Making the most of a new life

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Berlin #4 – Language

One of the things I have enjoyed about coming to Berlin/ Germany over the years is that I have gradually picked up some language skills. This would probably surprise my old teachers since I was pretty awful at languages when I was at school. In fact I got a pretty miserable fail in French, and the only thing I remember from a whole year of German lessons was how to ask where the ‘Tram Stop’ is, and that’s only because I loved it that ‘Strassenbahnhaltestelle’ was a pretty long word for ‘Tram Stop’.

So while I never really got the hang of how to learn a language at school I guess that it is a bit different when you are immersed in it, and need to speak/ understand it on a daily basis; and as not all of Karen’s family and friends speak English it is important that I learn how to communicate with them.

Over the years I have taken a couple of courses (which generally start with how to book a hotel room, the very thing I don’t normally need to do in Germany) most of my language acquisition has been by trial and error (mixing up the words for ‘legs’ and ‘sanitary towels’ being a particularly embarrassing example of ‘error’), and this time I have been especially pleased that I was able to go through the whole process of getting new glasses, including the eye test, entirely in German.

One of the things that we were very clear about when we had children was that they grow up bilingual, and Karen is very strict with Jake about him talking in German with her. While this meant that Jake was a bit slower in both languages to start with, he suddenly started to fly with both when he was about three, and I have been amazed on this visit especially about how he has settled into German life almost as a native speaker. He does occasionally substitute the odd English word when he is talking, but his confidence in speaking and understanding both English and German, and his ability to switch between the two, is very impressive. It has meant that he has been able to make friends over here and understands situations very quickly. I’m sure that Sam will be the same as he already understands a lot and has both English and German words in his limited vocabulary.

Jake’s ability to pick up two languages so easily really shows me just how much capacity children have to learn new things, and how are motivated they are to do so; if for no other reason than because it helps them to make sense of the world around them. Similarly it tells me how much we need to promote and encourage that, something I’ve touched on before when talking about our problems (now resolved) in getting Jake into a school after we’ve moved house.

So as Karen and I fly back to Britain shortly to move house it is comforting to know that, as we leave the boys with family in Berlin for a few days, they will not feel like strangers in a foreign country. Rather they will be in a place where they feel at home and can communicate well with their those around them. If that was the only reason for them to learn two languages it would be well worth it.

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Berlin #3 – Spaces and places

One of the things that has struck me about Berlin over the years that I have been coming here is that, while it has changed with the times like any other city, it has also changed in a way that I can imagine is quite unique.

I always find it interesting to follow the route of the wall, especially in the centre of the city (where there is now a path two cobblestones wide marking where the wall used to be). I find it quite amazing to think that, for instance, around Potsdamer Platz, where not that long ago you risked death for just being there, now there is a quarter of offices, apartments, cinemas, shops and restaurants.

Sign at the Gleinicke Bridge, translation “Germany and Europe were split here until 6pm on 18th November 1989.

Similarly the Glienicker Bridge, once effectively a neutral zone between the US and Soviet sectors of Berlin, looks like any other river crossing point now. During the Cold War it was used as a place for prisoner swaps between the two sides. It was known as ‘The Bridge of Spies’.

The bridge in August 2012

Berlin is littered with these areas which were once forbidden but have now, in one way or another, been opened up. The latest of these is a place that also played a significant part in the Cold War, but was not part of the physical border between East and West Berlin. Tempelhof Airport was the scene of the Berlin Airlift, when over 200,000 flights were made in and out of the Airport to relieve the effective siege that West Berlin had been placed under in 1948-9. Without this Berlin, and perhaps Europe, would have been a very different place.

The old terminal building at Templehof Airport, once the largest building in Europe

I have a bit of an ambiguous relationship with Tempelhof since Karen used to live on the flightpath, she was on the fourth floor in an area where the planes used to come in so low that you could see the pilots’ faces: there was no need for an alarm clock!

Runway at Templehof

Tempelhof ceased to be an airport in 2008 and the city authorities have been left with a huge tract of land in the middle of the city, and to their credit have opened it up to the public. What was once an area of high security is now enjoyed free of charge by locals and tourists alike. It’s a vast area and people come to exercise, meet, have parties, fly kites and generally enjoy this great open space. Karen and I took the boys this week, and Jake in particular had a great time going up and down the runways in a pedal go cart that we hired.

Coming to Berlin over the last 20 years really has been a lesson in change for me. It is in many ways obvious and easy to draw parallels, but these don’t become any less valid for all that. It tells me that just because something seems to be accepted and stable does not mean that it should last forever, and that while change can be unsettling it can be positive and empowering.

I imagine that few who saw the Wall, gun turrets, guard dogs and barbed wire around Potsdamer Platz at the end of the 1980s would have imagined that they could have a meal and watch a film there less than ten years later, and I certainly didn’t expect to have a fun afternoon on Tempelhof Airfield a couple of years ago.

We are constantly occupying new spaces and new places in our daily lives, and I find this especially so with young children who are changing and developing all the time. When Jake was born I had no clue what life would be like as a parent. It has been an often hard and disorienting experience and no doubt will continue to be in the future as our lives change. Sam, for instance is learning new words and can reach more things every day, increasing the potential for mischief exponentially. And by the very dint of having children it takes us to places where previously we wouldn’t have gone: playgrounds, soft play centres etc… Our impending house move will also take us into new places, especially through Jake starting school, something I find both exciting and scary.

So while we are unlikely to go through the unbelievable change that Berlin has experienced in the last century our lives do change, and I think they would soon get boring if they didn’t. When all is said and done I think that we can enjoy living in our own changing spaces and places and what was previously outside our comfort zone can soon be encompassed by it.

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Berlin #2 – Remembrance

We took the boys to one of my favourite places in Berlin this week, the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park.

Overview of the site

The boys had a great time running and climbing around and I got the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the place, take some photos and read the information boards, which had been put up since my last visit.

Column at the entrance

While I don’t like the war memorial for any political reasons, I find it a fascinating place to visit since it was built during the raw times after the end of the Second World War in a city that was being still being fought over, albeit politically. I like it because of its absolute scale (it was for many years the largest Soviet war memorial) because of it’s dramatic effect, because of the amazing iconography, and because it now represents something that was once so powerful and it now something that has largely been confined to history.

Obelisk Depicting Struggle

I like it too because, as well as the political statements proclaiming the glorious Soviet era, there are acknowledgements of the suffering that took place during that terrible conflict, and the central focus of a victorious soldiers rescuing a small child while simultaneously crushing a swastika under his huge boot. However, beyond this is the fact that around two thousand soldiers are buried here, and it is a reminder of the awful cost the war incurs. So as well as being a place where one can be awestruck, it is also a place of reflection and a reminder that all sides suffer.

The centrepiece of the memorial

Seeing the boys play there also reminds me that we are lucky to live in a time where for us, in Europe, real conflict is rare and we have more modest worries than those of 60-70 years ago. It reminds me that we owe it to our children to ensure that they don’t have to go through what our grandparents did. In this way it also reminded me how much becoming a parent changes the way we look at things.

In the past I perhaps took a more carefree attitude towards life because there was just me. Then Karen came along, and then the boys and I now think much more about the future, about the boys future in particular. I wonder what they are going to be and how they are going to make their way in their lives, and how I will help (or hinder) this. It struck me that as well as those who fell and are buried in Treptower Park, there are those who survived but saw their lives interrupted and had to endure terrible conditions. Many lost a significant part of their growing up, which in itself I find tragic.

This then is why I find the Soviet War Memorial so inspiring, not because it makes me pine for an era gone by, but because it does it’s job of helping me to remember, but helping me to reflect on the things that important to me too. That as a father I have a great responsibility both for and to the boys that they will never have to experience what our grandparents and the generations before them did.

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Reflections on the Olympics

I have just got back from London after a wonderful day down at the Olympics. The city seemed somehow transformed for the games and the atmosphere in Central London and around the venues was amazing; and I’m very glad that I made the effort to go.

Writing this on the day of the closing ceremony I wanted to reflect on what seems to have been a very special couple of weeks, not only for London but the whole country. When the games were first announced on 6th July 2005 there was a great deal of excitement, yet this was cruelly cut short by the bombs that went off in London the following day. Subsequently the build up to the games seemed to be dominated by negative stories about lack of delivery, lack of legacy and overspending.

As such I must admit that I didn’t really get excited about the Olympics again until I went to watch the torch relay in Bradford. It was only then that it began to dawn on me that the people behind the games actually knew what they were doing and that what was being planned was going to be something special.

This was confirmed for me at the Opening Ceremony which began a process that has continued throughout these games by helping us to update how we as Britons see ourselves. The transformation of the Olympic Stadium from a rural idyll into an industrial landscape told me that we are no longer ostensibly a country of warm beer and cricket on the village green (that still happens, but not for the majority of us); and that we need to catch up with the change that it happening around us. It also told me that we have a lot to be proud of in terms of our history and culture, and that this doesn’t have to rely on looking back to the days of Empire as some sort of golden age either.

Then came the games themselves, and I was rather surprised by what came next. I really got into them! I found myself watching all sorts of sports that I had not previously watched: judo, rowing, diving and gymnastics to name but a few. Of course, I watched most of these because there was British interest, but what I found most compelling were the athletes’ biographies. For the most part they were not well paid professionals who were making a good living from their sport, but extremely dedicated people from all sorts of different backgrounds who have often put four years of their lives into performing at the games. People who have often been through hardship, and sometimes personal tragedy, on the way. Indeed, I’ve regularly found myself in tears watching people achieve their dreams, and how much it means to them.

What has also amazed me is how much the Olympics have affected the country more generally. Of course it is too soon to say whether the games will provide a lasting legacy, but the potential is certainly there. While there have been some fantastic performances by the athletes, the games would not have been as successful as they have been without the crowds at the venues, and the volunteers who have helped make the Olympics so special. I was struck in London yesterday by the huge amount of goodwill that people have invested into the games, and how much this has paid dividends in making London a hugely friendly and welcoming place. There seemed to be a volunteer on every street corner, someone who was only too happy to offer help and engage with people who were going off to support their team.

I have tried to think of a single word that might encapsulate what I am trying to say here, and the nearest I can get is ‘positivity’. This was the atmosphere around London yesterday. The feeling that people were happy to be there. For once the dominant reporting in the media was positive as the good news stories poured out of the Olympic venues. But also it seemed like there was a takeover by those who live out of the limelight. It was not the ‘greedy bankers’, ‘benefit scroungers’, and rioters that came to our attention. It was those who are less newsworthy in their daily lives, the vast majority who really make Britain what it is, who are for the most part tolerant, helpful and selfless (certainly on the evidence of the last couple of weeks).

Through all this I feel that the Olympics have helped me reconnect with being British, and being proud to be so. I think that this is because they have provided us with this opportunity to rediscover this pride for ourselves, not in any jingoistic sort of way but in a positive way that plays to our strengths. That we can be a tolerant and multicultural nation that has the capacity to excel, not only at sport but in putting on a huge event like the Olympics. I have heard it said on a few occasions over the last couple of weeks that the success of the games can help halt a decline that Britain feels it has undergone over the last 60 years or so. I think it can because it has provided new foundations on which we can build.

The organisers, then, deserve an enormous amount of credit for enabling this to happen and for overseeing games that, despite the amount of corporate sponsorship required to be made them less costly, have been hugely enjoyable for the vast majority of people (and credit should also go to the BBC for making them so accessible). It has been a great ride over the last couple of weeks and I cannot speak highly enough of those whose vision has been so successfully realised.

In short, then, I have been greatly inspired by the London 2012 Olympics in ways that I never imagined I would be; and I guess that it is now up to me to turn that inspiration into something real. This blog is about change and I certainly think I’ve witnessed a change in myself and in what it means to me to be British. Only time will tell whether the games will have a lasting positive legacy for the boys’ generation and beyond that matches the atmosphere that has been created over the last few weeks, I certainly hope that this will happen and I for one would like to have a go.

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Berlin #1 – Walking through history

Since I’m now on holiday I’ve decided to take the blog on a little diversion over the next couple of weeks. We flew to Berlin yesterday, a city which I love and am quite familiar with. I have been coming to Berlin on a regular basis since 1992, since Karen is from here and continues to have family here. In fact I’ve worked out that I’ve spent over two years of my life in Berlin even though I’ve never been here more than four weeks at a time. So for me Berlin is different enough to feel as if I’m away on holiday, but familiar enough to feel quite at home here. I can orient myself well, and don’t find the public transport system (too) confusing; but as a city I find it endlessly fascinating and am always finding new things here that interest me

Berlin is also very interesting for anyone who is thinking about change since it has been central to many of the changes that have happened in Europe, if not globally. In fact I have heard it said that to understand the history of Berlin over the last few hundred years, is to understand the history of Europe. It has also been said that Berlin is always aspiring to be something but never quite makes it. Whether that is the case is arguable, but these two comments together show the history and dynamism of the place.

This was underlined for me when I took Sam out for a walk in his pram this morning, not around the many great buildings and other tourist destinations, but out on a shopping trip in the Schöneberg area of the city. There were two things that immediately reminded me of two of the most significant events of the twentieth century in which Berlin played a central role: the lead up to the Second World War and the Cold War

Firstly, scattered around the area of Schöneberg where we are staying are signs such as these:

One of 80 memorials to Jewish life and culture in Schoeneburg

There are 80 signs in total and they reflect and remind us of the life and culture of the significant Jewish population of the area before the introduction of 80 anti-Jewish laws, beginning in 1933; with a summary of one of the laws on the reverse of each sign. How different this area must have been before then, and what turbulence it must have been through over the next 15-20 years. It seems really unbelievable walking round the sunny and tranquil streets on this summer’s morning.

Secondly, we walked past Rathaus Schöneberg, the then political centre of West Berlin, in front of which President Kennedy made his famous “ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, one of the key moments of the Cold War.

Rathaus Schoeneburg

It is one of the many symbols of the Cold War in Berlin, from both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’, and a time when we really did think, with the proliferation of nuclear arms on both sides, that the world might end at any time through nuclear war. Today the Rathaus has reverted to a local town hall and looks relatively unassuming as it sits on the edge of the Schöneberger Volks (People’s) Park.

Rathaus Schöneburg from Volkspark

On our walk around this locality today it struck me that it can be quite easy to forget the significance of the places that are familiar to us in our daily lives. Of course, not all of us live in places of such globally historical significance, but they are important to us and our lives. Berlin is very important to me for my own historical reasons too, I’m looking forward to my holiday here and hopefully sharing more of it in this blog.

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To nursery and beyond

Today marks another of what seems to be many big changes in family life at the moment, because today is Jake and Sam’s last day at their nursery. For Sam this is because we are moving house, so he will start at a new nursery when we move. But for Jake this is his last ever day at nursery before going to ‘big school’ in September.

It was difficult to judge how Jake was feeling about it this morning. He seemed excited about the fact of his last day, and he really enjoyed making a thank you card with Karen yesterday. But he also seemed a bit sad too. We had already noticed a change in him over the last couple of weeks as many of his friends left after their ‘graduation’, so for him things were already changing. On the other hand he is also excited about going to see his Grandparents next week, then moving house, then starting big school. It’s a lot for him to take in.

Jake started at his nursery when he was about nine months old and, apart from a few wobbles, has thoroughly enjoyed his time there. He has made friends, learned lots of new things, and got on very well with his teachers. For me it’s now difficult to imagine what it was like to first take him into the baby room, but when I try to, it fills me with so much amazement as to how much he has grown physically, intellectually and emotionally over that time. How he has, as he moved through the classes, gone from being a baby to become a toddler, and then a boy. That he has taken most of this in his stride, too, is equally amazing.

However, bearing in mind how much more change is coming up in the next couple of months, means that we have to take a lot of care in how we present it, and how we go through it as a family. I think we’ve done o.k. so far because Jake seems to be up for what’s ahead, so we need to make sure that this doesn’t lead to disappointment.

Managing expectations is something that I have long been familiar with in a work setting, but I also find that it is also something that is relevant in a family setting too. It’s easy to create some sort of great future utopia for our children, but it also needs to be realistic: something that we can deliver. I find that one of the worst feelings is when the boys are disappointed, they can’t hide it at that age which is good but hard to deal with.

So as Jake and Sam have their last days in Schoolroom and Toddlers respectively today it will be important to help them make their transition into the next phases of their lives by being positive but truthful about what lies ahead. But if we can offer them the background security and confidence in our home and family life let’s hope they can really fly to the next challenge.

As Buzz Lightyear (might) say: To nursery and beyond!