24 January 2016

Num-num update

This week we were happy to find our baby blackbird Num-num was paying a visit to our windowsill.

It's been snowing and is very cold, so I'm not sure if he should be hanging around Berlin this time of year, but we are happy for his visit nonetheless.

(The start of his story can be found: Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Num-num blackbird in berlin hand raised

6 December 2015

How to speak German!

How to speak German

So you decide you want to speak German. But you've heard it's a hard language to learn.


Are you the following:

  • Enthusiastic?
  • Thinking of take a short German introduction course? 
  • Considering an intensive 4 week German language course? 
  • AND maybe you you might even consider immersing yourself in the culture and moving to Germany!? ,  and you decide to go to BERLIN!!!???? 
Guess what? None of that works  (by themselves), but don't despair, it all helps.


I am speaking from experience when I say the above isn't enough.

But I am enthusiastic?
Enthusiasm is a pre-requisite, but it's not enough on its own. If you aren't enthusiastic about learning German then forget it. The language is too hard and you won't make it. If you are motivated, read on!

But I took some school German and a short course as an adult?
This will all help, but the basic courses are, well, basic. At most you will probably learn how to count to 10 and introduce yourself. In your home country you might feel you have a good grounding, but get involved in a German conversation and you will be immediately out of your depth.

What about all these 4-week intensive courses I hear about?
These course are great....IF you do more than one of them, go to a decent school and are lucky enough to get a good teacher. 

Language learning is typically divided into levels, known as the Common European Framework - with A1 being absolute beginner and then leading up to C1 which is considered University ready proficiency. You can move on to C2 if you are super keen.

Each level is divided into two, so you have:
  • A1.1 and A1.2, 
  • A2.1 and A2.2, 
  • B1.1 and B1.2, 
  • B2.1 and B2.2, 
  • C1.1 and C1.2, and 
  • C2.1 and C2.2.
If you are a beginner, you will be enrolling in A1.1, and that is the first of the so called '4-week Intensive course'. Basically, if you do the 4-week course, you are only going to complete half of the level.

My experience with the '4-week Intensive courses' was not a good one but I have heard reports from other people who went to the same school say that their experience was very good. Sadly it's hit and miss. 

Ok, so stuff the courses, what if I move to Germany and just 'pick it up' as I go?

After my bad experience at the German intensive course, I decided I would just pick up the language through full immersion. That's how you learn right? That's the romantic notion of moving to another country and becoming fluent in the language in three months, but sipping coffee on the promenade and reading the local newspapers...isn't it? Well not if you move to Berlin. (I can't vouch for the experience if you move somewhere else in Germany).

So why can't you pick up German in Berlin? It isn't impossible, but most people struggle. Berlin is THE place to be in Germany, if not Europe, and people come from all over the world to experience the magic of being in Berlin. This melting pot of culture and language has meant that English seemingly rivals German as the primary language. It's also likely that you will be mingling almost exclusively with expats, so you hardly will ever speak German. You will speak about how hard it is to learn German for sure, but actual German? Nope. I've met lots of people from all over the world (and only a handful are German) and in order to communicate the group needs a common language, which is always English. So thinking of practicing your German at the pub each evening? Forget it.

So what is the answer?

There is no magic bullet. No app, no audio course, no 4-week course to get you fluent in a short time. The key is to learn the language (at least some of the basic grammar, and a lot of vocabulary) and then USE IT.

But you said you don't get to use it in Berlin?

This is where stringing a heap of intensive courses together into a coherent learning plan will work. Basically, you need to finish the B1 level to get any real sort of grasp of German. Assuming you start at A1.1, you will progress through A1 (minimum 8 weeks), A2 (minimum 8 weeks) and B1 (minimum 8 weeks). This will be a minimum of 24 weeks of solid learning, where you will only speak German in class, so you will be learning and using the language A LOT!

Once you get to B1, it will have all been worth it. You won't have spent 1, 2 or 10 years in Berlin hoping to 'pick up the language' and find that you still can't communicate at all. Yes, at B1 you will still struggle, but you will be able to handle almost any situation, express yourself, work in German even, and stand up for yourself when you need to (I'm talking about at the Bürgeramt, or any Amt for that matter!)

I've heard about an 'Integration Course', what is that?

The German Integration Course is required for some foreign nationals in order to get a German Visa. In my case I didn't need it, but undertook the course anyway. An incentive for completing the course is that if you successfully make it through (there are some exams) the Government will refund you half of the tuition money you paid!

I went to a Language school in Kreuzberg called Babylonia, a politically active school founded in the 80s (and seemingly not updated since then), located in a former sewing machine factory. 

How to speak German

If you look past the sparse furniture and lack of technology you will find passionate teachers and extremely helpful staff that want to help you, not only learn German but with your rights in Germany. They Government also provides an upfront discount in certain nationalities, so the course fees are substantially reduced in many cases...becoming much cheaper than the expensive private (and non-accredited) language schools.

Like any school, it's lecture based, following the BAMF curriculum and approved by the Job Center as a official language course provider. Most schools are 4-week intensive courses, and the skeptic in me thinks that this is the minimum time that they can get you in, take your money and then get you out. At Babylonia, each course step take 6 weeks, so each level takes 12 weeks.

To fully complete the Integration Course, there is also a 'Living in Germany' component at the end, which is an additional 3 or 4 weeks of learning Germany's history, culture and political system. I initially thought this would be a waste of time (because I already know it all...hahah) but soon found out that this was a fantastic opportunity to use everything we had learnt up that point in our in class conversations. We spoke a lot during the language courses and the 'Living in Germany' component and this was by far the biggest boost to my German proficiency. It gave me the confidence in a safe setting to speak out aloud, express myself and make mistakes.

How to speak German

At the end of the courses we had exams. People were nervous but in fact they were quite easy. At the B1 level the grammar is very tricky, but the exam focuses more on understanding and being understood, not so much the grammar. The language exam consisted of a listening test, a grammar test, a comprehension test and a writing test. Sounds hard but it wasn't.

The 'Living in Germany' test was super simple. There is an online practice site where you can run through 300 questions as much as you like. On the day of the exam, 33 questions from those 300 will be selected and you answer in multiple choice. Easy peasy.

Once you pass, the Government sends you some official certificates, which may be helpful to you in many circumstances, Visas, job applications, impressing your friends etc...

How to speak German

And once you have passed everything, you can apply to get half your money back! This takes ages (like 2 months) but hey, you get money back!!!

How to speak German

And that is the secret to 'How to speak German'!

22 November 2015

Deutschland 83 Film Extra

From time to time I work as a film extra. The most interesting project I have worked on so far is for the German TV spy drama mini-series 'Deutschland 83'.

My involvement with the filming was one year ago in September 2014, but the series is only now having its German premiere this week. It has already been shown in the U.S. and is apparently heralding in a new age of German drama (because everything else is mostly shit) and also was the first time a German production was shown in America in its original language (it was shown there with subtitles).

The way I get these jobs is through an agency that I am registered with. It starts with an email "We want you for x production" and I have to get back to them if I am available or not. In this case they wanted me as a 'featured extra' and for multiple dates. The email also stated that it was a period 80s drama, so some hair cutting may be required, but nothing major. I accepted and went to the costume fitting at a sound stage somewhere near Tempelhof.

When I got there, one of the production guys looked at me and said 'oh fuck!'. It was my hair. They had assumed from my agency photo that I had short hair, but in fact I had it in a long pulled back style. (yea I was rocking a pony tail....I didn't say it looked good!)

Deutschland 83 Film extra

We had a discussion with the make up crew and they said it all had to go. After a bit of deliberation I decided to let them shave it all off - I was in a conundrum about my hairstyle anyway and I really wanted to be involved in the project. Plus, they paid me 15 Euros for the haircut!

Deutschland 83 Film extra

The haircut was followed by a costume fitting, where they tailored a US army uniform for me...meet Private Edwards, playing a supporting role to one of the main characters, General Jackson.

Please excuse the quality of the following photos, filming policy is that you cannot take cameras on set, so these were taken with my very shitty iPod camera.

Deutschland 83 Film extra

Filming took place over the following months into December 2014. One day was spent filming a NATO scene (look out for me sitting next to the main character Moritz Stamm at some point).

Deutschland 83 Film extra
NATO scene. photo source: http://philipphaberlandt.com/images/d83.jpg
(i'm not in this photo)

Another day was spent filming at some fancy house out 'west' where I did some fine walking, standing and smoking work. Due to it being set in the 80s we were encouraged to 'smoke em if you got em'. In my cohort none of us were smokers and the producers needed at least one of us to smoke. I was too late to say no (because this was happening all in German and took too long to realise what was going on) but was able to insist on herbal cigarettes.

Deutschland 83 Film extra
Photo source: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/deutschland-83/s01/pictures/tv-8702/

Most of the filming work I was part of was in some former clinic looking place also in the west, used as the setting for a hotel. These was very long days and nights, where mostly I sat around waiting to be called for action. This experience is both very interesting and often incredibly boring with all the waiting around.

Hanging out with the other extras.

Deutschland 83 Film extra

Taking a publicity shot. ...again, HERBAL cigarettes, and not a herbal jazz cigarette as my mum thinks.

Deutschland 83 Film extra

Trying to get some rest on a bench.

Deutschland 83 Film extra

Wondering the corridors super bored.

Deutschland 83 Film extra

Watching a stunt scene where a woman jumps or is pushed off the balcony of the hotel.

Deutschland 83 Film extra

And taking part in a lounge and outdoor scene, where I chat with some ladies, and then retire for a smoke with my army buddies outside while the main character climbs the wall above us (I think).

Deutschland 83 Film extra

I also had a short filming day out in a Potsdam army barracks. In this instance my American buddy and I were put to the test in that I had to open a door, walk out, negotiate one step and then cross a street into another door. Complicated stuff. We still managed to ruin a few takes though with poor hat placement or bad timing.

All in all a mostly fascinating, but often tedious, experience! It seems so long ago, and then suddenly Berlin is blanketed in advertising for the series premiere on 26 November 2015.

Deutschland 83 Film extra

Deutschland 83 Film extra

Watch out for me :)

15 November 2015

Num-num is back!

Coming home from a walk yesterday, I spied a small blackbird in our courtyard.

Our little baby Num-num grew up quickly. I think once he was big enough to fly the family decided to leave our courtyard (you can read his story Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

The blackbird from yesterday was smaller than Num-num's dad, so I am choosing to believe that it is Num-num himself and he has decided to come home.

He's a bit jumpy around us and when I tried to get closer he flew up to the safety of a window ledge.

Hopefully we will see more of him :)

14 September 2015

Barney's Birthday Burger

So today was Barney's birthday, and we hadn't got him a cake...so I decided to knock him (and myself) up something special from my 'experimental' kitchen - and make him a Birthday Burger.

Through my backchannels, I'd gotten myself some 'Dampfnudeln' - Asian steamed buns. They've been quite boring really and I've been looking for something different to do with them.

I also had some Bockwurst leftover.

So, as I'm known to do, time to experiment with pretty much everything that was left in the fridge :)

I've been wanting some pork buns, dim sum style, so seeing as though Bockwurst is pretty much pork, this should surely work!

Step 1: Season buns with sugar, salt, pepper and butter (Like I said, these things are boring otherwise) and steam.

Step 2: After the buns have been steaming for a while, drop the Bockwurst  (only needed one for 2 burgers) in the water to warm up, while the buns continue steaming (efficient cooking!)

Step 3: Give it about 5 minutes.

Step 4: Remove buns, let to cool and dry slightly. Remove Bockwurst and chop into little bits.

Step 5: Add everything that is left in the fridge - Hot mustard, Sambal oelek, Currywurst Sauce, Mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Stir and fry.

Step 6: Assemble!!

Step 7: Chuck a candle in, sing happy birthday and watch the little doggie enjoy. We shared and I can say that I was quite pleased with the result. Barney was very happy with it too!

29 August 2015

Critical Mass Berlin

There's a world wide bicycle movement called Critical Mass which aims to draw attention to cyclists, their rights and infrastructure.

Naturally, in Berlin, as a big city that loves a good demonstration, the Critical Mass movement is popular here too.

Taking place on the last Friday of every month, I went along in August 2015 to check it out. Critical Mass feels like a movement I can get on board with, since moving to Berlin cycling is my main mode of transport,

An interesting thing about the way Critical Mass is organised, is that is pretty much isn't. All there is are set dates and meeting points. What happens after that seems to be pretty organic. This decentralised approach has lots of unstated advantages, but one of them is that 'we' needed register the event with the police - which is what you would normally have to do when running a demonstration.

So I went along to the meeting point, Heinrichlplatz in Kreuzberg, at the specified meeting time - 8pm. I was a bit nervous, not really sure what was going to happen, and sat on my bike amongst other similarly nervous looking people. Some cops were around, but that feels normal anyway in Berlin.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Just after 8pm, a few 'leader' took off down the street, including a pied piper like guy with a stereo system blaring from his bike. Slowly some of the waiting crowd, including myself, went with them. This led us the short distance down the street to the Mariannenplatz, which actually is a better meeting point. There were lots more people here. We waited in this place for about 15 minutes. I wasn't really sure what was going on, but with no clear leader I guessed the crowd was waiting for a peloton to break free to follow.

The first steps are the hardest. I tried to take my cue from two guys that had excellent stereo systems blaring. When they moved, I'd go too. If they were that prepared then surely they would know what was going on. The thing was, these guys didn't budge, so eventually a group did break free, people followed and we were off!

I followed this guy as his stereo blasted a live set of The Prodigy. Later on I found that a stupendously loud truck horn sound was actually coming from his boom box trailer set up. Handy for warning everyone, onlookers and cars that we were there - though hardly hard to miss.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

His system, and that of many others, put my two-light extravaganza to shame!

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

We rejoined the Heinrichplatz waiting cyclists and then together flooded the Orianenburgerstrasse. Hard to tell how many people were taking part...I was guessing a few hundred at that point. The pace was fender to fender and a bit frustrating at first.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Up around Moritzplatz, where I saw the first example of 'corking'. Corking is where other cyclists deliberately block the traffic to allow safe passage of the rest of the riders. You can see the yellow shirted guy in the middle of the picture and two by his side blocking the roundabout for our benefit.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

We got nicely free-wheeling after Moritzplatz and through to Checkpoint Charlie,

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

I especially appreciated our takeover of Leipzigerstrasse on the way to Potsdamer Platz. This is a street where cyclists are totally marginalised and can be quite a tricky road to navigate. This is where the Mall of Berlin has been built, which resulted in a couple of years of roadworks that forced cyclists into the path of traffic. Sharing that environment with big trucks, impatient taxis and the generally clueless has never been fun. Here a man in a DHL van was getting pissed off because of the blockage. Fuck him, I thought, I usually have to put up with 'your' traffic and worry for my safety. For one night you can just suck it. I kept myself in check thought - that mentality is not a good one and can lead to excess feelings of superiority, and altercations with motorists..,which happened later on. (not me!)

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

At the victory column I think there was a bit of confusion as to which exit to take. We took over the roundabout, circling it a couple of times before the police funneled us up towards Ernst-Reuter-Platz.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

It took me a while to read what this girl's backpack said...

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Eventually we ended up at Bahnhof Zoo, completely blocking the underpass in what felt like 'a moment' for the group. People were happy and it felt like a job well done.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

I thought the ride might have ended, but after something of a regroup we were off again down around the Ku'Damm.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

The ride took us out of this bright lighted area and into Wilmersdorf...which is a yawn of a place, but good, wide, and not too busy streets to take over. Corking was going on at every intersection.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Some of the altercations were starting to get a little more prevalent, with delayed motorists vocalizing their annoyance. It isn't really necessary to get 'up in someones face' but some people seem more up for it than others. As happened in this case where a cyclist and motorist engaged in a face off. A passing motorbike was called over to sort it out. I was surprised that the calls of 'Hey Bulle' were actually heard and acted on by the copper.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

The same cop, after sorting out that kefuffle, then sped ahead of me to join his colleague. I could hear him shout to his mate in German "This is so shit without radios". I felt sorry for them, they are just trying to do a job amongst unorganised peaceful chaos, and apparently without radio!

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

This is where is fell apart for a while. By Rathaus Friedenau the whole cycling group paused, seemingly confused as to where to go. I don't think the poor cops helped, as they blocked the oncoming traffic, and some of the riders, causing a big blockage!

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Which shut down the road for a while. The motorists had no choice but to wait.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Somehow the confusion got resolved and the movement pressed on, including a rare chance to ride through the Bundesalle vehicle tunnel...wooo hooooo.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

By now, particularly after the Rathaus Friedenau confusion, I had enough. My saddle was sore, but I wanted to stick it out. Eventually, after three hours of roaming Berlin, we hit the victory column again and made our way up the Strasse Des 17 Juni towards the Brandenburg Gate. It's always a powerful ride with that monument in your sights, regardless if you are alone or with a huge group...which by now I think must have numbered over a thousand, but you just can't tell.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

The Brandenburg Gate was the final assembly point, some milling around, and triumphant 'bike lifts' followed by a group clap at our efforts, signaled the end of a fascinating night.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

I found the experience to be something extremely surreal and special. The group, by sheer number, exerted such a powerful force across Berlin that normal road rules no longer applied (which they should!!) and had the police chasing around after us in a strange cat trying to protect the mouse game.

As I wrote earlier, there is a false sense of superiority that you gain by being in the group. Sure, you do gain safety and visibility in numbers, but this isn't an opportunity to be reckless, law breaking or an excuse to be a fuckwit. If those things happen, then Critical Mass will get a bad reputation, and do more harm than good for cyclists - there very opposite of what it hopes to achieve. Having said that, from what I saw, the crowd was there for the common good and have once again managed to successfully assert the rights and power of cyclists in Berlin.

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte

More information and future ride dates can be found at the Critical Mass Berlin website:

Update 30 August 2015: The twitter feed for Critical Mass posted this map of the route taken during the ride. You can see the southernmost route, which is Rathaus Friedenau, where I thought it kinda fell apart for a while!

Critical Mass Berlin Bicycle Rights Fahrrad Fahrräder Rechte