I haven't had a summer vacation in a city for years. Come holiday time, most urban dwellers head for the hills: the vineyards of the Loire, the beaches of the Med, the villages of Andalusia. Londoners and Parisians vanish from Oxford Street and Montmartre. Travel supplements are packed with seductive snaps of terracotta Tuscan villas and fields of yellow sunflowers. This year Mrs. Cat and I timed our move to Berlin so we could take our annual holiday here (after unpacking the boxes and dropping a substantial portion of our six-year-old's inheritance at Ikea). We wanted to ease ourselves and Maus into our new home.
Every morning for two weeks we set out on a child-sized adventure: a buzzy cycle ride around the Tiergarten, a dinosaur tour at the Natural History Museum, a pilgrimage to the Reichstag dome, hours at Legoland. We chose favourite fountains and found the best spot for Sunday brunch (the Cafe am Neuen See on Lichtensteinallee). Maus became obsessed with the U-Bahn, memorizing the names of stations and discerning the age of the different trains by the shape of their headlamps. 'Is it best to catch the U3 or the U7 to get to Potsdamer Platz, Daddy?' His first German phrase was the oft-announced 'Einsteigen, bitte' (very roughly translated as 'Mind the Gap!').
To our delight we're discovering a vibrant, green city with 'a strange, rough magic' (to quote Alexandra Richie), rich in museums and galleries, peppered with parks and spectacular playgrounds, crisscrossed by waterways, surrounded by lakes and rivers. We feel welcomed by its residents, admiring their independence and pride (when visitors ask where the centre of Berlin is, locals tend to answer 'wherever you are standing'). Mrs. Cat has developed a taste for milchkaffee (creamy cappuccino served in a glass) and I'm eating far too many currywursts, spicy sausages in tangy curried ketchup served from ubiquitous street stalls.
Above all we are comfortable with the city's size. Over three million people may live in Berlin about 82 million in the country as a whole but because of the enviable transport infrastructure and green spaces the capital always feels open and underpopulated to an erstwhile Londoner. Our nearest U-Bahn station -- a two minute walk from the front door -- is five stops away from baroque Schloss Charlottenburg with its sprawling French gardens and (in the opposite direction) less than a dozen stops from Krumme Lanke, a quiet, curving lake surrounded by sandy beaches and tall pine trees and reminiscent of Scotland. In fact Krumme Lanke like adjoining Schlachtensee proved to be one of the highlights of our urban holiday. Around the lakes wind broad, earthen footpaths from which bathers step down to favourite coves. Our Maus who until last month needed stabilisers on his bicycle shot ahead between the dogs and joggers to reach a sloping, sunny crescent of sand at the northern tip of the lake. In a flash he was in his bathing trunks and splashing in the water. Across the surface bobbed the heads of a dozen swimmers framed by the brilliant green of the trees. Families rowed inflatable dinghies to the opposite shore. Ducks paddled among the bathers. The surrounding woodland made it easy to forget that the Brandenburg Gate was a mere twenty-five minute underground ride away.
Nature asserted itself in another unexpected manner at Krumme Lanke. Although we're still getting to grips with the etiquette, it soon became apparent that Maus' trunks were surplus to requirements. As a general rule Germans are more at home in their bodies than their British peers. Here nudism Freikörperkultur or free body culture -- has long been linked to a person's well-being. From the Baltic 'Riviera' to Bavaria's peaks, young and old Germans have been baring all since the end of the nineteenth century (the world's first nudist park opened near Hamburg in 1903). In former East Germany, with its limited freedoms, naturism was seen as one of the few permitted means of unadorned self-expression. Today youth organisations celebrate the health benefits of going starkers. As a result in two hours on a Berlin beach I learnt more about the variety of human physiognomy than I had gathered in my previous two decades in England.
Eventually of course we had to take leave of the holiday sun. Now we are shifting from being tourists to residents. At the same time the days are growing shorter. There's an autumnal chill in the air. And the morning streets which in August had been quiet bustle with commuters and children. Germany gets out of bed early and by 0730 a sizeable percentage of the nation's school kids seems to have passed beneath our balcony. The time has come to take Maus to his first day of school, and for us to get to grips with German bureaucracy. If the clichés are true, the encounter with officialdom will be frustrating enough to make us want to tear off our clothes and throw ourselves into the nearest lake. Glug glug glug.