Brexit: As felt by a Brit in Berlin

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A series of anti Brexit posters in Mitte, Berlin

Over the past nine months, I have managed to avoid the B word in this blog. It’s been a tough one because it potentially affects tens of millions of us living and working in the European Union (the UK included).

But today, I can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. The formal process for the UK to leave the EU has now begun. The UK is due to exit the European Union two years from now.

While some readers may be celebrating, I am not. As much as I try to be an impartial observer, this issue has really perplexed me. It has divided not just towns and cities across the UK but friends and families – mine included. And our differing opinions on this are as entrenched now as they were in the run up to the referendum back in June 2016.

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Flag waving at a concert in Berlin celebrating 60 years of the EU

Of course, I have a vested interest in all this because my husband, children and I are enjoying freedom of movement. We moved to Copenhagen in 2013 and to Berlin at the beginning of 2017. So where does Brexit leave us? Who really knows? Like the other million or so Brits currently living in the EU along with the three million or so Europeans in the UK, we are in the hands of the politicians. The script is unwritten.

As much as I am an optimist, I worry about my home country. I am not convinced that we really understand what we’ve done – politically, economically or socially. As a journalist it’s fascinating to watch, particularly from Berlin. But as a Brit enjoying the freedoms of the EU, I am not enjoying this one bit.

 

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.

What Bureaucratic Berlin can learn from Digital Denmark

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The four of us on a visit to The Reichstag

Four weeks ago today we moved from Copenhagen to Berlin – and it feels like quite an achievement. Moving country with a baby, an apprehensive six year old and two concerned parents in the middle of winter hasn’t been particularly easy. Combine that with not knowing anyone in Berlin and being unable to speak the language, and you begin to get a sense of why we’ve found it a bit of a challenge.

But I feel that things are turning a corner and I am beginning to appreciate how lucky we are to live where we do. (You can read about my first impressions of living in Mitte here). In spite of the language barrier, and the warnings I received that Berliners can be unfriendly, I have been pleasantly surprised by how kind people have been. The caretaker (Hausmeister) in our apartment block speaks absolutely no English. And yet he and I have developed a good relationship thanks to the universal language of pointing, drawing pictures, google translate and two German words – Wunderbar and Scheisse.

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Our neighbourhood in Mitte

We’re also slowly meeting people through my son’s school and by talking to strangers. Actually, I love this part of moving to a new place. I am still good friends with a number of people I randomly met in parks in Copenhagen. I smile when our son, Charlie, orders me to go and talk to someone he likes the look of because they might become a friend.

What’s made this move more stressful than it should have been, however, has been the Berlin bureaucracy. Of course getting established in a new city, yet alone country, is never easy, but I didn’t think it would be quite so difficult. Like most people, I think of Germany as modern and efficient. But now I realise that I spent too long in a country that is modern and efficient – Denmark!

In order to do anything in Berlin you need to be very good at paper work. Take registering your address. Without this Anmeldung document (which is just a piece of paper, by the way) you can’t do very much at all – no bank account, no medical insurance, no benefits.

But getting an appointment to register the address was a challenge in itself. We were originally told we couldn’t be seen until the end of January. Thankfully we have had help from a relocation consultant whose business is to support people like us. Without Emily, I’m not sure I would have survived the last four weeks. She managed to get our Anmeldung at the beginning of January.

Armed with that crucial document, we could finally set up a bank account. We had an appointment with a very helpful woman. But after two and a half hours – yes, two and a half hours – we only managed to open one joint account. We were then told that we had to wait for bank cards and pins to arrive in the post before we could actually use it. That took between seven and ten days and only this week can we finally use both our debit and visa cards.

Incidentally, Berlin runs on cash. There are many shops and restaurants here that don’t accept cards at all. When you’ve got used to using your card or mobile pay to buy anything and everything in Denmark, Berlin’s cash society has come as quite a shock.

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Image: Publicstock.net

Buying a mobile phone and setting up a new contract in Berlin had to be more straight forward – or so I thought. Despite having even more pieces of paper to prove I was legit (my address registration, bank account details, plus my passport) things didn’t turn out well. After another two hours and more form filling, I was told that my bank account was “too new” and I had to wait. I do now have a phone but have been told it will be another 25 days before we can get wifi in our apartment. And so it goes on.

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I know how this Berlin artist feels!

Compare this to Denmark. As soon as you register your address you’re sent a CPR card containing your personal identification number. With this number you get access to all government services from health to kindergartens and even libraries. No bits of paper, no sitting around for hours on end trying to set up a bank account or buy a phone. (I do, however, remember waiting some time for wifi to be set up.)  Even babies are on the system within minutes of being born. After giving birth to my daughter in Denmark, the first thing I received in the delivery room was her CPR number. It was quite extraordinary. And with a single, personal and secure login for public and even some private websites – Nem ID – you can pretty much do everything digitally.

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This gives you an idea of what a Danish CPR card looks like

Of course a personal ID number means the state knows a lot about you. And this is where I have some sympathy for Germany. Like Britons, Germans are wary of too much state control. They are very protective of their privacy and their personal data. With a population of around 81 million people, compared to Denmark’s five and a half million, the country’s sheer size also makes it a challenge for the authorities.

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Museum Island, Berlin

But for a city that’s trying to become the start-up capital of Europe, and is actively using Brexit to encourage companies from London to move to Berlin, I think it’s time for a rethink. Even the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has talked about the importance of Germany embracing digitalisation before it’s left behind.

For those of us new to Germany, I guess we’ve just got to get used to it. Follow the rules, play the game, and try to be patient. Let’s see how I do.

*UPDATE: A few people have contacted me to say that the UK can be equally bureaucratic. I don’t doubt this and am relieved that as a Brit, I won’t have to try navigating the system as a foreigner. Let’s hope Brexit doesn’t make things worse.

 

Hello 2017 Berlin; Goodbye 2016 Copenhagen

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Strolling past Berlin Cathedral

Happy New Year! I hope you all had a great New Year’s Eve and are looking forward to what 2017 will bring. For us, everything is new.

On 21st December 2016, after three and a half fabulous years of living in wonderful Copenhagen, we left Denmark for good. This was a very hard decision because we all fell in love with the country. Our daughter, Cecelia, was even born there so it will always have a very special place in my heart.

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We got our passports stamped with the date we arrived in Berlin

We spent Christmas back in the UK and arrived in our new home city on 28th December. We are now residents of Berlin, Germany.

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Sophienkirche, Mitte

It’s difficult to write much about this latest adventure as it’s hardly started. But I can tell you that we are living in an apartment in Mitte, a fascinating part of former East Berlin. From our bedroom window I can see the church steeple of Sophienkirche.

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The plaque outside the church, describing Martin Luther King’s sermon in 1964

It’s an historic church that also attracts tourists for another reason. In 1964, the civil rights campaigner, Martin Luther King, preached here. His words seem just as prophetic in 2017; “No man-made barrier can erase the fact that God’s children live on both sides of the Wall.”

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The bullet holes left in our apartment building from WW2. The graffiti is a probably more modern!

Our own apartment building is still littered with the bullet holes from the Second World War.  We are just a stone’s throw away from Museum Island and Berlin Cathedral. This area is steeped in history and I can’t wait to explore it.

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Walking over the bridge to Museum Island, Berlin

Currently we are surrounded by boxes, have hardly any lights in our apartment (like Danes, Germans take the ceiling lights with them when they move), no curtains, no bank account and no wifi.  I can’t find anything and we have quickly realised that we have acquired too much stuff!

But there is a sense of excitement in our household as we enter 2017 and embrace another adventure. (I guess that means I’ll have to change the name of my blog.) So Happy 2017 everyone. I hope it brings us all good health and happiness.

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Berliner Fernsehturm – Berlin’s TV Tower

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Copenhagen: The Pregnant Mermaid

 

If all goes to plan, two weeks today I will be having a baby here in Denmark. It’s our second child and, to put it mildly, has been a long time coming.

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I think the Bump enjoyed it.

 

Over the past eight months, I have kept up my swimming – averaging between one and two kilometres a week. As the bump has grown, this is the one sport I have felt able to do that hasn’t put too much strain on my body.

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Feeling weightless

 

 

Today, thanks to my Monday swimming group led by an inspirational woman called Sue, I became a mermaid. OK, so I’m not exactly Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, but a Pregnant Mermaid, yes.  The weightlessness of swimming under water with a tail is just magical. Obviously I didn’t try all the moves the other mermaids were perfecting but I gave it a damn good try!

So with just 14 days to go until delivery day, I intend to keep up the swimming. And I hope I will be able to return to the water as soon as I’m allowed. I took my son swimming from just a few weeks old and I hope I can do the same again.

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Charlie the Waterbaby!

** With thanks to Sarah-Jane Elsey and Elisabeth Godin for the photos and video taken today.**