Waiting for a ping-pong table to free up...tightrope walking anyone?
As I’ve been on the subject of homeschooling and our ups and downs with it so far, I thought I would take a moment to consider all the non-academic gains that I think our travels have been producing for L:
1. Making friends in another language. I have been both impressed and proud at L’s willingness to wander into new and unknown settings involving kids who for the most part, speaking little or no English, and just roll with it. As I wrote about in an earlier post, soccer is the universal arbiter of play and communication happens, as necessary, in order to get a game going. And for L particularly, his desire to play soccer overrides any possible shyness he might feel in a new situation. Since we’ve been in Berlin, he’s played with neighborhood kids, a group of 20-something guys having a weekly, organized scrimmage, and a team in Mitte that practices twice weekly. He also had a brush with bullies the other evening in the local park. They weren’t physically threatening and, full disclosure, I was hovering in the background, waiting to intervene when necessary. But they were enjoying a bit of taunting, taking his ball and having a go at him with their withering 5 words of English. But he kept his cool and didn’t let them smell fear, and they eventually got bored and moved on.
2. Becoming an adventurous eater. L has been a fairly picky eater most of his life, yet he will eat good, healthy food that is put in front of him as long as it is a) fairly simple, b) not mixed together, and c) not spicy in any way shape or form. But I am thrilled to discover that during even the short time we’ve been in Berlin, he has been extremely game to try most of the Turkish food we’ve had, he suddenly and bizarrely has become obsessed with spicy food – from hot sauce on his eggs to chorizo at the Spanish tapas bar down the street. Plus, he has decided he loves sushi. Being a foodie myself, I consider this a huge boon. He certainly may have come to some of these things eventually if we were back home, but most likely not just yet. And as a single parent who has so often ended up cooking two dinners (I hate to confess), this is a beautiful thing.
3. Learning to cook. OK, he could be doing this anywhere, but it's happening now while we're traveling. Maybe it's because we have more time and are not rushing from school, to after-school commitment, from work, etc. or maybe it's because of his increased repertoire of eating choices. But most likely it’s because we’ve been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on YouTube at night, but L is suddenly keen to learn to cook. So we are starting with the simple Jamie recipe for beef or chicken noodle stir-fry with whatever vegetables are on hand. So far the results have been quite tasty. Added bonus: I’ve finally been successful in getting him to do the dishes afterwards. Although if he cooks, I’ll do the dishes. I could get used to this.
4. Learning how to navigate cities and places in a foreign language. I can finally feel that my endlessly getting lost in Berlin’s complicated grid of public transportation has an unexpected benefit. L is learning how to read maps, how to be an excellent co-pilot in the quest to get where we want to be going, and, for the most part, learning to keep a cool head and that there is simply always a way to figure out where you are in relation to where you need to be and how to get yourself there. Again, this is learning that is out-of-the-box in relation to life-as-it-was at an elementary school in a small Midwestern town.
5. Learning to be flexible and deal with a lot of unknowns. Finally, and maybe one of the most important things I see happening, is L’s ability to adapt to situations that sometimes have to change at the last minute or things that seemed like a good idea in the pre-planning stage, turn out not to be as good in reality, and so adjustments to the itinerary must be made. Of course, this is life, and happens wherever you are. And it does help to develop at least some kind of routine to our days. For us, right not that involves reading every morning and some school work (and my work), followed by ping pong in our local park, and then either we come back to the house for more work or doing an outing in the afternoons. But traveling, by its very nature, forces you to become flexible, because if you aren’t, it’s a trip to hell in a hand basket. Luckily, that hasn’t happened for either of us yet.
I have a son for whom the order of the day, if it were left entirely to him, would go something like this: 1) get up, eat, and play hours of soccer; 2) play hours of PS3 games or have other such electronic experiences; and 3) eat, sleep, get up and do it all over again. I’m not meaning to suggest that he doesn’t have other interests, but these are just the overriding ones. He does actually have a vibrant curiousity about the world around him, he loves animals and nature, he is social and makes friends easily. And he is quite a conversationalist – he can hold his own well with adults.
However, when it comes to academics and sitting down at a desk to do school work, the neighbors would think I’m administering slow Chinese water torture, to hear him tell about it. I am really not the strictest parent in the world, nor am I, hopefully, the most lax either. The same can be said about our homeschooling style which is probably somewhere between formal and Unschooling. I am using the Core Knowledge series (What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know) as a touchstone. It is a great series and I particularly like this book. It’s laid out well, easy to read without being pandering (to parent or child) and I’m fairly sure it includes more information and knowledge than your average fifth grader in public school covers in one year. No doubt more than we’ll actually cover. There are comprehensive sections on language, literature (excerpts from classics like Huckleberry Finn, Little Women and the Secret Garden), geography, European and American history, grammar, visual arts, music, math and science.
View of the Fernsehturm from the football grounds
I’m pretty good at navigating my way around foreign countries, but Berlin has me in a state. I find the public transportation system byzantine and so unclear compared to London, and then of course throw in words as long as freight trains, most looking something like Beldungshinfreukenstrasse and you can understand why I am getting us lost at least three times a day. Plus, you have to learn to discern between the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, RE commuter trains, bus, and tram and all are inconveniently laid out on the map they provide in 6 point font that I can barely read even with my glasses on. So forget about running for trains because nothing is clearly marked and it requires a sit down study session to interpret. Add to that the fact that the system seems to be mostly automated and there is never any official person to ask – anywhere other than a mega-station where you can finally go to a ticket seller and they MIGHT speak English. Is it any wonder I’m exhausted?
I’m used to being able to at least get by in a foreign language, but not having a snip of German really does have its drawbacks. I can’t interpret websites of places we want to go or things we want to do and most do not have an English version. Plus I can’t understand any kind of automated voicemail answering service. Several times we have gone to museums or other places only to find them closed, or simply no longer existent (so much for my guidebook), no doubt because I didn’t get my info right before we went.
It might be an overused aphorism to say that soccer (or football, for the rest of the civilized world) is the universal game and transcends all nationalities and languages, but our experiences this week are definitely the proof in the pudding.
On Wednesday Lucas started practicing with a very diverse and international neighborhood team of 10-11-year old boys based in Mitte. The kids on the team hail from Germany, the Ukraine, Brazil, Portugal, and Iran, to name a few countries. Enough English is spoken that Lucas can chat with some of them but mostly they get right on with the game. The coach is of course fluent in English, which is a relief for both of us with our complete lack of German. It seems if you can kick the ball and just get on with it, you are accepted, at least on the field.
The kids straggled into practice which started at 5pm on a very well turned out pitch at the end of Klein Hamburgerstrasse in Mitte, with the Berlin Television Tower cutting a retro-futuristic backdrop to complete the scene. I could not help noticing that the majority of the kids - all 10-11 year old boys - turned up either on foot or by bike, and most all on their own steam. And they made their way home at 6:30pm the same way. Not a soccer mom with mini-van in sight (no offense intended to said soccer moms), but I do find it interesting that in the small towns and suburbs of the world it seems we tend to ferry and shield our children more than our urban counterparts. I notice the same thing when I am in London: kids are navigating the city at a much earlier age than we often afford them freedom to in the allegedly 'safer' suburbs.
The Pick-up Game
Today we took a long walk along the canals in Kreuzberg to a sporting area in a park, which has a small, caged soccer pitch, much like an urban basketball court. Lucas was planning on just shooting the ball by himself as I sat on the bench with my notebook and worked. But within two minutes of his arrival, six Turkish-German boys showed up, seemingly on their recess from a nearby school, and clearly eager to partake of the boy and his ball.
Lucas kept smiling and saying “I don’t speak German”, as they tried to talk to him. Finally, the one boy with a few words of English was pushed to the front of the group and within 30 seconds, they had organized themselves into teams and a game was underway.
I am always impressed to watch kids self-organize and it reminds me that we should spend more time getting out of their way and letting them get on with it. And of course, I cannot help being proud of my son for not letting the language, or feeling shy, get in the way of him playing, meeting kids, and having fun. The point being, speaking the same language is so clearly not an obstacle to the primary objective, which is simply – to play.
Once Lucas is involved with soccer he truly could be happy anywhere. He is already intent on staying here. However, there a few other pieces that need to click into place for us to continue to stay and explore Berlin beyond the end of this month – namely, a very affordable sublet and some work coming in for me.
Flamenco in the Turkish Market
This morning’s beautiful game outing was capped with a mouthwatering stroll through the Friday afternoon Turkish market where one can buy anything from buttons and zippers, to organic produce and Turkish food specialities, all at great prices. It was hard not to get carried away buying great cheeses, fresh gnocchi and hummus. But the pinnacle for me was a Spanish trio of buskers singing and dancing flamenco tunes. The odd synthesis of being in a Turkish market in the middle of Berlin and listening to passionate and gut-wrenching Flamenco music, did, I have to admit, rival the beautiful game for me. Lucas however, kept pulling on my sleeve so we could get home with plenty of time to get ready for his next football practice.
It is the beginning of Day 4 in Berlin, and slowly a structure to our days is taking shape. We are on a later schedule here even than we were in London, having not quite adjusted to the 1-hour time difference yet. So it is a late start for us every morning. Once Lucas rises, we go through our morning routine of a touch-typing course he is doing, reading his time travel book, math practice on Kahn Academy, and then some geography or other subject from What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know.
We are trying to explore something new each afternoon, while also trying to do all the ‘normal’ things life requires. The other day Lucas came with me for a run along the beautiful canal that runs through this neighborhood. He says I run too slowly for him, which is true, so he mostly runs ahead, walks and waits for me. Not exactly my ideal running partner, but I’m grateful to be able to run at all, so I am not complaining.
We also went to the Badeschiff Berlin, an outdoor pool created in a converted barge on the River Spree. It was quite the scene. Beach party atmosphere as people lounged on the dock areas and man-made sandy beach. The nearby bar pumped house music and the unusually hot day attracted a huge crowd of loungers of all ages. The pool itself was ice cold and deep throughout, so there was no wading in and getting used to it. It was plunge, catch your breath, and swim.
Yesterday, after our study period, another run, and buying groceries, we paid a requisite visit to the Zoologischer Garten & Aquarium. It is apparently one of the world’s largest and most important zoos, home to many endangered creatures. An impressive zoo, no doubt, but our favorite part was simply watching a seal being fed by a guy in a wetsuit in the water, and their incredibly affectionate and playful relationship.
How long we will have to explore this incredible city is yet to be determined. Much depends on finding another affordable sublet, after this one finishes at the end of the month, and also on me having work coming in. This is, after all, not a vacation, but life on the road. And discerning the difference between the two is essential for both of us in this unfolding adventure.
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I wondered whether we would actually make it here today or not as the day started out with me sleeping through my alarm that allegedly went off at 4:15am. I finally awoke at nearly 5:20 to my phone vibrating texts from the car service driver who was about to give up on us altogether. Thank God I finally came to and was able to rescue our ride to the airport before it was entirely too late. Usually, having to wake up incredibly early for a trip makes me sleep lightly and hyper-vigilantly, waiting for the imminent alarm. But I had trouble falling asleep last night, so I was just lucky we made our 7:20 flight from Heathrow to Berlin Tegel.
We navigated the TXL bus into town which dropped us at its final stop of Alexanderplatz, from where we took a taxi the rest of the way to Kreuzberg, our home for at least the next three weeks. We are subletting a flat from the sister of a friend in this bustling, trendy and Turkish neighborhood just south of Mitte and bordering Neukölln.
I am both humbled and amazed that everyone we’ve encountered so far, from the taxi driver to the Turkish restaurant owner, speaks English. I am used to knowing at least enough of a language to be able to communicate basic needs, but German is a language I have no facility in whatsoever. It makes me feel both adrift and oddly guilty, I find myself apologizing for it though I don’t think anyone actually really cares. So far people are open and friendly and seem to easily segue from German to English.
This evening we took a walk through the busy neighborhood and on a recommendation from a fellow traveler in the Twitterverse, we partook of a very casual Turkish eatery, Gel Gör Inegöl Köfteci on Kotbusser Damn in Kreuzberg. The dish not to miss was the Kofte on Baguette which consisted of minced links of seasoned veal, chargrilled, on a sort of Turkish baguette, accompanied by arugula, mint, parsley, red onions, tomatoes, garlic and chili sauce. It did not disappoint. Lucas turned his nose up at it at first, but after watching me eat one, he had a change of heart and ordered his own, sans tomatoes. At €3.50 a head, it was a deal to boot.
Tomorrow we will begin to really explore Berlin, and next week, Lucas will join practices with the international soccer team I’ve found for him to play on. And he launches his blog about playing soccer while traveling!
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Hugging a Redwood at Kew Gardens
I had my little world rocked the other day on a visit to Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. It was not the lily pad garden, the Redwood forest, the Treetop Walkway or the 19th century Temperate House filled with rare botanical wonders that blew me away, stunning as it all was. But it was a dip into the Marianne North Gallery tucked away along the southwest edge of the Gardens.
I had never heard of Marianne North, as I suspect many people outside of botanical circles, also have not. She was a Victorian painter of flora and fauna who circled the globe twice by herself, creating over 800 paintings that she left to Kew, which houses the only permanent solo collection of a female painter in Britain. Just to make her a little more impressive, she didn’t start painting until she was 40 years old.
She was born in Hastings, England in 1830 and died in 1890. It is astonishing that she accomplished so much and left such a legacy for a woman of her time period. Any time period, in my opinion. She was, of course, not a woman of lowly means, being the eldest daughter of a prosperous land-owning family. Her father, Frederick North, was a Justice of the Peace and a Liberal MP for Hastings. She looked after both her parents until her mother’s death, then was her father’s constant traveling companion for many years before striking out for her solo voyages around the world. She lived and painted in North America, Brazil, Japan, Tenerife, Borneo, Java, Ceylon, India, Australia, New Zealand, the Seychelles and Chile.
Her paintings are exquisitely beautiful, detailed renderings of landscapes and plant life of exotic lands so untouched and pristine by 21st century standards. Walking through her gallery, which is almost like a floor to ceiling mosaic of all her paintings, gives you a sense of what it must have been like to experience these places in that time period.
Sometimes, occasionally, I feel intrepid as a traveler, but that pales by comparison to Marianne North and the artistic legacy she bestowed upon us.
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I have three little stories today, which have no real significance other than they have served to remind me that when traveling, being flexible and expecting the unexpected is the best policy, and above all, to be thankful for what I have.
Yesterday morning I noticed a very odd thing: one of my running shoes and one of my friend’s Birkenstocks were missing from where they had been lined up neatly, if a bit muddy, on the garden patio the evening before. Their lovely garden is surround by a high fence with a locked gate at the back. I wondered if it could be the neighborhood teenagers who sometimes take a short cut along the top of the garden wall to get to the road on the other side, thinking it would be hysterically funny to steal people’s single shoes, thereby rendering the other useless. But that would have been some serious trespassing. I wondered about Bohmar, the family dog, though he has as little interest in shoes as a trip to the vet. Squirrels? I was flummoxed. I finally noticed one of the sandals in the neighbor’s gardens, shredded. I went round to knock on their door.
A very little old lady cracked the door, one eye peering out. I explained the situation. “Ahhh, foxes no doubt. Come in, dear.” And I was led through the house to their garden to collect the tattered shoe and look, hopelessly, for my lost and expensive running shoe. Damn foxes. In the Midwest, our neighborhood animals to contend with tend to be limited to raccoons and deer. It had never occurred to me that my shoes left outside would be in danger from urban foxes. It’s the unexpected which gets you every time, which brings me to my second story.
The other day I was jogging, trotting really, in my own world, on my way to my real run in Regents park at which point I was vowing to start sprinting majestically around the sport pitches, impressing no one in particular with my athletic prowess. Having just had the power in our flat go out an hour before, I was running along and thinking to myself, ‘you have to remember that life interrupts sometimes and you just have to go with the flow’ which is precisely when I heard a scream and looked up to see a cyclist knocked off her bike in the middle of the roundabout. The bike was halfway under the car and she was hopping around screaming and holding her leg, more in shock and upset, than seriously hurt, luckily. I helped her to the curb with her bike and tried to calm her down. As things settled and she and the driver exchanged heated details, I resumed my jog, still struck by the incredible synchronicity of the moment and wondered what exactly ‘The Universe’ was trying to tell me?
My third and final story for the day is that as I write this, sitting at a tapas bar in the middle of a crowded mall in west London, I am forced to listen to a God awful date the couple next to me is carrying on. The guy is being an incredible tool and boasting about his money-making prowess, his dedication to charity (“I’ve set up two orphanages in the Philippines”), and why he doesn’t have time to call her despite his two mobile phones sitting on the bar. She is commensurately simpering, apologizing for herself and to him every time he says something particularly inane, which is every 2 ½ minutes at a stretch, and I’m sitting there, wondering if they might thank me later if I just leaned over and said “Look folks, pack it in, this relationship is going NOwhere!” But instead I sip my wine and write. Finally, they get up to leave and as they go I cast them a long, well deserved stare. As it turns out, I was not the only one repulsed by their date, the women sitting on the other side of them did the same as me and we caught each other’s eyes in one of those ‘Heaven help us’ moments. It was worth the price of admission as we confessed we were all thinking the same thing the whole interminable 20 minutes and had a very good laugh about it. Circling back to my earlier post about the discomfort of dining alone, I was suddenly so very thankful I am just me and happy in myself, most of the time anyway, and I’d do anything sooner than opt for that train wreck of a date or relationship. Perspective is everything.
actor-writer-director, improviser, mother, traveler, general renegade and rabblerouser.