Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Pain of Beauty

Not my beauty. Nope, I'm wrapped up on the sofa wearing my pyjamas and vintage woollen socks, the poor victim of a cold and a very nasty case of Dative that's currently going around my German class. I'm not a sight to behold. Unless you like that sort of thing. Some do...Anyway.

But there are some pretty sights around here right now, thanks to gifts from kind winter. Never one to be overly generous, however, there are some nasties lurking in the air too. That would be the air measuring in at -15 degrees Celsius.

First came the freeze and with it long, burning kisses of cold on my cheeks. Every time I breathed in, I could feel the moisture in my nose freezing. Every time I breathed out, the air would swirl around my eyes and freeze on the rim of my hat. By the time I got to school, I was looking out from behind a curtain of icicles.

Then came the snow. Beautiful dry powder that makes that wonderful crunchy sound when you walk on it. It also makes the car give off a faint howl every time you break, like a dog that's trying to tell you it's not very happy while being concious of not waking the baby. And because I didn't want to wake the baby, I decided to put on my thermals and walk to my language class.

That was a silly thing to do because now I'm wrapped up in vintage socks looking anything but pretty. Fortunately, there is tennis on the telly.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Auf Wiedersehen kleiner Maulwurf

Wednesday was a sad day. Zdeneck Miler died. Who was he? Actually, I had no idea myself until one of our friends told me "The Maulwurf-Man had died". He created the central character in S's favourite cartoon: der Maulwurf.
She introduced us when I arrived in Germany. This one "The Little Mole and The Snowman", is my favourite. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Melting Brick - A Remedy for Culture Shock

It's been a while. The last time we spoke I was mute and bloated with culture shock; an overwhelming sense, not of "what am I doing here?", but "what is here and where do I fit in?". As with most things that get stuck in the gut, they pass. Coming to a new country means relinquishing a certain amount of control over your life. It's a new game with new rules and you have to scramble to learn them, or be left behind. Keeping up can be a strain, but don't strain too hard, you might rupture something.

What have I learnt in my first year as an Expat?

1. You can't control everything.

You might be used to dealing with quirks of modern life with ease, but if you don't have a competent level of language, you'll need help. It means being dependant on someone again, even if it's just for a few minutes. It means being absolutely clear about what you need and being patience and humility to realise that you might not be able to bend the situation to your own will. It's frustrating as hell, but it's something you have to accept.

2. Bureaucrats are shit, wherever you go.

In Germany it is law that everyone - native or not - must register their presence in the country if they intend to stay. This is also true for moving from city to city. So, with a population of 80 million people, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the system is stereotypically efficient.

You'd be wrong.

I lost count of the amount of times the Auslanders Office lost copies of my paperwork - passport, invoices, nothing of great importance, mind - and of the amount of phone calls S had to make to ensure I would receive my residency papers. After the twelfth or thirteenth call, she hung-up and seethed "There's an English speaker in that office, but you can't talk to them because you're not a student".

I got my residency papers after eight months. It was a strain.

3. It's the little things that matter.

A fellow Brit said to me a week after landing in Germany that he had to buy a car. And it had to be that week. He just couldn't wait. He told me he'd owned a car since he was 17 and while coming to a new country, listening to a language he didn't understand was no problem, he couldn't be without a car. Even living without British TV and Warburton's bread was ok - a strain, but ok. Living without a car was, for him, an indication that he was in too deep; overwhelmed and drowning from a total lack of control over his life. So, he bought a car. It's old and beaten-up and green, but it's his. Sanity on wheels.

4. The greatest remedy for Culture Shock is letting go.

You can't change the place you're in, but you can change your view of it. This means getting to know your environment. This summer S and I went to Berlin and then onto the Baltic Sea - Ostsee - for a thoroughly German holiday and no, the menu wasn't in English. We toured what was left of the Wall, hung out in the comic shops of Kreuzberg and learned what it was like to be a Berliner under the Nazi regime at Topographie des Terror. We visited the DDR Museum, and S showed me all the exhibits she had as a child: toys, wallpaper, kitchen utensils, the telephone - specifically that make, model and colour because there was only one. Coming from Britain where museums are dedicated to times gone by, it's truly strange to look at exhibits that were part of everyday life for people who are still under 30.

The Baltic Sea is calm and cold. I can't tell you from experience because I didn't go in. S did and came out with a big blue smile before layering-up as if we were about to challenge Everest. I stayed in the beach basket, read comics and conversed with the Mosquitoes.

Actually, the weather at the Baltic Sea was so cold that it made the British Summertime look like an actual summer, which is quite a feat. Not one that needs to be repeated Germany!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Culture Shock #4: A Locked Room

"Do you need to go home?", was the question that S persistently asked between January and April.

Culture Shock had finally hit and my general appetite for life had sunk below a level that would have caused most doctors to reach for the prescription pad.

"No. I want to be here." And I genuinely wanted to be nowhere else but with the woman I love.

I knew what was at work: a cognitive disonence that manifested stress, anxiety, loss of appetite, insomnia and frustration. A disconnect with the world as it was in Britain and the world as it is now in Germany.

The symptoms are a natural reaction to my brain creating new neural pathways as it assimilates the rules of my new environment and culture.

It's said that the best way to overcome culture shock is to become more social, but before I could do that, I had another wall to get over/under/through.....the German Bureaucracy.

Before immigrants can attend a language course that will help them become more social, they are required to apply for a permit from the Ministry for Immigrants and Refugees. This permit entitles the immigrant to attend the Language and Integration course for 1€ per hour -- a vast reduction on the off-the-shelf price -- and the language school to claim the remaining costs from the government.

Before you can apply for the course permit you need a Freedom of Movement Certificate. This gives you the right to unlimited stay in Germany. All EU Citizens are entitled to one if they can prove they have a place to live and means to support themselves: a job, or substantial savings. Applicants register at the Residents Office and await contact from the Foreigners Office.....

EIGHT MONTHS passed and the language program I'd purchased from Transparent Language was confusing me more than improving my ability to communicate. I wanted to speak to the Foreigners Office myself to hurry the process, but the resident English speaker was only available to students.

S bombarded them with phone calls and immediately obliged the repeated requests for the necessary documentation we'd already submitted several times. One morning, without warning, a small envelope addressed to me arrived in the mailbox.

There was no fanfare -- I had hoped for the Star Wars theme as I opened the envelope -- just a humble piece of paper with the Chemntiz - Stadt Der Moderne letterhead and three and a half lines of text stating that the barer -- me -- has an unlimited right to residence in the Federal Republic of Germany and this certificate is only valid with my passport.

Also in the envelope was an application form for the Language and Integration Course, which was filled out and mailed immediately. A couple of weeks later the permit arrived. I have two years in which I can apply for a government funded language and integration course, to either become a mistress of words. Or drown in them.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Culture Shock #3: The Brick Wall

I remember the moment distinctly: It was a Monday night and the words the honeymoon period is over flashed through my mind like unwelcome visit from the text inspector. There was no honeymoon because there had been no wedding and yet, I felt that Germany - a place that could do no wrong since I had stepped foot on it's soil - had changed it's face from friend to something else I couldn't quite define.

I'd like to say it was the weather. The snow piles were reaching two-metres in some streets, the city was running out of room and my Dad joked that the Russians where coming. The air was tight and claustrophobic. The grays were grayer, the glances from passers-by were sharper and my tolerance for life was suddenly less.

I complained about the slightest thing, things I had no real control over: the time a traffic light would spend on red, the description a reporter would give about the weather; the fact that Google Chrome couldn't seem to find anything I searched for on the internet, even though it's Google...that problem persists.

Daily life would become a role-call of "what-if" scenarios:

What if I broke my leg on the ice-rink?

What if I caused someone else to break their leg at the ice-rink?

What if my Freedom of Movement Certificate was refused and I had to return to Britain?

What if I go to the supermarket to buy some butter and the person on the checkout asks me a painfully profound question and I have to answer in German or I can't have butter on my brötchen (bread roll)?

In reality the change was internal. I felt a tightening in my chest as my internal compass slid a few degrees off kilter and into the gap rushed fear. It solidified and in the comfort of the centrally-heated flat I occupy with my girlfriend it began to expand.

Fear of the language, fear of making mistakes, fear of looking stupid, fear not knowing what to do, what everyone will think.....

This is Culture Shock.

A slow creeping emotional affliction that hits every expat and traveler. The perceived hostility of your environment. It traditionally visits in the first three to six months after arriving in a new country and stays for between three to six months, depending on how comfortable the sufferer allows it's guest to get.

Okay, I thought, it'll pass, just hang on. But the tightness persisted. And the tighter I got, the more I hung on. For three months I stood still, admiring the scenery, wondering what was my place in it, what did it look like, how did it feel? And being terrorfied of moving in case I found it....

Monday, April 4, 2011

Emigrating with Animals - Part 3: The New Adventures of Bella and Booh

"I'm really so very sorry. The driver I was sending to collect Bella and Booh has been hospitalised after a heart attack and I'm stuck in France", Kieth said over the phone.

You know someone is genuinely sorry when they call their client from an airport car park in France to confess that their swiftly conceived plan to rescue Operation Bella and Booh without my knowledge that anything went awry has been foiled by bigger things started by a smaller man.

The transport strikes had begun because Sarkozy announced he was raising the retirement age in France by two years. As a Brit who watched Gordon Brown privatise the entire public purse amid a massive economic contraction cause very little in the way of public resistance, I was actually impressed that the French had brought their country to a standstill over what was the seemingly small matter of two years. It was clearly a lifetime to the working people of France.

Kieth thanked me for not shouting at him and promised he'd get Bella and Booh to me asap. There really wasn't anything to shout about. The bunnies were safe at their temporary home and would continue to be for a little extra cash. All this meant was more waiting.

A week later Keith called to say the French strikes had ended and gave me a date for D-Day mark 2. They would be collected on Sunday and he'd take them to his vet in Eastborne (on the south coast) on the Monday morning before driving to Dover to catch the Ferry. "I hope you get your money back", he said. Me too.

I did get my £90.01 refunded for the export certificates, without any hassle. Kieth emailed me the morning they left to say his vet had charged him £15 for a short letter stating both rabbits were healthy, freshly vaccinated and fit to travel through mainland Europe. The disparity in price suggested that for some vets, the ability to issue export certificates was a licence for opportunism.

Kieth called at 9pm to say he was stuck in traffic near Frankfurt and he thought it would either be very late or very early when he arrived, depending on how you looked at it. I said just get here when you can, don't risk yourself.

I didn't sleep much. The intercom controlling the front door of our building kept buzzing. I'd get up and realise I'd dreamt their arrival for the fourth time that night and go back to bed for some more restless sleep. I called at 7am. Kieth said he's be there by 10am. At 10.20am the buzzer went and this time I wasn't dreaming.

Finally, after 8 weeks apart, Bella and Booh had arrived somewhat annoyed at being caged for almost two days and totally oblivious to the lengths we'd gone to bring them to Germany. Bella kicked her back feet out and strutted around the kitchen, refusing to speak to me, while Booh gave careful consideration to what she was going to sink her teeth into first. I cleaned them up and after an hour they settled down for a snuggle.

And so began The New Adventures of Bella and Booh. Getting here was just the start. Since then they have seen snow and come to love it very much; learned how to climb onto the kitchen table to loot the fruit bowl; and been told they are very big by every German vet they have seen. You can follow them on Facebook.

I'm looking for Mr. Sarkozy