I fear, I have not done terribly well. Old-style family holidays which were easy options when H was younger, no longer really appeal and almost all my suggestions for constructive alternatives such as getting a summer job or going hiking with friends have met with withering scorn or a liberal dowsing of cold water. Probably because it's me who's made them. Goes with the territory.
But I have not given up and a few small gains have been made. I would like to share the the best of them with you here because they are in small and big ways joyous and even if being the parent of a teenager is not all joy, all of the time, there are times when it really is "sans pareil".
So... my son, who has always had a scientific bent, has decided to choose arts subjects for his A-levels. A surprise, but this is territory that for me, as a non-scientist, I am more familiar with. History is his number one choice and I think to myself, "great, we can perhaps visit some places over the summer to give him some hinterland to what he will be studying over the next two years." So I email the school before the end of term to ask for broad details of the A-level syllabus H will be following and explain the reason for my asking. I very rarely email the school or bother them with requests so I am disconcerted, to say the least, to get an off-hand and very unhelpful response basically telling me the information is unavailable and to go away. Slightly miffed, (for which read "seriously peeved") I toy with sending a blast-furnace email back telling them what I think of this kind of attitude when we are paying a sinfully large sum of money in fees every term. I hold my virtual hand because the recipient of said email may be my son's A-level history teacher for the next two years and I don't want to queer the pitch for H. In the meantime I chew feathers* not-so-quietly at home.
*This is one of my father-in-law's expressions and very graphic. When you want to let rip and for all manner of good reasons you shouldn't, but boy, is it difficult to swallow down!! I have to do this a lot for work and don't welcome having to do it on the home front also. Enough said.
Stymied on the history background front because I know H won't wear going to historical sites here in the UK without some specific purpose in view - Mrs T refuses to give up! One of H's other A-level choices is German. Surprisingly so actually, as he's not been all that keen on it at GCSE. Never mind, he is adamant this is what he wants to do, and in the cosmopolitan 21st C, a fluent, modern language is very useful. Never mind Mrs T's familial French regrets, she simply says to herself "Gott sei dank für Deutsch!" (God knows whether that's grammatically correct but you get the gist!) And bingo! An idea dawns! I will take H to Berlin!
As readers of these pages for a while may know, I have next to no German. And I also have absolutely no sense of direction. The idea of setting forth to Germany with barely a word of the lingo and geography that as a family joke has it, "confuses the location of New York with that of Seattle" (I can never ever live that momentary lapse down!) is quite scary for Mrs Tittlemouse but where her offspring is concerned, anything is possible! So we went! Just the two of us. Mutter und Sohn. And it was one of the most joyous weeks I have ever spent.
Berlin is a city of history. Not just 20th C history but ancient history, Medieval history, 18th C history. It greets you round every corner; inveigles you at every turn; seizes you and embraces you in every moment. Berlin is alive in the most extraordinary way with the past, the present and the future. As a place to take a teenager it is perfect. Buzzy, modern, energising and with a depth that you can access or not as you please.
We walked miles, as in MILES. We absorbed every morsel of history we encountered. We spoke German - mine very halting and experimental - H's rather more grammatical and fluent. We ate, drank and slept the place and came home as high as kites. And it's changed the teenage go-slow-vibe big time. Who would have thought it? They say "travel broadens the mind" - but I've not seen it or felt it so acutely before. Who are we in our everyday existence? Not necessarily all we can be and to travel is to toy with possibility, to flirt with the person we might become, even with the person we ought to become. Heady stuff. Not that travel is the only way to do that, but it's certainly one way.
Now I shall stop waffling on and share some pics. If you have been to Berlin, I hope you will recognise some of them. If not, I hope they might tempt you to pay it a visit. I for one, am going back just as soon as I am able to.
The Berliner Dom on the first morning we were in Berlin after the eventful World Cup win the night before. If ever a city was collectively euphoric, it was Berlin on the evening of Sunday 13th July 2014 - the festivities and celebrations seemed to go on all night. We didn't get much sleep, I have to say, in our hotel rooms in Mitte!
Regardless of this, Frau Tupfelmaus und Sohn made an early start (a shock to the system for H) and headed for what is one of the world's best museums, the Pergamon Museum. If you've been to museums before and got bored within minutes by endless ancient pots and coins, try this! It's fabulous! Almost every room is stuffed with wow-factors and the Ishtar gate from ancient Babylon is just mind-blowing. Some of it has been reconstructed but most of the vivid blue-glazed tiles are original and the designs are amazing.
Stylised flowers and trees in bright blues and yellows, surround mythical and real beasts...
unicorns walk majestically among ...
that flank purposeful, open-mouthed lions ...
Ancient history is alive here as anywhere I've been in Europe, including the sites and museums of classical Greece and Italy. The Germans were at the forefront of Classical and Near Eastern archaeology in the late 18th and 19th Cs and it shows.
This monument shows an Assyrian king with prisoners on chains through rings inserted through their lips. Body-piercing is as old as the hills themselves.
I love this Babylonian bowman with his quiver of arrows and beautiful, almond-eyed profile.
And these three spearmen, which make me think irrationally of the three wise men in St Matthew's Gospel.
This is an Assyrian king holding a bronze "situla" or "bucket" apparently for anointing a sacred tree but Frau Tupfelmaus felt it was a crocheted handbag and she might make something similar!
A Greek inscription from the time of the Emperor Justinian which we managed to translate in situ. I'm not good with stone inscriptions so this was rather satisfying. It's the Christian "Trisagion" - "Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, Have mercy on us". Sobering to read that and to remember the proximity of persecution of Christians in the Roman empire not so far from Justinian's time and indeed in parts of the world today.
This is the whole market gate from the Roman colony at Miletus (in what is now Turkey). Unbelievable what these archaeologists shipped home. Why stick to just a statue or two or a few bits of broken pot when you can bring a whole gateway back?!
From the Pergamon Museum to the Neues Museum and glimpses of Egyptian treasures unequalled anywhere else outside Cairo. There is even some of "Priam's treasure" - the gold diadem and cascading, golden, waterfall earrings excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th C at the Homeric site of Troy and famously modelled by Schliemann's wife in the contemporary photograph below.
Ingestion of culture requires fuelling! The German drinking laws allow H at 16 to drink beer or wine with food in a restaurant. We took advantage of this civilised concession. Weißbier here we come!
Not to mention Schokoladenkuchen!
One of the delightful characteristic left-overs of the old eastern Deutsche Demokratische Republik in Berlin is "die Amplemänner" - the idiosyncratic and characteristic traffic light men. They only date from the Sixties but they make crossing the road iconic. I love them and much to H's embarrassment, insisted on photographing them on the way to the Berlin Zoo which, by the way, is superb and every bit as popular with teenagers and adults as younger children.
Lime trees and Mercedes in the historic "Unter den Linden" avenue where historic Berlin meets an ambitious and active 21st C in terms of building and development.
The Brandenburg Gate - a poor pic because there was so much scaffolding behind it, in preparation for the homecoming, winning German football team the following day.
The Reichstag - the German parliament building with its inscription "For the German people" above the entrance, which H points out to me is in the dative case. He will be a linguist yet!!
Of course you can't be in Berlin without encountering some of the residue of its dramatic 20th C history. This is the Holocaust memorial to the Jewish community in Berlin that was obliterated during the Second World War. It's a strange memorial - a series of different sizes of linear concrete blocks, arranged on an intentionally uneven surface, in a maze-like pattern. As a memorial to a creative, cultured, artistic people, it seems a slightly odd choice to me - a bit soulless. And although there is a notice setting out a clear etiquette of expected behaviour at the memorial - no climbing or picnicking or disrespectful fooling about - inevitably the cuboid format and layout invites exactly that and a family group setting out sandwiches and crisps and lounging on one of the blocks made me feel distinctly uncomfortable - the blocks have a tomb-like resonance and the whole focus of the memorial carries a heavy payload you cannot ignore.
This is the view from a delightful traditional German Weinstube called "Der Nußbaum" - "the Walnut Tree" where we repaired for supper in the evening. It's in the old Nikolaiviertel quarter of the city which was badly damaged by allied bombs during the Second World War and subsequently rebuilt. A very restful place to end a hectic day of sight-seeing ....
pink geraniums in a window-box ...
Gulaschsuppe (goulash soup) und frische Pfifferlinge (fresh chanterelles) on the menu although H had Wurst ...
... washed down with a virulent green Weißbier flavoured with Waldmeister Sirup - a lurid green syrup flavoured with woodruff. Slightly strange in taste but you've got to love any drink that colour!
The Nikolaiviertel is delightful - one of my favourite parts of the city - this is the 17th C Nikolaikirche which had to be rebuilt from scratch after being flattened by British bombs in WWII. It stands now peacefully among lime trees and a fountain and little shops enticing you to buy souvenirs.
And of course you can't go to Berlin without a trip to KaDeWe - the department store to beat all department stores. Expensive, but wonderful. Frau Tupfelmaus made a bee-line for the stationery and chocolate departments which tells you something about Frau Tupfelmaus!
In a rash moment I thought we would brave travelling out of Berlin itself to go to Potsdam to Frederick the Great's summer palace "Sans Souci" - "No Worries". The name turned out to be slightly ironic for us, as the day was somewhat fraught. Not least getting there and back which necessitated not just using the U-bahn and S-bahn (fairly straightforward) but a bus (not so straightforward). Mrs T does not trust buses. She does not know when to get off them or where they go from. Or in Germany, even how to buy a ticket on them. It was stressful. The trip out involved an unnecessary but historic pause at Wannsee - how could the Nazis dream up "the Final Solution" in this green, wooded, peaceful place?
Once at Sans Souci, we found we were at completely the wrong end of the park (which is absolutely vast) because we'd got out at the wrong stop. A brisk two mile walk to the other end got us from here, the Neues Palais, where Queen Victoria's daughter "Vicky" lived after her marriage ...
... to here, the main Sans Souci Palais complete with Frederick the Great's vineyards, extravagant fountains and rococo interiors.
No pics of the inside because you had to buy a photo permit and I was too mean to buy more than one for H. It's rococo gone wild in there. Fabulous but completely over the top for my taste. The round library was the most human room, as far as I was concerned - all the books stored on shelves well below my head height because Frederick, who liked to sign off his letters, to Voltaire and others, "Le philosophe de Sans Souci" - "the philosopher of Sans Souci", was very short - only five foot two. Only he and his valet had keys to the library which was a haven of peace for the emperor in the pressurised world of state and war.
Getting back to Berlin from Potsdam was as stressful as getting out there, if not more so, because after a lot of shenanigans getting the right bus which stressed Mrs T very considerably with worries of getting stranded in Potsdam or elsewhere, we got on the train to find we had the wrong U-bahn tickets and had to cough up 40 Euros a-piece when they were checked and found wanting, an unfortunate set-back which somewhat dented our shopping plans. Remind me never to travel on buses under any circumstances.
At the end of it, all we were good for was sitting by the river Spree with a (large) glass of red wine and a Weißbier ...
... and watching the sun set over the Dom. The building you can see on the left bank is the Ephraim Palais, a beautiful 18th C mansion built by Frederick the Great's finance minister. It was dismantled in the 1930s in order to expand the lock system on the River Spree so it avoided any wartime damage and it was rebuilt from the stored sandstone blocks in the post-war restoration period.
Breakfast every morning for me was this - yoghurt topped with Kirschenkompott (made, I think, with sour morello cherries rather than the sweet ones that are more common in the UK - utterly delicious!), Mehrkornbrötchen - those amazing, multigrain rolls that the Germans make to perfection and I struggle to emulate here - and the seemingly incomprehensible puzzle of a German newspaper. H got a lot more from the newspaper than I did. Despite initially dismissing my idea of having a go at reading it, I noticed that his breakfast consumption (more robustly German than Mrs T's) of Eier, Käse, Schinken und Kaffee soon became accompanied by translated news.
At the end of one of the axis corridors you enter the holocaust "Turm" or tower. The doors are heavy and swing closed behind you with finality. The angular space is chill and dark with the only light coming from small slits, high up in the bare walls. The museum is crowded and it's impossible to be alone in it, but here, paradoxically you feel completely alone. Everyone falls silent. Unbidden, uncoordinated, there is a spontaneous and instinctive silence; no one speaks. Conversation that is still unfolding or in progress as people enter, dries up. There is a presence here of absence, if I can put it like that. In that small angular tower space, several million souls watch you. Their eyes hold no more tears - they have already been shed - but they watch you, full of sadness and suffering. Uncanny and all-pervasive. You are glad to make your escape into the garden of exile.
But even here you are conscious of the shadows that do not belong to you or any tourist.
The sun slants though the concrete columns and hope greens in the leaves of the oleaster tree beyond, but the songs of absent children and the faint, snatched echoes of conversation of their parents and grandparents silenced seventy odd years ago, here in Berlin and elsewhere, disturb you because they are not there.
The museum is an important place to go to - perhaps as important as Auschwitz or Dachau. You will never be the same again and perhaps the world won't be either. And may be that's important too.
Back in the present, happier Berlin - its waterways and lime trees and its view to the future - I find it a remarkable place - intense, alive with potential and very real. There is no pretence here and I love that. And as a place to take H, it was perfect - challenging, absorbing, exhausting in places and exactly what was needed to break any incipient couch-potato-dom and provide real substance for mind, body and soul to thrive on. Did I say I was prejudiced about virtual reality?!
Be that as it may, if you are looking for a place to take your teenage son, even if you feel the days of doing things, mother and son "à deux" have gone, or are at least numbered, I recommend Berlin unequivocally. Want proof? I am already getting requests to go back! I'd better save up my Euros I think!
This is a little garden ornament I found in the early morning on the path by the canal.
Its inscription reads "Wer den Tag mit einem Lächeln beginnt, hat ihn bereits gewonnen."
If I have translated it correctly, (and it's quite possible I haven't so please correct me, if you think I'm wrong), I think this means
"Whoever begins the day with a smile, has already won it."
A good maxim that, back home, I am keeping in mind!
Auf wieder sehen, Berlin! I miss you!