January 4, 2016

Starting to draw in Berlin

Labyrinth Kinder Museum, December 2015

I drew these pictures while the kids played at Labyrinth, a children's play museum that is a train and tram ride away into trendy Prenzlauer Berg. The kids and I just love the trams pulling up and down the main boulevard. Having spent several years in Westboro, Ottawa, though, Jeff and I weren't keen (despite the great services) to move back into a neighbourhood where we would rub up against conspicuously wealthy people. I always manage to feel bad about myself when I'm around people with beautiful haircuts and expensive strollers.

Labyrinth is a small version of the Children's Museum in Gatineau. There's a set of bleachers for the parents to sit on while the kids pretend to sell plastic plants and loaves of bread, or program an electrical circuit board. It was a momentary paradise for me, to draw undisturbed for an hour or so. Someone even asked me if I was a professional. Well!

We live in the sedate neighbourhood of Schoeneberg, a couple of subway stops from our kids' schools. There's a grass Platz with a fountain for kids to frolic in, and nearby pull-out-all-the-stops Germany-style playgrounds. The apartment buildings are imposing and colourful, breathing charm and history, at once beautiful - the sculpted balconies and ornate ceilings of pre-WWI, the timeless artisanal chocolate shops and cafes at ground level -- and heart-wrenching, with memorials to the neighbourhood's past as a Jewish quarter. Most buildings have little plaques outside detailing their war dead or disappeared, and corner signposts describe oppressive laws from the 1930s. Lest we forget isn't something given the nod once a year here. It is part of the fabric of life, both mundane and deeply felt.

These are my solo first drawings since landing in Berlin 4.5 months ago. Ada and I ride our bikes every Saturday to a cafe, where we do homework and draw pictures of horses and fanciful people together. She's been pretty anxious at times, and the Mommy time calms her. For two people who used to spend up to 1 to 1.5 hours alone together a day, it has been really hard on both of us to lose that abundance of time together.

I remember how Ada would bring up every imaginable subject during those long commutes in the car together. She favoured difficult topics, like crime etc., and I would struggle to answer. Sometimes I would promise to answer later upon reflection, and I would come back with a thought-out response.

Her teacher asked us for a meeting a few weeks ago. He said her schoolwork and comportment are great, and she has friends, but that she's so slow-moving between activities that he wondered if she was feeling anxious. That was easy for us to confirm. At home she also has a difficult habit of "singing" loudly or shouting when she's under pressure, in the most guttural or raspy voices she can make, combined with nervous laughter. It's deliberately provocative, and combined with my husband's tinnitus, which amplifies all noises to painful degrees, we have a toxic combination during the morning rush. She has calmed down a bit over the holidays, thankfully.

For us, the overwhelming challenge is child care, and getting through the evening and weekend. In Berlin, most women work part-time until their children are school-aged. Women also shop daily for groceries, and there are no large stores. The whole society depends on the work of the mother, and there are no structures in place for double-income families with young children like mine. For example, our 3.5-year-old son's after school program closes at 4:30, which is too early for us to pick him up from school.

We found a wonderful mom to pick both our children and her own little one up. The arrangement works beautifully. James has taken her - younger, at 2.5 years old - daughter under his wing at school, which gives him a huge, needed confidence boost, and it allows the little girl a chaperone in a classroom of older children.

James is learning French and German in the classroom, and is the only English speaker. This struggle continues to be a massive challenge, but his mood has improved. He was hitting and screaming a lot, even biting, but is coming back to himself reliably. He restarted an adorable habit about a month ago, of saying "I'm okay" after falling down or even just during the course of the day. Like an inward health check.

So both kids continue to find their new normal. Ada loves living in Germany, seems to prefer it actually (she loves our new apartment and her new school), and James is coming along. Still, they are both still showing signs of the strain. My husband and I know that if we were feeling calmer and happier, that it would be reflected in the kids.

Something that came as a surprise to us was how abnormal we would be. A family with two careers and two young children. It sounds quite unremarkable, but we are unique in my workplace, and to a certain extent in this society. And it is clear that we are solely responsible for solving any challenges arising from the fact that we both have serious jobs and that the child care and family setup in Germany are not the same as in Canada.

We are simply utterly exhausted from learning our still-new jobs, moving into our apartment and dealing with our shipment and car from Canada, getting to know two school environments, and finding childcare solutions. In the evenings there isn't a shred of energy left, and our family unit suffers for it. And we have to go get groceries and supplies 3-4 times a week, cutting down our slim post-bedtime evenings even further.

I have a simple, highly-effective formula for keeping myself in a good mood: art at least weekly, exercise 2-3 x week. I'm on my sixth month without these fail safes, and it shows.

So Jeff and I hit upon a simple solution for our woes, and that was to introduce another person to the picture, at least until we are all a bit calmer and less worn down. Unfortunately, our search for an au pair has been worse than not having one. Time and again our emails to candidates would be ignored, or we would spend too much time on unsuitable ones. We basically hired one woman, but her father became ill. A second one visited the house but her English wasn't good enough. The third actually moved in with her suitcase, only for us to discover that she had misrepresented herself and could not legally work for us as an au pair. Two months I have spent on this, all with the intent of making my evenings a little easier by recruiting someone to help with cooking and cleaning, help with dinner and bedtime if Jeff wanted to go to board game night or me to an art class, babysit for the odd date night.

I chose Berlin because it is a very green city, with a rich urban biodiversity, lots of rivers, lakes and parks. It is also an art city, with over 600 gallery spaces. So far I have visited none of these things! But Berlin continues to be an amazing place. I see bits of it on my way to meetings, or when I am walking around with James or biking with Ada. There is still plenty of time, and it has only been 4.5 months. For now, we are taking care of our kids and our jobs, and we hope Berlin's delights will still be there for us to discover in a few months when we have the heart to get out there and enjoy it.