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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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.