Expats Move Home: Blazing the Paper Trail out of Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceI’m spilling the beans on all the nitty gritty details of how we ended our expat adventure. To catch up on previous posts, click here.

Moving in America is relatively simple: pack, move, transfer your utilities, and forward your mail if you are desperate not to miss a single issue of your favorite People.

Getting out of Germany is a bit more byzantine. Yep, you do still have to do something with your stuff, but other bureaucratic matters get bumped up from suggested to required. But, is it as hard to get out of Deutschland as it is to get in?

Getting In

Moving to Germany is a nail-biting adventure in paperwork and bureaucracy, similar to attempting to get a visa or green card in the US. Given how much the Germans love order, it’s no surprise that all documents deemed obligatory must be just that – in order.

Strangely, I never posted on any of our experiences in obtaining resident permits at the Burgeramt (affectionately known as the “burger service” in our family), so you’ll have to just trust me on this one.

It is very likely guaranteed that during the initial residency appointment, you’ll suddenly realize or be made to realize you’ve forgotten an essential document (like an original birth certificate). Or, you’ll be scolded for something ridiculous like using all caps instead of upper and lower case… or blue ink instead of black.

For most expats, the “burger service” dishes up the first taste of German culture shock.

Getting Out

Thankfully, leaving Germany is a total piece of (Black Forest) cake. When we wanted out, we simply showed up at the local Burgeramt, filled out a form, provided the date we would exit the country, and received our Abmeldung (more on that below).

I recall thinking the process was just too easy. We must have forgotten something.

But no – the Abmeldung is all that we absolutely had to have as far as the government was concerned. We could even keep our residency cards as souvenirs; no need to turn them in at the Burgeramt or the border. Really!

Don’t let simplicity fool you. One should not underestimate the significance of the all-important Abmeldung. This document really is required. Without it, one cannot cancel contracts such as mobile phone service, internet service, insurance, etc. Remember, order and respecting the system are of first importance!

We asked for our Abmeldung four weeks before departure, but the norm is two weeks or even less. The officials at the Burgeramt did not want to issue the golden ticket so soon, but with a little pleading and begging in our broken German, they eventually obliged.

Duties

Now that we had our eerily-easy official paperwork in order, it was time to tackle other official duties. Thanks, Chandler, for ruining that word for me – forever.

The post office and the bank expected us to provide a German forwarding address, even though we were moving to the US. What?!

Thankfully, a friend volunteered to let us use hers. And, perhaps even more important, she was someone we could trust since she’d be opening our mail and possibly dealing with confidential information.

We notified Deutsche Post of the new address through their website. Again, the process was rather straightforward. Our mail will be forwarded to our friend’s address for one year. The only surprise was that in Germany, mail forwarding is not free!

We opted to leave our bank account open since we knew we would need it for our apartment deposit, German tax return, etc. We switched all our statements to paperless (an option strangely not presented to us before) and provided our new German forwarding address as requested.

If we had wanted to close the bank account, we would have needed to wire the balance to the US and pay some rather hefty fees on both the German and American sides. Seeing as the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar has shifted in favor of the dollar, I don’t foresee that money traveling to US soil anytime soon.

In the future, if we do decide to eventually close the account, we will need to write a letter stating our wishes (in triplicate and notarized in blood, I presume) and include our slashed-to-bits ATM debit cards in the envelope.

Fortunately, we did not have any phone or internet service to cancel since that was included in our rent. We did, however, cancel our health, auto, and personal insurance, providing a copy of our Abmeldung – of course! – to get out of the contracts.

Whew!

While the details of departing Deutschland seemed a smidge overwhelming in the moment, the process turned out to be fairly simple in hindsight. This was a welcome surprise while in the trenches of wrestling our worldly goods into fifteen, thirty-kilo boxes.

Little did we know, the hardest task lay ahead and had nothing to do with packing or  paperwork…

Have you ever had an experience where you thought navigating government bureaucracy would be more or less difficult than it actually turned out to be? And, if you’re an expat, what was the process like to enter/leave your country of residency? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

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Expats Move Home: How Our Knick Knacks Crossed the Atlantic

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Almost everyone has moved somewhere at some point in their life. Whether it be down the street, around the corner, across the country, or even halfway around the globe, it’s a common human experience.

But, that’s where the commonality usually ends. Why? Where? How often? How far? And, literally… how?

In an earlier Expats Move Home post, I recapped the madness of our adventures moving from Germany back to the US. I briefly mentioned what we did with all of the goods we accumulated in four years. Today, I want to shed some light on how we did that and if our method was effective or not.

The Container Conundrum

Most people moving overseas use a container to literally ship their home goods from one end of the ocean to the other. It’s the most practical (and often the only) way to allow you to sleep on the exact same bed in both South Carolina and Spain.

We didn’t use a container service moving to or from Germany. Why? Well, we simply didn’t have enough stuff to make the cost worthwhile.

Sea (or air) freight is very expensive, time-consuming, and full of paperwork. It’s really only worth the effort if you have an entire house to move.

When we first set out for Freiburg in 2010, we had no idea how long we would be there though we assumed it would only be one year. After considering the cost to store all of our belongings in the US, we decided to give away most of our American possessions and store only those items that would have been too expensive, sentimental, or difficult to replace.

We stuffed the remaining essentials into large suitcases which we checked as luggage on the airplane. For a trip down memory lane, you can read the turbulent story of when we – meaning me and only two boys – first touched down in Frankfurt five years ago here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

This is how “moving” looked the first time around – big piles of junk in our friends’ garage that eventually was organized into fifty-pound suitcases. Sorry for the awful photo – making things pretty wasn’t a priority; getting through it was!

Ship or Ship?

After four years in Germany, we cataloged our meager possessions and realized that by 2014 we had acquired more than we had arrived with in 2010. But despite numerous trips to Ikea and a mountain of fantastic hand-me-downs, we still did not own enough household items to ship a container. 

We researched different options for getting our goods from point A (Freiburg) to point B (Florida). All air and sea freight options ended up out of our price range and not suitable for our circumstances anyway.

Schlepping suitcases wouldn’t work this time either because we would be traveling for several weeks before reaching our final destination in Orlando (you can read the summary of everywhere we went here). There was no way we could – or wanted to – lug a quarter of a ton of luggage around!

Ten, fifty pound suitcases equals five hundred pounds, and five hundred times four is two thousand, right? Correct me if I’m wrong – math has never been my thing – but that is just insane.

After talking with former Freiburg friends, we decided that the option best suited to our situation would be to simply post boxes with DHL.

Going with DHL is by no means the easiest or cheapest method. It’s just what we had to do given the meager amount of household goods.

Whittling Down and Weeding Out

Now, before I went wild with the tape gun, it was necessary to weed out what we didn’t want or need and whittle down the remaining items until we reached the true essentials.

This is a hallmark of any moving experience, but it’s trickier in Germany. Trash is a sensitive subject; one cannot simply leave their unwanted junk on the curb and have it picked up for free. And garage sales?! Please – there’s no such thing.

Yes, there are Flohmärkte, but that assumes that you (1) know of one that (2) fits your schedule, (3) you have a way to schlep your things to the prescribed location, and (4) you are able to haggle auf Deutsch with your customers. For me, a Flohmarkt just wasn’t happening.

Barter or Bestow?

I made a spreadsheet of all the items that weren’t going to earn a free ticket to America, and I divided that list into two categories: giving and selling. While in Freiburg, we made many amazing friends, and I was happy to give as many things as possible to those who wanted/needed it. Plus, I wasn’t going to sell my €3 IKEA salad spinner – I just wanted it gone!

But, moving continents isn’t cheap, so I had to sell big ticket items with lots of wear and value left. I added links to pictures and descriptions of the for sale items, and then I emailed the list to everyone I knew. I explained that the first person to email me about a particular item had dibs.

Additionally, I encouraged my friends to forward the list on to their friends. Expat networks are a beautiful thing, and word often travels fast in these circles. I really wanted to avoid having to hawk my junk on sites like ebay and Craigslist, though I did eventually have to do that for a few bigger items that no one needed.

Sold!

In Germany, used goods sell for nearly the price of new items. It’s absolutely ridiculous. An expensive new pram, for example, retails for €800. A used one would go for €700 unless it’s in really bad shape, in which case it might be let go for €650. Yes, really.

In order to move things along as quickly as possible (pun intended), I priced everything at 50% off – or more – of the original price. However, I did not list any amounts on the spreadsheet I emailed out; instead, I simply gave the price to whomever asked about the item. I think this helped because (1) buyers were already interested and (2) the dirt cheap deal I offered made the bargain too good to refuse. Since prices were so low, I did not have to haggle at all. Score!

Using the small, yet tight-knit expat community ended up being an excellent strategy. Not only did I mostly escape having to bargain with strangers, but my friends and acquaintances were more willing to agree on a later date to transfer the goods rather than having to hand the items over right away.

I can’t stress to you how advantageous this was. It was incredibly beneficial to know that my washing machine was indeed sold, but I could use it up until a few days before we actually moved.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

As you know, the process of moving takes an enormous amount of time. Here’s a snippet of what happened when I left my two year-old unattended in the living room while I packed… At least he put every.last.stinking.piece of our game and puzzle collection on the table instead of the floor. That counts for something… right?

Post Haste

With my remaining goods good to go, I consulted my former expat friend again, the one who had sent his own possessions home with DHL. He gifted me a few helpful pieces of advice.

First, he explained that I needed to list everything (yes, every.single.thing) that was in the box. Then, weigh the box + contents carefully, being certain to not go overweight. Finally,  schedule the boxes to be picked up at home instead of dragging them to the nearest DHL office.

All simple tips, yet incredibly valuable.

How Do You Do?

So, let me ask you, when you move, how do you pack? Super organized and careful at first, placing like objects together and paying attention to whether or not you can lift each box? With color coded labels for each room and the contents written in your best handwriting?

Right.

Okay, I usually start out like that – or intend to – but quickly devolve into “whatever” chaos – tossing in toothbrushes with toys and Tupperware. This madness is often performed alone in the wee hours of the night because my better half is often working on work or some other moving-related task.

But, friends, such packing behavior just isn’t going to cut it when you have to use a plane instead of pals to move your junk.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

I know I already used this photo above, but I want to tell you the secret behind it. When I checked the max. measurements on dhl.de, I thought I would be clever and order some of that size. Well, apparently centimeters are not my forte, because THESE were the boxes that arrived! Our entire family might be able to fit inside (well, if we were contortionists, that is), but each box could only WEIGH 30 kilos… uh, yeah – major MOVE FAIL.

It Takes Two

Packing boxes for a ride with DHL ended up being a two-person job (give or take one eager helper to wield the tape gun). One person packed the box while the other typed each and every little thing that went inside the box and added it to a detailed spreadsheet.

When the box was full, the two of us weighed it using a luggage scale and a gigantic Ikea bag (high-tech, I know). If the carton and contents were too light, we added more things (being careful to add them to the spreadsheet, too). And, vice versa, when the box was overweight, we shifted the innards (ensuring we deleted these items from the spreadsheet). Sounds like a pretty awesome way to spend your evenings, no?

Each box received a number from us that we also listed in our spreadsheet. That way, if any of the boxes lost its way, we would know which box had gone astray and what exactly was inside (toothbrushes, toys, and Tupperware, naturally).

Crap Flap

When we could finally see the floor in our apartment again – well, except the area underneath the tape-adorned boxes – I processed the shipping labels on dhl.de. To, From, Size, Weight… so far, so good.

When the required contents declaration appeared, I momentarily panicked when I realized that I could not just copy and paste my spreadsheet onto the DHL shipping manifest. Instead, I was given only six lines for each box… and, I was required to list a value and weight for each line item.

Oh, snap.

Germans love forms, rules, and those who conform. Delinquents who fill out forms incorrectly, ignore rules or decide to make their own, lose. Big Time. I knew that if I botched these forms, there was a good chance my bobbles and bits would never see the light of an American day.

I tried calling German DHL and asking. Though I somehow managed to find someone who spoke English, that phone call left me with more questions and even more paranoia than before.

Several deep breaths and a half a Ritter Sport later, it dawned on me. I could try and call US Customs in Florida, since that’s where my boxes would end up anyway.

I finally found someone to answer my questions, and she suggested I group similar items together and write descriptions like Used Children’s Toys instead of just Toys. She also urged me to indicate that the contents were personal household goods so as to not be hit with duty fees.

American customer service really is a beautiful thing. Even the grumpiest government worker in America can usually be coaxed into helping with a few kind words and a dash of appreciation. Maybe someday Germany will jump on the be-nice-to-your-customers-and-they-will-be-nice-to-you bandwagon…?

Feeling much better, I returned to the dreaded DHL website and followed her instructions. For the weight, I honestly just guessed on each category since I knew the total of the box. For the value, I kept the value for each box at or under €500 since this is the per box maximum amount of included insurance from DHL.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Expert tip: do NOT take your boxes to the nearest DHL location. Schedule a pickup instead!

Come and Get ‘Em

With the shipping labels completed (and the return of my blood pressure to a normal range), I then scheduled a pickup with DHL at my home address. Not only was this absolutely genius because I did not have to drag 30 kilo boxes to the post office, but generally the DHL drivers do not weigh the boxes.

Now, I don’t want to condone or encourage dishonesty, here. Doc Sci and I were very careful to make sure the boxes were as close to 30kg as possible. But, I did not want to argue with a postal clerk if the cartons were a few grams over or under the limit because my scale wasn’t calibrated exactly like hers.

Thankfully, the transfer to the DHL truck was smooth sailing, and I received tracking numbers and receipts for the boxes from the driver.

All right, you Nosy Nellies, I know you’re curious. How many boxes did we ship? Well, in the beginning, I had hoped to ship ten boxes – we ended up shipping fifteen. The packages took two to four weeks to arrive from Germany. I could track them on dhl.com but often the updates were nonexistent or happened all at once. When we finally set eyes on those brown beauties again, they were pretty bashed up.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Our beat up boxes, post ocean voyage and customs vacation.

The Fifteen-Box Miracle

As you can see from the photos above, most boxes were agape with holes or puncture marks. Some even had entire seams exposed. They looked really, really bad. This totally stressed me out, until I realized something.

Miraculously, all fifteen boxes made it, and not a single thing was lost though the dents and gashes.

I believe the reason every little knick knack made it is partly because within each big box, I packed our things in smaller cartons (such as diaper boxes). This nesting idea wasn’t for shipping purposes, though. We needed to fit the contents of the fifteen big boxes into nooks and crannies of our small existing storage unit since we did not have a place to live when we arrived. While it was a ton of work in the moment to sort of pack everything twice, this small act paid off in a big way.

Repeat Performance?

So, would I use DHL to ship our household goods across the Atlantic again? The answer depends heavily upon the circumstances. In our case, no other option made sense.

All methods of moving overseas carry a certain amount of risk. Yes, insurance can be purchased, but claim funds and replacement goods are not the same as getting your beloved winter coat or your Grandma’s English tea cups back. I feel like we did the best we could in our situation, and thankfully, it all worked out this time.

If you’ve moved overseas, I’d love to hear your story! Or if you are thinking of moving abroad one day, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. Did you / would you go the container route? Check luggage? Ship boxes? Go minimalist and take nothing?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

 

Household Notebook

I finished my Household Notebook – yay!

Well, “finished” as in as complete as any project done by a perfectionist could possibly be.  I’m doing my best to let it be what it was intended – a tool that our family USES – and not merely a piece of art that adorns my desk.

So, what exactly is a Household or Family Notebook? 

Our family’s Household Notebook – turquoise!

I suppose it’s not the same for everyone; but, for us it’s a collection of documents to manage our family “business” better.  It will help me be even more organized, and it should provide valuable information for Doc Sci or anyone else who might need to take over daily affairs for some reason.  It should also provide quick access to vital information during an emergency situation.

I started out researching what other people had in their notebooks (using Pinterest and Google, of course).  I made a huge list of ideas, and then I narrowed that list down to 15 categories.  In those 15 categories, I wrote down items that were appropriate to the category and would be referenced or used frequently.  I then searched for existing templates that I could use as a springboard to design my own documents.

When poking around online, I noticed some people had four binders instead of one.  Other people used their binders exclusively to pay bills and didn’t include anything else like meal planning or personal health records.  I didn’t want my notebook to be a replacement for a file cabinet – but, I also didn’t I want my desk to be overwhelmed with a library of resources.

Ultimately, a Household Notebook needs to be something useful for that particular household.

So, what’s in my notebook?

Categories.

My 15 categories and a few examples of the documents in each are as follows…

  • Contact Info
    • Emergency phone numbers
    • German & American contact numbers
    • “In case of emergency” document
  • Planning
    • 2012 and 2013 at a glance
    • Important dates (birthdays, anniversaries, etc)
    • Yearly calendaring list (everything from dentist appointments to dryer cleanings)
    • German and American holidays including daylight savings schedules (they’re different for the two countries)
    • Doc Sci’s work schedule and my weekly schedule
    • Party planning checklists
  • Home Management
    • Deep cleaning checklist
    • Storage unit contents – Germany and USA
    • Stain removal guide
    • Garment care symbols
  • Meals
    • Grocery lists for regular grocery stores
    • List of items only available at specialty shops
    • Meal planning sheets
    • A list of staple meals
    • A list of meals to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Restaurants to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Seasonal produce guide for menu planning
    • Stockpile inventory
  • Family
    • Children’s current sizes and measurements
    • Chart with American and European sizes, including shoes
    • Children’s daily schedule and routine
    • Babysitter notes for nights out
    • Birthday party ideas
    • Chore chart ideas
  • Health
    • Medical history for each family member
    • Physician phone numbers
    • CPR instructions
  • School
    • School contact info and phone list
    • Home school weekly planning sheet
    • Home school year overview
  • Money & Finance
    • Family budget
    • Wallet contents including card numbers & contact numbers
    • Password log
    • Yearly schedule of the best time to buy household items
    • Auto insurance coverage details
  • Travel
    • Ideas for local family outings (not overnight)
    • Vacation destination idea list (overnight)
    • Packing lists
    • Before-we-leave checklist
    • Frequent flier mile information for all family members
  • Expat Living
    • Copies of passports
    • Resources for renewing visas
  • Projects
    • Generic to do list
    • Generic project work sheet
    • Generic week at a glance schedule for completing a project
  • Holidays
    • Thanksgiving guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Thanksgiving week planner
    • Christmas card labels
    • Gift gift lists
    • Christmas cookie swap party planner
    • Christmas guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Blank copy of December 2012
  • Blog
    • Ideas page for future posts
    • Yearly calendar for planning
  • Activities
    • Local public pool schedules
    • Local sport club classes for kids
    • Ideas for activities during summer and holidays
  • Lists
    • Items I frequently (and currently need to) request from the US
    • List of topics to research
    • Household items to fix
    • Generic sheet for thoughts on a particular topic

Using the documents I found online, I created my own set of documents in Illustrator that fit our family’s situation (living abroad, don’t own a home, etc.).  I also had to make sure all the pages matched and looked pretty!

My funky European two-ring binder.

After designing all the documents, I organized them into folders on my computer hard drive that matched the categories above.  That way, when I need to print out new menu planning sheets, I can just open the “Meals” folder on my computer the same as I could flip to the “Meals” tab in the notebook.

The only tabs I could find that would reach beyond the page protects had to be cut by hand. Not great for someone who can’t snip a straight line to save her life!

I wanted to print out the documents at a lab so they’d look nicer.  Unfortunately, I don’t know of any existing print labs in my city, so I had to settle for our HP Deskjet. Surprisingly, Illustrator did a great job with color, and what I saw on the screen was how it looked on paper.  Sweet!

Some reference documents went in page protectors, and some were just hole-punched and placed in the corresponding category tab.

Page protectors are very cheap here – both in terms of quality and money.

I bought a plastic envelope to put in the back of the notebook to hold takeout menus and other small scraps of paper that didn’t fit anywhere else.  Unfortunately, it was too big, so I’ll have to check a few other stores for smaller pouches.

My too-big plastic envelope.

I have a few finishing touches to put on the notebook (for starters, filling in the budget and phone numbers by hand).  After that, I’m looking forward to how this notebook will help streamline my “mama” job and make life easier for Doc Sci when I’m out of it for a few weeks.  I think my Household Notebook will be a great tool for our family in the years to come.

p.s. – I’ve made a Pinterest board with links to all the documents I used for ideas.  You can view the board and links here.

How about you?  Do you have a household notebook? Why or why not?

Pregnant in Germany – Hospitals

I must admit, I’m excited about some aspects of German maternity care (postnatal, in-home midwife visits for instance).  But there are some I am dreading.  Choosing a hospital is one item I’m chalking up as loathsome on my to do list.

I’ll be forever jaded by my first two birth experiences.  Both were at the same hospital, a fancy schmancy building with eleven floors dedicated solely to women and babies.  When I was there, I never felt like I was in a hospital.  It was more akin to a five-star hotel.

In the US, doctors have hospital privileges only at certain facilities.  Patients can either choose a hospital and then find a doctor with privileges there.  Or, patients can choose a doctor first with the realization that they cannot choose a hospital outside that physician’s privileges.

In Germany, the mother chooses the hospital where she wants to give birth (birth houses and home births are also options, but I’m not including them in this post).  As I mentioned previously, the doctor that the mother visits for prenatal care will have nothing to do with the actual birth.  Instead, the hospital staff (midwives and physicians) run the show.

Within my city, I have three hospital choices.  For the sake of ease, I’ll just name them hospitals A, B, and C.  But, that’s where the easiness ends.  Making this choice is no walk in the park.

Why?  Because they each have their pros and cons, not only in my opinion but in the opinion of others who have experienced the staff and facilities personally.

To choose a hospital, it’s best to visit all of the options first, and then make a decision.  Each hospital has an Infoabend, or information evening usually once per month.  During this time, visitors can listen to a little talk about why this particular hospital is amazing, (hopefully) go on a tour of the labor/delivery and recovery facilities, and ask questions of the staff.

Over the course of a few months, I attended the Infoabend for hospitals A, B, and C.  All three hospitals had pregnant women climbing stairs to go from the lecture hall to the labor ward – something that would never happen in the US.  Hospital A at least offered water to the women during the lecture.  Hospitals B and C did not.  All three hospitals gave the talk in a large room without sound amplification… or air conditioning.

And so we come to one of my biggest concerns.  Giving birth in the heat of summer with no air conditioning is an emergency c-section waiting to happen… for me anyway.  I know women all of the world do it regularly, but I’m a wuss.  I don’t want to pass out from pain AND heat.

Hospitals B and C had decent air conditioning in Labor & Delivery (L&D).  Only hospital B seemed to have it in the recovery rooms.

I’ve considered that getting in a birthing tub during labor might help with the August heat problem.  Thankfully, all three hospitals have birthing tubs, but only Hospital B has tubs in every room that are big enough for giving birth.  In Germany, it’s totally normal to have a water birth, and no midwife or physician would bat an eye at a woman’s request for one.  Not so in the US.

And, speaking of rooms, these hospitals are very small compared to my previous eleven-floor, swank, not-really-a-hospital experience.  Not one facility here has more than six L&D rooms.  SIX.

Another major concern for me is whether or not the staff in these small hospitals speak English.  I asked at hospitals A & B.  Both assured me that most do speak at least some English.  I didn’t ask at hospital C because I would only go there kicking and screaming… or unconscious.  Hopefully, the limited German I know and feel like remembering in labor coupled with the staff’s English will be enough.  Please, God, let that be true.

So, what about after the birth?  Another unpleasant subject, unfortunately.  Health insurance in Germany only pays for a three-bed recovery room.  If a hospital only has rooms for two people, then that is acceptable.

But, keep in mind this means that it will be the mother and her child plus at least one other mother and that woman’s child.  And perhaps her friends.  Or her husband.  Or her uncle, grandfather, boyfriend, teenage son, etc.  Just who I want to see after giving birth.

In order to get a private room, one must let the staff know upon arrival at the hospital.  And pay a fee.  (There’s always a fee, right?).  The cost ranges from 40-135 euros per night, depending on the hospital and type of private room (family rooms – where the husband can sleep over – cost more).  I’d say that’s peanuts in exchange for not having to share a hospital bathroom or bunk with someone else’s screaming newborn.

In addition to all the physical characteristics, I have to take into account the general attitude of the hospital.  Are they c-section happy?  Do they get a kick out of using a vacuum extractor?  Will they make it hard for me to get an epidural if I want one?  Are they irritated or indifferent that I’m a foreigner?

Considering all the factors, I’ve only been able to make one decision so far: eliminate hospital C.  Truth be told, this elimination mostly has to do with the lead doctor being about as warm and friendly as my building superintendent than anything else.

I only have a few weeks left to decide between A & B.  But, then again, honestly I don’t actually have to choose.  As long as I am 36+ weeks along, I can just show up at either facility.  So, perhaps I won’t make a firm choice after all.  Or maybe I’ll just do eeny-meeny-miney-moe.

But you can bet wherever I go and whatever happens when I get there, I won’t be without a story to tell.

Insurance Makes the (German) World Go ‘Round

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - InsuranceGermans LOVE insurance.

It comes in all shapes and sizes and seems to make the world go ’round in the way that lawsuits do in America.  In contrast to the sue-happy American culture, the insurance-addicted German culture makes things possible here that aren’t there (say, sending your child to school with a peanut butter sandwich for lunch).

Of course, we have your garden-variety health and auto insurances here.  Both are required.  In fact, we cannot legally live in Germany without health insurance.  And auto insurance is a whole ‘nother ball game – a separate post for a rainy day.

But, the flavor of insurance I find most interesting – and applicable to families with children – is the personal liability insurance, or Haftpflichtversicherung.

We found out about this insurance several months after we moved here. The policy provides protection in the incidence of all kinds of personal accidents: throwing a ball through a neighbor’s window, tripping an old lady, bicycle collisions, and any other “oops” moments that involve damages.

I’d never heard of such thing before moving to Germany, and I assumed it had to be expensive.  Wrong.  It’s actually quite cheap.  We have a family plan that costs something like 7 euros per month for a gazillion euros of coverage.  It’s the one kind of policy us non-insurance crazed foreigners really should have.

When Doc Sci finally went to purchase a policy (after we lived an entire year here without it – eek!), the agent told him that one of her clients rode his bike in front of a tram and somehow got the bike stuck in the tram track.  The tram driver slammed on the brakes, and passengers went flying.  Some of the elderly ones sustained injuries requiring hospitalization.  The guy riding the bike was responsible for the whole thing – but lucky for him, his insurance paid for it all.  Had he been without a personal liability policy, he would’ve had to pay out of pocket for all injuries and damages.

(By the way, the story wasn’t a sales pitch; Doc Sci had already signed on the dotted line.)

I recently learned that some landlords will not rent to tenants without this personal liability insurance.  In the US, renter’s insurance will cover the tenants’ belongings as well as any accidental damage to the property.  In Germany, renter’s insurance only provides protection for the stuff.  We aren’t required to carry this kind of policy where we live, but most likely we’ll need it when/if we move.

Before we had this oh-so-German insurance, I was on the edge of a freakout whenever my kids got a stick or a rock anywhere near someone else’s car.  Or rode a bike too close to an elderly person in the park.  Or visited a new friend’s house (especially if said friend had no children).

Now that we have the policy, I still maintain a level of caution, but at least that caution is several steps down from the former paranoia.  I hope we never have to make a claim, but at least if we do, we’ll be covered.

Pregnant in Germany: Doctors and Midwives

I recently realized I’d been mum about the latest happenings in the German pregnancy process.  This is mostly due to the fact that I feel like I am constantly learning the system and have yet to fully understand it.

Another reason, though, is my knowledge and experience seem to be composed thus far of bits and pieces, nothing that flows like a story should.  Or a blog post, for that matter.

But, instead of keeping silent, I’m just going to give you what I’ve got, the scraps and squiggles of what might become a clear picture after the birth.  Today, I’ll just focus on two caregiver roles: Doctors and Midwives.

Doctors

The doctor that a pregnant woman visits in Germany is only the “gyn” part of the ob/gyn that Americans are used to seeing.  In truth, it seems she is more concerned with the care and condition of the uterus than the birth of the baby.  These gynecologists do not deliver babies.  And, my midwife went so far as to say you don’t want these doctors with you in the delivery room anyway because chances are they haven’t been to a live birth in years!

Every time I have been to the doctor, she has wanted to do the sans pants dance.  The prevailing opinion in Germany is that if you don’t do these kind of exams, then what are you doing?  Nothing!

When I told my doctor this wasn’t necessary every visit, she replied that Germans having babies in America do not like it when American doctors don’t do a single thing in most prenatal visits.  I see both sides, but my pants and I like each other, and we’re sticking together unless absolutely necessary.  Sorry, doc.

I should also mention that just because the gynecologist taking care of the prenatal care doesn’t attend the birth, it doesn’t mean that the mama won’t have any doctors at the birth.  The obstetrician is determined by the patient’s choice of hospital (and also the type of insurance).  I’ve gone on two of three hospital tours already, but I’ll save that experience for another post.

In my research, I’ve read (sorry, I cannot remember where!) that in Germany a midwife can attend a birth without a doctor, but a doctor cannot attend a birth without a midwife.  Really?!  The first statement doesn’t surprise me, but the second one is quite foreign to my American experience.

In terms of cost, just like any other doctor I visit in Germany, I must pay 10 euro every quarter (three months) as a kind of co-pay to visit the doctor.  Some doctors charge for ultrasounds (mine doesn’t) and tests that aren’t deemed absolutely essential.  But prescriptions and necessary procedures are covered at 100%.  This included my RhoGAM injection (not optional) which previously cost me almost $500 in the US.

It may be more expensive to live in Germany, but it sure is cheap to have a baby here!

Midwives

In Germany, every pregnant woman is entitled to midwifery care.  This includes before, during, and after the birth.  The mama can choose her midwife and, if she wants, can have three different women for the three different types of care.  Most women, however, only have one or two midwives.

As is the case in the US, malpractice insurance has skyrocketed forcing many midwives to abandon the practice of attending births.  When I looked for a midwife for the birth, I was only able to find midwives who did home births or worked in free-standing birth centers.  Only a select few still accompany women to hospitals for birth, and only one of the three hospitals in my city allows this practice anyway.

That’s not to say that every mama won’t have a midwife.  They will.  But the midwife provided will be a staff member of the chosen hospital and will be a brand new face on the “birth day.”  As in the US with labor and delivery nurses, the woman will have no choice in which midwife is assigned to her.

However, a choice for before and after care still remains.  I’ve selected a midwife who speaks excellent English and who will travel to my house for ante- and post-natal appointments.  This service is covered by my insurance, and I don’t have to pay any extra for the home visit.  Score!

Starting at 30 weeks, pre-natal appointments are supposed to be every two weeks.  The midwife is allowed to alternate with the doctor on these visits, so that the patient only has to go to the gynecologist once every four weeks.  Since my doctor has a horrendous waiting time (sometimes up to two hours!), I am a super big fan of this arrangement!

After the birth, the midwife comes to your home every day or every other day for the first week or so.  She asks how you are, answers any questions, assists with nursing, weighs the baby, and helps with any concerns.  After that, the frequency of visits decreases over the next few weeks until the midwife has determined that all is well with the new baby’s arrival.

When I’ve completed my third hospital tour, I’ll post on what I’ve discovered about the system here.  Until then, I’m studying for my driver’s license exam and going to Berlin for one last travel fling before the baby makes his debut.

Travel Insurance – Do You Need It?

Thrifty Travel Mama - Do You Need Travel Insurance?Have I told you yet about our latest and greatest upcoming itinerary?  No?  Really?  Well, now would be a good time.

We’re going to South Korea!!

I’m ridiculously excited.  This will be our first trip to Asia, and all four of us will be going (would you expect anything less?).  This trip also marks a huge transition for our family as this will be the first time we have to pay for four plane tickets.  And my-oh-my those pups were NOT cheap.

I’ll tell you about buying my tickets to South Korea in another post.  Today, I want to focus on travel insurance.

The first question to ask of course is, do I need travel insurance?  For the most part, my answer is almost always no.  In fact, this is only the third time in my life I have purchased it.

Ten years ago, I went out of the country for the first time.. to Russia.  Talk about an eye opener.  I had no idea what to expect other than the chitter chatter of other travelers.  I knew that baggage was frequently delayed or lost and that medical care up to western standards can be hard to find.  I wanted peace of mind that I wouldn’t have to wear the same shirt for two weeks and that I could be airlifted out to Western Europe had I been run down by a crazy driver while wearing said shirt.  Definitely worth it.

However, most of my trips after that have been fairly inexpensive and the amount of luggage I carried decreased dramatically.  I didn’t give a thought to overseas health coverage since I traveled mostly to countries with western medicine standards and, let’s face it, hospitals are the last thing on a twenty-something’s mind.

But now I’ve paid the most I ever have just for plane tickets.  And, I have two unknown variables: Screech and T-Rex.  Should either one of them decide that the night before departure would be a great time to contract a nasty case of the norwalk virus or pneumonia or break their first limb, we’d be out more euros than I want to stress about.

And, that is exactly the point.  With travel insurance, you don’t have to worry about it.  Well, provided you did your homework and are familiar with the policy’s coverage that is.  Put on your worst-case-scenario thinking cap, make a list of questions, dial up a company, and grill the agent.  Nicely.  Please.

Reasons why I would buy travel insurance:

  • My trip is very expensive and nonrefundable.
  • My existing health insurance does not cover treatment at my destination.
  • I’m concerned about a natural disaster or potential terrorist act at my destination.
  • It would ruin my trip if my luggage was lost or delayed.
  • There’s a strong chance my trip could be canceled or delayed due to illness in the traveling party or immediate family.

If you’re still on the fence, calculate about 5% of your trip costs (nonrefundable items such as plane tickets and prepaid hotel reservations or tour costs).  Ask yourself if this number is a fair price to pay for peace of mind in the event that one of the above scenarios occurs.

Most of the time (especially if travel is only within the US), I find it personally unnecessary.  I’m thrifty and determined, and I’d rather take the chance on not coughing up the extra cash for a potentially unused service.

But if you’re a newbie (new to traveling outside the US), spent a month’s salary (or more) on your airline tickets, or have two accident-prone boys, I’d highly recommend it.

If you’re interested, the company I use is Travelex.  I do not work for Travelex and receive no compensation for referring you to their services.  I also take no responsibility should you not be satisfied with their coverage. Signature-Marigold