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Archive for the ‘Prenzlauer Berg’ Category

What is it about being in a new environment that makes daily life vivid? Zombie-like, we typically move through our daily lives on auto-pilot until we are suddenly immersed in a fresh new place. Even taking a shower and brushing one’s teeth can be exciting if you don’t recognize the toothpaste brand or can’t figure out how to control the shower.

Berliner Bathroom

Arriving in Berlin one year ago, I felt like a kid. Going to the grocery store was an adventure and opening a bank account was a triumph to be celebrated. We arrived with one suitcase and one backpack each, easily fitting into our funky furnished apartment in Prenzlauer Berg.

My Prenzlauer Berg desk

After purchasing a tv, dvd player, printer, and bicycles, we felt completely satisfied with our material goods, ready to experience Berlin and our new life without the burden of maintaining a car or a house. How liberating to own almost nothing.

Joyful day!

Although surrounded by spoken and written German, we managed to maintain an English bubble for much of our day. High-speed internet access gave us the New York Times, the Daily Show, Facebook, email and other sundry delights and temptations, keeping us up to date with news about the USA and our friends. The miracle of Skype meant that regular contact with family and friends was easy and free.

Dunno

Through my involvement in the Booker Tea book group and the Berlin International Women’s Club, we’ve gotten to know many interesting people living in Berlin and made some good friends. Both of these organizations use English as the primary language, again reinforcing the English bubble. Even our friendly neighbors speak embarrassingly good English. German was reserved for reading the newspaper, watching the news on tv and ordering food at a restaurant. Overheard conversations on the U-bahn were a puzzle where every third word or so was comprehensible.

Korean tourists

Each day of living in Berlin was filled with astonishing new sights and sounds, secret courtyards, wonderful museums, and huge parks to explore new open-air markets to uncover. The people on the street, in the U-bahn, on the tram, in the restaurant, looked exotic and interesting. The Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper ran a story every day about the anniversary of some historical event or important person’s birth or death. The 80th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s visit to Berlin was celebrated with a Chaplin film festival at a nearby independent movie theater. How cool is Berlin? Let me count the ways.

Which way is up?

And then somewhere along the way the thrill was gone and living in Berlin felt normal and routine. A trip to the grocery store became a trip to the grocery store and not a treasure hunt in some strange land filled with exotic products. Giving strangers directions on the street no longer raised the blood pressure. Wednesday became Schnitzeltag, with the waitress smiling and greeting us as regulars. Using the extensive public transit system was easy. Gone was the frisson while walking out the door.

Schnitzeltag!

And gradually the German conversations on the train became comprehensible, newspaper articles readable without the dictionary, public announcements understandable, exchanging niceties easy, news on the television useful, and babysitting German-speaking neighbor kids doable. One foot may be planted in the English bubble, but the other foot was stepping out onto the German-speaking world.

Astroturf in Berlin?

The original plan was to stay in Berlin for at least one year, and perhaps through end of June 2012, when our house in Boulder would become available. At the end of 2011 we realized that we just weren’t ready to leave Berlin–that we needed another circle ‘round the sun.

Let me lend you a hand, comrade!

During this coming year, I want to recapture some of that childlike wonder from a year ago, starting each day pretending that I am a seven year old. Moving to Kreuzberg will offer new places to explore. Dedicated study will deepen my German language skills. Involvement in the Berlin International Women’s Club will give me responsibility and community. Travel will expand my mind map of the world.

Another year in Berlin? Wunderbar!

Wunderbar!

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In the rough and tumble world of the USA, where 44 million people don’t have health insurance and a presidential candidate brags about jogging with a loaded gun, Europe can seem like a cradle-to-grave nanny state where coddled citizens enjoy a lifetime free of risk or worry.

It may be true that everyone here must have health insurance, those who can’t afford it are given assistance, and workers have more rights than in the US, although those rights have been diluted in recent years. However, I have been surprised and sometimes alarmed by the seeming nonchalance Berliners have about their own and their children’s safety. In everything from dangerous playgrounds, bike riding without helmets, smoking, dogs and unmarked intersections, Berliners live on the wild side.

Playgrounds

A recent NYT article, titled Can a Playground be too Safe? asked whether children’s playgrounds in the US have become too safe. Clearly, playground designers in Berlin have set aside extreme concerns for safety first and are more in agreement with Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Norway, who stated, “Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground.”

Here, children mob the local playgrounds with parents nearby but not hovering. Barefoot and determined, the kids shinny up poles, climb rough-hewn wooden structures, and climb up webbed ropes to the top of pirate ships.

Are those women drinking beer?

That's a tall slide!

They also jump on small trampolenes, ride bikes over hilly steeple-chase type courses, and slide down 20 foot slides.

Steeple chase

Merry-go-rounds like we had when I was a kid are plentiful, as are new-fangled spinning discs, harnessing centrifugal force with absolutely nothing to hang on to. Looks like a blast!

Spinning disk

Parents seem relaxed and unconcerned, picking up discarded shoes and socks and providing reassurance. The kids are thrilled and ready for adventure.

Special events, such as the open house at the Kanzleramt (Angela Merkel’s executive offices), include entertainment for older children such as the hamster ball in the swimming pool. Older children and young adults step inside a deflated plastic ball, the ball is zipped up, inflated, and pushed into the swimming pool. The young hamsters try to stay upright in the plastic balls, which is clearly impossible. Nowhere did I see anyone signing a release form.

Can you imagine something like this at the White House?

A recent poetry festival featured one of those bull-riding machines. The kids loved it! A fall festival offered children a chance to try their hand at black smithing.

Learning to be a black smith

Bicycling

Berliners are very nonchalant about helmet use while cycling. I’ve noticed that children are more likely to be wearing helmets, but not always. Parents and children regularly go to and from school or kita (day care/nursery school) via bike, and children too small to ride on their own are often perched on the rear of the parent’s bike, in a little wagon pulled at the back,

Lots of kids to get home.

or, my favorite, sitting in a box built into the front of the bike.

Don't lean over too far!

Sometimes their little noggins are protected with a helmet, sometimes not.

Helmet wearers

Maybe we Americans are pessimistic and think about the worst case scenario too much. Maybe Germans are more optimistic. Or perhaps they are more careless.

Watching the Berlin Marathon

Smoking

Herman Cain has caught a lot of grief over his strange campaign ad, featuring his chief of staff taking a drag on a cigarette. Europeans used to be notorious for their tobacco-stained teeth and smoky pubs. Today, smoking is banned in restaurants and most bars, except for smoking bars. Nonetheless, young people here seem to smoke a lot, taking cigarette breaks outside or deliberately sitting at outside tables in spite of the cold, in order to smoke. Smoking is definitely still ‘cool’ here.

Thumbs up!

Drinking beer on the metro

While riding the metro, it is not at all unusual to see people drinking a bottle of beer. I’m talking normal-looking, suit-wearing, iPhone using professionals, in addition to the punk rocking, hoodie-wearing, skateboarding youngsta’s. Little shops in the subway stations sell sandwiches, coffee to go, and beer!

Recently, a few 3:00 am alcohol-induced incidents in the metro stations where drunken idiots have tried to bash an innocent bystander’s brains, there has been a call for making it illegal to drink alcohol in the metro system. It’s actually already illegal to both eat and drink on the metro—but the rules are not enforced. Old-time Berliners in my conversation group assure me that drinking on the metro is relatively new to Berlin—in the past 10 years. We shall see how things evolve. Hamburg is reportedly beginning a campaign to strictly enforce the no alcohol laws on their public transit system. We’ll see if Berlin follows suit.

This guy may not be drinking a beer, but he has a cool hairstyle.

Dogs Everywhere

I love dogs and I remembered from being a student in 1974 in Regensburg that the Germans love their dogs, too. Things haven’t changed and here in Berlin dogs are welcome on the public transit system, restaurants, shopping centers, and many stores. Dogs are not allowed in supermarkets, although I’m not sure why.

Relaxing on the S-Bahn

Berliner dogs are mostly very well-behaved. A few weeks ago we enjoyed Schnitzel Night at one of our local restaurants. Of the 10 tables outside, 3 had a dog quietly lying beneath the table, all the while everyone was enjoying their delicious, aromatic schnitzel. Two of the three dogs were medium to largish—not just little dachshunds. I cannot imagine our dog Jack in this setting. Or, yes I can. He would have been growling at the other dogs, jumping on top of the tables and gulping down schnitzel.

Who Goes First?

Berlin is a city of 3.5 million inhabitants. Although many people walk, ride public transit or ride a bike, many cars, taxis and trucks also  navigate their way through the city streets. Major thoroughfares are well-regulated with traditional stoplights for every category of transport—pedestrian, cars, bikes and trams all have their own stoplights. You might have to wait a while, but eventually you will get your turn.

At less busy intersections, where in the US we might see stop signs or at least yield signs, Berlin has no signs or crosswalks. The idea is that everyone slows down while approaching the intersection, and there is a bit of a dance that occurs as cars, bicyclists and pedestrians weave their way through. Somehow it works.

Stay alert!

I’ve read about the shizen-inspired high-traffic intersections in the Netherlands that have been redesigned to be void of traffic controls.  “When you come to such an intersection, you have no choice but to slow down, have some human interaction, and use your intelligence,” says Matthew May in a recent article on Zen and Design Simplicity.  Using your intelligence—I like that.

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Prenzlauer Berg is an energetic, edgy, now becoming gentrified neighborhood in former East Berlin. The sidewalks are filled with young parents pushing baby carriages and entire families going shopping, to school, work, etc, by bicycle. Every block seems to have at least one major renovation project underway. In short, this area is changing as we speak. Our flat, although renovated with the modern conveniences, is decorated in a shabby chic style consistent with the neighborhood. The bathroom is not even three feet wide, but sports a black chandelier light fixture.

Richard easily touches both walls in the bathroom

Pleasant Kitchen

We’re making very good use of this:

When the espresso is ready, it turns itself off. Yes, on Amazon.

A rolling table makes it possible to stay cozy in bed while surfing the web or drinking espresso.

Breakfast in bed, anyone?

The tiny balcony allows for tapas on warmer evenings

Tapas on the Balcony

Sunset from the Balcony

The sound of church bells wafts through the window, notably at 6 am, noon, and 6 pm.

Two blocks away from the apartment, where the Berlin Wall once stood, is now a beautiful green space called Mauer (wall) Park. Not so very long ago, this was a popular area for attempted escapes to the West and residents were tightly controlled by the East German police. Yesterday the park was filled with families relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. A puppeteer entertained a group of attentive children.

Puppetshow at Mauerpark

A giant fleamarket filled with vendors who must have started setting up in the middle of the night offered many interesting treasures

Fleamarket Treasures

Side by side you can see the contrast between the newly renovated and old buildings nearby.

Schabby and Schic

One old building off the beaten path still bore the scars of World War II.

Scars from World War II

Unique boutiques cry out for shoppers’ attention

I'm guessing this isn't the place to shop for underwear

Several major public transit lines, tram, U-bahn and S-bahn, serve the area. Prenzlauer Berg is very high on the list of possible places for us to live in the coming year.

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