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.

Nobody move…don’t…even…breathe…this could collapse…at….any…time…

And just to add the cherry to the cake, on my way home I find a glorious example of German product naming. Just be sure to wear these when trimming your bush.

Wow, you guys. Like boy HOWDY. These last few days have honestly been an emotional rollercoaster (hand gesture).

I’ll be honest: my time in Edinburgh, as the first three days of my new job, couldn’t have been more doom-laden. I put on a happy face in my airport blog post, but frankly I was deeply morose, and it wasn’t just because my Kindle has finally bitten into the grass (that’s how you bite the dust in Germany). I was morose because I felt like I was looking into the mouth of a big, long tunnel, a tunnel I’d been in before and thought I’d never have to scrabble through again to get to the light.

Why do employers feel that the best way to ‘initiate’ their employees is to assign them some ‘buddies’ to ease them into the business? More pertinently, why do they always seem to choose the select few that are seethingly bitter and acidically cynical to fill that role? When I began my last job at the publishers’, I was told in the interview that I was to expect a varied and exciting role full of challenges and inspiring new projects to keep me interested and train me in new and eye-opening realms. I was then sent for tea with my buddies, who leered at me with wide grins, savouring their Schadenfreude as they told me what the job was really like: “Oh, you’re doing that project? HAHAHAHAH. Yes. I did the previous version of that. Hope you enjoyed the last few years of your life, because the next few are going to be doozies…”

Refreshed from a few idle months of unemployment (read: moving to a different country, moving flat twice, endless job applications, freelancing, fighting with German burocracy etc) and on this super-groovy business trip to Edinburgh, I was determined and enthusiastic that things were going to be different this time. This time I would have found something fulfilling and real, something where I would be useful and where ‘travelling’ referred to trips to different cities in Europe rather than hours spent loathing every chug of the train journey from Reading to Oxford. I arrived in Edinburgh, was shown to the company flat (a bedroom in an office) by a lovely Polish girl with cool hair, and collapsed in a fur-lined bed. Yes. This was the future.

I woke up and was picked up for breakfast by my initiation ‘buddy’ for this new job. She was a loud, slightly terrifying Spanish woman with a leather jacket and a voice like a Mariachi sergeant general. She marched me to breakfast, sat me down and began: “So. I’m supposed to tell ju some theengs about your boss and ze company now. Hm.” She glared into my eyes with pupils like the barrels of a gun and tipped four sachets of sugar into her coffee. Then she told me a list of things that sounded like hell on earth. People in her role in the company usually worked from early morning to late at night and at the weekend, she said. People gave their lives for this job. I should be ready to deal with my boss because he is a strong personality and sometimes you will need to be tough with him because he will be tough with ju. And you know Microsoft Excel? Be damn careful with the colours in spreadsheets. He has a thing about colours in spreadsheets. You change those colours, you a dead man, ece.

As I met more and more people, they revelled in sharing even more horror stories with the wide-eyed noob: “You know the CEO? One time he got so angry with an employee he shouted at him in the street and started unzipping his fly and….well…” “One time, I had to work for four weeks solid without a day off and then I got ill and then my boyfriend broke up with me and I had to move out of my flat on the same day and I couldn’t get a day off still but I’m fine now.” “I’m afraid I can’t meet you tomorrow morning because I have the 10am-1.30pm shift. And then I have the 2.30pm-11.30pm shift. But it’s ok because then I have to move to Denmark because my job has changed!”

I would say my heart sank, but by this point it had simply shrivelled to a raisin. How could this be true, that these brilliant people and this awesome-sounding job was so nightmarish? I pleaded with these guys to explain, and they chuckled and said, “Hey, don’t worry, we only tell these stories because it’s funny to tell them to you! We all do this because we love it and we want to be doing it! Honest!” At the time I narrowed my eyes and resigned myself to the agony that was to be the next few months of my life.

And then I came back from Edinburgh and spent my first real week on the job and realised exactly what these people meant. This really is an awesome thing to do and a brilliant clan of people to do it with. The office is full of incredible, diverse people, from a fluffy-haired Portuguese hipster to a lovable beardy Yorkshireman, all of whom are chattery and generous and overflowing with good humour. I share my part of the office with a fierce and erudite guy who looks exactly like Wolverine (yes, including the sideburns) and a hilarious accountant dude who makes the most tongue-drippingly delicious coffee in town. 

My two office mates have fun executive toys like a LEGO sculpture of the Brandenburg Gate and an enormous cricket bat which they like to swing around until they break something, usually a lamp. Unlike my old cardboard tinned-air cubicle, the office is a weird old flat in the middle of Berlin with red desks and big breezy windows. Inkeeping with German etiquette, there is an entire room in the office used to store all the bottles of fizzy water the employees require, in a variety of different fizziness-grades.

And the work feels useful and relevant because it is about making sure that people who break their backs at their jobs to go on holiday get to have a really great time when they get there, and that people who have moved to an exciting new city and want a cool and interesting job can get one and put their personality to good use for a change. I even went on one of our tours as part of my training and had a brilliant time learning about Berlin, admiring the handsome tourguide and basking in the glow of my first real moment of street cred chatting to a sweet pair of first-year Durham students: “OHmiGawd, you actually live here in Berlin? Omigod that is like, soooo cooowuhl…”

And my boss? The guy who, according to all TV shows and films ever, should be a ginormous bastard practising a moderate-to-high level of sexual harassment? My boss is actually a forgiving, understanding and fundamentally good bloke who has given me real work to do and answers my twenty-bajillion nervous questions with admirable patience. And forgives me when I am unable to understand all of his sports analogies.

And all of a sudden, amongst all this, I have started to accumulate things like ‘Social security’ and ‘a work phone’ and ‘expenses’. I have to pay ‘tax’ and ‘pension’. I have identification numbers and HR profiles. I am in the system. I am part of the rat-race and nothing more than a file in someone’s filing cabinet. GOD it feels good. 

Come on hubris, this can’t last for sure.

How to hack your Zwischenmiete

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

Example number 1: The Hochbett.

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

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

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

Example number 2: The Shower.

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

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

Example number 3: The Pillow.

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

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

Meet the youngest spinster in Great Britain

This decor would certainly calm a llama down. (60% of my readers will get more out of that than the rest)

So. Two things.

Number one: it was my birthday this weekend, and for the first time (and in the wrong country) I celebrated it GERMAN-STYLE. In Germany, unlike in the UK where you have a big knees-up on the calendar date of your birth, you “party in” to your birthday, meaning you get violently drunk the evening before and just keep on going until that magic midnight bell, when songs are sung, presents given and someone probably brings out a round of something potent in small, evil-looking glasses. Although I was in Oxford rather than in Neuschwankensteinberg or somewhere even German-er this year, thankfully Germany came to me in the form of some of my favourite Berliners I made friends with last year. I got to know them at the hostel I stayed at in the first fortnight of my time in Berlin, and they were at the time the only friendly faces I knew: a blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful couple from Jena who shared the bunk above me and cooked me my first  schnitzel to welcome me officially to the Vaterland. I ended up showing them more of Berlin than they could show me simply because I moved and commuted about so much that there wasn’t a scrap of the city worth knowing that I hadn’t already seen and been sneezed on by a toddler in. In return they introduced me to a spectrum of traditional German food like Thuringer Bratwurst and Christmas duck, and other German traditions such as the proper way to pre-lash – ‘vorglühen’ – which goes on until 2am when you actually leave to go dancing, and which involves cheap sparkling wine and Haribo and board games. This time I had the opportunity to show them Oxford, which compared to Berlin is like taking Barack Obama from the White House and proudly shuffling him round 10 Downing Street. But where I find it grey, and imposing, and reminiscent of the throbbing stress of my degree, they seemed to find it charming and beautiful and oozing with historical gravitas. I suppose for my birthday I learned to re-love Oxford a bit more than previously.

The day before, our mutual friend (also from Germany) had kindly booked us all on a surprise ale tasting tour around Oxford; this seemed like a great idea considering the huge number of ancient pubs Oxford boasts, each serving fancy ales with names like “Windermere Bucket” or “Mother’s Sin” and colours as dark as the devil’s buttock. We all anticipated being led around these places by a wispy-haired and crisp-voiced old man in a corduroy blazer who would teach us to appreciate the yeasty top-notes and floral roundedness of his favourite ales; what actually met us at the start point was a startlingly oily Brazilian man (admittedly wearing a blazer) with an incomprehensible accent and clearly no idea what the heck he was being paid for. 

He took us to the first pub, the Chequers on the High Street, famous among students as one of THE pubs you go to after matriculating for the Matriculash, possibly your first moment of hyper-drunkenness in your Oxford undergraduate career. It is also apparently famous for its ales. Our guide swept us suavely into the room and presented us with a golden array of ales in small taster-glasses, taking us through the nuances of flavour to be found in each one and explaining the complex dance each type will play on your palate. Or rather, he lumped into the bar and explained to us that we could as the barpeople to give us a taste of an ale if we wanted but we didn’t have to and we had to buy all our own drinks. He then tasted one of the ales on offer, said it was (and I believe this is the specialist term for it) ‘nice’, ordered a half-pint of it and went to sit down. We tried to taste a few ales before the bar staff got too hacked off about it but unfortunately our rather abrupt introduction into the tastes we should be expecting meant that we mostly found that they all tasted of bitter, neglected armpit. Sitting around this man, nursing our foul and warm drinks, he then insisted on telling us exactly one third of the story of the history of beer and ale, all with the underlying leitmotiv that beer saved the world. He frothed at the mouth a lot when he spoke. Ominous.

We marched through the Bear Inn and the Turf Tavern, two other very sweet pubs right at the heart of the Oxford microcosm, and each time it was the same: our oleaginous host would order his drink and leave us to create our own tasting experience, while we were acutely aware that the bar staff hadn’t approved this and certainly did not like what we were playing at one bit. “You want to try another one?!? Haa, alright then son, cough cough…You know we have to wash all of these microscopic glasses by hand at the end of the night…” This man’s answers to our questions were astoundingly unhelpful; when asked what one looks for in a very good ale, he replied “Ah, wellll, whadeverr you are loookeeng for iss preddy much goood…”, while his answer for why one is meant to drink ale warm was that room temperature was much colder in the olden days than it is today.

It is a shame, because I love a challenge and trying to learn to love ale is a challenge that I sadly failed. It is a vile drink and criminal offenders should be forced to snort it up their nostrils. But I am glad to have spent this surreal evening with beloved Germans who might have thought that Berlin was the final frontier in terms of surreal pointlessnesses.

Number two:

The above picture shows my first achievement in my twenty-third year of life. No, I haven’t got a job or found a fiance or trained a lion to behave like a kitten, but I have made my own hand-printed curtains for my bedroom. And they have llamas and cacti on them. I repeat: llamas and cacti. I don’t know what it was that inspired me to print this quasi-Mexicana theme; at any rate, it’s a shame that the photo doesn’t do justice to the colours or to the fact that I carefully cut a pronounced underbite into the llama’s face for extra authenticity. I am simply writing about this because it is one of the most unexpectedly hard-work projects I have imposed upon myself thus far, and although I do like a challenge, I won’t be doing this particular one again. The llamas range in colour, so I had to print a variety of different colours on each curtain, which means maneuvering swathes of cloth far bigger than my entire self around on a tiny table and trying to keep the colours evenly spaced and numbered – this took hours. The llamas have different colours of saddle, which means intricately re-painting the stamp for each one and maneuvering the same swathes of cloth around, this time trying to make sure each colour of llama has an even number of a certain colour of saddle – this took hours. The curtain binding at the top had a thick, black stripe woven into it for no discernible reason which shows through the light fabric and in order to disguise this I had to sew on the binding with a thick decorative stitch – this took hours and nearly broke my sewing machine. The results look genuinely mad and while I am pleased with the high llama quotient in my room now I can only advise fellow-crafters to give this particular project a miss. Print your own T-shirts, yes. But curtains are huge and crashingly boring to sew (so much ironing) and, given that printed cotton can cost about £2 a metre, I reckon you should just sack it off. Go for a pint instead; just not of ale.

Whistle while you gherk

Possibly my proudest achievement of my life so far

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moonrise Kingdom is Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chef Not-So-Special: Kitchen Hacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot the difference

Check it out, I went to the Ostsee!

 Hang on, I think I have another photo from a different angle…oh yes, here it is.










Ho, hold on…that can’t be right…here’s another photo:

And another shot of those dreamy waters:

Well, I don’t know what to tell you. The earth moves around the sun just 180 degrees and suddenly the beach has turned from the shore of the river Styx to the kind of thing you see in fake retro postcards they sell in hipster shops.

Granted, it was beautiful and awesome to see the Ostsee coast in Winter and be fully freaked out by the eeriness of the milky melancholy water/sky gradient that stretched out from the ground. But being on the German coast in early summer, after a morning of rain and grey clouds that did nothing but wash the stuffiness out of the air, was absolutely herrlich.

I think the Ostsee is probably one of Germany’s most undeservedly ignored tourist locations for anyone who isn’t a native Kraut like us. (Yes, us. I’m one of them now.) The images that spring to mind for anyone contemplating holidaying in Germany are striking cathedrals and earnest cultural edutainments like galleries and museums; one imagines drifting around Gothic-looking streets, gorging on sausage and beer with dirndled locals and having your brain twanged by the latest techno hipsterlectrofunkatunes in Berlin. But no-one really thinks they might end up on a beautiful cream-coloured beach surrounded by soft dune-grass and clear waters full of actual real pink jellyfish. 

Like any British coast, the sea is so cold you spasm into attacks of rapid breathing the minute it goes past your ankles, but that doesn’t matter to the hundreds of fearless and naked children being chucked around by their dads in the shallows and the noise of them having a brilliant time is oddly heartening. The surroundings are adorable, with thatched cottages leading up to the pier and little pubs serving Fischbrötchen. This is a much-loved spot for loads of Germans who come up from all over to this little smidgen of coast in the otherwise land-locked mass; next to us were a family who, I am informed, were deeply Sachsisch (i.e. from Saxony) and had such thick accents I could barely understand what they were saying. When their little boy was playing football it just sounded like he was yelling “poop, poop” like Toad in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and I only really tuned in to their dialect when he suddenly stopped and demanded that he and his father take a break to eat something or they simply couldn’t continue. At any rate, this sweet family was a welcome change to the people who had previously been in their space, a ‘robust’ man and his wife who lay motionless and nude in the sun for ages like huge legs of ham dumped on the sand. 


Further up the coast the people begin to give way to wilderness and wildlife, and a small ridge of cliff rose out of the ground which was spotted with tiny cheese-holes. These had been dug into the clay by tiny swallow-like birds who flew in and out of the holes tweeting frenziedly.

The bird-watcher my mother implanted in me when I was little squeeed with joy.

Along the cliff there was a low wood and some bushes with pink flowers, and along the shore lay trees which had slumped down off the cliff the last time there had been a landslide. When we finished exploring our friend Tommy arrived wearing layers of thick black leather and clutching a vast black tarpaulin bag; clearly when we said we would meet him at the beach he misheard and thought we said the matrix. At any rate, once he arrived we committed ourselves to proper beach behaviour, namely licking ice-lollies and getting sand stuck everywhere. All these things are things I couldn’t have believed I would be doing when I first knew I would be coming to Berlin, let alone Germany, and I needed it like a sick person needs pills.

That evening we went to a traditional German Gaststätte and were served by a traditional German waiter who was portly and jolly and wore a nice patterned waistcoat reminiscent of my favourite Germanic waiter encountered thus far. We drank Apfelschorle and propped our table up with fifty beermats to prevent our food sliding off the table and down the steep cobbled alleyway we were sitting in. Now, you may want to bum around Berlin or marvel at Munich, but this is what the real Germans do for their minibreaks and it is goshdarned great.    

Crucial cultural experience. Also, booze.

Discerning wine tasters.

This weekend was the last weekend of the Baumblütenfest, a fruit wine festival which takes place every year in Werder and is, so I am told, the second biggest Volksfest in Germany. A couple of friends and I thought it was about time for a bit of adventure and an Ausflug, and as the daughter of a wine connoisseur whose obsession borders on psychopathic I simply couldn’t wait. If you’re English, a wine festival is a wonderful opportunity to taste some delicate and rare vintages from charming local producers whilst listening to light jazz and swing music wafting over from white marquees sponsored by Waitrose and some four-star hotel. There are hog roasts and organic quinoa salad buffets and everything is so expensive it makes your wallet leak something which chemically resembles tears. Naturally this was not what I was expecting when I was told that this particular festival is more like a second Oktoberfest, but I still had no idea what on earth was over in Werder waiting for us.



The Baumblütenfest is simply wild. On the one hand, it’s rather rural and very sweet; farmers sell their fruit wine from alchemical-looking glass jars whilst wearing straw hats and there’s a Baumblütenkönigin (queen) who is chosen for her beauty and ability to represent a two-week festival of getting completely sloshed. But there’s the rub, to put it pretentiously: the wine costs 2 euros a cup at its most expensive, 1 euro per cup if you’re going for the rough stuff, and is so sweet it’s like drinking alcoholic jam. Thus the majority of people who attend the festival are party-hungry youths who chuck the stuff down their necks and have fights with each other. The stalls that don’t sell wine are flogging (apart from the essential Wurst selection) brilliantly tacky festival accessories like flower necklaces and comedy hats, the ‘live music’ is good old-fashioned German power-dance music and one can participate in all kinds of wonderful vomit-inducing activities like fairground rides and bungee-jumps. 

Yes, it’s intense and the heat made it feel like being inside a cheerleader pompom someone had stuck under a grill. But I had the most brilliant time. I am a country lass, not particularly experienced in the world of festivals that don’t involve ‘best cow’ competitions and live sheep shearing, and that Saturday afternoon this lucky girl got to see real fights and for the first time heard a real, genuine, hearty Berliner accent (‘juuuuuuuuuuut!’). We were approached by an ancient taxi driver and his entire circle of friends and relatives; his skin looked like old leaves, he had clearly already had a good few bushels worth of wine and he chatted us up like an old pro. The wine is sweet but delicious, in particular the dark purple varieties which are so sugary and thick your mouth will pucker up and your tongue will sizzle. Traditional German food is at these times just the ticket, and my giant pretzel was as big as an elephant’s ear. To buy, the wines are incredibly cheap – just £6 a bottle – and would be a great gift if you are sick of forking out for Lebkuchen and fake Lederhosen to keep your friends’ lust for genuine German trinkets satisfied; I particularly recommend schwarze Johannisbeer and Rhabarber-Pfirsisch flavours. You should definitely, definitely go. And when the festival isn’t on, go to Werder. Under the thick layer of drunken crazies, retina-searingly bright knick-knacks and grilled sausage it’s a charming town which seems almost Grecian with its leafy cobbled streets and corny-looking restaurants. As my time here trickles slowly away I am glad to have done this truly German thing, and who knows; next time I might crank it up a notch and have a good old hearty fight.

Should you be learning English if you haven’t yet learnt to use a fork?

Yes! It’s a real Trabi! (Plus owner who was not happy about me taking this picture.)

Now I’m not prone to exaggeration (cue raucous peals of laughter from live audience) but Monday morning’s lesson has got to be one of the worst any of us babysitter teachers have to deal with. It is a group of four children: a baby of one-and-a-half years, who can barely speak at all and has a tenuous grip on reality as it is; a two year old Turkish boy who is stocky and strong like a baby buffalo and doesn’t really know any English, German or Turkish but does know how to say “Onur MAAAAAAD!” in German just like the Incredible Hulk; a three-year-old girl who is rather bright and willing to join in if it weren’t for…; the other three-year-old, the adorable blonde who made his fame on this blog months earlier as that cherub who takes his family jewels out of his tights and kneads them like a stressball. It is one of the most impossible groups of pupils to teach, not in the least because none of them have even the faintest glimmer of interest in learning English; the other ‘zone- in this kindergarten is a bomb-site of broken and scattered toy bits and crayons and sweeties which no child would under any circumstances want to leave behind in order to play farm animal memory game with a weary and shoeless ‘teacher’ (something about having to remove my shoes makes me feel like I have lost any authority I could have had before the kids even enter the room).




This class is a shining example of how quickly kids develop when they are so very young; the four of them together, if they ever stand in a line,  resemble the evolution diagram  because each of them occupies such a different plane of early development. The baby is so small that she can barely stand, and spent today’s lesson lying completely motionless on the floor in a manner so lifeless that I had to stop a couple of times and watch her until I was sure she was breathing. She was, and for some reason was also grinning all over her sticky face as if enjoying some kind of treat. Onur, the two-year-old, is just beginning to get a hold on the logic of real life, which is why it’s possible to see him over the lessons getting more and more aware of the ract that language has a communicative role; this unfortunately manifested itself in him working out what ‘Nein’ means and roaring it at me every time I ask him to do anything, from sitting down to being an Easter bunny. Fascinatingly this is coinciding with his developing understanding of games and the point thereof, as a few months ago he used to be a silent force of destruction slowly trudging around the room oblivious of the fact that we were playing things around him, whereas in the last couple of weeks he has been able to point at a card in the memory game and even realise which card is the right card to be pointing at. 


Out of the two three-year-olds, the youngest (the male) is determinedly resistant to everything and is firmly in the stage of still being fascinated by his own and other people’s bodies, meaning that when he isn’t also saying ‘nein’ or massaging his tender parts he is begging the other one to touch her belly to his or is pressing his face against her bum. The girl, the oldest, generously allows this behaviour but is herself now far too mature for this and absolutely loves the games; unfortunate, then, that none of them are possible when the other three participants are rolling on the floor, tearing the room apart or inspecting their perineum. I allow her to play ‘Doktorarzt’ every lesson as it is her favourite game and allows me to subversively sneak in some body-part learning, but she is currently in that point of childhood where you are fascinated by the idea of having babies and so it doesn’t particularly move her that my head or nose or fingers require an injection but I do now have an impressive clutch of invisible babies to tend to.


Yet as they age by mere months each of these kids is changing so rapidly I can hardly believe it. The baby began as little more than a drooling flesh-bag, whereas now she is picking up English words and knows when they correspond to certain pictures and when I am asking her to repeat them back to me. Onur never used to understand that words meant things so it used to be a case of me shouting single words at him and him shouting them back at me in a kind of detached way as he was busy throwing things and pressing his face into the wall at the time; now he is grasping their relation to the world he lives in and occasionally will deign to sit down for a full two minutes or so. And the two older ones have learnt new and creative ways to misbehave, such as stealing and hiding my mp3 player headphones somewhere in the toy crate. 


It is one of my most chaotic and least productive classes but it is quite intriguing to watch these little beasts become more and more complex as they age. Like kittens you don’t notice them looking any different from day to day but you do remember the day they stopped puking on that sofa cushion, and I suppose they even look different too. It must be strange to be a Kindergarten minder and watch thousands of toddlers enter your doors too tiny to eat by themselves and leave big enough to tell you they think what they’re eating is yucky. For someone who only spends three quarters of an hour per week with them it’s a little like watching every third episode of a TV series. Still, sometimes you are lucky and catch a really good episode; last week was my favourite so far, when the girl was being a little demon and then accidentally kicked the bottom of a vast clothes rack propped up against the wall. It fell directly upon her with a colossal WHAM. She was flattened to such a degree that you couldn’t even see her under the enormous thing, and when I lifted it up, trying to surpress all my fear and amusement, she was spread out like a photocopy of herself. It took her about four seconds to recover.