Moonrise Kingdom is Medicine

Oh Wes, the Fargo lady too? You are spoiling us…

They say say that predictable is dull, unspontaneous, lifeless. But the trajectories and orbits of the planets are predictable, and we still find them hypnotic and beautiful.* 

Wes Anderson’s films are, in many ways, endlessly predictable. You have a feeling you know what you’re letting yourself in for as you settle down in the cinema, and inevitably there it comes: the yellow type (and swathes of yellow costumes and set-pieces), the centre-focus shot, the steady pans across dolls-house sets…A tweaky, plunky soundtrack by Mark Mothersbaugh and/or Alexandre Desplat…deadpan conversations…and of course the Old Gang (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, do come in!). It’s a conventional enough formula and an unmistakeable visual signature which I am constantly terrified is poised on the verge of plunging into the abyss of over-the-top pointlessness.

But unlike Tim Burton, whose visual signature started as a charming stylistic quirk and quickly festered into a furious and aggressive eyeball-punching of spirals, purple and black, pale faces and Helena Bunsen-Burner, Wes Anderson still manages to avoid the abyss every time. His quirks and motifs are as recognisable as a familiar mole on your grandma’s chin, but, like the mole, you love them for being there and would miss them if they were gone, even the unsettling long black hair in the middle. Let’s face it, Moonrise Kingdom did not even sound hugely promising: the title is reminiscent of a Manga Nintendo 64 game and the premise of two kids running away from home threatens bucketloads of sentimental twee. But it worked, and I spent the entire time beaming at the screen like a mesmerised baby.

*They say that foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum. But it’s cool to the paw; try it.

I think the thing that makes Wes’ films work is that they never sacrifice anything at the expense of having a rock-solid cast and script to work with (something which Tim Burton might fancy splashing out on sometime). The cast tends to be the same old regulars, sure, but they are all also incredibly – often startlingly – good at acting. I needn’t even mention Bill Murray because we all know he is Touched By Greatness, but give Owen Wilson a part that isn’t a weed-smoking surf-fart and he can be hilarious, tragic and very unexpectedly subtle. A new one is Bruce Willis, who turns out to be terrific when not holding a gun or…well, firing a gun. I do slightly despair sometimes when Wes Anderson insists on showing us the aged and softened faces of the people who in my mind’s eye have always been running around saving an alien goddess, reexperiencing the same day in increasingly hilarious ways or sobbing into the vast bosoms of an obese man (Ed Norton was brilliant, by the way). But these people are all so brilliant at what they do that you are glad to see them carrying on, being excellent and skilled in possession of their new personae rather than becoming ‘go-to old person #3’ (and I do sympathise, Julie Walters).

The story alone is glorious too. Yes, two kids run away, but one of them’s a scout so there’s an old-fashioned Just William style knockabout feel to the whole thing, while the side story of the crazy parents trying to find them is sweet and funny and sad in a different way. And I defy anyone to be too sceptical about the sight of a bunch of kids just going a bit feral for the length of a film anyway; it worked for Son of Rambow and proves that all you have to do for real cinema gold is put a few young boys in the wilderness holding sticks. You’ll get the granny vote with that approach at the very least and the tickets sales from that alone will see you through the winter.

And what’s more – the film’s just fun. It’s not trying to be anything but fun. It’s a proper, real adventure story where things happen and there is real peril and unrealistic events occur which you forgive because you’re sucked in by that point already. And isn’t that what you want from summer cinema rather than a typical, dragging girly film about the embittered single lady or anoooottthhherr superhero film which is so laden with CGI it looks like it’s been made with clips from The Sims? I want a film that is ginger beer and barbeque, not cocktails and olives or nachos and PepsiMax. 

I love Wes Anderson and I’m not ashamed to say it. Some of you will find him annoying and akin to staring at a cross-stitch of a wishing well for two hours. But loving Wes Anderson is nothing to be ashamed of, if you know what you like and know you will like what you expect; he delivers, and it’s not boring or predictable, but like the classic lasagne that your mum always makes it still always manages to be gosh-darn delicious. 
 

The Chef Not-So-Special: Kitchen Hacks

Come on. Admit it. You’ve never used those things on the grater either.

There are more cooking sites on the internet than there are feckless youths like me to actually try out all the recipes. I am completely addicted to all of them. But it’s not the recipes that hook me, or the photos (food porn is exploitative and presents an unrealistic ideal of food to impressionable people), nor is it the bloggers’ jocular little anecdotes (incidentally, is it the law to get pregnant if you write a cooking blog?). No, it’s the weird little things you pick up, the strange little tips and new ways of using utensils and X that you can substitute for Y if you want to make your Z more like a Q. I don’t think I’m really an amateur chef, more like a professional kid-making-mud-pies-with-a-tadpole-garnish. It’s the experimentation that makes cooking fun, exciting and often hilarious, and now that I’ve been doing it for a few years I’ve accumulated a veritable wealth of useless kitchen advice which doesn’t really count as ‘recipes’ or ‘tips’ or even ‘guidelines’ but more along the lines of things which make you go “huh”. 

I was inspired to write this post a couple of weeks ago, in fact, when a friend of mine and her boyfriend were cooking curry and making a shamefully delicious side dish of caramelised courgettes tossed in yoghurt with paprika. Poor Boyfriend was laboriously slicing the courgette into the required thin rounds when I handed him my incredibly party-hat grater (above; and yes, there ain’t no party like a coleslaw party) and suggested he just do it on the mandoline slits. Chucka-chucking a courgette through those funny little smile-shaped slots sliced the courgette in about two minutes and Boyfriend was irate that the world had not yet taught him such a useful courgette technique. Actually, it doesn’t seem like many people even know what those big wide mouths on the side of the grater are for except for maybe thinking you put a belt-strap through them to wear your grater like a celtic warrior’s sash. That would be formidable, come to think of it…But not even I knew until I was taught myself a couple of years earlier and expressed the same amazement. These little kitchen hacks, Ray Mears-style survival tricks for the domestic, save time and money and effort and sometimes are just delightful and satisfying in themselves. And thus, without further ado, I now share my wisdom with all of my dearest online friends.

1. Yes, the slots on the grater are for slicing thin rounds of things, and it works very well indeed. You want to push the thing down against the slot so it’s at a 45 degree angle to the table surface and shove it up and down in a nice robotic rhythm. Good for: courgette, cucumber, carrot, radishes, beetroot. Not good for: fibrous things like leeks, or human fingers.

2. That other bit on the grater? The rough pointy bit that you really hope you never have to rub against your face? It has no uses, and yet endless uses. Use it to mince anything like ginger, garlic, galangal etc – and if you do, pop a double-layer of clingfilm over the top of the spikes before you get started. Rub the chunk round and round in mini circles until it’s all pulped up, then you can just peel off the clingfilm and scrape it right into the pan without having to spend four hours scrubbing the damn grater with a toothbrush to get all the tiny reeking garlic fibres out of those claw-like barbed holes. You can also scrub a piece of toast or very stale bread against it to get breadcrumbs, use it to grate nutmeg, or rough up the sides of apples so that the toffee sticks to them properly when you’re making toffee apples for halloween!

3. You can sharpen a blunt knife on a mug. I KNOW. As long as you have a ceramic mug with a rough, unglazed base, all you have to do is invert the mug and scrape the knife blade along the rough surface with the blade at a 45 degree angle to the rough surface. And never sharpen a wet knife. Don’t ask me why, The Guild would throw me out.

4. You know toasters? Oh, they are far more than their name suggests, my friend. Not only can you toast slices of bread in them, but you can crisp and warm up bread rolls on top of them (thank you Berlin Flatmate!), prop cold falafel over the slots to get it hot and crunchy, cook frozen potato waffles in them, and I have even discovered that on their side they will make you cheese on toast. The toaster is humankind’s greatest ally and my university comrades will attest that I am the toaster’s most devoted harlot. Use yours well.

5. Oh maaaan, it’s so boring cutting a perfect circle of greaseproof paper to fit your cake tin! So do it the tissue-paper-flower-maker way: get a piece of greaseproof paper bigger than your tin, fold it in half again and again and again until it’s a triangle of eighths, hold it over your tin so the point of the triangle is roughly in the middle of the tin, pinch the edge of the paper where it meets the side of the tin and tear off the end. Open out the paper and you will have an octagon which fits your tin and you didn’t have to go and get a pencil and some scissors and suddenly take a break from baking for a brief arts and crafts session. This tip was taught to me by a Mexican lady who was making margarita cake at the time, so you know it’s a good one.

6. Caramelising onions is a con. You don’t need to cook them gently in a fist-sized knob of butter for an hour while singing French chansons. You can do it in fifteen minutes if you chop ’em up against the grain (the slices fall apart and melt more easily that way), cook them gently in a bit of oil in a non-non-stick pan, and keep a glass of water beside you. The caramelisation flavour comes from all that lovely brown caramelised crustiness that accumulates on the bottom of the pan, and all you need to do is add about a tablespoon of water to the pan every time it gets to a nice toffee colour to ‘deglaze’ the pan and return all those caramelised sugars back onto the surface of the onions. Repeat this about 5-10 times and you will have soft, sweet, gloopy onions that oh god are so delicious whizzed into homemade hummus. 

7. If fancy people get garlic smell on their hands, they get out a silly little metal egg-thing and rinse their hands with it under the tap. It is upper-middle-class voodoo. Except it isn’t, it is simply the fact that stainless steel removes garlic smells from skin, and if you rinse your hands with a teaspoon or a fork or a dentist’s gum-checker the smell goes away. It’s true! And yet there are people in the world making money selling magic metal garlic eggs.

8. This one’s all over the internet, but it’s a goody: bananice cream. Chop banana. Freeze chunks. Pulp chunks to puree in blender. Put back in freezer for 20 minutes. Soft-scoop natural smooth banana healthy ice-cream. Done. Oh yes, you can blend in peanut butter or chocolate or honey or nutella if you like. But then you might feel lees virtuous when you scoop a huge ball into an ice-cream cone and wander around flagrantly having ice cream for breakfast.

9. Don’t put avocados or tomatoes in the fridge. It kills enzymes in them which prevent the avocado from ripening ever (although if it is à point then putting it in the fridge will of course stop it going over) and which deaden the flavour of tomatoes and stop them getting fruitier and more intense. 

I have millions more and would write a tenth if that weren’t so darned predictable, so that’s that for now. I hope to write about my cooking experiments from time to time here, mainly in the hope that I’ll get featured on FoodGawker and finally get a few hits! It makes me feel special.  But I would love to answer questions about all these things so if you have a ‘wondering’, just post a comment. If not, go and cook something fun. If you don’t want to do that either, well, what do you want from me? Get out of the kitchen or I’ll burn you with a hot spoon.

BONUS PRIZE! Whoever identifies the sitcom allusion in the last line of this post gets a pack of custard creams.

Doing the Deutsch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look before you Leip

“I am Goethe! Look upon me and tremble, future German students!”

On Wednesday morning of my last week in Germany I rose early, packed my bag, bought myself a breakfast pretzel and within an hour was on the train to Leipzig. I had the chance to visit the city because a few weeks earlier I had been at a concert and got to know a girl who just so  happened to be the girlfriend of a guy in the band (yeah, like I just am too cool fo’ skule). She was visiting from Leipzig where she lives in an opulent flat (with low rent and an underground car park for her PERSONAL CAR to boot – man, Berliners have it rough) and generously said I would be welcome to invade her home town if I felt like it. I felt like it.

I had originally applied to spend my year abroad in the Dresden/Leipzig area as my second choice should I fail to get Berlin, so I was curious to see these cities and find out what I’d missed. Dresden had been fantastic but I would rather have eaten an old lady’s wig than have to walk through the Altstadt every single day. Leipzig, on first impressions, was…small. Compared to Berlin that’s like being amazed that a walnut is small relative to a caravan, but the contrast at the time felt rather jarring. However, unlike Dresden, the first impression was of a very sweet place, where the general atmosphere might be summed up by the facial expression one has after a really good bath. It’s contented and relaxed, not filled with tourists, businessmen and lunatics like Dresden or Berlin but rather simply populated with a comfortable number of laid-back inhabitants who all exude an air of “How are you?” “Can’t complain!”. 

After I had set down my bag and wandered with gaping mouth through my friend’s beautiful flat, which costs 70 euros less per month than my hamster’s cage of a room in Berlin, we head out to see the town.


My friend’s idea was to take a bus tour around Leipzig so that I could see all the main bits and get the requisite information one might need. When we reached the bus tour start-off point we were instantly surrounded by dozens of guides who pressed their pitches and flyers upon us, frothing at the mouth with sheer desperation to get us upon their particular bus. All the tours were exactly identical in price, duration and content, lasted two whole hours, and seemed to take one not only through Leipzig but through neighbouring villages, around the local motorways and over to the busdriver’s nan’s house to see how she’s getting on these days. It was ridiculous; who wants to sit on a kitchly painted open-top bus in the wind for two hours having a smarmy man bark tinny facts about Leipzig at you through a loudspeaker? Under the pretence of having to find an ATM we escaped and decided to do our own tour, starting with the Volkerschlachtdenkmal, the monument to the victims of the massacre in one of the Napoleonic wars. No, I don’t remember which one.

It’s a gruesome and terrifying building. Inside, a circular hall is lined with huge stone faces grimacing with agony and misery. Above the faces there is another circular ledge with statues embodying the virtues of man in the most harrowing way you can imagine, with peace depicted as a distressed looking woman holding two huge and brute-like babies to her naked breasts. The whole place was filled with the echoing roar of building machinery due to the renovation works taking place which made the experience even more unnerving, and it was a relief to finally be on top in the open air looking out on the city and away from the big doom-filled cavern. Up there we met a sweet lady who declared herself to be a history teacher and then gave us a fascinating and enthusiastic talk about the monument and Leipzig itself; she was so generous and interested in her subject that I wanted to take her by the arm, buy her a bus and tell her to go out and make her fortune in the city, but instead we went back down and spent the rest of the day wandering around the nooks and crannies of Leipzig, seeing Goethe’s favourite ‘pub’ and stopping for an Apfelstrudel.

The next day we head over to Halle, the town where my companion had grown up. She wanted to show me her childhood stomping ground, and it was as adorable as such a town ought to be. The buildings are low and have lots of dark beams, and all the streets are narrow and charming. Halle is humming with myths and legends, so as we wandered along the labyrinthine alleys we saw, for example, the donkey fountain where a boy and his donkey supposedly got showered with flowers as they were mistaken for a king (happens to me all the time) and a creepy overgrown pathway which was once closed off to quarantine plague victims and was lush with grass when it was later opened as the sick people all died and created a fertile strip of plant life. A brief stop at the Händel museum was fascinating and very impressive – the musical instrument collection was particularly fun, and if anyone needs ideas for my birthday present I definitely want a violin which doubles as a walking stick – but there was also a confusingly large amount of stuff in the museum which had next to nothing to do with Händel at all. Here is a portrait of the man who drew the portrait of Händel’s mum. Here is a photo of the building where Bach, who is a composer like Händel, once had a sandwich. Here is a coin similar to one of the ones Händel probably used to use when he went out to buy a newspaper. It was rather perplexing but ultimately made for a collection that you couldn’t help but scour thoroughly to work out what all these interesting bits and pieces were actually about. Worth the entrance fee, one might say.

We lunched at a strange “Asian” place where I paid an extravagant 3,50 euros for a bowl of instant noodles with a single prawn proudly perched on top and then simply schlenderten through the town, idly drifting through the shops to kill the time before the real event of the day: Harry Potter. Heart-breaking as it was to see the end of my childhood epic mangled into German (eurhgh, vile language) I was so excited I hyperventilated my way through the ads and – nearly – wept at a few tender parts of the action. It’s a brilliant film, if you haven’t already seen it. The kids are admittedly all grown up now; the Weasley twins in particular look like they’ve been briefly let out of the old folk’s home to do their part before afternoon tea, but no matter how big and burly Harry and Ron look these days to me they will always be the goofy acne-dappled youths who seemed to have come straight from the Beano fan club into showbusiness. I was disappointed that Helen Mirren didn’t have a cameo in this film because if she had that would have made the series a complete catalogue of every single British actor living (and recently deceased) within our generation (as part of our 2010 collection, this rather tasteful Bill Nighy, set within a hopeful but pointless and ultimately wasted role!). But oh, it was the end of Harry Potter. It was the closure to a decade of obsession and anticipation. They did a spectacular job, and didn’t even make the epilogue too cringeworthy as the older and now married characters wave their children off on the way to Hogwarts. Although I did feel sorry for Ron, who was the only character to have been made a fat, balding and embarrassing parent as opposed to the chic and well-kempt others. Go and see it for yourself, you’ll see what I mean.

Oh, and don’t waste your cash on 3D; I didn’t feel like I could reach out and grab anything.

Gute Nacht Berlin…

Today I woke up to a view of grey skies, crow-filled fields and a curled-up cat at the foot of my bed. A journey into town involved driving on the left side of the road, and I paid for my new socks in pounds rather than euros. I’m not in Berlin any more; I won’t be coming back for a long time. 

This year abroad has been such an exhausting, exciting, intense series of events that there’s no point even trying to summarise or qualify it. It was what it was, I had a huge amount of fun but it wasn’t always easy and got pretty black in parts. It was ten months in the most electric city in Europe and I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. Drooling infants and all. 

But since I don’t want this post to be a squelchy emotional snooze-fest I’m not going to write about good times and reminiscences but rather simply write about my last week in Deutschland, a week that in itself was pretty hard to sum up in anything less than a multimedia powerpoint presentation; nonetheless, since we all hate WordArt and text effects I’ll just have to give it a try.

For my last week before coming home I wanted to do something new and see a part of Germany I’ve never seen before, and so I arranged a whistle-stop tour of the Sachsen area, calling at Dresden and Leipzig with a brief stop in Halle. I arrived in Dresden Hauptbahnhof on Monday morning after a long and drab train journey and grinned gormlessly with excitement during the tram ride to my bed for the following two nights, a futon belonging to a friend who kindly let me kip in his pad while I was there. He gave me a map, a tourist guide, a list of things to visit and (with optimistic trust I might not expect from friends who know my clumsy, forgetful and ultimately useless self a little better) a key, then he set off to his job in Berlin leaving me to begin my adventure. I divided my time in Dresden into two parts of the city for two days of exploration; the southern part below the river (Altstadt) for the first day and the part north of the river (Neustadt) for the second. 

Dresden’s Altstadt is rather hard to explain. The tourist guide I had claimed that the nucleus of the Altstadt was the old market, which I set as my starting point, but I was amazed to find that when I reched the old market what I actually found was a colossal concreted empty void, surrounded by buildings but featuring nothing within the square except for a ramp to some underground toilets. It’s honestly incredible how large and pointless the Old Market square actually is; nonetheless, all the old and famous buildings one has to see in Dresden do orbit around it so it functions as a sort of black hole, keeping all the parts of Dresden in its pull whilst itself being nothing but a dead emptiness. In the Altstadt surrounding the square the tourists swarm around the major sights, these being mainly pompous old buildings like the Frauenkirche, the Kreuzkirche, the Semperoper and the world’s longest porcelain mural (which makes me wonder how I’ve managed to miss this ‘who’s-got-the-longest-porcelain-mural’ competition all this time). Everything got viciously bombed in the war and has since been renovated and rebuilt, which is why it all looks simultaneously old and beautiful but also brand new. The Frauenkirche, for example, is a startlingly golden monolith of a building, having been lovingly reconstructed in Dresden’s traditional sandstone and only just reopened in the last three or so years. The inside is spectacular and marvellously kitsch; it’s all powder-puff colours, pinks and greens and painted-on faux marble and featuring as the focal point an incredible altar piece. This huge sculpture behind the altar is of a bunch of flowery pastel biblical guys holding shining golden bunches of grapes or crucifixes, all wading among huge bulks of pure white fluffy clouds. It’s like DisneyBaby® Does The New Testament, and it’s weird but pretty, I suppose. 

Beyond the Frauenkirche, however, Dresden’s Altstadt is a rather oppressive place. All the other famous buildings are made of the same sandstone but due to their age and the remarkable porousness of the sandstone they have sucked up every molecule of smog in the air, causing them to turn an ominous and deep black colour. They are so vast and gothic that they honestly do loom over you in an impressive-yet-threatening kind of way, and I found myself getting ever more frustrated by the combination of the unfriendly buildings and the outrageously expensive cafés and restaurants us tourists had to content ourselves with. I was worried that Dresden would be a disaster.

But then the second day changed everything. Evidently the river Elbe is not just a body of water but also a force field separating the forces of dark and light within the city like a Japanese myth. The minute one crosses the river (and after a good hearty walk) one reaches the Neustadt and is met with any number of colourful and vibrant streets full of interesting things to do and see. I spent almost the whole day there, heading eastwards in the afternoon to see the sunset over the heart-wrenchingly beautiful vineyards in the river valley before dinner. After a bowl of the kind of soup that makes me want to passionately ravish whoever the heck cooked it, I head over to an odd little open-air theatre that I had stumbled upon on my wanderings, coaxed in by the fact that they had lampshades hanging everywhere like fruits.

 One buys a ‘Dreierticket’ and can then see three of a selection of half-hour mini plays and performances which take place in all kinds of weird little stage-come-sheds littered around the location. I was aggressively bellowed into watching a bizarre cabaret/circus-style amateur play with my first ticket, which I regretted the minute one of the cast members went ‘offstage’ (read: retreated behind a pinned-up bedsheet) and was wheeled in seconds later, lying on a tableclothed gurney, surrounded by salad leaves, completely naked. With the other cast members playing his buttocks like drums. 

I stuck to comedy for the rest of the night. A huge mass of us queued for something called ‘Die Echse’, which I knew nothing about except for the fact that it was the most popular performance on offer and the man in charge of tickets was wearing a fez. It turned out to be the most hilarious half-hour of an incredibly sharp and witty comedian whose trick is to metamorphose into a lizard puppet with a cigar and a strong Sachsisch dialect, talking about how he and Aristotle founded the first ever theatre back in prehistory. Also, he did a brief warm-up act involving two sheep arguing about their right to ‘baa’. It was brilliant. The last act was a creepy John Waters lookalike with a drawn-on pencil moustache who had been brought in as a last-minute replacement for someone else who was ill and did a stand-up routine of unrelated small and bizarre acts. He took a lightsaber out of a suitcase and did a few swooshes with it, then used it to pick his teeth. He stood at the back of the stage with his hands out, completely motionless, then very slowly curled over the fingers of his left hand and then finally announced that that was his impression of ‘a wallpaper’. He had a children’s book about wildlife propped on a music stand and picked it up to show us a photo of a tiger licking some soil. It took a while for the penny to drop but as he carried on it just got more and more hilarious until we ended up baying for two whole encores which he sheepishly consented to perform for us. The crazy genius. 

I’ll tell you all about Leipzig tomorrow children, as the delicious smells of Dinner At Home are calling me from downstairs. And after tomorrow…well, it’s time to start thinking about finally putting this old dog to sleep. 

Pots-Damn, this place has a lot of castles

Also a lot of Tors, of which this is apparently the gateway to fine Italian dining

You can’t really live in Berlin without being aware that Potsdam is hovering eagerly on the outskirts like the rich but lonely sidekick of the school jock. It lies on the very end of the purple line of the S-Bahn, and normal Berliners go about their days never considering the implications of simply riding that rail all the way down to that far away kingdom. Fortunately poor schmoes like myself and my colleague, whose codename in this article will be Eugene, are already used to taking the Bahns so far out that when we get to our destinations the only other person in the carriage is the janitor in his boiler suit, slowly sweeping in the corner. We’ve never been to Potsdam, we thought, and what a wonderful opportunity to see it before we both go back to the land of Marmite. Yes, it was time for another adventure.

The most striking thing on arriving in Potsdam was the sheer “what, me worry?” atmosphere in the train station. Compared to Berlin Hauptbahnhof or Alexanderplatz, where everyone is marching around and yelling at each other and dragging their dogs about, Potsdam Hauptbahnhof is like a transport spa, with ambient music and pleasant sculptures and market-sellers weighing out cheese (what, you’ve never been to a spa with cheese before?). From there the walk into town was short but briefly unpleasant, as a man with an enormous beard sniffed out that we were tourists and descended upon us, trying to get us to take his bus tour with persuasion tactics which were as violent as one can get without actually touching the other person. Given that the flyer he gave us promised to both ‘lead’ us (führen) and ‘seduce’ us (verführen) turning him down seemed the only safe option. With that little snaggle behind us, we took a deep breath and head across the river towards the city centre.


On the way to the middle of Potsdam, snuggling up to the bridge, is a little island called Freundschaftsinsel (‘Friendship Island’ – awwwww), which we gave a brief gander. It is a very cute mini oasis of plants and one incredible kids’ playground where the children have an amazing fountain and array of sandy water-gulleys to explore in and around, idyllically surrounded by slightly breeze-blown willow trees and flowers. There are also lots of coots there, with their crazy feet proudly on display. Already Eugene and I felt the stress of the Groβstadt melting away. We decided to head into the city centre in the direction of the Holländisches Viertel.

The Höllandisches Viertel, Dutch Quarter, is a funny little nook where all the buildings are designed in the typical dutch village style. Eugene had lived in Holland for three years and was delighted to see that they had even kept the traditional style of Dutch paving, namely where the streets are lined with small grey bricks. And…err, that’s it. The shops were all just random boutiques selling home made okra jam and teapots, so outside of the buildings and paving there is confusingly little to this famous quarter. Its very existence is somewhat of a question; it’s clearly shooting to be a kind of Chinatown, but my friend made the excellent comparison that it’s a bit like having a Yorkshire quarter in the middle of Bristol. Why whack a big chunk of a rather nondescript culture in the middle of a culture that is already vaguely similar to that culture? Still, if you like gables that is The Place To Be.
 
From there we made our way over to the very very famous Schloss Sanssouci and the Sanssouci park, pausing briefly to get our daily fix of MSG from another one of those “Asian” restaurants. Schloss Sanssouci and the whole complex is Potsdam’s biggest draw, as it’s an old sort of Rococo castle built in the 1700s and ceremoniously planted in the middle of a mind-bogglingly huge park. The park contains a total of roughly ten million other castles and important buildings, each of which seem to just suddenly barge into view as you innocently walk around looking for something else entirely. The most striking is, of course, the main Sansoucci Castle, which has in front of it a weird vineyard constructed on stepped platforms with fig trees inbetween each vine, for no reason shut behind barred doors as if it were some kind of fig-tree prison. From the back of the castle you can see the Ruinenberg, a funny old ruin on top of a hill which looks like a taste-test of the Acropolis. We decided to hike up to there via the Orangery, a bizarrely hidden enormous building which, like the rest of the buildings (and like everything in Berlin and its surroundings) seems to find itself in a constant state of renovation. The Orangery is massive and very attractive, although as with all the other buildings you had to pay to go inside and when we looked through the windows all we could see was, for some reason, a very large mechanical crane. Next up was the Ruinenberg, which looks incredible from far away and close up is rather odd, like a minuscule film set for an old flick about Caesar. The ruins surround a perfectly circular reservoir which was filled with deeply green, deeply nasty water and plenty of trash, and given that there was once again zero information or signs about what the heck it all meant we walked back down with a vague sense of confusion and unsatisfied curiosity. All over the park there is not a single plaque to explain anything that you might like to know – evidently the information you actually desire can only be reached by paying the entrance fees – but deep in the middle of the park’s forest we did find one informative plaque about the plumbing of the local mosque. No, I don’t know why.

We then wandered back into town to take another look at the streets themselves. The whole place had a very odd flavour to it, something that it took us forever to put our fingers on: the city looks absolutely brand-spanking-new. The buildings all look like they’ve been painted yesterday, in powder-puff Princess Peach colours that are so soft and matt the walls seem to have been gathered together out of clouds of coloured mist. The street signs are so nagelneu that they literally glisten, and the cobbles are that kind of pristine old-timey style where although they are worn and interspersed with moss they look perfect and artisanal. With all the Tors (gates) scattered around the place, each featuring fairytale castle turrets and sculptures of stags and the like, the city has a very Disneyesque vibe to it. It is also astonishingly clean, which coming from Berlin feels like moving house to the Mushroom Kingdom from the flat in Withnail and I; predominantly, the absence of dog poop EVERYWHERE is just such a treat I got a genuine thrill every time I glanced at the empty pavements. 

Potsdam is definitely a place to see, and it is distinctly beautiful in its way, but after a good day’s wandering we were left wondering what more there was to actually do there. You can’t spend your life simply seeing things, and in terms of tangible things to learn and discover we unfortunately stumbled upon very few. I reckon it’s the kind of town where you really do need to be shown around by a native and get told where the best places are, otherwise you just get lost in the mesmerising labyrinth of foggy mint-green and marshmallow-pink houses. But then again, perhaps it was my fault. Lesson learned: Wikipedia is not a travel guide, despite being an endlessly reliable source of ultra-true facts and objective informative content.

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.


The beginning of the beginning of the end

And it seems to me you’ve lived your life like a lampshade in the wind…
My odyssey in Berlin is coming to a close, but I specifically booked two weeks after the end of my contract to have the time to do all the things one inevitably always says one must unbedingt machen but never actually finds the time or lust. The first of those days was utterly consumed by the sheer mesmeric euphoria of being in bed for hours and hours and hours without having to do anything or, most importantly, without having to see or interact with a single toddler. The second day I remembered that I did indeed have work to do and spent hours and hours at the computer drawing the last of the illustrations for the company’s new workbook, trying to figure out how on earth one can possibly depict ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ as a simple colour-in picture; it turns out that this song is deeply Descartian-philosophical when one thinks it through for long enough (“I am happy, but do I know it? What happens if I don’t know it? Can I know I am happy without being happy? I clap, therefore I am…”)
But the third day – after I had dumped a year’s worth of clothes stretched by tiny hands into amorphous sacks at Oxfam – everything ging los. I had my list of things to do, some respectable and some less so, and I strode off into the wind to explore my honorary Heimatstadt one last time. First off I finally devoted a good amount of time to exploring Tempelhof park, one of Berlin’s most underrated and undermentioned offerings. Tempelhof is unlike any other park in the world, primarily because it’s not a park; it’s an airport. The old airport is not only the place where the first ever flight demonstrations took place decades ago but also was used during the Luftbrücke, when allied planes flew food into the seriously deprived West, suffering despite being an island of non-communism within the communist mire. It was finally, sadly, closed, but unlike in the UK where it would either be made into a tacky concert hall or most likely razed to the ground and rebuilt as a Tesco, here it was simply kept as it was to serve as a park for the general public. Nowadays it is full of kite-flyers, dog-walkers and roller-bladers making the most of the beautiful, huge, flat and mile-long runways.

They have done a tremendous job with this place, simply by barely touching it. The middle strip of land has been turned into a Wiesenmeer (sea of meadows) where wild flowers grow and larks and butterflies can go forth and multiply; there are nicely trimmed BBQ areas with excellent bins and, best of all, right at the back there’s the Tempelhof-Schönefeld Gemeinschaftsgärten. From far away, as I walked around the runways, it looked simply like a big pile of rubbish, and in Berlin this would never be implausible, and as I approached the only two thoughts in my mind were:

1) Typical Berlin. You have something as great as this park and ruin it by letting people wang a load of trash in the middle of it and shove anti-nuclear stickers all over the trash.
2) When will that creepy man stop trotting up to me whispering “Hallo, Kleine” and asking if I can hear him?
But when I got to the trashheap what I actually found were hundreds of wooden crates, old paddling pools, suitcases, clothes trunks and other receptacles which had all been lovingly filled with compost and beautifully flourishing fruit and veg plants.
Not being permitted to plant directly into the airport soil, the members of this community garden project have assembled their gardens on top of the soil and made it truly Berlin by furnishing it with vintage upholstery and faux Wild-West outhouses. Naturally. Once again I simply marvelled for a moment about how much I love this brilliant city, and then allowed marvelling to give way to rage as a bunch of American hipster dweebs cycled up on their rented choppers and started drawling about how “Man, this is like, so Berlin, like have you been to that bar in Kreuzberg where all the drinks are mixed with nutritional yeast and served in urine sample beakers? Have you been to that club in Neukölln where you have to dance with handcuffs on and the DJ is a rabbi? Have you been to that café in Wedding where the coffee is ground under the wheels of a Nazi-Germany tank?…” I left in disgust.
Hipsters (and people slightly too old to be rollerblading in hotpants) notwithstanding, Tempelhof is a great place to spend a sunny day and simply astonishing in its vastness and relative untouched-, gimmick-free-ness. And it was also conveniently near to my next destination, something I was determined to visit from the minute of my arrival and which had my heart beating slightly quicker as I drew ever nearer to it.
Dun-dun-DUUUUUUUUN!
What the heck is that, I hear you cry. Why, it’s Hauptstrasse 155 Berlin Schönefeld. The very building where DAVID BOWIE (and Iggy Pop) genuinely lived for a good long while in one of their most awesome periods. Good grief! Why has no-one profited from this? Why is there no plaque, no commemorative graffiti mural, no themed café next door called “It’s hard to be a saint in the Latte”? It is nothing but a nondescript door with a dentist’s practice. Blasphemy, thy name is Schöneberg. That’s the last pilgrimage I ever make.

Free and easy in the big city

This is it. On Tuesday I set foot in my last school for the last time and gave my last lesson. On Wednesday I collected all my teaching materials together, resisted the urge to burn them and ceremoniously dumped them on the table at my office. I then spent the rest of my day disinfecting, de-clogging and emptying out my room until it once again began to resemble a domain where a human person might happily live. My sweet flatmate presented me with a celebratory big bunch of roses and my colleagues and I toasted our success with Club Mate, one of the deadliest and most delicious ways to stay awake for six straight hours (it’s a popular caffeinated soft drink which tastes like how cigars smell and has a mysterious and shadowy stranger as its logo). 

And that was the end. No longer a teacher, now I’m just another one of the aimless students bumming around Berlin commenting on the awesomeness of just how ‘like, Berlin‘ everything is. Suddenly and abruptly stopping work is a bizarre thing to have to come to terms with. No longer having a wake-up time or an after-work time, all time is finally free time, and my brain is taking this opportunity to dumb down in the most startling way. I find myself spending solid minutes pondering things which before I was too frazzled even to consider, but that now I have the luxury to consider and reflect upon for entire chunks of wasted life. For example, my thoughts over the last few days have dawdled on such topics as:
– Mint-flavoured floss. Why does this exist and how does no-one notice the brazenness of marketing such a product? No-one brushes their teeth, then flosses with regular floss and thinks, “Well, my teeth are sparkling and my breath would be perfect if it weren’t for this overpowering stench blasting out of the small (admittedly clean) crevices between each tooth…” I will never buy this again simply as a protest against capitalism.
– Berlin strikes me as an incredibly dusty city compared to everywhere else I have ever been. There is dust everywhere and whenever I get home having been outside I find that my shoes and feet are coated with a fine layer of Schmutz which then gets onto the floor and then back onto my feet and ends up just getting trekked around the place which is irritating because it means your mum was always right when she said that you ought to take your shoes off and stop trailing dirt from room to room. I think this is why the Germans love to sweep so much. The dust.
– Could you make jam from melons? 


Clearly this new-found free time is not good for me. It’s time to go out and start living it up Berlin style and discovering yet more exciting things, I reckons.



But never fear. This is the city of endless possibilities and there is no reason to be bored when you can go out and do something weird and new. Let me tell you about the Freiluftkinos.

 Freiluftkinos, outdoor cinemas, are a big deal here in Berlin, and the minute the weather stops being so oh-good-god-I’m-never-going-to-be-happy-again terrible they all open and start showing a selection of crowd-pleasing or ‘eh?’-inspiring films depending on the venue. Beautifully, each one has its own draw, from the Freiluftkino in Kreuzberg where you get to lounge in deckchairs while watching your movie to this particular spot in which the cinema is buried deep within the trees of a gorgeous Volkspark, conveniently near to a varied selection of fine drug dealers. We will all be used, thanks to conventional cinemas, to having to sell a kidney to buy popcorn and to arguing with latecomers in the first half of the film because even though they’re late and obnoxious they still claim the right to sit in their designated seats and shunt you over to your place right beneath John Travolta’s colossal left nostril. But here it’s different; as long as you clean up your own mess you can bring what you like, so you get a wonderful atmosphere of people drinking Rotkäppchen from picnic cups and eating their snacks from Tupperware rather than the ultra-rustly packaging of every sadistically designed cinema snack. 


We saw the film Almanya, a sweet and funny flick about a Gastarbeiter family living in Germany and what happens to them when they go back to Turkey to renovate a house that should later serve as their holiday home. I won’t go into a full review of the film but it seemed to be a crowd pleaser from the fact that everyone clapped at the end and the woman sitting behind us was hooting with laugher so loudly I wanted to clap her for being an example of living life to the fullest. At any rate, it’s certainly worth a try regardless of whether you’re going to see a good film or not, just for the fun and the novelty of sitting on little foam cushions and watching a film on a screen lightly peppered with bird droppings.

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…