I can’t say that I was enthusiastic about living in Schmargendorf when Annette first mentioned that her online searching had turned up an apartment there.  It’s not that I knew anything about the area, but the name made me think of Schmaltz, the solidified chicken fat that is enjoyed spread thickly on slices of brown bread.  My interest in the area was further tempered when I saw on a map how far it is from the more centrally-located, hipper locales like Kreuzberg, Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. But the location looked like it would work well for Rani’s school, and it is close to the Grunewald park.  The apartment itself is wonderful, and — the clincher, in Rani’s opinion — the kitchen cabinets are bright red.

Outside the center of the city, Berlin feels to me like a tapestry of towns. As the city expanded over time, it absorbed what had been outlying villages with their own town centers and neighborhoods.  I read that “Schmargendorf” was first recorded as the name of our area in 1354.  Through the 19th century, Schmargendorf was a small farming village on the outskirts of Berlin.  By the turn of that century, the village had its own local administration, and in 1920 it officially became incorporated as part of greater Berlin.

This area’s historic town hall or “Rathaus” is adjacent to Mamta’s school, one block over from our apartment.  It was built in the year 1900, in a style that is described as “Brick Gothic, with elements of Art Deco.”  The building survived WWII largely intact, although the explosion of a bomb nearby blew out the original stained-glass windows.

1 Schmargendorf Rathaus

Schmargendorf Town Hall

2 Rathaus

3 Schmargendorf Rathaus older

The “Rathaus” in former days

The Rathaus includes a restaurant in the cellar called — what else? — the Ratskeller.  In this case, Rat refers to a council or advisory board — like our hometown of Walpole’s governing selectboard — rather than to a rodent.

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Luxury Power?

Note: on 15Oct13, a version of this post was run as a guest blog at

Der Spiegel is a weekly German news magazine whose gravitas I might have placed somewhere between Newsweek and The Economist.  However, a recent cover story about Germany’s “Energiewende” did not strike me as particularly impartial or objective.

Wind turbines in the windy, rural northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Wind turbines in the windy, rural northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Energiewende literally translates as “Energy Turn,” but it is more typically expressed as “Energy Transition,” “Energy Transformation,” or “Energy Revolution.”  The term refers to the German government’s 40-year plan to restructure its energy systems to achieve specific energy-related and carbon-reduction goals.

These goals include:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020, and by 80 percent by 2050 (as compared to 1990 levels)

  • Phasing out the use of nuclear power by 2022

  • Reducing primary energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020, and 50 percent by 2050 (compared to 2008 levels)

  • Expanding the use of electric vehicles: 1 million by 2020, and 5 million by 2030

  • Increasing the percentage of energy from renewable sources to 18 percent by 2020 and 60 percent by 2050

A serious attempt at achieving these goals will require increasing the energy efficiency of all market sectors (housing, transportation, industry, etc.), dramatically expanding the use of renewable energy, and shifting energy-related attitudes and behaviors to a new paradigm.

One of my motivations for spending a year in Germany was to learn more about the Energiewende — to dig more deeply into the program specifics, and to find out how it is working.

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Nuts in the City

Mamta has been focused on nuts lately.  Not the kind of nuts for which Berlin is famous, but rather tree nuts — acorns and chestnuts, mostly.  Her interest, or dare I say obsession, came on gradually.  I noticed that getting from one place to another in the city seemed to be taking longer, and realized that it was because Mamta was constantly stopping to gather nuts.  She usually hands them to me for transport in my pockets or man-purse (aka bike messenger bag).  Shiny brown horse chestnuts are her preferred quarry, but she delights in finely-shaped acorns as well.  I began to wonder what was motivating this passion of hers, and why, for that matter, were there so many nuts lying around anyway?

1 brown treasure

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Public Transportation

This year abroad is giving my family and me an opportunity to experiment with our lifestyle. We traded a rural village in New Hampshire for the capital city of Germany.  Owning a house for renting an apartment.  Croissants from Burdick’s for broetchen from the neighborhood bakery.  And a car and a pick-up truck for…public transportation.

1 double-decker bus 2 riding the front 3 buses are fun

We don’t own a car in Berlin.  In fact, one of my goals, which is not necessarily shared by the rest of the family, is to refrain from buying a car while we are here.  The public transportation system in Germany works well.  We enjoy biking around the city.  Car-sharing services like Car2go and drive-now are available. Annette’s sister and her parents have cars we might borrow.  We could always rent a car in a pinch.

Prior to moving here, I was already familiar with the subway (U-bahn) and tram (S-bahn) services in Berlin. However, since our apartment is not close to stops for either, we have all been getting comfortable with the bus system.  It turns out that Google Maps is smart enough to know which buses go where, and when they leave.  And the buses generally seem to run on schedule.  Most of the buses that serve our neighborhood are double-deckers. Our favorite seats are on the upper level, all the way to the front. The views are great, and the motion of the bus, especially around curves, is exaggerated in a fun way.

Using primarily public transportation may sound good in theory, but there are times when I do miss having a car.  I am late for an appointment, I just missed the bus, and the next one is not for twenty minutes.  I want to get to IKEA to pick up a flat-packed set of desk drawers that would be unwieldy to carry back on my bike, but the trip that takes 15 minutes by car is over an hour by bus and subway.   Rani has volleyball practice across town that ends after dark, and she has to walk blocks through a graffiti-bedecked neighborhood to reach the S-Bahn station. Annette and I are headed home after a late night out, the buses have stopped running, and taxis are scarce.  Okay, that last one happened only once, but still…

Die Regenbogenfabrik

Annette and I are rich in bicycles.  Most are not thoroughbreds, but they are sturdy and reliable.  We pride ourselves on having them stabled in New Hampshire, Boston, Brooklyn and Berlin.  When Annette moved to the US from Berlin fifteen years ago, she left behind two bicycles which she stored in the basement of her parents’ apartment.  Her parents had given her one of these bikes when she was thirteen.  The other dates back to college. Over the years we have dusted off and used these bikes when visiting Berlin.

Within a week of arriving last month to live in Berlin, we had added to our collection of mounts.  We bought Mamta a new bike, in the hopes of bolstering her enthusiasm for bicycling — and to better enable her to keep up with us.  Annette’s sister Doreen and her husband Stefan both have two bikes each, and Rani and I were able to borrow their “seconds.”  Although not much to look at, Doreen’s older bike worked well from the get-go for Rani.  The bike I borrowed from Stefan needed some work: the rear derailleur cable was disconnected, the brakes were squishy, a fender was loose, the chain guard was kaput, and one wheel had a serious wobble.  Annette encouraged me to bring the bike to a repair shop to have it fixed, but I had other ideas.

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Learning German

Ever since meeting Annette in 1997, I have been trying to become fluent in German. Some years ago I realized that the only way this is likely to happen would be to live in a German-speaking country.  Now that we are here, I am reading German every chance I get, and trying not to shy away from opportunities to speak it.

I did not necessarily expect that our two daughters would be fluent by year’s end.  Rani is taking a German class at her high school, but the rest of her courses are in English. Mamta, however, ended up at the German elementary school around the block from our apartment.  This decision was more stressful for me than for her.  When I went to pick up Mamta after her first day of school, I was worried I might find her in tears.  Not exactly:

Mamta's first day of school

It may not be long before Mamta is more fluent that I.

By the way, the German Shepherd (just “Shepherd,” here) on the stairs in the background arrived at the school solo, picked up a student, and headed home.

I considered taking a language class to bolster my German, but decided instead to see if I could make steady progress on my own.  I recall my friend Darije saying that when he first came to the US from Yugoslavia, he learned a lot of English by watching television.  Back in New Hampshire we don’t own a television, and we try to ensure that our daughters don’t spend too much time in front of a computer.  Our apartment in Berlin came with a large television, and both girls know how to operate the remote (I still struggle with it).  Annette and I are okay with our daughters watching limited amounts of television here — “as long as it’s in German.”  I try to carve out time to join them.

A week ago we decided that when eating dinner together at home, Annette would speak only German to us non-native speakers.  I determined to join her in speaking only German. We figured the girls would speak whatever they liked.  Holding to this decision has proven harder than I would have thought.  It’s not just that Annette forgets; we all do.  Our noble intentions to practice Deutschsprechen at the dinner table are proving no match for the ease with which we communicate in English.


Stadtpalais am Roseneck — Exterior Insulation

Construction — both new buildings and renovations — seems to be thriving in Berlin.  A local example is the large apartment complex being built at the end of our block.  The image shown on the billboard out front is not in keeping with the spirit of the neighborhood, but it reflects real estate values that have been rising steadily over the past few years.

Stadtpalais am Roseneck

Stadtpalais am Roseneck

Just what the neighborhood needs?

Just what the neighborhood needs?

I walk or bike by the job site several times a day.  While I enjoy checking on the progress, I have also felt some version of “work envy.”  There is probably a word for this in German.  It would capture the feeling that I should be working on a project like that — a mixture of desire and obligation.  While passing the job site, I have even gone so far as to try to identify the person in charge — the site superintendent or project manager — to whom I would walk up and say, Here I am, ready to work, let’s go.  This fantasy quickly fades as I remember that I don’t yet have an official work permit.  More importantly, in thinking about our year in Berlin, I have determined that there are likely better ways for me to make use of the time than as a Handwerker at the local Baustelle.

The following photos focus on the exterior skin of insulation that is being installed on the cast concrete walls of the building.  Rigid insulation in the form of mineral wool or polystyrene foam is finished with stucco.  In the U.S. we would call this EIFS (“Exterior Insulation and Finishing System”).  Here in Germany, this seems to be the most common method for insulating new buildings and retrofitting existing ones.

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Mamta and I encountered these creatures while walking downtown the other day.

Sex education, Berlin style

Sex education, Berlin style

“What are they supposed to be?” she asked.


“What are condoms?”

I breezed through a 30-second lesson on how babies are made, and the role condoms play in sex.  I couldn’t tell from her reaction whether this was new material or a review course for her, but my description did elicit several grimaces.

When I had finished, Mamta thought for a moment.  I could sense the wheels turning.

“Have you ever used a condom?” she asked.

My turn to pause.


We left it at that.



Last weekend we headed north to the island of Usedom, on the Baltic sea coast.  Most of the island is part of Germany, but the border with Poland runs through its eastern end. During World War II, the Luftwaffe developed its V2 rockets in Peenemünde, a town at Usedom’s northern tip.

Usedom is one of the sunniest locations in Germany, and it has lovely beaches.  What were once small fishing villages are now primarily resort towns for a broad spectrum of visitors from Germany and abroad.

When we headed up to Usedom on Saturday morning, Rani got her first practice driving in Germany.

0 Rani driving in Allee

Several miles before the northern bridge onto the island, we ran into a monumental traffic jam.   After not moving more than a mile in over an hour, we gave up on our plans for a picnic lunch on Usedom, turned around, and found our way to the quiet hamlet of Lassan.

Lassan houses

Lassan houses

2 Lassan doorway

The town dates back to the 1100’s when it was established as a Slavic fishing settlement. Annette told me that after World War II, relatives of hers ended up in Lassan after being turned back from the border with West Germany.  From the picturesque harbor we followed a path to a lookout tower with lovely views across the bay to Usedom.  The wind was blowing hard — almost too much for the two kites that Stefan had brought.  But the sun was shining, and we had a fine picnic.

P1070375 (Large)P1070391 (Large)

Plattenweg (concrete plank road) from "DDR Zeit"

Plattenweg (concrete plank road) from “DDR Zeit”

P1070412 (Large)

View across the bay to Usedom

View across the bay to Usedom

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Ich bin ein Berliner!

Like most cities, Berlin is subdivided into administrative districts.  In size and character, these Bezirke seem more akin to Paris’s arrondissements than to New York City’s five boroughs.  The current configuration of twelve Bezirke was created in 2001, from the twenty-three that had previously existed.  Each Bezirke has its own mayor and local governing body, which are in turn subject to the city and state government.

Yesterday, Annette and I had an appointment at the Bürgeramt (“citizens department”) for Charlottenburg/Wilmersdorf, the Bezirk in which our neighborhood is located.  The Bürgeramt is in a large, non-descript building near the busy Fehrbelliner Platz.  We had previously been in the building last summer to inquire about public school options for our daughters.  Yesterday’s visit was to obtain official permission to reside in Berlin.  We had to bring a handful of documents, including passports, our marriage certificate, birth certificates for our daughters, and our apartment lease.  Our application was processed by an impassive woman who had clearly been doing this for years.  It was only when she was finally stamping Annette’s German passport that she cracked a smile and said “Jetzt sind Sie Berliner.”  Now you are Berliners.  Berlin stamp