Rügen – the Baltic Pearl

April 12th, 2014

The beach at Sellin, looking north

A few words and pictures about our short break on Germany’s biggest island, Rügen, last month. Read the rest of this entry »

Set Controls To Manual

March 28th, 2014

I just did a long overdue update to my WordPress install, and I had to do it manually. This was slightly nerve-wracking – I did once manage to lose all my image uploads when attempting a backup (the shame!) – but it actually went really smoothly and only took a few minutes. So, as I followed the instructions to the letter, it only seems right to include Step 3: Do something nice for yourself, and post about it.
The new admin design is a really pleasant surprise. I also updated the stats plugin, which had stopped working at some point, so now I can see exactly how few viewers I have. Serves me right for not posting anything!

Content is King

March 25th, 2014

I have ignored my blog for too long now. This is partly because I work with content management systems all day long, as well as helping with my daughter’s school website in my spare time. With family commitments and trying to learn the piano thrown in, my focus has been spread a bit thin, and the blog has suffered.
I decided to give the site a makeover, partly because it was long overdue, and partly to give me an incentive to post more. Content is king, and for the site to work, I need to create a bit more.The only obvious change right now is the homepage header, though if you dig around you’ll find the new menu and category pages, which I’m still working on. The homepage will get a new look soon as well.

Radio Free Transmission

January 1st, 2013

Well, it’s about time I added my two Euro cents to the “what it’s like to be an anglophone expat in Berlin” discussion. I’ll avoid the usual references to sauerkraut, not crossing the road against the lights etc.* in favour of something that’s been bugging me for a while now, namely the difficulties posed by something as simple as listening to the radio if you have young children who speak English.
The problem is that radio stations here tend to play unexpurgated versions of English songs – at least the stations we tend to listen to, Radio Eins and Flux FM. This can be a bit awkward when you’re sitting at the breakfast table with your four- and six-year-old daughters and that Lilly Allen tune comes on. You know the one that I mean. This has happened more than once.
You could supposedly make the case that it’s our own fault when it comes to Radio Eins, as their slogan is ‘Nur für Erwachsene’, which means ‘Only for adults’, though this is not meant entirely seriously. Flux have no such excuse though. It’s not as if no-one in Berlin speaks English, after all. What was really annoying, though, was when we heard Cake’s version of ‘I Will Survive’ recently after the girls were in bed, and they played the version with the swearing deleted!
Help is at hand, though. To protect our daughter’s ears from the sort of language they’d hear on the street every day if we were still in London, we now tend to listen to Radio Teddy. Yes, that’s right, a station aimed at kids – or if you believe their marketing, “the whole family”. It is pretty hard going for those over 12, but in its defence the girls love it. I do occasionally listen the World Service on, but I usually get shouted down pretty quickly. Sadly it’s a shadow of its former self now the government have slashed its funding, and I often find myself tuning in only to find they are playing a repeat of an item broadcast earlier the same day. Even Radio Teddy beats that…

*If you like funny lists (let’s face it, who doesn’t?) then here are two for you:
http://venturevillage.eu/how-to-be-german-part-1
http://www.uberlin.co.uk/what-i-know-about-germans/

U.N.V.E.U. = YNWA

November 25th, 2011

Among the many fabulous presents I received for my birthday was a pair of tickets to see 1. FC Union at home to Fortuna Düsseldorf in the German second division. They were a present from Erik, who has been trying to get me to come to a game since we moved to Berlin. We didn’t manage it last year – not because I didn’t want to, but because it proved too difficult to organise (I know, I know…). This season he played it very well – even down to getting permission from Ilka for me to go to the game before he bought the tickets. Back of the net!
Union are the East German Berlin team, Hertha BSC being their West German counterparts. They play at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, a 19,000 capacity stadium on the edge of a forested park called Wuhlheide. The name translates as ‘Stadium near the old forester’s house’, which is rather more poetic than most football stadium names. And this is the way Union would like it to stay. They are currently raising money to develop the West stand, and rather than sell the naming rights for the stadium in order to raise the money (as other clubs have done), they are instead offering club members, fans and sponsors the opportunity to buy shares (a maximum of 10) in the stadium at €500 a pop. Their stated aim in doing this is to preserve the footballing experience and the electric atmosphere at home games, rather than selling out to commercial interests. Having experienced the atmosphere, of which more later, I fully understand and support this aim (though I haven’t put my hand in my pocket just yet).
They’ve come up with a great advertising campaign for the share issue, which has already got them into a spot of bother. Here’s one of the three posters / postcards they’ve produced:

RB postcard
The strapline reads ‘We’re selling our soul – but not to everyone’. This poster is a dig at RB Leipzig, a fourth division team that recently received a large investment from Red Bull. There’s a quote from Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz underneath that says ‘How much does the world cost?’, implying everything has a price. Note that I didn’t say that Leipzig were bought by Red Bull – under German football ownership laws, that’s not allowed. Club members have to own at least 51% of the club, which prevents the kind of takeovers by super-rich oligarchs seen in the English top division in recent years. Red Bull were also not allowed to call the team ‘Red Bull Leipzig’, so they used a cheap trick to get around this – they called the team ‘RasenBallsport Leipzig’ (Racing Ball Sport Leipzig), or ‘RB Leipzig’ for short… and are now threatening to sue Union over this advert. Here are the other two images:

Sepp Blatter postcard
The quote from Blatter is ‘People who sit down are calm’ – three of the stands at Union are are exactly that – standing, just like the majority of stadiums prior to Hillsborough. Union want it kept that way, though the new stand will have seating, as does the one it will replace – just a lot more of it. The rest of the fans are happy to stand. The last poster is my favourite:

Berlusconi poster
The quote from Berlusconi is ‘Big clubs have high costs. They can’t play in provincial stadiums with capacities of 20,000′. Union think otherwise. Each of the quotes are attributed – to a “football” sponsor (Mateschitz), a “football” marketer (Blatter!) and a “football” president (Berlusconi). The quotation marks are there to imply that what these people are involved in isn’t really football – it’s business, and this is what Union are taking a stand against (no pun intended, though English speaking Germans might like that, they love puns over here).
So what about the game, I hear you cry? Well, Fortuna were top of the league coming into the game, while Union were in seventh, so it was going to be a tough match. Walking through the forest to the stadium was certainly a pleasant change to trudging through streets of terraced houses. Here’s the view from where we stood:

On the stand
The smaller stand on the right hand side is the one that’s going to be redeveloped. There was a half-hour delay to the kickoff due to the visiting fans’ bus getting caught up in traffic – it’s a long way to Berlin from Düsseldorf – so I did what any good German fan ought to do: I bought a bratwurst and a beer. Just before kickoff, the fans were tuned up by a guy with a microphone who introduced the team – every player’s name being greeted by the capacity crowd with a chant of ‘Fussball Gott!’ (football God). After this came the club’s anthem, and I started to understand why Union cherish their atmosphere so highly. The whole stadium sang along (OK, maybe not the away fans) – I managed to pick up some of it and joined in. Once the game got underway, Union had the ball in the back of the net after about five minutes, only for it to be ruled offside. Without the benefit of a replay, it’s hard to say if this was a good call – it looked very tight. Union kept up the pressure and actually had the better of the first half, backed all the way by the fans, who made a terrific noise. Despite all this, the score stayed at 0-0 until half time. Just before the start of the second half, the visiting fans let off red and white smoke (those being Fortuna’s colours), which led to another delay while the police moved in – fireworks are banned in Germany, except for New Year’s Eve. Here’s what it looked like:

Fortuna fans let off steam
Fortuna stepped up a gear in the second half, and so too did the Union fans – there were points in the second half where the volume was amazing. Union managed to weather the storm, and even had a great chance in the dying seconds to win the game, only for the opposition keeper to make a great fingertip save over the bar. Final score 0-0, but by no means a boring game, and the standard of football wasn’t too bad either. The real stars though were the Union fans. If the team could play as well as their fans can sing, they’d be playing the first division.
I suppose I ought to explain the title of this blog: U.N.V.E.U. stands for ‘Und niemal vergessen, Eisern Union’, which translates as ‘And never forget, Iron Union’ (Iron Union being the club’s nickname). Union fans use it in a similar way to Liverpool fans using YNWA, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It’s another part of the footballing tradition Union are so keen to preserve, along with the name of their stadium and their fantastic fans, among whom I now number myself. Here’s one last picture of them saluting the team as they came out, as my salute to them. U.N.V.E.U.!

The East stand massive

Some further reading:
Here’s an good blog on German football ownership, with more about Leipzig.
The Economist has an article about the share sale that also mentions the game I was at.
This article in the Guardian goes into the 50+1 rule in more detail.

Why I’m Voting Pirate

September 16th, 2011

There are local elections this weekend in Berlin, and I’m allowed to vote. At the moment, I’m leaning towards the Pirate Party, for two reasons: a) they’re called the Pirate Party and b) because of their advertising. I wouldn’t normally choose to vote for such apparently flippant reasons, so allow me to explain myself.

I still consume most of my news in English via the BBC. We often have a local German station (Radio Eins or Flux FM) on the radio, so I’ll hear news bulletins in German from time to time, but I have to concentrate pretty hard to understand them properly which is hard if the children are making their usual racket. I hardly ever watch the TV these days, and I’ve never really been a newspaper reader. This means my knowledge of German politics isn’t very developed, and tends to be at a national or international rather that a local level. So I haven’t got much to go on when it comes to choosing which party to vote for. To make matters worse most of the parties go by three letter acronyms, which makes it easy to mix them up. I already did that in an earlier draft of this post, confusing the Communists with the Social Democrats which Ilka thankfully corrected for me.

I first became aware it was election time because all of a sudden the streets were full of posters on lamposts. Most of the political advertising I’ve seen is pretty dull – they mostly show a picture of the candidate and the name of the party, and not much else. The Green candidate also has a lot of billboards up showing their candidate in various situations with anodyne slogans like “Renate works” or “Renate cares”. What none of this advertising tells me is what these people stand for. As advertising goes, it fails pretty miserably in this respect. What I do like, though, is that the Pirates have started subverting the lampost placards, by sticking a smaller poster underneath saying “…, or Pirates!”. Here’s an example:

A subverted election poster

The Pirate Party’s own posters do at least have some ideology on them. Though I can’t always understand all of what they’re saying, my German has improved enough that I get the gist of it. I particularly like ‘Privatise Religion Now!”.

Pirate Party poster
I’ve had a look at their website and they seem to be very keen on transparency and freedom of information, with a nod to the environment, education and families. So their advertising has been a lot more effective, at least where I’m concerned – I haven’t bothered to look at the websites of any of the other parties yet. When I first mentioned to Ilka that I might vote Pirate, she said “That’s a waste, they won’t get enough votes”. If we were still in England, that might be a reasonable argument, but as we have proportional representation here it’s a pretty weak one. She later told me that she’d heard on the radio that the polls are showing they have a large enough share of the vote to win a seat. Maybe I’m not the only one who likes their ads.

I did read the election leaflet from the SPD mayoral candidate, in the interests of some sort of balance. Klaus Wowereit has been Berlin’s mayor for the last ten years, and it looks like he’s well set for another term. He trades on this in his leaflet, which isn’t such a bad idea – apart from the fact that Berlin is burdened with a Greek-sized debt, he seems to have done a fairly good job as far as I can tell. He talks about job creation and a minimum wage (Germany doesn’t yet have one, surprisingly), free education from nursery to university (though Ilka pointed out nursery is only free from three years old) and also about holding Berlin together, and keeping it open. I actually struggled to translate this last bit, although I know exactly what he’s talking about, and he rightly describes it as the most important point. It’s a reference to the social problems Berlin is experiencing, which is the only real political topic I’ve heard discussed. Given that gentrification has become an issue on his watch, he can’t really avoid the issue. I’m not sure his administration has really handled it very well though – for example, I think a better solution could have been found and the riot avoided at the Liebig Str. squat. He says he’ll work really hard on this problem every day, but stops short of offering any real solutions.

I won’t be unhappy if Wowereit wins another term, but I don’t think I’ll be voting for him. I’ll be voting Pirate, partly because I like their name, partly because I like their ads, partly because of their ideology, and partly because it somehow feels right that Berlin should have pirates in power.

Oh Dear: I Appear To Be A Yuppie Invader

February 8th, 2011

At least that’s how a friend described me in his email subject line recently when sending me a link to this article on the Guardian website. The loft style apartments mentioned in the article are at the bottom of our street. I must admit that the gentrification debate had largely passed me by, despite Ilka coming across this article in a magazine not long after we arrived, about the next street along from ours. For those of you that don’t speak German, the article is about a photographer who who used to live in the street and who photographed it in the late 80s before the Wall fell, and then again last year. He bemoans the fact that he can only find one of the families he photographed in the 80s, and wishes that his old neighbourhood hadn’t been ‘saved’. He also mentions that the average age of the neighbourhood is late 30s, that this area has the highest density of children in the whole of Germany, and that there are lots of cafes and restaurants. All of which are reasons we wanted to move here. Carla’s nursery even gets a mention.
Guilty as charged?
My ignorance of the issue might well be due to the fact that I don’t consume very much news in German, but it got brought into sharp relief last week. I heard a report on the radio news about a big protest over a squat eviction, and later that day Ilka mentioned something about the people next door to some of our friends being evicted. I didn’t put the two together until I heard another radio report the next day which mentioned the street – Liebigstrasse, not in any way coincidentally where our friends live.
I feel rather uneasy about being a yuppie invader. One of the things I like about Berlin is that it reminds me of London in the 70s when I grew up there. There’s an awful lot of building going on, for example – one of my enduring memories of London as a child is watching the wrecking balls bringing buildings down. There’s also a similar kind of vibe – the punk ethos of London is echoed here, and that’s what is threatened, apparently by people like me who are slowly destroying what they like about the place. Or so some people would have you believe. I don’t feel like a yuppie, and in fact you could say I’m actually a victim of gentrification. One of the other main reasons we moved here is that we can’t afford to live like this in London – at least not in Islington, where I grew up.
I haven’t seen any evidence of the city being made less attractive to incomers, although there has been a bit of bother in town recently over the evictions, as can been seen in this article, which somewhat paradoxically actually paints a slightly brighter picture of the situation. My political sympathies lie with the protesters so I’m hoping for the peaceful co-existence that this article hints at, and that so far I’ve experienced.

* For those of you who do read German, here is another article from the same issue of Geo written by the photographer himself.

German Also Spoken Here

September 27th, 2010

We’ve been here for four months now, and I have to admit that my German hasn’t improved as much as I would have liked. Which isn’t great news, as improving my German was one of the reasons I wanted to move here. On the plus side, I discovered when we arrived that it was better than I had thought. The simple expedience of having to speak German revealed this on the day we moved in to our new flat – I had to talk to the removal men. As we’d hired a German firm to do the move, this meant I had try out my skills. To my surprise, I opened my mouth and out came something distinctly Teutonic. Even more surprisingly, it must have made some kind of sense because rather than a blank look or laughter, I got an answer, and this was when I learned an important lesson. It’s all well and good to be able to form an understandable sentence, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to understand the response. It’s usually me who is left looking blank, as I try desperately to work out what on Earth I’ve just been told. More often than not, I have to ask for it to be repeated, a little more slowly. You only notice how quickly people speak when you can’t understand them. Thankfully I’m usually able to get there in the end, though of course there are occasions where I get the wrong end of the stick.
What has surprised me since we arrived is how much more prevalent English is here now than it was when I first visited Berlin nearly ten years ago. I used to be fond of joking that it’s impossible to go for a walk on Hampstead Heath these days without hearing people speaking German at some point, to illustrate the increasing number of German expats in north London. The reverse is just as true in our local park (Volkspark am Friedrichshain) – I hear people speaking English there almost every time I go, though they aren’t all necessarily British. This is probably a function of the fact that Prenzlauer Berg is very popular with English expats – there is an English child in both Carla and Helene’s nursery groups, for example. This is great for me as I get to speak English to someone other than Ilka or the girls from time to time. There are also some German neighbours in our building who speak English, which is enormously helpful. It’s so much easier to learn from someone who also speaks your own language, who can explain your mistake or translate what they just said that left you baffled. After a visit to the market on Kollwitzplatz one Saturday I formed the opinion that we’d moved to the wrong part of Prenzlauerburg due to the amount of English voices I heard there. However as time has gone on I’ve realised that there are just as many on our side of the tracks – that’s the tram tracks on Greifswalder Strasse.
Then there’s the perception that English is cool – there are a surprising number of English advertising slogans, and I have also seen some TV ads that are entirely in English. What’s really annoying though is the fact that all the TV here is dubbed. Subtitles are great for learning language, but there’s no stomach for them here. The worst of this is the tendency to do a live translation of people being interviewed in English – you get to hear the beginning of the sentence in English, then the translator barges in and starts firing off the translation at the speed of light as s/he tries to keep up with the interview. It’s a lose-lose situation – you can’t hear the English under the translation, and it’s hard to concentrate and keep up with the German being spoken.
The biggest factor in my lack of progress so far is the fact that I work from home. Due to this I don’t have to leave the house very much, where we mostly speak English. I’m having to find reasons to go out, most of which are for shopping, which at this rate means learning German is going to be an expensive business.
It’s been interesting to see the children’s language developing – Helene already spoke pretty good German by the time we arrived here, but Carla was only beginning to speak and her vocabulary was mostly English. Helene is now miles ahead of me, and I have to suffer the ignominy of having my speech corrected by a four your old. Carla is catching up pretty quickly – having gone through a phase of mangling both languages she’s now finding her feet, and I face the daunting prospect of being outstripped by both of my daughters, which was the catalyst for me speaking German in the first place.
The final irony of all this is that there is one person who I have little trouble understanding and conversing with, because she speaks very slowly and clearly. That person is my mother-in-law. I’ll let you write your own punchlines.

Swedish Cultural Hegemony

June 17th, 2010

We went to the temple of semi-disposable Swedish furniture* (AKA IKEA) yesterday. I could write an awful lot about IKEA – in fact I’ve got an idea for a short story set there, and I’ve also got a theory about space and time being distorted inside IKEA, but I’ll try and confine myself.
I’d love to say that, unlike going to IKEA in England, the experience here was one of unbridled joy and happiness, but I can’t. I dread going to IKEA, with good reason. It’s about as far from my idea of a good time as it’s possible to get without actually having someone physically assault you. To make matters worse, we don’t yet have a car. I’ve never been to IKEA without a car. We decided we’d just have the stuff delivered, but on the way from the S-Bahn (thankfully only a five-minute walk away) we saw adverts for Moebel-Taxis – fixed price taxi-vans. Then we got flyered by one of these firms, and when we checked the IKEA delivery prices and found they were higher, it was a done deal, especially as for an extra ten euros you got help carrying the stuff from the driver. We live up four flights of stairs without a lift, and were planning on buying a lot of stuff, so the idea of help dragging the stuff upstairs was very attractive. Can’t remember having seen that in London, though I always had a car…
So we spent the obligatory couple of hours walking round the whole of the upstairs showroom, and managed to agree on a bookshelf. We couldn’t find a bathroom cabinet, though we did find pretty much exactly the kitchen table and benches we wanted, which was a bonus. They weren’t in the catalogue, which I find a bit odd. I can understand the fact that they don’t have all the stuff in the market hall in the catalogue, but you’d think they could put stuff like benches and tables in.
Lunch in the canteen was lunch in the canteen, seemed a little pricier than I remember but filled the gaping hole left by traipsing around. We then realised that we couldn’t pay with a credit card, which is quite common in Germany – most places only take the EC card, which is a bit like an Electron card as far as I can work out. Because we’ve had nightmares getting a bank account set up (that will have to be another post, if not a whole series), we don’t have one of those yet, so it had to be cash. Thankfully, they have a machine there. Fortified by mass cooking, we headed down to the market hall, where we managed to fill a trolley in no time, despite the fact that we were already flagging badly, including finding a bathroom cabinet – for some unaccountable reason these are displayed downstairs. In the end we had to just head straight for the warehouse, in the vain hope we’d make it out in time to get to my nephew’s birthday party. Things went reasonably well at first – we managed to find all the stuff we wanted that was on the left hand side. When we got to the right hand side, though, it was a different matter.
First off, they didn’t have any of the shoe cabinets we wanted – at least in white, which is what we wanted. They had lots in black or crimson, funnily enough. When we asked when they would have more in white, they told us they were discontinued. Ilka nearly cried – we had them in London, but only had room for four, which meant we never really had enough room for all our shoes. Now, we’ve got room for loads, and Ilka had her heart set on covering a wall in them in the same way a friend of ours in London had. I realised they had quite a few on display upstairs, which they clearly didn’t need any more – there’s no point displaying something people can’t buy – so I told Ilka to go and see if she could nab them, while I went to get the rest of the stuff. Cue the next bit of bad news – having agreed on a bookshelf, it turned out to be the only one they didn’t have in stock. So while Ilka tried to negotiate the ex-display shoe cabinets – no easy task, given that she had to find them first** – I started looking at the other bookshelves to find out if they had something like what we wanted in stock. Turns out they had pretty much all of the other bookshelves in stock, and when Ilka came back clutching six ex-display show cabinets and we managed to agree on another bookshelf, it looked like we’d turned the corner.
By now, though, we should have been en route to the party, so we legged it to the obligatory queue at the till, where someone came up to ask me where we’d found the shoe cabinets. Ilka had already been approached by someone else about them on the way downstairs – why are they being discontinued? When the cashier finally finished scanning everything, we found we’d spent nearly 200 euros more than we’d expected. So I had to leg it to the cashpoint again, which I’m sure made us very popular with all the people behind us. In the end, we opted to have two guys to help carry the stuff, as we’d bought so much, so I went back with them and Ilka went to the party without me. The Moebel-Taxi guys were crazy Bulgarians who carried stuff I couldn’t even pick up on on their own up four flights of stairs. Highly recommended.
With apologies to Oscar Wilde, there is only one thing worse than going to buy something at IKEA, and that is going to take something back to IKEA. Which you almost inevitably will, if you go there and buy stuff. Returning stuff at IKEA is like going to the dole office – you take your ticket and wait your turn, feeling institutionalised. Worse still, you feel duty-bound to buy some stuff, as you’ve had to go all the way there anyway. Which is what I’ll be doing next week – we found that one of the folding chairs was broken when we got it home.
I think IKEA is a cunning Swedish plan to take over the world. They’re opening a fourth shop in Berlin this December – when the last one opened, there was a small riot. I’m not joking.
Now, where’s that allen key?

* thanks to Douglas Coupland for ‘semi-disposable Swedish furniture’
** IKEA really does do stuff to the fabric of space and time. You walk round the place, and then decide you want to go back and look at something again. You’re pretty sure you know where it is, so you set off confidently only to end up in the sofa department. Which is fine, as long as you want the sofa department…I’ve taken to adopting a modified form of Douglas Banks’ Zen Navigation, where you follow someone who looks like they know where they’re going (you might not get where you were going, but you always end up where you should be) – I now head for somewhere completely other than where I want to be, most often the sofa department. Like Zen Navigation, you don’t always end up where you were going, but you always find something you want to buy…

My Career As A Political Blogger…

June 14th, 2010

…is over. One of the reasons for setting up this blog in the first place was to comment on politics, in the hope of being invited on to the radio to share my cutting insight into the world of Westminster (see here for more). I’ll happily admit now that I am a miserable failure as a political blogger. During arguably the most interesting general election campaign in living memory, I managed to say practically nothing. This is in no small part due to the fact that I underestimated the amount of work it takes – I couldn’t take the idea of people whose sole claim to fame was blogging seriously at first. To all of those bloggers: sorry!
The more perspicacious among you will have noticed that I haven’t actually posted on any topic for quite a while now. It’s fair to say I got a bit bored with the plastic bag thing, as I’m sure did you – it wasn’t really enough of a challenge. So I’m dropping that too. It filled a gap, but now I’m going to focus on something a lot closer to home: the fact that we’ve just moved to Germany, and what it’s like here for an Englishman. The good news is that so far, it’s pretty good. We’ve been here for two weeks now and we’re getting on pretty well. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, and we still have an awful lot of stuff in boxes, but our new flat is big enough to cope. Ironically I found quite a large number of uses for plastic bags during the move, but I digress…