In the area of rituals in Anthropology, they refer to “liminality” as being the disorientated space between one state of being and another, where you are neither what you were before, nor quite what you will be when you get to the other side. That is where I think I am, in a sort of limbo, trying to light a fire under myself to instigate myself back into an active rather than a passive part of life. Everything has been great, the weather makes home look like a Bord Failte ad, the temperature ensures all meals are outdoors, we swim every day in the river, it’s tremendous to be with Barry after so long. The Berlin existence, the Lulu that everyone knew, must still be hovering around Hermanstrasse S&U Bahnhof, off to find a hidden part of the city with her bike, finding interesting bars and cafes, looking up the listings to see what music or dance is on, checking out all the secret swimming spots, meeting a gang to pedal to Templehof for a picnic.

My other life disappeared without trace, almost overnight, and my work-and-study life doesn’t start until September. Before leaving Berlin, I tried to fit in as much as I possibly could in the final week or two, as I knew I would be returning to a rural idyll with very little excitement. Just to add fireworks to the departure, the World Cup Final was on the week before I left, and a jubilant Germany won: “Went to a Kneipe, old-fashioned corner bar, Warte Eck, on Hermanstrasse, to see The Game. Packed, everyone drinking beer and smoking like chimneys, served by a barmaid older than me. Level of tension very high, became unbearable for the collection of bonded-through-stress males. When Götze finally scored, the whole pub, the whole street, the whole town, the whole country, roared out an orgasmic celebration. Another couple of minutes, then fireworks, cars driving crazily around the streets, honking horns, singing. So glad I was here for an Erasmus world cup final, to see another side of Germany”. Quite apart from classes (which ran right up to the last day), it proved almost impossible to see everyone before I left, or to visit those places on my “Must-Do” list. Just coping with the bureaucracy of departure from the University, clearing my room and packing up took all my spare time.

Looking back over the year, I realise that I was a diligent student for the first semester, and became the typical Erasmus student for the second. Since I had taken far more credits than I needed to during the first half of the year, I slacked off and took lots of subjects on a participant-only basis, which meant I had few end-of-term exams or papers to submit. The freedom that afforded me was something I had never experienced – taking subjects just because I was interested in them, with no prospect of The Big Swot at the end. Even so, I did substantial field notes in the Anthropology project (14,000 words), wrote a paper on the Virgin of Guadalupe for Ethnography, and did a presentation on the cultural impact of the Beatles for Philosophy. Since I was sunbathing at the many lakes in Berlin, trying out all the groovy cafes and dancing as often as I could, I endlessly postponed the finishing of the school work I had to do, and ended up doing all the work in the final week. I couldn’t believe myself. I’m the person who hands essays in early usually, who never risks having to get an extension, who spends her weekends at the desk. Will I be able to revert to being a swot again? Having a completely laid-back semester has changed me in some way, made me less anxious about results in general, since they are all a ridiculous fiction anyhow. Well, I guess you could say that the fact that nobody on the planet will ever know what marks I got in my Erasmus year is a great relief, a method of deflating all the hype that goes on in normal University courses. I’m so thrilled to be in UCD that I feel duty-bound to do my best. However, I feel that my time there is finite, hence studying what I’m really interested in may be far more important.

Well, September will sort this out anyhow. It feels like a big tunnel that I have to enter; on one level, I dread the return, on the other, I know I’ll love most of the subjects once I get started. The other return I face is to work, which may be a bit of a shock. My job in Berlin was babysitting for a lovely American family, no stress, no late nights, no health issues. Here, I return to working nights, admittedly only half-time, but I’m completely out of practice when it comes to working 12-hour shifts. I know that all the details of life gradually seep in and take over your head, so that by the time I’m actually there, it will be fine.

This is exactly how I was thinking last August, except I really didn’t know if I would succeed or fail. The overriding feature was accommodation, which sorted itself at the last minute, though there was so much stress attached to searching for a room in an apartment-share that it almost ruined the summer. The stress of organising money had to take back seat, and once there, it actually cost me less to live than I expected. Yes, things have a way of sorting themselves out. All the stress about our roof or the unfinished plastering/painting/building seems less important after having lived in Berlin, where “unfinished” is a cool look in cafes and flats. We’re part of the cool set, though I think that Berliners probably wash their windows more often, and they have no gardens to think about, just public open spaces and wildernesses. I have so enjoyed writing this journal of observations all year. This is the end of the blog, the end of my year away, the beginning of a great new chapter of my life. Thanks for reading, following and commenting on it. Love and harmony, Lulu XXXXXXX



So what did you learn from your year?

German efficiency is a myth – everything in the University was so relaxed it was unbelievable – quite the opposite of UCD. However, they do like hard copies of everything, with stamps on, as a salute to tradition, mixed up with online registration and websites that are a maze of confusion.

The university experience (apart from registration) was wonderful – a great selection of subjects, total understanding from tutors and lecturers, a welcoming attitude, positive reinforcement, and assignments could be handed in anytime up until the beginning of the following semester (or later, if it suited!). Doing presentations (usually PowerPoint) was the norm for everyone, and I ended up doing eight over the year).

Most Germans don’t like Berliners – they think they are rude, unfriendly, unhelpful, conceited. Sound like rural views of Parisians? New Yorkers? Amsterdammers? They can be gruff, but can manage to be rude while saying Please and Thank You. They have a city overrun by people like me, who think they are in a cut-price Nirvana (and the Berliners would like to keep it that way please).

Berlin is a great place to be over 60 – cheap efficient public transport, cycle lanes, cheap/free events, as much dancing as you can handle (cheap and not-so-cheap), fantastic value in food and eating out, no ageism getting in to venues (though I was told, more or less straight, that I was too old for three waitressing jobs. Afterwards, I realised they were right – I wouldn’t have the patience these days to smile through dealing with customers).

Berlin is safe at night for a woman alone – nowhere else that I have ever lived has felt like Berlin. After a night out with friends, you can leave alone and take the U-bahn. The station always feels safe, despite lots of homeless people in to shelter for the night. On the train, lots of people will be chugging away on a beer, totally socially acceptable, and there are no drunks at all (Berliners pace their drinking so that they never get unacceptably messy).

Leaving home for a full year is a risk. You could feel more at home in another country, and want to stay. You could fall out of love with your family and friends. Or it could be a total gift, a vast area for personal growth for everyone in the family, an opportunity to realise how much in love you are, how much you want to return home.

Being a mature student is a huge advantage to an Erasmus year. You are unafraid to try things, even if they don’t work out. You are able to gauge what you are capable of, and gracefully accept the limitations, knowing that there are loads of other opportunities. If you make the effort to go to the events organised for you, you will find others there who need friends (and I don’t mean other mature students) who don’t have a preconceived idea of what to expect of 60-year-olds. Most of my friends were in their 20’s, and I was so heartened to see how non-judgemental they were.

Nothing is ever how you imagined it – I can’t remember now what I thought Berlin would be like, but I know it didn’t match the reality at all. It can be disappointing; I had no idea just how spread-out Berlin was, but within a week, the new image has taken over and become your mental map.

New Year’s Eve can be a wonderful event – I always dread New Year’s Eve in Ireland. Are we in the right place? Should we organise something? Is there a Cool Place to be that everyone but us knows about? Sylvester (NYE) was one of the best nights I ever had, back-to-back fireworks, people losing the run of themselves, a city like a war zone, but, amazingly, no offensive drunks.

Skype is a most wonderful invention – When I went to the Black Forest, almost 40 years ago, even telephone calls were a luxury, and I wrote huge letters home with all my impressions of Germany. To be able to have dinner together with Barry or Clare, to chat for more than an hour, was a huge boost, and a homesickness-preventative.

Watching the changing seasons was a treat – outside my window were enormous trees, which marked the passing of the year. Berlin had virtually no wind (certainly compared to Ireland), so that extra “wind-chill-factor”, so common in Irish weather, is gloriously missing. Though summer was a special treat – walking, cycling, swimming, picnicking – winter was just tremendous too – cosy bars, clattery cafes, cheap cinemas, dinners with friends, and all with far less tourists than the summer months.

The Erasmus experience is something all students should experience – for me, it was life-changing, and allowed me to see that there’s a world out there where things are much more possible than I thought. I have brought that back with me, and feel more confident about everything here too.




20 wonderful things about Berlin (not necessarily in order).

1) Listening to the nightingales in Templehofer Feld in the middle of the night. Berlin has the highest population of nightingales of any city in Europe.

2) 5 Euro Dinner on Friday nights in English bookshop “Another Country”, cooked by the owner, the wonderful Sophie, sitting at communal tables, making new friends.

3) Mauerpark Bearpit Karaoke, 3pm-7pm on Sundays, with MC Irishman Joe Hatchiban – some of the greatest laughs I had in Berlin.
4) Cycling to Köpenick with friends to swim in Műggelsee – a great feeling of powerful freedom, followed by some of the worst mosquito bites I’ve ever had.

5) Taking my babysitting charges (9 & 7) to the Ethnographic Museum, amazing artefacts, and realising that all those things belong in their country of origin and not to the Museums that will “take better care of them”.

6) Going dancing in “Gayhane” with Brigid (my big sis) – the gay Turkish/Indian music night in Club SO36 in Kreuzberg, an old-established cool club that also holds neighbourhood meetings, bingo nights and fundraisers. Going dancing in dozens of wonderful clubs the whole year long.

7) Crafts from Recycling and Free Film Night (about the Zapatistas) in K9, Friedrichshain, a co-operative living space, previously a squat, where my Ethnography lecturer lived.

8) Travelling on the S-bahn and U-bahn, especially, and also buses, trams and trains. I sometimes took the long way home, just to enjoy the journey.

9) Barbeques in Templehofer Feld, surrounded by groups of people cooking their dinner. Templehof is an old airfield, now reclaimed as a community facility.

10) Drinking good inexpensive coffee in all my favourite cafes, cosy in the winter, outdoors in the summer.

11) Berliners way of drinking – everyone consumes plenty of beer, each man pays for his own, but all paced exactly as they like it, so that there are no drunks, pukers, staggerers, or danger.

12) The marvellous way of utilising rundown premises, furniture, stuff, to throw together clubs, cafes, talking shops, bars.

13) Berliners way of smoking – rolling cigarettes is the most normal way to smoke, and after a certain hour, you can smoke most places. It’s hell in the winter, indoors, but totally okay in the summer. I just like the way they challenged the no-smoking-law and won.

14) Lakes dotted around the city, swimming possible every day, and a great open attitude to nude bathing. No ogling and no perfect bodies either.

15) Maybe it was just the area I lived in, but I experienced virtually no wind in Berlin for the whole year. Coming from Ireland, it was a pleasure to have rain falling down in straight lines, meaning umbrellas were never blown inside out.

16) The genuinely laid-back attitude of Berliners. The more uncool you are, the cooler you are. No dressing up to go dancing – you won’t get in wearing orthopaedic platform heels and tons of make-up, unless you’re a man. Jeans/shorts and a teeshirt are the norm.

17) Wonderful gay scene, open enough to everyone, genuinely inclusive of what’s considered straight, though most people see sexual preference as a scale that you can move up and down on, as the mood take you. You can’t tell who’s gay and who’s not.

18) Cheap accommodation (compared to Dublin), cheap groceries, cheap drinks in most places, cheap and efficient transport, fleamarkets everywhere, and Humana, second-hand chain all over Berlin – the best branch it’s five-storey outlet at Frankfurter Tor.

19) Abandoned amusement park at Spreepark, a vast swathe of green space that could eventually be utilised for fancy-schmancy apartments, but for now, is a wonderful magical mysterious place – and all the empty lots and undeveloped green spaces all over the city. They may be developed in the coming years, but for now, they provide breathing space for all the residents.

20) Berlin’s attitude to it’s own history – expose the gory details, deep wounds, appalling history for all to see, and acknowledge what happened. I’ll be interested to see if other countries do anything similar to acknowledge their colonial or jingoistic past/present.


The problem with writing a blog is that you can’t relax if you ignore it. It constantly taps you on the shoulder, asking for attention. This time, it’s been three weeks since I wrote anything, and to say I’ve been too busy is understating it. Though I loved the winter in Berlin – cosy kneipes, visits to the cinema, cheap group dinners, walking in the snow, studying hard – summertime Berlin is completely entrancing.

I’ve just had Brigid, my sister, over for a week from Ireland. This was an opportunity to go tour my favourite Berlin spots all over again, and we had a packed schedule. Having had a glorious Spring and early Summer, I reckoned that the biggest decisions we’d be making would be which venue to visit for swimming on our bikes (I had managed to borrow a bike for Brigid for the week). However, the weather for the week of her visit was unbelievably dull, cold and rainy. On our first day out cycling, we had an idyllic morning in Templehof, looking at the community gardens, and reckoned we’d continue on through Hasen Heide. Right in the middle of the park, the heavens opened, and, despite sheltering under trees, we got soaked down to our underwear. I had blithely said that Brigid should bring shorts and tee-shirts, but just as well she’s had this experience before – when visiting a midsummer Toronto last year (which should have been hot and dry), she had to buy a raincoat.

So, we have just had a much more indoorsy week than I had planned – our swimsuits remained in mothballs, and although we did do a lot of cycling, Berlin looked less beautiful than it can. However, having said that, I did have the opportunity to see at first hand just how wonderful it is, and feel the infection of Brigid’s enthusiasm, and indeed utilise her photos. I’ve gone to places that I planned to go to when I arrived, and never managed til I got the excuse of going with my big sister. Apart from talking the legs off each other, this has been such a great week for seeing my own personal sights here – I took almost all of the week off from Uni, but brought Brigid to the one seminar I have in English, so that she could share a class with me.

Putting her on the plane for Ireland, I didn’t feel any of the sadness associated with other goodbyes. We’ll be seeing each other in three weeks, as I will be back in Ireland for good then. All good things must come to an end. There are messages coming through already telling me that there will be lots of farewell parties, drinks gatherings, one-last-all-night-dancing-events over the next two weeks. Lots of people have already left. My flatmates have found a new flatmate to replace me. I can see the credits about to roll. In the university, they have just produced the magazine with my interview, and a really nice picture of me  Classes are beginning to feel like the Silly Season, though I still have some work to submit. In my head, I’m only half-here now, the other half is meeting the family and friends, enjoying being home, walking the Barrow, picking up the theads.

I stepped in dog shit last night on the way home, and cursed as I clambered in the door in socks and had to do a major clean-up job. This is a first for me. Considering the amount of dogs in Berlin, there’s not that much dog shit, compared to Paris or Budapest. Or perhaps it’s that the owners here are more responsible and mostly pick up after their pooches. However, our street is a haven for those insomniacs that take the dog out for a walk in the middle of the night, and they are sure as hell not picking up.

For the first time this week, I tried Club Maté, which is a drink originally from Argentina, a sort of high-caffeine tea that they are very fond of (helps them tango, presumably). The drink we get here is a bottled mineral not unlike commercial Iced Tea – it tastes like a cross between tea & lemonade. I went dancing with a friend, and en route, we stopped to hear a band who were busking in a sort of sunken plaza below street level. They could be viewed from lots of different points above and below and they keep a huge crowd dancing along with them. I went to buy a beer for my friend and got a Maté for myself. This magical elixir kept me dancing along until 4am, when we walked home in the dawn, with the birds out in full force.

Another first this week was that I was interviewed for the school newspaper. This came about through another friend, who I work with in the Ger-O-Mat cafe. It’s a café run by students and faculty members, exceptionally cheap, and it relies on volunteers to keep in going. I found the café by chance one wintry day when I could no longer stand the din of the canteen and the ridiculous rules attached to the library (you must take off coat/jacket, you may not bring in a bag of any sort, including a laptop cover, you must use a locker, and obviously you can’t eat or drink in the library, though they do just about allow a bottle of water). It’s actually got a sign for the café, opposite the library, but it looks like a poster for second-hand 1970’s furniture. It’s furnished with just that, hence it’s a comfy haven for people like me who like to study and lounge in fake leather with a cuppa at the same time. I volunteered at the beginning of the semester, and just love it. It’s a wonderful place to study anyhow, most people going in there want to read – I could say it’s like a reading room, but that sounds way too formal. The people who frequent it are very often those who volunteer there anyhow. In between reading and writing, we have long chats about everything. My job is to make sure there’s coffee made, enough chocolate bars on display, cups washed, a flask of boiling water for tea. I work from 2-4pm, squeezed between two lectures and I get paid either 4 euro or the same value in coffee and chocolate.

Anyhow, a friend at the cafe asked if I’d be interested in being interviewed for the school newspaper, and I said I’d be happy to do it. I was thinking of the UCD paper, which comes out weekly? Monthly? Whatever, I know it’s not the New York Times, but is usually filled with little articles about Erasmus students’ interesting experiences. Matthias got in touch and we made a time for him to come over and interview me at home. He explained that the magazine (not newspaper!) only comes out twice a year, and they usually have a theme, for instance last time was “Borders”, and it was all about students stories involving crossing borders. This time it was about “Going Forth” – so they felt I was a good candidate. We sat on the balcony, and along came a photographer (!) to get a few pictures. I made tea and we then had about an hour of Q & A, in which I tried with difficulty to explain my life, and how I got to this point. As Germans, I think they both had a hard time understanding a life without a foregone trajectory to follow. I had no difficulty in answering, but each time I did, I felt as if I left so much unsaid, as there simply wasn’t time. By the end of our interview, I couldn’t remember what I said, because telling your life’s narrative in German is a job in itself, without recalling what you actually said and how you put it. However, I do get to okay the final copy and see it before publication (the photos too!), but when I looked at the sample copy he gave me from last Semester, I realised that it’s more like a glossy magazine than a newspaper, so I do hope I come across all right. It’s so funny how vain we are, did the photos make me look like an old bat? Did I sound conceited? Completely crazy? Barry pointed out that the Germans will find it interesting either way, and nobody in Ireland will be able to read it anyhow. I’m apparently allowed a couple of copies of it when it appears, so will post something on it then, and how I feel about my First Exposé.

Oh poor poor blog! I haven’t written properly for an age. Coming back to college after such a long break was actually quite a challenge, and immediately it was Easter. Coming back after a wonderful sunny Easter, everything began in earnest, and I had four projects to start chomping on. The first was a trip with two others (from German class) to investigate the Dong Xuan Centre, a huge Vietnamese market on the East side of Berlin. The other three were to a) research the meaning of Our Lady of Guadaloupe in Mexico City (for Ethnography), b) Research the Mersey sound and the beginning of the Beatles in Liverpool (for “Contemporary Britain”) and c) choose a topic for investigative research in Anthropology based in Berlin – myself and two others started out with the Vietnamese community (seeing as how I’d have done some research already).

The Dong Xuan Centre turned out to be 5 enormous sheds, like airplane hangars, with a long corridor running the length of them, divided into dozens of small shops and businesses. Both retail and wholesale, they sold the tackiest of toys, handbags, dowdy and/or glitzy clothes, mobile phones, fake flowers, and had a lot of nail parlours/hairdressers. There were also supermarkets selling great Asian food, and restaurants with Phö, traditional Vietnamese noodle soup. We went twice, first time on a busy weekend, when it was mostly local Vietnamese who were buying, second time Tuesday morning, when it was just German shoppers. The locality is Lichtenberg, which is working class, and an area with social problems, and it’s reflected in the shoppers, who are much more, well, ordinary-looking than the usual picture we have of cool Berliners.

Turns out there are actually two Vietnamese communities in Berlin, who don’t associate with one another. The ones on the West side are what we used to refer to as “Boat People”, who came to West Berlin as refugees from South Vietnam in the late 1970’s. Those on the East side came over from North Vietnam. They were invited in the 1980’s by the then-East Germany as “gästarbeiter” to work and train as fellow communists. When the Wall came down, many Vietnamese took advantage of the generous payment made by German government for repatriation, but others replaced them (from former East Bloc countries). Today there are officially around 30,000 Vietnamese living in Berlin, though there could be another 10,000 or so living illegally here.

Trying to interview people at the Centre was quite a challenge. The Vietnamese we met weren’t really friendly, you could see them wondering if we were some sort of officials or snoopers. You really can’t blame them, probably there are quite a few people who aren’t strictly legal, or may be off the books – and indeed the Vietnamese have been associated with organised crime over the years. The Centre itself isn’t strictly legal, since it’s officially zoned an Industrial Park, and they have retail outlets, but Berlin turns a blind eye to a successful market that not only makes money but bonds the community nicely. All around the Centre, there are derelict buildings with scutch grass sprouting out everywhere, but the founder, Nguyen Van Hien, has plans to expand it into a sort of Chinatown, with culture, leisure, health and education interests incorporated in a complex, including apartments, a hotel and a pagoda. You would wonder if they’ll have some sort of temple too – lots of the shops had shrines to a Buddha of sorts. One woman explained that it was to the God of Prosperity, they put fruit and flowers and drinks as offerings to attract wealth, often up high, whereas the shrines down low were to the God of the Earth, for success in business (though she said they weren’t really religious shrines, more cultural, just for luck).


In the end, we got out interviews, and had our Phö noodle soup (delicious), and wrote up our first project for the German class. However, in the Anthropology class research, all three of us decided to take a different tack (rather than sticking with the Vietnamese theme), so will each be researching a different community. I have chosen the Turkish community, as I have much more access to them living in Neukölln, and they feel familiar. They are around 200,000 people in the Turkish community in Berlin, and they have been settled here for 50 years or so. I’m delighted with the opportunity to get to know more about them.

I’ve always thought Easter was a much better celebration than Christmas. In religious terms, of course, you get all the dramatics of death and resurrection, as opposed to birth in a stable, but Hallmark and the Capitalist machine hasn’t reinforced too many “traditions” to be observed. The pagan original was all about fertility and the coming of good weather after the spring equinox, but these things still spring up in the shape of eggs and rabbits. It’s an opportunity for people to get out in the open, celebrate sunshine, eat some chocolate, have a pint after Lent is over, feel liberated from the long winter.


We heard mixed reports about how many tourists came for Easter, either 200,000 or 2 million people descended on the city for the weekend. Actually, looking at the figures for last year, Berlin had 5.3 million guests in the first half of the year, so somewhere between those two figures would make sense. More Germans than foreigners come to visit, though the U-bahn tends to be overrun with very loud Spaniards (I’m getting to be a Berliner now). Actually, probably the major tourist sites were very busy, but in the far reaches of Neukoelln, there was no noticeable difference in numbers. Tourists tend to want to feel the buzz of everyone, to know they are in the middle of things, whereas we want to know that we are in a place that nobody knows. The weather was ideal for hanging out – sunny with the odd cloud, a little chill at night – and I spent the weekend between cool and quirky venues, meeting the new breed of European: Serbians who live in Dublin, another Serb who speaks Swedish and Spanish, a Spaniard who speaks faultless American English, a Finn, a Croat who speaks Italian, a Dubliner who moves between Berlin and Sligo, a Norwegian, an Australian who’d like to be a Berliner, a German who needs to brush up her Spanish, Italians and Swedes; all of these speak perfect English, that’s the currency these days, and most speak German.


We celebrated Easter itself by having a barbeque/picnic in Mauerpark. This is a green space, taken over by residents after the fall of the wall. “Mauer” means “Wall”, hence this area was the site of the death strip between the French and Soviet areas. Half of it is a big tacky fleamarket, half of it tries to grow grass to accommodate crowds of people who come to throw down rugs, have picnics, play ball, listen to buskers and drummers, sunbathe and chat. A large part of the attraction is the “Bearpit” Karaoke Show, which takes place in a stone Amphitheatre every Sunday. I had been to see the show on and off throughout the winter, and it was a sad affair, not really karaoke, with just an odd gem thrown in. What we got this Sunday was obviously the beginning of the Real “Bearpit” Karaoke Show, with an Irish MC introducing people, making sure their words and music were happening, moving them right along, and cracking jokes at a great rate. I don’t think I’ve laughed as much in years. People without a note in their head were cheered on, we all sang the chorus for them; a man who looked like a curate, black overcoat, black flat cap and hornrimmed glasses, gave us a most fabulous rendition of “Highway to Hell” to rival AC/DC; a 12-year-old sang “I will survive” to a rousing crowd; Detlef (who sings every week apparently) turned in a heartfelt German version of “My Way”; a troupe of California students performed a number from “Grease”. All the while, the sun blazed, we went back and forth to the collective picnic, we had a laugh. The “Bearpit” closed around 7pm, with the MC getting us all to join in his version of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”. It was difficult to let go of the day, it was so perfect, so we repaired to a bar with doors open to the terrace, to have one drink before dark.

There are times when you feel as if you have put a piece of your personal history in place, to look back on, to enjoy again and again, to say “that was a great, sunny Easter”, and this was one of them. The next day, I got together with another friend to try to turn our minds back to study, and we read together, first in one venue, then in another (when the first closed). This, too, is crystallised as a perfect day, when the comfortable couch is free, when the music enhances rather than intrudes, when the company is perfect. College today was hard work to return to, but it was a pleasure to come back refreshed, restored, ready for action.

A sharp change in the weather reminded us that it’s still not full summer here. I had begun to see people sporting shorts and belly tops, and I’d got to the point of discarding a few layers myself. Though my ears still haven’t gone back to normal quite yet (almost unblocked), the blazing sun was fantastic enough to jump on the bike and explore a bit of Berlin. Just at the bottom of the road, there’s one of the many canals running out towards what I always think is the sea, but it’s just a wider bit of the river. I followed cycle paths along the side of the water, with apartment blocks, little expanses of allotments, industrial buildings and remote shops until I got to the junction of four canals, or the crossing of two. From here, it would be a short hop up to Treptower Park, where the tremendous Soviet War Memorial is located, and beyond that, Spreepark, an abandoned amusement park which used to be situated on the east side of the Wall. It ran after the Wall came down, but the owner went bust, took the choicest amusement rides (and the whole family) to Peru on the pretext of having them fixed, and in 2002 it was closed. People sneak in over the fence to hear the creak of the Ferris wheel, see the sad-looking rusted attractions, and run the risk of guard dogs. I found a website devoted to abandoned placed in Berlin some of which I’d noticed myself without realising they were sort of landmarks.

I realised last Thursday was going to be 20 degrees, so I arranged to go for a cycle round Templehof with one of my friends from Uni. This is where you feel you are in the Berlin movie – we had been too disorganised to bring a picnic, so we just pedalled up to Schillerpromenade in search of a decent coffee, and found an outdoor café on Herrfurthplatz, where we sprawled in the sun. On Saturday, I crossed Templehof in the other direction, and headed up to Schoeneberg, past Paradestrasse, an enclave of houses straight out of the Home Counties, unlike almost all of the apartment-block accommodation in Berlin. I ended up in a vast café full of chattering people, all ensconced on old couches and armchairs, Café BilderBuch, surrounded by walls of books, board games, pens, paper, and art on every wall.

There’s a strange feeling of being in limbo for me at the moment. I’ve really never had such freedom before in my life. The only pressure is to see Berlin while I have no classes. They resume next week, so I have been trying to catch some sights while I have spare time. On Sunday morning, I wanted to either go to Berghain – the legendary Berlin nightclub that stays open from Friday evening until Monday morning, best time to get in for a good dance is Sunday morning – or go to the Berliner Dom, the Protestant Cathedral facing the Lustgarten, just off Unter der Linden. Going to Berghain requires getting up early, so the Dom won out. I had wanted to see it in action, both to save the very expensive entrance fee, and also to see what the service was like. The service was very like a Catholic mass, with plenty of hymn-singing, but interminable. The sermon went on for hours, totally bland material, all spoken in a sort of “church” voice. Incredible to think that priests or pastors could be totally political radicals, could change people’s minds, turn heads, push moral choices, but instead, they choose the safe path every time, and present a hypnotic drone to a congregation already thinking about their morning coffee. No wonder they would, I left at the communion and it was already an hour and a quarter. The Dom itself is very impressive, vast, gold everywhere, one whole wall the organ, with statues of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, just in case you didn’t know which lot you were with.

After this, I headed up to Kurfurstendamm, which used to be the fashionable, cool place to go in West Berlin in the 1960’s and 1970’s (when the Wall was in place). The street is dominated by the ruins of Kaiser-Wilhelm Church. It was bombed in 1943, as a reprisal for the bombing of Coventry Cathedral, and the ruined steeple was going to be removed, but was left as a reminder of the war, an anti-war memorial. A new, utterly spacey church was built right beside it, which is interesting in itself. The pastor here during the rise and rule of the National Socialists was one Gerhard Jacobi, who initially stood up to the SS to object to baptised Christians (who happened to be of Jewish origin) being lifted and sent to concentration camps. Then he realised what was happening with Jews, and used his pulpit to fulminate against the regime, risking being sent to a concentration camp himself. He organised resistance, founded the Pastors Emergency League in 1933, which eventually became the “Confessing Church”.  They split from the German Evangelical Church, which was subject to Nazification, and had accepted the “Aryan Paragraph”, which forbad the inclusion in their congregation of Jews, Poles, Russians, Slavs and Mischlinge (Mixed race). The German Church saw an opportunity to clean up its own image after the liberalisation of the previous 20 years, and a return to the strong, moral, masculine force to defeat Bolshevism, calling themselves Deutsche Christen (German Christians). Jacobi and his colleague Boenhoeffer called for the church to do its moral duty and protect all people against a corrupt government, and named itself the “Confessing Church” as a reference to the church being in statu confessionis, meaning that during this crisis they should confess out loud the gospels, to defend them, and point out their message to all men. There’s really not an awful lot of highlighting of these kind of heroes, people who preached what they really believed in opposition to the majority. It sounds like the kind of sermon I could have really listened to.

Ireland welcomed me with a hailstorm and an icy wind. I had totally forgotten what it feels like to walk up the quays in Dublin and try to negotiate this same weather. I had got some sort of virus in my ears just before I left, which meant I had to work hard to equalise them when flying over, and on the quays, freezing and fuming, I battled on, Smurf hat in place, my hands on my ears, resembling the figure in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. Everyone said how it had been lovely last week, which almost made it worse – I just got the dud week. However, I had flown home, not for the weather, but to spend time with family and friends. In between the blasts of winter, there were glimpses of what-might-have-been: a glistening landscape saturated in sunshine. So, although we got out for walks, it was an indoorsy kind of a week: lots and lots of talk. I travelled on the buses, which, after Berlin, were something of a disappointment. Having said that, I loved travelling on the top of the bus in from Walkinstown to the city centre, all that was missing was a packet of Carrolls No.1 (Cigarettes for those you too young to remember them, or to recall how you could smoke on the top of the bus).

Dublin looked well, despite the weather. There’s money floating around all right, and there are shops there that have lasted through more than one recession – Heathers shoe shop and Bargaintown on the quays, Evans’s art supplies on Capel Street, Hogans butchers on Wexford Street. Areas that were semi-derelict in Dublin now have shops and cafes. I’m thinking of Aungier Street/Wexford Street/Camden Street as they were thirty years ago – I actually loved the down-at-heel look, but even the improved look has a nicely bohemian flavour to it. Lots of places have embraced the Berlin tatty-old-furniture look, and though they are more expensive, they are comfy and hip after a blast of hail. I had new eyes for my city, realised why young tourists like it, and really enjoyed the familiar flavour. Going down to Ballyknock was a most wonderful treat. I had dreamed of sitting by the fire, watching a movie, sleeping in my own bed finally. We got out for a walk, but I had forgotten that you have to seize the day in Ireland – any dillydallying and it’ll be wet again. I found it colder in Ireland than in Berlin, because of the damp and the ever-present wind. You realise what hard work it is to function, endless closing the door, pulling the curtains, worrying about the cost of heating, wearing layers of clothing, and talking about it all the time.

Of course, there’s the awful tug of the goodbye facing you at the end of the week. I began to feel lonely for Barry and Clare the day before I left. I helped Clare to bleach her hair – something which goes against every fibre of a mothers’ being, to do such damage to a beautiful head of hair. But I understand, I have been putting highlights in my own hair (but via a hairdresser) for 30 years, so I can hardly judge. Then we made 2 big lasagne, portioned them into little containers and froze them, so that Clare has instant food for the long slog ahead to get all her projects submitted. By the time we had had dinner together, I realised they were all set for their final few furlongs till the end of term, and I lost my loneliness. I arrived back to the non-damp, non-wind atmosphere of Berlin, which was considerably warmer than Dublin. Yesterday hit 20 degrees, with misty sunshine, so I went cycling on my now-fixed bike in Templehofer Feld, with my friend Jennifer. Originally, it was supposed to be a picnic, but we were too disorganised, and there are too many lovely cafes, so we sat in a wonderful open space enjoying the full sun and had coffee after our cycle. Today is cooler, only 15 degrees, and there’s rain forecast for the weekend, though it will still be hovering around the 20 degree mark, so I might do my Irish trick and seize the day if there is any break in the rain, and get out for another cycle.


Thirty minutes to go until I leave the house.  My room is cleaned and aired, in case my roommates have any guests who want to use it while I’m gone.  I’m packed as neatly as possible – one of the advantages is that I’m flying home, where all my favourite ancient clothes are, for mooching around the house, so I don’t need to bring much with me.  I took the winter woollies, as I figure Berlin is over the worst of winter, and will bring back teeshirts instead.

Just as you are careening along with everything under control, life can throw you what the Americans so colourfully call a curveball.  Last weekend, I caught a cold, and gave it the usual gallons-of-water-and-early-nights treatment. However, it just wouldn’t shift, and as the week went on, it got worse.  On the way home from babysitting one night, my ear suddenly blocked and I’ve been deaf on that side ever since.  Oh we never appreciate our faculties until they disappear.  In my head, it sounds as if there’s a factory churning, and I have to tilt my head in the direction of whoever is speaking.  However, it wasn’t so bad as to stop me from babysitting, but I had thought I’d have a week of meeting people who are heading off into adventures, and instead, I was in bed early every night.  On Wednesday, Alexander (7) was sitting on the couch, and I leaned over him to ask him if he could help me clear the table. With that, he jumped up with enthusiasm, and his (very hard) head hit me right in the left eye.  Zora (9) dashed off for a bag of peas from the freezer, and I went into the downstairs bathroom to look at the damage.  I could see a bruise rising into a little egg which made me murmur “fuck!” under my breath (I thought!).  The children thought it was the funniest thing –  they danced around chanting “Lulu said the F-word! Lulu said the F-word!”.  All I could think of was flying home to Ireland with a black eye, but after a while, I could see the funny side of it, and it wasn’t too bad by the next day – It looked as if I’d put kohl on just one side.

When I went out next day, I forgot about the black eye, and it’s strange to see people’s reactions in shops – they think you’re either a victim, or maybe dangerous yourself, and keep you at a safe distance.  On the train, I was looked by very sympathetically by lots of younger women, who assumed I was a poor old beaten-up wife, but I felt it was rather healthy that they had such empathy with older women. By the time Friday rolled around, I began to wonder if I’d ever get better, and would I be okay to fly, so I went to the doctor.  Claudia, the children’s mother, recommended her doctor, and they said I could come to the open hour and just wait.  Eventually, I got in to see Dr. Hamm (“Yes! Hamm, just like the meat!”), who welcomed me with open arms.  He had just booked to go to Co. Kerry for a holiday in August, and spent the next quarter of an hour talking about Ireland.  I gave him a gentle nudge, saying actually, my throat and ear, ahem ahem, and he swabbed my throat, explained the procedure (using a kit not unlike a pregnancy test – if two stripes show up, you have strep throat, if only one, you’re clear).  No, he said, you have no strep throat, so you don’t need an antibiotic. He recommended nose drops for the ear, and was totally chipper about flying. He gave me such a lift, I suddenly felt a million times better, and a view of Ireland cleared through the clouds, it was totally possible to be healthy again. Bon voyage chez nous, Lulu, or turas sábháilte, as we say in the ould sod.

Having more time off doesn’t necessarily mean I write more in the blog, but I do get out and see lots of Berlin. We have had the most amazing weather – full sunny spring – since mid-February, and, of course I didn’t feel like going indoors to any museums (which I had originally planned for this break).  Instead, I explored green spaces; I took the u-bahn to Krumme Lanke, which is just a few stops from the University.  There I found a lovely, almost deserted lake, which I noted was for swimming (later in the year). I explored Hasen Heide, a tremendous green space with a petting zoo, super playground and cafe. There are drug dealers at every gate, but they aren’t interested in you, they’re doing business.  And I went to Volkspark Friedrichshain, which has two of the only “hills” in the whole city – Berlin is a totally flat city, a cyclists heaven.  The “hills” are, in fact World War II rubble, which was placed in an enormous mound, and then greened over.  Quite lovely, the steep steps going up the side were reminiscent of the Pyramid at Coba, and on the other side, there was the usual busy café overlooking a small lake.

During the week, I also went to see Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the first of it’s kind in Germany, built in 1933.  When the memorial to the murdered Jews was opened in the city centre, many people didn’t want it so centrally placed, and suggested that they could extend and improve facilities at Sachsenhausen, for people to visit and remember.  Having gone there, I can testify that it takes a long time to get there, and the location of the city-centre Gedankstaette makes far more sense. However, always one to enjoy a train journey, I settled down to see the northern part of Berlin.  Initially, it was industrial and downmarket-looking, but then it thinned out into nice suburbs and then pure countryside.  What amazed me is just how big Berlin is, and how little of it I know. When you get to Oranienburg, you can either walk or take a bus to Sachsenhausen, which is a couple of kilometres outside of town.  This was built as a Musteranlage, a model camp, as a prototype for camps to come.  Its’ proximity to Berlin was a big factor, plus the fact that they could easily extend the 15 or so acres they already had.

Many of us are, in a way, spoiled by Hollywood, in that we recognise the shape and architecture of the camp, the irony of the big gate with “Arbeit macht frei” built into the wrought iron.  It was a beautiful day, so it was less depressing than it might be on a wet and windy day, though the whole place looked bare and sad, with scrappy grass between big swathes of large-rock gravel.  I toured the now-converted buildings, which is a fascinating museum, with pictures of police chiefs from Spain and the Middle East, taken with the Camp Commendant; they were on tour (in the early 1930’s) to see how to control dissidents, undesirables and political opponents.  Even if they started by thinking they would simply “control” dissidents, it soon became a camp for gays, gypsies and Jews, along with regular criminals.  Nobody (including the regular criminals) had an exit date, and, before long, they began to experiment with inmates diets, to see how little they could exist on, whilst still being productive.  There was a whole room devoted to what happened to the Roma.  At 4am on 16th July, 1936, the police rounded up all the Gypsies in a bid to “clean up” Berlin in time for the Olympics.  They were placed in Berlin-Marzahn Concentration Camp (actually called a Rastplatz – “Resting place” – it was an open field sandwiched between a sewage plant and a cemetery). Within a short while, the authorities surrounded it with barbed wire and started a forced labour programme. In 1938 the men were sent to Sachsenhausen, and in 1941, the women and children were sent to Auschwitz. It’s when you see the pictures of individual families, all the men with violins, all the women in swirly skirts, all killed, that it hits you.  The sheer numbers just numb you in the end.

This was also one of the camps where they did experiments – after all, they had a captive audience, they could do something useful to help the Wehrmacht, fighting for the Fatherland. Germany had a great shortage of leather, for boots and shoes (I imagine very important if you’re going to be marching to Russia).  Some bright-spark chemist/doctor decided that they would make shoes from synthetic materials and test them on the prisoners.  They also wanted to test drugs like cocaine and pervitin (methamphetamine, commonly known now as chrystal meth).  The German army were already giving pervitin to their soldiers, in a bid to keep them active for longer, hence the prisoners were used as guinea pigs, to see how far they could march, loaded with weights, and full of pervitin. Some reports there said they marched (on those still visible gravel pits) for up to 5 days with barely any sleep, they couldn’t sleep. Of course, you also have to think of the unfortunates on the Russian front, being fed pervitin to keep facing into the enemy. Just as an aside, this is common practice in military conflict today, though it’s more likely to be cocaine than chrystal meth.

There were other experiments, giving a whole slew of children hepatitis to isolate the germ – since the Army, once again, had had problems with jaundiced soldiers. These experiments took place in all the camps, some of them more gorey than others.  Sachsenhausen became a place to try things out, mobile gas wagons, crematoria, then an actual gas chamber, which, when successful, were then passed on to other camps. In terms of numbers, Sachsenhausen doesn’t compare with Auschwitz, but there were people living right at the edge of the barbed-wire fence.  Surely they must have heard the 10,000+ Soviet Prisoners-of-war being shot individually in the head?  Apparently, the camp commendant didn’t want a riot, so played very loud classical music (probably Wagner) to cover the sounds.  And people dying of hunger don’t make any noise. In 1945, with the approach of the Russians, the Germans marched all those able to march (45,000 prisoners) on what is now called a “Death March”, as far as Wittstock, travelling between 20 and 40 kilometres a day, with no food, in bad weather, sleeping in the open. Approximately 7,000 died, left unburied along the route.  After the liberation of the camp (3,000 sick or dying had been left behind), the inmates insisted on inviting the locals up to have a look, but there was very little response.  The Soviets then took it over and used it as an NKVD Special Camp for internment of Fascists, ex-Nazis and dissidents, under the control of the Gulag.  Also known as Sweigelager, “Silence Camps”, the inmates had no contact with the outside world. The existence of the camp was kept secret, until exposed by Western press. Inmates were not legally charged and nothing was documented. In 1950, it was handed over to the East German Government, who used Sachsenhausen as a sister camp to Hohenshoenhausen (the centre for the STASI).  Just under 200,000 prisoners were kept there, with almost 50,000 dying of hunger and awful conditions, though these numbers are disputed by German and Russian authorities.

So, what does a trip to a concentration camp do to you? It makes you wonder about today’s tyrants, Putin and Obama, having a face-off.  Germany is terrified of what might happen in Ukraine. It’s all very well to have a debate about Syria or Venezuela, but Ukraine is very close to home, and an ancient enemy.  Someone pointed out to me that Angela Merkel doesn’t use the familiar “du” with Putin, they are still on very formal and frosty terms.  It also makes you wonder about how we can leave countries in the financial lurch, which Germany was between the wars, a wide open vacuum for Adolf Hitler to step into.  And then the numbers of dead people, so many that disposing of them became a logistical problem, and they had to introduce things like gas chambers or cremation. It also puts your own relatively benevolent history into perspective. What I have to admire is the German’s honesty in facing up to the past, and looking at what a different generation did, indeed bequeathed to them.  There is still resistance to stories of individual Germans and what they experienced, like the tremendous book I have just read “A Woman in Berlin”, written anonymously, by a 30-year old journalist in the spring of 1945, when the Russians “liberated” Berlin, but that will come with time.


I helped three different friends move apartments last week.  The first two were French friends, moving to Pankow together, in the north of the city, from Neukoelln and Kreuzberg, respectively, both southside. Three of us hauled huge wheelie-suitcases and IKEA bags across town, two trips on the U-bahn, and up 10 flights of stairs (5th floor) to settle them in.  Then I went directly to help another friend who was moving only a short distance, and had managed to wangle a car and driver.  However, there was another 6 flights of stairs (3rd floor), but since there was 6 of us, it was a fairly swift operation.  Helping people move is an interesting experience.  The French friends have moved a few times already, and are only moving in to this apartment for the next 3 months, as a sublet. My other friend is making the move from a shared apartment to living alone.  What amazed me was the amount of stuff people hang on to. One girl had a huge lightweight box, that was really awkward to carry, and when we tried to re-pack, we discovered it was full of used plastic bags, which of course could be squished down to nothing. I know I arrived here with a suitcase and if I had to move, it would probably be more than that, but I always saw moving house as an opportunity to clear out and get rid of stuff that I no longer needed. I guess people nest each time they move in to a new place, and bring their feathers and twigs with them for a sense of home. People move a lot here, it’s regarded as quite normal to live in zwischenmiete (sublets) if you are here for less than a year, and people who are permanently here often move a few times until they find where they are most comfortable.

On this very subject, I finally heard from my flatmates that I can stay until the end of my academic year, which is a big relief.  We celebrated with beer, crisps and nuts.  I had re-cycled all the empties that were cluttering up the hall (8c per bottle for beer, 25c per bot for plastics) and had bought beer. I dreaded having to go through the business of WG-Gesucht again, which is the agency for renting, and have to present myself for inspection by prospective roommates.  Not only is it disheartening (even for young and beautiful flat-seekers), but it is incredibly time-consuming to search, find, contact, view, cross fingers, and then, usually, be rejected. Of course, this time, I know the city, and perhaps, if I had to move, I’d find something even more amazing and possibly cheaper.  However, moving is always a roulette wheel, and the last friend who I helped move on Saturday only moved in there last September, and waxed lyrical about flatmates, building and location, at the time. By the time she was leaving, she hadn’t a good word to say about it.  I am still in love with Neukoelln and my lovely flatmates, and am enjoying the changing seasons outside my bedroom window. We are on the third floor, so right up in the trees, which are planted everywhere in Berlin (500,000 at the last count).  I arrived when the trees were still in full summer costume, watched an amazing Autumn colour change, and then the bareness of Winter, and snow on the branches. Now the first buds are pushing through, even though it feels like the shortest Winter I ever experienced. We didn’t turn the heating on until it snowed on January 20th.  I realised why shortly before Christmas – the heating pipes for the whole building run through people’s apartments, so if the people upstairs have the heating on, you have the benefit of a heated pipe en route (mine is beside my desk). Because we had very low temperatures during the snow, the heating was on until Jan 30th, when it melted. When I helped my friends move last week, I realised that we are probably unusual here – my friends’ apartments were like ovens.  I guess is suits everyone to have three thrifty people, who wear more than tee-shirts at home, who like to cook and drink beer together (albeit alcohol-free for me), who share the same taste in music, who value their space, living together. This is the experience I missed before I got married, almost 39 years ago, and it feels all the better for having to have waited for it.