Getting lost in the Chameleon Boudoir

That's a-moray!! Actually it's a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.
That’s a-moray!! Actually it’s a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.

Some weeks ago, I was spending a lot of time in my boss’ Berlin flat. I was doing some work which required a decent internet connection for me to make several large uploads each day, and the internet connection at my workplace was quite distressingly terrible (we would later find out that we had all been sharing a 6 – SIX – kbps connection for weeks without Telekom offering to fix it). I got into a routine where I would spend the morning sorting shizz out, then take an hour to prepare all the files I would need, and then cycle over to the flat in my lunch break to upload all those big monstrous gigabytes and answer erroneous emails. Well, one day I was sitting there in my boss’ kitchen, staring at the ceiling as I listened to my colleague telling me stuff over Skype, having an idle gander about the room. Until I noticed something: the walls looked oddly speckled now, and I didn’t remember them having a stucco finish. I looked more closely.

Maggots. Herds of maggots, scooching along the walls and ceiling. Hundreds of them, everywhere. I imagined them all suddenly falling on me and then a bunch of horrendous Lars Von Trier imagery bursting through the windows. No matter how many times I blinked, though, they were still there. A quick google helped me to identify the particular species of maggot, and thus followed a preposterous few days of trying to balance my usual massive workload with also finding a decent exterminator and overseeing his exterminating. One of my top ten sentences I never thought I’d hear in my professional career? ‘Careful of the maggots when emptying the vacuum cleaner! You might want to do it outside.’ When I did empty the vacuum cleaner, outside and at arm’s length, a huge gulp of maggots flowed out of the dust compartment – followed by a redemptive little black cloud of moths, like a mini version of the bats rising out of Batman’s cave.

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Congratulations! Your life now no longer has meaning!

Hey dude, sup. Just chilling. Word.

So, I did it. I sat a full degree’s worth of final exams and they are now completely behind me, never again to be touched until the examiners get their mitts on them. I revised for about 11 weeks, got through three books of lined paper, developed a variety of stress-related illnesses and wrote a blog entry about cheese graters. It was like wading through a swimming pool of congealing cold porridge, desperately trying to reach the sympathetic-looking lifeguard beckoning from the other side of the pool; and when you finally do get to him, you realise it was just a high-visibility vest propped up on a broom. The problem is that Oxford was always perfect for me in one way, in that I have to be busy and partially under stress at all times in order for me to really do or be anything worthwhile, and four years of marching about producing essays and library-hopping and running societies was the ideal habitat for a busy-body like this. Revision and exams was just a slight elevation of this, really. Then there is a sudden and almost surprising spurt of exhausting activity which really does feel like a spontaneous purgation of built-up mental fluid, and then all of a sudden, you’re on your own. You can relax!!


Except: what does that mean? For a start, it means gazing watery-eyed around my room regarding the sheer casualty of living that developed while I was glaring at irregular verbs. There are sacks of laundry, dirty and clean, everywhere; piles of mugs in every corner; incongruous things in all kinds of incongruous places (hiking boots in the recycling bin, mp3 player in a slipper, gloves in my bed); folders and notebooks smeared all over the floor and desk like the residue of autumn leaves that cover the street. My supplies-cupboard (which I like to call ‘the pantry’) used to contain most of my food and ‘supplies’ but now has been reduced to some Ryvitas, half a jar of pickles and thousands of dark chocolate Tunnocks teacakes which my mother brings me every time she comes to visit once a fortnight. My right eye is a large throbbing growth which arrived the day before my last exam and apparently is going to hang around for a few more days to soak up the atmosphere before it leaves me alone and returns me back to looking like a real human being and not half of Admiral Ackbar. Needless to say, some things need sorting out here before we can properly move on.


Then I suppose I’ll just be doing everything I’ve wanted to do for the past two months and haven’t been able to. I’m going to go to the garden and dig some things, go to the shops and buy more than just milk, maybe even find the time to treat myself to a trip to the doctors to deflate my eye. Go punting and visit the botanical gardens. Make some jewellery and paint my toenails. Collect some stories for you lot.

And beyond that, what? Are we adults now? Was that the poison-arrow-frog initiation test? You’d think it was from the way you emerge from the final one: blinking in the sunlight and hand still aching, you find a thronging crowd outside the exam building held back by riot gates, poised with tubes and bags of silly string and confetti and gooey things and powdery things and stainy things all waiting for their own one friend to come out so they can smother them with the stinking, crusty coating of ‘trashing’ ingredients that is their own way of saying ‘We love and admire you for your bravery’. The medics finished with me and of course got the royal treatment, which I can only imagine was the precursor to sheer apocalyptic hedonism because we all know what medics are like. I got flower garlands and one made of lined paper because I’m a classy gal and because we were once sent a very threatening email from our college warning us not to use food products for trashing because it’s offensive to homeless people who might look on in jealous peckishness (“I’d give anything for a raw egg mixed with cocoa powder right now…rich bastards…”). The weather is blistering, the day is young and there’s still one more box on the exam schedule that needs crossing out with a big red pen. I’ll catch you all later, bunnies.

Coda

“Parker, I need some kinda sentimental-type picture for the front cover by noon, you know, kittens or kites or that kinda crap. Get on it kid!” *repositions giant cigar between teeth*

It’s been a week since I came back to my family home after ten months in Germany. I can honestly say that a week is all it has taken to wish I was back there. Of course I miss the people I have found there and the place tremendously; odds are, there are some of you reading this and if you are one of those I was lucky enough to properly kennenlernen during my time there I really, truly, wish you were here. Or I was there, I’m not picky. Besides the standard pining and reminiscing however I can’t escape the persistent certainty that I’ve just finished – left – the best thing I will ever do with myself, for quite some time at least. My year abroad was not all hunky dory; I considered jacking it in so many times I feel like I now merit a Disney song about ‘going the distance’, ‘never giving up’ and ‘remembering who you are’. But every miserable day was worth it, every single move to every new flat, every early morning wading through snow or late afternoon falling asleep on the train, every horrible class or unfortunate mishap (2 broken cafetières! 4 lost pairs of gloves! Countless lost items of jewellery! Two permanent physical scars!). I spent ten months roaming the streets of the most strange, overwhelming and ever-developing cities in the world and now I’m sitting in my old bedroom surrounded by craft supplies typing a blog entry while looking out of the window onto a golden field of wheat, while a buzzard flies menacingly overhead and my two cats lie fatly in the hot sunbeams. 


 So what’s it like to be back in the British countryside after all this time? How do I feel to suddenly have been ripped out of a place and shoved unceremoniously into its exact opposite?

It’s…odd. Like being born, backwards. Being sucked from a world of noises and grown-ups and words you don’t understand and new sensations and people smacking you on the buttocks back into a snuggly, quiet womb, where mother provides the food and the restful chatter of the day and even while awake one is somehow asleep. It’s traditional, and sweet, and cozy here; yesterday saw my first and oh-so-welcome Sunday roast since Christmas, which was an epic affair and for anyone who knows UK traditions is rather like eating a huge delicious steaming portion of pure, savoury Britishness. The world outside is so quiet and peaceful compared to the screaming, partying, fornicating Berliner neighbours who spiced up every nighttime with their sound effects. After days of rain and the kind of grey skies that make you wonder if the sun has set forever, suddenly summer has re-descended on the countryside and the only sound that drifts through my open window is the noise of rustling foliage. I sit outside after lunch and read my books with a cup of tea . I turn on my radio to be soothed by the sultry sound of John Humphrys rather than the brisk bark of InfoRadio. This is the kind of rural idyll that divides Berliners into two groups: the group that heave a wistful sigh at the idea of a country retreat and dream of long walks through fields and distant cows, and the group that instantly begin to panic and choke at the thought that they might ever have to spend more than a few hours trapped in a world of quiet and plants and farmyards, where the only bus comes every hour and only takes you to a nearby town where everything is made of wicker. 

Being knee-deep in the countryside does have endless downsides, obviously. The fact that the nearest supermarket – hell, the nearest anything – is a good car or bus journey away is deeply unsettling for someone who is used to reaching out of her front door directly into the dairy section of Lidl for some emergency milk while putting the kettle on with her other hand. This environment is also tremendously soporific; I am finding myself constantly slipping into micro-sleeps, whether outside reading or on the sofa or upstairs fiddling with my bead collection. It’s frustratingly unproductive but hardly my fault given that this world is just so unspeakably soft – the carpets are cushiony where Berlin floors are hard and dusty, the mattresses are marshmallowy where mine was solid with a large canyon where many arses before mine have engraved a deep hollow in the stuffing, and the relative coldness of here compared to Berlin’s scorching summer heat means that one is constantly swaddled in a fluffy array of slippers and jumpers and brand new socks. Mmmmm…life here is squishy.

God I miss the fun of Berlin. The live music, the weird and gimmicky bars, the funny little caffs. Everything was nearby and the streets dripped with colour and invention. But this is rehab, a chance to lower my blood pressure and catch up on must-see series (there’s this odd little one I’m having a look at called “Mad Men”, do you know of it perchance?) and take the time to properly exfoliate from time to time. The question is how many weeks of this it will take before I am chewing the duvet, frothing at the mouth to be back somewhere, anywhere, where stuff happens.

This is my 98th post, and my 100th post will be my last here before I let this blog just quietly stand here like an old ruin, so that I can refer to it if needs be. My 99th post is going to be an odds-and-ends post to clear up anything left unclear or anything I haven’t addressed over the last ten months. Thus, everybody gird your loins because it’s time for some audience participation! Please leave in the comments below or in a message any topics or questions you want me to write about in my ‘mop-up’ penultimate post and I will  – I promise – do each and every one. You don’t have to sign up or anything to leave a comment, so go to town and join in without fear of identity theft. 

Berlin: Where “rest” is nothing more than a type of rubbish

And what do you find when you go looking for peace and quiet? Men on sticks, of course.

I’m a country lass, born and bred, as I believe you already know. Brought up surrounded by fields, farms and circling red kites, where the only traffic noise you could hear was the aggrieved squawk of a pheasant who had another pheasant standing in its way. It’s deadly dull when you’re little, of course, and you find yourself whiling away endless days making anything and everything out of sticks and rocks in order to pass the time, but once you’re older the true blissfulness of the situation begins to become obvious. It’s just so quiet, so relaxed, and the distance from any centre of urban activity is only annoying up until the point where you realise it is a sacrifice worth making in order to have the joy of seeing sheep and partridges out of your bedroom window.

Berlin is not like this. Berlin is noisy. Good grief, it’s the noisiest place I have ever been for more than a fortnight (I say this as I was once in Hanoi and being in that city is like having your head inside a metal bucket while someone hammers it with a pole from the outside). As I write, the builders who have for no evident reason overtaken our building to renovate it are apparently just throwing heavy things around for fun and dragging other heavy things along a stretch of corrugated tin. These cheerful men arrive every day around 6.30am to begin their work, a lot of which seems to involve a large and powerful flamethrower which I had thought I was simply dreaming until I saw the weapon lying by the Innenhof door. I am glad that our Hausmeister is ensuring that the building stays in good nick, but on the other hand I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in about a month and I am starting to develop a psychotic twitch. 

I also have the good fortune to have the bedroom facing into the Innenhof. In Berlin flats, every building has an interior courtyard where all the bikes and bins are parked and where the windows all face each other. Thus my bedroom window looks out into everyone else’s flat and vice versa, and now that it’s summer and everyone’s windows are casually left open the entire Innenhof has become a gallery of people’s private but very LOUD goings on. Thus complimenting the jolly morning builders I am subjected to a throbbing techno rave from one of three different flats every single night at sleepytime, which occasionally gives way either to the Dolby Surround(TM) thunder of the next-door neighbours’ action film evenings or the equally loud and unignorable sounds of them doing it like they do on the Discovery channel, if you get my drift.

The whole city is a frenzied exhausting mess of noise, from the punks on the street yelling at each other’s dogs, to the church bells which ring whenever the hell they feel like it, to the over-cheerful “boooo-BEEEE-booo” of the S-Bahn doors which is starting to have the same effect on me as the “boo-bee-boo-boo-bee” in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘. Children screech around the streets like gibbons in the rainforest and terrible amateur indie-rock-folk bands spontaneously start three-hour grunge-jam sessions mere metres away from the bar you and your friends choose to have a quiet after-work drink. Buskers lodge their bongos directly in your ears and bicyclists yell at you for having a mass and a circumference. I feel like I have a miniature television glued to each of my shoulders permanently switched to full-volume MTV Cribs/Pimp my Ride marathons. Us country types are gentle and fragile souls, so we are. Sometimes the need to and impossibility of escape gets a bit much. My curtains are transparent orange gauze, so my bedroom offers no repose. This morning on the bus I closed my eyes and tried to retreat into a quiet inner oasis when the bus driver suddenly pumped the brake on and off repeatedly, making the bus lurch around like a breakdancing camel, before he then looked at me in the rear-view mirror and made the following announcement over the loudspeaker: “NICHT schlafen!!” 

So where does one go when one needs a bit of time out of the Gewimmel? Luckily the genius of Berlin is that its sheer rambunctious noise is well-recognised and antidotes are provided here and there for those of a more sensitive disposition. The Botanicher Garten is a wonderful place to spend an entire day, requiring nothing more than a tiny entrance fee to allow you to dopily drift around the gorgeous wild-flower meadow and romantic Italian garden and steamy glasshouses for as long as you like into the early evening. There is an incredibly brilliant bakery on the way from the S-Bahnhof to the gardens where you can pick up little bags of shortbread covered in butterscotch and seeds or puff-pastry diamonds dusted with spices and cheese, and with those in your pocket there’s little more you need for a perfect Sunday. 

Berlin is also surrounded by its many Sees, lakes which range in size from the massive kind which lend themselves to wholesome activity days of bike riding and bird watching to the smaller kind which are simply big ponds and perfect for a good long reflective wander. The Lietzensee in Charlottenburg is particularly sweet, cut in half by a mysterious-looking bridge-tunnel-thing and with a cafe on one end where one can sit and regard the ducks and resist the urge to go and throw bread at them and giggle like a five-year-old. The Plötzensee, as mentioned in a previous post, is ideally suited for a beer and a sunbathe, while the Wannsee has canoe hire on offer, among other things. If you are a wandering or nature-type, you won’t be short of places to escape to here.

But this is all dependent on the weather not being as it is right now, namely rainy and windy and petulantly impulsive like a spoilt little girl. Where do you go when the idea of being outside makes your soul shiver? That’s a tricky one, but there are still options. Most café owners in Berlin seem to think that the average customer likes eardrum-quaking blasts of 1980’s classics while they nurse their espresso macchiato, but Berlin’s libraries are often fantastic places, busy but quiet and often featuring somewhere to get a coffee or ice lolly (which we all know is crucial to the reading process). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally pop to the library simply for a good hour of reading books I would never dream of actually loaning, such as books on quilting or vegan shoe production or (nostalgic sigh) good old Asterix and Tintin. Hey, if it’s in German it counts as education. The Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek has a particularly good book selection and a friendly man who helps you with the stacks orders, while the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg library has a huge array of music and CDs. If being in a labyrinth of fingered books isn’t your bag and you just want to sit somewhere a surprising pocket of calm can be found in the smaller bakeries, where there is usually no background music, one or two little shaky plastic tables and a friendly lady who’ll brew you up a peppermint tea for a few cents. 

Alternative moments of meditation can be found riding the escalators all the way up to the top of the eight-story Galeria Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz and back down again, accidentally riding the train all the way to somewhere remote or drifting around pet shops being mesmerised by the lizards and baby rabbits. I have also heard on the grapevine that the holy grail of quiet time-killing is any Apple store, where you can go and play with the iPads/Pods/Puffs for hours without any of the hipster staff telling you to shove off. But don’t quote me on that; who knows what those people have been trained to do… 

The Plague

“And ye shalt all be punished for your sins by damage of yon intestynes and kidneees!”

You may or may not be aware, but Germany is in the middle of the biggest health scare since <insert irritating Bild article here>. Its name is EHEC, it’s a virus which might cause permanent damage to your kidneys or intestines, and if it’s feeling really racy that day it might even go the whole hog and kill you. Some newspapers are genuinely calling it a plague, while even the initial skeptics such as myself are starting to get a little uneasy about it since it’s spreading, it’s dangerous and no-one has any clue what causes it. One thing’s for sure: now’s the time to be buying cucumbers, as the poor things are languishing on shelves for mere cents a piece. The question is, are you going to take the risk?

I suppose that if there’s one thing I will always be able to say about my year abroad, it’s that it was never boring. Trust me to come over here in a plague year. The reaction to this new crisis is rather jarring, as no-one is really quite sure what to do. At first Spanish cucumbers were thought to be the source, and although they needed a couple more days to be completely certain that they has caused the spread the German government did the understandable thing and advised people to avoid them while they were so heavily under suspicion. Spain has been furious about this, as evidently it would have been better to keep quiet and let people chow down on potentially infected food as long as the vaguely-tasteless vegetable trade is kept on an even keel. Since then it has been determined that the cucumbers are, in fact, not the cause of the infection, although the fact that many of the samples were chosen for study because they were host to other types of E. Coli is apparently something we are also now allowed to completely ignore. We now have no idea what could possibly cause it but for some reason the governments are determinedly upholding their warning against cucumbers, tomatoes and salad, as they are the foods which all the victims have in common; given that this is a country that lives on Brötchen and that every filled Brötchen contains at least one slice of tomato, cucumber and one lettuce leaf this seems rather unsurprising. What about Wurst??

Trying to find some kind of better factual source to find out about this is not easy; all the newspapers are relishing making this sound as doomsdayesque as possible, so real figures or realistic risk assessments only crop up very occasionally in comparison to exciting-sounding repetitions of the words “bloody diarrhoea”. When real facts do emerge they are fascinatingly strange; the predominance in women being chalked down to the fact that women are cooking more and therefore more in contact with unwashed produce (thanks a lot, chauvinist PIGS), or the fact that for some reason strawberries have been found to be completely safe. In my search for genuine information I foolishly went to the forums of Toytown Germany, a site which offers a community for English-speaking people who have moved to Germany.
It’s a brilliant idea of course, and the concept works very well; there are discussion boards for people to ask questions and help each other out, and the community feeling is well-established through frequent and regular themed meet-ups for anyone who might feel a bit lost or just want to get out a bit more. However, there are two reasons why I myself have never quite got stuck into the ‘Town myself:
1) once you start fraternising with your own kind over here, particularly in Berlin and other big cities, it is all too easy to stay in the pack forever. I want to meet natives, goddammit; I want to learn their customs, partake in their rituals and try on the loincloths, you know? And I am of the opinion that one of the best ways to do that is just to dive straight in Bruce-Parry style and drink the cow’s blood.
2) The site is, despite its many friendlinesses, one of the most hostile online environments I have ever witnessed.

The discussion forums are the nucleus of the whole operation, and just a cursory glance around the various threads seems to suggest that if these discussions were taking place in a pub rather than online people would be hitting each other with tankards and chucking Pilsner at each other. There is not a single topic that doesn’t seem to at some point spontaneously take a horrible and bitter turn and become bewilderingly insulting and aggressive. Take the case of a poor, confused student who simply wanted to move to Berlin and get a job there for a bit. He turned to the website hoping for a little support and some suggestions from the friendly ex-pat community; what he got instead was a textbook case of the lace-curtain twitchers, as the members berated him for coming over here, stealing our jobs… “It’s hard enough to get a job as a real Berliner without you thoughtless hippies coming here and thinking you’ll just find work,” complained a variety of non-real-Berliners who had come here and just found work in the place in question. 


But the EHEC discussion is one of the worst. How can people get so toxic and so vicious about an impersonal disease? The thread, beginning with a mild discussion of the risks, devolved into personal attacks so fast you’d think they were trying to be a metaphor for a virulent mutated strain of some horrible intestinal virus. One member immediately mounted her skyscraper-high horse and declared that vegetarians have known for years that you don’t need any of the risk foods if you have soy in your life, while another quite jarringly but with astonishing confidence compared EHEC to the horrible Love Parade incident a while back where a few poor people got crushed to death at a music festival due to overcrowding. No, I don’t really understand why either, but when asked to explain his comment he simply responded with, “Well I don’t see why I should and I don’t like your tone, but all I’m saying is that the government just sat and allowed innocents to die brutally.”


This doesn’t particularly have a moral except to say that it’s fascinating how a resource that is supposed to create a sense of unity and support so often falls back on hostility and conflict. There are hundreds of members throughout the country, and they all clearly get something out of it, but between the lines there’s a kind of ‘I know what I’m doing here, but what are you doing here??’ feel to the whole thing. 


But let me use this to give advice to anyone thinking of coming here on their year abroad: don’t rely on the ex-pat and foreign student support services you might find here. They may help you find you find your feet, but you will do much better to get out there and find your own mini-community who are there for you – not because you have a life situation in common but because you have stumbled upon each other and find each other worthwhile human beings. It’s not easy and it’s definitely slow going, but in the end when you are lying in your hospital bed with EHEC you’ll want people at your side and not an open laptop.


P.S. The picture at the top of this post is from the Bear Pit Karaoke session which takes place every Sunday at the Mauerpark Flea Market. It began some years ago when a crazy Irish dude saw the mini-Colosseum stage in the park and decided to set up a speaker and a microphone so that people could make idiots of themselves in the most public way possible outside of the broadcasting networks. It became so popular so fast that he now has a karaoke buggy with speakers and laptop and sound equipment bolted on, a loyal girlfriend who fiddles with his cables (no, she really does) and a waiting list of people dying to sing their favourite song. The event always begins with this beardy and formidable bear of a man singing the German version of “My Way” (‘Mein Leben’) and he himself has become such a legend that this time a woman leapt out of the audience to hand him a single white rose, which he unfortunately snapped in his sheer passion. The talent is…variable, ranging from the lanky Bowie-a-like who sang a sultry version of ‘Summertime’ without music to the woman who sung ‘Beat It’; she had dressed up as Michael Jackson, learned the dance and even done her hair as the Jacko, but evidently was so wrapped up in her preparation that it never crossed her mind to ever once in her life LISTEN TO THE SONG. “Beat it…beat it…bea…beat it…it…b…beat…beat it….” For an excruciating four minutes.

Pinch, punch…

You should see the size of the Jenga…

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


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

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

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

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

Spring Awakening

An old abandoned brewery, a huge graffiti mural and a startling blue sky. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

We have had sunny skies for more than three days in a row, there are people on the streets wearing shorts and all the cafés now have tables and chairs outside as well as inside. All signs would point to this officially being the start of Spring, or rather the end of the longest and most gruelling Winter of my life. I headed over to my afternoon’s lessons to find the school unexpectedly shut and as echoingly empty as an abandoned amusement park and thus found myself with a whole glorious afternoon in Berlin all to my disposal. In celebration I immediately went to the nearest shopping centre, bought a pair of sunglasses (in itself this was a risky manoeuvre as every pair of sunglasses on the market makes me look like an electron microscope image of a fly’s face) and went marching around the city in the manner to which I have become partial. 


The minute the sun shines on this city it truly does metamorphose; suddenly the grey concrete blocks surrounding you are no longer imposing but exciting in their sheer bigness, the graffiti seems like a wild anarchic doodle as opposed to a gritty rejection of society and the people begin to be softer, kinder, more spirited. On the S-Bahn a terrifying-looking gangster man with a trucker hat perched atop his scalp, an array of gangsta accessories splayed on the seat next to him and drinking from a bottle of beer which itself managed to be threatening in being covered with German flags and nationalistic slogans, was taking up the only free seat on the train with his flotsam and jetsam. Being exhausted and dizzy I eventually plucked up the courage to ask if I could use the seat he was using as a cloakroom and was delighted when he turned to me and with a huge and glittering white smile gently uttered ‘Auf jeden Fall’ and cleared his things away. And sure, so he then kicked his beer bottle along the train aisle before he left the carriage, but you could tell that even this man was fundamentally a Good Egg.



My wander took me past old people drinking espressos on the street, past young people sitting on a bench which was actually an old bathtub missing one side, an abandoned brewery basking in the afternoon sun like a big elephant seal, past beach bars gearing up to put their deckchairs out for the start of the season, through parks where puppies and babies scampered around in the only way they know how…cheek-chewingly cliché as this all sounds, it all got my heart beating a little bit quicker because there is just a general sense in this city at the moment of something great coming on the horizon. 


Particularly lovely is the beginning of preparations for German Easter, which very much like Christmas is exactly the same here as in the UK but about 25% more cute. The selection of Easter chocolates is so much nicer; you can buy multicoloured and adorable little eggs filled with marzipan, lovely coffee goo, chocolate truffle, nutella, that strange beige Kinder Bueno gubb, and a million other flavours, the chocolate rabbits are available in every hue and pose from sporty to studious to sexy and there is not a single trace of those disappointing chocolate-bar themed big eggs that promise to be ‘filled’ with what turns out to be just one risibly small sample-sized version of the thing emblazoned all over the packaging. Easter decorations are also a big deal. Every shop in the place sells ‘Ostergras’, a lurid green hay which I love for its all-purpose purposelessness and the fact that actually, when you really look at it, it honestly does just look fun and pretty and sweet, which is exactly what a festival about chocolate and baby animals ought to do. The array of little decorated eggs and mini pipe-cleaner chicks you can buy is impressive and I am already greedily eyeing them up for a Harvest Moon-themed set of jewellery. 


I have been in Germany for the Easter run-up three times now and it never fails to get me squealing a little inside. It’s just so sweet! I will never forget being given, in a shop in Köln, a tiny sugar Spiegelei (fried egg, and by the by one of the absolute greatest words in the German language; who couldn’t love a populace who call fried eggs ‘mirror eggs’??) alongside my change when I bought some Easter goodies. The kids are, of course, sharpening their little teeth ready for the day in question and are unspeakably excited whenever I mention that they might be getting an Easter present if they are good; one group who are always late to lessons have been earning points for every time they turn up punctually and know that the kids with the most points will get an Ostergeschenk. They are truly so hopped-up about this idea that they have started coming to class half an hour early and waiting cross-legged outside the locked door before I even arrive, like Star Wars fans waiting for a seventh film a week before its release.


Not to mention, as I have already touched upon above, the fact that these little and barely-warm licks of sunshine have transformed everyone here into smiling and cheer-spreading versions of their former selves. This is why seasonal affective disorder is in my opinion a complete pile of bollocks; you’re telling me you feel depressed when you have to rip yourself out of a heart-breakingly warm and comfy bed to venture out into the wet and sin-dark morning wrapped in a million layers of itchy wool? And that you feel suddenly less depressed when you peel the duvet off to discover balmy temperatures, fresh sunshine and jewel-blue skies? CALL THE CLERGY. Honestly, everyone is depressed in Winter and conversely everyone suddenly recovers the minute the sun shines. The streets seem somehow wider and you can come home from work to enjoy a glass of wine in the evening light rather than mummified in your six dressing gowns in front of drab Winter television. 


And if all this wasn’t enough to get you feeling giddy with anticipation about the coming months, here are some words that will do the trick: barbecues. Bellinis. Swimming. Cream teas. Lambs. Skirts. Flipflops. 


I for one couldn’t be more excited. Finally the city I love is showing me that it loves me too and I can even stay out for over an hour looking at it without tiny ice crystals whipping at my face. 


And despite the fact that when I first wore them to a school, the man at reception declared in front of a drift of children and coworkers that I look like a porn star, I also love my new sunglasses.

The cool kids are raving, but I’d rather be engraving…

“Hey mum, did you bring anything cool back when you finished your year in Berlin, like a piece of the wall or something?” “No dear, but I do have this rather eclectic selection of lampwork beads.”

Forgive the poor lighting in this picture, but I just had to show you the fruit of my weekend’s labours. For those of you who don’t know me too well, I’m a bit obsessed with crafting, and in particular I have a lot to do with making jewellery in various media. But making my own beads directly out of glass is something I have always wanted to try and never been able to have a go at, so when I found a course at a Volkshochschule (adult evening school) in making glass beads like the Vikings, I couldn’t whip the 20 euros out of my pocket fast enough. For 7 hours a day, Saturday and Sunday, I and a collection of overweight middle-aged women sat patiently at flames, melting rods of glass over lengths of wire with our fantastically intelligent Phd-qualified teacher, who had her doctorate in archaeology and had since then become fascinated by the glass-bead-making techniques of early civilisations like the Vikings, Celts and men of the Middle Ages. It is one of the best weekends I have had so far here in the city; the techniques involved are mesmerising, and winding glowing translucent globules of glass around each other and pulling them into long spiralling threads is tirelessly beautiful to watch and do. The only way I could have been happier is if I could have ignored the nagging sinking feeling that in some way I am wasting my youth. Thus is the curse of Blue Peter.The point is, though, that the Volkshochschule in Germany and in Berlin especially is utterly wonderful and I urge all world leaders who are reading this (Condoleeza, you know you ma dawg) to come over, have a gander and then try their best to replicate it. Germany makes a big deal of learning for the whole duration of your life. No matter what you are interested in or what you choose to learn, it is simply important that people are given the chance to try out and educate themselves about new things without having to sell a kidney for it or jump through thousands of academic hoops; when I first started learning silversmithing in the UK, I had to write a compulsory portfolio about all my work, all the techniques I learnt and developed and all the health and safety fandangos that I was forced to pretend to adhere to. No-one on earth wants to do that for nothing, of course, and so what resulted was a lacklustre selection of doodles of my projects accompanied by write-ups using a formula I adapted from GCSE chemistry experiment write-ups and, my favourite part, a section in the back about techniques where I had simply sellotaped (or I think a few bits were simply stuck on by coffee stains) chunks of textured and worked metal directly onto the tissue-thin printer paper I was using for this monument to laziness. I received a merit.


In Germany, if it’s a thing, there is a no-strings course you can do in it. There are courses which are simply accompanied walks around certain districts which stop by certain interesting things; courses where you can make sushi; courses where you go to the theatre, although I’m not sure how that differs to, oh, say, just going to the darn theatre; courses where you can make animals out of felt, hats out of leather, trousers from your own patterns…the selection is exemplary and it feels wonderful to be in a land where every curious whim can be indulged and then broadened into a full-on obsession for a matter of a few euros or so. Some of the women on this course (sadly certain courses do have a certain gender bias) had been to four or more of exactly the same course just because they like the teacher and the particular format. One woman, who kindly spent all the time she wasn’t making her perfect beads glaring over her flame at me and snapping that I was DOING IT WRONG, had even bought herself all the equipment and extra materials to use in the course. Admittedly, it escapes me why she continued to attend the weekends rather than simply using all the workshop equipment she had bought to actually do the hobby she did in the comfort of her own home, but then again I suspect she may have been lonely; she was binge-eating Russisches Brot, an odd kind of thin gingerbread biscuit which inexplicably always comes in the shape of letters, for the entire length of each class – if that’s not a warning sign I don’t know what is.


Anyway, I absolutely lapped it up and would like to give a virtual standing ovation to Germany and Berlin for understanding that it’s great to have something to learn and practice no matter what else you do with your life. I would also like to reassure people that the standard roles within the classroom are in no way made obsolete once people reach adulthood. Our teacher’s pet was, naturally, Miss Russisches Brot. The troublemaker was the woman sitting next to me (who also had a continuous stream of treats, peanut M&Ms, flowing into her mouth as if on a conveyor belt) who, once she realised she did not have the knack for glasswork, declared loudly that the problem was that Viking beads were simply ugly and that’s that. The quiet unassuming one sat adoringly next to Shrewface (teacher’s pet) and spent the whole time making fistfuls of identical monochromatic purple beads and whispering how much she loved purple. I wonder who I was. Probably the class slut.


Am starting a course in silversmithing tomorrow. Stay tuned.

 



I guess all the weekend warriors died in combat some time ago

“Fish: a sea of healthiness.” You’re damn right they are, Mr. Abandoned Fish Trailer Dude.

I hate Sundays in Berlin. With every Sunday I experience in this city my hatred grows and ferments, beginning to resemble the kind of simmering whiny hatred only experienced by South-English children in the 1940s who had to spend Sundays being dragged to church and then kissed by hairy-lipped aunties and grandmas. 

Berlin is practically the capital of Europe. It’s effortlessly cool and during the week a complete bulldozer of a city; you pulse around the place all day, day after day, driven constantly onwards in waves like blood cells racing through arteries. Everyone has an intense look on their face, whether it’s intense happiness, concentration, boredom, or simply the ferocious intensity with which the myriad people on the trains chew their midday bakery products, the muscles of their jaws straining like the sinewy flesh of a greyhound. Everyone is doing something all the time and something is always going on. There’s always something to buy and somewhere to be and something to look at or look away from. You can’t be waiting at a bus stop without there being at least one person of above-average interest there to gawp at (for example, the astonishingly severely buck-toothed guitar player and his band who were waiting for the Ersatzbus and trying through their unbelievable teeth to repeatedly shout the word ‘Schweinerei’).

Then Sunday comes.

Suddenly the sabbath descends upon Berlin like a mass recreation of the film ‘I am Legend’. No-one is around, save the few dribbles of people on the streets who are almost always dreadlocked homeless people or wholesome young families with toddlers wearing fleece hats. The shops ALL close and might as well board up their windows with old planks of wood and huge theatrical-looking nails since they take on the appearance of a place that has been abandoned forever. The few attractions still open, such as a smattering of cinemas, advertise the fact that they are open on Sundays as if they are offering a sip from the cup of eternal life rather than a crappy chick flick. The fact that cafes and pubs are still open is the one thing that prevents me from spending every Sunday in my room rocking back and forth in a corner.

 This Sunday was no exception, and so after a few pleasant hours browsing through the Lufthansa website not at all getting furious about their lack of decent flight times or prices, I eventually braced myself and decided that a serious and long walk was in order to at least prevent myself from disintegrating into a gelatinous substance. 

















The only few people that were around were a gang of cheery anarchists (pictured) who were putting up bunting between their aggressively graffitied buildings. As only people with my kind of short, hefty legs can, I trekked determinedly onwards towards Volkspark Friedrichshain yearning for some greenery and maybe a sparrow or two to satisfy my deeply ingrained countryside upbringing. 

And now I know where Berlin goes on a Sunday. Everyone was there, blissfully wandering around the park holding hands as if they’d all decided that was going to be the done thing on the seventh day of the week. Volkspark Friedrichshain is a stunningly beautiful park; it has a garden of sculptures, a selection of sweet little ponds and a round hill encompassed by a spiral path which takes you up to a central lookout where you can see the sun set (and be frantically waved at by a little German boy who looks dumbfounded when you finally wave back). It also has a themed oriental garden, and as I walked through this I gawped at all the people I thought were simply hibernating and the lights of the lovely little park restaurant glowing in the dusk and the fake pagoda fading into shadow…and at that moment, no word of a lie, a man on a bench began to play ‘La Vie en Rose’ on an accordion and I thought: Oh come on, this has got to be some kind of an ironic joke. But it wasn’t. On Sundays, evidently Berlin stops and time for oneself begins; people go out with their friends but more likely their families and just wander and drink Holunderpunsch and breathe the air. 

I spent the next hour and a half lesson planning in the Cafe Tasso on Frankfurter Allee with wonderful coffee and three (I think the waitress took pity on me) complimentary delicious little circles of hazelnut shortbread and a fantastically bitter book by Jonathan Franzen. I can’t recommend this cafe enough; they have a huge second-hand bookshop running through and under the place with every book for a euro, they feature live music four nights a week, there are blankets all over the place for maximum levels of comfy and the cakes look ta-die-for. Thank you Berlin. You are teaching me to be lazy.