Amis and Abis: Roadblocks to Getting your Bachelor’s Degree in Germany

Source: Felix Kästle/dpa (c)

Source: Felix Kästle/dpa (c)

My student advising service, Eight Hours and Change, was recently featured in a story on National Public Radio’s Marketplace in a story that discussed the German university system. The main takeaway from this piece for most readers and listeners in America was the astonishing revelation that German universities are (mostly) tuition-free, and, as a result, I’ve been inundated with inquiries from every state and several territories.

For bachelor-seeking students, this can be an awkward conversation. After confirming that the vast majority of subjects can be studied at minimal cost, I have to move on to the caveat. Yes, its possible for Americans to study here for free, but that doesn’t mean everyone can do it.

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It’s not quite cheese, it’s not quite yoghurt

Quark 2

I first heard of quark (such a wonderfully German name) 7 years ago in the “exotic” dairy section of a high-end UK supermarket in London. I was with my German husband. “Oooh” he exclaimed, with tangible excitement, “Look, quark – shall we get some?” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about and when I asked what quark was he couldn’t really tell me. “It’s a bit like yoghurt,” he said, “Only thicker, more like cream cheese.” Nevertheless, we took home this mysterious dairy hybrid and I was an immediate convert. So what’s the excitement all about?

If you’re new to living in a German-speaking country, the chances are you’ll have noticed quark. A staple of German cuisine, it features prominently in supermarket fridges, bakery counters, cafe menus and Kindergarten meal plans alike. But to call it a cross between cheese and yoghurt is to do it a disservice. Quark is unique. True, technically-speaking it is somewhere between the two. Like yoghurt, it’s made from soured milk, but the starter culture used for quark is different and provides a significantly less sour taste. Like cream or cottage cheese, it’s mild and creamy, but it is without salt. Being salt-free is only the beginning of its nutritional qualities; it’s higher in protein than yoghurt and, in its full-fat form, is a great source of vitamin K2, which helps keep calcium in your bones. Amazing!  Read more »

Applying for a Wohnung in Berlin

PHOTO: Erin Porter

My little Berliner on the Wohnung search

When we found out we were pregnant, we knew a two-room (one-bedroom) apartment was no longer going to cut it. So we went on the hunt for a three-room, ideally with a balcony, high floor, a little class and great transportation links. Slowly at first, and then with increasing sincerity as the baby finally made her arrival.

As always, I was horrified at the lack of light fixtures, kitchen and even floors in some Wohnungen (apartments). I checked out the toilets. My wandering eye searched further afield from my preferred neighborhoods (known as Kiez in Berlin) of Friedrichshain to nearby Lichtenberg, Wedding from Prenzlauer Berg. Surely Marzahn couldn’t be that bad…could it? Despite my lowering standards, we are still without an apartment to accommodate our growing family.

Why is renting in Berlin so hard? Read more »

Birthday Etiquette

Nothing unsettles a German quite like wishing him or her a Happy Birthday before the actual birthday. The tradition of precision isn’t just in engineering appliances or designing public transport. In Germany, birthdays are also measured with exactness. I grew up with the relaxed approach to birthdays that is typical in North America: wish me happiness a day or two before, if my birthday is on the weekend; wish me happiness on the day if we happen to see each other; wish me happiness after the day has passed. All birthday wishes are welcome, and I don’t mind spreading out the happiness! The same approach goes for North Americans and birthday celebrations: Birthday parties can take place on the day, in the approximate week, or even six months later (these are half-birthdays, often celebrated for children born around Christmas, in order to spread the joy and gift-giving throughout the year).

When I moved to Germany, I was surprised to discover that Germans recoil in horror if you wish them Happy Birthday (“Alles Gute zum Geburtstag“) before their birthday! Read more »

10 Ways That Europe is Different from the USA

First, let me tell you about the inspiration for today’s blog post.

Berlin apartment parking

Germans and other Europeans walk and ride bikes more often than Americans.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Recently a friend suggested that I read what turned out to be a rather disheartening rant published by an online expat website. (The names shall remain anonymous in order to protect the guilty.) The writer, an American lady, was complaining about her life in Germany, a lament brought on by a recent visit to her local Apotheke (pharmacy). She was whining about the fact that she had to take the extra time and trouble to consult with a German pharmacist (in German of all things) in order to obtain a medication that she could have bought over the counter in the US.

Several people left comments pointing out that the German system actually provided the benefit of helpful, professional advice that would have required a visit to the doctor in the US. True, you can’t just go to a supermarket and buy a bottle of aspirin in Germany, but you can go to your local Apotheke and get sound advice about which pain reliever would be best for your situation. While living or traveling in Germany and Austria, I have made several trips to the pharmacist to get help with a medical problem. In every case, the pharmacist either provided a good solution or, in one case, told me to see a physician. (What I thought was a sprained finger turned out to be a broken one.) Read more »

Learning German for Kids

We expats are coming and going, not always when we want to. A friend of mine in Essen had to relocate back to the United States late last year reluctantly. After the initial years of stumbling to find her way, she finally found her path that she was happily following. She was also comfortable and relishing in the positives of having her American children ages five and three in a German kindergarten. One of the biggest pluses, of course, was that they were learning the German language. So, it was with some regret that she was removing them from this daily immersion to repatriate back to America.

Before she left, she asked me for some book and toy recommendations that might help them retain their German. This is the list I sent: Read more »