Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas in Germany


I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one of them is Newsweek. Last weekend they had their food critic on to talk about candy canes. Like many of our American Christmas traditions, they come from Germany. But this lady was so confused by that fact saying "its funny because I don't think of Germany as a very festive place." Does "O Tannenbaum" ring a bell?

American Christmas borrows heavily from Germany, including the Christmas trees, advent wreaths, a lot of food, and some carols. But German Christmas has many traditions that didn't cross over. The above photo is from the Christmas market in Nürnberg, taken with Marisa and Justin's camera, you can read Justin's take on Nürnberg here.

These markets are in pretty much every village and city in Germany. The traditional drink is Glühwein (mulled wine) which you drink out of little boots. There are lots of goodies to eat and beautiful Christmas ornaments and local crafts for sale at the Christmas market. The church bells toll more often and sometimes there are carolers or nativity scenes.

The Christmas celebrations here start at Advent (the four Sundays before the 25th) and culminate on Heiligabend (Christmas Eve). Everyone enjoys some coffee and Stollen (Christmas cake) or other goodies during the afternoon. The children are shooed out of the room, and then Christi comes to decorate the tree and bring the presents. "Christi" is German for Christ, though when I asked about this there was some disagreement about whether this was actually the baby Jesus. The confusion probably comes from the fact that Christi is usually portrayed by a little girl dressed as an angel with blond ringlets.

St. Nickolaus comes not on Christmas, but on December 6th to bring oranges and nuts. And even though most kids can eat oranges and nuts whenever they want, they are still pretty excited about Nickolaus. Sometimes he also brings a small present, like a book.

"Weihnachtsmann" also appears in Germany. This is American-style Santa Claus, with the red suit. Nickolaus is dressed like an old bishop, as was his occupation while he lived. I haven't met a German who celebrates with Weihnachtsmann, and I'm beginning to think he's just a marketing ploy. Even the little girl I babysit, whose parents are American, doesn't believe in Weihnachtsmann, despite repeated readings of "The Polar Express." Its just too confusing to have so many people bringing presents in one month, I guess.

Even though we don't have any snow at all, there is definitely a beautiful Christmas feeling in the air. I highly recommend Germany in December.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nicky Robotics Inc.


I've gotta share the following email, which I got on my birthday from my brother-in-law, Nicky. He's an artist and does illustrations both free-hand and computer animation type stuff. Leave a comment or send an email if you're interested in his stuff.

Greetings valued customer!

This is a message from Nicky Robotics Inc. for one Katy Strange wishing you a very happy birthday. We here at Nicky Robotics Inc. are always pleased with your continuing patronage. We hope that the Random Yawning And Navigation (or R.Y.A.N) bot you purchased from us several years ago is still fully functional. Remember, if your Robot ever breaks down we will repair or replace no matter what. That's our R or R Guarantee.


If you are interested, we are introduced a new line of Robots you might be interested in. The Dance-o-tron. Guaranteed to dance to any music. It may look creepy but it has hips like Shakira.

We hope you are well and wish you all the best.

-Nicky Robotics Inc.
P.S We have included a picture of the Dance-o-tron if you are interested.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Customer Service? We don't need no customer service!

At a cocktail party a few weeks ago I fell in with another American expat, complaining about the German way of doing things. (Its so much more fun to complain than to praise, don't you think?) I was mentioning some difficulties we've been having with our internet and with the German DMV. She's lived here for several years and said to me, "What did you expect? Service? It doesn't exist here!"

Because in America the attitude is "we'll do anything to get your money." When I worked as a lowly front desk attendant at a gym the training was very specific. If a customer has a problem and you can't solve it personally, you call over the person who can and explain the customer's problem so they don't have to repeat his/herself. This goes up the chain of command until we find the person who can fix the problem.

It has been astonishing to Ryan and I that we could walk into a bank and try to open an account, basically saying "here, take our money" and an employee would elect not to help us on seemingly arbitrary grounds. In England, one bank employee checked one manual, couldn't figure out what kind of ID we needed to show to open a bank account and gave up completely. Basically told us "I don't know if you can open a bank account here. Sorry and goodbye."

But I digress. Over the last month or so I have written two formal letters of complaint: one to the Berlin driver's license office and one to Vodafone. Good practice in German, at any rate. Here are the unbelievable sagas:

VODAFONE
I've already written about the waiting period to get your internet installed, but the other day mine stopped working entirely. After 3 hours of trying every trick I know of, Ryan got home and tried every trick he knew. Then I resigned myself to calling the dreaded customer service line.

Calling a customer service line in a foreign language is about the worst punishment I can devise. Not only do you get the random disconnect after being on hold for 20 minutes (listening to the same 1 minute of some terrible pop song on a loop!) but then you get some disgruntled call center employee who assumes you're calling because you didn't plug your computer in or some bull like that. Not only that but even though my German has gotten pretty good I find myself saying "Wie bitte?" (excuse me?) several times at which the employee sighs exasperatedly and repeats himself even faster. I have taken to saying right off the bat "Before we begin, I am not a native speaker of German. Please speak slowly and clearly."

Anyway, the customer service guy tells me the issue is with my computer and offers to send a technician. But, he says, if the problem is my computer and not the connection, I will be charged minimally €40 for the visit. The technician comes the next morning between 8:30-11:00, which of course, means 11:00. He spends 30 minutes plugging random devices into the wall. He somehow fixes the issue then asked me "What are you studying, beautiful?" as he gestured at Ryan's engineering books. For all this I'm supposed to pay €64, and so I wrote a letter of complaint (with the help of my lovely teacher, Julianna).

Today a got a call on the house phone, which is fairly unusual. Another fast-speaking customer service rep asking me about my letter. She was speaking quickly and using some legalese I couldn't get the full meaning of, but from what I got, they haven't charged me yet and don't want to. But she's not in charge of that and if they do end up charging me I should send them a letter and they will pay me back.

About an hour later I got another call from Vodafone. I was expecting some other news about my letter but instead got "Thank you for being our customer. Vodafone has some new exciting offers. But first, let me ask, are you happy with your Vodafone service?"


HOW TO GET A DRIVER'S LICENSE
Ryan applied in March at the appropriate office in Berlin, where we lived at the time. He was told to come back with a translation of his driver's license and an eye test. At the time I could hardly speak any German but even I could have translated his driver's license. It says only his name, address, the state in which it was issued, his eye color, hair color, height, weight, and birth date. But he needed an OFFICIAL translation, and so he went to the ADAC (the German AAA). They told him he did NOT need a translation, and recommended him to an eye doctor for his vision test. He took the vision test (€10) back to the Berlin office. He paid €50 and was told he'd receive the license in a few months.

In July Ryan became worried, because we were moving to Frankfurt. I arranged to have our mail forwarded and he called the office and asked them to forward his application to the Frankfurt office. In August he called the Frankfurt office and they had not received anything. He called the Berlin office, they promised to send the application right away. Two weeks went by. Ryan called the Berlin office and they confirmed that they had sent the application. So he went to the Frankfurt office but they had still not received anything. An employee asked for Ryan's receipt and promised to track down the application. Nothing happened. Ryan called the Berlin office again and asked to what address they had sent his application. It was, of course, the wrong one. The only copy had been sent to a wrong address because some Berlin employee hadn't bothered to Google the Frankfurt office. Ryan went back to the Frankfurt office and mentioned the Berlin fiasco, asking to reapply. The employee was convinced the application was somewhere in the mail room, Ryan assured him it was not. After some arguing, the employee told him, in that case you will need an eye test and a translation of your driver's license. Ryan said that the ADAC told him he did NOT need a translation. But the employee insisted.

So Ryan called the ADAC in Frankfurt and the translator (the only OFFICIAL translator in Frankfurt) said "Come down anytime, it should only take a few minutes." So Ryan stopped by two days later. The translator had left for a vacation. For two weeks. After two weeks, Ryan called again to confirm she was back. He went down the next day. She was out sick. Ryan called again and eventually the official translator was found. She took 5 minutes to type out the official translation, €50 please. Ryan took the translation, his forwarded eye test results, and went back to the Frankfurt office. He was determined not to even mention Berlin because every time he did, another delay took place.

Ryan went back to the office yesterday and turned in his new application. The employee looked at his name and said "Ryan Strange? But I already have an application for you." And out of his desk he took Ryan's Berlin application, postmarked August. Then he told Ryan he did NOT need a translation of his driver's license, and said "I don't have a receipt of payment for Berlin, so I'll need you to pay €50. If you find a receipt from Berlin, someone will gladly refund your money." Now Ryan will wait a few weeks and supposedly receive a driver's license.
(I don't want to hear any complaining about the DMV, no matter how long you wait in line, at least it doesn't take you 10 months to get a driving license.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nothing's Cooler than a Bunny Man

Ryan's been traveling a lot for work this past month and he's found a new obsession whilst staying in German hotel rooms-- the "Viva" channel, which is like German MTV. There is a European MTV actually, Viva seems to be more popular. And now that Ryan's found it, he's suddenly a walking top-20 countdown!

Americans tend to think of ourselves at the center of the world. What other country would host a "World Series" for a sport that no other country plays? So I've been surprised to listen to radio in Germany. Its not as much American music as I'd have anticipated. Its probably 20% German artists, 50% British, and 30% American. (There aren't that many German-only artists, but some like "Wir Sind Helden" are quite good.)

How many of you have ever heard of Robbie Williams? In America I doubt this guy could ever sign a record deal, partly because he is kinda goofy looking. And in America sexiness=musical talent, just ask Paris Hilton, who will shortly release her 2nd album. Anyway, Robbie used to be in a UK boy band. On the radio last week he proposed to a girl, and hearts broke across Europe. This was headline news. It turns out the whole thing was a stunt, and many people are very relieved. Below I'm posting a link to one of his hits "You Know Me," where he sings a love song as some kind of crazy White Rabbit. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sick Day(s)....

I starting coughing and aching on Sunday. Monday morning it felt like a truck had run me over some time in the middle of the night. I spent Monday morning playing phone tag with the parents of child I babysit, as well as calling every doctor in a 2km radius of my apartment. I was determined to switch to a new doctor after my last visit. But alas, the swine flu is just now hitting Germany and the doctor's offices are slammed. Except for my lovely doctor, who'd have guessed she'd have openings?

So I bundled myself down there yesterday and had my lungs listened to and nose looked at. She gave me three referrals for a swine flu test, a lung specialist, and an ENT. It was after 4pm by the time I left the swine flu lab, where they gave me face mask to wear and wouldn't let me touch anything. In fact the nurse commanded me to wear the mask all the way home and any time in public until my test results came back. Want to know how to get yourself lots of empty seats on the subway? Sit down wearing a surgical mask.

This morning I went back to crazy Frau Doctor to find out about the swine flu test. Instead she took two vials of my blood and told me to call back later. Eventually I got through and found out the swine flu test is negative, but since I'm still sick I need to go back and see the doctor again tomorrow morning.

On the upside, being sick has given me plenty of time to enjoy bizarre German television. Most of the programs are a mundane sort of reality TV, similar to their American counterparts only without fighting or drama. Most of the rest are "Krimi" detective type shows, either German original or dubbed American versions. I've only seen two sitcoms so far, a German version of "The Office" and a dubbed version of Fran Drescher's "The Nanny." Draw what inferences you will about the German sense of humor.

The best reality show is called "Mitten im Leben" (Middle of the Life?) about a mother fighting with her son's trashy new wife. The final straw came when they asked grandma to babysit while they got matching tattoos. They wanted Chinese symbols but their tattoo artist told them that wasn't cool anymore and suggested Buddhist symbols instead. Much cooler. Or as I learned from the TV today "total Klasse!"

But I must go now. "Goodbye Deutschland" is on, and that is my favorite. By the end of this week I'll at least know all the German jingles.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Vienna, City of Fancy Pants

Its been ages since the last post, but I did have some more to write about Vienna, and thanks to the flu bug I'm stuck at home with enough time to do so.

Walking around old Vienna is a fairy tale. Or at least a Disney movie. You have a palace (including lots of fancy gold dishes), a museum dedicated to "Sisi", including the special tub used to wash her ankle-length hair in cognac and egg yolks, fancy cafes, and lots of rich old ladies in fur coats.

I've rarely seen Americans in fur coats, but maybe I've never lived anywhere fancy enough. They are very popular in Bavaria and Austria, it would seem. I know a grandma who wears a fur coat nearly every day in winter, even when bicycling. I was pretty surprised to see this protest when walking though Vienna

We didn't stick around long enough to see if the protesters went to all 20 shops that had fur coats in the window.

The very last night we bought standing-room tickets at the opera. I was going to spare Ryan, but he was actually pretty eager to go. And I'm glad we did. I'm no opera expert, but the quality of the Vienna Opera was astonishing. It was like hearing music for the first time. We saw "Fidelio," Beethoven's only opera. It is about a woman who dresses as a man to save her husband from prison, except a woman who's really a woman falls in love with her. Ryan remarked, "In the old days people really had to worry about falling in love. Half of Shakespeare and opera is people pretending to be the opposite sex." The opera was great, at least the first half was (we could only stand standing for about 90 minutes). Before the opera we had the chance to wander the Opera House, and noticed that almost all the balconies are private boxes
Vienna sure has a lot of rich people.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

HalloWien

We decided to spend Halloween in Vienna. Or rather, Ryan's company decided to send him on back-to-back business trips to Bavaria and Vienna, and I decided to crash the weekend. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, but sadly it is not much celebrated in Europe. Germans and Austrians prefer to focus on the day after, "All Saints Day" by decorating graves and listening to sermons.

Still, we managed to find some creepy things to do on our Saturday in Vienna. There were two crypts listed in our various guide books, the "Kaisergruft" where many of the Hapsburg royalty are buried, and one under the St. Stephen's Cathedral. We started with the Kaisergruft which was a show of very fancy and creepy coffins.

But I was largely disappointed. It was described as a Capuchin Crypt, and I was picturing this one in Rome. But there were no bones, unlike the awesome city crypt in Paris.

However, at St. Stephen's we were in for a treat. The tour, with our eager if not totally fluent guide started with some coffins of recent bishops, then moved to the jars of mummified Hapsburg organs! And just when I thought the tour was over, we stepped through a door and left the smooth marble hallways for a bumpy ancient passage. We saw rooms filled with bones from the mass burials during the plague. Mozart was dumped in such a grave, though at St. Mark's, not St. Stephen's. It was very creepy!

That night we topped it off with a performance of Mozart's "Requiem" in the Cathedral. I've been interested in this piece since I finally saw "Amadeus" last year. Mozart died before finishing it, the movie posits that writing it killed him. The music was very emotional-- seeming to cover the gambit of reactions and thoughts about death. Parts were serene enough to lull one to sleep and the next movement was all bass voices and unresolved cords, ringing dissonance through the dimly lit church.

On the way home I said to Ryan "Hey look, two vampires at the ATM." He looked for a long moment, and finally said, "Oh right, its Halloween."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Helpful Hints for the Future Au Pair

As I mentioned in the last post, I've started a part-time job as a nanny. I'm spending the afternoons with a very precocious 5-year old girl, and so far I'm enjoying the job a lot. But it reminded me that its never the kids that make or break the job-- its the parents. If a kid is naughty, I can handle that; its really whether or not the parents are easy to deal with that counts.

Reflecting on my 5+ years of nanny experience, as well as much more time spent as a regular babysitter, I've noticed some general tendencies that Moms who hire nannies tend to follow. (I hardly ever deal with Dads, take that for what its worth)

MYSTERY MOM. This is a mom who doesn't work outside the home or in it. She disappears for odd hours doing God-knows-what. Her schedule is sporadic and she doesn't ask many questions about what her children have been up to in her absence. Is she conducting a steamy affair? Or is she a secret agent?

ANAL-RETENTIVE MOM. She rations her children's toilet paper and if she's gone for more than a few hours schedules babysitters back-to-back so that each can be "fresh" for her kids. Her children are scheduled to the max and must be dragged kicking and screaming to a variety of after school lessons that they hate.

DOUBLE-STANDARD MOM. When she's around the kids watch TV and eat junk food, but when you're there all that is verboten. She gives in when her kids scream, but because she's paying you, expects you to get them to eat their vegetables and practice piano. When she's around she'll also overrule any punishments you mete out to her kids. This is the worst type of Mom to work for.

MESSY MOM. This Mom is totally overwhelmed by her surroundings. Her house is a mess, she's never on time, and she talks constantly about her terrible work situation. When she asks you to stay late for the first few times you feel bad enough to do it-- you even try and tidy her wreck of a house. But after a while you inevitably realize this job is too big for one nanny to handle.

MASTER MOM. Here is a Mom who brings her professionalism home with her. When she says she'll be home at 5:30 she is. Or if she's not, she slips you a tenner and apologizes profusely. She realizes that you too have a personal life, and doesn't make excessive demands. When you're both home she lets you do your job. She's not perfect, but by respecting her au pair she'll keep her.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thieves!! (and news update)

Its been a very busy October and I haven't posted much. I've started a part-time nanny job after school (I feel like I'm 16, I just go to school and babysit!), I entered a short story contest (if I lose I'll post it here), and I took the B2 German test yesterday. If I pass then I'll move on to the final level of German!

We have been preparing for the test for a few weeks now, and we took several practice tests, which were very helpful. The test consists of 4 reading comprehension exercises, 2 listening comprehension exercises, 1 essay, and 1 proof-reading exercise. What amused me were the topics of the reading comprehension sections. Its as if the Goethe Institute is trying to indoctrinate us with German values as we read. There were articles on eating organic, riding bicycles, and putting your children in Kindergarten. But the best was about preventing theft in your apartment.

I can be a bit paranoid about thieves/rapists/murderers entering my apartment, especially when Ryan is gone, as he was when we read this article about theft prevention. I stop myself from taking ridiculous precautions like sleeping by my cell phone or hiding the butcher block, because that's what crazy people do, and I try really hard not to be crazy. I lock my door and tell myself that criminals probably choose apartments belonging to rich people, or at least apartments without so many stairs.

This article recommended that when you are gone you should have your neighbor raise and lower your Rollladen every night. (For those of you who've never had the pleasure, Rollladen are strange metal blinds that fortify your window.) I NEVER raise or lower the Rollladen. I live on the 3rd floor (4th in American parlance) and so I don't really think that someone would scale the front of my building and break through the window. And we only have them on our living room window, so they don't provide convenient darkness while we're sleeping in.

But then I started wondering: are thieves spying on my Rollladen? Do they think I'm on vacation? Once or twice since then I have put down my Rollladen at night. But I realized that if they are spying on me and I don't put the Rollladen down, maybe I won't have to have a neighbor do it when I go on vacation. Which is good, because I've tried introducing myself to my neighbors and they are very unfriendly. (Case in point: I said to my neighbor "Hi, I'm Katy, I'm your neighbor." She looked at me, said "Yes." and closed the door!)

So I've decided to ignore that advice. If only we would read an article about finding friendly neighbors, I'd be set.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

German Class Round-Up

I am entering my seventh month of German classes (my 3rd in Frankfurt) and although I'm not so sure I will ever get a job for which German fluency will be necessary, I am glad to be learning more about German language and culture. But mostly I enjoy classes because I have a very juvenile sense of humor. I laugh out loud, or sometimes covertly, through most of class.

Because I aim to please, I have translated the best quotes from my classmates into English for you. Recapping the stories that go with these quotes would probably be boring, but feel free to imagine the weird conversations that precipitated these:

"Ha ha. You have made a mistake. Now you will be beaten!"

"Your government is corrupt. You need some communism."

"Ghosts are a different topic than foreigners."

"Can you better define this 'shit'?"

"In my life I have experienced that men fillet very often. (long pause) Oh, I mean flirt, flirt very often."

"Where is that answer in the text?"
"Between the lines."
"Between which lines?"

"Please, I am very frustrated and I would like to speak with your ladder!"

"Men are primitive. Primitive, but sexy."

I suppose the funniest part of German class is that everyone comes from radically different cultural backgrounds, which apparently have very different ways of looking at issues. Or they are all completely nuts, I'm not 100% sure either way. But my favorite classmate is Natasha, who is on holiday in Belarus for the last two weeks. :( She speaks so fast that our teachers can't correct her and she is full of ideas. One class we spent conversing about controversial issues and I lost it during the third issue because Natasha had for all topics this chain of logic

bad parenting ---> teens putting their shoes on the u-bahn seats ----> Controversial issue X

X= school shootings, truancy, racism, alcoholism, drug abuse

The moral of the story is, never put your feet on a chair when in Belarus. Who knew one could learn so much about the nature of life in a German class?

Are you from Belarus? Do you know any further societal ills caused by putting your feet up on public transportation? Feel free to leave a comment.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Threat of Failure

There have been a flurry of articles lately about women's happiness. Our feminist fore-mothers predicted that as traditional roles loosened and more areas of opportunity were opened to women, women's happiness would increase. But it hasn't. In fact, it's tanked.

I've been mulling it over, and while I'm no expert, I can say that in my own life I find the expectations of others to be a huge source of stress. Its like body image. I get up in the morning and take a look in the mirror and say, "I'm not perfect, but I look pretty good." But often as the day wears on and I see and compare myself with others, my faults begin to leap out at me. At this point there are two responses:
1. say to myself, she is probably more attractive than me, there's nothing I can do about that.
-OR-
2. I bet if I lost 5 lbs I could have legs/abs/arms like that

And while response 1 seems more hopeless, I think its actually a better way of looking at the problem. Because I know that I'm healthy, and it doesn't matter whether or not I'm the most attractive woman I know. I have more to offer than a pretty face.

The same thing happens with career comparisons. If I were alive a generation ago, and Ryan and I were introduced to another couple and I said "I'm a housewife, he's an engineer" no eyebrows would have been raised. But, in our current situation, I hate facing that question. People feel awkward meeting an unemployed person; they don't know what to talk about. Its a relief to meet other women who are in the same boat.

When people do engage me on the subject of work, its always the same conversation. "Well, what did you study? Theater! How...interesting. There's an English Theater in Frankfurt, why don't you go do some acting there?" As if I'd snap my fingers and dash out of the building, run straight to the stage, burst into tune and instantly get cast in an entire season's worth of shows. I know people are trying to be helpful, but I'd rather talk about the lint that collects between my couch cushions than hear most peoples' suggestions for furthering my career in Frankfurt.

Ryan and I have been having the "what should I do with my life" talk lately. I know that I like working with kids, and I think I would like to become a teacher. But I've started looking into that possibility and so far all I've gotten is a big pile of NO. I'm going to investigate further, but if I end up "just a nanny," it would be nice if people actually treated that like a serious job. I certainly do! Instead of giving me piteous looks, people could imagine that I'm highly qualified and good at what I do.

Maybe the only way to deal with the outrageous expectations placed on women (great career, successful marriage, happy children, volunteer work) are simply to defy them. I don't believe its possible, that American mantra, "you can have it all." And the more people that would acknowledge that, the less expectations we would feel. Perhaps we'd all wind up happier.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin

The sun rises earlier in Berlin than in Frankfurt. I was there yesterday to give back the keys to our old apartment, and stayed the night with friends. Early this morning I caught the bus M85 towards the train station. It was a double-decker, and I snagged the front seat on the top. The sun was just rising as the bus wound its way through the haphazard capital streets.

"Nächste Halt: Bülowstrasse." announced the recorded voice. I tried to remember, how do I know Bülowstrasse? As we passed it I saw, of course, the train bridge held up by stony maidens, leading right past my old church. How could I forget so soon the train station we used to take every Sunday to the American Church of Berlin? I saw in the early light the missing turret and the stones black from bomb damage. The Pastor always assured us of its "solid foundations."

We drove on, and on the left passed what looked like a palace flanked by armies of columns. I had never seen it before. That's how Berlin is, I suppose. I heard a story about the last Czar of Russia. After his family was arrested he told his wife and daughters to sew jewels and money into their corsets and undergarments, and then to dress like paupers. I don't know if that's true, but its always reminded me of Berlin.

The sun next reached the fan-like roof of the Sony Center, which reflected its rays over Potsdamer Platz. I thought about the Platz's old glory, the years of destruction and division by the wall, and finally of its rebuilding. It seemed to symbolize resurrection better than the church.

The bus lurched and occasionally tree branches smacked the upper deck. I felt a bit like a Maharajah astride an elephant, surveying my former kingdom. Ahead I saw the Reichstag's cupola and four flags rising out of the trees. To the right was the Brandenburger Tor, with the goddess of Victory charging towards the rising sun. We turned and passed the Kanzleramt, and I told Angie I would see her on TV.

We made a final turn east, and before me was the whole skyline, the Reichstag and Fernsehturm gray against the brilliant sun. At last the bus stopped before the Hauptbahnhof and I left Berlin.

"Sehnsucht" means longing or craving, but to me it always takes another meaning from its sound; sounding like the words "sehen" and "suchen" which mean to see and to search. Its like searching after something you can only see in your mind. Marlene Dietrich sings about her Sehnsucht for Berlin, and I couldn't agree more.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bad Hair Day


Yesterday I rounded the corner to visit my favorite stylist, Elmaar, and I saw something no woman should ever have to see. The shop was dark and a letter posted on the door said that Elmaar is officially retired. I stood slack-jawed for a few minutes. A teacher from my school rounded the corner and called "Hallo!" to me. He asked me what was wrong, and I showed him the note. He read it and said "Yeah, looks like he's gone." I started to reply that it wasn't fair, and that Elmaar hadn't even told me he was leaving. He said, "Yeah, but he must've been pretty old, right? The note says he was a hair stylist for 30 years."

I was stunned. I needed time to grieve, but I also really needed a haircut. I poked in a few places that had no appointments available until next week. Just when I had resigned myself to letting it go longer, I saw a friendly looking man sweeping up hair. I paused in front of the glass store front and he waved me in. I told him want I wanted and he took me over to wash my hair-- giving a nice head massage as he did so. We were chatting and he asked me where I was from. I told him the States and he switched to English-- he had family in Boston. I was thinking "this guy seems alright." Then he took the scissors diagonally from the arch of my right eyebrow to my left cheekbone. I was stunned. This was not what I asked for! I started to say something but then he piped up "Who is cutting your hair? Its so uneven!"

He asked me how old I was. I feel that I'm getting to the age when people should stop asking me this. I told him 24. He laughed, and I said, "what you don't believe me?" Normally people tell me I look younger. I was once even carded while buying wine here, and the legal age for beer and wine is 16. He said "Yeah. I think you're probably 30, you know, just from your face." WTF?

Now I am trapped as this maniac slices at my hair. Here's a sentence you never want to hear about 3/4 of the way through a haircut: "Yeah, I don't really like Americans." Lots of people have told me they don't like Bush, or they don't like American tourists, but I've never had someone flat out tell me they don't like every single person from my country.

He finished off my hair and handed me the dryer. (Normally in Germany people blow dry their own hair or pay a bit extra for the stylist to do it) I looked at my bangs. Not only were they diagonal, they were uneven, some long pieces down to my eyebrows and some itty bitty short pieces. I asked him to blow dry my hair, so if the bangs still looked bad after a style he'd do something to fix them. He was trying to give me what looked like a Farrah Fawcett style, and then he said "Yeah, I make you pretty for your husband and when he see you he say 'let's make a baby.'" I stared at him speechlessly. "I make joke. Joke is my friend!" He finished the styling in silence, and then I pointed out the unevenness in my bangs. He cut more, and then more. They were finally evened out, but the bangs on the right start at about 1" now. He smiled as I paid him and he said "Y'all come back now!"

Oh Elmaar, how could you leave me like this?

Friday, September 11, 2009

No Babies! / I Just Want a Normal Doctor.

I think my doctor may be a quack. I picked her, as I pick all my doctors, by going to the local Doctor's Association web page and seeing which doctor's office is closest to my apartment. Its always worked in the past.

But last month I got a UTI. I had never had one before, but I figured out very quickly what it was, and even checked Web MD. So I went to see this doctor near my apartment. She is about 100 years old as far as I can tell, and last time had two black eyes and a wrist cast. (I guess she had a fall?) She wears two hearing aids, and only talked to me for about 30 seconds before telling me there was nothing she could do, I'd have to see a specialist. I told her I was pretty sure it was a UTI, couldn't she just give me antibiotics? No. So I spent 2 hours waiting at a Urologist's, so he could tell me I had a UTI and give me antibiotics.

I was less than pleased, but decided to give her another chance. It doesn't hurt that the way the German health care system works is that you pay €10 to see a doctor once a quarter. In that quarter you can see the same doctor again or be referred to a specialist and not have to pay anymore. So, since I'm running low on birth control, I could've paid €10 to go to another doctor, but I'm cheap, so I went back to this old crazy lady.

Thankfully, her mysterious injuries seem to have healed. She welcomed me into her office and I began talking until I noticed her taking her two hearing aids out of a desk drawer and slowly installing them. After she was hooked up she asked, "what can I do for you?" I explained that I needed more birth control ("Verhütungsmittel")

She looked at me for a moment and said (this is all in German of course) "You have back pain?"
"No, I need Verhütungsmittel." blank stare. "VERhütungsmittel. VerHÜTungsmittel." Could she not hear me? Could she not understand my pronunciation? We looked at each other for a long moment.
She gave me the look of an impatient teacher. "Last time you were here with a bladder infection. What is hurting you now?" She raised her tone as if I were the deaf one.
"No, I don't have a pain. I just need Verhütungsmittel." Nothing. Then I became embarrassed. Previous doctors understood me when I asked, but maybe this was the wrong word? Had I been just ranting Verhütungsmittel like a crazy person? So I tried "die Pille" (the pill) and "contraception." I might as well have been speaking Latin. So I said "Its a medicine to not make babies! No babies!" I drew a pregnant stomach with my hands and then gestured an X.

After a silence she finally said "Oh, you want the pill."
"Yes!"
"You have to go to the Frauenarzt." (OB-GYN, or as Ryan likes to translate "lady doctor")
"I was at the Frauentarzt in March. She gave me my last prescription. I just need a refill."
"No, you should go back to your Frauenarzt."
"I can't, that was in Berlin."
"Great, then you can meet a new one."

We argued for a few more minutes then I finally realized I wasn't going to win. She printed me off a referral and then smiled and told me to come back and tell her how it was. Right. As I walked home and I wondered why she'd never diagnose or prescribe to me. I decided probably she is not a real doctor, just one of those with a fake diploma whose references never got checked. But probably not, it just seems that most German doctors are a bit weird. For example prescribing magic infrared lamps or this obsession with the Frauenarzt. Well, next quarter we'll try again.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Eternal Job Hunt

I've signed on for another month of German class. I wasn't sure I would at first, although its very fun and I have a lot to learn, because I want to get a job. Odd as it may sound, I miss the feeling of needing to be someplace. I don't like to have so much free time on my hands. Having a job makes one feel very useful. Up until this year I've always had a job-- ever since I was 16 years old. So its very strange to be a full-time Hausfrau now. I've become a cleaning maniac. Yesterday I even dusted the baseboards!

Today I met with my friend, Marisa, for our "elite networking association" aka eating ice cream and comparing notes on job-hunting and living abroad. She is here with her husband who is teaching at an international school. Its very reassuring to talk to someone who's going through the same things. She's very easy-going and we get on like a house on fire. We complained about having to get photos taken for our resumes, although maybe being cute will help us get an interview?

I still get emails from the nanny agency I used to work for, and I know that's an option. I had decided that I wouldn't go out for nanny jobs anymore, because when its a good fit its a great job, but when its a bad fit its the worst job ever. Some parents stick to the agreed hours and let you do your job, others try to walk all over you and undermine you at every turn. Plus all the jobs in Frankfurt seem to be insane hours-- well over 40 a week. But if I don't get an interview for something soon, I might have to apply. I really want a job!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Patriotism

I've never really considered myself a patriotic person. In the US there are plenty of cable news types who proclaim that America is the BEST country in the whole world and whoever disagrees should be strung up. But I've always felt like saying "America is the greatest country on Earth" is like saying "My mom is the the best mom in the whole world!" We all feel that way about our moms because we love her and she takes care of us, but its not something I would ever argue with someone about, "No, seriously, my mom is the best. Way better than your mom." But people do argue about American superiority and some people even think that the Bible is not really about Israel, but America, which is quite a reach!

Sometimes my non-American friends will slag off on the US. Mostly it was over Bush, but there are other issues in our past as well. And normally I'm fine with that. Pretty much every country has both wonderful and atrocious things in their history.

But this week, I'm not hearing it. I started off the week with a post-church baseball game, and it made me feel all warm and fuzzy about America and our unique culture. Then Monday my German teacher (who is actually Polish) was talking about how she didn't like the USA or Russia (believe me our resident Belorussian, Natasha, was not having that!), and I could understand some of her reasons, but it made me feel really sad that she didn't want to see that America has many good things to offer. Europeans are very good at separating citizens from the government (i.e. "I hate George Bush, but I have nothing against Americans") but sometimes I don't want to be separated. Some national and cultural things are just a part of you, and it gets too personal to hear them attacked.

This afternoon I was walking to the library, when I saw some sandwich boards, "Obama: worse than Bush?" at which I rolled my eyes. A young man stopped me
"What do you think of my signs?" he gave me a sleazy smile.
"I disagree. I am American, and I'm proud of Obama."
"Why do you disagree? Don't you know what he's doing about health care in your country?"
"Yes, and I know there are lots of lies being spread about it as well."
"How do you know there are lies?"
"Because I watch American news, I have lived in America and I know how the current system works. The system here isn't perfect, but it covers everybody at a lower cost that what people in the US pay."

We had a long discussion about health care and I won't bore you with all the details. He made one good point about raising taxes during a recession (Obama has NOT said he's going to do that, but I think its unrealistic in the long term), but other than that I was pretty much winning the argument because I know a lot more about the issue than this guy. So he tried to level the score.
"But Obama, he is a FASCIST." This took me completely by surprise. We had veered off the road of normal discussion into crazy land.
"What?" I exclaimed, "but he was democratically elected." Which I shouldn't have said because I opened the door to the outer reaches of argument ludicrousness.
"So was HITLER. Obama, he is like Hitler." And this I really couldn't believe. While Americans bandy that name around like nothing, I have never heard a German person use it flippantly. I was about to lose my cool and I think that's what he wanted, so I told him that if he wanted to discuss the issues, I would do that, but I wasn't going to listen to this nonsense.

He parted with "But what if its true?"
So I replied "And what if the moon is made of cheese? I haven't got time or interest to argue about crazy things. I just wanted to tell you that I think your sign is stupid. Goodbye."

It is both flattering and irritating that many non-Americans know so much about our country. I am impressed because when I first moved abroad I couldn't tell you the difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or who the Prime Minister of Italy was. But its irritating when others think they know your country better than you. So here is a warning for people who want to tell me about their stupid 9/11 conspiracies or about Osama Bin Laden's "real" location. I've tried to politely correct people in the past, but I'm just not having it anymore. Maybe I am a bit patriotic after all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Better things to do in Amsterdam


The Netherlands is a small country with a big history. In the two biggest art museums (Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh) you can see how many famous artists are Dutch. The Netherlands' extreme Protestantism and iconoclasm gave rise to the Dutch Golden Age, a period where painters started chronicling the life around them, showing the beauty in a servant girl pouring milk, rather than rendering yet another St. Sebastian shot full of arrows. We studied this period in high school and it was cool to see the actual paintings.

But the Van Gogh museum was even better. Why is Van Gogh so likeable? Maybe its his abandoning of darkly tinted realism in favor of brilliantly optimistic yellow sunflowers? It's easy to enjoy because it's pretty. Maybe we are struck by the fact that Van Gogh himself was such a tragic character, whose intense moods were not only his gift but the curse that drove away the companionship he so desperately sought. He's straight out of a Greek tragedy, and perhaps our archetype for the "tragic artist"? Is it naive to think you can understand a person you've never met? Its very cliche, and probably about as saavy as a college freshman, but Van Gogh is still my favorite artist. We bought a print of "Almond Blossoms" to hang in the living room.

Amsterdam is relaxing because it has a few big sites and lots of little ones, unlike Rome or Paris, you don't feel like you have to see everything on a giant list to have experienced the city. Amsterdam is best enjoyed at a cafe, or on a bicycle seat, zipping along the canals. Well, the bicycling is mostly enjoyable. I did get yelled at by another biker (in Dutch and English!) about something that actually wasn't my fault, which was very frustrating. I know tourists are annoying, but when you live in a capital city you've just got to learn to deal with it.

Except for the first day we had perfect weather during our whole trip. After living in Germany I really appreciate sunny, 72 degree days, and can't stand to be in museums when its so nice. So we enjoyed paddle boating, picnicking in Vondelpark, and bicycling in the countryside. We adopted the bikes after the first day, due to some massive blisters from Ryan's new sneakers. After a couple days on the bike, I was saddle sore and it was good we left the city when we did, because Ryan couldn't walk and I couldn't ride, so it looks like I would've had to run alongside him as he rode, or pull him in some kind of cart.

The only disappointment was Dutch cuisine. I wouldn't recommend it unless you absolutely love mayonnaise-coated fries and oily herring. But Amsterdam had a lot of good ethnic eateries, like any respectable capital city of Europe.

Its hard to rank Amsterdam. Its definitely a great city, far above duds like Brussels and Florence, but I don't know if its quite as good as Paris or Rome. I need to make a personal ranking one of these days....

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pot in Amsterdam

Every time I mentioned our plans to spend our 2nd anniversary in Amsterdam someone inevitably made an air joint with their fingers and mimed a slow and stoned inhale.
Smoking pot was not our reason for going to Amsterdam, though it eventually became an item on our itinerary. I had never even smoked pot before this trip, which may be surprising given my theater degree, but its true.

I was once sure that marijuana was every bit as evil and dangerous as harder drugs, but after reading articles on marijuana use and even having studied marijuana consumption in one of my sociology courses (at a good old Methodist university nonetheless) I figured it was probably pretty safe and non-addictive. I decided to give it a try.

Some English guides to the area will tell you how locals loathe tourists who don't come to enjoy Amsterdam's many cultural and historical sites, but only to get stoned and check out prostitutes. After reading this I expected to see red-eyed stoners lining the streets, feeling up lamp posts and raiding bakeries of all their wares. But it was actually kind of tough to find a "coffee shop." There are definitely a lot more bakeries and bars in the city than places to light up.

Ryan and I eventually found a coffee shop called "The Bulldog" in touristy Leidseplein square. We ducked in, feeling somewhat seedy. It looked like a rustic bar-- lots of lightly finished wood, some tacky neon lights, and video screens playing music videos. After chatting with the lady behind the marijuana counter we bought our marijuana-only joints (no tobacco), two teas (no alcohol in coffee shops), and a lighter. We sat down at a little table and Ryan showed me how to work the lighter, a task that would become increasingly difficult as the night went on.

We began to smoke, and it was horrible! I smoked one cigarette in college, but I didn't remember it burning my throat so badly. My throat and nose were scorched and half the time I felt like I needed to cough up my lungs. I kept waiting for some pleasant effects to kick in, but primarily I felt confused. My joint kept going out, and I forgot how to work the lighter or even which end the flame came out of.

Ryan seemed to be having a better time, but even he was hacking and coughing. He drummed his fingers on the table very quickly, and I asked "are you ok?" He replied, "My fingers feel sensational!" It was pretty funny. But that was about all.

A few nights later we went back to The Bulldog. They only sold joints in a four pack, so we had two more to smoke, and its only allowed in coffee shops. So I took a cue from some experienced-looking smokers and ordered an orange juice, which helped a little with the burning in my throat. We smoked our joints, drank our drinks, paid, and left, not feeling much different than normal.

Then on the way back to our bikes it hit me. I couldn't remember where I was or how we got there. Ryan must've been feeling it too because he splurged for Ben & Jerry's, which costs about €6 a pint! We ate it slowly, overlooking a meeting of two canals. When I closed my eyes I saw lots of faces of men with mustaches. Apparently I went on about how mustaches were a theme in my life. I don't remember that much. I'll bet it was very funny to someone who was sober.

So, I can no longer say I've never smoked pot. And having experienced being high, I still don't get how something so unpleasant could become a habit. My clothes stank after smoking, and my eyes and throat burned. Being high was an interesting feeling, but too out of control for me to enjoy. I would definitely say a cold glass of Riesling that dances on your taste buds and gives you a gently relaxed feeling is better than a smoldering joint that only brings mustache men and confusion.

P.S. I promise another post later detailing better ways to spend your time in Amsterdam

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Interview

After some deliberating I have begun looking for a job. It was my original goal to just take German classes until I could pass the C-1 German proficiency test (aka prove your fluency to get into German university), but have come to realize that I might not need to be perfect to get a job I enjoy.

So after some anxious phone calling and resume-sending I landed an interview on Tuesday with a ghost tour company. They're looking to translate their current tours into English, but I had to interview completely in German. I was pretty nervous, and went to my morning German class with a handful of translations to ask: "graduated from university", "improv group", etc. My classmates were very excited and chatty with me, and many have mentioned other jobs to me as well.

After class, armed with my extra phrases, I met the potential boss at a cafe. Luckily he spoke nearly the whole time and I only needed to interject a few sentences. Afterward he pronounced, "I like you, I think you're a good person. Come take a tour with your husband and see if this is the work for you!" I agreed to, and plan on calling him when I get back from Amsterdam next Monday. (Happy anniversary to us!) But now I have to decide what I want to do. Upside: it sounds really fun, and I could finally achieve my goal of becoming a historical re-enactor. Downside: not very many hours or much money. Luckily I have a week to think, and to check on the other irons I've got in the fire.

Friday, August 7, 2009

I Shame Me So.

There is a funny ad in the Berlin subway. They feature a woman with a turtleneck pulled up over her face and the caption "I shame me so for my English!" It is for English lessons, of course. I like when Germans make mistakes speaking English because it shows me how to say the equivalent in German. Thus you say "Ich schäme mich so für mein Englisch."

And today I definitely shamed myself. As I mentioned in the last post, I've been bumped up a level-- skipping the end of B-1 and the first half of B-2. Wednesday and Thursday I felt like I was holding my own, but we were primarily focused on speaking exercises. Today we were doing grammar and vocabulary and my teacher asked me questions like "do you know the difference between "wenn" and "wann"?" and "you don't know the plural of "kleidung"? It's "kleidung." " So, embarrassing.

But the final error was only my stupidity. We were playing a game with our new vocabulary about emotions. I meant to say "I am jealous of Angie's clothes." Instead said "I am disappointed in Angie's clothes." Everyone looked at me like I was a total bitch for a minute or two before I realized my error. I hope my teacher doesn't decide to bump me down a level. Uggg.....maybe Monday will be better.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Back to School, Back to School....

(feel free to sing that title "Billy Madison" style)

On Tuesday I started tracking down language schools. I did a google search, mapped out which schools were closest to my apartment and started pounding the pavement. I quickly discovered that schools are much more competitive here than in Berlin. Not only are programs cheaper, but courses throw in a trial class, books, even coffee and cookies. After visiting 4 schools and taking 3 placement tests, I was experiencing some major brain drain. I picked a little school with an intensive course and some nice social activities. (Ryan and I need to make some friends!)

Wednesday was my trial class. I had only tested into B-1, which was the course I was taking in Berlin, but after talking with one of the teachers they moved me up to B-2. Apparently my speaking and comprehension is a full level above my grasp of grammar! I was surprised to be the only American in the class; the others being Belarussian, Swedish, Norwegian, Indonesian, Spanish, Croatian, and Thai. Some are shy, and some are loud. All are quirky. In particular there is a Russian woman, Natasha, who speaks a mile a minute and likes to talk about things like "the eternal soul of a tree."

But the funniest moment came during our speaking exercise. We were doing mock job interviews. The class was divided into four "bosses" and four "applicants." I was an applicant. They tried to lob difficult and often illegal questions at us. After I claimed to have 20 years of IT experience, Natasha asked "ah but aren't you too old for this job?"

The Indonesian girl, Chila, interviewed last and was very nervous. She is petite and held on to the bottom of the chair the whole time. Magnus, a Swede, finally asked her "If you had to describe yourself in one word, what would it be?"

Chila smiled and said "Star!" She let go of the chair to trace an outline of a star. Natasha intoned "We have no Hollyvood here!" Everyone snickered, but Chila confidently continued. "I like the star. It is shiny. It is shiny and smooth and shines above all the world. If I work for your company, I will shine, and then your whole company will shine. And soon your company shine above the whole world. That is my dream. Thank you." With that she gave a slight head bow and sauntered out of the classroom.

And these cultural crack-ups are what I really love about school.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Florence

Florence is an old lady's name. I had preferred the Italian "Firenze" which sounds like fire, or a fiery lady at least. But after seeing Florence, I'd say its English name is pretty accurate.

Last time we went to Italy we hit all the famous places: Rome, Venice, Cinque Terre, but missed Florence. I was dying to go and pictured the charm of a Tuscan hill town + some of the world's most famous art. Well, the art was there. But the city was too dirty, too crowded, completely lacking in the fountains and piazzas that make Italy so enticing. Even the square around their epic cathedral doesn't provide enough space for you to step back and get a half-decent photo of it. Yes, I think the main problem is a lack of piazzas.

It all feels a bit like a tourist trap. You pay €12 to see the David, which is incredible, but the rest of the museum is pretty much a dud. There were some uncompleted Michelangelos, but other than that there was a whole room devoted to plaster casts of mediocre statues. Not even the real mediocre statues! We went to two more museums which had some nice art. But by the end of the day we were wishing they'd combine it all into a big impressive museum that you didn't have to traipse through Florence for. Florence is one of my rare pans, perhaps tying with Brussels.

Chillin' at a Villa

For the bulk of the family vacation, Greg & Kim had reserved a beautiful villa in the Tuscan countryside near Cortona (of "Under the Tuscan Sun" fame). We left a steaming hot Rome that morning anxiously awaiting a dip in the villa's pool. However, most of our week at the villa would be near sweater weather, except for a glorious warm patch our very last day.

We spent the week at a more leisurely pace, usually deciding after breakfast about which towns were nearby and interesting and just exploring them. The villa's owners were very chatty and informative about the local area. A lot of the towns tend to blend together in my memory, but a few do stick out for various reasons:

Montepulciano: a pretty, if steep, hill town. It's massive cathedral was one of the more thought-provoking I've encountered in this area. The light inside was an ethereal blue-gray. It still had the prerequisite gory crucifix, but this one seemed more approachable or perhaps I'd gotten used to them by this point. The funniest bit was that by the time everyone had rendezvoused at the top of the hill black clouds rumbled in. As it started to pour we ran down the hill back toward the cars, rain mixing with my gelato. While we ran back to our Fiat Panda Nicky started laughing hysterically, I asked him why and he gleefully replied "I love the chaos!"

Civita del Bagnoregio: This stunningly-situated city is pictured above. Its only accessible by footpath. It's nearly deserted except for a few elderly people who try to entice tourists. One old lady chattered at us something about her garden, inviting us in. It was very beautiful, and with a panoramic view. On the way out I realized she was charging donations. Ryan and his brothers argued about whether they liked the town or not, noting its deserted feeling not unlike that of "the beginning of the zombie apocalypse."

Castelfiorintino: Ryan and I went alone on our last day at the villa to hit the weekly market. It was a cute little town completely without tourists. We bought a delicious picnic lunch and a sundress and enjoyed the winding streets that led up to a tiny piazza.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ostia Antica


Day three we trekked from Rome to Ostia Antica. I'd never been before and heard it described as a less-crowded, more-accessible Pompeii. Ostia Antica is a huge area of ruins from a town founded about BC 200, though much of the sites are AD. We began at the outside of its main street and walked past some ruined tombs. Everyone took tons of photos and marveled at things like a half-destroyed wall.

Little did we know what lay ahead! Everyone began dispersing and I followed Max, Nicky, and Ryan down an unkempt path between some old foundations. Soon the boys were poking around through doors and windows and climbing around on top of the ancient ruins. Climbing up and around and through the buildings I discovered an underground tunnel. We found the others and showed them, spending the next 40 minutes or so groping through the pitch dark tunnels scaring each other.

After lunch in the cafeteria, Greg (Ryan's dad) bought a map of the ancient city and we realized we'd only seen a small fraction of the ancient city. We climbed around and trekked through multi-story ruins, explored underground chapels, and even found a wall-less kitchen. There was more to see, but we were exhausted. The energizer bunny half of our group went back to Rome to see another Cathedral, but the rest of us retired to the hotel for a shower and wine on the balcony. I didn't even think about how old the dirt was I washed off my feet.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Rome, the adventure begins..


The first real day of Strange vacation we met up with the delightful tour guide "Ron in Rome." He met us at our hotel before 9:00 and I think we had him till about 6:00. He was an interesting guy, retired military, and lacking consulting work he'd taken up tour guiding. The group of twelve, including Nanner, Greg & Kim's brood, and Greg's brother, Doug and their kids, worked well with him as a benign dictator. Ron took us to all the big sites: Colosseum, Palatine, Forum, Campo dei Fiori, all the big piazzas and fountains, even the place where Audrey and Joe put their hands in monster's mouth in "Roman Holiday," all with accommodating gelato and water breaks. He was a real pro!

Ryan and I had seen some of the sites before, but it was great to have a guide to paint in the ruins for us. In between I quizzed him about his expat experience. He'd only been in Rome a year and a half, but he was un-stump-able! The day was busy and very hot, but everybody, even the tour-haters enjoyed themselves.

Day two was for the Borghese Gallery and Vatican. The Borghese is an old Cardinal palace situated in the middle of one of Rome's few green parks. I've developed a theory about art museums: the best ones are no more than 3 floors and take about an hour or so to walk through. Anything else is just overwhelming and tends to blur together. But Borghese was not too big and plenty of space was given to each piece. I don't know much about art and I bugged Nicky (Ryan's artist brother) by pointing at different pieces and asking if they were "good" or not. At first he gave me a long, intellectual answer about subjectivity, but after I repeated this game a few times he just answered "yes."

We walked back through the lovely park surrounding the Borghese, glad for the shade. It was sooooo hot. My mother always said that men sweat and women "glow," but I assure you I was sweating like a fat construction worker.

At the sun's peak we ambled over to the Vatican museum, and I was relieved to see a minuscule line at this site famed for roasting tourists for hours. The last time we saw the Vatican I remember spending a lot of time in the first few rooms and then speed-walking the rest thinking "Where is the Sistine Chapel? Where the hell is the Sistine Chapel?!" Remembering this, I tried to pace myself, starting fast and slowing at what I thought was the midway point, but I once again severely underestimated the size of the Vatican Museum. Our group of twelve was dispersing in its giantness and after a bit I decided just to stick with my mom-in-law, Kim, and Nicky. I gave up on Ryan due to his habit of reading all the informational plaques.

Finally in the astonishing Sistine Chapel I wished I'd brought the Rick Steves audio guide we'd used last time. The room itself is so huge and detailed that you really need time to soak it in. Without Rick's sweet whispers I couldn't remember much about the various stories behind the chapel. Soon something more urgent was brought to my attention: Max and Alli were lost! The rest of the family had reassembled while our two book worms had hunkered down in places unknown to read.

After a preliminary search of the two exits it was decided we'd split up and meet at the obelisk in the center of St. Peter's square. I argued with Ryan that we should meet by the entrance to the Basilica but he didn't listen to me and I still volunteered to go with him, completely forgetting the huge security lines we'd have to go through to get back into the Basilica. I was kicking myself as we roasted in the middle of the square. But luckily Max and Alli were found quickly enough, and after a talking-to resolved to stick closer by. The above photo are the Strange siblings reunited + me in front of the Basilica. We ended the day cooling in the crypt before getting some much-needed gelato.

Rome, take two, part one

Better late than never, here's my travel journal from the epic Strange family trip.

The plan (I always have a plan) was to make the most of every minute. We did a weekend in Rome in April of last year and I couldn't get enough of it. The city is as stately as Colosseum ruins but with all the thrills and surprises of a Vespa ride with a handsome stranger.

Our plane arrived much earlier than the rest of the family's and, seeing as we would not be suffering their jet lag, I made plans to cover ground that we'd missed last go round. We'd check-in, get breakfast, hit the Cappuchin Crypt and then San Clemente Basilica, where you can go through basement excavations back 2000ish years ago. Then a quick lunch and back to the hotel to enjoy some air conditioned comfort before Ryan's immediate family joined us at 3.

The travel gods must take one look at that and laugh. Of course I forgot my notebook filled with directions, opening hours, etc in Berlin. And Ryan left his now-indispensable Blackberry at the hotel. At 11:00am it was already hot. We slogged through the humidity to a TI and got directions to San Clemente, only to arrive at the basilica 5 minutes before siesta time. We foolishly walked all the way back across town to Campo dei Fiori for a beer and pizza. It was hotter than I ever remembered in my life-- I was stuck to my plastic chair and no amount of beer helped. All the real Romans had slunk indoors to siesta through the heat so we decided to do the same. I fell asleep in the glorious air conditioning and awoke to the cheers of a reunited family. At least my plans got the last part right.

There's No Summer Break in the Real World

....but I'm taking one anyway. Just a quick update on the current situation, before I update on Strange Family Reunion '09. Last week we were in Frankfurt. Ryan's started work in the new office while I spent my days apartment hunting and enjoying the luxury of crappy business accommodation. Where's the kitchenette, you ask? Its in the wardrobe, of course.

We found a small place on the east side near a pedestrian zone and not too far from the subway. After fending off the weird agent's rantings about "gypsies" we managed to get the paperwork sorted and the lease starts Wednesday.

BUT Ryan is working in Passau again this week, so I've decided to hang out in Berlin where my friends and furniture are. Ryan's company has arranged for a moving company (hallelujah, 6 flights of stairs in Berlin and 4 in Frankfurt, not my problem!) but they can't schedule us until the 23rd. Apparently we've picked the opportune moment to move-- all the schools are getting out for summer and everyone with kids is moving now. So we'll get our keys next Monday morning and our furniture next Friday. In between I'll be making lots of trips between Berlin and Frankfurt. Oh well. At least I'm not spending this week in Frankfurt alone and furnitureless. I've had enough of that for one year!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Oh joy.

Updates, updates... we are back from our 3-week vacation (which was great, thanks) and were supposed to be moving yesterday, except that our letting agent emailed the day we landed in Rome to tell us that we did not, in fact, have the apartment. The two weeks previous to our holiday when I was nagging and calling and emailing about him getting us the contract before we left, he didn't because the landlord was deciding to give it to his friend.

So we're facing yet another exciting last-minute move. Ryan starts in his new office tomorrow and we have no flat, so we're leaving out today for Frankfurt's Golden Leaf Hotel, which is not, in fact, leafy or golden. I will be scrambling over the next few days to find a place ASAP.

I have oodles of photos and blogging to upload but the internets is not being cooperative today, and I don't know what our situation will be starting tomorrow, so sorry for the delays. It will all hopefully be sorted soon! Wish us luck.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

French Riviera & Monaco


On days 2 and 3 of our weekend away we stuck close to the small stretch of beaches in and around Nice. We spent the morning in Monaco, a tiny pocket of a country that feels rather invented. The whole of it is less than 1 sq. mile and ruled by a prince who lives in a Disney-looking castle.

You might guess from its small size and income-tax exemptions that Monaco is basically a bunch of fancy condos stacked on a harbor stuffed with yachts. Atop the crowded hillside also stands the church where Grace Kelly is buried and the famed Monte Carlo Casino. We stopped by the church but missed the casino. My favorite part of Monaco is driving the winding coastal roads on the way there. Grace Kelly filmed "To Catch a Thief" here. Ryan and I didn't have a convertible, but I still felt a bit glamorous.

After lunch we drove back into Nice and walked the Promenade Anglais along the water. Nice's fancy beach front was less glamorous than expected. All the beaches are rocky, and the expensive hotels seemed to be only full of snobby tourists. I kind of expected to see someone famous or something. It is just down the road from Cannes after all.

A better surprise awaited us in the Nice's old town center. Rick Steves' book offered up a great walk through the heart of the city and explained a lot of its history. We ended atop Castle Hill, which, as you might guess, was the site of Nice's castle. Nice was, until Napoleon, part of Italy; and many locals still speak Nicoise, a dialect of Italian. It started to rain, so we ducked inside a tiny restaurant and again ate way too much delicious French food.

My plane left Nice at 5:00 on Monday, so the next day we drove down the road to Antibes. This is a tiny village to the west of Cannes with a real sandy beach and a great market. It was nice to get away from the tourist crowds and just be mellow. It was even hot enough to swim a bit. Ryan and I got pretty pink from our sunbathing, but I got back on the plane with salty hair and a belly full of Camembert and Rose. As we touched down in windy, rainy, Berlin I felt a bit smug that for one weekend I had managed an escape to the beach.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Provence



As I gathered my books last Friday afternoon my phone rang. I walked out of the classroom with a loud groan, Ryan had called to say he had to stay in France the whole weekend. This plus the days he'd been gone already plus more business travel the next week. Then he told me his boss' solution: fly me to France for the 3-day weekend, put us up in a hotel, and give us free reign of a rental car. I was on the verge of squealing. How jet set are we?

So I rushed home to book a flight, hotel (we got the last room in the last hotel in Nice I'm pretty sure), and throw all the stuff I could think of into a suitcase. I got to the airport by 5pm and touched down amongst the palm trees just after dark.

We have an aging copy of Rick Steves' France and I gave it a good scouring. During breakfast we decided on a tour of the villages of the Cotes du Rhone (this is Ryan's favorite wine after all). We wound through tiny villages and vineyards, up the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains (does Dentelles come from "Dents" meaning teeth? They kind of looked like teeth). We spent a lot of time getting lost and getting detoured due to a big bike race. But Ryan definitely enjoyed driving the snazzy rental too fast through the curvy roads.

We stopped for lunch in a tiny hillside village with only one cafe. The waitress declared serving lunch "impossible!" I think she assumed Americans= hurried tourists. She told us she could potentially put our orders into the kitchen but didn't know what time, if ever, we could be served. I thought maybe we should go elsewhere, but Ryan told her we weren't in a hurry. This turned out to be a good move, the food was both prompt and delicious. (Is this some kind of test to weed out picky tourists?) After lunch we finished a loop through the mountains, stopping for Chateaus and wine tasting.

The amazing thing about Provence is how effortless it is. In Germany most everything is new (thanks WW2), all the old-looking buildings are really replicas. But Provence looks like it was built a couple hundred years ago and then left to its own devices. All the wood is weathered, and vines creep up or hang down as if to reclaim the village back to the rich soil. Shop after shop displayed colored glass plates and patterned quilts that could have been discovered in someone's attic, and yet everything is so chic. This is what amazes me about the French. Its the same thing with the scarves French women casually drape around their necks-- it always looks effortlessly perfect.

We finished out the night in Arles, Van Gogh's home for many years. One thing I hadn't anticipated about Provence is how choc-a-block it is with Roman ruins. Arles is basically an old medieval town based around an ancient Roman arena and theatre. We spent the evening drinking "Van Gogh" wine and enjoying a menu of soup, lamb, and chocolate profiteroles. If there's one thing I've learned about Provence, it can only be truly appreciated at a snail's pace.

Monday, May 25, 2009

3 Things that will make you laugh...

We've been having a rather random and hilarious evening here, and I thought I'd share some of the joy.

1. Berlusconi quotes Did we ever think someone could top Bush?

2. Biz Markie. Just try not to dance like a fool.

3. Three Moon Wolf t-shirt Scroll down to reviews.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Acheiving Excellence in Lawn Maintenance Report, 2009

I volunteered to cut the grass at church again this week. Its a good excuse to get outside, and after the mental gymnastics of German class I enjoy accomplishing something that won't end up covered in red pen.

The last time I did this job I split it with another lady, and we spent a good two hours on a quiet Saturday morning. This time I thought it easier to come in on Friday, when the church is already unlocked for the "Laib und Seele" group that distributes food to needy people.

We have only a rickety old electric mower whose cord must be transferred around the church. As I finished the first 1/3 I moved toward the front of the church and began hunting a suitable outlet. As I scavenged the Narthex a volunteer woman approached me and offered to help. Her accent sounded like some sort of Cockney crossed with a cleft palate. She took one end of the extension cord and found an outlet. It didn't work. We tried a second outlet, and that didn't work. Now a group of elderly volunteer men began to gather and confer what the problem with the mower could be. I was pretty sure it was the extension cord, but the group decided to fuss with the mower.

I explained that I would get another cord, but then one man piped up "You're mowing the lawn, alone?!" I responded yes. He asked why I was mowing the lawn and I tried to explain that I was working for the church and we had a rotation set up, blah blah blah. The woman jabbed him in the ribs and told him "Speak English- she don't know no German" which was weird because we had been speaking German. The man asked me what my first name was (very odd in German culture) and I stared at him for a moment. The woman snapped at me "Name, what's your name?" I told them, and now they wanted my email address, I asked why. I told them I wasn't aware that me mowing the lawn on that day was a problem. The woman replied, "Well you can't be out here mowing by yourself, its too dangerous."

I tried to assure her that I had received training and had permission from the church to mow. She said "Our insurance doesn't cover you out here, not if you're alone or a woman." I found this very odd and reassured her that the Pastor had said it was ok. I thanked her for her concern, but she blocked my way.

"I won't have you out here alone. What if something happens? It doesn't look right, a woman mowing by'erself!" I made the mistake of playing into her illogical argument "Its really ok. In America even children cut the grass."

"But we're not in America, darling!"

Luckily, at that moment Angie arrived, who'd been scheduled to mow with me. "Look, I'm not alone, I have a helper." Angie apologized for being 90 minutes late by hugging me and offering rolls. She also brought her daughter who squealed "Katy!!!!!" and handed me a small flower. They gleefully picked up rubbish as I mowed. I was just getting into a rhythm when the mower suddenly stopped working. I tinkered with the power supply, emptied the grass clippings, and fussed about. No luck. I was considering getting out the screw driver and taking it apart when I heard a thunder crackle. A downpour ensued, and so I put the mower and cords away and left, lawn half-mowed. The old woman fussed at me for putting the mower away by myself and for not bringing a jacket or umbrella. At this point I wanted to sock her, but instead said "thank you." Its important to say thank you to people, especially if they are really unhelpful.

This morning I was embarrassed to show my face at church, having left the lawn 1/2 mowed and unable to get through to anybody else on our rotation about lawn mower repair. But the Pastor's wife, Margit, approached and thanked me for mowing. I blushed and tried to explain but she just laughed "This volunteer called me up Friday and said 'There's some woman mowing the lawn!'" Margit found it hilarious. I should follow her example. What's that famous quote? "Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people."-Angela Carter

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Flusspferden



This Saturday we went to the zoo. I love the zoo, but I have to say I do feel kinda like a creep going there without children. The place is swarming with children and exhausted adults, whereas Ryan and I just go to enjoy the animals. Or rather I go to enjoy the animals and Ryan goes to laugh at my hippo giddiness.

I do really like hippos, and the Berlin zoo lets you watch their feeding. I'd never watched a hippo feeding and assumed that this would involve a trainer hauling some hay or vegetables into their enclosure. But no! Instead they spray a hose at them, and when they get bored they fire bread at them. I swear they had some kind of bread cannon, but Ryan thinks someone was just throwing it from above. But they got good distance, and have you ever tried to throw a loaf of German bread? Its about the weight and consistency of a small bundle of bricks. Clearly, some sort of bread projectile system was in use. And when the loaves hit the water they made a huge bang, and I jumped and Ryan laughed at me more.

The German words for hippo are "Flusspferden" and "Nilpferden." (River horse and Nile horse.) That's just how German works.

I've come to realize that I no longer remember how to spell hippopotamus. I just spell checked that 3 times. I used to be a good speller until I learned another language. Apparently you don't so much become bilingual as advance in one language whilst simultaneously declining in another. Plus Ryan and I mostly speak "Denglish" to each other now, sticking to one or the other takes some concentrating.

In other news I'm getting more used to Ulrike's brusqueness, Ryan is back from France, and we're planning a trip to Frankfurt this weekend for apartment hunting! So I've been pretty busy and thus remiss in my blogging. Hopefully I'll have more interesting stuff to report in the next couple days. Bis später, I mean until then...

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Boot Camp


Its been positively ages since I blogged! A brief update: Gwendolyn, our Georgian friend, came to visit. After she left Ryan came back, but this morning he left again on a fire-extinguishing visit to a problematic solar field near the French Riviera.

And I started a new German class. A course here is about 8 weeks, and having completed A2, I have been promoted to B1. Not only that, but the teachers decided to divide us into a "fast" and "slow" class. So I went from sleeping through a normal class to sweating through the fast class.

On Monday a posted list directed me to the top floor of the building. It was 2 minutes past, but the room was still dark and empty. A moment later I was joined by a black-clad, multiply pierced girl. Normal Friedrichshain morning. Then a taller girl entered, also dressed in black and topped off with loud clomping boots and a green military jacket. I scooted in so she could come sit by us, but instead she went to the front. This was our new teacher.

Corinna, my last teacher, was lanky and quiet. Her voice was the type that should read stories to children as they drift off to sleep. My new teacher, Ulrike, (funny side note, the night before Ryan and I watched "Der Baader-Meinhof Complex" a movie about a 1970s German terrorist organization with a leader called Ulrike Meinhof) is to Corinna as Che Guevara is to Snow White.

Every morning her voice booms "what is the proper case for this? And this? Explain why! No, incorrect! You, explain!" After the first 3 days my brain feels like its been through a blender. In my old class I wrote maybe 3-8 vocabulary words in my notebook every day, these days its more like 20.

Two of my classmates from my former class have joined me. Tony, a hilarious Catalan who, although often lost, always manages a joke; and Sara, also Spanish, who only periodically pops out of the fog she seems to live in. I don't want to sound harsh, she's very nice, but every morning she walks in and asks "What day is today?" and often seems genuinely surprised by the answer. "Tuesday? Really? But wasn't yesterday Thursday?"

The rest of our class is Ulrike's former class, 1 Spanish, 1 Peruvian, and 2 Italians, plus a brand new Dane. Up until last month I'd never met a Danish person and now I know four. Its a strange shift to be the only native English speaker in the class, and when things can't be explained in German they are often rattled off in Spanish, sending me diving after my dictionary.

But tomorrow I'm looking forward to a little respite. Ulrike is teaching our class 3 days a week, and Martin, one of my former teachers, is taking Thursday and Friday. His style is more relaxed, and usually slower. So hopefully we'll get some of that, not Martin sped up and drilling.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday Night in Berlin

Ryan is gone again on business and I've been spending more time with my classmates, which has been nice. Yesterday Carmen and I spent a few hours in a cafe and then drove a saleslady crazy trying on all the shoes in a local boutique. Today she and April wanted to go out for a beer and told me they'd call "around 4:00" which in Spanish time means somewhere between 6:30 and 8:00.

At 7:30 I didn't feel like waiting around the house anymore so I decided to see a movie. The main English-version movie theater in Berlin is in glamorous Potsdamer Platz. I practiced my supermodel walk through the glittery plaza.

I saw "Slumdog Millionaire." I was probably the last English-speaking person on the planet to see this movie, but if you haven't seen it, I'd recommend it. Its very intense, and as my German teacher would say "brutal", but it's beautifully done. The conditions of the slums in this film were absolutely heart-wrenching. I left the theater awash with guilt that my own comfortable existence could coincide unknowingly with such poverty and despair.

As I climbed aboard the U-Bahn, I passed a gangly young man dead asleep on a bench with a beer bottle in one hand and a huge book in the other. The American in me was shocked and passed by quickly. I climbed on the waiting train and watched him. Everyone else walked past, shaking their heads, some glaring at the boy. Then one man tapped him on the knee and pointed toward the idling train. The boy gathered himself and bumbled on board. He sat down between a trio of 18-year old girls making nervous faces and disgusted older man. Of course, upon sitting he immediately fell asleep, and started leaning dangerously close to one of the girls, who was eating a fruit cup. Others got up and moved away from him.

My time in England witnessed a lot of drunks. Its not unusual to see someone passed out in their own vomit in the middle of the sidewalk. But the English aren't phased, and quite used to picking each other up and putting them on the right bus.

I knew this guy was going to sleep through his station. And to be honest, I've been that drunk once or twice (never alone mind you, but anyway). So I sat down across from him and mustered my best German. I tapped him on the knee and said "You must wake up. What is your station?" I repeated myself once more and he muttered "Kottbusser Tor. You tell me when it's Kottbusser Tor. Danke." Then fell asleep again. He dropped his massive book. It was Star Trek. He started leaning again toward the young girl, and we all started laughing. Everyone in the car was now watching him, slumping to the side with a large string of drool out of his mouth. Two less drunk guys got on the train and were making fun of him, trying to impress the girls. At this point I thought "why see a movie, I can get all the entertainment of Berlin just riding the U-1."

At Kottbusser Tor I shook him awake and told him to go "schnell! Straight home, no more drinking!" He caught the eyes of the guys making fun of him, and for a minute I thought they would fight. But he lumbered off the train. The doors closed and we all laughed again. Then he banged on the window. I thought he was mad at the other boys, but instead he flashed a big smile and waved to me. The man sitting next to me said something to the effect of "Some boyfriend you have." And I couldn't answer, I was giggling too much.

So, today's German will be "blau sein." Literally, "to be blue" but it actually means drunk. For example "Ich bin nicht blau. Du, du bist blau!"

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tower of Babble

Because I love paperwork so much I put off changing my last name immediately after marriage so I could fill out endless forms in not one but two different countries. If you thought filing for taxes in two countries was fun, imagine contacting every relevant government agency on both sides of the Atlantic. Anyway, to complete step 1 of 50 I picked up my new passport at the embassy this morning and made it to German class about 20 minutes late.

When I walked in to my classroom I didn't immediately recognize anyone- the class had doubled. At the beginning of the week we often get new students, though this was a lot. But I took my seat and listened to the rest of the introductions/discussions of what we did over Easter break. We gained an Italian, a Portugese-ee (?), two more Spainiards, and an American. The American was a well-dressed older man who introduced himself as Geoffrey, pronounced rather pretentiously (Juh-AHH-free). But everyone seemed nice.

We did a worksheet about Easter traditions and then had a discussion about different traditions in different countries. In Spain apparently they don't do eggs but have town-wide processions "morning noon and night" Carmen said as she rolled her eyes. Then the discussion turned to the US. I suggested that one normally eats ham, there was some debate about whether should include pineapple, and April mentioned hiding eggs. Then Geoffrey said that his family makes a ground beef crucifix, complete with dying Jesus, on Good Friday. He laughed and explained that he and his children were very anti-religion. Corinna said "ah how blasphemous" and instead of agreeing and shutting up he just kept going on and on about how it was his way of celebrating and enjoying his atheism and whatnot. I became pretty annoyed. I generally tolerate people making fun of Christianity, and I understand that the religion is in many ways illogical. But this guy was arguing so obnoxiously, as if we should all bow down to his superior intelligence. I'm of the opinion that if someone really is something, they shouldn't have to proclaim it. Like those t-shirts that say "sexy" on them. If you really were sexy, would you have to wear a shirt that said it? Wouldn't it just be obvious?

Anyway, on break I caught up with April and Carmen and was happy to hear that the other group had joined us temporarily because their teacher is sick. April noticed that Geoffrey had flocked to two of our former classmates who had both moved up a level: Else The Important French Artist, and Alex the Know-it-All New Zealander. They were no doubt patting each other on the back for being so special.

After break things only got worse. We read a passage and the teacher asked us if we had questions about the vocabulary. Usually this goes pretty quickly, but someone asked about the phrase "es hängt...ab" which Corinna explained literally means "it hangs on..." like something hanging on the wall, but in English it's translated "it depends on..." Simple enough. But then Geoffrey wanted to talk about different things that hang and then different things that something could depend on; on and on and on where he was finally asking such things as "in German do you 'hang' a door? What is the word for 'hinges' in German?" I think we managed to cover about 1/3 of our normal coursework today because of the inane interruptions which also included him making a joke about how some word was too simple and needed "an auf or something." He was the only one who laughed, so he felt the need to repeat himself several times.

The last few minutes Corinna gave up and we just played a vocabulary-guessing game. This is a speed game where the team describes a word to an unseeing teammate who guesses and then you must throw up your hands quickly and say something like "she said it! she said it!" There are usually several disputes about points and during one I was arguing that my teammate had been first and Geoffrey told me "You're manipulative, aren't you?" I wanted to say, "Ja, und du bist ein Arschloch" but I didn't. So that will be our German of the day. Das Arschloch = the asshole. Use it in a sentence. "Ja, und du bist ein Arschloch." (Yes, and you are an asshole.)