Berlin in Colour: The Festival of Lights and Autumn Falls

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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.

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.

Berlin: How my street tells the tragedy of the Holocaust

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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.