Life in Berlin as seen by an expat, plus anything else that doesn’t fit anywhere else…

Radio Free Transmission

Tuesday, 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:

German Also Spoken Here

Monday, 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

Thursday, 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…

To Comment Or Not To Comment

Monday, August 10th, 2009

OK, so that’s the hat-trick of Hamlet-related blog titles out of the way. This one is pretty cut and dried: apart from my Russian spammer friends (of whom I seem to have quite a few), the overwhelming consensus is not to comment. I read a rather dense post on someone else’s blog recently which has a few things to say about how to encourage discussion; sadly they are all rather tongue-in-cheek. I’d love to know what you think – answers on a postcard, or you could always leave a comment…

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet?

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

I love Twitter. So, apparantly, does the BBC. Kirsty Wark interviewed Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s co-founders, on Newsnight yesterday as part of a feature on the microblogging site. I thought he was quite impressive, though not all Twitters agree. See what they’re saying here, then watch the interview and decide for yourself.
I was going to call this post “Who’s the twat now, Dave?” in reference to Cameron’s on-air “gaffe”. According to Evan Williams, London is now the city that Tweets the most. Still think it was a good gag, Dave?

To Blog Or Not To Blog…

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

…that is the question. I thought long and hard about my last post – some people think you shouldn’t write about your children (as Julie Myerson discovered) but given that:

  • a) I’m not a broadsheet journalist
  • b) there are only a handful of you reading this (I love you all)
  • c) it is so clearly tongue-in-cheek

it seemed OK. Of course, the fact that Carla is already more popular than I am – her Youtube video has had more views already than all my blog hits put together – had nothing to do with it…

Hello again

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

So here I am in my lovely new home at Thanks again to Edward and Tom for hosting me, much kudos. Now all I need to do is write some stuff…I would also love it if the timestamp started displaying the way I wanted it to. Oddly enough this was a piece of cake on but despite using exactly the same theme and doing ecactly the same edit, it hasn’t worked…

Useless statistics

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

I’m sat in a queue of traffic waiting to get into the recycling centre. They have one of those scrolling matrix signs, and one of the messages is “Islington’s recycling rate is 28%”. 28% of what? What does it mean? I have no way of knowing if a recycling rate of 28% is good or bad. Grrrrr.


Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Fabulous though hosting is, there are a few things I’d like to be able to do on this blog that I can’t at the moment without paying for the privilege, and some that I can’t do at all…so I’m going to move over to some space provided by my sister’s partner – step forward for a bow, Edward, and thanks! Right now, I’m in the process of setting the new space up with Edward’s help, which means if you’re reading this you used the address – in future, you’ll be able to reach this blog at, though if you head over there now you won’t see very much…
The blog isn’t the only thing migating though – it looks like various family members will be leaving these shores in the not too distant future. Watch this space… (please! I need the traffic!!!)


Friday, July 3rd, 2009

As you will no doubt have realised, my life is extremely interesting, which is why you keep coming back to read my posts, right?
OK, I’ll admit it – I was back down to just three views yesterday after the big spike the day before (12 views – whoohoo!) and that was after playing my joker: I finally emailed my Mum and Dad and told them about the blog. So perhaps my musings aren’t as fascinating as I hoped. I think I’ll have to console myself with the thought that I really started this whole exercise for myself, and forget about the vanity aspect.
Anyway, I just finished two mammoth archiving projects: one was scanning all the paper questionnaires we had stored in the office which were taking up a LOT of cupboard space. This has mostly fallen on my trusty lieutenants Vis and Nick, who have scanned thousands of bits of A4. I had to check them all, mind you…
The other project was filing my gmail. I don’t like to throw things away (just ask Ilka…) and that includes email – I religiously file all my work email by project, but my personal mail used to just sit in the inbox. After all, with all that storage space the lovely folks at Google give you, coupled with the search function, why bother? Well, I pimped my Gmail recently after getting bored of the default colours, and discovered labels… and I just couldn’t help myself. So over 2,000 emails have now been given homes.
I really must get out more.