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

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

Berlin Suburbia: An Expat Guide


View of the Fensehturm from Mauerpark in Prenzlauerberg

We decided against buying a fancy coffee machine when we moved to Berlin because right downstairs from our flat is a cafe which serves a good espresso; the coffee in the cafe two houses further is even better. At the end of our road is a gloriously big park and at the other end the full spectrum of food shops – from Lidl to a high-end organic deli. 10 minutes from Alexanderplatz, 15 minutes from Mitte and its world-famous museums, 20 minutes from Kreuzberg and 20 minutes from Hauptbahnhof (Berlin’s central station): we live centrally and happily so. But friends who used to live nearby have upped sticks and moved to the suburbs. Missing them and curious to know how it has changed their lives, we ventured out to visit at the weekend. It was a lovely spot – green and quiet. Their flat is much bigger than their old one and they have something near unheard of in the city – a garden. Their children will be able to walk to school along quiet tree-lined streets; no tram-tracks, heavy lorries or police sirens to contend with. Because living as centrally as we do is not typical for most major cities, especially with a family, got us thinking about what life might be like if we too were to consider Berlin suburbia – useful knowledge for any expat considering a move to Berlin.

1. Zehlendorf

Main features: South west Berlin, formerly in the American sector, now part of the administrative district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, less ethnically diverse than many other parts of Berlin, votes predominantly CDU.

What you might like: The small but bustling high street right next to the S-Bahn station reflects Zehlendorf’s earlier history as a separate village on the outskirts of Berlin – it has everything from arthouse cinema to H&M, from fancy cake shop to rustic bakery. Continue reading

Racing in the Right (or Wrong) Direction

This post came about because I happened to see a photograph of a German horse race, similar to the photo below. It reminded me that horses usually gallop around a German race track in a clockwise direction, while in the United States they run counterclockwise. It made me curious about this custom and how the direction of a race can vary from sport to sport or from country to country, or even from place to place in a country. For instance, NASCAR races in America always go counterclockwise around the speedway, but Formula One races in Europe and elsewhere almost always run clockwise.

home straight

Are these horses racing the wrong way? The Hoppegarten Race Track (Rennbahn), Berlin.
PHOTO: Winfried Veil, Flickr

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Freezing days in Berlin

It is very cold in Berlin; that sort of startlingly cold that seeps into your bones immediately on being outside and stays there for hours. This being my fourth winter in Berlin, I half-expected on that first frost glistening morning to be acclimatised – not so. For North Americans and many Continental Europeans, my complaints will fall on unsympathetic ears. It’s only minus 6C, they will say mockingly. But being a sensitive English rose, I find the cold makes going outside feel like an arctic mission rather than a free and easy, pleasurable way to break up the day, and this troubles me each year.

Of course, we had snow in my childhood, but it was that mild, wet, English snow which stays only fleetingly on the ground for no more than a day or so – and falls biannually at most. Instead those English winters consisted of short, dark, grey days, smattered with chilly rain and the odd early morning frost. A woollen jacket and closed shoes were guaranteed to see you through winter’s mildest and chilliest moments. And though I do miss those days, for all my chilblains and chapped lips, these real Berlin winters have been an educational experience, making me both wiser, and in a funny way, possibly a more considerate mother. Continue reading

Getting in with the In Crowd

Recently some fellow Americans moved in down the street. We figured this out before we talked to them, as there were some telltale expat signs around the house. One day I stopped the new neighbor while he was out walking his dog and we had a brief chat, marveling at how small the world is and how connected our distant lives actually are. After this chat, I had every reason to swing by and welcome them properly to the neighborhood – isn’t that what we Americans do for our new neighbors? And yet, I hesitated. You don’t just drop in on people in Germany. There is no such thing as a welcome wagon. Don’t bother the neighbors… everyone is packed in tightly enough here without having to socialize on top of it.

Eventually I reasoned that I have simply lived here far too long, and if I remember back to being new myself, I would have greatly appreciated others reaching out to welcome me. Shortly after our initial meeting, I stopped by my new neighbors’ house unannounced, and brought food, and I think they even appreciated it. Continue reading

You went to Davos and didn’t ski?

I have often joked that Switzerland may be the only place on earth where gyms are completely deserted during the month of January. I remember going for the ubiquitous January 2nd workout last year, anticipating the typical hordes of resolution bandwagoners, but I ended up having the place all to myself.  The reason for this phenomenon of course, is that everyone is skiing!  Why would anyone workout during winter holidays when the Alps are right there?

Skiing is as Swiss as cheese and chocolate, and the Swiss people take all such enjoyable things very seriously. I should note here that the idea of health and wellness in Switzerland is much more geared toward just that, health and wellness. It is quite a different mentality from the North American obsession with fat burning and muscle pumping.  Many Swiss believe that if fitness can be found within some of the most beautiful outdoor settings in the world, then the Elliptical machine can take a hike.  In searching for outdoor activity, there is no better place to find heart-healthy fresh air and challenging winter adventures than in Europe’s highest city, Davos.

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Soccer Fever!

Japan Wins the 2011 World Cup – photo picked up via Google from Thomas Lachetta’s Blog

Talk about a nail-biter! Did you see that game last night? It was amazing! The stadium was packed, the fans were at turns euphoric and devastated, and in the end, it all came down to a few penalty kicks. For the world championship of soccer. Women’s soccer. You missed it? I hardly believe it. I’m pretty sure that no female sport has ever had as much attention as that game did yesterday… or perhaps I’m just biased. It was, after all, a World Cup tournament in this soccer-crazed country and my team was in the final. I even knew people in the stands (who I looked for every time the camera panned the crowd).

It’s a shame that Germany didn’t progress to the final as they had planned, but it lessened their pain when the team who kicked them out ended up winning the tournament. Japan was certainly the underdog going into the game, and despite my nationality I was secretly pulling for them. Continue reading