Saturday, March 28, 2009


Ryan has been gone on a business trip since Wednesday. The first night he was gone I raided the IKEA. The second night I raided the ice cream section of the grocery store. On Friday my classmates were comparing notes on all the hottest underground illegal edgy secret clubs, and they asked me if I go clubbing. I said "Not often" but really meant "never."

All techno music sounds the same to me, I don't really enjoy gyrating in small or large groups, and I'm usually in bed by eleven. But I didn't want my classmates to know how lame I am, and I figured its a good opportunity to socialize; so I took them up on an invite to the latest hottest party venue.

Once I got home from class I realized I have no idea what to wear to a club. I googled the club name and found out that it's the "coolest illegal brewery space in Berlin". Illegal? I've heard of clubs where they have secret passwords, but this whole world is very strange to me.

We met up at 11:00 at Carmen's apartment and hung out drinking red wine. Around 1:00 (!) we left for the club. We weren't asked a secret password, and April even got us in on the guest list. The building is a dilapidated Villa-- gorgeous arches and architecture straight out of the Victorian era. Of course now its plastered in graffiti and gouged with holes.

The entertainment was basically what I expected. We drank and danced around a little circle with our coats in the middle. April's friend was DJing and some of our classmates left to go to another room because the "music" was "better." Obviously I'm no appreciator of this type of stuff, but it was fun hanging out with everyone.

It was already really late but I made a commitment to myself not to be the first to leave. I was counting on my friend's girlfriend who seemed really tired and wasn't drinking, but around 4:00 am I was beat. I cut out and some friends insisted on walking me to the tram. It was nice of them though Berlin really is very safe.

Got home and fell into bed around 5:00; woke up around noon with a pillowcase covered in black eyeshadow. I think I'm too old for this stuff. Luckily Ryan gets home tonight and we can resume our eating-in, watching rental movies, early bedtime lifestyle. Do you think any of my hip classmates could be converted?

The Ongoing Dental Saga....

It has been a month and I still haven't seen a dentist! You will recall that I attempted to see an English-speaking dentist a few weeks ago and got terribly lost but ended up singing Irish drinking songs with an old lady.

Then I canceled that appointment and after much internet searching found a dentist less than a block away from my apartment. Voila! I made an appointment 2 weeks ago and showed up on my appointment day to be told that it was next week. So on Wednesday this week I scrubbed my teeth and braced myself for my first dentist visit in 2 years.

I showed up and filled out forms. A hygienist led me into an exam room where I met the dentist. He is about 7 feet tall in my estimation and as wide as a door. He didn't smile. His name is Jurg. Kinda scary. He asked me what I needed and in my bad German I said something like "I lived in England for 2 years and didn't see a dentist. I think my teeth are very dirty."

He leaned my chair back and the friendly hygienist explained that they were going to make some photos of my teeth. I didn't know if they meant x-rays or what, but he stuck what looked like a pen in my mouth and suddenly there were photos of the yellowest bits of my teeth on a giant computer screen. Lovely.

He then grabbed a chart (luckily labeled in English) and spent about 20 minutes lecturing me on something and gesturing at pictures of rotting teeth. I managed to understand that I have "reversible gingivitis" and need a cleaning. I figured "duh, that's why I'm here." But then he handed me a brochure and the hygienist told me to think about it. I stared at her and said "So you don't clean my teeth today?" They chuckled as if this was some absurd question but told me I could make an appointment for next week.

So next Wednesday, after a month of questing, I may actually have a dentist appointment! Wish me luck.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Social Responsibility

I am taking an intro to psych course online through the excellent website Academic Earth. Its been really interesting, I listen to it while doing housework or walking to German class. But today's lecture was on morality and I found it troubling.

Part of the controversy revolves around an experiment. Subject A is led into a room with a large dial. A person in a lab coat explains that this is a learning study. A window is uncovered to show subject B in the next room hooked up to electric diodes. The subject A is told that subject B will be asked a series of questions, and should he get them wrong, it is the subject A's responsibility to turn the dial and deliver an electric shock. The shocks will increase each time, and the dial is marked at the point of lethal exposure. The lab coat-clad scientist assures subject A that he will assume full responsibility for the consequences. Subject B gets each question wrong and as the voltage increases, displays various pain reactions starting from "Ouch, I don't want to do this anymore" to convulsing and losing consciousness. But under directives from the lab coat man, the vast, vast majority of Subject As would deliver a lethal dosage of electricity. Of course it was all an act, subject B was not really getting shocked. But those who participated in the experiment came to know a shocking fact about themselves: under instruction (not even threats or coercion) they would kill another person.

Everyone hears about this and claims "not me! I would never participate in such a thing!" and I feel the same way. But statistically speaking this isn't true. Most of us would rather conform to social norms than do the right thing, even if it is as simple as choosing not to kill a person.

And in many ways we unknowingly contribute to the misery and harm of others. Tonight I feel very convicted. How often has my preference for cheap clothes supported sweatshops? Even though I don't believe in the war in Iraq, my tax dollars are funding it. And the realization is that my money makes me complicit. Is that the horror of the 21st century? Buying a stock, a t-shirt, a banana, paying taxes, makes me a co conspirator in the evil perpetuated by these corporations and governments?

So tonight I desperately search the websites of companies I buy clothes from. The offer chipper assurances of their third-world factory inspections, but can I believe them?

The other main source of my shopping, Express, doesn't list information online but I have emailed them regarding factory conditions, wages, etc. If any of you have any information regarding sweatshops or responsible shopping, I would be excited to hear it:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Trip to the Dentist

Today was my first dentist appointment in about 2 years. After class I rushed around with a number of small but urgent errands and just barely made the subway. I grabbed a quick lunch at the train station and set off on the walk to find the dentist's office.

(There are quite a number of dentists in my neighborhood, but I selected this dentist off a list from the US Embassy of English-speaking doctors and dentists because I'm afraid that with my bad German I might unwittingly agree to a root canal.)

I was running late and it looked about to rain. Then I saw a strange memorial. There are memorials all over Berlin, even, disturbingly enough, a memorial to citizens killed in a bombing in the IKEA parking lot. But this one caught my eye-- it marked the spot where the first person died attempting to cross the wall. His name was Rudolf Urban. East German soldiers shot him, and West Germans looked on as he bled to death in "no man's land."

As I got closer to the dentist's office I saw many more memorials, including an old guard tower that was left standing in front of what is now an apartment building. A large part of this "no man's land" area is now a graveyard.

It was all very interesting, but I was anxious to find the dentist's office quickly so I'd have time to fill out my medical history in German. I turned onto a small street and found the number. It looked like an apartment building, but I read the names on the buzzers anyway. No Dr. Shulze. I checked the next building's buzzers. Nope. An elderly lady exited the building and I approached her.

"Excuse me, but is this Kielerstrasse 1?"
"Yes." She said as she loaded a package into her bicycle's basket.
"Are there any dentists here?"
"I don't know, many people live here."
"Do you know if there are any dentist's offices here?"
"No no. Just apartments. There are 3 Kielerstrasses in Berlin, you know."
"Oh really? Shoot." I checked my planner and realized I didn't write down the dentist's phone number.
"One minute, I will help you find it." She took her package and went back into the apartment building. I called Ryan and he managed to track down the zip code and phone number for me.

I called the dentist and rescheduled my appointment. I took down the name of their subway station. Then the woman popped out again with her package and a large map book. I told her I made a new appointment and she looked up the postcode of the dentist's office. It was not in central Berlin (as the embassy listed) but rather in Berlin's extreme southwest.
"Where do you live?" She asked.
"In Friedrichshain."
"Why do you want to go to a dentist all the way over there? That's too far for a dentist. Go to a dentist by your house."
"But my German isn't very good, and this dentist speaks English."
"Its not such a problem. Old people can speak English too, you know. I speak English." And then she did.

She told me about traveling to Ireland and made me sing "Molly Malone" with her in the front yard of the apartment building. We talked for a good half hour or so, about her retirement, what I'm doing here, what she'd seen in the states, the progress of computers in the last 30 years, etc. Then she showed me the path through the graveyard and sent me back to the train station.

So my teeth remain covered in tartar for another week or so. But I did get to see a new part of Berlin and practice some German. It feels good to blow off appointments once and a while.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Practice Makes Perfekt

Martin has been harassing my class that we need to spend more time speaking German outside of class, so last Friday night Ryan and I instituted a half-hour of only German. We lasted about 10 minutes before we both started running into words we only knew in English. We kept it up for the full half hour, but since Friday have failed to initiate another practice session. Then again, on Monday and Wednesday Ryan has evening classes and we only see each other about an hour anyway, and I'd rather not sacrifice valuable catch-up time to sputtering about in German.

But yesterday I practiced with a real German! Normally I don't chat with people when I'm doing laundry or shopping, people are very formal here and don't generally joke with strangers. But yesterday the fridge repairman came (no our fridge wasn't broken, but the fridge light was finicky and our Hausmeister insisted that it run properly! Sorry Bonnie, but that's Germans vs. Brits.) Anyway, he was this heavily-mustached elderly man who puffed and complained the whole way up our 5 flights of stairs. I apologized that we have no elevator, but he just smiled and said "You are young, it is easy for you to go up the stairs."

I showed him to the fridge and explained that the light works sometimes. He said something I didn't understand then gestured flicking a switch, and said "ausmachen" which I just learned in class that morning. I guessed he meant the fuse box, so I took him back downstairs and showed him. He told me to go upstairs and yell when the fridge light went off. I did and he seemed to find the problem quickly. (I always wonder where and what I should be doing when there's a repairman over. I don't want to stand over his shoulder, but is it rude to go into the other room and go about my business?) So I sat at the kitchen table and looked over my homework. He asked me to flick the switch back on, and voila! Fridge light!

He asked me where I came from and I explained the whys and wheres. He said he'd never been to the US before then something I didn't understand and then said "Aussie" and I thought "maybe he's been to Australia?" So I said "Super!" And then he clarified that he's from the east, an "Ossie" not "Aussie" as in behind the wall. I didn't know what to say, so he asked if we intended to stay forever. I said "No, just for 2 or 3 years." And he said "You shouldn't stay here forever. Its no good here. Next year I'm going to retire and move to Norway."

I asked "Isn't the beer in Norway very expensive?"
"I don't smoke and I don't drink!"
"That is not typical."
Then he said something something "abend" which is evening, and then "do you understand?"
"Not really."
Then he said it again I realized he was saying "arme" which means poor. He proceeded to explain "Poor is when someone doesn't have much money. Rich is like a millionaire." Then he laughed and wished me a good day.

When the Hausmeister insisted on getting a repairman to come over I was a little irritated because I hate having to wait around for them, but now I see that I should break the fridge more often. If the fridge repairman came over once a week, my German would improve very quickly.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Eyes of a Psychopath

Monday through Wednesday my German class is taught by a subdued and bashful lady called Corrina. Thursday introduced us to Martin, her ADHD counterpart. He made us do extended introductions and I came to learn that my classmates are generally all Bohemian artist/musician/designer types. The Japanese student is learning the language primarily so he can read some abstract Austrian philosopher's original works. When my turn came I meekly explained that I am a hausfrau, here because my husband has a job.

Martin doesn't let us speak English. We ended class on Friday with a worksheet about parents and children. We were presented with 3 photographs of children and 3 photographs of parents and had to match them based on short descriptive paragraphs. He questioned us for whom we thought belonged to whom. He asked me about the third parent-child match and I basically had no good reason. But looking at the picture I said, "Well this daughter and mother both have crazy eyes." Martin asked "Why do you think she has crazy eyes?" I had no idea how to explain this in German. I tried to think of the translation for "silly" and then remembered that in German silly=dumb. So I said "I don't know, she has a dumb face?"

Everyone laughed and Martin taught us the word for "to stare." My British classmate passionately disagreed. "The mother has friendly eyes. The mother in the first picture is the one with the eyes of a psychopath!" This devolved into our class arguing about who had psychopathic eyes and what exactly constituted psychopathic eyes.

So, should I have to describe someone to the police, I know how to say "crazy eyes" "dumb face" and "looks like a psychopath." That's real world knowledge. And I was right about the mother and daughter belonging to each other. You can always tell by the eyes.

Monday, March 2, 2009

First Day of School!

My German class started this morning. I was pretty nervous about going. This is the first class I've taken, mostly I've been learning by listening to pod casts and through books. I was assigned to level A2, which is the second of five or six levels. Primarily I worried that the class would be way ahead of me grammatically and that I would end up being the token stupid kid.

I showed up 10 minutes early to find my group and classroom. There must be nearly 100 students in the various classes, and they were all milling about chatting with each other. A new fear struck me: would they be so tight-nit that there would be no place for one awkward American chick?

Class started and the teacher started by asking what we did on the weekend and I thought I'd impress by laying out a phrase learned only yesterday, "zu Fuss gehen" which means to go for a walk. She asked me a follow up question and I had no idea what she was talking about. Backfire. I stared at my classmates who were staring back encouragingly, some even making gestures to try and help me. No dice. Only when I got home was I able to look up "spazieren"-to stroll.

On break my two American classmates approached and complained about our teacher. The previous session's teacher was apparently more animated than a cartoon character and cracked a lot of jokes. I think our teacher is pretty nice, but they find her dull. I changed the subject by admitting how shoddy my grammar is, and they admitted they didn't catch much of the morning's grammar lesson either.
"We had to take a grammar test at the end of last session and we all failed." They quipped. I thought 'Maybe its good thing we got a new teacher.'

I'm very happy to have class everyday. I've felt pretty aimless lately. I'm a person who needs to have work, and our small flat is not very much work.

In other news, Ryan's Canadian boss is in town for these next two days and I'm hoping we can get some details about both the whys and hows of our proposed move. They're having dinner tonight, details to follow....