Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Leaky Showers and Language Barriers

Dealing with the routine chores of life can be a real challenge in a new country. Things that you have always taken for granted as being easy can become really difficult as you adapt to the differences (large and small) in behavior and culture. We've had to adjust to the German system of payments - cash only in most places unless you have a German bank card - and to the custom of closing on Sundays (you have to plan your grocery shopping around it or you'll be hungry on Sunday evening!).

Perhaps most challenging is the language barrier. We're slowly picking up rudimentary German but we're still embarrassingly limited. Many Berliners do speak English, especially the younger ones, but you do encounter people who either don't know any English or are reluctant to use it. We've been lucky so far to get by without too much trouble. However, it's interesting dealing with stuff that would be simple in the US, but gets complicated here.

For instance, a week ago the landlord came by to inspect the brand new shower that was installed here in our flat just before we arrived. We are sublet tenants - we're renting from the tenants, but with the approval of the building's owner. She is a friendly woman, well dressed but with an eccentric streak. She speaks English far better than either I or Shannon speak German, but still not well enough to communicate perfectly. This has caused some confusion, but we've managed.

Unfortunately, there was a small leak coming from this new shower and pooling on the floor after use. The landlord was concerned about water damage under the floor, so she asked us not to use the shower for a day or two while she scheduled her repairman to come and find the source of the problem.

However, it took until the end of the week, Friday afternoon, for the guy to make it out. He spoke no English at all, so the landlord did her best to translate what he was saying. After some struggling, I understood that he needed to apply some fresh silicone caulking to the base of the shower unit, and that the work would take 30 minutes. However, he couldn't do it right away because the area was still wet. How about tomorrow, Saturday, then? Nein, he doesn't work on Saturdays. Ok, so it has to be Monday then? Ja, Monday at 4 pm. Okay, then, I guess we're taking baths only for three days (fortunately there is a separate bath tub). The landlord kindly apologized, thanking us for our patience.

Monday at 4, no repair man. An hour later - he still hadn't arrived. Another hour, still nothing. I called the landlord - she was surprised and upset that he hadn't come when scheduled. Through broken English, she expressed to me that "this is the last time with him", meaning, I think, that she won't be hiring him again after this! She promised to call him first thing in the morning and then call me. I told her that he would have to come on Wednesday, because we were planning to be out of the house most of Tuesday. She understood this, and said she'd schedule him for Wednesday.

So on Tuesday morning at 8 am, I have barely just woken up and I'm about to get out of bed to feed Flash, when the door bell rings really loudly, four times in a row. I haul myself up and go to the door, and of course it's the repairman and his assistant, waiting there with their tools. I don't think the landlord knew about this at all - my assumption is that he just decided to show up, finally. Knowing he speaks zero English - and being half-awake - I didn't even bother to talk, really. Just waved them in and let them do their work. After a few minutes, he tells me in German not to use the shower until the caulking is dry (which I was able to understand partially), but I can't understand the last part of his sentence, and he can't remember how to say it English, so he finds a piece of paper in his pocket and writes "17:00" on it, meaning "don't shower until 17:00".

So, that's a taste of dealing with apartment maintenance in Berlin when you don't speak German!

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