This little piggy went to market

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plague

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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