Friday, December 3, 2010

I’m sorry, my German isn’t very good … and apparently neither is my math

In Germany, many shops only accept cash, or sometimes called an Electronic Cash (EC) card (which is like a debit card). Being a U.S. American (I can’t speak for my friends in Canada and Mexico), this is very different. In the States, I rarely carried cash. Plus, I earned “points” with every credit card purchase which equaled cash back later. A $2 cup of coffee? Charge it.

I don’t have an EC card here yet. Thomas added me to his bank account, but in order to get a card, we have to go to the Post Office to have my identity verified. I should mention here that Germans take personal identity and privacy very seriously, which I think is great. But added security measures often come with a convenience cost.

But not having an EC card hasn’t been that big of inconvenience; I’ve been fine with making a trip to the ATM with Thomas every few days...

…Until today, that is.

Each day, I go to a couple of markets to acquire fresh items with which to create something that resembles some state of food (I’m still to master opening the oven…more on that another time).

Today I went to a larger store just down the street. But because grocery shopping is still very exciting –   so many new and different items to try – I got a little more zealous than my wallet was comfortable with.

As I placed each of my edible treasures on the checkout conveyor belt, a sense of dread began to set in. How much was that box of chocolates? I forgot I picked up that bottle of Glühwein. That deli cheese was €4??

And, as is so often the case, my delayed intuition was right.

Cashier: Das macht €38.45. (That comes to €38.45).
Me: Ummm…[looking at the €25 in my wallet as if they’d somehow multiply if I keep counting them.] Leider…ich habe nicht genug. Ich muss etwas zurück geben.(Unfortunately...I don’t have enough. I must give something back.)

I quickly handed over a higher ticket item: a beautiful bottle of Cuban rum. The cashier, without the least bit of empathy for my predicament, snatched it up and walked over to her colleague for a register key to remove the item from my bill.

By this time a line had begun to form behind me.

Cashier: €22.10, bitte.
Me:        .........

Looking at the money in my hand again, I started recounting it in German. No, better do this in English, I thought. Crap…wait…how much is this?? I felt a warm sensation flooding into my face. Somehow in a mounting sense of panic I’d forgotten how to add. I frantically handed her all of the paper bills from my wallet, plus a couple spare one and two Euro coins from my pocket.

She counted my wad of monetary shame once…twice…looked at up me…and then counted a third time. I instantly thought I was still short. But to my relief, she mumbled something I didn’t fully understand and gave me several Euros back. I grabbed my rum-less bag of groceries and hurried out, without making eye-contact with any of the (hopefully patient) customers behind me. For once, stepping outside and breathing the bitter cold air felt amazing.

So what did I learn? Have plenty of cash on hand; select items more conservatively; and start going to a different grocery store.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Taking the trash out - German style

There's a lot to learn about trash and recycling in Germany. In Munich, there’s an entire website dedicated to what goes where and even an interactive game where you can virtually sort waste. 

Waste is divided into several categories, the first three of which we can easily dispose of just outside our apartment:
  • Restmüll - non-toxic, non-recyclable or otherwise compostable other waste.  
  • Bio - pronounced like BO which it kind of smells like since it consists of food scrapes and other organic materials (but not cat case you were wondering. Yeah, we checked). The cool thing about bio waste is that the city collects and composts it so you can complete the circle by buying it back as fertilizer for your garden.
  • Paper.
We have restmüll, bio and paper bins outside our apartment

The majority of the other categories, we bundle up and carry to a disposal station down the street. These stations, called Wertstoffinsel, are all over the city and accept:
  • Brown glass.
  • Green glass.
  • Clear glass.
  • Certain types of aluminum - for example aluminum cans are OK but not aluminum foil. 
  • Materials labeled with a Grüne Punkt - such as most plastic product packaging.
Wertstoffinsel disposal station - for this we just take a short walk down the street

Aside from the slight annoyance of looking a bit homeless by trekking the sidewalks, garbage bags in tow, the bins themselves don’t have lids you can lift. They have holes about the size of a small salad plate so you have to dig into your bag of crap and toss items in almost one at a time. In part, I think it’s the city’s way of “encouraging” you to bring your own reusable packaging to stores or get items like cheese wrapped in paper from the deli instead of the plastic, commercially packed kind. If so, it’s working. I’m much more conscious of product packaging when I buy groceries now.

And of course, other items such as wood, cork, clothing, electronics, chemicals, batteries or toxic waste must be taken to a special handling facilities. Cat poop, as toxic as it smells, is fortunately considered restmüll, again, just in case you were wondering...

And if you think you can shirk your waste disposal duties, think again. There’s trash police! Occasionally, the bins outside your residence may be inspected to help ensure proper waste disposal adherence. If you’re caught breaking the rules, you could be fined. As Thomas said, imagine what people in the U.S. would say about that! The government is in your trash can! GASP!

Sure the process seems complicated at first, and it's certainly less convenient than in the states (mostly because many people either don't bother to recycle or recycling centers sort items for them), but it’s much better for the environment. So if it means a cleaner tomorrow, I’m more than happy to sort, transport and even reduce our household waste. And eventually I’ll master the system so I can stop asking Thomas so where does this go? ten times a day.