Getting lost in the Chameleon Boudoir

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

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

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

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Show me the green

They look like happy, fat monsters. Where did I put my googly eyes…

Whoever first had the idea to sell small bunches of herbs in the supermarket was a wily genius. Portioned herbs have got to have the highest profit margin of all the world’s commodities; sure, gold is expensive per gram, but presumably less expensive than the 1.60€ one is expected to pay for three small leaves held together by the world’s smallest elastic band. Plus, gold doesn’t then wilt into inedible sinews just hours after it has been taken home from the shop. German and English supermarkets share this one depressing attribute: all herbs are sold at a heart-stoppingly high markup, packaged in an oversized plastic sarcophagus. It does seem especially cruel in Germany, though, because these are a people who truly love and respect the art of the noble herb.

Herbs play a huge part in the cuisine and the culture over here. From herbal tea (mmm, ok) to herbal remedies (hmm…) they are given the credence they deserve, and anyone with a balcony is essentially a social pariah unless they festoon said balcony with huge bushes of aromatic foliage. Along with bakeries and ‘apothecaries’, there are equally astounding numbers of florists’ scattered along every street, and in every one, amidst the bouquets and the decorative bamboo and the slightly strange wreaths made out of spraypainted lichen, there are always herb plants – interesting and nice herb plants – ready to be taken home and goaded along the rails of a balcony somewhere. It is a joy.

A cup of German herbal tea is nothing like the green-tea-bitterness that one usually encounters in the UK. It is actual real herbs steeped in hot water, and at the best cafés that means a hearty bunch of sage, rosemary, thyme, mint and all sorts in a big hot fragrant vat. It can be quite disarming if you have grown up in a household with English roast dinners; while it certainly tastes healthful and fresh, it is also inescapably like drinking a cup of very bland gravy. 


Of course, if you know the right times and the right places, your access to herbs is joyful and unfettered. In summer, at the start of gherkin season (don’t be ridiculous, of course there’s a gherkin season, you philistine) supermarkets sell vast bunches of dill – for the picklin’ – even including the big yellow polleny flowerheads. The view alone of such a vibrant and pert crop in amongst the usual fruit and veg is something wonderful and exciting, and something you just don’t get in the UK. Nor are the enormous sheaths of herbs you can buy at the Turkish markets, where you will find a bundle of coriander the size of a newborn baby for fifty cents and a cheeky wink. And at the Potsdam Castle there is even a whole planted border where glossy bushes of basil form the central foliage in a bed that margins the front of one of the most spectacular custard-coloured buildings (although naturally one is discouraged from picking the bedding plants and making a quick pesto). 

Anyhew, this all comes around to two recipes which evolved out of a pack of sage I bought last week. Unfortunately I was forced to go to Real to buy it – a supermarket which prides itself on stocking everything you could ever possibly need and which surgically extracts painful wads of cash out of your wallet for the privilege. Having invested in my tiny coffin of priceless leaves, I used a few to make a fancy dinner for my neighbours, and the couple of sprigs I had left over just seemed far too valuable, and simply had to become the centrepiece of all my cooking for the days to come until I had savoured every last cell of their tasty foliage. Strongly herbed, piping and toasty; this is perfect winter fodder. And boy, do we need it over here; it’s hovered around -11ºC for long enough that this morning a quick walk to my workmate’s house became an interesting voyage of discovery where I learnt that one’s gums and eyelids can go perceptibly numb in strong cold winds. I hope you make both of these comforting treats this week and enjoy them with my favourite winter remedy of all: a giant glass of lip-smacking red wine.

Herby stuffed red onions

Vegetarians suffer under the constant tyranny of stuffed vegetables. If it isn’t goat’s cheese or spinach and ricotta, the one thing any vegetarian will invariably be presented with at a restaurant or dinner party is a stuffed something. Not a bad thing, but gets a little old. This is a slightly more unusual variant, though, and the shiny purple skins of the onions makes it a bit of a showstopper too.In short: yummy.

Makes enough for one tasty dinner; multiply quantities depending on how many mouths there are to feed, you popular rascal, you.

2 medium-sized red onions
6 leaves of sage, finely snipped
2 tbsp couscous
4 mushrooms
1 clove garlic
2 tbsp grated parmesan (be generous, the more the better!)
2 tsp dried thyme (or 1tsp fresh)
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil/butter

1. Slice a small amount off the bottom of the onions so they will stand up on a baking sheet without rolling all over the place. Cut a substantial ‘lid’ off the top of the onions. Leave the skin on.
2. With the aid of a small knife and a sharp teaspoon, dig away at the interior of the onions until you have a substantial hole inside each one, with about 2-3 layers of onion making the thickness of the walls. Drizzle a bit of olly oil into each onion and pop into the oven for 10 minutes.
3. Chop up the onion you have excavated along with the mushrooms and the garlic, then sauté in a little butter or oil in a small pan for 5 minutes until the mushrooms have softened and the onion is cooked through. Add the couscous, herbs, papper and parmesan and stir to combine.
4. Take the par-cooked onions out of the oven and fill with the stuffing, then pop the lids on top and bake for 25-30 minutes. (You can pop the leftover stuffing back on the hob in the saucepan and add water, bit by bit, until the couscous is soft, and then serve the onions on a bed of this extra deliciousness).
5. Take the onions out of the oven and serve with veg and a baked potato. Remember, don’t eat the skins!

Velvety ‘lush’room soup – serves 2

This soup is one of the best things I have ever done with an hour of my life. It is stonkingly delicious and good for you. Yes, you really do need the cream. No, you won’t regret it.

1 punnet of mushrooms
1/4 of a head of celeriac
1 medium carrot
2 cloves garlic
2 medium onions
1 small handful dried mushrooms (pricey, I know – your best bet for cheap ones are the Asian supermarkets. Still, if you are waiting for payday (or if you are simply a velociraptor) you won’t go far wrong with a couple of rashers of smoked bacon instead)
8 sage leaves
500ml chicken/vegetable stock
75ml whipping/double cream
1 tbsp white flour
salt and pepper
no potatoes. Seriously, no potatoes. They have no place in any good soup.

1. Chop the mushrooms, onions, celeriac and carrot into small dice, and finely chop the garlic. Sweat everything but the mushrooms in olive oil over a low heat.
2. Add the mushrooms (and the bacon if you are using it) and sprinkle the flour over the top. Continue to stir and cook over low heat until the mushrooms are softened.
3. Add the dried mushrooms, sage leaves (whole) and stock. Simmer very gently for a further 15 minutes until the celeriac and carrot are thoroughly cooked through. 
4. Stir in the cream (add more if you need – it should have a soft, velvety feel to the broth but shouldn’t be over-rich) and add salt and pepper to taste. Make sure the soup is piping hot and serve. If you are a winner, you will have remembered an old lump of baguette in the cupboard and made garlicky croutons. I didn’t have any baguette but it was still good with crackers and cheese.
 
 

  
 

Good eats in the big B

Found in the Kaufhof groceries section: a Limquat!! A lime the size of a walnut! GENIUS.

This weekend was the big moment; my new flat had to meet the parents. I’m too much of a compulsive hostess to let them stay in a hotel, so they bunked in my big Berlin bed and I had an excuse to buy a kickass lilo. This was the first time ever that my dad had seen Berlin, having never had any holiday time even in my first stint in the Vaterland. It was my one chance to prove that moving over here and haemorrhaging money by furnishing an empty flat and starting a frantic job was all worth it. How was I going to convince my dad that this city really is awesome enough to never want to leave?

Firstly, by getting a bunch of old-fashioned bikes and pelting around the Tempelhof abandoned airport for a happy hour. He’s an obsessive photo-fiend, and a big wide open airfield full of people flying kites at sunset was a gift from the patron saint of picturesqueness. Plus, boys like bikes and planes. Win-win.

Secondly, by taking him to the Reichstag so that he could have a wander around that amazing dome, a huge glass bowl containing two interweaving helices (seems like a poncy way to pluralise ‘helix’ but have it your way, spellcheck) which make a kind of optical illusion as you walk up and then realise that you are walking down again along a different path which you thought was the same path as the one before. This wasn’t such a resounding success, mainly because Berlin decided to welcome my beloved parents by being as freaking grey and rainy as is possible within the boundaries of Earth physics. We skittered around the dome only briefly, pausing to look at the city from above in all its moist splendour before simply giving up and going to get cake.

And yup, that’s the third thing. The best thing to convince my dad – hell, the best thing to convince any visitor that Berlin is the city to be in right now, is to feed them, and feed them good. There are so many fantastic places in this city and joyfully they are all their own sweet little independent racket because essentially there is no such thing as chain restaurants or cafés over here (let’s not acknowledge the one exception which rhymes with ‘tar ducks’). And maybe you need some recommendations or maybe you need a reason to come here or maybe you just like lists, but either way, sit down and let me tell ya about some of my favourite places.

1. The Galeria Kaufhof, Alexanderplatz
Ok, so the food court of a mid-range department store is probably one of the lamest places to hang out. And yes, the average crowd there is less hipster and more hip replacement. But good god, people, the salad bar. There are rows of counters piled high with glittering ice and stacked up with plates filled with the most delicious, often outrageously strange salads, and you just take a plate and load on up. Bowls of seeds and croutons and dressings and bits of this and that and delicious nubbliness are scattered about to supplement your mound of tasty swag. There’s a handsome guy wearing a black bandanna making fresh stir-fries to order with crisp, rainbow ingredients. There’s another bank of ice chilling freshly pressed juices of unexpected fruits like kiwi or blueberry. There is a thing called a ‘vegetable buffet’ which I’m not sure I understand but I like it, a vast selection of fresh and delicious stews and soups, and most importantly: an entire wall lined with your options for cake and strudels. 

 

 2. Knofi, Mehringdamm
This one is a little confusing as there are actually two parts of this restaurant, one opposite the other on different sides of the same road. One is more casual and laissez-faire, a nice place for a comfy lunch with friends (or in my case in my first visit, with a sort-of-friend who was ten years my senior, made a pass at me and then a while later ran away to join a cult) – the other is more mature and seductive and does more dinner-ish options like a killer meze and magical aubergine creations. The latter is superb, but the former, on the north side of the street, is my favourite for the incredible soups and the best ‘Gössis’ – a pancake filled with spiced meat or spinach, Turkish sheep’s cheese and sometimes a bit of potato, cooked up lightning fast and served with a spectrum of dips – in Berlin. The decor is completely nuts, like a room decorated based on the fragmented memories of a feverish childhood dream you once had about an expedition around Turkey having only ever seen a postcard of the place. The service is terrible, the tables are cramped, the chairs are all different heights, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

3. Gugelhof, Kollwitzplatz
This is an Alsatian restaurant with the sweetest, smiliest, sometimes winkingest waiters and waitresses in the world. From the minute you enter, you feel like Franco-German royalty, and they instantly magic a huge basket of gorgeous bread with herbed cream cheese in front of you so you have something to chew on while you read the impressively creative menu. Wild boar with pumpkin mash? Winter stew with a roof made of bread? An entire trout poached in Riesling? Yes please, very yes. The breakfasts here are also delicious and always presented like a work of art – these guys really know their way around a garnish.

4. Café Nö, Mitte
The best Flammkuchen in Berlin and such good wines you’ll want a whole carafe to yourself. A Flammkuchen is a Germanic pizza, a whisper-thin base of crispy dough topped with a thin layer of sour cream, usually some sautéd onions, and then a topping of your choice, then toasted in a hot stone oven. It means ‘FLAME CAKE’ which is simply kickass, but the ones at Café Nö would be ridiculously tasty even if they were called something unappetising like ‘Schleimplatte’ (‘mucus board’). I mainly mention this place, however, because the atmosphere is terrific; cosy, friendly and beautifully decorated, while the music in the background is rat-pack covers of 90s classics (Frank Sinatra singing ‘Champagne Supernova’ is a tour de force) and there is a projector screening slides of old-time photos of ski slopes, Berlin streets and cheerful alpine lumberjacks. You can always banter with the staff; when I brought my parents there the waitress, a tiny blonde woman whose twitchy nose and hyperactive running around made her seem more squirrel than human, gave me a stone-cold look and said ‘You won’t get a table for at least an hour and a half, you might as well go.’ I gave her my saddest eyes and told her that my parents had come especially from England (never the UK, always England for best effect; it reminds Germans of the Queen) and I had been dying to show them this restaurant. She shook her head, repeated her previous statement, and within ten minutes had cleared a table for us and presented us with the novel-long wine list. Victory. And a delicious victory it was, too.

5. The Fliegender Tisch, Friedrichshain
The Fliegender Tisch (‘Flying Table’) is probably always going to be my favourite restaurant in Berlin. First and foremost, this is because anyone visiting for the first time will inevitably feel that sinking feeling; ‘Uh oh…’ one thinks, perusing the menu which has been meticulously pasted together in Microsoft Publisher 1998. ‘Ooo-err…’ one mutters when one notices that the mood lighting is a lamp with masking tape wrapped around the opening. ‘Oh dear…’ one then thinks when one sees some of the insane things on the menu: beef stew with cheese, potatoes and oysters is one of my favourites, as are the recent specials of brussels sprout omelette or salad with walnut-stuffed sprouts fried in a beer-honey batter. Hmm. And yet, the guy – the Fliegender Tisch guy, the smiliest man on the face of the planet – comes to your table, and you order something that sounds a little more palatable, and soon arrives a dish of fresh and sublime eats which is always handed to you with no less than a beaming grin. Their salads are super delicious, the pasta is tremendous as is the gnocci, and they do the best Kaiserschmarrn I have ever eaten – even better than in the Austrian alps, where it really ought to be the best of the best of the best. Plus, to ensure that the restaurant name isn’t completely meaningless, they’ve suspended a table from the ceiling so that it hangs skewiff over your head and gives you an instant icebreaker. What more could you possibly want?

Frankly, there are so many great places to feast over here I could write a book. Possibly even an ode. But I’ll leave that to other, future posts. For now, go forth Berliners, and get some gourmet grub this weekend!

Amsterdam: come for the sex and drugs, stay for the hamburger vending machines

“Ooh seeds, how nice, I’ve been meaning to get some more nasturtiums OH.”

 I am a ‘do stuff’ assistant rather than a ‘look pretty and take notes, doll’ assistant, and as the ‘do stuff’ assistant for a tourism company, this is going to involve a lot of business trips. The phrase ‘business trips’ alone conjures up elegant, luxurious images of people in fine tailored suits, sipping champagne in a quiet plane cabin, soaking in a broad sea of extra legroom. Unfortunately, as the economy is dying and midday champagne is the first step towards alcoholism, ‘business trips’ more often involve an early and cramped EasyJet flight with the added bonus of carrying a wadge of company papers, company laptops and expenses receipts in your minute executive rolly-bag. But I don’t care; something about going on a business trip makes you feel like a celebrity and this week, that cramped EasyJet helltube took me all the way to Amsterdam.

The reasons why I had to go to Amsterdam were sketchy at best. At first, I was to be visiting the Amsterdam office to attend a very important meeting. As soon as I had booked my flights, we established that the very important meeting was in fact taking place the day after my return to Berlin. As soon as I had rebooked my flights and had several arguments with EasyJet, we established that the meeting was in fact cancelled. By that point my boss, a man who makes decisions with the delirious immediacy of a drunken pirate, decided that we would both go to Amsterdam anyway because. So it was essentially a business trip for me to work at a slightly different desk (in actual fact the make of desk was identical but it was at a slightly different angle) for a couple of days.

Once my boss arrived to join me on the first day, everything got going. He marched me out of the flat and stomped all the way to the Apple store with me sprinting feebly behind (my boss is a muscly, striding, crush-a-beer-can-in-his-hand kind of guy), forged towards the counter and demanded that the man bring us a Macbook Air immediately and give us a corporate discount. The laid-back Apple guy was too cool for school and drawled his way through the sale with my boss flinging credit cards at him and abruptly answering urgent phone calls every three seconds. As soon as I was appropriately confused, the boss turned to me and told me to bring him a new iPhone case that was ‘good and manly’. Thus it was that I spent my first afternoon in Amsterdam looking at phone cases wondering which ones were most evocative of testicles and lumberjacks.

Once work was over, I had a chance to see the city in a less frenzied manner. My boss had decided that we were going to go on the ‘Red Light District tour’ together (please, no-one even try to interpret that decision, it is taking me all my energy not to personally) but a sudden crisis happened at clocking-off time, so I got to go all by myself. My regional manager helped me to find the meeting point by instructing me to wait by the monument that looked like a ‘giant white penis’. It was a fitting introduction to the city.

People come to Amsterdam for the sex and the drugs. But wandering through the streets, it was less like a raunchy night of hedonistic urban pleasures and more like a beautiful Monet painting that someone had dumped in a phone booth. The city itself is stunningly beautiful; the buildings are charmingly Seuss-like and lean slightly sideways and forwards all over the place so you feel slightly woozy. Canals ooze between all of the streets and are lines with trees, hanging baskets, chic bistros… And slotted in amongst all this, like pieces of litter in a manicured flowerbed, there are hundred of strip bars, peep shows, sexy-fun-time-‘toy’-shops – and, of course, the infamous booths. Prostitution is allowed in Amsterdam but not on the streets, which is why those lovable prostitutes set themselves up in tiny windowed cabinets facing onto the street so they can gyrate and flirt at passers-by until one of them takes an interest and steps inside so the curtain can be drawn. 

It would actually have been more interesting if the prostitutes actually had gyrated and flirted, however. I was prepared for shocks and lascivious smut on this tour, but the last thing I had expected was quite how seedy and dull it was all going to be. The whores looked pissed off and bored, loitering about in their windows while occasionally scratching their armpits or having a packet of crisps. The peep shows and strip bars were crass demonstrations of nudity rather than thrilling spectacles; apparently there isn’t a single burlesque-style show in town, and the most popular shows involve you simply sitting in cinema seating while a couple of bored people shag each other for a bit or shove bananas up their wiff-waffs for no good reason. Even the few fellow Brits on my tour – a group of four unspeakably white boys with acne, buck-teeth and T-shirts with dragon motifs – couldn’t even muster the energy to give an adenoidal chuckle after a while. Those poor boys came to Amster hoping for the erotic time of their lives, but they were so disappointed I almost felt sorry for the sad little goons.

The sex scene in Amsterdam is like a vending machine. It’s nothing to do with the thrills and the taboos and the lick-your-lips juicyness we hope it will be. It’s just a market, a group of traders carrying out basic transactions: here is a naked lady, would you like to view the range of tarifs or simply pay for a one-off basic option? I began to feel that a lot of Amsterdam is much the same, after a while. The food is deep-fried, portioned up and handed out with no real intent of enjoyment; yes, there really is a chain of ‘restaurants’ that simply have vending machines with burgers inside.

The pot isn’t smoked in a louche, bohemian manner but is ubiquitously tacky, with those awful marajuana-leaf icons everywhere as if we were all fourteen again and thought this was a marvelously risqué, naughty thing to contemplate. Little pockets of the city reek of weed, which itself smells like burnt llama hair and is deeply nauseating.

And this all made me sad, because the time I spent in between the Red Light streets and the chip shops, when I would stumble upon the beautiful streets and historical corners, showed me Amsterdam as a real human city which is worth spending time in. It’s a fascinating place, with masses to do and see and so much character and good GOD such excellent cheese. But I sympathise with the locals, who are sick of being associated with nothing but sex and drugs. Amsterdam has nothing to do with sex and drugs, after all. Sex and drugs are naughty and exciting. Amsterdam’s legend is nothing more than a pervert’s fart. Amsterdam’s brilliance is every single thing that lies in between.

Next week, Barcelona! And don’t forget to keep commenting and emailing the new site email address, ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com with your ideas and questions!

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.

How to hack your Zwischenmiete

Now if only there was a way to hack the extreme temperature fluctuations between ‘molten lava’ and ‘ice-water’.

For the unemployed graduate looking to drift around a German city for an aimless while, the right ‘Zwischenmiete’ is a crucial tool in your belt. ‘Zwischenmiete’ essentially means ‘between-rent’, which is what happens when a person in Berlin pops off to another country or a work thing in another city or something and rents their flat – plus furnishings and all the trimmings – to a happy-go-lucky travellin’ type.

It’s a perfect arrangement. Internet, washing machine, mattress and everything come included in the bundle without any effort on your part and no profit being made on the part of the flat-owner. Not only that, you are usually able to use the little things that would be really irritating to have to buy otherwise: salt, cleaning spray, dishtowels, a ruler… I am infinitely thankful that these are not souvenirs I have had to invest in and cart around the streets of Friedrichshain on my arrival, yes ma’am. 

But a Zwischenmiete is also simply an opportunity for fun and adventure. Every new flat is like trying out a new lifestyle, like being plugged into a different pre-made home on The Sims and seeing what happens to you and your wizard-hat-wearing brother (why did they ever include that in the ‘heads’ selection?) this time. I have, as you know, experienced a delirious array of different temporary residences in this city, including all sorts of exciting little accents which made them memorable: psychopathic cats, psychopathic flatmates,
minuscule kitchens, suspicious elderly neighbours, mattress-on-the-floor beds, mattress-in-the-air beds, fifth-floor, fourth-floor and first-floor rooms…

The only difficulty – the one niggling little issue that occurs in every flat I occupy – is the fact that you can’t change anything, even the things that drive you up the wall. And so, in my time living around and about, I have become an expert in Flat Hacking.

 


You see, these people have entrusted their beloved home to you, and have even given you, a complete stranger, the freedom to use their bed and kitchen and rifle through their shelves and stroke their curtains or whatever creepy things you might do. And so it is your duty to respect that trust, and to not do the creepy things. To leave their shelves alone, and to use the toilet cleaner responsibly rather than emptying it out the window in a drunken frenzy. And most importantly, you may not doll up the flat to make it the way you want it to be in any way you can’t put back the way it was. 

This is tricky when you come up against parts of the flat which don’t quite mesh with the way you like to live. In moments like these, you have two options: you can grin and bear it, and complain to your friends about it until they stop agreeing to meet you for coffee, or you can come up with an ingenious short-term (ideally cheap) and completely reversible solution. And here is where I come in.

Example number 1: The Hochbett.

Ahh, the Hochbett. If a German bedroom is considered a bit small, or if it’s a huge room but the person just wants a more jaunty feel to the space, you can be certain they’ll stick a big ole Hochbett in there. A Hochbett is a bunk-bed for adult people. A mattress on a climbing-frame, so you can shove your futon or elliptical trainer underneath and still have space for your Ikea generics. For me, a guarantee that I will at some point within the next three months break my leg falling from the bed when getting up at night for a pee. 

Don’t get me wrong, it is really, really fun sleeping on a Hochbett. You can pretend you are seven again, plus there is something inherently cool and pirate-like about climbing a ladder to go to sleep. But the crucial problem is that if you are a person who enjoys reading in bed, a weekend-morning cup of tea and having a radio alarm clock, it is difficult to source a bedside table that is three metres tall. We can’t drill into the wall and put in a bedside shelf because this is someone else’s flat. We have tried balancing a lamp and a mug on the edge of the mattress but had foreboding visions of spill-related electrocutions. 

The hack: two bricks and a plank, all found within the flat. The plank is propped between the bed and my clothes shelf, and although the cables for the lamp and my pride-and-joy radio are stretching precariously to the socket below, this means I can now read in bed to the sultry sounds of Berlin InfoRadio (or Radio 4 on weekends, for a treat). Total cost: zero euros. Total reward: untold comfort and luxury.

Example number 2: The Shower.

Why do Germans have a penchant for showers which are essentially a bath with a shower attachment on the tap? There is no practical way to clean oneself in a shower like this. My first attempt in the new flat was an agonised experience of trying to hold the thingy with one hand while smearing shampoo on my head and into my eyes with the other, then desperately trying to rinse it off like they do in a hairdresser’s before then nearly dislocating my shoulder figuring out how to soap and scrub my armpits and other…areas. This would be acceptable if the shower didn’t also veer madly from fiery, murderously hot to arse-freezingly cold every few seconds, meaning that my elbow was simultaneously employed pushing the tap knob around in an attempt to regulate the heat. No. This was not acceptable. Man should not have to shower like it’s a game in Crystal Maze.

The hack: two suction hooks and a strong hair-bobble. The suction hooks clamp neatly onto the tiles and have the added bonus of being a sassy lime-green colour, and then the shower head is simply twanged on by the bobble between the hooks. It looks a bit haphazard and I fully expect it to suddenly fall on my scalp one morning, but it serves a useful purpose for the time being. Total cost: 1 euro 60 cents for the hooks, the hair bobble was courtesy of my enormous mane. Total reward: less pain, more hygiene.

Example number 3: The Pillow.

In every single flat I have ever had in this city, the pillow has always been the same. (Maybe it’s the same one pillow coming back to haunt me?) For some reason, German pillows are not nice, wide, plump things roughly the width of a human head and neck and the length of a satisfied turn from one side to the other as the sun comes up. No; German pillows are oddly large and perfectly square, huge enough to raise your entire torso off the mattress and awkward enough that you have to lie very low down in the bed to feel comfortable, leaving a disarming chasm between your scalp and the wall. Not only that, but they only ever contain about six fibres of stuffing, so they deflate to a pointless envelope the moment you actually sink your tired head onto them. These pillows do not like to be folded to make them thicker, however; that causes them to slither about rebelliously once you are asleep so that you wake up with the whole thing somewhere under your ribcage, halfway out of its cover. Not good for sleeps.

The hack: stuffing all the other cushions you can find into the pillowcase with the actual pillow. Total reward: ok, this one is a bit rubbish and actually just creates a huge lumpy bag like a sackful of dead sheep. But it is still more comfortable to sleep on than a regular Kopfkissen. And I’m blowed if I’m spending my hard-earned euros on a new pillow. 

Recipe: Roast-pepper frittata boats (Paprika-Frittatabootchen), and utter amour

The one on the right even looks like a heart! Ignore the fact that it’s full of cholesterol…

*Recipe after the jump, and the rant*

My word, I love this city. I love it in a goofy, greedy way. I find myself spontaneously grinning as I walk down the street, marvelling at the place I have unexpectedly been allowed to live in. My stomach feels a little trembly, like the few days after the moment when you meet someone extraordinary and you can’t stop thinking, “Oof – I think I might dangerously fancy that person…”

Part of the reason why – and why this feeling wasn’t there the first time I moved here – is that this time I feel loved back; I feel as if I’ve been scooped back into the city like a mum scooping her baby out of the bath when it’s gone cold. The generosity of people is astonishing. In little over a fortnight, I have been treated with embarrassing amounts of kindness: I have been cooked delicious dinners and taken to special occasions, I have been invited to gatherings in people’s homes and been allowed to read stories to their beautiful little kids, and in no more than 21 days I have been given countless helpful donations including a toaster, a waffle maker and even a bike. Granted, the bike is almost as tall as I am, but I am determined to figure out a way I can ride it.

This is all a sign of how lucky I am to know the people I do here, but it is also a symptom of Berliners. They appear gruff and vaguely annoyed with you, but most of the time when it comes to the crunch they would rather do something nice to or for you than something nasty. Most days I experience a friendly word or gesture that just seems to go slightly further than the standard British approach of ‘you must be old, an adorable infant or the local vicar to qualify for my niceness’. Today I was browsing in a second-hand clothes shop, and the two women manning the store decided to have a coffee together – and even though I was the only customer, and was leafing through the cardigans at the other end of the room, they called over to me, “Would you like a coffee too?” I turned them down gratefully, and then idiotically managed to ask to buy the only jacket in the store that was the shop-owners own jacket that she’d just propped up on a chair. They then asked if I wanted to sit down with them and at least have a glass of water or something

Another exciting present that has been given to me is the flats. In my current flat, and the one I am about to move into, I have been entrusted with a person’s home and all of their special things. I – me, a person who could easily accidentally set someone’s cushions on fire with nothing but a cup of tea and a rice cracker – have been allowed to treat these places like my own. 

In the UK there is no such thing as a ‘Zwischenmiete’, where you can rent a person’s whole flat while they go abroad or work in another city or something for a while, and I suspect this comes partly down to the general vague suspicion the Brits tend to harbour. What if the person looks at your Important Documents? What if they rifle around in your drawers and touch your knickers? What if they have a big party, and invite lots of immigrants with drugs and extramarital children? Also, in the UK, we are scared and worried in a small amount of our consciousness for a large amount of time. We would be concerned about the safety of the idea, and we would worry that something would go appallingly wrong. The final nail in the coffin is our love of real, fortress-like privacy; someone living in your place while you’re not there is like a stranger looking in your handbag, it feels like an invasion and a violation of something sacred to only you. But these laid-back and trusting people have allowed me to use their duvet and loo roll and olive oil as much as I like. And most excitingly and dangerously of all, I have been given my own kitchen to play with for the first time in my life. 

Waffle maker and toaster aside, my kitchen is a little less well-equipped as I would like. My tea-cozy is currently a massive piece of wadding that I had left over from making a tea-cozy for someone else (don’t ask), folded over and pinned into a big square envelope. I have one saucepan just large enough to heat up two tablespoons of beans in it, and one pan so large you could boil a sheep’s head in it. And when I needed to make a cake for a very important birthday, I had to whittle together a set of scales using two yogurt pots, some string and a coat hanger. 

This recipe requires very few tools, which makes it perfect for now. I want to share this recipe with you because it is a Guten Morgen Berlin special, an original recipe, which I have previously only shared with close friends. I am going to feature more recipes because I want to be more Berlin and give things without being asked. This one is one of my favourites, partly because it’s healthy and delicious, but mostly because it comes in a boat.

*** Roast-pepper frittata boats *** (preheat oven to 180C)

Ingredients (multiply each by the number of people being served):
1 red or yellow bell pepper
1/2 a small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large egg
A splash of milk
I tbsp herb or spice of your choice, or pesto
1 handful of any veg you like, chopped finely (this was a spring onion and mushroom affair – also good are courgette, leek, kale, sweetcorn, peas…)
1 small handful of grated cheese or smoked bacon
large pinch of salt and pepper
oil

1. Slice the pepper in half and cut out the seed head while leaving the stalk section intact. Rub with oil and pop into the oven for 10 minutes to soften, then remove (you can do step 2 while they’re in there). A muffin tin is a great help here, as it keeps the peppers stable so they won’t leak or fall over later.
2. In a pan over medium heat, cook the onion and garlic in a glug of oil until they are soft and translucent.
3. Add the other veg and bacon if using, and continue to cook everything until it is all soft and cooked through. Take the pan off the heat.
4. Beat the egg and mix in the herbs, salt and pepper and cheese if using.
5. Add the milk into the cooked veg and scrape the pan to get all the delicious glaze off the bottom, then pour this mixture into the egg. Divide this between the pepper boats and top with cheese if you like.
6. Return the pepper-boats to the oven for 30 mins, until the middle is set and the tops look golden. Serve with jacket potatoes, crisp salad and ideally to people you like a huge amount.


 

 

Whistle while you gherk

Possibly my proudest achievement of my life so far

Ok, so perhaps my ‘heimatsickness’ for Germany is going a little too far these days, but when I was shopping in my local LIDL a few months ago I spied a little packet of gherkin seeds for a meagre 50p and just couldn’t resist it. Suddenly I had an opportunity to   combine two of my greatest loves: growing veg, and Gewürzgürken (pickled gherkins). The cute little things grew lovely, lime-green shoots by my kitchen windows, then perked up in the polytunnel to ridiculous spiny triffids which were soon completely festooned with tiny, black-sprigged gherkins that looked like fat little hairy caterpillars. Unlike every other plant in the garden, which in this squelchy damp weather have been savaged by marauding armies of slugs as BIG AS YOUR THIGH (RIP cavolo nero, purple sprouts, pak choi, mint, chinese radishes, fennel, pattipan squash, cucumbers, runner beans…) the gherkins seem to be repulsive to those undulating bastards, presumably because their leaves feel horrendous: they are covered in a stubbly five o’ clock shadow of minuscule spines and feel very raspy indeed. We fed them and watered them and loved them like our children. 

Then, one day, I opened the polytunnel to discover pendulous, bloated sea-cucumber-like things hanging from every branch and realised that if I didn’t do something with these babies soon they would probably grow and thicken even more and snap their branches, rolling down the hill and crushing myself and the house like the Indiana Jones boulder. It was time for another one of my favourite experiments/hobbies: pickling.

I’ve been jamming (bop shoo wah wah wah) since I was quite young, as we used to have a colossal blackcurrant tree which would yield great bushels of rich indigo berries which made enough jam to coat entire acres of toast. But as I get older and my hair goes – well, not grey, but certainly more yeti-like – I have developed a crazy, insatiable obsession with pickled and sour things like gherkins, onions, picallili, sauerkraut, all kinds of erroneous veg as long as they are soaked in delicious vinegary juices. Now my family simply have to sigh and put up with it when instead of filling the house with sweet fruity aromas the entire place suddenly clouds with mists of choking boiling acid. It is very, very worth it.

There are three methods for pickling: hot, cold and fermented. Fermented pickles, like sauerkraut or kosher dill pickles or kimchee (did someone say kimchee?! Quick, get me my neon wayfarers and retro pullover!) need  to be left in a warm place in a brine, so that all the ‘good’ microbes can process the food and create the vinegar solution as part of their growth process. The reason why I avoid this method like the plague is that it is exactly as gross as it sounds. Huge frothing jars of warm, gently rotting produce, people. They can get carried away and explode or overflow into your clean, linen-smelling airing cupboard, or you might have an exciting batch that develops toxins! Frankly, leaving questionable and marshy-looking tubs of fermenting organic material around the house is my grandmother’s job and she does it very well without even trying, so I leave it to her.

Cold pickles on the other hand are how things like pickled onions are made and I don’t tend to use this technique either, because you simply drown the stuff in your vinegar mix and then wait for MILENNIA while the flavours infuse and mellow. Now, no offense, but no small sour onion is worth three months of waiting; I could easily die before I ever get to try the darn things. So hot pickles is the one for me: you just have to pour your hot infusion over the produce, which partially blanches it, and then they’re ready in two weeks. Yes, it involves boiling a vat of hot salted vinegar which sizzles into your eyes, nose, ears and any other vulnerable mucous membrane, but it is quick and most importantly creates delicious and crunchy pickled goodies. Mmmmm…

 

What could be more satisfying than growing, picking, processing and finally eating something from the very beginning of the flowchart? I urge you all to try jamming or pickling, making your own chutneys or ketchups – it is so easy and there is nothing better than garnishing your dinners with condiments that you know have never even seen a factory. It’s like living in the stone age, man!! It is sustainable living on a tiny scale, but you have to start small to get bigger, and these gherkins are like a sour, pungent symbol of the dawning of a new age – of that I am certain. They came out deliciously; sweet, tangy, spicy and ultra-crisp. Hoorah! Have a go at my recipes and get your own specimens going!

To prepare your jars for pickling, you need to sterilise them by putting them in an oven and heating it to about 140C – but don’t put them straight into a hot oven as the quick temperature change will make them shatter.

Basic delicious balsamic pickle (good for sliced red onions, shallots, peppers, or any crunchy veg) – makes 2-3 large jars, so you need enough veg to fill them
500ml white wine vinegar
100ml balsamic vinegar
1/2 tbsp salt
70g white sugar
1 tsp black peppercorns
350ml decent-tasting water

1. Bring the ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2. Let bubble gently for 5 mins – meanwhile, chop your veg into chunks about 1cm thick.
3. Take a hot jar out of the oven and wrap in a towel or teacozy to prevent it getting cold. Quickly pack in the veg, then pour over the hot juice until everything is covered. 
4. Repeat this with more jars until you’ve used up all your produce. Let any air bubbles come to the surface, then screw the lids on before the jars get cold.

Dill pickled gherkins/cucumber (makes 3 large jars)
6 medium gherkins or 1 1/2 regular cucumbers, quartered lengthways and sliced into 2-inch-long sticks
1 large white onion, thinly sliced 
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tsp mixed pickling spices or spice of your choice
2 tbsp salt 
750ml cider vinegar
500ml decent-tasting water
big bunch of fresh dill
200g granulated sugar
1 tsp fennel seeds

1. Sprinkle some salt on the gherkin sticks and leave in a colander to drain a bit.
2. Bring all the ingredients except the gherkins, onion, garlic and dill to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. 
3. Let bubble for 5 mins.
4. Arrange the gherkins, a few slices of onion, about 1/3 of the dill and a clove of garlic in a hot jar, and pour over the hot juice. Repeat with all the jars.
5. Same as above; leave to settle, and then lid up. 

I hope to smell your vinegary gases on the horizon, loyal reader. Enjoy your pickles in exactly a fortnight from now!

Rhinestones on the soles of her shoes

Before
After

Hoo-wee! After hours and hours scratching away at my Wacom tablet, the illustrations are now finished and ready to teach whole cohorts of babies in Berlin. I can leave the desk and the hours of having Cookery School on in the background to keep me sane (it’s a new discovery, a brilliant cooking programme containing all my favourite things: absolutely droolworthy recipes, idiot people getting their cooking wrong, the girl-we-all-love-to-hate Gizzi Erskine and a professional chef who sounds exactly like Dylan Moran, meaning that when I’m not looking at the video I can pretend I’m listening to Bernard from Black Books yelling about coulis). Now that this is all over, I can begin the part of my holiday I have been dearly looking forward to: proper crafting. These grimy, stained grey shoes are terrible and I was going to have to throw them away because it would have been antisocial to wear them in public any more. But good god, are they comfy. And they match everything and make my feet look not enormous, which they in fact are. So I decided to ‘upcycle’ them and give them a new lease of life, using nice densely pigmented acrylics mixed with a fabric medium to make a varied grey leaf pattern on the canvas upper and painting over the now-brown once-white binding trimming the top. Scrubbed the soles with a bit of Jif to whiten them up a little and call me crazy, but I suspect they might just be wearable now. What could be better and more fun than rescuing an old possession and at the same time getting something new and different out of it? 

Upcycling is recycling something to make it better or more useful than it was when you started out. It can be as fancy as reupholstering a vintage piece of furniture you found in a charming junkyard tucked away beside the A329, or it can be something simple like stitching along an old sock just before the kink, cutting off the foot section just under the sewn line and using the little pocket you’ve made as a natty iPod cover. It is brilliant. So much stuff you might throw away suddenly starts to take on a new appearance, as you start to look at it with a view to how you could use it again or what you could make it into. There is even a fantastic organisation in our very own Bracknell that collects people’s old junk they don’t want and repairs it or passes it on so it can all be re-released into the world as something far better than just junk (and I’m going there this week to see what bits of treasure I can scavenge myself, har har)!

  
One of the most fun and rewarding types of upcycling I love is bag fusing. The other day I finally waxed lyrical about my Amazon Kindle enough that my mother bought one on a mad impulse. Covers for the Kindle, however, are so expensive you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are delicately sewn together out of Bengal tiger skin. We decided we’d make her a cover for it, and fused plastic is the perfect material for it; it’s water resistant, strong and most importantly it is very, very groovy. 

All you need is a mountain of old carrier bags. I almost regretted asking my mum for this as she then scurried into the garage and returned with enormous clods of plastic bags in every colour imaginable billowing around her like a rainbow foam; it took three trips to and from the garage to finally assemble the colossal mound of plastic bags that my family have collected over the years (and that didn’t even include the entire van-full of orange Sainbury’s bags that we excavated from behind the fridge in my brother’s student flat in Manchester). Shame and embarrassment aside, this is a good thing as it gives an enormous variety of design options for when you are fusing your plastic sheet, as you can mix and layer up colours and motifs to get something glorious and mad-looking. There are only a few rules to stick to:
1. 6 layers of plastic is the rough minimum needed to get a decent, thick sheet you can sew and fashion into things like bags or anoraks (yes, it can be done).
2. All printing must be inside the layers, otherwise it melts in the heat and you end up with smeary plastic ink glooping all over your iron, hands, ironing board, cat…if you want to keep printed designs as part of the pattern, just make sure the top layer of plastic is a clear bag.
3. Iron the layers together with a two-dot-hot (low to medium heat) iron with a greaseproof paper layer on top and underneath the plastic OR ELSE! Forget the greaseproof paper and all is lost. Well, not all, but your iron. And you will have an armful of melting plastic and hot appliance to deal with. All it takes is a few seconds (8-10, keeping the iron slowly moving) of pressure on the iron on the plastic to melt it together.
After all this, you create a sheet of fantastic pliable soft plastic which can be sewn on the sewing machine, glued, riveted, stapled, deep-fried…

This might all sound a bit Blue Peter, but give me a minute to convince you to give it a try. As I’ve written before, there is nothing more satisfying than making something usable yourself, but upcycling is even better because you can also bask in the warm glow of having saved the whole environment single-handedly by repurposing something that would otherwise have gone into landfill. Beyond that, though, is the simple fact that it is excellent fun – even if you suspect you might not be the kind of person who would enjoy this sort of thing. My mother is an occupational health physician with practically the entire alphabet’s worth of letters after her name and an hour of bag fusing turned her into a giggling, hand-clapping kid. We drank Gewürztraminer and listened to the Tron soundtrack and rearranged the letters cut from bags to make funny words; there was nothing worthy or twee or eco-activist about it, just excellent fun. And that rare kind of fun you can have without a screen in front of you, something to savour on those days where I realise that I have spent vast stretches of time just moving from one LCD display panel to another. It doesn’t cost you anything. Kids love to do it. It is limitless. And if you have something you don’t know what to do with, post it in a comment and I promise I’ll come up with something rad that can be made with it. Go on, I dare ya.

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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