Category Archives: Work

Germany – where formal is normal

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? 

Bertilda: Fine.

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? 

Bertilda: NEVER! 

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.

Ediltrudis: 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)

Bertilda: (flatlines) 

 

A very German Christmas party

Me: What time is it? 

Manfredas: 11.

Me: Ugh, I think I’ll sleep for another hour. It shouldn’t take more than five and a half hours to put on a dress. 

Manfredas: One would think not. 

Me: Grunt. (I hate it that a German sounds more natural using “one” than I do.)

We were being picked up by Manfredas’ boss, Heribert, at 5.30 to go to their company Christmas party. As there would be at least a hundred new people and a hell of a lot of German, I suggested one for “Dutch courage” in the local bar beforehand. Amazingly, Manfredas had never heard of this expression before so I smugly took my leave with four hours and forty-five minutes remaining to put on a dress.

Heribert and his wife, Fraubert (yeah, I know I’m pushing it with that one), were waiting for us so we hopped into the car and I entertained everyone with my charming Germish. Manfredas and I had devised a game called “Spot the Ossi” which we shared with the Berts, neither of whom are East German (Ossi).

The shindig had been organised by Manfredas’ colleague, who is known internally as “The Sheriff”.

20161203_1800451

Yes, you read that correctly – the party was scheduled to end at 11.59. Not midnight, not 11.58, but 11.59. Germans…

We were greeted by The Sheriff and I craned my neck to get a good look at her over the vast expanse of her yellow outfit; I imagine it was how David must have felt when he met Goliath. (I was David, in case you were wondering.) Our names were checked off a list and we were given name tags, which everyone just loves. We made our way outside to the mulled wine reception.

Me: There’s one.

Manfredas: Correct.

A woman with hair like blonde candy floss was an obvious first Ossi-spot.

Me: There’s another one.

Manfredas: Correct.

A woman who had dyed the back of her wall of hair purple was an easy second spot. We mingled a little, with me attempting to be on my best behaviour. The Sheriff soon started herding us towards the main reception room, where the big boss was due to give a welcome speech. We took our seats at the Berts’ table and I restrained myself from commenting (too much) on the phallic festive chocolates.

Am I right?
Am I right?

The Sheriff was given the credit for organising the event and lumbered up to collect a bouquet of flowers. All credit to the woman, she had organised it with military precision and everything went off without a hint of a hitch. The food was amazing – honeyed ham, duck, cod, mushroom ravioli, an extensive salad bar, fresh baguettes, a veritable potato fest, and a choice of desserts with fancy descriptions that defied any logic. “An interpretation of Apfelstrudel”… Anyone?

20161203_1945031

The endless supply of free wine lubed up my linguistic skills and conversation at our table flowed as easily as the booze. The DJ played a rather bewildering array of tunes and, despite one failed attempt to get our dinner companions to do the YMCA, Manfredas and I had a rollicking good time.

Best of all, at 11.59, the Berts gave us a lift back too, saving us up to two hours on public transport. We finished our night as we had started it, looking fabulously overdressed in our local bar.

I remembered to remove my name tag just in time and avoided looking like a total prat.

The Myth of German Efficiency

If someone were to ask you to name the nationality you thought was the most efficient in the world, you’d probably put the Germans pretty high on your list, right?

Well, you would be wrong, so very WRONG. The reason you might think that is because you’ve never actually lived or worked here. I, too, once held Germany up as a beacon of all that is organised, systematic, logical and good. Ha! What a fool I was!

Listing the failings of state institutions such as the Bürgerämter would require a novel, not a blog post, so I’ll put them to one side. (Frankly, how any of these harridans and jobsworths are even in employment is beyond me.)

The funny thing about the Germans – yeah, another one – is that they actually think they’re hard-working. (Excuse me while I pick myself up off the floor and wipe my eyes.) You see, the EU-standard 4-week holiday is not good enough for our German friends. No, most German workers get 6 weeks, some even more than that. I know one woman, who’s on an old contract with one of the major banks here, who gets a whopping 34 holiday days a year.

Maybe that doesn’t sound so excessive (except to any Americans or Canadians reading), but when you factor in that she’d already taken at least two weeks’ sick leave in the first half of the year and will probably take two more before the end of the year, that’s almost eleven weeks off work – or, if you look at it another way, she’s not in the office one fifth of the time.

One thing Germans are truly excellent at is taking sick leave. They’re so well protected, and the health insurance here is so good, that a trip to the doctor for something vague like a bad night’s sleep and a bit of stress will probably result in a week or two off.

There’s even a programme called “Die Kur” (the cure) where, if your doctor has exhausted every possible avenue of treatment for your imaginary illness, you can apply for “resort therapy”. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like – an all-expenses-paid trip to a spa for an indefinite amount of time which, of course, doesn’t come out of your annual leave. That just wouldn’t be Germany…

In the unfortunate event that you’re not actually sick and lack the imagination to make something up, fear not! This is where “Kind Krank” comes into play. Kind Krank can be directly translated as “kid sick” and, from what I’ve seen, entitles the parent to as much time off as they like.

A typical email exchange might go a bit like this:

Me: Something incredibly efficient and professional.

German 1: Out of office reply.

Me: (Waits 2 – 4 weeks)

German 1: Oh, sorry for the delay, I was on holidays! But I don’t actually deal with that. That’s German 2 who sits beside me. 

Me: Oh, right. Can I have German 2’s email address? 

German 1: Sure, but she’s off work at the moment. Kind Krank, you know?

Me: Right. 

Me: (Emails German 2. Waits 2-4 weeks.) 

German 2: Oh, sorry for the delay! My kid was sick. But it’s not actually me who deals with that. That’s German 3.

Me: (Emails German 3.)

German 3: Out of office reply. 

Me: (Waits 2 – 4 weeks.)

Anyway, you see where I’m going with this.

The nice thing about being a German in full-time employment is that you pretty much have to murder a colleague to be fired. The laws here are so strongly in the workers’ favour that it’s virtually impossible to get rid of someone.

I have actually heard of people who’ve done zilch for years. Instead of sacking them – far too much trouble – the company will leave that useless lump sitting there filing their nails and hire someone else to do exactly the same job. I doubt it’s a couple of isolated cases either. This basically means that all over Germany, you’ve got thousands (if not millions) of people who are essentially being paid to do nothing.

I recently had a lesson where I got the students to talk about what they do on an average day.

Me: So, Gudrun, what did you do today? 

Gudrun: Well, I checked my emails, forwarded some to other people, collected the mail, distributed it, and set up the conference room for a meeting. Then it was time to go to English. 

Me: Our lesson is at 4.15…

Gudrun: (Chuckling contentedly) Oh my, you’re right! It doesn’t really sound like I did much, does it? 

Me: I could have done that before the kettle boiled for my first cup of tea of the day. Then done the work of everyone in your entire department and possibly the department next door and still have been finished by lunchtime. 

OK, so I didn’t say it out loud – unfortunately, I can be fired.

Even when Germans think they’re being organised, what they’re really doing is over-complicating everything in a sea of graphs, charts, spreadsheets, and documents that often run to several hundred pages. Information that could be delivered in three sentences takes months of meetings, labyrinths of red tape, and possibly a mental breakdown or two. Thank God for “Die Kur”…

Anyway, enough ranting for one evening. Tomorrow and Wednesday, I’ll get up at 6am for the students who probably won’t show up due to holidays, Krankheit, Kind Krank, or the myriad other reasons Germans find not to work. After that, I’m on holidays for a week. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of those “days”

On Tuesday morning, I opened up my laptop and was instantly hit by the vague feeling of dread that it was one of those “days”. You know the ones – International Mountain Day, International Day of the Girl Child, International Day of Yoga, World Toilet Day, International “We’re all just Awesome” Day*… For some reason, breastfeeding gets an entire week all to itself at the beginning of August. I guess squirting stuff out of your tits is considered very important in some circles.

Tuesday, however, was International Women’s Day. While I’ll never understand the people who think clicking “like” on a photo is somehow going to cure cancer, I mostly leave people to their delusions. I only ask that they leave me out of it. It seems that I was the delusional one on this occasion though – there was no escaping International Women’s Day.

Just as I was about to tuck into my breakfast, I was “tagged” in this monstrosity.

Appetite murderer
Appetite murderer

Now I know the person who tagged me meant well, but “precious”? “PRECIOUS”? My boiled egg bore the brunt of my fury as I wondered why “smart”, “educated”, “driven”, “ambitious”, “well-travelled”, or around a million other adjectives weren’t chosen instead. But I guess “SAWED” isn’t as catchy as “perfect”. I even had trouble taking in the porn star hair and revealing clothing as my retinas were too scarred by all the pink.

Vomit.

So, my day was off to a bad start. Yes, Tuesday was International Women’s Day, but do you know what else it was? It was a Tuesday, and this woman’s Tuesday typically goes a bit like this. Get up at the crack of dawn, teach lessons, go to meetings, squeeze in some proofreading work, pay bills, do some banking, answer emails and phone calls and try to eat something, that is, when I’m not on one of the eleven trains that I have to take that day.

Bleurgh
Bleurgh

If I don’t feel particularly beautiful, precious or radiant by the time I get home that night, it’s because I’ve been using what’s in my head all day, not worrying about what’s on it. Like most other women. Yes, this may come as a surprise to some, but we don’t sit around all day braiding each other’s hair, having pillow fights in our underwear, shopping, giggling  or dreaming of being princesses. We work our damn asses off.

You might be thinking, “Linda, what are you getting so worked up about? It’s just a couple of harmless memes!”, but it did get me worked up. It got me hopping mad, in fact. You see, International Women’s Day was actually started for a reason, to promote women’s rights. The theme for 2016 was “Pledge for Parity”, which somehow seems to have got lost in the sea of banal nonsense that was being puked out all over the internet.

12814349_1163642106979672_771188842187831703_n
Spew

In Lithuania, IWD is “celebrated” by having police officers pull over women drivers and give them bunches of flowers. Aw, gee, thanks. It’s not like I have anything more important to be doing. How would you like to be picking those pretty petals out of your teeth for the rest of the day, officer?

In China this year, Women’s Day was marked by the special treat of giving women some dried meat to chew on. Yum, yum. We all know women like nothing better than sucking on a bit of meat, right?

From jingdong.com. I kid you not.
From jingdong.com. I kid you not.

The President of India in his message issued on the eve of IWD said: “On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I extend warm greetings and good wishes to the women of India and thank them for their contributions over the years in the building of our nation.” On the day itself, a 15-year-old Indian girl was in critical condition after being raped and set on fire. Well, thank you for that, Mr President. I’m sure your trite twaddle means a lot to the women of India, and especially to that girl who’s fighting for her life in hospital.

So yes, I really have little to worry about. I’m lucky enough to come from a country, and now live in a country, where I have rights. I can choose to get an education, to live by myself, to work, to support myself, to travel freely, to stay single, to not have children (tempting as World Breastfeeding Week is…), to walk the streets without looking over my shoulder, and to pretty much do whatever the hell I like. And I appreciate that every day.

Other women are not so lucky and that’s what International Women’s Day is, and should be, about. Next year, chew on that (when you’re done with your meat sticks) before posting meaningless, frankly offensive imagery left, right and centre.

 

* OK, I made the last one up.

The meat sticks, however, are very real and you can read more about them here:  https://ladyofthecakes.wordpress.com/2016/03/09/ready-for-your-belated-womens-day-special-chew-on-that-bitches/

 

 

 

 

 

Starting with a startup

I’ve finally started my new job. The hold up was due to the fact that startups here seem to advertise a position, make someone jump through hoops to get it, and then realise that they don’t have any money to pay said someone. So, after a lot of faffing about and toing and froing, I’ve agreed to start on the money they’ve managed to scrape together, BUT with the condition that I work flexible hours to supplement this pittance salary with teaching hours. This is sensible as depending on whether or not they make any money this month, I might not have a job to go to next month.

Of course, this means that instead of just going to one place every morning and staying there for the day, I have to travel across the city to an English lesson at the crack of dawn, travel back across the city to put in the hours at the new job, and then sometimes travel all the way back across the city for an evening lesson. I actually feel guilty about the value for money I’m getting out of my monthly travel pass.

The main casualty in all of this – apart from my sleep – was poor old Dolf, who I had to ditch. This wasn’t really a bad thing though as it seemed like the man was actually learning backwards, something I wouldn’t have believed possible before.

Me: What time is it in this picture? 

Dolf: 1982. 

He also beat his cat in front of me – not a euphemism – so I wasn’t overly sorry to give him up.

It's 1982.
It’s 1982.

Aside from all of the faffing and travelling, the new job is going pretty well. My three male colleagues are charming and pretty easy on the eye but, of course, I’m too focused on work to notice…

The downside is that as the company needs money to stay afloat (and keep me in gainful employment), it’s much more sales than marketing at the moment. While pestering complete strangers on the phone all day isn’t how I want to spend the rest of my life, I’m gradually learning to throw my dignity to the wind and enjoy being a nuisance. Anyway, someone, some day, might actually think I’m doing them a favour. Hopefully that day comes sooner rather than later.

Our building is brand new and, at the moment, practically deserted. This is probably because all of the offices haven’t been rented yet, companies haven’t moved in yet, or startups have gone bust before they managed to gather together their shrapnel for the first month’s rent. We have a little office that’s just big enough for the four of us, but that could definitely do with a woman’s touch – no, not this woman.

Where are Hildeberta and Hildegard when you need them?
Where are Hildeberta and Hildegard when you need them?

As the building is almost empty, there’s never any problem calling the lift, which speaks to me in German I can understand whenever I push a button. The kitchen is a few doors from our office, but again, could do with a woman’s touch. Someone has, however, managed to find a kettle from the 60s which you have to plug out to turn off, as there is no on/off switch. This has already led to several adventures where I’ve overestimated the time it will take to boil and come back to a kitchen full of steam and water dripping down the walls.

Each company has a drawer and a cupboard to itself where you can keep your cups, spoons and other bits and pieces. Unfortunately, I keep forgetting to bring a spoon so I have to rob another company’s sole spoon every time I want to make a cup of tea. When they hide it (which they sometimes do), I have to use the random knife that’s in our drawer. After rooting through most of the drawers, I’ve also discovered that nobody has brought a corkscrew which means that it probably won’t be that sort of building.

Spoonless kitchen.
Spoonless kitchen.

Apart from playing “Hunt the Spoon”, it’s also fun watching other companies move in. So far, as our neighbours, we have a company called “Electric Eyes” – probably not as exciting as it sounds – and another called “Sweet and Sticky” – hopefully not as horrible as it sounds. I’m already imagining that after I take a couple of months to get to know them and they start giving me stuff, I’ll be able to cut my sweet and sticky cake with my laser beam eyes. This may be about as realistic as me buying a pot plant for the office though…

Breaking Berlin

Everyone told me Berlin would be a tough nut to crack. In fact, reading some of the expat forums, it’s a miracle anyone moves here at all. But, me being me, I like to take all of these things with a pinch of salt and find out for myself – the hard way. Berlin was my dream and I was going to achieve it or go down fighting. And I won’t lie; the last few months have been rough, far rougher than I’ve let on in this blog. I’ve spent many a sleepless night (and panicky day) wondering if I could afford to make it through the next month.

Homemade Twister - for when times get tough
Homemade Twister – for when money gets really tight

But, lest you think this post is going to be one long whinge-fest, fear not. It seems like things are finally starting to come up Linda. In the last few weeks, I’ve moved into a flat by myself, which is still standing; I’ve been made Senior Editor of Berlin Logs, which is going into print in the next couple of months; I’ve been invited to the first birthday party of Nestpick, simply because they want to “strengthen their relationship with great bloggers”, and I’ve been brandishing my shiny new press pass to get a complimentary ticket to one of the biggest shows in Berlin.

Yeah, right... ;)
Yeah, right… 😉

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention… I GOT A JOB!

This in itself was a bit of an ordeal – two Skype interviews, a face-to-face interview and a “test day”. They said they’d let me know last week. And as I’m practically German now, I took them at their word. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed by in a blur of clicking “refresh” to see if THE email had arrived. It was reminiscent of being a teenager waiting for THE boy to call – which he usually didn’t. (Looking back, I dodged a few bullets there.)

Finally, on Friday, in a fug of desperation and knowing they work until 6pm, I sent them an email at 5.55 to see if there was any news. Cue almost breaking my fingers clicking “refresh” – to no avail… until 7.20 when AT LAST the email came through telling me that I had the job. Oh, the sweet blessed relief! The messages, the phone calls, the wine, the celebrations!

The details still have to be figured out and it will probably be at least a month before I start, but I’ll be working for a small start-up company (perfect), doing sales and marketing (perfect), with three men (perfect).

Now, I just need to figure out how to do my German taxes and life really will be perfect. But then, there’s a four-day weekend coming up, complete with a four-day beer festival, so maybe the taxes can wait…

Working on my biceps
BEER

Related Links:

http://www.palast.berlin/en/home/shows/the-wyld/

https://www.nestpick.com/

http://www.berlinlogs.com/

http://www.braufest-berlin.de/en/

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

I’ve recently started teaching a rather interesting man. He’s working in Berlin as a security guard at the moment, where, I gather he’s been living all his life. But, he has a dream, and that is to move to Norway and live and work there. In a bid to make this a reality, he’s now studying English and Norwegian and doing a computer course. Maybe there’s nothing so remarkable about that – until you learn that he’s 75 years old.

Norway, captured by the wonderful Cindi Keller
Norway, captured by the wonderful Cindi Keller

When I got an email from one of the schools that I work at telling me his story and asking me if I would take him on, my initial reaction was “Wow! 75 years old and about to embark on an amazing adventure in a new country!” I also couldn’t help comparing this to what I’d seen of people of roughly the same age in Latvia. The average life expectancy for a man there is only 68.9, so if they’re not dead already, they’re probably fast approaching the exit by 75.

Fabulous treatment of old people in Latvia
Fabulous treatment of old people in Latvia

Naturally, I just had to meet this guy, so we started doing lessons around a month ago. He told me that he’s going to Norway in August, “with his cat and car”. It sounds like he’s very much set on the idea.

I must admit, after meeting him, my initial reaction of admiration quickly turned to incredulity. I mean, I admired his gumption, but it was hard enough for me moving to a new country at the age of 36 – this guy was almost 40 years older than me. His English and Norwegian are both at absolute beginner level, and I would imagine his knowledge of computers to be around the same.

Other problems also quickly became apparent.

Me: OK, listen to the CD and write down the names of the people. 

CD:

“Hello, nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“My name is Hayley.”

Me: (pausing the CD) What’s her name?

Dolf: Carlos? 

Me: Erm, let’s try that again. 

It turns out that his hearing isn’t the best, so I had to keep moving the CD player closer and closer to him until it was basically sitting in his lap. It didn’t help much.

Me: Hello Dolf, how are you?

Dolf: Nice.

Me: No, not “nice”, “fine”.

Me: Hello Dolf, how are you? 

Dolf: Nice. 

Me: (mini-sigh) Nice to meet you. 

Dolf: What?

Me: Nice to meet you. 

Dolf: I’m nice. 

Me: No, no, it’s “Nice to meet you, too”.

Dolf: What? 

Me: (turning around to write it on the board)

Dolf: Snore. 

Yep, he has actually nodded off a couple of times in class. But I like to think that this is not because I’m insanely boring. No, like I said, he’s still working as a security guard so, some mornings, he’s been awake since 3am, worked 5 or 6 hours and then come to our English lesson at 10.30. (Germans, eh?) I’d probably doze off too. In fact, I’m a little tempted to just call it nap time and join in the snoozing, but that would probably be bad teaching form. Instead, I give him around 30 seconds and then start talking loudly pretending not to notice when he re-enters the land of the living.

Anyway, the point of this post isn’t to make fun of an old man. God knows, I have the ultimate respect for any adult attempting to learn a new language, let alone two. I also admire his get-up-and-go attitude but I have to wonder how realistic his plan is. At the risk of sounding defeatist, or worse, less energetic than a 75-year-old, moving countries is hard. This move to Berlin has probably been one of the most trying experiences of my life and I only have to learn one language. I also don’t have a cat to take care of; it would be one sorry cat if I did.

But maybe I’m just in a tired, old place right now so instead I’ll open it up to my lovely readers – what do you think of Dolf’s plans?

Happy older Germans on the move
Happy older Germans on the move

 

For more beautiful photos of Norway, you can visit Cindi’s site by clicking here.