I found some pieces of my heart in Denmark, scattered in every nook and cranny of Denmark’s celebratory air, in the cross-hairs of the two white stripes that adorn a field of red. The Dannebrog wavers on flagpoles against blue skies, spotted with clouds. She hangs neatly from a wooden stick, resting gently on the edge of a basket filled with freshly pressed waffles. A frosted-white cake, ready to be cut, each slice marked by paper banners on wooden toothpicks; the sugary canvas is a LEGO-sized memorial to the pride of a nation.
Dannebrog i havn
Med cykler på det havn
Friske vafler og Dannebrog i Nyhavn
Dannebrog i Nyhavn
Dannebrog på kage
Danes love their flag, and not in a nationalistic sense. Whereas American patriotism has become a visual marker for conservative elitism, and Germans reserve their flag for occasional stately affairs and national sports events, Denmark has elevated their simple red and white banner to a symbol of intimate celebration. The Danish flag welcomes friends and family at the airport for their homecoming; peppers gardens and tabletops during birthday celebrations; stands gently on castles and seaside overlooks; drapes the compassionate hearts of her people, gently bundling them together with a strong white ribbon.
“So, here are the keys: two for the door, one for the mailbox, and three for the cellar storage.”
Nope, I didn’t buy a house. Yep, I’m renting my own flat in Berlin now.
When I moved here in October, I settled into a WG (a shared flat) with a lovely couple of guys and their yippy Dachshund. I experienced far better luck – or better strategy? – than most in the Berlin housing market. Within a week of my arrival in late October, I enjoyed my own large room with a balcony overlooking the park. We shared two toilets and an average size kitchen. When a friend occasionally visited, the guys let me borrow the spare “Schlafzimmer” (sleeping room), which functions as a guest room when needed. While it wasn’t my home, it was home for the time being, and I’m grateful for the soft and welcoming landing pad.
When the Formlabs office was slated to move to the far east side of Berlin at the end of May, I started eyeing other neighborhoods and considering a place for myself. While I thrived in a social home with 3-6 roommates in Boston, my first months in Berlin demonstrated that I valued alone time more than I realized, and a single-room or studio apartment is within my budget in Berlin.
Many newcomers and long-time Berliners have horror stories of the weeks and months that they jump between short-term rentals and desperately pursue a place where they can settle in.Can you imagine what my colleague endured, with this many people viewing a single apartment? Honestly, I’m not sure what made my search different, but I’m fortunate that I didn’t struggle. The WG where I lived for the first seven months was the first and only flat I visited on my arrival, and my recent search was nearly as simple.
I limited my online search to Friedrichshain, and contacted a handful of landlords whose listing descriptions and photos I liked. I visited one ground floor flat; though described as luxury and probably above my ideal budget, I applied and was rejected. The second flat I liked was nearby. I arrived on Thursday evening for the group viewing. Fear not, reputation of Berlin, I was ready to compete with dozens of people mingling on the sidewalk to see a flat. To my surprise and delight, me and one other guy waited outside until the English-speaking (lucky me!) landlord’s agent came to the street to let us in. Within a few seconds, I could see the apartment was exactly as described and shown: – a main room – a bathroom – an “equipped” kitchen – all clean and well-maintained – on the second (third, by an American perspective) floor – not on the street and not with a balcony – with decently-sized windows overlooking the garden courtyard.
The other prospective tenant looked around, asked for the application, and went on his way. Without much more to explore, I figured I was interested and may as well introduce myself. Hell, if it’s just me and him with equal credibility in our applications and paperwork, I automatically win by saying hello to the landlord. So, I talked with Frau Schroeder for a few minutes to explain who I was and what I was looking for. Then I was on my way “home” to compile the paperwork.
By now, the process has come and gone. They offered me the contract, and I accepted. I arranged to move my belongings on a Saturday morning. Friends referred me, and i contacted a guy with a moving van. With immense gratitude to a handful of close friends who helped me, we carried boxes, bags, and dismantled furniture up and down flights of stairs. We loaded the van, drove 10 minutes, and unpacked the van. Within an hour and a half, I was home again.
Homemaking is a craft that takes time and patience. After a week, I received my refrigerator and washing machine by home delivery. I needed several weeks to make time to purchase a table and chairs. I’ve yet to procure a wardrobe, relying instead on two perfectly good clothing racks and a less ideal assortment of clothes piled into open duffel bags. Sure, there’s appeal to move into a fully furnished flat. I’m happy to accept the challenge to make my own home, especially when the doors sits between a bakery and a plant shop.
By the nature of having an office that covers all of Europe in a multi-cultural city like Berlin, my colleagues are quite cosmopolitan. Maybe we don’t tick the definition’s “sophisticated” box, but we’re well versed and worldly on the whole. The fact that I speak only English with an educated-but-not-so-practiced understanding of Spanish makes me feel quite inferior at times. (The fact that I keep our translation projects moving is another story.) More importantly, I have constant opportunities to learn, and I value that personally.
On paper, I’m learning German, but in reality I’m learning much more. While we’ve been on a break for most of April and May, I’ve taken classes in levels A1 and A2 over the past seven months. (Europe has a standardized system for measuring language proficiency and designated courses: A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.) I’ll be resuming lessons again soon with the same teacher, and I am honestly eager to return to having my brain re-wired with German vocabulary and grammar in the 8 am sessions. Nothing like the mind-wrenching confusion of 30+ German articles for a breakfast buffet, am I right?
While business predominantly happens in English, the conversations around me at work are peppered with Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and French, and German pops up everywhere in my life. As someone who’s highly attentive and observant of my environment, it helps to have conversations around me in other languages. For one advantage, there’s no need, desire, or ability to be distracted by eavesdropping. When I step out of the office at the end of the workday, I sometimes surface a conscious reminder: “Stephen, you’re in Germany. Be prepared to hear German.”
Admittedly, I’m rarely prepared enough, but I try! I would benefit from a tattoo on my forehead that reads: “I’ll try to understand your German if you speak slowly for me.” Fortunately in Berlin, I can almost always switch to English in public interactions. When I’m out and about and want to practice my German pronunciation, I simply read the signs around me and listen to other peoples’ conversations, merely to train my ear in hearing the sounds. I think it’s working, more or less.
Nonetheless, I socialize quite a bit with my colleagues, and I’m pretending to fit in to each of their backgrounds and languages. I’ve learned one Italian sentence: “Posso havare un panzerrotto per favore?” (Can I have a panzerrotto, please?) An affirmative response – “si” – should be followed by “grazie mille” (thank you very much). All of this must be said with grandiose Italian intonation and gesture. While that’s all the Ital-lingo I’ve learned, there are some critical lessons about Italian culture that I wish to impart on my non-Italian readers:
If you want to order a sandwich, order a panino. Panini is plural, and we ignorantly look like hungry misfits when ordering “a panini” in Italian.
Don’t serve cheese with fish. Ever. And if you’re offered cheese – for example, grated parmesan – on a seafood dish in an Italian restaurant, you better second guess their origins.
Don’t serve chicken with pasta. Ever. This one blows my mind. What was my American childhood? According to my sources there is no chicken pasta primavera in Italy. I’m sorry for all of us who have been wronged.
And if your heart isn’t broken yet, I’m sorry. Fettucine alfredo (and the whole concept of alfredo sauce) is an American invention that you won’t find authentically in Italy.
I’ve got a short trip to Malta coming up in July. Maltese? Italian? English? If I’m not lucky, my brain will switch to Spanish when I return to Germany, like in 2011 when I returned to Denmark from a weekend in Germany. And if I am lucky, I’ll avoid any culinary sins and misconceptions.
It’s 6:22 am. Steam billows over the top of my blueberry-adorned Maine coffee mug on the ledge of my balcony, the Earl Grey tea inside half-consumed. Gradually cooling to being drinkable, the tea pries my eyes open. The sun continues rising, shedding a plain of warm yellow light onto my face, forcing my eyes to squint. Car tires simmer on the street below, coming and going like ocean waves. Street trams and ambulance sirens join the symphony. The sputter of a motorcycle’s exhaust, now gone.
Ten years ago, all of my five alarm clocks would still be waiting to sound, waiting for my hand to begrudgingly reach and disarm. Thud. The floor interrupts the fall and finally triggers my brain awake. I crave more sleep, but time is up. A paper, two exams, a newspaper assignment… all due today. I dress myself, stagger across the chilly tile floor, and tap Mom awake.
“Will you proofread my essay,” I say, somewhere between a request and a statement. I needed her vote of confidence.
Despite knowing that I stood above my peers in schoolwork, I cringe. I’ve read that if you don’t cringe when you look at your past, you’re not improving. Advice that seems mildly wise – can cringing be good? – feels fully validating to acknowledge my parenting. Mom bragged about me, and I told her to stop. I needed comments that made me feel better, not stories that impressed adults. Change one comma. The essay is great. My heart slows.
Twenty-seven feels weird. I’m youthful but adult-like. I’m free to make my own choices, yet I still share them in search of agreement. I have my place in the world, and the world has many more places to offer me. I became, and I am becoming.
I smile when I look in the mirror, and it’s because I’m proud of who I see. Two brown eyes stare back, pried open by warm tea and forced closed by warm sunlight, ready to face the day. It’s 6:49 am. My mind spills off the balcony, thinking of my bike below. I know each day is mine.
You raised me, and I’m still growing up. You can brag now. Thanks, Mom.
A note to my colleagues as I celebrated four years at Formlabs:
I’d like to have just two and half minutes of your time – rather, your awareness – to say thanks. I’ll do so by sharing what this occasion means to me.
Four years. Physics tells us that time is an illusion. The present moment is as real as the line on a beach that separates sand from water. The present is an illusory and transient concept between past and future. So, if time is theoretical, then what gives these four years any practical meaning?
You do. People create meaning of time. I cannot speak to everyone who matters to me simultaneously. Still, I can state with certainty that those of you who hear me have made a difference in my time at Formlabs. You and our interactions are the substances that separates the past from the future. I’ve had profound learning experiences at Formlabs, and I’m not at all the same person I was when I joined the start-up of 50-something people. I’m also not the same person I was when I moved to Berlin. I’ve changed, grown, transformed, struggled, succeeded, evolved, listened, learned. It wasn’t on my own. It was with your help.
Right now, you’re either listening to me or you’re not. If you’re not listening to me, that’s great. You’re thinking about something important and meaningful to you. It’s hard to pay attention when you have your own ideas. We hire smart people, so I trust that your thoughts are significant and their impact is imminent. Thinking is the personal economic process when we decisively construct meaning from experience. Maintain your focus. If you are actively listening to me, I want to recognize your voice and your impact, too. Four years hasn’t given me any more voice than what you can offer. If I’m special, you are, too. Again, this time is meaningless without the people. Chances are high that your thoughts and your opinions represent a meaningful customer or colleague’s sentiment, and they deserve to be heard. You deserve to be heard. Therefore, once your thought is complete, don’t wait to ask a question, to give feedback, or to initiate.
I’m thankful for your wisdom, your effort, your energy. I want you to speak up. Be honest. Own your ideas and your voice. Contribute. I want each and every one of you to know that you matter. I value you. I believe in you. You have made the past four years, four months, four days, four hours… matter to me, and you will make the future matter for all of us.
So, thank you for giving meaning to these four years. Without you, time would be incomplete and incomprehensible.
It’s cold. How cold? Well, it’s below freezing, but that’s not exactly a number, and usually when people talk about temperature, we talk numbers. Math might be a universal language, but my blood still flows at 98.6 °F, and I’m trying to get it to 37 °C.
There’s a big difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit. While, they’re both made up, one makes significantly more sense, except when you grew up most of your life in a numerically illogical measurement system. (Dear America: Canada and Australia switched from imperial to metric measurement nearly 50 years ago, and we can, too!)
When Europeans rave about their mid-winter getaway, it’s something like, “we had 28 degrees every day!” And this, to an American, doesn’t sound all that appealing. 28 Fahrenheit is the below-freezing-skeleton that I’m trying to stuff back into the closet in anticipation of warm spring days. The daylight hours are noticeably brighter and longer, but Berlin is fighting one final (I hope) cold front.
I’m smart enough that I know the equation for converting temperatures: it’s roughly Celsius-times-2-plus-30-equals-Fahrenheit, and it’s precisely Celsius-times-9/5-plus-32-equals-Fahrenheit. I can do it in my head, but I don’t want to. I want to know the temperature when I step outside without feeling like my brain is doing foreign math, and to be able to answer without hesitating when a colleague asks me the temperature in Spain when I went swimming in February. Answer: the air hit 15 °C (58 °F) but the sunshine made it feel oh-so-much-warmer.
Every mobile weather application and website gives the option to switch between Celsius and Fahrenheit, so I can certainly check for myself – and feel incompetent. Initially, I ideated an app that showed two measurements side-by-side. With this, any time I checked the weather, I could know what it meant to me – which jacket, shoes, gloves, etc to wear – and also know the number that everyone else would chat about. I want to learn so that I simply know.
I found a better way. I’m learning to tell the temperature using references that mean something to me, and here are some examples:
Below freezing is below freezing. People usually stay indoors. I’ll add references if I go on any winter mountaineering adventures in the metric world.
0 °C is 32 °F. This is the freezing point of water, of course.
5 °C is 41 °F. It makes sense that 5 is half way between 0 and 10, and 41 is halfway between 32 and 50. Not all of the conversions are so sensible.
10 °C is roughly when you can switch to a lighter jacket. This is 50 °F.
16 °C is 60 °F. Sixteen. Sixty. Easy to remember. I realized the ease of this conversion when we were surprised with a warm Sunday afternoon this past weekend. Tempelhof (Berlin’s abandoned-airport-turned-public-park) was swarming with post-winter-pedestrians.
20 °C is 68 °F. Room temperature-ish! Also probably a comfortable temperature to consider wearing shorts.
28 °C is 82 °F. I think that we can all agree above 80 is “warm,” so this is worth remembering. It’s also the temp from most of my days in Thailand, so easy to “feel” from recent memory.
35 °C is 95 °C. That has a ring to it, no?
37 °C is 98.6 °F. Feeling sick? Take your temperature. Average human body temperature is important to know, and relevant for the weather, too!
175 °C is 347 °F. This is important for using an oven. It’s almost exactly half/twice, and the starting place for many recipes.
200 °C is 392 °F. Also almost half/twice, and worth knowing in the kitchen.
Have you struggled with similar temperature conversations? Do you have another meaningful reference for me to know? Leave an idea in the comments below!