Finally, a First Look at my New Life in Berlin!

So I’ve been really bad about posting in my blog.  I really love to write, but having just finished college, I think it might remind me a little too much of homework at the moment.  Also, the longer I put it off the more I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of doing it.  Since it’s been so long I broke this post up into questions that I figured would be basic things people would want to know.  So, without further ado, here’s my first real Berlin blog post…

So, for starters, where do I live?

When I finally arrived in Berlin I was completely shocked seeing my new apartment (don’t worry- in a good way).  After being told in my interview with ASF that I would have to be prepared for very simple and modest accommodations, I was shocked at the size of my new apartment.  Each room is a different size, but they’re all big and especially the one I immediately claimed for myself. I was told not to get too attached to my room because I wasn’t guaranteed to be able to live there when we got back from our seminar, but it’s so wonderful I just knew it was mine. It has nice hard wood floors, high ceilings and large windows that look out over our nice tree-lined street, where you can see just the tops of some other old Berliner roof tops peeking out from the leaves.  It was everything I hoped for moving to Berlin.  Lucky for me though, all my roommates (there’s five; all either European or Israeli) thought that my room was too big.  What a crazy concept! So now, I am very happily settled in my room that might be too big for European standards, but for my American tastes, it’s just fine.  On top of that, we’ve gotten to turn the other room that’s “too big” into a living room, so I have everything I could have asked for.  I’ve also finally gotten everything I need to feel at home in my new room after my “sheet fiasco”, which involved running to stores around the city, attempting to somehow acquire sheets that actually fit my bed and that aren’t ugly (it’s incredible how difficult it was to find plain white or red sheets here)! Buying bedding was very hard for me to do here because they don’t use the standard twin/double/queen/king system that we do in the States.  Instead, it’s in centimeters.  Centimeters! What do they think I am?- A freaking mathematician! There’s a reason I opted out of taking any math senior year of high school, so getting used to this system where I actually have to know how much a centimeter is was not the most fun.  Finally, Ikea came to the rescue, though with sheets that were solid colors and magically happen to fit my bed.  Finally, I have a room that is relatively put together!
So that’s my apartment.  The area I’m living in is called Neukölln, which is a large district of Berlin and is very diverse within itself.  Our section of Neukölln is called the Schillerkiez and it’s a nice, quiet area with a few bars and restaurants that are just starting to pop up since this area is starting to become more trendy with lots of hipsters moving in and so on.  There’s lots of school children that run around the playground outside our apartment all the time, since we happen to live on top of a Christian elementary school (it’s kind of a strange set-up, but it works and also means we don’t have downstairs neighbors- yippie!).  We also have some friendly, harmless local drunks that hang out in the parkway outside our buildings and seem to have kind of built their own little community.  It’s a community that also includes some adorable little pups that I’ve never gone over to pet or anything, but there’s still something comforting about coming home everyday and seeing the same adorable, scruffy little faces.  On the whole, the Schillerkiez is a very diverse neighborhood that I can only describe as somehow being a mix of being family, immigrant and hipster friendly.

The area is actually very up-and-coming today because of one major change in the last few years.  Until (I think) about five years ago or so, this was considered a bad part of town and no one wanted to live here because there’s a major airport (Tempelhof) just a couple blocks from where we live.  It’s actually where the Berlin Airlifts took place (fun fact!).  The airport was shut down a few years ago and has now been turned into a park.  This has been great for me because I have to walk one block down the street and then I get to go on my runs on a giant landing strip with people all around biking, windsurfing and rollerblading.  The first time I went, I really did feel like I’d stepped back into the 90s with all the roller bladers!

What has my work consisted of so far?
When I first arrived at work, I had no idea what to expect.  I’d been told at some point I might have to do some translation work, the thought of which terrified me because I can barely hold down a conversation in German.  As great as my English skills might be, I thought there was no way I would be able to manage to translate anything worth while.

As soon as I started work, guess what my first assignment was? You guessed it- translating!  My first assignment was only to correct the English that was already in a document that has to be sent to all the summer camp participants, but on my second day my boss asked me if I could do some from German to English translation.  I’d already told her I didn’t think my German was good enough, but as all Germans do, she assured me, even after I had only managed to have a basic conversation with her in broken German, that I would be fine.  As insecure as I was about my abilities to handle the task, I agreed to give it a try.  As it turns out, Olivia plus a little help from Google Translate actually makes a pretty good translator. Since then, most of my assignments at work have consisted of translating these documents that confirm the participation of the summer campers.  Since then, I’ve also had other translation things to do for another department because being a native English speaker is actually amazingly useful at an international organization.  Whenever I’m feeling frustrated with my German speaking abilities, it at least makes me feel better that my English skills are so useful.  Other than translating, I’ve mostly has a lot of e-mails to send, some envelop stuffing and things of that nature, but not too much.

I usually go into work around 10 because my boss gave me permission to come an our late and work later, if necessary.  That offer was hard for this Sleeping Beauty to pass up.  As hard as I tried to make it there at 9 the first couple weeks, I’ve kind of given up. A girl needs her sleep.  So I get to work around 10, do my translating work for a couple hours, then go on my lunch break.  The area I work in is very nice and upscale, but it’s still Berlin, so there’s cheap bakeries where I can get some pasta salad or sausages or pita pockets, etc.  I take it to go and then go eat in this courtyard right across the street from work.  It’s a nice little place with a restaurant, a couple clothing stores, some trees and some benches.  It’s the perfect place to decompress in the middle of the day.  I’ve actually been noticing more an more tourists coming there to see it because apparently, when some people come to Berlin, old courtyards are on the top of their list of things to see.  Who knew?

So, I go back to work, usually until about 5 or 6 (sometimes earlier) and then I head home.  One lovely Friday afternoon, I took advantage of getting off work early and walked down to Museum Island, which is just a 15 minute stroll from work.  It was such a beautiful day out that before I even went in the Altes Museum, I decided to lay in the grass by the river, where I promptly fell asleep for about half an hour.  I then continued on my way to the museum to see a stunning exhibition of a giant collection of some of the most amazing Romantic paintings I’ve ever seen.  Life is really tough here. Just kidding- I’ve been loving (almost) every second of it and I can’t believe how lucky I am that those are the kinds of things I get to do on a Friday afternoon.
One of the nice things I should point out about working for ASF, as well, is that my “typical days” aren’t necessarily that typical.  I definitely get to participate in a variety of different things working there.  One day, I finished early, so I could meet with a group of American students, who wanted to learn more about the organization, a couple weeks ago I worked at a book signing and the week before that I only worked at the office for two days, so that I could attend a seminar for people who ran the summer camps this year.  We got to stay in a castle in the small town of Wewelsburg in the west of Germany, so I can’t complain too much about that.

 

 

I could keep going on, but this seems like a lot of information for now.  Next time, I’ll try to post more about things outside of work.  It always seems like I’m doing something.  There’s never a dull moment in Berlin.  Till then!

Southampton Summer Camp 2012

So this will be my first real blog entry.  Hopefully, I will be able to express myself eloquently enough.  I’ve noticed that being around so many foreign languages in the last two weeks has had a negative impact on my English from time to time.  I think that will just be another thing I’ll have to try to adjust to over the next year.

For now, I’ll share a bit about my time in England.  Since I am going to be working in the Summer Camps department during my time in Berlin, ASF requested that I participate in one of their summer camps.  Makes sense. I chose to go to England because it was the most convenient for my schedule and the project also sounded very interesting, although I did not know much about what the project would entail.  I just knew the organization we would be working with was called Tools for Self Reliance and that they sent tools to people in Africa.

When I arrived in England, I had no idea what to expect.  I’d received some information about the camp, but really didn’t know what we would actually be doing on a day-to-day basis.  After a 10-hour flight, two-hour bus ride, an hour-long wait for a second bus and then finally a 20 minute bus ride, I arrived in the small town of Netley Marsh, a suburb of Southampton.  The bus dropped me off outside The White Horse Pub where the bartender quickly came out to give me directions to the work camp (yes, they do refer to it as a “work camp” and I don’t understand why they would use that term).  I noticed as I walked down the street to the camp that the only thing they have in the town is the pub and a church.  I was later told that in Netley Marsh you have to make a very tough decision: Do you want to be a drunk or do you want to go to church?  All I have to say on the subject is that the summer 2012 campers spent a little more time at the pub than at church.
When I arrived at the camp site it was about 6 PM.  I met my fellow campers, who came from all over Europe.  There were people from Germany, Poland, Spain and Russia.  We also got to spend a lot of time with the long-term volunteers, who came from Denmark, Germany, Italy and Spain.  Our accommodations at the camp were modest to say the least, but they were fine for the time we were there.  We referred to it as a “bunk house”.  It had three separate, very small rooms, one of which I shared with four other girls.  We had a daily battle with the spiders, who seemed to enjoy the bunk house much more than we did.  Luckily, the bunk house was in the backyard of the house the year-long volunteers for Tools for Self Reliance live in, so we were able to use their kitchen and watch movies in the house.
So…what is Tools for Self Reliance? Well, we found out a lot about the organization during our first full day there.  Basically, Tools for Self Reliance relies on the donations of old tools from people in the area.  When TFSR receives these tools they have volunteers refurbish them, so they can be sent to various countries in Africa.  Once the tools arrive in Africa, they are used to support local businesses, which often lack proper resources to be as productive as they have the potential to be.

During our week and a half with TFSR we had a variety of tasks.  They ranged from gardening to help maintain the grounds to dismantling wooden boxes with sledgehammers (one of my favorites!), but mostly we refurbished tools (shovels, screwdrivers, gardening tools, etc.).  It was a lot of hard work! We could spend an entire day working on getting one tool clean.  This involved using lots of sandpaper, hammers and wire brushes to get things clean and ready for shipment.  In the entire time we were in Netley Marsh we spent about five days doing work with the tools and the rest of the time we had free to relax and explore the area.  We had so much free time because one of the days TFSR was sending a shipment to Sierra Leone, so we weren’t able to operate the machinery they needed to use.  Monday was also a Bank Holiday in the UK, so we didn’t have work that day either.
It was very nice to have lots of free time to get to know the people at the camp and to explore the surrounding area.  We had a really great group of people participating in the camp, so it was a lot of fun for everyone to travel together.  Last Thursday, we went to the Isle of Wight, a beautiful island off the coast of southern England.  We took a ferry there from Southampton, which took about one hour each way.  The highlight of the trip was taking the chairlifts down to the beach and getting to see the stunning white cliffs and rocks that jutted out of the ocean.  The beach was rocky, which was a little uncomfortable while attempting to walk barefoot, but I still preferred that to a sandy beach (Eww! Sand!).  I was also pleasantly surprised by how warm the water was- or should I say- how not cold it was.  I actually wished I’d brought my bathing suit, so I could swim, but I think everyone thought I was crazy.  Another highlight of the trip to the Isle of Wight was getting to see how the bus drivers deal with driving down a one-lane road when there’s traffic going in two directions.  It’s hard to describe, but I promise it was hilarious.  Watching some of the reactions from the people in our group was quite entertaining.
On another one of our free days, we went to Southampton and went to the Titanic Museum (I can’t remember the real name, but that’s basically what it was).  It was so interesting and the whole museum was very interactive.  There were touch screens where you could select telegraphs to read that were sent from the ship, videos that showed just how luxurious the ship really was and a replica of the court where the trials after the Titanic sank took place.  There, you could listen to a reenactment of the trials, which was quite interesting.  After our visit to the museum, we did some shopping.  I didn’t buy anything though because the UK is so expensive.  We did find a reasonably priced pub to eat at, though.  I had a beef and potato pasty- yum! Then, we had what I guess I could describe as an interesting night out at a club.  We had a lot of fun dancing together, but we all agreed by the end of the night that when it comes to dancing British boys are weird.  Maybe it was just at that club, but really- who asks a girl to dance with them and then literally stands there and does nothing while she dances and you just stand around and look awkward?  So weird!
Our other free day we went to the town of Winchester.  Most of us passed through it on our bus ride to Southampton and we all thought it was so beautiful, so we decided to take a trip there.  It was such a lovely town! It’s a very well-preserved medieval town.  There’s a ruined castle, King Arthur’s Great Hall (which I somehow missed out on, unfortunately) and the church with the largest nave in Europe, where Jane Austen is buried.  We didn’t spend a lot of time in the town because I had to get back to Netley Marsh to make quesadillas for everyone for dinner that night.  It’s a really basic food for a lot of Americans, but only one of the other campers had even heard of them before.  My meal was a total success and I received lots of good reviews!  I can only hope they start becoming more popular over here.  At least I know for now that when I get those cravings for Mexican food I’m already starting to experience I can make a damn good quesadilla.  On another food related side note- I also introduced the Europeans to ‘smores, at our camp fire.  Also another success!
Those are pretty much the highlights from the camp.  When Friday came we were all very sad to leave because we’d all become very good friends.  I was, of course, also very excited to go to Berlin though.  I arrived late Friday night and I was able to spend a couple days in Berlin getting to know the other volunteers.  At the moment, I am in Wünsdorf for our week-long seminar and I will be back in Berlin a week from today.  Everything is going very well so far and I’ll write more about my time in Germany when I’m back in Berlin.  I hope you enjoyed reading my first post!

(Also, a side note- I can’t post pictures from England at the moment, but will do my best to when I am back in Berlin).

About

Hello, readers!  My name is Olivia and this blog is for anyone interested in following my adventures in Germany for the coming year.  For the next year, I will be living in Berlin to work for the non-profit organization, Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedestienste (Translation: Action Reconciliation Service for Peace).  ASF was founded by the Protestant Church in Germany in 1958 and aimed to rebuild Jewish communities around Europe that were decimated in World War II.  Since its foundation,  ASF has continued to work on this goal of reconciliation with Jewish communities and has also expanded to work more generally on human rights issues.  While I’m volunteering with ASF, I will be working at the Berlin headquarters in the Summer Camps department.  Each summer, ASF organizes around 30 summer camps in Europe, Israel and the U.S., which bring people of all ages together to work on different human rights related projects.  On August 19, I will leave to participate in one of these summer programs in England for 11 days and then I will arrive in Berlin on the 31st to begin my year of service.  While I’m living in Germany, I also plan to do some traveling around Europe, so I will be writing about my travels here, as well.  Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy reading about my year abroad!