Thursday, March 26, 2009

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Everyone knows how to do a job interview. The same rules apply basically everywhere. Dress appropriately, have a couple of stock stories ready, prepare a few questions you want to ask, decide how to build yourself up, what to keep quiet about, how much you're willing to work for, and when. Smile big when you shake hands, don't cross your arms, don't talk too much, don't fidget, don't lie, be yourself. The rest you play by ear.

I have been on a million interviews. Back home, if I got an interview, I considered myself pretty much in. They've had tons of applicants, I've made it to the top ten or so, now all I have to do is go there and shine. No big deal. I can't think of a single--not even one!--interview on which I've gone and not walked away with the job.

Until I came here, that is. In the last three months I have been on four interviews and had two trials, and still don't have a job. What is this, New York City?

Statistically speaking, although I pay about €240 rather than $2400 for my shoebox of an apartment, the number of applicants per job in Berlin rivals that in the Big Apple. London is seeing even worse rates of unemployment. Which explains why I can interview for jobs that a monkey can do and still fail to get them.

I have interviewed for jobs in department stores, offices, coffee shops, cafes, bistros, head shops, fruit stands, etc. in North America and landed them all. I think managers everywhere must be part of some secret Masonic society, because regardless of what kind of job it is they seem to ask all the same questions. They want to know what your favorite and least favorite jobs were, how you handle stress, a story about a bad experience you had at work, how punctual you are, what sort of things you do in your spare time, where you see yourself in five years, why you want this job, how long you want to stay. Standard.

Here, though, not so much. In (almost) every interview I've gone on--whether I got the job or not--the interviewer starts off with, "So. Tell me about yourself."

When you're an expat in a foreign land, you generally have an answer to this question that sets you apart from the other applicants, although it hardly needs saying that it becomes exponentially more difficult when your command of the dominant language is mediocre at best.

I will now describe today's interview in Shakespearian format (as if I know what that is).

Enter Odessa. After a quick glance around, she spots two young men, both of whom are looking at her expectantly. Neither says a word. She asks if one is Chris, he shakes his head. Presumably, the other is Chris. He shrugs, limply accepts her proffered hand. The other man accepts the hand with an amused smile.

Odessa: So! Hallo!
Chris: Yes, hallo...
Odessa: Turning to other man Hallo! Good morning!
Other man: Nods
Odessa: waits a couple of seconds for a return greeting or question
Chris: Breathes
Odessa: Brightly All right!
Chris: So... how is your German?
Odessa: Laughs Well, some days it's better than others. Other Man appears amused
Chris: OK. What do you do?
Odessa: Well, professionally I'm an English teacher, but I actually am taking some time off from that so I can improve my German! Laughs as if intimating a private joke; Other Man appears amused, Chris appears to have the personality of a salamander
Chris: Do you have _______, _______, ________, etc etc [technical requirements]
Odessa: Yes, No, Yes, Yes
Chris: Do you have any other jobs?
Odessa: Nope
Chris: So you're pretty much always free?
Odessa: Yep
Chris: Because we want someone who can work at least three days a week.
Odessa: OK
Chris: It's a fast-paced, high-stress job. That's not a problem for you?
Odessa: Nope, not at all.
Chris: Well, that was it takes Polaroid We have so many people you know, I just have to have a face to put with a name
Odessa: Haha
Chris: If I want to hire you I will call you next week. Goodbye
Odessa: OK, have a nice day! Shakes hands

Exit Odessa

When I walked into the place, I was confident and relaxed, like in the picture above. But by the end of it I was looking more like thisThese guys sure know how to put a girl at ease. //end sarcasm// Everyone knows that the #1 Interview No-No is talking too damn much. But when you're sitting across from a reticent gay man who appears to be allergic to verbal communication and is looking at you as if you were of a strange yet wholly unremarkable species of insect, who's to know what's too much? I was afraid of offending his delicate sensibilities. I get the feeling that working with him is like working with a feral cat and pot of nitroglycerine. Make one wrong move and it's all over. This guy knows absolutely nothing about me, yet my immediate fate could lie in his hands. Who wants a boss who has no idea who you are, and worse, isn't even interested in finding out?

Hopefully Monday's interview goes a bit smoother.

Monday, March 23, 2009

We All Have Our Priorities

In the US, there are roughly two schools of thought about tax dollars. One set believes that government should remain small, that public schools should stay underfunded because the only people who deserve a good education are those who can afford it, that the only people who deserve free healthcare are children, and that in general anyone who needs financial help from the government is a criminal, while supporting illegal Asian land wars that set the country in debt from now until the apocalypse. The other set believes that it's the government's job to take care of all of its citizens, even if they can't/won't get a job, that public schools are possibly the single most important resource we have in terms of ensuring a healthy and balanced future, that everyone deserves health care, even if he can't speak English or pay for a doctor, and that illegal Asian land wars, are, well... illegal.

There are a couple of points on which these two schools converge, however. It is generally believed that taxpayer money going to repair streets and infrastructure is a good thing, necessary even. Very few die-hard Republicans will shit on the idea of a public library full of books that anyone can read for free. No one thinks that career welfarism is beneficial to society. Everyone ought to have options when it comes to healthcare.

In this crazy upside-down world called Deutschland, however, the priorites are all different. There might not be a huge conflict about the money levied to schools, but then again not everyone is allowed to finish anyway (only with teacher recommendation does a kid continue onto 13th grade--the stupider/poorer/browner kids are advised to leave in 10th grade and begin working a proper job). On that and a couple of other key issues, they leave me baffled.

1. Healthcare/insurance - If you are an Ausländer (foreigner), you are required to have health insurance at all times while living in this country. If you are found without insurance, you may be forced to pay back insurance into the state system, which would have had to cover you in the case of an emergency. Disregard the fact that you have neither requested nor required their assistance--you are going to pay for it whether you needed it or not, gotdammit.

It is illegal for a person to begin work uninsured. It makes no difference whether you're a pencil-pusher or a construction worker. Risk factor is not a factor. On top of that, if you make under €400 a month at your job, your employer is not required to contribute to your insurance, which creates a convenient loophole for any crooked entrepreneur looking to save a few bucks. As a result it is difficult to land an entry-level position in a company who is willing to hire you full time, so you're stuck working two and three part-time jobs just to pay the bills. Meanwhile, Uncle Klaus expects you to pony up the money for your own mandatory health insurance. My partner is a healthy, non-smoking man of normal height and weight with no pre-existing health conditions, and his insurance is €122 ($165) per month. This is a killer for people who can't afford to work three jobs in order to make ends meet. Back home, lots of healthy people skip paying health insurance because they neither need nor can afford it, and can visit a clinic or ER when they do need medical attention. Unfortunately that option is not available here.

2. Public Libraries - Isn't the point of a public library that a) anyone can use them b) for free? At the moment, I'm flat broke, and my library card is expired. The Berlin Public Library system does not know or care that my literacy is failing at an alarming rate due to my inability to pay them €10 to renew my card. FREE FREE FREE. You are not supposed to have to pay for the library, did I mention that the library is supposed to be free? Next they'll be telling me that they butter their bread upside down. Don't make me bring a multi-colored egg to your border.

3. Welfare - These fucking drunk layabouts (God bless 'em) and their fucking ugly dogs (God bless 'em) standing around drinking fucking cheap beers (bless) and talking on their cell phones (bless) and harrassing young women minding their own gotdamn bidness (bless 'em) are getting their RENT PAID plus their GEZ (television tax) and THEN another four hundred euro with which to buy cigarettes and frozen pizza. Here, let me show you what a sample benefits appointment would look like if I worked in the welfare office:

Me: I see here that you are 28 and a high school graduate, is that correct?
Applicant: Yes ma'am (damn right s/he's calling me ma'am)
Me: Do you have any children?
Applicant: No, ma'am.
Me: Do you have any disabilities?
Applicant: No, ma'am.
Me: Are you a veteran?
Applicant: No, ma'am.
Me: Do you speak English as your first language?
Applicant: Yes, ma'am.
Me: Are you a convicted felon?
Applicant: No, ma'am.
Me: Can you read?
Applicant: Yes, ma'am.
Me: Do you know your multiplication tables?
Applicant: Yes, ma'am.
Me: (quiet)
Me: (what the fuck do I do with this kid)
Me: Where have you applied for employment so far?
Applicant: Coffee shops and upscale bistros, ma'am.
Me: (beating him/her over the head with a clipboard) Get out of my office! Out!! Out!! Go line up at the day laborer's, you lazy sack of... (bless 'em)

Now, when I found myself unemployed at the age of 20, I had already contributed thousands of dollars to the social security system and was entitled to $160 per week. That was technically my money. If you're in your 20s or 30s or God forbid even older than that, and you haven't got a job, then the first place to turn is unemployment, not welfare. I can't remember much of what I did while I was unemployed (due to the copious amounts of reefer I smoked) but at least I didn't stand around in front of the mall with my pit bull, in a dirty Metallica t-shirt and tattered cargo pants, drinking at 10 in the morning and verbally abusing passersby.

4. Jaywalking - This is the one crime that nearly every American lets his fellow American get away with. You might hear of a citizen's arrest in the event of assault, theft, or vandalism. The average person might call the cops when they hear screaming next door, see a little kid being carted off by a swarthy man in a trenchcoat, or witness an arson. What is extremely unlikely is that one citizen will scream obscenities at another citizen because that citizen chose to walk against a red light when no cars were coming. Even less likely is that that citizen will wait patiently for all the tumbleweed and crickets to cross the street and for the light to turn green, then catch up with the jaywalker, and chew him out about his civil responsibilities. So impossible as to be unheard of, will a citizen follow and pester a jaywalking citizen for two blocks, actually seizing the jaywalker's arm and advising him to think about the example he is setting for the children, despite the fact that there had been none about.

Contrast that with the repeatedly proven fact that a German will walk past the scene of an attempted murder, an act of vandalism in progress, or blatant theft, and behave as if it were the most normal thing in the world for people to stand in front of train stations, stabbing one another with broken beer bottles.

America - 1
Germany - 0

In terms of jaywalking and libraries, anyway.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Day in Mr. Özmaniglu's Neighborhood

I had a bit of a walkies through my neighborhood the other day, to take some pictures (which will randomly pop up with neither rhyme nor reason during this post, just to show you a bit of where I live) becaues it was a beautiful day, and because I had been sitting in my house fucking around on the internet instead of doing anything productive. Ahh, the unemployed life.

When I was a girl of 17 or so I used to think that the most remarkable things happened to me. Every "deep" conversation with a worldly, well-read stranger was an "experience". I went out of my way to let weird stuff into my life, because I believed that the only path to an authentic existence was to expose oneself to as many bizarre and uncommon things as possible. I felt sorry for and superior to people who sought to shelter themselves from unpleasantries.

Fast forward ten years. I have had enough of the "authentic" life, now I just want you to get out of my face. Neukölln, or Kreuzkölln as we tourists affectionately call it, is a big, sometimes rough, always dirty, Turkish neighborhood here in Berlin. As I'm ambiguously brown I usually go about my business, without anyone paying me much mind one way or the other. But not long ago, I was walking down my street, when some idiot in tight pants told me I was holding my head a little too high and that I needed to show some humility, because I was in Neukölln (ostensibly this means that here in Muslimworld, women know their place). This is only slightly more of an outrage than the time that I had a bit of a limp from spraining my ankle and was hobbling quickly to the train station when another idiot in tight pants asked me why I thought I was a man (he didn't like the way I was walking).

Now keep in mind that it is a very diverse neighborhood, I mean, in terms of Muslims that is. Most of them are Turks, some are from Lebanon and Syria, but in general it is a pretty relaxed place. Women wearing hajibs driving cars and talking on cell phones. Girls and even older women without their heads covered at all, smoking cigarettes and making out with their boyfriends at the busstop. Only rarely do you see a lady completely covered from head to toe, with the gloves and all. (The photo above was not taken in my hood.) But I have to wonder what kind of family these guys come from, where a generally well-behaved young lady like myself draws such attention. Perhaps I ought to be pushing a stroller and languishing under a burka instead of wearing a backpack and undoing the top button. I dunno.

Back to my recent walk. I meandered a bit, chasing water towers (pictured at top) and historical promenades (not pictured because I was scared of losing my camera). Schillerpromenade is a big cobblestone street with a green strip down the middle that Turkish kids use to loiter in. Someone get these children a proper park. Ping pong tables are for playing ping-pong on, not for smoking cigarettes and feeling up whorish German girls on. Similarly, football pitches are for playing soccer on, not for standing around listening to tinny music on your cell phone on. I have never been scared to walk down any street in broad daylight in Berlin, but the situation here was crucial. You know something is wrong when at 6pm the only people on the streets are gangs of kids aged 9 - 17. Not even old German guys have the balls to run around here. After ignoring a comment from a presumptuous youth and finding myself trapped in a sea of potential delinquents (and witnessing a fist fight) I decided to get back to civilization.
I was only a block away from Hermannstraße when an African hair shop caught my eye. There are only two kinds of shops I randomly wander into here, and that's jewelry stores and hair shops. While I am not currently in need of any six-foot long, neon orange swatches of synthetic hair, I am always looking for the next cheap place to get my Black People Products (like cocoa butter and Pink Lotion). This particular shop was full of people sitting around drinking beer, so instead of crashing their party, I just browsed through the window. The people inside noticed and waved me in. Usually, I would just sort of make some passive gesture and slink away, but for some reason I was feeling bold, and went inside.

A pleasantly brash kaleidoscope of pidgin French and English whirled round and round my head, and I tried my best to focus on the products in front of me, and not to eavesdrop. It didn't work, and soon enough someone asked me what I wanted to drink and offered me a chair. What am I, 17 again? I should have just politely refused, gone home, cooked dinner, and done something appropriately boring. Instead, I accepted the beer and sat down. And another one.

During the course of the two hours I was sat there, three separate men attempted to talk me out of my underwear. Now what is wrong with me? Why didn't I just leave? I guess for the same reason that they didn't just let me stand out in the cold--it seemed sort of wrong, like wasting an opportunity, to sever contact with other black people, even if one of them is a guy who's invited me to come to a meeting of his "NGO" the next day where his Turkish friend, Murat, who has just completed his terrorist training, is going to teach the group some Near Eastern drumming.

I even stayed after this same guy had had a couple too many beers and got aggressive with the proprietors of the establishment and some of their friends. I stayed after the proprietor kicked him out and proclaimed that he was not to come within 100 meters of the store (evidently he is a judge or something, because now Mr Terrorism NGO can't even eat a kebab next door, according to his mandate). I stayed after one of the crazy-cocky women who'd been strutting and clucking like a chicken with her stories and anecdotes had the nerve to ask me why I'd pierced my lip (while she herself had pierced her gums... gross) but I was on my way out.

All in all it was a lovely day, but I think it was a bit more authentic than I usually care for. I think I should go back to being a grumpy old Republican (ok I'm not quite a Republican but you get the picture) who hates trying new things or being exposed to different ways of life, who thinks everyone should go back to Africa and that all young people have lost their minds.

But I got home with my camera, two free beers and a bit of a story to tell, so it wasn't much of a loss, was it? ;)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

As I approached the corner of Erkelenzdamm, I knew I was in for trouble. In the bar before the turn were at least ten customers--middle-aged men on holiday, chain-smoking and drinking top shelf Scotch. If these guys weren't next door, then next door must be...

...uncomfortably crowded, which it was. Murray's doesn't allow smoking inside until after midnight and their customers know this, so when one sees that their enormous patio is almost full on a freezing March night, one knows immediately that the place is stuffed to the gills with English speaking, Guinness-swilling ex-pats and the Germans who tolerate them.

Luckily, as soon as I walked in the door, I spotted my girls Laura and Lucy sitting at the bar. Lucy, who used to manage Murray's, asked me immediately what I'd like to drink and when I replied with a firm "uhhh hmmm, well I dunno, ummmmm" she ordered me a Guinness. For the record, I despise Guinness, and said so. Well, maybe not like that. Maybe more like, "Ha ha, I fuckin' HATE Guinness." She didn't seem to care, so I decided that she was buying the drink for me. Wrong. The bartender asked for €4; luckily Laura had cash.

Not a great start to the evening, but hell, I'm in the mood to be festive and choke down a beer on which the head is the best part (not a good sign) if it brings me that much closer to getting in the Saint Paddy's mood; I've got on my green hoodie--I'm ready to party. Things are going well, despite my being shoved and cajoled about, which I usually can't stand, but, what the hell, I'm drinking fucking puke beer and packed into a sardine can with a bunch of tourists... might as well make the best of it.

As you can see, the place is full (this photo actually doesn't give justice to how standing-room-only it was), but that's no reason to be impolite--check the look on the face of the kid in the beige beanie trying to get through the crowd. He is obviously attempting to make himself as small as possible, to avoid spilling his drink or those of others, to avoid shoving anybody--in other words, to avoid a fight.

Not all patrons were as polite that night however. One guy, a huge, eight-foot-tall monstrosity of a man, kept shoving Laura until I got pissed off enough to ask him politely if someone was shoving him and if that's why he was shoving her. He answered that the bar was full i.e. "tough shit". I told him in my sweetest possible voice that shoving's not nice, we don't like shoving, and he said--ha--"well I don't like your loudmouthed approach." Evidently he wanted me to get loud, so I indulged him, and with both hands pushed big apelike ass out of our space. Holy crap did that dude weigh a ton.

St. Paddy's, after that, turned out to be a real fucking drag. Not because of the nasty ape (there was some other wasted pushing-type girls later, but they were smaller and more female and thus less likely to incur my wrath) but because, simply put, there were too many fucking Irish people there. Working there, drinking there, performing acoustic karaoke there. Bummer city. Those who were not Irish were either Brits aged 23 - 40 (somewhere around 40 - dead in American years... God how they "mature" at such a different rate) or North Americans aged 18 - 30 i.e. clueless kids running up their parents' credit card bills on their first Overseas Experience. The Yank and Snow-Yank irritation factor is easy to figure out, but if you've never been in a bar full of grownup British people you have no idea how absolutely fucking dull and alchoholic they are.

I mean, it's St. Paddy's for Chrissake... where are the Girls Gone Wild, the fucked-up frat boys, the Rohypnol-armed cougars, anyone... fun? Nope, it was just a bunch of "authentic" types sitting around drinking warm, watered-down Guinness at four euro a pop and swapping pub stories. Yawn.

I left and walked home at about four in the morning. You know a party's a wash when you've drunk your weight in beer and you're still not drunk. Or when you've spent the last two hours watching sloppy Irish people scour the floors for remnants of forgotten pussy. I swear, if even one person had worn a "Kiss Me I'm Irish" tshirt the night could have been saved.

Next year I think I'll go out for Mexican and drink Dos Equis instead of going out for Irish and drinking over-priced, under-delicious beer.

Everyone's an Expert

A lot of times when I'm wandering through this strange Super Mario phase called "my life", I tend to think out loud. "It sure would be nice to find this or that thing", or "I should probably see a doctor about xyz", or "I heard that this or that band is coming to town", and so on and so forth. Most of the time the Luigis and Goombas of my world either nod, ignore me, or respond, "yeah I've been looking for one too, I saw an ad online" or "such-and-such is a good website for that, I found a great doctor through them" or "that's so-and-so's favorite band, he'll be so excited".

Then you have the name-droppers.

The people who can get you in any door, a lower price on any object, a superior service or product, faster/bigger/better this-that-or-the-other thing, if you just mention their names.

Example 1

Person A: "I'm thinking of going to White Trash tomorrow for a burger and a beer." (fairly straightforward activity, requires no outside assistance)

Pathetic Name-Dropper: "Oh my god the servers there are so fucking rude but if you find Wally, he runs the place, he's an American? We used to snort coke together, back when I traveled with his band. Say hi to him for me and tell him you want to sit at table 46, you get the best view of the stage and you're right next to the bar so you never have to wait more than two minutes for a drink." (forget that Wally is busy working and doesn't give two shits if you're his grandmother, you're going to get seated where he has space, and the burger/beer is going to taste/cost the same one way or the other, withouth involving a complete cokehead stranger)

Example 2

Person A: "I need a new tattoo."

PND: (without bothering to ask what kind, how big, on which part of the body) "Go down to Flaming Hearts and tell Johnny I said hi, he'll give you one for free. He still owes me from that time I washed all of his dishes after a live-band kegger at his house."

Person A: "You really think he's going to give me a free tattoo... a tattoo that could cost hundreds of dollars... because you washed up some cups? Don't you think he'd rather spend that time, you know, making money?"

PND: (eyes glaze over)

Example 3

Person A: "I hear Copenhagen is lovely in the spring, I might go up for a weekend."

PND: "Oh! I have a friend there! Let me call her up, I'm sure you can stay at her place, she'll show you around, I'll arrange everything."

Person A: "Um... That's OK... I was sort of just thinking I'd stay in a hostel and walk around the city a bit with a map or something." (not to mention how creepy, awkward, and inconvenient it would be to sleep in the home of a stranger to which you have no key)

PND: "You haaaaaaaaaave to see it through the eyes of a local, though! Oh and you absolutely must go to Museum X, on Boat Trip Y, and to Nightclub Z! You and so-and-so can meet up for lunch and drinks and then she'll show you around."

Person A: "Really, that's not necessary. I'll be fine, but thanks for the offer."

PND: (desperate now) "It's no bother! Don't worry, I'll make sure to meddle in your trip in every way shape and form, thus depriving you of any choice in the matter whatsoever!"

Person A: "Good day."

PND: (sobbing) "Please!!!"

Person A: "I said GOOD DAY!"

And God forbid you should ever let it slip to PND that you like music or know how to read. PND will always have a laundry list of bands you ABSOLUTELY MUST LISTEN TO RIGHT FUCKING NOW or books that anyone who considers themselves a modern intellectual (but what if we don't?) has read. Nothing is going to get you out of having to endure a book or band that PND has decided you must read or listen to. Just pretend to be tone-deaf and illiterate; it will save you a heap of time reading and listening to shit in which you have zero interest.

I know that people are just "trying to help". And it's not that I dislike recommendations, suggestions or tips. I think it's grand that you've been there before and can tell me that this or that thing is overrated or overpriced. What I don't really understand is why you believe that my tastes and preferences will be exactly the same as yours. As a matter of fact, my tastes and preferences differ wildly from those of even my closest friends and relatives. I like to do my shit, my way, which is why I like traveling and shopping alone.

No matter. Helpfulness is always well-meant. But when the offer of the "help" suddenly and mysteriously becomes a catalyst for all your name-dropping stories, I begin to question your motives. Not that at 27 years old I would ever DARE walk into an establishment, any establishment, and say, "Hi there, my name is Odessa, you've never met me but I was wondering if I could just sort of wander around backstage/in your kitchen/drive your car/have something for free? I am the acquaintance of an acquaintance of yours--we might as well be related by blood." I don't think so.

Furthermore, PNDs often neglect to ask you if you've got a plan of your own. You could have a thing fairly figured out when PND decides to rearrange everything for you according to their past experiences, but that doesn't matter. PND knows what's best for you because she knows what's best for her and if that's not what's best for everybody then what is the world coming to, anyway?

Sometimes I think I should just keep my mouth shut. But the good thing about PNDs is that they tend to give themselves away fairly quickly, having recommendations for everything that you don't need help choosing, like tampons, radio stations, and books. Sigh... it makes you wonder who the people are who really do benefit from this guidance...?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

TIPS - To Insure Prompt Service?

One of the biggest cultural differences between Berlin and my native hometown of Seattle can be observed in the art of dining out.

Germans, and German men in particular, are probably the cheapest (and rudest) breed of human being ever known to man. My boyfriend is even cheaper than my father, and that is speaking volumes. My man will scrimp 5 cents here and 20 cents there to take home a more inexpensive, but usually inferior product from the store--and then wonder how he wound up with such a worthless piece of crap. On the extremely rare occasion that we get to go to dinner, I tremble when the bill comes, because I know a huge heaping helping of cheap is about to be served up to the waiter, unless I proactively intervene and prevent this cringe-worthy disaster.

As a kid in a single-child, single-parent household, we went out to eat A LOT. I had been well-versed in the practices and norms of restaurant dining before starting first grade. Eating out really isn't that difficult, but even seasoned veterans like my own mother slip up sometimes. There are a only a couple of basic rules of thumb, but if you break any of them, it is likely that I will never willingly sit down to a meal with you again. Here are some of my ground rules, adapted both for the West Coast of the United States and for Berlin, starting from the moment you walk in the door:

In the Super-Cool, Laid-Back Northwest

1. If you don't like the table to which your server is leading you, alert them to that fact before you sit down and get water and silverware and that. Don't sit down and then whine and point to the table by the window after you've already eaten half the chips and salsa and gotten smudge marks all over everything. Now the server has had to unnecessarily set up TWO tables for your party. Time is money.

2. Never. Ever. Argue with the server. If you want a substitution and he can't do it, or to do it will cost you extra, don't fucking set up a picket line in front of the restaurant until the manager comes. You are not in any way special to this person. He has just informed you of the restaurant's policy. If you truly believe you have been discriminated against or something, then discreetly ask to speak to the manager, and don't make him come to your table. Go speak to him somewhere privately and prevent putting him, your dining companions, your server, and yourself on display for the rest of the restaurant to gawk at.

3. If you don't like your food because something is wrong with it (cooked improperly, shard of glass found, isn't what you ordered, is too spicy) then send it back after you've taken A BITE OR TWO and decided it is unsatisfactory. If you don't like your food because you think the beans came out of a can (and the menu doesn't promise fresh beans) then suck it up. Either choke it down, trade with someone at the table who doesn't believe they are the Queen of Fucking England, or quietly set it aside. Who knows, the server might even ask you why you're not eating it, and maybe if you tell him, he will get something else for you. You may not send back the food because it doesn't conform to your unrealistically high standards, especially if you're at a $10 a plate establishment--if you know exactly how you want your food, and are unwilling to settle for anything less/different, then you should stay at home and cook the meal yourself (what I often do for this very reason). You may not eat half, most, or all of it, and then decide you would like to have it for free. The point is not whether it can be sold again. The point is whether your complaint is genuine, or whether you just like to take advantage of sycophantic General Managers who will comp in a heartbeat just to shut you up.

4. Tip. If the service is bad, tip 5 - 10%. If the service was average, tip 10 - 15%. If the service was good, tip 15 - 20%. If you want to bang the waiter or convince him that you are a stalker, tip 20 - 25%. I know the temptation to overtip can be strong, but seriously you just wind up looking like a kissass or a groupie. Unless it's his birthday/you can see he's stressed out but still doing a fantastic job/it's Christmas then 20% is probably the most you should tip. Not tipping is not an option, unless you were verbally insulted and found AIDS in your soup. "Funny" tipping, like tipping all in nickels, or leaving ten rolls of pennies, or just leaving a dime to show how displeased you were with the service, is something that no one over the age of 14 does. Ever.

In Über-Cool, Entspannende Berlin

1. Seat yourself. It doesn't matter where you sit. No one will tell you where to sit, and no one cares where you pick, unless they'd been using that table to take their breaks at (the staff's comfort will ALWAYS come before yours).

2. Wait for up to half an hour for someone to come talk to you. It is not acceptable to become upset about the wait. It is über uncool and the people you are with will look at you as if you had complained about spots on the stemware or the silver being improperly polished (completely bourgeouis behavior and never tolerated by anyone, ever).

3. When the server comes, nine times out of ten, she will be a complete bitch, will not know anything that is not written on the menu, and will act like you are wasting her time, even and especially if the place is empty. She will forget at least three things and you will have to go up to the counter/bar area, ask for it, wait for it, and bring it back yourself. The server will not express any remorse about this.

4. If you don't like the food, tough. I once waited an hour and a half for a dish to arrive at my table cold. Our server had been, for the past hour, flirting with old guys for tips and making sure they were comfortable--going so far as lugging around heating towers and leaning over their table a lot--while completely ignoring us. I KNEW that the food would be cold when it got to our table--it was painfully obvious that she was fucking around and not doing her job. When the food arrived, I didn't even take a bite out of it; I stuck a finger in the middle of it and told the server I wouldn't be paying for cold food and that she could take it back. She demanded that I "speak to her in a different way" because I was evidently being disrespectful about paying for ice-cold food. My dining companion was mortified. The girl DID NOT comp the dish or offer to bring me another one. We ACTUALLY PAID for the appetizer and drinks we'd had while waiting a full 90 minutes for our food. The girl however was in tears and her co-workers looked at us as if we had beaten her across the face with the cold meal. Moral of the story: if you don't like what you got--tough.

5. At the end of the meal, if you have any jingly change left over, you may leave it as a tip. For example, if your bill was €38.42, you may leave the .58 as a tip, and the server will actually thank you. On the other hand, if you do not choose to leave this .58, then you are a dick and the server's eyes will shoot nuclear bombs in your general direction. On the third hand, if you come from a tipping country, like I do, and tip say, six bucks on a €38 tab (unheard of in these parts) the server will take you to be the fool you are and sort of shrug off your existence, maybe feel a little sorry for you. Do not expect any gross displays of gratitude. Although these people make €5 an hour and depend on their tips as does any server anywhere, acting grateful goes against their beliefs and you may also be unfavorably marked as a groupie. Stick to tipping €3 or under, even if your bill is in the thousands of Euros. Rewarding good service is an alien concept here and disregarded as just more clueless, touristy behavior.

6. If you are unhappy with your dining experience, you must remember that you--in all probability--got what you paid for.

I used to cook a few times a month when I lived in Seattle because going out was such a pleasant experience and way of life. So in a way, Berlin's horrible, HORRIBLE restaurant scene has been beneficial to my life, because I cook literally every day now. I've learned tons of new dishes and am a whiz at serving and cleaning.

Too bad no one bothers to tip me for the effort.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Suicide Is Totally Not the New Black

Suicide is soooooo 90s.

I read a comment the other day on a blog featuring a picture of a girl in hideous pants who was smoking a cigarette. The comment said, "People still smoke?" Who says that? Yes, people still smoke. There do exist people who you know, are addicted to smoking? People who don't smoke Lucky Strikes just because Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco, and Is Toasted? What's next... "People still drink?" Indeed. Ten years after all you hipster wanna-bes have supplanted six PBRs per night in an overpriced scene bar with one glass of Shiraz per week with dinner, there will still be people in your graduating class who drink to forget. Not everyone is going through a phase, could you be any more naive?

I must admit that when I heard Siobhan* broke down into tears and confessed her suicidal thoughts, I marvelled at the passé-ness of wanting to kill yourself. You couldn't get more cliché if you wanted to--getting shitfaced drunk, dancing and singing, being pushed in a shopping cart to your favorite bar, laughing and playing with complete strangers, having the time of your life, then slumping against the wall in a crowded club toilet on a Saturday night and talking about ending it all. Streaky mascara tears and requests for "one more drink" while you seriously consider what the point of anything is.


I'm glad I wasn't there for that. I don't reckon I have a lot of time for suicidals, and certainly not ones with no major complaints. Your husband didn't leave you for his 22-year-old secretary. You're not losing your house. You didn't gamble away the family fortune. Your dog isn't dead. All you've really got to deal with is sorting out why you're here on this spinning rock and how you plan on making sense of it all. In what way you plan on "organizing your personality" (love that term) around the ostensible senselessness of the human existence. I'm glad that I just pushed the shopping cart, then took myself home to eat some pasta and sleep off the vodka.

What happened later was even more miss-worthy. At the second bar, Lucretia* gets a phone call which prompts her to hail a taxi and drag Siobhan and Mary* along with her on her crusade to prevent a FOURTH party from offing herself that night. When they arrive they notice the girl looks a bit sleepy and has cut marks all over her arms. So what do Mary and Siobhan to do give the girl a reason to live? Thrust their tongues down her, and each other's throats--just to give an authentic Foxfire-esque edge to the whole sordid saga. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that room. The stench of three sweaty drunk bitches with rivers of make-up oozing down their necks coupled with the odor of desperation, blood and aloe vera moisturizing strip. Mary evidently wrapped up the evening by delivering the sound, life-affirming advice that only a 22-year-old who was raised on a horse farm can give a suicidal stranger from an urban hellhole.

Now Mary is my good friend and told me all about this nonsense the next day. When she finished her story, she exclaimed in a self-satisfied tone, "Isn't that crazy? I mean, wow."

I said: "The only crazy thing about that story is that you let your fool self get dragged into a cab at six in the morning to go save the life of some bitch you've never even met. All I know is that if I were trying to kill myself, the last thing in the world that I would want is some girl I've never set eyes on trying to talk me out of it. Why you involved yourself in that hot-ass mess I really don't know. I hope you learned your lesson."

Allison, to whom I later relayed the highlights of the story, mused, "Who knows? Maybe she does have a reason to kill herself. Maybe she's a child-rapist or something. Some people need to die." I could do nothing but concur.

I reckon suicide is corny as well as out of style, but I am by no means insensitive to the realities of it. There are tons of valid reasons why a person might not want to wake up the next day, but if they're not my good friend or relative, and I know nothing about that person, I am not getting in a cab out to the middle of fucking nowhere and making out with them until ten the next morning. I am going home to eat pasta and sleep off the vodka.

Another friend told me about some men she knew who had succeeded in killing themselves. Knowing already the answer, I asked her how they went about it. One shot himself in the face, the other hung himself. Fairly fail-proof methods of dying. Giving yourself minor lacerations with a Lady Bic or swallowing twenty-five aspirin and a thimble-full of cough syrup just ain't going to cut it. Don't cry for help, ask for it. Call me insensitive, but I really can't be dropping everything every time you want to cry wolf.

I think suicide is horrible. I also believe in God. I also believe that most people with some sort of spiritual awareness are less likely to pretend to want to kill themselves than someone who can't stay sober long enough to contemplate the possibility of an existence divorced from the (ab)use of drugs, alcohol, and prime-time politics. There really is more to life than partying and ideology, but understanding that takes a bit of patience and certainly is not to be worked out while hunched over a filthy sewer of a toilet sniffing moist cocaine through a crumpled €10 bill.

The moral of the story is: smoking, drinking and gambling away the family fortune may not be phases, but wanting to kill yourself probably is. Do me a favor and leave me out of it, unless you want one last shopping-cart ride before you go.

*names changed to protect the sloppy-drunk.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Fully Qualified Layabout

Being unemployed is ass, but the upside of it is that everyone and his dog is out of work at the moment (misery loves company)--even if the dog has a double degree in something smart, like architecture, and not something stupid, like Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Berlin also happens to be one of the worst places a retail-slave-turned-pretend-intellectual-with-a-very-limited-visa could be while on the job-hunt. There are a crapton of English teaching jobs, but just like salmon or airline tickets, you have to snatch them up at precisely the right moment, or else both the quality and quantity are either faltering or outright lacking. But even salmon season lasts longer than a couple of weeks. In Berlin, because everyone is certified to teach English (and usually with much better/smarter-sounding certifications than mine), you have to be bam! front and center, some time between July 29th and August 1st, in order to be not too early and not too late to sign contracts, get basic training, and a full class schedule. Otherwise you're up shit creek in early March, applying to companies whose total vacancies comprise of three classes twice a month but if you'd like to sign a contract binding you to them until July, and don't need to eat or pay bills until the next school year, maybe they'd have a few more classes for you in September?

No thanks.

Since September I have been "retired" from the Berlin English-teaching scene. Too many fishermen, and just not enough fish. I've done a seminar, and worked in a kitchen, but for the most part I've just been... gainfully unemployed.

Fast-forward to March 2, 2009. I am no longer gainfully unemployed. I am now gainlessly unemployed. So when I'm woken up by some yahoo in a vertically-striped shirt, blue jeans and brown loafers on the other side of my phone, asking me to interview for a €400 job washing dishes part time, I practically oozed with enthusiasm.

Went there today, didn't get the job, cos I'm illegal. That's life.

When I got home today from not-working, I thought to myself, "I ought to just go up and stand in front of the shopping center and stand around drinking cheap beers and smoking rollies. But because I'm not German, I, as an able-bodied, childless person, cannot apply for welfare and stand around all day getting drunk and eating pommes with tiny plastic forks."

But--as I so often do--I digress.

The job listings here are something akin to madness. There are--literally--thousands of jobs available in the fields of which I have pooled most of my expertise (haha). Retail, waitressing, bartending, I can do all of that.

The catch? To do any of those things here, most employers wanna see a certificate of completion. Not like, a mixology diploma, but like, a piece of paper that says you worked for three years at half-pay "learning" how to make a fucking latte. That attests and affirms that you are now a professional and therefore worthy of being hired on at €5 an hour and no tips in their establishment.

Wow. And I could have sworn I learned how to make everything on a coffee-shop menu in under eight short hours.

I could have sworn I learned how to use a cash register in five minutes, and had perfected it in a week.

I could have sworn that even a monkey can stock a shelf, and a polar bear can count change.

Three years? Three years of your fucking life, gone, to prove that you are now a professional juice-presser? Apprenticeships are either for jobs with no official regulation (like tattooing, body piercing, and shamanism) or which just really require a lot of hands-on experience in order to get right on the first try (like plumbing, carpentry or electric work). I may also say that I feel that jobs which genuinely require apprenticing are usually good, honest, humble careers--note that word, career. Bussing tables is not a career. Working the cash register at the grocery store is not a career. I mean, even a bank-teller is not a proper career. You are just doing a job that any monkey can do. Or polar bear.

I don't mind my job requiring only slightly more skill than can be offered by zoo animals, nor do I mind commanding half the respect afforded to said beasts. It doesn't matter to me if I scrub toilets or flip burgers. I'm not too proud for that. But I'm also not planning on doing any apprenticeships to prove I can do it. Not any time soon.

A friend of mine recently applied to a small hotel for a position as a chaimbermaid. The owner of the modest inn was doubtful that the girl would like working there very much, because the pay was only €800 before taxes, and with only €620 take-home, most people would rather just collect unemployment. My friend, being German-born but Canadian-raised, found the idea of staying home doing nothing for doing-nothing's sake distasteful and told the lady so, but the lady wasn't buying it. She'd confessed that she'd actually rather find a Polish or Czech immigrant to work for her--someone not so well provided-for by the social system.

Everyone likes to shit on America and our social services system ("Did you know a baby dies of AIDS every three seconds in the States? It's true. It's the highest cause of infant mortality in America, right after high cholesterol and gunshot wounds"), but at least when healthy, childless Americans are out of work, they, like... look for a job. No 18-year-old with "too much of a conscience to work at McDonald's" is going to fund his kind bud and used-bookstore habits from his welfare check.

And after all this complaining... I still don't have a job.

Time to head up to the shopping center and knock back a few lukewarm ones.