Breakfast and Decision Making

This Sunday an international breakfast was held for all foreign students newly come to RWTH. It cost 3 Euros to attend, but I was sick of nuts and protein bars for food and hoped to gain some useful information from students.

The food was fairly standard for a German breakfast. Rolls, cold cuts and cheese, some cereal and a fruit salad fed the hundred or so students present. I ended up chatting with a man from China here for a Masters degree in automotive engineering. He mentioned that he intended to take 7 classes this semester and 8 the next semester. That makes my intended 3 look a bit pathetic. One of these days I will finally meet up with my advisor here to set matters straight on just how many courses I can reasonably take.

Apart from being generally pleasant the breakfast was unremarkable. No one I spoke to had gotten a waiver for their insurance. They simply paid for it here at a rate of about 78 Euros a month. Having to pay 780 Euros for the whole year is not my idea of a good time, but it sure beats not being able to enroll and having to return to the states with my tale between my legs if my current insurance does not come through for me. Today I intend to march over to Techniker Krankenkasse (TK) and sort this all out once and for all. The only question is when to go. The orientation offered by RWTH corresponds almost exactly with TK office hours. I must either skip the talks in the morning or the open question time in the afternoon. I will make my decision within the hour. Please, feel free to ruminate and speculate on the fascinating quandaries that I weigh in my libra-like psyche.

In and Around the Aachen Cathedral

The Starbucks I am using for internet lies about twenty minutes walk from my hostel. This is admittedly a bit inconvenient. However, the sights I pass on that walk make it well worth my time.


The jumbled sidewalks and roads blend together into one cobblestoned mass where pedestrians go where they will. Rising up from the center of that tangle is the Aachen Cathedral (Aachener Dom). Built by Karl der Große, known to Americans as Charlemagne, it has existed more than 1200 years. It has aged well. Carvings of saints and biblical figures decorate the external columns marking where angled walls meet. Between these columns stand arched windows. In the walls forming the choir hall, the windows extend from just above a man’s reach to just below the roof’s gargoyles and spires. The glass appears black in the light of day from outside. A trip inside reveals the truth. The windows glow with royal hues of every color. The stained glass depicts a myriad of pictures. Behind the ropes keeping visitors away from the choir seats and altar, those pictures remain abstract.

The rest of the interior is no less impressive. Marble decks the floors and lower walls. Mosaics decorate the ceilings. The domed ceiling in the octagonal main body of the cathedral shows men all around its rim standing in admiration of an enormous image of Christ enthroned. Pillars, ranging from black to white to purple, ring the dome. The lower ceilings outside this circle of marble sport mosaic vines and flowers. Everywhere I looked a new piece of art caught my eye. I have always thought of such elaborate buildings as vain, unnecessary things. While I still prefer a plainer church for my own worship, I can understand a cathedral’s purpose. It is not to make the churchgoers feel rich. It is to make them feel small and the church immeasurably large.

Not surprisingly, a number of other sights of interest have cropped up beside the cathedral. The Rathaus (town hall) stands just across the way. I have only seen the outside, as one has to pay to enter. Although squarer and squatter than the cathedral the Rathaus still displays statues, a tower or two, and ornate gothic stonework. On the wide grey steps a wedding procession took photographs when I first approached it. Across the cobblestones a metal casting of Karl der Große looms in the center of a fountain. It all looks quite officious.

However, not far away, amidst the quaint shops surrounding the Dom, a far more interesting fountain gurgles. It is called the Puppenbrunnen, literally doll fountain. The name suits it.  Metal puppets with articulated joints circle the water spouts. A mounted knight and rooster crown the collection while metal Carnival masks cover one side. The fountain comes dangerously close to the uncanny valley, that dramatic plunge into creepiness when an object is not quite human. I would not want to sleep next to it. However, it has one big advantage going for it; it is interactive. Visitors are expected to play with the puppets, positioning their arms and legs as they desire. For kinesthetic learners like me, that physical interaction boosts its appeal considerably. Unlike the Karlsbrunnen which has existed for centuries, the Puppenbrunnen came about in the 1970s. Alas, not everything in the city is ancient.

Red Tape

I had carefully planned my tasks for the first few days before the start of school. My first full day, the Friday after I arrived, was supposed to start with registering my address followed by opening a bank account and finding a source of internet. I achieved one of those goals.

When I showed up at the Bürgerservice building beside the Hauptbahnhof, I pulled a ticket like one does at a deli and waited my turn. It only took seven or so minutes and I felt I had gotten off to a good start. The only hitch that I could foresee was that I could not remember the address for my apartment. Staying at a hostel as I am, I had no reason to write it down earlier and problems with the router kept me from looking it up as I had intended. I planned to explain the situation and kindly ask that the employee let me pull up the email with the relevant information. No go. The moment I explained that I was currently in a hostel, he stated that I could not register with a transitory address. Even if I knew where I would be in a matter of days, I could not claim to live there without actually doing so. I would have to return when I had moved in. Fine, no problem, except for one small detail. You cannot open a bank account without first registering. Until the 1st, and likely a few days afterwards, I cannot use an ATM without paying at least a $5 fee plus 3% of the withdrawal, and that will only work at special machines. My solution is to live like a pauper, hording my forty remaining euros for any unexpected expenses like, say, more nights at a hostel.

That may be necessary. In a fit of blinding stupidity on my part, I managed to forget that I have to pay the first months rent and a ~$600 deposit before I sign the housing agreement. No agreement, no keys. A wire transfer is on its way, but if it comes late, I really hope that I can wheedle another student into housing this foolish fugitive for a night or two. Ah well. I will try to be a true stoic and laugh in the face of adversity.

Particularly astute readers will probably have realized that the task I did accomplish was to find internet. I started my search by visiting the Stadt Bibliothek (city library). There, one can reserve computer time on one of their PCs given a membership card. However, that would not provide a convenient or immediate solution to my internetless. I marked the library in my memory for future reference and sallied forth again. This time I passed a sketchy looking kiosk with a sign advertising internet access. The sign did not lie. 1 Euro for 1 hour gave me plenty of time to tell my parents I'm alive and locate a Starbucks. I took a pretty wandering path to get there. German streets signs are often difficult to see, and half the time the street name on one side of the intersection is different from the name on the other side. Moreover, the clean lines and the clear intersections on my map have little to do with the ancient organic maze I spent the day wandering. However, after getting tangled up in red tape, untangling foreign but friendly streets was exactly the stress relief I needed.

The Journey

I awoke at the crack of 2:30AM to arrive with plenty of time for my 6:15 flight out of O'Hare. My family packed up and moved out in a relatively timely manner and all was well with the world...until we were halfway to the airport. It was then that I realized that I had forgotten to bring my cellphone. Not only did I need it for emergencies, but it was my only alarm clock as well. For a moment I panicked, but I eventually realized that, since I had to buy a SIM card in Germany anyway, buying a low-tech phone to put it into wouldn't be too much of a price increase. On we went.

I got my ticket, checked my bag (1.5 lbs short of the free check limit I might add), and made it through TSA without incident. The 2 hour trip to JFK was equally uneventful. Then came the fun of figuring out which Terminal my next flight would go through. The men and women I asked helpfully directed me to terminal 3, and since I had no way and no real need to know my gate so early in advance, I plopped down on a bench and began to read. Thank goodness for Nooks. I spent nearly 10 hours straight taking turns between Game of Thrones and the Disappearing Spoon. The other hour I used to chat with a man who was intent on explaining how punch-card computers worked. It might have been a very interesting conversation if he had actually known. As is, it was simply endearing.

The time came to board. Fortunately, despite having read that one could only have 1 carry on, I was allowed to board with both my overstuffed roller and tightly packed backpack. I had no idea how enormous an airbus was. Two stories, ~80 rows per story, 10 seats per row on the lower deck. Furthermore, since I flew with Singapore Airlines the flight attendants wore attractive but tasteful shirts and skirts with a print my mother would have adored. It gave the flight a slightly ritzier feeling.

The food was filling, edible, and warm, and that is really all I can remember about it. The in flight entertainment was extensive. There were perhaps 700 programs to choose from with multiple dubbing and subbing options. I watched Star Trek Into Darkness in German. However, I eventually realized that even a good dub for Benedict Cumberbatch is still an inexcusable malign to his voice and reverted to English.

Crowd psychology somehow ensured that everyone on the flight turned off their lights within a few minutes of each other so that we could go to sleep. This proved...difficult. For one thing, I am a side and stomach kind of girl where sleeping is concerned. Neither position is particularly practical in a chair. For another thing, the seats reclined no more than perhaps 20 degrees. The shallow angle made for shallow sleeping. I doubt I ever reached REM. To make matters worse, the couple sitting next to me liked to get up and walk around, and I had the aisle seat. However, the strangest disruption in the night was when a woman started to wail. Imagine a dull discomfort. It hurts but not enough to really interfere with your life. Then it grows. The pain swells and deepens. Eventually every part of you throbs and writhes with a slow but heavy aching. That was the woman's voice. Eventually she calmed down again and tension bled from the cabin.

Finally we arrived in Frankfurt where I waited an hour to receive my checked bag. Curse those First In Last Out systems. With a collective 70 pounds in tow and another 25 or so on my back I took my first train and then transferred to an Inter-City Express (ICE). This leg of the journey had the distinct advantage over the others of being pleasant.

When I boarded, I saw strange electric banners above each seat displaying two city names. The woman beside me explained their cryptic meaning. Some passengers reserve seats. The first city on the banner indicates the station at which the passenger who reserved that seat will board. The second indicates their departure time. Moments later I saw this put into practice when a man claimed the seat beside me. We traveled in silence for a time. It finally occurred to me to look up from my book and out the windows. I was blown away. To our right a river flowed by. Large hills and small mountains rose on either side. White-walled and red-roofed buildings dotted the riverside in painfully idyllic villages. Higher up rows of crops sloped down the hillsides. As a native of the famously flat mid-west it had not even occurred to me that one could plant on a slant. Best of all though, every so often an honest to goodness castle would crown a hill. At last, curiosity got the better of me and I asked the man sitting next to me which river the tracks followed. My suspicion was confirmed. It was the Rhine.

From that point on, the man and I talked pretty much continually. He had a wealth of knowledge about the area, at least compared to my general lack of it. For one thing, what I had mistaken for orchards turned out to be vineyards or Weinberge (literally wine mountain). The name started me wondering. If they were on mountains here, and the name had mountain in it, did that mean that they were placed so precariously intentionally? The answer is yes. Unlike sunny France, Germany has to fight for its light. Planting on a hill exposes more of the plant to the sunshine. The vineyards we had passed likely grew Riesling, a type of grape that produces a superior white wine.

At one point, in the middle of answering some question of mine, the man broke off and pointed to a dramatic stony outcropping on the other side of the Rhine, the Loreley. It has lived in infamy as a marker for a treacherous stretch of river. The name has a ridiculous number of possible origins. Ley is celtic for rock, but the Lore could mean anything from screaming to humming to lurking to elf. The humming would make sense due to the fact that the river and a now dried up waterfall created sounds that the rocks reflected. The reverberations seemed to come from the stones themselves, or the dwarves that supposedly lived within them. Only in 1800 or so did the romantic Clemens Brontano and later Heinrich Heine attach the now well known myth of the woman Lorelei to the stone. I am not surprised that a gorgeous siren pushed out the dwarves as mythical king /queen of the mountain.

On my final train, my lack of sleep and jet lag started to catch up with me. Then, I noticed a house with solar panels. Partly out of curiosity and partly to keep myself awake, I decided to count every solar panel I could find see between Köln and Aachen. I had a fair bit set against me. Trees often blocked my view; I sat on the lower level, and the tracks were somewhat sunken down; worst of all, I can't exactly look to the left while looking to the right. Despite all that, I counted 13 houses with solar panels and a solar farm. They say that Germans are green, but I would not have guessed that green.

At last, I arrived in Aachen. The hostel I had booked, preStep, was just half a block away. That was a true mercy given the volume of my luggage. I soon received my fob, my pass code, a map of Aachen and an escort to my room. My roommate was out at the time. When she appeared, it seemed that no one had told her she would get a roommate today. Once she knew why a stranger person had opened her door she proved to be both friendly and helpful. A German herself, she helped me locate a cellphone and SIM card, the one at Mediamarkt and the other at Aldi. She even used her internet to activate the SIM for me. At 8:30 pm local time, 34 hours after getting up on Wednesday, I finally lay down and slept.

The Coverage Crunch

Today is my last day before I make the long and somewhat circuitous trip to Aachen. I am torn between excitement and anxiety. The latter stems from a number of sources. Will my German be good enough? Will I be robbed along the way? Do I have the discipline for the self-paced European learning system?

However, the biggest source of worry is that the little matter of insurance has not yet been laid to rest. A while back, I was informed by RWTH that international students needed to get a waiver from an accredited German public insurance agency such as Techniker Krankenkasse (TK) or Allgemeine Ortskrankenkasse (AOK). No problem, I thought. I'll just show them my insurance card, sign whatever they need me to sign and be done with it. It turns out, it is not that simple.

First, I tried chatting with TK using their chat client program to find out just what I had to do to get the waiver. Well, every time I asked, the reply was, "Darf ich Ihnen anrufen?" "May I call you?" I did not want to do this, both because I hate phone calls with strangers in general and because in chat I have text that I can save for latter reference and far more easily translate should any of the terms be unfamiliar. When I finally caved and called, the answer to my question was "You'll have to provide proof of insurance and sign some forms." Thanks...

So, I tried a different approach. I sent an email asking for these alleged forms. The response was that they could not send secure documents over the internet, but if I'd like to call or visit in I replied back saying that, as I pointed out in my first email, I am NOT IN GERMANY and would like to know if Chat is "secure" enough to get the answers I wanted. I'm not sure how snarky it came across in German, but it got the job done. The woman replied with the forms that I needed to sign.

Then, I made a mistake. I did not read one of the forms closely enough. What I thought was a document that I had to sign actually needed a signature from my Insurance company here. What's more, the form was in German. I replied back asking for an English translation and got the translation to the wrong document. I pointed this out, then did my best to translate, called my insurer to get a fax number, and sent the German version and my translation while hoping that an English version was en route. I am still hoping.

That is not to say that the German side is the only one causing headaches. My dad asked Blue Cross Blue Shield to send an official letter stating the sort of coverage I would have in Germany. They mailed it despite his insistence that it was urgent. When it finally arrived, it merely said that I was insured. It contained no information as to what that covered, either here or in Germany.

The worst part is that it is entirely possible, since I have yet to hear from anyone what the coverage requirements are, that when the paperwork finally gets through to everyone involved I will still not be approved. In that case, I'll have to purchase insurance there.

Oh, and did I mention that I need this waiver by October 1st or I cannot enroll on time? Yeah.

The big lesson here is do not expect insurance companies to be efficient, convenient, or quick to respond. In short, start poking companies with sticks months in advance of your trip.