Our intangible home

We bought a house.

Well, an apartment to be exact.

You wouldn’t believe how intangible this statement is, when buying a newly built, not yet ready apartment – in a city like Berlin.

“In a city like Berlin” because where I come from, buying a completely unbuilt apartment is what 99% of the population do. They have to decide 4 to 5 years in advance to buy, and they have to present their marriage certificate within 6 months of getting the key. This means many couples are under pressure to get a house without knowing for sure that they wanna marry.

In the western side of the world, it is probably more common to buy a house when you can see and touch it, and inspect it before buying.

“Intangible” because we did it the Singaporean way in Berlin. We found the real estate offer online, looked at broschures at the real estate agent, visited the neighbourhood, spoke to the architects, spoke to banks for mortgage offers, and said, ok I’ll buy whatever they’re trying to sell to me on paper.

So we’ve signed the papers and received our last paycheck that’s not given away for mortgage.

As the people say, shit just got real.

I don’t know why this is a much bigger deal than marrying actually. Perhaps it’s a definitive sign of staying in Berlin for a longer term, or that we are gonna start a family at some point hence this is so grownup, or that it’s just a huge load of money.

Thankfully it’s going to be ready in 1.5 years (and not 5), but… I think I’m going to believe it when I’m in the apartment.

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Nakedness

As an Asian in Germany, one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had would be to enter and enjoy a sauna.

Because of its geographical proximity to the Scandinavian countries, who stand by this truly, Germans have taken up the culture of being entirely naked in a sauna. To them, saunas are the one place that is truly clean, rid of all unnatural materials – including your bathing suits.

Well, okay, bath towels are fine to sit or lie on.

When H first suggested visiting a sauna place three winters ago, I said, sure let’s ask your brother if he’d like to come along! H hesitated. Later I found out why.

The sauna place was like paradise, with indoor swimming pools and a large variety of sauna rooms. Germans take their saunas very seriously, except everyone was naked. Being short-sighted and a spectacles-hater, I wore contact lenses everywhere possible. This was the first time I decided to go blind as a bat. Somehow I thought if I couldn’t see clearly, neither could people see me.

But after the second and third and fourth time, I thought this makes sense. I mean we wear bathrobes everywhere else in between sauna rooms anyway, which is sort of a dream come true. Apart from that, it is just a body!

That was the interesting part. I have a theory that because many people here take bodies as just bodies (and are not / should not be associated with something sexy in a sauna), nobody looks at a naked body and immediately gets turned on. The same goes with artistic films and pictures. As long as it is not associated with sex, a naked body does not make it pornographic – unlike what Facebook thinks.

But don’t forget to do what the Romans do in Rome.

While we went on an adventurous honeymoon trip last year, we ended up in a hotel in Montenegro that had a sauna. When we got there, the first thing H did was to strip naked and enter. A horrified employee got in quickly and told him to cover up immediately! Oops ūüôā

While we were in Poland last week, we were a little more careful with our behaviour, so we waited and observed.

First, nobody stripped when they went into the sauna, so we went in with our bathing suits. How very uncomfortable and unnatural, I thought to myself. Wait –¬†did I just turn Northern?!

And then we got out and observed that a couple stripped before entering – it must’ve been okay. So we followed suit.¬†Except a man entered thereafter without stripping. Then it felt incredibly uncomfortable for me, as I tried to cover up whatever I could, because I felt extremely naked.

This must’ve been what Adam and Eve felt, when before and after the fruit!

Birthday culture, as I know it

It's funny that after living here for four years, you still find yourself alienated by the smallest rituals.

The thing that struck me recently was birthdays.

Now, there are things I have come to accept:

  1. It is the worst luck ever to wish someone happy birthday in advance. Big no go. Always on the day or later.
  2. You have to bring your own cake to work on your birthday. Don't expect anything from your colleagues.

So those are (weird) stuff I got used to. But there are just some others that I find it hard to live without.

Without them I was not just visually unhappy on my birthday, I was also verbally unhappy.

Let me explain:

  • Birthdays only count when you have a birthday cake with candles on it.
  • There is preferably a physical present wrapped with wrapping paper.
  • When you have the birthday cake in front of you, others must sing you a birthday song.
  • This is closely followed by the request that you make a wish with your fingers intertwined and eyes closed. You're not allowed to reveal what you wished for.
  • Then you blow out the candles, all at one go.
  • And you make sure you make the first cut on the cake. Whether you end up separating the pieces is secondary.

After making the most amazing cake a few days later, submitting to my tantrums on my birthday, my husband wondered aloud why I blew out all the candles, thus making the room extremely dark.

Oh honey, you don't know anything about my culture.

The hills are alive

Some weeks ago, I spent a week in the mountains in Austria.

As I've grown up living and breathing in a big city, mountains are quite foreign to me. I mean sure you hear stories about mountain climbers and their amazing escapades in the tallest mountains in the world, but I never really knew people who go hiking in the mountains just like that. Neither have I ever.

That week I did. And oh boy, my fear of heights has never been more obvious.

On narrow winding paths, I had troubles looking down to the beautiful landscape and little towns that nestled below me. In my head it was only: if I fall now I'm going to die.

But the nice thing about trekking in the mountains is it's you against yourself. I chose to divert my attention to the path where I was going to put a foot in front of the other. I stopped dead in my treks a few time to enjoy the view, but there was no way I was going to enjoy the view whilst descending.

Because we were there for a week we looked at other activities too. H really wanted to go paragliding.

Paragliding.

I always wanted to do that too. But it's just a theory that I push to the back of my head. A little like skydiving, or riding a unicorn. Great ideas, but not gonna happen.

So we walked into the office and I said, well, I'd like to paraglide but I need you to convince me to.

And they did, so I signed up.

We had to take the cable car up to a plateau at 1900m. So I took the time to ask our tandem pilots a million questions: Has anyone backed out in the last minute? Has there been any accidents? Has anyone thrown up in midair? Hoe often do you do this? How does it feel? What should I expect? What do I need to do?

And we flew!

The scariest part of this whole experience is the part where you have to run off a plateau on a descend. Remember the part I described about not being able to watch while descending? It was a little like running off a cliff. Uhh…

But it was absolutely gorgeous. I don't think it cured my fear of heights but I can confidently say: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger!

A new phone

I finally did it, guys.

I finally got a new phone.

I struggle with getting over the fact that I've retired my previous phone. It was my very first smartphone, and I got it shortly before my 21st birthday. It was a big deal.

Because after that, WhatsApp and FaceTime and Instagram appeared. And I'd bet many people today can't remember how rudimentary communication was before.

What, picking up the phone to dial the numbers to call somebody? Are you crazy? How could you disturb someone like that? I'd write them a message to ensure they're okay with me calling and are perfectly aware that they have to get into a verbal communication with me, then call them. Because no one has the right to miss calls anymore.

Instant communication, people!

So after 7 years of using my first smartphone (yes, seven), I looked for a new phone.

I struggled a little, grasping the fact that I had to retire my 7-year-old phone. I don't believe it has maximized its potential.

But the iOS wouldn't update anymore, new apps couldn't be downloaded. Scrolling and clicking takes a long time.

I hadn't realized how slow it was till I got my new phone. I even got inspired to write a blog post on my phone about my phone. Well done, me.

So there we have it. I'm connected again!

The little value of money

If there was one thing I learnt since having moved to Berlin – it would be that money really has very little value. Where I come from, many get caught up in their pursuit for money. After all, more money means more luxury.

Since moving, I’ve noticed that the priorities of people here are different. It’s all about what makes them happy, or what makes the community happy. In fact, the poorer the people, the more generous they are.

When I got a little raise / stopped being underpaid, it was a conscious effort to remind myself not to be stingy. What good is money if you only know how to spend it on yourself? The more generous I got, the richer I felt. I paid for a round of drinks because I felt like the company was lovely. I got the homeless chap a little snack because he deserves a break sometimes. I brought more food to parties because why not. I bought us CDs because the artists we like deserve to get paid too (and Spotify just doesn’t do that).

And I did wonder: If I won a million bucks, what would I do with the money?

I think I’d take some non-paid leave, send my family over, enjoy some fresh air together. I’d like some sunshine on my face. I’d like to go to the countryside and ride some horses (till I run out of money then I just pat them). I don’t know if there’s much more that I’d like to do, apart from have more free time with the ones I love. I’d gladly cook for them.

Of course, we all need money to survive. But dear readers, if you are in pursuit of money, I hope you know what you really are looking for.

Ain’t nothin’ better than horseriding

With a quick blink of an eye it’s already 2017! I didn’t want the year to go forgotten without speaking about my favourite highlight of last year. (That is of course apart from getting married and having the most precious baby nephew, whom I will be meeting soon!)

Sometime in October, after travelling around the Balkan states for our honeymoon (shucks, that was another highlight I have to write about soon), H had planned for us to spend a weekend in the outskirts.

In the outskirts it was alright. It took two hours to get to a village that was surrounded by lush fields and horses. This village was mostly bought over by the owner of a horse stable. We were going to learn how to ride a horse for an entire weekend! You couldn’t imagine my excitement.

And fear. And worries. I didn’t have the right clothes. Nor the right shoes. Nor the experience of getting on a horse. Nor the experience of falling off a horse.

But joy. I concentrated on the joy. I was among 10 other excited kids, so I focused on my own joy.

The Friday afternoon started with an hour of getting into the mood. They called it Schrittrunde, literally a round of steps. I had thought that meant I would be walking around with the horse next to me, so I would get used to even having that big animal next to me. And perhaps learn how to get on it.

So we were asked if we had a preferred horse. I could’ve asked for one that flies. No, I have no idea which horse I would like, thank you for asking though. I got assigned one. I went to meet her (the ones I got assigned to usually had female names I think. I’m not sure, they were mostly Icelandic names) and I patted her, learnt to brush her and scratch her hooves. I could do this.

The lady who was assigned to help us was lovely. But she also spoke German, and I didn’t have the German vocabulary for horse riding. I could order a beer sure, but horse riding is way out of my league. She told me my horse was missing a trense. I said, what? Trense, she repeated. I asked her what that is. She described what it was for. I didn’t understand. She told me to just pick whatever is under my horse’s name in the store. Why didn’t you say that earlier?

Then we had to gather and walk our horses to the assembly. Schrittrunde was about to begin. They realized I was still without a helmet. I asked if it was necessary, they said yes. I went to get it and came back to see that all my fellow Schrittrunde mates have already gotten on the back of the horse. I thought that was the aim of this first hours! Nope. I panicked and put on my helmet. The lady told me to grab the saddle, put my foot in a position and pull my weight up. Whoosh – easier than I thought. I may have a secret talent. Holy smokes, ma, I’m on a horse!

We walked with our horses through the forest. The horses have such herd instinct that they rarely go away from one another. It was freezing cold in October, but I felt almighty on my horse walking through the forest. We learnt how to shift our weight on the horse when going uphill and downhill. The forest looked phenomenal when one is a little taller. The horse was brilliant. We were starting to develop chemistry. Then the hour ended, and we had to take them back to the stable.

Over the next two days, I learnt what the German word for a brown horse, a white horse and a mixed horse are. (I’ve forgotten now obviously.) Also, we learnt how to steer the horse, do slight gallops, learn how to balance on the horse without grabbing anything, etc. It was absolutely brilliant! H said he had never seen me happier.

Oh yes, he enjoyed it too. He just wasn’t allowed to explore his potential with the horse, because he had to have the largest horses (most of us were either women or kids), and because the horses have such herd instinct, he would move too quickly for the rest of us.

I think I found my Disneyland.

Masterpiece

Yesterday H and I had a good long video chat. We haven’t had one of those in a long time, usually because the connection gets in the way.

Honestly, it was mostly one-way – I had a lot going on that day:¬†two interviews, in person and via telephone. He listened patiently, intently¬†and responsively. He was happy to see me excited. I was happy to elaborate on the nitty gritty details and see his responses to them. It was fun. I missed it. He’s my favourite person to talk to.

That evening, I was watching The Voice of Germany (I’m a big fan), when Jessie J came on and performed her new song “Masterpiece” with the hopefuls. I caught some lines of it and was already in love with the song, I searched them up. It was one of those songs that clicked instantly with me, because I felt exactly like this at this very point in my life. I would love to belt it out:

I still fall on my face sometimes
And I can’t colour inside the lines
‘Cause I’m perfectly incomplete
I’m still working on my masterpiece

And I, I wanna hang with the greats
Got a way to go, but it’s worth the wait
No, you haven’t seen the best of me
I’m still working on my masterpiece

And it made me realize that H makes me feel exactly the same way as this song. Even though it’s been a tiring journey, he believed from the start that I was working on my masterpiece, even way before I realized it. (Such a great feeling.) He believes any visionary leader would take me under his/her wing. He has hopes and dreams for me.

As I inch ever closer to starting my career here, I, too, started to have hopes and dreams for me too. I, too, believe that I can take anything that comes my way and make it great. I’m not going to give up and go home and whine about this place.

I’m going to kick some ass, you’ll see.

Languages

Languages are a funny thing.

Most of us speak what we are used to, to others who are also used to it. And we take it for granted.

I feel like I can only have two main active languages, from which I can easily reach out for words from, at any one point. In Singapore, I switched easily and freely between English and Mandarin; In Germany, it’s between German and English – and all Chinese words are lost.

And then there are people like the lovely couple I hung out with earlier this week – a Japanese guy and his German girlfriend require some time for further clarifications while conversing with each other in German. Later¬†I asked him if they normally speak Japanese. He quickly said no, they spoke almost always in German. How they’ve dated for a year now baffles me.

Anybody living in a country that is based on a language other than your own native language would know that it actually is exhausting going through a day completely exclusively with¬†the local language. In Berlin, I seem to have a social circle¬†consisting of people, who¬†almost don’t speak English at all or refuse to since they’re terrible in it. We struggle with our German, but it connects us and we understand one another in spite of all the grammatical mistakes and false friends. It feels funny that we are struggling to put our points across, but we – singaporean, japanese, ukrainian, italian, columbian – we communicate in German because¬†English is not an alternative.

Glad the husband speaks English comfortably, otherwise speaking to him alone would exhaust me!

Breakfast conversation

H: (looks out of the window) There’s a horse carriage coming.

I: Cool.

H: There’s a porsche coming, just behind the horse carriage.

I: Uhhuh.

H: A horse carriage and a porsche. Welcome to Europe.

I: Where the rich and the richer are.

H: Exactly. But I’m not sure which one of them is richer.