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.

Kulturnatten – Copenhagen’s Culture Night

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Copenhagen’s Round Tower lit up for Culture Night

The city was buzzing as museums, Government buildings and shops were all open for business. It was 9pm on Friday but this was no ordinary evening. Welcome to København’s Kulturnatten 2014 – Copenhagen’s very own Culture Night.

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The view from the top of the Round Tower

As we wanted our four-year-old son to experience this event, we couldn’t visit every attraction we would have liked.  But what we did enjoy was great family entertainment. We climbed up the long and winding equestrian staircase to the top of the Round Tower (Rundetårn) and saw Copenhagen at night.

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Charlie looking at the moon

It holds Europe’s oldest observatory, where my son looked through an enormous telescope to catch his first close-up glimpse of the moon .

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Trinitatis Church in the Round Tower

The Round Tower also holds the beautiful Trinitatis chapel as well as a library for the scholars at the time.  Both were open to visitors wanting to take part in this unique evening.

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The library in the Round Tower

Over at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS), the American students had turned the courtyard into a haunted house. Outside there were fires to toast marshmallows and chairs where we could drink hot cider full of spices.

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Charlie dressed appropriately for the Haunted House

With students dressed as zombies, covered in fake blood and bits of intestine, it wasn’t quite what I had imagined for my son. But he and his friend Charlotte, enjoyed it so much they went back for a second look.

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Charlie and a friend toast marshmallows

All over Copenhagen there was live music, street food and a carnival atmosphere. It was fantastic and all for 90 kroner per adult (roughly £10) or free for children.

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There’s no need for an excuse to eat ice-cream in Copenhagen!

These events happen in other parts of the world but wouldn’t it be great if they were much more common?  Because this is the way to get young and old interested in the culture and history of where they are living in a fun and entertaining way.

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A Year in Copenhagen

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I can’t really believe it’s been twelve months since we left London for Copenhagen. But in June last year we started our new Danish life. On the whole it’s been a fantastic adventure and I personally feel it’s been one of the best decisions we’ve made as a family. That’s not to say things have all been perfect – they certainly haven’t. But here are some of the highlights:

Family living

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Monocle magazine has yet again voted Copenhagen as the world’s most liveable city in 2014. You can read a previous blog here about why life in Denmark is not perfect, but on the whole it is a very easy city. The working hours are generally shorter than in the UK. That means we can actually see Charlie in the evenings, which wasn’t the case in London. The child care system doesn’t break us financially, which is the way it was going in the UK. Sadly for us the Danish education system didn’t work out (see my previous blog here). But Copenhagen City Council still pays for half of Charlie’s international pre-school fees which is pretty generous (one of the reasons why tax is so high here). Transport is also good, including cycling (see later). And living less than a 10 minute walk from the beach is just great.

Making new friends

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I miss my family and friends but I have met some wonderful people here in Copenhagen from all over the world. Some of them have befriended me through my swimming class, some through Charlie’s kindergartens and others via friends.

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Inga and her granddaughter Emma with Charlie and me

We’ve also been lucky enough to meet a distant relative, Inga Peetz, who has been so kind to us – even offering us her home to live in when we first arrived. I’ve also been pretty pro-active at befriending people in the various playgrounds dotted around this city. When you move abroad you have to be brave and talk to people – I’m quite good at talking!

Learning how to ride a bike again

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Copenhagen is a cycling city and I can’t tell you how great it is being able to bike safely – whether it’s taking Charlie to pre-school or cycling to work or swimming lessons. I blogged last August about learning to ride a bike again which you can read here. You’ll be pleased to hear I’ve got a little faster.

Triathlon training
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Which leads me on to exercise. What’s happened to me? I’ve never been one for being particularly active, but not only have I started cycling, I’ve also found myself running.

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With our medals – Charlie photo bombing the photo!

And having rekindled my love of swimming, this month I completed my first mini-triathlon (read all about it here!) My next aim is to take part in a 2 km swim around Copenhagen, along with my ex-pat swimming group, starting from ‘Borgen’, the Danish Parliament.

Learning to freelance

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Reporting from Eurovision for Al Jazeera English

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Working at Saxo TV with former ITN employees Angus Walker and Owen Thomas

Until I moved here, I’d worked for ITV News for fourteen years. Some of that was in regional news and the final few years were for national ITN, based in the House of Commons in Westminster. It was obviously a big deal walking away from a prestigious job. But since August I have been a freelance reporter for Al Jazeera English TV; I’ve been reporting for the business channel Saxo TV (with some former ITN employees – small world!); written articles including one for a UK magazine on Danish politics in which I found myself interviewing PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt; interviewed the Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier; and to top it all I’ve found myself editing the newsletter for LINK, a women’s expat group based here.

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Interviewing Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Learning Danish

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A quiet drink after passing our Danish exam

From my previous blogs, you’ll see that I’ve struggled with learning Danish. I’m no pro but I was so pleased to pass my Module One exam. And at least I can ask for bread in Danish, even if the reply is always in English.
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So would I recommend this adventure to anyone else?  The first few months were tough but one year on, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Nowhere’s Perfect – not even Denmark

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It’s funny living in a country which many people across the world think is perfect.  If I’m honest, one of the main reasons we came here last year was because we too were intrigued by Denmark – well Copenhagen at least.  Afterall, no-one can ignore the hype:

* Denmark’s the happiest country in the world!

* Scandinavia is the best place to bring up children!

* Denmark is the place to live if you want a work/life balance!

* Copenhagen is the greenest city of all!

* Nordic cuisine is fantastic!

Of course, nothing can ever live up to all that.

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That’s why many of the ex-pats living here have embraced a humorous and well-researched book written by the British author and journalist Michael Booth.  Entitled ‘The Almost Perfect People: The Truth about the Nordic Miracle’ Michael seeks to challenge the world’s rose-tinted view of the Nordics.  You may remember the storm he caused back in February when he wrote this article for the Guardian.  Almost 3,000 comments later the paper was forced to give a right of reply to each of the countries.  Some thought it was funny, others clearly did not.

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Author, Michael Booth

Anyway I organised for Michael to speak to a group of us last night in one of Copenhagen’s fantastic libraries (one plus point about paying so much tax here).   It was a great talk followed by a fascinating discussion.  Both Danes and ex-pats debated the pros and cons of living here.

Most of us love the freedom and safety of Denmark, especially for kids, although we’re not completely sold on Danish education.  (You can read my previous post here about why we left the Danish system.)  Most of us love the amenities this great city has to offer (fantastic libraries, wonderful parks, good swimming pools) but we don’t like the high taxes.  And what’s not to love about Danish culture, film, architecture and the bikes?

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But the one thing we almost all agreed on was just how damn hard it can be getting to know and become friends with Danes – which they themselves admit.  There’s obviously the language barrier, but it seems tougher here than in other countries.  We do have Danish friends – and good ones – but most have spent years abroad and they too struggle to fit in back here.  20% of LINK members, a women’s international group based in Copenhagen, are in fact Danes.  That says a lot to me.

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So while I am trying to get my head around Danish culture, there are many, many challenges.  And while I think I am happier in Denmark today than I was for the first six months we lived here, As Michael Booth proves, nowhere can ever be perfect.