Category Archives: Germany

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Bureaucracy in Europe: Germany vs. France

Europe is well known for excessive bureaucracy. However, there are distinct differences between European countries in this regard. We’ve lived in just Germany and France, but even between these neighboring countries there are easily identifiable differences.

German bureaucracy involves a lot of paper, but it simply works. I was always receiving loads paperwork, all in German, in my Bremen mailbox. But in Germany I learned very quickly that I could generally trust that the documents were prepared correctly. There were too many for me to actually translate. Additionally, documents from German organizations were always delivered promptly. For reference, and contrary to the situation in France, my health insurance card was delivered within a few days of signup. If I had to go to the Finanzamt or the Stadtamt, then some wait time was required, but the most important thing was for me to always have the correct paperwork in order. The Germans do sometimes make absurd document requests, like how they always want a diploma as proof of graduation, even though a transcript is far more appropriate for those of us from American universities. Apparently, to get married, a foreigner must get a document from his home country certifying that he has the right to marry (not already married, etc.). However, we’ve heard that this document does not actually exist outside of Germany and the other governments sometimes have trouble producing this made-up paper.

French bureaucracy involves a lot of paper as well, but I think it was slightly less than that in Germany. I wonder if this may have been slightly affected by the relative verbosity of the languages. It was much more important to read all correspondence in France. All paperwork is very slow in arriving and it is often incorrect. Health insurance cards in France take anywhere from 6 to 12 months for “fabrication.” I have no idea what they are doing during that time. Going to the Prefecture for simple visa or car registration tasks can require between 1 and 3 hours. The prefecture employees can generally be quite helpful, except when they are not. The best advice is, again, to make sure to have the correct paperwork in order before going to the Prefecture. They often send you (or you can find online) a checklist of all required documents for a given transaction. In France, they are a little more flexible than in Germany (and constant rule-bending likely leads to inefficiency), but bringing all of the requested documents is optimal.

A potential problem in Europe is the tenure of government employees. There is little motivation for them to be any more than mediocre workers because their jobs are secure. However, I didn’t really notice this in Germany, likely due in part to the strong cultural work ethic (it’s a stereotype, but it’s hard to argue its veracity). In France, this does seem to present a problem and there seems to be a lot of dead weight in the French government.

There is definitely a plenty of bureaucracy in Europe. Overall, my takeaway is that this is not an inherently bad experience. I’m much more concerned with accuracy than quantity. Note that here I am looking at this through a user experience lens. Bureaucratic structures have other costs and the opportunity cost of filling out paperwork may also significantly weigh on a society.

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Freedom of panorama in Europe

It’s no secret that I think European laws are a joke. Imagine the technologically illiterate politicians that we have in the US, but now imagine that they were actually effective at passing all the stupid laws they want.

There are many examples:

  • Their use of photo enforcement is unfettered by the rules of trigonometry.
  • If a website has cookies, it must display an annoying pop-up warning.
  • They required Microsoft to implement the browser ballot, a feature that was broken for 1.5 years before anybody noticed.
  • They required Microsoft to release an alternate version of Windows XP without Windows Media Player, a ruling that was so out of touch with the interests of the people that only 1500 copies were sold.
  • If you don’t like what somebody is saying about you on the internet, you have a “right to be forgotten” by Google.

Really any time the European Union or the individual European states pass a new law or make a ruling, it’s sure to be comical.

But today I want to write about “freedom of panorama.” This is actually an exception to copyright law, in that the person who designed a building has a copyright on its appearance. In the US, we have a scheme that considers most things that are outdoors and visible to the naked eye to be for public consumption and sharing. With minor exceptions (artwork, for example), one can take photos in public and use them as desired. There is a line, in that we cannot use a telescope to look in windows, for example. In my understanding, this scheme would not be considered true freedom of panorama due to the artwork exceptions. There are pros and cons, but a big positive aspect is that this is generally compatible with the realities of rapidly-advancing technology for taking and sharing photographs.

Now let’s look at Europe. Here, the right to share photographs varies by country. Germany is considered to have freedom of panorama, so outdoor public spaces can generally be photographed and shared as long as the photographer is standing on the ground. There are restrictions on sharing photographs of people. Also they have been drawing a strange distinction for large-scale mapping, and this is why Google Street view has a handful of blurred out houses in Germany. I don’t know the legal theory behind this, and it seems to be related to data privacy, but residents in Germany can opt-out of being pictured on Street View. It’s my understanding that one resident can even opt his entire apartment building out. Also, importantly, freedom of panorama does not apply inside buildings, such as museums.

In France, there is no freedom of panorama. People who own copyrights on buildings or outdoor art exhibits enjoy copyright protection even from small time photographers. A famous example of this involves the Eiffel Tower. In my understanding, the structure’s copyright has already expired, but the lights on it at night are considered an art installation and thus receive copyright protection of their own. Therefore, sharing photos of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night is copyright infringement if prior permission is not received from the organization that runs the tower.

My problem with all of this is practicality. These copyrights are being infringed all the time and it’s only going to get worse. The fact that freedom of panorama isn’t the rule everywhere shows a huge disconnect with reality. I complain all the time about the prevalence of cameras in public, but I’m not crazy. Tourists are not going to navigate a minefield of legal nuance when taking photos. So you’re either going to have broad copyright protection of outdoor sights and no compliance or very limited copyright protection of outdoor sights and high compliance.

Because European lawmakers are clueless, there have been recent attempts to eliminate freedom of panorama exemptions all across the EU. I understand that the EU is hot to increase consistency across borders, which may often be beneficial, but this is the wrong direction to go. For better or worse, the government is supposed to work for the people. The position of the people is clear.

Germany wine


A couple weeks ago, I went to Berlin for the third time. Berlin is one of my favorite cities in Germany, but I’ve never written about it. So I thought I’d change that. Berlin is full of history and fun, but at extremely low prices (ridiculously low, actually). Maybe you’ll get some ideas.

Tiffany was with me on the first two trips. We went one time for an extended weekend while we were living in Germany. On that first trip we stayed in a hostel that was situated on the location of the old death strip in Mitte. There was an incredible amount of history in that area and this is one of the things that I liked most about visiting Berlin. As Americans who were kids when the Berlin wall came down, we were both familiar with it, but it was all very abstract. I never really knew much about the history of the wall or the realities for the people living in the east, or Berlin in general (as it contained, of course, both east and west). The most exciting thing we did was the Trabi Safari, in which I got to drive a Trabant around while a guide communicated from a few cars up. For those who don’t know, the Trabant is the stereotypical east German car. I guess there were actually a couple other makes in the DDR, but the vast majority were Trabants. Citizens waited many years from order to delivery, though over the decades a few million were produced overall. They are interesting in themselves, so maybe I will write more someday. Also, we visited the DDR museum, which was extremely tight and crowded to the point that one time was probably enough for me, but very educational. We also went on a tour about the many escape attempts from east to west Berlin. Finally, we made reservations and visited the Reichstag, which is a must-see tourist attraction, though I think the dome lacks class. There were panels and an audio guide to learn about the history of the building. As I don’t know much about European history, I really like learning this type of stuff when I travel. Berlin is among the best for this.

On our second trip, I was there for a job interview in August down in Teltow, a suburb on the southwest edge of the city. Teltow was nice and I’m sure it’s a friendly and clean place to live, but it is also one of the most boring places I’ve ever visited in Europe. Luckily it is a short S-Bahn ride to Berlin, so after my interview we spent an extra two nights in a small AirBnB place in the Schöneberg district. By this point, we had been out of Germany for quite some time. We’ve just visited on a couple short trips since moving to France, so when we go back we have certain things we like to do. One such thing is having a proper brunch buffet, which we did. On weekends, and even weekdays at some places in Berlin, German cafes often have pretty good buffets. These often even include hot foods such as eggs, which are uncommon in normal European breakfasts. We luckily were there during the International Berlin Beer Festival, so that was pretty interesting. We tried several beers and scored many new coasters for our collection. On our previous trip we had tried to visit the Berlin Cathedral but failed because it is often closed. We almost failed on this trip as well, but we went back on our last morning and did manage to see it and climb up to the top. We’ve been to the top of a lot of German churches, so we shy away from it generally, but it seemed like a proper tourist thing to see.

My third trip, by myself, was for a second interview in Teltow. I won’t mention names, but that job didn’t work out due to a quite friendly but extremely incompetent hiring process. On this trip, I was by myself and I opted to stay two extra nights at Riverside Lodge Hostel in the Kreuzberg district. This turned out to be an awesome hostel and an awesome area. I only paid around 22 Euro per night but it was incredibly clean and friendly. It was a really small place with a very social atmosphere and the owner was enthusiastic about recommending things to do in the area. At his suggestion, I had breakfast and coffee at a really cool cafe around the block called Katie’s Blue Cat. Also most of the guests ended up at Wirtshaus Hasenheide for German food on the first night. I visited two other noteworthy places on this trip that I would like to go back to. First is Tempelhofer Feld, which is an airport turned massive park. I had a hard time picturing what it would be like at a park with no trees and such, but it was really quite cool. There were lots of quiet places to sit and many people were running/rollerblading/etc. I just read on Wikipedia that it has since been turned into a refugee camp, so I’m unsure if/when I’ll be able to return. The second cool place I went was Klunkerkranich, in Neukölln. This is a rooftop bar/cafe place with a great view of the city. I was there briefly just to have a quick snack for breakfast before catching the plane, but I’d like to go back. I must warn you though, it’s hard to find. You have to take an elevator up to level P5 in the parking garage of the Neukölln Arcaden and then walk around one of the ramps to reach it (it’s at the top). I’ve read online that there is a cover charge even in the daytime but, for whatever reason, I paid nothing in the morning.

I also want to specifically mention my trip to Cordobar, an amazing wine bar focusing on German and Austrian wines. After checking into the hostel on this last trip, I discovered on Facebook that Yann, the brother of a Burgundian colleague of mine was also in Berlin! He’s a real wine expert so I suggested that we have a drink. We decided on Cordobar, and it was incredible. Yes, a glass of wine was a bit pricey, anywhere from 4.50 to 8.50 if I recall correctly (they have a bottle for EUR 1699.00). But this was really good stuff and the bartender was very knowledgeable and passionate about wine. Once he found out that we live in Burgundy, he started pouring us samples and asking us to name the grapes and such. I’m only familiar with Burgundy wines, so this was impossible for me, but Yann was having fun with it. I guess one of their focuses is on biodynamic wines, which is obviously nonsense, but I still recommend this place wholeheartedly.

There is a lot of random stuff in here, but hopefully you get some ideas of places to see. Berlin is an incredible city, and I recommend visiting.

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Cellular plans while traveling

When traveling in 2015, some of the biggest concerns often relate to cellular and data connectivity. I don’t have all of the answers here, but I do have some tips for a few given countries.

United States

When we travel to the US, we often have a lot of activities planned. In my case, in particular, I visit a lot of people in a lot of places. Having a reasonably-priced SIM with voice and data is thus very important to coordinate everything. I’ve tried a few and the winner for me is T-Mobile. For my length of trip, it tends to be the best deal among the major providers. There are, of course, small regional companies that lease airwaves from the big ones, but because my first stop in the US is not always in the same region, it has been too inconvenient to learn the best in each place. When I arrive, one of my first stops is always the local T-Mobile shop. Last time I went back, I was even able to save money because my old SIM had not yet expired (which happens after 3 months) so I just needed to top it up. Normally I get a plan in which I am forced to load the card with some amount of money and then a few dollars are deducted every day that my phone is turned on. I have to warn you: it’s not that cheap. I think there are cheaper packages if you order online, though I’ve never gone this route.

As an American, I have a Google Voice account. After buying a SIM, I immediately get on the internet and link my Google Voice number to whatever cellular number I have. Often, my first stop is Connecticut, so I have a SIM from that area code, but my friends around the country can call me using the same number I’ve had for years.

In the US, it is probably feasible to do without a data plan, as free wifi is fairly easy to find in most areas. The local coffee shops are hit or miss, but it is getting more prevalent. As much as I hate to do it, I often go to one of the chains, including Starbucks, Panera Bread, and Dunkin’ Donuts. They aren’t interesting (OK, well, I do like Dunkin’ Donuts quite a lot) but at least I don’t end up driving around forever.

There are some providers that I would not do business with, based on past experiences:


The reseller gave me incorrect information on what plan I needed and then he had to charge me some additional minimum to top me up so I could get my data working. This led to me overpaying by $5 which I had no use for once I left the US. His hands were tied so I contacted AT&T customer service, which was completely unhelpful. They had my money and weren’t giving it back, regardless of the questionable legality of their bait and switch. I complained via the internet, filed a case with the Better Business Bureau, and then was contacted by Don Arteaga and Jackie W. Sutton. Nobody cared.

A reply from Tina LeBlanc: “The account that you are asking about is no longer an active account. I am not able to issue refunds for prepaid services.”

Jackie Sutton stated, “the prepaid account was cancelled and any unused account balance was forfeited upon expiration. A refund cannot be provided.”

Obviously the account was no longer active. It was a prepaid account and they waited forever to respond to my problem. It’s not my fault the account they defrauded me on happened to be a prepaid account. I hope they’re happy they got their $5, because all my business since has gone to T-Mobile. So anyways, stay away from those guys.

Family Mobile from Walmart

A salesperson at Walmart once conned me into thinking this was prepaid. She was fairly dumb, so she might have believed it too. But it’s not. I immediately returned it and, though the contract wasn’t immediately cancelled as they said it was, the company (T-Mobile) actually made it right.


In Germany I have always just gone to Saturn (big electronics store) and bought a cheap SIM card just for voice usage. This is usually about EUR 10 and trouble-free. However, I had a lot of trouble the last time I was in Germany. It led to me paying for, but not having, data for the entire trip. The card was branded Fonic but it actually was from a company named Callmobile. I guess they are basically reselling O2 service at a lower cost. This particular trip I decided I also needed data. For whatever reason, the activation never worked properly and the messages I was getting on the phone were confusing and indicated I was not getting the package I chose on the website (normally you buy the card then activate it on the web). I contacted them via the webpage and they totally ignored my messages. I sent them a message each day for the entire week I was there and even now, six months later, I have never heard back. I guess they basically got my money and knew they screwed up so they weren’t going to bother with me. I contacted Fonic on Twitter but they disavowed any connection to this since it was sold by Callmobile. I told Fonic that it kind of is their problem if they let fly-by-night companies put the Fonic name on crappy products. I can’t exactly tell you how to know which card not to get (there is generally some fine print), so I’m going to just recommend not to buy any card from the Fonic brand.

If you are familiar with a town, relying on wifi might work, but the problem in Germany is that you don’t know where it is unless you are a local. Yes, it exists in many bars and coffee shops, but you just kind of learn about it as you live in a town. It’s not generally advertised. Of course Starbucks is also around. They have wifi and slightly better hours, so in extreme circumstances I’ll go there.


I’ve never needed a prepaid SIM card in France, given that I live here. A traveler could probably do without data and just use wifi around town, though business hours in France are quite limited. It is better than Germany though, in that the existence of wifi is usually clearly indicated with a sticker in the window. Around France, it is very easy to find restaurants, cafes, and bars that do have it.

Other considerations

If you have a proper European SIM (I’m not sure how this applies to prepaid ones), European Union law limits what a provider can charge when you cross borders within Europe. This often has the result that some aspects of the service (SMS is a common example) can actually be cheaper when traveling than they are at home.

A final note for Americans: It is important to ensure that you have an unlocked GSM phone. For example, Verizon phones are simply not compatible with the network over here (unless you have a “world phone,” with a GSM slot). A phone from AT&T or T-Mobile, on the other hand, will generally work fine so long as you have it unlocked. Doing so will require you to call your provider. Laws and policies vary from year to year and provider to provider regarding if they will unlock your phone. Another consideration is which bands the phone supports. Often providers in a given region will utilize a couple bands and these may only partially overlap with those in use by your provider at home. This means that connectivity could be limited. If none of this works for you (wrong provider, wrong bands, etc.), you can also just buy a cheap flip phone for use only while traveling. For my first six months living in Germany, I was using a phone I bought from Saturn for maybe EUR 15. It was the cheapest they had and it actually was quite indestructible. After I replaced it with a Galaxy Nexus, it made a suitable phone for visitors.

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Freedom of speech around the world

There is often talk, particularly among Americans, about freedoms and who has more of them. I have lived in the US, France, and Germany, and have traveled extensively elsewhere, so I want to make some comments based on my understanding of the different tradeoffs in these places. I may write additional posts, but first I want to cover freedom of speech.

United States

Americans like to talk about freedom, but in reality they have given up more than a lot of countries. Americans give up freedoms mostly in direct exchange for the feeling of security. Note that this doesn’t often translate into actual security, as many of the programs that suck up American freedoms cannot demonstrate any positive outcomes. However, freedom of speech is a glaring exception.

There are many in the US who are fighting for censorship, with arguments that hate speech isn’t covered by the first amendment (it is) and uninformed references to the “fire in a crowded theater” quote. Their efforts have been slightly successful, as we are seeing some actions being taken against people for what should be protected speech. For example, public universities have been really going down a bad path lately. Ultimately these people are OK with limits on speech, as long as they get to define the limits.

Additionally, police action is often not on the side of free speech. There have been many examples of military-style crowd control to intimidate protesters. There are also plenty of examples of police beating people up and arresting them for verbal insults.

That said, the courts often come down on the correct side (in my view) of this issue, finding that the government cannot place limits on objectionable content. In the US, speech is instead supposed to be regulated by society. The government cannot stop you from saying things unless they are credible threats or defamation (which must be believable, harmful, and false), but they also offer no protection against repercussions from your fellow citizens. Obviously that citizen can’t go violating other laws when giving payback, but you get the idea. Things aren’t perfect, but this is one issue on which I believe the US really shines as compared to the rest of the “free world.” It’s a shame that so many people are trying to ruin it.


I was surprised to learn that there really isn’t free speech in Europe. Every government over here seems intent on defining lines and limits on what speech is allowed. Britain is generally known to be the worst offender, with laws against all sorts of speech that might disturb the feelings of any subset of sensitive citizens. I’ll comment a little more on Germany and France, as those are the ones I have the most experience with. But note that the laws are not very accessible to non-native speakers so I don’t always know them with great precision.

Germany’s big thing, with regards to speech, is that you cannot deny the holocaust or say anything antisemitic (or other types of “hate” speech). This seems to actually be the case around Europe, and I understand their history is a bit different, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have eliminated such groups. Germany also has some, let’s say ridiculous, limits on insulting people. You quite literally cannot call names in Germany, and the truthfulness of a statement is not a defense. While I don’t condone limits on speech, I must say that Germany is a very civil society.

French speech laws are similar to those in Germany, though they seem to have less emphasis on the personal attacks (i.e. you may be less likely to be sued for calling a name). Worse than a normal personal attack is insulting an employee of the government, an activity that receives great protection in the US. One can also not legally insult the flag or anthem. Germany does have a law against desecration of the flag, but I think the French law differs in that verbal insults, for example, would be illegal too. Think about that: They allow “free” speech, but one cannot fully mount a campaign against the government (certainly not its agents), which is arguably the most important reason to have protected speech. France has also been getting in trouble lately (after the Paris attacks) because of the lines they have drawn regarding religious insults. This is the danger when you start to draw lines. Once you draw them, every special interest group wants them moved. Finally, it is also illegal to publish anything promoting the use of drugs, which can limit arguments about reforming drug policy. So, ultimately, France has left setting limits on speech in the hands of the majority, which is a very dangerous move. Instead of “je suis Charlie,” they should say “je suis hypocrite.”

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Wine tasting in Burgundy

We have been living in Burgundy for about a year and a half now and we have really gotten into the wine culture. In the past, I have never been a huge fan of wine or alcohol in general. I drank from time to time, and I sometimes enjoyed it just fine, but it was never a big part of my life. However, wine is an important part of the culture here, and beer was a big part of the culture when we were living in Germany. So as outsiders it kind of makes sense to really embrace these drinks as a way of learning about the cultures. When living in Germany, we tried many types of beer, I toured a couple breweries, and we even went to Oktoberfest once (which is nowhere near where we were living). Now that we are in France, we have really embraced the wine culture, to an even greater degree than we embraced beer in Germany. This is a great way not only to learn about wine, but also to see a lot of small villages around the region. We rarely drink at home. Because of our relatively cheap weekend hobby, we have really gained an in-depth knowledge of these places and the people. We’ve even become acquainted with some of the producers, who have been very welcoming and generous to us.


One thing that makes Burgundy unique, as compared to tasting anywhere else in the world, is the incredible diversity available from only a couple grape varieties. Most of the grapes here are either Chardonnay (white) or Pinot Noir (red), though there are a few minor exceptions (Aligote and Gamay, for example). In terms of differences then, the concept of terroir is very important. It’s a very complex subject, but basically the ground expresses itself through the grapes. Grapes grown in a different village or even on a different part of the same slope will have different sun and wind exposure, as well as different minerals and water availability in the soil, for example. This affects the taste drastically and, from what I’ve heard, there is basically no other place on earth with such diversity. Also, this concept is very historic here. Many of these vineyards were mapped out by monks centuries ago, because even they understood that different plots of land produce wine of different quality, some of which is subjective, of course.

Finding Burgundy wine events

There is a wine tasting event within an hour’s drive almost every weekend. However, one thing that I noticed when we first moved here is that it isn’t entirely clear how to best find these events. Yes, there is a website that lists a lot of them, but it is poorly designed and it lists special festivals and open houses right in the same list as tasting opportunities that go for months. There just isn’t a great events calendar for Burgundy wine tasting and certainly not in English. That said, you can check the following sites for some information:

It is also sometimes possible to look at the websites of any villages that you find interesting. They often will list local events.

Tiffany at Saint Vincent Tournante 2014 in Saint Aubin

Occasions to taste wine in Burgundy

Just to give you an idea of what to expect and the general etiquette, here are a few types of occasions on which one might go wine tasting in Burgundy:

  • Regular tasting at an individual domaine: Some domaines have an open tasting room many days of the week where one can just come in and do some tasting. In this setting it is considered good form to buy something. We usually do buy at least a bottle of whatever our favorite was from the tasting, within our price range of course, and this way we always have a collection of wines at home that are not always super fancy but very decent stuff that we like. For example, we often go to Domaine Berthenet in Montagny. They are open most days and they have quite a solid selection of good wines.
  • Portes Ouvertes: This is where an individual domaine or even an entire village has a free tasting event. For these, you just follow the signs and taste wines. Usually it does not cost anything, but once in a while they will charge a couple euro. Though it is considered good etiquette to buy something if it is free, realistically these events are crowded and not everybody buys. Our deliciousness threshold to buy at an event like this is higher, because we can’t taste at every place in town and buy something everywhere.
  • Wine festivals: This is what we mainly attend. For various reasons, throughout the year many of the little villages have special festivals. For these, you generally pay 5 or 6 euro to buy a glass and walk around the village tasting wine at each domaine. Just due to these events, we have way more glasses than the number of people we could ever entertain in our home, and each village has their own glasses so it’s a fun collection for us. Because you pay to participate in one of these festivals there is less expectation to buy bottles. In fact we’ve been to events where the producers didn’t even have bottles available for sale.
  • Expositions: Sometimes in the larger towns (think Beaune or Mâcon), there are indoor events with an admission charge. These events typically also have food available to sample and buy. The downside of being indoors is that you are isolated from the character of the town, and instead it really is just about the food and wine, but we do usually try to walk around the town afterwards.

Note that here I’ve only listed the types of events that are generally practical for our income bracket. There are some events where you pay something like 70 euro and walk around tasting wines in a vineyard. These may be cool, but we haven’t done one yet just because it’s not really necessary to spend this type of money to taste really good wines in Burgundy.

There are some events that are seasonal and they occur in many villages around the same time. For example, the past couple weeks has been filled with events related to Saint Vincent. We actually attended a banquet in Buxy (for the Montagny appellation) two weekends ago, for the second year. Maybe Tiffany will be writing about that, because it’s an awesome story in itself. In addition to these various events around Burgundy, each year one village holds the Saint Vincent Tournante. This is a big tasting event and it is worth seeing at least once if you get the chance. We went last year when it was held in Saint Aubin. However, last weekend we opted not to go to the 2015 event. It’s just not as interesting to us as the little festivals in random villages. There are crowds to fight through just to get a taste, the number of tastes are limited (this is sometimes technically the case at other festivals, but it is rarely enforced), and it’s expensive (15 euro for 7 tastes this year). Additionally, outdoor tasting at this time of year is not really great for enthusiasts because the wine is always too cold.

Stay tuned…

This was a broad overview of how to taste wine in Burgundy. Of course there are also businesses, such as large cellars and wine shops, where wine can be tasted. We do go to these sometimes, and some are awesome, but here it was my intent to talk about opportunities to get a little more culture. Hopefully we will begin writing some things about individual villages and events we like. We are not experts on wine, but we are learning. We want to share what we can.

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Apps for travelers and expats

Technology allows us to travel and move much more efficiently than would have ever been possible 20 years ago. I do try to be as minimalist as possible in my technology usage. Having accounts all over the world can present security threats. Additionally, simplifying our technology means less to carry around when traveling and moving, and less data to be stolen or lost. But, that said, I also like to be prepared. I have a 3-year old Macbook Pro and Tiffany has an older Macbook. These are pretty versatile, light, and have good battery life. For phones, I use a Galaxy Nexus and Tiffany has an iPhone 4. We also have some external drives for Time Machine and storing TV shows and such.

Keep in mind that we don’t just travel, but we are also expats. Every day is sort of like traveling for us, so our needs are broad. I will be listing the apps we use for our Macs and our phones (the OS in brackets just tells where we use it). Also I will break them into categories for general travel apps, apps for traveling Germany, and apps for traveling France.


General travel/expat apps

  • Aperture [Mac]: This is important for me, because I take a lot of photos when we travel, and I usually post the best ones to Flickr. This is why I’ve included it, though realistically it’s generally the sort of thing that you just need once you get home. Aperture is Apple’s pro photo processing app. If you are serious about photography, I highly recommend it.
  • DEVONthink Pro Office [Mac]: We use this to manage our paperless office. There is a lot of bureaucracy in France, and a lot of paper. I scan every paper we get, use OCR in DEVONthink (available only in the “Pro Office” version) to convert it to a searchable PDF, and file it in the database. Tiffany and I are currently sharing the database using the built-in Dropbox sync feature which saves the “sync store” to a shared Dropbox account. Note that you cannot store the database itself in Dropbox as this can lead to corruption, particularly if you access it from two computers at once. The Dropbox sync feature locks the sync store during writes, to prevent corruption. Unfortunately this makes use of Dropbox’s “Apps” feature, storing the files in a directory that cannot be shared using the normal sharing mechanism in Dropbox. To get around this, we both share a single Dropbox account. I must say that we had a sync problem last week that led to some changes being lost after a really big revision on one computer. But, I think if we are more careful when making large changes going forward we will be fine. I chose this solution over others, like Evernote, because I wanted the ability to control the database for security reasons and because free solutions go away.
  • Dropbox [Mac], JottaCloud [Mac]: The cloud is important when traveling around. If my laptop is not handy, or broken, I may need to access files from another computer. You probably already have Dropbox (if not, click here for referral), but it’s a good way to have free cloud storage. The NSA undoubtedly has access, but it is more mature and stable than JottaCloud. I use JottaCloud for files that don’t change rapidly, due to past experiences with sync bugs. The nice thing about JottaCloud is that it has no operations in the US, meaning that the NSA will have a harder time getting access. JottaCloud doesn’t have a referral link, but if you ask me I can refer you with an email address.
  • Skype [Mac, Android]: I don’t like it much. It’s closed-source and buggy. But for some reason everybody uses it so it’s a must-have.
  • Google Hangouts [Android]: It’s horrible compared to Google Talk, which it replaced, but it’s my primary way of messaging from my phone (which I rarely do, really).
  • Wunderlist [Mac, Android, iOS]: As expats, there are always a lot of gears in motion to satisfy bureaucratic requirements. We use the free version of this app to sync our todo lists.
  • Tunnelblick [Mac]: This is an open source VPN app that I use with the VPNBook service. I also used Hotspot Shield for a while, but I didn’t like the ads. Sometimes things (videos, etc.) are blocked in certain countries or establishments. These apps can often get around that. They can also  I don’t have any loyalty to a particular app or service, but it’s a good idea to have one installed if living overseas.
  • Google Authenticator [Android]: This mobile app generates verification codes for 2-factor authentication on many websites, including Dropbox, Google, Linode, and GitHub. Security is extra important when traveling. If a laptop is stolen or data is intercepted on an insecure wifi network, 2-factor authentication provides great additional security to prevent unauthorized access to your accounts. Of course this means you should try not to lose the phone, but even if you do most accounts will still allow you to login from trusted devices for some time period before requesting a new code. In this way, you can likely still access Google from your laptop even after you lose your phone.
  • Google Maps [Android, iOS]: This one is kind of a staple and its use should be self explanatory.
  • Google Translate [Android]: This translation app even allows me to take a picture of some text, highlight it with my finger, and get a translation. Between this and normal keyboard-based translation, it’s very handy.
  • OnTheFly [Android]: ITA Matrix is the most powerful flight search engine, accessible via the web. You still have to buy the tickets on another site, but I know from first-hand experience that searching here can save you money. In my understanding, many other search engines actually use ITA Matrix under the hood. This is the mobile app. I don’t use it much, because normally I book from my couch. But I figure it’s a good idea to have for unexpected itinerary changes.
  • TripAdvisor [Android, iOS]: We use this to look at restaurant reviews almost every time we eat while traveling, though I guess it also works for other attractions.
  • Where’s My Droid [Android]: I’ve luckily never used it, but it should help find a stolen phone.
  • Undercover [Mac]: Again, I’ve never had to use it, but it helps locate stolen Macs.
  • Moni [iOS]: Tiffany uses it to categorize our expenses while we are traveling.

Germany apps

  • DB Navigator [Android, iOS]: We can search for trains all around Germany, purchase the ticket, and just show the conductor a QR code on the phone’s screen. When I last used it, I had a German bank account. I’m not sure what the payment options are if you don’t. However, the app is extremely valuable even if you must go to a machine and buy paper tickets. For example, an ICE ticket can be used anytime in a given day so this app makes it easy to search for alternate trains if you miss one or one is late/cancelled.
  • VBN [Android]: This app allows me to search and plan tram and bus routes all over Bremen.

France apps

  • FreeWiFi [Android]: If you live in France, Free is an inexpensive choice for home internet (also TV, phone, and mobile phone). The home internet package comes with a router that can broadcast two SSIDs, one private and one public. If you have Free and enable the public SSID (I have, but my box must be broken because I don’t see it), you can access Free hotspots all over the country. This Android app saves time by automatically signing me in.
  • TheFork [Android]: This is the mobile app for LaFourchette, a restaurant search engine that is used around France. In the big cities it can be used to find discounts. It is easy to save 30-50% at a nice restaurant in Paris, for example, if you book through the app.
  • Voyages-SNCF [Android]: This allows for searching and buying train tickets in France. We don’t travel by train much here, as train service is much worse than we are used to from Germany, so we don’t use the app much. I recall that you can only buy tickets through the app if you have a French phone number.
  • SNCF Direct [iOS]: This tracks trains in real time.

One final tip: I always keep scans of our passports and visas on my phone.


Filing for German Tax Refund

I just got my German tax refund (from Bremen) and it was shockingly large. I know a lot of foreigners do not bother to file taxes, but it really can be quite easy and it can be well worth it. I had many people tell me not to bother, since it is not required (they always take enough; you never underpay, in my understanding). The circumstances surrounding an expatriate’s stay in Germany differ widely, so I’m sure some people get basically nothing and some get a windfall. But in my case (and Tiffany’s), it was possible to speak to a person at the Finanzamt who told us exactly how to fill out the forms.

In Bremen, there was a man at the  Finanzamt who a fellow researcher at the university recommended. I imagine I could have walked into the office, as I guess Tiffany did in Göttingen, and found somebody to help. The man spoke some English. He looked at my information and pointed at which pieces of information from my forms went into which blanks on the empty form. I went home, completed the form, and came back the next day to submit everything. My bank account information was on one of the forms so my refund came as a direct deposit. Unfortunately, it can take several months to get paid. Mine took about 5 months, I think. But it is a good idea to keep the German bank account open for a while anyway until all of the surprise deposits and withdrawals, due to turning off utilities and such, cease.

This was a quick post, but I just want to implore you to file your taxes if you are living in Germany. It can really pay off. It was well worth the 1-2 hours total that I spent on it. I met a lot of people who told me not to bother filing, but I’m glad I did.

flat Germany

The Incompetence of Göttinger Hausverwaltung (GöHV)

Today I’ve had what I can only hope is my last communication with Göttinger Hausverwaltung. If it is the last interaction I ever have to have with them, thank goodness; if it is not, hopefully any further communications are only about the return of my deposit — I’m doubtful about the odds of that happening though. For now, let me share a cautionary tale about doing business with Göttinger Hausverwaltung, the biggest property management company in Göttingen, Germany. The gist of this story? Do NOT do business with GöHV, no matter how desperate you are to find an apartment in Göttingen — and I know if you are looking for an apartment in Göttingen, the odds are that you are very desperate.

When I first arrived in Göttingen, I needed to find an apartment quick. Everything depended on it — it was mid-April, I had signed a contract to start a job in Göttingen in May, I had just “moved” from the US — if you can call lugging two suitcases of stuff on a trans-Atlantic flight “moving”, I had no pre-established network of people, and all my research told me I had to get a place to live before I could get my visa, work permit, bank account, health insurance, tax number, etc. So I, too, was desperate to find a place and get the ball rolling on these other important aspects of starting life in a new country, as I had less than three weeks before I was supposed to start working.

Thus, I visited as many apartments as possible over several days while I stayed in the local hostel. I eventually got lucky and found an einzelzimmer in the city center. It seemed ideal due to location, size, and price –it was by no means perfect, but better than anything else I had come across in the few days I had been searching. The grad student living there helped arrange the whole exchange since I barely spoke any German.

When the day came to officially turn over the keys, the previous tenant, the representative from GöHV (Frau Alexandra Deeke), and I met in the apartment. The conversation primarily proceeded in German between the previous tenant and Frau Deeke. He pointed out things that belonged with the apartment, such as cabinets and shelving, and also pointed out damage to the apartment that either needed fixed or were things that the apartment agency already had records of. The previous tenant translated for me. He told me some things would be fixed in the coming weeks by GöHV, and other things — such as a hole in the plaster caused by a door handle — would not be fixed, but GöHV knew about them and I would not be liable for them when I moved out. Seemed reasonable enough, and the rest of the exchange went how one would expect. In the end I signed a couple papers accepting the apartment and confirming I got the keys.

Within a week or two, GöHV tried to contact me about setting up an appointment for the repairs. I ended up visiting their office in person to arrange this because I was not confident about speaking German on the phone. The receptionist sent me to Frau Deeke, who spoke with me in English, and told me I could contact her in English anytime in the future if something needed fixed or I had other issues.

Over the next year and a half or so, I had several problems that did require repairs. The hausmeister was slow to get things done, and the prices they billed were high when they determined it was my duty to pay for certain things. These weren’t really major concerns for me, but were just what I came to expect after hearing things around town about GöHV. However, it was pretty ridiculous one time when I received a bill for work done in my neighbors’ apartment. I talked to my neighbors about it, and it turns out GöHV was trying to charge 70-some Euros for the repairman to spend about three minutes plunging their toilet. The mistake in regards to who should be charged was chalked up to a clerical error of some sort — I’m going to go ahead and say it was actually incompetence, based off more recent experiences.

Fast forward to my exit from Göttingen. The problems started soon after I handed in my written notice to GöHV. In my notice I said I would be looking for someone to take over my apartment before the end of the three months, a nachmieter. I started showing my apartment within days of giving notice. I immediately found a student who said she definitely wanted the apartment and all my furniture in it. She seemed to have some problems getting ahold of GöHV and filling out the application form at first, but eventually got it. I interacted with her for about a week and a half. She was offered the lease, but since apparently Germans are assholes when it comes to apartment hunting and will straight up lie about their intentions, she ultimately turned down the contract about a week into the week and half I spent interacting with her. No one at GöHV bothered to tell me this (let alone that they offered her the contract in the first place). Apparently that was not relevant information for me to know. So, I lost valuable time searching for other possible tenants.

Also, a couple of days after giving notice, GöHV started giving out my phone number to people who might be interested in the apartment. I guess I would have agreed to this, except they never asked if this was ok with me. Random people just started calling my phone all times of day. Further, it soon became clear that GöHV was giving out incorrect information about my apartment — specifically the address and the date it would be available. Later on they started giving people specifically interested in my apartment wrong information altogether by giving out information on an entirely different apartment.

For the next round of possible nachmeiters, I told them it was a race to the finish and whoever applied and signed the lease first would get the apartment. Several applied, and several others attempted to apply but were turned away. Yes, GöHV was turning people away when no one had actually signed a lease yet — why bother having back-ups, right?  After I heard back from some that they were turned away from applying, I personally went into the office with yet another prospective tenant. He too was turned away from applying, and I was told they sent the lease to someone several days ago. News to me! I contacted that person and he promised he was going to sign the lease. Then several days later he contacted me to say he was not signing the lease after all. I immediately called up the prospective tenant I had personally visited GöHV’s office with, and arranged to go there again with him on the next day, a Saturday. He was finally allowed to apply for the apartment, and we were told he would be the only one considered at that time, and he would find out on Monday, at latest Tuesday, if he would be given the lease.

My appointment to turn over the apartment to GöHV was scheduled for that Monday, because I had to move to my new home in France, and the time investment and cost of returning to Göttingen after I moved were too great. There was a possibility I could stay longer in Göttingen to take care of the key exchange with the nachmieter, but the GöHV employee I spoke to on Saturday said I should go ahead with the appointment on Monday before the nachmieter had signed a lease.

Monday morning comes, and Frau Deeke shows up to our appointment to hand over the keys. First of all, she refused to speak English with me and my husband, even though I know from previous interactions that she speaks English. Second, she was very rude to my husband by basically ignoring him after discovering his connection to me and that he did not speak German well enough for her. Then the real problems started. The areas that we had painted were “uneven,” and it had to be fixed because a nachmieter was not secured yet. When we started to ask whether I should stay and see if the prospective nachmieter was approved and/or to re-do the painting, she really started to get flustered with us. She said she would deduct money from my security deposit for wasting her time with this meeting if I decided to stay. She would not clearly explain the options and outcomes if I stayed and fixed things, or if I just left then. Then she started to note all sorts of other problems with the apartment. The kitchen cabinets should have been removed, as well as the laminate flooring in the kitchen, the shelving in the entrance should have been ripped out of the walls, the window shades removed, and apparently the hole in the wall caused by a door handle was now my responsibility. Most irritating of all, apparently it was my responsibility to make the kitchen perfect — a kitchen that was impossible to make perfect because GöHV had allowed some previous tenant to paint over the tile backsplash with white paint, thereby allowing it to absorb grease and food stains. All of these things the prospective nachmieters had been willing to accept as is.

My husband and I became very frustrated, because it became clear that she had every intent of finding problems so that GöHV could take as much of my deposit as possible. Even the hole in the wall, which I was told I would not be liable for when I moved in, was something she was adamant I would be responsible for paying. Ultimately we decided to just hand over the keys and leave that day, and attempt to move forward with our lives knowing GöHV would probably try to keep all of my nearly thousand-Euro deposit. That afternoon I got a message from the most recent prospective nachmieter saying his application had been rejected by GöHV — he nor I never found out why; he was employed though, so the only things I can think of as the probable “cause” are that they just rejected him to screw with me, or they rejected him because he wasn’t German and might be more difficult to interact with like me. They told him they sent the contract to someone else. How that is even possible, I have no idea, since on Saturday they told us he was to be the only one considered at that time. I emailed back and forth several times with a GöHV employee, and they refused to tell me who the lease was sent to, citing “privacy concerns.” All they would say was that they would contact me in writing when the apartment was rented out.

The following week I had a German friend call them up. The GöHV representative he spoke to said the apartment was still not rented, and she could not find any other information about what was happening with it.

Weeks have since gone by with no communication from them. Today I finally received a letter from them saying the apartment has been rented. The brilliant minds over at GöHV apparently thought it was a good idea to send this letter addressed to my old apartment — an apartment they know I no longer live at. I gave them my new address when I left town; good thing I’m having my mail forwarded, I guess. Not only that, but they couldn’t even be bothered to delete the obviously non-applicable information on their form letter advising me to make an appointment for the inspection and to hand over the keys.

In conclusion, I advise you not to do business with GöHV. During my interactions with them, they have demonstrated a degree of incompetence (as well as indifference and at times spite) that I have never before experienced with a property management company. Even the most basic duties of property management seem to be a special challenge for them, so if you are searching for an apartment in Göttingen and ever expect to have repairs or one day move to another place, do whatever you need to do to avoid renting from GöHV.

France Germany

French grocery shopping and kitchens

So, I’ve been in France for a week now, and I’ve already noticed some distinct differences between the German and French grocery shopping experience, as well as the kitchens in which the food is stored and prepared in.

Here in France, people obviously love food. In some ways it is more similar to the American love of food than I would have thought. In our town there is a huge supermarket rivaling the biggest Wal-mart Supercenters in the US, complete with the now-obligatory sushi counter and anchoring a variety of the typical side businesses such as dry cleaner, bank, hair salon, etc. The aisles of groceries seem endless, and to my surprise a large portion of them are filled end-to-end with processed foods. From pre-packaged baked goods to single serving microwavable meals, the variety of processed foods possibly even exceeds that found in the US. It is France however, so there are also extensive wine, cheese and produce sections. My stereotyped expectations were, of course, primarily based on the idea of open-air markets selling whole, fresh foods, but my experiences in German grocery stores also led me to expect less of the processed, pre-packaged stuff. Yes, there were also supercenters in Germany, but nothing comparable to the American versions I was accustomed to. Further, there just wasn’t that much of a selection of processed foods — at least not a selection you wouldn’t be bored of after a week.

Supermarkets aside, France also has more to offer in the way of outdoor farmers’ markets. There is a market in our town six days a week. In my town in Germany, which was at least twice the size of my new French hometown, there was an open air market only three times a week. The French certainly seem to make it easy for daily grocery shoppers to find what they are looking for. Paradoxically, the refrigerator in our French apartment is twice the size of that in my German apartment — maybe to fit the vast array of cheeses a French person would want to have on hand? I’m not sure yet how to reconcile these differences; it could be that French people just enjoy eating and everything related to it more, whereas the Germans seem to take an “I eat to exist” sort of approach. Neither culture, however, seems to think that real ovens are important to have in rented apartments, and that I’m not sure I will ever be able to rationalize.