Berlin: Half the time, when we talk about chain stores, we literally mean stores where you buy different kinds of chain

Yeah, the windows are lined with the colours of the German flag. And what?

One thing I simply had to visit one more time before I move back is the fabric shop Hüco Stoffe, near the station Jungfernheide in the west of the city. I had three reasons for this: one, I am a sewing-crafting-making-everthing nerd and a trip to a fabric shop is like visiting a fantastic gallery to me; two, Hüco Stoffe is one of the most breathtaking shops, fabric or otherwise, that I’ve ever set foot it; and three, in the UK when you want to buy fabric or any craft supplies you are limited to one or two minute little dusty bunkers run by ancient ladies who charge sixteen pounds for a small ‘kerchiefs-worth of cloth. When I shop for craft supplies in the UK, my selection is always disappointing, small, and temporary, as every new shop that springs up inevitably closes down after about three months, the staff still reeling from the shock that you can’t make a living selling rickrack for the price of a black-market vital organ. 

Shopping in Britain has become one of the most soul-bleedingly dire activities we have to subject ourselves to. The cause of this is the fact that every town worth its salt has raised its shop rents so high that poor old schmoes who have little more than an idea and a pocketful of dreams can’t afford to keep anything going for more than a couple of weeks before the rent catches up to the meagre profit and long before they have had time to collect an interested and loyal customer base to keep them going. The result of this is endless stretches of identical streets, in every town, in every county you might go to. Every city looks the same, with exactly the same shops containing identical products, and one finds onesself asking why there is any point at all in trying to look for new and original things to buy when everything is getting so homogeneous we might as well all just start wearing grey smocks and calling each other ‘comrade’. 

Meanwhile, come away from the awful shopping nuclei of Berlin (Alexanderplatz, Wilmersdorfer Straβe, good god don’t even touch KuDamm) and within seconds you are stumbling over countless beautiful and individual shops run by fascinating individuals and selling an incredible array of things.

Just in my Kiez there’s a fashion shop that also features a vintage food counter where they sell a remarkable selection of hand-sewn cuddly meat products: squishy legs of lam, fluffy salamis, felted bacon… There’s a shop selling vintage eyeglasses, a pirate-themed ice-cream parlour, a luxury vegetarian delicatessen, there’s proper toy shops and Jamaican mini-markets and graffiti supplies stores. The idea that we’re all used to of the Starbucks on every corner is thought to be remarkable here; while in Reading we have 5 Starbucks among 13 other well-known coffeehouse chains, the independent café reigns supreme here, each offering their own hook such as the incredibleness of their cakes or the superiority of their breakfasts or the rad posters on their walls. Going to Starbucks is a treat here, something you only ever do if you’re feeling rich and want a drink that is also a pudding and a cardinal sin. Enter the Frappuccino.

So, Hüco really does it for me. It’s an incredible place. After a longish walk from the station one approaches the most unwelcoming and unlikely looking grey concrete chunk of a building and after spending half an hour looking elsewhere certain it can’t be here one eventually enters. After two flights of grey dark staircases and vaguely cryptic signs pointing the way you arrive at a door which is unlabelled but is presumably the portal to a cloth shop given the mannequin draped in sequinned polyester in front of it. But the door is locked. One nanosecond before giving up you spot a tiny scrawled message on the doorbell that announces that customers must ring the bell to be let in but should only ring ONCE and NOT A SINGLE RING MORE. One rings, and is finally admitted into cloth narnia. It’s a labyrinth of fabric, of every colour and fibre known to man, some of which are beautiful and some remarkable purely because of their ridiculous patterns; anyone fancy trousers made with a kittens-and-sweetcorn print? When you’ve picked your cloth you take it to the brusque but friendly lady at the counter who cuts it for you and writes your receipt by hand on old-fashioned receipt paper before then working out the VAT on a respectable CASIO brick and sending you off to the woman in the paying booth, who takes your money and offers you a biscuit. You can then return to woman number one, who hands you your now folded and bagged fabric, and you drift out of the store and back to the future. 

Anything goes here in Berlin, and the joy of it is that those people who do give it a try seem to plummet into failure almost never compared to in Grey(t) Britain. You can be who you like and sell what you like and despite the chains being there, despite the masses and majorities and trends, you can make your own way and make a life out of it. It’s part of the endlessly accepting and embracing nature of the city, and it never ceases to be remarkable to me. It’s also the reason why Berlin is the best and most fun place to be a minority.

Yesterday I was spontaneously invited along to an unexplained barbeque in a park on my side of the city. You only have to cough here to give people the idea to hold a barbeque, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by the invite or expecting anything out-of-the-ordinary, but when I arrived what I found was not five or six relaxed Germans turning sausages on a grill but a huge gabbling mass of men, meat and picnic blankets. Ah, thought I. A gay BBQ. Of course. The gay ex-pat community of Berlin come together once a year for a collossal barbeque in the park and being there made me seriously consider batting for the other team myself; the spread of food was endless and unbelievably good, and the relaxed, generous atmosphere was a real joy. Berlin is the gay capital of Europe, clearly for the reason that here you needn’t fear a single lick of prejudice or spite for who you are, and it shows in the sheer comfortableness of the people in this group. Whether they had been here for two months or two years, everyone I met was singing the praises of the city and saying they never wanted to leave without the knowledge that they’d be coming back. 

Naturally everyone wants to be here. I want to stay here. Whether you’re into cloth or crafts or coffee or a specific gender, there’s a place for you in Berlin. 

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

This is the substance that replaced my blood long ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I guess all the weekend warriors died in combat some time ago

“Fish: a sea of healthiness.” You’re damn right they are, Mr. Abandoned Fish Trailer Dude.

I hate Sundays in Berlin. With every Sunday I experience in this city my hatred grows and ferments, beginning to resemble the kind of simmering whiny hatred only experienced by South-English children in the 1940s who had to spend Sundays being dragged to church and then kissed by hairy-lipped aunties and grandmas. 

Berlin is practically the capital of Europe. It’s effortlessly cool and during the week a complete bulldozer of a city; you pulse around the place all day, day after day, driven constantly onwards in waves like blood cells racing through arteries. Everyone has an intense look on their face, whether it’s intense happiness, concentration, boredom, or simply the ferocious intensity with which the myriad people on the trains chew their midday bakery products, the muscles of their jaws straining like the sinewy flesh of a greyhound. Everyone is doing something all the time and something is always going on. There’s always something to buy and somewhere to be and something to look at or look away from. You can’t be waiting at a bus stop without there being at least one person of above-average interest there to gawp at (for example, the astonishingly severely buck-toothed guitar player and his band who were waiting for the Ersatzbus and trying through their unbelievable teeth to repeatedly shout the word ‘Schweinerei’).

Then Sunday comes.

Suddenly the sabbath descends upon Berlin like a mass recreation of the film ‘I am Legend’. No-one is around, save the few dribbles of people on the streets who are almost always dreadlocked homeless people or wholesome young families with toddlers wearing fleece hats. The shops ALL close and might as well board up their windows with old planks of wood and huge theatrical-looking nails since they take on the appearance of a place that has been abandoned forever. The few attractions still open, such as a smattering of cinemas, advertise the fact that they are open on Sundays as if they are offering a sip from the cup of eternal life rather than a crappy chick flick. The fact that cafes and pubs are still open is the one thing that prevents me from spending every Sunday in my room rocking back and forth in a corner.

 This Sunday was no exception, and so after a few pleasant hours browsing through the Lufthansa website not at all getting furious about their lack of decent flight times or prices, I eventually braced myself and decided that a serious and long walk was in order to at least prevent myself from disintegrating into a gelatinous substance. 

















The only few people that were around were a gang of cheery anarchists (pictured) who were putting up bunting between their aggressively graffitied buildings. As only people with my kind of short, hefty legs can, I trekked determinedly onwards towards Volkspark Friedrichshain yearning for some greenery and maybe a sparrow or two to satisfy my deeply ingrained countryside upbringing. 

And now I know where Berlin goes on a Sunday. Everyone was there, blissfully wandering around the park holding hands as if they’d all decided that was going to be the done thing on the seventh day of the week. Volkspark Friedrichshain is a stunningly beautiful park; it has a garden of sculptures, a selection of sweet little ponds and a round hill encompassed by a spiral path which takes you up to a central lookout where you can see the sun set (and be frantically waved at by a little German boy who looks dumbfounded when you finally wave back). It also has a themed oriental garden, and as I walked through this I gawped at all the people I thought were simply hibernating and the lights of the lovely little park restaurant glowing in the dusk and the fake pagoda fading into shadow…and at that moment, no word of a lie, a man on a bench began to play ‘La Vie en Rose’ on an accordion and I thought: Oh come on, this has got to be some kind of an ironic joke. But it wasn’t. On Sundays, evidently Berlin stops and time for oneself begins; people go out with their friends but more likely their families and just wander and drink Holunderpunsch and breathe the air. 

I spent the next hour and a half lesson planning in the Cafe Tasso on Frankfurter Allee with wonderful coffee and three (I think the waitress took pity on me) complimentary delicious little circles of hazelnut shortbread and a fantastically bitter book by Jonathan Franzen. I can’t recommend this cafe enough; they have a huge second-hand bookshop running through and under the place with every book for a euro, they feature live music four nights a week, there are blankets all over the place for maximum levels of comfy and the cakes look ta-die-for. Thank you Berlin. You are teaching me to be lazy.

This blog post was brought to you by…a decent cup of tea

The kind of marvellous tourist attraction I offer my guests

Two posts in two days! Good lord, what is going on here? Well, I suppose I’d better get on with it then.

This weekend I had my first visitor from the UK, my mother, come to see my new little kingdom in my new Heimat. Being a right little mummy’s girl (possibly to a forehead-slappingly embarrassing extent) I was boiling with anticipation of her arrival, and having spent the whole weekend with her doing little more than lingering over the kind of hearty brunch that makes your cheeks pink and yomping around the streets of Berlin in the freezing cold, I am now ready to tackle the last few weeks of fighting small infants with renewed vigour and lebkuchen-fuelled dynamism. Because Germany is different to the UK in that they trust childcare professionals to not be paedophiles or prone to sudden grotesque acts of violence, I was even able to let her observe one of my lessons with absolutely no fuss or red tape whatsoever; the class responded to her presence by being as adorable as the little sweeties could manage, save one little one who just decided to inventory all the crockery in the playroom, of which there was quite a huge stash. We discovered great and not-so-great restaurants, we chewed our way through Harry Potter 7a, we gazed at hand-made ladles at the Christmas markets and drank ludicrous quantities of tea. Tea. Teeeeeaaaaaaa.

She brought me tea. Proper tea. The kind of tea that smooths down all the prickles in your brain and makes you ready to be awake in the morning and ready to sleep at night. Whittards’ Spice Imperial. Twinings’ Lapsang Souchong. Yes yes oh yes. 

See, the thing about tea in Germany is this: they love it and drink it by the gallon, but in a way that is rather incompatible with my ultra-English ‘ooh I’m gasping for a cuppa’ kind of way. German teas are mostly fruit teas, green teas and herbal teas; they have odd and suggestive names like ‘Hot love’, ‘Little sin’ and simply ‘Man tea’ (none of these are made up, nor are any of them novelty or joke names. I promise.). The herbal teas are presumed to have magical powers which will cure your sore throat, help you through the menopause and, if they are organic, rid your body of all the poisons you’ve been building up. Other teas such as redbush come in every flavour except ‘normal’ – you can buy redbush tea in vanilla, orange, cream and cream-caramel flavour, and I am trying to avoid finding out how you make a dried bag of bits of leaves taste like a sweet creamy dairy treat. Then you finally come to the black teas, where all of a sudden variety and inventiveness completely surrender and you are left with three choices: Assam/Ceylon blend, Darjeeling and Earl Grey. The Earl Grey is always the least bad of the three, although German Earl Grey tends to taste like a cat’s scrotum compared to the stuff you can get hold of in good old Blighty, and leaves attractive thick scales of brown on the surface of the water. PG Tips is also available from English ex-pat shops and asian supermarkets. Naturally. German varieties of the black teas are always produced by companies with names that make them sound like the characters of British nobility from Pirates of the Caribbean, names like ‘Duke Twentington’ and ‘Captain Farnaby’. Finally, every tea you ever buy is sold in individually wrapped bags, so that you can gradually fill your apartment with tiny paper rectangles as you individually unwrap each arbitrarily enveloped teabag to RELEASE the ORGASM of FLAVOUR that would clearly have otherwise evaporated into the atmosphere. 


Now, if any of my outrageously lovely German friends happen to read this post, allow me to qualify it by saying that none of this is bad but merely…well, different. Not to mention that the English attitude to tea is even worse, as we in general tend to adhere to the philosophy that if it’s brown, hot and coats your teeth it must be a delicious and strengthening beverage. PG Tips and Tetleys should in fact only be used to stain wood or tan leather. Also, the coffee in this country is wonderfully good and the fact that it is usually served with a tiny biscuit feels like a little present in itself. And now that I have great tea to complement the great coffee here, my cup runneth over.


I do apologise for that last part.