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.

Whistle while you gherk

Possibly my proudest achievement of my life so far

Ok, so perhaps my ‘heimatsickness’ for Germany is going a little too far these days, but when I was shopping in my local LIDL a few months ago I spied a little packet of gherkin seeds for a meagre 50p and just couldn’t resist it. Suddenly I had an opportunity to   combine two of my greatest loves: growing veg, and Gewürzgürken (pickled gherkins). The cute little things grew lovely, lime-green shoots by my kitchen windows, then perked up in the polytunnel to ridiculous spiny triffids which were soon completely festooned with tiny, black-sprigged gherkins that looked like fat little hairy caterpillars. Unlike every other plant in the garden, which in this squelchy damp weather have been savaged by marauding armies of slugs as BIG AS YOUR THIGH (RIP cavolo nero, purple sprouts, pak choi, mint, chinese radishes, fennel, pattipan squash, cucumbers, runner beans…) the gherkins seem to be repulsive to those undulating bastards, presumably because their leaves feel horrendous: they are covered in a stubbly five o’ clock shadow of minuscule spines and feel very raspy indeed. We fed them and watered them and loved them like our children. 

Then, one day, I opened the polytunnel to discover pendulous, bloated sea-cucumber-like things hanging from every branch and realised that if I didn’t do something with these babies soon they would probably grow and thicken even more and snap their branches, rolling down the hill and crushing myself and the house like the Indiana Jones boulder. It was time for another one of my favourite experiments/hobbies: pickling.

I’ve been jamming (bop shoo wah wah wah) since I was quite young, as we used to have a colossal blackcurrant tree which would yield great bushels of rich indigo berries which made enough jam to coat entire acres of toast. But as I get older and my hair goes – well, not grey, but certainly more yeti-like – I have developed a crazy, insatiable obsession with pickled and sour things like gherkins, onions, picallili, sauerkraut, all kinds of erroneous veg as long as they are soaked in delicious vinegary juices. Now my family simply have to sigh and put up with it when instead of filling the house with sweet fruity aromas the entire place suddenly clouds with mists of choking boiling acid. It is very, very worth it.

There are three methods for pickling: hot, cold and fermented. Fermented pickles, like sauerkraut or kosher dill pickles or kimchee (did someone say kimchee?! Quick, get me my neon wayfarers and retro pullover!) need  to be left in a warm place in a brine, so that all the ‘good’ microbes can process the food and create the vinegar solution as part of their growth process. The reason why I avoid this method like the plague is that it is exactly as gross as it sounds. Huge frothing jars of warm, gently rotting produce, people. They can get carried away and explode or overflow into your clean, linen-smelling airing cupboard, or you might have an exciting batch that develops toxins! Frankly, leaving questionable and marshy-looking tubs of fermenting organic material around the house is my grandmother’s job and she does it very well without even trying, so I leave it to her.

Cold pickles on the other hand are how things like pickled onions are made and I don’t tend to use this technique either, because you simply drown the stuff in your vinegar mix and then wait for MILENNIA while the flavours infuse and mellow. Now, no offense, but no small sour onion is worth three months of waiting; I could easily die before I ever get to try the darn things. So hot pickles is the one for me: you just have to pour your hot infusion over the produce, which partially blanches it, and then they’re ready in two weeks. Yes, it involves boiling a vat of hot salted vinegar which sizzles into your eyes, nose, ears and any other vulnerable mucous membrane, but it is quick and most importantly creates delicious and crunchy pickled goodies. Mmmmm…

 

What could be more satisfying than growing, picking, processing and finally eating something from the very beginning of the flowchart? I urge you all to try jamming or pickling, making your own chutneys or ketchups – it is so easy and there is nothing better than garnishing your dinners with condiments that you know have never even seen a factory. It’s like living in the stone age, man!! It is sustainable living on a tiny scale, but you have to start small to get bigger, and these gherkins are like a sour, pungent symbol of the dawning of a new age – of that I am certain. They came out deliciously; sweet, tangy, spicy and ultra-crisp. Hoorah! Have a go at my recipes and get your own specimens going!

To prepare your jars for pickling, you need to sterilise them by putting them in an oven and heating it to about 140C – but don’t put them straight into a hot oven as the quick temperature change will make them shatter.

Basic delicious balsamic pickle (good for sliced red onions, shallots, peppers, or any crunchy veg) – makes 2-3 large jars, so you need enough veg to fill them
500ml white wine vinegar
100ml balsamic vinegar
1/2 tbsp salt
70g white sugar
1 tsp black peppercorns
350ml decent-tasting water

1. Bring the ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2. Let bubble gently for 5 mins – meanwhile, chop your veg into chunks about 1cm thick.
3. Take a hot jar out of the oven and wrap in a towel or teacozy to prevent it getting cold. Quickly pack in the veg, then pour over the hot juice until everything is covered. 
4. Repeat this with more jars until you’ve used up all your produce. Let any air bubbles come to the surface, then screw the lids on before the jars get cold.

Dill pickled gherkins/cucumber (makes 3 large jars)
6 medium gherkins or 1 1/2 regular cucumbers, quartered lengthways and sliced into 2-inch-long sticks
1 large white onion, thinly sliced 
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tsp mixed pickling spices or spice of your choice
2 tbsp salt 
750ml cider vinegar
500ml decent-tasting water
big bunch of fresh dill
200g granulated sugar
1 tsp fennel seeds

1. Sprinkle some salt on the gherkin sticks and leave in a colander to drain a bit.
2. Bring all the ingredients except the gherkins, onion, garlic and dill to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. 
3. Let bubble for 5 mins.
4. Arrange the gherkins, a few slices of onion, about 1/3 of the dill and a clove of garlic in a hot jar, and pour over the hot juice. Repeat with all the jars.
5. Same as above; leave to settle, and then lid up. 

I hope to smell your vinegary gases on the horizon, loyal reader. Enjoy your pickles in exactly a fortnight from now!

Rhinestones on the soles of her shoes

Before
After

Hoo-wee! After hours and hours scratching away at my Wacom tablet, the illustrations are now finished and ready to teach whole cohorts of babies in Berlin. I can leave the desk and the hours of having Cookery School on in the background to keep me sane (it’s a new discovery, a brilliant cooking programme containing all my favourite things: absolutely droolworthy recipes, idiot people getting their cooking wrong, the girl-we-all-love-to-hate Gizzi Erskine and a professional chef who sounds exactly like Dylan Moran, meaning that when I’m not looking at the video I can pretend I’m listening to Bernard from Black Books yelling about coulis). Now that this is all over, I can begin the part of my holiday I have been dearly looking forward to: proper crafting. These grimy, stained grey shoes are terrible and I was going to have to throw them away because it would have been antisocial to wear them in public any more. But good god, are they comfy. And they match everything and make my feet look not enormous, which they in fact are. So I decided to ‘upcycle’ them and give them a new lease of life, using nice densely pigmented acrylics mixed with a fabric medium to make a varied grey leaf pattern on the canvas upper and painting over the now-brown once-white binding trimming the top. Scrubbed the soles with a bit of Jif to whiten them up a little and call me crazy, but I suspect they might just be wearable now. What could be better and more fun than rescuing an old possession and at the same time getting something new and different out of it? 

Upcycling is recycling something to make it better or more useful than it was when you started out. It can be as fancy as reupholstering a vintage piece of furniture you found in a charming junkyard tucked away beside the A329, or it can be something simple like stitching along an old sock just before the kink, cutting off the foot section just under the sewn line and using the little pocket you’ve made as a natty iPod cover. It is brilliant. So much stuff you might throw away suddenly starts to take on a new appearance, as you start to look at it with a view to how you could use it again or what you could make it into. There is even a fantastic organisation in our very own Bracknell that collects people’s old junk they don’t want and repairs it or passes it on so it can all be re-released into the world as something far better than just junk (and I’m going there this week to see what bits of treasure I can scavenge myself, har har)!

  
One of the most fun and rewarding types of upcycling I love is bag fusing. The other day I finally waxed lyrical about my Amazon Kindle enough that my mother bought one on a mad impulse. Covers for the Kindle, however, are so expensive you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are delicately sewn together out of Bengal tiger skin. We decided we’d make her a cover for it, and fused plastic is the perfect material for it; it’s water resistant, strong and most importantly it is very, very groovy. 

All you need is a mountain of old carrier bags. I almost regretted asking my mum for this as she then scurried into the garage and returned with enormous clods of plastic bags in every colour imaginable billowing around her like a rainbow foam; it took three trips to and from the garage to finally assemble the colossal mound of plastic bags that my family have collected over the years (and that didn’t even include the entire van-full of orange Sainbury’s bags that we excavated from behind the fridge in my brother’s student flat in Manchester). Shame and embarrassment aside, this is a good thing as it gives an enormous variety of design options for when you are fusing your plastic sheet, as you can mix and layer up colours and motifs to get something glorious and mad-looking. There are only a few rules to stick to:
1. 6 layers of plastic is the rough minimum needed to get a decent, thick sheet you can sew and fashion into things like bags or anoraks (yes, it can be done).
2. All printing must be inside the layers, otherwise it melts in the heat and you end up with smeary plastic ink glooping all over your iron, hands, ironing board, cat…if you want to keep printed designs as part of the pattern, just make sure the top layer of plastic is a clear bag.
3. Iron the layers together with a two-dot-hot (low to medium heat) iron with a greaseproof paper layer on top and underneath the plastic OR ELSE! Forget the greaseproof paper and all is lost. Well, not all, but your iron. And you will have an armful of melting plastic and hot appliance to deal with. All it takes is a few seconds (8-10, keeping the iron slowly moving) of pressure on the iron on the plastic to melt it together.
After all this, you create a sheet of fantastic pliable soft plastic which can be sewn on the sewing machine, glued, riveted, stapled, deep-fried…

This might all sound a bit Blue Peter, but give me a minute to convince you to give it a try. As I’ve written before, there is nothing more satisfying than making something usable yourself, but upcycling is even better because you can also bask in the warm glow of having saved the whole environment single-handedly by repurposing something that would otherwise have gone into landfill. Beyond that, though, is the simple fact that it is excellent fun – even if you suspect you might not be the kind of person who would enjoy this sort of thing. My mother is an occupational health physician with practically the entire alphabet’s worth of letters after her name and an hour of bag fusing turned her into a giggling, hand-clapping kid. We drank Gewürztraminer and listened to the Tron soundtrack and rearranged the letters cut from bags to make funny words; there was nothing worthy or twee or eco-activist about it, just excellent fun. And that rare kind of fun you can have without a screen in front of you, something to savour on those days where I realise that I have spent vast stretches of time just moving from one LCD display panel to another. It doesn’t cost you anything. Kids love to do it. It is limitless. And if you have something you don’t know what to do with, post it in a comment and I promise I’ll come up with something rad that can be made with it. Go on, I dare ya.

Craft? I nearly died…

Striped pajama squid earrings and a blue-ringed octopus pendant. Made for a marine biologist, natch.

Crafting is my favourite thing. I’ll try anything, from Fimo to glassmaking, basket weaving to soap-making – I love it all, except scrapbooking which is a waste of money and time and shouldn’t be allowed. The wonderful thing is that although the craft scene here is relatively limited (our best craft supplier is Hobbycraft, a place utterly devoid of creative energy or even a single wisp of human cheer) the Americans are ON IT and write thousands of blogs, tutorials and articles every single day on making your own stuff. Hell, they even started Etsy, which if you manage to sift through all the stuff that’s being resold from wholesale under the guise of handmade produce still provides people like me to actually send a bit of what they make out into the wider world. Things like a moose antlers hat for a newborn baby should – nay, must – be made publicly available, let’s face it. And with Craftzine, and Craftgossip, and Craftgawker, and the dozens of craft resources available online, it looks like this fad is a fad no more; we’re taking over the world and covering it it crochet as we go.

But even though I used to avidly devour these blogs every day, soaking up the ideas like a thirsty Spongebob, these days they tend to fill me with nothing but ennui and a horrible foreboding sense that we’ve already ruined it for ourselves. People making stuff has the potential to be world-changing, the idea that if you need anything, want anything or want to improve anything you already have you can make it happen yourself with glue and some accoutrements of some description. Just think what it could mean for the hideous consumption-disposal society we’re in at the moment; think how it could change the way things are valued, and the way we treat the things we already own. People making stuff has the potential to shape style to be the way we want it for once, as opposed to us being told by a committee of thin and unsympathetic designer-types that this Summer is marine and pastels AND NOTHING ELSE IS ALLOWED. If everyone could sew, perhaps people might even – finally, after all these eras of struggle – get hold of a pair of trousers that actually fits! 

This is the potential of the Craft Movement. And yet, somehow, it has taken a much more annoying turn.

You see, the worst thing about being a crafter (a term, by the way, which I resent; I would much prefer to be called something a little less evocative of Pritt sticks) is that it verges, always and dangerously, on becoming pointless whimsy. People think crafts and they think of women knitting while the heady scent of oestrogen fills the chintz-filled room. And while a good deal of us hate this and want to distance ourselves as much as possible from the idea, the online craft world seems to insist nowadays on encouraging us, rather than making useful and genuinely exciting and creative things, to simply fill our lives and our homes with cluttery, girlish, unnecessary tat.

For starters, crafting nowadays seems even to comprise anything that you have not immediately taken out of a packet, which means that a good deal of the ‘tutorials’ are so obvious as to be vaguely laughable. Look at this:

 It’s a cutout of a moustache on a stick. The tutorial has four steps and multiple instructive pictures. I would need fewer instructions to grow a real moustache from scratch. Come on. Not to mention that the whole thing ends with the valuable advice to put them all in a mason jar. 

Now, don’t get me started on mason jars. Except I believe I shall indulge. For those of you not acquainted with the lingo, a mason jar is one of those jam jars that looks vaguely old-fashioned and has a loose metal disc in the top of the lid rather than a fully closed lid to get a better vacuum seal on your jam (because the air shrinks as the jam cools and ah you don’t care). For some reason they have suddenly become the life and soul of crafting and now it also counts as art if you do anything – really, anything – with a mason jar. People spraypaint them for ‘a beautiful and cheap vase’, make them into wedding decorations, bake cakes in them, make candle-holders out of them, tie a ribbon around them as if that required even a bare iota of effort, and the thing that really grinds about the whole thing isn’t just the obvious fact that they are just glass jars, not the treasure of the Sierra Madre, but mainly that thousands of people are going out, buying and glooping up millions of brand new glass jars when perfectly serviceable old jam jars are probably lying in their bin – but they aren’t mason jars, so they aren’t cool.

Next, this: utterly unnecessary items, for which there is a very good reason they are not available in shops. There are, for example, very few items in the world which need a cozy. Teapots, mugs, hands and feet. Not lens caps

Thank god, now my apple won’t get…warm? Cold?

And candle cozies are the worst of all – candles produce their own heat so why they should require any kind of cozy or mini sleeping bag of any kind is utterly incomprehensible. And there is just so much of it all: not just cozies but wreaths, terrariums, centrepieces, placeholders, napkin rings, cake stands, and a million other twee pieces of clutter are what we supposedly dying to make and what we supposedly all desperately need in our lives. There are two problems with this: not only is this production dreadfully wasteful – all those beautiful brand new resources going to make things that really only can be thrown away in the end because you can’t recycle a mason jar once it’s covered in rhinestones – but also, it is hurting the reputation of crafters. Kindles, cameras, iPods have cases, not cozies, and it is this babyish terminology that make us all seem like flustery little women blithely passing time. 

The waste is a real issue, too. I don’t think it is fair to claim you are ‘upcycling’ a huge pack of plastic cups into a lampshade if those cups could also have been used for the reason they were siphoned out of the earth as oil, refined, distilled, mixed, moulded, packaged and sold. As cups. For drinking. And you have to be careful about what you’re upcycling too, because if you’re about to take a mallet to your old laptop thinking that the circuitboards will make a groovy necklace there’s a considerable chance someone else could actually fix up the laptop and use it for another five years, thus making use of a lot of very useful metals and other things which I imagine live inside a laptop (well, internet juice of course, and flanges). I don’t think we should sacrifice fun for the sake of a few scraps of wool, of course – but I do think that recycling is at its best when you are making something great out of something otherwise unusable, like a phone case made out of an old lotion tube. Isn’t it awesome?!
 

The message should be bolder, more confident, more anarchistic! We should be showing people that not only can you make a moustache on a stick, but that with a few more minutes of effort you can actually make your own clothes, pottery and cosmetics! We need more of Instructables in the mix and less of Women’s Own! We need to repossess crafting, and this time do it properly and move beyond the miniature versions of cupcakes or knitted keyboard covers. Blokes need to feel that they can make their own stuff without getting stigmatised by the gushing flood of X-chromosomes these images are sending forth. The other stuff is all great fun and excellently creative (do you think I didn’t notice that the apple cozy is a monkey? Outstanding.) but I reckon that we can’t be taken seriously until we get outselves out of the ‘nifty gifty’ zone and into the ‘Noble Handworkers of the Modern Age’ zone. Once people assume we’re all making our own paper, socks or mugs, then we can get to work on making cozies for them.

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. 

The cool kids are raving, but I’d rather be engraving…

“Hey mum, did you bring anything cool back when you finished your year in Berlin, like a piece of the wall or something?” “No dear, but I do have this rather eclectic selection of lampwork beads.”

Forgive the poor lighting in this picture, but I just had to show you the fruit of my weekend’s labours. For those of you who don’t know me too well, I’m a bit obsessed with crafting, and in particular I have a lot to do with making jewellery in various media. But making my own beads directly out of glass is something I have always wanted to try and never been able to have a go at, so when I found a course at a Volkshochschule (adult evening school) in making glass beads like the Vikings, I couldn’t whip the 20 euros out of my pocket fast enough. For 7 hours a day, Saturday and Sunday, I and a collection of overweight middle-aged women sat patiently at flames, melting rods of glass over lengths of wire with our fantastically intelligent Phd-qualified teacher, who had her doctorate in archaeology and had since then become fascinated by the glass-bead-making techniques of early civilisations like the Vikings, Celts and men of the Middle Ages. It is one of the best weekends I have had so far here in the city; the techniques involved are mesmerising, and winding glowing translucent globules of glass around each other and pulling them into long spiralling threads is tirelessly beautiful to watch and do. The only way I could have been happier is if I could have ignored the nagging sinking feeling that in some way I am wasting my youth. Thus is the curse of Blue Peter.The point is, though, that the Volkshochschule in Germany and in Berlin especially is utterly wonderful and I urge all world leaders who are reading this (Condoleeza, you know you ma dawg) to come over, have a gander and then try their best to replicate it. Germany makes a big deal of learning for the whole duration of your life. No matter what you are interested in or what you choose to learn, it is simply important that people are given the chance to try out and educate themselves about new things without having to sell a kidney for it or jump through thousands of academic hoops; when I first started learning silversmithing in the UK, I had to write a compulsory portfolio about all my work, all the techniques I learnt and developed and all the health and safety fandangos that I was forced to pretend to adhere to. No-one on earth wants to do that for nothing, of course, and so what resulted was a lacklustre selection of doodles of my projects accompanied by write-ups using a formula I adapted from GCSE chemistry experiment write-ups and, my favourite part, a section in the back about techniques where I had simply sellotaped (or I think a few bits were simply stuck on by coffee stains) chunks of textured and worked metal directly onto the tissue-thin printer paper I was using for this monument to laziness. I received a merit.


In Germany, if it’s a thing, there is a no-strings course you can do in it. There are courses which are simply accompanied walks around certain districts which stop by certain interesting things; courses where you can make sushi; courses where you go to the theatre, although I’m not sure how that differs to, oh, say, just going to the darn theatre; courses where you can make animals out of felt, hats out of leather, trousers from your own patterns…the selection is exemplary and it feels wonderful to be in a land where every curious whim can be indulged and then broadened into a full-on obsession for a matter of a few euros or so. Some of the women on this course (sadly certain courses do have a certain gender bias) had been to four or more of exactly the same course just because they like the teacher and the particular format. One woman, who kindly spent all the time she wasn’t making her perfect beads glaring over her flame at me and snapping that I was DOING IT WRONG, had even bought herself all the equipment and extra materials to use in the course. Admittedly, it escapes me why she continued to attend the weekends rather than simply using all the workshop equipment she had bought to actually do the hobby she did in the comfort of her own home, but then again I suspect she may have been lonely; she was binge-eating Russisches Brot, an odd kind of thin gingerbread biscuit which inexplicably always comes in the shape of letters, for the entire length of each class – if that’s not a warning sign I don’t know what is.


Anyway, I absolutely lapped it up and would like to give a virtual standing ovation to Germany and Berlin for understanding that it’s great to have something to learn and practice no matter what else you do with your life. I would also like to reassure people that the standard roles within the classroom are in no way made obsolete once people reach adulthood. Our teacher’s pet was, naturally, Miss Russisches Brot. The troublemaker was the woman sitting next to me (who also had a continuous stream of treats, peanut M&Ms, flowing into her mouth as if on a conveyor belt) who, once she realised she did not have the knack for glasswork, declared loudly that the problem was that Viking beads were simply ugly and that’s that. The quiet unassuming one sat adoringly next to Shrewface (teacher’s pet) and spent the whole time making fistfuls of identical monochromatic purple beads and whispering how much she loved purple. I wonder who I was. Probably the class slut.


Am starting a course in silversmithing tomorrow. Stay tuned.

 



Now comes with visual interest! Available in stores.

Grandma, what cool things did you do when you lived in Berlin? Cardcraft.

This is a picture of a mask I made for my first ever German ‘Motto’ party – being a fancy-dress party based on some kind of motto (stop me if I get too technical) – where the motto was ‘Traum’ (dream). Now, although I am an eager dresser-upper to say the least, I am always reluctant these days to spend much time or money on good costumes anymore after being sick and tired of being the zombie bride in the ‘Mean Girls’ situation; that is to say, showing up to a party dressed immaculately and enthusiastically as the llama from ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ only to find that everyone else has either chosen a subtle, charming and attractive costume or most commonly, barely even deigned to acknowledge that it is a fancy dress party at all. But out of the two commodities I have, time and money, time is a lot easier to waste, and thus I set about making a donkey mask so that I could go as Bottom from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Tying a teatowel around my neck to look sufficiently Shakespearian and fastening a woollen tassle to my arse to be my ‘tail’, I forged off into the complete inertia of the Berlin transport system during snowy season. There is no real moral to this story; the party was a lot of fun and gratifyingly some people had also dressed up too (as a waiter or in a skiing onesie, for example); the only reason I tell the story is to show material proof of the fact that I am wasting my year abroad, not even in style.

This blog post was also originally written and used as a rather irate little burst of catharsis, which I then deemed inappropriate to publish and boring to read. Hence the lack of golden thread in this post. So stay tuned and buckle up for a selection of unconnected musings!

 Firstly, work: I have been taken on as research assistant for one of my tutors, meaning that yesterday I had the honour of yomping up to Reinickendorff to the Berlin Landesarchiv to spool through a million metres of microfilm to find some mystery photos in order to enlighten the world about Brecht. Sitting in a room that is entirely beige (including the furniture, machines, and people within) flicking through negatives of a communist journal sounds about as stimulating as chewing greaseproof paper, but god help me if I didn’t love every single pseudo-almost-squint-and-you-can-pretend-it’s-detective-work-or-CSI minute of it. I felt important, investigative, and triumphant twofold because not only did I solve the mystery but also managed to understand the instructions of the guy who taught me how to use the microfilm reading machine, who had a pronounced stutter (honestly, it was so bad he could have been Ben Stiller in a bad Ben Stiller film). The feeling of success quickly dwindled after I then turned the spooling knob too far trying to wind up the film and sent it unfurling all over the place, and then had the receptionists watch me with narrowed eyes as I ate my pumpernickel sandwich in the lobby to avoid the driving snow, and then returned triumphantly home and tried to open the front door with the locker key which I only then realised I had accidentally stolen from the archive.


So that’s that. Then, secondly, children: yet more success turned sour in the form of the world’s shyest child, who up until two weeks ago wouldn’t say a single word but would simply shyly and morosely suck her fists if asked to contribute or join in. I recently got her speaking in lessons, after which she would eagerly say any word I asked her to with the kind of tiny, bashful smile that would make a lumberjack get misty-eyed. And this week, her confidence grew even more and she began to be naughty. I have a feeling this is going to go down a bad, bad road…
However, joyous joyous wonderment came in the form of my Tuesday afternoon lesson, where the children are usually so outrageously naughty that I am lost for words about them; suffice it to say, one of the children has now shown up for multiple lessons with blood all over his face. This week I tried new tactics, and learnt two things about the class: these children respond to a) praise rather than punishment, and b) miming playing electric guitar at any opportunity. We spent the whole lesson singing songs air-guitaring like champions and they at no point tried to murder each other or myself, and even the child with the demonic grin and unnervingly slanty eyebrows was a little gem. It is true that you just have to find the right angle with every group, it’s just that some groups’ angles are more obscure than you could possibly imagine. 


Finally: the first of this year’s Christmas shopping trips was made today, and more than finding presents for anyone I discovered how anything you can imagine is made and sold and considered to be a good idea by someone. My favourite items were the 250 Euro corrugated cardboard totem pole, the ‘man-porcelain’ for MEN who want their PORCELAIN to be HAMMER-RESISTANT, the 95 Euro tray which is designed to look as good upside-down as it does topside-up so that people don’t go ‘Oh good lord, is that a…*choke*…tray??!?‘, and the little orange mouse made of vegetable-dyed leather with no apparent purpose at all which for some reason was being sold in a shop claiming to be an anti-consumerist establishment. No doubt there will be more worldview-changing shopping experiences to come, but that’s that for now; I’m off to weep over the white bathroom floor that I just mopped so that as much black cat fur as possible could become firmly stuck to it before the moisture dried.