In Protest of Time

Here’s to the ones who want some space.

A year ago, I hesitated to capture my “2017” and to send a letter to friends and family, as is customary and I like to do at least once a year. I repeated the same cycle this year: why am I writing an end-of-year letter if I don’t support the notion of the year as everyone’s best cycle? I do it, because I like it, not because I’m obligated. (End-of-year letter coming soon.)

Is a month four weeks or 30/31 days?
When does the morning end?
Who decides when summer begins?
What determines lunch time?
Why do calendar years matter?

That “bad week,” that “bad day,” that “not my year,” could end sooner. That “good week,” that “good day,” that “breakout year” (ha! Don’t read the news…) can also continue long past its deadline. Days, weeks, months, seasons, and years help us define the way we live and work. We structure the phases of the world around us categorically, so that we can work and speak similarly. When candles insufficiently measured and tracked time, humans invented clocks and calendars to mark the moments. The fact that they help us means they can also hurt. Each of us has a separate experience of the world. Defining a personal relationship with time puts us in control of our attitude and our energy. Clocks revolve, and humans evolve, too.

me, December 2017

People keep asking me “what are you doing for New Year’s Eve?”

Like with most questions that seem straightforward, my answer is complex. I thought about finding a group of friends, maybe going somewhere to celebrate. Friends in Berlin have invited me to join their celebrations. I’ve decided to abstain. I want a normal night of rest. What I really want is to go someplace in nature, escape to a coast, a mountaintop, an overlook, and just be for a few hours, then return to the everyday routine. I didn’t find or create that opportunity for myself yet. I feel silly to celebrate midnight, an opportunity we have with every turn of the Earth, yet we arbitrarily relish only once every 365 opportunities. So, as of now, I’m going to go to bed Monday and wake up Tuesday at my normal times.

We have created a social construct that pretends the new calendar year presents a unique reset button, and that life is suddenly renewed with the turn of the clock and the drop of a ball. Yes, we made it. 2018 is over. 2019 is imminent. Can time so precariously dictate our attitudes? Does happiness come from within us or from the world around us, from a calendar and clock?

Here’s my prediction: at the end of 2019, we’re going to chalk it up to a wash and say “thank God, 2020 is here! Now we can start transforming ourselves.” Why bother, if we know it’s going to be regrettable?

My aim is to wash myself of that attitude and receive every present moment as the opportunity to check in, to choose my attitude, to reflect on my congruity with my world, to exercise self awareness. The difference between January 1 and September 19 is a simple thought. Both are equal opportunities to start, to end, to continue. We – as individuals – come to an intersection and have a chance to pause, to turn, to continue without stopping when we choose to reach that point. This is my captain – me – speaking to my craft and my crew and my cargo – also me: do what suits me. Go or stay when and where I feel compelled. Be who I am.

Here’s my invitation – to you and to myself:

  • if life is trending positive, keep going.
  • if you want something different out of life, make it what you want.
  • if you aren’t sure what’s going on in life, cool. Take time to be an explorer.

We can’t all start shining on New Year’s Day. If you’re glowing already, why not continue? And if you want to glow, start when you’re ready.

also me, December 2017

Here’s to this moment and the next, separated only by our minds.

Weinachtsmarkt am Jagdschloss

I gently giggled when the woman in front of me proudly announced to the German border police: “I’m here with my son to see the Christmas markets.” Doesn’t she know that Germans aren’t so forward or friendly?

“Oh, really,” he smiled. “Do you not have the same markets and shopping in the US?”

“No, we don’t,” she responded. “We’ve been planning this trip for five years.”

While Mom told me that mothers have eyes in the back of their head, it was this mother’s smile that I could see from behind.

The elderly couple in front of me shuffled their feet toward the counter next.

“Das ist meine Frau, und wir sind hier für die Weinachtsmarktes.” (This is my wife, and we’re here for the Christmas markets.) They continued the conversation, split between the husband’s German and his wife’s broken English.

With my turn to show my passport, I wondered if I needed to announce to the border agent that I was merely returning to work after spending Thanksgiving in the States and I was not entering Germany for the Christmas markets like everyone else (apparently). This pattern gave me pause: maybe I shouldn’t take for granted the multitude of Christmas celebrations while I live in Germany. I generally feel that outside of work I live a cozy life with minimal rush to explore the quintessential cultural and touristic sites, and I like the fact that foreign discoveries fold into my day-to-day rather than separated as distinct experiences.

While it’s not the best known in Germany by any measure – I’m looking at you, Nürnberg – Berlin hosts dozens of Christmas markets. Some last the duration of advent, others only weekends, and still others pop up just for one weekend. Many of the markets in the center of town – Alexanderplatz has two – host a kitschy flavor of Christmas with vendors that repeat a similar mix of Christmas decoration, alternating with stalls selling glühwein, savory bites including sausages, and sweet treats like Lebkuchen (a gingerbread-esque cookie). Some specialty markets focus on local artisans and designers, and these events are more sensible places to shop for legitimate Christmas gifts. And then you have your one-of-a-kind markets that cultivate a special nostalgia for Christmases past.

Enter: Weinachtsmarkt am Jagdschloss, the “Christmasmarket in the hunting palace”

While glühwein warms the heart regardless of quality, you’re unlikely to be blown away by the actual market – the things to buy. Knowing full well that the best way to experience the Christmas markets is to make plans with friends, one colleague mentioned a market in the forest that would only take place this weekend. Weiwei and I browsed a few markets together last year, so I suggested that for this year’s date we should be atypical and leave the city center.

IMG_4829-2.jpg

Grunewald is the “green forest” (literal translation) in the lakes region bordering Berlin’s west side (not West Berlin ;). When the weather is warm enough, I favor cycling the journey along Berlin’s central promenades and into the forest, yet I didn’t know the forest played host to a castle or a Christmas Market.

See for yourself: this Sunday afternoon adventure was a one-of-a-kind part of the Christmas season. Combined with the commercial nature of many markets, Berlin is a rather grungy city, so finding a warm, cozy atmosphere in a Christmas market was a truly special discovery.

We enjoyed a variety of snacks: a fish cake, caramel cheesecake, glühwein (the quintessential mulled wine), freshly roasted chestnuts, and bratwurst. Actors entertained the kids with a live rendition of Hansel & Gretel. Does it get more German fairy tale than watching the Brothers Grimm in the forest? When dusk fell and the sky faded to black, we stepped into the central house, where the state maintains a museum of antique hunting art and trophies from the time when the property was a Prussian hunting lodge.

After a few hours, with our stomachs full, we followed a cloaked man carrying a lantern back to the bus, on to the train, and returned to the bustle of the concrete jungle. Next time I hear an American announce to the German border police that they came for the Christmas markets, the sparkle in my eye will mark a new appreciation for this special tradition.

One Year // Ein Jahr

The whirlwind swirled to a halt. Just a few tasks on my Boston to-do list stood undone, then un-doable. In late October, my earth froze, signaling me: pack your bags and head south. The ground, the air, the last fresh-cut flowers for the kitchen, no more groceries, the sell-off of unused belongings. Instead of going south, I ventured east. With the flash of my ride to the airport, handing my key to my roommate, I suddenly had nothing to do in Boston and everything to do in Berlin.

Nine boxes on their way. Five bags and me, in the back of a Mercedes van from Tegel airport to an Airbnb in Friedrichshain. Berlin welcomed me with silence on a Sunday morning, and the frost of those quiet moments has yet to melt away.

I never imagined how moving to a foreign country – truthfully, one that didn’t feel so foreign – would make me more comfortable with myself. I imagined the opposite. One of my goals was to become more familiar with needing someone else’s (a government’s) permission to exist. I lived with privilege and comfort for enough of my life to know that I didn’t know any better. I sought a better awareness of the world. I moved at a time when I thought I knew myself: extroverted, adventurous, thoughtful…

Surprise! The past year has afforded more “me” time than the previous decade. “Me” time has developed my self awareness. I’ve found strange comfort in the loneliness of evenings and weekends by myself. I didn’t used to be so “good” at spending time by myself. My life in America overflowed with busy-ness and preoccupation, always jumping from one plan to the next, rarely with time to respond to the fleeting greeting: “how are you?”

How am I? I am relaxed, in bliss, comfortable with nothing and curious about everything. I am joyful about living by myself in a space that challenges my confidence. I am sometimes afraid to speak German. I am sad that many of my family and friends are elsewhere. I am inspired by the free, loving nature of the people of Berlin. I am angry that if I were an immigrant in the United States, I would be seen as less valuable. I wonder if I should feel like a different person in my different homes. I feel everything when I create time for nothing.

Sometimes change is an empty canvas. Sometimes change is the same art in a new frame. Sometimes it’s a cloudy day, and sometimes change brings clear, blue skies. Change can be chaos, and change can bring calm.

This past year, change created comfort.

The World’s Best Butter?

Germany loves its dairy. Cheeses, creams, ice creams, milk, yogurt, quark… the quality standards sit stubbornly high in the Alps.

While I’m a firm believer in eating ice cream on the coldest days of the year, over the course of the summer, I especially pursued an exploration of Berlin’s many ice cream parlors. Almost always, two scoops in a waffle cone. The winner is a tie between Vanille & Marille and Rosa Canina, though Eis Piraten earns an honorable mention for its appropriately large servings. Vanille & Marille serve regional flavors with season flare,  while Rosa Canina takes a more eclectic approach to its creamy offerings.

Mostly though, you need the privilege to savor a top butter brand, Le Président Meersalz (Sea salt) Butter, which originates from France. The Germans love it, too. When I noted the strange packaging in the office refrigerator, a colleague mentioned that it was probably the best butter in the world. I tried it – yea, quite good. I had friends coming for dinner, so naturally I bought some of this famous butter to go with our bread. Suffice to say that we caught Daniel putting little slivers of salted butter on the cucumber slices in our salad, because he couldn’t get enough when we finished the bread.

Le President Meersalz Butter
Can you see the waves of salty oil tucked inside the mound of butter?

 

 

 

Since finishing the first package that I bought in July, I’ve bought it again, and I will keep buying it again and again. This funny-shaped butter is the best you can get, and other people agree.

 

Comparing Apples to Äpfeln

At the beginning of 2015, I started tracking all of my grocery expenses. While checking out at the grocery store, I started saying “yes,” when asked if I want to receipt. I take the slip home and sum each item into a category: bakery, fruit, vegetables, dairy and eggs, meat and seafood, dry and canned goods, prepared foods, juices, sweets and junk, flowers, and household goods. I also list the grocery store. And I add the items mentally, because brains need exercise, too.

Yes, in this digital age, I track paper receipts in a spreadsheet. (You’re hearing from the guy who tallied his coins, his cash, and his savings on three separate pieces of paper through his teenage years. Yes, his coins.) Why the paper receipts? Truth be told, I drank a lot of orange juice. I wanted to know how much money I spent on orange juice compared to other groceries. The answer: consistently 8-10% of my monthly grocery expenses were orange juice (until I overdosed on sugar in October 2015, but that’s a story for another post.) I also felt that I was losing conscience awareness of my spending habits when declining the receipt, swiping my card, and walking away. Despite using mint.com to track my finances, I wanted more granularity. Not “how much do I spend on groceries each month?” but “how much do I spend on vegetables compared to bread?”

I continued with my pile of receipts and my spreadsheet through 2016, building 24 months of records. Having answered my question, I took a break in 2017.

Earlier this year, a new question surfaced: is Berlin really less expensive with regard to cost of living than Boston? Anecdotally, the answer is an inarguable “yes.” You can get a whole meal – a döner – for 3-4 €. Paying more than 20 € for a meal is kinda “woah!” A beer costs just a few Euro. Rent is far more affordable. But what about Stephen’s groceries? I needed data.

Berlin loves cash and loves to hate card payments. EC (debit) card? Maybe. Credit card? In your dreams! (Germans are rather risk averse, and why accept money that may not exist.) So, in this city, cash is king, and carrying cash is my first point of advice to anyone who visits Berlin. Though groceries can often be bought mit karte, my card payments are few and far between. Most of my expenses are cash, and it’s hard to track any sort of categorical expenses without the complete digital data.

Behold, my “grocery expenses” spreadsheet has returned to life. I started saying “ja, bitte” I wanted my receipt. (I still don’t know the word for receipt, but I know when to say “yes, please.” (Bitte is actually “you’re welcome,” but the fact that Germans say “you’re welcome” as another form of “please” is another situation for another post.))

So, in the spring, I decided to collect my own data, and I have monthly grocery totals for May, July, July, and September of 2018.

Grocery Minimum Grocery Maximum Grocery Average
2015 $171 $348 $250
2016 $142 $271 $183
2018 153 € ($176) 213 € ($245) 179 € ($205)

A few considerations:

  • In each year, I’ve had lunch provided at work on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays.
  • I’ve excluded calendar months which I traveled for more than one week.
  • 2018’s bakery (bread) tracking is off, because I willingly go downstairs to the bakery in my building for fresh bread/rolls on many weekend mornings. I’ll pay 0,60 € for a fresh Kartoffelbrotchen every day, because yes, potato bread! (I’ll also buy you one if you come visit :).
  • In 2015 and 2016, I know my average expenses allocated to restaurants were $170 and $133, respectively. I have no clue how I spent significantly less on both groceries and in restaurants in 2016, compared to 2015. Maybe I mooched more. Maybe I was more fiscally efficient with food. I don’t have restaurant expenses tracked for 2018.

So, how much did I spend on orange juice compared to other groceries, prior to October 2015? 8-10% Is Berlin more affordable to live than Boston? My grocery expenses would argue “no, the cost of living is the same.” Perhaps I’ve upped my standards… doubtful, because I did most of my Boston grocery shopping at Whole Foods (hey! I could literally see it from my bedroom windows! and I totally don’t endorse/support them after the Amazon buyout) and I shop at a variety of Berlin supermarkets from low-end to mid-range.

I really can’t explain why my grocery bills average and range similarly. I need to compare the categorical breakdown between countries and months and years, because I don’t know where the money has shifted. Every time I go to the grocery store, I’m surprised at how much food – especially fresh product – I can get for so little money. e.g. today I purchased a three pound pumpkin, fresh ginger, a package of fresh plums, an avocado, blackberries, 3 fresh figs, a jug of multivitamin juice (I’ve been sick!), and a half-dozen eggs for a whopping 8,96 € ($10.37). So, yes, Berlin is cheap, but I’m still figuring out what’s eating my juice budget.

More research is in order. Perhaps I’ll make the same recipe in Berlin and a future visit to Boston, and we can compare apples to äpfeln.

Back to School // zurück zur Schule

Germans have this funny tradition of giving kids a large cone, filled with treats, as a sort of school send-off. Turns out they’re called “Schultüte,” which is effectively school bag or school cone. The primary idea of the gift is to relieve the anxiety that comes with starting school. I recall hearing about the unusually-shaped presents at some time over the past year, and I was delighted to see them in the center aisles of grocery stores this past month. (I almost bought one for myself, but I’m trying to avoid material waste.

After spotting the cardboard cones and assorted stuffers in some shops – sort of assemble-your-own-kit style – you can imagine the joy I felt when I saw a few kids carrying their cones around the neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon in late August. Parents, grandparents, and young kids traveled in little crowds. They were all well-dressed and seemed to be leaving a nearby school. I guess that they were getting comfortable with finding the school, knowing their teacher and classroom, and then the parents wanted to take first day of school photos… (this is where guessing turns to complete speculation)… only before the first day, because I don’t think they started on a Saturday… who knows!

As for me, I’m back to “school,” too. I’ve been taking private German lessons once a week since May, but we paused for all of August and half of September, due to me and my tutor both having vacations. Isabelle assigned me to bring postcards and write short summaries of my travels. I also had to write about my grandparent’s garden in response to a text that we read about “Prinzessinnengärten,” an urban community garden in Berlin. Now that we’re back to class, I’m feeling über-energized to continue practicing speaking and writing. Isabelle says I’m making good progress, and I’m grateful to have colleagues that encourage and challenge me with new words and phrases.

The most challenging aspect of learning German is undoubtedly the fact that there are three possible genders (masculine, feminine, neutral) for each noun. The gender informs the article (respectively: der, die, das for the; ein, eine, ein for a), BUT the articles also change depending on the case: whether the noun functions as a subject, direct object, indirect object, or possessive. In fact, in German you can write “the dog bit the man” (in that order) to also mean “the man bit the dog,” depending on which form of “the” you use. Oh, and the article changes for plural nouns. So, there are something like 32 permutations of an article. (I have a tendency to just guess die – pronounced dee – in most of my writing and speech. Can you imagine my inclination to just guess again when Isabelle asks me to correct myself? I promise, I’m trying!)

I give myself this: I’ve learned a lot of vocabulary and I am growing more comfortable talking to store clerks and friends in German. [NEWS FLASH: I registered myself in my new apartment, and this time I – barelymanaged to follow instructions and close the door before getting yelled at.] I spend a lot time listening to the sounds of the language and reading signs when I’m out and about. Isabelle also gives me speech sounds to practice, such as:

  • zensur (sensor): which is hard for Anglophones, because the z- has a ts- sound and the s- has a z- sound.
  • Ich zeige der Ziege wo sie viel Essen kann, weil sie so die besten Wiesen und Weiden findet, which is basically a memorized tongue twister about showing a goat where to eat. She made this phrase up for me, because I was struggling with the -ie- and -ei-. (From a native English speaker’s perspective: always pronounce the second letter,) I also need to practice my z-, w-, and v- sounds. After a week of cycling to and from work blabbing to myself about a goat, I can now audibly distinguish and read these words accurately!
    • zeige / Ziege
    • viel / weil
    • Wiesen / Weiden

I’ll leave you with some “fun” German words:

  • I write product instructions for work. The word for instructions: die Bedienungsanleitung (6 syllables)
  • The German word for “challenge”: die Herausferdorung (5 syllables)
  • I asked a colleague how to say “finishing steps”: Fertigstellungsschritte

German words are notoriously long, because they often make very rational compound words. For example, Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft. I’m mocking the language, because this makes it digestible for me. I’m sure English is more challenging. German also has short words and pictures, which are easier for me to understand.

For example / zum Beispiel: