How to Get Anything Done in Germany

by Marian Schembari on June 23, 2015

So let’s say you need to set up internet at your house. You have money and you want to give it to a provider, monthly, for the next two years.

You try calling the company of your choice. Let’s call them Schmodafone. As expected, the phone answers with an automated message entirely in German. There is no option in English. You hang up and call a different number. Same thing. You find another number, this one with an English option. You press “1”. A German voice picks up. In the best German you can muster you ask if they speak English. They say “no” and hang up on you.

You try chat. The support agent tells you to call the number and press the English option.

You throw your phone across the room.

You go into your nearest Vodafone Schmodafone store. The Turkish guy behind the counter speaks perfect German, English, French and Ancient Greek and you almost offer your first born child as a thank you. He proceeds to explain the process of getting internet set up in your house.

First, you must sign 12 different contracts, of which you cannot escape, not even with a fee. If you move to another country, you must switch to the Schmodafone based in that country. Fine. Signed.

Then you must wait 12 weeks for a letter in the mail. This letter will have a code. This code will expire 23 minutes after delivery. If you are not home during this time you must request a new code on the company website, then bike to their headquarters in Frankfurt and wait in line for two days for a new code. You must bring your passport and work visa. Oh, and a registration card. And you must present them with a 3-page essay explaining why Currywurst is superior to all other foods.

Don’t have a registration card? Please go to your nearest city registrar and take a number. The wait will be approximately 18 minutes. Not bad. You sit and wait. The registrar’s website translation told you to provide the following documents: current apartment tenancy agreement, work contract, original birth certificate, original marriage license and college diploma (specifically the one they gave you at graduation), a sample of your blood, and the complete sequencing of your genome (if available). When your number is called you are ushered into a cubicle. You ask the women behind the desk if they speak English. They say yes, but answer in German. You proceed to hand over your documents and they say something very fast to you not, actually, in English. They don’t even look at the documents you brought (punched with two holes, not three, and signed in black ink, not blue).

Through hand gestures and grunting, you learn that to receive your registration card you will be emailed seven different temporary passwords. Only one password is correct. To guess the right one you will have to solve a riddle involving a series of mathematical symbols. The correct answer will contain the third symbol in one of the seven passwords they sent you. If you guess incorrectly after two tries, your account is locked until the next German Unification Day. (They suggest going to Starbucks for your remaining internet needs should that occur.)

Meanwhile, at Schmodafone, your Turkish friend has scheduled an agent to stop by your house and install the connection. Before they arrive, you will receive the connection device in the mail. To receive the device your name has to be on the doorbell (German apartments don’t have numbers or letters). To get your name on the doorbell you must speak to your landlady who, while delightful, has better things to do. You can of course, add your own name to the building, but if it does not match the exact font size, type, letter spacing, ink and background color, the postman will be confused and think he is being tricked, at which point he will scurry to one of the underground bomb shelters still riddled throughout this country. You will be fined at 1.5x his yearly salary, prorated by month, for every day he is in the tunnels. The fine also contains a sales tax by both the German and American government, with a 3.719% EU convenience charge.

So you can’t get the device delivered and if you don’t have the device, you don’t have internet. The only other option is to order a new internet service from Schmodafone and spend the next two years paying for both services. The only other way out is death.

 


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Düsseldorfs and Dontsseldorfs

by Marian Schembari on June 22, 2015

When I started telling people we were moving to Germany, their first reaction was, “Oh my God, I love Berlin!” As if that were the only city in Germany. Because who would move all the way to Germany to live a podunk town no one’s heard of?

To be fair, Düsseldorf is a “city”, known for fashion and business. Which is the whole reason we’re here: for Elliot’s job at one of the world’s biggest power and utility companies. But Berlin it is not. Quaint European town it is also not.

I had never been to Germany before this and I’m not going to lie, my expectations were not super high. Every response to my correction of, “No, we’re actually moving to Düsseldorf,” was one of two things:

1. “Oh, bummer. Where’s that?”

or

2. “I know Düsseldorf! I spent a night there on a layover… I think. Industrial town?

So I appeased myself with this internal monologue: It doesn’t matter if Düsseldorf sucks. We’re not moving for the place, we’re moving for adventure. And this will be such an adventure! And anywhere is cheaper than San Francisco. I can quit my job! I can write without having to worry about not having any money! And Germany is basically the center of Europe. We’ll just be gone every weekend traveling so who cares what Düsseldorf is like?

But I was a tiny bit worried. I kept Googling the city and found photos like this:

Düsseldorf Germany

When what I really wanted was this:

charming European town

But we moved anyway.

Thankfully, Düsseldorf is not the industrial armpit I was expecting. First of all, it feels like it’s in the middle of the forest. There are birds chirping all the time. Our apartment is in a dense neighborhood, but you would never know it. There are so many different bird calls outside our window and almost zero sounds of traffic.

There’s also greenery everywhere. We’re a five minute walk from the city’s Hofgarten, a large park with ponds and fountains and baby ducks and bike lanes and fluffy cotton-tailed bunnies.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

Düsseldorf has canals! And the Rhine River! And a castle (sort of)! It has a little old town, the Atstadt, that comes alive at night with row after row after row of outdoor bars where they constantly refill your beer until you physically put a coaster barrier between the mouth of your glass and the eager waiter.

When I try to speak German and butcher any semblance of correct pronunciation, the Germans just giggle and help me out and tell me how awesome I am for trying. Everyone here has been lovely and accommodating. Even our new landlady open a bottled of champagne and took us out for pizza to celebrate us signing the rental agreement.

I mean, even the logo for the city is a damn EMOTICON SMILEY FACE. dusseldorf-logo

Besides the difficulties I mentioned last week – I have no friends, I left my whole life behind, why is setting up internet so hard? – the only real struggle has been the language.

Yes, it’s not impossible to get by speaking only English and pointing at things, but that’s not how I want the next few years of my life to be. I have no idea how long we’ll stay, but I hate entering a city as if it’s temporary. I want community. I want friends. I want to be able to read historical signs (my personal catnip). I want to chat up the waitress and read the menu and call the bank and reschedule an appointment without hyperventilating. I want to fully live here and leave knowing that I experienced it as best I could.

So I signed up for a month-long intensive language course at the Goethe Institute. Which I promptly dropped after two weeks.

Not only was class five hours per day, but there was an unspoken expectation that we would spend the rest of the day in solitary study. The next day we’d be straight onto the next subject, with little review or time for questions.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

Problem is, I moved here to freelance, and I have a ton of projects I planned to do after class. So for two weeks I juggled an hour commute, five hours of German lessons, five hours of work and (supposedly) three hours of studying. That worked for about two seconds before I started to ugly cry and write blog posts about my feelings.

So last week I asked my teacher, after getting 40% on my test, what I should do. She told me that not only do none of the other students work, but that this semester “Upper Management” decided to squeeze two programs into one. So we were learning what most students learn in a year of language classes in twenty days and it was the first time they had tried this.

At the time I was midway through Fluent Forever, which changed my whole attitude about learning German (if you’re learning a language, stop everything and read this book, it deserves its own blog post). I dropped out of class and with the remaining money I signed up for their leisurely twice per week course that meets from July through September.

The relief I felt was immediate and physical. I can’t believe I tried to put that pressure on myself – to not only get back into freelancing but move to a new country and learn the language in a month? Shit’s crazy, yo. And I do this all the time. I tell myself I’m not doing enough unless I’ve burnt myself out.

So today I went to the library, went through my Fluent Forever flashcards, watched some German pronunciation videos and called it a day. I came home and took a nap before heading into my virtual office. And I gotta say, cutting myself some slack has made building a life in Düsseldorf feel possible.

Thanks Dara Kaye for the best blog post title that has ever been written.


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One for Englisch

by Marian Schembari on June 9, 2015

We landed in Düsseldorf early on a Tuesday morning. Neither of us had been to Germany before and we had left everything behind: Our beloved dog, our jobs, our friends, our magical cottage in the woods with the giant skylights and goofy Swedish landlord. I left my therapist, the first one I ever connected with. Elliot left his family and the only home he’s ever known.

At the time, we gave each other high-fives every time we talked about our move: “We are so cool babe,” we would tell each other, “no one else is as cool as we are.” We felt brave and inspiring. This is my fourth international move and the third time I’ve picked up and moved to a city I’d never been to. I got this, I told myself, full of arrogance. But this is the first time I’ve abandoned an actual life. One I had no idea I had until it was gone (because isn’t that always the case?).

I’m not gonna lie, I’ve always hated San Francisco. I try to pinpoint the exact reason why, whether it was the constant harassment from men or the obnoxious tech community or the disgustingly high cost of living, but whatever the reason, it just never felt like home.

But our last weekend in San Francisco was spent at my friend Sasha’s apartment, a place I sublet after arriving from New Zealand. It was my first time living alone and even though it was a quiet ten months, I settled into myself as “grown-up Marian”. I spent most of my free time sitting on the couch reading books and drinking tea. I met my husband living in that apartment. Spending my last weekend there was a blessing: the floral smell of place coupled with the sound of MUNI outside – an electric squeaky hum – transported me back to the time when I knew nothing about the city, but had high hopes and big dreams.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

During the two and half years since moving to San Francisco, everything about my life shifted. I met my therapist, Julia, who quite literally changed everything about the way I see myself and the people I spend my time with. I changed jobs – having been laid off for the first time in my life. I decided tech wasn’t even remotely where I wanted to be. I got a dog, the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. I made American, female friends – another first since college. These friends weren’t other travelers just passing through, but were building lives there too. Women who also wanted to talk about therapy and creativity and go for hikes in the woods.

So sitting here in my lofted apartment in Germany feels like a little death, when that was the complete opposite of what I expected. It’s not until we got here that I realized how much I gave up. What have I done?, I thought, on our first day in Düsseldorf, while the grey clouds suffocated me and the German language felt impossible.

Guess what? Living an actual, real life abroad is hard. It is not, as I thought, just showing up and writing on my computer on my little European balcony, for a few hours each day. It’s one exhausting chore after another. Going to the grocery store is impossible because fabric softener and laundry detergent are not labeled differently so we ended up with more fabric softener than we’ll ever need in our lifetime. I spent an entire day trying to get internet on my phone, walking from one mobile store to another, never truly understanding what the person behind the counter was saying. Am I locked in for 24 months or 24 years?

 Eventually, USB internet stick purchased, I found myself in our tiny flat, unable to connect to the internet and on hold with a German who tried hard to tell me that I need to download software to access the internet, but I needed the internet to do it. So by the time Elliot and I want to go out and explore the city we’re exhausted from just trying to be adults.

My therapist gave me a card that, on the front of the envelope reads, “Not to be opened until you are in Germany and need some extra support.”

I lasted 24 hours before tearing it open.

That first week here made me question everything. I thought we had made a horrible mistake. We have no friends here, we don’t speak any German and I’m terrified that I won’t be able to support myself as a writer. It’s cloudy and cold and I am not that 18 year old backpacker anymore. Did I make this ridiculous decision to move to Germany based on the idea of who I want to be rather than who I actually am?

  A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

Or did I do it so I can have a life well lived? One where I don’t settle for a city everyone else seems to love, but will never feel like home to me. Because the other part of me – the one who watched fireworks over the Rhein, who found a gorgeous 1000sq ft apartment that doesn’t cost all my money, who can make up funny German words with my husband, who booked bus tickets to The Netherlands just because we can – that part is so completely in awe of my bravery. And I’m beyond proud of myself and my California-boy husband for taking this plunge.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

Because if it wasn’t for everything I learned in San Francisco, I wouldn’t know that of course I feel this way. That only a dreadlocked hippie wearing an Aztec parka and bright friendship bracelets wouldn’t be scared. Of course this is going to be mostly hard and frustrating and stupid. But that every day it’s going to get better and as long as I give myself permission to not do a million things at once, I will be fine.

A few months from now I know I’ll be ordering schnitzel like a pro and catching the trains without Google Maps and talking to Vodafone customer service without pressing 1 for Englisch.


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Sometimes I consider tattooing the word ENOUGH in big bold letters across my arm. This idea usually comes to me while I’m scrolling through Facebook and clicking on articles about the 30 things I need to do before I’m 30 or 75 reasons I need to be drinking hot lemon water/apple cider vinegar/chloroform every morning or why I should cut out sugar entirely or eat a raw onion every night before bed or do these 8 yoga poses to help me fall asleep. I’ll write better if I do more challenging writing exercises every day. I’ll be skinner if I start training for a marathon. I’ll be more interesting if I live abroad.

And this is when I catch myself and need to shout ENOUGH! YOU’RE DOING FUCKING ENOUGH. YOU ARE ENOUGH.

For the longest time I thought I was more adventurous than you. I was a “traveler” because I lived in a  few countries, because I grew up the daughter of a travel writer and because, post-break-up, I would cure my broken heart by leaving on some epic journey. In all sorts of wonderful ways, this did change my life.

But it’s also really freaking hard. And most of the time I don’t actually like it. And if Elizabeth Gilbert has taught me anything, it’s “tell the truth tell the truth tell the truth.”

So here’s the truth: This past year has been a pretty intense battle with myself. Moving to San Francisco was, surprisingly, harder than any other move I’ve ever made. Coming back to the States and joining the corporate grind after four years of identifying myself as a free-spirited expat left me wondering who the hell I was.

After I left New Zealand, in the span of that one year, I met a guy on OkCupid, was laid off from the dream job I worked so hard to get, got engaged to said guy three months after we met, brought home a puppy (the hardest thing I’ve ever done), got married, moved to the suburbs, decided I actually hate marketing and just want to be a writer forever and ever and – here’s the big one – decided to move to Germany (reasons behind said decision: (1) my husband’s company is based there (2) we were both ready for adventure and (3) cost of living is less and I can’t stomach the tech industry any more). It’s pretty insane to not only deal with all those life changes, but then also try to figure out who the hell you actual are.

Here’s what I found out:

(1) I am what they call “highly sensitive” – to noises, smells, itchy fabric, too many people in a room, bright lights, clutter… For a very, very long time, I was told this was a horrible flaw by a very great many people. That by having quieter hobbies meant I was a couch potato. That by not being able to stay out at frat parties all night made me lame. That needing more sleep meant I was lazy.

And then I learned that sensitivities are actually a completely real thing and I’m 100% allowed to go home and wrap myself in a blanket burrito after being in an office full of people all day. And that being sensitive isn’t a flaw, but comes with it’s own gifts. It means I can read people incredibly well. It means that writing clearly about complex emotions is easy. That my friendships may be fewer, but are often deeper.

(2) I also learned that marketing, while interesting in it’s own way, is not why I was put on this earth. After a series of writing classes I finally gave myself permission to announce to the world that I am a writer. And despite every single article telling me about the failing publishing industry, and every single writer whining about how poor they are, I have decided to tell them all to shut the fuck up.

(3) And, the biggest kicker of all, I learned to embrace that travel is hard. That while my identity has been wrapped in my travel experiences for a decade, it’s actually 99% not sunshine and rainbows. That ordering a beer in Hanoi was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done and I may or may not have ordered a pizza to my hotel room (tip: don’t order pizza in Vietnam) because I couldn’t brave the traffic after a long day of sightseeing. And when I Couchsurfed for two months through Australia, I would rush back to my host’s home after a day of sightseeing and watch back-to-back episodes of True Blood, instead of forcing myself to brave another event with strangers.

These habits started formulating themselves into two understandings about my life:

(1) Not everything needs to be some character-building challenge. You don’t have to purposefully make everything hard to prove to yourself that you’re doing enough. What if life weren’t some giant inspirational Pinterest poster that says “today, be the badass you were too lazy to be yesterday” or “suck it up now so you don’t have to suck it in later”. What if, instead of constantly trying to do better, push harder, stick it out, build character, live life to the fullest every second of every day, I actually said, “I’m doing perfectly fine as I am right now. I think I’m going to eat a cookie in the bathtub.”

and…

(2) That I can push myself just enough to grow, but if I have a foundation of activities I know help me cope, I’m a much more pleasant person to be around, I’m filled with joy more often and I can stop pretending to be someone I’m not. These activities may be different from your activities. But I’m going to stop yelling at myself every time I want to go to bed at 8pm or not leave the house for 48 hours. Because if I do those things, I can do things like move to Germany.

Because this is who I am: I’m moving to Germany on Monday because I want my life to be filled with adventure. But I’m also terrified of moving to Germany. I’m scared that the language barrier will be impossible. That the weather will suck. That I won’t make any friends. That I won’t actually be able to make money writing and I’ll have to take a job teaching English or, worse, go back to an office.

And other thing? I’m also over the moon excited. I’m so freaking blessed that I’ve been able to have lived in so many different places. I can’t wait to spend my weekends in Greece or Finland. I can’t believe I landed myself a husband who, having never lived outside California, is 100% willing to jump with me and go on this ridiculous adventure.

A change this big and I’m allowed to be both – happy and sad, scared and excited, nervous and confident. And that right now, I am enough. So are you.


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5 Habits to Feed Your Creativity: A Morning Routine

by Marian Schembari on April 16, 2015

After spending a magical weekend with my best, most creative friends in Ashland, Oregon, I was challenged to re-read (and actually complete the exercises) in The Artist’s Way. It’s one month later and I’ve read two chapters. While this may sound like a bit of a failure, this magical thing has happened — I found my way into a morning routine that’s set me up to be epically more creative than I’ve ever been in my whole life.

So here’s what my morning looks like:

6:00am Husband wakes me up with his showering, coffee grinding, and general awakeness.

6:30am I turn on the bedside light and lie in bed, groggy and cuddling Puppy. Contrary to every article ever, I check my email first thing in the morning to take the pressure off. Once I know for sure that no one is about to die, I can focus 100% on navel gazing.

7:00am Morning pages.

7:30am Green smoothie! I’ve been drinking these for years and have yet to get sick of them. If I miss a few days, my skin breaks out and I have significantly less energy.

8:00am Coffee and coloring and YouTube. (Get excited for more info on this below.)

8:30am – 12pm Write like a motherfucker.

So here’s what happened: I started writing a book. Like, a book that had 10 words last month and now has 12,000. A story I’ve wanted to tell for the last decade but have never had any idea how I would go about actually doing it.

While my routine changes depending on whether I’m working from home or if my husband walks the dog or if I got enough sleep the night before, focusing on activities I enjoy first thing in the morning has better set me up to dive into my creative work in a way I never imagined doing before.

Habit 1: Morning Pages

I write about anything and everything, from what I did the day before to analyzing a therapy session to doing an exercise from The Artist’s Way. I’ve written about morning pages before using 750words.com, but I’ve switched to analogue and it’s changed my tune. Any excuse to get off my computer.

Habit 2: Inspirational Videos

This is my most recent and indulgent addition. Right now I have a mild (okay, not mild at all) obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert, whose interviews are hilarious and provocative and inspiring and always make me feel like, “Yeah, I’m creative, my work is important. Onwards!”

Habit 3: Coloring Books

While listening to that day’s video, I take my favorite purchase, Secret Garden Coloring Book by Johanna Basford, and my trusty Staedtler markers and I go to town for about half an hour. It’s meditative and I feel like I’m creating something beautiful without working too hard. This, over any other habit, puts me in the zone, after which I tend to write without judgement for about two or three hours. This is the number one reason I now have 12,000 words in Scrivener.

Habit 4: Walks in Nature

While obviously exercise is the magical bullet for any ailment ever, I’ve mostly lived in cities. And seeing that I’m a “highly sensitive person“, too much noise and traffic and smells actually saps my energy instead of feeding it. But since moving to the beautiful Mill Valley, I get to walk through trees and streams and meadows. After an hour of solitude in the sunshine, all is well.

Hiking in Mill Valley Marin

 Habit 5: 10 Minute Meditations

Meditation is the bee’s knees. I have ten minutes blocked off in my calendar at 1:15pm every day, but I usually just meditate whenever I start to feel my brain going crazy. If I have the thought, “I don’t have time to meditate, I have too much to do,” that’s the indication that I must immediately stop everything I’m doing and meditate rightthefucknow or else I will get nothing else done for the rest of the day.

I use the app Headspace. The meditations are easy and well-explained – perfect for those of you interested in benefits without chakras. Check out the video below, which perfectly captures the essence of what Headspace is all about.

There are a million other things I’ve tried to help get me in the zone – writing down every idea I have, longer-form meditation, sketching, creative writing exercises, but these are the habits that stuck.

What habits are feeding your creativity lately?


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