And the sky became a sea of light – Silvester in the Hauptstadt

FireworksWe were lucky this year that the Berlin snow waited long enough for Silvester’s detritus to be  cleared away from the streets. In  2009/10 – the winter of the big freeze, when the pavements stayed covered in thick layers of ice and snow for months – the wooden sticks of rockets and the burnt out tubes of firecrackers surfaced in late March as the crocuses began to bloom.

The sub-header to an article in the Berliner Morgenpost from 31st December will give you a clue: “An Silvester verwandelt sich der Berliner Nachthimmel in ein Lichtermeer. Ueberall in der Grossstadt werden Feuerwerke gezuendet … ” (“On New Year’s Eve  the night sky over Berlin is transformed into a sea of light. Everywhere in the capital fireworks will be set off … “). Ah, fireworks across the city – it sounds rather magical, doesn’t it? And it is, in a way. But it’s also very alarming, especially if you’re not a German native and you grew up with slightly different firework safety standards. Continue reading

A new government for Christmas

Germany has a new government, and it’s arrived just in time for Christmas. CDU, CSU and SPD will govern under Angela Merkel (CDU) in a Grosse Koalition (Grand Coalition). That Koalitionsvertrag I wrote about in my last post has been approved. The SPD party members have voted it through with a reassuring 75%. After months of wrangling, ministers can now move into their offices, arrange their pot plants and assemble their staffs.

To an outsider, that so many important ministerial positions are filled with SPD politicians is a surprise. Given that Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, CSU, nearly gained enough votes for an absolute majority, you would have thought those two parties would well and truly dominate. Not so. Positions such as Wirtschaft und Energie (Economy and Energy) Auswaertiges (Foreign Minister), Justiz und Verbraucher (Justice and Crime), and Arbeit und Soziales (Work and Social) are in SPD hands.  Continue reading

Without a voting card on Election Day

Yesterday – Election Day. I, as an expat, was merely a bystander. But that did not stop a familiar shiver of emotion running up my spine at the sight of people strolling to the local polling station, peacefully coming together to democratically express their hopes and dreams for their country.

Today – it is clear that Angela Merkel and her right-leaning Christian Democrats (CDU) have won, though no-one is quite sure as yet how the governing coalition will be formed. On that, there are commentators in abundance and my half-baked comments won’t bring you much. So instead, I’ll mark this rather remarkable day (or not, as some might argue) in German political history by writing about my personal impressions.  Continue reading

Election year – time to swat up on German politics

Before I became an expat I was well versed in politics. I read the broadsheets daily (usually at the top of a London bus on my way to work) and, when occasion called for it, I voiced a distinct opinion at dinner parties. So I find it embarrassing that after three years of living in Berlin, I remain relatively ignorant about contemporary German politics. I am well versed in the country’s history (19th and 20th centuries at least) but terribly vague about way the present state functions and current politic issues.

It could be that this is a typical expat experience. I know my American grandmother, who has lived in Britain for over 65 years, still prefers to read about American politics than that of our small fair isle. But now, in Berlin, the election is nearly upon us. The Euro crisis is bringing Germany’s role in Europe to centre stage. And everyone is talking about politics. It doesn’t look like we’ll be moving back to the UK anytime soon, so it is time, I think, to be able to join in.

In attempt to educate myself and to provide some useful information for other expats in Germany, in my next few posts, I shall attempt to tackle: (1) Germany’s political system; (2) the main German political parties and (3) Germany in the wider context of the EU. My musings will only fleetingly touch on the historic, and mostly be told from an expat perspective – that being what it feels important to me to know, rather than the nitty gritty of every last detail. And I hope these posts will not be quite as dry as they threaten to be.  Continue reading

The East Side Gallery and Berlin’s Benign Neglect

Berlin is often its own worst enemy. And this time we’re not even talking about the long-delayed opening of the BER airport. Now the controversy is over creating new gaps in the historic East Side Gallery, one of the last vestiges of the Berlin Wall. There is also an online petition to block further damage to the Gallery. All, typically for Berlin, too little too late.

As February became March 2013, suddenly Berlin – and the world – were paying close attention to the East Side Gallery, a little over 23 years after most of the Wall disappeared. Running along the banks of the Spree River, this 0.8-mile stretch of Hintermauer (“inside, ‘hinterland’ Wall”) blocks the river view from Mühlenstraße, the street that parallels the East Side Gallery. At least it did block the view until Berlin began punching holes in it. This piecemeal destruction of the Gallery took place despite so-called landmark protection granted in 1991.

The only reason this rare remaining stretch of the Wall is still standing at all is the artwork that first appeared on it back in 1990 – before the Berlin city fathers and mothers had time to tear down most of the Berlin Wall. Continue reading

Berlin still waiting for a new airport and its first Apple Store

When it comes to new airports or new Apple Stores, Berlin is what the Germans call a “Katastrophe”!

Visible construction work on a new Apple Store on Berlin’s elegant shopping boulevard, the Kurfürstendamm, began in January 2011. Even before work began, several Apple blogs, both German and American, breathlessly announced the news: Berlin, the German capital, was at last going to get an official Apple Store! But with January 2013 only a week away, Berlin is still waiting for its first Apple Store to open.

On January 14, 2011, posted an article entitled Century-Old Building To House Berlin Apple Store. Complete with photos of the building, the article stated: “Almost 100 years after it was constructed along tree-lined Kurfürstendamm avenue in Berlin (Germany), the historic UFA Film-Bühne Wien cinema will regain some of its original glory when Apple opens a retail store inside the building by year’s end. According to the Web site, Apple has leased the building at #26 and is awaiting permit approvals to begin construction. The store will finally bring Apple to the capitol [sic] city, four years after the first Germany store opened in Munich.” Continue reading

Something from home

“Can we bring you anything that you can’t get there?” is a common question our visitors from the UK ask. We usually spend a good ten minutes, both of us running through supermarket shelves in our minds’ eye, but almost always to no avail. Aside from the odd big pack of Yorkshire Tea bags, it would seem we want for nothing.

Does this mean we have become so acclimatised that we no longer dream about products from home? It is true that our habits have altered somewhat over the three years of living here, adapting to local trends and tastes: Nivea creams and cleansers fill our bathroom shelves; quark has become a family staple and these days a potato salad just isn’t quite right without a good share of gherkins. But I’m not sure that is really it: rather, being able to reel off such a short list of these examples seems to me testament to the fact that the vast majority of our consumption – edible and beyond – has remained pretty much the same. Our limited demands have less to do with acclimatisation and far more with globalisation and the ubiquity of internet shopping.  Continue reading

German efficiency and Berlin’s new airport

There is a German term for “German efficiency” – several in fact: deutsche Gründlichkeit, Effizienz, Fähigkeit, Leistungsfähigkeit, Tüchtigeit. German efficiency can be found gloriously in German doors and windows, in energy use (hall lights that only turn on if there’s motion; escalators that only start running when you step on them), in ecology (waterless urinals, low-flow toilets), in Bauhaus architecture (“less is more”), and in German manufacturing (think cars and giant turbines).

On the other hand, German efficiency can be very much overrated. The cliché can become mythical and frustratingly elusive. Germany’s often impenetrable bureaucracy is a case in point. Or Berlin’s new airport, where German efficiency has disappeared entirely and turned into raging incompetence. Continue reading