Here’s what I know after spending some time with Jenni’s tour: I enjoy people who meet their spouse at a Japanese night class in Scotland, people who wholeheartedly love the setting in which they are raising their children, and cactus caretakers. (I think it takes a perfectly balanced mix of concentration and forgetfulness to raise a cactus, don’t you?) Turns out, I also enjoy people who take their kitchen shelves seriously! Jenni’s sure are cute!
And I can’t forget to add people who smile when it’s raining to my list!
If you’d like to see how she and her husband are living with kids in a Berlin rental, please stay awhile. There’s a ton of fabulous ideas that can be achieved with very little investment, whether you’re currently in a restricted rental or simply on a decorating or time budget. I hope you enjoy her as much as I do. Welcome, Jenni!
Hello, my name is Jenni. I live in Berlin with my husband and two sons: Oskar is five and Alfred is one. We moved here from Scotland almost four-and-a-half years ago due to my husband’s work. I am originally from Germany but I grew up in Scotland, so we speak English with each other at home and I speak German with the kids when we’re out and about.
My husband and I met in Edinburgh at Japanese night class — as you do — over ten years ago, and we have been married for just over six years. I have to admit, I have forgotten most of my Japanese, but I always say I gained a husband so the classes were a worthwhile investment!
He is a software architect and I am a museologist, though currently still on maternity leave with the little one. The safety net for families — parental leave, maternity pay, child benefits, subsidized child care — is very generous here in Germany, and we count ourselves lucky to benefit from it.
Oskar will start primary school this year, after the summer, and he is already super excited. He’s a very free spirited boy with a compassionate heart, who knows what he likes and will put people in their place if they tell him he looks like a girl because he has shoulder-length hair or likes wearing pink. His favorite things include cars, dinosaurs, and flowers, and you’re as likely to find him wearing a Spider-man costume as you are butterfly wings.
Alfred is just finding his feet, literally, and will start at kindergarden after Easter. He is a jolly little fellow, who loves to laugh at everything — he even laughs in his sleep — and tries to copy everything his big brother does, whom he absolutely adores. He’s also really into music; if you put any on, he’ll immediately start clapping his hands and jumping around on his knees.
We live to the north of a district called Schöneberg, which is in central Berlin, in a third floor rental apartment. We only moved here six months ago. Initially, we were actually going to leave Berlin altogether, but then things worked out differently.
Our old apartment was nice too, but the area didn’t have much for families. It was near quite a few of the city’s key sightseeing points, so geared more towards tourists. When it became clear we would be staying in Berlin, we wanted to move somewhere more family friendly, and with a good school for Oskar in its catchment area.
If you look up our neighborhood in a guide book, it wouldn’t strike you as being popular with families. It has been one of the centers of Berlin’s gay scene since the 1920s, and is known for its countless gay clubs and venues. It’s also famous for being host to both Europe’s largest LGBT street festival, and Europe’s largest fetish street fair. But when I asked for feedback on the different areas we were looking at, in an expat parents’ forum I’m a member of, the almost unanimous recommendation was to move here!
It’s fantastic for families. There are several amazing play parks within walking distance of our house (Oskar particularly loves the Wild West themed one), lots of little cafes, restaurants and shops — including two award winning ice cream parlors! — a farmer’s market, a park for Oskar to ride his bike.
And I love that the boys get to grow up in such a colorful neighborhood, which is also known as the Rainbow Quarter. It’s completely normal for them to see two men holding hands, taking their dog for a walk, and I like that. They’re more interested in whether they can pat the dog!
When we were searching for our new place, we identified several districts we could imagine living in, based on proximity to the city centre and work, public transport connections, school reviews, and whether there were the kinds of things we had been missing in our old place, such as playgrounds, parks, cafes, library and swimming pool nearby, etc.
When we first moved to Berlin, we had the disadvantage of not knowing the city at all. None of us had ever been here before, except for my husband to attend his job interviews, so at the time, we relied heavily on our relocation agent’s advice. Four years later, we had a much better idea of where in the city we would like to live.
Then we searched on a popular German rentals website, where you can put in your preferences such as location, minimum size, maximum rent, number of rooms, all kinds of things, and made some calls. We ended up viewing five apartments, applying to four, and getting an offer for three of them.
The one we wanted the most really took their time getting back to us. We had actually already verbally accepted one of the other apartments, and were just waiting on the papers to sign. But there was a several week long postal strike in Germany last summer, and the papers were delayed. It was a really nerve-wracking two weeks, waiting to see if the offer for our preferred apartment would come through before we had to sign the papers for the other one. We had already handed in our notice on our old apartment, so didn’t want to risk turning down a definite offer for one that may or may not happen. In the end, it all worked out the way we wanted. But I have never been so glad about a postal strike, I can tell you that!
The architecture of our building is quite typical of the old houses in Berlin. It’s divided into a front house and a back house, with the apartments in the back house wrapping around either side of a courtyard. We live in the back, so we need to go through the front and across the courtyard to enter our stairwell.
Our apartment is an elongated L shape. It has a long, thin hallway — over 20 meters long in total — with all the rooms coming off it to one side. They all face the courtyard, so we don’t have any windows facing the street. The downside of that, is that we get very little direct sunlight, as the sun has to be at a certain angle to reach the windows in the courtyard.
But on the upside, it’s very quiet. You’d never guess that we are just a stone’s throw away from a major public transport hub and lots of bustling shops and restaurants.
Another typical feature is the high ceilings, at almost four meters! We’ve had to hang all the lamp fittings low enough that we can change a lightbulb without having to borrow the oversized ladder from our superintendent every time. And it means we’ve only bothered with curtains in the bedrooms, as finding anything suitable for windows that size is a bit of a nightmare.
Many things we thought were non-negotiable when it comes to living with kids fell by the wayside in the end. I really, really wanted another apartment with a balcony. We were so excited to have one in our first Berlin apartment, since hardly anyone has them in Scotland.
And did I mention the crazy thing about kitchens? As a rule, German rental apartments don’t come with a kitchen. You either bring your own, which you are then obliged to uninstall when you move out, or quite often you buy the existing kitchen off the previous tenant. I wanted to find an apartment with a kitchen we could take over, to save us the hassle of having to fit one with two small children in the house.
In the end, out of all the apartments we viewed, this was the only one that had neither a balcony nor a kitchen. The only deal breaker was that I refused to move anywhere higher than the third floor unless there was an elevator, because I didn’t want to be carrying children, strollers, shopping bags, etc. up and down endless flights of stairs. And there had to be an adequate supermarket within walking distance, because we don’t have a car and home delivery isn’t as well established here, though there has been a lot of progress in the last few years.
Living in a rental brings its challenges. I would really love to have a couple of feature walls, maybe some fun wallpaper in the playroom, or a wall with blackboard paint somewhere. But our contract stipulates that if and when we move out, we need to hand over everything exactly as it was when we moved in. That would be a lot of hassle, and — at almost four meter high ceilings — also a lot of work and expenses, both putting everything up and taking it down again.
So instead I take it as an opportunity to hunt down artwork, prints, maps, and other fun things to put on the walls, alongside my husband’s paintings and pencil portraits of us and the kids.
The other big problem is wall fittings. Our walls seem to be invariably made of diamonds or eggshells, as my husband puts it, which means it’s either too hard to drill into or too soft or hollow to attach anything of significance. It’s really frustrating to have these high ceilings and not be able to use the height for efficient storage, because you just can’t fix the right kind of shelves to the walls without more permanent solutions, which would be possible if we owned the place but not in a rental.
It has meant that in some rooms the structure of the walls has dictated where the furniture goes, rather than what I perhaps had in mind, so that we could secure shelves and wardrobes to the walls to keep the children safe. It was a matter of practicality over interior design.
I guess practical is also how I would describe our style in general. Most of our furniture is from Ikea. It’s convenient and easy to replace. This was our second move in four years, and both times it was cheaper to sell and buy new Ikea furniture at the other end, than to pay for the cost of moving. Our brown cord sofa was chosen for practical reasons because it can hide a multitude of sins, from felt tip pens to chocolate stains.
But we like to mix up our off-the-shelf furniture with some family heirlooms — such as my grandmother’s rocking chair, my dad’s old children’s desk which is now being used by a third generation, or my old dollhouse which my dad made for me over thirty years ago — and by adding little features here and there from some of my favorite design companies, including cushions and rugs, toy baskets, or kitchenware.
I swear, Muuto does the best darn pepper grinder I have ever owned! Other brands I like that you will find scattered around the house include Hay, Ferm Living and Oyoy from Denmark, but also small independent brands, such as Petit Pippin from California, or Gretas Schwester from right here in Berlin.
Despite having a playroom, we’ve created other spaces throughout the apartment for the kids, too. We try to keep the bedroom toy-free — except for some favorite bedtime snuggle friends — to keep the room as calming and distraction-free as possible. But they have a reading nook there and a CD player for listing to audio books. One of their favorite things recently, is to hang out there together during the day, listing to stories and looking at books.
In the living room, we’ve created a corner for drawing and crafts, with a small extra table and an art cart. It’s also where I like to sit and sew. Then there are a couple of toys for when we’re spending family time there, such as the rocking zebra — my old rocking horse which we repainted for Alfred last Christmas — a cardboard play house which can be easily slotted together to accommodate cars or dinosaurs, and a box with a Playmobil circus set, and we have a big tub of percussion instruments readily available for them to play with.
We’ve made use of our long hall by adding some indoor games such as a crawl tunnel, velcro darts, and an extra play mat for cars. With two car-obsessed boys in the house, you can never have enough of those! On weekends where it’s just been too wet or too cold to go outside, that hall has been a life saver. We just let them run or crawl up and down it until they run out of energy.
There’s a language school on the floor below us which is empty at the weekends, so there is no one to be bothered by all the thumping. Of course, we do have some house rules, and we try to raise our boys to behave like civilized human beings, but at the same time, I don’t want them – or me – to have to worry about breaking any expensive design furniture. Maybe when they are older I will finally treat myself to that chair I’ve always wanted, but for now, practicality and comfort are the order of the day. It is their apartment, too, and I want them to feel comfortable here.
Museums play a big part in our lives. Obviously, because I work in museums, but they are also quite dominant in our leisure time, too. I’ve visited over 200 different museums in the last couple of years! And our apartment is littered with museum souvenirs, from the tote bags we use to go shopping, to a display case full of little trinkets in our bedroom.
When my husband was courting me, he used to come to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where I was supervising the Sunday family events. I thought he was interested in the performances, but it turns out he was just there to see me. Talk about being slow on the uptake!
Both our boys visited their first museum when they were just a couple of weeks old, and five years later, Oskar has turned into quite a pro. If you ask him what he wants to do at the weekend, a museum will quite often be his answer. I’m hoping Alfred will follow in his footsteps.
I’ve been writing a lifestyle and travel blog all about museums since 2009. I sometimes get asked if I ever get bored blogging about museums, which I think is an odd question. Would you ask a food blogger if they ever get bored of food? I’ve blogged about everything from parasites and perfume, phalluses and fire engines, to mummies of Egyptian pharaohs and the world’s tallest mounted dinosaur skeleton…so the answer is No! I’m not bored yet!
The blog has changed course quite a bit since its beginnings. It started out aimed mostly at peers, but quickly swung round to target the general travel and culture loving public. My mission in life is to show that museums are interesting and fun. That museums are for everyone! And since becoming a mum, an added focus of visiting museums with kids has crept in: from general articles encouraging parents to take their kids to museums early and often — one of my most read posts to date — to reviews of museums we’ve visited and tested as a family. One of my favorite features is a series where I interview other museum loving families, asking them to share their experiences and tips. It’s great to feel all that enthusiasm.
I have always been a keen photographer. I think I received my first camera when I was about six or eight, and I’ve been trying to encourage the same love of photography in Oskar. He received his first camera when he was only three, and he’s taken to it like a duck to water. You should have seen him when he came to visit Alfred and me in hospital! He practically stormed in to the room camera in hand, and proceeded to take several dozen photographs of his new little brother “to show my teacher and friends at kindergarden.”
As good as I am though at taking lots of photographs, I’m really bad at doing anything with them. I used to regularly have them printed in albums, but then life caught up with me and now I literally have hundreds of pictures that I’ve taken with my DSLR, languishing on my computer, waiting to be processed. But I’m also an avid Instagrammer, which makes it much easier to share the moment. I’ve been using Instagram almost since its beginning. It was launched a month before Oskar was born, and I started posting shortly after, so in a way it has documented our entire life as a family together so far. I only post pictures of the kids in moderation, more of the places we go, the things we do.
Street art is always popular with my followers, and there’s plenty of that around in Berlin. But also shots from around the city in general seem to attract a lot of likes. And food, especially anything with the hashtag #glutenfree. We have celiac disease on both sides of the family, so I was already familiar with gluten free baking, and even though I myself don’t have the disease I developed a gluten sensitivity when I was pregnant with Oskar. With a family history like ours, it’s apparently not uncommon for a hormonal change such as puberty or pregnancy to trigger it. I love cooking and baking, and my husband is a dab hand in the kitchen too! I make most meals from scratch because I need to be careful about ingredients . And since I love cake — who doesn’t? — I have developed quite a repertoire of gluten free cakes.
The most challenging part of our days are definitely mornings! Not the getting out of bed part of it, but getting everyone out of the house on time. When you first have kids, you feel like leaving the house suddenly takes forever. Double checking you haven’t forgotten anything essential for the baby. Last minute diaper change just when you thought you had it sorted. But when they get bigger, you realize that it was relatively easy until then. At least when they are little, you can stuff them in their clothes, grab them under one arm, and out the door you go. But trying to get a five year old to cooperate, who would much rather play with his cars or read another comic than get ready for kindergarden, is a whole different story. He’s too big to just grab and go.
Are you ready? Yes. You haven’t got a sweater on! I forgot. Where’s your bag? Don’t know. You get the drift. How can it possibly take someone ten minutes to put on a single shoe?! And the exasperating thing is, I know he can be quick when he wants to be. Give me a day when they are going on an outing, and he’ll be standing by the front door, jacket, shoes, and bag on, before I’ve even had a chance to get out of bed.
To be honest, I don’t always deal with those mornings very well. We’ve tried everything: being strict, reasoning, getting everything ready the night before, rewards charts…you name it! But nothing seems to work. Sometimes our mornings involve quite a lot of shouting. I try to stay calm, take a deep breath, count to ten — after all, the world isn’t going to end if he arrives at kindergarden a bit late! All they do is play anyway! But once I have several drop offs, when Alfred starts kindergarden too and I go back to work, the clock will be ticking in the mornings. And then, of course, Oskar will be in school after the summer, which to my shock I discovered starts at 7:30 am here! At the moment, I see ourselves getting up at 5:00 am to be ready on time. Please tell me it all falls in to place once they start school!
My favorite part about living with our kids is having a house full of life. Full of laughter. Full of love. Children have the capacity to see the world wide eyed and full of wonderment. Through them, I feel I can recapture some of that myself.
I want them to remember a happy home. One we created together.
One of the reasons I love making things for my kids, is that they are so attentive and appreciative of even the smallest things. Oskar will come home and notice something new I’ve made for the playroom, and that second when his eyes light up just makes it worthwhile. Even little Alfred will clap his hands in excitement. And I mean, who doesn’t like being called the best mummy in the world! I want them to remember all those little moments: snuggles at bedtime, reading our favorite books together, teaching them how to bake a chocolate cake and getting to lick the bowl, lazy Sundays on the sofa, eating popcorn and watching Cars for the 438th time. I want them to remember feeling loved, unconditionally.
I wish someone had told me (and I had listened!) not to read so many parenting books before I had my kids! Okay, so I didn’t actually read that many. But in all seriousness, whether it’s books, magazines, or other media, there seem to be a lot of unrealistic expectations placed on new parents these days. You will hold your much longed for baby in your arms at last, and everything will be perfect. And, of course, quite often it’s not. I’m not talking about things like sleep deprivation, which no amount of warning can prepare you for!
Both our children were planned and very much wanted. Oh how they were wanted. Both pregnancies were uncomplicated and easy going, both births straight forward and fast. So you can imagine my confusion when that rush of love at first sight that I had been expecting — that I had been built up to expect — didn’t wash over me, as I held Oskar for the first time. My husband’s heart was visibly brimming over, but I felt a kind of numbness. And disappointment in myself, after looking forward to this moment so much.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved him. Always! But there was this feeling of apathy, that hung around for a while like an unwanted guest. Feelings of despair, which I couldn’t explain. I cried myself to sleep every night for the first eight weeks. It’s hard not to feel like a bad mother in moments like that. I’m not ashamed for it, but I didn’t talk about it much. The only acceptable answers to being asked how it feels being a new mother, seemed to be happy or tired. But we need to stop treating this as a taboo subject, because it helps no one.
And yet, I feel I got off lightly. A friend of mine was hospitalized with post natal depression after giving birth to her first baby. She later told me, that knowing what Oskar and I had gone through, and that we came out okay at the other end, really helped her. That it gave her hope things would work out okay for her too. Since then, I try to share my story more often.
Of course, for many years now, my heart has been brimming over for Oskar. I wouldn’t miss a day without him. My warm hearted, independent, special boy. But the experience stayed with me for a while. I’d always wanted several children, but suddenly I was scared to have another. Not because of the pain of childbirth, but because I was scared the same thing would happen again. I wasn’t sure I could go through all that again.
In the end, my longing for another baby was stronger than my fears, and luckily, the second time was smooth sailing. No numbness, no tears. The only one crying was the baby. I just felt tired. And that was okay.
Jenni, I never get tired of people acknowledging and sharing their low points! It helps others on levels we might not even realize, and it always gives me chills when someone is brave enough to be brave enough. Thank you so much for being with us today.
I must admit I’m yet again smitten with cacti after seeing Jenni’s collection! Who wants to start a cactus club? Anyone?
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.