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Fünf Jahre October 4, 2006

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
…to keep in with my new instant tradition of having post-titles auf Deutsch.

So yes, five years. But without the plan. How has it happened? Five years (or thereabouts. I have blocked out the precise arrival date, but I know it was just after September 11th as I was even more petrified than usual of flying and everyone in Prague airport looked like a potential terrorist, and then, as we flew into Berlin, there was turbulence galore and we had far too good a view of the Fernsehturm) in Berlin. When my Londonness felt more solid, I used to quote with glee that whenever I did leave the Big Smoke, it was never for more than two years. Paris: 2 years. St. Petersburg: 2 years. Stoke-on-Trent: 2 years. Two years into my Berlin stint and I’d have happily been saying the same thing. And yet here I am, a full three years later.

So, five years. Had I been writing a week ago, I’d have nicely been able to call it a seventh of my life. Do double-figured fractions exist? A seventh and a bit or a seventh and a thirty-sixth doesn’t have the same ring. And only a wanker could even think of saying five thirty-sixths. Or 13.88(and so on)%. But five years it is. An oodle of time. Ripe for analysis.

Well, the words ‘disaster’ and ‘unmitigated’ do leap to mind when I try to think how to sum up the lion’s share of my 30s. But I want to be encouraging to my fellow immigrants, and know that B. is probably having the same dilemma as to whether Berlin should be home or not, Ed would like to be able to say that he had ONLY been here for five years, and Radio Free Mike sees how his views on America in the German press are in sharp contrast to some of his compatriots’. But let us not despair as we settle in for the nine, wet, grey months ahead. Berlin’s a lovely place after all.

I wrote a post a hundred years ago, but think I deleted it in a fit of pique, on anti-tips for the immigrant. You know, what NOT to do if you’re thinking of emigrating to a country where you know no-one, don’t know the language, don’t have a job and choose a region with 99% unemployment. The less daring or more perspicacious amongst you might have seen the pitfalls before buying the ticket (and dealing with German bureaucracy), but oh no, not BiB, always happy to risk his sanity for the sake of an adventure.

Well, the language handicap is definitely pitfall number one, and lest you want to be like Stavros, minus the smell (in my case), then that really is what needs to be tackled head-on. But the grey matter ain’t what it used to be, and I fear I am destined to master this great tongue about as well as Jane Birkin has mastered French (vache espagnole, indeed) or, worse, as Becks (and the thousands of his compatriots peopling unfortunate pockets of the Spanish coast) have mastered Spanish. Which is all right, in a way, but I never expected to be THAT type of immigrant, tucked away in my own little one-man community, cringing all the while when I hear Germans moaning about integration. I was always amazed at Mrs.-Hussain-from-number-32-when-I-was-growing-up’s poor command of English – “You like? You no like?” she would say, unsurely, as she thrust a new-born child in to my hands – but of course she was tied to the house and bringing up a brood of children. To my equal astonishment, I have turned into her. Formative years indeed.

But, darlings, if any 20-somethings are reading this, quickly go and do your emigrating now when you’re young and everything seems like a piece of cake. Leave it till the day after you’re 30 and you’ll end up living in the most unlikely of places and wondering how you got there. Which is not to say it ain’t fun being an émigré, but change and upheaval are a gazillion times harder the older you get.

So will I be saying, “Next year in London,” ere long? Probably not. I feel I’m in it for the long haul now. Up to my neck in Berlinness, tax numbers, Aufenthaltsbewilligung, Krankenversicherung and Weltschmerz. And luckily enough that’s all in a place I now like well enough. But just in case you’re thinking of giving up the day-job and casting your fate to the four winds, make sure you catch the current blowing you in the right direction.



1. Bowleserised - October 4, 2006

Dear heart, you sound glum. Will we see you tomorrow at the Stammtisch? Or should we have a disgusting big brunch on Sunday?

2. BiB - October 4, 2006

(Just being distracted by Radio 4 reporting on the Royals and their addiciton to bingo!) Am fine, just a little unimpressed with my life at 36 with nothing to show for it but a falling-apart passport and a ton of debts. But perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it (and I could try to pay off the debts, of course).

Yes, I think I’ll be Stammtisching tomorrow, and look forward to seeing you (and others) there.

3. MountPenguin - October 5, 2006

I have a theory, based on observation of my Other Half™, whom I dragged here from somewhere much further East, that this new-fangled Internet thingy reduces exposure to the local linguistic environment and slows down the absorption process. Back when I fetched up on the cobbled shores of this fair city it was five years before I’d even heard of the Internet, and a decade before it became affordable enough to use for more than about five minutes a day. The only streaming media was the World Service on FM, and even that had a fair whack of German language programming, and reading an English newspaper involved parting with a wodge of DM or a trip to one of the central libraries (and more often than not a long wait to get hold of the current issue). Which made it all that much harder not to learn German. (And we had to make our own entertainment while gathered around the Kohleofen in the dim light of a 40 watt Narva bulb, etc. etc.)

4. BiB - October 5, 2006

Ooh, Mount Penguin, now I’m wondering whether you’re an Anglo-post-Soviet couple too. Are you? Are you?

Yes, quite right about the internet. Although I’m glad I have it, of course, as I wouldn’t be able to work at home otherwise (though I often think that’s a mixed blessing too, though I do remember, with amusement and horror, that I sometimes used to have texts COURIERED to me. The extravagance!). Old folk in the UK are always amazed that I’ve even heard there’s been an election in the UK this year and are dumbfounded when I tell them I have almost as much access to the BBC here as they do there. But, yes, the internet, though a wonderful tool, has its downsides too.

A Narva bulb? Are they from that grim town on the Russian-Estonian border?

5. leon - October 5, 2006

I may emigrate, though only after I’ve proved to myself I can actually make money in London first. Berlin will probably have been utterly gentrified by then so it’ll have to be Bucharest or Sibiu no doubt.

6. BiB - October 5, 2006

Without your parents noticing, quickly get a job in the city. You’d be raking it in in minutes, I’m sure. Then it’d be Sibiu for you. (Mind you, no very clear signs of rapid gentrification here yet. You might still be lucky if you don’t leave it too long. Though one of the stag-do Englanders IS thinking of buying a flat here. As was a previous guest of mine. I’ve never thought of it for a single second.)

7. Ed Ward - October 5, 2006

One nail you hit smack on the head, BiB, is the language thing. I started learning German shortly before I turned 40, and I think by then the interior of my brain had Tefloned enough that nothing whatever stuck. I can still roll out acres of French, learned as a bored 12-year-old in school, but I panic when I have to use the phone here, and as for reading the papers, fahgeddaboudit.

So: advice to the young. Learn a bunch of languages early before your brains start wearing out. You never know if you’re going to have to use them. Hell, what were the odds I’d ever have to use French in suburban New York? But now…

And the worst irony of all is I wanted to learn German in high school (but of course it wasn’t offered), and then in college I flipped a coin between German and Japanese and came up with Japanese. I lasted two weeks.

8. Neil @ In Actual Fact - October 5, 2006

Sechs Monaten!

What about the poor remigrés BiB? Those ones who return and use the internet and satellite TV to not have to bother with post-1996 UK culture and can watch as much RTL2 as they want? And ask yourself, bearing in mind where that ticket is to, would you integrate with the locals? Also, after 6 months would you buy a one-way ticket to Germany because living here is actually making you quite, quite bitter. And it was only 16 quid.

9. BiB - October 5, 2006

Ed, from bitter experience, you have ALL my heartfelt sympathy. I’m PETRIFIED of the phone in German. Mind you, I’m petrified of the phone in Russian too. And in English, come to think of it. Let’s have some beer and English practice this evening.

Neil, from bitter experience, you have ALL my heartfelt sympathy. I’m PETRIFIED of Stoke-on-Trent. I’m worried I might still be able to remember the name of the five towns (is it five?) that make it up. Erm. Well, there’s (oop) ‘Anley, Burslem, Tunstall… I know Newcastle-under-Lyme refused to join the party… No, can’t remember the others. Get yourself on a piece of transport to Germany sharpish. Aren’t you a chemicals person? I know of at least TWO large pharmaceuticals firms in Berlin. Surely they’d be longing to give you a job.

10. MountPenguin - October 6, 2006

Hi BiB, thanks for the invite, unfortunately I was up at ridiculous-o’clock that morning communicating with distant lands via the interweb tubes and had already conked out. Next time though (is there any pattern, i.e. 1st Thursday of the month?)

Sorry to disappoint but my other half doesn’t originate from any part of the former Soviet Empire, though her home country does sort of have a border with part of it.

I do admit though to not being able to do without the Internet myself, as it has enabled me to make a career move which involves being able to work in my undies while listening to reruns of “Just a Minute”.

NARVA was the GDR’s brand of lightbulb (they used to be produced in the factory complex next to Warschauer Strasse station, the one with the brick tower with a 5 storey glass tube on top, now “Oberbaum City”), I picked up a couple of dozen for a few pfennigs at the Stasi’s closing sale at the end of 1991. Not that much of a bargain, as it turned out 60 watts by GDR measurement was a lot less than good quality Western watts.

11. MountPenguin - October 6, 2006

On the language thing, Internet or not, the key thing is to “get” a foreign language as early as possible. If you haven’t had the fortune to have been blessed by multilingual parents or an international childhood, get to a foreign country ASAP for at least a year and try not to speak any English during that time. Doesn’t matter how much time you’ve spent learning foreign languages at home, unless you have intensive experience of a language in its home environment they tend not to stick. At least for me, YMMV: I had nine years of French at school and I still can’t bonjour my way out of a paper bag. I was actually advised not to pursue German any further at school, having spent several years failing to understand the subtle difference between accusative, genetive and dative, but fortunately ended up here at the tender age of 18 and after a few months it suddenly “clicked”. Not that I’ll ever be able to pass myself off as a native speaker (I think there’s something with the vocal cords which become inflexible after the first few years of life), but I’m glad I did it then rather than suffer a few more years of the unspoken Anglo-Saxon belief that foreign languages are the work of the devil and only masterable by witchcraft or by dint of being foreign in the first place.

And once you have that all-important second language, it is true that it makes it so much easier to learn more because you’re now able to think intuitively outside of the monolinguistic box. Even after the dreaded 30, or whatever age the brain-cells are said to solidify into an inflexible mass. (Will report back when I’m 40 to see if that statement holds up though).

12. BiB - October 6, 2006

Mountpenguin, my addled brain is working as feverishly as it can to work out which part of the world your Other Half™ comes from. Sort of a border, you say. Sea-border, perhaps? She’s Japanese! Or tiny land-border? She’s from North Korea! Or any other range of possibilities…

Where do you get to listen to old Just a Minutes? With Kenneth Williams? The best go ever was by Clement Freud, natch, and his subject was, “The best game.” Without deviation, hesitation or the other one, he began, “The best game is when two people go into a room with a bottle of whisky, drink the contents thereof, then one of them goes outside, knocks on the door and the other has to guess who it is.” (Don’t suppose it lasted a minute though.) I once told this to a happy old alcoholic friend who then claimed to have played it himself.

The Stammtisch is irregular, but I’ll get news to you of the next one somehow… (Or contact Radio Free Mike and he’ll let you know himself.)

13. MountPenguin - October 8, 2006

BiB, your first guess was correct, although you missed out on Alaska as a possibility.

“Just a Minute” can be found on BBC7, e.g. here (oh, jolly good, I see they’re running Dead Ringers again too).

14. BiB - October 8, 2006

Hurrah, though the episode I have managed to bring up has got the loathsome Paul Merton in it. Can’t bear to listen. I now have an unnatural urge to hear Kenneth Williams perform.

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