Alien in America

Schoolbusses blinking like Christmas trees


I grew up in Berlin, Germany, a huge city with lots of impatient and aggressive drivers. They don’t forgive you for any mistake. The streets are full and crowded, so don’t ever dare drive too slowly. Berlin drivers will let you know that you are too slow by honking their horns relentlessly.

I drove cars in different parts of Europe, several big cities, and in rural areas. Every country has its own way to deal with traffic problems in Europe. But I thought it was really fun to get used to the Maine way of driving.

First of all: Pedestrians always have the right of way. I am not used to that at all. In Berlin pedestrians are a nuisance who get, in worst-case scenarios, ignored. Here you have to stop for them whenever you see one attempting to cross the street.

One day I was waiting for a friend on a pretty busy street. Almost every car stopped because they thought I wanted to cross the street. I constantly had to wave my arm and signal them to pass. It was quite disturbing.

During the first couple of years I had a really hard time even noticing pedestrians when they were on the sidewalk. I was just too used to ignoring them unless they would jump in front of my car. I got a little better at this, but there is still this little voice in my head telling me that this just feels wrong. After all, I am a Berliner.

School busses frightened me my first year. These big, yellow, old-fashioned vehicles stop at places that aren’t identified as bus stops at all. As soon as they stop, lots of lights are flashing and stop signs suddenly show on the busses’ side. Cars on both sides of the street have to stop, as well, in order to protect the kids who are getting on and off the bus. As long as the bus is blinking like a Christmas tree, no car is supposed to pass it.

I didn’t have trouble stopping when a school bus was in front of me. But when one was on the other side of the street, I didn’t notice them. I just wasn’t used to looking out for them if they were on the other side of the street.

I also had to get used to the number of stop signs used to control traffic. Wherever there are no crossing lights, there are stop signs. Even at parking lots there are a zillion stop signs that make you stop every ten inches even though there are no pedestrians or other cars in sight. That means in cities, if you are not driving on a main street, you are in a constant stop and go mode, quite unnerving when you are in a hurry.

But I can’t complain. Mainers are pretty laid back and friendly drivers. You will never have trouble getting let into traffic, and they are extremely helpful if they see another driver in distress.

I like driving here. Driving is really relaxing in Maine. I can’t say the same about Germany.

Woman with two identities


When I travel I still use two names. After I moved to the US, I married an American citizen and took his name. It was a rather curious process for me. I expected that I had to sign our marriage certificate with my new name, as I had seen in Germany before. And that would make my new name official. But I had to sign it with my maiden name. There is no real official name change here. All I had to do was tell USCIS to write my new name on the green card, so I could show my marriage certificate to the bank so that they would change my name on my account and send me new credit cards. That’s it.

But in Germany I still use my maiden name. It’s a huge bureaucratic hassle to change your name when you live abroad. First I have to legalize my wedding in Germany by sending them a notarized wedding certificate and some forms. This process registers my marriage in Germany and would start my official name change there, too.

The agency that is doing that will send me a letter and some papers as soon as they are done with their processes. Then I have to travel with these papers and lots of other forms to Boston to apply for a new passport. You can’t get a new passport just by calling them. As soon as I have my new passport I am able to change my name on my German bank accounts and wherever it’s necessary in Germany. This whole process can take up to a year or longer.

I know I should do that. But I keep procrastinating, because there is no problem having these two names. In the beginning, I was afraid that traveling would be difficult because whenever I flew from Germany to the US,I worried that customs wouldn’t let me in because I always have to show them my passport and my green card with two different names on it. What would they do to me? Just in case, I always carried my wedding certificate with me, prepared to be interrogated.

But that never happened. The customs person takes my picture and fingerprints and never even looks up when I give him or her my two most precious documents with two different names on them.

My challenge is whenI have to remember to book my international flights using my maiden name. The name always has to be the same as the name on the passport. Otherwise the airline would refuse to allow me to board the plane.

So, no wonder that I keep procrastinating. But one day I will have to do that. In five years, when my passport expires, I will have to apply for a new one. That will be the day when I have to face the dreaded paperwork, no matter what.


No paid vacation in America?


Last night I booked my flight for my vacation in Germany. I am so lucky to work for a company that lets me go home for two weeks twice a year. I would not have thought that this would be possible before I moved from Germany to Maine three and a half years ago. Coming from a country with lots of benefits and a strong social safety net, I was worried and, yes, also a little spoiled.

I did my research before my move and knew that Americans usually get only ten days of vacation, sometimes only five paid sick days a year. If they are insured, getting sick can become expensive because the insurance company covers only part of the expenses. In many cases, a worker can be laid off any day. There are hardly any labor rights. Even if you work for a company where the employees are organized through a labor union, the rights they have seem to be limited compared to what we are used to in Germany. I thought that Americans were hard workers and had to endure a lot. I wasn’t sure if I would like that, but I was willing to try the adventure.

And here I am, working for three years now in a small company with people who are extremely appreciative and flexible. I not only get four weeks of vacation, but they also offer unlimited paid sick days. There is no question that I can take a half day off for a doctor’s appointment. Actually I don’t feel much different from how I felt in my last job in Germany. I don’t have the laws which protected me in Germany, but I work with people who give me the same sense of security.

I had jobs in Germany that were awful, despite my great legal rights. I had supervisors who were mean and controlling and colleagues who were choleric. Working in places like that can make you sick. Anywhere. It’s the people you work with and not any laws which make you feel comfortable in a job.

It’s the same here in the US. I hear stories about bad companies and good companies. Yes the vacation and the health insurance thing generally doesn’t change much. But I am surprised how much I have adapted to this lifestyle. Since I am getting my four weeks dose of Germany each year, I am very content. And with the health insurance companies’ policies, I do it like the Americans: I tell myself I will cross that bridge when I come to it.