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

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

Changing places: 3 great Berlin buildings that used to be something very different (and more)


Stained glass windows in ESMT foyer


Mosaic on wall of ESMT conference room

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

How much does it cost to study in Germany, really?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

When I speak to students and parents about the prospect of completing a degree in Germany, the question that invariably comes up is,”Ok, there’s no tuition, but how much does it really cost?” The answer is a bit complicated, but it largely depends on where you study and what type of lifestyle you want.

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Nude bathing and traffic signs: 10 things that didn’t fall with the Wall

Lichtgrenze - East Side Gallery, Berlin

Temporary Lichtgrenze in Berlin to celebrate 25 years since the fall of the Wall
PHOTO: Andrea Goldmann

Last Sunday (9th November) Berliners celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A momentous occasion movingly marked by temporarily dividing the city again with a 9-mile “Lichtgrenze” made up of illuminated white balloons along the old division, which were then let off into the misty night sky at the same time the first people crossed the border all those years ago. Though the few remaining stretches of the Wall in Berlin are only there for the sake of history and tourism, not all aspects of GDR-life have been so thoroughly dismantled. From politics to bathing habits, what has survived these past 25 years? 

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KiTa Kids

We toy sometimes with the idea of returning to the UK (by that we really mean London). For our careers and old friends and family, it can seem very tempting. Very tempting indeed, until we start talking about childcare. Berlin’s plentiful offering of affordable places for children to spend their time is almost unbeatable and it is one aspect, amongst many, which ties us firmly here for now.

Our children have attended KiTa (Kindertagesstätte – nursery school for pre-school children) since they were eighteen months old. They could have started younger – many children in Berlin are sent at 12 months from 9am to 4pm – but for us that seemed too soon. So we were slower: at first, it was only for a couple of hours each morning, and then progressively more, until we found a rhythm that works for them and for our working patterns: three days a week from 9am to 3pm and two days a week from 9am to 12.15pm. They could stay for longer but we are happy to have them at home as much as work allows. Continue reading

Leipzig for Beginners

The St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year. It made me realize that I know little to nothing about Leipzig itself. And with a newly elected German President also from the former East, it seemed like an appropriate time to look eastward and learn more about the eastern German city of Leipzig. Continue reading

Feiertage: What are we celebrating today?

With Halloween only about a week away, I’ve been thinking about holidays for expats. Which holidays are observed and how they are celebrated varies a lot around the world.

In the English-speaking countries alone there are great variations. (Canada’s Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October, while the US version is in November.) But as soon as you look at non-English-speaking lands, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland, there are even more differences. Even within Germany itself there are many regional differences as well, partly depending on whether a region is Protestant or Catholic. (For a country where few people attend church, Germany has an amazing amount of religious holidays.)

It just so happens that Halloween also falls on what is another holiday (Feiertag) in the Protestant (Lutheran) parts of Germany: Reformationstag (Reformation Day, which in Switzerland is the first Sunday in November). According to a recent US survey, most Americans do not know that it was the German Martin Luther (1483-1546) who “reformed” the Catholic Church and created Protestantism. Thanks to Luther, the 31st day of October is an official holiday in the Bundesländer that used to be part of East Germany (but not in Berlin). It’s a bit ironic, considering that East Germany discouraged religion. But on the other hand, it was also home to the Lutherstadt (Luther city) of Wittenberg.

I suspect that few Germans could explain what Reformationstag is all about, but surely they would outnumber the Americans who could do the same. Continue reading