Just forgot to add that this week, I posted 3 posts, in a post-exam burst of energy, to make up for missing posts from the drought period (examtime).  Hope you catch them all…

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You can live in a city like Berlin, and never connect the dots, so to speak.  I mean, you take the U-bahn most of the time, and never see that one place buttresses another. My bike has been out of commission for several months, but getting it to the menders isn’t straightforward, and the weather, until now, wasn’t bike weather.  Now the sun beckons to us, to go and explore.  My default setting is Templehof, the old airfield within walking distance. The name Templehof comes from the Knights Templar, who used the land in mediaeval times. Then Templehofer Feld was a parade grounds for military parades up to the First World War. Orville Wright landed there in 1909, and Graf von Zeppelin flew over a large crowd, dipping his balloon in deference to the Kaiser.

In 1923, a tiny Templehof Airport opened, and by the time a full-scale airport was built (in 1928), it was already too small to accommodate the traffic. When the Nazis took over, Hitler and his architect Albert Speer, who realised the prestige attached to flying, planned an airport suitable for the world capital “Germania”.  Templehof was one of Europe’s three iconic pre-World War II airports, the others being London’s now defunct Croydon Airport and the old Paris – Le Bourget Airport. The buildings are suitably impressive, even now.  After the war, the Americans took it over, establishing three air corridors out of Berlin, to Hamburg (north), Hannover (west) and Munich (south).  These were the three routes used in the Berlin Airlift, when the Soviets blockaded the city, in an attempt to get the allies to leave. From June 1948 to May 1949, the allies delivered 1.8 million tons of food, coal and supplies in 277,264 sorties via the three air corridors, commemorated by a sculpture of a three-pronged “hunger-rake” at Platz der Luftbruecke (rather than “airlift”, the Berliners referred to it as an “air-bridge”).

For pictures see: ww.dieselpunks.org/profiles/blogs/tempelhof-a-story-of-an

Templehof closed in 2008, despite much protesting, and has been used ever since by the good burghers of Berlin, to fly their kites, to ride their bikes, to slide their sledges, to push their prams, to tend their community gardens, to canoodle in the corners, to play football, to land-kite-board, to play Frisbee, to flirt over volleyball, to go for a walk, to jog, to picnic and meet.  Plans are afoot to “develop” Templehof ie. build luxury apartments, though there are plenty of voices of opposition.

This week, I went to Platz der Luftbruecke, at the corner of Templehofer Feld, and walked over to Viktoria Park to see the small hill that gives Kreuzberg it’s name.  There is a tiny hill (nothing like as high as Killiney Hill) topped by a war memorial designed by the famous Prussian architect Schinkel, to commemorate the undoing of Napoleon and his exile to Elba. Berlin is flat, except for small inclines like this one, so standing on top afforded me a great view of the city, and a nice place to have my picnic.  I walked down the other side, which was, surprisingly, steeper, and ended up on Bergmannstraße, a glorious mish-mash of cafes and second-hand shops and craft outlets, which led to Gneisenaustraße, which I didn’t realise was around the corner – I’ve only ever been there (to visit “Another Country” English-language second-hand bookshop) by U-bahn, hence, in the process, I connected the dots between my house, Templehof, Platz der Luftbruecke and Kreuzberg.

During the week, I connected the dots by travelling on the tram from Warschauer Straße, which is in Friedrichshain, up to Landsberger Allee, also in Friedrichshain, but I have only ever been there via U-bahn.  I love travelling by bus or tram, because you get to see where you are.  My friend Ana helped me to negotiate buying a toaster via E-Bay, which I’ve never done before, so I had to go pick it up (the toaster, which I only bought in November, broke, and I had thrown away the receipt). When I got there, the very nice man said we had to pick it up in the cellar.  I made sure that the hall light was on, and the cellar was just at ground level, as I was sure I was going to be locked in there forever. However, the prospect of toast pushed me on, and I picked up the working toaster without being murdered, for all of 3 euro. It’s probably a relic of the East Bloc, the design looks a bit like the Volksbűhne (People’s Theatre), but what a luxury to have toast again.

 

There’s this feeling that everyone is going somewhere.  The Americans have all already gone, to snow, to sunshine, to familiarity.  One by one, the Spanish and Danish and Italian and Swiss students head off home for a break, leaving the ones who are too far away to just pop home.  Up till last week, you could bump into anyone in college, now it’s like a ghost town, just those people swotting in the library, trying to finish up the last of their hausarbeite.  But there’s a camaraderie among those left here, they stay closer together now that there are fewer foreign students. People offer to dig each other out,  get together for going-away parties, turn up to help others move apartments.

There’s also the feeling of being at a sort of crossroads, of not knowing what is going to happen next Semester.  Unlike UCD (where you organise everything at the start of the year), here you only pick your second Semester choices at the beginning of April.  I can go searching now to pick what I’d like, though I know I want to do the follow-up courses in Anthropology and Ethnography, with the same lecturers/tutors. Psychology is the tricky one; I want to choose a course that has no exam this time, just written work and presentations.  When I began this year, I had never done a presentation alone, just one group presentation in a very supportive UCD class. The first one gave me sleepless nights, and it was way too long, had much too much text, and, because I was under pressure of time, I spoke too fast. By the time I did my fifth presentation, it didn’t bother me if I made a mistake, if the technology broke down, if it wasn’t perfect, I’d learned to stop worrying about it, which is key. After doing all of them, I realise that you learn loads from them, in terms of researching them, though I never had to submit a written script or bibliography.

Other than these, I have been recommended by two different people to look up a course in Humboldt University called “The topography of sexuality”.  I’m not sure if this is a neo-Freudian psychoanalytic course – they still think he’s grand here, whereas in Ireland, mentioning Freud in psychology is like saying you still believe in Limbo. I want the opportunity to study in Humboldt anyhow – they encourage you to take classes in any of the other Universities, though I can’t imagine the Technical University has anything I would fancy.  Humboldt was on the East side of Berlin during the cold war, it’s a much older University, established in 1810 by Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt.  Freie University was founded in 1949, with backing from the USA, and although it is an exceptionally good university, I want the experience of trying the older model (which I may indeed find is less conservative).  I also want to go to a university that is in the city centre, to feel as if I am really studying in Berlin.  Freie has in common with UCD the feature of being out in the boonies, in safe old leafy suburbia, where they have all the facilities you will ever need, and none of the politics or protests. I don’t imagine Humboldt has much politics or protests either, but at least I can walk on Rudi Dutschke Straße (assassinated 1960’s student leader), or Rosa Luxembourg Platz (Marxist 1919 Revolutionary shot by government agents) or even Hannah Arendt Straße (political theorist and thinker).  Something I hadn’t even considered until this minute is that there is another wonderful library there, where I am quite sure I’ll run up a few fines (though here they are a great deal more merciful than UCD).

 

The most incredible weather has hit Berlin. I was en route to my babysitting job and noticed a patch of crocuses; likewise, at breakfast, I noticed some puce-coloured leaves on the big tree in the back garden, and sure enough, it’s beginning to bloom. Every day, all you want to do is go to one of the myriad green spaces, lakes or rivers, and just loll in the glorious sunshine. I had a poke around my own neighbourhood at the weekend, and discovered that on the other side of Hermannstrasse, which is our urban centre, there’s a less salubrious world. I was glad that the weather was fine, so that the house I passed, which had several broken panes of glass, didn’t look half as depressing as it would on an overcast day.  On the ground floor, a man had opened the windows wide (broken panes and all) to sit in the sun and smoke.  A scrappy looking playground was full of Turkish children, and the bushes were quite incredibly noisy with birds.  I didn’t go that far, just to the major road on the other side, which leads onto the autobahn.  There wasn’t an awful lot to see, but it was reminiscent of backstreets in San Francisco, where illegal Chinese and Mexican immigrants lived in warrens; here they’re far more likely to be legal, Vietnamese and Turkish.

The good weather has brought out the buskers again – they seemed to disappear after Christmas, and I missed them.  However, the other day, the man who sings Jose Feliciano songs to the accompaniment of electric guitar (and he sounds like him) was back in Hermanstrasse S-bahn station, smiling away, smoking in between songs and cracking jokes. When I got to Heidelberger Platz U-bahn station, there was the serious man who plays Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” very beautifully on accordion.  When Julia was over, we caught four very serious Poles playing the “Four Seasons” together in Alexanderplatz, quite a stunning performance. There’s a couple of buskers that I really love – the man who plays most wonderful ethereal renditions on the saw – just a regular household saw – and the man who plays really moving classical guitar, which always reminds me of Rosaleen (the same repertoire), but I haven’t seen either of them since before Christmas.  There are a couple of buskers that get on the train and travel a stop or two, playing.  One of them has a drum/backing machine strapped to his back, and plays Balkan-style clarinet.  Another one has a zimbalon (Eastern European hammered dulcimer) on a strap around his neck, something like an usherette tray. At Christmas, Barry and myself caught a spectacular performance on the street – a 12-year old Romanian playing jazz saxophone with a drum machine. You would wonder if any of them make money – Berliners don’t tend to be over-generous, and after the first couple of weeks, I realised I couldn’t afford to give everyone money all the time. I suppose there’s always the tourists.

I have just missed the Berlinale, which is the Berlin Film Festival.  Really unfortunately, it falls right smack-bang in the middle of exams, so I didn’t even get to one film. For the regular punter, it can be pricey (by my 1970’s standard of living, mind you), from 10-15 euro per ticket, though I think it’s probably half-price for students. In lots of venues (but not all), they have a plainly ageist policy, saying that student prices can only be claimed up to age 28.  Steffen explained that the German government don’t want to encourage people to continue studying, they want them to get jobs – which, in a country of almost-full employment, is perfectly possible.  Mind you, you’re allowed to take six years to do your Batchelors degree, where we cram it all into 3 or 4 years, which is pretty civilised (and it’s all free, of course).  When I got my student card here, I presented it at the local swimming pool to get my student discount, and the very nice young man said “I’m so sorry, but student reduction is only up to 28 years old, and I think you may be 29”.

This blog has been a bit thin on the ground over the past couple of weeks.  Today, I’m allowing myself the luxury of staying in bed, reading, writing and drinking tea. I finished my last exam yesterday, and studied right up to the last minute (it went well).  At the beginning of the semester, I decided (being a bit of a smart-alec) that I would take more subjects than I strictly needed, so as to get more credit points in the first (winter) half of my year, and have a bit more leeway for the second (spring/summer) half of the year. In theory, it works well: do more when you’re beginning and enthusiastic, especially if the weather may be so inclement as to have a watertight excuse to stay in bed all day to study.  I took one Psychology module, one German language module, and a selection of other subjects, some I’d wanted to try before (Anthropology and Ethnography),  and others that just fell my way – a module on Berlin and gentrification/touristification (Cultural Studies I think), and a module on Great Britain, Language and Culture (actually in Philosophy). I ended up with eight classes, six in German, two in English.  I enjoyed all of them, and managed to keep up with weekly readings (mostly in English), and eventually understanding the lectures and some of the discussions.

However, the semester runs right over Christmas (you get a two week break), so when we returned in January, I realised what a huge amount of work I had to do before the beginning of the exams (February).  I guess I was still in some sort of UCD mode still, where I just reckoned I’d go over the notes, and cram for the exams, but of course, they were all in German, so it involved a lot of work just translating to get everything straight.  Meanwhile, the weekly readings got more complicated and more interesting, and classes got more intense, and I had a powerpoint presentation for a different subject each week. Now none of this would have been so challenging if I had four classes instead of eight, but isn’t that the way we learn? Biting off more than we can comfortably chew, regretting decisions, and in the end slogging to get through a hard patch.

Since I hate exams, cramming and the whole idea of judging by what you can spit out in a set amount of time, I tried, in both my Big Subjects (Psychology, Anthropology) to write an essay instead of doing the exam, but there was no way of trading in those particular subjects (often the case in other subjects).  Writing an essay here is a Big Deal, and because people only do it occasionally, they don’t see it as a normal part of academic life, whereas in UCD, we usually write at least one essay for each module we take (12 per year).  I found the Psychology relatively straightforward information, albeit an awful lot of it, but my main problem is to translate the questions; I can write the answers in English.  I went to see the lecturer the week beforehand, since there was no sample paper to see the layout of exam (it’s a new course).  “Oh, I haven’t written it yet!” she said airily.  So, since we knew that there were no multiple choice questions, I reckoned that it would probably be something like home ie. “Here are 6 questions, answer 3 of them”.  Unfortunately, no: “14 Questions, answer all of them”.  Exam was at the unearthly hour of 8am, and I had arrived in early to a silent university to be nicely chilled, just running over the last few notes and getting myself into a relaxed state. However, at the last minute I discovered I had left my dictionary at home, and had to rely on guessing the translations.  Then when we got into the exam hall, there was no clock, and of course, you couldn’t use your mobile phone. Instead of a clock, they tell you when a half-hour is up, when an hour is up, and when there’s five minutes to go (exam is 90 mins).  At the first time-check, I had two questions done, so after that, went into a spin, trying to answer enough to get through. After the exam, I discovered the last four questions, hidden on the back of the exam paper.

After this exam nightmare, all others fell into place, and I think I did okay. But the not knowing is a funny feeling. I don’t usually fall at the last fence; though I hate exams, I get through them with my own system.  Here, I’m right on the cusp of passing and failing, not knowing which side I’ll land on. They have no break here between classes and exams (no Study/Revision week), so while you are doing exams, lectures and seminars run as usual, and you can’t skip, because they are still giving out the info you will be doing in exams.  After this really challenging patch, I think I want to get a teeshirt with “Fail.  Fail again. Fail better” written on it, because, good old Beckett, that’s where the real learning is.

 

Having posted last week that we were having unseasonably mild weather, temperatures plummeted this week, and we got snow! On Monday, I stayed in all day and didn’t notice that the weather had changed dramatically.  When I went to pop out to LIDL, the pavement was an icy death trap and a neighbour skidded and fell just ahead of me. Monday’s black ice was a surprise all around – there was a big accident on the bridge above the U-bahn, where cars simply didn’t realise how icy the road was, and I overheard two people talking about how they were on the bus at this same bridge and lots of people stepped off falling flat on their face.  There was no hint of this the previous day, when it was “No Pants Day” on the U-bahn http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnudPNmwvSs   Not really something I need to join in with.

On Tuesday, we woke to a snowy landscape, and the Powers-That-Be had organised machinery to clear paths and throw out gravel, so it was a great deal easier to negotiate.  It has snowed on and off all week, though it’s more like flurries than heavy snowfalls, so everyone has got used to it. Because snow is such a feature for people like me, who haven’t experienced it much, every time it happens I re-live other snow moments in my life: Building a snowman in the back garden during playschool circa 1958; dancing in the heavy snowflakes with Anne Collins on New Years Eve 1962; sliding down the Burma Road on a tray; trudging up to Johnny Fox’s for hot whiskeys over Christmas circa 1972; thick snowdrifts seen from the night train from Bremen visiting Johnny Parle in 1973; a silent snowy wonderland in Bad Herrenalb in December 1976; Brigid and Niall, visiting us in Galway, sliding in snow, demolishing a stone wall in the Morris Minor in 1978; Eamonn and myself almost getting stuck in the mountains driving between Cork and Kerry, shortly after Christmas 1982; Clare as a baby, in a snowsuit, investigating the snow, in the Sierras, California over Thanksgiving, 1994; making a snowman in the back garden with Clare and friends during playschool in late snowfall, Good Friday 1998; bringing Clare over to Knockroe to toboggan with Esme and Nisa, and having a go myself, circa 2004; getting snowbound at home Nov/Dec 2010, then snowbound in Dublin the following week.

Here, it’s a very workaday attitude to the snow – just get it cleared and get back to normal, no standing around talking about it.  They are (of course!) exceptionally efficient – I woke up the other morning at 4.30, to hear the snowplough going past, getting the streets ready for the working population.  I thought loads of students wouldn’t bother to go in, but the classes were full. Today the sun thawed quite a bit of the snow, even though the air temperature was a chilly -7 degrees (tonight it’s dropping to -13 degrees).  That seems to be the low point and after that, it’s back to just cold, not freezing.  We turned on the heating this week, quite amazing to get to almost the end of January without heating.  Today there was blazing sunshine, so I walked again as far as Templehof, where children in snowsuits were pulling sledges along.  On the way back, I stopped in ALDI, which, in Ireland is usually considered to have better quality than LIDL, it’s sister-store (or brother-store, I should say – LIDL and ALDI were traditionally owned by rivalling German brothers).  Here, ALDI has oddly rundown stores, don’t carry everything you need, and have exceptionally rude staff (that usually means bad conditions).   Opposite ALDI is a strange business, I couldn’t figure out what it was – called “Zwiespalt”, it means something like “In Two Minds” and it was open 24 hours, for adults only.  I found out that it’s a sort of swinging club for bored marrieds.  You always imagine those places to be in the middle of town, not in a residential area, but I guess maybe you have a watertight excuse if you run into your boss there “Oh I must have the wrong place! I was looking for ALDI!”

I just came back from a walk to Templehofer Feld, which is quite near where I live.  Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day, but I barely got out of the house, as I was chained to the desk trying to get a presentation finished. Today there’s thick fog and it’s chilly out there, but even in Templehof, which is a big open space that used to be an airport, there was barely a breeze.  I went to walk among the community gardens – each person gets a small space that they build “constructions” on – raised beds, benches, chairs, little open-sided huts, bowers.  Since most people rent, the gardens are really necessary.  It’s astounding that the “constructions” don’t rot over the winter, but I guess they just don’t have the damp we have.  (If you came back from a walk in thick fog in Ireland, your coat would be sopping wet – here it was dry on my return) And it’s also wonderful to see that everyone can walk through the gardens, stop and look at what people have done, check out what’s still growing, and yet there’s no vandalism.  The weather has been unseasonably mild up to this, and even though there’s a dip in the temperature coming early in the week, long-range forecasts predict that temperatures will rise again at the end of the week.  Today I spotted birds in formation flying south – a bit late perhaps – and there’s no sign of our friendly local squirrel who springs around the bare trees outside the kitchen window.  I had to google whether squirrels hibernate, but actually, they do a sort of part-time hibernation.  They sleep when there is very wet or cold weather, and wake to eat from stores or forage when it’s milder.

After a long stint yesterday, I went out to meet up with a good friend, a Scottish woman who’s in the same class as me, who lives just near me.  We went to a new bar that had opened on her street. Typically, someone finds an old shop or closing business and does a fairly simple makeover, throws in the odd couch or two and a few barstools, and bobs-yer-uncle, you have a bar. They were having a launch night, so there was a loud DJ, which we would probably have loved if we were in the mood for dancing, but we wanted a chinwag.  Added to that, it was a small space with everyone smoking, so we didn’t stay long.  All the streets near the S-Bahn station have interesting bars/cafes and there are also pop-up galleries for art or clothing.  This is the beginning of gentrification, and we are part of the “problem”.  People like us can barely believe our luck, that we can rent in lovely quiet streets, near transport, for a portion of what we would pay at home.  However, the rents have traditionally been low in Berlin, and salaries too. So, lots of people who live and work here find that landlords bump up the rent a bit for outsiders, and then it stays at that level for Berliners too.  I was horrified to hear that the popular gay mayor here, Wowereit, privatised all public housing in Berlin in 2003, with a 10-year set of guidelines/rules to ensure the rents didn’t rocket.  Obviously, the ten-year honeymoon is over, and landlords are free to ask the tenant to leave when their contract is up (if he wants to use it for other purposes), or put up the rent.  I noticed that the Beetz shop was closed shortly before Christmas – an old-fashioned ladies and gentlemens outfitters/drapery shop, right on Hermannstrasse.  The items in the window were awful “old-dear” stuff, incredibly expensive, and I did wonder who the hell would ever buy in there, and indeed, how long they could sustain a business. When I went to a lovely veggie restaurant just before Christmas, they had a notice on the door saying that they were moving. When I asked about it, they said they had been there for 20 years, but the (new) landlord had firstly bumped up the rent, then, when they agreed, he said he wanted them out anyhow.  They were philosophical, saying they were going to another nice place.  I understand that rents can’t stay at 1990 levels, but it seems such a pity that there isn’t a middle way, so that people can feel respected and Berlin can retain some of it’s unique and wonderful vibe.

 

For a group so reknowned for orderliness, the Germans (or should I say the Berliners) sure surprised us on Sylvester (New Years Eve).  The excitement and noise of fireworks built up all day long, so that by the time we headed out shortly after nine, there were children and adults everywhere letting off fireworks.  On the U-bahn, people were letting off fireworks in the underground station, which was deafening, and twice the driver got off the train in the station and threatened to get young guys thrown off the train if they didn’t stop.  We had decided to go to Mano, a cozy bar right on Lausitzer Platz, and since we got there before 10, bagged a couch at the window.  Great crowd, great music, perfect atmosphere.  At twelve, the bartenders dashed around with free glasses of Sekt, and everyone stepped out onto the pavement to see the most amazing fireworks – people on rooftops, on the street, on balconies, at open windows, all firing off incendiary devices as much and as often as they could – and this lasted all night long.  It was funny to see people right beside you letting off tiny little fireworks while amazing ones lit up the sky, and the elevated U-bahn rattled overhead.  This must be their moment of power, of disobedience, of anarchy, and they want to do it even if nobody sees their fireworks.

Tons of Berliners leave Berlin for Sylvester, they find it too offensive, too noisy, too dangerous – and yes, there were tons of police cars, ambulances and fire engines on the go all night, presumably dealing with people who had burns.  It was a total surprise to us to see how mad the Berliners go – I’m very used to a population that speak quietly on their mobile phone on the U-bahn for fear of offence, always stand to the right on the escalator, follow all codes and rules to make life easier for society.  It’s like getting a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card, and going completely crazy. On the way home Goerlitzer Bahnhof, always a bit edgy, had two groups of youths squabbling over selling drugs (obviously a bonanza night for drug sales), and as I was trying to edge past, one genuinely concerned young man helped me through and shouted over to the squabblers “Lass die Oma durch!” (“Let the Granny through!”).

The following day, the roads were littered with rubbish – wrapping, spent fireworks, empty bottles of Sekt, and it remained that way for days.  Even now, the red dust of the powder is ingrained in the cobblestones, and the remains of the cardboard packing is mashed into the roadway.  I went back to University the following Monday, and had a tough week readjusting, while also saying goodbye to Barry.  All the dreams you have before a visit never work out exactly as you expected, you have marvellous moments, but a visit is like your life in microcosm, and you have just got into the right rhythm by the time it’s time to go home.  The rest of my week, I felt as if I had forgotten my German, couldn’t express myself in English, and was in dread of the mountain of work I had to tackle, which of course I planned to tackle over Christmas, and didn’t.  However, the week is over, things look better from this side of it, and I can be thankful that it still hasn’t snowed.  Happy New Year!

 

In the distance, what sounds like gunfire is actually young people unable to wait until midnight to light their fireworks.  This sound has been gathering pace over the last few days – the odd burst of fireworks lighting up the sky and the unmistakeable rat-tat-tat of firecrackers or the utterly terrifying boom of explosion surprised us at every turn.  If I were from Beirut or Belfast, I’d be well freaked out by now. We have had mixed reports of how New Years Eve feels in Berlin.  Our friend Derry, who was here last year, said it was totally comfortable, with no drunks, fighting or puking, just everyone having a good time (this was in comparison with Ireland).  Friends living in Berlin have booked in to a venue as they say it can be a bit threatening with everyone firing off fireworks.  Apparently, they are only allowed to sell fireworks between 28th and 31st December. Our local Turkish shop cleared a huge space to make up a display of different kinds of fireworks, and there were pop-up shops filled to capacity with fancy fireworks, just selling for today.  Most shops, restaurants and local bars are closed for New Years Eve night, and remain so until the 2nd.  One of the busiest pubs in the area closed from 23rd December until 3rd January, which seems very contradictory to an Irish mind – surely it’s premium drinking time? Well, since Berliners aren’t going to go wild on drink for New Years Eve, nor even for Christmas, perhaps they have enough money to go to the pub year round.

Christmas feels officially over here. There are still Christmas lights up, but there’s quite a few Christmas trees abandoned on the street. It used to be that nobody got a tree until Christmas Eve, when the mother of the house dressed the tree, complete with candles, and then let the children in for presents. However, I think these days people get their tree a bit earlier, and January 6th is the day the tree disappears for good.  For our own Christmas tree, I found a nice branch out near the University, and hauled it back on the U-bahn (quite a feat in itself!), painted it white and hung decorations on it.  Nic gave me a box of decorations that had belonged to his grandparents, to add to the tree, which meant a lot to me.  It seems like weeks ago that I dressed the tree, but it was just over a week.

As soon as Barry and Clare arrived, I railroaded them onto the S-bahn to head for a Christmas market, which was lovely, pretty and yes, Christmassy, with Church bells either side and the hokiest “pop” music on a large, almost empty stage, played by two middleaged men in anoraks (the Germans really are experts on this kind of cheesy crooning).  Christmas Eve, we invited some friends over for dinner and had great fun, this being the “real” Christmas event for most Germans. On Christmas Day, we walked over to Rixdorf, a little village just off Karl-Marx-Strasse, where we were booked in to eat.  And what did we have for our Christmas dinner? Really excellent Pizza! I really loved the fact that I broke the dinner tradition completely.  After dinner, we wandered up to Weserstrasse, where there is usually a selection of trendy bars, and found one open.  Since all the museums are open from Christmas Day onwards, we tried to fit in a few days of art tourism and murals, some strolling around cafes, and a day of Real Typical Tourist Stuff (tour of the Reichstag building cupola, Holocaust Memorial and Brandenburger Gate).  In between this, we did Christmas things – opening our stockings, watching videos, eating chocolate and tangerines.  The memory of this is now tinged bittersweet for me, as Clare returned home for New Years Eve, and we aren’t scheduled to meet until next May or so.  Leaving her to the airport was one of the hardest moments ever, and I even tried to catch a glimpse of the Ryanair plane on the runway, but couldn’t.  It simply points up how lucky I have been to have had so much time with her up to this.  Both of us headed back in to this week with a workload to face, her more than me, and both of us return to college next Monday (whereas Barry is off until Jan 20th).

During this last week, we had a bit of rain, but lots of dry days, some sun, and it wasn’t too cold.  Sunday, Monday and today, the temperature dropped, but it means crisp sunny days and frosty clear nights.  We walked each day, Sunday in the Tiergarten to the Café am Neuen See, too packed to have coffee unfortunately, Monday to the fantastic Russian War Memorial in Treptower Park and thence to coffee by Gorlitzer Park, today to Schillerpromenade to sit in Pappelreihe café and read.  Last night, the local bars, many of them closed for Christmas, were open for a night or two between holidays, and we did a bar-hop.  So amazing when my Cola (2.50 – but it’s organic or something!) is more expensive than Barry’s beer (2.00).  I lost my wonderful bag in the last café, a red cotton totebag that I got from a Psychology conference for students in Maynooth last year – fitted in so well here.  I went back today to try to find it, but the café (Laika, after the dog in space) was closed for New Year, so I’ll have to claim it next year.  Next year, which will be here in 6 hours or so, so funny to think of how we mark time.  Happy New Year everyone, here’s to fireworks, champagne, kisses and many more New Years to come.

 

Barry and Clare arrive tomorrow, Clare for a week, Barry for two. I hadn’t really missed them badly until this moment when we are almost there at the airport, hugging and holding.  And I can already feel the tug of the goodbyes that have to come at the end of their stay.  Everything about this year is an experiment.  We’ve tried out different ways of living before, but never with such long stretches apart.  At home, even when you’re deep in assignments and exams and are on another planet, you can take five and return to the family for physical support and care and love.  However, I know the patterns here – I’ve been through the academic year and have touched the hopelessness of November, the feeling of being out of your depth, of not having enough time, of almost giving up. But I also know how it is to be relieved and have such a sense of achievement after getting through exams, to see the Spring return, and to tackle a new hopeful term.

Here, our semester runs until the middle of February, and I will have a number of assignments, presentations and exams to get through before I take off my 6-7 weeks of Spring Break (mid Feb to end of March).  I have taken far more credit than I need for the first semester, in the hopes that I can take a bit less next semester, and enjoy a bit of sunshine come April/May/June.  I had blithely imagined that I would be reading and preparing over the Christmas break, but I now realise that it’s barely 2 weeks, during which time the family will be here.  In theory, I could work now, but I have a head full of cotton wool, and can only think of this coming week.

I went out last night to a great fun Improv Theatre night, in Café Tasso.  I was due to meet a friend, but she had a domestic crisis and had to bale out.  Most of my friends from college had already taken off for home all over Europe, and further afield.  I was due to meet up with some others, but another hitch ensued, and I ended up solo.  However, in Berlin it isn’t a problem, you just have to go to one of your favourite haunts.  Everywhere I went, and on the U-bahn too, there were less people than usual.  I was chatting to a nice woman from Friedrichshain about the lack of people, and she said Berliners love Christmas, because all those who belong somewhere else go back there for the season, and Berliners get to enjoy their city without crowds.  The level of smoke in the bars is just offensive in the winter – I guess people are less inclined to go outside to smoke, and there doesn’t seem to be any air conditioning.  I called in to see my friend Miriam, who works in a wonderful hole-in-the-wall sort of bar, and we chatted for a bit.  In the end, my eyes just couldn’t cope with the smoke and I had to leave – then once outside, I realised my clothes, my hair, everything smelled of smoke.  Did we all smell like this when we were young?  And how come my lovely roommates don’t smell like this – perhaps because they cycle everywhere – airing their clothes and hair en route?

I’m still debating about what to eat on the night of 24th December.  At home we usually graze on whatever is lying around, as the Big Day is 25th, but we hope to have some friends around on 24th. There are some people who can’t go home, who we’ve invited, if they’d like.  The University and all it’s buildings, including all the libraries, is completely closed for 2 weeks, and anyone living in student accommodation is surrounded by echoing rooms at this stage.  I haven’t decided what we’ll eat, and I don’t think it matters, it’s not really about food. We’ll have fun whatever happens.