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

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

Long-Distance Grandparenting

Riasing Kids Away From Family

Opa Fresh off the Train Photo: Erin Porter

It is that time of year where our latest visiting family member is on their way home (bye Opa!) and we are reminded how very hard it is to have a baby abroad. We have no one to call about a sickness in the middle of the night, no family at her birthday party, and nary a date night in sight.

While there are many positives of raising a child in Germany (hello practically free child care), nothing replaces family. Though we took two periods of parental leave to stay with family in the States – this is a far-cry from being based in the same city, same state, same continent. Through no-fault of their own, our parents are trying to make Long-Distance Grandparenting work.

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A week on the farm

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View from our terrace at Staller

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

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

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

Food at German Schools

Photo: Erin Porter

Photo: Erin Porter

Every morning I scramble around our kitchen, looking for appropriate snacks for a 15-month-old. Cucumber? I think she is eating that lately. German roll, or rice cake? Blueberries are always a yes. Is Würstchen trying too hard?

Blearily, I stash these goods in her little green lunch box and send her off to Krippe. And even if she doesn’t eat my lovingly packed breakfast and Vesper (snack) I know she is getting a warm lunch at school everyday.

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5 points of etiquette for sledging in Berlin

IMG_0792Snow, 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