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
 

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.

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.

Two things that don’t go together at all

Pictured: science.
Pictured: an urban metropolis.

Go to Paris; gaze at the marvellous architecture, wander dreamily around the romantic streets, be absorbed in the subtle drama of the city’s elegant and artistic past. Go to Rome; see the fantastic historical relics, gorge yourself on the authentic version of the world’s favourite cuisine, feast your eyes on sculpture and art which founded a whole new way of creative thinking. Go to London: experience the sheer opulence of the rich and grandiose shopping regions, giggle at the quirky solemnity of the monarchy, take photos of red buses and black cabs. Or come to Berlin, where you can do any damn thing that possibly springs to mind.

Most cities have a distinct flavour that sets them apart from the others, the specific atmosphere that you seek in that one place above all others. But Berlin has no particular flavour, and if it does, that flavour is the equivalent of shoving an entire fistful of blindly-grabbed pick-n-mix sweets directly into your mouth all at once. It is never, ever, ever boring, and quite often just darned surprising. Thus within the space of just a few days I happened to casually pop down to an exhibit of plastic dead bodies and find myself playing volleyball in the blistering sun on a fake beach on the coast of a real lake. 


Bodyworlds – or Körperwelten – is an exhibit of plasticised corpses made, refined and sculpted by the criminally creepy Dr Gunther von Hagens (no, he didn’t also invent the ice cream). Von Hagens made his name in the UK by carrying out a series of autopsies on live television in front of a live and visibly squirming audience while wearing a terrifying wide-brimmed rabbi-style black hat. The man is obsessed with bodies and with death, and he is clearly completely off his trolley.

         
I will kill you, Harry Potter…

 Just do a quick google of Bodyworlds and the sheer number of photos that come up showing the myriad bodies he has plasticised into the poses of copulation will prove to you just how much of a creepy, creepy man he is. Plastination is the process of submerging dead bodies in chemical compounds which cause their tissues to be replaced by touch plastic, so that the bodies can be moulded and displayed to show the intricacy of their anatomy, the workings of their various systems, or just for the sheer hell of making a bunch of dead people play poker for eternity. The exhibit opened recently in the Postbahnhof exhibition hall and resembles the most grisly PSE lesson you’ve ever had: each body is accompanied by a long and oddly flowery text explaining the dangers of something fun like drinking or smoking or being fat. Hagens has deconstructed the bodies in such a way as to display the most important systems within the human body, meaning that each ‘work’ is jarring in its own way, with stomach skin opening up like translucent wings or a skull expanded into several hovering chunks with a lonely brain suspended in the centre. To show the way the muscles do their own thing he also has a huge variety of bodies posed doing activities like chess or archery or riding a bike (although I failed to see the reason for the bike rider’s natty 1980’s tinted spectacles). Fascinatingly, you can also see the circulatory systems of specific organs minus the flesh, which were almost my favourite part of the whole exhibit as the sheer minuteness and complexity of the capillaries in the lungs or the kidney or a whole rooster, embodied in a bright red fuzz of plasticised fronds, is truly something; it is arresting to realise quite how bloody brilliant and clever biology is. Then you turn the corner and see the plasticised giraffe posed climbing halfway up a giant palm-tree and remember that the man who put this all together is out of his mind.

If you need a little respite and mental repose after something so stimulating, might I then suggest that you do as I did and visit the Plötzensee? It’s a smallish lake in Wedding which features one of the best Strandbars I’ve been to thus far in this fair city. Berlin has a thing for its Strandbars, ‘beach bars’ which are filled with sand and deckchairs and where you can watch the sun set with a drink in your hand and where there is literally no perfect type of footwear for such a venue. Take your shoes off and succumb. The Plötzensee open beach is really something else, however, because unlike most beach bars it genuinely does feel like a beach, being on the coast of the lake and featuring real-life swimming, screaming children and red-trunks-wearing lifeguards who sit miles from the ‘sea’ and yell lacklustre warnings while sipping their mojitos. The green waters are surrounded by beautiful trees and in good weather the whole place feels like a secret lagoon. One can also rent a boat there and row or pedal around the lake, observing the herons and the grebes, or you can do as we did and, in true German style lounge, in the sun playing a good hearty round of Canasta. 

Card games on a beach in a forest in the city. You won’t find that in New York.

Crucial cultural experience. Also, booze.

Discerning wine tasters.

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



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

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

50th Post!!! The Adventure So Far…

At our Kita, we pride ourselves on keeping your children as safe as possible. Therefore we only use the largest and most ostentatious Alpine cow-bells in our fire alarm system.

Wow, we have reached our fiftieth post on Guten Morgen Berlin and I am so pleased with the way it has gone so far. The number of readers per post is more than ten (by a somewhat considerable amount), which was my secret hope for this project at the beginning, and I have kept it going and not allowed it to pathetically shrivel and die like a LiveJournal. I have now been in this city for seven whole months, give or take a few days here and there for toddler-detox, I have witnessed it struggling through two seasons, one meltdown and a variety of minor panics. I have lived, spoken, shopped and eaten like the natives (excepting the daily Wurst) and deeply enjoyed all the little peculiarities and differences between big burly Berlin and drab twee Britain. 

What are my conclusions thus far? First of all, that you clearly need to live somewhere for a good few years before you can even start to get used to everything to the extent that you feel fully ‘at home’ there. God knows it is so much fun to discover all the idiosyncrasies from day to day; I mean, look at the photo above. This Kindergarten genuinely has a cow-bell as its alarm system. There are great sweeping realms of things here that I think you have to be a German from birth to understand: sweetcorn flavoured joghurt, currywurst pretzel-pizzas, Berliner Weisse (a pale beer which you drink with either a radioactive green or acid pink syrup mixed into it and which I first saw being drunk by a troupe of nuns), or the inexplicable way that the most revered and famous institution in the whole city is the Blue Man Group. However, for every time I find myself standing open-mouthed in Aldi wondering at who would want to buy an electric stomach-toner as part of their weekly shop, there are moments where I realise quite how much of this culture I have already taken on and become a part of as much as they have become a part of me; the crazy rainbow-spectrum of fruit and herb teas, the pyromaniacal need to have candles everywhere all the time, the innate knowledge of exactly which supermarket I will need to go to for every specific thing I need to buy, a profound love of Kartoffelknödel…As strange and new as everything still seems every single day, I somehow feel like a member of the club now rather than the bespectacled and square inspector wandering around with a clipboard. 

I have to leave in just over three months, and that thought is indeed tragic but twinged with a very definite excitement at the things I will finally be able to rediscover after life outside the UK:
– ‘good’ television. Yes, this term does require air quotes because a colossal tranche of British (and by extension American) TV is so bad that you would better spend your time using tweezers to braid the hairs on your wrists into organic cufflinks. But good grief, the television here is terrible. The sheer number of cookery shows is amazingly huge and yet they all only seem to ever teach how to make Auflauf, a version of lasagne/casserole where you essentially just layer things up in a dish until it most effectively resembles the primordial ooze and then smother it with cream and cheese. An array of chefs with startling mustaches or unlikely-seeming blonde bobs shoot their piercing glares at the screen whilst demanding that you ladle more butter over your roast duck and throwing great fistfuls of salt into whatever it is they are boiling the heck out of. On other channels, we have the treat that is non-stop back-to-back dubbed episodes of Two and a Half Men, a sitcom so lame it makes a three-legged donkey look athletic, we have MTV-style dating and reality shows which feature people who look like they are entirely made out of polyester and who talk in ‘real’ conversation which is so patently scripted that they even know when to turn to the right camera, and occasionally something ‘hilarious’ featuring Stefan Raab. (To be fair to the Raab, this is a rare moment of greatness.)
Marmite. Oh, Marmite. You deep brown glossy goddess of toast. How I long to savour your salty deliciousness on my bread and adorning my Ryvita. I yearn to crown you with cheddar, stir you into my chile con carne or tentatively drizzle you into simmering minestrone. I resent that you cost about 7 euros a pot here, and no amount of heinously nasty Brotaufstrich (odd and oily purees designed to go on your daily Brötchen) will replace you.
– The colour green. I am pretty sure this exists, as I seem to vaguely recall it in the dark abyss of my memory, but there is no evidence of it as yet here in Berlin. Ever since The Great Freeze this winter everything has been a uniform shade of graun (grey-brown) and this makes even the cool and edgy graffiti look less like anarchistic celebrations of artistic freedom and more like a million dingy charity-shop window displays of dead people’s clothing. This weekend my dearest mother was visiting, and I took her to the Botanical Gartens since the weather was for once pleasant enough to allow scarf-free outfits; the gardens could not have looked more dead, the turf brittle and grimy and the trees contorted and cracking from what they had suffered through. Perhaps spring will come soon and I shall see living plant life again before I leave. I shall keep on sacrificing small animals at the altar in our Hinterhof and see if this helps.

But of course this is all small fry and the things I am looking forward to seeing again are nothing compared to that which I will miss. The things that you first of all learn to live with and then learn never to live without, and the things that never stop giving you pleasure and hope regardless of how tired or homesick you are.

– The frothing swathes of flowers spilling onto the pavement from the hundreds of florists all over this city.
– The astounding generosity of the German people; all us women got given free roses at the supermarket the other day for Frauentag, I somehow keep being given gifts by my wonderful German friends here of all ages and whenever I visit people I am fed like a queen, given more wine than I can consume without doing something embarrassing and welcomed with giant grins to boot. Even when I am not expected and turn up by accident the day after someone’s birthday party, for example…
– the public transport system. Germans will deride this immediately as their public transport system comes beside the term ‘Schweinerei’ in the dictionary, but for me it is amazing to use a system which is so frequent, so seldom unreliable and so cheap; Germans, picture this: at home I have a single bus which takes me to my nearest town once every hour or sometimes half hour, and it costs me almost £5 for a return journey on said disappointment. Not to mention the fact that each of the stations has somewhere to sit and somewhere where you can get coffee or a Ritter Sport.
– come to mention it, I will miss Ritter Sport. You just don’t get the same array of flavours in the UK and I do almost feel that the German taste in chocolate flavours shows a slightly more mature palate than that of the British; the Germans have almond Mars bars, espresso flavoured Ritter Sport, affordable and luscious real dark chocolate (i.e. with real cocoa solids in a decent proportion, unlike Bourneville) and the yumfest that is the entire Lindt range. The British have Boost bars, Dairy Milk – a chocolate so cloying and fatty that it cements itself to the roof of your mouth in a tar-like smear – and Galaxy, which I read somewhere is not allowed to call itself chocolate anymore because it has so little to do with chocolate in its actual recipe. Mmmm, Niederegger marzipan…
– The general honestness and easiness of the people here. In the UK one is choked by the neuroses it is your duty to suffer every time you are asked to an event you don’t want to attend or feel obliged to swallow down a vile dish someone has cooked for you or requested to do a favour you would rather sandpaper your eyelids that fulfil. In Britain I bend over backwards to keep people happy and keep life smooth; I cheerfully smiled when people drunkenly leapt through the library fire escape by my room door and thus made the whole building be evacuated, I apologised when people stamped my toes into pulp and I always, always, always ate what was on my plate even when in a restaurant so as not to cause any kind of awkward pall over the evening. Here you don’t do what you don’t want to do and you simply avoid social agonies by being honest and open, you admit what does not appeal to you and suggest a solution or an alternative and generally it works very well. You can tell people what you really think and you can have a debate in which you are clear about your own standpoint on the issue without people thinking you are flagellating all their beliefs and ethics by doing so. I haven’t experienced peer pressure once and I have cried and told my problems to a total stranger at the bus stop. I feel, in a way, that I have grown.

The question is, what will happen to the pseudo-Deutsche when she returns to her native habitat? Stay tuned… 

The art of sensing danger. Through fonts.

Of course we’re authentically Asian! We have lanterns!

It seems far easier to begin and then to maintain any kind of a business here in Berlin, which I assume is mostly down to the whole rule of it being ‘arm aber sexy’ (arm means poor, not an actual arm). If you are just a simple guy with an idea, fifty euros and a pocketful of dreams you will probably be able to fulfil your ambition of owning a vaguely profitable kebab shop, bakery, dodgy Spätkauf, all-polyester clothing shop etc and keeping it on its vaguely wobbly legs for a good year or two before it joins the ranks of the permanently dark and dusty voids that pepper the streets of Berlin like rotten teeth in a pirate’s mouth. 

This is brilliant and one of the things I adore about Berlin, because in the UK you now have to be Sir Alan Sugar or a man of his means and arsehole qualities in order to be able to start any kind of independent operation that is not going to go belly-up within months. This has resulted in the renowned problem that the only people who can afford to pay rent for a shopfront or are able to maintain a business are those who already have huge corporate money machines and therefore every city in the UK is now identical to every other city, boasting exactly the same shops simply in a slightly different sequence. Every company has the same Helvetica font and three-circles-inside-eachother logo because most of the successful corporate graphic designers are just as monotonous as the companies and the shopfronts and the fonts themselves. In comparison, Berlin looks like a complete mess, and it is fantastic. 

Nonetheless, it does slightly worry me that these bright-eyed ambitious entrepreneurs who found and run all these establishments or franchises at no point seem to take the moment to think: “Hey now, hold on a sec, why doesn’t my shop look as cool and shiny and non-food-poisoning-y as H&M’s or Rossmann’s or MediMax? I spent a good half-hour with WordArt to make my shop sign, that’s got to count for something…” Walking around Berlin I am aghast at the parade of atrocious shop design. The sheer number of ‘Asia Woks’ and ‘Asia Boxes’ and ‘Asia Snacks’ and ‘Curry Asia’ and ‘Asia Chunk’ and ‘I can’t believe it’s not Asia’ is a good example. Why should this concept of a generic Asia which when you look at the menu seems to encompass exclusively China and Vietnam be a crowd-puller, why as an Asian person would you choose to make your shop so reductive of the richness of your own cultural background and why oh why oh why would you choose such racist and abysmally ugly fonts as the frontispiece to a business that you would like to be taken seriously? Why don’t these guys ever realise that no successful business has ever won customers by pummelling the theme of their enterprise directly into the retinas of the populace; you would certainly never get a chain of successful New Orleans soul-food restaurants with a horrendous stereotype honky-tonk black person’s face as the logo (although Old Orleans was always teasingly close to being offensive on that score) and KFC is never going to change its name to ‘Redneck Chow’.

Ultimately the issue here is that the customer (well, me) looks at these things and sees the font and the logo and thinks ‘oo-err, I’m not going to risk that’. There is an array of visual cues I use to direct me in what to avoid on a daily basis: never buy from a website or shop, for example, that ever uses Comic Sans (“Ooh look Hans, this font is fun because it looks a bit like something from the cartoons we used to never read – let’s use it because it says we are wacky and fun.”), and never from anywhere that uses clipart as part of their iconography. I will always be put off by WordArt and drop shadows, and when I saw that James Cameron had decided to use Papyrus as his typeface of choice for the Avatar subtitles I almost choked on my own epiglottis with the sheer extremity of my incredulous rage. Come on, James Cameron, you can spend billions of dollars on a hackneyed jungle-book-meet-the-blue-man-group epic but you are too tight to splash a couple of bucks on a slightly less MSWord-default font? Oh wait, sorry, Papyrus looks ‘ethnic’, I forgot.

So I beg you, entrepreneurs of Berlin, please explain this to me: why don’t you see how bad your projects look to the person potentially giving you their money? Why do you think it is enough to draw a logo in felt tip pen, take a photo of the drawing and print the photo on your letterhead for evermore? Do you think it looks just as sexy and professional as SmithKlineBeecham to use an eye-watering rainbow gradient as the background to your website? And don’t you ever ask yourself why you have never been to a successful chain which had any or one of these same qualities?

The exception to the rule: a mountainside cafe which we frequented often in Obertauern was always thronging with customers and utterly lovely to be in as it was full of gorgeous old wood and antique snowshoes and such like; this all in despite of the fact that their chosen logo was, inexplicably, a sunglass-wearing cool-dude hare snowboarding WHILST having arrogant sex with a slutty female hare on the same snowboard at presumably break-neck speed (you can tell from the way their ears are fluttering).

               
Really?

 The poor staff had to wear uniforms emblazoned with this terrible image.

But while we are on the subject of eateries, allow me to offer a few more suggestions that you might also like to take on board if you ever feel like opening an establishment and want me to spend my hard-earned cash there. For starters, bullet points belong on Powerpoint presentations and not the menu. As a colleague of mine pointed out, plastic chairs are a one-way ticket to me walking in and then directly back out of your door. If you think that having dark and far-too-yellow photographs of your meals on the menu is going to make my mouth water, think again; you don’t even seem to have made an effort to stop each and every dish looking like a mountain of puke. Let me at least imagine a beautiful plate of delicious ingredients tossed expertly together before I am presented with my vomcano. And hey, I know grains of rice in the salt shaker keep the salt from clumping but don’t you think they do look a little bit (read: a lot) like dead maggots floating around among the salt crystals? 

Perhaps I am the only person in the world who thinks these things; perhaps the fact that I allow these visual signs to govern my spending behaviour is a simple sign of the my utter Woody Allen-level neuroticism in that I can’t see any of these various clues without thinking ‘these people are going to steal my money or give me salmonella’. But I wouldn’t want to trust my digestive health to the same people who don’t understand the fundamental drop-dead ugliness of WordArt. These people, in my opinion, should not even be allowed near knives and other dangerous kitchen equipment.

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.