The weirdest flat viewing ever, and Namibia.

I am progressing down my lists, however much they seem to grow. On the upside, I’ve finally found myself a flat in what is supposed to be the cool alternative district of Cologne (Ehrenfeld), to which I shall move soon. This has been an intense week.

Flat hunting is tiresome at the best of times, but fortunately the website I have taken to using has a wee indicator to say that the person on the other end of the message will understand English, and a translation function to put the flat advert into something resembling the language, although hilariously the grammar is mostly still German. Google translate (ever my friend for official documents) it is not. Nonetheless, I am proficient enough to understand the word “schoen”, which seems to constitute the vast majority of such adverts, and there are also pictures, bringing my ability to read language here up to about the level of a four-year-old. Progress!

Inevitably, such forays into the world of Wohnungssuche (flat-hunting) involve some highly personalised template-email spamming, and with the patience of a fisherman I sit and wait for a bite. I saw a couple before taking the one I will move into soon. Well, more correctly, I saw a couple before I was selected as an appropriate candidate. Apparently there is a student housing shortage in Cologne, the most interesting (and un-Edinburgh) reason for which is that everybody is single and wants a flat for themselves. What this means in practice is that a flat viewing is not the mundane exchange of details and first-come-first-in race that it seems to be in Edinburgh, but more of an audition.

Getting to know your potential roomie I understand, but a recent viewing I attended had so many interested parties arriving at once in the four hours they had the flat open that I received a phone call from the one coordinating the advert the day after not to say that they’d like to know when I could move in, but that I had got through to the next round. Couple this with the immediate production of a guitar upon mention of my interests and I feel I’d stand a decent mid-round chance on Cologne’s Got Talent. So at that moment I was somewhat torn. I’ve never thought of myself as the competitive type, but so swept up was I in the need for validation from complete strangers that I distinctly remember rehearsing. This, I think, is the weirdness that comes with living in a new culture, even if questions put to my Koelsh colleagues place this level of X-factor-ness as a tad unusual. However, it was all for nought. Alas (but perhaps for the best) the guitar was not reproduced upon the second round, instead I sat at the kitchen table at four in the afternoon with the flat’s current inhabitants and another interested party, with a beer in one hand and a shot of very kindly offered corn liquor in the other. Ridiculousness was achieved about the fifth, ahem, long cigarette (can’t go refusing hospitality now can I?), and while we all got on very well, I suspect I was a bit too interested in talking to my “competitor” about his band, who sound really cool, and less about impressing my possible flatmates with my lucidity whilst intoxiated. I did not get a call. This is probably a good thing. They were all really nice, though, and I shall perhaps see them again.

Some days later, and with a modest amount amount of trepidation, I proceeded to view flat number two. This was an altogether more relaxed affair, and learning from my previous experience meant that while I was prepared for another audition, none was needed. They seem altogether relaxed about things, the flat is in a cool place, and they basically wanted to know where I existed on the cleanliness continuum between total slob and drill sergeant (somewhere in the middle, if you’re interested), whether I can cook (I can. A bit) and whether I like parties or not (I do). So, I’m moving to Ehrenfeld sometime in the next week or so, which gives me the all-important permanent address, along with some new flatmates, and a new part of the city to get drunk and/or lost in. Also, they’re German, which ups the immersion factor for my language learning. I must say, I’m as excited about it as I am glad for the Wohnungssuche to be finally over, which is a lot.

While flats and all that are interesting, and the experiences very German in one way or another, some far more exciting news came my way this week. It requires me making another very long list of things to do, but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest, because I am going to Namibia in March. For a month! This is terribly exciting, being my first visit to the African continent (some Africanist I am) as well as my first time meeting hunter-gatherers. Thankfully, no hardcore research will be taking place, and my supervisor simply wants to see how I can handle the field context. My fellow PhD student  is giving me advice about some of Southern Africa’s little quirks, having done historical research in Zambia, and the key thing she says is that I have to be patient. With everything. Something tells me I probably need to work on this. Somewhat dangerously, they want me to drive while I am there too. This will be fun, you know, for a work outing. Ever since I first studied hunter-gatherers in my undergraduate degree, I’ve wanted to work with the San peoples in Namibia, and similar to my reaction to actually coming to Germany, it feels very surreal. I’m suddenly, as I’m sure you can imagine, intensely busy, reading and making more lists, because this is Germany and ZERE IS ALLWAYSS MOAR LISTS, but hopefully I can keep posting (roughly once a week seems to work), and my main concern with the blog is how I am going to condense Namibia into something that is not a book.

I don’t know whose life I nicked, but I damn well hope they don’t want it back. Tschuss!

Just over a week: I think I might just be starting to get a handle on this stuff.

In order to naturalise to the ordered German way of life, as well as managing the colossal number of things you have to do when you start a new job and move to a new country, I have taken up a new hobby: writing lists. I have a list of things I need to get sorted this week (lots crossed off), a list of research objectives (none crossed off), a list of telephone numbers I need to use, a list of documents I still need before I can get a library card (aaaaaaaahhhhhhh), and probably some other ones too. It sounds terminally dull, and sort of is, however the only way I can ever force myself to do anything is to get those accusing black squiggles of ink to blackmail me into it. The only way to battle the little bastards is with more ink, this time in straight lines, skewering them through their middles and ending their influence. Or something.

Massive victories happened this week. Firstly, I managed to have my first phone conversation with somebody official, and I opened it with German. Granted, the extent of the German was my name, confirming who they were, excusing myself for not knowing much German and asking if it is okay to speak English, but I suppose it’s a start. I’m on cloud nine at the moment, and all I did was book an appointment with the health centre. I can only imagine what will happen when I can have an entire conversation without using any English. I’ll probably explode or something. Anyway, so a brusque (maybe not, but I’d bet on it) German doctor is going to test my fitness for employment at the university at the end of next week. Thorough, these Germans. I was a bit nervous about phoning for reasons other than language, however. When I went into the office on Monday the letter with my appointment time on it showed clearly that I’d missed it, thus making me LATE. In Germany. Mind you, the receptionist I spoke to did not seem to mind too much. This is my first instance of being late it Germany, and all in all, it went better than expected and was somewhat anticlimactic. I do get the feeling that Germans aren’t quite like the British think they are.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, today I also have a viewing for a flat near the university that I will be able to occupy permanently, should I like it and my possible flatmates like me. I need a permanent address for all sorts of practical things, but I think it will also feel like I’ve settled a bit more, as lovely as this temporary place is. I suppose I will let you all know how that goes, but best case scenario is that the place is fantastic and come February I will have somewhere to live with Germans in it, thus speeding up my learning of the language, and getting to know Cologne’s many and varied denizens. I’m looking forward to it.

My biggest task at the moment is actually to prepare for a presentation of my research topic and questions to a panel of academics in just over two weeks. I’ll put it somewhat bluntly: this is terrifying. The main reason for this is that applying for this was more like applying for a science PhD, or a job, than a social anthropology PhD, usually self-proposed months earlier in order to secure funding. Now, I need to dispense with the vague notion of “working with hunter-gatherers” and actually nail down what the hell my book is going to be about. So that is what I have been working on this week, and to be honest it seems to be coming together to some extent. I have to talk for thirty minutes, but fortunately they would like me to introduce my previous work, which I am sure that I can stretch to ten, leaving only twenty minutes to talk about the issues I will be addressing in my work and the practical concerns as well as my actual project. Working brief so far: “The impact of the disappearance of land and resources on the motility and mobility of forager communities across contrasting climates.” Yes, it’s a mouthful. Also, as I am addressing academics, I now have to define “impact”, “disappearance”, “land and resources”, “motility”, “mobility”, “forager”, you get the idea. However, as with the language, it is the all-important start. Now I just need access to the literature, which requires a library card, which requires a permanent address.

I suppose I should go and see this flat. Tschuss!

Officially started work, left the flat, and gone shopping.

Well, as of just before 9 yesterday morning I have become an official employee of Cologne University, and what’s more, a German Civil Servant, thus adding credence to the notion that once a bureaucrat, always a bureaucrat. Nonetheless, I managed to take the U-bahn and the trams fairly flawlessly to the registry, even if there was a bit of a walk at the end, and signed (in duplicate, with an English translation thoughtfully provided) my contract.

Cutting it fine, maybe? I needed to do it before 9 if I was to do it at all, and had all gone to plan I might have done it  the day before. As ever, the plan did not really come together that well. My email to the secretary of the project resulted in a registry phone number, which rang, and rang, and rang. This was not helped by the fact that the ringing tone you hear in Germany sounds exactly the same as the engaged tone in the UK, so I was left in limbo wondering why either (a) nobody was in the office or (b) what on earth was so interesting that my contact at the registry felt the need to be on the phone for an entire day about. I then managed to locate an email address, and sent a request for a time I could come in and sign the contract, all the while plagued by the uneasy feeling that this was just the tip of the German bureaucratic iceberg. The offshoot of all this was that I had to remain in a place where I could receive emails, and roaming charges being the eye-watering wallet-vampire that they are, this meant not leaving my flat.

Not leaving wasn’t all bad though, the person renting me the place left me some food, and I got to play the guitar a bit. Mind you, I found out pretty quickly how thin the ceiling and walls are, thanks to a ring of the doorbell in the middle of a (quite good, I think) rendition of Black Velvet Band. I mean, it was just the neighbour coming round to say hi, and ask where the previous owners of the flat are (in another city for a month), and he didn’t actually mention my playing at all, but the main thing that swung it was that he immediately introduced himself in English. Ah, I thought. Possibly a little loud. Fridge horror at someone having heard me sing far outclassed the fact that if I was that bad he would have asked me to stop. Nonetheless, it was fun, and playing definitely lifted my spirits, caged as I was.

And it was all for nought. I received an email in the evening from my professor, after that entire day, saying that I should just go in sometime before 9 on the 7th.

Well, shit.

So anyway, with my self-imposed isolation ended, and after signing my contract I decided I would make a second leap of exploration today and go shopping for the first time in a foreign land. To be honest, apart from me not understanding the tannoy system’s store adverts (unavoidably a bonus), and not understanding what some of the things were (adding some surprise to my eating habits) it was much the same. My colleague, who arrived yesterday, managed to enlighten me to what “Knoblauch” is, as it sounds rude but I was unable to find powdered chilli without it. Turns out it’s garlic. Knoblauch. Right. I also bought a giant salami for almost no money at all, and ludicrous quantities of cheese and Fairtrade coffee (so chuffed they have it here), among other things. All in all, I think a successful first trip. I also received some mystery stickers at the till. I think they might be because I was a giant hippie and used my own bag for stuff, but I don’t know.

Not knowing seems to be, unfortunately, my default state of awareness these days. I know it will improve with time, but I’ve never felt less like an anthropologist. I’m so used to being in my language environment that I can do anthropology almost anywhere simply by eavesdropping. Here it will be a while before I can do anything more than pick out words (I understood all the train announcements! +1 Wisdom on my next roll!), and it will be even more until I can drop eaves without thinking. Nonetheless, this has to be good for me, and I find myself intently observing behaviour in a way I most certainly didn’t do as much before. We shall see.

I’m actually going now

I never actually got round to posting again about my trip in November. I definitely need to get a handle on this apathy business. I do have a job now. So I’m in London City airport, which is a total dump by the way, with the exception of the weegie on the bar who is good chat. He’d better be, to be honest: I have a pint and it cost me £5.70. Christ. The departures board is above my head, and it says “wait in the lounge” in an irritating English accent. Well not really, it just has a message there,  but I FEEL like it does because I’m Down South. Do all my Scottish friends really have to put up with me sounding like this lot? I’m sorry, guys. They’re putting me on a tiny propeller plane to Duesseldorf, which when we’re over Deutschland gives me an experience in common with quite a lot of people about 70 years ago, although of course I’m definitely not to mention that again. The flight down to Lahndahn from Edinburgh was full of posh people in tweed checking in rifles, which must mean work starts again in the City tomorrow. I didn’t have a rifle, but a minor bit of “bumbling academic” at the check-in staff allowed me to get all the way to the gate with my guitar before I was informed that the flight was packed and she’d need to go in the hold. She’s supposed to be checked all the way through to Duesseldorf, but I’m nervous anyway. I hope she’s okay. I also call my guitar “she” when describing her, which helps. Or makes them think I’m mad. I like to think it’s the charming end of mad, but I never usually stick around long enough to find out. But, of course, now I’ve left Scotland. It was pretty emotional to be honest. I even have some pipe music on my music player which ended as the wheels left the ground. It totally could have been a music video for some cheesy nationalist pap. Beat that, Salmond. Nonetheless, forward! Auf Deutschland! It’s gonna be a blast, and I’ll keep this updated with my wacky adventures as often as I can. I have to now, though, because I’ve told people about it.