How to furnish your flat for the price of a cup of tea (ok, maybe two cups. And a croissant)

Is there a human being alive on the plant who doesn’t have an Ikea LACK coffee table?

My colleagues and friends have been joking a lot recently that all I seem to be doing these days is dragging about heavy furniture. They find this hilarious because I am five feet tall with the athletic build of a baby chipmunk, and it is true, in the last few weeks thanks to a simultaneous office move and house move I have been spending a great deal of my time hoicking massive great desks, beds etc around the city. All those facts aside, it has been worth it because a mere three weeks after moving, with nothing more than a toaster and a sack of underwear to my name, I have filled an empty flat with everything it needs to be my Home. As a resourceful, dogmatic and rabidly opportunistic person, I knew I could do this on little more than a wing and a prayer. Here’s how you can fill your Berlin flat, save money, save the world by recycling old stuff and generally accumulate clobber with a few cheeky winks and very little tearful begging.

1. Downsize your office. If you’re not the CEO of your company, this probably won’t be your choice to make. If you are the CEO of your company, congratulations! But why are you wasting your time reading this bollocks when you should be out doing executive things? I’m not the CEO of my company, but our downsize coincided very nicely with the move and we ended up with stacks of old stuff which couldn’t possibly fit in our new half of our once whole office. It was only logical that that stuff should therefore go to a loving home, especially one whose main resident didn’t particularly mind spending 24 hours a day living and working in two places with almost identical interior design. It was also useful that I am just deranged enough to not mind the fact that this furniture, in honour of the company brand colour, came in an array of wild shades of red.

Thanks to a rocky financial climate and the instability of the tourist trade in low season, this little bounty came to two large tables, three chairs, a set of obnoxiously red curtains, and a set of metal shelves which are slightly less sturdy than a sheet of aluminium foil and lean sideways so much they look like they’re trying really hard to hear a whispered conversation on the other side of the room. Maybe if we downsize even more I’ll be able to nab a receptionist for my new pad too.


2. Go to fleamarkets, and barter your arse off. Don’t bother bartering at the Mauerpark flea market, where the sellers are so hardened and savvy that even a faint attempt at bartering will garner you nothing more than a withering look that would make a bunch of flowers shrivel. Plus, the ‘bargains’ at the Mauerpark flea market are overpriced to take advantage of gullible American tourists, so don’t be surprised if you are asked for four euros for that half-broken mug with a doll’s arm melted to it. The Boxhagener Platz flea market is where it’s at for the bargains. Not only do they sell interesting and unique items like this GENUINE HUMAN MOTHERFREAKING SKULL – 

Yeah, it’s wearing shades. I don’t even need to make a joke here.


but it’s also where you’ll find the vendors who are happy with every sale they make and tend to be up for a good-natured matey haggle. There are a number of tactics to getting your way and snapping up something for a ridiculous price. The old-school tartan wool blanket was mine after I asked to pay four euros, the seller demanded eight, and I just started pointedly walking away shaking my head in disappointment. A very cool vintage emerald-green Adidas sports bag was won by pointing out the fact that the zipper was broken (to the casual observer – but I deduced that it could be fixed with about two seconds of fiddling) and declaring that it simply wasn’t worth it for any more than five euros. Added bonus – I later discovered a trolley token and a half-full pack of tissues in the side pocket, so double win! Another good tactic is to simply appeal to the vendor’s common sense; I found a brilliant old, chipped plate that I wanted for a euro. He wanted three. I simply responded with: “But look at it, mate. It’s gross.” He couldn’t say anything in reply other than, “Fair enough. A euro it is, love.”

Of course, the best times are when you don’t have to barter at all because you happen upon a vendor who is just a brilliant human being. A man with dreadlocks and a nice red chest of drawers, to be precise. I asked for it for thirty smackers, he immediately agreed and offered to take it over to my new place and carry it up the stairs for me for free. He’s there every week, and apparently his schtick is to buy and renovate furniture from auctions that happen after someone dies or there is a massive building fire. So it’s probably a ghostly cabinet of lost souls that I bought, but whatever. Bargain.

3. Ebay Kleinanzeigen. No, I didn’t actually do this one. Ebay Kleinanzeigen has been recommended a lot, but take more than a cursory glance at it and all you find are thousands of ads of people selling appalling, half-broken rubbish (usually photographed in that charming way that makes the whole scene look urine-yellow) for double what it’s worth. No I don’t want a stained, visibly damp mattress for 150 Groschen. And the worst part is that you always have to go to some creepy, no-good alleyway in south Steglitz to pick the darn thing up yourself.

4. Just offering to take all of the previous tenant’s stuff. Let’s face it. They’re tired and lazy and can’t be bothered to spend the five minutes it would take to write the Ebay Kleinanzeige and take a yellowy photo of their old sofa. If you offer to take it off them for the cost of a pair of socks, they’ll be delighted. My haul: a sofa, three sets of shelves, a washing machine, a hifi, a kettle, a stick blender, a magnetic knife strip, a bathroom mat and a pink lampshade that makes my hallway look like a prostitute’s boudoir. Result.

5. Verschenkened stuff off the street. Ok, so there is clearly a risk that you will end up seeming like a dirty tramp if you pick things up off the pavement all the time. I did recently have a moment where I was walking home carrying some good stuff I’d found and I realised I was also wearing a jumper and a belt that had been verschenkened on the street not long before, and a top that was from Oxfam; I was a walking pile of cast-offs. But if you cultivate a sharp eye and know how to sift out the good, clean stuff from the discarded junk, you can find a smorgasbord of terrific new possessions for absolutely free! So far I have managed to snag two saucepans, nearly new; two cardigans, a jumper and two belts; brand-new chopsticks, still in the packaging; an excellent map of the world including a set of pins with flags on them for easy world-domination planning; a spice pot; and finally, my crowning moment, an insane geometric shelf/table/cat-scratching post thing which is now what I like to call my ‘chili podium’:

As fate would have it, the chili podium also comes in a funky shade of corporate red.

 Have you ever seen an item of furniture so brilliantly strange? Why does it exist? Why was someone getting rid of it? How come the more I tighten the screws on it, the more wonky it gets? So many mysteries.

So ok, it might seem a bit trampish to furnish your place with hand-me-downs and second-hand bargains. But is it? Or is it a way to make yourself an instant home, full of furniture with that comfortable air of having been already used and loved and lived with, where each piece has a history and a funny story to go with it? An Ikea show-home, or a place where you feel instantly at home? I’ll take the latter. The more skulls and surreal sculptural doodads the better.

The magic of Berlin’s old ladies

Probably the work of another Berlin Old Lady. She didn’t want the poor little thing catching cold.

Apologies, first of all, for taking so long to write another post. This last week has been rather a whirlwind as I have been negotiating a rather complicated and interesting job offer, the results of which I will reveal here as soon as I know what the HECK is going on. In my Verzweiflung, writing a new entry kept slipping my mind, and the time I had put aside to do so on Friday was engulfed instead by my attempt to make miniature pastry tart cases and burning the first dozen to a black, reeking crisp. But a true blogger always comes back, and here I am. Now, on to the post.

As my bank assistant showed me on a rather alarming diagram, the population of Germany is composed of a frankly enormous ratio of people of retirement age. Just like in the UK, the Germans have carefully practised protected intercourse and taken their vitamins every morning leading to the result that there are thousands of people living to age 100 and very few babies being born to man the factories making the cat food for all these ancient people. Well, for their cats, obviously. There are now whole districts of the city, such as Lichtenberg, which have become little havens for the elderly and feature enormous retirement compounds, out of which old people drift into the city like slow, trembling bees meandering out of the hive.

Old people here are often the good ol’ cantankerous type who get angry in queues and complain about youngsters. In the coverage of the flooding across Germany this week the radio station I listen to – a station beloved by older folk because of its purely factual content and occasional items about the history of white asparagus – reported with frank surprise the fact that most of the young people living in affected cities like Halle were joining in with the rescue and clean-up operations, each correspondent or interviewee sounding completely amazed that young people would drag their lazy bodies out of bed and/or put down their vandalism and drugs equipment to help out in a time of genuine crisis. And yesterday, waiting on the platform at Schöneberg station, I watched a furious  elderly woman turn to a child who was happily squeaking in its mothers arms and go “RAAAAAAARRGGH!!!”. To be fair, that child’s innocent glee was rather loud and grating, but it was an astonishing way to get it to quiet down. The woman also managed to silence every other person on the platform.


Beyond the occasional sighting in a supermarket or eruption on a platform, it is not usual for people my age to have much to do with elderly people, so it’s hard to get to know them beyond what we see day-to-day. And this is somewhat strange for me, because I have always seen a lot of my grandparents while living at home and have a built-in expectation to spend social time with people over 70 at least once a fortnight. To only hang out with people below sixty is rather odd for me. But I am pleased to report that I have got to know a few older people in my time here, and I am more pleased to report that the majority of elderly Germans are exactly the same as the majority of elderly Brits: kindly, sweetly, politely mental.

The first that I ever really became acquainted with were the parents of my first flatmate, who was a lovely divorced lady living with her twenty-something daughter in Charlottenberg. The grandparents would come over from time to time and seemed to find me charming as almost all old people do due to the fact that I have the face of an innocent eleven-year-old and the accent of Hermione Granger. I thought they were terrific; the grandfather was an ancient dude with authentic liver spots and dapper suits who had quite literally read a self-curated digest of all human knowledge. In his lifetime he had read enough to teach himself complex legal theory, Yiddish and Jewish cultural history, several languages, the full spectrum of philosophical thought and a thorough understanding of the foundations of the sciences and engineering. At the time I met him he was half-way through reading the Koran, as his newest project was to have read all of the key holy texts. He used to tell me excellent Jewish jokes over dinner and was so delighted to find that I am also a keen reader that he gave me a selection of books from his own private library. He was also a right mardy-arse from time to time with a deteriorating mind and used to occasionally resort to unbelievably strong emotional blackmail, seemingly from nowhere, which used to come at my flatmate and her mother out of nowhere and knock them sideways. They loved him, but occasionally he would get confused and become Hyde out of Jekyll. He sadly became much more unwell after I left Berlin for the first time and died shortly after; it was truly sad news which I felt acutely.

The grandmother, on the other hand, was a beaming and slightly wild old lady who simply took everything in her big Amazonian stride. You could tell she had always been a real winner. When I was invited to the family’s Sunday roast on Hallowe’en, she spied my ghost ‘costume’ (read: a pillowcase with two holes chopped into it and facial features drawn on in felt pen) hanging out of my English-teacher bag, abruptly yanked it on over her head and cloud of curly white hair, and flung open the door to a little clan of trick-or-treaters to scream “wooooOOOOOOOOoooooo!!!” She had never even encountered trick-or-treaters before and we didn’t have any sweets to give them but she enjoyed her own ‘trick’ so much she carried on for the rest of the evening every time there was a knock on the door. 

She was a woman who knew that life was to be lived – so stop whining. When we went en famille to the Christmas market, we walked past a Glühwein stall and she announced that now was the time for us all to drink a large Glühwein, even though it was only 3 in the afternoon. My friend began to say “No, maybe not…” but this magnificent woman simply cried “Don’t be ridiculous!” and bought us all steaming hot mugs of pure booze, followed by finger puppets, followed by a giant bowl of soup for me when I casually mentioned that I had never tried Soljanka before. Because what is the point in being alive if you don’t just respond to curiosity or temptation with a ‘what the hell, YES.’

There was also the grandmother I stayed with in my first visit to the Baltic coast, who generously supplied my friend and I with so many deviled eggs I feared the cholesterol would start seeping out of my nose. Every five seconds she would cry “Komm schon, NASCH MAL ‘n bisschen!!!!” (“Come on, have a nibble of something already!!!”) until we were so full we could not move. She showed me all 350 of the photos of her holiday to Miami – the only time she had ever been abroad – and also introduced me to her amazing collection of napkins, which she collected in different designs to accompany every season, holiday and type of guest.  

Not to mention the woman who lives to the right of me in my new building. She’s a bit of an old hippy. Sometimes my door sticks closed even after I unlock it and I cannot open it even when I run up against it and smash it with my shoulder like a fireman. But this lady hears my struggles when this happens, and placidly opens the door to see if I need help. She turns the key in the lock once to lock the door, and once in the other direction to unlock it again, and every single time the door then sighs open with casual ease. She doesn’t know how she does it, and nor do I; we both simply agree that she has ‘the touch’ whatever it may be, and I am grateful that she also evidently does not go to bed before 2am.

And then there’s the other old lady who lives to the left of me. Who inspired this post, because she noticed my front door was ajar and called into the flat to make sure there was someone there. 
 “Ah, you’re renovating,” she said to me when I answered.
“…um, no…? I’m just renting this flat here for three months.”
“Ah well, in that case it’s good to meet you. You know, I have a slipped disc. It’s agony!!”
“Oh gosh, that sounds horrible, I’m sorry!”
“Yes, I’m supposed to have an operation soon, but I don’t want it, I’d rather have physiotherapy but you know they operate far too much over here and there are far too many hospitals.”
“Oh right, I really am sorry. Would you like some ibuprofen?”
“Ohhhhh, do you have some? That would be wonderful. I’m off to visit my divorced husband who has Alzheimers. Do you know what that is?”
“Yes, I do, how awful, I truly am sorry.”
“Yes, it is very sad. I’m divorced, you see. My daughter is living with me at the moment, she is divorced too. She’s living with me but it’s not working at all. We are not getting on at all.”
“Oh no, that’s difficult, I’m sorry…um…so here are some ibuprofen tablets for you.”
“Thank you. You are a very sweet young woman. Now I must go to my divorced husband because he has Alzheimers, have a good Sunday.”

How to hack your Zwischenmiete

Now if only there was a way to hack the extreme temperature fluctuations between ‘molten lava’ and ‘ice-water’.

For the unemployed graduate looking to drift around a German city for an aimless while, the right ‘Zwischenmiete’ is a crucial tool in your belt. ‘Zwischenmiete’ essentially means ‘between-rent’, which is what happens when a person in Berlin pops off to another country or a work thing in another city or something and rents their flat – plus furnishings and all the trimmings – to a happy-go-lucky travellin’ type.

It’s a perfect arrangement. Internet, washing machine, mattress and everything come included in the bundle without any effort on your part and no profit being made on the part of the flat-owner. Not only that, you are usually able to use the little things that would be really irritating to have to buy otherwise: salt, cleaning spray, dishtowels, a ruler… I am infinitely thankful that these are not souvenirs I have had to invest in and cart around the streets of Friedrichshain on my arrival, yes ma’am. 

But a Zwischenmiete is also simply an opportunity for fun and adventure. Every new flat is like trying out a new lifestyle, like being plugged into a different pre-made home on The Sims and seeing what happens to you and your wizard-hat-wearing brother (why did they ever include that in the ‘heads’ selection?) this time. I have, as you know, experienced a delirious array of different temporary residences in this city, including all sorts of exciting little accents which made them memorable: psychopathic cats, psychopathic flatmates,
minuscule kitchens, suspicious elderly neighbours, mattress-on-the-floor beds, mattress-in-the-air beds, fifth-floor, fourth-floor and first-floor rooms…

The only difficulty – the one niggling little issue that occurs in every flat I occupy – is the fact that you can’t change anything, even the things that drive you up the wall. And so, in my time living around and about, I have become an expert in Flat Hacking.

 


You see, these people have entrusted their beloved home to you, and have even given you, a complete stranger, the freedom to use their bed and kitchen and rifle through their shelves and stroke their curtains or whatever creepy things you might do. And so it is your duty to respect that trust, and to not do the creepy things. To leave their shelves alone, and to use the toilet cleaner responsibly rather than emptying it out the window in a drunken frenzy. And most importantly, you may not doll up the flat to make it the way you want it to be in any way you can’t put back the way it was. 

This is tricky when you come up against parts of the flat which don’t quite mesh with the way you like to live. In moments like these, you have two options: you can grin and bear it, and complain to your friends about it until they stop agreeing to meet you for coffee, or you can come up with an ingenious short-term (ideally cheap) and completely reversible solution. And here is where I come in.

Example number 1: The Hochbett.

Ahh, the Hochbett. If a German bedroom is considered a bit small, or if it’s a huge room but the person just wants a more jaunty feel to the space, you can be certain they’ll stick a big ole Hochbett in there. A Hochbett is a bunk-bed for adult people. A mattress on a climbing-frame, so you can shove your futon or elliptical trainer underneath and still have space for your Ikea generics. For me, a guarantee that I will at some point within the next three months break my leg falling from the bed when getting up at night for a pee. 

Don’t get me wrong, it is really, really fun sleeping on a Hochbett. You can pretend you are seven again, plus there is something inherently cool and pirate-like about climbing a ladder to go to sleep. But the crucial problem is that if you are a person who enjoys reading in bed, a weekend-morning cup of tea and having a radio alarm clock, it is difficult to source a bedside table that is three metres tall. We can’t drill into the wall and put in a bedside shelf because this is someone else’s flat. We have tried balancing a lamp and a mug on the edge of the mattress but had foreboding visions of spill-related electrocutions. 

The hack: two bricks and a plank, all found within the flat. The plank is propped between the bed and my clothes shelf, and although the cables for the lamp and my pride-and-joy radio are stretching precariously to the socket below, this means I can now read in bed to the sultry sounds of Berlin InfoRadio (or Radio 4 on weekends, for a treat). Total cost: zero euros. Total reward: untold comfort and luxury.

Example number 2: The Shower.

Why do Germans have a penchant for showers which are essentially a bath with a shower attachment on the tap? There is no practical way to clean oneself in a shower like this. My first attempt in the new flat was an agonised experience of trying to hold the thingy with one hand while smearing shampoo on my head and into my eyes with the other, then desperately trying to rinse it off like they do in a hairdresser’s before then nearly dislocating my shoulder figuring out how to soap and scrub my armpits and other…areas. This would be acceptable if the shower didn’t also veer madly from fiery, murderously hot to arse-freezingly cold every few seconds, meaning that my elbow was simultaneously employed pushing the tap knob around in an attempt to regulate the heat. No. This was not acceptable. Man should not have to shower like it’s a game in Crystal Maze.

The hack: two suction hooks and a strong hair-bobble. The suction hooks clamp neatly onto the tiles and have the added bonus of being a sassy lime-green colour, and then the shower head is simply twanged on by the bobble between the hooks. It looks a bit haphazard and I fully expect it to suddenly fall on my scalp one morning, but it serves a useful purpose for the time being. Total cost: 1 euro 60 cents for the hooks, the hair bobble was courtesy of my enormous mane. Total reward: less pain, more hygiene.

Example number 3: The Pillow.

In every single flat I have ever had in this city, the pillow has always been the same. (Maybe it’s the same one pillow coming back to haunt me?) For some reason, German pillows are not nice, wide, plump things roughly the width of a human head and neck and the length of a satisfied turn from one side to the other as the sun comes up. No; German pillows are oddly large and perfectly square, huge enough to raise your entire torso off the mattress and awkward enough that you have to lie very low down in the bed to feel comfortable, leaving a disarming chasm between your scalp and the wall. Not only that, but they only ever contain about six fibres of stuffing, so they deflate to a pointless envelope the moment you actually sink your tired head onto them. These pillows do not like to be folded to make them thicker, however; that causes them to slither about rebelliously once you are asleep so that you wake up with the whole thing somewhere under your ribcage, halfway out of its cover. Not good for sleeps.

The hack: stuffing all the other cushions you can find into the pillowcase with the actual pillow. Total reward: ok, this one is a bit rubbish and actually just creates a huge lumpy bag like a sackful of dead sheep. But it is still more comfortable to sleep on than a regular Kopfkissen. And I’m blowed if I’m spending my hard-earned euros on a new pillow. 

Welcome to number 10

I promise, very few blog pictures will be as dull as this one.

Every story needs a setting. You, the reader (and I’m going to assume there’s only one of you out there), need to be able to imagine the place where the plot plays out, where your tortured writer sits hunched over her great work with a glass of absinthe and definitely not a Tunnocks marshmallow teacake but something much more bohemian. I thought I would use this first reunion post to set the scene and give you the ‘Monica’s apartment’ locale for the next few months’ worth of storyline.

I am a student at a college in Oxford – it’s a secret which one, because I want to stay anonymous to protect me from stalkers overwhelmed by my staggering beauty (ok, ok, I look like a beardless BeeGee) – and this photo above is the view from my window. I like to think of it less as a view and more as a sort of squirrelarium, as there are so many squirrels scampering up and down those trees all day it’s like one of those time-lapse videos of train platforms they sometimes show in the news for no reason. As you can see, even though it’s spring the tree on the left, my favourite of the two, has sprouted its leaves and they have already started to turn brown and die off. It takes a lot of effort not to interpret that as a metaphor for something bleak. What’s that fancy-looking balustrade in front, I hear you ask? That is my balcony. I cannot actually use it, of course, for the minute the room was awarded to me the college blocked up the windows to prevent people going onto the balcony for a relaxing chilled glass of Riesling and then spontaneously plummeting one storey to their death. The person who was here before me could use it, though, so it is now just a large and inaccessible collection of oddities (some might use the term ‘garbage’). Five thousand cigarette butts, one bud from some headphones, an old flowerpot, and a large metal coffee-bean scoop. What I want to know is whether all those items were used separately or were all used together in some kind of incredible party.
  

 

  This is the nest area, featuring the remnants of this morning’s revision and a zodiac pillow. The enormous hanging cloth is a giant batik sheet I got at a Berlin flea market from a lady who was determined to give me the hard sell for fifteen minutes despite the fact that I really wanted it and it was three euros and I already had the money there in my hand: “Drei!! Nur drei euros! Es ist doch echte Baumwolle! Nur drei! Drei nur! Baumwolle!” I have hung the sheet up against my wall as chic décor and a memento of better days but mostly to hide the huge and disconcertingly greasy stains smeared all over that wall which is already a shade I like to call ‘Infectious Dried Pus’. And yes, the elephants look like they’re ascending to heaven in some kind of Sri Lankan version of the Rapture but that’s the only way around that it will fit. One final point to be made is that it isn’t attached to the ceiling very well and so there have been nights where I will be watching a film or sleeping and then unexpectedly be draped in a huge blue tent which then takes an age to put back up and involves balancing a computer chair on a broken mattress.

 There isn’t much space in here, and the room is a divided poky compartment of what used to be one large and opulent room so everything is on a sort of slant. My bookshelf is diagonal and also leans forward at an alarming angle, and my ‘wardrobe’ might better be termed a ‘storage coffin’. It holds two dresses and a box of cereal. As you can see, the carpet is a colour which I think Dulux simply calls ‘Malaise’, and the curtains are long swags of gold velvet. There is a sink, a desk, and a mirror propped in front of the mirror because the original mirror is too high for me to actually see into. I am short.

The earring box is actually a drawer for old newspaper printing press dies from Fleet Street. It is the best thing in my entire room.

This is where I spend most of my days, and all of my nights. It is not just a bedroom but a study, coffee-shop, dining room, toast emporium and Grandma’s attic. The neighbour above seems to spend his days throwing mallets, the neighbour next door is brilliant and I’m sure more annoyed by me than I am by her, and breakfast is served between 7.30-9am following your complimentary wake-up call of the street sweeper bellowing past the window at 6am. Shoes optional, tea compulsory. This has been my life this year, and soon it won’t be any longer. Welcome to number 10.

Driftin’

Flat#1, Residence#3, Home#5.

I’m moving again. Not here in Berlin, of course; the very sight of WG Gesucht moves me to hysterical panic attacks. The horror….the horror……

No, I’m moving in the UK. One month after I return, one month from today, I and my family will be leaving our current house and moving to another modern little number in the suburbs where my parents will “grow” old together (you can see that I know they don’t read this) and where I will spend a good deal of the rest of my life. Life has never been so schizophrenic – in the last few years, I have moved out of my childhood home, into a wonderful new ‘young adulthood home’, skipped between college rooms and Berkshire bedrooms, ricocheted from flat to flat in Berlin and now am on a path to yet another place that theoretically is supposed to become the emotional and geographical nexus of my sense of being. If I do the correct calculations, I deduce that I haven’t been living in the same one place for any one time for longer than three or four months for about three years. If this was a Western, I’d be one of those people described by the local prostitute as Hank the Drifter: “Well now he just breezes on into town one day an’ afore he’s paid fer his whisky he’s breezed on out agin…”

Nothing in life is permanent, and it’s best to embrace that than to spend your life mourning it. And if I were to give one piece of advice coming from this experience of roaming around it would be this: go as many places as you can and don’t stay too long once you’re there. 

Leapfrogging from place to place is the absolute best thing! This year has been nothing if not varied, and every single flat I have been in has made me live a different way and experience an environment with a different flavour. Charlottenburg was pretty, well-developed and underrated, but was also rather quiet and lacking in curiosity. The general slightly-greater wealth of the area is so obvious you could probably taste the difference by licking a lamppost there and in Friedrichshain. My local restaurants in Friedrichshain are generally all-purpose ‘Asian’ cuisine or a hilarious and cheap little Indian place where the staff sit on the doorstep and chain smoke. In Charlottenburg the local restaurants included a lofty French bistro called ‘Pistou’ where I ate medium-rare duck liver and rocket salad and the waiters all wore tiny black waistcoats and had real-live little white towels resting over their left forearms. But another local place, Suppinger, was just a sweet little local nashery where you could get a trough of delicious soup for 3 euros, the whole place was decorated with seasonal felt shapes, and the people there clearly ate there every day and were on ‘how-are-the-kids’ terms with the waiting staff. That seems to be the main difference between east and west that you can really feel: in the west it’s posh but when it’s not it isn’t trying to be anything else apart from simply worthwhile and of good quality. In the east when something isn’t posh it is immediately “oh my god this amazing place where like all the walls are covered with pictures of famous people’s earlobes and and it’s like really cheap because no-one knows about it and it’s in the cellar of an old bombed barrel factory”. In other words, east vs. west seems to be hipsters vs. mums; American Apparel vs. Marks and Spencers.

Prenzlauer Berg was different again, in that it’s sort of somewhere in between. It’s very pleasant and at times picturesque, and there are parts of it that are really coming on in the world whereas other parts are still about as appealing as stacked wet egg-boxes. It’s heaving with bitterness on both sides: from those who used to live there when it was secretly cool but before it became openly trendy, before all the young people surged over there to indulge in the alternativeness and excitingness of the district; and from those young people who have only just moved here and accidentally caused everything to become refined and expensive simply by their mere presence. It’s now, as I have mentioned before, full of babies, but then again there are babies pouring onto the streets both in Charlottenburg and Friedrichshain so I suspect the whole ‘Preggslauer Berg’ idea is rather a myth. 

In fact, from my seasoned perspective I am of the opinion that Berliners should stop trying to compare and argue for their districts as if they were football teams. All the districts in Berlin are essentially doing the same thing and simply have different aromas, like blends of Tschibo coffee. All the districts are ‘alternative’, from the bits of the west where individuality can flourish because it’s not gripped by the determination to be individual to the east where the more different you are the better. All the districts are littered with dogs, children and bicycles, and no matter where you go none of these three groups can accept that they don’t have main priority on the pavements (although they do all agree that regular pedestrians can suck it). All the districts have odd little structural similarities, somewhat like cats that all look completely different but each have a windpipe going from mouth to lungs. Each of the districts I know well revolves around a long and horrible stretch of road, whether Frankfurter Allee or Karl-Marx-Allee or Schoenhauser Allee or Spandauer Damm, and this is always a huge, terrifying ribbon of grey malaise. This is never where the real action happens as the really good and popular parts of the district are always in one or two main capillaries joining this straight long Berzirk-artery. There is always a square where cute and community-friendly events take place and a little intersection of streets where all the 9am-drinkers hand out and toast the passers by (I once actually did raise my coffee cup to an elderly alcoholic when he raised his vodka bottle to me at 7.30am and yelled “PROST!!” – he cheered at my gesture and took a celebratory gulp).

So move around a lot, dear reader, because you will never get more of a sense of a place or of the wider world until you can hold up lots of different places up against each other in your mind and figure out how cities, countries, people work. You can go to the cool places and find them lame, and the lame places and find them cool (or just hilarious). Hell, do what my family are doing in the UK and move from isolated country house to isolated country house, because there’s still something to be gained from seeing a different type of sheep from your bedroom window. And I have to say that I would give anything to see a sheep or two around here. Perhaps their bleating would drown out the sounds of my neighbours’ suddenly awakened late-night ‘Summer loving’. 

Honey, I’m…home?

No, it’s not tidy. Feast your eyes on real, gritty Berlin life.

At least, I bloody hope this mean I’m home. Over the last few months I have been in seven different domiciles, both in the UK and in Germany – let’s break it down:

1. My UK home. Where I grew up and spent the largest part of my conscious existence. A beautiful old huge house with cavernous, airy, freezing-cold rooms and an ever-changing variety of problems to be repaired at great expense. 
2. The hostel in which I stayed when I started my time here. I haven’t really had much of a chance to write about this, since at the time I was busy trying not to end up living in a bin behind a supermarket somewhere in the city. I spent about two and a half weeks in this hostel, frantically looking at flats and attending training for my job whilst spending any free time I had learning my repertoire of songs for the ‘assessed performance’ part of the training period. Staying for a long time in a youth hostel is a completely incomparable experience. You become almost like the jaded old janitor of a night club, lurking around the building watching fresh-faced young things skip joyfully in and out with the ephemeral briefness of mayflies, while you sit in the quieter spots and bitterly glare at them or occasionally take a nap with a newspaper laid over your face. I stayed so long I knew all the names of the staff and learnt every foible of the building and its running, meaning that other guests assumed I was also staff and regularly asked me to help them with their queries and problems. Other guests came, stayed a couple of drunken and thrilled nights, and then moved on to the next exciting European city. I had my own breakfast cereal and milk which I kept on the windowsill and the reception people knew to give me a bowl when I came down in the morning.

3. My colleague’s flat. Ok, so I only stayed five days here, but five days rolled into a ball sleeping on the armchair in my colleague’s bedroom was enough.
4. The flat in Charlottenburg. See previous posts.
5. The flat on Schönhauser Allee, which I have also already mentioned, I believe.
6. My new house in the UK. 
7. My new flat in Berlin, which is comfortable and friendly and small and very ‘me’.

But most importantly, the new flat is the one. That means I’m now here for good. Hubris aside, this has been the most eye-opening experience, as nothing shows you how severely a person needs an anchor until they have it uprooted. There is a beautiful part of Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ where he writes about human beings being connected to their home by invisible tendrils which flail around in hyperspace once that person’s home is unexpectedly taken away. Adams was completely right; when you don’t have a lasting place to anchor your sense of ‘being’ to you simply drift about like a limpet squelching from rock to rock, and this life makes you feel vulnerable and unsafe, as if any moment a seagull will come and suck you out of your shell and some child will come and take it and put it on their thumb and pretend that it’s a miniature Chinese hat. So Gott sei Dank, finally there is a corner of Berlin with my name on it for good. (thunder rolls ominously in the distance)

As for the rest of what’s going on in this semi-molten glob of a city: the ice thawed and then immediately refroze into a completely invisible, transparent layer of death which caused everyone in the entire city to struggle from place to place scooting about, slipping and essentially suffering frequent comedy moments; one man yesterday was walking his little Jack Russell dog who was skittering about on the ice like a cartoon character trying to skedaddle, and so eventually the man took pity and picked his dog up. He went on with the dog in his arms, at which point he instantly fell over himself, before getting up and heading off whilst intensely conversing with the dog. Now everything has started to thaw once again in preparation for Monday morning when people have to go to work and it can once again become a teflon pavement varnish. Berlin’s small children, meanwhile, are starting to get bored and cross with the paltry selection of words and songs they are permitted to learn and are getting naughty in ever more inventive ways, running away and hiding somewhere in the school or playing London Bridge with the added rule that you have to headbutt everyone when you’re not busy being headbutted yourself. One particularly delightful boy spent the entire lesson with his hands in his knickers groping his own genitals  – oh, except for the points at which he decided to hold my hand.  At this point it is important to focus on the little things that make everything worth living through, and therefore I would like to finish this post by thanking all the children in my Thursday class for still confusing the words ‘rooster’ and ‘rock star’, and for bursting into an air guitar solo every time they do so.

O hi Internet, so good to see you again

Flat number 3, bed number 4, cat number 2. 

Since I last posted life took another sudden lunge into intense difficultness; I finally moved out of my old flat, which was unpleasant in more than just the ‘moving a whole life’s worth of stuff halfway across Berlin’ kind of way; I moved into my new flat and discovered that the place I had sorted to use as my base while I search for something more permanent does not have the internet, the lack of which honestly feels like a loss equivalent to suddenly not having any fingers; I found a place to live for December and also a place to live from January onwards, both in the coolest areas of the coolest city in Europe, and finally I began a new class of utterly insane children (but at least the receptionist at this primary school is like a sassy German version of Eddie Izzard).

The upshot of it all is that I’m now in this rather natty flat on Schoenhauser Allee with two rotund and painfully sweet cats and a woman who knits, crochets, sews and makes her own sour cream. I think this place found me rather than the other way around.

The toughest thing at this point in time is surprisingly, however, not the constant moving around or WG-viewings, but in fact teaching the little children. They are now savvy enough to know that when they fool around and don’t sing the rainbow song properly my power is limited to not giving them a stamp, and that is the beginning of a slippery slope which leads to horrific anarchy. In any one class you will encounter one or more of the following ‘problem children’:
1) The little bastard. It’s not that he is bored or that he doesn’t want to learn, the fact of the matter is that he’s the kind of disobedient little arse with the broad and mischievous grin who you hate for being so naughty but love him abundantly for that exact same reason, thus putting you in a catch-22.
2) The smug one who knows everything. Yes, there is always a swot. I’m ashamed to say that I was one back in the day, and they are perhaps even worse than the little bastards in that they don’t even have an endearingly devilish tinge to them but simply want to show you and everyone else how overwhelmingly clever they are ALL THE TIME. And then they get cocky, and then they get rude. One girl who I persuaded to take part after she demanded to be allowed to skip English because it was too easy then had the sheer gall to say, with a smirk as I taught the ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ song, “Is your shirt perhaps a little too short?”. She practically clicked her fingers and went “mmmmhmmm!!”
3) The vacant one. That child who seems to be in some other sphere of existence to the rest of us, interpreting everything we do and say as something mystical and without explanation; I have one pupil who spends every lesson in a kind of fog, slowly reaching out at everything I do/hold like a big starfish exploring a rock, and drifting mesmerised around the room while the other children sit and play games. These children are impossible and impregnable.
4) The evil twins. Ok, so they’re not usually twins (although I do actually have one pair of irritating identical twins) but these are the two kids who are glued together and cannot be parted and like to misbehave in tandem, tagging each other in when I manage to get one of them settled to actually join the lesson. They are perhaps the worst of all, and they tend to be small and agile to boot.
5) The uncut diamond. These kids are just heartbreaking; on their own they are so good, so clever and so enthusiastic – they will come to you before a lesson begins to show you that they’ve been practising their English without you having even asked them to, and they might give you a perfect answer when no-one’s looking, but the minute the rest of the kids arrive they immediately conceal all of that under a layer of shocking naughtiness which can often be impressive. One kid sung me the rainbow song before a lesson began, but then during the lesson at one point managed to stack some chairs on a desk and sit atop the horrifically dangerous tower while I tried to recover from my several parallel heart attacks.

Oh of course there are more than this, but it’s late, I’m tired from a long day at the coalface and I have a class in west Spandau tomorrow morning; for those of you not familiar with Berlin, that’s the bit of Berlin that is the leftmost crusty brown bit of the big Coffee Stain. I’m living on the rightmost crusty brown bit.

Coffee no. 6,142,561

Desperation, n : sitting in Landsberger Allee Netto reading Das Glasperlenspiel

Sit down to begin writing a blog post about coffee; decide to make a pot of coffee before starting in earnest; put kettle on; watch cafétiere slip off kitchen counter and explode into a million skin-ripping smithereens; spend half an hour sweeping and hoovering, before eventually settling for a mediocre cup of Redbush. Well, at least my dumb bad luck has a sense of irony.

Anyway, what I was planning to write this evening was to do with the fact that life at the moment revolves around coffee. Not just coffee, but hot drinks in general. Because in Berlin at the moment, when you buy a drink in a café you are not paying 1 euro and 20 cents for the delicious beverage, but purely because you simply have to be somewhere warm right now now NOW. The cold in this city is something different to usual cold, it rasps your skin like rough steel and makes all your extremities retreat into your coat in a manner similar to a tortoise. And when you spend your day running from class to flat viewing, always being early for fear of being late, there is only one alternative to sitting on a bench wishing you were in a duvet burrito. Thus I am spending my life and my savings in cafés – and it’s only October.

Tuesdays are also generally painful due to the lesson I teach every week on Tuesday afternoons, which takes place in a school so distant from the heart of Berlin that it is next to genuine arable farmland. The children in this class are fairly old, around six years old, and therefore are savvy, rude and so brilliantly cheeky you want to hug them and throttle them simultaneously. They seem to have learnt their backchat from precocious children in 90’s sitcoms; when I asked one girl when her birthday is, she sarcastically replied “Every year.” She is six and a half. One boy arrived early to my lesson because he wanted to help, announced to me that he had practised and learnt the Rainbow Song off by heart for me, gave me an eye-wateringly sweet rendition of it all by himself, and then proceeded to spend the whole class being as naughty as his little flailing limbs would allow him. One kid spit at another’s face; another stole my elastic bands keeping my flashcards together; and when I was getting them to move about a bit to get their energy up and told them all to hop up and down, they all just stood there and cynically asked, “Why?” 

I feel sorry for these kids, because it’s not their fault that they’ve been forced to sit in a classroom learning boring stuff with a short and shrill student from the British Isles, and it’s not fair that their friends are outside having a laugh and playing and not learning the months of the year. The paradox of the ‘fun lessons are productive lessons’ philosophy is that when the children are not willing, the most you can do to scold them is to say, “CHILDREN!! STOP TALKING AND LAUGHING AND MESSING ABOUT! SIT DOWN AND BE QUIET SO THAT WE CAN HAVE FUN AND PLAY TOGETHER!” Something always jars in my mind when I look at my lesson plan and think, “Oh God, we’ve got so many games to get done today we won’t even have time to blow bubbles or play with the dolphin hand puppet…” The concept of organised fun is such a precarious idea and in the realm of education I am not sure how much of a place it really ought to hold. Doubtless entertaining and interactive teaching will get an idea across infinitely more effectively than droning repetition, but I wonder if fun activities during a lesson are only truly effective if they have something more mellow to act as a contrast to; when playing becomes as much of a pedagogical demand as sitting still doing sums, even a game might feel like a chore. I see it in the kids’ behaviour, and I wonder if perhaps we are doing too much, once again, to focus on children’s love of ‘fun’ and ignoring their underappreciated curiosity and capacity to be purely interested instead of shallowly entertained. But then again, perhaps this is just me finally leaving childhood for good.

Besichtigainandagainandagainandagain…


















Yes, so I may have mentioned this briefly at length in my last post, but it is hard to find a place to live in Berlin. Let me give you an idea of the process:
1) Wake up. Immediately put kettle on.
2) Whilst the kettle is boiling for the strengthening cup of what the Germans think Earl Grey tastes like, immediately turn on laptop and open the internet.
3) Go to WG-Gesucht.de and spend the following hour and a half writing approximately twenty application emails to various room offerers, drinking your body weight in tea in an attempt to forget the fact that out of these twenty applications you will probably get one reply on a good day.
4) Shower, dress, plaster concealer over livid purple under-eye circles (a condition which I like to call ‘Laptop Eye’).
5) Leave the house for the first of many room viewings that day. Spend day traipsing around the boroughs of Berlin like an ambitious vagrant.
6) Return at the end of the day. Eat. Sleep.
7) Repeat steps 1-6. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repea… 

The success rate relative to the effort and time put into the WG search is astonishingly small. I like to think of each application as a baby seahorse: six hundred baby embryos find their way into their dad’s stomach pouch and are later squirted into the ocean waters, but in the end only three survive, the rest having been unceremoniously eaten (i.e. rejected) or simply having died of sheer patheticness (no response at all). Of the final three, two die for the sake of pathos, and the one left has a preposterous deformity which doesn’t even result in a heartwarming adventure starring the daddy seahorse and an irritating but lovable fat blue fish.
Once you have sent your applications you move onto the Besichtigungen (viewings), where you go and visit the place and try your best to make a good impression/conceal your disgust at the sheer vileness of the place you’re supposedly applying to live in. Today I was in three separate flats: the first was beautiful but the furniture was to be removed on my moving in, and for some reason the other tenants make the new tenant have a fully separate contract which means I need a letter written by my parents in German (they don’t speak a word) assuring the landlord that if I drastically break something they will pay for its repair. The second was pleasant, but I would have to buy the furniture in the room off of the current resident. The third…well, the interview was conducted with one of the flatmates lying wrapped in a blanket and the other with his eyes glued to the TV. Although I did impress the blanket man with my knowledge of robotics.
Nonetheless, it gives you a chance to really see Berlin, and not just the overdone touristy bits. It also gave me an excuse to have lunch in one of my favourite places here, the Blumencafe. The Blumencafe is filled from floor to ceiling with plants, the walls bristle with bromeliads and in the cafe itself luscious and glistening cakes stare at you through fruits and shiny green leaves. Two parrots (one pictured) mumble about and occasionally fight in the shop area. The soup is hold-on-to-your-lugnuts good and the bill always comes with a real flower on top. 
One more week to find a new place before I have to leave Charlottenburg.