Thursday, 29 May 2008

One Of Our Cars Is Missing!

Not just one, quite a few actually.

So we finally land at East Midlands Airport at midnight, expecting to just pick up our car from the car park and be reunited with our cats in 45 minutes or so.

What we hadn't anticipated was that East Midlands Airport might have lost our car! Long stay car-park six is being resurfaced so rather than miss a buck, EMA are running a system where you go to car park seven, leave your keys with the attendant, and they park it for you in some far-flung corner of the airport. So when you return, you go to their Customer Services (sic) hut to collect your keys, and your car will be waiting for you.

Except it wasn't.

For a few people, EMA couldn't find their car-keys. They found our keys alright (eventually), but nobody there had a clue where our car had been parked. They sent patrols off around the airport grounds to see if they could see our and other people's cars. Meanwhile the queue got longer and longer, and the disgruntled travellers got more and more irate. At one point a Police patrol car arrived; I tried to report a stolen car (well, what do you call it when your car isn't where you left it and no-one knows where it has gone), but they said they were there not to arrest the incompetent EMA staff but to keep public order if trouble broke out. Well that's just great isn't it? Innocently try and go through airport security with too-large a tube of toothpaste and you get the armed response Police team wanting a word with you, but mislay thousands of pounds of somebody's automobile and they don't want to know.

It must have cost EMA dear that night, not least in customer satisfaction. One guy was put up in a hotel at EMA's expense until they could find his car. After three-quarters of an hour we were at the stage where EMA were going to pay for us a taxi home, and deliver our car to our address, when eventually they found our car.

Our advice is, at least until they have sorted long stay car park six out, either book well in advance online for car parks 1-4 (they were already fully booked when we tried), or use one of the local Castle Donnington car parking services. Don't trust EMA with your car or they may lose it!

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Zweiterbesichtigungstermin Basdorf

Basdorf Markplatz

A second viewing of the house in Basdorf (not to be confused with its Nottingham anagram Basford).

This time we had a more critical look: all the walls are covered in artex and need re-plastering; the sockel needs sorting; most of the floors need tiling or carpeting; the terrace is unfinished; there are few light fittings; there's no shower; the bath in the Keller needs removing; usw.

But, we still like the house, and the village. This could be the one! After the look around (which took over an hour again - we're getting our money's worth out of the Makler) we took the Heidekrautbahn (which means 'heather train') up to Wandlitz. We didn't explore far, but this is obviously a resort town; they even have buckets and spades and inflatable rafts for sale. There is a bathing beach which you have to pay entry to (we didn't), and a nice cafe where I had the best cheese sandwich so far in Germany (someone please tell the Germans about cheddar!).

In the afternoon we headed for the Biergarten in the Tiergarten and had a celebratory pizza with a glass of Pauliner hefe Bier. Note for future reference: take the 200 bus and get off at the Norwegian Embassy (Norwegische Botschaft). Do not, I repeat DO NOT, wander around the Tiergarten for a couple of hours in the hope of stumbling across the Biergarten by the lake. It's not going to happen, just like the half dozen other times it didn't happen.

Suitably refreshed, we slowly weaved our way back to the Ostbahnhoff to pick up our luggage and made our way back to Schönefeld airport.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Mühlenbeck and Basdorf

Mühlenbeck - doesn't it look tranquil?

Two more houses to see today.

First though, observations about the DDR Ostel we are staying in. You certainly can't miss it, located in a Plattenbau block of flats painted acid colours of bright orange, yellow, and lime green. It's close to the Ostbahnhof, and the West Side Gallery of graffiti on one of the last remaining stretches of The Wall. The Fernsehturm looms in the near distance. The Reception promises much, with a 70's decor, a large portrait of an SED apparatik, and a TV showing a loop of old DDR news. The apartment though is more IKEA than DDR. A few strips of garish wallpaper are hung behind the bed, there is a comfy three-piece suite in brown nylon, and a stereogram with its guts taken out. But the floor is laminate and the seventies-era chandelier has energy-saving light-bulbs. There is a balcony with a view of Hellweg (a kind of German B&Q), and of the courtyard below covered with sand and with a beach volleyball net. The bath/wc is next door and shared with the other four rooms on this floor, which was a bit distracting when somebody took a shower at six in the morning. I wasn't expecting a museum piece, and I could have taken cheezy chintz, but this was all so, well, soul-less. With a bit of imagination and not much cost it could have been so good, but ...

Anyway, the first house to view today is in Mühlenbeck, north of Berlin. On paper (or on Google maps anyway) this looked like a rural idyll. In reality the village was very busy with traffic, and the house for sale on a bend on the L30. Our poor cats wouldn't have lasted five minutes. Also a beck ran along the border of the plot which smelled strongly of something not very nice. On the plus side, a cafe in the village did a nice cup of coffee and rhubarb cake, and I saw a stork nesting on top of a chimney. There were also lots of gardens with free-range chickens and goslings, so Suki would have enjoyed herself there. On the negative side, well, the traffic. And the noise from the traffic. And the house was dark from a very overgrown garden. And the traffic. Strike this one we think.

In the afternoon we looked at a house in Basdorf. Another Einfamilienhaus north of Berlin but a big difference. The first thing to strike you is how neat, tidy and ruhig Basdorf is. Walking to the house was like walking through a holiday village: all well-laid out, clean, and gepflegt. Exploring the town first we found a newly built market square with, joy of joys! a Biomarkt - selling soy milk and veggie stuff! And a pet shop! And a bowling alley! (ok, scrub the last one). I saw one bit of graffiti - a swastika, with a line through it thankfully - but otherwise everywhere looked as pristine as the village in (the sixties cult TV series set in Porthmerion) The Prisoner (ominous?). The house needs rather a bit of work to rectify the DIY errors and half-completed projects of its previous owners (including replacing a missing door to the living room - how could they lose that?), but otherwise fitted the bill. It has a large if rather unkempt garden, a fitted kitchen (Einbauküche), a sizeable guest room, and a Keller you can comfortably stand up in (with a half-fitted bath in - don't ask me why). Location-wise it is on the edge of miles and miles of forest and National Park, and just up the road is the holiday-resort-on-the-lake-town* of Wandlitz, second-home to many politicians. So, what's not to like? Well, there is the Heidekrautbahn railway running four times an hour through the back-garden. Much better than the busy main road at Mühlenbeck, and you have to expect compromises in life - nothing is ever perfect. Besides, I could always take up train-spotting.

* see, you can create compound nouns in English too!

Monday, 26 May 2008

Zeuthen and Falkensee

Zeuthen Rathaus

Today we had two Besichtigungstermine; one at Zeuthen South East of Berlin on the Zeuthener See in the morning, the other at the other side of Berlin in Falkensee in the afternoon.

The Zeuthener Haus is in a gorgeous location. The ten minute walk from the station was pleasant and the house is located near the edge of a wood where we saw a red squirrel. The house is a semi-detached in a small plot of land overlooked by the neighbours (bad), but of very high build quality with lots of windows and under-floor heating. The problem is that it is not fertig (completed), and would require approx. 35,000 Euro to finish off. The Estate Agent didn't speak a word of English, but I think we muddled through!

Afterwards we had a walk through Zeuthen, which is a nice-enough town, to the lake edge which was beautiful, if a bit breezy. Applying the 'would Mums, Dads and visiting friends like it' criterion, we decided yes, though there was a lot of graffiti. Most of the graffiti was ANTIFA (anti-fascist organisation), which we couldn't decide if that was a good or bad thing; were the residents strong ANTIFA sympathisers, or did Zeuthen have a right-wing reputation and was being targetted by ANTIFA? Googling for Zeuthen council's political make-up it seems that in 2003 at least, the majority parties (after the independent 'Bürger für Zeuthen' with 6 seats out of 18) are the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) with 4 seats and the PDS (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus) with 4 seats ( Merkel's CDU had 3, The ecological Grüne 1); so, some left-leaning folk around here.

The walk from the station to the Falkensee house was not so good as it was beside a busy, noisy, dirty road. Thankfully the house was set back from this road, but on a dusty un-tarmaced track. The house itself was surprisingly roomy and well-built. It was peculiar in that it was advertised as a semi-detached (Doppelhaus-Hälfte), but it was divided in half top-and bottom, and we would have the bottom half. On the plus side, the floor above is occupied by an elderly couple the women of whom is English. On the down-side, the arrangement of rights of way across the small amount of land were a bit complicated. Certainly worth keeping in reserve though.

Back in the DDR

Once more we are back in Berlin, hurra!

It took some getting here though; the late afternoon flight by Ryanair kept us delayed at East Midlands airport for an hour or so, meaning we missed the last RB/RE (at 22:55) airport express into Berlin. Instead we headed for the S-Bahn, but because of work on the line we were diverted to using Ersatzverkehr (alternative transport), a word that consistently depresses our spirits. A bus took us to a station, where a train took us a few stops, where we got on another train which took us just one stop, where we got on another (ok, the wrong) train to another station, from which we got to Ostbahnhof near the DDR-themed Ostel.

When we eventuallty arrived at the Ostel at 00:10 we got an icy welcome at Reception from a woman who whilst probably being too young to be an authentic DDR relic, at least had been studying the part. Tightly drawn-back hair, arching pencilled eyebrows, she remonstrated us that Reception closed at midnight. But the delayed flight . . . the Ersatzverkehr . . . No, we should have phoned to say we were going to be late. 

Anyway, we were allowed to check-in and climbed the echoing concrete steps to our fourth floor room. Exhausted we fell into bed, under the gaze of a portrait of some high-ranking SED guy, maybe Erich Honecker. Lots to do later today!

Friday, 23 May 2008

Planet Germany LOL!

I have just finished reading 'Planet Germany' by Cathy Dobson, and what a delightful book!

The first thing that strikes you is that it is written in short narratives with a subject heading, just like a blog. And indeed a bit of googling and I discover Frau Dobson does keep up a blog herself. I wonder if I should have saved my money and just read her blog but, much as I've tried, it is hard to read an online blog in the smallest room or in the bath without risking electrocution. I would suggest she could have taken the blog analogy a step further and written her book in reverse chronological order; there is an unexpected pleasure in coming across a blog and starting to read it backwards, and finding explanations in the past to later puzzling entries. Sort of like Time Team digging down through the strata of history. The blog format encourages you to read just one more entry, just one more entry, and like eating a stack of Pringles, before you know it you've finished the book and yearning for more. I predict many more books will have their genesis in the blogsphere and be printed in this format. There may even be a resurgent demand for diary-type books. I do hope so.

Sorry, but Planet Germany doesn't have an exciting narrative arc; no driving plot; no dramatic cliff-hangers, conflict and resolution. Rather it is the day-to-day life of an English expat and her family, cats and neighbours, more autobiographical than fiction. There are minor tragedies and triumphs, everyday disasters and successes. Just like life really. The narrative has the intimacy of being privileged to be allowed to read someone's diary, or of being sent letters from overseas from a dear friend. And like any diary, it doesn't need to be by an Ann Frank or a Samuel Pepys to be gripping; truly we all have interesting stories to tell.

Frau Dobson's USP is her window on living amongst the Germans. She observes their idiosyncrasies without being patronising, and never (OK, rarely) stoops to stereotyping. She writes unselfconsciously, wittily and with warmth, and there are many LOL moments. There is an integrity and authenticity to her revelations, and the character sketches she draws of those around her make me feel like I've known (and loved as family) these people for years. As much as revealing the German character, this book also reveals the English character, particularly through the bitingly accurate observations by Cathy's German friend and business partner Brigit (please, please, more of her in the sequel!).

Writing so candidly must have it's downsides though. I wonder if Officer Georgeous has read this book and recognised himself? Has Karl-Heinz realised he is being taken advantage of (if he can remember)? What do the Meerbusch Mothers think of their depiction? What do Frau Dobson's children think of the narration of their vicissitudes of growing up? It is the dilemna of the blogger, how much to reveal to the world. I've strived for anonominity here in my blog to protect the innocent. But to be truly authentic it's inevitable that people will recognise themselves. Very brave of Cathy is all I can say. I don't think there will be libel actions brought by clients who had such a bad cold that they couldn't smell the cat diarrhea (arm Hannah cat!), but who knows.

Why this book is offered as a perfect partner to the execrable 'A Year in the Scheisse' on Amazon is unbelievable. Whilst one is a cynical hack-work, the other is a heartfelt love-letter to Germany and to life. I don't believe I need to say which book is which.

There is a German word 'gemütlich' which I think we don't have an exact English equivalent of. It encompasses homeliness, coziness, wellbeing, belonging, family, joviality, and warmness. Planet Germany ist gemütlich.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Back to Berlin - Nochmals

This coming bank holiday we are flying to Berlin again. I'm beginning to be on nodding terms with the passport guys at Schönefeld. If anyone wants any advice on which train to catch from the airport, how to get a Tageskarte, where the Geldautomaten are, which are the best sandwiches in the forecourt ... drop me an email. I even know where to go in Berlin if you leave your backpack on a bus from the airport (that was one slightly tipsy flight! Blame Rammstein fans. I managed to get my backpack back BTW).

We will be staying at a themed hostel, Das DDR Hostel, or Ostel, near Ostbahnhof. This supposedly recreates in authentic detail the experience of staying in an apartment in the days of the communist regime, situated on the sixth floor of a concrete Plattenbau. Looking at the photos, it looks to me more nostalgic of the kind of home I grew up in seventies Britain. Apart from the portraits of DDR leaders of course. Ours was a socialist household but we didn't go that far, not even photos of Harold Wilson. I wonder if the room will have bright orange and black swhirly-design bry nylon carpets like our front living room? As long as they don't have a Stasi guy listening on our conversations. Pity the poor bloke though when I go to sleep and start snoring. This was a scene cut from 'The Lives of Others' I think. Anyway, whether it's the worst place we've stayed at, or the most fantastically quirky, I think it will at least be memorable.

We have four house-buying opportunities to view on Monday and Tuesday, with second viewings scheduled  (hopefully) on Wednesday. The German word for an appointment for a  house-viewing is Besichtigungstermin. Notice how I used about 30 characters in English (' an appointment for a houseviewing')  to describe a 19 letter German word; how efficient is this? In fact, I reckon that if I created a word amalgamating the 1,000 most common German nouns and remembered THAT, I could deconstruct it when necessary and have available any word I want. How easy is that to learn a language - you only need to memorise one word!

Fingers crossed then that we finally find something we like and can afford. If not ... well, we'll keep trying and trying despite the vissitudes of a schlecht pound / euro exchange rate because we are determined to live in (or near) Berlin!

Saturday, 17 May 2008

What a Load of Scheisse!

I've just finished 'A Year in the Scheisse: Getting to Know the Germans' by Roger Boyes. I read it in an evening; not because it was a riveting read, but because it was so unchallenging.

It's title invites comparison with Stephen Clarke's 'A Year in the Merde', but whereas that book was both genuinely funny and insightful about living in France amongst the French, Boye's book has no sense of place or of cultural tectonic plates rubbing together.

Dubious though it sounds, the conceit on which the book is based has the first-person narrator desperate to marry a German woman for tax purposes. He needs the money urgently so that he can put his widowed and impoverished father back in England into a nursing home; the alternative is his father coming to live with him and, as the narrator puts it, sponge off him.

If this all sounds a bit amoral, then be aware that the narrator is a journalist specialising in hunting down stories connected, however peripherally, with Adolf Hitler for a British newspaper probably in the mould of News of the World. On arrival at Schönefeld he lies to a custom control officer, uses a worthless Turkish coin to get a luggage trolley, then embarks on a mission with his English journalist hacks to track down a watercolour being auctioned that might have been by painted by Herr Führer, all in the first few pages. So we know from the onset that he is a dishonest individual. That he then cynically two-times two women, and cheats in the Berlin marathon to try and impress one of them, comes as no surprise. He evinces no sympathy in the reader, and we have no reason to care what befalls him. He is a devious, work-shy, cowardly, unethical, car-crash. The only reason to read on is a ghastly horror at how more despicable the author can make him.

The other characters in the book struggle to achieve two-dimensions between them. Lazily-written cartoon sketches, they do not develop believable personalities and remain crass stereotypes. They bump by chance into one another up to a 'surprise' ending which is so well signposted it might as well be an exit on the Autobahn.

The subtitle of the book is 'Getting to Know the Germans', but we don't really learn anything about them at all. Supposedly, according to book cover, this is a best-seller in Germany. Indeed, when I was last in Dussmann bookstore in Berlin, this book was piled high in the English language section. I can only imagine that Germans read this book to confirm their prejudices that England is a nation of underhand, unfit, cads with a fixation on World War 2. Meanwhile, Boyes confirms our expectations that Germans are cold, supercilious, angst-ridden, health-obsessed, and with a conviction that they are Übermensch.

There should be a humorous, warm-hearted book out there where we really do get to know the Germans, but this isn't it. I suspect that the book that does is 'Planet Germany' by Cathy Dobson, which I have just started reading as an antidote. If it is, I'll post a review here shortly.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Vorsprung Durch Technik

Looking forward to moving next to these Germans ....

... or maybe not.

Friday, 2 May 2008

It's German Rhyming Slang!

No not really. I don't think German has rhyming slang, but I could be wrong. Many liminal groups have a secret language to identify themselves to each other and to reinforce their seperateness from the mainstream: from Elizabethan thieves' cant, through the secret language of Chinese women (Nüshu), to polari (British gay slang), and of course London Cockney rhyming slang. So why not sub-groups in Germany?

Apart from pinching words from other liminal groups (for example, a lot of cant, polari, and Cockney words are from Romani), rhyming phrases where the second rhyming component is hidden are common. Quite a few Cockney rhyming slang phrases were actually first coined
by the Navvies - the Navigators; a band of itinerent heavy-construction workers, many foreign (especially Irish), brought together and moved across the country to build first the canals and then the rail networks. One example of many is Billy O'Gorman = foreman.

Anyway, I'd be interested if anyone can give examples of German rhyming slang.
LEO reports that Birne (pear) is slang
for the noggin
i.e head and I wonder if that is because Birne rhymes with Gehirne, brains?

But, just for fun, here are some suggestions for a German rhyming slang:

Under (my totally made up) German rhyming slang, piglets are Angela Merkel (=Ferkel).
e.g. “Es gab viele kleine Angela Merkel in der Hof.” - there were loads of little Angela Merkels in the farmyard.
(I think this has caught on already, given the number of
google hits 'Angela Ferkel' gets!)

And you don't pull on a pair of trousers, you pull on your Karls (Karl der Große (Charlemagne) = Hose).
e.g. “Ich kaufte mir todschicke Karls.” - I bought myself some groovy Karls.

Strangely, in this new Slang, to give somebody a dog and bone is to give them a punching (der Hund und Knochen = das Lochen), not a phonecall.
Mensch 1: "Ich gebe dir einen Hund später!" - I'm giving you a dog later!
Mensch 2 (Missverständnis): "Also, gut! Meine Telefonnummer ist 030 45 6 - OUCH!"

If you insult someone as a dope-head, you could call them a Claudia (Claudia Schiffer = Kiffer; pot-head).
e.g. "Du Vollclaudia!" - you total Claudia!

When you raise a glass, using German rhyming slang you should say 'Helmut!' (Helmut Kohl = Wohl = zum Wohl!)

And Cockney 'apples and pears' have a very different meaning in Neue deutsche gereimte Slang; Äpfel und Birnen = Dirnen (prostitute).
e.g. “Sie sieht aus wie ein Haufen von Äpfeln.” - she looked like a pile of apples.

Internet Denglish can also be adopted; if somebody bangs on at length about a pet peeve in a forum, they could be said to be having a Willy (Willy Brandt = Rant). If the Willy gets out of hand, you might adminish other posters to "Fütter nicht die Sophie!" (Sophie Scholl = Troll; but that's rather a slur on the name of a very brave woman).

Further suggestions welcome, but for now I'm off down the rub-a-dub-dub
for a kitchen sink and a packet of salted Nissan huts.