Sticky summer evenings – time for Tzatziki Tzalad!

Three seconds after this photo was taken, the entire bowl spontaneously burst into flames.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s hot. Sad-dogs-lying-on-the-pavement hot. People-eating-ice-cream-at-10-am hot. Invasion-of-psychotic-fruit-flies-everywhere hot. After months and months and months of perpetual greyness, Europe is being rewarded for its patience with an intense burst of all its missed summers delivered in one portion. People don’t know whether to be overjoyed or to succumb to the misery of being so very, very sweaty. Children have started quietly dissolving into tears on the S-Bahn, confused and upset that they are simply so uncomfortable and why the hell can’t mum do anything about it like she usually does?

But the worst thing about dealing with the heat in Berlin is that it’s a constant toss-up between two very different, very potent and very annoying evil forces. On the one hand, you have the hot summer, damply packed into every room like wads of cotton wool. The unmoving air which makes the excel spreadsheet swim in front of your eyes until you feel like hurling the Macbook against the wall and running away, laughing maniacally. That humid heaviness on your skin, like someone’s warm hand pressed against your face.

But on the other hand there’s the bloody godawful NOISE of the place. This city is a cacophony, so obnoxiously loud that you sometimes wonder whether things aren’t being deliberately amplified just to make this effect as overwhelming as possible. You cannot imagine the noise; it’s like putting your head inside a metal bucket and having someone beat the outside of it with a massive frying pan. The eternal dilemma is whether or not to have the window open. In the office, it’s an impossible decision. Directly outside our windows – I mean directly, insofar as I could pat one of the builders on the head without even stretching – there is a colossal building works happening on the side of the neighbouring block. 


The loudness verges on being comical. The builders use a lift to go up and down which makes a noise like seven pneumatic drills switched on and thrown into an empty petrol tanker. They chuck large pieces of equipment about, vigorously hammer everything in sight, and – which is probably the worst part – raucously wolf-whistle and banter, probably roused by the beer which all German builders are for some reason allowed to drink while on the job.

At home, the situation is not much better. I live on an astoundingly loud street, where people regularly have fights below my bedroom window and where the local homeless man has a nightly mantra which sounds a little like this: “BAAAAAAAA! AAAAADABABAAAAAA! MNPHNMAAAAAAA! GRRRRAAAAA!” (repeat until dawn) Last night was something special. Despite it being a narrow and rather short little street, it sounded like they were replaying every film in the Fast and Furious series directly under my window. From what I heard, I am certain that at least three trucks did donuts in the middle of the road, then some guys came with low-riders and did drag-racing up and down the street, and then everyone had a big gangsta fight while their hos revved the engines to provide atmosphere. And, as usual, just as I was finally able to blissfully slip into a prayed-for sleep, some men in overalls came with a giant van and started throwing large bins full of glass into the back of it. Cheers guys, thanks for keeping our city green, even if it is 6.30 in the morning.

But to the point: the heat isn’t making things easy. Cooking in particular is pretty much out of the question at the moment in this flat; with a gas hob and an oven whose door droops open like an idiot’s mouth, any attempt to actually cook raises the temperature in the flat to centre-of-a-volcano levels. At times like this, all you can do is make something cool, crunchy and with as little gas involved as possible. And then follow it up with a giant slice of chilled watermelon and a therapeutic session of screaming back at the local homeless man.

***Chilled Tzatziki Tzalad*** 

This is such a perfect summer-night dinner, and I really recommend making it half an hour before you need it so you can stick it back in the fridge and let the flavours broaden a bit while everything gets nice and cold (did you know that cold temperatures increase the tongue’s ability to experience flavour, making tastes seem more intense?). Serves 1, so just multiply as required.

1/2 large red pepper
1/2 cucumber
1 stick celery
1/4 red onion (optional, but I like my quasi-Greek food stinky!)
3-4 generous tablespoons Greek yogurt/quark
1/2 garlic clove
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
Very generous pinch of salt (don’t skimp, this needs to be well-seasoned)
A few grinds of black pepper
*I made this with a bit of chicken I had kicking about in the fridge, but it’s just as good with some chickpeas or white beans instead.

1. (optional) Slice the chicken into chunks, season with salt and pepper, and lightly sauté until cooked through and golden. Put aside to cool, it cannot be used hot.
2. Chop the pepper, celery, cucumber and onion into bite-sized chunks.
3. Mince the garlic. TIP: this is super easy if you lay some clingfilm over the rasp part of your grater and rub the garlic over the top – you can then just peel off the clingfilm with the garlic and scrape it off without getting most of the garlic eternally stuck in your grater.
4. Mix the garlic, yogurt/quark, salt, pepper, mint and lemon juice in a large bowl.
5. Throw in the veg and chicken/chickpeas, then stir everything together well.
6. Pile into the serving dish and chill for 30 mins before serving. Eat with flatbread/pita.

Feelin’ the buuuuuuurn

Sadly this isn’t my gym. This is evidently the branch of Superfit where Tron was filmed.

Exercising in general doesn’t really work out well for me. When I arrived in Berlin, I had no choice but to go running – in public – which was fine, apart from two serious issues: the first being the unbelievable complaints and funny looks I get when I have to do that bouncy-joggy-boingy thing at pedestrian crossings, and the second being the horrendous shinsplints that jogging on uneven surfaces seems to give me. Ow.

I missed the gym. I missed the cross-trainer, and the terrible music, and the fact that treadmills have a nice lectern you can put your things on so you don’t have to shove your keys inside your bra. And I realised that, as someone who is likely to be unemployed for a considerably long time, I would need something to keep me going and stop me from aimlessly drifting until I lost my mind. After a lot of careful research and the inevitable moment of ‘Oh hell I’ll just pick one at random because for god’s sake!’ I marched over to my local Superfit and signed on.

The moment I walked through the unspeakably shiny glass door, I knew this was a totally different ball game to my old creaky gym in Berkshire. In my old gym, the ‘technology’ was limited to one ancient CRT-display computer (you know, the really old ones that for some reason were always a pale beige colour) which never registered my age so kept me on a child’s membership for my entire time there until my cancellation last month. Here, the beefy chap at the counter who looked like Morpheus ushered me to a round, black table littered with pristine iPads, into which I tapped in all my details using a foam-tipped silver wand. “Hello,” thought I, “This is a bit swish, innit!”

At the time I left my old gym, it had developed even more character since my last related post. The walls had cracked and leaked enough that they finally brought a painter in, and I watched as he spent the morning covering over all the cracks in an unfortunate shade of ‘Winter Magnolia’ which did not quite match the current shade of ‘Sicilian Apricot’. With the walls now looking like a tie-die of pus, they brought in new cross-trainers which required you to do a kind of awkward forward-shuffle with your legs, like how dads put on their slippers in the morning. The card reader for the door had fallen off the wall and been duct-taped back on. It was a gym you had to love for its homely charm alone, and it cost about £35 a month for an adult membership.

I am in love with my new gym. It costs me €18,95 a month, and for that I get not just a workout but an adventure. Seriously, exercising in my gym is like exercising in the future; it’s like a fitness center in a spaceship. When you enter, there are drinks dispensers on the check-in desk which swirl luminous green and orange liquids around like cocktails in the Death Star’s nightclub. To the left of all the machines is the classes studio, which is a shiny black-dark space walled off with tinted glass and illuminated with strobing multicoloured lights which fade in and out like the heartbeat of a flux capacitor. The only classes they had at my old gym were spin classes, which were simply a lesson in the stages of human agony performed directly in front of the machine-users to torment us as we jogged. In my Berlin gym, the classes are amazing, choreographed sessions led by beautiful smiling androids; the class I always seem to coincide with is some kind of combat-punching-aerobics class which is mesmerising; it genuinely looks like hundreds of Tekken characters practising their moves in perfect synchronicity. 

Every machine is its own unit of futuristic science and magic. Each one has its own little air-vent so you can choose your own level of cooling breeze, and each one has a big computer screen on which you can watch telly, control your iPod, or simply watch your progress on a strange graph which seems to represent a hill and effort and time and energy expended and other things all at once in a series of orange and red shapes. Even the lockers have a robotic lock that closes automatically and flashes blue when you hold your card against it. Everything you use feels cool and high-tech; I like to run while listening to action-movie soundtracks and pretending I’m a starship warrior training for future battles. 

Another element of entertainment comes from the fact that half of the machines are lined up along the broad, shining glass wall of the gym which cuts it off from the shopping center that houses it. This means that as you exercise you can observe the kinds of people who come all the way to the top floor to go to the hairdressers and the toy shop. Oddly, large numbers of people seem to ride the escalator all the way to the top simply to turn around and immediately ride back down again, which tells me something about human nature, although I’m not quite sure what. Is is heartwarming to watch kids with back-turned baseball caps and enormous schoolbags strut into SpieleMax and come out with Pokemon cards (yes!! They’re still alive!), and I love the way that they look at us through the window, a bemused stare which reminds us that we’re all essentially mental: running on the spot on a machine in a hermetically-sealed room in our own free time.

But that’s the one thing I do miss from my old gym. I miss the crazies. The German gym-goers are just so serious, so good at what they do, so athletic and so considerate (they always wipe the machinery clean with forensic precision once they’ve finished). I miss my old Berkshire cohorts; the insane old woman who looked like André 3000 in her rainbow windbreaker and sunglasses, half-heartedly pushing the weights, and the enormous bodybuilder whose varicose veins had bloomed into a purple-blue impressionistic vista all up and down his legs. The people who talk, or roar, as they exercise, and the people who don’t understand how the machines work and end up flailing helplessly on the treadmill as they pound the controls in desperation. We don’t have them in my new gym. I guess in the future, such people will simply be rounded up and destroyed.

The magic of Berlin’s old ladies

Probably the work of another Berlin Old Lady. She didn’t want the poor little thing catching cold.

Apologies, first of all, for taking so long to write another post. This last week has been rather a whirlwind as I have been negotiating a rather complicated and interesting job offer, the results of which I will reveal here as soon as I know what the HECK is going on. In my Verzweiflung, writing a new entry kept slipping my mind, and the time I had put aside to do so on Friday was engulfed instead by my attempt to make miniature pastry tart cases and burning the first dozen to a black, reeking crisp. But a true blogger always comes back, and here I am. Now, on to the post.

As my bank assistant showed me on a rather alarming diagram, the population of Germany is composed of a frankly enormous ratio of people of retirement age. Just like in the UK, the Germans have carefully practised protected intercourse and taken their vitamins every morning leading to the result that there are thousands of people living to age 100 and very few babies being born to man the factories making the cat food for all these ancient people. Well, for their cats, obviously. There are now whole districts of the city, such as Lichtenberg, which have become little havens for the elderly and feature enormous retirement compounds, out of which old people drift into the city like slow, trembling bees meandering out of the hive.

Old people here are often the good ol’ cantankerous type who get angry in queues and complain about youngsters. In the coverage of the flooding across Germany this week the radio station I listen to – a station beloved by older folk because of its purely factual content and occasional items about the history of white asparagus – reported with frank surprise the fact that most of the young people living in affected cities like Halle were joining in with the rescue and clean-up operations, each correspondent or interviewee sounding completely amazed that young people would drag their lazy bodies out of bed and/or put down their vandalism and drugs equipment to help out in a time of genuine crisis. And yesterday, waiting on the platform at Schöneberg station, I watched a furious  elderly woman turn to a child who was happily squeaking in its mothers arms and go “RAAAAAAARRGGH!!!”. To be fair, that child’s innocent glee was rather loud and grating, but it was an astonishing way to get it to quiet down. The woman also managed to silence every other person on the platform.


Beyond the occasional sighting in a supermarket or eruption on a platform, it is not usual for people my age to have much to do with elderly people, so it’s hard to get to know them beyond what we see day-to-day. And this is somewhat strange for me, because I have always seen a lot of my grandparents while living at home and have a built-in expectation to spend social time with people over 70 at least once a fortnight. To only hang out with people below sixty is rather odd for me. But I am pleased to report that I have got to know a few older people in my time here, and I am more pleased to report that the majority of elderly Germans are exactly the same as the majority of elderly Brits: kindly, sweetly, politely mental.

The first that I ever really became acquainted with were the parents of my first flatmate, who was a lovely divorced lady living with her twenty-something daughter in Charlottenberg. The grandparents would come over from time to time and seemed to find me charming as almost all old people do due to the fact that I have the face of an innocent eleven-year-old and the accent of Hermione Granger. I thought they were terrific; the grandfather was an ancient dude with authentic liver spots and dapper suits who had quite literally read a self-curated digest of all human knowledge. In his lifetime he had read enough to teach himself complex legal theory, Yiddish and Jewish cultural history, several languages, the full spectrum of philosophical thought and a thorough understanding of the foundations of the sciences and engineering. At the time I met him he was half-way through reading the Koran, as his newest project was to have read all of the key holy texts. He used to tell me excellent Jewish jokes over dinner and was so delighted to find that I am also a keen reader that he gave me a selection of books from his own private library. He was also a right mardy-arse from time to time with a deteriorating mind and used to occasionally resort to unbelievably strong emotional blackmail, seemingly from nowhere, which used to come at my flatmate and her mother out of nowhere and knock them sideways. They loved him, but occasionally he would get confused and become Hyde out of Jekyll. He sadly became much more unwell after I left Berlin for the first time and died shortly after; it was truly sad news which I felt acutely.

The grandmother, on the other hand, was a beaming and slightly wild old lady who simply took everything in her big Amazonian stride. You could tell she had always been a real winner. When I was invited to the family’s Sunday roast on Hallowe’en, she spied my ghost ‘costume’ (read: a pillowcase with two holes chopped into it and facial features drawn on in felt pen) hanging out of my English-teacher bag, abruptly yanked it on over her head and cloud of curly white hair, and flung open the door to a little clan of trick-or-treaters to scream “wooooOOOOOOOOoooooo!!!” She had never even encountered trick-or-treaters before and we didn’t have any sweets to give them but she enjoyed her own ‘trick’ so much she carried on for the rest of the evening every time there was a knock on the door. 

She was a woman who knew that life was to be lived – so stop whining. When we went en famille to the Christmas market, we walked past a Glühwein stall and she announced that now was the time for us all to drink a large Glühwein, even though it was only 3 in the afternoon. My friend began to say “No, maybe not…” but this magnificent woman simply cried “Don’t be ridiculous!” and bought us all steaming hot mugs of pure booze, followed by finger puppets, followed by a giant bowl of soup for me when I casually mentioned that I had never tried Soljanka before. Because what is the point in being alive if you don’t just respond to curiosity or temptation with a ‘what the hell, YES.’

There was also the grandmother I stayed with in my first visit to the Baltic coast, who generously supplied my friend and I with so many deviled eggs I feared the cholesterol would start seeping out of my nose. Every five seconds she would cry “Komm schon, NASCH MAL ‘n bisschen!!!!” (“Come on, have a nibble of something already!!!”) until we were so full we could not move. She showed me all 350 of the photos of her holiday to Miami – the only time she had ever been abroad – and also introduced me to her amazing collection of napkins, which she collected in different designs to accompany every season, holiday and type of guest.  

Not to mention the woman who lives to the right of me in my new building. She’s a bit of an old hippy. Sometimes my door sticks closed even after I unlock it and I cannot open it even when I run up against it and smash it with my shoulder like a fireman. But this lady hears my struggles when this happens, and placidly opens the door to see if I need help. She turns the key in the lock once to lock the door, and once in the other direction to unlock it again, and every single time the door then sighs open with casual ease. She doesn’t know how she does it, and nor do I; we both simply agree that she has ‘the touch’ whatever it may be, and I am grateful that she also evidently does not go to bed before 2am.

And then there’s the other old lady who lives to the left of me. Who inspired this post, because she noticed my front door was ajar and called into the flat to make sure there was someone there. 
 “Ah, you’re renovating,” she said to me when I answered.
“…um, no…? I’m just renting this flat here for three months.”
“Ah well, in that case it’s good to meet you. You know, I have a slipped disc. It’s agony!!”
“Oh gosh, that sounds horrible, I’m sorry!”
“Yes, I’m supposed to have an operation soon, but I don’t want it, I’d rather have physiotherapy but you know they operate far too much over here and there are far too many hospitals.”
“Oh right, I really am sorry. Would you like some ibuprofen?”
“Ohhhhh, do you have some? That would be wonderful. I’m off to visit my divorced husband who has Alzheimers. Do you know what that is?”
“Yes, I do, how awful, I truly am sorry.”
“Yes, it is very sad. I’m divorced, you see. My daughter is living with me at the moment, she is divorced too. She’s living with me but it’s not working at all. We are not getting on at all.”
“Oh no, that’s difficult, I’m sorry…um…so here are some ibuprofen tablets for you.”
“Thank you. You are a very sweet young woman. Now I must go to my divorced husband because he has Alzheimers, have a good Sunday.”

Die Vögel (The Birds)

Berlin wildlife: sparrows and techno-beetles.

In the UK, you might see the occasional pigeon. Wandering along the high-street…picking up bits of old chip in Burger King carparks…limping one-legged around train station platforms like a pathetic Richard III impression…making obscenely loud noises on your windowsill in the wee hours of the morning…accidentally flying down your chimney…clustered under picnic tables in parks…dumbly standing on a car roof…dumbly standing on the spikes put on buildings to repel pigeons…

Yes, pigeons are everywhere. There is a reason why we call them flying rats, and it’s not just because they are like little hors d’oeuvre crackers, carrying a selection of diseases and bacteria rather than smoked salmon and cream cheese. It’s also because you are never more than a couple of metres away from a pigeon at any point; even in your house they are often actually in the roof, their feet skittering away on your ceiling both hauntingly and annoyingly. And the Brits hate them, dear god we hate them good. We teach our children that it is a fun game to swing huge kicks at them to make them fly away (I used to enjoy a variation on this game where you walk at a brisk pace directly behind a pigeon, which simply freaks it out a little and makes it shiver its wings about so it looks like a dweeb). And, of course, they swarm about in Trafalgar Square in a frothing grey sea, fed enthusiastically by tourists and accused of harbouring nuclear radiation (remember that? Who came up with that hilarious idea?) by non-tourists.

Full disclosure, however: I happen to rather like them. I raised three pigeons from tender ages because they were brought to my dad, a vet, by people who had thought they were abandoned. I taught them to fly, which mainly involved chucking them into the air and occasionally poking them out of trees with a long stick when they got stuck in the branches. But as far as ‘urban wildlife’ go, they’re not the coolest things to see mooching about every square metre of a town. In Berlin, of course, we’re a bit more alternative.

Berlin’s speciality is its sparrows. Sure, there are pigeons, but they are almost a novely in comparison to the sparrows, who pip along every pavement like teeny little brown tiddlywinks. There are sparrows in tremendous quantities, great bushels of them, and the noise of them fills the sky with endless cheerful tweets (hashtag: peep peep peep). Speaking of bushels, that is where they like to get together for social events; you might be sitting on a bench one day when suddenly the bush behind you will erupt in frantic cheeping, although there will be no bird visible to the naked eye when you then turn to the bush in terrified curiosity.

I love the Berlin sparrows, despite the city’s half-hearted attempts to keep them under control. “Don’t feed the sparrows!” a bakery will signpost, while there are always three or four sparrows sitting directly on the sign enjoying the crumbs of some leftover Vollkornbrötchen. They are completely adorable. The males look stern and commanding with their dark-stained faces and rusty wings, and the ladies are sweet and soft in fawn brown. Unlike pigeons, their noises are charming and life-affirming, so cheerful and endless that they almost seem like background sound effects to a life-simulation-style computer game.

The sparrows enjoy the children’s playgrounds as much as the kids themselves. While the little Berlin babies smash around the climbing bars and slides causing distress and harm to themselves and other children, the tame little sparrows calmly use the sand as their feather-bath, whiffling around in little hollows in the dust to clean their wings. Sometimes they will hop up to you if you are on a bench and cock their head at you, musing about philosophical questions relating to the presence and availability of crumbs on your person. And unlike with pigeons, I almost always wish I had a few crumbs on me to give them; bless the tiny darlings, they deserve a treat.

So Berlin does urban bird-vermin better than the UK. Go figure. But did you know that they also have the squirrel sector totally covered? UK squirrels, as most of you will know, are grey (pigeon-grey, you might say…) and sassy and often, as we saw on the Great British Bake-Off, remarkably well-endowed. But I will never forget the first squirrel I saw in Berlin. I couldn’t breathe when I saw it and turned around in a silent appeal to the strangers around me expecting them to be equally floored by the sight: walking through Tierpark, I saw a beautiful, golden-red squirrel with tufty ears scruffling about on path in front of me. 

When I explained this astonishing and mythical sight to my friends, they looked at me as if I had just proposed that we all fill our trousers with jelly. “That’s what all completely normal squirrels look like, dear.” In the UK, red squirrels are notoriously rare and have the kind of sacred status otherwise reserved for peregrine falcons or unicorns. In Berlin, red squirrels casually mosey about, keepin’ it real. They wouldn’t know what to say to a grey squirrel if they met one. They keep their wobbly bits to themselves.

Sometimes the differences between place A and place B are huge and disorienting when you move to a new city. But sometimes they are little, and sweet, and make you glad to be experiencing a new version of normal.

The crash-test-dummy chef

Who cares if it tastes good when it’s this shiny?

Cooking as a student can tend to be as perfunctory as the kitchen you are given. With a couple of hobs (typically caked in grease, dried bits of spaghetti and unidentifiable burnt clag), an oven of unreliable temperature and about fifteen centimetres squared of fridge space to put to your disposal, generally one is hard pressed to find the capacity and the energy to be creative within such an arena. This has always been tragic for me, because I am the kind of cook who loves to experiment with their cooking and try out things that wiser, more forward-looking people might consider foolhardy. I am known, for example, for my endless quest to try to bake every foodstuff imaginable into some kind of vegetable ‘boat’ (aubergines, peppers, courgettes and other canoe-like things seem to work best so far, but I think a butternut squash viking longboat could very well be feasible with the right approach). If I don’t have a recipe for something, I won’t just look up one recipe but will look up ten and try to amalgamate them all into what I like to think is the ‘ultimate’ version of said idea, often with similar consequences to those you might achieve if you did the same thing with genetic manipulation. More and more my cooking is veering towards the technical and the queer: pickling things, making praline from scratch, seeing what should and should not be made into a flavour of soup…the next on my list at the moment is home-fermented sauerkraut, although I fear I may be banned from having a jar of fermenting cabbage nestling frothily in a cupboard in the house.

But this is one of the joys of having my own kitchen back. I don’t have to worry about who I might offend or freak out by my experimentations, and finally I have the means to go as wild as I always dream to. In my student kitchen, I had one of each Important Thing: one mixing bowl, one saucepan, one stockpot, one chopping knife…here, thanks to a rather gourmet family, I have access to ginger graters, woks, every spice and herb under the sun, working scales…hell, I have even been reunited with my beloved-but-too-embarrassing-to-take-to-university melon baller. Our kitchen is incredible. We have a wok hob, an enormous gas burner specifically designed for woks and enabling yesterday night’s delicious teriyaki salmon stir-fry. We have two ovens, a wide one for roasts and a tall thin one for pizzas. We have a fridge with a tiny cupboard built into the door just to keep the milk in. Here I am in my element.

Simply put, where is the fun if you’re not playing about in the kitchen? It seems unsurprising that so many people find cooking a chore when they haven’t yet realised how exciting it is to never do the same thing twice, but to always be experimenting. Of course, you have a cast of a few recipes you’ll make regularly because they’re familiar and failsafe, but even these recipes are fun if you have a go at tweaking them every time, coming up with endless variations on an identical idea. There is definitely a point in seeing the same Shakespeare play performed by two different theatre companies. If you catch my pretentious drift.

Every time I eat out, then, I am looking for things I can be having a go at or doing differently myself. Recently my dad bid for a table at the River Cottage Canteen in an auction and we gourmets made the three-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage all the way there to the Temple of Hugh (my idol. Oh Hugh.) simply for the love of seeing what expert cooking can be. 

  The fish and butter bean stew was eye-rollingly delicious and the yoghurt pannacotta equally so, but in a way I most love that it was here that I learnt to chuck a handful of raw chopped spring onions into a fresh bowl of soup right before serving. Thank you, Hugh: my green soups now have a crunchy, crispity, oniony bite like a gluten-free crouton, and I stole the idea from you. 

Having the freedom and the curiosity (coupled with a complete lack of fear of things going wrong; this is usually even more entertaining than if they go right) to muck about in the kitchen is the most brilliant thing about cooking. It is seeing if you can make one recipe work in a totally different way (could you do eggy bread with a crumpet?), or making your own version of something you buy in a packet (home-made custard creams are on the list) or recreating something you once had but for which there is no recipe to be found. And this is what I’ll leave you with today, a real summer-holiday-project of a recipe. It’s time consuming, complicated, but so much fun to make and very very pretty when it’s done. The kind of recipe you joyfully spend a whole afternoon of your weekend making, just to see if you can. I made up the recipe based on a cake I once shared with my mother on the top floor of the Galeria Kaufhof in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Hence the name. Enjoy.

Krazy Kaufhof Kake

This cake is made of three layers: a fruit jelly, a crème patissière (a light vanilla tart custard) and a gateau sponge. I know there are kiwis in the jelly layer but I would advise against them in hindsight; they have an enzyme in them which prevents jellies from setting fully, which might be why there may have been a slight degree of…disintegration…during processing.


Jelly layer
lots of seasonal fruit (Berries-yes. Mango-oh yes. But not fresh pineapple or kiwi as they have jelly-destroying enzymes)
1 pint clear fruit juice or dilute cordial (I used white grape)
1 sachet gelatine


Crème Patissière
2 egg yolks
50g sugar
175ml milk
splash of vanilla essence
15g plain flour

Cake base
2 eggs
65g caster sugar 
65g plain flour
2 tbsp warm mater
splash of vanilla essence

1. Make the jelly: warm up about a fifth of the juice in the microwave, then add the gelatine and and stir until it is completely dissolved. Add the rest of the juice and stir together. Line a springform tin with clingfilm and arrange the fruit in the tin. Pour the jelly over the fruit and leave to set in the fridge for 4-5 hours.

2. Make the cake: Whisk the eggs and the sugar with an electric whisk until they are light and frothy. Stir in the vanilla and warm water, then sift and fold in the flour bit by bit. Pour into a lined, greased and floured springform (the same size as the one for the jelly, or just pop the jelly out once it’s set and use the same tin) and bake at 180C for 12-15 mins until golden and springy on top. Cool for 5 mins, then remove from tin and let cool completely.

3. Make the custard: Whisk egg yolks and sugar together until light and thickened, than add the flour and mix together. Heat the milk in a pan until simmering and pour onto the eggy mixture, whisking furiously. Return the mix back to the saucepan and heat, whicking constantly, until it’s thick and creamy. Stir in vanilla and let cool.


ASSEMBLE! Spread the custard onto the cake base and chill for about 10 minutes in the fridge to firm it up. Then, carefully but swiftly turn the base over onto the top of the jelly. Wiggle slightly if they’re not quite in line, then put a plate on the cake base and turn the whole thing upside down to make it right-side-up (yes, that does make sense). Gingerly remove the plate which is now on top to reveal a glistening jelly vision of wonderment. Devour with whipped cream and lots of booze.


The Noble Art of Chucking Things Away

Sadly, not everything can simply be got rid of in the recycling.

What’s the first thing I did on the first day of 24 hours of freedom? I threw things away. And it was glorious.

A wad of flashcards as thick as an Oxford dictionary, endless rain-softened folders, reams of posters of declensions and gender rules and plural endings, collected up, divested of blutack and chucked into a crate. Arbitrarily symbolical, now dead flowers mouldering in the bin. Entire notebooks tossed with lascivious joy into the recycling pile. Replaced with strings of flowers, posters of shapes and colours, or sheer empty space in which I can now start keeping things that are useful to me rather than detrimental to my mental stability. And as a souvenir of this monolith of work, now completely behind me, I have kept a single poster: a hand-drawn picture of a nude man with his various body parts labelled and coloured in blue, green or purple according to gender (his hair is orange – plural). 

This may sound heartless but let’s face it, it wasn’t a part of my life I feel a huge deal of affection or nostalgia for. Of course university has been a huge catalogue of memories I adore and relish, but they aren’t the memories that will be rekindled by an accidental glance at ‘Shakesp. Practice qu.’ It’s not like old schoolwork either – I can’t imagine myself reading back through an Inchbald essay and thinking “D’awwww, gosh I used to be precious.” It’s dull, dull, dull and too often a reminder of times I was simply stupid; not a patch on things I have kept from primary school which include a long and fascinating story about a flea who lives in a mouse hole and becomes infuriated when someone puts a cactus right in front of his ‘front door’. No – throwing it all away was simply the most fantastic few hours of cathartic life-purgation. Colonic irrigation for the soul.

   Hundreds of people hate to throw anything from the past away, though. It all contains too much emotional value, too many memories. This makes a lot of sense; it’s not an easy thought to consider lightly tossing hours and hours of your dedicated work into a bin already full of crushed cereal boxes and empty jars. Harder still are the ‘souvenirs’ and keepsakes you accumulate through life, millions of tiny fragments of things that contain meaning: the lollipop from that German bop where people thought you were Princess Leia (no, that’s how Bavarians wear their hair), the tiny plastic hippo you found in the covered market inexplicably abandoned on a windowsill, the hideous old-fashioned mirror with a handle you bought as a prop for the play you had to furnish on a budget of about forty pence. Isn’t it brilliant how we infuse everything with meaning? I honestly think it’s one of the redeeming features of western humanity that we invest each object with the moment and the sense of the moment in which it was needed and used, until we end up surrounded by the living we’ve already done. 

YET. Throwing things away is also one of the most brilliant, fun and mind-clearing things you can do, and if you are one of those who treasures everything too much, I beg you to try it. For a start, when does something stop being a perfect symbol of a memory and simply become a knick-knack? I finally threw away a huge selection of volcanic rocks from my trip to the Grecian islands when it occurred to me that these rocks don’t give a particularly good summary of the power of the volcanic landscape and taken out of context are just ugly grey lumps simply good for the dry feet on the bottom of your skin. I find myself in the middle of a swirling accumulation of …just stuff…that is now part of my space in the world without ever being used or touched apart from when it is being moved aside so I can get to something I really need. And I think this is why it is so glorious to throw things away and free yourself up; you can get all that clutter-cholesterol out of your bunged-up system and feel more…clean.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a cold-hearted destroyer of all your treasured keepsakes, though. It simply means being critical and aware of yourself: I like to ask myself questions like “Is the memory this thing is related to really so special that I won’t remember it without this thing?” Generally the answer is yes, and then giving the thing to Oxfam doesn’t hurt at all because you realise that the best memories you have don’t need a chunk of plastic as a monument. It also means being practical; size is important, as you can keep a plastic hippo, say, with a lot less annoyance than a huge scented candle an old squeeze of yours once gave you. Chuck things away, I say! Remove the drifts of bits and scraps from your life! Occasionally it can be as enlightening as a religious realisation, like when I came to see that I could avoid the irritation of sweeping all my knick-knacks onto the floor every time I closed the curtains if I simply swept them all into the garbage instead. There is so much fun to be had in looking through your clothes and realising that you always felt blobby in that top anyway and you can only wear it with one specific cardigan so it will look much better soaring through the air towards the bin-bag full of charity-shop offerings. It is so relieving to stop yourself constantly accidentally treading on the sharp thing if you realise the sharp thing is just a floating bit of sentimental paraphernalia. And it is tremendous to hurl away huge rafts of degree work visualising the sheer cubic-metreage of space that is now becoming available to you to move in, redecorate and not stub your toe on. 

And let’s face it, a worrying majority of domestic misfortunes happen because trinkets get in the most annoying places. The Bauhaus is a German design movement which revolutionised product design by suggesting that something ought to be designed to work and be useful before the prettiness and knick-knack-quality was considered. Without them Ikea simply wouldn’t exist, and their fundamental propaganda video is a hilarious silent staging of the contemporary household beset by things and bits and stuff. The wife comes to make the breakfast but can’t get anything together with ease because every object is breakable and has fancy handles or spouts which look nice but ultimately spout the milk onto her lap. She tries to do the laundry but it tumbles everywhere and sweeps stupid hanging ducks and ceramic flowers off the wall on her way down the stairs. The boss comes over for coffee, but the coffee-pot’s pretty lid falls off, he receives scalding coffee in his crotch and knocks a porcelain cherub onto his head in his agonised frenzy. The Bauhaus knew the hell of too many knick-knacks. Each scene is interspersed with a black screen and a sardonic bit of commentary: “Unlucky again, Herr Schroeder! It’s a shame the chair is so easily stained, too!”

The best things are things you can keep and at the same time reuse or repurpose so they’ll be there with you forever: favourite mugs broken and converted into jewellery holders, old theme-park pressed pennies drilled and made into a chain, beach rocks gathered into an old glass vase to keep the flowers upright. You don’t have to keep the whole T-shirt if you can just cut out the motif and sew it onto a canvas bag, a pillow or even a new T-shirt that actually fits. And my favourite thing of all is my ‘special box’. It’s a dark wooden box that for whatever reason is broken enough to require a special 36-degree upwards-eastwards pushing-pulling motion to open it, and it contains all the priceless stuff that you couldn’t make me chuck for love nor money. It has the plastic tiara my friends crowned me with on my last night in Berlin and my wristband from my first ever May Ball, and a lot of other tiny and private things. That’s why it’s so fantastic to throw things away: because then you get the pleasure of picking the few tiny and precious bits that make it into the box.

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.

Craft? I nearly died…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Half the time, when we talk about chain stores, we literally mean stores where you buy different kinds of chain

Yeah, the windows are lined with the colours of the German flag. And what?

One thing I simply had to visit one more time before I move back is the fabric shop Hüco Stoffe, near the station Jungfernheide in the west of the city. I had three reasons for this: one, I am a sewing-crafting-making-everthing nerd and a trip to a fabric shop is like visiting a fantastic gallery to me; two, Hüco Stoffe is one of the most breathtaking shops, fabric or otherwise, that I’ve ever set foot it; and three, in the UK when you want to buy fabric or any craft supplies you are limited to one or two minute little dusty bunkers run by ancient ladies who charge sixteen pounds for a small ‘kerchiefs-worth of cloth. When I shop for craft supplies in the UK, my selection is always disappointing, small, and temporary, as every new shop that springs up inevitably closes down after about three months, the staff still reeling from the shock that you can’t make a living selling rickrack for the price of a black-market vital organ. 

Shopping in Britain has become one of the most soul-bleedingly dire activities we have to subject ourselves to. The cause of this is the fact that every town worth its salt has raised its shop rents so high that poor old schmoes who have little more than an idea and a pocketful of dreams can’t afford to keep anything going for more than a couple of weeks before the rent catches up to the meagre profit and long before they have had time to collect an interested and loyal customer base to keep them going. The result of this is endless stretches of identical streets, in every town, in every county you might go to. Every city looks the same, with exactly the same shops containing identical products, and one finds onesself asking why there is any point at all in trying to look for new and original things to buy when everything is getting so homogeneous we might as well all just start wearing grey smocks and calling each other ‘comrade’. 

Meanwhile, come away from the awful shopping nuclei of Berlin (Alexanderplatz, Wilmersdorfer Straβe, good god don’t even touch KuDamm) and within seconds you are stumbling over countless beautiful and individual shops run by fascinating individuals and selling an incredible array of things.

Just in my Kiez there’s a fashion shop that also features a vintage food counter where they sell a remarkable selection of hand-sewn cuddly meat products: squishy legs of lam, fluffy salamis, felted bacon… There’s a shop selling vintage eyeglasses, a pirate-themed ice-cream parlour, a luxury vegetarian delicatessen, there’s proper toy shops and Jamaican mini-markets and graffiti supplies stores. The idea that we’re all used to of the Starbucks on every corner is thought to be remarkable here; while in Reading we have 5 Starbucks among 13 other well-known coffeehouse chains, the independent café reigns supreme here, each offering their own hook such as the incredibleness of their cakes or the superiority of their breakfasts or the rad posters on their walls. Going to Starbucks is a treat here, something you only ever do if you’re feeling rich and want a drink that is also a pudding and a cardinal sin. Enter the Frappuccino.

So, Hüco really does it for me. It’s an incredible place. After a longish walk from the station one approaches the most unwelcoming and unlikely looking grey concrete chunk of a building and after spending half an hour looking elsewhere certain it can’t be here one eventually enters. After two flights of grey dark staircases and vaguely cryptic signs pointing the way you arrive at a door which is unlabelled but is presumably the portal to a cloth shop given the mannequin draped in sequinned polyester in front of it. But the door is locked. One nanosecond before giving up you spot a tiny scrawled message on the doorbell that announces that customers must ring the bell to be let in but should only ring ONCE and NOT A SINGLE RING MORE. One rings, and is finally admitted into cloth narnia. It’s a labyrinth of fabric, of every colour and fibre known to man, some of which are beautiful and some remarkable purely because of their ridiculous patterns; anyone fancy trousers made with a kittens-and-sweetcorn print? When you’ve picked your cloth you take it to the brusque but friendly lady at the counter who cuts it for you and writes your receipt by hand on old-fashioned receipt paper before then working out the VAT on a respectable CASIO brick and sending you off to the woman in the paying booth, who takes your money and offers you a biscuit. You can then return to woman number one, who hands you your now folded and bagged fabric, and you drift out of the store and back to the future. 

Anything goes here in Berlin, and the joy of it is that those people who do give it a try seem to plummet into failure almost never compared to in Grey(t) Britain. You can be who you like and sell what you like and despite the chains being there, despite the masses and majorities and trends, you can make your own way and make a life out of it. It’s part of the endlessly accepting and embracing nature of the city, and it never ceases to be remarkable to me. It’s also the reason why Berlin is the best and most fun place to be a minority.

Yesterday I was spontaneously invited along to an unexplained barbeque in a park on my side of the city. You only have to cough here to give people the idea to hold a barbeque, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by the invite or expecting anything out-of-the-ordinary, but when I arrived what I found was not five or six relaxed Germans turning sausages on a grill but a huge gabbling mass of men, meat and picnic blankets. Ah, thought I. A gay BBQ. Of course. The gay ex-pat community of Berlin come together once a year for a collossal barbeque in the park and being there made me seriously consider batting for the other team myself; the spread of food was endless and unbelievably good, and the relaxed, generous atmosphere was a real joy. Berlin is the gay capital of Europe, clearly for the reason that here you needn’t fear a single lick of prejudice or spite for who you are, and it shows in the sheer comfortableness of the people in this group. Whether they had been here for two months or two years, everyone I met was singing the praises of the city and saying they never wanted to leave without the knowledge that they’d be coming back. 

Naturally everyone wants to be here. I want to stay here. Whether you’re into cloth or crafts or coffee or a specific gender, there’s a place for you in Berlin.