Best Prenz Forever

In Prenzlauer Berg, graffiti artists simply tag buildings with helpful signs and directions.

When I used to work in Oxford, I sat all day in a cardboard cubicle lined with school-blue artificial felt, pounding at an old Dell keyboard that appeared to contain several primordial stages of life developing between the keys. At lunchtime I would shove my tupperware into my bag and march outside as quickly as I could possibly move, simply to get out and away from that stuffy little enclosure. 

Sadly, there wasn’t much to escape to outside the office. A grey, long and dull walk alongside some uninterestingly pristine hockey pitches, a wander around the edge of a park so waterlogged that you had to wade through the middle of it, and finally a bench overlooking some dying border flowers or, if you had time, a more distant bench where you could observe a depressed duck in the pond.

I’m now fortunate enough to be working in Prenzlauer Berg, or Prezzy B as the cool kids call it. I used to live in the district but that was during a long and very oppressive, so it’s rather a privilege to come back to it and experience it in the midst of its lazy summer glory. The office barely looks like an office but is inside an old and kooky Wohnblock with an enormous winding staircase that is very Hogwarts indeed. I sit in a comfy, airy room with two hilarious and generally excellent people and the soothing sounds of intensive building work drifting through the window. And the best part is that at lunch I can go for a curious little mosey around the streets of Prezzy B.

A lot of people rag on P-Berg because it’s like totally ‘gentrified’, which essentially means that they’re annoyed because it’s not ‘gritty’ (i.e. violent and falling down) anymore and instead has been filled with lots of nice cafes and organic delis. Gentrified or not, the district has simply developed into an insane patchwork of people and ideas, and because it’s all a bit posh these days everything is just a bit…well, nice. Even the bloke who runs the local Späti is a pleasant and bright-eyed young gentleman with a polite, intelligent air and a crisp clean poloshirt. 

But I did say it was insane for a reason. There are just so many shops around the place, and if you can dream it you can buy it in Prenzlauer Berg. In our little nook around the office we have some great specimens, including a gay clothes shop, a shop specifically selling ‘world musical instruments’ (I don’t think they stock vuvuzelas, however) and another shop which I was going to photograph because of the cool multicoloured plush ostrich standing by the entrance until I realised that the ostrich’s neck and head were actually an enormous rainbow fake fur penis. There is a shop that sells organic fabric – no, I don’t know why – and another that sells food portioned into exact quantities (half a lemon, three teaspoons of paprika, a little vial of soy sauce) for people who want to cook and don’t want to have a single TRACE of leftover ingredients. Near the office is also something which frankly took my breath away: a bad bakery. I have bought bread rolls there three times now, hoping that their family-run, hand-made-from-scratch promise would one day give me what I’m hoping for, but alas. I asked for a pumpkin seed roll and they handed me something so flat I thought it was a large cookie.

In between all the shops are more restaurants than you could ever hope to split the bill in. One of my favourites is ‘Links vom Fischladen’, a micro-oasis of incredible seafood in the middle of a city whose main dietary seafood intake is in the form of small salty fish-shaped crackers. There’s the usual obligatory slew of ‘Asian’ places all selling identical and cheap ‘crispy’ types of poultry, but there are also some truly spectacular ‘Asian’ places such as Mr Ho, who does Vietnamese food so fresh and aromatic you almost forget to make jokes about the unfortunate name of the place (almost). On the way up to the beautiful graveyard where I sit to eat my lunch, I wander along Pappelallee, a gorgeous little street which has several – sigh – macaron and cupcakey places, but also a curious pasta restaurant that advertises ‘Nudelkunst’; literally ‘noodle art’, although I suspect this sadly does not mean they will swirl your spaghetti into a representation of Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses. Slightly further up, on Kollwitzplatz, you will find Lafil and the most delicious Spanish brunch imaginable; there’s fresh tortilla, crab gazpacho, chargrilled vegetables, tiny vanilla-y bowtie pastries and a big tureen of homemade waffle batter so you can make your own fresh waffles to order. 

And the last real trademark of Prezzl Bezzl is the children. It is a district which students once settled into and made it cool, but have since then got married and had their first kid on a very comfortable income thank you. There are children swarming around the place left right and center, and so many prams you’d think the babies ought to start a car-pool. This makes things fun, for sure. I watched a man today speedily wheel his pram along the pavement and accidentally drive it with full power directly into a large concrete bollard, then I enjoyed his deserved anguish as the baby inside erupted with indignant rage.    

The mix of it all gives the district a really distinct atmosphere, one that is hard to pin down; if pressed to summarise it I would simply describe it as ‘contented’. No-one in Prenzlauer Berg seems stressed or upset or dysfunctional; the kids keep it a safe district and the shops and restaurants keep it endlessly interesting. And the people simply seem utterly relaxed. Each person in his own little cloud of satisfied peace, wandering up and down Schönhauser Allee.

In the graveyard today, there were lots of people sitting around on the soft green grass, writing and drawing and reading for no reason other than pleasure or idle fiddling. An old couple sat beside me, and the man took two books and two juice boxes out of his rucksack. He gave one book and one juice box to his wife, and then they just sat in the sun and read and sipped. I gave them a big grin, closed my tupperware, and headed off back to work.

Like this? Got something to say? Get in touch: ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com
 

Feelin’ the buuuuuuurn

Sadly this isn’t my gym. This is evidently the branch of Superfit where Tron was filmed.

Exercising in general doesn’t really work out well for me. When I arrived in Berlin, I had no choice but to go running – in public – which was fine, apart from two serious issues: the first being the unbelievable complaints and funny looks I get when I have to do that bouncy-joggy-boingy thing at pedestrian crossings, and the second being the horrendous shinsplints that jogging on uneven surfaces seems to give me. Ow.

I missed the gym. I missed the cross-trainer, and the terrible music, and the fact that treadmills have a nice lectern you can put your things on so you don’t have to shove your keys inside your bra. And I realised that, as someone who is likely to be unemployed for a considerably long time, I would need something to keep me going and stop me from aimlessly drifting until I lost my mind. After a lot of careful research and the inevitable moment of ‘Oh hell I’ll just pick one at random because for god’s sake!’ I marched over to my local Superfit and signed on.

The moment I walked through the unspeakably shiny glass door, I knew this was a totally different ball game to my old creaky gym in Berkshire. In my old gym, the ‘technology’ was limited to one ancient CRT-display computer (you know, the really old ones that for some reason were always a pale beige colour) which never registered my age so kept me on a child’s membership for my entire time there until my cancellation last month. Here, the beefy chap at the counter who looked like Morpheus ushered me to a round, black table littered with pristine iPads, into which I tapped in all my details using a foam-tipped silver wand. “Hello,” thought I, “This is a bit swish, innit!”

At the time I left my old gym, it had developed even more character since my last related post. The walls had cracked and leaked enough that they finally brought a painter in, and I watched as he spent the morning covering over all the cracks in an unfortunate shade of ‘Winter Magnolia’ which did not quite match the current shade of ‘Sicilian Apricot’. With the walls now looking like a tie-die of pus, they brought in new cross-trainers which required you to do a kind of awkward forward-shuffle with your legs, like how dads put on their slippers in the morning. The card reader for the door had fallen off the wall and been duct-taped back on. It was a gym you had to love for its homely charm alone, and it cost about £35 a month for an adult membership.

I am in love with my new gym. It costs me €18,95 a month, and for that I get not just a workout but an adventure. Seriously, exercising in my gym is like exercising in the future; it’s like a fitness center in a spaceship. When you enter, there are drinks dispensers on the check-in desk which swirl luminous green and orange liquids around like cocktails in the Death Star’s nightclub. To the left of all the machines is the classes studio, which is a shiny black-dark space walled off with tinted glass and illuminated with strobing multicoloured lights which fade in and out like the heartbeat of a flux capacitor. The only classes they had at my old gym were spin classes, which were simply a lesson in the stages of human agony performed directly in front of the machine-users to torment us as we jogged. In my Berlin gym, the classes are amazing, choreographed sessions led by beautiful smiling androids; the class I always seem to coincide with is some kind of combat-punching-aerobics class which is mesmerising; it genuinely looks like hundreds of Tekken characters practising their moves in perfect synchronicity. 

Every machine is its own unit of futuristic science and magic. Each one has its own little air-vent so you can choose your own level of cooling breeze, and each one has a big computer screen on which you can watch telly, control your iPod, or simply watch your progress on a strange graph which seems to represent a hill and effort and time and energy expended and other things all at once in a series of orange and red shapes. Even the lockers have a robotic lock that closes automatically and flashes blue when you hold your card against it. Everything you use feels cool and high-tech; I like to run while listening to action-movie soundtracks and pretending I’m a starship warrior training for future battles. 

Another element of entertainment comes from the fact that half of the machines are lined up along the broad, shining glass wall of the gym which cuts it off from the shopping center that houses it. This means that as you exercise you can observe the kinds of people who come all the way to the top floor to go to the hairdressers and the toy shop. Oddly, large numbers of people seem to ride the escalator all the way to the top simply to turn around and immediately ride back down again, which tells me something about human nature, although I’m not quite sure what. Is is heartwarming to watch kids with back-turned baseball caps and enormous schoolbags strut into SpieleMax and come out with Pokemon cards (yes!! They’re still alive!), and I love the way that they look at us through the window, a bemused stare which reminds us that we’re all essentially mental: running on the spot on a machine in a hermetically-sealed room in our own free time.

But that’s the one thing I do miss from my old gym. I miss the crazies. The German gym-goers are just so serious, so good at what they do, so athletic and so considerate (they always wipe the machinery clean with forensic precision once they’ve finished). I miss my old Berkshire cohorts; the insane old woman who looked like André 3000 in her rainbow windbreaker and sunglasses, half-heartedly pushing the weights, and the enormous bodybuilder whose varicose veins had bloomed into a purple-blue impressionistic vista all up and down his legs. The people who talk, or roar, as they exercise, and the people who don’t understand how the machines work and end up flailing helplessly on the treadmill as they pound the controls in desperation. We don’t have them in my new gym. I guess in the future, such people will simply be rounded up and destroyed.

The magic of Berlin’s old ladies

Probably the work of another Berlin Old Lady. She didn’t want the poor little thing catching cold.

Apologies, first of all, for taking so long to write another post. This last week has been rather a whirlwind as I have been negotiating a rather complicated and interesting job offer, the results of which I will reveal here as soon as I know what the HECK is going on. In my Verzweiflung, writing a new entry kept slipping my mind, and the time I had put aside to do so on Friday was engulfed instead by my attempt to make miniature pastry tart cases and burning the first dozen to a black, reeking crisp. But a true blogger always comes back, and here I am. Now, on to the post.

As my bank assistant showed me on a rather alarming diagram, the population of Germany is composed of a frankly enormous ratio of people of retirement age. Just like in the UK, the Germans have carefully practised protected intercourse and taken their vitamins every morning leading to the result that there are thousands of people living to age 100 and very few babies being born to man the factories making the cat food for all these ancient people. Well, for their cats, obviously. There are now whole districts of the city, such as Lichtenberg, which have become little havens for the elderly and feature enormous retirement compounds, out of which old people drift into the city like slow, trembling bees meandering out of the hive.

Old people here are often the good ol’ cantankerous type who get angry in queues and complain about youngsters. In the coverage of the flooding across Germany this week the radio station I listen to – a station beloved by older folk because of its purely factual content and occasional items about the history of white asparagus – reported with frank surprise the fact that most of the young people living in affected cities like Halle were joining in with the rescue and clean-up operations, each correspondent or interviewee sounding completely amazed that young people would drag their lazy bodies out of bed and/or put down their vandalism and drugs equipment to help out in a time of genuine crisis. And yesterday, waiting on the platform at Schöneberg station, I watched a furious  elderly woman turn to a child who was happily squeaking in its mothers arms and go “RAAAAAAARRGGH!!!”. To be fair, that child’s innocent glee was rather loud and grating, but it was an astonishing way to get it to quiet down. The woman also managed to silence every other person on the platform.


Beyond the occasional sighting in a supermarket or eruption on a platform, it is not usual for people my age to have much to do with elderly people, so it’s hard to get to know them beyond what we see day-to-day. And this is somewhat strange for me, because I have always seen a lot of my grandparents while living at home and have a built-in expectation to spend social time with people over 70 at least once a fortnight. To only hang out with people below sixty is rather odd for me. But I am pleased to report that I have got to know a few older people in my time here, and I am more pleased to report that the majority of elderly Germans are exactly the same as the majority of elderly Brits: kindly, sweetly, politely mental.

The first that I ever really became acquainted with were the parents of my first flatmate, who was a lovely divorced lady living with her twenty-something daughter in Charlottenberg. The grandparents would come over from time to time and seemed to find me charming as almost all old people do due to the fact that I have the face of an innocent eleven-year-old and the accent of Hermione Granger. I thought they were terrific; the grandfather was an ancient dude with authentic liver spots and dapper suits who had quite literally read a self-curated digest of all human knowledge. In his lifetime he had read enough to teach himself complex legal theory, Yiddish and Jewish cultural history, several languages, the full spectrum of philosophical thought and a thorough understanding of the foundations of the sciences and engineering. At the time I met him he was half-way through reading the Koran, as his newest project was to have read all of the key holy texts. He used to tell me excellent Jewish jokes over dinner and was so delighted to find that I am also a keen reader that he gave me a selection of books from his own private library. He was also a right mardy-arse from time to time with a deteriorating mind and used to occasionally resort to unbelievably strong emotional blackmail, seemingly from nowhere, which used to come at my flatmate and her mother out of nowhere and knock them sideways. They loved him, but occasionally he would get confused and become Hyde out of Jekyll. He sadly became much more unwell after I left Berlin for the first time and died shortly after; it was truly sad news which I felt acutely.

The grandmother, on the other hand, was a beaming and slightly wild old lady who simply took everything in her big Amazonian stride. You could tell she had always been a real winner. When I was invited to the family’s Sunday roast on Hallowe’en, she spied my ghost ‘costume’ (read: a pillowcase with two holes chopped into it and facial features drawn on in felt pen) hanging out of my English-teacher bag, abruptly yanked it on over her head and cloud of curly white hair, and flung open the door to a little clan of trick-or-treaters to scream “wooooOOOOOOOOoooooo!!!” She had never even encountered trick-or-treaters before and we didn’t have any sweets to give them but she enjoyed her own ‘trick’ so much she carried on for the rest of the evening every time there was a knock on the door. 

She was a woman who knew that life was to be lived – so stop whining. When we went en famille to the Christmas market, we walked past a Glühwein stall and she announced that now was the time for us all to drink a large Glühwein, even though it was only 3 in the afternoon. My friend began to say “No, maybe not…” but this magnificent woman simply cried “Don’t be ridiculous!” and bought us all steaming hot mugs of pure booze, followed by finger puppets, followed by a giant bowl of soup for me when I casually mentioned that I had never tried Soljanka before. Because what is the point in being alive if you don’t just respond to curiosity or temptation with a ‘what the hell, YES.’

There was also the grandmother I stayed with in my first visit to the Baltic coast, who generously supplied my friend and I with so many deviled eggs I feared the cholesterol would start seeping out of my nose. Every five seconds she would cry “Komm schon, NASCH MAL ‘n bisschen!!!!” (“Come on, have a nibble of something already!!!”) until we were so full we could not move. She showed me all 350 of the photos of her holiday to Miami – the only time she had ever been abroad – and also introduced me to her amazing collection of napkins, which she collected in different designs to accompany every season, holiday and type of guest.  

Not to mention the woman who lives to the right of me in my new building. She’s a bit of an old hippy. Sometimes my door sticks closed even after I unlock it and I cannot open it even when I run up against it and smash it with my shoulder like a fireman. But this lady hears my struggles when this happens, and placidly opens the door to see if I need help. She turns the key in the lock once to lock the door, and once in the other direction to unlock it again, and every single time the door then sighs open with casual ease. She doesn’t know how she does it, and nor do I; we both simply agree that she has ‘the touch’ whatever it may be, and I am grateful that she also evidently does not go to bed before 2am.

And then there’s the other old lady who lives to the left of me. Who inspired this post, because she noticed my front door was ajar and called into the flat to make sure there was someone there. 
 “Ah, you’re renovating,” she said to me when I answered.
“…um, no…? I’m just renting this flat here for three months.”
“Ah well, in that case it’s good to meet you. You know, I have a slipped disc. It’s agony!!”
“Oh gosh, that sounds horrible, I’m sorry!”
“Yes, I’m supposed to have an operation soon, but I don’t want it, I’d rather have physiotherapy but you know they operate far too much over here and there are far too many hospitals.”
“Oh right, I really am sorry. Would you like some ibuprofen?”
“Ohhhhh, do you have some? That would be wonderful. I’m off to visit my divorced husband who has Alzheimers. Do you know what that is?”
“Yes, I do, how awful, I truly am sorry.”
“Yes, it is very sad. I’m divorced, you see. My daughter is living with me at the moment, she is divorced too. She’s living with me but it’s not working at all. We are not getting on at all.”
“Oh no, that’s difficult, I’m sorry…um…so here are some ibuprofen tablets for you.”
“Thank you. You are a very sweet young woman. Now I must go to my divorced husband because he has Alzheimers, have a good Sunday.”

Native species of the Gymnasia highlands

Who goes to the gym in platform flip-flops?

Ever since I was old enough to realise that my physique resembled a blancmange in high winds, I have been a regular visitor of my local gym. The humiliation of exercising publicly is too much for me; I don’t want old people on park benches regarding me with sardonic dismay, I would much rather seedily sweat away on a contraption among other light-shy cockroaches like myself. I am fond of my gym like one might be fond of an old but slightly smelly family dog. It’s the cheapest gym around, which means that the machines tend to make interesting noises and all the televisions are playing Jeremy Kyle and the mirrors are sellotaped together, having been smashed long ago by an errant dumbbell. It means that directly opposite the exit, like a nightclub opposite a rehab clinic, sits a Burger King. It also means that rather than being full of aspirational young businessmen drinking Evian and blonde Scandinavian types, the place teems with a strange mix of people, few of whom seem to really belong in this low-budget robot room with its high-volume dance music and brick-headed personal trainers. 

I am a mid-morning gymgoer and have had the opportunity to observe and become familiar with the kinds of species that tend to roam the gym floor when the sun is out and other, perhaps more predatory creatures, are nesting in their habitats of paid employment. But in my occasional evening visits it is interesting to see that there is an entirely new range of species which come out into the synthetic light of the fitness studio once the sun has set. These creatures are equally fascinating to observe not only in themselves, but also in the ways that they differ from the daytime gymmers in both their behaviours and appearances. 

Diurnal Species

Overly friendly and chatty people who don’t seem to realise both of you are trying to exercise
Entering the gym this morning, my heart sank as I saw a familiar face. I had met this man once before: the crazily-smiling middle-aged dude who was next to me on the cross trainer a while back during the holiday before my last term of university. I was whirring away whilst trying desperately to read through Moll Flanders on my Kindle, propped up on the crosstrainer dashboard, as a ridiculous attempt to combine two of my most hated things – exercise and revision – in one agonising fell swoop. Cue complete stranger who takes this demeanour of total fury and concentration as an invitation to have a nice old chat:
“Hello, what’s your name?”
Oh god, please don’t be doing this, I have ten minutes left of this to do – “Urr…puff…Rosie…”
“That is a beautiful name.” 
Ah. He’s that kind of crazily-smiling, middle-aged dude.
He asked me what I was studying, and what I was doing for my holidays. I mustered the last filament of friendliness I had left in me to ask him what he did. He was a businessman, who liked to go boating. 
“I have many boats.”
“…Lucky you…”
“So I suppose you are fluent in German?”
“…Yes…” 
“Err…Wo wohnst du?” 
So many people, on finding out that I speak German, instantly wheel out the three questions they remember from secondary school German; I can never tell whether they’re trying to catch me out and prove that I’m a fraud, or whether they want me to clap my hands with delight and give them a gold star. Needless to say, I cut my workout short. 
These creatures are predatory, despite their friendly appearance. They hone in on the figure who is most out of breath and least enjoying themselves to make an attack. It’s like the awkward conversationalists at bus stops, except at this bus stop you are simultaneously trying to give birth while they ask you about your weekend.


Retired men ‘staying in shape’
These silver foxes are determined that they will die before their killer abs do. There is a sixty-year-old who wears a red lycra short bodysuit and does thousands of crunches until his thick head of hair bristles with the effort. They jog along beside you on the treadmill and occasionally but regularly cough violently sideways in your direction. They are devotees of the weights machines but only spend about half of their time using the weights and the other half sitting at the machines having a long fisherman’s chat with the other retired men ‘doing weights’ around them, making sure no-one else can use the equipment and disturb their jovial bonding ritual. 

The unnervingly omnipresent tiny bodybuilders
The other part of the gym’s male population is the tiny bodybuilders. These are oddly short, oddly delicate men who stay at the gym for hours pounding away at their bodies, presumably in an attempt to grow lush fields of rolling muscles where there are merely gentle hillocks. One almost suspects they believe that if they pump enough iron they will grow a few inches in height. These men work out in strange and foreign ways; they strap parts of their bodies to bits of the weights machines which usually accommodate other bits of the body and use them to carry out strange, convulsive new exercises which I’ve never seen before. One man, who I like to call Gino because he looks like a fifteen-year-old Italian pizza-boy, is short enough that he can stand on the seat of the shoulder press, velcro his wrists to the hand grips and use it as a surreal squatting device. Another boy, who is undoubtedly starting puberty, flings himself about on the weights so they smash about with unbelievable volume and tries to do his reps so quickly that he repeatedly hurts himself and emits yelps of pain. It’s like watching Daffy Duck trying to do a Rocky montage. If these men all simply shrugged their shoulders and accepted their slight builds, they could join together and form an indie band.

Scary android-women
Full-body Adidas spandex. Worrying tattoos. Mahogany-tanned, aging skin. Pulse meters, pedometers, calorie calculators and other useless exercise tamagotchis strapped around their limbs. These women are training to be the next Terminator. They can whip you with their ponytail so hard your neck will snap. 

Teen Girl Squad
Teen Girls come to the gym in packs. They work out in twos or threes, wearing tank tops with “Yeah!” or “Miami Beach Party” printed on them. Their favourite machine is the exercise bike, because they can sit at them for the whole hour, pedalling at the kind of trundling speed even an infant on a trike would find laughable. They exercise in Primark leggings. They chat about stuff and things and swap iPods as they work out and text people called ‘Shaz’ or ‘Jaya’. I am old.

That one lady who doesn’t use the exercise bike
There is a lady who comes to the gym and sits on the exercise bike. She wears a skirt suit and spends her time talking to people on two mobile phones simultaneously, one at each ear. I am not sure what she is doing.

Me
I don’t know what these other people all see me as. Possibly a Teen Girl – I have after all been paying the child’s rate for membership for about eight years now – although I suspect I am more regarded as a misanthropic anomaly, or a young woman who has to exercise in order to hold off the effects of a terminal disease.

Nocturnal Species

Post-work work-outers
These are the most common gymgoers of them all, but only begin to emerge mid-afternoon as temperatures start to decline and 5.30pm has passed. The gym is their final weary port of call before home and dinner and booze, and they just want to get it over with. They keep it short and sweet and are too fagged out by the whole situation to bother with real gym outfits, opting instead for jogging bottoms from Tesco and any pair of trainers they had knocking about from taking the dog out over the weekend. I want to embrace these people and hand them a giant, delicious steak-and-kidney pie on their way out, and wish them a lovely evening’s rest. They look like they need both of those things.

Indoor walkers
Mostly middle-aged ladies with curly hair, these people enjoy the gym because it is a relaxed and low-key affair. All they have to do is walk gently on the treadmill for a while and see their friends. They look overjoyed to be there and have a whale of a time talking to each other and watching the early-evening telly. No-one knows if this is actually exercise or why they pay a huge amount of money just to walk slowly on the spot for a short while; this species is still under research.

The Spin-class swarms
In the centre of the gym floor is a forest of tangled yellow standing bikes. As soon as the sun has set, wiry women and driven-looking men mount these bikes and suddenly the speakers in the gym begin playing club anthems at an eardrum-tearing volume. The spin instructor bellows his commands like an apoplectic army major and the spinners themselves cascade fountains of sweat from every surface of pulsing red skin. These are highly aggressive, combative periods, and the other creatures in the gym stare constantly at these people with narrowed eyes and blackened stares, hating them for bringing their cacophany and masochistic athleticism into our world of futilely optimistic effort.

Me and my mum
Our gym outfits are stained and older than some of the other people in the gym. We have a specific type of clairvoyant communication where we can, in a single moment of eye contact, say to each other, “Can we go yet?” I read my Kindle and my mother props a bit of the paper on the machinery. I love the cardio and mill my stubby legs about on the treadmill at a slightly inappropriate speed until my mp3 player falls onto the conveyor belt and is whipped with a tremendous smack against the back wall; my mother loves the weights and is gradually trying to build enormous and slightly incongruous biceps on her slender arms. I don’t know what species we belong to, but it’s too hilarious for me to care.

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.

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.

Is it expensive, painful and time consuming? Oh, then of course it will make you beautiful!

“Try pinning your list of beauty goals directly onto the skin of your chest so you don’t forget them.”- Grazia

I suppose I had to finally bite the bullet and admit I would be writing some “women’s issues” posts after I read this article here. Although it’s something that deeply interests me, “women’s issues” (which, by the way, shall never get promoted beyond sceptical quotation marks until it stops sounding like another euphemism for menstruation) is something I have generally avoided speaking about in my blog because:
1. I don’t want to be branded a militant feminist or a mouthy nag for suggesting something like the fact that waxing is definitely cruel and horrendous.
2. I don’t want you guys – whom I love, by the way, and am endlessly touched that anyone reads this at all – to stop reading afraid that every post will be about the evils of Cosmo and 
3. So many blogs – see above, or The Hairpin – have this field very well covered and have managed to cultivate a nice tone between serious polemic and playfulness which is certainly an art to develop. 
But yes, this post made me want to finally be courageous enough to write about the things that occur to me speaking as a woman (cue birdsong, rose perfume, misted lens, soundtrack from a 1980s tampon advert). 

If you’re female, when was the first time you realised you were making a larger-than-logical effort to reflect ‘the ideal’? If you’re a bloke, when was the first time you noticed the girls around you making this larger-than-logical effort? For me the real moment of clarity came in a moment of sudden and unfamiliar agony when I was having a go with eyelash curlers for the second time in my entire life and accidentally lost my balance in front of the mirror. Amazingly I didn’t manage to actually tear all of my eyelashes off the lid but good god. I don’t know what was worse, the pain or the image that instantly popped into my mind of me standing there with gaping mouth staring at my own bleeding eyelid held in the curlers like kitchen tongs holding a piece of bacon. I threw the eyelash curlers away. Clearly a girl who regularly manages to fall of her bike while completely stationary is not meant for such tools.


Apparently now 90-95% of us indulge in removal of armpit, leg and pubic hair all year round. We don’t know, of course, how many hairy but shy people there are out there who just didn’t feel confident taking the survey, but this seems startling to me. Do you need to be smooth all the time? In Winter? In Britain, come to think of it, where we only get three days of pleasant weather a year and celebrate these days by wearing as many different pairs of hotpants as we can conceivably put on and take off within the time frame? 

And yes, lots of women shave or wax because they prefer the aesthetic and the feel of it, but I am inclined to side with Prof. Anneke Smelik who theorises that it’s becoming such a social obligation now that we feel compelled to do it whether it will be seen or not seen, like brushing your teeth twice a day or covering your mouth when you yawn. Shaving’s not so bad of course, because I’m sure any capable person (myself excluded, who tends to leave the shower looking like she’s come from the slow-mo blood deluge scene in The Shining) can do it with minimal pain and stress, although of course the time it takes is still annoying and could be spent doing something like learning a new language or debating EU financial policies. But waxing is, like the eyelash curlers, the cut-off point for me. The point where that ‘aesthetic’, the desire to be the smooth and gorgeous woman, supersedes the desire not to have hot tar smeared onto your naked skin – or genitals shudder shudder – and then gleefully ripped off, liberating millions of little innocent hairs from their follicles each with a tiny (but formidable when united) bolt of agony. It’s probably still more painful than imagining the money trickling from your account to pay for this.

And the more I think about it, the more sad and worried I am that we all make decisions and do things on a daily basis that are hugely inconvenient, expensive and time-wasting just to be gorrrjus. We skip lunch and wait trembling hours until the huge dinner out we know is in the evening. We put chemicals near and on our most sensitive and most useful  and most vulnerable bits; I love my eyeballs and am indebted to their service and yet still gloop mascara and kohl around them haphazardly every day. We allow ourselves to be AS COLD AS PERMAFROST in a skirt and semi-transparent tights because a formal event necessitates a small silken sheath to be worn despite it being the dead of winter. And I know this is a very British thing, too, because in Germany when it’s cold you march happily about in enormous coats and thick hiking trousers, while all my German friends here in the UK repeatedly ask me with tearful, concerned eyes: “Rosie, it’s minus 6 degrees outside, tell us, why are the girls still walking around in shorts and ballet pumps?” We do it because we have no choice. It’s the uniform. You would look like an idiot going to a May Ball in a jumper and trousers. People would think you were Making a Stand. 

Oh, and the expense is heartbreaking. Why is shampoo more expensive than a whole roasting chicken?? Why do tweezers cost two quid but the ‘good, professional’ tweezers cost thirty? Even a new pair of shoes is an investment, and not in the ‘statement piece oh my god grazia grazia mwah’ kind of way: even a modest thirty-pound pair costs seventy pounds in the end when you factor in the acres of plasters you go through covering all the parts of your feet that are bleeding or blistered, the re-heeling when the heel wears away after the fourth time out, and the various pads and insoles you buy to stop the throbbing pain in between your foot bones.

Writers like Susie Orbach and co point out that we now see the human body as perfectible, particularly in the case of the female. We are encouraged to identify, isolate and annihilate every thing that may not even be a flaw but simply not adherent to the preferable adjective for that body part: “Get the perfect curve for your eyebrows!” “Make your neck look longer!” “Make the whites of your eyes really POP!” But we are clever and realistic people; I’ve always been well aware that an essay isn’t perfectible, there’s no such thing as the perfect pair of trousers and despite honing it since I was fourteen my private chocolate cake recipe is still a long way from being the Platonic Chocolate Cake. (But getting ever nearer…) We’re smart and logical and reasonable enough to know for a fact that nothing can ever be perfect, so it is odd that we hold this incredibly harsh and unreasonable goal for our bodies, of all things. If anything the human body is the least likely thing to ever near perfection because it’s a big, gooey, squashy skinbag of pores and follicles and organs all trying to do the rough equivalent of what they did back when we were all much more gorrilaesque. The devil isn’t really in the details, since no amount of curled eyelashes will distract people from my lump-of-cheddar nose, for example. If we all devoted our energies and emotions towards finding the perfect sandwich or sofa instead the world would be a miraculous place.

But I don’t want you females (or the males reading this and just thinking ‘well then don’t do it and shut up’) to leave this site thinking that I’ve just given you all a Strafpredigt (a lovely German word that means ‘punishment sermon’). I’m not saying we have to stop, because as I say, you leave yourself very vulnerable to unpleasant things like mockery and behind-back criticism, the protection from which is (as someone who was teased mercilessly when little) worth the expense. Not to mention the fact that it really can be quite good fun, like putting on an incredibly subtle costume for a reeeeeallly understated fancy dress party. What I am saying is that we should embrace this hobby-aspect of it and make it so, make it fun from start to end and, like a hobby, leave judgment out of it if you choose not to be into train sets or hook-rug making or hair-straightening. What I am asking is whether we can’t make this expense less…well, expensive? Not just money-wise but in terms of everything; can’t we make the rituals less of a pain? Couldn’t we make shaving cream smell like God’s garden to make those boring fifteen minutes a bit lovely? Could someone make a slightly narrower and curved razor sold with the other ones because armpits are a complex and voluptuous cavern that simply can’t be done with a straight potato-peeler thing? Could mascara be packaged differently so you can use up the whole tube rather than just the two millilitres those brushes can actually access? Could we just conceal our spots and accept that the rest of our face won’t be flawless skin but will be varied, textural and fundamentally anatomical, like the skin on our arms or ears – which for some reason we feel no need to cake with a uniform shade. Beauty companies should be putting their arses into inventing new ways to make the whole ritual as joyful and comfortable and safe as is possible, rather than expecting us to grin and bear it. I’m not sure I like being female – I’m certainly never glad to be, as I much prefer striding to walking and high-fives to cheek-kisses – but I know I want to be comfy and happy and relaxed. And still have all of my eyelashes in place.

Berlin: Half the time, when we talk about chain stores, we literally mean stores where you buy different kinds of chain

Yeah, the windows are lined with the colours of the German flag. And what?

One thing I simply had to visit one more time before I move back is the fabric shop Hüco Stoffe, near the station Jungfernheide in the west of the city. I had three reasons for this: one, I am a sewing-crafting-making-everthing nerd and a trip to a fabric shop is like visiting a fantastic gallery to me; two, Hüco Stoffe is one of the most breathtaking shops, fabric or otherwise, that I’ve ever set foot it; and three, in the UK when you want to buy fabric or any craft supplies you are limited to one or two minute little dusty bunkers run by ancient ladies who charge sixteen pounds for a small ‘kerchiefs-worth of cloth. When I shop for craft supplies in the UK, my selection is always disappointing, small, and temporary, as every new shop that springs up inevitably closes down after about three months, the staff still reeling from the shock that you can’t make a living selling rickrack for the price of a black-market vital organ. 

Shopping in Britain has become one of the most soul-bleedingly dire activities we have to subject ourselves to. The cause of this is the fact that every town worth its salt has raised its shop rents so high that poor old schmoes who have little more than an idea and a pocketful of dreams can’t afford to keep anything going for more than a couple of weeks before the rent catches up to the meagre profit and long before they have had time to collect an interested and loyal customer base to keep them going. The result of this is endless stretches of identical streets, in every town, in every county you might go to. Every city looks the same, with exactly the same shops containing identical products, and one finds onesself asking why there is any point at all in trying to look for new and original things to buy when everything is getting so homogeneous we might as well all just start wearing grey smocks and calling each other ‘comrade’. 

Meanwhile, come away from the awful shopping nuclei of Berlin (Alexanderplatz, Wilmersdorfer Straβe, good god don’t even touch KuDamm) and within seconds you are stumbling over countless beautiful and individual shops run by fascinating individuals and selling an incredible array of things.

Just in my Kiez there’s a fashion shop that also features a vintage food counter where they sell a remarkable selection of hand-sewn cuddly meat products: squishy legs of lam, fluffy salamis, felted bacon… There’s a shop selling vintage eyeglasses, a pirate-themed ice-cream parlour, a luxury vegetarian delicatessen, there’s proper toy shops and Jamaican mini-markets and graffiti supplies stores. The idea that we’re all used to of the Starbucks on every corner is thought to be remarkable here; while in Reading we have 5 Starbucks among 13 other well-known coffeehouse chains, the independent café reigns supreme here, each offering their own hook such as the incredibleness of their cakes or the superiority of their breakfasts or the rad posters on their walls. Going to Starbucks is a treat here, something you only ever do if you’re feeling rich and want a drink that is also a pudding and a cardinal sin. Enter the Frappuccino.

So, Hüco really does it for me. It’s an incredible place. After a longish walk from the station one approaches the most unwelcoming and unlikely looking grey concrete chunk of a building and after spending half an hour looking elsewhere certain it can’t be here one eventually enters. After two flights of grey dark staircases and vaguely cryptic signs pointing the way you arrive at a door which is unlabelled but is presumably the portal to a cloth shop given the mannequin draped in sequinned polyester in front of it. But the door is locked. One nanosecond before giving up you spot a tiny scrawled message on the doorbell that announces that customers must ring the bell to be let in but should only ring ONCE and NOT A SINGLE RING MORE. One rings, and is finally admitted into cloth narnia. It’s a labyrinth of fabric, of every colour and fibre known to man, some of which are beautiful and some remarkable purely because of their ridiculous patterns; anyone fancy trousers made with a kittens-and-sweetcorn print? When you’ve picked your cloth you take it to the brusque but friendly lady at the counter who cuts it for you and writes your receipt by hand on old-fashioned receipt paper before then working out the VAT on a respectable CASIO brick and sending you off to the woman in the paying booth, who takes your money and offers you a biscuit. You can then return to woman number one, who hands you your now folded and bagged fabric, and you drift out of the store and back to the future. 

Anything goes here in Berlin, and the joy of it is that those people who do give it a try seem to plummet into failure almost never compared to in Grey(t) Britain. You can be who you like and sell what you like and despite the chains being there, despite the masses and majorities and trends, you can make your own way and make a life out of it. It’s part of the endlessly accepting and embracing nature of the city, and it never ceases to be remarkable to me. It’s also the reason why Berlin is the best and most fun place to be a minority.

Yesterday I was spontaneously invited along to an unexplained barbeque in a park on my side of the city. You only have to cough here to give people the idea to hold a barbeque, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by the invite or expecting anything out-of-the-ordinary, but when I arrived what I found was not five or six relaxed Germans turning sausages on a grill but a huge gabbling mass of men, meat and picnic blankets. Ah, thought I. A gay BBQ. Of course. The gay ex-pat community of Berlin come together once a year for a collossal barbeque in the park and being there made me seriously consider batting for the other team myself; the spread of food was endless and unbelievably good, and the relaxed, generous atmosphere was a real joy. Berlin is the gay capital of Europe, clearly for the reason that here you needn’t fear a single lick of prejudice or spite for who you are, and it shows in the sheer comfortableness of the people in this group. Whether they had been here for two months or two years, everyone I met was singing the praises of the city and saying they never wanted to leave without the knowledge that they’d be coming back. 

Naturally everyone wants to be here. I want to stay here. Whether you’re into cloth or crafts or coffee or a specific gender, there’s a place for you in Berlin. 

The Further Adventures of Anonymous McBlogger

“Yo soy Señor Papier-Maché, gringo.”

The thing about visiting Berlin as a tourist is that you are constantly treading the fine line between the two types of tourist that swarm around this city in their multitudes: the typical doughy, shorts-wearing people who take constant streams of photos and simply have to see anything that is to do with Berlin, Germany and (regrettably) the Holocaust, and the lithe, toothy young things who search out only the ‘realest’ and grittiest things Berlin has to offer. Thanks to these two groups the city is a whirlwind of awful baseball caps and neon colours, plastic souvenir TV-Towers and entire spectrums of plimsoll shoes. Each group looks down on the other; the ‘touris’ spurn the hipsters because they’re either drunk or stupid-looking, and the groovy youths are disgusted by the touris because they enjoy normal things that normal people enjoy. 

The touris are happily occupied meandering around the Reichstag dome or having money painfully surgically extracted in the TV Tower, but the American Appareltroopers are busy looking for something more wild, and they usually end up at the Kunsthaus Tacheles. Homeplace of the brilliant loo-roll-and-PVA-glue hombres you see above, the Kunsthaus Tacheles is an abandoned and reclaimed old shopping centre which was overtaken by bunches of artists who filled the entire building with mental art, clanging music and the stench of urine. Within the building one follows two scarily dark, winding staircases through the echoing blasts of weird music into little rooms with mini-exhibitions, some fantastic and some just plain unnerving. There is jewellery to buy and deranged bald men wearing bowler hats to avoid making eye contact with. It’s the wrecked and beautiful building that made the scene in Goodbye Lenin where (sigh) Daniel Bruhl and the attractive nurse sit on the edge of a dewalled room and talk about their feelings and stuff. There are clubs and bars and artists’ workshops, and it’s brilliant and terrifying and exciting, and most tragically of all, it’s all about to go away forever because the artists have finally lost the house to people who want to use the location for a new shopping centre, something which Berlin clearly desperately needs. There are pots everywhere begging for donations to keep the place going and if you ask me, despite the urine-funk it’s worth it.

Thus the two tribes of tourists fail to annoy each other most of the time and save their annoyingness to get on the nerves of people who have the good fortune to live here. They rarely have a chance to mingle because there are few things in the city that appeal to both at the same time. 

Until you get to the East Side Gallery. 


 The East Side Gallery is the longest still-standing stretch of the real Berlin wall in Berlin and features all those famous bits of Wall art that you see in the history books, like the kiss painting or the Trabi bursting through the wall. I had to see it one last time before I left simply because it has such an incredible effect; the very idea of a huge concrete call literally chopping an entire city impermeably in half is fairy-tale villainesque to me, and to be able to walk along it is undeniably impressive. What makes it even better is that when I fist saw the wall in 2008 all this art was hidden under a vile vomitous smear of graffiti by moronic tourists who seemed to think that the art was simply an invitation for them to add their own input in the form of some glib statement about freedom or their girlfriend. In 2009, Berlin decided that it wanted to take back what was rightfully its own expression of freedom and invited all the original artists to come back and repaint what they had originally created; although there is still the occasional “I <3 Chaz 2010” thoughtlessly scratched into the paint the pictures are all now so crisp and colourful they glow in the sun. Along the strip there are a few awesome beach bars where you can sit at the riverside and let the sultry sounds of high-volume club music lull you into a restful afternoon daze.


But the people. Oh, the people. Everyone goes to the East Side Gallery, regardless of genre of tourist, because it is free and genuine and one of the few divided-Berlin artefacts that hasn’t been directly shoved in a museum, and naturally also because it is genuinely great. This means that in walking along the wall you spend your entire time on the verge of anger ducking under the scope of people’s cameras as they take photos of each other high-fiving by the wall or hilariously stroking the chin of Gorbatschow. You might, like I did, have to help a group of tittering English girls have their photo taken sexily posing with a guy dressed as a border control guard against a painted metaphor for the torture of feigned social contentedness. You will have people offering to stamp your passport with a ‘genuine DDR passport control stamp’, or you might even have the chance to buy a genuine fragment of clumsily spray-painted concrete which genuinely looks like a genuine piece of the genuine wall. There are gangs of tourists who inexplicably march along the length of the wall barely registering the thing itself as if it were simply a big long corridor leading to a Schnitzel convention. There are naive tourists who pay a lot of money for the faux border guard to stand by the wall looking serious and properly-DDR even though the man is Turkish with long hair, a beard and multiple piercings. There are tourists who seem to have made some sort of mistake and clearly don’t know where they are or what they are looking at, and are simply standing by the wall having arguments with eachother holding maps.



So do go to the East Side Gallery, please, and do enjoy it before it gets covered in people’s hilarious catchphrases daubed onto the anus of the dove of peace painting; but go before the majority of people are awake.


Kids can be so cu – GAAAH!

Holy crèpe paper…that’s supposed to be educational?

Ok, so that’s not even a real child, it’s a plastic model which gave me a lurching heart attack the minute I turned around and glimpsed its hell-black eyes in the Pingelhof traditional farming museum on my trip last week. The real children I am actually teaching really are quite sweet, and as our lessons finally begin to come to their end, their reactions are ranging from adorable to inexplicable.

I’m now getting into the penultimate or final lessons for each group, and as I sit the children down and tell them in the saddest-sounding whisper I can muster (simultaneously putting all my energy into not sounding at all joyful or triumphant) that these are our last lessons together it is hilarious to see what they do with that information. One kid, Max, was so devastated after the lesson that he sobbed and his mother had to calm him down, as she later told me – tragic, yes, but good feedback is good feedback. The other kids in Max’s group immediately asked, naturally, if they would be getting a present of some kind, since they have been doggedly demanding that I make them all animal masks since that fateful day I brought in a snake and monkey mask for them to frolic about in. But this is a group of kids who all have huge, cartoon eyes and adorable high-pitched giggles and are addicted to being tickled and so I couldn’t say no to the little tykes.

Livin’ it up on a Friday afternoon

That’s my favourite group; others won’t quite be getting the same level of dedication.

One of the groups, from a slightly impoverished Kita in the south, were very strange. I knelt to tell them the sad tidings and after a moment of reflection the adorable and very Ikea-pretty (i.e. blessed with Scandinavian good looks and subtle colour combinations) Lasse said: “Rosie is soft like a cushion.” He then lay his head on my lap and started to mew, and all the other kids said, “Yes, she’s soft like a cushion,” and joined in nestling on my big squashy thighs. I had to sit for a while just staring in confused affection at this sudden litter of puppies on my lap stroking my thighs, and then eventually just tried to distract them with the picnic game.

Other children are not so sweet, and use this as an opportunity to loudly announce that they don’t want to do English anymore and their mum says it’s a waste of money and that they should have done swimming instead; others seem to completely lose their sense of what is going on and start asking if that means they won’t have an English lesson tomorrow (the lessons are only once a week, never twice in two days) or suddenly asking what happened to that English teacher they used to have before I came along (answer: they quit because they hated the job and you, children!). And some simply ask, “Why?” 

In absolute honesty, to be leaving the kids is rather sad and I have grown very fond of almost all of them; well, save the group who are as thick and herd-minded as a group of buffalo and simply spend every lesson loafing around the room dribbling slightly. But most of the children are sweet and affectionate and in finding out that I am leaving are touchingly saddened. Some now call me ‘mummy’ and some simply cling onto me like baby orangutans. And an oddly large number of the children have taken to repeatedly kissing the back of my hand during lessons like a Victorian gentleman introducing himself to a fine lady. It’s rather charming.

Still, even though my time here is drawing to a close, that is no reason for me to stop discovering new and mental things to do in this hilarious city, and thus I will end this entry with a concert that I was at featuring a Gypsy Swing Jazz Band. No, I didn’t really know those words could come together like that either. The venue was the Fuchs and Elster, a wonderful little bar/pub named after one of the sweetest stories of the Sandmann, a little pre-bedtime telly show from East Germany in which a tiny story lasting five minutes was played out to soothe East German kids into sweet felt-puppet dreams. The tales of Herr Fuchs and Frau Elster are stories of a cantankerous fox and a mild-natured magpie who have the personalities of that grouchy old man who chases children off his lawn and that sweet old lady who gives those same kids cake and lemonade, respectively. The stories revolve around Frau Elster trying to do something nice and Herr Fuchs just trying to enjoy a quiet life, and they are beautiful and charming.



  How could a pub named after that not feature some kind of organic Gypsy jazz on its menu? The concert was brilliant, in fact, a mix of twangy Gypsy Kings-style skiffle music and Woody Allen-style jazz with a mental lead violinist who sang in a moany growl. Unfortunately my friends and I were not able to fully enjoy the concert due to the complete maniacs in the audience. It was not particularly music to dance to, but despite this a man in a Popeye-striped-shirt was flinging himself around like he was being toyed with by an invisible puppet master. The man had an expression on his face that can only be described as “agonecstasy”  and seemed to have completely misunderstood all genres of music at the same time, as he was dancing to the swing/jazz/skiffle beats with a mixture of skanking, hip-hop hand gestures and wild hippy flailings, whilst making Super Mario whooping noises and shouting “Arriba” like a Mexican bandito. He was not the main offender, however. The worst was the man directly next to us, a man who seemed to be composed of nothing but elbows and shoulders, getting his groove on in the most self-indulgent and inappropriately energetic manner. He was whacking us in the arms, face, boobs, bellies, grinding up and down the side of my poor friend and indulging in erotic caresses with the two women  and other dude he was with until, at the end, they all just gave up and clustered into a big writhing ball of fake carnal fervour. If you are reading this, you angular and malfunctioning robot, take your hoodie and blazer combo off and burn it, then go and read a book or something. Chillax, dude.