Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Settling down

OK, I wrote about all kinds of different experiences here, but I've not answered the very basic questions that everybody is asking me. And now it's time to do so, after I had some time to settle down a bit. What am I doing here now?
  • My research group is just great. People publishing relevant stuff on top-venue conferences. And right now I'm exploring new knowledge directions. Our group consists of one full professor, Klaus Ostermann, a few PhD students, and a couple more to come. We're in direct contact with him, and he's quite available. This allows us to grow and learn from him directly, unlike in huge universities where big names are hidden behind many levels of researchers.
  • I'm almost done dealing with bureaucracy. I recently got my contract from the university, and I have a bank account, residence certificate, immigration permit, and so on. But it was a long and painful fight. Phewww!
  • The place is just wonderful. Scientific faculties, like in Catania, lie uphill among trees, but the city is still quite far away. While I live quite next to the center, and to shops.
  • Home: I have a small room in a student dorm run by a local Evangelic church. Once upon a time, priests used to live here, but this is no more the case at all. Except for a few postcards about religions hanging on the walls, this is just a student dorm, and a nice one.
  • People in my student dorm are very nice and quite friendly, even if they are more friendly in German, for obvious reasons.
  • Food: Italian food pops out from everywhere. You can buy real Italian ingredients in a supermarket, or maybe-Italian prepared food somewhere. Especially they like Espresso and Cappuccino. Many of them crave for a really good one, and have to accept the inability to find any (say in my department). Their passion for Espresso seems like the passion for what you don't have (like penis envy in Freudian psychoanalysis). But you also find gorgonzola, ricotta, mascarpone, parmigiano, Nutella. So, cooking carbonara-way pasta, or tomatosauce, meatballs, or even risotto, is probably not a problem. I'm too lazy for now to try a ricotta cake or pizza ^_^. But I'm almost always cooking, when I eat at home.
  • Adult people sometimes are not so nice. I hate the guy who sold me my phone card. Shop owners in Catania are more respectful. But that's the exception.
  • My German is not good enough yet, but it's improving. I've been watching German TV. I even have a monolingual dictionary (a kind present of a leaving student of my dorm), and at some point soon I'll start to use it. Even my social life (beyond university) is starting to get back to a good level.
  • I enjoy shopping. Jesus, I do. OK, I'm cheating: I've never bought clothes here yet, and what I enjoy is finally finding something I've been looking for: cinnamom, cannella in Italian, was a bit hard to find. Or good olive oil. Or a hairdryer. Or a frying pan!
    I know that this might sound stupid and of little value when you read it, but find something like this opens new possibilities in your daily life. You're conquering a small piece of your life.
  • I finally have Internet home. The painful days of using Internet just at the university (and running for the last bus) or at the public library have ended.
  • I'm reading wonderful books. But I'll talk about them elsewhere.
And for the future? It'll be an almost-never-ending pleasuring fight, with daily life and with my career, but I'm here ready to face it!

How to dress in public parks

Today, while walking in the city park along the Lahn river, we saw a naked guy, front down, taking sun. Not even a swimsuit! Without any policemen hurrying to catch him, but it didn't seem it was so normal, either! Did you ever see something like that in Italy? I mean, outside of Indian reservation-like special places for nudists??

Finding German Germans

In the end, I found some more stereotypical Germans. But hey, they're not considered normal!

It was in the immigration office. When the officer, whom we'll call Mrs. Whoknows, asked my passport, she made me almost feel guilty, even if I had one! She behaved like an army general. The words she said were not that bad - it was just the tone! And my Chinese friend tell me she's the kindest in that office.
Then, there was the office for public health insurance, and that was finally what I expected. Hey, they did care about my situation, phoned other office, and provided a perfectly working solution. OK, they didn't speak a lot of English, but enough to get the job done. But it seems that I'll find this kind of people just in offices :-|.

Looking for German Germans

You know what one expects from Germans. Precise people, very careful to detail, everybody arriving on time... Let's call it the Prussian German stereotype, because that is its historical root (as Germans tell me). Well, it turns out that:
  • Here this is not so true. Offices are often not so efficient, people cross the road (by foot) without craving for a green light first (no cars is often enough), and so on. Danish people were more in love with green lights, but sometimes it looked like they needed help to cross with a red light. "Help" like seeing me crossing first (I'm not so sure, but I've seen it happening enough times to remember it). I've even been cheated, at least in part, by a mobile cards shop owner here. And when I went complaining, he was almost making fun of me, just because I expected what he told me to be true!
  • Possibly, who told this was just looking at German Swisses. They are Prussian still nowadays. And IMHO that's why they don't like immigrants. When you sell newspapers by giving the material possibility to take the newspaper, pay it, or do both things, if you want (of course it's illegal to do otherwise, but the machine doesn't prevent you from doing that), you don't want foreign people to come and maybe steal something. But Swiss people are also famous for having invented just chocolate and cuckoo clocks, so there must be something wrong there, and I have an educated guess. But more about this later.
  • For sure, Germany has a North/South difference like the one in Italy. And for the place I live... it depends. The only sure thing is that Bavaria/Bavaria, with its Oktoberfest, is in Southern Germany, and this helps explain why it's so different from the Prussian German stereotype. But some people would call also this Land as Southern Germany.
But I know "real German" Germans, they're just not here. They're actually the reason why I stopped hating stereotypes, while still recognizing that they are as misleading as any average. Once again, mathematics(the concept of average) is too simple to describe reality well (OK, an average has some value, but as a De Crescenzo character says, if your body is half in a freezer and half in an oven, you're statistically great). The difference here is that even people who hate maths tend to simplify too much the reality of life.
Another difference is that culture stereotypes are always limited by their very nature of judgement by a culture about another. And anthropology shows us that that becomes plain wrong, as soon as judgements are involved. More about this (hopefully) later.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

How to make health insurance unfair. Or the need of group therapy for self respect of Italians

Maybe you think that the place where things don't work is Italy, and just Italy. It's not true!

A disclaimer: I live in Hessen, and I don't know how much of this applies to the rest of Germany.

Here, if you are too rich, you can't be insured by the state (actually, by any public health insurance company. There are more ones). It makes sense that you pay it for yourself. But... hey, even if you're not so rich, you pay something to the state for it. If you are very poor, obviously, you pay very little (or nothing). If you are middle-class, you pay also for the poor people (and this already doesn't make sense - the money for the poor people should come from taxes paid by everybody). If you are very rich, then you go to a separate system, and there you pay just for yourself. Actually, it turns out that rich people are less often ill, since they have more comfortable lives (obviously, on average). So they pay less. While middle class people have to pay a lot because they pay for poor people. OK, that's fucked up!

Actually, this part is worse than in Italy. Sometimes, when I'm in other country, I realize that while the Italian state does work worse than other states, we sometimes tend to exaggerate the perception of this, and we, the Italians, feel so bad about it.
It's like when you need group therapy: you think your situation is very bad and unique, but knowing other people with a similar problem allows you to see that after all, you're not alone. That's why the community of the Italian people, as a whole, need group therapy. IMHO. Well, if you can talk about the community of the Italian people... we don't really want, quite often, to be a community.

Note: the first part of the analysis (on German health system) is not mine, I'm republishing it for the benefit of the public. And it was explained me by German people, so I guess it's trustworthy enough.