24 September 2008

I know the answer

and it's not 42.

The answer to keeping control over my life is to

1. buy the proper containers for my stuff .
2. Put everything in a specific place. Even if the place is arbitrary, define the place.
3. Spend at least an hour every day putting things back into their places.

Repeat 3 daily, with daily:

laundry, wash, dry, hang, fold, put away.
kitchen tidy (putting stuff away)
dishwasher unload and load as we go

This gives me a stretch of calm from about an hour after I get the kids on the bus. During that time, I can:

1. Go through paperwork and pay bills, file bills, control budget
2. Read magazines
3. Watch DVR'd TV while writing/blogging/reading blogs and news
4. Extend zone of tidiness incrementally
5. Decide on dinner and ascertain that I have correct ingredients or go shopping (done at least every other day).

I have a hard deadline of Friday for getting all my (on extension) tax paperwork together and it looks like I will make the deadline, while discarding extraneous paperwork and clearing up on the way.

This week has been the first time in I don't know how long that I have felt happy with the state of my environment. I no longer feel that I need to apologize for the condition of my apartment when I have people over. Although I am using the dining room table as a desk, it takes me less than 5 minutes to have the apartment ready for guests.

Interestingly, although I always wear a watch, one of the items that gives me the feeling of control is that we put a clock up on the wall. That was something the German resisted, saying that it "didn't go", although the finish (chrome, from Ikea) was well within our range of balck, white, chrome and brushed nickel. However, last night he turned to me and said that having the clock makes him feel more "present". I agree.

It's a nice feeling. I'm not certain how I will be able to hold onto it after my German classes start again, but it will be a priority.

Apartment beautification plans for this evening are to put up our remaining two re-purposed shelves. Tomorrow the wheels will go on the Arbeitsplatz and perhaps on the weekend (when we are in Bremen) we can find something colorful for the walls (we really need some color!)

Self improvement plans, now that I have been wearing my prescription orthotics for two weeks and the pain is decreasing, is to get back to the gym. Next Wednesday is the start date goal.

22 September 2008

We don't need no stinkin' badgers...

I'm making the German watch Blazing Saddles with me. It is for his own good. I wonder if he will think it's funny?

The perfect spice

Last night I made Chicken Gumbo and the German said that there was an absolute perfect mixture of spices.

I said "Thanks", but then I had to admit that although I had added the chicken carrots and celery, the perfect mix of spices was due to the fact that I had used a box of Zatarian's. 

Now I have to figure out how to bring more over here because I have never seen okra in the produce section...

What we did on Wednesday: Or, why Mothers weep on the first day of school.

We went to an interview at one of the bi-lingual schools here in Berlin.

It's a very nice school and the headmistress/principal was very nice. She took time out of her day to talk to us and show us around even though there will be an Open Door very soon, because we won't be in Berlin when that occurs. This is one of three schools that we will be looking at- another in two weeks and then the third after that: but this was the first.

As we walked around, looking at all the rooms and how big the furniture is, looking at the size of those enormous rucksacks that German schoolchildren wear and then watching the seething mass of children (up to the age of 12!) running around during one of the break periods I started to be very sad: this is the end of Thing1's childhood, in a way.

I was so intrigued watching KSKlein  put together her daughter's Schultuete and I think it's a wonderful German tradition. Here is a template that I may need to look at in 10 months, as I have absolutely no artistic ability but I think it's a wonderful thing to create this and not to simply buy it: I was awed by KSKlein's and her daughter looked so happy!

I understand why the Schultuete is a tradition ( to sweeten the passage drom childhood to a higher level and the first step into "adulthood". I wonder whether it has a connection to the Jewish tradition that when children are first taught their letters, the letters are outlined with honey so that as the child traces them (on a slate, in the past) the child then tastes the sweetness and knows that: Learning (especially the Torah) is sweet.

But, oh my goodness, what a different world first grade is here in Germany. At home, where kindergarten and the primary grades (through 5th) all generally reside in an Elementary school, it doesn't seem as abrupt a break as it does here, where grades are 1-6 and all the children take recess at the same time, making one thin of zoos and seething hordes of wild beasts and wonder how one's small and tiny child will survive the frothing maelstrom....

I am so glad I have another year of quiet and calm and control!

The Weekend: I more fully accept my Podhood.

It seems to be a running theme this month: that more and more women are waking up and discovering that they are "Stepford Wives", Pod persons, or, more accurately, becoming competent household managers.

Is it a function of age or maturity that we are looking at ourselves and realizing that we have become people that we didn't expect to be?

This weekend the German picked up a (horrendously expensive because it can drill through concrete) drill (which made his weekend because he really does love tools and he misses the ones we left behind) and put the handles on the Arbeitsplatz in the vorkuche. This piece has a history of its own that is uniquely German.

Our kitchen here is sorely lacking but luckily, outside the tiny room, we have another small room that has a small balcony off that. We decided that we would turn the two rooms into one extended kitchen and that would require putting a kitchen island equivalent into the vorkuche. We looked at Ikea and the price knocked us to our knees. Then we looked at Bauhaus and the price was also exorbitant for their "pre-constructed" workplaces. However, when glancing through other catalogs we saw a line that they were just about to start carrying which was substantially cheaper and yet exactly what we were looking for: a workplace with an approximately meter wide top, two drawers and two doors. We weren't liking any of the strange color combinations but decided on the (ugly) light wood sides with grey top because that was the only way to get the grey top to vaguely match the grey kitchen. We were not allowed to get the grey sides with the grey top because that is the way it is and any variation from the way it is is not in Ordnung. The factory will only put the pieces in a box in this specific way and even though the grey sides exist, they can only be sold with a red top. That is the way things are. Accept it.

Three weeks later, before we went to the US, the piece was delivered. We didn't open it because we were in a huge hurry. That was a mistake. When we got back and I eagerly opened the box, I found that, contrary to all that was expected, my brown unit had a brown top. How very strange! How out of order was this?

The German called BauHaus and left a message for the gentleman who had assisted us. He remembered very clearly that we had wanted the grey sides with the grey top and only reluctantly settled for the grey top with brown sides, so he understood my reaction to the suggestion that I be happy with a brown top that fortuitously matched my brown sides. My suggestion was that we return the entire thing for an all-grey piece, but that suggestion was not considered an option. After many calls to and fro (from the gentleman to the factory and then to the German to keep us informed) the answer was that we would indeed be sent a new, correct, grey top.

Here I must say that the BausHaus worker was the first German retail employee we have ever encountered that actually took responsibility for a problem, dealt with the problem, and followed up to a fair and equitable resolution. I was absolutely amazed. And the epic doesn't stop here.

When the new top came in, some 4 weeks later, we were called to be so informed and requested to pick the top up. The problem here is that we don't have a private vehicle, it takes a bus and a walk to get to BauHaus and the top is large, heavy and ungainly. We asked that BauHaus drop it off next time that they were in the area delivering and our contact was able, after very many requests through the hierarchy, to make that happen.

By any standards, he did extremely well. By German standards this saga is one that begs for Kundenservice beatification.

We got the new top last weekend and before replacing the old with the new, the German wanted to get the handles and the wheels we have purchased on the unit. Therefore, the expensive drill (only the proximate cause, we have other drill-requiring needs). The handles went on this weekend, the screws for the wheels are too small and will go on next weekend. but a shelf also went up in that room (two more will follow- these are re-purposed shelves we found when we moved in).

So I spent some time actually unpacking and re-arranging my spices: I can now find them all. This is even better than the last kitchen I had in the States (a larger but still crappy kitchen). I love me a spice drawer. My plates are now in their Ikea holders sitting on the shelf, with my coffee mugs beside them. The next shelf will have stem holders and I will have completed the reclamation, for food storage purpose, of two upper cabinets. The tidification and rationalization of my work and living space continues apace. I am finding this very soothing.

21 September 2008

What we did on Thursday.

What a valuable tool this is, the ability to get me back to writing when it seems that life has passed my blogging by and that it is difficult to catch up.

In no general order:

The German needed to go to Munich last week for a business trip (no, he didn't get to leave his conference or the airport hotel, so no Oktoberfest for him). Since he was leaving later in the day, we took that morning to take care of a few chores. The first was to pick up a package that was being held at the Zollamt (Customs house). (We went to register for our Anmeldung first, but the amt was not open until later.) I'm never quite certain why certain packages are held hostage and others are not, but tere is only one customs department for Berlin, so I am grateful that although it requires two separate U-Bahn lines and then a bit of a walk, it is still reachable by public transportation, as that is all we have. (I can see why the German needed to take the babystroller when he needed to pick up the huge package of clothes that we sent last time.)

When we got there, we stood in line to take a number and to make a guess as to what was in the package (after all, it was a gift, how could I be sure?). My best guess was: hot sauce or scharfe Sauce (Can you tell my German spelling is even worse than my spoken language?). Since the shipping was $55, the Customs raised an eyebrow at me in question and I just shrugged. We got our number and settled in for what seemed like it should be a 2 hour wait, based on the number of people ahead of us, but which turned out to be only 15 minutes. I used that time productively to examine the items that were displayed as confiscated in their several categories: OTC harmless medications such as Tylenol, completely harmless items such as multi-vitamins (which the powerful Apotheke industry keeps out), protein and work out powders such as whey protein (which Germany likes to keep out so it can charge 5x the standard amount and make taste terrible) and then the real items which should be kept out: endangered animals, pirated and illegal materials.

I think we were called so early because the Customs officer thought it was amusing. When he opened (with our permission) the box and saw the 14 lb jar of Louisiana Hot Sauce, he laughed. I asked what we could do in order to prevent being forced to come out here to deal with this in the future and we discussed the proper way to fill out the forms in order to minimize the chance of being called in (obviously, there's no toll on my Hot Sauce) but he said that sometimes it's just the luck of the draw and there's nothing that one can do.

Then we walked back to the U-bahn and went to register at our new address. The German had attempted to do this three times before, but the agency was on a modified strike. That's a strike when they wait until you reach the head of the (long) line and the worker tells you that the strike prevents them from doing any non-ememergency work and that your registration (and concommittant ability to purchase a parking permit and/or register for school) are not an emergency.

In this case, the strike was finally over but when we got to the head of the line with our briefcase full of required documentation (including our Anmeldung from 1 km away), the clerk informed us that without my passport or a Personalaufweis (which I don't have as a non-German citizen) that I could not re-register. Even though we had my marriage license, a German driver's license, a US driver's license and the previous Anmeldung, that would not be sufficient.

I told the German that we would stay and that he could re-register the children and himself and I would simply be a non-person. Strangely, when we got to the correct person, we had no problem in re-registering myself with the others based on the documentation that we had with us.

However, we weren't able to register for a parking permit as the letter that we had brought from the rental agency was not sufficiently explicit to allow for it. We will get another letter on Monday that states that we rent more than 6 times a year and that will be sufficient.

Then we ran off to the fitness center to replace my ID. First, the young lady couldn't find me. I suggested that if I weren't in the system, I would be happy to reverse the debits from my checking account and then she managed to find me in the system. She wasn't able to get my card done because this is Germany and she needed to contact three other poeple, promise to call us to tell us what to do, needed to be called twice (by us) and then was able to discover from the main office that she should have just given me the new ID I told her I needed. Love German customer service.

Quick lunch at a donner place, where I actually had a felafel teller and then ran back to the apartment to be there for the children and for us all to say good-bye as the German was off to spend the next 32 hours either travelling or at the airport hotel.

15 September 2008

How can it be?

I was talking politics with my Dad this evening. I love my Dad. I respect him. I think he's an amazingly smart guy, immensely talented, really great. But there's just nothing I can say to him that would have him not vote against Obama. I can't understand it. Every argument he advances I can prove is incorrect. It came down to me asking if there were any information that I could give him that would change his mind, and he said "No." So I gave up.

I have been a lifelong Republican but the last eight years have really beaten the party out of me: I just can't drink the Kool-Aid any longer.

How can I be a citizen of the greatest country in the world and allow my country to have no national health policy? How can it be possible that, in my country, if one loses one's job, one can die in the street because one has no health care? How was it allowed to amend the bankruptcy laws to prevent the declaration of bankruptcy to dissolve medical claims when medical claims are the number 1 reason that bankruptcy is declared? How is it allowed that uninsured persons can be charged 5-6 times the amount per procedure that insured persons (whose insurance companies wield collective bargaining clout) are charged?

This leaves aside the utter destruction of the environment that goes along with promulgating a sense of entitlement rather than privilege, where Americans believe that cheap subsidized petroleum products are their right, that policies promoting sound conservatorship make no sense as long as "we can drill in ANWR"- all, what, a few months worth of cheap gas with profits accruing to oil companies later? Where is the concept of long term planning? What happened to the understanding of the tragedy of the commons? Is everyone in power in the US a selfish, rich, basically evil person? What happened to the tradition of the wealthy individual caring for those less fortunate?

My brother called me a Communist, and I really think he was serious, because I do think that a national healthcare system, a national commitment to family friendly policies and women's and children's rights, and a movement to a national retirement plan (where the plan is not tied to an employer but administered by the government in behalf of the worker, like Switzerland) is something necessary for America to be considered a real 1st world country. We can't be content with maternity leave less than that of Namibia, can we? And I need to stop being ashamed of my coutry's treatment of the poor and the mentally ill.

America is the best country in the world and we need to take a breath, pay more in taxes, and reshape our policies to reflect what we really believe: in a moral, equitable world, with compassion and mercy informing our behavior.

14 September 2008

How to beat the blues in Berlin?

Why don't I ever find out about these things in time to see them in person?

11 September 2008

It's a gorgeous day.

For the third day in a row Berlin is having absolutely glorious weather. It's warm and sunny in the day and cools off and is comfortable at night. I have just moved the French doors to the patio to the tilt position and I still have two of the skylights open.

I spent several hours this morning, while the girls were at school, working on putting together almost a year's worth of insurance claims. After my recent hospitalization and the many medical visits prior, I though that it was about time.
I managed to reduce an armful and several stacks of miscellaneous papers to 6 neatly paperclipped stacks with claims forms attached. The German will scan them today and I will securely e-mail them in this evening.

When I added up the total amounts (our expat insurance gives us a 20% co-pay on most visits other than well care) it was a significant number: I think I will try to remain current from this point forward. 

Additionally, I love that feeling when one reduces chaos to order and in the process decreases the amount of paper clutter in the house.

10 September 2008

Do I look as stupid as I feel?

For almost a year now I have been moping around complaining about German food. I have counted the pig products in the meat deli case (39) compared to the non-pig (3). I have wandered from supermarket to supermarket, not able to return to the many in my neighborhoods that don't carry any non-trayfe products other than scrawny chicken parts. I have been amazed that Germany can label a sliced meat product Geflugel when it is 10% pig. The sheer ubiquitousness of pig has depressed me and reduced me to eating smoked pre-packaged turkey slices on a near daily basis.

No more!

Why did no one think to remind me that Muslims also do not eat pig (clearly I should know- I ordered a Muslim meal on my last flight) and that there are many Muslims in Berlin?

On Monday I was seeking out a new and closer ATM (for my annoyingly scarce German bank) when I wandered by a Lebanese market. I had half an hour to spend and the produce in front looked really good, so I went in. There's a butcher inside! With lamb and beef and chicken and turkey and the mixed hackfleisch is beef and lamb, not with pig! And the prices are great!

And a cheese counter and bread and, and, and cilantro, dill, hot peppers, bulgar, beans that come in real size sacks and rice! Hot peppers! I wandered in a daze. I bought pita and tortilla wraps and brined goat cheese and olives in cracked hot pepper and beef ground meat and beef pizza salami! And 100% beef bologna equivalent. Eureka!

Excuse my euphoria. I have spent the last two days having chopped lettuce and tomato with chopped brined goat cheese and a drizzle of (self-imported) Ken's Light Caesar in a warm tortilla wrap for lunch and for dinner.

And this was after discovering two wonderful Asian markets within minutes of my apartment. I had miso soup for lunch today and as soon as I can decipher some interesting Vietnamese and Indian recipes I now know where to get the ingredients for them. Now all I need to find is a dance class for Thing1 in the neighborhood and I'm set for the next little while.

09 September 2008

Am I a Pod Person?

I'm not exactly certain what has happened to me, but I seem to have hit a tipping point.

Yesterday, before our bi-monthly cleaning person arrived, I spent four hours picking up the house (I always pick up before she gets here, or what would be the point of having someone in to do the rough- the bathrooms and floors, in particular).

But I overtidied. I went beyond any tidy that I have reached before. So much so that H. went through her alloted cleaning chores within 4 hours rather than her usual 5, and when I went looking for her discovered that she had thrown a load in the wash and was slowly folding the load in my dryer. Well, I don't like that. When my laundry is ruined, I want to do it myself (and I have- I find that dryers in particular run hot here) and she threw my "intimates" and the kids' delicates (you know, frilly, frothy, sequiny, Princess-picture covered) into a very hot, very fast wash rather than the cold, delicate cycle . I'm strangely OCD about my laundry, and I have been hanging those items all over the walls and just picked up an actual line dryer at Ikea (4.95 Euros- whotta bargain).

What annoyed me was not that she did these things without asking when she had never done them nor been asked to do them (okay, I was annoyed) but that she not only came 15 minutes late, finished an hour early and didn't ask to actually do anything (I had her change the sheets when I found her, something I haven't asked before) while avoiding me (next time the refrigerator will be her special chore). She then changed and was ready to be paid 15 minutes early, or 30 minutes under the time I pay her for (with an additional 30 minutes blow off time and two 15 minute cigarette breaks).

So I paid her for 5 hours while she did 3:45 worth. That will change next time. It's a problem that Lynda would recognize, because H speaks only Polish and was recommended to me by the person who cleaned our temporary housing (she herself didn't have time but was great). So talking to her even to just arrange times has been a total hassle. I think that I will move her hours back to 4, and if she has a problem, we will part ways.

---Back to my Podhood. We picked up some under the bed Castle themed boxes at Ikea and they gloriously fit the plastic boxes that we had previously getten there to try to corral the girls' toys. (Plastic boxes hadn't worked because they would just pile up on each other and make it even harder to find things. Now they fit into the under bed boxes and the girls' room is tidier than it has ever been.

There are "container" for: 1. Legos 2. Little People and related 3. Blocks and Chanukah toys 4. Wooden figures and toys 5. Purses 6. Small balls, all under the bed. There are two collapsible units (also from Ikea) that the stuffed toys are in, another for dirty clothes, a bin in the closet for dress up accessories, a trunk for playdresses, another closet bin for hats. A basket for toys with batteries. The closets are tidy as I've pulled out all the shorts and sundresses (although I won't pack them away just yet: today was a gloriously warm day) and cleared the closets.

Thing 1 has walked in the last two days after school and been overjoyed (I'm hoping to train her to help with the upkeep).

Also, I washed the sheets and changed the linens today, washed 4 loads of laundry (as well as the three yesterday) because I'm catching up on sorting through the hand-me-downs we shipped from the States as well as the ones we had here (it was time to open up the boxes labelled 5-7 and then pack away everything 7 and up). Then I made wraps and beans with rice for dinner, after joining Yelli at an English speakers' play group when the girls got back from school and letting them get their ya-yas out on th playground (and meeting some nice women with children). Then I baked an angel food cake.

I can see a real difference in the house now, I've even cleared our cornfield out and reduced the unhoused objects to a small part of the upstirs galley. When I run around each morning, it takes incrementally less time to return to base (which has been getting better for weeks) and I am going deeper and deeper into the never tidy before zone. Is this what it's like when one accepts one's destiny as a stay at home mom?

06 September 2008

What I haven't been blogging about.

We put Felix to sleep on Monday.

I had been hydrating and feeding him intravenously since the prior week, while we ran tests and blood tests and X-rays and finally the sonogram. He had attempted to eat when given painkillers, but he wasn't able to do more than lap at milk once or twice. On Monday, he hadn't eaten for six days, which all by itself would be a hepatic lipidosis concern, but his liver values had been out of whack since the first test.

The sonogram showed that his body was filled with growths. There was really nothing to do. He was in pain and with an inability to eat there would be no way of prolonging his life, no slow decline.

I took him home after another painkiller that morning, because I wanted to say good-bye, to hold him for a while without the cannula in his paw, to let the girls understand that he would be going, to let him sit in the sun for a little. Our regular babysitter was kind enough to come without notice (bringing her own son with her) while the German and I went to the vet with Felix.

They were very kind. They let us sit quietly, by ourselves for a while and tell them when we were ready.  They were also very kind to keep Felix' body for us so that we could bring him to my in-laws house this weekend, where we were able to bury him in the garden.

I am sad that he won't be with my other boys, but I find it very comforting to be able to put him in the soil in a family place, rather than to cremate him and hold his ashes until we could bury him in the US. We laid him on a bed of pine and kissed him good-bye. (We didn't include the girls: we had for the loss of my other two, but I felt the delay in burial would be too distressing for them).

This is the first time in twenty years that I have been without my cats. My three boys. Originally, it was my two boys and myself. Then the German and then Felix joined us and it was myself and 4 boys. Now we are three girls and the German is outnumbered.

I still hear phantom meows, wake up early and think I need to feed him, look for him in his favorite spots. It was hard to not be sad in front of the girls and it's still a bit hard explaining to Thing1 that she is not able to join the boys and Felix with HaShem. Tough concepts.

01 September 2008

What tax cut would you get under Obama's policies?

I haven't looked at the math of this, so I'm taking it on trust and assuming that I will be corrected if it's wrong, but as the calculator said, I had actually assumed that my taxes might rise under Obama and was very surprised to see a tax cut coming my way.

See what your tax cut might be.

By the way, I'm fine with no tax cut if the moneys would be dedicated to national health and family welfare (including childcare subsidization). I think we need to buck up and realize the middle class and up pay too few taxes and that we need a better social structure that makes private savings for retirement and health care irrelevant.

(Credit to Kenju at Imagine for posting this widget.)