Monday, April 27, 2009

Mungowitz in Deutschland--Day 2

I wake up at 4:30 a.m. Now, you think, "Ah, the time difference." Well, no. 4:30 am in Dland is 10:30 pm in Raleigh. So that's not it.

After reading until 6 a.m., I go for a run. Quite a bit of traffic already, coming into Erlangen. No drunks, no beggars, no derelicts that I could see. Had a nice long run, beautiful morning. Shower up, and then go to plug in my computer.

This should not be a problem. I have an adaptor, and the transformer on nearly all laptops is 100V - 240V, so I don't even think about it. "It" being the in-line aftermarket surge adaptor I have plugged into the transformer. I plug it in, and there is a loud "whap" sound. Lights go out. I hear footsteps, excited discussion in German in downstairs. Should I just play dumb? Actually, not a problem: I *was* dumb, and I should fess up.

I open the door, and the hotel proprietor "Tilo" is coming up the stairs. I say, "It's unplugged, and I won't plug it in again, ever." Tilo nods gravely, and goes back down to flip the circuit breaker.

Go down to breakfast. Pretty elaborate but to the English / American breakfaster, strange. Now I see why Germans are pissed off when I take them to an American hotel breakfast buffet. That's not what they eat. There are several kinds of breads, including some wonderful dark brown bread. Cereal. Fruit. Yogurt. And huge trays of stuff to put on bread, including large tins of potted leberwurst. And....a big tray of cold cuts and cheese. Salami, olive loaf.

I am pretty excited about this. Because this is traditional Munger food. Not at breakfast, but when you are in heaven who looks at the clock? My dad, Herbert Elmer Munger, had two rules: 1. Everything is better when it is put into a sam'ich. 2. Leberwurst is the single finest food on earth.

So, I make a fat leberwurst sam'ich, with the brown bread. I have some yogurt and fruit. And then a hot roll with cheese and salami/olive loaf. And then a hot roll with marmalade, part blackberry and part strawberry. All good, but the leberwurst stands out as the finest. Here's to you, Herb: I'm representin'.

I am picked up at 9 am by the intrepid Jans-Jorg. We go to the Ausland office, to get my paperwork done. And in the International Office is Xenia. Xenia is the university "fixer." Her job is to take foreign faculty through the bureaucracy, in hopes that they get signed up and can teach before they have to return to their home country after a year. Xenia is truly remarkable; I asked what she did before this, and she answered, "I was an attorney, but I like the challenges of this job." Wow.

We get the forms filled out, put them with the forms I already filled out, and head for the state office. It's like a DMV office in the U.S., only (I have to admit) way cleaner, way less crowded, 10 times faster, and with employees who have at least neutral attitudes toward the "customers." At U.S. DMV offices, the most polite thing you will hear is "Eat shit and die, loser" from the employees. I suspect that the difference is that Germany has a long tradition of bureaucracy being an honest, respectable job, instead of organized theft. Overall, I'd prefer my bureaucrats pissed off and surly, so we don't get used to having them around. But I have to admit that the service ethic was a little more fun here than in, say, the D.C. DMV.

Then we go for the final three steps: file the forms and pay the money, talk to the chief bureaucrat, and then get my work permit. Filing/paying is easy. We wait in line, about 20 minutes (1/5 of the time I waited at the Raleigh Social Security Office, just to get a new card in a country where I was already a citizen). Then we are ushered into the august and very placid presence of....Frau Rastoder-Dragon.

Frau Rastoder-Dragon looks over the forms with great care, occasionally making approving noises (about lines on forms that are particularly well filled out?), and then signs the paperwork. She lines up six forms vertically on her desk, like a spread of cards on blackjack table, exactly equally spaced. Then she stamps them with a large stamp (black), a small round stamp (red), and another large stamp (black). This takes her much less time than it takes me to tell it: 18 whaps on the ink pad and the form, no wasted motion and almost faster than the eye can see. Frau R-Dragon has excellent helmet hair, with bangs in front sprayed and teased a good 4 inches out in front of her face, a grey-blonde visor. But she is both fast and helpful, making some suggestions to Xenia (who has now been working on this for two hours, making it take about six hours less than it would have taken me alone).

Xenia is fired up now. She charges up the stairs (she never walks less than 5 miles per hour, and I have to trot to keep up, which must look pretty ridiculous. We get the work permit, and the "research" visa is pasted into my passport. It even has a biometric digital photo. I have a very cool passport now, because of this. You are welcome to mention to other people that you know me, if you want.

Then, off we go, Xenia race-walking, me trotting, and the indefatigable Jans-Jorg bringing up the rear. We go to most feared place on earth: the University HR office.

At HR, I need four things. I have three things. Xenia makes impassioned pleas, as if I were a client in the dock, facing the noose. She presents evidence, makes her closing arguments. The HR lady, who seems nice enough, is unmoved.

Here are the four things I need:

1. Form filled out, and letter with notarized seal and date, certifying that I have no criminal record in the U.S., and no current outstanding warrants.
2. Proof of health insurance that works in Germany.
3. The signed contract for employment by DAAD.
4. A letter certifying that I will continue to be employed at Duke, and will not be fired in the next four months, which would entitle me to German unemployment benefits if I tried to stay in the country.

I have, believe it or not, 1-3. Xenia had told me before that I needed #4, but I had forgotten. The HR lady said that I needed a letter from my department chair saying I would not be fired. I pointed out that *I* was the department chair, and that I was prepared to state right here and now, for the record, that I would not fire me, at least not in the next four months.

Xenia translated this (perhaps taking out some of the sarcasm). HR lady stands firm, standing for principle and the bureaucratic way. They work out a deal: I send an email to Duke, with the exact language needed (I will be employed by Duke for at least the next four months, and my retirement will be withdrawn from my Duke paycheck in that time). They can make a PDF of this, and send it back via email, provided it is signed by "a dean." We all shake hands, as if this concession from HR (I get my email account at Erlangen TODAY, instead of when this very important final letter arrives) is a major arms reduction agreement.

We go outside. Xenia is elated; another important case won, the dragons slain, the princess (me) saved. Xenia speed walks back to her office, disappearing in seconds. Jans-Jorg and I head back to the Institut für Politische Wissenschaft, my new summer job, where I am to meet the Lehrstuhl II, Clemens Kauffmann, for lunch. Jans-Jorg has to go off to teach....I owe him big.

Have a nice lunch, sitting outside on a beautiful day, and talk about political theory. The Institute has a a number of things for me to do, talks and lectures, and it sounds like it will be a lot of fun. Herr Kauffmann wastes much of his afternoon getting me a library card, opening a bank account, and driving past the apartment he found for me (nice, very nice location, it will be really fun to move in on May 3, when it becomes available, though I will miss breakfast at the Hotel Antik). Herr Kauffmann has a meeting at 3, and I work for a while in my new office.

And, a pretty cool office it is. It is the Library of the Eric Voegelin Archiv, so I am surrounded by Voegelin's books and papers. A fine office, big windows, big desks, internet connection, and two printers. Very quiet. I'm all set up.

Except, that I need a bicycle. Back at the hotel, at 4:30 pm, I sit and brood. How can I find a place that sells bicycles? And how can I manage to buy one, without speaking any German.

At that moment, poor Jans-Jorg makes the mistake of calling to see if I need anything. I say, "Why...YES. I need a bicycle." So Jans-Jorg agrees to walk with me to go get a bike. We walk at least two miles around the city, looking at bike shops. There are pretty much NO used bikes to be had. The ones that are for sale are unbelievably expensive: 120 euro for a small rusted girl's bike with a flat tire. 350 euro for a used (extensively used) mountain bike. Erlangen has an amazing number of bikes on the street, clogging the courtyards. How can there be no used bikes? (Answer: It's a week into summer semester. Two weeks ago, I could at least have had a big selection of used bikes, though the price would have been high).

Jans-Jorg says we can go to the grocery store. Well, it's the Handelshof, a kind of super KMart arrangement. (great, great store, by the way. Excellent stuff, and quite cheap if you look around. Wonderful produce. I am happy just to find the store.)

And they do have bikes. I get a very fine bike, a big sturdy one with fenders, lights, front basket and rear clip. It's a girl's bike, but a big strong corn-fed German girl's bike. I buy my groceries, and peddle home. THe seat is low, and loose, so it gets lower. But I am now mobile, officed, and email ready. Thanks to Xenia and Jans-Jorg, I feel like a REAL boy now.

A final note: this day has made me rethink how Duke, and the U.S., treats visitors. The immigration and HR stuff would have taken a week in the U.S., and the offices are miles apart. How horrible must that be for visitors? Second, we don't generally have anyone like Jans-Jorg, who voluntarily makes visitors feel welcome (like Eva and her family did last night.) And we certainly don't have a "lawyer for the defense," like Xenia Lightning, to speed walk around and help people get through the process. Since I really, really appreciated the help, I have to say I will need to work on the Duke process when I get back. We can do better.


Tom said...

The DMV in my home town of Oxford (NC) has a reasonably polite and helpful staff. Small town difference?

I always tell people I know Mungowitz; they are invariably impressed. Okay, a few just stare blankly, but most are impressed.

I want a picture of Mungowitz on that bike!

That "we can do better," I assume means "Duke can do better." It's a forgone conclusion that USA can do better, but we have to clean out kilotons of public ignorance about immigration first. (sigh)

FifthBeatle said...

Yup! The breakfasts are the best! I don't like the Leberwurst, though, for the record!

Anonymous said...

I remember flying back thru Atlanta on a return from Holland. We US citizens got to whiz thru our choice of a zillion open customs lanes, while the furrin masses had to line up in huge lines at two open lanes, while a large authoritarian and mean woman in a uniform yelled at them in english. The situation was as arrogant and friendly as a hungover bull. wtg America.

Anonymous said...

Great post - the US can do better with the rooms and staff. This comes about from having an anti-Government, anti-tax mentality. Nice bureaucracy costs money.

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