Keeping it in the room: health, happiness and living in Berlin
The last few weeks have been interesting, in that I can generally get by, but that my lack of German language skills have proved to be a challenge. I plan to resolve this soon.
When we went to our Getting Started in Berlin workshop, they advised us that when choosing a language course, we should look for a conversational one, to avoid getting bogged down in grammar. So when we found a language school called Café Lingo, it sounded like just our thing. They even offered us a free trial lesson. We arrived, and there were 8 or 10 people sat around the front room of the office. The receptionist got a textbook from the shelf. “If this level isn’t right for you,” he told us, “don’t run away, just tell me and I’ll book you in to a different class to try out.”
We took the book from him, which was the most basic level, A1. After being led into the classroom, it was clear that the people there were at the very beginning of their learning. While parts of the lesson were easy, all of a sudden, the teacher started talking about accusative and nominative cases. Eep!
Having decided the class wasn’t right for us, I emailed the people who run the Getting Started workshop, Expath, to find out about classes there and book ourselves in for an assessment.
Earlier in the week, we’d realised we needed both electricians and plumbers. The flat had no pipework for the washing machine or sink, and not even any lights on the ceiling. So I asked around for recommendations. We knew there was very little chance of finding an English speaking plumber in Berlin; and little more chance of finding an English speaking electrician. Tweets to the writers of the überlin blog, who retweeted my request for help, came to nothing.
There was nothing for it – we had to try speaking German. One recommendation came from our friend Stephan, who lives in Switzerland but has friends in Berlin. He passed on details for two companies.
The first was a plumber, who I called with some trepidation and having written a little script with the help of Google Translate. I said my bit, asked if they could come round next week, and the answer I got back was simply, “no.” “When?” “March.” Perhaps she didn’t like foreigners, or I didn’t understand her answer, but I got the impression it wasn’t going well.
Using the speakerphone, so that both my bf and I could hear and try to understand, I called a couple of others. Each asked follow up questions which neither of us understood. A couple more promised to call back but didn’t. Finally, our estate agent emailed a recommenation. This one spoke enough English to be able to make an appointment, and is coming round next week.
The next thing I needed to do was call our building’s caretaker to report some problems with our flat. I tried, but after a minute or two, it became clear that I was never going to understand him. So instead, I used Language Line, a service is used by many government agencies and helplines in the UK. They set up a conference call, and an interpreter does their thing. I knew it was expensive, but didn’t think it would be as much as US$3.95 an minute.
The first time I tried, they dialled the caretaker’s mobile number wrong (they were calling him from the US, and clearly didn’t know how to dial it); the second time, we got through, I had a conversation, probably resolved our issues, and will now be hit with a large bill.
But I remembered Expath had told us about Kathleen at Red Tape Translation, who would accompany newcomers to Berlin to appointments at the various different government offices they must visit to when they arrive. I wondered if she could also help me with a call to the electrician.
I paid for an hour, and we chatted on Skype for a bit. She explained that since the task was likely to take less than an hour, I could bank the remaining time. I told her what we needed doing, and that this company was highly recommended, but not in Berlin, so may be difficult to reach. While I was on Skype, she dialled the number on her home phone, explained the work needed and booked an appointment, confirming details with me as we went along. I typed some of my answers into the chat window to save time, and spoke some of them.
So for less than 7.50€ – less than the price of a couple of drinks in our favourite club – she’d managed to do what I would have found incredibly difficult. Especially as Stephan’s friend had said the company was sometimes difficult to make appointments with. I’d say that’s money well spent.
Now all we need to do is communicate with the plumbers and electricians when they arrive. I think I’ll be doing a lot of pointing. Of course, all I have to do is remember that in a year’s time, I’ll be able to have full conversations with them, thanks to Expath. Fingers crossed!