Germany

Berlin and beyond: Back to school

Hands up who remembers their first day of school? Tamsin Walker has no recollection of hers. But had it been here in Germany, it might have been a whole different story. Written in fountain pen, no less.

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Starting school in Germany is serious business

Every year, on a Saturday morning toward the end of the summer, Berlin wakes up to the sight of neatly dressed 6-year-olds clutching long, brightly decorated cardboard cones stuffed to the brim with goodies, and with square rucksacks akin to brightly colored boxes strapped to their backs. And thus they walk, flanked by their equally spruced-up family entourage, through the gates of their school-to-be for a "welcome to the world of learning" ceremony.

The Einschulung, as the event is known, is a rite of passage here in Germany, and it's big business. Into said rucksacks, officially known as Schulranzen, and officially costing more than I would ever want to spend on any bag, go 100-plus euros worth of textbooks, the not one, but two apparently requisite fountain pens, and an endless list of other educational supplies.

For parents, who by this time are on an unfinished spending spree, the starting-school market is awash with opportunities to shell out on bunting, place name cards for the family feast, learning-related books, games and chocolates and the pièce de résistance - the Schultüte, also known as the Zuckertüte.

A rack of brightly pictured cardboard cones (DW/T. Walker)

One shape, all sizes of empty cones just waiting to be filled

The what? The aforementioned cardboard cone crammed with presents and candy that screams to anyone looking on: "I'm a big kid now."

Legendary after-parties

And sticking with the theme of size, following the official festivities in the school hall come some huge family parties. Several mothers I know have spent years quietly planning the event of a childhood, and one told me it was on a par with a christening. That being so, she booked a venue nine months in advance, invited the entire extended family and was expecting a bill of 800 euros for the food. Drinks on top.

Granted: Those I spoke to grew up in what was once East Germany, where more is made of the milestone than in the western part of the country. But even so, I find it hard to see that starting school is worthy of such forward-planning and expense.

I asked my own kids how they felt about their respective entries into the institution of learning, which for the eldest was in the UK and therefore meant unceremoniously dropping him off at the gates with a pencil and leaving him to it.

A child with huge cone and large rucksack on her back

There's a lot to carry once you turn six

The others, who did it German style - minus the lavish after-party - said they liked the welcoming sing-song at school, and though they remembered the cones, they could remember nothing of what I put in them except the tights. And apparently I nailed it, because my youngest daughter says it's the legwear she's most looking forward to when she starts school next year.

When that time comes, and she is not dancing at a post-ceremony bash in her 6-year-old name, or playing with new games and toys, I hope she won't feel short-changed, but will collect some memories of it being a day when she learned that school could be something to look forward to and enjoy. If you're wearing the right pair of tights, that is.

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