Berlin Day Trips

This summer’s disappointing weather has vacillated between pouring rain and all-consuming heat that leaves you dripping with sweat. Both ways, you end up wet. And not entirely happy.

Perhaps that is why I am casting my eyes outside of Berlin for some summer fun. Sometimes you’ve just got to get out of the city and into the Berlin countryside (or a little further afield). Here are several Berlin day trips with something for every breed of expat or traveler.

 Peacock Island (Pfaueninsel)


For the Nature Lover

Pfaueninsel – “Peacock Island” is a walkable island on a nature reserve in the River Havel. It couldn’t get more peaceful…except for the occasional shriek of a peacock. Yes – real peacocks live on the island!  Once the summer escape for Frederick William II (and a haven for his mistress), this island had all the reminders of long-ago decadence. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a shuttered castle, exotic birds and an air of elegance, all easily reachable by public transport and a very short ferry ride from Berlin.

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12 Cities, 12 Fates: Germany Looks Back on the Eve of the 70th Anniversary of World War Two

Cologne WWII

Source: Cologne Museum

Horror on an unprecedented scale engulfed Europe in the 1940s, but it was only after the smoke had cleared that the true scope of the brutality came into focus. Millions across the continent were dead, tens of millions displaced, and whole nations found themselves on the brink of annihilation. In the decades since the end of the war, much attention has been justifiably been paid to the victims of the Nazi ambitions that ravaged Europe, but oftentimes the German civilian suffering has been ignored or forgotten.

A new documentary from Vox seeks to address this oversight on the eve of the 70 anniversary of V-E Day. 1945 – 12 Städte, 12 Schicksale features the experiences of 12 different cities in the immediate aftermath of the war through the lens of archival footage and interviews with survivors and historians. In order to learn more the experiences of the German civilians featured in the series, I sat down with Sabine Wilmes, an editor at Vox, who was in charge of the development of the documentary.

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Germany’s Stolen (Degenerate) Art Problem

The German Nazi Past seems always to be lurking around in the background of German life. Over the past few weeks the German Past has once again emerged from the shadows, suddenly all too evident in the glare of headlines all around the world.

In a story that the German news magazine Focus first broke in the first week of November 2013, it was revealed that a cache of more than 1,400 artworks confiscated by the Nazis had been discovered in a cluttered apartment in Munich’s Schwabing district. The inhabitant of that apartment turned out to be 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, despite having a Jewish mother, was an art agent commissioned by the Nazis to cleanse German museums and galleries of so-called “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst). Continue reading

German anti-smoking laws – Rauchverbot?

no smoking icon

Germany and I have a long history when it comes to cigarette smoke. Ever since my first visit to Germany — oh those many years ago — I have loved the many differences and unique characteristics of life in Europe as compared to the USA… except for one thing. Smoking.

For many years it was almost impossible for a non-smoker like me to avoid “Qualm” — clouds of cigarette smoke almost everywhere you went. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, just about the only non-smoking zones were on German trains in the “Nichtraucher” cars. Continue reading

Homeschooling verboten

I know I just recently wrote about the German School System, but a 2009 German court decision on homeschooling put that unique aspect of German education in the spotlight. A Bremen couple who have been trying to get permission to homeschool their two young sons had all their legal arguments rejected. A Bremen superior administrative court (Oberverwaltungsgericht) told Dagmar and Tilman Neubronner (and their two attorneys) that they must send Moritz and Thomas to a normal German school and not teach them at home.

Berlin classroom

A secondary school classroom in Berlin. Students in Germany have to learn in a classroom, not at home. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Unlike most European countries, including next-door neighbors Austria and Switzerland, Germany requires that children attend school, and outlaws homeschooling except in rare cases. The Bremen court ruled that the Neubronners had not demonstrated that they qualified for such an exception. This state ruling followed a November 2007 German federal court (Bundesgerichtshof) decision that termed homeschooling a form of parental child abuse! Most would-be German homeschoolers laid low after that, but not the Neubronners. They soon become Germany’s most famous (or notorious) Heimschul-Familie, determined to fight the Bremen state law (as in all of Germany’s 15 other Länder) that forbids homeschooling. Continue reading

Save our Deutsch! Can the German language be saved by a sentence in the Grundgesetz?

If you’re an American expat living in Germany, you’ve heard this debate before — in the U.S.

It’s such a simple little sentence that some people want to insert into the German constitution: “Die Sprache der Bundesrepublik ist Deutsch.” (“The language of the Federal Republic [of Germany] is German.”) Who would have thought that five German words could provoke such a debate? This quote from Berlin’s Tagesspiegel sums it up pretty well: “Die Idee der CDU, die deutsche Sprache im Grundgesetz zu verankern, hat eine heftige Diskussion ausgelöst: Läutet der Beschluss einen ‘Anti-Einwanderer-Wahlkampf’ ein oder die Rettung der deutschen Leitkultur?” (“The CDU’s idea to anchor the German language in the German constitution has set off a vigorous discussion: Does the resolution herald an ‘anti-immigrant campaign’ or the rescue of the German core culture?”)

When the German language gets mixed into German politics, the results are rarely good. Continue reading