The public transportation system divides Berlin into three zones, A, B, and C, C being the far outlying suburbs of the city. Like most Berliners, I hold an U-Bahn pass that entitles me to travel throughout A and B, which cover the heart of the city. Who needs to go all the way to Finkenkrug anyway? Yesterday, it turned out that I did.
I made a friend in Deutsch class who works as an au pair for a heart surgeon’s family in the former East. Verity is from Portsmouth, England and just graduated from Uni last year. She is the supportive shopper who helped me find my stylish German-lady boots. But, poor Verity has come down with a mysterious ailment that has sent her to the hospital twice in the last month. She had to drop out of our class because she was so sick. The doctors think her hepatitis vaccine of a year ago came from a bad batch and is now beginning to cause all sorts of complications. The doctors have an incentive to conclude this because that means all Verity’s health problems result from a pre-existing condition and her German insurance doesn’t have to cover her treatment. I thought that only happened in America.
So, Verity got out of the hospital again on Monday, and I went to see her Tuesday. The important part of the story is that Verity feels some better and acts just like her cheerful, sassy self. I’m still worried about her, but it was a relief to chat over coffee yesterday. Unfortunately, she’s currently covered in hives which the doctors say are the result of the swine flu vaccine she got last week. Apparently 1 in 3 million people respond this way.
The frivolous part of the story is my travel adventure and my experience in the East’s Ritzy Acres. First I had to buy an extension to my ticket so that I could go to Zone C: the Suburbs. I bumbled through that in German, though the ticket lady slowed way down, raised her volume, and resorted to big gestures to remind me that I needed to punch my ticket in order to validate it. (That gesture was actually key. I have no idea how to say “You must validate your ticket by sticking it in the puncher machine.”)
So I travelled far out, all the way through former West Berlin and back into the East. I got off at Finkenkrug and walked through a forest to Verity’s neighborhood. I expected spacious mansions of the sort that suburban heart doctors build for themselves in the U.S. I thought I would find distantly spaced houses with manicured lawns and SUVs. Instead, Finkenkrug is a neighborhood much like our first host family’s with neat but small homes. I turned onto a muddy lane of two story, tile-roofed houses and found Verity’s residence about half-way along, turned sideways to the street, with a back yard full of toys and swing sets. Verity had described the house to me as very posh, sounding even posher in her British accent, but what I found was a regular middle class abode. Very nice, but nothing I would have exclaimed over. In fact, I would have remarked on its modesty as the estate of a heart surgeon with five children and a Chicago-born wife. Maybe that’s as fancy as one can get in the formerly Communist east.
Verity made me a delicious cup of “proper British tea” which turned out to mean “including lots of milk.” (She brought her own teabags over from England.) She fixed herself a mug of coffee from the family’s espresso maker (so far, all Berlin families I’ve encountered boast their own personal espresso machines.) She made me swear to claim her coffee cup as my own if her host mother arrived because Verity’s doctors have forbidden her caffeine.
After we caught up, and I met the host mother and three of the children, I headed back to the train station. No nice ticket agent occupied the booth to sell me a return ticket. I would have to face the machine. After fuddling with it for a while, a fatherly looking bystander came over to ask me in German what I needed. This always happens to me in the U.S. No matter what I’m trying to do, or where I am, people constantly approach unbidden to help. Even when I’m not having any trouble. Apparently this constant needy aspect translates to Deutschland. I stumbled out my situation in German, and my helper took over the machine and secured me a return ticket. When the machine rejected my bank card, the man was on the point of giving me the 2.50 before I scraped together enough change from my pockets. The train was already at the station by then, so the man wished me luck and we parted ways.
I leapt onto the train and we pulled away. Then I realized I had no idea where this train was headed, aside from back into Berlin. I needed to meet up with the visiting cousins to go to the German History Museum at Friedrichstrasse, but where would this train take me? I called Aaron to ask him to look it up. In the midst of my question, the man across the aisle butted in. “I can tell you how to get to Friedrichstrasse,” he volunteered. So I ditched Aaron and accepted more kindness from strangers. This new helper got off at the station before me. Before he deboarded, he checked in with me again, just to make sure I’d be able to find the U-Bahn connection at the train station. I think he was prepared to stay on an extra stop just to make sure I got to my destination.
Does this happen to the rest of you? All of you have experience with me – do I really look clueless all the time? I’m grateful for the help, of course, but I’m also mostly competent enough to make it through daily life on my own.