Step number 59,248 in becoming a proper German is getting yourself a .de email address. Having noticed that a lot of Germans email me from a web.de account, that’s what I decided to go for. There are two things you assume when you sign up for an email account called FreeMail:
You get an email account;
It is free.
I like free.
You can imagine my surprise when, a month or so later, I received an invoice (Rechnung) from web.de for around €15. Assuming (clearly very dangerous in Germany) that it was a mistake, or possibly some optional extra that I was under no obligation to pay, I deleted it. A few days later, I received another one. About a week later, I got another one and, shock horror, the amount had gone up. It seemed they were serious about this payment malarkey.
Finding it hard to believe that every German with a .de account is paying for it, I emailed my old German teacher to ask if she was paying for hers:
What!? No, I don’t pay. Maybe you accidentally agreed to open up an account where you have to pay. They could have inserted some button that you can hardly see and pressed accidentally.
I heard a similar story from a friend. You should call and complain and tell them it wasn’t your intention to open up this account.
Crap. The one thing I dislike more than making phone calls in English is making phone calls in German. I decided to take the coward’s way out and, instead, replied to the email I had received and sent another message through the Customer Service page – not easy to find. I got a confirmation that they’d received my query and waited. When, after two days, I had got no reply, I knew I’d have to bite the bullet and call. Crap. (Again.)
The telephone number is buried somewhere in the site – I guess they hope that you’ll just give up and stump up whatever it is they’re asking for.
They hadn’t bet on the intrepidity of Frau von Grady, however. I trawled every inch of that blasted site and eventually found what I was looking for. The first victory. Amazingly, the automated system recognised my nervous muttering of my contract number – when had I signed up for a contract? – and I was put through to an actual person.
I explained the reason for my call.
Herr Helpful: Ah yes, I see that you’ve sent us two emails about this.
Me: (Grrr.) Why, yes, yes I have. Aaaaaaanyway, I didn’t sign up for a contract, I don’t understand why I’m getting invoices and I don’t want membership to anything. I just want the FreeMail account that I registered for.
Herr Helpful: I see. Let me just check… (tap, tap, tap)… yes, it seems that on the (insert random date) at (insert random time), you clicked on a button that activated your premium account.
Now, because of the way web.de is set up, with things moving around the pages, pop-up ads and various buttons that appear randomly, this is actually very possible. However, as I hadn’t handed over any bank details, given a credit card number or even double-clicked to confirm, I hadn’t given it a second thought.
Me: Well, that was a mistake. I didn’t mean to click anything. All I want is the FreeMail account.
Herr Helpful: OK, I understand. I’m cancelling your “contract” now. You won’t receive any more invoices from us.
Me: Great, thanks. But do I have to pay the previous invoices?
Herr Helpful: No, you don’t have to pay anything.
Me: (Phew.) Fantastic. WAIT! Can you please send me that in writing? (Because Germany…)
Herr Helpful: Yes, of course. You will get an email shortly.
As I sat clicking refresh and waiting for the confirmation, I contemplated how much entertainment value the staff at web.de would get out of my “recorded for quality purposes” German over the next 90 days. The email arrived. It was over.
Yeah, right. This is Germany. The following week, I received a “Mahnung” in my inbox. This is like a final demand before things get nasty. The next day, there was one in my letterbox.
Me: What’s “on the warpath” in German?
Manfredas: Auf dem Kriegspfad. Why?
Me: Because I’m on it. It all started a month or so ago. (Approximately four hours pass…)
Unwilling to waste another second of my life on the web.de automated telephone system, I decided to go down the email route again. Two extremely harsh, most likely very rude and, even more likely, in hilarious German, emails were despatched.
On day three, I received a very apologetic email saying that there had been a mistake in the system, that everything was now resolved and that I wouldn’t receive any more invoices or demands. This time I didn’t bother with a reply.
A couple of days later, I received an email asking me to rate the customer service at web.de.
I printed it out and used it to wipe my Arsch. Maybe I should send it back to them after all – if I can find their postal address…
Last week, as I was arriving for a lesson, I met the Managing Director of the company on the way in.
Me: Hey, how’s it going?
Bertilda: Frau Schmittendorf and Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde will not be in the lesson today.
Me: OK. I have no idea who you’re talking about. So, how are you?
Me: (makes mental note to do a lesson on small talk)
That day, however, the lesson was to be on “Greetings and Introductions”. Only four women work in the office, two in their mid-forties and two in their mid-twenties. With the absence of Frau Schmittendorf and Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde, I only had two students – the MD and her assistant. After establishing once again that Germans are protective of their personal space in business (and pretty much all other) situations, we moved on to the discussion questions.
Me: How do you address the other person? Mister? Ms? First name?
Bertilda: Always Mister or Ms. Never first names.
Ediltrudis: Yes, never first names.
Me: Never? Not even after you’ve known the person for a while and have a good working relationship?
Me: OK. But surely in the office you call each other by your first names? I mean, there are only four of you…
Bertilda: We use Frau plus surname.
Ediltrudis: Yes, always.
Me: So, as soon as you leave this room, where you’re Bertilda and Ediltrudis, you switch back to Frau such-and-such and Frau such-and-such?
Bertilda: Yes, of course. Immediately.
Me: Wow. How long have you been working with Haduwig?
Bertilda: 16 years.
Me: And you still call her Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde?
Bertilda: Yes, of course.
Me: “Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde, could you pass the stapler, please?” Wouldn’t it be easier and faster to just use her first name?
Bertilda: (shoots me a look that suggests that the words “easier” and “faster” are not in her vocabulary)
Me: Is it weird for you that I call you by your first names?
Bertilda: A bit but we are get used to it. I think it is different for English speakers.
Me: Getting. Yeah, I’ve worked in America, Australia, New Zealand, England and Ireland and I don’t think I ever called anyone by their surnames.
Bertilda: (disapproving sniff)
Ediltrudis: (obviously trying to throw me a bone) Our Azubis (trainees) – they mostly work in another office – they call each other by their first names and use “du”.
Clearly this was news to Bertilda.
Bertilda: (lowering her glasses and picking up her pen) They do?
Ediltrudis: Well, I mean… I think that… sometimes they might, yes…
Bertilda: (scratching angrily in her notepad) I think we need to have a meeting.
I knew I should probably wrap it up here but I was enjoying myself far too much.
Ediltrudis: Well, you know, they’re young and…
Bertilda: It is a sign of respect. Using surnames and “Sie” is our office culture.
Me: Oh, but in Berlin it’s so hard. Almost everyone immediately switches to “du” and uses first names. Even my Hausmeister told me to call him Burkhard the first time I met him and he’s in his fifties. (gleefully waits for response)
In my 39 years on this planet, I’ve been groped, flashed, wanked at, had a knife held to my throat for telling a would-be molester what he could go and do to himself and his mother and, in one particularly memorable incident, I got punched in the face by a drunk Russian.
Luckily, my mouth more than makes up for my diminutive size and I’ve been able to talk (or yell) my way out of most precarious situations – apart from the Russian who blindsided me and left me sporting a rather fetching fat lip for close to a week.
Still, I’ve always been of the opinion that if I have to go down, I’ll go down fighting, thank you very much. You know, if life gives you lemons, keep throwing them at the bastard until he either realises the error of his ways – or kills you. While having a big mouth and no inhibitions when it comes to using it is all well and good, being able to back it up is even better. So, when Berliner Unterwelten offered an intensive, two-day self-defence class to its female employees, I jumped at it with the speed of a drunk Russian attacking a small woman.
The course took place in a boxing club and was being given by a giant of a man and his son. There were around twelve of us taking part and, interestingly (or maybe sadly), every woman there had had some kind of negative experience. There was quite a bit of talking in the beginning about the amazing concept of using common sense – seemingly it’s not all that common – and also trying to talk your way out of danger before getting physical. However, if that doesn’t work, there’s nearly always something you can do.
We warmed up a bit by walloping some punching bags and then learned what we could do with our hands, elbows, feet and knees in various situations. Gigantor asked me if I’d boxed before. I hadn’t but seemingly was something of a natural. It might be an Irish thing. Gigantor Junior then went off and got kitted out in full-on combat gear.
He charged each of us in turn with a boxing pad in his hands. We had to shout “NEIN!”, or pretty much anything else that came into our heads, block him and then start beating the crap out of the poor guy. Unfortunately, I got a little over-enthusiastic when it came to the kneeing part of the exercise, kneed my way past the boxing pad and hit one of his protection guards.
Oof. I had a feeling that it was going to be pretty bad but even I couldn’t have imagined just how impressive the bruise would be.
By day two, my knee had swollen up to three times its normal size and was a stunning array of colours. I basked in the oohs and aahs that it received from the other participants, and the guilty look it prompted on Gigantor Junior’s face, and limped about my business.
The first exercise was to revise what we’d learned the day before, which meant that GJ would be coming at me again. I did consider sitting it out – one of the German girls came and sat for four hours because of period cramps (Germans do like to take care of themselves) – but what the heck, in for a penny, in for a pound(ing).
GJ charged me. My knee buckled a little but I somehow held my ground and then went at him hell for leather with my hands, elbows and other knee. He went down. Woop!
For the rest of the time, we learned different manoeuvres for various scenarios, including what to do if someone comes at you with a knife or if a maniac comes into a bar with a machine gun. Any kneeling exercises were unfortunately out for me, but I limped my way through to the bitter end in spite of the pain.
It’s hard to describe how empowering the whole experience was and I can’t recommend doing something like this highly enough – to both women and men. Not only was it incredibly useful, it was also a lot of fun – and it gave me a chance to practise my kick-ass German.
Me: I think Green Day are coming this year. I’d love to see them live.
Manfredas: I’d be up for that. When are they coming?
Me: Not sure. Hold on, I’ll check… Aw crap, they’re coming on Thursday! There’s no way I can make that.
Manfredas: (Sad face)
Me: Oh well. Guess I’ll just have to wait until the next time they’re in town. (Sigh)
The next morning, I woke up to a Facebook message:
Manfredas: Do you fancy going to see Green Day in Paris?
Me: ??? Mais oui, bien sûr!
Within the next couple of hours, flights were booked, concert tickets were reserved and an AirBnB apartment in the centre of Paris was found. German efficiency. Stupidly early on the 3rd of February, we were off!
We got to Orly Airport and made our way outside to wait for the Orly Bus to the city. The first one was too full to get on, with passengers’ faces squished against the windows. We managed to squeeze onto the next one, where we stood like sardines the whole way into the city. There was no chance to validate our tickets so it would be a free journey back. Irish rule-shirking.
We navigated the Métro easily and were soon standing in front of our apartment building on a postcard-perfect, cobbled street in Saint-Michel.
We had been sent a list of quite detailed instructions by the owner of the apartment, Julien. Unfortunately, he had failed to include the correct code for the front door. Luckily, another resident was leaving just as we were punching in the wrong code for the fifth time so we finally managed to get in.
After that u have to cross the yard : dont climb the first stairs but the last. The flat is at the 4th floor (without elevator) and it’s the door in front of the stairs, the last possible.
The door is sometimes a bit hard to open. The lock to open is the lower one. The tip to do it easily is to push the key until the end and to take it back a little. Then turn a quarter round unclockwise and it’s done ;).
I wisely let Manfredas grapple with that.
Please don’t throw anything anormal in the toilets, it’s getting blocked really easily. There is a bin under the bathroom sink.
Poor Manfredas would refuse to poo in the loo for the whole of our time there. He figured, using flawless German logic, that a lady poo would probably be OK but a manly poo might be too much for the delicate French plumbing. It was actually quite hilarious having a German in a French apartment; if he’d had his tool kit, I think he would have spent most of the weekend straightening the crooked shelves and replumbing the entire apartment.
French plumbing meets German disapproval
Thankfully he didn’t and it didn’t seem like Julien possessed anything remotely practical so we were able to leave the apartment and start exploring. The narrow, winding streets around the apartment were just so pretty and so French that I may have had a tiny orgasm. We certainly wouldn’t go hungry or thirsty as practically every second building was a bar, restaurant or café. The chances of going broke were far higher.
We managed to find a place that wouldn’t require taking out a loan and enjoyed our first croque monsieur and bottle of wine in Paris. We strolled around for a while, scoped out where the bus to the concert venue went from, and I exclaimed “Sacré bleu!” and “Oh là là” sporadically and for no apparent reason.
After a little rest (and some wine) in the apartment, we made our way to the bus stop. Upon overhearing our conversation on the bus, a lively debate sprang up among the locals about which stop we should get off at. Yeah, the French are soooo unfriendly…
We got off, got half-heartedly frisked on the way in, and made our way to our seats. Manfredas went and got us a couple of beers and then Green Day were on.
Having been a fan for quite a long time, my expectations were high. Green Day surpassed every one of them – they absolutely rocked the house. There was a lot of audience participation and one girl even got to keep the guitar that she played on stage. Manfredas had the added bonus of listening to me roaring along with the band for over two hours. Lucky devil.
We stumbled out of the stadium on a total high, jabbering on about how amazing it had been and how cool it was that we were actually in Paris and had seen Green Day. I wondered if I should hang around and wait for Billie Joe to come out so I could creepily stalk him but decided that a celebratory glass of wine was more important.
Coming across as a complete “Basket Case” probably wouldn’t have endeared me to him much anyway.
If, like me, you’re about as cuddly as a cactus, then a rather different way to spend four hours of your Saturday evening is to go to a cuddle party. “A cuddle party? What’s that, Linda?”, I hear you ask… Don’t worry, I’d never heard of the concept either – that is, until the lovely Jenna sent me an article about them. Sufficiently weirded out but curious at the same time, I toyed with the idea of going.
Me: I’m thinking of going to a cuddle party on Saturday.
Simone: I think I’d rather have my uterus extracted through my nostrils.
That decided it – I was going.
I located the building easily enough, got into the rickety lift and ascended to the fourth floor.
Despite the rather crumbly exterior, the room was really nice. As I paid my €20 (I know…) and got a sticker with a little heart and my name on it (eye roll), I looked around. Colourful mattresses were laid out in a circle on the floor and candles and warm lighting made the space look cosy. The thing that surprised me most, however, (apart from the fact that I was there) was how many people in Berlin were in need of a cuddle. There must have been around 50 people there and there was very little room left on the mattresses. A few people were younger than me but most were in their forties, fifties or sixties, with a roughly 3-1 ratio of women to men. A quick glance at the refreshments table confirmed the worst – no wine. I was diving headfirst into the weirdness stone cold sober.
I squeezed into a free spot just as proceedings started. After a brief introduction, Gottfried, the “Cuddle Trainer” passed the “Cuddle Elephant” to the person beside him. (I swear I’m not making any of this up.) We had to say our names and why we were there.
“I just really like giving cuddles.”
“Cuddling makes me feel good.”
“I was feeling really sad today and thought that cuddles might give me some comfort.”
When it came to my turn, I said that I’d seen an article online and was curious. This got a scathing look from Gottfried which became outright hostile when I said I’d seen the article on thrillist.com. Clearly he doesn’t put thrills and cuddles in the same category. I passed the “Cuddle Elephant” along. When all of the introductions and freaky reasons were done, Gottfried ran through the rules. There was a lot of blah blah about knowing your boundaries and not being afraid to say NEIN! He pointed out the “safe mattress” at the back of the room where you could sit for a while if you felt overwhelmed. Kissing was VERBOTEN and touching boobs, crotchal regions and arses was also out.
Once the mattresses had been stowed at the back of the room, Gottfried put on some airy-fairy, shite music and we all had to dance around a bit. I shook off the pressures of the outside world by shuffling awkwardly with my hands by my sides, while other people looked as if they were undergoing some kind of demonic possession. The next song started and this time we had to move around the room, making eye contact with the other lunatics. The third song got the touching bit started. We could hold hands, feel hands and stroke hands as we moved around but, unfortunately, nobody HOCH FÜNFed anyone. People were already starting to sweat and the smell of B.O. was overpowering. I half-heartedly touched a few moist hands.
Next we had to dance with each other, choosing a different partner every so often. I ambled around, getting increasingly freaked out by the glazed, blissed-out eyes and serene smiling. If these people weren’t high on life, they were definitely high on something. One guy, who looked like he’d be at home with Jack in the Cuckoo’s Nest, started trippily waving his arms around in my face. Another caught me around the waist and started to sway with me.
“How close is too close?”
As I didn’t know how to say “If I feel an erection, then you’re too close and you’re going down”, I just mumbled that where he was was fine. Presently, we had to find a partner to hand grope. A middle-aged woman caressed my hands and gazed at me lovingly. I watched the seconds ticking by on the wall clock. Each pair found another pair and then there were four people mauling each other. I found my head sandwiched between braless boobs. Then the four had to find another four and engage in a group hug.
I looked a bit like this guy:
After unsticking my face from a man’s back, I had a time out behind the refreshments table. Ah, a solo exercise. OK, back in. We stood with our eyes closed (mine were open) as Gottfried talked us through a load of nonsense about feeling the energy come up through the earth into our stockinged feet. As the cuddle party took place in Hasenheide, one of the dodgiest areas in Berlin, I didn’t even want to think about what my feet were absorbing. We raised our arms and started walking forward until we were one massive, 50-person cuddle. I checked to make sure everyone’s eyes were closed and ran. I had lasted an hour and twenty minutes. Pretty impressive, I thought. I couldn’t even imagine how they were going to fill another two hours and forty minutes but I had a feeling it would probably end like this:
I washed my hands repeatedly and left the building. Safely back in my local bar with a large glass of wine in front of me, I achieved a level of relaxation that cuddling fifty strangers could never give me.
I’m sure the lingering stench of B.O. will wear off any minute now…
Every now and then, an event comes along that you think is going to be right up your street. In my case this was “Wine and Words”, which took place last Friday.
It looked fantastic on paper (or on screen, rather):
“Wine lovers and word fanatics, you are in for a treat!”
All good so far…
“Together with Wine Club Berlin you will be able to ask all the questions you have about the magic grape juice while tasting a range of carefully selected treasures.”
Yes to that…
“Followed by brave readers and their stories, there will be live music with a range of ukulele, violin and live-looping combined with soulful harmonies – what better way is there to start your weekend?”
Damned if I could think of one.
I arranged to meet my English friend Bea there, and she brought along her German friend, Gerlinde. We were all set for a wonderful, cultural (if slightly boozy) start to the weekend. The free wine tasting started at 7pm and I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for the scrum that ensued. However, being the hardy Irish chick that I am, I managed to shove my way in. I discovered that there’s also something quite satisfying about hip-checking hipsters.
The barman proceeded to pour a dribble of wine into the glasses of the lucky few who had battled to the bar, all the while extolling the virtues of the drop that had barely wet my mouth. Still, I could taste enough to know that it was awful.
Me: Hmm. I’m sensing undertones of vinegar.
Gerlinde: It smells a bit like pineapple. But the canned kind, not the good stuff.
Me: Hmm. It smells a bit like paint-stripper.
Poor Bea hadn’t had the heart to ram her way through hipster-hell so she missed out.
I managed to taste a drop of rosé and a drop of red before giving up and paying for a proper glass of wine. €4.50 for 125ml – utterly outrageous. I could get 23 bottles at LIDL for the price of one bottle there; it’s debatable which is preferable – dying of shock at the price of one bottle or dying from drinking 23 of them.
We managed to find a table and people-watching commenced. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many tossers in one place. I wondered if all of these people who try so hard to look so different from everyone else, with their craaaaaaaazy hair and craaaaaaaazy clothes, realise that they simply look the same as everyone else who’s trying to look so different. Deep, right?
Needless to say, it was a total selfie-fest but special mention has to go to “the wookie in the wife-beater”. First of all, anyone who wears a wife-beater in January can’t have all of their cups in the cupboard (as we say in German). Secondly, any man who aims to draw attention to himself by displaying his mammoth amount of back and shoulder hair in public should be sent to a galaxy far, far away.
It was almost enough to put a girl off her wine, but not quite. I got another glass.
Me: Where are the words? It’s after 8.30 and not one word!
Bea: Hmm, not sure. Maybe they’re getting organised.
Me: Well, I’m not sitting here drinking overpriced plonk all night. There’d better be some words soon.
Bea: We could just leave. Go to a normal bar?
Me: NO! I came to hear words and hear words I will!
Finally, a girl got on stage and introduced the first act – a violinist. Everyone clapped uproariously now that things were finally getting started and we settled in to enjoy the show. After a pretentious nod to the audience, he commenced to play the most mournful dirge I think I’ve ever heard in my life. Way to get the party started.
As I squirmed with boredom, I chanced a look around me at the other guests. Slack-jawed and glassy-eyed would be a fairly accurate description. One guy poured the rest of a bottle into his glass as another fell asleep. After around three minutes, the caterwauling ended and someone started clapping enthusiastically – probably in relief. But no, it was just a brief pause; he played on for another six hours, or maybe it just felt that way.
Bea and Gerlinde: …
The next act was introduced – a reader, finally. Now, I know how hard it is to get up in front of a roomful of people so I’ll be charitable.
I have never, EVER, heard such unadulterated, self-involved drivel in my life.
Me: Right, that’s it. I’m done.
We put on our coats and walked out.
Bea: Never invite me to anything again.
Me: But it sounded so good on paper!
This was actually the inaugural “Wine and Words” evening. Next time, if there is a next time, I’d suggest that they call the event “Self-obsessed twats listening to self-obsessed twats talking twaddle and drinking dribbles of crap wine” – it would save people getting their hopes up.
I spend quite a bit of time in my local bar, perhaps too much some might say. It’s owned and mainly staffed by Croatians and features a motley crew of locals, all of whom have been very friendly and welcoming to the weird Irish chick who showed up in their midst one day. In fact, it’s where I learned a lot of my German as the men there seem very keen to talk to me – probably because I lower the average age by about 20 years and wear a dress sometimes.
Over the course of several months, I noticed that the “Club Room” adjacent to the main bar was empty most evenings and, over a few glasses of wine, I came up with the idea to start an “English Club”. As there are so many interesting ways for foreigners to learn German in Berlin, I thought it might be nice to give the Germans a chance to learn English in a slightly different way.
I spoke to the owner and ran the idea past him. He was all for it and, most importantly, using the room would be free of charge as I’d (hopefully) be bringing in new customers. I spent a little while mulling over the Club and how it would work and put together a poster to publicise it in the bar. I was pretty pleased with it but sent it to Manfredas anyway to get a German’s opinion.
Manfredas: NEIN! Das geht gar nicht! Germans want details. They want to know WHY they’re going somewhere and what to expect when they get there.
Back to the drawing board. I added every possible detail I could think of and, this time, it got the Manfredas seal of approval. I stuck the posters up in the bar, and posted a couple of notices on local websites. Manfredas had stolen some flipchart paper for me (Germans can be quite wild…) and I set off to the bar on that first Tuesday evening at around 5.30.
The idea behind English Club is that people can come and practise and improve their English in a relaxed environment, over a couple of beers, once a week at 6pm. I’d pick a different topic every week and we would discuss it together. I stuck the flipchart paper to the back of the door, took out and lined up the 20 pens that I’d bought, prepared my materials and waited.
Two people came. Success! The topic that I’d prepared – ordering in a restaurant – proved to be woefully inadequate. Like a lot of Germans, these guys were waaaaaaaaaaaaay beyond that level. I had no idea that the people who showed up would already be so good at English. Still, we chatted away merrily for the hour and all was well with the English Club.
The next week, I had a rethink and picked some more advanced materials. A few more people showed up and we had a grand old time.
I’ve since bought a whiteboard which I use to write up new vocabulary and do corrections at the end of the hour. The next day, I email any new words and the corrections to participants, or post them on the Club Facebook page.
I’ve been doing it for a few months now and a little while ago, a journalist from Kiez Report (a video blog on the local area) said that he’d like to do an interview about the English Club with me. My desire to boost English Club’s popularity won out over the horror of seeing myself on camera and I decided to do it. After all, the journalist’s name was Patrick – what could possibly go wrong?
I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting but whatever it was, it didn’t involve tripods or professional lighting. Patrick said that he’d like to ask me the first question in German and then we could continue in English. ARGH!
Squinting into the light, I mumbled something that sounded vaguely like German, albeit with a strong Irish accent, and then we switched to English. It was actually…fun! Patrick stayed for the whole hour and interviewed one of the participants at the end who, thankfully, was very complimentary about me and my little English Club.
If you want a chuckle, you can watch the video here.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sailaway from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain