My favourite winter memory of Berlin!

The last month it has finally begun to get cold here in Berlin. After the longest and hottest summer on record it somehow felt like winter would never come.  But now, finally winter is on it’s way.  It’s still relatively warn actually – about 10 degrees and rainy.  For those of you who live in warm climates that may sound cold, but trust me, every year Berlin usually has a cold snap where temperatures plummet to MINUS 10 degrees, and sometimes even lower.

And while these kinds of temperatures mean less people visit this wonderful city in winter, it is also a unique and special time to be here. Today, sitting at home on a rainy Sunday, writing this from my couch, I was reminded of a glorious winter memory from about 7 years ago.  It is one of my all time favourite memories of this city and was my first real introduction to the wonderful possibilities which winter brings.

It was a cold frozen Sunday, a glorious ‘big freeze’ day with pale clear sunlight and blue blue sky. My partner and I and our 2 yr old son wanted to get out the house, so decided to meet a friend and go for a walk in Treptower Park – a massive park in former East Berlin, right on the edge of the river Spree.

We rugged up in our thermals, waterproof boots, wool layers and down jackets, bundled my son into his lambswool lined pram, and took off on the (heated) train. After 15 minutes we were in a winter wonderland. Tramping through the snow, we watched ducks navigate their way through frozen ice slabs on the river, whole flocks of gulls launching themselves into the air as joggers puffed past with ice in their beards. We set a comfortable pace, but fast enough to keep ourselves warm in the low temperatures. We were heading for a cove, a part of the river hidden by a peninsular of land that you wouldn’t know existed if you didn’t know it was there. We knew by now it would be frozen over, and we would be able to do that special thing of walking on a frozen river. My son, snug as a bug in a rug, fell asleep in his pram.

When we rounded the corner, the scene was quite extraordinary. The Berliners had take to the ice in droves. People were iceskating, or even just clearing sections of the snow to have sliding competitions on the ice. People had cleared makeshift ice hockey rinks, people were playing football on the ice, or simply walking around on this massive, frozen landscape. A few enterprising people had set up little stands to sell warm mulled wine, sausages, and homemade cakes. (The mulled wine was a welcome addition at this point!). When my son awoke, we headed to a nearby restaurant for a light meal – which was buzzing with customers coming in to warm up from the ice). When we headed out again it was late in the afternoon and we were stopped by the sound of music drifting over the ice. Someone had brought out a set of decks, a small generator and speakers and was playing some really fabulous dance music. As we lingered more and more people started bobbing, then dancing to this great music on the ice. My son was entranced, as were we all. The scene was so beautiful – the sun clear and beginning to get low in the sky, blue skies, white snow on a frozen river and a spontaneous dance party on the ice. This was no organised event. There were no licenses required, no applications made or approvals given. This was a spontaneous gathering of Berliners who knew a glorious winters day like this deserves to be celebrated. This for me is part of the unique spirit of Berlin – this spontaneous creativity and ability to think outside the box combined with an active community spirit and a sense of immediacy that comes with living in a city which is reinventing itself every day.

Today, I look out at the grey sky which seems to be constantly crying today.  I never thought I would pray for colder weather, but after more than a decade in this northern city I would take muns ten and sunny over plus 10 and raining any day of the week.  Bring on the winter!

What is this thing called German identity?

So. The national holiday of re-unified Germany is October 3rd. A little shy of a year after the Berlin Wall ‘fell’, the country voted to ‘re-unify’. This year will mark 29 years since Germany became one country once more. This year, for the first time, the Berlin Wall has officially been down for longer than it was up.  But what does this really mean for a sense of German identity?

For tourists it is little more than an excuse to eat way too much sausage accompanied by truly dazzling amounts of beer in the company of many other clueless souls at the Brandenburg Gate.

But German (re)-unification is a much more complex thing than beer and sausages can really address. Many foreigners are unaware what a brand new country Germany is (147 years to be exact). Before that Berlin was the heart of the Prussian empire, and there were various other Germanic states competing for power in Europe.

It wasn’t until 1871 that they all decided to become one big family and invite the king of Prussia to become the first Kaiser (or Emperor) of Germany. This is the origin of the word ‘Re-unification’ as it wasn’t until 1871 that Germany became ‘unified’ in the first place. And let’s face it, it’s been a rather eventful 142 years. Encompassing WWI, the great Depression, the roaring twenties, the rise of Fascism, Hitler getting in to power, WWII and the Holocaust, the years of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall going up overnight, and coming down pretty much the same way 28 years later. So where are we 28 years after the ‘Re-Unification’?

What is this thing we call a German national identity? What are the differences (and similarities) between former East and former West? What about the so-called ‘Wall in the Head’? How do the new refugee inhabitants affect this city?  This ephemeral entity called ‘German National Identity’ has been created, morphed, torn asunder and stuck back together and challenged anew, all in the course of one hundred years. And Berlin’s streets have born witness to it all.

In my job as a guide I meet people from all over the world with all sorts of levels of knowledge when it comes to Berlin’s history. I try to make the massive moments of history personal by focusing on the lived experience of the people who have seen these events unfold. That includes the ongoing stories of how Berlin is dealing with its past in it03s vibrant and ever-changing present.

Modernising or ruining a counter culture city?

As defined by the Oxford Dictionary:

Gentrification: verb (gentrifies, gentrifying, gentrified)
[with object]
renovate and improve (a house or district) so that it conforms to middle-class taste.
(usually as adjective gentrified) make (someone or their way of life) more genteel:a gentrified Irish American
Gentrification is the word on everyone’s lips in Berlin. It’s in the media every week. It’s bandied around by politicians and locals alike. It’s present at almost every dinner and party I’ve been to in the last year. So why is it suddenly so omnipresent?

I first came to Berlin in 2004. I moved to live here in 2005. Admittedly that’s nothing compared to someone who’s lived here their whole life. But it’s been nearly a decade. Long enough to settle in, learn the language and to bear witness to some remarkable changes here in the city. I can’t imagine how the life-long Berliners feel when they look around their city and the changes they’ve seen in their lifetimes. Everyone is complaining about major rental increases, entire neighbourhoods are changing so fast it’s hard to keep track of it all, and the older Berliners are seriously worried about how they will manage on their pensions if their rent doubles (a real possibility in some cases).

20 years ago Prenzlauerberg was a dump full of junkies and alcoholics. 10 years ago Prenzlauerberg was a hub for artists and creative types – it was close to the centre but cheap enough for people without much money. I first stayed with a friend of mine in one of the oldest renovated squats in East Berlin on Kastanienallee. This suburb is now one of the most expensive in Berlin and the street is now locally referred to as ‘Casting Alley’ because of the young beautiful hip things sipping lattes in the trendy cafes.

Friedrichshain was full of punks and students and it still felt a bit ‘edgy’ to me. 5 years ago everyone who could no longer afford to live in Prenzlauerberg moved to Friedrichshain. Now even that is too pricey.
Kreuzberg was the old bastion of long term west Berlin artists, squatters, social renovators and immigrants. Now it hosts the best Berlin fashion design store (as voted by Berlin Fashion week 2012) and a shop that sells 2500euro fold up bicycles.

The suburb Wedding was a scarey place, with many Turkish immigrants and some streets with a pretty high crime rate, full of 1960’s concrete housing blocks and betting shops. These days many smaller bars and designer places are relocating there, the old disused swimming pool has been turned into a funky location for perfomances and other offbeat art, and even one private english/german bilingual school is considering relocating to Wedding.

But nowhere does the change surprise me as much as in Neukölln. 13 years ago this was the place I first lived in Berlin. I shared a flat with a guy called Randy (no joke) and paid €180 a month, utilities included. It was (and still is) a major enclave for the Turkish immigrants in Berlin with more Turkish than German being heard on the streets and in the subways. It had (and still has) the highest percentage of families living on welfare. It is a major drug centre of Berlin. It was also a primary place for peadophiles to prey on young boys from poor families. The planes landing and taking off at the nearby Tempelhof airport made life pretty noisy.

But a nearly 10 years ago the airport closed and has subsequently become a massive open green space for public use, with community gardens, a bird sanctuary, a kids festival, a music festival, a kite festival, Berlin fashion week and much much more. And what has happened to Neu Kölln? I was down there a month or so ago and was overwhelmed at the speed of change in my old neighbourhood. It seems like almost every week something new opens up – a designer clothes shop, an organic bakery, a whole in the wall waffle shop that serves soy milk lattes, not to mention a couple of really damn good restaurants (when I lived there the Döner on the corner was the only option for a night out).

What has happened in Neu Kölln is that there is now the sense of a two tier society sharing the same suburb. The first is people who are genuinely poor, struggling with social issues or identify with the Turkish culture. The other consists of artists, foreigners, students, hipsters, start ups, trend followers and young entrepreneurs. And the people wanting to live in the funky neighbourhood these people create of course.

So what happened to the Turks, drug addicts and welfare cases?

They’re still there. For now.

Berlin by Water

Fun tour guide fact:

Berlin has more bridges than Venice. It’s true. Berlin has a huge network of canals dating back to the pre-train era when the easiest way to shift goods was by barge. Even Queen Sophie Charlotte preferred to take a private boat into Berlin from her summer palace in Charlottenburg rather than endure cobblestones in a carriage. Nd whilst there are many generic style boat cruises on offer in Berlin, a much better way for the adventurous is to hire a canoe and paddle yourself around. If you have the energy (and the armpower) you can actually paddle all the way to Potsdam.

It is a hot summer this year. The longest, hottest and driest on record so far. So what better way to while away a hot afternoon that on the water? My family and I drove west to where we could pick up our Canadian style family canoe. 5 mins later we were paddling through what is easily one of the most picturesque waterways on option in Berlin known as Kleine Venedig – Little Venice.

Tree branches dipped into the water as we wound our way through the tiny canals of one of Berlins most sought after Kleingarten Kolonien (small garden colonies). Living in apartments means most people don’t have access to their own garden, and so these allotment gardens are in high demand. And the Little Venice colony, having water access from almost all gardens is one of the most special you can find.

Looping around we then cut through to a larger waterway, where power boats raced past and the occasional barge drifted by like a large, man made whale. The canal opened into a river – the Havel which actually becomes the Wannsee lake – and the canoeing became more challenging in more open water. We paddled to a small beach and cooled off with a glorious swim before heading to the little restaurant near the beach where you can actually pull up and moor your canoe before climbing directly up to their terrace. Fortified with Flammkuchen (think German pizza) we headed past he moored motor-yachts and began the paddle back.

Driving back home we were all tired and smiling. If you visit Berlin in summer and you have a spare day, you should seriously consider getting out on the water in some way shape or form. You’ll never see Berlin the same way again.

Mauerpark on a lazy Sunday afternoon

A rare Sunday. A day off in summer, and all to myself without family or other obligations. The day stretched out ahead of me like an invitation. It was a glorious Berlin summers day, blue skies and warm air and staying at home on the couch seemed like a sin. So I got dressed in my favourite yellow summer dress and went out to wander.

Somehow I ended up at Mauer Park – an old strip of the former deathstrip of the Wall which has now become without a doubt the most popular fleamarket in Berlin. Some people complain that Mauerpark is not what it was.
It is big, yes – about twice the size it used to be – even a private tour guide like myself could get lost here! But that also means there is more variety than ever.

It is crowded, yes – but if you go early (around 11am) then it’s not too bad. And as long as you’re not rushing, but rather drifting to see what catches your eye then it can be really a pleasure. Yes, there are tourists, but I heard easily as much german as I did other languages. And I heard not just English but Spanish, Swedish, french and something slavic I couldn’t identify. I love the diversity here.

I love the mix of old and new. I love that next to the expat selling her handmade retro handbags you have a young turkish girl in a headscarf selling Gozleme, and that next to her is a Berliner speaking thick dialect while she tidies her second hand clothes she’s trying to sell. I love that you can get everything here from funky new design stuff to 50’s furniture, a belt made out of tire offcuts, a second hand wetsuit or a replacement handle for an old wardrobe.

I love the smell of fresh bratwurst being fried as a young guitarist plays a really good set while I lounge on a deck chair. I love that I found exactly what I wanted – a gorgeous old teapot to replace the one which broke last week. Smiling happily I drifted home past the crowds in my yellow dress thinking how much I love this city in summer.