English German

  Edition # 104  
San Francisco, 12-01-2013

Figure [1]: German singer Herbert Grönemeyer performs in the Bimbo's 365 club in San Francisco.

Michael The German musician Herbert Grönemeyer, so popular in his home country that he's effortlessly filling sport stadiums over there, is completely unknown in the U.S. When I got wind of him touring the U.S. and performing in a small club in San Francisco, I immediately purchased two tickets at $50 a piece. We then took along our German expat friends Conny and Roland and went up to SF's Italian neighborhood "North Beach", to enter a club named "Bimbo's 365". We sat down at a set table (!), just like Humphrey Bogart und Lauren Bacall back in the olden days, and only about 60 feet from the stage, a waiter took our drink orders. We happily complied with the "two drink minimum" as required according to our event ticket.

Figure [2]: Not a bad deal at only 50 Dollars per ticket.

Figure [3]: German expats lounging at a table at "Bimbo's", a small club in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, while Herbert is performing on stage.

Grönemeyer has been touring several major metropolitan areas in the U.S. recently, performing some of his old and new songs overseas. But he's singing them in English instead of smattering the original German lyrics. Of course, this sounds absurd, since Grönemeyer's meaning-laden, almost pompous lyrics clash somewhat with the unintellectual, down-to-earth American lifestyle. And you can't help but notice a heavy German accent, which completely derails the experience, at least for me. I remember that the German singer Udo Lindenberg once tried singing English translations of his recordings in the 1980ies, and until today, I remember these flesh-crawling moments. Grönemeyer's pronunciation isn't quite as bad, though. Except for the "I Walk" intro which should be scrapped completely from his repertoire, as it is horrible, and involuntarily funny at best. Musically, I really like the "To the Sea" song, but the English lyrics aren't quite on par with the German original ("Zum Meer"). When will German musicians learn that you can't translate lyrics verbatim while switching between different cultural environments? I would suggest that Gröni-Boy gets in touch with a more talented writer. I personally am already booked, so I need to pass, but come on, give some new kid a chance!

Figure [4]: The German San Francisco population is loudly singing along with Grönemeyer.

Figure [5]: The Grönemeyer band is touring many major metropolitan areas in the U.S., and then drives up to Canada.

What's even more distracting is if you've been growing up singing along with the German original lyrics. Some of them are very unique, with a strike of genius, and of course untranslateable, like the smattering "Schatten im Blick", for example. Most of the people in the audience were, unsurprisingly, German expats, who took the opportunity to see Grönemeyer up close and at a discount price. And, hardly surprisingly either, obnoxiously kept heckling him to sing in German! He actually gave in a couple of times, and the crowd in front of the stage went bananas in every single instance. They jumped and danced, and the stage lights pointed at a raging ocean of people waving arms and singing along out loudly and ecstaticly. Grönemeyer was visibly moved by the crowd response and gave at least five encores. Will he make it in the American music scene? I really don't know, but it's worth a try. In any case, the German expats in San Francisco truly enjoyed the experience, and at a price that you just can't beat.

Ugly new buildings in San Francisco

Figure [6]: The grocery store chain Whole Foods prefers new locations near ugly new buildings.

Angelika When I was a teenager, I loved a German book with a title that roughly translates to "Here's a house being demolished, there's a construction crane and the bulldozer beckons, or: Changes in the city" and was written by Jörg Müller und Heinz Ledergerber. It's a picture book, illustrating the appalling construction changes happening over the course of time in a once beautiful city. It first shows almost unnoticable small changes, but towards the end, everything is covered with concrete. To get an impression of what I'm referring to, check out the Youtube video "Changes in the City".

When I'm walking around San Francisco latetly, I get the feeling that very similar changes are happening here, and to my horror, they're reminding me of the illustrations in the old book. There's a newly fueled construction frenzy under way in San Francisco these days, and you could get the impression that the architects designing the new buildings were all spat out from a college class titled "How to build boring and identical looking eyesores costing exorbitant amounts of money". Large parts of Market Street, winding through various parts of San Francisco, are under construction, from the Embarcadero at the Bay, through the inner city and later in the Castro and Twin Peaks neigborhoods.

Although Market Street is one of the major arteries of San Francisco's downtown district, it features a surprising number of stretches that are badly run-down. Especially the part between Civic Center (where the government buildings are) and Powell Street (where the cable car departs) takes some time to get used to. There's homeless people, red light theaters, and most of the shops were looking somewhat dubiously until recently. Since we've been living in the area, there's always been plans to clean up this stretch and make it prettier. The first few steps in this direction looked promising, parts of Market Street were closed for through traffic in 2009, and bike lanes were added. But ever since, one glass window monster building after another has been erected there, and some of the charme of many of San Francisco's hidden corners was lost forever.

Figure [7]: Another Whole Foods in an ugly new building.

There's no doubt that San Francisco urgently needs more living space, but the mushrooming tacky new luxury silos resemble hotel towers, and so are outrageously expensive, so that only hipsters and techies working for the various companies in Silicon Valley, located 30 miles south of San Francisco, can afford them. Many don't want to live down there, though, where one faceless town borders the next, featuring only shopping centers, dreary housing complexes, and freeways.

For this reason, many in San Francisco curse the so-called "Google Bus Syndrome". Michael has mentioned in a previous edition, that the big companies in Silicon Valley offer lots of perks for their employees. One of them is that they're running big luxury coaches, called shuttles, which are picking up employees of Yahoo, Google, Apple, or Genentech in the morning in San Francisco, and are taking them back home again at night (Rundbrief 04/2007). This is both convenient for the commuters and effective for the companies, as employees can start working on their laptops on the bus, instead of sitting behind the wheel. By itself, that's a commendable idea, which helps saving the environment, since a bus seats many more people than a car and causes less pollution than everyone driving by themselves. As a side effect, however, these buses cause the rents to increase in the neighborhoods they frequent, because many tech workers value the fact that all they need to do in the morning is walk a few blocks to board a shuttle that is driving them straight away to work.

Figure [8]: Traditional houses in San Francisco: This is what the neighborhood looked like when we moved here.

Figure [9]: New building on Duboce Street: Again the dreaded architectural blandness.

On average, in San Francisco, rent is up about 20% from last year. The above mentioned housing complexes on the corner of Market and Dolores Street charge almost $3,000 a month for a studio (that's a single room appartment with built-in kitchen) and $3,500 for a one bedroom appartment. A two bedroom appartment goes for $3,800 and a three bedroom for a whopping $8,000. On city-wide average, a two bedroom apparment currently rents for about $3,400. That's changing the landscape significantly, because there's more and more people from the so-called middle class who can't afford to live in San Francisco anymore and are forced to move someplace else. Especially families with kids are leaving. In the meantime, the pressure increases on the mayor and the city council, because no one wants to live in a city without kids or seniors, or people with professions supporting the city, like firemen, policemen, nurses, teachers, retail sales people, or garbage collectors. No one working in these fields can currently afford to live in San Francisco anymore.

Figure [10]: In the "Dogpatch" Neighborhood: All new buildings look the same.

The city even forces homebuilders to create 12% of all newly built units as low cost housing. Builders can choose whether to build those themselves or pay a fee to the city, which then steps in and does it for them. With this rule in place, a total of 21 million dollars has been accumulated, but it's of no help if the city just keeps sitting on it. In the meantime, with my salary, appartments within city limits have moved out of reach for me, despite the fact that I'm working full time. Many of my colleagues are living with their parents or share a space with a group of people for the same reason.

Halloween, politically correct

Figure [11]: On the news: a campaign against controversial Halloween costumes.

Michael When I was growing up, I usually chose one of two costumes for carnival: Either Cowboy or Indian. My circle of American friends has confirmed that there used to be similar customs in rural America as well, but that since roughly the 1960ies, it has been considered politically incorrect to dress children up as Indians, because the displacement of the native American population is considered to be one of the darkest chapters in the country's history.

Also, it would be considered an absolute no-no to dress up as a black person, as Americans generally don't condone joking about a person's ethnicity. An African American colleague at work once told me laughingly that while he was on vacation in Sweden, he once rubbed his eyes in disbelief upon noticing a group of partying locals with their faces painted black while wearing Afro wigs.

Figure [12]: Allegedly not funny: Dressing up as Geisha or suicide bomber.

Recently, a local news show in San Francisco aired a segment on a poster campaign titled "We're a culture, not a costume", run by a third-tier university somewhere in the U.S., just in time for the upcoming Halloween celebrations. The posters depict young people making sad faces and holding pictures into the camera, showing Halloween costumes making fun of the person's cultural background. A Japanese girl holds up a photo of a carnival geisha, and a young middle eastern man shows a photo of a party goer dressed up as a suicide bomber holding up a switch. I don't know, I find it somewhat excessive to get all riled up at jokes like this, but we're living in a free country. As long as I don't have to hold up a picture of a Lederhosen-wearing Bavarian mountain man and make a sad face, that is.

Driver's Licenses for illegal immigrants in California

Figure [13]: Will soon be issuing driver's licenses for illegal immigrants: the Department of Motor Vehicles in California (DMV).

Angelika After a decade of back-and-forth, our governor Jerry Brown recently rushed to sign a law without much publicity, that allows the California department of motor vehicles to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. With this law in place, California is the 10th state to allow this practice, and with an estimated number of 3.5 million illegal immigrants, and although it might sound strange, this is actually a fairly pragmatic move. Before the legislative change, many of the illegal immigrants had been driving without a licence and usually also without insurance. In case they got into an accident, it wasn't uncommon for them to speed away from the scene, fearing deportation when authorities would bring their immigration status to light. With the opportunity to obtain legal driving documents, they now have to pass written and a driving tests to at least ensure that they're aware of minimum safety standards, and, equally importantly, they now can legally purchase liability insurance.

Figure [14]: This location will even allow illegal immigrants to take the California driving test.

That's the reason even more conservative organtizations like the California Highway Patrol (CHP) are in favor of this new law. It needs to be said, though, that the driver's licenses issued to illegal immigrants will bear a notice to indicate that it's exclusively issued as a driving permit and not as a valid form of ID. For example, they won't be valid to go through airport security, which is consistent with the regulations of the Department of Homeland Security, which governs airports across the United States. Immigrant groups raised the question if the notice on the license will reveal the holder's immigration status. By California law, it is illegal to discriminate against residents in this way, so there's apparently some kinks in the new law that need to be straightened out. The new documents are supposedly to be issued starting 2015.

Surfing in an Alaska-grade Wetsuit

Figure [15]: Old surfer on a Pacific beach.

Michael You might be aware of the fact that the Pacific ocean waters near San Francisco are so cold, that on average a few people drown close to the shore every year. Beach walkers are either caught by surprise by so-called "sleeper waves" (random unexpectedly big waves) and swept in, or they foolishly go in to rescue their swept-in pets. They don't realize that at 50 degrees Fahrenheit water temperature, muscles go stiff quickly, and unable to perform the required forceful strokes to overcome currents, even experienced swimmers can't make it back to shore.

But, as you might also know, even at my advanced age, I'm still trying to establish myself as a surfer, and only practicing during the yearly Hawaii vacation isn't going to cut it. That's why recently during a stay in the surfer paradise of Santa Cruz, I entered a local surf shop and purchased a really thick wetsuit that allows me to bear the local water temperatures.

What's not so obvious is that stepping into a wetsuit involves laborious physical work. This daunted on me when the surf shop salesman, after he had picked a suit for my size, and nudged me to the fitting room, casually said "Put it on, I'll check on you in 15 minutes". Modern wetsuits don't feature a zipper on the back anymore, it's simply that the neck opening at the top is astoundingly flexible and all you do is tear it apart really wide and step into the suit from above, feet first. Then, you employ superhuman strengths to pull it up, above your hips and chest, until only your head sticks out. As you can imagine, this can take time, until you get some practice.

Figure [16]: Black glue to plug wetsuit leaks.

Along with matching neoprene booties, gloves, and a rented surfboard, I tried out the cold Pacific waters near Pacifica recently and was surprised how pleasantly warm this felt while wearing the protective shell. I stayed in the water for about half an hour and didn't feel cold even for a minute. Truth be told, it turned out there was a small leak on the back side of the suit, which let in a few drops of icy water every once in a while, but I patched it up quickly at home with some newly aquired wetsuit cement glue (Figure 16). The black superglue gets applied thinly around the perimeters of the leak, and after waiting 10 minutes, you press the edges together with significant force, which creates a water-tight seal. It's no longer leaking now, and this better won't happen again, after all, the suit was expensive as hell!

Vacation For Sale

Figure [17]: Instead of taking vacation, some Americans exchange their leisure days for cash.

Angelika If you're like me, you are looking forward to the time off between Christmas and New Years, which in Germany is usually a quiet time where most companies send their employees on vacation. We've mentioned here several times that the vacation regulations in the U.S. are somewhat antiquated, as there's no legally enforcible required minimum on paid vacation for many employees, and it's usually up to the employer on how many vacation days they grant their workforce in a given year.

That of course doesn't mean that there's no paid vacation. To the contrary, all reasonably sized companies try to attract employees through vacation benefits. In most cases, the number of vacation days increases after a few years of employment. For example, I've been working for the same employer for seven years, and I now get 21 days of paid vacation per year. Michael has a similar deal in place. At my employer, however, I can only keep 80 hours of vacation and then need to take a day off or lose additionally accumulated vacation time. Yahoo is more generous in this regard. The German system, however, which guarantees the employee a yearly allotment of vacation days, which can be carried over from one employer to the next, is completely unknown here. After changing jobs, the employee usually starts at ten vacation days per year and will only increase this grant by staying with the same employer for several years.

According to a study published in May 2013 by the "Center for Economic and Policy Research", one out of four working Americans don't have paid vacation or holidays. Only 50% of workers in low-income groups enjoy vacation benefits while 90% of highly paid employees take them for granted. And only 35% of part time job workers are eligible for paid vacation.

On top of that, many companies don't distinguish between sick days and vacation days, but instead grant their employees "paid time off". In this case, it doesn't matter whether the employee is absent from work because of an illness or went on vacation, because in either case the time is deducted from their "paid time off" balance. So, if someone is unfortunate enough to get sick more often than others, their vacation balance shrinks considerably.

Some companies now came up with the clever idea to adapt vacation benefits according to their employee's needs: some want to take vacation more frequently, while others would rather not take any at all. I'm not sure I would opt for the latter option, but it's a choice everyone needs to make for themselves. To enable this, some companies allow employees to sell unused vacation days back to the employer, and find more money in their paycheck in return, and others, who would prefer longer stretches of time off, may purchase addtional vacation days. Granted, it's still only 10% of employers with vacation benefits in the U.S. offering this model, but it's very much in line with the pragmatic American way of life.

Top Product: Q-Bond Super Glue

Figure [18]: The miracle glue Q-Bond with the unique nano particle powder.

Michael While I'm talking about commercial glue products, I'd be remiss not to mention a miracle super glue called "Q-Bond". I stumbled across it one day while searching for Youtube videos to help me fix a particular mechanical problem with my car. In this day and age, you can find how-to videos on just about anything on Youtube, where tinkerers explain repair steps in detail, be it for replacing the spark plugs or the brake pads on your car or to pry open an iPhone to exchange the battery.

One of the most famous hobby mechanics on Youtube is Scotty Kilmer, who specializes in fixing up clunker cars, for which it's often no longer economic to buy spare parts. In one of his videos, he demonstrates how to repair an old dashboard by glueing a broken-off plastic part back on.

Figure [19]: Der schreiende Youtube-Mechaniker Scotty Kilmer.

Using regular super glue for this task would not work if the connecting surface of the detached part is quite small, because the forces on the joint are astronomous, and it will break off again if exposed to even minimal bending force. But with Q-Bond at your disposal, you first fixate the two parts by sloppily glueing them together (you're welcome to use Duct Tape (Rundbrief 03/2003)) for this task) and then pour the pepper-like Q-Bond powder onto the line of rupture, until you get a nice powder hump, and pour a few drops of the liquid Q-Bond super glue on it.

Figure [20]: Ein paar Tropfen Superkleber auf das Q-Bond-Pulver und es ensteht eine beinharte Verbindung.

During this process, the powder turns into a rock-solid material which resembles a weld seam, sealing the gap between the two once disconnected parts and firmly locking them in place. The bond becomes so hard that excess glue material can be trimmed off with a file or sand paper afterwards. During the transformation process, the infernal glue product emits hazardous fumes, so working outside is recommended. It glues broken off parts back on really well, and it's not unusual that two reconnected parts form a more stable alliance than the original unbroken item. Top product!

German Coalition Agreement and Dual Citizenship

Figure [21]: Which citizenship would you like? Foto: Craig James

Angelika We've been following the discussions between representatives of the two major German political parties, CDU and SPD, who have been addressing the issue of dual citizenship in their coalition negotiations recently. They finally agreed in their coaltion contract, that descendants of foreign immigrants in Germany now have the right to dual citizenship. This obsoletes the so-called "option model", which defined that children born to foreign parents in Germany needed to decide on or before their 23rd birthday on which citizenship they wanted to obtain. Developing this idea further, many Germans living abroad in the U.S. were hoping to be able to obtain dual citizenship as well.

But that might have been a short sighted thought, as political talking heads back home won't gain much publicity by addressing the needs of a few folks living abroad. Current regulations say that if Germans want to become American citizens, they can keep their German citizenship only if their previously filed application to keep the German citizenship has been granted by the German authorities. They need to prove that although living in the U.S., they are maintaining ties to Germany. A few of our aquaintances in San Francisco successfully pushed through the process, but it's really up to the German authorities to grant or deny the request.

To be fair, there's no U.S. legislation dealing with dual citizenship either, although rumors to the contrary keep floating through the media. There's simply no regulation for naturalized citizens with regards to their original passports, and for this reason, it's okay for new U.S. citizens to keep their original citizenship, as long as it's legal in the country of their origin. If you have any doubts, you can read up on the topic under Dual Nationality on the Department of State's official website.

Americans like to line up

Figure [22]: There's an ice cream store near Dolores park where people line up around the block every day.

Michael If you've been reading this publication for a while, you probably already know that lining up in single file is a long standing American tradition, even if there's no barrier that demands it, for example at a bus stop (Rundbrief 03/2011). What's more, since 2011, readers should be aware that it is normal for Bay Area citizens to wait for 20 minutes sitting in their cars with the engine idling for their turn at the cheap Costco gas station. Meanwhile, I've come to realize that often times people around here are lining up simply because there's already a line of people waiting for something. They seem to be reasoning that a store that has so many people waiting already, must be selling something so exquisite that it's well worth the wait, and people excitedly join the line.

For instance, there's this ice cream store in our neighborhood, at the corner of 18th and Dolores Streets, right by Dolores Park, named "Bi-Rite Creamery". They're selling scoops of ice cream on waffle cones. Every time I stop at this intersection, there's at least 50 people waiting at the door to the store, and often the line winds around the corner onto Dolores Street. Do the math: We already know that the average American can't possibly choose an item, order and pay for it in under a minute. Multiply that by 50 and realize that the last person in line will be waiting for almost an hour before they can place their order! Maybe they're waiting because they're hoping to meet and chat with other hipsters in line, what do I know?

But what's most fascinating is that there's no complaints if the queue is moving like molasses, especially if you know how pushy Americans can get if the waiter in a restaurant doesn't come to the table immediatly after a party gets seated. All bets are off, as it seems, if people volunteer to line up, which still boggles my mind, and I've been living in the U.S. for 17 years.

Figure [23]: No doubt the "Tartine" offers top-notch bread, but certainly I wouldn't line up and wait 30 minutes for it.

Figure [24]: Shoppers lining up for the "Coach Factory" store at the Premium Outlets center, until a bouncer lets them in.

I'm sorry to say that I can't really tell you if the ice cream sold at "Bi-Rite Creamery" holds up to the hype, because I'd rather poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick than joining the line there. But I'm assuming, it's pretty good, like at many places in the area. Or, let's take a look at "Tartine" bakery on Guerrero Street, also withing walking distance from our place. It would be very surprising to not see a line of at least 20 people waiting there, often spilling out onto the sidewalk. Fine, I'll admit, their fare is very well made, but the Danish Andersen bakery with several locations in San Francisco and surrounding suburbs produces comparable goods, and you get what you want right away, as there's hardly any long lines there. And if you've ever enjoyed one of there excellent almond croissants, you'll only chuckle about Tartine.

Figure [25]: Jeans sold at the "True Religion" outlet store at 40% off draw a huge crowd.

Figure [26]: The environmentally concious supermarket "Rainbow" of all places is a drawing a huge crowd of pseudo-hippies waiting in cars with idling engines.

And there's another reason for long lines of cars around here: Americans prefer waiting in their idling cars for ten minutes to get a parking spot directly in front of the supermarket instead of parking around the corner and walking a minute on foot. This is evident at the alternative eco grocery store "Rainbow" in San Francisco of all places, where, on Saturday afternoons, there's always a line of about 10 cars with activated turn signals waiting on 13th street for the parking assistant to let one more car onto the Rainbow parking lot after another Rainbow customer has driven off. It seems to me that these people have either amazing music playing on their car stereos or they're listening to exciting audio books, which would explain why they're not simply driving around the block to park there and walk about a hundred feet. Maybe it's better this way, though, because otherwise I'd find no parking when I'm shopping at Rainbow!

Impatient greetings:

Angelika & Michael Edit

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