The cool kids are raving, but I’d rather be engraving…

“Hey mum, did you bring anything cool back when you finished your year in Berlin, like a piece of the wall or something?” “No dear, but I do have this rather eclectic selection of lampwork beads.”

Forgive the poor lighting in this picture, but I just had to show you the fruit of my weekend’s labours. For those of you who don’t know me too well, I’m a bit obsessed with crafting, and in particular I have a lot to do with making jewellery in various media. But making my own beads directly out of glass is something I have always wanted to try and never been able to have a go at, so when I found a course at a Volkshochschule (adult evening school) in making glass beads like the Vikings, I couldn’t whip the 20 euros out of my pocket fast enough. For 7 hours a day, Saturday and Sunday, I and a collection of overweight middle-aged women sat patiently at flames, melting rods of glass over lengths of wire with our fantastically intelligent Phd-qualified teacher, who had her doctorate in archaeology and had since then become fascinated by the glass-bead-making techniques of early civilisations like the Vikings, Celts and men of the Middle Ages. It is one of the best weekends I have had so far here in the city; the techniques involved are mesmerising, and winding glowing translucent globules of glass around each other and pulling them into long spiralling threads is tirelessly beautiful to watch and do. The only way I could have been happier is if I could have ignored the nagging sinking feeling that in some way I am wasting my youth. Thus is the curse of Blue Peter.The point is, though, that the Volkshochschule in Germany and in Berlin especially is utterly wonderful and I urge all world leaders who are reading this (Condoleeza, you know you ma dawg) to come over, have a gander and then try their best to replicate it. Germany makes a big deal of learning for the whole duration of your life. No matter what you are interested in or what you choose to learn, it is simply important that people are given the chance to try out and educate themselves about new things without having to sell a kidney for it or jump through thousands of academic hoops; when I first started learning silversmithing in the UK, I had to write a compulsory portfolio about all my work, all the techniques I learnt and developed and all the health and safety fandangos that I was forced to pretend to adhere to. No-one on earth wants to do that for nothing, of course, and so what resulted was a lacklustre selection of doodles of my projects accompanied by write-ups using a formula I adapted from GCSE chemistry experiment write-ups and, my favourite part, a section in the back about techniques where I had simply sellotaped (or I think a few bits were simply stuck on by coffee stains) chunks of textured and worked metal directly onto the tissue-thin printer paper I was using for this monument to laziness. I received a merit.


In Germany, if it’s a thing, there is a no-strings course you can do in it. There are courses which are simply accompanied walks around certain districts which stop by certain interesting things; courses where you can make sushi; courses where you go to the theatre, although I’m not sure how that differs to, oh, say, just going to the darn theatre; courses where you can make animals out of felt, hats out of leather, trousers from your own patterns…the selection is exemplary and it feels wonderful to be in a land where every curious whim can be indulged and then broadened into a full-on obsession for a matter of a few euros or so. Some of the women on this course (sadly certain courses do have a certain gender bias) had been to four or more of exactly the same course just because they like the teacher and the particular format. One woman, who kindly spent all the time she wasn’t making her perfect beads glaring over her flame at me and snapping that I was DOING IT WRONG, had even bought herself all the equipment and extra materials to use in the course. Admittedly, it escapes me why she continued to attend the weekends rather than simply using all the workshop equipment she had bought to actually do the hobby she did in the comfort of her own home, but then again I suspect she may have been lonely; she was binge-eating Russisches Brot, an odd kind of thin gingerbread biscuit which inexplicably always comes in the shape of letters, for the entire length of each class – if that’s not a warning sign I don’t know what is.


Anyway, I absolutely lapped it up and would like to give a virtual standing ovation to Germany and Berlin for understanding that it’s great to have something to learn and practice no matter what else you do with your life. I would also like to reassure people that the standard roles within the classroom are in no way made obsolete once people reach adulthood. Our teacher’s pet was, naturally, Miss Russisches Brot. The troublemaker was the woman sitting next to me (who also had a continuous stream of treats, peanut M&Ms, flowing into her mouth as if on a conveyor belt) who, once she realised she did not have the knack for glasswork, declared loudly that the problem was that Viking beads were simply ugly and that’s that. The quiet unassuming one sat adoringly next to Shrewface (teacher’s pet) and spent the whole time making fistfuls of identical monochromatic purple beads and whispering how much she loved purple. I wonder who I was. Probably the class slut.


Am starting a course in silversmithing tomorrow. Stay tuned.

 



Kids say, do, sing, dance, touch or destroy the darndest things…

South Lichterfelde, where I teach on Thursday mornings. That white triangle in the distance? An abandoned carousel. Really.

Good god, I wish I could be young again. I don’t mean ‘heyday of my youth’ kind of young – I’d like to think I haven’t quite left that in the first place, not to mention that I am repeatedly mistaken for a sixteen-year-old (or younger) and threatening to make me relive puberty is the one surefire threat that would make me do anything in the entire world, even drop-kicking a newborn kitten against a brick wall. No, I mean like toddler-young, teeny-weeny young, the-kids-I-teach kind of young. They live a marvellous existence and don’t even know it. To wear tights as your default legwear regardless of gender or prejudice arising therefrom? To take a good hour to eat a whole apple because proportionally it would be like an adult eating a balloon-sized fruit? To find everything that makes a slightly goofy noise marvellously funny, even if it’s repeated numerous times? People, these truly are magical moments, and it’s a shame we spend all of them dribbling around in a hyperactive dizzy fog until it lifts around the age of six and we realise that the world is a dark, dark place.

The one thing I really love about teaching the real tinies is how appreciative they are of the effort you put in to be entertaining and funny. Unlike adults, if you do a really good dance or put on an especially wacky voice or simply raise your eyebrow in an extravagant way they make no bones about showing you how much they love it and find it hilarious, and they giggle and jump up and down and grin widely and sometimes they say brilliant things, like when I introduced a new song and at the end little Julian collapsed with a puff of tired breath and sighed, “That is my new favourite song ever.” The kids I teach constantly come up with wild and funny ideas or thoughts which I can scarcely witness without wanting to applaud them; Vlad, a burly little chap with a deep and sturdy voice, once said he didn’t want to come to English because he ‘was scared’. When I asked him what he was scared of, he gave me a devilish smile and said: “I am scared of my shoes.” Thank you, Vlad. Recently I was playing the fish game with one class – this game involves the children being ‘BIIIIG FISH’ and me being a ‘little fish’ and having to ask them ‘how are you?’ until the word ‘hungry’ comes up, at which point all the BIG fish run after the little fish and eat him (me). The big fish leapt on me with their usual vigour and chewed me down to the bones, at which point one child stood upright, deadly serious, and said, “I didn’t finish eating you up.” “Why not?”, I replied. “Because you didn’t have enough salt and pepper on you.”


They are nuts, and sometimes I wonder whether they are too young to be being strictly ‘taught’ anything, simply because their world works in a totally different way. Some of them can’t sing a whole song without spontaneously being violent to the person next to them, and some of them spend an entire forty-five minute lesson with their tongue lolling out of their mouth, swooping it around in big circles like someone swinging a wet rag. To teach such little ones you have to be constantly looking around like a lifeguard in a pool full of triple-amputees; there is always one child that needs to be told to STOP IT, another child who is gradually losing focus and a third kid who has just done something awesome. You must never ever forget the child who did the good thing like say a word properly or finally say ‘I am fine’ instead of ‘I am five’ for the first time because the praise is what they live and die for, and you can actually see their face drop if they do something right and you don’t give them the recognition right away. 

Praise and positive reinforcement are, I reckon, the two strongest strings to any teacher’s bow, but in this age group most of all. I have had several kids who are just plain old why-you-little kind of naughty and sometimes all it takes is a huge burst of compliments at a well-timed victory for their eyes to gleam and for them to spend the rest of the lesson behaving like a champion. They are suckers for the praise, too, which makes it so easy to dispense; there is one game I play with them divided into two teams competing against one another, and every week I engineer it so that ‘oh my good grief BOTH teams have exactly the same number of points, BOTH teams have won!!!’. Every week they scream and whoop with joy and hug each other for this tremendous collective achievement – my cynical childhood self would have simply furrowed my bushy eyebrows and commented that when everybody wins, everybody also loses. Play it right and you can have a whole group of toddlers pliable like putty; forget it or come to work in a bad mood and you can have them banding together in mutiny.


Finally, I have realised that the one thing I do need to keep me going from lesson and do my job well is to find one thing in each child that I think is cool or funny or clever, to avoid the trap of ignoring the ‘that little bugger’ in the room. This is not easy sometimes. The little three-year-old who constantly massages his testicles is hard to cherish. The kid who calls me ‘fat teacher’ is not so precious. But darn it, it can and must be done, and I find myself focusing in on the funniest little idiosyncrasies which are the things that have me marvelling day after day at how weird and awesome and alien little children are. I love Cedric because he does a Michael Jackson impression at ear-splitting volume at the end of every game. I love Jon because he dresses and stands as dapperly as a character from ‘The Great Gatsby’. I love Zoe because she looks exactly like my grandma even though she’s three. I love Julian because of his huge afro and huger grin. And I love the testicles kid because…well, I’m working on it.
  
p.s. my humble blog seems to have gained an exciting amount of momentum and I’d like to thank you all for reading and for your very kind comments and support; I’m really enjoying writing this but it wouldn’t feel half as worthwhile if it weren’t for knowing that you are egging me on. I’ll be coming up to my fiftieth post soon, for which I want to do something special (a video methinks…) but in the meantime I love reading your comments so keep ’em coming, let me know if you have a topic request, and do recommend Guten Morgen Berlin to friends, family and loved ones. For now I promise I will try to get posting at least three times a week so you can have your ‘Nase voll’ of me sooner rather than later. (‘Die Nase voll haben’ = to have had enough, literally to ‘have your nose full’)

The Usborne Kid’s Guide to Advanced German

Why do they even need to learn the word ‘Jacket’ at the age of three anyway?

There are two sides to teaching English to very small children, and both of them are rather disarming once you actually begin to consider them any further than ‘whatever pays the rent’. One thing you become aware of is that in teaching them the specific syllabus with which you have been provided, someone has made the conscious decision of what they feel are the most important and appropriate words to form the foundations of a language for a very small child; the other is that in teaching them you are yourself learning a highly particularised German and simultaneously being faced with its limits. I’ll explain:

First of all, we have the syllabus the kids have to learn. My class this morning, for example, has four children in, one one-year-old, one two-year-old and two three-year-olds. They have to learn the clothes at the moment but while they are understandably learning ‘shoes’ and ‘socks’ they are also learning ‘jacket’ and ‘pullover’ without ever learning how to say ‘trousers’ or ‘shirt’ or ‘underwear’, the latter of which would be nice as it would at least allow me to tell the kids to keep their hands out of their aforementioned. This strikes me as strange; I am well aware that the company I work for know as much about teaching languages to children as they do about cures for rattlesnake bites, but I would give a lot to know the thought process that makes someone decide that children that young should be learning winter accessories as opposed to the ultra-fundamental clothing basics that you need in order not to be charged with public indecency.

There is presumably a certain logic to this: shoes and socks go together, so do a jacket and pullover. Bending over backwards to defend the syllabus somewhat, at least there’s some sort of golden thread. And if you are going to teach kids the basic emotions (happy and sad) you should probably throw in a couple that they’re likely to want to complain about on a daily basis (sleepy, ill, hungry). But as you teach children sets of words you notice in their reactions and ability to grasp certain words that the concept itself isn’t even properly established in their minds yet; none of them really quite get what ‘proud’ is as an emotion, for example, as if while they know how to translate it into their native language they still can’t associate it with anything they might have an anchor to in their minds yet. You also realise the impossibility of teaching a language without taking into account the grammatical and syntactical differences between the two languages in question – teaching ‘snow’ and ‘it’s snowy’ or ‘rain’ and ‘it’s rainy’ almost works because they recognise a pattern and know that it is in some way similar to German (es schneit, es regnet) but when you get to ‘sun’ (die Sonne) and ‘it’s sunny’ (die Sonne scheint) all of a sudden there is a problem. In German the syntax changes as all of a sudden the sun is doing something funky, the pattern is lost and you are left with a classroom of kids saying things like ‘It’s Sonne!!’ or ‘The sunny!!’. And grief, don’t get me started on trying to explain to a group of six-year-olds who have no concept of time why it’s half-past-three in English and half-to-four in German. I make it up to them by letting them massacre each other in the guise of playing ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf’ at the end of that topic.

And, as I mentioned, it works the other way around. The phrases I now use most on a daily basis are stupid, teacher-y phrases that I never so much learnt as simply caught out of the corner of my ear and later used in a desperate attempt to get the children to SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP AND FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP KICKING LUKA IN THE GONADS PAUL. ‘Quatsch machen’, i.e. to muck around, is my most-used phrase, as in ‘if you keep mucking around I will make your life a darker shade of hell’. I have a great big sheaf of idiomatic German tellings-off and praises bundled in my mind, and the kids seem to get what I mean because they sure as heck aren’t behaving like little arses just because something got lost in translation and I accidentally asked them to plunge into anarchy as opposed to sitting down quietly. But then something odd happened to me today.

I was sitting outside the classroom with my whole English class waiting for the Hausaufgabe (homework) kids to get the hell out of MY classroom at MY lesson time and I was trying my hardest to stop them all playing this game they had all suddenly invented of skipping sideways up and down the corridor and smashing into each other if they ever got too close together. I was trying to calm them down by asking them about the sports they played and out of nowhere one of the smartest kids in the class asked me: “Can you speak German?” I was, at the time, speaking to them in decent conversational German. “No! I only speak English!” I said, in German, with a wry smile playing on my lips (well that’s how I imagine myself, I suspect it looked more like I was trying to dislodge my false teeth from my palate). “URRR then how come we can understand you then???” the kids all replied incredulously. This is when the whole thing just became too much fun and I started to mess about with their perceptions of reality by announcing in fluid German that I couldn’t understand a word they were saying and they couldn’t understand me either. How odd, though, that despite the fact I have been teaching them for months and the whole time been speaking very adequate German to them they still don’t understand that as speaking or understanding German. What is language to them? Do they see it as fundamentally separate from communicating, as if I could have spent all this time talking English and giving them the feeling of understanding on a subconscious level? Do they think I have a script of German every week which I learn word for word without knowing what it means? Or are they just being moronic to distract me while the rest of them pelt sideways up and down the corridor barging violently into each other? It’s a complex mystery.

Honey, I’m…home?

No, it’s not tidy. Feast your eyes on real, gritty Berlin life.

At least, I bloody hope this mean I’m home. Over the last few months I have been in seven different domiciles, both in the UK and in Germany – let’s break it down:

1. My UK home. Where I grew up and spent the largest part of my conscious existence. A beautiful old huge house with cavernous, airy, freezing-cold rooms and an ever-changing variety of problems to be repaired at great expense. 
2. The hostel in which I stayed when I started my time here. I haven’t really had much of a chance to write about this, since at the time I was busy trying not to end up living in a bin behind a supermarket somewhere in the city. I spent about two and a half weeks in this hostel, frantically looking at flats and attending training for my job whilst spending any free time I had learning my repertoire of songs for the ‘assessed performance’ part of the training period. Staying for a long time in a youth hostel is a completely incomparable experience. You become almost like the jaded old janitor of a night club, lurking around the building watching fresh-faced young things skip joyfully in and out with the ephemeral briefness of mayflies, while you sit in the quieter spots and bitterly glare at them or occasionally take a nap with a newspaper laid over your face. I stayed so long I knew all the names of the staff and learnt every foible of the building and its running, meaning that other guests assumed I was also staff and regularly asked me to help them with their queries and problems. Other guests came, stayed a couple of drunken and thrilled nights, and then moved on to the next exciting European city. I had my own breakfast cereal and milk which I kept on the windowsill and the reception people knew to give me a bowl when I came down in the morning.

3. My colleague’s flat. Ok, so I only stayed five days here, but five days rolled into a ball sleeping on the armchair in my colleague’s bedroom was enough.
4. The flat in Charlottenburg. See previous posts.
5. The flat on Schönhauser Allee, which I have also already mentioned, I believe.
6. My new house in the UK. 
7. My new flat in Berlin, which is comfortable and friendly and small and very ‘me’.

But most importantly, the new flat is the one. That means I’m now here for good. Hubris aside, this has been the most eye-opening experience, as nothing shows you how severely a person needs an anchor until they have it uprooted. There is a beautiful part of Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ where he writes about human beings being connected to their home by invisible tendrils which flail around in hyperspace once that person’s home is unexpectedly taken away. Adams was completely right; when you don’t have a lasting place to anchor your sense of ‘being’ to you simply drift about like a limpet squelching from rock to rock, and this life makes you feel vulnerable and unsafe, as if any moment a seagull will come and suck you out of your shell and some child will come and take it and put it on their thumb and pretend that it’s a miniature Chinese hat. So Gott sei Dank, finally there is a corner of Berlin with my name on it for good. (thunder rolls ominously in the distance)

As for the rest of what’s going on in this semi-molten glob of a city: the ice thawed and then immediately refroze into a completely invisible, transparent layer of death which caused everyone in the entire city to struggle from place to place scooting about, slipping and essentially suffering frequent comedy moments; one man yesterday was walking his little Jack Russell dog who was skittering about on the ice like a cartoon character trying to skedaddle, and so eventually the man took pity and picked his dog up. He went on with the dog in his arms, at which point he instantly fell over himself, before getting up and heading off whilst intensely conversing with the dog. Now everything has started to thaw once again in preparation for Monday morning when people have to go to work and it can once again become a teflon pavement varnish. Berlin’s small children, meanwhile, are starting to get bored and cross with the paltry selection of words and songs they are permitted to learn and are getting naughty in ever more inventive ways, running away and hiding somewhere in the school or playing London Bridge with the added rule that you have to headbutt everyone when you’re not busy being headbutted yourself. One particularly delightful boy spent the entire lesson with his hands in his knickers groping his own genitals  – oh, except for the points at which he decided to hold my hand.  At this point it is important to focus on the little things that make everything worth living through, and therefore I would like to finish this post by thanking all the children in my Thursday class for still confusing the words ‘rooster’ and ‘rock star’, and for bursting into an air guitar solo every time they do so.

Coffee no. 6,142,561

Desperation, n : sitting in Landsberger Allee Netto reading Das Glasperlenspiel

Sit down to begin writing a blog post about coffee; decide to make a pot of coffee before starting in earnest; put kettle on; watch cafétiere slip off kitchen counter and explode into a million skin-ripping smithereens; spend half an hour sweeping and hoovering, before eventually settling for a mediocre cup of Redbush. Well, at least my dumb bad luck has a sense of irony.

Anyway, what I was planning to write this evening was to do with the fact that life at the moment revolves around coffee. Not just coffee, but hot drinks in general. Because in Berlin at the moment, when you buy a drink in a café you are not paying 1 euro and 20 cents for the delicious beverage, but purely because you simply have to be somewhere warm right now now NOW. The cold in this city is something different to usual cold, it rasps your skin like rough steel and makes all your extremities retreat into your coat in a manner similar to a tortoise. And when you spend your day running from class to flat viewing, always being early for fear of being late, there is only one alternative to sitting on a bench wishing you were in a duvet burrito. Thus I am spending my life and my savings in cafés – and it’s only October.

Tuesdays are also generally painful due to the lesson I teach every week on Tuesday afternoons, which takes place in a school so distant from the heart of Berlin that it is next to genuine arable farmland. The children in this class are fairly old, around six years old, and therefore are savvy, rude and so brilliantly cheeky you want to hug them and throttle them simultaneously. They seem to have learnt their backchat from precocious children in 90’s sitcoms; when I asked one girl when her birthday is, she sarcastically replied “Every year.” She is six and a half. One boy arrived early to my lesson because he wanted to help, announced to me that he had practised and learnt the Rainbow Song off by heart for me, gave me an eye-wateringly sweet rendition of it all by himself, and then proceeded to spend the whole class being as naughty as his little flailing limbs would allow him. One kid spit at another’s face; another stole my elastic bands keeping my flashcards together; and when I was getting them to move about a bit to get their energy up and told them all to hop up and down, they all just stood there and cynically asked, “Why?” 

I feel sorry for these kids, because it’s not their fault that they’ve been forced to sit in a classroom learning boring stuff with a short and shrill student from the British Isles, and it’s not fair that their friends are outside having a laugh and playing and not learning the months of the year. The paradox of the ‘fun lessons are productive lessons’ philosophy is that when the children are not willing, the most you can do to scold them is to say, “CHILDREN!! STOP TALKING AND LAUGHING AND MESSING ABOUT! SIT DOWN AND BE QUIET SO THAT WE CAN HAVE FUN AND PLAY TOGETHER!” Something always jars in my mind when I look at my lesson plan and think, “Oh God, we’ve got so many games to get done today we won’t even have time to blow bubbles or play with the dolphin hand puppet…” The concept of organised fun is such a precarious idea and in the realm of education I am not sure how much of a place it really ought to hold. Doubtless entertaining and interactive teaching will get an idea across infinitely more effectively than droning repetition, but I wonder if fun activities during a lesson are only truly effective if they have something more mellow to act as a contrast to; when playing becomes as much of a pedagogical demand as sitting still doing sums, even a game might feel like a chore. I see it in the kids’ behaviour, and I wonder if perhaps we are doing too much, once again, to focus on children’s love of ‘fun’ and ignoring their underappreciated curiosity and capacity to be purely interested instead of shallowly entertained. But then again, perhaps this is just me finally leaving childhood for good.