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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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
 

Conclusive proof that children love unpaid manual labour

The beautiful spiral herb mound

I have finally mustered the energy to write today’s post after spending most of the day thus far convalescing in bed, tentatively sipping Ribena in a smog of profound self-pity. How did I end up in this pathetic state? Well, it all began many years (hours) ago…

There is a community gardening project called OxGrow down Abingdon Road in Oxford. It is a plot which used to be a bunch of sports grounds and tennis courts for one of the snootiest colleges here, but they have kindly donated it the grounds to the local community to be gradually cultivated and tended until Hogacre Common becomes a lush and teeming eco-paradise. I have been going on Sundays since the start of term and it only took me three minutes among the gorgeous and heaving veg beds to fall in love, and since then they’ve erected a ‘bee platform’ (believe it or not, bees prefer to live on a platform. It makes them feel above the common bees) and expanded the vegetable garden to an incredible degree. We’re growing dozens of exciting varieties of heirloom potatoes and garlic, the onions at the moment look like gleaming juicy gemstones laying on the compost and the strawberry plants are so aggressively lush that the green berries underneath the leaves are nothing but an endless taunt withholding what they are going to become. The work parties are every Sunday whether or not it is glorious sunny weather or the ground is smothered beneath a thick fleece of snow. There is always tea, there is often rain and there is always, without fail, plenty of digging. I love it. Digging is man’s most soothing and wholesome pastime; it makes you feel like a hearty medieval peasant and has the cathartic effect of letting you take out all your anger and stress in every enormous kick you give that big soil-clad spade. At the end of the day, everyone is free to take whatever produce is ready to be picked and you’re usually so cream-crackered the next bit is almost as good as the work party itself: resting back at home with an enormous cup of hot tea and gently hardening mud on your knees.

This Sunday, to celebrate their own volunteering achievements, a student/pupil tutoring scheme called Jacari brought a bunch of their enthusiastic members and tutees to the garden; nothing says ‘celebrate’ like being made to dig clods of soil when you’re 12…Everything was so calm and tranquil for the first hour or so, while we did various odd-jobs around the beds, until suddenly an army of children swarmed in and started gettin’ all up in our pitchforks.

Honestly, it was the most terrific fun. Since my ‘job’ (read: toil) in Berlin I have missed mucking about with kids something awful and unfettered access to spades and worms had put them into an excellent mood. Give kids complete free reign in the outdoors with gardening tools and they become the kind of brilliant beasts you always hope your kids will turn out to be; they squeal with breathless astonishment every single time they find anything vaguely insect-y, ask endless questions and do hilarious things like ‘accidentally’ shovelling soil into the back of your jeans as you’re crouching in the neighbouring bed thinning crops…yes…

The best thing of all, though, was when I was allowed to take my own group of kids off for an explore around the grounds. It was then that I, for the first time, realised how cool and exciting my mum was when I was growing up. She used to take us through the woods for hours, and being the head of a family of nerds she initiated us into the world of insects, birds and fungus (the latter of which my grandmother also tried to do but almost got herself banned from ever seeing us again after she almost managed to persuade us to eat the mushrooms we had found on our ramble). My dad, a vet, helped by bringing home little pots of mealworms or crickets for us to poke at, or even brought the occasional grass-snake or even kestrel that was currently being given medical care. We grew up surrounded by wildlife. And it seems it all stuck, for I found myself teaching these children thousands of little facts and neat things about nature that I had just assumed all kids innately know as part of being twelve years old, but the kids – and quite a lot of the adults – were soaking it all up in shiny-eyed fascination. It was incredible. Several of them had never encountered the buttercup test. One of the student volunteers asked the kids if they knew what a ‘hog’ (as in Hogacre) was. They chanted ‘noooo’. The volunteer hesitated and then muttered that she didn’t actually know either. (I delicately let them know it was another word for a Big Fat Pig.) This is not the kind of thing kids need – they want thousands of small and useless and amazing facts and they want them ALL THE TIME. To be the provider of said facts is simply endless fun.

 These kids didn’t know what stickyweed was, which in my view is a tragedy and a kind of infant poverty, so I diligently explained why it was called stickyweed, how it came to be so sticky and then explained to them the rules of that honoured game where you have to try and stick as much of the stuff on your brother’s back as you can without him noticing. We were lucky enough to find some froghoppers so I could explain how they make their little frothy dens out of their own ‘spit’. We talked about what compost was, how you can tell a dead nettle from a real nettle, and oooooohed at a skeletal leaf that had been completely ravished by the satisfied snail resting on its tip. It’s times like this that I wonder at all the families you see in supermarkets, telling their kids to ‘I don’t know just shut up Damian’ when they keep incessantly asking questions. Having the privilege and the trust to answer a child’s questions is one of the most fun and exhilarating feelings and even if you don’t know the answer you are at least in the position to make that connection with the child: you can tell them an interesting story of what the answer might be (“Oooh, maybe bananas are bent so monkeys can use them as boomerangs, what do you think?”) or at least encourage them for having had the gumption to ask in the first place (“Do you know, I have no idea! It’s cool that you noticed…!”) Suffice it to say, if I have kids – and it’s a big if, since I have looked into the heart of darkness on that score – I will ensure that they know all about inkcaps and puffballs and stickyweed as soon as they can stand. 


After being gone from the garden for a length of time close to ‘abduction’ on a legal scale, I had to bring the kids back and they all marched off to their treasure hunts and gnashed on crisps. And they went home, hopefully to a future filled with afternoons spent covering their peers in adhesive strings of flora and getting shouted at for being a mess. We all got to take a fresh new onion home, alongside a glorious array of broccoli, asparagus, leeks, chard, and all kinds of delicious just harvested produce.


It all came home with me and went into a delicious vegetable ginger-honey-miso stirfry with a huge field mushroom that had come from the market a while before. It was delicious. And then, hours later, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, it kept me awake all night and made me more violently ill than I have ever been in my memorable past. But it was worth it. Pass the ribena.

Kids can be so cu – GAAAH!

Holy crèpe paper…that’s supposed to be educational?

Ok, so that’s not even a real child, it’s a plastic model which gave me a lurching heart attack the minute I turned around and glimpsed its hell-black eyes in the Pingelhof traditional farming museum on my trip last week. The real children I am actually teaching really are quite sweet, and as our lessons finally begin to come to their end, their reactions are ranging from adorable to inexplicable.

I’m now getting into the penultimate or final lessons for each group, and as I sit the children down and tell them in the saddest-sounding whisper I can muster (simultaneously putting all my energy into not sounding at all joyful or triumphant) that these are our last lessons together it is hilarious to see what they do with that information. One kid, Max, was so devastated after the lesson that he sobbed and his mother had to calm him down, as she later told me – tragic, yes, but good feedback is good feedback. The other kids in Max’s group immediately asked, naturally, if they would be getting a present of some kind, since they have been doggedly demanding that I make them all animal masks since that fateful day I brought in a snake and monkey mask for them to frolic about in. But this is a group of kids who all have huge, cartoon eyes and adorable high-pitched giggles and are addicted to being tickled and so I couldn’t say no to the little tykes.

Livin’ it up on a Friday afternoon

That’s my favourite group; others won’t quite be getting the same level of dedication.

One of the groups, from a slightly impoverished Kita in the south, were very strange. I knelt to tell them the sad tidings and after a moment of reflection the adorable and very Ikea-pretty (i.e. blessed with Scandinavian good looks and subtle colour combinations) Lasse said: “Rosie is soft like a cushion.” He then lay his head on my lap and started to mew, and all the other kids said, “Yes, she’s soft like a cushion,” and joined in nestling on my big squashy thighs. I had to sit for a while just staring in confused affection at this sudden litter of puppies on my lap stroking my thighs, and then eventually just tried to distract them with the picnic game.

Other children are not so sweet, and use this as an opportunity to loudly announce that they don’t want to do English anymore and their mum says it’s a waste of money and that they should have done swimming instead; others seem to completely lose their sense of what is going on and start asking if that means they won’t have an English lesson tomorrow (the lessons are only once a week, never twice in two days) or suddenly asking what happened to that English teacher they used to have before I came along (answer: they quit because they hated the job and you, children!). And some simply ask, “Why?” 

In absolute honesty, to be leaving the kids is rather sad and I have grown very fond of almost all of them; well, save the group who are as thick and herd-minded as a group of buffalo and simply spend every lesson loafing around the room dribbling slightly. But most of the children are sweet and affectionate and in finding out that I am leaving are touchingly saddened. Some now call me ‘mummy’ and some simply cling onto me like baby orangutans. And an oddly large number of the children have taken to repeatedly kissing the back of my hand during lessons like a Victorian gentleman introducing himself to a fine lady. It’s rather charming.

Still, even though my time here is drawing to a close, that is no reason for me to stop discovering new and mental things to do in this hilarious city, and thus I will end this entry with a concert that I was at featuring a Gypsy Swing Jazz Band. No, I didn’t really know those words could come together like that either. The venue was the Fuchs and Elster, a wonderful little bar/pub named after one of the sweetest stories of the Sandmann, a little pre-bedtime telly show from East Germany in which a tiny story lasting five minutes was played out to soothe East German kids into sweet felt-puppet dreams. The tales of Herr Fuchs and Frau Elster are stories of a cantankerous fox and a mild-natured magpie who have the personalities of that grouchy old man who chases children off his lawn and that sweet old lady who gives those same kids cake and lemonade, respectively. The stories revolve around Frau Elster trying to do something nice and Herr Fuchs just trying to enjoy a quiet life, and they are beautiful and charming.



  How could a pub named after that not feature some kind of organic Gypsy jazz on its menu? The concert was brilliant, in fact, a mix of twangy Gypsy Kings-style skiffle music and Woody Allen-style jazz with a mental lead violinist who sang in a moany growl. Unfortunately my friends and I were not able to fully enjoy the concert due to the complete maniacs in the audience. It was not particularly music to dance to, but despite this a man in a Popeye-striped-shirt was flinging himself around like he was being toyed with by an invisible puppet master. The man had an expression on his face that can only be described as “agonecstasy”  and seemed to have completely misunderstood all genres of music at the same time, as he was dancing to the swing/jazz/skiffle beats with a mixture of skanking, hip-hop hand gestures and wild hippy flailings, whilst making Super Mario whooping noises and shouting “Arriba” like a Mexican bandito. He was not the main offender, however. The worst was the man directly next to us, a man who seemed to be composed of nothing but elbows and shoulders, getting his groove on in the most self-indulgent and inappropriately energetic manner. He was whacking us in the arms, face, boobs, bellies, grinding up and down the side of my poor friend and indulging in erotic caresses with the two women  and other dude he was with until, at the end, they all just gave up and clustered into a big writhing ball of fake carnal fervour. If you are reading this, you angular and malfunctioning robot, take your hoodie and blazer combo off and burn it, then go and read a book or something. Chillax, dude.

It’s the little things in life you treasure. (Booyah, Galaxy Quest quote)

Look at this graffiti. Isn’t it fantastic? Hilarious, pun-tacular and inexplicably written in powder blue liquid chalk. That’s what I love about this place: every day I find at least one little thing that makes me grin stupidly in public, usually in front of a mass of people failing to see the humour in a small dog carrying a Brötchen or a man accidentally throwing his phone onto the train tracks immediately before the arrival of the S-Bahn. Odd considering this is a nation that invented the word ‘Schadenfreude’. 

Every little weirdness is like a little present and now, as I come slowly to the end of my year abroad, they are becoming a little like the chocolate in an advent calendar; I’m excited to see what’s coming each day, and excited about the thing they are leading up to, but I really don’t want the days of regular pre-breakfast chocolate to end. For this post, here are a few of my favourite little ‘Berlin Niblets’ thus far. 

It was hot. No, she’s not dead. 

Everything was dead in the Botanical Gardens except for a few flowers in a perfect queue. How come inanimate plants are more willing to get into a straight line than all the children I teach? I know that English people are renowned for our love of waiting for things in an orderly row so much that we invented the phrase “after you” simply to perpetuate the pleasure of queuing for as long as possible. But to German kids the idea is simply alien; one can rephrase the request using all vocabulary available, one can mime standing in a line (admittedly hard if you are one person, but this is why everyone ought to study interpretive dance), one can offer bribes of smeary green stamps to the people who get the concept of one being behind another, but it just doesn’t work. I have achieved the greatest amount of success by making the kids get into a snake behind me and follow me for a bit, but they often like to take it a little far by hanging onto the back of my cardigan and attempting to “water-ski” around the room with my propulsion. One kid is particularly obsessed with simply placing her hands on my buttocks as we wander around the room. The things I do for teaching.

Outside of the Kindergarten, waiting in Germany often is made easier with numbered tickets which mean at least your disorderly rabble has a hidden sequence. This is great in places like the Bürgeramt where the waiting list can grow so long that people start to trade and sacrifice their tickets (“I…I’m not going to make it, sport. Take my ticket; it’s number 84. And, son? If you get in there…tell them…Uncle Klaus ain’t paying his Hundesteuer this year…*cough*”). I had been waiting for an hour and a half once and gave my ticket to a newly arrived couple who looked so grateful I managed to keep going for the whole rest of the day just on my misplaced sense of righteousness.

Yes, this is both a wine shop and a driving school. BEST COLLABORATION EVER. I honestly would give anything to meet the person who thought this was a good idea. Frankly I’m glad that I took a photo because otherwise I would have convinced myself this was one of my brief S-Bahn-nap ironic dreams. And yes, that is a drunken bunch of grapes as its mascot. Does that count as Suicide Food?

Look at this beautiful gay pride boat on the Treptower Park riverbank.

 This really is Germany’s most-loved game. And unlike England’s most-loved games like Monopoly and Risk, people actually play ‘Mensch, ärgere dich nicht’ and really genuinely enjoy it. Having this and a couple of other board game staples in your house (a pair of dice and a real, hopefully leather, dice beaker for a start) is absolutely essential in this country and people react to the prospect of playing board games the way other people might react to the suggestion of a cake-and-free-money party. To clarify this for my German readers: most British people resort to board games when all other forms of social interaction and entertainment have been exhausted and the only alternative is glaring bleakly at each other across the starkly empty dining room table. Germany, I love you for your appreciation of board games, for the fact that this essential of the board game canon was on proud display at the flea market as one seller’s most treasured ware, and for the fact that about two seconds after I had taken this photo the game was being gleefully bought.



 Well, this is a picture of my dad’s legs; I know it’s nothing to do with Berlin but it popped up so unexpectedly when I was browsing my memory card that I spontaneously guffawed my chewing gum out of my mouth. I’m going to allow this.
 

Lovable rascals

This is Berlin, I promise. Don’t look up too long or you’ll step in something…

Allow me to paint you a picture with words and sounds. You are asleep in bed at 6am on a Sunday morning. You are comfortable, warm and happily drooling onto the pillow. You have not slept well during the night but now you are nestling blissful in the cocoon of slumber, the mellow breeze of the morning gently toying with the hairs on your forehead. Suddenly and without warning this song explodes through your window and into your subconscious at tremendous volume.

You leap up and close the window but it’s coming from the flat next door so it simply barges through the wall instead – and you are then forced to spend the next two hours that should have been sleep-filled instead wondering why the neighbours are:
a) listening to this song on repeat for two hours
b) listening to a synth xylophone cover of the song rather than the original if they like it so much
c) doing so at 6am in their kitchen.
These are the same neighbours who regularly have colossal and loud raves in their flat every Wednesday and Thursday night, and who last night seemed to be watching just the car chase parts of all of Hawaii 5-0 with the television pressed up against the wall. There are so many people around who are simply bad and naughty; people who don’t give a single microscopic hoot and know they’re being antisocial, tossing Snickers wrappers on the ground and letting their dog chew your iPod headphones with no other feeling than a mild sense of triumph. Oooh, I’d like to smack them until they weep. Funnily, though, I don’t think any of my favourite kids that I teach will ever grow up to become these people, and my favourite kids aren’t goody-goodies or sweet little girls or cherry-cheeked cherubs. No. They are the really, fantastically, bloody naughty-as-sin kids.


The naughty children I teach are so much more deserving of the huge quantities of energy and attention I am forced to give them. Sure, the good children have earned good treatment and are often brilliant kids, and it is important to make them feel that they are getting recognition for being obedient or well-behaved or clever. It is also crucial for the group as a unit to show nothing but approval for the ‘good example’ kids and nothing but dismay about the ‘juvenile detention’ kids. Little Leonie is a smarmy, competitive and boastful shrew but she gets lots of stamps and high-fives because she is at least trying to exemplify what the kids think the teacher wants as good behaviour. 

It’s an impossible juggling act because this must be carefully balanced with the praise the other good kids get, the praise the kids who are just casually drifting along with the crowd get, and the praise the bad kids get when they do something remarkable like sit down. The good kids know they are good and often become distraught if they feel that they missed out on earning a brownie point; I have one pupil who collapses into a gooey crying heap the minute he is not instantly high-fived and given a standing ovation for saying a word. My superiors advise me to make these good children into examples by praising them as a form of telling off the others, as in, “Now look how well Marc is sitting, isn’t that fantastic! We should all be sitting just like him. Super!” This is unbearable enough but there is a very good reason to avoid this entirely, and as someone who used to be the unbearable swot in the class, I should know. The problem is that in holding up the good kids as examples to follow, they become incredibly easy to hate. You can see the other kids narrowing their eyes and puckering their mouths if these teachers’ pets ever get this treatment, and I just can’t do it to them; I have to protect my own kin. The fact of the matter is, when a kid is good they are praised, and when not then not. 

But no-one can understand how heartbreaking it is to always have to yell at the kids you love. And god help me, I love the naughties. They are hilarious – Julius has a rock-star mane of long hair and roars like an asthmatic lion when he gets excited or angry, which is all the time. Alexander is the only kid I’ve known to actively refuse to represent male characters in games in favour of female characters (“Ich will ‘sister’ sein!!”) and Leo is so, so, so desperately rude and naughty but his debonair eloquence at the age of three is so disarming I sometimes want to embrace him for the startlingly offensive things he says. Naughty children are exciting and rebellious and never boring; you can tell that the reason they are bad is that they are in fact geniuses who already know too much about the world. Julius had a horrendous fistfight with his two mates in class this morning and after I had succeeded in calming them all down, he smoothed down his hair with dignity, turned to the other two and said, “Now look. After all that, I want to know – and let’s agree on this – are both of you still my friends?” His equally naughty friend Michel replied, “Well, all I know is that I am my own friend and my name is Julius.” These kids are four years old and it was such an arresting moment of sincerity I wanted to buy them all presents for being awesome. These bad kids won’t grow up to be bad adults; these are the children who will become in charge of important firms or making new inventions because they have energy, wit and brain.

I love it when the kids secretly cover my attendance list with stamps when I’m not looking or when they ruin the entire game or story because they have realised that ‘boots’ sounds like ‘poops’. It shows such imagination and reluctance to be normal and boring and average, and for that reason every time I shout at them I am secretly wishing that if I ever reproduce my own child will be just like them.  

Springtime for *cough* and Germany…

There are queues outside every ice cream parlour in the city and people are showing off their knees with gay abandon. It must be officially spring in Berlin. By the looks of what’s suddenly filling all the clothes shops we are in for a long period of yet more bloody maxidresses, dungarees and – *gulp* – neon hotpants. Everyone is in a cheery and celebratory mood and therefore the time has come for every German to participate in what is both a homage to the true backbone of German culture (Wurst) and probably one of the main things English and German people love as manically as each other. I am speaking, of course, of Grillen, the noble BBQ. When it comes to Grillen the Germans go just as mad as the British, wheeling out their apparatus the minute a fleck of sunshine appears through the clouds and barbecuing everything from the traditional sausage to pesto-flavoured tofu. You shoot the Scheiβe, drink a brew or twelve and stay out with your barbeque until it gets dark or you get thrown out of whichever place you’ve chosen to grill in. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This all sounds well and good, but this is Berlin! Couldn’t it – hell, shouldn’t it – be a bit edgier?” Why yes, yes it can. And therefore I ended up going to my first German Grill of the season illegally on the rooftop of one of the edgier buildings in one of the edgiest districts, Neukölln.


I knew from the minute I stepped out of the S-Bahn station that it was going to be a good evening when I saw a beautiful Berlin moment happen right before my eyes like a small present from fate. A tweenie girl licked her giant ice-cream too hard and both scoops thudded onto the pavement. She groaned and walked off licking the creamy residue off her sad-looking empty cone. Milliseconds later a homeless man came along, kicked the ice-cream boulder like a football and then sauntered off roaring with laughter. It was so sudden and hilarious I couldn’t have been in a better mood by the time I reached this incredible place.

The block of flats my friend lives in has an amazing loft space under the roof. It is a truly cinematic space, full of echoey eaves and dusty rafters. Inset into the roof are little porthole-style windows and one oval window with light mint-green glass, and in the main loft space there is nothing on the floor save one abandoned roll-top desk. We all climbed the rickety ladder to emerge onto a wonderful flat rooftop deck which looked out over the whole city. It was exactly as brilliant as it sounds. From the rooftop you could eat your kebab and regard the city as if it were your kingdom; the view from a roof is somehow so much better than from the Reichstag or the Fernsehturm because everything is still so near, you can thoughtfully regard the lights of Alexanderplatz in the distance or just annoy an old woman by watching her and waving as she does the dishes by her kitchen window. As if it weren’t mushy enough, when night fell there were fireworks in the distance as if daring us all to hold hands and start singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or something. 

And thus ended my first week of May, the first week of the last two months of my time here. Only seven more weeks left of my contract to go before I am no longer forced by contract law to go into schools and pretend to have fun with small children. The end couldn’t come sooner, for while I am in love with this city and having what will probably be one of the best years of my life here the work hasn’t got any more pleasant or less gruelling; my voice sounds like the secretary slug-creature from Monsters, Inc (you didn’t file your paperwork, Wazowski…) and thanks to walking around the entire city every single day my feet have come to the conclusion that there is no pair of shoes comfortable enough that they won’t slowly but agonisingly remove all the skin from your heels and toes if worn too much. I spend my days nowadays playing ‘the family game’, a game I invented which the kids love so much they quite literally squeal with anticipation the minute I wink and suggest that they all line up by the wall. Each of the kids is made into a member of the family and I play the role of the gross old grandpa who wants to give his family members a big embarrassing hug. I call over various members of the family and they have to try to run from one side of the room to the other while avoiding my grabby grandpa hands. For some reason this pushes kids’ buttons in a way no other game ever has, and they get ever so creative and hilarious when they play it: some of them will point to the ceiling and go “Look! A pig/bird/policeman!!” to make me look away in confusion while they run past, some of them run round and round in circles for about fifteen minutes until I have to remind them that at some point they will need to get to the other wall otherwise we’ll be at it forever, and some kids are oddly resigned and simply walk slowly and with melancholy sacrifice into my open arms. It’s an exhausting game, but it gets me through the days and it seems to make the kids’ days when I inevitably fall over. You gotta give the people want they want.

Who says young people have short attention spa – ooh, a bird!!

Any good insect-themed bowl requires time, concentration and commitment.

There is a general assumption these days that ‘the youth’ have lost their ability to concentrate on any one thing for more than fifteen seconds thanks to the scourge of the Internet and television and the general overwhelming bombardment of stimuli with which our premature consciousnesses are forced to deal with on a daily basis. This is a rather insulting theory and goes alongside the ‘exams are getting easier’ and ‘children are getting oversexualised’ arguments which help to perpetuate a grumbling bitterness towards the Yoof of Today which we all thoroughly resent, thank you very much. But more than being insulting, this is a destructive theory as it has led to a very uncomfortable new set of theories and reasoning applying to teaching and communicating with younger generations. It is assumed that since our attention spans are so fleeting and our demand for stimulus so ravenous, we need interactivity, movement and fast-pacing when it comes to our learning and our entertainment. We are forced to endure lessons where resentful teachers make us play terrible ‘educational’ computer games where you walk through a human gut or conduct your own poorly-animated archaeological dig, we must write our homeworks in the form of kitsch Powerpoint presentations which somehow count as more stimulating than any other thing in the world because they are capable of making a bullet point zing across the screen with a noise like an old-fashioned camera taking a photograph in an empty tin can underwater. Because it involves movement and colours and sound effects suddenly a boring subject is supposed to be transformed into a whirlwind of intellectual intrigue, a source of knowledge so absorbing you lap it up like a greedy, greedy kitten.


Of course, interactivity in learning is very important; you will learn far more in doing something yourself than when you simply have someone read it to you in a drab monotone. Chemistry is a subject only made bearable by the fact that you work through the theories involved by doing your own experiments and making your own conclusions which can then be applied to the abstract content. However, this works well as an idea because there is a clear purpose to experimenting and it has a sense of being real-world valuable as opposed to some gimmick. And let us not fully dismiss gimmicks in themselves when they have valuable mnemonic use; a bunch of bored sixth-formers are much more likely to remember the theory of electron shells when they are made to whirl around the room (hopefully screaming ‘wheeeeee’), no matter how simultaneously humiliating they may find it.


But there is also a lot to be said for young people’s capacity simply to be interested. Give us a dry subject and of course it will take goons dressed up as the Vikings dancing around a psychedelic cartoon oyster to make us pay attention. Find me any middle-aged person who doesn’t react exactly the same way. But give us a reason to be interested and we will engage ourselves, or at least try; it is hard to deny that we all remember and learnt best from the teachers who found their own subjects interesting and vital and did little more than inject their own enthusiasm and interest into their teaching to make it work. When our wonderful German teacher taught us about the Wall, she told us about her own experiences and gave us an idea of the collective German feeling at the time and without having to do anything more than tell us the story of what happened we were hanging on her every word.


Still, it is not the ‘youth’ that really concern me when it comes to this question. The people that are really at risk from the ridiculousness of these assumptions are the really little ones, the ones that are still coming to terms with the complexities of putting on trousers. Every time you make an assumption about a certain group, you risk perpetuating that assumption or even causing it to become true in the first place. Yes, little kids have short attention spans, but children have always had short attention spans to a certain extent, even back in the days when people like to believe they sat for hours at a grassy riverbank fishing with a length of their mother’s sewing cotton. No, kids have always been stimulus-hungry piranhas, devouring one activity for a couple of minutes before swarming over to another or simply staring with a menacing underbite out of the empty preyless waters. Give them something that they can truly be interested or engaged in, however, and it is a doddle keeping their attention; there have been times when I have managed to avert complete meltdown with kids of friends or family simply by teaching them how to make origami water balloons and letting them quietly be fascinated for a good half hour. 


We are making a huge mistake by pandering to this imaginary child who only likes things that are multicoloured, flashing and change subject and backing music every minute. We are setting them up to expect that kind of interaction with the world and not giving them a chance to ever be fascinated in the first place, never silently offering them the question: ‘would you like to know more?’ For example: recently I watched two whole episodes of Blue Peter to give me some material to write about for a BBC application. Blue Peter, for those of you who don’t know, is a TV show for kids presented by a trio of grinning Bright Young Things who take the viewer through a series of different items to do with everything and anything that is interesting or relevant. In the past, in any given show, you might have seen a really good report on how buildings are demolished, an item on show dogs and a performance of what they can do, a musical number, a feature where one of the presenters briefly joins the U.S. Marines and a ‘Make’ where they construct a fashionable London bistro for your Barbie out of a cardboard box and PVA glue. It is a marvellous idea because it fits exactly that young mindset where you are constantly full of a million questions about everything and you haven’t yet decided quite what you don’t want to know yet. But – good grief. Ten years ago a report on demolishing buildings would have been four or five minutes long and contained lots of good explosion videos, an explanation of how they stop the buildings falling on other buildings, an interview with a demolisher and a final climax where the presenter gets to blow something up himself. Now, the item would have been a minute long, and would have run thusly:

(videos of explosions set to a well-known Muse track)

Presenter: Woah! When a building gets in the way, you’ve got to get rid of it somehow!! How exactly?!
Builder: Well, we use dynamite to – 
Presenter: AWESOME! (presses plunger and explodes building in the background)
Presenter: Amazing! This has been really ground-breaking!! Back to you in the studio Mindy! (cut back to frantic-looking blonde in technicolour set)


It was atrocious. Each of the items was so short and superficial that there was barely any time to even understand what the topic was. The Blue Peter make, which used to be so complex and beautiful, was this time simply a hideous ‘rabbit’ made by stretching two elastic bands around a flannel. Of course children are going to have fragmented concentration if that is what they are being fed! Give them a mediocre thirty-second-long video of a pen factory and they’ll be interested for 30 seconds; give them a great two-minute long item about pen factories and they won’t complain at all either.

This is what grieves me about my work. I spend forty-five minutes with children pelting various activities at them as if they were dogs being encouraged to chase different coloured balls across the room. That isn’t even far from the kind of activity we have to do with them. We have to make everything a short game and get the kids leaping and running and sitting down and standing up and singing and repeating…and yes, often they beg for the time when a particular game will come to an end but that is less to do with their own lack of attention than the fact that the game is simply poor. They love stories. They love games where they can draw things or games that have more than one rule. They love learning the body parts by playing doctor for a good five minutes rather than frenziedly poking each other’s shoulders and noses for one. If you keep giving them new topics and seguing between them with transitions as subtle as getting them all to hop on one leg they will simply have a wild and fragmented experience and a fragmented knowledge of the language they are supposed to be learning to boot. 

Ultimately I fear the root of my resentment is the fact that I am not allowed to sit down with my kids for a good hour and do cutting and sticking with them. But I am worried that if we don’t ever raise the standards of our teaching to hold their attentions, they will begin to lower their capacities to be interested to meet our offerings, and that would be a colossal shame. Kids are curious about everything, why would we want to render them all a bunch of yappy-dogs, just barking at things that wiggle and squeak?

Should you be learning English if you haven’t yet learnt to use a fork?

Yes! It’s a real Trabi! (Plus owner who was not happy about me taking this picture.)

Now I’m not prone to exaggeration (cue raucous peals of laughter from live audience) but Monday morning’s lesson has got to be one of the worst any of us babysitter teachers have to deal with. It is a group of four children: a baby of one-and-a-half years, who can barely speak at all and has a tenuous grip on reality as it is; a two year old Turkish boy who is stocky and strong like a baby buffalo and doesn’t really know any English, German or Turkish but does know how to say “Onur MAAAAAAD!” in German just like the Incredible Hulk; a three-year-old girl who is rather bright and willing to join in if it weren’t for…; the other three-year-old, the adorable blonde who made his fame on this blog months earlier as that cherub who takes his family jewels out of his tights and kneads them like a stressball. It is one of the most impossible groups of pupils to teach, not in the least because none of them have even the faintest glimmer of interest in learning English; the other ‘zone- in this kindergarten is a bomb-site of broken and scattered toy bits and crayons and sweeties which no child would under any circumstances want to leave behind in order to play farm animal memory game with a weary and shoeless ‘teacher’ (something about having to remove my shoes makes me feel like I have lost any authority I could have had before the kids even enter the room).




This class is a shining example of how quickly kids develop when they are so very young; the four of them together, if they ever stand in a line,  resemble the evolution diagram  because each of them occupies such a different plane of early development. The baby is so small that she can barely stand, and spent today’s lesson lying completely motionless on the floor in a manner so lifeless that I had to stop a couple of times and watch her until I was sure she was breathing. She was, and for some reason was also grinning all over her sticky face as if enjoying some kind of treat. Onur, the two-year-old, is just beginning to get a hold on the logic of real life, which is why it’s possible to see him over the lessons getting more and more aware of the ract that language has a communicative role; this unfortunately manifested itself in him working out what ‘Nein’ means and roaring it at me every time I ask him to do anything, from sitting down to being an Easter bunny. Fascinatingly this is coinciding with his developing understanding of games and the point thereof, as a few months ago he used to be a silent force of destruction slowly trudging around the room oblivious of the fact that we were playing things around him, whereas in the last couple of weeks he has been able to point at a card in the memory game and even realise which card is the right card to be pointing at. 


Out of the two three-year-olds, the youngest (the male) is determinedly resistant to everything and is firmly in the stage of still being fascinated by his own and other people’s bodies, meaning that when he isn’t also saying ‘nein’ or massaging his tender parts he is begging the other one to touch her belly to his or is pressing his face against her bum. The girl, the oldest, generously allows this behaviour but is herself now far too mature for this and absolutely loves the games; unfortunate, then, that none of them are possible when the other three participants are rolling on the floor, tearing the room apart or inspecting their perineum. I allow her to play ‘Doktorarzt’ every lesson as it is her favourite game and allows me to subversively sneak in some body-part learning, but she is currently in that point of childhood where you are fascinated by the idea of having babies and so it doesn’t particularly move her that my head or nose or fingers require an injection but I do now have an impressive clutch of invisible babies to tend to.


Yet as they age by mere months each of these kids is changing so rapidly I can hardly believe it. The baby began as little more than a drooling flesh-bag, whereas now she is picking up English words and knows when they correspond to certain pictures and when I am asking her to repeat them back to me. Onur never used to understand that words meant things so it used to be a case of me shouting single words at him and him shouting them back at me in a kind of detached way as he was busy throwing things and pressing his face into the wall at the time; now he is grasping their relation to the world he lives in and occasionally will deign to sit down for a full two minutes or so. And the two older ones have learnt new and creative ways to misbehave, such as stealing and hiding my mp3 player headphones somewhere in the toy crate. 


It is one of my most chaotic and least productive classes but it is quite intriguing to watch these little beasts become more and more complex as they age. Like kittens you don’t notice them looking any different from day to day but you do remember the day they stopped puking on that sofa cushion, and I suppose they even look different too. It must be strange to be a Kindergarten minder and watch thousands of toddlers enter your doors too tiny to eat by themselves and leave big enough to tell you they think what they’re eating is yucky. For someone who only spends three quarters of an hour per week with them it’s a little like watching every third episode of a TV series. Still, sometimes you are lucky and catch a really good episode; last week was my favourite so far, when the girl was being a little demon and then accidentally kicked the bottom of a vast clothes rack propped up against the wall. It fell directly upon her with a colossal WHAM. She was flattened to such a degree that you couldn’t even see her under the enormous thing, and when I lifted it up, trying to surpress all my fear and amusement, she was spread out like a photocopy of herself. It took her about four seconds to recover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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