An American in Berlin
29 August, 2016
Sometimes, shit just falls in your lap, you know? Like last year, when I got back from Berlin and had no idea what I would do next. Out of nowhere, my friend tells me her momz needs some help around the house, as she’s remodeling. $100 a day to go hang out with my friend’s mom and move boxes around. And I love my friend’s mom. I mean, they’ve had me over as a guest for their family’s Christmas dinner every year since 2010. Anyway, this work essentially paid for my Great Western Roadtrip which I otherwise would probably not have been able to afford.
Only, when I got back, I still had no idea what I was going to do. Enter Keith, who was then principal at a Yeshiva for special needs kids in the Five Towns. He said they had an opening and thought I’d be a good fit. So he set up an interview with one of the APs and I landed the job on the spot.1 At the interview, I told the woman I’d probably be leaving around February to go back to Berlin. She said that was fine. Obviously, I finished out the year. I mean, I got attached to my kids. Added bonus to that, I keep on getting paid through the summer. So now I’m in Berlin, and so far, I’ve still had a steady paycheck.
Only, what to do now that I’m here? Back around the turn of the New Year, Charlotte encouraged me to sign up to this free website called Superprof. Basically, you post a profile as a teacher and wait for potential students to contact you. I had precisely zero requests until around the beginning of July. Then, I get a message from a student in Paris. She’s a very nice girl from Sicily and is currently studying in France. But she’s going to do a semester (or a year?) in California, so she wants to improve her conversational skills.
The point is, I get paid 20€ an hour to Skype with her and basically just chat. All I have to do is correct her grammar, occasionally explain some constructions and teach her a bit of slang.2 We get on quite well, meeting once or twice a week for an hour each time. And just like that, I’ve got some walking around money.
Meanwhile, while I was in Italy, I was contacted by a French bloke on behalf of a language school dans l’Hexagone. He was looking for an English teacher to do remote 1-to-1 one lessons, primarily focusing on “business English.”3 Anyway, we had a couple of Skype interviews, at the conclusion of which he basically offered me a job. That was at the beginning of August. However, I didn’t want to put any eggs in that basket yet, at least not until I had a formal contract in front of me. He said this would happen probably around the end of August/beginning of September. Nothing to do but wait.
Well, here we are at the end of August. And this week, it’s all finally begun. To start, he set me up with three students. I had my first lesson with two of them this week and I’ll start with the other on Tuesday. The engagement with each student is for ten hours, 20€/hour.4 To put it another way, that’s 600€ in a city where you can easily find rent for under 400€. And that’s only three students. Last we spoke, he said he’s got perhaps another ten lined up for me. Again, I’ll count those chickens when the contracts hatch, but it’s encouraging anyway.
As for the work itself, well, it’s almost laughably easy. At least so far. I asked my first two students what their objectives were and they basically said it comes down to wanting to improve their conversation skills for work; to feel more confident on conference calls, giving and/or listening to presentations. So basically, we just chat on the phone5 for 30-60 minutes and I correct their grammar, fix their idioms and pronunciation, teach them some new words. All from the comfort of home.
To be fair, there’s a bit more work on the back-end. I need to find study materials for them in between lessons, and I need to do some admin stuff vis-à-vis attendance and progress. But this is hardly intensive labor. And maybe I just got lucky with my first two students, but they’re both lovely guys, easy to talk to, and – at first impression, anyway – motivated and interested. And really, this is the sort of job I can do from anywhere, so long as there’s a decent internet or phone connection. In other words, I could theoretically fuck off to Prague for a week and not miss a day’s work. Though obviously I’d want to be quite a bit more established with the company before I start doing that sort of thing.
So this gig has a lot of advantages. But there is a slight tradeoff. On the one hand, it’s very nice to work 1-to-1. You can more easily build relationships, you can tailor each session to the particular student’s needs. On the other hand, you lose the performance aspect of running a class. And I know from experience, I can have a lot of fun running a class. I mean, that’s where you get to do comedy, you know? Still though, this is a pretty solid gig.
The only question is, is it enough to keep me here? The company is, after all, based in France, not Germany. Now, the original plan was to get a work permit that would allow me stay in Berlin indefinitely. And that may still be possible, if any of the language schools I applied to decide to get back to me. But there are, apparently, two other options. The first is a one-off six-month permit that allows me to stay here and look for work.6 The other is, from what I can tell, a sort of residency permit that’s not based around having a German job. If I understand aright – always a question with German bureaucracy – you simply need to have either enough money in the bank or enough money coming in. I’m hoping that if I can show a dozen or so contracts, plus maybe a letter from the company saying they intend to give me more, that this will be enough for either the six-monther or a general residency thing. My 90 days are up at the end of September so I’ll have to make an appointment with the relevant Amt in the next 7-10 days. I’m trying to be optimistic without getting my hopes up. But at least it’s feeling more attainable than at any point prior to now. But enough of this. I’m superstitious enough to worry about jinxing it all right here and now.
Not that I don’t love being here, but things have been a little off lately. I mean, I’ve been a little off lately. I was trying to remember earlier what they told us before we went away for our semester in London. They warned us that a depression or a homesickness or something of the sort was likely to set in around…well, this is the part I can’t remember. Was it two months? Whatever it was, in London, it happened right on cue. For all of us. And then it passed.
But that’s kind of where I’m at now. Not depressed. Not homesick. But something. Some kind of malaise. I’m not getting out of the house as much as I should. I’m not making enough of an effort to see the few friends I have. I stay up very late studying or writing, so that my day rarely ever gets going before noon. My German, which for quite a while felt like it was improving, now seems to be stagnating.
Maybe it’s the two-month blues. Maybe it’s because I have no real routine or anything to keep me properly busy. Maybe that’s all about to change as I start getting busy with work. To combat this, I try to walk wherever I need to go. The other day, I finally bought new sneakers. So rather than take a 15-minute train ride to Alexanderplatz – which people here apparently simply call ‘Alex’ but which I like to call ‘Aliplatz’ – I opted for the hour+ walk. It’s good exercise and its good podcast time, if nothing else. But more than anything, it gets me out of the house for a few hours.
Today I went for a four hour walk. This time, the goal was Treptower park, which is just lovely. This journey took me to some places I’d not yet seen, including a section of the Berlin Wall which is now a canvass for all sorts of public art/graffiti. I wasn’t able to determine, however, if this was actually a bit of in situ Mauer, or if it had been reassembled there for the purposes of being an art exhibit. I shall have to do some research on this.
Either way, this kind of stuff is what makes Berlin so great. Along the way, I passed by or through several parks. I came across at least three live music acts. And everywhere, you just see people out enjoying life and the city. It’s got a great spirit, this place.
Anja, too, has been helpful. She’s always pointing me to events via facebook, telling me about historical sights I should see or just slipping the odd flyer under my door for something she thinks I’ll dig. I just haven’t done a great job (yet) of following up on this stuff. And Mischa, bless him, is always leaving food for me on my shelf in the fridge.
I should say that I’ll be here again until the end of the month. My original intention was to find a new place for September. I mean, if I’m to stay here beyond 90 days, I really need to get my own place. I can’t just stay on as a Gast indefinitely. But really, it’s quite expensive here. Which is not to say it’s overpriced. In fact, I think it’s a great value, given the quality of the apartment, the people, all the extra perks and so on. It’s just not really in my price range. It’s fine when I’m on vacation, but if I’m going to live here as an employed person, I shall have to live within my means.
Be that as it may, I wasn’t able to find anything satisfactory for September. And they, originally, weren’t going to rent the room, as they are going to Turkey for part of the month. But when I asked if the room was free, they thought about it and said I was welcome to stay, because they know me by now. Which, I mean, is just so solid. So here I am for another month, and perfectly happy about it.
Oh, remember when I said I wasn’t homesick? I mean, that’s essentially true. But lately I’ve found myself dying for some properly good Chinese food. I’ve yet to find a real-deal hand-pulled noodle soup, never mind soup dumplings. Mind you, I had the same problem on Long Island. It’s all “white people Chinese food.” I mean, where’s the tripe? Where’s the tendon? Where are the ducks hanging in the window? Not to say it doesn’t exist here, just that I haven’t found It yet. Does Berlin have an actual Chinatown? If so, can somebody please tell me where it is? And also pizza. My kingdom for a New York slice. So maybe I’m just a touch homesick.
Going to sleep has been a different kind of adventure. For most of my life, I’d always fallen asleep with music on. But a few years ago, after all the Star Treks had come onto Netflix, I started falling asleep to that. It was basically a kind of music. I mean, I’d seen them all so many times, I basically knew them by heart. I wouldn’t even watch them. I’d just listen, and usually I’d be asleep before the opening credits kicked in.
But when I got here, I discovered that Star Trek wasn’t on German Netflix. So I need to find something else. This usually took the form of some David Attenborough narrated nature documentary. That worked well enough. Or there was baseball. Yankee games start at 1am here, which is fine if I’m in bed before four. I can always fall asleep to baseball.
Even nicer, though, are the nights when I do stay up til four. I mean, sure I miss the Yanks, but the West Coast games are just getting underway. This means the Dodgers. Which means Vin Scully. And there may not be anything better on the radio than Vin Scully calling a Dodgers game. So that’s a guaranteed win, if I’m up late enough.
And now, finally, Star Trek is here. For now, it’s just the original series. But I believe the rest will soon follow. Reason being, it seems Netflix will carry the new Trek series over here, when it debuts next year. So I guess they got their hands on the old stuff to drum up interest. Whatever the case, I can finally put some Star Trek on at bedtime, and this makes me quite happy indeed.
Well, that’s it for now, I suppose. The next couple of weeks should prove quite interesting, and quite determinative as well. And that’s not even talking about whatever travels I’m able to make in the month of September. Surely there will be a few. But that’s for another day. Until then.
A brief note on the ol’ sei gesund. I finally asked a real German person if this is a thing that anybody says in German. She said no, you’re more likely to hear bleib gesund. Different verb, same essential meaning. So although the Yiddish version would be instantly understandable to any German, it would nevertheless sound a bit off. But obviously Imma keep saying it. Incidentally, I mentioned my blog to this same person, and she said, “Oh, what’s it called, Ein Ami in Deutschland?” Heh, close enough.
- I later asked him how much he had to do with my actual hiring. Almost nothing, was the answer. Obviously he had recommended me, but really it was up to the AP. “I’m your friend, I can’t hire you. Conflict of interest.” So while he got me in the door, apparently I scored the gig on my own merits. Which is what you want, obviously. [↩]
- For example, “You’re going to California, so you need to learn the word hella.” [↩]
- Business English, btw, was more or less the focus of my CELTA training, as that what’s the school where I took the class focuses on. [↩]
- 20€/hour was the price I had listed on my Superprof page. However, I’m stuck wondering if I could have got more, because he agreed to that rate quite readily. [↩]
- Or Whatsapp or Skype or Viber or whatever. [↩]
- Though not actually to work. But presumably this is good enough to get a job offer, and once you do, I gather it’s no big deal to change over to the work permit. [↩]