Art in Berlin

Graffiti art at Teufelberg

You can’t swing a Bratwurst without hitting an art gallery in Berlin and so it was only right that some of our time in Berlin was spent visiting just a couple of the many galleries in the city.  The art scene in Berlin is diverse and vibrant; apparently there are 440 galleries across the city so perhaps there is something for everyone.  We picked out just two places to visit on our long weekend and the two we visited couldn’t have been more different.

The Gemäldegalerie has a collection of European painting ranging from the 13th to 18th century on permanent display; including paintings by Jan van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel, Albrecht Dürer, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt.  Housed in a 1980s building in the Kulturforum, the building is a simple design and the purpose designed galleries are well proportioned and light, laid out in a slightly confusing but entertaining pattern that visitors can weave around.  We spent an enjoyable few hours in the hushed and academic atmosphere of this amazing gallery.

The painting that made the biggest impression on me was Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs.  This is an illustration of about 112 different 16th century Flemish proverbs and idioms.  The painting is lively and human, in contrast to much of the religious art in the gallery, and this is perhaps why it spoke to me.  It is also humorous and reveals something of the past with illustrations of sayings such as, ‘one shears sheep, the other shears pigs’ [meaning one has advantages, the other has none] and proverbs I want to introduce to my vocabulary such as, ‘the herring does not fry here’ [it’s not going according to plan].  There are others we still use modified versions of today, such as ‘to sit between two stools in the ashes’ [to be indecisive] and ‘to try to kill two flies with one stroke’ [to be efficient].

Almost everything in Berlin reveals many layers of history as soon as you scratch the surface.  Our second gallery was on top of a hill in the Grunewald [green forest] that lies around Berlin.  This is no ordinary hill; Teufelsberg is a 80 metre high mound that was created from the rubble removed from the bomb sites of Berlin after the second world war.  The hill was in what was the British sector of Berlin after the war and in the 1960s it became the site of an Anglo-American listening station topped with radomes.  After almost 30-years of listening to the DDR the station fell in to disuse after the fall of the Berlin wall.  The hill was bought by a developer but planning permission for the hotels and apartments was not forthcoming and the abandoned buildings of the listening station remain and can be visited to see the graffiti art that uses the inside and outside walls of the crumbling buildings as a canvas.  For a €7 entrance fee visitors can wander freely around the jumble of buildings [at their own risk] and admire the huge art works and stand at gaping holes in the buildings to enjoy the view over Berlin and the forest.

After spending a few hours at Teufelsberg we followed the maze of footpaths through the Grunewald to the banks of the lake, as no trip to Germany is complete without a woodland walk.  With no signposts or compass we had to resort to using the sun and asking for help to navigate our way through the dense forest.

The view from the Teufelsberg


Alice asked the Cheshire Cat … ‘What road do I take?’

The Blue Bus by the Spanish coast

Sometimes it comes up in conversation and I tell people we had a gap year, living in our campervan for twelve months and travelling around the southern parts of Europe.  Most people’s reaction is, ‘I would love to do that’ with a dreamy look in their eyes and I don’t deny that it was a fantastic experience.  I have noticed that lots of people buy in to the romantic idea of the freedom of the road in a campervan and want to be part of that.  I don’t wish to trample on anyone’s dreams but if our conversation continues I often add that although I understand that everyone has specific circumstances that might explain why they can’t drive off in to the sunset, if we can do it then lots of other people can.

If the gap-year enthusiast is still with me I might mention that the trip was at least three years in the planning, that we saved a lot of money, sold everything we didn’t need, downsized the house and gave up secure jobs to do it and that fortunately Mr BOTRA and I love each other very much and so don’t find sharing the [lack of] space in a small campervan a problem.  At this point many people start to lose enthusiasm and reconsider, realising they don’t really want to go to that much trouble just to travel around in a tin box.  If they stay with me I might refer to how much we missed our son and daughter-in-law and friends while we were away and a few more fall by the wayside.  The final nail in this conversation can be when I explain the amount of effort we had to put in to find new jobs when we returned.  Of course, lots of other people do get organised and plan and execute a similar / longer / more adventurous trip and I am happy to share any useful experience I have with these folk; they are not just dreamers but are people who make things happen.

No matter what personality test I take I have always come out as a doer.  I used to co-run workshops for community groups and organisations where we took them through a visioning exercise, thinking about their community or organisation in five or ten years time, mapping that vision and then supporting them in planning the multitude of steps required to make that dream a reality.  To me this sort of planning is second nature but it became clear that some people were good at the vision but hopeless with the planning and even more struggled to get beyond the first couple of steps on the path to their dream.  Staying true to an idea through the tiny steps of the planning stage can be a struggle and needs perseverance and strength, an ability to pick yourself up when you get knocked down and a willingness to be adaptable when circumstances change along the way.

There are as many different dreams out there as there are individuals and I would love to be able to congratulate everyone who has ever had a plan and made it real.  The Financial Independence and Early Retirement community is not dissimilar to the [later life] gap year in a campervan community; they are people who have a dream or a vision of a different life and make it happen, even though the planning and saving to achieve this dream might take many years.

Although when travelling I like to see where the road takes me, in terms of life I like to have a plan and so my favourite life quote is from the great story teller Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, when Alice met the Cheshire Cat:

“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”
The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”



Berlin without the campervan

Bebelplatz in central Berlin brilliant with lights

Wow!  We have just enjoyed a few fun-packed days in Berlin with friends.  We walked miles, exploring the wonderful city and the surrounding forests, finding new sights, revisiting old favourites and marvelling at the changes in the city since our last visit eleven years ago.  We found culture [more of this in a later post], multiple layers of history and good food and beer.

We had timed our visit to coincide with the Reunification Day celebrations and public holiday.  We were also there during the Festival of Lights which is held over ten-days in October and uses some of  Berlin’s spectacular landmarks and buildings as a canvas for light and video films.  As well as the buildings, there are boats that are decked with lights making circuits around the river.  The festival makes wandering the streets on a fine evening even more awesome; we stood in the Pariser Platz and watched the key events in Berlin’s history drawn across the magnificent facade of the Brandenburg Gate and joined the crowds to watch an amazing and ever-changing selection of colourful pictures projected on to the cathedral.

I hadn’t taken a tripod as we were travelling with hand luggage only and so my photographs of the light show are not perfect but give an impression of the vibrant and imaginative lighting that transforms a building into something quite distinct.  The building is both a canvas for the light-art and enhances the images, while the light show alters the relationship between the people and the buildings, making people stop and look up, the bustle of the daytime stilled.

This link will take you to stunning photographs of previous years [the festival is in its eleventh year], as well as tips for taking great pics of the night-time scenes.


The Berliner Dom alongside the Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz during the Festival of Lights


We can afford to give our time


We visited the Yorkshire Dales National Park recently and met a group of volunteers working on one of the paths while we were out walking.  We chatted to the group for a short while about the work they were carrying out and as we walked away we both agreed that we could do that.

Once I have retired fully it is my intention to give some of my time for free and I have started to think about the places I could do this.

I am already the Treasurer for a small charity and I give my time freely as a minute taker to the management board of our flats but not working will free up more time to do some good around Greater Manchester.

I am keen that my volunteering is enjoyable and I am thinking about conservation and environmental organisations where I could do some good for now and the future.  I would also like to volunteer locally and support an organisation in Salford.  Fortunately, we have plenty of excellent organisations around us.

The shortlist includes:

Ordsall Hall Museum

RHS garden at Worsley New Hall

Lancashire Wildlife Trust

Wildfowl & Wetland Trust at Martin Mere

Yorkshire Dales National Park

In addition, I plan to spend time every week [when we are at home] picking up litter and tidying up the bushes around our local area.  I used to collect litter walking to and from work every day and I want to spend a bit more time making the area where we live more pleasant to live in.



The truth is out there! Work know about my early retirement

2012-06-05 Cecina cycle ride 006.JPG
I am looking forward to time for more cycling trips in Italy and …

So I have done it!  My boss now knows that in three months time I will be retiring.  How did that go?  I work for a caring charity and my boss is a lovely person.  She trusts me, knows that I am reliable and understands that I don’t make decision lightly … she also understands my need for a good work-life balance to stay happy and healthy and respects my desire to work in admin, rather than as the manager I used to be … but when I told her my news it was clear that it wasn’t something she was expecting.

Mostly she was upset that she was losing a reliable member of staff.  She argued that I wasn’t anywhere near old enough to retire [I know].  I [possibly unrealistically] wanted her to be happy for me and so kept reminding her that my retirement is wonderful news and that perhaps she could be pleased for me.

We were meeting at our head office and later we went to tell other colleagues who were equally shocked and also envious.  This broadcasting of the announcement helped me to really absorb the reality of it in my heart, as well as my head [this might sound silly after so much planning] and the inner joy I felt was almost overwhelming.  I was able to fly the flag for the power of saving and how being frugal and strict with outgoings can pay off.  Of course, everyone wanted to know what our retirement plans are and became misty-eyed with envy at all those forthcoming long trips to sunny places in our campervan.

I was feeling happy and relieved to have got this conversation over and then the mood flipped.  As you might have read, the company has been through various re-organisations recently and just after I had given my news the information came through that the company is implementing an immediate recruitment freeze.  A stab of guilt pierced through my joyful state as I realised I was leaving at a time when they won’t be able to replace me, but honestly this only made a small chip in my elation.

Back in April I deliberated about when to get this conversation out of the way.  At that time leaving was eight months away and it was certainly too soon to tell.  But after the months of waiting I feel so relieved for a number of reasons; I was feeling very awkward having being part of a number of conversations recently regarding additional responsibilities and new projects that would continue beyond the festive period and so beyond my time with the company and I also prefer to be honest and open and I was uncomfortable not sharing my plans with colleagues.  Of course, that niggling guilt will keep returning because that is the person I am, but I know that I am not dispensable.  Now the company has three months to plan where my workload will sit from the New Year and I feel satisfied that I have treated them fairly.

I don’t expect a big fuss when I retire as working from home I won’t leave a desk-sized gap in anyone’s office.  There will be no surprise bunch of flowers, no card signed by everyone in the building, little joking about how lucky I am to be retiring and no cake baking for my last day at work.  I feel a mixture of gratefulness and sadness about this, I don’t like lots of fuss but I am someone who likes to mark occasions … I think I will need to find a way with family and friends to mark the ending of my office-bound working life, after all it is now over 40-years since I walked in to my first workplace [an opticians] as a young and naive 16-year old.

Teesdale camping weekend with friends

Big views across the river Tees

We are happy with any excuse to visit Teesdale and explore this lovely valley a little bit more and so set off for Cotherstone (pronounced to rhyme with fun not phone) in a cheerful mood, looking forward to meeting up with old friends and making new ones.  Yes, this was the autumn get together of the Devon Owners group.

We were staying at the lovely and welcoming Doe Park Caravan Site just a ten minute walk from Cotherstone.  For someone so hopeless remembering names there were so many Devon ‘vans [and their owners] at this meet it was hard to keep up with who was who, we kept the attendance list close by all weekend and apologise to everyone whose name we got wrong.

Our welcome was warm and very genial.  Normally when we arrive on a campsite the first thing we do [being addicted to a cuppa] is put the kettle on and have a cup of tea.  Parking on our pitch on Friday afternoon we managed to get the kettle on, but it was over an hour before we had a long enough break in neighbours popping over to say hello and could actually make that brew.

Of course, we did some walking and while many people walked or cycled into the delightful Barnard Castle, we decided to go the other way to Eggleston, which has a lovely hall and gardens, with a tea shop and a pretty garden trail that passes colourful borders, a ruined chapel and fruit trees laden with apples and plums.  Autumn is settling in now and we walked high above the river, finding huge puffball mushrooms and picked blackberries from the hedgerows.  We returned along the Tees Railway Path from Romaldkirk which is perfect for walking or cycling.

On the way home we stopped in Kirkby Stephen on the edge of the lovely Howgill Fells and walked up Smardale Fell.  We were walking in blustery sunshine and could see showers flitting across the Pennines and watched rainbows briefly arching over the hills.

Buying second-hand makes sense to us

The new-to-us sofa

Big changes are afoot at the BOTRA household.  As we move away from paid work it made sense to change the use of the second bedroom of our flat from office [and storage of stuff] to dining room [and storage of stuff].  This is a bit of a challenge, as although generally our dining room only needs enough space for two and up to six when we have visitors a couple of times a year it needs to stretch as we host our book group.  On these evenings we need space to sit ten people for a meal; a big ask for a small flat.

After much deliberating, measuring and scribbling of plans we figured we could fit the two dining tables needed for book group in to the room formerly known as the ‘office’ as well as some built in cupboards for the stuff and so the project started to take shape.

A bonus with this plan is that moving the dining table out of the living room gave us much more space in the living room.  More consideration and measurements later and we realised we could fit in another sofa.  Hurrah!  Not only would the ten book group members be able to sit and eat, they would now also have more space to relax in during the pre-eating and post-eating phase of our meetings.

But our excitement plummeted when we realised what an expensive business buying a new sofa is.  We don’t buy new furniture very often but we walked down to a local furniture store and sat on everything they had.  The cheap [ish] ones felt shoddy and although we are frugal, we don’t like shoddy, we expect things we buy to last for years and years.  The well-made sofas felt the business but would take a good chunk of our budget.

Somewhat disheartened I went to look in a local charity shop that specialises in furniture and found the sofa in the photo, just the right colour to compliment our other sofa, from a well-known and expensive brand and professionally cleaned by the charity before being put on sale.  At only £125 it was a good recycling bargain.

We feel good because we haven’t spent lots of money and our savings have stayed on track, our cash has gone to a charity, rather than a big business and we have helped to recycle a sofa and so reduced the amount going to landfill and no new resources have been used up.