Expats at the playground – the fun of combining cultural observations

fullsize_dschungelspielplatz_promoter2This blog post could start like a silly joke. A Yorkshire lass, a Scot, a Brazilian, and a New Yorker go with their children to the playground … But, given I’m still working on the punchline, let me provide the context. Today was beautifully sunny. The advent of spring in Berlin means the advent of the after-KiTa, after-school playground season – the season when children of all ages hurl themselves around climbing frames and swings, or dig for hours in the sand whilst parents lounge on benches around the sides. And, of course, on a day like today, we trundled over the road from our international KiTa and ensconced ourselves in a sunny spot. (I’m the one from Yorkshire.) Being there in this diverse expat group was revealing – because, despite our cultural differences, we shared a common understanding of the very Berlin-specific approach to playgrounds. 

Whichever nationality you want to take, we all agreed that Berlin playgrounds are not for the fainthearted. Climbing frames soar high, way up high, over adults’ heads. Monkey bars are far apart even for an adult stretch. Zip wires send children whizzing across the sky. Swings are arranged for maximum excitement. Even the small corner playground, slotted into a former bomb site, between two towering apartment blocks with those tremendous stretches of windowless wall, will have a tummy-turningly lofty tower, complete with risky fire man’s pole. Yes, Berlin playgrounds are adventurous by most international standards. We were, we all said, surprised, often-times seriously concerned, but overall delighted by the daring feats on offer for our children.  Continue reading

Dressing your Kid for German KiTa

Photo: Erin Porter

My latest haul from another expat family. Photo: Erin Porter

When my baby started Krippe last fall I thought I was ready. I was distracted with moving apartments, loads of typical German paperwork and internet disasters. We had steeled ourselves for our baby spending time away from us for the first time. We thought we had this.

However, suggestions from the Erzieherin started coming in slow and haven’t stopped.

Maybe, you think, she might need boots? See, there is a gap between her shoe and sock and her pants. She needs a warm winter boot to keep her warm.

I was off to pick up boots. Success! Crisis averted. Until…

She has so many hats, but all of them aren’t quite right. They need a tie to keep them on. Better yet, get a balaclava.

First – wtf is a balaclava. Aw, this thing. Off to the discount racks I went. At a local second-hand store I found something that I thought would work and once again the Erzieherin were temporarily sated…until the next request.

Clearly, my American, new-mom standards of how to dress my child weren’t meeting the German. pro-childminders expectations.

All of their suggestions have been just that, suggestions. Delivered firmly, but not unkindly. And I even had a laughing chat with them about how American and British parents do not bundle their kids up as much as the Germans (even in summer). They’ve come to expect that my little American in Germany won’t be as packed tight as her counterparts, but they’ve also admitted she doesn’t appear cold. We’ve compromised.

But to spare you the occasional embarrassment I’ve suffered at these gentle rebuffs, I outlined all the clothes I’ve needed for German KiTa.

Tights (Strumpfhose)

Tights are an essential piece of clothing for little German boys and girls. Worn from fall until spring, they come in a rainbow of styles, thicknesses and prices. Among the many options are tights that come with stickies on the feet that prevent little feet from sliding. In colder weather, they are worn beneath sturdy pants, which are worn beneath bulky snowsuits. It is impossible to overdress a German child. Continue reading

Germany’s Cash Culture: “Geld stinkt nicht”


In Germany, Cash is King

North Americans are often frustrated by the lack of credit card acceptance in Germany. Americans and Canadians, so used to paying with plastic, are dismayed to discover that once they stray from the tourist circuit, their AmEx, MasterCard, or Visa credit cards are often useless in German-speaking Europe. It’s another cultural difference, and it’s not a minor one. You need to wrap your head around the fact that cash is king in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. As the Germans say, “Geld stinkt nicht.” (“There’s nothing wrong with money.” lit., “Money doesn’t stink.”)

Euro banknotes

Euro banknotes range from five to 500 euros. Notice that, unlike US bills, euro banknotes also vary in size. PHOTO: ECB

The Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, recently estimated that 79 percent of financial transactions in Germany are settled in cash, while in Britain and the USA that figure is under 50 percent. A typical German walks around with the equivalent of about $123 in cash in their wallet, nearly twice as much as Australians, Americans, the French or the Dutch typically carry. There is little talk of a “cashless society” in German-speaking Europe.

Many people have searched for an answer to why Germans (and the Swiss and Austrians) are so much more in love with cash (Bargeld) than most other nationalities. The use of cash for most transactions seems to be deeply ingrained in the German psyche. Children grow up in Germany’s cash culture, and as adults they think nothing of paying a bill of 500 euros or more with paper money. And they can do that with a single banknote, the 500-euro bill that was created as a concession to Germany to ease the pain of giving up the Deutsche Mark (DM). The 500-euro note, worth about $570 today, replaced the popular 1000-DM bill. Switzerland still has its 1000-franc (CHF) banknote, the largest denomination bill in the world, and today worth just a little over 1000 US dollars. We’ll discuss more aspects of these giant banknotes below.

Possible reasons for the German passion for cash vary from the German love of privacy and anonymity to the historic encounters with hyperinflation in the Weimar era, and after World War II. Germans also claim that by using cash, they are better able to keep track of their finances and avoid debt. (The German love of using cash is countered by an intense hate for debt.) Other observers claim cash offers a good way for Germans to avoid taxes with off-the-books cash transactions. Continue reading

Going to the Cinema in Cologne for English-Speaking Expats

us_791_0_bigEven if you’ve been living in German for 30 years and haven’t spoken a word of English in 20, it still feels good to catch a non-dubbed version of a recent release in the theater. Last summer, during a 3 week holiday to Berlin, I spent about half of my time in the Cinestar Original theater on Potsdammer Platz, a cinema that only features original versions of new releases. Back home in Cologne, I’m also a bit spoiled by the options available, which means that I’m able to see almost every movie that comes out Stateside.

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Frühling: five top tips for visiting Berlin this season

I left our apartment for a run on Saturday morning and noticed it immediately: the air was softer, the sun warmer, more people were on the street. In the park round the corner, trees wore tiny green buds, a whisper of the bountiful green to come. In the sheltered spots, daffodils were about to bloom. Yes, the day before Easter, almost at the very end of March, winter was over and spring had arrived.

There is always that moment in Berlin, when you know that though the temperature might drop below 10C again, the harshness of winter has gone for a good for months at least. Exactly when it happens is unpredictable – mid-March is a wonderful treat, mid-April a longer slog. But when it does, you know it. The light changes, the smell of the city freshens, it’s inhabitants crawl out from their hibernation inside apartments and cafes and flood the streets.

Volkspark Friedrischshain last April

Volkspark Friedrischshain last April

In spring and summer Berlin is at its best for visitors. The combination of weighty history, visible on almost every street you walk down, plus superb pavement and park-life, becomes so much more accessible for the casual tourist. Gone are the beleaguered looks of people marching head down to the wind, battling with their umbrellas. Instead, crowds stroll, marvel, repose, taking in everything the city has to offer. 

Our repeated advice to visiting friends is to leave time to lounge in Berlin’s many and varied places – to pause and watch the world and his dog go by whilst sipping on a top notch cappuccino. But the worst you can do is pay for overpriced coffee of dubious quality in a tourist trap. So if you’re planning a visit in the next few months, a few insider tips.

1. Cafes

La Tazza (Prenzlauerberg): Serving the strongest coffee I’ve ever drunk in Berlin, in a low-key, not hipster overrun atmosphere.

The Barn (Mitte): The focus here is on quality coffee, so a great recommendation if that’s your thing, but mind the many young men and women in skinny jeans, tapping away on their Macbooks.  Continue reading

VPNs and Netflix – or What German TV You Should Be Watching

Photo: Erin Porter

Brussels in better times. Photo: Erin Porter

Prelude: I was all prepared to write something light – yet close to my heart – about TV. That was the topic of my first German-Way post and pertinent as recent changes with Netflix have made watching American TV in Germany much more difficult (details to follow).

But then the bombings in Brussels happened and this article idea felt just as silly and banal as it is. My family just spent Christmas in Brussels at a time of heightened security and I was quick to tut-tut my mom’s worries about terrorism. And we were fine. Better than fine – we were in beautiful Brussels around Christmas!

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The Complex Issue of Integration

I’ve written before about how I have been planning on becoming a mentor to a newly arrived refugee in my local community. The journey has been slow at getting started in terms of actually connecting with my mentee despite numerous thwarted efforts. Meanwhile I have attended the monthly Stammtisch (regular’s table) for all of the mentors of the organisation that has been coordinating the many efforts of welcoming, housing, and integrating the refugees arriving to the shelter in our neighbourhood.
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“For Expats, by Expats” – The Making of Germany for Beginners: The German Way Expat Guidebook

“What if you could sit down with a team of expats, and get advice from people who together have decades of experience living and working in Germany?”

Whether you’re new to expat life in German-speaking Europe, or you’ve been an expat for years, there’s always more to learn about coping with culture shock and all the other challenges that English-speaking expats encounter after moving to Germany, Austria or German Switzerland. So, what if you could sit down with a team of expats, and get advice from people who together have decades of experience living and working in Germany? It may sound impossible, but now there’s a way to do something just like that – via a new book to be published this spring.

GFB cover

Germany for Beginners will be available in paperback and e-book editions.

Germany for Beginners: The German Way Expat Guidebook allows you to gain access to the personal knowledge and experience of eight current and former expats, who have written about their experiences for the German Way Expat Blog for years. Many of our expat writers living in Germany and Switzerland have been sharing their thoughts and tips every week since the blog began in October 2008 until now. That means there were more than 350 blog posts online at the time the book was being prepared. (More recent posts and other topics will be published in a planned second volume.)

But 350 blog posts would make a much too lengthy, unwieldy book. So the Germany for Beginners editors went through all those posts, gathering together the best, most relevant and helpful ones. Then they arranged them by topic and carefully edited the selected items into an anthology for your reading enjoyment. Out of 350+ posts, the editors ended up with 78 entries under 19 expat topics arranged alphabetically for the Germany for Beginners book – all carefully edited and updated, some with photos. Continue reading

Getting Ready for your Bachelor’s Degree in Germany

static1.squarespace-1For many high school students in the United States, the college process begins in middle school, and all college-bound students need to get serious by the time they reach their junior year. For American students interested in continuing their studies in Germany, though, this timeline looks very different. While their applications to US colleges will go out around a year before they begin their studies, many of the deadlines for German universities don’t come up until after they graduate. So when should American students start planning in earnest to get ready to study in Germany?

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Becoming seahorses: otherwise known as swimming lessons

Swimming course provider in Berlin

Swimming course provider in Berlin

Yesterday our children – both aged five and a half – had their first swimming lesson. That is more than I ever had: I love to swim but have little recollection of ever having learned how to do it. Until now we have relied on holidays to sunny places with nearby pools and plenty of visits to lakes, on the assumption that our children would somehow organically teach themselves to swim. Indeed, it did make them confident in water but it did not get them securely out of armbands. So when winter descended and we didn’t fancy weekly family Sunday trips to an indoor swimming pool (we are such fans of open water), we signed them up for a set of ten forty-five minute lessons, at a small local pool.

If you start asking around almost all German children seem to have swimming lessons – either organised through their KiTa, privately, or at school – certainly not the case in Eighties’ Yorkshire. But here, in Berlin, it is very much the norm. And where we live in child-heavy Prenzlauerberg that fact means contending with the swimming course waiting list. As with the last waiting list we encountered – the KiTa waiting list – this one was a rather nebulous, not entirely sure what criteria gets you moved further up it, intransparent, six-month affair, negotiated ultimately by that age-old trick of calling up frequently and asking whether it was finally our turn.  Continue reading