What’s in Your German Basement?

Berlin basement PHOTO: Erin Porter

Don’t worry – this is nothing to do with Josef Fritzl…although mentions of basements seem to bring up that imagery. (To be fair, Fritzl was from Austria like another infamous German speaker). This post is about the German basements (Keller or Souterrain or Untergeschoss), a mysterious place beneath most German apartments where stalls of old furniture, bikes, and seasonal accessories are kept.

In our last apartment, a tiny Dachgeschoss (attic apartment), we weren’t allotted one of these coveted basement spots. So we got creative. There was a shelf built into the loft of the foyer, we bought large closets and crammed things just about everywhere. It worked, but barely. Once we had a kid – it was over. Baby clothes and toys and just stuff spilled out of everywhere. It was time to move – ideally to somewhere with some storage.

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Summer: an ongoing Berlin love affair

It always comes upon you suddenly, the Berlin summer. One day you’re shivering in your down coat at the playground, lamenting with friends how it is already May but barely 10 degrees celsius. The next day you’re sweating in your shirtsleeves, the powerful sun beating down on your cycling helmet. Though the daffodils peeping out in the park might have been hinting at warmer weather for a while, the abrupt shift leaves no time to adjust your wardrobe. England makes up for its lack of a proper summer by giving you a long and promising spring. Here, there is no such gradual move from thick woollies and heavy boots to a cotton cardigan and lightweight shoes. However sudden, the glorious thing about that day, that first day of sunshine, is that Berlin erupts into summer – the streets busy with ice-cream eating children, cafes spilling out onto pavements, parks filled with rich barbecue smoke, families packing cars for lazy lake days – and you fall in love with the city all over again. Four highlights of our early summer season so far, which you might consider if you’re heading to the Haupstadt before October.

Ice-cream at Rosa Canina on Arnswalder Platz (Prenzlauerberg)

Finding the best ice-cream in town

This title will be challenged by other Berlin residents, but I’d call Rosa Canina the best ice-cream dealer in town. The quality of the ice-cream is unbeatable – creamy, sharp, inventive (buttermilk lemon right through to pumpkin seed), not too sweet – all whilst not being extortionately expensive. We have two Rosa Canina parlours within a stone’s throw of our place. We are frequent summertime visitors to both, but the just renovated one on Arnswalder Platz has the advantage of being slightly less discovered, large and airy, on a shady side of the street for hot summer days, and just opposite a playground which pleases most age groups. Continue reading

Days for the Frauen and Männer

Holiday Alert! It is Muttertag (Mother’s Day) this Sunday which means elegant brunches and bundles of flowers – no matter which side of the pond you are on.

Mother’s Day in Germany

My 1st Mother’s Day Photo: Erin Porter

But the history of the holiday in Germany, Switzerland and Austria has a unique European slant. Switzerland was one the first European countries to introduce Mother’s Day in 1917. Germany wasn’t far behind with observance beginning in 1922 and Austria in 1926.

The holiday became official in Germany in 1933 under the Nazi regime, highlighting the importance of having more Aryan soldiers. Mother’s Day still takes place on the second Sunday in May, though das Mutterkreuz – a medal given out for multiple children – has fallen out of fashion.
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Berlin’s Abandoned Tempelhof Airport Becomes a Vast Park

I first wrote about Tempelhof Airport when I was living in Berlin, just before the air terminal shut down in 2008. In fact, my post about Tempelhof’s closing (now deleted) was one of the very first German Way Expat Blog posts. Berliners’ “nein” vote in an April 2008 referendum had sealed the historic airfield’s fate. It ceased operations as an airport at the end of October 2008. But, as with most things in Berlin, the decision on what to do with the now-idle airport remained in limbo for some time. Proposals ranged from developing the large site and using it to provide badly needed affordable housing, to leaving the grounds largely untouched as a park. (Thankfully, the airport terminal building is landmark protected and can’t be torn down. Guided tours are offered for individuals and groups.)

Tempelhof field aerial view

Tempelhof Field covers 386 hectares (954 acres, 1.5 sq. miles) including the terminal structure (303 ha without the buildings). PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Tempelhofer Feld
For a long time after its closing Tempelhof’s huge airfield was fenced off and unavailable to the public. But today Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof Field) is a popular park that attracts Berlin families and people of all sorts to its expansive, open environment on the grounds of what was once Berlin’s only commercial airport until the new Tegel airport opened in 1974.

Tempelhof gates

The boarding area of the Tempelhof terminal in 2007, just before the airport closed down. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Before Tempelhof Field first became an airport in the 1923, the area was a military parade ground. When the parades ended, Berliners took over the field as a park on weekends and holidays. Today the former parade ground and airport has been returned to its function as a park. The vast Tempelhof park now features six kilometers (4 miles) of asphalt-paved former runways and taxiways for recreational use. Where aircraft once took off and landed, visitors today can walk, jog, bike, skateboard, and rollerblade. The grass-covered fields around the former runways and taxiways are now popular for picnics, sunbathing, kite-flying and other leisure pursuits. (Also see Chloë’s post about Three Great Berlin Buildings That Used to be Something Very Different.)

Old Tempelhof runway

The former runways at Tempelhofer Feld park today serve as a recreational area for bike riders, joggers, and anyone who wants to enjoy the famed “Berliner Luft” (Berlin air). PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

The Tempelhof Field park is so large it can take 20-30 minutes just to walk from one end to the other. That’s why many people prefer to ride a bike or use something else with wheels (skateboards, scooters, etc., but nothing motorized) to navigate the vast field. It usually requires several visits over time to visit the entire area of the park, not counting the terminal complex.

Tempelhof’s heritage-protected terminal building complex stands largely empty today, but parts of it now are used to house offices for Berlin’s police department, the Berlin traffic control authority, a kindergarten, a dance school, a stage theater, and various other agencies. More recently, in October 2015, the hangar area became home to about 1,000 refugees – first housed “temporarily” in tents and now in cubicles. (Berlin’s refugee housing policies have come under heavy criticism, quite justly.) At its peak, Tempelhof’s hangars housed about 2,500 refugees. In February 2017, the city announced that 600 remaining refugees would move out of Tempelhof by the summer, with all of them rehoused by the early fall. As with any announcement by Berlin officials, one should be skeptical, but for the refugees’ sake let’s hope it’s true. Even after all refugees leave, Hangar 5 at Tempelhof will continue to serve as a refugee intake center (Ankunftszentrum). A new and controversial “container village” on the Tempelhof grounds is supposed to remain there only for two years. Continue reading

An Afternoon in Berlin’s Botanic Garden

An impossibly high greenhouse, all glass and steel arches, rises up against the first blue sky we’ve seen in February. Surrounding it, the vast landscaped garden seems austere with its winter branches but a few proud evergreens scatter touches of dark green at least. Despite the whip of the wind and a rain cloud on the far horizon, crowds of people, young, old, local, visiting, wander along the broad central path, turning off onto small winding ones when they spot a plant or bush that captures their attention.

Last Sunday we celebrated a few hours of winter sunshine with our first visit to Berlin’s world-renowned Botanic Garden. Second in size and diversity only to Kew Gardens in London and established in its scale and scope in 1910 way out west in Dahlem, the Botanic Garden is rich with the imperial optimism and bourgeoise intellectual aspiration so typical to Berlin in that late imperial era. Continue reading

Auto Factory and Museum Tours in Germany for Car Buffs and Car Buyers

Audi | BMW | Ford | Mercedes-Benz | Opel | Porsche | Volkswagen

Seven major automakers manufacture automobiles and trucks in Germany. The automobile is a German invention, and the auto industry in Germany is one of the country’s largest employers, with a labor force of over 747,000. Germany is among the world’s top four car producers.

Below you’ll find our guide to automobile factory tours in Germany and the option of buying a German car in the United States and taking delivery at the factory in Germany (European delivery).

BMW Welt - night

Munich: BMW Welt by night, with headquarters tower and museum on the right. New BMW owners can pick up their new car here. More below.
PHOTO: Richard Bartz, Wikimedia Commons

All the German automotive brands offer factory tours, in some cases combined with optional auto museum tours. German car buyers also like to pick up their new Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches, and Volkswagens directly at the factory. (See How to Buy or Lease a Car in Germany for more.) Ford and Opel are the only automakers in Germany that do not allow buyers to take delivery of their new vehicle at the factory, but they do offer factory tours.

You may not think of Ford as a “German” auto company, but the American Henry Ford opened his first auto plant in Germany in 1912. Some Germans don’t even realize that Ford (pronounced “fort” in German) is not a German company. The American car giant General Motors planted its flag in Germany a bit later, when it purchased an 80 percent interest in Adam Opel AG in 1929. Today Opel is still a division of General Motors.

The South Korean automaker Kia has its European design center in Frankfurt, but its only European auto factory is located in Žilina, Slovakia. That plant supplies almost 60 percent of Kia’s European demand. The facility produces three vehicles for the European market, with brands that few Americans would recognize: the cee’d model family (hatchback and Sportswagon, as well as the pro_cee’d coupe), the European bestselling Sportage crossover, and Venga compact MPV.

European Delivery for US Customers
Factory delivery is a popular option for German car buyers. Four German automakers – Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche – also offer their US customers the option of picking up their new car in Germany and combining that with a European trip. All but Porsche offer a 5 to 7 percent discount on the vehicle, combined with free or discounted air fares. Some also offer additional perks such as free meals, museum entrance, and a factory tour. Volkswagen, alone among German car producers, does not offer European delivery for its US customers. (Opel sells its cars in the US through its owner, General Motors. The Swedish carmaker Volvo also offers European delivery in Sweden for US customers.) Continue reading

It’s not all about the fireworks – 4 other New Year’s traditions in Germany

I’ve written about the German obsession at New Year’s with pyrotechnics for this blog before. This year Berlin was the same as always – air thick with smoke, sky alight with brilliant explosions of colour, and our ears filled with the constant cracking of bangers. After nearly seven years of living in the Hauptstadt, I’m entirely used to it. For all the bewildering bluster of the country’s firework mania, the other rather quaint German traditions for Silvester and New Year become overlooked. It’s those I want to explore here.

1. Bleigießen

Popular with small children and adults alike, Bleigießen (‘lead pouring’ or ‘molybdomancy’ – to give it the proper English name) is an elaborate method of fortune telling for the coming year. It requires a bowl of cold water, a candle, a spoon, a few small metal objects (traditionally lead, but most likely tin today), and a list of interpretations – the latter two can be acquired in any local corner shop or supermarket. Each person at the party is invited to place a small metal piece on the spoon and hold it over the candle flame. As soon as the metal melts (which is very quickly with these little pieces), the molten metal is tipped into the water and whatever the shape emerges is then used to divine the future. Depending on your Bleigießen kit, the interpretations range from the charming (field = luck and happiness) to the bizarre (trumpet = you will gain public office). The whole process does make a mess of your spoon though, so be sure to use an old one! – More about Bleigießen Continue reading

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Berlin – East and West!

I’m still stunned. How could I never have heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to Berlin? He even outdid JFK and Reagan by not only going to West Berlin in 1964, but crossing the Berlin Wall into East Berlin – where he gave not one, but two sermons!

MLK Berlin 1964

Martin Luther King, Jr. (left) at the Berlin Wall in 1964. PHOTO: Landesarchiv Berlin

Do you remember Barack Obama’s Berlin visit? Why did the US president fail to mention this not so minor detail during his own 2008 Berlin speech at the Siegessäule? A fellow African-American he greatly admires paid a Cold War visit to both East and West Berlin, and Obama not only ignores it, but evokes two white guys by saying: “I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city.” No wonder MLK in Berlin is one of the best kept secrets in modern history.

Even with Google, Bing and all that, it took me hours of searching to find any concrete information about King’s Berlin trip – and most of it was in German. That’s even more ironic when you realize that the East German media never uttered a word about King’s historic visit to the GDR. Sure, King fit many things the communist German government liked; hell, even the FBI labeled MLK a commie. But on the other hand, Rev. King kept saying things about democracy, freedom and breaking down barriers. Continue reading