Tag Archives: Germany

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’.

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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.

 

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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.

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Filed under Berlin, expats

The Wedding

So we had a pretty big June.

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Yep! We got ourselves hitched!

As followers of this blog may know, I’m not a huge fan of the wedding industry. I’m also not a massive fan of the history of marriage or the modern institution, capitalist romance and the performance of said-romance (see also previous blog entries).  So, it might seem a strange thing for a gal like me to be getting married.

And, honestly, it was a strange thing. I know a lot of people view me as hopelessly romantic and whilst that is certainly an aspect of my personality that I may have accidentally cultivated with my interest in Jane Austen, BBC bonnet dramas and flowery clothing; but I assure you the other part of me is a hardened, crusty and angry cynic. I can only describe it as the effects of having been a young and hopeless romantic who came into late and unwelcome contact with the real world. I never really thought I’d get married. When I was in a relationship I couldn’t see a good reason to get married – as a young 20-something it didn’t seem to make a difference to my life. When I was single… well, I just thought I’d never be with anyone ever again. And, that was also… fine.

But, that all kind of changed when I met Alex. I don’t mean (*orchestra playing*) I finally met the love of my life and I suddenly saw the point of marriage. I mean, that because we are citizens of different countries, getting married seemed to make a lot of sense. At some point in our relationship we had each, individually and personally, decided that we wanted, and expected, to be with each other long-term. But that’s not so easy when you don’t have rights in the other’s country. So, getting married was an official way of saying to each of our countries: ‘we come as a package.’ Of course, that explanation doesn’t get rid of all the icky baggage that marriage is carrying around with it, nor does it acknowledge the fact that for many people, an official marriage is still not possible. But for better or worse (ha!) getting married did become very important for us.

Now, I can’t pretend I was impervious to all the traditional wedding stuff. Sure, I wore a red dress and not white, but do you know how much stress I put myself (and many others) through to get that absolutely perfect, one-of-a-kind dress? Sure we only had a civil ceremony in a town hall, but if, for language and visa reasons, you decide to get married in a faux-gothic, early twentieth century Danish town hall that happens to be holding said civil ceremonies in the goddamn clock tower on the day of your wedding, you will still have 6 year old girls looking at the photos and squealing, ‘Jenny! It’s your palace! You’re a princess!’

I think my attitude towards the whole thing was that it should be special, of course it should be special, but if anyone dared suggest that this was, or should be, the happiest day of my life, I would come at them with the unnecessarily high heel of my wedding shoe. Apart from anything else, it simply wasn’t true because we were having a ‘reception’ on a different day (and in a different country) to the ceremony (and possibly another reception in Australia next year – we’re calling it ‘The 2016 – 17 International Festival of Jenny and Alex’. Good God, what were we thinking). So, I deliberately tried to buy things that could be used after the wedding ceremony (and specifically, on the day of the reception). Not only the dress, but the headband, the shoes (which can be died a different colour than spill-attracting white-cream), the make-up (which I bought and did myself), the curlers that I used to set my hair (though I must acknowledge the stupendous help of my best friend Erin who stepped in both days and pinned my hair when I suddenly panicked and couldn’t figure out how to do the back of my hair when I couldn’t see it).

The reason we chose Denmark was that we had it on good authority that it could be very complicated for foreigners to get married in Germany. Also, the service had to be done in German or it wasn’t official and if we couldn’t understand properly we had to provide a translator. Denmark, however, has made a cottage industry of marrying absolutely anyone to anyone else, quickly, efficiently and in the language of your choice (provided that your language of choice is Danish, English or German). We contacted ‘Getting Married in Denmark’ who gave great advice, were warm, helpful all along the way (no matter how annoying or stressed the questions!) and got us exactly the wedding that we wanted.

We got into Copenhagen two days beforehand, with enough time to drop off our official documents as well as to visit the fantastic Tivoli Gardens – an historic and beautiful theme park. I can definitely vouch for rollercoasters and an 80m -high swing roundabout thing for getting rid of your pre-wedding anxiety.

StarFlyer

Yup. Went up that thing and lived to tell the tale. ‘Star Flyer’ image found here .

The ceremony was at 10:30am on Saturday, but when we gave in our official documents the woman at the desk had been very disparaging of the notion that we were getting married in the clock tower (way to up the pre-wedding anxiety, random Danish City Hall worker), so we had decided to get there extra early just to make sure that we were actually, really, truly getting married where we had been told we were getting married.

I spent the hours beforehand doing make-up and hair with the help of my stepmum and the the aforementioned Wonderfriend, Erin. I was anxious enough to get approval on almost every brushstroke. Not only is Erin a whizz with the hair, but she is luckily a theatre person and so knew how to attach fake eyelashes – a thing I had bought thinking they looked great but had failed to practice actually attaching to my face. Little tip – 50mins before you need to be at your own wedding is not the time to make your very first attempt at attaching false eyelashes to your face. One does not even know where one should attach fake eyelashes 50mins before one’s wedding – the upper lip? The outer rim of the ear?

Anywho, despite taking way longer than expected, I was ready on time, jumped into a taxi with my parents and wasn’t even the last one to arrive. The City Hall staff on the day were, without exception, friendly, polite, welcoming, happy for us and just generally wonderful. Each staff member showed us to a new section of the City Hall where we would wait a few moments before being shown to another section. The place is stunning with loads of interesting stuff to look at, from nautical and octopus themed wall paintings to exhibitions on WWII in Denmark, so this game of ‘pass-the- wedding-party’ was actually highly enjoyable. The only real issue was when it became increasingly obvious that there was no lift. Not even a little lift for just a little bit of the upward journey. We were to power ourselves all the way up to the clock tower with our own two feet. I mean, it was terribly romantic climbing up all those spiral staircases, but petticoats really do get in the way of making certain that your feet are going where you think they are going.

I can barely remember the ceremony, it was over so quickly. I’m told I squealed. I really hope not. But, then again, I can barely remember the amazing view from the clock tower because I was just so darn excited. So, maybe I squealed. I hope everyone can forgive me. The staff who conducted the ceremony were wonderful and even though we’d never met our celebrant before, she was just perfect – both funny and sincere and just generally warm and empathetic. The little speech she gave in English, of what I can remember, was lovely: something about making sure that we strengthen our relationship by making sure we remain individuals and strengthen each other as individuals. Ah, it was just so perfect. Like I said before, I’ve got issues with romance and public romance, but, I tell you what. This was spectacularly, fantastically, beautifully romantic. Alex was crying (from happiness – I swear I didn’t force him into it). I couldn’t stop smiling.

When we got down to the ground, I dropped our newly minted wedding documents off to be translated and made official (or something) and then we gathered our wedding group together for the post-wedding lunch. We had a bit of time and I was still worked up, so I insisted that we all ‘had to parade’ to the restaurant. In reality, all that meant was walking for 20 mins over cobblestones (though, in hindsight, I should totally have forced them all to play music and throw streamers over me. Missed opportunity). Everyone was extremely kind and all agreed. Nobody even tried to protest. The power of the bride.

Luckily we got to the restaurant just as everyone’s feet were giving out. We had chosen the most Danish restaurant we could find, which served open faced sandwiches and schnapps: Told og Snaps. Again, the staff were wonderful, so friendly and so helpful, considering what a big group we were. They explained we couldn’t possibly drink schnapps without first having beer. This was the way of things in Denmark. So, we all ordered beer and then a schnapps was selected from their long list (‘I will choose a good one for you – if you have never had schnapps before it is difficult to choose’, said the wonderful waiter). The sandwich menu was incredibly long and each one we ordered was incredibly delicious. Who knew a bit of toasted bread with some stuff on top could be so gourmet? The Danes, that’s who.

All the excitement of the past 24 hours: the emotions, the happiness, the stress, the make-up, the hair, the rollercoasters, the lack of food (I’d been unable to eat dinner or breakfast before the wedding) and then the sudden food (so much sandwich! So much cheese!) was starting to take it’s toll. Alex and I went back to the hotel and, in all honesty, all we had the energy to do was watch Danish nature documentaries. Alex fell asleep. Really. I don’t know how couples who do the ceremony and the reception all on the same day do it. I was exhausted.

After about 4 hours of lying down, we had enough energy to go out and get dinner. Around 8pm, people started coming to our hotel room and we had a good ol’ fashioned hotel room party just like in the old days. My brother had brought us lichen liquor from his stop-over in Iceland and we forced everyone to drink it. It was great. I mean, not the liquor, that was pretty awful, but that my brother had brought it and that everyone felt compelled to try it. That was great. Thanks to excellent Danish hotel design, absolutely none of the other guests complained, because absolutely no one could hear anything outside of the room. Spectacular.

On Sunday, Alex and I got up late and then wandered around Copenhagen trying to see a few sights before our flight. Copenhagen is really pretty. That’s my verdict. I would highly recommend it as the place of your next wedding or holiday.

Well, I was going to try and do wedding and reception together but I think it’s getting a bit long. I’ll write the next bit tomorrow.

 

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Filed under Berlin, Dating, Wedding, wedding dress

FOMO and David Bowie

Leaving Australia at the start of January was difficult. 3 weeks at my (old) home was pretty spectacular. It was sunny, I got to wear as many summer dresses as I liked, all these wonderful people that I hardly get to see were there and they are all still very nice and we had more than our fair share of avocados and life was good.

But apart from having to give all of that up, I had also decided I really, truly, hated Berlin.

Of course, that was a bit of an overstatement brought on by sun-mania, dehydration and hyper-avocado-enemia, but there is at least a little nugget of truth at the heart of it.

I’ve had a lot of problems moving to Berlin. I’m terrible about the language thing. Not necessarily that I can’t speak, but that I can’t speak PERFECTLY. That really bothers me. There are some ex-pats who live here very happily knowing no German and there are some ex-pats who live here and work hard and become fluent. I fit into neither category. I’m too lazy to learn German properly, but cripplingly embarrassed about this moral failing in a typically Anglo-Saxon middle-class way.

Plus, I’ve really struggled to find things here that I like to do. I go to work, I come home, I watch Netflix. Seriously, this is my glamorous ex-pat life. The only difference between me and people I grew up with who stayed in Australia is that I get German subtitles on my Netflix and, also, that there are some pretty awesome looking foreign films on offer (that I can’t understand because there are no English subtitles available and because of, you know, the aforementioned language problem).

You’ll be pleased to know that I am taking steps to try and rectify the situation. I’ve turned one of the doors in our apartment into a ‘Berlin To-Do List’, covered in post-it notes that can be easily removed and thrown in the bin (in a most satisfying way), once the activity has successfully been completed. I don’t actually think the To-Do List is that great. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll keep me occupied and it’s stuff I do want to get done, but it still feels like I’m kind of missing something.

Berlin is such a byword for the creative and the avant-garde, the interesting and unique and revolutionary. And yet, in direct contrast, here is my dull little existence, basically indistinguishable from my dull existence in any other city that I’ve lived in (apart from the exciting/cripplingly embarrassing language thing).

Of course, some of the things that make Berlin ‘Berlin’ are uninteresting to me anyway. Taking drugs and staying at clubs all weekend long. That’s a thing, apparently. Working as a kitchen hand and making art in all your free hours and still living comfortably. That’s also a thing, as I found out when I first moved her and stupidly asked Berlin people ‘so, what do you do?’ generating many sniffy responses, which pointedly delineated between paid work and ACTUAL work and that my lack of understanding of the difference made me fairly lacking in value. But neither of those lifestyles, for all their Peter Pan-like appeal, particularly interests me.

I guess this is the problem. Without realising it, I had some strange, perhaps pathetic expectations about how Berlin ‘should’ be and what would happen to me when I got here. A place that was meant to be inspiring and motivating for so many artists, I just kind of assumed it would just naturally inspire and motivate me too. Part of it was my state of mind when I moved here (I GIVE UP! THEATRE IS DEAD TO ME!) But I think I had a secret hope that somehow I would be motivated, inspired and full of words and writing without having to do anything about it. That hasn’t happened. There is nothing I have created here that people will be able to point to and classify my ‘Berlin oeuvre’. And, I have to admit, it’s kind of disappointing.

Certainly it’s hard to be inspired when your main connection with the culture of a place is through a shared obsession with baked goods (so many bakeries! so much fresh bread!) but I’m also at a bit of a loss as to where to find this inspiring, interesting, revolutionary Berlin culture. Is it still there? Was it ever there? Is it something you can actually pinpoint in a moment, or day-to-day, or is it something that you look back on and say, ‘ah, yes, there it was. That time there.’

I certainly haven’t met a contemporary Nabokov or Isherwood or Bowie or Iggy Pop to hang out with, or if I did, I didn’t recognise them (more fool me). Similarly, I haven’t come across an equivalent of the Rote Armee Fraktion (not that I’ve been looking, I swear, CIA). I have visited the ‘trendy’ areas where every young person wants to live and, quite frankly, to me, they seem insufferably full of tourists and ex-pats and pop-up shops selling crappy knick-knacks with moustaches on them. Certainly nothing that’s radically changed my life, or opened up my point of view. I’ve tried to go to artistic nights of poetry and music. I tried to set one up, which we just won’t talk about. I’ve attended a ‘storytelling’ night where various ex-pats told highly ‘moving’ stories of all the drugs they’d taken in countries across the world. But I just can’t find an ‘it’ to satisfy whatever early stereotypes I had formed before I got here.

I don’t want to complain that nothing here is ‘authentic’ any more and I’m certainly not claiming to be some kind of ‘authenticity’ arbiter pointing to bits of the city and declaring this part worthwhile, whilst this over here is valueless. But I just can’t seem to get excited about this place. And so many people are so excited about this place. I just feel like I’ve somehow been left out of the party for the past two years and I don’t quite know what to do about it.

Princess

 

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3 More Years in Berlin?

So today I got my sponsored work visa to stay in Germany. My youth working holiday visa finished at the start of September (because I am no longer a youth – I am 31 and old according to governments the world over) and the kindergarten that I work for offered to sponsor me so that I could continue working for them.

It was a strange moment when the woman at the Auslanderbehörde (Foreigner’s Registration Office) handed me my passport with the new visa inside. Not least of all because she decided to speak English to me, and I had been pretty certain, up to this point, that all German bureaucrats had to speak German to everyone at all times because they are:

a) working in Germany for the German government and

b) could mistranslate something and then give someone the wrong information and then get the government into a lot of trouble.

That’s a reasonable sounding rationale I made up in my head to explain why everyone in Berlin speaks perfect English except the people in bureaucracy, and especially the people who might need to actually speak a language other than German (for example, at the Foreigner’s Registration Office).

Nevertheless, the strangest thing about getting my visa today was opening up my passport and seeing that, as long as I kept working at the same kindergarten and did nothing else, I could stay in Germany until August 2018.

3 more years.

That seems like a really long time.

Of course, it’s not. The years are going by faster and faster these days (and yet, I still don’t seem to be able to get anything useful done – how did I ever have time to graduate high school and also watch daily episodes of Neighbours and The Simpsons?) and I even have friends with children older than 3 years (which is, incidentally, terrifying) and just next year we’ll have another Australian federal election (though it sometimes seems we have changes of government even more regularly…)

However, for the past 5 years, I’ve been living visa to visa and every time I’ve made a move, it’s for a limited amount of time, usually under 2 years. Ireland was meant to be a year and I stayed for a year and a bit. My UK visa was for 2 years and I stayed for just under that. My original German visa was for a year. And in between times, I’ve had all sorts of other plans that never came to fruition. At some point I was considering moving to Canada for a year. For a couple of months near the end of my UK visa I was coming to terms with the idea that I would have to move back to Australia and deciding what kind of life that was going to be. At the start of my Irish visa I was going to live and work in Cork for 6 months, then hike the whole island of Ireland and some of the UK and then travel home to Australia via the Trans-Mongolian railway (some day, my friends, some day).

This slightly nomadic existence hasn’t always seemed entirely of my own choosing. Once I started I was unable to stop. I collected countries and youth visas the way that children used to collect Pokemon. There was a strange compulsion to the country hopping. Sure there were always reasons for the next country (not least of all because the visa in the last one had run out), but at no point did it seem to enter my head that I could just stop. Go home. Be still and quiet and nest for a while. There was a time limit to the visas I was on (the 30 year limit), which perhaps created the whiff of desperation. There was also a reluctance to return to Australia once I’d gotten out here. Not because Australia is horrible, but because… Australia is far away. And once I’d gotten far away, it seemed like a lot of effort to go back. And to go back to… what, exactly? Yes, my family is there and friends still, but there wasn’t exactly a life that I left behind. I had no job, no career, no house, no pets. I knew I didn’t want to live in Sydney anymore, I probably didn’t want to move back to Newcastle, but there was nothing that said I had to come home. There seemed no reason to end the ‘adventure’.

With a 3 year visa in my hand, the nomadic existence seems to be at an end. I’m not exactly sad. But I’m also not exactly certain about the place that I’ve landed. I came mainly because another visa was at an end. For the first few months I resented being here and that coloured a lot of my initial impressions of the place. My lack of German makes working in a German environment hard – not because I can’t understand instructions or what’s going on around me. But because it makes me feel like a different person – a quiet one, an introspective one, a boring one, someone who sits on the edge of conversations and barely keeps up, instead of someone who actively, happily participates. I’m aware that I want to do *something else* but whether or not that *something else* (whatever it is) is possible in Germany without qualifications or proper German is also up for debate. The German government has opened it’s arms to me, warmly, strangely, unexpectedly, in a way that the Irish and British governments never did, would never do, and yet all I can say is, ‘uh…. I dunno… let me get back to you.’

Obviously just because I have a 3 year visa doesn’t mean I have to stay here. I’m not exactly certain if the constant moving is really at an end. Maybe A. and I will go back to Cambridge in a year (though we also said that a year ago when we first moved to Berlin). Maybe we will move back to Australia so that A. can get acquainted with the poisonous snakes and I can remember all the good things about my home. Maybe I’ll start writing racy historical bodice rippers for the self-publishing arm of Amazon and I can buy A. a run-down Irish castle, who knows? But wherever I end up, this new visa is the end of an era. The youth visas are over. From now on my choices of country will have to be more deliberate and more permanent.

I suppose there’s a comfort in that feeling of permanence, of stability, of knowing where you live and who you live there with and what that place is like, of knowing that things will happen at certain times in certain places, of knowing how to tip and how to buy a travel card, of where to get a good breakfast and where to get a good dinner, on knowing the exact phrasing and intonation on public transport announcements, on having supermarket preferences. The dull bits of life I got bored of in Australia are the things I am now most loathe to lose the next time (if there is a next time) that we move. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old. Or maybe it’s because I’ve worked out what I actually want. Or, maybe it just is what it is and there is no deeper meaning.

I went out looking for adventure and found my ordinary life.

Foreigner Registration Office in Berlin (seriously. This is the place where you go to get visas here. Can you picture this in Australia? Or the UK?)

Foreigner Registration Office in Berlin (seriously. This is the place where you go to get visas here. Can you picture this in Australia? Or the UK?)

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Filed under Introspection, travel

On Speaking the Language

A few weeks ago I wrote a self-deprecating, whiny post about the fact that I hadn’t learnt German yet and that barmen still switch to English even if I’ve managed to get through ‘One big Radler and one big Dunkels beer’ in German without stumbling over my tongue. A few people at the time (possibly sick of my whiny, self-deprecating writing style) reminded me that I was still doing pretty ok with my rudimentary restaurant German and at least had a head start on all those monolinguists out there.

In all honesty, that didn’t encourage me to be easier on myself, but after another barman switched to english in a busy bar last week and as I mentally and verbally kicked myself out the door and down the street and on to the U-Bahn, A. finally snapped and reminded me that I still, at most, only had 12 months of pretty scrappy language learning behind me and was contending with people who had been learning English for, if not all their lives, most of their lives and, in the nicest possible way, could I please just give it a rest for the trip home, it was quite late and we’d drunk a lot of beer. Ignoring his tone, I realised that he was right and have subsequently put my rose-tinted glasses back on and think only happy thoughts about my German. I’ve also started trying to practice more, which I had stopped doing, on the grounds that I was no good and therefore there was no point in trying to learn anything. It made sense at the time.

Furthermore, I also had a very amusing conversation with a fellow ex-pat and he told me a story about one of his friends who had visited him in Germany. The poor girl had scraped together all of her high school German and attempted to order a beer, in German, to which the barman had replied by glaring at her and then demanding (in English), ‘Why is it MY job to teach you German? Just SPEAK ENGLISH. It’s EASIER.’ Which is harsh, but I can see his point. If you’re in a busy bar and you’ve got a stuttering, mumbling ex-pat in front of you and a disgruntled queue of people waiting for drinks behind, yeah, just SPEAK ENGLISH. It’s easier.

Nevertheless, haters aside, I have been trying to practice more. I went to Frankfurt to meet an old friend from my au-pairing days and as she is German, I attempted to speak some German to her, which was… slow and painful and embarrassing but I got more confident as the days went by. Mainly I just annoyed her with lots of questions in English like, ‘So, how do you say the ‘o’ with the little dots on top properly?’ And ‘Is it true about the difference between the two German past tenses?’ and just a lot of ‘What’s that in German? And that? And what’s that in German? Right, cool. What about that?’ I basically treated her the way my pupils treat me.

She did teach me lots of awesome German phrases. Some of these I had seen/heard before, but she let me say them over and over to her until I was pretty certain I had them right. I present them to you now, because they are absolutely awesome, especially if you translate them directly into English:

Ich glaube ich spinne (literal translation: ‘I believe I spider.’ Meaning: ‘I think I’m saying the wrong thing.’)

Jetzt haben wir den Salat! (literal translation: ‘NOW we have the salad!’ Meaning: ‘We did all that and tried so hard, and THESE are the results???’)

Bring mich nicht in Teufel’s Küche! (literal translation: ‘Don’t take me into the Devil’s Kitchen!’ Meaning: ‘Don’t get me in trouble!’)

Mal nicht den Teufel an der Wand (literal translation: ‘Don’t paint the Devil on the wall.’ Meaning: ‘Don’t jump to the worst conclusion’)

Du gehts mir tierische auf den Keks! (literal translation: ‘You go me animally on the cookie!’ Meaning: ‘You make me crazy!’)

Du bist auf den Holzweg (literal translation: ‘You are on the wood way’ Meaning: ‘You’ve got it wrong’)

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof (literal translation: ‘I only understand train station’ Meaning: ‘I don’t understand anything’)

Ende gut, alles gut (All’s well that ends well)

Das ist mir Würst (literal translation: ‘That is, to me, sausage’ Meaning: ‘It’s the same to me’)

And if that has whet your appetite (or you’d like to hear some of the above phrases spoken, at speed, by actual Germans) watch this hilarious video.

I’ve been practicing them ever since, muttering them under my breath as I fall asleep, exclaiming them out loud when A. least expects it, hoping that passerbys will think I am genuinely German (A. thinks I sound like I’m in some terrible ’90s sitcom and there should be a laugh track played every time I say one, like a character on TV show who has an annoying catchphrase). I think of them as good German exercises for my poor English tongue and that maybe practicing them and getting them perfect will make me not only appear to be German to passerbys, but sound German when the time comes to create sentences of my own.

No, but, seriously, I went into an incredibly intimidating German couture wedding dress shop today (just to see what it was like, just to see if they’d kick me out before I opened my mouth, just to see if all the precious white dresses would explode in my face like some kind of fancy alarm system if I touched them the wrong way) and I spoke entirely to the woman in German. And she spoke German to me. THE WHOLE TIME. And I understood everything! And it was complicated! And she kept speaking German even though she could tell I wasn’t German and she kept speaking German even when I told her I was from Australia because I UNDERSTOOD! And she UNDERSTOOD that I UNDERSTOOD!

Of course, the wedding dresses were ridiculously expensive and I don’t think I’ll be going back again, but the main point here is, I spoke German! And I made sense! Oh happy day!

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Filed under Berlin, expats, German, German language, German phrases, Germany, learning, speaking, teaching, translation, wedding dress

In Defence of Children

I’ve noticed something strange when I meet new people recently.

When I used to tell people I was an actor/writer, they would look reasonably interested. Despite the fact that I was unemployed, had had very little success, was depressed and/or constantly struggling with eating disorders (or maybe because of this), people seemed to find a strange glamour, or at least slight interest, to me when I described myself as an actor/writer. And this was even after assuring them I had never been on ‘Home and Away’. Not to brag, but a boy I met at an online dating site, who was gainfully (and happily) employed as a teacher decided, after 3 dates with me, to chuck it all in and audition for NIDA. There’s a power and fascination to the ‘following-your-dream’ trope, no matter how dreadfully or unsuccessfully you are following that elusive dream.

However, now when people ask me what I do for a living and I say kindergarten teacher, people’s eyes tend to glaze over. There are no follow-up questions. If I attempt to speak about something amusing, or interesting, that happened at school, I look back at my dinner companions and find them staring at their plates, the wall, the floor, the door, calculating how long exactly before they can make their excuses and get away from the Woman Who Won’t Stop Talking About (Her) Children.

A. tells me the problem is that I don’t know how to filter between interesting/funny/horrific stories that hold their own and ‘Cute Kid Did Cute Thing.’ Stories in the latter category are as if I attempted to describe to you a video in which a child makes a hilarious expression after eating a lemon. Sure, it may be hilarious, but it kind of loses something in the telling.

My problem is that I find the children all-consumingly fascinating. It’s not just because they’re adorable (though, believe me, they are freaking adorable), and it’s not just that they smell good (but, Good God they smell good – sure the poop stinks, but the tops of their heads? it’s like the poop of angels and unicorns and fairies, which is to say THERE IS NOTHING ELSE ON EARTH THAT SMELLS THAT GOOD) and it’s not just that I’m probably the teensiest, tiniest, weeniest bit clucky myself (KEEP IT ON THE DOWN LOW PEOPLE, I HAVE A REPUTATION TO UPHOLD AND AM NOT READY TO GIVE UP MY STUNTED, RESPONSIBILITY-FREE ADULTHOOD JUST YET). Those things help, as do the constant cuddles, and the enthusiastic way they great you in the morning (why don’t we all greet each other by yelping with joy and then throwing our arms around the legs of our friend and not letting them in the door because we’re JUST SO DARN PLEASED TO SEE THEM?) and the fact that they think I’m a combination of cool/hilarious/talented/highly-skilled at everything as well as all-knowing and all-seeing and all-powerful.

But aside from all of that nice, fun, gooey, cutesy, sweet stuff, I find being around the children so interesting that I can’t help running off my mouth at dinner parties, even when I can see everyone else checking their watches. I’ve tried to break it down for you.

1) At the risk of sounding like an overly proud first-time mother, watching them learn every day and make little discoveries is both funny and fascinating. I’m not trying to convince you that my kids are any more special than any other group of kids – they’re not baby geniuses and they’re just doing what they’re programmed to do. But, I think it’s almost like watching a long-form documentary called ‘The Origin of Adults’. We all had to go through this at some point. We all had to learn how to walk, to speak, to eat, to make little hand movements, to make big body movements. We all went about it in our own idiosyncratic ways, we all had our own little stories and challenges. And let me tell you, all of this was much harder than you think it is now. It’s amazing we got here at all. We should all feel a lot more impressive for being able to thread a bead on a necklace. Or, open a yoghurt container. Or cross our arm across our body in a ‘Saturday Night Fever’ dance move. You are skilled, Adult. Never forget it (even if you’ve forgotten how you ended up getting there).

2) Watching them explore the world around them is hilarious. Adults spend most of their lives trying to look like they’ve seen it all, and done it all. If they don’t know how to use a thing, they will ask a trusted someone, who is guaranteed not to laugh at them, in private, in hushed tones, whilst hiding their face in shame. Or they’ll google it, which, I guess is kind of the same thing. Kids, however, are just like, ‘What is this thing? Will I shake it? Cuddle it? Scrunch it up? Push it off the table? Should I put it in my mouth? Or my ear? My nose? Perhaps all at once? Is that possible?’ If they’ve decided something goes in their mouth, then there is no stopping them, and, what’s more, they don’t care who sees them! That towel/key/plastic strawberry/misshapen and dirty rock is GOING IN THEIR MOUTH and they’ll very happily show you the results. It means they come up with a variety of inventive new uses for toys, as well as making toys out of previously dull objects and creating much more fun for all involved.

3) Kids are basically all emotion all day long. They swing from one pendulum extreme to another with barely a breath in between. It is sometimes exhausting to be in the middle of this kind of behaviour. But, from the sidelines, it can be highly educational. Most adults have learnt to control their emotions and to shape their behaviour so that it’s socially acceptable. So, even if they are feeling like bawling their eyes out on the U-Bahn because someone yelled at them in German, and they kind of understood it, and they kind of didn’t, and that kind of made it worse ’cause then they started filling in the gaps with the worst things they could think of (for example), they don’t do it and make everyone else in the carriage feel uncomfortable, they go to the cinema, buy a ticket for the saddest movie they can find and then cry silently in the dark for 2 hours over some stale popcorn and flat, fake Diet Coke. But, kids! Oh, the sweet, joyful honesty of the expression of children’s emotions! Kid doesn’t like another kid? Unliked kid gets pushed. Kid likes another kid? Kid kisses other kid. Kid stretches favourite elastic necklace until the elastic snaps and the cheap beads explode all over the room? Kid cries in horror at surprising unfairness of the world. I have a theory that the emotions we feel as adults are no more complex or interesting than the ones the kids feel every day, it’s just we dress them up more fancy. We come up with fancier explanations for what we’re feeling, and fancier reasons for why we’re feeling that way, and often do the fanciest of fancy, self-defeating, roundabout behaviours to attempt to address said feelings in socially acceptable ways, but in the end the feelings are the same. Of course, we (usually) factor in complicated, abstract things like empathy (‘I push kid, kid is hurt, kid cries = not good’) and reason (‘I push kid, kid is hurt, kid cries, kid tells mum, kid’s mum tells my mum, I get in trouble = not good’) and modify our behaviour accordingly. I spend most of my day attempting to convince the children to deal with their emotions in different ways, for social reasons or for empathy/reason reasons but I still can’t help enjoying it when they do things the way they want to do them (as long as it doesn’t involve them killing each other). Kid wants toy train another kid is playing with. So, kid takes train. I can see the logic.

4) Their enthusiasm for very basic things is awesome. Today, a kid got excited because I cut up his potato with a spoon in front of him. The amazed sounds he made would have made you think I had cut a woman in half and then put her back together. Yes, ok, so life is new to them, and so it’s easy to get excited by banal things, and, sure it could also be seen as exhausting or boring, but, no. No, I choose ‘awesome’. It’s awesome. There’s nothing like someone getting excited by you cutting up their potato in front of them to make you think, ‘You know what? You’re right. Potatoes are awesome. Spoons are awesome. Life is ok.’ And, no, I’m not saying there aren’t terrible things happening in the world, and, no, I’m not forgetting my privilege to live in a safe, happy city, or the privilege of the kids I’m working with to have spoons and potatoes, but, still. I think we could all stand to occasionally take a moment out from all the scary stuff to acknowledge how cool it is that you can make big things smaller by using a metal implement with no sharp edges and some gently applied force. Besides, kids get excited about silly, little things that adults get excited about every day, but no-one tells the adults they’re boring or exhausting or stupid, do they? Trains, new dresses, going on holidays, bicycles, babies, cake, ice-cream, Minions… these are just a few of the things the kids got excited about over the past week and which regularly grace the status updates of my fully-grown, highly intelligent and extremely classy Facebook friends.

I think, in the end, I don’t see the children as wild animals, or as needy, greedy crying machines, or as stupid humans, I just see them as what they are. Tiny people who haven’t grown up yet. It’s a weird thing to try and explain. But I often see them playing or talking or laughing or just generally hanging out and an expression will cross their face and you’ll think, ‘Yes. Yes, I can completely see what you’ll be like in 20 years time, because you’ll be exactly the same. You’re already exactly who you are.’

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