Wednesday, 26 September 2012

I'm trying to lose a button.

In my quest to see EVERYTHING that I haven't yet seen in Berlin, I took a trip to Kreuzberg yesterday with my good friend in furry legwarmers (featured above) to visit Knopf Paul, which presuming you haven't heard of it, is a button shop. Not that I was in dire need of buttons, though by the time we left I kind of felt like I was, but I had heard of Knopf Paul about a year or so ago and really fancied seeing inside. I guess part of it's draw for me is the visual effect of seeing just thousands and thousands of buttons on the end of tubes stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall, as soon as you enter.

The website doesn't do the place justice to be honest. This place is pretty amazing, and even if you aren't in need of a flash button to glam up a Primark coat (an excellent idea from my good friend of furry leg fame), I would highly recommend it as a place to stop by if you are in Berlin. If you were a collector of things as a kid as I was: stickers, erasers, marbles, etc, then this place will send a little thrill up your spine. It appears to have every button on the planet for sale. And the shop itself has a really nice olde worlde charm too. 

Mind you, I didn't feel entirely comfortable asking the (very busy) staff if I could go mad taking photos, so sadly I only took photos outside. These buttons are NOTHING compared to the wonderful selection they have inside. Seriously. Go there. Feed the hidden buttony desires you don't know you have. And once you've done that, you could feed your tummy too and head to Barcomi's for some lovely cake and coffee.

I also got the chance to take some more photographs of one of my favourite apartment blocks in Berlin. I love this building. Nothing about the architecture is particularly special, but I adore the way it has been painted. It's so bright and colourful I imagine that it would just add a bit of happiness to your day coming home to it. Plus, it would be dead easy to give people directions to your apartment. There are lots of brightly coloured apartment blocks in Berlin, but this is definitely one of the best. Isn't it lovely?

Knopf Paul: Zossener Strasse 10, 10961, Kreuzberg, Berlin
Barcomi's: Bergmann Strasse 21, 10961, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Monday, 24 September 2012

Filmpark Babelsberg: Lights, camera, disappointment

As part of my rushing around to see everything I can in the eight weeks I've got left, we took a trip out to Filmpark Babelsberg near Potsdam yesterday. It was the centre of German film-making with films like Der Blaue Engel starring Marlene Dietrich being made here. Since the Wall came down it has re-invented itself as a bit of a theme park. I have wanted to visit it since I got my very first Berlin guide book and saw a picture of some little higgeldy-piggedly houses that caught my eye. Finally made it: oh, just 2 and a half years later...

And you know what? I'd be willing to give this place a good review, because in fairness we did have a good time and it was all very nice and everything. We saw a stunt show which Hamish thought was amazingly cool as it had fast cars, punching, fire, explosions, people falling from high towers, blah, blah...possibly a little bit hammy for more grown-up tastes. We went on a little boat ride which had a waterway lined with large furry animals most of which seemed to look like they were um... pleasuring themselves. We did some other stuff and it was good like the 4d cinema, but what prevents me from being over-enthusiastic about it was that they charged us over 50 Euros to get in. Plus another 3 to park. All far too much for what it was. Universal Studios it aint.So that kind of coloured our trip to be honest. That plus the fact that Stevie couldn't stop looking at the map and going "but there must be more to it than this!"

But sadly not. That was it. If I were you I wouldn't be in a massive rush to go there unless you are a real German cinema and tv enthusiast. Leave it approx. 2.5 years, and maybe you'll be less disappointed (or they'll have dropped their prices, maybe. Or maybe not).

Flying kites at Tempelhofer Feld.

Sometimes your dreams aren't all they're cracked up to be. I've started a list (I am a great one for unfinished lists you know), and this list is all the things I think I will be kicking myself for if I don't see them/do them etc before we leave. I've stuck it on one of the kitchen units so that I can add to it as I come up with things. Stevie is going to participate in some of these things, but some of them I will do with friends and some i'll do with the kids and some on my own. I have the feeling that the medical museum might be one I'm doing on my own.... But in case you're wondering, I already have a date for the concentration camp. One of my friends has wanted to go, but her husband refuses, so we're teaming up. Stevie thinks we are beyond understanding. He can't see why anyone would want to go to a place where there was so much suffering. He asks "So, are you looking forward to your day out?". Then swiftly moves on to asking when we'll be boarding a plane to view some mass graves in Kenya. I don't know. It seems important to see it. That's all I can say. 

God, I'm cheery. Anyway. Moving on. Another thing I've been planning on doing is going to Tempelhof and flying kites with the kids. I've been planning this for so long but somehow the weather never seems to be right. It's always too sunny and not windy enough. I've had two kites in the boot of the car for over a year. They've been driving the kids nuts cause we NEVER take them out of the car. Anyway, a week ago we decided to try flying them at our local park, but lo and behold there was no wind, so we did a bit of running and dragging. But on our way back into our building a lady told me there was a kite festival happening at Tempelhof last Saturday, so we went. My good friend Sarah joined us too. She was in the mood for getting cat gut wrapped round her throat and ankles. 

The festival organisers seemed to have brought with them only a handful of big impressive kites. Certainly the poster in the u-bahn depicted things an awful lot more exciting than reality. Most of the kites were pretty regular ones brought by everybody else there to see the fancy kites. We were however very impressed by the big kite made out of umbrellas (see above) and some of the circular kites. We were somewhat less impressed with the two I bought in the Ihr Platz sale for 2 Euros each. Hamish in fact could have been described as 'incensed' for most of the afternoon, thoroughly frustrated by his Thomas kite that kind of broke in the wind after 2 minutes. He spent the rest of his time moping and repeating "Ugh, I just want to go home now (via an Imbiss)". Kids, huh, they drain the fun out of everything.

Monday, 17 September 2012

A brief history of houses

"Have you started looking for somewhere to live?" is the question I'm hearing on an ever-increasing frequency. "No, not really. It's much too soon." I say. Who am I kidding? I have had a rightmove addiction since I first discovered how effective it was for whiling away hours at work and how much it satisfied my secret craving to nosey around people's homes.

We always liked to move every couple of years when we lived in Derby. We started off in a little house that Stevie rented which was frankly awful. Stevie and his flatmate bought a household of furniture off some guy (probably in a pub) for about £20. This included fridge, freezer, washing machine, disgusting sofa with hideous pattern that was loud enough to disguise some of the stains, but not quite enough to hide the holes. They also had a selection of bar stools (the only other seating, and really, more preferable than sitting on the sofa), and a tv on a stand which I called Evil Edna. If you are familiar with Willo the Wisp, a cartoon on British tv a couple of decades ago, then you'll know exactly what kind of tv I'm talking about. Let's put it this way, it had no remote control, and if you wanted to watch BBC1 after watching ITV then you had to switch the tv off and then on again because you could only go forwards with the channels and not backwards. And that was if the tv didn't decide to switch itself off in the middle of whatever you were watching anyway.

The rest of the furniture was pretty grim, and still when I think of the bed we slept in I have to think of something else very quickly instead or I soon start dwelling on how many people might have died in it.I'm sure the very first item of furniture we bought together was our bed from Habitat because I was in a massive rush not to get scabies from that bed. Happy days, huh?

Picture 15
A 4 bed cottage with a heated pool the size of a large bath? YES! Who cares if it rains: I'll be wet anyway!

Shortly after we bought our first house together in Mickleover, in the outskirts of Derby. A small two bedroomed terraced house which had a tiny kitchen and a bathroom with a louvre door so you could hear your guests peeing from downstairs, and even watch them if you chose the right moment to go up the stairs and angled your eyes the right way. Oh, but we loved that house. It was tiny but it had great streams of light pouring into it, we'd just discovered 'laminate' and thought it was AMAZING, and I solved what I thought were the kitchen and bathroom's worst problems with my discovery of tile and grout paint. Alas, not everything was perfect: I hated the leaded windows (leaded UPVC seems to be a love it or hate it subject. I caught a property programme when I was back in Scotland the other month and there were still people on there going "Oh I LOVE these windows!".) and after writing off our neighbour's car at 6 in the morning and then howling on his doorstep about how sorry I was, it seemed time to move on.

This would be perfect for a ping pong table. I could make pancakes at the same time!

Our next house was a new-build in a new estate in Chellaston. A bit more space, an extra bedroom, a bigger kitchen now we were more experienced in cooking pasta. It was perfect. Except that it was kind of soul-less, and you needed a car to get anywhere, and we had a neighbour from hell. It was the house we brought Orla home to and I quickly realised as I wandered around with her in the pram that during the day there was literally no one else around, everybody was at work. We missed Mickleover.

Music Room
My hobbies are broad ranging. I like listening to live harp music while riding endless miles on my rocking horse.

And so back we went. A 3 bed semi, but great sized rooms, brilliant bathroom, and we loved it. And then we came here for a couple of years. But what's next? In reality what we rent is not so important to me; I don't see it as a long term move, but I am enjoying rightmove in the meantime!

Picture 12
At last we can live the dream! A dedicated ping pong room with a commode in the corner!

All pictures courtesy of

The Botanic Gardens

All of a sudden, it feels like the race is on! We spent some time on the phone last night to friends who lived out here in Berlin when we first arrived. They left around Christmas of our first year here and went back to the UK, and we really missed having them around here once they'd gone. Last night not only reminded us of how much fun we'll have catching up with friends once we're back, but also acted as a reminder of all the things we want to see/do/eat/experience here before we go. I must make a list!

In fact, one of the things which I have always meant to do since coming here is visit the Botanic Gardens in Steglitz. And as it happens, yesterday we did just that. So what can I say?

Well, the overriding feeling I got was that it was totally wasted on me. I wish I had more of an interest in plants and knew more about them, because I reckon there were a lot of things that would have been really impressive. I may well have barely given such things a momentary glance. But, despite this, we all had a nice time. I 'packaged' this trip as a 'conker hunt' to the kids. Otherwise there would have been endless moans from both of them at the prospect. To their joy we found one big conker. Just one. But it was the biggest one we've ever found. 

And they weren't too disappointed by the other things they saw. The banana tree/plant (I know!) blew their socks off, especially as they wanted to ask for a leaf from it to take to show and tell until they realised they'd struggle to get it on to the bus it was so huge. The stepping stones were also a massive hit, especially with the added thrill of potentially falling into the water where the fish were. 

All in all, despite our lack of knowledge, we had a really nice time, just wandering round, gazing at pretty things. I'm glad we went, and maybe one day I'll have a bit more botanical knowledge to appreciate it more. Doubt it, but you never know.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Derbyshire welcomes careful scholars

Ta-da! Absolutely no prizes for guessing that we're going* to be moving, not to Derby, but to Derbyshire. Forgive me for not being more specific, but as yet I'm not sure where exactly we'll be living, and also, much as I like you all, the illicit pretzel factory I'll be operating from my kitchen needs to remain just that. Can't have the police turning up to drag you lot away from peering through my windows while I am trying to produce enough pretzels a day to keep my little German's happy.

I managed to get the kids places at a school deemed 'satisfactory' by Ofsted. but I quite happy with that, as a friend of mine has her son there and they are all very happy with it. I'm never 100% convinced entirely by Ofsted reports. Schools and nurseries have enough advance warning of inspectors coming that they have time to brush up their act. On top of that if any points are highlighted they are told what they are and when the inspector will be coming back to see if they've sorted it out. Shouldn't be too hard to sort it out, but then again...

Mind you I am basing these views on the nursery reports, I think the schools take into account levels of achievement, so it's not that easy. Even so, a friend went through all the Ofsted reports, chose a nursery based on that, the (high) cost, and a visit, where she inspected how clean the toy boxes were, and still ended up removing her child after a while because they were feeding her 9 month old baby giant chocolate muffins and hotdogs, and leaving him sitting in filthy nappies for hours on end until official nappy changing time. So you can't always tell.

Anyway, I was happy with the decision and happy with the school and then...

Someone told us about another school which might have places. Kind of out in the middle of nowhere, very small, and outstanding according to what we've heard. And so, we now have 2 new school places where the kids will start in December, and now things feel really right. I have reignited my loving relationship with Rightmove and have been pre-browsing houses for rent in a giant radius surrounding this school. I'm struggling a bit with Britain's love of pattern - there are an awful lot of wallpapers for rent that would make your eyes bleed. Still, awesome fun!

* That's if nothing else changes between now and then, and who knows, it probably will.

(And yes, these photos have nothing to do with the content of the post, but we were at the Berlin Air Show yesterday.)

Monday, 10 September 2012

The one where I can't get my kids into any local school

"You'll find that everything's changed while you've been away". Fool that I am, I wasn't quite sure that that would be the case. I read that quote in an article about the perils of repatriation. Turns out, after an initial toe dip into 'sorting' things out for our return, I discover that in fact things have changed quite a lot and in ways we never thought would affect us. Let me tell you a story...

We have a house in Derby. A house in a nice area that we chose because we liked it, the area, and the schools round about it. We fully intended giving our tenant notice that we would be moving back, but then I spent a morning on the phone to various local schools and the local council to see where I might get school places for Orla and Hamish. Let's just say, I hadn't foreseen it being as problematic. I started off by phoning the school I would prefer them to go to, which told me that they were fully subscribed. Then I phoned the council to see where there might be places locally, and was told there *might* be a place in Reception for Hamish, but not one in year 1 for Orla in one of the schools near our house in Derby. This particular school was bottom of my list in preference, but I have heard that it has improved a bit.

So I thought I might as well phone the school and see whether they *might* have a place for Orla too. Ugh! Nothing. Not for year 1 and not for reception either. The school told me they were having 90 kids starting in Reception which kind of shocked me. I was flummoxed: not a single school place in Reception class across 4 schools in our area of Derby? That's over 300 places! Let me just say that when I was walking around a few years ago with Hamish in the pram, the place was not teeming with babies the same age as him.

In fact, before we left for Germany I phoned the education department to get an understanding of what we would need to do to get the kids into school on our return. I was told that we might not get our first choice but that we would definitely get our catchment school. In fact, it wouldn't be a problem. Hmm.... And now everything has changed.

And at the end of a long morning on the phone I had in front of me the following options:

A) move back to our house and send the kids to two different schools (there are/were only 5 with places in Reception across the whole city) in different corners of the city.
B) move back to our house and send them both to the same school - of the 5 schools mentioned above, 2 also had places for Orla in year 1. Both of these schools are special needs schools.
C) move back to our house and send them to private school. I would need to get a job before our return that would allow me to fund this.
D) move out of the area into Derbyshire, as opposed to Derby, where the problem is less acute.
E) forget all of the above, and stay in Berlin which would require taking both kids out of their current school, putting them back into Kita and hoping with fingers crossed that both could get places in the bilingual school with Orla starting in 2013 and Hamish in 2014.

So what would you do?

And why am I unable to send my children to any of our local schools? According to the local council their has been a baby boom. A baby boom which wasn't apparent 3 years ago in our area. According to someone else I spoke to in the council the problem is down to immigration. A bit of Googling on the 'lack of primary school places in England' brings back lots of newspaper reports agreeing with this. And the more you tell people that you can't get your kids into school when you return, the more you hear stories of people who have found themselves in similar situations. What's going on?

And what do you think we have chosen? Answers on a postcard in the comments please!

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Turmoil in the house of Fiona

Hamish is a few days into starting school, I've just paid for and received 24 kg of assorted stuff to be shipped over here, and I'm not long back from a trip to Scotland which left me ranting and moaning about the state of life and obesity and everything else in the UK. And what does it all add up to?

We're moving back.

That's right.

I can hardly believe it myself.

And what's more, I don't feel too terrible about it.

Not that it's not without it's complications, and changes of heart, and hours and hours of discussion on whether we stay or go, but I *think* we're settled. I feel pretty certain that I am making the right decision for us as a family. More to come!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

School begins. Bye, bye, baby!

5 years doesn't take long does it?

In fact, forgive me (especially any of you who might be child-free) for a moment while I do that thing like old people who go on about how once you get old the years just fly by. I feel old today. Hamish has gone off to school, and that's both my babies all grown-up---ish and at school, and it seems so fast and like it was only yesterday I was mopping the sick from my hair, shoulders, back, sofa, cushions, floor that my lovely refluxey babies produced endlessly as a sign of their love for me, and now look:

Stevie laughed at his little black socks and his little 'suit-like' trousers, just like daddy - though Daddy would turn up his nose at an outfit with such a high polyester percentage!

For Orla it was a thoroughly exciting day, as she got to show off her wee brother and feel more grown up now she's in year 1, and also she had her Schultute ceremony. I had assumed that it would be first thing in the morning as parents were expected to present the Schultute, but as I gave up on plowing through my emails from my week away, I missed the email which told me that it was going to be at lunch time. Which was a bit of a bugger as I can't get to the school at that time and Stevie couldn't take time off work. So there's my first parental fail of the academic year!

The photo therefore comes courtesy of one of the other mums.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Like I say, I'm not immune.

It's very likely that this could be the last time we have the joy of racing back to Berlin and waiting for a big box of goodies to arrive. So this time I thought I would share with you the kind of crap essentials that I buy to make my expat life more complete. The theme of this box is 'back to school meets supermarket sweep'. Enjoy it in all it's glorious minutiae. 

So where to start. Shoes! Kids shoes in Germany are far more expensive than in the UK, and although many Germans will argue that their price here reflects better quality, it's not really true. Shoes are just ridiculously expensive, and if I can time a trip back to coincide with a need for shoes then I'm happy. So from left to right (below) you can see where I started to go a bit shoe crazy: Orla got school boots, snow boots, Hamish got snow boots too, then Orla's school shoes, then Hamish's school shoes, both sets of trainers for sport at school (all from Clarks), pink sparkly wellies for Orla - from Mothercare (I managed to leave Hamish's at my parents) and lastly purple Nike trainers for me which were a bargain and bought with a voucher left over from Christmas.

Next up you can see some PE shorts, a Sylvanian Families Wedding Car, one of three cookbooks I had waiting on me that I had ordered from The Book People (Rachel Allen's 'Entertaining at Home, Delia's Complete Cookery Course, and I got Jamie's Great Britain for free.). And just before we went to Scotland I decided what I really needed was an ice cream machine. I found this one on Amazon UK for just under £20 and it gets great reviews. My first try was a little disasterous, but I am sure it will be great with a bit of practice! Anyway it was probably the heaviest thing in the box as it has a double walled insulated bowl which is really heavy.

Next up, clockwise from top left, a cake mould which is 6 little gingerbread men that I couldn't not buy from Wilkinson's, which is lying slightly on top of 2 double sheets which really are dirt cheap in Tesco. Next are a couple of things left over from Christmas which I decided to squeeze in for the kids: foam letters and foam face parts which I bought in the sale at the Early Learning Centre. Below them are some glittery craft shapes (always going to be handy for school projects! Though probably for me and not the kids!). Two books I picked up in Tesco, as I feel our bookshelves really do need a good refreshing. Two little tops and a card for one of my friends who has just had a baby boy, some food clips which are smaller than the IKEA ones, a DVD, and 3 bottles of Mr Muscle Kitchen Cleaner (yes, I know I could buy kitchen cleaner here, but I just like this best). Oh and right at the top is an extra large pencil case for all of Orla's felt tip pens.

Again from top left, I went a wee bit mad in Wilkinson's as everything seemed such a great bargain. I bought 12 (2 packs) of star shaped silicone cupcake cases, 2 children's mixing spoons, some stationary on a 4 for £1 deal that I could put in the kids Schultutes (though I brought a carrier bag more of this in my hand luggage for that purpose), 2 Crayola craft kits (maybe for presents?) and an awful lot of starry cupcake cases in paper. It always surprises me that while Dr Oetker is a German company, the range in Germany is far more limited than it is in Britain. Odd.

These things are all sitting on box number 2 which contains books I had sent to my mums ages ago. I bought the full range of Roald Dahl books for the kids - I think Orla is just about the right age for me to start reading some of them to her. I bought the cookbooks mentioned above, and a set of Harlan Coben books that my mum recommended but which I have never read. In front of the box is some chocolate, the kids don't see much white chocolate here and you don't really get buttons, white brown or otherwise, so...

Below those are some more craft things, patterned papers, glittery paper, and dinosaur stickers. Below those are some Winnie the Pooh cookie cutters (which were meant to be in a Christmas gift for someone, but which were discovered at my parents) and 3 packs of Crayola felt tips which can go into presents for school friends as a wee extra.

Now you can see at the top the tripod my dad bought for me in Aldi or Lidl which I used last night while a bit drunk at my friend's party. The purpose of which is to stop any camera shake, but weirdly the amount of alcohol I drank still seems to have affected the focus of my photos. Oh dear. Then a Lego book also from the Book People which contains Lego and guidelines on how to make about a dozen little toys. A swim cap and googles for Hamish's school swimming lessons, a blue stripy top (part of a set of 2) and a bear hat for Orla from M&S. Cream cable knit leggings from Tesco for Orla which I thought looked warm for winter under dresses. Make up from Boots for me. I planned on stocking up but they are changing the packaging this week, so all the old No.7 range was in the sale and there wasn't much left to buy. Two shopping bags from Tesco, a Cars jigsaw we never shipped back at Christmas, and some plasticine (perhaps left over from Christmas??)

Beside Hamish's swimming cap are a selection of DVD's from Granny Margaret, some tights from Mothercare for winter for Orla, a nice bright cardi from M&S, 1 pair (from a pack of 2) jogging bottoms for Hamish, and enough clasps to hopefully restrain Orla's hair until at least Christmas. I have stopped buying clasps that cost much as she seems to lose them on a near daily basis.

Beside the coloured tights, there are tights for school and a million pairs of pants for both kids, Orla's £3 for a pack of 5 from Tesco, and Hamish's £7 for 5 Fireman Sam ones and half price £3.50 for Thomas ones, both from M&S. Below those some swimming trunks in the sale for Hamish for his weekly swimming lessons, and packs of school socks for both of them from M&S.

 Finally, packs of vests for winter for both kids, 2 of Hamish's 'guys', a whole bunch of underwear for me, 3 pairs of pirate mix and match pyjamas for Hamish from M&S, a tankini for Orla in the next size up (it was in the sale), and 2 plain white polo tops which I can potentially sneak under their school jumpers even though they don't have the school logo. These were priced at £2 for a 2 pack in Tesco! And that's not even a sale price. And there we have it. Back to school shopping (more or less) in a nutshell.

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