Guest blogger Claudia ‘Deutsch lernen’ and Mary Poppins: An Ode to Berlin Expat Life

On the last warm day of summer we raced to Heiliger See and floated for hours in the cool, murky waters, trying never to stare at the many nudists.
On the last warm day of summer we raced to Heiliger See and floated for hours in the cool, murky waters, trying never to stare at the many nudists. | © Claudia Gillies

It’s 6pm on a Thursday and I’m hopping mad. I’ve just been ‘controlled’. I’ve been fined for taking the U-Bahn without a ticket (allegedly). I’m indignant because I had a ticket but couldn’t access it. My lengthy protest, delivered in level A2-B1 Deutsch, falls on unsympathetic ears.

It’s knock-off time in the big city. “Germans and their rules” might be an apt throwdown here. When I phone a German friend to complain, “Welcome to Berlin, baby” is the sum of his response. “We’ve all been there” he says, which doesn’t make it less annoying. Revenue raising, I mutter, it’s the same everywhere.

I’ve been here less than one year. I didn’t know anyone before I moved. I’d thought that would work best for me, and it has. I read widely about Berlin and Germans, but then mostly ignored the warnings. I just prepared as much as I could and then leapt, and I’ve been making it up ever since. It was an abrupt about-face, and not much about life now is even similar. Which makes it tricky to pinpoint exactly what it is about Berlin that makes me so happy. 

  • Görli (Görlitzer Park) is a popular spot for catching the last rays of sunshine, and for certain entrepreneurial pursuits. The 'Polizei' like to make their presence known. © Claudia Gillies
    Görli (Görlitzer Park) is a popular spot for catching the last rays of sunshine, and for certain entrepreneurial pursuits. The 'Polizei' like to make their presence known.
  • Impromptu beers at Görli. It's a Friday evening after all. © Claudia Gillies
    Impromptu beers at Görli. It's a Friday evening after all.
  • The Görlitzer Tunnel, nicknamed 'Harnröhre' meaning urethra, linked the neighbourhoods north and south of Görli. © Claudia Gillies
    The Görlitzer Tunnel, nicknamed 'Harnröhre' meaning urethra, linked the neighbourhoods north and south of Görli.
  • With winter fast approaching we flock to the bowl in Görli to soak up what sun we can. © Claudia Gillies
    With winter fast approaching we flock to the bowl in Görli to soak up what sun we can.
And I am THIS happy. Can’t-quite-get-over-my-luck happy. Because, regardless of transportation and teething issues, I’ve been loving this city since I (crash-) landed.

Measuring progress in inches

My Berlin is a warm tale of impromptu evenings with the best of friends. Of talking projects and dreams with like-minded strangers. Of hustling, and sometimes doubting. Of self-motivated ‘Deutsch lernen’ and measuring progress in inches, not miles. A tale of dancing without reservation, honest conversations, and long, life-giving hugs. Of loving, in its simplest forms, and so much laughter. Of sleep loss. A lack of judgment, and an abundance of as-you-are acceptance and support. All made possible with bicycles, accompanied by music, and tempered with a large dose of the unpredictable.
 
  • All-day bike adventures. © Claudia Gillies
    All-day bike adventures.
  • Following the seizure of the Stasi's Haus der Statistik, in 1989, 111 shelf kilometres of documents, photos, film, video and audio recordings were made publicly available. © Claudia Gillies
    Following the seizure of the Stasi's Haus der Statistik, in 1989, 111 shelf kilometres of documents, photos, film, video and audio recordings were made publicly available.
  • 7,000 Soviet soldiers are buried under the Soviet War Memorial at Treptow Park, which commemorates lives lost in the Battle of Berlin. © Claudia Gillies
    7,000 Soviet soldiers are buried under the Soviet War Memorial at Treptow Park, which commemorates lives lost in the Battle of Berlin.
  • A bridge in the rain is as-good a place as any to enjoy a spot of classical on your Friday night. © Claudia Gillies
    A bridge in the rain is as-good a place as any to enjoy a spot of classical on your Friday night.
  • Almost every day I ride over the former Berliner Mauer and past this former watchtower in Kreuzberg, and I try to be grateful for such freedom. © Claudia Gillies
    Almost every day I ride over the former Berliner Mauer and past this former watchtower in Kreuzberg, and I try to be grateful for such freedom.
  • An Australian-German sandwich. © Claudia Gillies
    An Australian-German sandwich.
  • Another casual mid-week dinner party turned dance party. © Claudia Gillies
    Another casual mid-week dinner party turned dance party.
  • Bike gangs of Neukölln. © Claudia Gillies
    Bike gangs of Neukölln.
  • Bike riding is certainly a less-attractive option when it's raining and 3 degrees. © Claudia Gillies
    Bike riding is certainly a less-attractive option when it's raining and 3 degrees.
  • Early summer mornings, full of untapped potential. © Claudia Gillies
    Early summer mornings, full of untapped potential.
  • Getting off the beaten track. © Claudia Gillies
    Getting off the beaten track.
  • I joined a group one Saturday morning for a leisurely hike around Grunewald Forest, a 3,000 hectare forest to the West of Berlin. © Claudia Gillies
    I joined a group one Saturday morning for a leisurely hike around Grunewald Forest, a 3,000 hectare forest to the West of Berlin.
  • My neighbour would head out early to collect stinging nettles, to make a tea for the liver, and birch-tree leaves, for a hair tonic.  Me, I just collected stings. © Claudia Gillies
    My neighbour would head out early to collect stinging nettles, to make a tea for the liver, and birch-tree leaves, for a hair tonic. Me, I just collected stings.
  • On the canal at Admiralbrücke is the unofficial Berlin summer evening spot. © Claudia Gillies
    On the canal at Admiralbrücke is the unofficial Berlin summer evening spot.
  • Sage advice. © Claudia Gillies
    Sage advice.
  • Summer also suits her. © Claudia Gillies
    Summer also suits her.
  • Summer storm - feels like home! © Claudia Gillies
    Summer storm - feels like home!
  • Sundays mornings we met at Boxhagener Platz, for food and flea markets, and then we went dancing. © Claudia Gillies
    Sundays mornings we met at Boxhagener Platz, for food and flea markets, and then we went dancing.
  • There's no place like home. © Claudia Gillies
    There's no place like home.
  • When you say you're staying home tonight but then find yourself at an excellent Hausparty. © Claudia Billies
    When you say you're staying home tonight but then find yourself at an excellent Hausparty.
I’ve learned to leave recyclables next to public rubbish bins to assist the collectors. Once, I kept spaghetti bolognese on my balcony for two days, because there was no room in the small fridge, and because it was colder outside anyway. Now I know that if I’m hot, it’s not “Ich bin heiß”. I’m rarely without my bike multitool and stolen fast-food hand wipes, because that chain will come off when you’re in your Sunday best.

It makes me happy that dogs wear flashing neon disco collars, and not just because I can see them on my commute home. I look forward to Sundays when my friends and I dance together, and the too-tired Sundays on which we cook together instead. I’ve tried and tested the best bread in Berlin, and I’m steadily working through the cheeses.

I’ve learned that answering “Ja” when you don’t actually understand may land you with the whole building’s worth of deliveries. Fool me once, DHL guy.
 
  • Tempelhof Airport was constructed in the 1920's and operated as a commercial airport until 2008. © Claudia Gillies
    Tempelhof Airport was constructed in the 1920's and operated as a commercial airport until 2008.
  • Doing Monday night right. © Claudia Gillies
    Doing Monday night right.
  • My running partner was training for the Berlin Marathon, which meant early morning laps around Tempelhofer Feld. © Claudia Gillies
    My running partner was training for the Berlin Marathon, which meant early morning laps around Tempelhofer Feld.
  • The main building at Tempelhof was at one time one of the world's largest buildings, but had the world's smallest duty-free shop. © Claudia Gillies
    The main building at Tempelhof was at one time one of the world's largest buildings, but had the world's smallest duty-free shop.
In the evenings in summer, we'd meet along the canal with Späti beers or Apfelschorle in hand. On weekends, we'd train to a lake, or bike many kilometres to places forgotten. I'd ride along Karl-Marx-Allee envisaging the Soviet dream. I'd play beach volleyball for hours on Wednesday nights, on inner-city courts located on land that was once the death-strip. I’ve tried to understand the nuances of the city’s history, and I listen carefully to things said and unsaid by German friends.
 
  • Teufelsberg, meaning 'Devil's Mountain', is an 80m high man-made rubble-mound covering an indestructible Nazi training college. © Claudia Gillies
    Teufelsberg, meaning 'Devil's Mountain', is an 80m high man-made rubble-mound covering an indestructible Nazi training college.
  • On top of Teufelsberg is the ruins of the NSA's listening station from the Cold War. © Claudia Gillies
    On top of Teufelsberg is the ruins of the NSA's listening station from the Cold War.
  • US and British intelligence-gathering operations began in 1961. They not-so-discretely listened in to the Russian-controlled East Germany. © Claudia Gillies
    US and British intelligence-gathering operations began in 1961. They not-so-discretely listened in to the Russian-controlled East Germany.
  • At the top, inside the listening dome. © Claudia Gillies
    At the top, inside the listening dome.
My plan for winter involves Saturday-night dinner parties and mainlining Ingwer tea, for healthy mind and body respectively. I try to attend exhibitions regularly, have been introduced to blues nights, and am still talking about the rendition of ‘Marat/Sade’ that I had the pleasure of seeing recently. I have (too) many projects and, happily, many inspiring brains to pick.

Lady Berlin the Enabler?

It’s remiss of me not to mention the architecture here. She brings together these people that I so love and the opportunities that feed my contentedness. Lady Berlin the Enabler? She’s flat and wide and brutal. I find her calming, soothing. And – ask me again in a few months perhaps – but I think the incoming grey winter looks good on her.
 
  • Exploring forgotten places. © Claudia Gillies
    Exploring forgotten places.
  • In the next issue of local Berlin magazine RHNK is an article about this interesting building on Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg. © Claudia Gillies
    In the next issue of local Berlin magazine RHNK is an article about this interesting building on Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg.
  • Indulging my low-key infatuation with Germany's signage. © Claude Gillies
    Indulging my low-key infatuation with Germany's signage.
  • There's something for everyone here in Berlin. © Claudia Gillies
    There's something for everyone here in Berlin.
  • The former airport is now Tempelhofer Feld, a very large public park, and boy do we make the most of it. © Claudia Gillies
    The former airport is now Tempelhofer Feld, a very large public park, and boy do we make the most of it.
  • Under the arrival halls at Tempelhof are a series of bunkers and tunnels. © Claudia Gillies
    Under the arrival halls at Tempelhof are a series of bunkers and tunnels.
  • This bouldering spot on Teufelsberg is said to be the oldest in Berlin. There are 60 routes up the 10m high artificial tower. © Claudia Gillies
    This bouldering spot on Teufelsberg is said to be the oldest in Berlin. There are 60 routes up the 10m high artificial tower.
  • A clear Autumn day at the ever-bustling Kottbusser Tor. © Claudia Gillies
    A clear Autumn day at the ever-bustling Kottbusser Tor.
Have I gone a little too Mary Poppins on you? “Oh, she’s just new and she loves everything” some of you might be thinking. Well, yes. But, no. There were definite days when I handed Berlin the win this year.

But not today. It’s another morning in paradise and I’m smugly using my transport fine as a coffee coaster, because that’ll show ‘em.