Amsterdam: come for the sex and drugs, stay for the hamburger vending machines

“Ooh seeds, how nice, I’ve been meaning to get some more nasturtiums OH.”

 I am a ‘do stuff’ assistant rather than a ‘look pretty and take notes, doll’ assistant, and as the ‘do stuff’ assistant for a tourism company, this is going to involve a lot of business trips. The phrase ‘business trips’ alone conjures up elegant, luxurious images of people in fine tailored suits, sipping champagne in a quiet plane cabin, soaking in a broad sea of extra legroom. Unfortunately, as the economy is dying and midday champagne is the first step towards alcoholism, ‘business trips’ more often involve an early and cramped EasyJet flight with the added bonus of carrying a wadge of company papers, company laptops and expenses receipts in your minute executive rolly-bag. But I don’t care; something about going on a business trip makes you feel like a celebrity and this week, that cramped EasyJet helltube took me all the way to Amsterdam.

The reasons why I had to go to Amsterdam were sketchy at best. At first, I was to be visiting the Amsterdam office to attend a very important meeting. As soon as I had booked my flights, we established that the very important meeting was in fact taking place the day after my return to Berlin. As soon as I had rebooked my flights and had several arguments with EasyJet, we established that the meeting was in fact cancelled. By that point my boss, a man who makes decisions with the delirious immediacy of a drunken pirate, decided that we would both go to Amsterdam anyway because. So it was essentially a business trip for me to work at a slightly different desk (in actual fact the make of desk was identical but it was at a slightly different angle) for a couple of days.

Once my boss arrived to join me on the first day, everything got going. He marched me out of the flat and stomped all the way to the Apple store with me sprinting feebly behind (my boss is a muscly, striding, crush-a-beer-can-in-his-hand kind of guy), forged towards the counter and demanded that the man bring us a Macbook Air immediately and give us a corporate discount. The laid-back Apple guy was too cool for school and drawled his way through the sale with my boss flinging credit cards at him and abruptly answering urgent phone calls every three seconds. As soon as I was appropriately confused, the boss turned to me and told me to bring him a new iPhone case that was ‘good and manly’. Thus it was that I spent my first afternoon in Amsterdam looking at phone cases wondering which ones were most evocative of testicles and lumberjacks.

Once work was over, I had a chance to see the city in a less frenzied manner. My boss had decided that we were going to go on the ‘Red Light District tour’ together (please, no-one even try to interpret that decision, it is taking me all my energy not to personally) but a sudden crisis happened at clocking-off time, so I got to go all by myself. My regional manager helped me to find the meeting point by instructing me to wait by the monument that looked like a ‘giant white penis’. It was a fitting introduction to the city.

People come to Amsterdam for the sex and the drugs. But wandering through the streets, it was less like a raunchy night of hedonistic urban pleasures and more like a beautiful Monet painting that someone had dumped in a phone booth. The city itself is stunningly beautiful; the buildings are charmingly Seuss-like and lean slightly sideways and forwards all over the place so you feel slightly woozy. Canals ooze between all of the streets and are lines with trees, hanging baskets, chic bistros… And slotted in amongst all this, like pieces of litter in a manicured flowerbed, there are hundred of strip bars, peep shows, sexy-fun-time-‘toy’-shops – and, of course, the infamous booths. Prostitution is allowed in Amsterdam but not on the streets, which is why those lovable prostitutes set themselves up in tiny windowed cabinets facing onto the street so they can gyrate and flirt at passers-by until one of them takes an interest and steps inside so the curtain can be drawn. 

It would actually have been more interesting if the prostitutes actually had gyrated and flirted, however. I was prepared for shocks and lascivious smut on this tour, but the last thing I had expected was quite how seedy and dull it was all going to be. The whores looked pissed off and bored, loitering about in their windows while occasionally scratching their armpits or having a packet of crisps. The peep shows and strip bars were crass demonstrations of nudity rather than thrilling spectacles; apparently there isn’t a single burlesque-style show in town, and the most popular shows involve you simply sitting in cinema seating while a couple of bored people shag each other for a bit or shove bananas up their wiff-waffs for no good reason. Even the few fellow Brits on my tour – a group of four unspeakably white boys with acne, buck-teeth and T-shirts with dragon motifs – couldn’t even muster the energy to give an adenoidal chuckle after a while. Those poor boys came to Amster hoping for the erotic time of their lives, but they were so disappointed I almost felt sorry for the sad little goons.

The sex scene in Amsterdam is like a vending machine. It’s nothing to do with the thrills and the taboos and the lick-your-lips juicyness we hope it will be. It’s just a market, a group of traders carrying out basic transactions: here is a naked lady, would you like to view the range of tarifs or simply pay for a one-off basic option? I began to feel that a lot of Amsterdam is much the same, after a while. The food is deep-fried, portioned up and handed out with no real intent of enjoyment; yes, there really is a chain of ‘restaurants’ that simply have vending machines with burgers inside.

The pot isn’t smoked in a louche, bohemian manner but is ubiquitously tacky, with those awful marajuana-leaf icons everywhere as if we were all fourteen again and thought this was a marvelously risqué, naughty thing to contemplate. Little pockets of the city reek of weed, which itself smells like burnt llama hair and is deeply nauseating.

And this all made me sad, because the time I spent in between the Red Light streets and the chip shops, when I would stumble upon the beautiful streets and historical corners, showed me Amsterdam as a real human city which is worth spending time in. It’s a fascinating place, with masses to do and see and so much character and good GOD such excellent cheese. But I sympathise with the locals, who are sick of being associated with nothing but sex and drugs. Amsterdam has nothing to do with sex and drugs, after all. Sex and drugs are naughty and exciting. Amsterdam’s legend is nothing more than a pervert’s fart. Amsterdam’s brilliance is every single thing that lies in between.

Next week, Barcelona! And don’t forget to keep commenting and emailing the new site email address, ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com with your ideas and questions!

The Urge

Beware the communists!!!


Today was a day that began unpromisingly. I woke at an unpleasant hour thanks to the daily roaring grinding noise that happens outside my window at just before 7am. In the night I had origamied my duvet into an incredible writhing plait that had allowed me to get thoroughly cold outside of the one insulated stripe diagonally across me – you see, German duvets are always half as wide as the bed that accommodates them, so they have a tendency to drift around on the mattress like seaweed on the surf. Thanks to another curious German quirk – their demand for enormous square pillows the size of a dinner table containing very little stuffing – I also awoke with a tremendous crick in my neck and found that the pillow had half-slimed up the wall like a slug trying to escape a flowerpot. 

My entrance into the kitchen to make a pot of tea aroused a cloud of fruit flies who whirred around the kitchen in a black mist. I went to the supermarket and was accosted by a wild-haired man who barked at me, “Excuse me! You! Can you tell me which damn cat food is the cheapest?!?” And I accidentally spilled my compost waste next to the bio-trash bin in the courtyard, sending a thousand furry mushrooms (geez Netto, thanks for selling me these mushrooms with EXTRA fungi!) rolling around like rotten eyeballs.

So, I sat and glumly looked at my computer for a while. Long enough to get The Urge. The Urge is something which hits every week or so, on a day when I haven’t achieved much and have spent more time than appropriate in pajamas. It is the thing which makes me suddenly, and without warning, think: “Hang on! This simply won’t do! It’s been far too long since I discovered a thing! It is time for a QUEST!” When The Urge strikes, it only seconds later that I am donning my coat and most kick-ass boots and slamming the door behind me.

My enormous calf muscles powered me on my way with a determined sense of purpose observers must only, I assume, describe as ‘inspirational’. I marched to Ostkreuz with only the occasional accidental detour and slipped directly onto the right train just as it reached the platform, with a silent and delicious expression of ‘booyah’. And with that, I began my quest to Grunewald to check out Berlin’s epic Teufelsberg.

The Teufelsberg is a surreal and slightly horrifying attraction. It is, in English, the ‘Devil’s Mountain’, so called because it is a rather large mountain formed from nothing but the rubble collected from the wreckage of a bombed and broken Berlin. Peacefully lying at its base is the ‘Teufelssee’ or ‘Devil’s Lake’, which is actually just a lake, although I like to think that it is equally doom-laden and actually filled with something tragic like children’s tears. If that wasn’t all strange enough, the Teufelsberg then had a huge observation tower built upon it during the time of the wall for people to conduct espionage and other devious things within sinister-looking white orb-structures, which have now been abandoned and covered with incredibly atmospheric graffiti. If you want to know more about it, I suggest you watch Matt Frei’s documentary series Berlin, which is amazing and eye-opening and shows you Berlin from the dinner jacket right inside to the entrails. An abandoned observatory tower on top of a mountain of tragic rubble? I had to case the joint.

First, of course, there came the challenge of actually getting there. Given that there was no signage (signs? Telling you were to go? Helpful and useful public information? Such a thing does not exist, child) I was nonetheless confident that an enormous mountain with two large white orbs on the top would be pretty impossible to miss. What I hadn’t reckoned with is the kilometres of thick, plush, green German woodland that surrounds it. Within seconds of striding I found myself in the middle of a vast and endless expanse of trees, and so I decided that the next best solution would be to at least always follow the path that went uphill, given that I was looking for a darned mountain. This also was not a foolproof tactic – although it led me past a gorgeous old-fashioned ‘gypsy’-style caravan nestled between the trees – and I finally arrived at the top of a very tall and very impressive…other mountain. I was surrounded by the epic views of Berlin’s landscape and, also, by loads of hobby model aeroplane flyers, who were whizzing little planes around me like noisy dragonflies. I noticed another mountain to my right with two orb-topped towers on top and uttered a quiet expletive under my breath. The only way from this mountain to that mountain was a crazily-steep smooth, dusty slope downwards, whose curves practically spelt out ‘broken leg’ in fancy handwriting. Luckily, on my climb/slide down I was distracted by two enormous and beautiful blue-metallic beetles pushing hunks of earth around and completely forgot my imminent danger, and I made it to the bottom. 

I employed my earlier tactic again and followed all the paths that led uphill until I reached a strange, angular, concrete structure with a large crucifix on top. “A memorial?” I wondered. “A sculpture? A grave?” I then noticed some people on the structure and a guy delivering a lecture on karabiners and realised that this was, in fact, a large and apparently religious climbing wall, right on the slope of the Teufelsberg. I hope my profound bafflement didn’t cause any of the climbers to lose concentration and fall.

Scaling the Teufelsberg is a strange sensation, because the path is littered with bricks. And cube-shaped rocks. And tile-shaped rocks. And rocks with strange textures. It is impossible to forget that this is little more than a heap of old, bombed buildings, which now have trees growing on them and squirrels fossicking in them. One might be walking on a blasted fragment of the original Reichstag, or simply a bit of brick from a woman’s home, where she lived with her husband and her baby. Maybe the brick belonged to a Nazi’s house, or simply one of the thousand dumbstruck bystanders. And all these rubbles were heaped up by women who, after the war, just had to sweep up their broken city into a nice neat pile, like onion skins on the kitchen floor. 

I knew I was near the top when I reached a double-layer of wire fencing topped with a barbed-wire ridge. It’s not surprising that they would close off the observation towers; they would be a hella sexy place to jump off, if you wanted to commit suicide in a trendy way, and they have been vandalised enough already that it’s worth looking after them just to preserve the rest of what remains keeping them eerie and weird. The fact that they are completely shut off to anyone except paying tour-guests did seem to have disappointed a number of adventurers like myself, however, as I encountered several young and active-looking men on my wander around who all asked me the same question: “Do you know how we can get in there?” (And then the more confused question, presumably because I look like a twelve-year-old: “Are you here all by yourself?”) The most ‘old-spice-attractive’ bunch then had the pleasure of speeding off on their hardcore mountain bikes, probably heading home to shave with a really good razor and drink ice-cold beers in their modern-minimalist apartments. I then had to walk back.

Of course I got lost. Of course! Don’t you know me at all!

But in getting lost it appears that I spent half an hour walking in a perfect circle and then ended up at the amazingly incongruous Teufelsberg Eco-centre, an open garden and ecological information centre boasting attractions like a bee-viewer and a bare-foot garden. Considering that this must be fate, I wandered around; the bee-viewer is in fact amazing, as it is simply a bee-hive with a door that opens on a window into the centre of the hive itself, so you can see thousands of glossy bees wandering over pregnant hexagons of glowing honey. There was a clay oven, and a wonderful vegetable garden, and – thank holy Christ – a WC, which is a joyous thing after two hours of accidental hiking. The hornet-viewer appeared to have been abandoned by the hornets, which was a somewhat unsurprising shame, and in the visitor’s centre they were preparing for a talk, in the universal ritual of arguing over how to make powerpoint work on the projector while one of them pours apple juice into a plastic jug for the refreshments. I realised I had squeezed everything I could out of this quest, and headed home. 

Well, actually I got lost again and ended up walking for 45 minutes to find ANY train station to take me home first. But it was worth it for the adventure. And good exercise for my gigantic, quivering calves.

Meet the youngest spinster in Great Britain

This decor would certainly calm a llama down. (60% of my readers will get more out of that than the rest)

So. Two things.

Number one: it was my birthday this weekend, and for the first time (and in the wrong country) I celebrated it GERMAN-STYLE. In Germany, unlike in the UK where you have a big knees-up on the calendar date of your birth, you “party in” to your birthday, meaning you get violently drunk the evening before and just keep on going until that magic midnight bell, when songs are sung, presents given and someone probably brings out a round of something potent in small, evil-looking glasses. Although I was in Oxford rather than in Neuschwankensteinberg or somewhere even German-er this year, thankfully Germany came to me in the form of some of my favourite Berliners I made friends with last year. I got to know them at the hostel I stayed at in the first fortnight of my time in Berlin, and they were at the time the only friendly faces I knew: a blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful couple from Jena who shared the bunk above me and cooked me my first  schnitzel to welcome me officially to the Vaterland. I ended up showing them more of Berlin than they could show me simply because I moved and commuted about so much that there wasn’t a scrap of the city worth knowing that I hadn’t already seen and been sneezed on by a toddler in. In return they introduced me to a spectrum of traditional German food like Thuringer Bratwurst and Christmas duck, and other German traditions such as the proper way to pre-lash – ‘vorglühen’ – which goes on until 2am when you actually leave to go dancing, and which involves cheap sparkling wine and Haribo and board games. This time I had the opportunity to show them Oxford, which compared to Berlin is like taking Barack Obama from the White House and proudly shuffling him round 10 Downing Street. But where I find it grey, and imposing, and reminiscent of the throbbing stress of my degree, they seemed to find it charming and beautiful and oozing with historical gravitas. I suppose for my birthday I learned to re-love Oxford a bit more than previously.

The day before, our mutual friend (also from Germany) had kindly booked us all on a surprise ale tasting tour around Oxford; this seemed like a great idea considering the huge number of ancient pubs Oxford boasts, each serving fancy ales with names like “Windermere Bucket” or “Mother’s Sin” and colours as dark as the devil’s buttock. We all anticipated being led around these places by a wispy-haired and crisp-voiced old man in a corduroy blazer who would teach us to appreciate the yeasty top-notes and floral roundedness of his favourite ales; what actually met us at the start point was a startlingly oily Brazilian man (admittedly wearing a blazer) with an incomprehensible accent and clearly no idea what the heck he was being paid for. 

He took us to the first pub, the Chequers on the High Street, famous among students as one of THE pubs you go to after matriculating for the Matriculash, possibly your first moment of hyper-drunkenness in your Oxford undergraduate career. It is also apparently famous for its ales. Our guide swept us suavely into the room and presented us with a golden array of ales in small taster-glasses, taking us through the nuances of flavour to be found in each one and explaining the complex dance each type will play on your palate. Or rather, he lumped into the bar and explained to us that we could as the barpeople to give us a taste of an ale if we wanted but we didn’t have to and we had to buy all our own drinks. He then tasted one of the ales on offer, said it was (and I believe this is the specialist term for it) ‘nice’, ordered a half-pint of it and went to sit down. We tried to taste a few ales before the bar staff got too hacked off about it but unfortunately our rather abrupt introduction into the tastes we should be expecting meant that we mostly found that they all tasted of bitter, neglected armpit. Sitting around this man, nursing our foul and warm drinks, he then insisted on telling us exactly one third of the story of the history of beer and ale, all with the underlying leitmotiv that beer saved the world. He frothed at the mouth a lot when he spoke. Ominous.

We marched through the Bear Inn and the Turf Tavern, two other very sweet pubs right at the heart of the Oxford microcosm, and each time it was the same: our oleaginous host would order his drink and leave us to create our own tasting experience, while we were acutely aware that the bar staff hadn’t approved this and certainly did not like what we were playing at one bit. “You want to try another one?!? Haa, alright then son, cough cough…You know we have to wash all of these microscopic glasses by hand at the end of the night…” This man’s answers to our questions were astoundingly unhelpful; when asked what one looks for in a very good ale, he replied “Ah, wellll, whadeverr you are loookeeng for iss preddy much goood…”, while his answer for why one is meant to drink ale warm was that room temperature was much colder in the olden days than it is today.

It is a shame, because I love a challenge and trying to learn to love ale is a challenge that I sadly failed. It is a vile drink and criminal offenders should be forced to snort it up their nostrils. But I am glad to have spent this surreal evening with beloved Germans who might have thought that Berlin was the final frontier in terms of surreal pointlessnesses.

Number two:

The above picture shows my first achievement in my twenty-third year of life. No, I haven’t got a job or found a fiance or trained a lion to behave like a kitten, but I have made my own hand-printed curtains for my bedroom. And they have llamas and cacti on them. I repeat: llamas and cacti. I don’t know what it was that inspired me to print this quasi-Mexicana theme; at any rate, it’s a shame that the photo doesn’t do justice to the colours or to the fact that I carefully cut a pronounced underbite into the llama’s face for extra authenticity. I am simply writing about this because it is one of the most unexpectedly hard-work projects I have imposed upon myself thus far, and although I do like a challenge, I won’t be doing this particular one again. The llamas range in colour, so I had to print a variety of different colours on each curtain, which means maneuvering swathes of cloth far bigger than my entire self around on a tiny table and trying to keep the colours evenly spaced and numbered – this took hours. The llamas have different colours of saddle, which means intricately re-painting the stamp for each one and maneuvering the same swathes of cloth around, this time trying to make sure each colour of llama has an even number of a certain colour of saddle – this took hours. The curtain binding at the top had a thick, black stripe woven into it for no discernible reason which shows through the light fabric and in order to disguise this I had to sew on the binding with a thick decorative stitch – this took hours and nearly broke my sewing machine. The results look genuinely mad and while I am pleased with the high llama quotient in my room now I can only advise fellow-crafters to give this particular project a miss. Print your own T-shirts, yes. But curtains are huge and crashingly boring to sew (so much ironing) and, given that printed cotton can cost about £2 a metre, I reckon you should just sack it off. Go for a pint instead; just not of ale.

This place is the Pitts!! Geddit? Because it’s oh ok fine I’ll get my coat…

Leather jackets. Ferraris. Enormous totem poles. Compensating for something…?

One of the most joyous things about neither having exams nor even a degree to speak of any more is that time suddenly spreads out in front of you like a long, luxurious Persian rug, made for you to saunter opulently along it however you please. You don’t have to ration out your fun in chunks or make up for it later with a fierce and long session of compensatory work. You can just do the things you love all of the time for as long (or as little) as you please. This means, for a start, that I can devour a novel in huge swathes for the first time in years (Will Self’s My Idea of Fun, a brilliantly psychotic and very rude book) and also that I can finally spend the hours in the Pitt Rivers museum that such a place needs and deserves.

The Pitt Rivers museum is a collection of anthropological findings from everywhere in the world gathered over centuries of exploring the globe. As you can see in the photo, the ground floor is a bizarre forest of glass cabinets which is almost impossible to navigate in any systematic or all-inclusive way, so the best thing to do is simply to show up and allow yourself to waft around the cases and let serendipity – or roadblocks of groups of small children – guide your way around the exhibit. There are three whole floors, however, as upstairs you have two circle galleries which, in my humble O, contain a good deal of the most interesting things they have to show, such as all of the body modification artifacts they have, which range from scarification tools to forehead-flattening plates to a set of glittery blue plastic false nails from Thailand. The displays are strange in that way, in that they remind you that simply by being a human person you are a part of the study of anthropology; why shouldn’t a Chanel perfume bottle be displayed next to an ancient Venetian scent bottle and Japanese rose oil flask? And yet there will always be something slightly funny about seeing items you could just get down the road put behind glass with a label and made into an ‘artefact’ to demonstrate the difference between inexplicable rituals of facial augmentation or haircare from around the world and through history.



The utter joy of the Pitt Rivers is simply that: nothing is excluded and everything is worth looking at because it all tells us something or is simply curious or sweet. You would need days to see everything, because each cabinet holds shelves bristling with so many items you really do have to press your nose against the glass to get a good look, and even once you’ve exhausted that there is a set of drawers under the main display which you can slide out to see the other stuff they just couldn’t even squeeze into that compartment. Sometimes the drawers feature some of the most fascinating bits and pieces, laid out neatly for those interested, and sometimes there are just a haphazard bunch of trinkets in zip-lock bags ham-fistedly stuffed into the drawer as if the person doing it that day decided to knock off early and go to the pub. You will get your exercise, too, because once you’ve inspected all the drawers and cabinets there are hidden displays under the main displays sometimes, so there is the fun of squatting tenaciously to see them in the middle of a needle-thin aisle while the same small children from before all try to wiggle past you. There are canoes and totem poles and colossal spears hanging from all the walls and banisters, and along the four main walls of the room you find row upon row of beautiful fabrics from all around the globe, sometimes sewn into unbelievable garments or out of unbelievable materials, such as the feather capes from New Zealand or the Inuit seal-intestine anorak. It looks crispy.

It truly is the most mind-boggling spectrum of …just stuff, ranging from the pipsqueak-small to the outrageously large and each piece labelled with a sweetly humble hand-written tag tied on with string and scrawled, I like to believe, in real Indian ink from colonial times. The real crowd-pleaser is, of course, the shrunken heads, which are real shrunken human heads of murdered enemies shrivelled into a voodoo raisin to humiliate the villainous traitor even in death. Most of them aren’t even particularly old, which perhaps raises some questions as to how appropriate or respectful it is to the dead to display their mutilated heads next to some old bits of monkey and a wooden set of gonads – but hey, it’s anthropology and I ain’t squeamish so they can carry right on in my view. Hell, let’s get a few more and do a puppet show!

“Mate, I am so hammered right now…” LOL BECAUSE OF THE NAILS ok move on

    I spent the most absorbing afternoon just meandering through the displays sketching my favourite patterns and shapes to use in my jewellery, luxuriating in the quiet and slightly musty atmosphere of the place. The anthropology section also joins onto a huge natural history museum with fossils and insects and pickled tapeworms, so it really does have everything a young boy needs to stay amused. (That is, if their attention spans haven’t been shot to heck by hours of flashy manga cartoons and computer game violence which of course is a disgrace someone ought to write to David Cameron etc etc).

But the most wonderful thing of all is that entrance is free, so even if you’re not one of the lucky few that have unlimited time, you can simply keep coming back for a brief spurt at a time. God bless the UK’s free museums, and all who sail in their canoes.

Look before you Leip

“I am Goethe! Look upon me and tremble, future German students!”

On Wednesday morning of my last week in Germany I rose early, packed my bag, bought myself a breakfast pretzel and within an hour was on the train to Leipzig. I had the chance to visit the city because a few weeks earlier I had been at a concert and got to know a girl who just so  happened to be the girlfriend of a guy in the band (yeah, like I just am too cool fo’ skule). She was visiting from Leipzig where she lives in an opulent flat (with low rent and an underground car park for her PERSONAL CAR to boot – man, Berliners have it rough) and generously said I would be welcome to invade her home town if I felt like it. I felt like it.

I had originally applied to spend my year abroad in the Dresden/Leipzig area as my second choice should I fail to get Berlin, so I was curious to see these cities and find out what I’d missed. Dresden had been fantastic but I would rather have eaten an old lady’s wig than have to walk through the Altstadt every single day. Leipzig, on first impressions, was…small. Compared to Berlin that’s like being amazed that a walnut is small relative to a caravan, but the contrast at the time felt rather jarring. However, unlike Dresden, the first impression was of a very sweet place, where the general atmosphere might be summed up by the facial expression one has after a really good bath. It’s contented and relaxed, not filled with tourists, businessmen and lunatics like Dresden or Berlin but rather simply populated with a comfortable number of laid-back inhabitants who all exude an air of “How are you?” “Can’t complain!”. 

After I had set down my bag and wandered with gaping mouth through my friend’s beautiful flat, which costs 70 euros less per month than my hamster’s cage of a room in Berlin, we head out to see the town.


My friend’s idea was to take a bus tour around Leipzig so that I could see all the main bits and get the requisite information one might need. When we reached the bus tour start-off point we were instantly surrounded by dozens of guides who pressed their pitches and flyers upon us, frothing at the mouth with sheer desperation to get us upon their particular bus. All the tours were exactly identical in price, duration and content, lasted two whole hours, and seemed to take one not only through Leipzig but through neighbouring villages, around the local motorways and over to the busdriver’s nan’s house to see how she’s getting on these days. It was ridiculous; who wants to sit on a kitchly painted open-top bus in the wind for two hours having a smarmy man bark tinny facts about Leipzig at you through a loudspeaker? Under the pretence of having to find an ATM we escaped and decided to do our own tour, starting with the Volkerschlachtdenkmal, the monument to the victims of the massacre in one of the Napoleonic wars. No, I don’t remember which one.

It’s a gruesome and terrifying building. Inside, a circular hall is lined with huge stone faces grimacing with agony and misery. Above the faces there is another circular ledge with statues embodying the virtues of man in the most harrowing way you can imagine, with peace depicted as a distressed looking woman holding two huge and brute-like babies to her naked breasts. The whole place was filled with the echoing roar of building machinery due to the renovation works taking place which made the experience even more unnerving, and it was a relief to finally be on top in the open air looking out on the city and away from the big doom-filled cavern. Up there we met a sweet lady who declared herself to be a history teacher and then gave us a fascinating and enthusiastic talk about the monument and Leipzig itself; she was so generous and interested in her subject that I wanted to take her by the arm, buy her a bus and tell her to go out and make her fortune in the city, but instead we went back down and spent the rest of the day wandering around the nooks and crannies of Leipzig, seeing Goethe’s favourite ‘pub’ and stopping for an Apfelstrudel.

The next day we head over to Halle, the town where my companion had grown up. She wanted to show me her childhood stomping ground, and it was as adorable as such a town ought to be. The buildings are low and have lots of dark beams, and all the streets are narrow and charming. Halle is humming with myths and legends, so as we wandered along the labyrinthine alleys we saw, for example, the donkey fountain where a boy and his donkey supposedly got showered with flowers as they were mistaken for a king (happens to me all the time) and a creepy overgrown pathway which was once closed off to quarantine plague victims and was lush with grass when it was later opened as the sick people all died and created a fertile strip of plant life. A brief stop at the Händel museum was fascinating and very impressive – the musical instrument collection was particularly fun, and if anyone needs ideas for my birthday present I definitely want a violin which doubles as a walking stick – but there was also a confusingly large amount of stuff in the museum which had next to nothing to do with Händel at all. Here is a portrait of the man who drew the portrait of Händel’s mum. Here is a photo of the building where Bach, who is a composer like Händel, once had a sandwich. Here is a coin similar to one of the ones Händel probably used to use when he went out to buy a newspaper. It was rather perplexing but ultimately made for a collection that you couldn’t help but scour thoroughly to work out what all these interesting bits and pieces were actually about. Worth the entrance fee, one might say.

We lunched at a strange “Asian” place where I paid an extravagant 3,50 euros for a bowl of instant noodles with a single prawn proudly perched on top and then simply schlenderten through the town, idly drifting through the shops to kill the time before the real event of the day: Harry Potter. Heart-breaking as it was to see the end of my childhood epic mangled into German (eurhgh, vile language) I was so excited I hyperventilated my way through the ads and – nearly – wept at a few tender parts of the action. It’s a brilliant film, if you haven’t already seen it. The kids are admittedly all grown up now; the Weasley twins in particular look like they’ve been briefly let out of the old folk’s home to do their part before afternoon tea, but no matter how big and burly Harry and Ron look these days to me they will always be the goofy acne-dappled youths who seemed to have come straight from the Beano fan club into showbusiness. I was disappointed that Helen Mirren didn’t have a cameo in this film because if she had that would have made the series a complete catalogue of every single British actor living (and recently deceased) within our generation (as part of our 2010 collection, this rather tasteful Bill Nighy, set within a hopeful but pointless and ultimately wasted role!). But oh, it was the end of Harry Potter. It was the closure to a decade of obsession and anticipation. They did a spectacular job, and didn’t even make the epilogue too cringeworthy as the older and now married characters wave their children off on the way to Hogwarts. Although I did feel sorry for Ron, who was the only character to have been made a fat, balding and embarrassing parent as opposed to the chic and well-kempt others. Go and see it for yourself, you’ll see what I mean.

Oh, and don’t waste your cash on 3D; I didn’t feel like I could reach out and grab anything.

Gute Nacht Berlin…

Today I woke up to a view of grey skies, crow-filled fields and a curled-up cat at the foot of my bed. A journey into town involved driving on the left side of the road, and I paid for my new socks in pounds rather than euros. I’m not in Berlin any more; I won’t be coming back for a long time. 

This year abroad has been such an exhausting, exciting, intense series of events that there’s no point even trying to summarise or qualify it. It was what it was, I had a huge amount of fun but it wasn’t always easy and got pretty black in parts. It was ten months in the most electric city in Europe and I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. Drooling infants and all. 

But since I don’t want this post to be a squelchy emotional snooze-fest I’m not going to write about good times and reminiscences but rather simply write about my last week in Deutschland, a week that in itself was pretty hard to sum up in anything less than a multimedia powerpoint presentation; nonetheless, since we all hate WordArt and text effects I’ll just have to give it a try.

For my last week before coming home I wanted to do something new and see a part of Germany I’ve never seen before, and so I arranged a whistle-stop tour of the Sachsen area, calling at Dresden and Leipzig with a brief stop in Halle. I arrived in Dresden Hauptbahnhof on Monday morning after a long and drab train journey and grinned gormlessly with excitement during the tram ride to my bed for the following two nights, a futon belonging to a friend who kindly let me kip in his pad while I was there. He gave me a map, a tourist guide, a list of things to visit and (with optimistic trust I might not expect from friends who know my clumsy, forgetful and ultimately useless self a little better) a key, then he set off to his job in Berlin leaving me to begin my adventure. I divided my time in Dresden into two parts of the city for two days of exploration; the southern part below the river (Altstadt) for the first day and the part north of the river (Neustadt) for the second. 

Dresden’s Altstadt is rather hard to explain. The tourist guide I had claimed that the nucleus of the Altstadt was the old market, which I set as my starting point, but I was amazed to find that when I reched the old market what I actually found was a colossal concreted empty void, surrounded by buildings but featuring nothing within the square except for a ramp to some underground toilets. It’s honestly incredible how large and pointless the Old Market square actually is; nonetheless, all the old and famous buildings one has to see in Dresden do orbit around it so it functions as a sort of black hole, keeping all the parts of Dresden in its pull whilst itself being nothing but a dead emptiness. In the Altstadt surrounding the square the tourists swarm around the major sights, these being mainly pompous old buildings like the Frauenkirche, the Kreuzkirche, the Semperoper and the world’s longest porcelain mural (which makes me wonder how I’ve managed to miss this ‘who’s-got-the-longest-porcelain-mural’ competition all this time). Everything got viciously bombed in the war and has since been renovated and rebuilt, which is why it all looks simultaneously old and beautiful but also brand new. The Frauenkirche, for example, is a startlingly golden monolith of a building, having been lovingly reconstructed in Dresden’s traditional sandstone and only just reopened in the last three or so years. The inside is spectacular and marvellously kitsch; it’s all powder-puff colours, pinks and greens and painted-on faux marble and featuring as the focal point an incredible altar piece. This huge sculpture behind the altar is of a bunch of flowery pastel biblical guys holding shining golden bunches of grapes or crucifixes, all wading among huge bulks of pure white fluffy clouds. It’s like DisneyBaby® Does The New Testament, and it’s weird but pretty, I suppose. 

Beyond the Frauenkirche, however, Dresden’s Altstadt is a rather oppressive place. All the other famous buildings are made of the same sandstone but due to their age and the remarkable porousness of the sandstone they have sucked up every molecule of smog in the air, causing them to turn an ominous and deep black colour. They are so vast and gothic that they honestly do loom over you in an impressive-yet-threatening kind of way, and I found myself getting ever more frustrated by the combination of the unfriendly buildings and the outrageously expensive cafés and restaurants us tourists had to content ourselves with. I was worried that Dresden would be a disaster.

But then the second day changed everything. Evidently the river Elbe is not just a body of water but also a force field separating the forces of dark and light within the city like a Japanese myth. The minute one crosses the river (and after a good hearty walk) one reaches the Neustadt and is met with any number of colourful and vibrant streets full of interesting things to do and see. I spent almost the whole day there, heading eastwards in the afternoon to see the sunset over the heart-wrenchingly beautiful vineyards in the river valley before dinner. After a bowl of the kind of soup that makes me want to passionately ravish whoever the heck cooked it, I head over to an odd little open-air theatre that I had stumbled upon on my wanderings, coaxed in by the fact that they had lampshades hanging everywhere like fruits.

 One buys a ‘Dreierticket’ and can then see three of a selection of half-hour mini plays and performances which take place in all kinds of weird little stage-come-sheds littered around the location. I was aggressively bellowed into watching a bizarre cabaret/circus-style amateur play with my first ticket, which I regretted the minute one of the cast members went ‘offstage’ (read: retreated behind a pinned-up bedsheet) and was wheeled in seconds later, lying on a tableclothed gurney, surrounded by salad leaves, completely naked. With the other cast members playing his buttocks like drums. 

I stuck to comedy for the rest of the night. A huge mass of us queued for something called ‘Die Echse’, which I knew nothing about except for the fact that it was the most popular performance on offer and the man in charge of tickets was wearing a fez. It turned out to be the most hilarious half-hour of an incredibly sharp and witty comedian whose trick is to metamorphose into a lizard puppet with a cigar and a strong Sachsisch dialect, talking about how he and Aristotle founded the first ever theatre back in prehistory. Also, he did a brief warm-up act involving two sheep arguing about their right to ‘baa’. It was brilliant. The last act was a creepy John Waters lookalike with a drawn-on pencil moustache who had been brought in as a last-minute replacement for someone else who was ill and did a stand-up routine of unrelated small and bizarre acts. He took a lightsaber out of a suitcase and did a few swooshes with it, then used it to pick his teeth. He stood at the back of the stage with his hands out, completely motionless, then very slowly curled over the fingers of his left hand and then finally announced that that was his impression of ‘a wallpaper’. He had a children’s book about wildlife propped on a music stand and picked it up to show us a photo of a tiger licking some soil. It took a while for the penny to drop but as he carried on it just got more and more hilarious until we ended up baying for two whole encores which he sheepishly consented to perform for us. The crazy genius. 

I’ll tell you all about Leipzig tomorrow children, as the delicious smells of Dinner At Home are calling me from downstairs. And after tomorrow…well, it’s time to start thinking about finally putting this old dog to sleep. 

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.

The beginning of the beginning of the end

And it seems to me you’ve lived your life like a lampshade in the wind…
My odyssey in Berlin is coming to a close, but I specifically booked two weeks after the end of my contract to have the time to do all the things one inevitably always says one must unbedingt machen but never actually finds the time or lust. The first of those days was utterly consumed by the sheer mesmeric euphoria of being in bed for hours and hours and hours without having to do anything or, most importantly, without having to see or interact with a single toddler. The second day I remembered that I did indeed have work to do and spent hours and hours at the computer drawing the last of the illustrations for the company’s new workbook, trying to figure out how on earth one can possibly depict ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ as a simple colour-in picture; it turns out that this song is deeply Descartian-philosophical when one thinks it through for long enough (“I am happy, but do I know it? What happens if I don’t know it? Can I know I am happy without being happy? I clap, therefore I am…”)
But the third day – after I had dumped a year’s worth of clothes stretched by tiny hands into amorphous sacks at Oxfam – everything ging los. I had my list of things to do, some respectable and some less so, and I strode off into the wind to explore my honorary Heimatstadt one last time. First off I finally devoted a good amount of time to exploring Tempelhof park, one of Berlin’s most underrated and undermentioned offerings. Tempelhof is unlike any other park in the world, primarily because it’s not a park; it’s an airport. The old airport is not only the place where the first ever flight demonstrations took place decades ago but also was used during the Luftbrücke, when allied planes flew food into the seriously deprived West, suffering despite being an island of non-communism within the communist mire. It was finally, sadly, closed, but unlike in the UK where it would either be made into a tacky concert hall or most likely razed to the ground and rebuilt as a Tesco, here it was simply kept as it was to serve as a park for the general public. Nowadays it is full of kite-flyers, dog-walkers and roller-bladers making the most of the beautiful, huge, flat and mile-long runways.

They have done a tremendous job with this place, simply by barely touching it. The middle strip of land has been turned into a Wiesenmeer (sea of meadows) where wild flowers grow and larks and butterflies can go forth and multiply; there are nicely trimmed BBQ areas with excellent bins and, best of all, right at the back there’s the Tempelhof-Schönefeld Gemeinschaftsgärten. From far away, as I walked around the runways, it looked simply like a big pile of rubbish, and in Berlin this would never be implausible, and as I approached the only two thoughts in my mind were:

1) Typical Berlin. You have something as great as this park and ruin it by letting people wang a load of trash in the middle of it and shove anti-nuclear stickers all over the trash.
2) When will that creepy man stop trotting up to me whispering “Hallo, Kleine” and asking if I can hear him?
But when I got to the trashheap what I actually found were hundreds of wooden crates, old paddling pools, suitcases, clothes trunks and other receptacles which had all been lovingly filled with compost and beautifully flourishing fruit and veg plants.
Not being permitted to plant directly into the airport soil, the members of this community garden project have assembled their gardens on top of the soil and made it truly Berlin by furnishing it with vintage upholstery and faux Wild-West outhouses. Naturally. Once again I simply marvelled for a moment about how much I love this brilliant city, and then allowed marvelling to give way to rage as a bunch of American hipster dweebs cycled up on their rented choppers and started drawling about how “Man, this is like, so Berlin, like have you been to that bar in Kreuzberg where all the drinks are mixed with nutritional yeast and served in urine sample beakers? Have you been to that club in Neukölln where you have to dance with handcuffs on and the DJ is a rabbi? Have you been to that café in Wedding where the coffee is ground under the wheels of a Nazi-Germany tank?…” I left in disgust.
Hipsters (and people slightly too old to be rollerblading in hotpants) notwithstanding, Tempelhof is a great place to spend a sunny day and simply astonishing in its vastness and relative untouched-, gimmick-free-ness. And it was also conveniently near to my next destination, something I was determined to visit from the minute of my arrival and which had my heart beating slightly quicker as I drew ever nearer to it.
Dun-dun-DUUUUUUUUN!
What the heck is that, I hear you cry. Why, it’s Hauptstrasse 155 Berlin Schönefeld. The very building where DAVID BOWIE (and Iggy Pop) genuinely lived for a good long while in one of their most awesome periods. Good grief! Why has no-one profited from this? Why is there no plaque, no commemorative graffiti mural, no themed café next door called “It’s hard to be a saint in the Latte”? It is nothing but a nondescript door with a dentist’s practice. Blasphemy, thy name is Schöneberg. That’s the last pilgrimage I ever make.

Spot the difference

Check it out, I went to the Ostsee!

 Hang on, I think I have another photo from a different angle…oh yes, here it is.










Ho, hold on…that can’t be right…here’s another photo:

And another shot of those dreamy waters:

Well, I don’t know what to tell you. The earth moves around the sun just 180 degrees and suddenly the beach has turned from the shore of the river Styx to the kind of thing you see in fake retro postcards they sell in hipster shops.

Granted, it was beautiful and awesome to see the Ostsee coast in Winter and be fully freaked out by the eeriness of the milky melancholy water/sky gradient that stretched out from the ground. But being on the German coast in early summer, after a morning of rain and grey clouds that did nothing but wash the stuffiness out of the air, was absolutely herrlich.

I think the Ostsee is probably one of Germany’s most undeservedly ignored tourist locations for anyone who isn’t a native Kraut like us. (Yes, us. I’m one of them now.) The images that spring to mind for anyone contemplating holidaying in Germany are striking cathedrals and earnest cultural edutainments like galleries and museums; one imagines drifting around Gothic-looking streets, gorging on sausage and beer with dirndled locals and having your brain twanged by the latest techno hipsterlectrofunkatunes in Berlin. But no-one really thinks they might end up on a beautiful cream-coloured beach surrounded by soft dune-grass and clear waters full of actual real pink jellyfish. 

Like any British coast, the sea is so cold you spasm into attacks of rapid breathing the minute it goes past your ankles, but that doesn’t matter to the hundreds of fearless and naked children being chucked around by their dads in the shallows and the noise of them having a brilliant time is oddly heartening. The surroundings are adorable, with thatched cottages leading up to the pier and little pubs serving Fischbrötchen. This is a much-loved spot for loads of Germans who come up from all over to this little smidgen of coast in the otherwise land-locked mass; next to us were a family who, I am informed, were deeply Sachsisch (i.e. from Saxony) and had such thick accents I could barely understand what they were saying. When their little boy was playing football it just sounded like he was yelling “poop, poop” like Toad in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and I only really tuned in to their dialect when he suddenly stopped and demanded that he and his father take a break to eat something or they simply couldn’t continue. At any rate, this sweet family was a welcome change to the people who had previously been in their space, a ‘robust’ man and his wife who lay motionless and nude in the sun for ages like huge legs of ham dumped on the sand. 


Further up the coast the people begin to give way to wilderness and wildlife, and a small ridge of cliff rose out of the ground which was spotted with tiny cheese-holes. These had been dug into the clay by tiny swallow-like birds who flew in and out of the holes tweeting frenziedly.

The bird-watcher my mother implanted in me when I was little squeeed with joy.

Along the cliff there was a low wood and some bushes with pink flowers, and along the shore lay trees which had slumped down off the cliff the last time there had been a landslide. When we finished exploring our friend Tommy arrived wearing layers of thick black leather and clutching a vast black tarpaulin bag; clearly when we said we would meet him at the beach he misheard and thought we said the matrix. At any rate, once he arrived we committed ourselves to proper beach behaviour, namely licking ice-lollies and getting sand stuck everywhere. All these things are things I couldn’t have believed I would be doing when I first knew I would be coming to Berlin, let alone Germany, and I needed it like a sick person needs pills.

That evening we went to a traditional German Gaststätte and were served by a traditional German waiter who was portly and jolly and wore a nice patterned waistcoat reminiscent of my favourite Germanic waiter encountered thus far. We drank Apfelschorle and propped our table up with fifty beermats to prevent our food sliding off the table and down the steep cobbled alleyway we were sitting in. Now, you may want to bum around Berlin or marvel at Munich, but this is what the real Germans do for their minibreaks and it is goshdarned great.    

Crucial cultural experience. Also, booze.

Discerning wine tasters.

This weekend was the last weekend of the Baumblütenfest, a fruit wine festival which takes place every year in Werder and is, so I am told, the second biggest Volksfest in Germany. A couple of friends and I thought it was about time for a bit of adventure and an Ausflug, and as the daughter of a wine connoisseur whose obsession borders on psychopathic I simply couldn’t wait. If you’re English, a wine festival is a wonderful opportunity to taste some delicate and rare vintages from charming local producers whilst listening to light jazz and swing music wafting over from white marquees sponsored by Waitrose and some four-star hotel. There are hog roasts and organic quinoa salad buffets and everything is so expensive it makes your wallet leak something which chemically resembles tears. Naturally this was not what I was expecting when I was told that this particular festival is more like a second Oktoberfest, but I still had no idea what on earth was over in Werder waiting for us.



The Baumblütenfest is simply wild. On the one hand, it’s rather rural and very sweet; farmers sell their fruit wine from alchemical-looking glass jars whilst wearing straw hats and there’s a Baumblütenkönigin (queen) who is chosen for her beauty and ability to represent a two-week festival of getting completely sloshed. But there’s the rub, to put it pretentiously: the wine costs 2 euros a cup at its most expensive, 1 euro per cup if you’re going for the rough stuff, and is so sweet it’s like drinking alcoholic jam. Thus the majority of people who attend the festival are party-hungry youths who chuck the stuff down their necks and have fights with each other. The stalls that don’t sell wine are flogging (apart from the essential Wurst selection) brilliantly tacky festival accessories like flower necklaces and comedy hats, the ‘live music’ is good old-fashioned German power-dance music and one can participate in all kinds of wonderful vomit-inducing activities like fairground rides and bungee-jumps. 

Yes, it’s intense and the heat made it feel like being inside a cheerleader pompom someone had stuck under a grill. But I had the most brilliant time. I am a country lass, not particularly experienced in the world of festivals that don’t involve ‘best cow’ competitions and live sheep shearing, and that Saturday afternoon this lucky girl got to see real fights and for the first time heard a real, genuine, hearty Berliner accent (‘juuuuuuuuuuut!’). We were approached by an ancient taxi driver and his entire circle of friends and relatives; his skin looked like old leaves, he had clearly already had a good few bushels worth of wine and he chatted us up like an old pro. The wine is sweet but delicious, in particular the dark purple varieties which are so sugary and thick your mouth will pucker up and your tongue will sizzle. Traditional German food is at these times just the ticket, and my giant pretzel was as big as an elephant’s ear. To buy, the wines are incredibly cheap – just £6 a bottle – and would be a great gift if you are sick of forking out for Lebkuchen and fake Lederhosen to keep your friends’ lust for genuine German trinkets satisfied; I particularly recommend schwarze Johannisbeer and Rhabarber-Pfirsisch flavours. You should definitely, definitely go. And when the festival isn’t on, go to Werder. Under the thick layer of drunken crazies, retina-searingly bright knick-knacks and grilled sausage it’s a charming town which seems almost Grecian with its leafy cobbled streets and corny-looking restaurants. As my time here trickles slowly away I am glad to have done this truly German thing, and who knows; next time I might crank it up a notch and have a good old hearty fight.