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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Pfifferling und Makrel: Saturday at a Berlin market

This is the time of year -- late July and early August -- when my home mountains of southwestern Colorado start getting hammered by the monsoon cycles and its regular afternoon rain showers. That's enough to coax the chanterelle and porcini mushrooms from the cool, moist forest floor, and to lure the mushroom maniacs into the hills. It's also enough to make a Colorado boy in Berlin a bit homesick.

Happily, we have a homesickness cure here: The weekly market. Just about every neighborhood, or at least every district, has its own market in some prominent platz or plaza at least once a week, usually on Saturday morning. Today, we found our favorite thus far, the Winterfeldtplatz market in Schöneberg. Dozens of tents and booths huddle around a grand brick church, peopled by peddlers selling everything from sunglasses to sausages, flowers to cappuccinos. Nearly every produce seller has a big bin of chanterelles -- Pfifferlinge* in Deutsch -- with their earthy aroma and apricot-like color. We planned on just picking up enough shrooms to make a risotto (the scorching temps gave way to cool rain and cloudy skies, making the idea of standing over a pot of cooking rice tolerable). Then we got hungry.

So we got some kind of middle eastern spinach-cheese pastry thing, and some pancakes smothered with sugar, cinnamon, plum sauce and vanilla. And then we found the fish: Sizzling trout and mackerel and trout cooking on a grill. The chef recommended the whole mackerel, and he was right on. Wow. We were told that this was an imported delight; Berliners are known for smoked or pickled fish (indeed, one can find nearly any variety of fish, beautifully smoked), while the Bavarians specialize in grilled fish. The only complaint is that we didn't find out that the guy two booths down was selling a nice chilled white wine by the glass until AFTER we finished the fish. Next time. But while we ate, a very nice woman told us about another booth that sold homemade bratwurst to die for. We just had to try some. On the way, we saw some cookies made of nuts, and coriander and cardamom and dipped in chocolate. Couldn't pass that up.

Finally, we got a bagful of chanterelles for a mere 2 Euro. Homesickness: Cured.

*Pfifferlinge/Chanterelles apparently came into season here right when we arrived, and the things are as ubiquitous as donerkebap stands. A lot of restaurants even have Pfifferlinge menus, with chanterelle pastas, salads, and schnitzel -- pounded, breaded, fried veal -- smothered in shrooms.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Zermürbungskrieg: The bureaucratic war of attrition

I'm an immigrant. Or at least I'm trying to be. Most people in my situation might prefer to be called an "expat" because it sounds cooler (i.e. sitting in Parisian cafe plotting revolutions and writing novels) and doesn't evoke frightened masses huddled in the creaky hull of a ship catching the first glance of Manhattan, or desperate folks dodging cacti in the desert in 100 degree heat in order to get landscaping jobs in even hotter Phoenix. I am not writing this in a Parisian cafe. I do not feel like an expat. So call me an immigrant. And being an immigrant means going through the immigration office.

It should have been easy. After all, I'm married to a German, and these Germans are efficient, folks, right? The trains all run on time; and they make some killer cars and appliances, which are actually manufactured here, for the most part, not outsourced to some up-and-coming third world country. And opening our German bank account was one of the easiest, most pleasant such processes I can remember*. So why would getting my residency permit be any different?

We were told to arrive early. So we left the apartment at 6:30 a.m., jumped on the U-Bahn, grabbed a really bad coffee in the subway station, got on the S-Bahn and disembarked at a stop in a strangely institutional part of town. We walked past enigmatic factories, and what must have been a coal-fired power plant in a strangely sterile part of town. Big, bunker-like medical facilities filled the horizon. The day, though barely just begun, was already hot. And humid.

The immigration bureau has one entire floor for Turkish immigrants. Meanwhile, North-, South- and Central Americans, Africans, Australians, New Zealanders and etc. all go to another floor. We waited in line for 45 minutes. To get a "waiting number." The women didn't speak English. They asked how long we had been married. Wendy said a long, long time, and snickered. The woman yelled at us (in German, of course, which is so much harsher): This is no laughing matter! Then they informed us we were in the wrong line. We went to a different line, and into a different room, but I'm pretty sure the woman was the same. She sent the children away. She took our passports and my application. When she realized Wendy was a German citizen, but didn't speak German, she looked at us disapprovingly (a common reaction, it turns out ... and, yes, Germany has its own "German-only" crowd). She gave us a number. We waited.

I started to get angry. I looked some stuff up in my dictionary so that I would be prepared next time someone scolded Wendy for not speaking German. "Ihr Grosseltern war im das Gemetzel. Deine Vorfahren töt ihre Vorfahren. Sie is Deutsch weil Deutschland ihr Grosseltern Leben gesteht." I thought it meant: Her grandparents were in the Holocaust. Your ancestors killed her ancestors. She is German because Germany stole her grandparents' lives. It actually means something entirely different about confessing a life and carnage. Perhaps it's best that I never had a chance to use it.

We waited. A heat wave is clobbering Europe. It's the hottest summer in Berlin in 110 years. Every day, temperatures get into the high 90s. It does not cool off at night. People are collapsing from heat stroke on the trains. No one in Berlin has air conditioners, least of all the bureaucratic agencies. Fans are unheard of. An Australian woman, waiting for her work permit, told us that a giant indoor mall here has air conditioning. People flock to it for sanctuary. We waited one hour. And then another. The digital board kept calling the same number, over and over again. The heat kept climbing. I doodled things a sane man should not doodle.

At 10 a.m. a woman came out, locked the door to the office, and put up a sign announcing that they would give out no more waiting numbers that day. The Australian woman talked. My children rolled around on the floor in agony. We waited some more, along with other people from all over the world. Germans do not have water fountains. The immigration office is the only place in Berlin that does not have a donerkebap stand, a currywurst place, or a Lotto/coffee place, or a bakery, or a Turkish fruit stand. The nearest grocery store is way down the street.

We will wait in other un-air-conditioned offices as well: mandatory health insurance, Kindergeld, the job center. The health insurance people will tell us we need our job center numbers, the job center will tell us we need immigration and health insurance numbers. There is no central database from which the bureaucrats can access the other bureacrats' numbers. We will walk/ride the U-Bahn from one office to the next, take a number and wait.

Three and a half hours after arriving at the immigration office, our number flashed on a screen. A woman handed us a paper. We had an appointment to return in four weeks. The paper warned us not to be late, or we would miss our appointment. It also let us know that, even though we had a very defined appointment time, we should expect a long wait.

*Just before we came to Berlin, we went to the Delta, Colo., Wells Fargo to set up the system that would enable us to wire money from our U.S. account to a German account. We sat down with a "personal banker" to do what seemed like a quick and easy process. The personal banker clearly had no idea how to do such a thing, and went searching around the inter tubes to try to figure it out. He spelled our names wrong on the forms several times, and didn't catch it until he printed it out. Then he'd fix it, print out the forms again, and we'd discover another mistake. This went on for hours, while our kids' brains boiled out in the car in the parking lot. Contrast that to our German experience: We walked into the Sparkasse. Found a banker that spoke flawless English. He offered us cappuccino. And we had a German bank account no more than 20 minutes later. Easy as kuchen.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Das Krankenhaus: Or how I got Pneumonia in Berlin and (hopefully) live.

One way to learn about a new place is to go to cultural centers, museums, eat the food and meet new people. Another way is to get an incapacitating, sometimes even fatal, ailment. I chose the former, but the latter chose me. And once again, my lack of assertiveness got the best of me.

It started out with fatigue, aches in strange places, and a sudden lack of appetite, even for beer, even during a World Cup game. Then the coughing started: wheezing fits of hacking that caused people on the street to steer clear (or was that the dog?). Each cough caused my eyeballs to strain against their sockets, and made it feel as if my windpipe would implode. One fit was so violent that it threw my back out (which in turn was wracked with a sharp pain with each cough). I ended up prone and delirious. The only problem was, we had things to do, so I had to pull myself up and stagger down the street to school offices in far-flung parts of the city. This was during the recent heat wave, by the way; 90 F plus himidity. And the subway is at least ten degrees warmer, kind of like a moving sauna, with everyone packed together, trying not to look at each other or at the guy with the accordian trying to collect money. And then there was the guy coughing as though he had tuberculosis. That was me.

I drank lots of fluids and tea. I ate vitamin C and turmeric until it oozed from my pores. I took hot baths in spite of the heat. I slathered my body with Vicks vapor rub as though I were a menthol turkey getting ready for Thanksgiving.

That natural stuff, it soon became clear, wouldn't be enough. I needed some Nyquil and Aspirin, stat. But when I went to the grocery store, I only found more homeopathic/naturopathic remedies. Okay, I thought, it's pretty progressive to have this stuff in the corner store, but where's the heavy artillery? Turns out that in Germany, you can't even buy aspirin in the store. You have to go to the Apotheke, or pharmacy, and then specifically ask for what you want. You even must explain your symptoms. This was a challenge.

"Ich habe ein schlimmel Husten," I said, only to be answered with the usual Gatlin-gun, incomprehensible Deutsch. "Ich verstehe nicht," I continued. "Ich spreche nur ein Bissen Deutsch. Langsam bitte."* And so it went until I got some kind of nasty tasting syrup that was probably good enough, along with a box of aspirin. Proud to have communicated successfully, and relieved, I went home and started pounding the stuff. No improvement.

In fact, things started getting worse. When I slept on my right side, things were moderately okay -- I'd only erupt into coughing once every hour or so. But when I rolled over onto my right side, an eerie sound emanated from my lungs. It was reminiscent of tinfoil balls rolling across crumpled newspaper. That is not a sound that should come from a human body.

My kids started looking at me with that so-I-guess-I'm-about-to-be-a-quasi-orphan look. And Wendy gave me that why-didn't-you-get-life-insurance-when-I-told-you-to-you-jerk look. And it seemed prudent to get some medical help. All the doctors were closed, so we had to go to the emergency room, halfway across town. This entailed more walking; more subway rides; more walking. Now, before you socialist types get all excited about me taking advantage of that free European health care, you should know something: Health care in Germany is not free. In fact, they are on a mandatory health insurance system, just like the U.S. will be soon enough. I haven't been here long enough to get that insurance. That meant I had to pay 100 Euros up front, and they'll bill me for the rest later.

The Berlin E.R. was a grim place, with people all around who seemed barely to be clinging to life. So when I told the receptionist that I had a bad cough, she gave me that what-a-sissy snicker. When I told her I thought I might have pneumonia, she looked at me with a questioning frown. So I read her the German word that I had written down in my notebook: Lungenentzundnung. Then she almost laughed, but sent me onward. I told the doctor about the cough. I got the same look. I told him about the pneumonia, and he smiled: Ah, another American hypochondriac. "Surely it's just the flu," he said. Then I told him about the tinfoil sound in my lungs, and about the color of the stuff that was coming out of them with each cough. His eyes got big. He took my blood**, my urine, and an X-Ray of my chest.

One universal trait of health care everywhere is the waiting. I waited, and waited, and tried to study some German, and doodled some weird, disease-addled stuff. And then I waited some more. Wendy and the kids went out for lunch and visited the Brandenburg Gate. I sat in das Krankenhaus, listening to weird beeping sounds coming from the patient beside me, and a coughing that sounded like vomiting coming from the next room. Finally, the doctor returned.

"Okay, Mr. Thompson...," he began. But before he could give me the diagnosis, someone down the hall screamed. The doctor ran out. There were yells, an alarm went off, another skerfluffle, and the sounds of footsteps running urgently down the hall. Apparently someone got badly hurt; one of the people passing said something about "in der Augen," or "in the eye." Ouch. So, anyway, the doctor finally returned. And he calmly told me I had pneumonia. He said outpatient treatment was possible, but that I could have some kind of antibiotic-resistant strain that I picked up in a hospital or something, so I should probably be admitted. I explained that I hadn't been in a hospital in years. I didn't explain the flawed logic of staying in a hospital in order to treat something that can only be caught in hospitals. I also didn't explain that I couldn't really afford to stay in the hospital. I just told him, No thanks.

He sent me back to the Apotheke instead, where, after a bit of a runaround dealing with regulations (I'll try to explain the German attitude toward rules in another post), I was issued the most potent cocktail of antibiotics I've ever experienced. I've been on them for three days now, and they've purged everything in my body. Except the cough.

Now, I wait. And see if these Euro-antibiotics will win, or if the disease will. In the meantime, I've got another ordeal to face: German bureaucracy, which even Germans say is "rather unpleasant." Immigration, first, then the "Job Center."

* This would be a good place to insert the joke about how I got home and opened up the box and found a bunch of blue pills with "V"s on them, thanks to my bad German skills. But that's too obvious, and besides, I think I got the right stuff.

**Have I ever mentioned how much I hate hospitals, needles, etc.? I gave blood once, though. I was a strapping young high schooler, and my girlfriend persuaded me to do a good deed. So I went to the classroom where the blood drive was happening late in the day -- I was the last to get poked and sucked dry. When I came to, the blood people were all gone, replaced by the school baton twirling troupe or something, dancing and yelling and throwing things in the air. The blood folks had packed up and left, leaving me a half-eaten cookie and a paper cup full of Coke which, in my dizziness, I spilled.