bike hulk says: baby bike trailers win all the awards

Sometimes I forget how great being on a bike can make you feel.  How exhilarating it can be.  Like, for example, when you don’t ride a bike for two years because you’re pregnant (and then too nauseous and then too spacey and then too enormous and keep kneeing yourself in the belly when you try to peddle) and then because your freshly squeezed newborn doesn’t do anything but scream when you try to use the bike trailer.  I forgot then.

But Pickles doesn’t hate the bike trailer anymore.  Now she tolerates it for up to two hours at a time.  Now it almost always puts her to sleep for a 40 minute nap that she wouldn’t have taken at home (which, much to my surprise, seems to be resulting in better and more sleep nights, weird).  Glory glory hallelujah, I am no longer a slave to the Deutsche Bahn.

Not that I don’t like the Deutsche Bahn.  I love the Deutsche Bahn.  Public transportation in Germany wins all the awards from me.  But it can still be a hassle.  And it still costs more money than I’d like to be spending on something I could be doing for free (2.60 a pop, 6.somethingorother for a day pass, 9.80 for a group day pass).  Because of the lay of the tracks and the waiting and the walking time, I am actually faster than the train when it comes to going into the city.  (A sentence that makes me feel like the bike hulk.  Heh.)

Now I go out of my way to find reasons to go for a ride, places to journey out to.  Like today, when I was here:

The ride took me to a village to the north of Frankfurt, and the way was almost entirely through fields that looked like this, on paved bike paths where I met the occasional walker, dog, or fellow cyclist.  The weather looked mean (it was faking), so only a handful of people had braved the backsides of their doors.  And the city lurked off in the background, far away from us.

Judging from the kilometer count, it should have taken me 30-40 minutes to find my way to my friend’s apartment this morning.  But it turned out that Google maps had invented a path, and I did a lot of backtracking and stopping to check the map.  In the end I was almost 2 hours in getting there.  But it was a lovely ride.


Monday May 20th 2013, 9:20 pm 11 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,daily life,expat life,germany,gorilla parent (year two)

white american gets german visa

Now there’s breaking news.  (Cough.)  Look, people who come from countries that aren’t wealthy, who maybe aren’t a shade of Swiss cheese, who might actually need to get into Germany to save their fucking lives often have a hard time getting visas.  They sometimes get deported.

I am an American, and my skin is the color of Swiss cheese.  I  have married a German and have produced a Swiss-cheese-colored baby for the shrinking German population.  (Jawohl!)  I can prove that I have a job and insurance and stability and a place to live.  But what about the people who cannot prove these things?  What about the people for whom staying here is the difference between having a chance at a fairly normal life and being shot or bombed or oppressed or or or?  I don’t know where the immigrations people draw the line (are they more surly if you can’t speak German or if you can’t prove you have insurance, a job, and a rental contract?), but there are lines being drawn.  I doubt anyone is being given an armband and sent away solely because of the color of their skin, but I do know that the people being sent away are largely people whose skin more closely resembles hazelnuts than cheese.

According to this article, Germany deports 50,000 immigrants annually.  And before they deport them, they put them in special little deportation jails.  Ick.

Today, any foreigner residing in Germany without legal immigration status can be arrested and placed in detention pending deportation. This includes refugees who are refused asylum, civil war refugees whose right to remain has not been extended, and immigrants in the broadest sense, who either entered Germany without a valid visa or whose residence permit has expired.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the law has allowed the detention of such people, in order to procure passports or travel documents before deporting them. Those affected are in a desperate situation lacking any recourse. The reason for their arrest is not any criminal offence they have committed, but restrictive German laws that turn them into “illegal immigrants.” Moreover, deportation detention can drag on for up to 18 months. …

According to the Initiative, over 50,000 migrants and asylum-seekers are deported from Germany each year, most of them by plane. Each day, 130 to 140 are returned to the conditions from which they fled—civil war, political persecution, dire economic hardship and regimes that suppress ethnic minorities and women.

Deportees are frequently accompanied by the paramilitary German Border Police or private security agents, who are prepared to use force. Those who resist are beaten, restrained and injected with drugs. A number have already been killed, but the culprits and the authorities responsible have so far escaped prosecution. The dead and abused refugees and immigrants are consciously accepted as the price of a brutal deportation practice.

Since 1993, 99 people have taken their own lives or died trying to avoid deportation, 45 while in detention.

Knowledge is power.  So what are we going to do about it?  Why are borders so important?  Why is keeping people out more important than keeping people alive?  Dog eat dog, survival of the fittest?  Nope, just an accident of birth.  I was born here and you were born there, so you better stay the fuck on your side of the line in the sand.  You were born into war and I was born into wealth?  Well, I must deserve it.  Or something.  Say it with me now…ICK.

It is a scenario that comes up over and over again in the apocalyptic books that I like reading so much.  And in a life-or-death situation, I can understand turning people away from your group.  If the choice is starving together or surviving a lone asshole, I know my instinct would urge me to survive as an asshole.  But guess what: Germany is not turning people away because if it doesn’t, all the Germans will starve to death.  We are not living in a post-apocalyptic scenario.  Germany is turning people away because it makes sense within this government-controled, border-patroled world.  Sad.

Meanwhile, back in the bubble of white privilege…I applied for what I think of as my “eternal German visa” a few weeks ago, or as the Americans call it, a Green Card.  Once it is approved (the paperwork is floating around in Berlin somewhere as I type) I will be allowed to stay here forever—though to my disappointment I will have to return to renew every time I get a new passport, ie once every ten years.  This is the award for three years of marriage.

I will be allowed to work any job, any time.  (Bet you a dollar that I’m still not going to be allowed on the state health insurance plan though.)  What a relief.  Not that there was ever any serious question of it being denied, which is where my priviledge in this situation lies: All of my visas have been fairly easy to obtain.  First there was a one-year au pairing visa.  Then a three-year English teacher visa.  Then I got married to a German, which gets you a pass for at least three years.  Though after seven years in Germany I could have applied for the same visa independently of the Beard, getting married made everything a lot easier.  Dual citizenship, however, is verboten.  I guess I am as close to being German as I’m ever going to get.

Wednesday April 03rd 2013, 8:00 am 8 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,expat life,germany

winter, fried food, and sudden visits

Living so far from the place where I grew up, I had long ago given up on the possibility of a chance meeting with a so-and-so from a whenever-a-long-time-ago.  I like chance meetings.  I like finding out what has become of people I knew when we were kids.  Character development.  It’s fascinating.  But I like living in Germany more, so down the drain with chance meetings, I figured.  The closest I’ve come, will probably ever come, was a few weeks ago.

I’m coming to Frankfurt for work tomorrow! the email said.  Whoa! I said.  We met, after years and years of not seeing each other, of not even talking, two people who once called each other best friends.  Life is funny like that.  And so we went to the Christmas market, freshly opened, home of deep-fried everythings that had been silently begging me to come pay them homage from across the city (or was that my stomach?).  As annoying as the winter holiday season can be, it sure is delicious.

We strolled through the crowd—a small one, we were lucky—until we found a good-looking mulled wine stand.  We ordered and found a little table to lean against while we raced the cold air to the bottom of our mugs, comparing politics in the countries where we live, about Obama’s universal health care and the election and New York City.  More tables crowded around us and more mulled wine drinkers around them, a little rock in a stream of shoppers pushing by on their way to fill their bags and empty their wallets.

When I was a vegan, the Christmas Market held no power over me, but now that I am again an omnivore, the temptation to pull out my wallet and bury my snout in another puddle of frying fat is large.  When hunger arrived, we decided on langoes, a friend potato bread topped with cheese and garlic sauce, and it was tasty, if not overpriced in that way that seasonal, touristy attractions always are, and we left without ordering one of everything from everywhere.  Though I do vaguely regret not having purchased any of these chocolate tools, my favorite discovery of the evening:

I thought they were real for almost an entire minute and couldn’t figure out why someone was selling rusty old tools at the Christmas market.  Yum.

On a sidenote, tomorrow is the winter solstice, and while it is a holiday I would like to be celebrating, I have yet to establish a tradition for the day, overshadowed as it is by the habit of Christmas. Will any of you be celebrating? Happy winter!

Thursday December 20th 2012, 1:41 pm 4 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,expat life,germany

the old woman and the sea (of paperwork) or, advanced parenting in germany

Every since Baby Pickles arrived I have felt like I’m being buried alive.  Letters, forms, papers, confirmations, more forms, more forms, and more fucking forms.  Welcome to parenthood in Germany.  Not so pleased to meet you, but thanks for the mad cash that you keep telling us we will someday get for working on your shrinking population problem.  (“Problem.”)

I suck at paperwork.  Though I vaguely enjoy filling out forms in a sort of obsessive compulsive way, I have trouble filling them out and getting them to the post office on time because at the end of the day I just don’t care.  Taxes, registering my address, getting visas—how do people manage to give enough fucks to get this shit done before the very last second?  At least some of Pickles’ paperwork will result in money in the bank, but still, paperwork is paperwork is hell, and I always procrastinate getting to the post office for as long as possible, and I am very, very good at forgetting things.

The paperstorm began immediately after Pickles’ was born.  Her birth certificates could be picked up at the Standesamt, we had been told.  We were supposed to pick them up right away, but I could barely walk because I’d just had fucking abdominal surgery you assholes, and duh, we were pretty fucking busy just trying to stay alive those first weeks.  When I finally made it there, they told me that I needed to “order” the birth certificates, and I could pick them up later.  Futile trip to the ugliest building in town!  Thanks Standesamt!

A few weeks later I finally had the honor of taking home a handful of certificates claiming that the Beard and I were, in fact, Pickles’ parents.  (They do this at the hospital in the United States, don’t they?)  A few copies were free, the rest—and you need them for all the other paperwork you are going to have to fill out for your baby and they have to be originals—were ten euros a pop.  Why it costs ten euros to have someone print out and sign a sheet of paper that they were printing a few of at the moment anyway is beyond me.  And the system grinds on. Cha-ching!

Quadruplicates of the birth certificates in hand, we started filling out forms for the health insurance company, which went surprisingly smoothly and resulted in a little pickled insurance card and no further hassles.  Then I filled out the novel of pages of paperwork for her American citizenship, passport, and social security card applications. (None of which we have been able to afford to actually get yet, ho hum.)  The Kindergeld and Elterngeld paperwork, however, (which we really should have filled out months before and sent in the minute Pickles was born, and no I am not kidding) are still coming back to haunt us.

First, let me explain.  Kindergeld is money that the government gives everyone who has a German baby.  So if you have a German baby and live in Germany, you will receive 185 euros per month until said baby is 25 or graduates from college.  After you’ve had a couple kids (each of which will result in an additional 185-euro-per-month check), they raise the bar and you get 205 euros a month and on and on.  Elterngeld is money that the government gives people who are raising German babies so that staying home with a baby is a little less financially daunting.  There is a minimum of 300 euros per month, or you can fill out even more paperwork and get a percent of your previous salary for one year.

These would have been the forms to not procrastinate filling out. Cough cough, shuffle shuffle, blush.  Around month seven I finally got them all in the mail.  Done! I thought.  Soon we’ll have that financial help, I think.  Wohoo! I thought.  And so began the avalanche of letters and further paperwork that I am sitting in as I type this.

We made a few mistakes on the Elterngeld paperwork, only two of which were found initially (another one was found after we sent back the first round of corrections), but at least that only involved a few more checks and a few more signatures.  The Kindergeld people, however, have just written to tell me that I need something called a Haushaltsbescheinigung, aka a paper that has been stamped and signed by the people at the Bürgeramt.  What that means in plain English is that I have to go to an office in Mainz to have a stranger sign a paper saying that, yes, the Beard, Baby Pickles and I all live in the same house.  Couldn’t we just send them one of the other hundreds of pieces of paper we have had to fill out to prove that we live at the same address (which we had to provide for my visa after our marriage)?  Without the extra trip to one of their rings of hell?  Couldn’t the fucking German bureaucrats just pick up the fucking phone and communicate with each other—or better yet, have a computer system do it for them? As usual in my encounters with German public offices, I find myself tearing at my hair.*

The positive side of all this is that we might really be another few days closer to getting our monthly “thank you for breeding” money, which we could really use right now.  I really appreciate that the country tries to support parents, particularly since they changed the laws so that both mamas or papas could apply for Elterngeld for taking on the majority of the kid responsibility.  Still, I do wish it was all a little easier.  If everyone is entitled to Kindergeld, then why don’t they automate the process through the reports of birth, send parents something to sign in confirmation, and cut a bunch of people who are struggling with one of the busiest, most chaotic events in their lives a fucking break from all the forms?  Have you ever tried filling out paperwork with a baby on your lap?  I have.  And while I was annoyed at having to get a new set of forms, I have to admit that I understood why she wanted to rip them all to shreds.

*Yesterday I was informed that the reason that these offices don’t communicate is actually one of data protection.  It is illegal, for example, for the police to just go to all these offices and get all the info they have on you there without your permission.  Good call.  Though in this case I wish I could just sign something allowing them to do it in this situation.

Also: All the paperwork is done and sent in!  Now to wait and see what we’ve fucked up on it this time…

Thursday December 06th 2012, 9:00 am 9 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,expat life,germany,gorilla parent (year one)

and the beat goes on

So there was an election this week in the United States.  I found myself caring more than usual this time around, which still doesn’t amount to much.  The women’s health issues and general fucking crazy happening there made it feel more urgent.  But as Jakob Augstein says in this really hammer-on-nail commentary, “America has already lost Tuesday’s election.”  After reading the piece I couldn’t help but agree.  And here some details had me actually feeling involved.  I mean, we do consider moving back from time to time, and voting has always been an excellent way of making people feel like they get to participate in the big decisions of their time.

The very first year I lived in a Wagen, I voted by absentee ballot.  I remember sitting up on the lofted bed and reading through a long list of candidate names.  Besides the presidential candidates, I had never heard of a single one.  It made voting for any of them seem ridiculous, farcical.  But I checked boxes (no electricity there, let alone internet for me to do quick googles of the candidates), and, miraculously, even managed to send in the papers on time.  Of course I’ll never know if my vote was counted or not, but after reading something about how absentee ballots generally end up in the trash, I gave up the last miniscule, thread-bare strand of faith in voting.

Absentee voting is a strange animal.  If you’re just gone for a short trip, I can imagine it making some sort of sense.  But when you’ve been gone for seven years, become all but abstractly disconnected from the politics of your birth country, well, it doesn’t.  Of course, in the country where it might be more meaningful, I’m not allowed to vote.  (Strictly speaking I am allowed to vote in local elections but not the big ones.  I am not sure if this will still apply when I get my eternal visa this January for being married to the Beard for three years.)  Of course the operative word here is might.  I don’t really hold much stock in voting, or, as you might have noticed, the entire current political system.  Ho-hum.

Either way, I found myself breathing a large, loud sigh of relief when I read that Obama had won.  But does it really matter?  Augstein doesn’t think so.  And at the end of a very long day, neither do I.

“Romney, the exceedingly wealthy business man, and Obama, the cultivated civil rights lawyer, are two faces of a political system that no longer has much to do with democracy as we understand it. Democracy is about choice, but Americans don’t really have much of a choice. Obama proved this. Nearly four years ago, it seemed like a new beginning for America when he took office. But this was a misunderstanding. Obama didn’t close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, nor did he lift immunity for alleged war criminals from the Bush-era, or regulate the financial markets, and climate change was hardly discussed during the current election campaign. The military, the banks, industry — the people are helpless in the face of their power, as is the president.”

And later:

“From a European perspective, it doesn’t matter who wins this election. Only US foreign policy is important to us — and Obama is no dove and Romney no hawk. The incumbent president prefers to wage his wars with drones instead of troops, though the victims probably don’t care if they’re killed by man or machine.”

There are some details that will (could?) improve under Obama’s care.  But what about the big picture?  What about the fact that the planet is still going to hell, that industry is destroying everything we need to live with and without our permission?  What about all the wars and death and jesus shit there is so much fucked up stuff going down I don’t even see the point in doing a cursory list.  When a candidate runs on a “dismantle civilization” ballot, you’ll find me back at the box.

What about you?  Do you vote?  Did you hear about the US election and breath a sigh of relief?

Thursday November 08th 2012, 12:35 pm 8 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,expat life

frankfurt’s sachsenhausen: welcome to the monkey house

Left: The Frankfurt skyline. Sachsenhausen is a part of the banking capital. Photo (cc) flickr user Moe_

THIS is part 18 in a series about the year I spent au pairing in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. If you’d like to catch up on the rest of the series, check out the index here.

Frankfurt’s Sachsenhausen is a curious place. Though the moniker technically applies to an entire city section—residents, shopping, and everything in between—when you hear people talking about Frankfurt Sachsenhausen, they’re usually talking about the pub district, a concentrated city block of often touristy bars and clubs, a micro city with no permanent residents. It is a place full of trays of bright green shots and hair gel and fake tan, full of spilled apple wine and loud conversation and lost earrings. It is the kind of place you go knowing you’re going to be doing the walk of shame home later/aren’t going to remember most of the evening.

Among the people I know now, the mention of it elicits groans. But then, before Britta had returned to America and I had traded my job au pairing for one teaching English, it was also one of a large group of American and Brittish au pairs’ favorite haunts. To its credit, the Irish pub did give out free pints of Guinness on Tuesday nights whenever a U2 song came on the stereo.

Sachsenhausen was never really my sort of place, but it did have its merits. My favorite of those was a small bar without sign or name, a dark, crooked little anachronism jammed between two more modern architectural concoctions. Barely the width of three doors, it looked like the home of a wrinkled old city witch, the kind of building only visible to inhabitants of London Below. It was the kind of place that got around the law that pubs had to close between certain wee hours of the night by locking visitors in behind blackened windows. It was sordid, it was seedy, and I only ever went inside once. For better or for worse, I don’t remember much of that night. It was bound to have been a disappointment, and I’m sure it was. I’m glad that no memories of banal drunken conversation have replaced my musings of the more magical happenings that could be playing out between its black-bricked walls.

It’s other merit, though a far less romantic one, was Das Bett, a music venue on one of the pub-city’s outer edges. At the mid-sized music club that favored indie music, another American au pair friend, this one from New Orleans, and I watched skinny white boys in nerd glasses make music with a Nintendo Game Boy.

Frau Rauscher Brunnen. Photo (cc) flcikr user Chris Pirillo

I’ve heard rumor that Das Bett has moved house, but the “Frau Rauscher-Brunnen” (pictured right) remains, a statue that provides an excellent stage for people watching should you find yourself unwillingly pulled into what the Frankfurter Allgemein has so appropriately called “Ein Ort zum Fremdschämen” (translation: a place for feeling embarrassed for other people, note: English could really use a concise version of the word fremdschämen). Madame Rauscher does what you, someone who maybe doesn’t want to be drunk out of her mind or hassled by another bachelor party group, wish you could: she spits water randomly out onto the street. Unfortunately I’ve never seen her hit a moving target.

Friday July 27th 2012, 9:00 am Leave a Comment
Filed under: au pairing,conspiracies,expat life,germany

conversational magic, brine, and 32 degrees fahrenheit

Being an expat can be magical. Yup.  And not in any sort of “it was the best of times” way.  No, as an expat, you’ll find yourself performing conversational feats you never thought possible. Because the grass is, if not greener, at least a lot more interesting on the other side, you, as a diplomat from another side, will find yourself able to make descriptions of the most banal, commonplace daily activities interesting. Your friends at home will listen intently to stories that, when told in their home country, put them to sleep. But because you went grocery shopping/used the toilet/bought bread on foreign soil, your life is suddenly full of conversational masterpieces. You could base an entire hour-long conversation around the design of toilet bowls that both you and your conversational partner will find fascinating. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

In turn, the details of your everyday life back “home” will be just as interesting to your new, in this case, German companions. If there is one thing that is almost universally fascinating, it is the details of cultural difference.  While this means you will find yourself having a lot of really interesting conversations, it also means that you’ll find yourself having the same conversations again and again. Even seven years into expatdom, I’m still having the same dozen conversations on a monthly basis.  If you tend to meet a lot of new people as par for the course, you’ll be having them weekly.

It all starts with the story of why you moved. After a couple of months you’ll be an expert at telling it. And after a couple of years you’ll find your story shrinking. You’ve told it so many times, you can, and do, tell it in just a few sentences in order to prevent boring yourself to death. Mine these days goes something like this: “I was working a desk job in the States and hated it. So I got a job as an au pair in Frankfurt. Once that was over I just decided to stay. And seven years later here I am.”  At this point I’ll point to the baby in my arms, as if to explain in one gesture why I’m still here.  Short and sweet.  Room for questions if people are interested, and room to move on if they, like I, are not interested in hearing more of those practiced lines.

Other topics that get covered often, and conversations I’ve had hundreds of times, at least, include “why Germany?”, how I learned the German language, and the high cost of an American university education. But recently—as the weather has been rollercoastering between summer and fall temperatures on a daily basis—there’s been a lot of talk about Fahrenheit, the measure of temperature in the United States, and Celsius, the measure of temperature just about everywhere else.

I’m only just getting used to the Celsius system.  Because, until Baby Pickles arrived and several nurses scared us into worrying about the importance of a consistently temperatured environment for babies, we didn’t have a thermometer.  So I hadn’t figured out that 25 degrees Celsius was incredibly pleasant, and 15 degrees Celsius was going towards one-hoodie weather.  And while I’m try to get a grasp on the fact that 19 degrees Celsius is rather warm (as it is below freezing in Fahrenheit), people here are asking me to explain the Fahrenheit system. For a conversation I have on a regular basis, I’m surprisingly ignorant on the subject. Or was.  Enter the internet.

So we all know that the Fahrenheit system is kind of ridiculous. Unlike its cousin Celsius, water doesn’t freeze at a neat zero or boil at an easy-to-remember 100 degrees.  Like many other units of measurement used in the United States (inches, feet, gallons, etc), Fahrenheit temperatures seem to make no sense at all.  Water freezes at a seemingly arbitrary 32 degrees and boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. And Germans, whenever we start talking about temperature, usually poke fun at the Americans for using such a strange system, and then they want to know why.  As if there might just be a logical explanation behind Fahrenheit that will put their queries to rest and clear the Americans on all charges of stupidity.

Well, guess what?  It turns out that a German created the system.  As the shape and sound of the word “Fahrenheit” might indicate, it was a German physicist named Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit who came up with it. I don’t entirely understand the reasoning, but his numbers are awkward simply because of the method he chose to define his units (something to do with brine preparations). And according to one source, part of that method, the method that determined the final scale, was deciding that zero would be the freezing point of salt water (which freezes at a much lower temperature than fresh water, or even ocean water) and 100 the temperature of Fahrenheit’s own body, which turned out to be a bit hotter than the average Joe.  Ha! I might say.  Ha!  Looks like the Germans are the ones with the wacky measurement system.  But no, wait, that’s not right either.  After All, it is the Americans who have decided to keep using it.

Wednesday July 11th 2012, 8:13 pm 2 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,expat life,germany

the au pair chronicles: the swarm

This is post number 17 in the au pair chronicles—and the first new post I’ve written for the series since February 2010. Maybe, just maybe 2012 will be the year that I manage to finish writing up the whole epic tale. If you missed any of the previous installments, you can find an index of the entire series here.

Expats tend to swarm.  It’s a survival tactic really.  If somebody were to drop you in the middle of the ocean, you’d swim for shore.  Except that “shore” in expat terms is “a place where I can meet other people who speak my native language so I don’t have to be so god damned alone all the time.”  Our hive those first few months was an Australian sports bar.  Hard to imagine now.

I don’t remember how we decided on that particular bar, but I remember how I met Britta.  We had exchanged messages on the au pair placement agency’s message board and picked a time and a metro station where we could meet.  She brought another au pair she’d met on the boards, an Italian woman with long thick black hair and big hoop earings.  She was the kind of woman who wears white pants and high heels and a lot of make-up, the kind who visits tanning salons.  But Britta was a jeans and hoodies kind of woman, energetic, from California.  I don’t really remember the details, but I think it’s safe to say we hit it off immediately.

Then we ended up at that bar.  Maybe one of us had googled it.  Maybe we just went for a walk and happened by.  It was a boring place in the middle of downtown with nothing memorable about its decor or its atmosphere.  But there were other people speaking English there, which annoyed me.  I wanted to practice my German, and I sure as well wasn’t going to be doing it with a bunch of drunk Scottish jockeys.  Eventually the Italian had an affair with one of the bartenders—one factor that kept us coming back—though I imagine now that it was really a lack of creativity and the presence of alcohol acting as a magnet.  That and it was within walking distance of both of our houses.

Britta was taking care of two boys a few blocks south of the Cole’s villa.  She lived in the family’s spare room, shared their only bathroom.  But she did have her own balconey.  They had an amicable relationship.  The only au pairs I knew whose families didn’t try to take advantage of them were Americans.  Wait, strike that, my host family did try, but didn’t succeed.  Not being afraid of being sent back home, I asked for money when they asked for extra hours.  They never asked again.  Not so the Eastern block women who I met in my German courses.  But that is another chapter entirely.

Though we eventually expanded our bar hopping into Sachsenhausen—an entire district of bars for swarming tourists and expats!—we kept going back to that Australian bar.  Even after I dragged us off to the Au, a squatted venue where I felt much more comfortable, we kept going back to that fucking sports bar.  Looking back I can’t explain why.  Anything for the swarm, for the sense of familiarity we could claim after having visited it more than twice, a shore fashioned from bottle caps and beer glasses and a shared language.

Friday June 29th 2012, 9:00 am Leave a Comment
Filed under: au pairing,conspiracies,expat life,germany

an ode to mainz

When I first moved to town I didn’t even really like Mainz.  What I liked was the community that I would be living in, and the lack of an hour commute between me and the Beard.  Long distance relationships suck, but I was willing to have one with the city of Frankfurt.  Expats love to hate on Frankfurt, but I love to love on it.  I can see how all the banks and faux New York-ing might put a body off, but it can be quite charming once you take the time to get to know her (as they say in German) “chocolate side.”  But that is really besides the point.  The point is that, this week, I found myself appreciating Mainz, really deeply appreciating it, for the first time since I had moved here almost four years ago.

Sure took me long enough.

It’s not that Mainz is an unpleasant or unattractive city.  Sure, most of it is, architecturally speaking, hideous.  But that’s because most of it was flattened during World War II.  I weep to think that it once looked as magestic as Wiesbaden.  Sniff sniff.  Then again, Germany deserved to get the shit bombed out of it.  They were gassing people alive for being born under the wrong star for chrise’s sake.  Ah well.  Fascism: 0.  Mainz Architecture: 0.  All of the Rest of Us: 1.  Architecture be damned.

Despite the over-arching hideousness of the buildings, Mainz does have its pretty sides: the Augustinergasse (a pedestrian street with henoiusly over-priced stores, but lovely buildings), for one, and the cathedral, for another.  There is even a church here (St. Stephan’s) with windows done by Chagall (which I still haven’t seen with my own eyes).  Besides, who needs buildings to provide beauty when you can take a walk along a river, sparkly in the sun of a beautiful summer day?

The reason that I never really fell for Mainz is simple, a matter of taste really.  There just isn’t that much to do here.  In Frankfurt there are tons of concerts I would love to see.  In Mainz, unless I’m the one organizing them, not so much.  In Mainz there is one vokü, the one at our house every weekday afternoon during the uni semester.  In Frankfurt there are voküs at three different locations throughout the month.  There are two vegetarian restaurants in Frankfurt (as well as the best falafel of all time, as well as the best pizza, Vietnamese, and African).  There are no bars that I enjoy visiting in this city.  Not one single one.  Not so in Frankfurt.  And on and on.  But Mainz does have a couple of things up it’s sleeve, things that I have been enjoying for quite a while now without really realizing it how good I had it.

But last week with the Beard off on a 48-hour work shift, I started going for evening walks.  In five minutes I can be in the middle of a field, listening to the drying rye stalks rattling against each other or looking off into a field dotted with hundreds of blood red poppies.  Mainz is a city in the country.  With a population of about 200,000, it’s still got a (small) city vibe.  (Then again, I come from a “city” with a population of 1,000, so big to me may be small to you.)  But then there are the fields, and the pervading small-town-ness feeling of the place.  Granted, on the other side of the fields I walk through there is a highway (or train tracks, depending on which side we’re talking about), but that was never possible in Frankfurt.  More green, more awesome places to take long walks without having to be preceded by long train rides.  That’s important.

Then there is the vegetable market (Wochenmarkt).  Three times a week in the center of town stands go up selling vegetables from local farms, from across Germany, trucked in from Italy, you name it.  It’s where I do most of my grocery shopping, and let me tell you, the Hausmacher Bratwurst from the second butcher’s cart in the second row is the best I’ve ever eaten.  Every Friday I stock up on milk and yogurt and quark from a farmer in Kerzenheim, buy two Bratwurst, and then fill my backpack with more vegetables than I can reasonably carry.  The people at my regular stands recognize me, and I enjoy there familiar banter.  Much more fun than a trip to Aldi, tell you what.  And according to the internet, there are eight other markets going on in Mainz on a regular basis.  Of course there must be awesome vegetable markets in Frankfurt too, cities usually have them somewhere, but I’ve never been.  If I lived in Frankfurt where would I get my raw milk?

And then there is the singing falafel man.  Frankfurt may have the best falafel I’ve ever eaten in all my 29 years on earth, but Mainz has the singing falafel man.  Just around the corner from the Römer Passage you’ll find him, and if you catch him on the right day in the right mood, he’ll sing you your order.  It’s pretty adorable, and the rest of the menu is pretty sweet (and not expensive) too.

I’ve been enjoying these things for years now, but I never noticed, never noticed that the city of Mainz had actually grown on me, that it was more than our little community up on the hill that was keeping me happy here.  Who knew?

The above photo, which is (cc) flickr user szeke, is the center of the city and the location of the Wochenmarkt.  Looks quite magical there doesn’t it?

Wednesday June 13th 2012, 11:35 am 5 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,expat life,germany

happy birthday, i hate you, goodnight

Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember the au pair chronicles—a serial about how it is that I ended up in Germany and what it was like spending 10 months au pairing for a insanely rich family in Frankfurt am Main. Well, I’ve been busy writing new installments to share with you during operation whirlwind baby. But since a hell of a lot of new readers have become regulars since I first began the series a year ago, I thought I would start by re-publishing the series thus far—both to buy me baby time and to get everyone caught up before continuing the saga. You can find an index of the entire series here. This segment was originally published on February 22, 2010.

The twins birthday party had been chaotic and exhausting. The entire kindergarten class had been invited and Anna and I spent the evening herding, chasing, and picking up after them. It was more or less just like the birthday parties I’d been to as a kid, except they opened their presents right away, as people brought them, and there were different games.

Schlagtopf (hit the pot) is the only one that I remember now, a ridiculous game in which one person is blindfolded and candy is hidden beneath a small pot somewhere in the room. The blindfolded person is then given a big wooden spoon and crawls around on the floor hitting everything with the spoon until she hits the pot. Everyone else sits around and laughs and gives bad directions about where the pot and the candy are.

Now it was Jens’ birthday, and there was going to be a dinner party. We (we being the younger kids and I) ordered Chinese food, and Janet instructed me to give the kids dinner in front of the tv, to keep them upstairs and away from the guests.

The dining room had been laid out for thirty people, all white table clothes and silver candlesticks. I had forgotten to get something to drink, and when I walked into the kitchen it had been transformed: four women in cartoonish white chef hats were crowded around counter and oven, preparing the meal. This, Janet had told me, is what she had spent so many hours on her computer for in the last month.

Guests started to arrive around the twins’ bedtime. Franci went quietly, but Jo was agitated, aggressive. At the mention of bed he’d started throwing toys, toppling the tiny chairs and table where we would paint and draw on rainy afternoons. I got Franci into her pajamas, and then came back to try to get him to talk.

“Jo, you know I can’t do anything to make you feel better if you don’t explain to me what’s wrong. Will you try to tell me what’s wrong? Even if it’s hard?”

At first he didn’t react, distracted in his attempt to tip the wooden play tent that sat in one corner of the room, all the while making the same crashing, exploding sound effects he made when he was playing with his little metal cars.

I sat down on the bed and watched him, repeating myself every couple of minutes. “Maybe if you told me what was wrong I could help.” Finally he got out a few words.

“I hate them! My parents don’t love me. I’m going to burn down the house and run away with the dog.” Five years old.

He threw himself face down on the bed and pounded his fists against the mattress. I patted his back gently. There was nothing left to topple in the room, and soon I was tucking him in and singing him another goodnight song.

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Friday June 01st 2012, 9:00 am 4 Comments
Filed under: au pairing,conspiracies,expat life,germany