Berlin: lower your standards to live the high life

This shop is so epic the entire building has a beard worthy of Thor himself

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When I first told my friends in Berlin of my plans to move back, they made concerned noises. “That’s great, but are you sure you really want to?” they asked. “You know that jobs here are scarce and hard to get hold of, right?” At the time I tossed my head back and laughed in a debonair manner. Jobs were scarce in Berlin? They should try living in the UK, where people print their CVs on taped-together banknotes to try to be in with a chance of it not being immediately thrown in the bin. Where the universal facial expression is glum malaise, and the most popular job seems to be Tracksuit Wearing and Shouting Facilitator.

I haven’t the slightest regret about moving here, but in hindsight I ought to have given their warnings the credence they merited. Jobs are not ten-a-penny over here for darned sure. Added to that, my current almost-offer is messing me around like a cute boy with slicked-back hair, a motorcycle and a leather jacket, and someday soon I’m not going to put up with that anymore. So unemployment it is then; bearing it out until I find something that pays the rent and doesn’t make suicide appealing. 

Happily, the wonderful thing about this city is that living without an income is remarkably easy, and I speak not of the controversial unemployment benefits system – I chose not to open that particular can of worms for myself until I literally am close to starvation. What I mean is the staggering amount of stuff you can acquire for zero euros, cash or cheque, everywhere in this place. Tired of being indoors and tired also of the mysterious noises my neighbour had been making against the wall for the best part of an hour (my best guess is that she was alternating throwing handfuls of marbles and iron filings at the wall for some kind of texturing effect) I got my shizz together, grabbed my overflowing compost bin and whirled out of the door to find some of this free swag.

The German word Verschenken means to give something away for nothing. It’s a lovely word, and a practice heavily embossed into the German psyche. Every so often you will find a cardboard box or little heap of stuff next to a house door with a hand-written sign perched on it saying ‘Zum Verschenken’ – ‘to be verschenkened’ – and you have the carte blanche to rifle through the pile and pick out anything that takes your fancy. In my last stay in Berlin this allowed me to accumulate quite an impressive selection of stuff: a sewing box, some books, a large wooden trunk (man I miss that trunk!), a beaming yellow sarong covered in suns…

Even on an idle walk to the East Side Gallery yesterday I happened upon a free large red leather sofa, a box of videos (which admittedly will probably finally be taken by hipsters who want to convert them into groovy iPod holders) and a completely functional-looking iron. And today, when I set out for my latest adventure, the fates seemed to be smiling upon my venture: there, perched on the bin when I went to chuck away my compost, was an awesome and wonderfully naff Spanish-style ceramic olive bowl in red, orange and green, with a teeny little pot attached for toothpicks and another teeny little pot for the olive pits. At least, I think that’s what it is for, although it may also be a breakfast plate with a normal egg-cup and a quail’s egg-cup…or a planter for three different shapes of cactus…

I nabbed my first prize and set off to the Umsonstladen ‘Systemfehler’ (system error). Meaning ‘Free shop’, an Umsonstladen is a Verschenken-shop where people can dump off stuff they don’t want any more and other people can come and take it at will. This is Berlin so there is of course a heavy political agenda attached; if you cross the threshold of the Umsonstladen you are joining in the fight against capitalism, gentrification, over-production and -purchase of goods, probably also nuclear energy and that kind of thing too. They host music nights and life drawing sessions and all kinds of wonderful community get-togethers in an admirable attempt to prove that life is worth living even if you aren’t constantly in pursuit of new possessions and the money to buy those trinkets. 

Still, I wasn’t there for the politics or the community. I wanted the trinkets. Every ‘customer’ is allowed up to five things per visit. I was particularly hoping to find a new T-shirt to wear to the gym and possibly a decent saucepan for my flat, which currently contains one non-stick frying pan, a wok the size of France and a beautiful collection of vintage enamel pots which I couldn’t possibly actually use. When I walked into the shop, I was impressed. In the corner was a quite beautiful piano in walnut and the room was fenced around with railings of clothes which had been carefully arranged onto hangers by style and size. Granted, there was a lot of crud around and the walls had been decorated in a zany way and a slightly deranged woman threw herself at the piano the moment I arrived, beginning to pound the keys with no attempt at a tune. Then a man walked in with his hair shaved in such a way as to produce a perfect monk-like hemisphere of hair on his scalp, like someone had rested a scooped-out grapefruit half on top of his bald skull. He was wearing a kind of semi-transparent sheet with a neckhole cut out of it like a poncho, decorated with a lurid sky blue and pink pattern. He was telling his friend that he was hoping to make some kind of quilt. 

I practically broke my neck trying to not stare at the two and instead browsed the shelves until I found one thing I was looking for, a T-shirt. The one I picked is a mellow blue shade which someone has painted by hand with a slightly haphazard picture of an awkward-looking kiwi bird in the bottom right corner of the shirt. Above the bird they have painted HUCH in large white letters: “Woops”. Evidently they had hoped to produce a much less disappointing kiwi and so painted their distress at the failure and then gave the T-shirt to the Umsonstladen. I have a feeling this will become one of my treasured possessions.

I also found a huge and woolly hand-knitted sweater for the chilly nights and was then accosted by the crazy piano lady who demanded to know if I was planning a presentation. When I told her no, and asked if that’s what I looked like, she said no and asked if I were a ballet dancer. When I said no again, she asked if I could play piano. No, I answered apologetically, and she then brightened and told me all about how sad she was that she couldn’t even play a single song, not even that one from Amélie. I sympathised. She asked what I was going to do now; was I an artist? No, I said, feeling more and more inadequate not to be any of the cool things she seemed to have taken me for. I said goodbye and on my way out noticed a very fat woman in the corner eating jam from a jar with a spoon. 

God love Berlin. I’ve got all these lovely free presents to play with and I made a friend. And I didn’t have to spend a dime.

Rhinestones on the soles of her shoes

Before
After

Hoo-wee! After hours and hours scratching away at my Wacom tablet, the illustrations are now finished and ready to teach whole cohorts of babies in Berlin. I can leave the desk and the hours of having Cookery School on in the background to keep me sane (it’s a new discovery, a brilliant cooking programme containing all my favourite things: absolutely droolworthy recipes, idiot people getting their cooking wrong, the girl-we-all-love-to-hate Gizzi Erskine and a professional chef who sounds exactly like Dylan Moran, meaning that when I’m not looking at the video I can pretend I’m listening to Bernard from Black Books yelling about coulis). Now that this is all over, I can begin the part of my holiday I have been dearly looking forward to: proper crafting. These grimy, stained grey shoes are terrible and I was going to have to throw them away because it would have been antisocial to wear them in public any more. But good god, are they comfy. And they match everything and make my feet look not enormous, which they in fact are. So I decided to ‘upcycle’ them and give them a new lease of life, using nice densely pigmented acrylics mixed with a fabric medium to make a varied grey leaf pattern on the canvas upper and painting over the now-brown once-white binding trimming the top. Scrubbed the soles with a bit of Jif to whiten them up a little and call me crazy, but I suspect they might just be wearable now. What could be better and more fun than rescuing an old possession and at the same time getting something new and different out of it? 

Upcycling is recycling something to make it better or more useful than it was when you started out. It can be as fancy as reupholstering a vintage piece of furniture you found in a charming junkyard tucked away beside the A329, or it can be something simple like stitching along an old sock just before the kink, cutting off the foot section just under the sewn line and using the little pocket you’ve made as a natty iPod cover. It is brilliant. So much stuff you might throw away suddenly starts to take on a new appearance, as you start to look at it with a view to how you could use it again or what you could make it into. There is even a fantastic organisation in our very own Bracknell that collects people’s old junk they don’t want and repairs it or passes it on so it can all be re-released into the world as something far better than just junk (and I’m going there this week to see what bits of treasure I can scavenge myself, har har)!

  
One of the most fun and rewarding types of upcycling I love is bag fusing. The other day I finally waxed lyrical about my Amazon Kindle enough that my mother bought one on a mad impulse. Covers for the Kindle, however, are so expensive you’d be forgiven for thinking that they are delicately sewn together out of Bengal tiger skin. We decided we’d make her a cover for it, and fused plastic is the perfect material for it; it’s water resistant, strong and most importantly it is very, very groovy. 

All you need is a mountain of old carrier bags. I almost regretted asking my mum for this as she then scurried into the garage and returned with enormous clods of plastic bags in every colour imaginable billowing around her like a rainbow foam; it took three trips to and from the garage to finally assemble the colossal mound of plastic bags that my family have collected over the years (and that didn’t even include the entire van-full of orange Sainbury’s bags that we excavated from behind the fridge in my brother’s student flat in Manchester). Shame and embarrassment aside, this is a good thing as it gives an enormous variety of design options for when you are fusing your plastic sheet, as you can mix and layer up colours and motifs to get something glorious and mad-looking. There are only a few rules to stick to:
1. 6 layers of plastic is the rough minimum needed to get a decent, thick sheet you can sew and fashion into things like bags or anoraks (yes, it can be done).
2. All printing must be inside the layers, otherwise it melts in the heat and you end up with smeary plastic ink glooping all over your iron, hands, ironing board, cat…if you want to keep printed designs as part of the pattern, just make sure the top layer of plastic is a clear bag.
3. Iron the layers together with a two-dot-hot (low to medium heat) iron with a greaseproof paper layer on top and underneath the plastic OR ELSE! Forget the greaseproof paper and all is lost. Well, not all, but your iron. And you will have an armful of melting plastic and hot appliance to deal with. All it takes is a few seconds (8-10, keeping the iron slowly moving) of pressure on the iron on the plastic to melt it together.
After all this, you create a sheet of fantastic pliable soft plastic which can be sewn on the sewing machine, glued, riveted, stapled, deep-fried…

This might all sound a bit Blue Peter, but give me a minute to convince you to give it a try. As I’ve written before, there is nothing more satisfying than making something usable yourself, but upcycling is even better because you can also bask in the warm glow of having saved the whole environment single-handedly by repurposing something that would otherwise have gone into landfill. Beyond that, though, is the simple fact that it is excellent fun – even if you suspect you might not be the kind of person who would enjoy this sort of thing. My mother is an occupational health physician with practically the entire alphabet’s worth of letters after her name and an hour of bag fusing turned her into a giggling, hand-clapping kid. We drank Gewürztraminer and listened to the Tron soundtrack and rearranged the letters cut from bags to make funny words; there was nothing worthy or twee or eco-activist about it, just excellent fun. And that rare kind of fun you can have without a screen in front of you, something to savour on those days where I realise that I have spent vast stretches of time just moving from one LCD display panel to another. It doesn’t cost you anything. Kids love to do it. It is limitless. And if you have something you don’t know what to do with, post it in a comment and I promise I’ll come up with something rad that can be made with it. Go on, I dare ya.

Two British Institutions: Charity Shops and Driving Rain

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

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

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

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



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

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

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