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.

Discoveries of an unhinged chef

Ahh, aubergine. Probably the most delicious sponge you’ll ever eat.

I’ve always cooked like Frankenstein (“It’s Franken-STEEN!!”). I stitch recipes together, shove mystery things into boiling liquids, do unexpected things to unexpected vegetables, and all with the express determination to eat whatever the heck I create, no matter how strange or indigestible it might be. Sometimes, this does not end well – particularly now that I am living on my own and therefore have free reign in the kitchen to cook as insanely as I want. However, my years of dedicated experimentation is all carried out with the ultimate goal of making recipes better, difficult techniques easier and good food…well, good-er. I want to dispel stupid cooking myths and make exciting discoveries; I want to make tofu taste incredible and find a way to cook kohlrabi without it smelling like farts (still no success); I want to find at least ONE HUNDRED different uses for my melon baller which I got one year for Christmas. Yes yes oh yes

In honour of the current GMBerlin kitchen, which has seen me through some rough times (and caused a good few of those rough times plus I may have set fire to my hair once or twice) I thought it was time to publish a few of my most proud discoveries so that you, too, can cook like a crazed Berliner, tinkering away at the stove, cooking up joy with her hair ablaze.

1. Aubergines. If you fry them, you end up using half a bottle of oil which all gets soaked up and turns this healthy vegetable into a sweaty, oily slab. If you stew them, they disintegrate entirely. Roasting them is awesome, but if your oven door hangs open like the messiah’s tomb, you may want to forego this technique. BUT there is a magic secret way! Cut the aubergine into 1cm thick slices and let the slices cook on the surface of a hot DRY pan until they start to brown on one side and get damp on the other. Then flip the slices and brown/almost blacken them on the other side. This sweats out their moisture so you can then finish off the cooking with a brief sauté in a splash of oil, a flip in a wok with the rest of your stirfry, or simply longer spent browning on each side so you get that charred, barbeque effect in the photo above. The flavour intensifies and sweetens, and the flesh gets a bit more meaty rather than soggy in texture.

2.i. Mushrooms. Are a bit like aubergines. Also tend to be soggy or greasy and rarely nicely browned. Mushrooms are also perfect for the above technique: dry-fry them, chopped, until they stop releasing any liquid and stop making that weird squeaking noise. Then fry them briefly with some oil to produce the most mushroomy, intense, delicious pile of breakfast wonderment – also good on pasta. Or anything.


2.ii. Mushrooms always taste better when they have a generous splosh of soy sauce added. It doesn’t make them taste ‘asian-y’, it just makes them taste…well, it’s the difference between a plate of pleasant grey fungus and a plate of savoury joy. I now do this step whenever I cook with mushrooms, even if they’re being added to something like a frittata or a stew.

3. Tofu’s weird. I bought some because I was dead impressed about some friends of mine who were upping their protein intake with all kinds of spacey vegetarian voodoo like tofu, seitan, tempeh, and faifoomh. The last one is made up and I bet you didn’t even realise. I experimented with the tofu and found that it’s good and very nutty but somehow a bit plasticky in aftertaste, like when you used to sometimes suck your toys when you were little. The answer? Spread marmite on your dry tofu before cooking it. Sounds insane; looks insane; tastes goddamn great.

4. Always have cream cheese in your fridge. Although it seems like a rather one-trick pony – spread on toast, with or without salmon…err, that’s it – it is one of the most useful things you can have on hand and makes a thousand different dinners. You can stir a blob of it into soups or pasta sauces to make them creamy and rounded in flavour; you can mix it with puréed vegetables and parmesan to make your own creative pesto; you can mash it into mashed potatoes with garlic and black pepper for days when you are tired of life, and mix it with crumbled goats’ cheese for a much better goaty version of ricotta, which everyone knows tastes of cold nothing anyway.

5. Respect the French and their Mirepoix. Mirepoix is supposed to be the base of every recipe and it’s essentially a diced onion, a diced carrot and a diced stick of celery gently sweated in the pot before the rest of the recipe kicks in. It makes your cooking taste wonderfully rounded and aromatic, and yes it also helps you to get your five a day yawn yawn yawn. Seeing as celery costs as much as a liver transplant in Germany I’ve had to forego that part of the magic trilogy, but I still find that a grated carrot cooked with my diced onion at the start of a recipe adds a lot of flavour and texture – and health smugness.

6. Fry your tomato puree. This sounds moronic, but if you add the tommy-P to the pot at the very beginning with a glug of oil and cook it for a minute or two until its colour changes it tastes much less metallic-raw and starts to go mellow, sweet and intense. 

7. Don’t peel butternut squash. The peel is good for you and really delicious, with a chewy toothsome texture. Also, kiwis are totally fine eaten skin-on without peeling – I promise it doesn’t feel like eating a man’s hairy leg, even if you think it might like I once did.

8. And finally – avoid painful accidents. Be very careful tasting penne for doneness in case it machine-guns a spurt of boiling water onto your vulnerable tongue. Don’t leave a wooden spoon in the flame of your gas hob, especially not for a good few minutes until you smell smoke. Don’t think it will be fine to remove corn-on-the-cob from boiling water with a spaghetti spoon. Don’t let pickled gherkin juice squirt into your eye somehow. And when squeezing your tomato puree out of the tube, be careful that the tube doesn’t suddenly and unexpectedly bend backwards and ejaculate a stream of red hell all over your clothes and legs. Hypothetically speaking, of course.   

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. 

The Chef Not-So-Special: Kitchen Hacks

Come on. Admit it. You’ve never used those things on the grater either.

There are more cooking sites on the internet than there are feckless youths like me to actually try out all the recipes. I am completely addicted to all of them. But it’s not the recipes that hook me, or the photos (food porn is exploitative and presents an unrealistic ideal of food to impressionable people), nor is it the bloggers’ jocular little anecdotes (incidentally, is it the law to get pregnant if you write a cooking blog?). No, it’s the weird little things you pick up, the strange little tips and new ways of using utensils and X that you can substitute for Y if you want to make your Z more like a Q. I don’t think I’m really an amateur chef, more like a professional kid-making-mud-pies-with-a-tadpole-garnish. It’s the experimentation that makes cooking fun, exciting and often hilarious, and now that I’ve been doing it for a few years I’ve accumulated a veritable wealth of useless kitchen advice which doesn’t really count as ‘recipes’ or ‘tips’ or even ‘guidelines’ but more along the lines of things which make you go “huh”. 

I was inspired to write this post a couple of weeks ago, in fact, when a friend of mine and her boyfriend were cooking curry and making a shamefully delicious side dish of caramelised courgettes tossed in yoghurt with paprika. Poor Boyfriend was laboriously slicing the courgette into the required thin rounds when I handed him my incredibly party-hat grater (above; and yes, there ain’t no party like a coleslaw party) and suggested he just do it on the mandoline slits. Chucka-chucking a courgette through those funny little smile-shaped slots sliced the courgette in about two minutes and Boyfriend was irate that the world had not yet taught him such a useful courgette technique. Actually, it doesn’t seem like many people even know what those big wide mouths on the side of the grater are for except for maybe thinking you put a belt-strap through them to wear your grater like a celtic warrior’s sash. That would be formidable, come to think of it…But not even I knew until I was taught myself a couple of years earlier and expressed the same amazement. These little kitchen hacks, Ray Mears-style survival tricks for the domestic, save time and money and effort and sometimes are just delightful and satisfying in themselves. And thus, without further ado, I now share my wisdom with all of my dearest online friends.

1. Yes, the slots on the grater are for slicing thin rounds of things, and it works very well indeed. You want to push the thing down against the slot so it’s at a 45 degree angle to the table surface and shove it up and down in a nice robotic rhythm. Good for: courgette, cucumber, carrot, radishes, beetroot. Not good for: fibrous things like leeks, or human fingers.

2. That other bit on the grater? The rough pointy bit that you really hope you never have to rub against your face? It has no uses, and yet endless uses. Use it to mince anything like ginger, garlic, galangal etc – and if you do, pop a double-layer of clingfilm over the top of the spikes before you get started. Rub the chunk round and round in mini circles until it’s all pulped up, then you can just peel off the clingfilm and scrape it right into the pan without having to spend four hours scrubbing the damn grater with a toothbrush to get all the tiny reeking garlic fibres out of those claw-like barbed holes. You can also scrub a piece of toast or very stale bread against it to get breadcrumbs, use it to grate nutmeg, or rough up the sides of apples so that the toffee sticks to them properly when you’re making toffee apples for halloween!

3. You can sharpen a blunt knife on a mug. I KNOW. As long as you have a ceramic mug with a rough, unglazed base, all you have to do is invert the mug and scrape the knife blade along the rough surface with the blade at a 45 degree angle to the rough surface. And never sharpen a wet knife. Don’t ask me why, The Guild would throw me out.

4. You know toasters? Oh, they are far more than their name suggests, my friend. Not only can you toast slices of bread in them, but you can crisp and warm up bread rolls on top of them (thank you Berlin Flatmate!), prop cold falafel over the slots to get it hot and crunchy, cook frozen potato waffles in them, and I have even discovered that on their side they will make you cheese on toast. The toaster is humankind’s greatest ally and my university comrades will attest that I am the toaster’s most devoted harlot. Use yours well.

5. Oh maaaan, it’s so boring cutting a perfect circle of greaseproof paper to fit your cake tin! So do it the tissue-paper-flower-maker way: get a piece of greaseproof paper bigger than your tin, fold it in half again and again and again until it’s a triangle of eighths, hold it over your tin so the point of the triangle is roughly in the middle of the tin, pinch the edge of the paper where it meets the side of the tin and tear off the end. Open out the paper and you will have an octagon which fits your tin and you didn’t have to go and get a pencil and some scissors and suddenly take a break from baking for a brief arts and crafts session. This tip was taught to me by a Mexican lady who was making margarita cake at the time, so you know it’s a good one.

6. Caramelising onions is a con. You don’t need to cook them gently in a fist-sized knob of butter for an hour while singing French chansons. You can do it in fifteen minutes if you chop ’em up against the grain (the slices fall apart and melt more easily that way), cook them gently in a bit of oil in a non-non-stick pan, and keep a glass of water beside you. The caramelisation flavour comes from all that lovely brown caramelised crustiness that accumulates on the bottom of the pan, and all you need to do is add about a tablespoon of water to the pan every time it gets to a nice toffee colour to ‘deglaze’ the pan and return all those caramelised sugars back onto the surface of the onions. Repeat this about 5-10 times and you will have soft, sweet, gloopy onions that oh god are so delicious whizzed into homemade hummus. 

7. If fancy people get garlic smell on their hands, they get out a silly little metal egg-thing and rinse their hands with it under the tap. It is upper-middle-class voodoo. Except it isn’t, it is simply the fact that stainless steel removes garlic smells from skin, and if you rinse your hands with a teaspoon or a fork or a dentist’s gum-checker the smell goes away. It’s true! And yet there are people in the world making money selling magic metal garlic eggs.

8. This one’s all over the internet, but it’s a goody: bananice cream. Chop banana. Freeze chunks. Pulp chunks to puree in blender. Put back in freezer for 20 minutes. Soft-scoop natural smooth banana healthy ice-cream. Done. Oh yes, you can blend in peanut butter or chocolate or honey or nutella if you like. But then you might feel lees virtuous when you scoop a huge ball into an ice-cream cone and wander around flagrantly having ice cream for breakfast.

9. Don’t put avocados or tomatoes in the fridge. It kills enzymes in them which prevent the avocado from ripening ever (although if it is à point then putting it in the fridge will of course stop it going over) and which deaden the flavour of tomatoes and stop them getting fruitier and more intense. 

I have millions more and would write a tenth if that weren’t so darned predictable, so that’s that for now. I hope to write about my cooking experiments from time to time here, mainly in the hope that I’ll get featured on FoodGawker and finally get a few hits! It makes me feel special.  But I would love to answer questions about all these things so if you have a ‘wondering’, just post a comment. If not, go and cook something fun. If you don’t want to do that either, well, what do you want from me? Get out of the kitchen or I’ll burn you with a hot spoon.

BONUS PRIZE! Whoever identifies the sitcom allusion in the last line of this post gets a pack of custard creams.

Life Hack: How to make the best of a bad daily routine

This is the substance that replaced my blood long ago

I met a few colleagues the other night and we inevitably ended up discussing our job. Our work is starting to reach a worrying crisis point in that a huge and faintly embarrassing number of us have resigned and the few of us left hanging on wake up every morning and pack our colossal rucksacks full of flashcards with a reluctance I can only describe as verging on Edgar Allan Poe-style dread. Furthermore, the worst part of it is that those of us who are staying in the job are all merely doing so because we are forced to remain here, unfortunately compelled by our unfair contracts and tenuous living conditions to stay employed by our company simply because there is no alternative that would not result in heavy and unpleasant repercussions. The unrest and unhappiness among my colleagues and I is getting to the point where we resemble dogs before a storm, shaking and whimpering while the weather appears balmy and peaceful because we know that there is something dark behind those thin white clouds. If you have no other reason to read this blog, do check it from time to time for the simple reason that I am convinced this will all implode at some point and things will begin to get very interesting indeed.

However, if you are in a situation where your bad job or pursuit (by which I mean studying or job searching) is like mine, unavoidable and causing unhappiness, the only way to prevent the unhappiness is not to change the job but to change all the little bits that fit in around it to ensure that the pure time that does not belong to you is at least spread out by time you can make better. To make my lifestyle and rhythm bearable, I made the following changes and since then have been palpably happier; if you follow these ideas, I’d wager you will feel the same. 

1. Mornings. Stop them being nothing but that dark hour when you have to amputate yourself from the heavenly bliss of sleep and duvets. Firstly, set your alarm not for when you simply have to get up or even to allow for a couple of hits of the snooze button but rather for a significant chunk of time before you need to begin getting ready: half an hour at least. This means that you can wake up, have an extra few minutes of sleep, and then have five to ten minutes of time in bed to just enjoy being in bed and being awake; you can read a bit of your book or simply spend a pleasant while wiggling your toes and inspecting your view out the window. It gets you into a level and contented state of mind for the moment when you do have to arise, so that you don’t resent it too much.

2. For goodness’ sakes, eat a decent breakfast and drink a large cup of whatever you drink in the mornings. If you are well-fed and hydrated you are more likely to feel ready for what’s coming up, and if you have a bowl of cereal be sure to follow it with a couple of slurps of tea; follow the rule of always ending your breakfast with something hot, as a warm feeling in the belly counteracts the cold and darkness as you exit the front door and makes you feel more sated.

3. Bring toys and things to do with you at all times. Install games on your phone, bring a doodle notebook, a good novel, a wad of bluetack, some knitting or sewing, a pocket puzzle – the kind of things you would take for a plane journey. Sure, they weigh down your bag somewhat, but it is worth it to be able to avoid dead time on trains or platforms where your mind is fully free and therefore able to ruminate about how much you hate your job.

4. Separate the dead time out into alternating chunks: time to enjoy and time to be productive. Bring some work or study materials with you too and alternate the fun things with the productive things so that you’re never too bored and you don’t feel the time is being wasted either. 

5. Give yourself little presents throughout the day. Buy yourself a coffee, take the time to make a really nice lunch for yourself the night before, borrow some CDs from the library and spice up the selection on your mp3 player. Little things like this spice up the day and lend it variety. And allow yourself the luxury of not worrying about the tiny expense of this; it is a waste of money to save your pennies for the future if your daily life in the present is time you will regret for not having been happy.

6. Spring up stairs. Walking up stairs feels like a mission and leaves you feeling tired and annoyed once you reach the top; paradoxically you feel less tired if you run or skip up the stairs and you also avoid ever coming to the thought that these endless stairs are a metaphor for the wearying and ever-uphill remains of the day ahead of you.

7. Finally, take the time on your way home at the end of the day to put yourself in a good mood for the evening. I like to take a new route home from time to time even if it’s twice as long because it lets me discover new things like dinosaur playgrounds; alternatively, have a big juicy apple on the way or designate a fun and much-loved song on your mp3 player which will become the ‘credits music’ indicating the end of your working day that you can play just as you near your house. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes simply to enter your front door in a decent mood – it helps you forget that you weren’t in that kind of mood all day and means that when you put the kettle on you have the energy to do something more fun with your first hour of freedom than sitting grim-faced in front of an appalling German cooking program.

It all boils down to engineering things so that your state of mind is always on the positive side of neutral and your thoughts never have too much idle time in which they can focus on the typical things that you resent. It sounds like a lot of effort, but for the improvement in mood it is certainly worth it. And if these tips don’t work, there is always this picture.