Like many expat families, we think we fly too much. Though some of these trips – for work – are unavoidable, the rest we do gladly to keep in touch with family and friends, whether for weddings, birthdays, or general catching up. There is, however, our annual summer holiday usually to a warmer land which comes in addition and which this summer we decided could be achieved for a change by car. One of the joys of living in continental Europe is that travelling to somewhere within driving distance actually gets you quite far away – even to other countries if you so choose. That’s how we ended up spending a week at a farm in Bavaria and a week at 2,300m in the Italian Alps. They were glorious destinations for very different reasons, but it’s the Urlaub auf den Bauernhof (holiday on the farm) phenomenon I want to write about here – the mountains will be a story for another time. Continue reading
We found out the Brexit result at the top of mountain in Italy, the alpine hotel’s shaky internet connection making it almost impossible to read more than the headlines. Our reaction was disbelief. Like me, most people, whether Remainers or Leavers, couldn’t have predicted that Britain would vote to leave the EU. “Shocking news from the UK this morning,” I said to the six London bankers in the hotel’s breakfast room, a passing statement which felt pointless but important. They sat glued to smartphones piecing together market developments before one of them shook his shoulders and announced, “Right, this is too depressing. Let’s get out walking.” We happened to be driving back to Germany that same day, with me reading the news all the way through Austria, relaying the plummeting pound, the resignation of the Prime Minister, the incredulous disappointment of most people in my predominantly pro-remain social media bubble.
The ensuing events have been well reported – how the public faces of the Leave campaign scuttled under rocks as if they hadn’t really wanted to win at all, how the Labour Party plunged into (still ongoing) turmoil, how the first analysis suggested that old people had voted young people out, but then it turned out that too many young people didn’t bother to vote at all. The anger of the side that lost is well known too. The Leavers call them sore losers, but in the wake of a political gamble to satisfy a decades’ old internal party conflict, a campaign marred with tall stories and manipulated statistics, only to be capped with the desertions of its most prominent advocates, and with the rise in hate crimes against migrants immediately after the result, the soreness felt justified. Continue reading
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
This 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
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.
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.
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
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
Snow, glorious snow. At last, winter arrived in Berlin and the streets were paved with white. That was two weeks ago – after an unseasonably warm December, the temperatures dropped and it snowed – for a day or two at least. Then it warmed up again and everything melted, until this weekend just past, when once again the air was biting and the skies opened. How the children celebrated. For them, waking up to a fresh layer of snow on a Sunday morning is right up there in life’s pleasures. So we bundled ourselves up, trudged down to the cellar to collect the sledge, and rushed to the park to enjoy the hill before everyone else ruined it.
But it is not quite as simple as just showing up and setting off full-pelt down the slope. If you are new to Berlin, there are a few important points of etiquette to note about snow and sledging.
1. Dress properly
Depending one where you herald from in North America, you may well be accustomed to dressing properly for winter. Not so, if you call the UK your native land. There, where the winters are mild and snows infrequent, you don’t have clue how to be comfortable in really cold weather – you’d be likely to think wellies (aka gumboots) and a heavy woollen jacket would do. They won’t – not when sledging in Berlin anyway. If you’re going to enjoy yourself and to be outside for any length of time, you need to be well dressed. Essentials include: a vest, long underwear (long johns as the Brits call them), woollen socks, thick-soled boots, a woollen jumper, thick gloves, and a down coat (which comes below your hips). Most children will be wearing proper snow boots and padded, waterproof snow trousers as well – as an adult and you have them, you wouldn’t feel out of place wearing yours. Continue reading
The stained glass in the grand foyer of the building where I work depicts factories and space travel, alongside striking workers and their families. On the wall in the second grandest conference room is a vast hammer and sickle mosaic. Next door, in the grandest room of all, there is another mosaic circling the room with yet more astronauts, strapping, tool-wielding men and women, and squat chimneys belching smoke. Here’s the surprise: I work at GTEC, a centre for entrepreneurship, based at ESMT European School for Management and Technology, Berlin’s leading private business school set up by some of Germany’s biggest businesses. Arguably the epitome of capitalism: so what’s with all the socialist symbolism? The clue is in what this spectacular building at Schlossplatz 1 used to be before it was renovated: the former Staatsratsgebäude (National Council Building) for the East German government. But this is just one example of what could be considered a Berlin leitmotif: transformed buildings, defying their former purpose. Continue reading