Creative Arborism 101

The first in the series. A classic that defined the latter works.

Further in the series, we see an interesting juxtaposition of asymmetrical tree and signage creating balance in imbalance.

A slightly awkward piece; the ‘crossroads’ imagery seems naively overwrought here.

Quite possibly the jewel of the collection. This, the finest specimen of all the trees used in the collection, has been knowingly coupled with sublime signage and a wry parallelism with the real tree. Magnificent.

It’s that festive time of year again. When families, friends and flatmates come together across the continent, unite in their living rooms, gaze at their joyfully selected Christmas tree, hold hands and say to each other, lovingly:
“Well, that was a pretty good Christmas. Time to chuck this on the streets then.”
Since my return from the UK, the changing of the seasons seems to have been marked by little more than rubbish. The first day after New Year’s, the pavements were utterly bristling with a fetid rash of detritus: bits of fireworks, burnt-put sparklers, döner wrappers and so very much broken glass. Slightly unexpectedly considering that this city is usually kept relatively clean and litter-free in comparison to the trashfest that is London, this layer of crud was never really cleared away by anyone, so it just lay on the streets for days, tangling together slowly like washed-up seaweed on a shallow beach. 

But a few days later, after the bulk of the clobber had settled neatly into the gutters and drains, a new wave of special rubbish arrived to truly herald the new year and a fresh start. Suddenly, hundreds of small fir trees started appearing on the pavements. Some were left to grow soggy and lose their needles with time. Some were immediately seen as a canvas and haphazardly spraypainted. Some were set on fire. One that had been set on fire was then spotted by a large dog who saw it as a brilliant new toy, and that dog nearly reaped me off the pavement with his enormous blackened club jutting a metre out from his jaws each way.

Then, a few days after that, someone with an imaginative mind and, presumably, a ladder, decided to stick one of these abandoned Christmas trees into the top of a tall signpost. Inspiration struck the city. One by one, signposts were being adorned with leftover Christmas trees, the trees staying remarkably full of life despite being propped up in a long thin pipe with no access to water. 

And seriously now, something funny is happening with this changing of the seasons. Why are all these trees *still* there? Why does the lady living opposite my office kitchen window still have her festive candelabra on her windowsill? Why – seriously, why – does the pizza place down the road still have one of those plastic trees with an upturned umbrella at the base to catch the polystyrene ‘snow’ that sprays gently from the top? (And why would anyone ever choose to have one of those in their establishment at anytime ever?).

Two days ago, at the farmer’s market, I picked a nice-looking apple from the basket and the sweet bloke behind the stall said ‘Take it! Enjoy! Happy new year!’ People are still, frequently, wishing me a happy new year, even though it’s long since new and definitely seems to be doing its level best to avoid that whole ‘happy’ thing. There are still Dominocubes on sale in Kaisers – not that I’m complaining about that particular detail; Dominocubes are little blocks of soft spiced gingerbread topped with a layer of marzipan and another layer of fruity jelly and covered in chocolate, so yes, do keep those coming. But for some reason I cannot identify, this new year is having a very difficult time indeed letting go of the recent festivities.

And yet. In the supermarket, drifting brainlessly through the aisles, something purple and elongated caught my eye. A Milka bunny. I had stumbled into the Easter aisle. Chocolate eggs, little sweetie rabbits, Kinder chocolate chicks…So what is going on?! What are we doing here, guys, Christmas or Easter? Or am I jumping the gun here and those Easter treats were actually just the leftovers from last Easter, and soon we’ll start seeing Lindt rabbits and bunches of daffodils wedged into signposts as people finally decide it’s time to start getting rid  of the Easter stuff from 9 months ago?

Another pertinent question: who is going to clear up all those trees in posts in the end? Is some schmoe from the government going to go round with a really, really long version of one of those grabby-sticks and yank the trees out of the poles one-by-one? Or are they just going to stay there forever now, a legacy from a Christmas so fundamentally special that we shall never forget it.

Either way, we don’t need trees in posts to remind us that we’ve entered the cruellest part of winter; all you need to realise that is to step outside, where the biting cold has finally arrived and will make your nose feel like numb, dribbling putty in 30 seconds. This new year is about to get hardcore. Bring it on.

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.

Sticky summer evenings – time for Tzatziki Tzalad!

Three seconds after this photo was taken, the entire bowl spontaneously burst into flames.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s hot. Sad-dogs-lying-on-the-pavement hot. People-eating-ice-cream-at-10-am hot. Invasion-of-psychotic-fruit-flies-everywhere hot. After months and months and months of perpetual greyness, Europe is being rewarded for its patience with an intense burst of all its missed summers delivered in one portion. People don’t know whether to be overjoyed or to succumb to the misery of being so very, very sweaty. Children have started quietly dissolving into tears on the S-Bahn, confused and upset that they are simply so uncomfortable and why the hell can’t mum do anything about it like she usually does?

But the worst thing about dealing with the heat in Berlin is that it’s a constant toss-up between two very different, very potent and very annoying evil forces. On the one hand, you have the hot summer, damply packed into every room like wads of cotton wool. The unmoving air which makes the excel spreadsheet swim in front of your eyes until you feel like hurling the Macbook against the wall and running away, laughing maniacally. That humid heaviness on your skin, like someone’s warm hand pressed against your face.

But on the other hand there’s the bloody godawful NOISE of the place. This city is a cacophony, so obnoxiously loud that you sometimes wonder whether things aren’t being deliberately amplified just to make this effect as overwhelming as possible. You cannot imagine the noise; it’s like putting your head inside a metal bucket and having someone beat the outside of it with a massive frying pan. The eternal dilemma is whether or not to have the window open. In the office, it’s an impossible decision. Directly outside our windows – I mean directly, insofar as I could pat one of the builders on the head without even stretching – there is a colossal building works happening on the side of the neighbouring block. 


The loudness verges on being comical. The builders use a lift to go up and down which makes a noise like seven pneumatic drills switched on and thrown into an empty petrol tanker. They chuck large pieces of equipment about, vigorously hammer everything in sight, and – which is probably the worst part – raucously wolf-whistle and banter, probably roused by the beer which all German builders are for some reason allowed to drink while on the job.

At home, the situation is not much better. I live on an astoundingly loud street, where people regularly have fights below my bedroom window and where the local homeless man has a nightly mantra which sounds a little like this: “BAAAAAAAA! AAAAADABABAAAAAA! MNPHNMAAAAAAA! GRRRRAAAAA!” (repeat until dawn) Last night was something special. Despite it being a narrow and rather short little street, it sounded like they were replaying every film in the Fast and Furious series directly under my window. From what I heard, I am certain that at least three trucks did donuts in the middle of the road, then some guys came with low-riders and did drag-racing up and down the street, and then everyone had a big gangsta fight while their hos revved the engines to provide atmosphere. And, as usual, just as I was finally able to blissfully slip into a prayed-for sleep, some men in overalls came with a giant van and started throwing large bins full of glass into the back of it. Cheers guys, thanks for keeping our city green, even if it is 6.30 in the morning.

But to the point: the heat isn’t making things easy. Cooking in particular is pretty much out of the question at the moment in this flat; with a gas hob and an oven whose door droops open like an idiot’s mouth, any attempt to actually cook raises the temperature in the flat to centre-of-a-volcano levels. At times like this, all you can do is make something cool, crunchy and with as little gas involved as possible. And then follow it up with a giant slice of chilled watermelon and a therapeutic session of screaming back at the local homeless man.

***Chilled Tzatziki Tzalad*** 

This is such a perfect summer-night dinner, and I really recommend making it half an hour before you need it so you can stick it back in the fridge and let the flavours broaden a bit while everything gets nice and cold (did you know that cold temperatures increase the tongue’s ability to experience flavour, making tastes seem more intense?). Serves 1, so just multiply as required.

1/2 large red pepper
1/2 cucumber
1 stick celery
1/4 red onion (optional, but I like my quasi-Greek food stinky!)
3-4 generous tablespoons Greek yogurt/quark
1/2 garlic clove
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
Very generous pinch of salt (don’t skimp, this needs to be well-seasoned)
A few grinds of black pepper
*I made this with a bit of chicken I had kicking about in the fridge, but it’s just as good with some chickpeas or white beans instead.

1. (optional) Slice the chicken into chunks, season with salt and pepper, and lightly sauté until cooked through and golden. Put aside to cool, it cannot be used hot.
2. Chop the pepper, celery, cucumber and onion into bite-sized chunks.
3. Mince the garlic. TIP: this is super easy if you lay some clingfilm over the rasp part of your grater and rub the garlic over the top – you can then just peel off the clingfilm with the garlic and scrape it off without getting most of the garlic eternally stuck in your grater.
4. Mix the garlic, yogurt/quark, salt, pepper, mint and lemon juice in a large bowl.
5. Throw in the veg and chicken/chickpeas, then stir everything together well.
6. Pile into the serving dish and chill for 30 mins before serving. Eat with flatbread/pita.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Further Adventures of Anonymous McBlogger

“Yo soy Señor Papier-Maché, gringo.”

The thing about visiting Berlin as a tourist is that you are constantly treading the fine line between the two types of tourist that swarm around this city in their multitudes: the typical doughy, shorts-wearing people who take constant streams of photos and simply have to see anything that is to do with Berlin, Germany and (regrettably) the Holocaust, and the lithe, toothy young things who search out only the ‘realest’ and grittiest things Berlin has to offer. Thanks to these two groups the city is a whirlwind of awful baseball caps and neon colours, plastic souvenir TV-Towers and entire spectrums of plimsoll shoes. Each group looks down on the other; the ‘touris’ spurn the hipsters because they’re either drunk or stupid-looking, and the groovy youths are disgusted by the touris because they enjoy normal things that normal people enjoy. 

The touris are happily occupied meandering around the Reichstag dome or having money painfully surgically extracted in the TV Tower, but the American Appareltroopers are busy looking for something more wild, and they usually end up at the Kunsthaus Tacheles. Homeplace of the brilliant loo-roll-and-PVA-glue hombres you see above, the Kunsthaus Tacheles is an abandoned and reclaimed old shopping centre which was overtaken by bunches of artists who filled the entire building with mental art, clanging music and the stench of urine. Within the building one follows two scarily dark, winding staircases through the echoing blasts of weird music into little rooms with mini-exhibitions, some fantastic and some just plain unnerving. There is jewellery to buy and deranged bald men wearing bowler hats to avoid making eye contact with. It’s the wrecked and beautiful building that made the scene in Goodbye Lenin where (sigh) Daniel Bruhl and the attractive nurse sit on the edge of a dewalled room and talk about their feelings and stuff. There are clubs and bars and artists’ workshops, and it’s brilliant and terrifying and exciting, and most tragically of all, it’s all about to go away forever because the artists have finally lost the house to people who want to use the location for a new shopping centre, something which Berlin clearly desperately needs. There are pots everywhere begging for donations to keep the place going and if you ask me, despite the urine-funk it’s worth it.

Thus the two tribes of tourists fail to annoy each other most of the time and save their annoyingness to get on the nerves of people who have the good fortune to live here. They rarely have a chance to mingle because there are few things in the city that appeal to both at the same time. 

Until you get to the East Side Gallery. 


 The East Side Gallery is the longest still-standing stretch of the real Berlin wall in Berlin and features all those famous bits of Wall art that you see in the history books, like the kiss painting or the Trabi bursting through the wall. I had to see it one last time before I left simply because it has such an incredible effect; the very idea of a huge concrete call literally chopping an entire city impermeably in half is fairy-tale villainesque to me, and to be able to walk along it is undeniably impressive. What makes it even better is that when I fist saw the wall in 2008 all this art was hidden under a vile vomitous smear of graffiti by moronic tourists who seemed to think that the art was simply an invitation for them to add their own input in the form of some glib statement about freedom or their girlfriend. In 2009, Berlin decided that it wanted to take back what was rightfully its own expression of freedom and invited all the original artists to come back and repaint what they had originally created; although there is still the occasional “I <3 Chaz 2010” thoughtlessly scratched into the paint the pictures are all now so crisp and colourful they glow in the sun. Along the strip there are a few awesome beach bars where you can sit at the riverside and let the sultry sounds of high-volume club music lull you into a restful afternoon daze.


But the people. Oh, the people. Everyone goes to the East Side Gallery, regardless of genre of tourist, because it is free and genuine and one of the few divided-Berlin artefacts that hasn’t been directly shoved in a museum, and naturally also because it is genuinely great. This means that in walking along the wall you spend your entire time on the verge of anger ducking under the scope of people’s cameras as they take photos of each other high-fiving by the wall or hilariously stroking the chin of Gorbatschow. You might, like I did, have to help a group of tittering English girls have their photo taken sexily posing with a guy dressed as a border control guard against a painted metaphor for the torture of feigned social contentedness. You will have people offering to stamp your passport with a ‘genuine DDR passport control stamp’, or you might even have the chance to buy a genuine fragment of clumsily spray-painted concrete which genuinely looks like a genuine piece of the genuine wall. There are gangs of tourists who inexplicably march along the length of the wall barely registering the thing itself as if it were simply a big long corridor leading to a Schnitzel convention. There are naive tourists who pay a lot of money for the faux border guard to stand by the wall looking serious and properly-DDR even though the man is Turkish with long hair, a beard and multiple piercings. There are tourists who seem to have made some sort of mistake and clearly don’t know where they are or what they are looking at, and are simply standing by the wall having arguments with eachother holding maps.



So do go to the East Side Gallery, please, and do enjoy it before it gets covered in people’s hilarious catchphrases daubed onto the anus of the dove of peace painting; but go before the majority of people are awake.


Berlin: Where “rest” is nothing more than a type of rubbish

And what do you find when you go looking for peace and quiet? Men on sticks, of course.

I’m a country lass, born and bred, as I believe you already know. Brought up surrounded by fields, farms and circling red kites, where the only traffic noise you could hear was the aggrieved squawk of a pheasant who had another pheasant standing in its way. It’s deadly dull when you’re little, of course, and you find yourself whiling away endless days making anything and everything out of sticks and rocks in order to pass the time, but once you’re older the true blissfulness of the situation begins to become obvious. It’s just so quiet, so relaxed, and the distance from any centre of urban activity is only annoying up until the point where you realise it is a sacrifice worth making in order to have the joy of seeing sheep and partridges out of your bedroom window.

Berlin is not like this. Berlin is noisy. Good grief, it’s the noisiest place I have ever been for more than a fortnight (I say this as I was once in Hanoi and being in that city is like having your head inside a metal bucket while someone hammers it with a pole from the outside). As I write, the builders who have for no evident reason overtaken our building to renovate it are apparently just throwing heavy things around for fun and dragging other heavy things along a stretch of corrugated tin. These cheerful men arrive every day around 6.30am to begin their work, a lot of which seems to involve a large and powerful flamethrower which I had thought I was simply dreaming until I saw the weapon lying by the Innenhof door. I am glad that our Hausmeister is ensuring that the building stays in good nick, but on the other hand I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in about a month and I am starting to develop a psychotic twitch. 

I also have the good fortune to have the bedroom facing into the Innenhof. In Berlin flats, every building has an interior courtyard where all the bikes and bins are parked and where the windows all face each other. Thus my bedroom window looks out into everyone else’s flat and vice versa, and now that it’s summer and everyone’s windows are casually left open the entire Innenhof has become a gallery of people’s private but very LOUD goings on. Thus complimenting the jolly morning builders I am subjected to a throbbing techno rave from one of three different flats every single night at sleepytime, which occasionally gives way either to the Dolby Surround(TM) thunder of the next-door neighbours’ action film evenings or the equally loud and unignorable sounds of them doing it like they do on the Discovery channel, if you get my drift.

The whole city is a frenzied exhausting mess of noise, from the punks on the street yelling at each other’s dogs, to the church bells which ring whenever the hell they feel like it, to the over-cheerful “boooo-BEEEE-booo” of the S-Bahn doors which is starting to have the same effect on me as the “boo-bee-boo-boo-bee” in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘. Children screech around the streets like gibbons in the rainforest and terrible amateur indie-rock-folk bands spontaneously start three-hour grunge-jam sessions mere metres away from the bar you and your friends choose to have a quiet after-work drink. Buskers lodge their bongos directly in your ears and bicyclists yell at you for having a mass and a circumference. I feel like I have a miniature television glued to each of my shoulders permanently switched to full-volume MTV Cribs/Pimp my Ride marathons. Us country types are gentle and fragile souls, so we are. Sometimes the need to and impossibility of escape gets a bit much. My curtains are transparent orange gauze, so my bedroom offers no repose. This morning on the bus I closed my eyes and tried to retreat into a quiet inner oasis when the bus driver suddenly pumped the brake on and off repeatedly, making the bus lurch around like a breakdancing camel, before he then looked at me in the rear-view mirror and made the following announcement over the loudspeaker: “NICHT schlafen!!” 

So where does one go when one needs a bit of time out of the Gewimmel? Luckily the genius of Berlin is that its sheer rambunctious noise is well-recognised and antidotes are provided here and there for those of a more sensitive disposition. The Botanicher Garten is a wonderful place to spend an entire day, requiring nothing more than a tiny entrance fee to allow you to dopily drift around the gorgeous wild-flower meadow and romantic Italian garden and steamy glasshouses for as long as you like into the early evening. There is an incredibly brilliant bakery on the way from the S-Bahnhof to the gardens where you can pick up little bags of shortbread covered in butterscotch and seeds or puff-pastry diamonds dusted with spices and cheese, and with those in your pocket there’s little more you need for a perfect Sunday. 

Berlin is also surrounded by its many Sees, lakes which range in size from the massive kind which lend themselves to wholesome activity days of bike riding and bird watching to the smaller kind which are simply big ponds and perfect for a good long reflective wander. The Lietzensee in Charlottenburg is particularly sweet, cut in half by a mysterious-looking bridge-tunnel-thing and with a cafe on one end where one can sit and regard the ducks and resist the urge to go and throw bread at them and giggle like a five-year-old. The Plötzensee, as mentioned in a previous post, is ideally suited for a beer and a sunbathe, while the Wannsee has canoe hire on offer, among other things. If you are a wandering or nature-type, you won’t be short of places to escape to here.

But this is all dependent on the weather not being as it is right now, namely rainy and windy and petulantly impulsive like a spoilt little girl. Where do you go when the idea of being outside makes your soul shiver? That’s a tricky one, but there are still options. Most café owners in Berlin seem to think that the average customer likes eardrum-quaking blasts of 1980’s classics while they nurse their espresso macchiato, but Berlin’s libraries are often fantastic places, busy but quiet and often featuring somewhere to get a coffee or ice lolly (which we all know is crucial to the reading process). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally pop to the library simply for a good hour of reading books I would never dream of actually loaning, such as books on quilting or vegan shoe production or (nostalgic sigh) good old Asterix and Tintin. Hey, if it’s in German it counts as education. The Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek has a particularly good book selection and a friendly man who helps you with the stacks orders, while the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg library has a huge array of music and CDs. If being in a labyrinth of fingered books isn’t your bag and you just want to sit somewhere a surprising pocket of calm can be found in the smaller bakeries, where there is usually no background music, one or two little shaky plastic tables and a friendly lady who’ll brew you up a peppermint tea for a few cents. 

Alternative moments of meditation can be found riding the escalators all the way up to the top of the eight-story Galeria Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz and back down again, accidentally riding the train all the way to somewhere remote or drifting around pet shops being mesmerised by the lizards and baby rabbits. I have also heard on the grapevine that the holy grail of quiet time-killing is any Apple store, where you can go and play with the iPads/Pods/Puffs for hours without any of the hipster staff telling you to shove off. But don’t quote me on that; who knows what those people have been trained to do… 

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’. 

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.
 

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.

Pinch, punch…

You should see the size of the Jenga…

It was the first of May yesterday, and in Berlin that can mean only one thing: time to take to the streets. May the first is traditionally a ‘worker’s day’, a day when employees in Germany have the day off; in olden days they used to do the appropriate thing and stick poles in the ground, ponce around with ribbon and give flowers to pretty young maidens, but since then the grand old customs have slightly changed to mean that people in worker’s unions protest in droves, swarming around cities claiming various worker’s rights and condemning wrongs against the working man. I am told that this is particularly popular in Berlin, to the extent that people from all over Germany pilgrimage here to demonstrate with the hordes. It gets incredibly heated and sometimes violent; I have also heard that for this reason policemen also pilgrimage from all over Germany to have the fun of keeping all the rabble in line. While my flatmates were reluctant to go near our local Kiez in order to avoid getting into any scrapes, I had been obliviously roaming around the city for the entire morning completely unaware that at any moment I could be swept into a giant procession of furious demonstrators; it is incredible the amount you can miss in this place if you are not officially down wit da hood.


However, later that evening I finally encountered the Great Uprising I had been promised. In Neukölln, marauding down Karl-Marx-Allee, were thousands of people, all shouting so that their combined noise became just a hoarse roar. I walked past a row of police vans and an ambulance crew tending an unconscious figure lying in the street, whilst trying to dodge the huge shards of glass strewn all over the pavements and gawping at the spectacle of the mob in front of me. There were so many people and they were marching in such a steady and driving stream that for a while I assumed they were all riding on floats, it looked like a fast-streaming river of bodies. They eventually moved on in their column and left behind a kind of exploded-flea-market assortment of broken stuff and torn clothing in the street, while a few of them stopped off in the Thai Imbiss my friend and I were in, presumably to fuel the enraged fire of their protest with a mild green curry. 

What were they protesting for? Don’t think I didn’t ask. No-one, in fact, knows what they were protesting for; the best answer anyone could give was ‘worker’s rights’. It seems that on the first of May you protest, no matter what for. The day is simply there to show that you want things to get better in general, an all-purpose battle against The Man and Capitalist Pigs and all that oppressive jazz. These demonstrators are simply here because they’re here because they’re here because they’re here. Because they’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Good for them, I say; just look how much progress the protest have made so far in the name of improving the state of employment in Germany. Err…

Anyway, there was another reason why I was so shocked to hear about this apparently infamous May Day tradition after my morning of wafting around Berlin’s windy streets, besides having not even detected the faintest hint of civil unrest in the atmosphere in the hours I was outside. This second reason was the adorable and cheery church-fête-like Fest that was being held in a park just outside the Ring Center and which could not have been less evocative of anger or protest if it had tried. The closest I got to seeing any violence was the karate demonstration they had on the main stage in between the Dixieland version of ‘Crazy Right Now’ and the sweet young girls’ talent display. There were people selling Quark balls and old men playing giant chess. At little trestle tables one could be taught how to do origami, paint plaster of Paris or decorate biscuits with icing. The lower end of Möllendorfstraβe was closed off so that a school basketball tournament could take place. The only thing strewn around the walkways was a plethora of bouncy castles. How could most of the city be rioting when Frankfurter Allee was hosting such a sweet little afternoon of innocent fun and jollity? 

Apparently there were little May Day parties happening all over the place, and Kreuzberg even started their own massive May Day almost-carnival tradition in 2003 to try to cheer up all the workers of the coolest district enough to give up their plans of violence and rage and simply be happy with balloons and a big slice of cake. It’d work for me. But if the Kreuzberg festival was started to negate the demonstrations, I would love to know which thing came first: the fun or the frenzy? In England when we have a bank holiday we stoically have picnics in the drizzle or go for a pub lunch somewhere suitably rustic; in Germany apparently you do the two most opposite things you can think of within mere metres of one another. God, this place is mad. I love it.