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.

Sending Love to Manchester from Berlin

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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: Taking the Baby to Work

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My office for the day

Last week I attended a workshop in Berlin aimed at getting women who are on maternity leave back into work. It was held at one of the city’s popular coworking spaces. But this one has a unique selling point – at Easy Busy Space you can bring your baby to work.

While parents are working in an open plan office, in the next door room their babies or toddlers are being looked after by child minders. I am currently writing this from that office with Cecelia, now 10 months old, being entertained next door. (I know she’s fine because I’ve had a quick look through the door window.)

It’s costing me 12 Euros for half a day’s office space (and gets cheaper the more you use it) and 20 Euros for three hours of childcare. The owners of this space are hoping to extend the hours of childcare they offer.

It seems such an obvious and practical idea. And yet I have never heard of it before. A quick internet search brings up a handful in the UK. But what a shame it’s not more common. Wouldn’t it revolutionise the working lives of so many parents, particularly mums? Think of the impact it could have in the UK where many women quit work altogether, partly because of the high costs of childcare. (That was one of the reasons why we decided to move from London to Copenhagen back in 2013.)

As I am in the process of setting up my business in Berlin, this morning’s three hours of pure concentration were bliss. And look what I found when my morning was over – my beautiful, sleeping baby.

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Please note that I was not paid for this post, nor did I receive any discount.

Denmark: The Danish family connection that lives on

 

 

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This week I said goodbye to my grandfather, Donald Forrest. He was my father’s father and was just six months away from marking his centenary. He lived a very full and interesting life which included service in the British Royal Navy during World War II.

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Some of the medals awarded to my father, grandfather and great-grandfather

Grandpop was involved in the D-Day landing, supporting Allied troops on Gold Beach just before they went on to take the town of Arromanches in Normandy. It was during D-Day that my grandfather managed to escape serious injury after the boat he was sailing on was blown up by a mine. I feel rather proud of one of his missions that day, which was to take supplies of whisky and gin ashore for the troops!

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Members of the British Royal Legion at Grandpop’s Thanksgiving service in Kemerton

We were all very touched when members of the Royal British Legion and the Sea Cadets came to pay their respects to Grandpop this week, at Kemerton Church near Tewkesbury. The Last Post was a particularly poignant moment.

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My grandmother, Joan Forrest

But what I think was so special about Grandpop was his utter devotion to my grandmother, Joan. In her thirties, she was paralysed down one side of her body. To this day, no-one is quite sure why or how it happened. Granny lived until she was 89, and over that time, my grandfather was by her side every painful step of the way. I think it’s the most incredible story of love and devotion.

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My grandparents, Donald and Joan Forrest, in Denmark in 1953

Among those who also came to say goodbye this week was my grandparents’ niece, Christina, known as Krisi. She’s half Danish because her father (Granny’s brother, Bobby Lowein) married a Danish woman called Karin. In fact, while we were going through some old family photos we stumbled across a picture from the 1950s of my grandparents in Dyrehaven (The Deer Park) near Klampenborg in Denmark. It’s a just a couple of miles away from where my family now lives and it’s a place we regularly visit.

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My great uncle, Bobby Lowein, and Karin, on their engagement in Copenhagen

Sadly my great uncle and aunt’s marriage wasn’t to be, and after three children, including Krisi, it ended in divorce. Karin remarried, but in an avalanche on New Year’s Day in 1979 in Switzerland, she was killed. So too was her son, Nicholas Lowein (Krisi’s brother), Karin’s second husband, Michael de Pret Roose, and the Swiss guide and friend, Ernst Renner. It was a tragedy that completely shook the family and one which is still difficult to comprehend.

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Cousin Krisi Williams with her husband Richard in Copenhagen, 2016

34 years later (2013) and my husband and I find ourselves moving to Denmark. Krisi put us in touch with one of her mother’s sisters, Inga Peetz. Inga has been extremely kind to us. When she visited us in our apartment in Hellerup, she was convinced she’d been there before. She had – decades before, when her uncle owned the entire house!

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Inga with her other sister, Killer, in Denmark, 2013

Inga has also introduced us to members of her family, who I like to claim as distant relatives! Among those are her nieces, Camilla and Rikke, who now babysit for our children and have also become friends.

My biggest regret is that my grandparents were never able to visit us in Denmark and meet the wonderful Danes we have been so fortunate to know. But I like to think that both Granny and Grandpop are looking down on us smiling, delighted at the relationships we have forged with members of their own family.

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My father, Christopher Forrest, sailing in Denmark in the 1970s.

NB I’m very conscious of the fact that this family history would be much easier to write in Danish. Not because I am an expert, but because the Danes have more useful names for family. So my Grandfather Donald – my father’s father – is called Farfar. Isn’t that so much easier to understand? I could really do with a family tree to make it easier for you to see the connections. But I do hope you get the gist!

Baby Cecelia at 6 months old

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Cecelia at 6 months old

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Cece showing off her pilates moves

Today, my daughter is 6 months old. How did that happen? Where has the time gone? Well it certainly hasn’t been wasted, but apologies that it hasn’t been spent blogging! I have missed this therapy of writing and sharing my thoughts (mostly about life in Copenhagen) with you all. So I thought I’d give you a quick update on how beautiful Cecelia, who was born on 9th May in Denmark, is doing.

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Enjoying a moment with smiley Cece

As you can see from the photos she is thriving. She’s a wonderful companion and full of smiles and laughter.

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Charlie and Cece chillaxing!

Her brother, Charlie, who was a little reticent about having a sister, is pretty smitten. And that fact that she finds almost everything he does hilarious, certainly helps.

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Cece swimming at 6 weeks

Cece’s life has been busy. Thanks to my swimming teacher, she had her first lesson when she was just six weeks old. As you can see she was pretty relaxed about it.

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Great-grandpa George (aged 101) with Charlie, Cece and me

She’s not only met both sets of grandparents, but also her 101-year-old great-grandfather and 95-year-old great-grandmother. Very touching moments.

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Cece with Nick (her father), Annabel (her grandmother) and Rene (her great-grandmother)

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Cece with her Granny Celia (my mum)

She’s already appeared in print, in an article that I wrote for Your Danish Life Magazine and on Instagram, thanks to a post from the he English-language book shop in Hellerup, Books and Co.

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Things are getting very busy for us as a family. Next month we will sadly be leaving wonderful Copenhagen and heading off to Berlin. It’s another adventure for us all but a lot of change. Here’s hoping the next six months of Cecelia’s life are as amazing as the first.

Denmark: Why are we shocked that a lion is dissected in public?

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Being interviewed on Danish TV

This morning I was a guest on Danish TV News, TV2, where I was asked to discuss why Britons are so shocked that a Danish zoo is dissecting a dead lion. My live studio interview ran alongside pictures of a previous dissection – leaving nothing to the imagination. You can watch it here, but please be warned that there is graphic content. (No broadcaster in the UK could ever use images like this before the 9pm watershed.)

The nine-month-old, along with two others, was culled back in February because Odense Zoo had too many of the animals. Today just one – a male – was taken out of the freezer and, as I write, is being cut up in front of huge crowds, including children.

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TV2 footage of the dead lion before the dissection began

Only last year, Copenhagen Zoo walked into a media frenzy when it decided to kill a healthy giraffe named Marius, dissect him in front of crowds and then feed him to the lions. So have these Danish zoos learnt nothing? Well yes because this time round, Odense Zoo decided not to publicise the cub’s death at the time, and not to give him a name.

But zoologists and most Danes in general are adamant that dissections are important – they say they are for educational purposes and not entertainment. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again.

Which goes to show how culturally different Danes are to Brits (as well as Americans and other nationalities). There is no way on earth that a British zoo would or could do this in public. Let’s not kid ourselves – hundreds of ‘big’ animals in zoos across Europe are culled every year for many reasons, including having the wrong gene pool. And whatever we may think, it happens in the UK too – but in secret. Remember the storm that followed after it was revealed by the Daily Mail that Longleat Safari Park had put down six lions, including four cubs, because there were simply too many? I am, though, still shocked that killing ‘healthy’ zoo animals needs to happens at all – in the US they use contraception.

I certainly wouldn’t allow my five-year-old son to watch a dissection, even if he wanted to. That prompted the TV presenter to ask me if I was playing into the ‘Disneyfication’ of animals? Perhaps I am. But even though I know that children of all ages regularly visit abattoirs and watch animal dissections here in Denmark, it just doesn’t sit well with me. Does that make me, a meat-eater, a hypocrite? Probably.

Copenhagen: Joining a choir!

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The Suoni Ensemble, The Suoni Chorus and Copenhagen International Children’s Choir

Danes love to sing. From birthdays to saints days, it doesn’t take much to get this nation opening its windpipes.

It just so happens that I enjoy singing too. But until April, I hadn’t been a member of a choir since my university days. After talking about it for years and always finding a work or childcare excuse to put it off, I finally decided it was time to reclaim my voice. So despite being very out of practice I joined a new, small, international choir based here in Copenhagen.

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My son in the balcony and me on stage before the concert begins

It’s called the Suoni Chorus and is run by the extremely talented composer Siobhan Lamb. There are currently around 20 members and last Saturday we performed in our first concert.

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Siobhan Lamb conducting a rehearsal

It was in the impressive Rococo church, Christians Kirke, in Christianshavn, Copenhagen. Thankfully we weren’t alone because, along with Siobhan’s Copenhagen International Children’s Choir, we were supporting the Suoni Ensemble. Now these musicians aren’t amateurs like the rest of us, but professionals – they blew us away!

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The professional singers rehearsing!

We performed a piece called ‘Through the Mirror’ which is composed by Siobhan and based on Aesop’s fables.  It was a great experience and it’s got me hooked. On top of that, it helps me feel a little more integrated into Danish life!