Posted by: Ken Brown | November 19, 2010

In the Dark

Alone in the Dark

Image by RedEyeRex, from Flickr Creative Commons.

Hoffnung ist ein gutes Frühstück, aber ein schlechtes Abendbrot. -Francis Bacon

…perseverance produces character, and character hope. –Romans 5:4

A few weekends back we lost power in our apartment. It was a windy night so this was not at first surprising, but then we looked out the window to find that everyone else still had light. We had not been doing anything power-intensive (just sitting on the couch reading), yet as far as we could tell the whole apartment had lost power for no reason. Could a storm knock out the lights to just one apartment? We couldn’t see how, but I went down to the basement to look at the meters anyway, and sure enough, they were all spinning except ours. It seemed that everyone around us was happily going about their lives, while we scrambled around in the dark. It was not the last time we would feel that way in Germany.

We reserved our apartment as temporary accommodation. Several people had strongly urged us not to try to secure a permanent place from afar. German apartments are typically unfurnished, which doesn’t just mean no furniture, but no fixtures and even (in most cases) no kitchen. Many of the better apartments also come with a hefty real estate agent fee, in addition to their steep deposits. Then there is the matter of interpreting the jargon and abbreviations of the classified ads (and no, Google Translate is little help there), then calling in German to inquire whether a given apartment is still available. Oh, and it is not uncommon for apartment owners to be quite discriminate in who they allow to rent, including (if they like) choosing not to rent to foreigners, those with children, those who practice tap dancing, and so on. Ok, I made up the last one, but it wouldn’t surprise me. We’ve been in Göttingen for two months and apartment hunting still gives me the shivers, so we were certainly well-advised not to attempt it from the States.

The advantage of our current apartment is that it includes not only a kitchen but also furnishings and linens, all for a reasonable monthly rate. We had also heard good things about the place from a family who rented it before. When we arrived, however, things did not quite live up to expectations. Our first clue was when we called the company’s local representative two days before the scheduled move in. He promptly informed us that he no longer handles the property, and we should call the company directly. When we did so—wondering if we still had a reservation at all!– the company itself appeared to be unaware that he had quit, and had no one else to take over. They ended up sending someone all the way from Berlin just to hand over the keys, and that is the last we have seen of them.

The man from Berlin was obviously unfamiliar with the apartment as well, but did very kindly inform us that “Der Backofen ist kaput,” as indeed it was: The whole oven door was hanging off its hinges. He assured us that the issue would be taken care of immediately. It was not. After two days my supervisor at the university (who speaks much better German than us) called them for us to inquire about the oven repair, and he was told that it wasn’t the company’s problem. After arguing for 20 minutes, he finally got them to agree to pay if we hired someone to fix it ourselves, but when we then found a repairman he said he needed to hear directly from the company if they would be paying. We then called the apartment company back and couldn’t reach the same person who we had spoken with before, and were once again told it was not their problem (!). In the end we fixed the oven ourselves (it wasn’t as bad as it looked), with no help from the company.

That was the problem they actually told us about. We soon discovered that the apartment has a variety of other issues they neglected to mention–damage to the walls, floors and furniture, light switches and power outlets that do not work or do so only intermittently, a closet full of bathmats soaked in spilled perfume, a missing smoke detector, and so on and so forth. I sent them an email documenting the more egregious of these (with pictures) and did finally get a helpful reply, asking if we would like to schedule a time to have the apartment renovated. Of course, when I wrote backing asking only that something be done about the electrical problems, it took them a month to get back to us with the name of an electrical company that would supposedly contact us, but never has. One of these days we’ll probably have to track down the electrician’s phone number and call him directly, but I doubt he’ll have the foggiest idea who we are when we do.

All of this would be frustrating enough in English, but German throws up a massive wall in front of any attempt at resolution. I have to admit that I used to feel rather annoyed at people who live in America but cannot speak English very well. When some such person would come into my office or happened to be in front of me at the store, I couldn’t help feeling a bit frustrated that they could not understand what was being said to them. After all, if you plan to live in a country, you should at least take the trouble to learn the language. How hard can it be?

Pretty friggen hard, actually! I had no easy access to German courses before I left the States (the local community college did not offer German, and my university was too far away and too expensive), but I did study it as intensively as I could on my own, reading grammar books, using RosettaStone, and spending at least a half-hour a day with Pimsleur’s Speak and Read Essential German CDs (I finished both courses I and II before leaving). Since arrival I feel like all I do is practice German, including 4+ hours of immersion classes every morning, 4 more hours of private study in the afternoon, then often a couple hours further in the evening, usually spent trying to make sense of the German mail I get, or the nearly incomprehensible German immigration laws (more on which, in a moment). Even when I decide to take an evening off, I usually relax by reading Harry Potter, in German.

Yet despite all of that, I can still barely manage a casual conversation, and if things get the least bit technical I’m quickly lost. There is just too much specialized vocabulary, and too many distinct situations to master–from the grocery store to the foreigner’s office to the speeches given at a professor’s 60th birthday party–that I can’t keep up. Reading is easier, but hearing and speaking are a major challenge, and are likely to remain so for quite some time. You can only imagine how much more frustrating it is for my wife, who has far less time each day to devote to German practice.

Nor is this simply a matter of embarrassment. Some issues are difficult to resolve even in German, and all but impossible with my limited grasp of the language. For instance, in October I went to pick up our residency permits, only to be turned away empty-handed. The lady spoke little English, and my German was even worse then than it is now, but from what I could gather she thought our apartment is too expensive, and did not think I make enough to support a family. How she determined that, and what she expects me to do about it, remain a mystery to me even after a dozen further conversations, several with an interpreter.

It has been two months since we arrived and we have been backwards and forwards between the foreigner’s office, the insurance company, the university and the employment agency so many times that I’ve lost all count, and everyone gives us different information. The woman at the foreigner’s office says we don’t make enough to keep our children in Germany, but we could stay if we got government assistance from the employment agency. The employment agency says you cannot get government assistance with the kind of residency permit we are being offered. The university lawyer said we do have enough income to qualify for a sort of residency permit that would allow us to get government aid, but the representative at the foreigner’s office disagrees. We finally made an appointment with the head of the foreigner’s office, and marched down there with an interpreter and my supervisor, only to discover that she was sick that day and not in.

The second worst part of all of this is the uncertainty. Many days we have felt completely lost in Germany, unsure where we belong, whether we can stay, and if so where we will live once our temporary rental contract expires. This is especially hard for my wife, who is a planner by nature and rather homesick as well. The worst though, is that from the very beginning we were told by our health insurance company that they could insure me on the basis of my employment contract, but they could not cover my family until we had our residency permits. This was frustrating when we thought it would just take a couple weeks and a rubber stamp to get through, but the longer the time drags on, the more desperate one becomes without insurance.

A few weeks back my middle son fell down and split his head open. If that sounds worse than it was, it also looked worse than it was. Even small head wounds bleed a lot, so it is hard to know how worried you should be in such a situation. If we were back in the States, we would have just called up the kids’ doctor and, if he thought it was necessary, gone in right away. But what about here? Our insurance coverage is somewhat questionable and we don’t have a regular doctor to see yet, so what are we going to do? Pile the kids in the stroller and push them to the nearest emergency room, point at the boy’s head and wave a credit card, hoping whatever string of German they reply with is marginally understandable and helpful? Luckily the wound was not as bad as it could have been, as I fear to think of what would have happened if it had been serious.

Before coming here I had no idea how vulnerable one could feel moving to a new country. Not only have you left behind all the supports of family and friends, but at first you have no phone number or internet access, no health insurance (except the temporary travel insurance we bought before leaving, which is basically useless), limited access to your funds back at home (if they are even worth much here), and not even any guarantee that you will have the right to live here at all.  When we moved to Canada it was relatively painless. We spent a nervous hour in the immigration office, then walked out with our visas and the university took care of the rest. Here it seems like an endless march from office to office trying to get such-and-such document from so-and-so to take to so-and-so, who probably won’t accept the document in any case.

All involved act as though the request is completely unexpected—like no American has ever moved to Germany before!—and most often respond by composing a letter saying “if they get X then I will give them Y.” This is necessary, because the residency process appears to be one big series of catch-22s. You can’t get insurance without a residency permit, but you can’t get a residency permit without insurance. You can’t work in Germany without a residency permit, but you can’t get a residency permit that allows work unless you first prove that you will have sufficient income. You can’t get government aid without a residency permit, which of course doesn’t stop the immigration office from sending you off to apply for government aid as a condition of getting your residency permit!

In most cases, I’m stuck either negotiating through my terrible German and their often equally terrible English, or taking an interpreter who proceeds (very helpfully of course) to rattle on in completely incomprehensible German on my behalf. I spend so much of my time researching the relevant laws and marching from office to office that I barely even have time for my German homework, and yet most days I still feel just as in the dark as I did that evening when the lights went out. If we didn’t have friends and colleagues here to help us, I think we might have given up by now. Thankfully we do.

The next morning after we lost power, we woke up from a restless sleep to find we still had no electricity. It was a Sunday morning and I had no hope of getting a resolution from our unreliable rental company, so I called my supervisor instead. His wife answered, and it took her all of thirty seconds to diagnose the problem: the fuses had blown. In hindsight, this should have been obvious, but we had not seen anything like a fuse-box either in our apartment or near the power-meter. It turns out the fuses were hidden in a small panel out on the staircase, which must be opened with a key that we didn’t realize we had. The key was quickly found, and just like that, all our confusion and angst disappeared with the flick of a switch.

On Tuesday, fearing that without a residency permit I might be turned away when I tried to return from the SBL Annual Meeting in Atlanta, I went back to the foreigner’s office to make a last desperate plea. My interpreter could not come, nor was my supervisor available, so I spent a couple hours trying to piece together some coherent German to explain my situation and ask for a temporary permit to give us time to work things out. After writing a test in German class, I hurried off to the foreigner’s office with little time (they are only open until noon) and even less hope, and anxiously awaited my turn. Finally it came, and to my great surprise, she needed little convincing and quickly granted a temporary permit for three more months.

So we now have until mid-February to get things sorted out, and my supervisor assures me that we have options to pursue. We will worry about that after SBL. Even better, armed with the temporary permit, I decided to try my luck again with the insurance office. I didn’t really expect anything with a temporary permit, but thank God (truly) they accepted it! We should have our cards in 10 days, and if we have a problem before then our account numbers should be available in a couple of days.  I was also able to buy a year’s worth of comprehensive travel insurance for less than 10€, just in case I fall down an escalator at SBL, or something. In the end, we still don’t know what is going to happen with our residency permit application, nor where we will be living come February 1st, but for the first time in a long while we have hope. We may still be the only ones around in the dark, but at least now we know there’s a light switch.


  1. Your post made me feel both guilty and fortunate. Guilty because we did not have to go thru what you and your family are enduring and fortunate for the same reason. I can identify with some of what you wrote though – especially the language problems. My wife and I arrived in Berlin last July compilments of the US Government. She works at the US Embassy and I’m a retired civil servant. Once you return from SBL, we should get together. I’ve love the hear more details about your studies and happenings at SBL. After five years straight, this is the first year that I won’t be attending. We are planning on making the trip in July for the meeting in London. By now, you may be confused. Retired civil servant? Goes to SBL? The first people to offer me a job after graduating from seminary in 1984 was, you guessed it, the US Government. I spent the next 24 years working with small churches in Northern Virginia while working full time for the feds.

    Hang in there. I know SBL will charge you up. If life in Gottingen gets too overwhelming, then bring the wife and kids to Berlin for a visit. WE have a spare bedroom and a hidabed sofa. Our grandkids are all the way in Denver, so we’re looking for some fill ins. Take care. Craig Baugh

  2. Again, this reminds me so much of moving to the Czech Republic. I remember the run around with the foreign police. Our big hang up was my 12-year-old sister. Apparently her Czech criminal background check didn’t come back clean. She’d never been to the Czech Republic before. And she was 12. ???

    The first year sucks. But it gets better. A year in with my family, and the tragedies didn’t seem quite as severe. The frustrations weren’t quite as annoying. We felt more confident. Crises were more manageable. It gets better.

    (Tangentially, I’m not sure about Germany, but CZR has socialized medicine. If you need something serious and don’t have insurance, it may be worth the trip. I had surgery with 2 specialists, an anesthesiologist and a night’s stay in the hospital for $2000.)

  3. Sorry, dude. Hang in there. Makes me feel like I’ve been very lucky in moves to Paris and Nairobi.

  4. Thanks guys. I wrote most of this post a couple weeks ago, when I was feeling a good bit more uncertain than I am now. Not that things are resolved, but at least I feel more hopeful these days. I had meant to change the title to A Light in the Dark, but I guess I forgot.

  5. […] as that rather perfectly describes my life for the past four months. Since we arrived it felt like nothing could go right. I visited the immigration office more times than I can count. The first half-dozen […]

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