Best Prenz Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin: lower your standards to live the high life

This shop is so epic the entire building has a beard worthy of Thor himself

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When I first told my friends in Berlin of my plans to move back, they made concerned noises. “That’s great, but are you sure you really want to?” they asked. “You know that jobs here are scarce and hard to get hold of, right?” At the time I tossed my head back and laughed in a debonair manner. Jobs were scarce in Berlin? They should try living in the UK, where people print their CVs on taped-together banknotes to try to be in with a chance of it not being immediately thrown in the bin. Where the universal facial expression is glum malaise, and the most popular job seems to be Tracksuit Wearing and Shouting Facilitator.

I haven’t the slightest regret about moving here, but in hindsight I ought to have given their warnings the credence they merited. Jobs are not ten-a-penny over here for darned sure. Added to that, my current almost-offer is messing me around like a cute boy with slicked-back hair, a motorcycle and a leather jacket, and someday soon I’m not going to put up with that anymore. So unemployment it is then; bearing it out until I find something that pays the rent and doesn’t make suicide appealing. 

Happily, the wonderful thing about this city is that living without an income is remarkably easy, and I speak not of the controversial unemployment benefits system – I chose not to open that particular can of worms for myself until I literally am close to starvation. What I mean is the staggering amount of stuff you can acquire for zero euros, cash or cheque, everywhere in this place. Tired of being indoors and tired also of the mysterious noises my neighbour had been making against the wall for the best part of an hour (my best guess is that she was alternating throwing handfuls of marbles and iron filings at the wall for some kind of texturing effect) I got my shizz together, grabbed my overflowing compost bin and whirled out of the door to find some of this free swag.

The German word Verschenken means to give something away for nothing. It’s a lovely word, and a practice heavily embossed into the German psyche. Every so often you will find a cardboard box or little heap of stuff next to a house door with a hand-written sign perched on it saying ‘Zum Verschenken’ – ‘to be verschenkened’ – and you have the carte blanche to rifle through the pile and pick out anything that takes your fancy. In my last stay in Berlin this allowed me to accumulate quite an impressive selection of stuff: a sewing box, some books, a large wooden trunk (man I miss that trunk!), a beaming yellow sarong covered in suns…

Even on an idle walk to the East Side Gallery yesterday I happened upon a free large red leather sofa, a box of videos (which admittedly will probably finally be taken by hipsters who want to convert them into groovy iPod holders) and a completely functional-looking iron. And today, when I set out for my latest adventure, the fates seemed to be smiling upon my venture: there, perched on the bin when I went to chuck away my compost, was an awesome and wonderfully naff Spanish-style ceramic olive bowl in red, orange and green, with a teeny little pot attached for toothpicks and another teeny little pot for the olive pits. At least, I think that’s what it is for, although it may also be a breakfast plate with a normal egg-cup and a quail’s egg-cup…or a planter for three different shapes of cactus…

I nabbed my first prize and set off to the Umsonstladen ‘Systemfehler’ (system error). Meaning ‘Free shop’, an Umsonstladen is a Verschenken-shop where people can dump off stuff they don’t want any more and other people can come and take it at will. This is Berlin so there is of course a heavy political agenda attached; if you cross the threshold of the Umsonstladen you are joining in the fight against capitalism, gentrification, over-production and -purchase of goods, probably also nuclear energy and that kind of thing too. They host music nights and life drawing sessions and all kinds of wonderful community get-togethers in an admirable attempt to prove that life is worth living even if you aren’t constantly in pursuit of new possessions and the money to buy those trinkets. 

Still, I wasn’t there for the politics or the community. I wanted the trinkets. Every ‘customer’ is allowed up to five things per visit. I was particularly hoping to find a new T-shirt to wear to the gym and possibly a decent saucepan for my flat, which currently contains one non-stick frying pan, a wok the size of France and a beautiful collection of vintage enamel pots which I couldn’t possibly actually use. When I walked into the shop, I was impressed. In the corner was a quite beautiful piano in walnut and the room was fenced around with railings of clothes which had been carefully arranged onto hangers by style and size. Granted, there was a lot of crud around and the walls had been decorated in a zany way and a slightly deranged woman threw herself at the piano the moment I arrived, beginning to pound the keys with no attempt at a tune. Then a man walked in with his hair shaved in such a way as to produce a perfect monk-like hemisphere of hair on his scalp, like someone had rested a scooped-out grapefruit half on top of his bald skull. He was wearing a kind of semi-transparent sheet with a neckhole cut out of it like a poncho, decorated with a lurid sky blue and pink pattern. He was telling his friend that he was hoping to make some kind of quilt. 

I practically broke my neck trying to not stare at the two and instead browsed the shelves until I found one thing I was looking for, a T-shirt. The one I picked is a mellow blue shade which someone has painted by hand with a slightly haphazard picture of an awkward-looking kiwi bird in the bottom right corner of the shirt. Above the bird they have painted HUCH in large white letters: “Woops”. Evidently they had hoped to produce a much less disappointing kiwi and so painted their distress at the failure and then gave the T-shirt to the Umsonstladen. I have a feeling this will become one of my treasured possessions.

I also found a huge and woolly hand-knitted sweater for the chilly nights and was then accosted by the crazy piano lady who demanded to know if I was planning a presentation. When I told her no, and asked if that’s what I looked like, she said no and asked if I were a ballet dancer. When I said no again, she asked if I could play piano. No, I answered apologetically, and she then brightened and told me all about how sad she was that she couldn’t even play a single song, not even that one from Amélie. I sympathised. She asked what I was going to do now; was I an artist? No, I said, feeling more and more inadequate not to be any of the cool things she seemed to have taken me for. I said goodbye and on my way out noticed a very fat woman in the corner eating jam from a jar with a spoon. 

God love Berlin. I’ve got all these lovely free presents to play with and I made a friend. And I didn’t have to spend a dime.

Two British Institutions: Charity Shops and Driving Rain

This photo broke the 2012 Guinness World Record for greyest photo on the internet.

It’s the Royal Jubilee weekend, celebrating our beloved queen. Streets, villages and parishes are getting together all over the country to have parties to celebrate; there will be Pimm’s, barbecues, fetes, bouncy castles, victoria sponges and children’s games. The trestle tables have been laid out, the gazebos have been hired and the cucumber sandwiches are chilling in the fridge. Therefore, and with relieving reliability, it is raining with the kind of dogged persistence that can saturate a duffel coat in fifteen minutes. Nothing is sadder than streets lined with gently dripping bunting and people wetly licking the ice cream they are determined to enjoy because It Is Summer.

On days like this, when you’ve already been to all the museums and visited all the galleries and drunk all the coffee in Oxford, the perfect day out can be found in the good old tradition of charity shopping.

Charity shops are rare and special beasts in Germany; second-hand shops are ten-a-penny, but they come in a wider range of common breeds. You have the Second-Hand-Laden, the second-hand shop where all the stuff is branded ‘vintage’ and then sold for three times its original price, four times if it’s really really stained. Typical fare includes large and shiny 1980s jackets with elasticated cuffs, enormous nightgowns that smell of death and old dresses with giant padded shoulders, yellowed with nicotine. Then there is the Antiquariat, a second-hand bookshop typically festooned with books in cardboard boxes and aching shelves, stacked up to the ceiling and sorted into strange categories like ‘Greek fashion’ or ‘Religion/photography’. They are brilliant and the books usually cost a euro each at most. My favourite Antiquariat of all time is Cafe Tasso in Berlin, where the bookshop merges with a small but deeply friendly café where the drinks come with a tiny disc of homemade hazelnut shortbread, and the books sprawl through the building like a fungal growth. Then you get the Trödelladen, which is like the Second-Hand-Laden but sells proper Trödel, i.e. junk of all descriptions. Old used handkerchiefs, broken handbags, and unnervingly huge amounts of army paraphernalia. It’s dirt cheap, and it’s dirt cheap because it’s dead horrible. These shops are always brown. They even smell of brown.



Sadly, and oddly considering the general philanthropy and world-friendliness that the Germans possess, most of these shops have their profits going to the man in the beige vest behind the till. It is rather strange that our charity shop culture hasn’t picked up there yet, while here the charity shops flourish in the credit crunch with rich fertility. In the town where I live when not at university, most of the real shops have gone long ago, having found it difficult to squeeze a living out of the ancient spinsters that seem to form 95% of the town’s population. They have been replaced by endless charity shops, not just the Big Players like Oxfam and British Heart Foundation but also the more mid-range charities like Sue Ryder and even some real curiosities, whose charities I have never encountered beyond that one shop: one doesn’t even seem to have a name but is definitely in support of The Aged in some capacity, I think. They tend to sell a lot of jeans, wool and ties heaped into bins and unnervingly faded plastic toys. 

Charity shopping is a joy and a skill. It’s a joy because it’s utterly guilt-free and endlessly colourful; your money is always going to a good cause and the stock can vary between real gems and hilarious items you are simply overjoyed to have found for their comedy value. I will never forget the onomatopoeia-themed tie I picked up once for my English teacher at secondary school, for example. One thing you must have above all else is zero expectations; the likelihood is that you won’t find a vintage Dior halterneck gown for three quid down the Help the Aged, and you mustn’t feel betrayed or disappointed when that continues not to happen. You will, however, frequently find brilliant small things that are like life’s stocking-stuffers, the bits and pieces that cost three quid and just perk you up when you can close your grubby little fists around them. Yesterday: a lime-green batik T-shirt with fish on. Before that: an old printing die drawer from a newspaper press in London way back when they used to be printed semi-by-hand. Worth it.

There are several things one has to put up with, of course; predominantly the issue that as time goes on most charity shops seem to be becoming little more than galleries of old Per Una ranges overflowing the racks. Per Una, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the brand, is Marks and Spencer’s ‘mode’ range which was originally meant to appeal to young adults but swiftly became the preferred look for retired ladies and geography teachers, meaning that no young adult would ever consider touching any of that stuff with a bargepole. It’s all textural fabrics and kooky buttons and square cardigans, and it’s now spilling out of the doors of charity shops as if the stuff reproduces by mitosis or something. Another thing that you have to come to terms with is the slightly jarring audacity of some of these places – Oxfam in particular are starting to get incredibly cheeky with their pricing and will happily charge £5 for a t-shirt that was originally from Primark for a scant quid. “Uh yah, but it’s like vintage, so yah.” No. Vintage is not a synonym for ‘already worn by someone else’. The best charity shops recognise that and simply sell everything as is, reeking of dust and dispensed from a huge basket or repurposed old bin labelled “EVERYTHING £2-POUND’S”.

Driftin’

Flat#1, Residence#3, Home#5.

I’m moving again. Not here in Berlin, of course; the very sight of WG Gesucht moves me to hysterical panic attacks. The horror….the horror……

No, I’m moving in the UK. One month after I return, one month from today, I and my family will be leaving our current house and moving to another modern little number in the suburbs where my parents will “grow” old together (you can see that I know they don’t read this) and where I will spend a good deal of the rest of my life. Life has never been so schizophrenic – in the last few years, I have moved out of my childhood home, into a wonderful new ‘young adulthood home’, skipped between college rooms and Berkshire bedrooms, ricocheted from flat to flat in Berlin and now am on a path to yet another place that theoretically is supposed to become the emotional and geographical nexus of my sense of being. If I do the correct calculations, I deduce that I haven’t been living in the same one place for any one time for longer than three or four months for about three years. If this was a Western, I’d be one of those people described by the local prostitute as Hank the Drifter: “Well now he just breezes on into town one day an’ afore he’s paid fer his whisky he’s breezed on out agin…”

Nothing in life is permanent, and it’s best to embrace that than to spend your life mourning it. And if I were to give one piece of advice coming from this experience of roaming around it would be this: go as many places as you can and don’t stay too long once you’re there. 

Leapfrogging from place to place is the absolute best thing! This year has been nothing if not varied, and every single flat I have been in has made me live a different way and experience an environment with a different flavour. Charlottenburg was pretty, well-developed and underrated, but was also rather quiet and lacking in curiosity. The general slightly-greater wealth of the area is so obvious you could probably taste the difference by licking a lamppost there and in Friedrichshain. My local restaurants in Friedrichshain are generally all-purpose ‘Asian’ cuisine or a hilarious and cheap little Indian place where the staff sit on the doorstep and chain smoke. In Charlottenburg the local restaurants included a lofty French bistro called ‘Pistou’ where I ate medium-rare duck liver and rocket salad and the waiters all wore tiny black waistcoats and had real-live little white towels resting over their left forearms. But another local place, Suppinger, was just a sweet little local nashery where you could get a trough of delicious soup for 3 euros, the whole place was decorated with seasonal felt shapes, and the people there clearly ate there every day and were on ‘how-are-the-kids’ terms with the waiting staff. That seems to be the main difference between east and west that you can really feel: in the west it’s posh but when it’s not it isn’t trying to be anything else apart from simply worthwhile and of good quality. In the east when something isn’t posh it is immediately “oh my god this amazing place where like all the walls are covered with pictures of famous people’s earlobes and and it’s like really cheap because no-one knows about it and it’s in the cellar of an old bombed barrel factory”. In other words, east vs. west seems to be hipsters vs. mums; American Apparel vs. Marks and Spencers.

Prenzlauer Berg was different again, in that it’s sort of somewhere in between. It’s very pleasant and at times picturesque, and there are parts of it that are really coming on in the world whereas other parts are still about as appealing as stacked wet egg-boxes. It’s heaving with bitterness on both sides: from those who used to live there when it was secretly cool but before it became openly trendy, before all the young people surged over there to indulge in the alternativeness and excitingness of the district; and from those young people who have only just moved here and accidentally caused everything to become refined and expensive simply by their mere presence. It’s now, as I have mentioned before, full of babies, but then again there are babies pouring onto the streets both in Charlottenburg and Friedrichshain so I suspect the whole ‘Preggslauer Berg’ idea is rather a myth. 

In fact, from my seasoned perspective I am of the opinion that Berliners should stop trying to compare and argue for their districts as if they were football teams. All the districts in Berlin are essentially doing the same thing and simply have different aromas, like blends of Tschibo coffee. All the districts are ‘alternative’, from the bits of the west where individuality can flourish because it’s not gripped by the determination to be individual to the east where the more different you are the better. All the districts are littered with dogs, children and bicycles, and no matter where you go none of these three groups can accept that they don’t have main priority on the pavements (although they do all agree that regular pedestrians can suck it). All the districts have odd little structural similarities, somewhat like cats that all look completely different but each have a windpipe going from mouth to lungs. Each of the districts I know well revolves around a long and horrible stretch of road, whether Frankfurter Allee or Karl-Marx-Allee or Schoenhauser Allee or Spandauer Damm, and this is always a huge, terrifying ribbon of grey malaise. This is never where the real action happens as the really good and popular parts of the district are always in one or two main capillaries joining this straight long Berzirk-artery. There is always a square where cute and community-friendly events take place and a little intersection of streets where all the 9am-drinkers hand out and toast the passers by (I once actually did raise my coffee cup to an elderly alcoholic when he raised his vodka bottle to me at 7.30am and yelled “PROST!!” – he cheered at my gesture and took a celebratory gulp).

So move around a lot, dear reader, because you will never get more of a sense of a place or of the wider world until you can hold up lots of different places up against each other in your mind and figure out how cities, countries, people work. You can go to the cool places and find them lame, and the lame places and find them cool (or just hilarious). Hell, do what my family are doing in the UK and move from isolated country house to isolated country house, because there’s still something to be gained from seeing a different type of sheep from your bedroom window. And I have to say that I would give anything to see a sheep or two around here. Perhaps their bleating would drown out the sounds of my neighbours’ suddenly awakened late-night ‘Summer loving’. 

Guten Appetit Berlin!

For those of us blessed with both a stomach and a tongue, Berlin is the best place to be. For all the stick Germany gets for its cuisine (which, incidentally, can still be brilliant) the sheer variety and quality of produce and cookery one enjoys here is truly luxurious; going to any one restaurant always has me feeling a slight twinge of regret simply because to eat at one inherently involves not eating at one of the thousands of other incredible places in the immediate vicinity. Germany has done the same as Britain in that while its own cuisine is still there and available, being dutifully revisited and upheld, they are doing their best and most exciting things in embracing all other genres of cooking and doing them really, really well; the photo above is of a bruschetta stand at the market where they slice you a surfboard-sized plank of fresh bread, load it with tomatoes and parmesan and rocket and roast veg, add a glossy slick of really good olive oil and present it to you with a beaming grin for just 2.50 Euros. I’ll wait a moment while you mop up your drool.

The Friedrichshain/Boxhagener Platz farmers’ market every Saturday is close to torture because it is simply four long rows of things like this arranged into a neat square and heaving with hungry people. Among the homemade tortelloni and glistening stuffed olives and myriad Wurst-hawkers you will find the fish smokers, creating a smell so divinely fishy it made me want to buy an Aran sweater and a pipe.

  There is a man selling eye-wateringly delicious-looking savoury tarts and a woman wearing multiple chiffon scarves who makes her own mother-of-god-that’s-good-marshmallows. I bought a bunch of radishes as puce as a smacked buttock for mere pennies and then met a man who makes his own barbecue sauces from scratch; the steak sauce was so good I have to put his website on here so that you will all go and buy some for your dads immediately.

Eckart Sossen – just, so… yumsville.

But it’s not just the ultra-yuppie domain of the farmers’ market where you’ll find the good eats, and of course it’s not the kind of place where poor self-pitying students are likely to go for any real food shopping unless you count casually trying free samples of everything on offer until you’ve eaten enough to sustain you for a couple of days. The great thing is that it doesn’t matter what your budget is in this city, for your two Euro buck you can still get a hell of a lot of bang. Case in point: Mio. This minuscule bistro will take your spare change and in return give you a huge segment of Turkish Fladenbrot heaving with (get ready for it): vegetable croquettes, stuffed vine leaves, walnut paste, houmous, couscous salad, sheep’s cheese, yoghurt dressing, olives and sheer bloody human good will. Mercy, it’s tasty. If you want something sweet go to Olivia on Wühlischstraβe, where the hand-made chocolate truffles cost less than at Fassbender and Rausch and will make you see god or whichever deity you choose to hallucinate at the time. The tables in the Turkish markets all over Berlin have bow-legs from the sheer weight of the glorious vegetables piled high and sold cheap, and I may have already mentioned that there are one or two places around where you can get some fairly good bread too.

If you’re eating out, you will quickly learn a whole new level to the meaning of ‘spoilt for choice’. Here are some of my personal recommendations; try them, love them and wink at the Maitre D’ for me.

Sigiriya – lip-smacking and hilariously complicated (there is a two-page key to the spices they put in the various dishes and it took me about four hours to read the menu to my friend visiting from the UK) Sri Lankan food served in portions so huge you will start squeezing food into your kidneys just to make room to finish it all.
Schwarze Pumpe – a reassuringly small menu packed with hearty and delish food and completely without fuss; also features a charismatic and cheeky waiter/barman who one imagines listens to people’s wife troubles as he polishes the drinks glasses with a rag close to last orders. 
Pizza Pane – ok, pizza places are a dime a dozen, but this one’s worth a dollar at least. You can watch your pizza in the making from conception to birth and they are so crisp, so thin and so delicious they make my heart ache with joy.
Papaya – oh, the wanton soup. Fast, delicious, reasonably priced Thai food that comes in enormous buckets and with adorable carrot flowers because I’m easily pleased like that.
Knofi – some of the things in this Turkish deli-restaurant may cause scenes similar to that one in When Harry Met Sally, except this time she’s not faking it.

There are so many places I want you to try that I shall have to stop there to save myself looking like a hog; us poor gourmands have a hard time keeping our figures in a place like this. And don’t even get me started on the breakfasts…

I’m going shopping guys, see you in a week…

Puke Music: purveyors of fine wines and antique encyclopedias since 1924.

Yesterday I was gripped by sun and joy and the impending weekend glee and suggested that my flatmates and I make fajitas together before going to a film. After somewhat unsuccessfully trying to explain to them  what fajitas actually were I emptied my rucksack of teaching materials, packed it full of smug-yuppie cotton shopping bags and set off to buy the things we’d need plus a few essentials for myself. The shopping list was around ten items long. I was gone for two hours.


Shopping is an activity I have never untertaken gerne; in my view there is very little appeal to trudging around mini empires of tat which I either don’t want or cannot afford, clothes shopping is painful because it involves gazing at one’s pasty, doughy self in front of a fluorescent-lit mirror feeling like mutton dressed as no kind of meat anyone would want to encounter at a barbeque, and I believe I have already expressed my world-melting fury at the state of German supermarkets. If not please do remind me and that can be my next post.

But shopping in Germany is like a puzzle adventure computer game. Every new shop you enter provides you with new questions to answer, places to visit and mysteries to solve before you can eventually find that elusive deodorant or book that you were looking for in the first place. It is genuinely mentally stimulating, as you have to keep your mind fully engaged to be sure that you are on the right track for the things you need otherwise you will make a mistake and end up wasting a good hour in REWE for no reason.
Part of the reason for this is that there is such a variety of German shop genres that simply don’t exist where I come from, and until I understand what they are for and how they can be put to my advantage I fear I will never know the secret to buying that thing you need in under one hour. The place is littered with these:


‘Yuppie-life shops’ – I have no idea what else I could call these shops since they seem to sell nothing but the things you need to be healthy and smug in the modern world. These are shops like Rossmann, Schlecker and DM which stock a baffling selection of things but, bizarelly, always the same selection as if the world is crying out for shops that sell this precise variety of stock in the same floorspace. In any of these shops you will find cosmetics and hygiene products; rubbish bags, sandwich bags and teabags, all together; a small selection of organic food and wine; seeds and bulbs for planting in your charming allotment; anything that is made out of tissue; diet, gluten-free, soya and lactose-free things, and small gifts. I do not know why anyone would need to buy all or any of these things together but there they are and the fact that multiple chains supply this need suggests there is a deep-seated human requirement for the above products in close proximity to each other. Either that or it’s something to do with the fact that you cannot buy any medication, no matter how harmless, without going to a pharmacist; these shops are simply Superdrugs and Boots’s where they had to fill the drugs aisles with something, anything for Christ’s sakes…


Änderungsschneidereien – Tailors which adjust your clothes for you, in other words. These quite literally are everywhere, peppered along every single street, and it is beyond me to imagine that any single one of them earns more than a couple of euros a week. Who gets their clothes adjusted? Outside of 1920’s businessmen who need their suit taken out a little for an interview they have with an insurance firm in a week’s time (and besides, Maude said she wants him to wear that suit for when the Harringdales come by for dinner next week and it won’t do while it’s so tight around the posterior)? Often therefore these undertakings combine with something else to make it all worthwhile and make sense; you get Änderungsschneidereien which are also kebap shops, cobblers (and who uses cobblers anymore too, while we’re at it), florists, sexy shops…again, it’s a mystery.


Crazy Asian Everything Shops – Always run by the same people who run the ‘Asia Snack’ restaurants. These shops do honestly sell everything, in a kind of frantic colourful billowing explosion of sheer stuff – the one around the corner sells wheeled shopping bags, kitchen supplies, stationary, novelty toilet seats, bongs and smoking paraphernalia, children’s party accessories, rugs, snacks and drinks, flashing shop signs, underwear, bamboo house slippers  and jeggings. None of those are made up, nor does that make an exhaustive list of what one can buy in this shop. These places are also everywhere and all sell an equally startling array of bizarre and unrelated items; whenever I enter one I expect all the things in the shop to suddenly levitate and begin spiralling around me while the man at the till spookily exclaims “You’re travelling through tiiiiiiiiiiiimme….”. Nonetheless these shops are actually surprisingly useful because everything is dirt cheap and occasionally you’ll stumble on a real wildcard and find something truly excellent. Like bamboo house slippers.


Trödel-shops – Anyone who has ever been to Berlin knows that this place is obsessed with Trödel, the kind of junk found in flea markets and bins the world over. ‘White Elephant’, I suppose we would call it. The shops are much like the flea markets in that they all have the expected selection of giant old beer mugs and antique coffee grinders but are slightly cheaper because they aren’t so much of a hipster hang-out as the flea-markets and because they accept the fact that they are simply ‘junk shops’ there is absolutely no attention to interior design, which makes them resemble the back room of Bernard’s shop in Black Books. Also, the people who run them are equally junk-y most of the time; the woman who is in charge of my favourite Trödelladen has poufed peroxide hair, wears fuscia pink leggings and platform stilettos that make her look like an extra from Priscilla Queen of the Desert.


Tschibo – Oh, Tschibo. A couple of friends will recognise this post topic from a converstation we shared recently over excellent roasted stuffed peppers. Tschibo is the epitome of strange German shopping. What is it? What does it do? Why is it? No-one knows. It appears to sell coffee, but it also sells clothes and high-quality kitchen utensils. Occasionally they will have a special offer on a cross-trainer or box of Easter chocolates. Sometimes you can buy pre-ground coffee there and sometimes you can only buy it in cups to actually drink. It also sells towels a lot of the time and I believe I am right in suggesting it also offers home decor supplies. Bizarelly it is one of the most fundamental and solidly-established chain stores in the whole of Germany and every single mall has one, and equally bizarelly your local Tschibo will always be astonishingly full of people apparently buying things. I suspect they actually sell none of that which is on the shelves and that it is in fact a covert pornography supplier where you have to share a password with the cashier and in return receive a key telling you where in the store to find the ‘stuff you’re looking for’. That would at least explain why the logo looks like a spermatazoa.


Shopping has become the most harrowing and dizzying experience for me since I moved here, and I believe the time I have spent drifting in a mesmerised confusion from store to store has accumulated to entire weeks in its sum. It is bizarre and expensive and time-wasting and exhausting, I get stressed and amused and bemused and a headache. I’ll say one thing though: it’s never boring.



50th Post!!! The Adventure So Far…

At our Kita, we pride ourselves on keeping your children as safe as possible. Therefore we only use the largest and most ostentatious Alpine cow-bells in our fire alarm system.

Wow, we have reached our fiftieth post on Guten Morgen Berlin and I am so pleased with the way it has gone so far. The number of readers per post is more than ten (by a somewhat considerable amount), which was my secret hope for this project at the beginning, and I have kept it going and not allowed it to pathetically shrivel and die like a LiveJournal. I have now been in this city for seven whole months, give or take a few days here and there for toddler-detox, I have witnessed it struggling through two seasons, one meltdown and a variety of minor panics. I have lived, spoken, shopped and eaten like the natives (excepting the daily Wurst) and deeply enjoyed all the little peculiarities and differences between big burly Berlin and drab twee Britain. 

What are my conclusions thus far? First of all, that you clearly need to live somewhere for a good few years before you can even start to get used to everything to the extent that you feel fully ‘at home’ there. God knows it is so much fun to discover all the idiosyncrasies from day to day; I mean, look at the photo above. This Kindergarten genuinely has a cow-bell as its alarm system. There are great sweeping realms of things here that I think you have to be a German from birth to understand: sweetcorn flavoured joghurt, currywurst pretzel-pizzas, Berliner Weisse (a pale beer which you drink with either a radioactive green or acid pink syrup mixed into it and which I first saw being drunk by a troupe of nuns), or the inexplicable way that the most revered and famous institution in the whole city is the Blue Man Group. However, for every time I find myself standing open-mouthed in Aldi wondering at who would want to buy an electric stomach-toner as part of their weekly shop, there are moments where I realise quite how much of this culture I have already taken on and become a part of as much as they have become a part of me; the crazy rainbow-spectrum of fruit and herb teas, the pyromaniacal need to have candles everywhere all the time, the innate knowledge of exactly which supermarket I will need to go to for every specific thing I need to buy, a profound love of Kartoffelknödel…As strange and new as everything still seems every single day, I somehow feel like a member of the club now rather than the bespectacled and square inspector wandering around with a clipboard. 

I have to leave in just over three months, and that thought is indeed tragic but twinged with a very definite excitement at the things I will finally be able to rediscover after life outside the UK:
– ‘good’ television. Yes, this term does require air quotes because a colossal tranche of British (and by extension American) TV is so bad that you would better spend your time using tweezers to braid the hairs on your wrists into organic cufflinks. But good grief, the television here is terrible. The sheer number of cookery shows is amazingly huge and yet they all only seem to ever teach how to make Auflauf, a version of lasagne/casserole where you essentially just layer things up in a dish until it most effectively resembles the primordial ooze and then smother it with cream and cheese. An array of chefs with startling mustaches or unlikely-seeming blonde bobs shoot their piercing glares at the screen whilst demanding that you ladle more butter over your roast duck and throwing great fistfuls of salt into whatever it is they are boiling the heck out of. On other channels, we have the treat that is non-stop back-to-back dubbed episodes of Two and a Half Men, a sitcom so lame it makes a three-legged donkey look athletic, we have MTV-style dating and reality shows which feature people who look like they are entirely made out of polyester and who talk in ‘real’ conversation which is so patently scripted that they even know when to turn to the right camera, and occasionally something ‘hilarious’ featuring Stefan Raab. (To be fair to the Raab, this is a rare moment of greatness.)
Marmite. Oh, Marmite. You deep brown glossy goddess of toast. How I long to savour your salty deliciousness on my bread and adorning my Ryvita. I yearn to crown you with cheddar, stir you into my chile con carne or tentatively drizzle you into simmering minestrone. I resent that you cost about 7 euros a pot here, and no amount of heinously nasty Brotaufstrich (odd and oily purees designed to go on your daily Brötchen) will replace you.
– The colour green. I am pretty sure this exists, as I seem to vaguely recall it in the dark abyss of my memory, but there is no evidence of it as yet here in Berlin. Ever since The Great Freeze this winter everything has been a uniform shade of graun (grey-brown) and this makes even the cool and edgy graffiti look less like anarchistic celebrations of artistic freedom and more like a million dingy charity-shop window displays of dead people’s clothing. This weekend my dearest mother was visiting, and I took her to the Botanical Gartens since the weather was for once pleasant enough to allow scarf-free outfits; the gardens could not have looked more dead, the turf brittle and grimy and the trees contorted and cracking from what they had suffered through. Perhaps spring will come soon and I shall see living plant life again before I leave. I shall keep on sacrificing small animals at the altar in our Hinterhof and see if this helps.

But of course this is all small fry and the things I am looking forward to seeing again are nothing compared to that which I will miss. The things that you first of all learn to live with and then learn never to live without, and the things that never stop giving you pleasure and hope regardless of how tired or homesick you are.

– The frothing swathes of flowers spilling onto the pavement from the hundreds of florists all over this city.
– The astounding generosity of the German people; all us women got given free roses at the supermarket the other day for Frauentag, I somehow keep being given gifts by my wonderful German friends here of all ages and whenever I visit people I am fed like a queen, given more wine than I can consume without doing something embarrassing and welcomed with giant grins to boot. Even when I am not expected and turn up by accident the day after someone’s birthday party, for example…
– the public transport system. Germans will deride this immediately as their public transport system comes beside the term ‘Schweinerei’ in the dictionary, but for me it is amazing to use a system which is so frequent, so seldom unreliable and so cheap; Germans, picture this: at home I have a single bus which takes me to my nearest town once every hour or sometimes half hour, and it costs me almost £5 for a return journey on said disappointment. Not to mention the fact that each of the stations has somewhere to sit and somewhere where you can get coffee or a Ritter Sport.
– come to mention it, I will miss Ritter Sport. You just don’t get the same array of flavours in the UK and I do almost feel that the German taste in chocolate flavours shows a slightly more mature palate than that of the British; the Germans have almond Mars bars, espresso flavoured Ritter Sport, affordable and luscious real dark chocolate (i.e. with real cocoa solids in a decent proportion, unlike Bourneville) and the yumfest that is the entire Lindt range. The British have Boost bars, Dairy Milk – a chocolate so cloying and fatty that it cements itself to the roof of your mouth in a tar-like smear – and Galaxy, which I read somewhere is not allowed to call itself chocolate anymore because it has so little to do with chocolate in its actual recipe. Mmmm, Niederegger marzipan…
– The general honestness and easiness of the people here. In the UK one is choked by the neuroses it is your duty to suffer every time you are asked to an event you don’t want to attend or feel obliged to swallow down a vile dish someone has cooked for you or requested to do a favour you would rather sandpaper your eyelids that fulfil. In Britain I bend over backwards to keep people happy and keep life smooth; I cheerfully smiled when people drunkenly leapt through the library fire escape by my room door and thus made the whole building be evacuated, I apologised when people stamped my toes into pulp and I always, always, always ate what was on my plate even when in a restaurant so as not to cause any kind of awkward pall over the evening. Here you don’t do what you don’t want to do and you simply avoid social agonies by being honest and open, you admit what does not appeal to you and suggest a solution or an alternative and generally it works very well. You can tell people what you really think and you can have a debate in which you are clear about your own standpoint on the issue without people thinking you are flagellating all their beliefs and ethics by doing so. I haven’t experienced peer pressure once and I have cried and told my problems to a total stranger at the bus stop. I feel, in a way, that I have grown.

The question is, what will happen to the pseudo-Deutsche when she returns to her native habitat? Stay tuned… 

The art of sensing danger. Through fonts.

Of course we’re authentically Asian! We have lanterns!

It seems far easier to begin and then to maintain any kind of a business here in Berlin, which I assume is mostly down to the whole rule of it being ‘arm aber sexy’ (arm means poor, not an actual arm). If you are just a simple guy with an idea, fifty euros and a pocketful of dreams you will probably be able to fulfil your ambition of owning a vaguely profitable kebab shop, bakery, dodgy Spätkauf, all-polyester clothing shop etc and keeping it on its vaguely wobbly legs for a good year or two before it joins the ranks of the permanently dark and dusty voids that pepper the streets of Berlin like rotten teeth in a pirate’s mouth. 

This is brilliant and one of the things I adore about Berlin, because in the UK you now have to be Sir Alan Sugar or a man of his means and arsehole qualities in order to be able to start any kind of independent operation that is not going to go belly-up within months. This has resulted in the renowned problem that the only people who can afford to pay rent for a shopfront or are able to maintain a business are those who already have huge corporate money machines and therefore every city in the UK is now identical to every other city, boasting exactly the same shops simply in a slightly different sequence. Every company has the same Helvetica font and three-circles-inside-eachother logo because most of the successful corporate graphic designers are just as monotonous as the companies and the shopfronts and the fonts themselves. In comparison, Berlin looks like a complete mess, and it is fantastic. 

Nonetheless, it does slightly worry me that these bright-eyed ambitious entrepreneurs who found and run all these establishments or franchises at no point seem to take the moment to think: “Hey now, hold on a sec, why doesn’t my shop look as cool and shiny and non-food-poisoning-y as H&M’s or Rossmann’s or MediMax? I spent a good half-hour with WordArt to make my shop sign, that’s got to count for something…” Walking around Berlin I am aghast at the parade of atrocious shop design. The sheer number of ‘Asia Woks’ and ‘Asia Boxes’ and ‘Asia Snacks’ and ‘Curry Asia’ and ‘Asia Chunk’ and ‘I can’t believe it’s not Asia’ is a good example. Why should this concept of a generic Asia which when you look at the menu seems to encompass exclusively China and Vietnam be a crowd-puller, why as an Asian person would you choose to make your shop so reductive of the richness of your own cultural background and why oh why oh why would you choose such racist and abysmally ugly fonts as the frontispiece to a business that you would like to be taken seriously? Why don’t these guys ever realise that no successful business has ever won customers by pummelling the theme of their enterprise directly into the retinas of the populace; you would certainly never get a chain of successful New Orleans soul-food restaurants with a horrendous stereotype honky-tonk black person’s face as the logo (although Old Orleans was always teasingly close to being offensive on that score) and KFC is never going to change its name to ‘Redneck Chow’.

Ultimately the issue here is that the customer (well, me) looks at these things and sees the font and the logo and thinks ‘oo-err, I’m not going to risk that’. There is an array of visual cues I use to direct me in what to avoid on a daily basis: never buy from a website or shop, for example, that ever uses Comic Sans (“Ooh look Hans, this font is fun because it looks a bit like something from the cartoons we used to never read – let’s use it because it says we are wacky and fun.”), and never from anywhere that uses clipart as part of their iconography. I will always be put off by WordArt and drop shadows, and when I saw that James Cameron had decided to use Papyrus as his typeface of choice for the Avatar subtitles I almost choked on my own epiglottis with the sheer extremity of my incredulous rage. Come on, James Cameron, you can spend billions of dollars on a hackneyed jungle-book-meet-the-blue-man-group epic but you are too tight to splash a couple of bucks on a slightly less MSWord-default font? Oh wait, sorry, Papyrus looks ‘ethnic’, I forgot.

So I beg you, entrepreneurs of Berlin, please explain this to me: why don’t you see how bad your projects look to the person potentially giving you their money? Why do you think it is enough to draw a logo in felt tip pen, take a photo of the drawing and print the photo on your letterhead for evermore? Do you think it looks just as sexy and professional as SmithKlineBeecham to use an eye-watering rainbow gradient as the background to your website? And don’t you ever ask yourself why you have never been to a successful chain which had any or one of these same qualities?

The exception to the rule: a mountainside cafe which we frequented often in Obertauern was always thronging with customers and utterly lovely to be in as it was full of gorgeous old wood and antique snowshoes and such like; this all in despite of the fact that their chosen logo was, inexplicably, a sunglass-wearing cool-dude hare snowboarding WHILST having arrogant sex with a slutty female hare on the same snowboard at presumably break-neck speed (you can tell from the way their ears are fluttering).

               
Really?

 The poor staff had to wear uniforms emblazoned with this terrible image.

But while we are on the subject of eateries, allow me to offer a few more suggestions that you might also like to take on board if you ever feel like opening an establishment and want me to spend my hard-earned cash there. For starters, bullet points belong on Powerpoint presentations and not the menu. As a colleague of mine pointed out, plastic chairs are a one-way ticket to me walking in and then directly back out of your door. If you think that having dark and far-too-yellow photographs of your meals on the menu is going to make my mouth water, think again; you don’t even seem to have made an effort to stop each and every dish looking like a mountain of puke. Let me at least imagine a beautiful plate of delicious ingredients tossed expertly together before I am presented with my vomcano. And hey, I know grains of rice in the salt shaker keep the salt from clumping but don’t you think they do look a little bit (read: a lot) like dead maggots floating around among the salt crystals? 

Perhaps I am the only person in the world who thinks these things; perhaps the fact that I allow these visual signs to govern my spending behaviour is a simple sign of the my utter Woody Allen-level neuroticism in that I can’t see any of these various clues without thinking ‘these people are going to steal my money or give me salmonella’. But I wouldn’t want to trust my digestive health to the same people who don’t understand the fundamental drop-dead ugliness of WordArt. These people, in my opinion, should not even be allowed near knives and other dangerous kitchen equipment.