My dress-up rules: no to feathers, yes to weapons.

As I sat in the schoolyard of my kids’ school in Berlin last year, a blond boy wearing a feather headdress walked past me. Then another one. Then several girls in buckskin dresses with face paint and headbands. It was Karneval – a dress-up day – and these costumes made my stomach lurch. White kids dressing up as ‘Indians’? Haven’t we already figured out that that’s not ok?

We had left our home in Toronto to spend a year in Berlin so this was our first Karneval and we didn’t know what to expect. In the end, the kids said it was just like Halloween but without the candy and the costumes didn’t have to be scary.

It looked pretty scary to me, however. And before I even noticed all the feather headdresses, I had been nearly run over by a mob of cowboys, Jedi knights, ninjas and police officers brandishing every manner of gun, sword and sabre. They shot and slashed at each other. They aimed at innocent bystanders. I witnessed one pretend suicide.  My reaction was one of deep distaste. ‘No weapons!’ was the Halloween rule at the kids’ Toronto school where pirate swords and ninja nunchucks are confiscated by teachers and returned to parents at the end of the day with a look of righteous admonishment. Here in Berlin there was the unmistakable whiff of caps being shot off in the school yard. I felt like marching directly to the principal’s office and giving her a piece of my mind. How could they condone this level of violence?

Then a new wave of armed children swept past me and I saw the absolute glee on their faces as they chased and ambushed and shot each other. I decided to watch for a little while and take this in rather than try to stop it. I sat surrounded by the happy mayhem and started to relax. This was a good lesson for me. Things are different in Germany and even when I see something that strikes me as wrong, perhaps I should seek to understand it before taking action. I toned down the indignation.

When I looked around again I could see that there was no question this was just a game. The things in their hands were just toys. I thought of the tragic stories you hear about kids with real guns and the real damage they do, either intentionally or by accident. But that only happens in places where real guns are available. These kids can’t holster their cap guns and wander into a department store to buy real weapons and ammunition. Here, a kid with a gun isn’t going to be mistaken for a shooter and get one between the eyes from a police sniper. While we Canadians aren’t nearly as well-armed as our southern neighbours the proximity of a gun-mad culture has rubbed off on us and we’ve whisked toys out of children’s hands in response. But in Berlin gun play is still play. Shooting isn’t harming and as I watched the kids I began to see how obvious this was. There was no fear on the faces of the children who were taking bullets or being de-limbed by light sabers. The popping of caps was echoed by laughter, not screams.

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I had walked into the schoolyard and been horrified to see both feather headdresses and an arsenal of weapons. But in a matter of moments, my horror at the toy weapons had fallen away. If I sat and watched some more, would my discomfort at seeing white children dressed up as ‘Indians’ fade too?

They’re just kids in costumes. And one could argue that they were not really dressing up as First Nations people; they were dressing up as well-known characters from German storybooks like Winnetou from Karl May’s books set in the American West. Couldn’t the kids dress up as their favourite storybook character? There were plenty of kids running around as movie characters, mostly from Star Wars. But the Star Wars universe isn’t real – it’s made up. Jedi knights and sentient droids don’t exist. But Native Americans and First Nations people do exist. The storybook story felt awfully thin.

I looked around and put the costumes into different categories. First there were the characters that don’t exist in real life: mermaids, Jedis, zombies, skeletons (yes, I know we have skeletons but they don’t usually walk around on their own like that). The second obvious group are animals: cats, rabbits, tigers. Fine. Then there were the kids dressed up as someone doing a particular job: police officer, pilot, cowboy/girl, pirate, flamenco dancer, soccer player. The princesses could arguably go here if one allows that inherited positions are also jobs. The last category were costumes that depict a whole people. There was only one example of that category on the schoolyard: Indians.

It’s ok to dress up as things that are not real or as animals or as a person doing a job. But dressing up in a costume that depicts an entire people – invariably an essentialized, stereotypical version of a people – that’s not ok. And the reason it’s not ok, even on this schoolyard in Europe where there weren’t any First Nations people around to offend, is because it perpetuates a view of indigenous people as stuck in a moment of time – in this case, the moment of westward expansion of European settlers into North America’s central plains. It erases the vast diversity of indigenous cultures and disregards their presence in, and contributions to, contemporary life. It allows these German kids to believe that indigenous people are just characters from the past or from storybooks; all sharing the same look and pretty much the same outfit.

I stayed quiet in the school yard. I didn’t march into the principal’s office and demand that the toy weapons be confiscated and that the mini-Indians be reprimanded and made to change into their gym clothes. But I did come away thinking that, for me, dress-up day had turned out to be much more than it first appeared. It had taught me something very unexpected: that a realistic looking plastic rifle is less dangerous than a soft leather headband gilded with feathers.

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I hate those dolls

We went to the toy section of the department store; each child lugging a heavy purse full of coins. We had come to spend their allowance. Malli picked up the biggest box of Lego he could find and was shocked to learn that he had only about a fifth of the money needed to buy it. And Akka headed straight for the shelf of Monster High dolls.

They both took ages to decide. I tried to direct Akka’s attention towards the Lego and the arts & crafts stuff and even the little annoying stuffed animals but she kept popping up in front of the Monster High shelf like it had her on a retractable leash. I tried to keep my eyes wide and not react with a scowl when she showed me what she chose. I hate those dolls.

(Hating particular dolls and then enabling my daughter’s enthusiasm for them is nothing new for me – see here.)

Malli finally settled on a small Lego hovercraft and started counting out his coins. I apologized in advance to the cashier for the mountain of change they dumped on the counter.

To be fair, Akka played with that doll all evening and all the next day – long after Malli’s hovercraft was fully assembled and forgotten. And for the moment, it still has its forearms and hands attached. Others like it in the toy bin have been less fortunate.

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A few days later I came in to find her watching something on my laptop. One of our saved movies, I supposed. But she looked up at me and said, “I googled Monster High!”

She was watching the horrible dolls in animated form! Several thoughts flooded my brain at once:  How do I set up parental filters on my computer? What else pops up on the screen when one googles ‘Monster High’? How do I get her away from it? Why do they have to cross-market everything?

But I let her watch. And she kept turning the screen, wanting to watch it alone.  She knew I’d hate it and wanted to enjoy her show without my judgment. I feigned disinterest for a while and then said breezily: “Hmm.. All the girls in that show just seem to care about what they look like and getting the boys’ attention.”

She turned with a scowl. “Mum! I already know about all that!”

“So what do you like about the show?”

Shrug.

“Is it scary, since they’re all monsters?”

“No”

“Is it funny?”

“Yeah! Frankie made a gingerbread man and then the gingerbread man took a bite of its own hand and then she said ‘No eating!’ and then the gingerbread man said ‘But I’m so delicious!'” Big grin.

Maybe she’ll turn out ok.

When I was little, visiting my cousins, my aunt once came into the room and switched off the TV when she found us watching The Flinstones. I was mystified. “We’re not allowed to watch it,” my cousin said. I couldn’t think why. What was wrong with the Flintstones? We were allowed to watch all sorts of other cartoons; what was wrong with that one?

A few years later I could see it. Wilma’s catch-phrase is chaaaaarrrrge it!. She is forever trying to get her hands on Fred’s credit card so she can shop till she drops. Wilma and Betty complain about their husbands going out bowling. They are gossipy wives who endure their husbands’ antics. My lawyer aunt who made at least as much money as her husband, hadn’t changed her name, and was inclined to undertake repairs and renovations with her own power tools was having none of it. I get it now. I wouldn’t want my daughter watching that nonsense either. But I watched it. I watched it a lot. And it never occurred to me to identify with Wilma and grow up to attach myself to a burly bowler with a credit card. Instead I grew up to hate Monster High dolls.

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Embarrassing my kids at the cross-country races

I expected to be the subject of much eye-rolling during my children’s formative years but I didn’t think it would start so soon. My boy is only seven but I can already be an embarrassment to him. Yesterday was the kids’ cross-country meet. Hundreds of kids from all over the city running together along the beach of Lake Ontario, then through the park to the finish line. The kids were nervous but I was just hoping I could acclimatize myself to the joyful vision of small children running in time to stop welling up before either of my kids ran past me. Yes, children’s sporting events make me cry (for the record, no, I’m not surprised I’m an embarrassment).

I watched the early races while my kids waited in line for their age groups to run. I stood about 100m from the finish line and cheered as kids ran past, walked past, held hands with their friends and jogged past, lost their shoes and went back for them, or just ambled to the finish line watching the birds. But whenever a kid seemed to run out of steam I’d yell “Keep going! You’re so close! The finish line is just around the corner! You can do it!” And most of them did.

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Malli ran his whole race without walking and I managed to cheer him on without weeping which means we both won. Then he came to watch with me while the bigger kids raced. I kept up my enthusiastic cheers and encouraging yells until he pulled on my jacket and rolled his eyes towards the tree line. “Mum…,” he said. “What?” I asked. “You don’t want me to cheer?” He shook his head.

Ok, fine. I stopped yelling quite so much. We still clapped and we still shouted “Go! go! go!” and tried to snap photos whenever we saw kids from his school go by but I toned it down while we waited for Akka’s turn to race.

Then Malli pulled on my sleeve again and pointed, shyly. I looked and saw a little girl in a red shirt slow down to a walk. She looked exhausted. “What?” I said to Malli. “You want me to cheer her on?” He nodded. So I’m embarrassing but I’m not entirely wrong! Is there a name for this stage? Where I can mortify my kids while still being needed?

“Keep going!” I yelled while Malli clapped. “You’re so close! The finish line is just around the corner! You can do it!” She glanced at us. She looked at the trail ahead of her. She narrowed her eyes. And she ran.

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Encounters with German bureaucracy, Episode 4: confirming that the kids are in school

A few weeks into the school year we got a letter from the school next door to our apartment. It listed the kids’ names and ages and required that the children present themselves at school. They had already started at a different  school but we had to prove they were enrolled somewhere to keep the send-your-kids-to-school police off our backs.

Bureaucratic task: Go to the local school with proof of the kids’ enrollment elsewhere. Each time I walked past the school I thought of this task hanging over me and made yet another mental note to drop in. I wanted K. to go and take care of it – his German being much better than mine – but he was rarely at home when the school was open and there was a deadline looming. I inflated the task to ridiculous proportions in my mind; ineptly putting together German phrases and practicing how to say “do you speak English” in German. Finally, the day before the deadline, I collected the paperwork and went downstairs to the local school door. It was locked. There was an intercom button and a speaker. I had pictured myself limping by with German and relying heavily on hand signals and the enthusiastic thrusting of paperwork across a desk. I was not at all equipped to make my intentions known through a faceless intercom system. I aborted the mission and went back upstairs.

The next day – deadline day – I headed down again with my plan more fully formed. I would linger – but not creepily – near the gate to the playground at lunch time and slip in as someone came out. It worked! Inside, I approached a small group of teachers and showed them the letter. Drawing on the phrase I had practiced endlessly, I managed: “Entschuldigung, wo ist die Schulbüro?” My pronunciation must have been impeccable because the answer I got went on for a solid half-minute. “This way,” she said. “Then you turn right and go through the red door. The troll at the door will present you with a riddle. If you solve the riddle he will lower the drawbridge and let you over the moat. Inside – be sure to avoid the cauldrons of hot oil – you must scale the slime wall using only your teeth. At the top you will find the Schulbüro. The door will, of course, be closed.” It’s possible that her directions didn’t resemble this description at all but I have represented the length of her response accurately.

Thankfully her directions-monologue was punctuated with pointing. So I went that way. As soon as I was out of sight I flagged down a group of three kids and asked them the same question. “Come,” they said. I followed them up the stairs and through a labyrinth of corridors (no trolls, no cauldrons, no slime) to the school office. The door, of course, was closed. The kids knocked on the door and opened it (see? I was right! That’s what you’re supposed to do!).

A woman seated behind a desk scowled at the kids and said something about them not being allowed inside at lunch time. I thanked the kids and smiled at the woman. “Do you speak English?” I asked, in my perfect German. “Nein,” she said. I brandished the letter. “Ich habe…” I stammered. Then I enthusiastically waved my kids’ school IDs. She caught on, became friendly, and with a few keystrokes, called off the send-your-kids-to-school police.

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Encounters with German bureaucracy, Episode 3: the Tagesbetreuunggskostenbeteiligungsgesetz

Two weeks in to our year abroad and we had a bank account, bank cards to withdraw money, and residence permits. We had paid our rent and the first instalment of school fees (late). But the school fees were high that first month because we had yet to acquire our Tagesbetreuunggskostenbeteiligungsgesetz. That’s right: we needed some paperwork that was described using one word that generated a four-letter acronym (TKBG). The TKBG, or daily-shared-cost-of-care-law is referred to in English as the daycare voucher. It entitles us to some public subsidy for the portion of the children’s school day that takes place after lessons. Without the voucher, we were paying the full unsubsidized amount that first month. We were assured that our account would be credited once we produced the vouchers.

This one worried us. Before leaving Toronto we had tried several times to figure out whether we would even qualify for the child care subsidy. Before confirming our kids’ places at the school we had asked for some kind of assurance that we would get the subsidy. It came, but vaguely. There were conflicting documents showing how much the child care portion of the day would cost without a subsidy. One document reported a manageable number; one didn’t. The month that we paid for with no voucher cost us €800 and it wasn’t going to be possible to keep that up for nine more months. So we approached the voucher application cautiously and thoroughly. We went to the municipal office armed with our tax summaries from the year before. I had invoices from past clients and my business registration information. K. had letters from his university showing that he worked there and that they were continuing to pay him during this year of research leave. We had been told by friends that we had to prove two things: that we worked enough hours to need child care; but that we didn’t make enough money to pay for it.

The stakes were high and it did not come as a comfort when the guy at the reception desk of the municipal office didn’t even know where to send us. He told us to go up to the third floor and so we did. There were no signs bearing words that we could recognize that might indicate we were in the right place. There were corridors with closed doors. By now we had learned that closed doors in Berlin didn’t necessarily mean ‘do not disturb’. They might mean that, but they don’t necessarily. Not in the way that a closed door in an office in Toronto would mean, without a doubt: do not disturb. Here, it seemed that people simply closed their doors when they worked. And if you wanted to speak with them, you knocked and went in. And they may or may not be pissed off when you did. This was unsettling for two new arrivals hoping to avoid paying €800 per month in child care fees.

We wandered around a bit, and found an open door. We excused ourselves, and showed her our paperwork asking where she thought we ought to go. She sent us to another floor where someone there helpfully suggested we go back down and ask at the reception. Finally, after a thorough self-guided tour of the building, two friendly women debated with each other before agreeing that we were in the wrong place. What we had to do was leave the building, go through a connected lobby and up the elevators into another building. On the third floor of that building we found clear and present signs of being in the right place. Kids were bouncing on chairs while their parents waited with paperwork. Signs directed parents of kindergarteners to one area and parents of grundschülers like us to another. It felt like success; just finding the right office! We forgot for a moment that someone in this office still had to decide that we worked too much but made too little money to pay for child care.

We found the waiting room. It had people waiting in it. By now we didn’t expect the waiting system to be obvious but we knew enough to know that there was indeed a waiting system. So we lingered looking hopeful until a man seated on the ground with his son told us that there were number cards on the table. We thanked him and took a number.

When our turn came we followed a very petite, severely dressed woman into her office. She looked stern and uncomfortable in her tiny skirt and very high heels and tight blouse. K. started to speak in German and she quickly asked whether English would be better. Yes, please. Then she smiled and launched into perfect British-accented English and was only too pleased to help. I relaxed a bit; realizing that I kept expecting people to be abrupt and mean and they kept surprising me. This woman couldn’t do much for us, however, because our information was not yet in her computer system. She accompanied us down a long corridor, knocked on a closed door that looked like all the other closed doors, and introduced us to her colleague who would get all our data inputted.

This woman took one look at our pile of papers and seemed not to question that we worked enough hours to need child care. So our paperwork was soon complete and we headed out with our Tagesbetreuunggskostenbeteiligungsgezetz in hand.

And here’s where we got lucky: the cost of child care, even when receiving the lowest subsidy, is not €800 per month; it’s half of that. The conflicting reports we’d had about the fees were both right – one told us what we’d pay without a voucher and one told us what we’d pay with a voucher but no subsidy. Or something. In any case, our school fees became manageable and we added the TKBGs to our growing pile of bureaucratic successes.

 

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Encounters with German Bureaucracy, Episode 2: Banking

Today’s episode: Banking in Berlin – or – Realizing that while people are helpful they are not overly nice about it.

Day 1: Opening a bank account. First we were turned away from two banks because we didn’t have the municipal registration papers. But the bank staff directed us to the town hall where we could get ourselves municipally registered. We got on the u-bahn, stopped for a quick snack for the kids, and found that the office had closed an hour before we arrived at 2pm on a Thursday.

Day 2: Back to the town hall during opening hours and we were met by a friendly woman who did not speak English but was gracious enough to speak German very slowly so we could understand the steps we had to take. We would have to return with the completed forms and take them to another section of the station the next day.

Day 3: K. went back to the town hall with the required papers, was given our municipal registration papers, and promptly opened a bank account. Progress!

Several days later we went back to the bank to accomplish a few things. We had to pay a bill, get a second bank card for me to use, and withdraw some cash. We sat down with the person K. had met to open the account, told him what we wanted to do, and he set to work. He looked away from us at his screen and typed things. He printed papers and then typed more things. We were silent.

“Where is the bill?” he asked. We handed it over. More typing. “How much do you want to withdraw?” We told him.

After a few minutes he looked up and seemed confused about why we were still sitting there, staring blankly. “Ok,” he said, “You pick up your cash over there.”

“And the bills?” I ventured. “Have they been paid? Is there a receipt?” They had. There was. He printed it out.

“And the second bank card? Can we do that?”

“It’s already ordered,” he said. “It will come to you by post.” But he never even asked for my name, I thought.

We stood up and went to collect our cash. I felt unsettled. He was very polite and certainly very efficient. He did each of the three things we came in to do. So why did it feel incomplete? I realized it was because there had been no pleasantries; no small talk and no reassurances as he was carrying out our requests. I wanted to be pulled along as he worked – I wanted to be involved, somehow, in these banking tasks carried out on my behalf. I imagined that in Toronto that exchange might have gone more like this:

“Hi there folks, what can I do for you today?”

“We’d like a second bank card and to pay these bills and withdraw some cash.”

“Great! Let’s start with the card. Same account? Same address? Ok so I’ve ordered it and it will arrive in the mail in a few days. Then you’ll get your PIN in a separate letter. So once you have both if those you can go ahead and use your card. If you need to get cash before then just come on in and see me and I’ll sort you out. Now what’s next? Paying bills? Sure, let me see those please…ok so these are now paid. Here are your receipts. The funds should clear today so those are all set. The cash machine is over there. You can use your card to withdraw whatever you need. Is there anything else I can help you with today? Nice weather we’re having, eh? Hot enough for you?”

Do I really need all that chit chat? Am I so steeped in North American customer service norms that efficient, polite service alone seems insufficient? Upon reflection there’s something very refreshing about not filling every silence with (nearly) meaningless pleasantries but I sure did notice their absence.

The cash machine worked. The bills were not late. The bank card arrived in the post. And I started to learn to stop needing every bank teller, shopkeeper and service worker I encountered to demonstratively like me.

Encounters with German Bureaucracy, Episode 1: Residence Permits

Reflecting on our year abroad I bring you the first in an occasional series, Encounters with German Bureaucracy. In today’s episode we tackle the residence permit:


One of our first tasks after arriving in Berlin was to get residence permits. For this we traveled to the offices of the Auslanderbehörde which translates as the Aliens Registration Authority. It was a daunting prospect and we had been warned that it could be onerous if not downright unpleasant. The Auslanderbehörde sits next to the river in an industrial area at the edge of the central city. I pictured a space with a waiting room and a row of people behind glass windows but I grossly underestimated the scope of alien registration in Berlin.

The office occupies a sprawling four-storey complex around a central courtyard. A sign at the entrance directs aliens to separate sections and floors based on their citizenships. There is a whole wing dedicated to processing applicants from Turkey. We took ourselves to the wing of the Americas, Oceania and Central and Southern Africa to wait our turn. Walking up the stairs we passed a man in handcuffs being led down by two security guards. K. and I exchanged a look. We each took a child by the shoulder and steered them around the group; hoping they wouldn’t notice the handcuffs and make some loud remark about robbers or bad guys in the echoing staircase. A lesson on citizenship, asylum and deportation for another time.

We found a long hallway of closed doors and then waiting room full of benches with numbers flashing on the wall. Surely we are meant to wait here but how do we get a number? I tried to catch the eyes of the couple in the room, hoping that they would give us a clue but they were busy feeding their newborn and likely distracted by the uncertainty of whether all three of them would get to stay in the same country. After a few minutes a woman came out and ushered us through a door where we finally found a person behind a glass window. This person sent us to a different waiting room.

Again, benches, and numbers on the wall, and a closed door. Emboldened this time, we opened the door to find ourselves face to face with a frowning woman who was pointing at her watch.

“Excuse me, Can we speak in English?” my partner asked in German.

“We are closing now” she answered, also in German.

“We are here from Canada,” he pressed.  “We want to apply for a residence permit.”

“If you want an appointment the next available time is in six weeks.” she said. “Or you can come back when we’re open and take a number and wait. We start giving out numbers at 6:30 tomorrow morning.” She started to turn away.

“We will come back tomorrow,” I said hurriedly, speaking in English. “It’s no problem. We only want to know what we need to bring with us.”

The woman softened very slightly and handed us four copies of the application forms. Then she listed the documents we would have to provide: photographs, proof of health insurance, our passports, marriage certificate, the kids birth certificates. I made a weak effort to explain that Canada has common-law marriage but managed to communicate only that no, we don’t have a marriage certificate. She gave me a withering look but didn’t seem too put out. I remained hopeful that despite the illegitimacy of our children we might be allowed to stay. Hopeful enough to push a bit further:

“If we complete all the forms and get all the documents can one of us submit it here tomorrow? Or do all four of us need to come?

“All four of you need to come” she said.

Hearing this, our six-year old let loose a wail of anguish and threw himself against the counter. Our eight-year old sighed and slumped against me.

I propped them up, smiling apologetically, embarrassed by their rudeness. But strangely, it was not K’s effort at speaking German nor my accommodating meekness that won this woman over; it was our children’s dread at the prospect of having to return to her place of work. She smiled, leaning over the counter. “They don’t like it here?” she asked. “They’re just tired,” I said. “It was a long walk.” She nodded. It was a lie, of course; none of us liked it there.

She chuckled at the kids, then busied herself photocopying one of our passports. “What time do you want to come tomorrow?” she asked, “eight o’clock?” She wrote 8:00 am on the photocopy. “Come here at eight tomorrow,” she said. “Come right to this room with your documents. I will pull four numbers for you.”

“Really? Thank you! Dankeschön,” we said, and hurried out. The kids collapsed onto the benches in the now empty waiting room. “We have to come back?” they moaned, “whyyyyyyyyy?” The woman came out of her booth, locking the door behind her. She smiled at the kids again while we tried to distract her from their scowls by muttering more thank yous and see you tomorrows in broken German.

The next day we got up early, still jet lagged, and made the long trip across the city. The same woman was again cheered by our children’s contempt for the place and processed our paperwork  helpfully. Within a couple of hours we walked out into the morning sun with four German residence permits glued into our passports.

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