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.

Berlin: a city that welcomes you with open arms, then kicks you in the stomach

The most threatening German definite article of them all

I’m not sure whether this is to do with living in a huge city having lived in a tiny village all my life, or rather whether it is more a heightened self-pity leading to a victim complex, but life in the pulsating mass of a metropolis seems to be rather intolerant of…well, almost all individual human effort. Every day seems littered with small signs that while you are trying your hardest to say ‘yes’ to life, Berlin is giving you a solid ‘no’. Take the case of a  few Fridays previous: I arrived at the train station a little late thanks to my stinking German phone’s alarm not going off to find that the train I needed to get wasn’t actually running after all, with absolutely no explanation or provision of an alternative but simply an atmosphere of such indifference to our disappointment that it is as if the air itself were giving a shrug worthy of a French caricature. Eventually arriving at the U-Bahn station I need to get to (against all odds), I literally limp to my kindergarten like a mad scientist’s assistant, suffering at the time from an agonising inflamed tendon in my foot. I give a taut smile as the gooey kid happily buries his breakfast-and-snot-covered face into my belly for my good morning hug, and as I hurriedly prepare the materials for the lesson before finding the children I pick up a nearby box to get a piece of chalk. Inside I find a message in large capital letters: “DIE.” It took me a couple of minutes (yes, that is probably two more minutes than it ought to have done) to realise that this is Germany and therefore the note is not a jarring and suddenly discovered threat scrawled in crayon. But for a split second, nestled among the lollies that were also inexplicably in the box, that note seemed like a sign. A sign that was trying to tell me to get out of where I don’t belong.

No-one can prepare you for the nature of a big city. Anonymity is one thing; seeing the same person more than once in passing is earth-shattering where in a village it’s one of the top ten most mundane things that can happen. And in villages you have to have a top ten because there are just so many mundane things ready to paralyse you with boredom on a daily basis. You do quite honestly feel like an ant in a nest, deedling about the place doing something so infinitesimally insignificant that it won’t really matter at all if you drown in a drop of lemonade. The pace is another thing; everyone is marching up and down the streets, you ricochet between trains and trams and buses like public transport Pong, the supermarket check-out women shuttle your food through the scanner as if she were trying to zing it through the window leaving a perfectly aubergine-shaped hole in the glass. This is why the parks and gardens are so popular, because the people here need a genuine oasis where all of this is simply out of the way for a while so they can dawdle and linger and all those other deliciously lazy words. 

But, as I said, the thing that really gets on my bluetits is the sheer sense of ‘no’ that pervades everyday life here. It is because the city is run by the companies and the municipal bodies, and they are as inhuman as they can possibly achieve. No-one is trying to help you, because you are one squidgy little cell in this big middle-aged body, and while some cells might be on the verge of popping it doesn’t matter as long as the galumphing great corpse still has life in it. Every company’s customer service department is populated entirely by those people whose emotional spectrum only diverges from apathy to touch pure sadism. I have been trying to receive a package I ordered for over three weeks now with no success because the store repeatedly tells me to talk to the delivery firm, who repeatedly reply that the only possible way to solve the problem is to talk to the store. For 3 euros per phone call. Recently, having waited about thirty years for some pancakes to arrive in a cafe, I went to the waitress and asked if we would be getting our breakfast soon please and thank you so much for your help; she merely rolled her eyes and told me, quite frankly: “Well, it won’t take forever…

Not to mention the fact that everything in this bloody place is closed at the moment, meaning that one can spend an entire day travelling from one thing to another just to see a dazzling array of barriers, ‘no entry’ signs and hopelessly dark shop windows. When my most beloved mother came to visit last weekend, I took her to the KaDeWe where we spent our entire life savings on a salad and bread roll, and as a consolation took her to the Gedächtniskirche, which for the first time in years and completely inexplicably was entirely shrouded in MDF. To make up for this, I took her to the Siegessäule, which, despite the fanfares of its finally being completely renovated and now gleamingly finished, was sealed off by military-grade scaffolding and chicken-wire barriers for no apparent reason. To make up for this, I took her to the Reichstag – we saw some beautiful barriers there, although unfortunately didn’t make it anywhere near the building. Everything is closed on Sundays, certain places open and close on a whim like a diseased sphincter, and other things are so rarely open you wonder why they even exist at all; in my last two holidays to Berlin the Bauhaus and the Neue Nationalgalerie were closed, and to my masochistic joy the last time I peered into the Neue Nationalgalerie this month it was an empty mausoleum with Absolutely No Art Here. 

The bureaucratic barriers are just as impressive, with rules that remind you of comedy legal documents where paragraph A section 3.1 line C section iiv syllable 6 is quoted as the dealbreaker. 
-No, you are not allowed an intern’s reduced travel fare despite the fact that you are an intern because the only exception to the reduced rates is English language teachers.
-No, you cannot take books out of the library because your postal address does not match your registered address.
-No, you cannot shower for the swimming pool without fully stripping naked as stipulated by the Berlin pools’ alliance.
 All of these are true.

No, no, no, no, no. Nein. Nöö. If there is such a thing as The Man, he is perpetually shaking his head. And this isn’t just Berlin; London is the same, and every other big city in England or anywhere in Europe (Paris, don’t get me started on you). Happily there is one antidote, which is that the individual people recognise the crushingness of this state and seem to do their best to undo it, and whether they go out of their way to throw your gloves out of the train window as it leaves the platform so your hands aren’t cold or whether they simply give you a beaming smile with your loaf of bread it makes you feel like a rather lucky ant.

Guten Nachmittag Blogwelt!

Hi everyone!

I am a student studying German and English Literature, and as a direct result of this perhaps unwise life choice I have ended up moving to Berlin for almost a year to ‘practise my German’ and more importantly immerse myself once and for all in this mad, tiring, hilarious, weird and endlessly changing place. I have now been here for a month (almost to the day) and already so far I have accumulated far too many stories and musings for me to torture my friends with over the occasional Skype conversation. ‘Oho,’ thought I, ‘this is the perfect time to start that blog you’ve always told people you’ve wanted to start just to sound interesting at dinner parties.’ And yes, I am afraid that is how I write. You will get used to it.

So here I am, in what many people call the coolest city in Europe. Certainly it is cool; I spend every day yomping from district to district and each one has something totally unique, which makes me think that perhaps the reason why Berlin is such an awesome city is fundamentally because it’s more like twenty-five fascinating little towns sellotaped together at the edges with some excellently quick railways. What am I doing here, you may ask? Let me give you the full story.
 

A few months ago, I began to work on ideas for what I was going to do for this year abroad. Was I going to study abroad? No, that would be like carrying all the stress and endless essays of my current university life into a different setting. Would I work? No, why would I use a year in a different country to sit behind a desk every day? I decided to go for the British Council assistantship scheme. It’s a cushy setup: you work as a language assistant in two schools in the host country, teaching for a piffling thirteen hours a week for a staggering 800 euros a month wage and a few thousand quid thrown at you by the British Council in case you accidentally spent all your ludicrous salary on gold-plated smoked salmon. Perfect.

I wrote my application, mentioning about two, three, maybe twelve times that Berlin was the ultimate city of my dreams. But I would settle for Dresden or Leipzig. I waited for a response. Eventually, it came: Bautzen. Bautzen is a small place in Saxony which is famous for prisons, concentration camps, the Sorbians, and mustard. Twinned with Dreux, a French town in which a friend of mine spent a painful and heart-achingly boring year of his life on the same assistantship scheme. Needless to say, I wasn’t keen and I pulled out. Having sent my CV to every single place in Berlin, it eventually found its way to a language school which specialises in teaching English to little children, from the age of 1 year old and up. Two high-pressure Skype interviews later, here I am, teaching the colours of the rainbow to people so small they can barely (and often are unable to) control their own bodily fluids. I sing, I dance, I perform small skits featuring a dolphin hand-puppet called Sushi, I play games, I blow bubbles…dignity and job-satisfaction in this position are low, but lord knows it’s not boring. Thus a lot of this blog is going to be focused on teaching, kids and language learning and general.

At the moment I am also searching for a new place to live, as my current flat is so far away from where I work that I am able to crochet entire garments during the hours I spend on the trains. Searching for a WG-Zimmer (a room in a Wohngemeinschaft, a flat-share) is a high-stress and high-octane process involving visiting the residences of complete strangers multiple times per day (thus completely violating everything your mum ever told you not to do) and hoping that one group of them find you nice enough to want to live with you. At the moment, of course, everyone wants to live in Berlin, and it’s practically impossible to find a place to live; a friend has just accepted a room that is just SIX square metres in size and has Winnie the Pooh printed on the carpet. Birds are given more space in the crappiest zoos. Hence a lot of what you read here will also be about finding a Zuhause (home) in Berlin and living there once that’s accomplished. 

You will also read about the German language, about Berlin as a city, about German and Berlin culture (they are certainly different enough to separate), about my own private projects, which I will elaborate on in later posts, about everything I am reading, watching, listening to…I hope it will be interesting and that you will enjoy reading it. Ultimately, I hope you come to Berlin one day yourself. There’s nowhere like it.