By Alexandra Paucescu
From our first encounter, at a long walk in Tiergarten, Berlin’s popular park, Olivia seemed to me the kind of woman who looks fragile on the outside but is strong and determined on the inside. Later, I discovered she is also a great friend, a delicate and refined woman and a talented writer and photographer.
Born in Munich, Germany, Olivia Nikel spent three years at a Swiss boarding school, later completed her education with the German “Abitur” diploma and moved to Madrid, Spain for one year, to learn Spanish. She remembers her childhood years with pleasure, as they were ‘unforgettably happy times’. She completed her studies in New York, at Bard College in Annandale on Hudson, where she graduated from political science.
Her professional life took her from working as a journalist at a local newspaper “Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung” (AZ) to “Berliner Zeitung” which used to be one of the most prestigious papers in the GDR. She remembers: ‘moving to the capital was a big and challenging step in my professional career. It was a tough time in many ways, but very interesting professionally, with me covering topics such as the Northern Irish peace process, or the elections in the USA. It was an important time for my growth as a journalist and a person’.
After five years there, she was offered the job of US-Correspondent in Washington, DC. She says: ‘today I would count those six years in the US as one of the best times of my life, before marriage. I was able to write about US politics, explore the country, report from Afghanistan and Iraq, cover many election campaigns, including the most exciting one of Barack Obama and enjoy a lot of freedom in my work’.
Learning about her life experience is impressive, indeed. I would have loved it, too!
But life took her back to Belin, where she met her future husband, who was then working in the Chancellery of Angela Merkel. After marriage and moving abroad on diplomatic assignment, she had to pause her own career and look for something new, as so many of us did over the years.
“Best part of being a diplomatic spouse is to discover a country in so many ways, having an insight on so many levels and enjoying mostly wonderful and kind diplomatic colleagues, who share and understand the sometimes a bit ambivalent situation: living a diplomatic life with privileges, while at the same time feeling lonely and, at times, quite disconnected and not able to pursue your own career.”
“Because of our life style (living in a nice residence, having contact with important and powerful people and enjoying celebrations) someone watching from the outside might see this as a privileged lifestyle. People might think diplomatic spouses take this for granted, and to be honest, some do. On the other hand, there might be prejudice against spouses that they only rest on their partners’ jobs and have very little to offer themselves. Thinking of all the partners I met, this seems to be a complete misconception. I have met highly educated, warm hearted, non-snobbish spouses, who, at times, had an even better education and job than their spouses. Or, who made themselves incredibly useful in terms of charity or support to their family or the families of others. Ironically, the biggest misconceptions I usually heard from people who had not even met any diplomatic spouses, but based their judgement on tales and legends.”
“As my husband and I went to our posting in Poland, it was clear that I would not be able to continue my career as a journalist. First, I decided to learn Polish, take some classes in Polish history at the university and later fulfill one of my lifelong dreams, to learn more about photography. So, I enrolled in a photography school in Warsaw and started a completely new phase of my life, going back to school with fellow students who could have been my children. It was though so much fun and I learned very much thanks to this younger, technology-oriented generation. It was quite an experience.”
Olivia then continues with her life story: ‘whether as a young person, professional journalist or diplomatic spouse, I always enjoyed discovering other cultures, new languages, new people and history. As a diplomatic spouse, I had the chance to explore my new country on different levels and that was what made it very exciting. As a journalist or diplomatic spouse, I was blessed to have many opportunities of adventures and learning.’
She tells me that, during their posting, she only published one article (about the opening of a museum in Warsaw) but she instead followed her dream and, after finishing photography school, she completely focused on this new form of communication in her life. She published three photography books and, after returning to Berlin, she had her first solo exhibition. Her photography style is very interesting and uses quite innovative production processes.
She recently started research for a book about the history of her family, especially about her great grandfather and his daughter, Olivia’s grandmother, living in Berlin at the turn of the 20th century. She discovered that he was a stonemason and was running a well-known company in the city. “At that time, Berlin was the capital of Germany, a newly unified nation, bustling with new businesses and in desperate need of monuments and statues to praise the new Reich and its Emperor. My great grandfather was involved in many buildings and monuments of the time. Among the most famous one was a fountain that Kaiser Wilhelm II gave as a present to the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople (Istanbul now). That fountain still exists today. But in 1914 the world changed and WWI started. My great grandfather and both his sons died in WW I. It changed my grandmother’s life forever. As it happens sometimes with stories, this one became a much larger project than anticipated. I have all the letters which the soldiers of our family wrote during the war and I visited most of the places where my family lived in Berlin. It is a great and emotional voyage back to a very different time. I am happily still working on it, while at the same time I have been continuing my photographic journey, working for a friend, who is developing a foundation (so I can afford my office in a photo studio)”.
But, no matter how accomplished and busy she is in her professional life, she still confesses with humor that one of her proudest moments in life was probably when her grandsons told her that they liked her cooking.
Family comes first and, after many years of stress and far too many worries, she decided to follow the late Queen Elizabeth’s II advice: ‘Keep calm and carry on!’
You can find out more about Olivia’s work here: www.olivianikel.format.com
About the author:
She speaks Romanian, English, French, German and Italian, gives lectures on intercultural communication and is an active NGO volunteer.