Getting lost in the Chameleon Boudoir

That's a-moray!! Actually it's a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.
That’s a-moray!! Actually it’s a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.

Some weeks ago, I was spending a lot of time in my boss’ Berlin flat. I was doing some work which required a decent internet connection for me to make several large uploads each day, and the internet connection at my workplace was quite distressingly terrible (we would later find out that we had all been sharing a 6 – SIX – kbps connection for weeks without Telekom offering to fix it). I got into a routine where I would spend the morning sorting shizz out, then take an hour to prepare all the files I would need, and then cycle over to the flat in my lunch break to upload all those big monstrous gigabytes and answer erroneous emails. Well, one day I was sitting there in my boss’ kitchen, staring at the ceiling as I listened to my colleague telling me stuff over Skype, having an idle gander about the room. Until I noticed something: the walls looked oddly speckled now, and I didn’t remember them having a stucco finish. I looked more closely.

Maggots. Herds of maggots, scooching along the walls and ceiling. Hundreds of them, everywhere. I imagined them all suddenly falling on me and then a bunch of horrendous Lars Von Trier imagery bursting through the windows. No matter how many times I blinked, though, they were still there. A quick google helped me to identify the particular species of maggot, and thus followed a preposterous few days of trying to balance my usual massive workload with also finding a decent exterminator and overseeing his exterminating. One of my top ten sentences I never thought I’d hear in my professional career? ‘Careful of the maggots when emptying the vacuum cleaner! You might want to do it outside.’ When I did empty the vacuum cleaner, outside and at arm’s length, a huge gulp of maggots flowed out of the dust compartment – followed by a redemptive little black cloud of moths, like a mini version of the bats rising out of Batman’s cave.

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Creative Arborism 101

The first in the series. A classic that defined the latter works.

Further in the series, we see an interesting juxtaposition of asymmetrical tree and signage creating balance in imbalance.

A slightly awkward piece; the ‘crossroads’ imagery seems naively overwrought here.

Quite possibly the jewel of the collection. This, the finest specimen of all the trees used in the collection, has been knowingly coupled with sublime signage and a wry parallelism with the real tree. Magnificent.

It’s that festive time of year again. When families, friends and flatmates come together across the continent, unite in their living rooms, gaze at their joyfully selected Christmas tree, hold hands and say to each other, lovingly:
“Well, that was a pretty good Christmas. Time to chuck this on the streets then.”
Since my return from the UK, the changing of the seasons seems to have been marked by little more than rubbish. The first day after New Year’s, the pavements were utterly bristling with a fetid rash of detritus: bits of fireworks, burnt-put sparklers, döner wrappers and so very much broken glass. Slightly unexpectedly considering that this city is usually kept relatively clean and litter-free in comparison to the trashfest that is London, this layer of crud was never really cleared away by anyone, so it just lay on the streets for days, tangling together slowly like washed-up seaweed on a shallow beach. 

But a few days later, after the bulk of the clobber had settled neatly into the gutters and drains, a new wave of special rubbish arrived to truly herald the new year and a fresh start. Suddenly, hundreds of small fir trees started appearing on the pavements. Some were left to grow soggy and lose their needles with time. Some were immediately seen as a canvas and haphazardly spraypainted. Some were set on fire. One that had been set on fire was then spotted by a large dog who saw it as a brilliant new toy, and that dog nearly reaped me off the pavement with his enormous blackened club jutting a metre out from his jaws each way.

Then, a few days after that, someone with an imaginative mind and, presumably, a ladder, decided to stick one of these abandoned Christmas trees into the top of a tall signpost. Inspiration struck the city. One by one, signposts were being adorned with leftover Christmas trees, the trees staying remarkably full of life despite being propped up in a long thin pipe with no access to water. 

And seriously now, something funny is happening with this changing of the seasons. Why are all these trees *still* there? Why does the lady living opposite my office kitchen window still have her festive candelabra on her windowsill? Why – seriously, why – does the pizza place down the road still have one of those plastic trees with an upturned umbrella at the base to catch the polystyrene ‘snow’ that sprays gently from the top? (And why would anyone ever choose to have one of those in their establishment at anytime ever?).

Two days ago, at the farmer’s market, I picked a nice-looking apple from the basket and the sweet bloke behind the stall said ‘Take it! Enjoy! Happy new year!’ People are still, frequently, wishing me a happy new year, even though it’s long since new and definitely seems to be doing its level best to avoid that whole ‘happy’ thing. There are still Dominocubes on sale in Kaisers – not that I’m complaining about that particular detail; Dominocubes are little blocks of soft spiced gingerbread topped with a layer of marzipan and another layer of fruity jelly and covered in chocolate, so yes, do keep those coming. But for some reason I cannot identify, this new year is having a very difficult time indeed letting go of the recent festivities.

And yet. In the supermarket, drifting brainlessly through the aisles, something purple and elongated caught my eye. A Milka bunny. I had stumbled into the Easter aisle. Chocolate eggs, little sweetie rabbits, Kinder chocolate chicks…So what is going on?! What are we doing here, guys, Christmas or Easter? Or am I jumping the gun here and those Easter treats were actually just the leftovers from last Easter, and soon we’ll start seeing Lindt rabbits and bunches of daffodils wedged into signposts as people finally decide it’s time to start getting rid  of the Easter stuff from 9 months ago?

Another pertinent question: who is going to clear up all those trees in posts in the end? Is some schmoe from the government going to go round with a really, really long version of one of those grabby-sticks and yank the trees out of the poles one-by-one? Or are they just going to stay there forever now, a legacy from a Christmas so fundamentally special that we shall never forget it.

Either way, we don’t need trees in posts to remind us that we’ve entered the cruellest part of winter; all you need to realise that is to step outside, where the biting cold has finally arrived and will make your nose feel like numb, dribbling putty in 30 seconds. This new year is about to get hardcore. Bring it on.

Good eats in the big B

Found in the Kaufhof groceries section: a Limquat!! A lime the size of a walnut! GENIUS.

This weekend was the big moment; my new flat had to meet the parents. I’m too much of a compulsive hostess to let them stay in a hotel, so they bunked in my big Berlin bed and I had an excuse to buy a kickass lilo. This was the first time ever that my dad had seen Berlin, having never had any holiday time even in my first stint in the Vaterland. It was my one chance to prove that moving over here and haemorrhaging money by furnishing an empty flat and starting a frantic job was all worth it. How was I going to convince my dad that this city really is awesome enough to never want to leave?

Firstly, by getting a bunch of old-fashioned bikes and pelting around the Tempelhof abandoned airport for a happy hour. He’s an obsessive photo-fiend, and a big wide open airfield full of people flying kites at sunset was a gift from the patron saint of picturesqueness. Plus, boys like bikes and planes. Win-win.

Secondly, by taking him to the Reichstag so that he could have a wander around that amazing dome, a huge glass bowl containing two interweaving helices (seems like a poncy way to pluralise ‘helix’ but have it your way, spellcheck) which make a kind of optical illusion as you walk up and then realise that you are walking down again along a different path which you thought was the same path as the one before. This wasn’t such a resounding success, mainly because Berlin decided to welcome my beloved parents by being as freaking grey and rainy as is possible within the boundaries of Earth physics. We skittered around the dome only briefly, pausing to look at the city from above in all its moist splendour before simply giving up and going to get cake.

And yup, that’s the third thing. The best thing to convince my dad – hell, the best thing to convince any visitor that Berlin is the city to be in right now, is to feed them, and feed them good. There are so many fantastic places in this city and joyfully they are all their own sweet little independent racket because essentially there is no such thing as chain restaurants or cafés over here (let’s not acknowledge the one exception which rhymes with ‘tar ducks’). And maybe you need some recommendations or maybe you need a reason to come here or maybe you just like lists, but either way, sit down and let me tell ya about some of my favourite places.

1. The Galeria Kaufhof, Alexanderplatz
Ok, so the food court of a mid-range department store is probably one of the lamest places to hang out. And yes, the average crowd there is less hipster and more hip replacement. But good god, people, the salad bar. There are rows of counters piled high with glittering ice and stacked up with plates filled with the most delicious, often outrageously strange salads, and you just take a plate and load on up. Bowls of seeds and croutons and dressings and bits of this and that and delicious nubbliness are scattered about to supplement your mound of tasty swag. There’s a handsome guy wearing a black bandanna making fresh stir-fries to order with crisp, rainbow ingredients. There’s another bank of ice chilling freshly pressed juices of unexpected fruits like kiwi or blueberry. There is a thing called a ‘vegetable buffet’ which I’m not sure I understand but I like it, a vast selection of fresh and delicious stews and soups, and most importantly: an entire wall lined with your options for cake and strudels. 

 

 2. Knofi, Mehringdamm
This one is a little confusing as there are actually two parts of this restaurant, one opposite the other on different sides of the same road. One is more casual and laissez-faire, a nice place for a comfy lunch with friends (or in my case in my first visit, with a sort-of-friend who was ten years my senior, made a pass at me and then a while later ran away to join a cult) – the other is more mature and seductive and does more dinner-ish options like a killer meze and magical aubergine creations. The latter is superb, but the former, on the north side of the street, is my favourite for the incredible soups and the best ‘Gössis’ – a pancake filled with spiced meat or spinach, Turkish sheep’s cheese and sometimes a bit of potato, cooked up lightning fast and served with a spectrum of dips – in Berlin. The decor is completely nuts, like a room decorated based on the fragmented memories of a feverish childhood dream you once had about an expedition around Turkey having only ever seen a postcard of the place. The service is terrible, the tables are cramped, the chairs are all different heights, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

3. Gugelhof, Kollwitzplatz
This is an Alsatian restaurant with the sweetest, smiliest, sometimes winkingest waiters and waitresses in the world. From the minute you enter, you feel like Franco-German royalty, and they instantly magic a huge basket of gorgeous bread with herbed cream cheese in front of you so you have something to chew on while you read the impressively creative menu. Wild boar with pumpkin mash? Winter stew with a roof made of bread? An entire trout poached in Riesling? Yes please, very yes. The breakfasts here are also delicious and always presented like a work of art – these guys really know their way around a garnish.

4. Café Nö, Mitte
The best Flammkuchen in Berlin and such good wines you’ll want a whole carafe to yourself. A Flammkuchen is a Germanic pizza, a whisper-thin base of crispy dough topped with a thin layer of sour cream, usually some sautéd onions, and then a topping of your choice, then toasted in a hot stone oven. It means ‘FLAME CAKE’ which is simply kickass, but the ones at Café Nö would be ridiculously tasty even if they were called something unappetising like ‘Schleimplatte’ (‘mucus board’). I mainly mention this place, however, because the atmosphere is terrific; cosy, friendly and beautifully decorated, while the music in the background is rat-pack covers of 90s classics (Frank Sinatra singing ‘Champagne Supernova’ is a tour de force) and there is a projector screening slides of old-time photos of ski slopes, Berlin streets and cheerful alpine lumberjacks. You can always banter with the staff; when I brought my parents there the waitress, a tiny blonde woman whose twitchy nose and hyperactive running around made her seem more squirrel than human, gave me a stone-cold look and said ‘You won’t get a table for at least an hour and a half, you might as well go.’ I gave her my saddest eyes and told her that my parents had come especially from England (never the UK, always England for best effect; it reminds Germans of the Queen) and I had been dying to show them this restaurant. She shook her head, repeated her previous statement, and within ten minutes had cleared a table for us and presented us with the novel-long wine list. Victory. And a delicious victory it was, too.

5. The Fliegender Tisch, Friedrichshain
The Fliegender Tisch (‘Flying Table’) is probably always going to be my favourite restaurant in Berlin. First and foremost, this is because anyone visiting for the first time will inevitably feel that sinking feeling; ‘Uh oh…’ one thinks, perusing the menu which has been meticulously pasted together in Microsoft Publisher 1998. ‘Ooo-err…’ one mutters when one notices that the mood lighting is a lamp with masking tape wrapped around the opening. ‘Oh dear…’ one then thinks when one sees some of the insane things on the menu: beef stew with cheese, potatoes and oysters is one of my favourites, as are the recent specials of brussels sprout omelette or salad with walnut-stuffed sprouts fried in a beer-honey batter. Hmm. And yet, the guy – the Fliegender Tisch guy, the smiliest man on the face of the planet – comes to your table, and you order something that sounds a little more palatable, and soon arrives a dish of fresh and sublime eats which is always handed to you with no less than a beaming grin. Their salads are super delicious, the pasta is tremendous as is the gnocci, and they do the best Kaiserschmarrn I have ever eaten – even better than in the Austrian alps, where it really ought to be the best of the best of the best. Plus, to ensure that the restaurant name isn’t completely meaningless, they’ve suspended a table from the ceiling so that it hangs skewiff over your head and gives you an instant icebreaker. What more could you possibly want?

Frankly, there are so many great places to feast over here I could write a book. Possibly even an ode. But I’ll leave that to other, future posts. For now, go forth Berliners, and get some gourmet grub this weekend!

Sticky summer evenings – time for Tzatziki Tzalad!

Three seconds after this photo was taken, the entire bowl spontaneously burst into flames.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s hot. Sad-dogs-lying-on-the-pavement hot. People-eating-ice-cream-at-10-am hot. Invasion-of-psychotic-fruit-flies-everywhere hot. After months and months and months of perpetual greyness, Europe is being rewarded for its patience with an intense burst of all its missed summers delivered in one portion. People don’t know whether to be overjoyed or to succumb to the misery of being so very, very sweaty. Children have started quietly dissolving into tears on the S-Bahn, confused and upset that they are simply so uncomfortable and why the hell can’t mum do anything about it like she usually does?

But the worst thing about dealing with the heat in Berlin is that it’s a constant toss-up between two very different, very potent and very annoying evil forces. On the one hand, you have the hot summer, damply packed into every room like wads of cotton wool. The unmoving air which makes the excel spreadsheet swim in front of your eyes until you feel like hurling the Macbook against the wall and running away, laughing maniacally. That humid heaviness on your skin, like someone’s warm hand pressed against your face.

But on the other hand there’s the bloody godawful NOISE of the place. This city is a cacophony, so obnoxiously loud that you sometimes wonder whether things aren’t being deliberately amplified just to make this effect as overwhelming as possible. You cannot imagine the noise; it’s like putting your head inside a metal bucket and having someone beat the outside of it with a massive frying pan. The eternal dilemma is whether or not to have the window open. In the office, it’s an impossible decision. Directly outside our windows – I mean directly, insofar as I could pat one of the builders on the head without even stretching – there is a colossal building works happening on the side of the neighbouring block. 


The loudness verges on being comical. The builders use a lift to go up and down which makes a noise like seven pneumatic drills switched on and thrown into an empty petrol tanker. They chuck large pieces of equipment about, vigorously hammer everything in sight, and – which is probably the worst part – raucously wolf-whistle and banter, probably roused by the beer which all German builders are for some reason allowed to drink while on the job.

At home, the situation is not much better. I live on an astoundingly loud street, where people regularly have fights below my bedroom window and where the local homeless man has a nightly mantra which sounds a little like this: “BAAAAAAAA! AAAAADABABAAAAAA! MNPHNMAAAAAAA! GRRRRAAAAA!” (repeat until dawn) Last night was something special. Despite it being a narrow and rather short little street, it sounded like they were replaying every film in the Fast and Furious series directly under my window. From what I heard, I am certain that at least three trucks did donuts in the middle of the road, then some guys came with low-riders and did drag-racing up and down the street, and then everyone had a big gangsta fight while their hos revved the engines to provide atmosphere. And, as usual, just as I was finally able to blissfully slip into a prayed-for sleep, some men in overalls came with a giant van and started throwing large bins full of glass into the back of it. Cheers guys, thanks for keeping our city green, even if it is 6.30 in the morning.

But to the point: the heat isn’t making things easy. Cooking in particular is pretty much out of the question at the moment in this flat; with a gas hob and an oven whose door droops open like an idiot’s mouth, any attempt to actually cook raises the temperature in the flat to centre-of-a-volcano levels. At times like this, all you can do is make something cool, crunchy and with as little gas involved as possible. And then follow it up with a giant slice of chilled watermelon and a therapeutic session of screaming back at the local homeless man.

***Chilled Tzatziki Tzalad*** 

This is such a perfect summer-night dinner, and I really recommend making it half an hour before you need it so you can stick it back in the fridge and let the flavours broaden a bit while everything gets nice and cold (did you know that cold temperatures increase the tongue’s ability to experience flavour, making tastes seem more intense?). Serves 1, so just multiply as required.

1/2 large red pepper
1/2 cucumber
1 stick celery
1/4 red onion (optional, but I like my quasi-Greek food stinky!)
3-4 generous tablespoons Greek yogurt/quark
1/2 garlic clove
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
Very generous pinch of salt (don’t skimp, this needs to be well-seasoned)
A few grinds of black pepper
*I made this with a bit of chicken I had kicking about in the fridge, but it’s just as good with some chickpeas or white beans instead.

1. (optional) Slice the chicken into chunks, season with salt and pepper, and lightly sauté until cooked through and golden. Put aside to cool, it cannot be used hot.
2. Chop the pepper, celery, cucumber and onion into bite-sized chunks.
3. Mince the garlic. TIP: this is super easy if you lay some clingfilm over the rasp part of your grater and rub the garlic over the top – you can then just peel off the clingfilm with the garlic and scrape it off without getting most of the garlic eternally stuck in your grater.
4. Mix the garlic, yogurt/quark, salt, pepper, mint and lemon juice in a large bowl.
5. Throw in the veg and chicken/chickpeas, then stir everything together well.
6. Pile into the serving dish and chill for 30 mins before serving. Eat with flatbread/pita.

Best Prenz Forever

In Prenzlauer Berg, graffiti artists simply tag buildings with helpful signs and directions.

When I used to work in Oxford, I sat all day in a cardboard cubicle lined with school-blue artificial felt, pounding at an old Dell keyboard that appeared to contain several primordial stages of life developing between the keys. At lunchtime I would shove my tupperware into my bag and march outside as quickly as I could possibly move, simply to get out and away from that stuffy little enclosure. 

Sadly, there wasn’t much to escape to outside the office. A grey, long and dull walk alongside some uninterestingly pristine hockey pitches, a wander around the edge of a park so waterlogged that you had to wade through the middle of it, and finally a bench overlooking some dying border flowers or, if you had time, a more distant bench where you could observe a depressed duck in the pond.

I’m now fortunate enough to be working in Prenzlauer Berg, or Prezzy B as the cool kids call it. I used to live in the district but that was during a long and very oppressive, so it’s rather a privilege to come back to it and experience it in the midst of its lazy summer glory. The office barely looks like an office but is inside an old and kooky Wohnblock with an enormous winding staircase that is very Hogwarts indeed. I sit in a comfy, airy room with two hilarious and generally excellent people and the soothing sounds of intensive building work drifting through the window. And the best part is that at lunch I can go for a curious little mosey around the streets of Prezzy B.

A lot of people rag on P-Berg because it’s like totally ‘gentrified’, which essentially means that they’re annoyed because it’s not ‘gritty’ (i.e. violent and falling down) anymore and instead has been filled with lots of nice cafes and organic delis. Gentrified or not, the district has simply developed into an insane patchwork of people and ideas, and because it’s all a bit posh these days everything is just a bit…well, nice. Even the bloke who runs the local Späti is a pleasant and bright-eyed young gentleman with a polite, intelligent air and a crisp clean poloshirt. 

But I did say it was insane for a reason. There are just so many shops around the place, and if you can dream it you can buy it in Prenzlauer Berg. In our little nook around the office we have some great specimens, including a gay clothes shop, a shop specifically selling ‘world musical instruments’ (I don’t think they stock vuvuzelas, however) and another shop which I was going to photograph because of the cool multicoloured plush ostrich standing by the entrance until I realised that the ostrich’s neck and head were actually an enormous rainbow fake fur penis. There is a shop that sells organic fabric – no, I don’t know why – and another that sells food portioned into exact quantities (half a lemon, three teaspoons of paprika, a little vial of soy sauce) for people who want to cook and don’t want to have a single TRACE of leftover ingredients. Near the office is also something which frankly took my breath away: a bad bakery. I have bought bread rolls there three times now, hoping that their family-run, hand-made-from-scratch promise would one day give me what I’m hoping for, but alas. I asked for a pumpkin seed roll and they handed me something so flat I thought it was a large cookie.

In between all the shops are more restaurants than you could ever hope to split the bill in. One of my favourites is ‘Links vom Fischladen’, a micro-oasis of incredible seafood in the middle of a city whose main dietary seafood intake is in the form of small salty fish-shaped crackers. There’s the usual obligatory slew of ‘Asian’ places all selling identical and cheap ‘crispy’ types of poultry, but there are also some truly spectacular ‘Asian’ places such as Mr Ho, who does Vietnamese food so fresh and aromatic you almost forget to make jokes about the unfortunate name of the place (almost). On the way up to the beautiful graveyard where I sit to eat my lunch, I wander along Pappelallee, a gorgeous little street which has several – sigh – macaron and cupcakey places, but also a curious pasta restaurant that advertises ‘Nudelkunst’; literally ‘noodle art’, although I suspect this sadly does not mean they will swirl your spaghetti into a representation of Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses. Slightly further up, on Kollwitzplatz, you will find Lafil and the most delicious Spanish brunch imaginable; there’s fresh tortilla, crab gazpacho, chargrilled vegetables, tiny vanilla-y bowtie pastries and a big tureen of homemade waffle batter so you can make your own fresh waffles to order. 

And the last real trademark of Prezzl Bezzl is the children. It is a district which students once settled into and made it cool, but have since then got married and had their first kid on a very comfortable income thank you. There are children swarming around the place left right and center, and so many prams you’d think the babies ought to start a car-pool. This makes things fun, for sure. I watched a man today speedily wheel his pram along the pavement and accidentally drive it with full power directly into a large concrete bollard, then I enjoyed his deserved anguish as the baby inside erupted with indignant rage.    

The mix of it all gives the district a really distinct atmosphere, one that is hard to pin down; if pressed to summarise it I would simply describe it as ‘contented’. No-one in Prenzlauer Berg seems stressed or upset or dysfunctional; the kids keep it a safe district and the shops and restaurants keep it endlessly interesting. And the people simply seem utterly relaxed. Each person in his own little cloud of satisfied peace, wandering up and down Schönhauser Allee.

In the graveyard today, there were lots of people sitting around on the soft green grass, writing and drawing and reading for no reason other than pleasure or idle fiddling. An old couple sat beside me, and the man took two books and two juice boxes out of his rucksack. He gave one book and one juice box to his wife, and then they just sat in the sun and read and sipped. I gave them a big grin, closed my tupperware, and headed off back to work.

Like this? Got something to say? Get in touch: ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com
 

Feelin’ the buuuuuuurn

Sadly this isn’t my gym. This is evidently the branch of Superfit where Tron was filmed.

Exercising in general doesn’t really work out well for me. When I arrived in Berlin, I had no choice but to go running – in public – which was fine, apart from two serious issues: the first being the unbelievable complaints and funny looks I get when I have to do that bouncy-joggy-boingy thing at pedestrian crossings, and the second being the horrendous shinsplints that jogging on uneven surfaces seems to give me. Ow.

I missed the gym. I missed the cross-trainer, and the terrible music, and the fact that treadmills have a nice lectern you can put your things on so you don’t have to shove your keys inside your bra. And I realised that, as someone who is likely to be unemployed for a considerably long time, I would need something to keep me going and stop me from aimlessly drifting until I lost my mind. After a lot of careful research and the inevitable moment of ‘Oh hell I’ll just pick one at random because for god’s sake!’ I marched over to my local Superfit and signed on.

The moment I walked through the unspeakably shiny glass door, I knew this was a totally different ball game to my old creaky gym in Berkshire. In my old gym, the ‘technology’ was limited to one ancient CRT-display computer (you know, the really old ones that for some reason were always a pale beige colour) which never registered my age so kept me on a child’s membership for my entire time there until my cancellation last month. Here, the beefy chap at the counter who looked like Morpheus ushered me to a round, black table littered with pristine iPads, into which I tapped in all my details using a foam-tipped silver wand. “Hello,” thought I, “This is a bit swish, innit!”

At the time I left my old gym, it had developed even more character since my last related post. The walls had cracked and leaked enough that they finally brought a painter in, and I watched as he spent the morning covering over all the cracks in an unfortunate shade of ‘Winter Magnolia’ which did not quite match the current shade of ‘Sicilian Apricot’. With the walls now looking like a tie-die of pus, they brought in new cross-trainers which required you to do a kind of awkward forward-shuffle with your legs, like how dads put on their slippers in the morning. The card reader for the door had fallen off the wall and been duct-taped back on. It was a gym you had to love for its homely charm alone, and it cost about £35 a month for an adult membership.

I am in love with my new gym. It costs me €18,95 a month, and for that I get not just a workout but an adventure. Seriously, exercising in my gym is like exercising in the future; it’s like a fitness center in a spaceship. When you enter, there are drinks dispensers on the check-in desk which swirl luminous green and orange liquids around like cocktails in the Death Star’s nightclub. To the left of all the machines is the classes studio, which is a shiny black-dark space walled off with tinted glass and illuminated with strobing multicoloured lights which fade in and out like the heartbeat of a flux capacitor. The only classes they had at my old gym were spin classes, which were simply a lesson in the stages of human agony performed directly in front of the machine-users to torment us as we jogged. In my Berlin gym, the classes are amazing, choreographed sessions led by beautiful smiling androids; the class I always seem to coincide with is some kind of combat-punching-aerobics class which is mesmerising; it genuinely looks like hundreds of Tekken characters practising their moves in perfect synchronicity. 

Every machine is its own unit of futuristic science and magic. Each one has its own little air-vent so you can choose your own level of cooling breeze, and each one has a big computer screen on which you can watch telly, control your iPod, or simply watch your progress on a strange graph which seems to represent a hill and effort and time and energy expended and other things all at once in a series of orange and red shapes. Even the lockers have a robotic lock that closes automatically and flashes blue when you hold your card against it. Everything you use feels cool and high-tech; I like to run while listening to action-movie soundtracks and pretending I’m a starship warrior training for future battles. 

Another element of entertainment comes from the fact that half of the machines are lined up along the broad, shining glass wall of the gym which cuts it off from the shopping center that houses it. This means that as you exercise you can observe the kinds of people who come all the way to the top floor to go to the hairdressers and the toy shop. Oddly, large numbers of people seem to ride the escalator all the way to the top simply to turn around and immediately ride back down again, which tells me something about human nature, although I’m not quite sure what. Is is heartwarming to watch kids with back-turned baseball caps and enormous schoolbags strut into SpieleMax and come out with Pokemon cards (yes!! They’re still alive!), and I love the way that they look at us through the window, a bemused stare which reminds us that we’re all essentially mental: running on the spot on a machine in a hermetically-sealed room in our own free time.

But that’s the one thing I do miss from my old gym. I miss the crazies. The German gym-goers are just so serious, so good at what they do, so athletic and so considerate (they always wipe the machinery clean with forensic precision once they’ve finished). I miss my old Berkshire cohorts; the insane old woman who looked like André 3000 in her rainbow windbreaker and sunglasses, half-heartedly pushing the weights, and the enormous bodybuilder whose varicose veins had bloomed into a purple-blue impressionistic vista all up and down his legs. The people who talk, or roar, as they exercise, and the people who don’t understand how the machines work and end up flailing helplessly on the treadmill as they pound the controls in desperation. We don’t have them in my new gym. I guess in the future, such people will simply be rounded up and destroyed.

Berlin: lower your standards to live the high life

This shop is so epic the entire building has a beard worthy of Thor himself

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When I first told my friends in Berlin of my plans to move back, they made concerned noises. “That’s great, but are you sure you really want to?” they asked. “You know that jobs here are scarce and hard to get hold of, right?” At the time I tossed my head back and laughed in a debonair manner. Jobs were scarce in Berlin? They should try living in the UK, where people print their CVs on taped-together banknotes to try to be in with a chance of it not being immediately thrown in the bin. Where the universal facial expression is glum malaise, and the most popular job seems to be Tracksuit Wearing and Shouting Facilitator.

I haven’t the slightest regret about moving here, but in hindsight I ought to have given their warnings the credence they merited. Jobs are not ten-a-penny over here for darned sure. Added to that, my current almost-offer is messing me around like a cute boy with slicked-back hair, a motorcycle and a leather jacket, and someday soon I’m not going to put up with that anymore. So unemployment it is then; bearing it out until I find something that pays the rent and doesn’t make suicide appealing. 

Happily, the wonderful thing about this city is that living without an income is remarkably easy, and I speak not of the controversial unemployment benefits system – I chose not to open that particular can of worms for myself until I literally am close to starvation. What I mean is the staggering amount of stuff you can acquire for zero euros, cash or cheque, everywhere in this place. Tired of being indoors and tired also of the mysterious noises my neighbour had been making against the wall for the best part of an hour (my best guess is that she was alternating throwing handfuls of marbles and iron filings at the wall for some kind of texturing effect) I got my shizz together, grabbed my overflowing compost bin and whirled out of the door to find some of this free swag.

The German word Verschenken means to give something away for nothing. It’s a lovely word, and a practice heavily embossed into the German psyche. Every so often you will find a cardboard box or little heap of stuff next to a house door with a hand-written sign perched on it saying ‘Zum Verschenken’ – ‘to be verschenkened’ – and you have the carte blanche to rifle through the pile and pick out anything that takes your fancy. In my last stay in Berlin this allowed me to accumulate quite an impressive selection of stuff: a sewing box, some books, a large wooden trunk (man I miss that trunk!), a beaming yellow sarong covered in suns…

Even on an idle walk to the East Side Gallery yesterday I happened upon a free large red leather sofa, a box of videos (which admittedly will probably finally be taken by hipsters who want to convert them into groovy iPod holders) and a completely functional-looking iron. And today, when I set out for my latest adventure, the fates seemed to be smiling upon my venture: there, perched on the bin when I went to chuck away my compost, was an awesome and wonderfully naff Spanish-style ceramic olive bowl in red, orange and green, with a teeny little pot attached for toothpicks and another teeny little pot for the olive pits. At least, I think that’s what it is for, although it may also be a breakfast plate with a normal egg-cup and a quail’s egg-cup…or a planter for three different shapes of cactus…

I nabbed my first prize and set off to the Umsonstladen ‘Systemfehler’ (system error). Meaning ‘Free shop’, an Umsonstladen is a Verschenken-shop where people can dump off stuff they don’t want any more and other people can come and take it at will. This is Berlin so there is of course a heavy political agenda attached; if you cross the threshold of the Umsonstladen you are joining in the fight against capitalism, gentrification, over-production and -purchase of goods, probably also nuclear energy and that kind of thing too. They host music nights and life drawing sessions and all kinds of wonderful community get-togethers in an admirable attempt to prove that life is worth living even if you aren’t constantly in pursuit of new possessions and the money to buy those trinkets. 

Still, I wasn’t there for the politics or the community. I wanted the trinkets. Every ‘customer’ is allowed up to five things per visit. I was particularly hoping to find a new T-shirt to wear to the gym and possibly a decent saucepan for my flat, which currently contains one non-stick frying pan, a wok the size of France and a beautiful collection of vintage enamel pots which I couldn’t possibly actually use. When I walked into the shop, I was impressed. In the corner was a quite beautiful piano in walnut and the room was fenced around with railings of clothes which had been carefully arranged onto hangers by style and size. Granted, there was a lot of crud around and the walls had been decorated in a zany way and a slightly deranged woman threw herself at the piano the moment I arrived, beginning to pound the keys with no attempt at a tune. Then a man walked in with his hair shaved in such a way as to produce a perfect monk-like hemisphere of hair on his scalp, like someone had rested a scooped-out grapefruit half on top of his bald skull. He was wearing a kind of semi-transparent sheet with a neckhole cut out of it like a poncho, decorated with a lurid sky blue and pink pattern. He was telling his friend that he was hoping to make some kind of quilt. 

I practically broke my neck trying to not stare at the two and instead browsed the shelves until I found one thing I was looking for, a T-shirt. The one I picked is a mellow blue shade which someone has painted by hand with a slightly haphazard picture of an awkward-looking kiwi bird in the bottom right corner of the shirt. Above the bird they have painted HUCH in large white letters: “Woops”. Evidently they had hoped to produce a much less disappointing kiwi and so painted their distress at the failure and then gave the T-shirt to the Umsonstladen. I have a feeling this will become one of my treasured possessions.

I also found a huge and woolly hand-knitted sweater for the chilly nights and was then accosted by the crazy piano lady who demanded to know if I was planning a presentation. When I told her no, and asked if that’s what I looked like, she said no and asked if I were a ballet dancer. When I said no again, she asked if I could play piano. No, I answered apologetically, and she then brightened and told me all about how sad she was that she couldn’t even play a single song, not even that one from Amélie. I sympathised. She asked what I was going to do now; was I an artist? No, I said, feeling more and more inadequate not to be any of the cool things she seemed to have taken me for. I said goodbye and on my way out noticed a very fat woman in the corner eating jam from a jar with a spoon. 

God love Berlin. I’ve got all these lovely free presents to play with and I made a friend. And I didn’t have to spend a dime.

Die Vögel (The Birds)

Berlin wildlife: sparrows and techno-beetles.

In the UK, you might see the occasional pigeon. Wandering along the high-street…picking up bits of old chip in Burger King carparks…limping one-legged around train station platforms like a pathetic Richard III impression…making obscenely loud noises on your windowsill in the wee hours of the morning…accidentally flying down your chimney…clustered under picnic tables in parks…dumbly standing on a car roof…dumbly standing on the spikes put on buildings to repel pigeons…

Yes, pigeons are everywhere. There is a reason why we call them flying rats, and it’s not just because they are like little hors d’oeuvre crackers, carrying a selection of diseases and bacteria rather than smoked salmon and cream cheese. It’s also because you are never more than a couple of metres away from a pigeon at any point; even in your house they are often actually in the roof, their feet skittering away on your ceiling both hauntingly and annoyingly. And the Brits hate them, dear god we hate them good. We teach our children that it is a fun game to swing huge kicks at them to make them fly away (I used to enjoy a variation on this game where you walk at a brisk pace directly behind a pigeon, which simply freaks it out a little and makes it shiver its wings about so it looks like a dweeb). And, of course, they swarm about in Trafalgar Square in a frothing grey sea, fed enthusiastically by tourists and accused of harbouring nuclear radiation (remember that? Who came up with that hilarious idea?) by non-tourists.

Full disclosure, however: I happen to rather like them. I raised three pigeons from tender ages because they were brought to my dad, a vet, by people who had thought they were abandoned. I taught them to fly, which mainly involved chucking them into the air and occasionally poking them out of trees with a long stick when they got stuck in the branches. But as far as ‘urban wildlife’ go, they’re not the coolest things to see mooching about every square metre of a town. In Berlin, of course, we’re a bit more alternative.

Berlin’s speciality is its sparrows. Sure, there are pigeons, but they are almost a novely in comparison to the sparrows, who pip along every pavement like teeny little brown tiddlywinks. There are sparrows in tremendous quantities, great bushels of them, and the noise of them fills the sky with endless cheerful tweets (hashtag: peep peep peep). Speaking of bushels, that is where they like to get together for social events; you might be sitting on a bench one day when suddenly the bush behind you will erupt in frantic cheeping, although there will be no bird visible to the naked eye when you then turn to the bush in terrified curiosity.

I love the Berlin sparrows, despite the city’s half-hearted attempts to keep them under control. “Don’t feed the sparrows!” a bakery will signpost, while there are always three or four sparrows sitting directly on the sign enjoying the crumbs of some leftover Vollkornbrötchen. They are completely adorable. The males look stern and commanding with their dark-stained faces and rusty wings, and the ladies are sweet and soft in fawn brown. Unlike pigeons, their noises are charming and life-affirming, so cheerful and endless that they almost seem like background sound effects to a life-simulation-style computer game.

The sparrows enjoy the children’s playgrounds as much as the kids themselves. While the little Berlin babies smash around the climbing bars and slides causing distress and harm to themselves and other children, the tame little sparrows calmly use the sand as their feather-bath, whiffling around in little hollows in the dust to clean their wings. Sometimes they will hop up to you if you are on a bench and cock their head at you, musing about philosophical questions relating to the presence and availability of crumbs on your person. And unlike with pigeons, I almost always wish I had a few crumbs on me to give them; bless the tiny darlings, they deserve a treat.

So Berlin does urban bird-vermin better than the UK. Go figure. But did you know that they also have the squirrel sector totally covered? UK squirrels, as most of you will know, are grey (pigeon-grey, you might say…) and sassy and often, as we saw on the Great British Bake-Off, remarkably well-endowed. But I will never forget the first squirrel I saw in Berlin. I couldn’t breathe when I saw it and turned around in a silent appeal to the strangers around me expecting them to be equally floored by the sight: walking through Tierpark, I saw a beautiful, golden-red squirrel with tufty ears scruffling about on path in front of me. 

When I explained this astonishing and mythical sight to my friends, they looked at me as if I had just proposed that we all fill our trousers with jelly. “That’s what all completely normal squirrels look like, dear.” In the UK, red squirrels are notoriously rare and have the kind of sacred status otherwise reserved for peregrine falcons or unicorns. In Berlin, red squirrels casually mosey about, keepin’ it real. They wouldn’t know what to say to a grey squirrel if they met one. They keep their wobbly bits to themselves.

Sometimes the differences between place A and place B are huge and disorienting when you move to a new city. But sometimes they are little, and sweet, and make you glad to be experiencing a new version of normal.

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.