Creative Arborism 101

The first in the series. A classic that defined the latter works.

Further in the series, we see an interesting juxtaposition of asymmetrical tree and signage creating balance in imbalance.

A slightly awkward piece; the ‘crossroads’ imagery seems naively overwrought here.

Quite possibly the jewel of the collection. This, the finest specimen of all the trees used in the collection, has been knowingly coupled with sublime signage and a wry parallelism with the real tree. Magnificent.

It’s that festive time of year again. When families, friends and flatmates come together across the continent, unite in their living rooms, gaze at their joyfully selected Christmas tree, hold hands and say to each other, lovingly:
“Well, that was a pretty good Christmas. Time to chuck this on the streets then.”
Since my return from the UK, the changing of the seasons seems to have been marked by little more than rubbish. The first day after New Year’s, the pavements were utterly bristling with a fetid rash of detritus: bits of fireworks, burnt-put sparklers, döner wrappers and so very much broken glass. Slightly unexpectedly considering that this city is usually kept relatively clean and litter-free in comparison to the trashfest that is London, this layer of crud was never really cleared away by anyone, so it just lay on the streets for days, tangling together slowly like washed-up seaweed on a shallow beach. 

But a few days later, after the bulk of the clobber had settled neatly into the gutters and drains, a new wave of special rubbish arrived to truly herald the new year and a fresh start. Suddenly, hundreds of small fir trees started appearing on the pavements. Some were left to grow soggy and lose their needles with time. Some were immediately seen as a canvas and haphazardly spraypainted. Some were set on fire. One that had been set on fire was then spotted by a large dog who saw it as a brilliant new toy, and that dog nearly reaped me off the pavement with his enormous blackened club jutting a metre out from his jaws each way.

Then, a few days after that, someone with an imaginative mind and, presumably, a ladder, decided to stick one of these abandoned Christmas trees into the top of a tall signpost. Inspiration struck the city. One by one, signposts were being adorned with leftover Christmas trees, the trees staying remarkably full of life despite being propped up in a long thin pipe with no access to water. 

And seriously now, something funny is happening with this changing of the seasons. Why are all these trees *still* there? Why does the lady living opposite my office kitchen window still have her festive candelabra on her windowsill? Why – seriously, why – does the pizza place down the road still have one of those plastic trees with an upturned umbrella at the base to catch the polystyrene ‘snow’ that sprays gently from the top? (And why would anyone ever choose to have one of those in their establishment at anytime ever?).

Two days ago, at the farmer’s market, I picked a nice-looking apple from the basket and the sweet bloke behind the stall said ‘Take it! Enjoy! Happy new year!’ People are still, frequently, wishing me a happy new year, even though it’s long since new and definitely seems to be doing its level best to avoid that whole ‘happy’ thing. There are still Dominocubes on sale in Kaisers – not that I’m complaining about that particular detail; Dominocubes are little blocks of soft spiced gingerbread topped with a layer of marzipan and another layer of fruity jelly and covered in chocolate, so yes, do keep those coming. But for some reason I cannot identify, this new year is having a very difficult time indeed letting go of the recent festivities.

And yet. In the supermarket, drifting brainlessly through the aisles, something purple and elongated caught my eye. A Milka bunny. I had stumbled into the Easter aisle. Chocolate eggs, little sweetie rabbits, Kinder chocolate chicks…So what is going on?! What are we doing here, guys, Christmas or Easter? Or am I jumping the gun here and those Easter treats were actually just the leftovers from last Easter, and soon we’ll start seeing Lindt rabbits and bunches of daffodils wedged into signposts as people finally decide it’s time to start getting rid  of the Easter stuff from 9 months ago?

Another pertinent question: who is going to clear up all those trees in posts in the end? Is some schmoe from the government going to go round with a really, really long version of one of those grabby-sticks and yank the trees out of the poles one-by-one? Or are they just going to stay there forever now, a legacy from a Christmas so fundamentally special that we shall never forget it.

Either way, we don’t need trees in posts to remind us that we’ve entered the cruellest part of winter; all you need to realise that is to step outside, where the biting cold has finally arrived and will make your nose feel like numb, dribbling putty in 30 seconds. This new year is about to get hardcore. Bring it on.

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.

Chapter 4: The Dark Ages

Thank you The Guardian, for once again representing students in a fair and accepting light.

Apologies for the brief hiatus, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for your patience. Where have I been, you may well ask. But the question that might be more pertinent is: where have I not been? The answer: university.

It’s over, people. I am no longer a student. The discounts stop here, no more trips to the library or arbitrary essays or poncy formal dinners from now on. From now on, we are adults, now doomed with nothing to looked forward to but the ever increasing woes of taxes, ageing and petrol prices. Unless of course you have chosen to do a masters or postgraduate course of some sort, in which case go back to bed and sleep peacefully knowing how lucky you are that you are still on board the student gravy train.

Or so everyone will tell you. Graduating is a horrifying, morbid prospect nowadays. Whereas once you might peacefully lope back home, spend a few months squelching about the house wondering what you were going to do to earn your bread and placidly absorbing the light naggings of your parents, these days the new graduate is immediately plunged into the black abyss of abject terror that is Being A Graduate. The breath-taking fear that you will never find a job wraps itself around your neck like a boa constrictor as you read article after article lamenting that 90% of graduates never find a job, or end up working at Asda for the rest of their lives, or are simply laughed out of every job interview they ever have simply for having been stupid enough to think a university degree might get them as far as some schmoe with plenty of experience who’s been working since he was 16. The gentle nagging of parents has been replaced with franting bleating, urging you to start applying for things immediately and take any work experience you can get, whether paid, unpaid, menial or requiring huge chunks of the day shovelling excrement out of a middle eastern dungeon. Newspapers fling up their hands in desperation at the state of our Young Adults, who have been mollycoddled by ‘soft’ degrees and student loans and are now not fit for a job in the real world. 


Graduates themselves absorb all this with passive, worried cooperation, simply because we have nothing else to go on other than what we are being told by these factions. We frenziedly apply to graduate schemes, most of which promise a pittance of a salary for you to end up in some job called Accounts System Human Resources Coordination Overseas Consultant (i.e. professional email forwarder). Companies offering these schemes, aware that these jobs appear like glistening gold nuggets held in their pudgy fists, demand that graduates complete a four-step application process including two online questionnaires and aptitude tests, a 2000-word essay on your suitability for the role, an interview held in either London, Glasgow or Helsinki (applicants will be informed of the interview location two days before interview) and finally a submission of a felt effigy of the Hindu god you feel best evokes your positive qualities. We freak out and worry that our CVs are poor, and do anything to accumulate experience. We start blogs under the delusion that they will be a worthwhile arrow in our quiver (cough cough). Ever day spent at home simply enjoying yourself or remembering that you actually quite like your parents and/or your cats is tinged with the guilt that you are not at that moment on a train to The City to be interviewed for something. Even living at home for longer than the couple of weeks it takes to sort out a placement is seen as somehow pathetic – as if your graduating changes your living at home from being the standard state for young unmarried people into the type of ‘living with your parents’ which becomes the immediate No factor on dating websites for the over 40s. Any recent graduate who reads this article will find themselves whooping with joy that at least one public voice has recognised this and is happy to affirm how preposterous it all is.

Graduating isn’t a sudden plunge into adulthood. It isn’t the end of hope, dreams and fun. To begin with, we should take time at home or abroad to think things through, partly because we ought to have a chance to relish a few weeks without any deadlines or tutorials whatsoever, and partly because these are life decisions that shouldn’t be made in panicked haste. We should recognise that it is a prudent and normal decision to live at home for as long as necessary because rents in the UK are organ-thievingly high and there isn’t the lovely flat-share culture you find in places like Germany. And if we want a job, we should be allowed to feel confident about the fact that for the time being, any job is good enough, whether it’s a low-level lackey job or a part-time thing on a shop floor. Earn money, gain experience, meet new colleagues, great. Just don’t do it out of the fear and illusion that it’s the only chance you have from now until your final breath to break into the industry of your dreams – the course of life is endlessly and astonishingly forgiving, flexible, and it goes without saying that there are no absolute final chances.

And cheer up, noble graduates! There may be some who are doing masters because they want to stay in the student lifestyle, but the adult lifestyle is so much better and so much richer! Yes, you have to pay taxes, but you are still left over with a bit of income which is all yours, and the satisfaction of that is thrilling in itself. Yes, you have more responsibilities, but there is a total pleasure in finally being in charge of your own things and having to clean your own loo and find your own dentist because you are now mature and tough enough to be trusted with such things. Life is better because it is less easy: people are not parcelled out in societies and corridors but rather you have to find your own people whose company you can tolerate, and for that you develop a smaller but much more pleasurable group of friends; you don’t have essays and worksheets to fiddle with so you have to find new and more interesting hobbies to fill up any formless stretches of time you might have; even losing the student discount is nice, in a way, because it means you are now finally recognised as a real and respected member of society rather than a poor yet gullible well of profit who needs the incentive of a saved pound fifty to be goaded to spent nine pounds anyway.

Because in the end, and this may sound sad, all I can think of is the things that I won’t miss about being a student. I won’t miss never being taken seriously, and the assumptions that if it’s 2pm you’ve probably only just woken up from your drunken stupor. I won’t miss relatives assuming that I’m waking up in strange beds and subsisting entirely on Pot Noodle. I won’t miss nebulous work that expands or contracts to fill whatever time you might have to do it in and nonetheless is expected to be of the same exemplary quality every single time. Look at the photo at the top of this post again. The way that the ‘student voice’ is evoked by a photo of three drunk idiots dressed as zombies. That is why graduation is wonderful: university is one big coming-of-age ceremony, the western version of having to spend a day hunting in the rainforest having taken a poisonous drug extracted from vine toads, and only after you come out of it do people finally treat you like a man. We hope. 

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.

The Noble Art of Chucking Things Away

Sadly, not everything can simply be got rid of in the recycling.

What’s the first thing I did on the first day of 24 hours of freedom? I threw things away. And it was glorious.

A wad of flashcards as thick as an Oxford dictionary, endless rain-softened folders, reams of posters of declensions and gender rules and plural endings, collected up, divested of blutack and chucked into a crate. Arbitrarily symbolical, now dead flowers mouldering in the bin. Entire notebooks tossed with lascivious joy into the recycling pile. Replaced with strings of flowers, posters of shapes and colours, or sheer empty space in which I can now start keeping things that are useful to me rather than detrimental to my mental stability. And as a souvenir of this monolith of work, now completely behind me, I have kept a single poster: a hand-drawn picture of a nude man with his various body parts labelled and coloured in blue, green or purple according to gender (his hair is orange – plural). 

This may sound heartless but let’s face it, it wasn’t a part of my life I feel a huge deal of affection or nostalgia for. Of course university has been a huge catalogue of memories I adore and relish, but they aren’t the memories that will be rekindled by an accidental glance at ‘Shakesp. Practice qu.’ It’s not like old schoolwork either – I can’t imagine myself reading back through an Inchbald essay and thinking “D’awwww, gosh I used to be precious.” It’s dull, dull, dull and too often a reminder of times I was simply stupid; not a patch on things I have kept from primary school which include a long and fascinating story about a flea who lives in a mouse hole and becomes infuriated when someone puts a cactus right in front of his ‘front door’. No – throwing it all away was simply the most fantastic few hours of cathartic life-purgation. Colonic irrigation for the soul.

   Hundreds of people hate to throw anything from the past away, though. It all contains too much emotional value, too many memories. This makes a lot of sense; it’s not an easy thought to consider lightly tossing hours and hours of your dedicated work into a bin already full of crushed cereal boxes and empty jars. Harder still are the ‘souvenirs’ and keepsakes you accumulate through life, millions of tiny fragments of things that contain meaning: the lollipop from that German bop where people thought you were Princess Leia (no, that’s how Bavarians wear their hair), the tiny plastic hippo you found in the covered market inexplicably abandoned on a windowsill, the hideous old-fashioned mirror with a handle you bought as a prop for the play you had to furnish on a budget of about forty pence. Isn’t it brilliant how we infuse everything with meaning? I honestly think it’s one of the redeeming features of western humanity that we invest each object with the moment and the sense of the moment in which it was needed and used, until we end up surrounded by the living we’ve already done. 

YET. Throwing things away is also one of the most brilliant, fun and mind-clearing things you can do, and if you are one of those who treasures everything too much, I beg you to try it. For a start, when does something stop being a perfect symbol of a memory and simply become a knick-knack? I finally threw away a huge selection of volcanic rocks from my trip to the Grecian islands when it occurred to me that these rocks don’t give a particularly good summary of the power of the volcanic landscape and taken out of context are just ugly grey lumps simply good for the dry feet on the bottom of your skin. I find myself in the middle of a swirling accumulation of …just stuff…that is now part of my space in the world without ever being used or touched apart from when it is being moved aside so I can get to something I really need. And I think this is why it is so glorious to throw things away and free yourself up; you can get all that clutter-cholesterol out of your bunged-up system and feel more…clean.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a cold-hearted destroyer of all your treasured keepsakes, though. It simply means being critical and aware of yourself: I like to ask myself questions like “Is the memory this thing is related to really so special that I won’t remember it without this thing?” Generally the answer is yes, and then giving the thing to Oxfam doesn’t hurt at all because you realise that the best memories you have don’t need a chunk of plastic as a monument. It also means being practical; size is important, as you can keep a plastic hippo, say, with a lot less annoyance than a huge scented candle an old squeeze of yours once gave you. Chuck things away, I say! Remove the drifts of bits and scraps from your life! Occasionally it can be as enlightening as a religious realisation, like when I came to see that I could avoid the irritation of sweeping all my knick-knacks onto the floor every time I closed the curtains if I simply swept them all into the garbage instead. There is so much fun to be had in looking through your clothes and realising that you always felt blobby in that top anyway and you can only wear it with one specific cardigan so it will look much better soaring through the air towards the bin-bag full of charity-shop offerings. It is so relieving to stop yourself constantly accidentally treading on the sharp thing if you realise the sharp thing is just a floating bit of sentimental paraphernalia. And it is tremendous to hurl away huge rafts of degree work visualising the sheer cubic-metreage of space that is now becoming available to you to move in, redecorate and not stub your toe on. 

And let’s face it, a worrying majority of domestic misfortunes happen because trinkets get in the most annoying places. The Bauhaus is a German design movement which revolutionised product design by suggesting that something ought to be designed to work and be useful before the prettiness and knick-knack-quality was considered. Without them Ikea simply wouldn’t exist, and their fundamental propaganda video is a hilarious silent staging of the contemporary household beset by things and bits and stuff. The wife comes to make the breakfast but can’t get anything together with ease because every object is breakable and has fancy handles or spouts which look nice but ultimately spout the milk onto her lap. She tries to do the laundry but it tumbles everywhere and sweeps stupid hanging ducks and ceramic flowers off the wall on her way down the stairs. The boss comes over for coffee, but the coffee-pot’s pretty lid falls off, he receives scalding coffee in his crotch and knocks a porcelain cherub onto his head in his agonised frenzy. The Bauhaus knew the hell of too many knick-knacks. Each scene is interspersed with a black screen and a sardonic bit of commentary: “Unlucky again, Herr Schroeder! It’s a shame the chair is so easily stained, too!”

The best things are things you can keep and at the same time reuse or repurpose so they’ll be there with you forever: favourite mugs broken and converted into jewellery holders, old theme-park pressed pennies drilled and made into a chain, beach rocks gathered into an old glass vase to keep the flowers upright. You don’t have to keep the whole T-shirt if you can just cut out the motif and sew it onto a canvas bag, a pillow or even a new T-shirt that actually fits. And my favourite thing of all is my ‘special box’. It’s a dark wooden box that for whatever reason is broken enough to require a special 36-degree upwards-eastwards pushing-pulling motion to open it, and it contains all the priceless stuff that you couldn’t make me chuck for love nor money. It has the plastic tiara my friends crowned me with on my last night in Berlin and my wristband from my first ever May Ball, and a lot of other tiny and private things. That’s why it’s so fantastic to throw things away: because then you get the pleasure of picking the few tiny and precious bits that make it into the box.

Craft? I nearly died…

Striped pajama squid earrings and a blue-ringed octopus pendant. Made for a marine biologist, natch.

Crafting is my favourite thing. I’ll try anything, from Fimo to glassmaking, basket weaving to soap-making – I love it all, except scrapbooking which is a waste of money and time and shouldn’t be allowed. The wonderful thing is that although the craft scene here is relatively limited (our best craft supplier is Hobbycraft, a place utterly devoid of creative energy or even a single wisp of human cheer) the Americans are ON IT and write thousands of blogs, tutorials and articles every single day on making your own stuff. Hell, they even started Etsy, which if you manage to sift through all the stuff that’s being resold from wholesale under the guise of handmade produce still provides people like me to actually send a bit of what they make out into the wider world. Things like a moose antlers hat for a newborn baby should – nay, must – be made publicly available, let’s face it. And with Craftzine, and Craftgossip, and Craftgawker, and the dozens of craft resources available online, it looks like this fad is a fad no more; we’re taking over the world and covering it it crochet as we go.

But even though I used to avidly devour these blogs every day, soaking up the ideas like a thirsty Spongebob, these days they tend to fill me with nothing but ennui and a horrible foreboding sense that we’ve already ruined it for ourselves. People making stuff has the potential to be world-changing, the idea that if you need anything, want anything or want to improve anything you already have you can make it happen yourself with glue and some accoutrements of some description. Just think what it could mean for the hideous consumption-disposal society we’re in at the moment; think how it could change the way things are valued, and the way we treat the things we already own. People making stuff has the potential to shape style to be the way we want it for once, as opposed to us being told by a committee of thin and unsympathetic designer-types that this Summer is marine and pastels AND NOTHING ELSE IS ALLOWED. If everyone could sew, perhaps people might even – finally, after all these eras of struggle – get hold of a pair of trousers that actually fits! 

This is the potential of the Craft Movement. And yet, somehow, it has taken a much more annoying turn.

You see, the worst thing about being a crafter (a term, by the way, which I resent; I would much prefer to be called something a little less evocative of Pritt sticks) is that it verges, always and dangerously, on becoming pointless whimsy. People think crafts and they think of women knitting while the heady scent of oestrogen fills the chintz-filled room. And while a good deal of us hate this and want to distance ourselves as much as possible from the idea, the online craft world seems to insist nowadays on encouraging us, rather than making useful and genuinely exciting and creative things, to simply fill our lives and our homes with cluttery, girlish, unnecessary tat.

For starters, crafting nowadays seems even to comprise anything that you have not immediately taken out of a packet, which means that a good deal of the ‘tutorials’ are so obvious as to be vaguely laughable. Look at this:

 It’s a cutout of a moustache on a stick. The tutorial has four steps and multiple instructive pictures. I would need fewer instructions to grow a real moustache from scratch. Come on. Not to mention that the whole thing ends with the valuable advice to put them all in a mason jar. 

Now, don’t get me started on mason jars. Except I believe I shall indulge. For those of you not acquainted with the lingo, a mason jar is one of those jam jars that looks vaguely old-fashioned and has a loose metal disc in the top of the lid rather than a fully closed lid to get a better vacuum seal on your jam (because the air shrinks as the jam cools and ah you don’t care). For some reason they have suddenly become the life and soul of crafting and now it also counts as art if you do anything – really, anything – with a mason jar. People spraypaint them for ‘a beautiful and cheap vase’, make them into wedding decorations, bake cakes in them, make candle-holders out of them, tie a ribbon around them as if that required even a bare iota of effort, and the thing that really grinds about the whole thing isn’t just the obvious fact that they are just glass jars, not the treasure of the Sierra Madre, but mainly that thousands of people are going out, buying and glooping up millions of brand new glass jars when perfectly serviceable old jam jars are probably lying in their bin – but they aren’t mason jars, so they aren’t cool.

Next, this: utterly unnecessary items, for which there is a very good reason they are not available in shops. There are, for example, very few items in the world which need a cozy. Teapots, mugs, hands and feet. Not lens caps

Thank god, now my apple won’t get…warm? Cold?

And candle cozies are the worst of all – candles produce their own heat so why they should require any kind of cozy or mini sleeping bag of any kind is utterly incomprehensible. And there is just so much of it all: not just cozies but wreaths, terrariums, centrepieces, placeholders, napkin rings, cake stands, and a million other twee pieces of clutter are what we supposedly dying to make and what we supposedly all desperately need in our lives. There are two problems with this: not only is this production dreadfully wasteful – all those beautiful brand new resources going to make things that really only can be thrown away in the end because you can’t recycle a mason jar once it’s covered in rhinestones – but also, it is hurting the reputation of crafters. Kindles, cameras, iPods have cases, not cozies, and it is this babyish terminology that make us all seem like flustery little women blithely passing time. 

The waste is a real issue, too. I don’t think it is fair to claim you are ‘upcycling’ a huge pack of plastic cups into a lampshade if those cups could also have been used for the reason they were siphoned out of the earth as oil, refined, distilled, mixed, moulded, packaged and sold. As cups. For drinking. And you have to be careful about what you’re upcycling too, because if you’re about to take a mallet to your old laptop thinking that the circuitboards will make a groovy necklace there’s a considerable chance someone else could actually fix up the laptop and use it for another five years, thus making use of a lot of very useful metals and other things which I imagine live inside a laptop (well, internet juice of course, and flanges). I don’t think we should sacrifice fun for the sake of a few scraps of wool, of course – but I do think that recycling is at its best when you are making something great out of something otherwise unusable, like a phone case made out of an old lotion tube. Isn’t it awesome?!
 

The message should be bolder, more confident, more anarchistic! We should be showing people that not only can you make a moustache on a stick, but that with a few more minutes of effort you can actually make your own clothes, pottery and cosmetics! We need more of Instructables in the mix and less of Women’s Own! We need to repossess crafting, and this time do it properly and move beyond the miniature versions of cupcakes or knitted keyboard covers. Blokes need to feel that they can make their own stuff without getting stigmatised by the gushing flood of X-chromosomes these images are sending forth. The other stuff is all great fun and excellently creative (do you think I didn’t notice that the apple cozy is a monkey? Outstanding.) but I reckon that we can’t be taken seriously until we get outselves out of the ‘nifty gifty’ zone and into the ‘Noble Handworkers of the Modern Age’ zone. Once people assume we’re all making our own paper, socks or mugs, then we can get to work on making cozies for them.

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.


Berlin: Where “rest” is nothing more than a type of rubbish

And what do you find when you go looking for peace and quiet? Men on sticks, of course.

I’m a country lass, born and bred, as I believe you already know. Brought up surrounded by fields, farms and circling red kites, where the only traffic noise you could hear was the aggrieved squawk of a pheasant who had another pheasant standing in its way. It’s deadly dull when you’re little, of course, and you find yourself whiling away endless days making anything and everything out of sticks and rocks in order to pass the time, but once you’re older the true blissfulness of the situation begins to become obvious. It’s just so quiet, so relaxed, and the distance from any centre of urban activity is only annoying up until the point where you realise it is a sacrifice worth making in order to have the joy of seeing sheep and partridges out of your bedroom window.

Berlin is not like this. Berlin is noisy. Good grief, it’s the noisiest place I have ever been for more than a fortnight (I say this as I was once in Hanoi and being in that city is like having your head inside a metal bucket while someone hammers it with a pole from the outside). As I write, the builders who have for no evident reason overtaken our building to renovate it are apparently just throwing heavy things around for fun and dragging other heavy things along a stretch of corrugated tin. These cheerful men arrive every day around 6.30am to begin their work, a lot of which seems to involve a large and powerful flamethrower which I had thought I was simply dreaming until I saw the weapon lying by the Innenhof door. I am glad that our Hausmeister is ensuring that the building stays in good nick, but on the other hand I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in about a month and I am starting to develop a psychotic twitch. 

I also have the good fortune to have the bedroom facing into the Innenhof. In Berlin flats, every building has an interior courtyard where all the bikes and bins are parked and where the windows all face each other. Thus my bedroom window looks out into everyone else’s flat and vice versa, and now that it’s summer and everyone’s windows are casually left open the entire Innenhof has become a gallery of people’s private but very LOUD goings on. Thus complimenting the jolly morning builders I am subjected to a throbbing techno rave from one of three different flats every single night at sleepytime, which occasionally gives way either to the Dolby Surround(TM) thunder of the next-door neighbours’ action film evenings or the equally loud and unignorable sounds of them doing it like they do on the Discovery channel, if you get my drift.

The whole city is a frenzied exhausting mess of noise, from the punks on the street yelling at each other’s dogs, to the church bells which ring whenever the hell they feel like it, to the over-cheerful “boooo-BEEEE-booo” of the S-Bahn doors which is starting to have the same effect on me as the “boo-bee-boo-boo-bee” in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘. Children screech around the streets like gibbons in the rainforest and terrible amateur indie-rock-folk bands spontaneously start three-hour grunge-jam sessions mere metres away from the bar you and your friends choose to have a quiet after-work drink. Buskers lodge their bongos directly in your ears and bicyclists yell at you for having a mass and a circumference. I feel like I have a miniature television glued to each of my shoulders permanently switched to full-volume MTV Cribs/Pimp my Ride marathons. Us country types are gentle and fragile souls, so we are. Sometimes the need to and impossibility of escape gets a bit much. My curtains are transparent orange gauze, so my bedroom offers no repose. This morning on the bus I closed my eyes and tried to retreat into a quiet inner oasis when the bus driver suddenly pumped the brake on and off repeatedly, making the bus lurch around like a breakdancing camel, before he then looked at me in the rear-view mirror and made the following announcement over the loudspeaker: “NICHT schlafen!!” 

So where does one go when one needs a bit of time out of the Gewimmel? Luckily the genius of Berlin is that its sheer rambunctious noise is well-recognised and antidotes are provided here and there for those of a more sensitive disposition. The Botanicher Garten is a wonderful place to spend an entire day, requiring nothing more than a tiny entrance fee to allow you to dopily drift around the gorgeous wild-flower meadow and romantic Italian garden and steamy glasshouses for as long as you like into the early evening. There is an incredibly brilliant bakery on the way from the S-Bahnhof to the gardens where you can pick up little bags of shortbread covered in butterscotch and seeds or puff-pastry diamonds dusted with spices and cheese, and with those in your pocket there’s little more you need for a perfect Sunday. 

Berlin is also surrounded by its many Sees, lakes which range in size from the massive kind which lend themselves to wholesome activity days of bike riding and bird watching to the smaller kind which are simply big ponds and perfect for a good long reflective wander. The Lietzensee in Charlottenburg is particularly sweet, cut in half by a mysterious-looking bridge-tunnel-thing and with a cafe on one end where one can sit and regard the ducks and resist the urge to go and throw bread at them and giggle like a five-year-old. The Plötzensee, as mentioned in a previous post, is ideally suited for a beer and a sunbathe, while the Wannsee has canoe hire on offer, among other things. If you are a wandering or nature-type, you won’t be short of places to escape to here.

But this is all dependent on the weather not being as it is right now, namely rainy and windy and petulantly impulsive like a spoilt little girl. Where do you go when the idea of being outside makes your soul shiver? That’s a tricky one, but there are still options. Most café owners in Berlin seem to think that the average customer likes eardrum-quaking blasts of 1980’s classics while they nurse their espresso macchiato, but Berlin’s libraries are often fantastic places, busy but quiet and often featuring somewhere to get a coffee or ice lolly (which we all know is crucial to the reading process). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally pop to the library simply for a good hour of reading books I would never dream of actually loaning, such as books on quilting or vegan shoe production or (nostalgic sigh) good old Asterix and Tintin. Hey, if it’s in German it counts as education. The Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek has a particularly good book selection and a friendly man who helps you with the stacks orders, while the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg library has a huge array of music and CDs. If being in a labyrinth of fingered books isn’t your bag and you just want to sit somewhere a surprising pocket of calm can be found in the smaller bakeries, where there is usually no background music, one or two little shaky plastic tables and a friendly lady who’ll brew you up a peppermint tea for a few cents. 

Alternative moments of meditation can be found riding the escalators all the way up to the top of the eight-story Galeria Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz and back down again, accidentally riding the train all the way to somewhere remote or drifting around pet shops being mesmerised by the lizards and baby rabbits. I have also heard on the grapevine that the holy grail of quiet time-killing is any Apple store, where you can go and play with the iPads/Pods/Puffs for hours without any of the hipster staff telling you to shove off. But don’t quote me on that; who knows what those people have been trained to do… 

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.

The Plague

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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