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”.
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.
A woman with hair like blonde candy floss was an obvious first Ossi-spot.
Me: There’s another one.
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.
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?
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.
In a bid to make a bit of extra cash before Christmas, last week I applied to a school that is approximately 30 seconds from my house; perfect for these cold, dark, winter days. I got a reply and dutifully trotted across the road at 14.50. I rang the bell. No answer. I rang the bell again. No answer. I called the number and was routed to some central messaging service where, surprise, nobody answered. Slipping in behind a woman who had a key, I made it to the front door of the school, rang several more times and then gave up.
At around 15.10, an unkempt woman with greasy hair and rumpled clothing appeared.
Frau Sau: How did you get in?
Me: A woman had the key.
Frau Sau: Huh.
She opened the door and instructed me to sit down in the hall. No apology then. She went into her office and reappeared with part of her coffee machine, went into the bathroom, filled it with water and went back into her office, all the while looking at me like I was some sort of curious exhibit in a museum.
Finally, I was called in. After the oddest interview ever –
Frau Sau: Do you have the right to work in the EU?
Me: I’m Irish. We’re EU citizens.
Frau Sau: For now…
Frau Sau: This school has been going for years. I don’t know how many.
Frau Sau: Oh. You know more than I do.
– she offered me a group of 5-year-olds as a cover lesson at the end of the week. Now, I have taught kids before but it’s been a long time and even they were 7 or 8.
Me: Hmm. OK…
Frau Sau: Great. So, 15.30 on Friday.
Me: Well, OK but what am I supposed to do with them? Did the regular teacher leave any notes?
Frau Sau: (Blank look)
Me: Or is there a book that they normally use?
Frau Sau: I guess you could try this. It’s in German but pictures are pictures.
Me: Um, OK. What if I want to make copies? Is there another photocopier here? Your office will be locked. (She works from 15.00 – 18.30 every day – poor woman must be exhausted.)
Frau Sau: You’ll just have to make your copies now.
Me: But I don’t know what I’m doing with them yet.
Frau Sau: (Blank look)
Me: Which classroom should I use?
Frau Sau: Any of them.
Frau Sau: Can you sing?
Me: Uh… (putting the book in my bag)
Frau Sau: You can’t take that with you. I’ll leave it out in the hall for you for Friday.
She then proceeded to fill out forms on her computer, making me say everything out loud, despite all of the information being in front of her in my freshly-printed CV and certificates. After that, she took me through the “student database” – a box filled with alphabetically-filed cards. Instead of there being one card for the group with all of the students’ names on it, each student had an individual card which would have to be filled in after the lesson. Sigh.
As I would want to get there earlier than 15.00 having had no tour of the school or any clue what I was doing, she gave me the key to the building – this seemed a bit strange as she really didn’t know me from Adam. Stranger still was that I didn’t need any sort of police background check before working with young children. Then again, maybe German law is different?
I went home and got on Facebook to tell Han how it had gone.
Me: Ugh, I don’t even know what a 5-year-old looks like…
Han: They look awful.
Me: They can smell fear, right?
On Friday at 14.45, I let myself in. I had a wander around the rooms and chose the biggest one. I had planned on doing a lesson on food but changed my mind and decided on parts of the body, mainly because I didn’t want to sing this:
“Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” I could get on board with. I located the one CD player and got set up. At around 15.05, Frau Sau showed up.
Frau Sau: What are you doing with that book?
Me: That’s the book you left out for me.
Frau Sau: But that’s a book for kids.
Me: I’m teaching kids.
Frau Sau: No, you’re teaching school children.
Me: But you said 5-year-olds.
Frau Sau: Must have been a misunderstanding.
Me: (panic) OK, so how old are these kids?
Frau Sau: Oh, from grade blah blah to blah blah.
German grades don’t make much sense to me but this sounded like a big range of ages and levels.
Me: Riiiiiiiiiight. So what am I supposed to do with them? Is there a book?
Frau Sau: No.
Me: Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. So what am I supposed to do with them?
Frau Sau: I don’t know. Their homework I guess.
I went back into my room and had a moment of ARRRRGGGGHHHHH. The floor looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” was written.
The “kids” started to show up. I guess they were between 9 and 16, with wildly varying abilities. Some of them had English homework, some didn’t. Some of them had English books, some didn’t. Three of them were actually there to study German.
I got the ones who had English homework started on that and set the others a simple writing task. After about 30 minutes, they were all done.
Wolff: Where are you from?
Gerlinde: Where’s that?
Wolff: (with much eye-rolling) It’s an island near Great Britain. (Sigh. Eye-roll.)
I decided that we may as well play games for the last hour so we whiled away the time with past simple Xs and Os, Hangman and Who Am I? I have no idea who the cool kids know these days but I figured it was a safe bet they’d heard of Donald Trump. I put Heribert standing with his back to the board and wrote Donald Trump on it.
Heribert: Am I a man?
Wolff: I HATE YOU!!!
Heribert: Donald Trump?
5 o’clock rolled around.
Gerlinde: That was so much fun! Are you going to be here on Monday?
Me: No, sorry, it’s just for today.
Me: Nope, sorry!
Me: Yeah, I know.
Hedde: I really like your hair…
They trundled out and I went to the office to find Frau Sau. Naturally, she’d chosen this exact time to disappear. I stood making idle chatter with a parent she’d also left sitting there waiting.
Mutter: (rather ominously) Yeah, I’ve had dealings with Frau Sau before…
Frau Sau reappeared, went into the bathroom without making eye contact with either of us, and then emerged to call me into her office. I started filling out my invoice.
Frau Sau: I need the key back.
Me: (through gritted teeth) Yes, in a minute.
Frau Sau: How did it go?
Me: Yeah, fine. We did their homework and some writing practice and then played some games.
Frau Sau: Oh, there are a load of games in that cupboard. You could have used those.
So I grabbed her by her greasy hair, swung her around a few times and hurled her through the window.
After the last few drama-filled weeks, you’d be forgiven for wondering if I’m regretting my decision to move to Berlin. If so, you’d be nuts. A little drama never killed anybody. It’s perfectly possible that psychotic Swedes did, but, fortunately for me and my blood pressure, I’m out of that situation now.
So, why don’t I regret moving to Berlin? Well, aside from a psychotic Swede, a horny Hermann and an insane registration system, Berlin is fantastic. Most days I have to pinch myself to make myself believe that I’m actually living in one of my favourite cities in the world.
Here are just some of the reasons I’m happy I moved from Latvia to Germany (or Berlin, for those who insist that Berlin is Berlin, and not “real” Germany).
German drivers don’t act like they want to kill you.
German pedestrians don’t act like they want to kill you, either.
Germans are not as punctual as you might think. This is, in fact, rather annoying but it’s nice to know that Germans aren’t as perfect as everyone thinks they are. They do, however, treat long distance bus journeys in much the same way as they treat sun loungers in Majorca. On a recent trip to Hamburg, I arrived fifteen minutes early for the bus. I got on and thought that all of the seats were empty. Silly me. No, the Germans had probably got there at 4am, left their jackets and snacks, and gone home to bed for a few hours.
Even homeless people have high standards. I started teaching at one of the major banks in Berlin last Monday. The student was late (sigh), so I waited in the ATM vestibule. While I was phoning the school trying to find out where my student was, I woke up a young woman who had been sleeping behind the ATM machines. “Have you got €20 for me?” “€20??? No, I don’t.” “But you just took out money.” “Yeah, for me, not you.” I waited outside after that.
The fashion. Or lack thereof. I’m pretty sure you could dance down the street naked in Berlin and nobody would bat an eyelid. On one of the rare occasions I’ve seen someone wearing heels, it was a dude. Refreshing after all of the falsity in Latvia.
German people are friendly and helpful. No, it’s really true. They strike up conversations with total strangers on public transport; they help people with heavy suitcases. In fact, I think I’ve had more help from the few Germans I’ve met over the last four or five weeks than I had from the Latvians in four years. I don’t know where the cold, unsmiling German stereotype comes from, but nothing could be further from the truth.
German people are amazingly sociable. While I hear rumours that Germans like rummaging about in the forest for mushrooms, I haven’t seen that in person. What I have seen is every café and bar (and that’s a lot) full to the brim with shiny happy Germans holding hands talking and laughing like it’s the most normal thing in the world – which it is.
Germans aren’t shy about drinking on the streets. In Latvia, when you see somebody walking around with a beer in their hand, they’re usually the lowest of the low. Here, it’s the same as walking around with a bottle of water.
Germans work. And I mean WORK. There’s no faffing about. You will never see five or six Germans standing around looking at a hole in the ground the way you would in Latvia (or Ireland). They’re there to do a job, and they do it. In Latvia, a bar maid will grunt at you because you’ve interrupted her Youtube marathon. In Germany, a bar maid will come running from wiping down tables, sweeping floors, emptying ashtrays… they just don’t stop.
In Germany, if something is shit (and really, there aren’t that many things), you get the feeling that people are trying to improve it. Latvians would rather bitch and moan and, ideally, blame the Russians. (I doubt I’ll live long enough to see this change.)
Pretty much everything is cheaper in Berlin.
Food – oh wow, the food. First of all, you don’t have to pick your way through 254 mouldy onions in supermarkets to find the one good one – everything is shiny and fresh. The quality of everything is just better. And the variety – you can buy pretty much anything you want in the supermarkets, and I don’t think there’s a single cuisine that’s not taken care of in the restaurant market.
They have English bacon, Irish cheddar AND Heinz baked beans. Now I won’t need to bring back an extra suitcase from Ireland at Christmas. I have access to everything I need.
I don’t need to wipe down toilet seats everywhere I go. German women pee like women, not like dogs. However, one thing I cannot wrap my head around is the German “poo shelf”. Why anyone would want to examine their poo that closely is beyond me.
I’m now living with two very hot German women – proof that not all German women are complete munters. And, more importantly, they’re über nice.
“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