Thursday, January 27, 2011

The wonders of multidimensional German phone contracts

I wrote this, and then reread it. I don't want to be posting lots of negative entries at the moment, but for now it's the most amusing, and culturally intriguing stuff for me. I'm still very happy here, despite the occasional hiccup and I'm slowly managing to meet a lot of very interesting people, and when I get the apartment sorted (news to follow) I'll actually be able to dive into the work that I've only been able to do halfheartedly for the last couple of weeks.



I almost lost it today. I was about 5 seconds away from doing something I would have regretted. Thankfully the situation was defused and all, in the end, was ok, but this was about as close as I get to boiling point.

I received a rather surprising email yesterday night. Two weeks ago I'd been into the O2 shop to get a mobile phone contract. I spoke to the woman behind the counter for half an hour, worked out the best options and the best phone for me, decided on the tariffs etc. then signed the contract. I then had to wait for half an hour while the phone was activated so I went off and did some exploring of the city. Half an hour later, plus a half hour wait in the queue, I was told, without a hint of apology that I had been refused a contract by O2, and it was because I'd only just arrived and had no credit rating (this, despite giving them a copy of my contract). I asked if there was anything I could do and they simply said no, that was the way it was. I left the shop pretty shocked at the treatment, having, half an hour earlier been very impressed by the sales people.

The next day I mentioned this to my bank manager and he said no problem, he would write them a letter explaining that all was good, and though I have no credit rating here, I wasn't a liability. He faxed it off, and I waited to get the phone through the post. Instead, two days later I received an email saying that this second attempt had also been unsuccessful.

Disappointed, but understanding that the rules are pretty unmalleable I was resolved to get a pay as you go phone, and gave up on the idea of the contract.

So, it was with some surprise that I received an email from O2 yesterday night telling me that they had taken the first month's payment for the contract out of my account and they hoped that I was very happy with the service so far. Shocked, but faintly amused by the stupidity of it I told myself that I'd go at lunchtime today to the O2 shop and tell them of the silly mistake that they'd made and we'd all have a good laugh.

Lunchtime today and I stroll into the shop, ready to tell the story. I wait, and eventually get greeted by a dour looking guy who seemed pretty annoyed that I couldn't speak German (this is one of the few occasions where I've had this - in general people are wonderfully friendly and seem to have no problem about speaking English. Note that this guy's English was perfect). Anyway, I explained the situation to him and he said, straight out, that there was nothing that they can do for me. I was in the middle of saying 'what the...!?' when he got a call from his girlfriend who spent the next five minutes giving him an earful, while I stood there confused and beginning to fume. Five minutes later I asked again, and he said that because I signed the contract I couldn't cancel it, and the fact that I'd been refused a phone was a separate issue. Flabbergasted, I repeated what he'd said, just to make sure: "So, I'm locked into a two year contract, but you won't give me a phone?". Yes, that's correct sir. You signed the contract and you can't get out of it (though he was sullen on the outside, I could hear the chuckles coming from within).

I asked him what he was going to do about it, getting close to boiling point. He paused for a second and then said again, sorry, there's nothing we can do, but that I could buy the phone for 120 euros if I wanted. What?! I said. But I signed the contract knowing that I could get the phone with it (It seems that I was wrong about this, and this was part of the problem, but at this stage I didn't know). I told him that I wanted to see the manager, and wearily he trudged over to the office and went in, telling me to take a seat. 20 minutes later, and feeling like he may have been fobbing me off the manager finally showed up and I ran through the problem again. He told me that it would be very hard to cancel the contract to which I basically told him that that wasn't my problem.

He explained that sometimes this happens and that, because there are really two contracts - one for the phone, and one for the use of the phone, that sometimes a client is refused the phone but not the service contract. I told him that I hadn't been told that and it seemed to be a pretty important piece of information when signing a contract. It was at the point that he said that it was my word against the woman who sold me the phone as to whether she had told me or not, that I almost blew up. Not only was I being told that I was stuck in a contract in which I wasn't allowed a phone to use said contract, but I was being accused of lying. I stuck to my guns and asked again what they could do. He explained, as the first guy had, that I could buy the phone for 120 euros. Again I stated that part of the reason for getting the contract was in order to get a decent phone at a very low price.

It was then that the confusion started to resolve itself (I think...I'm still wondering whether I've ended up getting screwed anyhow). The second part of the contract was for me to pay five euros a month for the phone itself (I had thought that this was within the first part of the contract, but apparently not). This is what had been refused. In fact by buying the phone outright I wouldn't be paying more than I would have done otherwise, it was just an upfront payment instead of a contract payment (a contract to rent the phone, in effect). Thankfully my red face and searing eyes let the guy know how angry I was, and he cut a quarter off the price of the phone.

I didn't have the strength by this point to argue about the first two weeks of the contract that I'd had to pay for without a phone, and I left the shop, new phone in hand and finally able to connect within Germany. That was painful!

Monday, January 24, 2011

The horrors of finding a flat in Munich

There comes a time in every blogger's life when their blog is the obvious and most efficient direction for a rant. I haven't ranted angrily about anything for a long time, as far as I remember. The last times were probably at the beginning of my stay in China, when I was struggling with Mandarin and my thoughts about various aspects of Chinese bureaucracy there were far from appreciative. Looking back, most of these rants have turned out to be misguided, and I was simply not seeing the situation from the wider perspective that I should have been. Since then I've realised that as a traveler I should either be amused at the bizarre situations that I find myself in, or thank my lucky stars that I don't have to live with them permanently. Had I gone into the last Sichuan trip with a closed mind it would frankly have been hell. Luckily I saw it for what it was and spent a lot of time laughing at how ludicrous the various situations were.

Anyway, so that brings me up to now, and I hope that I will look back on this post with light amusement in a few months time when things have calmed down.

I've been in Munich for around 4 weeks now. I love this city already, the diversity is absolutely spectacular in terms of culture, cuisine and possible activities, and the people here are amazingly friendly. That being said...

I still don't have a flat! I've been searching now for almost a month and the situation is looking increasingly hopeless and I'm seeing (if not reaching) the end of my tether. I found a fantastic place yesterday, much more expensive than I had been hoping for when I first arrived here, and completely unfurnished (not even a kitchen) but my perspective has been starkly shifted as I realised that things weren't going to be as easy as I'd hoped and I had to alter my budget and possible scale. Unfortunately there were 10 other people looking around this flat at the same time and there had been many more before me. I told the agent that I'd like to take it and she said that I should send an email and I may be called in for an interview with the landlord. Unfortunately when I sent my details I was told that I wouldn't be able to take the place because I was only going to be here for 2 years! WTF am I supposed to do!!!!

The agent' fees are a joke here, they 're the highest I've ever come across. The sellers market rules. The famous 'provision' means that on top of the normal deposit, you pay the agent 2.4 months rent. and never see it again. That's it, agency fees for renting a flat, and at Munich prices that's going to be around 1600 euros, before you've even started moving in.

The prices themselves are very high, but what's worse is that most of the places are unfurnished - completely. They're bare walls, and a bathroom, if you're lucky. No kitchen, no bed, no washing machine, no nothing! If you want a furnished place then very often you have to buy the furniture from the previous owners - another 1500 euros, and then have to try and sell it the other end of your stay. Again, WTF!!!

So, I've now visited perhaps 20 flats (they go quickly so it's not every day that I can find a new flat that's gone on the market and hasn't already been taken) and either they've been ridiculously small (a kitchen and bedroom all in one for 700 euros!) or way out of my price range, or if they're withing budget and scale, I can't have them because I'm not here long enough. I don't know what to do!

Actually looking at flats isn't the problem. It's a pretty good way to explore the city and I've seen some fantastic areas that I've walked around before seeing the flats, thinking how amazing it would be to live there. The problem is that until I have a flat, I don't feel that I can start my life here. There are so many things that I want to do. I want to start taking intensive German classes in the evenings. I want to start cooking again. I want to take a photography course. I want to get into a good schedule so that I can get into the office early and work full days without having to go out for a couple of hours to see a flat. I want to start a regular Chinese exchange. I want to entertain for new friends. I want, I want, I want...I know, the cessation of desire and all that being the path to fulfillment, but frankly when you're searching for a flat, that all goes out the window.

So, I'm frustrated, not pissed, but really frustrated that I haven't even left the starting blocks here. This year is a very important one for me. I have only a two year position here, so I need to be thinking about applying for new positions again in 7 months (Why do I do this!?) so the pressure is on to get some good work soon (this is actually on pretty good track at the moment with quite a few projects running well with people in the department here and a few with various other international collaborators). But still, I need this sorted and I need it done soon.

Munich is supposed to be the hardest city to find accommodation in Germany, but it feels like extra effort isn't going to make it come any quicker. I feel like I'm swimming in the quicksand of the Bavarian real estate market and I don't really know which way to go to get to shore.

Don't take this post as a depressed moan, but just that I need to get out my deep frustrations at how bloody hard it is to find a flat here.

Rant over. For now.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Memories of Galicia

I went to see a flat this evening. Actually it was the second time I'd been to see it as the first time nobody had been there. The area is incredible. There's a Japanese restaurant around the corner where the Nagoyan family who owns it have an entire section in the menu for okonomiyaki and the only people in there were Japanese. There's a Spanish restaurant across the street where the owner is Galician and there's both pulpo and caldo Gallego on the menu, there are local grocers aplenty, and there's a Creole restaurant around the corner where the owner from Martinique told me about the mouth-watering things on the menu that combined mango, fish, spices and exotic vegetables in the most incredible sounding ways. This is my kind of area! In addition, the fact that it's on the same subway line as my gym and the institute makes it really special. Unfortunately the house was not, and I'm going to have to keep looking, but at least I know have an idea of my ideal area, even if it is one of the most sought after in the city.

Anyway, coming out of the Galician restaurant, where I'd spent a while chatting to the owner about the wines, I was reminded of a photo I'd been editing for a while, from my first summer in Galicia when I went with a couple of friends up to the Costa de Muerte. On the way we passed an abandoned boat and I got some shots of it. I wanted to play a bit with this photo because the contrasts between the background and the boat are not that strong, so I've needed to do quite a bit of work to get it to this stage. After a dozen or so masked adjustment layers I'm getting happier with the results, and this sort of exercise is definitely something I should be trying more. When you stare at a photo for a couple of hours it becomes very difficult to be at all objective about it, but this is a part of the art that I need to work on.

Galician boat
So, re. the housing situation it's looking pretty bleak still, but I have a couple more flats to see this week and I'm still holding out hope.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Marienplatz and the Rathaus from above

I spent over an hour yesterday organising my 'handy', only to be told at the end that I had failed the screening procedure, probably because my bank account here hasn't been open very long - a pain, but the people in the shop were very good about it. I'll head back in a week or two to try again.

After my failed attempts, I headed to a pleasant cafe and did some editing on a paper for a while before making my way back to the guest house (no flat yet, but a couple of viewings coming up). The cafe was nice, but not quite what I'm looking for in a 'local', yet.

On the way back to the U-bahn I passed the entrance to the tower of St Peter's overlooking Marienplatz and with the light of the late afternoon having burnt through most of the cloud I thought it would be a good chance to see the city from above. 15 or so floors up and you come out into the fresh air and have a fantastic view of the city and the Alps in the distance. I've only had time to edit one of the photos so far, but this is of the Rathaus and Marienplatz, facing North with the FrauenkircheAddress: on the left.

Munich city hall and Marienplatz

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Of Munich and of crying in public

I stood this evening, alone, in the central market place in Munich, close to Marienplatz with its magnificent town hall and rather lovely shopping area, and shed a little tear. I'd spent the last half hour walking through the slowly closing shops around and across the market square. I'd walked into the cheese shops, at least four of them, each specialising in a different area of Europe or Germany. I'd gone into the butchers, where they had told me which small, local farms the chicken, ducks and geese came from, and which forest the game had been taken from. I spoke to the woman selling vegetables in one of the stands and found that all the vegetables had their origins labeled and that there was both plenty of locally produced food as well as lots of exotic produce, including perhaps 5 varieties of chili and almost a dozen of mushroom. This along with the shop devoted to honey,  and the bakeries selling the most amazing array of seeded loaves had just tipped me over the edge. On the way to the market I'd gone into the second hand camera shop with its several hundred lenses eyeing me up from the window which had already put me in an emotional mood. So I stood, surrounded by amazing food and the people who care for it, and I couldn't help but grin like an idiot for a few minutes, taking in the possibilities as my eyes welled up.

I really really like this place. I think that part of it may be due to the way my stereotypes of Germany are not playing out, at all The people smile on the streets and strangers say hello. There IS definitely a sense of humour. Munich doesn't seem to be as horrendously expensive as I'd been led to believed. I just picked up a couple of bags of clothes which fit me! something I've had a very hard time doing for several years!. The appreciation of good food is everywhere. I've just come back from a sichuan hotpot meal which would have satisfied the most critical of Beijingers (actually, it did), and I've already spotted where I can get what looks like a great bibimbap: just round the corner from the Vietnamese restaurant. This is all of course partly because I'm now living in a highly multicultural city of a million people. The Bavarian fare itself is a heavy, but very tasty mixture of dumplings, sauerkraut and pork in various combinations, but the two or three times that I've had this so far, washed down with a vast glass of beer, it's been fantastic winter fare.

So, I'm a week or so in, and have managed to get a fair number of the tedious admin jobs seen to. Today was tax office day. It was also the first occasion that I'd met someone who didn't speak English (I'm learning German now, but it'll be a while until I'm in any way conversant) - in general people claim not to speak much English and then put me thoroughly to shame with their vocabulary and perfect grammar. Anyway, the guy in the tax office didn't speak English and when i asked, he waved his hands saying 'vid aams', 'vee do vid zee aams'. I thought at first that he was sending me away to find someone else who could help with this ignorant foreigner (and he would have been quite right to do so) until I realised from his waving and his big grin that he was saying that language wasn't important - 'we do it with arms'. And so we got through the tax form 'with arms', and frankly without a problem at all. At the end, when we'd got through the questions he gave me another grin and bade me farewell with another 'see, vid zee aams'. I love it. People who are just willing to try, and make a fool of themselves if needs be. This I hadn't expected from Bavaria, but then, as I move slowly around the world, I'm learning that my preconceptions are almost always entirely baseless.

Work is also picking up quickly and I'm working in parallel on three or four projects here now. The group is big, and dynamic, with a great range of skills and knowledge and I'm feeling like I'll both be able to contribute, and learn from my time here. Work here along with a few other work visits mean that the first three months of 2011 are pretty much full already!

Anyway, that'll do for now, but I hope to update soon on the flat-hunting situation and if I make it into the Alps, just an hour away, I'll post some photos for sure.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

First day in Munich

Well, apart from 11 hours in the office spending lots of time chatting physics, I was witness to a partial solar eclipse, a 22 degree solar halo, an upper tangent arc and a circumzenithal arc. I only have the first three on camera, but I can promise that the fourth was spectacular. Most of the time the solar halo was completely behind clouds this morning, but I was able to get this one shot. Not the greatest shot ever (and NOTHING compared to this), but still:

Partial solar eclipse
and a half hour later, the cirrus clouds came in and I had a ten minute slot of this wonderful 22 degree halo and upper tangent arc:
upper tangent arc and 22 degree halo
Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be any reflection of the halo in the window on the right, which could be related to the polarisation of the reflected light, and the surface of the window.

When going for lunch later, the Cheshire Cat halo was out, but my camera was not. Still, not bad for the first day in Munich!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

And on...

I'm packed, insomuch as one can be for a cheap airline flight when moving from one country to another. (In addition to the 280 kilos sitting in Santiago ready for pickup tomorrow) I have my 20 kilos of possessions ready to go on the bus with me to Gatwick tomorrow and then on to a new life in Munich where I'll be based for the next two years. A new city, a new culture, a new language and much more awaits. I've had some time to think over the last few weeks of traveling about where my future might take me and the next two years will give me the opportunity to see what options are available for the longer term. I'll keep you posted.

The last ten days in the UK have flown by and I seem to have spent a lot of time somewhere between the kitchen and the gym, when I wasn't visiting friends in London for New Year. It's been a lot of fun to cook for the family again and I hope to be able to keep the cooking up in Munich, with a much wider set of possibilities available in the shops than I had at my disposal in Santiago.

The stroke of midnight this year was spent on a hill in Dulwich overlooking the skyscape of London and the fireworks from the distant vantage point, though without the noise, were somehow more moving with the scale than they had been last year from a freezing Vauxhall bridge with hundreds of thousands of other revelers.

I'd spent a couple of days before this seeing exhibitions in London including a great Eadweard Muybridge exhibition at the Tate Britain and Cezanne at the Courtauld. I'd also taken a trip specially to Portabello road to visit Books for Cooks, only to find it shut for the holidays. There's a Chinese recipe book apparently only available from this shop which I'd like to get my hands on.

Anyway, for the first post of 2011 I'll leave you with one from the penultimate day of 2010 from Somerset House together with iceskaters on the rink:

Skaters by Sommerset house