Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Choices, choices, everywhere, and not a Cheerio in sight.

So, I suppose I could now call myself an 'Expat'. Without looking it up in the dictionary I suppose the definition is 'someone who leaves their home country and moves abroad to live.' However, I think more accurately it might be 'someone who moves abroad and on discovery of products (any) from their home country whoops with glee (inwardly)'.

I am intrigued by the whole consumerism thing I've decided. It came as a shock to me how little the german supermarkets had changed in 30 years compared (probably) to how much ours have grown and expanded in terms of choice. When I was looking for pasta sauce in a jar, I was, I'll admit a little horrified that there was little choice beyond choosing between one with basil, the bolognese one that actually includes meat (! that just seems wrong to me when it's not refrigerated) and another one that I didn't recognise. When I'm in the UK why, we literally have shelves, if not a whole half aisle or more of choice. There are probably a dozen different brands and these days even the supermarkets own brand is usually 3 brands where you have a premium version, a budget version, and a something in the middle version for those who are not feeling extravagant or miserly. But why do we need so much choice? I'll admit I am a bit brand loyal in my pasta sauce choices, but sometimes I do think 'mmm.. actually I might go for that one cause I fancy something that is a bit more basil-ly/ garlic-y/ etc'. But more often than not I either stick to the ones I always go for or go with what's on a special offer. But despite this, I am still a bit shocked not to have the choice at all. I'm beginning to suspect that I might actually be expected to make the stuff myself in order to tailor the basil/garlic/etc ratio to my requirements. I mean good lord, I've come here to cook? Not just stir?????

It's not just the pasta sauce section that suffers from such limited choice. Take bin bags. First off I struggled to find them. Initially I put it down to the fact that they do a lot of recycling here, so maybe they just don't have as much stuff that just has to go in the normal bin as we do. But then, I noticed that there are lots of places that sell bins, indeed I have spied quite a lot of very attractive, brightly coloured bins that take my fancy, but I've just not been able to find the bin bags. So then I discovered a shop that sells bin bags. One kind. I don't even know what kind they are yet, but I just bought them anyway, so pleased was I to have just found some. Maybe you don't spend too much time thinking about bin bags, but I seem to have tried nearly every kind you can get. In my not so big Tesco where I used to live we had a bother with their standard 'tie-top' bags in that they were too thin and would rip every time we took them out of the bin full. I also tried their standard 'drawstring' top ones and didn't like those either. Then of course their are the ones for all the different types/sizes of bins, the recycled ones, and our favourite, the somewhat sturdier 'heavy duty' bin bags. Occasionally I would forget this was the one I was after, and would purchase the 'garden' ones, or even sometimes the 'rubble' sacks. When they are all black(or sometimes green, or white), and the Tesco labelling not really that different between them apart from the name it's hard to tell, and you can't really unroll them and hold them up to the light to see how thick they are like a pair of 40 denier tights.

I've talked to Stevie about this whole choice thing. He is not really the ideal person to talk to about this as he is perfectly suited to the way of life here and I think is somewhat odd in that he has very little brand loyalty to him. "Oh, I just need shaving foam. Anything will do.", but he does understand that he lives with a person that spends a couple of minutes examining bananas before making a final choice because of their need to have them perfect. This often means we have no bananas or very expensive bananas. Now we just have bananas - with marks, bruises, and other bits and bobs that I don't like, but I'm still working on the German that will allow me to say "Hold on Mr Stallholder, let me have a look at those ones 3rd row from the back, 5 bunches in....nah, they have a black ridge on them. Wait, what about the ones 2 down from them and 4th in from the right? mmm...maybe not, they have too many dots, but keep them aside just in case they're the best you have". No here, I ask for bananas, he picks them up, and I just have to say 'Great, thanks'. Ha, ha, ha, I know, I probably sound mental being so pernickety about bananas, but it's just one of the many things that make me the lovely person I am. Oh, woe is me on the banana front....

Stevie thinks the way it is here is right. That we don't need endless choice, that life is simpler here, and maybe they've got their priorities right; that instead of wasting time weighing up which cornflake might taste better, they just buy THE cornflake, and stop thinking about consumer products the whole time. But me, I always quite liked that about food shopping. I'd get a little 'ooh!' of excitement when I'd see that there was a new brand of yoghurt, or that a brand I was already familiar with had now branched out into a slightly different area with a couple of new products. Have you seen the new Cadbury's chocolate cheesecakes and things? That was the last one that made me go 'ooh!'.

So here I am, where the only area of massive choice seems to be in Paprika crisp world. Why? Why? Why? I treid a different supermarket yesterday, called 'Neu und Gut'. I didn't hold out much hope for it. It had all the glamour from the outside of a pop-up flea market shop. The doors looked rickety, you could see toilet roll just piled up in the window in a scabby manner, but in we went. And I kind of fell in love with it a little bit. They had some British goods. A whole display stand of 'boxed' McVities Digestives, Milk Chocolate Digestives, and Hob Nobs. I stood in front of it and more than likely chuckled out loud. I bought some digestives and some milk chocolate digestives. I'm not that fond of digestives, but the kids might like them, and I would rather have had plain chocolate digestives than milk, but I was not leaving that shop without them. God knows, they probably cost me about 16 Euros, who knows, but what price is a little taste of home?

Friday, 25 June 2010

God bless the Canadians

There's none of your fancy anti-bacterial hand sanitising hand gel at frequent stop-off points here. They make you lick your fingers once you've touched a penguin.

So, we're half way through our first week in the new flat. I thought I liked it, but now as of tonight, I love it. I have met quite a few of my neighbours over the past few days, and they are all pretty friendly. One is taking me to the market tomorrow morning at 8:15 (she expects that I will be up anyway with the kids. I didn't tell her that they keep me so occupied with their incessant demands that I generally can't get out before 10:30.). I may have to go in my pyjamas...

We have been invited to meet a selection of neighbours for tea and coffee on Sunday which I am really looking forward to. I plan on quizzing them on all sorts of topics, and it'll be a relief to have a conversation with someone who speaks good english rather than attempting to have conversations with my poor German. We had thought that there were quite a few British people in the building (or 'the house' as they call it). There is an element of snobbery here too that I have picked up, There is the 'Vorderhaus' which is the front building and then there are side houses which you access via the main front door. Ours, the Vorderhaus, has double security, an extra set of locked doors, and that seems to be what sets us a little peg above our scabby side-house neighbours.

My neighbour upstairs that is taking me to the market talked about the others in the house as though everyone is a Diplomat. Whether they are or not I am not sure yet. But I guess we'll find out on Sunday. Our landlord is the German Ambassador for (well I won't tell you, or you'll Google him and then find his German address and all of a sudden I'll have all 15 of you on my doorstep looking for some Bratwurst and Robinson's Finest Apple & Blackcurrant).

Anyway, I just headed out to get some milk and I met my downstairs neighbours. They are Canadian and they were really nice. I could get to like them a lot and already I am sad that they are leaving in September. They were really friendly and gave me lots of top tips on where to locate things locally, and when I commented on their fine Kettle Chips (SALT & VINEGAR!!!!!) they gave me one of their bags as a housewarming gift. Then they went on to give me their details for their hidden broadband network, and I swear, my happiness levels hit the roof. So I sped throught the streets to get the milk while chanting their network name and password to myself until I got home and here I am! Lovely, lovely, internet access.

So as for the apartment itself, well it's great though Stevie has complained that it is "too big". I don't believe that it could ever be too big: I just haven't bought enough stuff yet. Stevie has always wanted to live life as a minimalist, and now that he has this feeling of empty space, he doesn't like it. Maybe he has gradually become a clutter-lover over the years of me quietly, furtively furnishing houses piece by piece with things he 'might not notice if I don't say anything'.

Anyway, the removal men decided they would finish on Tuesday without doing any unpacking. They were German and spoke no English and hadn't been told that they were meant to unpack the boxes taking everything out on to the floor. So they came back the next day and it was really hectic. It would have been easier if I had just done it myself, box by box, but as I would have had to get rid of the boxes myself this way then we just got on with it. Orla and Hamish were really excited about seeing their toys, and I caught Hamish trailing round behind one of the men holding his Wonderpets book aloft asking him to read it. It would have been much easier to do the unpacking without the kids, but Stevie sensibly chose to go to work leaving it to me.

So the place is a mess but I am slowly working my way through the various piles that are many and varied in all the rooms. We have spoken to our Relocation Service Provider (Heidi) about the fact that we have no hot water at all in the en-suite and only get a centimetre of hot water in the kitchen sink before it runs cold. Heidi, I have noticed can't be bothered to really help us or suffers from a strong strain of such negativity that were she to be psychometrically tested, there's no chance she'd be a match for this job.

I told her about the water in the kitchen and she told me that it might be just a 5 litre tank. I doubt whether we are getting 3 litres, and if that is the case then it's not even enough to wash the dishes, so how is that acceptable? Then she told us that there would be no chance of getting a parking permit because we still have the rental car, and that the local council would want us to wait and pay for parking for the next 8 weeks until our normal car gets delivered. I thought that was a load of rubbish, and Stevie ended up phoning work and asking them how they felt about paying for parking as we are ineligble for a permit, and all of a sudden, today we have a permit. Next on the list was the Kindergeld. It's like your child benefit, or family allowance if you like. Stevie will be paying German tax, but according to Heidi we would not be eligible for this as we are only here for 2 years on a temporary contract. Well, today we met some Americans in the swing park who have been here 3 weeks and are over doing fellowships. They won't be paying German tax - but yet they are entitled to both reduced Kita (nursery) fees and KinderGeld.

Finally, Heidi was round this morning and we had a disturbing chat about the tv. Part of the package is that we get a basic Sky package allowing us some British channels. I don't know, maybe in amongst me harping on about Robinson's juice, I may have mentioned, how much I am missing tv, and BBC World News is just not rocking my world that much. Anyway, she asked whether we were able to receive BBC World News through the tv. I said yes, but not even with a signal that you could describe as acceptable to watch or listen to. We then got on to the subject of when we might be getting the tv sorted out. To which she looked a bit surprised, so I explained that this was part of the deal (hey, that was the bit that had me sold on this whole idea). So she tells me that this is not possible, that we can't get this in Berlin. What? What rubbish more like. I reminded her that there are satellites which beam CBeebies all around the globe for people like me. So the next argument was that we would not be allowed a satellite dish on this building. I think we could get one behind the balcony at the front without it being seen by anyone. And if not, my new Canadian friends told me of a company that'll do you cable with British channels, plus phone and broadband. Sadly I have forgotten the name of this vital company as I was busy trying to remember the more important broadband login details.

So I am getting a bit fed up with Heidi. The tv was the thing that made me realise she just wants to do as little as possible for us. I'll wait and see what happens at the beginning of next week, and then maybe we'll nudge Rolls-Royce into making a 'MAKE IT HAPPEN!' phone call.

I've added a quick 'Let's touch the penguins' photo for you.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Health & Safety for Berliners

Now I have resumed my love affair with the internet, I just can't keep away from it. Well, unless there's not an internet cafe to be found near our new flat, then I'll be in trouble. Some things surprise me about Germany. The stereotype that I'd always been aware of was that of German efficiency. So I figured that sorting things like telephone connections and broadband out would be even quicker than in the UK, not that I've ever had any problem with that. But here it takes so long. We've been told that it'll take weeks- maybe 3 or 4 to get connected. That seems just excessively long. Not that I'm desperate or anything, but I've asked Heidi if we could pre-order our broadband knowing that we would be moving into our apartment. But no, things have to be done by the book, and first we have to be registered as residents in our area, and then we can start getting the phone line connected.

The other thing that I'd always thought about Germans was that they were sticklers for time, and never tolerated lateness. Maybe Berlin is a different story, but the standard practice seems to be to be late for appointments and call ahead and tell whoever you are meeting that you are stuck in terrible traffic, or that there's been an accident, etc etc. On our jaunts around properties, this seemed standard practice. I am collating a list of excuses to use at a later date.

I would never have thought that Germany wouldn't be big on Health and Safety. I kind of assumed that the way we are in the UK is just standard practice. Actually, I just never thought about it at all. It's just the way things are. But being here has opened my eyes to how emersed in Health and Safety we really are. I wish I could connect my camera in this place, and I could show you some of the photos I took at the zoo. The zoo is amazing. Quite easily the best one that we have ever been to, and we seem to have visited quite a few given our children's desire to seek out "baby animals" and the fact that if they wake up asking to see a camel we quite frequently indulge them.

Berlin Zoo was built in the 20's (I think, I may be wrong), and has beautiful architecture with oriental designed camel houses and elephant enclosures. The grounds are really lovely, and if I had my Rough Guide to Berlin with me I could tell you who designed them, but it's really nice and lovely to walk round. The best thing about it though is how close you get to the animals. They seem just a few feet away. They have those gulley things, so that you can't just walk into the enclosure without having to climb out of a 10 ft drop, but not in every location. Sometimes there's just a 30cm high railing and then a little insubstantial looking fence separating you from the less aggressive animals. Maybe it's electric and would fry your eyeballs if you touched it, but I don't get that impression.

Take the penguins for example. We've seen a lot of penguins in our time and I know in some places they have them out and they go for a little walk and stuff but would you ever put your hand in the water? Would you ever try and touch one? I just think we don't do that sort of thing. We think "Ew, that water looks filthy and I can't see a hand sterilising station anywhere", and as for touching the penguins, well that's just not allowed- even if we're not told that.

But here, well let me tell you, if you've ever harboured secret desires to touch a penguin as it swims past you, then this is the place to come. There are kids leaning over into the water stroking their backs. There are people trying to hold them while they are in the water! The thing to do seems to be to twiddle your index finger in the water to alert the penguins of your desire to feel a penguin. The penguin then swims past a few times trying to be coy and playing hard to get. You in the meantime have your hand in the water, and then on the third or so swim past, bob's your uncle! A penguin under your hand! We were amazed! I wouldn't be surprised if you could feed the zebras paprika crisps by hand. I have some photos of the penguin touching, but I'll put them up when I can.

To finish off on the subject of health and safety, we have been struggling with the heat in our apartment. It's been really hot, but I can't leave the windows open and the kids unattended for fear that they will throw themselves out from the 9th floor that we are on just because they can. Most of the windows are relatively high up (just above waist height) and open fully like a door would. So to climb out the kids would need to use a chair, but given that they have a tendancy to use stools and chairs for climbing then I wouldn't put it past them. The living room window's are much lower. They have a nice broad low window ledge that is perfect for your climbing toddler to ascend all by themselves. The windows in here open outward and have a stop on them to stop them going beyond reach. However that distance is still far enough that a child could get out without even having to squeeze. So every time I leave the room I have to close the window as of course this window ledge is a great draw.

The bathroom has some exciting plumbing features going on. The best is the ladder radiator and its wiring. At the bottom two sections are connected by some bare wire. I scream every time they go near it when they get out the bath soaking wet. It's such a relaxing place to be. Bring on the move...though I checked the windows and they also open outwards fully though there are ones at the top which we could safely open.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Cleaning the Berlin Wall...

So where were we?

So the furniture went- the zealous 3 man team were in and out in a couple of hours. They turned up, said "show us round, and tell us what's not to go, and we'll get on with it". So I took the kids away and they had everything packed before lunch. That's including the central heating control box thing, which I need to post back to our new tenant as soon as I get it (I do hope you are having nice weather, and he doesn't actually need to turn the heating on. I am completely unaware of anything that's happening in the UK, weather included, unless it appears on BBC World News- so as far as I'm concerned the only thing to happen in the UK is the French President coming over to visit the BBC for the Charles DeGualle 70th anniversary of his broadcasts while exiled there during the war. Newspapers must be a bit thin since we left then if that's the big story...).

So they packed that and quite possibly some of my recycling. Ah, how relaxed was I? I hadn't even bothered to put the recycling out and we were due to move! I know that they packed the bin, and I am not even 100% sure that it had been emptied. Ok, maybe it's just another tiny sign of my total laziness, I guess we can never know for sure...especially if we stop thinking about it right now.

So the only thing the packers left was a ton of fluff and dust that had been lurking under wardrobes and things, so after a mammoth cleaning session, we left after our 2 days in the hotel and arrived in Berlin. Now according to the quite substantial notes that Rolls-Royce give you, you are meant to arrive and feel like you are on holiday and then after a month or two, this feeling wears off, and you start thinking things like how slow the beauracracy is (compared with home), how nothing is quite as good as home, etc etc. They call it 'hitting the wall'. I hit it on about day 2.

Our temporary accommodation is pretty grim. It's not terrible by any means, it's just souless and of course there's nothing personal. So it's not even like being in a holiday cottage where you have books and ornaments and things. It's just bare. I hate being in it, and so do the kids. Anyway, I also arrived in Germany with some kind of sick bug. I had thought I'd got food poisoning the day before we left from a dodgy pizza in Frankie & Benny's (I must have been terribly excited about the move, because I can't think of any other reason I would choose Hoi Sin Chicken Pizza). Alas, I continued to feel dreadful for most of the first week. On top of that I managed to lose my blood pressure tablets somewhere along the line and that became a wee bit of a nightmare.

So I hit the wall. I pretty much hated it. I was stressed out because it turned out our Healthcare hadn't been organised and then I had loads of phone calls with people trying to organise doctors and all sorts of stuff. It all sounded promising, especially when 'International SOS' got involved, I don't know, they just sound like they'll do things in a hurry, don't they? Well, they don't. They like to take their time, let things back up in their Frankfurt office and call you 6 or 7 times to ask if you are having a heart attack right now, or would you be ok to pick up a prescription from the chemist you can see from your apartment window. But not yet. Maybe in a day or two. But it all got sorted, and I never had a blood pressure monitor with me, so at least I didn't know whether I was about to have a heart attack.

Mind you, the kids seemed determined to test it out. Second day in the flat and in an attempt to be more relaxed (for my blood pressure) I decided not to be checking on the kids every couple of minutes as I tend to do especially if they are being quiet, and just let them get on with it. So, I walked into this little room that's off the second bedroom (it's like a large wardrobe but has a window) and this was when I discovered that they had coloured in one whole wall with their new crayons. I went mental. They have never done this sort of thing before, so why do they start when we are in rented accommodation with not a cleaning product to our name?

I finally finished cleaning it with a successful combination of Cif and wipes this morning. Hours it has taken me. I didn't imagine I'd be scrubbing walls in my first week here.

So let's get on to the good stuff. The 'relocation service provider' is great. I had a great day last week that was like being on 'Location, location..'. We got picked up by our 'helper' Heidi, and taken to 6 or so apartments where we would get shown round with them and the agent and Heidi would do all the translating and we would say what we liked and what we didn't like and then they would tailor the rest of the properties we saw to meet our needs. It was brilliant fun. I could look at houses every day of the week. It was actually a bit more like Location, location with a bit of Escape to the Country thrown in. It seems as though people in Berlin live in probably far smaller spaces than we do in the UK, and certainly, I think the agents thought it was a bit odd that we were looking for seperate bedrooms for the kids. They also seemed to think it was odd that they were showing us what they considered pretty amazing apartments, and we were sometimes just not fussed about them. So I felt a bit like one of those folk on Escape to the Country who get taken into a kitchen the size of a field and they just casually winge, "It's just not quite big enough for the two of us".

But we found somewhere. Well, we actually found 2 places that we loved, but one isn't available until August, so that ruled it out as I can't bare to stay where we are until then. So we are meant to move in on Tuesday. The moving team arrive at 8am and no doubt will be done by 9:30. I can't wait!!!

Those of you who I have been in touch with since the move will have heard my plaintive cries about there being no Robinson's Apple and Blackcurrant here - or 'purple' as the kids call it. Well, I can reassure you that the crisis is over! We took a wee trip to Kreuzburg this morning to a shop called Broken English. The owner was stood outside smoking when we turned up and laughed as Stevie squealed "Look at the window display!" to which the kids started chorusing "Purple! Purple!". So happy were we that we paid €7.50 for 3 small bottles to tide us over till my friends can start shipping it over in bulk. I never knew it would be so missed. I had also thought that things would have moved on quite substantially in the supermarkets from when I was in Munich 30 years ago. We came here on holiday 2 years in a row and I remember quite clearly the lack of what I assumed were international brands and there only being Paprika crisps. But here we are, and it's the same. How has Kerry Irish Butter managed to break through into this impenetratable marketplace, and why would you not be sick to death of paprika crisps after 30 years?? Seriously, would a little salt and vinegar not enhance life?

(Actually, I found some and they were described as 'Engish Style' and they were quite good, so I will return to them in times of desperate need, and won't be partaking of Broken English's 12 pack of Walkers for €10.50- can you believe that price?).

Right well, I could write loads but it's time to go. Next time I'll tell you about our trip to the zoo. It's amazing. There are bits about Berlin that make you feel like it would be like being in Britain before they thought about Health and Safety. Wait till you see my photos, you'll think I have a great zoom lens on my camera, ha, ha!
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