Thursday, 29 July 2010

Commerzbank scuppers meatball purchase

I went to IKEA twice today. The first time I hauled the kids round the store in one of those wooden carts (have I just not seen those in the Nottingham branch before or are they unique to mainland Europe) and quickly regretted handing over my Berlin Zoo card for the pleasure of it. I thought I was going to strain my arms really badly. But really, can you strain an arm if you have to say to your partner, "Wait a minute until I find the muscle"?

So dragged the kids round, found dining room chairs and covers, swapped cart thing for flatbed trolley, stood in ginormous queue with it has to be said reasonably well behaved kids as I had promised them ice cream if they were good, and then get to the point where I need to pay and am told that my card isn't recognised. Isn't that odd? Isn't that especially odd when I had used the very same card in IKEA the night before buying the table?

I raged all the way home, then raged all the way to Commerzbank to have words. According to them the strip on my card must have been close to a magnet. I think that is rubbish. The woman told me to go and take cash out with it and then bring the card back to her. I did, and she then cut it up. But if the strip doesn't work, then how does it work in the machine? No answer to that question, just mumbling in German. And also, if it's just the strip not working and the chip is ok, then why wouldn't it work in IKEA where they use Chip & Pin??? I asked again. This time round she acted like she no longer knew what I meant by 'Chip & Pin' even though she had the first time I explained what had happened to me. Mind you, it could have been Orla chanting "Are you shouting at the lady yet?" that was putting her off.

I've had it with Commerzbank. This is the third crap event I've had with them in about the 6 weeks I've been a customer. So, I was back at IKEA tonight to re-buy my chairs. This time, I got there and they only had 3 left. So guess what, I'm back again tomorrow. I figured I have been there too many times now when as I reached the checkout the cashier spoke to me in English before I even said anything.

Ugh! Meatball, anyone?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Meatballs & aeroplane engines

Hamish likes to ask me in the morning where 'Daddy has gone'. I usually tell him he has gone to work, except occasionally in our pre-Berlin days when he went to play football on Saturday morning. Recently our early morning conversation about Daddy's whereabouts has moved on a question: I tell him that Daddy has gone to work, and he says "To make meatballs?". I'm not sure where he has got this idea from, but it's just easier I find to say "yes".

Orla, on the other hand is old enough to handle the truth. She asked me what Daddy does at work, and I told her that "Daddy makes aeroplane engines. That's why people are scared to fly."

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

"I'll be back!" she said in a German accent.

Essential reading for new applicants

We've been trying to sort out a nursery for Orla and Hamish. It's a lot harder than I thought it would be. You have to get some forms from the Rathaus (town hall) and fill those out stating what hours you and your partner work and what your income is. The number of hours you work will determine how many hours your children get in Kita (nursery) and the amount you earn determines how much you pay towards it. Nurseries are a lot cheaper here than in the UK. We would expect to pay nearly the same for Orla and Hamish to each do a morning each for 1 week and for that to cost the same as it would for them to be in Kita here full time for a month!

With me not working it might be difficult to get them a Gutschein (voucher) that you have to have to get them into the nursery. However, with my need to learn German this might help as I need the time during the day to go to class. I have hit a bit of a vicious circle though. I need proof for the Gutschein that I have a German class to go to, but I can't book (pay) to go a German course until I know that they have a place in Kita.

Yesterday, I had an appointment with one Kita that was arranged through the relocation company, and had an appointment to phone one that I found that said they 'might' have places. I went with Claudia from the relocation company on the visit to the first Kita. It was massive. Over 150 children, from over 20 nationalities, set in a huge building over 6 floors. The focus the lady said in German which Claudia translated for me is "learning through play, with an emphasis on learning German". That, is exactly what I need. They set up the childrens groups differently to how they would in the UK. The babies from 0 - 2 years old are in one group and then the rest from 2 years old to 6 years old are split up in mixed groups. This is apparently quite the norm in Berlin nurseries. I am not sure that I think it's the best way: I tend to think that the older children are more likely to rule the roost and make sure that they have the best toys, etc. The lady, via the medium of Claudia said that it "encourages the older children to behave more like older brothers and sisters towards the younger ones". My point exactly, but I think we might be looking at it from two different perspectives. I don't doubt that some will have a caring, nurturing side to them and will look out for the younger ones, but I suspect that the 'I want that, I'm going to have that' urge is harder for some to suppress.

Apart from this, the place seemed great. They had loads of facilities and rooms for building, art, music, exercise and dance, and a fantastic garden. In fact it was in the garden that I saw one of the bigger boys 'nurturing' a large spade off of a white-knuckled 3 year old.

What is good is that they do separate the children into age groups for set activities during the day, and they do lots of different things with them. Unlike other Kita's I wouldn't be required to cook (argghh!) a meal for all the children once a week (phew!) and also this place has got space to take both Orla and Hamish. We had heard that it's difficult to find spaces in the Kita's, and that many have very long waiting lists, so the fact that this one is close by and has space is a bonus. On the other hand they can't give us the places until September and then I would need to spend a month going to the Kita with the children until they settled in. Another difference to UK nurseries- where I spent two half hours settling Orla and Hamish in to their old nursery, here they expect you to hang around for 4 weeks. I'm not altogether opposed to this idea especially as Orla and Hamish don't speak the language, but it does mean that I wouldn't be able to start German classes until October.

Later that day I phoned the other Kita that I found near my local supermarket. I really liked the look of this one - lovely toys, quite small, really close to the flat, and they have English lessons on a Friday. I had been in last week and they had told me to phone back when they would know if they had spaces. When I phoned it was a bit odd in that I was quizzed first of all on my level of German. I explained that this was one of the reasons why I was trying to find the children a Kita place, so that I could go and learn it. Once the quizzing was over, she said, "I will go and speak to my boss" and came back moments later and said "Sorry, we did have places, but we have a very long waiting list". Somehow, I suspect that the fact that I don't speak much German might have played a part in it. I was a bit annoyed about that, and I think the worst part is realising that you are a minority and that this is how minority groups tend to be treated at times. That for them it's just easier if they've got parents and children who speak the same language as them. I'll be fluent by Christmas and then I'll sort them out once I can argue the case for equal rights!

Friday, 23 July 2010

How to live in the absence of digestives

Stevie had to go back to Derby for a few days for work. I was quite excited by this and prepared a list of things for him to buy while he was there. Number 1 of course was travel adapters. We have been unplugging the tv so that we can use the hoover, and stopping the charging of the laptop in order to boil the kettle. Our need for travel adapters is vast given that we brought everything with us. I have secret fears about travel adapters. I think it stems from the days of - what were they called?- 3 point plugs?? I'm sure my mum instilled in me that these were the most dangerous things on the planet. Travel adapters have a similar cachet about them, and if I didn't have better things to lie awake at night worrying about, then I certainly could spend many a happy hour pondering whether there may be a chance that we'll all burn in our beds some dark night in November when we're least expecting it.

I also hate the way that you can hardly ever get them to go into the wall properly and they're always just hanging out a little. Paranoid Fiona is sure that one day the hoover that has sucked up more food in its lifetime than Orla has will be responsible for some kind of electrocution accident involving either of my children, or more likely me, showing them the perils of sockets and electricity.

I won't go into the other 'delights' that were on the list, except to say that it featured an extensive list of childrens DVD's especially selected from the Asda website by Orla and myself. I put my foot down when it came to Barney though. Even if it's episodes I've not seen before I just can't take any more of those obnoxious children with their upheld hands gesturing every emotion.

Stevie got back last night and unveiled his booty. I think we all squealed with excitement. I bombarded Stevie with questions: "So what was it like?", "Did the supermarkets seem massive?", "What did you think of all the choice on offer?", "Did it seem like too much?" "Did everything seem dead cheap?", oh and, "Did you feel like you'd missed it?". I think I successfully added to the impression that Stevie is getting that I am losing my mind. "Fiona," he said "It's only been 6 weeks since you were in Tesco. What do you think has changed since you left?".

I don't think we are too bad when it comes to adapting to German products. Admittedly, the one thing that we found we really miss is Robinsons Apple & Blackcurrant and I make regular trips to 'Broken English' to stock up. Aside from that though, there's not really much I miss. (Yeah, ok, so I moan about the lack of choice and everything, but really, I'm not hankering after anything else in 'Broken English'.

I do seem to be building up a little database in my head of which shops and supermarkets sell which British (and American) items, just in case. I've also got a new hobby, which is reading the discussion boards on Toytown Berlin where poor homesick souls ask where they can find things like brown sauce or god forbid, Coors Light. I find the food-related topics less vicious than say, the work or apartment related topics, but in general, the expat community comes across as a terrible angry mob, ready to shout at you for your desirous thoughts about digestives. One day, dear readers, this could be me!

Monday, 19 July 2010

The moth effect

We found a moth in Hamish's wardrobe. Orla said we should "set it free using Daddy's shoe" , but I managed to blow on it several times and encourage it out of the window. Not before it had batted it's little wings and set off a chain of events that added up to one of my best days yet in Berlin.

The day started off uneventfully enough. Just the usual: kids going mental, me going spare, them not listening, me thinking I AM GOING TO LOSE MY MIND. So it was, that I decided to just get them out of the house before they knocked anything else over, broke bones, made their mother have them adopted. My thoughts turned to the play place at KaDeWe. A little creche of sorts where you can leave your children in their care for up to 3 hours for FREE as long as you don't leave the shop. They give you a nice mobile phone and promise to interrupt your calm-regaining browse, should anything happen.

So as I rushed to get us ready for this, I had all the usual interruptions to contend with along with a new one - Hamish's new love of brie. 3 minutes from departure I have them both fully covered in sun lotion. 1 minute from departure Orla knocks over a crate of our friends belongings "just because", which has been standing on top of 2 other crates. 30 seconds from departure Orla appears out of the naughty corner, naked. Race, race, race. We finally leave the house. Dor closed. Hamish requests more cheese. Flappetty, flappetty, go the wings of the moth. I realise I don't have my keys.

I go downstairs to get a signal on my phone and ask Stevie what time he'll be back from work. Of course this is the day he chose to take his bike instead of the car so he'll probably be later. Fair enough, I have my new bank card anyway, so I can go and get money out and we can just spend the afternoon somewhere. Flappetty, flappetty, go the wings of the moth. I turn to look at the kids who are in the sand pit. I let out a (possibly) external scream as I realise that the sun lotion has adhered them with a good even coating of sand. I try a wipe on a leg. Much squealing and also I don't have the lotion out with me to reapply so I give up and hope that it will fall off of its own accord before we get to KaDeWe and they will accept my grotty children.

First the bank. I got one card, two pin numbers. I figured that I would go into the bank and ask them about this. But of course the moth has flapped it's wings and the bank is already closed for the weekend. Never mind. I figure the latest pin number they have sent me will be the most likely correct one. Flappetty, flappetty, I put the card in, look for the (no) option for English language, and put the pin number in. End of transaction is what I guess it tells me. Either way my card has been swallowed. Not even a chance to try the other pin. I am close to tears. I phone Stevie. He offers these words of comfort - "Didn't you see the option for English?"

I have a few Euros, but I am going to have to be careful not to spend them too frivolously because I might have to wander around Berlin for quite a few hours before Stevie comes back with the keys. But wait, I'm forgetting! I have KaDeWe! I take the kids up, and it's different people from the last time I used it and they want either my passport (which I didn't bring) or my bank card for ID. Oh, that old thing. Well...

So once again, I have to present my Berlin Zoo Card as my only form of ID, and once again it is accepted, though grudgingly. I explain that Orla might ask to go for a "wee wee" and I show Orla the toilets so she knows where to go this time without them having to phone me. I take myself off to the 6th floor to check out the food and start to relax. Then the phone rings. I hear a babble of German. To my ear it sounds fast and a little frantic, and I say "Ein minuten! Ich komme!!". I race down the escalators and get there in under a minute. Orla has done a wee wee, and they explain has managed to do it all the way from the front of the creche through to the toilet area. I find her sat on a toilet looking quite happy. "The wee-wee just came". Fair enough. These things happen. But how am I going to spend an afternoon in Berlin with a child who is naked from the waist down and definetly doesn't have lotion on her bum?

I haven't got enough money to buy her anything from KaDeWe, but still they come to my rescue. They give me a loan of a pair of trousers in exchange for 5 euros. My cash is depleting. I am thankful that I didn't have time for a drink. It seems that it is time to leave the KaDeWe. Stevie phones. I am going to leave early so I can get back to help you. GREAT!!!!

Of course this is the day he decides it would be best to see what it's like getting the train back with his bike. Do I need to tell you that it takes longer? He phones as I am feeling a little better. I have found the Hugendubbel (like Waterstones) that I have been wanting to go to, and have found that they also have a great English book section and an English book group that meets once a month. I am going to go to that I decide. Stevie phones again. He is back and has checked the mailbox and there is a new bankcard for me. He will walk down to meet me with it and we will try it together. I tell him I will walk up to meet him as I have nothing better to do. I walk and walk and I am nearly home, literally round the corner from the apartment when he appears. I have dark, secret thoughts that he has probably been having a nice lie down with a cold coke, in a flat that he has keys for. He hands me my keys and we head back to the Ku'Damm and the bank. We try my card and my second pin and this time I get money. But there is no option for English. Stevie is adamant that I have got it wrong and tries his card. Same, but I was half expecting his card to get eaten. It was that sort of day, but it didn't.

The kids are getting fractious and feel they have been out for far too long. We race home and Stevie notices that they are both coated in sand and starving. Up in the lift he starts getting frantic as the noise coming from the kids is getting increasingly loud, whiney, and annoying. Just get the door opened and get them straight into the bathroom, he demands. Right, right! It's funny. He always thinks that it's incredulous that I should get frustrated and annoyed by the kids when I have them all day every day and usually through the night, yet it's perfectly normal for him to be the same after just an hour in their company. I open the door, hustle them in, run a bath, strip them off, get them cleaned and make the dinner. Then ready for bed and then I can relax and moan to my mum about my horrible day on the phone.

Saturday comes. It takes us most of the morning to get ourselves organised enough to go out. Stevie starts making a song and dance about me making sure I have everything. Do you have your keys? Actually, as it happens, I can't find them. Flappetty, flappetty, Stevie opens the front door while I am frantically searching the flat. There's a clink as he does so: I had left my keys in the lock on the outside of the door.

We found another moth in the bathroom on Sunday. This time we helped it with Daddy's shoe.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Hair-do Hotspot

One of the cheapest things you can get in Berlin is a haircut. It's massively cheap compared to the UK. I read in one of our guidebooks that a haircut in Tony & Guy here would cost only 19 Euros compared to around £40 in the UK. A cut in Vidal Sassoon is only 49 Euros and as the guide book says "they maintain the same high standards as they do worldwide".

I had been a bit apprehensive about German haircuts before I came here. The last time I got my haircut before I came here the stylist said that one of her clients comes back to Derby to get her hair done because she doesn't like German hairdressers. That's a pretty expensive cut, and I would never have thought of Derby as the hair hotspot of Europe.

But when I read the bit on pricing in the guidebook, well hey, I'm willing to try anyone if they're offering reasonably priced highlights. Of course though, I'm not daft, I've done my German hairdressing experimentation with the kids first! Actually, Hamish was in dire need of a trim and was looking a bit mullet-y (and altogether fitting in far too well) and I'd already bribed Orla with Smarties to let me trim her fringe.

We just happened to be in KaDeWe having a look round when we came across the childrens' hairdressers on the 3rd floor. It's great! It's just like the place I took them to in Derby where they can sit on motorbikes and watch cartoons, except this place doesn't have the strange Johnny Depp weirdo doing the hair. I think it suffers just a little because of that. Anyway, I managed to book them in and although they had a joint appointment, Hamish managed to fall asleep just in time, so we re-booked him in for yesterday.

As usual my extensive high school German enabled me to ask for precisely what I wanted - listen to this: "A la Amelie, ein Filme mit Audrey Tatou, ja?". In case you're in any doubt, this was for Orla. I think that it covers it nicely. Or it would have if any of the hairdressers had seen the film or knew the actress. So I gestured with my hands sweeping, sharp, lines.

I was more than a little worried that I didn't have any male actors in mind for Hamish's cut. I also don't like boys haircuts that are just shaved all over. Somehow, quite how, I'm not sure, I managed to get what I wanted across, and I think both cuts worked out really well. Now if only they could do my highlights....

Thursday, 8 July 2010

An hour in the company of feral children

Did I ever tell you about the time we gave in to Orla's begging at Center Parcs and spent £25 on a game of bowling which they wanted to do for all of about a minute? Well, we succumbed to the endless requests to go in a boat trip up the river Spree. So we paid the money and off we went and within oh, maybe 2 minutes it was like having two wild animals with us that we were desperately trying to make sit in seats and stop drowning out the audio guide for everyone. We made it through the hour-long trip, but it felt a bit like the 3 hour trip that we initially considered going on. I think I would have ended up making a swim for it.

Far more successful was our trip to the East Side Gallery, which is a stretch of Berlin Wall that has been kept and various artists were commissioned in 1989 to paint murals on it. Over the years other people added additional graffitti and the artists were asked back recently to re-paint their murals. The kids loved it, and just across the road the annual sand castle competition (it's probably called something fancier than a sandcastle competition) was taking place. We didn't pay to go in, as we planned on going back another time, but I did poke my camera through the fence. And the kids enjoyed getting lifted up on our shoulders for a look. So it's true, sometimes the best things in life actually are free!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

checking for a dialling tone

At last, we have a phone line. as promised for the 7th of July. I expected it to be ready for use come the stroke of midnight, so you can imagine my heart dipping every 20 minutes when I would check it, and check it again. Turns out a man has to come round and poke around with the sockets. But at least they sent an attractive man. If only I had a little more skill with the language here, I could have asked him to sort out the broadband.

So I was quite excited to finally have a landline, and the second he was out the door I was dialling. Of course, nobody was home.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Out and about in the DDR

"Where do you think they keep the sharp knives?"

In the 3 minutes of internet access I seem to be able to get per day, I thought I'd use it wisely on my blog rather than frittering it away reading rubbish on Facebook. It was Hamish's birthday the other day and we had a weekend of doing all the things that Hamish likes to do. So we visited SeaWorld which they loved and the big 50 ft circular tank with the lift that goes up the middle is great, but overall we think the SeaWorld in Birmingham tops it just a little bit. But the kids loved it and we bought the joint tickets which will get us into Legoland, which we'll maybe go to next weekend.

Yesterday was absolutely roasting, so in between stops for ice-cream (Hamish likes the cone, and tries to eat that before the ice-cream), we yielded to the requests for baby animals and went to the zoo (again. I think this might be my fourth time, in which case my annual pass has paid for itself). Anyway, I was so busy saying to Stevie, "Have you got your zoo card? Have you got your wallet?" Etc, etc that I didn't even bother to think about whether I had mine. So we walked there and then we went back home on the U-Bahn and I raced back to get my card. Thankfully we only live a little way away from the zoo so it reduced Stevie's moan level to 'minimum'.

Later we were sat in a cafe in the shade with both kids sleeping in the Phil & Ted's (what's that? Maybe only the 5th time they've both napped at the same time?) and Stevie said that he doesn't know what he'll do in the winter-time when there are less outdoor things to do. I suggested that we could perhaps visit the hundreds of museums that there seem to be. He said that he doesn't want to visit any of the concentration camps or visit any of the museums that are related to the war. Which effectively rules out probably about 50% of them. He just doesn't want to know about all the terrible things that happened here.

2 days ago we passed the station where there is a monument to all the children who got sent to Britain during the war and to those who got sent to the concentration camps. They all left from Friedrichstrasse Station. There were photographs documenting both the children who left for Britain and those who survived the concentration camps. Orla was quite interested in looking, but it made Stevie feel very uncomfortable.

What he is interested in is the DDR era and is keen to visit the DDR museum. I went with the kids in the first couple of weeks we were here as I'd read about it and really fancied it. It's excellent. It's down by the Berliner Dom on the River Spree in Mitte. It's quite small, but they've crammed it full of interesting stuff. When I went in, the man working there asked why I was bothering to bring the kids as they wouldn't enjoy it, but in fact they had a great time. It's very interactive. There is a Trabi that you can sit in and pretend to drive; a reconstruction of a DDR house complete with bathroom, kitchen, and living room, and the rest of the exhibits are all accessible and can be touched and used, or are in little drawers or cupboards. We spent quite a while there and I would definetly go back again with friends and family who come over. The kids particularly liked the living room and the Trabi. Maybe next we'll go to the DDR transport museum.
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