Summer days in Pleasantville (population: mowers)

Apologies for the unseasonal photograph; just imagine it’s marshmallows, not snow.

I grew up in a mansion. This is true.

My first house in conscious memory was a poky little box on an infamously cat-pulverising road, but I was only there for a couple of years before we moved to my official childhood home. And yes, it was the building above. To clarify, we didn’t live in the whole building – we lived in the largest segment of it, the bit denoted by the glowing front door and all the windows to the right of the black dormers. (To clarify further, the crouching figure in the doorway is my brother adjusting his salopettes, and don’t ask.) It was an ancient house with draughty halls and a real stuffed deer’s head hung in front of the main staircase which spanned the three floors. We had a five-acre garden, which had an enormous square lawn and pond and was surrounded by acres of mostly untended woodland, full of deer, rabbits and the occasional creepy stranger who would sneak onto the grounds and nose about the place. Our neighbours were mostly quivering geriatrics who used to largely leave my bother and myself alone in favour of bothering my poor father on a constant basis to ask him whether the gutters/windows/roof/boiler/plumbing needed cleaning/replacing/repairing; however there were a few kids our age around, mostly boys with whom we crashed about the place on our miniscooters and constructed complex settlements in the woods complete with a financial infrastructure and class system. 

As you can imagine, it was a dream location to spend your formative years. The old bricks were porous enough that in times of high wind the carpets would inflate until each room resembled a bouncy castle. The enormous staircases allowed for excellent flight practice, and the sofas we inherited with the house provided a fantastic landing pad after my mother had finally tired of their hideous ugliness and taken an axe to them, leaving us with the huge foam chunks from their padding. The eternal driveway was smooth and had the perfect gradient for one to soar down it on one’s miniscooter at a speed close to terrifying. It also meant that we got used to a lot of things: isolation, for one. The house was on a hill in the middle of nowhere; there was little traffic noise, wildlife roamed free in the fields surrounding us and the only bus to anywhere was infrequent, unreliable and manned by surly old men with mustaches and a vehement hatred of children. We got used to an environment of gentle but ever suspicious surveillance; the aged neighbours would watch us out of their windows or regard us with dismay from their gardens, which faced directly onto ours. My dad stopped coming home from work for his lunch hour because one ancient lady would watch all morning for his car to arrive, wait two minutes from him entering the front door and then, without fail, phone him to complain about the gutters and windows and roof and boiler and plumbing. This treasure of a woman was ironically named Joy.

We absolutely had to leave. Over time, our quaint old creaky castle seemed to become a crumbling, hostile crypt. The entertainingly draughty walls also meant that room temperature in winter was always perishingly cold; you could see your own breath and I used to wear my ski jacket indoors every day from November until March. The neighbours gradually wore my father down to a shred of a man. We weren’t allowed to build or change anything because the place was protected for historical posterity. While I was in Germany, trying to find a place to live, my family finally upped sticks and found a new place to live. 

The second house was similar, a smaller, boxy sort of terrapin quite literally in the middle of a working farm, complete with electric security gate. It was even more isolated than the last. We were eons away from everything and our windows looked out onto nothing but fields and garrulous-looking crows fighting with each other. There was an unused boathouse in the garden edging onto a stretch of river and a scrap of woodland inexplicably full of junk – we found a hammock, thousands of plant pots, bits of discarded metal, odd handfuls of some kind of shredded plastic wool that looked like afro clippings and hundreds of pieces of ugly and decaying flotsam. Again, we were surrounded by nothing but silence and birdsong and blood-sucking insects.

But now, finally, for the first time in my life, we are in the suburbs, and this is the longest stretch of time I have ever been living in this, our new house. It is brand new. It is one of lots of nice, appropriate houses facing onto an appropriately leafy and child-friendly street, appropriately close to a corner shop and a bus stop and a playground and a pub. It’s the kind of place where the vast majority of Brits spend their lives and yet to me it is utterly foreign. The novelties of suburban life are strange and charming, as if I were an ex-marine living with an indigenous tribe in the Bornean rainforest for a TV documentary.

For starters, the sheer noise rattles me like a cockatoo with people kicking its cage. Every morning I am woken up by the sound of a different but yet equally loud piece of heavy machinery; no one knows why one might want to take a chainsaw to one’s front hedge at 7.45am on a Tuesday, but it seems to be a popular hobby, when the street cleaners or bin men or Bastard Leafblower Man aren’t out with a vengeance just after sunrise. There are also a couple of anonymous testosteronis around who plough their ridiculously souped-up engines down the road just after breakfast, as well as the sweet and naive adolescents that loiter about in front of each others’ houses right outside my bedroom window shrieking tipsy nothings at each other. Living on a road also means roadworks, and they have been treating me to diggers and pneumatic drills every morning like the atrocious opposite of breakfast in bed. Once all that industrial hard labour is out of the way and the dawn chorus has been appropriately extinguished under the bellows of grinding machinery, the second phase of suburban living begins. Mowing. There is never a day, nor time of day, nor season of the year that does not require at least one person to be mowing their lawn at any one time. It is as if no-one in this area is at all employed, because the mowers’ burring can begin or end at any time from any of the neat gardens surrounding us regardless of whether that house contains a young family with children or a retired couple with a black labrador. 

Suburban living is also a very vulnerable state, it seems. You have to lock windows and doors quite frequently, I am told, when going out, because there are people called thieves that come in and nick your stuff. Because your house is so close to civilisation that people actually know it exists. As a reminder of that fact, the garden fills up with tennis balls, footballs and those holey golf balls tragically lost by neighbouring children. (Not knowing which garden they came from, I try to just evenly distribute the wealth by throwing a few back over each fence.) Because we are now surrounded by real people rather than scrubby wilderness, our vegetables are finally safe from deer and rabbits so that the deserving slugs can have a crack at erasing them all from the earth. The real-life Jehova’s Witnesses even came round once, which made me so happy I was unshakeable for the rest of the day, even though they did ask me if my mummy and daddy were in.

The main thing, however, which I love about these new surroundings is feeling a part of everything. Now finally joined on to our garden rather than separated from it by a long pathway, we can move from street to house to garden without thinking about it, like a glorious and peaceful human osmosis. There are people around enjoying themselves and making noise and walking their dogs, making you feel like you’re not some ostracised Boo Radley figure up in ‘that weird-lookin’ place up the hill’. I can cycle to the gym and back and thus escape that much-loved ironic remark that you leave your bike at home to drive to the gym where you ride the bike. I feel like I am a real member of the world now, and am overjoyed to find that not all convenience is a homogenous symptom of consumer culture but that it’s perfectly usual and harmless to enjoy the ease of taking your lunch onto the patio or walking to town. But goddamn, are the suburbs a loud place. Oh god, there goes another chainsaw.

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…