The Tyranny of Clothing Sizes

I can’t remember how much, if anything, I’ve written about this. That is the problem with keeping a blog for 6 years that is primarily focused on your mental state. You think you have a break through and then, disturbingly, you look through your old pages and realise that you had the SAME break through at least 4 years ago and STILL NOTHING HAS CHANGED. It’s like a really long-form version of Groundhog Day.

But, I’ve done a quick scan of the related pages and can’t find anything similar, so I guess I’ll just dive on in.

So, look. I’m going to lay it out straight for you. From the age of 15 until around the age of 27, I had some pretty serious issues with food. I starved, binged, purged and choked down increasingly strange, unhealthy and quite frankly, disgusting, meals (plain carrot and celery sticks with an entire bottle of red wine, what could possibly go wrong?) in various patterns and variations for a good 12 years. My weight fluctuated up and down within a 26kg range. There were periods of stability when I would be able to buy clothes without worrying they wouldn’t fit in two months time and there were times when I was at risk of my arse breaking out of my jeans because I was too ashamed to buy a pair two sizes larger.

I don’t know really know what started it all. My justification has always been that I wanted to be an actress and actresses are skinny (yes, I should be using ‘actor’, but this is, I think, a particularly gendered problem. Not to say that men don’t get eating disorders, but the fact that I wanted to be an ‘actress’ and not an ‘actor’ is significant to me and this particular problem). And, to be honest, the times when I gave up on acting (or, at least, gave up on being a particular type of actor), were the times that I had the healthiest relationship to food over that 12 year period. But, the justification doesn’t quite hold up when I look back over the facts. I was 50kg at the age of 15, which, I knew, was the same weight as Jennifer Aniston (I used to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the weight of actresses. Oh, the wasted brain space). So, I was ostensibly the ‘perfect’ size, because Jennifer Aniston was my ideal. Not because I thought she was a great actress. But definitely because I thought she was successful and popular and we had the same name and that must mean something. In spite of this, my brain went, ‘you want to be an actress? Actresses are skinny. Actresses diet. You need to go on a diet. You should be extra skinny, just to be on the safe side. Be so skinny no one could ever call you fat. Have some skinny in reserve.’ My brain viewed losing weight in the same way that financial planners look at saving for retirement. The more the better.

financial-planner

‘See, the thing is, that if you lose weight, you’ll be skinnier. And the more weight you lose, the skinnier you’ll be! Great, right?’ found here

I didn’t know much about nutrition at that age. And, it’s hard to remember what I did or didn’t know at the time, because my brain has been stuffed to the brim with competing diet information and weight loss plans ever since. But, I think I was fairly ignorant of calories, fat, how your body reacts to hunger, how your body reacts to starvation, how much of anything you should have in one day – aside from some vague awareness of the food pyramid. I felt like it was going to be pretty easy. I would just stop eating. That was what I would do. Just, stop eating.

Of course, things weren’t actually that simple and hunger is awful and I didn’t want to argue with my Dad about not eating dinner and so what ended up happening was a starvation through the day and a binge at night. To my absolute horror, I started to put on weight. 10kgs in a year. Of course, there’s the possibility that I was going through puberty and I would have put on 10kgs even if I hadn’t screwed with my eating. But, to my mind, that year and those 10kgs were my fault. This was my (very public) shame to bear. It was my massive failure. If only I hadn’t been so stupid with my eating. If only I had stayed a size 8. If only I hadn’t done this to myself. My life would be so much better. Everything would have worked out. I’d be a successful actress. That guy I really liked would like me back. I’d be super impressive (not so clear on the details). Everyone would love me. If only, if only, if only. Surely the solution was another huge diet and to finally get back to 50kgs again.

Whenever I started talking about food or diets, one of my therapists would always say, ‘I don’t want to talk about food. I don’t want to talk about diets. What you’re feeling and the problems you’re having is nothing to do with food.’ It used to annoy me. I wanted to talk about food all the time. I wanted to talk about what a terrible person I was for eating two slices of cake instead of one (or none!) the night before. I wanted to talk about how anxious it had made me. I wanted to talk about my desire to throw it all up. I wanted to talk about my misery/triumph/anxiety that I hadn’t gotten it all out of me after I had thrown it all up. This all seemed like excellent fodder for therapy, why wouldn’t she let me talk about it? But, the point she was trying to make was that all the anxiety about being skinny was masking something else, something bigger and that was what she wanted to talk about. She didn’t want me to list calories, she wanted me to list anxieties.

A few years ago, I got pretty exhausted from being on a diet for the majority of my adult life. I happened to consider myself to be obscenely ‘large’ at the time and giving up on the dream of weight loss was less to do with giving myself a break (‘hey, you’re pretty great just the way you are’) and more to do with giving up on myself entirely (‘you’ve completely failed to achieve this one simple goal, why waste any more time on it, you’re clearly a loser’). Luckily, it has had kind of the same outcome. The diet obsession is gone and doesn’t seem to  be coming back anytime soon. I see my anxiety and self-hatred for what it is. That doesn’t mean I have much better control over it or am nicer to myself, but at least I don’t believe there’s a magic life reset button if I can just get back down to 50kgs.

magic-button-prew

If only it were that simple. Found here

But I find that my thinking still, often, goes down paths that I don’t want it to. Even though I haven’t had the desire to diet in a good 5 years, my brain retains some of the habits of the 12 years before it. Here are some of the ways I can’t seem to shake that disordered eating/thinking.

1) I’m still weirdly (and ashamedly) proud that I was anorexic

After the first year or two of disordered eating in my teen years, I went to Norway and developed fairly typical bulimia. Starving, then massive binges and then purges, sometimes two or three times in one day. And, amongst all that hideous turmoil, I was beating myself up because I was bulimic, not anorexic. I had lost the eating disorder lottery! If only I was a better person, then I would have been anorexic. I was such a second-rate human that even my eating disorder was second-rate!

I’ve since found out that is a common feeling amongst bulimics. So, you can imagine my delight when I finally hated myself enough to successfully starve myself for a good 6 – 7 months in a row. Hooray! Now I had the set!

I’m fully aware of how fucked up this thinking is and, I’m not suggesting I *should* be proud that I was anorexic. But there is still a tiny part of me that feels some kind of weird relief over the fact that I wasn’t *just* bulimic. I was anorexic too.

2) Clothes sizes are the worst

Worrying about clothing sizes was always the companion piece to worrying about food. Each size has a huge amount of emotional baggage. Of course, that’s the case for most women. It’s been pretty well established that women’s clothing sizes are fucked. Established in 1959, the Australian standard for clothes sizes was based on data from a 1926 study of women conducted by underwear manufacturer Berlei and some US Department of Commerce Standards. There were all sorts of problems with the way they got these measurements, starting with the fact that it was mainly poor, white women who were measured (potentially undersized because of starvation or poor nutrition) and that the measurements were primarily interested in bust size – they just assumed you had an hourglass shape underneath it.  So, we have a warped system to begin with and then clothing stores adjust their sizes according to how they want women to feel and how many of each size they sold in the previous year. So, if they see that more women are buying a size 12, then, hey presto! The year after, what was a size 12 is now a size 10, because women are more likely to buy a piece of clothing if they’re feeling better about themselves and what makes women feel better about themselves? That they’ve unexpectedly lost weight and a dress size. Which is fine, until you go into the next store and they have a different sizing system and suddenly you’re a size 14 and everything is terrible (please note that I’m not suggesting everything is actually terrible if you are a size 14. I’m saying this is how we’re trained to think and how the fashion industry views our bodies and I’m also saying that this lack of consistency amongst sizes is confusing and can be distressing if you’re already anxious about this kind of thing).

My relationship to clothes was almost as screwed up as my relationship to food. I would buy clothing that didn’t fit me so I would have something to aspire to – ‘if you just lose weight, you’ll be able to wear that beautiful dress that you love and have never worn’. I would keep pieces of clothing that I used to fit into (size 8s, small size 10s) and whenever I was feeling skinny (whenever I was feeling good about myself), I would take them out and try to squeeze into them and when it didn’t work I would resolve, again, to eat less and exercise more and be a better person. I would wear clothes that were too small for me for months because I could not deal with the fact that I had put on weight and besides which, I was definitely about to lose weight, as soon as this new diet/starvation routine started to work and I couldn’t bear to go into the store and buy something that actually fit me because it would have the wrong number in the label (size 14, size 12) and, besides, I’d be skinny in just a few weeks, honest, honest, and then I would have wasted all my money. I would buy clothing that was just slightly too small for me and choose to wear it even though it was uncomfortable and tell myself that the waistline already cutting into my stomach fat would remind me not to eat too much when I was out. It was a kind of exquisite torture.

My weight has slowly and naturally fell as my relationship to food has normalised. I’ve come back to a weight that seems natural to me, in that my body keeps returning to it over the years and it luckily corresponds to a clothes size I can bear. But I still have issues in clothing stores. I have to be in a pretty strong state of mind to buy a piece of clothing marked ‘Size 12’ or ‘Medium’. It doesn’t matter how much I like the piece of clothing, how comfortable it is, if I’m already feeling vulnerable that day, I will refuse to buy the clothing. I bought two pairs of jeans recently from Muji (which is what started this whole blog post in the first place). They had a sizing system that I had never seen before – inches, rather than 10, 12, 14 or Small, Medium, Large. It was the first time I was able to buy clothing based entirely on how they felt and how they looked, because I had no emotional connection to what size I wanted to be – it was so relieving. So freeing! Instead of going to the clothing racks with a feeling of rising panic and thinking, ‘Well, I should be a size 10′ and then seeing if I can squeeze into that size or not and then, if I can’t, refusing, point blank, to try the size up because if that fit, what would it possibly mean? Of course, now that I have an idea of what size I *should* be in Muji, if it ever changes… well, let’s just hope it never changes.

3) I’m supremely uninterested in your diet/weight loss/exercise/wellness routine or your anxiety around it

I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t care about you. It’s not that I’m not happy that you’re happy that you’ve found something that works for you. It’s simple self-preservation. I’ve read about, tried, and failed enough diets to fill a hundred lifetimes. If you convince me that you’ve finally found the golden ticket – the diet that works – you’ll just be leading me back down that 12 year old, well-trodden path of thinking that if I can just, somehow, get back to 50kgs, if I can just, somehow, reset my life to 15 years old again, everything would work out differently. I cannot allow myself to be interested in diets. I cannot allow myself to be interested in calorie counting, fat watching, gluten-free, lactose-free, coconut water, high-protein, low-carb, sugar free, 3 meals a day, 6 meals a day, the 5-2 program, only choc-chip muffins on a Sunday and blueberry ones every second Friday, whatever the hell it is that you’ve discovered. It might work for you. That doesn’t mean it works for me. Telling me about the diet and encouraging me to try it is akin to saying to a recovering drug addict that they can try just a taste of their old crutch and nothing bad will happen this time, this time everything will be a-ok.

On a related note, I struggle to react correctly to the fact that you’ve put on weight, or lost weight. I’m too busy telling myself it doesn’t matter and I don’t need to get worried. I don’t like to be told that I’ve lost weight. I know that sounds like a ‘nice’ thing to do, but it will only demonstrate that people judge bodies and, more specifically, that they see my body and they judge it too (even if it doesn’t matter to you, even if you wouldn’t think I was a bad person for putting on weight, you’ve still noticed that it’s gotten bigger or smaller). This will only serve to reawaken the part of my brain that thinks weight and diet are acceptable things to worry about. You might be worried about your weight for health reasons (though there’s plenty of evidence that maybe you shouldn’t be so worried), that’s completely fine and you do you. But I cannot listen to you worry about it.

I try to think in broad generalisations. ‘I’m going to try and eat more vegetables.’ ‘I’m going to try and find better protein sources than just cheese.’ ‘I’m going to try and drink a little less alcohol and a little more water.’ ‘I’m going to make sure I don’t eat the same thing, day in, day out.’ Broad generalisations are good for me, because when I come home exhausted one night and only want to eat cheese pizza with two ciders, I don’t freak the fuck out. Diets and wellness have rules. They have absolutes. Sugar is evil. Gluten is poison. I don’t care how ‘easy’ your particular rules are to follow, I will inevitably fail at some point and then the question becomes, what do I do to make up for this failure? How do I atone? I’m a terrible black and white thinker with tendencies towards catastrophizing, it’s never just, oops, I was so hungry that I ate three slices of bread instead of two, guess I’ll do better tomorrow, no, it’s the END OF THE GODDAMN WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.

end-world-newspaper

It doesn’t start with an earthquake, it starts with Jenny EATING A BISCUIT. Found here 

4) Hunger is very confusing to me

People with eating disorders are often disconnected from their bodies. You spend most of your life trying to ignore or distort the feelings that you are having, whether or not that’s hunger, anger, sadness, anxiety, love or something else. People recovering from eating disorders tend to have real difficulty knowing what, when and how much to eat. When you take away all the rules of what you should and shouldn’t eat and just say, ‘What would you like to eat?’ a person recovering from an eating disorder may not know. They may not know what a craving for a particular food feels like. They may not remember what hunger feels like, or what being full feels like.

I’m pretty good at figuring out what I like to eat these days. But I still, very often, miss the signs of hunger. Headaches, fatigue, anger, sadness, hyperactivity, being super jittery, all of these things mask my real and actual hunger. Alex will have to point out that he thinks I’m feeling hungry. I have to rely on someone else to point out that I’m hungry! This is ridiculous. Ridiculous! Happily, I do feel that every day I am getting better at noticing. On the flip side, if I work out that I’m hungry, if I get the rumbling in the stomach, there is absolutely nothing that anyone will be able to do to stop me from focusing entirely on the horrible sensation until it has been resolved.

5) I’m super bad at sharing

When I was counting calories obsessively, it was hugely important to me that I knew exactly how much food went into my mouth on a particular day. So, if people offered me a ‘taste’ of their food because I had expressed admiration of what it looked like (‘ooh, that looks yummy’), I would refuse Every. Single. Time. I did not know how many calories were in that taste. I couldn’t calculate the calories in 4 lentils, a cashew and a piece of sweet potato. Who did they think I was?

Conversely, if I was eating something and someone expressed a desire to taste it, panic would immediately grip my stomach. These are my calories! I have carefully counted them and arranged them into my day! I can’t give them my calories! I got very good at surviving on huge quantities of low-calorie food (which is why I once turned yellow from eating too much pumpkin and too many carrots), but if I had decided to indulge in 100 calories of salt and vinegar rice crackers, then I wanted Every. Last. Calorie. There was no guarantee I’d be allowing myself food later in the day or in the days to come. I had relented and given myself food at this point, so it should all be mine, mine, mine!

While I’m way better than I was, I still slip into this mindset when I’m very, very hungry. I essentially go into starvation mode and think that I’ll never be full, ever again, oh god, how will the hunger ever end. Do not ask me for some of my food at the start of a meal when I am in this mode. Wait until I’m halfway through and have realised I’ll never finish three vegetable samosas, two naan breads, a pile of rice and two curries all on my own. Then I’ll be happy to share.

roneating

Can’t talk. Eating. Found here

On a related note, do not ask me to order two meals with you and we can share. Do not suggest we split a slice of cake for dessert. Again, while this used to be about making sure I knew exactly how many calories I had consumed, these days it’s about the opposite. I do not want to share your rocket salad. If I want cake, I’m eating the whole thing. I goddamn hate Tapas, everyone uses it as an excuse to under eat. Don’t try and limit me to the number of calories that you want to eat so you feel like you’re not missing out. Even if that’s not what it’s about, that’s how I’ll feel. I’m going to choose exactly what I want to eat and I’m going to eat it all and no-one, least of all me, is going to judge me (unless, of course, it’s a situation like above and you’ll get half my meal halfway through)

6) Large meals are a massive comfort

My stomach still kind of doesn’t trust my brain. It’s not convinced that my brain won’t, some day soon, turn around and announce that it will be starving my stomach once again, in a new and exciting way that will be certain to work this time around.

Additionally, a lot of experts and sufferers of eating disorders equate food with love. A lot of people who don’t even have disordered eating equate food with love. It’s about caring for yourself, it’s also about indulging yourself. So, every time my stomach gets to eat, and gets to eat as much as it likes, that is a happy moment. That is a moment that tells me I am still feeling healthy, that I am still looking after myself. I cannot abide snacking. Forcing yourself to eat when you’re not hungry just so you can eat a smaller meal later on sounds far too much like a controlling diet to me. I like to wait until I’m certain I’m hungry and then just eat until I can’t eat anymore. That is comforting. That makes me feel happy and looked after and loved and not judged.

 

I was talking things over with a doctor recently and she pointed out that it’s fantastic that despite the stress of the past few years, I haven’t reverted back to old habits in the form of disordered eating. And she’s right. I don’t really know how it’s happened (oddly, it seems to have happened when I wasn’t looking, when I wasn’t focusing on it), but I do seem to have overcome the worst of it.

But, I am still surprised sometimes by the weird leftover thoughts from that period of time. They are quieter. They are less powerful, less sinister. But they are still there. I hope, some day, they might be gone entirely.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Introspection, Uncategorized

Things I Worry About at 3am

  1. Is my hair falling out?
  2. What will I do if all my hair falls out?
  3. Oh god, I’ll be so ugly.
  4. I’ll have to buy a lot of colourful scarves.
  5. I don’t know how to tie scarves on my head!
  6. What if I learn how to tie colourful scarves on my head and people think that I’m doing it because of cultural appropriation and I’m trying to be cool.
  7. What if I get pregnant and then EVEN MORE of my hair falls out?
  8. What if I have a kid and they’re embarrassed because I don’t have any hair anymore?
  9. What if my hair is falling out because of something in the water?
  10. What if my hair is falling out because of something in the food?
  11. What if my hair is falling out because I have some kind of terrible disease?
  12. What if all my teeth fall out?
  13. What if I die?
  14. Oh god, I have to ring those people in Germany.
  15. Oh god, I don’t want to ring those people in Germany.
  16. Oh god, I’ll have to speak to those people in Germany in German because it’s only polite.
  17. Oh god, I can’t speak German.
  18. Why is German so complicated?
  19. Why do Germans have so many rules that I don’t understand?
  20. Why did I move to Germany?
  21. Why did I sign up to complicated, German contracts when I can’t understand German?
  22. How would I have lived in Germany if I didn’t sign up to complicated German contracts that I didn’t understand?
  23. Oh god, why did I move to Germany?
  24. I have no money.
  25. I can’t do anything ever because I have no money.
  26. I can’t even look for jobs because I don’t have that stupid letter from the Home Office to prove that I’m here legally, even though I’m definitely here legally.
  27. Even if I did have that letter, no-one is offering me any job interviews.
  28. Even if I got some job interviews, they probably wouldn’t hire me.
  29. I’ll probably only get some crappy, dead-end job with no prospects because I’m too old now to start a career.
  30. Oh god, what if I never have a job again.
  31. What if I never have a job ever again and then Brexit happens and the UK catches fire and we don’t have enough money to get back to Australia?
  32. What if we get back to Australia and I can’t find a job there either?
  33. What if we get back to Australia and there’s no water left by the time we get there?
  34. What if my Dad dies in a massive bushfire when I’m overseas?
  35. What if massive climate change occurs and so then planes no longer work and I can’t get to a ship and mobile phones no longer work and the postal service doesn’t exist and I’m stuck in the UK forever and my Dad is in Australia and my brother is in the USA and I never get to see either of them or talk to either of them ever again.
  36. What if A. dies?
  37. What if it’s my fault that A. dies because I didn’t look after him properly?
  38. What if people blame me for A. dying?
  39. What if people tell me I should have looked after A. better?
  40. What if A. dies and all my hair falls out and no-one ever loves me ever again.
  41. Oh god, why did I say that thing to that person today.
  42. Oh god, that person must hate me.
  43. Oh god, maybe I should write to them and tell them that I didn’t mean what I said and I know it was wrong.
  44. Oh god, what if I do that and then they’re really put off by my anxiety.
  45. Oh god, what if everyone is really put off by my anxiety.
  46. Oh god, what if those people want to offer me a job and I don’t know how to do that job.
  47. What if I get in on the first day and they know, straight away, that it was a mistake and then they tell me to leave.
  48. What if they hire me because I said I could do the job and then they get angry at me when they realise I can’t do that job?
  49. Why is my skin so itchy?
  50. Why can’t I stop scratching?
  51. Maybe I’ll scratch off all my skin.
  52. Maybe I’ll scratch off all my hair.
  53. Oh god, everything’s itchy, I can’t lie still because everything itches.
  54. It’s too warm under my blanket.
  55. It’s too cold without my blanket.
  56. My arms hurt lying in this position.
  57. My knees are too bony to lie in this position.
  58. Oh god, I’m feeling nauseous.
  59. Why am I feeling nauseous?
  60. Maybe I have food poisoning.
  61. Maybe I’m going to throw up.
  62. Maybe I’ll throw up all night.
  63. Maybe I’ll be sick tomorrow.
  64. Maybe I won’t be able to do that thing tomorrow that I said I’d do.
  65. Maybe I won’t be able to do that thing tomorrow that I wanted to do.
  66. Maybe I’m pregnant.
  67. OH GOD I DON’T WANT TO BE PREGNANT.
  68. Maybe I’ll have to have an abortion.
  69. Oh god, I don’t want to have an abortion.
  70. Oh god, I don’t want to pregnant.
  71. Oh god, it’s 5am and I’ve been awake for hours and I want to go to sleep.
  72. I think I’ve forgotten how to sleep.
  73. How does a person go to sleep?
  74. Oh god, I can’t lie still and I can’t keep my eyes closed and everything itches and everything’s too hot or too cold and I can’t stop moving and how does anyone do this, I’ve forgotten how to do this.
  75. Maybe I’m too anxious.
  76. Maybe I need to see a doctor.
  77. Maybe the doctor will put me on medications.
  78. OH GOD I DON’T WANT TO BE PUT ON MEDICATIONS.
  79. But does that mean I’m going to be anxious for the rest of my life?
  80. OH GOD I DON’T WANT TO BE ANXIOUS FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE
  81. I just want to sleep.
  82. How do people sleep?
  83. Is my hair falling out?

etc.

etc.

etc.

Leave a comment

Filed under Introspection

Here, but not here

If you’ve seen me in person over the past 2 – 3 months, you will have gotten a detailed explanation of the difficulties I’ve been having with my visa application(s) to the UK. It’s long and boring and I’ve told it a million times, but as the story continues to twist and turn and inhibit my ability to live a normal life in the UK, it’s difficult to stop thinking about it.

So, let’s get you all up to speed.

I’m married to a British man. The usual way of gaining entry to the UK if you’re a non-EEA citizen and married to a British person is to apply for a spousal visa (the EEA is the European Economic Area, which is slightly different to the EU, for an entertaining look at the differences, see this video here). There are a few problems with the UK spousal visa. First of all, it costs approximately £1200. And that’s not for the visa, that’s for the application – if you’re rejected, you don’t get that money back. If you’re in the UK and you want to get an on-the-day service (you go into the office in-person and get your visa that day) it costs an extra £400. My initial reaction is that on-the-day service doesn’t add much value. Except for the fact that most people seem to get approved if they pay for the on-the-day service and people who apply by post seem to have a lot of problems. Obviously I haven’t done any proper research on this, but anecdotal evidence from friends and reading migrant forums seems to support this basic breakdown. So, it sux to be you if you’re not already in the UK, not able to get to the UK to apply for a spousal visa and not able to afford the extra fee to see someone on-the-day (though, with the pound in free fall, the on-the-day service seems to becoming a bargain for many potential migrants). Furthermore, this visa lasts for just under 3 years, which is not long enough to apply for permanent residence. If you’ve been on a Tier 4 Youth Migrant visa (like many Australian migrants to the UK are), you cannot use the years that you spent on that visa towards your permanent residence application. So, after you’ve paid £1200 – £1600 on the first spousal visa, you have to do it all again 33 months later. After that, you can spend however much money on permanent residence and then, if it hasn’t broken your spirit and your bank account, you can then apply for citizenship a few years down the track.

So, that is the first issue. The second issue is that the British partner or spouse must prove that they earn over £18,600 a year. If you don’t earn above this amount on a salary, life gets harder. Not impossible, but harder. If you do not have an income or do not meet the income requirements, you can make up the shortfall with cash savings in the bank (property and other assets do not apply, much to the chagrin of London property holders). To be eligible, you need to have cash savings of over £65,000 in the bank for the past 6 months. Furthermore, the potential (or real) earning power of the non-EEA spouse or their savings does not matter – the British partner is the only person taken into consideration. This doesn’t really affect me, but the policy has unfairly affected British women, who are more likely to be in part-time work, low-paid work or be unpaid carers of elderly relatives or children. Explaining all of this to a Russian friend of mine, she thought it must contravene human rights law. I don’t know if that could be proved, but the policy certainly is pretty heartless and has been used to separate partners from each other at very significant times, like, for example, at the birth of their first child (see here).

That’s the story from the British side. Now, if you are an EU citizen and you want to bring your non-EEA partner/spouse to the UK, because of freedom of movement laws, there is nothing the UK can do to stop you. They charge a £65 administrative fee to issue you with a residence card for 5 years.

Obviously, a few British people got together and went, hang on. I am also an EU citizen. Why can’t I bring my non-EEA partner to the UK under freedom of movement laws? It was challenged in court and we now have what is known as the ‘Surinder Singh judgement’. So, if you’re a British citizen and you move to an EU country to work (thereby exercising your right to freedom of movement), live there with your non-EEA partner, when you return to the UK, you will be treated as an EU citizen and be allowed to bring your partner back under freedom of movement laws.

SO, A. and I obviously fit into the above category having spent 2 years living and working in Germany. In light of the price difference between the two visas and the fact that I would gain the right to live in the UK for 5 years on the EU permit (even after Brexit happened, as long as I get the visa before the UK actually leaves the EU), we decided to go for the Surinder Singh route.

However, what with the fact that Surinder Singh is a loophole that the Home Office is super unhappy about and also, in light of Brexit, this permit and residence card is getting harder and harder to come by. Processing times have increased on the residence card even for EU citizens and their non-EEA partners, from 3 -4 months right up to the legal limit of 6 months. Originally, British people could move to an EU country for 3 – 6 months and bring their non-EEA partner back easily. However, a later judgement specified that the British citizen must move the ‘centre of their life’ to the EU country (a conveniently slippery and hard-to-define term), meaning that it was unlikely for British citizens to be able to use the route unless they had spent at least 6 – 12 months in an EU country.

So, we applied for the initial 6 month permit when we were still in Germany, knowing that once I got to the UK I would have to apply for the 5 year residence card. As anyone who follows me on social media will know, that initial application was rejected. The reason given was that we had not proven A.’s identity. At the time of the application, A. was travelling from Berlin to London every week for work. We couldn’t provide his passport, so we provided a certified copy of this passport. On the visa application website, it said that a certified copy of the passport was acceptable if the passport couldn’t be provided. Our certified copy was certified by a German lawyer suggested by the UK embassy in Germany. However, the Home Office obviously decided it was not good enough.

Looking at our options in a panic-induced haze after this rejection, we were informed by an immigration lawyer that the permit could be granted on the UK border. Obviously, this was not a possibility if you were the citizen of a country that was not visa-free to visit the UK (say, if you’re from Afghanistan or Belarus or Iran), because the airline would most likely not allow you to board their craft in the first place without a visa. However, coming from a visa-free country like Australia meant that I could literally turn up at Stansted, Heathrow or Gatwick and demand the permit there. I don’t think the Home Office likes to advertise it, because I found out about this route via forums and lawyers, not through the Home Office’s website, but the option is there.

So, on the 31st of August, we arrived at Stansted Airport, documents in hand, shaking in our goddamn boots. If I was rejected for the permit, there was no likelihood that I could just enter as a tourist, because the border agent would have ‘reasonable grounds to believe that I would overstay my visa’. If I was rejected, I would be sent back to Germany  as my port of last call and as I had stopped working there, my sponsored work visa was potentially no longer valid. If I turned up on the German border alone, they might not let me in and, consequently, send me back to Australia. So, A. and I booked emergency flights back to Berlin on the day we arrived in the UK, in case he had to accompany me back to Berlin to get me back into the country (as the non-EEA spouse of an EU citizen, travelling with that EU citizen, we don’t think the German border agents could really have rejected me).

Anyway, the border agent we met at Stansted was… less than friendly. He took our documents (refused to look at our immigration lawyer’s letter) and made us wait in the ‘bad immigrant pen’ (this is my affectionate name for the little guarded seated area they make you wait in so all the other people in the passport queue can stare at and judge you. I think this name makes it slightly less intimidating). When he returned to us, he informed us that we’d ‘certainly done our homework’ and that he’d be letting us into the country today because there was ‘nothing he could do to stop us.’ However, he informed us that there’d been another recent decision (the McCarthy decision – ominous) that meant that he wasn’t going to stamp my passport.  So, if I was picked up by the police, it would look like I had just overstayed my visa. More importantly, I would be unable to prove to employers or the NHS that I was here legally, meaning I could not work and I could not access health care. He advised us to apply for the residence card asap.

We entered the country. I assumed that I would be able to get potential employers to employ me if I had a letter from my immigration lawyer and the documents that proved I was eligible to be here (marriage certificate, evidence that A. and I lived together in Germany, evidence that A. had worked in Germany). After a conversation with our lawyer, it became obvious that was not the case. So, I spent a few weeks sitting around the house, getting certificates in Google Ads and doing MOOC courses, trying to ‘up-skill’ so that when I was finally allowed to apply for jobs, I’d look like I’d been doing something useful.

We didn’t apply for the residence card straight away and I bet you’re wondering why. Well, in July, we’d booked a late summer holiday to Croatia at the end of September, back when we’d foolishly thought all of this would be over by September. The holiday was pretty much non-refundable and both of us were worn out from 4 – 5 months stress of sudden job loss for A., wedding stress, moving stress and visa stress. We were going to the goddamn Adriatic and we were finding a goddamn beach and we were going to lie on it and we were going to de-stress. Goddamn it.

But, there was no guarantee that, on our return, we would be granted entry. We kind of assumed that there would be a record of our original entry into the country and that it created a precedent for us to be allowed back in. However, we weren’t certain.

At Gatwick, we met a border officer who was, I think it’s fair to say, the complete opposite of the man we met at Stansted. He was friendly, kind, understanding, empathetic, helpful. He looked up my name but could not find any evidence of any residence permit or any previous entry on the 31st of August. He took my documents and we were put in the bad immigrant pen again. When he returned, he handed me my passport and said, ‘There you go. I’ve put the stamp in it that you should have gotten in the first place. We would have given it to you if you’d just provided the passport.’

AMAZING! Suddenly the whole of the UK seemed open to me. I had a passport with a stamp, I could look for work, I could register with a doctor. I started immediately looking for jobs and putting my residence card application together.

As stated previously, the residence card application takes 3 – 6 months, but what with Brexit uncertainty, things have slowed down. The application requires my passport and A.’s passport. My passport, the one that has the proof in it that I’m allowed to work and allowed to access a doctor etc. But, as that permit is only 6 months long and the application can take up to 6 months (I’ve recently seen forums and blog posts that suggest the UK has no right to kick out anyone on that visa after 6 months, but I don’t particularly fancy testing their keenness to do it), I need to apply for the residence card asap. The application is currently being looked over by our immigration lawyer before being sent off.

Today, I had a job interview. It was for a temp service, so nothing exciting, but as I’ve been going out of my brain with boredom and lack of money for the past 6 weeks, it was definitely making me feel happy. As I couldn’t bring my passport, I brought a certified copy of the passport and the visa stamp. Not good enough. I have to wait for the letter from the Home Office saying that I’ve applied and that I’m eligible to work. This is what the lawyer advised me back in September when the first border agent refused to stamp my passport. Employers have a list of acceptable documents that prove someone is eligible to work (it is provided by the Home Office). If you don’t have one of those documents, you’re not eligible to work. I kind of thought a certified copy of a recognised permit would be enough, but, no. As far as I know, the letter that proves I’m eligible to work could take at least 2 – 3 weeks to be sent to me. Providing everything goes well. They have to collect my biometric information before the application actually gets going and I know of one person who tried 3 times to give their biometric information to the Home Office and the system failed every time (not through any fault of this applicant). I don’t know if my acknowledgement letter gets sent before the biometric info gets taken or after.

I’ve applied for a quite a few interesting jobs in the last 2 weeks. I’ve been offered some interesting opportunities. But there may be no way of starting any of these jobs before I get this goddamn letter. So, I might lose the opportunities I’ve been offered because I can’t get evidence I’m allowed to work together in time. I’m in an enforced period of stasis, I’m in the country, but have no way of taking advantage of being in the country. It’s hugely difficult to get my life here off the ground without the ability to find work. If I can work I can earn money, I can meet new people, I can get out of the house. Without money, everything becomes harder – there’s a limit to how much I can enjoy here in terms of going to the theatre, using facilities, even going to cafes and having a pot of tea. But, because I’m not at work, I have endless idle hours to try and fill. Sure, Alex is earning. Sure, I have some savings. But not earning your own money makes you feel powerless, anxious and vulnerable.

On top of all this, the Tories had their party conference a few weeks ago and the level of vitriol levelled at migrants who ‘take our jobs’ was astounding. Even if I was able to prove that I’m eligible to work here (because I AM eligible to work here, I just have no acceptable way of PROVING that I’m eligible to work here), I’d be terrified that an employer would look at my passport, shrug and say, ‘seems more trouble than it’s worth, really.’ What if the government puts in place quotas of how many foreign-workers are allowed to be employed by a particular entity? What if the government takes away my EU visa? What if, what if, what if? Sure, it’s not that likely, sure they’re just trying to make the racists who voted for Brexit feel happy and safe and listened to, sure I’m a white Australian and even the Conservatives like us (to pull their beer), if only to have someone to make convict jokes at and feel superior to, but… I am a migrant. I don’t really ‘belong’ here. I’m not ‘British’. Therefore, those anti-migrant speeches were directed at me, along with all the other migrants.

My ‘welcome’ to this country has been so cold and so hostile. I didn’t really expect them to roll out the mat, but the fact that it has been so stressful, that it has been ongoing, that just when we think something has been sorted out, something else comes along to frustrate it, has been so disheartening. I have been working to get status here since July. And it will not end completely until next April. At some point soon (I hope) I will be allowed to work. People are probably thinking that if I didn’t go for this particular route, maybe things would have been easier. But a friend of mine has only just had her spousal visa application approved after a year of fighting a rejection. She was lucky because she was able to stay in the UK with her partner with a different visa. Who knows how long it could have taken if A. and I had tried that route and who knows where in the world I would have had to wait and whether or not A. would be allowed to join me.

There’s always a difficult adjustment period when you move somewhere new. Even if everything had gone right with my visa application, there would have been a period of unemployment, a period of loneliness, a period of idleness. But all of this has been exacerbated by the visa difficulties.

The distressing thing is that this is not a ‘bug’ of the system, or something that people want to fix. This is the system. It’s this difficult and painful and long-winded because it’s meant as a deterrent. It’s this complicated to try and stop people applying in the first place. It’s not meant to be easy for you. I thought, initially, that I could get through this without an immigration lawyer. I really, really, really didn’t want to pay for an immigration lawyer. I can’t explain to you just how annoyed it made me feel that I (or any person) couldn’t do it on my (or their) own. But, looking at all the paperwork for the residence card sitting on my table earlier in the week, I just couldn’t bear to be rejected again. I couldn’t bear to wait 6 months for a rejection. Sure it wouldn’t cost much money if I was rejected, but I couldn’t go through the inconvenience and stress of it all again. Having to figure out my rights (again), having to make new plans (again), having to make a new application (again).

And the fact that the system is so complicated for people who WILL NOT be deterred is ridiculous. It’s not like A. and I are about to turn around and say, ‘oh actually, this is all too hard, let’s just get divorced.’ And it’s not like we considered this system before we got married and it’s attempt at deterrence was in anyway relevant to us (‘Will you marry me?’ ‘Won’t that be really difficult visa-wise?’ ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right, I take it back’). I’m sure people (the government) would tell me that it’s about making sure the system is ‘not abused’ by people who are not in ‘genuine’ relationships. Well, I call bullshit. I want to see the numbers of people who have ‘abused’ the system vs. the number of genuine couples who have had their lives broken (far worse than what A. and I have experienced) because of the system’s unnecessary complexity and harshness.

Do you want to hear something funny? It was easier and less stressful to apply and receive my two visas in Germany, even though those applications took place in GERMAN, which I did not speak beyond a beginner level than it has been to get my UK visa. That, I think, should be a pretty massive indictment.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under UK

German Customer Service

As I mentioned in the last post, I avoided speaking in German as much as possible while in Germany. Which is probably why it took such a long time for my German to improve and that it never got to a level that I was happy with. But, there were times when I couldn’t avoid it. Some of those times were when I had to ring up a service provider to complain, or ask about my contract, or something like that. An Australian friend advised to always make ‘them’ speak English to you – it puts them on the back foot and gives you an advantage, instead of making you stressed, sweaty and struggling for words from the get-go. Good advice, even if it made me feel slightly dodgy and entitled expecting all Germans to speak English  well enough to provide customer service in that language whenever it was convenient for me.

Unfortunately though, these days, there is usually a computer on the end of the phone which guards the entrance to human interaction. So, whether or not I was going to ask to speak in English, or whether or not I was going to alert the customer service provider to my terrible German, but assure them that I would try to speak in German and could they please speak slowly, I still had to make my way through an automated, voice-and-language activated system before I could get to a (hopefully) understanding person.

So, there are a few problems with the computer-bot on the phone if you’re not confident with a language. First of all, the computer speaks unbelievably fast. Sure, it’s probably a decent speed (maybe even too slow!), for a native speaker, but for a beginner, it is like the computer bot’s mouth is galloping faster than a thousand hyper-speed horses. In daily interactions, there was a good chance I would not understand 50% of what was being said, so I relied on context and body language to clarify people’s meaning. I would use the movement of a person’s mouth to help ‘hear’ German words and woe betide if someone was trying to explain something complex to me while a child was having a meltdown and a rubbish truck was passing and the music was on too loud – too many sound distractions essentially shut down my brain’s translation mechanism. Of course, all these things are extra difficult on the phone – there is no mouth to watch, no body language to follow and phones seem to never be loud enough (I felt like I was already 90 years old with a dodgy hearing aid). Finally, because it’s customer service, they are using super polite German, which means using far too many words to say very simple things. I would have been far happier with a service that just barked slowly and loudly, ‘Kundennummer!’ at me over and over again until I finally worked out they needed my customer number and entered it.  All of the thank yous and we’re here to helps just meant that I’d still be translating a greeting in my head when computer-bot would have moved on to what information I needed to provide for it to continue.

And that brings me to the other side of the problem. Not only do you have to understand computer-bot; computer-bot has to understand you. Man, I’ve never had a harsher German teacher than these automated voice services. Most of the time all I had to do was list numbers (a relatively easy task), but the computer-bot would be all, ‘oh, I have no idea what you just said! Was it a drei? Was it a zwei? So confusing your ‘German’ is! I will shut down now.’ When computer-bots first became popular on phone services my father despised them. So, he came up with a system for avoiding the computer bot and being immediately transferred to an actual human. It essentially involved him getting on the phone and yelling, ‘No!’ or ‘Help!’ over and over again until the computer bot gave up trying to understand him and transferred him to a human being. I’ve tried that trick on numerous German customer service lines and in Germany, it seems that if the computer-bot can’t understand you, computer-bot hangs up. Even if you are genuinely trying hard, if computer-bot tries to understand you more than 3 or 4 times, sometimes computer-bot will just hang up anyway. Presumably because computer-bot is tired and has more important things to do than try and understand your ‘German’.

computersaysno

Found here

The absolute worst experience I had with German phone customer service was having to ring DHL earlier this year. My Dad sent me a Christmas present and because it was electronics, he decided to order it from Amazon Germany, as it would have the right power socket and because he thought the shipping would be cheaper. One half of the present arrived, but the other half, in a separate packet, never did. I kept waiting for a packet, or a delivery note but after 3 weeks, I decided to ring Amazon Germany. I got on the phone and explained, very politely, that my German was not very good, but that I would try. The woman on the other end of the phone sighed very dramatically and said, in German, ‘Oh my God.’ So far, so good, Jenny’s feeling super-dooper. We managed to get through the interaction and she explained that as far as Amazon was concerned, the packet had been delivered and I would have to contact DHL. So, I rang up DHL and the phone call started off with an extremely complicated list of potential actions that I might want to do or may have enquiries about. I had to make computer-bot repeat itself about 3 times before I made a choice. It turned out to be the wrong choice, as computer-bot gave me a lot of information that I couldn’t understand and then hung up on me. So, I called again. I decided to make a new choice, which was ‘packets’. After that, computer bot asked me if I needed international or national packets. I ummed and ahhhed and decided it was international. I got put through, did my spiel on my bad German and then explained that my father in Australia had sent me something that had not arrived and I wanted to know where it was. The man took the number from me and told me that, unfortunately, this was a national packet, not an international packet (it had come from Amazon Germany), so I had to speak to national packets. Instead of putting me though to national packets, he hung up on me, which was a bit of a surprise, but I figured I knew what I needed to do now, so I called up DHL again, made all the choices and got through to national packets. I explained, again, how very sorry I was but I didn’t speak German very well, but that I would try. I explained that my father in Australia had sent me something and without listening to the rest of the story, the man on the phone started yelling, ‘No, you’ve got it wrong, this is national packets, no, you don’t understand, you’re in the wrong place,’ continuing to talk over the top of me, as I tried to explain, in more and more desperate (and terrible) German that the packet had been sent from Germany, that I’d already spoken to international packets and that they had told me to speak to national packets and then, as he continued to say, ‘no no no’ over the top of me, he hung up.

(At this point, I was so furious that I flung my phone across the room and hit a cupboard. I was also at work, so I had some concerned colleagues come in to find out if I was ok, which resulted in a strange story going around the kita that I had been scammed on the internet – I was so mad at that point that I don’t know what German I was speaking but it was clearly very confused and not in anyway accurate)

I took a few deep breaths and called DHL again. I got through to domestic packets and, even though I had spent the last 5 minutes repeating to myself over and over not to tell the person on the phone that ‘my father in Australia’ had sent me a packet, of course, my brain was on automatic, it had worked out a nice German spiel and it wasn’t about to work out a new one now when it was angry and stressed and sick of the entirety of the German language, so, I said it again. Immediately, IMMEDIATELY, the woman starts telling me I’m in the wrong place, that I need international packets. I’m so panicked that I’m about to be hung up on for the 4th time in half an hour that I yell, desperately, at her in German to ‘Wait! Please! Wait!’ And, because she is a good human (unlike the other man), she stops talking long enough for me to explain, as slowly and calmly as possible, that I have already spoken to international packets they sent me to domestic packets and that the packet comes from Amazon Germany. Of course, she is now furious that I yelled at her, so she takes the packet number from me very grudgingly. So grudgingly, in fact, that she doesn’t listen properly, enters the number incorrectly and then tells me that this packet doesn’t exist and it’s not coming up. She’s so angry at me that she doesn’t even suggest that maybe she could try again, I have to beg her in my terrible German to listen to me list the number again (‘Please. Once more. Please. Please. You try. Please. Once more.’) This time, either my German is clearer, or she’s listening better, who knows, but the packet comes up and she is delighted to tell me that it has already been sent back to Amazon. I ask her why and she tells me that they tried to deliver it, but when we weren’t at home, they took it back to the depot and then I didn’t pick it up in time. They only keep packets for two weeks. I tell her that DHL never left me a note to say that they had tried to deliver it and she gives me the phone equivalent of a shoulder shrug and a comment along the lines of it’s not her fault, that’s the policy and the packet is gone.

Of course, Amazon being Amazon, they just sent me out a new one, but that experience of DHL phone customer service still makes me so angry and anxious that I am currently jittery.

I’m really not saying that I should have my own special customer service line in English (though, as a side note, my health insurance – TK – did provide that and it was awesome). It’s Germany after all. But what was amazing to me was, first of all, how terrifying and intimidating customer service by phone is if you’re not confident with the language and secondly, the level of contempt some people aim at you if you can’t speak their language properly, even when you apologise, even when you’re trying very hard.

Of course, not everyone is terrible. Trying to cancel my electricity a couple of months ago, I got on the phone to my provider Stromio. I did my usual spiel of speaking bad German but that I would try. I explained that I was leaving the country and needed to know how to quit my contract. The guy rattled off a lot of information at top speed. I said, I’m so sorry, I don’t understand what you said. Could you please say it again, slower? At which point, with great gentleness and kindness he said, ‘Of course, of course Frau Williams. Of course I can speak slower.’ And then he repeated it all, nice and slowly, nice and clearly and answered all my follow up questions with great patience. The whole interaction kept me on a high for several hours. It really doesn’t take much.

 

1 Comment

Filed under German, German language, Germany

German Contracts

Here’s a thing.

If you talk to the English-speaking migrant population of Berlin about living in Berlin, they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, of COURSE you can live here without German. It’s NO PROBLEM. Absolutely FINE.’

This is true to a point. You can definitely go into a restaurant in Berlin and order in English. You can buy U-bahn tickets from the little automated machines and you can do it in English. You can use google translate on German web pages and basically get the gist of what’s going on. You can even find work in English, watch English films, buy English books from English bookstores and find English-speaking friends (in fact, it may be impossible to find friends who speak any other language except English).

But, if you want to live there, actually, live there, on your own, without someone in your household who speaks fluent German and is forced to translate all your documents for you (forced because they are married to you, or love you, or just can’t get away), then you are going to find it rough. And you are going to find yourself paying a lot of money to a lot of people for reasons that you cannot fathom and seem completely unfair.

The main reason I’ve gotten into trouble is because of the Germans’ obsession with having everything written down. If you want to end a contract, it must be written down, signed and sent to them, usually, 3 months in advance of when you want to end a contract. Contracts can only ever be cancelled at the end of the month, regardless of when you started your contract.

I first encountered this problem when I tried to end our rental contract. I knew we had to give 3 months notice, so I sent an email to our realtor with, what I thought was, 3 and a half months warning. The realtor emailed me back saying it would have to be in writing. Something about her broken English made me assume that I had to sign a specific form and as she also wanted to come and see the house the next week, I assumed she would bring the form to me and I would sign it then. When she came to visit, she informed me of the cancellation ‘only at the end of the month’ issue. She then pointed out that it was now too late for me to cancel when I wanted to cancel – there was no special form, I just had to write a letter and I would’ve had time if I had sent the letter the day I received her email requesting a written cancellation.

There are many misunderstandings there, not least of all that an email actually IS acceptable – I checked with a German lawyer – but the only way to get the realtor to agree to that would have been to involve the lawyer and we decided we didn’t want the hassle. In the end, an extra month turned out not to be a bad idea – what with all the stress of my visa being rejected, I don’t know if we would have managed to get the place empty and clean in time.

But, in the last week, I’ve just noticed another massive error on my behalf. I checked my bank account to make sure that I had no standing orders left to various vendors in Berlin. That’s when I saw that a yoga studio I had signed up to for a 6 month contract in 2015 was still taking money out of my bank account every month.

Why didn’t I notice it earlier, you might wonder. Well, getting into my German bank account was quite stressful. Part of it was the language and part of it was that I could never remember my password (yes, if I’d signed in more regularly perhaps the language wouldn’t have been stressful and I would have remembered the password better). I had no German credit card, so I didn’t need to organise payments to it, which is one reason I kept a pretty careful eye on my Australian bank account. But, also, the design of the bank website was not very user friendly. When you sign into the account, it tells you the general overall statement. If you want to know about actual transactions, you have to type in the dates of the period you want, instead of just clicking on the account and having all transactions appear. I know that sounds like a pretty poor excuse, but it meant that I would look in a very specific window to find a specific transaction and wouldn’t just scroll through my transactions like I do with my Australian bank account. When I scroll, I often find things that seem suspicious – usually it’s just that I’ve forgotten the transaction or it’s a weird name of something that I did actually buy, but it’s a good habit. The design of my German bank account didn’t encourage that. So, my usual behaviour with the German bank account was, if there’s still money in there, then we’re all good. Not great for picking up yoga memberships you didn’t know you still had.

So, I feel an absolute tool. When I signed up in 2015, the woman could tell that my German was no good, so she offered to do it all in English. I originally requested a 12 month contract, but she said it wasn’t possible (they had 12 month contracts on offer, but weren’t signing people on to them for some reason), so I would have to sign up to a 6 month contract. She took me through the important conditions of the (German) contract in English. At no point did she tell me that it would be automatically renewed after 6 months, unless I cancelled (in writing) – and it seems bizarre in hindsight that she wouldn’t sign me up for a 12 month contract, when the 6 month contract was actually ongoing. Most likely to do with price changes, or the minimum amount of time you had to keep the contract, of course, but still. It was another huge part of my misunderstanding of what kind of contract I was signing up to.

SO, last October, I got very busy applying for universities (I developed a plan. A misguided plan, but I wasn’t accepted into university, so it was all ok). I stopped going to yoga and by the time I had got my applications in, it was 6 months from the start of my yoga contract. Ah well, I thought, I’ll wait until I get back from Australia in January and then go renew my contract. Of course, I never set foot inside that studio again. The yoga studio also didn’t contact me in any way – didn’t send me receipts every month (as my internet provider did), didn’t send me emails thanking me for being a good customer (as my gas & electricity companies did), didn’t send me a letter on the one year anniversary of my signing up to the studio (as… tumblr did). Anything, any kind of contact or marketing that could have alerted me to the fact that I was still, as far as they were concerned, a member of their gym.

I’m pretty disgustingly mad about it all. Especially as I am currently unemployed in the UK and I could really do with the all the excess cash they’ve taken from me. I also don’t sign up for ongoing contracts like this, because I know, I KNOW, that it is how gyms screw you over. I’ve always signed up for fixed-term contracts because, yes, they might be a bit more expensive, but at least you know in advance how long you’ve signed up for and you don’t have to argue with the company about ending the contract.

But, as I said at the start of this post, you might be able to order a coffee in English in Berlin, but trying to do things that are more complex are going to get you into trouble. As all the highly aggressive people on the Toy Town Germany forum would tell me, ‘IT’S GERMANY, OF COURSE EVERYTHING IS IN GERMAN, YOU ABSOLUTE TOSSING SHIT-FOR-BRAINS’ (it’s a really supportive forum of English speakers in Germany, offering sound advice and abuse to people who dare to ask for help).  To which I say, ‘yes. Yes, I agree with you.’ Yes, I don’t think it’s easy just to live in Berlin without German. I don’t think people should just assume they can have everything translated easily into English, on the spot. However, when someone offers, of course your natural instinct is to go, ‘oh! You speak the language of my people? Oh, please, yes, let us speak in that language for I love it so and also don’t understand your language in anyway and it makes me red-faced and sweaty trying to speak it.’ It’s kind of hard to have people act very kindly towards you, assure you that everything’s fine, and of course you can sign this German contract, here, let me explain it to you in English, and then have them to turn out to have screwed you over. Sure, I shouldn’t trust everyone. But, also, why shouldn’t I trust them if they seem like they’re being kind and helpful and reassuring me that I do understand the contract that’s been put in front of me? It would be SO RUDE and inconvenient to tell them otherwise. Besides, how often do I read the T’s and C’s of contracts/companies/internet data-scraping apps even when they’re in English?

angry-man-1

‘HOW DARE YOU ASK FOR HELP ABOUT DOING THINGS IN ENGLISH IN GERMANY ON AN ENGLISH-SPEAKING FORUM DEDICATED TO THAT EXACT PROBLEM. I LEARNT GERMAN FOR 15 YEARS BEFORE ARRIVING HERE AND IT WASN’T TO EXPLAIN THE GERMAN-SPEAKING WORLD TO SCUM LIKE YOU’ every person on the Toy Town Berlin forum. Image found here.

Up until recently, government offices have refused to speak to foreigners in English. It seems harsh until you realise it actual protects the office from accusations that they have mistranslated something (and people have been disadvantaged because of it) and it protects the foreigner from signing something they haven’t properly looked at. Sure, I couldn’t understand a lot of the German forms that were handed to me. Yes, I needed an evening with them, plus some Google translate, plus a German friend to help look them over again. But, that’s a GOOD thing. That meant that I had really looked at the goddamn thing and kind of understood what was going on.

I spent a lot of time in Berlin being highly anxious. Part of that was the circumstances of my job. Part of it was that daily interactions were sweaty, panic-attack inducing mumble fests of wrongly pronounced words and misunderstandings. And part of that was the feeling that I was maybe, probably, absolutely definitely missing *something* that was going to get me into trouble somewhere down the line. And that was because, due to my lack of German, I kept myself distant from so many things that happened in German. Another, less anxious person would have confronted that anxiety head on, tried to be proactive about stuff and refused to sign things unless a German-speaking friend had looked it over for me. But, that would require making requests of people, spending time doing difficult things and possibly telling people, ‘no, wait, I don’t understand.’ All of which are things that I don’t do very easily.

So, yeah. You can live in Berlin with no German. But don’t think it will be easy. And best be prepared with some big ol’ pockets.

3 Comments

Filed under Berlin, expats

Reasons I’ve used not to write

  • I can’t think of anything to write about, so there’s no point in trying
  • Nobody’s asked me to write anything
  • Nobody’s paying me to write anything
  • Nobody’s waiting for me to write anything
  • Nobody’s asked me to collaborate on anything
  • Everything that could be written has already been written
  • Even if I could take something that’s already been written and write about it in a new way, that new way has already been written
  • I’m not creative enough
  • I’m not hard working enough
  • I’m not smart enough
  • I’m not political enough
  • I’m not opinionated enough
  • I’m not thoughtful enough
  • I’m not funny enough
  • I’m not serious enough
  • I don’t read enough books
  • I don’t read enough poetry
  • I don’t listen to enough classical music
  • I don’t watch enough experimental video art
  • Sometimes I use the wrong words for things
  • I’m not Australian enough
  • I’m too Australian
  • I haven’t read Kafka
  • I haven’t read Faulkner
  • I haven’t read Joyce
  • I haven’t read [X]
  • I don’t understand Foucault
  • I watch too much on Netflix
  • I don’t watch enough on Netflix
  • I know too many internet memes
  • I don’t know enough internet memes
  • I don’t have a law degree
  • I don’t have a philosophy degree
  • I don’t have a literature degree
  • I didn’t start young enough
  • I haven’t been given any grants
  • I haven’t won any prizes
  • Ok, I won one prize, but that was ages ago, so it must have been a mistake
  • I don’t have a mission statement for my writing
  • I don’t know why I’m writing
  • I’m a middle class white girl and nobody needs to hear my opinion on anything
  • I’m a middle class white girl and can’t write anything that doesn’t directly involve middle class white girls
  • I’m a middle class white girl and it’s my job, at this point in history, to be quiet
  • There’s too much crap to read in the world anyway, I shouldn’t add more crap to the world’s ‘to read’ pile
  • If I do add more crap to the world’s ‘to read’ pile, then who will read all the crap that has already been written? I should just confine myself to reading other people’s crap and validating that
  •  If I start writing and it’s not immediately good enough to win a prize/be on the BBC/sell a million billion gazillion copies, then there is no point continuing
  • Somebody in the world has to be a grown-up and do all the things that nobody else wants to do. Like, filing.
  • If I write something, maybe people won’t like it
  • If I write something, maybe people will be offended by it
  • If I write something, maybe people won’t understand it
  • If I write something, maybe people will understand it too easily
  • If I write something, maybe people will be neutral about it
  • There are terrible terrible things happening in the world and how can I think about writing when there are such terrible terrible things happening in the world, what’s wrong with me, I should just sit here and think of the terrible terrible things happening forever
  • In 20 years time, the world will end through huge and horrible climate change, so there’s no point in writing anything anyway.

Leave a comment

Filed under Introspection

Burkinis and Bikins

Many, many people much smarter and more articulate than I have already weighed into this topic. It seems to have been universally condemned and has already been overturned by the French court.

But I did just want to write a little personal note. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. Two weeks ago, I bought a swimsuit that reveals my belly. This is the first swimsuit I have ever owned in my adult life that reveals my belly. Bikinis, for me, have always come with the baggage of the ‘bikini-ready body’, an idea and a body that haunts women’s magazines for the 3 -4 months before summer and then the 3 months of summer. I didn’t know how to get rid of the pubic hair around my bikini line without my skin breaking out in horrible, itchy red bumps and going out with my pubs showing made me feel disgusting. Maybe I ‘shouldn’t’ have felt shamed by this. But, I did. Bikinis weren’t liberating or sexy or fun for me. They were shaming. And bikinis became impossible for me to wear.

So what, I guess? One-pieces are/were available. However, they were difficult to find and most stores offered very little attractive choice. Places that offered lots of one-piece swimsuits were geared towards little old ladies. I didn’t want to wear these sorts of swimsuits. They made me feel old and prudish and unattractive. Maybe I ‘shouldn’t’ have felt shamed by all this. But, I did. And being on the beach, or in the pool (unless it was just to swim laps), became almost impossible.

I feel very differently about all of this now. And a lot of women would have told me I should have felt differently about that before. Who cares if I have pubic hair showing? Who cares if I don’t have a bikini body? I agree (now), but that didn’t stop my younger self worrying about all those things. And, having those women force me into a bikini against my will and pushing me out into the middle of Bondi Beach with a wildly hairy bikini line would not have made me feel any better. It would not have made me suddenly empowered or more free.

The only time I ever felt comfortable in a ‘swimsuit’ was on a school trip to Australia’s Wonderland. I had, genuinely, forgotten my swimsuit, because I didn’t think we were going to go swimming. We were. Everyone was. So, I decided to wear my knickers (black) and a friend’s black singlet top. I loved it. I thought I looked chic. I got compliments. I looked everywhere for a swimsuit that looked just like that. Of course, nothing. But, apart from all that, if anyone had known that I was actually a teenage girl running around a public place, on a school trip, in my underwear, I’m absolutely certain someone would have told me it was inappropriate. It was provocative. Despite it covering up more of my skin than my friends’ bikinis.  Because of someone else’s classification of what that material was supposed to be and what that material was meant to mean and what my teenage skin cloaked in that material was meant to invite.

My point with all this is that it is impossible to know how an individual views a garment, how it makes them feel and the significance they attach to it. The French are saying that they ‘know’ that EVERY burkini has dangerous connotations, significance and poses a threat to their secular society. But they can’t know, just by looking at what kind of outfit a woman is wearing, how she feels about that garment, how she feels about herself, how she feels about Islam and how she feels about France. It is the most horrific form of stereotyping, generalising and racism. It takes away an person’s ability to define themselves, to express themselves and tells them how they should feel. It is saying to an entire group that to be in public life they must feel shamed and uncomfortable, or they will not be permitted at all.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Uncategorized