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.

This little piggy went to market

I know what you’re thinking: damn, that’s a cool umbrella.

What do Berliners hate the most? Tourists. What do tourists hate the most? Tourists also. Tourists come to Berlin for one of two reasons: either to see the splendour of German modernity directly parallel to the horror of remnants of a tortured past, or to be, like, totally alternative and underground and do non-touristy awesome gritty Berlin stuff. To be fair, the latter is what most Berliners are trying to do anyway. And all of this is relatively moot, because the few real born-and-bred* Berliners are just middle-aged guys trying to enjoy a coffee and a Brötchen while doing their best to ignore the idiot hipsters sashaying down the street in trucker caps.

Anyone looking for a less obvious and ‘ooh-take-a-picture’-y activity in Berlin would be hard pressed to find anything better than one of the excellent markets sprawled all over the streets of this patchwork city. When the Christmas markets aren’t filling the air with the intoxicating, thick aroma of Glühwein, there are all kinds of other terrific specimens up for grabs, tiny to enormous, cruddy to overtly pretentious, and everything in between. And as they are often the only thing happening on the otherwise DEAD waste of 24 hours which the Germans call ‘Sonntag’, I’ve been to a lot of them lately.

First the big guns: Mauerpark. The Mauerpark flea market (photo above courtesy of one fine vendor) is probably the most colossal market in the entire city. If you were to stop and look at every single stand you could easily spent a good seven hours there and you’d probably end up accidentally buying a jar of flavoured honey, an old pocket-watch and a Turkish pancake just out of sheer overwhelmed confusion. It’s also host to the famous weekly Bearpit karaoke which I mentioned decades ago in this excellently written sample of bloggery

*N.B. if you are the person who I recently found spelling it ‘born and bread’, shame on you. What do you think ‘born and bread’ even means? Blood is not thicker than pita.



As with all flea markets in Berlin, you really have to either go with a sharp eye ready or not bother going at all (if you plan on buying anything, that is). There is such a sea of detritus awaiting you that anyone of a weak constitution will not know what to do with themselves. Full cardboard boxes brimming with broken mugs and sculptures of Jesus and the lid of a bread-maker (which, presumably, will one day be bought by someone). On first glance it looks like a hopeless cause, but there is actually a lot to be extracted from the offerings. There is a man who sells his own home-grown salad leaves, and if you give him a euro and ask him to ‘freestyle’ he will just pick out a big mixture for you based on what he thinks you’ll enjoy. There are Vietnamese people selling incredibly cheap and cool sewing stuff, and guys with giant biceps hand-pressing fresh orange juice at unbelievable speed. A sweet old lady there sells herbs that she grows herself from seed, and when I bought a tiny little oregano seedling from her she wrapped it prettily in newspaper and said, “People think I’m fifty – I’m actually SEVENTY-EIGHT! Gardening keeps you young!! It’s the key to good life!!!” She’s right.

But the Mauerpark flea market is as notorious as it is enormous, and people throng there in such masses that it’s probably the first topic that’s ever required me to use the verb ‘throng’. And yes, for that reason you get the tourists and the expats (cough cough) fighting over vintage bags and saying things like, ‘Oh may Gahd, they’ve got hemp candles scented with basil’ (pronounced ‘bay-zil’, because American English is wrong). This week I wanted to go somewhere a little more…little, and I had the Crellestraße Turkish market in mind since I now have to work whenever the Maybachufer market is on (that’s another post).

 The Maybachufer market is a Turkish market whose size rivals the Mauerpark and is as mental as it is huge. It’s incredible, it’s loud, but most importantly it has some of the most gorgeous and cheap fabrics you can buy in this city; as the proud new owner of a kick-ass military-grade sewing machine, I was looking for some fodder to test out this bad boy properly. Squid skirts don’t count. And when the Turkish vendors aren’t at the Maybachufer, they are dispersed around Berlin at mini-markets like this one.

The Crellestraße market (near Yorckstraße S-Bhf) is an awesome last resort for anyone who’s missed the big Turkish market or just wants to go to a market that is small, a bit more normal and doesn’t contain even one pesky tourist. The fruit and veg on offer is astounding: not just beautiful flat peaches and mangos and chilis but more off-kielter stuff like these Asian aubergines, globe courgettes and baby okra, which I have never even seen before. 

Because it’s a smaller and more intimate market you also get more of an opportunity to chat with the sellers and have a bit more fun. The sweet aubergines and baby okra were being sold by a guy whose stall stood out because it seemed so hilariously mediocre. Compared to the other grocers at the market, whose stalls were practically collapsing with mountains of produce, he had a few lame little cardboard boxes scattered about, each barely half-full with dull-looking little nothings. I love an underdog, so I had to see what this was all about, and I realised that although he wasn’t selling much, the dull-looking nothings were in fact small amounts of really exciting and exotic stuff that you really won’t find anywhere else even in this crazy city. East-Asian varieties of uncommon herbs, weird new varieties of chilis, the aforementioned tiny-weeny okra… I didn’t even know what I would do with any of it but I did need ginger, and when I grabbed a bulb he simply decided through personal joie-de-vivre that it would cost me fifty cents. I complimented him on his insane array of produce and he said, “I’m Egyptian! It’s all from Egypt! That’s why it’s all so great!” I believed him. 

I love the big markets, but for good banter you can’t beat the smaller ones. So when I took the above photo for you lovely readers, the seller waved his arms and shouted, “Hey, hey, HEY! Those are copyrighted!”, before giving me a toothy grin. 

And yes, I did find some fabric. It’s got yellow flowers and intricate Japanese vases printed on it, and it was two bucks a metre.

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

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

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

It was hot. No, she’s not dead. 

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

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

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

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

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



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

The Plague

“And ye shalt all be punished for your sins by damage of yon intestynes and kidneees!”

You may or may not be aware, but Germany is in the middle of the biggest health scare since <insert irritating Bild article here>. Its name is EHEC, it’s a virus which might cause permanent damage to your kidneys or intestines, and if it’s feeling really racy that day it might even go the whole hog and kill you. Some newspapers are genuinely calling it a plague, while even the initial skeptics such as myself are starting to get a little uneasy about it since it’s spreading, it’s dangerous and no-one has any clue what causes it. One thing’s for sure: now’s the time to be buying cucumbers, as the poor things are languishing on shelves for mere cents a piece. The question is, are you going to take the risk?

I suppose that if there’s one thing I will always be able to say about my year abroad, it’s that it was never boring. Trust me to come over here in a plague year. The reaction to this new crisis is rather jarring, as no-one is really quite sure what to do. At first Spanish cucumbers were thought to be the source, and although they needed a couple more days to be completely certain that they has caused the spread the German government did the understandable thing and advised people to avoid them while they were so heavily under suspicion. Spain has been furious about this, as evidently it would have been better to keep quiet and let people chow down on potentially infected food as long as the vaguely-tasteless vegetable trade is kept on an even keel. Since then it has been determined that the cucumbers are, in fact, not the cause of the infection, although the fact that many of the samples were chosen for study because they were host to other types of E. Coli is apparently something we are also now allowed to completely ignore. We now have no idea what could possibly cause it but for some reason the governments are determinedly upholding their warning against cucumbers, tomatoes and salad, as they are the foods which all the victims have in common; given that this is a country that lives on Brötchen and that every filled Brötchen contains at least one slice of tomato, cucumber and one lettuce leaf this seems rather unsurprising. What about Wurst??

Trying to find some kind of better factual source to find out about this is not easy; all the newspapers are relishing making this sound as doomsdayesque as possible, so real figures or realistic risk assessments only crop up very occasionally in comparison to exciting-sounding repetitions of the words “bloody diarrhoea”. When real facts do emerge they are fascinatingly strange; the predominance in women being chalked down to the fact that women are cooking more and therefore more in contact with unwashed produce (thanks a lot, chauvinist PIGS), or the fact that for some reason strawberries have been found to be completely safe. In my search for genuine information I foolishly went to the forums of Toytown Germany, a site which offers a community for English-speaking people who have moved to Germany.
It’s a brilliant idea of course, and the concept works very well; there are discussion boards for people to ask questions and help each other out, and the community feeling is well-established through frequent and regular themed meet-ups for anyone who might feel a bit lost or just want to get out a bit more. However, there are two reasons why I myself have never quite got stuck into the ‘Town myself:
1) once you start fraternising with your own kind over here, particularly in Berlin and other big cities, it is all too easy to stay in the pack forever. I want to meet natives, goddammit; I want to learn their customs, partake in their rituals and try on the loincloths, you know? And I am of the opinion that one of the best ways to do that is just to dive straight in Bruce-Parry style and drink the cow’s blood.
2) The site is, despite its many friendlinesses, one of the most hostile online environments I have ever witnessed.

The discussion forums are the nucleus of the whole operation, and just a cursory glance around the various threads seems to suggest that if these discussions were taking place in a pub rather than online people would be hitting each other with tankards and chucking Pilsner at each other. There is not a single topic that doesn’t seem to at some point spontaneously take a horrible and bitter turn and become bewilderingly insulting and aggressive. Take the case of a poor, confused student who simply wanted to move to Berlin and get a job there for a bit. He turned to the website hoping for a little support and some suggestions from the friendly ex-pat community; what he got instead was a textbook case of the lace-curtain twitchers, as the members berated him for coming over here, stealing our jobs… “It’s hard enough to get a job as a real Berliner without you thoughtless hippies coming here and thinking you’ll just find work,” complained a variety of non-real-Berliners who had come here and just found work in the place in question. 


But the EHEC discussion is one of the worst. How can people get so toxic and so vicious about an impersonal disease? The thread, beginning with a mild discussion of the risks, devolved into personal attacks so fast you’d think they were trying to be a metaphor for a virulent mutated strain of some horrible intestinal virus. One member immediately mounted her skyscraper-high horse and declared that vegetarians have known for years that you don’t need any of the risk foods if you have soy in your life, while another quite jarringly but with astonishing confidence compared EHEC to the horrible Love Parade incident a while back where a few poor people got crushed to death at a music festival due to overcrowding. No, I don’t really understand why either, but when asked to explain his comment he simply responded with, “Well I don’t see why I should and I don’t like your tone, but all I’m saying is that the government just sat and allowed innocents to die brutally.”


This doesn’t particularly have a moral except to say that it’s fascinating how a resource that is supposed to create a sense of unity and support so often falls back on hostility and conflict. There are hundreds of members throughout the country, and they all clearly get something out of it, but between the lines there’s a kind of ‘I know what I’m doing here, but what are you doing here??’ feel to the whole thing. 


But let me use this to give advice to anyone thinking of coming here on their year abroad: don’t rely on the ex-pat and foreign student support services you might find here. They may help you find you find your feet, but you will do much better to get out there and find your own mini-community who are there for you – not because you have a life situation in common but because you have stumbled upon each other and find each other worthwhile human beings. It’s not easy and it’s definitely slow going, but in the end when you are lying in your hospital bed with EHEC you’ll want people at your side and not an open laptop.


P.S. The picture at the top of this post is from the Bear Pit Karaoke session which takes place every Sunday at the Mauerpark Flea Market. It began some years ago when a crazy Irish dude saw the mini-Colosseum stage in the park and decided to set up a speaker and a microphone so that people could make idiots of themselves in the most public way possible outside of the broadcasting networks. It became so popular so fast that he now has a karaoke buggy with speakers and laptop and sound equipment bolted on, a loyal girlfriend who fiddles with his cables (no, she really does) and a waiting list of people dying to sing their favourite song. The event always begins with this beardy and formidable bear of a man singing the German version of “My Way” (‘Mein Leben’) and he himself has become such a legend that this time a woman leapt out of the audience to hand him a single white rose, which he unfortunately snapped in his sheer passion. The talent is…variable, ranging from the lanky Bowie-a-like who sang a sultry version of ‘Summertime’ without music to the woman who sung ‘Beat It’; she had dressed up as Michael Jackson, learned the dance and even done her hair as the Jacko, but evidently was so wrapped up in her preparation that it never crossed her mind to ever once in her life LISTEN TO THE SONG. “Beat it…beat it…bea…beat it…it…b…beat…beat it….” For an excruciating four minutes.