The Top 5 Threats to Cyclists: UK vs. Berlin

Once I nearly fell off my bike just because I was distracted by this enormous bushel of cherry tomatoes.

Today I was cheerfully cycling along, pootling about my neighbourhood as I pondered thoughts such as what I would write about next on Guten Morgen Berlin. Then a car door wanged open abruptly in front of me a split second before I ploughed into it with considerable force. Now, I don’t remember much of the few moments immediately after that happened – I do remember the crash being like those home videos you see on telly where a dad is filming his kid playing footy and then all of a sudden the football speeds directly at the camera lens and the video fractures into a flashing black mayhem with swearing in the background. The other thing I remember enjoying tremendously was how, after I shakily got to my feet and rearranged all my accoutrements and turned to the lady who opened the car door, I did not get the British Instinct to say ‘Oh my goodness I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry, I do apologise for breaking your car with my face, please forgive me!’ Instead, the woman was squawking around going ‘Oh god, I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking!!’ and I simply Germaned up, rearranged my hair and went ‘Well you bloody should have been,’ before launching back off on my bike. 

That’s one of the joys of cycling in Berlin: if somebody cuts you up or chucks a bunch of skaggy booze at you, you can royally give them a piece of your mind without shattering the Britishness Politeness Vortex. But biking in this city is different in a lot of ways and I clearly haven’t quite got used to it yet. Anyhoo, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, eh? And the Internet does love a good list article, so without further ado, here are the top 5 threats to cyclists that you have to be prepared for when two-wheeling it at home or abroad.

1. Berlin = Cars, doors et al: As I mentioned, car doors are a constant danger, because in Berlin there are no double-yellow lines; any residential street will almost certainly be lined with parked cars, one of which may well still contain the driver who has just stopped to pick up a McFlurry. And you’d better be ready for the moment when he flings that car door open as if he wasn’t facing into a tarmac stripe containing fast-moving vehicles. Some cycle lanes keep it especially interesting by being in between the road and a parking strip, so you often get people mounting the pavement and driving over the cycle path like drunken grandmas to get into a parking space. With all those back-ends facing the cycle path, even car boot doors become a threat, and may God have mercy on you if a white van driver decides to pop his back doors open as you are trundling along to work. You had a good life.

UK = All drivers, all the time: Cyclists are slightly less common on British roads, and an actual cycle path is a luxury men can only dream of. Therefore, you have to simply cycle full-on in the road, trying your best not to shatter your pelvis on every drain cover along the kerb. Drivers hate cyclists for being in the way and forcing them to remember al that crap they learned in their lessons about ‘look in your mirror three times and signal right bladibladibla’, so instead they will simply speed past at a ludicrous rate and practically knock you off with the sheer blast of wind they create. They cut you off, give you just slightly less space than the average human shoulderspan to move within, and often will beep at you for no reason other than the joy of seeing you jump in your stupid bulbous helmet.


2. Berlin = Small children on even smaller bikes: Mainstream medical advice is to do something 3 or 4 times a week that raises your heart rate. I manage this at least 5 times a week simply by cycling in Prenzlauer Berg. Over there, the pavements are teeming with tiny children scooting along on little wooden bikes with no brakes or means of stopping other than plain collision or mum-intervention. These kids swerve across the entire width of the pavement and bike lane looking at the sky, their bogeys, a calm pigeon, anything except for what’s in front of them. Unpredictable and deadly.

UK = Potholes like chasms: I’ve never seen potholes as good as the ones in the UK. Maybe it’s the way the roads are made, but when a pothole really sets in, it gets deep and jagged enough to absorb all the light from around it and quite possible also contains a wormhole which enables time travel. I don’t know. But they are so cavernous that cycling over one is terrifying agony, particularly when you are forced into it by item number 1.

3. Berlin = Inexplicably deadly weather: There was a week during winter last year when it was really, really cold, and really, really foggy, and the fog kindof layered down onto the roads in a slick sheen and froze as a deadly lamination the next morning. On my way to work, I honestly saw dozens of people slip and fall over; it stopped being hilarious after the first couple, and the practised shuffle which was the only way to get anywhere without also collapsing onto your arse was a real bore. Cyclists were just a write-off. They were sliding about everywhere like ducklings on a frozen pond. Another time in summer, there were a few weeks where rainstorms would suddenly crack over you and suddenly the air was so full of this torrential downpour that it became impossible to breathe or see. Naturally those always occurred in the middle of a cycle ride.

UK = Just constant, endless, wetness: In the UK, there is no such thing as unexpected rain. Rain is always expected. Rain is always. Always. I used to cycle to work in my skiing jacket because that was the only thing that genuinely kept me (well, my arms and torso) dry; nonetheless, about 80% of the days I cycled to work it was raining, and I would spend the first two hours at my desk steaming gently in the excessive office heat. I remember one particularly miserable rainy day at university where I fell rucksack-first into a puddle, my bag containing a bunch of clothes I was taking back to the shop to return. Shockingly they still let me return them even though the clothes were cold and damp. But then everything is cold and damp in the UK. Even the toast.

4. Berlin = Broken glass. And so much other detritus: There is so much broken glass on the streets of Berlin. It’s a wonder any mums let their little kids tootle about on their own two feet when there are shards of broken bottles simply everywhere. It’s like everyone holds Greek weddings in the streets on a Saturday night. Not to mention the amount of weird and totally random junk I have had to swerve to avoid: a huge exploded jar of gherkins; two large half-frozen steaks; used condoms (small, but treacherously slippery) and even once a filled, discarded nappy, which I am so endlessly glad I didn’t run into and explode all over my shins.

UK = Sudden vengeance from nature: Trees get blown over a lot in the UK. Often in such a way that they lie right across a road and you are suddenly stuck. Or you’ll be cycling along a bush and a long bramble branch will whip across your chest unexpectedly. Or a large wet oak leaf will fall and adhere itself across your forehead and right eye. Or you’ll be cycling along past a field and notice the tiny little teeny baby lambs just born and skipping about in the field and it’s so cute and you can’t believe it and suddenly you ram into a ditch. 

5. Berlin = tram lines: Thanks to tram lines I fell off my bike twice trying to run an errand for my boss at a recent network meeting, and he was so astonished and amused by the thought that he bought me a beer. The annoying thing about them is that they are exactly not-quite: not quite near enough to the kerb for you to cycle between them, not quite far away enough from the kerb to give you enough space to manoeuvre, not quite wide enough for your bike wheels to fit into them, not quite narrow enough that your bike wheels don’t always squeak into the little slots by accident and send you flying. They turn into slippery little margins of death when they are wet, and also my bike light broke when I crashed into that car door before and all the batteries fell into the tram tracks and then when I tried to get them out a speeding motorist nearly ran me over and swore at me out the window. Bloody trams.

UK = buses: Berlin buses tend to be driven, in my experience, by gruff but ultimately reasonable men who look in their wing mirrors before pulling out or stopping and will always let you pay for your ticket even if you don’t have exact change. Bus drivers in the UK like to mess with cyclists by suddenly pulling out without warning and almost spanking you into the middle of the road, or pulling in while you are actually next to them so that you suddenly get trapped in a narrowing corridor of death like that magical dream-alley in Inception. And if you catch the driver’s eye, he’s always either laughing or sucking on his mustache. 

The other 1%

 

50 cents a ride. #yourmum


Stan and I are a great team. He ploughs along the roads like a little two-wheeled tank, coping with all the potholes and cobbled streets, surging forth with minimal wobbliness. I take him everywhere and buy him nice things like a brand new lime-green bike light. He’s enough of a squat little beast that no-one in their right mind would steal him. I know he will be there tethered up at the end of the day, right where I left him. 

On Saturday I chained up my bike Stan outside Kaisers next to the other bikes and a large sand-coloured dog with a wuffly nose. I popped into the shop, bought a litre of milk, and popped back out again. When I clicked the button on my bike light, a gloopy ectoplasm was all over it. And tooth marks – lots of tooth marks – deep in the SOLID METAL of the bike light housing. I realised that the handy carrying cord had been chewed off and swallowed entirely. With a whimper I stepped back and saw that the rear light had been chewed to smithereens, with the little glass bulb peeping out through mangled shards of red plastic. It was clear that my bike had been dealt a terrific mauling. And when I got onto the saddle, and the back tire slithered around the path like a disemboweled eel, it was obvious that even the back tire had received a hefty chomp. And the dog wasn’t there – in the two minutes it took me to buy some cow juice, the buttface who owned the dog had arrived, seen it savaging my inanimate and fully non-delicious bike for no reason, and simply taken its leash and walked it off home without a word. Well, if you’re reading this, dog owner, I hope it bites your scrotum off.


 

The destructive, inconsiderate wazzocks all over this city are starting to tire me out. The Berliners call them ‘Asis’ (short for asozial) and they simply don’t give a toss. Not about you, not about me, not about anyone. They are the people who have repeatedly nicked my vegetables from my veg patch, dumping the little baby ones besides the bed to shrivel, for no reason. They are the ones who suddenly thwack a bottle to the ground in a startling burst of broken glass, pointlessly and apathetically, in the middle of the day with kids around, for no reason. They grab onto your bike handlebars and go ‘UUGH!’ in your face as you’re slowly pootling along, for no reason. And they often insist on wearing a mullet hairstyle. It’s sheer visual antagonism.

For so long I used to shake my head with a rueful smile and think ‘Ahh, such is this wonderful anarchistic city which I have made my home’ – but now it’s just starting to get on my tits. And maybe it’s partly me; thanks to the fact that I look enormously younger than I am and generally walk around with an expression of vague consternation on my face (it’s nothing personal, that’s just my neutral facial expression), I’m a natural target for people who want to mess around with some random vulnerable human by shouting in their face or screaming ‘F*CK! YOU F*CKING F*CK!’ out of the car window at me when I’m jogging. And admittedly it was a foolish idea to cycle home at 5am recently after a very long, liquid evening, but the two men who threw their drinks over me when I rode past them were probably not doing it to educate me about bicycle safety. And I bet you any money they wouldn’t have done that to a bloke. The following day a whole swathe of them were having some kind of punks-and-fireworks protest outside my local Lidl right when I needed to buy groceries and it’s not unlikely that the drink-chuckers and the chewy-dog-owner were among them. Not to be prejudiced, but why don’t they just all go back where they came from: Wankerville (twinned with Slough).

And so I would like to address the rest of this post directly to you, the Asis, you bastards. Firstly – and perhaps most importantly – ‘long back and sides’ is not nor has ever been an acceptable hairstyle. Please remove your mullet (or skaggy green buzzcut, or disappointing mohican) from my city and take it elsewhere. Preferably outside of this space-time continuum. Secondly, I realise that the Germans invented the term Schadenfreude, but there is a not-subtle difference between secretly slightly enjoying it when  accidentally drops their cake off the train platform and deliberately causing the Schaden (damage) in order to indulge in the Freude (joy). There is no reason at all to do all this pointlessly unpleasant stuff, OR allow your dog to do it while you stand there and grunt with delight. There are so much funnier things out there to enjoy, like Eddie Izzard
or Good Mythical Morning or this film or the mere fact of the existence of a shop called ‘Mister Lady’. It’s a real blow when someone does something to you merely to make you miserable – and soggy, in the case of the drinks incident – and I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget that malicious laugh that echoed behind me as I cycled home feeling dirtied and humiliated.

Although it is true that Berlin feels truly safe, and you can walk home at any time of night with no qualms whatsoever, it’s not a sense of danger that makes this place sometimes err on the dark side. It’s you, the Asis, who would probably never attack a person but wouldn’t think twice about stubbing your ciggie out on their jacket. (Speaking of which, thanks also for the scar on my wrist). It’s like there’s a generous peppering of random school bullies drifting around the city waiting to give some unsuspecting civilian a wedgie. And you’ll never go away; you’re part of the city’s fundamental rebellious atmosphere. Us nerds just have to keep our chin up and let you have your laughs, because no matter how big your dogs are, you are such very small people. Nothing you do will ever stop us getting back on our bikes.

From a little Wurst to a Big Apple – part 1

 
For weeks and weeks and what feels like muthafrickin’ YEARS, I have been working on putting together a big map of New York City for us to give out for free in the city as part of our marketing. It has gone through a thousand iterations, none of which has yet been good enough to send to print. The more I have chiseled away at this not-so-masterful-masterpiece, the more I have grown to loathe the city. The street names are so very boring, labelled with numbers and letters like some rudimentary textbook circuitboard from the 1980s; the subway system is complicated and requires a detailed user’s-manual in addition to the route network otherwise you’ll end up on an accidental hour-long direct journey to south Brooklyn; and, bluntly put, the island resembles a big cock. And so do all the major landmarks. I’m not a crude person, but if you stare at something long enough…


Anyway, after several weeks New York had become my life and my nightmare. I was having hallucinations and panic attacks late at night as the pressure grew and I imagined scenarios where I would finally send the map off to print without realising that a computer glitch had written ‘bum’ in large Comic Sans type across Central Park. It was months overdue, for which the full blame was being rested squarely on my head, and I knew in no uncertain terms that the finished product was still nowhere near the horizon. New York Map New York Map New York Map. That’s the sound that my anxiety makes.

 

And then my mum texts to say that we’re going on a family holiday. To New York. 
We leave the UK at a bracing time of morning and arrive in JFK airport at the same bracing time of morning, thanks to a confusing time travel phenomenon, and with several breakfasts under our belts get a taxi into Manhattan. The taxis alone are mindblowing; they’re teched-up so that the interior resembles a midrange spaceship, with an entertainment screen, four control consoles for the driver and even a camera which photographs all of us as we get into the cab to ensure that the poh-lice can find us if we smack this cabbie upside the head. He’s a born-and-bred New Yorker with the kind of accent you would pay tourist money for, and is so polite and courteous it’s unnerving; he’s so concerned about your legroom it almost makes you feel guilty for having knees. Everyone we encountered was the same: the hotel staff fall over each other to help you, so polite and neatly waistcoated and exactly the right amount of friendly, and even on the streets people randomly stop to ask in the standard NYC volume “DO YOU NEED ANY HELP?” The concierge handed us a map but I was already armed with MY map on my tablet; it was time for this prototype to get some real-world testing.

We walked through the city checking off massively iconic scenes like items on a shopping list: Wall Street, check; Trinity Church, check; Madison Avenue, check; the Golden Bull, check…it’s not that we rushed through, but everything is so closely crammed together and there are so very many iconic parts that it is impossible not to see them all within the first hour of exploration. Eventually we stumbled upon the Freedom Tower, which was quite an achievement in itself since it is so freaking enormous that you’d think it would be visible from space. It’s the biggest building in the western hemisphere, and yet unlike the Berlin TV tower it isn’t visible from more than two blocks away in many parts of the city because everything else is also so freaking enormous that your entire peripheral vision is filled with huge, looming buildings. It truly is awesome, in the original sense of the term ; walking through the city is just a series of long strolls down dark corridors. 

Once we reached the end of Manhattan there was nothing for it but to take the Staten Island ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and a very impressive view of the city. Once we reached Staten Island there was nothing for it but to march briskly back jnto the ferry terminal to go back; it’s a deadly dull place, so the ferry ride itself is the only reason for going there, which makes it a perfect metaphor for life or something I guess. 

We saw the MoMA, and the High Line (an awesome old freight train line which has been converted into a floating park), and the Guggenheim – my personal favourite both for the gorgeous, seashell-twisted building and for the art, in particular an incredible exhibition of modern German art, who’d a thunk it. And the entire time I had my trusty map on hand to help us find our way, and I started to see how useful and reassuring it would be to other travellers, and I felt better. And then I noticed something: there on the east side of Manhattan in large pink letters, the text ‘Upper West Side’. And on the west side of the city, in the same lettering: ‘Upper East Side’. And suddenly I didn’t feel very well at all.

The three sisters and me

So young. So full of dreams.
Recently, I suffered a tragedy. I was sitting on my sofa after lunch one Sunday, idly browsing on my laptop with the bright late-summer sun streaming through my fourth-floor windows. Here, up high like this, I get the sunshine in big dazzling floods right from the dawn chorus. It was a beautiful day. Suddenly and without warning an enormous gale-force gust of wind ripped through the air and whisked my windowbox off the windowsill and all the way down to smash on the tarmac below.
I leapt to the window with a forlorn wail. I looked down. A scattered heap of compost, basil leaves and bits of ‘shrub-green’ plastic, and in between the strewn debris, all my beautiful not-yet-ripe tomatoes, split open like tiny burst balloons. But that was not the worst part. The worst part was when I ran down the stairs and at the bottom, to greet me, were the Schlössers.
The Schlössers are three sisters who live in and own my building, and are so old they trail dust behind them as they walk. The eldest Schlösser probably remembers the days when this block of flats was just a beaverskin yurt. They seem to spend an inordinate amount of time drifting around together in a sort of pastel-coloured shoal, talking in quiet voices and going in and out of each others’ apartments; the main flat on the ground floor is evidently their headquarters, as I always seem to catch them going inside and closing the door whilst fixing their narrowed eyes on me as it creaks shut. To protect them from the constant and palpable danger that surrounds, the main flat is fortified like a Viking defense turret: every evening at sunset a set of mechanised steel shutters grind closed over the windows and the front door has one of those slide-open barred spyholes like in a jail, so that when you pop by to pick up a parcel they can crack it open and glare at you once again with those suspicious little peepers. 

IIt’s a bit like living among the enchanted paintings in Hogwarts. You think you are alone in the stairway only to suddenly notice a faded ancient figure poised behind you,  going ‘I hope you remembered to lock that gate…’. And so, there I was stood in front of the wreckage of my windowbox, whimpering quietly, when I noticed the Schlössers hovering behind me, tutting in dismay. ‘Junge Dame, that could have KILLED SOMEONE!!’ I nodded sadly. ‘You will of course clean it up immediately.’ I nod again. ‘And you will never EVER place a windowbox on the sills of our building again.’ My heart fractured a little bit. At this point one of the other sisters looks at the heap and goes, ‘Tomatoes, hm? Shame,’ in a tone that suggests she feels nothing but disgust at the very idea of tomatoes. And then I started scooping up handfuls of basil shreds and soil as the Schlössers walked back to their fortress. And then the clouds opened and suddenly I had become a soaking wet idiot ferrying shovelfuls of mixed herbs and mud around in an apartment-block courtyard. 
The next day I found a beautiful hand-written letter in my postbox from the Schlössers confirming that I was now forbidden from ever growing anything on my windowsill and that another letter detailing this and my heinous crime had been sent to the landlords.
Ever since, the Schlössers have been watching me extra-carefully. The other day I came through the massive heavy gates at the front of our building and they decended on me like a pack of albino ravens falling upon a dead rat in a graveyard. ‘WHY DIDN’T YOU LOCK THE GATE!?’ ‘?…because it wasn’t locked before I’m sorry I’m so so sorry,’ I whimpered. ‘If you leave the gate open the drunk men come in here and piss everywhere!!’ Pastel coloured cardigans twitched with rage. 
There’s no moral to this post. Just as there’s nothing to be done about the silver-haired gestapo who patrol our stairwell. We all live in fear. Watching for narrowed eyes peeping through the net curtains.

Meanwhile, on the poop deck

Gritty urban living.
It’s been a strange, shapeless time. This week I had my 25th birthday, but I also reached the end of my energy stores; I had a miniature birthday knees-up, dragged my carcass into the gym as best I could but by the time Thursday rolled around I was certain that my brain had been removed and replaced with polyester teddybear stuffing. As I finished up my work that evening, vaguely tearful with tiredness and no longer coherent, I decided that I wasn’t going to go on holiday for my long birthday weekend; I would stay home and spend that money on having a glorious time in the city and reinvigorating my suffering apartment.
I bought fabric to make a case for my new Samsung tablet (there is no amount of cakes I could bake to ever adequately sum up how much I love my colleagues) and a new cover for my nasty, stained sofa. The fabric sellers at the market will do you a fantastic deal on cloth which is left over from corporate upholstery -the only downside being that it is printed with large industrial logos, though I do like the fact that my sofa will be covered in fabric that was once destined to be curtains in the Liebherr canteen. I bought dried spices and petals to make tea blends, a brass armadillo to make a necklace, and a chunk of swordfish for a delicious, high-mercury dinner. And then I sort of…well, I fell into bed and went into a coma for several hours.
But the next day was sunny and warm and golden, a perfect September glory, and so I went down to the garden to potter. Afterwards it was too beautiful outside to go back home, so I went in search of a café where I could sit in the sun, and I cycled five minutes east and two minutes south, and suddenly, this:

The Rummelsburger See (lake, not sea) turns out to be way closer to my pad than I possibly imagined, and way more awesome than I ever expected. It’s not lush and green like the other Berlin lakes,  but it’s a boaters’ lake, with quiet, civilised banks and gently bobbing boats, with an atmosphere much like Henley in the UK. Cormorants and moorhens are everywhere, diving into the water and rustling in the shoreline reeds. There are round boats which pootle about looking like inflatable pool-doughnuts with umbrellas on top; when I got a closer look I realised that these are quite possibly the world’s greatest invention: in the centre of each round dinghy is a round table with a barbeque grill, and people sit around the table enjoying a freshly-charred sausage and a cold beer while drifting around the lake.
The banks are open and clean, perfect for cycling along, and if you go far enough you end up at the abandoned Grimm-brothers-themed amusement park featured in the film Hanna, which is now closed to all the hipster photographers who used to break in at night, and is only explorable in the form of a paid tour. But like I said, I was in desperate need of a coffee and I wanted to set down my heavy bag full of squashes, and just then I happened upon a pirate ship.
The Gode Wind Hauptstadtkogge is a proper, piratical ship, complete with rigging and a plastic boatswain climbing the mast. Now, obviously you couldn’t unmoor it and sail it to Scumm Island, but it’s still pretty much the awesomest place I’ve had coffee in a long time. The menus are rolled-up scrolls and they brought me my Milch in a tiny little glass flagon with a cork; in case you think it sounds way too corny and Legoland to be a decent pit-stop, let me also say that the coffee was very good indeed and their wine list was enough to make me regret not having more cash on me. I just sat and watched the sunset, and listened to the moorhens, enjoying the cool breeze on my neck and the warm setting sunlight on my cheeks. With the TV tower to my right and the abandoned ferris wheel to my left. Catching snatches of laughter from the guys enjoying dinner on their dinghy-barbeque. Grateful to be in a city where every nook and cranny has something interesting and completely different to discover. 
EXCITING NEWS!
Thanks to the somewhat frank criticism of one reader, this Ampelfrau has decided to overhaul the ol’ blog and make it look a lot more 2014 and a lot less 2008. It’ll be up and down a bit over the next couple of weeks as I try to sort out the redesign. But please remember that this whole endeavour is only half-worthwhile unless you guys like, share and comment on posts, so’s I don’t feel I’m just waffling on into a vacuum. Peace out!

And now for something completely different

Insert passé meme reference here.

I was going to write this post about the various stages of massivefaceitis from which I have now (mostly) recovered as an epilogue to the previous two posts about my horrible tooth pulling ‘adventure’. I was, for example, going to tell you about how my cheeks grew so enormous that a guy on the street called me ‘pokemon face’. I was going to describe the big blooming bruise on my right cheek which prompted a passer-by to ask if my boyfriend had been hitting me, right as I was taking the above photo in fact. But you wrote in in your thousands, and apparently my audience (hi, mum!) is a lot more squeamish than I expected, so I’ll spare you guys any more of the gore and grue. Instead, I want to tell you about something wonderful. I want to tell you about my new relationship.

It’s a long story, and it starts like this. I woke up one Saturday morning recently and decided that the prospect of spending the morning squelching about in the gym like an animated wet-wipe was more than I could bear. I still needed to do something exercise-y, though, to settle my conscience, so I decided on an Elaborate Plan: I would try to run from my flat to the TV tower and then as far beyond as I could before I flabbed out and gave up. I would then get the nearest U-bahn home and therefore avoid the usual tedium of running where half of the time is spent crankily jogging back the way you came. Unarmed with a bumbag or one of those cool bicep-strap thingys (I’m sure I will find one in Lidl soon enough, though), I had to keep my luggage to a minimum; I safety-pinned my keys inside one of the pockets in my shorts for safety, folded and safety-pinned my month train ticket inside the other pocket for the ride home, and carefully tucked a five-euro note into my sports bra for emergencies. Oh, shut up you perv.

I ran and ran and ran and surprised myself with how far I managed to get – I went way beyond the TV tower and past Friedrichstraße, all the while enjoying myself because leaping back and forth out of the way of meandering tourists gave the whole activity the feel of Super Mario Bros. In the end the tourists became chronic towards Ku’damm and there was no way this little blood cell was going to get through all that cholesterol, so I had to turn around and jog back to Alexanderplatz to get the U-Bahn home. It was at that point, when I finally stopped, that I found nothing but a little shredded scrap of cardstock on the safety pin where my train card used to be. Thank goodness for the secret fiver! Well, it was actually now a handful of change swilling around in my pocket as I had just bought myself a bottle of water. But thank goodness I had enough to buy a single train ticket, which I promptly dropped on the floor. Bending to pick up the ticket, I forgot that the cap was off the water bottle and tipped almost the entire thing all over the floor and the ticket. I then dropped all my change. And then the train doors closed and the U5 left the station right before I could get on. The morning had taken a bad turn. 

When I got home and sorted myself out, I decided that enough was enough. Even though the public transport here is like those hover-taxis in The Fifth Element in comparison to what’s on offer back in Berkshire, I was sick of being shuttled around the place in tin cans. I wanted freedom and the open skies above me; I missed the wind-whipped hair and thigh burn of my college days. I went to the second-hand bike shop.

Trying to find a decent second-hand bike in Berlin is a doddle, particularly if you don’t care whether it’s second-hand in the ‘used, then sold’ sense or in the ‘nicked by a vindictive chav’ sense. If the latter really is no bother to you, there are thousands of bikes at the flea markets for your perusal. Otherwise, the city is nonetheless full of great second-hand bike shops to cater for your desires. Unless, of course, you are not of average German height. If you are of a more petite persuasion like myself, going to buy a bike is like going to buy a horse and arriving at the stables to find them full of tyrannosaurus rexes for sale. All the bikes on offer were enormous; I needed a stool to stand on just to see what the handlebars were like. But then, among all the others in the shop, I saw a squat little mountain bike on sale for eighty euros complete with mudguards, a basket, and working gears. And before I could even hesitate, the memory of the stub of my lost train ticket and the pathetic damp single ticket and the euro cents scattered on the U5 platform crossed my mind and I bought the damn thing without a further moment’s hesitation.

Stan is not an attractive bike. In fact, I think he’s probably the ugliest bike you’ll see around these parts. The frame is thick and stocky with a weird, chubby-rounded crossbar that makes it look a little bit like the whole thing is actually a swimming-pool inflatable. An attempt to spray-paint it green was thwarted when it started to rain halfway through, so it now has a mottled paint-job on the middle portion of it but nowhere else. But like me, Stan is small, robust and has everything you need, and we’re partners now.

Having a bike has opened up Berlin to me like I’ve pulled the ribbon on a wrapped present. Suddenly I can blast down the streets and hear what’s going on, figure out where one part of town is in relation to another, roam around the districts like I’m mapping out the city. I can huff up the hill to work for the delightful moment when I get to wheeee down the hill on the way home. I see the streets differently – the crazy hodgepodge of the architecture is so much more noticeable when you are speeding along, like a kaleidoscope turning – and I shop differently, knowing I can dump that jumbo-sized jar of chickpeas into my bike basket rather than hefting it back home like a sleeping baby. And the best thing is that feeling, that combination of peacefulness and thrill that you get from the breeze and the whirr of the tires as you meander through the streets in the dark or coast along next to your friends. It’s the best 85 euros I’ve ever spent. People who rail against materialism are wrong: sometimes things can make you happy; sometimes things can be keys to places, people, and feelings that are so wonderful, they feel like medicine.

If you’re squeamish, skip this post and spend the next five minutes thinking about kittens

Buddy, you look how I feel.



I spend the days leading up to my surgery trying frantically to reduce the amount of sweet-mother-of-Lucifer stress that this impending sick leave is going to cause for my work. I also make sure to eat as much crunchy stuff as I possibly can before I would be reduced to a purée-only diet. When I tell our company chairman that I will be taking medical leave for the surgery he replies, ‘Well, that’s your fault for having such a small head.’ I try to get as much as I can done and then it’s time; my boss gives me a sad-eyed smile as I leave, the kind of facial expression people give their dogs before they are put to sleep. Ohgodohgodohgod; here we go.

The surgeon greets me in mugh higher spirits than the last time we met and he leads me into the operation suite, where I lie down on the scary dentists’ recliner and have my hair put into a special surgical showercap. The nurse puts a bib on me, and the surgeon puts on his sterile cap: it is printed with a design of cavemen using computers and calculators, which distresses me almost as much as the thought of the surgery.  The surgeon nods at the nurse and she turns on the stereo: “I TRY TO DISCOVERRRRR…A LITTLE SOMETHIN TO MAKE ME SWEETURRRR…” Oh god, I am about to have my face cut open to the tune of Erasure.

 

Out comes the syringe, and the surgeon fills my whole jaw with anaesthetic. The nurse is sweet, and kind, and squeezes my shoulder as I wince with every injection. The surgeon takes a hook implement and pulls my cheek open and sideways, then takes a scalpel and slices the gum around the tooth. He twinks and twonks with some kind of pointy implement for a while, then gets out a large burr and starts to grind away the tooth and the bone surrounding it; I glare at the IT-cavemen trying not to cry. The nurse strokes my cheek, and then the surgeon gets a pair of wire-cutters and says, ‘You will now feel a crack – nicht erschrecken!’ He begins to snap my tooth into small pieces using the pliers, but it’s a tough tooth and takes a long time, while the stereo is now playing 1980’s synth covers of ABBA classics. I don’t think I can explain the sensation of having your tooth cracked into pieces inside your head.

Finally it is over and he tries to pull out the pieces of tooth, but they won’t come, so it’s time to grind and crack some more, while the nurse keeps touching my cheek and saying ‘Nicht erschrecken!’. Finally and with a sweaty grunt from the surgeon the roots of the tooth come out and the wound is sutured shut. At least I get stitches; that’s pretty kickass, I think. The surgeon looks up at the nurse and says, ‘You can change over now, Heike,’ and the kindly nurse leaves, and a different nurse takes over. I want to ask the nice one to please stay, but my entire face has turned into plumber’s putty from the nose down. The top tooth comes out quickly and without much ado, but the new nurse keeps scraping the suction tube across my palate which makes me choke a little each time.

Then we move on to the lower left tooth; when he cuts my gum open it is immediately clear that the injections haven’t worked and I squeal for more anaesthetic. It’s time for more grinding and snapping, grinding and snapping, and this time the tooth is presenting solid resistance to our best efforts to evict it. There’s a big snap and little particles of gory bits fly up onto the surgeon’s safety glasses. This is one of the most surreal, horrifying experiences I’ve ever gone through, and I can’t stop looking at the cavemen working away on their computers wondering what the message is behind this inexplicable fabric design. How do these cavemen have access to computers? And why are they wearing tigerskin tunics if they feel the need to smarten things up with a tie? What is their job in this prehistoric office? And why did someone feel this would be a great design for a surgical cap? And why did a surgeon agree, and purchase it, thinking ‘Ohoho, this is hilarious, this is SO me!’

After about ten attempts to pull out the bits of tooth, finally and with great effort they come out, and the surgeon shows them to the nurse behind my head – she simply goes ‘Oha!!’, which is German for ‘Whoa!!’ My cheeks are packed with cotton balls, I am given a face wash and the chair whirrs back to an upright position – the room spins briefly. ‘If you see here, the roots of your teeth made them very hard to remove.’ The surgeon holds up one of the roots, which is curved in an almost semicircular hook with a little kink at the end, the rat-bastard. The surgeon gives me a taut smile, nods, and then leaves the room. ‘Now, your face is already pretty swollen, but the swelling will continue to grow for the next three days – nicht erschrecken!’ says the nurse. ‘Put these ice packs on there, we will prescribe you some pain medication. Don’t get too much direct sunlight on your face.’ She leads me into the lobby and then wanders off. I stand in the middle of the lobby, blinking, wobbling slightly like a toddler lost in a supermarket. Clearly, that’s the end.

After I’ve had a few deep breaths, I suddenly feel invincible. I am unbreakable!! I can survive anything!! I will take over the world! I tie a scarf around my face, which is now nice and puffy, and – yes – cycle home, feeling like dynamite. I come home, sit down, and gradually things stop being quite so dynamite. The first night I curl into a ball in my bed and count down every single one of the seven hours to go until I can take my next pain pill.
What’s the point of this post? What’s the message? I don’t think there is one; it was a traumatic thing to go through and I’m still in a lot of pain. But I hope that anyone who reads this can at least derive a positive conclusion from the whole thing. There is a reason why my thighs are so big and muscly: it’s because I just keep on marching on. I have to. We all have to. Sometimes there isn’t anyone there to hold your hand or drive you home. You always have to be ready to grit your teeth (oosh, bad choice of phrase), clench your fists and bash through a rough time. You can’t give up and go home; you have to keep going, get your groceries even though people are staring at your enormous throbbing cheeks, get into bed even if a sleepless night seems likely. How do you get strong enough to push through hard times? By pushing through hard times. 
After all, if cavemen can learn Microsoft Excel, anything is possible.

There will always be a part of me in Berlin

No matter what your topic is, there will always be a wall in Neukoelln to match.

A few weeks ago, the excrement began to hit the air conditioning to a whole new level in the Anonymous Tourism Company for which I work. People went on extended sick leave, customers started flaming us online, hostels caught fire; I was working weekends, late shifts, answering the phone at all hours, putting up shower curtains and buying zany sunglasses and falling off my bike (but that’s another story) all over the city. My to-do list had turned into a to-do möbius strip. And then I started to feel a twinge and a slight hot pressure underneath one of my lower wisdom teeth.

The voices of Facebook recommended a dentist and I pelted over there one lunchtime shortly after. Behind an unmarked apartment-block door and up a disturbingly seedy-looking staircase I found the surgery, a strange little den with a waiting room full of brown velour furniture like at your great-aunt’s house. And I was nervous; as someone who cleans their teeth with religious, panicked fervour, never missing a single night of brushing with my expensive sonic brush, flossing with my fancy floss-thing, scrubbin’ away with a little interdental brush and then gulping up the Listerine, having a problem with my teeth is like spending your life as a devout nun and then going to Hell anyway.

The dentist was a lovely grey-haired man who began with the usual ‘Deutsch oder Englisch?’ and then, when I answered ‘Deutsch’, looked disappointed and said that he usually liked to practise on his patients (I presumed he was talking about his English and not his molar-extraction skills). After a long chat about my patient information form and the meaning inherent in the German term for the word ‘ambitious’, finally he stuck a mirror in my mouth and had a gander at the danger-tooth. And then he leaned back in his chair. It was time to practise English.

‘Frau [GMBerlin], you heff a super mouth hygiene,’ he said (and yes, this is verbatim), ‘aber da haben Sie eine Ticking Time Bomb.’

He offered to arrange an appointment for me to have the tooth, and the one on the other side, removed at 8am the following morning but when I turned pale green he consented to postpone the op to the Friday. And there it was; I was about to experience (minor) surgery in Germany for the first time. *gulp*


The surgery I was referred to is just off Friedrichstraße, the fanciest and most unpleasant stretch of posho Berlin. It is a dental surgery from the future; every single item in the entire place is white, the air sings with the gentle hiss of sterile equipment quietly running in a back room, and the reception desk is a long curved white altar, like a glacier in the middle of the floor. My nervousness drives me into the bathroom and I notice when I am washing my hands that there is a white dispenser full of hygiene-packed toothbrushes. This is clearly place that values teeth like the regency of an alien super-race. My colleagues have all prepared me for this experience by explaining in detail how agonisingly painful it is going to be. I am not calm. Finally I am called in and the surgeon is a man with a head shaped like a thumb and a dinky little white polo-shirt buttoned all the way up to his chin, making him look like Tweedle-dee.

I am immediately sent back out of the room to get an X-ray; they drape a heavy lead apron over my shoulders and place my chin on a little shelf in the middle of another white room, and I then bite down onto a little white stick while two white robotic cushions suddenly clamp my cheeks into place on either side of my head. ‘Nicht erschrecken!! (Don’t panic!!)’ says the nurse, before she leaves the room, and then a robot arm swirls around my head making futuristic noises and I wonder if they will be able to tell on the X-ray that I was trying dead hard not to laugh. ‘Holy cow, German healthcare is awesome!!’ I think.

I am brought back into the room and the surgeon is already regarding my X-ray with a black expression. There they are, my wisdom teeth, rakishly jutting sideways into my other teeth like they just don’t give a damn. 

‘Yes, as you can see, your wisdom teeth are growing perpendicular to your other teeth,’ says the surgeon. ‘It isn’t good, Frau [GMBerlin]. This wisdom tooth here already has a cavity and there is an infection in the jawbone beneath it. This one on the other side is about to do the same. This one on the top is growing into the roots of your other teeth which will be a disaster in the future, and this other top one…well, I can’t even tell which direction that one is going in so it may well be extending into the fourth dimension.’ My face matches the white walls by now. ‘This is going to be a very serious procedure; your wisdom teeth are all very close to your major oral nerves, and there is a risk of permanent nerve damage, and also a chance that your jaw might break. I will need to remove some bone from the jaw anyway to properly remove the teeth in question. I am legally obliged to make you take at least 24 hours to come to terms with the risks of the procedure. Also, here is a form for you to sign acknowledging that you have understood the risks and will not sue me. Good! Now let’s arrange for you to come back next week for the procedure!’ He squinted his eyes and stretched his lips across – I think it was supposed to be a reassuring smile.

I staggered out of the surgery and sat in the stairwell for a while, hugging my knees.

Tune in tomorrow to read part 2 – the gory part…

On contentment

I was all ready with a new snarky blog post about Berliner locals today, but this jaw-dropping sky made me want to write something different.
As we wade deeper and deeper into the tourism high season, the work behind the scenes is growing more and more dense and frantic, like a gathering shoal of pirahnas snapping at your bare knees as you try to cross a forest river. An event as joyous as Germany winning the World Cup can drop-kick your day into a new world of madness as you try to keep the traveler’s eye away from the victory parade, or from the Pope, or One Direction, and try to keep it firmly on anything that will encourage them to make your offering part of their holiday. Sometimes I have so much to do that I find my heart pounding for no reason whatsoever. And as the stress steadily mounts, so does the temperature, and you find yourself working in a ball of red heat where you can’t tell whether it’s just the warmth of the sun or the radiation from your own furiously churning brain. Old ladies faint on tours, brochures are bleached in shop windows and suddenly there’s more bare skin in the office than you ever thought might qualify as ‘smart casual’. 
Today I worked until the sky started to darken, and I realised that it was time to water my veg bed right away, before the sun set. I threw everything into my bag, clattered down the stairs with my stuff all in a disarray, writing emails on my phone as I went, then hopped onto my bike and furiously pedalled over to the garden, falling off my bike half-way thanks to a little spiky-haired kid who accidentally but violently elbowed me as I was rolling along. I coast over to the lamppost, tether my bike, grab a watering can, fill it, and start to quench the blood-purple beetroot leaves. And then I looked up and I realised that the sky had turned the most saturated peach-pink, fading into orange, with ribbons of blue gleaming along the edge of the streaks of cloud. 
There were crickets singing around me like the nighttime sound effects in a bad cowboy film. The air was the same temperature as my skin. A couple were talking gently, sitting in the bench under the rose-arch by the pond;the girl sketching something in a drawing pad while the boy just looked out, maybe tired, or thinking. The pumpkins and cucumbers on my plot were blossoming with blousey yellow flowers, curled closed, with tendrils grasping out into the air. The bushes around me were festooned with blackberries, shiny and tempting. As I watered, the leaves stopped looking dusty and gleamed a new green. 
I never came to Berlin to find happiness or success. I came to find contentment. The satisfaction of feeling like you fit somewhere, somewhere which is imperfect and chaotic and strange in exactly the same way that you are imperfect and chaotic and strange. I had to come back because this is a city where these kinds of evenings are possible: times when you can be alone and peaceful, surrounded by plants and bees and butterflies, even while you can see the Ostkreuz watchtower in the distance and hear the faint throb of the nearby nightclub. A cycle ride home in the warm night breeze, watching the silhouette of the TV tower as your bum is shattered by the cobblestones. Coming home to your flat, messy with the remnants of the projects from the weekend, quiet except for the faint laughs and squeals of people enjoying the summer night. Checking your email, not because of the stress of work, but because you want to make sure that whatever chaos is going on, you want to be a part of it. 
I may not always be happy here, but I am always contented. I would rather be miserable in Berlin than ‘alright’ anywhere else. Maybe that’s what the trick to life is: finding a place where you’re happy to be unhappy there. Where you’re happy to be anything there. Where you’re happy to just be.

10 things to buy as soon as you’re off the minimum wage

Gherkin ashtrays are this season’s must-have item.

After you graduate, generally you tend to do some jobs. The majority of them will be dull and/or not really what you anticipated doing as a freshly baked genius hot off the coals of university. Then, at some point, one of those jobs will come with a salary that is perhaps fifty pence – maybe even a pound or more! – above the minimum wage. Congratulations! You’ve done it! This is the taste of real success! You start to marvel at a state of affairs where each month you spend what seems like far too much money only to be dazzled when – why, what’s that in your bank account? It’s more money! Granted, it may only get you so far as to cover rent, electricity and  a selection of bean-based dinners, but it feels like riches. And if you’re lucky enough to have a bit extra after those essentials, it’s time to start investing in things that every self-respecting professional should possess.


1. A Philips Sonicare toothbrush.
I am in no way being paid by Philips to say this, but this toothbrush should be a human right for anyone in possession of teeth. It vibrates your teeth into such jawdropping cleanness they feel better than any dental hygienist ever managed; cleaner than they have ever been since they first burst out of your gums. It’s like putting your tongue to the rim of a beautiful porcelain teacup. The actual brushing takes getting used to: it feels like a very intense exaggeration of that funny buzzy fizz you get on your lips when you play the kazoo. Nonetheless, it’s worth it. In just two minutes (two and a half, if you have the ‘Healthywhite’ model with a tooth-polishing finale) you can magic your mouth into fresh, clean, minty joy. It’s the best thing in the entire world. No, I don’t get out much.

2. The third cheapest wine
In first year of university, we become infinitely familiar with the cheapest wine, dumped into sangria or kalimotxo if it is really too unpleasant to drink out of the bottle. After we have grown up a bit we graduate to Second Cheapest Wine, which feels awesome for a while because let’s face it, only chumps order the cheapest wine – god, how naive you were! Once you start to earn an actual salary, however, you can buy the third cheapest, or maybe even whichever damn wine you like (as long as it’s by the glass – come on, it’s not your birthday), just pick whichever one you like! And the nice thing is that the more you try, the more you realise which ones you do like, so it’s easier to differentiate in future beyond simply knowing whether you prefer white or red. Cheers!


3. More Parmesan
Parmesan is what I like to call a Magic Ingredient. It’s probably the kind of thing Severus Snape would give a respectful nod to. These are ingredients which even in small quantities make anything taste immediately wonderful: parmesan, chorizo, Schwarzwalder Schinken, balsamic vinegar…there are only a few out there and I won’t reveal them all now. But parmesan is damn expensive, and yet the only thing better than parmesan is more parmesan. Now is the time to indulge.

4. Proper shoes with proper soles
Look at your shoes from Primark or Topshop. Just look at them. Aren’t they ashamed of themselves? Their soles aren’t even 5 milimetres thick! They have no grip on the bottom! Hell, those Primark dolly-shoes look like they’ve been soled with a single slice of hamburger cheese! How dare they. The best thing you can invest your money in is shoes with a good sole. A good sole should make the shoe feel a little heavy, it should be more than half a centimetre thick, it should be made of nice solid rubber and it ideally has a grip to it to navigate unexpected snow. It’s not the shoe itself that dictates how long a pair of shoes will last you; it’s the sole. And a good thick sole will make your shoes last for years, getting comfier and comfier with every wear, while also making walking easier and making it less likely that you will fall over and smack your arse.

5. A good-quality umbrella
So that you can immediately leave it on a train or in a supermarket. This one is a joke. No matter whether you are a recent graduate or Donald Trump you should never spend more than a fiver on an umbrella. The probability that you will lose or break it increases with every pound/euro you spend on it.

6. Slightly more expensive shampoo
It doesn’t have anything more to offer in terms of electrolytes or silk extract or pro-keratinol-A, but it smells about a million times better than cheap shampoos. That’s the only difference. But think how nice it is to smell something nice in the shower after you’ve just dragged your carcass out of bed and are about to subject it to a whole day of toil.

7. Dried mushrooms
This is another Magic Ingredient. They impart such rich, round flavour to anything you can mention, and they are a godsend for vegetarian cooking. They also cost more than solid silver, so you might hesitate, but it is worth it, and a pack lasts for ages. An added bonus is that you can now salvage any awkward situation when guests are at your house by grabbing the pack from your shelves and shouting ‘GEEZ, there’s not MUSH ROOM in here!!!’.

8. A hoover
Because what if your mum comes round?


9. Decent sports clothes
Well, I haven’t got round to this one yet because I like to think I’m recycling by exercising in out-of-date company-branded T-shirts that can no longer be used as my company’s uniform (not to mention giving my firm free advertising by showing us to be such a dynamic and youthful company). Also, sports clothes are incredibly dull and/or unpleasantly revealing. But I like to think that once you have the money and are firmly out of puberty you should be able to exercise in something adult and elegant which claims to do things like ‘wicking’ to a superior extent.

10. Your friends a drink.
When it comes down to it, the best way to spend your money is on experience and not on stuff. And I don’t really mean round-the-world travel or uh-mazing music festivals; I mean that being off the minimum wage is a lovely opportunity to have proper fun with the people you enjoy being around. Buy them a drink because you think they’re great and you want them to have fun. Let them buy you a drink if they feel inclined to return the favour. Go to restaurants and order olives to share at the beginning because it’s pleasing to have something to chew on as you get stuck into the chinwaggery of the evening. Go to the cinema more. Have a second coffee when you meet up. Allowing yourself to say yes to extra little things like this is what makes working full-time worthwhile

Disclaimer: I do not accept responsibility for any debt or bankruptcy incurred by any or all of the above advice.