Two British Institutions: Charity Shops and Driving Rain

This photo broke the 2012 Guinness World Record for greyest photo on the internet.

It’s the Royal Jubilee weekend, celebrating our beloved queen. Streets, villages and parishes are getting together all over the country to have parties to celebrate; there will be Pimm’s, barbecues, fetes, bouncy castles, victoria sponges and children’s games. The trestle tables have been laid out, the gazebos have been hired and the cucumber sandwiches are chilling in the fridge. Therefore, and with relieving reliability, it is raining with the kind of dogged persistence that can saturate a duffel coat in fifteen minutes. Nothing is sadder than streets lined with gently dripping bunting and people wetly licking the ice cream they are determined to enjoy because It Is Summer.

On days like this, when you’ve already been to all the museums and visited all the galleries and drunk all the coffee in Oxford, the perfect day out can be found in the good old tradition of charity shopping.

Charity shops are rare and special beasts in Germany; second-hand shops are ten-a-penny, but they come in a wider range of common breeds. You have the Second-Hand-Laden, the second-hand shop where all the stuff is branded ‘vintage’ and then sold for three times its original price, four times if it’s really really stained. Typical fare includes large and shiny 1980s jackets with elasticated cuffs, enormous nightgowns that smell of death and old dresses with giant padded shoulders, yellowed with nicotine. Then there is the Antiquariat, a second-hand bookshop typically festooned with books in cardboard boxes and aching shelves, stacked up to the ceiling and sorted into strange categories like ‘Greek fashion’ or ‘Religion/photography’. They are brilliant and the books usually cost a euro each at most. My favourite Antiquariat of all time is Cafe Tasso in Berlin, where the bookshop merges with a small but deeply friendly café where the drinks come with a tiny disc of homemade hazelnut shortbread, and the books sprawl through the building like a fungal growth. Then you get the Trödelladen, which is like the Second-Hand-Laden but sells proper Trödel, i.e. junk of all descriptions. Old used handkerchiefs, broken handbags, and unnervingly huge amounts of army paraphernalia. It’s dirt cheap, and it’s dirt cheap because it’s dead horrible. These shops are always brown. They even smell of brown.



Sadly, and oddly considering the general philanthropy and world-friendliness that the Germans possess, most of these shops have their profits going to the man in the beige vest behind the till. It is rather strange that our charity shop culture hasn’t picked up there yet, while here the charity shops flourish in the credit crunch with rich fertility. In the town where I live when not at university, most of the real shops have gone long ago, having found it difficult to squeeze a living out of the ancient spinsters that seem to form 95% of the town’s population. They have been replaced by endless charity shops, not just the Big Players like Oxfam and British Heart Foundation but also the more mid-range charities like Sue Ryder and even some real curiosities, whose charities I have never encountered beyond that one shop: one doesn’t even seem to have a name but is definitely in support of The Aged in some capacity, I think. They tend to sell a lot of jeans, wool and ties heaped into bins and unnervingly faded plastic toys. 

Charity shopping is a joy and a skill. It’s a joy because it’s utterly guilt-free and endlessly colourful; your money is always going to a good cause and the stock can vary between real gems and hilarious items you are simply overjoyed to have found for their comedy value. I will never forget the onomatopoeia-themed tie I picked up once for my English teacher at secondary school, for example. One thing you must have above all else is zero expectations; the likelihood is that you won’t find a vintage Dior halterneck gown for three quid down the Help the Aged, and you mustn’t feel betrayed or disappointed when that continues not to happen. You will, however, frequently find brilliant small things that are like life’s stocking-stuffers, the bits and pieces that cost three quid and just perk you up when you can close your grubby little fists around them. Yesterday: a lime-green batik T-shirt with fish on. Before that: an old printing die drawer from a newspaper press in London way back when they used to be printed semi-by-hand. Worth it.

There are several things one has to put up with, of course; predominantly the issue that as time goes on most charity shops seem to be becoming little more than galleries of old Per Una ranges overflowing the racks. Per Una, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the brand, is Marks and Spencer’s ‘mode’ range which was originally meant to appeal to young adults but swiftly became the preferred look for retired ladies and geography teachers, meaning that no young adult would ever consider touching any of that stuff with a bargepole. It’s all textural fabrics and kooky buttons and square cardigans, and it’s now spilling out of the doors of charity shops as if the stuff reproduces by mitosis or something. Another thing that you have to come to terms with is the slightly jarring audacity of some of these places – Oxfam in particular are starting to get incredibly cheeky with their pricing and will happily charge £5 for a t-shirt that was originally from Primark for a scant quid. “Uh yah, but it’s like vintage, so yah.” No. Vintage is not a synonym for ‘already worn by someone else’. The best charity shops recognise that and simply sell everything as is, reeking of dust and dispensed from a huge basket or repurposed old bin labelled “EVERYTHING £2-POUND’S”.

Spot the difference

Check it out, I went to the Ostsee!

 Hang on, I think I have another photo from a different angle…oh yes, here it is.










Ho, hold on…that can’t be right…here’s another photo:

And another shot of those dreamy waters:

Well, I don’t know what to tell you. The earth moves around the sun just 180 degrees and suddenly the beach has turned from the shore of the river Styx to the kind of thing you see in fake retro postcards they sell in hipster shops.

Granted, it was beautiful and awesome to see the Ostsee coast in Winter and be fully freaked out by the eeriness of the milky melancholy water/sky gradient that stretched out from the ground. But being on the German coast in early summer, after a morning of rain and grey clouds that did nothing but wash the stuffiness out of the air, was absolutely herrlich.

I think the Ostsee is probably one of Germany’s most undeservedly ignored tourist locations for anyone who isn’t a native Kraut like us. (Yes, us. I’m one of them now.) The images that spring to mind for anyone contemplating holidaying in Germany are striking cathedrals and earnest cultural edutainments like galleries and museums; one imagines drifting around Gothic-looking streets, gorging on sausage and beer with dirndled locals and having your brain twanged by the latest techno hipsterlectrofunkatunes in Berlin. But no-one really thinks they might end up on a beautiful cream-coloured beach surrounded by soft dune-grass and clear waters full of actual real pink jellyfish. 

Like any British coast, the sea is so cold you spasm into attacks of rapid breathing the minute it goes past your ankles, but that doesn’t matter to the hundreds of fearless and naked children being chucked around by their dads in the shallows and the noise of them having a brilliant time is oddly heartening. The surroundings are adorable, with thatched cottages leading up to the pier and little pubs serving Fischbrötchen. This is a much-loved spot for loads of Germans who come up from all over to this little smidgen of coast in the otherwise land-locked mass; next to us were a family who, I am informed, were deeply Sachsisch (i.e. from Saxony) and had such thick accents I could barely understand what they were saying. When their little boy was playing football it just sounded like he was yelling “poop, poop” like Toad in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and I only really tuned in to their dialect when he suddenly stopped and demanded that he and his father take a break to eat something or they simply couldn’t continue. At any rate, this sweet family was a welcome change to the people who had previously been in their space, a ‘robust’ man and his wife who lay motionless and nude in the sun for ages like huge legs of ham dumped on the sand. 


Further up the coast the people begin to give way to wilderness and wildlife, and a small ridge of cliff rose out of the ground which was spotted with tiny cheese-holes. These had been dug into the clay by tiny swallow-like birds who flew in and out of the holes tweeting frenziedly.

The bird-watcher my mother implanted in me when I was little squeeed with joy.

Along the cliff there was a low wood and some bushes with pink flowers, and along the shore lay trees which had slumped down off the cliff the last time there had been a landslide. When we finished exploring our friend Tommy arrived wearing layers of thick black leather and clutching a vast black tarpaulin bag; clearly when we said we would meet him at the beach he misheard and thought we said the matrix. At any rate, once he arrived we committed ourselves to proper beach behaviour, namely licking ice-lollies and getting sand stuck everywhere. All these things are things I couldn’t have believed I would be doing when I first knew I would be coming to Berlin, let alone Germany, and I needed it like a sick person needs pills.

That evening we went to a traditional German Gaststätte and were served by a traditional German waiter who was portly and jolly and wore a nice patterned waistcoat reminiscent of my favourite Germanic waiter encountered thus far. We drank Apfelschorle and propped our table up with fifty beermats to prevent our food sliding off the table and down the steep cobbled alleyway we were sitting in. Now, you may want to bum around Berlin or marvel at Munich, but this is what the real Germans do for their minibreaks and it is goshdarned great.    

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.

Springtime for *cough* and Germany…

There are queues outside every ice cream parlour in the city and people are showing off their knees with gay abandon. It must be officially spring in Berlin. By the looks of what’s suddenly filling all the clothes shops we are in for a long period of yet more bloody maxidresses, dungarees and – *gulp* – neon hotpants. Everyone is in a cheery and celebratory mood and therefore the time has come for every German to participate in what is both a homage to the true backbone of German culture (Wurst) and probably one of the main things English and German people love as manically as each other. I am speaking, of course, of Grillen, the noble BBQ. When it comes to Grillen the Germans go just as mad as the British, wheeling out their apparatus the minute a fleck of sunshine appears through the clouds and barbecuing everything from the traditional sausage to pesto-flavoured tofu. You shoot the Scheiβe, drink a brew or twelve and stay out with your barbeque until it gets dark or you get thrown out of whichever place you’ve chosen to grill in. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This all sounds well and good, but this is Berlin! Couldn’t it – hell, shouldn’t it – be a bit edgier?” Why yes, yes it can. And therefore I ended up going to my first German Grill of the season illegally on the rooftop of one of the edgier buildings in one of the edgiest districts, Neukölln.


I knew from the minute I stepped out of the S-Bahn station that it was going to be a good evening when I saw a beautiful Berlin moment happen right before my eyes like a small present from fate. A tweenie girl licked her giant ice-cream too hard and both scoops thudded onto the pavement. She groaned and walked off licking the creamy residue off her sad-looking empty cone. Milliseconds later a homeless man came along, kicked the ice-cream boulder like a football and then sauntered off roaring with laughter. It was so sudden and hilarious I couldn’t have been in a better mood by the time I reached this incredible place.

The block of flats my friend lives in has an amazing loft space under the roof. It is a truly cinematic space, full of echoey eaves and dusty rafters. Inset into the roof are little porthole-style windows and one oval window with light mint-green glass, and in the main loft space there is nothing on the floor save one abandoned roll-top desk. We all climbed the rickety ladder to emerge onto a wonderful flat rooftop deck which looked out over the whole city. It was exactly as brilliant as it sounds. From the rooftop you could eat your kebab and regard the city as if it were your kingdom; the view from a roof is somehow so much better than from the Reichstag or the Fernsehturm because everything is still so near, you can thoughtfully regard the lights of Alexanderplatz in the distance or just annoy an old woman by watching her and waving as she does the dishes by her kitchen window. As if it weren’t mushy enough, when night fell there were fireworks in the distance as if daring us all to hold hands and start singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or something. 

And thus ended my first week of May, the first week of the last two months of my time here. Only seven more weeks left of my contract to go before I am no longer forced by contract law to go into schools and pretend to have fun with small children. The end couldn’t come sooner, for while I am in love with this city and having what will probably be one of the best years of my life here the work hasn’t got any more pleasant or less gruelling; my voice sounds like the secretary slug-creature from Monsters, Inc (you didn’t file your paperwork, Wazowski…) and thanks to walking around the entire city every single day my feet have come to the conclusion that there is no pair of shoes comfortable enough that they won’t slowly but agonisingly remove all the skin from your heels and toes if worn too much. I spend my days nowadays playing ‘the family game’, a game I invented which the kids love so much they quite literally squeal with anticipation the minute I wink and suggest that they all line up by the wall. Each of the kids is made into a member of the family and I play the role of the gross old grandpa who wants to give his family members a big embarrassing hug. I call over various members of the family and they have to try to run from one side of the room to the other while avoiding my grabby grandpa hands. For some reason this pushes kids’ buttons in a way no other game ever has, and they get ever so creative and hilarious when they play it: some of them will point to the ceiling and go “Look! A pig/bird/policeman!!” to make me look away in confusion while they run past, some of them run round and round in circles for about fifteen minutes until I have to remind them that at some point they will need to get to the other wall otherwise we’ll be at it forever, and some kids are oddly resigned and simply walk slowly and with melancholy sacrifice into my open arms. It’s an exhausting game, but it gets me through the days and it seems to make the kids’ days when I inevitably fall over. You gotta give the people want they want.

Spring Awakening

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

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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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