Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Berlin: a city torn by war

All the guidebooks talk about Berlin as one of the most dynamic cities in the world. It should be considering its history. For almost 30 years it was carved up by a wall and 4 armies. How do you mend a city with an entire generation who has never known it wholly?

We didn't get to do much sight-seeing of this historic city, but we did get to experience a hidden bit of Berlin's post-wall culture. We hooked up with Arian and Corrynn, 2 old friends from Seattle who were here for a Hawaiian music festival (go figure?) Corrynn, ever adventurous, was couch surfing, staying at some guys' apartment she found on the internet. I'm sure its more legit than it sounds. ANYWAY, we were so glad she was couch surfing because the guys she was staying with took us to Wasserschlact.

What is this bizarre event? Two districts, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, were divided by the Berlin Wall and also by the River Spree. In the mid-90s the Berlin city govt decided to join these two very distinct districts and there was some general mumbling and grumbling. But the politicians from each neighborhood disregarded their constituents' wishes and met on the bridge between the two districts.

Since 1995 a group of Friedrichshain-ians and Kreuzbergers have gotten together to "Wasserschlacht" or water battle. But its not just water. As you can see from the video or the photo link below, rotten or cooked fruit and veg, bags of flour and mud, are all part of the mix. People make elaborate "armor" and even tanks out of cardboard in preparation for the battle.

While Wasserschlact has been banned for a few years due to some out-of-control behavior (a car got burned out) this year's fight was "clean." Police closely monitor the event and sort through participants' produce for hard vegetables, which are discarded. An ambulance was on hand, just in case.

The battle lasted a little more than an hour, Kreuzberg (our side) advancing steadily for the first 40 minutes, only to be beaten back across the bridge at the last minute. It began mostly with throwing food, but as supplies ran low, participants advanced with their pool noodles to whack each other. We mostly managed to evade the fray, although Corrynn did get an egg under her armor and I took an orange to the foot.

It gives me hope for the world that instead of rioting and actual violence, a city can come together to have a silly food fight once a year. Maybe the war-weary citizens of Berlin have got it all figured out.

P.S. here is a link for photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2041481&l=7d698&id=42900797

Friday, July 25, 2008

Many Merry Merkels

So Ryan and I have a fascination with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. We don't speak German or follow German politics too closely, so it has nothing to do with anything substantive. We just enjoy her turtle-like mannerisms. My theory is that a. she has a turtle shell and cleverly conceals it in her fitted suit jackets oder b. the suit jackets and their obtrusive shoulder pads are some kind of plot to keep Merkel's arms from reaching above mid-chest. Either way, the effect can be quite comical.

Exhibit A: Merkel's turtle instincts try to fend off the unwanted and decidedly creepy massage Bush forced on her.

Exhibit B: Who can resist a crush on Obama? No one, not even Merkel.

Exhibit C: suck it all you journalists who commented on Hillary Clinton's cleavage. Merkel does as Merkel likes!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Always Learning Something New

I had an epiphany while ironing the family's sweat pants and jeans (insert anal German joke here). Forgive me if this is obvious to you, but I was ironing the 10-year old girl's jeans, and I saw that they are Abercrombie & Fitch size 0. Having never been a size 0 myself, I haven't ever held up a pair of pants this small before. I know that most models are a size 0 or 2. But I was shocked to see these pants in person! This little girl is built like your average 10-year old, slim, has yet to develop. Its so strange to think that this is the "ideal" fashion size. I couldn't believe it! This is not an adult size! I realize some adult women are naturally this size, but clearly not the majority. I wonder if a lot of people who wear a size 0 are actually prepubescent.

As for the rest of the job, its getting better. The older daughter is very helpful and also bilingual, if a little short-tempered with her sister. And the younger daughter is getting better. She needs to get over this tantrum thing, but she has sweetened up to me a bit. And she attempted her first (mostly) English sentence today in the car: "Katy, can you anschnallen me?" Mom and sister were in the car and had a good laugh with me. They let me know that "anschnallen" means "buckle up." So there you go.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In a rich man's world....

Sorry for the ABBA quote. We saw it Friday night (I loved it, Ryan laughed a few times). Money has been on my mind recently, as I've struggled through mounds of confusion and German paperwork to get a new account here. Plus, our landlord was a month late getting our deposit back on our place in Newcastle leading us to within inches of overdrawing our account. Thank God, it has all come through.

Before we were married, when we were living off Ryan's engineer salary and our parents' generosity (ok we're still living a bit off our parents' generosity) money seemed so different to me. Ryan bought me $200 jeans for our anniversary, we went out to a fancy restaurant at least once a month. He had a car. Now, it's a splurge to buy a packet of new socks.

When I was in college I looked around in disgust at all the people who seemed to waste money willy-nilly on fancy cars and etc. I knew that money wasn't important to me and that I would be just fine living as a starving artist. But the ideals and the reality are quite different.

I'm happy. Money can't bring you that. Though it can bring you convenience. And fun. I still have fun, but its different fun. Probably being broke has encouraged us to be more creative. And more than that, my eyes have been opened to how wasteful I was.

It's funny, my boss is a strict Buddhist, who told me one of the 3 great evils is greed. Then in the same breath she tells me that she's building a 3rd vacation home in Switzerland. Well, there are hypocrites in every belief, espeically when it comes to money. Nobody wants to take Jesus' command to give all you own to the poor literally.

I do worry that when Ryan graduates and we have money again, I will become tied down to my possessions. I've seen a lot of married couples who stay in miserable jobs because their spouse wants a new car or a fancy house. And that's not worth it to me.

Like Ben Folds says "...being poor was not such a drag in hindsight." While I am jealous of people we know who are married with a dog, a house, and a car, I know that what we're doing is an incredible opportunity. And the further we delay all that car/house/major purchase stuff, the further we delay all the monthly payments that seem to enslave so many.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Another day at the office....

Note to self: This is what happens when you let a four-year old "help" with the sunscreen on your back. I started my new job on Monday, and so far it has been exhausting. The family is on vacation from Frankfurt to Lake Starnberg, about an hour south of Munich. They have two daughters, but at the moment I'm only caring for the youngest, who is four. And challenging.

The tantrums are getting shorter, at least. This morning there was an 80-minuter about getting dressed, but the last of the day (about drinking some water) was only 15 minutes or so. So, at this rate, we should end tomorrow in 30 second tantrums, right?

She is going through a time of transition, and that can be difficult. Her mother is having a baby, she is on vacation with a new nanny, and she seems to have some issues regarding her gender. I guess its not so odd, one of my previous charges was a puppy for a day, why not the opposite sex?

The major problems arise mostly when her mother is around. Mom is very nice, a PHD in something sciency and is intent on explaining everything to her daughter regarding why she can't come along for prenatal checks and whatnot. I'm all for explaining, however when the child launches into full-on tantrum, I think its time for a new tactic. Also, Mom wants me to only speak English with the girls, insisting they both know it. The older one is certainly fluent, but the younger one isn't. As far as I can tell the only English she knows is "no" and "nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!" (Is that even English?) So, on that score I can understand when the she gets frustrated because I can't understand 70% of the things she says. But, circumstances have brought us together and hopefully we can learn to get along.

At the very least they are paying me well, and when I came home late tonight Ryan had bought flowers and cooked me spaghetti. Its the little things that make me realize why I work all these crazy jobs in the first place.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Some Perspective

The whole immigration debate is so silly. It seems to be run by a bunch of people standing on their folding chairs yelling "They're taking our jobs! And learn some damn English!" I can understand that people want to maintain national identity. People want to drive down the street in anytown USA and see someone barbecuing and see someone else walking a golden retriever on a leash. It's nice.

BUT the world was never really this way. There have always been immigrants, and there always will be immigrants. America, of all countries, should be very aware of this. Every major city has a "China town" or some other ethnic equivelant, and some people find this very upsetting, clearly overlooking the great restaurants.

After living abroad for almost a year, I now understand what it is to be an immigrant. Ryan and I have a few German friends, but mostly we hang out with Americans. We go to an English-speaking church. We buy stuff like peanut butter with little American flags on it. We're trying to learn German, but it doesn't happen overnight. It's hard living in another country! We take comfort in little Americanisms here and there. Ryan and I chose to move to Germany for his career, but many immigrants don't have the luxury of choice; its either move or starve. Move or be killed by gangs.

Another component of immigration is race. When we lived in the UK we were not regarded as immigrants because we are American and white. The English didn't care if we lived among them. But someone from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh is seen quite differently. People had no problem discussing the scourge of immigration with me, but when I pointed out to them that I am an immigrant, they'd basically say "you don't count."

This issue, like the war on terror, seems to have reached far past logical issues and into emotional fear-mongering. If people examined the effect of immigration, they'd see many net gains. And, most immigrants, after a generation or so, DO become assimiliated. And then they start hating immigrants.

Monday, July 7, 2008


When I was 18 I was determined to be a famous actress. I wasn't asking for Hollywood fame, Broadway fame would be ok too. The only trouble was that no one wanted to cast me in anything significant. They obviously couldn't understand my genius.

My sophomore year I realized that I probably wasn't being cast for a reason. So I practiced, tried every "method" under the sun, only to realize that basically all of the acting methods are bullshit, and what directors wanted(at least the ones I worked with) was the old children's theatre grandstanding. I did a few shows outside of university, but by and large felt disenchanted.

But although my heart wasn't in it, I still wanted to act, mainly because I felt I had something to prove. To whom? I don't know, all those people who didn't cast me, or the people who think they're more talented than me. I had actors' nightmares for a few months after graduating school, but gradually they faded as I focused my efforts elsewhere.

I've given a lot of thought to various careers: social work, non-profit organization, psychologist, teaching. Every week there is a new plan for grad school. Really I think I could go for a career as an eternal student because there are so many things that interest me.

Last night I went to my first audition in ages. Its for a video series teaching business English to Germans. I didn't particularly enjoy the audtion part, but it was fairly hilarious trying to explain my acting resume-- really, I bet there are a lot of actors who get their first film experience doing zombie movies.

On the way home I was thinking about acting, the creative drive, and etc and came back to the realization I've had many times before: I really miss improv. Not even the performing, rehearsals alone have led to some of the funniest moments of my life. So, I think once we finally get settled somewhere I'll have to find/make an improv troupe. An English-speaking one. I doubt this is the be-all end-all magical career, but its an outlet I need in my life.
P.S. the photo is a can-can dancing napkin from "Beauty and the Beast"

4th of July, in Germany

Ryan and I hadn't planned on doing anything for the 4th of July, thinking it was probably a bit weird since we are in Deutschland. But our friend Sarah, whom we met at church, invited us to hook up with Young Democrats Abroad for a picnic at a beergarden, and we couldn't pass that up. I spent a few hours making pulled pork BBQ sandwiches, and we met up for a lively evening. We met several new people, and as is first order of business when you meet another American abroad, commensed in Bush-bashing which led to "oh yeah, in my hometown...(insert redneck story)" which finally led to (mostly) meaningful conversation.

It was a very fun evening, including American-food reminiscing (someone brought hotdogs in a jar, just not the same!) and comparing notes about living abroad, homesickness, and our lack of German fluency. We didn't have any fireworks, but did managed to get chewed out twice by the Beer Frau for pushing tables together and taking extra forks. Dangerous! It is very nice to meet other Americans and share experiences. Apparently, its universally true that German men love to stare at girls on the U-Bahn. They won't approach you like American men, they just stare and sometimes wink before exiting...I'm glad that's happened to other people because it was beginning to freak me out.

Saturday we were excited to check out "Rewe Sommerfest" a carnival organized by our local grocery store. We showed up to Theriesenweise (Oktoberfest grounds)expecting rides and free samples. But what we found was bizarre. Basically it was glorified grocery shopping. There were booths where people bought 50-pound bags of chips, or buckets full of pineapples. Many people had Rewe wagons filled with palletes of soda and munchies. We were quite unprepared. There were also a few small children's rides, and a completely disturbing boy band performance featuring all-pelvic-thrusting choreography. I suddenly remembered that the freezer needed defrosting, so we left.

After church Sunday Sarah and Emily invited us to another 4th event at a different beer garden, which was supposed to be meetings of Democrats Abroad, German-American Business Association, Californians Abroad, and a few other organizations. It was gloomy weather but we went along. There weren't many Young Democrats Abroad, mostly the older kind. Sarah explained to me that when she and another girl moved to Germany they both wound up at a regular DA meeting and decided the organization was too weird and so formed the "Young Democrats Abroad." From their description, most of the DA are middle-aged conspiracy theorists, with a couple lechers thrown in. We had a nice picnic anyway, though as we left we got soaked by rain.

Although we are already too-obsessed with the elections (thank you CNN) we are thinking of joining the Young Democrats Abroad. I'm getting bored of Obama-McCain talk, but its nice to socialize. While I would like to socialize more with Germans, at this point the language barrier is proving too awkward for us to cross.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Tonight Ryan and I were invited to his boss' dinner party. I emailed my parents to check on gift-bringing etiquette and settled on summery looking flowers. I put on my yellow sundress (dinner was BBQ) and met Ryan at the Passing S-Bahn station. Then the heavens opened, spouting sheets of rain and hail. Ryan mentioned that he hadn't looked up a bus route, just walking. I dug inside my bag to discover sunglasses but no umbrella. Super. We both huddled under Ryan's umbrella, each 3/4 exposed to the elements. My dress stuck to my back and right side. Ryan's shirt went transparent when wet, displaying his dark body hair.

While the whole scene brought on images from Rocky Horror Picture Show's "There's a Light (Over at the Frankenstein Place)" I'm afraid our first impression wasn't impressive. Dieter and his wife, Silke, graciously offered us towels and a blowdryer, but we were still damp and awkward. A few more guests arrived and we began chatting over beers, in English (triumph!). Things were going pretty well until about 20 minutes in when the conversation switched to German-- and stayed there-- for the next 2.5 hours! I was able to catch sentences here and there, such as:
"The hibiscus used to be this small, and 20 years later it is over a metre."
"Yes, he was only 24 and when they came home, he was dead!"

The food was delicious, and the party gave me a chance to meet Ryan's project manager, who looks like someone I'd avoid at a truck stop (70s cowboy-type, balding on top, long hair on the sides, skinny mustache, weirdly long pinky nails). The evening was good practice, I suppose, but it did give me the feeling that I'd rather not live in Germany after December. I really enjoy dinner parties, telling funny stories, making witty comments. But in German I can barely ask where the bathroom is. How long would it be until I am fluent? And beyond that, how long until I can be witty in a foreign language? Are the senses of humor even similar enough? My final stab at conversing came during dessert-- pineapple. During a silence I stated "I read once that there is so much acid in a pineapple that if you were to eat an entire pineapple by yourself, you would have third-degree burns in your mouth." I would call this a good conversation starter, but it inspired only grim nods.

So, Germany remains an enigma for another day. In related cultural observations: why do so many German girls wear halter tops with regular bras? Has this look caught on in the US as well?