7 books which will help you get to know Berlin

IMG_0767 (1)Alongside relishing delicious tapas, sunbathing, and swimming in the sea, I spent our two-week summer holiday in Andalusia last year reading “Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving. Reading relevant books for the location is something I like to do – Henry James in Italy, Jan Morris in the Middle East, Alice Walker in the US – providing a more nuanced dimension to fact-filled travel guides.

I did this, too, when I first came to Berlin as a student – sniffing out obscure, vaguely relevant works in the glorious Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Platz. Though after 6 years here, my location-focused intellectual pursuits have been waylaid by work, family life and lots of other good, unrelated books I’ve been keen to read, I still believe books – both fiction and memoir – represent one of the best ways to understand the spirit of Berlin. Here are my top seven recommendations spanning genre and historical period – mostly available in translation – to help you get to know Berlin. 

1. “Die Poggenpuhls” / Theodor Fontane

Set in 1888 in what is referred to as the Kaiserreich, “Die Poggenpuhls” depicts an impoverished Prussian aristocratic family struggling by in Berlin. The father has died, the two brothers are away with the army, leaving the mother and three sisters in a pokey, rented apartment just on the edge of an acceptable part of town, desperately keeping up appearances despite the financial constraints. The novel shows the shifting of power and wider societal change at a crucial point in German history. Continue reading

Relax Berlin! You Can Still get an Anmeldung

Rathaus Pankow, Berlin. Photo: Erin Porter

Rathaus Pankow, Berlin. Photo: Erin Porter

Frequently I see panicked posts from other expats. They are frantically looking for an Anmeldung Termin (registration appointment).

HELP! I need an appointment for a burgeramt asap, please!

What is an Anmeldung?

The Anmeldung is a necessary – and usually pain-free – step to getting settled in Germany. It is required of everyone who lives in Germany, both citizens and foreign residents. This requires a stop at your friendly (just kidding – rarely are office workers in Germany friendly) Bürgeramt or Rathaus (note that in Munich this is done at the Kreisverwaltungsreferat or KVR). Continue reading

A Growing German Coffee Empire: JAB Holding and Krispy Kreme


The Reimann Family Goes Out for Coffee und Doughnuts

I earlier wrote about my beef with weak German coffee, so the recent news about wealthy Germans buying up Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. for about $1.35 billion caught my eye. German-owned JAB Holding Company is almost unknown to the average person, but this giant investment group has a controlling interest in many brand names you know and love.

Einstein Bros sign

The German investment group JAB Holding Co. owns Einstein Bros. Bagels. This sign formerly proclaimed a Krispy Kreme location, as is still evident by its unique bowtie shape. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Today’s trivia question: What do Bally, Caribou Coffee, Coty, Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE), Jimmy Choo, Keurig Green Mountain, Krispy Kreme, and Peet’s Coffee & Tea all have in common? Answer: They are all held by JAB Holding Co., a family-owned enterprise that dates back to 1823 in Pforzheim, Germany. German chemist Ludwig Reimann took over the company in the mid-1800s after the original founder Johann Adam Benckiser (now immortalized as JAB) sold his interest to Reimann – who had married Benckiser’s daughter. Today the privately held investment group is in the hands of four adopted Reimann (RYE-MAN) siblings: Wolfgang Reimann, Stefan Reimann-Andersen, Renate Reimann-Haas, and Matthias Reimann-Andersen. Their combined wealth is estimated to be around $17.6 billion, or about $4.4 billion each.

Krispy Kreme logo

JAB Holding, along with its various subsidiaries, has been on a buying spree over the last few years. Although it has stakes in cosmetics, fragrances, cleansers, clothing, and shoes, JAB’s focus of late has been on coffee – and doughnuts. Five of its recent acquisitions have added coffee and tea to the fold. The latest purchase, expected to be finalized in a few months, is that all-American institution known as Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. For $1.35 billion (along with minority investor, BDT Capital Partners), JAB-controlled JAB Beech will add the doughnut chain to its holdings, with coffee on its mind. JAB and its subsidiaries already control many popular coffee brands: Jacobs, Kaffee HAG, Kenco, Millicano, Gevalia, and Tassimo (under its Mondelez division), plus Douwe Egberts, Senseo, and Pilão (under D.E Master Blenders). With its recent Caribou, Peet’s, and Keurig acquisitions, JAB Holding, the former number three in coffee now becomes number two in the world, better able to compete with number one Nestlé, the giant Swiss player in Kaffee. Continue reading

Eight Essential Life Skills Learned through Studying in Germany

Study Here

A few months ago, a list published by former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims started making the rounds on social media. In it, she expounds on her list of the basic skills everyone should have by age 18. Reading it, I realized that it wasn’t until I started studying in Germany that I gained the skills on the list.

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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. 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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