Making a life here

ImageEvery now and then our family uncovers little signs that each of us are finding our place in Berlin. We’re surprising others as well as ourselves.

This first one happened in the fall. Our tenth grader, S, was leaving school after a long day steeped in German. She was tired and minding her own business when a group of American tourists came across her and asked: “Can you tell us where the nearest subway station is?”

And S, being tired, not to mention surprised to hear English on the streets of Berlin, was unable to muster the right words in response. All she could manage was to point down the street in the direction of the station and utter the simple German word, “Da.”

And as the small group walked away from her in the direction she pointed she heard one of them say to the other in wonder, “I don’t think she spoke English.”

Which made our family laugh out loud when she told us this, huddled around our breakfast nook of a dinner table in our Berlin apartment.

There are more stories about E, of course, since she is in a local German school and plays with German schoolchildren all day. The kid, simply put, is now fluent.

A few months ago the second graders in her class all had to take a literacy test assessing their understanding of the German language. The test was filled with questions about spelling, grammar, conjugations, and rules of German words.

We learned about this test from Frau Braunig, E’s teacher, during our parent-teacher conference. She said that she had administered the exams, but had asked another teacher to grade them. When this other teacher returned the graded tests to Frau Braunig, she said, “Well, you have quite a good little German student in your class.”

Puzzled, Frau Braunig said, “Really? Which one?” And when the other teacher told her it was E, she was incredulous. “That’s my American student!” she said.

Apparently the little American student aced the test, outperforming the native speakers in her class. We find that rather amusing.

Diemut, the mother of one of E’s friends, recently told us more about E in school. Her daughter and E were in a work group together, creating and later presenting a report on Hasen, rabbits. Her family kept hearing from their daughter about E, the visiting student. Her daughter had told her E came from Madagascar, which was what Minneapolis became in her mind—just another foreign place starting with ‘M’. Diemut, hearing this, assumed we must be diplomats. It never occurred to her that we could be American, because Americans always send their kids to the JFK School, she thought. So when she met us she was surprised. During the presentation on rabbits, she said she did not realize that E was the visiting student because her German is so good that nothing in what she said gave her away as being a foreigner.

And then there’s C. Yes, she attends the American school, the right fit for her in many ways. No one is mistaking her for a German student. For her, progress has come in her independence and navigational skills. Where once she needed her dad to accompany her on the public bus and S-Bahn to school and home again, she now makes the 40-minute trek each way on her own, without complaint. She’s come a long way since the early days when we showed her the way to school and then expected her to embrace her solo commute, but she was not ready to do so. She does it now very naturally, with confidence, and surely these wayfinding skills will serve her well in the years to come.

M is settling into the sabbatical, trying to savor these final months, knowing the college will swallow him whole soon enough. His new practice hall is at the Mendelssohn-Remise, the former home and bank of the Mendelssohn family in Berlin. He’ll be playing a concert there in June, and they’re giving him free access to their grand piano. The Metropolitan Opera online broadcasts and public library operas on DVD bring him a steady flow of new and historic recordings. And his editor has been in touch about revisions to his accepted article. His year has been well spent.

One could say I’ve found my own way here. I surprised myself when talking with a group of rowers last Saturday on the patio over coffee, when I heard myself utter the words, “I see how to make a life here”—because I do. If I were to stay in Germany, I said, I’d make Berlin my home, in Schöneberg, no doubt. I’d take lots of language classes, and I’d get us on the waiting list for one of those garden houses the city makes available for a small sum to city dwellers, a vestige of former times. There are clusters of them dotting the city and well into the countryside; they ensure little weekend getaways where urbanites can have a small plot of land to till, and a tiny three-season house as well. And I’d row with the Ruderklub am Wannsee for the rest of my days.

And so the inevitable is happening, as many of you predicted—just when we get comfortable with the whole living-abroad situation, it’ll be time to come home.

14 thoughts on “Making a life here

  1. climbing bean

    I felt very ‘at home’ in Germany by the time I had to leave and come back to Australia. It was definitely difficult to re-settle. It’s twenty years ago, now, and so much has changed, but I look back over that year I spent there, and it was pivotal for me… I also had the experience of people not realising i was a native English-speaker, too, which was amusing. And then when I got back here, I would accidentally start sentences in German… it’s all an adjustment!

    Berlin in spring is lovely 🙂 Enjoy!

  2. Chris Gable

    A woman on a train thought I was Norwegian (which is funny, because as you know, I’m 1/2 Norweger). But she had no idea I was American. And yes, there will be many tears as the plane takes off. It was kind of uncontrollable for me… On the other hand, I can’t wait for that first scotch of the summer with the Mazullos on your deck! ❤

  3. Joanne Baldassi

    Hi – I just stumbled upon your blog. Very opportune as we are moving to Berlin in July from Canada with our two boys for a sabbatical year as well (if we can find an apartment). I would love to touch base with you about schools if you have time.


    Thank you, Jill, for a wonderful blog.  It’s clear that each one of you has been adapting to your time in Berlin in a very special way — and each one doing so in a beautiful and satisfying way.  You have all shown a wonderful ability to adapt in a new and strange world, and doing it with grace and competence.  I am so proud of you all, and know that these learnings for each of you will have a dramatic impact on your future.  I so look forward to hearing first-hand about your experiences in Berlin (and Europe!).             Love, Dad (and grandpa)

  5. lilymarks

    I like this post. It’s so surprising and wonderful to finally be comfortable in a new place.

  6. travelgalcindy

    Jill – So good to read your adventures in Berlin and hear how well you have adapted. I’ll look forward to seeing you when you get home (quitting my job, so embarking on a new life myself), but I wish you would be in Berlin longer because I love reading your take on life there and because I think if I were to move to Europe, Berlin would be high on the list (despite my inability to learn the language)! You are my surrogate in Berlin! — Cindy Carlsson

    1. Jill M. Post author

      Thanks, Cindy! I appreciate your comment and am intrigued to hear about your next adventure, post-job. I would recommend Berlin to anyone, even people who butcher the German language as badly as I do, because Berliners are so accommodating (and there are abundant language classes one could take…).


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