In early 2002 I had been on the phone with Niels, a GSB Class
of 2003 student and fellow German. Niels had grown up the next
street from where I had grown up and he had been in the same class
at school with my sister. When we talked about getting ready for
school and moving to the U.S. he erupted, declaring "it was
a desaster!!" Apparently, few things worked well or easily,
but somehow I didn't really get why it had been so difficult.
In the end I assumed I was in a different situation anyway: Well-versed
in American customs from two years of living in Boston I thought
I would be able to navigate around problems easily.
Not so. It turned out the major problems were that few things
were under my control or could be influenced by clever thinking.
I've written up some of the problems below. While I use a dry
humorous style, trust me, I was non-plussed at the time I had
to suffer through them.
Getting my Student Visa
End of June I sent in my student visa application. On the website
and on the hotline they told me it might take up to 6 weeks to
receive the visa. Realistically, it would be more like 2-3 weeks,
By mid August I was getting nervous, because I hadn't received
any notification whatsoever. Maybe a dog had eaten my application?
I had no way of knowing.
I called the hotline three times, each time triggering the
same behavior: "Oh my god, you haven't heard from us yet?
We'll investigate immediately!" After this they took my data
and promised to get back to me within one day, which never happened.
The fourth time I called, dangerously close to having to change
my travel plans, I was told that if I hadn't heard from them yet,
my application was in Washington, and was being put through careful
screening. It would be at least another month until I might receive
a visa. This meant that I would miss all of the school's orientation
as well as the beginning of the quarter. Since MBA studies are
really fast-paced, playing a catch-up game is not advisable.
Boy, was I frustrated. Before this call, I was ready to go,
after this call, I was done.
The next day, the US embassy in Berlin called to invite me
for an interview, two days before my scheduled flight to Boston
and on to Stanford. I expected having to sign in blood that I
will return to Germany after my studies (precondition for a student
visa). However, nothing like this happened, they just had me fill
in a form with data I had given them three times before and that
was it. I got my visa 15min later. The small prints on the student
visa says that I'm not allowed to go near any tall buildings,
but fortunately this is not a problem in Stanford.
Now, the only thing I really would like to do is to talk to
that hotline person from the fourth call again...
Ordering from Course.com
Course.com is a provider of text books. In this case GSB faculty
recommended I get the book "New Perspectives on Excel, Brief"
to get ready with Excel before school. After checking with amazon.com,
I saw it would take them at least 2 weeks to get the book from
the publisher, so I directly went to the course.com website.
- It took me at least half an hour to create a new user. First,
the site didn't like my username, then it didn't like my password,
then it insisted on a US state where I was trying to enter a
German address, and so on. I finally got my user data accepted.
However, when I tried to use the account, I couldn't login. The
password I supplied supposedly did not match the password I had
entered previously. So I went through the whole procedure again,
creating a new user.
- I put the book into my shopping basket. The checkout mechanism
multiplied the number of books I wanted by five, but I could
correct this. When confirming the purchase, I tried to enter
a shipping address different from the billing address. This was
a German address, and somewhat dumbfounded I had to learn that
I couldn't enter Germany as a shipping destination. I gave up.
- I called up customer support, located in Boston (I was in
Berlin). I was clever enough to point to the shipping address
problem first and ask whether they could help me with it. I was
told that they don't ship internationally but that they have
a distributor in Germany, for which I could get the phone number.
I thanked them and called the German number. They had already
closed for the day. (This is Germany, what did you expect?)
- Next morning, I called the German distributor again, only
to learn that they had long given up handling course.com books.
All of this would now be handled by another distributor, located
in Denmark. So I got their number and called them.
- The Danish distributor's sales person was friendly and told
me that they could in fact deliver the book, at least in theory.
It would be shipped from the U.K. but right now their machines
are broken and it would be at least another two weeks until they
would start stocking the pipeline again. I gave up.
The GSB's self-assessment quiz and Excel help are just fine,
Vacation is a Bumpy Road
I had left the U.S. in April 2002 for five fabulous months
of travel and vacation. My apartment was in storage in Boston,
and my whole equipment were two suitcases and a laptop. Here are
the problems you'll have to face if you are in a similar situation:
- The time difference between you and the U.S. people you are
dealing with will significantly increase your turnaround time.
Moreover, you'll be surprised by the differences opening hours
around the globe.
- You would be surprised about the problems of getting someone
to fax something to you internationally. My Boston optician never
figured out how to send my tarnished glasses' data to a Berlin
- Internet use will be painful if you are restricted to a laptop
modem. Few Internet cafes are prepared to let you hook up your
laptop. I usually made a trip to the local university to get
around the bandwidth problem.
- Amazingly enough, email has yet to make it into some institutions
Was I glad to get back to the U.S. eventually. Things were
running so much smoother.
Bleeding Money Left and Right
For the five months of my vacation, the cheapest time was
travels, and the most expensive time was staying in Berlin.
However, the real killers in comparison with regular living expenses
where phone and Internet costs.
- I had to foot phone bills from Malaysian hotels and my Berlin
apartment that were as high as (or higher than) the hotel or
- I really really hate Earthlink. They changed the conditions
right after I had signed up, making me blead $80 a month for
simple dialup. And all of this on top of abysmal service. (Three
out of four connect attempts fail. When I asked them about this,
they sent me a blurp from their service agreement where it says
they don't guarantee anything anyway. Tough luck for me, apparently.
Too bad for them I'll terminate my subscription as soon as I'm
back in the U.S.)
There are a few things you can do:
- In Berlin, I used a really cheap int'l phone service (01024).
Because of Earthlink's outrageous costs, I ended up dialing into
Boston for Internet dialup!
- I used ISIConnect for reducing my international phone bills
in the remote locations of Malaysia, but obviously this service
wasn't cheap either.
So, watch out who and how you rely on for your services. And
don't procrastinate like I did: It will get worse, and even if
it is "just one more month" until it's over.