are sufficient; the cap, I have discovered, makes it impossible for me to put my bicycle helmet on.

This is something that has become of increasing importance lately as I have been beset by a series of second-hand bicycle calamities, involving disasters that have befallen other people. They're all doing well, thankfully — "well-ish," anyway — but it does tend to sound a cautionary note.

For the most part, this is merely unpleasant rather than catastrophic, because Germans are, I suspect, rather more prepared for such things than we are. This was revealed to me in the office last week, when the conversation turned to insurance, and the myriad insurances which you are expected to have in Germany.

This is not true in the United States. Some states require you to have car insurance if you own a car, and there is health insurance as well (and unemployment) but for the most part this seems to be where it ends for most Americans. Germans, by contrast, have an ingrained sensibility about insurance that carries with them through life.

Legal insurance, for example — suppose you're the victim of a lawsuit, or you wish to sue somebody? Why would you do that? Well, naturally, because you're German. Berliners are a remarkably passive aggressive bunch (see how wonderfully recursive that was?) and I have heard a number of horror stories from my friends and coworkers. They have been sued for making too much noise in their apartment (by another tenant), or for yelling at someone on a train in a way that made them feel "threatened." Legal insurance covers you whether you want to sue someone or are being sued.

Renter's insurance exists in the United States, though not nearly so commonly. I have been told a couple of times that it's not uncommon in rental contracts for insurance to be required as part of the deal — it's not in my lease agreement, but hey. Household insurance also typically covers things like bikes and the thieving thereof. If you leave the water running and it warps your floorboards, that's something your household insurance will cover.

What will not be covered is any damage to the surrounding apartments — this is something that you would need your haftpflichversicherung, or personal liability insurance, for. This is a concept that is virtually alien to Americans — indeed most of the Americans at my company don't apparently have it — but I have heard the same explanatory story from enough different Germans that I presume it is taught somewhere:

Suppose you (or your child, say) lets go of your dog and it runs out in front of a car. The driver slams on his brakes; he is rear-ended by another car, who is rear-ended by another car. In the United States, this would be explicitly a car insurance matter, and it's generally beaten into our heads that if you rear-end someone you must be at fault, no questions asked. In Germany, you as the dog-owner would be at fault for the damage caused to all the other cars, because it was your action that caused the accident.

Personal liability insurance covers those situations for which you are personally liable for the damages caused to other people. Lean your bicycle on somebody's car and scratch the paint? Liability insurance covers that. Drop your drink on the tram and the distracted tram driver plows into a crowd of schoolchildren? Liability insurance. Accidentally toss a brick through your neighbor's window because they won't stop listening to dubstep at 2 in the goddamned morning on a Wednesday because LOL THE CLUB MAN THE CLUB *pant pant* anyway liability insurance.

Every German has at least personal liability and household insurance and probably also legal insurance as well. It helps that it costs €150 a year or something like that for everything. I have ten million euros in personal liability insurance, for which I am paying something like €60 a year. So everyone has it because it doesn't cost very much and the expectation is that it will be available to use when you need to use it.

This is anyway the pragmatic and responsible thing to do, and as I said Germans are thoroughly inculcated with it — even kids are brought up knowing that they need to have insurance to cover these things, because otherwise when they get sued for startling someone by trick-or-treating they'd be on the hook for court costs and their therapist bills, etc.

Oh wait, what's that you say? It sounds like obligatory insurance might be expected to create a system that favors using inefficient legal bureaucracies to resolve personal disputes, and the only real beneficiaries are not the people who are "protected" by this system but the insurance companies who rake in billions of euros over suckering an entire country into thinking that the best way to live is one with a guaranteed yearly payment to an insurance broker?

Like it's just another ridiculous thing like the 2.4*monthly rent (e.g. easily well over a thousand euro) "Provision" fee landlord's charge for the privilege of selling their apartment to you?

Well, I suppose there's that too.

Anyway I don't really mind, because it looks like this when I go outside:

Berlin's color palette shifts in fall. (source: flickr)

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