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Miriam Widman



Berlin Blog
Miriam Widman

German Customer Service – with a twist
November 30th, 2011

I use my cell phone all the time here, as I don’t have a regular landline in Berlin. I bought a gizmo manufactured from the German company hama (hama.de) — that’s the link I sent, and the gizmo broke.
The unit is kind of an odd thing. The part on the right gets plugged into the cell phone and the broken part on the left gets attached to your shirt. It has a microphone in it — you can see the tiny speakers on the table — the result of the unit coming apart. You can plug headphones into the gizmo on the left and listen to the conversation. Folks hear you via the microphone — normally embedded in the black part on the left.
I bought the unit at Saturn, which is about as close as Germany gets to Best Buy. I took it over there and asked for an exchange. I’ve only had the unit for about two months.
The salesman said he didn’t think he could do anything because by looking at the unit it appears that it was deliberately broken.
I said, “You’ve got to be kidding. Could you tell me how I could have broken this?” My suspicion is that the black part on the left wears out because it’s not made that well and is used quite often to clip and unclip to a shirt.
The Saturn sales person said the Hama representative happened to be in the store and he would ask him. He went upstairs, came back down, and said the Hama guy said the unit was broken by someone.
Normally I would have fought this on the spot, demanded to speak with the Hama guy, and gotten the thing resolved. I was tempted to pull out my press card, let them know I am a  journalist and that I’d be making a complaint to headquarters, but I didn’t do that. Instead I gave him an angry look and left.
Back home, still fuming, I called up the press department of Hama and explained the situation. I spoke with Susanne Uhlschmidt, who heads the department. I explained that while I understand that customer service in the U.S. is different than in Germany, I was still miffed that I was accused of breaking the unit. I am not that talented, I assured her.
And then — in a twist — Ms. Uhlschmidt took things into her own hands and said she’d replace the unit and would deal with the Hama representative. I had failed to get his name, as I was so annoyed at the store that I just left. She said she’d figure it out. Within two days I not only had a replacement, but an extra unit on top of that.
I don’t like to “pull out the press card” because I think everyone – not just journalists — should get good customer service. But sadly sometimes that’s still necessary here.


Thanksgiving Abroad in a “Fake” Neighborhood
November 24th, 2011

Thanksgiving is always rather strange when you are outside the United States — mainly because it is such an American holiday and because I don’t think other cultures eat turkey the way we do.
Pauline and I decided to go to Leroy’s Joy, which is now called something else, but it’s an American-style restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg. This neighborhood is probably the most gentrified in the city.
My ever perceptive 14 year old picked up on it right way.

This is what the neighborhood looks like in the summer. It gets dark here around 4pm so it’s hard to take pictures after that.
As we sat in the restaurant various people came in with their over-coddled children. I had the urge to ask one couple who was daunting over a 16 month         old if their child could already speak Chinese and English, but I held my tongue.
After I explained what is happening in the neighborhood — which used to be filled with artists and alternative types in the GDR days — Pauline looked around and said:
“It’s a fake neighborhood.”
I had an idea what she meant, but asked her about that.
She said it’s filled with people who are trying to be what other people think they should be.
Hmmm. Very perceptive.
And true.
Real neighborhoods develop over the years and have some local flavor and feeling to them. There isn’t much of a local feeling in PB, but the sense that it consists of a bunch of hipsters trying to out hip each other.
And of course when those folks move in, the rents go up and the artists and alternative types leave.
And there goes the neighborhood.

Happy Thanksgiving

Arnold’s Last Days in Berlin — for now
November 22nd, 2011

Dear Loyal Readers,

Sorry for the long delay this past week. Arnold returned to Portland on Nov. 18 and it was a busy week in general.
Fortunately his final 24 hours here were full of (nice) surprises. The Berliners rallied and showed that despite the gruff exterior, there are some very nice people here.
Schnauze mit Herz (Attitude with a Heart). A bit of a cliche, but true.
We went to Saturn (http://www.saturn.de/).  It’s about the closest thing you can get to a Best Buy. Arnold’s dad wanted me to buy him a copy of the movie “Wir koennen auch anderes.”
I thought the store was open until 9pm, but of course it closed at 8. We got there just after it closed.
But a very friendly employee told us to wait at the entrance, He phoned up to the DVD department and asked if they had the video — Mind you it was already PAST closing time.
Unfortunately they didn’t have it. But both Arnold and I were surprised by the willingness of the employee to make a sale — after closing time.
Similarly at Check-in at Tegel, the Lufthansa counterperson was super friendly.
Technically I was not supposed to be able to wait with Arnold at the gate, because at 15, he is no longer considered a UM (unaccompanied minor). But she bent the rules (how unGerman) and let me in.
And of course Arnold stopped by the stand at Rathaus Steglitz for his beloved Bubble Tea.

Unlike his Dad, I am not a good photographer. Especially when I have a reluctant subject.
I asked Arnold if he’d miss the Bubble Tea, which you can get in Portland, just not that near to where we live.
He said no. There’s Horchatta in Portland. Both kids are big fans of the Mexican staple.

Now THAT’s something we don’t have here.

The Germans vs. the British on Vacation
October 19th, 2011

Why do Germans (or the British) for that matter go on vacation at all, when many expect to find the same things away that they are used to at home ?

Mallorca, for example, is a Spanish island, but you would never know it. It is filled with places where you can have Kaffee und Kuchen. Where you can watch live telecasts of Germany’s Bundesliga — the first AND second leagues. Where restaurants serve up Koelsch (a very local Mallorcan speciality), Currywurst and Sauerbraten.
I saw the ultimate irony when we rented a car and walked around the island’s capital, Palma. There we found an American chain in Spain with workers who speak German.
This is kind of an odd picture — You can see my son in the reflection. But there it is. Good old Subway, with a Spanish menu and a German flag, advertising that they have workers who can speak German.

This is kind of an odd picture — You can see my son in the reflection. But there it is. Good old Subway, with a Spanish menu and a German flag, advertising that they have workers who can speak German.I guess this is gloalization?
But the British aren’t any better, though there appear to be fewer of them. Have a look at this:
A British-owned and run Fish and Chips place — on Mallorca. Here’s a closer look at the menu:

OK, my British friends….What are mushy peas and why would anyone want to order them?Ditto that for Heinz baked beans.  And the Brits think our American food is crappy.It’s actually pretty hard to find anything authentically Mallorcan on Mallorca. I suspect for that you have to go inland, away from all the Germans frying themselves on the beach. But as the temperatures turn colder here, there are some things I miss about the Spanish island.
Tomorrow, in Berlin, the high is supposed to be 44 degrees. I guess Mallorca wasn’t so bad after all.Adios. Hasta la proxima.

Berlin’s Pirate Party Takes Nearly 9%
September 21st, 2011

My second piece for The World ran today — it’s about the Pirate Party (yes there is such a thing) and its surprisingly strong show in Sunday’s state elections here.
You can have a listen here:

These folks are mainly young and mainly male — but there are some women working in the background. One of the 15 party politicians who will enter the state government is a woman — the youngest overall at 19. Hard to know how they will do long-term, but in some ways there are similarities between the US and the German electorate. Lot’s of folks fed up with the status quo. And a surprising number of nonvoters in Germany. Gone are the days of 80% and more voter participation. Of course I can’t quite remember when — and if — we ever had that in the U.S.

Wir Leben Noch

September 21st, 2011
An Update — I realized I haven’t written in a long time. Things have gone from bad to worse, but I think they are settling a bit now.

The positive: My son has started to play computer games with other kids from school. I may have written about this before, but this is pretty huge. For those of you who don’t have teenage sons, it might be hard to understand, but computers make up a large part of teenage boys’ lives and it’s a good breakthrough that he’s playing with others from his school. He’s still not thrilled with the school or Berlin or Germany, but I don’t get the “Send me home. Just please I want to go home. Look in the Internet for a ticket for me” umpteen times a day. Actually it’s just about 3-4 times per week, which is major progress.
My daughter has had a rougher go of it than I initially expected — largely due to some very unkind kids in her class. There appears to be a certain amount of bullies at the school and a lot of cliques. I don’t know if this is different from anywhere else, but it’s been extra hard on her on top of all the different things she’s had to get used to. Complaining to the guidance counselor and the principal has helped. And I finally spoke with her German teacher yesterday. Pauline didn’t want me to speak with him because she doesn’t think he will change. “He’s German” is her explanation for his at times cold behavior.
The other day she asked me: What is it that you like about Germany? The people are cold, unfriendly, unhelpful, they expect you to be polite to them but they aren’t polite to you and the service sucks.
Mmmm. I had to think about that one. My initial response was: I have a lot of friends here and I like the bustle of Berlin.
To that she said: But you have friends in Portland and if you want bustle you could move to New York.
Mmmm. I’m not really sure that’s true. I have acquaintances in Portland, but I don’t think I have very many good friends. And it’s kind of odd, but the people I feel more comfortable with are some of the Germans I know there. As for New York, I would probably love living there again, but I’m not sure that’s a possibility in the near future.
And so we slog on. As a German friend said: It has to get better because it can’t get any worse.

A Cafe Story
September 14th

The other day I went into a cafe to treat myself to a cup of coffee — a latte to be exact — known here as a latte macchiato. No I didn’t get a piece of cake – but I would have if it had looked like this.

I had some time on my hands and so I got involved in a conversation with the lone woman customer sitting in the coffee shop and the woman who was doling out the cakes and coffee.  For some reason we ended up on the topic of immigration. The woman customer was convinced that any Arab or Turkish person could enter Germany legally and immediately claim social benefits.
“They clog up our hospitals. They come here and get their teeth fixed at our expense. And when the German citizen asks for something —there’s no money for that. Yes that’s really how it is.”
I kept repeatedly asking her how she knew this and how she could be positive that this was really the case. She provided no direct information but assured me that this is what is happening in Germany. “Just ask anyone else whose been here for awhile and you will get the same answer,” she said.
She also complained about how tough it is for “Germans” to find jobs. This really struck me. It seems no matter how good the economy is, finding a job is very difficult. It’s almost as if the negative scenario is burned in their brains and they can’t separate themselves from that. The economy is actually doing quite well here and in many sectors there’s a shortage of workers. But the fixed image is that it’s tough to find a job and the foreigners are taking whatever there is away from the “Germans.”
Of course this mindset you find everywhere and it’s easy enough to encounter this in the States — folks who think the Mexicans take away jobs from “real Americans.”
Why do people get stuck on a certain image or scenario — almost always negative — and are unable to readjust when given the facts?
Maybe it’s just easier to always think you’re right.


Entry 1 – July 2, 2011
I have a knot in my stomach.
A big one.
I’m writing this on a US Airways plane heading from Portland to Philadelphia. It’s the first leg of my trip back to Berlin. I’m moving to Berlin for a year with my two teenage kids.

This is not some fancy corporate move. I need to find both work and a place to live and this is my look-see trip. I’m not so worried about the former, but terrified of the latter. The Berlin housing market is reportedly very tight and we’d like to take our small dog with us, which makes things tougher in Germany.

I’m starting to think that I may be foolish to not worry about the work situation, but I lived and worked in Germany as a journalist from 1987 until 1996 and still have a lot of contacts there. I’ve already started to write for an online newspaper called The Local and just finished a project for an old colleague who is managing editor at a corporate communications company. I just pitched a story idea to The World, a public radio program, and with any luck they will like my work. Plus finding a job – and an apartment – from some 6,000 miles away is just tough. You really need to be on the ground.

So why am I moving at all? No job. No place to live. And two teenagers in tow. Am I certifiable?

There are really too many reasons behind this decision, but the short version is I applied for a fellowship last year with the American Academy in Berlin and also applied for the kids to go to a German-American public school there – the John F. Kennedy School. I didn’t get the fellowship, but the kids got into the school. The combination of the school having a great reputation with the ever-crumbling Portland public school system led me to think it would be a fabulous experience for the kids to live in Berlin for a year. And of course I wanted to go back.

The kids have other ideas. When I left Berlin in 1996 I was married and had a three-month old son, Arnold. Now I’m divorced and that three-month old is 15 and driving – very well I might add. And since October of 1997 he’s had a sister, Pauline, though there are many days when Arnold would prefer to have remained an only child (her thoughts as well). Neither of them speak German, but they understand a lot. Arnold more so than Pauline, though she thinks otherwise.

And, as a 15 and 13 year old, they are not overly enthusiastic about moving halfway across the world to a place they’ve been many times, but only on vacation. As Arnold says: “This is so stupid. The German language is a shit language. We have the, but they have to have der, die, das. It’s soooo dumb.”

Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache.

I plan to blog on this site throughout the year so you can check in on how we’re doing. And of course if any of you have an apartment for rent in Zehlendorf, Steglitz, Lichterfelde or Friedenau – 4 Zimmer, preferable moebliert, Hundehaltung okay und nicht mehr als 1000 Warm – PLEASE TELL ME!

Bis demnaechst




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