A Night at the Ballet

After a year living in the cultural city of Berlin, I’ve finally been to the ballet. Last night I went to the Deutsche Oper to see a performance of The Sleeping Beauty by the Staatsballett Berlin.

Photo: Bernd Uhlig

I turned up in time for the pre-performance-introduction, offered before most concerts and performances here. I find them particularly helpful before operas, when you realise on entering the building that you forgot to read a quick plot summary before setting off and now face several hours of guesswork (although to be honest, love-betrayal-revenge-death normally covers it). However, often I can’t help feeling like I could be listening to a university seminar presentation. The speaker simply stands up, reassures the audience that there will still be time to buy drinks and food from the bar even if they stay until the end of the talk (a mixture of bribery and not-so-subtle flogging their wares me thinks), reads their speech from a sheet, before thanking the audience for listening and leaving the podium.  What they say is undoubtedly well-researched, but there is no audience interaction or opportunity to ask questions, and one gets the feeling anybody could have written it; there is no personal touch. But this seems in-keeping with the general formality of the music industry here in Germany.

Whatever you may have thought about ballet up until now, please indulge me for a moment. I decided last night that ballet really does provide something that will appeal to most people’s interests. For example:

Music – two and a half hours of wonderful orchestral music by Tchaikovsky
Costumes – incredible works of art – glittery, imaginative, detailed, bedecked with jewels.
Choreography – the fancy footwork was the work of Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato (Nacho being a shortening of Ignacio, which, incidentally, was the name of the chef that invented the famous Tex-Mex dish Nachos when hungry guests turned up after closing time leading him to improvise…)
Drama – dangerous spindles, wicked fairy godmothers, curses, vying suitors, the kiss of life…
Magic – I don’t want to give anything away, but the entrance of wicked fairy godmother Carabosse was impressive to say the least, aided by her Wizard-of-Oz-style creepy monkey sidekicks
Cross-dressing – the wicked fairy godmother is in fact…a man!
Staging/scenery – the set took us from a brilliant ballroom, into the woods, on a gondola, to the peacock-adorned palace.
People watching – the foyer is a fascinating place during the intervals, and the size of the auditorium means there is always lots of action just before the lights go down. I spent quite a while trying to work out whether one particular lady was wearing a hat, or whether it was actually her hair. And if the latter, how much hairspray had she needed to make it stay like that?!
Quiet time – even if it’s no more than an excuse to sit quietly in the dark for a while – one parent recently admitted to me that she actually quite enjoyed taking her children to see Captain Underpants at the cinema for that very reason – when else would she get an hour and a half undisturbed in the middle of the day during school holidays where she could just sit and relax or have a nap?
Wine – much is on offer and there is even more than one interval in which to enjoy it
Languages – there may not have been any speech during the performance itself (save one dancer commanding “Maestro”, which was totally unnecessary in my opinion) but around the building I heard at least German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages non-identified (by me at least).

Convinced yet?

In an attempt to encourage younger audiences, last night was one of the “family performances”. Apart from the fact that I believe children’s tickets were markedly reduced for that performance, I don’t really see what else made it especially child-friendly. It still started at 7.30pm and didn’t finish until about 10.15pm – surely a matinee would have been more suitable? I think there was a special children’s workshop earlier in the day; highly commendable, but surely a further guarantee that the children will not last until the end of the ballet? It felt like a late night for me, let alone a six-year-old. The three children in front of me did very well, but were fast asleep by the second interval (luckily they didn’t snore).

Fazit: I came out smiling. I could have sat through it all again. Go tutu the ballet!

Iana Salenko c_Yan_Revazov-
Photo: Yan Revazov

School Cones

I may not have children of my own, but I thought I could still contribute to the trend of first-day-at-school photos that has taken over Facebook, Instagram etc. over the past week. Schools started again in Berlin this week, and for first-timers, that meant one thing: the Schultüte.

Schultüte literally translates as ‘school paper bag’, but a better description would be ‘school cones’. A paper cone-shaped bag is filled with sweets, toys, crayons, books, and other general goodies, and presented to the child. The idea is to make that first day at school seem not quite so scary.

Originally, named school cones would be taken to school, often by the children’s godparents. When the children arrived at school for their first day, they would find the Schultüten-Baum (school cone tree). If the fruits (or school cones) were big enough to pick, it meant that it was time to go to school for the first time. I guess it’s a less violent alternative to the Mexican piñata tradition.


As is so often the case with these traditions, it has become much more commercial over the years. Whereas the Schultüte used to be handmade in kindergarten or decorated at home, now shops offer a variety of ready-made cones. In 2016, parents in Berlin spent an average of 60 Euros on a school cone! As a result, the gesture simply meant to be a little bit of fun has become a source of stress for families with little spare income, particularly when beginning school also means new shoes, bags (see below), stationary etc.  The initiative Aktion Schultüte raises money so that children whose parents who would not be able to afford these treats do not have to go without. 


I’m not aware of there being so much hype in the UK, but maybe I’m just out of date – any mums, do feel free to correct me! I mean, it’s obviously a big step when your child reaches their first day of school, but I don’t remember seeing shops filled with “First Day at School” cards, decorations, gifts etc. (other than the panoply of shiny school stationary, always prompting a VERY exciting WHSmith trip to choose our new pencil case 🙂 and then the VERY exciting pencil sharpening session that followed).

So, once the Schultüte has been sorted, the next item on the back-to-school list is the school bag.  Simple?  Think again. This too could well have changed by now, but as far as I remember, typical English primary school bags look like this: SChoolbag

Well, the first time I saw two children setting off for school a few years ago in Würzburg, their rucksacks looked at least half the size of the children and I worried for their backs. However, I was quickly reassured by a German that although they look big, these bags have the ergonomic designs of hiking rucksacks, they can be fitted to an individual child’s back, and offer lots of useful space for optimal organisation (of course!) as well as safety features like reflectors. If it’s beginning to sound like military precision, it actually is: the precursor to the Schulranzen was the Tornister, a German military backpack which originated in the 17th century and was made by stretching a canvas or calf leather cover over a rectangular frame.

German Schulranzen

Schulranzen are not cheap – prices start from about 100 Euros. Among the many colours and patterns available, football, animals, Star Wars and Disney are generally popular themes. This year there seems to be a prevalence of unicorns…




Two weekends ago, I finally made it up to Hamburg to see the “new” concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie. The concert hall opened in November 2016, by which time it had already established a controversial reputation for itself. Perhaps me only writing this now just fits in with the rather embarrassing trend that Germany seems to be developing, namely one for overdue constructions. In Berlin, BER airport has become a running joke – due to open in 2012 it failed fire checks at the twelfth hour, and apart from the “ghost trains” which make lonely trips to the airport twice a week to prevent the tracks from getting mouldy (really!) there is still very little happening.

Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city, is situated on the River Elbe, and was a Hanseatic trading port. The Elbphilharmonie is situated in the city’s historic warehouse district, and is part of the HafenCity, an urban development that has transformed former industrial spaces, regenerating the waterfront.

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The Elbphilharmonie has met with lots of criticism; its construction was originally estimated to cost 77 million Euros when the project was proposed in 2005, and was due to be finished in 2010. By the time the foundation stone was laid in 2007, estimated costs were up to about 240 million Euros, yet “Elphie” wasn’t officially completed until 31 October 2016 and at a cost of 789 million Euros, ten times the original estimate!


The Elbphilharmonie was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. The curvy, glassy exterior is topped with a roof that resembles waves, and the whole complex is built on top of an 8-story red-brick warehouse that used to store cocoa. The man behind the sound is Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. He lined the walls and ceiling of the main concert space with a network of 10,000 individually-shaped gypsum-fibre panels, designed to disperse sound. The seats rise steeply around a central stage meaning that no seat is further than 30m from the conductor. Quite different from the traditional rectangular shoebox layout.


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Far from being only a concert hall, alongside the 2,100-seat main auditorium, 572-seat recital hall and 150-seat studio, the complex boasts restaurants, a hotel, luxury apartments, conference rooms, a spa and a 37m high panoramic viewing station.

Part of the visitor experience is reaching the Plaza via the long escalator. I was visiting with a childhood friend, her husband, and their two small children – foiled at step 1. We have a buggy and that, according to stewards, necessitates a lift. I managed to negotiate a compromise – it would be all right to take the pushchair on the escalator if it was folded up. Fine. So we went through all the malarky of getting baby out of buggy and into sling, redistributing all the baggage that buggies are so useful for carrying, and folding up said buggy. Only to then be told that it was too big – a folded buggy would be all right…if it was handbag size. I’m sorry, but what pushchairs fold up small enough to fit into a handbag?! Flustered husband took the lift.

The escalator certainly provided amusement for the two and a half year old, but I’m not sure husband missed out on much. As we reached the top of the escalator, panoramic views of the harbour unfolded in front of us. Floor to ceiling glass panels were so clear that I found myself double checking there was actually glass there, before letting the children run at it with their grubby fingers.

The views were stunning, but the cafe was somewhat underwhelming, and there was certainly a lack of seating – a few tables with bar stools and that seemed to be it.  However, the architecture was certainly impressive; it was just a shame we weren’t able to see inside the actual concert halls, ahead of the season-opening concert that evening. We left using the lift.

Elbphilarmonie inside c Iwan Baan
© Iwan Baan
Selfie in Elphie (just a model – 2011)


I’ll leave you with a photo from the inaugural concert on 11 January 2017, which caused great amusement on social media channels. It features VIP guests Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck enjoying the performance.

Elbphilharmonie Twitter Walter_G__
Thanks to Twitter @Walter_G__

To be fair to them, the concert and speeches did go on for four hours…


For more info: https://www.elbphilharmonie.de/en/elbphilharmonie


Uncle Tom’s Hut

It sounds either like an Enid Blyton title, or a rather seedy establishment that I would prefer to avoid. In fact, it is simply the name of one of the Berlin U-Bahn stations*. It has always intrigued me, and on Tuesday I finally checked it out. The station itself is nothing to write home about (oh, hold on…) but it does boast a rather splendid health food shop with a delicious cake counter – if they’re sold in a health food shop, they must be healthy, right?! Healthy or not, the Apfelkuchen certainly tasted good.

I didn’t really make the hour journey just for a slice of cake, though. Onkel Toms Hütte is within walking distance of Krumme Lanke, one of the lakes on the western outskirts of Berlin. The name refers to its crooked shape.

As I emerged from the forest after having been passed by lots of topless old men on bicycles, presumably on their way for their daily dip, I saw sparkling water ahead and began the eager hunt for a sunny spot to eat my sandwiches. I didn’t turn up until 1pm, so most of the beachy spots were already taken. There were no sun loungers in sight, but you know what the Germans are like 😉 Hence my search for a spot turned into a lap of the lake, which at least allowed me to enjoy the scenery from all sides. Apart from when I passed the FKK section that is, when I tried to keep my eyes fixed firmly ahead (N.B. FKK = Freikörperkultur = free body culture, i.e. nudism).

As I started my second lap, I found a satisfactory place to stop – sunny, not to near the nudes, and with a good view. Having said there were no sun loungers, I did come across one lady who had brought an inflatable beach mattress larger than my own bed – not one I wanted to mess with. I sat and watched the glistening water and the green treetops gently waving in the wind, feeling very content. Other than some stroppy teenage ducks, it was peaceful. I ate my picnic, bathed in the sun, until I couldn’t really put off the inevitable any longer; there is something quite magical about swimming in a lake – so refreshing and liberating. I know that I love it once I’m in, but that doesn’t make getting in any easier! Still, having watched pensioners and a pregnant woman who looked ready to pop all manage it, I really had no excuse.  And it was actually much less painful than I had feared! After a few “lengths”, I walked back to the U-Bahn feeling refreshed and ready for some cake.


*I am aware that there is a novel entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe ad published in 1852, it is an anti-slavery novel set in the USA. I haven’t read this book, which is why, unfortunately, the station name for me seems to draw more connections with “Peeping Tom”, perhaps not in itself irrelevant given the FKK…

Anyway, it turns out that in 1885 a pub was erected near today’s current U-Bahn station. It was demolished in 1979, but the then landlord had erected little cabins in the beer garden in case of bad weather. These came to be known as Tom’s Hütte, or cabins, and as Beecher Stowe’s novel was by then very well-known, the pub soon came to be nicknamed Onkel Toms Hütte.

From the stage

On Sunday I returned to the Philharmonie, but this time as a performer! Interestingly, the Philharmonie seemed much smaller from the stage, but I think it is just because you cannot see all of the seats. It’s a wonderful hall to play in – excellent acoustic. I was performing as part of the Junges Ensemble Berlin Sinfonieorchester

It was a fun programme for a summer afternoon – Maurice Ravel’s ‘La Valse’, Zoltán Kodály’s ‘Dances from Galánta’, Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”‘ and Arturo Márquez’ ‘Danzón’.  The Bernstein wins the prize for the most exotic instruments – cowbells, bongos and a policeman’s whistle play particularly important roles. We certainly had fun, and I think the audience did too.

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As well as it being my debut in the Philharmonie, it was also my debut as official-post-concert-flower-presenter. It’s taken me about 12 years playing in orchestras to achieve this honour, and it is a role that brings with it significant challenges: the worry of tripping over in front of a full house, or leaning to the wrong side when kissing the recipient, mistiming your entrance and finding the soloist has left the stage or not managing to make your way off and back onto the stage through the obstacle course of harps, piano, percussion and music stands. Being in Germany presented me with an additional dilemma; which way up should I carry the flowers?! (for context see this post). Also, the flowers had to be thoroughly dried with a towel before the doormen would let me onto the stage! I think in the end I did ok, but I am still waiting for my performance review.

Unfortunately the after-party boat cruise had to be cancelled due to adverse weather in Berlin, but all wasn’t lost as we found a rather nice pizzeria in Emils Biergarten instead, l’Antica Dogana. I’m already looking forward to the next JEB concert – watch this space!


Junges Ensemble Berlin:  https://www.facebook.com/jebsinfonieorchester/

Emils Biergarten: http://www.wbb-pankow.de/biergarten/


From the orchestra


If you’ve read my previous post about the Bamberg Symphony orchestra, you might remember that their chief conductor is called Jakub Hrůša. I’ve seen him in concert on a couple of occasions in Bamberg. Well, this evening I got to experience him from the orchestra; well, almost.  I decided on a whim to try and get last-minute tickets for a concert at the Berlin Philharmonie – I arrived with only half an hour to spare, and managed to secure a ticket in the front row of the Podium, the section of audience that sits behind the orchestra, for the grand total of 8 EUR -thank you, ClassicCard! (This is a scheme that enables under-30s to get last-minute tickets an hour before a performance for only 8 EUR (concert) or 10 EUR (opera), and you get whichever seats haven’t been sold, often resulting in being allocated one of the best seats in the house!)

The man at the ticket booth automatically offered me a ticket facing the stage, but I specifically asked if I could sit behind the orchestra. If you have never experienced a concert from behind the performers, I would thoroughly recommend it. Not only do you really feel part of the action, but you get a great view of the conductor – his facial expressions, his mouthed comments to the players, his smile or inside joke – and if you’re wondering how much time is left before you can get your interval ice cream (or Brezel, given my location) and you have good eyesight, you can follow the notes.  (There are also much shorter queues for the toilets…)

With only 5 minutes to go, the auditorium was only about 1/3 full, and unfortunately those final 300 seconds didn’t bring many more listeners. This time it was not the Bamberg Symphony playing, but the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (Radio Symphony Orchestra). Having been astonished by the lack of women when I saw the Berlin Philharmonic in concert in November, I tried to count the female members of the RSO. I must have tried about 6 times and never once got the same answer, however, I believe it was between 29 and 34 out of an orchestra of about 100. I kept being distracted by a large fly that kept swooping into view – fairly topical, given I had just seen this excellent BBC clip featuring David Dimbleby vs. The Fly.

Unfortunately I’ve left my notes behind so the rest of this post will follow shortly…


A trip to Norway…..well, almost

Today was a first for me – my first Norwegian church service!  This may seem like a somewhat random thing to do in Berlin, but to put it in context, a Norwegian friend of mine was having her baby baptised. It was an interesting experience; I didn’t understand much of the spoken Norwegian, but combining my knowledge of German and of the Church of England order of service, I didn’t do too badly with the service booklet.  It was interesting to see the connections between German and Norwegian. I’d actually be quite keen to learn a Scandinavian language; it’s just a shame there isn’t much opportunity to speak one, without moving to Scandinavia.

I felt a little like an imposter as the church service segued into a parade, ahead of the Norwegian National Day on May 17th, complete with national anthem and flag waving.  I tagged along anyway and I think I got away with it – no one stopped me at the cake table anyway 😉


Due to the celebratory occasion, there were several fine examples of the Norwegian traditional dress, otherwise known as the Bunad.  This isn’t unlike the German dirndl and lederhosen, with women wearing beautifully embroidered long dresses and shawls, and men wearing knee-length trousers, long socks, jackets and waistcoats.  My pew neighbour explained that there are around 20 different traditional bunad patterns, and the one you wear depends on where your family is from.

Norwegians have bunads, Bavarians (and English tourists on stag-dos in Berlin, as I’ve found out) have Lederhosen, Scots have kilts, the Welsh have wonderful hats; why don’t the English have a national dress?  It could solve so many problems – away the embarrassment of turning up in the same dress as another guest – that’s the point; gone the trouble of deciding which dress to wear; no more trying to remember at which wedding you last wore a particular dress / whether the people present will have already seen you in this outfit.  And they look so elegant.

After some delicious cake, I left Norway behind and headed into the Berlin kiez of Schöneberg. A lovely stroll took me through parks, past picnickers (some complete with folding tables and chairs – how efficient!), via sunny benches, and then headlong into a street party. I jostled my way through the stalls along with hundreds of others, sampling the various jams, cheeses, and cordials (I declined the inevitable sausages), and then sought refuge from the crowds in a quiet Mediterranean cafe.

Walking through the streets I was again struck by the bizarre mix of architecture to be found in Berlin – ornate facades side by side with grey, uninspiring blocks of flats.  Also, the prevalence of graffiti, even in smart residential areas, and the poor state of repair of many buildings.

Puzzle of the day: today was Muttertag (Mothers’ Day) in Germany. The increase in floral advertising and the subsequent response of many Berlin citizens over the past week has made me revisit a question that has been puzzling me for a while – why do Germans carry bunches of flowers upside down?

As far as I am aware, when one buys flowers in the UK one then proceeds to carry them home as one would if presenting them to the recipient, i.e. stalks downwards, proudly displaying the wonderful colours of the petals.  Yet here, bunches of flowers are wrapped up and then always carried heads downwards, almost condescendingly. I’m sure it really doesn’t matter, but it is something which has stood out to me nonetheless.

[A quick Google consultation suggests that it could be so that the water stays in the blooms, however, surely one could argue that the petals / flower heads are also more likely to fall off…?]

Na ja, another thing to add to the “curious German habits” list.

A rather appropriate station at which to change trains today, oder?

Easter eggs and witches’ hats

I’m confused. We seem to have gone from Easter to Halloween in the space of two weeks.  Brightly painted hard-boiled eggs have been replaced by witches’ hats; bunnies by bats.

There is a kindergarten / family centre behind my flat (where I have, incidentally, never seen any children). On Sunday evening the yard was full of mini witches dancing on a stage adorned with paper bats to top quality German tunes (!) whilst parents looked on from the bonfire; various stalls catered for face painting, broomstick making and bratwurst (of course!) I thought if I went into the yard I would stand out, being neither under the age of 10, nor in the company of someone under the age of 10, nor showing even any sign of Halloween regalia. Instead I went on my way and consulted Google on my return.

Turns out that the 30th April is Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night. This is the eve of the feast day of St. Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess who was sent to Germany to set up churches. In Germany, it is also called Hexennacht, or “witches’ night”, as according to German folklore it is the night that witches reputably meet on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz mountains in central Germany.

That made the witches and bats make slightly more sense. Although dancing around bonfires in May in broad daylight and shining sun? I’m not yet convinced.

Two weeks ago, the Stimmung was quite different.  Supermarkets were full of egg-painting kits (this seems to be a traditional Easter Sunday family activity and can get quite competitive, judging from the tales of fellow choir members) as well as wicker baskets complete with yellow straw.  Forget shelf upon shelf of brightly-packaged and overpriced Cadburys and Nestle Easter Eggs – here it is all elegant Lindt bunnies and small packets of mini, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs.

Living in a foreign country and speaking a different language often makes you question things that you take for granted when at home; for example, why we choose to give things certain names. Chatting with some members of the congregation after church one Sunday, it became clear that many of them didn’t know why particular days in the lead up to Easter had certain names.

In Great Britain, Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter and commemorates the Last Supper, when Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples, which Christians consider the institution of Holy Eucharist or Communion. Maundy Thursday gets its name from the Latin word mandatum, which means “commandment”. It refers to Jesus’ commandment to the disciples the night before he died to “Love one another as I have loved you.”  The German equivalent, Gründonnerstag, or Green Thursday, derives from an old German word meaning to wail, to mourn.

Duden, Germany’s OED equivalent, says the origin of the word is unclear, but possibly comes from the fact that one used to eat green vegetables on that day…..


Good Friday, which always seems like a somewhat incongruous name, is called Karfreitag in Germany.  Kar- comes from an old German word meaning grief or pain.  For those of you wondering: Christians do not think that the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified was a “good” day. It is thought that “good” here is meant in the sense of “holy”, so Holy Friday. Other views are that it comes from “God’s Friday”.


So, there’s some Easter trivia for you.  I would wish you a Happy Easter, or at least say that I hope you had a lovely time over Easter, but I was reprimanded at work for wishing a journalist Happy Easter on Easter Tuesday – “once it’s over, it’s over”.  Still, celebrating Halloween in the sun still seems a little bizarre.


Six months in Berlin; six things I’ve learnt

1. All Berliners wear black coats.  Occasionally I’ve spotted a brown or grey coat thrown in, and I did think I saw a deep red one once, but I think it was probably just the light. I am a fan of colour. Not in a crazy way; I just think it brightens up the day. When I arrived in Berlin at the end of September I was wearing my bright purple coat.  When it got to about November I moved into my slightly warmer bright blue coat with a rather jazzy lining.  Waiting on train or U-Bahn platforms, I did feel rather conspicuous among the sea of black, but I pretended not to notice the (disapproving or just bemused?) stares. I thought they didn’t bother me.  However, at the beginning of February something odd happened, something out of character: on an impulse I bought a long black coat.  I know.  Perhaps it was the effect of too much time among Germans. Perhaps it was the influence of my mother, who was staying at the time and has a penchant for wearing coats resembling duvets. Perhaps it was simply brain freeze, given it felt about -20 degrees on the day in question. Who knows?  But I reluctantly have to admit that I am secretly rather glad I did. Berlin winters are hard. And long.

2. Germans stare.  A lot.  It’s normal to look up at someone when they sit down opposite you on the bus, but that embarrassed, quickly-look-away reaction that British people have when said passenger realises you are looking is not to be found here.  Sometimes I’ve looked up and entered into the staring competition, but I never do very well; it just feels too uncomfortable.  Children do it too, which is almost more unnerving – they obviously haven’t been taught “it’s rude to stare”.

staring on tube

3. Rush hour is easy.  Give me Alexanderplatz at 6pm over Tottenham Court Road any day.  Berliners often lament about how busy their public transport system is, but if you’ve ever experienced Victoria Station on a strike day, or stood under somebody’s armpit on the Circle Line, or had to watch three Tubes drive past before it’s worth even considering trying to squeeze yourself in, then it’s hard to drum up much sympathy.  I do admit that the below photo was not taken on Berlin’s busiest stretch of the public transport network, but this is a fairly full carriage on my typical “rush hour” train home:

Rush hour

4. In winter, children wear snowsuits, regardless of whether or not there is snow.  I’m still not really sure why. There must be some really logical explanation (we are talking Germans after all), but I am yet to work it out. Surely it must be a pain when you’re having to constantly change nappies or take them to the toilet?  I’ll admit that it does look really cute when you walk along the street and see a rainbow of tightly packed-up children waddling about as best as they are able in their super insulation suits,  (now that I think about it, children can dress as brightly as they like; the general rule seems to be ‘the brighter, the better’ – I wonder when one has to make the transition into the world of black….) but it seems a bit over the top. I’ve witnessed brightly coloured bundles on the U-Bahn identifiable as a mini-human only by the tiny bright pink face sticking out that looks like it would do anything to be wearing about three layers less.  Maybe by next winter I’ll have worked this one out.


5. Supermarkets don’t do discounts. I always found it extremely satisfying if I was passing a Tescos just before closing time to be able to grab a couple of “expiring today” products for under a pound.  Even more satisfying if it happened to be an M&S.  Food items here have a price. And unless it is the deal of the week, in which case it may have a few cents knocked off, it is always that price. Goodbye to late-night “let’s quickly pop in and have a look just in case ” food wins.


6.  Berlin doesn’t have a city centre. Well obviously it does geographically, but its geographical centre doesn’t really mean anything. The phrase “going into town” doesn’t really work. Berlin is all about the “Kiez”.  Every Berliner lives in a Kiez (there are 23 in Berlin), every Kiez has a different culture and atmosphere, and every Berliner believes that their Kiez is the best.  “Kiez” can be translated as neighbourhood, but use it outside of Berlin and you will get funny looks.


Tip: from a visitor’s point of view, Mitte is probably the most “central” area, as this is where most of Berlin’s famous Tourist landmarks are – Checkpoint Charlie, Museum Island, Berlin Cathedral, Brandenburg Gate, to name but a few.  However, you’re unlikely to find Berliners hanging out here in their spare time




Art in Berlin

There are between 400 and 600 museums and art galleries in Berlin. These range from large, state-run National Gallery or Natural History Museum equivalents, to small private collections.  I decided to invest in a Museums Card, which for €50 allows me unlimited access to the permanent exhibitions in all state-run museums and art galleries in Berlin for a year. Given that entry to some of popular ones, like the Alte Nationalgalerie or the Neues Museum costs €10 or more a time, I thought that was a pretty good deal.  Also, what I liked about all the free museums and galleries in London was that you didn’t feel you had to spend all day there to get the most out of your ticket – you could just pop in and visit one floor, or one exhibition if you wanted to.  As much as I love visiting museums and galleries, I can only cope with so much in one day.

Last weekend I took advantage of a colleague from the London office being over and went with her to the Hamburger Bahnhof.  No, this is not a train station in Hamburg (sorry for those of you who were feeling proud of your German translation abilities) but rather a huge contemporary art gallery. It gets its name from the fact that it used to be the rail station for trains running between Berlin and the hanseatic city of Hamburg. Today it houses works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Roy Lichtenstein, and many other major figures in art since the 1960s.

My colleague and I chose to participate in one of the installations – “The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3” by Adrian Piper aims to explore how trust is formed and the role of trust in society: gallery visitors can sign a contract, voluntarily committing to align their future deeds with ethical principles like honesty and reliability. At the end of the exhibition, all of the data will be collected into a registry, which will be sent to all participants, and will supposedly represent a community of people who are likely to be trustworthy in the future.  So, who knows who might get in touch with me in a few months time?!

“Moving is in every direction” was the title of the major temporary exhibition, and it traced the history of installation art from the 1960s until today, focusing on narrative structures, through a wide variety of large walk-in “environments” and video and sound installations.  I felt very British as we joined a queue without any real idea of what we were queuing for; one by one, the people ahead of us went up a short flight of stairs, went through a door, and then….well that would spoil it!  Here is a taste of some of the other installations:

A few weeks ago I went to a very different gallery, one which I would probably never have come across had it not been suggested by my university friend Luba, who is very clued up on contemporary art and happened to be over in Berlin for an Artificial Intelligence conference (yes, modern language degrees really can lead to anything…)  Hidden behind a rather inconspicuous front door in between a wine shop and a restaurant near Potsdamer Platz  was one of the smallest lifts I have ever been in, which would supposedly take us to the Daimler Contemporary art gallery. As the lift doors opened,  I had the impression that we had in fact just arrived at Gringotts Bank (Harry Potter reference, for those of you who are none the wiser…) – see photo.


The title of the current exhibition will give you an idea as to the weird and wonderful things that can be found there: “On the Subject of the Ready-Made or Using a Rembrandt as an Ironing Board”. Welsh conceptual Artist Bethan Huws had curated an exhibition featuring about 120 artworks from the Daimler Art Collection, elaborating on Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the “ready-made”. I’m still not sure I completely understood the concept, despite the surely-far-too-fancy-to-be-free exhibition guide, but it made for interesting viewing. I am not going to try and impart any impressive sounding commentary on the significance of particular exhibits; instead, I will just share a few photos:

That’s enough art for one day. Now I’m going to watch Call the Midwife!