Pots-Damn, this place has a lot of castles

Also a lot of Tors, of which this is apparently the gateway to fine Italian dining

You can’t really live in Berlin without being aware that Potsdam is hovering eagerly on the outskirts like the rich but lonely sidekick of the school jock. It lies on the very end of the purple line of the S-Bahn, and normal Berliners go about their days never considering the implications of simply riding that rail all the way down to that far away kingdom. Fortunately poor schmoes like myself and my colleague, whose codename in this article will be Eugene, are already used to taking the Bahns so far out that when we get to our destinations the only other person in the carriage is the janitor in his boiler suit, slowly sweeping in the corner. We’ve never been to Potsdam, we thought, and what a wonderful opportunity to see it before we both go back to the land of Marmite. Yes, it was time for another adventure.

The most striking thing on arriving in Potsdam was the sheer “what, me worry?” atmosphere in the train station. Compared to Berlin Hauptbahnhof or Alexanderplatz, where everyone is marching around and yelling at each other and dragging their dogs about, Potsdam Hauptbahnhof is like a transport spa, with ambient music and pleasant sculptures and market-sellers weighing out cheese (what, you’ve never been to a spa with cheese before?). From there the walk into town was short but briefly unpleasant, as a man with an enormous beard sniffed out that we were tourists and descended upon us, trying to get us to take his bus tour with persuasion tactics which were as violent as one can get without actually touching the other person. Given that the flyer he gave us promised to both ‘lead’ us (führen) and ‘seduce’ us (verführen) turning him down seemed the only safe option. With that little snaggle behind us, we took a deep breath and head across the river towards the city centre.


On the way to the middle of Potsdam, snuggling up to the bridge, is a little island called Freundschaftsinsel (‘Friendship Island’ – awwwww), which we gave a brief gander. It is a very cute mini oasis of plants and one incredible kids’ playground where the children have an amazing fountain and array of sandy water-gulleys to explore in and around, idyllically surrounded by slightly breeze-blown willow trees and flowers. There are also lots of coots there, with their crazy feet proudly on display. Already Eugene and I felt the stress of the Groβstadt melting away. We decided to head into the city centre in the direction of the Holländisches Viertel.

The Höllandisches Viertel, Dutch Quarter, is a funny little nook where all the buildings are designed in the typical dutch village style. Eugene had lived in Holland for three years and was delighted to see that they had even kept the traditional style of Dutch paving, namely where the streets are lined with small grey bricks. And…err, that’s it. The shops were all just random boutiques selling home made okra jam and teapots, so outside of the buildings and paving there is confusingly little to this famous quarter. Its very existence is somewhat of a question; it’s clearly shooting to be a kind of Chinatown, but my friend made the excellent comparison that it’s a bit like having a Yorkshire quarter in the middle of Bristol. Why whack a big chunk of a rather nondescript culture in the middle of a culture that is already vaguely similar to that culture? Still, if you like gables that is The Place To Be.
 
From there we made our way over to the very very famous Schloss Sanssouci and the Sanssouci park, pausing briefly to get our daily fix of MSG from another one of those “Asian” restaurants. Schloss Sanssouci and the whole complex is Potsdam’s biggest draw, as it’s an old sort of Rococo castle built in the 1700s and ceremoniously planted in the middle of a mind-bogglingly huge park. The park contains a total of roughly ten million other castles and important buildings, each of which seem to just suddenly barge into view as you innocently walk around looking for something else entirely. The most striking is, of course, the main Sansoucci Castle, which has in front of it a weird vineyard constructed on stepped platforms with fig trees inbetween each vine, for no reason shut behind barred doors as if it were some kind of fig-tree prison. From the back of the castle you can see the Ruinenberg, a funny old ruin on top of a hill which looks like a taste-test of the Acropolis. We decided to hike up to there via the Orangery, a bizarrely hidden enormous building which, like the rest of the buildings (and like everything in Berlin and its surroundings) seems to find itself in a constant state of renovation. The Orangery is massive and very attractive, although as with all the other buildings you had to pay to go inside and when we looked through the windows all we could see was, for some reason, a very large mechanical crane. Next up was the Ruinenberg, which looks incredible from far away and close up is rather odd, like a minuscule film set for an old flick about Caesar. The ruins surround a perfectly circular reservoir which was filled with deeply green, deeply nasty water and plenty of trash, and given that there was once again zero information or signs about what the heck it all meant we walked back down with a vague sense of confusion and unsatisfied curiosity. All over the park there is not a single plaque to explain anything that you might like to know – evidently the information you actually desire can only be reached by paying the entrance fees – but deep in the middle of the park’s forest we did find one informative plaque about the plumbing of the local mosque. No, I don’t know why.

We then wandered back into town to take another look at the streets themselves. The whole place had a very odd flavour to it, something that it took us forever to put our fingers on: the city looks absolutely brand-spanking-new. The buildings all look like they’ve been painted yesterday, in powder-puff Princess Peach colours that are so soft and matt the walls seem to have been gathered together out of clouds of coloured mist. The street signs are so nagelneu that they literally glisten, and the cobbles are that kind of pristine old-timey style where although they are worn and interspersed with moss they look perfect and artisanal. With all the Tors (gates) scattered around the place, each featuring fairytale castle turrets and sculptures of stags and the like, the city has a very Disneyesque vibe to it. It is also astonishingly clean, which coming from Berlin feels like moving house to the Mushroom Kingdom from the flat in Withnail and I; predominantly, the absence of dog poop EVERYWHERE is just such a treat I got a genuine thrill every time I glanced at the empty pavements. 

Potsdam is definitely a place to see, and it is distinctly beautiful in its way, but after a good day’s wandering we were left wondering what more there was to actually do there. You can’t spend your life simply seeing things, and in terms of tangible things to learn and discover we unfortunately stumbled upon very few. I reckon it’s the kind of town where you really do need to be shown around by a native and get told where the best places are, otherwise you just get lost in the mesmerising labyrinth of foggy mint-green and marshmallow-pink houses. But then again, perhaps it was my fault. Lesson learned: Wikipedia is not a travel guide, despite being an endlessly reliable source of ultra-true facts and objective informative content.

Berlin: Where “rest” is nothing more than a type of rubbish

And what do you find when you go looking for peace and quiet? Men on sticks, of course.

I’m a country lass, born and bred, as I believe you already know. Brought up surrounded by fields, farms and circling red kites, where the only traffic noise you could hear was the aggrieved squawk of a pheasant who had another pheasant standing in its way. It’s deadly dull when you’re little, of course, and you find yourself whiling away endless days making anything and everything out of sticks and rocks in order to pass the time, but once you’re older the true blissfulness of the situation begins to become obvious. It’s just so quiet, so relaxed, and the distance from any centre of urban activity is only annoying up until the point where you realise it is a sacrifice worth making in order to have the joy of seeing sheep and partridges out of your bedroom window.

Berlin is not like this. Berlin is noisy. Good grief, it’s the noisiest place I have ever been for more than a fortnight (I say this as I was once in Hanoi and being in that city is like having your head inside a metal bucket while someone hammers it with a pole from the outside). As I write, the builders who have for no evident reason overtaken our building to renovate it are apparently just throwing heavy things around for fun and dragging other heavy things along a stretch of corrugated tin. These cheerful men arrive every day around 6.30am to begin their work, a lot of which seems to involve a large and powerful flamethrower which I had thought I was simply dreaming until I saw the weapon lying by the Innenhof door. I am glad that our Hausmeister is ensuring that the building stays in good nick, but on the other hand I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in about a month and I am starting to develop a psychotic twitch. 

I also have the good fortune to have the bedroom facing into the Innenhof. In Berlin flats, every building has an interior courtyard where all the bikes and bins are parked and where the windows all face each other. Thus my bedroom window looks out into everyone else’s flat and vice versa, and now that it’s summer and everyone’s windows are casually left open the entire Innenhof has become a gallery of people’s private but very LOUD goings on. Thus complimenting the jolly morning builders I am subjected to a throbbing techno rave from one of three different flats every single night at sleepytime, which occasionally gives way either to the Dolby Surround(TM) thunder of the next-door neighbours’ action film evenings or the equally loud and unignorable sounds of them doing it like they do on the Discovery channel, if you get my drift.

The whole city is a frenzied exhausting mess of noise, from the punks on the street yelling at each other’s dogs, to the church bells which ring whenever the hell they feel like it, to the over-cheerful “boooo-BEEEE-booo” of the S-Bahn doors which is starting to have the same effect on me as the “boo-bee-boo-boo-bee” in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘. Children screech around the streets like gibbons in the rainforest and terrible amateur indie-rock-folk bands spontaneously start three-hour grunge-jam sessions mere metres away from the bar you and your friends choose to have a quiet after-work drink. Buskers lodge their bongos directly in your ears and bicyclists yell at you for having a mass and a circumference. I feel like I have a miniature television glued to each of my shoulders permanently switched to full-volume MTV Cribs/Pimp my Ride marathons. Us country types are gentle and fragile souls, so we are. Sometimes the need to and impossibility of escape gets a bit much. My curtains are transparent orange gauze, so my bedroom offers no repose. This morning on the bus I closed my eyes and tried to retreat into a quiet inner oasis when the bus driver suddenly pumped the brake on and off repeatedly, making the bus lurch around like a breakdancing camel, before he then looked at me in the rear-view mirror and made the following announcement over the loudspeaker: “NICHT schlafen!!” 

So where does one go when one needs a bit of time out of the Gewimmel? Luckily the genius of Berlin is that its sheer rambunctious noise is well-recognised and antidotes are provided here and there for those of a more sensitive disposition. The Botanicher Garten is a wonderful place to spend an entire day, requiring nothing more than a tiny entrance fee to allow you to dopily drift around the gorgeous wild-flower meadow and romantic Italian garden and steamy glasshouses for as long as you like into the early evening. There is an incredibly brilliant bakery on the way from the S-Bahnhof to the gardens where you can pick up little bags of shortbread covered in butterscotch and seeds or puff-pastry diamonds dusted with spices and cheese, and with those in your pocket there’s little more you need for a perfect Sunday. 

Berlin is also surrounded by its many Sees, lakes which range in size from the massive kind which lend themselves to wholesome activity days of bike riding and bird watching to the smaller kind which are simply big ponds and perfect for a good long reflective wander. The Lietzensee in Charlottenburg is particularly sweet, cut in half by a mysterious-looking bridge-tunnel-thing and with a cafe on one end where one can sit and regard the ducks and resist the urge to go and throw bread at them and giggle like a five-year-old. The Plötzensee, as mentioned in a previous post, is ideally suited for a beer and a sunbathe, while the Wannsee has canoe hire on offer, among other things. If you are a wandering or nature-type, you won’t be short of places to escape to here.

But this is all dependent on the weather not being as it is right now, namely rainy and windy and petulantly impulsive like a spoilt little girl. Where do you go when the idea of being outside makes your soul shiver? That’s a tricky one, but there are still options. Most café owners in Berlin seem to think that the average customer likes eardrum-quaking blasts of 1980’s classics while they nurse their espresso macchiato, but Berlin’s libraries are often fantastic places, busy but quiet and often featuring somewhere to get a coffee or ice lolly (which we all know is crucial to the reading process). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally pop to the library simply for a good hour of reading books I would never dream of actually loaning, such as books on quilting or vegan shoe production or (nostalgic sigh) good old Asterix and Tintin. Hey, if it’s in German it counts as education. The Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek has a particularly good book selection and a friendly man who helps you with the stacks orders, while the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg library has a huge array of music and CDs. If being in a labyrinth of fingered books isn’t your bag and you just want to sit somewhere a surprising pocket of calm can be found in the smaller bakeries, where there is usually no background music, one or two little shaky plastic tables and a friendly lady who’ll brew you up a peppermint tea for a few cents. 

Alternative moments of meditation can be found riding the escalators all the way up to the top of the eight-story Galeria Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz and back down again, accidentally riding the train all the way to somewhere remote or drifting around pet shops being mesmerised by the lizards and baby rabbits. I have also heard on the grapevine that the holy grail of quiet time-killing is any Apple store, where you can go and play with the iPads/Pods/Puffs for hours without any of the hipster staff telling you to shove off. But don’t quote me on that; who knows what those people have been trained to do… 

Driftin’

Flat#1, Residence#3, Home#5.

I’m moving again. Not here in Berlin, of course; the very sight of WG Gesucht moves me to hysterical panic attacks. The horror….the horror……

No, I’m moving in the UK. One month after I return, one month from today, I and my family will be leaving our current house and moving to another modern little number in the suburbs where my parents will “grow” old together (you can see that I know they don’t read this) and where I will spend a good deal of the rest of my life. Life has never been so schizophrenic – in the last few years, I have moved out of my childhood home, into a wonderful new ‘young adulthood home’, skipped between college rooms and Berkshire bedrooms, ricocheted from flat to flat in Berlin and now am on a path to yet another place that theoretically is supposed to become the emotional and geographical nexus of my sense of being. If I do the correct calculations, I deduce that I haven’t been living in the same one place for any one time for longer than three or four months for about three years. If this was a Western, I’d be one of those people described by the local prostitute as Hank the Drifter: “Well now he just breezes on into town one day an’ afore he’s paid fer his whisky he’s breezed on out agin…”

Nothing in life is permanent, and it’s best to embrace that than to spend your life mourning it. And if I were to give one piece of advice coming from this experience of roaming around it would be this: go as many places as you can and don’t stay too long once you’re there. 

Leapfrogging from place to place is the absolute best thing! This year has been nothing if not varied, and every single flat I have been in has made me live a different way and experience an environment with a different flavour. Charlottenburg was pretty, well-developed and underrated, but was also rather quiet and lacking in curiosity. The general slightly-greater wealth of the area is so obvious you could probably taste the difference by licking a lamppost there and in Friedrichshain. My local restaurants in Friedrichshain are generally all-purpose ‘Asian’ cuisine or a hilarious and cheap little Indian place where the staff sit on the doorstep and chain smoke. In Charlottenburg the local restaurants included a lofty French bistro called ‘Pistou’ where I ate medium-rare duck liver and rocket salad and the waiters all wore tiny black waistcoats and had real-live little white towels resting over their left forearms. But another local place, Suppinger, was just a sweet little local nashery where you could get a trough of delicious soup for 3 euros, the whole place was decorated with seasonal felt shapes, and the people there clearly ate there every day and were on ‘how-are-the-kids’ terms with the waiting staff. That seems to be the main difference between east and west that you can really feel: in the west it’s posh but when it’s not it isn’t trying to be anything else apart from simply worthwhile and of good quality. In the east when something isn’t posh it is immediately “oh my god this amazing place where like all the walls are covered with pictures of famous people’s earlobes and and it’s like really cheap because no-one knows about it and it’s in the cellar of an old bombed barrel factory”. In other words, east vs. west seems to be hipsters vs. mums; American Apparel vs. Marks and Spencers.

Prenzlauer Berg was different again, in that it’s sort of somewhere in between. It’s very pleasant and at times picturesque, and there are parts of it that are really coming on in the world whereas other parts are still about as appealing as stacked wet egg-boxes. It’s heaving with bitterness on both sides: from those who used to live there when it was secretly cool but before it became openly trendy, before all the young people surged over there to indulge in the alternativeness and excitingness of the district; and from those young people who have only just moved here and accidentally caused everything to become refined and expensive simply by their mere presence. It’s now, as I have mentioned before, full of babies, but then again there are babies pouring onto the streets both in Charlottenburg and Friedrichshain so I suspect the whole ‘Preggslauer Berg’ idea is rather a myth. 

In fact, from my seasoned perspective I am of the opinion that Berliners should stop trying to compare and argue for their districts as if they were football teams. All the districts in Berlin are essentially doing the same thing and simply have different aromas, like blends of Tschibo coffee. All the districts are ‘alternative’, from the bits of the west where individuality can flourish because it’s not gripped by the determination to be individual to the east where the more different you are the better. All the districts are littered with dogs, children and bicycles, and no matter where you go none of these three groups can accept that they don’t have main priority on the pavements (although they do all agree that regular pedestrians can suck it). All the districts have odd little structural similarities, somewhat like cats that all look completely different but each have a windpipe going from mouth to lungs. Each of the districts I know well revolves around a long and horrible stretch of road, whether Frankfurter Allee or Karl-Marx-Allee or Schoenhauser Allee or Spandauer Damm, and this is always a huge, terrifying ribbon of grey malaise. This is never where the real action happens as the really good and popular parts of the district are always in one or two main capillaries joining this straight long Berzirk-artery. There is always a square where cute and community-friendly events take place and a little intersection of streets where all the 9am-drinkers hand out and toast the passers by (I once actually did raise my coffee cup to an elderly alcoholic when he raised his vodka bottle to me at 7.30am and yelled “PROST!!” – he cheered at my gesture and took a celebratory gulp).

So move around a lot, dear reader, because you will never get more of a sense of a place or of the wider world until you can hold up lots of different places up against each other in your mind and figure out how cities, countries, people work. You can go to the cool places and find them lame, and the lame places and find them cool (or just hilarious). Hell, do what my family are doing in the UK and move from isolated country house to isolated country house, because there’s still something to be gained from seeing a different type of sheep from your bedroom window. And I have to say that I would give anything to see a sheep or two around here. Perhaps their bleating would drown out the sounds of my neighbours’ suddenly awakened late-night ‘Summer loving’. 

The Plague

“And ye shalt all be punished for your sins by damage of yon intestynes and kidneees!”

You may or may not be aware, but Germany is in the middle of the biggest health scare since <insert irritating Bild article here>. Its name is EHEC, it’s a virus which might cause permanent damage to your kidneys or intestines, and if it’s feeling really racy that day it might even go the whole hog and kill you. Some newspapers are genuinely calling it a plague, while even the initial skeptics such as myself are starting to get a little uneasy about it since it’s spreading, it’s dangerous and no-one has any clue what causes it. One thing’s for sure: now’s the time to be buying cucumbers, as the poor things are languishing on shelves for mere cents a piece. The question is, are you going to take the risk?

I suppose that if there’s one thing I will always be able to say about my year abroad, it’s that it was never boring. Trust me to come over here in a plague year. The reaction to this new crisis is rather jarring, as no-one is really quite sure what to do. At first Spanish cucumbers were thought to be the source, and although they needed a couple more days to be completely certain that they has caused the spread the German government did the understandable thing and advised people to avoid them while they were so heavily under suspicion. Spain has been furious about this, as evidently it would have been better to keep quiet and let people chow down on potentially infected food as long as the vaguely-tasteless vegetable trade is kept on an even keel. Since then it has been determined that the cucumbers are, in fact, not the cause of the infection, although the fact that many of the samples were chosen for study because they were host to other types of E. Coli is apparently something we are also now allowed to completely ignore. We now have no idea what could possibly cause it but for some reason the governments are determinedly upholding their warning against cucumbers, tomatoes and salad, as they are the foods which all the victims have in common; given that this is a country that lives on Brötchen and that every filled Brötchen contains at least one slice of tomato, cucumber and one lettuce leaf this seems rather unsurprising. What about Wurst??

Trying to find some kind of better factual source to find out about this is not easy; all the newspapers are relishing making this sound as doomsdayesque as possible, so real figures or realistic risk assessments only crop up very occasionally in comparison to exciting-sounding repetitions of the words “bloody diarrhoea”. When real facts do emerge they are fascinatingly strange; the predominance in women being chalked down to the fact that women are cooking more and therefore more in contact with unwashed produce (thanks a lot, chauvinist PIGS), or the fact that for some reason strawberries have been found to be completely safe. In my search for genuine information I foolishly went to the forums of Toytown Germany, a site which offers a community for English-speaking people who have moved to Germany.
It’s a brilliant idea of course, and the concept works very well; there are discussion boards for people to ask questions and help each other out, and the community feeling is well-established through frequent and regular themed meet-ups for anyone who might feel a bit lost or just want to get out a bit more. However, there are two reasons why I myself have never quite got stuck into the ‘Town myself:
1) once you start fraternising with your own kind over here, particularly in Berlin and other big cities, it is all too easy to stay in the pack forever. I want to meet natives, goddammit; I want to learn their customs, partake in their rituals and try on the loincloths, you know? And I am of the opinion that one of the best ways to do that is just to dive straight in Bruce-Parry style and drink the cow’s blood.
2) The site is, despite its many friendlinesses, one of the most hostile online environments I have ever witnessed.

The discussion forums are the nucleus of the whole operation, and just a cursory glance around the various threads seems to suggest that if these discussions were taking place in a pub rather than online people would be hitting each other with tankards and chucking Pilsner at each other. There is not a single topic that doesn’t seem to at some point spontaneously take a horrible and bitter turn and become bewilderingly insulting and aggressive. Take the case of a poor, confused student who simply wanted to move to Berlin and get a job there for a bit. He turned to the website hoping for a little support and some suggestions from the friendly ex-pat community; what he got instead was a textbook case of the lace-curtain twitchers, as the members berated him for coming over here, stealing our jobs… “It’s hard enough to get a job as a real Berliner without you thoughtless hippies coming here and thinking you’ll just find work,” complained a variety of non-real-Berliners who had come here and just found work in the place in question. 


But the EHEC discussion is one of the worst. How can people get so toxic and so vicious about an impersonal disease? The thread, beginning with a mild discussion of the risks, devolved into personal attacks so fast you’d think they were trying to be a metaphor for a virulent mutated strain of some horrible intestinal virus. One member immediately mounted her skyscraper-high horse and declared that vegetarians have known for years that you don’t need any of the risk foods if you have soy in your life, while another quite jarringly but with astonishing confidence compared EHEC to the horrible Love Parade incident a while back where a few poor people got crushed to death at a music festival due to overcrowding. No, I don’t really understand why either, but when asked to explain his comment he simply responded with, “Well I don’t see why I should and I don’t like your tone, but all I’m saying is that the government just sat and allowed innocents to die brutally.”


This doesn’t particularly have a moral except to say that it’s fascinating how a resource that is supposed to create a sense of unity and support so often falls back on hostility and conflict. There are hundreds of members throughout the country, and they all clearly get something out of it, but between the lines there’s a kind of ‘I know what I’m doing here, but what are you doing here??’ feel to the whole thing. 


But let me use this to give advice to anyone thinking of coming here on their year abroad: don’t rely on the ex-pat and foreign student support services you might find here. They may help you find you find your feet, but you will do much better to get out there and find your own mini-community who are there for you – not because you have a life situation in common but because you have stumbled upon each other and find each other worthwhile human beings. It’s not easy and it’s definitely slow going, but in the end when you are lying in your hospital bed with EHEC you’ll want people at your side and not an open laptop.


P.S. The picture at the top of this post is from the Bear Pit Karaoke session which takes place every Sunday at the Mauerpark Flea Market. It began some years ago when a crazy Irish dude saw the mini-Colosseum stage in the park and decided to set up a speaker and a microphone so that people could make idiots of themselves in the most public way possible outside of the broadcasting networks. It became so popular so fast that he now has a karaoke buggy with speakers and laptop and sound equipment bolted on, a loyal girlfriend who fiddles with his cables (no, she really does) and a waiting list of people dying to sing their favourite song. The event always begins with this beardy and formidable bear of a man singing the German version of “My Way” (‘Mein Leben’) and he himself has become such a legend that this time a woman leapt out of the audience to hand him a single white rose, which he unfortunately snapped in his sheer passion. The talent is…variable, ranging from the lanky Bowie-a-like who sang a sultry version of ‘Summertime’ without music to the woman who sung ‘Beat It’; she had dressed up as Michael Jackson, learned the dance and even done her hair as the Jacko, but evidently was so wrapped up in her preparation that it never crossed her mind to ever once in her life LISTEN TO THE SONG. “Beat it…beat it…bea…beat it…it…b…beat…beat it….” For an excruciating four minutes.

New from Nivea: Berlin style skin-thickening cream

You’re not so friendly yourself, sign-y boy…

You’ve got to be darned tough to live in this city. It is by no means a place for dreamy romantics or vulnerable maidens; no, in this city, raised by Kraftwerk and Currywurst and G’s that sound like J’s, you must be an industrial terminator-type, a metropolitan-style SAS warrior. You have to be ready to shove your shoulder into wherever you want to stand or move and ready to walk through an open door even if it’s being held open by a struggling young mother holding groceries and two babies. 

Well, not quite, but as an awkward and chronically apologetic English dame I had to learn pretty fast to be ruthless and grasping to get by. If you don’t learn this, you can’t make your way in Berlin and people find you rather silly and quaint – I still get looks of disdain when I apologise for letting the man next to me spill his kebab gravy onto my shoe. It is important to realise that everyone in the city is just doing whatever he or she has to do to get from one place to another, sort their stuff out and generally make their own life work within the practical constraints of the Big Systems like banks, trains and supermarkets. They’re not being selfish, but if you don’t take this attitude too you will end up thrashing about in the gutter like an injured shrimp. Here’s what I have learned in the last few months; I can’t wait to see how it’s received once I’m back to stuttery, blushing, Hugh-Grant-esque Britain.


1. Wherever or whenever you are, be ready to say exactly what it is you want or do not want and don’t apologise for it. Order exactly the coffee you want, as you like it, and if you want to pay for your shopping with a fifty note hand it to the man with unbroken eye contact as if to say, “yes, I know it only costs 3.42euros but you’re either getting my fifty or a punch in the face.” If you don’t do this, things always – always – go wrong. The moment when you hand the fifty over and say “I’m awfully sorry, that’s all I have” is the official thumbs-up for the cashier and all the people in the queue to start sighing and grumbling and rolling their eyes like they’re novelty halloween toys. And why is it important to remember not to apologise? Because these people at the tills and at your table are going to test you to prove your mettle before they give you anything. The last time I used a fifty to pay for an ice-cream (it truly was the only cash I had – why do those notes even exist when they’re so useless?) the man raised an eyebrow so high it went over the back of his head and came all the way round to become a small goatee, and then said “Really??” with US-sitcom-style sass. I stopped going to one cafe I used to like because my sensitive inner Englishman couldn’t take the fact that every time I ordered a cappuccino with semi-skimmed milk the waiter would scoff and bark “Why?”. Recently at a restaurant I ordered my salad dressing on the side and the waitress’ eyes widened: “What? You can’t just mess around with stuff on the menu! Great, now I’m going to get it in the neck from the kitchen thanks to you”, she replied lividly. Fragile non-Berliners, stand your ground and get what you are paying for or you will get spit-foam topping your coffee.

2. Be open and good lord, be ready for when people are open with you. I will admit, I am easily thrown when people say critical things to me. That flaw is rapidly being beaten out by months of true Berlin honesty; just last week I was in a private meeting with my high-boss to discuss me doing some illustrating work for the company when I began to tell her about one aspect of my artwork. She stood up, loudly declared, “That is uninteresting”, and left the room to get her tea. You must get used to people telling you what they think and realise that it is nothing to do with rudeness and everything to do with simply realising that being open and broad about it makes living life so much less of a social-politics quagmire. I often get texts from people who I have agreed to meet up with on that day simply saying that they want to cancel just because they’ve gone off the idea (yes, it’s taking all my energy not to interpret it as a statement of “you are simply rubbish”, too). But so much human life is wasted by agreeing to do things you don’t want to do or are not interested in; it’s hard to muster the courage to reply to an invitation with “no, I don’t like ska-bebop fusion music” but it’s nuts – and very English – to presume the other person’s feelings would be offended by that statement. The reason why no-one wears outdoor shoes indoors over here? Because in Berlin there are no doormats.

3. People will hit on you just because you are alive and in their locus, so be ready with a good response. I am not particularly a babe-magnet and me flirting looks like a 10-year-old giddy from stolen brandy, but since coming here I have been often disarmed or completely taken aback by the sudden and completely inexplicable advances of people who really ought to have figured out that it’s not going to be the romance of a lifetime. Aged greengrocers, aged hippies, skateboarding hooligans who kindly inform me they want my number for their brother, 15-year-old goons who ask if they can MSN me, much-older-than-me waiters who ask me if I like clubbing while my grandparents ARE RIGHT THERE WITH ME…It’s nothing to do with being a hottie or people being more amorous, it’s just that in Berlin there’s a sort of superficial and very faint nudge-nudge wink-wink feeling hovering in the air. I suppose if you spend your whole day handling juicy mangoes you are likely to sense it more than most.

4. In Berlin, there is no such thing as me-time outside your own home. You can be sitting in a cafe with a wall of books around you and headphones on and a do not disturb sign hooked onto your ear and someone will still think they rather fancy coming over and having a chat with you. If you are having a romantic meal for two in a restaurant, you clearly would like nothing more than the greasy sous-chef coming and leaning his back against the wall in preparation for a good long chinwag. This is pretty great a lot of the time because you do genuinely ‘meet people’ in the old-fashioned way where people approached each other just because they thought the other looked interesting or was doing something they were curious about. It also results in some highly interesting banter with waiters or barmen which is entertaining and helpful for vocab acquisition to boot. But if you are in the blackest mood and simply want to sit for a while injecting your hate into the Brötchen you are devouring that is inevitably the time when the leering and bearded baker decides to quiz you about your fingernails.

I live with two girls and I think we have all found this a little alarming in our inaugural time here. But we are Powerfrauen and we are building up our fortifications with every time proper Berlin-toughness is required. I reckon soon we’ll even be ready to chat up the greengrocer ourselves.

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Oh no, time for a cookery post

As you may have noticed from the minor hints here and there in this blog, I am a rather keen cook and look forward to the making of my dinner even more than the eating of said meal just because the science and art of it it something I find fascinating. In my opinion there is little more satisfying than watching all the various chunks and slices of ingredients slowly meld and mingle into a whole that is almost certainly a lot greater than the sum of its parts; just as interesting is when it goes wrong and you can try to figure out why exactly it did go wrong as you chew your way through a suspiciously sugary stew or weirdly foot-smelling Auflauf. Cooking is the ultimate definition of crafting to live, the process of taking time and developing your skills so that you can produce something creative and pleasing which just so happens to be essential to you getting through the day. Or, to put it less pretentiously, I grew up making cupcakes with my mother and the minute I had to start making full meals for myself I geeked out on it like I do with everything. If, incidentally, you are interested in the mechanics of cooking I heartily recommend the following: Cooking for EngineersCooking Issues and, my favourite, the wonderful American show Good Eats, whose sinewy-faced host Alton Brown addresses one tiny theme each week and talks you through all the various important things you ought to know about that one recipe or ingredient, enacting the scientific bits with sock puppets or men dressed as vegetables. This show is worth watching, if nothing else, for the sheer entertainment of watching him slowly puff up like a baking muffin as he goes through the years of presenting and eating and piling on layers of chub, before suddenly losing them all and, bizarrely, simultaneously recovering from his male pattern baldness. 


However, while I am never averse to spending a good two hours getting elbow deep in a really complicated recipe (thanks a lot, Gary Rhodes), on a weekday after hours of stretching your miserable face into a smile of joyful fun and running around with infants there is not much appeal and what one really wants is something easy, relatively fast and goshdarned lecker. This, my friends, is where my secret weapon comes out: roast vegetables. The most adaptable thing you can ever learn in cooking is to roast veg, and in the rest of this post I will show you how.
 
You see the photo at the top? That is roast veg and goats’ cheese salad. It looks like I spent ages mincing about the kitchen peeling and marinading and slicing and tossing things to produce a vaguely toffish salad. Actually, the whole thing took half an hour to make and was laughably easy, the only difference between this dish and a bowl of casually thrown-together pasta sauce being that this feels like a treat rather than the results of casually throwing whatever you stub your toe on into a saucepan like I do the rest of the time. Here, then, is how to roast any veg you feel like:
 -chop your veg into evenly sized chunks
-throw the chunks into a mixing bowl
-chuck over a lug of olive oil, a good pinch of salt and black pepper, one crushed garlic clove and then stir the veg about until they are all coated and shiny-lookin’.
-spread out on a baking sheet and roast for about 20-25 minutes at about 210 degrees Celcius until they are soft and a little bit blackened at the edges…mmm…
 As a rule of thumb, you can roast any of the following things and I have given the approximate times they take to roast in this way if they are chopped up: peppers (20 mins), onions (20 mins), butternut squash/pumpkin (20 mins or 45 if simply halved), potatoes (30 mins), sweet potatoes (20 mins), courgette (15-20 mins), aubergine (15 mins), tomatoes (15 mins), whole garlic cloves (20 mins – these are great mashed into gravy or salad dressing), mushrooms (15 mins), carrots/parsnips (30 mins), sprouts (15 mins)…there are honestly too many to list all of them. But in case you don’t think this is worth trying, let me convince you. Roast veg are so super adaptable you could cook with them every day and have something different at the end. Slice them big lengthways and stack them up in a bread roll with halloumi or bacon to make a kick-ass burger. Roast a mix of similar veg and puree them with stock to make an excellent soup. Roast lots of teeny cubes and mix them with couscous to make a tasty side dish. Whisk up an egg with some peas and herbs and pour into 10-min-preroasted pepper halves, then bake for another 20 minutes to have an awesome frittata. Toss them with pasta, mozzarella and pesto. Serve them as fancy-looking antipasti. Roast veg in long sticks to make dippers for houmous or sour cream. Hell, roast fruit and eat with vanilla ice-cream for the easiest pudding ever (though use a different oil here, please!). 


For the minimal effort you put in, you get caramelised, soft and crispy wonderfulness every time. You can use different oils or toss the veg with added pesto or balsamic vinegar for more depth of flavour, use dried herbs or even add in some bits of chicken or meatballs for a really great pita bread filling. Are you feeling hungry yet? Me too. It’s time to graduate from boiled carrots and try something far more deceptively fancy, my friends. Guten Appetit!

Please mentally read the following text in the voice of the pubescent boy character in The Simpsons

Butternut squash-chili-ginger soup. You need this soup in your life.

It has been a quiet week on this blog, and for that I apologise. The reason for this is that the flecks of baby-spittle which landed on my tongue at the beginning of last week heralded the beginning of the end for my physical well-being. It began with a cold, which rapidly deteriorated into a godawful sniff-fest forcing me to fill my entire bedroom with used tissues, and then after the weekend deepened in complexity and heft rather like a fine whisky; all of a sudden I was unable to talk in any voice other than a faint quacking noise resembling the voice of that broken squeaky penguin in Toy Story 2. Feeling left out and bored, the rest of my body decided to get in on the action and my big toe began to creak like old wood and explode with acid pain every time I did something crazy like walk or go up or down stairs. “Why didn’t you guys tell us you were having a party??” demanded my teeth, and proceeded to become hypersensitive to anything that is any temperature or flavour outside of completely neutral.  Unable to speak, walk, eat, drink, sing or dance around properly my daily doings are currently somewhat laboured.

But I so seldom take sick days, and at school used to covet my hundred-percent attendance rate as if it were a Victoria Cross medal.I have my gleaming 100% fixed in my mind and will not let it go for anything less than amputation. I once attended an audition during the throes of Swine Flu and passed off my almost-not-there voice by choosing to play a weeping old lady for my improvisation. No pathetic germ or measly inflamed tendon will stop me from marching Thatcher-style through life, and thus with gritted teeth and a pronounced limp I have been teaching my lessons, turning to the dreamy wonderfulness of this spicy, nutty soup with a crusty hunk of walnut ciabatta to serve as my medicine.

Teaching when you are feeling like death warmed up is a guaranteed disaster. The only classroom situation that suits such a state would be if all of the children had been mesmerised into sedentary contemplation moments before one enters the room. Unfortunately I don’t have any Dido that I can pipe into the classrooms before my arrival so this is never the case. It is fascinating to see how children react to a teacher when we reveal that we are not inhuman machines designed solely to ponce about in front of them; they appear completely aghast that the Teacher should Not Be Untouchable like the guys on TV who are exactly the same every week. It does strange things to their moods and ultimately causes any authority you had to disperse like smoke in a draughty concert hall. Here, for example, is a breakdown of the week’s worst lessons:
Monday
The class with the baby. Sadly the baby is ill, as is one other child who the Erzieherinnen (looker-afterers) tell me (with worryingly dismissive apathy) is actually in hospital. Thus in a class of just two children the youngest spent the entire class sort of sloddling (a cross between slithering and waddling) around the room doing destructive things while the other entered the room, sat quietly in the corner and wept with heart-breaking misery. She wouldn’t do anything I asked or had planned to do so in the end we sat quietly for the lesson and pretended to cook things for an imaginary family of farm animals who were very picky about the colours of their breakfasts.  
Tuesday
One child gets so furious after I ask him not to play catch by grabbing multiple children by the shoulders and dragging them behind him like sacks that he leaves and goes back downstairs; the other children sense that I am physically weak and demand that they should not be made to do anything except hide and seek all lesson. In the afternoon the children are so indifferent to their croaking teacher that they all somehow get hold of huge wads of bubble gum and chew it open-mouthed pointedly in my direction.
Wednesday
Oh sweet Moses. An Open Lesson of French-Revolution proportions. The boys realise that I cannot shout at them and run around windmilling their arms, refusing to sing the songs in favour of going ‘WAA-WAA-WAA’ in time with the syllables of the lyrics. The boy whose mother is present suddenly becomes irate for no reason and spends half an hour sobbing in wet, outraged yelps.The girls are concerned and unsettled. In the afternoon the few children who are not absent reply to my every request with a variation of ‘no’.
Thursday
I sit the children down at the beginning of the lesson and explain in my whisper that because I cannot talk loudly they must be ganz lieb and promise me that they will be good this lesson. They all adorably nod with earnest respect and promise in unison. Never before have so many children injured so many other children in a mere forty-five minutes; near the end I manage to make a loud quack to get their attention, and surrounded by sobbing toddlers I tell them off for being bad even though they promised to be good. They all club together and explain that they all forgot that they promised. In the afternoon the children are late, rude and violent, and one boy who didn’t want to do English bare-faced lied that his mother had forbidden him from doing English. For five minutes, I believed him.

Anyway, as I say, such a week necessitates recovery time and soup. The soup was finally achieved tonight and if I get a few requests I might post the recipe, as it was honestly ladle-lickingly delicious. Recovery time comes in the form of streaming episodes of quality comedy, and so, without further ado, allow me to make some recommendations that you may or may not have yet tried, so that you too will have something to slump in front of when in the throes of illness.
-30 Rock. Starting with this because it is the most embarrassingly mainstream. I was strongly against this show for a long time because I saw it as such a disappointment; a much-lauded example of a successful female comedian in the spotlight which in fact seemed to suffer from Ugly Betty syndrome, that self-massaging worthiness of having a character criticised for being ugly, fat and disgusting when they are in fact highly attractive and desirable. However, it takes a few episodes to realise that the other characters only see Liz Lemon as these things because they are so completely absorbed in themselves and their own perceived awesomeness; once you have made that realisation the show becomes a delight to watch, a parade of self-obsessed twerps who are so oblivious that they are impossible not to be fascinated by. Also, Alec Baldwin is a titan.
-3rd Rock from the Sun. Yeah it sounds almost exactly the same. But this one is about aliens pretending to be humans so they can conduct research on Earth, and it is deliciously over-the-top and wildly silly. It has the fat bloke from Jurassic Park as an obese policeman who thinks he is a sculpture of Sex Itself, and it has a hint of Back to the Future pantomime about it which you don’t find in modern series.
-Absolutely. This is the weirdest show you might ever watch.

Scottish people doing inexplicably bizarre sketches with wild accents and appallingly grimy sets? Yes please, very yes. 
– The Kenny Everett Video Show. This was the daddy of things like The Fast Show and is excellently funny. As a bonus it features completely unnecessary and unexplained dance segments by an erotic and very 80’s dance troupe, Hot Gossip. The sketches are stupid and wild (there is a regular character called Brother Lee-Love who is a Harlem-style preacher with one or sometimes two enormous plastic hands) and a lot of the humour comes purely from Everett’s clear love of the kind of tragic special effects that at the time were the most cutting-edge thing on the market. 

– Finally, The Goodies. This is ideal watch-while-you’re-ill telly. It was Bill Oddie’s big break and unbelievably popular for a time. The theme tune is goofily catchy and while the episode plot set-ups may make you raise your eyebrows so high they’ll get caught in your stylish mohair hat, the slapstick segments are so cleverly filmed and beautifully timed that I sincerely hope you find yourself doing that kind of suffocation laughter that I fall into every time.

So there you go. Now get some soup and you’ll be fine.

Life Hack: How to make the best of a bad daily routine

This is the substance that replaced my blood long ago

I met a few colleagues the other night and we inevitably ended up discussing our job. Our work is starting to reach a worrying crisis point in that a huge and faintly embarrassing number of us have resigned and the few of us left hanging on wake up every morning and pack our colossal rucksacks full of flashcards with a reluctance I can only describe as verging on Edgar Allan Poe-style dread. Furthermore, the worst part of it is that those of us who are staying in the job are all merely doing so because we are forced to remain here, unfortunately compelled by our unfair contracts and tenuous living conditions to stay employed by our company simply because there is no alternative that would not result in heavy and unpleasant repercussions. The unrest and unhappiness among my colleagues and I is getting to the point where we resemble dogs before a storm, shaking and whimpering while the weather appears balmy and peaceful because we know that there is something dark behind those thin white clouds. If you have no other reason to read this blog, do check it from time to time for the simple reason that I am convinced this will all implode at some point and things will begin to get very interesting indeed.

However, if you are in a situation where your bad job or pursuit (by which I mean studying or job searching) is like mine, unavoidable and causing unhappiness, the only way to prevent the unhappiness is not to change the job but to change all the little bits that fit in around it to ensure that the pure time that does not belong to you is at least spread out by time you can make better. To make my lifestyle and rhythm bearable, I made the following changes and since then have been palpably happier; if you follow these ideas, I’d wager you will feel the same. 

1. Mornings. Stop them being nothing but that dark hour when you have to amputate yourself from the heavenly bliss of sleep and duvets. Firstly, set your alarm not for when you simply have to get up or even to allow for a couple of hits of the snooze button but rather for a significant chunk of time before you need to begin getting ready: half an hour at least. This means that you can wake up, have an extra few minutes of sleep, and then have five to ten minutes of time in bed to just enjoy being in bed and being awake; you can read a bit of your book or simply spend a pleasant while wiggling your toes and inspecting your view out the window. It gets you into a level and contented state of mind for the moment when you do have to arise, so that you don’t resent it too much.

2. For goodness’ sakes, eat a decent breakfast and drink a large cup of whatever you drink in the mornings. If you are well-fed and hydrated you are more likely to feel ready for what’s coming up, and if you have a bowl of cereal be sure to follow it with a couple of slurps of tea; follow the rule of always ending your breakfast with something hot, as a warm feeling in the belly counteracts the cold and darkness as you exit the front door and makes you feel more sated.

3. Bring toys and things to do with you at all times. Install games on your phone, bring a doodle notebook, a good novel, a wad of bluetack, some knitting or sewing, a pocket puzzle – the kind of things you would take for a plane journey. Sure, they weigh down your bag somewhat, but it is worth it to be able to avoid dead time on trains or platforms where your mind is fully free and therefore able to ruminate about how much you hate your job.

4. Separate the dead time out into alternating chunks: time to enjoy and time to be productive. Bring some work or study materials with you too and alternate the fun things with the productive things so that you’re never too bored and you don’t feel the time is being wasted either. 

5. Give yourself little presents throughout the day. Buy yourself a coffee, take the time to make a really nice lunch for yourself the night before, borrow some CDs from the library and spice up the selection on your mp3 player. Little things like this spice up the day and lend it variety. And allow yourself the luxury of not worrying about the tiny expense of this; it is a waste of money to save your pennies for the future if your daily life in the present is time you will regret for not having been happy.

6. Spring up stairs. Walking up stairs feels like a mission and leaves you feeling tired and annoyed once you reach the top; paradoxically you feel less tired if you run or skip up the stairs and you also avoid ever coming to the thought that these endless stairs are a metaphor for the wearying and ever-uphill remains of the day ahead of you.

7. Finally, take the time on your way home at the end of the day to put yourself in a good mood for the evening. I like to take a new route home from time to time even if it’s twice as long because it lets me discover new things like dinosaur playgrounds; alternatively, have a big juicy apple on the way or designate a fun and much-loved song on your mp3 player which will become the ‘credits music’ indicating the end of your working day that you can play just as you near your house. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes simply to enter your front door in a decent mood – it helps you forget that you weren’t in that kind of mood all day and means that when you put the kettle on you have the energy to do something more fun with your first hour of freedom than sitting grim-faced in front of an appalling German cooking program.

It all boils down to engineering things so that your state of mind is always on the positive side of neutral and your thoughts never have too much idle time in which they can focus on the typical things that you resent. It sounds like a lot of effort, but for the improvement in mood it is certainly worth it. And if these tips don’t work, there is always this picture.