Friday, 22 June 2012

A Helpful Polar Bear

If you want to get directions in Berlin, don't ask a Policeman, ask a ... polar bear!


Spotted at Friedrichstraße Bahnhof this morning.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

German False Friends

A linguistic 'false friend' is a word you come across in a foreign language that looks almost exactly like an English word, and you think 'ah yes, I know what that means!'. However, its true meaning can be very different from what you think.

For example, the noun gift is something that is 'given' in English, and often something nice. 'Das Gift' in German though is 'poison'; a gift as a present is 'das Geschenk'. Curiously though, something given as a marriage dowry is in German 'ein Mitgift'.

Other northern European languages have a similar confusion: in Sweden, Norwegian and Danish 'gift' means 'poison', but also 'married'! There is surely some root word that used to have the sense of something given to someone else, but in English this has come to mean a pleasant thing, whereas elsewhere the given thing is either associated only with a bride that is give away, or something to be distrusted.

Another type of false friend are English and other foreign words that have been absorbed into German, but don't mean what they do in their host country. A few that spring to mind are 'das Handy' (a mobile phone), 'das Evergreen' (a golden-oldie song, not a fir tree), 'der Oldtimer' (a vintage car), and 'das Menü' (a daily special in a restaurant, not the list of all items which is 'die Speisekarte').

Sometimes these words have become generic terms rather than specifics, so in the supermarket you might look for 'marmalade' expecting a preserve made from oranges to spread on your morning toast, only to find that all jams are 'die Marmelade'. Similarly all sweet fizzy drinks are in German 'die Limonade', not just the lemonade it sounds like (but don't forget, eine Limone is a lime, not a lemon ('Zitrone')).

Oh, and thinking about marmalade again, don't confuse 'das Präservativ' as being a jam or other preserve; it is the German word for a condom!

Here are a few more false friends that might cause confusion:

If something is aktuell, such as 'aktuelle Informationen', it isn't the 'actual' information (rather than something that isn't really). It means 'up-to-date' or 'topical'. The proper German adjective you really want to mean 'actually' is in effect 'eigentlich'. 


bald means 'soon', not follically challenged ('kahl' or the amusing 'glazköpfig'). So 'bis bald!' means 'see ya soon', not 'until your hair drops out'.


If a dog is brav it is well-behaved, not 'brave' (which is 'mutig'). 'Sei brav!' means 'be a good boy/girl!'.


bekommen means 'to get', not 'to become' (which is 'werden'). So if you say 'ich bekomme einen Zug' you are getting a train, not becoming one.

Ein Chef or eine Chefin is a boss of anything (as in French), not just head of a kitchen ('Chefkoch/Chefköchin' or 'Küchenmeister/Küchenmeisterin' if you are talking about Jamie Oliver).


delikat means 'delicious', not 'delicate' ('empfindlich', 'zart', or 'fein'). The English loan-word Delikatessen can only make sense if you know this!

School-child favorite now: eine Fahrt is a journey, not a fart ('Furz'). And Vater is 'Father'. Stop sniggering at the back there!


fast is 'almost', not something that is moving with speed ('schnell'). And whilst we are at it, fasten doesn't mean to tie something together ('anheften'), but to abstain from something for religious reasons ('to fast').

Something that is genial is not pleasant and enjoyable ('angenehm'), but brilliant and ingenious. Stephen Fry is of course both.

A Gymnasium is a secondary school, not a place to work out in ('Sporthalle'). This isn't so easy to confuse if you hear it spoken, as the 'Gym' part is pronounced not like 'jim' but 'gum'.

Ein Hut is not a small habitable shack ('Hütte') but a 'hat'. Doubly confusing is that the plural of 'Hut' is 'Hüte'. When it comes to deciphering the town East of Berlin Eisenhüttenstadt you can really get your knickers in a twist, especially if you mistake 'Eis' ('Ice') with 'Eisen' ('steel'): town of ice huts (igloos?) ? - town of ice-hats? - town of iron hats? - town of iron huts? Actually Eisenhütten are iron foundries. The town was originally founded with the name Stalinstadt, and of course the dictator's alias Stalin coincidently comes from the Russian word for steel.

If someone says they have seen an Igel in their garden, they don't mean an 'eagle' ('Adler'), but a hedgehog. So now you won't get a strange image in your head if they say they have been feeding it bread and milk.

If something is komisch it is more likely strange, weird or odd, rather than comical ('lustig'). That said,  Komische Oper is neither odd nor comical, just not very serious.

komfortabel flat isn't necessarily 'comfortable' to live in ('bequem'), it is downright luxurious.

das Krankenhaus is not a place for nutjobs ('cranks', in German 'Spinner'), but is a hospital. This is the only German word my Mum picked up from our first visit to Germany, and still causes her to giggle when she sees it. Bless!

Eine Meinung is an opinion, not a meaning ('Bedeutung').

Mist is dung or bull-shit, not a damp meteorological phenomenon ('Nebel').

I don't know in what context you would call a woman a 'nut' ('Nuss'), but definitely don't get it mixed up with the German word Nutte, which means a slag or whore.

If something is described as prägnant it is concise or succinct, not in the family way ('schwanger').

A Puff is curiously a brothel. Maybe because a lot of huffing and puffing goes on there.

Ein Rat is a council or piece of advice, not the furry rodent that spreads the Plague ('Ratte'). Hence a Rathaus is where the mayor met with his advisors in times gone by, not a description of the vermin who infest the town hall chambers.

If somebody is sympathisch it doesn't mean they have a shoulder to cry on or are sympathetic with your situation, though they might be. It means they are likable, friendly, and congenial. A 'ganz sympathischer Typ' is a really nice dude.

tasten means 'to touch', not to taste (which is 'schmeken'). A Tastatur is not a 'taste of the door', but a keyboard.

If someone is going on about a Wand, they are not a Harry Potter fan (his wand is a 'Zauberstab'); they are talking about a wall.

And last but not least, though the verb wichsen is pronounced the same as 'vixen', the verb means to do that thing your parents said would make you go blind. Not to be confused with Fuchs, which is a fox


Confusing false friends is generally not a big deal. Now and then though it can throw up mis-interpretations to send you reeling. For example, at the moment in Germany a group of Salafist Muslims has a campaign aiming to hand out 25 million free copies of a German translation of the Qur'an in order to educate non-believers. Unfortunately the German exhortation to READ! is LIES! (from lesen, 'to read'). Oh my, oh my.



Sunday, 17 June 2012

Berlin Through The Looking-Glass

I wonder how many people passing through Senefelder Platz have actually looked at the statue of Alois Senefelder there? I mean really looked at it.

If they did, they would notice that his name is being written by the child as if through a mirror. Another kid is shown reading it through a looking glass.

What's going on here then?


I would be amazed if you said you knew who Prague-born Alois Senefelder was, but his singular invention in the late 1790's had a great and long-lasting impact on the spheres of European art and literature.

Senefelder, an actor and playwright, fell into debt over problems getting his play 'Mathilde von Altenstein' printed. This while having to support his widowed mother and eight siblings. He couldn't afford to print and publish a new play he had written, so in desperation he invented an original etching technique by writing with a greasy acid resistant ink on slabs of fine-grained limestone. In this way he invented 'printing with stone', or lithography.

This process revolutionised the printing industry, and led to the cheap and high-quality reproduction of literature, newspapers, and artwork through-out the world.

Of course, to show the right way round when paper is placed onto the inked stone, the writing has to be etched in a mirror image, and that is why his sculpture (by Rudolph Pohl) is so unusual. When it was erected here in 1892, a hundred years after his invention, the square was called Thusneldaplatz. It became Senefelderplatz in 1894.

So, Alois Senefelder was the inventor of lithography then. That's another fascinating fact you can amaze your friends with as you pass through Senefelderplatz on the U2.

Or not.

Prenzlauerberg Balconies

You should never just keep your eyes at street level when walking around Berlin. Interesting things are happening above your head too.

Look up!

And see ...

The balcony cat is watching you ...


And a family of gnomes have taken over this second floor flat ...


Monday, 11 June 2012

Britzer Garten

Bridge over the lake at Britzer Garten
Over the past couple of weeks we have been to the Botanischer Garten, and the Gärten der Welt in Marzahn. This weekend, in markedly less sunny weather, we visited the Britzer Garten in SE Berlin.

The Britzer Garten was created for the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Garden Show) of 1985. These Bundesgartenschauen - unfortunately abbreviated to BUGA - have occurred bi-annually since the first in Hannover in 1951. Their initial purpose was to rebuild city parks destroyed by the war, and to encourage visitors to areas in West Germany suffering economically, meanwhile promoting horticulture and horticultural architecture. They continue to this day, and in fact there will be one in Berlin in 2017 on the large open space left by the closure of Tempelhof Airport. There is a bit of controversy about whether national taxes should still go to fund these creations, but if anywhere is in need of a bit of landscaping, it is Tempelhof (it's like a bleeding airfield for chrissakes!).

The Britzer Garten is (Überraschung!) located in the Britz quarter of Neuköln. This isn't the area where ex-pat Brits live, but is actually the name of a village that was swallowed up by Berlin as part of the Greater Berlin Act of 1920. The village feel has long-since gone, and this is an area of high-rise Plattenbau, although in contrast to Marzahn these are of West German FDR construction. It can be a bit of an adventure to get to, and we found the best way for us involved the S2 station at Buckow and a couple of bus-rides.

The garden is pleasant enough. It is centred around a large lake with an architecturally interesting restaurant - Café am See - that looks like Antoni Gaudi was an influence (it was actually dsigned by Engelbert Kremser).

Café am See - Britzer Garten
The lakes are well-stocked with fish and include a bay designed for sailing model boats. There were some magnificent specimens on display when we visited, indicating these aren't just toys for boys.

Modellboothafen - Britzer Garten
The Britzer Garten did seem more like a recreational space rather than somewhere to admire or learn about horticulture. There are large areas for throwing a Frisbee around (though no dogs allowed!) or having a picnic, or for just lounging and sun-bathing. But there is no cycling, as unfortunately bikes are also 'nicht gestattet', and it would have been nice if full-sized canoes and rowing boats were allowed on the lake.

Spiel- und Liegewiese
There are plenty of Cafés and such-like in which to spend an afternoon chatting with friends and drinking a Bier or two, or just reading a book. Here is a photo of the reading café in the Karl Foerster Pavillion.

Lese Café  (Reading Café) im Karl Foerster Pavillion
Berlin-born Karl Foerster (b.1874 d.1970) is the grandfather of modern, naturalistic-looking, informal garden design and perennial plant breeding. He is noted in my book for employing at great risk to his own life a large number of his Jewish friends at his nursery in Potsdam during the Nazi era, and for refusing to only breed 'pure' native German plants. After the war, his nursery was appropriated by the Soviets and became the only source of perennial plants in East Germany. Sunken gardens and rock-gardens were Foerster's forte, and there is indeed an example of a rock-garden in front of the eponymous pavilion. (If you are interested, his small garden and nursery at the back of Sanssoucci in Potsdam is still going, and gives a better idea of his style. Link to blog about the Karl Foerster Garden )

rock garden by the Karl Foerster Pavillion
The architecture and sculpture in Britzer Garten is all straight out of the Eighties, which isn't to disparage it for being uninteresting. The Kalenderplatz Bistro is located within what is (according to the literature) supposedly the largest sundial in Europe. As a former employee of Ashfield District Council, I would argue that the sundial in Sutton-in-Ashfield marketplace is in fact slightly bigger, though not so futuristic looking.

Kalendarplatz - Britzer Garten - NOT Sutton-in-Ashfield, England
It is all rather Plan Nine From Outer Space, and you wonder what alien fleet of UFO's they are expecting to fire upon.

Sundial gnomon or ray-gun - you decide.
Kalendarplatz is also ringed by some scary-looking, sharp, incomplete arches that might have supported a monorail for Logan's Run or something.

Sculpture? Incomplete Monorail? Nice fountain in the background though.
Unusually for Flatlander Berlin, the park incorporates a number of (artificial) hills that do give a 3rd dimension to the landscape. One of these even has sheep! (sorry for getting excited - sheep are such a rarity in Brandenburg/Berlin that the only place you see them is in Berlin Zoo).

Hill. With Sheep.
This is the one and only resemblance of Britzer Garten to the Gardens at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire.
The park is fairly large with, let's be honest, not a lot between places of interest. If it all gets a bit wearisome on the feet, then there is a small-scale railway that can take you around the garden.

Britzer Museumsbahn
What you might have noticed lacking from my photos is any indication of actual flowers in this garden. That's not to be taken that there aren't very many, just that they were not particularly predominant or stunning. There is reportedly a very good tulip display from mid-April to mid-May, and a 'fire' of dahlias in late Summer. The floral event when we visited was supposedly the 'Zauberbluten' of rhododendrons, but unfortunately most of the flowers had been and gone. This was particularly annoying because we had paid 3€ entrance each instead of 2€ because of the special 'Zaubenblüten im Rhododendronhain' display. We was robbed! However, we did discover a mini-rainforest hidden amongst the rhododendron bushes, and just as we were admiring the ferns, a delivery of fine mist was turned on.

Der Berliner Regenwald
In  conclusion, the Britzer Garten is a pleasant space to relax and spend a Sunday afternoon. It is clean and well maintained, and has a fair choice of places to eat or drink. The architecture is interesting, if dated. The flower beds are well-tended and weed-free, but not spectacular.

It is not surprising that whilst die Gärten der Welt were packed, there were very few people wandering around the Britzer Garten, though admittedly the weather was duller. By the way, Britzer and Gärten der Welt are owned by the same GrünBerlin GmbH, and a Jahreskarte (yearly ticket) is valid for both.

Would we bother to travel out to the Britzer Garten again? Probably not. Consider that the centrally located Tiergarten is nearly two and a half times larger, and also has lakes and much better flower gardens (including spectacular rhododendrons) that you can enjoy for free. Alright, the Tiergarten doesn't have a train you can ride on, or sheep, and there is always the risk of wandering into a nudist area, but in a comparison it wins hands down.

So what we have learned so far in our horticultural explorations? For imaginatively themed garden designs, visit die Gärten der Welt. For exotic plants visit the Botanischer Garten. For somewhere to play around with a Frisbee (especially if you have a dog) or relax in a Biergarten beside a lake, you need go no further than the Tiergarten.

And I'll be BUGA'd if I'll travel out to Britzer Garten again unless I hear the tulips are really spectacular.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Qiu Shihua Exhibition: Weißes Feld

Today we went to see an exhibition by Chinese artist Qiu Shihua at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art (Museum für Gegenwart).

The exhibition is titled 'Weißes Feld' or 'White Field', and you soon find out why. It is the most extraordinary sight: people looking intently at canvases painted white!











It's all rather bizarre, and has the feel of "the emperor's new clothes" about it.

Actually, if you take the time to study the paintings you can make out in the painterly flow of the brush-strokes hints of trees and meadows. Or maybe it is your imagination, like seeing images in clouds. Either way, it all seems a bit much like hard work, especially in a museum that also has in-your-face instant art gratification from Warhol and Lichtenstein. If I wanted to spend hours staring at a painting and meditating on its meaning, I think I prefer a Rothko.

Maybe I'm just a philistine, but if you're going to present a white painting as a landscape, then the least I'd expect is if the artist had bought an original Constable or Turner and literally painted over it in thick white oil paint.That would at least have something to say about contemporary art!

Strangely, there is a catalogue accompanying the exhibition, and which costs around 60€. I might buy into the idea that you can read into these paintings magical landscapes conjured up by the texture of white-on-white brush-strokes, but how can you reproduce that on the printed page? Is the catalogue just a series of blank pages, and the real art is the con to get people to purchase it?

Anyway, this is a photo of my favourite painting at the exhibition:


(The exhibition Weißes Feld / White Field by Qiu Shihua continues until the 5th of August. There is a webpage about it here, but don't believe the example image they give - most of the paintings really do look like a white cat in a snowstorm).

Blaumeisen - Blue Tits

My computer desk looks out through a bay window onto our garden, and just outside is a willow bush that attracts a lot of birds.

Just a moment ago, a family of blue tits (in German Blaumeisen) flew into the bush. Whilst half a dozen fledglings sit expectantly on the branches, their parents are flying around looking for grubs to feed them with.

The fluffy youngsters flutter their wings like eyelashes, and in a blink of an eye a parent flies up, pops a morsel of food into wide-open mouth, and is off again.

I was not quick enough to capture the parents feeding, but here are a few shots of the hungry chicks: