This little piggy went to market

I know what you’re thinking: damn, that’s a cool umbrella.

What do Berliners hate the most? Tourists. What do tourists hate the most? Tourists also. Tourists come to Berlin for one of two reasons: either to see the splendour of German modernity directly parallel to the horror of remnants of a tortured past, or to be, like, totally alternative and underground and do non-touristy awesome gritty Berlin stuff. To be fair, the latter is what most Berliners are trying to do anyway. And all of this is relatively moot, because the few real born-and-bred* Berliners are just middle-aged guys trying to enjoy a coffee and a Brötchen while doing their best to ignore the idiot hipsters sashaying down the street in trucker caps.

Anyone looking for a less obvious and ‘ooh-take-a-picture’-y activity in Berlin would be hard pressed to find anything better than one of the excellent markets sprawled all over the streets of this patchwork city. When the Christmas markets aren’t filling the air with the intoxicating, thick aroma of Glühwein, there are all kinds of other terrific specimens up for grabs, tiny to enormous, cruddy to overtly pretentious, and everything in between. And as they are often the only thing happening on the otherwise DEAD waste of 24 hours which the Germans call ‘Sonntag’, I’ve been to a lot of them lately.

First the big guns: Mauerpark. The Mauerpark flea market (photo above courtesy of one fine vendor) is probably the most colossal market in the entire city. If you were to stop and look at every single stand you could easily spent a good seven hours there and you’d probably end up accidentally buying a jar of flavoured honey, an old pocket-watch and a Turkish pancake just out of sheer overwhelmed confusion. It’s also host to the famous weekly Bearpit karaoke which I mentioned decades ago in this excellently written sample of bloggery

*N.B. if you are the person who I recently found spelling it ‘born and bread’, shame on you. What do you think ‘born and bread’ even means? Blood is not thicker than pita.



As with all flea markets in Berlin, you really have to either go with a sharp eye ready or not bother going at all (if you plan on buying anything, that is). There is such a sea of detritus awaiting you that anyone of a weak constitution will not know what to do with themselves. Full cardboard boxes brimming with broken mugs and sculptures of Jesus and the lid of a bread-maker (which, presumably, will one day be bought by someone). On first glance it looks like a hopeless cause, but there is actually a lot to be extracted from the offerings. There is a man who sells his own home-grown salad leaves, and if you give him a euro and ask him to ‘freestyle’ he will just pick out a big mixture for you based on what he thinks you’ll enjoy. There are Vietnamese people selling incredibly cheap and cool sewing stuff, and guys with giant biceps hand-pressing fresh orange juice at unbelievable speed. A sweet old lady there sells herbs that she grows herself from seed, and when I bought a tiny little oregano seedling from her she wrapped it prettily in newspaper and said, “People think I’m fifty – I’m actually SEVENTY-EIGHT! Gardening keeps you young!! It’s the key to good life!!!” She’s right.

But the Mauerpark flea market is as notorious as it is enormous, and people throng there in such masses that it’s probably the first topic that’s ever required me to use the verb ‘throng’. And yes, for that reason you get the tourists and the expats (cough cough) fighting over vintage bags and saying things like, ‘Oh may Gahd, they’ve got hemp candles scented with basil’ (pronounced ‘bay-zil’, because American English is wrong). This week I wanted to go somewhere a little more…little, and I had the Crellestraße Turkish market in mind since I now have to work whenever the Maybachufer market is on (that’s another post).

 The Maybachufer market is a Turkish market whose size rivals the Mauerpark and is as mental as it is huge. It’s incredible, it’s loud, but most importantly it has some of the most gorgeous and cheap fabrics you can buy in this city; as the proud new owner of a kick-ass military-grade sewing machine, I was looking for some fodder to test out this bad boy properly. Squid skirts don’t count. And when the Turkish vendors aren’t at the Maybachufer, they are dispersed around Berlin at mini-markets like this one.

The Crellestraße market (near Yorckstraße S-Bhf) is an awesome last resort for anyone who’s missed the big Turkish market or just wants to go to a market that is small, a bit more normal and doesn’t contain even one pesky tourist. The fruit and veg on offer is astounding: not just beautiful flat peaches and mangos and chilis but more off-kielter stuff like these Asian aubergines, globe courgettes and baby okra, which I have never even seen before. 

Because it’s a smaller and more intimate market you also get more of an opportunity to chat with the sellers and have a bit more fun. The sweet aubergines and baby okra were being sold by a guy whose stall stood out because it seemed so hilariously mediocre. Compared to the other grocers at the market, whose stalls were practically collapsing with mountains of produce, he had a few lame little cardboard boxes scattered about, each barely half-full with dull-looking little nothings. I love an underdog, so I had to see what this was all about, and I realised that although he wasn’t selling much, the dull-looking nothings were in fact small amounts of really exciting and exotic stuff that you really won’t find anywhere else even in this crazy city. East-Asian varieties of uncommon herbs, weird new varieties of chilis, the aforementioned tiny-weeny okra… I didn’t even know what I would do with any of it but I did need ginger, and when I grabbed a bulb he simply decided through personal joie-de-vivre that it would cost me fifty cents. I complimented him on his insane array of produce and he said, “I’m Egyptian! It’s all from Egypt! That’s why it’s all so great!” I believed him. 

I love the big markets, but for good banter you can’t beat the smaller ones. So when I took the above photo for you lovely readers, the seller waved his arms and shouted, “Hey, hey, HEY! Those are copyrighted!”, before giving me a toothy grin. 

And yes, I did find some fabric. It’s got yellow flowers and intricate Japanese vases printed on it, and it was two bucks a metre.

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.

The Urge

Beware the communists!!!


Today was a day that began unpromisingly. I woke at an unpleasant hour thanks to the daily roaring grinding noise that happens outside my window at just before 7am. In the night I had origamied my duvet into an incredible writhing plait that had allowed me to get thoroughly cold outside of the one insulated stripe diagonally across me – you see, German duvets are always half as wide as the bed that accommodates them, so they have a tendency to drift around on the mattress like seaweed on the surf. Thanks to another curious German quirk – their demand for enormous square pillows the size of a dinner table containing very little stuffing – I also awoke with a tremendous crick in my neck and found that the pillow had half-slimed up the wall like a slug trying to escape a flowerpot. 

My entrance into the kitchen to make a pot of tea aroused a cloud of fruit flies who whirred around the kitchen in a black mist. I went to the supermarket and was accosted by a wild-haired man who barked at me, “Excuse me! You! Can you tell me which damn cat food is the cheapest?!?” And I accidentally spilled my compost waste next to the bio-trash bin in the courtyard, sending a thousand furry mushrooms (geez Netto, thanks for selling me these mushrooms with EXTRA fungi!) rolling around like rotten eyeballs.

So, I sat and glumly looked at my computer for a while. Long enough to get The Urge. The Urge is something which hits every week or so, on a day when I haven’t achieved much and have spent more time than appropriate in pajamas. It is the thing which makes me suddenly, and without warning, think: “Hang on! This simply won’t do! It’s been far too long since I discovered a thing! It is time for a QUEST!” When The Urge strikes, it only seconds later that I am donning my coat and most kick-ass boots and slamming the door behind me.

My enormous calf muscles powered me on my way with a determined sense of purpose observers must only, I assume, describe as ‘inspirational’. I marched to Ostkreuz with only the occasional accidental detour and slipped directly onto the right train just as it reached the platform, with a silent and delicious expression of ‘booyah’. And with that, I began my quest to Grunewald to check out Berlin’s epic Teufelsberg.

The Teufelsberg is a surreal and slightly horrifying attraction. It is, in English, the ‘Devil’s Mountain’, so called because it is a rather large mountain formed from nothing but the rubble collected from the wreckage of a bombed and broken Berlin. Peacefully lying at its base is the ‘Teufelssee’ or ‘Devil’s Lake’, which is actually just a lake, although I like to think that it is equally doom-laden and actually filled with something tragic like children’s tears. If that wasn’t all strange enough, the Teufelsberg then had a huge observation tower built upon it during the time of the wall for people to conduct espionage and other devious things within sinister-looking white orb-structures, which have now been abandoned and covered with incredibly atmospheric graffiti. If you want to know more about it, I suggest you watch Matt Frei’s documentary series Berlin, which is amazing and eye-opening and shows you Berlin from the dinner jacket right inside to the entrails. An abandoned observatory tower on top of a mountain of tragic rubble? I had to case the joint.

First, of course, there came the challenge of actually getting there. Given that there was no signage (signs? Telling you were to go? Helpful and useful public information? Such a thing does not exist, child) I was nonetheless confident that an enormous mountain with two large white orbs on the top would be pretty impossible to miss. What I hadn’t reckoned with is the kilometres of thick, plush, green German woodland that surrounds it. Within seconds of striding I found myself in the middle of a vast and endless expanse of trees, and so I decided that the next best solution would be to at least always follow the path that went uphill, given that I was looking for a darned mountain. This also was not a foolproof tactic – although it led me past a gorgeous old-fashioned ‘gypsy’-style caravan nestled between the trees – and I finally arrived at the top of a very tall and very impressive…other mountain. I was surrounded by the epic views of Berlin’s landscape and, also, by loads of hobby model aeroplane flyers, who were whizzing little planes around me like noisy dragonflies. I noticed another mountain to my right with two orb-topped towers on top and uttered a quiet expletive under my breath. The only way from this mountain to that mountain was a crazily-steep smooth, dusty slope downwards, whose curves practically spelt out ‘broken leg’ in fancy handwriting. Luckily, on my climb/slide down I was distracted by two enormous and beautiful blue-metallic beetles pushing hunks of earth around and completely forgot my imminent danger, and I made it to the bottom. 

I employed my earlier tactic again and followed all the paths that led uphill until I reached a strange, angular, concrete structure with a large crucifix on top. “A memorial?” I wondered. “A sculpture? A grave?” I then noticed some people on the structure and a guy delivering a lecture on karabiners and realised that this was, in fact, a large and apparently religious climbing wall, right on the slope of the Teufelsberg. I hope my profound bafflement didn’t cause any of the climbers to lose concentration and fall.

Scaling the Teufelsberg is a strange sensation, because the path is littered with bricks. And cube-shaped rocks. And tile-shaped rocks. And rocks with strange textures. It is impossible to forget that this is little more than a heap of old, bombed buildings, which now have trees growing on them and squirrels fossicking in them. One might be walking on a blasted fragment of the original Reichstag, or simply a bit of brick from a woman’s home, where she lived with her husband and her baby. Maybe the brick belonged to a Nazi’s house, or simply one of the thousand dumbstruck bystanders. And all these rubbles were heaped up by women who, after the war, just had to sweep up their broken city into a nice neat pile, like onion skins on the kitchen floor. 

I knew I was near the top when I reached a double-layer of wire fencing topped with a barbed-wire ridge. It’s not surprising that they would close off the observation towers; they would be a hella sexy place to jump off, if you wanted to commit suicide in a trendy way, and they have been vandalised enough already that it’s worth looking after them just to preserve the rest of what remains keeping them eerie and weird. The fact that they are completely shut off to anyone except paying tour-guests did seem to have disappointed a number of adventurers like myself, however, as I encountered several young and active-looking men on my wander around who all asked me the same question: “Do you know how we can get in there?” (And then the more confused question, presumably because I look like a twelve-year-old: “Are you here all by yourself?”) The most ‘old-spice-attractive’ bunch then had the pleasure of speeding off on their hardcore mountain bikes, probably heading home to shave with a really good razor and drink ice-cold beers in their modern-minimalist apartments. I then had to walk back.

Of course I got lost. Of course! Don’t you know me at all!

But in getting lost it appears that I spent half an hour walking in a perfect circle and then ended up at the amazingly incongruous Teufelsberg Eco-centre, an open garden and ecological information centre boasting attractions like a bee-viewer and a bare-foot garden. Considering that this must be fate, I wandered around; the bee-viewer is in fact amazing, as it is simply a bee-hive with a door that opens on a window into the centre of the hive itself, so you can see thousands of glossy bees wandering over pregnant hexagons of glowing honey. There was a clay oven, and a wonderful vegetable garden, and – thank holy Christ – a WC, which is a joyous thing after two hours of accidental hiking. The hornet-viewer appeared to have been abandoned by the hornets, which was a somewhat unsurprising shame, and in the visitor’s centre they were preparing for a talk, in the universal ritual of arguing over how to make powerpoint work on the projector while one of them pours apple juice into a plastic jug for the refreshments. I realised I had squeezed everything I could out of this quest, and headed home. 

Well, actually I got lost again and ended up walking for 45 minutes to find ANY train station to take me home first. But it was worth it for the adventure. And good exercise for my gigantic, quivering calves.

Conclusive proof that children love unpaid manual labour

The beautiful spiral herb mound

I have finally mustered the energy to write today’s post after spending most of the day thus far convalescing in bed, tentatively sipping Ribena in a smog of profound self-pity. How did I end up in this pathetic state? Well, it all began many years (hours) ago…

There is a community gardening project called OxGrow down Abingdon Road in Oxford. It is a plot which used to be a bunch of sports grounds and tennis courts for one of the snootiest colleges here, but they have kindly donated it the grounds to the local community to be gradually cultivated and tended until Hogacre Common becomes a lush and teeming eco-paradise. I have been going on Sundays since the start of term and it only took me three minutes among the gorgeous and heaving veg beds to fall in love, and since then they’ve erected a ‘bee platform’ (believe it or not, bees prefer to live on a platform. It makes them feel above the common bees) and expanded the vegetable garden to an incredible degree. We’re growing dozens of exciting varieties of heirloom potatoes and garlic, the onions at the moment look like gleaming juicy gemstones laying on the compost and the strawberry plants are so aggressively lush that the green berries underneath the leaves are nothing but an endless taunt withholding what they are going to become. The work parties are every Sunday whether or not it is glorious sunny weather or the ground is smothered beneath a thick fleece of snow. There is always tea, there is often rain and there is always, without fail, plenty of digging. I love it. Digging is man’s most soothing and wholesome pastime; it makes you feel like a hearty medieval peasant and has the cathartic effect of letting you take out all your anger and stress in every enormous kick you give that big soil-clad spade. At the end of the day, everyone is free to take whatever produce is ready to be picked and you’re usually so cream-crackered the next bit is almost as good as the work party itself: resting back at home with an enormous cup of hot tea and gently hardening mud on your knees.

This Sunday, to celebrate their own volunteering achievements, a student/pupil tutoring scheme called Jacari brought a bunch of their enthusiastic members and tutees to the garden; nothing says ‘celebrate’ like being made to dig clods of soil when you’re 12…Everything was so calm and tranquil for the first hour or so, while we did various odd-jobs around the beds, until suddenly an army of children swarmed in and started gettin’ all up in our pitchforks.

Honestly, it was the most terrific fun. Since my ‘job’ (read: toil) in Berlin I have missed mucking about with kids something awful and unfettered access to spades and worms had put them into an excellent mood. Give kids complete free reign in the outdoors with gardening tools and they become the kind of brilliant beasts you always hope your kids will turn out to be; they squeal with breathless astonishment every single time they find anything vaguely insect-y, ask endless questions and do hilarious things like ‘accidentally’ shovelling soil into the back of your jeans as you’re crouching in the neighbouring bed thinning crops…yes…

The best thing of all, though, was when I was allowed to take my own group of kids off for an explore around the grounds. It was then that I, for the first time, realised how cool and exciting my mum was when I was growing up. She used to take us through the woods for hours, and being the head of a family of nerds she initiated us into the world of insects, birds and fungus (the latter of which my grandmother also tried to do but almost got herself banned from ever seeing us again after she almost managed to persuade us to eat the mushrooms we had found on our ramble). My dad, a vet, helped by bringing home little pots of mealworms or crickets for us to poke at, or even brought the occasional grass-snake or even kestrel that was currently being given medical care. We grew up surrounded by wildlife. And it seems it all stuck, for I found myself teaching these children thousands of little facts and neat things about nature that I had just assumed all kids innately know as part of being twelve years old, but the kids – and quite a lot of the adults – were soaking it all up in shiny-eyed fascination. It was incredible. Several of them had never encountered the buttercup test. One of the student volunteers asked the kids if they knew what a ‘hog’ (as in Hogacre) was. They chanted ‘noooo’. The volunteer hesitated and then muttered that she didn’t actually know either. (I delicately let them know it was another word for a Big Fat Pig.) This is not the kind of thing kids need – they want thousands of small and useless and amazing facts and they want them ALL THE TIME. To be the provider of said facts is simply endless fun.

 These kids didn’t know what stickyweed was, which in my view is a tragedy and a kind of infant poverty, so I diligently explained why it was called stickyweed, how it came to be so sticky and then explained to them the rules of that honoured game where you have to try and stick as much of the stuff on your brother’s back as you can without him noticing. We were lucky enough to find some froghoppers so I could explain how they make their little frothy dens out of their own ‘spit’. We talked about what compost was, how you can tell a dead nettle from a real nettle, and oooooohed at a skeletal leaf that had been completely ravished by the satisfied snail resting on its tip. It’s times like this that I wonder at all the families you see in supermarkets, telling their kids to ‘I don’t know just shut up Damian’ when they keep incessantly asking questions. Having the privilege and the trust to answer a child’s questions is one of the most fun and exhilarating feelings and even if you don’t know the answer you are at least in the position to make that connection with the child: you can tell them an interesting story of what the answer might be (“Oooh, maybe bananas are bent so monkeys can use them as boomerangs, what do you think?”) or at least encourage them for having had the gumption to ask in the first place (“Do you know, I have no idea! It’s cool that you noticed…!”) Suffice it to say, if I have kids – and it’s a big if, since I have looked into the heart of darkness on that score – I will ensure that they know all about inkcaps and puffballs and stickyweed as soon as they can stand. 


After being gone from the garden for a length of time close to ‘abduction’ on a legal scale, I had to bring the kids back and they all marched off to their treasure hunts and gnashed on crisps. And they went home, hopefully to a future filled with afternoons spent covering their peers in adhesive strings of flora and getting shouted at for being a mess. We all got to take a fresh new onion home, alongside a glorious array of broccoli, asparagus, leeks, chard, and all kinds of delicious just harvested produce.


It all came home with me and went into a delicious vegetable ginger-honey-miso stirfry with a huge field mushroom that had come from the market a while before. It was delicious. And then, hours later, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, it kept me awake all night and made me more violently ill than I have ever been in my memorable past. But it was worth it. Pass the ribena.

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 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.

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’. 

Springtime for *cough* and Germany…

There are queues outside every ice cream parlour in the city and people are showing off their knees with gay abandon. It must be officially spring in Berlin. By the looks of what’s suddenly filling all the clothes shops we are in for a long period of yet more bloody maxidresses, dungarees and – *gulp* – neon hotpants. Everyone is in a cheery and celebratory mood and therefore the time has come for every German to participate in what is both a homage to the true backbone of German culture (Wurst) and probably one of the main things English and German people love as manically as each other. I am speaking, of course, of Grillen, the noble BBQ. When it comes to Grillen the Germans go just as mad as the British, wheeling out their apparatus the minute a fleck of sunshine appears through the clouds and barbecuing everything from the traditional sausage to pesto-flavoured tofu. You shoot the Scheiβe, drink a brew or twelve and stay out with your barbeque until it gets dark or you get thrown out of whichever place you’ve chosen to grill in. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This all sounds well and good, but this is Berlin! Couldn’t it – hell, shouldn’t it – be a bit edgier?” Why yes, yes it can. And therefore I ended up going to my first German Grill of the season illegally on the rooftop of one of the edgier buildings in one of the edgiest districts, Neukölln.


I knew from the minute I stepped out of the S-Bahn station that it was going to be a good evening when I saw a beautiful Berlin moment happen right before my eyes like a small present from fate. A tweenie girl licked her giant ice-cream too hard and both scoops thudded onto the pavement. She groaned and walked off licking the creamy residue off her sad-looking empty cone. Milliseconds later a homeless man came along, kicked the ice-cream boulder like a football and then sauntered off roaring with laughter. It was so sudden and hilarious I couldn’t have been in a better mood by the time I reached this incredible place.

The block of flats my friend lives in has an amazing loft space under the roof. It is a truly cinematic space, full of echoey eaves and dusty rafters. Inset into the roof are little porthole-style windows and one oval window with light mint-green glass, and in the main loft space there is nothing on the floor save one abandoned roll-top desk. We all climbed the rickety ladder to emerge onto a wonderful flat rooftop deck which looked out over the whole city. It was exactly as brilliant as it sounds. From the rooftop you could eat your kebab and regard the city as if it were your kingdom; the view from a roof is somehow so much better than from the Reichstag or the Fernsehturm because everything is still so near, you can thoughtfully regard the lights of Alexanderplatz in the distance or just annoy an old woman by watching her and waving as she does the dishes by her kitchen window. As if it weren’t mushy enough, when night fell there were fireworks in the distance as if daring us all to hold hands and start singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or something. 

And thus ended my first week of May, the first week of the last two months of my time here. Only seven more weeks left of my contract to go before I am no longer forced by contract law to go into schools and pretend to have fun with small children. The end couldn’t come sooner, for while I am in love with this city and having what will probably be one of the best years of my life here the work hasn’t got any more pleasant or less gruelling; my voice sounds like the secretary slug-creature from Monsters, Inc (you didn’t file your paperwork, Wazowski…) and thanks to walking around the entire city every single day my feet have come to the conclusion that there is no pair of shoes comfortable enough that they won’t slowly but agonisingly remove all the skin from your heels and toes if worn too much. I spend my days nowadays playing ‘the family game’, a game I invented which the kids love so much they quite literally squeal with anticipation the minute I wink and suggest that they all line up by the wall. Each of the kids is made into a member of the family and I play the role of the gross old grandpa who wants to give his family members a big embarrassing hug. I call over various members of the family and they have to try to run from one side of the room to the other while avoiding my grabby grandpa hands. For some reason this pushes kids’ buttons in a way no other game ever has, and they get ever so creative and hilarious when they play it: some of them will point to the ceiling and go “Look! A pig/bird/policeman!!” to make me look away in confusion while they run past, some of them run round and round in circles for about fifteen minutes until I have to remind them that at some point they will need to get to the other wall otherwise we’ll be at it forever, and some kids are oddly resigned and simply walk slowly and with melancholy sacrifice into my open arms. It’s an exhausting game, but it gets me through the days and it seems to make the kids’ days when I inevitably fall over. You gotta give the people want they want.

Pinch, punch…

You should see the size of the Jenga…

It was the first of May yesterday, and in Berlin that can mean only one thing: time to take to the streets. May the first is traditionally a ‘worker’s day’, a day when employees in Germany have the day off; in olden days they used to do the appropriate thing and stick poles in the ground, ponce around with ribbon and give flowers to pretty young maidens, but since then the grand old customs have slightly changed to mean that people in worker’s unions protest in droves, swarming around cities claiming various worker’s rights and condemning wrongs against the working man. I am told that this is particularly popular in Berlin, to the extent that people from all over Germany pilgrimage here to demonstrate with the hordes. It gets incredibly heated and sometimes violent; I have also heard that for this reason policemen also pilgrimage from all over Germany to have the fun of keeping all the rabble in line. While my flatmates were reluctant to go near our local Kiez in order to avoid getting into any scrapes, I had been obliviously roaming around the city for the entire morning completely unaware that at any moment I could be swept into a giant procession of furious demonstrators; it is incredible the amount you can miss in this place if you are not officially down wit da hood.


However, later that evening I finally encountered the Great Uprising I had been promised. In Neukölln, marauding down Karl-Marx-Allee, were thousands of people, all shouting so that their combined noise became just a hoarse roar. I walked past a row of police vans and an ambulance crew tending an unconscious figure lying in the street, whilst trying to dodge the huge shards of glass strewn all over the pavements and gawping at the spectacle of the mob in front of me. There were so many people and they were marching in such a steady and driving stream that for a while I assumed they were all riding on floats, it looked like a fast-streaming river of bodies. They eventually moved on in their column and left behind a kind of exploded-flea-market assortment of broken stuff and torn clothing in the street, while a few of them stopped off in the Thai Imbiss my friend and I were in, presumably to fuel the enraged fire of their protest with a mild green curry. 

What were they protesting for? Don’t think I didn’t ask. No-one, in fact, knows what they were protesting for; the best answer anyone could give was ‘worker’s rights’. It seems that on the first of May you protest, no matter what for. The day is simply there to show that you want things to get better in general, an all-purpose battle against The Man and Capitalist Pigs and all that oppressive jazz. These demonstrators are simply here because they’re here because they’re here because they’re here. Because they’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Good for them, I say; just look how much progress the protest have made so far in the name of improving the state of employment in Germany. Err…

Anyway, there was another reason why I was so shocked to hear about this apparently infamous May Day tradition after my morning of wafting around Berlin’s windy streets, besides having not even detected the faintest hint of civil unrest in the atmosphere in the hours I was outside. This second reason was the adorable and cheery church-fête-like Fest that was being held in a park just outside the Ring Center and which could not have been less evocative of anger or protest if it had tried. The closest I got to seeing any violence was the karate demonstration they had on the main stage in between the Dixieland version of ‘Crazy Right Now’ and the sweet young girls’ talent display. There were people selling Quark balls and old men playing giant chess. At little trestle tables one could be taught how to do origami, paint plaster of Paris or decorate biscuits with icing. The lower end of Möllendorfstraβe was closed off so that a school basketball tournament could take place. The only thing strewn around the walkways was a plethora of bouncy castles. How could most of the city be rioting when Frankfurter Allee was hosting such a sweet little afternoon of innocent fun and jollity? 

Apparently there were little May Day parties happening all over the place, and Kreuzberg even started their own massive May Day almost-carnival tradition in 2003 to try to cheer up all the workers of the coolest district enough to give up their plans of violence and rage and simply be happy with balloons and a big slice of cake. It’d work for me. But if the Kreuzberg festival was started to negate the demonstrations, I would love to know which thing came first: the fun or the frenzy? In England when we have a bank holiday we stoically have picnics in the drizzle or go for a pub lunch somewhere suitably rustic; in Germany apparently you do the two most opposite things you can think of within mere metres of one another. God, this place is mad. I love it. 

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.