Monday, January 30, 2012

Vocabulary Failures

I am a proficient German speaker.  Anyone who has seriously studied a second language is always extremely reluctant to say that they are fluent, and I count myself among those who know how little they truly know.  Yes, I can have a mostly fluid conversation about politics and my studies.  Yes, I can read the newspaper and understand academic articles in my field.  Do I know what every single word means?  Definitely not.  Can I get the basics of what is being discussed and the main points?  Yes.  This brings me to a point that I have recently been contemplating: I have been accruing a massive amount of vocabulary failures since we moved here! 

My first failure had to be when I went to fill out all the 8 million different forms that we had to do to get through all the bureaucratic madness that was our arrival.  At home I am well versed in which sections of the forms should be filled out and which can be left blank, in addition to being able to easily detect when the form is appropriate for my situation and when I’ve grabbed the wrong one.  Coming here has given me a whole new sense of appreciation for basic form knowledge!  (I mean literal forms here, not the Plato-type ones in the cave and all that.)

The second failure: Bank Vocabulary!  This was of course exacerbated by my first form failure, but not quite as horrific.  I barely understand banking terms in English, so figuring them out in German is a MAJOR challenge!  My bank here seems to be very patient with explaining things to customers fairly regularly, and even has a special account set up so you can pay a fee to talk to them instead of handing everything via internet.  OK, so the fee isn’t so nice, but I’m chalking it up as a dumb-ass tax as my step-dad would call it and ponying up the €4 per month. 

The third vocabulary fail I encountered so far, has been Kindergarten specific.  I simply never learned the words for all the things that the kids do in preschool here.  Somehow the words for water-proof pants, special field trips, and parental exchange times never came up in my studies before.  I’m not sure how that happened, but thank goodness the administrator at our Kita speaks English and can explain these things to us silly Americans.  (She’s remarkably nice by the way and not at all judgmental about these vocabulary failures of mine!) 

The fourth and most hilarious (in my mind) vocabulary failures happens almost daily when I read library books out loud to our girls.  Example: we checked out a Calvin & Hobbes collection from the library.  I originally picked it out for Andy, hoping some short funny things to read might entice him to work just a little at a time to improve his German.  Annika got ahold of the book yesterday and insisted I read it to her.  Typically I read the German and then translate it to English for her out loud, but last night she insisted saying, “No Mommy, I don’t want you to read it auf Deutsch, only auf English.”  I tried to explain that the words on the page were auf Deutsch, and that I had to read them auf Deutsch, switch them in my brain to English, and then speak them out loud.  Annika grew impatient, and eventually gave up saying I was too slow.  I’m sure she thinks I’m a moron, but I know better.  There’s a reason mommy didn’t become an interpreter! 

The last vocabulary failure I will mention, is not mine, rather the randomly hilarious English things that get bantered around here.  These usually happen when phrases from popular music or movies or such get thrown around.  Example: When I signed up for the gym, I asked the manager in German if all the classes were included in the membership.  He looked at me straight-faced and said, “Fo sho!”  I giggled, and he asked how I would say it in German.  I translated it as “aber sicher” and he agreed that was an appropriate translation.  Was he testing my German, deciding if I really was a native English speaker, testing my cool factor?  We may never know.  However, I WILL forever cherish this dude enjoying saying random American English Slang things to me!  This is of course much more preferable than the teenagers screaming swear words at each other in the train station in front of my kids.  Afterwards, he laughed and told me (in English), “I just love American.”  Me too dude, me too. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A very snowy & skype-y Sunday

We awoke to a fresh coating of about 1 inch of snow all over the ground today.  I took the girls outside for some fresh air before lunch time.  Scary thought: maybe I am turning into a German mother <gasp>!  They basically ran around the courtyard between apartment buildings here in glorious Berlin suburbia making snow angels, tracking cat prints, drawing pictures with sticks in the snow, and attempting to climb on the mound of dirt next to the neighboring apartment building.  It’s fairly cold outside, so we didn’t stay out long.  While out there, I did notice that at least 80% of our neighbors had one or more windows in their house open.  It is below freezing, and their windows are open.  This particular German habit is baffling to me, and I think I may really need to investigate the origins of this custom.  I wonder if Turks here do the same thing.  I WILL be asking my participants about this for sure. 

The trip outside was seriously successful for us though, since Mayzie actually ate her lunch and then went straight to bed for her nap.  Annika has now completely given up her afternoon nap, and is currently sitting next to me playing games and listening to read-aloud books on my tablet.  This is one of the only ways I’ve ever been able to get her to sit still for more than 5 minutes.  Anyone who has ever met Miss Annika, will completely understand, so please don’t get all judgey-McJudgerson on me about the tablet. 

Andy left for his weekly soccer game just after Mayzie went down, and will be back in time to eat dinner with us.  So our afternoon will be spent in our usual Sunday in Berlin style: lounging around the apartment and skyping with family members who are just rolling out of bed.  There’s no point in leaving the house when 90% of things are closed anyway. Later I’ll put on a movie for the girls and make dinner for us all.  It’s a rough life. J

Side note: My 2 favorite new German-ified words are now: Googlen & Skypen! 

I am hoping to sit down and check off some of the ideas from my ever-growing list of things to write about this evening, so perhaps there will be another post today.

Oh yes, and one correction: on closer inspection Diesel Gas was €1.42 and the lowest grade gasoline you can purchase costs €1.53 per liter, making it $7.71.  For an American that will drive across the street for gas that is 1 cent cheaper, this is a major difference!  I’m looking forward to seeing how much gas will be when we rent a car to go visit our dear friends in Bremen. 

I need to also announce that Annika & Mayzie are now the proud owners of multiple pairs of thick tights, so their legs should never be showing ever again.  Take that Oma patrol lady who scolded us for Annika being underdressed on the U-Bahn!  She actually said to me, “Sie ist ├╝berhaupt nicht warm genug angezogen!” (She’s absolutely not dressed warm enough!) Naturally, she was also shaking her finger at me in scorn. 

One more thing: I must give a major shout out to our new friends that we recently met. They just moved here from Indianapolis and have 2 girls almost the exact same age as ours.  I had the BEST coffee date with the Mom and two girls and am really looking forward to being able to laugh at all the silly Germaness with another family going through the same things! 

Friday, January 27, 2012


To continue her overachiever status, Mayzie is cutting her 2 year molars at 18 months. This IS the girl who had all her other teeth in before her 1st birthday, so we aren't surprised at all.


Price of gasoline per liter in Zehlendorf, Berlin today: €1.42
Liters per Gallon: 3.7878
Exchange rate: €1 = $1.33
1 Gallon of Gas in Zehlendorf, Berlin: $7.15
Monthly Pass to ride the Bus, city trains, trams, and subways: €57.92 = $77.03
Being allowed to drink a beer on the ride home= priceless

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Worldwide Caution

When I first arrived here, I registered with the U.S. Embassy.  I wanted them to know I'm here since I'm so important that they should roll out the red carpet for me.  No seriously, I just wanted to register to let them know I'm here so that big brother can rescue me if something should happen.  I'm not one to worry about those things, but I'm also not one to ignore protocol and this was one suggested precautionary step that took me less than 10 minutes to do on the website.  Initially, I got an email thanking me for registering, and I've received nothing since, until today.

This afternoon I got an email with the subject: Message to US Citizens: New Worldwide Caution.
Seriously?  I'm unimpressed.  The big long email message talks of course about terrorist plots against American Citizens all over the world blah blah blah.  (Does anyone else hear the word "terrorist" in a very thick W Bush-Texan accent every time they read it?  No?  Just me?  Oh well.) 

I'm not taking this lightly.  No seriously, I read the whole email and took it all to heart. 

Examples of targets could include: "high-profile sporting events, residential areas, business offices, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, public areas, and other tourist destinations both in the United States and abroad where U.S. citizens gather in large numbers, including during holidays."
"public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure."

 We're taking action to:
"maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness"

Thankfully, the section outlining appropriate vigilance for those of us in Europe was only 3 short and extremely vague sentences about plans & past events blah blah blah.  This was followed by much more specific and "credible" information about the Middle East & North Africa, Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, and East Asia.** 
(**Surely we can find a better way to classify these hugely diverse portions of the world!  Seriously!)

This makes me wonder:
1. Where are South & Central America in all of this mess?  Do they get a separate email since they face different threats than the rest of the world?   
2. If the point of terrorism is to make us terrified, than isn't this email really evidence of our defeat? 
3. Is my increased "vigilance" really going to keep us safer?  Should I seriously be staying away from the public transportation system, holiday celebrations, and tourist areas?  If so, we are really going to have to change our lifestyle here. 
4. Doesn't the fact that I signed up for the email and registered with the embassy imply some form of vigilance on my part already? 

Thankfully, the embassy here has a blog that I can check for regular updates.

Look, I get it.  I have friends that live in places that are a whole lot scarier than here: Cairo, Kampala, Tokyo, NYC, LA, San Francisco Bay Area, etc. (All scary for very different reasons, but very scary in my eyes nonetheless.)  Keeping safe is a real issue.  I remember to lock our doors at night (mostly out of the fear that Ani will try to escape as she has done in the past).  I don't walk around at night with my headphones blaring Springsteen's "Born in the USA."  I carry my cell phone and make sure that I know the emergency numbers to call (a surprisingly complicated question in Germany by the way).  But what more can I do as an individual citizen of the United States living in Berlin to stay safe from an al-Qaida attack?  I will not live in fear of the unknown and uncontrollable.  Surely my taxes pay for someone else to do that for me.  Oh yes, they surely do!  Whenever I start to worry out loud about something I can't control, my lovely mother in law reminds me not to "borrow trouble."  I love this phrase, and wish I could send everyone that received this email the wisdom of these words.  When I visited my aunt, uncle, and cousins living in Oakland, CA a little more than a year ago, I asked them when they stopped worrying about earthquakes.  I really appreciated my uncle's take on the whole thing when he told me that eventually he stopped worrying about what he couldn't control.  He made sure his family was as prepared for a disaster as possible, but other than that, he just let go of it.  I think I'll take the same approach.    

So, thank you U.S. State Department for the nice scary email reminding me to stay vigilant.  I'll try to keep on my toes and hold down Fort Melch.   


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

German Meter Reading

 About 2 weeks ago we received a postcard in our mailbox and a sign was posted on the door of the apartment building informing us that our water/heat company would be coming for a meter reading on January 24th.  The little box was checked for 11am-1pm to inform us when they would arrive, so we had to be sure to be home during that time to let them in to see all the meters.  This is pretty much the worst time ever for them to come to our house, as it is in the middle of lunch/nap time of the day for us, but rescheduling would be a bigger pain. 

There are 2 different types of meters that the guy came to read.  The first kind he read were the heater meters.  They are these little white boxes with 2 tiny buttons and are actually located on every single one of the heaters in every room of our apartment.  The guy put this fancy electronic reader thing up to the little box and then numbers popped up on the display of said reader thing.  The second kind of meters he read were the water meters that are located in the kitchen and the bathroom. The one in the kitchen is inside the wall, behind a secret trap door, inside the cabinet, under the sink.  The one in the bathroom is behind a pop out section of the tile under the shower’s head.  Additionally, there is a meter in the basement that he had to look at, but I’m not completely sure what that meter is for really. 

I asked the kind gentleman how often this meter reading happens, and he said they only come once per year always in January.  I’m not sure if that is only for our building or if they only come in January to every one of the places that they service.  If that’s the case, I’m set to be super impressed by the coordination that this would actually take.  The logical side of me says that surely there is no way that they actually are that impressively coordinated, and that surely they have devised a better system for checking them all.  Of course, this IS Germany, where customer service, logic, and efficiency seem to exist in wholly independent spheres unaware of one another. 

When we first moved into this apartment, we had to call and schedule a reading of the meters to make sure that we were all paying only for what we specifically used.  I had to call the company, because the lady that we are renting from doesn’t actually speak German (which is really a whole story in and of itself, but I digress).  When I called the company, I was actually being charged a per minute fee for calling customer service, including the time that I was on hold.  I found that completely RIDICULOUS and continue to be flabbergasted by the fact that they have the chutzpah to do that to their customers.  I DID call from the house phone, which was by the way a cheaper rate than calling from my cell phone (though I fail to understand how they made that distinction on their end).  Anyway, the customer service scheduled a nice 4 hour block with the gentleman who would come out to read all the meters on the day that we needed him to—or at least close to it.  For this nice service, we only had to pay a €75 service fee.  When we move out, we will once again have to schedule and pay said fee.  Not looking forward to that one at all actually. 

So, meter reading, who knew it could be so interestingly different? 

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Shelf in the toilet?

I forgot to mention in my previous post about unsurprising German things, the infamous Poop Shelf Toilet of Germany.  Thankfully, we do not have one in our apartment, but I have encountered them many times throughout my travels about Berlin and greater Deutschland in general. 

Please for the love of Maude, if you don't know what these things are, read about them here, here, here, or here
You're very welcome! 

A Movie Experience

We recently went on a date to see a movie.  We went to see Ides of March at the Sony Center, which shows lots of movies in English without any subtitles even.  Thank goodness for the lack of subtitles, because I didn’t want anything obscuring my Clooney-Gosling viewing pleasure.  As at home, we ordered a large popcorn and soda to share.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the GIANT popcorn was the size of a bucket!  The Pepsi came in a 1.5 Liter cup that would not even fit into the cupholder in my seat.  I even joked with the concession stand girl that they were “American sized,” though she just nodded and looked all judgy as I walked off to theater number 7.  

We knew we weren’t at home though.  First, there was the fact that our tickets were printed with assigned seats that we had to find.  No joke, at some point this other couple came to claim their seats next to ours and the lady said, “Well really this seat (pointing at the one directly next to me where my coat was) is ours too, but we’ll just sit over here.”  (Auf Deutsch nat├╝rlich!)  Secondly, the theater was WARM.  I specifically wore a sweater layerered over a t-shirt to the movie, because I’m soo used to American theaters being cold.  As soon as we sat down, I was sweating and had to take off the sweater.  It’s January in Berlin right now.  I guess the theater didn’t get the news about the austerity measures...I digress.  The third reason we knew we weren’t at home, was because when we sat down 10 minutes before the show time the screen was completely blank.  No Commercials at all for that whole lead-up period to the show.  At the appointed time of the movie, the theater got dark, they played exactly 3 commercials, and then the house lights came back on to let the stragglers find their assigned seats.  At least ½ the audience showed up at this time.  Where are the punctual Germans anyway?  Finally, the lights went back down, they played 3 previews, and then came the Clooney-Gosling goodness.

For the record, I did really like the movie!  I thought it was an extremely candid and jaded insider look at the American political machine as it currently exists, and Gosling’s performance was really spot-on!  I love a good political thriller, and this one was as bitter and twisted as they come.  Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Paul Giamatti also gave outstanding performances, and stole their respective scenes, which was no easy feat when competing with the hunkiness of Gosling.

Post Script: I took Annika to see a matinee of Puss in Boots there one week later, and she was soo happy it was in English that she actually sat in her seat through the whole thing! 


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