englishman abroad, the German way

Feeling at home

I haven’t spent any proper time in England, where I was born, for years.

However, on Sunday I got back from a week’s training at Southampton Solent University. It was a lot of fun, and I got to meet with lots of interesting international people and contribute to the ongoing development of the Marilang project.

I spent a week in England and discovered that I no longer feel at home there. On the simplest of levels, things are different: the money looks different, the prices have gone up, Brexit is on the news all the time these days. But my feeling of unease is more profound: I’ve become a bit German. I waited at the traffic lights instead of jaywalking, I put my cigarette ends in the bin instead of just dumping them, I even spoke German with my colleagues when I wanted to be frank.

When I first came to Germany I thought I was an outsider working my way inside. It wasn’t until I went to Southampton that I realised another truth: I was an insider here, and I’ve worked my way outside.

Bittersweet as this feeling is, it’s for the best; Britain hasn’t been doing too well recently. Germany, on the other hand, has been kind to me: a wife and child, our own house, interesting projects and maybe, one day, citizenship.

englishman abroad, freelancing, parenting

Keeping last year’s resolutions

It’s January 1st, 2017 and I’m looking at my Dad-belly in the mirror.

“This year will be different,” I tell myself

“This year I’m going to go jogging every couple of days and heave weights and eat right”

… and heave them I temporarily did! I didn’t go jogging though, and when the weather got cold I considered it a good excuse to stop lifting weights. And cycling. And even pretending to eat right.

But the best thing about 2017 was that my real resolutions, the ones that have borne fruit, weren’t an arbitrary, date-based invention; they were a series of small, incremental ones I made throughout the year.

  1. An important client of mine stiffed me on a bill back in February 2017. It wasn’t much, just a few euros. But the principle of it really irked me and I asked them for the difference – no sale.

“Ok,” I told myself, “this is going to be the most expensive money they’ve ever saved”

  1. I got ill in the middle of 2017 and had to take some days off work. I previously wrote about how terrible zero-hours contracts are in the UK; freelancing positions with German language schools aren’t much better: No sick pay. No insurance. Some contracts actually have you pay for lessons you miss (even when ill). After being pressured into attending work late at night with the flu, I told myself:

“I need to get a job that treats me right”

  1. Watching my daughter, Aurelia, grow up is my pride and privilege. She’s really turning into a little lady these days. Well, part lady and part tomboy: she’s riding bikes, zooming about on her scooter, sword-fighting with sticks and climbing trees. Yet we still live in a modest apartment with no garden and just a small balcony in a horribly expensive town. She wants to play football, she wants to run free,

“She deserves better than this”

These are the resolutions that mattered. These are the resolutions that got done. I didn’t just pull them out of the air because it was January first, Present Year; I meant them.

It’s January 1st, 2018 and I’ve got my new job at a university working as a researcher on a project. It has holiday pay, sick pay and proper insurance. I’ve also got two lucrative side projects which don’t stiff me on the bill!

It’s January 1st, 2018 and we’ve recently bought a house with a huge garden in a peaceful village. Aurelia is going to love it when we move in later this year.

It’s January 1st, 2018 and I’m still looking at my Dad-belly in the mirror.

“This year will be different,” I tell myself.

englishman abroad, the German way

Things you didn’t know about German New Year’s Eve

Today is New Year’s Eve, and in the English-speaking world the Americans have their ball drop in Time Square, the Australians are launching 14 tonnes of fireworks in Melbourne alone, and Britain? Britain has Alan Carr… oh well.

But what’s going on here in Germany?

  1. German’s don’t have New Year’s Eve

Rather, they have Silvester. Saint Silvester was actually an old pope who was made a saint and gives his name to this day. You could go to church to mark the feast of Saint Sylvester if you’re so inclined, but most people just get drunk in the evening like the rest of the world.

  1. Playing with toxic material is encouraged

Every country has their quaint little traditions, don’t they? Bleigießen (lead pouring) is the German tradition of divining the future and risking lead poisoning. Small lead ingots are available for purchase from all good retailers along with a steel spoon. You heat up the ingot on the spoon until it melts, pour it into water and interpret the shape of the molten metal to determine your fortune in the coming year. On the plus side, molten lead is fun for kids! On the downside, molten lead is toxic and fun for kids!

I will, of course, be doing it tonight with family and friends. We’ll be testing a real lead version as well as a newer, safer wax version.

  1. The same procedure as every year

Apart from the church and the pagan divination, what else is a staple of German New Year’s Eve? If you answered, “I don’t know, something else suitably eclectic and mismatched?” you’d be right!

In Germany, they’ve been watching a piece of British comedy called ‘Dinner for One’ since the 60s. Dinner for One is entirely in English with English actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden (ask your grandma, she might know). In which Butler James becomes increasingly inebriated in his attempts to placate a demented old bag who’s invited her long-dead friends to dinner.

It’s actually pretty funny, but practically unknown in the UK. Here it is:

Christmas, englishman abroad

The Christmas (booze) Market

The Christmas market is in town. If you don’t know what a German Christmas market is like, imagine a winter-themed funfair with lots of food and booze. The one in Oldenburg has a Ferris wheel, a shy (throw-a-ball-and-win-a-prize game), carousel, and other assorted games including a stage where Santa reads Christmas stories. It has a stall where you can buy sides of flame-cooked salmon in bread rolls, it has the requisite German sausages and Reibekuchen (potato cakes /latkes).

But the booze is the most interesting. There are myriad places where you can buy Glühwein, Eierlikör and Feuerzangbowle.

Glühwein

                Glühwein is the German take on mulled wine. Usually it’s red wine, but sometimes white is used, and it’s always really hot. Anyway, it keeps the cold out and you always get some money back when you return the glasses (there’s a deposit on them).

Glühwein mit Schuss

                Glühwein with a dash of something else in it. Typically a shot of rum. My father in law bought me one and I liked it so much I‘ve decided to have everything mit Schuss from now on. Coffee mit Schuss. Cola mit Schuss. Cornflakes mit Schuss. The Schuss really takes it up a notch.

Feuerzangbowle

Its Glühwein again, but this time its definitely only the red variety. If you thought the Schuss was taking it up a notch, stand by. They take a gigantic sugarloaf (it’s what they had before granulated sugar, I suppose) and soak the thing in rum. I mean they drench it. Then they set it on fire, and as the burning, molten, boozy mess drips into the bowl of Glühwein beneath they serve it to you. A huge plus with the stall that specialises in this drink is that it gives you free Spekulatius.

Eierlikör

If this is made properly it tastes like boozy custard. I honestly don’t know exactly what is in it but I would hazard: egg, advocaat, some other spirit and custard powder. I know that can’t be right, but the truth would probably be even worse. Google it at your peril. All I know for certain is that it definitely has egg in it, as one year I had some and also got a whole raw yolk in my mouth. Haven’t been too keen on it since.

 

englishman abroad, freelancing

Freelancing isn’t so risky…

A common misconception about freelance work is that it is riskier than normal work. The thinking goes like this: A freelancer can earn more money than a contracted worker, it’s true, but they have to deal with the possibility of going without work for a while.

Today I’m going to explain why that’s total nonsense.

Firstly, there are plenty of people in the UK who work under ‘zero-hour contracts’. If you’re unfamiliar with such instruments, they go like this:

You work for an employer, but they don’t have to give you any hours.

True, you don’t have to accept any hours they do offer you, but you can probably guess what will happen if you don’t (you won’t be offered any more). Similarly, although an employer can’t contractually forbid you from working with another company on the side, you can probably guess what will happen if you do.

A zero-hours contract is essentially a way of giving your employer a lot more power at the expense of your own rights. I should know, I used to work for such a company; I managed a staff of forty people on such contracts. Well, we all have to start somewhere.

So, yes, if you’re on a zero-hour contract freelancing might be a better option.

But what about people who are regularly employed?

I worked for a company in London which sold off-plan property to investors, it was my first job out of university. The company soon went bankrupt and everyone lost their job. The CEO remained a multi-millionaire, having sold property that never existed.

I then worked as a trainee sous-chef for a large, London-based restaurant chain, I was to work in a new restaurant that was to open shortly. Except that the planning fell through, it never did open and I never became a sous-chef.

I then worked for an exciting tech and web advertising company in London. I worked in the provisioning team and applied myself, I got promoted into another team which dealt with customer accounts, I applied myself harder and won the team bonus every month. For four months. Then the company merged with another and the whole team was made redundant. Working hard for someone else didn’t pay off.

All of this happened against the backdrop of the banking crisis in which bankers had spent money that wasn’t theirs on things that didn’t exist and thus screwed the global economy. So much for saving, living within your means and avoiding unnecessary credit! Not to worry, the banks got a bailout from the taxpayer, business continued as usual.

Every time I did what I was supposed to, someone or something else didn’t. That’s the problem with regular employment: all the hard work and none of the decision-making power; all of the risk and none of the reward! There’s always a substantial risk, especially in regular employment, but we are largely ignorant of it. Your company, your branch or your team might be unsuccessful or too successful – both can lead to failure!

To summarise: the biggest risk is avoiding risk.

If you don’t take your chance, someone else will take it for you.