13 March 2007

To be hot or cold

About a year ago, I was sitting at home peacefully when our doorbell rang. I answered a bit cautiously, not expecting anyone, and knowing I'd have serious trouble communicating in German, as I'd just began taking classes about a week or two earlier. To my dismay, the man who rang wanted something from me that I couldn't understand, and only knew a few words of English. He showed me an ID, which I guess was reassuring, even though I couldn't have told you what it said or whether it was real or fake. And then he pointed to our boiler, which fortunately for him is immediately inside our door, and indicated he needed to look at it. He probed the boiler with some tool he was carrying and was ready to go, when it occurred to me to ask what would have happened if I hadn't been home. I mean, seriously, what do you do if you work all day outside the home? So I did my best to ask; he appeared to understand and replied simply by hugging himself and shivering. What, no heat for the working class?!

Over time we learned that similar such building inspectors would occasionally require access to your apartment, and they'd always post signs by the building entrace a week or so ahead of time, saying why and when they were coming. You typically have the option to reschedule with them, but shouldn't just ignore their notice.

So just the other day, while we were home sick, we were paid a visit by the city chimney sweep, who checks your boiler (gas powered) to ensure that its emissions are acceptable. Lo and behold, it was the same guy from last year! I was so excited to see him, 'cause he was so nice and friendly, and tried his best to explain things even though we couldn't communicate. And now I could talk freely with him. He remembered me too, which is pretty impressive, since I figure he must go to hundreds or thousands of apartments. And he complimented me on how well and how quickly my German has progressed. It was really reassuring to say the least.

02 March 2007

Leben in Deutschland wird einfacher

That, life in Germany gets easier, for the non-German speakers reading this.

It's just over a year now that Sarah and I have been living in Berlin, and we're finally back here together - after I have returned from business in New York, and Sarah from business in Africa. And I just wanted to try to describe the huge difference that a year makes, how much easier it is now than it was when we first began this adventure. So a little story...

I have dropped my cell phone countless times over the two or so years that I've owned it - remarkably it still works essentially problem free - and recently I noticed that the case was coming open because a small screw was missing. So today I decided to go on a quest to get a replacement. I figured that your standard hardware store wouldn't have screws that were small enough, and I was correct. So when I noticed the model train store - yes, that's a store that sells just model trains - I figured maybe they'd have smaller screws. Unfortunately they didn't, so I stopped by a cell phone store, who told me they could send the phone away for repairs costing only 1.50 Euros, but meaning I'd be without my phone (my baby) for a week or so. Since I didn't like that idea, and was convinced there should be an easier solution, I stopped in a jeweler and watch repair store. There the woman said the screws they had would be too small, but that I should ask at the optician. I did, and finally found the screw to fit, which the nice lady put in and gave me for free!

Now the thing is, a year ago, I couldn't have possibly communicated what I needed. Moreover, my inability to understand where one finds the things one needs - I didn't even know what you called, let alone where to find, a hardware store - would have prevented me from even trying. And more importantly the people at each store I entered nonchalantly today would have acted a year ago like they couldn't possibly be the person who could help me - why would I even come to an optician with a cell phone?! This time around, I was able to communicate my rather odd-ball request, and everyone I talked to did their best to help me, until I finally found a solution.

I know a screw isn't that important, and I can just hear my mom saying, "Oh god, Mike, haven't you read the book 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff'." But you need to keep in mind that this is how everything truly felt to us a year ago, not just the small stuff. Nothing was easy to find and everything we did was hindered by our language barrier. Yes, Sarah already spoke German (our one saving grace), but with enough of an accent and often in search of the right words, so that people would often assume she simply couldn't understand, and would give up on helping us. Let alone the majority of situations in which I didn't have Sarah with me as interpreter. 'Course she'll claim her German basically hasn't improved, and in terms of grammatical knowledge that's basically true, but it terms of daily usage, accent, vocabulary and the like, she's progressed a lot. And, of course, I'm now totally comfortable speaking German, when before I felt like an idiot just saying "Hallo" to neighbors in the courtyard.

What a difference a year makes!

01 March 2007

We've got a new web cam!

As you can see - if you have an updated Mozilla or IE browser with Flash installed - we've got a new web cam! I find the resolution rather remarkable, given that it was only $50 (Logitech QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe). Anyway, I haven't tried other browsers, and I'm not sure what would happen if you don't have everything updated and installed correctly. Nor am I about to try to trouble-shoot all the possible combinations of software that you could have loaded since, as anyone who has tried this knows, it is probably one of the biggest frustrations know to internet-programming man! So if you have problems, you can ask me, but I may or may not be helpful.

Assuming you can get everything working, watch the video (right-click and select "Play"), and let me know by posting a comment below whether you'd like to see future video blogs (vlogs) or just the usual text. On a more personal note, if you have Skype installed, and a decent internet connection, then we can chat with video! Skype works on both Windows and Mac, and is probably the easiest program I have ever installed. Enjoy and I hope to hear from you soon!