Thursday, July 29, 2010

Socialized Medicine

One of my Dad's lessons when I was a teenager was "how to deal with health insurance."  I'm sure when I was 16 I found it an occasion for eye-rolling, but today I was very grateful for that lesson.

Upon our move to Berlin last year, Ryan and I became enrolled in the German public health care system.  This is government-mandated health insurance run by private insurance companies.  The insurance companies in the public system cover mostly the same things and have the same fee structures.  There are small differences to each, but it didn't seem like choosing amongst them was particularly important.  Ryan paid 7.5% of his income, which his employer matched, and we paid 10 Euro a quarter to visit a doctor.  Both of us were covered and life was pretty good.

Last March, when I started working full-time, I was disappointed to discover that I, too, was expected to pay into this scheme.  The problem is that my income varies quite widely from month to month.  After much back and forth with the insurance company, it was decided that I would pay 316.00 Euros per month.  On a good month that's about 15% of my income, but on a bad month, that's 33% of it.  I told the insurance company that it was "bullhockey" (to quote Dad) that our premiums would basically double and we would receive no extra benefit.  But that's the German law.  (I guess I'm just supposed to stay home and have babies.)

So I started looking for private health insurance (not subject to the German mandates).  If you have a regular job, you can only qualify for this if you have earned over 4000 Euros a month (w/out dependents) for the last three years or more.  But freelancers and business owners can also qualify for private without this minimum income.

I've had meetings with two health insurance agents so far, and the process is pretty confusing.  Private health insurance is more similar to the American system, with a few exceptions.  The standard beginning for the conversation is the same "How much do you weigh?  Do you have AIDS?" etc, and I was surprised to see that companies can choose to exclude you based on certain factors, (i.e. those times I visited the student counseling center in college, apparently I'm uninsure-able by certain companies) but mostly they just charge you extra for each "pre-existing condition."  The nice thing about the public system is that you don't have to answer private health questions and pay extra for these things.  Also, the benefits in the private scheme vary so widely that they're pretty much impossible to figure out without an agent to help you.  Luckily, on my second try, I found a very helpful agent.  We spent nearly two hours today going over every detail of private health insurance, fee structures, etc.  The most bizarre thing is that some companies don't cover mental health, or teeth cleanings, but all of them cover alternative medicines and acupuncture.  Just what I need.  Maybe they can cure depression by rubbing crystals on one's forehead?

But at last, I've chosen a company.  Soon I'll see whether they accept me, and then I will have to see whether this private system is all that it's cracked up to be.  I know that if I were a true socialist, I would stay in the public system no matter what, but I guess I'm only socialist up to the point that it gets too expensive.  Is that my American upbringing?  Maybe so.  But lest I excite the ghost of Ayn Rand too much, I am happy to live in a country where everyone has access to health care.  And no, it's not cheap.  But I'm glad that Germany puts a priority on the health of it's citizens, and I hope that the U.S. will do likewise.  (I will still probably buy cheap health insurance, though.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


"Welcome to the third world."  Zoran greeted us as we deplaned in Belgrade.  Ryan's coworker had invited us to his yearly cook-out at his cabin in southern Serbia.  There would be swimming, lamb roasting, good wine, and good cheer.

I had figured that Serbia wasn't such a big country, but it took over three hours to drive from the airport to Lake Bor.  From our first few minutes' driving we noticed the stark contrasts of this country.  It was very common to see abandoned broken-down houses next to tacky mini-mansions.  The highways were as good as any in western Europe, while the local roads were nausea-inducing in their bumpiness.

I always expect that poorer countries will be dreary and sad all over.  As if the people will be shabby and worn-down, the sky grey, the landscape brown and half-dead.  But, as I learned in Tijuana several years ago, and in Serbia recently, people do what they always do: survive and try to enjoy life.  The countryside was beautiful.  Despite the hardships of people, trees grow, flowers bloom, and the sun shines indifferently.  Many parts of Serbia look like my native Montana.  But then I would see a large rocket shell in someone's front yard, and be reminded we weren't in Kansas anymore.

Serbia is a mixture of the old and new.  On Saturday we were treated to a traditionally-roasted lamb on a spit, after spending the day at a trendy beach bar.  Zoran's family and friends were so kind and welcoming to us, and we really enjoyed our stay.  Serbia is definitely wilder than western Europe.  Every time you forget about its recent history of war, and the tensions that still lurk under the surface, something pops up to remind you.  Even at the barbecue, one of the children was walking around with a large toy machine gun.  It was funny but also creepy.

When I travel I try to use the experience to learn about a new history and culture.  But I think our trip to Serbia was too short to have a handle on any part of it.  What I do know is that Serbians, like all other people, have worked to overcome their past.  I'd like to go back and see more of Belgrade, but for now I'll have to leave you with my initial impressions of this exotic country.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

World Cupdate

I know I've complained about the World Cup A LOT, (and trust me, most of it is super boring) but there are some good points to it. Germany has advanced through every round so far and plays tonight against Spain, a grudge match since Spain beat Germany in the Euro Cup two years ago. And soccer can be exciting when you're really into a certain team. Last weekend we went down to the "public viewing" area, and despite sweating off about 5 gallons, it was really fun to be in the crowd when Germany mopped up Argentina 4-0.

The best part of World Cup is definitely its mass appeal. I was trying to think of a comparison in the U.S. and decided its like having a month-long Super Bowl. But another difference is that most people watch World Cup in cafes, public viewing areas, etc, while most Americans watch the Super Bowl at home. Its more exciting to watch with a huge crowd, I think.

Last night I met my tandem partner for language practice at a cafe. Like every cafe and restaurant in this country, it was showing the Cup (Netherlands vs. Uruguay). I left around 9:00 to bike home. On the way I passed over a dozen cafes, and could check the score every few minutes. Not that I needed to. In these big games, when someone scores, you hear it.

By some bizarre twist of fate, I'm currently in 4th place on our office bracket. This is definitely dumb luck because I mostly chose teams based on how many people I know from that country. I think I'm the only one in the top positions who picked Germany to win the whole thing-- so as long as Paul the Psychic Octopus is wrong, that 25 Euro bookstore gift card is all mine!!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Destination mmmmm......

There are many chains of grocery stores in Germany, from cheaper, disorganized ones like Penny Markt, to upscale organic ones. I usually shop at Rewe, because they offer local produce, meats, and eggs, but I often hear about the mysterious Aldi.

Aldi is a little chaotic for me, and the lines are always long. But they do offer short-term amazing deals on non-grocery items, like home decor, computers, and even camping equipment. All of these offers last just a few days, so word of mouth is key. On Friday my friend, Grace, told me that Aldi was hosting "American Week" so I rushed over yesterday and was not disappointed.

There was a barrage of items you can't find in Germany, like marshmallows, plus plenty of items you usually only find for much higher prices, like tortillas (normally 2-3 euros, at Aldi this week for 99 cents). So I stocked up, and have been stuffing myself ever since. I bought popcorn shrimp, marshmallows, tortillas, some very weird scones, and these fried onion things that claim to be American, although I've only ever seen them sprinkled in Thai food or on top of German Kaese Spaetzle. They also had things like jelly beans and bagels. I might have to buy some more later. It's sad to think American food week only comes once a year!

Here is the Aldi link if you're curious as to what's available here.  I didn't see the ice cream and pecans yesterday, I hope they're not sold out!!