The high life

If I were a Times reporter I’d make a joke about royal wedding hats right now.

I know, I’ve not been around for a while and I’m sorry. Last week was a frenzy of activity as I completed entirely unvoluntary voluntary work, went to a bizarre exhibition (more on that in the next post) and saw my friends for the last time before the main event of the week: my grandparents came to Berlin to see my new turf for the first time. Unlike friends or parents, grandparents have a kind of dignity and connoisseurial eye that means that you are driven by self-inflicted terror to find not just good things to show them and do with them but to find the perfect things; the sights they will regard with their experience and knowledge and find worth the effort. It’s not an easy task in this city because my grandparents are, you might say, gourmet tourists. They have been to almost every country in the world, they have certainly been to every continent and they have seen enough walls, cathedrals and museums to know that the ones you might take them to in this city are going to have to work very hard to compete. Being so refined, they are also unlikely to enjoy the kinds of ‘rrrreal, grrrritty Berlin’ things that younger friends or my thrill-seeking mother might like, things like the Kunsthaus Tacheles or the Zielona Gora squat. With all this in mind I have been putting most of my energy and tour-guide zeal into assembling a weekend of the best Berlin has to offer for the distinguished tourist. And where did we begin? With lunch in the revolving restaurant at the top of the one and only Fernsehturm (TV tower).

You can go up the TV tower without going to the restaurant, of course, and this is fun and exciting and interesting but with a couple of downsides: you have to revolve yourself, and you have to wait so long to get up there that you might just mistake the eventual ride up in the lift as your final ascension to heaven. If you book a table at the restaurant, you can jump the queue, and…well, that’s where the benefits end. We arrived at the tower to be made to buy our tickets for the lift up, as if they weren’t going to squeeze us dry enough with the ludicrously expensive food, which I thought quite unfair; if we were unwilling to pay an extra fee on top of our lunch and the premium put on it for the location we could hardly stand outside, open our coats and hope a gust of wind would carry us up instead. We had also arrived early so that we could wander around the gallery and look at the view before taking our table, but the woman at the counter gave us a specific time at which we were permitted to arrive and NOT A MINUTE SOONER, meaning my poor grandfather was forced to shuffle behind us as we looked at handbags in the Galeria Kaufhof for 20 minutes to kill unexpected extra time. Finally the moment came and we took the lift to the main gallery.

The TV tower features a large round gallery of windows overlooking the city from the most incredible height. The view is spectacular; you can see the incredible straightness of Unter den Linden, the remarkable hugeness of Tierpark and the strange incongruity of the Reichstag dome with almost birds-eye perspective. Helpfully there are also keys under the windows to explain what it is you are actually looking at, the history behind it, and whether what you are looking at is actually a thing or is just a drab building which you have overconfidently assumed is the headquarters of the East German Secret Police. It’s good fun, and interesting, and for 11 euros a ticket it ought to be; you can also enjoy watching people frustratedly trying to take photos without reflections of themselves in the picture thanks to the way the light works on the windows and if you feel decadent even splash out on a TV-tower-shaped lolly or bottle of schnapps. 

But of course that’s for the plebs. Those of us who were reserved into the restaurant were allowed access to an even (slightly) higher floor, a revolving donut of restaurant with a stationary kitchen in the middle and tables lining the windowed circumference, turning at a leisurely pace over the sunlit city. Cream tablecloths and soft smarm-jazz music assert the fact that this is a Nice Place. This illusion, however, did not last long. Our waiter came to the table after a half-hour wait while we sat, read the menu from cover to cover and eventually wrote a good long chapter of our memoirs. With arrogant charm that did not seem to correspond to the fact that his face was covered with some kind of odd yellow crusty ooze he took our order and then disappeared, not to be seen again for another eternity during which time we tried using various methods to calculate how many revolutions per hour the restaurant does. Eventually my grandparents’ antipasti plates came, huge black glass sheets dotted with a sad-looking row of wrinkled marinaded vegetables and a couple of mottled handkerchiefs of proscuitto, followed by my salad, which they had got wrong, so they took it away, evidently grew all-new salad leaves from seed, and brought a new one, which was also wrong, so they took that one away too and replaced it by which time we were ready to eat each other. The bread we had also asked for eventually materialised too. Foolishly we ordered coffee which arrived sometime around sundown and I believe they finally came to let us settle the bill just before the apocalypse. The jovial and infection-y waiter joked around with my grandparents and told me in discreet German that my grandfather is a ‘charming old man’ as if to make amends, and we finally were released back into the wild to make our way to the botanical gardens. Which are spectacular. And at the moment the Titan Arum is flowering. It is an incredible plant, the largest flower in the world, and when it flowers it smells of rotting meat. It was definitely a highlight. 

Crucial cultural experience. Also, booze.

Discerning wine tasters.

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



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

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

Pinch, punch…

You should see the size of the Jenga…

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


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

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

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

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

S41 flew over the cuckoo’s nest

It’s a metaphor.

Good grief, the Berlin public transport system is a scary state of affairs. If you weren’t already troubled by the inexplicably furious bus drivers, the erratic arrival and departure times and the completely indecipherable tram system, the main thing which really poses as a threat to your safety and well-being is the inescapable fact that a public transport system is, well, public. You sit knee-to-knee (and sometimes other body parts are involved) with real Berliners, and while the majority of them are inoffensive or even pleasant, there is a universal rule which applies to at least every single U-Bahn line and S-Bahn carriage.

This rule is as follows: no matter how empty of human beings the carriage might be, there will always be at least one completely mental person making everyone else feel uncomfortable and worried. It first occurred to me relatively early on in my stay here that you meet the occasional eccentric on the trains but at the time it seemed relatively unsurprising; there are eccentrics in every city and Berlin is one of the maddest of all the major conurbations of the world. However having now spent what feels like eight years on the trains I can assure you that there is never a time when there has not been at least one unhinged member of society gibbering away somewhere in my vicinity. 

It is a phenomenon I find baffling and completely fascinating. For one thing, how do these people manage to be so mobile? How on earth do they afford it? Most of them carry all their worldly possessions in a LIDL carrier bag so old it looks like it is made out of elbow skin, most of them seem to get their income from grabbing every single bottle or can they can scrounge from the platforms for their 15 cent deposit. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be: how do they have enough mental clarity to remember to buy a ticket when they are not yet aware that they have a large amount of string in their hair or that their dog is chewing their leg?  Another question which puzzles me so much I sometimes find myself genuinely furrowing my brow and shaking my head about it is this: where are these people going? They are clearly all making some important commute, as no matter how completely screw-loose they are they all seem to reach a sudden moment of lucidity when their destination station comes up and they leave the carriage with all the purpose and seriousness of a big-business CEO.

Unanswerable questions aside, I do find it genuinely mind-boggling (excuse the ill-chosen phraseology) how many completely nuts people there are circulating around the Liniennetz. Just today we had one man (complete with statutory LIDL-bag) who grumbled something incomprehensible and then proceeded to sneeze his entire respiratory system out of his body; he must have sneezed about thirty or forty times, once every few seconds, each time with a gravelly roar and an incredible amount of spit and phlegm which was literally dripping out of his handkerchief. We also had a woman looking out of the window determinedly repeating ‘Ja. Ja. Ja. Ja. Ja.’ and checking her mobile phone, and another man who well, he didn’t do anything, but he did have one eye startlingly bigger than the other.

And then there was the guy who stood in the middle of the aisle loudly growling “BAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH” until he swayed a little, blinked slowly and began instead to growl “BAAAAAHHRRRR-geld” (meaning ‘cash’), evidently realising that the reason why no-one was giving him money was because of the missing last syllable and not because he sounded like an aggressive elephant seal. And then there was the frantic young man on the train back from the tango course who loomed into my face, gestured wildly at my cheek and chin and gabbled lots of things before laughing, while the other passengers quietly urged him to be quiet and leave me alone. I never found out what he said, but I now have a nice new set of neuroses about my cheek/chin region to keep me occupied in darker times. And then there was the man who, as I made my way home from a Stammtisch, thought I was asleep and tried to gently lift my bag out of my hands; once I had clutched it to myself and blurted ‘NEIN’ he began to stroke my hair and suggest I come with him when we reach his stop. 

Be aware, new travellers in Berlin. These people are almost always talking to themselves, if not the entire carriage, and often in their very own language. They are drinking something weird (and I don’t mean alcohol; often they just have a massive pot of buttermilk to quench them) or have a dog with accessories, say a stylish neckerchief or a weatherbeaten rasta hat. Like those weird tumour-like balls of flavouring goop one finds in a bag of sweet popcorn, you will always always come across at least one. However, let us not wish for their absence or complain that they are unpleasant; they are in fact the best way to achieve any solidarity with Berliners. You will exchange knowing looks with your fellow travellers which simply say ‘Yes, here we go…just ignore it…’ and before you know you will feel a part of the Berlin community faster than any volunteer work or coffee morning could ever achieve.

I’m going shopping guys, see you in a week…

Puke Music: purveyors of fine wines and antique encyclopedias since 1924.

Yesterday I was gripped by sun and joy and the impending weekend glee and suggested that my flatmates and I make fajitas together before going to a film. After somewhat unsuccessfully trying to explain to them  what fajitas actually were I emptied my rucksack of teaching materials, packed it full of smug-yuppie cotton shopping bags and set off to buy the things we’d need plus a few essentials for myself. The shopping list was around ten items long. I was gone for two hours.


Shopping is an activity I have never untertaken gerne; in my view there is very little appeal to trudging around mini empires of tat which I either don’t want or cannot afford, clothes shopping is painful because it involves gazing at one’s pasty, doughy self in front of a fluorescent-lit mirror feeling like mutton dressed as no kind of meat anyone would want to encounter at a barbeque, and I believe I have already expressed my world-melting fury at the state of German supermarkets. If not please do remind me and that can be my next post.

But shopping in Germany is like a puzzle adventure computer game. Every new shop you enter provides you with new questions to answer, places to visit and mysteries to solve before you can eventually find that elusive deodorant or book that you were looking for in the first place. It is genuinely mentally stimulating, as you have to keep your mind fully engaged to be sure that you are on the right track for the things you need otherwise you will make a mistake and end up wasting a good hour in REWE for no reason.
Part of the reason for this is that there is such a variety of German shop genres that simply don’t exist where I come from, and until I understand what they are for and how they can be put to my advantage I fear I will never know the secret to buying that thing you need in under one hour. The place is littered with these:


‘Yuppie-life shops’ – I have no idea what else I could call these shops since they seem to sell nothing but the things you need to be healthy and smug in the modern world. These are shops like Rossmann, Schlecker and DM which stock a baffling selection of things but, bizarelly, always the same selection as if the world is crying out for shops that sell this precise variety of stock in the same floorspace. In any of these shops you will find cosmetics and hygiene products; rubbish bags, sandwich bags and teabags, all together; a small selection of organic food and wine; seeds and bulbs for planting in your charming allotment; anything that is made out of tissue; diet, gluten-free, soya and lactose-free things, and small gifts. I do not know why anyone would need to buy all or any of these things together but there they are and the fact that multiple chains supply this need suggests there is a deep-seated human requirement for the above products in close proximity to each other. Either that or it’s something to do with the fact that you cannot buy any medication, no matter how harmless, without going to a pharmacist; these shops are simply Superdrugs and Boots’s where they had to fill the drugs aisles with something, anything for Christ’s sakes…


Änderungsschneidereien – Tailors which adjust your clothes for you, in other words. These quite literally are everywhere, peppered along every single street, and it is beyond me to imagine that any single one of them earns more than a couple of euros a week. Who gets their clothes adjusted? Outside of 1920’s businessmen who need their suit taken out a little for an interview they have with an insurance firm in a week’s time (and besides, Maude said she wants him to wear that suit for when the Harringdales come by for dinner next week and it won’t do while it’s so tight around the posterior)? Often therefore these undertakings combine with something else to make it all worthwhile and make sense; you get Änderungsschneidereien which are also kebap shops, cobblers (and who uses cobblers anymore too, while we’re at it), florists, sexy shops…again, it’s a mystery.


Crazy Asian Everything Shops – Always run by the same people who run the ‘Asia Snack’ restaurants. These shops do honestly sell everything, in a kind of frantic colourful billowing explosion of sheer stuff – the one around the corner sells wheeled shopping bags, kitchen supplies, stationary, novelty toilet seats, bongs and smoking paraphernalia, children’s party accessories, rugs, snacks and drinks, flashing shop signs, underwear, bamboo house slippers  and jeggings. None of those are made up, nor does that make an exhaustive list of what one can buy in this shop. These places are also everywhere and all sell an equally startling array of bizarre and unrelated items; whenever I enter one I expect all the things in the shop to suddenly levitate and begin spiralling around me while the man at the till spookily exclaims “You’re travelling through tiiiiiiiiiiiimme….”. Nonetheless these shops are actually surprisingly useful because everything is dirt cheap and occasionally you’ll stumble on a real wildcard and find something truly excellent. Like bamboo house slippers.


Trödel-shops – Anyone who has ever been to Berlin knows that this place is obsessed with Trödel, the kind of junk found in flea markets and bins the world over. ‘White Elephant’, I suppose we would call it. The shops are much like the flea markets in that they all have the expected selection of giant old beer mugs and antique coffee grinders but are slightly cheaper because they aren’t so much of a hipster hang-out as the flea-markets and because they accept the fact that they are simply ‘junk shops’ there is absolutely no attention to interior design, which makes them resemble the back room of Bernard’s shop in Black Books. Also, the people who run them are equally junk-y most of the time; the woman who is in charge of my favourite Trödelladen has poufed peroxide hair, wears fuscia pink leggings and platform stilettos that make her look like an extra from Priscilla Queen of the Desert.


Tschibo – Oh, Tschibo. A couple of friends will recognise this post topic from a converstation we shared recently over excellent roasted stuffed peppers. Tschibo is the epitome of strange German shopping. What is it? What does it do? Why is it? No-one knows. It appears to sell coffee, but it also sells clothes and high-quality kitchen utensils. Occasionally they will have a special offer on a cross-trainer or box of Easter chocolates. Sometimes you can buy pre-ground coffee there and sometimes you can only buy it in cups to actually drink. It also sells towels a lot of the time and I believe I am right in suggesting it also offers home decor supplies. Bizarelly it is one of the most fundamental and solidly-established chain stores in the whole of Germany and every single mall has one, and equally bizarelly your local Tschibo will always be astonishingly full of people apparently buying things. I suspect they actually sell none of that which is on the shelves and that it is in fact a covert pornography supplier where you have to share a password with the cashier and in return receive a key telling you where in the store to find the ‘stuff you’re looking for’. That would at least explain why the logo looks like a spermatazoa.


Shopping has become the most harrowing and dizzying experience for me since I moved here, and I believe the time I have spent drifting in a mesmerised confusion from store to store has accumulated to entire weeks in its sum. It is bizarre and expensive and time-wasting and exhausting, I get stressed and amused and bemused and a headache. I’ll say one thing though: it’s never boring.



50th Post!!! The Adventure So Far…

At our Kita, we pride ourselves on keeping your children as safe as possible. Therefore we only use the largest and most ostentatious Alpine cow-bells in our fire alarm system.

Wow, we have reached our fiftieth post on Guten Morgen Berlin and I am so pleased with the way it has gone so far. The number of readers per post is more than ten (by a somewhat considerable amount), which was my secret hope for this project at the beginning, and I have kept it going and not allowed it to pathetically shrivel and die like a LiveJournal. I have now been in this city for seven whole months, give or take a few days here and there for toddler-detox, I have witnessed it struggling through two seasons, one meltdown and a variety of minor panics. I have lived, spoken, shopped and eaten like the natives (excepting the daily Wurst) and deeply enjoyed all the little peculiarities and differences between big burly Berlin and drab twee Britain. 

What are my conclusions thus far? First of all, that you clearly need to live somewhere for a good few years before you can even start to get used to everything to the extent that you feel fully ‘at home’ there. God knows it is so much fun to discover all the idiosyncrasies from day to day; I mean, look at the photo above. This Kindergarten genuinely has a cow-bell as its alarm system. There are great sweeping realms of things here that I think you have to be a German from birth to understand: sweetcorn flavoured joghurt, currywurst pretzel-pizzas, Berliner Weisse (a pale beer which you drink with either a radioactive green or acid pink syrup mixed into it and which I first saw being drunk by a troupe of nuns), or the inexplicable way that the most revered and famous institution in the whole city is the Blue Man Group. However, for every time I find myself standing open-mouthed in Aldi wondering at who would want to buy an electric stomach-toner as part of their weekly shop, there are moments where I realise quite how much of this culture I have already taken on and become a part of as much as they have become a part of me; the crazy rainbow-spectrum of fruit and herb teas, the pyromaniacal need to have candles everywhere all the time, the innate knowledge of exactly which supermarket I will need to go to for every specific thing I need to buy, a profound love of Kartoffelknödel…As strange and new as everything still seems every single day, I somehow feel like a member of the club now rather than the bespectacled and square inspector wandering around with a clipboard. 

I have to leave in just over three months, and that thought is indeed tragic but twinged with a very definite excitement at the things I will finally be able to rediscover after life outside the UK:
– ‘good’ television. Yes, this term does require air quotes because a colossal tranche of British (and by extension American) TV is so bad that you would better spend your time using tweezers to braid the hairs on your wrists into organic cufflinks. But good grief, the television here is terrible. The sheer number of cookery shows is amazingly huge and yet they all only seem to ever teach how to make Auflauf, a version of lasagne/casserole where you essentially just layer things up in a dish until it most effectively resembles the primordial ooze and then smother it with cream and cheese. An array of chefs with startling mustaches or unlikely-seeming blonde bobs shoot their piercing glares at the screen whilst demanding that you ladle more butter over your roast duck and throwing great fistfuls of salt into whatever it is they are boiling the heck out of. On other channels, we have the treat that is non-stop back-to-back dubbed episodes of Two and a Half Men, a sitcom so lame it makes a three-legged donkey look athletic, we have MTV-style dating and reality shows which feature people who look like they are entirely made out of polyester and who talk in ‘real’ conversation which is so patently scripted that they even know when to turn to the right camera, and occasionally something ‘hilarious’ featuring Stefan Raab. (To be fair to the Raab, this is a rare moment of greatness.)
Marmite. Oh, Marmite. You deep brown glossy goddess of toast. How I long to savour your salty deliciousness on my bread and adorning my Ryvita. I yearn to crown you with cheddar, stir you into my chile con carne or tentatively drizzle you into simmering minestrone. I resent that you cost about 7 euros a pot here, and no amount of heinously nasty Brotaufstrich (odd and oily purees designed to go on your daily Brötchen) will replace you.
– The colour green. I am pretty sure this exists, as I seem to vaguely recall it in the dark abyss of my memory, but there is no evidence of it as yet here in Berlin. Ever since The Great Freeze this winter everything has been a uniform shade of graun (grey-brown) and this makes even the cool and edgy graffiti look less like anarchistic celebrations of artistic freedom and more like a million dingy charity-shop window displays of dead people’s clothing. This weekend my dearest mother was visiting, and I took her to the Botanical Gartens since the weather was for once pleasant enough to allow scarf-free outfits; the gardens could not have looked more dead, the turf brittle and grimy and the trees contorted and cracking from what they had suffered through. Perhaps spring will come soon and I shall see living plant life again before I leave. I shall keep on sacrificing small animals at the altar in our Hinterhof and see if this helps.

But of course this is all small fry and the things I am looking forward to seeing again are nothing compared to that which I will miss. The things that you first of all learn to live with and then learn never to live without, and the things that never stop giving you pleasure and hope regardless of how tired or homesick you are.

– The frothing swathes of flowers spilling onto the pavement from the hundreds of florists all over this city.
– The astounding generosity of the German people; all us women got given free roses at the supermarket the other day for Frauentag, I somehow keep being given gifts by my wonderful German friends here of all ages and whenever I visit people I am fed like a queen, given more wine than I can consume without doing something embarrassing and welcomed with giant grins to boot. Even when I am not expected and turn up by accident the day after someone’s birthday party, for example…
– the public transport system. Germans will deride this immediately as their public transport system comes beside the term ‘Schweinerei’ in the dictionary, but for me it is amazing to use a system which is so frequent, so seldom unreliable and so cheap; Germans, picture this: at home I have a single bus which takes me to my nearest town once every hour or sometimes half hour, and it costs me almost £5 for a return journey on said disappointment. Not to mention the fact that each of the stations has somewhere to sit and somewhere where you can get coffee or a Ritter Sport.
– come to mention it, I will miss Ritter Sport. You just don’t get the same array of flavours in the UK and I do almost feel that the German taste in chocolate flavours shows a slightly more mature palate than that of the British; the Germans have almond Mars bars, espresso flavoured Ritter Sport, affordable and luscious real dark chocolate (i.e. with real cocoa solids in a decent proportion, unlike Bourneville) and the yumfest that is the entire Lindt range. The British have Boost bars, Dairy Milk – a chocolate so cloying and fatty that it cements itself to the roof of your mouth in a tar-like smear – and Galaxy, which I read somewhere is not allowed to call itself chocolate anymore because it has so little to do with chocolate in its actual recipe. Mmmm, Niederegger marzipan…
– The general honestness and easiness of the people here. In the UK one is choked by the neuroses it is your duty to suffer every time you are asked to an event you don’t want to attend or feel obliged to swallow down a vile dish someone has cooked for you or requested to do a favour you would rather sandpaper your eyelids that fulfil. In Britain I bend over backwards to keep people happy and keep life smooth; I cheerfully smiled when people drunkenly leapt through the library fire escape by my room door and thus made the whole building be evacuated, I apologised when people stamped my toes into pulp and I always, always, always ate what was on my plate even when in a restaurant so as not to cause any kind of awkward pall over the evening. Here you don’t do what you don’t want to do and you simply avoid social agonies by being honest and open, you admit what does not appeal to you and suggest a solution or an alternative and generally it works very well. You can tell people what you really think and you can have a debate in which you are clear about your own standpoint on the issue without people thinking you are flagellating all their beliefs and ethics by doing so. I haven’t experienced peer pressure once and I have cried and told my problems to a total stranger at the bus stop. I feel, in a way, that I have grown.

The question is, what will happen to the pseudo-Deutsche when she returns to her native habitat? Stay tuned… 

Life Hack: How to make the best of a bad daily routine

This is the substance that replaced my blood long ago

I met a few colleagues the other night and we inevitably ended up discussing our job. Our work is starting to reach a worrying crisis point in that a huge and faintly embarrassing number of us have resigned and the few of us left hanging on wake up every morning and pack our colossal rucksacks full of flashcards with a reluctance I can only describe as verging on Edgar Allan Poe-style dread. Furthermore, the worst part of it is that those of us who are staying in the job are all merely doing so because we are forced to remain here, unfortunately compelled by our unfair contracts and tenuous living conditions to stay employed by our company simply because there is no alternative that would not result in heavy and unpleasant repercussions. The unrest and unhappiness among my colleagues and I is getting to the point where we resemble dogs before a storm, shaking and whimpering while the weather appears balmy and peaceful because we know that there is something dark behind those thin white clouds. If you have no other reason to read this blog, do check it from time to time for the simple reason that I am convinced this will all implode at some point and things will begin to get very interesting indeed.

However, if you are in a situation where your bad job or pursuit (by which I mean studying or job searching) is like mine, unavoidable and causing unhappiness, the only way to prevent the unhappiness is not to change the job but to change all the little bits that fit in around it to ensure that the pure time that does not belong to you is at least spread out by time you can make better. To make my lifestyle and rhythm bearable, I made the following changes and since then have been palpably happier; if you follow these ideas, I’d wager you will feel the same. 

1. Mornings. Stop them being nothing but that dark hour when you have to amputate yourself from the heavenly bliss of sleep and duvets. Firstly, set your alarm not for when you simply have to get up or even to allow for a couple of hits of the snooze button but rather for a significant chunk of time before you need to begin getting ready: half an hour at least. This means that you can wake up, have an extra few minutes of sleep, and then have five to ten minutes of time in bed to just enjoy being in bed and being awake; you can read a bit of your book or simply spend a pleasant while wiggling your toes and inspecting your view out the window. It gets you into a level and contented state of mind for the moment when you do have to arise, so that you don’t resent it too much.

2. For goodness’ sakes, eat a decent breakfast and drink a large cup of whatever you drink in the mornings. If you are well-fed and hydrated you are more likely to feel ready for what’s coming up, and if you have a bowl of cereal be sure to follow it with a couple of slurps of tea; follow the rule of always ending your breakfast with something hot, as a warm feeling in the belly counteracts the cold and darkness as you exit the front door and makes you feel more sated.

3. Bring toys and things to do with you at all times. Install games on your phone, bring a doodle notebook, a good novel, a wad of bluetack, some knitting or sewing, a pocket puzzle – the kind of things you would take for a plane journey. Sure, they weigh down your bag somewhat, but it is worth it to be able to avoid dead time on trains or platforms where your mind is fully free and therefore able to ruminate about how much you hate your job.

4. Separate the dead time out into alternating chunks: time to enjoy and time to be productive. Bring some work or study materials with you too and alternate the fun things with the productive things so that you’re never too bored and you don’t feel the time is being wasted either. 

5. Give yourself little presents throughout the day. Buy yourself a coffee, take the time to make a really nice lunch for yourself the night before, borrow some CDs from the library and spice up the selection on your mp3 player. Little things like this spice up the day and lend it variety. And allow yourself the luxury of not worrying about the tiny expense of this; it is a waste of money to save your pennies for the future if your daily life in the present is time you will regret for not having been happy.

6. Spring up stairs. Walking up stairs feels like a mission and leaves you feeling tired and annoyed once you reach the top; paradoxically you feel less tired if you run or skip up the stairs and you also avoid ever coming to the thought that these endless stairs are a metaphor for the wearying and ever-uphill remains of the day ahead of you.

7. Finally, take the time on your way home at the end of the day to put yourself in a good mood for the evening. I like to take a new route home from time to time even if it’s twice as long because it lets me discover new things like dinosaur playgrounds; alternatively, have a big juicy apple on the way or designate a fun and much-loved song on your mp3 player which will become the ‘credits music’ indicating the end of your working day that you can play just as you near your house. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes simply to enter your front door in a decent mood – it helps you forget that you weren’t in that kind of mood all day and means that when you put the kettle on you have the energy to do something more fun with your first hour of freedom than sitting grim-faced in front of an appalling German cooking program.

It all boils down to engineering things so that your state of mind is always on the positive side of neutral and your thoughts never have too much idle time in which they can focus on the typical things that you resent. It sounds like a lot of effort, but for the improvement in mood it is certainly worth it. And if these tips don’t work, there is always this picture.

 

Österreich, part Zwei

To clone out the cables, or not to clone out the cables…?

I promised another post for today, and here for possibly the first time in the history of Guten Morgen Berlin I am living up to my promise. You can feel special and important about this since I am typing through the agony of a thumb which is throbbing after having accidentally let it get dragged into a metal roller today along with the piece of silver I was supposed to be flattening. Like a small child or someone on hayfever medication, I should not be allowed on or near heavy machinery.

Anyhew, I’m still not finished writing about Austria, and I’m also not one to let good anecdotes fester. The focal point of this holiday was, after all, skiing, and I skiied the heck out of Obertauern. I have only had three days of ski school ever, since I found it to be a rather annoying experience; we had an ancient and incoherent ski instructor who looked like a slightly horizontally compressed version of my old maths/PE teacher and knew only one English word which she shouted at foghorn volume every two seconds: “SNOWPLOUGH!!!” I therefore took as few lessons as I needed to be able to do snowplough turns on an actual piste, and from there on taught myself to ski parallel through the long-forgotten and age-old art of ‘falling over a hell of a lot’ and through copying my brother’s cool dude style of skiing have evolved my own style which I like to think resembles how a relaxed gorilla would ski. My mother, as a health and safety advisor, prefers the ‘safety starfish’ approach, where you ski with legs wide apart and arms/poles held outspread like a baby with two lollipops in order to remain the maximum amount of healthy and safe; my father was taken skiing by his crisp-haired and very smart father every year since he was an infant and therefore skis with legs held firmly together and exemplary style only spoiled by his ridiculous skiing glasses which are luminous yellow, perfectly circular and have luminous yellow leather side-guards. We were not an elegant troupe on the slopes. 


However, to ski in Obertauern you don’t have to be elegant; in fact, the opposite is true, as Obertauern skiers are the arctic version of football chavs. The place is swarming with burly, scary-haired blokes who alternate between skiing like champions and downing beers at a remarkable rate. Every bar, cafe or restaurant throbs with apres-ski music, which is honestly the most heinous crime ever inflicted upon the ears of innocent people. It sounds like the air itself is burningly furious with you and wants to demean you; here is proof:

I am sorry to have to do that to you, dear reader. Imagine trying to relax and enjoy yourself after a really bad fall with that in the background. In fact, imagine trying not to succumb to thoughts of violent suicide with that in the background.

Also, in all of these cafes and restaurants, there appears to be some kind of conspiracy circulating, as they each boast an almost identical menu. If you ever go skiing in Austria I can tell you with absolute certainty that you will be eating commensurate quantities either of goulash soup, mixed salad bowls, fried meat with a fried egg on top and/or Kaiserschmarrn, an Austrian pudding which is essentially a mashed-up pancake with apple sauce. The consolation, however, is that these delicacies are also always somehow different and always uniformly excellent, and I could happily suck down that goulash soup until the day I die. 

I also said I would say something about Austrian German, because it’s the one national dialect I really haven’t had any experience of thus far. So far I knew this: German German (Hochdeutsch) sounds like all those tapes you got played of people in train stations losing their umbrellas when you were studying German in secondary school. Swiss German (Schweizer Deutsch, or Schvootzer Dootsch as they for some reason pronounce it) sounds nice and interesting until you get to the ‘sch’s and ‘ch’s, at which point it takes a while to realise they are not choking on a wad of dry oats. Austrian German is sort of round and musical, and it sounds a little bit like if you asked a computer to simulate a language purely from the image of a pair of Lederhosen alone. It’s pretty and hefty and I liked it a lot, despite there being some slight errors in understanding – thankfully ‘Achtung’ sounds the same in all languages so no such errors led to piste-based tragedies. 

Oh, and by the way: there is no German in the entire world that sounds even one iota like the pigs in Shrek. Just so you know.

Honey, I’m…home?

No, it’s not tidy. Feast your eyes on real, gritty Berlin life.

At least, I bloody hope this mean I’m home. Over the last few months I have been in seven different domiciles, both in the UK and in Germany – let’s break it down:

1. My UK home. Where I grew up and spent the largest part of my conscious existence. A beautiful old huge house with cavernous, airy, freezing-cold rooms and an ever-changing variety of problems to be repaired at great expense. 
2. The hostel in which I stayed when I started my time here. I haven’t really had much of a chance to write about this, since at the time I was busy trying not to end up living in a bin behind a supermarket somewhere in the city. I spent about two and a half weeks in this hostel, frantically looking at flats and attending training for my job whilst spending any free time I had learning my repertoire of songs for the ‘assessed performance’ part of the training period. Staying for a long time in a youth hostel is a completely incomparable experience. You become almost like the jaded old janitor of a night club, lurking around the building watching fresh-faced young things skip joyfully in and out with the ephemeral briefness of mayflies, while you sit in the quieter spots and bitterly glare at them or occasionally take a nap with a newspaper laid over your face. I stayed so long I knew all the names of the staff and learnt every foible of the building and its running, meaning that other guests assumed I was also staff and regularly asked me to help them with their queries and problems. Other guests came, stayed a couple of drunken and thrilled nights, and then moved on to the next exciting European city. I had my own breakfast cereal and milk which I kept on the windowsill and the reception people knew to give me a bowl when I came down in the morning.

3. My colleague’s flat. Ok, so I only stayed five days here, but five days rolled into a ball sleeping on the armchair in my colleague’s bedroom was enough.
4. The flat in Charlottenburg. See previous posts.
5. The flat on Schönhauser Allee, which I have also already mentioned, I believe.
6. My new house in the UK. 
7. My new flat in Berlin, which is comfortable and friendly and small and very ‘me’.

But most importantly, the new flat is the one. That means I’m now here for good. Hubris aside, this has been the most eye-opening experience, as nothing shows you how severely a person needs an anchor until they have it uprooted. There is a beautiful part of Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ where he writes about human beings being connected to their home by invisible tendrils which flail around in hyperspace once that person’s home is unexpectedly taken away. Adams was completely right; when you don’t have a lasting place to anchor your sense of ‘being’ to you simply drift about like a limpet squelching from rock to rock, and this life makes you feel vulnerable and unsafe, as if any moment a seagull will come and suck you out of your shell and some child will come and take it and put it on their thumb and pretend that it’s a miniature Chinese hat. So Gott sei Dank, finally there is a corner of Berlin with my name on it for good. (thunder rolls ominously in the distance)

As for the rest of what’s going on in this semi-molten glob of a city: the ice thawed and then immediately refroze into a completely invisible, transparent layer of death which caused everyone in the entire city to struggle from place to place scooting about, slipping and essentially suffering frequent comedy moments; one man yesterday was walking his little Jack Russell dog who was skittering about on the ice like a cartoon character trying to skedaddle, and so eventually the man took pity and picked his dog up. He went on with the dog in his arms, at which point he instantly fell over himself, before getting up and heading off whilst intensely conversing with the dog. Now everything has started to thaw once again in preparation for Monday morning when people have to go to work and it can once again become a teflon pavement varnish. Berlin’s small children, meanwhile, are starting to get bored and cross with the paltry selection of words and songs they are permitted to learn and are getting naughty in ever more inventive ways, running away and hiding somewhere in the school or playing London Bridge with the added rule that you have to headbutt everyone when you’re not busy being headbutted yourself. One particularly delightful boy spent the entire lesson with his hands in his knickers groping his own genitals  – oh, except for the points at which he decided to hold my hand.  At this point it is important to focus on the little things that make everything worth living through, and therefore I would like to finish this post by thanking all the children in my Thursday class for still confusing the words ‘rooster’ and ‘rock star’, and for bursting into an air guitar solo every time they do so.

Adventures in the wilderness

If you asked me to take you to a place in Germany that is the opposite of Berlin in every single way (except for temperature), I would immediately take you to the Ostsee. If you asked me to take you somewhere that was the definition of Freud’s ‘uncanny’ (thank you, useless literary theory paper) I would take you to the Ostsee without hesitating. If you asked me to show you what Henley town centre would look like with a huge terrifying voodoo swamp replacing the river – well, you’d probably stop asking me to take you places because the lack of variety I offer is so disappointing. 

The Ostsee (and Riebnitz, the town I was staying in) is a very strange and lovely place. While I was there it seemed to be stuck in the ‘slowing down time’ mode of Prince of Persia, because everything was half-soaked in a translucent grey mist and the few living things in the area just drifted, like flecks of soot suspended in lamp-oil. 

Things persist in being stubbornly picturesque no matter where you go, which is probably why my internet has suddenly decided to once again forbid me from uploading any images. Thanks again, O2.

Well, it’s not exciting, but it’s totally unlike anything I have ever seen before; it was so quiet there were bubbles on the surface of the water that you could tell had been there for days, and at one point there was a grebe casually diving in and out of the water, creating a strange optical illusion as the sky and the sea were indistinguishable, both being an identical shade of grey. I’m also terribly upset thatI can’t put any more images into this post because one thing I absolutely loved in Ribnitz was the amber museum; I promise, fossilised resin really is worth a museum. They gave me a little sachet of amber chunks when I bought my ticket (I think partly out of gratitude for being the only visitor of the whole day) and I spent forever wandering around all the brilliant displays, my favourite being the array of insects stuck in amber and featuring as the main attraction the world’s only example of a REAL GECKO encased in amber that is millions of years old. Imagine seeing a laminated mammoth. That’s basically the same thing. It’s astonishing. 

I returned on Sunday night – shockingly, things are in no way different whatsoever back in the big city. My flatmates seem to be having the most incredible time, energised by ‘Herbstputz’ (like spring-cleaning, but in autumn), as every time I return to my apartment they are having an awesome cooking-fest or dancing around wearing sunglasses pretending that it’s sunny. The children are still wild, and made wilder by the fact that they are being allowed less and less time to go outside and joyfully hurt themselves and each other before they come to my lessons. Terror alerts in the city are causing the trains to be erratic, tourist attractions to be put into lockdown mode (sorry mum, but the Reichstag will have to wait till next time) and everyone from England to wryly comment that if this were Britain we’d already be on our fourth terror alert of the week. The Christmas lights are on, the Weihnachtsmaerkte are warming up the Gluehwein, the new bakery across the road opened with a razzmatazz brass band and I can’t, can’t, can’t wait to come home.