On Broken German Schools and Hellish PTA Meetings

As all of my Twitter followers know, Diva started school here last month and so that means I have had near-weekly parents’ nights since mid-August. I’m already a pro at these from being a part of a parents’-run kindergarten and for some reason I thought I’d get through elementary school without another wasted Wednesday night bickering about whose talented kid isn’t being given enough support. I was wrong. Because in Germany, middle-class parents seem to have nothing else better to do with their time and schools here don’t just run themselves. And based on my recent experiences at these meetings, those two sentiments are severe understatements.

Die Zeit took a frightening, in-depth look at the poor state of German schools and I gotta say, wow. Just wow. I chose to educate Diva in a public school because I believe in public school education. I chose to educate her here in Germany because although they are absolutely opposed to gifted & talented programs (a topic for another day), the students who go through university preparation in Germany are much better educated than most Americans in urban areas. I had never considered the state of the schools.

We pay a lot of taxes here in Germany, with billions of our Euros going to unfinished construction projects — like BER or the Cologne Opera House or the goddamned U-Bahn that was supposed to be open in time for the World Cup held in Germany in 2006 and which is maybe finally going to open in December(!). From the looks of these schools, though, not a penny of those taxes is going to school buildings. Diva’s school, though nice, hasn’t been painted since the 1970s and to get to the bathrooms, the kids have to run outside even in winter to an unheated addition. Talk about freezing your bottom. But she is lucky. At least her gym wasn’t condemned, as two in Cologne were this summer. And her school is too small to be housing refugees, as other gyms in Cologne are doing at the moment.

Because of the sorry state of the school system in Germany, Diva’s school now has a very very active PTA, committed to ensuring that the little school children have everything their little hearts desire. I scoffed at this at first, until I learned that without the PTA, there would be no toilet paper in the bathrooms, nor would a cleaning lady be there all day every day to make sure the kids feel safe enough to freeze their little bottoms off in the unheated outdoor toilets. I mean, it could be worse; she could be in one of the state-of-the-art schools that my former employers, an architecture company, built in Wisconsin with bulletproof doors and an alarm system that allowed teachers to lockdown their kids in the classroom in case a gunman walked in. Pick and choose, I guess.

Thing is, though, that for this cleaning lady to come every day, our PTA feels the need to send home a note every month reminding us that we are not good parents unless we contribute to the fund to pay her; we just got another passive-aggressive note reminding us that because some of us aren’t paying, all the kids may soon suffer the consequences of having no toilet paper in the bathrooms. Really people? Really? Where is the principal or the custodian? Why are we as parents having to handle this?

Well, funny I should ask: on Friday we got a note from the principal saying he’s leaving the school and due to a shortage of headmasters in the area, it’s unlikely he’ll be replaced and so we, as parents, have to step up. We have already had four parents’ nights meetings since mid-August and now we’ll be having more, to see who can pick up what slack while the city thinks about whether or not it can hire a new headmaster. Anybody who has been following the Cologne election fiasco knows just how laughable this idea is. Cologne’s bureaucrats can’t even print a stupid election ballot correctly and have to keep pushing the election date for our mayor back; why would this headmaster of a teeny-tiny school be of any importance to these incompetent beamter?

I could very easily slide into the role of PTA coordinator/headmaster if I wanted to and I could get shit done. Organization and leadership skills are not my competencies. People skills are not my competency. And yet, I could do this.

Except as I am learning from these PTA meetings, my way of doing things is not the preferred way of doing things. Instead of asking a translator to come to speak with the parents of the refugee boy in class who’s having difficulties, the preferred method of the PTA is to shout at the refugee parents in a mix of German and English and hope they get they hint that their kid needs to stop borrowing the other kids’ school supplies without asking (they don’t understand a word).  Instead of asking for the toilet paper fund to be paid in advance for the entire school year, we’d rather have the teachers collect 1.50 Euro from each student once a month and waste everybody’s time by sending obnoxious letters home.

Ok, fine.  I didn’t want to run for PTA President anyway. But when these meetings are not optional, do we really need to waste a half hour of my life getting lectured on how bloody important the Carneval culture is to our school and how we have to positively absolutely immediately get started on our kids’ Carneval costume planning right now?

Man, it’s going to be a long four years. Please tell me the private schools aren’t any better or I might just ship Diva off to one…. at least so I can enjoy my one kid-free evening a week by not thinking about kid things.

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On Feeling Helpless vs. Feeling Hopeless

I don’t talk about my work much here for a couple of reasons. Even most of my close friends are clueless about what I do and I like it that way most of the time. People who talk about their work are boring. And my work, although exciting sometimes, can also sometimes put me to sleep while I’m doing it. But to understand this post, you need to understand two things: I write for a living but I’m not a journalist, though the Kunstler Sozial Kasse has pigeonholed me as one. After having a loss of faith in my abilities as a writer a few years ago, I also started studying international human rights law. I thought that by becoming an expert on a topic that really affects me emotionally, I could maybe regain my faith in myself as a writer. Because I wanted to write stories that rose people’s awareness, changed people’s minds, and I felt like I needed to have the basic background information to do that.

I’m not so naive anymore.

For years I tried to make a living as a person writing on human rights issues. I’ve offered to write and edit reports, to write magazine features, to cover important conventions on transitional justice. And though some organizations and magazines have taken me up on these offers, for the most part, no one is willing to pay for my words or for the therapy I need regularly to deal with nightmares from some of the stories that I’ve heard. So I’ve had to turn to corporate communications to pay the bills, writing about fashion designers and computer programs and a million other things that I could give two fucks about. A waste of my time and expertise and talent, I’m told, but talent doesn’t pay the bills. It’s a messed up world when I can get paid more to write about clothing than about an Afghan woman struggling to get an education. And I don’t know if that’s the editor’s or the reader’s or the advertiser’s decision, I just know that it’s a position that’s conflicting to be in. Do what I love and feel is good or pay my rent and provide my daughter with a better life than the one I had as a kid?

These internal struggles that I’ve had for years become more and less acute depending on what I know and hear about happening in the world and most of the time, when it’s acute, it feels so bad because I feel helpless. Like I can’t do anything and whatever I do do, it won’t ever be enough.

When we flew into Lebanon at the start of the Syrian civil war, I was warned strictly against going outside the areas we were approved to be in. That meant no Bakaa Valley, no refugee camps, no Tripoli. I was not there for work but I listed online as a journalist, which could have meant trouble (as most English language journos in Germany know about from the Michael Scott Moore kidnapping case), and I had my daughter with me, and so, for the most part, I obeyed. We were there for a wedding and although I didn’t know this at the time, the bride came from one of the wealthiest families in the area. It wasn’t until I arrived and we were whisked away by their chauffeur that I realized how conspicuous our presence would be; we were told thereafter to be extremely careful so as not to be kidnapped. I got chauffeured around in a Mercedes, taken to luxurious Mediterranean beach resorts that were carved into the middle of banana plantations, places that required driving through Army checkpoints that left our driver a crying mess and through some of the poorest ghettos I have ever witnessed, to reach. We drove by the Holiday Inn on the Green Line that still bears the marks of decades-ago shelling and got rerouted because a crater from a car bomb just a few weeks earlier had made the road impassable. Never have I been so aware of the privilege I experienced through accident of birth and acquaintance. I may have grown up poor but I have never experienced poverty like this. I wasn’t naive enough to think that getting out of the car and handing out dollar bills or sweets and treats would do anything but ease my own mind about the poverty I was witnessing but what could I do? I felt totally helpless, a feeling that has ebbed and wained my entire life but which has, since then, not receded.

When I got back to Germany, I set out to write about these experiences. If editors didn’t want to buy the story about the reconstruction after the ethnic cleansing of my driver’s village (they didn’t), then maybe they would buy a story about six talented fashion designers from Beirut (they didn’t). They’ll publish 500 trend pieces on Paris Fashion Week but nope, sorry, not enough room for Lebanon. It’s okay. I already knew that. Words aren’t powerful in the face of disinterest. They aren’t the vehicles for positive change or awareness bringing that my grad school professors had tried convincing me they were.

Which is why what happened across Europe this week was so startling to me. I’ve been following the Syrian Civil War for five years now, been an expert on Afghanistan for seven. No one has given a shit for all these years. We have seen pictures of dead people in the Mediterranean for at least two years now and no one flinched. I was at a conference this summer which specifically addressed these wars and their consequences and watched Middle East experts begging for press and the world’s attention. Little came. I sat through panels addressing how the xenophobia and racism in the Balkans is once again reaching a boiling point, with one panelist saying the unsteady peace won’t last much longer, while for months at least, Balkans minorities keep turning up in Germany begging for asylum only to be deported quickly. I still haven’t read or heard about that in the media. I had a conversation with an expert on the to-remain-nameless-because-of-Google group currently rampaging across the former Mesopotamia that made me literally vomit and when I left this conference, for the first time in a while, I realized that the feeling of helplessness that I had when deciding to study human rights law has now shifted towards complete and utter hopelessness. I don’t want to be as disenchanted as this last expert, a former war reporter, is; his take on the world is that human beings are awful creatures undeserving of redemption. I don’t know how you can live with that kind of world view and yet I can absolutely understand based on his stories why he would say that.

For a second this week, my faith in humanity returned. Seeing some of those pictures brought tears to my eyes. I felt less hopeless and back to feeling merely helpless. Maybe that’s a start, I don’t know. It’s going to take a lot more weeks and months and years to reverse that last feeling and I’m hoping to continue to see this rising tide of immigration turn into a sea of positive change.  I’m trying not to be cynical about it. I’m trying hard not to make this about me. But I’m still a very long way from saying, as Liv Hambrett quite eloquently put it, that I am proud. Don’t get me wrong. What’s happening on the civilian level on the ground in Germany is wonderful and admirable. But as the saying in the development world goes, good intentions are not enough. I can’t wait to see the permanent change brought on by these actions. That’s the notion giving me hope at the moment.

On Raising a Third Culture Kid in a Xenophobic World

A few weeks back, while waiting in line with Diva for a boat ride on a sweltering hot day, a man cut in front of me and when I complained he told me to go back to where I came from.

“Verstehst du kein Deutsch?” he said, even though I had vocalized my complaint in German. I continued to argue with him, telling him how appalling I found his behavior, arguing loudly enough that two gentlemen nearby understood what was going on and stepped in to tell him he was out of line. But he didn’t relent. “Verstehst du kein Deutsch?” he spit at me again before bullying his way through to the front.

And I had to wonder: was it my accent? Or was he saying that I clearly didn’t understand what it means to be Deutsch? That even if I could understand the words I would never truly versteh Deutsch because if I did, I would understand that people here can act like entitled pricks and I should just bite my tongue and look away.

I tried not to take it personally. After all, everyone was cranky and so I thought maybe I was overreacting, thinking that he was singling me out for my accent when really he was just a jackass. It wasn’t about Germans and foreigners but about two jerks arguing over proper behavior in public. He clearly thinks he was right because he was old and white and middle-class and should be allowed to do whatever the fuck he wants and me, a jerk for thinking there is a modicum of politeness that people should show each other in public by queuing properly.

Instead, I caught myself really questioning his comments. Do I look that foreign? Will I ever fit in here? And how can I teach Diva to do right in the world when she is surrounded by shit like this? Because the thing is, I do take comments about my accent personally and after six weeks of nearly nonstop travel, I was very sensitive to my otherness. In every town I visited, I was introduced as “the American” and although people often fawned over me and my daughter, I was also told numerous times that the person I was talking to in German could “versteh kein Wort” before they’d ask if I spoke German.

If I wasn’t introduced but instead introduced myself, the literal second question out of the other person’s mouth was “Where you from?” Buying petrol in a gas station, the clerk told me I must’ve been on vacation because I didn’t look like I was from around there. A tour guide said she knew who I was immediately upon hearing my accent because she’d heard there was a New Yorker in town. When I picked up concert tickets, a guy offered to meet up with me because he loves Finland and could show me around (Finland? that’s a new one).

You may think it’s cute but imagine that every day both strangers and friends alike remind you that you’re a foreigner. They do it with laughs and joking or they do it with repeated requests for you to say that one word that you pronounce funny or they do it by cursing you out or talking more slowly. Worse: they switch straight to English after you’ve you just opened your mouth to speak and then ask where you’re from. I’ve written about my disdain for this small talk before. No, I don’t want to be chatted up with the line “Where you from?” when I only just met you. I don’t want to be singled out as an outsider every goddamned time I open my mouth. I have been in Germany for ten years and it doesn’t look like I’m leaving any time soon and these daily — sometimes multiple times a day — reminders that I’m different are not harmless. Why should I have to explain myself to you? After ten years here, can I say I’m from Cologne? Why do you assume I can’t speak or understand German because I have a slight accent?

Imagine if I weren’t blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Or an English speaker. Imagine how much more frequently people would ask me where I’m from if I had a Muslim name, as my daughter does (and literally anyone who has ever known her name is Muslim has asked me if I am — none of your business people, none).

A friend of mine who shares my daughter’s surname told me I should consider myself lucky that people are nice and friendly when they ask me where I’m from. “Imagine being the daughter of a Palestinian refugee,” she said, and then she said, “At least when my dad arrived in the 70s, Palestinians were still acceptable. At least he wasn’t Turkish.”

I’m really curious about this sorting out that is done in Germany, this trying to put each person into a particular drawer. The Bavarians in one drawer, the Amis in another, and all of those stereotypes that come along with those labels are applied in advance. Diva, she’s been introduced by some well-meaning people lately as being American as if that says something about her; though she doesn’t correct them, she has learned on her own that this means they think she can’t speak German and so she tells them she speaks German just fine. She’s six and people are already trying to sort her into one or the other category and she understands this. Although she’s proud to be a dual national, she has very little idea of what it means to be American except that it’s a word and people use it when talking about her. But she doesn’t want to be different than the other kids and so I wonder about what this does and will do to her. Kids don’t make these distinctive identifications on their own. They learn these identities as they are given them. Does this happen in the US? Are immigrant children singled out upon introduction as “My Afghani friend Amir”? At what point can we safely assume Germans will stop introducing Diva and I as the Americans?

Of course it’s not as if I want her to choose one identity over the other. But as she grows up in a world filled with xenophobes and xenophobia, I don’t want her to feel the repercussions of this othering. She didn’t choose to be born in a country different from my country of birth. And since you really can’t call her an immigrant anymore, I’m very curious at what point she’ll be accepted as German. Would it be different if she didn’t have a Muslim name? Will it be different for her in the world if she isn’t with me and doesn’t tell people of her American heritage?

My acquaintance with the Palestinian father tells me I shouldn’t deny her the chance to learn about “my” culture. She tells me that I should not try to fully conform her to the German ways and I agree. But as the debate rages on in Germany about refugees and migrants, where xenophobia is not only omnipresent, it’s deeply ingrained, I wonder if I’m not doing her a disservice by raising her with both nationalities and expecting tolerance.

I’m told I’m not. I’m told that I have nothing to worry about — that because I am American, this tolerance is there. I’m told that I’m a “good” immigrant because I pay taxes, because I learned the language, because I’m well educated. And though those last three things are true, I know many other immigrants who do those things as well  but who would still not be classified as “good,” for whatever inane reason the classifier can conjure. But I’ve also experienced that tolerance differently. I came to Germany right after George W Bush had invaded Iraq and people wanted to argue with me about “my” politics. They tried to shame me in classrooms and in bars and in university staff meetings for having elected such a president (I didn’t vote for Bush but that didn’t matter, only my passport did). Right now America is “good.” Right now I am working and therefore “good.” It’s a distinction I’d prefer not to have made, to be honest, although I’m not sure the alternative, brutal intolerance, is any better.

The day after the boat ride, Diva and I stood in line once again, queuing for another nearby attraction that would cool us off on a hot day when suddenly we realized that the woman ahead of us in line was on a diatribe. The people she was talking to were slowly backing away, giving her space, lowering their heads and so she used the opportunity to speak loudly, more clearly, address the others in the line more directly and so Diva and I caught wind of her speech.

“They had it right. Deport them. Deport them all. We don’t need any foreigners here. Foreigners should go back to where they came from.”

I put my hands over Diva’s ears but it was too late. She looked up at me and asked what the lady was so mad about. And then the lady turned to me and, in German, said “Isn’t that right?”

And though normally I would’ve snapped up the chance to tell her off — and honestly, I was waiting for the dozen other people in line who’d heard to do just such — I found myself wondering instead just how to stop this conversation from happening in front of Diva because she’s too young to have to understand or know hate and I want to protect her from that harsh reality as long as I can. And so I just said, in my perfect English. “I don’t understand. I’m a foreigner. Maybe you should deport me?”

These conversations are, unfortunately, going to be more frequent in the next few months and I know it’s not long before Diva starts asking about these things. We’ve already had talks about not labeling people as stupid or dumb and so I’m sure the slurs will come into play soon, too, unfortunately. And so I’m curious and I’m turning this over to you: how do you, as foreigners or as parents or as foreign parents work with your kids on topics of xenophobia? How are you addressing the current atmosphere of hate with them?

On How Expatriation Resets You (From “Make Me German”)

Make Me German

Now, some seven years later, I realize what moving abroad actually does — it resets you. If you live in one place for a long time, as I had in England, you are constantly surrounded by people that speak your language and share your culture, so it’s easy to forget how special it is. You see only its flaws and minor inconveniences. Or perhaps even worse, you think that the way you do things there is the right way. That there are normal people, and strange people, and fortunately enough, as chance would have it, you were born into the normal tribe, and all those other people over there, from other places, foreign places, with their strange cultures and languages and customs — those people are the strange ones.

Then, suddenly, you’re somewhere else with a completely different idea of normal.

Currently reading Adam Fletcher’s “Make Me German,” which has a lot of smart things to say about the transition from one country to the other, and feeling pretty understood.

Bicycle in Germany Without Breaking the Law

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In Copenhagen last summer, we tried to rent a bike for Diva and were turned down flat. “It’s against the law,” the guy at the bike shop told me and when I pressed for more information — the Danes, after all, are cycling queens — he said it was forbidden for kids under 6 (or maybe it was 8) to be in the bike lanes. Since no bikes are allowed on the sidewalk, either, the only place a kid might bike is at home, in the driveway or the courtyard. No wonder cargo bikes are so popular and school kids all arrive on Razor scooters.

Back home, in Germany, I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn’t need to continue trucking around in an old Christania cargo bike. They look sweet and all but pedaling one of those is like riding a stationary bike … unlike Long Duk Dong, I got nowhere, fast, and slowed down a lot of people on the Danish autobahn as a result of my wide-girth and slow-spinning wheels.

For many morning school runs, I pop Diva’s princess helmet on, pull her pink princess bicycle back out of the basement and off we go, cruising down the sidewalks to school, dinging our bells to let everyone know to get out of our way. Although this seems to be par for the course here, a British woman I went out to lunch with a few years back took serious offense to this behavior, cussing out a 6-year-old for being “on the pavement” before diatribing about how truly awful the Germs and their manners were. “Think their kids take precedence over other human beings, do they?” So when a policewoman came to Diva’s Kindergarten a few weeks after we got back from Denmark, I had to ask: can kids ride on the sidewalk in Germany? What are the laws here (because you know, it’s Germany and every damned thing is regulated)?

The answers she gave were really surprising. Here, in brief, and not fact-checked, is what the law says:

1. Kids under the age of 8 MUST bike on the sidewalk.

2. Kids CAN ride on the sidewalk until the age of 10 (which she recommends because of sightline problems for drivers).

3. Parents who follow their children on the sidewalk are breaking the law — even though there is most often a row of cars between the sidewalk and the bike lane (if there is a bike lane), therefore separating kid from mom or dad — and can be fined heftily for it (though she admitted that most police — and every annoying ass old biddy you pass on the way — will just warn you against it).

Not a big deal, right? Excepting that Germany has no mandatory helmet requirements so even Diva’s classmate, a 3-year-old kid of an emergency room nurse at the children’s hospital WHO HAS SEEN THE RESULTS OF BIKE ACCIDENTS FIRSTHAND doesn’t wear a goddamned helmet while not properly strapped into his seat on the back of his mom’s bike (bitch is insane, I swear), seems pretty straightforward. Except:

Kids aged 7 and up are not allowed to be on their parents’ bikes in street traffic anymore. So that cargo bike? Or that extra-special imported-from-Holland bike seat meant to hold kids over 22 kilos? Verboten. (I can’t wait to tell Diva’s dad this — he just dropped over 1000 Euros on a cargo bike to take her to school in but won’t get much use of it soon.)

So legally, when a kid turns 7 and wants to ride a bike, he or she absolutely positively must do it on the sidewalk. And from the ages of 8-10, he or she can still keep his or her wheels on the sidewalk (recommended by the policewoman, who also admitted that after the bike accidents she has seen, she doesn’t even let her kids bike).  That’s what I’m going to do. And I’m going to find that law and print it out and laminate it and show it to every old biddy who lectures us to get off the sidewalk for the next four years.

How to Parent Like a German, According to Time

1. Hang your children off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit.

2. Huddle with all the German parents drinking coffee and don’t pay attention to your kids.

3. Ignore Amis screaming “Achtung, Nein!” like the lunatics they are.

4. Do not be stereotypically strict (whatever that means) but instead “place a high value on independence and responsibility.”

5. Do not join the free range parenting movement because you’re already free range (tell that to the local news media here, which has just discovered the free range trend).

6. “Don’t push reading.” Or, in other words, let your kid’s teachers teach them how to read at school.

7. Don’t freak out when your kid gets two (two!) breaks to play outside during 4.5 hours of instruction (well aware of all the studies saying kids’ concentration levels dip after 45 minutes and are at a bottom after 90.)

8. Let your kid light off  fireworks on New Year’s.

9. Let your kid walk to school without you. Worry about traffic and not kidnappings.

10. Celebrate the kid’s first day of school.

11. Go outside everyday (see 1).

How’s your ranking on this list (condensed from and based entirely on this truthful bullshit in Time Magazine)? I failed miserably. Those Ami lunatics screaming Achtung get me every time.

The Sexism of German Bureaucracy

On my first trip to the foreigner’s office nearly ten years ago, I had two visa options:

1. Take a 1-year residency permit limiting my working ability to whatever I had to do to fulfill my Fulbright obligations (teach); or

2. Request a spousal visa that would give me the ability to both work and live in Germany for however long the person filling my application decided it should be good for.

So although I had my application form there in front of me, I didn’t fill it out. I didn’t know which would be the better deal. Before I even had a chance to discuss the differences, the beamter assisting us decided for me: I would be on a spousal visa, full stop. In the long run, this was the better deal but this woman, when she decided for us, didn’t know anything about us or our plans. She didn’t know, for example, that although my ex-husband had a German passport in his possession, he hadn’t lived in Germany since he was 11 months old. Or that he didn’t speak the language. Or that he dreaded being in Germany with every ounce of dread possible and was only supposed to stay for a few months because he couldn’t imagine ever living here. That he only had the passport because three months earlier I had read that German citizenship laws had changed again and he could get one while still maintaining his US citizenship.

For me to get the Fulbright, I had to speak B1-level German and attend culture lessons. I had to read Faust in the original Goethe German, for fuck’s sake, and write a four-page statement of motivation in German. I would have been better off, at least in this meeting with her, standing on my own merits. But since I walked in with a man, she refused to talk to me. Instead, she turned to him and said, “Does your wife need integration classes?”

I said no. She said, “I’m not asking you.” And so I translated for the ex, who looked at me and said, “I don’t know. Do YOU want to take integration classes?”

I said no again, and tried to explain that I was answering because his German wasn’t good enough, and she just stared at me. It wasn’t the first time. In the airport, when a security officer had asked him to boot up his laptop before we got on our connecting flight, they laughed and called him a dumb Turk who couldn’t speak the language (he isn’t Turkish and he didn’t understand the racist bastards, luckily).

“Can he take the integration class?”

“No. He’s already German.”

Somehow, don’t ask me how, the integration classes for me were waived and I got a two-year work and residency permit. When I went back to get it renewed, this time in a different office with a different caseworker, she said, “Your husband has to be here,” and so we had to go back again another day where again, they didn’t speak to me but to him.

I get it, I guess. A spousal visa requires the spouse. You have to give proof that you live together, that you both earn money and pay taxes and love each other and whatnot. That’s not the sexist part. The sexist part comes when you try to get a permanent visa.

Because to get a permanent visa after three years of being here (this varies, btw), I needed to have my husband’s support and he absolutely, vehemently refused to give me it. He said if he signed the paperwork allowing me to stay in Germany without him (as a permanent visa would do), that I would leave him. He might’ve been right, but I’m not the kind of girl to marry for a Green Card. We were clearly having issues, but because he wouldn’t sign the visa paperwork, I had to stay on another two-year visa tied to his passport. I could have left him but it would have been harder to get my visa renewed. They assumed — wrongfully in my case, but not without reason — that the male was the breadwinner and so without his income, I would become a charity case and charity cases do not get permanent visas.

By the time we got to five years, to renew the visa, I again needed his signature but he left the country before I could get that. I went to the foreigner’s office to see what I could do and it was a no-go. Spousal visas can’t be converted to work visas, especially for freelancers. So even though I originally arrived on a visa tied to a grant I’d received and I had worked and paid taxes the entire time since (more than my ex could say), I had to leave the country. And so I did. And then I came back.

My second attempt at the permanent visa was different because this time, I didn’t want my visa tied to my ex. He was still out of the country when I came back and so they tied it, this time, to my daughter. Germans love it when little Germans are raised in the Fatherland and so they made it easier for me to get my visa to stay here and work. Also, I had paid taxes and social services for five years prior, so that was a plus. And then three years later, I could finally apply for my permanent visa.

Here’s the sexist bit: because my divorce had not yet officially been documented (the court had not yet sent the paperwork to the city hall), I had to get written permission from my ex-husband that he was okay with me being in Germany. Wie, bitte?

A woman who works and pays taxes and raises a kid on her own is obligated to get permission from a deadbeat, not-quite-ex-husband about where she lives? Eventually, I got the letter written, though not without a power struggle, but the whole process really had me thinking about all those holiday wives that wash up here… you know, the women from exotic southern locales who show up on a German’s arm after he’s taken a long holiday. Or women who are abused by their spouses. While I get that you don’t want people marrying just for Green Cards, if I’d already proven that I paid taxes and worked and had already filed for divorce and yadda yadda, what in the devil did I need my ex’s permission for?

Turns out, the reforms that were made in custody laws several years ago were the culprit in my case but I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around how this whole thing works. See, when two people are married and they have a kid, that kid is automatically 50/50 mom/dad custody (Sorgerecht). When they get divorced, it’s understood that unless officially decided otherwise, the kid will live with mom and the dad gets visitation (umgangsrecht). To get it officially stated otherwise, the dad has to sue the mom for something called the Aufenthaltsbestimmungsrecht — the right to decide where a kid lives. If the dad doesn’t sue — as my ex didn’t — then there is never any official documentation as to where the kid should live and so I have to, it turns out, with every move I make, have my ex put it in writing that he is understanding of the move. And so it was with the visa. My ex had to agree in writing that he was okay with me living in Germany with our daughter. I got off lucky. I’ve been doing research into The Hague Convention and those custody battles sound terrible. But seriously, Germany, there has got to be a better way to figure this shit out than to have a woman get a man’s permission to do the most normal thing: live somewhere. Seriously, women are their own people.