How to furnish your flat for the price of a cup of tea (ok, maybe two cups. And a croissant)

Is there a human being alive on the plant who doesn’t have an Ikea LACK coffee table?

My colleagues and friends have been joking a lot recently that all I seem to be doing these days is dragging about heavy furniture. They find this hilarious because I am five feet tall with the athletic build of a baby chipmunk, and it is true, in the last few weeks thanks to a simultaneous office move and house move I have been spending a great deal of my time hoicking massive great desks, beds etc around the city. All those facts aside, it has been worth it because a mere three weeks after moving, with nothing more than a toaster and a sack of underwear to my name, I have filled an empty flat with everything it needs to be my Home. As a resourceful, dogmatic and rabidly opportunistic person, I knew I could do this on little more than a wing and a prayer. Here’s how you can fill your Berlin flat, save money, save the world by recycling old stuff and generally accumulate clobber with a few cheeky winks and very little tearful begging.

1. Downsize your office. If you’re not the CEO of your company, this probably won’t be your choice to make. If you are the CEO of your company, congratulations! But why are you wasting your time reading this bollocks when you should be out doing executive things? I’m not the CEO of my company, but our downsize coincided very nicely with the move and we ended up with stacks of old stuff which couldn’t possibly fit in our new half of our once whole office. It was only logical that that stuff should therefore go to a loving home, especially one whose main resident didn’t particularly mind spending 24 hours a day living and working in two places with almost identical interior design. It was also useful that I am just deranged enough to not mind the fact that this furniture, in honour of the company brand colour, came in an array of wild shades of red.

Thanks to a rocky financial climate and the instability of the tourist trade in low season, this little bounty came to two large tables, three chairs, a set of obnoxiously red curtains, and a set of metal shelves which are slightly less sturdy than a sheet of aluminium foil and lean sideways so much they look like they’re trying really hard to hear a whispered conversation on the other side of the room. Maybe if we downsize even more I’ll be able to nab a receptionist for my new pad too.


2. Go to fleamarkets, and barter your arse off. Don’t bother bartering at the Mauerpark flea market, where the sellers are so hardened and savvy that even a faint attempt at bartering will garner you nothing more than a withering look that would make a bunch of flowers shrivel. Plus, the ‘bargains’ at the Mauerpark flea market are overpriced to take advantage of gullible American tourists, so don’t be surprised if you are asked for four euros for that half-broken mug with a doll’s arm melted to it. The Boxhagener Platz flea market is where it’s at for the bargains. Not only do they sell interesting and unique items like this GENUINE HUMAN MOTHERFREAKING SKULL – 

Yeah, it’s wearing shades. I don’t even need to make a joke here.


but it’s also where you’ll find the vendors who are happy with every sale they make and tend to be up for a good-natured matey haggle. There are a number of tactics to getting your way and snapping up something for a ridiculous price. The old-school tartan wool blanket was mine after I asked to pay four euros, the seller demanded eight, and I just started pointedly walking away shaking my head in disappointment. A very cool vintage emerald-green Adidas sports bag was won by pointing out the fact that the zipper was broken (to the casual observer – but I deduced that it could be fixed with about two seconds of fiddling) and declaring that it simply wasn’t worth it for any more than five euros. Added bonus – I later discovered a trolley token and a half-full pack of tissues in the side pocket, so double win! Another good tactic is to simply appeal to the vendor’s common sense; I found a brilliant old, chipped plate that I wanted for a euro. He wanted three. I simply responded with: “But look at it, mate. It’s gross.” He couldn’t say anything in reply other than, “Fair enough. A euro it is, love.”

Of course, the best times are when you don’t have to barter at all because you happen upon a vendor who is just a brilliant human being. A man with dreadlocks and a nice red chest of drawers, to be precise. I asked for it for thirty smackers, he immediately agreed and offered to take it over to my new place and carry it up the stairs for me for free. He’s there every week, and apparently his schtick is to buy and renovate furniture from auctions that happen after someone dies or there is a massive building fire. So it’s probably a ghostly cabinet of lost souls that I bought, but whatever. Bargain.

3. Ebay Kleinanzeigen. No, I didn’t actually do this one. Ebay Kleinanzeigen has been recommended a lot, but take more than a cursory glance at it and all you find are thousands of ads of people selling appalling, half-broken rubbish (usually photographed in that charming way that makes the whole scene look urine-yellow) for double what it’s worth. No I don’t want a stained, visibly damp mattress for 150 Groschen. And the worst part is that you always have to go to some creepy, no-good alleyway in south Steglitz to pick the darn thing up yourself.

4. Just offering to take all of the previous tenant’s stuff. Let’s face it. They’re tired and lazy and can’t be bothered to spend the five minutes it would take to write the Ebay Kleinanzeige and take a yellowy photo of their old sofa. If you offer to take it off them for the cost of a pair of socks, they’ll be delighted. My haul: a sofa, three sets of shelves, a washing machine, a hifi, a kettle, a stick blender, a magnetic knife strip, a bathroom mat and a pink lampshade that makes my hallway look like a prostitute’s boudoir. Result.

5. Verschenkened stuff off the street. Ok, so there is clearly a risk that you will end up seeming like a dirty tramp if you pick things up off the pavement all the time. I did recently have a moment where I was walking home carrying some good stuff I’d found and I realised I was also wearing a jumper and a belt that had been verschenkened on the street not long before, and a top that was from Oxfam; I was a walking pile of cast-offs. But if you cultivate a sharp eye and know how to sift out the good, clean stuff from the discarded junk, you can find a smorgasbord of terrific new possessions for absolutely free! So far I have managed to snag two saucepans, nearly new; two cardigans, a jumper and two belts; brand-new chopsticks, still in the packaging; an excellent map of the world including a set of pins with flags on them for easy world-domination planning; a spice pot; and finally, my crowning moment, an insane geometric shelf/table/cat-scratching post thing which is now what I like to call my ‘chili podium’:

As fate would have it, the chili podium also comes in a funky shade of corporate red.

 Have you ever seen an item of furniture so brilliantly strange? Why does it exist? Why was someone getting rid of it? How come the more I tighten the screws on it, the more wonky it gets? So many mysteries.

So ok, it might seem a bit trampish to furnish your place with hand-me-downs and second-hand bargains. But is it? Or is it a way to make yourself an instant home, full of furniture with that comfortable air of having been already used and loved and lived with, where each piece has a history and a funny story to go with it? An Ikea show-home, or a place where you feel instantly at home? I’ll take the latter. The more skulls and surreal sculptural doodads the better.

Is it expensive, painful and time consuming? Oh, then of course it will make you beautiful!

“Try pinning your list of beauty goals directly onto the skin of your chest so you don’t forget them.”- Grazia

I suppose I had to finally bite the bullet and admit I would be writing some “women’s issues” posts after I read this article here. Although it’s something that deeply interests me, “women’s issues” (which, by the way, shall never get promoted beyond sceptical quotation marks until it stops sounding like another euphemism for menstruation) is something I have generally avoided speaking about in my blog because:
1. I don’t want to be branded a militant feminist or a mouthy nag for suggesting something like the fact that waxing is definitely cruel and horrendous.
2. I don’t want you guys – whom I love, by the way, and am endlessly touched that anyone reads this at all – to stop reading afraid that every post will be about the evils of Cosmo and 
3. So many blogs – see above, or The Hairpin – have this field very well covered and have managed to cultivate a nice tone between serious polemic and playfulness which is certainly an art to develop. 
But yes, this post made me want to finally be courageous enough to write about the things that occur to me speaking as a woman (cue birdsong, rose perfume, misted lens, soundtrack from a 1980s tampon advert). 

If you’re female, when was the first time you realised you were making a larger-than-logical effort to reflect ‘the ideal’? If you’re a bloke, when was the first time you noticed the girls around you making this larger-than-logical effort? For me the real moment of clarity came in a moment of sudden and unfamiliar agony when I was having a go with eyelash curlers for the second time in my entire life and accidentally lost my balance in front of the mirror. Amazingly I didn’t manage to actually tear all of my eyelashes off the lid but good god. I don’t know what was worse, the pain or the image that instantly popped into my mind of me standing there with gaping mouth staring at my own bleeding eyelid held in the curlers like kitchen tongs holding a piece of bacon. I threw the eyelash curlers away. Clearly a girl who regularly manages to fall of her bike while completely stationary is not meant for such tools.


Apparently now 90-95% of us indulge in removal of armpit, leg and pubic hair all year round. We don’t know, of course, how many hairy but shy people there are out there who just didn’t feel confident taking the survey, but this seems startling to me. Do you need to be smooth all the time? In Winter? In Britain, come to think of it, where we only get three days of pleasant weather a year and celebrate these days by wearing as many different pairs of hotpants as we can conceivably put on and take off within the time frame? 

And yes, lots of women shave or wax because they prefer the aesthetic and the feel of it, but I am inclined to side with Prof. Anneke Smelik who theorises that it’s becoming such a social obligation now that we feel compelled to do it whether it will be seen or not seen, like brushing your teeth twice a day or covering your mouth when you yawn. Shaving’s not so bad of course, because I’m sure any capable person (myself excluded, who tends to leave the shower looking like she’s come from the slow-mo blood deluge scene in The Shining) can do it with minimal pain and stress, although of course the time it takes is still annoying and could be spent doing something like learning a new language or debating EU financial policies. But waxing is, like the eyelash curlers, the cut-off point for me. The point where that ‘aesthetic’, the desire to be the smooth and gorgeous woman, supersedes the desire not to have hot tar smeared onto your naked skin – or genitals shudder shudder – and then gleefully ripped off, liberating millions of little innocent hairs from their follicles each with a tiny (but formidable when united) bolt of agony. It’s probably still more painful than imagining the money trickling from your account to pay for this.

And the more I think about it, the more sad and worried I am that we all make decisions and do things on a daily basis that are hugely inconvenient, expensive and time-wasting just to be gorrrjus. We skip lunch and wait trembling hours until the huge dinner out we know is in the evening. We put chemicals near and on our most sensitive and most useful  and most vulnerable bits; I love my eyeballs and am indebted to their service and yet still gloop mascara and kohl around them haphazardly every day. We allow ourselves to be AS COLD AS PERMAFROST in a skirt and semi-transparent tights because a formal event necessitates a small silken sheath to be worn despite it being the dead of winter. And I know this is a very British thing, too, because in Germany when it’s cold you march happily about in enormous coats and thick hiking trousers, while all my German friends here in the UK repeatedly ask me with tearful, concerned eyes: “Rosie, it’s minus 6 degrees outside, tell us, why are the girls still walking around in shorts and ballet pumps?” We do it because we have no choice. It’s the uniform. You would look like an idiot going to a May Ball in a jumper and trousers. People would think you were Making a Stand. 

Oh, and the expense is heartbreaking. Why is shampoo more expensive than a whole roasting chicken?? Why do tweezers cost two quid but the ‘good, professional’ tweezers cost thirty? Even a new pair of shoes is an investment, and not in the ‘statement piece oh my god grazia grazia mwah’ kind of way: even a modest thirty-pound pair costs seventy pounds in the end when you factor in the acres of plasters you go through covering all the parts of your feet that are bleeding or blistered, the re-heeling when the heel wears away after the fourth time out, and the various pads and insoles you buy to stop the throbbing pain in between your foot bones.

Writers like Susie Orbach and co point out that we now see the human body as perfectible, particularly in the case of the female. We are encouraged to identify, isolate and annihilate every thing that may not even be a flaw but simply not adherent to the preferable adjective for that body part: “Get the perfect curve for your eyebrows!” “Make your neck look longer!” “Make the whites of your eyes really POP!” But we are clever and realistic people; I’ve always been well aware that an essay isn’t perfectible, there’s no such thing as the perfect pair of trousers and despite honing it since I was fourteen my private chocolate cake recipe is still a long way from being the Platonic Chocolate Cake. (But getting ever nearer…) We’re smart and logical and reasonable enough to know for a fact that nothing can ever be perfect, so it is odd that we hold this incredibly harsh and unreasonable goal for our bodies, of all things. If anything the human body is the least likely thing to ever near perfection because it’s a big, gooey, squashy skinbag of pores and follicles and organs all trying to do the rough equivalent of what they did back when we were all much more gorrilaesque. The devil isn’t really in the details, since no amount of curled eyelashes will distract people from my lump-of-cheddar nose, for example. If we all devoted our energies and emotions towards finding the perfect sandwich or sofa instead the world would be a miraculous place.

But I don’t want you females (or the males reading this and just thinking ‘well then don’t do it and shut up’) to leave this site thinking that I’ve just given you all a Strafpredigt (a lovely German word that means ‘punishment sermon’). I’m not saying we have to stop, because as I say, you leave yourself very vulnerable to unpleasant things like mockery and behind-back criticism, the protection from which is (as someone who was teased mercilessly when little) worth the expense. Not to mention the fact that it really can be quite good fun, like putting on an incredibly subtle costume for a reeeeeallly understated fancy dress party. What I am saying is that we should embrace this hobby-aspect of it and make it so, make it fun from start to end and, like a hobby, leave judgment out of it if you choose not to be into train sets or hook-rug making or hair-straightening. What I am asking is whether we can’t make this expense less…well, expensive? Not just money-wise but in terms of everything; can’t we make the rituals less of a pain? Couldn’t we make shaving cream smell like God’s garden to make those boring fifteen minutes a bit lovely? Could someone make a slightly narrower and curved razor sold with the other ones because armpits are a complex and voluptuous cavern that simply can’t be done with a straight potato-peeler thing? Could mascara be packaged differently so you can use up the whole tube rather than just the two millilitres those brushes can actually access? Could we just conceal our spots and accept that the rest of our face won’t be flawless skin but will be varied, textural and fundamentally anatomical, like the skin on our arms or ears – which for some reason we feel no need to cake with a uniform shade. Beauty companies should be putting their arses into inventing new ways to make the whole ritual as joyful and comfortable and safe as is possible, rather than expecting us to grin and bear it. I’m not sure I like being female – I’m certainly never glad to be, as I much prefer striding to walking and high-fives to cheek-kisses – but I know I want to be comfy and happy and relaxed. And still have all of my eyelashes in place.

Craft? I nearly died…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin Stylin’

Case study: The Japanesey baby-doll on the far right. There were about twenty of those roaming the garden.

One of the overwhelming senses one gets from this city is the tremendous feeling of freedom that seems to breeze through the people who live and work here. I don’t mean freedom of opinion or the freedom to marry any of a number of different genders or any of the other United-Nationsy freedoms which bore us on a daily basis with their endless bloody controversy; I simply mean a sense of pure personal freedom, the freedom to be exactly how we want to be if that is, in fact, how we want to be. People seem, in a way more pronounced than anywhere else I have ever been, to be dressing and expressing themselves and carrying themselves in just the way that they choose. This isn’t to say that Berlin is a utopic society where the Individual has finally found the personal power and spiritual liberation to realise his true expression without being pigeonholed – on the contrary, the sheer variety of different styles you see on the street have just led to a vigorous and hilarious number of ways to judge people and laugh about them – but the difference is that no-one, who might conceivably be being judged, gives a monkey’s.

This means a lot to me when it comes to personal style, because my own style is a carefully honed mixture of clashing bright colours, slightly badly-fitting charity shop finds and as many different patterns as possible. In my own self-indulgent hipster mentality I try to look as non-standard as I can. In the UK this is a risky direction to take because if you are not willing to embrace leggings as your lord and saviour you have already taken the first of the few steps leading to the Dark Place of fashion ostracism. Here, however, everyone is doing their own thing and while it may not often look great I do have a great respect for the people whose external fashioning of themselves is just whatever the hell they like or feel comfortable in: the dudes who wear heavy-duty work trousers all the time even outside of work just because they’re good and practical, the completely straight not-at-all-gay-or-even-leaning-that-way men who wear skin-tight chest-hair-sprouting tank tops and loafers, the women who wear those lovely clothes imported from Nepal which look more like Queen Guinevere costumes…


This freedom of fashion also means that you get some people who just look goddam great because over here you are allowed to do whatever the heck pleases you regardless of whether it just might be ludicrous. I recently saw three young, not at all related and very good-looking men wandering along the street all wearing identical t-shirts, cargo shorts and espadrilles but just in alternating colours – green espadrilles on one, a green t-short for the other – they looked brilliant purely because it was so subtly weird that it took me a good few minutes to figure out What Was Wrong With This Picture. It also means that you can be a lot more slummy in public as you can in the UK without feeling bad about it. You can wear really, really, really dirty or ragged or pajama-y clothes without worrying that people are assuming that you are a terrible and perverted human being. This has the added joy that people accidentally allow their little insanities to shine through without noticing. One woman on the S-Bahn the other day was wearing a very old and clearly much-worn pair of sunglasses which still had the “UVB 400 LO-GLARE” stickers stuck directly on the centre of each lens. Another guy, a beggar who came onto the train and delivered a wonderfully charming speech about how much he would appreciate someone buying his magazine or simply donating some food and even if not he hoped you would have a lovely day, turned around after his sweet and friendly presentation to display a rucksack with a massive swastika on the back. 

There are, of course, certain groups and sub-genres of fashion that pop up in this place, and I won’t mention the hipsters any more in this post since the poor things have such a hard time; it must be pretty tortuous yearning to be defined by your individuality among a social set where everyone is so purposefully individual that they are all homogenously the same. No, my favourite has got to be the one style which you won’t find anywhere else in the world outside of German-speaking nations, and I refer to the style characterised by that legendary brand Jack Wolfskin. It is the ultra-German fashion of the ‘urban-casual hiker’, a brilliant and popular style of dress where you wear highly outdoorsy and hard-wearing clothes simply to trot around the U-Bahn and get a latte with your Kumpels. Jack Wolfskin, Animal, Ripcurl etc.- any outdoorsy brand will do as long as your ensemble is suitable for both city living and a spontaneous romp deep into the forests, possibly with makeshift-rafting included. These urban hikers wear walking boots all the time regardless of time of year and the real hardcores even go for waterproof trousers and windproof jackets. Of course, because the Germans have better skin than us Brits with our complexions of an untoasted pita, they tan and thus look pretty damned good in all this stuff, even – dare I say it – when they sign off their outfit at the bottom with a pair of socks-with-sandalled feet. 

Me, well, I think I’ll stick with my twee little scrapbook outfits until I find something I can wear which neither makes me look fourteen or forty but somewhere comfortably in between, but it’s nice to feel that whatever I do choose to throw on I won’t be being laughed at. And if I am being laughed at, it’s probably just because I remind people a little of Mr Bean.