Good eats in the big B

Found in the Kaufhof groceries section: a Limquat!! A lime the size of a walnut! GENIUS.

This weekend was the big moment; my new flat had to meet the parents. I’m too much of a compulsive hostess to let them stay in a hotel, so they bunked in my big Berlin bed and I had an excuse to buy a kickass lilo. This was the first time ever that my dad had seen Berlin, having never had any holiday time even in my first stint in the Vaterland. It was my one chance to prove that moving over here and haemorrhaging money by furnishing an empty flat and starting a frantic job was all worth it. How was I going to convince my dad that this city really is awesome enough to never want to leave?

Firstly, by getting a bunch of old-fashioned bikes and pelting around the Tempelhof abandoned airport for a happy hour. He’s an obsessive photo-fiend, and a big wide open airfield full of people flying kites at sunset was a gift from the patron saint of picturesqueness. Plus, boys like bikes and planes. Win-win.

Secondly, by taking him to the Reichstag so that he could have a wander around that amazing dome, a huge glass bowl containing two interweaving helices (seems like a poncy way to pluralise ‘helix’ but have it your way, spellcheck) which make a kind of optical illusion as you walk up and then realise that you are walking down again along a different path which you thought was the same path as the one before. This wasn’t such a resounding success, mainly because Berlin decided to welcome my beloved parents by being as freaking grey and rainy as is possible within the boundaries of Earth physics. We skittered around the dome only briefly, pausing to look at the city from above in all its moist splendour before simply giving up and going to get cake.

And yup, that’s the third thing. The best thing to convince my dad – hell, the best thing to convince any visitor that Berlin is the city to be in right now, is to feed them, and feed them good. There are so many fantastic places in this city and joyfully they are all their own sweet little independent racket because essentially there is no such thing as chain restaurants or cafés over here (let’s not acknowledge the one exception which rhymes with ‘tar ducks’). And maybe you need some recommendations or maybe you need a reason to come here or maybe you just like lists, but either way, sit down and let me tell ya about some of my favourite places.

1. The Galeria Kaufhof, Alexanderplatz
Ok, so the food court of a mid-range department store is probably one of the lamest places to hang out. And yes, the average crowd there is less hipster and more hip replacement. But good god, people, the salad bar. There are rows of counters piled high with glittering ice and stacked up with plates filled with the most delicious, often outrageously strange salads, and you just take a plate and load on up. Bowls of seeds and croutons and dressings and bits of this and that and delicious nubbliness are scattered about to supplement your mound of tasty swag. There’s a handsome guy wearing a black bandanna making fresh stir-fries to order with crisp, rainbow ingredients. There’s another bank of ice chilling freshly pressed juices of unexpected fruits like kiwi or blueberry. There is a thing called a ‘vegetable buffet’ which I’m not sure I understand but I like it, a vast selection of fresh and delicious stews and soups, and most importantly: an entire wall lined with your options for cake and strudels. 

 

 2. Knofi, Mehringdamm
This one is a little confusing as there are actually two parts of this restaurant, one opposite the other on different sides of the same road. One is more casual and laissez-faire, a nice place for a comfy lunch with friends (or in my case in my first visit, with a sort-of-friend who was ten years my senior, made a pass at me and then a while later ran away to join a cult) – the other is more mature and seductive and does more dinner-ish options like a killer meze and magical aubergine creations. The latter is superb, but the former, on the north side of the street, is my favourite for the incredible soups and the best ‘Gössis’ – a pancake filled with spiced meat or spinach, Turkish sheep’s cheese and sometimes a bit of potato, cooked up lightning fast and served with a spectrum of dips – in Berlin. The decor is completely nuts, like a room decorated based on the fragmented memories of a feverish childhood dream you once had about an expedition around Turkey having only ever seen a postcard of the place. The service is terrible, the tables are cramped, the chairs are all different heights, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

3. Gugelhof, Kollwitzplatz
This is an Alsatian restaurant with the sweetest, smiliest, sometimes winkingest waiters and waitresses in the world. From the minute you enter, you feel like Franco-German royalty, and they instantly magic a huge basket of gorgeous bread with herbed cream cheese in front of you so you have something to chew on while you read the impressively creative menu. Wild boar with pumpkin mash? Winter stew with a roof made of bread? An entire trout poached in Riesling? Yes please, very yes. The breakfasts here are also delicious and always presented like a work of art – these guys really know their way around a garnish.

4. Café Nö, Mitte
The best Flammkuchen in Berlin and such good wines you’ll want a whole carafe to yourself. A Flammkuchen is a Germanic pizza, a whisper-thin base of crispy dough topped with a thin layer of sour cream, usually some sautéd onions, and then a topping of your choice, then toasted in a hot stone oven. It means ‘FLAME CAKE’ which is simply kickass, but the ones at Café Nö would be ridiculously tasty even if they were called something unappetising like ‘Schleimplatte’ (‘mucus board’). I mainly mention this place, however, because the atmosphere is terrific; cosy, friendly and beautifully decorated, while the music in the background is rat-pack covers of 90s classics (Frank Sinatra singing ‘Champagne Supernova’ is a tour de force) and there is a projector screening slides of old-time photos of ski slopes, Berlin streets and cheerful alpine lumberjacks. You can always banter with the staff; when I brought my parents there the waitress, a tiny blonde woman whose twitchy nose and hyperactive running around made her seem more squirrel than human, gave me a stone-cold look and said ‘You won’t get a table for at least an hour and a half, you might as well go.’ I gave her my saddest eyes and told her that my parents had come especially from England (never the UK, always England for best effect; it reminds Germans of the Queen) and I had been dying to show them this restaurant. She shook her head, repeated her previous statement, and within ten minutes had cleared a table for us and presented us with the novel-long wine list. Victory. And a delicious victory it was, too.

5. The Fliegender Tisch, Friedrichshain
The Fliegender Tisch (‘Flying Table’) is probably always going to be my favourite restaurant in Berlin. First and foremost, this is because anyone visiting for the first time will inevitably feel that sinking feeling; ‘Uh oh…’ one thinks, perusing the menu which has been meticulously pasted together in Microsoft Publisher 1998. ‘Ooo-err…’ one mutters when one notices that the mood lighting is a lamp with masking tape wrapped around the opening. ‘Oh dear…’ one then thinks when one sees some of the insane things on the menu: beef stew with cheese, potatoes and oysters is one of my favourites, as are the recent specials of brussels sprout omelette or salad with walnut-stuffed sprouts fried in a beer-honey batter. Hmm. And yet, the guy – the Fliegender Tisch guy, the smiliest man on the face of the planet – comes to your table, and you order something that sounds a little more palatable, and soon arrives a dish of fresh and sublime eats which is always handed to you with no less than a beaming grin. Their salads are super delicious, the pasta is tremendous as is the gnocci, and they do the best Kaiserschmarrn I have ever eaten – even better than in the Austrian alps, where it really ought to be the best of the best of the best. Plus, to ensure that the restaurant name isn’t completely meaningless, they’ve suspended a table from the ceiling so that it hangs skewiff over your head and gives you an instant icebreaker. What more could you possibly want?

Frankly, there are so many great places to feast over here I could write a book. Possibly even an ode. But I’ll leave that to other, future posts. For now, go forth Berliners, and get some gourmet grub this weekend!

Berlin: Where “rest” is nothing more than a type of rubbish

And what do you find when you go looking for peace and quiet? Men on sticks, of course.

I’m a country lass, born and bred, as I believe you already know. Brought up surrounded by fields, farms and circling red kites, where the only traffic noise you could hear was the aggrieved squawk of a pheasant who had another pheasant standing in its way. It’s deadly dull when you’re little, of course, and you find yourself whiling away endless days making anything and everything out of sticks and rocks in order to pass the time, but once you’re older the true blissfulness of the situation begins to become obvious. It’s just so quiet, so relaxed, and the distance from any centre of urban activity is only annoying up until the point where you realise it is a sacrifice worth making in order to have the joy of seeing sheep and partridges out of your bedroom window.

Berlin is not like this. Berlin is noisy. Good grief, it’s the noisiest place I have ever been for more than a fortnight (I say this as I was once in Hanoi and being in that city is like having your head inside a metal bucket while someone hammers it with a pole from the outside). As I write, the builders who have for no evident reason overtaken our building to renovate it are apparently just throwing heavy things around for fun and dragging other heavy things along a stretch of corrugated tin. These cheerful men arrive every day around 6.30am to begin their work, a lot of which seems to involve a large and powerful flamethrower which I had thought I was simply dreaming until I saw the weapon lying by the Innenhof door. I am glad that our Hausmeister is ensuring that the building stays in good nick, but on the other hand I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in about a month and I am starting to develop a psychotic twitch. 

I also have the good fortune to have the bedroom facing into the Innenhof. In Berlin flats, every building has an interior courtyard where all the bikes and bins are parked and where the windows all face each other. Thus my bedroom window looks out into everyone else’s flat and vice versa, and now that it’s summer and everyone’s windows are casually left open the entire Innenhof has become a gallery of people’s private but very LOUD goings on. Thus complimenting the jolly morning builders I am subjected to a throbbing techno rave from one of three different flats every single night at sleepytime, which occasionally gives way either to the Dolby Surround(TM) thunder of the next-door neighbours’ action film evenings or the equally loud and unignorable sounds of them doing it like they do on the Discovery channel, if you get my drift.

The whole city is a frenzied exhausting mess of noise, from the punks on the street yelling at each other’s dogs, to the church bells which ring whenever the hell they feel like it, to the over-cheerful “boooo-BEEEE-booo” of the S-Bahn doors which is starting to have the same effect on me as the “boo-bee-boo-boo-bee” in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘. Children screech around the streets like gibbons in the rainforest and terrible amateur indie-rock-folk bands spontaneously start three-hour grunge-jam sessions mere metres away from the bar you and your friends choose to have a quiet after-work drink. Buskers lodge their bongos directly in your ears and bicyclists yell at you for having a mass and a circumference. I feel like I have a miniature television glued to each of my shoulders permanently switched to full-volume MTV Cribs/Pimp my Ride marathons. Us country types are gentle and fragile souls, so we are. Sometimes the need to and impossibility of escape gets a bit much. My curtains are transparent orange gauze, so my bedroom offers no repose. This morning on the bus I closed my eyes and tried to retreat into a quiet inner oasis when the bus driver suddenly pumped the brake on and off repeatedly, making the bus lurch around like a breakdancing camel, before he then looked at me in the rear-view mirror and made the following announcement over the loudspeaker: “NICHT schlafen!!” 

So where does one go when one needs a bit of time out of the Gewimmel? Luckily the genius of Berlin is that its sheer rambunctious noise is well-recognised and antidotes are provided here and there for those of a more sensitive disposition. The Botanicher Garten is a wonderful place to spend an entire day, requiring nothing more than a tiny entrance fee to allow you to dopily drift around the gorgeous wild-flower meadow and romantic Italian garden and steamy glasshouses for as long as you like into the early evening. There is an incredibly brilliant bakery on the way from the S-Bahnhof to the gardens where you can pick up little bags of shortbread covered in butterscotch and seeds or puff-pastry diamonds dusted with spices and cheese, and with those in your pocket there’s little more you need for a perfect Sunday. 

Berlin is also surrounded by its many Sees, lakes which range in size from the massive kind which lend themselves to wholesome activity days of bike riding and bird watching to the smaller kind which are simply big ponds and perfect for a good long reflective wander. The Lietzensee in Charlottenburg is particularly sweet, cut in half by a mysterious-looking bridge-tunnel-thing and with a cafe on one end where one can sit and regard the ducks and resist the urge to go and throw bread at them and giggle like a five-year-old. The Plötzensee, as mentioned in a previous post, is ideally suited for a beer and a sunbathe, while the Wannsee has canoe hire on offer, among other things. If you are a wandering or nature-type, you won’t be short of places to escape to here.

But this is all dependent on the weather not being as it is right now, namely rainy and windy and petulantly impulsive like a spoilt little girl. Where do you go when the idea of being outside makes your soul shiver? That’s a tricky one, but there are still options. Most café owners in Berlin seem to think that the average customer likes eardrum-quaking blasts of 1980’s classics while they nurse their espresso macchiato, but Berlin’s libraries are often fantastic places, busy but quiet and often featuring somewhere to get a coffee or ice lolly (which we all know is crucial to the reading process). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally pop to the library simply for a good hour of reading books I would never dream of actually loaning, such as books on quilting or vegan shoe production or (nostalgic sigh) good old Asterix and Tintin. Hey, if it’s in German it counts as education. The Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek has a particularly good book selection and a friendly man who helps you with the stacks orders, while the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg library has a huge array of music and CDs. If being in a labyrinth of fingered books isn’t your bag and you just want to sit somewhere a surprising pocket of calm can be found in the smaller bakeries, where there is usually no background music, one or two little shaky plastic tables and a friendly lady who’ll brew you up a peppermint tea for a few cents. 

Alternative moments of meditation can be found riding the escalators all the way up to the top of the eight-story Galeria Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz and back down again, accidentally riding the train all the way to somewhere remote or drifting around pet shops being mesmerised by the lizards and baby rabbits. I have also heard on the grapevine that the holy grail of quiet time-killing is any Apple store, where you can go and play with the iPads/Pods/Puffs for hours without any of the hipster staff telling you to shove off. But don’t quote me on that; who knows what those people have been trained to do… 

The high life

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

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

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

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

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

Guten Appetit Berlin!

For those of us blessed with both a stomach and a tongue, Berlin is the best place to be. For all the stick Germany gets for its cuisine (which, incidentally, can still be brilliant) the sheer variety and quality of produce and cookery one enjoys here is truly luxurious; going to any one restaurant always has me feeling a slight twinge of regret simply because to eat at one inherently involves not eating at one of the thousands of other incredible places in the immediate vicinity. Germany has done the same as Britain in that while its own cuisine is still there and available, being dutifully revisited and upheld, they are doing their best and most exciting things in embracing all other genres of cooking and doing them really, really well; the photo above is of a bruschetta stand at the market where they slice you a surfboard-sized plank of fresh bread, load it with tomatoes and parmesan and rocket and roast veg, add a glossy slick of really good olive oil and present it to you with a beaming grin for just 2.50 Euros. I’ll wait a moment while you mop up your drool.

The Friedrichshain/Boxhagener Platz farmers’ market every Saturday is close to torture because it is simply four long rows of things like this arranged into a neat square and heaving with hungry people. Among the homemade tortelloni and glistening stuffed olives and myriad Wurst-hawkers you will find the fish smokers, creating a smell so divinely fishy it made me want to buy an Aran sweater and a pipe.

  There is a man selling eye-wateringly delicious-looking savoury tarts and a woman wearing multiple chiffon scarves who makes her own mother-of-god-that’s-good-marshmallows. I bought a bunch of radishes as puce as a smacked buttock for mere pennies and then met a man who makes his own barbecue sauces from scratch; the steak sauce was so good I have to put his website on here so that you will all go and buy some for your dads immediately.

Eckart Sossen – just, so… yumsville.

But it’s not just the ultra-yuppie domain of the farmers’ market where you’ll find the good eats, and of course it’s not the kind of place where poor self-pitying students are likely to go for any real food shopping unless you count casually trying free samples of everything on offer until you’ve eaten enough to sustain you for a couple of days. The great thing is that it doesn’t matter what your budget is in this city, for your two Euro buck you can still get a hell of a lot of bang. Case in point: Mio. This minuscule bistro will take your spare change and in return give you a huge segment of Turkish Fladenbrot heaving with (get ready for it): vegetable croquettes, stuffed vine leaves, walnut paste, houmous, couscous salad, sheep’s cheese, yoghurt dressing, olives and sheer bloody human good will. Mercy, it’s tasty. If you want something sweet go to Olivia on Wühlischstraβe, where the hand-made chocolate truffles cost less than at Fassbender and Rausch and will make you see god or whichever deity you choose to hallucinate at the time. The tables in the Turkish markets all over Berlin have bow-legs from the sheer weight of the glorious vegetables piled high and sold cheap, and I may have already mentioned that there are one or two places around where you can get some fairly good bread too.

If you’re eating out, you will quickly learn a whole new level to the meaning of ‘spoilt for choice’. Here are some of my personal recommendations; try them, love them and wink at the Maitre D’ for me.

Sigiriya – lip-smacking and hilariously complicated (there is a two-page key to the spices they put in the various dishes and it took me about four hours to read the menu to my friend visiting from the UK) Sri Lankan food served in portions so huge you will start squeezing food into your kidneys just to make room to finish it all.
Schwarze Pumpe – a reassuringly small menu packed with hearty and delish food and completely without fuss; also features a charismatic and cheeky waiter/barman who one imagines listens to people’s wife troubles as he polishes the drinks glasses with a rag close to last orders. 
Pizza Pane – ok, pizza places are a dime a dozen, but this one’s worth a dollar at least. You can watch your pizza in the making from conception to birth and they are so crisp, so thin and so delicious they make my heart ache with joy.
Papaya – oh, the wanton soup. Fast, delicious, reasonably priced Thai food that comes in enormous buckets and with adorable carrot flowers because I’m easily pleased like that.
Knofi – some of the things in this Turkish deli-restaurant may cause scenes similar to that one in When Harry Met Sally, except this time she’s not faking it.

There are so many places I want you to try that I shall have to stop there to save myself looking like a hog; us poor gourmands have a hard time keeping our figures in a place like this. And don’t even get me started on the breakfasts…

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 art of sensing danger. Through fonts.

Of course we’re authentically Asian! We have lanterns!

It seems far easier to begin and then to maintain any kind of a business here in Berlin, which I assume is mostly down to the whole rule of it being ‘arm aber sexy’ (arm means poor, not an actual arm). If you are just a simple guy with an idea, fifty euros and a pocketful of dreams you will probably be able to fulfil your ambition of owning a vaguely profitable kebab shop, bakery, dodgy Spätkauf, all-polyester clothing shop etc and keeping it on its vaguely wobbly legs for a good year or two before it joins the ranks of the permanently dark and dusty voids that pepper the streets of Berlin like rotten teeth in a pirate’s mouth. 

This is brilliant and one of the things I adore about Berlin, because in the UK you now have to be Sir Alan Sugar or a man of his means and arsehole qualities in order to be able to start any kind of independent operation that is not going to go belly-up within months. This has resulted in the renowned problem that the only people who can afford to pay rent for a shopfront or are able to maintain a business are those who already have huge corporate money machines and therefore every city in the UK is now identical to every other city, boasting exactly the same shops simply in a slightly different sequence. Every company has the same Helvetica font and three-circles-inside-eachother logo because most of the successful corporate graphic designers are just as monotonous as the companies and the shopfronts and the fonts themselves. In comparison, Berlin looks like a complete mess, and it is fantastic. 

Nonetheless, it does slightly worry me that these bright-eyed ambitious entrepreneurs who found and run all these establishments or franchises at no point seem to take the moment to think: “Hey now, hold on a sec, why doesn’t my shop look as cool and shiny and non-food-poisoning-y as H&M’s or Rossmann’s or MediMax? I spent a good half-hour with WordArt to make my shop sign, that’s got to count for something…” Walking around Berlin I am aghast at the parade of atrocious shop design. The sheer number of ‘Asia Woks’ and ‘Asia Boxes’ and ‘Asia Snacks’ and ‘Curry Asia’ and ‘Asia Chunk’ and ‘I can’t believe it’s not Asia’ is a good example. Why should this concept of a generic Asia which when you look at the menu seems to encompass exclusively China and Vietnam be a crowd-puller, why as an Asian person would you choose to make your shop so reductive of the richness of your own cultural background and why oh why oh why would you choose such racist and abysmally ugly fonts as the frontispiece to a business that you would like to be taken seriously? Why don’t these guys ever realise that no successful business has ever won customers by pummelling the theme of their enterprise directly into the retinas of the populace; you would certainly never get a chain of successful New Orleans soul-food restaurants with a horrendous stereotype honky-tonk black person’s face as the logo (although Old Orleans was always teasingly close to being offensive on that score) and KFC is never going to change its name to ‘Redneck Chow’.

Ultimately the issue here is that the customer (well, me) looks at these things and sees the font and the logo and thinks ‘oo-err, I’m not going to risk that’. There is an array of visual cues I use to direct me in what to avoid on a daily basis: never buy from a website or shop, for example, that ever uses Comic Sans (“Ooh look Hans, this font is fun because it looks a bit like something from the cartoons we used to never read – let’s use it because it says we are wacky and fun.”), and never from anywhere that uses clipart as part of their iconography. I will always be put off by WordArt and drop shadows, and when I saw that James Cameron had decided to use Papyrus as his typeface of choice for the Avatar subtitles I almost choked on my own epiglottis with the sheer extremity of my incredulous rage. Come on, James Cameron, you can spend billions of dollars on a hackneyed jungle-book-meet-the-blue-man-group epic but you are too tight to splash a couple of bucks on a slightly less MSWord-default font? Oh wait, sorry, Papyrus looks ‘ethnic’, I forgot.

So I beg you, entrepreneurs of Berlin, please explain this to me: why don’t you see how bad your projects look to the person potentially giving you their money? Why do you think it is enough to draw a logo in felt tip pen, take a photo of the drawing and print the photo on your letterhead for evermore? Do you think it looks just as sexy and professional as SmithKlineBeecham to use an eye-watering rainbow gradient as the background to your website? And don’t you ever ask yourself why you have never been to a successful chain which had any or one of these same qualities?

The exception to the rule: a mountainside cafe which we frequented often in Obertauern was always thronging with customers and utterly lovely to be in as it was full of gorgeous old wood and antique snowshoes and such like; this all in despite of the fact that their chosen logo was, inexplicably, a sunglass-wearing cool-dude hare snowboarding WHILST having arrogant sex with a slutty female hare on the same snowboard at presumably break-neck speed (you can tell from the way their ears are fluttering).

               
Really?

 The poor staff had to wear uniforms emblazoned with this terrible image.

But while we are on the subject of eateries, allow me to offer a few more suggestions that you might also like to take on board if you ever feel like opening an establishment and want me to spend my hard-earned cash there. For starters, bullet points belong on Powerpoint presentations and not the menu. As a colleague of mine pointed out, plastic chairs are a one-way ticket to me walking in and then directly back out of your door. If you think that having dark and far-too-yellow photographs of your meals on the menu is going to make my mouth water, think again; you don’t even seem to have made an effort to stop each and every dish looking like a mountain of puke. Let me at least imagine a beautiful plate of delicious ingredients tossed expertly together before I am presented with my vomcano. And hey, I know grains of rice in the salt shaker keep the salt from clumping but don’t you think they do look a little bit (read: a lot) like dead maggots floating around among the salt crystals? 

Perhaps I am the only person in the world who thinks these things; perhaps the fact that I allow these visual signs to govern my spending behaviour is a simple sign of the my utter Woody Allen-level neuroticism in that I can’t see any of these various clues without thinking ‘these people are going to steal my money or give me salmonella’. But I wouldn’t want to trust my digestive health to the same people who don’t understand the fundamental drop-dead ugliness of WordArt. These people, in my opinion, should not even be allowed near knives and other dangerous kitchen equipment.

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.

This blog post was brought to you by…a decent cup of tea

The kind of marvellous tourist attraction I offer my guests

Two posts in two days! Good lord, what is going on here? Well, I suppose I’d better get on with it then.

This weekend I had my first visitor from the UK, my mother, come to see my new little kingdom in my new Heimat. Being a right little mummy’s girl (possibly to a forehead-slappingly embarrassing extent) I was boiling with anticipation of her arrival, and having spent the whole weekend with her doing little more than lingering over the kind of hearty brunch that makes your cheeks pink and yomping around the streets of Berlin in the freezing cold, I am now ready to tackle the last few weeks of fighting small infants with renewed vigour and lebkuchen-fuelled dynamism. Because Germany is different to the UK in that they trust childcare professionals to not be paedophiles or prone to sudden grotesque acts of violence, I was even able to let her observe one of my lessons with absolutely no fuss or red tape whatsoever; the class responded to her presence by being as adorable as the little sweeties could manage, save one little one who just decided to inventory all the crockery in the playroom, of which there was quite a huge stash. We discovered great and not-so-great restaurants, we chewed our way through Harry Potter 7a, we gazed at hand-made ladles at the Christmas markets and drank ludicrous quantities of tea. Tea. Teeeeeaaaaaaa.

She brought me tea. Proper tea. The kind of tea that smooths down all the prickles in your brain and makes you ready to be awake in the morning and ready to sleep at night. Whittards’ Spice Imperial. Twinings’ Lapsang Souchong. Yes yes oh yes. 

See, the thing about tea in Germany is this: they love it and drink it by the gallon, but in a way that is rather incompatible with my ultra-English ‘ooh I’m gasping for a cuppa’ kind of way. German teas are mostly fruit teas, green teas and herbal teas; they have odd and suggestive names like ‘Hot love’, ‘Little sin’ and simply ‘Man tea’ (none of these are made up, nor are any of them novelty or joke names. I promise.). The herbal teas are presumed to have magical powers which will cure your sore throat, help you through the menopause and, if they are organic, rid your body of all the poisons you’ve been building up. Other teas such as redbush come in every flavour except ‘normal’ – you can buy redbush tea in vanilla, orange, cream and cream-caramel flavour, and I am trying to avoid finding out how you make a dried bag of bits of leaves taste like a sweet creamy dairy treat. Then you finally come to the black teas, where all of a sudden variety and inventiveness completely surrender and you are left with three choices: Assam/Ceylon blend, Darjeeling and Earl Grey. The Earl Grey is always the least bad of the three, although German Earl Grey tends to taste like a cat’s scrotum compared to the stuff you can get hold of in good old Blighty, and leaves attractive thick scales of brown on the surface of the water. PG Tips is also available from English ex-pat shops and asian supermarkets. Naturally. German varieties of the black teas are always produced by companies with names that make them sound like the characters of British nobility from Pirates of the Caribbean, names like ‘Duke Twentington’ and ‘Captain Farnaby’. Finally, every tea you ever buy is sold in individually wrapped bags, so that you can gradually fill your apartment with tiny paper rectangles as you individually unwrap each arbitrarily enveloped teabag to RELEASE the ORGASM of FLAVOUR that would clearly have otherwise evaporated into the atmosphere. 


Now, if any of my outrageously lovely German friends happen to read this post, allow me to qualify it by saying that none of this is bad but merely…well, different. Not to mention that the English attitude to tea is even worse, as we in general tend to adhere to the philosophy that if it’s brown, hot and coats your teeth it must be a delicious and strengthening beverage. PG Tips and Tetleys should in fact only be used to stain wood or tan leather. Also, the coffee in this country is wonderfully good and the fact that it is usually served with a tiny biscuit feels like a little present in itself. And now that I have great tea to complement the great coffee here, my cup runneth over.


I do apologise for that last part.

Coffee no. 6,142,561

Desperation, n : sitting in Landsberger Allee Netto reading Das Glasperlenspiel

Sit down to begin writing a blog post about coffee; decide to make a pot of coffee before starting in earnest; put kettle on; watch cafétiere slip off kitchen counter and explode into a million skin-ripping smithereens; spend half an hour sweeping and hoovering, before eventually settling for a mediocre cup of Redbush. Well, at least my dumb bad luck has a sense of irony.

Anyway, what I was planning to write this evening was to do with the fact that life at the moment revolves around coffee. Not just coffee, but hot drinks in general. Because in Berlin at the moment, when you buy a drink in a café you are not paying 1 euro and 20 cents for the delicious beverage, but purely because you simply have to be somewhere warm right now now NOW. The cold in this city is something different to usual cold, it rasps your skin like rough steel and makes all your extremities retreat into your coat in a manner similar to a tortoise. And when you spend your day running from class to flat viewing, always being early for fear of being late, there is only one alternative to sitting on a bench wishing you were in a duvet burrito. Thus I am spending my life and my savings in cafés – and it’s only October.

Tuesdays are also generally painful due to the lesson I teach every week on Tuesday afternoons, which takes place in a school so distant from the heart of Berlin that it is next to genuine arable farmland. The children in this class are fairly old, around six years old, and therefore are savvy, rude and so brilliantly cheeky you want to hug them and throttle them simultaneously. They seem to have learnt their backchat from precocious children in 90’s sitcoms; when I asked one girl when her birthday is, she sarcastically replied “Every year.” She is six and a half. One boy arrived early to my lesson because he wanted to help, announced to me that he had practised and learnt the Rainbow Song off by heart for me, gave me an eye-wateringly sweet rendition of it all by himself, and then proceeded to spend the whole class being as naughty as his little flailing limbs would allow him. One kid spit at another’s face; another stole my elastic bands keeping my flashcards together; and when I was getting them to move about a bit to get their energy up and told them all to hop up and down, they all just stood there and cynically asked, “Why?” 

I feel sorry for these kids, because it’s not their fault that they’ve been forced to sit in a classroom learning boring stuff with a short and shrill student from the British Isles, and it’s not fair that their friends are outside having a laugh and playing and not learning the months of the year. The paradox of the ‘fun lessons are productive lessons’ philosophy is that when the children are not willing, the most you can do to scold them is to say, “CHILDREN!! STOP TALKING AND LAUGHING AND MESSING ABOUT! SIT DOWN AND BE QUIET SO THAT WE CAN HAVE FUN AND PLAY TOGETHER!” Something always jars in my mind when I look at my lesson plan and think, “Oh God, we’ve got so many games to get done today we won’t even have time to blow bubbles or play with the dolphin hand puppet…” The concept of organised fun is such a precarious idea and in the realm of education I am not sure how much of a place it really ought to hold. Doubtless entertaining and interactive teaching will get an idea across infinitely more effectively than droning repetition, but I wonder if fun activities during a lesson are only truly effective if they have something more mellow to act as a contrast to; when playing becomes as much of a pedagogical demand as sitting still doing sums, even a game might feel like a chore. I see it in the kids’ behaviour, and I wonder if perhaps we are doing too much, once again, to focus on children’s love of ‘fun’ and ignoring their underappreciated curiosity and capacity to be purely interested instead of shallowly entertained. But then again, perhaps this is just me finally leaving childhood for good.

Besichtigainandagainandagainandagain…


















Yes, so I may have mentioned this briefly at length in my last post, but it is hard to find a place to live in Berlin. Let me give you an idea of the process:
1) Wake up. Immediately put kettle on.
2) Whilst the kettle is boiling for the strengthening cup of what the Germans think Earl Grey tastes like, immediately turn on laptop and open the internet.
3) Go to WG-Gesucht.de and spend the following hour and a half writing approximately twenty application emails to various room offerers, drinking your body weight in tea in an attempt to forget the fact that out of these twenty applications you will probably get one reply on a good day.
4) Shower, dress, plaster concealer over livid purple under-eye circles (a condition which I like to call ‘Laptop Eye’).
5) Leave the house for the first of many room viewings that day. Spend day traipsing around the boroughs of Berlin like an ambitious vagrant.
6) Return at the end of the day. Eat. Sleep.
7) Repeat steps 1-6. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repea… 

The success rate relative to the effort and time put into the WG search is astonishingly small. I like to think of each application as a baby seahorse: six hundred baby embryos find their way into their dad’s stomach pouch and are later squirted into the ocean waters, but in the end only three survive, the rest having been unceremoniously eaten (i.e. rejected) or simply having died of sheer patheticness (no response at all). Of the final three, two die for the sake of pathos, and the one left has a preposterous deformity which doesn’t even result in a heartwarming adventure starring the daddy seahorse and an irritating but lovable fat blue fish.
Once you have sent your applications you move onto the Besichtigungen (viewings), where you go and visit the place and try your best to make a good impression/conceal your disgust at the sheer vileness of the place you’re supposedly applying to live in. Today I was in three separate flats: the first was beautiful but the furniture was to be removed on my moving in, and for some reason the other tenants make the new tenant have a fully separate contract which means I need a letter written by my parents in German (they don’t speak a word) assuring the landlord that if I drastically break something they will pay for its repair. The second was pleasant, but I would have to buy the furniture in the room off of the current resident. The third…well, the interview was conducted with one of the flatmates lying wrapped in a blanket and the other with his eyes glued to the TV. Although I did impress the blanket man with my knowledge of robotics.
Nonetheless, it gives you a chance to really see Berlin, and not just the overdone touristy bits. It also gave me an excuse to have lunch in one of my favourite places here, the Blumencafe. The Blumencafe is filled from floor to ceiling with plants, the walls bristle with bromeliads and in the cafe itself luscious and glistening cakes stare at you through fruits and shiny green leaves. Two parrots (one pictured) mumble about and occasionally fight in the shop area. The soup is hold-on-to-your-lugnuts good and the bill always comes with a real flower on top. 
One more week to find a new place before I have to leave Charlottenburg.