Getting lost in the Chameleon Boudoir

That's a-moray!! Actually it's a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.
That’s a-moray!! Actually it’s a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.

Some weeks ago, I was spending a lot of time in my boss’ Berlin flat. I was doing some work which required a decent internet connection for me to make several large uploads each day, and the internet connection at my workplace was quite distressingly terrible (we would later find out that we had all been sharing a 6 – SIX – kbps connection for weeks without Telekom offering to fix it). I got into a routine where I would spend the morning sorting shizz out, then take an hour to prepare all the files I would need, and then cycle over to the flat in my lunch break to upload all those big monstrous gigabytes and answer erroneous emails. Well, one day I was sitting there in my boss’ kitchen, staring at the ceiling as I listened to my colleague telling me stuff over Skype, having an idle gander about the room. Until I noticed something: the walls looked oddly speckled now, and I didn’t remember them having a stucco finish. I looked more closely.

Maggots. Herds of maggots, scooching along the walls and ceiling. Hundreds of them, everywhere. I imagined them all suddenly falling on me and then a bunch of horrendous Lars Von Trier imagery bursting through the windows. No matter how many times I blinked, though, they were still there. A quick google helped me to identify the particular species of maggot, and thus followed a preposterous few days of trying to balance my usual massive workload with also finding a decent exterminator and overseeing his exterminating. One of my top ten sentences I never thought I’d hear in my professional career? ‘Careful of the maggots when emptying the vacuum cleaner! You might want to do it outside.’ When I did empty the vacuum cleaner, outside and at arm’s length, a huge gulp of maggots flowed out of the dust compartment – followed by a redemptive little black cloud of moths, like a mini version of the bats rising out of Batman’s cave.

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This place is the Pitts!! Geddit? Because it’s oh ok fine I’ll get my coat…

Leather jackets. Ferraris. Enormous totem poles. Compensating for something…?

One of the most joyous things about neither having exams nor even a degree to speak of any more is that time suddenly spreads out in front of you like a long, luxurious Persian rug, made for you to saunter opulently along it however you please. You don’t have to ration out your fun in chunks or make up for it later with a fierce and long session of compensatory work. You can just do the things you love all of the time for as long (or as little) as you please. This means, for a start, that I can devour a novel in huge swathes for the first time in years (Will Self’s My Idea of Fun, a brilliantly psychotic and very rude book) and also that I can finally spend the hours in the Pitt Rivers museum that such a place needs and deserves.

The Pitt Rivers museum is a collection of anthropological findings from everywhere in the world gathered over centuries of exploring the globe. As you can see in the photo, the ground floor is a bizarre forest of glass cabinets which is almost impossible to navigate in any systematic or all-inclusive way, so the best thing to do is simply to show up and allow yourself to waft around the cases and let serendipity – or roadblocks of groups of small children – guide your way around the exhibit. There are three whole floors, however, as upstairs you have two circle galleries which, in my humble O, contain a good deal of the most interesting things they have to show, such as all of the body modification artifacts they have, which range from scarification tools to forehead-flattening plates to a set of glittery blue plastic false nails from Thailand. The displays are strange in that way, in that they remind you that simply by being a human person you are a part of the study of anthropology; why shouldn’t a Chanel perfume bottle be displayed next to an ancient Venetian scent bottle and Japanese rose oil flask? And yet there will always be something slightly funny about seeing items you could just get down the road put behind glass with a label and made into an ‘artefact’ to demonstrate the difference between inexplicable rituals of facial augmentation or haircare from around the world and through history.



The utter joy of the Pitt Rivers is simply that: nothing is excluded and everything is worth looking at because it all tells us something or is simply curious or sweet. You would need days to see everything, because each cabinet holds shelves bristling with so many items you really do have to press your nose against the glass to get a good look, and even once you’ve exhausted that there is a set of drawers under the main display which you can slide out to see the other stuff they just couldn’t even squeeze into that compartment. Sometimes the drawers feature some of the most fascinating bits and pieces, laid out neatly for those interested, and sometimes there are just a haphazard bunch of trinkets in zip-lock bags ham-fistedly stuffed into the drawer as if the person doing it that day decided to knock off early and go to the pub. You will get your exercise, too, because once you’ve inspected all the drawers and cabinets there are hidden displays under the main displays sometimes, so there is the fun of squatting tenaciously to see them in the middle of a needle-thin aisle while the same small children from before all try to wiggle past you. There are canoes and totem poles and colossal spears hanging from all the walls and banisters, and along the four main walls of the room you find row upon row of beautiful fabrics from all around the globe, sometimes sewn into unbelievable garments or out of unbelievable materials, such as the feather capes from New Zealand or the Inuit seal-intestine anorak. It looks crispy.

It truly is the most mind-boggling spectrum of …just stuff, ranging from the pipsqueak-small to the outrageously large and each piece labelled with a sweetly humble hand-written tag tied on with string and scrawled, I like to believe, in real Indian ink from colonial times. The real crowd-pleaser is, of course, the shrunken heads, which are real shrunken human heads of murdered enemies shrivelled into a voodoo raisin to humiliate the villainous traitor even in death. Most of them aren’t even particularly old, which perhaps raises some questions as to how appropriate or respectful it is to the dead to display their mutilated heads next to some old bits of monkey and a wooden set of gonads – but hey, it’s anthropology and I ain’t squeamish so they can carry right on in my view. Hell, let’s get a few more and do a puppet show!

“Mate, I am so hammered right now…” LOL BECAUSE OF THE NAILS ok move on

    I spent the most absorbing afternoon just meandering through the displays sketching my favourite patterns and shapes to use in my jewellery, luxuriating in the quiet and slightly musty atmosphere of the place. The anthropology section also joins onto a huge natural history museum with fossils and insects and pickled tapeworms, so it really does have everything a young boy needs to stay amused. (That is, if their attention spans haven’t been shot to heck by hours of flashy manga cartoons and computer game violence which of course is a disgrace someone ought to write to David Cameron etc etc).

But the most wonderful thing of all is that entrance is free, so even if you’re not one of the lucky few that have unlimited time, you can simply keep coming back for a brief spurt at a time. God bless the UK’s free museums, and all who sail in their canoes.

Look before you Leip

“I am Goethe! Look upon me and tremble, future German students!”

On Wednesday morning of my last week in Germany I rose early, packed my bag, bought myself a breakfast pretzel and within an hour was on the train to Leipzig. I had the chance to visit the city because a few weeks earlier I had been at a concert and got to know a girl who just so  happened to be the girlfriend of a guy in the band (yeah, like I just am too cool fo’ skule). She was visiting from Leipzig where she lives in an opulent flat (with low rent and an underground car park for her PERSONAL CAR to boot – man, Berliners have it rough) and generously said I would be welcome to invade her home town if I felt like it. I felt like it.

I had originally applied to spend my year abroad in the Dresden/Leipzig area as my second choice should I fail to get Berlin, so I was curious to see these cities and find out what I’d missed. Dresden had been fantastic but I would rather have eaten an old lady’s wig than have to walk through the Altstadt every single day. Leipzig, on first impressions, was…small. Compared to Berlin that’s like being amazed that a walnut is small relative to a caravan, but the contrast at the time felt rather jarring. However, unlike Dresden, the first impression was of a very sweet place, where the general atmosphere might be summed up by the facial expression one has after a really good bath. It’s contented and relaxed, not filled with tourists, businessmen and lunatics like Dresden or Berlin but rather simply populated with a comfortable number of laid-back inhabitants who all exude an air of “How are you?” “Can’t complain!”. 

After I had set down my bag and wandered with gaping mouth through my friend’s beautiful flat, which costs 70 euros less per month than my hamster’s cage of a room in Berlin, we head out to see the town.


My friend’s idea was to take a bus tour around Leipzig so that I could see all the main bits and get the requisite information one might need. When we reached the bus tour start-off point we were instantly surrounded by dozens of guides who pressed their pitches and flyers upon us, frothing at the mouth with sheer desperation to get us upon their particular bus. All the tours were exactly identical in price, duration and content, lasted two whole hours, and seemed to take one not only through Leipzig but through neighbouring villages, around the local motorways and over to the busdriver’s nan’s house to see how she’s getting on these days. It was ridiculous; who wants to sit on a kitchly painted open-top bus in the wind for two hours having a smarmy man bark tinny facts about Leipzig at you through a loudspeaker? Under the pretence of having to find an ATM we escaped and decided to do our own tour, starting with the Volkerschlachtdenkmal, the monument to the victims of the massacre in one of the Napoleonic wars. No, I don’t remember which one.

It’s a gruesome and terrifying building. Inside, a circular hall is lined with huge stone faces grimacing with agony and misery. Above the faces there is another circular ledge with statues embodying the virtues of man in the most harrowing way you can imagine, with peace depicted as a distressed looking woman holding two huge and brute-like babies to her naked breasts. The whole place was filled with the echoing roar of building machinery due to the renovation works taking place which made the experience even more unnerving, and it was a relief to finally be on top in the open air looking out on the city and away from the big doom-filled cavern. Up there we met a sweet lady who declared herself to be a history teacher and then gave us a fascinating and enthusiastic talk about the monument and Leipzig itself; she was so generous and interested in her subject that I wanted to take her by the arm, buy her a bus and tell her to go out and make her fortune in the city, but instead we went back down and spent the rest of the day wandering around the nooks and crannies of Leipzig, seeing Goethe’s favourite ‘pub’ and stopping for an Apfelstrudel.

The next day we head over to Halle, the town where my companion had grown up. She wanted to show me her childhood stomping ground, and it was as adorable as such a town ought to be. The buildings are low and have lots of dark beams, and all the streets are narrow and charming. Halle is humming with myths and legends, so as we wandered along the labyrinthine alleys we saw, for example, the donkey fountain where a boy and his donkey supposedly got showered with flowers as they were mistaken for a king (happens to me all the time) and a creepy overgrown pathway which was once closed off to quarantine plague victims and was lush with grass when it was later opened as the sick people all died and created a fertile strip of plant life. A brief stop at the Händel museum was fascinating and very impressive – the musical instrument collection was particularly fun, and if anyone needs ideas for my birthday present I definitely want a violin which doubles as a walking stick – but there was also a confusingly large amount of stuff in the museum which had next to nothing to do with Händel at all. Here is a portrait of the man who drew the portrait of Händel’s mum. Here is a photo of the building where Bach, who is a composer like Händel, once had a sandwich. Here is a coin similar to one of the ones Händel probably used to use when he went out to buy a newspaper. It was rather perplexing but ultimately made for a collection that you couldn’t help but scour thoroughly to work out what all these interesting bits and pieces were actually about. Worth the entrance fee, one might say.

We lunched at a strange “Asian” place where I paid an extravagant 3,50 euros for a bowl of instant noodles with a single prawn proudly perched on top and then simply schlenderten through the town, idly drifting through the shops to kill the time before the real event of the day: Harry Potter. Heart-breaking as it was to see the end of my childhood epic mangled into German (eurhgh, vile language) I was so excited I hyperventilated my way through the ads and – nearly – wept at a few tender parts of the action. It’s a brilliant film, if you haven’t already seen it. The kids are admittedly all grown up now; the Weasley twins in particular look like they’ve been briefly let out of the old folk’s home to do their part before afternoon tea, but no matter how big and burly Harry and Ron look these days to me they will always be the goofy acne-dappled youths who seemed to have come straight from the Beano fan club into showbusiness. I was disappointed that Helen Mirren didn’t have a cameo in this film because if she had that would have made the series a complete catalogue of every single British actor living (and recently deceased) within our generation (as part of our 2010 collection, this rather tasteful Bill Nighy, set within a hopeful but pointless and ultimately wasted role!). But oh, it was the end of Harry Potter. It was the closure to a decade of obsession and anticipation. They did a spectacular job, and didn’t even make the epilogue too cringeworthy as the older and now married characters wave their children off on the way to Hogwarts. Although I did feel sorry for Ron, who was the only character to have been made a fat, balding and embarrassing parent as opposed to the chic and well-kempt others. Go and see it for yourself, you’ll see what I mean.

Oh, and don’t waste your cash on 3D; I didn’t feel like I could reach out and grab anything.

Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften: come out, little nerds, your time is finally here

This is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the storerooms of a natural history museum, isn’t it.

I love science, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Ok, I am a little ashamed having written that sentence. But ever since I read my first ever Horrible Science I have always had a not-so-secret love for labcoaty things, and over time this has extended to philosophy and geology and everything else that involves the use of the word ‘hypothetically’. 

Berlin loves doing big events, and in particular has a tradition of holding “Long Nights of X”, where X might be art or museums or theatre or bakery products (it’s more plausible than you think). On these occasions one purchases a ticket and from midday until about 1am the following morning you can romp around the city going to various exhibits and shows to do with the overarching theme. I missed the long night of the museums and the long night of the opera and theatre to my great annoyance, so it was a true moment of excitement when I found out that Berlin had heard my cry and was holding a ‘Long Night of the Sciences’. One has to buy a ticket, but they are ludicrously cheap considering that they are an open pass to everything happening for the event as well as unlimited travel on the public transport until 4am. This Frida, therefore, I checked the time of the first thing I wanted to visit, marched down to the train platform to buy my ticket and got ready to start the fun. Well, until I realised that the reason why my ticket was a little cheaper than expected was because the thing didn’t start until tomorrow and I had got myself all pepped-up a bit too early.
You have got to plan your Long Night because there are literally hundreds of events and exhibitions all over the city extending kilometres into the countryside (i.e. Potsdam) and it isn’t so much a case of simply meandering around hoping you stumble around on something good. However, to plan your Long Night you yourself will need to have a Ph.D or at least a basic understanding of calculus. Trying to figure out how to time all the various things you want to do and the travelling time and waiting time in between (plus a good 15 minutes here and there for faffing) is so difficult I found myself staring wildly at the website for hours with the facial expression of the professor in Back to the Future (“ONE POINT TWENTY-ONE GIGAWATTS??”). While researching it also became apparent that this ‘long’ night is actually shorter than they brag about, most of the exhibits closing around 10 or 11pm. On closer inspection of the transport information it also became clear that not even the transport guys understand the transport. So, with absolutely no idea what I was doing and where I was going and why, I set out into the depths of the Long Night.


The first thing I had on my list was a tour of the coral collection of the Natural History museum, a place worth visiting if only to see the quite breathtaking archaeopteryx fossil which honestly really is, like, way cooler than it sounds.  A friendly and interesting woman delivered a brief and interesting lecture about coral reefs before taking us through endless atmospheric corridors full of empty display cases and pickled fish, accompanied by her colleague and her disarmingly affectionate boyfriend (look dude, she’s trying to give a talk right now, do you think you could wait and spoon her later?). The coral collection of the museum is really spectacular and features examples that would be highly illegal to take to a museum nowadays, which is why it is all now locked away and not available for viewing by the general public. Why? I don’t quite know, but it wasn’t always like that and hopefully might someday be brought back out again. I do hope it’s not just to show kids what coral used to be like before it all died out.

The next thing on my list was a talk about youth fashion at a university for fashion and design. It was delivered by a woman who must have been made up by my own imagination; she was all dressed in skin-tight black with a scraped-back bun, thick Andy Warhol glasses and the kind of stiletto boots you could stab a turtle with. Disappointingly she spent twenty-five minutes telling us what she certainly wasn’t going to talk about during the lecture, ten minutes wrestling with her laptop and croaky throat, and the rest of the time telling us things we already knew – “Young people like to wear alternative clothes and get piercings??? I’ve been so blind!!!” 


I then decided to stop by a robotics exhibit before my next thing, and this is where another problem of the programme became evident: everything is listed as having the same importance despite the levels of quality and ‘worth-it-ness’ being very variable. Thus the robotics exhibit turned out to be less of an exhibit and more like one small trestle table with a single robot and a sad-looking research student. I asked an awkward question to make her feel better and ran out before the creepy-as-all-hell robot made eye contact with me again.


Then I came to the nucleus of the thing, the big science event at the TU. There was a vast stage with breakdancers (yeah, it’s like physics or something innit) and a bunch of stands selling stuff to eat and lebkuchen, inexplicably. I was starving so invested a despicably huge sum of money in a pretzel which went directly into the bin the minute they handed it to me and it turned out to be cold, very wet and mottled with tumors of congealing butter. However, inside there was plenty to sate one’s hunger as there was a stall of scientists who had just invented a type of bread which was 65% water for people who have dry mouths. Yes. And they had free samples. There was another stall featuring non-alcoholic beer tastings, another offering samples of a miraculous microwaveable cake and one very disappointing one which had an entire buffet of delicious real food – for display purposes only. It was to show the kind of good food you should be eating for lunch at your workplace, and since it was real but not to be eaten the long hours had taken their toll and the smell was really quite disgraceful.


My last thing was a talk on philosophy and how it is therapy for the brain to consider philosophical questions and paradoxes such as: “The barber is the person in the village who shaves the beard of everyone who doesn’t shave their own beards. Does the barber shave himself?” I’ll give you a minute.


It was delivered by a crushingly cute young philosophy professor with red cheeks and lots of knowledge, and he used Wittgenstein very well to convince us that it’s not just the answer to the question that makes it worth asking, but also the importance of the question itself. He has a point; if you spend your life wondering whether or not the soul is connected to the body, and then one day realise that our concept of the body itself is not what we originally thought, that realisation alone is pretty darn important. There was then a brief debate involving several very odd old men who looked like they’d been living in bins prior to attending the event, and then…well, then I gave up.


I wanted to do so much more, but the trains were running in a ridiculous rhythm at this point which made nothing doable save seeing the straggly end bits of a variety of Wastes Of Time. I was hungry and frustrated. I had missed the fireworks. I had had my fill of science, the night had been Long enough. I went home and left the breakdancers to it.

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.