Monthly Archives: January 2014

Janus

JanusIt’s official; we’re halfway through our time in Berlin. M has studied the calendar backwards and forwards and determined that this week is it; from here on out we’re on the other side.

To celebrate I’m traveling halfway around the world, literally—I landed in Melbourne last night. The rest of my family will be in the UK soon enough as well, though the four of them will be staying with friends south of London, while I’ve gone a wee bit farther than that. Continue reading

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Houseplant

golden pothosThe last time I changed jobs, it was about this time of year—bitter late January, with temperatures hovering around zero. On my first day of work, I drove in and double-parked in front of my downtown office building so I could carry my things into the front hall. I brought my planning books and family photos and light-rail posters and my one glorious plant. It was a typical office plant, Golden Pothos variety. Under the fluorescent lights at the U of M it had flourished and the vines hung thick with leaves and cascaded down my shelves. I wanted this in my new office from day one.

To this day I can’t explain why I didn’t wait until more moderate temperatures arrived. As I carried the plant in, I could see the leaves freezing before my eyes. They turned a deep shade of green, crystallizing before me. I ran up the stairs into the front lobby, but that short journey from my car to the front door was too much for my poor plant. I inspected it in the narrow elevator and set it on my desk; I had no choice but to cut away the limp parts. I tried to keep as much as I could, but as the warmth of the office kicked in the leaves turned to watery mush. I trimmed and trimmed it back until it was nothing but a network of dense stems and one large, surviving, untouched leaf. Continue reading

Needle and thread

needle and thread travel sewing kitWe’ve been here long enough that our clothes are wearing out. We allowed ourselves one suitcase apiece, brought only our favorite clothes, and we packed for all four seasons. But summer ended about a week after we arrived, and the chilly autumn and moderate winter have led us all to return to the same long-sleeved shirts, jeans and socks again and again.

We don’t appear to be doing anything beyond sitting, standing, and walking, yet somehow the frequent wear has caused many articles to fall apart at the seams. Continue reading

The missing “F”

“You’ve got a much better chance of getting into Harvard than getting your essay into this book.” –Boykin Curry, editor, Essays that Worked: 50 Essays from Successful Applications to the Nation’s Top Colleges

Essays that WorkedSitting on a bus on the way home after a mid-January row on the Wannsee, it occurred to me that I made a wrong turn about 25 years ago. I thought about the MA in English I completed after college, how it should have been an MFA.* I was not close to understanding who I was or what my strengths were, and I did what I thought was the right thing at the time, though it was really a suppression of myself and the work I longed to do.

My college application essay was one of the first personal essays I ever wrote. Bucknell University’s question was innocuous and far-reaching, something to the effect of “Tell us about yourself.” I wrote about the last hour I spent with three children I was babysitting, before I started my first job in a fast-food restaurant in my neighborhood. The youngest child had spina bifida. The father, incidentally, was a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer who would go on to write Black Hawk Down. I wrote about how eager I was to move on to a more substantial work commitment than babysitting, but how in the moments when I said good-bye I realized that this had been real, meaningful work all along.

Unbeknownst to me, my guidance counselor had included my essay in a batch of my class’s college application essays and mailed them off to an editor in response to his query, as had counselors from high schools across the country. I will never forget the afternoon the phone rang in our apartment where my mother, sister and I had recently moved after an abrupt separation from my father. I was wearing my favorite purple turtleneck, faded from constant wear. I took the phone from my mother and listened to the words of the editor, hardly believing him when he said that my essay would appear in his book. I asked if he would send me a copy, but he said I could find it in any bookstore by fall. My mouth hung open in astonishment and a dark stain appeared where I drooled on my shirt. Continue reading

Quality control

spatulaThe other day I lifted the spatula off its hook by the stove and almost plunged it down the side of a still-warm apple cake when I saw to my dismay that the spatula was slick with grease. Ever since I started letting the children take care of the dishes from start to finish, things like this have been happening—pans clean on one side but sticky on the bottom; whisk missing for days because it was hung in a new and surprising location. Quality control has gone out the window.

I almost walked into the girls’ room to say something about the spatula, but stopped myself. I thought of the whisk and how my words of surprise at finding it again almost led to mutiny among the girls. “I’m not doing the dishes anymore since I can’t seem to do anything right,” I was told, and I began to see that I need to let go a bit. Continue reading

A brush with bureaucracy, Part III

Berlin visa office

Outside Haus A, before the surge

We arrived early, or so we thought, with 10 minutes to spare before the visa office opened its doors last Thursday morning. The outdoor plaza was already teeming with people. There were two separate crowds before each building, Haus A and Haus B. The lines snaked around and were rather unclear where they started or ended. There were baby strollers in the midst of it all, and many anxious looking people trying to press forward to improve their spot in the line.

This, our fourth visit to the Ausländerbehörde, would be our last, we vowed. We had come by car, driven by our German friend, Hanna, who was glad to be of help but also as eager as we were to get this thing settled. (See Part 1, Part 2). Continue reading

Cash economy

eurosFunny things happen when you paint yourself into a corner. Like, say, if you decide at the beginning of your year abroad that if Germany is not a credit-card friendly place, then you’re going to live in a cash economy. What you don’t yet perceive is that while cash is fine for small transactions like coffee or a meal out, kontos are the way to go for recurring costs, school fees, doctor visits, and so forth. A konto is a local bank account, and we simply don’t have one.

We found conflicting information about Americans opening a konto both online and from our German contacts, and the pileup of misinformation, anticipated fees, and red tape led us to throw up our hands at the outset of our stay and say fine, cash it is, occasional wire transfers will suffice. Continue reading