English German

  Edition # 2  
San Francisco, 03-17-1997

Figure [1]: Probably one of the best inline skaters at the beach of San Diego

Dear people at home!

Angelika Finally, I'd like to start my second newsletter. Many of you have already been waiting for another sequel. Over the past six weeks so much has happened that this letter is definitely going to be a little longer than usual.


Angelika On Monday, we experienced our first earthquake. Actually, there were even two of them with a rating of 3.6 on the scale. Anyways, Michael and I were comfortably sitting on our futon-couch at 10:30 pm, when I thought I noticed that our couch was moving. Since you consider any small vibration (often caused by trucks passing by) to be an earthquake if you live in San Francisco, Michael and I had to discuss first what it really was. Michael insisted it was the wind. He couldn’t explain to me though why it should move our couch because the windows were closed and it was a windless day in spring.

When I had barely said those words the second earthquake started. This time, even Michael was convinced that it was an earthquake. He went to his notebook without saying a word to find out about the magnitude of this earthquake. You can easily get this information instantly on the Internet. Even the movie they were showing on TV was interrupted. As usual, they interviewed a person living in San Francisco who had witnessed the big earthquake of 1989. That person smartly explained that in San Francisco, you never know if a small earthquake leads to a bigger one. I wanted to shut his mouth so badly, since I was already frightened to death. The earthquake indeed wasn’t so bad and not a single thing broke, but the feeling that the ground is moving and might even split open, has squelched my desire for adventures for years to come.

Figure [2]: The current Californian earthquake map in the internet: http://quake.wr.usgs.gov/recenteqs

You can imagine for sure that Michael found it all very exciting and adventurous. His comment on the issue was that he had never experienced an earthquake before and this was consequently a unique opportunity to him. I slept badly all night always feeling as if I was falling into a bottomless hole in the ground.

So what do you do the following day after an earthquake? You thoroughly watch any vibrancy, any movement, any shaking. For the umpteenth time you think about the safest place in the apartment and that we bought a dining table that even can be pulled out to give space underneath to potential guests. You really wonder if it was that clever to put all these pictures on the wall and give grace to yourself that you finally didn’t put the picture with the heavy frame above your bed. You wonder if the TV really is on a safe place on that shelf. You curse the overground electricity cables that might hit you severely at the next earthquake. Further more you question yourself if you shouldn’t take an earthquake survival class and if statistics on earthquakes are trustworthy. To sum up, I’m totally fed up with earthquakes and I truly can go on without another one.

How to get a California driver’s license

Angelika The second story that many of you surely will enjoy is one concerning my American driver’s license. Short and briefly, and not to tantalize you: I failed the first driving test, and not because I ran a stop sign or hit a pedestrian but only because I went to fast in the opinion of my tester. He claimed that I simply crossed an intersection on a green traffic light (I was assuming that’s just what green lights are for). Also I should’ve watched my right and left, just in case a drunk driver ran the red light. Sometimes Americans are nuts.

The best is yet to come: The second time I passed it with flying colors. I had a different tester who couldn’t quite get why I failed the first time. He only criticized that I exaggerated watching the scenery for instance on crossing an intersection with green lights. Thank God, you don’t fail in the US if you drive too carefully. To get you an even better idea of American drivers, I quote some sentences of Paul Watzlawick from his book "Gebrauchsanweisung für Amerika“ ("Manual for America"): "The average American is the most reasonable, polite and helpful driver that you could think of and his roads are exemplary. (These virtues explain why American tourists consider European drivers as kamikaze pilots and European roads as tricky and deadly mantraps.) ... You, [the European], on the other hand, are going to tear your hair out when the [American] driver in front of you almost stops at green lights (just to be careful) or stops abruptly at a crosswalk because it seems as if within the next ten seconds there might be possibly someone willing to cross the road.“

It’s amazing how many curiosities and differences you find in daily American life. To get you a taste of what's going on, I'll give you some practical examples. Obviously, these are just general observations, there are certainly exceptions.

Money Business

Angelika The American banking system is quite different from the German system in that recurring debits ("Lastschriftverfahren") are virtually unknown and wire transfers are complicated. That is most likely because Americans want to decide by themselves when to pay their rent, their electricity bill, telephone bill and so on.

Consequently, you have to write several checks a month to pay your debts. Those checks will be sent via mail and at some point the receiver will cash it. Since American banks don’t offer overdraft loans, you really have to keep in mind when and whom you wrote a check. If a check can’t be cashed in because there is no coverage, you are seriously in trouble. So you have a booklet to fill out all in- and outcoming transactions, so you know the current balance in advance.

Actually, you could simply get your account statement but it only shows the current balance and not the sum that will be on the account when all checks are cashed. That sounds a little complicated and kind of pedestrian and I tell you one thing: It is! At some point, you are going to lose track of your balance and you are desperately looking for a missing asset because you made a miscalculation in your booklet or you forgot to fill in something.

As a last resort, you ask for the last bookings via phone banking. Phone banking is quite popular in the U.S., since it saves writing a check. On the other hand, this kind of business sounds fishy to Europeans and doesn’t make you keep track of your finances. Michael states that the cost of mailing a letter in the U.S. is only as cheap as it is because there is an enormous number of checks being sent via mail every month.

Generally, Americans are jugglers concerning their finances, they barely pay in cash, but with a large variety of credit cards or personal checks. Also, it’s getting more and more common to use ATM cards. They often lose track of their balance at the end of the month and have to revolve charges by paying one credit card with a different one. Many are in debt because of this.

By the way, it’s not possible for a foreigner to receive an American credit card instantly. That’s because they don’t have a credit record yet. The credit record tells if you’re trustworthy and if loans that have been taken once, have been paid back as planned. Even if one owns a German credit card you don’t have an American credit record due to the fact that both the American and the German system aren’t connected to each other. So we have to deal with the fact that any 18-year old American has a bunch of credit cards but we have to wait for a year to get such a plastic card. After a year we’re going to be residents of California and are thus trustworthy. Why is that? To be honest, I can’t tell you.

Public Transportation

Angelika Another curiosity is public transportation in San Francisco. The good news first: San Francisco has buses, street cars, and a subway. The underground is quite reliable meaning it runs on a schedule and is mostly on time. Buses and street cars only run on a rough schedule. Schedules on bus stops tell that buses come every ten minutes during the week but in reality you either wait for hours for a bus or a street car or there are two buses going the same route in short succession.

The street car is aching and choking and you might think it’ll break any minute or jump the rails. Since there are plenty of hills in San Francisco you need to pray to arrive safely. Even to go by bus is quite an adventure, because in contrast to other American drivers the busdrivers are pretty kamikaze and the buses often pass through poorer neighborhoods.

Those people who complain about the Munich public transportation system should really come to San Francisco. But if you wait at a bus stop here, there is at least one positive side effect: everybody complains about the buses and street cars being so late that you get in touch with total strangers easily to shorten the time to wait. At the weekend you should take reading material with you to pass the time waiting, because the subway as well as buses and trams run even more infrequently.

Despite these difficulties, we haven’t bought a car yet, but rely on public transportation because even driving a car in San Francisco is a challenge. You never find a parking spot or have to move parked cars to different spots when the street cleaners come by.

Whenever I’m fed up with waiting at a bus stop, I decide to walk. On a sunny day, the fantastic views of the city from the hilly roads really make up for the stress. If you go by car in San Francisco, there is another phenomenon. On wider streets with several lanes there are homeless people at the traffic lights, trying to "panhandle" for money on red lights.

Vegetable Fat and "Spiritus"

Angelika There is another funny story about everyday things: We planned to have a fondue dinner on the evening of my birthday, as it is kind of a tradition with us. We assumed that this would not lead to any problems, but it did. So, we wanted to buy some high heat fat. Most of the fats being sold here are either fat-reduced or even fat-free (I have no clue how Americans do this). You just can’t heat it enough. So what’s the plan? I finally asked my friend Sylvia who has been living in the U.S. for a while for some advice. She told me to get "Crisco", a vegetable fat that we would find in the baking department of stores.

Moreover, she explained to us that there is no "Spiritus" (high percentage denaturated flammable alcohol) for fondue burners in the U.S., but only a so-called "cooking fuel" that looks like a charcoal lighter fluid. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any. Well, we had already bought the meat and the other fondue ingredients. So we moved both our stove and the dining table into the center of the kitchen, and put the fondue-pan on the stove. It obviously wasn’t very romantic, but pretty funny.

So what else have we done over the past six weeks?

Seaworld San Diego

Angelika We were on tour a lot. We spent a weekend in San Diego with Sylvia and Richard. Through Richard’s company we got to stay at a beautiful house in the fancy neighborhood La Jolla (comparable to Beverly Hills in Los Angeles). We didn’t have to pay for the house, even though it was extremely large and had all kinds of amenities, including a pool and a hot tub. A real mansion!

Figure [3]: Seaworld: Where the whales are jumping ...

Figure [4]: ... and humans!

Richard and I had a swim in the ocean at the end of February, imagine. Michael rented roller blades (kind of inliners) and went along the beachside. He was absolutely stoked and thus qualified to become a real Californian. Anyways we had a great time.

Figure [5]: The largest hotel in the world: The MGM in Las Vegas

Figure [6]: 'Brook’s rent a car’ – The car rental service where we met 10 years ago - still in business!

Las Vegas is definitely a crazy city. It’s all about gambling and the casinos become more and more gigantic. We were quite impressed of the new casino 'New York, New York’. The skyline of New York has been built up, even the statue of liberty wasn’t missing. We didn’t win on gambling but unlucky at card means lucky at love, right?

Figure [7]: Nope, it’s not New York, it’s the casino 'New York, New York’ in Las Vegas.

Figure [8]: Casino Frontier: the employees are on strike because they feel exploited and call on German tourists to boycott the casino

Figure [9]: Baker Beach in San Francisco. Windy, but nice!

This weekend, we had another tiny adventure. Since Michael’s friend and coworker is currently on vacation, he graciously lent us his car, a van. We once used it to go shopping, when suddenly two police cars stopped a another van on a different lane. One of the cops stopped his police car crosswise behind the van and the other one in front of the van, the cops jumped out of their cars and opened the door of the van in an instant and, without saying a word, handcuffed the driver. We were right in front of the scene. You might think it’s a movie scene but it’s reality. Michael assumed merely that we were lucky that the cops didn’t stop our van by accident. Imagine if they would have handcuffed us instead!

Life without a job?

Angelika On a different note, I'm still busy going to my English lessons. I met a nice German lady there who comes from Hamburg. She worked there as a streetworker. She lives in our neighborhood and therefore we often stick together chatting or enjoy the sunshine on her balcony.

We got in touch with other Americans through Michael’s company and of course there’s also Richard (my friend Sylvia’s husband). Many of you are quite eager to know if I’m not bored since I have no job. But I’m not. Until midday, I'm busy with my English class and then I usually need to do some homework. Well, and then there’s still some chores to do (get the mail done, go shopping, go to the laundry service, find out about the area, get information on social institutions ...).

I enjoy finally having time to read, do shopping trips or take photos. Nevertheless, I miss my job, and I think a lot about the kids I used to teach in Germany. I miss being part of a team at the workplace. It’s also difficult to find training courses. I can’t participate in courses that I’m interested in, because either they’re too expensive or I don’t qualify because I don’t have the American degrees required. It’s very bureaucratic here. Sometimes I am quite frustrated if something doesn’t work out the way I want. Therefore, I can’t always enjoy my spare time. I've collected addresses of social institutions for pre-school kids and I’ll take some time to look them through and maybe find one that fits me for volunteering.

Coming up is my friend Christa visiting. She's going to stay for three weeks. We'll take some trips to discover California and San Francisco. I can’t wait to see her. Michael still likes his job. At this very moment, he is trying to find out how to fill out an American tax declaration and is very close to giving up, but he has to deal with it.

Anyways, my dears, I will finish this newsletter now. We hope you won’t forget us.


Angelika und Michael

Thanks to Boris Kleinbach, kleinbach@ymail.com for translating the original German text to English.

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