The Move – Part 1: The Apartment

So you’ve decided to move to Germany. Regardless if you made the decision on your own, or if you were convinced by the irresistibly seductive portrayal of German life contained within this blog, you’ve made up your mind. Good for you. Not only will you not regret it, I will have another English speaking friend with whom I can converse. This is always a welcome change from the blank stares and nervous twitching that are my usual contributions to conversations in German.

After my first visit to Germany in December of 2012, I immediately fell in love with the country and, after an amazing visit – and after considering the benefits of German healthcare and other factors – Eve and I decided to move…during the flight back to the US. Like a beautiful hurricane, the lure of European charm, combined with secco and low atmospheric pressure, were the catalysts that created our perfect decision-making storm.

Usually reserved for bad decisions, at 35,000 feet, good ones will be made. Did someone say "Mile High Club"?
Usually reserved for bad decisions, at 35,000 feet, only good ones will be made. Did someone say “Mile High Club”?

Your decision made, you have much to do, intrepid adventurer. Property and non-essential belongings must be sold. An international mover must be secured for all of your irreplaceable belongings, i.e.; stuff you can’t repurchase from IKEA. Arrangements for your pets’ flights and vaccinations must be made. The list is long, but so is your patience, right? If the answer is no, your needs may be best served by simply vacationing in either of the U.S.’s two German-themed towns, Helen, GA or Leavenworth, WA. Both will afford you the experience of living briefly in Germany without the headaches of visa applications or learning German. Heck, you can even buy Lederhosen and dance on benches without fear of deportation.

Helen, GA. Bavarian tomfoolery, no passport required. Photo Credit: Sussman Imaging
Helen, GA. Bavarian tomfoolery, no passport required.
Photo Credit: Sussman Imaging

To put it mildly, an international move, especially when moving to a country where you don’t yet know the language, is tantamount to an Alptraum (nightmare). You know those nightmares that many of us have where you are back in high school and look down to discover that you aren’t wearing pants? This is worse. When you are asked even the simplest of questions during the first months of living in your new city and your only response is the panicked look of a deer in headlights, not only will you feel just as naked, you will also sweat and feel stupid. This is not a flattering combination. Since you will be unaccustomed to the language, and even though you may have only been asked an innocuous and well-intentioned question like “Are you enjoying Germany so far? I hope so”, because of the sometimes harsh sounding German language, what you will actually hear is “WHAT SECRETS ARE YOU HIDING? WE WILL MAKE YOU TALK”! As if this isn’t bad enough, and as evidenced by my exhaustive portrayal of beer consumption in my former posts, you may look down at some point during your merry-making and discover that you are not, in fact, wearing pants. The classic nightmare has become reality except that this nightmare is much worse. There is no waking up from this one, you will still be sweaty and feel stupid, and, since you can’t speak German, you can’t ask for directions home.

All is not lost if you are you are in one of the larger cities, though; You could always douse yourself with metallic paint and try to pull of the street artist thing. If you try this in a smaller town like Mergentheim, however, you will most likely be poked with a pitchfork and banished, you naked shiny devil-man. Just ask the the odd and ironic “talking mime” that creepily mutters “Haallloooooo” if you deign to walk by him without tossing a few coins his way.

Oh. That’s right. You can’t because he is no longer around and is presumably living in the the forest, nursing the puncture wounds on his behind.

Assuming that all boxes have been checked on your extensive to-do list, arrival day is here. Once you’ve disembarked from your plane and have finished pummeling the numbness from your backside that a ten hour flight delivers, the first thing that you must do is to buy a scarf. As I have yet to see a woman or man without one, even in the height of summer, I assume that wearing one is part of some German law, probably to keep the populations’s necks warm to avoid catching colds and thereby racking up unnecessary medical costs.

Your next priority is to find a place to stay. Even if you have plans to buy a house, you will most likely move into a Wohnung (apartment) which will serve as your command base while doing recon of local properties. The use of that military term, and the ones that will subsequently follow, are not an accident. In the sparse German housing market, you will need the wits of a battle-hardened soldier to persevere and win out over all of the other potential renters, i.e.; your sworn enemies.

When deciding upon an apartment here, one must first consider that the square feet that we are accustomed to in the states are here measured in quadratmeters (square meters). Math aside, this can be a daunting task as the issuance of said square meters are based on occupiable space. Basements, no matter how inviting by our standards, are never considered. That goes for foyers, hallways, bathrooms, etc. When you are scouring the classifieds and see a 50 QM apartment for rent, consider that it is about double that size. If it has a bathtub set inside a reasonably sized bathroom, you now have a guest room. Should your guests complain about the size of their bed/tub, you can always lie to them and say that it is a German water bed. When visiting a foreign country, things that would normally be unacceptable are now “exotic”.

While out looking at properties, probably the first thing that you will notice is that there are no buildings constructed from wood. Save for the forest sheds set aside for hikers and banished mimes, every structure here is made from stone or block. This is because the English story of The Three Little Pigs that we all know so well is actually based on the German Grimm’s fairy tale. Tired of having wolves constantly blow down their houses and gobble up the occupants, Germans took note of the story and decided that they would henceforth build all houses from stone. The early Americans, standing amidst immense forests and much less concerned with animal conservation, just killed all of the wolves and stuck with building from timber. As with all food chains, however, the elimination of wolves in America eventually gave rise to the other, but less dangerous, visitors of doorsteps; the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They issue just as much huffing and puffing but rarely blow down houses.

Where the mimes live. Photo Credit: http//:outdooractive.com
Where the mimes live.
Photo Credit: http//:outdooractive.com

German apartments are also rented as Warmmiete (warm rent) or Kaltmiete (cold rent). These terms mean that the advertised rent either includes heat (warm rent) or not, meaning that heat is extra. Being that you will be unfamiliar with German utility prices, it would be best if you just opted for Warmmiete. Then again, you are probably a risk-taking, bungee-jumping, shark-lugeing American, so what the heck. Roll the dice, daredevil. During those cold months, you can always kick your houseguest out and sleep in the bathtub, although possibly without hot water if you find that you can’t afford it.

“Wait. Shark-lugeing? What, pray tell, is that?”, you may ask. Shark-lugeing is an extreme sport where one straps wheels to the bottom of a live shark, climbs aboard, and careens down a steep hill while holding on for dear life. If you had to ask, you are probably German. If you are American, then you are probably a wimp. Hurry back to the library, Poindexter. Your book “How To Be Extremely Boring” is overdue.

Aside from freezing during winter, you won’t have to worry about the cost of running your AC in summer because, well, there is no AC in Germany. Sure, businesses like shopping malls and grocery stores have AC, but I have yet to see a house with it. For those of you that grew up in the northern states and remember huddling around a fan during August to prevent passing out from heatstroke, get ready for a sweat-soaked stroll down memory lane. If you are from the southern states where AC is more necessary than indoor plumbing, you are screwed. You may want to take up miming to afford the extra gas to run your car’s AC while you sleep. In the forest.

Another thing that you must look for, especially if you have dogs, is an apartment with access to a yard. If your dogs are as skilled at creating waste as mine are, you will need a green space for them to do so. Be warned, however; Even though you are trying to secure an apartment and are therefore in combat mode, your enemies have you at a disadvantage. Most landlords will not want a smelly mine-field on their property and your dog-less enemies know this. This is a time for diplomacy, not force. First, remove your helmet and stop yelling “THIS IS WAR”! This is disconcerting to many people, especially Germans who may be old enough to remember WWII. Put on your best smile and be nice. If you have bad teeth, maybe don’t smile, but still be nice.

You now have two courses of action. The first is that you can assure your prospective landlord that your dogs are either too refined to poop outside and were toilet-trained at Harvard, or you can assure them that their yard will remain a demilitarized zone by promptly picking up and disposing of your canines’ dirty bombs. This is the better option, especially if your enemies are present at the showing and have slipped your dogs some liver-flavored laxative. Poop bags are cheap enough at the local pet store but if your mime career didn’t pan out, they are actually available for free in all of the local parks. Don’t just grab a few, take them all. If the dispenser is empty because someone else has just taken them all, you can use your scarf that you must always have with you. A hidden benefit of picking your pet’s dog-bombs, and as strange as this may sound, is that it can be a great way to meet people. This is how I met my best friend, Marc…

It was a warm day in May and, after having arrived only three months prior, I was outside – you guessed it – picking up neglected dog piles. Yes, I was a bad tenant, but in my defense, my hands had only recently thawed and stopped cramping from sleeping in the tub. I was bent over, my back to the fence, when I heard “Hi there” from behind me. It is here that I must once again return to the military theme: Picking up dog poop is much like defusing a bomb, only more dangerous. Full concentration must be given as, though it is unlikely to explode, you run the risk of getting some on your hand. Think of the movie “The Hurt Locker” but with bioweapons and no protective suit. As I was unexpectedly startled, not just by the voice but because it was in English, I may have gotten some on me. I stood up clutching my defused bomb, turned around, and saw Marc and his girlfriend Michi standing there. Marc, who is not a dog owner, held out his hand which I promptly shook (it would have been rude not to, right?) and then perhaps gave it a little wipe as well. Sorry, Marc. Was that around the time that you got horribly sick? You really should wash your hands better. Speaking of washing one’s hands, this paragraph provided a neat little segueway to another point of note about moving to Germany which is…the toilet.

One of the great common denominators of human kind, a thing that unites us all in humility, is that we all must poop. As if all of the other subtle differences of living in Germany aren’t enough, visiting the toilet is perhaps one of the most challenging. Okay, challenging isn’t quite the right word. Because of the biomechanics of the human body, the act itself is the easy part. Flushing, and therefore leaving no trace of said act, is the hard part. Perk your ears up, unwary nomad; things are about to get icky.

Germans are keen on water conservation. Unlike in the US where we have toilet bowls that are filled with water and which taper toward the bottom, German toilets have only a half-full Dixie cup of water at the bottom and a sort of shelf around said cup. I liken it to a high diver eyeing the tiny pool from his 100 foot perch. Should he land dead center, all is good. Should his aim be less than true, however, he will end up as a messy splat just outside his target. For those that are analogy challenged, the poop is the high diver in this scenario.

Since bodies vary greatly in size, there is a greater than average chance that your high diver will end up on the fringe. Again, imagine an actual high diver. Should a real diver be publicly splattered, it would indeed be a gruesome sight, but he would not actually start to smell for some time. Your diver, unfortunately, left the platform in an already advanced state of decomposition and when he made impact, so did his odor. As we are used to walking away without looking due to the shape of our toilets, this is the normal state of affairs when an American uses a restroom in Germany. Luckily for you, I am here to save you. All you have to do is flush, repeatedly, while making use of the toilet brush that is ALWAYS standing close by.

Die Toilette. Aim true, my friend.
Die Toilette. Aim true, my friend.

“But what flush button do I push?” you may ask. I can tell by your query that you have already been to Germany. Either that, or you are still here, planted firmly and panicking, atop a toilet. Unlike ours, German toilets have not one, but two flush buttons. The smaller button is for rinsing away number one. The larger, of course, is for eliminating solid waste and therefore issues more water. It is not a coincidence that when a German child says that they have to use the bathroom that their parents will ask, “Gross oder klein” (big or small). Though the English and German languages split long ago, the age-old ritual between parent and child, of course, continued and so we retained the word “gross” but gave it a new definition: Something so unbelievably disgusting that you will never sleep again, i.e.; A kid’s poo. If you have ever heard a parent say to their child “How did that come out of you?”, you know that the word’s original definition of “large” is still relevant.

(…to be continued)

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