As every summer, we are holidaying in the north of England, where compared to Berlin the days are cooler and the evenings longer. I should be used to it because this is where I grew up and it has the unpredictable (or all too predictable) summer climate of my childhood. But after seven years in Berlin and before that seven years in the warmer south of England, I repeatedly pack the wrong clothes. So my light summer skirts stay folded in the suitcase and I wear the same inadequate jumper and cotton trousers day after day. This place feels so deeply like home but the years away mean that I look at it with different eyes.
The first point – which always strikes me on the plane – is obvious but true. Everyone is speaking in English with an accent close enough to my home town. For all the English spoken in Berlin’s cosmopolitan Prenzlauerberg, I rarely hear a Northern English voice. The children notice it too. “It’s strange to hear only English,” they say. In Berlin, English feels like a language just for us (though everyone must understand it), here it is a language for everyone.
We step off the plane and onto a train. Whatever the local weather, everyone is determinedly wearing summer clothes – sandals, shorts, t-shirts. Summer may be short and unpromising, but by golly, the people will make the most of their summer wardrobes. I used to do it too, but at some point in the last seven years, I acclimatised to heady central European summers, and started to save my flip flops for 25C plus.
Most mornings my daughter pulls on her jeans, sweatshirt and trainers, while the little English girls we see in the city centre wear dresses, glittery shoes and put flamboyant clip-on bows in their hair. Even tomboys have on patterned playsuits and turquoise Nikes. The boys sport undercuts and gelled quiffs. Their polo shirts look as expensive as their fathers’. Fashion begins earlier and persists more relentlessly here.
We pop down the road to buy milk. As in Germany we want full fat and organic (obviously), but can find neither. Demand for organic produce grows at a snail’s pace, and its ready availability depends on the area of the country. I must go to the local Lidl (popular for its good value in these parts) and see if they sell it, as they do round the corner from us in Berlin.
For all my adopted Germanness, the immediate warmth and friendliness of the local people is what always wins me over. There are few places I know where you’ll get called “love” or “darling” or “sweetheart” multiple times in a short exchange with the cashier in a supermarket. Everyone will step back and let you through with children in a bus queue. Old ladies always seek a conversation and offer you their bread crumbs to throw to the ducks. People nod at each other in greeting in the street. I have experienced first-hand that deep down Berliners are funny, kind and fiercely loyal, but this Northern English aptitude for open kindness is one of the greatest pleasures of being here – despite shivering in my summer clothes.