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.

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:

im Kino

Last Saturday, I holed myself up to rest before I competed in a triathlon on Sunday morning. My friend/neighbor/colleague Robin and I sat on the couch, eating a hefty pre-triathlon meal of roasted vegetables and salmon, while watching “Aus Dem Nichts / In the Fade,” a German film recognized as the 2018 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and as the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. Naturally, with my German being still less than elementary, we watched the film with English subtitles. With myself and my instructor both on holiday, I’ve been without German lessons for all of August, so the subtitles were good practice to gain familiarity with words and tones. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll leave you with a recommendation to watch it and a footnote that I walked home a bit paranoid and not as relaxed as I’d hoped to go to bed. I’m glad to get into foreign films, to be the outsider who needs subtitles, and to see true stories reflected on the screen.

With today’s near repeat, maybe Saturday nights will be movie nights for the foreseeable future. The first time is an accident; the second time is a tradition. I spent a good portion of today running 30 kilometers around Berlin. Though my training has been subpar at best, I figured doing one long run two weeks before the event would be a worthwhile endeavor. With tired legs, I wanted relaxation for the afternoon and night, and decided to venture to the cinema – das kino – for the evening. I took the train to Hackescher Markt, a quaint series of connected courtyards in the pseudo-posh Mitte neighborhood and waited in line to buy a ticket for BlacKkKlansman, a 2018 film by Spike Lee and Jordan Peele. I didn’t know of the title before I looked at the movie listings today, but the ratings were high enough to intrigue me.

Scannable Document on 1. Sep 2018 at 23_31_19

Only one part of the cinema experience caught my attention: I bought the ticket at the same stand/counter where the refreshments were sold. There was no separate box office. They offered popcorn, bottled sodas, and beer, though the popcorn machine warned “sweet only!,” which I guess means they have kettle corn, not our beloved, buttered, lick-the-salt-off-your-fingers American movie popcorn. I took a rhubarb lemonade with my ticket, then found a seat in the theater, which was otherwise similar to American movie theaters.

Cut to the chase: this film is not for the faint of feelings. Be ready to feel history. BlacKkKlansman follows the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs Police Department, as he goes undercover in investigating the Ku-Klux-Klan. It’s a timely and necessary story to bring to the surface, with the present day race conversations in the US. Aside from offering an intriguing historical narrative, the plot elevated my heart rate, my hands were clasped knuckle-to-knuckle, and I had to remind myself to let my head rest against the padded chair. It sounds bad, but I actually enjoy a movie when I am able to fear and feel for the characters.

Yet, these weren’t just characters, they are real people’s stories. I sat and witnessed behaviors – events that actually happened – that go beyond “discrimination” as we often see it. Discrimination is more than a white page with black text describing a company or organization’s commitment to not treat people different on the basis of x, y, and z. Discrimination happens every day in verbal, physical, and subconscious forms. The film brought subconscious realities into my conscience.

The German-language subtitles flickered consistently through each frame, reminding me of the city, the country, the history, the Holocaust that once happened outside of the theater. This awareness scared me. As an audience, we witnessed relentless derogatory comments that positioned people as lesser because of their skin colors and their religions. These atrocities rolled from the mouths of the actors like butter on a biscuit in the heat of summer. Meaning everything, but said like nothing. Let me say again: I’m in Germany. This country knows all too well the realities and effects of ostracizing certain races and certain people. Sitting in a crowd of Germans, I watched America with a different perspective. I saw the word “Führer” – compounded with another word – flash across the screen when describing David Duke’s role in the Ku-Klux-Klan.

The film ends with clips from recent events in the US. The sound of a glass bottle rolling along the theater floor. Otherwise, solemnity and air stale as popcorn from last year. I thought of the one character, a Klansman, whose dumbness, drunken stupor, and lack of common sense brought comic relief to the plot’s tensest moments. I’d heard people in the audience laughing, and suddenly, nothing was funny. This is a true story, and though I watched it on a screen, I watched it in a place where people know worse is possible.

Welcome, Home.

“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.

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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.