Monday, October 17, 2011

And Suddenly Everything Changes

Another long pause between writings and lots to tell. In fact, life has changed for me in more ways than I could have ever imagined when I started this blog. Let's start in chronological order order, shall we?

Oct 2010-Oct 2011
This past year in Berlin has been challenging, to say the least. Not so much because it's Berlin--I don't want to fault this beautiful city. But the job just was not for me. If you are considering applying for a EUR posting, do your homework. The culture of a large European embassy is vastly different from other places in the world; namely Africa, which was my only other experience. Ego plays a huge role in EUR and if you don't have one or don't want to cultivate one, you may find it dfifficult to fit in. The embassy community is large but mostly sheltered; there are so many things to do that people don't bond--consequently there is not much of a sense of community. The Generalist/Specialist chasm is wide and pervasive. Consider carefully what you want to get out of your posting before choosing where you want to serve. I didn't mind working very long hours but being thanked would have been appreciated. I have heard many of these same comments from other OMSs posted in EUR, so it's not just my single experience that I'm trying to convey. When I first found out I was going to Berlin, my DCM in Freetown said something like, "Oh, you are going to Europe, hmmmm." Now I know what he meant. --Enough said.

A few good lasting memories from Berlin:
*My language skills have improved dramatically. I can now hold conversations easily and comfortably. I jokingly admit that I finally got the hang of speaking German just as I'm about to leave.
*I have made a few truly wonderful friends. Sahar and I met on one of my many weekend 5-hour one-way train journeys to visit Lee. She is from Egypt, highly educated and laughs easily. We started talking when the train first rolled out of the station and didn't stop for five hours. Lee and I have met Sahar and her friends for dinner (she speaks German, English, Arabic, French, and probably another language I forgot). She offered to give me German lessons and I went once; only to find out that the other student in the class was fluent and I felt too overwhelmed to try it again. But our friendship came at a time when we both desperately needed a friend. Being in the Foreign Service affords amazing opportunities for meeting exceptional people--take those opportunites and you will never regret it.
*Lee and I toured Europe a bit--not as much as we would have liked, but enough to get a taste of Europe. We spent a weekend in Milan, Italy, two weekends in Poland, several weekends in England visiting his family, a weekend in Prague, Czech Repbulic when Lee presented at a military conference, and a week in France doing nothing but playing tennis and getting to know Lee's family.
*As for Germany itself, it's a multi-cultural place filled with all things German. However, people speak English at the Christmas markets and Berlin itself is filled with tourists. I walk to work every day--which was an experience for someone versed in driving a car. My little VW Polo sat idle in the parking garage almost the entire year. I would say my saddest memory of Germany was our trip to Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. You can never feel the hush and the sadness of a place like that unless you are standing on the actual ground where so many people suffered. All I could think of was, "Man's inhunanity to man."

July 2011
On the 4th of July, I received a call from the Ambassador of Mozambique. Her staff and I had done a bit of corresponding and they wanted me serve at Embassy Maputo. The phone call from the Ambassador was welcoming and professional. She offered me the job as her OMS and after much discussion and thinking and planning with Lee, we agreed to curtail in Berllin in order to accept the new assignment. They wanted me there as quickly as possible, since the position was vacant, but Lee needed to get his details sorted out first. He had applied for redundancy from the British Army and would not be notified until Sept 1st if he was accepted. The very soonest he could be free to leave the army was middle of October. All sides agreed that it was barely acceptable and we went forward waiting for the news.

Sept 2011
On Sept. 1st while we were on holiday in France, Lee got the call that he had been selected for redundancy--early retirement. After 33 years in the Army, he was free to leave. He was now free to join me and we would not have to be apart anymore. Long distance love is hard, but not impossible. We were both elated that we finally had the chance to be together in the same place. I jokingly say that from now on, the furthest I want to travel to him is from the living room to the kitchen!

Sept. 17, 2011
We went to Poland on a whim. We had been there before and loved it and decided to spend my birthday weekend there. On Saturday night, Lee gave me loads of little presents and the very last present was a box of Belgian chocolates. I was a bit hesitant to open them--since we had just eaten a sumptous meal--but he kept insisting. I finally opened the chocolates and tucked inside was an engagement ring! I was so surprised! I have no idea how he acted so normal all day, but he tells me now that he was going crazy inside waiting to ask me. That night we called all our family to tell them the wonderful news and I have the huge international roaming cell phone bill to prove it! We don't have any firm plans on a date or a place for the wedding yet. Too many things are happening all at once, but we will let you know.

Oct. 17, 2011
The movers just left. They have packed up most of my apartment and will be back tomorrow to finish. I had not even unpacked all the boxes from Freetown and now they are being shipped back to Africa. Lee and I are really looking forward to serving in Africa again. There is a certain flavor and earthiness about it that you cannot describe to anyone who has not been there. If you get a chance to visit, go. If you need a recommendation, ask my childhood friend Cathy who visited me in Freetown--she came for two weeks and loved it.

We will be in Maputo in early November and I will write when we get settled. For now, know that the world is a vast place that deserves exploring. There is a new opportunity around every corner, even if it's in your own backyard. Reach out to someone; get out of your comfort zone and live life to the fullest.

Becky Boo

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Counting Pennies

I know I have not written a blog for a while, but this posting has not exactly gone as planned. (More on that later.) In the meantime, I came to the realization that one must have enthusiasm if one is going to write a blog story. Today I finally I mustered enough energy to write.

Everyone is watching the world financial crises especially closely these days. Working in the Economic section in Berlin has given me a birds-eye view of all things involving numbers, percentages and ratios. I have learned new words such as bailout and haircut (and I don’t mean the thing you get at the barber). Not only is Greece failing but Portugal and Cyprus are not far behind. The financial state of my own country is becoming more abysmal and confusing with each passing day. Here in fiscally solvent Germany, the U.S. is enjoying an ever increasing reputation as being financially and politically moving in the direction of stupid. Why can’t our lawmakers make a decision? Why can’t someone stand up and do the right thing? I don’t have answers to these questions but I do have a theory about why Germany is so financially successful. It’s my own theory, formed over several months of living here and enhanced by momentary lapses in patience. When they say, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ I say, ‘A blog is born of frustration.’ Allow me to explain.

Germans love coins. Well, they may not love coins but they have a lot of them and they use them diligently. The Euro currency contains the following coins (largest to smallest in value):

2 Euro
1 Euro
50 cent
20 cent
10 cent
5 cent
2 cent
1 cent

Compare that to the U.S. currency most commonly used:

25 cent
10 cent
5 cent
1 cent

A quick glance will show you that living with the Euro means you have twice as many coins to carry around. If you remove the U.S. 1 cent (more commonly referred to as the penny) from the list, you will see the Euro coinage ratio increase even further. I removed the 1 cent piece from the U.S. list because people in the U.S. don’t really care much about a penny. You see pennies on the ground all the time and people don’t even bother to pick them up. People toss their pennies into the charity jar at the counter or tell the clerk to “keep the change” because they don’t want to bother with pennies. I have seen people in the U.S. deliberately throw pennies on the ground just to rid themselves of the extra bulk in their pocket. A penny has no real value in the U.S. anymore.

While Americans practice penny pitching, fiscally-secure Germans practice penny pinching. People treat their Euro pennies as valuable as bars of gold. In fact, all coins are treated with the utmost respect. How do I know this? Because at the cash register, customers spend eons of time counting the exact number of coins it takes to reach the exact amount over an even Euro. In fact, since the Euro is a coin and so is the 2 Euro, the customer actually counts out his reckoning from the nearest 5 Euro; all in coins. I have seen customers at the grocery store take out their tiny leather coin purses and dump what looks like a months’ worth of change into their hand and then carefully and methodically count their Euro coins. This procedure is not a problem for the store clerk; they expect it. This labor intensive practice is also not a problem for any other German standing in line. Secretly, they are all waiting so they, too, can rid themselves of as many coins as possible when it’s their turn. Being an American, however, I am steeped in the rules of efficiency over the rules of solvency. Anyone who would dare count out 99 cents in coins at the peril of everyone else waiting in line is someone we would admonish with furtive glances. We avoid this cultural no-no like the plague. Any customer taking longer than his allotted 25 seconds per transaction gets an evil glare from everyone waiting behind him.

Last night, during what I anticipated to be a quick trip to my neighborhood grocery store, I experienced the entire gambit of German coin counting and coin receiving. Because I was in a fairly long line wearing very sweaty running clothes and carrying my favorite order of fried rice, I had a lot of time for observation. About four people ahead of me, the woman paying for her groceries counted out penny after penny with such care I thought she must have been saving them for years and had formed a personal relationship with them. The next person in line had very few items and thankfully only about 10 coins to count out. The two customers directly in front of me created a whole new set of problems; this time for the clerk. The customers were young people who spoke a foreign language (probably tourists visiting Berlin for the day) who only had very large paper money notes. When the first order came to 20 Euro and 1 cent, the clerk asked if the customer had 1 cent to go with the 50 Euro note. Unfortunately, the customer had no change whatsoever. The clerk let out an audible sigh and grudgingly counted out the proper coins and gave them to the foreign tourist. The next tourist had the same problem; no coins to offer. The clerk could hardly believe it, two customers in a row with no coins! The clerk rolled his eyes and looked to the other Germans in line for support, as if to say, “Can you believe someone has the audacity to empty my cash drawer of all coins?” The foreign tourist knew there was a problem and kept apologizing in English.

Then it was my turn. By now I was certain everyone in line could smell my disgusting running clothes and I knew my once hot fried rice was no longer anything close to hot. I wanted to complete my transaction as quickly as possible and go home. Unfortunately, I too, had my difficulties. Since I had come to the store directly from running, I had only brought a 5 Euro note with me. Paper money is light and does not weigh you down when you run, nor does it jingle in your pocket—something I cannot tolerate when I run. I had carefully calculated the cost of my 4 items to ensure the total amount would be less than 5 Euro, When the clerk rang up my items, I realized the small bottle of water I thought cost .69 actually cost .98, The item must have been miss-marked. This oversight threw off my calculation and I ended up 11 Euro cents over budget. What a dilemma! In the U.S., someone in line behind me would have offered the 11 cents, but not in Germany. In the U.S., one could have even expected the clerk to write off the 11 cent loss and let me have my items in order to save from having to do all the over-ring paperwork. Not so in Germany. The clerk called the store manager to “bring the key” and the manager placed her magic key in the register to un-ring my last item, thus reducing my total amount owed to 4 Euro 17 cents. Of course, now the clerk had to give me more of his precious coins from a cash drawer already depleted by the foreign tourists. I felt a small measure of satisfaction as I jangled my way home.

When living in a culture different than your own, sometimes you learn to live with the differences, sometimes you lose patience with the new practices, and sometimes you just smile and feel happy that you discovered a new theory; in this case, The Theory of Penny Economics.