Misha Aster: A cultural historian

The Local's series "Making it in Germany" presents Misha Aster, a Canadian cultural historian in Berlin.

Misha Aster: A cultural historian
Photo: Sabine Devins

Name: Misha Aster

Age: 31

Originally from: Hamilton, Canada

What did you do before coming to Germany?

I was going to university. I did semesters in London, McGill in Montreal and couple years in the States and a semester in Russia to get my Masters in Dramaturgy, which is a kind of theatre degree. After finishing university, I came to Europe to work in small theatre companies, just bouncing from city to city, project to project.

What brought you to Germany?

I came to Berlin for the first time in 1990 on a family trip and I remember we arrived by train at the Zoologischer Garten station, and walking out of the train station to be confronted by this extraordinary image of the Gedächtnis Kirche. I thought this is an extraordinary place. This is an important place. I need to get to know this place better. I was 12 at the time, but it was one of those events and experiences that leave a lasting impression. When I finished high school in 1995, I was looking for something to do before starting university and it was around the same time that there was a Leonard Cohen song of which the refrain was about taking Berlin. So in 1995 to 1996, I was here for eight months and fell in love with the city the first time and left and went to university. But I always wanted to come back and was always searching for an excuse and eventually that materialised in 2006.

What do you do here in Berlin?

That question is the bane of my existence. You could say I’m a dramaturge, but no one knows what that means. I spend my time in and around theatres and musical institutions working on productions. I’ve also carved out a niche for myself as a type of historian writing the histories and studies these cultural institutions.

How did you get started with that?

Essentially, I was asked. During my first stay here, I was fortunate to have been befriended by a musician who played with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. We met on a train and had a lot of time to kill so we had a long, involved and quite fascinating conversation. One of the topics that popped up was the experience of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich. This friend of mine found it bizarre that he, as a member of the orchestra, had no idea what had happened to his colleagues 60 years ago. Our conversation went on from there, but we both agreed that this was something worth investigating. Around 2002/2003, this friend called me up and said, ‘OK, now is our chance. Come to Berlin and lets find out the story.’

He introduced me to some people and let me into the archives. It was more to satisfy our own personal curiosities at first, but I started and as I got into the research, I realised there was a really fascinating story here, and more over, one that hadn’t been told yet. Then we decided that maybe more people would care about it than just us, so it became a book. I accumulated and researched through various visits to Berlin over a few years until 2006, when I finally made the move to Berlin and sat down to actually write.

Now that book has been translated from the German into French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and will soon be coming out in English.

How much German is involved in your day-to-day work?

I write in English, but I use German sources and write for a German audience and the books are translated into German for publication, so I use the original German sources in my materials in order to maintain authenticity rather than having the work translating back and forth.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you moved here?

When I first came here, I didn’t speak the language. It was 1995, just six years after the Wall came down and English wasn’t yet as widely spoken here as it is today. Once I had a grasp on the language, I had to come to terms with the German attitude toward work and how they categorise people by the work they do, so how I categorised my own role and how I’m cast in people’s social networks. It was easy to connect to people through work, but I found it difficult to make friends on a casual basis. There is a more rigid social structure that what one is used to encountering in North America.

What do you love about living here?

I love the fact that I have a specific set of passions and interested relating to culture, music and theatre and any night of the week, there is the most wonderful array of cultural experiences to choose from. I love that about Berlin, but even more is the fact that there are other people in this city that are equally passionate about there sets of cultural interests and they also have this immense selections of experiences to choose from and we will actually overlap, despite living in the same city and always being busy with things. Its an incredible diversity of experience to offer. The sense of openness, the sense of plurality in that regard. It’s a city that doesn’t try to be like anywhere else. It doesn’t emulate other places and in that way, is very comfortable in its own skin and in that way, people here can then too feel very comfortable and confident in who they are and what they can contribute to the city.

How has Germany changed you?

You’re expected to be forthcoming about what you value here. Becoming aware of that and being able to be more forthcoming and more expressive about what I value and recognising that other people have that same opportunity, that its part of the culture. Coming from a Canadian perspective where we’re always so polite and concerned with making sure that no one could take offense, it was an adjustment. Here you make your case, and don’t have to apologise for it.

What advice do you have for someone who is looking to ‘make it’ in Germany?

Go to the theatre. The theatre is one of the best ways to take the pulse of a society. You can often tell how a society functions and how people feel in relation to each other in how they communicate.

Know someone who’s “made it” in Germany? Email us at: [email protected]

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Five German drinks to try this summer

There’s nothing quite like a cold drink on a hot summer’s day and the Germans know it well. That’s why they’ve got a variety of tasty alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to cool them down in the hottest months. Here are five you should try.

Five German drinks to try this summer

Summertime in Germany can get pretty hot, but thankfully there are plenty of popular drinks which can help you cool down, as well as tickle the tastebuds.

In Germany, fizzy water is wildly popular, so it’s not surprising that Sprudel is a key ingredient in most of the drinks on this list.


A Hugo cocktail. Photo: Greta Farnedi/Unsplash

The Hugo is a cocktail made of Prosecco, elderflower syrup, mint leaves, a shot of mineral water and a slice of lime.

This refreshing alcoholic drink was invented by Roland Gruber, a bartender in South Tyrol, the mainly German-speaking region of northern Italy in 2005.

Though the drink wasn’t invented in Germany, it quickly spread across the borders of northern Italy and gained popularity here. Nowadays, you’ll be able to order a Hugo in pretty much any bar in the country.


A woman holds a pint of Radler. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Nicolas Armer

One of the best-known and most popular mixed beer drinks is the Radler: a concoction of beer and lemonade, a bit like a British shandy. In some areas of Germany – particularly in the south – the mixture is called Alster.

Usually, the ratio is 60 percent beer and 40 percent lemonade, but there are also some interesting variants. In some regions of Germany, a distinction is made between sweet (with lemonade) and sour (with water) Radler. Some foolhardy drinkers even mix their beer with cola (called a diesel).

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions producing the most important beer ingredient


A woman pours apple spritz into plastic cups. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Soeren Stache

Apfelschorle is an absolute German classic.

The traditional mix of apple juice and fizzy water is a 1:1 ratio, but if you’re making the drink at home you can adjust the measurements to your liking. 

The concept of Saftschorle (fruit spritzer) has moved way beyond the plain old apple in Germany though. On Supermarket shelves, you’ll find major drinks chains offering a wide variety of fizzy fruit beverages, including  Rhabarbe-Schorle (Rhubarb spritz), Schwarze Johannisbeer-Schorle (Black currant spritz) and Holunderschorle (elderberry spritz).

Berliner Weiße mit Schuss

A woman drinks a Berliner Weiße in Berlin.

A woman drinks a Berliner Weiße in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Britta Pedersen

The Berliner Weiße (or Weisse) is an old, German beer, brewed with barley and wheat malt.

As the name suggests, it originates from the German capital, where it was extremely popular in the 19th century and was celebrated as the “Champagne of the North”.

But by the end of the 19th century, sour beer styles, including this one, became increasingly unpopular and they almost died out completely. 

READ ALSO: Five German foods that aren’t what you think they are

So people started mixing the drink with sweet syrup. This gave rise to the trend of drinking Berliner Weissbier with a shot (Schuss) of raspberry or woodruff syrup, which is still widely enjoyed today. Some breweries even ferment fruits such as raspberries or strawberries.

The drink is so well-known in Germany, that there was even a TV series named after it which ran for 10 years 1984 to 1995.


Water and wine in equal parts and both well chilled – a light summer drink. Photo: picture alliance / dpa-tmn | DWI

Another fizzy-water-based German classic is the white wine spritz. 

A wine spritzer is a refreshing drink on warm summer days which has the advantage of not going to your head as quickly as a regular glass of wine. With equal parts fizzy water and wine, the drink has only about 5-6 percent alcohol, compared to glass of pure white wine, which has about 9-14 percent. 

For optimum German-ness when making this drink at home, choose a German white wine such as Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner or Riesling.

Enjoy and drink responsibly!