Tag Archives: Berlin

Very short stories II

A very short story about jetlag:

We have left Toronto and have just arrived in Berlin. The kids are six and eight and they are jetlagged. On the first night they fall asleep shortly after dinner. On the second night I fall asleep shortly after dinner while they stay up for hours ripping a tissue box into tiny pieces. On the third night she is too hot, he can’t sleep, she cries because she misses her friends, he spills water on their beds, and I drink most of a bottle of wine. They’re not just jet-lagged; they’re scared. They don’t know anyone in this city; they have to start at a new school and they can’t understand what the other kids are saying on the playground. After midnight I drag both of their mattresses to the floor of our bedroom. He snuggles in quickly. I drape my hand over the edge of the bed and she falls asleep holding it. After a few moments I start liking them again.

A very short story about being the new kid:

She is pouting and having crying spells and I tread softly not knowing whether she needs a hug or needs to be left alone. It’s always alone first and then hugs later. She doesn’t know why she is sad. After a week I lose patience with the crying and the tummy aches and start telling her to just go lie down if she feels sick. At the playground she climbs on my lap and lolls her head around, whining that she’s bored. Then she lies down on the bench and says “I think I need some friends here.” School starts tomorrow.

A very short story about friends:

It is the first day at the new school and the boy has made a friend. She is holding his hand when I pick him up. We hang around so they can play outside where he offers her sips from his lemon drink. I glance around wondering if her parents are going to show up just in time to see some sweaty new kid offering their daughter backwashed lemonade. The next morning he is nervous again and hangs on to me. The new friend is sitting in front of a colouring page. He doesn’t recognize her because she is wearing different clothes. She pops up from her seat and pulls him away by the arm. She shows him her paper and says should we colour this together? He nods and follows her. She is like a magical gift of a human being.

 

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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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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What I did all year

“What are you going to do in Germany?” people would ask. We left our Toronto home for a year and moved to Berlin. My partner had a sabbatical year and we wanted to spend it somewhere else. We found an apartment to rent, found a school for the kids for grades one and three and found tenants to live in our Toronto house. “And what are you going to do while you’re there?” my friends would ask. “A whole year off? Wow – you’re so lucky. You’ll have so much time to do whatever you want. Whatever you love.”

Right – that’s what I’ll do during our year away. Whatever I love doing – my real passion! Perfect.

But first I was busy figuring out how to live in a new place. There were bureaucratic tasks involving passports, bank accounts and school fees; our apartment was furnished but we needed more bedding for visitors; the kids needed specific closeable plastic envelopes to carry homework and hausschuhe which are not shoes but slippers. First I had to get all that out of the way and then I’d get down to doing what I loved.

One morning, after we were reasonably settled in, I dropped off the kids and found myself standing on the sidewalk in front of the school with nothing to do. I had nowhere to be. I had no immediate errands to run. So I walked home. It took about 45 minutes. I started to do this regularly and tried lots of different routes. I would sometimes stop on the way for a quarktasche and tea. Or I would sit in a park and answer emails. Or I would take photographs. A few times I hopped on a tram just to see where it went. Soon, when my schedule was truly, actually, completely clear, then I would figure out what to do with my time but for now, I was still exploring.

I did work – on ongoing contracts for clients in Canada. But there weren’t enough of these to fill the hours and in my line of work landing new contracts from an ocean away wasn’t feasible. So while I had work, I also had a lot of free time.

I began to let small distractions become big ones. I rode the transit system far and wide on the slightest pretense. In search of a new dinner idea, I headed way out of town to pick up frozen Swedish meatballs – having discovered the route during one of my tram rides. When Hanukkah rolled around I spent a whole day scouring the city for candles and dreidels.

Errands that would take 15 minutes of my time in Toronto stretched into half-day projects; not because they had to but because I would enhance the task; deciding to see whether the prices in the suburban mall were the same as those in the central shops when the kids needed winter boots; using a burnt-out light bulb or a spent battery as an excuse to wander through the big home-improvement store that I would otherwise have no reason to visit. Each time I finished a book I went to a new bookstore. I browsed every bookstore in Berlin with an English book section.

I grocery shopped slowly; examining what each shop had to offer; developing preferences for some stores over others. I figured out that the bread the kids like is from one shop while the muesli I prefer comes from another. I bought a used bike, found bike baskets, filled them with the groceries and carried it all up five flights of stairs. With four eaters in the house, plus frequent visitors, buying only what will fit in two bicycle baskets meant that I bought groceries every day. I went sightseeing. I visited tourist landmarks. I found suburban lakes equipped with walking paths from the transit station through the woods to the beer garden.

I hosted. His parents, his sister, my mother, my sister, my father, friends from Toronto and London. One after another, they came. Some for a few days, some for a month or more. I kept a list of places to see. I drew must-sees on to the transit maps and became an expert at advising the best routes.

Some days just formed themselves. Once, while putting away the dishes, I broke a wine glass. I looked up to realize that we were down to three from the original six that came with the apartment and an option for the day became clear. I dropped the kids at school, got my bike and rode through Berlin’s former-airport-turned-park to the store to pick up new wine glasses. Exercise, errands, and sightseeing all in one. I might have started to do what I love that day but I couldn’t because the glass broke. So my passion would have to wait.

Sometimes I would play solitaire on my phone. A few times I even contemplated staying on the u-bahn for a few extra stops just so I wouldn’t have to put a winning game on hold. Then I’d click my phone off and jump out at the right station with a sense of shame and a sharp internal admonishment to stop wasting this opportunity. Stop squandering this year by whiling it away comparison shopping and staring at a smart phone. Do something.

I mended all the ripped knees in my son’s pants by hand. I searched for new eyeglass frames. I worked a bit, and wrote, and read news magazines from cover to cover. I found places for us to stay when we went on trips. I bought gifts for all the kids who invited mine to birthday parties. I tried to ask for gift receipts in German but was offered gift-wrap. I sat and held hysterical children until they calmed down enough to tell me that they hate drama class or they miss their friends back home or their feet no longer fit in their shoes and in fact they never did fit ever. I finally finished knitting a scarf that had been sitting idle for ages. But the kid no longer likes green and I ran out of yarn before it was long enough and now it makes a bulky cowl for a well-dressed doll.

Even when I was busy I always had a nagging sense that I should be doing something more. I would oscillate between relishing the freedom and flexibility of my days and agonizing that I was being foolish, letting this gift of a year slip through my fingers. Sometimes I felt confident that the thing I was supposed to be doing – that thing that I love that I finally had time for – would reveal itself. But as the months wore on doubt crept in. Maybe I don’t love anything. Maybe there isn’t anything I really want to do. Or see. Or accomplish. Or learn. Maybe I don’t have a thing.

Then a child would get sick or a family member would come to visit or we would go on a short trip and I would be busy with everyday life and forget for a while that I wasn’t doing anything.

About six months in things got quiet. All the visitors had left. We were months away from the next planned trip. The weather turned cold and the days were short. The kids had their school routines all figured out. I couldn’t put it off any longer: this was the time. This was the blank slate time that I had; that I had to use. It was now.

Now I could see that there wasn’t going to be one, clear project that would define my Berlin year. I wasn’t going to go back home with a confident one-sentence answer to the question ‘what did you do in Berlin?’ I wrote a book! I learned perfect German! I learned how to use that architectural design software. No. No distinct, compelling, relevant-yet-fun project was going to present itself. I thought of throwing myself into several different endeavours but I didn’t. I had the time but I didn’t use it. Not that way. This felt like a major failure. I felt defeated and embarrassed not to have a quick answer when people asked what I did with myself all day.

But as the days started to lengthen again I realized that I was going about this all wrong. What was bothering me was not how I spent my time but what people might think about how I spent my time. If I was honest, I enjoyed my days; most of them. I didn’t really want to sit inside writing a book or staring at a screen finally figuring out AutoCAD. So I didn’t do those things. So, fine.

Answering the question “How was Berlin? What did you do all year?” deserves more than a one-line answer. If I’m not arriving home with quick and easy proof of a year well-spent, is that so bad? Will my friends and colleagues have their own one-line explanations for how they spent their time while I was away? Perhaps I became too pre-occupied by what is only a bit of lazy conversation: “How was Berlin? What did you do?”

I’ll tell you what I did: I lived in Berlin. I lived there. For a very short, very fast year. And it was a good year. I do not wish I’d used it differently. I do wish I had come to the realization earlier that the way I spend my time is not a matter I need to defend. I had a lot of time. It was mine. I spent it mindfully. I remember it fondly.

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