‘Nother day, ‘nother dollar…

Thank god they put up this sign; Cornmarket used to be crawling with people walking five or more dogs.

So, I’m now doing an official 9 to 5. Well, an 8.30 to 4.30, but that’s less catchy. I’ve told you about the 6 till 8.30 and 4.30 till 6 part, but what about the big long gap in the middle? What do you do, anonymous blogger? Make the tea? Do the photocopying? Sit at a desk idly making mobius strips out of bits of printer paper for seven hours?

In a way, sometimes, I wish. I thought that was what I had to look forward to; graduate entry-level jobs have a reputation for being a selection of the most menial, pointless tasks assembled into a day’s work which is then labelled a ‘scheme’ or ‘development programme’ or such like to make the poor graduate feel like they’re ‘making it in the real world’. I’ve done jobs like this before. I once worked briefly in an HR office where the real employees had so little to do that they were reluctant to give me anything for fear of fatal boredom, and where the most frequent task (which, give it its due, involved teamwork and problem solving) was to play Jenga with everyone else.

The first day started exactly as you might expect. I was ushered into an HR office where I was shown a number of videos promoting the company and featuring lots of floating graphics and words like ‘synergy’ and ‘innovation’ and ‘globalisatular feedback targeting’. Around me sat a bunch of glazed-eyed graduate interns who had already been there a week and seemed slightly peeved at having to be inducted a week after they had actually started. We then had the health-and-safety chat from a man who was identical to the man you imagine in your head when I say ‘health and safety man’, right down to the moustache. There was a shorter version of the planned tour because a great deal of the premises was being immersed in a deluge of rain, and then I was shown my desk and given my plan for the week. Then my boss and I found out that my email hadn’t been set up yet and neither had my company network ID and as such I was essentially useless for the rest of the day. And much of the week, as it was to turn out – apparently to make an employee log-in you literally have to grow a tree from seed, cut it down, and slice off a nice chunky log to make it out of.


The second day I was inducted into the project I would be working on. I am working on a computerised German learning system for kids at secondary school, a project which was done about two-thirds of the way before being abruptly abandoned for a French textbook (sssssssss….). Well, in actual fact, when I say I’m ‘working on it’, I gradually came to understand that I am in fact the only one working on it and am therefore sort of a bit in charge of the whole thing, as I like to tell myself. It is a vast sprawling LAGOON of a project, involving hundreds of tiny manuscripts which need multiple edits, many freelancers each of whom is only available in brief snippets of time, programming which is picky like a four-year-old girl and hundreds of floating loose ends still left untied since it was put on hiatus. Without a log-in or email access, I couldn’t do nice things like set up my profile and so I simply dove straight into editing the mini-uscripts on my second day and by the third day I was basically a full-blown and inducted editor; I even knew where to make tea.

Since then, The Project (as it shall from now on be called in the interests of anonymity and pathos) has grown and grown in volume like bread dough in the airing cupboard. Simple formatting issues demand that I check through all of the mini-uscripts I have just checked through all over again; freelancers have buggered off on holiday for what seems like an unreasonable amount of time; the second recruit who was going to come and share this project with me is now not coming any more, doubling my workload and meaning that when things go wrong there is nowhere to hide – they will hunt me down and they will make me pay. 

The complexity of a digital publication is so vast and swirling it is, like the universe, impossible to visualise or comprehend. Microscopic issues can cause such enormous trouble that typos have become a sweet little joke, an endearing smear of chocolate that you wipe off your child’s face while ignoring the fox excrement they have collected all over their clothes and hair. I spend my days debating pixels, ultra-laser-precise filenaming and something troubling called ‘metadata’. This is not publishing as we know it, this is something from space which has come down to teach your kids Deutsch. It’s almost a joy to see the moments where the traditional German teaching format I know and love so well has persisted: it is European law, apparently, that every language course for secondary school has topics on drugs (‘hey kids, don’t do drugs – Xavier says it’s bad for your health (vrai ou faux?)’), the environment (‘I never used to recycle, but then I read something in Encore Tricolore which blew my mind’) and healthy eating (tackling the obesity crisis with fill-in-the-blank passages).

But despite this verbose rant, I love having My Project. Despite its foibles, it is going to be a terrific tool – an incredible, co-operative, reflexive way for kids to learn a new language and for teachers to help them do their homework in a way that is as non-boring as possible. The Project kicks those crackly and broken cassette tapes out of the language lab and sets fire to crumpled bits of lined paper with vocab listed on them. Kids do need to be using computers to learn as they are going to be glued to them for the rest of their lives, and teachers need to help them do more of that, and they need help to make that happen without constantly asking the students to create more and more agonisingly garish powerpoint presentations about Hamburg or the U-Bahn.

And as The Project, it’s a hell of a thing to be doing as a fresh and squidgy graduate. This company trusts me to be clever and reliable, organised and efficient, multi-taskerrific and responsible like a veteran babysitter. I attend meetings and liaise things not like a trainee but like a real and valued worker who they believe can do a proper job of things. There is a lot to do, but there’s nothing more appetising than a loaded dinner plate, and it’s my job to get my teeth in. Let’s hope I can stomach it all the way to pudding.


Click ‘OK’ to restart your commuter

There is a sign on the vending machine on the left which says: “THE CHOCOLATE HAS MELTED. YOU ARE ADVISED NOT TO BUY.”

Working in Berlin, I became a dynamite commuter. I worked in at least two different schools or Kindergärten per day, and they were perfectly geographically arranged to be at least an hour if not two away from each other. I learnt – after many long, hard days of getting it wrong – how to get the right trains and buses at the right time and in the right directions, which stretches were actually quicker on foot, which trams never came on time and which lines would always feature the maximum ratio of on-the-edge-of-sanity people to normal people. I thought, at the end of my year abroad, that my days of travelling for hours to earn my daily bread were over. How wrong I was.

So yes, readers, I apologise once again for the huge gap between this and my last post, which is a direct result of me having started my new job. Living at home and commuting into Oxford every day seemed like it would be such a doddle; Google maps cheerfully told me that the bus journey from the station to my office would take a scant 25 minutes even including the walks between stops, and the train journey itself is a relatively painless affair. I invested in a month-long bus pass and readied myself for being one of those people, salt of the earth, who willingly brave the public transport every day to get to work. 

But commuting in England is a very different kettle of very frustrating fish compared to commuting in Berlin. In Berlin every line runs smoothly and like a large, symbiotic lifeform; the lines link up nicely, the tickets work on every single mode of transport and the coffee being sold on the train platforms is generally OK enough to drink and enjoy for a mere euro per cup. In the UK, such an idea would be seen as a naive utopic dreamland to us bitter, British commuters. The trains stutter to and fro like elderly people driving golf carts, their arrival time on the electronic board simply an estimate of some time in the hypothetical future when a train may or may not be present for a hypothetical person’s needs. The tickets cost as much as a rare white truffle and even then are received by the ticket collectors with furious suspicion, as if you were handing them a Cafe Nero loyalty card with two stamps and a bit of old gum on it. And the coffee? Knowing that you are compelled to buy yourself something warming and dark at a cold 7am in the morning they charge £2.50 for a cup of lukewarm woodchip water. And the buses. Oh the buses.

The bus on my bus pass is like communism: heavenly in theory, impossible in practice. This is a bus which only has roughly 2 miles to travel along a completely straight road and is part of a group of buses each of which follow the same route and collectively depart every three minutes. It sounds like a foolproof, solid-gold system. What actually happens in reality is that this ‘every three minutes’ idea transforms into four of the same bus arriving at the same stop simultaneously, at which point thirty people all begin to board the same one. The other three become redundant as they neither have any passengers nor could leave if they did accrue passengers because they are stuck behind the first one which is currently being mounted by a shuddering old lady carrying a lot of empty plastic bags and a teacozy. Finally, ten minutes after the bus was actually timed to depart, it powers up and leaves only to stop seconds later at the first of about fifteen red traffic lights along this straight and short road. The lights go green, so some Italian tourists decide to saunter casually across the road at this moment to grab a cornish pasty. At the first bus stop, the driver has a long and cheerful chat with the old lady while she makes her slow way out of the bus. A schoolchild has a question which he begrudgingly and slowly answers. In Summertown (half-way there) people daringly run-walk in front of the bus out of sheer desperation to get to the Co-op having waited at the pedestrian crossing for an hour already. At the next stop, someone alights simply to ask if they have the right bus or not and if not, what is the meaning of life? I have arrived at Oxford train station at 8.10am. I get to work at 9am. I could have got to work quicker on a child’s tricycle. 

So now I am an even more hardcore brand of commuter: a bike commuter. I am among the leagues of stringy businessmen wearing high-vis everything and bike helmets that look like a robot shark from the future. I am among those intense commuters who have invested thousands in their carbon-fibre-framed-folding-bikes and bike-to-business converting trousers. These are the scariest commuters of them all; they are unspeakably dedicated, slick and efficient, coated in neon yellow and swiftly lifting their bike from train to train like a basket of feathers. I seem to have joined this sect without reading the pamphlets first, as their looks tell me that I am certainly doing it all wrong. I am the only bike commuter among them who is a short becardiganed girl feebly hoisting my second-hand old mountainbike with the wicker basket held on with string and a beer bottle opener on the lock key. They glare at my ginormous and cumbersome bike shunted between their beautiful slim vehicles which they have expertly hung from the bike hooks on the train (mine does not hang; it is too heavy and too small. If anything, my bike squats).I suspect they imagine I am on my way to visit my grandma or doing my year 10 work experience. 

I then hoick my bike off the train and drill my thunderous thighs up those hills to the office, and arrive half an hour earlier than I ever would using a thing with an engine. On the way home I get to go downhill and go ‘weeeeeeee’ all the way to the station. My coat often gets chewed up into my gears, I cycle into puddles with such ferocity that the water goes right up my skirt onto my knickers, my hair billows into an angry scribble and I arrive home with my hands covered in mud and oil. Good god, I love it.

Tune in next time for some stuff about what my actual job is actually like!

Meet the youngest spinster in Great Britain

This decor would certainly calm a llama down. (60% of my readers will get more out of that than the rest)

So. Two things.

Number one: it was my birthday this weekend, and for the first time (and in the wrong country) I celebrated it GERMAN-STYLE. In Germany, unlike in the UK where you have a big knees-up on the calendar date of your birth, you “party in” to your birthday, meaning you get violently drunk the evening before and just keep on going until that magic midnight bell, when songs are sung, presents given and someone probably brings out a round of something potent in small, evil-looking glasses. Although I was in Oxford rather than in Neuschwankensteinberg or somewhere even German-er this year, thankfully Germany came to me in the form of some of my favourite Berliners I made friends with last year. I got to know them at the hostel I stayed at in the first fortnight of my time in Berlin, and they were at the time the only friendly faces I knew: a blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful couple from Jena who shared the bunk above me and cooked me my first  schnitzel to welcome me officially to the Vaterland. I ended up showing them more of Berlin than they could show me simply because I moved and commuted about so much that there wasn’t a scrap of the city worth knowing that I hadn’t already seen and been sneezed on by a toddler in. In return they introduced me to a spectrum of traditional German food like Thuringer Bratwurst and Christmas duck, and other German traditions such as the proper way to pre-lash – ‘vorglühen’ – which goes on until 2am when you actually leave to go dancing, and which involves cheap sparkling wine and Haribo and board games. This time I had the opportunity to show them Oxford, which compared to Berlin is like taking Barack Obama from the White House and proudly shuffling him round 10 Downing Street. But where I find it grey, and imposing, and reminiscent of the throbbing stress of my degree, they seemed to find it charming and beautiful and oozing with historical gravitas. I suppose for my birthday I learned to re-love Oxford a bit more than previously.

The day before, our mutual friend (also from Germany) had kindly booked us all on a surprise ale tasting tour around Oxford; this seemed like a great idea considering the huge number of ancient pubs Oxford boasts, each serving fancy ales with names like “Windermere Bucket” or “Mother’s Sin” and colours as dark as the devil’s buttock. We all anticipated being led around these places by a wispy-haired and crisp-voiced old man in a corduroy blazer who would teach us to appreciate the yeasty top-notes and floral roundedness of his favourite ales; what actually met us at the start point was a startlingly oily Brazilian man (admittedly wearing a blazer) with an incomprehensible accent and clearly no idea what the heck he was being paid for. 

He took us to the first pub, the Chequers on the High Street, famous among students as one of THE pubs you go to after matriculating for the Matriculash, possibly your first moment of hyper-drunkenness in your Oxford undergraduate career. It is also apparently famous for its ales. Our guide swept us suavely into the room and presented us with a golden array of ales in small taster-glasses, taking us through the nuances of flavour to be found in each one and explaining the complex dance each type will play on your palate. Or rather, he lumped into the bar and explained to us that we could as the barpeople to give us a taste of an ale if we wanted but we didn’t have to and we had to buy all our own drinks. He then tasted one of the ales on offer, said it was (and I believe this is the specialist term for it) ‘nice’, ordered a half-pint of it and went to sit down. We tried to taste a few ales before the bar staff got too hacked off about it but unfortunately our rather abrupt introduction into the tastes we should be expecting meant that we mostly found that they all tasted of bitter, neglected armpit. Sitting around this man, nursing our foul and warm drinks, he then insisted on telling us exactly one third of the story of the history of beer and ale, all with the underlying leitmotiv that beer saved the world. He frothed at the mouth a lot when he spoke. Ominous.

We marched through the Bear Inn and the Turf Tavern, two other very sweet pubs right at the heart of the Oxford microcosm, and each time it was the same: our oleaginous host would order his drink and leave us to create our own tasting experience, while we were acutely aware that the bar staff hadn’t approved this and certainly did not like what we were playing at one bit. “You want to try another one?!? Haa, alright then son, cough cough…You know we have to wash all of these microscopic glasses by hand at the end of the night…” This man’s answers to our questions were astoundingly unhelpful; when asked what one looks for in a very good ale, he replied “Ah, wellll, whadeverr you are loookeeng for iss preddy much goood…”, while his answer for why one is meant to drink ale warm was that room temperature was much colder in the olden days than it is today.

It is a shame, because I love a challenge and trying to learn to love ale is a challenge that I sadly failed. It is a vile drink and criminal offenders should be forced to snort it up their nostrils. But I am glad to have spent this surreal evening with beloved Germans who might have thought that Berlin was the final frontier in terms of surreal pointlessnesses.

Number two:

The above picture shows my first achievement in my twenty-third year of life. No, I haven’t got a job or found a fiance or trained a lion to behave like a kitten, but I have made my own hand-printed curtains for my bedroom. And they have llamas and cacti on them. I repeat: llamas and cacti. I don’t know what it was that inspired me to print this quasi-Mexicana theme; at any rate, it’s a shame that the photo doesn’t do justice to the colours or to the fact that I carefully cut a pronounced underbite into the llama’s face for extra authenticity. I am simply writing about this because it is one of the most unexpectedly hard-work projects I have imposed upon myself thus far, and although I do like a challenge, I won’t be doing this particular one again. The llamas range in colour, so I had to print a variety of different colours on each curtain, which means maneuvering swathes of cloth far bigger than my entire self around on a tiny table and trying to keep the colours evenly spaced and numbered – this took hours. The llamas have different colours of saddle, which means intricately re-painting the stamp for each one and maneuvering the same swathes of cloth around, this time trying to make sure each colour of llama has an even number of a certain colour of saddle – this took hours. The curtain binding at the top had a thick, black stripe woven into it for no discernible reason which shows through the light fabric and in order to disguise this I had to sew on the binding with a thick decorative stitch – this took hours and nearly broke my sewing machine. The results look genuinely mad and while I am pleased with the high llama quotient in my room now I can only advise fellow-crafters to give this particular project a miss. Print your own T-shirts, yes. But curtains are huge and crashingly boring to sew (so much ironing) and, given that printed cotton can cost about £2 a metre, I reckon you should just sack it off. Go for a pint instead; just not of ale.

Conclusive proof that children love unpaid manual labour

The beautiful spiral herb mound

I have finally mustered the energy to write today’s post after spending most of the day thus far convalescing in bed, tentatively sipping Ribena in a smog of profound self-pity. How did I end up in this pathetic state? Well, it all began many years (hours) ago…

There is a community gardening project called OxGrow down Abingdon Road in Oxford. It is a plot which used to be a bunch of sports grounds and tennis courts for one of the snootiest colleges here, but they have kindly donated it the grounds to the local community to be gradually cultivated and tended until Hogacre Common becomes a lush and teeming eco-paradise. I have been going on Sundays since the start of term and it only took me three minutes among the gorgeous and heaving veg beds to fall in love, and since then they’ve erected a ‘bee platform’ (believe it or not, bees prefer to live on a platform. It makes them feel above the common bees) and expanded the vegetable garden to an incredible degree. We’re growing dozens of exciting varieties of heirloom potatoes and garlic, the onions at the moment look like gleaming juicy gemstones laying on the compost and the strawberry plants are so aggressively lush that the green berries underneath the leaves are nothing but an endless taunt withholding what they are going to become. The work parties are every Sunday whether or not it is glorious sunny weather or the ground is smothered beneath a thick fleece of snow. There is always tea, there is often rain and there is always, without fail, plenty of digging. I love it. Digging is man’s most soothing and wholesome pastime; it makes you feel like a hearty medieval peasant and has the cathartic effect of letting you take out all your anger and stress in every enormous kick you give that big soil-clad spade. At the end of the day, everyone is free to take whatever produce is ready to be picked and you’re usually so cream-crackered the next bit is almost as good as the work party itself: resting back at home with an enormous cup of hot tea and gently hardening mud on your knees.

This Sunday, to celebrate their own volunteering achievements, a student/pupil tutoring scheme called Jacari brought a bunch of their enthusiastic members and tutees to the garden; nothing says ‘celebrate’ like being made to dig clods of soil when you’re 12…Everything was so calm and tranquil for the first hour or so, while we did various odd-jobs around the beds, until suddenly an army of children swarmed in and started gettin’ all up in our pitchforks.

Honestly, it was the most terrific fun. Since my ‘job’ (read: toil) in Berlin I have missed mucking about with kids something awful and unfettered access to spades and worms had put them into an excellent mood. Give kids complete free reign in the outdoors with gardening tools and they become the kind of brilliant beasts you always hope your kids will turn out to be; they squeal with breathless astonishment every single time they find anything vaguely insect-y, ask endless questions and do hilarious things like ‘accidentally’ shovelling soil into the back of your jeans as you’re crouching in the neighbouring bed thinning crops…yes…

The best thing of all, though, was when I was allowed to take my own group of kids off for an explore around the grounds. It was then that I, for the first time, realised how cool and exciting my mum was when I was growing up. She used to take us through the woods for hours, and being the head of a family of nerds she initiated us into the world of insects, birds and fungus (the latter of which my grandmother also tried to do but almost got herself banned from ever seeing us again after she almost managed to persuade us to eat the mushrooms we had found on our ramble). My dad, a vet, helped by bringing home little pots of mealworms or crickets for us to poke at, or even brought the occasional grass-snake or even kestrel that was currently being given medical care. We grew up surrounded by wildlife. And it seems it all stuck, for I found myself teaching these children thousands of little facts and neat things about nature that I had just assumed all kids innately know as part of being twelve years old, but the kids – and quite a lot of the adults – were soaking it all up in shiny-eyed fascination. It was incredible. Several of them had never encountered the buttercup test. One of the student volunteers asked the kids if they knew what a ‘hog’ (as in Hogacre) was. They chanted ‘noooo’. The volunteer hesitated and then muttered that she didn’t actually know either. (I delicately let them know it was another word for a Big Fat Pig.) This is not the kind of thing kids need – they want thousands of small and useless and amazing facts and they want them ALL THE TIME. To be the provider of said facts is simply endless fun.

 These kids didn’t know what stickyweed was, which in my view is a tragedy and a kind of infant poverty, so I diligently explained why it was called stickyweed, how it came to be so sticky and then explained to them the rules of that honoured game where you have to try and stick as much of the stuff on your brother’s back as you can without him noticing. We were lucky enough to find some froghoppers so I could explain how they make their little frothy dens out of their own ‘spit’. We talked about what compost was, how you can tell a dead nettle from a real nettle, and oooooohed at a skeletal leaf that had been completely ravished by the satisfied snail resting on its tip. It’s times like this that I wonder at all the families you see in supermarkets, telling their kids to ‘I don’t know just shut up Damian’ when they keep incessantly asking questions. Having the privilege and the trust to answer a child’s questions is one of the most fun and exhilarating feelings and even if you don’t know the answer you are at least in the position to make that connection with the child: you can tell them an interesting story of what the answer might be (“Oooh, maybe bananas are bent so monkeys can use them as boomerangs, what do you think?”) or at least encourage them for having had the gumption to ask in the first place (“Do you know, I have no idea! It’s cool that you noticed…!”) Suffice it to say, if I have kids – and it’s a big if, since I have looked into the heart of darkness on that score – I will ensure that they know all about inkcaps and puffballs and stickyweed as soon as they can stand. 


After being gone from the garden for a length of time close to ‘abduction’ on a legal scale, I had to bring the kids back and they all marched off to their treasure hunts and gnashed on crisps. And they went home, hopefully to a future filled with afternoons spent covering their peers in adhesive strings of flora and getting shouted at for being a mess. We all got to take a fresh new onion home, alongside a glorious array of broccoli, asparagus, leeks, chard, and all kinds of delicious just harvested produce.


It all came home with me and went into a delicious vegetable ginger-honey-miso stirfry with a huge field mushroom that had come from the market a while before. It was delicious. And then, hours later, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, it kept me awake all night and made me more violently ill than I have ever been in my memorable past. But it was worth it. Pass the ribena.

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.

Doing the Deutsch

Hi, can I get a Quorn Bratwurst in a quinoa tortilla please?” “Bugger off.”

This is Bratman. (Dunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunna…) He is the new Bratwurst seller on Cornmarket Street. The only Bratwurst seller on Cornmarket Street. I think probably the only one in the country. This is jarring to those of us who are used to seeing five or ten of these guys on every street corner even at 7am, filling the morning air with the warm, damp, porky mists of the morning Brat. I first encountered Bratman when I was meeting with my German tandem partner who immediately made a beeline for him as if he were selling kittens made of gold. His Bratwursts are made to a real German recipe and even the Brötchen (bread rolls) are the real Schrippen of my year abroad, made to a German recipe! (A Schrippe is a small and stiff snow-white roll that costs about fifteen cents at most and therefore seems to contain only ground newspapers and bleach, with the nutritional value of a plastic model of a ricecake.) One can only hope that Bratman represents the foetal stage of a nationwide revolution in open-air sausage consumption.

One of the few things that keeps me going here in Oxford and prevents my nonetheless inevitable plummet into mania is that the city contains a small, quiet, but persistent German underground who doggedly keep German values alive even within the dreamy British spires. There are quite a lot of them drifting around, if you know what to look and listen for; I can pick up the intonation of Germans chatting from a good few metres away and usually have to restrain the impulse to skip over to them and beamingly demand “Wie geht’s???” because for some reason when you know someone else’s language you suddenly feel like you have an unspoken kinship with them. It’s probably the same phenomenon as when you assume you know someone like a brother the minute you find out their birthday is two days after yours. There aren’t many of us here who have done the German thing and have come back to what should by rights be nothing but wall-to-wall tweed, but for those of us that have, it’s a pleasure to know that there are still a few places to get your fix of Germaction.

For a start there’s the Oxford Uni German society. Granted, the members of the German society are almost exclusively vaguely disconcerting business/law students from Germany who are here to find the quickest, directest and most ferocious route to riches and a glossy glass-clad executive office. I distinctly remember the one German I spent the entirety of the first meeting ‘chatting’ to: a very tall, gangly young man who looked like a young Jim Carrey and thought it was devastatingly hilarious conversation simply to force me to try to guess his name and age for about sixteen hours. Because of the target demographic, the events tend to err towards pleasing the masses and so they generally tend to be speeches from politicians, lawyers and generic business sharks, like Jack Donaghy without the knee-weakening voice. Sometimes, however, they really pull one out of the bag; a talk from the chief editor of Bild, Germany’s version of our shameful Sun newsrag, was deliciously brilliant. He oozed forth rhetoric like an ancient Greek, claiming that Bild was not only not reprehensible but also contributed to the educational and cultural foundation of Germany oh and by the way we would never do phone-hacking you philistines. Things like that – or the excuse to make a pair of Lederhosen out of Primark tat and wind my hair into plaited buns for a German-themed bop (“Alle meiner Entchen!!”) – make the membership fee worthwhile.

There is also the German Baker Man, a guy with a truck who comes to Oxford every Friday at an unjustly early hour to sell real German bread to people who appreciate that a real loaf is not a squashy cuboid of carbo-foam but should be dark mahogany, the size of a house brick and weigh two kilos. I haven’t been yet because Finals, but the first thing I’m going to do on that Friday after exams are over is run there and buy a real, soft, German pretzel. Oh god pretzels. Ihr fehlt mir so.

A brilliant ‘Typ’ called Golo (which is incidentally going to be the name of my firstborn child) has been organising a Stammtisch for the past year for all of us who want to speak in a more crispy language for an evening, and I have been one of its most devoted attendees. It’s great language practice, but more than that being at the Stammtisch is a bit like sitting cross-legged in the middle of your bedroom and getting out all your old cuddly toys just to squish them and look at them. It’s comforting and wonderful to be surrounded by a language I miss so much, to still be learning new and fantastic words and reminisce about things we share like missing Mehrkornbrot, lamenting how expensive booze is here and discussing weird things we’ve noticed about German television. I feel that in some way I can make a contribution in return, namely by informing them that Lidl does sell real black forest ham and reiterating how much I adore their country no matter how embarrassed or modest they might be about it.  

Germany is missing to me so much that I find ever more tiny ways to inject a little German-juice back into my days. The Co-Op did a sale on pickled gherkins lately and I am ashamed to say I did not hold back; I listen to Berlin radio every morning (“InfoRadio mit Irina Barbovsky – WOO!! WOO!! MONTAGSALARM!! – und jetzt das Wetter…”); I wrap my teabag around the spoon like they do, hell I even have my Kaiser’s trolley token still hanging on my keychain. My long-suffering college friend gets texted a German Word of the Day every day depending on what I’m revising whether she likes it or not. And now, of course, we also have Bratman. The Germans underground is gradually spreading overground, Oxford, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us…

Welcome to number 10

I promise, very few blog pictures will be as dull as this one.

Every story needs a setting. You, the reader (and I’m going to assume there’s only one of you out there), need to be able to imagine the place where the plot plays out, where your tortured writer sits hunched over her great work with a glass of absinthe and definitely not a Tunnocks marshmallow teacake but something much more bohemian. I thought I would use this first reunion post to set the scene and give you the ‘Monica’s apartment’ locale for the next few months’ worth of storyline.

I am a student at a college in Oxford – it’s a secret which one, because I want to stay anonymous to protect me from stalkers overwhelmed by my staggering beauty (ok, ok, I look like a beardless BeeGee) – and this photo above is the view from my window. I like to think of it less as a view and more as a sort of squirrelarium, as there are so many squirrels scampering up and down those trees all day it’s like one of those time-lapse videos of train platforms they sometimes show in the news for no reason. As you can see, even though it’s spring the tree on the left, my favourite of the two, has sprouted its leaves and they have already started to turn brown and die off. It takes a lot of effort not to interpret that as a metaphor for something bleak. What’s that fancy-looking balustrade in front, I hear you ask? That is my balcony. I cannot actually use it, of course, for the minute the room was awarded to me the college blocked up the windows to prevent people going onto the balcony for a relaxing chilled glass of Riesling and then spontaneously plummeting one storey to their death. The person who was here before me could use it, though, so it is now just a large and inaccessible collection of oddities (some might use the term ‘garbage’). Five thousand cigarette butts, one bud from some headphones, an old flowerpot, and a large metal coffee-bean scoop. What I want to know is whether all those items were used separately or were all used together in some kind of incredible party.
  

 

  This is the nest area, featuring the remnants of this morning’s revision and a zodiac pillow. The enormous hanging cloth is a giant batik sheet I got at a Berlin flea market from a lady who was determined to give me the hard sell for fifteen minutes despite the fact that I really wanted it and it was three euros and I already had the money there in my hand: “Drei!! Nur drei euros! Es ist doch echte Baumwolle! Nur drei! Drei nur! Baumwolle!” I have hung the sheet up against my wall as chic décor and a memento of better days but mostly to hide the huge and disconcertingly greasy stains smeared all over that wall which is already a shade I like to call ‘Infectious Dried Pus’. And yes, the elephants look like they’re ascending to heaven in some kind of Sri Lankan version of the Rapture but that’s the only way around that it will fit. One final point to be made is that it isn’t attached to the ceiling very well and so there have been nights where I will be watching a film or sleeping and then unexpectedly be draped in a huge blue tent which then takes an age to put back up and involves balancing a computer chair on a broken mattress.

 There isn’t much space in here, and the room is a divided poky compartment of what used to be one large and opulent room so everything is on a sort of slant. My bookshelf is diagonal and also leans forward at an alarming angle, and my ‘wardrobe’ might better be termed a ‘storage coffin’. It holds two dresses and a box of cereal. As you can see, the carpet is a colour which I think Dulux simply calls ‘Malaise’, and the curtains are long swags of gold velvet. There is a sink, a desk, and a mirror propped in front of the mirror because the original mirror is too high for me to actually see into. I am short.

The earring box is actually a drawer for old newspaper printing press dies from Fleet Street. It is the best thing in my entire room.

This is where I spend most of my days, and all of my nights. It is not just a bedroom but a study, coffee-shop, dining room, toast emporium and Grandma’s attic. The neighbour above seems to spend his days throwing mallets, the neighbour next door is brilliant and I’m sure more annoyed by me than I am by her, and breakfast is served between 7.30-9am following your complimentary wake-up call of the street sweeper bellowing past the window at 6am. Shoes optional, tea compulsory. This has been my life this year, and soon it won’t be any longer. Welcome to number 10.