Berlin in Colour: The Festival of Lights and Autumn Falls

Art

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.

Exploring Berlin by Boat and by Bike

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A section of the Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery, Friedrichshain

I’ve enjoyed being a tourist this week. My family were here for a few days from the UK and what better way to see Berlin than by boat and bike.

Boat Tour

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The Reichstag, Germany’s Parliament

Our boat tour was an hour of sightseeing along the River Spree. I’d pre-booked our tickets with BWSG for around €12 per person. We boarded the river cruise late on Sunday morning from opposite Museum Island and enjoyed the splendid views of this historic city. There was no guide, just audio in both German and English. The English version wasn’t great but it gave us the basic information we needed. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Reichstag (German Parliament) from the water and the various groups of people enjoying the sunshine along the Spree. It almost felt like summer had arrived. (It has not!)

Bike Tour

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The family on our bike tour

Monday’s guided bike tour that was the highlight of the visit. I opted for a company called Alex Rent a Bike (the name probably had something to do with my choice!) We were a mixed age group, ranging from my six-year-old son to my parents who are seventy. Then there were my nephews aged eight and eleven plus my sister, brother-in-law and myself, all with varying degrees of cycling experience.

We set off from outside Kaffee Mitte and cycled along the edge of Alexander Platz, an area that I find pretty bleak. It’s that depressing communist architecture that feels soulless and suffocating. But of course it’s part of East Berlin’s history.

Soon the road began to widen and the grey blocks gave way to impressive large, eight-storey buildings. This is Karl-Marx-Allee, which is an example of Socialist Classicism, otherwise known as Stalinist architecture. (The road was originally called Stalinallee, but was renamed in 1961.)

Following German reunification, the boulevard was painstakingly repaired and is a monument to socialist ideology and building on a very grand scale. But even before it became a Stalinist building project, this street had played an important part in the Second World War. The Soviet Red Army entered Berlin along this road and who knows how many Soviets and Germans were killed. The stories this area could tell would fill numerous books.

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My son, Charlie, enjoying the chaos of RAW, Friedrichshain

Soon we had turned off Karl-Marx-Allee and were in the lively, cool keitz of Friedrichshain. Luca took us to a pretty crazy area covered in street art and graffiti called RAW, which seemed almost abandoned. But it’s far from empty and has become one of Berlin’s clubbing hotspots. There’s also a climbing wall, huge indoor skate park, weekend market and open air cinema. In many ways, it reminded me of Copenhagen’s Christiania. Berlin, it seems, is full of these places.

Next we were peddling past Warschauer Banhoff (Warsaw Station) and within a few minutes came face-to-face with the East Side Gallery – the longest section of what’s left of the original Berlin Wall. It’s on a very busy street and the wall itself is protected with railings. Although it’s hard to get an idea of what life was like for those living in the shadow of the wall, it was interesting to see what mark artists from across the globe have left here.

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Charlie with his cousins, George and Sam, where the Berlin Wall once stood.

And then just like that we had left the East and were in the very quirky area of Kreuzberg in the West. We met an old Turkish farmer who’d built a home on No Man’s Land (between the East and West); we saw the trailer hippies, who set up camp beside the western side of the wall and are still here; we visited a city farm run by families living in the trailers.

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A City Farm in Kreuzberg, run by the families living in the lorries and trailers you can see

I’m not sure we could have taken in much more, but it opened my eyes to this incredible city. And luckily for me, there’s so much more to explore.

Final Berlin

My photos include: Berliner Dom, Museum Island & the Victory Column

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.