The Volkshochschule Saga

My first several weeks in Berlin were clouded by one glaring problem: I didn’t know German. Really didn’t know it. I suffered through seven years of French and still default to it as a reflex when I hear a foreign language. I took Spanish in college, spent a summer in Costa Rica and still have a firm handle on most of the basics. But German? The extent of my German knowledge when I boarded the plane to move to Germany was beyond limited. Bratwurst, guten Morgen and auf Wiedersehen (spelled wildly incorrectly) were the extent of what I knew. Basically, I am a typical American idiot.

Fortunately, Germans are a well-educated, multi-lingual and kind people who were patient with my American idiocy and put up with attempts to speak a language whose letters looked like a Word Jumble to my uninitiated eye (see here). A few days after I got here, Regine and Carsten (my number one favorite Germans and surrogate parents) and I got started looking for a class. The best option seemed to be Volkshoschule, Berlin’s network of community colleges with cheap German classes for the hordes of people like me who flock to the city. I was ready. And this is where things got interesting.

Volkshochshule has tons of campuses around town, all offering a variety of English classes at different times. Sounds amazing, right? The first hitch: in typical German fashion, the schools require prospective students to show up to the campus between certain hours that vary from school to school, grab a ticket and wait in line to talk to someone before you even know if there’s space available in the classes that you want, then take an aptitude test to see what you qualify for (clearly not necessary in my case as my vocabulary had only expanded to include Hallo, Tchüss and brötchen after a few weeks here). On my first attempt, I bundled up the baby and walked a couple of kilometers to the school in our neighborhood – Schöneberg. We waited for two hours (awful…remind me to never become a single mother) and my number was finally called. Thrilled, I put Tilda in her stroller, walked confidently up to the woman I’d been assigned to and opened with my only full German sentence: “Hallo! Sprechen Sie Englisch?” So proud of myself. I’d only been practicing for the last two hours. Then, the crushing news that beginners classes were booked through April. Forever away from January. She sent me home with a list of other schools nearby, and I got to work.

Next up was a visit to the Mitte school – I dragged the stroller through two train changes and up a winding flight of stairs to the Mitte office. Booked through May. Next – Charlottenburg, where I got turned around on my route and basically sprinted (not cute) to make it in time. Booked. Dumb American feelings setting in big time. The sweet man I was pleading with took my email address and told me he’d let me know if anything turned up. Eventually I tried my hand at the Neukölln campus where I was told I was too late for even the April classes. Still optimistic that something would work out, I thought of these quests as a good way to get to know the city and improve my negotiating skills. Besides, I didn’t have a whole lot better to do than attempt to weasel my way into a class. I knew the next campus – Steglitz – would have an opening. They had to let me in – they were the first campus to agree to talk to me on the phone. Tilda and I set out on a freezing but sunny day and found the building without incident. This was it. I wrangled Tilda out of her stroller and carried her up the narrow staircase to the office (I don’t know how anyone with a physical disability gets around this city…wrangling a stroller puts a new perspective on everything) and found the administrative person – a cute British guy about my age. I was ready to sign up. “You’re in the wrong building,” he told me. “There are two Steglitz campuses – you need Steglitz-Zehlendorf, a few stops away from here, and they’re about to close for the day.” Of course. I started crying while Tilda took a shit in my arms. Perfect.

Claudia, one of Tilda’s grandmas and my personal hot mess hero, stepped in the next day and fairy-godmothered her way into the situation. She’d spoken to the other Steglitz campus, booked a spot for me and planned to drive me to the school to help me sign up…and it worked! I was in! It was three train transfers and a bus ride away, but I didn’t care – I was prepared to flail my way through a new language course in hopes that I could carry on a conversation with our Polish housekeeper and answer questions from strangers using more than one word.

When it came down to it, the timing of the class didn’t work with our schedules and I had to drop out before I even started. I’d pretty much resigned myself to seven more months of nodding and smiling when I found another school with classes starting in March. It would set me back a few more Euros, but I signed up immediately and have been in the class about a month, grateful that my first language wasn’t Thai, and learning that when it comes to language, I will always have to try very, very hard to make sense of things. The best phrase I’ve learned so far? “Das ist verrückt.”


new patty

Patty Griffin has a new single. I've already listened to it millions and millions of times. You should do the same:




We took a short trip to Hamburg this weekend, and I fell completely in love with the place. Hamburg is home to the second largest port in Europe, and as a result, the city is bustling, absolutely gorgeous and home to many of Germany's wealthiest residents. I can't wait to make a trip back to this coastal city when temperatures creep above freezing.

Surprise! Another picture of me in a sleeping bag/coat.

Welcome sunshine.

Most of the buildings in Hamburg are white and the entire city has a clean, pristine feeling to it.

We had amazing fischbrötchen with an eternally popular radler. Any ideas as to why these aren't in high demand in the US? Do Americans like their daytime alcohol a little stronger? Probably.


little things

I came up a little short on new photos this week, so I'll share a few things that have been keeping my attention indoors. The first day of spring brought almost nonstop snowfall with it, so we've been staying inside a little more than normal. Here's hoping spring is closer than it feels.

A great goodbye to singer-songwriter Jason Molina

19 things to stop doing in your twenties (duly noted)

Jordan Ferney's amazing apartment was featured on Cup Of Jo

Gorgeous photographs of forgotten places

I can't get enough of fellow Nashville girl Caitlin Rose's new album:

^one good thing about winter

Off to Hamburg for the weekend!



lagne nacht der museen

Gorgeous carpet from the Pergamon’s Islamic Art Collection.

Twice a year, over 100 museums in Berlin participate in “Lange Nacht Der Museen.” This tradition invites Berliners to museums from 6 pm until 2 am for one ticket price. This is obviously right up my alley, so I went with a couple of friends last Saturday to check out three of Berlin’s largest and oldest museums. I met a guy in line who sold me his ticket for 8, so I got an even better deal than expected.

We hit up two of the fine art museums – the Pergamonmuseum and the Altes Museum – and ended the night at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, to see an amazing exhibit on Berlin’s Ruined Diversity, which focused on how the Nazi takeover completely wiped out one of Europe’s most diverse cities in the 1930s and 40s.

One of the Pergamon's most impressive exhibits is the restored Market Gate of Milekus, which was built in the 2nd century, excavated in the early 20th century, renovated in the 1920s, and renovated again after it sustained significant damage during WWII. The museum has received criticism since the structure is comprised mostly of new materials, but I thought it was still amazing to see up close.

Altar from the Pergamon's Islamic Art collection.

Berlin tourism posters made prior to Hitler's takeover.

Our night was long and completely freezing, but well worth it. The energy in this city is incredible – there were thousands of people out for Lange Nacht Der Museen, which is such a testament to the character of Berliners, who will brave a cold, dark night to take advantage of some of their city’s impressive resources.

Next time I’ll plan my route a little better and check out some of the contemporary/modern spots. I need suggestions – any ideas? Berlin has such a rich history and amazing art scene, and I’m especially excited to cross more museums off my list when the weather is warmer and more visitors come to town (hint, hint).


seeking out meaning instead of happiness

Costa Rica, Summer 2010

The next book on my list is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning (thanks to one of my favorite travel bloggers, Taryn Adler's, suggestion via this fantastic Atlantic article.) I definitely should have read this book while writing my undergrad thesis on the effects of positive psychology, but I was probably too busy spending Sundays with my roommates at Hand in Hand to think of it.

Here's an excerpt from the article (you should read it):

"...the book's ethos -- its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self -- seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. "To the European," Frankl wrote, "it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"

I am currently living out THE most selfish phase of my life, which I'm allowing myself for just a little longer. Glad to have this reminder that personal happiness doesn't mean much without people to share it with. Time to get back out of my head.



So happy together, even when our hair is past the point of jank.

After a week in Amsterdam, Leslie and Emily came to Berlin to round out their eurotrip with some gray days and freezing temperatures. Regardless of the weather, we had an amazing time going on a free(ish) AMAZING walking tour of the city, eating lots of good food, spending time with my family and checking out Berlin (late late) nightlife.

Leslie is one of my oldest and best friends and I LOVED having her and Emily in town. She has the most adventurous spirit and is the perfect travel companion. Come back, Lawa.

On our walking tour, we hit all of the major highlights including Museum Island, Checkpoint Charlie, Hitler's Bunker and the impressive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (above).

We spent a night out in Mitte and amazing, authentic ramen at Cocolo Ramen Shop.

Making a southern meal for my family - pork loin, biscuits & mashed potatoes with banana pudding for dessert. We'd planned to make brussels sprouts with balsamic, but since brussels season is officially over in Germany, we kept it authentically Tennessean and had nothing green on our plates.

Tater girl

A walk in Prenzlauer Berg.

Trifecta (Currywurst, french fries and Mezzo Mix)

KaDeWe afternoon.

Our best German girl faces after a couple bottles of wine.

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