Getting lost in the Chameleon Boudoir

That's a-moray!! Actually it's a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.
That’s a-moray!! Actually it’s a tiger eel, but I needed an excuse for my favourite joke of all time.

Some weeks ago, I was spending a lot of time in my boss’ Berlin flat. I was doing some work which required a decent internet connection for me to make several large uploads each day, and the internet connection at my workplace was quite distressingly terrible (we would later find out that we had all been sharing a 6 – SIX – kbps connection for weeks without Telekom offering to fix it). I got into a routine where I would spend the morning sorting shizz out, then take an hour to prepare all the files I would need, and then cycle over to the flat in my lunch break to upload all those big monstrous gigabytes and answer erroneous emails. Well, one day I was sitting there in my boss’ kitchen, staring at the ceiling as I listened to my colleague telling me stuff over Skype, having an idle gander about the room. Until I noticed something: the walls looked oddly speckled now, and I didn’t remember them having a stucco finish. I looked more closely.

Maggots. Herds of maggots, scooching along the walls and ceiling. Hundreds of them, everywhere. I imagined them all suddenly falling on me and then a bunch of horrendous Lars Von Trier imagery bursting through the windows. No matter how many times I blinked, though, they were still there. A quick google helped me to identify the particular species of maggot, and thus followed a preposterous few days of trying to balance my usual massive workload with also finding a decent exterminator and overseeing his exterminating. One of my top ten sentences I never thought I’d hear in my professional career? ‘Careful of the maggots when emptying the vacuum cleaner! You might want to do it outside.’ When I did empty the vacuum cleaner, outside and at arm’s length, a huge gulp of maggots flowed out of the dust compartment – followed by a redemptive little black cloud of moths, like a mini version of the bats rising out of Batman’s cave.

Read more

This little piggy went to market

I know what you’re thinking: damn, that’s a cool umbrella.

What do Berliners hate the most? Tourists. What do tourists hate the most? Tourists also. Tourists come to Berlin for one of two reasons: either to see the splendour of German modernity directly parallel to the horror of remnants of a tortured past, or to be, like, totally alternative and underground and do non-touristy awesome gritty Berlin stuff. To be fair, the latter is what most Berliners are trying to do anyway. And all of this is relatively moot, because the few real born-and-bred* Berliners are just middle-aged guys trying to enjoy a coffee and a Brötchen while doing their best to ignore the idiot hipsters sashaying down the street in trucker caps.

Anyone looking for a less obvious and ‘ooh-take-a-picture’-y activity in Berlin would be hard pressed to find anything better than one of the excellent markets sprawled all over the streets of this patchwork city. When the Christmas markets aren’t filling the air with the intoxicating, thick aroma of Glühwein, there are all kinds of other terrific specimens up for grabs, tiny to enormous, cruddy to overtly pretentious, and everything in between. And as they are often the only thing happening on the otherwise DEAD waste of 24 hours which the Germans call ‘Sonntag’, I’ve been to a lot of them lately.

First the big guns: Mauerpark. The Mauerpark flea market (photo above courtesy of one fine vendor) is probably the most colossal market in the entire city. If you were to stop and look at every single stand you could easily spent a good seven hours there and you’d probably end up accidentally buying a jar of flavoured honey, an old pocket-watch and a Turkish pancake just out of sheer overwhelmed confusion. It’s also host to the famous weekly Bearpit karaoke which I mentioned decades ago in this excellently written sample of bloggery

*N.B. if you are the person who I recently found spelling it ‘born and bread’, shame on you. What do you think ‘born and bread’ even means? Blood is not thicker than pita.



As with all flea markets in Berlin, you really have to either go with a sharp eye ready or not bother going at all (if you plan on buying anything, that is). There is such a sea of detritus awaiting you that anyone of a weak constitution will not know what to do with themselves. Full cardboard boxes brimming with broken mugs and sculptures of Jesus and the lid of a bread-maker (which, presumably, will one day be bought by someone). On first glance it looks like a hopeless cause, but there is actually a lot to be extracted from the offerings. There is a man who sells his own home-grown salad leaves, and if you give him a euro and ask him to ‘freestyle’ he will just pick out a big mixture for you based on what he thinks you’ll enjoy. There are Vietnamese people selling incredibly cheap and cool sewing stuff, and guys with giant biceps hand-pressing fresh orange juice at unbelievable speed. A sweet old lady there sells herbs that she grows herself from seed, and when I bought a tiny little oregano seedling from her she wrapped it prettily in newspaper and said, “People think I’m fifty – I’m actually SEVENTY-EIGHT! Gardening keeps you young!! It’s the key to good life!!!” She’s right.

But the Mauerpark flea market is as notorious as it is enormous, and people throng there in such masses that it’s probably the first topic that’s ever required me to use the verb ‘throng’. And yes, for that reason you get the tourists and the expats (cough cough) fighting over vintage bags and saying things like, ‘Oh may Gahd, they’ve got hemp candles scented with basil’ (pronounced ‘bay-zil’, because American English is wrong). This week I wanted to go somewhere a little more…little, and I had the Crellestraße Turkish market in mind since I now have to work whenever the Maybachufer market is on (that’s another post).

 The Maybachufer market is a Turkish market whose size rivals the Mauerpark and is as mental as it is huge. It’s incredible, it’s loud, but most importantly it has some of the most gorgeous and cheap fabrics you can buy in this city; as the proud new owner of a kick-ass military-grade sewing machine, I was looking for some fodder to test out this bad boy properly. Squid skirts don’t count. And when the Turkish vendors aren’t at the Maybachufer, they are dispersed around Berlin at mini-markets like this one.

The Crellestraße market (near Yorckstraße S-Bhf) is an awesome last resort for anyone who’s missed the big Turkish market or just wants to go to a market that is small, a bit more normal and doesn’t contain even one pesky tourist. The fruit and veg on offer is astounding: not just beautiful flat peaches and mangos and chilis but more off-kielter stuff like these Asian aubergines, globe courgettes and baby okra, which I have never even seen before. 

Because it’s a smaller and more intimate market you also get more of an opportunity to chat with the sellers and have a bit more fun. The sweet aubergines and baby okra were being sold by a guy whose stall stood out because it seemed so hilariously mediocre. Compared to the other grocers at the market, whose stalls were practically collapsing with mountains of produce, he had a few lame little cardboard boxes scattered about, each barely half-full with dull-looking little nothings. I love an underdog, so I had to see what this was all about, and I realised that although he wasn’t selling much, the dull-looking nothings were in fact small amounts of really exciting and exotic stuff that you really won’t find anywhere else even in this crazy city. East-Asian varieties of uncommon herbs, weird new varieties of chilis, the aforementioned tiny-weeny okra… I didn’t even know what I would do with any of it but I did need ginger, and when I grabbed a bulb he simply decided through personal joie-de-vivre that it would cost me fifty cents. I complimented him on his insane array of produce and he said, “I’m Egyptian! It’s all from Egypt! That’s why it’s all so great!” I believed him. 

I love the big markets, but for good banter you can’t beat the smaller ones. So when I took the above photo for you lovely readers, the seller waved his arms and shouted, “Hey, hey, HEY! Those are copyrighted!”, before giving me a toothy grin. 

And yes, I did find some fabric. It’s got yellow flowers and intricate Japanese vases printed on it, and it was two bucks a metre.

Conclusive proof that children love unpaid manual labour

The beautiful spiral herb mound

I have finally mustered the energy to write today’s post after spending most of the day thus far convalescing in bed, tentatively sipping Ribena in a smog of profound self-pity. How did I end up in this pathetic state? Well, it all began many years (hours) ago…

There is a community gardening project called OxGrow down Abingdon Road in Oxford. It is a plot which used to be a bunch of sports grounds and tennis courts for one of the snootiest colleges here, but they have kindly donated it the grounds to the local community to be gradually cultivated and tended until Hogacre Common becomes a lush and teeming eco-paradise. I have been going on Sundays since the start of term and it only took me three minutes among the gorgeous and heaving veg beds to fall in love, and since then they’ve erected a ‘bee platform’ (believe it or not, bees prefer to live on a platform. It makes them feel above the common bees) and expanded the vegetable garden to an incredible degree. We’re growing dozens of exciting varieties of heirloom potatoes and garlic, the onions at the moment look like gleaming juicy gemstones laying on the compost and the strawberry plants are so aggressively lush that the green berries underneath the leaves are nothing but an endless taunt withholding what they are going to become. The work parties are every Sunday whether or not it is glorious sunny weather or the ground is smothered beneath a thick fleece of snow. There is always tea, there is often rain and there is always, without fail, plenty of digging. I love it. Digging is man’s most soothing and wholesome pastime; it makes you feel like a hearty medieval peasant and has the cathartic effect of letting you take out all your anger and stress in every enormous kick you give that big soil-clad spade. At the end of the day, everyone is free to take whatever produce is ready to be picked and you’re usually so cream-crackered the next bit is almost as good as the work party itself: resting back at home with an enormous cup of hot tea and gently hardening mud on your knees.

This Sunday, to celebrate their own volunteering achievements, a student/pupil tutoring scheme called Jacari brought a bunch of their enthusiastic members and tutees to the garden; nothing says ‘celebrate’ like being made to dig clods of soil when you’re 12…Everything was so calm and tranquil for the first hour or so, while we did various odd-jobs around the beds, until suddenly an army of children swarmed in and started gettin’ all up in our pitchforks.

Honestly, it was the most terrific fun. Since my ‘job’ (read: toil) in Berlin I have missed mucking about with kids something awful and unfettered access to spades and worms had put them into an excellent mood. Give kids complete free reign in the outdoors with gardening tools and they become the kind of brilliant beasts you always hope your kids will turn out to be; they squeal with breathless astonishment every single time they find anything vaguely insect-y, ask endless questions and do hilarious things like ‘accidentally’ shovelling soil into the back of your jeans as you’re crouching in the neighbouring bed thinning crops…yes…

The best thing of all, though, was when I was allowed to take my own group of kids off for an explore around the grounds. It was then that I, for the first time, realised how cool and exciting my mum was when I was growing up. She used to take us through the woods for hours, and being the head of a family of nerds she initiated us into the world of insects, birds and fungus (the latter of which my grandmother also tried to do but almost got herself banned from ever seeing us again after she almost managed to persuade us to eat the mushrooms we had found on our ramble). My dad, a vet, helped by bringing home little pots of mealworms or crickets for us to poke at, or even brought the occasional grass-snake or even kestrel that was currently being given medical care. We grew up surrounded by wildlife. And it seems it all stuck, for I found myself teaching these children thousands of little facts and neat things about nature that I had just assumed all kids innately know as part of being twelve years old, but the kids – and quite a lot of the adults – were soaking it all up in shiny-eyed fascination. It was incredible. Several of them had never encountered the buttercup test. One of the student volunteers asked the kids if they knew what a ‘hog’ (as in Hogacre) was. They chanted ‘noooo’. The volunteer hesitated and then muttered that she didn’t actually know either. (I delicately let them know it was another word for a Big Fat Pig.) This is not the kind of thing kids need – they want thousands of small and useless and amazing facts and they want them ALL THE TIME. To be the provider of said facts is simply endless fun.

 These kids didn’t know what stickyweed was, which in my view is a tragedy and a kind of infant poverty, so I diligently explained why it was called stickyweed, how it came to be so sticky and then explained to them the rules of that honoured game where you have to try and stick as much of the stuff on your brother’s back as you can without him noticing. We were lucky enough to find some froghoppers so I could explain how they make their little frothy dens out of their own ‘spit’. We talked about what compost was, how you can tell a dead nettle from a real nettle, and oooooohed at a skeletal leaf that had been completely ravished by the satisfied snail resting on its tip. It’s times like this that I wonder at all the families you see in supermarkets, telling their kids to ‘I don’t know just shut up Damian’ when they keep incessantly asking questions. Having the privilege and the trust to answer a child’s questions is one of the most fun and exhilarating feelings and even if you don’t know the answer you are at least in the position to make that connection with the child: you can tell them an interesting story of what the answer might be (“Oooh, maybe bananas are bent so monkeys can use them as boomerangs, what do you think?”) or at least encourage them for having had the gumption to ask in the first place (“Do you know, I have no idea! It’s cool that you noticed…!”) Suffice it to say, if I have kids – and it’s a big if, since I have looked into the heart of darkness on that score – I will ensure that they know all about inkcaps and puffballs and stickyweed as soon as they can stand. 


After being gone from the garden for a length of time close to ‘abduction’ on a legal scale, I had to bring the kids back and they all marched off to their treasure hunts and gnashed on crisps. And they went home, hopefully to a future filled with afternoons spent covering their peers in adhesive strings of flora and getting shouted at for being a mess. We all got to take a fresh new onion home, alongside a glorious array of broccoli, asparagus, leeks, chard, and all kinds of delicious just harvested produce.


It all came home with me and went into a delicious vegetable ginger-honey-miso stirfry with a huge field mushroom that had come from the market a while before. It was delicious. And then, hours later, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, it kept me awake all night and made me more violently ill than I have ever been in my memorable past. But it was worth it. Pass the ribena.

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.    

The Plague

“And ye shalt all be punished for your sins by damage of yon intestynes and kidneees!”

You may or may not be aware, but Germany is in the middle of the biggest health scare since <insert irritating Bild article here>. Its name is EHEC, it’s a virus which might cause permanent damage to your kidneys or intestines, and if it’s feeling really racy that day it might even go the whole hog and kill you. Some newspapers are genuinely calling it a plague, while even the initial skeptics such as myself are starting to get a little uneasy about it since it’s spreading, it’s dangerous and no-one has any clue what causes it. One thing’s for sure: now’s the time to be buying cucumbers, as the poor things are languishing on shelves for mere cents a piece. The question is, are you going to take the risk?

I suppose that if there’s one thing I will always be able to say about my year abroad, it’s that it was never boring. Trust me to come over here in a plague year. The reaction to this new crisis is rather jarring, as no-one is really quite sure what to do. At first Spanish cucumbers were thought to be the source, and although they needed a couple more days to be completely certain that they has caused the spread the German government did the understandable thing and advised people to avoid them while they were so heavily under suspicion. Spain has been furious about this, as evidently it would have been better to keep quiet and let people chow down on potentially infected food as long as the vaguely-tasteless vegetable trade is kept on an even keel. Since then it has been determined that the cucumbers are, in fact, not the cause of the infection, although the fact that many of the samples were chosen for study because they were host to other types of E. Coli is apparently something we are also now allowed to completely ignore. We now have no idea what could possibly cause it but for some reason the governments are determinedly upholding their warning against cucumbers, tomatoes and salad, as they are the foods which all the victims have in common; given that this is a country that lives on Brötchen and that every filled Brötchen contains at least one slice of tomato, cucumber and one lettuce leaf this seems rather unsurprising. What about Wurst??

Trying to find some kind of better factual source to find out about this is not easy; all the newspapers are relishing making this sound as doomsdayesque as possible, so real figures or realistic risk assessments only crop up very occasionally in comparison to exciting-sounding repetitions of the words “bloody diarrhoea”. When real facts do emerge they are fascinatingly strange; the predominance in women being chalked down to the fact that women are cooking more and therefore more in contact with unwashed produce (thanks a lot, chauvinist PIGS), or the fact that for some reason strawberries have been found to be completely safe. In my search for genuine information I foolishly went to the forums of Toytown Germany, a site which offers a community for English-speaking people who have moved to Germany.
It’s a brilliant idea of course, and the concept works very well; there are discussion boards for people to ask questions and help each other out, and the community feeling is well-established through frequent and regular themed meet-ups for anyone who might feel a bit lost or just want to get out a bit more. However, there are two reasons why I myself have never quite got stuck into the ‘Town myself:
1) once you start fraternising with your own kind over here, particularly in Berlin and other big cities, it is all too easy to stay in the pack forever. I want to meet natives, goddammit; I want to learn their customs, partake in their rituals and try on the loincloths, you know? And I am of the opinion that one of the best ways to do that is just to dive straight in Bruce-Parry style and drink the cow’s blood.
2) The site is, despite its many friendlinesses, one of the most hostile online environments I have ever witnessed.

The discussion forums are the nucleus of the whole operation, and just a cursory glance around the various threads seems to suggest that if these discussions were taking place in a pub rather than online people would be hitting each other with tankards and chucking Pilsner at each other. There is not a single topic that doesn’t seem to at some point spontaneously take a horrible and bitter turn and become bewilderingly insulting and aggressive. Take the case of a poor, confused student who simply wanted to move to Berlin and get a job there for a bit. He turned to the website hoping for a little support and some suggestions from the friendly ex-pat community; what he got instead was a textbook case of the lace-curtain twitchers, as the members berated him for coming over here, stealing our jobs… “It’s hard enough to get a job as a real Berliner without you thoughtless hippies coming here and thinking you’ll just find work,” complained a variety of non-real-Berliners who had come here and just found work in the place in question. 


But the EHEC discussion is one of the worst. How can people get so toxic and so vicious about an impersonal disease? The thread, beginning with a mild discussion of the risks, devolved into personal attacks so fast you’d think they were trying to be a metaphor for a virulent mutated strain of some horrible intestinal virus. One member immediately mounted her skyscraper-high horse and declared that vegetarians have known for years that you don’t need any of the risk foods if you have soy in your life, while another quite jarringly but with astonishing confidence compared EHEC to the horrible Love Parade incident a while back where a few poor people got crushed to death at a music festival due to overcrowding. No, I don’t really understand why either, but when asked to explain his comment he simply responded with, “Well I don’t see why I should and I don’t like your tone, but all I’m saying is that the government just sat and allowed innocents to die brutally.”


This doesn’t particularly have a moral except to say that it’s fascinating how a resource that is supposed to create a sense of unity and support so often falls back on hostility and conflict. There are hundreds of members throughout the country, and they all clearly get something out of it, but between the lines there’s a kind of ‘I know what I’m doing here, but what are you doing here??’ feel to the whole thing. 


But let me use this to give advice to anyone thinking of coming here on their year abroad: don’t rely on the ex-pat and foreign student support services you might find here. They may help you find you find your feet, but you will do much better to get out there and find your own mini-community who are there for you – not because you have a life situation in common but because you have stumbled upon each other and find each other worthwhile human beings. It’s not easy and it’s definitely slow going, but in the end when you are lying in your hospital bed with EHEC you’ll want people at your side and not an open laptop.


P.S. The picture at the top of this post is from the Bear Pit Karaoke session which takes place every Sunday at the Mauerpark Flea Market. It began some years ago when a crazy Irish dude saw the mini-Colosseum stage in the park and decided to set up a speaker and a microphone so that people could make idiots of themselves in the most public way possible outside of the broadcasting networks. It became so popular so fast that he now has a karaoke buggy with speakers and laptop and sound equipment bolted on, a loyal girlfriend who fiddles with his cables (no, she really does) and a waiting list of people dying to sing their favourite song. The event always begins with this beardy and formidable bear of a man singing the German version of “My Way” (‘Mein Leben’) and he himself has become such a legend that this time a woman leapt out of the audience to hand him a single white rose, which he unfortunately snapped in his sheer passion. The talent is…variable, ranging from the lanky Bowie-a-like who sang a sultry version of ‘Summertime’ without music to the woman who sung ‘Beat It’; she had dressed up as Michael Jackson, learned the dance and even done her hair as the Jacko, but evidently was so wrapped up in her preparation that it never crossed her mind to ever once in her life LISTEN TO THE SONG. “Beat it…beat it…bea…beat it…it…b…beat…beat it….” For an excruciating four minutes.

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.

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.



Berlin: a city that welcomes you with open arms, then kicks you in the stomach

The most threatening German definite article of them all

I’m not sure whether this is to do with living in a huge city having lived in a tiny village all my life, or rather whether it is more a heightened self-pity leading to a victim complex, but life in the pulsating mass of a metropolis seems to be rather intolerant of…well, almost all individual human effort. Every day seems littered with small signs that while you are trying your hardest to say ‘yes’ to life, Berlin is giving you a solid ‘no’. Take the case of a  few Fridays previous: I arrived at the train station a little late thanks to my stinking German phone’s alarm not going off to find that the train I needed to get wasn’t actually running after all, with absolutely no explanation or provision of an alternative but simply an atmosphere of such indifference to our disappointment that it is as if the air itself were giving a shrug worthy of a French caricature. Eventually arriving at the U-Bahn station I need to get to (against all odds), I literally limp to my kindergarten like a mad scientist’s assistant, suffering at the time from an agonising inflamed tendon in my foot. I give a taut smile as the gooey kid happily buries his breakfast-and-snot-covered face into my belly for my good morning hug, and as I hurriedly prepare the materials for the lesson before finding the children I pick up a nearby box to get a piece of chalk. Inside I find a message in large capital letters: “DIE.” It took me a couple of minutes (yes, that is probably two more minutes than it ought to have done) to realise that this is Germany and therefore the note is not a jarring and suddenly discovered threat scrawled in crayon. But for a split second, nestled among the lollies that were also inexplicably in the box, that note seemed like a sign. A sign that was trying to tell me to get out of where I don’t belong.

No-one can prepare you for the nature of a big city. Anonymity is one thing; seeing the same person more than once in passing is earth-shattering where in a village it’s one of the top ten most mundane things that can happen. And in villages you have to have a top ten because there are just so many mundane things ready to paralyse you with boredom on a daily basis. You do quite honestly feel like an ant in a nest, deedling about the place doing something so infinitesimally insignificant that it won’t really matter at all if you drown in a drop of lemonade. The pace is another thing; everyone is marching up and down the streets, you ricochet between trains and trams and buses like public transport Pong, the supermarket check-out women shuttle your food through the scanner as if she were trying to zing it through the window leaving a perfectly aubergine-shaped hole in the glass. This is why the parks and gardens are so popular, because the people here need a genuine oasis where all of this is simply out of the way for a while so they can dawdle and linger and all those other deliciously lazy words. 

But, as I said, the thing that really gets on my bluetits is the sheer sense of ‘no’ that pervades everyday life here. It is because the city is run by the companies and the municipal bodies, and they are as inhuman as they can possibly achieve. No-one is trying to help you, because you are one squidgy little cell in this big middle-aged body, and while some cells might be on the verge of popping it doesn’t matter as long as the galumphing great corpse still has life in it. Every company’s customer service department is populated entirely by those people whose emotional spectrum only diverges from apathy to touch pure sadism. I have been trying to receive a package I ordered for over three weeks now with no success because the store repeatedly tells me to talk to the delivery firm, who repeatedly reply that the only possible way to solve the problem is to talk to the store. For 3 euros per phone call. Recently, having waited about thirty years for some pancakes to arrive in a cafe, I went to the waitress and asked if we would be getting our breakfast soon please and thank you so much for your help; she merely rolled her eyes and told me, quite frankly: “Well, it won’t take forever…

Not to mention the fact that everything in this bloody place is closed at the moment, meaning that one can spend an entire day travelling from one thing to another just to see a dazzling array of barriers, ‘no entry’ signs and hopelessly dark shop windows. When my most beloved mother came to visit last weekend, I took her to the KaDeWe where we spent our entire life savings on a salad and bread roll, and as a consolation took her to the Gedächtniskirche, which for the first time in years and completely inexplicably was entirely shrouded in MDF. To make up for this, I took her to the Siegessäule, which, despite the fanfares of its finally being completely renovated and now gleamingly finished, was sealed off by military-grade scaffolding and chicken-wire barriers for no apparent reason. To make up for this, I took her to the Reichstag – we saw some beautiful barriers there, although unfortunately didn’t make it anywhere near the building. Everything is closed on Sundays, certain places open and close on a whim like a diseased sphincter, and other things are so rarely open you wonder why they even exist at all; in my last two holidays to Berlin the Bauhaus and the Neue Nationalgalerie were closed, and to my masochistic joy the last time I peered into the Neue Nationalgalerie this month it was an empty mausoleum with Absolutely No Art Here. 

The bureaucratic barriers are just as impressive, with rules that remind you of comedy legal documents where paragraph A section 3.1 line C section iiv syllable 6 is quoted as the dealbreaker. 
-No, you are not allowed an intern’s reduced travel fare despite the fact that you are an intern because the only exception to the reduced rates is English language teachers.
-No, you cannot take books out of the library because your postal address does not match your registered address.
-No, you cannot shower for the swimming pool without fully stripping naked as stipulated by the Berlin pools’ alliance.
 All of these are true.

No, no, no, no, no. Nein. Nöö. If there is such a thing as The Man, he is perpetually shaking his head. And this isn’t just Berlin; London is the same, and every other big city in England or anywhere in Europe (Paris, don’t get me started on you). Happily there is one antidote, which is that the individual people recognise the crushingness of this state and seem to do their best to undo it, and whether they go out of their way to throw your gloves out of the train window as it leaves the platform so your hands aren’t cold or whether they simply give you a beaming smile with your loaf of bread it makes you feel like a rather lucky ant.

The cool kids are raving, but I’d rather be engraving…

“Hey mum, did you bring anything cool back when you finished your year in Berlin, like a piece of the wall or something?” “No dear, but I do have this rather eclectic selection of lampwork beads.”

Forgive the poor lighting in this picture, but I just had to show you the fruit of my weekend’s labours. For those of you who don’t know me too well, I’m a bit obsessed with crafting, and in particular I have a lot to do with making jewellery in various media. But making my own beads directly out of glass is something I have always wanted to try and never been able to have a go at, so when I found a course at a Volkshochschule (adult evening school) in making glass beads like the Vikings, I couldn’t whip the 20 euros out of my pocket fast enough. For 7 hours a day, Saturday and Sunday, I and a collection of overweight middle-aged women sat patiently at flames, melting rods of glass over lengths of wire with our fantastically intelligent Phd-qualified teacher, who had her doctorate in archaeology and had since then become fascinated by the glass-bead-making techniques of early civilisations like the Vikings, Celts and men of the Middle Ages. It is one of the best weekends I have had so far here in the city; the techniques involved are mesmerising, and winding glowing translucent globules of glass around each other and pulling them into long spiralling threads is tirelessly beautiful to watch and do. The only way I could have been happier is if I could have ignored the nagging sinking feeling that in some way I am wasting my youth. Thus is the curse of Blue Peter.The point is, though, that the Volkshochschule in Germany and in Berlin especially is utterly wonderful and I urge all world leaders who are reading this (Condoleeza, you know you ma dawg) to come over, have a gander and then try their best to replicate it. Germany makes a big deal of learning for the whole duration of your life. No matter what you are interested in or what you choose to learn, it is simply important that people are given the chance to try out and educate themselves about new things without having to sell a kidney for it or jump through thousands of academic hoops; when I first started learning silversmithing in the UK, I had to write a compulsory portfolio about all my work, all the techniques I learnt and developed and all the health and safety fandangos that I was forced to pretend to adhere to. No-one on earth wants to do that for nothing, of course, and so what resulted was a lacklustre selection of doodles of my projects accompanied by write-ups using a formula I adapted from GCSE chemistry experiment write-ups and, my favourite part, a section in the back about techniques where I had simply sellotaped (or I think a few bits were simply stuck on by coffee stains) chunks of textured and worked metal directly onto the tissue-thin printer paper I was using for this monument to laziness. I received a merit.


In Germany, if it’s a thing, there is a no-strings course you can do in it. There are courses which are simply accompanied walks around certain districts which stop by certain interesting things; courses where you can make sushi; courses where you go to the theatre, although I’m not sure how that differs to, oh, say, just going to the darn theatre; courses where you can make animals out of felt, hats out of leather, trousers from your own patterns…the selection is exemplary and it feels wonderful to be in a land where every curious whim can be indulged and then broadened into a full-on obsession for a matter of a few euros or so. Some of the women on this course (sadly certain courses do have a certain gender bias) had been to four or more of exactly the same course just because they like the teacher and the particular format. One woman, who kindly spent all the time she wasn’t making her perfect beads glaring over her flame at me and snapping that I was DOING IT WRONG, had even bought herself all the equipment and extra materials to use in the course. Admittedly, it escapes me why she continued to attend the weekends rather than simply using all the workshop equipment she had bought to actually do the hobby she did in the comfort of her own home, but then again I suspect she may have been lonely; she was binge-eating Russisches Brot, an odd kind of thin gingerbread biscuit which inexplicably always comes in the shape of letters, for the entire length of each class – if that’s not a warning sign I don’t know what is.


Anyway, I absolutely lapped it up and would like to give a virtual standing ovation to Germany and Berlin for understanding that it’s great to have something to learn and practice no matter what else you do with your life. I would also like to reassure people that the standard roles within the classroom are in no way made obsolete once people reach adulthood. Our teacher’s pet was, naturally, Miss Russisches Brot. The troublemaker was the woman sitting next to me (who also had a continuous stream of treats, peanut M&Ms, flowing into her mouth as if on a conveyor belt) who, once she realised she did not have the knack for glasswork, declared loudly that the problem was that Viking beads were simply ugly and that’s that. The quiet unassuming one sat adoringly next to Shrewface (teacher’s pet) and spent the whole time making fistfuls of identical monochromatic purple beads and whispering how much she loved purple. I wonder who I was. Probably the class slut.


Am starting a course in silversmithing tomorrow. Stay tuned.

 



I guess all the weekend warriors died in combat some time ago

“Fish: a sea of healthiness.” You’re damn right they are, Mr. Abandoned Fish Trailer Dude.

I hate Sundays in Berlin. With every Sunday I experience in this city my hatred grows and ferments, beginning to resemble the kind of simmering whiny hatred only experienced by South-English children in the 1940s who had to spend Sundays being dragged to church and then kissed by hairy-lipped aunties and grandmas. 

Berlin is practically the capital of Europe. It’s effortlessly cool and during the week a complete bulldozer of a city; you pulse around the place all day, day after day, driven constantly onwards in waves like blood cells racing through arteries. Everyone has an intense look on their face, whether it’s intense happiness, concentration, boredom, or simply the ferocious intensity with which the myriad people on the trains chew their midday bakery products, the muscles of their jaws straining like the sinewy flesh of a greyhound. Everyone is doing something all the time and something is always going on. There’s always something to buy and somewhere to be and something to look at or look away from. You can’t be waiting at a bus stop without there being at least one person of above-average interest there to gawp at (for example, the astonishingly severely buck-toothed guitar player and his band who were waiting for the Ersatzbus and trying through their unbelievable teeth to repeatedly shout the word ‘Schweinerei’).

Then Sunday comes.

Suddenly the sabbath descends upon Berlin like a mass recreation of the film ‘I am Legend’. No-one is around, save the few dribbles of people on the streets who are almost always dreadlocked homeless people or wholesome young families with toddlers wearing fleece hats. The shops ALL close and might as well board up their windows with old planks of wood and huge theatrical-looking nails since they take on the appearance of a place that has been abandoned forever. The few attractions still open, such as a smattering of cinemas, advertise the fact that they are open on Sundays as if they are offering a sip from the cup of eternal life rather than a crappy chick flick. The fact that cafes and pubs are still open is the one thing that prevents me from spending every Sunday in my room rocking back and forth in a corner.

 This Sunday was no exception, and so after a few pleasant hours browsing through the Lufthansa website not at all getting furious about their lack of decent flight times or prices, I eventually braced myself and decided that a serious and long walk was in order to at least prevent myself from disintegrating into a gelatinous substance. 

















The only few people that were around were a gang of cheery anarchists (pictured) who were putting up bunting between their aggressively graffitied buildings. As only people with my kind of short, hefty legs can, I trekked determinedly onwards towards Volkspark Friedrichshain yearning for some greenery and maybe a sparrow or two to satisfy my deeply ingrained countryside upbringing. 

And now I know where Berlin goes on a Sunday. Everyone was there, blissfully wandering around the park holding hands as if they’d all decided that was going to be the done thing on the seventh day of the week. Volkspark Friedrichshain is a stunningly beautiful park; it has a garden of sculptures, a selection of sweet little ponds and a round hill encompassed by a spiral path which takes you up to a central lookout where you can see the sun set (and be frantically waved at by a little German boy who looks dumbfounded when you finally wave back). It also has a themed oriental garden, and as I walked through this I gawped at all the people I thought were simply hibernating and the lights of the lovely little park restaurant glowing in the dusk and the fake pagoda fading into shadow…and at that moment, no word of a lie, a man on a bench began to play ‘La Vie en Rose’ on an accordion and I thought: Oh come on, this has got to be some kind of an ironic joke. But it wasn’t. On Sundays, evidently Berlin stops and time for oneself begins; people go out with their friends but more likely their families and just wander and drink Holunderpunsch and breathe the air. 

I spent the next hour and a half lesson planning in the Cafe Tasso on Frankfurter Allee with wonderful coffee and three (I think the waitress took pity on me) complimentary delicious little circles of hazelnut shortbread and a fantastically bitter book by Jonathan Franzen. I can’t recommend this cafe enough; they have a huge second-hand bookshop running through and under the place with every book for a euro, they feature live music four nights a week, there are blankets all over the place for maximum levels of comfy and the cakes look ta-die-for. Thank you Berlin. You are teaching me to be lazy.