Berlin – Top 5/Bottom 5

As our time here in Berlin comes to an end we thought it would be cool to reflect on what we like and what we dislike about this city.  So… drum roll…. here are our top 5 and bottom 5 for Berlin:

TOP 5

1. Kinder (children) Cafes

Amaya and I have sampled many a coffee in our short stay in Berlin.  There is the fluffy duck cafe, the balloon cafe, the slide cafe, the milk cafe and the most favoured of all (and not strictly a kinder cafe) – the lady cafe.  Not the real names, but the names bestowed by a toddler.

The Lady cafe is ironically named Sommer Haus, is just around the corner from where we live, is cool in a Hipsta sort of way, does great coffee and has toys and books for Amaya.  What’s more the owners are actually friendly and talk to us beyond the basic transaction exchange!

Kinder cafes are our other staple and often involve play equipment, toys books, screaming children and varying quality of food and coffee.  The basic idea is that parents sip lattes in peace while children occupy themselves.  They have been a lifesaver considering how bad the weather has been.

Amaya in the "lady cafe" with Majo her favourite lady!

Amaya in the “lady cafe” with Majo her favourite lady!

2. Graffiti

This would normally be in a bottom 5 but Berlin have somehow managed to foster a vibrant culture of graffiti without it being about vandalism or contributing to urban decay.  In fact graffiti seems to add to the ambience of the city and give it a certain charm.  Even the graffiti in our local kids playground adds to the fun of the place!

Graffiti

3. Cycle infrastructure

Between the fantastic public transport system (which should really make the top 5 but is a bit boring to write about) and the amazing networks of bicycle paths, one does not need a car in Berlin.  This has been a huge relief and contrast to our car centred Sydney lives.  I had previously imagined that cycling would not be a thing we did during the winter, but I have found myself cycling down the street, with Amaya in tow, in all sorts of inclement weather. And the best thing is I feel safe doing it.  Motorists are incredibly aware and considerate, once again a contrast to the Australian experience.

For anybody who has been doored you will see the wisdom in the design of this bike lane!

For anybody who has been doored you will see the wisdom in the design of this bike lane!

4. Museums

Thanks to a strong tradition of German archaeology in times gone by, coupled with their willingness to plunder everything they discovered and transport it back to Germany, the Museums in Berlin are nothing short of astonishing.   I must have visited close to 20 museums and haven’t even scratched the surface.  Highlights were definitely the Pergamon Museum, the Jewish museum and the Neues Museum.  Berliners are so passionate about museums that they even have “Lange Nacht der Museen” (long night at the museum), where for 18 euros you can gorge yourself on museums from 6pm till 2am.  I managed six including the very trippy Hemp Museum, where I drank hemp tea and ate hemp cake!

A very serious museum about hemp!

A very serious museum about hemp!

5. Weather

Despite our moaning and groaning about the weather (which is nothing compared to the average Berliner) it did provide us with some fun activities.  There was the sheer beauty and novelty of snow, the opportunity to build snowmen and best of all the sledding, which can best be described in the following video montage:

BOTTOM 5

This is where we get to have a good whinge.  To our friends from Berlin – please don’t take this personally – you are all obviously the exception to the rule – we love you and Berlin wouldn’t be half as good without you!

1. Weather

Seriously while snow is cool and is a novelty for us Aussies there is only so much one can take.  I am finishing this off from Barcelona where the weather is sunny and 17 degrees.  When we left Berlin yesterday there was still mountains of snow on the ground and the promise of more to come.  I will not miss having to put on my entire wardrobe before walking out the door, nor will I miss having to dress and undress a wriggling toddler every time we exit or enter a building.

I think we have been particularly unlucky with the weather.  It has been the darkest winter in 140 years and the coldest March ever!  Cold is one thing, never seeing the sun is quite something else. November, December January, February and March – 5 months of freezing cold, overcast, ice, snow, hurts to go outdoors, everybody hibernates.  Definitely a major subtraction to quality of life!

This was taken on the 29th of March - nice spring weather!

This was taken on the 29th of March – nice spring weather!

2. Dog Turds

If people are so intent on owning a dog and thereby contributing to global warming and the global food crisis, then the least they can do is clean up after their animal!  This is a problem all over Berlin and one has to be ever cognisant to avoid an unwanted mess.

(no photo – sorry to disappoint)

3. Art Galleries

Berlin with its relatively cheap rent and hot international art scene means there are more commercial galleries popping up than you can poke a stick at.  But the ease at which one can hire a space, strew a smattering of art around the room, then shout free beers on the opening night to draw a crowd means that anyone can do it.  The result – art lovers having to wade through a heck of a lot of crap to find anything notable.  Michael is even thinking of putting together an installation of Dog Turds collected from a wide variety of Berlin neighbourhoods.  Maybe I’m going to the wrong places, or am currently too obsessed with painting, or maybe I simply don’t know enough about art to appreciate whats going on here, but I am so sick of conceptual, found object, poorly executed, adding nothing positive to the human experience, installation, crap exhibitions that I will never step foot into a commercial gallery in Berlin again.

4. Berlin Schnauzer 

An actual term to describe the curt, abrupt and unfriendly manner of many Berliners when interacting with strangers.  Obviously our lack of German didn’t help our perception that Berliners were on the whole quite cold towards strangers.  We were relieved to learn it wasn’t just us who were being given the cold shoulder, but rather Berliners were quite famous for their don’t mess with me personas.

Examples:

I remember catching the tram one day with Amaya in the baby carrier – she quickly established that the tram was like a bus and this was enough for her to burst into a loud rendition of “wheels on the bus.”  Meanwhile our fellow commuters stood mere centimetres away, absorbed in their thoughts, as though nothing truly entertaining was occurring.

Amaya sighted many a dog and patted none, as owners wouldn’t even glance sideways at her enthusiastic remonstrations.  Any transaction in any shop, bakery, train station, photocopy place etc. is just that – a transaction – there is never a desire for small talk or an interest in the customers welfare.  One day when I let Amaya pay at the grocery store I thought the checkout lady was going to  kill me with her stern glare as Amaya fumbled with the 20 euro note.

Anyway, I am sure everybody is lovely and wonderful – but there is certainly very little warmth.

Number 5

There is no 5th thing!  We were scratching around for a 5th thing and they all sounded pretty lame.  It was honestly much easier to come up with the top 5 which potentially says a lot about Berlin.  Maybe if you have been here you could help fill in the blank for number 5…

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Life as an Immigrant

The stereotype is that Germans are efficient, reliable, rule orientated and precise. This is certainly true for the amazing transport system here in Berlin and for the speedy way groceries are passed through the checkout. It is also true when you arrange to meet with somebody – being a couple of minutes late is not cool. Following the rules (which are largely unspoken) is also important. As a new immigrant I quickly learnt that riding on the footpath is a no no, the evil glares also inform me that crossing against the green man is forbidden. Tardiness in packing my self-provided supermarket bags initiates a pen taping display from the person at the checkout and irritated shuffling from those waiting in line.  Also, if I somehow forget to buy extra groceries on a Saturday I am guaranteed to starve on Sunday because why would a supermarket open on a Sunday?

All of this order seemed to be thrown out the window on our recent visit to the immigration office. It was a supposedly simple process. Shosh is a European citizen thanks to having an English Mum (nice one Colleen), Amaya and I automatically get family reunion visas anywhere in Europe for as long as Shosh chooses to stay there.  We were issued 3 month residency permits by the German consulate in Sydney and were told to go and find Frau Püschel upon arriving in Berlin to have them extended.

So off we set on Monday morning, arriving at 8am – not an easy task with a toddler. The office was conveniently located in the middle of 3 stations, but close to none of them. It is a drab, foreboding building, set against an industrial landscape. Grey was definitely the dominating colour of the whole experience.

The foreboding Ausländerbehörde

The foreboding Ausländerbehörde

With no obvious information point, closed doors everywhere and everything in German, we spent a confusing hour just trying to work out where we needed to be, being told that we were too late to see anybody that day, and then finding out from the people in the waiting room that to have any chance of seeing anybody we needed to be at the immigration office by 5am at the latest!

The following day I dragged myself out of bed at 3.45am, caught a deserted train to Westhafen, and then jogged a freezing kilometre to the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office).  Believe it or not there were five other people already standing in line at 4.20am!  And so there we stood, wordless, in the darkness and the cold.

Can't believe there were actually a couple of other people on the train at 4am!

Can’t believe there were actually a couple of other people on the train at 4am!

The view when I first arrived.

The view when I first arrived.

The lights finally came on.

The lights finally came on.

My estimate is about 200 people behind me by 6am.

My estimate is about 200 people behind me by 6am.

People trickled in slowly, so that by about 5.30am there were over 100 people behind me.   Flood lights eventually came on and the staff started to enter the gates in front of us, getting ready for their 7am start.  Most of the staff barely acknowledged us as we stood there shivering.  The girl behind me was visibly shaking.  It was hard to believe that this was Germany, supposedly one of the most developed countries in the world.  There we were, obligated to stand in line for two and a half hours, before dawn, in the dead of winter.  Hardly a dignified act.

Finally, at 6.40am the gates opened and we were marched into a small room where I was issued a ticket with a random number on it.  The lady informed me, in English, that I was second in line and that Shoshanna and Amaya had better hurry up!  Which they did, arriving minutes before being summoned to room 172.  Shoshanna had also run from the Westhafen station, pushing Amaya in the magic buggy.

It was a big physical effort for everyone involved, but the end result was a prompt issuing of a 2 year residency permit for Amaya and I.  We celebrated with a visit to the Balloon Cafe! YAY!

The dreaded room 172

The dreaded room 172

Amaya waited very patiently.   At one stage she asked when we would be getting on the plane.  Obviously a similarly boring waiting experience for her.

Amaya waited very patiently. At one stage she asked when we would be getting on the plane. Obviously a similarly boring waiting experience for her.

Keeping Amaya entertained with one of her most favourite pastimes.

Keeping Amaya entertained with one of her most favourite pastimes.

Sometimes it is better to fold your arms than reach for the sky

One thing that is particularly refreshing in Berlin, and in all of Germany for that matter, is the  way in which the atrocities of WWII are so openly portrayed.  I remember visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp over 10 years ago and witnessing a number of local school groups being guided through the stark courtyard and buildings.  Most of the students either had tear stained faces, or were sobbing quietly as they witnessed the hateful crimes that their grandparents had perpetrated.  Surely being forced to face such awful acts is the first step in preventing something so terrible happening again in Germany.  

I recently visited a museum called the Topography of Terror which documents, in considerable detail, the meticulous and calculating methods that the Nazi regime went about committing genocide.   The museum itself is particularly austere and oppressive.  A metallic grey, rectangular structure surrounded by a grey gravel landscape design.  It also features a long section of the Berlin wall down one side for added effect.  During the “Third Reich” the headquarters of the Secret State Police, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office were located here.

Grey on grey

Topography of Terror – Grey on grey

It is interesting that when we talk about Germany at this time we talk about Nazi Germany, as though it were the Nazis alone who were responsible for the holocaust, and the “normal” (non-Nazi) Germans were innocent.  Once again I am impressed with the honesty and openness of Germans today, as it was made abundantly clear in this museum that Hitler and the Nazi party had the overwhelming support of the German people.  This was well documented with the massive rallies in support of Hitler held all over Germany.

One such rally occurred in 1936 at the Blohm and Voss Shipyards in Hamburg.  The Führer, Adolf Hitler, had given a stirring and emotive address after which the national Anthem was sung, with all present raising their arms in full salute.  Well almost all.  There was one gutsy fellow by the name of August Landmesser who stood there, arms folded, in defiance of Hitlers already anti-Semitic learnings.  August (a non-Jew) had married a Jewish woman, which was illegal in Germany at that time.

As one behind their Führer.

As one behind their Führer.

Non-conformity in the face of dire consequences

Non-conformity in the face of dire consequences

All his fellow workers were standing there in ernest salute and August had the gumption to go against the grain and not participate.  In this act he ended up on the right side of History.  It made me reflect on what I might have done in that position.  I would like to think that I would have been the radical non-conformist who was prepared to risk everything in a stand for what is right.  But I don’t know…  Peer pressure, the tide of public opinion and harsh punitive consequences are all strong motivators to conform.  I could easily justify conforming, believing that I was doing what was right for my family, after all being sent to a concentration camp would not benefit Shoshanna or Amaya!  And perhaps that is what many people did, turned a blind eye in order to survive.

When the allied troops reached Bunchenwald concentration camp they were so horrified by what they saw that they lined up the civilian population of nearby Weimar and forced them to march through the camp, viewing semi charred bodies of victims in the crematorium.  The German men, women and children were told “you must look. You are responsible for this!”

So Germany doesn’t have a patent on all things terrible.  There are so many injustices today.  Thousands of children dying from hunger related causes ever day for starters.  The majority of the world living in abject poverty with a lucky minority owning the lion share of the wealth. Add to this the human rights abuses that we read about in our newspapers on a daily basis.  What do we do?  Do we put our heads down and concentrate on our own lives?  Do we turn a blind eye?  And if we knowingly do this are we in some way responsible for the new topography of terrors in our world today?

Sorry there are no cute babies in this post.

More walls to tear down!

More walls to tear down!

Berlin: Post Jet-lag Impressions

So we are still here chillin’ in Berlin – though I must say it has warmed up considerably since our last post – I think the mercury reading soared to lofty heights of 1 today.  I find myself much more interested in the 7 day forecast, constantly scanning my weather app for promises of sun.

A few things have changed in recent weeks, we are over jet-lag, the bikes came out of the boxes (justifying this sites url), and we are beginning to see what all the Berlin hype is about.

We have also had a stampede of visitors! Thanks to Stephen and Jess, Ben and Chloe, Cayci and Shayna and Jonny and Helen for dropping by and making our time here more memorable!!!

Sipping pomegranate at the turkish markets  - she drunk about 3 euros worth!

Sipping pomegranate juice at the turkish markets – she drunk about 3 euros worth!

She always wanted to be an owl!

She always wanted to be an owl!

Crocodile see-saw reminiscent of the 'Enormous Crocodile.'  Amaya loved having Stephen and Jess stay. She even suggested that Jess was also her mama!

Crocodile see-saw reminiscent of the ‘Enormous Crocodile.’ Amaya loved having Stephen and Jess stay. She even suggested that Jess was also her mama!

Amaya checking out the Ishtar Gates built by Nebuchadnezzar king of Ancient Babylon.

Amaya checking out the Ishtar Gates built by Nebuchadnezzar king of Ancient Babylon.

She conveniently loves pretzels!

She conveniently loves pretzels!

Cayci and Shayna (Mic's ex-students) happened to be in Berlin and dropped in for dinner.

Cayci and Shayna (Mic’s ex-students) happened to be in Berlin and dropped in for dinner.

Waltzing through the zoo - more on that in a later post.

Waltzing through the zoo – more on that in a later post.

I think this speaks for itself :)

I think this speaks for itself

Stomping in new snow in one of Amaya's favourite playgrounds - right next door to the fluffy duck cafe.

Stomping in new snow in one of Amaya’s favourite playgrounds – right next door to the fluffy duck cafe.

And here is the fluffy duck.

And here is the fluffy duck.

Jonny, Amaya and I went to a huge model train geeky display.  The coolest thing about it in Amaya's opinion (and in mine) was this mini chocolate factory.  The chocolate was made in front of you.  Amaya just had to put her hand into the red hole and wait for the chocolaty goodness to drop into her hand!!!

Jonny, Amaya and I went to a huge model train geeky display. The coolest thing about it in Amaya’s opinion (and in mine) was this mini chocolate factory. The chocolate was made in front of you. Amaya just had to put her hand into the red hole and wait for the chocolaty goodness to drop into her hand!!!

Yum!

Yum!

Fun with Helen (whom Amaya has renamed 'Honey') and Jonny.

Fun with Helen (whom Amaya has renamed ‘Honey’) and Jonny.

Out of the Frying Pan and into the Freezer

It is always difficult to tie off a life and begin another.  Packing up our little unit seemed like an endless task – our stuff somehow doubled with the new little addition to our family!  Then there is the long list of little jobs like canceling phones and electricity, redirecting mail etc etc boring boring!!!  Amongst the busyness we somehow managed to enjoy some of the Australian summer so by the time the 17th of January arrived we felt satisfied with our exposure to UV and ready to face whatever Berlin threw at us (or so we thought).

Moving is always stressful but having to account for everything we own and put it all in a box is even more difficult.

Moving is always stressful but having to account for everything we own and put it all in a box is even more difficult.

Shosh was super nervous about how Amaya would fly – 25 hours of flying time is a big ask for a toddler.  To combat this she had enough food to last a week, a bunch of new toys and many kilos of books.  As it turned out Amaya was a little legend – this was despite being delayed in Sydney because of 45 degree heat (hottest day ever!) and then again in London for the opposite reason.

Jet-lagged!

Jet-lagged!

Touching down in Berlin we were filled with a sense of excitement and expectation.  With a temperature difference of over 50 degrees celsius, devastating jet lag and a baby that wasn’t adjusting to the new time zone our excitement quickly transformed into a deep haze   of ‘WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?’

This was an unexpected feeling.  We had both focused so much on potential difficulty of the flight without really considering that life in a new city would pose challenges.  Shoshanna drew the analogy of birth (stick with me it does have some relevance) where she was so focused on the actual birth process that she wasn’t prepared for what came next, which, as it turns out, lasts a lot longer!

Amaya checking out the Graffiti in the park across from our unit.

Amaya checking out the graffiti in the park across from our unit.

So here we are in Berlin, slowly adjusting, buying warmer clothes, learning the language and getting increasingly more sleep.

One of the many cafes designed specifically to keep kids entertained while parents sip their lattes.

One of the many cafes designed specifically to keep kids entertained while parents sip their lattes.

The parks are so cool in Berlin - each one is unique and made from natural materials!  Temperature of -10 was not going to stop Amaya from getting on the swing!

The parks are so cool in Berlin – each one is unique and made from natural materials! Temperature of -10 was not going to stop Amaya from getting on the swing!

Riding a wooden fish.

Riding a wooden fish.

And the more alive we begin to feel the more we have started to appreciate our surrounds: cool playgrounds, kids being pulled along on sleds, bicycles everywhere, fun weekend markets, frozen ponds with people playing ice hockey and seriously awesome toboggan runs!

Today we met up with a lovely family.  Glen, Katja, Benjamin and Amy.  It was wonderful to connect, share a meal, and enjoy the winter wonderland.

Today we met up with a lovely family. Glen, Katja, Benjamin and Amy. It was wonderful to connect, share a meal, and enjoy the winter wonderland.

Amaya's first snow ball fight - she lost :)

Amaya’s first snow ball fight – she lost!

Great fun on toboggans a real novelty for us Aussies.

Great fun on toboggans – a real novelty for us Aussies (yes Shoshanna you are an Aussie!)

Amaya and her new friend Benjamin enjoying being pulled along on a sled - beats a pram any day!

Amaya and her new friend Benjamin enjoying being pulled along on a sled – beats a pram any day!