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New & Unemployed: At Trip to DAK in Berlin

Otto-Suhr-Allee is a wide avenue. For such a big city, Berlin’s traffic is less than could be expected.  Being new in the city, the wideness of the avenue is daunting and the daily chore of venturing out into the city can be overwhelming. The gray skies of Berlin hover as the buildings loom imposingly underneath them. Through the short winter days the sounds of ambulance sirens echo off the naked trees.

Today the morning shines its precious sunlight down Otto-Suhr-Allee and Charlottenburg opens its eyes.  Busy people with distracted faces scurry to important destinations. Bundled snugly, I make the round of the block with my dog for her morning walk. Repeating my mental checklist of the day’s duties, I can’t decide if I am over or under-whelmed. I am new in Berlin, and unemployed.

The state of unemployment has left me is shock. In the United States I was too busy. There was no such thing as free time.  I remember when I was in nursing school just wishing I could be one of those “lucky” sick people who got to lie in bed all day. Ironically now, here I am in Berlin, attempting to not wallow in uselessness and actually complete something every day. Today the goal is to make a successful trip to the government run health insurance company, Deutsche Angestellten-Krankenkasse or DAK.

I say successful because I have already made a few unsuccessful runs. The first time was when I arrived too late, at 16:15. I assumed, as an American, that the office would close at 5:00 pm, as any sensible office would. I learned that lesson cruelly, after riding my Mifa, a second-hand, DDR, heavy old bike, with great shocks for the cobblestones, on the longest path possible to the DAK office. The next doomed trip was also on the Mifa, but this time it was on a Tuesday, which has normally been a day I consider well-suited to errand running. On that ill-fated Tuesday I arrived breathlessly at the DAK office with a bag of groceries strapped in a makeshift manner to the back of the bike.  After carefully extricating the bag from the indelicate knots of my bungee cord, I raced up the stairs at 15:45, but alas, it turned out that the office is closed on Tuesdays. The hours are actually posted on the door, but as I was maneuvering my way through my unemployed fog, I apparently had not noticed. As I stood there with embarrassing tears of frustration filling my eyes, I realized that culture shock comes in all ways, and most of the time when it is least expected.

I am insured for the first time in many years. In the United States, despite my being gainfully employed, my employer did not offer a health insurance option, and my salary, although statistically speaking was quite decent, did not allow for me to pay for a health insurance policy. I am grateful to Germany for insisting on health care coverage, and so I am mandatorily insured through my husband’s employment here in Berlin. Accordingly, I have gleefully been to the doctor and the dentist in the short time I have been here. I feel that I am almost breaking the rules as I enter into a waiting room and take a seat with all those other lucky patients. I have noted that on both of these occasions my care was of good quality and I was very satisfied with my visit, despite the fact that I had to speak in my halting German. The caregivers were patient, friendly, and efficient. Having worked in health care for a time, I have been exposed to countless sorts of healthcare personnel in the US, and feel I can make an educated assessment of the care I have received so far here in Germany. So, as I stood and contemplated kicking the door of the DAK office that had the audacity to be closed on a Tuesday, I reflected that perhaps there is something in this strange German work ethic. Germany is certainly a country that functions at high capacity as evidenced by its status as the largest economy in Europe. Is there really a problem in its work ethic, as I was sulkily insisting to myself that there was?

No, I think the German work ethic is intact. It is simply its own work ethic, which can be confusing to those of us who come from abroad. So, as I clambered down the steps I resolved that my third trip to the DAK office would be the charm. So this marginally cheery morning, as I descend the stairs and enter Charlottenburg, my attitude is refreshed and I am ready. My Mifa glides heavily past the Zoologischer gardens, and as always, the site of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche makes me smile. It serves to remind me of all the memories I have, and how life proceeds regardless of the occurrences in the past. I love the broken tower as it regally presides over Breitscheidplatz. I love the honeycomb blue glass pattern of the new church. And especially, I really appreciate having health insurance. I pull up on the sidewalk outside Kadewe, and think how I will reward myself by perusing its hallways after I am done with my errand.

I ascend the steps of the austere building that is in such opposition to the opulent department store across from it. Berlin is filled with such architectural anomalies. After climbing the now familiar stairs, I triumphantly enter the DAK office and take a seat at the desk of the pleasant blond woman who smiles as I stumble in German through my introduction, but, as I reach into my backpack to provide her with the papers she will need, my blood runs cold.  Inside are my music books, my German books, and my kindle, but no papers; I had forgotten them. I frantically ask if I can have the dentist’s office fax over the said papers, but she smiles and shakes her head. It is not possible because the office only accepts the originals. Defeated, I stand and make my heavy way for the door. In a rage that only presents itself in circumstances of extreme absurdity, I fume about how Germany can function at all. With such limited working hours, and such stringent rules regarding original papers and such, it is a wonder the whole country doesn't just grind to a standstill! As I forego my reward trip to Kadewe, and remind myself to obey the traffic rules while riding my bike, the cool air hits my face. It blows away my frustration, and I remember that tomorrow is another day after all. It won’t be a Tuesday, and the DAK office is open until 16:00, so there really should be no problem in making a fourth trip. And anyway, I really am happy to have health insurance.

p.s. The fourth trip was the charm, and the nice lady took my papers and quickly processed them. It was indeed a pleasure to interact with such a helpful insurance employee.

By Sasha Prince
Sasha is a classical singer and animal lover and has been in Berlin since 2014. She is from the US and the place she lived the longest is Austin, Texas.

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