The Berlin Wall – the Before and After

Berlin Wall 1979

My father took this photo of the Berlin Wall around 1978.

28 years ago today – on November 9th 1989 – the Berlin Wall came down. I was only a teenager at the time, but I have vivid memories of watching what was happening on the TV news.

I also remember adults telling me that this was an historic moment. Of course it was, as the Soviet block began to crumble and the global balance of power shifted. But for Berliners this was life-changing.

No more being separated from fellow Germans; no more being controlled by the state and the secret police (the Stasi). This was freedom like most of us will never experience.

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A Stasi interogation room at the DDR Museum, Berlin

This footage gives a taste of what it was like when, on November 9th 1989, the DDR politicians finally decided they had to open the border crossings between East and West Berlin.

Some fortunate Berliners managed to escape the East before 1989. This short film shows how some did that in the 1960s via a secret tunnel not far from where I now live.

My family at the Berlin Wall, 1979

My mother, sister and I at the Berlin Wall in 1978. (I’m on the left of the photo.)

It turns out that I visited the Berlin Wall as a child. I was born in Germany because my father was stationed here with the British army.

Visits to Berlin were infrequent because it was difficult to get here. Remember that even West Berlin was an island in the middle of East Germany. My mother describes driving down a long stretch of road known as the ‘corridor’ in order to get from the West to Berlin.

And today? Well to many of us it’s just modern history. The images above are taken at the East Side Gallery – the 1.3 kilometre stretch of the Berlin Wall that has been preserved and decorated by artists.

Even when I asked an East Berliner if she was marking the 28th anniversary of the wall coming down, she just shrugged her shoulders and said it was all a long time ago. It’s easy to get used to freedom.

 

 

Berlin in Colour: The Festival of Lights and Autumn Falls

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The Bode Museum on Museum Island

It may be mid October, but Berlin has enjoyed a weekend of wonderful weather and colour. And we have made the most of it.

Last night we had front row seats to Berlin’s Festival of Lights. We were on a boat tour along the River Spree with our German friends, whom we met whilst living in Denmark. We  boarded the boat at 6pm from near Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof (main station).

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Uberbaum (Two Towers Bridge)

We slowly motored up the Spree taking in some of the city’s most famous sights including the Reichstag (German Parliament), Museum Island, Berlin Cathedral, and the famous Oberbaum Bridge, which links the trendy areas of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg .

It was dark at around 7pm so it was on the way back that we really got our money’s worth. Among the highlights were the projections on the Bode Museum and the new Humboldt Forum. But I always enjoy sailing up through Friedrichshain and seeing the area around the East Side Gallery.  And as we motored, our boat was also projecting images of the Berlin Bear and the Brandenburg Gate. This made us very popular with passersby, who were watching from the tow paths and bridges.

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The photo postcard of our gang, made by the boat company

After our two hour boat trip was over, we walked back to our flat, taking in the spectacular Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral).

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Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)

Today our friends encouraged us to enjoy this warm October and join them on a walk. Officially we were still in the Berlin area, but we drove for an hour and finally ended up on Wansee (one of Berlin’s famous lakes) opposite Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island).

It was glorious – the sunshine, the water, the leaves in all their autumnal splendour and of course the company. It’s been wonderful to see and enjoy Berlin in full colour.

Brexit, Business and Booze

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

Interviewing former Trade Minister, Lord Price.  Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

Last week I had the privilege of interviewing five experts about the on-going British drama ‘Brexit’. I was in London for the annual conference of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) – a body that represents a £50 billion industry. Members are currently unimpressed with the government’s Brexit strategy – particularly the continual in-fighting. And when your business is all about imports and exports, you can see why leaving the world’s largest trading bloc might be cause for concern.

My first guest was the former head of Waitrose, Lord Price. He’d left his thirty year career with the John Lewis Partnership to become a government Trade Minister. But a few days before the conference, Lord Price quit government. It’s clear he is no fan of Brexit, and thinks that those who voted for it will be left disappointed. But having travelled the globe for 15 months as trade minister, he is certain the UK will eventually thrive. It’s just the time it will take to get to that point that’s the problem. Here’s the Guardian’s take on our interview.

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

I must also add what a delightful man Lord Price is. He’s written a book called ‘Fairness for All’ in which he demands a fairer kind of capitalism and seeks to explain why Brexit happened and Trump was elected. He also hammers home the importance of happiness at work, and says that’s the key to increasing productivity and therefore profits. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and feel a few bosses might also benefit!

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

Interviewing Wetherspoon boss, Tim Martin. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

Next up was Tim Martin, the millionaire founder of the British pub chain, Wetherspoon. Mr Martin is an ardent Brexiteer and contrary to the views of most of his audience, is in no doubt that the UK’s vote to leave the EU will be good for Britain. Although he had 200,000 pro-Brexit beer mats printed in the run up to the EU referendum, he is by no means anti migration. Given that one in 10 of his own staff comes from outside the UK, he knows how hard it can be to find workers. What Mr Martin says he feels passionately about is democracy and reclaiming ‘British sovereignty’. He dislikes the European Union to such an extent that he doesn’t think it matters whether or not the UK and EU secure a Free Trade Agreement post Brexit. (And yes, I did point out that would mean wine from the EU becoming more expensive, not to mention non-tariff barriers like customs delays.)

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

From L to R: Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, Tim Martin, me & Sir Simon Fraser. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

You can imagine the response that got from my next two guests, both of whom have worked in Brussels. Until 2015, Sir Simon Fraser was head of the British Foreign Office and is now managing partner of the business advisory, Flint Global. He was joined by the international lawyer, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez who advises clients on EU trade law policy and Brexit. Both are convinced that the UK will suffer economically post Brexit and believe the country must have in place some kind of transition period to soften the blow. Of course Tim Martin disagreed with almost everything they said. It made for a challenging, interesting and at times, entertaining discussion.  It’s a serious and extremely complex subject. But at least afterwards we could enjoy a glass of (English) wine or a (British) gin and tonic.

 

Berlin: Embracing German Kindergartens

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Cecelia on her first visit to her new Kindergarten in Berlin

At 11 o’clock on Monday, 14th August, I arrived at a Kindergarten in central Berlin with my 15-month-old daughter. It wasn’t to be a long visit – in fact it lasted just a few minutes. But this was the start of Cecelia’s ‘settling-in’ period at her new nursery or Kita. It’s an incremental approach that the German childcare system demands.

The Kita we have chosen is a bilingual (German and English) private institution that caters for children aged one to six. (It’s also affiliated to a school, which our son attends.) Thanks to the large childcare subsidies offered to working parents by the Berlin authorities, we pay just a fraction of what it would cost in countries like the UK. Yes, it took several months and oodles of paperwork to get the Gutschein – childcare voucher – but it was worth it.

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Experimenting with crayons

In Cecelia’s class there will be a maximum of thirteen children who will be looked after by three adults – each of whom is well qualified in childcare. (Educators in Germany are highly regarded and better paid than their counterparts in countries like the UK.) The two German members of staff (one male and one female) speak only German to the tots and the American (female) speaks English. So far I am really impressed with their care, commitment and calmness.

The following day, Cecelia and I were in her new classroom for twenty minutes. She seemed to be enjoying herself – particularly all the healthy snacks that she could pick at. And while she liked being with the other babies, I was grateful to meet their parents who were in the same position as me.

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Exploring at Kita

By Wednesday I was allowed to leave my daughter alone with the children and staff for five minutes. Although it was for such a short period of time, the Berlin system asks parents to always look at their child and say goodbye before leaving.

It was a joy watching Cecelia and the other little ones discovering their new world. But I have to admit that the first week went by slowly. I was beginning to think I’d never be able to leave her. In fact, the settling-in period in Berlin Kitas can take weeks, even months.

By the Friday, however, my daughter was without me for two hours – and absolutely fine. The following Tuesday she stayed long enough to have lunch in the classroom and by Wednesday she even had her daytime sleep.

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Enjoying those plentiful snacks

On Thursday, 24th August, the staff told me Cecelia was fully settled and I was no longer needed. So after fearing that she would struggle to adjust to her new surroundings, she surprised me and proved just how independent she can be.

I think it also illustrates that this slow process works, because even those children who cried a lot in the first few days seem very happy now. (I am of course fully aware that any sickness Cecelia gets will result in us starting the process again.)

We’ve also seen so much change in our daughter over the past two weeks. She’s chatting non stop, pointing and making herself understood. She loves sitting at the little kids’ table we have in our kitchen and she’s doing all she can to walk by herself.

Rather like Denmark, Germany doesn’t seem to have the same health and safety culture we’re used to in the UK (and of course the US). That’s not to say they don’t offer safe environments here, but it does mean that children can be much freer and experimental.

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This girl knows what she wants

There’s no doubt that we have been extremely fortunate in securing our daughter a place at a Kita – and particularly at such a good one. There appears to be a severe shortage of Kindergarten places in Berlin especially in family-dominated areas like Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. But I do think the German kindergarten system is a great set-up and I feel very grateful that we are able to enjoy it while living in Berlin.

France says Merci to my Grandfather

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The insignia of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur that has been awarded to my Grandfather, posthumously

A rather wonderful thing happened last week. My Grandfather, Donald Forrest, received one of the highest French honours for his involvement in the D-Day landings during the Second World War. He was appointed to the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre nationale de la Légion d’honneur, by the French President.

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My late Grandfather, Donald Forrest

Unfortunately it arrived too late for Grandpop. He would have been celebrating his 100th birthday this month but very sadly he passed away last November.

Grandpop was signals officer on board HMS Nith. He was part of Assault Group G1 which was responsible for delivering the Army’s 231 Brigade on to Gold Beach on 6th June 1944. The mission was a success and Arromanche was captured.

But on 11th June, another vessel that my Grandfather was on board, hit a mine, was blown up and sank. Amazingly he survived. I am rather proud of the fact that he was taking a large consignment of whisky and gin to the Headquarters of 231 Brigade in Arromanche. Sadly the drink was lost – which always irritated my Grandfather!

We all know that Grandpop would have been delighted to receive his insignia. He would have also appreciated the accompanying letter from the French Ambassador to the UK. One paragraph that stands out reads:

As we contemplate this Europe of peace, we must never forget the heroes like you, who came from Britain and the Commonwealth to begin the liberation of Europe by liberating France. We owe our freedom and security to your dedication, because you were ready to risk your life. 

Here is the letter in full:

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The letter to my Grandfather from the French Ambassador to the United Kingdom

As the UK licks its wounds after a bruising but indecisive election, and the debate over Brexit continues, it’s perhaps worth taking a moment to reflect. Men and women like my Grandfather risked their lives for peace in Europe. And for that we should always be grateful.

Sending Love to Manchester from Berlin

Brandenburg Gate on Tuesday 23rd May

Brandenburg Gate, Tuesday 23rd May 2017. (Photo: @Nikiiide)

For the second time in just two months, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate has been illuminated in the colours of the UK’s Union Flag. It follows two terrorist attacks on my home country.

The first, in March, was in Westminster, Central London (where I used to work). Six people, including the attacker, were killed.

The second took place on Monday night in Manchester. So far we know that 22 people lost their lives and many more were seriously injured. The fact that the attack took place at a pop concert and targeted young people made it all the more horrific. Like millions of others, I found Tuesday a really, really tough day.

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Flags at half mast on the Reichstag (German Parliament) in response to the Manchester terrorist attack

I felt so grateful to Germany for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Great Britain. But when you’re an expat, away from home, and something terrible happens, it’s really hard to know how to respond.

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The British Embassy, Berlin

On Wednesday night we decided to visit the British Embassy in Berlin. It was comforting to see the flowers and messages that had been left outside the building by so many well-wishers.

But it was our seven-year-old son who really moved us. We hadn’t given him much detail about the attack, except to explain that a bad man had killed people and some of the victims were very young. Charlie has recently started to play the recorder at school and he was adamant that he wanted to play it outside the Embassy.

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Charlie plays the National Anthem outside the British Embassy in Berlin

As soon as we arrived, he opened up his music book, placed it on the ground and began to play the National Anthem. A small group of German women gathered and it was clear we weren’t the only ones moved by this impromptu performance.

It wasn’t note perfect, but it was played from the heart. And that meant everything.

Berlin: How my street tells the tragedy of the Holocaust

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Memorial plaques to Jews sent to concentration camps who lived on Große Hamburger Straße

I live in Berlin’s former Jewish Quarter and all around me are memorials to the many Jews killed in the Holocaust. Among the cobble stones in the pavement outside my apartment are brass plaques. Each one details the name and age of the former residents of Große Hamburger Straße – and to which concentration camp they were deported.

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The old Jewish Cemetery on Große Hamburger Straße. It was desecrated by the Nazis.

Just up the street is Berlin’s oldest Jewish cemetery which dates back to the seventeenth century. The German philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn was buried here. In 1943, the cemetery was destroyed by the Gestapo, and the graves desecrated. It was turned into air raid shelters and in April 1945 the bodies of thousands of Berliners killed in allied bombing were brought here.

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A memorial in Große Hamburger Straße to those killed in allied bombing. They lived in the next door building, which no longer exists.

Across the road from my apartment is a building marked with placards on the wall. Each one names a resident killed in the block that used to stand next door. It was destroyed when the bombs fell one night, killing everyone as they slept.

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A sculpture depicting emaciated Jews in the 1940s. It stands beside the old Jewish cemetery on Große Hamburger Straße on the area where the Jewish Home for the Elderly once stood.

Next door to me is a Jewish school. It was closed under the Nazis and turned into a deportation camp. The school was reopened in 1993, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Next to it was a Jewish Home for the Elderly, but this too was closed in the 1940s and turned into a camp for Jews. It was completely destroyed in bombing raids.

And this is just one street in Berlin. There are many more across this city that tell equally harrowing, tragic and moving stories of those Jews murdered by the Nazis.

What I find most humbling about living here, is that Berlin – and Germany in general – has not shied away from its past. It tells the stories in all their horror, so that those lives cut so brutally short are not forgotten. It’s a constant reminder of what humans are capable of. Many other countries could learn from Germany’s honest approach. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, let’s not forget that.

You can read more detail of what happened on my street here.