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.

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.