Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas in Germany

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one of them is Newsweek. Last weekend they had their food critic on to talk about candy canes. Like many of our American Christmas traditions, they come from Germany. But this lady was so confused by that fact saying "its funny because I don't think of Germany as a very festive place." Does "O Tannenbaum" ring a bell?

American Christmas borrows heavily from Germany, including the Christmas trees, advent wreaths, a lot of food, and some carols. But German Christmas has many traditions that didn't cross over. The above photo is from the Christmas market in Nürnberg, taken with Marisa and Justin's camera, you can read Justin's take on Nürnberg here.

These markets are in pretty much every village and city in Germany. The traditional drink is Glühwein (mulled wine) which you drink out of little boots. There are lots of goodies to eat and beautiful Christmas ornaments and local crafts for sale at the Christmas market. The church bells toll more often and sometimes there are carolers or nativity scenes.

The Christmas celebrations here start at Advent (the four Sundays before the 25th) and culminate on Heiligabend (Christmas Eve). Everyone enjoys some coffee and Stollen (Christmas cake) or other goodies during the afternoon. The children are shooed out of the room, and then Christi comes to decorate the tree and bring the presents. "Christi" is German for Christ, though when I asked about this there was some disagreement about whether this was actually the baby Jesus. The confusion probably comes from the fact that Christi is usually portrayed by a little girl dressed as an angel with blond ringlets.

St. Nickolaus comes not on Christmas, but on December 6th to bring oranges and nuts. And even though most kids can eat oranges and nuts whenever they want, they are still pretty excited about Nickolaus. Sometimes he also brings a small present, like a book.

"Weihnachtsmann" also appears in Germany. This is American-style Santa Claus, with the red suit. Nickolaus is dressed like an old bishop, as was his occupation while he lived. I haven't met a German who celebrates with Weihnachtsmann, and I'm beginning to think he's just a marketing ploy. Even the little girl I babysit, whose parents are American, doesn't believe in Weihnachtsmann, despite repeated readings of "The Polar Express." Its just too confusing to have so many people bringing presents in one month, I guess.

Even though we don't have any snow at all, there is definitely a beautiful Christmas feeling in the air. I highly recommend Germany in December.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nicky Robotics Inc.

I've gotta share the following email, which I got on my birthday from my brother-in-law, Nicky. He's an artist and does illustrations both free-hand and computer animation type stuff. Leave a comment or send an email if you're interested in his stuff.

Greetings valued customer!

This is a message from Nicky Robotics Inc. for one Katy Strange wishing you a very happy birthday. We here at Nicky Robotics Inc. are always pleased with your continuing patronage. We hope that the Random Yawning And Navigation (or R.Y.A.N) bot you purchased from us several years ago is still fully functional. Remember, if your Robot ever breaks down we will repair or replace no matter what. That's our R or R Guarantee.

If you are interested, we are introduced a new line of Robots you might be interested in. The Dance-o-tron. Guaranteed to dance to any music. It may look creepy but it has hips like Shakira.

We hope you are well and wish you all the best.

-Nicky Robotics Inc.
P.S We have included a picture of the Dance-o-tron if you are interested.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Customer Service? We don't need no customer service!

At a cocktail party a few weeks ago I fell in with another American expat, complaining about the German way of doing things. (Its so much more fun to complain than to praise, don't you think?) I was mentioning some difficulties we've been having with our internet and with the German DMV. She's lived here for several years and said to me, "What did you expect? Service? It doesn't exist here!"

Because in America the attitude is "we'll do anything to get your money." When I worked as a lowly front desk attendant at a gym the training was very specific. If a customer has a problem and you can't solve it personally, you call over the person who can and explain the customer's problem so they don't have to repeat his/herself. This goes up the chain of command until we find the person who can fix the problem.

It has been astonishing to Ryan and I that we could walk into a bank and try to open an account, basically saying "here, take our money" and an employee would elect not to help us on seemingly arbitrary grounds. In England, one bank employee checked one manual, couldn't figure out what kind of ID we needed to show to open a bank account and gave up completely. Basically told us "I don't know if you can open a bank account here. Sorry and goodbye."

But I digress. Over the last month or so I have written two formal letters of complaint: one to the Berlin driver's license office and one to Vodafone. Good practice in German, at any rate. Here are the unbelievable sagas:

I've already written about the waiting period to get your internet installed, but the other day mine stopped working entirely. After 3 hours of trying every trick I know of, Ryan got home and tried every trick he knew. Then I resigned myself to calling the dreaded customer service line.

Calling a customer service line in a foreign language is about the worst punishment I can devise. Not only do you get the random disconnect after being on hold for 20 minutes (listening to the same 1 minute of some terrible pop song on a loop!) but then you get some disgruntled call center employee who assumes you're calling because you didn't plug your computer in or some bull like that. Not only that but even though my German has gotten pretty good I find myself saying "Wie bitte?" (excuse me?) several times at which the employee sighs exasperatedly and repeats himself even faster. I have taken to saying right off the bat "Before we begin, I am not a native speaker of German. Please speak slowly and clearly."

Anyway, the customer service guy tells me the issue is with my computer and offers to send a technician. But, he says, if the problem is my computer and not the connection, I will be charged minimally €40 for the visit. The technician comes the next morning between 8:30-11:00, which of course, means 11:00. He spends 30 minutes plugging random devices into the wall. He somehow fixes the issue then asked me "What are you studying, beautiful?" as he gestured at Ryan's engineering books. For all this I'm supposed to pay €64, and so I wrote a letter of complaint (with the help of my lovely teacher, Julianna).

Today a got a call on the house phone, which is fairly unusual. Another fast-speaking customer service rep asking me about my letter. She was speaking quickly and using some legalese I couldn't get the full meaning of, but from what I got, they haven't charged me yet and don't want to. But she's not in charge of that and if they do end up charging me I should send them a letter and they will pay me back.

About an hour later I got another call from Vodafone. I was expecting some other news about my letter but instead got "Thank you for being our customer. Vodafone has some new exciting offers. But first, let me ask, are you happy with your Vodafone service?"

Ryan applied in March at the appropriate office in Berlin, where we lived at the time. He was told to come back with a translation of his driver's license and an eye test. At the time I could hardly speak any German but even I could have translated his driver's license. It says only his name, address, the state in which it was issued, his eye color, hair color, height, weight, and birth date. But he needed an OFFICIAL translation, and so he went to the ADAC (the German AAA). They told him he did NOT need a translation, and recommended him to an eye doctor for his vision test. He took the vision test (€10) back to the Berlin office. He paid €50 and was told he'd receive the license in a few months.

In July Ryan became worried, because we were moving to Frankfurt. I arranged to have our mail forwarded and he called the office and asked them to forward his application to the Frankfurt office. In August he called the Frankfurt office and they had not received anything. He called the Berlin office, they promised to send the application right away. Two weeks went by. Ryan called the Berlin office and they confirmed that they had sent the application. So he went to the Frankfurt office but they had still not received anything. An employee asked for Ryan's receipt and promised to track down the application. Nothing happened. Ryan called the Berlin office again and asked to what address they had sent his application. It was, of course, the wrong one. The only copy had been sent to a wrong address because some Berlin employee hadn't bothered to Google the Frankfurt office. Ryan went back to the Frankfurt office and mentioned the Berlin fiasco, asking to reapply. The employee was convinced the application was somewhere in the mail room, Ryan assured him it was not. After some arguing, the employee told him, in that case you will need an eye test and a translation of your driver's license. Ryan said that the ADAC told him he did NOT need a translation. But the employee insisted.

So Ryan called the ADAC in Frankfurt and the translator (the only OFFICIAL translator in Frankfurt) said "Come down anytime, it should only take a few minutes." So Ryan stopped by two days later. The translator had left for a vacation. For two weeks. After two weeks, Ryan called again to confirm she was back. He went down the next day. She was out sick. Ryan called again and eventually the official translator was found. She took 5 minutes to type out the official translation, €50 please. Ryan took the translation, his forwarded eye test results, and went back to the Frankfurt office. He was determined not to even mention Berlin because every time he did, another delay took place.

Ryan went back to the office yesterday and turned in his new application. The employee looked at his name and said "Ryan Strange? But I already have an application for you." And out of his desk he took Ryan's Berlin application, postmarked August. Then he told Ryan he did NOT need a translation of his driver's license, and said "I don't have a receipt of payment for Berlin, so I'll need you to pay €50. If you find a receipt from Berlin, someone will gladly refund your money." Now Ryan will wait a few weeks and supposedly receive a driver's license.
(I don't want to hear any complaining about the DMV, no matter how long you wait in line, at least it doesn't take you 10 months to get a driving license.)