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.

Stasi interogation

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

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).

Uberbaum

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.

Group photo

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).

Berliner Dom

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.

Berlin: Embracing German Kindergartens

IMG_8094

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.

IMG_8100

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.

IMG_8111

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.

IMG_8149

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.

IMG_8138

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.

Berlin: How my street tells the tragedy of the Holocaust

1A53DE0C-9BBC-4DC2-8FFC-582DC2F70FB1

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.

IMG_6697

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.

IMG_6695

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.

IMG_6696

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.

Exploring Berlin by Boat and by Bike

IMG_6456

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

IMG_6516

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

IMG_6462

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.

IMG_6451

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.

IMG_6458

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.

IMG_6460

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

Brexit photos

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.

concert

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

cowork 2

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.

Cece asleep

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